Mallorn now an open-access resource for Tolkien fans and researchers

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A new resource has opened up for anyone interested in Tolkien fandom and research. The journal Mallorn is now open access and free (except for the last two years as part of a rolling paywall). As I was browsing the issues I couldn’t help noticing the range of articles and fan creations, including discussions about the fandom, that had been published in its pages.

The reason my mind turns to these subjects is the recent spate of attacks on social media against Tolkien conference presenters and organizers who were simply doing what they always do – that is, investigating and exploring Tolkien’s texts in an effort to better understand his work and how it relates to our world today. However, a mob of social media trolls stand ready to insult and accuse as soon as they hear of any scholarly work on Tolkien or fantasy that contains terms that trigger their investment in the right-wing “Culture Wars,” such as “diversity,” “queer,” “racism,” “heterodoxy,” “pagan.” Whether on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, and I’m sure elsewhere, they simply repeat and repost each other’s unfounded accusations, round and round, in a self-confirming loop.

Theirs is a ludicrous attempt to restrict the discourse on Tolkien by maintaining only one point of view on his work. One of the often-repeated claims is that because Tolkien was a Catholic, only discussion of approved traditional Christian beliefs is “allowed.” Furthermore, one tweeter informed me that only ideas mentioned by Tolkien were acceptable – if Tolkien didn’t say it, we can’t discuss it. He then, on second thought, added that because Tolkien’s son Christopher edited and studied so much of his father’s work, it was also acceptable to discuss anything Christopher had said. If neither one of them mentioned an idea, then “it wasn’t real.” I was informed that I suffer from “extreme hubris” if I think otherwise. These unreasonable restrictions not only misunderstand the nature of literary analysis of any author but also overlook Tolkien’s own statement that he disliked the “domination of the author” and preferred the “freedom of the reader” in interpretation (See the Foreword to the Second Edition of LotR).

Social media comments such as those above are based on the mistaken belief that the fandom used to be homogeneous and static but now it was being disrupted by illicit ideas. Apparently, according to one tweeter, I am an “ideologue” who has “infiltrated” the venerable 50-year-old Tolkien Society. (I find this particularly amusing, since some of my research, forthcoming in the Tolkien Society 2019 conference proceedings, draws on biblical typology as explained by the Old English writer AElfric in his Catholic Homilies). In any case – browse the past issues of Mallorn, and you will see that Tolkien fandom has elicited diverse discussions, including Indo-Iranian influence, gender and sexuality, Marxism, and Jewish influences, to name only a few.1 The Tolkien Society may have been a conservative and quite homogeneous group, but there were some people in it who made room at least to acknowledge and debate other views.

For example, look at the first issue of Mallorn published in 1970. In an editorial, Rosemary Pardoe admits, “I regret that the Society has an unfortunate reputation for narrow-mindedness and fanaticism.” To combat that perception and in the hope of winning new members, she states, “As far as I’m concerned this magazine is open to anyone to write anything about LotR whether they think it’s a fairy tale, an allegory or even any of the hippy ideas.” (Mallorn no. 1, 1970, p. 3). The editors make good their promise in the second issue where Belladonna Took (Vera Chapman) and A.R. (Faramir) Fallone debate the political positions of “hippy” fandom, with Chapman stating a conservative view in “Hippies or Hobbits” and Fallone with some objections in “On Behalf of the Half-Hippy.” The debate is further carried out in vol. 3 (1971) by Bob Borsley in “Some Thoughts on Hippies and Hobbits.” 2 None of these writers expresses radical positions, but I cite them because they are willing to discuss and analyze other political views, whether they share them or not, and to recognize that not all Tolkien fandom is the same.

Running throughout the objections of some of the social media posters is the fallacy of Christian persecution by the scholarly community, as if readings of Tolkien based on his Christian belief are consistently rejected by scholars. Although I could point to many different publications as contrary instances, here I’ll use Mallorn again as an example to cite some recently published essays:  “The Healing of Théoden or ‘a glimpse of the Final Victory’” (J. Chausse, no. 59, 2018); “A Holy Party: Holiness in The Hobbit,” (N. Polk, no. 59, 2018); “The Harrowing of Hell Motif in Tolkien’s Legendarium” (R. Steed, no. 58, 2017). 3 It would be easy to find many others.

One of the things that recent attacks have revealed to me is that many people have no idea what literary criticism even does. Many seem to believe that any critique of Tolkien’s work is an attempt to “cancel” him or to remake his stories into something different. One naïve commentator on YouTube even admitted that she had rushed out to buy copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before they were changed by the critics!

Making a journal such as Mallorn open access is one way to better inform the public about what interdisciplinary scholarly criticism – the exploration of an author’s works from different points of view and expertise —  is all about. It will not budge those who are entrenched in their restricted views, but others might be curious. Other open access periodicals, such as the Journal of Tolkien Research and Mythlore also contribute to the picture of the Tolkien studies field with their various interpretations by many different kinds of readers writing from different viewpoints. To my mind, rather than condemning this state of affairs, we should celebrate it.

Notes

I want to acknowledge that this year I joined the editorial board of Mallorn. For those who don’t know the inner workings of the scholarly world, we do not get paid for any scholarly journals’ peer reviews, editorial advice, or writing of essays (or blog posts).

1 These are the examples I’ve cited: McClain, M. “The Indo-Iranian Influence on Tolkien.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 19, Dec. 1982, pp. 21-24, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/329. Craig, D. M. “‘Queer lodgings’: Gender and Sexuality in The Lord of the Rings.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 38, Jan. 2001, pp. 11-18, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/145. Unknown. “A Marxist Looks at Middle-earth or The Political Economy of the Shire.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 9, Jan. 1975, pp. 24-29, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/283. Cramer, Z. “Jewish Influences in Middle-earth.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 44, Aug. 2006, pp. 9-16, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/113.

2 The editorial of the first edition can be found here: Pardoe, R. “Editorial.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 1, 1970, p. 3, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/issue/view/2/2. The various articles on the theme of hippy fandom are: Borsley, B. “Some Thoughts on Hippies and Hobbits.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 3, May 1971, pp. 17-19, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/262. Chapman, V. “Hippies or Hobbits?” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 2, Jan. 1971, pp. 11-13, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/257. Fallone, A. “On Behalf of the Half-Hippy.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 2, Jan. 1971, pp. 14-16, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/258.

3 Chausse, J. “The Healing of Théoden or ‘a Glimpse of the Final Victory’.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 59, Dec. 2018, pp. 49-51, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/23. Polk, N. “A Holy Party: Holiness in The Hobbit.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 59, Dec. 2018, pp. 57-63, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/16. Steed, R. “The Harrowing of Hell Motif in Tolkien’s Legendarium.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 58, Dec. 2017, pp. 6-9, https://journals.tolkiensociety.org/mallorn/article/view/26.

Upcoming Tolkien conference sessions (Tolkien Society Seminar and IMC Leeds)

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These sessions are not for those who rush to join bandwagons based on meaningless politicized terms such as “woke” or who advance the anti-intellectualism prevalent in groups where any academic is suspect, and expertise (whether of academics or fans) is ridiculed.  These sessions, as always, are for open discussions and debates by faculty, students, independent scholars, and fans who are interested in the complexities of Tolkien’s works and how they are received, enjoyed, and critiqued around the world.

I make these prefatory comments because of a recent backlash against the Tolkien Society’s free online Summer Seminar theme, Tolkien and Diversity. Of the various incoherent negative comments made on social media, some of which just mock paper titles without knowing what will be said in the presentations, I can discern a couple of repeated objections: a few critics immediately assume the intent is to “tear down” Tolkien or to disavow his Catholic beliefs. Because I have participated in Tolkien studies conferences for years, I feel confident in saying that these are not the intentions of the organizers.

This doesn’t mean that Tolkien will be treated as a saint (some people literally believe he should be sainted!). It also doesn’t mean that Tolkien “the man” will be the last word on his works. Yes, scholars are certainly interested in what he had to say, and that includes how he developed his ideas or changed his mind or contradicted himself; but he does not represent a static set of rigid ideas, as some of the objectors seem to believe.* In any case, what Tolkien has written has gone out into the world and, like any influential literature, it is being read, interpreted, used — for good and for ill — in various ways by readers around the globe. Trying to understand this about Tolkien’s work, as with any other works of literature, is a standard part of literary research, which leads to a better understanding of our contemporary culture.

The Seminar is free, so anyone can actually listen to the ideas being presented, decide if they agree or not, ask questions and discuss — or if they want to express their views in more detail, they can propose a paper for the next meeting in order to present a coherent and informed discussion.  Of course, no one is being forced to listen to any new ideas or learn any new facts; we are all free to read Tolkien as we wish.

Tolkien Society Summer Seminar, July 3-4

The Tolkien Society Summer Seminar will take place online on July 3-4.  For more information and a list of presentations, see here.

International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, July 5-9

The Tolkien Society Seminar usually takes place a day or two before the International Medieval Congress, normally held at the University of Leeds, but conducted online this year. The IMC typically features a number of Tolkien sessions. This conference requires registration and a fee; unfortunately, it may be too late to register at this point.

Check out the list of Tolkien-related presentations, including paper abstracts, at Tolkienists.org.

I’m looking forward to speaking about Tolkien’s alliterative poetry in “The Homecoming” on Thursday, 8 July, in the “Medieval Roots and Modern Branches” session. 


*This isn’t the first time, or the last, I am sure, in which I cite and recommend Verlyn Flieger’s paper, “The Arch and the Keystone” for anyone interested in considering Tolkien’s complex views. The essay is available for download from Mythlore here: https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol38/iss1/3/.

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New article in JTR on “The Homecoming”

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I’m pleased to announce that my co-author, Rebecca Foster, and I have recently published our study of Tolkien’s alliterative verse in his play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” in the free and open access Journal of Tolkien Research. In case you’re curious about its contents, here is the abstract:

“J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Homecoming’ and Modern Alliterative Metre”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” is a modern English alliterative verse drama written in the metre of Old English poetry and demonstrating his interest in versification and his skill in writing original alliterative verse in new and versatile ways. Tolkien’s originality also lies in his use of alliterative metre in a play, a genre not written by the early English; in fact, “The Homecoming” is Tolkien’s only published drama as well as historical fiction. While Tolkien bases this work on historical events recounted in the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” he also uses his drama to illustrate some of his scholarly theories about Old English alliterative poetry and poetic tradition and to imagine how “The Battle of Maldon” came to be written. Our examination of his careful handling of the play’s verses as well as his detailed study of alliterative metre, evident in his unpublished manuscripts and in his essay on the topic, shows how he creates various styles in modern English alliterative verse, from colloquial and conversational passages to highly styled set pieces. Our discussion includes consideration of the two characters in the play and their views on and use of alliterative poetry.

You can download the full article here: https://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol12/iss1/3

This article enabled me to draw on my readings in Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts held at the Bodleian Library. I included only a few quotations from Tolkien’s lectures and essays, but they represent many happy research trips devouring this information in the special collections reading room in Oxford.

I’ve also written about “The Homecoming” in the volume titled “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger. My essay in that book, “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming'” talks about the play as a piece that explores Tolkien’s views on heroic poetry and war. You can find out more about my views on “The Homecoming” here and here. As you can see, I have a lot to say about “The Homecoming” and think it should become better known among Tolkien readers.

For this recent JTR piece, I was grateful to be working with Rebecca Foster, especially for her patience and discriminating ear, which contributed significantly to the metrical analysis. Look for more work in the future by Rebecca on Tolkien and medieval and contemporary poetry.

Tolkien Symposium 2021: Tolkien the Playwright

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The Tolkien Symposium usually takes place in Kalamazoo, Michigan a day or two before the International Congress on Medieval Studies begins at the University of Western Michigan. This year, both events were held online, with the Symposium taking place on May 8. This year’s Symposium began with a memorial session dedicated to Tolkien scholar Richard West, who passed away earlier this year, and then continued with a day-long slate of presentations, including mine on “Tolkien the Playwright,” in which I discussed his verse drama, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.”

You can watch the video recording of my talk here:

In the Q & A after my presentation, I mentioned that I would post my references here on my blog; I also mentioned that my co-authored article with Rebecca Foster would be available soon in the Journal of Tolkien Research. The best way to get a full list of our references (and to learn more about “The Homecoming”) would be to read our article, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Homecoming’ and Modern Alliterative Metre” which has now been published in the free and open-access JTR.

You can also watch most of the other Symposium presentations on the Tolkien Experience YouTube channel. The other available presentations are:

John Holmes, “The Imagined World and the Frame in Tolkien’s Art

Kris Larsen, “Seeing Double: Tolkien and the Indo-European Divine Twins

Annie Brust, “The Warrior Women of Beastly Exterior”

Kris Swank, “The Poetry of Geoffrey Bache Smith with special note of Tolkienian Contexts

Luke Shelton, “The Lord of the Rings, Young Readers, and Heroism

Eileen Moore, “Maidens of Middle-earth XI: Valier and Maiar

I’ll post more about our “Homecoming” article soon.

Tolkien Conference Season, May-July 2021

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Conference season is upon us again, and just like last year’s sessions, the meetings I’m interested in are being held online.  While nothing can replace sitting on a university patio in the summer sun drinking mead with new and old conference friends, we’ll have to make do with virtual reality.  As I’ve said before, the one advantage is that we can listen to many more papers and “attend” many more conferences than we typically would have done, especially for those who do not have travel funding to go far afield to specialist meetings.

I think that in a fit of overcompensating for last year’s pandemic lockdown and research slowdown, I have offered to give three conference papers and one roundtable discussion this spring and summer.  In order to make sure I remember where I want to be and when, I’ve compiled a list of conference sessions on Tolkien that I’m either involved in or just interested in attending from May to July. 

Kalamazoo campus swan pond

Tolkien Symposium, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Coming up are the sessions which are usually held in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which begin with the one-day Tolkien Symposium, sponsored by the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group. These sessions will be held on May 8 from 10:30 a.m. EDT to 5:00 p.m. EDT, with 9 papers, rounding up the day with a musical performance.  To see the full schedule, go to Tolkienists.org. The Symposium is free; email Dr. Christopher Vaccaro for the link [Christopher.Vaccaro@uvm.edu].

My paper is scheduled on May 8. Did you know that Tolkien published a play? And that it is his only piece of historical fiction? My talk is on “Tolkien the Playwright” and deals with his verse drama, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.”

International Congress on Medieval Studies, University of Western Michigan

There are a number of sessions on Tolkien and medievalism at this conference, to be held May 10 – 15. Registration is required and so is the payment of a fee, scaled to your income. Each session includes two or more papers; below are the session topics and dates and times.  For details about the presenters and their paper titles, go to the Tolkienists.org site  or search the program and register at the ICMS site.

Monday, May 10, 1:00 p.m. EDT
Tolkien and Manuscript Studies

Monday, May 10, 5:00 p.m. EDT
Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-Inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion)

Tuesday, May 11, 9:00 a.m EDT
Christopher Tolkien, Medievalist (a roundtable)

Tuesday, May 11, 3 p.m. EDT
Tolkien’s Chaucer

Thursday, May 13, 11:00 a.m. EDT
Tolkien and Se Wyrm

Thursday, May 13, 3 p.m. EDT
Tolkien’s Medicinal Medieval World: Illness and Healing in Middle-earth

Friday, May 14, 1 p.m. EDT
Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, His Precursors and Legacies

Saturday, May 15, 11:00 a.m. EDT
Tolkien’s Paratexts, Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (a roundtable)

Popular Culture Association

From June 2 – 4, we have the PCA (Popular Culture Association) conference.  Conference registration for non-presenters will open on May 1st here.  The Tolkien Studies Area is organized by Robin Reid.

Tolkien Studies I:  Environmental Ethics and Leadership Theory in Tolkien’s Legendarium
Wednesday, June 2, 11:00 a.m. – 12:20  EDT

  • Amber Lehning. Elf-Songs and Orc-Talk: Environmental Ethics in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, from Beowulf to Peter Jackson
  • Michael Joseph Urick. Theories of Leadership in Middle-earth
  • James Eric Siburt.  Rendering Visible an Understanding of Power in Leadership in Tolkien’s Creation Mythology: Ainulindalë and Akallabêth

Tolkien Studies II:  Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Tolkien’s Legendarium
Wednesday, June 2, 12:30-1:50 p.m. EDT

  • Meaghan Scott.  The Nimrodel and Silverlode: Lothlórien as a Secondary World
  • Rebecca Power, Tolkien’s Penchant for Alliteration: Using XML to Analyze The Lay of Leithian
  • Anna Smol,  Tolkien’s New Old English Genre: “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth”
  • Kristine Larsen, “I am no man”: Game of Thrones’ Lyanne Mormont as Borrowed Tolkienian Canonicity

On June 2, I’ll be talking about what critic Chris Jones calls “New Old English” poetry and how Tolkien’s “Homecoming” and other poems can be viewed as part of an alliterative verse history of the twentieth century.

Tolkien Studies III:  A Roundtable on Tolkien Reception Studies
Wednesday, June 2, 2:00 – 3:20 p.m. EDT
Presenters: Maria Alberto, Cordeliah G. Logsdon, Dawn Walls-Thumma, Cait Coker, Robin Anne Reid

Tolkien Studies IV:  Race and Racisms in Tolkien’s Secondary and Our Primary Worlds
Thursday, June 3, 3:30-4:50 p.m. EDT

  • Robert Tally.  More Dangerous and Less Wise: Racial Hierarchies and Cultural Difference in Tolkien’s World
  • Alastair Whyte.  Scales of malice: The banal evil of Middle-earth’s tyrant-history
  • Craig N. Franson. Where Shadows Lie”: Middle-earth and Neo-fascist Metapolitics
  • Robin Anne Reid.  Race in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings And in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor

Tolkien Studies V:  Tolkien’s Fandoms
Thursday, June 3, 5:00-6:20 p.m. EDT

  • M. Lee Alexander. “Heroes of the North”: Tolkien and Finnish Fandom
  • Dawn Walls-Thumma. The Pillar and the Vastness: A Longitudinal View of the Tolkien Fanfiction Fandom
  • Cordeliah G. Logsdon. “What care I for the hands of a king?“: Tolkien, Fanfiction, and Narratives of the Self
  • Maria Alberto.  Mathom Economies? Fan Gift Culture and A Tolkien Fic Exchange Event 

Tolkien Studies VI:  A Roundtable on the Future of Tolkien Studies
Friday, June 4, 11:00-12:20 EDT
Presenters:  Craig N Franson, Rebecca Power, James Eric Siburt, Amber Lehning, Anna Smol, Kristine Larsen

On June 4, I’ll be taking part in this roundtable to discuss the study of Tolkien and 20th and 21st century poetry.

Tolkien Studies VII:  The Council of Tolkien Studies
Friday, June 4, 12:30-1:50 p.m. EDT
Presenter: Robin Reid.

Tolkien Society

Tolkien Society Summer Seminar

Looking ahead to July, we have the weekend Tolkien Seminar sponsored by the Tolkien Society, which always takes place just before the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. This year, the Tolkien Society has expanded its Seminar series to include three seminars; one has already taken place last February, and the Summer Seminar is scheduled for July 3-4. The theme of the Summer Seminar is Tolkien and Diversity. The call for papers has just passed, so we still have to wait to see the schedule, but the place to keep up to date is on the Summer Seminar page. These talks will be free for all.

International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

The IMC at Leeds will be online this year again. Registration is required, with a deadline of May 10, and the full program is available here. The organizer of the Tolkien sessions, to be held July 8-9, is Dr. Andrew Higgins, and you can find details and updates about the Tolkien papers on his blog, Dr. Wotan’s Musings.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches
Thursday, July 8. 14:15-15:45 BST

  • Jan A. Kozak. Borders on the Otherworld: Warrior Maidens, Mounds, and Ancestral Swords in The Lord of the Rings and in the Old Norse Hervar Saga
  • Brian Egede-Pedersen. Flocking to the Serpent Banner – Decolonising The Lord of the Ring‘s Workshop’s Table-Top War Game
  • Joel Merriner. The Raven and the Map: Decoding Gyözö Vida’s A Gyürük Ura
  • Anna Smol. Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”

My talk on July 8 will analyze Tolkien’s expert composition of alliterative verse in various styles, from colloquial and informal to highly stylized verse, following the Sievers scheme of alliterative patterns.

Tolkien and Diversity: A Round Table Discussion
Thursday, July 8. 19:00-20:30 BST
Participants: Deidre Dawson, Sultana Raza, Christopher Vaccaro    

Medieval Climates, Cosmologies and EcoSystems in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (I)
Friday, July 9. 14:15-15:45 BST

  • Andrzej Wicher. The Importance of Geographical Directions in the construction of Tolkien’s Middle-earth
  • Aurelie Bremont. King Elessar in Middle-earth: Strawberry Fields Forever?
  • Kristine Larsen. “Carry on My Wayward Sonne (and Moon)”: Common Cosmological Quirks in the Norse Fimbul-Winter and Tolkien’s Early Legendarium
  • Gaëlle Abalea. Political Climate in the “The Fall of Numenor”

Medieval Climates, Cosmologies and EcoSystems in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (II)
Friday, July 9. 16:30-18:00 BST

  • Helen Lawson. The Myth of the Mother – Retracing the Roots of Motherhood in Tolkien’s Decaying Middle-earth
  • Sara Brown. Situating Middle-earth: Reconsidering Tolkien’s Relationship with the Landscape
  • Andrew Higgins. Language Invention, Climate and Landscapes in Tolkien’s Gnomish Lexicon
  • Sultana Raza. How Alan Lee’s Landscapes Outline the Climate of Plot and Tolkien’s Mind-scapes

There will also be a Tolkien Sessions business meeting at some point during the conference week.

Kalamazoo spring 2014

Trying to work out time zones in your area? This has become an important question with these online sessions around the world. I have found this Time Zone Converter to be very handy when trying to figure out what time of day a virtual paper in another country will be given, and you can find lots of other guides and converters online.

Tolkien conference sessions don’t end with the IMC at Leeds in early July. There is more to come later this summer and fall — such as Mythcon and Oxonmoot. Stay tuned for more details later this summer, and feel free to point out in the comments other conferences this May – July season that you’re interested in.

Tolkien Studies, from ancient Greek to modern literature

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This week offers quite a range of talks by Tolkien scholars, and all online of course, so even if we can’t meet in person, we can attend sessions that would normally be out of reach.

The Tolkien at Vermont conference is back this year with a one-day event on the theme of Tolkien and the Classics. The keynote speaker is the Very Rev. John Houghton, who will be giving a talk on “Tolkien’s calques of classicisms: Who Knew Elvish Latin, what did the Rohirrim read, and why was Bilbo cheeky?”

Other papers at the conference trace Tolkien’s connections to Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and more. The conference takes place on Saturday, April 10, from 8:30 – 6:00 EST, free on Zoom. Check out the full schedule and how to request the Zoom link on the Tolkienists.org website.

Also on Saturday, April 10, the Tolkien Society AGM will feature Professor Verlyn Flieger as the annual guest speaker, talking about “Waiting for Earendel.” Members of the Society will get a Zoom link, but the general public will be able to watch on Facebook and YouTube. Go to the Tolkien Society announcement for more details.

From the classics to modern literature: earlier this week, Signum University sponsored an author chat with Dr. Holly Ordway, author of the recently published Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages. Dr. Ordway discusses the importance of acknowledging Tolkien’s interest in contemporary literature. You can find this Signum Symposium on YouTube.

Free Tolkien Society Seminar

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Although we’re probably all weary with our various restrictions and lockdowns, one positive consequence of moving conferences online is that they are now open to a far greater audience. The Tolkien Society, which in the past has sponsored a seminar day in Leeds in July, is now offering Seminar 1 (how many will there be?) on Saturday, February 13. It will be free for everyone either through Zoom or live-streamed on the Tolkien Society YouTube channel. The theme of the Seminar is “21st-century receptions of Tolkien,” and the presentations will be given by both non-academics and researchers. Go to the Tolkien Society Seminar 2021 page for the schedule of talks and information about how to tune in. If you’re in North America, prepare to get up early on Saturday!

Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection

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Three minutes, three questions – that’s all it takes.  The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection is looking for more volunteers to record their experiences as Tolkien fans. I did it! It was fun and informal, though the three minutes were up before I knew it.

You can schedule an interview by following the link on this page. There are three questions you’ll be asked: When did you first encounter the works of J.R.R. Tolkien? Why are you a fan? What has he meant to you? The goal is ambitious: to collect 6,000 interviews, the number of Théoden’s riders who came to the aid of Gondor.

This digital collection is a project led by William Fliss, the Tolkien Archivist at Marquette University in Milwaukee and is just one part of their Tolkien collections, which include original manuscripts, a vast collection of fanzines, and other Tolkien-related materials. Why all this Tolkien stuff in Milwaukee? Read the story behind the archive and what it contains here: https://www.marquette.edu/library/archives/tolkien.php

Virtual IMC to include 2 Tolkien sessions

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The regular International Medieval Congress in Leeds is cancelled, but it’s being replaced by a pared-down virtual IMC, or vIMC. While many presentations have been withdrawn, there is still a healthy program of sessions from Monday to Friday, July 6 – 10 being offered online. Please note that registration is free but closes this Friday, June 26.

Although it’s still a draft program that may change, currently two Tolkien sessions remain, with a truly international roster of speakers. And of course, the times listed are in British time, so you’ll have to calculate the equivalent in your own time zone.

Monday 6 July from 14:15-15:45:

BORDERS IN TOLKIEN’S MEDIEVALISM, I
Organiser: Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar, Brighton
Moderator: Kristine Larsen, Geological Sciences Department, Central Connecticut State University

The Liminality of Tolkien’s Non-Human Species
Andrzej Wicher, Zakład Dramatu i Dawnej Literatury Angielskiej, Uniwersytet Łódzki

Warrior Maidens, Mounds, and Ancestral Swords in Lord of the Rings and in the Old Norse Hervarar Saga
Jan A. Kozák, Institutt for lingvistiske, litterære og estetiske studier, Universitetet i Bergen

Foraging for Sources: Sir Orfeo as the Origin of Medieval Romance Topoi Present in Mirkwood
Andoni Cossio, Facultad de Letras, Universidad del Pais Vasco – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Vitoria-Gasteiz

Monday 6 July 16:30-18:00:

BORDERS IN TOLKIEN’S MEDIEVALISM, II
Organiser: Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar, Brighton
Moderator: Alaric Hall, Institute for Medieval Studies / School of English, University of Leeds

The Walls of the World and the Voyage of the Evening Star: The Complex Borders of Tolkien’s Medieval Geocentric Cosmology
Kristine Larsen, Geological Sciences Department, Central Connecticut State University

The Limits of Subcreation
Lars Konzack, Institut for Kommunikation, Københavns Universitet

A Preliminary History of Deadly Splinters
Victoria Holtz Wodzak, School of Humanities, Viterbo University, Wisconsin


Registration will give you access to lots of other sessions on diverse medieval topics. And make sure to check out the book fair, which will have discounts from a number of publishers, as well as the other markets and presentations that will soon be confirmed. As registration is free, this is a great time to experience the conference for those who wouldn’t normally be able to attend, and it’s at least some consolation for those who were originally planning to go.

“It depends on what you mean by use”: teaching and learning in the arts now

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I was going to write to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day (March 25) as I usually do, with a post on “Leaf by Niggle,” one of the texts recommended by the Tolkien Society for this year’s theme of Nature vs. Industry. However, as we were approaching Tolkien Reading Day, COVID-19 cases started to pop up in Canada, with the result that my university closed on-campus classes on March 13th, and by the 19th they had entirely locked down the campus. So within a matter of days, we had to shift our last three and half weeks of classes and three weeks of exams into virtual operations.

Those weeks were chaotic and stressful, and a Tolkien Reading Day post was abandoned. Students were moving home, sometimes to far-distant time zones; others were taking care of children who were out of school or daycare; some were dealing with the sick and worst of all, with the death of family or friends. Some had no Internet access, or nothing more than a cell phone with limited data to try to connect to their online classes. Most lost their jobs. We missed seeing our students in person, especially our graduating students who would be leaving without an in-person good-bye celebration.

As faculty, we had to rethink how to teach course concepts online and quickly learn new technologies within a matter of days, while triaging student problems. Many faculty had additional challenges at home with childcare or having to share one home computer. Relatively speaking, though, my position has been a privileged one indeed. I have a home and the companionship of my husband while in lockdown (and we each have our own laptops to work on); I can work from home in a safe job with a continuing salary. My adult children, while never far from our minds, are managing (for now) to get by independently. And yet —

And yet, it has been an unsettling and anxious time, filled with uncertainty. Among other concerns, the research and writing that I would normally be immersed in at this time have been relegated to irregular jabs at getting going. My ambitious research project recedes further and further into the distance.

Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often.”

(“Leaf by Niggle,” page 93)

I won’t push an allegorical equivalence with Niggle much farther, although as the banner on top of this blog reveals, I do enjoy and identify with parts of that story, and I would dearly love to learn the secret of his time management lessons without having to go to the same “workhouse.” However, as my attention shifted to our new pandemic living conditions, I was brought back to an important element of Tolkien’s story, the value of art.

I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”
“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business.”

(“Leaf by Niggle,” page 116)

In the midst of this pandemic anxiety, chaos, and for some, even boredom, how often have people turned to the arts? Movies; tv shows; livestreams of theatre, opera, dance, concerts; Zoom choirs and songs and YouTube parodies; online communities sharing readings; political graffiti or a child’s sidewalk chalk drawings, books and storytelling — the arts have provided us with comfort, distraction, entertainment, enlightenment, information, and calls to action. The fact that most of the artists producing these arts are now out of jobs while society eats up their work should lead us to consider the “use” of art in our Tompkins-led world. How do we use art? How do we use artists?

“It depends on what you mean by use” says the schoolteacher, who is considered “nobody of importance,” and who pushes back (albeit feebly) against Tompkins, who criticizes the teacher for not factory-producing people as “serviceable cog[s]” for some larger economic machine. 

It is shocking how often that view is expressed in our Primary World, even in my own world of the university. We have witnessed in numerous places professors being considered simply as “content providers” to students who are imagined as empty buckets – fill them all with the same information, and we’re done; they are “educated”; then churn them out the assembly line into a job. Putting our “content” into online format is easy, as one Tompkins-administrator told a group of students in my university a mere five days after the decision to move classes online, assuring them in her usual perky, uninformed style that everything was fine — “Of course your professors have everything all set online by now!” — completely oblivious to the careful thought that needs to go into teaching effectively in a digital world.

How often have students taking an Arts degree, either to learn to produce and/or to analyze the arts, been asked, “what use is that?” Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m glad when our B.A. students can get – and they do get – good jobs, despite popular misconceptions that Arts graduates don’t do as well as, say, Business students. But even within my university, a Business professor recently wrote in a university-wide document, citing reports by a national bank, that one of the main goals of higher education was “to produce business leaders of the future.” Tompkins is everywhere.

Thankfully, many of my colleagues countered that they believe, instead, that the aim of a university education is to encourage the development of socially responsible global citizens. Yes, we need scientists and social scientists to help solve our problems, but we also need artists and people educated in the humanities to help analyze our world and communicate some truths. Arts courses aim to give students a broad, multifaceted understanding of the world they live in and how it came to be that way. And these courses, at least where I teach, try to do that by having teachers engaging with individual students, exchanging ideas with them, developing their understanding and our own understanding as teachers as we analyze the world together beyond our doors, using novels, poetry, speeches, essays, plays, films, dance, music – the stuff of the arts, that illuminate the world for us.  

And let me emphasize together. Good teachers are always learning along with their students. We don’t just dump our “content” onto a webpage and call that “teaching.” And I, like many other teachers, have to continually remind myself that I have to keep learning, to look beyond the comfort and security of my home office to read, watch, and listen to what is going on in our society, and to question continually how it affects what we do and what we teach.

And right now, with protests against systemic racism around the world, in the midst of a global pandemic, our society, while in dire need of many things, also could use the transformative power of the arts – the analysis, commentary, expression, solace, and communication that artists and those educated in the arts can provide.

So yes, “It depends on what you mean by use.”

Work Cited
“Leaf by Niggle.” Tree and Leaf, including Mythopoeia. HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 93-118.


Floral drawing by Tolkien

I have a lot of learning to do in the next few months. Here are some resources that I’ve been using as starting points for my particular areas of interest:

Tolkien studies: 

“Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay” by Robin Anne Reid. In Tolkien and Alterity, edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 33-74.

Medieval studies:

“Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski. postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, vol. 8, 2017, pp.500–531. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-017-0072-0. Also available here: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2Fs41280-017-0072-0.pdf

’Black Death’ Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic” by M. Rambaran-Olm. Medium.com, 5 June 2020.

Fan studies:

Lori Morimoto, @acafanmom on Twitter.  This thread includes reading suggestions on decentering whiteness in fan studies.  https://twitter.com/acafanmom/status/1268873028370382849?s=20

Canadian writers and issues:

A Different Booklist: A Canadian Multicultural Bookstore Specializing in Literature from the African and Caribbean Diaspora and the Global South. https://adifferentbooklist.com/

“35 Books to Read for National Indigenous History Month.” CBC.ca https://www.cbc.ca/books/35-books-to-read-for-national-indigenous-history-month-1.5585489