In 2017, when I considered pitching a series for Tor.com focused on The Silmarillion, and was wondering whether there would be sufficient interest—given that it lies deep in the shadow of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—I chanced upon a podcast that would spur me on to really do it. I mean, if chance you call it. It was The Prancing Pony Podcast, in which two guys chew over the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien—about his works, his choice of words, all his themes, and his overarching legacy. They weren’t just cherry-picking topics randomly; they were setting out to discuss it all methodically—and yet somehow casually—with the rigor of scholars.
Six years later, their nerdy little podcast isn’t so little. And now, hosts Alan Sisto (a.k.a. the Man of the West) and Shawn E. Marchese (a.k.a. the Lord of the Mark) have recently published their first book: Why We Love Middle-earth: An Enthusiast’s Book about Tolkien, Middle-earth, and the LotR Fandom. It’s terribly good, I’m afraid. Moreover, it’s a fun and useful read. I’ve met Alan Sisto a couple of times now and aim to interview him. But what about Shawn Marchese, word-nerd extraordinaire, who cohosted the first six seasons of the podcast with Alan? Well, I’ve cornered him RIGHT HERE! He’s not going anywhere. Let’s
grill interview him!
One relevant digression first: If you’re unfamiliar with The Prancing Pony Podcast by itself, just know it’s like an intimate, friendly little book club that you can eavesdrop on; the guys laugh a lot, they do their homework, they bring in guests, and they cleverly trick you into learning a great deal about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The PPP won The Tolkien Society award for Best Online Content in both 2020 and 2022, and of course now they have this book.
Welcome, Shawn! What news from the Mark?
Actually, can you explain to newcomers what the deal is with your nickname? And why are you the one who brought “word-nerdery” to the podcast?
Shawn: Thanks, Jeff! Oh, yeah, “the Lord of the Mark.” I promise it’s not just delusions of grandeur. It all goes back to my surname, Marchese, which is an Italian noble title. In feudal Italy, a marchese was a high ranking nobleman, above a count but below a duke: the same as a marquis in French. Later on in history, it was just a high rank that could be given to anyone, but originally, to hold the title of marchese or marquis you’d have to be the lord of a border territory (which was naturally a prestigious gig, because the king would want his most trusted vassals ruling the border territories; they’ll be loyal to him when invaders come). And the words marchese and marquis actually come from an old Germanic word marko which meant a borderland or frontier.
See, folks? Word-nerd. Go on.
Shawn: The Old English derivative of this word was mearc, which became mark in Modern English. Now Tolkien was a philologist by training, so he lived and breathed the history of words and languages. And while writing The Lord of the Rings he borrowed the word mark to mean Rohan, which was originally one of Gondor’s border territories. The people of Rohan call their land the Riddermark, literally “the mark (borderland) of the riders,” and the King of Rohan is called “the Lord of the Mark,” which just happens to be literally what my surname Marchese means: the lord of the border territory.
So when Alan and I started The Prancing Pony Podcast, we quickly hit on the idea of having him call me the Lord of the Mark, and having him be the Man of the West, because he lives on the West Coast. And there was a cool Éomer/Aragorn, Rohan/Gondor dynamic to those nicknames that we always thought worked really well. For many episodes early on, if I recall correctly, I even introduced him as “the Aragorn to my Éomer.”
Oh, I miss those particular intro segments. They set a fun tone for the show. I’ve heard “the Baggins to my Took,” “the Azog to my Bolg,” “the Óin to my Glóin,” and many more. Sadly, you never said that Alan was the “Slinker to my Stinker.” A missed opportunity, Shawn.
Shawn: We totally missed that one! I think I actually pitched “the Confusticate to my Bebother” for one episode, but we decided against it. But never say never. As for why I was the one who brought all the “word-nerdery” to the podcast? It’s simply because I think about stuff like this, seriously, all the time. I’m obsessed with the origins of words and their changes over time, relationships to words in other languages, and all of that. As it happens, Tolkien was very interested in this stuff too, and he found an outlet for it in his fantasy writing. I consider myself fortunate to have found an outlet for it as well, by talking about Tolkien in a podcast and book. If I hadn’t, I’d probably just be shouting about word origins to random people in the street.
I share your enthusiasm for words and their origins, but not half your talent for it. What’s one or two of your favorite words used by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings? I mean real-world nuggets that he brought out of obscurity, but didn’t invent. So, for example, maybe not dwimmerlaik (as awesome as that word is) from Éowyn’s famous “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion!” speech.
Shawn: Actually, dwimmerlaik was one he did bring out of obscurity, and it’s a perfect first choice! It doesn’t hurt that it’s spoken by my favorite character in my favorite scene in The Lord of the Rings. Dwimmerlaik means “a working of black magic,” and is something Éowyn calls the Witch-king. I grew up reading about “dweomers” in D&D books, and that’s the same word—meaning “magic” or “witchcraft”—that forms the first part of this compound word. But Tolkien didn’t invent it. It actually appears in a Middle English poem from the 12th century, Layamon’s Brut.
I was going to bring up “dweomer.” Well one of us had to.
Shawn: Another of my favorites is attercop, meaning a spider. In The Hobbit, when Bilbo Baggins is fighting the spiders in Mirkwood, he sings this little taunting song, and he calls the spiders “attercop,” “cob,” “lob,” all of which are archaic words for a spider. The narrator remarks that “no spider has ever liked being called Attercop,” which is funny enough on its own; but then when you learn that attercop literally means something like “poison-head” in Middle English it becomes even funnier.
The implication is that there are certain things spiders did like being called. Which amuses me.
Shawn: I even remember hearing from a listener in the Netherlands who emailed us and told us that in Dutch, there’s a cognate word etterkop which is a kind of childish insult that literally means “pus-head.” That makes attercop at least ten times funnier, and I have no doubt that Tolkien—expert in Germanic languages that he was—knew all of this when he was writing it.
Let’s briefly discuss prancing ponies: the inn, the podcast, and the fact that we never get to see a small horse in Middle-earth, “walk with exaggerated arm and leg movements” (M-W), or “make a show in walking,” moving proudly, “lifting the feet with a capering motion” (Etymology Online). Not even the poster boy for all ponies, Bill himself, does this at any point. What gives? And who in the Butterbur family came up with the name for their establishment? I’ve decided you’re an expert on everything Prancing Pony by virtue of the podcast name.
Shawn: I’m afraid I may disappoint you there. I think the history of our eponymous pub is still a mystery, and I definitely don’t know anything about actual equines!
I understand that Tolkien started to rewrite The Hobbit to align its narrative mode with The Lord of the Rings. That he intended to have Bilbo, Thorin, and Co. visit the Prancing Pony seventy-seven years before Frodo did? Is that right?
Shawn: Yeah, that’s right. In 1960—which would have been six years after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, and 23 years after the initial publication of The Hobbit—Tolkien decided to start rewriting The Hobbit to tie it more closely to the story as he had reimagined it in The Lord of the Rings, and also to give it more of that epic narrative style that The Hobbit never had, since it was started as a simple children’s story. Mind you, this is after he had already made some changes from the first to the second edition of The Hobbit while he was writing The Lord of the Rings, most notably changing Gollum from a kind of goofy but ultimately not that evil monster into… well, Gollum, the remorseless kinslayer and murderer corrupted by the One Ring—those changes were published in 1951.
Yes, one of the changes he planned to make in that 1960 rewrite—to set The Hobbit more firmly in the same world as The Lord of the Rings—was to have the party stop at Bree and visit the Prancing Pony in Chapter 2, before the encounter with the trolls. You can read what he wrote of it in a book called The History of The Hobbit, compiled by a Tolkien scholar named John D. Rateliff. But there’s not much. Tolkien only partially rewrote a few chapters. Which is a good thing, I think, because I think these changes would have “prequelized” The Hobbit too much; I hesitate to question the Professor’s motives, but some of the additions seem put there for no reason except to call back to the later story.
It’s like having Boba Fett walk across the screen and look at the camera in the special edition of A New Hope.
But this one-time attempt on Tolkien’s part does actually give me some sympathy, if not full-on satisfaction, for Jackson’s rushed treatment of The Hobbit. He did—and yes, overdid—what Tolkien had started to do himself. That is, try to re-flavor Bilbo’s tale in a way that would have robbed it of its charm. But Tolkien wisely abandoned that.
Shawn: That’s a great comparison. I’ve been as critical of Jackson’s The Hobbit as anyone (and more than many!) but he really just fell prey to something that is very common with prequels: the tendency to be preoccupied with setting up the story that follows (and that the audience has already seen) and not focus enough on telling this story well. And so you get a bunch of Easter eggs and callbacks that have nothing to do with what this story is about, and every theme in this story has to be molded to fit the later one. It happens with most prequels, I’ve found, but it’s more obvious with Jackson’s Hobbit because it’s an adaptation and we can compare it easily to what it should have been instead, and also because thematically The Hobbit really is very different from The Lord of the Rings. But back to your point, had Tolkien continued down that road, it’s hard to see him not having the same trouble.
Totally. He would have. So, The Prancing Pony Podcast. You and Alan created what has become a fandom institution with the podcast, and you spent six years with it before stepping away. (At least you did so in practice; readers and prospective listeners should know that you remain involved in the PPP in many other ways, including occasional visitations and frequent word-nerd segments.) Why did you and Alan choose the Prancing Pony as a basis, anyway, and not, say, Rivendell, Caras Galadhon, or even Bag End? Clearly Gollum’s cave was right out as a venue.
Shawn: The Gollum’s Cave Podcast isn’t quite as welcoming, is it?
Not as such, no.
Shawn: Honestly, we knew from the beginning that we wanted the show to be like listening to a couple of nerdy friends talk about Tolkien. What’s a better place to sit around and talk—or listen to your friends talk—than a pub? And what pub is more welcoming than the Prancing Pony? It just fit with the atmosphere we were going for, and was a great middle ground between, say, the scholarly loftiness of Rivendell and the down-to-earth homeyness of Bag End. And I like to think that we’ve generally managed to achieve that comfortable middle ground, both in the podcast and in the book. Plus, you can’t beat that alliteration: Prancing Pony Podcast.
No disputing that. So longtime listeners to the PPP know that your two favorite characters in the legendarium are Eärendil, the greatest mariner of song, and Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan. How about taking a stab at summarizing why?
Eärendil is a hero, and yet his heroism eclipses any personality Tolkien might have devised for him. We know precious little about what he was like, you know? Does that help or hinder your appreciation for him? (For readers unfamiliar with The Silmarillion, it’s the light of the glowing gem that Eärendil carries that’s caught in the Phial of Galadriel, that she in turn gives to Frodo.)
Shawn: The thing about Eärendil is that he was of critical importance to Tolkien himself. When he was in college, Tolkien came across the name “Earendel” as a reference to the morning star in an Old English poem, the Crist by Cynewulf. He was so struck by this name that he wrote a poem about Earendel in 1914, in which Earendel was a kind of celestial voyager: both a mariner on a quest and a personification of the morning and evening star (which is actually the planet Venus), but there are no details in the poem as to who he is or why he’s on this quest. So when Tolkien showed the poem to one of his closest friends, his friend asked him who Earendel was, and Tolkien famously responded, “I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.” When Tolkien started writing his legendarium a few years later, he wrote Earendel into it as a character, and he wasn’t just wedged into the story like Tom Bombadil was; he was really important to the story as a whole.
Eärendil is a kind of literary capstone to the whole legendarium. Can a thing be both foundational and a crowning achievement?
Shawn: I think so. Because the more Tolkien wrote, the more central to the story Eärendil (Tolkien’s new spelling after he invented an Elvish origin for the name) became: the various storylines of the First Age—the Silmarils, the fall of Gondolin, Beren and Lúthien—are all in a way just building up to the voyage of Eärendil in the last chapter of The Silmarillion. And many of the storylines of the Second and Third Ages—the fall of Númenor, Isildur and the One Ring, Aragorn’s road to kingship, Gondor’s fall and rebirth—are heavily concerned with Eärendil’s descendants.
And yet Tolkien never quite got around to writing Eärendil’s story properly. All we’ve got is about seven pages in The Silmarillion, a poem sung by Bilbo at Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings, and a few scattered fragments. So Eärendil is both a figure of central importance to the legendarium and an enigma we never really quite know as a character. More than any other hero in the mythology of Middle-earth, he remains in the mythical realm, just out of reach to readers. That mystery is absolutely part of the appeal for me.
I get it. And those scattered fragments you mentioned include tantalizing elements like… mermaids, cannibal ogres, and pre-Ent Tree-men! Oh, and his possible slaying of Ungoliant herself (!!!). Crazy stuff. Tolkien’s early notes about Eärendil feel like they could have been Middle-earth equivalents of the voyages of Odysseus or Sinbad.
Shawn: Yes! And we have none of that in The Silmarillion. That tradition is lost to us. And this mirrors the reality of the name Earendel in the Crist; it is a name that shows up in Germanic mythology in reference to a mythical-astronomical figure, but the details are lost. In some ways this absolutely is the crowning achievement of one aspect of Tolkien’s writing, which is reconstructing possible mythological traditions that have been lost to the real world.
All right. Let’s talk about Éowyn.
Shawn: Éowyn is the opposite. I feel like I know her incredibly well. In general, Tolkien took more time for characterizations and human drama in The Lord of the Rings, which simply wasn’t possible with the broad mythological scope of The Silmarillion. But even within The Lord of the Rings, I find Éowyn to be one of the most fully fleshed out characters, and I find her incredibly relatable, even speaking as a man. I could sit here and tell you that Éowyn embodies traits that I’ve seen and respected in great women who have been a part of my life, or that I think she’s a great role model for my daughter, and that’s all true. But I don’t think you need to identify as female for Éowyn to be a great role model. She knows what she is capable of, even when people around her tell her she’s not. And she goes out to face something terrifying, in large part for the people she loves, and she manages to accomplish something even she herself never imagined she could do. That makes her a hero and a role model to me personally. And if all that’s not enough, she’s the only human being in the book who tells off Aragorn to his face, and that’s pretty awesome. ’Cause she’s not wrong.
Totally. Every word of that is true, and yet Éowyn is also flawed in just the right way that makes her even more relatable (I find). Her particular desire for glory, and avoiding the cage of duty and expectation, is a kind of doom for her. You can root for her and also fear for her, because she’s careening towards death no matter what. You can see that she had no plan to return to Rohan alive and well. And yet you can’t fully discern that suicidal mood until she herself looks back on it, and recognizes it. Then you see her complete arc. It’s brilliant.
Well, the truth is, you and I can talk endlessly about Middle-earth—and that’s a testament to the genius and depth of Tolkien, because there’s no running out of things to say about his work. And talking Tolkien is certainly what you’re most known for, after 261 episodes of doing just that.
But let’s deviate from the norm.
Shawn: Everybody got mixed feelings. But sure, let’s do it.
Let’s go outside the legendarium. What’re some of your favorite non-Tolkien fantasy books, and why are they favorites? I’m always very curious—and if I’m honest, sometimes a little nervous—when I ask hardcore Tolkien nerds what other fantasy worlds they’re into. But there are no actual wrong answers.
Shawn: I hate to admit this, but I don’t read nearly as much epic fantasy as I’d like to! Before Tolkien, I read a lot of fantasy books—it was Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk novels that first got me into reading fantasy—but since I discovered Tolkien, there’s enough there in his Middle-earth legendarium to scratch that itch for me. I know there’s a lot of great fantasy out there I really should explore, but every time I pick up a series that’s very popular I find it doesn’t quite grab me the way Tolkien does. I’ve enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s books, but I honestly don’t consider them fantasy so much as a fictional history; and anyway I’ve stopped hoping he’ll finish that series. I’ve been a latecomer to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and I’m working through that series now, which I really like.
I thoroughly second Le Guin! No other world comes as close to Middle-earth in feeling so ancient and yet real as Earthsea. I can’t even explain why.
Shawn:Aside from epic fantasy, I really like urban fantasy and other genres where magical elements intrude on something that feels like the real world. Clive Barker’s Weaveworld was my introduction to this type of fantasy, and remains a favorite. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels are some of my favorite books, not just comic books. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is also a great one, though you have to get through the tough outer shell of Pullman’s polemics to get to the story.
What about science fiction?
Shawn: Frank Herbert’s Dune is my second favorite fictional world behind Tolkien. If I hadn’t done a Tolkien podcast, I’d probably do a Dune podcast. And I spend almost as much time preaching to people about Herbert’s books as Tolkien’s! Dune is in some ways a fantasy story masquerading as a science fiction story, or a fantasy story in which the “magic” is all based on biological and technological evolution. I also like some harder science fiction, though. I’ve been a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s work for a long time: Snow Crash is a great introduction to his work, though I am partial to his more mind-bending books like Seveneves and Anathem. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men are among my favorites of all time. These last few are all very much books about ideas, not books about people so much; which is okay by me.
As far as fantasy masquerading as sci-fi, I must now recommend C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy as a compelling blend of the two genres—the protagonist’s ancestors were colonists from Earth who were forced to make an unscheduled landing on a planet that possesses an energy field that sure seems like magic.
Still, there is a ton of grand fantasy out there, as any frequent Tor.com visitor knows, and a lot of it is quite excellent. It can be hard to wade through today’s fantasy-saturated market to find something that’s the right fit for any one of us. But I wonder, what would a newer high fantasy novel need to possess to catch your notice? Obviously, you wouldn’t just want a Tolkien clone. There are enough of those.
Shawn: I know there has to be a lot of great fantasy out there I haven’t discovered! I’m sure it’s my own fault for just going back and reading Tolkien again and again. But I think the secret sauce that many high fantasy novels are missing for me is a sense of relationship to our world. Tolkien imagined Middle-earth as the remote past of our civilization, and he used language and mythology as points of reference to connect it to our world; like borrowing Earendel from Anglo-Saxon literature, or recasting the myth of Atlantis as Númenor. Herbert’s Dune sits on the other end of that spectrum: a possible future for the human race. It occurs to me now that pretty much all the speculative fiction stories I just now called my favorites take place in worlds that exist next to our own: either on our timeline but in a remote hidden past or future, or in a parallel universe, or in a secret world just out of sight for ordinary people. They all offer answers to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the universe we know. I find that far more compelling than a fantasy story that takes place in a completely alien fantasy world.
Okay, let’s talk about that. I’m in a similar place, but maybe for different reasons. The idea of Middle-earth being a sort of replacement mythology for our real Earth is actually one that never really worked for me. I don’t mind it being Earth-adjacent or Earth-inspired. After all, most fantasy is that way. Most settings have four seasons, so unless they’ve presented an alternative cosmology, we can assume their planets are drifting in an elliptical orbit around a star and spinning on a slightly tilted axis like our Earth. I get all that.
But while reading The Silmarillion, for example, if I tell myself that this is meant to be our distant past, then I get distracted over it. Thoughts bubble up, like: All right, so where’s Archaeopteryx in all of this, then? Where’s the T-rex? We read of the awakening of Men at the first rising of the Sun, and yet in the real world, dinosaurs are supposed to have been dead 66 million years before the first humans. My brain is busy trying to reconcile all this, so I have to do some extra work to maintain immersion. I start thinking things like: Perhaps the Late Cretaceous preceded the First Spring of Arda, during the time of the Lamps of the Valar. When Melkor brought down the Lamps and their ‘destroying flame’ spilled across the lands… was that what killed them all? Then I try to make text connections. I think of the Nazgûl’s winged beast, a creature “of an older world maybe,” its kind having “outstayed” its day, and that Sauron had reared into the horror it became. But that’s just one.
Shawn: I get that about having to do extra work in your mind to keep that illusion up. I’ve heard that from others, too. It’s hard to reconcile Tolkien’s creation story, or the story of the creation of the sun and moon from the destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor, the Flat Earth of the First and Second Ages, and so on with our modern scientific understanding of the world. To be honest, Tolkien struggled with it too, particularly later in life. There’s a section in Morgoth’s Ring where he attempts to rewrite his creation myth to be more scientifically accurate: he describes Arda (Earth) from its creation as a sphere in space orbiting the sun. And in The Nature of Middle-earth there are chapters on the reckoning of Elvish years, because he knew that his calculations about the age of the Earth made it way too young. It seems the more he worked on it, the more he really struggled with the collision between mythology and science.
I like to think of those moments as misremembered myths: Maybe the Elves knew the truth, but the details got mixed up as they explained it to Men who couldn’t wrap their heads around the truth, or something was lost in translation; or maybe poetic language was taken literally. What if the story of the Lamps crashing down to Arda and spilling flame across the lands is a muddled account of an asteroid crashing into the Earth? I don’t think Tolkien really intended that specifically, and I’m not even sure that theory of the extinction of the dinosaurs was around when Tolkien was writing that part of The Silmarillion. But these are the kinds of speculations that I find fun to make. Which, I suppose, is the very definition of “extra work to maintain immersion.” So I guess you make a good point.
Very good reasoning. But for me it just isn’t quite as fun. It makes it hard to drop into—to use Tolkien’s parlance—the secondary world and remain inside the story. And yet it’s also necessary, isn’t it, if we’re to keep that idea going that Middle-earth eventually becomes our Regular-earth? I guess it’s because I feel like the excuses we come up with wouldn’t be worthy enough. Surely Elves who knew the truth would have said different things, and Men wouldn’t have bungled it up so much in the retelling. Things like “The Sun was there all along!” seems simple enough; how would that have gotten misunderstood as “The Sun is a piece of glowing fruit the Valar tossed up into the sky on the same day you mortal Men woke up,” you know? More likely it was intentionally kept as a fable. But then I—like many of Tolkien fans—prefer the Sun and Moon tale as presented in the published Silmarillion.
Shawn: Definitely. I personally haven’t met a fan yet who likes the more scientifically accurate version of the story. The Sun and Moon tale in The Silmarillion is among Tolkien’s most beautiful creation myths.
I guess I just try to leave it alone as much as I can. To not overthink it, to try not to pin down the relationship between Tolkien’s world and ours. I let Middle-earth be a whole other place in my head. I like to imagine the Fourth Age proceeding after the events of The Lord of the Rings as we know it does, and then the Fifth Age comes, and the Sixth, etc. In that scenario, whatever age approximates our present day shares many of today’s traits but it’s still an entirely different (but similar) sequence of events. Like a parallel dimension where things aren’t quite the same, or quite as corrupted (since both Morgoth and Sauron were ousted). But similar enough. Like maybe Men in future Middle-earth end up developing vaccines and indoor plumbing and they use smartphones just as we do in the current age…but hopefully, there are fewer wars, social media isn’t as insidious, and grown adults don’t say phrases like “chef’s kiss” out loud. Because future Middle-earth is a world where Fingolfin once squared off with Morgoth in single combat, where Galadriel once walked, where Finrod was the friend of friends, and where Samwise son of Hamfast once saved the day. It has to be a little cooler than our world, right?
So maybe it’s a present day that didn’t get quite as messy as ours—because, hey, Arda Remade is still somewhere on the horizon. The Valar exist, hidden from all. As do Elves, who’re little more than invisible spirits now. Oh, and Sauron would still exist, too, wouldn’t he? An impotent if mildly scary spirit unable to do anything more than lurk in kids’ closets like Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc.
Crap, I’m overthinking it.
Shawn: It invites overthinking!
All right, so in that future/present day Middle-earth, Eärendil could actually be up there orbiting the planet in his ship, Vingilot, with the Silmaril on his head. I guess this all gets complicated once mortal Men figure out how to launch themselves into outer space, and could conceivably run into the greatest mariner of song in person. But hey, in this version of Middle-earth’s future, Eärendil also gets to touch down and briefly visit Valinor from time to time, whatever plane of existence it dwells on, and so he can check in on his adult son, Elrond.
Shawn: You raise some very good points as to why it’s hard to connect Middle-earth to our own world. At the end of the day, I suppose these are all reasons Tolkien didn’t quite get around to cementing that connection and just kept niggling at the details in his later life. And one certainly doesn’t need to see that connection to our world to appreciate Tolkien’s work; Middle-earth works perfectly well for many readers as a completely separate fantasy world, just as I’m sure Herbert’s Dune works for many readers even if they don’t literally think of it as the future of our civilization.
Not to mention that other story taking place long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Shawn: Star Wars is another of my all-time favorites, and it is pretty upfront about not trying to connect to our world! Honestly, all of these works are strong enough to stand on their own; I just like making all those connections. Just like I like picking out Tolkien’s many mythological and medieval literary references, even though you don’t need to see those to enjoy the books.
Speaking of connections, how about story threads that run beyond books? You and Alan brought up a lot of classic and prog rock in The Prancing Pony Podcast, not as talking points but just as fun digressions. Your episode titles are proof of that. And while I’m sure some references were lost on some younger listeners—lyrical references to Rush, Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, etc.—the truth is that there are many legit intersections between literature and music. And yet you don’t need to know their sources, their inspirations, to appreciate the things themselves. For example, you mentioned Childhood’s End, the 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which just happens to be one of the sources of inspiration for Genesis (back in the Elder Days, when Peter Gabriel was their singer) in their song “Watcher of the Skies.” It’s a magnificent yet pensive song about an alien descending to our now-empty planet and wondering what happened to us, how we as a people vanished. To quote a couple of lines:
Maybe the lizard’s shed its tail
This is the end of man’s long union with Earth
I know you know this one, of course. But the question is, do we need to have read Childhood’s End or know Clarke’s short story “Rescue Party,” which is about an alien ship arriving on Earth in an attempt to rescue humans before our Sun goes nova? Nope. Does every Rush fan need to have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to appreciate their best-known hit “Tom Sawyer,” or to have read Anthem by Ayn Rand to understand Rush’s space opera “2112”? Nah. Does every fan of contemporary fantasy have to know Tolkien first—or for that matter, must we read Beowulf to understand his works? Of course not!
What’s one or two of your favorite songs that have their roots somewhere elsewhere? How relevant is it to you to know a song’s influences? I assume your inner nerd nevertheless wants to dig up the bones of the ox (to paraphrase Tolkien)?
Shawn: Oh, absolutely. I love finding the bones of the ox in rock songs! In fact, this is exactly what led me to read Dune after listening to Iron Maiden’s “To Tame a Land” in the ’80s. I also owe my love of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry to Iron Maiden, who did a song called “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” based on the poem of the same name. I must have been twelve when I discovered that one. Back before the internet, it wasn’t easy to track down those sources. All I knew was that the lyrics in the liner notes had a couple of passages directly quoting Coleridge. It took me months of flipping through poetry books at bookstores trying to find the original poem, and when I found it, it was so satisfying! That poem has been special to me ever since.
Of course, sometimes you hear a song for the first time and realize it’s based on a story you already know and love. That happened to me when I first heard “Watcher of the Skies.” And of course, Rush’s “Rivendell,” though I am a much bigger fan of their “Xanadu” which, again, is based on Coleridge.
This will date us, of course, but in pre-internet times, I literally copied the full Kubla Khan poem into a notebook in my high school’s library when I learned that’s where “Xanadu” came from, and forever memorized at least the opening stanza: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. Never mind that Coleridge’s poem was itself inspired by his reading about Shangdu (the summer capital of the Mongol Empire in part of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) and, unsurprisingly, an opium-induced dream he’d had. I loved the mythic flavor, though I knew almost nothing about Coleridge or the real-world Xanadu itself.
This is a good example of one idea begetting another. The poem is unfinished; only goes so far, establishing a fantastical venue and some dreamlike visions, but little else. Yet in Rush’s song—with lyrics by Neil Peart—the narrator seeks immortality in the “lost Xanadu,” achieves it in “bitter triumph,” and a thousand years later, goes mad, “waiting for the world to end.” It’s a cautionary, be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale which, to my Tolkien reader ears, makes me think of Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor, and what he, a mortal, gets for his obsession with immortality.
Incidentally, anyone new to The Prancing Pony Podcast, Alan and Shawn talked about Tolkien’s “bones of the ox” metaphor in their very first episode, “In Defense of Fantasy.”
Shawn: I love looking for those bones, but it’s often in those changes—like Peart’s changes to Coleridge—where the magic happens. And you know, Tolkien said not to go looking for the bones of the ox, just to enjoy the soup; and it is certainly possible to enjoy a song based on a book or movie without picking up on the references. For example, “Close to the Edge” by Yes, which is one of my favorite songs of theirs, and I’m told is based on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha—a book I have read a couple of times, and enjoyed, but I never realized Yes were referencing it until some article online told me so. I guess it’s probably obvious by now that I’m pretty into prog rock.
Rightly so. And see, I didn’t even know that about “Close to the Edge.” If we had the time, I’d start digging Yes’s “The Gates of Delirium,” because it’s so epic, alternatingly fierce and melodic. I’ve heard it was loosely inspired by War and Peace, but in my imagination, it’s pure fantasy.
All right, now that we’re back talking about books, let’s go back to yours! Why We Love Middle-earth just published this fall. You debuted it at Oxonmoot 2023, which just happened to be the Tolkien Society’s 50th anniversary of this annual event. What timing! I wasn’t able to attend in person or remotely, but what I have seen of it sure makes me jealous. You guys held two book signings, didn’t you? You’re Tolkien fandom celebrities now. Well, you have been for a while now, but a book signing has a way of making it real.
Shawn: You’re too kind. It was an unreal experience, I have to say. But it was an honor to be there and to celebrate our book release there among so many of our fans, our friends, and our personal heroes in the Tolkien community.
I know you’ve been asked this a lot, but could you give a short elevator pitch of what the book is for those who don’t know about?
Shawn: It’s really a guide for newcomers to the Tolkien fandom. Ever since the beginning of The Prancing Pony Podcast in 2016, Alan and I have gotten similar questions time and time again from new fans: Which book should I read next? Which adaptations do we like or not like, and why? Where do I learn more (about language, organization, field of study, etc.)? The book is an attempt to distill all that into a guidebook, with a section each on Tolkien’s books, major film adaptations, and areas of the fandom like collecting, languages, fan organizations, and so on.
So much of it was familiar to me while reading, precisely because I’ve followed your podcast since midway through the first season, and yet in the book so much of that scattered lore and meaningful commentary is collected and organized. For those unfamiliar with the podcast, the PPP’s first season was a walk through The Silmarillion; the second walked through The Hobbit; and each season since has walked through one book of The Lord of the Rings. Currently Alan Sisto and his provisional cohosts have begun book 6, starting with “The Tower of Cirith Ungol.”
I should add, Alan is also the narrator for the audiobook version, which was just released in the last few weeks.
Shawn, what was it like working on this book? This is your first! Any surprises?
Shawn: We started work on Why We Love Middle-earth almost two years ago, when Amazon’s The Rings of Power was just ahead on the horizon, and we knew there would be lots of new fans coming to Tolkien’s works for the first time. We wanted this book to be the go-to for those new fans to begin their journey into Middle-earth, and for folks who have already dipped their toes into the Jackson movies or, say, reading The Hobbit to have a roadmap to go deeper. But as we were writing, it also became—truly—a celebration of all the things Alan and I love about the books, the movies, and the fandom, and so I think there’s a lot there for longtime Tolkien fans as well. And it’s written in very much the style that Alan and I became known for on the podcast: lots of humor and pop culture references; a reverence for Tolkien’s work, but an irreverent attitude otherwise. I think we’ve translated the experience of listening to the podcast onto the printed page as much as possible!
Well I certainly think so. For the record, here was my own recommendation (and I appear to be in good company):
Book aside, what should a Tolkien fan know about Oxonmoot, or any other moots for that matter? Can you point out some of your favorite panels or talks that you attended or participated in?
Shawn: Oxonmoot is the annual multi-day event held by The Tolkien Society in Oxford. It’s part geeky Tolkien fan convention and part academic conference. During the day, they host panels and talks on different topics, presented by everyone from well-known published scholars to ordinary Joes like us. Then the evenings are filled with social activities: dinners, hobbit birthday parties, cosplay, trivia contests, and stuff like that. This was my first time going in person, and my first time being in Oxford for more than a day, and it was amazing! The Prancing Pony Podcast has been well received by that community for years now, and we had a chance to do not only our book signings, but also a live recording of the podcast in front of a packed room, which was a lot of fun. There were excellent keynote presentations by Brian Sibley (cowriter of the 1981 BBC radio play of The Lord of the Rings and editor of The Fall of Númenor) and Kristine Larsen, who is the foremost expert on astronomy in Tolkien’s works. But the highlight of the event for me was Enyalië (“remembrance” in Quenya), a memorial service at Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote Cemetery on the last day of the moot. All around, it was a fantastic weekend of education and entertainment, and a wonderful time spent with friends and kindred spirits. I hope every Tolkien fan gets a chance to experience it at least once, but for those who can’t, there are lots of other fan organizations and gatherings around the world! Shameless plug: we have a whole chapter on moots and fan organizations in the book.
It’s on my bucket list for sure. Thanks for sharing all that! Okay, the next question was inevitable. Can you tell us what’s next for you, creatively? What’s coming down the Shawn-pike?
Shawn: Well, Alan and I are hoping this first book sells well enough that we can publish a second one! We left quite a few topics out of this first book, because we simply didn’t have space for them: For example, in our section on adaptations we had hoped to spend some time on the aforementioned BBC radio play, which is a favorite adaptation of many fans (including both Alan and me). And we hoped to devote an entire chapter to video game adaptations, like Lord of the Rings Online and the many other games out there. We actually have some material written on both of those topics that didn’t make it into the book. And there are board games, and then there is elephant in the room itself.
The Rings of Power series, which we felt (with only one season out) it was too early to give it a proper treatment in the book. So that’s not in there at all. The second book, we’re hoping, will cover those adaptations as well as going into more of Tolkien’s favorite themes, like hope and despair, fate and free will, death and immortality, and so on.
And even though I’m no longer on The Prancing Pony Podcast every week, I’m still working with Alan on a few things for the show. We’ve already recorded the first of several Philology Faire segments I’ll be doing with him over the course of the season, and I’ll be joining him for some full episodes as he nears the end of The Lord of the Rings. I have a couple of solo projects I’m working on as well, like developing a couple of papers that I’d like to present at future moots. And one or two other things I’m not ready to talk about yet!
I cannot wait for all of that. And maybe we need to chat a bit off the record… *nudge, nudge*
All right, it’s time for some ridiculous lightning round questions. I won’t waste your time asking who your favorite First Age or Third Age characters are (I mean, duh). So… who’s your favorite Second Age character?
Shawn: That’s a tough one. One Second Age character I find intriguing—because, like Eärendil, we don’t know much about him—is Tar-Meneldur. He was the fifth king of Númenor, and the father of Tar-Aldarion (of “Aldarion and Erendis” fame). In some ways Meneldur was the last king of the golden age of Númenor, because starting with Aldarion we start to see all kinds of drama in the royal family, and discontent and longing across Númenor that will eventually lead to their downfall. But in reality, Meneldur was the cause of some of that, because he was too busy with his own scholarly obsessions to be really engaged as a king or father, at a time when Númenor was at a turning point with Sauron rising again in Middle-earth and their own colonial ambitions. I’m reminded a bit of King George III of England, who I’ve learned just within the past several years wasn’t as bad of a king as he’s portrayed in American history. He was an intellectual, even enlightened king; just not the right monarch for a critical time in his nation’s history. Meneldur is like that.
Sorry. This was supposed to be the lightning round.
Which of the Valar do you wish Tolkien had told us more about?
Shawn: That’s got to be Irmo, a.k.a. Lórien. He was the master of dreams and visions, and his Gardens were a place of rest, inspiration, and enchantment. He was Gandalf’s original boss, too, but we know virtually nothing about him.
And I’m always wondering when rereading The Lord of the Rings, what part does he play in the dreams of some characters? Faramir’s? Frodo’s? Anyone’s?!
Favorite monster of Morgoth’s?
Shawn: Dragons represent the pinnacle of Morgothian genetic engineering. Glaurung is my personal favorite. He can’t fly, but he’s got style.
Favorite D&D monster? Trick question!
Shawn: Displacer beast, definitely.
What’s your favorite race and class option in Dungeons & Dragons?
Shawn: In my current game, I’m the Dungeon Master, but if I were to hand over DM duties to someone else in my group tomorrow and roll up a character of my own, it would either be a wood elf cleric or a half-elf bard.
I’m not really a fan of mashups or crossovers in media, but they do make fun thought experiments. If two characters from The Lord of the Rings had to square off—perhaps by some eucatastrophic circumstance—with lightsabers, who would they be, where would they fight, and what would their sabers look like?
Shawn: Elrond vs. Isildur, fighting at the Cracks of Doom after Isildur refuses to destroy the One Ring.
I did not see that coming!
Shawn: Elrond’s lightsaber is blue, and Isildur’s is yellow. Nobody’s truly evil here; this is book-Isildur I’m thinking of, so nobody has to lose an appendage or wear a breathing apparatus for the rest of his days. They just fight it out in a much less angry version of Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar until Isildur puts on the Ring and disappears.
Same question, but from The Silmarillion?
Shawn: Húrin vs. Morgoth. This would be when Húrin is Morgoth’s prisoner and the Dark Lord is taunting him with all the bad stuff he’s going to do to his kids.
“They shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”
“You lie!” Húrin says, and Force-pulls his lightsaber from a nearby table. FSSSHHH! It’s green. Morgoth’s got a red lightmace of some kind, probably all jagged and fuzzy like Kylo Ren’s.
And from Unfinished Tales?
Shawn: How about Ancalimë confronting her father, Aldarion, at the docks after he’s just come home from a long voyage at sea? Her saber would be purple, and his is blue but with some really ornate handle with a pearl inlay or some other marine design. This one kind of makes me sad, but it fits. What’s a lightsaber duel without daddy issues?
Okay, so, think Disney for a moment. (I quite unfairly asked a similar question of artist Ted Nasmith once, too, the poor fellow.) If Disney World added a fifth theme park, Middle-earth, what are two rides you’d be dying to take your family to?
Shawn: Ooh, my family are Disney park nerds, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a question like this. I’d love a Haunted Mansion–style dark ride through Mirkwood, with vanishing Bilbos, an elf cookout, and animatronic spiders. And a rollercoaster that feels like you’re riding on an Eagles’ back would be great too.
Oh, gosh. Surely that ride would be called the Enchanted River, and there should be an actor (fake passenger) on each boat that accidently falls in (like Bombur) and subsequently loses his or her memory! (That part always terrified me the most when I read the book as a kid.)
Okay, so the Lego Group reaches out and tells you that you get to choose the next big Middle-earth set (like that Rivendell one), except this time it’s (somehow) something from The Silmarillion. What’s the set?
Shawn: Gondolin would be sooo fun to build in LEGO. With all seven gates, elven fountains, the works. And they could sell a “Forces of Morgoth” expansion with orc and Balrog minifigs and creepy-cool siege engines.
And how cool would it be to have both an Idril minifig and a hobbit-sized minifig for young Eärendil! I wonder if the Tuor minifig would have him in his Ulmo-commissioned Nevrast armor? Say, would Tuor have a sword or an axe? (Him wielding an axe isn’t in the published Silmarillion.)
Shawn: I would hope he has an axe! Dramborleg. That’s a cool detail from The Book of Lost Tales that has become part of the official story in my mind. And I’d love to see them take inspiration from some of the other really bonkers details in the early version of that story, too, like the mechanical serpents of Morgoth. Uh, Melko.
Last question. Let’s say they made an action figure of you: Shawn Marchese, Lord of the Mark™. What accessories does he come with? And for extra fun, what does Alan Sisto, Man of the West™ come with?
Shawn: I hope my action figure would come with a light-up Silmaril headband, a jar of Bovril, and a copy of Parma Eldalamberon 17.
For those unaware, that’s issue #17 of the linguistic journals of Elvish studies called Parma Eldalamberon. That’s Parma (book) + elda (Elf) + lambë (tongue).
Shawn: And Alan’s figure? Hmm. I think it would come with a tailored waistcoat with nice brass buttons, a frying pan full of bacon, and a little toy Ford Mustang he can drive… with a manual transmission, he’d want me to specify.
You’re saying one of Alan’s “accessories” is a vehicle his action figure can ride in? Well then you’d need a conveyance of your own, it’s only fair. What would that be? A steed? Bill the Pony?
Shawn: How about a white boat with silver sails? I always wanted a boat.
I see you’re channeling Eärendil again. Interestingly, in Bilbo’s poem, Eärendil’s ship has no sail. Well, you’ve just unlocked a bonus final question. In Bilbo’s song in Rivendell, Eärendil’s ship—which goes unnamed—has no sail, and probably no mast:
A ship then new they built for him
of mithril and of elven-glass
with shining prow; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore on silver mast:
Here’s the question, then. Which version of Eärendil’s ship do you prefer, at the end of the day? The one where the Valar completely upgrade the one he’s got, or the one where they seem to straight-up give him a new boat and which sure sounds to me even more like a spaceship? (Have we stumbled upon Middle-earth’s Ship of Theseus thought experiment?)
Shawn: Since you mentioned that, I’m totally a “still the same ship” kind of guy! And I confess I’m partial to the upgraded version, because I can still see it in the sky, at the end of the day. Literally.
And the stars look down.
Thank you, Shawn, for taking out the time to talk shop with me! And for all your literal fan service (the good kind). Nerd on, friend!
Jeff LaSala is responsible for The Silmarillion Primer (coming soon in actual book form) as well as the Second Age Primer, the Deep Delvings series, and a few other assorted articles on this site. Tolkien nerdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and is a Senior Production Editor for Macmillan and the Tor Publishing Group. He is sometimes on Twitter. Last summer, he was invited on Alan Sisto’s podcast / Youtube channel Today’s Tolkien Times.