The second day of the Mythopoeic Society conference began with a Mythcon tradition: a procession of attendees into the auditorium to listen to the first plenary talk. Our pre-conference updates suggested that we wear our academic regalia for this event — have you ever tried to cram an academic gown into a carry-on bag? I decided I needed other clothes more and was relieved to find that only a couple of people were decked out in their scholarly robes as we filed up the stairs and into the meeting room to begin the first full day of programming.
The conference theme, Green and Growing: The Land and its Inhabitants in Fantasy, was addressed in a variety of ways in the presentations I attended on this Saturday (July 13). The Scholar Guest of Honour, Douglas A. Anderson, led off with a talk about British authors who wrote about faery in the 1920s and 30s. As usual, Doug demonstrated his knowledge of little-known fantasy authors. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the book cover designs and illustrations. Here are a couple that Doug showed us.
Doug finished his talk with the example of Bernard Sleigh, a Birmingham wood engraver, author, and creator of An anciente mappe of Fairyland, newly discovered and set forth, which you can explore in detail here.
I think that many of us came away from Doug’s talk with a new reading list and an understanding that a number of British authors continued to be interested in fairy literature even after the First World War and the Cottingley Fairy scandal.
Tolkien’s painterly style
My talk was scheduled in the next round of presentations. I spoke about “Tolkien’s Painterly Style: Landscapes in The Lord of the Rings,” a collaborative project that I am working on with my colleague, Jeff MacLeod, who unfortunately couldn’t be at Mythcon this year.
Jeff and I had previously published a Mythlore article titled “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy” that started us on this line of research. Aided by the insights of a 1981 article by Miriam Y. Miller (“The Green Sun: A Study of Color in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings“), we have found in our examination of landscapes that Tolkien describes as if he is painting an impressionistic scene. Using a limited colour palette and descriptions of the quality of the light, as well as guiding our eyes through a carefully composed scene, Tolkien allows us to enter imaginatively into his landscapes. Although many readers would say that Tolkien describes Middle-earth in painstaking detail, he actually leaves a lot up to the reader’s imagination, thus creating the “invitational style” that Steve Walker identifies in his book The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style.
Whenever I’m giving a presentation that relies on slides, I’m anxious about whether the technology will work, but all went smoothly enabling me to show some examples of Tolkien’s visual and verbal art. Of course, anyone working on Tolkien’s art is indebted to Wayne C. Hammond and Christina Scull, two of this Mythcon’s distinguished presenters, whose books J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The Art of The Hobbit are invaluable in showing us aspects of Tolkien’s creative process and visual experimentation.
Part way through my talk, I decided to pause to ask the audience some stylistic questions. In order to demonstrate features of Tolkien’s descriptive style, I thought that a contrasting example from another fantasy writer might help to illustrate what is distinctive about Tolkien’s approach. I had no idea whether the audience would see the passage in the same way that I did, but I’m happy to report that people responded quickly and fully, analyzing the text in the same way that I would do. Corroboration!
One of the practices at Mythcon is to have copies of presentations available for sale afterwards. This is a difficult procedure for someone like me, a chronic niggler who cannot put the final touches on a paper until very close to the actual moment of stepping on stage. In other words, I had no copies of my talk to hand out at Mythcon. However, if anyone would like a copy, please contact me and I would be happy to send the paper to you.
Gardening, Pipe-weed, and Tree Spirits
Feeling pleased with the positive response to my presentation, I settled in to listen to further talks throughout the afternoon on the theme of a “Green and Growing” fantasy land. Eleanor Simpson’s “Thinking of Gardening: How Sam’s Profession Cultivates His Role in The Lord of the Rings” discussed how Sam’s identity as a gardener shapes his role as a caretaker in the Ring quest and afterwards. Eleanor’s comparison of Sam to other cultivators of nature, Yavanna and Tom Bombadil, also emphasized the importance of a nurturing role in Tolkien’s mythology.
David Oberhelman took a look back in history to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, outlining the economic and cultural history of the tobacco trade between Europe and the American South as a parallel to Tolkien’s history of pipe-weed. David’s presentation, “Westmansweed to Old Toby: The Economic and Cultural Herblore of Pipe-weed in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” demonstrated that the cross-cultural contacts of the tobacco trade were analogous to the Secondary World trade in pipe-weed, with similar economic and political complications.
I concluded my day of conference presentations by going to hear Verlyn Flieger, another distinguished Tolkien scholar at this year’s Mythcon, talking about “How Trees Behave.” Dr. Flieger used as a jumping-off point a passage about tree-fairies or dryads in MS B of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (which she and Douglas Anderson have edited for HarperCollins). With her usual careful handling of manuscripts and dates and with close textual analysis, Dr. Flieger considered three of Tolkien’s trees, Old Man Willow, Treebeard, and the Huorns, as examples of these tree-spirits that Tolkien calls “inherent powers of the created world,” capable of good or evil actions.
After dinner, I decided to skip the evening’s entertainment in order to go for a walk around campus to look at some real trees. Although it was still quite hot, it was a refreshing change from the hotel meeting rooms and the cafeteria where we were spending all of our time. The Michigan State University campus in East Lansing stretches out in broad roads, bike trails, expansive lawns, and tall trees. No sightings of tree-spirits, though — alas.
After a very full and satisfying day, I called it a night. I only wished that the wedding guests drinking and shouting to each other in the hallway and banging hotel room doors until 3 a.m. might have been more courteous.
To be continued: Days 3 – 4: linguistics, music, art, philosophy, and traditional Mythcon entertainments.