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The Douglas Anderson Interview
Corey Olsen

CO:  Your Annotated Hobbit is one of the classics of Tolkien scholarship, supplying Hobbit readers with a wealth of background material and information about Tolkien’s book.  What would you say is the one thing that you most wish more people knew or appreciated about The Hobbit?

DA: I can’t say that there is any one such thing. I do wish that more critical attention was paid to what Tolkien accomplished in The Hobbit.  This book is the focal point where much of what is great about Tolkien came together for the first-time—his storytelling for his children, his invented mythology, his artwork, his poetry, and—not insignificantly—his prose style, which grows and crescendos in the book. Brian Rosebury in his otherwise fine book Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (2003) gives The Hobbit short shrift, and essentially dismisses it as “an indispensable rehearsal” for The Lord of the Rings, and Verlyn Flieger is also on record as not liking The Hobbit very much. I am with her completely in admiring The Lord of the Rings much more, but I think she, and some other critics, dismiss too easily what Tolkien achieved in The Hobbit because it is much more compelling to assess his larger achievement in The Lord of the Rings

CO: How did The Annotated Hobbit come about?  What were your goals in writing it?

DA: The impetus for the first edition was the work I was doing on Tolkien’s revisions to the text of The Hobbit.  I had photocopied five relevant editions of the book, and pasted the pages next to each other on some one foot by four foot sheets. And I read the texts across, using highlighters and colored inks to note what was changed in each edition.  The idea then was to suggest doing a variorum Hobbit, but when I’d done the work, I realized that there weren’t enough changes to justify a variorum edition.  That was in 1987, and since the 50th anniversary of the American publication of The Hobbit was coming the next year, I suggested to the American publisher the idea of an annotated edition with the textual notes as a basis.  Thus the textual notes appear in the rear of the 1988 edition of The Annotated Hobbit.  I changed this arrangement in the 2002 edition and incorporated the revisional notes in with the rest of the annotations.

After the first edition was published in 1988, I started keeping files to hold relevant material at hand whenever I might be allowed to do a new edition.  And by the time that came about in 2001, the files were pretty thick.  Similarly, I started a new set of files in 2002, but I don’t know when they might be utilized.  There were leaps and jumps in the scholarship on Tolkien between 1987 and 2001, and what I attempted to do in The Annotated Hobbit was to take a characteristic Tolkien text—in this case, obviously, The Hobbit—and approach it from all angles in an attempt to show, by accumulation of detail, a bit of how Tolkien’s mind worked.  Since 2002, there has been even more Tolkien scholarship, but it’s been more in the nature of refining what we’ve already learned, and filling in the details here and there.  I do have some growing folders full of material for a future revision, but I think most of these are along the lines of nuance—the filling in of more details and context.  I would like to add an Index to the book at some point.  Soon after the 2002 edition was published, a reader wrote me and asked why there wasn’t one.  I answered, truthfully, that putting in an index had never occurred to me or to the publisher.  But I soon saw the point.  There are a lot of details in the annotations, and even when you know that somewhere in the book there is something about Tolkien’s friend and colleague Helen Buckhurst, or a bit about Owen Barfield, these can be very time-consuming to locate.  Even for me, as my memory has dimmed over where anything is in the book.  So I’ll be glad to add an index whenever I’m permitted.   

CO:  Many people have been talking about the new Hobbit films that will soon be going into production down in New Zealand.  As a Hobbit expert, what do you think will be the biggest challenging in translating The Hobbit to film?

DA:  Obviously that depends on the attitudes of the film-makers, and how true to Tolkien’s words they want to be.  The real problem in creating a film from any novel is how faithful the screenplay is to the characters—not necessarily to the plot.  Usually there needs to be a lot of cutting of incident, for the simple fact of what can fit into a two-to-three hour film. So the cutting of episodes, and a general compression of plot, is inevitable. The more difficult aspect is in remaining true to the characters.  This is the point where I think that Peter Jackson failed in his three films of The Lord of the Rings.  Gimli and the two lesser Hobbits are reduced to comic effects.  Gandalf is turned unnecessarily paternalistic.  Aragorn and Faramir are diminished in order to have on-screen choices.  Elrond is made one-dimensional, and Denethor laughable.  One of the things Jackson did right was to cast mostly unknown people in the roles—but this is a luxury that Guillermo del Toro will not have.  Once a movie is successful, then there is the added burden of continuity in any other related films.  With that comes a dimension of audience expectation, and of the film-makers winking at the audience.  I mean not only the recasting of the same actors, but of the filling in of parts not in the book that wink knowingly at the audience. Aragorn does not appear in The Hobbit, but according to the chronologies he was living in Rivendell as a boy of about ten at the time Bilbo passed through on his adventure.  You know that there will be some kind of insertion by the filmmakers of Aragorn into The Hobbit, just as Legolas, also nowhere mentioned in The Hobbit, will get some kind of nod during the scenes which take place in the realm of his father the Elvenking.  These gestures pull the audience outside of the film—drawing attention to themselves as the empty gestures that they are, and I think they really have no place in films.  Equally, there will likely be cameos from other actors in the “franchise”,  as well as del Toro reusing any number of people from the stable of actors who recur in various roles in many of his films.  These are all outside of any narrative necessity, and become distractions.  I think all such things are better left out. 

CO:  What will you personally be most looking forward to seeing in the Hobbit films (either in excitement or in dread)?

DA:  I really have no expectations of excitement or dread with regard to the Hobbit films.  I expect that many people will like them a lot, and some people won’t.  And I’m fine with that.  But as a person who has worked very closely with the texts of Tolkien’s writings over many years, I am clearly not a part of the intended audience for these films.

The fact that the primary impetus to make these films is financial and not artistic doesn’t bode well for the results.  This blockbuster mentality is of course why they must split the story into two films instead of one, while the storyline itself does not have a natural dividing point, which will make for an inevitably unsatisfying division. 

In my personal view, I might add that I think the translation of a work of art from its original form into another medium is rarely successful. Sure, it’s done all the time (and primarily as a reason for someone to make money), but that doesn’t mean the results are worthwhile, or that the effort should be undertaken in the first place. To me, the idea of making a musical of The Lord of the Rings is simply absurd—nothing could make me want to experience that.  Films which are created to be films can be excellent works of art—ranging from things like Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, on to Ridley Scott’s Alien.  Having thought well of these as films, I wouldn’t want to experience them as novels—even if the novels were written by the original creators.  They work perfectly well in their original form. But today many novels are written merely to be fodder for screenplays—like most of Michael Crichton’s books.  His prose is barely functional and his characters all one-dimensional.  I read the first 80 pages of Jurassic Park when it came out and stopped, feeling it would make a fun movie but it wasn’t worth my time as a novel. I feel similarly about most modern best-sellers—they were written as fleshed out screenplays, without much narrative or stylist art, with the hope that they will soon be transformed from books into more lucrative films. 


Tolkien bought the book and shared it with his children, who loved the stories about the half-high creatures with names like Gorbo who were fond of feasts. From his children’s expressed desire for more stories of such half-high creatures came Bilbo and the Hobbits. Without Wyke-Smith’s example, there would be no Hobbits. 

CO:  Many people think of Tolkien as the originator of the fantasy genre, but through your Tales Before Tolkien anthology, you’ve done remarkable work in drawing attention to Tolkien’s oft-neglected predecessors.  Of those writers, which would you say had the most profound impact on Tolkien’s writings, and how?

DA:  Let me answer this in two ways.  The most profound impact was doubtless that of William Morris (1834-1896), but I don’t think his influence remains especially visible in Tolkien, thought it was very formative, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s.  Morris was a poet who translated some of the great literature of the medieval North, including a number of the Icelandic sagas.  He also wrote a number of prose romances that are tinged with a medieval flavor and written with great precision in the details of the imagined landscapes. And he was a talented artist and designer, a craftsman of the first order whose tapestries hung in the chapel of Exeter College at Oxford when Tolkien was an undergraduate, some fifty years after Morris himself had been there. Tolkien followed Morris’s example in many ways, the most apparent being in the set-up and prose style of The Book of Lost Tales

The writer whose influence on Tolkien was both profound and which remains most visible in Tolkien’s works is that of E. A Wyke-Smith (1871-1935), with his single children’s novel The Marvellous Land of Snergs (1927).  Tolkien bought the book and shared it with his children, who loved the stories about the half-high creatures with names like Gorbo who were fond of feasts. From his children’s expressed desire for more stories of such half-high creatures came Bilbo and the Hobbits. Without Wyke-Smith’s example, there would be no Hobbits. 

CO:  Which of these early fantasy writers do you think is most deserving of recognition in his or her own right?  What do you find most interesting about his or her work?

DA:  Completely in terms of personal interest (and not in any way in relation to Tolkien), I’d have to single out the works of David Lindsay (1876-1945) as my personal favorite. Lindsay wrote seven novels, but is remembered primarily for his first A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). C. S. Lewis stole its basic idea (that a journey to another world is a spiritual adventure) and Christianized it in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.  Lindsay’s book has no kind of orthodoxy, and it is by far the more powerful book.  Lindsay’s other works are usually dismissed unread, but they are remarkable as philosophical explications, usually written with a kind of musical mood. The imaginative fancy of A Voyage to Arcturus is foreshadowed early in that book by the associations with Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Lindsay’s later massive novel Devil’s Tor (1932) is by contrast, earthbound, slow-moving, and stately. Imagine a novelistic equivalence with Wagner.  The plot concerns the broken pieces of an ancient supernatural talisman associated with the worship of the Great Mother—according to prophecy, when the two pieces are reunited in modern times, it will bring about an uplifting of the human race.  On this simple thread Lindsay builds a metaphysical novel filled with essays and considerations of the purpose of the creation of life, and the role of fate made visible in the world. It’s not easy reading, but there is nothing else comparable to it in English fantastic literature. Lindsay’s second novel The Haunted Woman (1922) is another contrast:  a short novel of two people who occasionally see a staircase that no one else sees, going upwards from a wall in a house.  It leads to a kind of spiritual world, and the book is akin to those that Charles Williams would publish in the 1930s. 

I feel compelled to mention also Kenneth Morris (1879-1937), who wrote superb mythopoeic short stories (which I collected in The Dragon Path, 1995) and an excellent fantasy novel of the Toltecs of ancient Mexico entitled The Chalchiuhite Dragon, posthumously published in 1992, and Clemence Housman (1861-1955), whose third and final novel, The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (1905), is the psychological reconstruction of the life of a minor rogue knight from Malory around whom Housman centers the entire drama inherent in Arthur’s ideals of truth and honor. It’s a remarkable book.  The mystery writer Ellis Peters called it “by far the finest work on an Arthurian theme since Malory” and said of it,  “I know of nothing in literature more intense, nor of an intensity so held in control. . . . I read it almost every year and still find something newly enlightening.” 

CO:  You’ve recently published a scholarly edition of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” which you co-edited with Verlyn Flieger.  What would you say is the primary value of this essay to readers of Tolkien, and why do you think it is so important?

DA:  Simply it is Tolkien’s most explicit analysis of his own art, and the principles with which to understand it. The essay served Tolkien in particular as a kind of hinge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The essay (originally a lecture delivered at St. Andrews in March 1939) came after Tolkien had written and published The Hobbit, but while he was still in the early stages of writing The Lord of the Rings.  “On Fairy-stories” thus became Tolkien’s expression of his theories of the fairy-story, and The Lord of the Rings (as well as Smith of Wootton Major) his example in practice. 

For this new edition, titled Tolkien On Fairy-stories, we were allowed to publish Tolkien’s drafts for the essay.  These drafts contain a great deal more writing than ever made it into the published versions, so there is a considerable amount of new Tolkien in the book. Plus we traced as much as we could the work’s evolution from a lecture to an essay, and the revisions Tolkien made to it after it was published.  And we added all sorts of notes to fill in context and to further explain some of the references Tolkien makes to his sources.

CO:  Your work as an editor both of scholarly editions and of the journal Tolkien Studies has done much to advance the study of Tolkien's work as an academic endeavor.  What do you think is the most exciting development in the study of Tolkien today?

DA:  Probably the number of high quality works published about Tolkien, and the growing number of excellent conferences where his works are treated seriously by scholars and fans. It’s also nice to see the worldwide acclaim that Tolkien’s writings have achieved (partly due, no doubt, to the Peter Jackson films). When I published the second edition of The Annotated Hobbit in 2002, The Hobbit had been translated into just over forty languages. I think that number has now grown to something around sixty languages.  And the scholarship on Tolkien, which used to be primarily done by British and Americans, has long-working communities of scholars doing fine work in Germany and France and other European countries, as well as individuals working almost everywhere.  For Tolkien Studies, we’ve received worthy submissions from all over the world.  It’s rewarding to see such enthusiasm for one writer cross boundaries of language and culture.  

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