This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
On January 24 we published Austin Gilkeson’s review of Amazon’s new Tolkien-inspired series, The Rings of Power, online. One of the pleasures of the source material, Gilkeson notes, is the “sense of a deep past that can be excavated through careful reading”—a quality that makes the spin-off show possible, yet can’t quite be replicated on the screen.
Gilkeson read The Lord of the Rings as a college student, and after trying his hand at his own fantasy world-building has unpacked his fascination with Middle-earth in numerous essays (including as The Toast’s “Tolkien correspondent”). He now teaches high-school English in Houston, Texas; in addition to writing with warmth and humor on literature, genre fiction, and animation, from Miyazaki to Looney Toons, he writes stories for children.
Over e-mail this week, I asked him about his Tolkien journey, the Bloomsbury Group, and what kids these days are reading.
Daniel Drake: To start with, how and where were you introduced to Tolkien? Were you instantly drawn in by one or another of his books, or did they grow on you? Put another way, at what point did you realize you were going to read The Silmarillion?
Austin Gilkeson: I first read Tolkien in college. The movies were coming out and I decided, like any good English major, to read the books first. My mom has an old box set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien’s own illustrations on the covers, so I picked it off the shelf. I liked The Hobbit well enough, but The Lord of the Rings enthralled me. It gave me the same sensation as reading the Epic of Gilgamesh or Beowulf: this sense of catching a glimpse of a bygone world. The Silmarillion soon followed, though even I found it tough going at first.
In your essay you argue that one of the fundamental pleasures of Tolkien’s work is its scholarliness, both in the form of the work—wizards in libraries, centers of learning as the waystations of civilization—and in the way the work calls to its obsessive fans with elaborate world building, literary references, and so forth. Are there other authors, or genres for that matter, you can think of that so unselfconsciously foreground the life of the mind?
Nabokov and Borges come immediately to mind, though for popular speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune books come closest, with their human computers and quasi-monastic orders like the Bene Gesserit. But in Herbert’s novels, the life of the mind feels less like a refuge, as it does in Tolkien, and more like a trap. The mind is always a weapon for Herbert. It’s a dangerous thing.
You refer to the “apostolic succession of fantasy” that The Lord of the Rings generated. Why do you think it is that Tolkien’s world caught on, inspiring decades of books and Led Zeppelin songs and role-playing games, in a way that, say, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen did not?
I believe it’s that sense of discovery the book evokes. The Lord of the Rings isn’t a puzzle, its meaning is clear, but it invites you back in, over and over again, to rifle through its cabinets and drawers in search of some new bit of history or slip of Elvish song. I’ve read every footnote and appendix, but I never feel completely done with it. It always feels like there’s more to find.
You were also, I understand, a bit of a Virginia Woolf scholar. The Bloomsbury Group was, like Tolkien, profoundly affected by World War I. Was there much of a relationship or overlap between the Bloomsberries and Tolkien (and Tolkien’s own little society, with C.S. Lewis, The Inklings)?
I don’t know of any relationship between the Bloomsbury Group and the Inklings. It’s hard to imagine they’d approve of one another, though I think it’s fascinating to consider Tolkien alongside the modernists, since they were of the same generation, largely of the same class, and shared so many of the same concerns, yet took them in such different artistic directions. You can see Mordor in the “ash grey coal pits” of the colliers in Sons and Lovers, or, to use an American example, the ash heaps of Long Island in The Great Gatsby. And Tolkien’s traumatized Frodo Baggins would certainly find a kindred spirit in the shell-shocked Septimus Smith of Mrs Dalloway. But while Modernism’s mantra in the face of war and industrialization was to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound put it, Tolkien’s could probably be summed up as “make it old.” He didn’t want to excavate a new world so much as he wanted to preserve the old one.
You are now a high school English teacher. Do you find Tolkien is still popular with students? Which of the books that you teach have you found really resonate with students today?
I have a couple of students who love Tolkien—one told me he even has a replica of Gandalf’s sword on his wall—but otherwise I haven’t found him to be popular. We recently read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and many of them enjoyed it. A lot of them really like horror. I didn’t understand why until I realized that they lost two years of their youth to the pandemic and many of them lived through the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, among other tragedies. I think the grim honesty of horror resonates with them. Teenagers hate feeling like they are being lied to. Horror doesn’t pull any punches.
What books have you been reading lately?
I’m currently rereading Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works, since I want to teach some of his stories to my students. I think they’ll particularly appreciate “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Over the holidays, I read Merlin Sheldrake’s book about mushrooms and other fungi, Entangled Life, which mentions Tolkien. It’s a very hobbit-y book. At one point Sheldrake argues that Tolkien had mycorrhizal fungi in mind when, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Sam uses an elvish dust to make the war-torn Shire’s trees regrow, “as if time was in a hurry and wished to make one year do for twenty.”