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Dimitra Fimi

Tolkien: British at heart? An interview with Dimitra Fimi

“I don’t think I can quantify Tolkien’s Celtic sources in a meaningful way, but I can definitely argue that Celtic influences were part of the shaping of the legendarium right from the beginning.”

Dr Dimitra Fimi has opened up new paths for the study of Tolkien with her explorations of his vast background to The Lord of the Rings in his invented mythology, history and languages of Middle-earth. She lectured at Cardiff University, Wales, and is currently an associate lecturer at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) and for the Open University. She has published a series of articles on Tolkien’s Celtic sources and her recently published book –Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) – has been greeted as an important new contribution to Tolkien studies (see the review by Charles Noad in this issue). Her book addresses key features of Tolkien’s creativity, including the role of linguistic invention in his legendarium. She devotes an important part of it to the importance of the Welsh language in the development of Tolkien’s “linguistic aesthetic”. Dimitra is a Welsh speaker/learner. Colin Duriez interviewed her for Festival in the Shire Journal.

Dimitra, Tolkien has often been taken as refuting “Celtic things” as a source for his own mythology. You’ve taken rather a dramatic turn in Tolkien scholarship by showing how his work has been inspired by Celtic folklore and myth. What led you to your conclusions?

Apart from noticing motifs that were common to Tolkien’s legendarium and medieval Welsh and Irish literature, I was also very intrigued by a selection of Tolkien’s own books that were donated to the library of the English Faculty Library at Oxford University. A great number of these books were on Celtic Studies, not just on Celtic languages and philology but also on medieval Celtic myth and folklore. For example, I was surprised to see that Tolkien owned four different editions of the main source of Welsh myth and legend: the “Mabinogion”!

How did Tolkien himself encourage a downplaying of Celtic influences on his work?

I think this question was very much linked in Tolkien’s mind to his sense of English identity. He started writing what later became The Silmarillion in an effort to create a “mythology for England” which did not have its own body of legends, in contrast to the Celtic heritage of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He did feel very attracted to the Welsh material (at least on a linguistic basis) but his aim was to provide the English with “a mythology of their own”, to re-create the lost Anglo-Saxon mythology. Imagine how annoyed he must have been when he first submitted an early version of The Silmarillion for publication and was told that it felt Celtic! To this we owe two very strong statements by Tolkien, now found in his letters, declaring that his mythology is “not Celtic”! But Celtic-inspired storylines and motifs were already there – as was the Welsh basis of one of the Elvish languages!

Have you found important insights in earlier Tolkien scholarship that helped you form your work on “Celtic” influences?

I was very lucky to attend a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2002, which included a great selection of papers on Tolkien by important scholars such as Tom Shippey and Andrew Wawn. Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland gave a great paper on Tolkien’s conception of the Elves, and referred to the story of the Noldor, comparing it to the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish legend. I had noticed that link when studying Irish medieval texts but Gunnell’s paper gave me an excellent basis to expand my research. Also, I found the work of Jessica Yates on the Celtic sources of Tolkien’s poem “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun” invaluable.

In a way it’s true, isn’t it, that Festival in the Shire celebrates the new perspective on Welshness and “the Celtic” in Tolkien that you’ve helped to champion?

I certainly think that Tolkien’s Welsh/Celtic/Arthurian links need to be addressed in a much more systematic and serious way, and I am sure that the Festival in the Shire will provide an excellent forum for further discussion and exchange of ideas. The fact that it takes place in Wales sets the scene nicely!

How much has your Tolkien scholarship been enriched by your immersion in the Welsh language?

A lot! I started learning Welsh while studying for my PhD, and it gave me a greater understanding of the phonology, grammar and aesthetics of Sindarin. The sounds of Welsh resonate throughout the The Lord of the Rings which is full of names and place names in Sindarin, names with a Welsh flavour.

How did you first become interested in Tolkien’s work?

That’s a story my students always like! You know, of course, that I am Greek, and so I get this question quite a lot!

Well, I was an undergraduate at the University of Athens (studying English) and was also working part-time as a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language). In the summer, I accompanied a group of students to the UK for English language summer courses. I noticed that one of my students was reading a thick green volume with a wizard dressed in green on the cover. It was The Silmarillion in Greek translation! I asked him about the book and he painted a very intriguing picture of an invented world and mythology. Next day I walked straight into a bookshop and bought The Fellowship of the Ring. So, while we were still in the UK, I found myself devouring the book. Later on, back in Greece, I got hold of the next two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I remember having to order them from a main bookstore in Athens, since translated copies were readily available, but it wasn’t that easy to get the text in English.

I suppose what I have always found intriguing in Tolkien’s fiction was the obvious effort to create a coherent mythology, or something very similar to primary, or “real” mythologies (Classical mythology was, of course, very much a part of my heritage and a lifelong interest), and that’s what triggered my first research questions that later led to my PhD.

How much is the development of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle-earth—his legendarium—shaped by “Celtic” influences? Among the “Celtic” influences on Tolkien’s writings, how much of a part is played by Welsh language and mythology?

I don’t think I can quantify Tolkien’s Celtic sources in a meaningful way, but I can definitely argue that Celtic influences were part of the shaping of the legendarium right from the beginning.

The Welsh language was there from the 1920s as the basis of the invented language called then Gnomish or Goldogrin, and later Sindarin. In “The Book of Lost Tales” (the earliest version of what later became The Silmarillion), the Irish legend of the Tuatha Dé Danann already played an important role as an inspiration for the tragic story of the Gnomes’s (later the Noldor Elves) departure from Valinor (one of whom turned out to be Galadriel as the legendarium evolved). The idea of Valinor itself, of an Otherworld in the West, is also associated with Celtic material, particularly the Irish legend of St. Brendan (which Tolkien used also in his unfinished novel The Lost Road). The story of Beren and Lúthien, one of the “great tales” of the mythology, uses a strong Celtic motif: the love of a fairy woman and a mortal man, and it has been often compared with the tale of “Culwch and Olwen” from the Welsh Mabinogion.

To sum up: I would say that there is an unbroken sequence of Celtic elements sneaking into Middle-earth throughout the evolution of the legendarium, whether intentionally or not.

One branch of Tolkien’s invented Elvish is inspired of course by the Welsh language and therefore, for Tolkien, by the myths which shaped it. How does this relate to the other branch, inspired by Finnish and therefore having a northern influence? Does Tolkien in his creations succeed in finding a deep affinity between the two branches of influence?

Tolkien’s invented languages are a fascinating topic on their own right! But you are right to point out that they can be seen as a symbol of the coming together of the Northern (Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Finnish) elements and the Celtic influences of Tolkien’s legendarium. I am not sure how intentional this was originally, but I think that Tolkien definitely saw the blending of the two traditions as positive and mutually enriching by the time he had finished The Lord of the Rings.

What have you discovered about Tolkien’s changing attitude to Welsh and the “Celtic” as his writings about Middle-earth and its mythology developed?

All the clues to this change of attitude can be found in Tolkien’s 1955 O’Donnell lecture “English and Welsh”. He talks there about being “British at heart” and he praises the Welsh language, calling it “beautiful” and describing it as “the senior language” of Britain. The essay is long, and donnish and challenging but it is a treat to read, especially the really moving last few pages!

How would you sum up your book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History? Was the sheer variety and extent of Tolkien’s unfinished “The Silmarillion” daunting in trying to provide such an overview?

My book is an exploration of how Tolkien’s legendarium evolved, and how its evolution is linked with Tolkien’s own life and the historical period he lived in. The book is divided into three main parts. Part I looks at the beginnings of Tolkien’s creative vision – his romantic ideas about spirituality and national identity, his project for a “mythology for England”, and the tie-in of his early work with that of other late Victorian and Edwardian writers, painters and poets: with a special focus on the fairies (yes, the Elves were fairies originally!). Part II follows the creation of Tolkien’s invented languages and links this process with the vogue for artificial and international languages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Esperanto – which Tolkien had studied – Ido, Volapuk, and tens of others). I also compared Tolkien’s languages with sound experiments and poetic ideal languages that had started interesting the literary avant-garde at the time. The third and last part of the book concerns the later, more mature phase of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which he developed after the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. By then his project had evolved from a “mythology for England” to pseudo-history. He now conceived Middle-earth as a “proto-prehistoric” era of Europe. At the same time, World War II made him think again about “race” and war, and question many of his ideas and concepts. My book discusses these concerns including race and ethnicity in Tolkien’s conception of Middle-earth, as well as the way Tolkien created and visualised the material cultures of the several peoples of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

Well, you asked for an overview of my book, which is an overview of the development of the legendarium, so there!

How did you manage to weave together the internal development of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle-earth, and external developments in his personal life and historical context?

With a lot of research, including field trips to libraries and archives! For example, when I was looking into the echoes of Peter Pan in the earliest versions of Tolkien’s mythology, I followed up my leads via a fieldtrip to Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up, and managed to discover which performance of Peter Pan Tolkien had seen aged 18 in 1910, read contemporary reviews, and even found photographs from the performance.

Which previous Tolkien studies have been most helpful to you?

I will have to start with the classics: Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth and Author of the Century; Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light, A Question of Time, and Interrupted Music; Douglas A. Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit, and Brian Rosebury’s Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. Carpenter’s Biography is still unsurpassed, but Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War was a revelation, as was Hammond and Skull’s Chronology. Finally, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (edited by M.C. Drout) features some great entries, including the best scholarship on Tolkien’s invented languages.

Many dismiss the published The Silmarillion as unreadable or at best incoherent. How would you describe its literary qualities that account for its shape, which is so different from what readers might expect when turning to it from The Lord of the Rings?

This sounds like the topic of another book to me, so I won’t attempt a lengthy answer/discussion! I know that The Silmarillion can be daunting, but it does pay off. May I suggest to your readers a possible way into it? Try its earliest version, The Book of Lost Tales, found in the first two volumes of The History of Middle-earth edited by Christopher Tolkien. You will find a very different Tolkienian voice there, and I am sure it will intrigue you to have another go at The Silmarillion!