Back in August, we talked about a rare recording of J.R.R. Tolkien reading his famously composed ‘One Ring’ poem. Well, this time around we have come across an archived BBC Radio 4 interview with the renowned fantasy author conducted by Dennis Gerrolt. The subject matter touches upon a spectrum of fascinating subjects, ranging from the Lord of the Rings’ percieved allegorical nature (and Tolkien’s denial of it) to the vague presence (and at the same time lack thereof) of the omnipotent God in the fantasy world of the legendarium.
Interestingly enough, while the interview was conducted in 1964, it was publicly broadcast seven years later in 1971. The first part of this slightly-edited version is presented below, courtesy of Chamber of Records.
Below is the rough transcript of the interview, courtesy of Tolkien Library (link here)-
J.R.R. Tolkien: Long before I wrote The Hobbit and long before I wrote this I had constructed this world mythology.
D. Gerrolt: So you had some sort of scheme on which it was possible to work?J.R
J.R.R. Tolkien: Immense sagas, yes…I got sucked into it as the Hobbit did itself, as you know The Hobbit was originally about these dwarves and as soon he got moving out into the world he got moving and slipped into it.
D. Gerrolt: So your characters and your story really took charge. [silence] I say took charge; I don’t mean that you were completely under their spell or anything of this sort.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh no no, I don’t wander about dreaming at all, no [laughs] no no, it isn’t an obsession in any way. You have this sensation that at this point [ticks his pipe] A, B, C, D only A or one of them is right and you’ve got to wait until you see. I had maps of course. If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map, otherwise, you can never make a map of it afterward. The moons, I think, finally were the moons and sunset worked out according to what they were in this part of the world in 1942 actually. Must have been something around it.
D. Gerrolt: You began in ’42 did you, to write it?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh no, I began as soon as The Hobbit was out – in the ’30s.
D. Gerrolt: It was finally finished just before it was published.
J.R.R. Tolkien: I wrote the last … in about 1949 – I remember I actually wept at the denouement. But then, of course, there was a tremendous lot of revision. I typed the whole of that work out twice and lots of it, many times, on a bed in an attic. I couldn’t afford, of course, the typing. There are some mistakes still and also it amuses me to say, as I suppose, I’m in a position where it doesn’t matter what people think of me now. There were some frightful mistakes in grammar, which from a Professor of English Language and Lit, are rather shocking.
D. Gerrolt: I hadn’t noticed any.
J.R.R. Tolkien: There was one where I used bestrode as the past participle of bestride! [laughs]
D. Gerrolt: Do you feel any sense of guilt at all that as a philologist, as a Professor of English Language, with which you were concerned with the factual sources of language, you devoted a large part of your life to a fictional thing?
J.R.R. Tolkien: No. I’m sure it actually has done the language a lot of good! There’s quite a lot of linguistic wisdom in it. I don’t feel any guilt complex about The Lord of the Rings.
D. Gerrolt: Have you a particular fondness for these comfortable homely things of life that the Shire embodies: the home and pipe and fire and bed – the homely virtues?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Haven’t you?
D. Gerrolt: Haven’t you Professor Tolkien?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Of course, yes yes yes.
D. Gerrolt: You have a particular fondness then for Hobbits?
J.R.R. Tolkien: That’s why I feel at home…look, The Shire is very like the kind of world in which I first became aware of things. Which was perhaps more poignant to me because I wasn’t born in it. I was born in Bloemfontein in South Africa. I was very young when I got back, but at the same time it bites into your memory and imagination, even if you don’t think it has. If your first Christmas tree is a wilting eucalyptus and if you’re normally troubled by heat and sand … then, to have just at the age when imagination is opening out, suddenly find yourself in a quiet Warwickshire village, I think it engenders a particular love of what you might call central Midlands English countryside. Based on good water, stones and elm trees and small quiet rivers and so on, and of course, rustic people about.
D. Gerrolt: At what age did you come to England?
J.R.R. Tolkien: I suppose…I was about three and a half. Pretty poignant of course, because one of the things, why people say they don’t remember, is, it’s like constantly photographing the same thing on the same plate. Slight changes simply make a blur. But if a child had a sudden break like that, it’s conscious. What it tries to do is to fit the new memories onto the old. I’ve got a perfectly clear vivid picture of a house that I now know is, in fact, a beautifully worked out pastiche of my own home in Bloemfontein and my grandmother’s house in Birmingham. I can still remember going down the road in Birmingham and wondering what had happened to the big gallery, what happened to the balcony. Consequently, I do remember things extremely well, I can remember bathing in the Indian Ocean when I was not quite two and I remember it very clearly.
D. Gerrolt: Frodo accepts the burden of the Ring and he embodies, as a character the virtues of long suffering and perseverance and by his actions, one might almost say in the Buddhist sense he “acquires merit”. He becomes, in fact, almost a Christ figure. Why did you choose a Halfling, a hobbit for this role?
J.R.R. Tolkien: I didn’t. I didn’t do much choosing, I wrote The Hobbit you see … all I was trying to do was carry on from the point where The Hobbit left off. I’d got hobbits on my hands, hadn’t I?
D. Gerrolt: Indeed, but there’s nothing particularly “Christ like” about Bilbo.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh no. No no.
D. Gerrolt: But in the face of the most appalling danger he struggles on and continues, and wins through.
J.R.R. Tolkien: But that seems, I suppose, more like an allegory of the human race. I’ve always been impressed that we’re here surviving because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds: jungles, volcanoes, wild beasts… they struggle on, almost blindly in a way.
D. Gerrolt: I thought that conceivably Midgard might be Middle-earth or have some connection?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, they’re the same word. Most people have made this mistake of thinking Middle-earth is a particular kind of earth or is another planet of the science fiction sort but it’s just an old-fashioned word for this world we live in, as imagined surrounded by the Ocean.
D. Gerrolt: It seemed to me that Middle-earth was in a sense, as you say, this world we live in, but this world we live in at a different era.
J.R.R. Tolkien: No … at a different stage of imagination … yes.
D. Gerrolt: Did you intend in Lord of the Rings that certain races should embody certain principles: the elves wisdom, the dwarves craftsmanship, men husbandry and battle and so forth?
J.R.R. Tolkien: I didn’t intend it. But when you’ve got these people on your hands, you’ve got to make them different haven’t you? Well of course, as we all know, ultimately we’ve only got humanity to work with. It’s only clay we’ve got. We should all … or at least a large part of the human race … would like to have greater power of mind, greater power of art by which I mean, that the gap between the conception and the power of execution should be shortened, and we should, like a long time if not indefinite time in which to go on knowing more and making more.
Therefore we make the Elves immortal in a sense. I had to use immortal, I didn’t mean that they were eternally immortal, merely that they are very longeval and their longevity probably lasts as long as the inhabitability of the Earth.
The dwarves, of course, are quite obviously, couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic. Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects (in general) the small reach of their imagination – not the small reach of their courage or latent power.
D. Gerrolt: This seems to be one of the great strengths of the book, this enormous conglomeration of names – one doesn’t get lost, at least after the first reading, after the second reading of the book.
J.R.R. Tolkien: I’m very glad you told me that because I took a great deal of trouble. Also, it gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name; give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.
D. Gerrolt: Of the languages you know which were the greatest help to you in writing The Lord of the Rings?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh lord…yes…obviously the modern languages, I should have said Welsh has always attracted me. By its style and sound more than any other, even though I first only saw it on coal trucks, I always wanted to know what it was about.
D. Gerrolt: It seems to me that certainly, the music of Welsh comes through in the names you’ve chosen for mountains and for places in general. Do you acknowledge this?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Very much. But a much rarer but very potent influence on myself has been Finnish.
D. Gerrolt: Is the book to be considered as an allegory?
J.R.R. Tolkien: No. I dislike allegory whenever I smell it.
D. Gerrolt: Do you consider the world declining as the Third Age declines in your book? And do you see a Fourth Age for the world at the moment, our world?
J.R.R. Tolkien: At my age, I’m exactly the kind of person who has lived through one of the most quickly changing periods known to history. Surely there could never be in seventy years so much change.
D. Gerrolt: There’s an autumnal quality throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings, in one case a character says the story continues but I seem to have dropped out of it … however, everything is declining, fading, at least towards the end of the Third Age. Every choice tends to the upsetting of some tradition. Now this seems to me to be somewhat like Tennyson’s “the old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways”. Where is God in The Lord of the Rings?
J.R.R. Tolkien: He’s mentioned once or twice.
D. Gerrolt: Is he the One?
J.R.R. Tolkien: The One…yes.
D. Gerrolt: Are you, in fact, a theist?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh, I’m a Roman Catholic! A devout Roman Catholic.
D. Gerrolt: Do you wish to be remembered chiefly by your writings on philology and other matters or by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?
J.R.R. Tolkien: I shouldn’t have thought there was much choice in the matter – if I’m remembered at all, it will be by The Lord of the Rings, I take it. Won’t it be rather like the case of Longfellow? People remember Longfellow wrote Hiawatha, quite forget he was a Professor of Modern Languages!
The interview, now focused on the nature of gods, mythology, and power on Arda, is more-or-less continued in the extended version presented below, which we sourced from Roman Styran.
The rough transcript (after the 2:00 minute mark) is given below, courtesy of YouTube user kelvyquayo –
D. Gerrolt: Where is God in The Lord of the Rings?
J.R.R. Tolkien: He’s mentioned once or twice.
D. Gerrolt: Is he the One above the Eldar?
J.R.R. Tolkien: The One, yes.
D. Gerrolt: Despite the continuous war between evil (personified in Sauron) and good you never personalize or personify goodness. Good is there but it’s totally abstract, you don’t attempt to ascribe any Godship to it particularly
J.R.R. Tolkien: No, no, this isn’t a dualistic mythology it’s based on, no.
D. Gerrolt: But I mean the whole book is nevertheless nothing but the battle between good and evil
J.R.R. Tolkien: Well that’s, I suppose, actually, a conscious reaction to the war from the stuff [that I was brought up on] was “The War to end all wars” I couldn’t…Uh which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.
D. Gerrolt: If I can take this a bit further I may make my point clearer. In battle Frodo and Sam call on Galadriel or their native country, Gimli calls on his ancestor’s ax (if I read your appendices correctly) and the Men call ONLY on their swords by name or on their kings or lords. I would expect them to call on their gods. Yet amid thousands of names, you don’t name the deities of any the races you’ve invented, why? Have they no gods themselves?
J.R.R. Tolkien: There aren’t any.
D. Gerrolt: I would’ve thought a story of this sort was almost dependent upon an intense belief in some theocratic division, some hierarchy.
J.R.R. Tolkien: There is indeed. That’s where the theocratic hierarchy comes in. A man of the 20th century must, of course, see that you must have (whether he believes in them or not) you must have gods in a story of this kind. But he can’t make himself believe in gods like Thor and Odin, Aphrodite, Zeus, and that kind of thing.
D. Gerrolt: You can’t believe the men in your story would have called on Odin?
J.R.R. Tolkien: i couldn’t possibly construct a mythology which had Olympus or Asgard in it on the terms in which the people who’d worshiped those gods believed in. God is Supreme, the creator, outside, transcendent. The place of the “gods” is taken. So well taken that I think it makes no difference to the ordinary reader… is taken by the angelic spirits created by God, created before the particular time sequence which we call The World which is called in their language “Ea”, “That which Is”.. Which now exists…. THOSE are the Valar, the Powers… It’s a construction of geo-mythology which allows part of the demiurgic of a thing as being handed over to powers which are created therein under The One. It’s a bit like, but much more elaborate and thought out, than CS Lewis’ business with his Out of the Silent Planet where we have a demiurgus who is actually in command of the planet Mars…And the idea that Lucifer was originally the one in command of the world but he fell… so it was a silent planet… that was the idea, well this is not the same with me.
D. Gerrolt: Yes yes… So then you have in your theocracy you have an Ultimate One, whom you call…
J.R.R. Tolkien: He’s called The One only
D. Gerrolt: and then the Valar who are considered as living in Valinor.
J.R.R. Tolkien: This particular little group of them who moved from other parts… to this part because they became interested in it.
D. Gerrolt: In the book, I get the impression you always see power as being physically in a high place. You have a high seat, Orthanc, Meduseld, Barad Dur, the towers of Minas Tirith, Morgul, and Cirith Ungol, they are always high, physically up. Is power for you always, so to speak, at the top of the mountain or the top of a…
J.R.R. Tolkien: Well that’s just a symbol, isn’t it ordinarily… as a matter of fact, it’s just the storytelling anything you want, towers and so on…You could have them down in the dungeon or underneath, there are as a matter of fact Morgoth, the Prime Mover of evil, of whom Sauron was only a petty lieutenant… lives in a dungeon that must be in a fortress of some kind… not that Valinor has any high towers…
D. Gerrolt: Well that is almost without the world that you describe, isn’t it?
J.R.R. Tolkien: It’s in the physical world according to the myth.
D. Gerrolt: Ahhh
J.R.R. Tolkien: ..until the downfall of Atlantis. I’ve had an Atlantis complex in addition to all these other things… and quite admitted that I’ve a permanent dream that I had… let’s say that the irreducible wave has been one of my nightmares… sometimes coming in over the open country. It always ends by one surrendering themselves when we accept it. It comes in at all kinds of points. Whenever I used to doodle and draw nearly always a lone fatally vast oceanic wave coming in. So, of course, I had to write quite an appendix of this Atlantis story in which I call Numenor which means the land of the extreme West, West of Men. Well, this is the fable, you see. The whole question of the Human fall is left off the stage, nicely. It occurred but it is not known since the retrace of these people. They were given this great island. The fairest of all West, not in the divine world, not on the immortal world, to live on. Then, of course, will always come a seemingly meaningless ban… Like the free of the tree of evil which was the same thing in its parallel. Their ban was they mustn’t sail West. They did.
D. Gerrolt: Hence the ultimate downfall.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Then became only intellectual. It lived then only in memory, it lived in time but not present time. And of course, if Numenor was drowned then the earthly paradise was moved so then you could then get to South America!
Then the world became round… you see it always had been a vast globe. But people can now sail around it… discovered it’s round… that was my solution to the… I wanted to give a form of Atlantis some universal application. The point is really… as they get to it you suddenly see the real colors of the world being now like a bridge….all lines lead to what was.. of course, I don’t know what your theory of Time is but: what was, what is, whatever had an existence must…still, has that same existence…but it’s a…we won’t go, you can’t go too deeply into those things but they really are sailing back to earlier memory.
D. Gerrolt: In this world which you might have created had you been given the power to do so had you been one of the Valar had you been, say, the mock God: would you have created a world that was so solidly feudal as the Lord of the Rings?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, very much so yes, I think the feudal. Well, you mean Feudal in the French sense. Not in a strict way for land owning..?
D. Gerrolt: Oh no no no, in the wider sense
J.R.R. Tolkien: Hierarchical, rather.
D. Gerrolt: Hierarchical, exactly, yes.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Hierarchical, yes
D. Gerrolt: I mean that power should descend by a line of kings to their sons.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh! The heredity yes yes yes… I don’t know about that. No. It’s a very potent story making the motive thing but ER half I would say… is it really worth putting the other system in and looking at these through the world, one doubts very much. It’s never been worse… then the struggle for power that always ensues when you haven’t got some line of decent that can’t be questioned.
D. Gerrolt: You’re wedded to the feudal system, in a sense? I don’t mean the medieval feudal system but the idea of power descending through blood or through marriage.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Yes, I am wedded to those kinds of loyalties because I think, contrary to most people, I think that touching your cap to the Squire may be damn bad for the Squire but it’s damn good for you.
D. Gerrolt: Do you find continuing interest in Lord of the Rings by people? Do people still write to you despite that the book’s been out for 10 years?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Dozens of letters of week, yeah. All I can do is keep a secretary to answer them, yes.
D. Gerrolt: Were you surprised at its success?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Nobody’d been more staggered… unless it’s possibly Stanley Unwin. I was up at Stanley Unwin’s birthday celebration and a bookseller came up to me… I don’t usually get greeted with such gravity he was so delighted, while he got a copy it’d sell so well it practically kept him going. (laughs) Well he gets his Guinea off the cent, you see?
D. Gerrolt: Almost the last question:
Do you, in fact, believe, yourself, not in the context of-of this book, believe in the sense of straightforward strict belief, in the Eldar or in some form of governing spirits?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Well the Eldar must be distinguished from the Valar only by…
D. Gerrolt: The Valar I mean, I’m sorry.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Yes… Umm (Pause)
D. Gerrolt: Are you, in fact, a Theist?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh, I’m a Roman Catholic… a devout Roman Catholic yes, but uh, I don’t know about Angelology but yes I should’ve thought almost certainly… Yes. Certainly.
D. Gerrolt: well they seem to me to be the Saints or the equivalent of the Saints.
J.R.R. Tolkien: For theology yes, [LIGHTS MATCH] they take the place, in this book of the year things in which the medieval and old religions you have the gods in the invocation of the saints which are lesser angels, yes they do. Well obviously many people have notions that praying to the Lady or the Queen of the Stars are, you know, it’s like Roman Catholics in the invocation of Our Lady.