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Interview with Simon Tolkien
Posted on December 06, 2010 by Jason Fisher

[This interview originally appeared in Mythprint 47:6 (#335) in June 2010. Join the Mythopoeic Society to subscribe to Mythprint for as low as $12/year.]

Simon Tolkien, the son of Christopher Tolkien and the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, has recently published his second novel, The Inheritance. His next novel, The King of Diamonds, will be published by Minotaur in April, 2011. You can learn more about Simon Tolkien and his novels at his website, www.simontolkien.com.

Jason Fisher: Can you tell us what you remember of your grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, and grandmother, Edith? (Apologies for giving you the same question you’ve no doubt answered a hundred times; thank you for indulging me!)

Simon Tolkien: Yes, I have answered this question many times so let me treat it as if you are asking me about my grandparents together – a question I have never answered. They were very different people, and there were barriers between them throughout their marriage. My grandmother was not in any way intellectual. In the early years of their marriage in Leeds she transcribed some of my grandfather’s early stories, but Oxford was always hard for her – the university was an entirely male-dominated world. As a girl she had been a very good pianist but she did not pursue this once she was married. Religion also separated them. My grandfather persuaded my grandmother to convert to Roman Catholicism when they were married but within a few years she had turned her back on the Church. This must have been hard for him given the Church’s teaching that only true believers went to heaven. Their lives were never easy. My grandfather had to work very hard, combining two jobs as an author and a university professor. They brought up four children, and they lived through two World Wars. My grandfather fought on the Somme in 1916 and two of their sons fought in the Second World War, with my uncle Michael being permanently scarred by his terrible experiences under fire. They always remained deeply loyal and proud of each other. I think that my grandfather agreed to leave Oxford for Bournemouth after he retired because he knew his wife would be happier there and it was also ‘her turn.’ I think they always retained a heartfelt tenderness for each other, remembering that they had both been orphans and the struggle that they had had to overcome to get married after my grandfather’s guardian had forced them apart for years before my grandfather came of age. Their old friend, Rob Murray told me several years ago how he had come upon them unawares when he was staying with them in Bournemouth at the end of the sixties and they were sitting hand in hand remembering how happy they had been. My grandfather was a romantic and his wife was always in part Lúthien Tinúviel dancing in the woods in 1917, and so their names appear as Beren and Lúthien on their gravestones in Wolvercote Cemetery where they are buried side by side.

JF: When did you first read The Lord of the Rings? What do you think of it?

ST: I have read it five times, first when I was a child and now again to my daughter – we are about to climb the stairs of Cirith Ungol. This is the first time I have read the book since I myself became a writer, and reading it gives me a sense of who my grandfather was. I have been particularly struck by the extraordinary detail of his description of landscape. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy at his best, and I sense how much the natural world must have meant to him. Perhaps this is where his love of words began – from when his mother taught him the names of the trees and flowers in the countryside around Sarehole when he was a child. Also this time round I was deeply moved by Tom Bombadil and Goldberry – I think this was as close as my grandfather could come to describing an earthly heaven – language become poetry and song in the valley of the Withywindle.

JF: Can you remember anything of the time when your father, Christopher Tolkien, was editing The Silmarillion and other posthumous publications of your grandfather’s? You would have been a teenager at the time, but did he ever say anything to you about the process, the difficulties, or hint at his hopes or fears in taking on that momentous task?

ST: There was an old barn in the house where my father lived in Berkshire when I was a boy, and we had wonderful games of table tennis in there together. And there was a rickety ladder leading up to a loft with a view down into the working farm next door. But then when my grandfather died the barn was converted to a great workroom in which all the manuscripts were assembled for the writing of The Silmarillion. I remember Guy Kay working out there with my father. And when the project was finished several years later my father and stepmother sold the house and moved to France which was upsetting for me. As you say, I was a teenager during these times and The Silmarillion is not what concerned me; it was the changes that my grandfather’s death brought about in my life that mattered.

JF: How did you come to decide on a literary career of your own? Obviously, your education followed a different path from that of your father and grandfather (Professors of Lit. and Lang.). But at some point you came around to writing. Did some part of you always want to be a writer? Do you have any similar interest in languages?

ST: I wrote no fiction until I was forty. With the benefit of hindsight I think that I was intimidated from doing so by the scale of my grandfather’s achievement. Then at the end of the 1990s the Jackson movies spurred me to want to create an identity of my own so I would not look in the mirror and just see the grandson of The Lord of the Rings staring back at me. However I think that unconsciously I had been preparing for this change in career for a long time as I wrote a daily diary from 1990 onwards and over the course of ten years slowly learnt to write without self-consciousness.

JF: Write what you know, they say. And indeed, your latest novel (like your first) is a legal thriller, not a fantasy story. But unlike the first, The Inheritance seems to be more suffused with people, professions, settings, and artifacts — professors, ancient codexes, the aftermath of the World Wars, Oxford, Bournemouth, even a Remington typewriter — that could have been lifted from your childhood. The main action of The Inheritance is set in 1959, the year you were born. How much of the period and settings come from your own personal childhood memories, as opposed to your larger study of history?

ST: History was my first and greatest love. I am slightly ashamed to say that as a boy I hero-worshipped Napoleon Bonaparte and my greatest thrill was visiting his huge pink tomb in Paris when I was eleven. I still think of the past as another country as real as the present but forever just out of reach. In particular I am awed by the colossal struggles and sacrifices that shook the world during the Second World War – a time when history seems stranger, grander and more terrifying than fiction. And so in The Inheritance and again in my new novel, The King of Diamonds (out next April), I have deliberately made the War the backdrop to events at the end of the fifties and in each book my detective, Inspector Trave must go back into the past to solve a murder. I suppose that my vision of the past is an amalgam of childhood memory and historical research.

JF: I couldn’t help but notice the minor character of Charles Blackburn, estate solicitor to the late Professor John Cade. Is this a deliberate echo of the name of The Tolkien Estate’s solicitor, Cathleen Blackburn? Or is it just a startling coincidence?

ST: Several readers noted the connection between the Sackville family in Final Witness and the Sackville-Bagginses, and that was certainly pure coincidence. There might be more of an unconscious connection here, which I hope Cathleen will not mind.

JF: Who are some of your own favorite writers, in the legal thriller genre, or in any genre?

ST: I was an only child and grew up in a cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside. I was thrown very much on my own resources which consisted of books, books and more books. I used to think I was very deprived by this experience but now I think the opposite. The books I read lying on my bed filled up my imagination and they are the fuel for my creativity now. Above all I loved romances that transported me entirely into a fictional past – The Count of Monte Cristo, Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Gormenghast, and The Lord of the Rings. They filled me with a sense of wonder – (to borrow Van Morrison’s phrase) – which has never left me since.

JF: Is there anything you would like to say to Mythprint readers to interest them in your own novels? Our readers have a special preference for fantasy and science-fiction literature, but most are voracious bibliophiles and might like to try your books.

ST: I can’t sell my book as something it isn’t. It’s a tale with its fair share of evil characters and a mystery that is meant to keep you guessing until the end. It has a strong historical dimension and is written as a page-turner. It’s not science-fiction or fantasy but I think it’s a good read and I hope some of your readers may like it.

[This interview originally appeared in Mythprint 47:6 (#335) in June 2010. Join the Mythopoeic Society to subscribe to Mythprint for as low as $12/year.]

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