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 fan.
To see the idea behind this project, or if you are interested in sharing your own, visit the project homepage. If you enjoy this series, please consider helping us fund the project using the support page.
I want to thank Donato Giancola for allowing me to use his artwork for this project. Prints are available on his website!
Now, on to Jasper’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was perhaps 5 or 6 when my dad first started The Hobbit with me as a bed time story. We had an old set of all of the (then) published Middle-earth books bound in green leather and marbled card, and he would read for me every night. Once we finished The Hobbit, he began reading The Fellowship of the Ring, which might have been a little old for a 6 year old, but I loved it nonetheless. We moved on to The Two Towers when I was about 7, and I have the distinct memory of forgetting our copy when we went on holiday and my dad scolding me for forgetting it, but buying a cheap paperback version anyway so that we didn’t have to miss a week of Frodo’s journey.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
When I was a child it was definitely the world he had built, the vastness and scope of the place that I felt fully immersed in, even during the long and unwieldy songs, and the Ent portions. As an adult, though, it’s got to be the linguistics. I actually chose to do my Masters degree in Historical Linguistics, with a focus on Old Germanic Dialects directly due to Tolkien’s own scholarship. Studying diachronic linguistics, then returning to the worlds and languages Tolkien created, you can really appreciate how much he loved both his academic and creative writing. The progression of Primitive Quendian to Common Eldarin, then to Quenya and Telerin, then down to Sindarin and all the different branches, is so organic. The detail with which he notes changes in phonology and morphology in The Etymologies is so exciting and mirrors his own studies into Proto-Germanic and its related dialects so beautifully. It’s hard not to get very nerdy about it right alongside him.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
The first Peter Jackson movie was released when I was 8, and my childhood best friend and I would spend hours in the fields around his house playing Rangers, fighting Orcs and speaking all the Elvish we could remember. We saw each other after school almost every day, and we didn’t stop playing our elaborate, dramatised Middle-earth games until we were 13.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Absolutely. As I mentioned above, choosing to study linguistics in the same vein has given me a whole new respect for the world, languages and cultures that Tolkien created, however as an adult there are things now that I find wanting in that world. In many ways it was a product of its time (though it was as much a product of Beowulf’s time too) and as such there are limitations to the world-building that a current writer of Fantasy wouldn’t dare restrict themselves to. Fantasy nowadays without more than 2 or 3 women in an entire series feels off, as does a cast without representation beyond the White Brythonic/Norse cultures of Tolkien’s wheelhouse. I find now that as much as I love and respect Tolkien’s original works, I want people who are adapting and building upon his works to create something that better reflects those who are consuming it. Why should the beautiful, graceful races of Middle-earth be blonde haired and blue eyed? Why is it only ever the villains that are described in ways that evoke the cultures of People of Colour? Why should the sweeping romances be just between a man and a woman? In Tolkien’s day these things might have been out of the scope of most of his readers, but as seminal a work of Fantasy as he created in his world of Middle-earth, our world and its imaginations have grown exponentially, and any Fantasy should reflect that and take it in its stride. That’s one of the things I love about Tolkien’s work, though, it’s not difficult to imagine infinite different facets of life in Middle-earth. Whether that is Orcs really understanding what a ‘menu’ is, and therefore having a complex and nuanced culture of their own beyond being “villainous creatures”, or the truth of Dwarf women and the more complicated relationship Dwarves may have to sex and gender. There is so much more that Tolkien’s works can become when put in the diverse and variable hands of the people who love it.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, but I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I would love people to love Tolkien as much as I do, but there is so much more Fantasy written now that is more engaging, easier to read, and better reflects its readers. Perhaps dipping a toe into Middle-earth might be appropriate for people who want the linguistics or the history, or just to see how newer Fantasy has been shaped by the success of Tolkien’s works, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an accessible, ‘one size fits all’ kind of Fantasy.