Q&A with Anne C. Petty
Anne C. Petty received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Florida State University. Her dissertation was published as One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's Mythology (1979; reprinted with a new introduction and expanded bibliography 2002, $18.95 trade paperback, ISBN 0817312056). Another book, Tolkien in the Land of Heroes: Discovering the Human Spirit ($16.95 trade paperback, ISBN 1892975998), came out in August 2003. And just published is a book that includes a chapter on Tolkien, Dragons of Fantasy ($14.94 trade paperback, ISBN 1593600100). Check out her website at www.annepetty.com
Q: Your first book, One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's Mythology, grew out of your Ph.D. dissertation. It covers Tolkien's writings -- in particular The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings -- from a much different perspective than the usual source-studies and literary criticism, approaching Tolkien by way of the methodologies of folklorists and of comparative mythologists. For our readers who may be unfamiliar with these approaches, can you give a bit of an introduction to them and how you apply them to Tolkien?
A: Well, let me put the book in context. In the early 70s, when I was a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic, J. R. R. Tolkien was still alive, Shippey's source-based study, The Road to Middle-earth, and Flieger's Splintered Light wouldn't be written for another 10 years, and in fact, not much in the way of academic research into Tolkien's writings was available. Joseph Campbell was still alive and his writings and lectures about myth and civilization were quite popular on American college campuses. The field of comparative mythology was relatively new, especially in terms of what Campbell saw as the "comprehensive effect of myths" in literature, the arts, and psychology. I met Campbell when he spoke to our English Department during a book tour and asked him what he thought of applying his theories from The Hero With A Thousand Faces to the fiction of Tolkien. He was encouraging, and my ideas for a myth-based study of Tolkien's fiction took shape.
As an English Literature major with specialization in Creative Writing and a minor in Humanities, I found the study of myth and mythmaking very appealing. I had just finished reading The Lord of the Rings, recommended to me by a fellow doctoral student, and I realized there was much more to the work than mere fantasy entertainment. I felt that it was an example of genuine mythmaking, and that Campbell's discussion of the ubiquitous quest myth -- departure, initiation, return -- put Tolkien's epic into much fuller perspective. I felt then -- and still do -- that Tolkien was a mythmaker for our modern age. I like Verlyn Flieger's observation that myth "names" and "arranges" -- it organizes, but it doesn't necessarily explain. For example, "the splendid mythic resonance of Genesis 1, in which God created the world by speaking it into existence, does not explain either the How or the Why of that world, or God's motive for making it." Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth has that same effect.
Flieger also refers to Campbell's four categories of the major uses of myth: Cosmological, Transcendental, Socio-political, and Psychological. These ideas, along with those of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Vladimir Propp (who categorized the structure underlying many fairy tales), formed the basis for my study of Tolkien as mythmaker. Did Tolkien consciously set out to follow those age-old mythic patterns for his plot? Likely not, but that was my point -- what he created was the genuine act of mythmaking, not a surface attempt to write a story according to a set pattern. His mythos of Middle-earth evolved over many years and was still evolving and shifting at his death, as mythologies and the cultures that support them do in real life. To me, the fact that his fiction continues to fascinate and move readers in the twenty-first century attests to the effectiveness of his "mythic imagination." It appeals to something beyond the literary taste of the moment. The validity of the "Tolkien as mythmaker" approach is illustrated in a recent collection of papers from the International Congress on Medieval Studies edited by Jane Chance under the title Tolkien and the Invention of Myth.
Q: More than twenty years passed between your first book on Tolkien and the second, Tolkien in the Land of Heroes. Did you go away from studying Tolkien and subsequently return? What was the impetus for the second book?
A: By the time One Ring to Bind Them All was published, my writing career had veered off in a different direction, away from literary analysis and more focused on creative writing: fiction, screenplays, and poetry. I also started building up a body of commercial free-lance work (articles and photos) in arts, lifestyle, and culture magazines. I did write occasional scholarly articles, but they were mostly about the craft of writing rather than a specific author. Then I got recruited by a private corporation to become their Publications Director and senior technical editor, which opened up a totally different career path of managing editorial departments and teaching seminars in writing, which I did for several different corporations. At that time I was also involved in helping found the Tallahassee Writer's Association and the Florida Film Association, which gave me the chance to teach seminars in scriptwriting for both commercial and educational formats.
I had some correspondence off and on in the late 90s with the University of Alabama Press about a second edition of One Ring to Bind Them All, but that didn't really get off the ground until a new editor in chief came on board and moved the project into high gear. Peter Jackson's first film was hitting the theaters at about the same time, so it was propitious timing. It also gave me a chance to catch up on current Tolkien scholarship and to see just how much the landscape had changed since my first book was written. Tolkien has now become a respectable component of academia, whereas when I was coming through the system, I had a devil of a time convincing my doctoral committee that the chap in England who wrote those cultish fantasy books about dragons and dark lords was worthy of a dissertation.
After the second edition of One Ring to Bind Them All was published, I was approached by Cold Spring Press to write a book on Tolkien that would appeal to a more general readership. Because I had quite a few new ideas about Tolkien's fiction, especially The Lord of the Rings -- and had learned more about life in the years since my first book -- I welcomed the chance to put those thoughts into a new book.
Q: Tolkien in the Land of Heroes moves into a more familiar type of discourse on what you call in the introduction "the grand themes" in Tolkien's writings: "the nature of evil, the use and abuse of power, the joys and sorrows of living, and the need for heroes both great and small." The style is very conversational and readable. Tell us a bit about what
you've learned about Tolkien from this thematic approach.
A: The style and content of Tolkien in the Land of Heroes came out of two things, I think. First is all the years I've spent as a wordsmith, both teaching people how to write clearly and spending a lot of effort shaping and organizing other people's ideas into readable manuscripts. This produced the conversational tone you mentioned. The second thing is the change in demographics of people who want to read books written about Tolkien. With the popularity of Jackson's movies has come an almost insatiable thirst from old and new fans to understand more about the stories and their larger importance. I wanted to share my views on how the themes of life are richly woven into the substance of Tolkien's fiction, but I wanted to do it in terms that anyone, whether an academic or a general reader, could enjoy. Writing this kind of book, one that's scholarly yet user-friendly, was a liberating experience, actually.
Remember those wonderful James Burke "Connections" television programs? My major professor had that same kind of synthesizing mind, that could see patterns and paradigms and resonances over a wide body of knowledge. I felt that Tolkien in the Land of Heroes was in some ways an homage to his influence on me and my ability to think in a straight line while paying close attention to side roads and alternate routes that might crop up along the way. I learned from him how the comparative study of the mythologies of the world brings into focus the commonalities with which humans tell the stories of their cultures, covering everything from creation to the end of the world. These commonalities are the great themes that often form the bedrock of fiction and elevate storytelling to great literature.
Q: In your new book, Dragons of Fantasy, Tolkien is covered in only a chapter, but the subject of the book as a whole is certainly one which would have interested him greatly. For you, what is the attraction of dragons?
A: As I say at the end of the book, like "so many others seduced by the Worm, I love the idea of them and the power of Faerie that clings to their hides." I believe it's the volatile blend of terrifying bestiality and raw physical power set against cold intellect and magical empowerment that makes dragons so alluring. I think Tolkien said much the same thing. As a child, I read about them in Andrew Lang's color Fairy Book series and stared at pictures of them in illustrated retellings of Germanic myths and legends. I especially remember one very powerful black & white illustration of Fáfnir in mortal combat with Sigurd, where the dragon looms over the hero, dwarfing him with its coils. The dragon seems invincible, yet you know it's doomed. That always struck me as tragic.
I have always loved encountering dragons in fiction, even when they're just animal brutes like J. K. Rowling's tournament dragons; but when there's a cunning mind behind those catlike eyes, the dragonspell just sucks me in. When I was a little kid, my favorite make-believe character to play was a wise old dragon with tourmaline-colored scales that flashed magenta, teal, and ultramarine. I didn't use those color names when I was a first-grader, but I can still vividly see them the way I envisioned my dragon alter-ego in those days. These days, I'm working that vision into a fantasy novel with my old scaly loremaster as the main character.
Q: You have divided the book into two main sections -- the first covers several modern fantasy writers and their dragons, while the second gives the historical background of beliefs about dragons over the years. That seemed almost backwards to me. Why did you do it that way?
A: I'm laughing as I read this question. That was a marketing decision, based on the assumption that since the book is aimed at general readers, it shouldn't start out like a textbook. So, the book begins with Tolkien, Glaurung, and Smaug. As I suggest in the Introduction, if you prefer, there's no harm in reading the Dragonology chapters first and then diving into the chapters on specific writers.
Q: Tell us about your favorite dragons and dragon stories.
A: Smaug is definitely at or near the top of my list. Tolkien just got it right when it comes to turning a monster of myth and legend into a thinking, conniving, fully drawn character. Smaug is by turns frightening, funny, and ultimately vulnerable. I love the way he manipulates the other characters, but is manipulated by them as well. The way Tolkien builds up readers' expectations about Smaug throughout The Hobbit until the moment of truth when Bilbo finally steps out of the tunnel and into the dragon's lair is masterful. You can just feel the sweat trickling down his neck as he gets closer to the cavern and it becomes painfully obvious that the dragon is real instead of an often-told legend. I'll be speaking about Smaug and Tolkien's other dragons at this year's Dragon*Con in Atlanta, as part of the Tolkien Track programming.
I'm also intrigued by the dragons in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. The blend of ancient dragon and human lineage is appealing and gets a great send-up in the final pages of The Game of Thrones. The book ends with the iconic scene in which Daenerys Stormborn steps into the inferno of her husband's funeral pyre as three rare dragon eggs hatch in the heat. Martin's prose can be turgid and overwrought on occasion, but here he strikes just the right note: "As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons." Great stuff!
And I must mention the golden Dragon of Romance found in Lord Dunsany's short-short story, "Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance." I'd gladly trade places with her!
Q: What else have you published on Tolkien?
A: I'm really pleased to have a chapter in the premiere volume of Tolkien Studies, the annual hardback collection of Tolkien essays launched in April 2004 and edited by Douglas Anderson, Michael Drout, and Verlyn Flieger. My article, "Identifying England's Lönnrot," looks at the similarities between Elias Lönnrot, the compiler (and some say author) of Finland's Kalevala, and Tolkien, especially regarding his work on The Silmarillion.
My chapter on The Hobbit (titled "Tolkien's Prelude") from One Ring to Bind Them All has been published separately in the volume J. R. R. Tolkien, which is part of the Modern Critical Views series edited by Harold Bloom.
Q: Your website says that you are working on two things, another book on Tolkien titled Echoes of the Kalevala in Middle-earth, and a series of speculative fiction novels inspired by mythological tales of the Australian Dreamtime. Tell us a bit about each project.
A: I first read W. F. Kirby's translation of Kalevala: The Land of Heroes when I was in high school and immediately committed whole passages of it to memory I loved it so much. At the time, the Hiawatha-like singsong rhythm didn't deter me from being transported completely to the spellbound frozen lands of the ancient Finns. I've since read four other translations of it, and by far prefer the version rendered by Eino Friberg. In any case, if you're going to study the Kalevala's influence on Tolkien, you must refer to Kirby's translation because that's the one Tolkien read. I've been thinking about Tolkien's Finnish connection for a number of years, and was actually starting to work on it when I got the green light for the second edition of One Ring to Bind Them All, so I put it aside temporarily. Before I could get back to it, I was offered contracts for two books from Cold Spring Press, so it's still waiting for me to gear it up again.
My fiction project is also something I've been working at off and on for several years and is just now coming together. As I said earlier, I have always been a wordsmith, by vocation and avocation, and have been writing fiction and poetry since I was about five or six. When my mother died years ago, I found my first "book" among other childhood artifacts she had saved and packed away in a dresser drawer. It was done on a piece of cardboard folded to make a book, written in orange and red crayon, and titled "The Dog Who Lost His Bark." Inside it said, "Once there was a dog. Who lost his bark. He was sad. Then he found it again," plus illustrations. My mother had written "age 6" on the back. I have to think I've come a long way since then.
Regarding the fiction project, I don't want to say too much about the plot of the first novel in the Wandjina series (four are planned), but I can tell you that it involves encounters with certain Dreamtime entities in a modern-day urban setting.
Q: And finally what are your views on Peter Jackson's three films of The Lord of the Rings?
A: As I told Anthony Burdge when he interviewed me for Heren Istarion [Here], I have a love/hate relationship with the movies. I've seen all three films multiple times in the theater (took part in the Trilogy Tuesday festivities at Ft. Myers, Florida, when The Return of the King premiered) and own the extended DVD versions, which I think are far superior to the theatrical cuts. I think all three films are beautiful to look at, the acting is mostly fine, and the music (treating all three films as one long opus) is one of the best film scores I've heard in years. That said, here are my reservations about the films.
Jackson and his creative team got so many things right, that when they seriously missed the mark I found it hugely frustrating. The script (again, treating all three as a whole) devised by Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh is to be commended for salvaging many gems from Tolkien's actual dialogue, but it also has some problems, especially concerning character interpretation. If they had just trusted Tolkien's reasons for creating his main characters as you find them in the books, and trusted the movie audiences to "get it," most of these problems would have been eliminated. I guess you could call me a quasi-purist, if there can be such a thing. I didn't really mind the elimination of some characters, such as Tom Bombadil and Glorfindel, but it was the skewing off-plumb of significant characters such as Aragorn, Elrond, and Faramir that kept me from embracing the films. Saddest to me was the excising of all Aragorn's "magical" attributes that attest to the Elvish side of his ancestry and that make him the TRUE king (there's a reason Sauron fears a Númenórean revival, and it isn't the fact that Aragorn can kill a dozen orcs with a single sword swipe).
As I've said in other interviews, Jackson's version of Aragorn has lost his aura of otherworldly power. The scriptwriters give him recurring lines that emphasize the weakness that flows in his veins when in fact his bloodline flows straight from High Elven sources that include Thingol (a High Elf) and Melian (a Maia); Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren; Dior (Thingol's heir) and Nimloth; Eärendil and Elwing; and finally, Elros (Elrond's brother) who founds the line of Númenóreans. Jackson's Aragorn is just a brave warrior and a sensitive fellow who can weep on demand, but in the books he is so much more. We are also robbed of the wonderful relationship that develops between Aragorn and Éomer. Unless some unexpected footage shows up in the extended cut of The Return of the King, they don't even meet on the battlefield.
Tolkien's Aragorn is clearly worthy of marrying into the Elvish side of the family once he accomplishes the task set for him by his foster father and prospective father-in-law. But not film Aragorn. Did anyone watching the films who hadn't read the books even realize that Aragorn considered Elrond his foster father, which makes their estrangement all the more poignant? Which brings me to the problem with Elrond. Yes, he is stern and demanding of Aragorn, but he also loves him as a son, which was missing from the film. Film Elrond seems more petulant than commanding, more sour and resentful than heartsick over the potential loss of both his Evenstar and his foster son.
And Faramir? Well, he improved somewhat in the third film, but I still feel that the whole encounter with Frodo and Sam in Ithilien got so warped off track that the ripple effect mostly ruined the complex Faramir-Denethor relationship, reducing Denethor to a pig and Faramir to an enigma. The nobility of movie Denethor only exists in Boromir's mind when he chats with Aragorn in Lothlórien.
So, did I enjoy the films at all? Yes, certainly. I just feel they could have been so much better by following Tolkien's very carefully woven plotlines more faithfully, which would have allowed the characters to retain their original attributes rather than devolve into lesser Men and Elves.