Susan Cooper’s Tolkien Lecture

 A couple of weeks ago, my writing group gave ourselves a collective week off and, instead of putting our latest 2,000-odd words up for feedback, we tuned in to the 2020 Tolkien Lecture from Pembroke College at Oxford.

It was a great presentation, a flowing, ninety minute conversation between six highly regarded authors and an MC who let it run and only stepped in (with comments and questions pulled directly from the chat in YouTube) when things seemed to slow. It went so fast, I need to watch it again to try and pull some thoughts together on a summary.

While I was mooching about on YouTube, I found recordings of older lectures on there and, of most interest to me, the 2017 one, given by Susan Cooper. I grew up reading and adoring her Dark is Rising Sequence and still see the magic in the old ways of The West Country and Wales.

Susan Cooper was a student of both Tolkien and C.S.Lewis during her undergraduate studies. Apparently, Tolkien mumbled (unless he was reciting Beowolf). She said, of that time, and the studies they undertook, of old sagas and epics, myth and folk tale that ‘Tolkien and Lewis taught us to believe in dragons‘. I don’t recall any dragons in the Dark is Rising, but I do recall being deeply absorbed into a world unlike mine that yet remained intensely and quintessentially British.

She made a point early on that, while people will often dump fantasy into the pot labelled ‘Speculative Fiction’, it’s not. Speculative fiction is exactly that, it speculates on what might be, what could be, it is Science Fiction, Horror, Gothic and is brilliantly executed by people such as Mary Shelley, George Orwell and John Wyndham. At its heart, there is a level of rational, ‘what if’ thinking. As she says, fantasy is not rational, it is numinous (I had to look that one up) and ties to the unconscious – all of Jung’s archetypes are there and calling.

She spoke of the imagination being fed by a kind of compost heap – a blended and organic mix of everything you’ve ever experienced or read. Tolkien apparently used to refer to the ‘cauldron of story’. I think I prefer the compost heap analogy for all that it doesn’t smell as nice.

She spoke of the people who become fantasy writers as people who write for themselves (which is precisely what Tolkien and Lewis apparently did). She also said that no fantasy writer will ever know quite what he or she has made, until it has found its way into the imagination of the reader.

I stopped the lecture at the end of her presentation, I’ve yet to dig into the 20-odd minutes of question time because I wanted to wallow in the language she used in her final passage, a description of dawn from her bedroom window that made me feel like the world was new again.

One day I would like to think I’ll be able to write a book as good as that last, breath-catching, moment or two of her speech.

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