I was very fortunate to be able to interview Tolkien-collector and expert Pieter Collier, the founder and webmaster of Tolkien Library (www.tolkienlibrary.com). Tolkien Library is an excellent site and resource, where you can learn pretty much anything you need to know about Tolkien books. If you haven’t already I highly recommend you visit the site and take a look—I’m sure the bookshop of rare Tolkien books will interest you.
Justin Hall: When were you first introduced to Tolkien, and what was your first impression of his work?
Pieter Collier: It is hard to say when I was first introduced to Tolkien, but it must have been when I was still a very small child, and well before I was able to read. It was my eldest brother, who was into role-playing and table-top games, who first introduced me to the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien. So I knew all about hobbits, elves, and orcs from when I was an infant. The Hobbit must have been one of the first “books” I read. Around the age of eleven I finally read The Lord of the Rings. Much later I found out that the copy I read was the first printing of the Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. I still own this set and see it as the most precious item in my collection. While it is now over 20 years ago, and I have re-read the books many times, I can still recall how I was unable to stop reading and how I felt at that time. At that time I was literally devouring books, reading a couple a week, but so far only The Lord of the Rings had such a big impact on me.
JH: What made you want to become a Tolkien collector?
PC: As far as I can see it now it was my search for “more Tolkien” that did make me start to collect Tolkien books. At first I just wanted to have his books close by so I could read them when I wanted. Then I found nice illustrated editions, books with Tolkien inspired art, and soon wanted to learn more about the man behind the books, and ended up with several books about Tolkien. By the time I was 14 I had a nice Tolkien book collection and went to see several Tolkien exhibitions. The year was 1992 and we celebrated the Tolkien centenary, so I went to Tolkien exhibitions in Belgium, The Netherlands, and England, where I learned that there was much more to discover and read by and about Tolkien, and from that day my collecting passion only grew. It was (and still is) a very nice adventure. While I started out being passionate about Middle-earth I soon found many new passions: books, collecting, and the author J.R.R. Tolkien. Because I started very early on, I managed to obtain some very nice items.
JH: What are your thoughts about Peter Jackson’s movie adaptions?
PC: That is a rather difficult question for me. In general I’m very much a book person and don’t watch too many movies. I have to admit that I was very scared to go and see the Lord of the Rings movie adaptations. From early on I had created a visual image of how the landscapes, characters, etc. looked like. Probably I was scared that the movies would not be in line with my own imagination. At first, probably the first 15 minutes of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was completely blown away and in general I very much liked the first movie. But when the second movie came, and especially the third movie, I got more and more disappointed. For me Peter Jackson (and team) did an amazing job and really did change the movie landscape. If anything the love for Tolkien’s work could be felt in all three movies, and at the time this was probably the best possible adaption of the books. Still, even though there are now many more Tolkien book fans because of the movies, I sort of had wished they were never made. For me the most frustrating thing in the movies is the use of language. Maybe I’m sensitive to this, but when you read the books, you only need one sentence to hear, feel, and know who is speaking or which race is talking. Clearly the books are written in English, but the subtle differences in use of English by the different characters is the most amazing achievement by any author ever. It gives a credibility to the book that is hard to find anywhere else. By letting characters recite phrases that are clearly not theirs, the whole movie lost out on an opportunity to bring the most credible story ever.
JH: Can you remember the first Tolkien book you owned? What edition was it, and do you still have it?
PC: There were a couple of Tolkien books in our house before I was born. The first copy I “owned” was the first edition of In de Ban van de Ring, the Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. Of course I still have it, and it is the book that my wife used to read, and hopefully will be the book that my kids will use to read for the first time.
JH: Besides collecting Tolkien, do you have any other passions or hobbies or other collections?
PC: Besides Tolkien I do have my family—my wife and 4 kids—which is my greatest passion. Next to that I do work a full-time job as head of department Web Design at Android, where I spend most of my time. Tolkien comes in third place and most of the time is reserved for late in the evening or night. Because there are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week there is no room for other passions, hobbies and collections! The only thing I like next to good food and good wine, are documentaries, but it’s hard to find very good ones.
JH: What is your favorite moment or quote from the Lord of the Rings, and why?
PC: My favorite scene / quote by Tolkien comes from The Silmarillion, and is said by Beren: “‘It is fulfilled. Even now a Silmaril is in my hand.” It is one of the turning points in a great story and in the history of Middle-earth. As for the Lord of the Rings, my favorite scene depends on the day, and maybe even the time of the year. There are so many scenes I love and so many passages I like that it is hard to pick just one.
JH: Besides Tolkien, what other books would be in your Top 10 list?
PC: The top 10 questions are always hard ones. But I think I can give you 10 of my favorite authors here. Authors I like very much are J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchet, Anne Rice, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert A. Heinlein,… as you can see this is a classic list, but I like to read their books!
JH: What gave you the idea of Tolkien Library?
PC: The idea probably came from the fact that my house had turned into a Tolkien Library. In all rooms there were bookshelves and Tolkien books. At a certain moment there were over 6000 Tolkien related books in my house. Since friends called it the Tolkien Library, and since I had decided to start a website about my passion, it was a logical name to use.
JH: How many books do you have in your collection? Are you always adding more books to it?
PC: Over the last years I have not been adding many books to my collection, and in general I now only collect high quality items. So I am trading in quantity for quality. At the moment I must have over 1000 books, but the core of my collection—the items that will remain here—are around 300 books altogether.
JH: Would you say Tolkien is the greatest writer of all time? If not, who would you put above him?
PC: There is no other author that had a greater impact on me then Tolkien. But to call him the greatest writer of all time would be a strange thing. The history of writing is a very long one, and I’m certain if I had more time to read I would be able to come up with many other writers to add to the list of great writers. But so far, there is no other author that changed my own life as much as Tolkien.
JH: Have you ever written any books or stories of your own, or any Middle-earthian fan fiction?
PC: So far I have not had the desire to write any Middle-earth related fan fiction. I have started on a book when I was younger and it is still hanging in my mind, but that will be a book that would probably be put in the category of science fiction or cyberpunk. But since I have no time to work on it I don’t expect it will ever be written. Who knows, one day…
JH: Out of all of Tolkien’s works, what would you say is his best, and why?
PC: Another difficult question. But my favorite book by Tolkien is The Silmarillion. While I found it difficult to read the first time I picked it up, it has been growing on me with every time I re-read it. The more I understand the book the deeper it goes, and the less I understand how just one man could have written it. Next to that I’m extremely fond of the Notion Club Papers, and my all time favorite is Leaf by Niggle.
JH: If you could go anywhere in Middle-earth, where would it be?
PC: It is a question I get asked more often and in general I don’t think I would ever want to live in Middle-earth. I’m probably too realistic to know that it can never be so never thought it an interesting idea to ponder about too much. But if you would make me pick a place it would probably be the Grey Havens. I imagine the busy elven ports, windswept rocky beaches with spray catching the breeze from the breaking waves, and rolling hills rising into the Blue Mountains. A land in which you can find both busy streets and quiet valleys. I like the sea, I love to see mountains and have an open view from the house I live in. While I’m not over social, I prefer to live in an area that lives, and would not be able to live in a desolate place like, for example, Beorn’s home.
JH: What advice would you give to beginning collectors?
PC: There are many tips I would like to give to new collectors, but the most important are these:
- Go for quality and never for quantity.
- Enjoy the tales behind the books more then the books themselves.
- It is nice being able to buy the more expensive books, but the quest in finding them will always give you more pleasure.
- Building a collection following these rules will take much time, but it will be an adventure that will bring the most enjoyment.
- Share your passion with other collectors and learn from others while talking about your passion.
- Focus on one topic, it is impossible to own everything.
- Always keep your family in the first place, collecting is a bug and you always need to remember that…
JH: Which illustrator of Tolkien’s work is your favorite, and why?
PC: There are numerous Tolkien illustrators that I like and admire. I’m very much an art lover and can enjoy all kinds of Tolkien illustration. In general I prefer the preliminary drawings over the finished result, since there I can really feel the creative process.
Among my favorite Tolkien illustrators are Stephen Hickman, Alan Lee, John Howe, Ted Nasmith, Michael Hague, … as for Tolkien artists I like the work by Cor Blok, Philip Smith, Pauline Baynes, Ruth Lacon, … Since I have been working on tracking down the art works by Cor Blok for several years I have now a close bond with his art work. But I can’t say that I prefer his art above that of others. I’m glad there are so many active artists illustrating and being inspired by the works by Tolkien to create fabulous pieces of art and I hope that the upcoming movies don’t bring us back to a “one dominating view” on Middle-earth. It is always best to stimulate the readers imagination in the broadest possible way and not to push them into one general direction.
JH: What would you say is the most important theme throughout the Lord of the Rings?
PC: There are numerous themes in The Lord of the Rings, but for me the most important one is probably the theme of “Power, temptation, and corruption.” I have to quote Tom Shippey here who mentions Lord Acton’s famous statement from 1887, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”
It is present from the beginning to the end of The Lord of the Rings and is an important lesson. But what I always remember when thinking about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—in that light these are two very similar tales—it is possible for even the smallest person to overcome this, and step by step grow into a big and great man, without falling into the traps that power and corruption bring.
Thanks again to Pieter for a great interview! Remember to visit Tolkien Library.