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Interview with Corey Olsen

Interview for Journal by Colin Duriez

1. Corey, how do you square your medieval scholarship with its no-surprises canon and your academic work on Tolkien? For that matter, how did you persuade your College that it was a good thing to have a semester-long undergraduate course on the fantasy author?

Well, the study of Tolkien and the study of medieval literature are clearly quite congenial, as the large number of medievalist Tolkien scholars attests.  Many have noted the advantage that familiarity with medieval literature gives to readers of Tolkien.  If you get to know the books and the ethos of the world that Tolkien himself was so immersed in as a reader and a scholar, it certain does provide insight into some of the choices that Tolkien makes in his own books.  Tom Shippey, Michael Drout, and Jane Chance all spoke very well on this in their interviews in previous issues of this Journal.

I would also point out, however, that the connection between Tolkien and the Middle Ages goes the other way, too.  A reader who knows Tolkien’s works very well and then comes to read works of medieval literature will very likely be more comfortable with them than most people are.  As a teacher of medieval literature, the greatest challenge I face is trying get students past the initial weirdness of it.  From a modern perspective, medieval literature can seem by turns confusing, childish, tedious, or disgusting; medievals looked at the world very differently, and it can be difficult to get students to enter into their mindset.  Tolkien helps with this quite a bit.  For instance, modern American students often have a hard time understanding the significance of kingship to a medieval audience and are thus deaf to the implications of certain moments in the King Arthur story.  Tolkien readers, however, are way ahead of the curve here: Theoden and Aragorn have already begun to train their sensibilities. 

This is actually how I originally pitched my Tolkien class to my department at Washington College, stressing the value of the course as a kind of proto-introduction to medieval literature.  Of course I think that a Tolkien course really needs no justification beyond the fact that Tolkien’s works are some of the most powerful and influential works of literature in the 20th Century, but they certainly are useful as a way to bring students into the Middle Ages.  Many people have found Tolkien to be a pathway to a life-long love of medieval literature.  I am myself one of these.

In the end, I believe that that is the impact Tolkien would have most wanted to have on modern readers.  In one of his early letters to one of his closest friends (Letter #5 in the published collection), he spoke of their ambition to “rekindle an old light in the world.”  I think that he succeeded.

2. Why does the medieval world have such an appeal today? How much is the appeal of Tolkien part of this wider medieval appeal?

On the one hand, I would certainly say, as I just said above, that Tolkien does tend to inspire or nourish an interest in medieval things in his readers.  There are also indirect effects, as well: Tolkien’s role in helping to bring “fantastic literature” back into the mainstream in modern culture has paved the way not only for the fantasy genre in literature but for the fantastic (and the archaic) in modern films. 

But the question of the appeal of medieval stories and figures in modern pop culture is a rather more complicated one.  The popular enjoyment of movies involving a medieval story or a medieval setting is very different from the sympathy with medieval literature that reading Tolkien can help to build.  I spoke above of the big gap between the medieval and the modern worldviews; almost all medieval films are firmly entrenched in a modern way of looking at the world.  Modern audiences aren’t really encountering the medieval world in any substantive way in most of these productions; they are encountering the modern world in fancy dress (or, as is more common in recent films, covered in mud). 

And yet, there is clearly something that makes these stories (especially those of King Arthur and Robin Hood) compelling, or they would not be so continually retold.  One factor I would point to is the emphasis on heroism.  Medieval stories are attractive because the heroes have fewer resources at their disposal.  The greatest warrior is the one who is strongest, most skilled, most resourceful, and most clever, rather than just the one with the biggest gun or the most bombs.  Personal achievement looms larger when you remove the technology.  But Aragorn defying the armies of Saruman from the walls of the Hornburg or unfurling his royal banner at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields has a lot more in common with medieval heroes than does any film character I’ve ever seen.

3. As a medievalist, you teach Chaucer and Malory. Do you find affinities between their and Tolkien’s writings, as well as the well-known links between Tolkien and early medieval poetry like Beowulf?

In personality and writing style, Chaucer and Malory are both very different from Tolkien.  Malory’s stories are delightful but very rambling; he hasn’t a shadow of Tolkien’s meticulous attention to detail.  Chaucer is a very funny guy; he is often outrageous and ceaselessly mischievous.  Tolkien has much more in common with the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl; both wrote works which are very carefully crafted, reverent, and full of wonder, though still fun and often light-hearted. 

The closest affinity that Tolkien has with Chaucer and Malory is in their use of frame narratives and in their self-conscious textuality.  In Malory and especially in Chaucer, you are never as a reader enabled to lose sight of the fact that you are reading a text that is being formulated from previous traditions and passed down to you (from earlier sources) by a narrator.  Tolkien’s use of the narrator’s voice and his allusions within the story to the writing of the story you are reading (as in Bilbo’s comment to Frodo in Rivendell that there are “whole chapters of stuff” before he got there) both have a lot in common with Chaucer and Malory, and with many other medieval authors. 

4. Why do you consider it so important to devote your career sharing the fruit of your scholarly work with the public?

I am still comparatively new to the scholarly arena, having only finished graduate school six years ago, but in my career so far, one thing has become clear.  In the world of modern academia, there are only two generally acceptable audiences for the work that we do as scholars and thinkers: a small selection of people between the ages of 18 and 22 (whom we address in our teaching) and other scholars (whom we address through academic publishing).  Everything about the modern academic system mandates that you direct all your attention only to these two groups (at least, if you want to get a job and then get tenure). 

Now, there is nothing wrong with either one of these things; I value my students and my colleagues very much.  However, there are a lot of other people out there who are not in either of these categories but who would be very interested to engage with the ideas under discussion among academics.  I started my podcast out of a desire simply to invite more people into this conversation.  The dynamics of the academic world, especially as they relate to scholarly publishing, have done a lot to isolate scholars from the rest of the world in the last few generations – most scholarly books and journals are prohibitively expensive and only available through research libraries that the general public can’t get into.  I think this is kind of sad, and it’s a great loss both to academia and to the general public. 

Taking my own small steps towards bridging that gap has been delightful.  Presenting my ideas a wider audience and getting involved in exchanges with listeners has been challenging, tremendously fun, and immensely rewarding. 

5. Why do you think your role as “The Tolkien Professor” has evoked such an astounding response from fans and readers of Tolkien? Are there parallels with the success of John Granger’s “The Hogwarts Professor”, do you think?

I do think there are parallels, yes.  In both cases, there is a large pre-existing fan base who take the books seriously and who are used to living with the reality that many people (and especially most scholars) don’t take them very seriously.  Therefore, they’ve gotten excited about the opportunity to listen to and take part in a serious academic discussion of these books that they love and admire.

The response certainly has been astounding, and it has strongly reinforced my convictions about sharing my work with a general audience.  Many people didn’t get the chance to study Tolkien in college (it is still sadly uncommon to find Tolkien most English curricula), and others have been out of college for a while and miss that kind of academic experience.  I am convinced, though, that the phenomenon goes beyond Tolkien fandom, and that a lot of people would love the chance to engage in the kinds of discussion that are normally restricted to college classrooms.  Why should in-depth academic study and intellectual exchange have to end at the age of twenty-two?

6. Podcasting is state of the art in education, with its new emphasis upon online courses. Why are you out there with Tolkien? Who listens in to your podcasts, and how do you see the nature of podcasts developing?

I think that the development of online technology over the last few years has been very interesting and has all kinds of potential.  I can now do over the internet almost anything that I do in a live classroom; that wouldn’t really have been true a few years ago.  I have found my podcast and the other online interactions I’ve had with listeners (through Skype, for instance) very satisfying, as a teacher.  I rather suspect that the world of scholarly publishing and even the world of higher education itself is going to undergo a serious change in the near future.  I think that there is a lot of educational potential in this kind of online interaction; the possibilities are very exciting.

7. How are you approaching The Hobbit, in the new book you are writing? How much do you see it as a key to approaching The Lord of the Rings?

The book I am working on operates on essentially the same principles as my podcast: it is a careful analysis of The Hobbit, but written for a general audience. 

My hope is to help general readers see the complexity, thoughtfulness, and brilliance of that book.  A lot of people, even Tolkien fans, don’t give The Hobbit the credit it deserves, perceiving it as just a children’s book, and therefore simplistic.  I hope that my book will help readers at all levels of familiarity with The Hobbit come to see it in a new light and appreciate it for the remarkable work of literature that it is.

8. I very much like your concise and illuminating introductions to Tolkien’s writings.  Why is a brilliant effort like this needed to present his books? Isn’t Tolkien’s continuing readership assured by the impact of the Peter Jackson movies, the hope of seeing The Hobbit in celluloid, and the fact that he is a household name throughout the globe?  

The issue is not increasing Tolkien’s readership, per se.  Most people don’t need all that much encouragement to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  In my work, I have two goals.  The first is to engage people in a thoughtful and serious discussion of Tolkien’s major works, working to help people to gain a fuller understanding and a deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s major works.  But the second goal is to introduce readers to Tolkien’s less well-known writings.  Millions and millions of people have read The Lord of the Rings, but how many of those people have read the Silmarillion all the way to the end?  In my experience as a teacher, it’s a fairly small percentage, and that’s a terrible shame!  The more people I can encourage to read and enjoy the Silmarillion, the higher my job satisfaction as a teacher.  I also find that many casual fans have never even heard of his minor works, such as “Smith of Wootton Major” or “Leaf by Niggle.”  The series of essays I’ve been doing in the Festival in the Shire Journal have been primarily intended to acquaint readers with these writings; I hope some readers have been spurred to read some of those works for themselves.

9.  Are you looking forward to Festival in the Shire? What are your expectations of the event?

I’m looking forward to it very much.  This event embodies just what I am most excited about in my own work: bringing together scholarship and fandom, serious literary study with general readers and lovers and lovers of books and the worlds they create.  I am sure that both the fan festival and the scholarly conference will be greatly enriched by each other, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.


Visit The Tolkien Professors website at www.tolkienprofessor.com.