Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Solopova, author of Languages, Myth and History
TL. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
ES: I did my first degree in Moscow University and my PhD at Oxford in Medieval English. I now work at the department of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where I do research on medieval manuscripts. At present I am working on a catalogue of medieval psalters at the Bodleian Library.
TL. How did you first get interested in Professor tolkien's works?
ES: I became familiar with Tolkien’s academic work before I read his fiction. As an undergraduate I used his and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The first literary work by Tolkien that I read was The Hobbit, and I absolutely loved it.
TL. I'd like to talk about your book “Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary background of J. R. R. tolkien's Fiction”. What prompted you to write the book?
ES: The book grew out of tutorials on Tolkien that I taught in Oxford after the publication of my book with Stuart Lee, “The Keys of Middle-earth”, in 2005. “Languages, Myths and History” has some materials that I wished my students to have at the time, but could not find in the form I wanted. These include a simple overview of Tolkien’s languages and materials relating to his interest in Gothic. As you may know, the language and history of the Goths, a major influence on Tolkien’s fiction, are rarely taught as part of university courses. Also, the study and publication of Tolkien’s linguistic works is a relatively new and quickly developing field, and there are major scholarly debates about many aspects of his invented languages. It is not always easy for students to find their way around this, or even to know where to look for relevant information.
TL. To write the study, did you work alone or did you have help from others?
ES: I am grateful to Dr. Stuart Lee for reading a draft of the book and making many useful suggestions.
TL. How come you chose to write about the languages? Is it one of your fascinations?
ES: It is definitely one of my fascinations, and something I enjoy researching and teaching.
TL. What challenges and other interesting moments did you have researching this book?
ES: In his lecture ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, Tolkien wrote that a great contribution of ‘Northern literature’ was its ‘theory of courage’. It is obvious to me that he had his own theory of courage, and that it was a major and unifying aspect of almost all his fictional works. Researching his views on courage and heroism, expressed in his academic and literary works, was one of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of my and my students’ work. Tolkien’s theory of courage is very much an underlying theme of my book. His views are discussed within the context of influences from the ‘Northern literature’.
TL. How does your academic background relate to “Languages, Myths and History”?
ES: My research and teaching experience is in medieval studies and linguistics. My earlier work in these fields is directly relevant to “Languages, Myths and History”.
TL. What are all the languages that had an impact on Tolkien’s creative writing and are these all covered in your book?
ES: Tolkien was very broadly interested in languages and exceptionally knowledgeable about them. The book covers only a small part of what can be said on this subject, limited by its scope and my own expertise. It has chapters on Old English, Old Norse, Finnish and Gothic, but for example, it does not cover Welsh and the Celtic languages which were a significant influence on Tolkien’s invented languages and mythology.
TL. What was / is your hope for your readers?
ES: The book is aimed at students of English Literature and anyone interested in Tolkien’s fiction and its background. It is not a comprehensive introduction to literary influences on Tolkien. My aim was to write about some of the languages and literatures that were an inspiration for Tolkien, and demonstrate his narrative techniques, but also his broad range of ideas, developed as a response to medieval literature.
TL. Have you learned new things about Tolkien during the process of writing the book?
ES: I consulted Tolkien’s academic papers at the Bodleian Library as part of my work on “The Keys of Middle-earth” and “Languages, Myths and History”. Some are Tolkien’s notes and word-by-word commentary on Old and Middle English poems. I found it very inspiring to see how much he has to say about individual words.
TL. If your book can be seen as an introduction do you see many new studies (by other scholars) as response to your book? Will you write any further on this topic?
ES: I certainly hope that there will be more studies in this field, aimed both at specialists and, like my book, at students and general readership. One area which from my point of view has not received sufficient scholarly attention is Tolkien’s interest in Gothic. Thus, to give just one example, comparing Tolkien’s description of the battle of Pelennor Fields with Jordanes’s description of the battle of Catalaunian Plains, Tom Shippey wrote that in both battles ‘the civilisation of the West was preserved from the “Easterlings”’. I discuss this and, more generally, the parallels between the two descriptions briefly in my book, but this certainly deserves a study in its own right. The view that the Huns and the Goths were a brutal, destructive force and a threat to Western civilisation, can be found in Roman historiography and very much in later art and historiography up to the early modern period. These views are to a great extent a result of fear, Roman propaganda and the political situation in Europe the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Tolkien’s response to these ideas and his views on this very modern subject of conflict and international political power is a very interesting research question.
Gothic and the early Germanic culture and literacy is on the whole a somewhat neglected academic subject. This was one of Tolkien’s major interests and it is my hope that, as with so many other things, current students’ interest in Tolkien may inspire work in this field in the future. Books on the history of the Goths, including the ones I recommend in my book, tend to focus on the relationships of the Goths with the Roman Empire. The discussions of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy focus on Theoderic and his government as the successors of the Roman state. Less attention is given to the fact that Theoderic probably wanted the preservation of the Gothic customs, law, language and Arian Christianity, and that his kingdom was the home of a great flourishing of Gothic culture, a likely place of origin of all surviving Gothic manuscripts.
TL. You work at the Bodleian Library in Oxford which holds many Tolkien manuscripts, is this the department you work?
ES: The department of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, where I work, is responsible for the curation of Tolkien papers. The papers and their catalogue descriptions can be consulted in the Special Collections reading room. A five-year project, supported by Tolkien Estate, is currently underway to create a detailed online catalogue of the Tolkien archive at the Bodleian.
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