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Dimitra Fimi is a renowned Tolkienist and researcher in mythology, folklore, fantasy and fairy tales. Born in Greece and daughter of teachers, since her childhood, she has been interested in the mythical universe. Reading compendia of classical mythology was her favourite pastime, to the point of knowing by heart the names of gods, nymphs, heroes, and monsters, with many variations.
Holding a degree in English language and literature from the University of Athens, she received a master’s degree in Celtic studies from the University of Cardiff, and subsequently defended her doctoral thesis in Tolkienian literature. She taught some time at the University of Cardiff, and later went to the Cardiff Metropolitan University, where she remained for about ten years on a 20th-century Literature post.
Her thesis inspired her first monograph, Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), which received the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies. Her second monograph was focused on the Celtic past, in Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies.
She is currently a Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s literature at the University of Glasgow (UK), where she is co-director, alongside Dr Rob Maslen, of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, with several initiatives to promote this genre focused on the richness of the human imagination.
Read the interview with Dimitra Fimi.
You are a notable academic in the field of fairy tales, fantasy, mythology, and so on. Nowadays you are a Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow. Could you tell us about your current work?
When the post at the University of Glasgow came up, the first ever lecturership with the word “Fantasy” in the title, I knew I had to go for it. I was already aware of the Masters in Fantasy Glasgow had been running (under the directorship of Dr Rob Maslen), and — having been invited as a keynote speaker at Glasgow the year before — I knew also that I could find there a community of like-minded colleagues and research students, who took fantasy seriously and produced excellent work.
I started at Glasgow in September 2018, and I have really enjoyed teaching fantasy (from Victorian to contemporary) full-time, at undergraduate and postgraduate level, as well as supervising PhDs. Within two years (September 2020), we launched the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, which I co-direct with Dr Maslen, which brings together our fantasy teaching, research portfolio, and public engagement activities. You may have seen some of the online events we’ve been running — our blog links to all recordings of previous events. Also, a major new development is the establishment of a new book series, the first ever with an exclusive academic focus on fantasy. Perspectives on Fantasy will be co-edited by Professor Brian Attebery, myself, and my colleague (and core member of the Centre) Dr Matthew Sangster.
About Tolkien, how did you get to know his works and how did you become an expert in Tolkienian literature?
I encountered Tolkien as an undergraduate, during a trip to the UK to accompany young students for summer courses. I bought The Fellowship of the Ring while there, and just “fell into” Tolkien’s world, which to me seemed as complex and multi-layered as the classical mythological world I had loved as a young reader. I was fascinated with how one writer had managed to create such an intricate web of interconnected myths and legends — something usually done by an entire culture. Tolkien research was in my mind from that moment, and after my Celtics Studies Masters, I embarked on a PhD on Tolkien.
Your first monograph Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits is a notable study. Nowadays the theme “race and Tolkien” is a trend in social networks, mainly because of the Amazon Prime series on Tolkien’s Second Age. What is your opinion about these discussions?
Yes, Tolkien’s engagement with matters of race and Victorian racial anthropology was one of the central themes of my book, and I also wrote about this briefly again in 2018, after yet another media storm about whether Tolkien was racist. The Amazon Prime series is already (rightly) being scrutinized by Tolkien fans, especially after the problematic linking of indigenous cultures with the Orcs in the Peter Jackson adaptations. As the demand for more diversity in science fiction and fantasy is at last much more vocal and gaining ground (though there’s still so much more that needs to be done), any new adaptation of classic fantasy works will have to act responsibly and think through elements of Tolkien’s work that are problematic and think creatively about how to address them.
The series, like the movies, can become the subject for several studies on fantasy in different artistic media other than literature. However, Tolkien wrote [On Fairy-stories] that “In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature” and that literature “works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive” than visual works. What do you think about that?
Well, Tolkien did say those words (which betray a certain prejudice against visual culture) but he also said [in Letters] that his mythology should “leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama”. Illustration has been interpreting and extending Tolkien’s mythology for years, and cinematic or TV adaptations partake in the same project — one of interpretation, negotiation, and often extension. There is, of course, original fantasy for this media too (think, for example, about Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman, or the Studio Ghibli anime) but adaptation continues to be influential. Some adaptations of literary fantasy works for the small or the big screen are brilliant, and others aren’t as good – just as not all fantasy fiction is of the same quality. Recently I have enjoyed immensely the new TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by BBC One/HBO/Bad Wolf.
You co-edited, with Andrew Higgins, a critical edition of Tolkien’s essay A Secret Vice. It is an essay that conciliates philology and myth. After studying it, do you think philology and myth are two sides of the same coin?
Well, for Tolkien they definitely are. I would say actually language and myth, rather than philology (philology is a very specific term for the particular academic field of the study of language Tolkien was trained in and taught). This idea of language and myth as interdependent is not a new concept Tolkien invented — it goes back to Johann Gottfried Herder (late 18th/early 19th century) and the earliest attempts to theorize ideas of nationhood and the role of language and myth in its formation. Tolkien, in a way, follows a very old model when he says that language will “breed” a mythology, but of course in his own creative practice his invented languages and his early mythology went hand-in-hand and influenced each other.
Who scholars are your main source of inspiration?
That’s a hard one to answer, because I have to choose just a few from a huge selection! Verlyn Flieger has been an inspiration, not just because she was a woman in a male-dominated scholarly field whose mere presence taught me that I could hack this, but also because her work is so insightful and original, and her ideas have not got “stuck” into a few main concepts repeated again and again. Her scholarship has developed and evolved and remains current for the new generation of Tolkien scholars. In terms of fantasy literature studies more generally, I have followed in the footsteps of Brian Attebery and Farah Mendlesohn, both of whom have done so much to theorize the genre and provide methodological tools for its analysis.
You have an important study on Celtic mythology as well. Is it present nowadays in our lives, and if it does, how?
My second monograph was Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, and focused on the way mythological and folkloric texts from Celtic-speaking countries (mainly Ireland and Wales) have shaped a really important portion of children’s fantasy, not just in Britain, but also in the USA. Celtic myth is very much around in modern fantasy, not least in the continuous and enduring re-shaping of the Arthurian legend in many adaptations over different media. For me, it was important to show that the Celtic past is also often romanticized and that fantasy sometimes transmits dated or plain-wrong information about it.
Tolkien used to deny the Celtic references in his works, although it was present in his studies and in his former ideal of creating an English mythology. Is that because he used to reject any allegorical correlation with his work, or because there are more discrepancies between them?
I think Tolkien had a love-hate relationship with “things Celtic” — one the one hand he was fascinated with Welsh and Irish material from his earliest writings, on the other hand he did aspire to an English mythology, and to a sort of nationalism that could not include the “Celtic” fringes. This contradictory attitude is revealed in the mix of admiring and rejecting comments he made during his lifetime about Celtic texts. You can find out more about all of this in two of my journal articles, now freely available on my website. [Checkout them here and here]
Tolkien was very assertive when saying fairy-stories were not exclusive for children. But nowadays the universities which do study this subject still classify fantasy and fairy-stories as children literature. On the other hand, a kind of fantasy literature which is not appropriate for children such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher, etc. is more and more published nowadays. Do you think this conception can change over the years?
I think this attitude has already changed. Fairy-tales were not intended for children in their earliest phase (before the Grimms, really) and modern fairy-tale retellings have reclaimed this material to address an adult audience (e.g. Angela Carter’s fairy-tale retellings). In the UK fairy-tales are certainly not only taught/studied as part of children’s literature (though of course courses on children’s literature do cover them — as do I when I teach Children’s Fantasy). The distinction between children’s and adult fantasy isn’t as clear-cut as the more extreme examples imply. The phenomenon of crossover reading has also blurred this line further.
You are quite active on social media. Do you think it is important for scholars to be in contact with the general public?
Social media can be both great but also horrible. I think modern scholars of fantasy do need to be engaged with venues such as Twitter, because important discussions about the future of fantasy are conducted there, in dialogues between scholars, writers (and other practitioners), and fans. But we should also try to keep a healthy distance – it’s very easy for social media to become too intrusive and disruptive. A healthy balance is the way forward.
Eduardo Boheme has contributed with the edition of this interview.