The 'Tolkien Professor': Corey Olsen

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Corey Olsen
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:00 AM

Corey Olsen, a Washington College professor who is known as "The Tolkien Professor" thanks to his popular "How to Read Tolkien and Why" podcast, will be online Thursday, Feb. 10, at 10 a.m.

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Corey Olsen: I'm happy to take your questions today.

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Enduring popularity: Why do you think Tolkien has endured so well over the years? What is it about his work that appeals to such a wide variety of audiences, particularly young people?

Corey Olsen: Tolkien believed that a myth was a special kind of story that resonates with people in a deep way, and his own stories have many elements that I think really hit people this way, despite the fact that the style of the stories is so unusual for modern readers.

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First Time Reader: Why should I read Tolkien? I like to read, but I admit the general topics of Tolkien books don't really appeal to me. Yet, I am willing to give Tolkien a chance. What should I know before I begin to read Tolkien?

Corey Olsen: If you are willing to be open-minded about the fantasy frame of the story and allow yourself to invest in the story and explore Tolkien's fictional world imaginatively, I think you will find it rewarding.

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Favorite character?: Who is your favorite Tolkien character?

Corey Olsen: I'm a huge Sam fan.

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INFLUENCES AFFECTING TOLKIEN'S WRITINGS: Though Tolkien at times denied it, do you think the events of World War II, including Nazi Germany, influenced Tolkien's writings consciously or subconsciously?

Corey Olsen: He never denies that his own experiences of wartime and his reactions to his contemporary political situation influenced him; they inevitably do.

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The movies: What did you think of Peter Jackson's trilogy?

Corey Olsen: I'm very glad the films were made, and were done so well.

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Your Tolkien history: When did you first read one of his books? Did you know you were hooked right away, or did you come back to him later in life?

Corey Olsen: This, it seems, happens to many people.

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Democracy in Middle Earth?: My recollection is that most of the lands of Middle Earth are essentially monarchical; men (Gondor, Rohan), elves, dwarfs, and the creatures of Mordor were all ruled by kings or lords. I don't recall a hobbit king, however. How was the hobbits' government organized? Were there any democracies in Middle Earth?

Corey Olsen: But the Shire, by and large, functions for practical purposes as an enlightened anarchy.

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Religion in middle earth: Tolkien designed an expansive pantheon of gods and a detailed creation story as a backdrop for his stories. But almost nowhere in the four main novels (excluding the Simarillion) is any notion of those gods, or religion period. I've read that Tolkien himself was a religious man, seems odd that religion would be excluded.

Corey Olsen: However, the themes and ideas of Tolkien's books are pervasively Christian.

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Comparable: Like you, I am generally fascinated by Tolkein. Who do you think is a comparable author/creator (past or present)?

Corey Olsen: I'm not saying there are no writers as good, but I don't think there is anyone quite like him.

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Not a classic?: Good morning; I had not realized Oxford doesn't think much of Tolkien's work and I was surprised. I can't recall a better descriptive first paragraph in anything I've read than in The Hobbit--you know everything you need to know about Hobbits, creatures you've never met before, just from that first paragraph alone. Tolkien set the stage for all "medieval" fantasy to follow. How can this work be so minimized as an art form?

Corey Olsen: It is a sad prejudice.

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Religion in middle earth: Tolkien designed an entire pantheon of gods and creation mythos, but religion played almost no role in his novels. No priestly caste, no temples in the cities, the characters themselves did not refer to or discuss anything religious based. Why go through the trouble of creating all that and not incorporate it into your books?

Corey Olsen: He wasn't trying to conceal anything though; he wanted to publish those other writings, but was not able to do so during his lifetime.

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Trilogy: A relative of mine who's been a Tolkein super-geek since middle school, expressed the view that the Peter Jackson film series was probably the best adaptation ever of a novel (or group) that had so many multiple convergent story lines. Whereas many times fans of a novel believe the filmmakers missed the whole point or added irrelevances, Jackson made exactly the films they should have been. Previous attempts to create a Ring film had failed at the scriptwriting stage. Do you agree?

Corey Olsen: For me, the greatest triumph of the films is visual -- the landscapes, costuming, and scenery are often simply perfect.

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LOTR in film, games: I'm currently reading the trilogy for the fourth time in about 25 years, and like so many others, am enjoying it with increasing clarity. Purists may argue that LOTR appearing in other forms, such as the cartoons in the 1970s, and Peter Jackson's trilogy in the last decade pall in comparison to the novels, but I'd like to offer that despite their variance from the books, these different vehicles help create a clearer picture of who is who and what is going on to the casual reader. My current reading the trilogy comes after playing the multiplayer online game for some months, and am impressed, in retrospect, by how many small details the game caught in creating a digital verison of Tolkien's world, from both the trilogy and snippets I remember from my one reading of the Simarillion. Conversely, I also realized it gives me a greater appreciation for the depth of detail Tolkien went into crafting this world, even if I didn't recognize it until I saw it through a different medium.

Corey Olsen:

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Casting of the Movie: What did you think of the casting of the Trilogy? I thought it was very well done. Christopher Lee looking amazing for his age; John Noble is a fantastic actor (seen him in Fringe?); how they made John Rhys-Davies and the Hobbits look so small is not to be believed, especially JR-D as Gimli. Why are there so few women? I understand Arwen's part was very much expanded over the book. Did Eowyn & Faramir marry? Do elves marry? Are Legolas, Galadriel, & Arwen related?

Corey Olsen: I think they should have kept the auditions running a bit longer, there. Galadriel is Arwen's grandmother (Elrond married Galadriel's daughter), but neither are related to Legolas.

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Tolkien and Wales: During the year, there are festivals in Wales celebrating Tolkien. From what I read, the culture and language of Wales is a large source of inspiration. I was wondering if you have had a chance to attend one of these? And if such an experience could help someone build some depth in appreciating Tolkien? I am hoping to talk my wife into going over there for a visit this fall.

Corey Olsen: I can't say what precise insights you might get, but Wales is certainly a wonderful place to visit.

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Too short: One of the complaints Tolkien often heard is that Lord of the Rings was too short. Do you think that Tolkien ever thought of revising to make the Lord of the Rings longer?

Corey Olsen: But I don't think he planned to actually rework the LOTR itself.

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Elves and beards: Why does Cirdan have a beard when no other elf is described as having one?

Corey Olsen: Tolkien is obviously trying to convey how venerable and ancient he is, but I myself don't understand why he alone is bearded and visibly old.

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Current Authors: The blurbs on the backs of many fantasy books often compare the author to Tolkien. What present day author do you feel comes closest to Tolkien's style?

Corey Olsen: Martin is an excellent world-builder, though.

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Allegory?: I understand that Tolkien vehemently denied any allegorical intent, but I have difficulty not seeing the tale as definitely allegorical.Your thoughts?

Corey Olsen: He just didn't like people trying to decode his stories and them chuck them out.

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Movies: In your opinon what would Tolkien have thought of the latest LOTR movies? What would he have said they got right and wrong? I'm sure he would have liked the Ents.

Corey Olsen: Also, he was not a big fan of the translation of written stories to visual media, but it is hard to think what he would have thought of modern film technology, which was scarcely imaginable, even back in the early 70's when he died.

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Sexuality in Middle Earth: Do you think there are any gay characters presented in Middle Earth?

Corey Olsen: But those relationships certainly did not have, in his mind, any sexual component.

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Professional professor: Do you find your colleagues to be supportive of your interests or dismissive? What were the responses like from students and professors while you were a student? I am often frustrated in workshops when people sneer and say "Oh, I never read fantasy!" Do you have a response to people who are dismissive of Tolkien and fantasy in general?

Corey Olsen: It reminds me of the people in Plato's analogy of the Cave -- he really nailed it, there.

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Could three win over the Orcs?: When they were trying to save Merry and Pippin from the Orcs, the "Riders" caught up with them first and defeated them. But what if they had caught the Orcs? What could three do against that band?

Corey Olsen: I think that would have been a fantastic scene, but alas....

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Williams & Tolkien: I'm a fellow Williams grad (2000...as well as a former student of Verlyn Flieger, and I squeaked an article on Tolkien and Modernism into the Journal of Tolkien studies in '05). But I missed most of the medieval courses there. I'd be interested to hear how your time there influenced you. And did Wayne Hammond (another connection: an old boss of mine) have any impact for you?

Corey Olsen: I love her work.

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Corey Olsen: I also do audio call-in sessions on Skype; I will announce the times of those on the Facebook page and my Twitter feed.Godspeed!


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