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of his careful handling of the play’s verses as well as his detailed study of alliterative metre, evident in his unpublished manuscripts and in his essay on the topic, shows how he creates various styles in modern English alliterative verse, from colloquial and conversational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This article enabled me to draw on my readings in Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts held at the Bodleian Library.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.
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.
The city of Leeds will host a variety of Tolkien presentations this summer, from July 4th to the 9th, at both the Tolkien Society Seminar and the International Medieval Congress.
The Tolkien Society Seminar has just issued its call for papers, with the theme for this annual meeting being “Adapting Tolkien.” This year, the Society is extending the Seminar to an extra half day, so the full-day program will take place on Saturday, July 4, from 9 a.m to 6 p.m. and the following morning, Sunday, July 5, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. As the Tolkien Society page states, this is “a short conference of both researcher-led and non-academic presentations.” Suggested topics include the following (although papers do not have to be limited to these):
Adapting Tolkien’s works to stage and screen
Other adaptations: games, merchandise and Hobbit-hole hotels
The deadline for paper proposals in April 5; to submit, follow the link on the Tolkien Society Seminar page, which is where you can find more details about registration and location.
[May 12 edit: The Seminar will be presented online. Check for posts closer to the date with more details.]
The Seminar is held just before the International Medieval Congress opens on the following Monday, where a number of Tolkien sessions will be held during the conference week. See this post by Andrew Higgins, one of the co-organizers of those sessions, for titles, dates, and times of Tolkien papers at IMC 2020.
[edit May 12: IMC cancelled due to COVID-19. A pared-down version of the conference will go online. Please check later for posts with more details.]
Or you can check out the session details below from the program which has just been published online and mailed out to participants; these PDFs include session abstracts, which will give you a little more information about what the speakers intend to talk about:
I usually post full details of various conference programs closer to the time of the events, but for now, I’ll just post session titles for an overview of the upcoming Tolkien conference season this spring and summer. Details may change over the next few months, so always follow the links to the official programs for final details.
Tolkien at Vermont: April 4
April 4, 2020 University of Vermont, Burlington, VT Organizer: Dr. Chris Vaccaro
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
Special theme: Tolkien and Classical Antiquities
The Tolkien in Vermont website describes the conference as “an annual weekend of academic papers, fireside readings, and bonhomie, bringing together seasoned academics, students, independent scholars, and the general public…” — very true, in my experience.
The program hasn’t been posted yet, but this 17th annual event at the University of Vermont has announced its keynote speaker, John Wm. Houghton, well known to Tolkien scholars for his various publications and editorial work. Go to the website for more details.
Tolkien at Popular Culture Association: April 15 – 18
April 15 – 18, 2020 Philadelphia, US Organizer: Dr. Robin Anne Reid
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
May 7 – 10, 2020 Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
For more details about these sessions, you can check the sneak preview of the Congress program. Registration opens in February.
Thursday, May 7. 10 a.m. Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, His Precursors and Legacies Sponsor: Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow Organizer: Dimitra Fimi, Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow; Kristine A. Swank, Univ. of Glasgow Presider: Kristine A. Swank
Friday, May 8. 1:30 p.m. Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion) Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society Organizer: Geoffrey B. Elliott, Independent Scholar Presider: Carrie Pagels, Independent Scholar
Saturday, May 9. 10 a.m. Tolkien and Se Wyrm Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College
Saturday, May 9. 1:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Paratexts, Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (A Roundtable) Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.
Saturday, May 9. 3:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Chaucer Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Christopher Vaccaro
Sunday, May 10. 8:30 a.m. Tolkien and Manuscript Studies Organizer: William Fliss, Marquette Univ. Presider: William Fliss
For more details about these sessions, go to the sneak preview of Congress sessions. The final program will be posted on the ICMS site.
The special theme of the 2020 Congress is “Borders,” which explains why there are three sessions on Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism. Registration opens on February 10th.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Deirdre Dawson, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Monday 6 July (11:15-12:45)
New Sources and Approaches to Tolkien’s Medievalism – A Round Table Discussion Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Tuesday 7 July (19:00-20:00)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism I Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (9:00-10:30)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism II Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Sara Brown, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (11:15-12:45)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism III Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator/Chair: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (14:15-15:45)
And looking ahead to the summer:
Mythcon: July 31-August 3
July 31 – August 3, 2020 Mythopoeic Society – Mythcon 51 Albuquerque, New Mexico
[May 12 edit: conference postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19]
Theme: The Mythic, the Fantastic, and the Alien
Registration is now open but the call for papers and program haven’t appeared yet.
Oxonmoot: September 3 – 6
The Tolkien Society – Oxonmoot September 3 – 6 St. Anne’s College, Oxford
[June 6 edit: Oxonmoot will be held online. Oxonmoot Online will take place September 18-20. Check the Tolkien Society website for more details as they become available.]
Registration is now open but a program will come later. The call for papers will open February 9th.
I’d be happy to hear about any conferences I’ve missed in the comments.
You can find the submission guidelines here. Different sponsoring groups have different deadlines. For example, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group would like proposals by September 1st (tomorrow!) while the final deadline for ICMS proposals generally is September 15th — though no one is advised to wait that long. You can search the complete call for papers for the Congress here.
Tolkien at Kalamazoo is sponsoring 3 sessions:
Tolkien’s Paratexts: Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (Roundtable) Following the medieval manuscript tradition, Tolkien’s literary fiction includes charts, maps, annals and other paratextual elements, many found in the Appendices. These elements deserve further critical study. Taking his father’s lead, Christopher Tolkien has been meticulously editing J.R.R. Tolkien’s manuscripts, supplying commentary and emendations concerning the many cruxes within the notes and typescripts. As medievalists, we will bring this often ignored back matter and marginalia to the foreground.
Tolkien and Se Wyrm Tolkien admits to being influenced by the dragons of Beowulf and the Volsungasaga. In those medieval epic texts, the dragon is monstrous but somewhat uncanny and familiar to human kind; distinctions are blurred. Something similar happens in Tolkien’s fictions, presenting exciting new considerations on the subject of monstrosity. Papers could explore the interdisciplinary relationships between the dragons of medieval legend and those of Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s Chaucer With the upcoming publication of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (edited by John M. Bowers, Oxford University Press, 2019) readers of Tolkien have the opportunity to explore how Tolkien read Chaucer as well as how that reading influenced his fiction. This paper session might explore fourteenth-century ideas of romance, neoplatonism, self in relation to society, constructions of gender, etc., as they related to Tolkien’s texts.
Proposals for the above sessions should be sent to:
Dr. Christopher Vaccaro Email: email@example.com
You can also send Chris a proposal for the Tolkien Symposium which takes place on the Wednesday before the start of the conference. While the official CFP will come out later with a January deadline, the Symposium usually has an open theme and you can propose a paper now.
University of Glasgow, Fantasy Research Hub
Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, his Precursors and Legacies The recent volume Sub-creating Arda: World-building in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works, its Precursors, and Legacies (2019), edited by D. Fimi and T. Honegger, examines the importance of invented story-worlds as spaces for primary-world social commentary, or as means for visualizing times and places not accessible to the reader. Tolkien was one of the foremost proponents of literary world-building, what he called “sub-creation,” and his Middle-earth has had unrivaled influence on subsequent world-building efforts. Yet, Tolkien’s own sub-creations were born from medieval story-worlds such as Beowulf,Kalevala, Volsungasaga, and others. This paper session examines the emergent, interdisciplinary research field of world-building through Tolkien’s Middle-earth, its medieval precursors, and/or its modern legacies. Papers might be on such topics as mythopoeia, design, systems of magic, geology, geography, cartography, cosmology, ecology, sociology, demographics, cultural anthropology, materiality, religion, philosophy, language—literally anything that goes into world-building—in conjunction with the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, or his medieval/medievalist precursors, or his worldbuilding legacy in literature or other fields. Papers on interdisciplinary topics are welcome.
Please send your proposals with “Tolkien World-Building” in the subject line to: Dimitra Fimi (Dimitra.Fimi@glasgow.ac.uk) AND Kris Swank (KSwank@pima.edu).
Marquette University Archives
Tolkien and Manuscript Studies J.R.R. Tolkien the scholar studied and taught medieval manuscripts. In imitation of these, Tolkien the author incorporated fictional manuscripts into his tales. He produced an enormous quantity of his own manuscripts in the course of crafting his Legendarium, which his son Christopher and others have closely examined. In his influential essay “The Great Chain of Reading: (Inter-)textual Relations and the Technique of Mythopoesis in the Túrin Story” (2002), Gergely Nagy explains that Tolkien’s mode of narrative development was akin to that of the medieval European tradition, writing, redacting, and expanding of numerous versions.
This session proposal invites papers on the role of manuscripts (as mise-en-page and mise-en-scène) in the life and works of Tolkien.
Contact: William Fliss Phone: (414) 288-5906 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tales After Tolkien Society
Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien Inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion)
Legacies of Tolkien’s Whiteness in Contemporary Medievalisms (A Roundtable)
Contact: Geoffrey B. Elliott PO Box 292970 Kerrville, TX 78028 email: email@example.com
IMC Leeds July 6-9, 2020
The deadline for Tolkien proposals is September 6.
Sessions 1-3: Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism – paper sessions These sessions will directly address the overall theme of the conference (“Borders”). Papers in these sessions can explore all aspects of borders in Tolkien’s works in its broadest sense. These can be explorations of geographical, conceptual, political and linguistic borders in Tolkien’s work as well as the role and impact of borders on the peoples and cultures of Tolkien’s world-building and in his other creative and academic explorations.
Sessions 4-5: Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches – paper sessions These sessions can accommodate wider topics and new approaches to Tolkien’s medievalism, ranging from source studies and theoretical readings, to comparative studies (including Tolkien’s legacy).
Session 6 – New Sources and Approaches to Tolkien’s Medievalism This roundtable discussion provides a forum to explore new sources and approaches to Tolkien’s work. This can explore new academic work drawn from the most recent published editions of Tolkien’s work including The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (ed. Verlyn Flieger, 2017), The Tale of Beren and Lúthien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, 2017), The Fall of Gondolin (ed. Christopher Tolkien, 2018) as well as new academic works such as Tolkien’s Library – An Annotated Checklist (Cilli, forthcoming August 2019) and Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (OUP: Bowers, forthcoming September 2019).
If you are interested in participating:
Please submit a paper/round table contribution title and abstract to Dr. Dimitra Fimi (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Andrew Higgins (email@example.com) by 6th September
Length of abstracts: 100 words. (Papers will be 15-20 minutes long while roundtable contributions will be 10-12 minutes long). With your abstract, please include name and details of contributor (affiliation, address, and preferred e-mail address).
A note on how Kalamazoo and Leeds organizers select papers differently: for the ICMS in Kalamazoo, the session topics are first approved by the Congress organizers and then the session sponsors select presenters to fill the sessions. At Leeds, the session sponsors select presenters and send in the full session proposal to the Congress organizers to await approval. Sometimes, sessions are not approved.
On the day before the Congress begins (Sunday 5 July), the Tolkien Society sponsors a Tolkien Seminar, a full day of presentations. The call for papers will be available later this year.
The Tolkien Society’s 50th Anniversary celebration, Tolkien 2019, is over. Taking place in Birmingham from August 7 to 11, the event featured guest speakers, entertainments, an art show, masquerade, orchestra, the play Leaf by Niggle, and many speakers, of whom I was one.
For those who were fortunate enough to go, it was a wonderful opportunity to greet old friends and meet new ones, but no one could possibly attend every session in the program. For those who could not go to Birmingham, I know how hard it is sometimes to read all the excited posts about other people’s experiences. Luckily, a number of summaries have been posted of quite a few talks, and the special guest presentations are available on video, so there is much that can be seen both for those who missed the whole thing and also for those who were there but couldn’t get to every session.
Several bloggers have summarized the sessions they attended:
Marcel Aubron-Bulles at TheTolkienist.com posted late-night accounts of Day 1, 2, and 3.
Maria (pencilphilos) on Middle-earth News published photos and summaries: Part 1 covering Day 1 and 2, and Part 2 for Days 3 and 4.
Luisge on luiyo.net managed to get to an impressive number of sessions and events, all described here.
Jeremy Edmonds on TolkienGuide.com has posted the Tolkien Society videos of the special speakers and guest panels. You can also find the videos on the Tolkien Society channel on YouTube. These include talks by Dimitra Fimi, Tom Shippey, Wayne Hammond, Christina Scull, Brian Sibley, Jay Johnstone, Ted Nasmith, Alan Lee, and panels on illustrating Tolkien and on the upcoming LotR on Prime.
The Prancing Pony Podcast has offered some Ponderings on the conference, and their live interviews with some of the guests will be online on September 15.
Marie Bretagnolle has started her own summary of her experience of the conference events. Day One has been posted; keep going back to her site for the rest.
You can find abstracts of all the presentations and biographies of the speakers on the Tolkien 2019 website; click on the Programme and scroll through towards the end of the document.
Many of the summaries above comment on the same sessions. I’ll add a few speakers that I was interested in:
Dr. Sara Brown, “Taking Care of the Land: Stewardship in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.” Dr. Brown gave a thorough definition of the concepts of “home” and “stewardship” in Tolkien’s works.
Dr. Aurelie Bremont, “‘We should look at green again’: of magic, Green Elves, and the battle of good vs. evil.” Dr. Bremont discussed traditional medieval interpretations of green, the splintering of the light in Tolkien’s legendarium, and where Green Elves fit in the spectrum of Light and Dark Elves.
Kris Swank, “Travellers in Time: Tolkien and Joseph O’Neill.” Kris Swank discussed these two modernist authors of time-travel narratives who used similar themes.
Penny Holdaway, “Would you buy a house from the architect of Bimble Bay?” Penny Holdaway’s talk discussed “the rise of ecocriticism in the 1920’s-1930’s and how Tolkien’s Bimble Bay series, particularly his poem ‘Progress in Bimble Bay,’ connects to that movement” (Programme, p 38).
Dr. Una McCormack, “‘Not worth doing’: Fanfiction Writers and the Fourth Age.” Dr. McCormack explored some fanfiction stories dealing with the aftermath of the War of the Ring. Hers was one of a number of talks on fandom during the conference.
Marie Bretagnolle, “Artists in Middle-earth: Illustrating The Lord of the Rings.” Marie Bretagnolle compared two sets of illlustrations, one from the 1977 Folio Society edition by Ingahild Grathmer and Eric Fraser and the other by Alan Lee in the 1991-92 edition. This was one of several presentations on art and illustration during the conference, including talks by and about artists.
Dr. Andrew Higgins, “Four Brethren Heroes of the Gondolindrim – Egalmoth, Ecthelion, Glorfindel and Legolas: A mythic and linguistic exploration.” Dr. Higgins explored the philological and mythical aspects of these four characters present from the earliest Fall of Gondolin story.
Luke Shelton, “The Lord of the Rings, Young Readers, and the Question of Genre.” Luke Shelton presented some very interesting results from his research, which indicates that young readers do not think of genre in the same way as adults: critics tend to apply single genre labels but young readers tend to be more inclusive.
William Sherwood, “Rewriting the British Literary Tradition: Keatsian Echoes in Tolkien’s Early Works.” William Sherwood discussed the echoes of Keats’s poems in Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales I and II.
Erik Mueller-Harder, “The Lost Connections of Tolkien’s First Map of The Lord of the Rings: Reconstruction.” The photo shows Erik’s first slide in his presentation but doesn’t do justice to the way in which he expertly illustrated the layers and overlaps in Tolkien’s first map of The Lord of the Rings. This was one of a number of interesting digital projects on Tolkien and his works, including those by James Tauberand Marquette archivist Bill Fliss.
As for my presentation — I’ll add a summary in the next few days. Watch this blog!
Before I post the final item, I’ll just mention Luke Shelton’s thoughts on post-conference feelings and imposter syndrome. As Luke points out, after several days of being energized and “on,” it can be hard for some people to come down. It’s important to know that you’re not alone in this feeling.
And now, if you’ve read this far, here is a treat: the closing plenary talk of the conference by Dr. Dimitra Fimi, in which she combines research and singing and audience participation in her “Tolkien, Folklore, and Foxes: A thoroughly vulpine talk in which there may be singing!” Enjoy!
(Please leave a comment if you’ve found some other good links about the conference.)
March 25, designated by the Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day, is meant to encourage the reading of Tolkien’s works individually or in group events. A new theme is announced every year, and for 2019 it’s “Tolkien and the mysterious.”
My current reading focuses on Tolkien’s
verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorhthelm’s Son – let’s call it The
Homecoming for short – and a specific moment in the play in which one of
the characters experiences a mysterious vision.
It’s not one of Tolkien’s best-known works, so first a quick summary: The Homecoming is a short drama for two voices based on the events recounted in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes an English defeat at the hands of Viking invaders in the year 991. Beorhtnoth is the English lord who is killed in the battle, but his loyal followers fight on against hopeless odds. Often-quoted lines from the poem are spoken by an old warrior, here in Old English, then followed by Tolkien’s translation:
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, Mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.
“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.” (124)
Tolkien wrote that he thought these Old
English lines weren’t original in this poem but instead “an ancient and
honoured expression of heroic will” (124).
The events of Tolkien’s play The Homecoming occur after the battle is over, when two servants are sent by the local Abbot to find and bring back Beorhtnoth’s body for burial. They are out on a gruesome battlefield in the dark of night, surrounded by mangled corpses, trying to understand what happened in the fighting. They think of ghosts, are startled by a hooting owl, and face sudden danger when they come upon and fight some corpse robbers. After they identify a few of the dead who were closest to Beorhtnoth, they make their way to where they discover what remains of their lord. One of the servants is a young poet who shows several times that he is capable of composing verses in moments when the two men honour their dead lord. Eventually they carry his body to their wagon and start on the way home. That’s where the young poet, lying in their cart, starts nodding off and speaks “drowsily and half dreaming” (140):
There are candles in the dark and cold voices. I hear mass chanted for master’s soul in Ely isle. Thus ages pass, and men after men. Mourning voices of women weeping. So the world passes; day follows day, and the dust gathers, his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it, and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle. So men flicker and in the mirk go out. The world withers and the wind rises; the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.
This young man, whose name is Torhthelm or Totta for short, seems to be seeing into the future – the present or near future in hearing mass chanted for Beorhtnoth among the monks in Ely — but then followed by a sweeping view of ages in the future until the “world withers” and all seems to die out.
This view intensifies in the next few moments. The stage directions state that Totta continues with “the voice of one speaking in a dream,” and he seems to enter into a mysterious vision, recounted in the present tense, as if he is partaking urgently of some other reality:
It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming! Is no light left us? A light kindle, and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens, hearth is burning, house is lighted, men there gather. Out of the mists they come through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth. Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting: stern words they sing with strong voices. (He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more proud the spirit as our power lessens! Mind shall not falter nor mood waver, though doom shall come and dark conquer
At that moment, the cart goes over a bump
and jolts Totta out of his dream, back to the reality of his companion who
disapproves of the young poet’s words. The play ends shortly afterwards.
You’ll notice that in this intense
visionary experience, Totta hears men chanting the lines that will become part
of “The Battle of Maldon” – “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, / more
proud the spirit as our power lessens!” – although he adds two further lines
that don’t appear in the Old English poem.
Who are these ghostly men that Totta sees
gathering in the hall “out of the mists” and that he hears chanting? Where is
Totta in this dream-vision? He seems to
be participating in the experience in the present moment, but is he
imaginatively partaking of a past event or a future one? The mystery of where
this dream comes from and what kind of experience Totta is having as he speaks
it out loud in a dream-like voice contributes to the significance of this climactic
moment in the play.
I’ve written about this mysterious event (and other aspects of the play) in a forthcoming essay on The Homecoming,* where I conclude that Totta is “penetrating to the heart of heroic tradition,” accessing what Tolkien called that ancient expression of heroic will, which lives in poetic tradition. I also think that Totta’s experience is similar to other mysterious instances in Tolkien’s fiction where the power of a story or poem leads people into a dream-like state in which they experience other times and places — for example, the hobbits listening to Tom Bombadil’s stories, or Frodo enchanted by poetry in Rivendell, or the Notion Club members following Lowdham and Jeremy’s adventures in an Anglo-Saxon hall.
These visionary experiences are mysterious
in the sense that they are puzzling, obscure, hard to understand. They may also
resonate with the sense of “mystery” as denoting something mystical or beyond
What’s your interpretation of these mysterious
*My essay is forthcoming in a new book from Walking Tree Press, “Something has gone crack”: New Perspectives on Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Annika Röttinger and Janet Brennan Croft. I’ll post more when I have information about a definite publication date!
The image used above is “Before” by Tolkien, one of his early drawings estimated to have been made around 1911-1912 (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, page 65, footnote 12. The drawing is fig. 30 in their book.)
My quotations from Tolkien’s Homecoming are taken from the play published
in Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins,
2001. The play was originally published in the scholarly journal Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1953, pp.
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.