Sunday, February 12, 2012

An Interview with R R Tolkien from OXFORD June 1961

Some of my face book friends have recently expressed a wish to see my Interview withTolkien,published in Dagens Nyheter August 1961 under the title - not chosen by me -"Den besynnerlige Professor Tolkien".

MR Morgan Thomsen has recently recentlu translated mu original into English for Tolkien Studies,University of Wester Virginia.

So Here it is (Copyright Lars Gustafsson and Morgan Thomsen ):
In front of me a man sits in a room filled to overflowing with books, prints, odds and ends, piles of manuscripts and Victorian ornaments. His features are so sharp that you might think him a bird of prey, or perhaps some kind of troll. His eyes as well are like those of a bird of prey, the one part of him not aged; theirs is a quick vigilance, perhaps also suspicion; they shyly flick away or suddenly drill into whatever he is looking at with enormous focus. He speaks in a muffled voice, a pipe constantly in his mouth; speaking to him makes you nervous, listening to his words makes you worried. He is a totally unique human being; he could serve as a warning to storytellers taking a step too far, enveloping themselves too deeply within their tale, but he could also serve as a model for everyone wanting to create story, for in his stories you find a concreteness, a hallucinatory clarity making them enter the dreams of their readers, giving new colour to all they see. And yet they are only fairy tales.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, exception and eccentric, England’s and the world’s last teller of fairy tales, or perhaps their first in a very long time, sits in front of me in his house on the outskirts of Oxford, and says:
“For many years I wrote without publishing a word. Now that I’ve finally begun publishing, it brings me nothing but inconvenience. There are so many letters, whole bundles of letters from people believing themselves to know better than I how my story shout be interpreted, people who want to find proof in it for their belief in reincarnation, and I don’t know what else. Some try to read my books as allegory. They believe them to be about the conflict between East and west, and some send me their own illustrations and suggestions for improvements. It’s as if they all want to be part of it. Yes, it is strange for an old philologist to step into the literary world.”
An old philologist, certainly. Tolkien is a retired Professor of Celtic philology at Oxford, of a Saxon family, the son of an English banker in South Africa, an eminent scholar of Celtic and Icelandic sagas, Middle-English dialects, and the Celtic language. What has transformed him into a suddenly emerging, different and irritating literary phenomenon is the fact that since a few years he has published a many thousand pages long epic fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings. Two volumes of The Lord of the Rings have already been translated into Swedish, and on the whole he has enjoyed an overwhelming success, almost as if what he wrote is a response to some need; he is even being translated into Polish, and reviews have oscillated from fascination to irritated aversion.
The fairy tale written by Tolkien, winding its way through three thick volumes like an extended, convoluted giant labyrinth, is very strange. It is bizarre, dark, violent and in parts so softly idyllic that reading it feels like reading poetry; it is written in a heavy, powerful, slightly elderly and pedantic prose. It makes easy reading, since it is extremely exciting, and its overall character makes it extraordinarily difficult to describe. You might say that it is linked to a tradition not represented in literature since Beowulf and Kalevala, and yet there is nothing about it suggesting pastiche, nothing of a literary chamber of curiosities. It is archaic, not antiquated.
And above all it is a sample of both extraordinarily powerful and, in parts, profound storytelling.
In an academic paper on Beowulf, written in 1939, Tolkien argues that what is absurd and bizarre in the tale is not due to ignorance or barbarism in the unknown author, but simply an artifice, a purposeful style. Beowulf with its quirky storytelling technique, where seemingly significant historical events are pushed out to the periphery while fanciful battles with dragons occupy the centre, where monster is piled upon monster, in Tolkien’s view is an entirely purposeful work of art, and its structure makes it an effective tool in illustrating moral essentials, courage, doubt, loneliness, the struggle between good and evil.
That view is highly applicable to Tolkien’s own fairy tale. It is set in a distant and unknown archaic world of other countries, mountain ranges, oceans and continents from ours. The perspective is immense, historical; the central story arch concerns an immense struggle for power between peoples and countries, where a lost ring of tremendous magical power plays a main role. The beings featured are as alien and fascinating as the landscapes, and are portrayed with the same hallucinatory clarity. There are humans, knights and warriors, but as stylized as the pieces in a Gothic chess set. The true actors, given individual features, are all sorts of fairy creatures, evil or good; there are trolls, dwarves, a people of friendly and lovably idyllic two-foot creatures called hobbits, there is a kind of ancient tree giants, and there are loathsome man-eating beings, and ghostly demons floating on the nightly air spreading their coldness to all living things. Their master is a being of condensed evil, aiming at the conquest of the world.
The story is centred on a small, insignificant hobbit, who will bear total responsibility for the victory of good. It is a tale of responsibility, of someone put to a superhuman test; a message sent us of an indefinite, archaic time in a bizarre world, but depicted so transparently and clearly that we perceive its validity; the impossibility of taking on responsibility, of being a hero.
In some parts, the fairy tales is frightening and pathologically cruel, but throughout it fascinates since every scene is unbelievably clearly visualized. Mountains and cities, forests and lakes appear before the reader’s eye as if by magic. You can feel the stones pressing against your foot soles along the roads in the fairy-tale world, and you believe yourself hearing the wind in trees that have never been. Tolkien even manages to evoke the impression of past; in every word uttered there is the weight of a dark and fateful past, a history or prehistory as full of dark and enchanting stories as the one you are reading, as full of the endless struggle between evil and bravery, of as great trials and failures. And while the story with its adventures, wonders and battles winds its way on, you are filled with the sense of a kind of endlessness; there is no end. It is a tour-de-force of imagination, and it shows you what a dangerous, almost extra-human force imagination can be.
The most fascinating aspect of the fairy tale is its distinct consistency. Everything is considered, every part of the story points to the same centre: the experience of carrying an unreasonable responsibility. One facet of the tale is that it makes the actors part of the situation in which they are involved; in the end, you feel more as if you had witnessed a play than heard a story. Everything Tolkien writes seems pervaded by a fundamental pessimism; his insights into power and betrayal convince you; man is caught in an unreasonable web of interconnections.
The old gentleman with the sharp eyes and bushy eyebrows regards me with suspicion before deciding to tell me more.
“It’s all about power, of course, and about virtue struggling against power. The story is about an insignificant creature put to a test transcending his abilities, and about how that changes him, how it draws out the strength within him.”
And after a further moment of thought, with much sucking on his pipe:
“Of course it is a pessimistic story. I have tried to make it timeless, to show that evil is timeless, that it prevails as often as good.”
When did Tolkien begin to write? And how did he come up with such an odd idea?
“It started with languages. I was hospitalized during the First World War [or, given his age, possibly “the Great War” JH] and spent my time reading the Kalevala. And then I got the idea to try to do it all over, you see, to write my own fairy tale. But it would have a different atmosphere, a completely other feeling that that provided by the Finnish names. With the help of a language I made up myself, I invented new individual names; writing fairy tales and inventing languages were two favourite pastimes of my childhood. The names gave me ideas and visions. And I have continued ever since.”
“This is how I work:”
And he throws binders on the floor in front of my feet; maps, sketches, a photograph of the latest eruption of volcano Hekla (“Such things interest me”), talented watercolours, tables that have helped him keep track of the multitudinous characters and events in his story, diagrams showing the movements of armies on a battlefield.
“The tale isn’t finished, and it is longer than you believe, much longer. You must remember that I’ve kept at it since 1917.”
And in a corner of his room he shows me a huge pile of manuscripts in folders, which I hadn’t noticed before. What has been published so far comprises some three thousand pages. In this room, he keeps around fifty thousand! For a moment, I feel my whole power of comprehension rear up: how can this be possible? Is the actual truth that Professor Tolkien is lost in a world of his own fairy tales since 1917, muted and blinded by an imagination akin to a force of nature? Or have I misheard him?
I hadn’t misheard.
“What I have published, you see, is just a part of a much larger tale. It is very long, spanning about a thousand years. And there are so many stories. My idea is to publish most of it before I die, if anyone is interested in it. As a whole, it makes up a kind of history. I also tried to carry the story on forward in time, but I couldn’t.”
Why not?
“It became so dark that it frightened me.”
I truly wonder how that fairy tale might have turned out. Already what I have read is sometimes immensely frightening and bleak. And he tells me a little part of the unpublished tale and his character changes as he speaks. His eyes become friendlier, almost twinkling. He stops as suddenly as he began:
“Well, there are so many stories.”
“There are” – he keeps using the indicative mood, as if it all really had happened. To him, his fairy tale is not literature; it is life, growing through him as a tree through a rock.
And I suspect that he considers it more real than he would like to admit. Professor Tolkien is truly a strange man. What frightens me most is the feeling of depth, the feeling of his having unlimited depths of story to draw from, or seeming to have. His problem doesn’t seem to be that of other authors, that of finding a story. Obviously he is struggling not to be drowned by stories, caught is this absurd multitude.
“Of course, some have said that I am some sort of escapist, that I’ve remained in some sort of prolonged boyhood stage. But to write that, isn’t that just an instance of plain, simple lovelessness?” [If not this, I suspect Tolkien might have used “lack of charity”. JH]
Last of all he brought me to his window and showed me a great tree, a birch. At some point during its growth a wall had forced it aside. Now the trunk grew in a strange curve, warped and slanting.


  1. Some clarifications: this interview, edited and with introduction by Morgan Thomsen and Shaun Gunner for a submission to the journal Tolkien Studies (West Virginia University Press), was made by John-Henri Holmberg.

  2. Hi, I am from Brazil. And I want to haver permittion to translated this text to portuguese and published in our website
    Thank for attention
    Tolkien Brasil