In the first part of this interview we met Julia Golding, founder of Project Northmoor and the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. Here we find out more about the Centre and the teachings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Don’t miss a first look at Julia’s video tour of the barrow of Wayland’s Smithy, which may have been one of the inspirations for the Barrow Downs east of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. She also takes us to the famous White Horse Hill. (Link at end of article.)
Mithril: I recently completed the first class offered by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy. Along with truly fun and productive lectures and assignments, the course had some fantastic tutors and guest speakers, and I am now part of a community of writers inspired by Tolkien. We even have an online Inklings group the Centre created for us. Was it always your intent to grow the experience into a community? How do you see it evolving?
Julia: I wish I could claim I had a master plan, but actually it has been more an organic growing experience. Our headline thought was this project is about encouraging the next generation of fantasy creatives, using Oxford and the Inklings as examples to inspire us. The idea to create a space for a community of writers came from reading Diana Pavlac Glyer’s book on the Inklings, Bandersnatch. Diana was one of our guest speakers. Her book unpacks how the Inklings supported each other as writers, and also why it eventually folded as a group. I thought after reading this that it would be natural to see if our first students wanted to stay together to continue their journey, using the Inklings example. They clearly can’t meet every week at Magdalen in C.S. Lewis’s rooms as Tolkien and friends did, but they can meet together in their online group. Once the space was set up, I stepped back to let the students become their own thing.
This is part one of a two part interview with Julia Golding, founder of Project Northmoor and the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, which is dedicated to creativity and the study of Oxford’s most famous fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Tolkien, she studied at the University of Oxford where she received a Doctorate in English Literature. Her CV includes British diplomat and Oxfam policy adviser, as well as multi-award winning author of children’s and young adult novels, with over a half a million books sold worldwide, which have been translated into many languages.
Mithril: What is your first memory of reading Tolkien?
Julia: Your question reminded me that I had a first unsuccessful attempt at reading The Hobbit too young on my own (around 6 or 7) which put me off Tolkien. I wish someone had read it to me – or steered me towards a recording –because it took me a long while to rediscover The Hobbit. But then came the summer when I was ten. I decided to try Tolkien again but started with The Lord of the Rings. I have a vivid memory of lying on a sofa in my childhood home in Essex, suburban Southeast England. I can even conjure up the feeling of the sofa fabric and the cool room with the sunny road outside. I was enchanted, completely lost in his world. I got to the end, and immediately went back to The Fellowship of the Ring, because I couldn’t stand for the experience to end – so I carried on lying down reading. It really was a turning point for me; ever since then he has helped inspire my passion for creating worlds in fiction.
Mithril: You’ve written over 60 novels, and once said “[Tolkien] is a key influence over the way I write and the reason I became an author.” Can you delve into this a bit more?
Julia: It is connected to his example as a creator of myth. He wrote about us being sub-creators, how we can be a little like a god to our own worlds. I love the idea that we each have the ability to create these microcosm universes, decide the rules and nature of the worlds, invent the peoples, their behaviour, culture and languages. Tolkien led by example. His enduring appeal to me is as a uniquely creative mind whose subcreation has unrivalled internal consistency, length, breadth and depth.
I was also inspired by how he wrote about the things that mattered to him by using them to power the structure holding up Middle-earth. He didn’t come at you with an obvious allegory and bash you over the head with the application; he famously wrote in the Preface to The Fellowship of the Ring that: ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.’
That doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t values or messages to be drawn, but these are those connected with the reader’s experience. You can be a person of faith, no faith, and from the whole range of world cultures, and still there will be something important there for you. He found great power in such stories as those where the hero sacrifices themselves, displays humanity to the enemy, or fights a battle where victory is also a kind of defeat – all of which can be linked to source stories ranging from the Bible to George MacDonald and William Morris, via Old Norse sagas and Anglo-Saxon poetry. This method of using the things you find powerful as a code underlying your own story showed me how to draw on what I care about to create something uniquely mine – and hopefully the reader senses this and cares too.
Mithril: You hold a Doctorate in English Literature from the University of Oxford. While there, did you study Tolkien’s works?
Julia: I studied Tolkien when I did my undergraduate degree, which was in [the University of] Cambridge back in the mists of time. I wrote a final year paper on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis looking at their different approaches to mythopoeia. I didn’t become a professional writer for another fifteen years, but that third-year thesis stayed with me.
Mithril: You are the founder of Project Northmoor, a center for creative studies with a focus on fantasy and J.R.R. Tolkien. How did the idea for this come about? Can you talk about the process of pulling it together?
Julia: This all came out of the attempt to buy Tolkien’s house, which began in November 2020, launching in December that year – all in super-quick time as we were trying to buy it before anyone else did. I live close by the house. When I cycle past, I have always thought it would make a perfect creative writing centre and would be a wonderful way to honour Tolkien’s legacy. There isn’t anywhere like that in the UK, which is astonishing considering his global importance as a writer. When we started the campaign to buy it, we decided the idea of having a literary centre in Oxford was a valid goal even if we didn’t achieve our aim for the house. We wanted to provide a place for those who love Oxford fantasy to come for inspiration. When we didn’t make the target in the first three months, we had to stop as the vendor wanted to take another offer. Such a shame as we really gave it our best shot! Many Tolkien fans around the world were really generous but there just weren’t enough of us to get us over the line. We then went to plan b and began looking for another venue for the centre. However, that meant we started off online. That was a blessing in disguise as it made us think outside the box of what residential creative centres usually offer. We could be global from the outset, building a wonderful community of creatives who are inspired by Tolkien and other Oxford fantasy writers.
In the second part of this interview, we’ll share a video where Julia visits a barrow which may have helped inspire the Barrow Downs scene in The Fellowship of the Ring.
vtboyarc writes: I am a student at Benedictine College in Kansas, I got this email today, and it is also posted on the college website. Here it is: “Benedictine College will host a special presentation on the famous Inklings English literary group of the early 1900s on Monday, Feb. 23. Mark Colin Havard will deliver his presentation, The Lewis and Tolkien I Knew: Memories of an Inklings Son, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the OMalley-McAllister Auditorium on the college campus. The event, sponsored by the English and Theology Departments, is free and open to the public. Continue reading “Inklings Talk at Benedictine College”