Barnes & Noble (Explorations)
August 22, 1999
Interview With Tolkien
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
Tolkiens 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 Ive 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 didnt know where it was going, he didnt
have all of the answers as he wrote. Some of the mystification of the character derives
from the fact that Tolkien didnt know why Gandalf, for example, hadnt turned
up. But of course he finished the trilogy and then went back and rewrote it, making things
agree with what hed 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: Thats 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
couldnt 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
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, Ive read Tolkien. Now what do
I read?" And the answer is always that theres 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. Ive 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 didnt have a lot in common in terms of
style. Tolkien speaks to people in a way many authors dont. And this has been the
big question over so many years. Why does any particular work speak to so many people? I
think in Tolkiens case, his characters had to draw upon strengths they didnt
know they had to overcome adversity. A lot of people think Tolkien is just writing stories
about the battle between good and evil, but its so much more than that.