Q&A with Henry Gee
Henry Gee is the real world equivalent of our well-known Green Books columnist, Olog-Hai. Born in 1962, he received his B.Sc. in zoology and genetics from the University
of Leeds in 1984, and his PhD. in zoology from the University of Cambridge in 1991. He is now a Senior Editor at Nature magazine. Most of his "Science of Middle-earth" columns at Green Books have been revised and collected into a new book, also titled The Science of Middle-earth [Cold Spring Press $14.00 trade paperback, ISBN 1593600232], where they join many other, unpublished essays on the scientific underpinnings of Middle-earth, Tolkien's surprisingly welcoming views of science, and the relationship between science and fantasy. This event gives impetus for a Q&A with Henry on the origins of his book and his views on Tolkien. His website can be found at http://www.henrygee.org.uk.
Q: Tell us about your first encounter with Tolkien.
A: I've been a fan of Tolkien almost as long as I can remember. The Hobbit was read to me when I was around eight years old -- by a fierce, intelligent young woman called Mrs Elias, one of those wonderful teachers we remember all our lives. She was an excellent and enthralling reader, one of those who brings the book to life. I can still hear her, as the Great Goblin, declaim "Who are these Miserable Persons?" to us, the terrified and enraptured children. I pestered my parents for a copy, and I have it still: I've just settled my own six-year-old into bed with it (that same episode, in fact). When I was ten my parents gave me a one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings. I devoured that, too, though I was overawed by the exoticism and complexity of it, and couldn't really work out what was going on. The fact that my copy lacked most of the Appendices made it all the more attractively mysterious.
I insisted that my parents read it to me whenever I was ill, which was quite often. They absolutely hated it. However, thinking back on it, it couldn't be helped, as my mother, a classicist, had early instilled in me a love of myths and legends. First the Greek canon -- the Iliad and Odyssey -- after which I graduated to Norse mythology as retold by Roger Lancelyn Green (who I later discovered had been a Tolkien devotee), childrens' versions of Beowulf and so on. So my teenage psyche was very receptive to Tolkien's style of storytelling, based on myth and epic rather than the conventions of the modern novel, as it were.
At the age of twelve or thirteen, in the early 1970s, I was in a school play of The Hobbit. I had two parts. The first was 58th Goblin, but the second gave me a chance to shine: I was a female troll, called Essie, with a huge fright wig and frilly bloomers (I can still remember my opening line, "Blimey Bert, look wot I've copped!", in the voice of a Pythonesque washerwoman). By then I was at an all-boys' school, so we had to vary it a bit, and as we all know, Tolkien skimped on good parts for the ladies. Smaug was a wonderful creation. All the audience saw in the darkened auditorium were two spotlights (for eyes) which had been mounted on a tea trolley. His voice was created by a wild-haired visiting music teacher, who ran his voice through one of those new-fangled synthesizer things to make a terrifying, room-filling roar. Our effects were thirty years ahead of Weta's, though it's fair to say they've caught up.
I picked up The Lord of the Rings again when I was fifteen: in the same year the Silmarillion came out. I remain amazed that Tom Shippey said that the Silmarillion could never be anything but hard to read. To me is slipped down a treat, but that perhaps reflects a childhood steeped in the conventions of mythic storytelling (however, I still think Túrin was a miserable twerp who had it coming to him). Like many people in their teens and twenties, I read Rings about a dozen times between my teens and mid-twenties, after which I put it aside for a while. But a love of Tolkien, like the ability to ride a bicycle, once acquired, never goes away. It was stirred once more into life by the movies. By that time I no longer possessed a copy, so I bought a movie tie-in (now heavily re-read, patched and scrawled with notes), along with everything else Tolkien wrote on Middle-earth. It was then I discovered TORn, and found that I was not alone -- there was a community of Tolkien fans out there whose interest had been rekindled by the films. It was wonderful to be able to welcome Quickbeam and the rest of the Ringers crew when they came to London and show them around in 2003 -- and to travel to LA to join the festivities at The One Party in February.
Q: Tell us a bit about your non-Tolkien work.
A: Like many people who read Tolkien at an early age and never grew out of it, I became a scientist. Specifically, a paleontologist, like Gollum (and Tolkien), interested in digging deeper, after roots and beginnings. But you can't make a living digging holes in the ground (if it's fossils you're after), so in 1987, just before I got my doctorate, I joined the editorial staff of the international science journal Nature, where I have been ever since -- writing, reporting, assessing the flood of new manuscripts we receive from scientists, and generally covering the fossil beat. In that time I have written a few books, all on aspects of paleontology and evolution, a ton of essays, reviews and commentary, and a tiny amount of SF. The Science of Middle-earth is my first book of what one might call criticism.
It was on my watch at Nature last March that we received an unlikely research report from scientists in Australia and Indonesia, that a skeleton of a new and hitherto unexpected species of fossil human had been unearthed in a cave on the remote island of Flores. The creature stood only a meter tall, would have lived almost into modern times, and could have been the basis of local legends of little people living secretively in the woods. Inevitably it became known as a 'hobbit', but professional integrity meant that I couldn't put it into the book, in case the book was published before the research -- which would have been disastrous. As it turned out, it was a narrow squeak -- the book came out a week after the research was published, but the coincidence was such that to draw too much attention to it would have been crass! I did, however, write a news report for TORn all about it ("An Unexpected Party").
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Q: Your first "Science of Middle-earth" column appeared in the Special Guest section at Green Books in July 2003. Less than a year and a half later, there is a published book of them. Did you envision this project as a book from the start?
A: Not to begin with, though it wasn't long. The column started after I'd wandered round the site for a while, and came across a Q&A about Elvish eyesight, in which someone had claimed that Elves could see further than humans. This immediately struck me as wrong -- Elves and humans can see the same distance, but where Aragorn sees a blur, Legolas sees individual riders. It is a question not of distance but acuity, and I felt moved to write a corrective. But before I did that, it occurred to me that there was scope for an occasional series on science on TORn, so my article "Keen are the Eyes of the Elves" was second on the site, after a general introduction. The article on Elvish eyesight remains the most popular, however. After I had done two or three, the ideas came faster than I could write them down.
It was then that the possibility of a book opened up. I realized that there is a small subgenre of books on the scientific underpinnings of various popular fantasy and science-fiction books and films. My friends Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart had collaborated with Terry Pratchett to do The Science of Discworld (now in two volumes, a third coming soon), and there exist similar treatments of the X-Files, Star Trek, His Dark Materials and so on. It was when I saw a review of a book on The Science of Harry Potter that it struck me with some force (I remember exactly where I was at the time) that nobody had done the same for Tolkien.
Amazed at this thought -- given the exposure of the movies and so on -- I realized I was well placed to do it. You and Quickbeam introduced me to Cold Spring Press, a book was born, and you very kindly encouraged me to use the TORn columns as test-runs for what became my fastest and most enjoyable writing experience (it took just five months from start to finish). People emailed me to comment on the columns and make suggestions, enriching the experience. Versions of six of my previously published TORn columns appear in the book, though they've all been transmuted, extended and updated to some extent in the light of comments from readers and more research. But the vast majority of the book is quite new and hasn't appeared on the site or anywhere else. One chapter I wrote for the book, about how Saruman created the explosives to undermine Helm's Deep, was removed, in case people thought it scurrilous, or worse. My teenage test-readers liked that part the most, of course.
The book done, I have continued to write for the site. Two columns ("How High the Mallorn" and "Melanism and Middle-earth") don't appear in the book. Neither, of course, does the special news story ("An Unexpected Party") I wrote based on the amazing discoveries from Flores -- though it would have fit in extremely well into the chapter entitled "The Gates of Minas Tirith". Perhaps I can save that for a second edition?
Q: What was the inspiration for the series?
A: Two things. The first is the coherence of Middle-earth, which demands explanation. Tolkien worked hard to ensure that Middle-earth was self-consistent to the last jot. In so doing, he objectified it -- no longer his creation, it became a fantasy destination for him to explore as much as of any of his readers. This self-consistency can only be underpinned by reason and good sense. In other words, Middle-earth has laws that can be investigated with precisely the same mental equipment that scientists use to explore the real world. I set out to discover some of those laws, and did indeed find some. Evolution in Middle-earth is Lamarckian, not Darwinian. And orcs could all be female (a possibility that surprised nobody more than me).
The second is that I believe nobody has done anything like this before, and I think I know why. Whenever I mentioned that I was writing a book about the science of Middle-earth, people said either that I wouldn't have much to write about (evidently wrong) or pointed to Gandalf's famous chastisement of Saruman's reductionist tendencies (that he who takes something to bits to find out how it works has left the path of wisdom, or words to that effect) implying that Tolkien was anti-scientific, and science would find no place in what is essentially a nostalgic, romantic fantasy, so therefore I was barking up the wrong tree. However, even a cursory reading of Tolkien shows that this anti-scientific sloganeering should be treated with the same caution as Tolkien's well-advertised dislike of allegory. Tolkien did not object to science -- indeed, he was fascinated by it -- what he objected to is its misuse, as an instrument of domination: and that is a statement not about science, but about politics. The entire Middle-earth legendarium can be read as a fugue on the use and abuse of knowledge (by Melkor, the Noldor, the Dwarves, the Istari, the Númenóreans -- in fact, almost everyone), and the extent to which that knowledge should be kept secret or shared.
It is a curious fact that people have rarely commented on the scientific rigor of the philological study that was Tolkien's stock in trade, perhaps because critics come from backgrounds in which the old-fashioned methods of comparison and analysis have fallen into disuse. They are very much alive in science, however, and Tolkien applied them to every aspect of his invented world, not just its languages.
So there I was with a great idea and a world before me, unexplored. To be sure, some had ventured a little way across the border. Dr Kristine Larson, an astronomer in Canada, has used Tolkien in her science teaching (she very kindly read and commented on the draft of the book), and various people -- notably Karen Wynn Fonstad in The Atlas of Middle-earth -- have looked at Tolkien's peculiar cartography. But nobody, as far as I am aware, has taken a broad look at Tolkien from a scientific standpoint. Nobody has sought to investigate the physics, biology and chemistry of Middle-earth in any systematic way, until I came along, so help me.
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Q: You also have a new hardcover book recently published in the US by Norton, Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome (hardcover $29.95 ISBN 0393050831). Tell us about it.
A: Jacob's Ladder had its roots in a lot of things. One was the announcement of the unscrambling of the human genome in 2001, followed by triumphalist headlines to the effect that we'd read the "book of life" and could begin to understand "what it means to be human". Which is, of course, nonsense, and I wanted to express how nonsensical I thought it, while still applauding the scale of the achievement. The second was the unfolding joy of fatherhood, a state achieved in 1998 and again in 2000. I wanted to put all this together in a book, in some way, and what emerged was a kind of history of our understanding of the genome as an entity -- not as some kind of monument to large quantities of static information, like the Library of Congress, but as an active agent that directs the formation of an organism from a formless blob; which does so for every organism, whether baby or bacterium; and which does so with a reliability that we take for granted. So like Niggle, I found myself painting not one leaf but the whole forest, exploring what we know about how babies are made; the roots of our understanding of form, back to antiquity; re-telling the entire history of life from a genomic point of view; and putting out some scientific ideas which I believe are quite new. It was quite a voyage.
However, what has struck me quite recently is that even if Jacob's Ladder gets to be a bestseller, it will touch the lives of remarkably few people, and part of the reason is that scientists are extraordinarily bad at engaging the minds of the young. Indeed, they seem to do all they can to put people off science, a serious theme I have addressed in "Science and Fantasy", the last chapter of The Science of Middle-earth. All science begins with a hypothesis, which boils down to someone asking "What if....?" What if I mixed these things together rather than those? What if I pointed my telescope here rather than there? What should I discover? In other words, science requires a capacity to transport oneself into a self-created, self-consistent universe and explore what happens. Next year is the 100th anniversary of Einstein's annus mirabilis in which he came up with the Special Theory of Relativity -- using, as his laboratory, nothing more than his own capacity to generate a fantasy Universe in which he saw himself riding on a beam of light, and wondering what he would see from that point of view. Tolkien would have understood, as he and Lewis and the other Inklings were doing that kind of thing all the time. (Indeed, I suspect that Tolkien was familiar with relativity, as references about the elasticity of time in Lothlórien appear to indicate). In my view, Tolkien -- and fantasy writers in general -- are closer to the spirit of science than many so-called proponents of science, who urge us to cut fantasy completely from our lives and stick to what they call "facts". This is a mistake, and hugely counterproductive.
As a corrective I have been using Middle-earth to promote science to teenagers. Last week the book was adopted by my local High School in Ilford here in London -- at the instigation of a friend and fellow Tolkienophile who is Head of English there -- as a vehicle for getting 14-year-olds interested in science. In an event that lasted half a day, groups of students used The Science of Middle-earth to investigate the mechanics of mithril, test the aerodynamics of Balrogs, and -- of course -- explore the strange worlds revealed by Elvish vision. I gave a short talk about Tolkien, and Jack Cohen gave one of his bravura performances about the use of science to constrain the design of aliens and other mythical creatures (which he and Ian Stewart did in their book What Does A Martian Look Like?).
Now, these students come from an inner-city and largely immigrant background. Quite a few of them don't speak English as a first language and their parents are, in the main, devout fundamentalists of one stripe or other. Fewer than one in twenty had read an entire book in the previous year (though most had seen the films of The Lord of the Rings.) In our promotion of science as "disciplined imagination", and emphasizing how much closer science is to fantasy than many professional scientists should like or admit, Jack and I went in with the aim that if even one of this 180-strong group came out with a greater liking for science, such that they chose it as a career, our job would have been well done. But it was very hard work.
Q: And what are your views of the Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings?
A: They are marvelous, magnificent -- so wonderful that I find it hard to be entirely objective. Are they better than Citizen Kane? Or, perhaps more pertinently, Gladiator? We'll need to wait a few years before we can make a reasonable assessment, I think. All one can do now is reach a judgment that is inescapably personal. True, there are moments in the films that make you cringe, but these are few. The achievement lies in the overall effect, in that they capture, for me, the spirit of Tolkien. This is especially true of The Fellowship of the Ring. One is always apprehensive about seeing a film adaptation of a cherished book, and it was with a mixture of excitement and worry that I first sat down to watch Fellowship at a local multiplex, now almost three years ago. It looked good right from the start, but when the camera showed Gandalf's cart toiling up the Hill with the Party Tree and the panorama of the Shire in the background, I knew we were in safe hands. Obviously, I'd prefer my children to read the books before they see the films, but as the films were made with such reverence to Tolkien, I wouldn't cry myself to sleep if they saw the films first.
And if one reflects on those cringe-making episodes (cringe #1: Elrond saying that Arwen is dying. Yuck! Cringe #2: Orlando Bloom talking about his "Leggy Moments": Nurse, pass the sickbag) one should pause to think just how dreadful it could have been. This was a far, far superior treatment of the story than we had a right to hope, still less expect. What I find irritating is the whine of a few self-styled Tolkien purists who still disparage the films, without taking to heart Tolkien's own views on the subject. To be sure, one wonders whether Tolkien would have entirely approved of some aspects of the films, including the perhaps inevitable distillation of complex characters into action figures.
However, Tolkien took a view early on (and which he only later came to view as grandiose) that others might take the sketch of his mythology and embellish it in their own idiom -- poetry, painting, whatever -- complete, presumably, with bowdlerizations, simplifications and contradictions, for such is the process whereby mythology is enriched. There is no law to say, for example, that there can't be a version of the story in which Arwen doesn't take a more active part than she does in the book; nor that Faramir should remain the overgrown boy-scout depicted by Tolkien, who would -- as Philippa Boyens has so astutely pointed out --negate several hundred pages of build-up in which the Ring is shown to be addictive and perilous, just to have him pass it by, as it were a trinket on the highway. In the same way, there is no law that says that Cuchulainn, a figure of Irish folklore usually hailed as a hero, shouldn't also appear as a villain, as he does in some tales where he is worsted by his adversary Finn McCool. In this respect, Peter Jackson has remained truer to the spirit of Tolkien by making these films than by not making them. And when, in a few years time, some unknown director with a few obscure splatter films to his credit wishes to shoot a remake, we should avoid saying that the Jackson films are definitive. We should give that director every encouragement.