The Teller of Lost Tales (revisited)

 

See the accompanying provenance illustration for the relationships between the various texts & influences described in this article.

By the same author
 

In Home Eleven I presented an account of my experiences at the Leazes Park Green Festival 1999. Following publication in Reunion 13 I forwarded a copy of the Journal to the Glastonbury Festival site in Wiltshire in the hope - but hardly the expectation - that it might reach Ellen and Kai

... the tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and the girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.

After Kai got in touch I sent him further back issues of the Journal. What follows is an edited account of our correspondence, incorporating a reappraisal of "The Teller of Lost Tales", first published as part of my article New Middle-earth: Exploring Beyond the Mountains in Reunion 1.

For ease of reference I have consolidated (and somewhat "conversationalised") the comments and insights from our correspondence. Text from the original article is set in italics, to distinguish it from the discussion that follows each section.
 


A very Elvish trait

Dear Martin,

Thank you for sending us your ToLT work. A remarkable piece of investigative reporting (and I have a lot to remark about it!)

First of all, please do not worry, I am not about to rip your thesis to pieces! Given that you must have been working more or less from intuition (a very Elvish trait!) I would say you have achieved something rather remarkably close to the truth.

On the other hand there are undoubtedly some areas where your cast has gone astray. I think the easiest thing will be for me to start from the beginning of your article and comment on each section. Then you can relate what I write to your original words.

Namárië,

Kai
 


The Teller of Lost Tales (revisited)

The New Middle-earth scenario begs far-reaching questions concerning both Tolkien's role as translator of ancient texts, and the texts themselves from which he worked.

  • Where, when and by whom were they originally written?
  • How and in what form did they come down to the present day?
  • How and when did they pass into Tolkien's possession?
  • How was he able to translate them?
  • Aside from the published works, what else - if anything - did they contain?
  • Where are they now?

This is a fascinating and uncertain area, and one in which much further research is needed. No portion of the original manuscripts from which Tolkien worked has ever been released. Their present location is unknown. Nevertheless, a preliminary identification can be attempted.

For convenience, the period between 1911 - the year Tolkien started at Oxford - and 1949, when he completed writing The Lord of the Rings, has been divided into six 'phases'. Each phase is marked by a distinct change of emphasis within Tolkien's writings.
 

"New Middle-earth"

Kai: Although I knew what you meant, and could appreciate the desire for a way to distinguish the terms of reference for such discussions and explorations as you pursue, when I first read your article I was not happy with the term "New Middle-earth". My reservations came from the implicit suggestion that this, now is "New" Middle-earth, as distinct from "Old" Middle-earth.

Ellen: But then I pointed out that it was an excellent term to use, and for precisely the reason that put Kai off in the first place! New / Now is discontinuous with Old / Before. I even suggested a new BT/AT (Before / After Tolkien) chronology, but Kai (and one or two others!) reckoned that would be going a bit too far!

Kai: Quite! Nevertheless, Ellen is right. Tolkien redefined, reawoke, recreated the awareness of Middle-earth for all of us. For all of us. If it wasn't for Tolkien the History of Middle-earth would have remained buried in those musty books.

Martin: For the rest of us, yes. But if I understand what you are saying I don't see why what Tolkien did was so important to you? Were the memories so faded?

Kai: We could discuss that but it is difficult to explain. Maybe it was not the memories which had faded so much as those carrying them.
 

The Gate crafted of words

Kai: Of course, most people - including the vast majority of Tolkien fans - treat this as just a literary stance adopted by Tolkien to give his works a (mock) pedigree and validity that they would otherwise lack.

Ellen: And, of course, the "editorial" Preface, the Appendices etc. are the Gateway into and out of Middle-earth.

Martin: You mean like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

Ellen: Yes. Lewis chose a wardrobe as the Gateway to and from Narnia (did you know he owned an old handmade wooden wardrobe?) but TP crafted his Gate out of words. And, of course, TP's Gate was no fiction. It was an expression of the Truth.

Kai: We can cover the rest of your questions - who, when, how, what - as we look at the individual sections of your thesis.
 


1911-1914: the 'Oxford MSS'

Before the close of 1912, whilst still an undergraduate at Oxford, Tolkien began working with an Elven language related to Quenya (Biography, p 67). This, the earliest mention of Elven language in relation to Tolkien, begs the question of origins.

It seems probable that he came into the possession of one or more manuscripts containing fragments of legend in some Elven tongue, possibly one spoken by the ylfe (OE 'elves') of Anglo-Saxon England. At this stage it is unlikely that Tolkien understood fully either the content or significance of the material he was learning to translate. For convenience I refer to these putative documents as the 'Oxford MSS'.
 

Before he went to Oxford

Kai: Rather disappointingly, we are unable to shed much light on this. I never met Tolkien myself. And no one I've spoken to who did - not even Mother - knows for certain where the manuscripts came from.

Ellen: I think you saw her, Martin. And Father. At the Green Fair.

Martin: The older couple sat by the fire?

Kai: Yes. Mother was one of those who helped Tolkien with the translations, but that was later. At this stage we knew nothing of Tolkien or the texts. As far as I know you are right in saying that he was on his own in trying to work out what they contained.

Ellen: That's right. In any event, my mother doesn't know where they came from, except she thinks TP discovered them before he went to Oxford, as opposed to him finding them while he was there. I know there was a "bundle" of individual vellum leaves - pages - not whole books or anything like that.
 

No linguist

Kai: It was certainly derived from one of the Ancient Tongues. From what Mother has told me, though, it wasn't one of those languages described in Tolkien's later works - not Sindarin, Quenya, Silvan ... There was also a partial glossing in a more modern language - Old English maybe, or one of the Germanic languages. I'm afraid I am not a linguist!

Martin: What about "Gnomic"? I'm no linguist either but there is a lot of material in the HoMe books about "Gnomic". I don't know what period they relate to.

Kai: Perhaps. I could ask Mother.

Ellen: We could call it "Ylfic", for want of a better name. I love the word ylfe, by the way! It has a great deal of - presence. I am surprised TP didn't use it in his books, considering the pains he took to spell dwarfs as "Dwarves".

Kai: Yes. In the hands of a lesser authority the "Elves" would have suffered from the Victoriana legacy. But the strength of Tolkien's writings, the Matter of the Tales themselves and the Elves' presence within them overrode that.
 


1914-1917: the Cornish legends

In the summer of 1914 Tolkien spent a long vacation on the Lizard peninsula which affected him deeply. Shortly after leaving Cornwall he wrote a poem entitled 'The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star' which, according to Carpenter, marked 'the beginning of Tolkien's own mythology' (Biography, p 79).

I suggest that whilst exploring Cornwall Tolkien heard stories derived orally from what we may call the 'Eriol / Ælfwine tradition' (see below). These enabled him to begin making sense of the strange works he had been translating.

In 1915 he graduated from Oxford and took up a commission in the British army. Married in March 1916, by the end of June Tolkien was on the Somme, where he remained until forced to return in November with trench fever.

The poems of this period may have been translated out of the Oxford MSS. However, the strong personal references in such pieces as 'The Wanderer's Allegiance' suggest that they were Tolkien's own work, albeit inspired by the Oxford MSS material and by his visit to Cornwall.
 

Wasn't that just chance?

Kai: You suggest that Tolkien heard folk-tales while he was in Cornwall & he was able to relate these to the Ylfic material he had been trying to translate. Well, that may or may not have been so ... but the crucial thing is that it was in Cornwall that Tolkien first made contact with - well, Cornwall is still called "The West Country", isn't it? For most men that name signifies little beyond its geography. But for others it signifies much. Our mother is of that ilk, and that country.

Martin: But how did Tolkien -

Kai: I am not certain. But it is not so difficult, if you know where to look.

Ellen: After all, Martin, you found us ...

Martin: Wasn't that just chance? Never mind! So what happened in Cornwall?

Kai: You are right in a way. He was told "Cornish Legends". But not the mannish superstitions of imps and tin mine sprites! What he was told were True Tales - albeit part-forgotten, fabled and suitably "wrapped" for this strange young man with his wild ideas and Tales of his own to trade.

Martin: What tales did Tolkien have to trade?

Kai: Those in the "Oxford MSS" of course!
 

The living proof

Kai: You must understand, Martin, what an incredible coming together this was. We held the past locked within us. We were - are - the living proof of that Middle-earth which he was just beginning to glimpse. Our existence confirms and validates his achievement. But for us his contribution was immeasurable. He was the one who could unlock all of our History for us. We had faded. Without Tolkien our light might have faded so much that not even we would have recognised the fact until it was too late.

Ellen: Kai is right. Martin. This was the one - perhaps the last - chance (as men call it!) for us to rediscover who we were. For although much was remembered, much was also forgotten. And we are not of the High Kindreds. Much that TP was to reveal had been for us as remote and fabulous as ... as Robin Hood or King Arthur would be to you.
 

Not only generosity

Martin: So to get back to that meeting in Cornwall: it was an exchange of ideas and stories?

Ellen: Oh yes! I wasn't directly involved but I can remember the excitement. And dear TP was so elated, so alight with what he had discovered and what was being revealed to him. Of course, he didn't have the papers with him -

Martin: So he didn't go to Cornwall intending to meet you?

Ellen: No. I don't think so. Anyway, it didn't matter greatly. Even without seeing the papers it was obvious they were important. From the portions TP had translated or could recite from memory it was equally obvious they were not written in our own language. But there were some - my mother amongst them - who knew something of the Old Tongues. They talked long with him and thought they would be able to help.

Kai: You must realise that it wasn't only generosity on our part! Those who had met Tolkien and realised what he had stumbled onto were desperate to find out more. Perhaps they did not altogether trust him at first. So far had we faded. The plan was for a small group to visit Tolkien in Oxford, to see the papers for themselves and to help with the translations.

Martin: Did that happen?

Kai: Not exactly. Not the way they had planned.

Martin: Why not?

Kai: It does seem strange, I know, especially given what I have said. I am not certain. Perhaps there was a debate as to what should be done and who should go. In any case, such considerations were soon overtaken by events.

Martin: You mean the Great War.

Kai: Yes. That decided things. Just before Tolkien was commissioned into the Army my father was sent to meet him, and Tolkien entrusted the papers into my father's hands for safekeeping. And while the War raged in Europe the key to their secrets was found and those secrets unveiled.

Martin: This is amazing! But what happened when Tolkien got back from the War?
 


1917-1920: the 'Book of Lost Tales' / Eriol

For almost the whole of 1917 Tolkien was convalescing in England. The earliest 'Book of Lost Tales' appeared at this time, probably the first Elven lore rendered into English for nine hundred years. There seems little doubt that the Tales were translated out of the Oxford MSS: Tolkien's knowledge of Elven language was by now 'very sophisticated' (Biography, p 101).

The relative stability of the Tales themselves is to be contrasted with the many incomplete, changing and frequently contradictory versions that exist of the parenthetical 'Eriol Story' (see chapter VI of The Book of Lost Tales vol 2). Eriol - the supposed narrator of the Tales - is a mariner from Heligoland (a small island off the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany) during the period 'preceding the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain' (Lost Tales vol 1, p 24). Sailing west, Eriol arrives on Tol EressŽa, the Elven island hidden from all but few mortals. Eriol learns much lore from the Elves of that isle, which he (or his son) records in a book.

Already exhibiting a certain 'mythic gloss', the 'Eriol Story' becomes historically untenable when Tol EressŽa is drawn across the sea, finally achieving the position (and identity) of England. I propose that the 'Eriol story' was an early attempt by Tolkien to draw aspects of Cornish legend, relating a bold mariner who learned the lore of the ylfe and journeyed into the West, around the corpus of the Tales proper.
 

Fleshed out

Kai: As soon as he returned the papers were of course returned to him, together with the translations which had been made. As you said, Tolkien was recovering for many months but he used the time well to write up what had been gleaned from the manuscripts. And you can see why his knowledge of the "Elven" language was "very sophisticated" - he had received a lot of help!

Martin: But why was there so much variation - contradiction even - between the various tales, especially the Eriol "wrap-around" bits?

Ellen: I think I can answer that. Mother told me that the papers were very incomplete and the Tales had to be pieced together.

Kai: In parts they were "fleshed out" with elements from our own oral traditions - which is quite reasonable when you think about it!

Ellen: Martin, please don't imagine we are trying to belittle Tolkien's contribution! He did have help but our assistance could only take him so far. Most of the reconstruction was his alone, especially the integration of the Ylfic texts with the A-S notes. That was his genius.
 

From the same hoard

Martin: So what happened next? Where did the rest of the texts - the "Leeds Manuscripts" - come from?

Kai: Ha! There was no "rest of the texts"!

Martin: I don't understand.

Kai: To be honest, none of us realised the truth of it for many years.

Martin: Which was?

Kai: What you called the "Oxford" and the "Leeds" manuscripts were actually from the same hoard.

Martin: But you said Tolkien came by the "Oxford" papers even before he arrived in Oxford ...

Kai: I think we said "probably". But yes, as far as we know Tolkien was in possession of both the "Ylfic papers" and the "Elven histories" before he began his studies at Oxford. Remarkable, isn't it?!

Martin: It's as though he knew what he was going to become - I mean his career and expertise - at that early age.

Ellen: Or, Martin, you could say that his Path was driven (or at least bound up with) the manuscripts. Quite simply, he had to follow that Path if he was ever to understand what they contained. What they meant.

Martin: Okay, I can see how this fits together. But why didn't Tolkien begin with the Anglo-Saxon texts instead of the Ylfic ones? Surely they would have been easier for him to translate. Easy, even?

Kai: Almost certainly he did. But that brings us to the next section of your article.
 


1920-1925: the 'Leeds MSS' / Ælfwine of Warwick

During this period Tolkien was at Leeds University: first as Reader and subsequently (from 1924) as Professor in English Language. About this time his work on the 'Book of Lost Tales' - or specifically its narrative framework - underwent significant development, with the appearance of a new character: Ælfwine of Warwick. Precise dating is uncertain.

Christopher Tolkien considers one version of the Ælfwine story 'unlikely to be much later than 1920' (Lost Tales vol 2, p 322), while Carpenter dates the change in emphasis from Eriol to Ælfwine to Tolkien's return to Oxford in 1925 (Biography, p 172). Certainly, modern translations of texts credited to Ælfwine were not made until after Tolkien's return to Oxford. However, the Old English manuscripts from which these translations were made probably came into Tolkien's possession during his time in Leeds.

These 'Leeds MSS' contained Elven history and lore which Tolkien clearly considered more authoritative than his translations from the Oxford MSS. By 1926 he had abandoned the 'Book of Lost Tales' as originally conceived, and the later 'Silmarillion' texts (see below) all derive from Ælfwine. This is interesting, as the Oxford material was in an Elven tongue, and thus might be imagined the more accurate account. However, Tolkien (presumably) could not call upon the ylfe for assistance, as Ælfwine seems to have done.

Various accounts exist of the 'Ælfwine Story' (see Lost Tales vol 2, chapter VI), all more historically credible than the 'Eriol Story' (note that several of the Leeds texts equate the names 'Eriol' and 'Ælfwine'). The core of the 'Ælfwine Story' is further supported by the recently translated Tresco MS.

Ælfwine was a man of the Anglo-Saxon period. His mother came from 'the lost land beyond Belerion whence the Elves at times set sail' (Lost Tales vol 2, p 313). The 'lost land' is not identified; the most likely candidate is Scilly, the group of islands lying 28 miles off Lands End (the ancient name of Lands End was Belerium). Ælfwine was taken prisoner by Vikings after they sacked Warwick. Some years later he escaped, and made his way south and west, seeking the lands of his mother's birth. Sailing west, after many adventures Ælfwine came at last in sight of Tol EressŽa.

In one version, unable to land, Ælfwine returns east with his companions. This would imply that references to Tol EressŽa, present in the Leeds MSS texts, were 'elaborations' added either by the author or by later hands. According to another tradition Ælfwine cast himself overboard and was never seen again by his companions: he is presumed to have reached EressŽa. The 'EressŽan' references are in this scenario explained, but not how Ælfwine's writings were returned to England.
 

A puzzle to be solved

Martin: So, I was totally wrong about this phase?

Ellen: Not totally! You were right to see this as a new phase, and you ask the question about why TP thought the Old English works were more "authoritative". Also, there is the whole Tresco MS thing.

Martin: But I got it wrong about calling on the Ylfe for assistance!

Ellen Yes, well ..!

Kai: Try to be serious about this for a moment! This is a Big Thing.

Martin: Sorry!

Kai: It's okay. Try and see it from our point of view. Tolkien (these days the name "Tolkien" carries a lot of baggage: in those days he was just a smart young man. Yet he could see us ...) turns up in Cornwall with strange stories he says are from a bundle of papers he can barely make sense of. To him they were probably in the nature of a game at this early stage, a puzzle to be solved.

Ellen: But as we listened to his tales - fragmented and stumbling though they were - our minds and hearts were filled with glimpses out of a Bright Land. A Land in which our people had walked but the Paths there had been lost. We helped him to translate the rest of the papers -

Kai: - such as he revealed to us ...

Ellen: Yes, Kai: such as he revealed to us. But in our turn we must try and see things from TP's point of view!

Kai: You're right. Anyway, as the Ylfic texts were translated, more of our Past came to light. I use the term deliberately. Beyond what the words themselves told us they shed Light upon so much more. On lore of our own that had become dark to us. At this stage, as I said, Tolkien incorporated the clues from the Anglo-Saxon glosses plus what was translated from the Ylfic texts plus what he was being told of other, parallel Tales, into some sort of cohesive whole. That was an amazing achievement! But in some ways the rest of the Story is even more remarkable.
 


1925-1930: the Silmarillion

Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon. In the next year the 'Sketch of the Mythology' was written: 'a new starting point in the history of 'The Silmarillion'' (The Shaping of Middle-earth, Hbk p 12). The Sketch was intended by Tolkien as a summary document for later reference: 'the entire narrative framework of the Lost Tales has disappeared' (op cit ). In this period Tolkien wrote a large body of material, including the Quenta Noldorinwa ('History of the Noldor', the first part of which was later reworked as the Valaquenta 'Account of the Valar'); Ambarkanta ('The Shape of the World') and the Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand. All of these works are explicitly translations out of Ælfwine.
 

Martin: You mean the rest of the material?

Kai: Yes. And there was so much more. More Stories. Many more - books full of them! We didn't discover what they contained, or even certain knowledge that they existed, for a long time. It is not as though Tolkien kept them to himself from any sense of greed. I think it was more that he had taken such help as he needed from us with the translations of the Ylfic papers and now knew he could continue on his own. He had almost certainly read the A-S material early on, at least in part. After all, as you say, the language would have been straightforward enough for such a scholar as he was becoming! But I think he had put them aside precisely because they were accessible, because they were in A-S, because they were easier ... he had wanted to concentrate on, to explore, the strange language of the Ylfic documents. But oh, what a disappointment they were to him!

Martin: How do you mean?

Kai: I have said that for us they shed light on much of our locked Histories. Reawakened Memories. But for Tolkien it was very frustrating! The partial stories hinted at something much greater and deeper.

Martin: So he turned back to the other material?

Kai: Yes. And when he did so he realised that they, in fact, contained the greater Story.

Martin: Why? Because they were more complete?

Kai: Certainly that is part of it. But also they are in fact more "authoritative", albeit that they were written by a Man. I cannot say for certain but it seems certain that Ælfwine received that lore from one of the Old Ones.

Martin: One of the Noldo?

Kai: Yes, at least yes in terms of Tolkien's nomenclature. But they, like all of the elven peoples, had faded much since the Old Histories - the Histories that Tolkien was rediscovering. Still, maybe the memories of the Noldo held truer than those of other kindreds. None can say for certain now, for none of that ilk remain in this land and they were always few and kept themselves and their lore to themselves.

Martin: So, although Ælfwine was writing in quite modern times - relatively speaking - he was recording very ancient lore - how does that sit in relation to the "Ylfic" papers?

Kai: The papers are undoubtedly "later" than Ælfwine (of course, as you have pointed out, they talk about Eriol who must be a story-echo of the Ælfwine). They are, as we have said, written in a language derived from one of the Elven tongues. But the folk who spoke that tongue were not so - High - as Ælfwine's sources. The papers are more like "stories about how Eriol / Ælfwine came to write his stories". More like folk-tales woven about him.

Martin: But by the Elves! Were they Elves of Cornwall? Are there none of those folk left?

Kai: Slow down! It must seem strange, but there are so few of us now and we have faded so much. We go about in little bands in the main and though most are known to each, it is not certain how many there may be who, like the Noldo, keep to their own memories.
 


1930-1949: translations from the Red Book

Professor Tolkien's achievement in translating from the Westron 'Red Book MSS' was unprecedented in modern times, and its significance cannot be overestimated. Something of the early provenance of these texts is known (see especially 'Note On The Shire Records', Prologue to The Lord of the Rings), although the circumstances in which they passed into Tolkien's hands can only be conjecture. Begun around 1930, his version of volume Ia, 'There and Back Again', was completed by 1936 and published a year later, as The Hobbit.

By this time, Tolkien was professing doubts over his earlier translations, and further work on the 'Quenta Silmarillion' was interrupted. Instead, he continued with the Red Book, translating volume Ib, Frodo's account of the War of the Ring, between 1937 and 1949. The Lord of the Rings was not published until 1954-55: in the interim Tolkien undertook a major reappraisal of his earlier work.

A revision of the 'Lay of Leithian' was begun (but not completed). The 'Annals of Aman' were begun - a 'major new work' (The Shaping of Middle-earth, Hbk p 262) which retold Ælfwine's 'Annals of Valinor'. The 'Annals of Beleriand' were similarly revisited as the 'Grey Annals'. These - and the many subsequent - revisions arose from Tolkien's attempts to integrate volumes II-IV of the Red Book MSS, Bilbo's 'Translations From the Elvish', into the existing opus.

Despite his son's valuable, indeed valiant, reconstructions, it must remain our regret that Tolkien's perfectionism ultimately doomed his vision: to achieve a full English translation of the only authenticated Middle-earth texts extant in the modern world.

Martin: So, what about the Red Book? Was that also part of the "Great Hoard"?

Kai: I do not know, though personally I believe not. Certainly they are of a much older pedigree. Of course, they are not "Elven", though some of their matter pertains closely to ancient Elven histories - particularly of the High Kindreds.

Martin: Then where did Tolkien find them?

Kai: That must be conjecture. Yet there are clues.

Martin: What clues?

Kai: Well, we have spoken about Tolkien's professed role as translator. According to Tolkien himself there is no doubt that the Red Book originated with the Hobbits, is there? And he was both a little too certain and a little too vague about them! The contradictions rather give the game away ("to him who has eyes to see ...")

Martin: What do you mean?

Kai: Well, to begin with, at the start of The Hobbit we learn that:

... they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us.

If they "have become" (ie now are - or at least where when he wrote those words) so rare and shy, how did Tolkien know it and how did he know what they "call us" (ie Men!)? It seems clear that he either knew them - or knew of them. And not just an I-read-about- them-in-a- book-of-long-ago kind of knowing. This was an I-heard-it-from-them-or-someone-who-knows-them thang. We'll come back to this! Next sentence, though, he suddenly changes tack:

They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards.

What are we to make of this? They were little, at some time in the past. They have no beards (now). How tall are they now? Well, they are either no longer little (ie they are taller, or perhaps even shorter) or Tolkien was not sure. Or he was not saying. If he had seen them himself he would know. If he had been told about them by a contemporary source wouldn't they have said? (Wouldn't he have asked?!) No, it sounds to me very much as though dear old TP was just not letting on when he wrote these words at the opening of The Hobbit. You might like to ask yourself why.

Martin: What you say is well enough, and I can find no real problem with it. There are inconsistencies (though surely they may be more in the way of loose writing than deliberate clues to a deeper truth?) However, if you look at the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings there are no such logical contradictions. Thus (my underlining for emphasis):

Hobbits are unobtrusive ... more numerous formerly than they are today ... They do not and did not understand (complicated machinery) ... though they were skilful with tools.

These are all perfectly clear statements. Okay, we are left with one uncertainty - are they skilful with tools now? This might have been an oversight on Tolkien's part, or an honest omission. He continues:

In ancient days they were shy of 'the Big folk', as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.

On the specific question of the height of hobbits ...

... they are a little people, smaller than Dwarves: less stout and stocky, that is, even when they are not actually much shorter. Their height is variable, ranging between two and four feet of our measure. They seldom now reach three feet; but they have dwindled, they say ...

Following your thread, the evidence here is perfectly in accord with the idea that Tolkien actually had seen / met hobbits (or, as you say, conversed with those who had, in the "recent" past, though "they say" does suggest a direct hobbitic communication). I don't see that he is trying to hide or suggest anything.

Kai: Relax, Martin! I think you might be taking my words a little too seriously (though I did invite you to think about it so probably I should not complain that you have!) The truth is there for folk to find, and I think you have come as close as any. I cannot say for certain, but it does seem very likely that Tolkien either received the Red Book from "Hobbitic" folk (faded, perhaps from their former glory as we have ourselves faded), or received assistance with their translation.

Martin: This is all remarkable, you know! But I have been thinking further on the matter of Hobbits! To me, Tolkien's statement about hobbits becoming hard to find suggests that this is a relatively recent phenomenon - though it is anyone's guess as to the time scale. "Recent" in cosmological time means something very different from "recent" in geological or (especially) historical time. Coupled with the statement about their numbers, it might indicate that Hobbits are/were becoming hard to find because there are/were fewer of them, not because they are/were trying to "hide from" or avoid us.

Kai: A very astute point. I think there is much more that we could discuss about all this - and there are other voices that maybe should join with ours in the discussion. Letters / emails are fine but not quite "conversational" enough at times. We might pursue other media.