Interview with Mark Atherton, author of There and Back Again: J R R Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit (11.04.13 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

One of the essential readings, released in September 2012, is called There and Back Again: J R R Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit. Not only does it have an amazing cover, it is also written by a distinguished scholar of medieval language and literature, namely Mark Atherthon.

Maybe this name does not ring a bell, but he is a lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford and the author of Teach Yourself Old English / Anglo Saxon and a contributor to The Complete Tolkien Companion.

Brian Sibley, author of The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy and of Peter Jackson: A Film-maker's Journey, says "Mark Atherton’s treatment of one of the most famous books of the twentieth century is timely and welcome. On the face of it, The Hobbit appears an engaging fantasy adventure for young readers; but, as it later transpired, Mr Bilbo Baggins' exploits "there and back again" were simply a prelude to the apocalyptic drama that was to unfold in The Lord the Rings.

In this detailed exploration, Mark Atherton provides the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the many origins, influences and inspirations – biographical, historical, geographical and literary – that, combined with a unique imagination, resulted in the crafting of a new mythology."

I'm very honored to be able to release the following interview with the author of this magnificent book!
There and Back Again: J R R Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit

TL: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

MA: I come from the north-west of England, though my present home is in the south and I have spent time working and teaching in Austria, Germany and Belgium. I now live in Oxford, where I teach medieval literature and history of the English language at the university. In my spare time I play music in a folk band, and I enjoy European travel and hill-walking. 

TL: What did you like to read when you were a child? What were the books that inspired you?

MA: I remember reading the Penguin Classics edition of The Odyssey at a young age, probably not understanding everything. I was fascinated by The Count of Monte Christo at the age of 14. C.S. Lewis came next, and I enjoyed Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I first read Tolkien when I was in the sixth form (the last two years of grammar school) in my hometown of Blackburn, Lancashire. 

TL: When did you read The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings for the first time and do you still recall this moment?

MA: I read The Lord of the Rings when I discovered it in an early three-volume hardback edition in the school library. At the age of sixteen, I think. The library was at the top of an old nineteenth-century house, bought by Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School (so I recall) and converted into classrooms and a library for older pupils, with views across the road to the trees and fields of Corporation Park. I remember wooden shelves and polished floors, and I probably sat in a corner of that library and read several chapters at one sitting before I actually borrowed the first volume.

TL: Next to Tolkien's own works you have read most of his academic books, what is the work you like best of all?

MA: It is difficult to choose one work in isolation, since any particular book will remind you of the others that he wrote, and ultimately point you back in the direction of The Lord of the Rings. I enjoy the volume of essays called The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays because of the vistas that Tolkien opened up there on Old English literature, especially Beowulf. Recently I have found that I like browsing in Tolkien’s first academic book A Middle English Vocabulary; though I admit it will not be for everyone! Tolkien himself admitted to spending endless hours compiling it, and he perhaps wrote too much, but the result is an excellent guide to Middle English to etymology, with many examples from interesting texts. It is a difficult but rewarding guide to his concerns and interests. This is Tolkien the word-collector at an early stage in his career. The easiest way to find a copy is to look for the paperback Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose by Kenneth Sisam - Tolkien’s work is printed at the back. Of his fictional works (other than the two famous novels) I like best The Lost Road and Unfinished Tales: there are some vivid and compelling scenes in these stories. As to ‘hobbitry’ itself, while writing my book on Tolkien I came to appreciate the early draft of his magnum opus as edited by Christopher Tolkien in The Return of the Shadow: it is intriguing to speculate on the possible directions that the sequel to The Hobbit almost took, and these alternative versions throw light and shade on the actual definitive published version, The Fellowship of the Ring.

TL: I'd like to talk about your book, There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit. What prompted you to write the book?

MA: A former student of Regent’s Park College Oxford (the main college where I work) suggested that I was the person to write a biography of Tolkien. I was against the idea of doing a biography, as I think that writers like John Garth are already doing a good job in that area. But I realized that the wish to write about Tolkien had been at the back of my mind for some time. Tom Shippey’s writings were clearly an inspiration, but there was room to explore other aspects of that wide field of philology. I had been doing research and publishing on the Victorian philologists of the previous generation: scholars such as Walter Skeat, Henry Sweet and Joe Wright (the latter being one of Tolkien’s teachers when he was a student at Oxford), and I realized that they had passions and interests beyond the normal remit of philology, which Tolkien also shared.

TL: Of all books I have read on The Hobbit and Tolkien so far this is the first time I get a complete new perspective, how did you go about that?

MA: To take up my last point: it was these philologists’ passions and interests beyond the normal remit of philology which set me thinking about Tolkien too. Henry Sweet is a well-known name in both Anglo-Saxon studies and phonetics (he is one ingredient in the likable if acerbic character Professor Higgins that George Bernard Shaw invented for his play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady). Tolkien was a completely different personality, but he shares with Sweet the interest in dialect and phonetic scripts and notations, philological interests to be sure, but beyond that Sweet had a genuine love of wild landscapes, walking, fishing and a deep appreciation for modern poetry, particularly the Romantics, like Wordsworth and Shelley. Tolkien shows a similar love of word and phrase, of diction and metre, the craft of expression, of working with words. I think this can shed light on Tolkien’s other concerns, beyond the study of sound changes in the history of the English language. There are illuminating comparisons to be made with Joe Wright too, though he is the author of some arguably rather dry and dusty grammars of Old High German and Gothic (nevertheless of undeniable fascination of course to his student Tolkien). Joe Wright was an example of Oxford at its best, at its most open to social mobility. Wright was an auto-didact who taught himself to read and write in his teens, who then studied languages and philology in Germany and made it to a professorship at Oxford; a man who spoke standard English with a Yorkshire accent, who could switch when appropriate to his native dialect; a lively personality who loved the rich culture and folklore of the region in which he grew up.
These interests can be seen in Tolkien and his pupils, such as Hugh Smith, author of the The Merry Shire, a place-names expert and dialect poet whose poems are cited in There and Back Again. The genuine feeling for literature is there for instance in Tolkien’s Oxford friends and colleagues too, men like Neville Coghill, the translator of Chaucer, or the Anglo-Saxonist C.L. Wrenn (not to mention the Inklings like Lewis and Dyson).
Localism, a feeling for landscape and scenery, a love of natural history; spending time walking with friends through the Berkshire countryside, talking to the locals, learning from them, adding to their knowledge of phrase and fable; all this can shed light on Tolkien. And there are his friendships too: studying the writings of his friends is another way of seeing the cultural life and literary world in which he lived.

TL: Do you feel connected to Tolkien, being a lecturer in English Language and Literature at Oxford?

MA: Sometimes I come across old Victorian books in the library and pause to consider who might have read them over the generations. There is the sense of working in the same institution as Tolkien: the English Faculty of Oxford University where professors and lecturers meet to set and mark examinations, to give lectures and hold classes (as opposed to tutorials which we teach in our various colleges). The medieval literature specialists in the Oxford English Faculty teach many of the same set-texts as Tolkien did, though the syllabus has also changed to suit modern sensibilities. Oxford has been and still is a thriving centre for medieval studies.

TL: Your book really explains all elements that lie hidden inside The Hobbit. I never expected so much to be inside a children book!

MA: Some of the gems are lying on the surface, waiting for the informed reader to spot them. If you read the translation of the Poetic Edda to which the poet W.H. Auden contributed (and which is dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien), you suddenly realize where Tolkien found the names of the dwarves. But other elements are leaf-mould, already mixed and transformed. You have to be sensible: start with things that Tolkien knew and taught, or with people and authors he knew and read. You mustn't overstate your case. It is not a question of finding the one sole source to Tolkien’s Hobbit, the hidden key to the back door.

TL: Next to The Hobbit you discuss many of Tolkien's academic works, how do they connect with the book The Hobbit?

MA: There is a lot to say: so let’s think of some key texts. Tolkien’s work on Beowulf and his paraphrase of the story of Sigurd and the dragon are essential: they gave him a plot, the story of dragon fight and a theme greed and possessiveness, as symbolized by the quest for enchanted gold.
It is useful to read the poem Beowulf , at first in translation but then - following Tolkien’s strong urging - also look at the original Old English. It does not take long to learn to pronounce the unusual letters; and once the basic pronunciation is covered you can start to dwell on the words and phrases and make connections. That is what Tolkien aimed to promote, and you can then read Tolkien’s Monsters and the Critics or his preface to Clark Hall ‘On Translating Beowulf’ and appreciate his descriptions of the world of Beowulf. Partly that world arises out of the poetic language out of words and phrases like garsecg the spear-man, a personification of the ‘Encircling Sea’ or feorhus the living human body - the house where the feorh or spirit resides.

TL: I was so impressed with the chapter on philology, is this something you teach in your courses or just wrote especially for this book?

MA: I wrote that chapter for the book, but some of it is based on what I teach for the history of the English language.

TL: While reading Tolkien as a word-collector I had to think about the works by Mark Hooker, do you like his books?

MA: I came across them when I had finished the main draft of my book, so they are not an influence. I think there is clearly more scope for this kind of research and writing on Tolkien. There are many words to explore: once people have acquired some of the basic methods they can start doing this kind of work for themselves. But they need to start with some basic guides and textbooks.

TL: What sources did you use to write your book?

I used the many volumes of the History of Middle-earth.
I also took care to look at material published in the nineteen twenties and thirties: volumes of verse, university magazines, contemporary authors writing at the same time as Tolkien.

TL: What special qualifications do you have for making this study? What makes you different from your colleagues?

I like to work in both language and literary studies. When I was working on my doctorate I became proficient in Old English and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, but also worked on cultural history - how language and philology was studied and taught in the Victorian period. Tolkien’s education was of course provided by philologists who had made their careers in that period.

TL: How does this book compare to any other book on The Hobbit, like for example The History of the Hobbit?

Many of the books on The Hobbit follow its plot chapter by chapter, even page by page and are extremely useful, or they look at its themes and provide useful guides to students. I wanted to take an opportunity to explore in detail a number of Tolkien’s preoccupations and how they influenced his writing of the book. I wanted to cover his interest in philology, medieval literature and mythology, but I also hoped to show more of the Victorian origins of that. At the same time I wanted to find other influences in his personal interests and friendships, his sense of landscape, and his interest in dialect and dialect speakers particularly in Leeds and Yorkshire where he worked for five years, as well as in the West Midlands where he grew up.

TL: And how does your book compare to Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography? And what is your idea about that book?

Carpenter’s book is inspirational, partly because he had met many of the people he was writing about. 

TL: What is your hope for your readers?

I hope that they will come to appreciate the languages and literatures that Tolkien knew and taught, that they might be inspired by the idea of Tolkien as a word-collector, even follow these paths of study for themselves.

TL: When working on the research, did you discover new things about Tolkien? Something unexpected?

Many things, though some of these are realizations and insights; the facts are out there in the books by Douglas Anderson, John Garth, John Rateliff. The experience of the First World War is one thing I had not thought enough about. I discovered that Tolkien’s own Book of Lost Tales (which he wrote mostly during the Great War) became a source for The Hobbit: in some ways it might be said that the original draft of The Hobbit is a sequel to The Lost Tales. That early version is slightly earthier, more like a set of folk-tales.
It is interesting to think that Tolkien started his writing career as a poet, and that he was always very skilful in his use of metrical forms, he was a craftsman, a wordsmith. He was most likely influenced in all this by his aunt Jane Neave.
I was surprised at some of Tolkien’s reading: it is wider that one might expect from the impression given by some of the comments in his Letters: he even enjoyed the rather bawdy comedy of The Reeve’s Tale by Chaucer, and he claimed to have read Babbit by Sinclair Lewis.
Tolkien’s time at Leeds needs more research: I have discovered a few more facts about the work of his colleagues there and I am sure that more could be done to bring this part of his life into the open.
Finally, it makes sense to look at books Tolkien knew and loved from a characteristically Tolkienian perspective. The Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green knight is oddly reminiscent of the final scene at the barrow in Beowulf; when these two poems are explored together and their words and turns of phrase compared. 

TL: In a sentence or two, why should people buy this book? What makes it stand out?

This book is, at present, one of only a few books dedicated to the Hobbit and its sources and inspirations, attempting to give a new perspective by starting with his earlier life and working out how he came to write his first published novel - rather than looking back with hindsight from the perspective of The Lord of the Rings. The prequel is not only a prequel; it is a story in its own right with its own particular attractions for the reader.

TL: I especially enjoyed the appendices to your book, can you tell us a little about those?

I followed Shippey’s lead in The Road to Middle-earth and found a way of republishing some of the poems written by Tolkien’s friends and colleagues. In particular there are the little-known poems of his school friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, who died in the Great War: Tolkien edited and published G.B. Smith’s poems as A Spring Harvest in 1918. I have made a selection here, and a new edition of all the poems is forthcoming, edited by Douglas Anderson. One of Bache Smith’s poems ‘Rime’ has the lines: ‘O scholar, learned in gramarye,/ Have you seen the manifold things I see?’ that read almost as though Smith is addressing his friend Tolkien.
The appendices also contain poems by his colleagues at Leeds, including E.V. Gordon, the co-author who worked with him on the edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the former student Hugh Smith (notably author of a book of poems called The Merry Shire), who went on to become a professor of medieval English in his own right.

TL: One final question. Did you go to see The Hobbit movie by Peter Jackson and how did you like it? Since you studied and understand the strength of the use of dialect by Tolkien, does the movie do honor to this or miss a big opportunity.

Dialect  is hard to do in world cinema, as people have to be able to understand the English! The dwarves have accents from northern England, so there is some recognition of their need to sound different.

Title: There and Back Again: J R R Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit

Author: Mark Atherton

Publication Date:
September 1, 2012

hardcover, 288 pages

ISBN-13: 978-1780762463

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