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.
As usual, students in my Studies in Medievalism course have created wonderful projects to demonstrate their engagement with our texts and to experience first-hand the process of adaptation, a main theme in our seminar.
I’ve written about this type of assignment before in my essay “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom” that is in Katherine Anderson Howell’s volume, Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide (U of Iowa Press, 2018). One of the student projects illustrated and discussed in that essay can be seen here and a review of another year in the course is posted here.
In today’s post I’d like to share, with his permission, Dillon Hughson’s adaptation project, a modernized version of the Old Icelandic poem “Hárbarðsljóð” or “Harbard’s Song” that appears in the Poetic Edda. This is a “flyting” poem — a contest of insults between two people, in this case Thor and Harbard, a ferryman who is usually identified as Odin in disguise. As do all the students in my course, Dillon had to write an analysis of the source text and explain how he adapted it. He researched the elements of a flyting and then tried to reproduce those features by placing Thor and Odin in a modern comedic context.
Enjoy his video! And watch for more student projects posted here in the weeks ahead.
With the permission of Dillon Hughson. Written and directed by Dillon Hughson. Thor: Matthew Hughson. Odin: Brennan Hughson.Copyright Dillon Hughson.
I was very pleased to have an essay recently published in A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff and published by Gabbro Head Press, not only because I’m in fabulous company – take a look at the table of contents! – but mainly because I’m a great admirer of Verlyn Flieger.
My essay, “Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators” discusses three of Tolkien’s works, “The Notion Club Papers,” “Leaf by Niggle,” and Smith of Wootton Major. I talked about some of my ideas when I gave a paper at the 2017 Tolkien Society Seminar, but this essay goes into much more detail and is part of a larger project I’m working on about Tolkien’s typological imagination.
I’ll quote from my introduction and give a
summary of my main points in the hopes that you might be interested in buying A Wilderness of Dragons and reading
The Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into potential existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the vision of creatures. As Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation” (Splintered 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien …. The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 258)
The Sub-creative Process
The three stories that I picked for
commentary deal with the sub-creative powers of light and music or image and
word by describing how different characters create art, whether it be through
language, storytelling, vision, painting, blacksmithing, singing, and even baking.
These activities always occur in collaboration with someone else; Tolkien does
not subscribe to an image of a lone, heroic artist. Tolkien’s essay “On
Fairy-Stories” reinforces much of what we see in these three stories. I also include in a discussion of Smith of Wootton Major how Tolkien used
the cooking metaphor in some of his unpublished essays and how it might apply
to this story.
Faërian / Elvish Drama
All three stories take us into faërian or elvish dramas so that we can examine their characteristics. I discuss the faërian drama as a palimpsest, allowing the participant a kind of double vision. All three stories also suggest that participants are guided in their experiences by an often unseen force.
Genealogy / Tradition
All three stories establish what I call a “genealogy of sympathy,” ensuring that the subcreative inspiration is passed on, thus creating a tradition. The inheritance is not always within a family, and the inspiration and valuing of sub-creative powers is not often appreciated by others.
Tolkien loved repeated patterns. In discussing typology, I’m discussing the narrative patterns that Tolkien establishes in his work. In this essay, I’m focusing on the seers and singers who are sub-creative collaborators. As I state in my conclusion:
Because of its recurrence in various texts, a type accumulates significance. Each seer and singer is a distinct character in a unique narrative, but each also partakes of a repeated pattern of meaning in Tolkien’s fiction. The appearance of a type brings into the narrative its associated meanings.”
(“Seers and Singers,” A Wilderness of Dragons, p. 277).
Anyone who has read Verlyn Flieger’s work will recognize the immense influence she has had on my views. This volume compiled in her honour by John Rateliff proves that she is the inspiration for a long and wide-ranging genealogy of students and scholars following in her footsteps.
Image sources: Most of the pictures above by Tolkien appear in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins: “The Hills of the Morning,” fig. 1; “The Tree of Amalion,” fig. 62; details from “Untitled (Three Friezes),” fig. 59. “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river” appears in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, also by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, HarperCollins, fig. 50.
Family and friends joined me in the Tolkien Birthday Toast on January 3rd, a global event sponsored by the Tolkien Society. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your own toast is part of a continuing wave of glasses raised around the world every hour at 9 p.m. local time. This year, I was fortunate to be sitting by a warm fire while the winds blew with hurricane force and the air dropped to bitterly cold temperatures outside. I had another reason to celebrate: close to the end of December, the latest volume of Tolkien Studies arrived in my mailbox, with an article that I co-authored with my colleague Jeff MacLeod: “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.”
I have spoken on this topic at a few conferences over the last few years (for example, at the 2015 New York Tolkien conference). One especially pleasurable part of the research was the opportunity to look at some microfilm and digital images of Tolkien’s drawings in the Marquette University Archive. Archivists and the Tolkien Estate are quite rightly wary of allowing direct access to Tolkien’s original artwork even though every scholar and fan interested in Tolkien’s art would love to handle his pictures; however, I soon realized that when examining digital copies, I could expand the image and see it even more closely than I might have just by eyeing the original. That ability led to some interesting observations, as I hope you’d agree if you have a chance to read our essay.
That research trip contributed one part to the overall argument that Jeff and I are making in this article. I’ll quote a section from the opening paragraph that summarizes our four main points:
[We begin by citing a number of critics who discuss Tolkien’s artwork, and then continue:] All of these critics make a strong case for the importance of Tolkien’s “encounters with art and imagery” (Organ 117), but their focus is on the influence of other artists and artistic movements on Tolkien’s art and writing. We propose to turn our attention to Tolkien’s own practice and knowledge of visual art in order to examine how it is an integral part of his writing craft, his creativity, and his ideas. We look at four main ways in which the visual image and the written word merge in Tolkien’s creative work. First, we examine how his visual practice aids in the drafting of his stories. Second, we look at how it influences him on a stylistic level in his descriptive prose choices — our focus is on landscapes in The Lord of the Rings for an analysis of these first two elements. Third, and more generally, we find that Tolkien’s visual imagination and skill combine with writing in inventive ways, as in his alphabets, his calligraphy, and his monogram. Fourth, we explore how Tolkien’s artistic practice influences his theories about fantasy and illustration. We contend that Tolkien’s art and his visual imagination should be considered an essential part of his writing and thinking. (pp. 115-116)
I can’t copy the whole article here, but let me give you a taste of some of our ideas and show you a few of the images we discussed but couldn’t reproduce in our essay.
Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch, Sauron Defeated, p. 19.
If you flip through the pages of Christopher Tolkien’s volumes of The History of Middle-earth or examine the books on Tolkien’s artwork by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, you’ll see some of Tolkien’s sketches that appear as anything from a squiggle in the middle of a line, to diagrams and maps, to sometimes more developed pictures, such as his Tower of Kirith Ungol (still spelled with a “K” in the earlier manuscript). We discuss the interplay of text and image in the example shown here. (This isn’t the best version of the image that you can find; check out Hammond and Scull’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings for that).
A manuscript sketch like the Tower of Kirith Ungol poses intriguing questions: when did the drawing start taking over the page? Were the words written after the drawing? Did the sketch guide the wording of the passage? Was the sketch revised after the pencilled text was written over in ink? We examined only this page in detail, but it would be interesting to expand this kind of study to other sketches in Tolkien’s manuscripts that bring us closer to an understanding of his process of composition.
From looking at Tolkien’s process of drafting in this part of The Lord of the Rings, we move on to consider his prose descriptions of landscapes to discuss what we call his “painterly” style. In this, we were influenced by Brian Rosebury’s analysis of Tolkien’s prose, in which he declares that Tolkien describes like a painter. Although Rosebury then qualifies his claim, we agree with the initial assessment. We also ground our analysis on insights from a 1981 article in Mythlore by Miriam Y. Miller on Tolkien’s use of colours. What we found typical of Tolkien’s landscape descriptions is the use of some basic colours modified by qualities of light, along with an artist’s attention to the composition of the image.
Here is an example of that painterly style: Tolkien’s description from the “Fog on the Barrow-downs” chapter, in which he describes the land “in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colors, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance.” From here, our eye moves to the horizon, where there’s a “guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky” (FR, I, viii, 147). This impressionistic prose style describes the land entirely in painterly colours, lights, and shapes. A visual analogue (though not meant to be an illustration of the Barrow-downs) can be found in one of Tolkien’s early watercolours, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (Artist 21, fig. 16).
Tolkien, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill.” Artist & Illustrator, fig. 16
This is only one example of many that we could point to in Tolkien’s landscape descriptions that demonstrates the eye and imagination of a visual artist.
A couple of other main points in our essay extend our view of how the verbal and the visual intersect in Tolkien’s creative imagination. His monogram, his invented writing systems, his calligraphy all demonstrate ways in which the visual and verbal cohere to make meaning. And of course, some of his theoretical discussion of subcreation in “On Fairy-stories” is delivered in visual terms. For example, when talking about the recovery afforded by fantasy, Tolkien states, “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (OFS p. 67).
Tolkien, “The King’s Letter” second version, Art of Lord of the Rings fig. 187
Our concluding paragraph:
Tolkien’s special talent, in so many facets of his creative life, was the ability to combine the written word with the observational skills of a visual artist. Although he is renowned as a philologist and creative writer, his artistic practice and visual imagination, we contend, should be seen as more than just a life-long hobby or a secondary skill. While his artwork is beginning to gain some critical attention on its own, our study suggests that the literature-art connections made by earlier critics such as Brian Rosebury and Miriam Y. Miller can be significantly expanded. Our examination of Tolkien’s composition process, his descriptive prose style, his monogram and other forms of calligraphy, and his theories about fairy-stories and illustration demonstrate the interplay of the visual with the verbal throughout his work. We believe that Tolkien’s artistic vision and skill should be acknowledged as an integral and crucial part of understanding his imagination, writing, and ideas. (pp. 127-28)
Full details for our article:
Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol. “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2017.0009.
Tolkien Studies is an annual publication that can be purchased from West Virginia University Press. If your library has a subscription to Project Muse, you can get a copy that way. If you don’t have the means to get a copy of the article, please let me know.
Our bibliography contains a number of resources on Tolkien’s art and prose style. The ones that I’ve mentioned in this post are:
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2015.
Miller, Miriam Y. “The Green Sun: A Study of Color in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 7.4 (Winter 1981): 3 – 11.
Organ, Michael. “Tolkien’s Japonisme: Prints, Dragons, and a Great Wave.” Tolkien Studies 10 (2013): 105-22.
Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Extended edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2008.
_______________. Sauron Defeated. The History of Middle-earth, vol. 9. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.
It’s hard to trace the development of this article. Some of it was inspired by a discussion in The Reading Room discussion boards on TheOneRing.net many years ago. Many discussions with Jeff over the years, himself an accomplished artist, took us in this direction. We are both grateful to our university for providing us with research grants and sabbatical leaves and to the Tolkien Estate for allowing us access to some of Tolkien’s papers. I am especially indebted to archivist William Fliss at Marquette University for listening to my theories and allowing me a glimpse of the real thing!
I’ll post more on other resources for studying Tolkien’s art later this week.
The busyness of the start of term in September gradually turns into the marking marathon that is October and November, and the silence of my blog in those months is testimony to how the hours of my days and evenings have been taken up with course preparations and grading, grading, grading. I was just reading a post by another professor who has calculated how many words she writes in student feedback — read it here or take my word for it — it’s a lot! My situation is similar. Although I love teaching, I do get restless after a while when I have to spend time away from my research. A few more weeks of marking will take care of this term, but in the meantime the best that I can do is to track a few new books on Tolkien so that I can look forward to reading them and eventually getting back to my research.
Right now, Palgrave Macmillan is having a 50% off sale until November 27th. Their books are expensive, so this is a good time to grab one if you can. I’m particularly interested in Tolkien and Alterity, edited by Chris Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor. According to the publisher’s blurb, the book “examines racialized, gender, and queer dynamics in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and other works by Tolkien to arrive at an understanding of how alterity functions in those texts.”
The volume opens with two bibliographical essays, one on “Queer Tolkien” by Yvette Kisor and one on “Race in Tolkien Studies” by Robin Reid. Both of these should be extremely valuable for anyone doing research in these areas. I haven’t read the book yet, but just taking a look at the table of contents and the nine other essays by well-known Tolkien scholars tells me I need to read this volume! Here is the table of contents from the Palgrave site:
Queer Tolkien: A Bibliographical Essay on Tolkien and Alterity. Yvette Kisor
Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay. Robin Anne Reid
Revising Lobelia. Amy Amendt-Raduege
Medieval Organicism or Modern Feminist Science? Bombadil, Elves, and Mother Nature. Kristine Larsen
Saruman’s Sodomitic Resonances: Alain de Lille’s De Planctu Naturae and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Vaccaro
Cruising Faery: Queer Desire in Giles, Niggle, and Smith. Stephen Yandell
Language and Alterity in Tolkien and Lévinas. Deidre Dawson
The Orcs and the Others: Familiarity as Estrangement in The Lord of the Rings. Verlyn Flieger
Silmarils and Obsession: The Undoing of Fëanor. Melissa Ruth Arul
The Other as Kolbítr: Tolkien’s Faramir and Éowyn as Alfred and Æthelflæd. John Holmes
Palgrave has a list of other valuable Tolkien books; check out all their offerings here.
Another essential collection for Tolkien researchers is Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s J.R.R.Tolkien Companion and Guide. First published in 2006, this three-volume set has been extensively updated and added to in a second edition forthcoming from HarperCollins. Hammond and Scull explain the changes in the second edition in their blog posts here and here. My local bookseller tells me that the set should be available in December. No discounts on these very expensive volumes, but I’m expecting them to appear under our Christmas tree all wrapped up.
Here’s a new book coming in December that I definitely will be buying, a new collection of Verlyn Flieger’s essays on Tolkien, to be published by Kent State UP: “There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale”: Essays on Tolkien’s Middle-earth. This would complement an earlier collection of Professor Flieger’s essays in Green Suns and Faerie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s much easier to consult the work of one of the foremost Tolkien scholars of our day in one or two volumes rather than tracking down decades of essays in various sources. In addition, the publisher’s site states that some of the essays have been slightly revised to update them or eliminate repetition.
Finally, here’s a book from Walking Tree Press just published a couple of months ago: Julian Eilmann’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet. Eilmann has previously edited a volume of essays on Tolkien’s poetry which I found very useful, and now this is his monograph that views Tolkien in the light of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Romanticism. I’m very interested in Tolkien’s poetry, but my research focus is mainly on Tolkien’s debt to Old English alliterative verse. This book promises to take me beyond my current interests to give me a different perspective on Tolkien’s work.
I’m looking forward to our December break and a month of intense reading. Obviously, this post is about books that I haven’t yet seen (and no, no one has asked or paid me to promote their books!). For proper book reviews, you should check out the open-access, peer-reviewed Journal of Tolkien Research, which includes a book review section. If you have access to a library database or subscription to the journal Tolkien Studies, you can also read book reviews and the “Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies” there. The peer-reviewed journal Mythlore, devoted to the Inklings and mythopoeic literature, also includes book reviews. This journal is available through library or individual subscriptions, but a recent welcome development is that past articles and reviews are also available online, though with an embargo on the most recently published work.
Happy reading and research, everyone! Let me know in the comments about any other new books you’re interested in reading.
It’s syllabus-writing season! Here’s an exercise I devised several years ago that I’m still using to promote students’ active thinking about course policies — and faculty understanding of how students perceive course requirements and regulations. The article explaining my exercise was published in the Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase Proceedings 2010, pages 55-59.
The abstract follows, and a link to the full article is given below.
Abstract “Think Like A Professor!: Student and Faculty Perceptions of Course Policies”
The “Think Like a Professor!” exercise is designed to enliven introductory classes while presenting course policies and regulations to students. The exercise pulls students out of their passive role as receptacles of course information, puts them in the instructor’s place, and asks them to apply the instructor’s course policies in various scenarios based on real incidents. The exercise accomplishes several goals, including establishing appropriate modes of interaction among students, asking students to read and extract information, requiring students to apply, analyze, and synthesize facts and ideas, giving students insight into how their actions are perceived by faculty and others, and giving faculty feedback on their regulations and a view of student attitudes and values.Students are encouraged to see that course policies and regulations have a purpose that is applicable to both students and instructors.
Where do the months fly by? June was busy, as I was preparing my talk for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds while also putting the final touches on our family vacation itinerary in Europe — we were given a very special opportunity this year to travel to France, Italy, and Scotland, with a stop in Leeds for the Seminar. Our schedule meant that I couldn’t stay longer for the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, but maybe next year…. The Tolkien Society Seminar plus Dimitra Fimi’s organization of Tolkien sessions at the IMC certainly make Leeds a desirable destination.
Tolkien Society Seminar 2017 speakers. L to R, back row: Michaela Hausmann, Szymon Pindur, Brad Eden, Andrew Higgins, Massimiliano Izzo, me!, Kristine Larsen, Irina Metzler. Front row, l to r: Penelope Holdaway, Aurelie Bremont, Dimitra Fimi, Bertrand Bellet. Image from Tolkien Society Twitter account.
The theme of this year’s Seminar was poetry and songs, and we heard many different approaches, from individual word studies to language invention, to women in Tolkien’s works, and poetry as world-building, to individual poem analyses, to the new publication Aotrou and Itroun. You can find the program here. I was impressed by how international this one-day conference was; we had speakers and attendees young and old from Germany, Poland, the US, the UK, France, Italy, New Zealand — and Canada, of course.
My talk, “Seers and Singers: Sub-creative Collaborators in Tolkien’s Fiction,” covered some of the ideas that I’ve written about in my article for Verlyn Flieger’s festschrift, A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (edited by John D. Rateliff and forthcoming from Gabbro Head Press). There’s a lot more in that article that I didn’t have time to fit into my 20-minute talk, including some ideas from Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts about alliterative poetry and his repeated use of the image of the Cook. For the Seminar, though, I outlined some of the similarities I have found in three of Tolkien’s texts that deal with sub-creation and Elvish dramas: The Notion Club Papers, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major. Below is a copy of my abstract for the Seminar talk:
In Tolkien’s creation myth in The Silmarillion, the Great Music sung by the Ainur gives rise to a vision of Arda and, attracted by what they have sung into existence, the Powers descend into the world to achieve its creation. Music and Light are of the essence of this created world, and as time goes on these primordial elements splinter into ever diminishing recapitulations. Music becomes manifest in song, in words, in voices, in the sound of waters flowing. Light illuminates the sky, the earth, the visions of creatures. As Verlyn Flieger points out, “Both words and light are agents of perception” (Splintered Light, p. 44) and both “can be instruments of sub-creation (p. 46). Light and Music become manifest as vision and language, or image and word – either or both acting as the catalyst in the sub-creative process as described by Tolkien.
In this presentation, I will turn to a few stories by Tolkien that are primarily concerned with the sub-creative powers of light and music, image and the word: The Notion Club Papers, Leaf by Niggle, and Smith of Wootton Major. The Notion Club Papers explores the struggles and experiments that its characters have with dream visions and languages as avenues of memory and connections with the past. Leaf by Niggle is the story of a visual artist who paints his way into what may be perceived as a faërian drama, and Smith of Wootton Major represents another sub-creator gifted with vision and music who penetrates deeply into the mysteries of the Perilous Realm.
The seers and singers in these stories represent a typology of sub-creators – a repeated categorization of types – who demonstrate the powers of splintered music and light, word and image. The stories function as meta-commentaries on collaborative sub-creation, exploring the entry into faërian dramas and the nature of what is experienced there. For example, when the powers of word and image are combined, as in the collaborative pairing of Lowdham and Jeremy in The Notion Club Papers or in their combined presence in Smith, the results are an impressive entry into Faëry. Although each of the stories represents characters who function in different relationships, what becomes evident in each case is that Tolkien does not present a lone heroic poet or artist-figure; instead, some kind of a pairing helps each of his sub-creators. Lowdham and Jeremy, Niggle and Parish, Smith and Alf – in each case the sub-creator relies on another. Throughout, Tolkien also creates the idea of a genealogy of sympathy that enables a tradition to form that will pass on a taste for Faëry and an ability to enter into a faërian drama.
I’m very happy to announce that one of my essays will be part of a festschrift for Verlyn Flieger, a renowned Tolkien scholar and someone I admire very much. The book, A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, is edited by John Rateliff. He’s recently posted the table of contents on his blog, Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, and I’ve copied it below as an image and here as a downloadable pdf. The book should be available by the end of the year in both print and ebook format from a new independent publisher, Gabbro Head Press. I’m looking forward to reading the work of the other contributors!
I plan to post more information about my essay, “Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators” in the next few days.
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
First 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.