Friday 28 May 2021

A Journey into Tolkien's Landscape - My interview with John Garth by Steve Gladwin


John Garth takes that vital Caspar David Friedrich moment in the Pyrenees



It's been a real pleasure to conduct this series of interviews about J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams and their separate worlds. My thanks and appreciation are due to Brian Sibley, Katherine Langrish and Grevel Lindop for their answers, time and enthusiasm. For our final trip with The Inklings we turn back to Tolkien and in particular his landscapes.

It's my pleasure to be completing this interview with the author of both The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Places that inspired Middle Earth and Tolkien in the Great War, the writer, researcher, reader and journalist, John Garth. I asked for the second book for Christmas, and receiving it was immediately entranced by this wonder of a book, which seemed to me particularly user-friendly in it's lay-out and written in language that I as a Tolkien enthusiast, was able to understand. It was full of riches and reminders, and I became determined to interview it's author. Luckily, he said yes!


John, it’s a real pleasure to have you here. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us at ‘An Awfully Big Blog Adventure’

On the one hand, J.R.R Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was voted most popular read in the BBC’s ‘Great Big Read’, as eloquently argued by Ray Mears. The renowned Tolkien expert, Professor Tom Shippey has written a book called ‘J.R.R. Tolkien, The Author of the Century. The fans of The Lord of the Rings,’ and their opinions are legion and is has generated appeal and loyalty through an animated version by Ralph Bakshi, three full length Oscar and BAFTA winning films by Peter Jackson, a widely respected BBC Radio adaptation by Brian Sibley, (as described earlier in this series), and endless spin-offs, toys, posters and tea cloths etc.

On the other hand, there are people who have gone on record saying that they simply do not and never have ‘got it’, and others, who only not only do not get Tolkien’s world but become quite downright about it. telling everyone else all the reasons they shouldn’t get it either!

Apart from the obvious answers, why do you think this is, and if you had to explain the reasons why people should read Tolkien, what would you say?


Reference books on Middle Earth at the Bodleian Library (John Garth)


It’s mostly about literary and social expectations. Epic fantasy doesn’t fit the mould created by 20th-century English literature courses; and The Lord of the Rings is so genre-busting that it doesn’t really fit any mould. It seems to be assumed that because it has its own dense matrix of fictional “facts”, and deals with dwarves, elves, and even hobbits, it’s got nothing for anyone except nerds and children. And there are people who would do anything to distance themselves from nerds and children. The opening chapter – more than anything else a contemporary social satire against smug, insular attitudes – seems to have been comprehensively mistaken for smug celebration. I have a very strong suspicion that most literary commentators who’ve criticised the book have never read much further. And when you do go further, you simply have to surrender to the fictional universe or nothing in it will matter. It is a story that demands you care – a story that makes you care, if you are willing. No one should actually feel embarrassment about this, because it’s not the whimsical escapist nonsense it’s often been painted as. It’s gloriously intertwined with reality: old values thrown in the crucible of change; the rise of industrial materialism; tyranny, war and personal freedom; nature and why it matters.


Hampshire Sunset (John Garth)


Before we turn to Tolkien’s own landscape, John, it would be good to hear about your own. I usually ask people to describe the area, place and house where they are born, so what did you see gazing from your doorstep, or on a walk in the area.

I grew up not far from where the Martians land in War of the Worlds, in a little suburban road in very green Addlestone, Surrey; it had white-board houses and estate agents described it as a “Canadian setting”. I was there for a very formative eight years but able to roam remarkably freely compared to children now. Later childhood and teens were spent in bigger, busier Camberley; but we lived just over the road from Bagshot Heath, actually a big rambling mix of heathland and woods, full of silver birch and gorse and pine; and I look back on that as a space of amazing freedom where we could let our imaginations run riot as kids. I’ve lived in Oxford twice, once as a student, once as a father: no need to describe that marvellous city; I still consider it home. I began Tolkien and the Great War in a flatshare above a Harley Street clinic and about 15 years later discovered that coincidentally Tolkien’s guardian, Francis Morgan, had spent his teens in the house next door. Now I live in rural Hampshire, which is just great when you need to stretch your legs and clear your head.

I want to jump straight into the subject with a question about Tolkien’s use of landscape? What led you to choose that theme in Tolkien’s work. Did it have any connection with your own feelings about landscape, or with any one in particular?



It wasn’t my idea; it was suggested to me after a casual chat with a former colleague on Facebook. When I was a lowly sub-editor on the London Evening Standard newsdesk, my production editor was Victoria Summerley. Since hanging up her editing hat, she’s turned to writing beautiful coffee-table books about English gardens, and she rightly guessed that her publisher, Frances Lincoln, would like a book about places that inspired Tolkien. Initially I was wary, because it’s a field where there’s been little scholarship and much speculation (often stupid, often motivated by local tourist interests). But mulling it over, I realised that I’d been gathering evidence ever since visiting the Somme and the Holderness peninsula (where Tolkien was posted on military duties in 1917–18) for my Tolkien and the Great War research. And yes, I do feel deeply about landscape: I’m interested in all kinds of aspects of it – geological, archaeological, cultural; the old and the new – and I relished the opportunity to learn more through writing about it.

Having read and enjoyed your first book, Tolkien and the Great War, it struck me again and again how the many scenes of blasted lands and destruction in The Lord of the Rings would have been inspired by what Tolkien saw as a soldier every day during the war. When I discovered that you had now written a book about Tolkien’s landscape, it made perfect sense.

Well, exactly. Writing Tolkien and the Great War was revelatory for me, because even though he himself barely mentioned the Somme, there’s such a wealth of contemporary military record and eyewitness material that it became possible to build a very rigorous and evocative picture of his movements and experiences there. I started that book by looking at Tolkien’s service record and the war diary of his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, both at the National Archives in Kew. Then I used the little Pen & Sword Battlefield Guides to help me understand particular Somme operations. When I’d written my first draft, I took it to the Somme along with trench maps and modern IGN maps and stood in the spots where these engagements took place, so I could recalibrate my descriptions with the real landscape. It’s such a peaceful area that even when immersed empathically in what happened in 1916, it’s still an effort of will to picture it really happening there – to picture the battalion marching east through green fields along tree-lined roads while the great artillery bombardment and then the battle itself lit up the skies ahead. It helped to have read Tolkien’s descriptions of Mount Doom turning the clouds sullen red long before the mountain itself was visible, and to have felt the accompanying sense of rising tension as the hobbits march slowly towards it. I can’t now read the description of the desolation in front of the gates of Mordor without feeling Tolkien’s sheer grief and rage at what he’d really witnessed: the ash heaps, the blasted mounds of crushed stone like “like an obscene graveyard in endless rows”, the hobbits skulking like “little squeaking ghosts”. 


'Tolkien in the Great War' in progress





 And The Worlds of J.R.R Tolkien has given me the chance, too, to look at the other side of the coin: landscapes layered in millennia of human activity, woods and forests in their wildness and beauty, mountains so sublime that one trip when he was 19 was enough to inspire scene after scene in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In ‘The Worlds of J.R.R.Tolkien,’ we discover many interesting, unexpected and even unlikely things about where Tolkien found his inspiration. During-the-course of your discoveries, did you pick up any favourite facts or connections?

I was fascinated to learn that Tolkien kept a newspaper cutting of the eruption of Mount Hekla in Iceland among his writing research. We tend to imagine him just seeing everything in his mind’s eye, but no: like other writers, he appreciated the value of touchstones, stimuli. I’m very pleased to have located what is clearly a local Oxford inspiration for the elf-towers west of the Shire (and for an allegorical tower in Tolkien’s famous 1936 lecture on Beowulf): Faringdon Folly, built 1934. It pleases me even more to be able to trace a clear thread from there all the way to Gandalf standing on the pinnacle of Orthanc. And one more: I was just delighted, and moved, when I realised what underlay the scene in the elven forest of Lothl√≥rien where Frodo sees a vision of Aragorn as he was in his youth, speaking words of love to an unseen figure. It takes place on a green, tree-topped mound, Cerin Amroth; and I can show for numerous reasons that it goes back to the tree-topped mound beside the castle in Warwick, the town where Tolkien and his fianc√©e Edith Bratt spent their courtship.


 Faringdon Folly

 Saruman's Tower of Orthanc? (Photos

To write your two books clearly involved a lot of research – not just the constant acknowledgement you give to the work of others, but the sheer amount of Tolkien reading. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien’s work and especially all that has been completed since his death by his son Christopher, varies between the easily accessible and the dense and obscure. Is that fair, and how easy did you find it reading so much of the author at once?

Actually I didn’t have to read it all at once; not remotely. I have the great advantage of having encountered The Lord of the Rings in 1975, when I was nine, two years before Christopher Tolkien began his tremendous project with The Silmarillion. He brilliantly edited that into a coherent whole from numerous contradictory and incomplete versions his father had left. Then over the next two decades he published a vast amount of material from JRRT’s Middle-earth writings, Unfinished Tales and then the 12-volume History of Middle-earth in which he traces the development of the stories from their beginnings. For me, these books were an annual treat through my teens and twenties, letting me just dive in and soak up the new dimensions and details of this world I loved. That’s certainly one way of enjoying the books. Yes, some of this is challenging stuff: multiple versions of the same stories with different names and details and styles; commentaries and reams of notes by Christopher Tolkien about the interconnections and alterations between versions. But there’s also tremendous variety, and swathes of really unexpected, totally unseen writing: dozens of poems, two substantial and extraordinary fragments of time-travel fiction, etymological works about Elvish (I’ve always loved Elvish), an unused epilogue to The Lord of the Rings, an unfinished sequel… And through immersion in all this, I gradually became interested – deeply interested – in the process of creativity, which is what Christopher Tolkien had been telling me about all along. I suppose if those books weren’t difficult, I wouldn’t have become an expert. I like a challenge, and I hate feeling dim, so I had to conquer this mountain. 


John with Peter Jackson - from John's site



Another bell that rang for me in ‘Tolkien and the Great War’, was that is dealt a great deal with Tolkien, and his three close friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache-Smith and Christopher Wiseman. Make a small adjustment and you have Sam, Merry and Pippin, but it is also clear that the young Tolkien would have thought of Sam as more like a batman, than a member of the officer class. Yet, in The Lord of the Rings, it is Sam and not the others who is with him during that terrible soul-sucking journey into Mordor and to Mount Doom.

I don’t think you can simply say there were four TCBS members (Rob, Christopher, Geoffrey, Tolkien) and four hobbits, so there must be a connection. Maybe another author would have been content with that. But actually (thanks to Christopher’s work in showing the history of The Lord of the Rings) we know the cast of hobbits kept shifting in name, in number and to some extent in character. At first there was no Sam; all the companions were what you might call middle or upper class. They head off without any clue about destination beyond Rivendell – and I mean Tolkien barely had a clue either. The book only gradually came to be about little individuals heading into a vast war. And when it did, Sam emerged: modelled, as Tolkien said, on the private soldiers he’d known in the Great War, and on his own batmen (officer’s servants). He evidently had more than one batman, because he uses the plural; but it would only have been one at a time, raising the question of what happened to the previous one. Wounded, killed? Anyway, the war memories soak through the whole book in diverse ways, but they are most closely concentrated in Sam and Frodo, batman and officer, trudging desperately and wearily through that terrible landscape: the exhaustion, the battle against despair, the accumulated damage in Frodo and the extraordinary resilience in Sam.


Hampshire scene (John Garth)


Your experience as a journalist and critic has clearly produced a few jewels, such as your interviews with such greatly respected fantasy writers as Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. Did you gain any particular insights from either of them?

The biggest hint from Susan Cooper and Alan Garner would be: be a child in a world war. Susan, who lived just outside London, talks about being terrified of German paratroopers bursting in through her bedroom door; and that must have seemed a very real prospect. Both have these scenarios where the familiar countryside harbours lurking enemies preparing the ground for a cruel invasion, and you can see the rumour and fear rooted in there from childhood. In Garner’s case, I perceive another lesson for writers of fiction (one I wish I had taken to heart decades ago), which is to write through your influences until you’ve burned them away. His first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is a superb reconfiguration of many mechanical aspects of The Lord of the Rings, with children instead of hobbits and Cheshire instead of Middle-earth. But when Garner takes them underground, the description leaps ahead of Tolkien’s – because Garner was describing caves in which he had personally climbed and crawled. And then over the next few books he sloughed off the Tolkien influence so that it was almost completely gone. They share a sense of the numinous in things grown and made; of the importance of ordinary people; and of the deep past; but those things were in Garner from the outset, I think.


Talk at the National WWI Museum in Kansas Missouri (Photo National WWI Museum)




Your most recent book is a real treat from the moment you open it, and, as you yourself state in the introduction, some of the most fascinating  insights and hidden gems are found on the boxes which are on nearly every page. Speaking as someone who is both dyspraxic and far too impatient, I’m used to finding ‘busy’ pages pretty irritating and even daunting, but in this case, it really is where you find the treasures.

That was a practical solution to a structural problem: I had so much to say, it seemed almost impossible to weave it all into a single thread of text. I’d also seen it done before, by Norman Davies in Europe: A History, which includes many page-sized panels throwing sidelights on the topic. And of course as a journalist I’d worked with layouts that were like that: newspaper articles with a sidebar for background or whatever. I enjoyed the sense of strewing temptations along the reader’s path, distractions from the main route; and also the idea that if you do read it straight through, you’ll want to turn back and look again to see what you’ve missed along the way. 


We haven’t talked much about you as a Tolkien fan and how that might have begun. Leaving aside the joy of the books for those many who feel that way about them, fans have been well served of late with the Peter Jackson trilogy and further back in 1980, for those of us who remember it, the wonderful BBC radio adaptation. I've already talked to Brian Sibley about the latter, and you have a  picture of yourself with  Peter Jackson on your site. How do you feel about both of those interpretations, or any others?

Is this a cue to talk about how I became a fan? In a nutshell, The Lord of the Rings was on the family bookshelves not being read. It had maps like Narnia, like Garner’s books, and it had a cover by Pauline Baynes arched over with trees, like a doorway to another world. I knew I must read it, and one evening (waiting for Hitchcock’s The Birds to start on TV) I began.

Brian Sibley’s 1981 adaptation for BBC radio is glorious. I taped it all so I could listen again, and I pinned all the Radio Times listings on my wall, with their exquisite little illustrations by Eric Fraser. Aside from working beautifully in its own right, it also demonstrates that adaptations do not need to be unfaithful, however much has to be omitted or compressed.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are a different matter and I’m conflicted about them. They look and sound fabulous in almost every shot; they show true craft and devotion; and they convey wonderfully the seriousness, the bonds, the heroism, the suffering, and the humour you also find in the book. But they take considerable liberties with plot and character, and rarely in ways that improve the story (some of the extra Arwen and Boromir elements are the honourable exceptions for me). On the plus side, they’ve brought untold numbers of fans to read Tolkien’s original; and I personally have to be supremely grateful because I think those movies really eased the route to publication of Tolkien and the Great War (it came out the week before the final instalment).

Later I had the chance to meet Peter when he came to Oxford to give a talk at the invitation of Tolkien’s undergraduate college, Exeter. I’d done a lot of research in the college archives for a little book I’ve done called (unsurprisingly) Tolkien at Exeter College. So they brought me in to show the Tolkien material to Peter and Fran Walsh (his partner). Peter and I had a good old chat about the First World War. But I did venture one oblique criticism of his films – their impact on how readers visualise Tolkien’s stories. You can see it in fan art: someone draws Frodo and it’s Elijah Wood; Galadriel and it’s Cate Blanchett. I told Peter I couldn’t now read the book without seeing Gandalf as Ian McKellen. He said, apparently with full conviction, “Ah, that’s a real shame!” He knows how to charm a critic! 

Layout is of real importance in a book on landscape and – as I’ve already said – you or your publisher gets this completely right, making the book so much of a treat, (in my case a Christmas one!). Did you have any say in this?

Yes, the team at Frances Lincoln were great. It was essentially a game of tennis, with me serving up cues for images, their picture researcher batting back an initial list, and then going on from there, back and forth. They put a huge emphasis on quality, and I think they recognised that I do too, so they were willing to spend a lot of time getting things absolutely right. So one example is the photo facing the opening of chapter one, which broadly had to conjure an atmosphere of England. They had come up with an absolutely beautiful shot across the misty Somerset levels, and I was delighted with it… until the last stage, where everything else had been pretty much decided, and it struck me that this particular image had to be not just an archetype, but an area specific to Tolkien. Amazingly, they found another, very different photo of Worcestershire from the Malvern Hills, which exactly hits the spot. The only shame, really, is that there wasn’t scope for more images, because there were so many other ideas that didn’t get illustrated. 




Let us say then, John that you are walking in a favourite fantasy landscape. What would you prefer to be looking at?

I’d love to be walking down into Rivendell. Or, to get away from Tolkien (and from walking) I’d like to be sailing across the seas of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea towards the mountain island of Gont. I’ve already walked one fantasy landscape in reality: the Edge, where Garner’s first books are set, on an early morning one spring when the beeches were just in leaf. In the words of Treebeard, that was more than my desire.

Having read your two books soon after each other, Tolkien’s work was newly illuminated for me by the way that the sadness of the loss of two of the group of four that formed his best friends, is reflected time and time again in the later stages of The Lord of the Rings, and even before that by the death of Thorin and Fili and Kili in the Hobbit.

I think the whole legendarium – The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and everything else – is rooted in those friendships which first nurtured it (his friends read his first “Middle-earth” poems in 1915–16) and that among many other things it is a way of trying to make sense of those deaths. Did you know Tolkien only decided that Fili and Kili should die in his final revisions of The Hobbit? That was in 1936, the 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in which Gilson and Smith died. There was a new and distinct sense of anniversary in the air in Britain at the time, because in 1926 no one had wanted to think about the war that had gone, and because in 1936 there suddenly seemed a real prospect that a new war was coming. Hitler’s troops were in the Rhineland, Mussolini’s forces were in Ethiopia, and (with a little help from them both and from Stalin) Spain was tearing itself to pieces.


Howard Shore's music for the trilogy. A bit too much of everything!



I have been writing a novella about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for several years, and it occurs to me that had Howard Shore not being available for Peter Jackson, or Stephen Oliver for the BBC, they could have done worse than use parts of some of VW’s symphonies. On the one hand he was accused of being ‘Cow and Gate’ music by the composer Peter Warlock, but for those who know better, his symphonies are full of eerie and valedictory moments, and in the cases of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, devastating and cruel ones. For ‘Cow and Gate’ music read Tolkien just being some made-up fantasy about hobbits and elves. I suppose I’m wondering if detractors of both Tolkien and Vaughan Williams find it more convenient to cover up the true emotional impact of scene and character by rendering it childish and somehow inferior?

I scarcely know Vaughan Williams beyond The Lark Ascending, but actually another pet peeve of mine about the Peter Jackson movies is that (whisper it) I don’t like Howard Shore’s music. It’s overbearing; it doesn’t so much underscore a feeling as shove you towards it; and it’s ubiquitous, so there’s little room for space and breath. I’d certainly rather have had some Vaughan Williams! And as for the critics of Tolkien or Vaughan Williams, I don’t have much respect for sneerers. There’s sentiment and there’s sentimentality, these people seem to have trouble distinguishing the two. You could guess that some of them are desperately trying to cover up their inner sensitivity. Equally you could guess they just don’t have any. 


Do you have any more plans for Tolkien books, John, or for any other projects?


The last resting place of Beren and Luthien - Tolkien and Edith. (Wikipedia)



I’m working on a proposal for a book about Tolkien’s legendarium as a response to the crises of his times – a book that goes beyond the First World War and, among other things, really gets to grips with The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been working on this one on and off since 2015 and it really needs to get off my laptop and into readers’ hands. It’ll be called Tolkien’s Mirror.

Thanks again, John. It’s been great to talk to you.

My pleasure, Steve. 


You can find more information about John and his work in these places.





Next month I will be starting a series of blogs about the mysterious figure of the 'Selkie', with contributors including Katherine Langrish, Kevin Crossley-Holland, award winning film-maker Sophia Carr-Gomm and storyteller Sharon Jacksties. See you then.







BywaterBob said...

A note that Shippey's book is Author of the Century, in part to clearly place JRRT as a writer of the twentieth century, not the writer.

Becky Dillon said...

Just an irritating typographical mistake; the caption on the WWI museum photo should read: Talk at the National WWI Museum in Kansas CITY, Missouri (Photo National WWI Museum)

John Garth is a friend and exceptionally literate speaker; bent on making academic communication conversational and appealing. This interview is excellent, and hopefully will bring more readers to John's work.