Last week, I was fortunate enough to have friends who would indulge my blatant fangirling over one of my favourite authors enough to plan an entire trip to Oxford to indulge this whim. What am I talking about, you ask? Why, V.E. Schwab’s Tolkien Lecture given at Pembroke College, Oxford. Of course. An annual lecture, Pembroke College’s J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture series is organised by students of the college and based on the topic of speculative fiction (often, fantasy and sci-fi), it invites an influential person within the field to speak on the topic. Previous speakers have included Lev Grossman and Susan Cooper and, this year, it added V.E. Schwab to its growing ranks.
V.E. Schwab is someone who I aspire to be, not necessarily in terms of a career (I wish), but in terms of her eloquence and ability to express herself in ways that are intelligent and considerate as well as extremely accessible and understandable. V.E. Schwab is a writer, a reader, a fan, and she fundamentally understands how all of these things interact in day to day life and affect each other. Her Tolkien Lecture opened with an incredibly honest admission – she had not (and presumably still has not) read a single J.R.R. Tolkien work. To have the guts and conviction to go on-stage and admit that you haven’t read the titular author of a commemorative lecture series, well, that’s pretty damn ballsy.
She didn’t exactly apologise for this either, but instead used it as a way into talking about the idea of “gate keepers” and “required reading lists” for any particular genre. Some schools of thought would have it that, to be a science-fiction and fantasy writer, you must read Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or Ursula Le Guin, or <insert other beloved SFF author’s name here>. So, to consider yourself qualified to talk, or to write, or to read, a particular genre you must pass the gateways (or, perhaps, as Schwab’s metaphor shows, the doors) and their gatekeepers.
Schwab advocates for allowing people their entry points at whatever “door” they so choose – if it’s Tolkien, great, if it’s J.K. Rowling, naturally, if it’s Neil Gaiman, good for you. Her doors do not have gatekeepers who bar the way, presenting you with a list of experiences (the “required reading”) you must have to be qualified to love the genre, instead her doors are portals through which you can experience other worlds filled with myth and magic, beauties and beasts, friends and foes. Worlds through which you can go on adventures in fantastical lands with fantastical beings, not because you want to escape “the real world” necessarily (though the desire to escape is perfectly valid too), but just because you want to make the real world a little more extraordinary or strange.
As a voracious reader, loyal fangirl, and wishful (occasional) writer, I was thrilled to hear Victoria speak about her doors into the world of SFF, and her lecture spoke to many of my own reasons for loving fantasy both as a curious child and as the alleged adult that I now am. V.E. Schwab speaks to the lovers of their craft (whether that craft is art, music, poetry, or, indeed, writing) and she makes you remember the delight you had when finding your very first door, whoever or whatever that was. That may be J.R.R. Tolkien for some people but, for others, I would not be a bit surprise if it was Victoria Schwab…
I highly encourage you to listen to Victoria’s lecture, if you are able, and I want to also say thank you to Pembroke College for inviting Victoria to speak as part of their Annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. It was a truly engaging and inspiring talk and I am very grateful to have been able to attend it.