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Interview with Melissa Ruth Arul

Melissa Ruth Arul is employed in the Graduate School of Taylor’s University College, a leading educational institutions of higher learning in Malaysia. She is also an administrator for The Pixel Project, a global Web 2.0-driven fund and awareness raising project for the Violence Against Women (VAW) cause.

When did you first encounter the works of JRR Tolkien?

I first read the Lord of the Rings when I was seventeen. It completely overwhelmed me and my time! Although it did not impede my final year exams, it was the catalyst that influenced and inspired me to read more on Tolkien.

What made Tolkien's writings special for you, and what sets him apart from the usual fiction writers?

It’s epicness. The scope and detail put into creating Middle-earth cannot, I believe, be rivalled by anyone. All his books and, especially my favourite, The Silmarillion left me to spend hours imagining about ‘what-ifs’ and alternate story-lines. It set my mind on fire.

Tolkien has also exposed to me literature that I probably would not have known unless I chanced upon it. I went on to read works on Tolkien and Middle-earth, the history, legends and myths that inspired him and conversely books that were inspired by Tolkien. Beowulf was one of the first I unearthed because of Tolkien and remains till today one of my personal favourites.

How relevant to modern life and its themes is someone like Tolkien, who, after all, was born almost 110 years ago, and died just over 30 years ago?

I believe that Tolkien will always be relevant because a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, human nature will not change. Shakespeare will still be relevant and Tolkien will still touch the hearts of fantasy lovers. The beauty about Tolkien’s work is that it has a solid foundation which strikes at the core of humanity and their need to go back and find their roots.

And I think Elves, Wizards and Dwarves will always be cool to some people in society whatever the time.  

What areas of Tolkien's writings and life interest you most?

He smoked the pipe like my grandfather did! I think Tolkien as a Catholic and its influence it had on his work also affects me being a Catholic.

Tolkien’s writings touched something in me that few other authors have managed since. His works taught me to appreciate the extra effort made by other fantasy authors. For example, when they reference or subvert mythologies, folklores and the Bible or create detailed maps and histories for their fantasy universes.

Anne Bishop is such an example with her Black Jewels novels regarding a subverted universe where society is matriarchal and one descends into their ‘darker’ powers. She inverts terms like darkness and light and names such as Lucifer, Demon, Satan, (Lucivar, Daemon, Saetan). These characters become some of the main protagonists in her books, subverting the reader into empathising with them, as opposed to automatically relegating them as antagonists.

Bishop is a fairly new fantasy author, and these books are less than two decades old. But the idea of the story, how it is told, resonates similarly to that of Tolkien’s ideas on the concept of power and the fall from grace, showing that years after his death, after the release of his legendary books, the audience can still read another author’s fantasy novel and compare and contrast it to that of Tolkien’s work. That in itself is enough to draw my interest.

As an academic writing about Tolkien, how important is his own academic background in philology?

Very important. Tolkien’s interest in the history of languages and the changes it undergoes throughout time is one of the leading reasons why his characters, although at times may seem one-dimensional, still have ‘fullness’ to them. Middle-earth after all was created to house the languages Tolkien invented. Whoever they may be, a passing name like Frár the Dwarf or a nameless orc, Tolkien’s created races have a history, a culture and a land that they belong to which in turn, gives them depth in the reader’s mind.

How well do you think Tolkien's characters work in his books, as opposed to other fantasy writers who have published since?

Tolkien has an amazing ability to balance all the races in Middle-earth as the Self and Other when they interact with each other. In my opinion, I do not think that any other fantasy writer has since managed that sense of ‘alien’ that Tolkien so effortless conjures up when two different races come into contact. A good example is when Éomer and his éored express their wonderment at Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas when they first meet in the plains of Rohan. Tolkien is able to portray Elves, Dwarfs and Hobbit as non-human races with that aloofness and intrinsic difference in them and yet still have them relatable to the reader.

There is also the sense of ‘richness’ and ‘belonging’ that each race has in terms of geography, history, culture and language that cannot be rivalled. Tolkien drawing from medieval legends and folklore gives a sense of familiarity to the reader. While one may not be intimately acquainted with the lore, it is still somewhere deep in the recesses of one’s mind and person.

You are involved also in something called the Pixel Project - can you explain to readers what this is?

The Pixel Project is an innovative Web 2.0 effort to turbo-charge global awareness about violence against women while raising US$1 million for the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) Malaysia & the USA’s National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

We are a worldwide coalition of grassroots activists and volunteers using the power of Web 2.0 to mount a global effort to raise awareness about and hopefully mobilise millions to get involved with ending violence against girls and women. We strongly believe that men and women must take a stand together for the right of women to live a life free of gender-based violence.

Our team is currently scattered across four continents, twelve time zones and over ten cities worldwide, proving that there are no cultural or social barriers when it comes to this issue.

We can be found at http://www.thepixelproject.net/.

Do you think there are examples within Tolkien's writings for how the sexes treat each other? For instance, how Eowyn is 'threatened' by the likes of Grima Wormtongue and how Aragorn and Eomer treat her by comparison? (i.e. is this 'modern'?)

Yes, there are. Gríma constantly objectifies and invades Éowyn’s space despite her repulsion towards him. Meanwhile, Éomer and Aragorn treat her with respect and dignity. Unlike Gríma who is a threat towards her person, Éomer and Aragorn do their best to offer protection and security at a time behest by war.

I think the mix is a realistic example of how the sexes treated each other until recently. A lot of how one treats another comes from one’s own principles, values and beliefs. Simply because women were, and are discriminated, it does not mean that all men, enlightened or otherwise, would treat the women around them in the same manner nor would all women quietly accept this state.

Fortunately, education, gender awareness programmes and the fight to ensure gender equality has produced more progressive and liberal thinking men. Nevertheless, this is an ongoing struggle as men like Gríma still exist and women are still treated as commodities and second-class citizens. 

Women are not passive, voiceless creatures much less, Éowyn. In her own way, Éowyn fights against the barriers placed on her as a female and, with Merry, fulfil a thousand year old prophecy by slaying the Witch-king and changing the tide of the battle.

Many people think of Tolkien as in some ways anti feminist - how do you respond to that charge against him?

I believe that there is enough proof from his life and critical essays on his work to show that this assumption is unfounded. It’s been my experience that such thinking originates from critics who are not well-versed in Tolkien’s writings in the first place.

It is true that Tolkien’s stories do not have as many female characters as other, current authors do. But this is a different time. Women have since fought to remove themselves from the background and recent works depict this change. We now have Major Motokos, Anguas and Hermiones but, we cannot use our modern values and sensibilities to judge a different time. An in-depth reading of his work will show that all of Tolkien’s characters, male or female, Vala, Man, Elf or Dwarf were created realistically and in accordance to the nature of their cosmology in Middle-earth. However, this does not mean Middle-earth has no strong female characters. Lúthien, Galadriel and Haleth are such examples. Lobelia Sackville, anyone?

How important do you think Tolkien and his works will be in the generations to come?

As important as Blake, Brontë, Rushdie and Spivak will be in the next generation. With the movie adaptations by Peter Jackson, we can rest assured that Tolkien’s works will remain relevant and continue to inspire the hearts of the generations to come. The rich blend of history, fantasy, philology and mythology used to create Middle-earth will always have an impact on the fantasy genre, art, music and popular culture.  

Besides, Tolkien’s critical essay, for instance Beowulf and the Critics and ‘On Fairy Stories,’ have left a lasting impression in the academic world. So he will always have a foot both in ‘high’ culture and ‘low-brow’ culture.

What did you think of the movie adaptation of LotR by Peter Jackson, and the fact that they are likely to be filming The Hobbit - and how should they respond to the lack of female characters in that children's work?

I really liked the movie adaptation. I have lost count of how many times I have watched it. I am looking forward to The Hobbit and hope it lives up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A very charged question! Can I just ask the detractors to suck it up? Seriously though, it is a no-win situation here. Make some changes and add a token female character, the purist will complain. Stick to the original, and the feminist will complain. Maybe gender-switch a Dwarf? Someone will get their knickers in a twist.  

 Melissa, it has been a pleasure to speak with you, and I hope all readers are as informed as well as enchanted by your thoughts. See you at the Festival!

Alex Lewis.


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