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Alex Lewis

From a ‘magical’ place:
Interview with Alex Lewis

Alex Lewis a writer of fiction, novels and composer of songs. Much of his work is inspired by Tolkien and endued with the spirit of one of the places especially associated with the creator of Middle-earth: Oxford. Alex joined the Tolkien Society in 1976, and was chairman from 1988–92. He founded a writers’ special-interest publication called Nigglings, which contained fiction set within Middle-earth for members of the Society. He has degrees in the sciences and works as a consultant, mostly overseas. Alex has contributed papers to numerous Tolkien seminars and conferences in many countries. Colin Duriez interviewed him for Festival in the Shire Journal about his work, and his passion for fantasy, mythology, ancient lore and languages, where he follows some unusual trails.

Alex, as a native of Oxford, do you think there is something about the place which was conducive to the ideas and literary output of Tolkien and his Inklings friends like C.S. Lewis?

Yes, most definitely. Oxford is one of those ‘magical’ places. Its long history as a place of scholarship as well as focus for both early Norman ruler civil wars, and also the English civil war (where it was a Royalist stronghold) I think makes it very special indeed. The buildings in Oxford are a strange mixture of styles, and the river running through the city lends also to a kind of mystique. Anyone seeing Magdalen bridge wreathed in river mist of an early Spring morning cannot but help imagine such creatures as Barrow wights or Black riders, or the imaginings of the other Inklings. 

Has your Oxford upbringing helped you to understand Tolkien as both scholar and storyteller?

I do believe that Oxford has given me a certain insight in some ways. I was at Magdalen College school when I was young, studying with the river right there nearby, and Magdalen College where C.S. Lewis worked just across the bridge from where I was. The locals also have life breathed into them in a literary sense – one can meet a Sam Gamgee in many places, and he is an Oxford rustic. Some of the Deans and Professors at colleges I have found to be as daunting to a young undergraduate or later graduate, as the likes of Denethor or Gandalf were to Pippin at Minas Tirith. In my own story telling I return to Oxford time and again as a source for what I am trying to write. In my ‘Badger’ quartet for instance, the whole extended story through four volumes is mostly set in and around Oxford city. There is so much to say about Tolkien both as a scholar and a storyteller, and knowing Oxford from both the Town and Gown sides I do believe has assisted me and given me insights. Most importantly we all need remember that Tolkien is an historical figure now, for he died back in 1973, so modern assumptions about his learning, his beliefs and so on need to be tempered with knowledge of the times he lived through.

How did you first encounter Tolkien’s work?

I was lucky enough to be read The Hobbit at primary school at the age of seven by a very good English teacher, who read us a chapter a lesson. From there I had to discover The Lord of the Rings – which I did in the Magdalen College School library at fourteen, and from there I never really looked back.

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“I believe that Einstein once said that the most important thing any scientist can possess is imagination. ”

Your academic and professional background has been in the sciences. How has this experience melded with an interest in fantasy which many hard-headed types regard as mere whimsy?

I believe that Einstein once said that the most important thing any scientist can possess is imagination. I think he was wise in saying that, for so many scientists seem to hold a narrow view of the Universe and are perhaps not humble enough. The sciences are however very useful in the methods by which one carries out research. There is a level of scrupulousness and thoroughness which I employ, and I try and apply the same standards of proof to any theories about Tolkien’s writings that I would to any scientific theorem. Also one is taught not to be too ‘precious’ about a theory. It is just that. You seek information, and if it supports your theory then fine, but if not, you discard the theory. In writing the scholarly books on Tolkien, there have been many moments of inspiration or insight followed by the perspiration that revealed the ideas to be untenable – and so quietly discarded. I hope that perhaps science and scientists could see the value in both science fiction and fantasy – the speculative nature in both is very useful for humanity as a thought experiment, and a way to look at ideas that might at first seem completely ‘whimsical’ but which may hold inherent truths within them of great value to us all. Many scientists hold Tolkien’s works in high regard for the meticulousness of his world building if nothing else.

In collaboration with Elizabeth Currie you’ve embarked upon an ambitious series of analytical studies of Tolkien, the third and latest being The Epic Realm of Tolkien, Part One—Beren and Lúthien (2009). What is the heart of this new book, and how does it relate to the previous and future books?

The Epic Realm of Tolkien seeks to examine the tale of Beren and Lúthien, which is one of the most personal to Tolkien (the names Beren and Lúthien are on their gravestone in Wolvercote cemetary) under the influence of the Matter of Arthur. Elizabeth Currie and I are examining medieval English stories that Tolkien would have been familiar with in our most recent books. We have shown that there are many points of fruitful comparison between the tale of Beren and Lúthien and especially the Welsh Arthurian stories in The Mabinogion. We know that Tolkien had worked on and off for most of his lifetime on what he called The Fall of Arthur, which remains one of the most important as yet unpublished works of Tolkien. There are some extra items of research included in this volume – a very famous dancer in Paris from 1892 onwards who we believe influenced the descriptions of Lúthien’s dancing and some further thoughts regarding ancient Greek linguistic roots to the oldest Elvish language Quenya.

In Forsaken Realm (2005) we compared the Fall of Gondolin to the medieval Trojan legends and stories as told – and nowadays almost completely forgotten. We also began the analysis of the Elvish language Quenya, comparing it to Finnish and finding very few points of similarity both structurally, phonetically, or in meaning. However, a large proportion of Quenya can be successfully compared to ancient Greek – earlier versions of the language than Classical Greek, and it is quite possible that Tolkien was trying to reconstruct the Trojan language, which is believed to be a dialect of the Greek of that time.

Uncharted Realm (2002), our first book, was a multi-subject work. Each chapter or group of chapters was about some aspect of Tolkien’s work: for instance, the use of maps in fantasy, compared to Swift and Burroughs as examples; Feminism and Tolkien’s writings, which Elizabeth Currie ably wrote about; a study of Tom Bombadil and his origins; and an analysis of the genesis of The Lord of the Rings out of the matter of The Hobbit, seeking for the place where Tolkien conceived his ‘Legendarium’.

We are currently working on our next book which will cover the Arthurian material with respect to The Lord of the Rings and Middle earth more generally.

Some may be surprised to learn of the importance of Arthurian matter in Tolkien’s writings, given Tolkien himself seemed to downplay such influence. What has most surprised you in what you’ve discovered?

The surprising thing is how Tolkien has very skilfully utilised (if that is the right way to put it) the Matter of Arthur in his own way. His criticism of it is that it is too fantastical, too repetitive and that it is inherently Christian in intent – often allegorical. Tolkien has effectively made use of some of the themes and stories, taking those parts that he wished to, and creating a new whole that was far more satisfying to him in that it answered the criticisms he voiced and circumvented them. One example would be the way the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend is transformed in various stages into the Arkenstone and also the Silmarils.

You’ve been described as someone ‘who breathes and lives Tolkien’. Over the years you’ve been enormously active in encouraging a full-blooded and wide-ranging understanding of Tolkien’s work, not only in your deeply analytic series of books but through a huge involvement in The Tolkien Society, as Chair for many years and in the the Nigglings which you established. Why has this longstanding involvement in the Tolkien community of fans been so important to you?

The involvement of as many other people is in my mind vital – perhaps I might be proven wrong, but I believe that Tolkien may well be the twentieth century’s equivalent of Shakespeare. It is a bold statement, but I would refer readers to the Uncharted Realm of Tolkien where there is a whole chapter on this subject. If it turns out that Tolkien does grow in importance to that extent, then an intimate knowledge of the times nearest to his own will be invaluable to future scholars in the centuries to come. In that regard the Tolkien Society may provide a very useful historical background to the time in which Tolkien worked and lived. Right now, we are losing the people who knew Tolkien first hand – I am privileged to have met and befriended some of the key people in his life, and count myself very lucky to have had the chance which future generations will not have. The fans are also important to bounce ideas off – to see how they react and respond to new thoughts. Even the most erudite of scholars had to start out as a fan when first reading these works, I feel – so perhaps it is a case of not forgetting one’s roots. So, the more people I can bring to the writings of Tolkien the better, and if they can find something of what inspired me in them, that will be worth the effort of all writers who study Tolkien and write about him and his works.

The inspiration of Tolkien upon your work extends of course into music and fiction. How extensive is your output in these areas, and does it flow naturally from your academic treatment of Tolkien?

My own creative output is quite large (trying to be modest, and failing dismally here) – I have written four song cycles based upon themes from The Silmarillion so far: the Tale of Gondolin, the Children of Húrin, The Flight of the Noldor and (with Ted Nasmith) Beren and Lúthien. There are also many individual songs inspired by Tolkien’s writings. However my song writing does extend beyond Tolkien and the total output is far larger than those works. The same is the case in my orchestral compositions, where I have used themes from my song cycles in some symphonies as a different treatment of the material. My stories are a little more complex. The stories set in Middle-earth are often the result of some scholarly study or paper, and sometimes a story can start off a piece of research too. In the longer novels, I am always aware of Tolkien and the standard of writing that he set – and one rather important factor that some authors do not pay much attention to – the ‘aging’ of a story. If a story is of its time too much, it will be relevant to people of that time, and then turn into an historical curiosity or just be forgotten. I strive to remove all things that ‘date’ my stories wherever I can. I doubt I reach the heights of Tolkien’s own writings, but at least there is a standard to aim for.

What is your attraction to the core stories of The Silmarillion such as the fall of Gondolin and the tale of Beren and Lithium?

I believe that The Silmarillion is the greatest of Tolkien’s works, even if what we have is a mere shadow of what he envisaged. The sheer scope of the drama is quite amazing, and even in the short form that Christopher has presented it (the 1937 QS document, which was a kind of précis) there is a beauty that speaks to me.

Finally, what do you think is the secret of Tolkien’s enormous global popularity?

Tolkien’s humanity comes through above all else – and it is expressed so well in his characters, that people relate to them, even if they are fantastical. His humanity also shines through in his love of nature and the natural world, and so his descriptions are very memorable, and conjure very strong images for those with the spirit to appreciate it. That many do has confirmed Tolkien’s own hopes for his works and the ideals he put into them.

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