Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Tolkien, Myth, and Fantasy: Verlyn Flieger Interview

Posted by • Nov 1st, 2008

Verlyn Flieger is an author, editor, and English professor at the University of Maryland. She specializes in comparative mythology and modern fantasy, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. She has written three books on Tolkien, has edited authoritative editions of two of Tolkien’s works, and is one of the co-founding editors of the annual scholarly journal Tolkien Studies. She has received two Mythopoeic Awards for Inklings Studies, one in 1998 as author of A Question of Time and another in 2002 as co-editor of Tolkien’s Legendarium.

Randy Hoyt: Why did you think The Lord of the Rings has been so popular?

Verlyn Flieger: I think it’s been so popular because it is an extraordinarily good book: a remarkable achievement in terms of fantasy. I wouldn’t call it unique because I don’t think many things are unique; but I think it is almost sui generis in its complexity, in its craftmanship, and in the power of the story. I just think it’s a really good book. RH: When did you first encounter the works of Tolkien? What impact did they have on you?

VF: I first read The Lord of the Rings in the winter of 1956/1957. It was a very new book at that time. Not very many people had read it. One of my co-workers at the time was from England, and her brother had sent her the first English edition. We all passed it around and read it. Even then, I recognized that Tolkien was drawing on a vast body of mythological material: there was Beowulfian material, Arthurian material, Celtic material — all of which he had reconfigured into his own secondary world.

RH: And the published Silmarillion?

VF: I first read that in 1977, when it came out. I guess we were all sort of waiting for it to appear.

RH: You now teach courses in Tolkien at the University of Maryland. Did you play a role in getting these courses into the curriculum there?

VF: Single-handed.

RH: Why would you say that Tolkien deserves courses in the curriculum alongside such greats as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton?

VF: Why not? They were writing about the human condition, as they saw it in their own time. Certainly Chaucer and Shakespeare were writing about the human condition, though I’m not sure Milton was. Tolkien is writing about the same thing.

RH: What do you cover in these courses?

VF: I teach Tolkien in a number of different ways. I teach an Honors Seminar in Tolkien as “Author of Century” (to borrow from the title of Tom Shippey’s book on Tolkien). There we cover the two big essays, “On Fairy-stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” and then we read, right the way through, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings — more or less in order of the chronology of Tolkien’s secondary world — in order to get an overview of Tolkien’s whole corpus of major fiction, to get some notion of the continuity and the discontinuities among them.

I started out, however, back when I myself was in graduate school, teaching a course in fantasy, which was really just an excuse to get The Lord of the Rings into the curriculum. I very soon realized that it overbalanced the course, that it was too big for everything else. Another faculty member and I pulled out Tolkien and introduced another course called “Tolkien, Myth, and Medieval Tradition,” which consisted of the Beowulf essay, Beowulf, some aspects of the Arthurian story, and then The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With some modifications, I’ve been teaching that course ever since.

This fall, I’m teaching what I think is going to be a very exciting course called “Tolkien On War.” Our whole campus has devoted the fall semester to courses on war, new courses on war or existing courses adapted to war. I thought that to cover Tolkien, an author in whom you have a secondary mythology, a children’s book, and a fantasy that all focus on war, would be an interesting angle from which to look at it.

RH: Do you find that students taking your courses expect it to be easy because it is about a “fantasy” book and not about “real literature”?

VF: Not any more. They did to start with, yes, but they don’t now.

RH: I guess word gets around.

VF: I think so, yes. RH: A lot of professional academics, critics, and journalists have been surprised by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings.

VF: I think most of those who are surprised — or who express surprise — either haven’t read it or find it not to be to their taste. If it’s not to their taste, that’s fine: then they shouldn’t read it.

RH: Some go even further, showing disdain towards Tolkien and horror at its success. What do you think drives that disdain?

VF: Snobbery.

RH: Did you encounter any of this disdain or snobbery as you were working to get Tolkien into the curriculum?

VF: Oh yeah, I still do. I got teased horribly when the movies came out. I was known for some time as “the fantasy lady.” My colleagues — not all of them but many of them — do not take the material I teach seriously. And that’s OK. My students do, and it’s my students that I’m really concerned about.

RH: You said that in your Tolkien as “Author of the Century” seminar you cover two of Tolkien’s essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-stories.” Why would you say these two essays are important? What impact did they have on myth scholarship and fantasy literature?

VF: The essay “Beowulf: Monsters and the Critics” was originally a lecture given to the British Academy on Beowulf. It changed the direction of Beowulf scholarship. Up until that time, scholars had acknowledged the poem’s importance, but had only studied it for philology, for social customs, for all kinds of things — never as a work of art. Tolkien said, “Hey guys. This is a poem. Why don’t we look at it as if it were a poem and see what we can get out of it in terms of its art?” That really did open up a whole new avenue in the way of looking at the poem. There are Beowulf scholars who disagree with him, but since that lecture nobody has been able to ignore what he said. You go to the library and look at any anthology of Beowulf criticism, and Tolkien’s essay will be there.

The essay “On Fairy-stories” also was originally given as a lecture, this one as the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This essay is not as well-known in general scholarly circles, but I think it is Tolkien’s most important essay. It reveals more about his art and his own feelings about his art than any other essay. It looks at philology, it looks at where mythology comes from and its importance, it looks at fantasy and fairy story. He really pulls together a lot of strands.

RH: How does this essay about his art relate chronologically to his own works of fiction?

VF: He had been working on “The Silmarillion” since 1917, when he came back from World War I. Sometime in the early 1930s, he began work on The Hobbit, which started as a story for his children and then turned into something a little more formal. That was published in September 1937 and was a great success. The publisher said, “People are going to want more. Can you write a sequel?” After several false starts, he did begin a sequel which was very clearly imitative of The Hobbit in its tone. As early as December 1937 he was thinking about what he called “the new hobbit” but which became over time The Lord of the Rings. So he started in let’s say 1938/1939 and he finished it in ten or eleven years, and then he had trouble getting it published. In the meantime, in a sense¬†√† propos his publication of The Hobbit, he was giving the Andrew Lang lecture in March 1939. He began to codify a lot of what he had been working toward instinctively in The Hobbit and realized that he had made some mistakes in it: there were lapses in tone, places where it didn’t hang together. His thoughts on these mistakes found their way into the lecture, particularly in the section on fantasy, and in turn affected The Lord of the Rings. So the chronology goes The Hobbit, “On Fairy-stories,” and then The Lord of the Rings.

RH: You have edited a new edition of the “On Fairy-stories” essay that came out this summer.

VF: Yes, with Doug Anderson. The book is called Tolkien On Fairy-stories.

RH: What is in this new edition, beyond just the essay itself?

VF: A huge amount of previously unpublished material. Doug and I were given access to all the manuscripts pertaining to “On Fairy-stories” and to all of the draft materials. It was first the lecture, then it was greatly expanded and turned into a published essay, and then Tolkien further edited and tweaked the published essay. Doug and I were able to trace the way that certain ideas began, developed, grew, moved into this or that category. You can see the growth of his thought. It’s a fascinating thing to read.

RH: What would you say has been Tolkien’s impact on fantasy literature as a whole?

VF: Huge. Enormous. And not altogether positive. He casts a very long shadow. It’s very difficult to get out from under Tolkien. I published Pig Tale in 2002, a fantasy novel that I had been working on for quite some time. It was a struggle to get away from Tolkien and to write something that I thought could really be just my own. It was hard to do. I’d be typing along, and I’d think, “Uh-oh. I know where that comes from!” And then I had to back up. Most of the fantasy that has come after The Lord of the Rings has either imitated it or reacted strongly against — which is also in a sense a form of imitation.

You can learn more about Verlyn’s work by visiting her web site, The book Tolkien On Fairy-stories that she edited with Douglas A. Anderson is available from HarperCollins at and other booksellers. Mythlore 103/104, the current issue of the scholarly journal of the Mythopoeic Society, contains a review of this book; this review is available online at the society’s web site.


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