Talks on Tolkien II: Kristine Larsen on the Inklings & Science

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In this summer series of Talks on Tolkien I’d like to highlight new/forthcoming books or different disciplinary approaches to the study of Tolkien — Interdisciplinary Tolkien, as I like to think of it.

Dr. Kristine Larsen

Dr. Kristine Larsen

Who better to exemplify the interdisciplinary study of Tolkien than Kristine Larsen, known to many as “The Tolkien Astronomer.”  Dr. Larsen is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Central Connecticut State University and someone who is a prolific Tolkien scholar. In addition, she’s written about Stephen Hawking, Neil Gaiman, Dr. Who — and astronomy, of course.She’s also the person who runs the very popular astrolabe workshops every year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo.

The following video is from the second New York Tolkien Conference, which took place a couple of weeks ago. Kristine Larsen was one of the keynote speakers, and as is evident from the title of this talk, she likes to make them long*: “Lewis, Tolkien, and Popular Level Science: What the Well-Educated Inklings Actually Knew about the Universe (As Reflected in the Details of Narnia, Middle-earth, and Other Secondary Worlds).”  The talk concludes with a plea for “STEAM” rather than just “STEM” education.**

The video has a few buffering glitches, but with patience you can hear or understand almost the whole talk. Anyone who would like to know more about astronomy and Middle-earth can check out Dr. Larsen’s website, The Astronomy of Middle-earth.

 

 

* Dr. Larsen’s longest record-breaking title so far appeared in the Vermont Tolkien Conference program here.

**STEM = science, technology, engineering, math
STEAM= science, technology, engineering, art, math

Talks on Tolkien II: summer series. Flieger on Kullervo

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In the winter months of 2015, I posted a series, Talks on Tolkien, which consisted of presentations by Tolkien scholars that had been previously recorded and made available on the internet. As I was watching a live stream this morning from the New York Tolkien Conference Facebook page, I was reminded of how much I like being able to hear other scholars give presentations on their research, and how wonderful it is when you can get access to these talks even if you can’t travel to various conferences and special lectures around the world.

For that reason, and the fact that my previous winter series apparently appealed to quite a few viewers, I’ve decided to do a summer series. For the next couple of months, I’ll post every week a previously recorded video or podcast by a Tolkien scholar, usually with some comments and/or links to more information about the speaker and their topic. Just to be clear, I haven’t recorded any of these talks myself; as with my winter series, I’m simply collecting and curating already available videos and podcasts.

In this summer series, I’m planning to focus on new or forthcoming books and on approaches from different disciplines to the study of Tolkien.

Verlyn Flieger on The Story of Kullervo

The Story of Kullervo. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. V. FleigerFirst up for this week is a podcast featuring the eminent Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, who has edited Tolkien’s Story of Kullervo. This is the latest in the “new” books by Tolkien that have been published in recent years, including his Beowulf, Fall of Arthur, and Sigurd and Gudrun. The Story of Kullervo was available in the UK and Canada late last summer but only a few months ago in the US, so the book is still fairly new to most Tolkien readers.

This edition includes the unfinished story about Kullervo that Tolkien wrote as a 22-year-old, inspired by the Finnish epic Kalevala. The book also includes drafts of an essay by Tolkien on The Kalevala, as well as Professor Flieger’s commentary on the material.

Professor Flieger’s talk offers an interesting view of this early work by Tolkien. She enumerates the ways in which Tolkien discovers and exercises his creative abilities in writing this story, and she presents ideas about how the story of Kullervo influences the tales that come later in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

Verlyn Flieger at Exeter College, Oxford. from http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/node/1897.html

Verlyn Flieger talking about Kullervo at Exeter College, Oxford. 12 October 2015. Image from http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/node/1897.html

The audio file can be found on the Exeter College site here. Or you can listen to Professor Flieger right here:

 

To view more about Verlyn Flieger’s many scholarly publications and editions and her creative writing, check out her website, mythus.com

For information about Tolkien’s inspiration for Kullervo, visit the Finnish Literature Society’s site on The Kalevala.

 

 

 

Tolkien events in Leeds

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If you’re in the vicinity of Leeds, you can attend a number of Tolkien papers over the next few days.  On Sunday July 3, the Tolkien Society Seminar will take place in the Hilton Leeds City.  This one-day series of presentations focuses on the theme of Life, Death, and Immortality.  You can read the full program here.

The Tolkien Society has cleverly scheduled the seminar a day before the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, which runs from July 4 to 7, so anyone who is around can attend the IMC sessions on Tolkien.  You can explore the full IMC program here.  I’ve copied below the information on the sessions on Tolkien, organized by Dimitra Fimi.  Let me know if I’ve missed any others!

Session 331 J.R.R.Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

Oganiser: Dimitra Fimi;  Chair:  Chris Vaccaro
Monday 4 July 2016: 16.30-18.00

Abstract: This session will address the complexities of Tolkien’s modern Middle Ages. Andrew Higgins will explore Tolkien’s appropriation of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Finns in his legendarium. Aurélie Brémont will examine parallels between Tolkien’s and T.H. White’s medievalisms. Sara Brown will revisit Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings via the practice, philosophy, and symbolism of alchemy.

‘Those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and manners of an elder day’: J. R. R. Tolkien, Finns, and Elves
Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar, London

J. R. R. Tolkien and T. H. White: Modern Brits and Old Wizards
Aurélie Brémont, Centre d’Études Médiévales Anglaises (CEMA), Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

Stirring the Alembic: Alchemical Resonances in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Sara Brown, Department of English, Rydal Penrhos School, Conwy

and one more session (updated on July 2, thanks to Kris Swank):

session 431
 ‘New’ Tolkien: The Story of Kullervo and A Secret Vice – A Round Table Discussion

Monday 4 July 2016: 19.00-20.00
Organiser and Chair Dimitra Fimi

Abstract This round table discussion will focus on works by J. R. R. Tolkien published during the last 12 months. Participants will comment on The Story of Kullervo, edited by Verlyn Flieger, a creative retelling of a tragic episode from the Finnish Kalevala; and A Secret Vice, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, an extended edition of Tolkien’s essay on invented languages together with new material on philology, contemporary language theories, and language as art.

Participants include Brad Eden (Valparaiso University), Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University), and Goering Nelson (University of Oxford

 

I wish I could be there, but at least I’m hoping that we’ll see some blog posts and tweets to give us an idea of what was discussed (I’m looking at you, Dimitra, Andrew, Sara, and Aurelie!).

Kzoo 2017 calls for Tolkien papers

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The approved sessions for Kalamazoo (the International Congress on Medieval Studies) have just been announced. In spite of very well attended sessions in the past and plenty of paper submissions, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group has once again been reduced by the conference organizers, as have other groups attending the Congress.  For 2017, only two sessions were approved for the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group, and one other as a separately-sponsored session. The ICMS organizers seem determined to downsize their conference, a process that has been ongoing for a few years now. As far as I know, those proposing sessions are not given explanations for the selection or rejection of their submissions, leaving everyone to guess which topics might “go” and which might be turned down every year — and how many might be allowed.

In any case, here are the calls for papers for the three Tolkien sessions in 2017. The complete list of calls for all sessions can be viewed here.

Tolkien at Kalamazoo sessions

Tolkien and languages

This session will explore Tolkien’s contributions as a philologist of both early languages as well as the creation of his own languages.

Asterisk Tolkien

This session will examine various threads and tangents related to Tolkien studies and research.  This may include papers on influences, lacunae, and other related topics important to the field.

The deadline for submission of proposals is September 1, 2016 to Dr. Brad Eden at brad.eden@valpo.edu.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Brad.

The Hill School session

“Eald enta geweorc”: Tolkien and the Classical Tradition

“Finnish,” J. R. R. Tolkien famously commented, “nearly ruined my Honor Mods”: but even a bottom-of-the-barrel Second on the first examination in Litterae Humaniores in 1913 reflects a considerable depth of classical learning by our standards a century later. Despite his academically dangerous attraction to the northern fringes of Europe, Tolkien’s scholarly and literary projects could no more escape the intellectual relics of Greco-Roman civilization than could the Anglo Saxons whose landscape still showed its physical ruins, the “old work of giants.” This session seeks papers which will consider Tolkien the medievalist as receiver and transmitter of the classical heritage.

organizer: John Wm. Houghton
The Hill School
Dept. of Religious Studies and Philosophy
717 E. High Street
Pottstown, PA 19464
jhoughton@thehill.org

Anyone thinking of submitting a proposal to these or any other sessions should read the information on the conference website about the forms that need to be sent in with abstracts. You can also contact the session organizers for information.

Tolkien’s King Sheave story

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Atlantic seashore

I’m finding Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers* a fascinating and deep well of ideas. Last summer at the New York Tolkien Conference, I commented on the sub-creators who appear in the story; this year, for my conference presentation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I talked about another part of Notion Club, the embedded legend of King Sheave (which was also part of the Tolkien’s plan for the earlier and unfinished The Lost Road).

According to Christopher, his father called the King Sheave legends “an astonishing tangle.” My presentation was an attempt to untangle at least one or two threads, but I had to ignore how tightly woven into the picture are texts such as  “The Seafarer” and “The Death of St. Brendan.” There’s only so much you can do in a 15-minute presentation.

I started with what is likely to be the most recognizable appearance of Sheave in English literature: the Scyld Scefing story that opens the Old English poem Beowulf. The Beowulf-poet merges two mythical or legendary figures. The first is the warlike Scyld, the eponymous founder of the Scyldings, another name for the Danes in the poem; (“sc” is pronounced like “sh” in Old English). The other figure is Scef (or Scéaf / Scéafa): Sheaf, who is an ancient culture-hero or corn-god. In numerous sources, this Sheaf is said to arrive from an unknown land as a child sleeping on a boat with a sheaf of grain by his head. In his Beowulf commentary, Tolkien finds this Sheaf figure “the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth” of the two.

Atlantic salt marsh

Other medieval sources also mention one or both of these figures. Alexander Bruce, in his book Scyld and Scef, publishes and discusses 43 references from English, Danish, and Icelandic sources, in chronicles, poems, and genealogies, covering several centuries — in other words, the legends must have been well known in early Germanic cultures. In my talk, I enumerated a few sources that Tolkien used and reshaped in his own version of Sheaf / Sheave (Tolkien spells it differently in different places), including the one unique version of the legend, the Beowulf story in which Scyld Scefing is given a ship burial at the end of his life, sent back out to an unknown destination with treasures piled around his body.

But what is even more interesting to me are the ways in which Tolkien’s version is different from his medieval sources.  For one thing, Tolkien’s story is remarkable for its vivid visualization of details added to the legend. Here you can see Tolkien’s characteristic descriptive style, with an attention to the visual qualities of light: “a ship came sailing, shining-timbered, without oar or mast, eastward floating. The sun behind it sinking westward with flame kindled the fallow water.” (NCP 273-74).

Tolkien adds other elements to the story, such as the harp that comes with the child, and how Sceaf reveals his extraordinary powers through song. In most legends, Sheaf is meant to bring agricultural fertility; in Tolkien’s version, he also brings linguistic and artistic ripeness to the people. Tolkien’s version brings us right into the events of the story imaginatively and vividly, as if we too are there witnessing the scene along with the other marvelling people who rush out of their houses to gaze on and listen to Sheaf.

Atlantic seashore and clouds

Finally, Tolkien adds hints or glimpses of how his King Sheave is tied to his own mythology of Númenor and the Blessed Lands to the West. For example, Sheaf’s ship sails in from the West to a dark, shadowed, deprived Middle-earth. There are also premonitions of the Eagles of the Lords of the West, a repeated refrain in NCP deriving from the story of Númenor as several characters experience or see it.

As interesting as I find Tolkien’s version of King Sheave, the full meaning of the story has to take into account not only what Tolkien makes of the legend but where he puts it. For Tolkien’s story of Sheaf is only one layer, deeply embedded, in a narrative about envisioning the past and about sea-longing. The Sheaf story is told in an Anglo-Saxon hall in King Éadweard’s reign, recited by Tréowine and concluded by his friend Ælfwine. This layer comprising of Ælfwine and Tréowine is in turn framed by the 20th-century story of Lowdham and Jeremy, two members of the Notion Club who are experimenting with time travel and are telling the story of Ælfwine and Tréowine to their friends.

Layer upon layer upon layer, with connections in word and image between layers “coming through” or “glimpsed” as the characters frequently say — the layers create a palimpsest or a pattern of recurring elements, made up of history and myth, including Tolkien’s own mythology. Verlyn Flieger has pointed out that framing has thematic significance in NCP, and the framing of the King Sheave story in several layers of time creates a tightly woven pattern that is impossible to unravel completely in this short summary.  Obviously, I have more untangling work to do this summer.

* NCP is an unfinished text published by Christopher Tolkien in Sauron Defeated, volume 9 of The History of Middle-earth.

 

 

 

 

 

Tolkien Unbound entertainment at Kzoo

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Every year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors a reader’s theatre event and a musical entertainment. This year’s Tolkien Unbound session will take place off campus. If you’re going to Kalamazoo, here is the event information from organizer Brad Eden:

 

TOLKIEN UNBOUND

SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2-5 P.M.

CONNABLE RECITAL HALL, FINE ARTS BUILDING

KALAMAZOO COLLEGE

(5 minutes from Bernhard Hall)

 

Reader’s Theatre performance of

Tolkien’s Kullervo

AND

Maidens of Middle-earth VI: Mothers of the Half-Elven

New Song Cycle by Eileen Marie Moore

Song cycle:

Lúthien’s Lullaby (poem by Jane Ellen Louise Beal)

Idril Celebrindal (poem by Eileen Marie Moore)

Lost (poem by Anne Reaves)(story of Mithrellas, the Silvan elf-maid)

Elwing in Travail (poem by Candace Benefiel)

Celebrían–Moon’s Daughter (poem by James Vitullo)

Arwen Undomiel (poem by Edward L. Risden)

 

Directions from Bernhard Hall 

1)    follow W. Michigan Ave and take left onto Monroe St.

2)   follow Monroe St. and take right onto Academy St.

3)    follow Academy St. and take left onto Thompson St.

4)   Connable Recital Hall, Fine Arts Building, Kalamazoo College is at the corner of Academy and Thompson Sts.

For a Google Map of this route, go to https://goo.gl/maps/ehDXRgd4qHK2

Car rides will also be available from 1:15-1:45 from Bernhard Hall, and back again after the performance. Rides will be arranged at the Tolkien at Kalamazoo business meeting on Saturday, May 14, noon, Bernhard 212.

Tolkien in Vermont 2016 program

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Tolkien in Vermont conferenceThe Tolkien in Vermont conference will take place this coming weekend. This is a small, friendly conference that brings together every year a group of faculty, independent scholars, and students. This year’s theme is Tolkien and Popular Culture.

If you look at the program below, you’ll see a couple of pretty long titles! This is all in the spirit of fun — Kris Larsen has been devising longer and longer titles every year, and when the keynote speaker Robin Reid saw Kristine’s title, she decided to go one better with her own lengthy title. In reaction, I’ve decided to stick to one-word titles!

April 8-9, 2016
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Lafayette L207

Friday, April 8
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Tolkien Fireside Reading
Lafayette L207

Saturday, April 9
8:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Lafayette L207

Session 1: 8:30 – 10:00

Yvette Kisor (Ramapo College) “Queer Tolkien: State of the Field”
Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University) “Sister-sons” read the abstract here [pdf]
Chris Vaccaro (University of Vermont) “Saruman’s Sexual Otherness”

Session 2:  10:00 – 11:45. Undergraduate Voices

Christopher Kelm (U. of Vermont) “Magic and Sorcery: Good and Evil in Tolkien’s Middle-earth”
Kit Loomis (U. of Vermont) “Not Dead, Legally: Necromancy, the Vyne Ring Curse, and Oath Limitations”
Liam McAuliffe (U. of Vermont) “Lost in the Lens Flare: Tolkien’s Many Shades of Evil”
Ryan Quinn (U. of Vermont) “Iarwen Ben-Adar: The Ancient Evil of Arda”

Lunch break  11:45-1:00

Session 3: 1:00-2:30
Keynote:  Robin Reid (Texas A&M University – Commerce)

Tolkien and popular culture: Being the Chronicle of Quests from Fandom to Academia and Back Again as the Island of Anglophone Literary Studies in the United States underwent Transformations During the 1970s to 2000s of the Fourth Age of the World Due to Progressive Movements of the Twentieth Century Challenging Oppressive Hierarchies Relating to Gender, Race, and Sexual Identification (Though not so much Class because “America” and Its Weird Obsession with Bootstraps) as Cultural Studies Swept like a Wave Over the Ivory Towers (Keep in Mind It’s a Simile not an Allegory). Plus Tattoos.

Session 4:  2:30 – 4:00

Kristine Larsen (University of Connecticut) “Kind People!!!: The Adventures of Svetlana Snape Down the Hobbit Hole; Being a (Semi) Serious and Scholarly Dissertation on The Thread ™  That Ate the Tolkien Society Facebook Page (And Judged it to Strangely Taste Like Bacon); In Which the Author Endeavors to Answer Two Great Primordial Questions, Namely (1) What Do Palindromes, Trebuchets, Quantum Physics and Hello Kitty Have to Do With the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien (Clearly a Rhetorical Question Given That the Obvious Answer is – Very Little), and (2) What Exactly is a Pant of Thong Ale? (The Answer to Which Promises to Shed Great Light on the Gestalt of the Tolkien Fandom)”
Andrew Peterson (Independent Scholar) “Hobbit Forming: How the Animated Versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King by Rankin / Bass introduced Middle-earth to a Generation of Wanderers”
James Williamson (University of Vermont) “Tolkien and Popular Publishing: the Creation of the Fantasy Genre”

Session 5: 4:00 – 5:30

Gerry Blair (Independent Scholar) “Tolkien Fandom and Pop Culture: The Polite and the Vulgar”
Leonard Neidorf (Harvard University) “Creation from Literary Criticism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur

Tolkien in Vermont 2016 poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tolkien Reading Day 2016

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In the calendar of Middle-earth, March 25 marks the fall of Sauron; it’s also the date chosen by the Tolkien Society to celebrate an annual Tolkien Reading Day.  Not that I need a special day to ensure I’m reading Tolkien —  I think I must read something by Tolkien on many days in any given week. But still, I like to mark the occasion and to think about the special theme chosen each year by the Tolkien Society. This year’s theme is “Life, Death, and Immortality.”

Most of my published research deals with this theme by looking at how Tolkien writes about war experiences  — the friendships, the trauma, the impairment — but today I sought out something different: Appendix A in The Lord of the Rings, the tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It’s the passage in which Aragorn tells Arwen that the hard hour has arrived in which he will use “the grace” he’s been given as the last of the Númenoreans “to go at my will.”

‘I will speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.’

‘Nay, dear lord,” she said, ‘that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.’

‘So it seems,’ he said. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’

….And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.

But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Then she said farewell to Eldarion, and to her daughters, and to all whom she had loved; and she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came….

There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth, and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.

The Lord of the Rings. Return of the King. Appendix A (v)

The end of this glorious love story is uncompromising. Although Aragorn asks Arwen not to despair, he knows there is “no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world.”  And although Arwen knows the stories and the beliefs about the “Gift of Men,”  — she made her choice knowing all this full well — when the moment comes she also realizes just how  “bitter” it is.  Although they hold to the hope of an unknown after-life, she finds the personal experience of death an unprecedented sorrow — “the loss and the silence” afflict her, in spite of the fact that Aragorn had led a long and successful life and could even choose the time of his going.

And the sorrow of the passage extends further, locating Arwen in a long span of time in which even she is “utterly forgotten” and the world changed. The littleness of our lives in the course of time and the way in which all trace of our existence is eventually obliterated is something Tolkien does not shy away from.

Their story is one that illustrates well what Tolkien believes can be found in fairy-stories: “both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords” (“On Fairy-Stories”).

This post is written with my stepfather-in-law Gordon in mind, who at the age of 99, on this very day is hoping finally to “go at his will” outside the “circles of the world.”

 

Tolkien Studies at PCA 2016

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Looking over the schedule of Tolkien Studies sessions at the Popular Culture Association conference, held annually in the US, certainly makes me wish I could be there this year. The conference will be held in Seattle, Washington, March 22 – 25, with all of the Tolkien sessions on the 24th and 25th. Robin Reid has once again put together a healthy program of eight Tolkien panels.

Of course, everyone will have different interests that attract them, but for me, one of the highlights of the conference would be presentations by Martin Barker and others about the World Hobbit Project. There’s also the Editors’ Roundtable discussing the “nuts ‘n bolts of Tolkien studies” which will include well-known book and journal editors Leslie Donovan, Janice Bogstad, Brad Eden, Janet Croft, and Martin Barker — a great opportunity for researchers to hear about the state of Tolkien scholarship and any new publishing developments. As usual, the PCA sessions will offer a broad range of papers, from historical and interdisciplinary approaches to pedagogy to reception studies — including a fascinating paper topic on fans’ participation in Chinese translations of books and films.

I list the session titles below. If you want to know more, you can read presenters’ names and their abstracts here.

March 24. Session 3038.  Tolkien Studies I.  Reception: The World Hobbit Project

March 24. Session 3138. Tolkien Studies II.  Pedagogy: Teaching Tolkien’s Middle-earth in the 21st Century. (Roundtable)

March 24. Session 3238. Tolkien Studies III. Reception: Fans, Translations, and Connections

March 24. Session 3338. Tolkien Studies IV.  Adaptation: Film Studies

March 24. Session 3438. Tolkien Studies V. Historical Approaches

March 25. Session 4138. Tolkien Studies VI. Scholarship: Editors’ Roundtable

March 25. Session 4238. Tolkien Studies VII. The Silmarillion

March 25. Session 4338. Tolkien Studies VIII. Interdisciplinary Approaches

I understand that a Meet ‘n Greet will be held on one of the evenings as well. To connect with people going to the conference or for more news about the PCA Tolkien Studies group, you can join the Facebook group: search for “Tolkien Studies at Popular Culture / American Culture Association.”

The Child, the Primitive, and the Medieval: making medieval heroes in the 19th and early 20th centuries

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I wrote “The Child, the Primitive, and the Medieval: Making Medieval Heroes in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” in an attempt to answer the questions, why would people think that stories of King Arthur or Beowulf or Robin Hood or stories written by Chaucer were appropriate for children? Why did late Victorian and early twentieth-century writers turn to medieval stories in such numbers to translate and adapt medieval tales for young readers?

The Hero Recovered: Essays on Medieval Heroism in Honor of George Clark (CB)I was glad to contribute the essay to the festschrift for George Clark* titled The Hero Recovered: Essays on Medieval Heroism in Honor of George Clark, edited by Robin Waugh and James Weldon, and published by Medieval Institute Publications in 2010. But as an expensive scholarly book, The Hero Recovered has limited circulation, and so I am posting a pdf of my essay here for anyone interested in the subject of children’s literature and medievalism.

The Boy's King Arthur by Sidney Lanier

S. Lanier. 1880

My essay focuses on the period between approximately 1875 and 1914 which saw many publications for young readers featuring King Arthur, Beowulf, King Alfred and other medieval heroes. Although children had been given medieval folktales, myths, and legends to read before this time — usually in drastically reduced, inexpensive chapbook versions — these tales were not generally seen as meriting serious attention. Samuel Johnson’s attitude in the 18th century is typical when he comments on the Middle Ages: “at the time when very wild and improbable tales were well received, the people were in a barbarous state, and so on the footing of children” (see essay, p. 210). In other words, the idea of an uncivilized, child-like medieval era has a long history.

…at the time when very wild and improbable tales were well received, the people were in a barbarous state, and so on the footing of children.

(Samuel Johnson)

Stories of Beowulf told to the children 1908

H.E. Marshall. 1908

What changed in the 19th century, however, was the value and interest that the medieval period held for scholars and general readers. In my essay, I discuss how imperial interests and racial politics, along with the study of national origins in Indo-European languages and in evolutionary anthropology, combine to create a widespread interest in the idea of progress from medieval and/or primitive origins. The evolutionary theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (i.e. the stages of development in the individual recapitulate or repeat phylogeny, the states of evolutionary development of the human) meant that children could stand in for cultural “primitives” as objects of study. Andrew Lang in his series of fairy tale books did much to popularize this notion of the child as a representative of an earlier stage of human development.

The children to whom and for whom [fairy tales] are told represent the young age of man.

 (Andrew Lang, Introduction, Blue Fairy Book)

To illustrate how a child could represent the evolutionary progress of a nation, I comment on a serialized story, “Progress of the British Boy: Past and Present,”  published in the periodical Boys of the Empire in 1888. The illustration accompanying the article wasn’t published with my essay, so I provide it here:

Progress of the British Boy: Past and Present 1888

…as the ‘boy is the father of the man,’ it may not be amiss to draw the attention of our young readers to the boyhood, if we may so term it, of England…

(Edwin J. Brett, “Progress of the British Boy” Boys of the Empire no. 1, p. 12)

As I state in my essay: “These children’s periodicals, schoolbooks, and anthologies demonstrate a conflation of ideas about the child and the medieval through a primitivist and evolutionary discourse, which often determined the kind of reading material that would be given to children” (218).  You can read the entire essay if you’re interested in the details of my discussion and in my examples of various texts. I’ll just reprint here part of my concluding paragraph:

…one may well question what effect the persistent association of the child and the primitive with the medieval has had on the contemporary status of medieval literature. Even today, if someone were to ask for stories of King Arthur or Robin Hood, it is likely that most people would assume that simple children’s stories or at least stories that appealed to adolescent tastes were being requested — in other words, literature that is not as complex or as serious as that typically defined as modern, adult literature. Medievalists, of course, know better, but in order to understand clearly how medieval studies developed to this point, it is important to recognize the conflation of the child, the primitive, and the medieval in the disciplinary formations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That intersection is perhaps most evident to us when we examine the particular kind of medieval hero presented to us in texts from this time, an exemplar of the nation and the race, who reveals to us quite sharply the primitivist and evolutionary foundations on which he was constructed.

You can download the pdf here: “The Child, the Primitive, and the Medieval: Making Medieval Heroes in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”

Chaucer for Children A Golden Key Mrs. Haweis

from Chaucer for Children. A Golden Key by Mrs. Haweis (1907; 1st ed 1887)

*Medievalists will know George Clark mainly from his work on the Old English poems The Battle of Maldon and Beowulf. Tolkienists might recognize him as the author of “J.R.R. Tolkien and the True Hero” published in the book that he co-edited with Daniel Timmons, J.R.R. Tolkien and his Literary Resonances, Greenwood Press. The Hero Recovered includes an interview conducted by Daniel Timmons with George Clark on heroism in Tolkien’s work and in Old Norse literature.

View the table of contents of The Hero Recovered [pdf].

 

 

 

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