On Tuesday, May 16th Maria Dahvana Headley delivered the 2023 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.
It was wonderful to have Maria at Pembroke and to listen her engaging lecture about storytelling, magic, and monsters. Many thanks Maria for the inspiring lecture and taking the time to travel to Oxford, engaging the lecture attendees and simply being delightful.
We are also grateful to our sponsors: Pembroke College Annual Fund, The Kadas Family Charitable Foundation, and everyone who donated when they booked their tickets. The Tolkien lecture series would not be possible without them.
We also thank Pembroke College librarian Laura Cracknell, and archivist Amanda Ingram for the fantastic Tolkien display. Additionally, many thanks to events, catering, and communications teams at Pembroke.
And of course, thank you everyone who attended the lecture in person, or via livestream. It is always a pleasure to see so many people. If you missed the lecture, or simply would like to watch it again, the recording is available here.
Maria Dahvana Headley is the New York Times-bestselling, Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning author of eight books, most recently Beowulf: A New Translation (MCD/FSG), which was named as a book of the year by The Atlantic Monthly, National Public Radio, Vox, The Irish Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman, and more. It won the 2021 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the 2021 Hugo award for “Best Related Work”. Her novel, The Mere Wife (MCD/FSG), a contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, was named by The Washington Post as one of the “Notable Works of Fiction in 2018”.
She has written for both teenagers (Magonia and Aerie, Harper Collins) and adults in various genres and forms. Headley’s short fiction has been shortlisted for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards and for the 2020 Joyce Carol Oates Prize and has been anthologised in many year’s bests; a collection is under contract to FSG. Her work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony, Arte Studio Ginestrelle, and the Sundance Institute’s Theatre Lab, among other organisations.
In Summer 2023, she’ll be a fellow at the Hawthornden Foundation’s Casa Ecco in Lake Como, Italy. She currently teaches at Bennington College and Sarah Lawrence College and has delivered masterclasses and lectures at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Columbia, UCSD, The University of Iowa, U Penn, Dartmouth, and Northwestern University, among many others. She delivers regular Zoom writing workshops to the public through The Shipman Agency’s workroom.
Her upcoming projects include a ten-episode full-cast musical adaptation of Vergil’s Aeneid for Audible UK, to be released in 2023; a novel from FSG about volcanoes, creation myths and time travel; a spy thriller; and a nonfiction book about the history of storytelling.
She grew up in the high desert of Idaho on a survivalist sled dog ranch, where she spent summers plucking the winter coat from her father’s wolf.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s photo is credited to Beowulf Sheehan.
On Monday, May 23rd, Rebecca “R.F.” Kuang delivered the Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was wonderful to gather again at Pembroke and to benefit from Rebecca’s insights about mimesis, representation, and the comforts of literature.
Our thanks again to Rebecca for spending time with us. It was also great to see so many people attend the lecture via livestream.
If you missed the lecture or want to watch it again, the recording is available here:
Acclaimed fantasy author Rebecca F. Kuang will deliver this year’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. The lecture will take place on Monday, May 23rd in the Pichette Auditorium at 6 PM BST.
Kuang is best known for the Poppy War trilogy, a grimdark fantasy based on Chinese history. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. In 2020, she also won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.
In addition to being a fantasy writer, Kuang is a Marshall Scholar and a Chinese-English translator. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford. She is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, where she studies diaspora, contemporary Chinese literature, and Asian American literature.
Kuang currently has two more novels in the works: Babel, a historical fantasy inspired by her time at Oxford, set to release this year, and Yellowface, to be released in 2023. For more on Kuang’s work, visit her website at rfkuang.com.
On Tuesday May 11th, Guy Gavriel Kay delivered the eighth annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, broadcasting live from Toronto in Canada. We were moved, inspired, and delighted by his lecture, ‘Just Enough Light: Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Literature.’
Our thanks again to Guy for spending time with us. It was also wonderful to see so many people attend the lecture live, both on Youtube and Zoom.
If you missed the lecture, or want to watch it again, the recording is available here:
We’d love to see more photos of people watching the lecture from around the world… share them with us on social media, and we’ll add them to this post!
Award-winning and best-selling fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay will deliver this year’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. The digital lecture will take place on Tuesday, May 11th, 6 PM BST (1 PM ET).
Kay has published fourteen novels which have been translated into 30 languages and have appeared on bestseller lists around the world. He is also the author of the poetry collection, Beyond This Dark House. His most recent work is A Brightness Long Ago.
Before beginning his career as a novelist, Kay was retained by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien to assist in the editorial construction of The Silmarillion, the first and best-known of the posthumously published Tolkien works. Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1980, he has also been principal writer and associate producer for the CBC’s award-winning crime-drama series, The Scales of Justice.
Kay has twice won the Aurora Award, is a multiple World Fantasy Award nominee, and won that award for Ysabel. He also won the Sunburst Award for Under Heaven, and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize, presented in Mexico City, for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. Both Under Heaven and River of Stars won the Prix Elbakin in France for best foreign language speculative fiction work.
In 2014 he was invested with the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. Kay’s authorized website may be found at brightweavings.com. He is on Twitter as @guygavrielkay. Kay lives in Toronto.
Thank you to our amazing panellists for an inspiring and thought-provoking discussion last weekend, and thank you to everyone who joined us on Zoom and Youtube Live to listen and contribute to the discussion. If you missed it, a recording of the event can be found on Youtube:
We were also thrilled to surpass our fundraising target, collecting £860 for The Society of Authors’ Covid-19 emergency fund. Thank you to all who donated and helped provide much-needed financial support for professional writers during the pandemic.
We have compiled a list of quotations and resources, to help people find out more about our panellists and the authors and works they discussed.
Gabriel Schenk, 34:50, Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent State University Press, 2006)
Writing During the Time of Covid-19
Terri Windling, 42:00, Ellen Kushner, author of Swordspoint (Arbor House, 1987) and many others
Kij Johnson,43:09, ‘I know what you’re thinking – that anybody with proper sensitive feeling would rather scrub floors for a living. But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well’ Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935), p. 31.
“Happy” Endings in Fantasy
Terri Windling, 50:28:
‘The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’
– J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 1939
Messages of hope in Fantasy and Science-fiction
Gabriel Schenk, 56:45:
‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, bk. I, ch. 2
Terri Windling, 1:00:00:
‘For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth.’
–Jane Yolen, Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (August House Publishers, expanded edition, 2000)
Will Covid-19 Change Fantasy?
Rebbeca F. Kuang, 1:09:11, examples of POC authors writing about trauma in speculative fiction: N.K. Jemisin, Tochi Onyebuchi, Octavia Butler, Rebecca Roanhorse, Rivers Solomon
Fantasy, Science-fiction, and Landscape
Terri Windling, 1:13:58, examples of authors who write nature-based fantasy that is also internal: Robert Holdstock and [second author TBD]
Rebecca F. Kuang, 1:16:09, examples of fantasy and sci-fi that include a closing-off of landscape: Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure (2018), Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City (2018), and Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide (2013; translated into English in 2019)
“My heart’s right down in my toes, Mr. Pippin,’ said Sam. ‘But we aren’t etten yet’”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, ch. 4
Kij Johnson, 1:18:23, ‘I’ve always loved the notion that as long as you’re not eaten, you’re good.’
Terri Windling, 1:18:38: ‘“Words are intrinsically powerful,” wrote the Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday. “And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe — and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds – in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man’s faith — and may I say, wisdom — has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being.”
– N. Scott Momaday, qtd. in Joseph Bruchac, Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets, (University of Arizona Press, 1987)
‘Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world’s most ancient stories, and from the author’s careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.‘A skillful writer knows that she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale’s symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level.I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be — for children especially, but also for adults – and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we’re letting loose into the world.’
V.E. Schwab, 1:20:40: ‘“Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we’re doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you… well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created […] You studied history. You know this. Everybody’s history is one long slog of all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other.”’
– Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
Rebecca F. Kuang, 1:21:43: ‘“I think good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. Art is informative. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live.”’
– Iris Murdoch, qtd. in Bryan Magee, Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 238
Adam Roberts, 1:22:48, ‘There is room, in the world of Tolkien, for fried fish and a bit of sushi as well, if that’s what you’re in the mood for […] it’s always seemed to me just such a beautifully observed little moment.’“‘Be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’`Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, bk. IV, ch. 4
Lev Grossman, 1:26:00, ‘There’s a great strip where Charlie Brown just sits up with Linus because Linus can’t sleep. I don’t even think there’s a particular punchline for that strip, but it’s one that keeps coming back to me.”
– Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts, January 9–10, 1961
1:25:24, ‘Lucy takes away Linus’s blanket […] It’s one of the rare instances when you see Charlie Brown, who I love, be truly compassionate. For Linus, the blanket is a magic object, but it’s not magic for anybody else, and so much of fantasy is making visible, or placing value, on things that aren’t otherwise visible.’
– Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts, January 9–10, 1961
Other Books Mentioned
Kij Johnson, 38:09, Lord Dunsany, author of the novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924) and the linked stories in The Gods of Pegāna (Elkin Mathews, 1905)
Kij Johnson, 38:10, Stephen King, ‘Children of the Corn’, in Night Shift (Doubleday, 1978)
Adam Roberts, 44:35, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Faber & Faber, 1954)
Terri Windling, 46:56, Alan Garner, author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Collins, 1960), The Owl Service (Collins, 1967), and many others
Terri Windling, 46:57, Susan Cooper, author of The Dark is Rising Sequence and many others
Lev Grossman, 55:23, ‘Earthsea,’ from Ursula K. Le Guin, The Earthsea Cycle (1968–2001)
55:25 Lev mentions ‘Westeros,’ from G.R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (1996–)
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
This year, Pembroke College’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature is transforming into an online symposium! Previous speakers of the series Kij Johnson (2013), Adam Roberts (2014), Lev Grossman (2015), Terri Windling (2016), and V.E. Schwab (2018), together with forthcoming speaker Rebecca F. Kuang (lecture date TBD), will discuss the importance of fantasy in times of crisis: how science-fiction and fantasy literature respond to, and provide inspiration during, moments of despair and personal difficulty.
The symposium will take place on Saturday May 16, 4:00 – 5:30pm British time (11am – 12:30 Eastern).
The event is free but the Tolkien Lecture committee are inviting donations for The Society of Authors’ COVID-19 Crisis Fund, which responds to the loss of income many writers have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The fund provides financial support for professional writers based in the UK – including illustrators, literary translators, scriptwriters, poets, journalists and others – who rely on their writing as their main source of income.
The Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature was established in 2013 at Pembroke College, Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien worked for twenty years as professor of Anglo-Saxon. Speakers in the series are given freedom to discuss any aspect of fantasy literature, broadly defined to include other types of speculative fiction. Our aim is to honour J.R.R. Tolkien’s legacy by promoting the study of fantasy literature.
We are delighted to announce that Rebecca F. Kuang will deliver the eighth annual Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford.
Rebecca F. Kuang is the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic (Harper Voyager). She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. She also translates Chinese science fiction to English. Her debut The Poppy War was listed by Time, Amazon, Goodreads, and The Guardian as one of the best books of 2018 and has won the Crawford Award and Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel.
The third part of the Poppy War trilogy, The Burning God, is due out in late 2020. You can find out more about Rebecca F. Kuang on her website, rfkuang.com
The Committee for the J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College was very saddened to learn of the death of Christopher Tolkien on January 16th 2020.
Christopher John Reuel Tolkien was born in Leeds on November 21st 1924, the third child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Mary Tolkien. Upon his father’s appointment to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, the family moved to Oxford, where Christopher was schooled at the aptly named Dragon School, and later the Oratory School, Woodcote. As a child, Christopher and his siblings heard their father reading the first drafts of The Hobbit, clearly an influential experience in Christopher’s life. Christopher went on to read English at Trinity College, Oxford, completing his studies—after an interruption due to his service in the RAF during WWII—in 1949.
After obtaining his BA, Christopher took up a teaching post in the 1950s at Oxford’s Faculty of English, during which time he married his first wife, Faith Faulconbridge, with whom he had a son, Simon, and wrote his B.Litt., an edition and translation of the Old Norse Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (subsequently published as The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise in 1960). It was during this time that Christopher not only published on Old Norse, but also co-edited a few tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with fellow member of the Inklings, Nevill Coghill. In 1963, Christopher was appointed a fellow of New College, Oxford, lecturing—like his father before him—on Old Norse, Old English, and Middle English. Christopher and Faith separated in 1964 and in 1967 he married Baillie Klass, with whom he had a son, Adam, and a daughter, Rachel.
After his father’s death in 1973, Christopher took on the role for which he is, and will surely always be, best known: literary executor of his father’s vast body of unpublished work. After publishing his father’s translations of the Middle English poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo in 1975, Christopher resigned from his fellowship at New College and moved with his family to southern France. In 1977 he edited and published The Silmarillion, marking in earnest the beginning of a new career in which he would also publish his father’s Unfinished Tales (1980), The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983), The Book of Lost Tales (1983, the first in the monumental twelve-volume The History of Middle-earth, 1983–1996), and, more recently, a series of Tolkien’s retellings and translations of medieval texts, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013), and Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (2014), and finally, the much-awaited Middle-earth Legendarium tales of Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018).
Recognising in the preface to this final contribution to a very long list of edited works that ‘in [his] ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’, Christopher finally drew to a close a formidable career in editing and publishing spanning over six decades. His legacy in making the extensive œuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien accessible to as wide a readership as possible is, indubitably, without equal.
Sonr er betri,
þótt sé síð of alinn,
eptir genginn guma;
standa brautu nær,
nema reisi niðr at nið.
‘A son is better,
though he be born late,
after his father has passed;
seldom do memorial-stones
stand near the road,
unless one kinsman raises them for another.’