|In 1947 Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publisher and friend, Stanley Unwin, that The Hobbit is not as simple as it seems.
In the spirit of this sentiment, Adam Roberts seeks to fight against the dominance of The Lord of the Rings and uncover the fascinating depth of The Hobbit in The Riddles of The Hobbit; the first critical engagement with Tolkien's great novel to explore 'the riddle' as a key principle.
When I announced The Riddles of The Hobbit I already said I should ask the author some questions and so I wrote him and was happy to have several questions answered, just in time for the release of the book on the 1st of November 2013. I hope this sheds some light about this new book, that I have enjoyed reading and can only recommend.
TL. Adam Roberts, most people (hopefully) know you from your award-winning novel Jack Glass, but I don't know if many know you are also A.R.R.R. Roberts the author of The Soddit and The Sellamillion.
I'm also George Clooney, the noted movie star. But I keep quiet about that.
TL. Many Tolkien fans must have enjoyed your works, some even joke that more people actually read The Sellamillion then The Silmarillion! Your books sure read well. But I always wonder how you came up with the idea to start writing parodies.
The first one I wrote (The Soddit) I did because my publisher asked me to do it. I had such fun that now, whenever they ask me to do another one, I say yes.
TL. Having also read Jack Glass and several of your shorter stories I must say I can feel a lot of influences in your work from a lot of authors that I truly love, Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, Philip K. Dick but also Tolkien... but what are the authors that have influenced you?
I grew up reading and SF and F -- Tolkien, Le Guin, Clarke, Asimov, Christopher Priest, Phil Dick, Brian Aldiss. My reading broadened in my teens, though I never stopped reading SF (and re-reading Tolkien; between the ages of 14 and 46 I re-read The Lord of the Rings every year), into nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. I did a university degree in English and Classics, and then a PhD, and then started teaching at the University of London. If I'm asked now I would say: the two 20th-century authors that have influenced me the most are probably Tolkien and Nabokov.
TL. You are truly one of the more remarkable people I have spoken with, not only are you professor of 19th century literature in London, author of parodies and science fiction novels and stories, you also managed to write down some serious studies as well. How can you combine it all? Strong black coffee. TL. What I really hoped to talk with you about is your upcoming book The Riddles of The Hobbit, what prompted you to write this book?
There's an increasing body of critical work about Tolkien by academics, scholars and enthusiasts; but most of it concentrates on Lord of the Rings. That's understandable, in a way: it's a major, multi-facted work. I've always loved The Hobbit, but I began to wonder if scholars considered it too 'simple' to engage it critically. I don't think it is at all; writing The Riddles of the Hobbit drew together my thoughts and jottings on the work from across several years
TL. It was a big surprise for me to see your book, I never expected anyone to write a book all about Riddles in the Dark, but I was mistaken since your book is about so much more!
The germ for the book was when it struck me, one day, that when Gandalf first meets Bilbo the wizard treats the hobbit's simple greeting 'good morning' as a riddle -- 'what do you mean?' and so on. Prompted by that I went through the novel again, and it struck me as a much more riddling text than I had previously understood. They're everywhere in it!
TL. Do you see the Riddles as an essential part of the success of The Hobbit?
I think the heart of the success of The Hobbit is the extent to which Tolkien was able to recreate an Old English or Old Norse idiom in this modern form (the children's novel). As I argue in the book, I take that culture to have been in a profound sense a 'riddling' one, ironic, playful, funny, brave in a deliberately careless way. So in that sense, yes, I think so.
TL. Do you think even Peter Jackson felt the importance and kept the riddles in the dark series very close to the books... or is this piece in the movie the best part because of the magic of riddles?
The Hobbit trilogy of movies isn't complete yet, so there's a danger in pre-judging it. Nonetheless I wonder if the problem with these films (as opposed to the Lord of the Rings movies, which I loved) is that they over-explain, over-elaborate Tolkien's imagined world -- padding out the few hundred pages of prose into hours and hours of screen time. That's a kind of anti-riddling, over-explanatory aesthetic I think.
TL. How did you set about picking topics for the book and did you feel like the whole story has now been told? All riddles solved?
By no means! Some of the 'riddles' Tolkien addresses (such as his 'subcreative' approach to religious mysteries) are by their nature deep enough to resist all solution. But there are other aspects of the novel that I feel I could explore more: the topographical aspects of it, for instance: its landscape and trajectory; the spiders, too; the elves.
TL: Having now written a serious work on Tolkien did you find an answer to why Tolkien has been so popular with readers?
TL: So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?
Because the genre he is part of, and which he in large part he created -- I mean, popular Fantasy -- was seen for a long time as infra dig by academic critics. This in turn had to do with the literary and critical fall out of what amounted to a war between two different modes of writing (high brow and popular, avant-garde experimental and journalistic or popular narrative -- in a nutshell, Henry James versus H G Wells) that shaped 'Modernism'. I think that is changing now, though.
TL. The cover of the books shows a misty landscape. Did you pick (or even make) this photograph?
The people at Palgrave found it. I only nodded my approval.
TL. Maybe a strange question, but what do you love more, Tolkien's works or the man behind the books?
I can only say: the books -- because I never knew the man. The danger with writing that one loves is that one conjures an imaginary figure of the author in one's imagination, and he or she will certainly have almost nothing to do with the reality. That latter strikes me as at best a mistake and at worst an impertinence: Tolkien the man belongs to his family and friends, not to The General Public.
TL. While I truly loved your book on The Riddles of The Hobbit, will you be writing more studies now or write some more Science Fiction (guess a lot of people are waiting for 'another Jack Glass' now - a bit the reason why Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit)? Perhaps a trilogy (just kidding)?
At the moment I'm finishing a new novel -- not a sequel to Jack Glass, I'm afraid: it's called Bête. At the same time, as a salaried professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, I do have to produce academic work -- I've just finished working on a new edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria for Edinburgh University Press. As for Jack ... well, I had an idea for a sequel, but it involved the murder of everybody in the solar system, and the search for the murderer by the intelligent AIs left behind. I'm holding off writing it because, well, it strikes me as a pretty terminal subject for a novel.
|Title: The Riddles of The Hobbit
Publishers: Palgrave Macmillan
Author: Adam Roberts
Publication Date: November 1, 2013
Type: hardcover, 192 pages
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