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Love, Career, Tolkien

December 26, 2014

Wayne writes: Some of our readers will have seen already, through links on Tolkien fan websites, an article about my Tolkien interests in the Williams Record, the student newspaper of Williams College, where I work as a rare books librarian. The author sent me questions which I answered by email, and wove my reply together with an account of her own fan interests. Space allowed her to print only part of what I wrote, but here I supply the complete text, with some [added comments]:

You and your wife, Christina Scull, have a new book coming out, The Art of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike The Hobbit, Tolkien didn’t illustrate The Lord of the Rings, so the book will consist of sketches and maps, many previously unpublished. What were the challenges of putting such a book together?

In one respect, it has been easier than when we produced our earlier book, The Art of The Hobbit, where we had to work out the design as well as write the text and lay out the pictures. Since our new book is to use the same design, many of its physical details were already settled when we began. But even though Tolkien didn’t formally illustrate The Lord of the Rings, he made many drawings and maps and inscriptions, and there were many more of these than we had to deal with for The Hobbit. Also, since they were made as The Lord of the Rings was written, mainly to work out details in the story (as opposed to the Hobbit art which mostly can stand separately), we needed to relate them not only to the published Lord of the Rings, itself a long text (much longer than The Hobbit), but also to multiple drafts as published in The History of Middle-earth or more directly in the manuscripts and typescripts held at Marquette University.

What first interested you in Tolkien scholarship?

I was a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I was a scholar; I was in high school when I first read these [in 1970]. As a serious Tolkien fan, I sought out everything else he wrote (that was published at the time, and that I could find), which included his academic writings: he was an esteemed scholar of Old and Middle English language and literature. In collecting his works, I developed an interest in books and libraries, which led to a career as a librarian and bibliographer – so, in a roundabout way, it’s due to Tolkien that I’m at Williams. I wrote a detailed bibliography of Tolkien’s works which was published in 1993 (and is now very much in need of a second edition). That put me in contact with other Tolkien collectors, including Christina Scull whom I married, and also with Tolkien’s publishers, his family, and his favorite illustrator (Pauline Baynes). Christina and I both had successful records as Tolkien scholars before Christopher Tolkien asked us to write a book about his father’s pictorial art (J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, 1995), and our later Tolkien projects proceeded from that success. [By which I meant, the success of Artist and Illustrator.]

Tolkien has an enormous fan base of deeply committed, emotionally invested fans. In your opinion, what draws people so strongly to Tolkien’s universe?

This question is often asked, and there are many possible answers: Tolkien’s mastery of English, his superb story-telling, the depth and intricacies of his created world, his invented languages. This isn’t unique to Tolkien, of course. [I had in mind the deep investment made by serious fans in the fiction of, say, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, or in the Sherlock Holmes canon.]

Christopher Tolkien famously said, ‘Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time’. In regard to Tolkien’s appearances in contemporary pop culture – the Lord of the Rings films and the irredeemable Hobbit trilogy foremost among them – are you in agreement with Mr. Tolkien?

Christopher is echoing what his father said about the ‘Tolkien cult’ that grew up, particularly in the United States, in the 1960s. Tolkien was sometimes annoyed by fans, though he also appreciated their interest. But Christopher has had to deal much more with a culture that feels it owns Tolkien’s works, and with filmmakers and toymakers and other business interests that want to make money from them. I don’t blame him for finding it trying sometimes.

You and Ms. Scull also recently published The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. You’ve also edited editions of Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom. How would you describe the experience of working with Tolkien’s smaller stories and poems in comparison with the enormous The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, for instance? Which is your favorite of his smaller works?

One always thinks that because a work is shorter, it will be quicker and easier to deal with, but that isn’t true with Tolkien. Everything he wrote has hidden aspects and complicated histories. If I had to have a favorite among his shorter works, and I don’t really have one, it would be Roverandom, if only because that was an unusual story which had never been published before our edition. But it was very interesting to deal also with the earlier version of Farmer Giles of Ham and with its abandoned sequel, which we included in its 50th anniversary edition, and to be able to include both unpublished material and hard-to-find poems in the new edition of Tom Bombadil. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, our volume of annotations, took a long time to write, and had to be done in conjunction with editing The Lord of the Rings itself for its 50th anniversary in 2004. And that was light going compared with our two-volume J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, a detailed chronology combined with an encyclopedia of Tolkien’s life and works, which some feel is now the standard biographical reference.

Speaking as a person whose go-to Halloween costume is Tom Bombadil, I find him to be one of Tolkien’s most wonderful and mysterious characters. Something truly special about Tolkien’s universe is its deep mystery – the glimpses of a noble, beautiful, and tragic history, and deeper still, a sense of the earth itself, enchanted and somehow unknowable. There are few people alive who know as much about Tolkien as you; do you still feel the presence of mystery when you open The Lord of the Rings?

I used to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings every summer. I haven’t done that in a long time, not since we started to edit and write about Tolkien, which means that I have to go to the books for reference rather than for pleasure. But even then, I find something new every time [and it’s always a pleasure to open the books and dip in].

If you were a creature in Middle-earth, what culture or subculture would you belong to?

I’ve always identified most strongly with Merry Brandybuck, not because he’s a hobbit, but because he’s one of the most organized and level-headed of Tolkien’s characters. Of course, we the readers are supposed to identify the most with hobbits, who are our representatives in Middle-earth, rather than with wizards or warriors. And of course I’m speaking of Merry as he is in the book, not the juvenile delinquent he is in the films!

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The picture of me accompanying the article was shot very quickly in the Chapin Library’s reading room by a student photographer, and while not bad, isn’t entirely flattering. (Yes, I like bow ties. Bow ties are cool.) There was an alternate, smiling shot, but the Record chose this one. A better photo, taken by Christina at home, appears on my ‘library trading card’.

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