Tolkien at UVM conference April 10-12


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The 12th Annual Tolkien at University of Vermont conference is just days away.  The conference is free and open to the public. It starts with a Friday night Fireside reading at which participants can get up and read their favorite passages, and continues on Saturday with a day of conference presentations. On Sunday afternoon, the University Tolkien Club organizes a “Springle-Ring Shire Festival” with all kinds of fun activities.

This year’s conference theme is Medieval Verse Narratives, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Michael D.C. Drout, who will be speaking about “Scholarship as Art, Art as Scholarship: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf.”

The other presentations are:

Gerry Blair (Independent Scholar). “J.R.R. Tolkien, Performance Artist and Modern Medievalist.”

Jamie Williamson (University of Vermont). “Verses and Prose: Medieval Narrative, Nineteenth Century Medievalism, and Tolkien.”

Andrew Liptak (Independent Scholar/Norwich University). “Modern Fantasy’s Roots in Medieval Verse.”

Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University). “Guinevere, Grimhild, and the Corrigan: Witches and Bitches in Tolkien’s Medieval Narrative Verse, or, Good Girls Don’t Use Magic (Except if You’re Galadriel, but Elf Magic is Diff erent, and Who Ever Said Galadriel was a Good Girl?)”

Andrew C. Peterson (Harvard). “A Brief Exploration of Tolkien’s Alliterative Verse and Echoes of The Fall of Arthur Heard in Middle-earth”

Christopher Vaccaro (University of Vermont). “’Dyrne langað’: Secret Longing in Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.”

Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University). “Poetic Time-Travel in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son

Cheryl Hunter (Independent Scholar). “Beowulf and Thorin as Ancestral Heroes: Their Choices, and the Dragons They Face.”

and Undergraduate Voices

For more information and to view past programs, you can go to the conference website.

Talks on Tolkien: Dawn Walls-Thumma on transformative works


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I had originally announced “Talks on Tolkien” as a winter series, and even though the snow is still slowly melting in my corner of the world, we have passed the spring equinox and the Fall of Sauron, which should be bringing us into a new age. So this post will present the last video in my series for this winter. That doesn’t mean that I won’t post a video here every now and then in the coming months, but I do have to move on to focus on other things.

The previous seven videos I’ve presented here have all featured established scholars who have published books in the field of Tolkien Studies (Flieger, Shippey, Drout, Croft, Garth, Fimi, Rateliff). I thought that for the last video, I would turn to a new scholar — though she is someone with plenty of experience in the area of fandom: Dawn Walls-Thumma, known as Dawn Felagund to some. Dawn’s talk, “Transformative Works  as a Means to Develop Critical Perspectives in the Tolkien Fan Community,” was presented at Mythmoot III in January. If you’re wondering what the term “transformative work” means, here is the definition offered by the Organization for Transformative Works: “A transformative work takes something extant and turns it into something with a new purpose, sensibility, or mode of expression” — in other words, fanfic, vids, artwork by fans can all be classified as transformative works.

In her presentation, Dawn talks about the rise of Tolkien fandom and the development of different fan communities with the advent of Internet fandom. She presents the results of a survey asking people about their experiences in fandom and why they write fanfiction. You can follow along with the super handout that accompanies the talk.

If you’re interested in responding to Dawn’s Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey, she is keeping it open until December. A couple of other sources that she mentions include the OTW Fanlore wiki, which has a Timeline of Tolkien Fandom. She also made use of data from another fan survey by centrumlumina, which you can consult here.

Dawn is currently a Master’s candidate in the Humanities at American Public University where, following Tolkien’s inspirations, she is working on a thesis on Beowulf.  She has presented at the Mythmoot II and Mythmoot III conferences, and will be at the New York Tolkien Conference in June speaking about the historical bias in Tolkien’s works and how this motivates the creation of fan fiction. She recently published an article in Mythprint. On her fan side, Dawn Felagund is the founder and owner of the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and a moderator on the Many Paths to Tread archive and Back to Middle-earth Month, an annual event that seeks to promote the creation of Tolkien-based fanworks. You can also find her on Tumblr: dawnfelagund; Twitter: @DawnFelagund; or her blog, the Heretic Loremaster.

If you have a favorite Tolkien fan community or transformative work (or want to mention any other matter) please let us know in the comments!

Other Tolkien videos and podcasts

In selecting the few talks that I’ve featured in the last two months, I’ve had many videos and podcasts to choose from. If you’re looking for more, there are excellent talks in the Tolkien at Oxford podcasts featuring recorded lectures by Dr. Stuart Lee and Dr. Elizabeth Solopova and others. Tolkien in Oxford: A Symposium held at Merton College last November has now posted audio recordings of most of their presentations.

Of course, no series of Tolkien videos or podcasts is complete without the work of Corey Olsen, aka “The Tolkien Professor,” whose Mythgard podcasts are available from his website or iTunes. Mythgard has also recently instituted an online guest lecture series — an excellent idea, especially for people who can’t get to conferences. The first lecture in the series delivered just last week by Dr. Michael Drout on “Lexomic Analysis of Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Scholarship on the Poem: A Confluence” is now available in video or audio files. You can also find occasional videos of Mythgard lectures online by Dr. Olsen and others.

This list by no means covers all that there is. For example, I’ve just discovered this audio recording of a lecture delivered in January at Wheaton College by Dr. Olga Lukmanova: “Tolkien in Russia: There and Back Again.” Or you can try a lecture by Dr. Alaric Hall on “Tolkien in Leeds.” There’s so much more out there, but I have to stop myself now as this is getting far too long to be a postscript! Hope you enjoyed the Talks on Tolkien series.

International Tolkien Reading Day: Theme of Friendship


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Today, March 25 (the date of Sauron’s downfall) is Tolkien Reading Day, which originated with the Tolkien Society and finds readers around the world. The Tolkien Society has chosen “friendship” as the theme for 2015.

I hope you will read some Tolkien today. The theme of friendship can be explored in many ways in Tolkien, but if you’re interested in reading more about Tolkien’s handling of male friendships, you can take a look at a couple of articles I’ve written about the subject. The first is titled “ ‘Oh…Oh…Frodo!’: Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings” which was published in the scholarly journal Modern Fiction Studies in 2004. If you have a library subscription to Project Muse you can get it that way, but it’s also available on my Research webpage, or as a pdf download from the link above.

Another essay on the theme is the paper I delivered at the Tolkien 2005 conference in Birmingham, which was published in the Proceedings, The Ring Goes Ever On. A slightly expanded and revised version of that paper is available from my university’s digital repository (the Mount e-Commons) here: “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, The First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings”.

Both of these articles place Tolkien’s representation of friendship in the context of World War I writers and include a look at contemporary fan fiction as an extension of some aspects of that.

A more recent piece has been published in a book edited by Christopher Vaccaro titled The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality (McFarland, 2013). My essay, “Frodo’s Body: Liminality and the Experience of War” focuses on the psychological and physical state of Frodo, once again in the context of war writing, but it also includes a look at the role of his friend Sam. The link above will take you to the pre-publication version of the essay.

Happy Reading Day!

Tolkien Studies at PCA 2015


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Popular Culture Association logoThe Popular Culture Association national conference is just around the corner. After a successful trial run of Tolkien Studies as a special area last year, the organizers have included Tolkien Studies as a regular topic in the annual program. This year features another packed program, once again organized by Robin Reid.

The conference will be held in New Orleans from April 1 – 4. The Tolkien sessions are all on Friday, April 3, with a business meeting on April 4.  If you’re interested, you can join the Facebook group, “Tolkien Studies at Popular Culture/American Culture Association” and/or read my summary of a couple of roundtables last year here and here. And please note that the list of panels below is subject to change — if you plan to go, always check the official program to make sure you have accurate and updated information.  As you can see, the Tolkien Studies sessions occupy a whole day, but if you’re around for the rest of the conference, there’s a huge range of other sessions on popular culture to take in.

Tolkien Studies I: Literary Studies 1
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 8:00 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
Room: Studio 7

Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University
“Ore-ganisms”: The Myth and Meaning of ‘Living Rock’ in Middle-earth

Victoria L. Holtz Wodzak, Viterbo University
Tolkien’s Gimpy Heroes: Trench Fever, Missing Limbs, and the Crippling Long-Term Effects of Injury

Margaret Sinex, Western Illinois University
“Nay, not Níniel”: The Wounded Psyche in the Prose Tradition of The Children of Húrin

Tolkien Studies II: Literary Studies 2
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 9:45 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.
Room: Studio 7

Megan Whobrey, University of Central Oklahoma
Middle-earth’s Eddaic Hierarchy of Music

John Rosegrant, private practice
The Man-Maiden and the Spider with Horns: Galadriel, Shelob, and the Dyamics of Loss and Gender

Rich Cooper, Texas A&M
From Folk Tale to Fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Madame D’Aulnoy, and the Evolution of a Literary Form

Janet Croft, Rutgers University
The Name of the Ring: Or, There and Back Again

Tolkien Studies III: Film and Literary Studies
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Room: Studio 7

Steven Kelly, Kansas State University
Forget the Gold: Unpacking Conservative Ideology in Peter Jackson’s Film Adaptations of The Hobbit

Peter Grybauskas, University of Maryland
The Devil’s Due: Sporting Enemies in the Legendarium

David Bratman, Mythopoeic Society
Smith of Wootton Major and Genre Fantasy”

Michael Wodzak, Viterbo University
Utumno Born and Utumno Bred, Strong in t’Arm and Thick in t’Ead:Who are Tom, Bert and Bill Huggins?

Tolkien Studies IV: Film Studies
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 1:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.
Room: Studio 7

Alicia Fox-Lenz, Independent Scholar
The Union between The Two Towers and the Twin Towers: Contemporary Audience Reception and the influence of war on The Lord of the Rings

Jennifer Spirko, Blount County Public Library
Extraordinary Orcs: Distorted Bodies in the films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

Janice Bogstad, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Lineage, Family, and the Absent Mother: Comparing Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the Jackson/Walsh/Boyens Cinematic Renderings

Robin Reid, Texas A&M University-Commerce
Conflicting Audience Receptions of Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit

Tolkien Studies V: Cultural Studies
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Room: Studio 7

Phillip Fitzsimmons, Southwestern Oklahoma State University
The palantíri Stones in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as Sauron’s Social Media: How to Avoid Getting Poked by the Dark Lord

Devena Holmes, Kent State University
Narration and Description: A Marxist Analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Helen Young, University of Sydney
Playing in the Shadow of Middle-earth

Tolkien Studies VI: New Approaches to Tolkien Studies
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 4:45 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
Room: Studio 7

Brad Eden, Valparaiso University
Preliminary thoughts on the library of Michael H.R. Tolkien

Quinn Gervel, University of Manchester/Ashbury University
Tolkien in Context

Jerem Painter and Michael Elam, Regent University
Orwell and Tolkien: Language and Survelliance in Middle-earth and Oceana

Michael Elam, Regent University
Storming the Ivory Tower: Tolkien’s Graduate-Program Possibilities

Tolkien Studies VII:  Roundtable
Friday, April 3, 2015 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Room: Studio 7
“In a hole in the ground there lived a fangirl”: The Complications of Tolkien, Fandom, and The Hobbit
Cait Coker Texas A&M; Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University; Robin Reid, Texas A&M, Commerce

Tolkien Studies VIII:  Viewing of Desolation of Smaug extended edition
Friday, April 3, 2015.  8:15 p.m.
Room: Studio 7

Tolkien Studies IX: Business meeting
Saturday, April 4, 2015.  9:45 a.m.-11:15 a.m.
Room:  Galerie I

Talks on Tolkien: John D. Rateliff, the Hobbit manuscripts, and Tolkien archives


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One of the most exciting parts of scholarly research, in my opinion, is having the opportunity to read an original manuscript. This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” features the work of Dr. John D. Rateliff, who is an expert in Tolkien’s Hobbit manuscripts. Dr. Rateliff has studied Tolkien’s drafts and revisions of The Hobbit and these versions, along with Rateliff’s commentaries and notes, have been published in the two-volume History of The Hobbit. Recently, Dr. Rateliff announced that a shorter one-volume edition is forthcoming as well, a Brief History of the Hobbit. You can follow Dr. Rateliff’s work on his blog, Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, and on his website.

Although the video below is not a recording of a complete talk, it allows us to listen in on the question period after a presentation that Dr. Rateliff gave in 2012 at Marquette University, the home of The Hobbit manuscripts. You can hear all kinds of intriguing details in the video about Tolkien’s habits of revision, surprises in the manuscripts, different versions of The Hobbit, and more.

Dr. Rateliff talks about how Tolkien would often write on scraps of paper, including exam papers. Tolkien tells the story of how the first line of The Hobbit came to him one day as he was marking exams. Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit notes that this page does not survive, but here is Tolkien himself describing the moment in this brief clip:

I’ve found that people are sometimes surprised that all of Tolkien’s papers aren’t at Oxford where he was a professor for most of his life. But in fact, manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Mr. Bliss, and Farmer Giles of Ham are all in the US at Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) in the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection  How did they get there, you might well ask? Listen to the Marquette archivist, William Fliss, explain:

I’ve spent a number of happy hours in the Tolkien archives at Marquette, although my experience is a mere glimpse compared to the years that Dr. Rateliff studied there. I’ve felt quite privileged being able to work in the bright and peaceful reading room of the archive, aided by the very helpful staff and surrounded by stacks of grey boxes filled with treasures.

Marquette Archives reading room

Marquette Archives reading room

For anyone wondering about what’s in the J.R.R.Tolkien Collection, you can check out their descriptive inventory of holdings. Aside from Tolkien’s manuscripts, the Collection is especially rich in periodical literature dealing with Tolkien. If you are interested in popular culture, the reception of Tolkien’s works, the history of fandom and zines, screen treatments and adaptations, take a look at this list of sources in the Collection’s periodical literature. I reported on a roundtable discussing various scholars’ experiences (including my own) with the archives at the Popular Culture Association last year.

The other major archive holding Tolkien materials, as might be expected, is at Oxford in the modern manuscripts collection. Here you can find some manuscript drafts of Tolkien’s work, such as The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, as well as lectures, notebooks, translations, letters. Anyone with a chance to visit Oxford should definitely take an opportunity to tour the old and wonderful Bodleian Library, including the Duke Humphrey’s reading room (better known as the library in the Harry Potter movies).

But Tolkien’s papers are actually held in what was called the New Bodleian across the street from the old library. Scholars used to work in a fairly cramped reading room. You would check your bags at the door and after showing your reader’s pass proceed down a rather dark corridor into a long, crowded room at the end of the hall. Rows of tables seemed to be squeezed into the space between bookshelves, files, microfilm readers, and librarians’ desks. I think I remember windows, but if I recall correctly, they were rather high up on the wall and did not provide a view. But who cared when you were sitting there and handed a Tolkien manuscript to read! I spent many an hour in that room squinting at Tolkien’s scrawl and then typing at a furious pace to transcribe as much of what I was reading as possible before closing time.

That library has undergone an extensive renovation and has just recently opened to scholars and now to the public, renamed as the Weston Library. From the look of some videos and news reports the rooms are light and spacious — and apparently you can even buy a cup of coffee there! I can’t wait to go back — I hope very soon. The following video presents the mind-boggling massive extent of the Bodleian’s operations and includes a look at the new Weston building:

Anyone have any experiences or memories of archival work they’d like to share? Has anyone visited these or any other archives holding Tolkien materials?

Talks on Tolkien: Dimitra Fimi on Folklore and “Sellic Spell”


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My weekly “Talks on Tolkien” series continues with a video presentation by Dimitra Fimi. Dr. Fimi was part of the Beowulf Launch Party organized by the Tolkien Society and Middle-earth Network last spring, when Tolkien’s Beowulf and other related texts were first published. Dr. Fimi’s talk is a little different from my previous video selections in that she is not reading a paper to a live audience at a conference. The Launch Party was an online event featuring several commentators throughout the day who were giving their first impressions of the Beowulf publication. If you’re interested, the other recordings from that day are also worth a look.

One reason I chose this talk was to highlight the fact that the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf includes more than just his translation of and commentary on the poem — intriguing as that is to Old English and Tolkien scholars. Dr. Fimi’s presentation focuses on one of the texts included with Tolkien’s Beowulf translation: a folktale called “Sellic Spell” (which can be translated as “wondrous tale”) that Tolkien wrote in both modern English and in Old English. The other text that’s included in the volume is a poem, or two versions of a poem, titled “The Lay of Beowulf” which is written in rhyming stanzaic form, very different from the original Old English alliterative meter.

The publication of these texts has given us not only Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf (an interesting research topic in its own right), but also adaptations of the Beowulf story in different genres — ripe material for analysis! Further, I believe that Tolkien’s rendition of  “Sellic Spell” in Old English warrants study of his ability to think and write in Old English. In the following video, Fimi outlines another approach to the story through the lens of folklore research.

Dimitra Fimi is the author of Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, published in 2008, which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies and was shortlisted for the Folklore Society’s Katharine Briggs Award. She is a Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Recently, she filmed two short videos for a BBC iWonder guide on Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh? You can find out more about her videos and interviews on her website’s Media page, or follow her blog or her Twitter account: @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi.

To read “Sellic Spell” or “The Lay of Beowulf” you’ll have to buy Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. But if you’re interested in the original poem itself, you can listen to a few lines of it on Michael Drout’s Anglo-Saxon Aloud website. The poem exists in a single manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A. XV, held in the British Library. You can find information about the manuscript in the British Library’s Online Gallery, and you can also leaf through the digitised manuscript (go to f.132r to see the beginning of Beowulf).

Adaptations of Beowulf have proliferated since the late nineteenth century in books for children and adults, and more recently as films. Some of you may know the 2005 Beowulf and Grendel movie, or more likely, the 2007 Robert Zemeckis version featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. I especially enjoy the 1998 animated version made for TV featuring Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes, which you can view below. It’s just one among many examples of Beowulf adaptations — and now we have more of Tolkien’s work that can be examined as part of this rich store of material.

If you have any favorite Beowulf adaptations, or if you want to say something about “Sellic Spell,” let us know in the comments!

Talks on Tolkien: John Garth and Tolkien’s Great War


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This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” features the historical, biographical, and literary research of John Garth, who continues to dig into Tolkien’s early years, the beginnings of his mythology, and his experiences in the First World War. Garth’s book, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, published in 2003, won the Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Scholarship and has been translated into five languages so far. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the experiences of Tolkien and his friends in the war and for tracing the early stages of Tolkien’s writings.

Recently, Garth has published more new research in his booklet Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth, which presents a vivid picture of Tolkien’s friendships and activities while a student at Oxford. You can find more of Garth’s research in other publications, but one good place for keeping up with his work is his blog, which features reviews and news of his ongoing research.

Although I don’t have a video recording of a complete talk by John Garth, the following presents some intriguing highlights from his presentation at the Tolkien Society‘s Oxonmoot in September 2014. In this video, Garth talks about Tolkien’s early writings, “The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star” and his “Story of Kullervo.” Some additional details can be found in Garth’s blog post, “Middle-earth turns 100.”

If you want to hear a complete talk by John Garth, and you are lucky enough to be within reach, he will be speaking at the Hudson Library and Historical Society in Hudson, Ohio on March 3 and at Sam Houston State University in Texas on March 25.

In the video clip above, John Garth sets Tolkien’s early writings against a backdrop of war. You can also hear him speaking more about this subject in the following documentary, “Tolkien’s Great War,” (Elliander Pictures), which provides an excellent account of Tolkien’s early life, his friendships at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the way in which he and his friends faced the Great War, as well as some observations about how Tolkien’s war experiences influenced his writing. This beautifully filmed documentary provides a glimpse into the kind of research that informs John Garth’s various publications.

Tolkien’s Great War by Elliander Pictures <> on Vimeo.

You can find John Garth on Facebook:; on Twitter: @JohnGarthWriter; or, as I mentioned above, on his website: or blog:

Talks on Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft talks about Tolkien’s views on war


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This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” video comes from Oklahoma State University, where Janet Brennan Croft gave a presentation last November about Tolkien’s life and how his war experiences are reflected in his fiction. Croft is the author of War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was published in 2004 and won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies in 2005. She is one of a number of critics, such as Tom Shippey and John Garth, who discuss ways in which Tolkien can be seen as a war writer.

Croft, who is a librarian at Rutgers University, is also the editor of the peer-reviewed journal Mythlore. You can find out more about her many books and articles by going to her page.

Croft’s talk covers aspects of Tolkien’s life including his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and as a parent with sons in the Second World War.

I thought it might be interesting to compare George R.R. Martin’s views on war and on Tolkien. The following is an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview by Mikal Gilmore, published on April 23, 2014. You can read the full interview here.

In the interview, Martin talks about how his objection to the Vietnam War influenced his writing of characters. If Tolkien had been writing The Lord of the Rings throughout the Vietnam War, do you think his characters might have turned out differently? The peace movement was very visible in the 1960s, and Tolkien’s work was widely read by many who participated in the anti-war protests.  Were you one of them? Any observations to make about that time and how Tolkien’s work was received?  (Please keep in mind that all comments should be respectful towards different political views).


From: George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview

We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, “We’re just soldiers in their armies, and there’s plenty more to carry on if we go down.”
It’s true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. “Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France.” One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn’t the swordsman have the power? He’s the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he’s just the average grunt. If he doesn’t do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn’t Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That’s one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What’s all this based on? It’s all based on an illusion: You go because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t go, even if you don’t believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It’s all this strange illusion, isn’t it?

You’re a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, “What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?”

There’s only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you’re Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It’s sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don’t necessarily think there are heroes. That’s something that’s very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We’re all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he’d been able to achieve it, we’d be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, “This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war.” He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don’t cancel out the other. You can’t make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we’re all both.

Next week, I hope to have more about Tolkien’s early writings, with a focus on his experiences in the Great War.

Talks on Tolkien: Reflecting on Ruins with Michael Drout


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In this week’s “Talk on Tolkien” listen to Michael Drout as he constructs a lecture on “How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien” out of personal reminiscences, a discussion of the features of oral tradition, and images of stone and textual ruins.

Professor Drout is best known to Tolkien scholars as one of the founding editors of the journal Tolkien Studies, and the editor of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment and of Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. You can find out more about his publications and projects on his website, on his blog Wormtalk and Slugspeak, or by following him on twitter: @MikeDrout.

The following lecture was delivered in October 2013 at Carnegie Mellon University. Michael Drout was an undergraduate there, and in his talk he pays tribute to his former medieval literature professor, Peggy Knapp, while recalling some of his experiences as a student. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these are simply personal digressions from the subject of Tolkien; Drout masterfully interlaces the different strands of his talk to build to his concluding reflections on textual ruins and nostalgia in Tolkien’s work.

After listening to this talk, you might end up reflecting on the pastness of the past and the ways in which it is overlaid by the present. This “joyous and heartbreaking” feeling of longing is not only found in Tolkien’s work but also in many Old English poems. I thought it would be interesting to extend Professor Drout’s meditation on ruins by looking at a video adaptation of the Old English poem known as “The Ruin” which layers past and present in unexpected ways:

(You might note that the director, translator, and speaker in this film is Stuart Lee, a professor at Oxford University who is a medievalist and a Tolkien scholar.)

If you are interested in delving further into Professor Drout’s discussion of the features of oral tradition, such as “communicative economy” and “traditional referents,” I would recommend John Miles Foley’s book How to Read an Oral Poem as a great starting point.

As always, any comments are welcome. Does Michael Drout’s view of how to read Tolkien strike a chord with you? Do you see the same qualities in the text as he does? Other thoughts?

Tolkien conference season 2015


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It’s time to start organizing my travel to various conferences this spring and summer. I wish I could attend all of these meetings, but I’ll be fortunate enough to go to a couple of them at least. My list focuses on North American conferences because I know those best, but please let me know in the comments if there are others. I hope my list will demonstrate the healthy state of academic Tolkien Studies and maybe entice you to go to one of these events — if you’re not already booking your tickets. And while there will be plenty of professional scholars at these conferences,  most of these events draw a lively mix of academics, independent scholars, writers, artists, fans of all kinds.

The first meeting will be held in a few weeks – not exactly springtime where I live, but still it does kick off the conference season:

There and Back Again: Tolkien in 2015 OSU Tolkien 2015: There and Back Again Conference, Feb 20-21, 2015
The Ohio State University.
February 20-21, 2015

This is the second annual Popular Culture and the Deep Past event sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State U.  According to the event website: “this will be a full-fledged conference, itself nested in a broader ‘carnival’ of popular and traditional cultural events and activities.”  Sounds like there will be something for everyone.

Popular Culture/American Culture Association National Conference
Popular Culture Association logo
New Orleans Marriott
April 1-4, 2015

This is a massive conference that draws scholars from a huge variety of fields. The newly established Tolkien Studies area, organized by Robin Reid, is sponsoring eight sessions plus a business meeting for a second year in a row.  The final program should be posted soon on the website.

12th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference
Tolkien in Vermont conference
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT

April 10-11, 2015

This year’s theme is medieval narrative verse, with Michael Drout as the keynote speaker. According to the conference organizer, Chris Vaccaro, a program will be posted soon on the website. This is usually a small and friendly conference attended by faculty, students, and the general public, with an open mic night on Friday followed by a day of presentations on Saturday.

International Congress on Medieval Studies 
Kalamazoo campus swan pond
University of Western Michigan
Kalamazoo, MI
May  14-17, 2015

This annual conference draws thousands of medievalists every year, but it also includes anyone interested in the scholarly study of Tolkien (not always the same as a medievalist).  The Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors as many sessions as are allowed by the Congress organizers, and other sponsoring groups have sessions on Tolkien or on medievalisms as well.  You can search through the conference program  for what interests you.

New York City Tolkien Conference
New York City Tolkien ConferenceBaruch College
New York
June 13, 2015

The call for papers is on the site, with a deadline for proposals of April 7, 2015.  The keynote speaker will be Janet Brennan Croft and musical guest of honour, John DiBartolo.

Mythopoeic Society Conference / Mythcon 46
Mythopoeic Society
Hotel Elegante
Colorado Springs, Colorado
July 31-August 3, 2015

The special theme is the Arthurian Mythos.  I expect that more details about the program will appear on the website soon. This conference is usually a nice combination of serious academic papers and fun social events, readings, and more.

International Medieval Congress 
IMC 2015 poster
University of Leeds
July 6-9, 2015

This is the largest conference on medieval studies in Europe. A search through the program found three sessions on Tolkien.

Update February 12: Dr. Dimitra Fimi, who has organized some of these sessions, has more details about sessions on Tolkien, medievalism, fantasy, Arthurian tradition and more on her blog.

And looking ahead towards the end of the summer,  there is always
The Tolkien Society’s Oxonmoot
Tolkien Society
September 10-13, 2015.
St. Anthony’s  College, Oxford

And here are a couple of other conferences that focus on medievalism and that could very well end up sponsoring sessions on Tolkien:

The Middle Ages in the Modern World (MAMO)
June 29 – July 2, 2015
University of Lincoln, Lincoln UK

Update Feb. 12:  The provisional programme is now available. One session on Tolkien and lots of other good panels on various medievalism topics.

International Conference on Medievalism
This conference usually takes place in the fall.  I don’t see any information on the website yet about the next meeting.

I realize on looking over this list that it is heavily skewed towards Tolkien as a medievalist. If there are any other conferences you feel people should know about, please feel free to add them in the comments. It would also be interesting to know about other Tolkien conferences beyond North America and the UK.

Update Feb. 12:  Thanks to Marcel Aubron Bülles  here is another conference program:

German Tolkien Society
University of Aachen
May 1-3, 2015


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