by Denis Bridoux

(Published in "Beyond Bree" October 2020)

All Tolkien illustrations ©The Tolkien Trust. Restorations ©Denis Bridoux, with permission from the Tolkien Estate. Many thanks to Catherine McIlwaine for her information and advice. [Tolkien's rebus letter, pp 11-12.]

Note that the illustrations are not able to be reproduced online. Contact "Beyond Bree" to order the October 2020 issue with the artwork reproduced in full color.

In the summer of 1904, to ease Mabel Tolkien’s convalescence from her diabetes which had required hospitalisation, Father Francis Morgan found lodgings (bedroom and sitting room) for her and her sons with Mr. Till, postman in Rednal, and his wife. They lived in Woodside Cottage (now Fern Cottage), set about 40 feet away from the main road and directly adjoining the back of the Oratory Retreat, which may have belonged to the Oratory. Mabel, Ronald and Hilary moved in at the end of June 1904. It was to be a temporary measure to give Mabel time to recover, but at the end of Summer she decided to stay, and it is where she finally died on November 14th of that same year. Father Francis Morgan would frequently join them in Rednal and the summer that Ronald and Hilary spent there with their mother was apparently their happiest.1

It is upon one of these occasions, when he was expected but could not make it, that Father Francis sent Father Edmund to visit them in his place. Obviously, Ronald’s relationship with the latter was not quite the same as with the former. In reply, he wrote Father Francis a most especial letter in the guise of a rebus. He and Ronald, and perhaps Mabel herself also, may have played similar games together before, perhaps in the well-known "Charades" party-game format, where one has to mime words and parts of words in order to identify the title of a particular piece of work, as this type of largely pun-based communication, akin to clues given in a cryptic crosswords, is not immediately decipherable to the uninitiated.

However, Tolkien did not expect Fr. Francis to decrypt the letter, which was obviously aimed at inducing both frustration and curiosity, and which would only be resolved by a visit in person, provided the receiver followed the hint on page 3, top right, where a "sign-post" says "Please enquire for 'key' at Woodside Cottage - Rednal". The "signpost", signed "R. Tomkins", ― which was obviously young Ronald’s pseudonym2 ― invited the receiver to visit him. The "key" itself however, is not a key to the Cottage, but to the rebus. So, Tolkien did not only play with words in the rebus itself, but also in the text written on a "signpost", which is a multi-level visual pun, as it is a "sign" standing on a "post", and is both sent by "post" and "signed", and he played with the multiple meanings of the word "key". As one can already recognize familiar patterns at work here at this early stage in Tolkien’s life ― he was 12 years old ― such as his expertise at using multiple channels of communication, both visual and verbal, and also at playing with multi-level meanings, this makes the signpost the most revealing element of the whole letter.

The letter ends with a limerick about the priest "to pay you out for not coming!". The term "Cheefongy" may be a reference to "chiffon", a French word denoting a kind of fabric. The value judgment "Frenchified", expressed this early in life, may have been acquired from someone else from whom he would have inherited his known aversion to most things French. Sneering at "prances" and "dances", its meanings are not clear to us. These may have been a private joke between the two, referring to subjects unknown to us and would probably have been understood only by the two of them. That Ronald could send such a letter to his tutor is an indicator of the level of familiarity and closeness which had been reached between the two. Whether the mock rebuke was only in the limerick or in the whole letter ― one suspects the latter ― is not yet known, although we may find out soon.

Obviously Father Morgan had kept the letter and may have treasured it, as Tolkien recovered it at some stage, perhaps finding it among his effects after his death on 11th June, 1935. It is now preserved at the Bodleian Library. The picture letter was drawn on a "‘bifolium", a single sheet of paper folded in half to form four pages. It was itself further folded in two to fit in an envelope, hence the faded crease marks. The letter was written in pen and ink and drawn in watercolours.

The first page was published in colour (enlarged) on p. 17 of J.R.R. Tolkien: Life and Legend, the 1992 Bodleian Centenary Exhibition catalogue produced by Judith Priestman, the Western Manuscripts Archivist of the day. [It was also included in a set of Tolkien postcards produced by the Bodleian Library. Ed.] The same year, pages 2-3 were published in black and white (reduced) in Father John and Priscilla Tolkien’s The Tolkien Family Album (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), p. 22. The Family Album letter section was said to be of p.3, which suggested there was a missing page between the Life and Legend sheet and that one. However, there was not, as the letter was written in a bifolium, hence the confusion.3

Apart from the limerick, the contents of the letter have never been shared. We reproduce it here for the first time in its entirety, in the same format as the original, in the hope that someone among our readership will translate it. It has been cleaned up and retouched to restore it to its original state. Save from noting the legible address of Fr. Francis on the envelope on p.1, I will not comment at this stage on individual pictures in the rebus. We are grateful to the Tolkien Estate for allowing us to reproduce it.


1All the biographical details are from Hammond and Scull’s The J.R.R. Tolkien: Companion and Guide; London: HarperCollins, 2017.

2Interestingly, the name Tomkins will reappear 38 years later. In "Leaf by Niggle", dated April 1942, Tomkins, the councilor who appropriated Niggle’s house after his "departure", is undoubtedly drawn on the worst type of utilitarian Communist which Tolkien might have encountered, who does not seem to know what beauty, or even mind, is and considers art to be a superfluity. It is not known why Tolkien would have chosen to call this person Tomkins.

3Beregond has informed me of his findings (in Swedish) at the 2014 Tolkienseminariet, and of a thread on the Tolkien Collector’s Guide in 2018, resolving it.


by Denis Bridoux

(Published in "Beyond Bree" November 2020)

With thanks to Carl Hostetter who decoded the letter and told me of the Oratory webpage.

The letter reads:

Cottage Rednal(cottage red n+a+L)
My dear wise owl Francis(M+eye deer y’s owl France+hiss)
You are too bad(u r 2 bee+a+D)
not to come in(knot 2 see+o+M+e inn)
spite of Fr. Denis(spit+e of Fr. D+hen+eye+s)
I am so sorry you(Hyam sew saw+rye yew)
did not like the(D+eye+D knot L+bike-b tea+he)
letterpress in my(letter+pea+rest-t inn m+eye)
last letter so I(l+mast-m letter sow eye)
am sending you one all pictures(ham s+end-in-g u 1 awl pea+i+sea+tea+ures)
We each have(we aitch hay+ve)
found two lovely(f+hound-h 2 L+dove-d+L+y)
walks to take you(wall+keys-ey 2 t+ache u)
when you do! come(w+hen yew D+o! comb-b)
out here which we hope(ou+tea h+ear witch we h+pop+e-p)
will be soon(w+ill bee s+moon-m)
Your loving(wye+hour-h l+oven+ing)
Ronald(R on a+l+d)

I was interested by Tolkien’s use of the negation to remove unnecessary letters. I would not have thought of it. The "red N", the "several Ys" and the R positioned over the a to mean "R on a"’ were touches of genius, great examples of rare structural puns, and there are quite a few more instances of tangential thinking.

Three Oratory Fathers are mentioned in the letter, Father Francis, to whom it is addressed, Father Edmund, who visited in his stead and Father Denis. All three fathers are listed as living at the Oratory at the time. See the Oratory webpage. Although the site has no information about Fr. Edmund, apart from the year of his death (1919), Fr. Francis (1859-1935) and Fr. Denis (1865-1962) each have their page, and so has Fr. Vincent (d.1959), with whom Tolkien visited the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall in July 1914 and who was the Oratory School Headmaster from 1910 to 1937.

Fr. Denis was the last novice received by Cardinal Newman in 1890. The page says that: "...Fr. Denis exercised great influence especially about the appearance of the Church building, in which he received much help from Fr. Francis Morgan...” It may have been one of the situations where his help was required which prevented Fr. Francis from visiting Rednal on that August day in 1904 which is immortalised in the rebus letter.

As Fr. Denis was very tall (6ft 4in), and Fr. Vincent was only small (little more that five feet tall), they would have made an interesting pair when seen together.

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