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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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:
“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.
Most of our spring and summer conferences on Tolkien and on medieval studies have been cancelled, so this is a bit of good news for those who are thirsty for some discussion of Tolkien. Two of the Tolkien Society’s meetings will be available online. While we’d all like to be there in person, the online meetings will give us, especially those of us who wouldn’t normally be able to go to Leeds or Oxford, a chance to listen in on the discussions and participate in some activities.
The Tolkien Society Seminar, usually held in Leeds the day before the International Medieval Congress, will have a daylong slate of papers presented on Zoom on Saturday, July 4. The theme of the Seminar is adapting Tolkien, and the papers will discuss art, music, language, and science. Included in the day’s presentations is a panel discussion paying tribute to Christopher Tolkien’s contributions to Tolkien studies. You can find more details and a schedule of presentations here: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/events/seminar-2020/.
Oxonmoot, usually held in Oxford in September, will also go online this year on September 18-20. Oxonmoot Online will not only feature a series of talks but will also attempt to reproduce many of the other activities that usually take place on this weekend. Details are still being worked out, so keep checking this link: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/events/oxonmoot-online/ for further news.
Registration and further details will be available at the above Tolkien Society links. Don’t miss this opportunity to attend, no matter where you are!
As we’re all getting accustomed to new ways of living through this pandemic — working from home; or going to work with, hopefully, new safety procedures; or sadly for many, losing jobs completely because of shut-downs and layoffs — we need some cheering up and sense of community. Tolkien Reading Day, held every March 25, is often a time when local Tolkien groups get together to read, discuss, and party, though that is unlikely to happen — should not happen!– in these self-isolating times.
A lot of Tolkienists have also felt bereft of their usual conference get-togethers. Cancellations so far include the Tolkien at Vermont conference, Popular Culture Association conference, and Tolkien at Kalamazoo events. We’re still waiting to see what will happen with the Leeds get-togethers, where both the International Medieval Congress and the Tolkien Society Seminar are scheduled for early July.
Tolkien Reading Day Unofficial Online Gathering
But we do have an online community that can celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. Jeremy Edmonds, over at TolkienGuide.com, has decided to organize an unofficial online gathering for Tolkien Reading Day. You will be able to pop into a livestream event all day long to chat, or to read if you like, or to listen to the scheduled readers. You will need a free account on Discord, or you will be able to access the livestream on YouTube. Go to TolkienGuide.com for the full details on how and where to get connected and to see the impressive schedule of readers.
Dawn Walls-Thumma, over at the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, is hosting an online celebration of fanworks for Tolkien Reading Day in order to, as she says, “spend time with fellow fans (while practicing social distancing!) and bring art and joy to the world at a time when it very much needs it.” The event will take place on the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild Discord server; to join, you will need to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, go to the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild Lockdown Instadrabbling site.
I’d be happy to hear about other online gatherings in the comments. And remember:
This is the third post showcasing the work of some of my students in my Tolkien and medievalism class this year. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 at these links. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I give my students the option of creating an adaptation in any medium of Tolkien’s work or of a medieval text and then writing an analysis of what they have done.
Today’s feature is by Rebecca Foster, whose video, “Misty Mountains,” appears here with her permission. Rebecca takes as her inspiration the song “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” in The Hobbit. She wanted to represent how the song takes Bilbo into his imagination, which she illustrates with her watercolours to accompany the poem. Her essay discussed Tolkien’s ideas on imagination, the relation between Primary and Secondary worlds, and included research on Tolkien’s artwork — perhaps you’ll detect his influence!
“Misty Mountains.” Copyright Rebecca Foster. Posted with permission.
Anna Smol, “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom.” Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide, edited by Katherine Anderson Howell, U of Iowa P, 2018, pp. 17 – 31 and 147-50.
Tolkien studies is a busy academic field. Here are a few calls for conference papers or essays that have come my way in the past few weeks. I don’t expect to keep up with every single call, but if you’re interested, you can search for the open Facebook page “Tolkien CFPs.” You can also find listings of conferences and more informal gatherings of fans around the world in the Facebook group “International Tolkien Fellowship,” a public page run by Becky Dillon.
My list is arranged according to the deadlines for proposals.
Tolkien Society Seminar
Leeds, July 4-5. Theme: Adapting Tolkien. Deadline for proposals: April 5. Details here.
[May 12 edit: The Seminar will go online on July 4. Look for more details in a later blog post or check the link above]
German Tolkien Society Seminar
University of Augsburg, October 23-25. Theme: Tolkien and Politics. Deadline for proposals: April 30.Details here.
Tolkien Society Oxonmoot 2020
St. Anne’s College, Oxford, September 3-6. Open theme. Deadline for proposals: April 30. Details here.
[edit June 6: Oxonmoot is going online. Check the link for more details about Oxonmoot Online, which will now take place September 18-20]
Mythopoeic Society / Mythcon 51
[edit May 12: Postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19]
Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 31- August 3. Theme: The Mythic, the Fantastic, and the Alien. Deadline for proposals: May 15. Details here.
Walking Tree Publishers: Cormarë Series
Theme: The Romantic Spirit in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, a publication to be edited by Julian Eilmann and Will Sherwood. Deadline for proposals: May 31. Details here.
We don’t often think of Tolkien as a playwright. Fantasy novelist — of course. Poet, scholar, artist – yes. But we shouldn’t forget that Tolkien also wrote one published play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” – let’s call it “The Homecoming” for short – which was produced by BBC Radio and has been read or performed at various times.
Tolkien wrote other plays, though we don’t have the manuscripts any more, to my knowledge. As a young man, he wrote plays as holiday entertainments when spending time with his Incledon relatives; he probably wrote a farce, Cherry Farm, in 1911 and in the following year, The Bloodhound, the Chef, and the Suffragette (also playing one of the parts). He performed in plays while at school: in 1910 acting as the Inspector in Aristophanes’ play The Birds – in Greek! and also in Greek the following year, taking the role of Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace. Near the end of 1911, his performance as Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals was praised as “excellent in every way” (Scull and Hammond, Reader’s Guide 313-17).
And of course, all of his debating experience, often in humourous speeches, during his years at King Edward’s and then at Oxford would require a sense of the dramatic in taking up a persona and a position in argument (See the Scull and Hammond Chronology for reports of these debates). John Garth surveys these and other of Tolkien’s early comedic and parodic compositions, pointing out:
By thus limbering up in his early exercises as a writer, he was later able to apply the same skills—more finely tuned, of course—to the most serious topics and with the utmost gravity.”
Even later in life, Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic. Picture him at the Oxford Summer Diversions in 1938 reciting from memory Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. John Bowers, in his recently published book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, imagines the scene:
On the merrymaking occasion in summer 1938, Tolkien strode upon the stage costumed as Chaucer in a green robe, a turban, and fake whiskers parted in the middle like the forked beard shown in early portraits like Ellesmere’s.”
The performance received good reviews in the Oxford Mail, and in the following year, Tolkien returned to perform Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, this time producing a shortened and bowdlerized version of the tale for his performance (Bowers 208-211). The poet John Masefield, one of the organizers of the event, described Tolkien’s dramatic abilities:
Professor Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man and sometimes tells the Tales superbly, inimitably, just as though he were Chaucer returned.”
(quoted in Bowers 209)
Above: Geoffrey Chaucer portrait and Tolkien in the 1940s (as close as I could get to the actual date of his performance). You’ll have to imagine Tolkien’s Chaucer costume! Tolkien image from The Guardian, 22 March 2014.
Tolkien’s recitations of Chaucer aren’t the only performances that his audiences remember. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter reports how he used to start his lectures declaiming the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English (137-38). Although students complained that during lectures he mumbled and was hard to follow, these moments of dramatic performance left striking impressions.
In other words, Tolkien had experience in writing and performing dramatic pieces, and I think that he put those skills to good use in “The Homecoming.”
So why don’t we usually think of Tolkien as a playwright? I can think of several reasons. For one, we only have one publication of his in this genre, easily overlooked in the volume of fiction, poetry, letters, and essays that he wrote.
I also think that there’s a tendency to view “The Homecoming” as alliterative poetry for two voices – more like a poetic dialogue not meant for performance on a stage. I would disagree based on the manuscript evidence, but my reasons will have to wait for another time.
Maybe another reason is that “The Homecoming,” inspired by the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” first appeared in a scholarly journal, Essays and Studies, in 1953. Medievalists have been interested mainly in the short essay titled “Ofermod” that Tolkien appended to the play, which deals with “The Battle of Maldon,” and compares it to two other medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But medieval scholars have not, in general, examined the play as a play.
Finally, we might not think of Tolkien as a playwright because of the negative comments that he made about drama in various letters and in his appendix to “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, for example, he claims that drama cannot adequately represent a fantasy world, but whether we agree or not, we should note that “The Homecoming” is different from Tolkien’s other writing. It’s not part of his Middle-earth Secondary World but is based on the aftermath of a battle that took place in 991 according to early English historical chronicles. “The Homecoming” is a work of historical fiction as well as being a play.
The play is now most readily available in the volume Tree and Leaf, tucked in after “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf by Niggle.”
Tolkien certainly had definite ideas about how the play should be performed on BBC Radio, as his letters tell us, though he was dissatisfied with the BBC production that aired in 1954, with a rebroadcast in 1955. He recorded his own version at home in his study, distinguishing between the two characters’ voices and adding in his own sound effects. A copy of that recording was given out at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992 (Scull & Hammond, Reader’s Guide 547). But you don’t need a copy of that tape to experience Tolkien’s voice dramatizations. Just listen to his reading of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter from The Hobbit. He does a pretty good job of performing the roles of Bilbo and especially Gollum.
Above: listen to Tolkien’s voicing of Gollum in his reading of “Riddles in the Dark”
It must be pretty clear that I find Tolkien’s play very interesting; in fact, it’s the topic of my current research. I’ve written about “The Homecoming” as a World War One work in my recently published essay, “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’” in the collection “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War. There, my thesis can be summarized in this way:
Like Tolkien’s better-known works of fiction, HBBS addresses issues of war and heroism that are relevant to a modern writer who is transforming his past experiences into fiction, and as is not uncommon with Tolkien, doing so through the lens of medieval literature.”
What currently interests me in “The Homecoming” is the skilful handling of alliterative metre in the play. Yes, this is a play in alliterative verses, which may sound old-fashioned and stilted, but Tolkien’s knowledge of and handling of alliterative verses is, I think, a tour de force in his creation of different styles in a demanding medium. If you’re able to attend the International Medieval Congress in Leeds , you can hear me talking about “Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming” on Monday, July 6, 11:15, session 104. Look for an article as well, coming soon, I hope!
I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve read “The Homecoming” and what you think of it. Have you ever heard or seen it performed?
Bowers, John M. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. Oxford UP, 2019.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Garth, John. “’The road from adaptation to invention’: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014, pp. 1-44.
Scull, Christina and Wayne Hammond. J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.Reader’s Guide and Chronology. Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2017.
Smol, Anna. “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’.” “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019, pp. 263-83.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 121-150.
As always, if you are an independent scholar (i.e. you do not have an institutional affiliation) and do not have access to some of these resources, please send me an email and I will try to provide private research copies if possible.