Two events for this month will feature online presentations on Tolkien. The first is a free event to be held on Saturday May 7th, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo Symposium. A program and link have not yet been published, but I will post it here as soon as the information is available. [May 4 edit: the pdf program is posted here. If you’re interested in attending, contact Yvette Kisor at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Next week, the International Congress on Medieval Studies will take place online once again this year. There is a registration fee for this one, which gives you access to papers and various kinds of sessions and book sales as well as recordings of most sessions for two weeks after the conference. You can find more information here. The Congress takes place May 9-14.
And please scroll down for reminders about July’s conference events. You’ll have to register this week for the Leeds medieval conference if you intend to take part!
Below are the sessions on Tolkien taking place at the International Congress on Medieval Studies from the University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. An asterisk by the session number indicates that the session will be recorded.
121* Tuesday, May 10, 5:00 p.m. EDT Medieval Understandings of the Nature of Evil as Depicted by J. R. R. Tolkien
Sponsor: D. B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership, Viterbo Univ. Organizer & Presider: Michael A. Wodzak, Viterbo Univ.
Cosmic Catastrophe of History: Augustinian Theology of History and Patristic Angelology in Tolkien’s “Long Defeat” — Edmund Michael Lazzari, Marquette Univ.
Dante’s Paradiso and the Fall of Melkor: Tolkien’s Preoccupations with Culpability and Purgation — Michael David Elam, Regent Univ.
A Clamorous Unison: Musical Evil in the Middle Ages and the Ainulindalë –Joshua T. Parks, Princeton Theological Seminary
226* Thursday, May 12, 9:00 a.m. EDT Tolkien and the Medieval Animal
Sponsor: Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, Univ. of Glasgow Organizer & Presider: Kristine A. Swank, Univ. of Glasgow
Mammoth, Mûmak, and “ The old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt”: Tolkien’s Contributions to the Medieval Bestiary Tradition — Marc U. Zender, Tulane Univ.
From Classical to Medieval: A Reflection on Bats in Tolkien’s Works — Fiammetta Comelli, Univ. degli Studi di Milano
Of Foxes and Dancing Bears — John Rosegrant, New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center
Tolkien’s Dragons: Sources, Symbols, and Significance — Camilo G. Peralta, Fort Hays State Univ.
275* Thursday, May 12, 7:00 p.m. EDT J. R. R. Tolkien and Medieval Poets: A Session in Memory of Richard C. West
Sponsors: Tolkien at Kalamazoo; Pearl-Poet Society. Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont. Presider: Jane Beal, Univ. of La Verne
Tolkien and Dante on the Musical Nature of “Sub-creation” — Paul L. Fortunato, Univ. of Houston–Downtown
The Lost Roads of Old English Poetry: Dramas of Time Travel in Tolkien’s Works — Anna Smol, Mount St. Vincent Univ.
Strange Sounds, Strange Scenes: Alliterative Metre and Personification in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “ The Lay of the Children of Húrin” — Gavin Foster, Dalhousie Univ.
Tolkien, Beowulf, and Gawain: The Myth of Alliteration — John R. Holmes, Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville
360 Friday, May 13, 7:00 p.m. EDT Medieval Tolkien and the Nature of Middle-earth (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo. Organizer: Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College. Presider: Deidre Dawson, Michigan State Univ.
A roundtable discussion with Edward L. Risden, St. Norbert College; Sutirtho Roy, Univ. of Calcutta; Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont; Yvette Kisor; John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar
421* Saturday, May 14, 5:00 p.m. EDT New Readings of the Lord of the Rings Presider: Luke J. Chambers, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington
The Fisherman’s Ring of Power: Masculinity, Castration, and the Great Quest in The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings — Consuelo M. Concepcion, Independent Scholar
The Dragon is Not an Allegory: Reading Tolkien’s Monsters in Medieval Contexts — Ruthann E. Mowry, Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign; Cait Coker, Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign
Samwise: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Practical Boethian — Brian McFadden, Texas Tech Univ.
Tolkien, Augustinian Theodicy, and Lovecraftian Evil — Perry Neil Harrison, Fort Hays State Univ.
A couple of Tolkien papers will appear in more general sessions:
394* Saturday, May 14, 3:00 p.m. EDT C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages I: Dante and the Lewis Circle (In Honor of Marsha Daigle Williamson)
Heavenly Models of Desire in Dante, Lewis, and Tolkien — Curtis Gruenler, Hope College [paper withdrawn – May 4 edit]
418* Saturday, May 14, 5:00 p.m. EDT Medievalism in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Literary and Cinematic Adaptations of Beowulf
The Existential Dragon: Adapting Beowulf in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and John Gardner’s Grendel — Andrew Phillip de Carion, Univ. of Houston
Of course, if you have an interest in medieval or medievalism studies, there are hundreds of other sessions to choose from.
The International Medieval Congressat Leeds University will host 7 Tolkien sessions in the program. The conference takes place July 4-7, 2022. This is a hybrid event, enabling online or in-person attendance. Deadline for registration is Friday May 6. As with the other large medieval conference from the University of Western Michigan, there is a fee for registration.
I’ll post the July programs closer to the time of these events.
Every year to mark the downfall of Sauron on March 25, the Tolkien Society announces a theme for reading, discussion, and celebration. Let’s hope that this year’s theme, Love and Friendship, will lead to positive appreciations of the variety of loving relationships that Tolkien represents in his fiction.
I’ve written some articles on male relationships, mainly in The Lord of the Rings, and particularly how experiences in the First World War pushed male friendships beyond what contemporary heteronormative society might consider conventional behaviours. For example, in looking at Frodo and Sam’s relationship in a 2004 article (available below), I found that their gentle hand-holding and caring gestures could be seen in the context of what historian Santanu Das has described as sometimes occurring among WWI soldiers. The love and friendship in such relationships could exist on a continuum that would be difficult to pinpoint as one clearly-defined identity. As Das puts it: “A new world of largely nongenital tactile tenderness was opening up in which pity, thrill, affection, and eroticism are fused and confused depending on the circumstances, degrees of knowledge, normative practices, and sexual orientations, as well as the available models of male-male relationships” (Das 52–53).
For this year’s theme, though, I would like to pick up on some thoughts that I presented at a Tolkien conference in 2013 at Valparaiso University. I had previously written about friendships in war, but I wanted to explore what happens to friends after the war, after lives lived in peace with wives and children. How does Tolkien represent the death of friends?
Tolkien fans will recognize the gravesite of John Ronald and Edith, marked by a shared headstone over the place where husband and wife are laid together. As we know, Tolkien arranged to have the names “Beren” and “Lúthien” carved there under their names, thus associating himself and his wife with this romantic couple. They are buried together in Wolvercote Cemetery, which shouldn’t be surprising to us, given that husbands and wives are frequently buried together in western culture.
One might very well wonder, then, why another couple patterned after Beren and Lúthien — Aragorn and Arwen — do not end their days in the same place, in the same tomb. In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s death is described: he says farewell to Arwen and tells her not to despair as he falls asleep. The story tells us “And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world” (RotK, App. A). Arwen, though, does not choose to die by his side. She says farewell to her loved ones and leaves Minas Tirith for silent and lonely Lórien, where Galadriel and Celeborn no longer live. Her last resting place is there: “There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea” (RotK, App. A).
Aragorn, however, does not lie in his tomb alone in Minas Tirith. In Appendix B, we are told that at the passing of King Elessar, the resting places of Merry and Pippin are moved beside the king’s. In fact, Merry and Pippin had previously left their homes – as the chronicle tells us, “they handed over their goods and offices to their sons and rode away over the Sarn Ford, and they were not seen again in the Shire” (RotK, App. B). Merry travels to be with Éomer before he dies, and then he and Pippin spend their last few years in Gondor, “until they died and were laid in Rath Dínen among the great of Gondor” (RotK, App. B). Later, they are moved to rest beside Aragorn. The death of the king also prompts Legolas to sail over the Sea, “and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf” (RotK, App. B). And of course, Samwise Gamgee, after the death of his wife Rose, leaves his children and his home and, according to his family tradition, goes to the Grey Havens and passes over the Sea – this final reunion with Frodo being what was hinted at near the end of the Return of the King by Frodo himself, the possibility discussed in the unpublished epilogue to the book, and also stated in Appendix B.
In other words, Merry and Pippin leave their families and are finally laid to rest together, then moved to lie beside Aragorn; Legolas and Gimli pass out of this world together, and Sam leaves his family to end his days with Frodo – or so we are led to believe. In the cases of Legolas and Gimli and Sam and Frodo, Tolkien won’t confirm with any certainty in the story that they ended their days in one place, but Tolkien’s unmistakable desire to have them together in death leads him to give us very strong hints that this is what might have happened.
We have examples of the desire of friends to be together in death, in some cases even leaving families to do so, not only in Tolkien’s fiction but also in historical facts. Many of the following examples come from a book by Alan Bray called The Friend, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, which has made me look at the concept of friendship, especially the death of friends, in Tolkien’s work in a new light.
Ancient and medieval texts describe the close bonds between men, sometimes as sworn brothers. In Homer’s The Iliad, the ghost of Patroclus visits his dear friend Achilles in a dream and says to him – and here I give you Stephen Mitchell’s translation:
But there is one more
thing that I have to ask, and I hope you will do it.
May my bones not be buried apart from your bones, Achilles.
May they lie together, just as we grew up together
when my father brought me from Opois to your house
It was then that Lord Peleus welcomed me in his home,
and he brought me up kindly and let me be your attendant.
So may one urn hold the bones of us both together. (23.80-90)
Here is a representation of lifelong companions and friends and one’s desire for burial together after death – to mingle their very bones in the same place.
We can find other examples in medieval literature. Take the Middle English romance about two friends, Amis and Amiloun. These two young men pledge their fidelity to each other as sworn brothers, a pledge that is tested severely in later life in this romance, when one of them sacrifices his own children to save his “trewe” brother (don’t worry — the children are miraculously brought back to life afterwards). The two sworn brothers die together on the same day and are laid in the same grave:
Both on oo day were they dede
And in oo grave were they leide,
The knyghtes both twoo;
And for her treth and her godhede (goodness; virtue)
The blisse of hevyn they have to mede, (as their reward)
That lasteth ever moo.
In the ballad of Bewick and Graham, collected a few centuries later, we have again two sworn brothers. They are forced to fight each other, but they vow that if one of them dies in the fight, the other will kill himself, which is exactly what happens. After the death of Graham the last words from Bewick are : “Nay, dig a grave both low and wide, / And in it us two pray bury;”
In these fictional examples, the claims of one’s sworn brother are often set in conflict with kinship claims but nevertheless surpass them.
But it’s not just in fictional texts that we – and Tolkien – could find representations of men closely bound in ties of friendship, often with the wish to be buried together. Alan Bray examines several examples, mainly in pre-18th century traditional society, of gravestones or memorials commemorating two friends together, usually with the same iconography one would expect in tombs of married couples, and he discusses the evidence for ceremonial pledges of friendship between men (and in one interesting instance between two women in the nineteenth century). These rituals occurred in public, in church usually, before witnesses and with the two friends taking communion together to seal their pledge of fidelity to each other. The public countenance of friendship could be visible in various practices in the course of a friendship: exchanging the kiss of peace, the giving of gifts, the sharing of food, and the sharing of beds (in life and in death).
For example, Tolkien would have seen the 14th-century brass memorial in the chapel of Merton College in Oxford for John Bloxham and John Whyttonarranged in the familiar iconography of a married couple, side by side with hands in prayer. The tomb was designed by Whytton after Bloxham’s death for the both of them, commemorating their friendship of more than 20 years.
Or, I wonder if Tolkien ever noticed this gravesite when as a young boy he and his mother and brother rented rooms in a postman’s cottage in Rednal that sat at the edge of the grounds belonging to the Birmingham Oratory. According to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, “The cottage lay on the corner of quiet country lane, and behind it were the wooded grounds of the Oratory House with the little cemetery adjoining the chapel where the Oratory fathers and Newman himself were buried. The boys had the freedom of these grounds, and further afield they could roam the steep paths that led through the trees to the high Lickey Hill.” (37). In that cemetery through which Tolkien and his brother roamed lies the shared grave of John Henry Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St John, an arrangement that Newman had been careful to insist on. These two friends are flanked in their final resting place by two others: Joseph Gordon and Edward Caswall. These three friends Newman referred to as “three great and loyal friends of mine” (Bray 294) who died before Newman and whose pictures he kept beside his altar in his room, an arrangement that was replicated in their final resting places.
Recognizing the importance of friendship in these past examples adds insight to the significance of friendship in Tolkien’s work. In The Silmarillion, for example, we have the story of Maedhros and Fingon. After Maedhros is captured by Morgoth, his lifelong friend Fingon set out to search for him. We are told that Fingon had been “close in friendship with Maedhros” and that “the thought of their ancient friendship stung his heart” (Sil. 124). In a rescue scene that is a precursor to Sam’s rescue of Frodo in the tower, Fingon begins to sing, and Maedhros answers. Fingon manages to find and to save his friend Maedhros, who waives his claim to kingship over the Noldor, to the disapproval of his brothers.
A similar bond of friendship can be seen in The Children of Húrin in the characters of Beleg and Túrin. Beleg is devoted to Túrin’s welfare, searching alone for him in the wilderness, leaving his own people to be with Túrin. At his death, he is called “truest of friends” (CH 156) and Túrin’s grief over Beleg’s death “was graven on the face of Túrin and never faded” (CH 156).
A couple of the friendships Tolkien describes involve not only this kind of lifelong loyalty in the face of peril, but also some kind of ritual or oath to mark the friendship. Take the example of Felagund and Barahir in The Silmarillion. Barahir comes to King Finrod Felagund’s aid in battle. In return, Felagund “swore an oath of abiding friendship and aid in every need to Barahir and all his kin, and in token of his vow he gave to Barahir his ring” (Sil. 176). Oaths can be problematic in Tolkien’s fiction, as we well know from Fëanor’s oath, but Felagund nevertheless makes a vow of friendship. This kind of sworn relationship creates a new, voluntary kinship, the outward sign of which is the ring that is given to Barahir. The oath of friendship extends to Barahir and all his kin, one of whom, Beren, will make a claim on that bond, with the result that Felagund will leave behind his family, renounce his kingship, and sacrifice his own life to save Beren from certain death.
A formal vow and the giving of a gift as its token marks the covenant of friendship between Felagund and Barahir that creates new relations between their families. In The Lord of the Rings, the nine members of the Fellowship do not swear any formal vows to support each other or to accomplish their tasks – Elrond allows for the operation of free will in this momentous matter – but I do think that Tolkien adapts an old ritual of fidelity in the story of Frodo and Sam that is a mark of their unique friendship and, seen in the light of other practices of sworn friendship, helps to explain events once they return home. I’ve described that pledge in a previous post. Suffice it to say that it involves another scene of tender hand-holding on Mount Doom in which Frodo and Sam reenact the medieval ritual of homage.
I think that that scene marks a private pledge of loyalty and love – the friendship that we see in so many other examples – that has a bearing on the lives of Frodo and Sam when they return home. Frodo assumes that their bond will continue to keep them together, never questioning the possibility that Sam would not want to move into Bag End with him. When Sam expresses his concerns over being “torn in two” (RotK, VI, 9) by his relationship with Rosie and with Frodo, we glimpse how the strength of the bond of friendship can be perceived as equivalent to that of marriage. And when Frodo bequeaths “all that I had and might have had” (RotK, VI, 9) to Sam, making him his heir, we see the workings of the voluntary kinship ties that the institution of friendship could create. Sam becomes like kin to Frodo, who gives him everything as a token of their friendship.
Lastly, we see the desire of friends to end their lives together. Although Frodo knows that Sam cannot sail west with him (at least not right away), he does ask Sam to arrange for some time to go with him to the Grey Havens. Finally, Sam understands the reason why:
Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening. “To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo. “And I can’t come.” “No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens……
“Come now, ride with me!”
(RotK, VI. 9.)
I think that when Frodo says to Sam, “Come now, ride with me!” he is in effect saying that he wants to have his friend by his side in what will be equivalent to Frodo’s death scene, his passing out of his world and into a new one.
The bond that spurs one friend to leave behind home and family to sacrifice everything for the sake of the other, the creation of new relationships that establish a different kind of kinship, sometimes marked by vows or rituals, and the desire to face eternity together, sometimes side by side in the same grave — these are elements of friendship that we can find in Tolkien’s fiction as we can in other texts and historical examples. These practices and rituals of love and friendship are old and varied, and could have a deep significance for the generations that have come before us.
Some of the texts I’ve cited:
Alan Bray, The Friend. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Anna Smol, “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, the First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings.” The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 conference: 50 years of The Lord of the Rings. Vol. 1, edited by Sarah Wells, Coventry:UK, 2008, pp. 320-326. Mount Saint Vincent University’s E-Commons.
Here is a wonderful book, beautifully written, by Amy Amendt-Raduege: “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Kent State UP, 2018. Winner of the 2020 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies. This book doesn’t deal with the death of friends in the same way I’ve outlined above, but it does discuss the topic of death and dying in far broader terms, examining the manner of death, memorials of the dead, and ideas about what happens after death throughout The Lord of the Rings.
I’ve borrowed my title from Verlyn Flieger’s essay, “But What Did He Really Mean?” published in Tolkien Studies in 2014. Professor Flieger points out ambivalent statements made by Tolkien at different times about religion, Elves or Faeries, and Faërian Drama. I’ll be looking closely at what she says about Faërian Drama at a later date, but for now I’m thinking about how she demonstrates that readers sometimes stake a claim for one position in their interpretations without considering contrary evidence.
For example, I’ve been rereading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, in which he declares several times that Tolkien disliked drama. Carpenter notes that in 1912, Tolkien wrote and acted in a play composed for his relatives’ Christmas entertainment, but then adds, “Later in life he professed to despise drama” (67). However, when the biography arrives at Tolkien’s later life, Carpenter recounts the Tolkien children’s memories, including “Visits to the theatre, which their father always seemed to enjoy, although he declared he did not approve of Drama” (162). (Did he declare this to his children or to other adults or in his writings?).
More examples: when describing Tolkien’s public performances reciting Chaucer in 1938 and 1939, Carpenter states, “He was not enthusiastic about drama as an art-form, considering it to be tiresomely anthropocentric and therefore restricting” (218). Carpenter somewhat downgrades Tolkien’s one published play (which appeared in 1953), “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” as a “radio play” (217) and a “dramatic recitation of verse” (218) rather than according it the status of a fully developed, albeit brief, drama. Yet if we look closely at these events cited by Carpenter, spanning several decades, Tolkien actually seems to be enjoying the dramatic art form – composing, acting, reciting, watching — in spite of Carpenter’s negative assessments. So where is the evidence that Tolkien disliked or despised drama?
The best evidence for Carpenter’s views is in the allusion to drama being “anthropocentric,” a term used in Appendix F in “On Fairy-Stories.” Here is the text:
Drama can be made out of the impact upon human characters of some event of Fantasy, or Faërie, that requires no machinery, or that can be assumed or reported to have happened. But that is not fantasy in dramatic result; the human characters hold the stage and upon them attention is concentrated. Drama of this sort (exemplified by some of Barrie’s plays) can be used frivolously, or it can be used for satire, or for conveying such ‘messages’ as the playwright may have in his mind – for men. Drama is anthropocentric. Fairy-story and Fantasy need not be.”
My reading of this passage would not lead me to say that Tolkien finds drama “tiresome” or even that he “despises” it. He is explaining his view that Fantasy is not suitable for dramatic presentation, not that drama in general is to be despised. He concludes this Appendix by positing that drama “cannot well cope” with either a scientific theory or a fairy-story – it must be about human beings.
This could well be the restrictiveness that Carpenter was alluding to. Fair enough, and to this we could add Appendix E, in which Tolkien is again considering how Fantasy can be best expressed. He compares “true literature” with the visual arts, including drama, and points out that visual art “imposes one visible form” whereas literature “works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive” (82). Although this paragraph begins with the idea of “the primary expression of Fantasy in ‘pictorial’ arts” (82), it is not clear whether Tolkien’s remarks remain within the context of how best to represent Fantasy, or whether he moves into a consideration of literature vs. visual art in general terms. I think it could be the latter and so, to Tolkien’s mind, drama is more restrictive in general. However, that doesn’t seem to have restricted his enjoyment of dramatic arts at several points in his life.
In my opinion, Carpenter misreads Tolkien’s feelings about drama, overemphasizing his disapproval. The repeated statements in the biography that Tolkien dislikes drama or disapproves of it, made without a closer look at the source for those ideas or any weight given to contrary evidence, can lead to a critical interpretation becoming a cliché and being accepted without question – that Tolkien disliked drama. Critics who are interested in Shakespearean influences on Tolkien have also had to deal with this issue.
Looking back at Carpenter’s biography, I think he could just as easily have weighted his assessments to a more positive side and said something like this: Although Tolkien did not think drama suitable for representing Fantasy, he enjoyed acting in dramatic performances; he attended plays; and he even composed a few plays himself in his youth and one later as an adult.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. 1977. HarperCollins, 1987.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Essays and Studies, New Series vol. 6, 1953, pp. 1-18. Republished in The Tolkien Reader (1966), Poems and Stories (1980), Tree and Leaf (2001) and by Anglo-Saxon Books (1991).
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A selection edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, 1981. HarperCollins, 1995.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories. Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. HarperCollins, 2008.
I sometimes like to listen to the Sounds of the Bodleian Library while working. The soundscapes transport me back to happy days researching in the library, where I hope to spend time again one day. In the meantime, a howling snowstorm is keeping us indoors here in Nova Scotia, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look forward to connecting with people online, dreaming of spring and summer, and listening to some great ideas on Tolkien in upcoming seminars.
First up is the Online Midwinter Seminar on The Inklings and Horror: Fantasy’s Dark Corners, sponsored by a Mythopoeic Society group, taking place this coming weekend on February 4th and 5th. You can see a list of speakers and topics on the Mythopoeic Society blog, including a number of papers on Tolkien. Friday night is reserved mainly for social activities, and the presentations are tentatively scheduled for Saturday. You can register for the seminar here. This is the first of midwinter seminars that the Mythopoeic Society is hoping to hold in the future.
18th Annual Tolkien in Vermont Conference, April 2, 2022. The theme is the idea of history and the keynote speaker will be Dr. Gergely Nagy. This event is planned as a hybrid conference, with in-person attendance at the University of Vermont as well as online participation. The schedule of speakers has not yet been announced, but I assume that more information will be forthcoming on the Tolkien in Vermont Facebook page.
The Popular Culture Association online conference will take place April 13-16, 2022. The final schedule has not yet been posted, but we do know that the Tolkien Studies area will have the following sessions: 1. Literary and Cultural Approaches to Tolkien; 2. Queer and Critical Race Approaches to Tolkien; 3. Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Tolkien; 4. Roundtable on Teaching Tolkien; 5. Race, Racisms, and Tolkien; 6. Religion, Spirituality, and Tolkien; 7. A Roundtable on the Future of Tolkien Studies. Each session will have 4 or 5 speakers. I’ll have more details when the final program is out. The deadline for early registration is February 11.
International Congress on Medieval Studies, University of Western Michigan, May 9-14, 2022. This conference is online once again this year, with plans to move to a hybrid model in 2023. A Sneak Preview of the program has now been posted on the conference homepage. Sessions on Tolkien include: 1. Medieval Understandings of the Nature of Evil as Depicted by Tolkien; 2. Tolkien and the Medieval Animal; 3. Tolkien and Medieval Poets: A Session in Memory of Richard West; 4. Medieval Tolkien and the Nature of Middle-earth (a Roundtable); 5. New Readings of The Lord of the Rings. Each of these sessions includes 3 or 4 presenters. Other sessions on medievalisms also include single presentations on Tolkien. I’ll post more details after the final program is published. You can find registration and other information on the Congress website.
Just before the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors a one-day symposium, to be held this year on May 7. This year’s theme is “Missing Mothers.” I expect more details to become available soon about this event. One place to find out more information as it becomes available is at the Tolkien at Kalamazoo Symposium 2022 link on the Tolkienists.org site, which includes emails for the organizers.
Of course, once summer arrives there will be more: in July, the Tolkien Society Seminar, the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, and the Once and Future Fantasies conference at the University of Glasgow; in August, the Mythopoeic Society, and, in September, Oxonmoot. But for now, I’ll work on the papers I’m scheduled to give this spring (at PCA and ICMS) and I’ll look forward to connecting with Tolkien scholars in our virtual world.
I am halfway into the fall term — always a busy time with meetings, grading, and class preparations. It’s hard to find time for research — or blogging. But one thing that I like to do whenever I have a half hour or so is to review videos of past conference presentations or listen to chats with other Tolkien scholars and fans.
One benefit of the move to online or hybrid conferences has been that we have in many cases a recording of the talks that were given. If you missed one, or if you just want to refresh your memory, there is plenty to listen to.
Other recorded talks for registered attendees. Those who registered for certain conferences that included Tolkien sessions, such as the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Western Michigan University) in May, the Popular Culture Association conference in June, the International Medieval Congress (Leeds) in July, or Oxonmoot Online in September, will have had access to recorded talks for a certain time after each conference. Only the Oxonmoot talks are still available to registered delegates.
And if you’re not feeling up to listening to scholarly presentations, you can always tune in to the Tolkien Experience Podcast, which features a mix of scholars and fans chatting about their experiences with reading Tolkien’s works and what they mean to them today. I was interviewed by my friend, Dr. Sara Brown, in September. You can listen to my interview, TEP #38, here. Or select from a list of recent interviews here:https://luke-shelton.com/tolkienexperiencepodcast/
And something new to add to the roster: the Mythopoeic Society is sponsoring an online winter seminar on The Inklings and Horror: Fantasy’s Dark Corners on February 4-5. The Call for Papers is open until November 15 if you’re interested in presenting. You can find more information here: https://www.mythsoc.org/mythcon/ows-2022.htm
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 Researchand 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1sthere. 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
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 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 GnomishLexicon
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.
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.
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.