This is the second in a series showcasing student projects in my Tolkien and medievalism course this year. Given the option of producing an adaptation of a medieval text or a work by Tolkien, my students can sometimes surprise me in their creative choices, as did Jordan Audas, who created Silmarillion collectible “toys” — with a touch of humour.
I’ve written about the purpose of these adaptation projects in Katherine Howell’s volume, Fandom as Classroom Practice. Further information and links can be found here.
Jordan wrote an essay on Tolkien fandom and merchandising and then considered themes of evil and death in The Silmarillion as the background for his meticulous workmanship in building his Silmarillion collectibles. Each one of his collectibles deals with an ephemeral, intangible moment in Tolkien’s legends dealing with death. Would you still want to collect them?
With Jordan’s permission, here are his collectibles:
Top row: Glaurung’s Smoke, Beren’s Hand, Morgoth and Ungoliant’s Great Darkness. Bottom row: Fingon’s Dust, Feanor’s Ashes, and the back view of all the boxes.Click on an image for the slideshow.All images copyright of Jordan Audas.
Anna Smol, “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom.” Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide, edited by Katherine Anderson Howell, U of Iowa P, 2018, pp. 17 – 31 and 147-50.
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.
I had just finished my Tolkien class yesterday when I returned to my office and found my social media sites flooded with news of Christopher Tolkien’s death. Just an hour before, I had been telling my students that, as Tolkien researchers, we owe a great debt to his son Christopher.
My students have been doing presentations on sections of The History of Middle-earth that include drafts of The Lord of the Rings. This exercise gives them just a glimpse of this immense project (12 volumes in all!) that Christopher Tolkien edited. I had just been saying to my students that morning that Christopher has given us all — students, fans, scholars — the means to experience what it is like doing specialized archival research with manuscript drafts. While we only get a few samples of Tolkien’s actual handwriting in The History of Middle-earth (HoMe), which is often the most difficult part of deciphering his actual papers, we can at least gain an understanding of Tolkien’s revision process for The Lord of the Rings, a glimpse into what characters and ideas he was developing and what ideas he knew he wanted from the start.
The presentations I’ve assigned my students are inspired by Yvette Kisor’s article, “Using The History of Middle-earth with Tolkien’s Fiction” which appears in Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. As she explains on p. 75,
Christopher Tolkien’s commentary, replication of different drafts, description and dating of manuscripts, determination of the order of composition, and other scholarly apparatuses expose students to the editorial tasks that go into the production of any authoritative edition.
But it’s not just Lord of the Rings drafts that are included in HoMe. There is a wealth of material, including unfinished stories like “The Notion Club Papers” which I’ve been working with in recent years. I’ve heard very occasionally the criticism that Christopher shouldn’t have published unfinished drafts without knowing if his father would have wanted the world to see them. But had those drafts been placed in the Bodleian Library with his other unpublished papers, I would have written about them anyway, as researchers do. Instead, Christopher gave access to such materials to a wider public.
HoMe is not the only publication that Christopher produced. Having trained as a medievalist, he edited and translated several medieval texts before resigning his position at Oxford to work full-time on his father’s materials. The Silmarillion is one of the texts that Christopher compiled after his father’s death (with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay), and although he wasn’t satisfied in later years with all of what he had produced, it nevertheless must have been a daunting task to make sense of these disorganized papers, something that his father himself was not able to do. The Silmarillion that was published in 1977 gave the world the first look at the mythology Tolkien had been working on for most of his life — the backdrop, in a way, to the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Christopher was always closely bound with his father’s writing. From listening to his story-telling when a child, drawing maps for The Lord of the Rings, typing up drafts, and, as an adult serving in the RAF during the Second World War, reading and commenting on chapters of The Lord of the Rings that his father mailed to him, he knew his father’s work intimately.
Christopher Tolkien dedicated his career to providing us with the materials for understanding his father’s works, and I am immensely grateful for that opportunity.
Here he is reading the ending of The Lord of the Rings:
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.)
I was planning to be in Leeds today at the International Medieval Congress in order to attend the first sessions on Tolkien tomorrow, but bad weather diverted my flight, making me miss my UK connection, and landing me even farther away than where I started. So what do you do for an extra day stranded in a hotel room waiting for a rebooked flight? How about looking at Tolkien conference sessions coming up this summer in case you’re lucky enough to attend one of these events. Or if you’re not attending, you can see what people are working on and hopefully wait for the articles and books to come later.
The Leeds conference features 5 sessions on Tolkien. You can search through the huge online program, but it’s far easier to look at Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s blog, where she lists the speakers and papers in the sessions that she’s organized.
Another conference of note is Mythcon, taking place this year in San Diego from August 2 – 5. The scholar guest of honour is Verlyn Flieger. Keep an eye out for the program, as there are always sessions on Tolkien (and the Inklings).
The Tolkien 2019 conference promises to be a big event, with major speakers, artwork, music, and other evening activities. This event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tolkien Society will take place in Birmingham, UK from August 7 to 11. You can find the featured speakers and the list of other speakers and their presentation titles here. I’ll have more to say about my own paper in a few weeks!
The Tolkien biopic has been in limited release for several weeks now, and assessments have appeared in many of the usual places by professional movie reviewers. I’ve decided to collect a few reviews by Tolkien scholars and fans. I’m not aiming to be comprehensive, so let me know in the comments if there’s a review I’ve missed that you particularly liked. The opinions summarized below range from quite positive to quite negative, and many in between. Of course, please don’t read these reviews if you’re avoiding spoilers!
Some Tolkien scholars and fans were given an opportunity to preview the movie at a couple of conferences last month. Possibly the first review to appear was by Christopher Vaccaro:
Also after a conference preview, Dawn Walls-Thumma described the lively discussion she had with some friends. They debated issues such as the ethics of adapting someone’s life and the problematic representation of Edith’s relationship with Tolkien. She thinks that the movie succeeds in general; she likes the representation of creative collaborations but finds that the movie resorts to some romantic clichés.
Jeff LaSala asks who is this film
for, and who will enjoy it the most? His answer is that it’s for all fans, but
that probably “casual Tolkien fans who won’t notice the creative licenses taken”
will enjoy it the most. His review includes a good list of what the movie doesn’t
give us as well as what it does give us.
His overall view is that the movie is “a worthwhile adventure.” This
review comes with some reading recommendations for those who want to know more
about Tolkien’s life and work.
Jeremy Edmonds finds that the movie is “broadly successful” especially for people with no prior knowledge of Tolkien’s life who won’t be annoyed by issues of historical accuracy. He thinks that the movie tried to make simple connections between events and people in Tolkien’s life and his fiction, but he does recommend the film “as art, not biography.”
This is the review that the movie director, Dome Karukoski, has proclaimed on Twitter to be his favourite (@domekarukoski). Brenton Dickieson states that he “decided to go and be open to loving the film—even knowing that it would be imperfect or even troubling at times.” The result is that he was “both relieved and impressed.” Although he believes that the movie could have used better CGI effects, “overall, the set design is lovely, the actors are compelling, the photography is excellent, the score invites empathy as a companion to the writing, and the storytelling is inviting.” His advice: don’t go into the movie expecting a documentary.
This review is behind a paywall, but you might be able to find it in a library or store (although here in Nova Scotia, the print edition still hasn’t appeared on shelves; you’d have to read the review in the digital version of the TLS). Dimitra Fimi finds that the movie “strikes a fine balance.” She points out some elements that are just “plain wrong” but she also likes a number of scenes, such as the representation of the TCBS friendship, the love story of Tolkien and Edith, Tolkien’s developing ideas about language and mythology, and the horror of the Somme. However, she does point out that the movie does not adequately represent Tolkien’s and his mother’s Catholic faith, an important element in his life. There are a number of other good moments in the movie, according to Fimi; one that she especially likes is the reading of G.B. Smith’s last letter to Tolkien. Her conclusion is that the movie might bring more readers to Tolkien’s work and that “it has got many emotional aspects right.”
John Rateliff finds a number of praiseworthy elements: the cinematographer’s focus on trees, the look and feel of the movie set in a not-too-distant past, and the representation of how poverty limits a person’s options in life. What he doesn’t like, however, are the scenes with Tolkien wandering around on the battlefield. He also doesn’t find that the movie represents Tolkien’s inner creative life very well. Finally, he thinks the pace is too slow. His conclusion: “So, not a disaster some feared, not the travesty it cd have been, just not the success I’d hoped for.”
The title pretty much summarizes it all. Joseph Loconte thinks that the movie represents neither Tolkien’s spiritual life nor the stories and myths that fueled his imagination. Although he does find some positive elements in the depiction of love and friendship, a major lack for Loconte is the absence in the movie of Tolkien’s Christian beliefs in accounting adequately for his outlook on life.
David Bratman did not like the movie, and he explains why in two places: once on the Tolkien Society blog (May 11) and once in Calimac’s Journal (May 10). He thinks that the movie does not represent Tolkien’s creative sources well, and when it does attempt to illustrate some stories and artwork, “it is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson’s movies.” He criticizes several other features of the movie, and his conclusion is that it is “dull and meandering.”
Do you agree or disagree with any one of these reviewers? Please feel free to add your opinions or other reviews that you found interesting in the comments.
Like other commentators, I can recommend some further reading if you’re interested in Tolkien’s biography: Humphrey Carpenter’s official biography or John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War would be good sources to consult. If you’d like a half-hour video documentary, I’d recommend Tolkien’s Great War by Elliander Pictures on Vimeo (which also features John Garth).
Tolkien. Fox Searchlight, 2019. Directed by Dome Karukoski. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford. Performances by Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi, and others.
It’s going to be a busy week coming up in Kalamazoo Michigan for Tolkien scholars. The Tolkien at Kalamazoo group, led by Chris Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor, is planning what has now become an annual symposium one day ahead of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. The Symposium, to be held off campus on Wednesday, May 8th, features a day of papers, some music, and a free screening in the evening of the new Tolkien biopic.
Following the Tolkien Symposium, the Medieval Congress kicks into high
gear starting on Thursday, May 9th, with several Tolkien sessions organized by
Tolkien at Kalamazoo and other departments or groups.
I used to compile this schedule to keep track of all the papers I wanted
to hear. I’m not going to Kalamazoo this year, but it’s still intriguing to see
what topics people are working on. Take a look if you’re curious, or plan your
schedule if you’re going!
Tolkien at Kalamazoo Symposium
Wednesday, May 8th Kazoo Books [2413 Parkview Ave, Kalamazoo, MI 49008]
12:00 – 1:00 Reconstructing the library of Michael H.R. Tolkien (1920-84) Brad Eden
– 1:30 Queer Hobbits: Language for the Strange,
the Odd, and the Peculiar in Tolkien‘s The
Lord of the Rings Yvette Kisor
– 2:00 Who maketh Morwinyon, and Menelmacar,
and Remmirath, and the inner parts of the south (where the stars are strange): Tolkien’s Astronomical Choices and
the Books of Job and Amos Kristine Larsen
Tolkien’s Early Para-Texts; A
Lit and Lang Exploration of The Heraldic Devices of Tol-Etherin
2:30 – 3:00 BREAK / Maidens of Middle-earth IX (music) Eileen Moore
– 3:30 The Grisaille Havens, Verdaille Dragon,
and Brunaille Lands: Brushwork in Tolkien’s Watercolors
–4:15 Marquette’s Tolkien Manuscripts in a Digital
Bill Fliss and John Rateliff
“Dreamlike it was, and yet no dream:”
Faramir’s Vision of the Passing of Boromir
Vickie Holtz Wodzak
A SELECT SCREENING OF TOLKIEN (FOX SEARCHLIGHT, 2019) 6:00 pm (Seating at 5:30!) AMC, 10 Portage Street. FREE
[EDIT May 5]: If you would like to attend the movie screening, you have to give your name to the organizer Chris Vaccaro before 5:30 that evening. You can email Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Congress on Medieval Studies, Thursday, May 9 – Sunday, May 12
Thursday 10:00 a.m. Session 17 FETZER 2016 Misappropriations of Tolkien’s medievalism (a roundtable) Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Richard West, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madiso
A roundtable discussion with Leigh Smith, East Stroudsburg Univ.; Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce; Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.; Anna Czarnowus, Univ. of Silesia; Stephen Yandell, Xavier Univ.
Thursday 1:30 p.m. Session 64 FETZER 2016 Tolkien and Medieval Constructions of Race Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Deidre Dawson, Independent Scholar
Sun-Soot: Ragnarok and the Servants of Sauron Larry J. Swain, Bemidji State Univ. Medievalist, Modernist, and Postmodernist Readings of Tolkien’s constructions of Race Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Jihad / Crusade or Race War? The News from the Battle of Helm’s Deep Michael A. Wodzak, Viterbo Univ.
Thursday 3:30 p.m. Session 112 FETZER 2016 Tolkien and Temporality: Medieval Constructions of Time Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Brad Eden, Independent Scholar
Of Niggle and Ringwraiths: Tolkien on Time and Eternity as the Deepest Stratum of His Work Robert Dobie, La Salle Univ. Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon Women: A Journey into the Medieval through the Modernity of Middle-Earth Annie Brust, Kent State Univ./Kenston High School The Eschatological Catholic: J. R. R. Tolkien and a Multi-Modal Temporality Stephen Yandell, Xavier Univ.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. Session 350 FETZER 2016 Medieval Song, Verse, and Versification in Tolkien’s Works Organizer: Annie Brust, Kent State Univ. Presider: Annie Brust
Noldorin and Sindarin Verse in the Lord of the Rings Eileen Marie Moore, Cleveland State Univ. Boethian Philosophy and Splintered Music: Decay through Time in Tolkien’s Legendarium Brad Eden, Independent Scholar Tolkien, the Beowulf-Poet, and the Phenomenology of Song and Identity Paul Fortunato, Univ. of Houston-Downtown
Saturday 12:00 noon Tolkien at Kalamazoo Business Meeting Bernhard 211
Saturday 1:30 p.m. Session 397 BERNHARD BROWN & GOLD ROOM The Medieval Roots of Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin Organizer: William Fliss, Marquette Univ. Presider: William Fliss
Four Brethren Heroes of the Gondolindrim: Egalmoth, Ecthelion, Glorfindel, and Legolas: A Mythic and Linguistic Exploration Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar “Ic eom sæliden”: Medieval Romance Motifs in Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin John R. Holmes, Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville From the Deeds of the Youth to the Arrival of a King Anne Reaves, Marian Univ.
Saturday 3:30 p.m. Session 449 BERNHARD BROWN & GOLD ROOM Tolkien’s Legendarium and Medieval Cosmology Sponsor: History Dept., Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Organizer: Judy Ann Ford, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Presider: Judy Ann Ford
“It Lies Behind the Stars”: Situating Tolkien’s Work within the Aesthetics of Medieval Cosmology“ Connie Tate, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Cynewulf, Copernicus, and Conjunctions: The Problem of Cytherean Motions in Tolkine’s Medieval Cosmology” Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ. Binding Faerie with the Chains of Time: Tolkien’s Failure to Finish The Silmarillion John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Session 509 FETZER 2016 The Legacy of Tolkien’s Medievalism in Contemporary Works Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society Organizer: Geoffrey B. Elliott, Independent Scholar Presider: Geoffrey B. Elliott
Caines Cynne in Azeroth: Tolkien’s Medievalism in the Warcraft Series Benjamin C. Parker, Northern Illinois Univ. The Two Eyes of the Dragon: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf as an Introduction to English Literature in Academic Enviroments Isabella Aparecida Leite Nogueira, Univ. Federal de Juiz de Fora; Mariana Mello Alves de Souza, Univ. Federal de Juiz de Fora Diluting Divinity: Connecting Genesis to Diablo by Way of Numenor Rachel Cooper, Univ. of Saskatchewan
One of the recent clips from the upcoming biopic Tolkien (in limited release in May), features Edith encouraging Tolkien to tell her a story about “cellar door.” I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had obviously done some research in their use of this phrase, which can be traced to one of Tolkien’s essays. I’ve been asked a couple of times about this choice of words in the trailer, so I wanted to identify here the source in Tolkien’s work. In doing some reading about the term, however, I discovered something new (to me, that is) — which is that the use of “cellar door” is not Tolkien’s own invention.
Tolkien does talk about “cellar door” in his essay, “English and Welsh,” which he delivered as the 1955 O’Donnell Lecture in Oxford. In the lecture, Tolkien discusses our “inherent linguistic predilections” (p. 190), explaining that he personally found the sound of Welsh very pleasurable and that everyone has a preference for certain sounds dissociated from the meanings of words. He writes:
Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent….”
“English and Welsh,” p. 191
I haven’t seen the entire film yet, as some lucky conference-goers already have (see reviews by Chris Vaccaro and Dawn Walls-Thumma /Dawn Felagund), but just in looking at the brief clip below, I think that the filmmakers are trying to convey how Tolkien’s imagination, to echo Lewis’s phrase, goes “inside language,” feeling the beauty of the words and imagining something beyond them. He extracts the beginnings of a story, eschewing the more conventional and ready-made fairy-tale elements, which is what Edith seems to be suggesting. (Those who have already seen the movie, feel free to correct me!).
I think that the task of showing externally
how someone is working internally with language in an imaginative way is a
difficult prospect in the film medium, and I’m eager to see how the rest of the
movie handles Tolkien’s creative inner life.
To my surprise, though, I’ve discovered that “cellar door” is not just Tolkien’s way of describing his phonetic aesthetic. Apparently, the phrase was first used in a popular English song in 1894: “Shout down my rain barrel,/ Slide down my cellar door, /And we’ll be jolly friends forevermore” (see Geoff Nunberg, who points out how “slide down my cellar door became a catchphrase for innocent childhood play). In 1903 Cyrus Lauron Hooper, in his novel Gee-boy, considers the sound appeal of “cellar door.” You can read the entire novel at the Internet Archive , with the relevant passage here (pages 43-44 in the novel) , which I’ll copy:
He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”
(Gee-boy, pp. 43-44)
Several years after Tolkien used the words in his 1955 lecture, C.S. Lewis wrote about their sound in a 1963 letter: “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore one produces an enchanting proper name.” Tolkien repeats this same idea in a 1966 interview, quoted in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book on the Inklings:
Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me—‘cellar door,’ say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador,’ and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”
(quoted on p. 25)
But neither Tolkien nor Lewis was the only writer to say that “cellar door” sounded beautiful after Hooper introduced the idea in Gee-boy. Grant Barrett in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article listed a number of other writers both before and after Tolkien who refer to “cellar door.” Shortly afterwards, linguist Geoff Nunberg examined how and why “cellar door” might have been seen repeatedly in this light, concluding that it allowed aesthetes to prove that they could see beauty in ordinary things; furthermore, he believes that the attraction can be attributed to what English speakers might consider sounds from romanticized, “warm-blooded” or musical languages.
In other words, Tolkien’s use of “cellar door” is part of a tradition, one could say, a previously established way of alluding to the appeal of the sounds of words without reference to their meanings. I can’t wait to experience fully what the Tolkien movie does with the idea.