David Rowe is the Director of Contemporary Music, Social Media and Communications at St. John’s Parish in Johns Island, South Carolina. From Sheffield, England David has a degree in Biblical Studies and cultivates his passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien on his popular Twitter feed: @TolkienProverbs. The Proverbs of Middle-earth is his first book.
One random U.S. commenter will receive an autographed copy of The Proverbs of Middle-earth. See below for details.
Jason Golomb: In addition to your job at St. John’s, you’ve worked internationally for Christian missions. Religion is clearly integral to your life. J.R.R. Tolkien was a deeply Christian person and religion is embedded within his writings (though one could argue he handles it rather subtly). I’m curious how religion has played a role in how you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, and how Tolkien has informed how you process and perceive religion.
David Rowe: Ha! I see that you like to start with light and frivolous questions! The quickest way to answer is probably to mention something that Tolkien wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories. He explained that part of the purpose of humanity is to reflect God’s creativity – to be sub-creators – and that in doing so we “may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” What he means is that it is our task, by our own creativity, to make the world tastier and brighter, more colourful and beautiful. That’s our sacred task. Ultimately, Tolkien appears to have written his stories, languages, and proverbs in light of this – an attempt to offer his amazing skills and giftings and sweat as an unlikely act of worship. I find that incredibly inspiring, especially as it is a non-self-centred way for us all to see the value of our own individual contributions.
Reading Tolkien has hugely increased and enriched my faith, though I don’t know if I can briefly or convincingly explain why. Maybe it’s something to do with what Peter Kreeft wrote in the Foreword to my book: he says that “Fantasy does not only help us escape from circumstances, but also from falsehoods, self-deceptions, and narrowness of vision”. Walking through Middle-earth has made the real world, and my role within it, come to life for me.
That quote caught my attention as well. Can you tell me a little more about what it means to you?
Well, one of the standard accusations to throw at Tolkien (and writers like him), is that Fantasy is mere escapism, and therefore pointless and of no value to The Real World. But that’s nonsense; as silly as saying that it’s not worth looking at a painting or watching a play unless the contents are solely factual. One of the many purposes of art is to be a mirror, forcing us to look at ourselves and our circumstances from a new perspective, and (hopefully) to see our ‘falsehoods, self-deceptions, and narrowness of vision’ for what they really are. Tolkien does that for me, helping me to see Truth by portraying it in a fictional context.
Some of the 400+ proverbs in Tolkien’s Middle-earth are embedded with multiple layers of meanings, and some are rather straightforward and easily identifiable in contemporary terms. Do you have a single quote (or couple of quotes) that resonate more loudly with you personally?
Yes, certainly. For a prevaricator like me, the Gaffer’s It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish is very practical – I say it to myself when tempted to put things off. Likewise, as someone who has spent years feeling like I’m in the wilderness, not getting any closer to fulfilling my goals, Not all those who wander are lost has been a handy companion, reminding me that sometimes the path I’m on is actually going somewhere. But the one that has been in mind this week is Faramir’s The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards, the reason being that one of my favourite authors got in touch to say how much he liked my book, and it gave my ego the kind of boost that could last the rest of my days!
In The Proverbs of Middle-earth, I tried to read into your character and cultural essays to determine whether you had a clear cut favorite. I found rather more passion in your writings on Gimli and Faramir, though I’m not convinced it was intended. Tolkien is quoted as identifying himself as a Hobbit ‘in all but size’, but you also wrote that Tolkien indicated that Faramir most resembles himself. Is there one character or Middle-earth culture that you identify with most closely?
That’s an interesting observation: you are both wrong and right. I worked longest and hardest on Gimli’s chapter, but mainly because I’m probably least fond of him (and of dwarves generally) of all Tolkien’s creatures; it took more effort to make his section as good as I wanted it. But Faramir is my favourite. I don’t know how much I identify with him, per se, but I feel – as Tolkien did – that he is pretty much the sort of person I would ideally like to be: warrior, scholar, lover, leader, etc. I even like his clothes.
What other authors do you feel imbue a sense of philosophy and world-building in a similar vein as Tolkien?
I don’t think I read widely enough to be a good judge, but what I look for in a writer is to feel convinced. Their sub-creation needs what Tolkien called, “the inner consistency of reality.” It’s not a contemporary example, but Richard Adams ‘ work in Watership Down is a magnificently convincing act of world-building – his inventions of language, worldview, and mythology merge seamlessly with what we already know of rabbits, and it sweeps us away. Neil Gaiman does a similarly good job of describing worlds that fit alongside our own and interact with it, though he is probably a victim of his own massive creativity – if he stuck within one of his worlds and fully fleshed it out, I think he would be the preeminent sub-creator of our time.
It appears that the journey of publishing The Proverbs of Middle-Earth was a long one. Can you talk about what was involved from inception through release this past November? Do you have plans for future works?
Yes, it started a long time ago, in 2009. I had come across a reference to the fact that Tolkien filled his world with original sayings, but I couldn’t find a complete list anywhere so I decided to make my own. Having found so many, I started a blog, going through The Lord of the Rings chronologically and reflecting on the proverbs, and part way through that I started tweeting them (via @TolkienProverbs). That put me in touch with the wider Tolkien community, and with my publisher, Oloris, and then I actually started writing the book. I originally wanted to get it published for Christmas 2014, but then I read it through and realized that it wasn’t very good and I needed to get better at writing first!
As for future works, the next step is to get the e-reader version of The Proverbs of Middle-earth ready to go (with the possibility that we may do audio and illustrated versions at some point too). My problem is that I’m an insomniac – most of the book was written between 3-7am – so the idea of starting a new project of any length makes me think of all the sleep I’ll need to miss in order to make it happen. It’s a peculiar mixture of excitement and melancholy…
Finally, we have a tradition here at FanLit of asking authors if they have a signature drink. Maybe a go-to drink during the writing of The Proverbs of Middle-earth? It can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
Ah, finally a question of importance! Well, if you’re buying I will have a glass of port, a Côtes du Rhône, or a smoky porter, but if you want to know what I specialise in then it’ll have to be a cup of tea: Yorkshire Gold, made in a thin-lipped cup with properly boiling water; and then I add some honey and plenty of raw milk.
Comment below for your chance to win an autographed copy of The Proverbs of Middle-earth. U.S. addresses only.