The Worlds of Middle-Earth: The Millions Interviews Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine

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Beginning with The Silmarillion in 1977, and ending with The Fall of Gondolin in 2018, Christopher Tolkien edited and published 25 books of his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Shepherding J.R.R’s mostly unpublished writings about Middle-earth into the literary canon, Christopher deepened public appreciation of J.R.R.’s elaborate world-building, especially during the eras before those described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Thanks to his diligent efforts as his father’s literary executor, Christopher was awarded the Bodley Medal in 2016, “for his outstanding contribution to the world of literature.”

In The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, Richard Ovenden, who serves as Bodley’s Librarian, the senior Executive position of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, and Catherine McIlwaine, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries, have assembled a remarkable anthology about Christopher, who died in 2020. Though originally planned as a festschrift, the book’s scope is both vast and intimate, including memories from Christopher’s sister Priscilla, a eulogy delivered at his funeral by a close friend, literary essays from Tolkien scholars, and an examination of a lost BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from the 1950s (J.R.R. himself rewrote narration and dialogue for the production, the only known adaptation with which Tolkien himself was involved). I spoke with Ovenden and McIlwaine about The Great Tales Never End, and Christopher’s work to preserve and expand upon his famous father’s legacy.

Lenny Picker: What personal memories of Christopher Tolkien are your most vivid?

Richard Ovenden: I had the good fortune of visiting him at least once a year for about 10 years. Staying in the house, having long conversations. He looked quite like his father. I never knew J.R.R. Tolkien, but Christopher’s memory of Oxford really was quite profound. He was born there, grew up there, and lived there for many decades. But his memory of it is really kind of frozen in about the middle of the 1970s, when the family moved to France. And so having a conversation with Christopher about Oxford was like having one about the Oxford of when J.R.R. Tolkien was still alive. So it seemed to me almost like you were talking to J.R.R. Tolkien. And because he had this immense knowledge of his father’s work and his mentality, there was that sort of connection. Christopher also had a very great sense of humor—a very, very dry sense of humor. And he was a very funny human being. He also was a great reader; he loved reading fiction, Victorian fiction, in particular, Dickens, Trollope, were a great source of pleasure for him. So he was a very literary person, not just in his own field of scholarship.

Catherine McIlwaine: I didn’t know him personally as well as Richard did. I only accompanied Richard once to Christopher’s home in the south of France, but it was a very memorable occasion, as you can imagine. We had some business talk, and then we had a lovely meal outside—cheese and bread and wine, just a simple, beautiful meal, really like we’d had a Hobbit feast. We walked around the grounds, and Christopher talked about the difficulty of reading his father’s handwriting, and how some of it remained impenetrable. Most of it—with patience and by developing a familiarity with the handwriting—he was able to decipher. And that really chimed with me because, of course, a lot of my work as the Tolkien archivist is reading Tolkien’s handwriting, and he could write so beautifully, and so calligraphically. But when he was writing really fast, and the ideas were just coming out of his head and he was scrawling in pencil, particularly, it becomes awful, just like a string of squiggles. So I really felt that we had some connection in our daily lives from that shared experience.

LP: Richard, how would you summarize Christopher’s role in both preserving and enhancing his father’s legacy?

RO: When J.R.R.Tolkien died, he had published only a fraction of what he had actually written about the worlds of Middle-earth. There were a series of legends which were left in unfinished form in manuscripts, which Christopher then edited and brought into publication. The first of these was The Silmarillion, and that was then followed by The Unfinished Tales, and then the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-Earth. It’s a massive achievement, really. And that breadth of detail which Christopher’s edited works bring to the world of Middle-earth would have never appeared if he hadn’t taken on this labor—and it was a labor that really lasted 50 years. And that was brought about through his painstaking scholarship. He was a scholar of Middle English. He lectured and taught at Oxford and brought that erudition and that scholarly rigor to the manuscripts of his father, as if they were Middle English manuscripts that had been written on parchment 600 years ago. He gave up his academic career to do that. He’d been very successful in Oxford for about 10 or 12 years as a lecturer, as well as a fellow. So he gave that up and just dedicated himself to the editorial work. But I don’t think he ever saw that as a loss. Quite the opposite. It was a fantastic opportunity for him to dedicate himself to providing, the most faithful editorial versions he could. And in his nineties, he produced his father’s edition of Beowulf. So there’s not just the literary works related to Middle-earth, but something which scholars had never thought would see the light of day—one of the greatest scholars of medieval literature of the twentieth century’s edition of Beowulf, one of the most important works in literature. And Christopher finally bringing it to the public in a meticulous edition, while in his nineties—I mean, what an incredible achievement.

LP: Catherine, was there anything from the contributions to this volume which changed your understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work?

CM: I do feel like I have a much greater understanding now of Christopher’s role in his father’s work—from his childhood, sitting on a stool and listening to tales,  right through to not just his editorial work on his father’s writings, but, as some of the essays in this volume note, creative work in collaboration with his father. There’s a lovely phrase in the eulogy in the book by Maxine Pascal, who was a family friend—she says Christopher served as “a creative companion.” I thought that was a really lovely sort of description of that relationship between Christopher and his father. There was a lot in this book that is thought-provoking. I particularly liked Vincent Ferré’s essay, “The Son Behind The Father: Christopher Tolkien as a Writer,” for making you think about which parts Christopher might have contributed himself, rather than just rearranging words on the page.

And I always found the ending of The Lord of the Rings quite disappointing. I do love that book, but when you get to the end and Samwise says, “Well, I’m back” [the last words in the published The Lord of the Rings], that feels like you missed a step or something. And Verlyn Flieger’s essay “Listening To The Music” brings to the fore that there was more to the book that Tolkien had written, and that that wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It was supposed to end with, “Sam heard suddenly the sigh and murmur of the sea on the shores of Middle-earth.” And that was a link back to the creation of the world, and the Music of the Ainur [immortal spirits existing before the Creation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology] in the waves. And that just changed my whole approach to the ending of The Lord of the Rings, which is lovely because I’ve read it, you know, probably every year of my adult life. And that scholarship changed my way of thinking about it.

The Original Search Engine

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In Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, University College London lecturer in English Dennis Duncan dives deeply into a humble feature of modern books. The index’s existence is both taken for granted and the essential precursor to the ubiquitous search engines that govern life today.
His dogged research traces how the index developed over centuries, following the necessary prerequisite of the innovation of page numbers, and evolved from the simple listing of names in biblical concordances into the much more subjective subject index that eventually produced the search terms we now type into Google.
Lenny Picker: How did this book originate?
Dennis Duncan: I did a Ph.D. on a group called the Oulipo, a French avant-garde collective from the second half of the 20th century. A few years ago, I’m still thinking about the Oulipo, and it struck me that several of their novels have indexes. And I thought I might do an academic article on that—what is it about the way that this group of mathematicians and writers think about narrative that means that very often they play with having indexes for their novels? As I started to plan this, I thought, I just need to look up some things about the history of the index, when did novels stop having indexes, and so on. And as I asked around, I’d say, “Well, where’s the standard history of the index?” None of my colleagues knew. And it became apparent that there wasn’t one, that nobody had written it before. I was still quite fresh from my Ph.D, still had this sort of slightly utopian idea that all the great reference books had already been written, you just have to ask which one to use. So there was a gap there, and I thought, right, well, we need that.  That coincided with this sense, yes, something is changing about the way that we search, whether it’s searching books in class on a Kindle, or whether it’s searching for information on Google.
LP: How did the final book differ from that starting point?
DD: Well, it was going to be an academic book. I got a grant to spend three years in Oxford, and then a year in Cambridge, and all the time, I thought, this would be a very niche book, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. And I thought it would come out with a university press. And I thought that it would be very dry. This will be a very bibliographic history of the index, for a very small coterie of academic nerds. And I published a little bit of it in the Times Literary Supplement. And it went online on a Wednesday afternoon. And that afternoon, my inbox pinged and it was a publisher saying, I liked your thing about indexes, is it from a book? And about 20 minutes later, another publisher pinged. So suddenly, I realized that people were interested in this, and my niche dry academic idea for the book might might need to change a bit, and might there might be a way of making this interesting for a wider audience? So I took the same research essentially, and kind of rewrote it to just to make this more accessible, highlight some of the personalities, people like Robert Grosseteste [a 13th-century poet, statesman, mathematician, and religious reformer], or William Poole, in America in the 19th century [who produced An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals]. There are a few moments in this book where I introduce myself, here’s what my research looked like, here I was sitting in a library looking at a manuscript. I wouldn’t put that in an academic book, because you assume that your colleagues all know what that looks like. But it’s interesting for other people who don’t work in this field, what’s it look like to sit in a library with a map, people bring you a manuscript, you hand it back to them at the end. What does it look like to suddenly have an experience of, Oh, my God, this manuscript is making me cry. It’s the same research, but there’s just a little bit more, of showing my work, what it’s like to be a historian, and allowing some of the characters to have a bit more space.
LP: What was the hardest part of writing it?
DD: Losing bits. If you meet an indexer, now, nine times out of 10, they’re a woman. If we were 150 years ago, and you met a professional indexer, they would almost certainly be a man. And that switch happens instantly in 1894, when a woman called Nancy Bailey opens an indexing agency in London, and starts training women. Women were excluded from most areas of employment. And she says, “Okay, well, we have a new thing called the secretarial agency, maybe we could do the same for indexes, women could be allowed to become indexers,” and she trains women indexers. As other people, then, open their own indexing agencies, it’s always advertised as these are jobs for women. So in the middle of the 1890s, suddenly, it switches. And I wrote a chapter on that, that I think is important, I think it tells a story that’s relevant, but it didn’t fit in the narrative. I have a sort of movement from the 19th century to the digital era. And Nancy Bailey sat between those as sort of an interruption to the narrative. And my editor said, and I agreed with her, “I’m afraid Nancy’s got to go, this is great, this is important, but it also smashes up the natural arc of the story you’re telling.” So that was the hardest thing for me, the sort of kill your darlings.
LP: From all the things that you researched, what led you to say, “Wow, I didn’t expect that”?
DD: I think the book has been presented as having a hook, which is that the index is something that we use every day, the Internet, Google. This is why this book is relevant—because this is the age of search; Google is an index. I didn’t know that when I started writing. When I started the book, I thought it was going to be just a history of book indexes. And it was at some point further on, when I already knew I was going to write a history of book indexes that I came across a Google engineer saying, “You know what, Google is actually an index.” Oh, my God, I’ve got to use that. Suddenly, suddenly, this is much more relevant than the sort of dusty book on medieval indexes that I’d envisioned, because it really gives the book currency, it gives it a hook. Why should we be interested in this? And I go, well, because Google, but I didn’t know that I was going to say that until at some point in the research, I thought We live in the age of search, how did we get here? So that’s what I say now. But that wasn’t what it was going to be.
LP: Apart from discussing indexes, you go into how reading has evolved, and the notion that you can’t say that there’s one proper way to read something. Can you talk about balancing the notion that people have always been worried that a certain technological development is going to change reading for the worse, with feeling that there is some basis for alarm about the impact of search engines?
DD: That’s a really good question. Balance is the right answer. I feel that people have always worried about reading. At the same time, I do worry that I look at my mobile phone too much, and I have the same anxieties as everyone. But I did, from quite an early point in writing, want to engage with that Nicholas Carr idea of “is Google making us stupid?” and with the guilt that we feel about reading or whether we are reading properly. Well, historically, that’s a mistake. I talk about this in the opening chapter of the book that reading is an umbrella term for a whole collection of different activities, that the attention that you bring to reading an email, or tweet, or a map, or a street sign, or restaurant menu, or a newspaper, or a novel, or a book like mine, are all very different, they all take up different kinds of economies of attention. And to say, nobody reads properly anymore, is a mistake, all of these different modes of reading evolved at different times in response to different problems, different technological ecosystems, different economies of leisure. People didn’t do very much reading at all in the 17th century, or the only people who did were the people who were moneyed enough to have leisure. So reading  is not a stable thing. Reading is a whole variety of different things.  At the same time you speak of balance. That isn’t to say that I don’t worry myself about how I found over the pandemic, like a lot of people, that I find it harder. I still need to read a lot for work, because because it’s my job. But I need to go through the gears; I feel like a sort of pianist who hasn’t practiced their scales for a few months. And I’ve become good at grazing, grazing tweets, good at grazing news articles, but getting back at the start of term into being able to read a Ph.D. chapter or a novel, or things like that has taken some practice. So I have the same anxieties.