Barnes & Noble (Explorations)
August 22, 1999

Interview With Tolkien Editors
Jim Killen

Having read all of the entries for the recent Wheel of Time essay contest, I was struck by how many times the name J.R.R. Tolkien was mentioned. I had the opportunity to discuss this with Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, editors for Tolkien’s Roverandom and the upcoming Farmer Giles of Ham.

Jim Killen: Tolkien is credited with being the most important fantasy author of the 20th century for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. To what do you credit the profound influence of his work?

Christina Scull: I suppose the question really is: why was he so popular? The first things that hits you is what a good storyteller he was. You may not take in all the underlying bits straightaway, but I’ve heard of many cases of people staying up all night reading him. One of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings was such a good story was that Tolkien himself didn’t know where it was going, he didn’t have all of the answers as he wrote. Some of the mystification of the character derives from the fact that Tolkien didn’t know why Gandalf, for example, hadn’t turned up. But of course he finished the trilogy and then went back and rewrote it, making things agree with what he’d written later and putting in even more new ideas.

JK: We recently ran a fantasy essay contest and the interesting thing I found was that the essays, some coming from as far as India, all prefaced their interest in one particular series by their love of Tolkien. In effect, The Lord of the Rings is the yardstick by which all other fantasy is measured.

Wayne G. Hammond: That’s very true. You see this, for example, in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy where Tolkien is clearly the central figure and so many concepts that are embodied in The Lord of the Rings have become ideas that other fantasy writers have picked up. Not all of the later fantasy writers want to acknowledge a debt to Tolkien, although they acknowledge having read him. Some very distinctly try to distance themselves, and there is something to be said for originality. Not everyone should be compared with Tolkien. But one has to go back to the fact that The Lord of the Rings made so much of this possible. Because it was successful, it allowed publishers the possibility of publishing more fantasy.

JK: Stephen Donaldson is one of the modern writers to pick up on the trend. He wrote an essay quite a while ago called "Epic Fantasy in the Modern World" where he discusses Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings very briefly. Talking about the beauty of the epic vision and how the characters are not us, how we couldn’t be epic characters ourselves, although we can dream epic visions. I think Tolkien would have disagreed. Donaldson went on to say that by Tolkien making it possible to write epics again, it opened the door for him to write about Thomas Covenant, a real human.

CS: It was also the later popularity of Tolkien that prompted Ballantine to launch their Adult Fantasy series which was mainly reprints, but included a lot of new fantasy authors.

WH: There are some things about Tolkien that go beyond any of his successors. People are always asking; "Well, I’ve read Tolkien. Now what do I read?" And the answer is always that there’s nothing exactly like him, although there are other comparable authors. I myself went on to C.S. Lewis, which I think is natural because they were both members of the Inklings. I’ve never gone on to Charles Williams, which is funny since they were the big three authors that were always talked about in criticism, although they didn’t have a lot in common in terms of style. Tolkien speaks to people in a way many authors don’t. And this has been the big question over so many years. Why does any particular work speak to so many people? I think in Tolkien’s case, his characters had to draw upon strengths they didn’t know they had to overcome adversity. A lot of people think Tolkien is just writing stories about the battle between good and evil, but it’s so much more than that.