International Interactions with Tolkien – A Roundtable

Compiled by Sultana Raza.

Introduction: Though Tolkien’s novels were very successful in the last century, after the Peter Jackson trilogy in the early 2000s, their reach increased to encompass the globe. Irrespective of geographical or linguistic differences, they spoke to us in different ways. In an informal Discussion Group at Oxonmoot 2021, (held online), participants were welcome to share their thoughts/reactions/ take on various aspects of Tolkien’s works, mainly his Legendarium. The following questions were asked at the discussion group, hosted by Sultana Raza. The responses below were written and compiled after the event had ended. While María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (MFCG) took part in the Discussion Group, Shareef Kitabi didn’t attend it. We’d like to thank the Tolkien Society and the Oxonmoot organizers for including this Discussion Group on Diversity in their programme. The views expressed herein are those of the contributors, and not of the Tolkien Society.

(1) Whether you first came across Tolkien’s books or films, please feel free to tell us about what struck you most about them.

Sultana Raza: I first came upon Tolkien’s work while watching TV. In fact, many people, from friends, acquaintances, to complete strangers (on the bus, or even some Kiwis on a plane) told me to watch the films when they first came out. In fact, though it’s a bit far-fetched, I felt a bit like Dr Joe Darrow (played by Kevin Costner) in the 2002 film Dragonfly, as he got many signs from his wife to go to a certain place. In my case, though I was told to watch the films, I resisted, because of all the media hype surrounding them. Strangely enough, I even watched the 2004 Oscars late at night, rooting for Return of the King, though I didn’t know why at that time. Then one evening, as I was having a telly dinner, FOTR started playing, and I was hooked. I couldn’t move at all, till the film was finished. Then I asked a friend who had DVDs of TT and ROTK to lend them to me, so I could watch the rest of the trilogy. While the films made Middle-earth seem to be real and believable, I was most struck by the overall plot, as I am with most films/TV series. I could have read a summary of the rest of the books on the Internet, but I resisted doing that. Watching the other two films was the fastest way to get to the end of the story. But I’ve read the books several times since then.

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez: It is hard to say exactly when I knew of Tolkien’s books. My parents loved watching the movies, and my dad had read the books. But the first time I read Tolkien wasn’t exactly planned. I decided to have a look at my Dad’s books, and there was one with John Howe’s illustration of Smaug. The cover and the title, The Hobbit, called my attention. I marvelled at Thrór’s Map. When I discovered that the book belonged to my paternal grandmother, and that she was a big fan of Tolkien, I read The Lord of the Rings, and we discussed it together, and I can remember that one of the things that struck us both was the incredible world-building, and the strong emotions presented in the story. Everything seemed to be meaningful, nothing seemed superficial.

Shareef Kitabi: I’d read The Hobbit and LOTR in my mid-teens in India through a lending library. What kept me going through the books was the sense of adventure, and I wanted to know how it would end. I got quite invested in the characters, especially the Fellowship, and it was fun to go on this journey with them. I could also identify with some of the characters and their struggles to save their world. When the films were released, I went on the first day to watch them, mainly because I was interested in the special effects created by Weta Digital as I was intrigued by the technical aspects of these effects, especially how Gollum’s character was created. 

I’d like to mention that since I was used to reading classical literature (such as a set of George Bernard Shaw’s plays or Victor Hugo’s The Hunch-back of Notre Dame, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace), in my mid-teens, I didn’t find LOTR to be too long, or heavy-going, and was content to lose myself in his world. I was too young to understand everything in these masterpieces, but I enjoyed the plot-lines which kept me going.

(2) Which aspects of various characters, value systems, races, cultural mores, mythical elements etc. did/do you (or someone from your country would) relate to most?

Sultana Raza: I found Frodo’s character to be the most appealing, mainly because he was carrying such a heavy, and unique burden. His gender didn’t matter, because all of us have some sort of baggage that we try to carry as best as we can. He seemed to be somewhat isolated, as none of the others could have understood what he was going through, except perhaps for Gollum in a twisted sort of way. As Frodo neared Mount Doom, we got hardly any glimpses into his mind, which was a very effective technique used by Tolkien. Mainly because the reader wants to know more about what’s going on inside Frodo’s head. On the other hand, since the story is told through Sam’s point of view, he got more exposure to the readers than Frodo in the third book. Did Tolkien do a disservice to Frodo by not letting us see his huge internal struggles in ROTK? How much of his destiny did Frodo control?

In fact, I even presented and published a paper about it: Who Forged Frodo’s Fate: the Elves or Himself? For what it’s worth, I think Frodo’s the hero of the story, because at least he got to Mount Doom overcoming enormous inner conflicts to run away with the Ring. I found the value system in the books to be more, or less the same as ours, and the Elves to be the most fascinating race. Since I’m very interested in legends, I appreciated the mythical depths of Tolkien’s worlds, specially after I managed to wade through The Silmarillion, and later on the three ‘new’ books, i.e. Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and Fall of Gondolin.

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (MFCG): It might sound absurd, but I try to follow some values embodied by Treebeard. I know he can be analysed according to Cohen’s Monster Studies, or his mythological association with the personification of nature. But I believe this character represents some positive qualities that are fundamental in life. He is an old Ent who was taught by Elves about the creatures that inhabit Middle-earth, their names, and languages. However, when he meets Pippin and Merry, he realizes he’d never heard about Hobbits before. At first, he might be a bit suspicious and confused, but then, he is eager to know more about them, and he accepts them for what they are. He’s tolerant, and open-minded. He listens to them and also practices hospitality. Additionally, as an Ent, he cares about Fangorn Forest, and of course, nature. Those are qualities that I value, which is why I named my blog “Books from Fangorn”.

Shareef Kitabi: I was impressed by Aragorn’s noble goals, and his leadership style as well. Though Gandalf was an effective strategist, he could have been more communicative with his team. Some people think I was similar to Pippin when I was younger, but possibly all of us were a bit naïve and foolish once. I really liked Pippin in the films too, for the much-needed comic relief. Sam showed us the value of hard work and perseverance, which is an integral factor of the Asian work ethics. The Fellowship represented the way our international teams have to work and get on together, since there’re a lot of different cultures in Asia. We can glean valuable lessons about cooperation from the functioning of the Fellowship. I suppose one could learn capital management from the Dwarves, as long as we don’t wake up any monsters by mining too deep for gold. I also liked the character of Faramir, and the exploration of his (blind?) obedience to his father, which is something that’s encouraged in the Indian culture too. In fact, we can relate to a lot of the values present in the books in Asian societies as well.

(3) What aspects of Tolkien’s works reminded you of facets of your own traditions/legends/classical stories from your region?

Sultana Raza: I couldn’t help thinking of the two most famous epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Since Tolkien was inspired to a certain degree from European epics, and these in turn have some common factors with Indian sagas, there are bound to be some similarities between Tolkien’s sub-created world and Indian legends. People tend to forget the word ‘Indo’ in Indo-European myths. For example, inter-planetary vehicles are mentioned in Indian epics, comparable to Elvish ships that took them to the Undying Lands from Middle-earth and vice-versa. The stars where the Valar have their home are described as heavenly, as is the abode of Lord Vishnu, for example, called Vaikuntha or Vishnulok. Shiva’s abode is in Kailash or Mount Meru. There are imperishable seven upper lokas or dimensions, realms, or spheres. And seven lowers lokas/spheres.

There are also similarities between certain characters such as Dronacharya (an (irate) ascetic in Mahabharata) and Saruman. Though Dronacharya was sympathetic towards the Pandavas (the protagonists), he sided with the Kauravas (the antagonists) during the Mahabharat war. Dronacharya’s excuse was that he was doing his duty towards Hastinapur, the kingdom of the Kauravas which he was supposed to protect. Similarily, when it suited his own interests, Saruman switched sides as well. In fact, I’ve given papers on the similarities between Indian legends and Tolkien’s worlds, one of which, Projecting Indian Myths, Culture and History onto Tolkien’s Worlds can be viewed on Tolkien Society’s YouTube channel.

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (MFCG): This is honestly a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, unfortunately, my generation has been shaped mostly by “Western” tales and stories rather than local ones. On the other hand, Iegends, tales and traditions are diverse in Chile, as they depend on the geographical region. Nevertheless, I found some similarities, for example, between the monstrous beasts that the Nazguls ride, and the Mapuche´s legendary creature, the Tué Tué. Both make a sound that fills almost anyone who hears them with dread. Now, the Tué Tué is an evil wizard who can turn into a wicked bird. Another example I can think of, are some similarities between a legend from the North and some Tolkien’s stories about the Elves.

In the north of Chile, there is a popular legend that gives the name of a red flower, Añañuca, which tells the story of a beautiful young lady, and a young foreign miner who fell in love with each other. After they lived together for a while, the man went away to find a mine he had been searching for, and never came back, implying that he died in the desert. Añañuca waited for him until she passed away from pain, but when they search for her body, they found some red flowers instead, which they named after the lady. The story of Añañuca reminds me in a way of the story of Nimrodel, as both ladies acquired a new shape that is related to nature: a flower, and a spirit of the river respectively, and they are both associated with a place. Now, some versions of Añañuca’s story mention the fact that the woman was of indigenous origins, and the man was a Spaniard. This might be also compared with Elvish ladies such as Lúthien, and a man such as Beren. A love that breaks cultural barriers, but unlike Tolkien, the local legend ends tragically.

Shareef Kitabi: As I grew up in India, obviously the two big epics mentioned above come to mind. But since I’ve been living in Singapore for a long time, I’ve also watched various documentaries on the history of China. Not to mention epic Chinese or Japanese TV series (including some fantastical ones). I can answer this question in reverse. When I was watching Chinese TV series such as Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre (2009), The Sword of Legends (2014), or Fights Break Spear (2018), I was reminded of Peter Jackson’s films based on Tolkien’s books. Sometimes it’s the long story lines, the stunning landscapes, the intrigues among the characters, or attention to detail when it comes to props. Also, the fighting styles of different races in PJ’s films are interesting to compare with the way the action scenes are choreographed in Chinese TV series. In fact, I think PJ could have learned a thing or two from watching the sword fights in Chinese/Japanese TV series.

(4) In what ways do you project familiar elements from your culture onto Tolkien’s works and vice versa?

Sultana Raza: I enjoy reading, or watching films/documentaries about the Mughal dynasty in India. Their complicated relationships with each other, their social and cultural values of appreciating art for example, remind me somewhat of Elvish culture too. If some Elves had travelled East, would they have ended up building a monument with white marble like the Taj Mahal? Certain mosaics of flowers found in Mughal era buildings wouldn’t be out of place in Rivendell, for example. To quote Cath Pond: “The first Art Nouveau designs were Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome in 1883,” says Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and an expert on Art Nouveau. Beardsley had been inspired by the eclectic aesthetic of the department store Liberty, which combined Arts and Crafts furniture with Japanese and Indian imports.”

There’s an oriental element in Art Nouveau, and Alan Lee mentioned in the DVD extras that his design of Elvish architecture and interiors (such as Rivendell in the films) was influenced by Art Nouveau. The delicate trellis-work found in Mughal buildings, might have been appreciated by the Elves too. There are massive forts in various parts of India, including the famous Mughal Red Fort in Delhi, or many forts in Rajasthan, the ruins of which remind us of somewhat similarly huge structures in Middle-earth.

The Mughals designed beautiful gardens too (some of which still exist), which might have appealed to nature-loving Elves as well. Additionally, the fabrics (whether delicate silks, or heavily embossed taffetas, or richly embroidered organzas) for the LOTR films were imported from India, so that’s another connection to my country of origin. Some of these (regional) fabric designs and techniques have been used for centuries in India.

[Here is a slideshow with examples of architecture Sultana discusses above.]

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (MFCG): When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I felt more familiar and comfortable with Hobbits than with Men, (I’m using the capital letter “M” like Tolkien to refer to humanity). One of the main reasons was their political system, they had a mayor, and no king or queen, no Medieval type of architecture and customs. In Chile, there has never been a king, not even among the indigenous peoples, (if I am allowed to call the culturally diverse group that way, who lived here before the Spaniards came). It made sense to me that the Hobbits didn’t care about kings or queens, but rather, voted for their mayor and were just interested in their own local affairs.

Another reason is that even though Chile has big cities, if you ask any Chilean what they like most about our country, we will say it’s our landscapes and nature. Also, hobbits are different, depending on their geographical regions. People from Hobbiton differ from Bucklanders, in that they have dissimilar traditions and ways of living. Chile is a long country with a diverse geography, from deserts, to channels, to islands, and people don’t talk and live the same way. We are united in a way, of course, but local traditions associated with each geographical area are unique and special, not homogeneous.

Shareef Kitabi: I agree with most of what Sultana said about India above. Another aspect that I’d like to mention is the music of the 2006 LOTR musical. I’ve seen some short videos on YouTube. I’d say the music of the well-known Indian composer, A. R. Rahman fitted very well into Middle-earth, though they were obviously Indian tunes, played on instruments familiar to us. So, I’d say this is another connection between our culture, and Tolkien’s sub-created worlds.

Also, I’ve travelled a lot for my work. When I visited the Great Wall of China, for example, I could easily imagine similar mammoth ruins existing in Middle-earth too, though there’s no mention of a specific great wall. For example, when I was in Mongolia, the flat, sweeping steppes reminded me of the great plains of Rohan. In an article2 that I came across a theory has been put forward by Iranian scholar, Mohammad Reza Kamali that Prof. Tolkien may have been inspired by some regions in the Indian sub-continent such as mountains in Pakistan, the river Indus, or the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, and may have included them in his map of Middle-earth. I’m inclined to agree with this theory.

(5) What’s the glue that binds so many fans, readers, viewers, scholars together from all over the world?

Sultana Raza: I’m think that believe that most of humanity shares the same values, which are also present in Tolkien’s works. It’s assumed that Tolkien was inspired to write the LOTR saga after he witnessed horrific events in the First World War. Most people in the world don’t want wars, would like to preserve nature, and live in peace, rather like hobbits. His novels are quite inspiring as well, for we don’t know what we can achieve or accomplish once we set our mind to it. One of the enduring popularity of hobbits, specially Frodo and Sam is that it’s easier for most folk to identify with their struggles than with the powerful Elves. Characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf can be inspirational too. For a lot of women, the actions, and decisions of Galadriel and Lúthien tend to be quite admirable.

Tolkien’s world is so vast that readers from all continents can easily find various elements to attract and hold them in it, whether it’s the character, story lines, places, or cultures. Since it’s fantasy, it’s easier for us to slip into it, and to lose ourselves in the story.

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (MFCG): One of the things that binds so many fans are the emotions that Tolkien’s works produce. If they were plain and dull, I don’t believe many people would be moved and attached to them. I know Tolkien wasn’t a big fan of Shakespeare, but Shakespeare’s works remain popular because of the intense emotions they produce. Now, to be honest, I am not a big fan of Shakespeare either. For this reason, emotions can’t be the only element that help to bind people from all over the world who enjoy Tolkien’s works. Possibly, another factor, as my grandmother noticed, is that in his works there are different cultures, races, and characters, but to succeed in their mission, they must overcome their differences, and co-operate together. It’s a work of art that shows that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, as you’re likely to find your own place in Middle-earth or Valinor wherever you might belong. Additionally, I think this is also because Tolkien’s works present some universal values and motifs which are transversal and can be found all over the world.

Shareef Kitabi: I think the readers/audience form a sort of fellowship, even if we come from many different regions. The Fellowship in LOTR showed how we can complement each other to achieve our goals. I tend to do that in the teams I manage for international projects. I often have to meet colleagues or future business partners from many countries, and we have to get along together to accomplish our objectives. Just like the Fellowship in Tolkien’s books. There are many principles in his novels that can be applied in real life too. I suppose a love of his stories, and the characters bind us together.


Note to Prospective Contributors: In case you’re familiar with non-European cultures/regions and would like to contribute to a similar Roundtable, feel free to contact Sultana via: https://www.facebook.com/sultana.raza.7 or https://twitter.com/Sultana_Tara1

About Sultana Raza: An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Literary Yard, Litro, Literary Ladies Guide, impspired.

Of Indian origin, her poems have appeared in 100+ journals, with SFF work in Entropy, Columbia Journal, Star*line, Bewildering Stories, spillwords, Unlikely Stories Mark V, The Peacock Journal, Antipodean SF, Galaxy#2, and impspired. Forthcoming: poemsin theMusing on Muses Anthology (Birgid’s Gate Press) in 2022. Her fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Knot Magazine, and Entropy. She’s read her fiction/poems in Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the USA, and at WorldCon 2018, and CoNZealand 2019.  Tolkienists | Sultana Raza  

Sultana Raza

About María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez: María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez inherited her first Tolkien’s books from her grandmother. She has studied English Literature and Linguistics, and a Minor in Art History at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She wrote her thesis on gender studies in Tolkien’s works, focussing on feminism. She promotes her love for literature, art and nature in her blog: Books from Fangorn. https://booksfromfangorn.com/about/

María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez

About Shareef Kitabi (a pseudonym): He grew up in India where he obtained an MBA, and later settled in Singapore. He’s a senior manager in the corporate world. He likes to read/watch films/TV series in his spare time. (Note: he didn’t participate in the Global Tolkien Discussion Group at Oxonmoot 2021).

Notes:

1Excerpted from the article: What Art Nouveau can teach us about national identity by Catherine Pond, published on 31st May 2018https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180525-what-art-nouveau-can-teach-us-about-national-identity

2Source: https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/tolkien-map/

Relevant links:

  1. The photos of Mughal arts and architecture in the link below give a sense of their refinement. Would the Elves have found some of their artefacts, clothes, and jewelry to be appealing to their tastes? –https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-arts-of-the-mughal-empire
  2. Global Tolkien – A Roundtable (vector-bsfa.com)
  3. Sultana Raza – ‘Projecting Indian Myths, Culture and History onto Tolkien’s Worlds’ – YouTube

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