From Linguistics to Metaphysics: interview with Carl F. Hostetter, editor of the new book by J.R.R. Tolkien

Cristina Casagrande

Leia a entrevista em português aqui.

The Great Plague claimed the life of king Telemnar and his descendants in the second millennium of the Third Age, causing the White Tree of Gondor also to perish. As in fiction, the Primary World brought along a new plague, and we had, according to each one’s possibilities, to deal with its dreads. In the world of Tolkien enthusiasts, the plague was foreshadowed by the loss of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary executor, his own son Christopher, the worthiest guardian of a fantastic treasure partially revealed while the author was alive, but which is still largely hidden.

It was Christopher’s responsibility to bring to light much of that hidden wealth, especially with the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977, but also with many subsequent editions, such as Unfinished Tales (1980), the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth (1983–1996), the books dedicated to each of the Great Tales, among other posthumous publications. With the loss of such a devoted son and beloved editor, readers of Tolkien were left with a sense of orphanhood. Was the source of that treasure gone? Should we be content with our re-readings, in addition to the possible adaptations of his works?

It is quite true that re-readings of Tolkien’s works are in themselves an inexhaustible source; moreover, there are many important theoretical studies about the author’s work coming out frequently, which certainly help readers to deepen their (new) readings. But at the closing of 2020, we received the irresistible news of the upcoming arrival of yet another gemstone from Tolkien’s beloved treasure, The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl F. Hostetter, well-known editor of Tolkien’s linguistic papers and who became friends with Christopher as well.

Hostetter is also a computer scientist at the NASA, and like many professionals in that area, he became fascinated by fantasy and science fiction narratives, even though in recent years he has devoted himself to other readings, which, coincidentally or not, form the deepest layers of Tolkien’s literary work, in addition to philology: history, ancient and medieval philosophy and theology.

No wonder The Silmarillion is his favorite Tolkien work, “for its scope and profundity and masterful prose”. With the forthcoming NoMe on 2 September 2021, the 48th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, Hostetter plays the role of a descendant of the forgotten Ælfwine, bringing back the seeds of the Tree.

Check out our interview with Carl F. Hostetter.

Please, tell us about your trajectory as a Tolkien reader, how you got to know his literature, what you read first, what you like the most etc.

I was given a paperback set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a going-away present from a friend when my family moved from York Pennsylvania to Richmond, Virginia in 1978, when I was 13. Before this, I had never even heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, but my friend knew of my fondness for both Norse mythology and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, and so rightly guessed that I would enjoy Tolkien’s books. I read and reread those books, especially The Lord of the Rings, many times in a row, always finding something new in them, and I instantly became fascinated with the Elvish languages.

You have contributed significantly to Tolkienian linguistic studies as a member of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, by participating in editions of the Vinyar Tengwar and the Parma Eldalamberon. Please, tell us how your approach to the Tolkienian linguistic studies was.

I developed an interest in studying Tolkien’s languages right from the start, after seeing the title page to The Lord of the Rings and wondering what the (as I would later learned they were called) cirth at the top and the tengwar at the bottom said. Since this was in the days before the internet, I worked on figuring the languages out on my own, until in the early 1980s I learned about and contacted the Tolkien Society in the U.K., which led me to its linguistic bulletin, Quettar, from which I learned about Jim Allan’s An Introduction to Elvish, both of which I studied while in college, and as successive volumes of The History of Middle-earth came out I absorbed everything they revealed about the languages and their development by Tolkien over the decades, especially The Etymologies in The Lost Road, vol. V of HoMe. I also took several English and linguistics courses, with particular focus on historical linguistics, Old and Middle English, and medieval literature (including those at the graduate level, even though I was an undergraduate), all due to my study of Tolkien’s works and life. Not long after I graduated from college in 1988, Jorge Quiñonez launched Vinyar Tengwar as a newsletter of the newly founded Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, affiliated with the Mythopoeic Society in the US (which again in those pre-Internet I only learned of from Quettar). I quickly subscribed and, since I had newly acquired a Mac and a laser printer, I offered my assistance to Jorge in producing the then-bimonthly bulletin. Within a few issues, Jorge asked me to take over as editor, in which role I corresponded with lots of Tolkien societies and scholars of Tolkien’s languages, and developed a correspondence (and friendship) with Christopher Gilson, Arden Smith, Bill Welden, and Patrick Wynne, then and still all prominent scholars of Tolkien’s languages in the US. The rest as they say is history!

In your opinion, why did Tolkien not develop completely the Elvish languages?

For much the same reason that he never completed The Silmarillion: at first, because things grew and changed in his imagination and their expression on paper, and then, after the intervention and completion of The Lord of the Rings, because he had to revise everything to make it consistent with the published book and the thousands of years of “new history” that the introduction of the Second and Third Ages required, a task he was never able to achieve. With the languages, this was because whenever he attempted to make “definitive” decision on some point of phonology or grammar, he would almost inevitably start revising the whole system, which makes sense since any language is a complexly intertwined system, such that a change in one feature or detail can and almost always does affect other aspects. Nor, I think, was it ever Tolkien’s intention to make the Elvish languages “complete” or “finished”: they were primarily an expression of his linguistic aesthetic, and its changes over time. Unlike, say, with Zamenhof and Esperanto, Tolkien had no utilitarian purpose in mind for his languages.

In your article “Elvish as she is spoke”, you expressed some concern about the so-called “Neo-Elvish”. How do you regard that matter more than a decade after your article was published?

The same way I felt then: it can be fun and instructive, but it has all the same pitfalls as trying to communicate in a language in which there are few written texts and no native speakers, and so it is important not to confuse “Neo-Elvish” and its constructs with Tolkien’s own. 

How did you get to know Christopher? How was your relationship with him?

When I took over as editor of Vinyar Tengwar, I started a correspondence with the Tolkien Estate and Christopher, initially simply to obtain permission to publish material collected (by others) at the Marquette University Tolkien archives. Over time this grew into a more general and candid correspondence. I met Christopher in person only once, at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in Oxford in 1992, where he proposed to my editorial colleagues and I that we edit and publish his father’s linguistic papers. He was a very thoughtful and generous person, an engaging and delightful correspondent with a sharp wit, and personally sympathetic and supportive of me in some difficult times. I was very fortunate to count him as a friend.

You are the first editor of a work by Tolkien since Christopher passed away, and you received his consent to edit The Nature of Middle-earth. How did the project come up?

Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I started work on what would become The Nature of Middle-earth nearly 25 years ago, when I received a bundle of photocopies that Christopher Tolkien referred to as “late philological essays”. From this bundle I edited and published three texts in Vinyar Tengwar, that are also included (in more-or-less-differently edited form) in NoMe: “Ósanwe-kenta” (1998), “Notes on Órë” (2000), and “The Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor” (2001). Some time after this, Christopher asked me to help the French scholar [Michaël Devaux] edit a set of late writings on Elvish reincarnation, which were eventually published in the journal La Feuille de la Compagnie vol. 3 in 2014, and will likewise be included in NoMe. Those who have read these texts in the specialist journals in which they were first published will know that while they all deal with linguistic matters are in fact chiefly concerned with the natural world and/or philosophical and metaphysical matters.

Knowing of my special interest in such matters, even apart from the linguistic, Christopher offered to send me another, larger bundle of photocopies of his father’s late writings, likewise concerning such matters, to read and think about whether or how they might be published. Pondering this, and thinking of other material of a similar kind that were either wholly unpublished or likewise published only in specialist journals, from both the linguistic papers and from materials I had collected from the chief Tolkien archives, I began to see how they could be joined into a coherent whole; and once I did, the title quickly followed for a book spanning both chief senses of the English word nature: both the visible and sensible phenomena of the physical world, including its lands, flora, and fauna; and the metaphysical, innate, and essential qualities and character of the world and its inhabitants. Christopher agreed with this idea, and fortunately was able to see and approve my book proposal, containing a sizable selection of edited texts and my plan for the book as a whole, before he passed away last year.

NoMe brings some of Tolkien’s last writings. What to expect from this new publication?

I can’t yet speak about any more specifics, but I can say that The Nature of Middle-earth will appeal most to those who enjoy the descriptive and historical parts of Unfinished Tales, as well as those who enjoy Morgoth’s Ring.

How different was editing The Nature of Middle-earth from editing Tolkien’s more language-oriented works?

The two tasks are very similar, in that often the most challenging part is simply deciphering Tolkien’s sometimes very difficult handwriting. One difference is that when I am editing one of Tolkien’s linguistic texts I am much more technical and analytical in my commentary, as is suited to the audience for such writings. For the more general audience of The Nature of Middle-earth I have tried to keep my commentary briefer and much less technical. My goal was to produce a readable text that focusses on Tolkien’s own writing, by keeping my own commentary separate from Tolkien’s words (though in places I did have to make some editorial remarks within the main text itself). 

Christopher’s work as an editor was herculean and very admirable. Yet, there is some criticism (such as Douglas Kane’s) about his work on The Silmarillion. What do you think yourself about Christopher’s work?

Christopher devoted more than a quarter of his life to giving us both a finished Silmarillion as well as an astonishingly detailed history of how it (and of course The Lord of the Rings) came to be. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Do you think the readers can expect more works by Tolkien to come to light?

I can’t say for sure, but my own sense is that there is very little writing pertaining to Middle-earth that hasn’t been published. There are a lot of Tolkien’s unpublished professional academic writings, as well as drafts for some of his published works, such as The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, in the Bodleian archives that might eventually be published. And there certainly are a great many unpublished letters. But most of what hasn’t been published (at least in full) of Tolkien’s writings that pertain to Middle-earth are drafts of works that have been published in full, and so primarily of interest to those who wish to conduct a more detailed study of the development of texts than Christopher could accommodate in The History of Middle-earth

Thank you very much for answering these questions!

Thanks for inviting me to do so!

Eduardo Boheme has contributed to the proofreading of this text.

Carl F. Hostetter is editor of Vinyar Tengwar, a journal of  Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, and editor of the forthcoming The Nature of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cristina Casagrande is researcher in Tolkienian literature at the University of São Paulo (Brazil)

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