Interview of Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins

 A Secret Vice Interview conducted by mail in April 2016 by Vivien Stocker.
On the occasion of the release of the book A Secret Vice, Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, the editors, have kindly accepted to answer our questions.

Vivien Stocker : First could you introduce yourself along with your works for our French audience ?

Dimitra Fimi : I'm Dr. Dimitra Fimi, Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales. I am an expert on Tolkien and fantasy literature and I also lecture on medievalism, myth and folklore, children’s literature and science fiction. I am the author of Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies and was shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award. I am currently working on a new book on Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (due to appear from Palgrave Macmillan). Other recent work includes chapters for Critical Insights: The Fantastic (Salem Press, 2013), Tolkien: The Forest and the City (Four Courts Press, 2013) and A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (Blackwell, 2014). My website and blog can be accessed via:
Andrew Higgins : I'm Dr. Andrew Higgins a Tolkien scholar. My main research interests are in exploring the role of language invention in fictional works; including an in-depth descriptive and philological analysis of Tolkien's languages. My PhD thesis 'The Genesis of Tolkien's Mythology' which was supervised by Dr. Dimitra Fimi explored the interrelated nature of myth and language in Tolkien's earliest work on his Legendarium culminating in The Book of Lost Tales. I have also just finished teaching a 13 week course on Language Invention and Tolkien through Signum University/Mythgard Institute which offers on-line courses on Tolkien, fantasy and science fiction literature and language. By day (and many nights!) I am the Director of Development for Glyndebourne Opera, in East Sussex England. In 2016 I will be giving Tolkien and language related papers at several Medieval and Tolkien conferences. I keep a blog at and am also on

Vivien Stocker : So, this month, you edit a new book entitled A Secret Vice, an expanded edition of Tolkien's essay published by Christopher Tolkien in The Monsters & the Critics. First of all, could you present us the original essay of Tolkien ?

In this volume we make available for the first time all of the drafts of, and attendant notes Tolkien made for his 1931 talk 'A Secret Vice' at Pembroke College, Oxford. Our edition shows that the originally published essay 'A Secret Vice', which was included in the 1983 volume The Monsters and the Critics edited by Christopher Tolkien, was the product of an extended series of notes and drafts. Like Douglas A. Anderson and Verlyn Flieger's extended edition of On Fairy-stories, this volume offers the Tolkien scholar and student a comprehensive view of the thought and preparation process Tolkien went through to deliver this fascinating talk. A ‘Secret Vice’ could be described as Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ on language invention and its relationship with myth-making. In this talk he reflects upon his first experiments with language invention as a child, all the way to the culmination of his art with Quenya and Sindarin (still called ‘Noldorin’ at that time). He sets out ‘rules’ for language invention and also muses on the aesthetic and artistic value of such constructed languages. The talk was written for oral delivery, so it is interspersed with asides, personal anecdotes and humorous remarks – a Tolkien essay at its best!

Vivien Stocker : What do you recommend your readers should have read beforehand ?

Wow. That's a tricky question. Certainly we are sure many people coming to this text will have read much of Tolkien's legendarium and attendant works. We hope this text will give these readers some new insights into how Tolkien thought about language invention and how his mythic texts reveal some of the key characteristics he felt were important to art-languages (i.e. languages invented for fiction); namely that there should be a certain sound aesthetic to the language that fits the people speaking it, that there should be a grammatical structure behind the language and that the language, or languages, should be part of a historical framework that both shows the language development over time and serve as a crucial and coeval component of myth-making and world-building.
This volume can also serve as great introduction to Tolkien and indeed a reader coming to this text without having read any or all of Tolkien's other works will be very much like those who first heard this talk in November 1931 where Tolkien revealed elements of his mythology and language invention for the first time. A great place to start an exploration of Tolkien's works!

Vivien Stocker : What are the main differences between “A Secret Vice” essay by Tolkien and this book called A Secret Vice ?

The new edition offers an extended version of the ‘Secret Vice’ essay, including parts that were omitting from the 1983 version. Most excitingly, we reveal that Tolkien mentioned and outlined a hitherto unknown invented language, called 'Fonwegian'. Tolkien introduced ‘Fonwegian’ after divulging elements of his first privately invented language of Naffarin. This newly discovered imaginary language offers scholars and students a very different aesthetic and stylistic example of an early language by Tolkien and our commentary suggest some possible motivations for why Tolkien included it in his talk. There are also a number of other short passages that have been restored in the essay, including an alternative opening.

Vivien Stocker : Are there many new, unpublished, parts that will be published in this book?

Yes! In addition to the previously omitted parts essay we restored (see above) there is an entirely new text, Tolkien’s 'Essay on Phonetic Symbolism', in which Tolkien muses on the idea that the sounds of words may ‘fit’ their meanings. Tolkien’s drafts and notes for both essays are also included. They include a list of names Tolkien made from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, further examples of his Elvish languages (and variant poems), as well as notes Tolkien made on the poet Gertrude Stein and the writer James Joyce (both of whom explored language and language invention in their works). There is a lot to dig into here!

Vivien Stocker : Will we find new fragments of Tolkien's constructed languages (like Naffarin or Nevbosh for example) or new elvish fragments?

Yes see above for Fonwegian. We learn another word in Naffarin. In addition there are variant versions of the four Elvish poems Tolkien recited in the talk: 'Oilima Markirya' (The Last Ark'), 'Nieninqe', 'Earendel' and an unnamed poem in Noldorin which starts 'Dir avosaith a gwaew hinar' ('Like a Wind dark through gloomy places') which is linked to the Lúthien Tinuviel story Tolkien was developing in the late early 1930's. There is also one of the earliest versions of Tolkien's first poem in Elvish, 'Narqelion', which Tolkien composed entirely in Qenya in early 1916. This version also includes some of the rejected words that Tolkien thought of using that he crossed out, allowing students to explore Tolkien's though process in his use of specific words and phrases in this earliest Elvish poem. There are also two charts in which Tolkien explored various sound shifts that occurred in the different versions of his Elvish languages which he would expand in the 1930's for his 'Tree of Tongues' (published in History of Middle-earth volume five).

Vivien Stocker : What is the subject of Tolkien's Essay on Phonetic Symbolism which is included in your book ?

This 'essay' was written by Tolkien in a small booklet. Although there are a number of themes and ideas that this essay shares with 'A Secret Vice' its main topic is quite different and we feel it is an independent work by Tolkien which may have been the start of another, different paper. The main subject is the somewhat heretical thought, at the time, that language carries within its phonetic make-up elements of meaning. This is an argument that goes back to Plato's Cratylus and we have contextualized Tolkien's essay with an exploration of theories around sound symbolism' in language including some of the key theories that Tolkien was responding to and building upon in his own invention. Dimitra had mentioned this essay in her 2008 book Tolkien, Race and Cultural History as part of her discussion of Tolkien’s use of sound symbolism, but it is great to be able to share with the rest of the world, at last, Tolkien’s own thoughts on this controversial topic.

Vivien Stocker : What would you recommend to read after “A Secret Vice” as a complementary source of information ?

Certainly the other key essay that 'bookends' this talk is Tolkien's 1939 essay 'On Fairy-stories' in which he explored the interrelated nature of myth and language. The key edition for this essay, indeed an edition which served as an inspiration for how we structured our volume, is Douglas Anderson's and Verlyn Flieger's 2008 Tolkien On Fairy-stories which includes all of the drafts Tolkien made for this talk.
Another complementary work by Tolkien would be his 1955 essay 'English and Welsh' given as the first O'Donnell Lecture and published in the 1983 volume Monsters and the Critics. In this essay Tolkien not only revisits some of his key thoughts on language explored in 'A Secret Vice' but also introduces several new elements; including the idea of linguistic predilection in language and that we are all born with a natural in-born language that is not our 'cradle-tongue'; the language we learn and speak. We would also suggest after reading 'A Secret Vice' that readers may want to delve back into Tolkien's legendarium and see how Tolkien uses what he explored in the essay in his own myth-making, coeval with his language invention.

Vivien Stocker : How it was to work together, how did you share the work ?

Andrew Higgins : I find that I have been using the very Tolkienian word 'staggerment' to characterize this whole experience! This starts with having their incredible good fortune to work with Dr. Dimitra Fimi. I can still remember reading our incredibly brilliant and insightful Mythopoeic Award winning book Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (2008) and thinking I would like to meet and talk to her. Not only did I get to meet Dimitra but after meeting her I proceeded to take two brilliant on-line Tolkien and Fantasy Literature courses with Dimitra. It was following my research for those courses that Dimitra suggested that I should expand my work and do a PhD on Tolkien, which she would be happy to supervise. Which I did and in 2015 completed this thesis on 'The Genesis of Tolkien's Mythology'. It was during the thesis research process, I can still remember the moment, when we were at the Bodleian library, going through the folder that holds Tolkien's 'A Secret Vice' papers (MS Tolkien 24), that we first thought of the idea of proposing that we develop a new edition of 'A Secret Vice' and present it to The Tolkien Estate and HarperCollins. Dimitra had already done some brilliant work on transcribing the 'Essay on Phonetic Symbolism' which was mentioned in Tolkien, Race and Cultural History and I at first sitting noticed the Fonwegian papers and transcribed them. Once the proposal was accepted we worked very collaboratively on the process of transcribing and writing the commentary and notes. There were several trips to Cardiff (where Dimitra lives), many days at the Bodleian Library (hunched over the Tolkien manuscripts with several magnifying glasses) and lots of nights and weekends working online through Skype and Adobe Office. It was hard work but we had a great time and are already talking about our next collaboration!
Dimitra Fimi : Working on this project was a challenge but also a great pleasure. We were very privileged to be trusted with copies of Tolkien’s manuscripts to work with, but of course we still had to take several trips to the Bodleian to check the originals, especially those pages written in very faint pencil!!! As Andy says, we had several face-to-face meetings, at Cardiff and in the Bodleian in Oxford, but electronic communication was also really important, as we live in different parts of the UK. Skyping and online suites where we could share documents were a great help. There were some moment of frustration, of course, when we were both looking at a word and just could not make it out, but also those brilliant ‘eureka’ moments, when an entire sentence would suddenly make sense, or when ideas, concepts and people from Tolkien’s times and life were suddenly springing off the page. An unforgettable experience.

Vivien Stocker : Did you have the help of Christopher Tolkien and some other specialists (like the team of the Elvish Fellowship Society) for this edition ?

We were very conscious of the fact that we were standing on the shoulders of giants: those Tolkien scholars who came before us who had opened the way, and who kindly offered us help and advice with this project. They include Douglas A. Anderson, Verlyn Flieger, John Rateliff, and the incredible team at The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship – especially Carl Hostetter and Patrick Wynne. There are many others and we thank them at the start of the book. We were also very pleased (and quite nervously astounded!) that Christopher Tolkien took a special interest in this volume and contributed some incredibly helpful notes and comments to our original draft. We hope he likes the final volume!

Vivien Stocker : How hard was it to get the rights to publish this text ?

We do not own the rights to this work: those belong to the Tolkien Estate and HarperCollins. We worked closely with both, though. We approached the Tolkien Estate first, and once we were informed that the Estate was fine with our proposal, we made contact with HarperCollins would be who were keen to go ahead with this project. We are grateful to the Tolkien Estate for their trust and permission, and to HarperCollins for believing in this project and offering generous advice.

Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins

tolkien/interview/fimi_et_higgins_en.txt · Dernière modification: 06/04/2020 18:47 (modification externe)
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