Professor Olsen on “The Hobbit”
Photo by Andrew Olsen.
CHESTERTOWN, MD—When one of the most beloved books of the 20th century, The Hobbit, turned 75 on September 21, 2012, Washington College assistant professor of English Corey Olsen was able to mark the occasion with a book of his own. Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” in-depth, chapter-by-chapter journey through the richly layered children’s book, was released that week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to good reviews. “Tolkien’s roads, it seems, go ever, ever on, but with as amiable and knowledgeable a guide as Olsen, the weather remains fine and the journey sweet,” opined Kirkus Reviews. And Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “the author’s infectious enthusiasm pervades his words, ensuring that what could have been a dry work in other hands will retain even a casual reader’s interest. The result is a text suitable for fans and scholars alike.”
As the creator of the “Tolkien Professor” podcasts, Olsen is known for aiming his scholarly insights at a general audience. The same philosophy guides his book as he delves into Tolkien themes such as the nature of evil and its hopelessness, the mystery of divine providence and human choice, and the transformation in the life of the main character, Bilbo Baggins.
December will bring the first installment in the long-awaited film adaptation of The Hobbit by director Peter Jackson, who has divided the story into a trilogy for the big screen. With Hobbit fever at a peak, we share a Conversation with the Tolkien Professer himself, supplied by his publisher:
A Conversation with Corey Olsen
How did you first get interested in Tolkien?
I first read The Hobbit when I was eight, and I’ve been rereading it and The Lord of the Rings every year since then. I have always loved reading the books slowly and carefully—there is so much to enjoy and to notice when you do that! Ultimately, that’s what I try to do in my book. I want to take readers on a leisurely walk through The Hobbit, helping them to slow down and look at the many fascinating developments that you can notice when you aren’t rushing through.
How did you become a Tolkien scholar? Did you get a degree in Tolkien?
I am an English professor, and I got my PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia. I did not actually work on Tolkien in my graduate studies, though I consider that a very valid field of study, obviously. My own focus was medieval literature, with a specialization in fourteenth-century English literature—Chaucer and his contemporaries. In fact, I blame Tolkien for making me a medievalist; my curiosity about the Middle Ages and about Old and Middle English began in Middle-earth.
Isn’t The Hobbit just a children’s book? Why should adults read it seriously?
It is true that The Hobbit was written with an audience of children primarily in mind, yes. But what of that? Why should we assume that a book intended to be enjoyed by children should necessarily be beneath adults? This assumption is never true of good children’s books. In The Hobbit, Tolkien deals with many complex and important ideas, and by the end of the book, in particular, he has gotten into dome pretty deep waters. The book deals with the effects of greed and the temptations to abuse power. It undertakes a very nuanced psychological study of Bilbo’s character, which is very complex and develops in some quite unexpected directions. It even considers some very difficult philosophical ideas, such as the relationship between fate and free will. Tolkien does a remarkable job of making his story accessible to kids, but that does nothing to make it a less interesting and provocative story!
What exactly is the relationship between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?
The Hobbit was written first, and it was published in 1937. The book was so popular that the publisher requested a sequel. Tolkien started to write a sequel, another hobbit adventure story, but it grew into something much larger. Seventeen years later, Tolkien finally published The Fellowship of the Ring (the first part of Lord of the Rings), which no longer resembled anything so simple as a sequel to The Hobbit. Tolkien even had to go back and rewrite part of The Hobbit to make it fit with the larger and rather darker story that had grown out of it, as I explain in my book.
Any notion of how Peter Jackson will be able to make three movies out of one book?
Although the idea of making three feature films out of The Hobbit might seem strange at first glance, I actually think it makes a great deal of sense. Tolkien worked for years to show how The Hobbit fit into the historical framework of the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings, and to fill in some of the stories that were left untold in The Hobbit. For instance, we are told in one sentence in the last chapter of The Hobbit that when Gandalf left Bilbo and the dwarves, he had been to “a great council of the white wizards” and that they had driven the Necromancer out of his stronghold in southern Mirkwood. In his later writings, some of which appear in the Appendices of The Return of the King, Tolkien explains more about what happened at that council, which was a more important event in the history of the Third Age of Middle-earth than the retaking of the Lonely Mountain. Between the story of the White Council’s attack on the Necromancer and other ideas with which Tolkien later contextualized the original Hobbit plot, there is actually plenty of material of Tolkien’s invention to fill three movies. From all the evidence, Peter Jackson and crew will be relying heavily on this supplemental material that Tolkien wrote, so it isn’t surprising that they want multiple films to develop that story.
Why did you decide to start a podcast?
The fact is, very few people have access to scholarly publications, even if they want to read them, and I wanted to engage the public in a broader conversation. I knew that there were a lot of Tolkien fans out there who would probably be interested in a serious academic discussion of Tolkien’s books. So I started recording a lecture series and putting it online. It turned out there were even more enthusiastic Tolkien fans out there than I had expected! Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is a natural outgrowth of my work on the podcast. I hope that Tolkien aficionados and new readers alike will enjoy my discussion of The Hobbit, and perhaps even come and continue the discussion with me through my podcast and website: www.tolkienprofessor.com.
Do you plan to continue this work in public scholarship?
Working on my podcast over the last few years, I found so much enthusiasm for a publicly accessible academic discussion about Tolkien’s works that I decided to widen the conversation even further. I founded the Mythgard Institute (www.mythgard.org), an online teaching and research center for the study of Tolkien and other works of imaginative literature. We’ve begun by organizing live, interactive online discussion courses with top scholars and teachers, and we are also developing resources to help facilitate and encourage further study in the field by a wider range of people. Academia has neglected fantasy and science fiction as fields of intellectual inquiry for too long; at Mythgard, we’re trying to change that.