Interview with Elizabeth M. Stephen about Hobbit to Hero: The Making of tolkien's King (12.09.12 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

On the 1st of August a new book was released, called Hobbit to Hero: The Making of tolkien's King, written by Elizabeth M. Stephen, this is a book that places Aragorn in his rightful place as one of the greatest heroes of any mythology.

'Aragorn', the hero-king from The Lord of the Rings, is one of the pivotal figures of tolkien's mythology, but a detailed study of this popular character has been a notable omission from the spectrum of existing study. It is nearly forty years since Paul Kocher published his sympathetic analysis in The Master of Middle-earth and his has remained one of the most insightful studies available. With the subsequent publication of tolkien's letters, numerous versions of The Silmarillion and extensive material pertaining to the legendarium, we have opportunities unavailable to Kocher to further appreciate the character's role and to explore tolkien's own aspirations for his king. By delving into this wealth of material, and returning to some of the principal legends that inspired Tolkien, the author unravels Aragorn's evolution from the hobbit 'Trotter' into a great Númenórean king, and considers the consequences of this unexpected transformation, in particular, examining how Tolkien utilized the character to fulfill some of the more profound functions of his wider mythology.

A zoologist and former teacher, Elisabeth M. Stephen (Liz) rears pedigree sheep and cattle on her farm in the Cotswold Hills of her native Gloucestershire. She first discovered Tolkien as a child when she encountered The Hobbit in the 1960’s, and her enduring fascination with the Professor’s works has led her to write this book.

Here is an interview with the author where we discuss this new book in detail.

Hobbit to Hero: The Making of tolkien's King

TL: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

ES: This is probably my least favourite topic of conversation but I'll give you a little background. A life-long inhabitant of rural Gloucestershire, I'm very much a country person, content with familiar scenery and the comforts of home. I do though have two great passions; one is Tolkien, the other is my farm. An interest in animals of all shapes and sizes developed at a very young age and led me to study zoology at the University of Bristol. Yet I always longed to be a farmer like my grandfather and his father before him, even though by then the family farm was nothing more than an illusion from a lost past, assessable only through my dad's bedtime tales. Instead I followed my parents into teaching, but the lure of the land proved too strong and I soon began keeping sheep in the back garden. I now farm a hundred acres, a quarter of it my own, rearing pedigree cattle and sheep.

TL: What did you like to read when you were a child?

ES: I read a great deal as a child, although the only stories I recall featuring heroes with swords were the Narnia books which were huge favorites for many years. Being pony-mad, my reading tended to centre on books about horses - Black Beauty, the My Friend Flicka trilogy, the Silver Brumby books, Ruby Ferguson's 'Jill' series, to mention just a few of the dozens I devoured. I also enjoyed anything about dogs, especially Old Yeller, The Incredible Journey and A Hundred and One Dalmatians.

TL: When did you read The Hobbit for the first time and do you still recall this moment?

ES: I remember the book being read to me when I was about seven or eight but it failed make much of an impression at the time because there weren't enough horses in it for my taste, and I was actually rather upset that the ponies were eaten by goblins! I didn't read it for myself until a few years later, after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings.
The Great Goblin by Alan Lee - yes goblins eat ponies!

TL: I'd like to talk about your book, Hobbit to Hero. What prompted you to write the book?

ES: I must confess didn't set out to write a book at all and originally I just began writing short pieces solely for my own interest. As the quantity of material increased, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website but my lack of computing expertise proved too much of a handicap and this project never progressed beyond a single page. Eventually the encouraging feedback I received from those who read the early drafts persuaded me that a book would be the better medium for communicating what was increasingly becoming more of an academic work.

TL: Since the book is about Aragorn, why is it not called something like "Ranger to King"?

ES: The title refers to Aragorn's original conception as the hobbit, Trotter, and I rather liked the alliteration!

TL: From where comes the big love for Aragorn?

ES: Over the years I've increasingly found myself moved by tolkien's writing on different levels and I've tried to capture something of this range within the book. While my initial interest in Aragorn was very much that of a typical teenager - he was, after all, the tall, dark and handsome hero of any girl's dreams - the more I discovered about Tolkien, the more I came to appreciate the deeper aspects of the character. Aragorn is more than just a great hero, he's a manifestation of tolkien's ideal for a human being, a view I attempt to demonstrate in the chapter, A Peerless Hero. He is also the man to whom Tolkien entrusts the role of bequeathing a strand of the divine to mankind, a matter discussed in the previous chapter, The Divine Plan. Furthermore, I believe there is a message for us all in the manner of Aragorn's death, making his passing arguably the most important function of the character. Loss is something which touches everybody and I am no exception; in fact my book is dedicated to three members of my family who are no longer with us. In recent years, especially, I've thought about tolkien's treatment of death a great deal and have drawn an unexpected degree of comfort from the expressions of hope included in his work. Through his hauntingly beautiful prose, Tolkien speaks of the greatest challenges that face mankind, and Aragorn, by his extraordinary death, ultimately became the embodiment of what Tolkien chose to impart about his related themes of death and hope. Consequently, I explore these two seemingly paradoxical themes in detail in the final chapter of the book, The Importance of Hope.

Without doubt, Aragorn is one very special guy!

TL: What special qualifications do you have for making this study? What makes you different from your colleagues?

ES: The short answer to what makes me different is a very emphatic nothing whatsoever! I am acutely aware that there are many people with literary or historical backgrounds far better qualified to write about this material. Naturally I've done a huge amount of research, but I know there are areas where I'm still only scratching the surface. My justification for writing this book is merely that, to date, no one else has drawn this material together in quite the manner I have here. However, when it comes to understanding the actual character we meet on the page, I do have some experience which is fairly unusual. Some time before I began work on Hobbit to Hero, I did write a vast fan fiction compilation called Aspects of Aragorn which proved to be an important stepping stone for the creation of this book. Forty-two chapters long, Aspects of Aragorn is a portfolio of individual stories that collectively attempts to add flesh to the bones of those scenarios in Aragorn's life which are only sketched out briefly in the text. Although opinions on the merits of fan fiction are often polarized, writing this kind of work can be a useful exercise for getting under the skin of a character. Certainly, in undertaking this mammoth task, I found myself considering Aragorn's story in far greater detail than I had previously, even after many years as a reader.  Just as an artist must make clear decisions for the realization of a particular scene, the same is true when creating fan fiction. Ultimately, the end results of both will have greater appeal if the work accurately reflects what we already know of tolkien's world, although both are inevitably subjective in nature, as demonstrated by the great diversity of Tolkien inspired art in existence.    Aspects of Aragorn was very well received and the positive reviews were a key factor in encouraging me to turn my efforts to a more academic treatment of the character.

TL: How does this book compare to Paul Kocher's The Master of Middle-earth?

ES: Written forty years ago, the chapter, Aragorn, in Paul Kocher's book is still a master piece of character analysis. Kocher however concentrates on the nature of the character as revealed through the internal story. With the exception of my opening chapter, The Riddle of Strider, which looks at how Aragorn's story unfolds to the reader throughout The Lord of the Rings, my work predominantly explores the external influences upon his creation and the consequences of his inclusion within both the story itself and the wider mythology.
Paul Kocher's The Master of Middle-earth

TL: What is the purpose of writing a book from the perspective of one character, namely Aragorn? What are the strengths of this approach and are there any weaknesses?

ES: This is certainly is an unusual approach yet one that I purposefully set out to achieve. I suppose there was an element of my responding to negative influences in deciding to produce this work as I've often felt that Aragorn is an undervalued hero. I wanted to change that perception and hopefully Hobbit to Hero achieves this.  As to weaknesses, I think I will let others decide on that one!

TL: What is your hope for your readers?

ES: The other day a neighbour of mine, who had just finished reading Hobbit to Hero, told me that in anticipation of its publication she had recently reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but apparently she had never taken to The Silmarillion. Yet, as a result of reading my book she decided to have another go and, much to her surprise, found she enjoyed it! Inspiring anyone to discover more of Tolkien is the best result I could possibly hope for. As to those readers already very familiar with tolkien's works, I would be thrilled if they could still find food for thought and much to enjoy. Of course, as suggested in my previous answer, I would also be delighted if I managed to persuade readers to view the character more favourably and maybe to develop a greater appreciation of his wider purpose.

TL: When working on the research, did you discover new things about Tolkien?

ES: Oh goodness yes! The joy of discovery has been a wonderful bonus throughout and one of the best things about writing this book has been unearthing works that I might not have otherwise.

TL: Having worked on this book for so long, do you have insight why Tolkien has been so popular with readers?

I'm sure there are many answers to this question though I can only really speak for myself. Certainly the pleasure I gain from reading his work has been reaffirmed to me during the three years I spent writing and researching this book. Ever since I first read The Lord of the Rings, I've been aware of hidden meaning to the story and this sense of tolkien's work being really quite profound has only increased the more widely I've read [note my comments on death from earlier]. Tolkien undoubtedly taps into our nobler instincts and invariably the heroism of his characters leaves us feeling better about ourselves. He praises those qualities we know to be praiseworthy and yet we don't feel patronized by his doing so, only inspired. It's a rare talent and I wish I knew how he did it!

TL: In a sentence or two, why should people buy this book? What makes it stand out?

ES: The unique approach to the matter of tolkien's mythology in itself makes this an unusual book among the plethora of books available. I hope readers would find it an informative read, presented in a straightforward manner and containing some thought-provoking concepts. Although much will be familiar, I've also explored ideas that I don't recall being taken up before. For instance, in chapter four, The Divine Plan, I've carefully pieced together the evidence to support my belief that Tolkien intended Aragorn to be the ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II. The pointers are unmistakable and, regardless of whether readers agree or not, the very possibility forces us to consider Aragorn with fresh eyes and that in itself is worthwhile.
Crown of Queen Elizabeth II

TL: Maybe a difficult question, but how does the 'book' Aragorn compare with the 'movie' Aragorn?

ES: I've deliberately steered clear of drawing comparisons, partly because this angle has been covered many times already and partly because I wanted my book to be solely about tolkien's creation. My personal opinion is that Viggo Mortensen did a great job of portraying Aragorn's sensitivity, courage and humility, but the 'movie' Aragorn's choice to shy away from fulfilling his ancestral commitments resulted in this persona lacking a core feature of his literary counterpart – his perennial possession of  hope.

TL: If this book is a big success will there follow another book? And whose perspective will it be? Sam? Frodo? Boromir?

No, there won't be a follow up unless it's to explore certain aspects of this book in greater depth. Aragorn is the only character I feel I know sufficiently well to justify attempting a book of this nature. Not only that, I'm not convinced the creation of any other character tells as compelling a story as Aragorn's or had the same impact upon the mythology as the transformation of Trotter to Strider. Of course I am biased here and may yet be proved wrong!

TL: One final question, do you look forward to The Hobbit movies?

ES: I do, very much, although I increasingly find my expectations are inversely proportional to the number of movies being made! I would much rather there was just one Hobbit movie and, not surprisingly perhaps, maybe another based on The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen!

Hobbit to Hero: The Making of tolkien's King

Paperback: 375 pages
Publisher: ADC Publications
Author: Elizabeth M. Stephen
Publication date:
1 August 2012
Language: English


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