Tolkien 2019 conference round-up


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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 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 managed to get to an impressive number of sessions and events, all described here.
  • Jeremy Edmonds on 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, Tolkien 2019
Dr. Sara Brown

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

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.

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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 Tauber and 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!

Dr. Dimitra Fimi plenary talk at Tolkien 2019

(Please leave a comment if you’ve found some other good links about the conference.)

Talks on Tolkien this summer


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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!

Movie reviews by Tolkien scholars and fans


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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!

Official trailer 2: Tolkien, Fox Searchlight, 2019

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:

Christopher Vaccaro

 “’Hel-heime!’: The Daring Love Between Men in Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien.”  Journal of Tolkien Research, vol. 6, no. 2, article 11.

Chris Vaccaro’s review focuses on the relationship represented in the movie between Tolkien and G.B. Smith, one of his school friends.

Dawn Walls-Thumma

Unfinished Tales: A Review of Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien.”  The Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, 7 April 2019.

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

 “Love, Friendship, and Stories: The Tolkien Biopic Informs and Inspires.”,  10 May 2019.

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

Tolkien (2019) Movie Review.“ Tolkien, 6 May 2019.

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.”

Brenton Dickieson

 “My Defiant Appreciation of the Biopic Tolkien.A Pilgrim in Narnia, 13 May 2019.

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.  

Dimitra Fimi 

Love, Study, Friendship, and War: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Early Life.” Times Literary Supplement, 15 May 2019.

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

The TOLKIEN Biopic.” Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, 21 May 2019.

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.”

Joseph Loconte

Tolkien Film Fails to Capture the Majesty of His Achievement.”  National, 9 May 2019.

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

Tolkien: the movie.” Tolkien Society blog, 11 May 2019.

Tolkien: the Bio-Pic.” Calimac’s Journal, 10 May 2019.

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.

Tolkien at Kalamazoo 2019


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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] 

11:30-12:00 Lunch [Subway selections, cookies, coffee and teas, water; $5-$10 each]

12:00 – 1:00 
Reconstructing the library of Michael H.R. Tolkien (1920-84) 
Brad Eden

 1:00 – 1:30 
Queer Hobbits: Language for the Strange, the Odd, and the Peculiar in Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings
Yvette Kisor

1:30 – 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
Andrew Higgins

2:30 – 3:00    BREAK    / Maidens of Middle-earth  IX (music)
Eileen Moore

3:00 – 3:30   
The Grisaille Havens, Verdaille Dragon, and Brunaille Lands: Brushwork in Tolkien’s Watercolors
John Holmes

3:30 –4:15 
Marquette’s Tolkien Manuscripts in a Digital Age.
Bill Fliss and John Rateliff

“Dreamlike it was, and yet no dream:” Faramir’s Vision of the Passing of Boromir
Vickie Holtz Wodzak 

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

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.
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.
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

Kalamazoo campus swan pond
Western Michigan University campus

Tolkien’s “cellar door”


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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.

Works Cited

Barrett, Grant. “Cellar Door.” The New York Times Magazine. Feb. 11, 2010.

Hooper, Cyrus Lauron. Gee-boy. New York and London: John Lane, 1903. Internet Archive,

Nunberg, Geoff. “The Romantic Side of Familiar Words.”  Language Log. Feb 26, 2010.

Nunberg, Geoff. “Slide down my cellar door.” Language Log. March 16, 2014.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “English and Welsh.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 162-97.

Zaleski, Philip and Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2015.

Tolkien conference sessions this month


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April is a good month for Tolkien conferences in the U.S.

Tolkien in Vermont

In a few days, the 16th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference will take place at the University of Vermont in Burlington.  This year’s theme is Tolkien and Horror, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Yvette Kisor from Ramapo College, who will be talking about “The horror of the unnarrated: Implications for Tolkien’s reader.”

This is always a small and friendly conference, and this year there’s an extra treat for participants – a private, advance screening of the Tolkien biopic directed by Dome Karukoski.

In addition to Dr. Kisor’s keynote address and the after-movie discussions, there will be sessions on:

  • Nature, Madness, and Humor
  • The Perils of Faerie
  • UVM Undergraduate Voices
  • Horror of Words
  • Horrors of Modernity
  • On the Borders of Horror

You can find the full schedule of speakers and titles for Friday, April 5 to Saturday, April 6 here.

Popular Culture Association logo

A couple of weeks later, the Popular Culture Association conference will be held in Washington, DC from April 17 to April 20.  In contrast to the Vermont meeting, this is a massive event with many different subject areas. The Tolkien sessions, though, organized by Dr. Robin Reid, take place Thursday, April 18 to Friday, April 19 and focus on the following topics:

  • Adaptations of Tolkien’s Legendarium
  • Enchantment, Healing, and Despair in The Lord of the Rings
  • Multidisciplinary Tolkien Studies
  • Landscapes in Lee, Tolkien, and Hemingway
  • Digital Humanities and Tolkien Praxis Roundtable
  • Digital Humanities and Tolkien Theory Roundtable
  • The Future of Tolkien Studies Roundtable

The full list of speakers and titles can be found on the PCA Tolkien Studies area page.

To keep up with news from the Tolkien group at PCA, you can check out their public Facebook page by searching for “Tolkien Studies at Popular Culture/ American Culture Association.”

Tolkien & the Mysterious: The Homecoming


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“Before” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

(Homecoming 140)

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

(Homecoming 141)

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 human reason.  

What’s your interpretation of these mysterious visionary moments?

*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. 1-18.

Seers and Singers: Tolkien’s Typology of Sub-creators


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A Wilderness of Dragons Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger
A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff.

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 more.

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

Tolkien, The Hills of the Morning
Tolkien, “The Hills of the Morning”

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

Tolkien, "The Elvenking's gate from across the river"
Tolkien, “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river”

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

Tolkien, "The Tree of Amalion"
Tolkien, “The Tree of Amalion”

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.

Typological Patterns

Tolkien, detail from Three Friezes
Tolkien, detail from “Three Friezes”

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.

Tolkien, detail from Three Friezes
Tolkien, detail from “Three Friezes”

The book is available in hardcover and paperback and will soon be available as an e-book as well. Gabbro Head ships through to anywhere in the world.

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.

Tolkien in New York


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Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth at the Morgan Library and Museum

The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition has moved to New York’s Morgan Library where a series of talks and events has been planned. The programs for both children and adults have been so successful that they are pretty well sold out.

Here is the Morgan program, which started in January with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s talk on “Tolkien and the Visual Image” on January 31. The New York Tolkien Conference and Fellowship is organizing a symposium on “Tolkien and Inspiration” on March 16-17 with some great speakers — unfortunately, also sold out. The only available tickets seem to be VIP passes to the Shire-themed “Long Expected Party.” Let’s hope that some videos or reports emerge from all these activities!

The New York Times reviewed the exhibition here. If you go to the New York Tolkien Fellowship Facebook page, you can see their photos of the exhibition.

Viewing and Re-Viewing Tolkien’s Art


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The Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition in Oxford last summer and now at the Morgan Library in New York turns a spotlight on Tolkien as an artist. Being able to see a range of his work, from his patterned doodles on newspaper crossword pages to his Hobbit illustrations, demonstrates how visual art was integral to his creative imagination. There’s something special about seeing the art in person, as if you can move one step closer to the actual hand that produced the work. And sometimes a visit can give you a chance to see the artwork in a new light.

One exhibit that surprised me was Tolkien’s sketchbook opened to the picture, “Alder by a stream.”  I had seen the reproduction in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (fig. 7) and it’s in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (page 129).  Seeing it in real life, though, revealed a smaller notebook than I had imagined, which made the actual watercolour a lovely little pastoral image. (It measures 90 x 130 mm / 3.5 x 5.2 inches). And it was only then that I realized that it was painted around 1906, when Tolkien was still in his early teens.

This image of “Alder by a stream” by Anthony Burdge comes from the New York Tolkien Conference Facebook page. You can see many more photos of the New York show on their public site.

And here’s another image that I wish I could go back to re-view, Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell.

"Rivendell" by Tolkien
Rivendell, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Those of you who can go to the Morgan Library in New York to see it in person, or even those of us who will make do with a reproduction now have another fact to incorporate into our viewing.  Recently in brief comments by Christopher Tolkien on the occasion of his visit to the Aubusson tapestries illustrating some of Tolkien’s artwork – another event that recognizes Tolkien as an illustrator – he told a story of how one night when he was a child he came to his father while he was painting the image of Rivendell and what happened then. You can hear the story at 3:45 in the video below (in French, with English and Spanish subtitles).

Christopher Tolkien and the “Aubusson weaves Tolkien” project

How can we look at “Rivendell” without thinking of the child’s tear and the father’s patient kindness that are forever part of the image now, for me anyway. I wonder if some people visiting the Morgan Library will think of this late-night scene between Christopher and his father when looking at “Rivendell.”

Detail from Rivendell

Edit, Feb. 18: I have heard from some people that they are finding it difficult or impossible to read the English subtitles in the above video. For a transcript of the subtitles as they appear in the video, click here.

The Morgan Library along with the New York Tolkien Fellowship are sponsoring a series of talks to accompany the exhibition, and I’ll post details of these along with a few other commentaries on the exhibit in a day or two. For now, though, I’ll take one more look back at the Bodleian version of the exhibition, where a series of talks also took place. One of these featured myth specialist Marina Warner and Tolkien scholars Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger. Their discussion was wide-ranging: language and mythology and the history of fantasy and so many other things. But at one moment in the Q & A, the talk turned to Tolkien’s artwork and its influence on his writing.

At around 1:07:10 in the video linked below, the speakers discuss the importance of maps and other images to Tolkien’s creative process, and then in a response to a question about the role of images, Verlyn Flieger (at around 1:09:45) gives a brief example to explain how Tolkien “is writing to the image.”

Oxford Podcasts: Mythopoeia: Myth-Creation and Middle-earth.

I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but Professor Flieger’s example of the sketch of Cirith Ungol drawn in the margins of a manuscript draft is exactly the image that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I discussed in our Tolkien Studies article, “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer” (vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-31). As Professor Flieger is one of the editors who oversaw the publication of our article, I’m hoping she was channelling our argument!  You can read more about our essay here

For more on the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, see my previous post a few days ago, “Tolkien’s Favourite Landscape Artist?” and from last June, “Tolkien Art Exhibit at the Bodleian.”