I was planning to be in Leeds today at the International Medieval Congress in order to attend the first sessions on Tolkien tomorrow, but bad weather diverted my flight, making me miss my UK connection, and landing me even farther away than where I started. So what do you do for an extra day stranded in a hotel room waiting for a rebooked flight? How about looking at Tolkien conference sessions coming up this summer in case you’re lucky enough to attend one of these events. Or if you’re not attending, you can see what people are working on and hopefully wait for the articles and books to come later.
The Leeds conference features 5 sessions on Tolkien. You can search through the huge online program, but it’s far easier to look at Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s blog, where she lists the speakers and papers in the sessions that she’s organized.
Another conference of note is Mythcon, taking place this year in San Diego from August 2 – 5. The scholar guest of honour is Verlyn Flieger. Keep an eye out for the program, as there are always sessions on Tolkien (and the Inklings).
The Tolkien 2019 conference promises to be a big event, with major speakers, artwork, music, and other evening activities. This event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tolkien Society will take place in Birmingham, UK from August 7 to 11. You can find the featured speakers and the list of other speakers and their presentation titles here. I’ll have more to say about my own paper in a few weeks!
The Tolkien biopic has been in limited release for several weeks now, and assessments have appeared in many of the usual places by professional movie reviewers. I’ve decided to collect a few reviews by Tolkien scholars and fans. I’m not aiming to be comprehensive, so let me know in the comments if there’s a review I’ve missed that you particularly liked. The opinions summarized below range from quite positive to quite negative, and many in between. Of course, please don’t read these reviews if you’re avoiding spoilers!
Some Tolkien scholars and fans were given an opportunity to preview the movie at a couple of conferences last month. Possibly the first review to appear was by Christopher Vaccaro:
Also after a conference preview, Dawn Walls-Thumma described the lively discussion she had with some friends. They debated issues such as the ethics of adapting someone’s life and the problematic representation of Edith’s relationship with Tolkien. She thinks that the movie succeeds in general; she likes the representation of creative collaborations but finds that the movie resorts to some romantic clichés.
Jeff LaSala asks who is this film
for, and who will enjoy it the most? His answer is that it’s for all fans, but
that probably “casual Tolkien fans who won’t notice the creative licenses taken”
will enjoy it the most. His review includes a good list of what the movie doesn’t
give us as well as what it does give us.
His overall view is that the movie is “a worthwhile adventure.” This
review comes with some reading recommendations for those who want to know more
about Tolkien’s life and work.
Jeremy Edmonds finds that the movie is “broadly successful” especially for people with no prior knowledge of Tolkien’s life who won’t be annoyed by issues of historical accuracy. He thinks that the movie tried to make simple connections between events and people in Tolkien’s life and his fiction, but he does recommend the film “as art, not biography.”
This is the review that the movie director, Dome Karukoski, has proclaimed on Twitter to be his favourite (@domekarukoski). Brenton Dickieson states that he “decided to go and be open to loving the film—even knowing that it would be imperfect or even troubling at times.” The result is that he was “both relieved and impressed.” Although he believes that the movie could have used better CGI effects, “overall, the set design is lovely, the actors are compelling, the photography is excellent, the score invites empathy as a companion to the writing, and the storytelling is inviting.” His advice: don’t go into the movie expecting a documentary.
This review is behind a paywall, but you might be able to find it in a library or store (although here in Nova Scotia, the print edition still hasn’t appeared on shelves; you’d have to read the review in the digital version of the TLS). Dimitra Fimi finds that the movie “strikes a fine balance.” She points out some elements that are just “plain wrong” but she also likes a number of scenes, such as the representation of the TCBS friendship, the love story of Tolkien and Edith, Tolkien’s developing ideas about language and mythology, and the horror of the Somme. However, she does point out that the movie does not adequately represent Tolkien’s and his mother’s Catholic faith, an important element in his life. There are a number of other good moments in the movie, according to Fimi; one that she especially likes is the reading of G.B. Smith’s last letter to Tolkien. Her conclusion is that the movie might bring more readers to Tolkien’s work and that “it has got many emotional aspects right.”
John Rateliff finds a number of praiseworthy elements: the cinematographer’s focus on trees, the look and feel of the movie set in a not-too-distant past, and the representation of how poverty limits a person’s options in life. What he doesn’t like, however, are the scenes with Tolkien wandering around on the battlefield. He also doesn’t find that the movie represents Tolkien’s inner creative life very well. Finally, he thinks the pace is too slow. His conclusion: “So, not a disaster some feared, not the travesty it cd have been, just not the success I’d hoped for.”
The title pretty much summarizes it all. Joseph Loconte thinks that the movie represents neither Tolkien’s spiritual life nor the stories and myths that fueled his imagination. Although he does find some positive elements in the depiction of love and friendship, a major lack for Loconte is the absence in the movie of Tolkien’s Christian beliefs in accounting adequately for his outlook on life.
David Bratman did not like the movie, and he explains why in two places: once on the Tolkien Society blog (May 11) and once in Calimac’s Journal (May 10). He thinks that the movie does not represent Tolkien’s creative sources well, and when it does attempt to illustrate some stories and artwork, “it is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson’s movies.” He criticizes several other features of the movie, and his conclusion is that it is “dull and meandering.”
Do you agree or disagree with any one of these reviewers? Please feel free to add your opinions or other reviews that you found interesting in the comments.
Like other commentators, I can recommend some further reading if you’re interested in Tolkien’s biography: Humphrey Carpenter’s official biography or John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War would be good sources to consult. If you’d like a half-hour video documentary, I’d recommend Tolkien’s Great War by Elliander Pictures on Vimeo (which also features John Garth).
Tolkien. Fox Searchlight, 2019. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Performances by Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, and others.
It’s going to be a busy week coming up in Kalamazoo Michigan for Tolkien scholars. The Tolkien at Kalamazoo group, led by Chris Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor, is planning what has now become an annual symposium one day ahead of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. The Symposium, to be held off campus on Wednesday, May 8th, features a day of papers, some music, and a free screening in the evening of the new Tolkien biopic.
Following the Tolkien Symposium, the Medieval Congress kicks into high
gear starting on Thursday, May 9th, with several Tolkien sessions organized by
Tolkien at Kalamazoo and other departments or groups.
I used to compile this schedule to keep track of all the papers I wanted
to hear. I’m not going to Kalamazoo this year, but it’s still intriguing to see
what topics people are working on. Take a look if you’re curious, or plan your
schedule if you’re going!
Tolkien at Kalamazoo Symposium
Wednesday, May 8th Kazoo Books [2413 Parkview Ave, Kalamazoo, MI 49008]
12:00 – 1:00 Reconstructing the library of Michael H.R. Tolkien (1920-84) Brad Eden
– 1:30 Queer Hobbits: Language for the Strange,
the Odd, and the Peculiar in Tolkien‘s The
Lord of the Rings Yvette Kisor
– 2:00 Who maketh Morwinyon, and Menelmacar,
and Remmirath, and the inner parts of the south (where the stars are strange): Tolkien’s Astronomical Choices and
the Books of Job and Amos Kristine Larsen
Tolkien’s Early Para-Texts; A
Lit and Lang Exploration of The Heraldic Devices of Tol-Etherin
2:30 – 3:00 BREAK / Maidens of Middle-earth IX (music) Eileen Moore
– 3:30 The Grisaille Havens, Verdaille Dragon,
and Brunaille Lands: Brushwork in Tolkien’s Watercolors
–4:15 Marquette’s Tolkien Manuscripts in a Digital
Bill Fliss and John Rateliff
“Dreamlike it was, and yet no dream:”
Faramir’s Vision of the Passing of Boromir
Vickie Holtz Wodzak
A SELECT SCREENING OF TOLKIEN (FOX SEARCHLIGHT, 2019) 6:00 pm (Seating at 5:30!) AMC, 10 Portage Street. FREE
[EDIT May 5]: If you would like to attend the movie screening, you have to give your name to the organizer Chris Vaccaro before 5:30 that evening. You can email Chris at email@example.com.
International Congress on Medieval Studies, Thursday, May 9 – Sunday, May 12
Thursday 10:00 a.m. Session 17 FETZER 2016 Misappropriations of Tolkien’s medievalism (a roundtable) Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Richard West, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madiso
A roundtable discussion with Leigh Smith, East Stroudsburg Univ.; Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce; Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.; Anna Czarnowus, Univ. of Silesia; Stephen Yandell, Xavier Univ.
Thursday 1:30 p.m. Session 64 FETZER 2016 Tolkien and Medieval Constructions of Race Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Deidre Dawson, Independent Scholar
Sun-Soot: Ragnarok and the Servants of Sauron Larry J. Swain, Bemidji State Univ. Medievalist, Modernist, and Postmodernist Readings of Tolkien’s constructions of Race Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Jihad / Crusade or Race War? The News from the Battle of Helm’s Deep Michael A. Wodzak, Viterbo Univ.
Thursday 3:30 p.m. Session 112 FETZER 2016 Tolkien and Temporality: Medieval Constructions of Time Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Brad Eden, Independent Scholar
Of Niggle and Ringwraiths: Tolkien on Time and Eternity as the Deepest Stratum of His Work Robert Dobie, La Salle Univ. Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon Women: A Journey into the Medieval through the Modernity of Middle-Earth Annie Brust, Kent State Univ./Kenston High School The Eschatological Catholic: J. R. R. Tolkien and a Multi-Modal Temporality Stephen Yandell, Xavier Univ.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. Session 350 FETZER 2016 Medieval Song, Verse, and Versification in Tolkien’s Works Organizer: Annie Brust, Kent State Univ. Presider: Annie Brust
Noldorin and Sindarin Verse in the Lord of the Rings Eileen Marie Moore, Cleveland State Univ. Boethian Philosophy and Splintered Music: Decay through Time in Tolkien’s Legendarium Brad Eden, Independent Scholar Tolkien, the Beowulf-Poet, and the Phenomenology of Song and Identity Paul Fortunato, Univ. of Houston-Downtown
Saturday 12:00 noon Tolkien at Kalamazoo Business Meeting Bernhard 211
Saturday 1:30 p.m. Session 397 BERNHARD BROWN & GOLD ROOM The Medieval Roots of Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin Organizer: William Fliss, Marquette Univ. Presider: William Fliss
Four Brethren Heroes of the Gondolindrim: Egalmoth, Ecthelion, Glorfindel, and Legolas: A Mythic and Linguistic Exploration Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar “Ic eom sæliden”: Medieval Romance Motifs in Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin John R. Holmes, Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville From the Deeds of the Youth to the Arrival of a King Anne Reaves, Marian Univ.
Saturday 3:30 p.m. Session 449 BERNHARD BROWN & GOLD ROOM Tolkien’s Legendarium and Medieval Cosmology Sponsor: History Dept., Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Organizer: Judy Ann Ford, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Presider: Judy Ann Ford
“It Lies Behind the Stars”: Situating Tolkien’s Work within the Aesthetics of Medieval Cosmology“ Connie Tate, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Cynewulf, Copernicus, and Conjunctions: The Problem of Cytherean Motions in Tolkine’s Medieval Cosmology” Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ. Binding Faerie with the Chains of Time: Tolkien’s Failure to Finish The Silmarillion John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Session 509 FETZER 2016 The Legacy of Tolkien’s Medievalism in Contemporary Works Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society Organizer: Geoffrey B. Elliott, Independent Scholar Presider: Geoffrey B. Elliott
Caines Cynne in Azeroth: Tolkien’s Medievalism in the Warcraft Series Benjamin C. Parker, Northern Illinois Univ. The Two Eyes of the Dragon: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf as an Introduction to English Literature in Academic Enviroments Isabella Aparecida Leite Nogueira, Univ. Federal de Juiz de Fora; Mariana Mello Alves de Souza, Univ. Federal de Juiz de Fora Diluting Divinity: Connecting Genesis to Diablo by Way of Numenor Rachel Cooper, Univ. of Saskatchewan
One of the recent clips from the upcoming biopic Tolkien (in limited release in May), features Edith encouraging Tolkien to tell her a story about “cellar door.” I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had obviously done some research in their use of this phrase, which can be traced to one of Tolkien’s essays. I’ve been asked a couple of times about this choice of words in the trailer, so I wanted to identify here the source in Tolkien’s work. In doing some reading about the term, however, I discovered something new (to me, that is) — which is that the use of “cellar door” is not Tolkien’s own invention.
Tolkien does talk about “cellar door” in his essay, “English and Welsh,” which he delivered as the 1955 O’Donnell Lecture in Oxford. In the lecture, Tolkien discusses our “inherent linguistic predilections” (p. 190), explaining that he personally found the sound of Welsh very pleasurable and that everyone has a preference for certain sounds dissociated from the meanings of words. He writes:
Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent….”
“English and Welsh,” p. 191
I haven’t seen the entire film yet, as some lucky conference-goers already have (see reviews by Chris Vaccaro and Dawn Walls-Thumma /Dawn Felagund), but just in looking at the brief clip below, I think that the filmmakers are trying to convey how Tolkien’s imagination, to echo Lewis’s phrase, goes “inside language,” feeling the beauty of the words and imagining something beyond them. He extracts the beginnings of a story, eschewing the more conventional and ready-made fairy-tale elements, which is what Edith seems to be suggesting. (Those who have already seen the movie, feel free to correct me!).
I think that the task of showing externally
how someone is working internally with language in an imaginative way is a
difficult prospect in the film medium, and I’m eager to see how the rest of the
movie handles Tolkien’s creative inner life.
To my surprise, though, I’ve discovered that “cellar door” is not just Tolkien’s way of describing his phonetic aesthetic. Apparently, the phrase was first used in a popular English song in 1894: “Shout down my rain barrel,/ Slide down my cellar door, /And we’ll be jolly friends forevermore” (see Geoff Nunberg, who points out how “slide down my cellar door became a catchphrase for innocent childhood play). In 1903 Cyrus Lauron Hooper, in his novel Gee-boy, considers the sound appeal of “cellar door.” You can read the entire novel at the Internet Archive , with the relevant passage here (pages 43-44 in the novel) , which I’ll copy:
He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”
(Gee-boy, pp. 43-44)
Several years after Tolkien used the words in his 1955 lecture, C.S. Lewis wrote about their sound in a 1963 letter: “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore one produces an enchanting proper name.” Tolkien repeats this same idea in a 1966 interview, quoted in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book on the Inklings:
Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me—‘cellar door,’ say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador,’ and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”
(quoted on p. 25)
But neither Tolkien nor Lewis was the only writer to say that “cellar door” sounded beautiful after Hooper introduced the idea in Gee-boy. Grant Barrett in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article listed a number of other writers both before and after Tolkien who refer to “cellar door.” Shortly afterwards, linguist Geoff Nunberg examined how and why “cellar door” might have been seen repeatedly in this light, concluding that it allowed aesthetes to prove that they could see beauty in ordinary things; furthermore, he believes that the attraction can be attributed to what English speakers might consider sounds from romanticized, “warm-blooded” or musical languages.
In other words, Tolkien’s use of “cellar door” is part of a tradition, one could say, a previously established way of alluding to the appeal of the sounds of words without reference to their meanings. I can’t wait to experience fully what the Tolkien movie does with the idea.
April is a good month for Tolkien conferences in the U.S.
In a few days, the 16th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference will take place at the University of Vermont in Burlington. This year’s theme is Tolkien and Horror, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Yvette Kisor from Ramapo College, who will be talking about “The horror of the unnarrated: Implications for Tolkien’s reader.”
This is always a small and friendly conference, and this year there’s an extra treat for participants – a private, advance screening of the Tolkien biopic directed by Dome Karukoski.
In addition to Dr. Kisor’s keynote address and the after-movie discussions, there will be sessions on:
Nature, Madness, and Humor
The Perils of Faerie
UVM Undergraduate Voices
Horror of Words
Horrors of Modernity
On the Borders of Horror
You can find the full schedule of speakers and titles for Friday, April 5 to Saturday, April 6 here.
A couple of weeks later, the Popular Culture Association conference will be held in Washington, DC from April 17 to April 20. In contrast to the Vermont meeting, this is a massive event with many different subject areas. The Tolkien sessions, though, organized by Dr. Robin Reid, take place Thursday, April 18 to Friday, April 19 and focus on the following topics:
Adaptations of Tolkien’s Legendarium
Enchantment, Healing, and Despair in The Lord of the Rings
March 25, designated by the Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day, is meant to encourage the reading of Tolkien’s works individually or in group events. A new theme is announced every year, and for 2019 it’s “Tolkien and the mysterious.”
My current reading focuses on Tolkien’s
verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorhthelm’s Son – let’s call it The
Homecoming for short – and a specific moment in the play in which one of
the characters experiences a mysterious vision.
It’s not one of Tolkien’s best-known works, so first a quick summary: The Homecoming is a short drama for two voices based on the events recounted in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes an English defeat at the hands of Viking invaders in the year 991. Beorhtnoth is the English lord who is killed in the battle, but his loyal followers fight on against hopeless odds. Often-quoted lines from the poem are spoken by an old warrior, here in Old English, then followed by Tolkien’s translation:
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, Mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.
“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.” (124)
Tolkien wrote that he thought these Old
English lines weren’t original in this poem but instead “an ancient and
honoured expression of heroic will” (124).
The events of Tolkien’s play The Homecoming occur after the battle is over, when two servants are sent by the local Abbot to find and bring back Beorhtnoth’s body for burial. They are out on a gruesome battlefield in the dark of night, surrounded by mangled corpses, trying to understand what happened in the fighting. They think of ghosts, are startled by a hooting owl, and face sudden danger when they come upon and fight some corpse robbers. After they identify a few of the dead who were closest to Beorhtnoth, they make their way to where they discover what remains of their lord. One of the servants is a young poet who shows several times that he is capable of composing verses in moments when the two men honour their dead lord. Eventually they carry his body to their wagon and start on the way home. That’s where the young poet, lying in their cart, starts nodding off and speaks “drowsily and half dreaming” (140):
There are candles in the dark and cold voices. I hear mass chanted for master’s soul in Ely isle. Thus ages pass, and men after men. Mourning voices of women weeping. So the world passes; day follows day, and the dust gathers, his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it, and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle. So men flicker and in the mirk go out. The world withers and the wind rises; the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.
This young man, whose name is Torhthelm or Totta for short, seems to be seeing into the future – the present or near future in hearing mass chanted for Beorhtnoth among the monks in Ely — but then followed by a sweeping view of ages in the future until the “world withers” and all seems to die out.
This view intensifies in the next few moments. The stage directions state that Totta continues with “the voice of one speaking in a dream,” and he seems to enter into a mysterious vision, recounted in the present tense, as if he is partaking urgently of some other reality:
It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming! Is no light left us? A light kindle, and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens, hearth is burning, house is lighted, men there gather. Out of the mists they come through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth. Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting: stern words they sing with strong voices. (He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more proud the spirit as our power lessens! Mind shall not falter nor mood waver, though doom shall come and dark conquer
At that moment, the cart goes over a bump
and jolts Totta out of his dream, back to the reality of his companion who
disapproves of the young poet’s words. The play ends shortly afterwards.
You’ll notice that in this intense
visionary experience, Totta hears men chanting the lines that will become part
of “The Battle of Maldon” – “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, / more
proud the spirit as our power lessens!” – although he adds two further lines
that don’t appear in the Old English poem.
Who are these ghostly men that Totta sees
gathering in the hall “out of the mists” and that he hears chanting? Where is
Totta in this dream-vision? He seems to
be participating in the experience in the present moment, but is he
imaginatively partaking of a past event or a future one? The mystery of where
this dream comes from and what kind of experience Totta is having as he speaks
it out loud in a dream-like voice contributes to the significance of this climactic
moment in the play.
I’ve written about this mysterious event (and other aspects of the play) in a forthcoming essay on The Homecoming,* where I conclude that Totta is “penetrating to the heart of heroic tradition,” accessing what Tolkien called that ancient expression of heroic will, which lives in poetic tradition. I also think that Totta’s experience is similar to other mysterious instances in Tolkien’s fiction where the power of a story or poem leads people into a dream-like state in which they experience other times and places — for example, the hobbits listening to Tom Bombadil’s stories, or Frodo enchanted by poetry in Rivendell, or the Notion Club members following Lowdham and Jeremy’s adventures in an Anglo-Saxon hall.
These visionary experiences are mysterious
in the sense that they are puzzling, obscure, hard to understand. They may also
resonate with the sense of “mystery” as denoting something mystical or beyond
What’s your interpretation of these mysterious
*My essay is forthcoming in a new book from Walking Tree Press, “Something has gone crack”: New Perspectives on Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Annika Röttinger and Janet Brennan Croft. I’ll post more when I have information about a definite publication date!
The image used above is “Before” by Tolkien, one of his early drawings estimated to have been made around 1911-1912 (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, page 65, footnote 12. The drawing is fig. 30 in their book.)
My quotations from Tolkien’s Homecoming are taken from the play published
in Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins,
2001. The play was originally published in the scholarly journal Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1953, pp.
I was very pleased to have an essay recently published in A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff and published by Gabbro Head Press, not only because I’m in fabulous company – take a look at the table of contents! – but mainly because I’m a great admirer of Verlyn Flieger.
My essay, “Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators” discusses three of Tolkien’s works, “The Notion Club Papers,” “Leaf by Niggle,” and Smith of Wootton Major. I talked about some of my ideas when I gave a paper at the 2017 Tolkien Society Seminar, but this essay goes into much more detail and is part of a larger project I’m working on about Tolkien’s typological imagination.
I’ll quote from my introduction and give a
summary of my main points in the hopes that you might be interested in buying A Wilderness of Dragons and reading
The Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into potential existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the vision of creatures. As Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation” (Splintered 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien …. The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 258)
The Sub-creative Process
The three stories that I picked for
commentary deal with the sub-creative powers of light and music or image and
word by describing how different characters create art, whether it be through
language, storytelling, vision, painting, blacksmithing, singing, and even baking.
These activities always occur in collaboration with someone else; Tolkien does
not subscribe to an image of a lone, heroic artist. Tolkien’s essay “On
Fairy-Stories” reinforces much of what we see in these three stories. I also include in a discussion of Smith of Wootton Major how Tolkien used
the cooking metaphor in some of his unpublished essays and how it might apply
to this story.
Faërian / Elvish Drama
All three stories take us into faërian or elvish dramas so that we can examine their characteristics. I discuss the faërian drama as a palimpsest, allowing the participant a kind of double vision. All three stories also suggest that participants are guided in their experiences by an often unseen force.
Genealogy / Tradition
All three stories establish what I call a “genealogy of sympathy,” ensuring that the subcreative inspiration is passed on, thus creating a tradition. The inheritance is not always within a family, and the inspiration and valuing of sub-creative powers is not often appreciated by others.
Tolkien loved repeated patterns. In discussing typology, I’m discussing the narrative patterns that Tolkien establishes in his work. In this essay, I’m focusing on the seers and singers who are sub-creative collaborators. As I state in my conclusion:
Because of its recurrence in various texts, a type accumulates significance. Each seer and singer is a distinct character in a unique narrative, but each also partakes of a repeated pattern of meaning in Tolkien’s fiction. The appearance of a type brings into the narrative its associated meanings.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 277).
Anyone who has read Verlyn Flieger’s work will recognize the immense influence she has had on my views. This volume compiled in her honour by John Rateliff proves that she is the inspiration for a long and wide-ranging genealogy of students and scholars following in her footsteps.
Image sources: Most of the pictures above by Tolkien appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins: “The Hills of the Morning,” fig. 1; “The Tree of Amalion,” fig. 62; details from “Untitled (Three Friezes),” fig. 59. “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river” appears in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, also by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins, fig. 50.
The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition has moved to New York’s Morgan Library where a series of talks and events has been planned. The programs for both children and adults have been so successful that they are pretty well sold out.
Here is the Morgan program, which started in January with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s talk on “Tolkien and the Visual Image” on January 31. The New York Tolkien Conference and Fellowship is organizing a symposium on “Tolkien and Inspiration” on March 16-17 with some great speakers — unfortunately, also sold out. The only available tickets seem to be VIP passes to the Shire-themed “Long Expected Party.” Let’s hope that some videos or reports emerge from all these activities!
The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition in Oxford last summer and now at the Morgan Library in New York turns a spotlight on Tolkien as an artist. Being able to see a range of his work, from his patterned doodles on newspaper crossword pages to his Hobbit illustrations, demonstrates how visual art was integral to his creative imagination. There’s something special about seeing the art in person, as if you can move one step closer to the actual hand that produced the work. And sometimes a visit can give you a chance to see the artwork in a new light.
One exhibit that surprised me was Tolkien’s sketchbook opened to the picture, “Alder by a stream.” I had seen the reproduction in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (fig. 7) and it’s in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (page 129). Seeing it in real life, though, revealed a smaller notebook than I had imagined, which made the actual watercolour a lovely little pastoral image. (It measures 90 x 130 mm / 3.5 x 5.2 inches). And it was only then that I realized that it was painted around 1906, when Tolkien was still in his early teens.
And here’s another image that I wish I could go back to re-view, Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell.
Those of you who can go to the Morgan Library in New York to see it in person, or even those of us who will make do with a reproduction now have another fact to incorporate into our viewing. Recently in brief comments by Christopher Tolkien on the occasion of his visit to the Aubusson tapestries illustrating some of Tolkien’s artwork – another event that recognizes Tolkien as an illustrator – he told a story of how one night when he was a child he came to his father while he was painting the image of Rivendell and what happened then. You can hear the story at 3:45 in the video below (in French, with English and Spanish subtitles).
How can we look at “Rivendell” without thinking of the child’s tear and the father’s patient kindness that are forever part of the image now, for me anyway. I wonder if some people visiting the Morgan Library will think of this late-night scene between Christopher and his father when looking at “Rivendell.”
Edit, Feb. 18: I have heard from some people that they are finding it difficult or impossible to read the English subtitles in the above video. For a transcript of the subtitles as they appear in the video, click here.
The Morgan Library along with the New York Tolkien Fellowship are sponsoring a series of talks to accompany the exhibition, and I’ll post details of these along with a few other commentaries on the exhibit in a day or two. For now, though, I’ll take one more look back at the Bodleian version of the exhibition, where a series of talks also took place. One of these featured myth specialist Marina Warner and Tolkien scholars Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger. Their discussion was wide-ranging: language and mythology and the history of fantasy and so many other things. But at one moment in the Q & A, the talk turned to Tolkien’s artwork and its influence on his writing.
At around 1:07:10 in the video linked below, the speakers discuss the importance of maps and other images to Tolkien’s creative process, and then in a response to a question about the role of images, Verlyn Flieger (at around 1:09:45) gives a brief example to explain how Tolkien “is writing to the image.”
I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but Professor Flieger’s example of the sketch of Cirith Ungol drawn in the margins of a manuscript draft is exactly the image that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I discussed in our Tolkien Studies article, “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer” (vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-31). As Professor Flieger is one of the editors who oversaw the publication of our article, I’m hoping she was channelling our argument! You can read more about our essay here.
It’s finally time to wake this blog up. Last semester’s heavy teaching load, some eldercare responsibilities, and research commitments meant that I had to focus on other things, but I foresee a more reasonable schedule now. I have so many hoarded items I’ve been meaning to write about, so let’s start pretty much where I left off last summer – with the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition at the Bodleian, now recently opened at the Morgan Library in New York.
I had the good fortune to visit the exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last summer. By all accounts, it was a huge success, running from June to October 2018. Tolkien archivist Catherine McIlwaine organized this exhibition of Tolkien’s paintings, letters, photos, maps, doodles, and other memorabilia. Once in the main exhibition hall in the Weston Library (part of the Bodleian network), you could wander at will or sit and gaze, and linger as long as you liked. Seeing Tolkien’s original paintings was a rare treat – up to now, a sight reserved for very few people. I was impressed by how finely detailed and precise his watercolours were. It was fun to see his desk and colouring pencils – on display was a full case of Polychrome coloured pencils in various shades of green – somehow I would have expected that. On another shelf, we could see his jars of Reeves’ poster colours.
One item that I found intriguing were the pictures that were hanging on the wall by his desk, loaned to the Bodleian by the Tolkien family. According to Catherine McIlwaine’s magnificent book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which catalogues the exhibition, Tolkien bought these prints by William Russell Flint when a student at Oxford and kept them for the rest of his life. They depict the Oxfordshire countryside and originally illustrated Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. According to McIlwaine: “Tolkien continued to look at the paintings for the rest of his life and they hung in his rooms wherever he resided. They were among a select group of personal items which he took to his last residence, a small flat in Merton Street provided by Merton College in 1972” (p. 284).
You can find pictures of the prints on page 285 of McIlwaine’s book. Below, you can view them as illustrations in a 1911 American edition of Arnold’s book, available through the Hathi Trust Digital Library. (Note that the colours of the book illustrations look darker than the pictures in McIlwaine’s book).
Images: William Russell Flint watercolour illustrations for Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. Top left: “The stripling Thames at Bob-Lock-Hithe”; Top right: “The Line of Festal Lights in Christ Church Hall”; bottom left: “Its Fir-Topped Hurst, its Farms, its Quiet Fields”; bottom right: “And the Eye Travels Down to Oxford’s Towers.” (Click on individual images to enlarge).
What instantly struck me when looking at the pictures – though I had to peer through glass at a far wall to see them – was that the style could have influenced some of Tolkien’s early watercolour landscapes. As it turns out, the same thought had already occurred to Catherine McIlwaine, who comments in her book that there’s a resemblance to Tolkien’s “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (painted in 1913) and “Lambourn. Berks” (1912). The latter, according to Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, was a sketch Tolkien made on a walking tour (Artist & Illustrator, p. 17) and the former was an outdoor sketch as well. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a young man’s sketches with a professional artist’s published work, but take a look at the two pictures below. What do you think? Is there a distinct influence, or is it a general stylistic resemblance that would have been shared by many watercolour landscape artists of the time?
Images: left: Tolkien, Lambourn, Berks. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig. 11; right: Tolkien, King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill. Watercolour. Artist & Illustrator, fig 16. (Click on individual images to enlarge).
I’ll be posting more snippets about the exhibition, both in Oxford and New York, in the days ahead, but if you’re interested in a more extensive account (or if you’re looking forward to the New York version), I don’t think you can find a more thorough description than this post on the Tolkien Collector’s Guide, “Tolkien’s Maker of Middle-earth Exhibition at The Bodleian – A Retrospective.”
For further reading:
Catherine McIlwaine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018.
The standard work on Tolkien’s art is Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. HarperCollins, 2004.