We have the pleasure of hosting a very interesting interview with Dr. Dimitra Fimi, a professor of Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow. The interview was conducted in Greek by Dimitris Kolovos and translated to English by Christina Laski.
Dimitra Fimi was born and raised in Salamina, Greece. She graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens, continuing with postgraduate studies at the University of Cardiff. Her book Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) was awarded with the “Mythopoetic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies”. She co-edited the first critical edition of the essay A Secret Vice, where Tolkien theorized on the creation of the languages of Middle-Earth (A Secret Vice: on Tolkien Invented Languages, HarperCollins, 2016). This book was awarded the “Tolkien Society Award for Best Book”. Her most recent monograph is titled Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). She has also published articles and essays in journals and collective volumes. She is currently teaching in undergraduate and graduate programs with a focus on fantasy literature, science fiction and children’s literature. She often participates in radio and television programmes (BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio Wales, History Channel). For further information: http://dimitrafimi.com/
Could you introduce yourself and tell us a few things about Tolkien and yourself? What was your first contact with his work and how did it come today to be one of your main academic interests?
My name is Dimitra Fimi and I am from Salamina. I’ve taught and researched fantasy literature for over 15 years. I was first introduced to the works of Tolkien when I was still a student in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens. What struck me immediately was his extensive mythology (with pantheon, heroes and many interwoven stories), that reminded me of the complexity of an authentic mythology. How could a sole writer create a whole system of myths and heroes – something that is usually the product of a whole culture? Nowadays, we talk about worldbuilding, a term that I didn’t know back then, but the elements of this imaginary world (not just the stories and the characters, but also the physical and material world, the artificial languages and the various peoples of Middle-earth) led me to my first research efforts, leading to my PhD on the work of Tolkien at Cardiff University.
You first appeared as an academic writer in Tolkien studies with the book Secret Vice, winning the “Tolkien Society Award for Best Book” of 2017. Tell us a few words about this essay. How did it influence your research regarding Tolkien? How was the experience of your contact with Christopher Tolkien in the context of the publication of the book?
I would say that my first appearance as an author was my first monograph, published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan Publishing in Britain and America. This book, which is titled Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits is actually a revised (or rather rewritten!) version of my PhD thesis. It was one of the first books that examined the entire fiction of Tolkien, from his early poems and The Book of Lost Tales (1910’s-1920’s) up to the last texts he was preparing for the Silmarillion before he died (1970’s). It examines how the fairies of the first texts evolved into the Elves we know today, studying the influence of Victorian folklore in Tolkien’s work; it also explores the languages of Tolkien in the context of the Linguistics of his time, and claims that something changed in Tolkien’s writing when he began writing the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, shifting from mythological texts to novels. The book ultimately presents Tolkien in the context of his time. It was awarded the “Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies”.
In my second book, along with Andrew Higgins, I edited texts by Tolkien himself, from his manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. His essay A Secret Vice had of course been previously published, edited by Christopher Tolkien, but in the manuscripts I found another small essay, and Andrew found fragments of the main essay that were missing from the original version; both of us knew that Tolkien’s notes (drafts written in small sheets of paper and in a very illegible handwriting) had even more surprises hidden within. Thus was born the book A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, with the approval of the Tolkien Estate, and by the official Tolkien publishers, HarperCollins. In the essay A Secret Vice, Tolkien discusses the art of creating languages, his methods, principles and aesthetics. It is noteworthy that the essay was originally a speech that Tolkien gave at the Johnson Society of Pembroke College in Oxford in 1931, an era during which nobody even knew about Middle-earth, except close friends and relatives (The Hobbit was first published in 1937).
Apart from Tolkien’s texts, the book contains an Introduction to the languages of Middle-earth, a multitude of footnotes for names, works, theories etc. that Tolkien mentions in his writings, as well as an epilogue regarding artificial languages after Tolkien (reaching up to the languages created for the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on the books of George R.R. Martin).
We communicated with Christopher Tolkien in writing and we are grateful for his advice concerning the text, as well as for his permission to publish this book (the cover was his idea!). The book won the “Tolkien Society’s Award for Best Book”.
Recently we see many conferences and meetings taking place around the world, that have Tolkien and his work as a principal or a secondary subject. Would you say that Tolkien now holds a strong position both in academia and in literature? What is his position in academic research and in literature in Greece, in comparison to the one abroad?
Yes, indeed, there are now established conferences for Tolkien’s work, with serious and innovative research! The Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan has included sessions on the work of Tolkien for 17 years now, while I have started such sessions at the University of Leeds (where Tolkien himself taught) since 2015. Certainly, Tolkien is dominant in the fantasy literature canon, but in recent years his work has been recognized more widely in the context of 20th century British literature. In Greece, research on the work of Tolkien is only just beginning – something that is peculiar, given the Tolkien influences from ancient Greek literature.
Recently you attended the exhibition titled “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth”, organized by the Bodleian Library. For those of us who have not had the opportunity to attend, tell us a few words about the importance of this exhibition and the experience of coming in contact with its exhibits.
This exhibition, which ends in a few days, was a truly unforgettable experience. We saw mementos of Tolkien from his childhood, photographs, letters, as well as his desk! We saw samples of his painting in ink, tempera, and coloured pencils. There were also maps, sketches of different parts of Middle-earth, and his original illustrations for The Hobbit. I was there for the official launch of the exhibition, attended by a large part of the Tolkien family, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien’s wife, Bailie Tolkien. I have worked many times with Tolkien’s manuscripts, but all this material together in the same space makes you feel as close to Tolkien as possible!
Tolkien’s influences from Northern cultures are well-known, through mythological and folkloric references. Do you think that there are influences from other cultures besides the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians?
Yes, clearly. An important part of my research focuses on the influence of Celtic texts in Tolkien’s work, mainly Irish and Welsh. Despite Tolkien’s own objections, it is evident that motifs of Celtic legends exist in his early writings. Some of my articles on this topic are now available on my site (http://dimitrafimi.com/). But the influences do not stop there. When Tolkien first went to Oxford as a student, he began by studying Classics. Ancient Greek and Latin literature play an important role in the shaping of the mythology of Middle-earth.
We mentioned earlier that Tolkien has often been the subject of academic study. In your opinion, which sectors are well-studied, and which have still not received the proper attention and have a lot yet to reveal?
This was exactly the subject of the roundtable discussion we had in Leeds in July 2018. There are still many gaps in the study of Tolkien regarding literary theory. Also, research on the languages of Middle-earth is now only starting, and I hope to see more monographs after the release of A Secret Vice. There is also much room for studies on Tolkien and science, but also in the context of historiography (my first book opened the dialogue for this, but there is still a lot of work to be done!). And, of course, there are studies beginning on the philosophical aspects of Tolkien’s work, regarding the way in which readers themselves understand his work, and for the adaptation of his works in movies, video games, etc.
From the work of Tolkien himself, could you tell us about your favourite book? Your own favourite place in Middle-earth? Your favourite hero? Tell us a few words about the reader and fan of J. R.R Tolkien, Dimitra Fimi.
This is the most difficult question! I think I prefer the early versions of the mythology that came to be published as the Silmarillion: The Book of Lost Tales. There we see, for the first time, the cosmogony of Tolkien, and the “big” stories of the fall of Gondolin, the sagas of Beren and Lúthien and of Túrin, written energetically and rapidly. One might think they see these stories spring from the mind of Tolkien that very moment, yes, perhaps a little hastily, perhaps not so elaborately, but with explosive imagination and vision.
Which of the three major works of Tolkien (The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit) would you say has the greatest literary value? In these three works, what is Tolkien’s strongest point? The narrative? The worldbuilding? The character creation and their development or the construction of the languages?
Another difficult question! As a literary work, The Lord of the Rings is definitely the most crafted and aesthetically complete. But if you think these three key works as a whole, the worldbuilding is perhaps the strongest point, and this worldbuilding leads both the narrative and the plot. For example, when Elrond says that he remembers the Last Alliance of Elves and Men thousands of years ago, this memory is not a literary device: it is something deeper. Tolkien had actually written the story of the Last Alliance, many years before. What in many works of fiction is just “background”, in Tolkien’s work it has real depth, it has been crafted and composed and this gives Elrond –in this case– a verisimilitude that is almost historic.
Since the creation of the Lord of the Rings movies in the early 21st century, a whole industry has been developed around the professor’s name, which extends from film and television (we are now anticipating the Amazon series) to electronic games, museums and works of art. Would you say that the Tolkien universe and work has taken a life of its own? What should be the role of the Tolkien Estate to all this effort? Do you consider it to be quite strict and that is should allow the fanfiction and the industry to develop more?
Adaptations of Tolkien’s work is not a new phenomenon (at least for us, the older generation who remember the movie animation of Ralph Bakshi, the radio adaptations for the BBC, etc.) However, in recent years, with the Peter Jackson films and the video games and now with the expected series by Amazon, we are indeed at another level. Although I would one day like to see an adaptation of the stories of The Silmarillion for the big screen, I respect the Tolkien Estate’s decision not to grant licenses, apart from the rights granted by Tolkien himself when he was still alive. We still have 30 years until the copyright expires. We will see …
We learned about your appointment at Glasgow University! Congratulations on your new post! What are your goals regarding Tolkien or other projects? What will we expect from you in the following years?
Thank you very much! I’m very lucky that a post opened exactly for my field (fantasy and children’s literature) in one of the best universities in Britain. The research on Tolkien’s works will continue, but there are also ideas for other books and articles. For Tolkien enthusiasts in Greece, the most important project is a book about the influences of ancient Greek literature in Tolkien’s work, that collects articles already published in English (including one of my own) and translates them into Greek, in order for a wider debate to open on Tolkien in Greek-speaking literary criticism. In this book I collaborate with Dimitris Kolovos and a large translation team.
Dimitris Kolovos was born and raised in Thessaloniki, where he lives today. He is a graduate and now a post-graduate student in the Department of Greek philology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, focusing on Historic and Balkan Linguistics. He has participated in the “Diachronic Lexicon of Greek Language” (DiaLG) project for the creation of a diachronic dictionary of the Greek language, under the auspices of the Democritus University. He is the Vice President of the Greek Tolkien Society and the representative of its Northern annex. He has organised two seminars on J.R. Tolkien in Thessaloniki and has represented the Society in events in Greece and abroad. He frequently writes articles for news sites such as eSports, also covering events abroad. He also writes for the newspaper of the Greek diaspora “Hellenic News of America”. He has published several articles on fantasy literature and especially the universe of J.R.R.Tolkien.
Christina Laski lives in Thessaloniki ans works as a book editor and translator at Archetypo Publications. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the university of Ioannina in Literature and language and a Master’s degree from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Cultural Studies/Critical Theory and Analysis. A member of the Greek Tolkien Society – Smial Arnor, she writes fantasy novels and won first prize in ΦantastiWords 2018, the writing contest of ΦantastiCon festival.