Q&A with Jane Chance
Jane Chance is a Professor of English at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she has taught since 1973. She has taught Tolkien at Rice since 1976, and has published numerous books on medieval literature. Her first book on Tolkien was Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England (1979), which was followed by The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power (1992). Revised editions of these books appeared in 2001, published by the University Press of Kentucky: Tolkien's Art (ISBN 0813190207 trade paperback $19.95) and The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power (ISBN 0813190177 trade paperback $19.95). Both are appearing in Japanese translations. Her most recent Tolkien-related book is a volume of essays that she edited, Tolkien the Medievalist (ISBN 0415289440 $95.00), published last year by Routledge.
Professor Chance kindly agreed to discuss her Tolkien work with us, and our Q&A session appears below. Also see her website.
Q: Your Tolkien's Art was one of the earliest serious books on Tolkien. Recent republished in a revised edition, it focuses on the way Old English and Middle English literature informed Tolkien's approach to writing as found in his Middle-earth stories, and in his other writings, like Farmer Giles of Ham, which you present as a burlesque of the medieval heroic ideals. Do you feel that Tolkien's medievalism has been a stumbling block, at least among modernist critics, for the academic acceptance of Tolkien's work?
A: Not at all. I think the resistance to academic acceptance of Tolkien's work comes from ignorance of how seamlessly Tolkien interwove medievalism with his fiction, in large part because the academics resisting are modernists who know little or nothing about the Middle Ages or about Tolkien's own importance as a medieval scholar. So in the sense that the medieval is often dismissed as marginal by academics today, both medieval ideas and those who study them would be perceived as unimportant to modernists and postmodernists. The irony here is that Tolkien's very popularity, especially through Peter Jackson's film, has boosted academic student interest in the Middle Ages among those who read Tolkien. So medievalists around the country find themselves offering Tolkien courses to students so interested that waiting lists have to be created. In other words, academic modernists do not understand The Lord of the Rings, for the most part, and therefore do not regard it very highly. I'm not even certain that the critics and scholars who scoff at Tolkien--who was designated by the Waterstone/B.B.C. poll as best twentieth-century novelist --have even read The Lord of the Rings.
Q: Having covered Tolkien's major works in Tolkien's Art, you came back to give The Lord of the Rings a more extensive treatment in The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, which covers Tolkien's masterpiece from a more contemporary context rather than a medievalist one. Can you comment on the differing approaches and how each adds to our understanding of Tolkien as a writer?
A: Both books argue that Tolkien's writing must be understood through examination of who he was, that is, of his profession --as medievalist-- and of his role as an ordinary man buffeted by the wars, intolerance, and misuse of power of the twentieth-century. Tolkien's Art covers all of Tolkien's fiction and his scholarship on medieval literature; The Lord of the Rings focuses just on the epic. In Tolkien's Art I was particularly interested in examining the genesis of Tolkien's fiction-writing in Old English literature, especially in his famous essay on Beowulf, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," which was written about the same time as The Hobbit. (Even earlier, he had started the Silmarillion mythology by reworking characters and imagery from Cynewulf's Old English poem Crist into his legend of the voyage of Earendil.) In that essay he damns the arrogant scholars who misread Beowulf by ignoring the monsters fought by the hero as central to the poem, rather than its history, anthropology, philology, etc. The arrogant critic and scholar takes on mythic significance elsewhere in Tolkien's fiction, and can be spotted in figures like wizard Saruman and even the Dark Lord. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power examines the interrelationship of Tolkien's life and modern history with The Lord of the Rings. Mostly, I wanted to dispel the modernist anxiety that The Lord of the Rings is a work whose ideas might be construed as reactionary, elitist, conservative, fascist, sexist, or racist. Because of Tolkien's experiences of destruction and loss in the two World Wars, his horror over the rise to power of Nazi Germany, and his Christian faith in redemption, he offers instead heroes of Middle-earth in the marginal and unimportant Hobbits, service to the community of the entire world by grubby Strider/Aragorn, king of the west, in his aid of the Hobbits in their peaceful quest to return the Ring to its source, and fulfillment of the prophecy by the female Dernhelm (Eowyn in disguise) that no man will kill the Nazgul king My point in The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power is that Tolkien celebrates littleness, the marginal, and difference; leadership as based on humility and love; and a rejection of war as a means of solving international disputes.
Q: The book description at Amazon.com for your volume Tolkien the Medievalist is rather minimalist. It says: "Interdisciplinary in approach, this book provides a fresh perspective on J. R. R. Tolkien's medievalism. Fifteen essays explore how professor Tolkien responded to a modern age of crisis -- historical, academic and personal." Can you tell us more about the volume?
A: The book description should have added that "Eminent scholars as well as new voices in these fifteen essays explore how Professor Tolkien responded to a modern age of crisis--historical, academic, and personal--by adapting his scholarship on medieval literature to his own personal voice and by fictionalizing those works. The four sections reveal the author influenced by his profession, religious faith, and important issues of his time; by his relationships with other medievalists; by the medieval sources that he read and taught; and even by his own medieval mythologizing."
Q: As a scholar with a particular interest in medieval women writers and in the study of gender, how do you view the role of women in The Lord of the Rings?
A: Tolkien allocated women an important role in the epic adventure of the return of the Ring to Mordor. Both Frodo and Bilbo merit their heroic natures and their connection with the greatest Hobbit adventurers of the past through their mothers, Belladonna Took and Primula Brandybuck, a discussion of whom begins the first book. Galadriel, keeper of one of the elven rings, renounces the Ring and her ancient quest for power and therefore helps to save Middle-earth, which wins her race redemption and the return to the East. Eowyn as Dernhelm fulfils the epic prophecy that no man will kill the Nazgul king and thereby avenges Theoden's fatal wounding; her heroism allows Merry (whom she has sagely brought with her in equal disobedience of the king's orders) to save her from certain death and thus to let her live to marry Faramir, whose life will be similarly saved by Pippin, and thereby together peacefully join the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor. Aragorn and Arwen marry at the end of the epic narrative, weaving together by their union many elven, Maia, and human families to promote peace on Middle-earth. Aragorn is the descendant of the man Beren and the elf Luthien, who rescued her lover Beren from death. Arwen is the daughter of Celebrķan and Elrond, and granddaughter of Galadriel and Celeborn. The last scene shows us Sam returning to Rosie Cotton and their child, in the last lines of Return of the King--they have kept the home fires burning in order for Sam to return. I could go on. I see no disjunction between Tolkien's celebration of women and their influence on Middle-earth.
Q: I understand that you are the main organizer of the Tolkien lectures at the annual Medievalists Conference. Can you elaborate on this?
A: Four years ago I created a scholarly organization called "Tolkien at Kalamazoo" (analogous with "Shakespeare at Kalamazoo" and "Spenser at Kalamazoo") because I felt medievalists needed a scholarly outlet to discuss Tolkien's medievalism--and that because Tolkien as a major author was rarely studied as part of Modern Literature in English Departments around the country he ought to be included as part of Medieval Literature. I asked for three sessions at the annual International Congress on the Middle Ages the first year (2001), four the second (2002), and five the third (2003); for the fourth, to be held in May 2004, we have requested (and received) five sessions, with a sixth, on teaching Tolkien, cosponsored by the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages. The earliest sessions received notice in interviews published the New York Times and the TLS Education Supplement. At this conference last year we had eighty in the audience. As a result of these sessions, we were asked after the first year to publish a collection on "Tolkien the Medievalist" by Routledge Ltd., after the second year, a collection on "Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader," by University Press of Kentucky, and in anticipation of the fourth (next year), a collection on "Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages" (Bucknell University Press). The website for Tolkien at Kalamazoo is http://www.Tolkienkzoo.org. We welcome abstracts for scholarly papers to be presented next May. My email is email@example.com if anyone has questions about the sessions or the conference.
Q: If one thinks of Tolkien as bringing the literary modes of the Middle Ages forward into the twentieth century, how do you view the next wave of post-Tolkien fantasy writers? Are there any you yourself particularly enjoy? Do you see any of these writers as actually extending Tolkien's medievalism rather than merely attempting to copy it?
A: Douglas Anderson or Tom Shippey would be a much better resource for an answer to this question. I don't read contemporary fantasy, alas. Please forgive, but I have my hands full with Tolkien, medieval women writers and gender issues, and medieval literature and mythography!
Q: Are you working on any further Tolkien-related projects?
A: Yes, Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader is a collection of essays on the ways in which Tolkien's reading of classical and medieval Latin, Old Norse, Old English, and Finnish mythological literature catalyzed aspects of his own mythology in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. We use "invention" in the medieval sense of "discovery" and include several important background essays on Tolkien's use of folklore, allegory, religion, philosophy, and philology in his construction of mythology. "Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages," to be co-edited with Afred Siewers, explores the theme of Tolkien's reinvention of the Middle Ages as "imaginary space" in which "alternate pasts" can be "recovered" or "colonized," and therefore "alternate futures" viewed. Tolkien's own fantasies have attracted interest from a wide range in the political spectrum, "from the postmodern counter-culture to conservative Christian traditionalists." I'm also working on essays on "Tolkien and the Other: Race and Gender in Middle-earth" and "Tolkien and Chaucer on Class" for various collections to be published in the future, including the Marquette University collection planned for publication in 2005 after their 2004 conference on Tolkien.
Q: And, finally, as a longtime reader and scholar of Tolkien, what are your views on Peter Jackson's movies of The Lord of the Rings?
A: I have already published my specific view on Jackson's Fellowship in the journal Film/Literature and will discuss gender and women in all three films in a volume on the films to be published by the Mythopoeic Society in 2004-5. I think Peter Jackson is to be congratulated for bringing the trilogy to the screen so successfully and by this means drawing attention to Tolkien's stature as a preeminent novelist of the twentieth century. I may quarrel with Jackson's specific deletions from and changes and additions to the epic novel, for which Tolkien, no doubt, would criticize him roundly if were he alive to see the films, but I believe Jackson has (thus far, at least) preserved the spirit of Tolkien's master work and powerfully visualized it. The nature of the film medium so differs from that of the novelistic medium that we will from now on need to differentiate between Tolkien's print version and Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings.
Thank you, Professor Chance.