The 'Tolkien Professor': Corey Olsen

Feb 10, 2011

Corey Olsen, a Washington College professor who is known as "The Tolkien Professor" thanks to his popular "How to Read Tolkien and Why" podcast, will be online Thursday, Feb. 10, at 10 a.m.

He will discuss how his approach breaks from the traditional, what his classes are like, and anything else you want to know about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Good morning!  This is Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor.  I'm happy to take your questions today.

Why do you think Tolkien has endured so well over the years? What is it about his work that appeals to such a wide variety of audiences, particularly young people?

The greatest strength of Tolkien's work, in my opinion, is his success at creating stories which are truly mythic in their impact on readers.  Tolkien believed that a myth was a special kind of story that resonates with people in a deep way, and his own stories have many elements that I think really hit people this way, despite the fact that the style of the stories is so unusual for modern readers.

Why should I read Tolkien? I like to read, but I admit the general topics of Tolkien books don't really appeal to me. Yet, I am willing to give Tolkien a chance. What should I know before I begin to read Tolkien?

You should go into it with a recognition that it will not necessarily give you what a lot of modern readers look for in a novel.  If you are willing to be open-minded about the fantasy frame of the story and allow yourself to invest in the story and explore Tolkien's fictional world imaginatively, I think you will find it rewarding.

Who is your favorite Tolkien character?

Sam Gamgee, hands down.  Sam is the real hero of the Lord of Rings (in my opinion) -- the exemplar of all of the virtues that matter most in Tolkien's books.  I'm a huge Sam fan.

Though Tolkien at times denied it, do you think the events of World War II, including Nazi Germany, influenced Tolkien's writings consciously or subconsciously?

What he denied was the idea that the books were an allegory of WWII, in the "Sauron = Hitler and the Ring = the Bomb" sense.  He never denies that his own experiences of wartime and his reactions to his contemporary political situation influenced him; they inevitably do.

What did you think of Peter Jackson's trilogy?

I like it a lot.  The film adaptations are, of course, adaptations -- that means they are different stories, and we shouldn't even expect them to be the same.  So I don't go into them expecting Tolkien's books in a visual form.  The stories that Jackson tells, though they are different stories, are very good, and even when I don't especially like some of the differences between them, it still serves to bring out some interesting things about Tolkien's stories by comparison.  I'm very glad the films were made, and were done so well.

When did you first read one of his books? Did you know you were hooked right away, or did you come back to him later in life?

I first read The Hobbit when I was about 8, and I did love it right away.  I read the LOTR not too long after that.  I scarcely remember a time when Tolkien's books were not part of my reading and awareness.  The Silmarillion, however, took a couple tries.  I tried to read it when I was about 12, and swiftly abandoned it; it wasn't until high school that I finally got through it.  This, it seems, happens to many people.

My recollection is that most of the lands of Middle Earth are essentially monarchical; men (Gondor, Rohan), elves, dwarfs, and the creatures of Mordor were all ruled by kings or lords. I don't recall a hobbit king, however. How was the hobbits' government organized? Were there any democracies in Middle Earth?

The Shire is a kind of democracy.  There is a hereditary Thane, but it is a "nominal dignity."  The officer of the Shire is the Mayor, who is elected and who serves a seven-year term (Sam Gamgee will be mayor for 49 years later in life).  But the Shire, by and large, functions for practical purposes as an enlightened anarchy.

Tolkien designed an expansive pantheon of gods and a detailed creation story as a backdrop for his stories. But almost nowhere in the four main novels (excluding the Simarillion) is any notion of those gods, or religion period. I've read that Tolkien himself was a religious man, seems odd that religion would be excluded.

He was being consistent with his frame, which he was always careful to do.  This is ancient history, and God, though present in the books, has not been revealed in any systematic way.  Some of the Elves know of him, but the humans and hobbits do not, generally.  However, the themes and ideas of Tolkien's books are pervasively Christian.

Like you, I am generally fascinated by Tolkein. Who do you think is a comparable author/creator (past or present)?

Well, he is often paired, for very good reason, with his friend CS Lewis.  The two of them have very similar ideas and convictions about storytelling, myth, and fantasy, though their approaches to discussing Christianity and their writing styles are very different.  Tolkien was an unusual kind of writer; the extent and the nature of his learning (philology and old literary traditions), his theories and convictions about fantasy and myth, and his spiritual life all combine to make him unique in my experience.  I'm not saying there are no writers as good, but I don't think there is anyone quite like him.

Good morning; I had not realized Oxford doesn't think much of Tolkien's work and I was surprised. I can't recall a better descriptive first paragraph in anything I've read than in The Hobbit--you know everything you need to know about Hobbits, creatures you've never met before, just from that first paragraph alone. Tolkien set the stage for all "medieval" fantasy to follow. How can this work be so minimized as an art form?

Mostly because people don't accept fantasy as a legitimate art form.  By the time Tolkien wrote, fantastic literature and fairy stories had been firmly classified as "children's books" for generations.  It seemed silly or even embarrassing to be asked to take them seriously as adults.  The situation now is similar, though the tone has changed.  Fantasy writing has gained enough of an acceptance that adults read them, but those adults who do are still put into a social subcategory (geeks), and not taken seriously by "normal" people.  It is a sad prejudice.

Tolkien designed an entire pantheon of gods and creation mythos, but religion played almost no role in his novels. No priestly caste, no temples in the cities, the characters themselves did not refer to or discuss anything religious based. Why go through the trouble of creating all that and not incorporate it into your books?

I answered the "no outward religion" question already, but I'll add something here in response to the point about not incorporating what he had.  Tolkien had worked out his mythology and the legends of the Elder Days (the stuff later published after his death as The Silmarillion) long before the LOTR was published.  Both The Hobbit and the LOTR are strongly influenced by these legends, and allusions to them keep creeping in.  He didn't talk about them more because he didn't want to digress within his other stories, though we still get some fairly long digressions, such as Aragorn's song of the story of Beren and Luthien, or Bilbo's song of Earendil the Mariner.  He wasn't trying to conceal anything though; he wanted to publish those other writings, but was not able to do so during his lifetime.

A relative of mine who's been a Tolkein super-geek since middle school, expressed the view that the Peter Jackson film series was probably the best adaptation ever of a novel (or group) that had so many multiple convergent story lines. Whereas many times fans of a novel believe the filmmakers missed the whole point or added irrelevances, Jackson made exactly the films they should have been. Previous attempts to create a Ring film had failed at the scriptwriting stage. Do you agree?

I certainly agree that these adaptations are the best film adaptations of the LOTR that exist, and that they are very good movies.  It is always possible to nitpick and make a list of things that we would have done differently if we had been in charge of the films.  I have no illusions, though: most likely, any changes I would suggest would have made the movies worse, even if closer to Tolkien's themes.  For me, the greatest triumph of the films is visual -- the landscapes, costuming, and scenery are often simply perfect.

I'm currently reading the trilogy for the fourth time in about 25 years, and like so many others, am enjoying it with increasing clarity. Purists may argue that LOTR appearing in other forms, such as the cartoons in the 1970s, and Peter Jackson's trilogy in the last decade pall in comparison to the novels, but I'd like to offer that despite their variance from the books, these different vehicles help create a clearer picture of who is who and what is going on to the casual reader. My current reading the trilogy comes after playing the multiplayer online game for some months, and am impressed, in retrospect, by how many small details the game caught in creating a digital verison of Tolkien's world, from both the trilogy and snippets I remember from my one reading of the Simarillion. Conversely, I also realized it gives me a greater appreciation for the depth of detail Tolkien went into crafting this world, even if I didn't recognize it until I saw it through a different medium.

Yes, exactly!  Even in places where the films, or the game, deviates, it serves to draw attention to some cool things going on the books.  And, although I have not yet played LOTRO, I have a lot of respect for it.  I think that that is a very interesting medium for exploration of Tolkien's works and world, and I give enormous credit to the game designers for the careful and thoughtful work that they have done. 

What did you think of the casting of the Trilogy? I thought it was very well done. Christopher Lee looking amazing for his age; John Noble is a fantastic actor (seen him in Fringe?); how they made John Rhys-Davies and the Hobbits look so small is not to be believed, especially JR-D as Gimli. Why are there so few women? I understand Arwen's part was very much expanded over the book. Did Eowyn & Faramir marry? Do elves marry? Are Legolas, Galadriel, & Arwen related?

That's a lot of questions!  I did in general like the casting in the trilogy very much.  I can't think of anyone who really struck me as a major deviation from the character in the books.  I guess the only one I would question is the casting of that giant flaming eyeball as Sauron.  I think they should have kept the auditions running a bit longer, there.

It is hard to answer why there are so few women.  For that we'd need to get inside Tolkien's head, which we can't do.  I would only say that I think the number can be misleading, if that's all we pay attention to.  Tolkien's women are few, but very significant, and almost always strong, powerful people. 

Yes, Eowyn and Faramir marry.  Yes, elves marry.  Galadriel is Arwen's grandmother (Elrond married Galadriel's daughter), but neither are related to Legolas.

During the year, there are festivals in Wales celebrating Tolkien. From what I read, the culture and language of Wales is a large source of inspiration. I was wondering if you have had a chance to attend one of these? And if such an experience could help someone build some depth in appreciating Tolkien? I am hoping to talk my wife into going over there for a visit this fall.

I did speak at the Festival in the Shire over in Wales last summer, which was a lot of fun.  Welsh was a linguistic influence; Sindarin Elvish is modelled on it.  Going to Wales was fun, therefore, because though I couldn't read the street signs (in Welsh), I could pronounce them, and they looked strangely familiar.  And the landscape is very Shire-like.  I can't say what precise insights you might get, but Wales is certainly a wonderful place to visit.

One of the complaints Tolkien often heard is that Lord of the Rings was too short. Do you think that Tolkien ever thought of revising to make the Lord of the Rings longer?

I bet his publishers thought he was having them on when he said that.  The book was so long (well over 1000 pages) that they made him split it up into the three separate volumes, or it would have been so expensive no one would have bought it.  Tolkien never stopped tinkering with things, and he did add bits or retell and expand certain episodes and work out certain backstories.  You can find some of these in books like Unfinished Tales, or the History of Middle-Earth series.  But I don't think he planned to actually rework the LOTR itself.

Why does Cirdan have a beard when no other elf is described as having one?

Great question!  I have no idea.  His beard seems to be included to indicate his great age.  He is one of the most ancient of the Elves, and he is also described as "grey and old," which is also very unique among descriptions of Elves.  Tolkien is obviously trying to convey how venerable and ancient he is, but I myself don't understand why he alone is bearded and visibly old.

The blurbs on the backs of many fantasy books often compare the author to Tolkien. What present day author do you feel comes closest to Tolkien's style?

To his style?  Gosh -- no one, but I think that's because most editors wouldn't have any patience with Tolkien's style if he submitted his books to a publisher today.  George R.R. Martin is often mentioned as an author whose works have something of the depth of Tolkien's works, and I kind of agree.  The spirit and style of Martin's books are very different, and I don't find them nearly as interesting to think about on a thematic level.  Martin is an excellent world-builder, though.

I understand that Tolkien vehemently denied any allegorical intent, but I have difficulty not seeing the tale as definitely allegorical. Your thoughts?

I think the problem here is that Tolkien and most modern readers mean different things by the word "allegory."  He meant a story in which the characters and events merely stand for other things, such as the silly WWII allegories that people suggested after the LOTR was published.  However, his denial of allegory in no way implies that there is nothing "under" his stories.  They certainly have meaning which can be interpreted; they do contain metaphors which point to abstract ideas.  He just didn't like people trying to decode his stories and them chuck them out.

In your opinon what would Tolkien have thought of the latest LOTR movies? What would he have said they got right and wrong? I'm sure he would have liked the Ents.

That's hard to say.  From reading his letters, I'd have to say that I have a hard time imagining Tolkien loving the films.  He was very exacting and would have objected to many things, I'm sure.  Also, he was not a big fan of the translation of written stories to visual media, but it is hard to think what he would have thought of modern film technology, which was scarcely imaginable, even back in the early 70's when he died.

I actually doubt he'd have like the Ents.  The Ents in the films are on the short list of things I'd personally have done differently.  I sometimes joke that if the characters of the LOTR were real people, there are ony two of them whom I would recommend should sue Peter Jackson for defamation: Treebeard and Faramir. 

Do you think there are any gay characters presented in Middle Earth?

I do not.  Honestly, I don't think that this was something that was much on Tolkien's radar screen.  He did, however, care very much about friendships and the bonds that form between same-sex friends.  He was working from a long tradition of literature and thought that take friendship way more seriously than we do in the modern world.  But those relationships certainly did not have, in his mind, any sexual component.

Do you find your colleagues to be supportive of your interests or dismissive? What were the responses like from students and professors while you were a student? I am often frustrated in workshops when people sneer and say "Oh, I never read fantasy!" Do you have a response to people who are dismissive of Tolkien and fantasy in general?

Some of both.  Times are, to some extent, changing, but the modern world and the mainstream worldview is still hostile to fantasy in general.  I hear your frustration.  What I hear when people express their aversion for fantasy is usually something that sounds like "I don't like to have my own little boat rocked; I don't want to think about anything other than the normal, mundane world around me."  It reminds me of the people in Plato's analogy of the Cave -- he really nailed it, there.

When they were trying to save Merry and Pippin from the Orcs, the "Riders" caught up with them first and defeated them. But what if they had caught the Orcs? What could three do against that band?

You know, I always wished they did.  There is a precedent -- in the SIlmarillion, one character is captured by orcs and his friend, in this case a single elf alone, tracks the orcs down, shoots their sentries in the dark, sneaks into their camp and rescues his friend.  It doesn't end well, but the orcs don't turn out to be the problem.  I think that would have been a fantastic scene, but alas....

I'm a fellow Williams grad ( well as a former student of Verlyn Flieger, and I squeaked an article on Tolkien and Modernism into the Journal of Tolkien studies in '05). But I missed most of the medieval courses there. I'd be interested to hear how your time there influenced you. And did Wayne Hammond (another connection: an old boss of mine) have any impact for you?

Well, I took everything Sherron Knopp and John Kleiner offered, and they really built my own enthusiasm for medieval stuff, which has been driving me through my whole career.  Hammond has inspired me a great deal, but only after the fact.  It is one of the ironies of my life to recognize that I lived for four years in the same town with one of the great Tolkien scholars in the world, and I never even knew it at the time.  All that time lost!  Flieger is wonderful, too -- one of the best scholars and best all-around people that I know of in the Tolkien field.  I love her work.

There are many more of your questions I would love to answer, but unfortuantely I have to run to class (Greek mythology this morning -- the story of Theseus!).  Thank you for all of your excellent questions.  If you'd still like an answer, try my Tolkien Professor Facebook page, which I visit pretty frequently.  I also do audio call-in sessions on Skype; I will announce the times of those on the Facebook page and my Twitter feed @tolkienprof.



In This Chat
Corey Olsen
Recent Chats
  • Next: