Wednesday, 28 April 2021

My Interview with Brian Sibley by Steve Gladwin

 Hello, Brian. We've agreed to a two-part interview here, so in the first part we're going to talk about the theme of landscape and your work and interest in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and the Narnia books. We will sadly have to leave Pooh for another time.

Hello, Steve. Well we have to start somewhere and I'm looking forward to the journey...

When I was about thirteen my dad put the fire on in the front room each night for a fortnight, and he read his new book club edition of 'The Lord of the Rings' from cover to cover. Picking up that he had really enjoyed it, and having previously delved into Mr Sharpe's English cupboard and found 'The Hobbit' a few months earlier, I followed in dad's footsteps soon after. I remember that I enjoyed both books in entirely different ways, but my most vivd memory was of sellotaping together six sheets of paper and drawing the wonderful map that folded out at the front. I'm no artist, and as far as I can remember have rarely done anything remotely like it since. I didn't do much with it afterwards either, this was something I had to do. From your own experience, Brian, and from what you've learned about others, would you say this was fairly typical of the condition which we might call 'Tolkien Fever', which - so it seems - can strike at just about any age?

It was this book club edition that both my dad and I read when I was thirteen.


At any age? I imagine so: My own experience was complex: I read and really enjoyed The Hobbit - borrowed from the school library when I was, perhaps, 11 or 12. So far so good, but then I spent many years struggling to get into The Lord of the Rings. I had bought the mammoth one-volume paperback with Pauline Baynes landscape- the Shire on the front, Mordor on the back - but every time I started in, I'd get slowed up by the foreword and bogged down by the prologue (you'll recall 'Concerning Hobbits and Pipeweed', 'Of the Ordering of the Shire', and 'The Finding of the Ring', not forgetting 'A Note on the Shire Records).

I was, from my earliest years, a slow reader and, indeed, still am (great for retaining detail, but not so good for zipping through mega-paged epics); I found big books really daunting; still do! I finally succeeded in grappling with The Lord of the Rings when, aged 21, I was confined to a hospital bed for several weeks with a duodenal ulcer; hours and days of tedium would have to be endured. The paperback went in the bag with my pyjamas and, this time, I skipped all the prefatory matter, began with Book One, chapter one: 'A Long Expected Party' and, by chapter two, 'The Shadow of the Past', I was hooked and reading under the bedclothes after lights-out with a torch like a six-year-old. I can therefore recommend The Lord of the Rings as the perfect therapy for a duodenal ulcer!

I have to comment on that wonderful memory of your youthful attempt at recreating Tolkien's Lord of the Rings map. We now know that your approach was very similar to Tolkien's own map-making process in which new or amended sections were repeatedly attached to a very large, ever-growing patchwork.

Every map, of course, is a diagrammatic representation of a landscape and, in the cases of imaginary realms, serves the dual purpose of providing the reader with ways of negotiating the events in the story as well as giving the fiction a sense of legitimacy.

Like many classic works of fantasy literature, maps are an important feature in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as in several of C. S Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, although Tolkien certainly  adopted a more rigorous approach to the business of cartography, as can be gauged from his recollection: "I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit, (generally with meticulous care for distances.) The other way about lands one in confusion and impossibilities, and in any case it is a weary work to compose a map from a story."

My long-standing fascination with literary maps led to a happy collaboration with Tolkien artist John Howe, on a series of illustrated map-books exploring the various regions of Middle - earth described in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. These publications later found their way into a single volume that featured an additional map, (and accompanying gazetteer of the lost island of Numenor.

At what stage did you realise that you and Tolkien were going to become so involved? Was there an actual point, or was it more of a process?

Having conquered what to me was an Everest of a book-print, I began reading Tolkien's other writings and even - daring for a boy from a Secondary Modern school - peeped into one or two early books of Tolkien criticism. I invested in the three volume hardbacks with their fold-out maps and I wrote a letter to the professor (which included a few squiggled lines of Quenya on notepaper that I'd bordered with dwarfish runes) asking if he would sign my copy of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which was cheaper to post than the trilogy. To my great delight he obliged and corrected an error in one of the poems. Years later, Pauline Baynes added her autograph to his on the title page and it is, you won't be surprised to know, one of my most treasured possessions.

So that was the gradual process of my involvement, but the turning point was when, having written my first radio dramatisation for the BBC, the Corporation asked if there were any other books I'd be interested in adapting. I drew up a list, jestingly adding at the end, The Lord of the Rings. What a ridiculous proposition! But, as it turned out, not so... The BBC was, at that precise moment, in negotiation to acquire the rights for a Rings serialisation. And there I was, ready and waiting...

Now we're here - in this first part of our interview - to talk about landscape and your experience, and, I presume, love of it, as part of a large number of fantasy books and their authors, which you have more or less made your life's work. Before we get there it would be good to hear about the young Brian and the landscape you grew up in. I usually ask people to imagine that they're either looking out from their own front door, or perhaps on a familiar walk.

I am five years old and, after living among the nondescript suburban streets of South East London, my family has moved to what was then a rural village in Kent. Suddenly I find myself a country child: aware for the first time ever of real beauty and true wonder. I had suddenly been transported to a world I'd only previously seen in picture books. Within this new daily experience of nature and the changing seasons, I was free (for the world was safer then) to run wild, at will: exploring the woods of birch and oak, making a hollow tree my secret home, the meandering fern-bordered paths and the willow-fringed ponds my private realm. And, after my explorations I would wander around the village watching still traditional tradesmen making bread or cutting and hanging meats or, perhaps, I would head for the village blacksmith's shop (now, alas, a boring bank)to watch the horses being shod, and, as like or not, carry home a lucky horseshoe for a souvenir.

And alongside this real landscape exist all those others that I investigated week by week in my local library, as I took book after book from the shelves: plunging in amongst the thronging streets of Dickens's London; losing myself in Kipling's lush Indian jungle; roaming the exciting terrains of Neverland, Treasure Island, or The Lost World; finding a secure and comforting home in Tove Jansson's Moomin Valley; journeying through the outlandish worlds of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and Edward Lear's 'lands where the Jumblies live', or losing myself amongst the crumbling ruins of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, or the Martian landscape of Ray Bradbury's tales of the Red Planet; and oh, so many others, to...

When we come to the particular landscapes of  Tolkien, Brian, and 'The Lord of the Rings' in particular, the journeying that the company of nine and the sub-groups that they are eventually broken into do, feels incredible real. Through my several readings over the years, it feels more than ever as if we're taking that long, often desolate journey with them.

The journey - and the very process of journeying - is the engine that drives the narrative in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These are classic 'quest' stories. Most quests are concerned with seeking and winning a great prize like The Golden Fleece or The Holy Grail. In The Hobbit the quest is to regain something that had once been won, but since been lost, (the dwarf treasure hoard guarded by Smaug); in dramatic contrast, The Lord of the Rings is an anti-quest, in that it is about the casting away - in fact, the destruction - of something of enormous value and great power: the One Ring. In both stories the landscape through which those who are pursuing their quest make their journey becomes increasingly challenging and hostile.

At the age of 22, it was the BBC Radio full -length dramatisation of  'The Lord of the Rings' which re-awakened my interest in the book and Tolkien. I remember how in 1981 a friend and I listened to the opening episode and how thing after thing seemed right; the casting, which to me was nearly perfect, the sound, Stephen Oliver's music and the very feel of it. In such a massive undertaking how did you all go about conveying something so massive and bringing it all together?

Radio drama, like theatrical and filmic endeavours, is a collaborative process: the work of the dramatist is but one part of that process collaboration and the successful writer needs to learn the balance between 'sound', (words, music and effects) with the absence of sound, (silence or the movement of pause between one sound or another. The producer /director is called upon to be both orchestrator and conductor of the whole composition. We were lucky in having Jane Morgan, the perfect person for that task.



It's forty years ago now, but I still remember the huge thrill on hearing that the radio dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings was going to feature on the front cover of the BBC's weekly TV and radio guide, The Radio Times, with artwork by Eric Fraser, one of the great illustrators of the twentieth century and someone who had already illustrated The Hobbit. I zapped off a letter to Mr. Fraser courtesy of Radio Times art editor, asking if I could purchase the original art only to receive the puzzled response that Fraser was surprised that I wanted to buy a picture he had yet to draw! We navigated that obstacle and it now hangs on my wall as a reminder of an amazing project that - thanks to the work of Professor Tolkien - changed my life.

I'm including the original cover art as an illustration here, because it is of interest, not just as a memento of what was, I believe, a historic production, but also because it is an attempt to create in a single image, an emblematic interpretation of the story's landscape, incorporating Mount Doom and the door to Sammath Naur, the Black Gates; Sauron's stronghold, The Tower of Orthanc; The Dead Marshes; Fangorn Forest; the River Anduin and Shelob's Lair, along with Gandalf, Frodo and Sam, a Nazgul and an Orc. Fraser also produced a small piece of black- and- white art illustrating each of the 26 episodes for the weekly programme pages in Radio Times, and many years later I managed to purchase those at auction together with Fraser's preliminary sketch for the cover design

Conveying the idea of landscape, maybe particularly that vast emptiness and stillness, punctuated by terrifying sounds from nowhere and with that the threat of discovery or being trapped or taken - that's almost an ever present in a book like 'The Lord of the Rings' where the reader spends much of the narrative on tenterhooks! The part I've always found the most thrilling is the passage of the fellowship over the mountain pass of Caradhras and then into the mines of Moria. How did you go about achieving something like that section?

There's an old saying in the broadcasting business: 'The pictures are better on radio.' and certainly radio allows the listener to be part of the process in a creative experience. In the theatre or in the cinema, everyone watching has the same experience; in radio, the listener hears a combination of sound elements and translates them into images in the mind. No single radio listener views the characters or their surroundings in exactly the same way as another. We needed to find ways in which to give our audience the shapes and colours with which to create the landscape and characters in their mind's eye.

If we can turn to C. S. Lewis for a while, Brian, I'm fairly ashamed to say that I've only recently realised that you also adapted all seven of the Narnia books for the radio. Now that's clearly another type of challenge - not least because these are seven very distinctive books with seven very distinctive feels to them.

Well, yes and no! The tone of Lewis writing is quite different to that of Tolkien - just as were the expectations of their audience; but while each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia does indeed have its own individual landscape, (or sea-scape), the challenge of the dramatist is much the same as that faced in adapting The Lord of the Rings, since that epic story unfolds across a longer time-span and a constantly changing landscape shaped by geography, geology, climate and culture.




So, if I can ask you about the seven books as a whole and if there's one you're more fond to or drawn to? It was interesting to discover in my recent interview with Kath Langrish about her own forthcoming book on Narnia, 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe', that we share the same enthusiasm for 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' and 'The Silver Chair'.

Whenever Lewis's biographer, Walter Hooper, was asked which of the Chronicles was his favourite, he would answer, 'The one I'm reading now,' which seems like a pretty good reply! In truth I have a special relationship with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: it was the first of the books I read and it made a huge impression on me. I was entranced - and still am - by the description of Narnia in Winter and it's depiction by Pauline Baynes, who many years later, would become a much-loved and personal friend. I can't overstate the importance that The Lion made on the impressionable ten-year-old me: as I confessed in my preface to Katherine Langrish's remarkable book. I actually climbed into my parent's wardrobe in the hope of finding the way into Narnia... Was I successful? What do you think.

There was a famous squabble between C'S. Lewis and Tolkien because the latter voiced his objections very loudly that his friend was denigrating the meaning and power of myth by bringing in such incongruities as Father Christmas in 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.' Whereas Tolkien was a professor of philology, who was painstakingly creating an alternative mythology for England, Lewis was more of a magpie in that he begged, stole or borrrowed from all over the place, like most of us writers do. Would you take anyone's side on this?

No, because, as you say, writers generally pick up inspirations (consciously or unconsciously) from many sources - there's currently no better example of that than J. K. Rowling. Tolkien also gathered ideas and concepts - even borrowing names - from his wide reading; the one difference between Tolkien and Lewis is that the latter's sources (ranging from Biblical stories to such books as Hans Andersen's The Snow Queen) are more obviously spotted by the general reader than Tolkien's more obscure and esoteric lifts.



I've been talking to people in the arts about landscape for over a year now. I've discovered how difficult it often is to stick to one particular subject when there are so many exciting pathways to follow with each and every one of them. In your case can we now turn to the landscapes which both Tolkien's and Lewis's work provide us with so much of. What is it that draws you, or indeed, any reader, to these particular landscapes?

Tolkien's landscapes: now there's a topic. It would be easy to list the most appealing: the innocent charming rural world of 'Hobbiton' and the surrounding Shire; 'Rivendell', the Last Homely House East of the Sun', where "the air was warm. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers", where, according to Bilbo, "time doesn't pass, it just is"; who wouldn't want to vacation there? Or Lothlorien, the ageless city of trees, an idyllic, sequestered realm of which Tolkien says, "in winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien, there was no stain.'

Then there are other places, such as Edoras and Minas Tirith, centres of power and community that represents an impressive unity of landscape and purpose. But for me the regions within Middle-earth that I find the most enticing and memorable are those that haunt me, not with their beauty and magnificence, but with their terribleness: the Dead Marshes, with its submerged army of Elven warrior corpses, the decaying stronghold of Minas Morgul; Cirith Ungol - 'Spider's Cleft' - and the tunnels leading to Shelob's Lair, and the bleak and wasted land of Mordor with it's Black Gates, the dark fortress of Barad-dur and smouldering, ash slopes of Orodruin leading to the Cracks of Doom. Tolkien embodied these landscapes with an evil malignity and they serve the Dark Lord as much as his living emissaries and at each stage of Frodo's journey they conspire to imperil and defeat his quest.

I find that fascinating, Brian, that it is the haunted and dark landscapes and evil, abandoned castles that draw you the most. Personally I would have to add the Mines of Moria and it's enigmatic entrance. Again as in Frodo and Sam's journey to Cirith Ungol, it's the close terror of walking in the dark which fascinates me again and again.

But let's turn back to Narnia.

From Narnia I will select just one image: Pauline Baynes's wrap-around cover illustration for the 1963 puffin paperback edition of The Magician's Nephew with its aerial depiction of Digory and Polly astride Fledge, the flying horse - and with - laid out below them - the Narnian landscape: seashore, downland, mountains, rocky outcrops, woods, forests, lakes and mountains. Holding this book in my hands today, I am instantly a child again: huddled in front of our kitchen fire on a snowy winter's day, poring over this very image and wishing that I might be swept away to this land that I so desired. It is one of the truly great book illustrations of all time and the memory of its beauty will live with me until the hour of my death.

Sadly, I'm not so fortunate as to have that one, Brian, but I do have the Puffin editions of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', 'The Silver Chair; and 'The Last Battle' - all arresting and beautiful in their own right.

And for you, are there any landscapes you find particularly inspiring and why?

I will speak of two. First, the rugged coastline of North Cornwall: as a young man, I fell under the spell of those sheer 400-foot-high cliffs, the finger -bones of black rock reaching out into churning surf, far, far below: the purple heather, low scrub and twisted thorn trees leaning against the wind beneath vast skies. In my twenties, my best friend and I spent several holidays in Morwenstowe, a remote Cornish village, (once the home of the eccentric parson poet, Robert Stephen Hawker) on the stretch of coastland between Bude and Hartland Point. I was passionately in love with the wild and isolated timelessness of the place and, over fifty years later, I still visit it in my dreams.



My second landscape is, actually a cityscape. I speak of that maze of narrow streets and canals, bridges, squares and churches that is La Serenissima...Venezia...Venice... a noble, romantic, dreaming city of monumental proportions, built upon - and intersected by - water; a place of scattered light, deepening shadows and countless, constantly shifting reflections: timeless, inscrutable, illusory. My husband and I have visited Venice very many times in something over twenty years and we never leave without the conviction that we will return to be beguiled by its enigmatic personality and bemused by its rare beauty... There are some who travel seeking ever-new-vistas and there are others of us passion is to keep going back to explore somewhere again and again. 


Photo by Brian


Let's take leave of the inspiration for Middle- earth and cross to the other side of the world where it was recreated in perhaps it's most memorable incarnation, in New Zealand. You've written the authorised biography of Peter Jackson, and what I loved most about it was how generously he gave of himself, so that the reader just gets the idea that you're just letting him talk. How did your whole relationship begin?



I am glad that's how the book comes across. It didn't sell very well for whatever reason, but it is very much told in the voice of The Man Himself. People will be surprised to learn that the many interviews that make up the narrative were not, for the most part, recorded when I was in New Zealand, because Peter was always too busy. It comprises a series of two or three-hour- long very long distanced phone interviews conducted either at 8.00 at night UK time, (before Peter, in Wellington, began his morning shoot or edit) or at 8.00 in the morning by my watch after Peter had completed a day's work! Occasionally people tell me that they have found the history of how the Jackson Rings film trilogy came to be made- with all its twists and turns as exciting and suspenseful as any adventure story; I find that really gratifying.

There's a lovely story that the late actor Peter Woodthorpe told, who conveyed so completely the complexity of Gollum in the BBC Radio 'Lord of the Rings', alongside the equally memorable Ian Holm as Frodo and Bill Nighy as Sam. Here he was, the veteran who had trod the boards in the first English language staging of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot', and he's there writing to ask Peter Jackson if he might possibly be of assistance again. I know that Peter Jackson is a big fan of your version, but I presume when you and Michael Bakewell were adapting that version you could not possibly have seen into a future where you are watching the film version being made in New Zealand?

No! Such a thought, of course, could never have crossed our minds! As for Peter Woodthorpe, well he twice voiced Gollum (in the Bakshi animated version and the radio dramatisation) and it would certainly have been fun if he could have given us a Gollum hat-trick! Peter's vocal performance was incomparable but Andy Serkis's total physical embodiment of the role was equally astonishing. I always resist the urge to compare Rings casts with one another, because it's like comparing different dramatic interpretations of Hamlet. That said, I'd absolutely take a ringside seat any day for a few rounds of a Gandalf bout between Sir Michael Hordern and Sir Ian McKellen.

And landscape - We're here again. You must have spent a good deal of time in New Zealand watching and conversing and the rest of it. As soon as you saw some of that landscape, did you feel that Tolkien's book might have finally come home. 

I'd love to be able to talk about the New Zealand landscape from my personal experience, but I honestly can't! Across the production of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies I spent several months in the country but always in Wellington, where I was interviewing cast and crew along with Peter Jackson's present and former friends and colleagues. I love the city and its people; but, needless to say, it would have been great to visit the kiwi versions of Hobbiton or Edoras... There's no doubt, however, that the magnificent - and diverse - scenery of New Zealand provided the unquestionably perfect location for Middle Earth.

You came back for the Hobbit filming of course, which was originally meant to have been directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who clearly had already prepared an awful lot for it, but in the end a contracting delay forced him to pull out. Do you think anything was lost when Peter Jackson, the producer, had to take over himself, or was the film just more like part of The Lord of the Rings family?

Del Toro's Hobbit would have been very different and - I have no doubt - very exciting; so, yes, it is a loss that we didn't have the chance to experience his idiosyncratic interpretation of the book. Jackson certainly embedded The Hobbit very firmly within his already intricately woven tapestry created across the three Rings films; but, for many, the overlong, over-elaborated trilogy placed too heavy a burden on the original narrative as to all but overwhelm it completely.

Well, Brian, I could happily talk to you a great deal more. We'll have to pause there, but I wonder if I can invite you back in a few months time - hopefully when things are a lot easier in general - to talk to us more about your career and a few other great loves like 'Winnie-the-Pooh' and 'The Wind in the Willows' and Disney?

Certainly, Steve; it's a date! We can talk about Pooh and his 'Hundred Aker Wood', and about Mr Toad and the world of the Riverbank and even Uncle Walt who, in turn, gave us his own interpretations of both those locations and dozens of other filmic landscapes. Maybe, since I'm president of the Lewis Carroll society we might even squeeze in a quick chat about Alice and her friends down the rabbit hole and beyond the looking glass? Or indeed any of those other fantastical characters and their bizarre and beautiful worlds with which I am still madly in love? 

Thanks, Brian. It's been really good to talk to you so far.

My great pleasure!

And I'm happy to say that you can find out a whole lot more about Brian, his life and projects on a whole host of sources here.

Coming soon in May, more landscape interviews with Malachy Doyle and Catherine Fisher and a celebration of the wonderful Albert Campion and his creator Margery Allingham.



















Sue Purkiss said...


Paul May said...

Thanks, Steve. I'm really enjoying this series of interviews and this is one of the best! I'm going to have to listen to the Lot of the Rings again.

Paul May said...