One of the features of Mythcon is that presenters come from many different disciplines, and on Sunday (July 14) I decided to take in some of the talks from fields outside the areas I typically work in. I started off the day listening to Andrew Higgins undertake “A Linguistic Exploration through Tolkien’s Earliest Landscapes.” Andrew’s examination of Tolkien’s earliest invented language lexicons and the way in which Tolkien constructed place names for his emerging mythology with a careful consideration of base roots was too detailed for me to attempt to summarize here. While I do work with Old English and Middle English language and literature, Qenya and Tolkien’s later linguistic creations are still largely unknown to me. Andrew’s talk made me realize I’d like to start branching out into this area more seriously. You can read more about Andrew’s thoughts on Tolkien generally on his blog, Wotan’s Musings.
I then went to Meghan Naxer’s musicology paper, “There and Back Again: A Musical Journey in Middle-earth.” Meghan showed how Donald Swann’s song cycle, The Road Goes Ever On (composed in collaboration with Tolkien) represents musically each of the different cultures of Middle-earth. Although I have no musical training at all, I do know how to scan poetry, and Meghan’s talk illustrated for me the basics of how poetic rhythm is transformed into a musical meter. But her paper offers much more as well for those who understand the technicalities of musical composition. She has generously made her paper, slides, and audio clips available on Google Drive.
One of the program streams at Mythcon features contemporary writers of fantasy literature. I decided to step outside of the Tolkien sessions that I had been focusing on to listen to the Author Guest of Honour, Franny Billingsley, give some pointers about writing fiction, which she did in an honest, funny, and serious presentation. She later addressed the conference in an after-dinner talk as well. Listening to Franny Billingsley brought home to me the fact that someone could select a very different Mythcon program from the one I had done — you could follow, for example, a contemporary fantasy and creative writing schedule in which you would attend author readings and participate in the evening bardic circles where people share their stories, songs, and poetry. If only there were enough timeslots to sample everything.
The presentation by Wayne C. Hammond and Christina Scull on “Writing The Art of The Hobbit” was one that I was particularly interested in, given my research on Tolkien’s painterly style. As I had mentioned in my talk, no one can discuss Tolkien’s visual art without consulting Wayne and Christina’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and their recently published The Art of The Hobbit. Their presentation gave us some insight into dealing with publishers and the kinds of decisions that need to be made in compiling a book like The Art of The Hobbit. I was extremely interested to hear Wayne and Christina say that there is still some unpublished Lord of the Rings artwork (mostly map sketches, I think they said) and that more could still be done on Tolkien’s heraldic doodles, his landscapes, his calligraphy, and his “ishnesses.” Show us more, please!
The final presentation I attended came on Monday morning (July 15), the last day of the conference, when I went to hear a fellow Canadian, Isabelle Guy, give a talk on “The Influence of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law on Tolkien’s Metaphysics.” Isabelle presented a convincing discussion about how Iluvatar’s children are expected to fulfill a divine plan through their natural inclinations which they can resist or deny, similar to Aquinas’ concept of Natural Law.
Over the four days of the conference, I certainly heard a number of interesting presentations, but Mythcon is not just a serious academic conference. There is fun to be had as well. The Sunday night banquet offered up a feast of local foods. I had a chance to sit with some people I knew and to meet others I didn’t know, quite a few of them being students from the Mythgard Institute. * And why was someone walking around to different tables showing off his plate of food? Why were people applauding this demonstration? That’s one of the mysterious traditions of a Mythcon you have to see for yourself. This was an evening for creative fun: we heard the winning verses in the clerihew contest; we saw the costume parade (where everyone gets a personal prize); we watched the Not-Ready-For-Mythcon players put on a skit (Watership Downton Abbey); we applauded the winners of the golfimbul competition; and we listened to the Mike Foster Group sing Motown-inspired songs such as “Frodo was a rolling stone.”
Finally on Sunday night, I decided to stop by the hospitality suite, which had been open every night of the conference. What I found were drinks, snacks, and a lot of people streaming into the hotel room for some late-night socializing. I managed to find a corner to sit in and had a cozy conversation with Douglas Anderson and his sister before calling it a night.
The closing ceremonies of the conference on Monday featured another Mythcon tradition. I was wary, I have to admit. I thought it might feel silly. But it actually turned out to be quite lovely: the closing sing-a-long. I first discovered Diane Paxson’s “The Baby and the Bird” in a 1970s Tolkien magazine; to me, it was a piece of archival history. But on the last day of Mythcon, unexpectedly, I heard it as a living song. The lyrics run through several verses about famous literary pubs until this stanza:
They sing of famous taverns,
But considering them all,
The one where I had rather
Been a fly upon the wall,
Would be the Inn where Tolkien,
Lewis, Williams too,
Met with the other Inklings
Asking, “Who has something new?
I have to admit that “Who has something new” gave me a little sentimental thrill as we sang the lines together. Concluding with the interactive “Weigh, heigh, the Mythcon’s over,” I was surprised and charmed by this shared experience of singing together.
“What shall we do with a drunken hobbit” kept running through my head as I boarded the airport bus with several other Mythcon participants. We said our first good-byes to each other as we got off the bus at the airport. Knowing that I had a few hours before my scheduled flight, I took a seat at one of the airport restaurants. Shortly afterwards, Kelly Cowling and Roger Echo-Hawk wandered in, their flight having been delayed by several hours. This proved a great opportunity to hear more about the Grey Havens Group in Colorado, which Kelly had founded and which is going strong, with several meetings a week at a local library. In that airport restaurant (in our very own extended edition of Mythcon), we traded summaries of our presentations, and once again I was reminded of the many interesting papers that I hadn’t had a chance to hear. Kelly told me about her talk on the Inklings and contemplative tradition, and I heard more about Roger’s paper on the parallels between Pawnee legends and Tolkien’s myths; you can find out more about his ideas here.
I then said good-bye a second time and walked off to my gate, only to find that my flight had also been delayed. Before I knew it, there was Roger once again strolling through the airport and later Kelly as well; another chat, and a third good-bye. This time, my flight took off, and I hope that Kelly and Roger and all my Mythcon friends, however they were travelling, were able to get back again safely.
Registration for Mythcon 45 next year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts is now open.