nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,
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Tolkien and me

David Berberick is doing a social history of Lord of the Rings. The survey in the link is over, but he'll be doing a blog with excerpts from replies.

Some of the people who answered the survey also did phone interviews, and this is mine....

Some introductory chat was cut, so it starts a little abruptly.


Nancy Lebovitz Interview Transcript
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Copyright 2010 by David Berberick
Nancy Lebovitz Interview Transcript
Interviewed on August 4, 2008
1
David: Is there anything that you wanted to talk about first?
2
Nancy: There is a little bit of political stuff. One thing is that I read people who talk about
the racial angle, so I kept an eye out for that. And yeah, Tolkien really does. The
darker- and more yellowish-skinned people are almost all bad, whereas the white-
skinned characters have a range. But the weird, interesting thing, which I have not
seen discussed anywhere else, is that the character Ghân-buri-Ghân has a whole
bunch of African indicators: grass skirt, drums for communication, poisoned
arrows. His skin color, as far as I could tell, is not mentioned, which is kind of
weird, given everything else. And it’s also interesting that as African or semi-
African characters go, he’s treated with utter respect and, as I said, interesting
compared to everything else. Another thing on the political front that I noticed this
time as an ongoing theme is that good characters are under a strong obligation to
not mistreat prisoners. It just comes up again and again. It’s kind of cool.
3
David: Can you think of any examples?
4
Nancy: It just seems like five or six times. There’s the stuff about Gollum getting away.
Actually, it’s like an ongoing obligation, even when it doesn’t work or where there
are prisoners getting away. Likewise, with Saruman, it’s not just that he’s sweet-
talking Treebeard. It’s that good characters try to be kind to prisoners. I know
someone who was talking about Italian fandom and why she got out of it. One of
the reasons was – I’m not sure if they were conservatives or fascists – but they
were using Tolkien as, I guess, the idea that you should have a true king. Drifting
slightly towards aesthetics, the Scouring of the Shire annoys me because what
Saruman does there is sort of a parody of a modern bureaucratic state, and it seems
just anachronistic compared to the rest of the book. I mean, the Shire is actually
technologically ahead of the rest of the north for no apparent reason, but Saruman –
where’s he heard of bureaucracy?
5
David: What does the importance of treating captives well say about the book or about
Tolkien?
6
Nancy: It makes it in with the thing I call respect for ordinary life. There’s a being-alive
commonality that gets respected straight through. I mean, part of it is that the lands
controlled by evil forces are sterile. Part of it is that the Hobbits’ ordinary
pleasures are, in a way, what’s being defended, even though they’re treated as
being a little bit funny. There’s the whole thing in Gondor of the higher quality,
older values – respect healers more than warriors. I think of Tolkien and The Lord
of the Rings maybe even having an important influence, I hope, on the world. And
no, I don’t see evidence of it, I’m just hoping. But it’s sort of a reflection on the
world that the books are so well-loved.
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Copyright 2010 by David Berberick
7
Tolkien is very good. I don’t think he ever indicates a value without giving a
legitimate, grows-out-of-the-plot example of it. So it’s not like you’re being
preached at. He drops things in fairly subtly. Bearing in mind that I was fairly
young when I first read it, I think I was on my second or third reading before I
actually even quite figured out what the power of the Ring was, which is the power
to compel. The invisibility is minor. It’s to force somebody else’s will.
8
David: What does that say then about the ability of the Hobbits to resist the power of the
Ring?
9
Nancy: It’s an interesting question. I’m really not sure. Part of it is that they’re nominally
sort of human, but the distinctive thing, the thing that makes them like no humans
we have ever dealt with, is they don’t kill each other. They are not ambitious.
They have status. They do care a lot about status, but they don’t seem to really
want high levels of control over each other. So I don’t know how much of this was
done consciously by Tolkien and how much was done by feel, but that might be it.
Their lack of ambition is equivalent to they’re just not as dominant. So they can
see reasons for not wanting the Ring, and this suggests to me that I really haven’t
thought enough about Frodo’s character, since he is the one who resisted the Ring
for the longest. A weird thing about the writing is that I don’t know of any other
books where the narrative voice really is kind of making fun of Sam, while at the
same time Sam is a character who’s very much worthy of respect. I can’t think of
any other book with that particular handling.
10 David: Is he comic relief?
11 Nancy: Well, yeah, but usually the comic relief character is objectively kind of ridiculous.
Whereas Sam is actually a little bit like Heinlein’s “Competent Man.” I mean, he’s
the only one who’s interested in rope-making. The upper-class Hobbits just think
rope is there, I guess. But he knows how to do a lot of things and is capable and
loyal and sensible.
12 David: At first he’s kind of in the background. He’s always following Frodo around when
not asked.
13 Nancy: Some people read it and want to put together a Hobbit revolutionary party or
something because he is so subordinate.
14 David: Has Frodo and Sam’s class relationship ever bothered you?
15 Nancy: Somewhat. It’s not central to my reading of the book. I did notice it. One of the
things is I see the problematic stuff about skin color. We have the Orcs as an evil
species, or whatever they are. And these are all genuinely problematic, but it’s also
interesting to see how much characters are obligated to give up their differences
and work together in the face of an emergency.
16 David: Can you think of some examples?
17 Nancy: Well, Gimli and Legolas are the most obvious example. The Elves are really not
too comfortable working with mortals, but they’ve got to. I can’t remember if the
Ents and the Elves ever really get together. But you still have the action of the
book that neither one is so dangerous you can’t work with them, even though they
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Copyright 2010 by David Berberick
have bad reputations. And the other thing, just on the anti-colonial front, is how
very much everybody has their own business. Elves aren’t just there to drop
everything and help with the War of the Ring. Nobody is there to be somebody
else’s background.
18 David: So none of the cultures in The Lord of the Rings come across as inferior to others or
exists just to be used by dominant cultures?
19 Nancy: Well, it’s a little more subtle than that. In a lot of fiction it’s not that they’re
actively being used, it’s that they automatically subordinate themselves. It’s really
kind of creepy when you start noticing it.
20 David: Automatic subordination?
21 Nancy: Yeah. There is a character who shows up in a lot of movies, who’s black – I think
it’s usually a man, sometimes it’s a woman – and they have wisdom, which is a
service to the white characters, and they don’t have a life of their own. So it’s not
that the white characters even have to do anything to get all these benefits. There
are people who see it as quite racist these days. I expect it was intended to be non-
racist. It was probably the best some writers could do. But you start looking at it
and, as I said, it gets creepier the more you look at it. Now, one thing in the books
that gets creepier the more you look at it, and I only noticed it on the most recent
pass, was why does Gimli think Galadriel is beautiful? I mean, Dwarves don’t
even have sexual dimorphism, do they? If I recall, the men and women look alike.
Galadriel doesn’t look anything like a Dwarf, except for kind of being humanoid.
But you just take it as beauty is an objective thing. So it’s like you don’t even
notice how weird this is, but it’s weird. It didn’t throw me out of the book, but I
noticed it.
22 David: Is there an example of this type of character in The Lord of the Rings?
23 Nancy: I don’t think there’s any equivalent, no. There are people who are pickier than I
am, believe it or not, but Tolkien at least avoids it a lot of the time. I mean, he
really puts in stuff on the other side. But offhand, I don’t think there’s anything
like that.
24 David: You wrote that you really liked “the respect for ordinary life. All the heroics are
for the sake of having the war over and getting back to peace.” Can you expand
upon that?
25 Nancy: All of the stuff of the Hobbits being sort of a central value.
26 David: The Hobbits are the heart of the book?
27 Nancy: I would say so, for me. Gondor and Rohan are certainly important, and Treebeard
is one of my favorite things in the book, but if we’re looking for the moral center, I
think it’s the Hobbits – and maybe they’re the emotional center. The nearest thing
to war worship would be the Rohirrim, and they’re somewhat inferior to the more
Númenórean people. I mean, they’re also the successors. The Númenórean thing
is passing out of the world.
28
I was poking around in A Question of Time by Verlyn Flieger. One of the things in
it is that Tolkien liked the Elves a good bit less than you would think from just
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Copyright 2010 by David Berberick
reading The Lord of the Rings. I figured that out from The Silmarillion, where they
have a much nastier history. You might get it if you did a very careful reading.
But in The Lord of the Rings the Elves are tall, they are beautiful, they preserve
wonderful places. It is very sad when they leave. You’d never think that they had
such a bloody, treacherous history. And Flieger pulls together a bunch of quotes
from Tolkien saying, basically, the Elves are getting it wrong – that they are trying
to live in the world, when the whole point of the world is the passage of time, and
they’re trying to avoid the passage of time.
29 David: You wrote that in The Silmarillion “there was no general advice you could give to
the characters.” What did you mean by that?
30 Nancy: It just seemed like Tolkien didn’t have one sort of mistake in mind. Things did not
keep going wrong in the same way. It was as though you had to have enough
boldness and enough caution, rather than always needing more of one or the other.
And, in general, people did not have quite good enough judgment, and neither did
the Valar, actually. If you go back to the beginning, to the Ainulindalë, everything
is going to have a tendency to go wrong because it’s Melkor’s fault. It’s a very
entropic universe. I feel like the big pattern is that something wonderful is built,
and it’s destroyed, and what is built on the ruins is not as wonderful, again and
again. Minas Tirith, the most wonderful city of Middle-earth, is a mere military
outpost of what it used to be.
31
In Meditations on Middle-earth, Michael Swanwick talks about how when he was a
kid and read The Lord of the Rings, it was a wonderful adventure story. As an adult
he read the series to his kid, and he realized it was the saddest story in the world.
32 David: How many times have you read The Lord of the Rings?
33 Nancy: I’m not sure actually. Let’s say a close order of ten.
34 David: Do you talk about Tolkien with other people?
35 Nancy: I talk about him to a limited extent. Now, normally if I read it, I read it straight
through. And it’s years between readings. I’m not one of these people who has a
ritual once-a-year read. I do read about him, but it’s not tremendous research. I
may have read as many as ten books about Tolkien. I’ve never been active in any
Tolkien fandoms.
36 David: What about friends or family members?
37 Nancy: Well, most of my friends have at least read them, and the subject comes up now
and then. One of my friends has actually written some pretty substantial poetry,
which is unpublishable, of course, about Éowyn.
38 David: In your recent re-reading of The Lord of the Rings you said that you noticed some
political aspects that you hadn’t before. Anything else?
39 Nancy: Less different than I’ve gotten on some other passes. I did notice how much
Goldberry is set up in visual tableaux. It’s almost like tarot cards. I noticed how
often the “horns blowing” is a tremendously emotional thing in there. I actually
read all the poetry, which this is the first time. And I enjoyed it, but I don’t know
how different it made anything. It wasn’t like a previous reading where Aragorn
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snapped into focus, where I noticed what a tremendous responsibility he had and
how difficult it was for him to just figure out the right thing to do and how he had
to do this and get it as right as possible. And looking at the forces that Denethor
could muster were pathetically small compared to what Aragorn could pull
together. I mean, this really was the rightful king.
40
There was a previous pass with The Hobbit where I had an injury. I think it was a
knee injury that was really pretty haunting for some months. Not very big, as such
things go, but enough to really be upsetting and frightening for me. And it just
brought the amount of fear in the book into focus. One thing, I don’t remember if it
was this pass or not, is how much there is in the way of horror elements in the
books, but somehow they don’t feel like horror. I’m not sure quite why. Like
Shelob, the Dead Marshes, or for that matter walking the Paths of the Dead and .
And, of course, the Barrow-wight.
41 David: So the fantastic fear elements didn’t grab you, but the basic, more realistic fear
elements of being harmed or being killed struck you did?
42 Nancy: Yeah. I mean, the mental attacks are there, too. I can’t remember if I’d mentioned
it, but Tolkien is one of the authors I give credit for describing post-traumatic stress
before it had become part of popular culture. Part of it is that it keeps coming back
to Frodo on the anniversary of the attack on Weathertop, and part of it is that he
just can’t recover in this world. There’s the bit where he talks about being injured
by knife, claw, and tooth. And just while I’m remembering it, one thing that was
new on this pass was instead of the best moment being “Eglerio!” it was when Sam
wakes up and see Gandalf. He thought Gandalf was dead, and he’s wondering if
everything bad is going to reverse. It’s a moment of tremendous joy because he
didn’t know whether he was dead.
43 David: Do you anticipate difference experiences re-reading The Lord of the Rings?
44 Nancy: Absolutely. I expected the first three or four times that I read it I was just
expecting to enjoy it, but having had the experience of a book shifting on me, that’s
now something that I definitely want – having new things come into focus, noticing
more detail or more patterns.
45 David: It’s surprising?
46 Nancy: It is. And I recommend the Flieger book. It’s got a lot about dreams and time.
Apparently, Tolkien had theories about time that come into this book. I knew that
people considered the dreams important, but I haven’t thought about it that much.
47 David: What about the theme of time?
48 Nancy: Well, part of it is the stuff in Lothlórien where time is different there. In some
ways it’s faster than the world and in some ways slower. Frodo has this vision of
himself always being there because he’s visited it.
49 David: You mean it stays with him?
50 Nancy: No, it’s as though he is there. It’s like him having been there puts an imprint on
Lothlórien. I had this very definite memory of that passage, and then I didn’t see it
when I re-read, but it was there in Flieger. At the Hill of Cerin Amroth, Frodo feels
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that he is “in a timeless land that does not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness.
When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer
from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the elanor and niphredil in
fair Lothlórien.” Now, of course, Lothlórien is passing away, so I’m not sure how
you would play that against this. There’s some strange stuff in there. It’s like
Charles Williams, but more subtle.
51 David: What are your thoughts on the theme of mortality versus immortality, the lives of
Men versus those of Elves?
52 Nancy: I know it’s in there. It doesn’t resonate a whole lot for me. The truth is that I think
greatly extending human life would be a good thing, and all this anti-immortality
stuff you get in fiction is sour grapes. So it’s not a terribly important theme for me.
Although, obviously, the story of Arwen and Aragorn is a tragic story. Or maybe
not, since they end up with an afterlife together and Elves generally don’t get that.
But she’s still cut off from her family, which is not put on the page, but we can
assume that it matters. I don’t think it’s on the page. As I recall, Arwen has the
fate of a human. She is going to go on, one hopes, to heaven. As distinct from
Elves, who are tied up in this world and, I think – I’m not sure about this – will
disappear when this world ends.
53 David: You wrote that little details become connected for you at multiple readings. Any
examples?
54 Nancy: Oh, a very small thing. It finally registered to me that Shadowfax is a gray horse,
not a white one. It’s made clear in a number of passages. But nothing else, for this
reading, is really coming to mind. Oh, like a past reading – I tracked through the
story of Forlong the Fat, one of the minor people who contributes some soldiers to
Gondor. But I’m sure there are lots of other small stories mixed in like that. This
time around I noticed how very much landscape there is. In the past, I’d noticed
people complaining about it, but it had never bothered me. And this time – my
God, there’s a lot of landscape. I mean, I mostly liked it, and in fact, it made
Harry Potter seem kind of claustrophobic by comparison. I mean, that’s mostly
indoors.
55 David: And that creates the effect of Middle-earth being a real world?
56 Nancy: Well, yeah, because it’s not just that there’s a whole lot of landscape, it’s that you
have to keep walking through it. One of the things that struck me, that made me
think that Tolkien had experience with a lot of walking, which of course he
would’ve in the military, is how much small differences in conditions affect the
experience of walking. A little hotter or a little colder, a little uphill, a little
downhill, mud – which again would make the whole thing seem more real.
57
One thing that is unrealistic is there’s really very little in the way of animals. The
wild animals, you’d expect to see more of them. One sort of category of detail I
noticed on this pass is that there’s rather more about horses than I’d thought. It’s
not a tremendous amount. You don’t have a lot about it. If you have a horse you
have to take care of it, but there’s some. It was a little more carefully done than I’d
realized in that regard. It’s obviously not a horse book. I mean, there are stories
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where the horse and the relationship with the horse is a big part of it. And this is, I
think, more an agricultural attitude toward horses. They’re there, you take care of
them, you care about them that they’re wonderful horses, but they’re not the middle
of the story.
58
I heard a professor speak about Tolkien. He’d been interviewing people, and
apparently for them the big hook was the sudden reversal when everything gets
better at once – eucatastrophe.
59 David: And what about you?
60 Nancy: I like it, but it’s not the big hook. I don’t think it is. I was annoyed that the
darkness lifting off Gondor was not in the movie. I can see why it wasn’t, because
to have it lift you’d have to shoot a big chunk of the movie in the dark, and you
don’t want to. But still it seems like one of the best things, and it wasn’t there.
61 David: Is there one big hook for you in The Lord of the Rings?
62 Nancy: I’m not sure. The thing that is coming to mind is actually Treebeard, but I’m not
sure it’s true. It’s just what’s coming to mind. There’s so much good stuff in there
of so many different kinds. One thing that I did notice on this pass was something
of what a difficult story this must have been for Tolkien to juggle. I read his
Letters once, and so I remember him talking about just how hard it was to figure
out how to organize this. And I don’t remember specifics at the moment, but I
could see how different pieces were chosen to contrast with each other.
63 David: Such as?
64 Nancy: I think stuff like the stewed rabbit is just a contrast from the indefinite long slog.
65 David: You wrote that Middle-earth has a “vividness” to it. Can you give an example?
66 Nancy: Yeah, here’s a small thing on that. There’s a lot of bright green, and the book-
covers tend to not have bright green. There’s a lot of green grass and green leaves.
I haven’t tracked every cover that it’s been published under. The covers I think of,
when I think of Tolkien covers, are the Barbara Remington covers, which I have
imprinted on. And I believe they are the only true covers. And then the ones after
that were based on Tolkien’s drawings were kind of grayish and brownish. But the
movies actually had that brilliant green.
67 David: Tolkien was so careful in the details of The Lord of the Rings, that it isn’t surprising
that people can spend a lot of time picking it apart. He got down in the minutiae.
68 Nancy: Yeah, although I think he went for sort of an imaginative and emotional flavoring
to it rather than counting things. That reminds of just something else. I’ve never
studied the languages of Middle-earth, but one of the things, again – I don’t know if
this is exactly vividness – but the plausibility of Middle-earth – just the sense of,
not just the languages, that everything has history. You go to a piece of
landscaping, there are these battles that have been there, the languages have
changed. Languages are related to each other as well as having histories. I’m not
sure whether anybody did literature with this kind of world-building before
Tolkien. I think he wanted it to be that way because he liked that kind of thing. I
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don’t know if he was expecting any readers to pay attention to the level of detail
that he put in.
69 David: So this sense of history has affected your reading of the book?
70 Nancy: In terms of the book, yeah. In terms of my understanding of the world, a little bit.
I’ve been sort of gradually accumulating an appreciation for things having pasts.
It’s not the way my mind started out working.
71 David: You mean when you first read the book?
72 Nancy: Yeah. It’s sort of not my easy default. History was just the sort of irritating stuff
that people insisted on talking about. I mean, not irritating because it was anything
offensive about it, necessarily, but just it was boring. Why are people talking about
this? So I’ve gotten more accommodating of it since. It’s still not my strong point.
73 David: How did you discover Tolkien?
74 Nancy: It was popular for, I think, a year or two, maybe more, before I started reading it. I
assumed if it was that popular, it probably wasn’t very interesting. And then I
finally got around to it.
75 David: Do you remember how old you were?
76 Nancy: Probably junior high, so between 13 and 15. And the only other specific memory I
have is crying on the school bus because Gandalf had just died. And I’ve gotten
used to it, but the first time I read – see, more memories do come back when you
ask – having Gandalf come back seemed like an utter cheat. It just seemed like
there was no proper groundwork for it. I thought he was dead.
77 David: That occurred to you when you were first reading it?
78 Nancy: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I had words for it. It just seemed wrong. I don’t
think there’s much explanation of how it’s possible for Gandalf to have been dead
and come back.
79 David: You said that Tolkien was popular at the time when you first read him. You’d
noticed other teenagers read the books?
80 Nancy: Yeah. Word had gotten out.
81 David: Were you a fan of science fiction or fantasy back then?
82 Nancy: Absolutely.
83 David: What kind of stuff did you read?
84 Nancy: Whatever I could get my hands on. Definitely a lot of Heinlein and Asimov. I
thought Andre Norton was kind of boring. I read Groff Conklin’s anthologies. In
those days, there was a lot more science fiction around than fantasy. I liked them
both about equally, which I’m not sure if that’s the most common thing. I did read
Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft – which I was thinking about
Dunsany and Lovecraft as people who wrote quite respectable stuff, but it just
didn’t have the world-building. This is probably a little later, but I read the Lin
Carter, Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. I’ve heard it described as an effort to try to
find things that would get the same audience that liked Tolkien. Something that
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was not predictable then was that the epic fantasy, that in some ways resembles
Tolkien, would completely supplant the heroic fantasy, the R.E. Howard kind of
stuff.
85 David: Swords and sorcery?
86 Nancy: Yeah. Fritz Leiber, yeah. I don’t think anybody is doing that kind of thing
anymore.
87 David: What about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire?
88 Nancy: It’s epic, not heroic. I mean, it’s a very grim world compared to Tolkien. I think
he’s lost control of the material. But it’s epic, not heroic.
89 David: Did reading Tolkien influence your reading in any way? Or was he just another
author you liked?
90 Nancy: I liked it a lot. I didn’t really rank things back then. I knew what I liked and I
knew what I didn’t like. But if you’d asked me back then, I don’t think I could’ve
told you that I liked Heinlein better than Asimov, even though these days, I don’t if
I’ll ever bother to re-read another Asimov. I didn’t abandon Tolkien, but I didn’t
feel the need to re-read and re-read or anything like that.
91 David: When you were younger, did you talk about books with other friends?
92 Nancy: I don’t think so. I don’t think I had that kind of shared interest much until I got to
college. I was in the University of Delaware Science Fiction Club, which was
called the Galadhrim, but I don’t know that we talked about Tolkien all that much,
which seems odd. Maybe I’m just not remembering. Oh, I do remember one
conversation about whether Caradhras was an independent agent. I don’t know if
we concluded anything. I think there’s evidence pointing both ways in the book.
93 David: Have there been other authors and books that you’ve come back to repeatedly over
the years?
94 Nancy: Oh yeah, although I don’t re-read nearly as much as I did back then. A lot of my
reading time gets sucked into the Web. But yeah, the authors from around that part
of my life, that I read a number of times and still know reasonably well, would be
Heinlein and Ayn Rand. And, of course, one background thing on the political side
with Tolkien is what I would say adds up to an opposition to capital punishment.
95 David: How so?
96 Nancy: The famous bit that it was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. And Gandalf says
something about how many who die deserve life. But the thing was it adds up to –
it goes back to the prisoner thing. You don’t kill what’s helpless. Not that the
situation comes up much in my life, but politically, it’s interesting. Back then I did
read Bored of the Rings. Then finally I tried reading it immediately after reading
The Lord of the Rings, and it seemed as though it had been written by Orcs, and I
do not intend to read it again.
97
I stopped reading The Sword of Shannara when Terry Brooks dumped the word
ninnyhammer, which was clearly stolen from Tolkien. So I quit reading The Sword
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of Shannara. And somebody told me the ending, and it was so stupid that thinking
about it cheered me up for weeks. I did read the Thomas Covenant books.
98 David: How did you like those?
99 Nancy: Better than a lot of people. After considerable reflection, I decided that Thomas
Covenant’s character – a lot of what he was doing was refusing to accommodate to
the Land – makes sense as sort of a teenage resistance to things that don’t make
sense. I mean, it doesn’t make sense that he’s a 30-year-old successful author, but
that particular emotional state was one that resonated a lot with me.
100 David: His refusal or rebellion?
101 Nancy: Yeah. Also, I was willing to accept that the rape he committed didn’t count
because he was hallucinating. And a lot of people just took it as though it was a
real world rape. And the thing was that other than that, I found the language kind
of fun rather than horrifying, which a lot of people really were not dealing with the
language in Thomas Covenant.
102 David: You mean the languages that he creates or the style that he was writing?
103 Nancy: I mean the vocabulary. I’m good at figuring out words from context. Donaldson
used a bunch of weird words, and he didn’t give you a chance to figure them out. I
mean, very strange words. And a lot of people hated it. But from my point of
view, it just added to the sort of brightly colored weirdness of the Land. And also,
after a while, I felt as though the Land was interesting and Thomas Covenant was
annoying, but you didn’t have to pay that much attention to him. Donaldson just
had endless inventions of the Land. That part of it was fun. One thing I will say,
and probably the reason why I haven’t gone back to Donaldson, is Donaldson was
crazy. Tolkien was not crazy.
104 David: What do you mean?
105 Nancy: Well, the whole idea of a hero, a main character, where everybody thinks he’s so
wonderful and so important, and he’s not doing anything. He’s a White-Gold
Wielder, so everybody is fascinated by him. It’s like being a Mary Sue of a sort.
106 David: Did you read The Lord of the Rings differently when you were younger?
107 Nancy: The first pass, I couldn’t tell Gondor from Rohan. It’s that boring military stuff.
I’m not going to pay attention to that.
108 David: You wrote that one thing you liked was that ”knowledge and logic are crucial.
Characters need to think about what they’re doing, and it’s on stage.” What does
“on stage” mean?
109 Nancy: There’s a difference between telling you that a character is intelligent and actually
putting their thinking process up where the reader can see it. And this is especially
striking with Aragorn. I think Sam and/or Frodo have to work things out when
they’re away from Aragorn. But that’s what I was talking about, mostly. It’s an
actual real world virtue. I mean, knowing things and thinking about them is good.
If you just have monsters and wonders as in Conan, you don’t get that.
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110
Another thing that made me realize how unmodern the books are is that there’s no
weapons training. There’s no martial arts influence.
111 David: You mean the characters just either know how to use a sword or they don’t?
112 Nancy: Yeah. And you give the hobbit the long knife/short sword, and you sort of apply
the pointy end to the opposition – that’s it. In a modern novel, it would not – and in
fact, I think in the movie, Boromir does do a little weapons training with the
hobbits.
113 David: Why do you think that is? Did Tolkien just not want to put that in there because he
didn’t have the time?
114 Nancy: Well, actually, I have no idea what military training was like in his time. I don’t
know whether he just thought it wasn’t very interesting. As I recall, he thinks the
details of war are important, like getting people into the right place, but he doesn’t
think the details of weapons techniques are very important. You know, if he
thought it was important, he probably would’ve said something about it. But also it
just wasn’t the convention of the time, and so he didn’t default to thinking about it.
115 David: Could it also be due to Tolkien’s ideas on war, as reflected in Faramir saying that
he’d rather be a man of peace, and that he’s only a warrior because he needs to be?
116 Nancy: I don’t think that’s it. I mean, he doesn’t have details of healing or agriculture,
either. That’s just a kind of detail he doesn’t do. I think what actually happened
was the martial arts just had a huge influence on fantasy, and when you have
authors who are martial artists, it gets into the story.
117 David: Has the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons anything to do with people’s
expectations about war in the fantasy genre?
118 Nancy: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that that particular thing was an
influence of Dungeons and Dragons. Now, I think there are ways that Dungeons
and Dragons has affected some fantasy. And one in which I think is very
unsatisfactory to me is feeling as though everything is measured. “This kind of
magic is so much stronger than that kind of magic.”
119 David: What about the presence of magic in The Lord of the Rings?
120 Nancy: I’ve noticed there’s relatively little of it.
121 David: Or much detail on what it is, such as how the Rings of Power really work.
122 Nancy: Yeah, it’s Ring-lore. That’s it.
123 David: There’s magic in Middle-earth, but it isn’t the focus of the book. The main
characters are really the four hobbits, and what they accomplish isn’t done through
magic.
124 Nancy: At all, yeah. One of my friends has mentioned a steady increase in the amount of
magic and in the number of people who can do it in fantasy. It’s to the point now
where you can have books with non-human viewpoint characters, non-human
magical – and it just didn’t used to be like that.
125 David: How much fantasy do you read now?
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126 Nancy: Quite a bit. Well, at the moment, I’m in the middle of a paranormal romance, but
it’s not a terribly good one. My default reading is fantasy and science fiction. A
lot of my reading these days is blogs of various sorts, especially political, but most
of the fiction I read is fantasy and science fiction. I don’t know, I need the
weirdness.
127 David: What about the common criticism that fantasy or science fiction is all about
escapism?
128 Nancy: Well, I haven’t been hearing that kind of complaint much lately. You get
something like The Eyre Affair. Absolutely classic SF, including the style of
dropping insignificant details so that you can deduce what the world is like, and it
publishes mainstream and is popular as mainstream. Science-fiction authors get
respectful eulogies in the mainstream press. And you may have seen the argument
that fantastic literature is actually the human norm. Having realistic literature get
all the prestige is an aberration. I mean, if you think about Paradise Lost,
Gilgamesh, or the Divine Comedy – as I understand it, there is also a tradition of
realistic literature or realistic sagas, but the default has magic and monsters.
129 David: And these works and others like the Odyssey or the Iliad are all part of the Western
Canon. So why is modern fantastic literature considered to be inferior?
130 Nancy: I believe it happened in the twenties or thereabouts, where the idea was that
realistic fiction was important because it could drive social change. And this just
became the ideology.
131 David: Tell me more about the hitchhiking incident you wrote about in your answers.
How old were you when that happened?
132 Nancy: Oh, I was in college. I actually spent sort of an extended time in college, so it
might have been as late as age 25. I’d say between 20 and 25, and that’ll be good
enough. I mean, it wasn’t a horrible traumatic thing. Thank God, it turned out to
be minor. But what happened was I had been doing local hitchhiking. And I was
careless enough to accept a ride when I wasn’t hitchhiking. I needed to get home.
I lived in a development that had several entrances, and when the guy doesn’t go in
the first entrance, I’m thinking he’s a bad driver. By the time he’s past the third
one, it’s like, no, he’s not just a bad driver. And he goes a couple miles, which
takes him over a state line, which I thought, at the time was significant. I don’t
know if it really was. But this idea came into my head of, treat it like a bad date.
So I just kept saying, “Take me home.” And for whatever reason, he did. He
started going in the direction of my home. Then the Tolkien quote came into my –
not exactly quote, but concept came into my head of, “Leave the dragon his brass
ring,” which is in Farmer Giles of Ham. I took that to mean, don’t insist on being
taken to your door, which is very good advice in a number of ways. So I got
dropped off near where I lived and that was the end of it.
133
It’s interesting how Tolkien does manage to talk about virtue without seeming
preachy. Part of it is that he makes it clear it’s not cheap. He makes it clear that
virtue has costs, which is probably part of it – maybe proportionate costs. The
Hobbit insistence on enjoying life is a virtue. And it’s not exactly difficult for
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Copyright 2010 by David Berberick
them. But the costs are always appropriate. This reminds me indirectly of
something that struck me on this most recent reading, was how completely the
characters forgave Boromir, because what he did was so awful. But, I think,
everybody just assumes he was overpowered by the Ring.
134 David: He tried to save Merry and Pippin, too.
135 Nancy: There’s that. The other thought is it’s left completely open whether things would
have come out better for Frodo if he’d been able to resist the Ring.
136 David: If he’d been able to throw it in himself without Gollum taking it?
137 Nancy: Yeah. He might have come out of it all in good enough shape that he could have
lived in the Shire. Who knows? I mean, probably not. Actually, the climax with
Gollum falling into the Fire is really, really weird.
138 David: How so?
139 Nancy: Well, I mean, in a normal book, Frodo would have done it. Frodo would have
thrown the Ring into the Fire. Or possibly taken it and actually tried to become the
Dark Lord and then we would have had more story. Whether it’s an accidental or
providential ending is really odd, I think.
140
One of the things that strikes me as real wisdom was the bit about how we can’t
solve the problems for the future. All we can do is give them clean soil. But the
part of it that impressed me was the idea that you can’t make things perfect. You
can’t expect to. All you can do is leave a good enough world behind.
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