What is epic poetry?
Well, nobody agrees, so this is just Drout’s definition. For me, the epic is the integration of heroic feats into a matrix of real historical, political, and cultural material.
Do you consider “The Lord of the Rings” epic?
Yes. The difference is it’s set into the political and cultural matrix of an imaginary world. There isn’t a spot in the Middle Ages to have what Tolkien wanted so he just sort of made up Middle Earth. It’s meta-epic. On the other hand, the worlds of Virgil or Homer or Dante are real worlds, though it’s also the author’s imaginations of their respective worlds.
Why did you choose to study Tolkien?
I first got interested in Tolkien when I was 3 or 4 years old. In the spare room of my grandma’s house, someone had taped a poster of Middle Earth on the wall. I’d apparently stand up in my crib and point and say, “what’s that? what’s that?” My dad read me “Lord of the Rings” when I was six, and I’ve always loved it.
What do you think of the Peter Jackson movies?
I think the movies are visually remarkable. It’s amazing that you could go to New Zealand, the other side of the world from all of Tolkien’s experience, and make it look like I’d imagined Middle Earth. The things they did in terms of attention to detail with costumes, artifacts, and art are really remarkable.
I’m not fond of Philippa Boyens’ screenplay. I think they just didn’t trust their audience and made departures from the book that make the story weaker. Middle Earth is smaller. When the elves can decide they should help out at Helm’s Deep and walk there in a couple of hours – no; when Sauron can look out and see them climbing the mountain, it’s Hollywoodish.
What is your prediction about “The Hobbit” movie – will it be true to the book?
It’s going to be the feel of the The “Lord of the Rings” all over again. It’s not going to have that childlike fairytale element that’s in the book. They could not get that to work on the large screen. They’ve also expanded the story immensely. Something that was only one line in “The Hobbit” will be a major part of the movie. For example, the line that goes like “and while you were up here dealing with the lonely mountain, the white council went and expelled the evil necromancer and things will be better in the forest” – they’re going to show that.
What is something about Tolkien that his contemporary following doesn’t know?
The biggest thing that so many people miss about Tolkien is that he was a philologist. Philology was what we would nowadays call linguistics, but contemporary linguistics have moved completely away from literary texts. Tolkien was interested in the systematic way language changes and using that to reconstruct things that are lost.
When Tolkien was asked to describe himself, he always called himself a philologist. He worked for the Oxford Dictionary too; he wrote the definition of walrus.
How much did C. S. Lewis influence Tolkien?
Somebody asked Lewis what it was like to influence Tolkien and Lewis laughed and said “influence Tolkien, you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch; nobody ever influenced Tolkien.” But even if Tolkien didn’t take advice Lewis offered, mentally, he was thinking about Lewis as his audience. The other piece of the Tolkien-Lewis friendship is that Lewis converted to Christianity based on a conversation with Tolkien.
Do you have any advice for students interested in writing fiction?
Write the book you want to read rather than the book you think someone else will buy. What got “The Lord of the Rings” off the ground was Lewis saying to Tolkien, “You know there aren’t enough books around of the kind we like to read, so we shall have to write them.”