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Colin Duriez

Interview with Colin Duriez
Corey Olsen

Colin Duriez writes books mainly on Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other fantasy writers and is also an editor. He lectures internationally, and has appeared as a commentator on Peter Jackson’s bonus DVDs for The Lord of the Rings and on television (including BBC and PBS). His books include  J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Story of Their Friendship, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and The Unauthorized Harry Potter Companion (a.k.a Field Guide to Harry Potter in the USA). He is currently writing a book about the theme of devilry in C.S. Lewis and other Inklings, particularly Tolkien, and also, with Alex Lewis, is programme director for the Festival in the Shire.

CO: Your book Tolkien and Lewis: The Gift of Friendship is one of my favorite works on the Inklings. Many readers of both authors are, I think, aware of their friendship, but what do you think is the most underappreciated aspect of their relationship? What do you wish more people know about it?

CD: The friendship was complex. (There is a mystery at the heart of every person; there is a mystery at the centre of every true friendship.) Although there were differences of personality, churchmanship, and creative style between the two men, a remarkable fact is the extent to which they depended upon each other creatively and spiritually. I wish people would grasp more how easily something we take for granted may not have happened—perhaps the biggest philosophical question is why anything exists at all. My book argues that without this literary friendship (comparable in importance to that between Wordsworth and Coleridge, I believe) it is unlikely that we would have either The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. Their friendship was a gift to each other, from which the whole world now benefits. The differences between the two men illustrate how a friendship can thrive with difference; friends are not the soul mirror-image of each other. Lewis, writing on the “four loves” distinguished friendship from erotic love. Lovers are characteristically face to face, friends side by side – sharing a view which each sees from a different perspective.

CO: I’ve spoken with many people who, knowing that Lewis and Tolkien were friends and that they were both dedicated Christians, make the assumption that the two of them were basically like-minded in spiritual and religious matters. What would you say were the chief differences in their beliefs, or the most profound disagreements that they had?

CD: Their differences were, first of all, theological. Lewis was an Anglican (Episcopalian). Tolkien was a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, opposed to divorce and remarriage (which gave him a problem with Lewis’s marriage to a divorcee). He also strongly disapproved of Lewis as a popular communicator of the Christian faith—he felt that that task should be the concern of theologians. (Lewis rose to fame through his wartime BBC radio talks on Christianity and his The Screwtape Letters--letters from a senior to a junior devil.) Second, there were differences of temperament. Tolkien was a perfectionist, meticulously working and re-working his writing. Lewis, in contrast, seemed to dash off his books—his first fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress, in a fortnight, the seven Chronicles of Narnia in as many years. Third, the two friends differed artistically. Tolkien was the master of the allusive story. He had a natural theology of the imagination, in which the insights incarnate in the tale would be a vehicle of God's grace to the reader. Lewis was the defender of the faith against modernist scepticism. He built into his stories allegorical signposts that Tolkien artistically disliked. Yet Lewis's last completed fiction—Till We Have Faces—in its pagan, pre-Christian setting, has a remarkable affinity with Tolkien's art. Ironically, it was composed during the period when their friendship had cooled.

CO: The issue of Tolkien’s Christianity and his writing often provokes highly varied responses. Some readers want to see his books as almost a Christian allegory (identifying Gandalf with Jesus, for instance), and others want to downplay the relevance of Tolkien’s Christian beliefs, pointing to the lack of references to God or to religious worship in the stories. What do you think is the primary way in which Tolkien’s Christian faith informed his works?

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Tolkien believed that the hand of God was evident everywhere, not just in Scripture. For him this was true of the human imagination—it cannot escape the presence of God ...

CD: While Christian meanings underlie the themes of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, they are allusive rather than explicit. Tolkien believed that the hand of God was evident everywhere, not just in Scripture. For him this was true of the human imagination—it cannot escape the presence of God and the truth about things, even where such insights are unfocused. Of the influences on Tolkien's work, his Christian faith is the greatest. He had worked out the implications of his beliefs for the role of the imagination, the nature of language, and storytelling. They were entirely integrated into his thinking, including his scholarly work on language, myth, and early and Middle English literature. His great model was Beowulf which he saw as the work of a Christian poet.

Much about Tolkien's faith is expressed in his comments in his Collected Letters. These make it clear that, for his artistic purpose, he supposed the events in Middle-earth as taking place in a pre-Christian world (before the incarnation and death of Christ, and the birth of the church). Nevertheless he tried to make the invented world of Middle-earth consonant with Christian theology (in its narratives of creation, the fall, and so on).

Christian meanings come over in numerous themes in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, including sacrifice, providence, heroism and courage, the nature of evil, and particularly the theme of the weak and powerless (hobbits Sam and Frodo) confounding the mechanistic might of Sauron and destroying the ruling Ring.

CO: Tolkien can seem almost shy (compared to Lewis, at any rate) about mentioning God or Christianity explicitly in his writings. When he does bring up the gospel message, the evangelium as he calls it, at the end of “On Fairy-Stories,” he says: “It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme.” How would you explain this apparent reticence on his part?

CD: Part of this is his Roman Catholic view that does not have a high place for the layperson’s understanding of theology—explanation of the faith is best left to those in authority in the church (as I mentioned, this was an important difference between him and Lewis). The good thing about this is that it led Tolkien (in terms of his faith) to explore the pagan, pre-Christian imagination for its insights into reality, which in a way was an independent witness to the truth of what he believed. Thus his work is replete with Christian symbolism without what he called “cultic” references and explicit tokens of Christianity.

Thus, for instance, Frodo represents the meek and humble, and his virtue is his willingness to sacrifice his life to destroy the Ring. He struggles of course with the lure of the Ring. Sam plays an important role in helping and serving him in the task. Aragorn, the king in disguise (a familiar figure in fairy tale), is a pre-figurement of Christ (God in ordinary human, low-life form), though of course Aragorn is not divine. Gollum is one of the most interesting fictional creations in the story -- he was once a hobbit and shows the ravishes of the Ring on his existence. Bilbo's pity in sparing him is an important feature of providence in the story, as Gollum has a role in leading the ringbearers to Mount Doom and ultimately in the Ring's destruction. Sauron is a lieutenant of the banished Morgoth (active in the earlier ages of Middle-earth). Morgoth is a kind of Lucifer/Satan figure. Like Gandalf, Sauron is an angelic being -- albeit a fallen one. The Ring is a kind of supermachine created by the technological skills of Sauron and containing within it power that Sauron has invested from himself. It is an objective embodiment and token of evil. Far more could be said about the cosmology of Middle-earth, which provides a rich image of a cosmos undergirded by a theistic understanding of the universe.

CO: Tolkien was a life-long lover of the Norse tradition, and he was a firm believer in the importance of myth. How would you describe Tolkien’s understanding of the relevance of myth and the pagan imagination to modern readers?

CD: Tolkien of course did not analyze the world culture of his time and then decide to write fiction which would have global appeal and make him a fortune. As far as the progressives in his contemporary literary world were concerned Tolkien represented a reactionary stance, a stagnant backwater infested with harmful and annoying insects. I think Tom Shippey is right in suggesting that the mode of fantasy might turn out to be the major strand in twentieth-century fiction. Tolkien, like other modern medievalists, was in fact in touch with something central to the modern world.

It is interesting how much of the orientation of Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis, and even J. K. Rowling) is to the pre-modern. Tolkien and Lewis rehabilitated a medieval world-picture, and Rowling drew inspiration from sixteenth century alchemy, which had a vital rather than mechanistic view of nature. Tolkien and Lewis were fascinated by what they saw as a kind of enlightened paganism. They were caught up in how far the pagan imagination could go in its insights into reality without the aid of special revelation, especially the revelation embodied in Christ in first-century Judea. Tolkien and Lewis have struck a chord with twenty-first century culture in making imaginative use of pagan insights. Similarly, in a playful way, Rowling draws upon sixteenth century alchemy—or rather the view of the world it exemplified.

The nature of myth was very much part of the conversation between Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis, and is likely to have featured in at least some meetings of the Inklings, the group of Oxford literary friends to which they belonged, especially, I guess, on the rare occasions when Owen Barfield was present. With Tolkien’s professional work and absorbing interest in language, the whole question of the relation of myth to fact and to truth was central to him. My understanding (it is a complex subject) is that it is of the same order of question as when we think of the truth of fiction, or think of how something unlike or other is identified with something else in metaphor (as when we say “love is blind”, or even “God is love”—where our understanding of love is located in our human language, experience and history). Tolkien helped to convince C.S. Lewis, for many years an atheist, that myth had become “fact” in the Gospel narratives of the New Testament—where actual human events retained the qualities of deep myth that have such an imaginative attraction.

CO: You’ve written books not only on Lewis and Tolkien, but also on Harry Potter. How would you describe the place of Rowling’s fiction in 20th-century fantasy. What would you say are the primary differences between what her books do and what Tolkien’s books do?

CD: J. K. Rowling has been dismissed (and more often ignored) by some critics. This will sound familiar to any who know the history of the reception of Tolkien’s fiction, and also C.S. Lewis’s. In my view she is a superb storyteller and has a gift of invention that is remarkable. I think it is unlikely that her sales will continue at the momentous rate they enjoyed at publication but, if you look at her in the context of the rich history of children’s literature (which is one of the things I tried to do a little in my guide to Harry Potter), she stands out. Rowling is a world-maker in a way different from Tolkien—her invented realm is that of the wizarding world, which is part of our world, but usually unseen by “Muggles” and accessible by portals. There are many affinities between her values and those of Tolkien (and also C.S. Lewis). An obvious one is her view of evil, which stands out from the fashionable Gnosticism of our day. Her evil is a perversion of something once good; our material existence is a good in itself. There are dominant themes that, like Tolkien’s, are not explicitly Christian, but which have strong affinities with Christian belief. I love some of the similarities between Tolkien’s One Ring of power and her horcruxes, which dominate the last Harry Potter volume. As Tolkien points out in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories”, the motif of an external object endued with a person’s power is a recurring one in the tradition of storytelling.

CO: You’ve dedicated much of your writing career to Tolkien and fantasy literature. How did you become interested in fantasy and in Tolkien in the first place?

CD: In the bookstop was a story called The Hobbit. It had a cover picture of a dragon soaring, an arrow embedded in its breast. I picked it up and opened it -- the runes and end paper maps were intriguing. Quickly I bought the book and was soon following Bilbo’s adventures as he made his way towards The Lonely Mountain. The author’s name I recognized as a close friend of C.S. Lewis, an author I had recently discovered. I was reading his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, at the time. My conscious interest in fantasy goes back to my discovery of Lewis’s writings when I was seventeen or eighteen. These provided a key for me as an adult to the stories I had enjoyed as a child and adolescent. Through his writings Lewis led me to Tolkien. Tolkien along with his friend Lewis sought to bring back the kind of fantasy they liked for modern adults, which had to a large extent become associated with childhood in the nineteenth century. I learnt from Tolkien that literary fantasy has its roots in storytelling, which is as old as language itself. Studying literature and philosophy at university heightened rather than diminished my interest in fantasy. Though story is a form of magic, casting a spell, it obeys strict rational rules. My first writing about fantasy literature was an article on “Tolkien, Leonardo and Mr Baggins” for one of the earliest issues of Mythlore, published by the newly-formed Mythopoeic Society. While a student I also wrote a series of I think five monthly articles on Lewis for a British magazine, into which I brought Tolkien and the Inklings.

CO: You have recently taken on the directorship of the scholarly conference at the Festival in the Shire, in conjunction with Alex Lewis. What are you most looking forward to about the conference, and about the Festival in general?

CD: When I first met Mark Faith, the organizer of the Festival, at the Tolkien Society Oxonmoot last autumn, I was almost immediately gripped by his vision for the event, and soon after travelled south from my home in Cumbria to mid-Wales to find out more, and to see how I could be involved. This led to my suggesting and editing an online magazine that would cover all things that interest the Tolkien community. When I relinquished the task to my friend Alex Lewis because of pressing commitments, I was asked if I could help Alex with the task of directing the conference programme. It was important to me to continue to help the Festival as it is something unique in its desire to pull together the diverse threads of those inspired by Tolkien, whether simply readers, or scholars and artists, into a common event that would be enriching for all. I’m a longstanding member of the Tolkien Society, and admire events run by the Mythopoeic Society and others. I enjoy the way Tolkien’s work and vision brings together people of great diversity from throughout the world. The Festival is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate both this diversity and commonality, which enhances what the Tolkien Society and others are doing. Mark Faith is a truly inspirational person whose vision for this international event and future ones has overcome disappointments and all the odds that a terrifying global recession has stacked against the event. I’m looking forward to meeting fans from all over the planet and, amongst other things, to hearing more about a remarkable new direction in Tolkien studies that the Festival has opened up to a wider public—an exploration of Welshness and the Celtic in Tolkien’s writings. Wales can be experienced at the same time!

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