Podcast: David Bratman on Tolkien
interviewed by the Longwinded One, May 29, 2020
transcribed from the recording
Welcome, everybody, to episode 127 - I can't believe that - of what I used to call the Inglorion Bastards podcasts, but we have since recently rebranded to the Longwinded One podcast. We will be bringing you many different stories here coming up in the next few months. We're kind of in the tail end of our Tolkien tales, and so I think using either the Longwinded One or the Inglorion Bastards at this point is fairly accurate. Tonight I'm very excited - I look forward to these nights so much - I have another Tolkien scholar to speak with us tonight. His name is David Bratman, and he is a hugely active voice in the Tolkien community. He has written so many essays and book reviews, bibliographies and reader guides. He is a former editor of Mythprint and is a current editor of the Tolkien Studies journal, which we've talked about a few times, both with Mike Drout and Verlyn Flieger. He is a fantasy-lover, a retired college librarian, and - believe it or not, this is relevant - a cat owner, and this will come up at the end of our interview. Welcome to the podcast, David.
Thank you. Good to be here.
So the way we typically do this, David, is we start off with a few questions, get-to-know-you questions, and then we move right in to sort of the meat of things that you've written, thoughts on Tolkien, and so we're going to progress through this as the conversation takes us, but I guess the first question I would have for you and for the listeners to hear about would be just tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you into the world of fantasy and, particularly, J.R.R. Tolkien?
Well, when I was a child, there wasn't a fantasy literature publishing genre to be in. I wasn't really aware that most of my favorite stories were fantasy, or that it was a category they could belong to. I enjoyed a lot of books of that kind. A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh was an early favorite, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Half Magic by Edward Eager: all of these I had been given as presents by the adults in my life. (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books and Watership Down by Richard Adams didn't come along until later.) But more than any of these I loved a book that I read when I was eleven. It was called The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
It was a lot darker and more serious than my other favorites, but what most appealed to me about it was the combination of an exciting story with the breathtaking spread, the breadth and depth, of the world that it took place in. It felt as if it existed on its own and that it had been going on long before the hobbit wandered into it, as indeed to a certain degree it had. It was a created world with the feel of the real world. That's a combination that's rarely been matched. So after I read it, I did something that I had not done before. I had been told that there were sequels, with a plural. I was not yet old and wary enough to beware of sequels, as the older and more cynical me became in later years, so I got on my bicycle and I rode down to this tiny local bookshop and I bought them, The Lord of the Rings. From that point I was lost to the world.
Like so many of us.
The depth and breadth of the world that you mentioned, I think we're going to spend some time talking about that tonight, because the essays that I've read that you've written speak quite a bit about that. But for now, let's go on to - I'm curious for the listeners to know more about you. So I'm wondering: we know how you came to fantasy now, but what about these journals that you've been associated with? How did you come to be an editor of Mythprint? Was it through your involvement with the Mythopoeic Society, was it by attending some sort of conference? How did you come to be involved with that journal?
Well, I think it's important how I came to be involved with the Society, because that was what was so very different from how things work today. After I'd read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, what I most wanted to do was talk about him [Tolkien] with other people, but I lived in this vast trackless suburb wasteland, and I knew nobody who had read or was interested in these books. This was long before any public internet-thingies, at least that were available to me. So I also was searching out anything I could find to read about Tolkien, and eventually - by this time I was a senior in high school, years later; you go from fifth grade to high school senior, it's not that many years in adult terms but it's a tremendous spread when you're living through it - by this time I found in a catalog listing that a public library some distance away had a run of the Tolkien Journal, which was the fanzine of the Tolkien Society of America. It was already defunct by that time, but I didn't know that. I didn't have a car so it was quite an effort to get to this library, but when I did I found from the last issue that they'd handed over their assets to a group called the Mythopoeic Society, so I wrote them and they sent me a copy of their news bulletin, Mythprint. (A great pun title of a name: Myth-print, get it?) So from this I found that they had a book discussion group in my area. Again I had to move mountains of logistics to get to a meeting, but I finally found myself in a room full of people who had all read The Lord of the Rings. I was so thrilled that - this was 45 years ago but I haven't left that room since. Within three years I had volunteered to be secretary of the book discussion group, and in five years I became editor of Mythprint, which essentially I volunteered [for] when there was a vacancy. And they were happy to get me because people who are willing to do unpaid work for hours on end for groups like this are not always that easy to find. Of course this was all while I was going to college so it was a very active and expanding time of my life. I was just looking all over the place for things that I could do, and this was a place where I could be of actual help to the Society, because they needed somebody to help clean up the situation that Mythprint had fallen into. It had not been coming out regularly for a while, and they needed somebody who could put it back in order again, and I was willing to do that.
How long did you do that, with the Mythopoeic Society?
Well, I was an officer for about twenty years before I finally retired from it. The period that I was editor of Mythprint was 1980 to 1995, and if you know the chronology of Tolkien's posthumous publications, that covers Unfinished Tales, the Letters, and almost all of The History of Middle-earth. So if you're editing a small magazine, the easiest way to get material is to write it yourself, so I reviewed all these books. I think I was only one of two or three people who reviewed the entire series. So that gave me the incentive, when it was finished, to present and publish some scholarly papers summing up what I'd found in the process. That's what you say you want to get to. So this brought me to the attention of the Tolkien scholarly community, so that's one thing that led me to the Tolkien Studies journal. Meanwhile I was also reading everything about Tolkien that I could get, and I think it was in 1987 or so that I had an article published in Beyond Bree, which is another Tolkien fanzine, that was giving quick summary reviews of every book about Tolkien that had ever been published, because I'd read them all.
At that time there were about fifty of them; now there's several hundred and fifty. So it was these things that brought me to the attention of the editors of Tolkien Studies. After the journal started up in 2004, Doug Anderson, who was one of the founding editors - I already knew him well through scholarly contact - he asked me to write annual summaries of the scholarship on Tolkien for the journal, based on the previous year's bibliography that they had published. He knew I read this literature, that I could summarize large quantities of it succinctly, which is not a common skill, it turns out, and that I could be blunt and caustic while doing it. So I looked through the first issue's bibliography, I saw that I had most of the books listed and that I'd read them all, so I agreed to do it. I called it "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" after a journal called The Year's Work in English Studies, which covers the study of English literature in the same way, and for which Tolkien himself wrote the chapter on language study for some years in the 1920s. So I worked closely with the editors, and then in 2013 I became the third co-editor of the journal, and eventually we worked out a system whereby I coordinate a consortium of authors to write the Year's Work. I compile the bibliography, I divide the works up by topic, and then I hand them off. I write a couple sections myself to keep my hand in, and then I put together what everybody else writes. So that's the main thing that I do for Tolkien Studies, along with editing the review section and helping with the editing of the papers that we publish.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of work, but something that you're passionate about. So in some ways you still haven't left that room, the room that you mentioned.
Well, about that room, it's not just the writings of Tolkien that keep people in that room that you mentioned, it's the group of people that tend to read and study Tolkien. I've remarked in several episodes where I've just been humbled by the gracious spirit of Tolkien fans throughout the world. Would you agree with that?
Oh yes. I've found, despite the fact that we have problems, we have arguments and so forth, I find working with the people in the Mythopoeic Society and in Tolkien scholarship in general to be generally rather a pleasant thing. I'm also active in science fiction fandom and I find that also pleasant but a much more prickly environment than Tolkien fandom.
Sure. So I have a question. I've read a few of your essays, and the first one that I'm going to bring up was called "The Literary Value of The History of Middle-earth." In that essay, you talked about a number of things, but there was a term that stood out to me, and rightfully so, it comes up quite a bit in discussions about Tolkien and his writings, and this is the idea of sub-creation. It's something that I haven't touched on in my podcasts yet and that I haven't asked any of our experts about, so I was hoping that maybe you could touch on that.
Sub-creation was a word that Tolkien invented, I think. It was his term for what he was doing when he created his imaginary world. It comes from his essay "On Fairy-stories," which is a sort of manifesto of his creative goals, though it was written before he began writing The Lord of the Rings. The term actually reflects his deep Christian beliefs. God created the world and humans within it, in his image. So, Tolkien figured, if they're created in his image, they'll have the same urges and desires that he does. And God has the desire to create a world, so humans will also have that desire to create. Except that as created beings they'll do their creations within his creation, so it's a sub-creation. So Tolkien's actually received some criticism for this, from people who think that it's somehow theologically illegitimate for people to act in the imitation of God, but he believed - and he believed quite passionately - that fantasy-making of this kind was a natural and justified human activity. What was vital for him was that the world be believable, and that meant logical consistency, over which he took much care in his own work. Of course the reader doesn't really believe the sub-created world exists, but if you accept belief for the sake of reading the story, then the sub-creation has succeeded, and since the belief exists only within the reading of the fiction, Tolkien called that Secondary Belief. So that's another term that's also become standard, along with sub-creation, in critical discussion of the subject.
I guess I'm surprised that people would be critical of this. It seems human nature to try to describe, in elaborate form, why we are here and to create stories for things.
Well, there is one critic, and I won't name him because I don't want to give him the publicity, who actually wrote a scathing criticism of Tolkien on the grounds that desiring to create another world was an implicit criticism of God's created world for being insufficient, and was therefore an insult to God. Tolkien believed it was a credit to God, paying homage to God. It's a very different perception and perspective.
Absolutely, and some of this sort of came out in Tolkien's writings, too, like the idea that Aulë tried to create the Dwarves, right?
Yes. He's a created being, he wishes to create. He's waiting for the Children of Ilúvatar to appear and he can't wait. He's rather like somebody who's waiting for the Silmarillion to come out and it hasn't come out yet, so they write a Silmarillion fan fiction, or something like that. So Aulë creates the Dwarves; they are his fan fiction of the Children of Ilúvatar.
That's great; I like that. So let's talk about some of Tolkien's creations, right? So let's look specifically at his writings that he wrote and re-wrote and changed over the course of his life. So you look at some of these things - I think I talked with Mike Drout about the twelve different versions of the tale of Túrin Turambar - and I think some of these look very different, and read very different, and in your essay that I just mentioned you have coined sort of three styles, I believe, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm going to try to cover it here. So there's an Annalistic style, an Antique style, an Appendical style. I was wondering if you could just give us maybe a brief overview of some of them, and if you have examples of some of those forms of writing, I'd love to hear them.
Sure. If you're going to talk to me in my office, there's going to be piles of literally hundreds of books by and about Tolkien sitting around me in all directions, so I can certainly grab a few of those. This all comes from The History of Middle-earth, which is a series of twelve books - well, if you include Unfinished Tales, it's thirteen books - that recount, not so much the story of the Elves in the history of Middle-earth itself, but the story of Tolkien writing about them. It begins with his first serious attempt to create a mythology, which is a collection of tales told around the fire by the Elves, called The Book of Lost Tales, which he began writing when he was recovering from trench fever during World War I, and continues onward to the last notes that he made for himself, trying to sort details out and getting them straight, in the early 1970s just before he died. So that's sixty years of work. And it's all gone through in the course of this, and you can pick out from these various volumes chunks of readable things. I discuss these styles in my essay, "The Literary Value of The History of Middle-earth," because having read all this stuff it occurred to me that there was material in here that people might enjoy reading who didn't want to go through the entire thing from end to end. So I was trying to pull out the interesting bits, and also to describe them in a literary way, to give a sense of what kind of thing that Tolkien was writing. This is how I came up with these three styles that [are] specifically limited to the prose sections in it, because I noted that they vary a lot.
The Book of Lost Tales, the one that he wrote while he was recovering from trench fever, was written in a kind of imitation early modern English style that was similar to the prose romances of William Morris, which came along a generation before Tolkien, or the style used by Victorians translating early English literature, except that I think Tolkien's style was more vigorous and colorful. Because it was old-fashioned I called it the Antique style. So here's a sample of it, from one of the most dramatic moments in the entire mythology: Beren and Tinúviel, later called Lúthien, returning from their quest for the Silmaril.
In great gloom do they find King Tinwelent, yet suddenly is his sorrow melted to tears of gladness, and Gwendeling sings again for joy when Tinúviel enters there and casting away her raiment of dark mist she stands before them in her pearly radiance of old. For a while all is mirth and wonder in that hall, and yet at length the king turns his eyes to Beren and says: "So thou hast returned too - bringing a Silmaril, beyond doubt, in recompense for all the ill thou hast wrought my land; or an thou hast not, I know not wherefore thou art here."That's beautiful, but I can see where you got the Antique name.
Then Tinúviel stamped her foot and cried so that the king and all about him wondered at her new and fearless mood: "For shame, my father - behold, here is Beren the brave whom thy jesting drove into dark places and foul captivity and the Valar alone saved from a bitter death. Methinks 'twould rather befit a king of the Eldar to reward him than revile him."
"Nay," said Beren, "the king thy father hath the right. Lord," said he, "I have a Silmaril in my hand even now."
"Show me then," said the king in amaze.
"That I cannot," said Beren, "for my hand is not here"; and he held forth his maimed arm.
Yes. So I find this style to be, for the most part, very readable despite its heavy use of antique constructions: it says "an" instead of "if" for instance. But there's a lot of usages of similar styles even in The Hobbit, though they're not so conspicuous there. So in the 1920s and 30s, Tolkien took his prose narratives into a different style, which I called the Annalistic style because it was most typical of works he called the Annals, which were chronological accounts of the events of the Silmarillion, and they were modeled, this time, after genuine early-English historical documents called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The Chronicles are highly valuable historical documents but they don't make gripping reading, and the same is often true of the Annals of Tolkien's, which tend to be a bit dry, fussy, and distant. Much of The Silmarillion as we have it is in this style, which is why some people find it rather difficult to read. However, that shows the style at its best; at its worst it sounds like this:
But as for the Years of the Trees and those that came after, one such Year was longer than nine such years as now are. For there were in each such Year twelve thousand hours. Yet the hours of the Trees were each seven times as long as is one hour of a full-day upon Middle-earth from sun-rise to sun-rise, when light and dark are equally divided. Therefore each Day of the Valar endured for four and eighty of our hours, and each Year for four and eighty thousand: which is as much as three thousand and five hundred of our days, and is somewhat more than are nine and one half of our years.Anyway, you get the idea.
Yeah, it's like he was taking notes.
Yes, this is one of a number of places where Tolkien gets kind of bogged down in what he's writing about, and he can't get out. There is a classic case of this in The Lord of the Rings itself, and you find this from reading the drafts of The Lord of the Rings that are incorporated into The History of Middle-earth. When Tolkien got to the spot where Gandalf and Théoden find Merry and Pippin sitting in the ruins of Isengard, Merry starts burbling away about hobbits and their pipeweed, because Théoden is interested by the fact that the hobbits spout smoke from their mouths, which he hadn't seen before. And he [Merry] goes on and on and on about it, and Gandalf interrupts him to stop it. Well, Gandalf is actually interrupting Tolkien, because Tolkien had written so much about this that he realized he'd gotten away from himself, and most of the material on pipeweed in the introduction, the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, is transferred there from the ruins of Isengard because Tolkien realized that he'd run away with himself. And that's what's going on here with the calendars.
So after writing The Lord of the Rings, and essentially teaching himself how to write a long and full adult narrative, Tolkien began to use a much clearer, natural and flowing style that he'd developed especially in the Appendices to that book - the non-fiction style, narratives about the history of Gondor and such places - so I call it the Appendical style. So here, from Unfinished Tales, is a bit from the encounter of Aldarion, the Crown Prince of Númenor, with his betrothed, Erendis. Aldarion is a mariner, and he is always going away on voyages, so Erendis misses him terribly. But the other thing that concerns her is she loves trees for their own sake, whereas Aldarion loves them because he can grow them and then cut them down to build ships with, which doesn't really appeal to Erendis very much because not only does it hurt the trees but it also takes him away from her. So they come to a nice peaceful spot in the middle of the isle of Númenor.
There Erendis spoke to Aldarion and said: 'Here could I be at ease!'So that should be enough to convince you that Erendis is the greatest female character Tolkien ever wrote! It's a shame that most people have never heard of her.
'You shall dwell where you will, as wife of the King's Heir,' said Aldarion. 'And as Queen in many fair houses, such as you desire.'
'When you are King, I shall be old,' said Erendis. 'Where will the King's Heir dwell meanwhile?'
'With his wife,' said Aldarion, 'when his labours allow, if she cannot share in them.'
'I will not share my husband with the Lady Uinen,' said Erendis. (Uinen, I should add, is the Maia of the oceans.)
'That is a twisted saying,' said Aldarion. 'As well might I say that I would not share my wife with the Lord Oromë of Forests, because she loves trees that grow wild.'
'Indeed you would not,' said Erendis; 'for you would fell any wood as a gift to Uinen, if you had a mind.'
'Name any tree that you love and it shall stand till it dies,' said Aldarion.
'I love all that grow in this Isle,' said Erendis.
I'm kind of wondering, and you've probably had this discussion with somebody, the new series that's going to come out on Amazon. I'm wondering if it won't follow Aldarion. I think that would be a rich topic.
It might, and I have no idea what it's going to be about. Except that somewhere they have drawn a line, and it's not exactly clear where it is, a line across the timeline of Tolkien's legendarium, as to what they're allowed to use and what they're not allowed to use. But certainly there's a lot of room in the Second Age to tell stories about, and the story of Aldarion and Erendis is the longest and most detailed and most novelistic story that Tolkien wrote about that period of his history. So I think it would make a very good movie if somebody had the wit and the taste to do it in a way that was respectful of Tolkien.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And they would take a lot of flak if they were not respectful.
It's funny that you mentioned Unfinished Tales and Aldarion. It's actually what I wanted to transition to now. Believe it or not, Unfinished Tales, the book that I have here in my hand right now, that has not come up on the podcast either. And I'm curious: it has some similarities to the Histories of Middle-earth that we've talked about. It seems like maybe you drew some parallels to the twelfth book of The History of Middle-earth, called The Peoples of Middle-earth. I'm curious: what really sets Unfinished Tales apart from some of the other books of the Histories of Middle-earth?
Well, Unfinished Tales came out before The History of Middle-earth did, and that's I think an important point. So Christopher Tolkien was appointed his father's executor, and so when his father died in 1973, his son was faced with this vast array of his father's manuscripts, and the big question was how to excerpt and arrange them for publication. So the first thing he knew is that he had to publish a book called The Silmarillion, because everybody had been waiting for it for twenty years, since it had been first mentioned in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. So he did that by taking the latest versions of the stories of that period of Middle-earth's history, and basically arranging them, taking a snapshot of the latest versions of each one, some of which were quite recent, some of which, especially near the end of the story, dated back to the 1930s before a major recasting of the mythology had been done. So he had to tinker with things a bit and also fill in some holes in order to get a continuous narrative about it. But the continuous narrative aspect of it was essentially a re-creation. But there were also a lot of other stories, most of them either ancillary works, or else more detailed coverages of material that the Silmarillion didn't cover in that much amount of detail; he didn't want to jump back and forth within the text of the Silmarillion; that were completed, or that were polished as far as they went, even though they weren't finished. Thus Unfinished Tales. And he thought this would make some useful reading. So he put this together as a collection of the juicy bits - the most polished and most completed stories that were written after The Lord of the Rings had been completed, which meant they were mostly consistent with it in terms of the facts of the sub-creation. They didn't need further explanation, so they could be read by people who didn't want to go any further. And what's more, they're the ones that had the answers to the sub-creational questions that people most wanted to know. This is the book that tells you who the other two wizards were, and it gives you the chronology of Númenor and the map of Númenor and all that stuff that you want to know, some of it taken from essays. It also contains a version of the Narn, which is the story of Túrin Turambar from the Silmarillion, and the tragic tale of him and his parents and sister, in more detail. This was eventually taken back out of Unfinished Tales, repolished, and other material added to it, and published as a book called The Children of Húrin.
So Unfinished Tales is like a pre-existing volume 13 of The History of Middle-earth, fuller material which goes along with the more fragmentary ones that were left behind for parts 2 through 4 of The Peoples of Middle-earth. Part 1 of The Peoples of Middle-earth is a consideration of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, most of which were written after The Lord of the Rings itself had been finished.
The thing that I remember most about Unfinished Tales is the juicy details of Galadriel, Celeborn, and Celebrimbor.
Yes. That part is a little bit different from the others, because Tolkien never entirely established who - especially Celeborn - who Celeborn actually was, and how they fit into the mythology. Galadriel and Celeborn were created in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, and then they had to be fit back into the Silmarillion. That was one of the changes in the structure of the story that Tolkien made after he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and he never quite completed that. So Christopher Tolkien tentatively stuck his toe out in showing you a part of the history that had never been definitively established. That's the only place in Unfinished Tales where he does that. The History of Middle-earth, however, is full of that. It begins with The Book of Lost Tales, which contains the same stories and some of the same characters, but the names are different, the events are different, the types of things they are are different - Beren is an Elf, rather than a Man, for instance - and so many other things are entirely different: the style of everything happening is different, as you could tell from that excerpt that I read of Beren and Lúthien encountering her father. With The History of Middle-earth, you're plunged totally into the fact that this is a created world that Tolkien is working out as he writes, and once you do that, you can no longer really think of it as something that might actually exist out there. It is the act of a writer inventing it. And since I think the greatest thing about it is that it was the creation of a single writer, it's helpful to bring that fact out.
Wow. Thank you for that. That's great. I'd like to switch gears to one of your different essays. This one's really fun, not that the other one wasn't fun, but this one is called "Top Ten Rejected Plot Points [sic for Twists] from The Lord of the Rings: A Textual Excursion into the History of The Lord of the Rings." There's a lot in here, things like - there's a fight with a character named Sharkey, you have things like Boromir going farther and actually betraying Aragorn, Treebeard kidnapping Gandalf, Éowyn marrying Aragorn - these are all things mentioned in this article. However, the thing that actually stood out the most, and just really touched me was a description of Elven-magic that you talk about in this essay. You're welcome to talk about some of these other things that I mention too, but really I'd like to quote you in quoting both Sam and Frodo here. You mention when Sam says, speaking of magic, "It's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking. You can't see nobody working it." And then Frodo says, "You can see and feel it everywhere." And then you go on to say, "That is the essence of Elven-magic. It is there, and you can feel it but not measure it: there is no clever gold watch, or a man behind a curtain." And I just thought that was just such an excellent way to describe the feeling of magic in this world, in this room that you talked about that we're in. And you know, we've all read fantasy, some of us have played Dungeons and Dragons, I know you mentioned you had briefly played some Dungeons and Dragons: some of these stories, in some of these worlds, the magic is just right out there, it's just right in your face. And in Tolkien's world, sometimes in the role-playing community we would say that Middle-earth is low-magic. But in thinking more about it, I think it's not low-magic. I think the magic is everywhere, but it's just not right there in your face. So I've talked a lot about it already, but these are your words and I'd like you to talk about it if you wouldn't mind.
Yes. That's actually the only really serious section of the paper. It had occurred to me that there were so many ideas that Tolkien spun off while he was working on The Lord of the Rings, some of which were pretty dreadful or even comical, and to quote, as I did in my paper, the first scholar to study Tolkien's manuscripts for The Lord of the Rings - which are kept at Marquette University in Milwaukee - Richard West, who said, "If we pick them out of the trash heap it is only to show how wise the author was to throw them there." And that is what I was doing in this essay. But the point in particular: Tolkien had imagined originally that time doesn't just seem to stop in Lórien, it actually does. Our heroes just refresh and recuperate for some timeless period and then go on from exactly the point that they did [were at] before. And that, in fact, is the reason why, in the final version, where that doesn't happen - magic is not that explicit - it turns out they spent a month in Lórien, even though it felt like only a few days. And the reason it's a month is because that way Tolkien could continue with the story as he'd already written it without having to worry about changing the phases of the Moon, which was a big thing that he had in mind for keeping track of where the story was in terms of its timeline. So as far as using the magic is concerned: the way Tolkien differs from so many fantasy authors in that he doesn't treat magic as a branch of engineering. A lot of science fiction writers do that: they are used to science fiction engineering, so they write fantasy with engineering-type magic. You see that in authors like L. Sprague de Camp and others of the Unknown Worlds school. And you also see it in a lot of other magic books. For instance, in Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, you cast a spell and it happens, automatically. Or if it doesn't work, something has gone wrong which you can diagnose and fix, like a mechanic fixing a car.
Tolkien doesn't do that. For a wizard, Gandalf casts very few spells. He leads - and he doesn't always know exactly what he can do to do it - he leads by exhortation and inspiration, and not by zapping Sauron with mighty bolts, although he probably could do it. For one thing, he's forbidden from winning his side's battles for them. That's not what he was sent to do. The people that he leads must put forth their own supreme effort, but if they do, he and the Valar will help them. You can see this particularly in Frodo's journey in Mordor: he can't just waft to the mountain without effort, but if he puts forth his utmost, his fate will come to his aid, and you can see that happening.
So the clearest statement of Tolkien's view of magic comes from Galadriel. So Frodo and Sam are in Lórien. Sam asks her to show him some elf-magic. By magic he means something that would be supernatural to a hobbit, the way we would use the word, but this definition doesn't make any sense to Galadriel, because it classes her mirror with the deceits of Sauron. To her, those are totally different because of their purpose. She's not out to deceive, she's out to preserve her land and to preserve its wonderment. To her, all the Elves' activities are for that purpose, whether they would appear supernatural to a hobbit or not. You see this in the result, because there's no real line between magic and not-magic. Is Galadriel's rope, for instance, magic or not? It's hard to tell. The Elves are out to create an atmosphere, a realm of beauty and wonder, and they have many skills to achieve this. That's what Tolkien was trying to convey. He was not trying to write a story about magic. So.
I felt bad the whole time you were describing this, that I took the one serious thing out of your article and focused on that. But it was something that I've been trying to figure out the whole time reading The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and being immersed in this world. It seems that magic in terms of Elven-magic is caught up in historic knowledge and language, you know?
Yeah, I think that's a very important thing in studying a lot of the fantasy. There's a standard definition of fantasy, that it's stories with magic in them. And I find when I look at many of the great fantasies, yes, they have magic in them, but very few of them are about magic; they don't put the magic in the center. It's just something that happens to happen along the way. It's part of the setting, it's part of the background, the mise-en-scene, and it's not what the story is about in most of these cases. And the same is true if you definite a high fantasy as one taking place in an imaginary world. Again, they do take place in imaginary worlds, most of them - some of them it's a little hard to tell, a story like The Once and Future King or Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast don't really qualify by that account, but most people consider them high fantasy. But even if they do take place in imaginary worlds, it's not usually about the world as such, although in Tolkien's case you could say that it is. And he is definitely creating both this deep sense of time and this sense of place that are both very critical to his work.
I think that is an excellent transition point, as I am going to talk about time and place here now. And I have a question for you. This is kind of where in the interview I'm going to shift to things that happen in the storyline from my podcast. And this is also where we can have a lot of fun, where you can choose to go on a journey with us and talk about your beliefs and whether something is plausible or not, and again my feelings won't be hurt if what I'm saying is not plausible. But this particular time and place that I'm choosing to talk about is about a creature that the characters are going to meet soon, named Ungoliant. And you're going to say to yourself, "Hm, that's very strange, because Ungoliant's been gone for a very long time." And so I guess at this point in the story - as we know, Ungoliant sort of soiled the Two Trees and the Wells of Varda and then grew to this huge size and sort of took off, and scared Morgoth quite a bit and it is said, I believe, that she either sort of, because of her great hunger, devoured herself or headed south somewhere, maybe the Dark Lands, where she had foul offspring like Shelob, possibly. And so, at this point, my characters are doing what we call the Trials of the Valar, where each Valar [sic] has a particular task for the characters to do in order to bring about this last battle, the Dagor Dagorath. And one of the things they must do in order to rekindle the Two Trees is to fill the Wells of Varda. And one way to do that is to sort of reclaim that from Ungoliant. At least, so goes my story. And so the thing that I wanted to ask you, just as a very knowledgeable scholar in Tolkien's legendarium, is: is the fate of Ungoliant definitive? Is this something that could happen? And anything else you want to add to this.
Specifically about that. I think that one of the great things about Tolkien's world is that, like the real world, it's not completely known. There are loose edges and blank spots. What The Silmarillion actually says about Ungoliant - I looked this up - it says, "Of the fate of Ungoliant no tale tells. Yet some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last." Just because "some have said" something in Tolkien doesn't mean that it's true. Tolkien actually wrote some stories that were Mannish misunderstandings of what the Elves had told them, his mythology was that layered and complex. These stories are erroneous within the invented universe, but they're what some people thought. I think it's vital to the flavor of the story that we don't know some things, they're a mystery. Tom Bombadil, for instance, was created specifically as a mystery. If you go around saying, "Oh, well, he's clearly the Vala Aulë" or something, you have missed the point. We don't know what Bombadil was; he just is, as Goldberry says of him.
As far as Ungoliant's concerned, it says "no tale tells" her fate and that's an end on it. But that doesn't prevent you from speculating. I think you could go either way with Ungoliant, if you want to come up with something for your own story. She is so ravenous that it is imaginable that she could have eaten herself up, like that sucking monster in the film Yellow Submarine. You remember, it sucks up everything, finally ending with itself, and it's all gone. Or she could be in some sort of stasis like the Balrog of Moria was for millennia, in which case, like the Balrog, she could reappear, so watch out! So you could do either of those things with it.
That's part of the fun thing about creating something in Tolkien's universe, that there's room to do that. And the mistake is to think of things that are too limited. I once read a critique of the characters in the invented world - not of Tolkien writing it, but of the invented world itself - which criticized the White Council for not having realized earlier that the Necromancer, in Dol Guldur in The Hobbit, was actually Sauron, on the grounds that, who else could it be? And it seemed to me that that argument was a complete misunderstanding of what Tolkien is trying to create. Tolkien's world can't be limited by what fits on a tabletop for a role-playing game. There's all kinds of things going on that we don't know about. And the fact that we don't know all these things is essential to it. This is part of what I meant when I said earlier that it feels like things have been going on in The Hobbit before Bilbo arrives. The characters haven't been just sitting there waiting for him to show up. They've got their own things to do, and we don't know really what those are, necessarily. And what Beorn or the Elvenking is doing is beyond that. And even things Tolkien includes are not always mentioned. A criticism I've read often of The Hobbit in recent years is that Bard, who slays the dragon, doesn't appear in the story until the dragon-slaying. That's not true. He does actually appear earlier on. He's referred to as "a grim-voiced man"; his name isn't given at that point. It's the fact that his name isn't given that causes people to miss that it's him. But he's later identified as the grim-voiced man who had spoken earlier. So there are things that are not necessarily obvious; there are minor characters who wander around and pop up here and there that you might not necessarily know about.
Some of the things that you've mentioned, you're absolutely right. This is a vast world; it'd be like in real life trying to guess all of the things that are happening, right? It's impossible to do that. But in my story, I will be trying to explain some of these things.
For your own story, you can do it any way you want, because it's your story. As long as you're not confusing it with Tolkien's, or taking it for Tolkien's, or thinking that you've found the answer to Tolkien's mysteries, you can do what you want. I think that's one of those things that brings people out: the impulse is to write things. I am not a storyteller by nature, I'm a scholar by nature. So it leads me to want to write about it rather than to create stories. I'd rather read other people's stories; they're better storytellers than I am.
And I'd rather read the things that you've written to inspire me to write. Well, let's go on to the next question. So I mentioned that you are a cat owner at the very beginning, and I did some research on you, and you have multiple cats, some of which with very interesting names. And I am also a pet owner. My dog's name is Melian, after, obviously, Melian. One of my cat's names is Shadow, after my favorite character from American Gods, and we have another cat called Jon Snow, whom my kids refer to as Snowy, which is obviously from Game of Thrones, and I was wondering, before our last question - this is going to segue into our last question - could you tell us quickly about the cats that you have now and where their names came from.
We have at any given time only two cats, and I like to say that it's to keep them from outvoting us. But really, taking care of cats isn't easy, especially when the cats want lots of attention. So my wife and I are great readers, and we've always given our cats literary names. Currently we have Tybalt, which comes from Romeo & Juliet. He in turn is named for Tibert, the King of Cats in the fable Reynard the Fox, which is why other characters in Romeo & Juliet make cat references about him. Our Tybalt is a lively and active little guy, so we thought it an appropriate name. And we have Maia, who's named for one of the Pleiades, the star cluster, the one who comes down from the heavens to do her Christmas shopping in P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins. (It's not in the movie.) That's my favorite chapter in the book, actually, and our Maia arrived just after Christmas, so we gave her that name.
Do you have any names picked out for any future cats? Or do you base it on their personality?
No, we'll wait and see what happens to hit us at the time. In the past, we did have a cat named Pippin once, from The Lord of the Rings, and you mentioned you have a cat named Shadow. When I was in college, I had a cat named Shadow, which was named by my roommate after "Moonshadow," the Cat Stevens song.
So the reason I bring this up is because the characters in my story have just met with a very old Queen Beruthiel and her cats. And so in my story - again, I've been very careful to make sure I don't step on anything that Tolkien had actually set in stone, but some of these little Easter eggs or breadcrumbs that Tolkien left out there, I've tried to nibble and gobble those up in some places - and so in my story, after Queen Beruthiel is kicked out of Gondor, in my story she doesn't make it back home. She ends up finding the part of Númenor, the highest point, called Meneltarma, which is sticking up above the water, and there she has found a part of a White Tree or a sapling of one of the White Trees, and, believe it or not, the Axe of Tuor. And so the characters go there and they meet her. I don't have to ask you, there isn't much written about Queen Beruthiel, but I'm wondering if you could tell me what do you think Tolkien's thoughts were of cats in general in relating them. Go ahead; I know you have thoughts on this.
Oh yeah. Well, I should say first, that the reference that Aragorn makes to the cats of Queen Beruthiel in I think it's the Mines of Moria, is one of the very few things that Tolkien just threw off at the time without any idea of what it actually was or where it fit into his mythology. It was only later on that he figured out that Beruthiel was an early Queen of Gondor. So as far as the cats were concerned, Tolkien was a dog person, obviously. He's on record as not liking cats and especially Siamese cats. For instance, in The Silmarillion Huan the Hound gets all the good press and if you read the early version in The Book of Lost Tales, where there is the evil Prince of Cats called Tevildo, he gets all the bad press, and so does Beruthiel. Well, I'm used to that, actually; I grew up on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons which have the same bias against cats. Many Tolkien fans are cat people, so we just live with this. I still like the great scenes in The Book of Lost Tales of Tevildo and his thanes lounging around their palace, being very cat-like in a rather negative way. In a way it's not surprising. Tolkien expressed a lot of his own tastes in his fiction. In particular he gave some of his own tastes, literally, to hobbits, for instance including loving mushrooms. So Tolkien picnics are full of mushroom dishes. I don't like mushrooms.
I agree with you.
And sometimes people give me odd looks, as if maybe I'm not such a real Tolkien fan after all if I don't like mushrooms. So when that comes up I say, "How many of you smoke tobacco?" because that's another rabid hobbit taste, but few of these people do, so that quiets them up real fast. You don't have to like everything that Tolkien liked. So it's OK to be different from him. And in fact Tolkien was very picky on a number of things that don't seem to bother his fans very much at all. For instance, the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings movies are Irish peasants rather than English, and that would have bothered Tolkien very deeply, but I don't think it bothers very many people who see the movie.
Interesting. Interesting. David, I've kept you for probably almost an hour at this point, and I just want to thank you for having this discussion with me, and it's been really great. Is there anything that you'd like to mention, things that you have coming up, things that you're excited about?
Well, it's been announced that I'm to be the Scholar Guest of Honor at the next Mythcon, the conference of the Mythopoeic Society, which was going to be this summer but it's been postponed till next year. It's quite an honor; many of the people that you've interviewed so far, or that you have coming up, have been Guests of Honor at Mythcon at one time or another, and it's an honor to be in their company. And I would certainly hope that some of your listeners might be interested in coming next July to the University - actually it's not at the university, it's sponsored by it - to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Mythcon is going to be, because I find it always a grand and glorious gathering of people who love Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who is also one of our special interests, and a great place to have conversations in real time with people. So once we're all allowed to get back together again in person in real time, this is the first thing that I'm planning on going to.
Well, I will put the link to that event in this description, and if I can make it I will be there.
OK, well that would be delightful.
Thank you so much for coming, David.
Sure thing. Good night.