Douglas A. Anderson Inteview


Douglas A. Anderson is a writer and scholar best known for his various works of Tolkien scholarship. His most well-known work is The Annotated Hobbit, first published in 1988, an influential and exhaustive look at the publication history and background material of The Hobbit.

Anderson has been a key member of the scholarly Tolkien community since that time, co-editing Tolkien Studies with Michael Drout & Verlyn Flieger; co-writing JRR Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography with Wayne Hammond; and editing a selection of early fantasy stories that may have inspired Tolkien in Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy.

Aside from his work in Tolkien scholarship, Anderson has worked to bring a number of lesser-known or forgotten writers of fantasy back into print.

The Marvellous Land of Snergs by E.A. Wyke-Smith is one of those. Snergsis a children’s tale published in 1927 that Tolkien cites as a significant influence on The Hobbit. Anderson also edited and published modern editions of a number of other neglected fantasy writers, including Kenneth Morris, Leonard Cline, and William Hope Hodgson. caught up with Doug to ask him a few questions about his past work and future projects.

Hi Doug. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Your first book, The Annotated Hobbit, was published in 1988. At that point in time there wasn’t a great amount of Tolkien scholarship being published. What made you decide to tackle an annotated version of The Hobbit?

Douglas A. Anderson:

I had been working up a list of all the revisions made at various times to the published text of The Hobbit, with the idea of proposing some kind of variorum edition. I had these large sheets, about a foot and a half high by four feet long, onto which I had pasted photocopies of the five main editions of The Hobbit. I read them across, noting all variations in various colors of ink and highlighters. That was the germ of the book.

When I’d done all of the work, I realized that there weren’t enough revisions to justify a variorum edition. But I thought there were a lot of other interesting things one could say. And knowing that the fiftieth anniversary of the American publication of The Hobbit was coming up the next year, I suggested the idea to Austin Olney, the head of the trade and reference department at Houghton Mifflin. Austin immediately liked the idea, and from there it progressed to asking for permission to do it, etc., etc.

Tolkien scholarship has certainly blossomed since that period. The years leading up to and immediately following the release of the Peter Jackson movies brought forth a renewed interest in Tolkien and his lasting literary importance. What books would you recommend to those just now delving into the field of Tolkien studies?

Douglas A. Anderson:

A tough question, for there are many approaches one can take. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, and his edition (with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien) of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, are always great places to start. Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth is superb on language and medieval literature, while his later book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, excellently positions Tolkien within his own time. Verlyn Flieger’s three main books of criticism, Splintered Light, A Question of Time, and Interrupted Music, each thoroughly explore certain facets of Tolkien’s work and provide many insights and revelations, as does Marjorie Burns’s Perilous Realms, on the Celtic and Norse in Tolkien.

Of course there are many more excellent books — a couple of shelves worth has been published in the last ten years, by Jane Chance, Matthew Dickerson, Michael D. C. Drout, Dimitra Fimi, John Garth — and those are just some names from the first part of one of my bookcases.

We know from speaking with John D. Rateliff that his research (and that of Taum Santoski) for The History of The Hobbit was underway at about the same time as your research on The Annotated Hobbit. What resources and information (if any) were shared between you? And how do you view the comparisons between The Annotated Hobbit and Rateliff’s books?

Douglas A. Anderson:

Back at the 1987 Mythopoeic Society convention, held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Christopher Tolkien offered the chance to edit The Hobbit manuscripts to three of us: me, Taum Santoski, and John Rateliff.

I had just previously suggested doing The Annotated Hobbit, and since John and Taum both lived in Milwaukee, close to the archives where the manuscript of The Hobbit is kept, and I at the time lived seven hundred miles away in upstate New York, it seem self-evident to me that these were two separate projects, and the distance between us (long before the time of email) would have been a problem. So I suggested they do the manuscripts, and I keep doing The Annotated Hobbit. That was fine with Christopher, so that’s how it progressed. There was no real dividing up of subject matter or materials beyond that I was asked not to use unpublished matter in my book.

In the end, as we all know, the book on The Hobbit manuscripts became John’s alone. He and I have certainly discussed things to do with The Hobbitover many years, and have often shared materials, so to specify what (if any) specific information or resources were shared, I simply don’t recall. As to comparisons between The Annotated Hobbit, and The History of The Hobbit, I think John put it best when he said that the projects are complementary: I take care of the published text from 1937 onwards, and John looks backwards from first publication to show how the text was written.

You’ve edited a fair number of books that are either collections of fantasy stories – such as Tales Before Tolkien and Tales Before Narnia – or new editions of out-of-print or little known fantasy novels, such as E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Did reading Tolkien bring you toward a passion for these lesser-known tales, or did your love for fantasy and the fantastic pre-date your experience with Tolkien?

Douglas A. Anderson:

Tolkien did pretty much start it all, when I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1973. From there I wanted to read more things like Tolkien, medieval or modern—things that had some connection with his works. On the one side I read Beowulf, and the Old Norse myths, The Mabinogion, etc. I even remember reading all four volumes of Robert Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul, which I had to order via interlibrary loan, one volume at a time. On the modern side I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books (then only a trilogy), Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and The Riddle-master of Hed and its sequels (as they came out).

The Ballantine “Adult Fantasy” series had ceased in 1974, but various of the books were still easily found. I fell in love with the writings of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith through the volumes in that series, some of which had gorgeous covers by Gervasio Gallardo and others. Tales Before Tolkienwas consciously on homage to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series—and was fittingly published by Ballantine, almost thirty years after that series ended.

There are obviously a number of very capable successors to Tolkien in terms of fantasy novelists – Tales After Tolkien, if you will. Very few escape Tolkien’s shadow, and some are swallowed up in it entirely. What books do you see as worthy torch-bearers of the fantasy field?

Douglas A. Anderson:

You’re right that authors working in fantasy after Tolkien have an enormous problem if they want to do something different that Tolkien. Ursula K. Le Guin managed to escape Tolkien’s shadow, probably because her own caste of mind was set before she encountered his works.

Though there are a lot of modern fantasy writers that I enjoy (often for very different reasons), the one cycle that I think stands out as the best in the post-Tolkien fantasy world is the Mythago Wood books by Robert Holdstock. He takes this small ancient English wood, called Ryhope Wood, which is only so many miles in circumference, but which becomes endless when you go inside of it. The wood itself generates mythic archetypes from the collective unconscious which interact with characters, and these archetypes in fact become characters in the story. The first book was Mythago Wood (1985), and it was followed by Lavondyss (1988), which I thought was the single best fantasy novel of the 1980s, and one of those rare cases when a sequel exceeds its original. Lavondyss is the best book that Holdstock has written (so far). There are a few additional books in the series, The Hollowing(1993) and Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1997), plus a novella called “The Bone Forest”. I’m very excited that the long-awaited next book is a direct sequel to Mythago Wood — it goes back to tell the rest of the story of one character in the first book. It’s called Avilion, and it’s just come out in England. My copy is somewhere over the Atlantic on its way to me.

Tell us a little bit about the annual Tolkien Studies scholarly journal you edit with Michael Drout and Verlyn Flieger. Were you involved in this from the beginning? How did the idea come about?

Douglas A. Anderson:

Tolkien Studies had a pretty simple beginning. I was emailing back and forth with Mike Drout, and (looking in my files) on 27 September 2001, I wrote Mike that I felt the field needed an academic journal Tolkien Studies, and that I’d be happy to work on it. Mike responded immediately that he’d been thinking along the same lines, and if we could get someone like Verlyn Flieger to join us, it might be workable. So we asked Verlyn, and she said yes, and we began soliciting articles from people we knew in the field. Selling the idea to a publisher was a more difficult enterprise, and we worked our way down a list of prospective publishers without much interest. Meanwhile West Virginia University Press heard about what we were planning and contacted us. And that began the happy arrangement that has now produced six handsome volumes, with the seventh in progress.

I’d also like to call attention here to the fact that André Gand of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft (the German Tolkien Society) has recently posted a cumulative index to the contents of the six published volumes of Tolkien Studies. It’s available in html or as a downloadable pdf at their website.

Finally, what projects can we look forward to in the future from Doug Anderson? Is there anything currently in the works?

Douglas A. Anderson:

There are always things in the works, but there are so many uncertainties with regard to publishing that I really don’t like to comment publicly on works-in-progress. Suffice it to say that there are things in the works that many Tolkien fans will find interesting.

On a slightly different front, I recently banded together with some friends to start a blog called Wormwoodiana. My friend Mark Valentine has edited the twice-a-year journal Wormwood, published by Tartarus Press, since its beginning in 2003, and I’ve had a regular column in it called “Late Reviews”. The focus of Wormwood is on fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature, particularly on the less well-known if not the obscure. My column in particular gives me a chance to read and write about forgotten books from eighty or a hundred years ago. In any case, this communal blog Wormwoodiana is where Mark, myself, and other friends post various tidbits on our interests in the fantastic. It isn’t focused around Tolkien at all, but I expect I will occasionally post on Tolkien-related topics.

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