Dr. Sian Pehrsson’s Experience–Tolkien Experience Project (61)

This is one in a series of posts where the content is provided by a guest who has graciously answered five questions about their experience as a Tolkien reader. I am very humbled that anyone volunteers to spend time in this busy world to answer questions for my blog, and so I give my sincerest thanks to Dr. Pehrsson and the other participants for this.

To see the idea behind this project, check out this page

I want to thank Donato Giancola for allowing me to use his stunning portrait of J.R.R Tolkien as the featured image for this project. If you would like to purchase a print of this painting, they are available on his website!

If you would like to contribute your own experience, you can do so by using the form on the contact page, or by emailing me directly.

Now, on to Dr. Sian Pehrsson’s responses:

How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?

By my father. He is a huge classic sci-fi and fantasy fan and as a preteen I was mowing through hiscollection of Norse mythology, Analog, Asimov and Anderson when Christmas rolled around and there under the tree was the Allen-Unwin complete boxed set with LOTR, The Hobbit, Tree and Leaf and Farmer Giles of Ham. I spent the break completely lost in Middle-earth, utterly entranced. It was 1977, Star Wars had just come out the spring before, and there was so much excitement about new worlds—new stories- fandom really taking off. A few short years later the BBC radio play came out and I fell in love all over again. Funnily enough my father had not read Tolkien himself at that point and when he borrowed mine, he decided it wasn’t his cup of tea. I still remember our huge discussion at the breakfast table about ‘high fantasy’ versus Moorcock. My mother and sister hid!

What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?

How much space do I have? I have always loved the layering of backstory—the sense of other Ages, places and adventures wound so seamlessly into present plot. LOTR and specifically TTT is my favourite, but I devoured the LOTR Appendices and Silmarillion and HoME and anything I could get my hands on, wanting to know more. There is always a sense with his writing that the story is a duck gliding placidly across a pond while underneath its legs are madly paddling.  He is also a master at describing scene and environment, and as an Earth Scientist that is instinctively very near to my heart.   My absolute favourite section is the moving discussion in The Two Towers where Faramir gives Frodo and Sam some lore of Gondor and Numenor and they discuss their interactions with the Elves and then Sam accidentally reveals Isildur’s Bane.  I was horrified to learn that JRR considered cutting more of it out and putting it in the appendices!   And every Christmas The Father Christmas Letters is set out on our coffee table, to reread for the delight of its story and art—a connection to the magic time in Childhood when we still believed and our now grown son did.  As someone who has mapped the Arctic its depiction of a hidden realm always makes me smile.

What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?

My fondest experience actually came out of tragedy.   In 2007 our baby daughter died.  It was an utterly devastating experience and my friends at work were searching for a gift that could be something of a balm.  They went out and sought a prelease copy of The Children of Hurin knowing that JRR was my favourite author—and having no idea what the story was!   It was such a moving and kind act… I did read it a month or so later—transported for a little while out of my own world.

My second fondest experience was discovering that one of our post-doctoral fellows was also a fan and had put up a meme of Boromir (One does not simply do Structural Geology) on his office door!  Of course I had to respond in kind.  Our hallway is slightly plastered with Rangers now… quite fitting for a team that spends long periods in the wilds.

Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?

Absolutely.  As a teen I read it purely as transportation and entertainment.  Now as an adult I read it much more critically, intrigued to understand more of how he pulled the threads together, fascinated by how profound changes in science, culture, and politics through the start of the 20th century influenced even obliquely parts of his works.  Diving into scholarship on the philological, cultural and thematic aspects is a growing pleasure.   Coming back to Tolkien after a lifetime of science writing I am also fascinated with how many scientists are fans and how they interpret everything from Tectonics to Climate to Astrophysics for ME.  My favourite piece is Erik Klemetti’s rheological analysis of how Gollum would have bounced off the surface of the circulating lava lake at Sammath Naur.  Before bursting into flame.   And there might or might not be an exploration of the geological evolution of ME on my harddrive….

Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?

Yes.  And I have many times over the years.   From a purely historical standpoint, it is the legendarium that launched a thousand copycats (Sword of Shannara anyone?) and laid the foundation for modern works like The Game of Thrones to enter the popular mainstream. I always encourage those who enjoyed GOT and Jackson’s movies to read the books—and they are always surprised how much more there is to love! As someone said there is more going on in a single JRR paragraph than in most author’s entire books.  If only I had a dollar for every time a surprised friend (with gentle encouragement) dipped a toe into The Silmarillion only to find themselves lost!  More fundamentally his works can be read on many levels and hence there are few keen readers that cannot find something to like therein.  I have found some inclined to not move on from Fellowship to The Two Towers–the pacing in the first book is quite different from the latter two—but perseverance pays off.

There is also a noticeable generational shift in attitudes toward his work.  Middle-Aged friends still have that unfortunate ‘genre writing is less serious’ attitude and may not pick it up whereas GenY and youth of my son’s age are quite unabashed about fandom of any sort—books, movies, comics–it’s refreshing.  I caught my son telling a buddy that I could give Stephen Colbert a run for his money in a Tolkien quiz.  He was proud of it—not embarrassed–that is huge change.

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