“something has gone crack”; Tolkien on Rob Gilson & the TCBS, 100 years ago today.


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On August 12, 1916 Tolkien wrote a letter to Geoffrey Smith, with permission to pass it on to Christopher Wiseman, trying to come to terms with the death of their friend Rob Gilson. It took some time for the news of Rob’s death on the first day of the Somme offensive, July 1st, to reach the other three, who were serving in the war in various places. They wrote to each other trying to make sense of the loss of their close friend. The four of them had been members of a group formed while they were at King Edward’s School called the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society — but by the time they were in university the friendship and shared values of the core members — Tolkien, Wiseman, Smith, and Gilson — had inspired them with great ambitions for their future. But with the news of Rob’s death, Tolkien’s August 12th letter to Geoffrey Smith admits that he is disheartened and lonely, feeling as if the dreams of the TCBS had come to an end. Tolkien writes that he has spent the last two nights sitting and thinking in the woods near his camp: “So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack” (Letter 5).

As Tolkien scholars and readers, we usually see the story in this way, primarily as it relates to John Ronald. However, Elliander Pictures has produced a documentary on Rob Gilson which allows us a glimpse of the young man himself who was so important to the idealistic members of the TCBS.  Elliander Pictures’ previous film, Tolkien’s Great War, is also well worth watching. In both documentaries, you will see Tolkien scholar John Garth, whose book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth is an authoritative scholarly source on the subject. You can find the previous film, Tolkien’s Great War, and information about John Garth’s work here.

ROBERT GILSON: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from Elliander Pictures on Vimeo.


Talks on Tolkien II: Patrick Curry on Enchantment & Hypermodernity


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This week, I turn to the work of Patrick Curry, best known to Tolkien readers as the author of Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity (revised edition Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien (Walking Tree 2014); his publications also include works such as Ecological Ethics: An Introduction (revised edition, Polity Press, 2011) as well as many papers in journals and collections. He is a Canadian-born writer and scholar who has lived in London, England for over forty years. He holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from University College London and has been a lecturer at the University of Kent and Bath Spa University.

I’ve said that I wanted this Talks on Tolkien summer series to focus on interdisciplinary Tolkien studies, and Dr. Curry’s research is a good example. In trying to define his approach to Tolkien or his field of research, I’ve considered ecotheory, politics, cultural studies, philosophy, religious studies, history of science, literature … any one of these labels would suit and yet not cover the whole picture.

In the following talk, “The Third Road: Faerie in Hypermodernity,” recorded in 2011, Dr. Curry takes the concept of enchantment, primarily as defined by Tolkien, and examines how enchantment and disenchantment exist in our culture. Looking at the works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman, he concludes with some thoughts on “hypermodernity.”

Dr. Curry has a wonderfully informative website where you can see a list of his books and his essays, reviews, and talks, with downloadable PDFs of many of them: http://www.patrickcurry.co.uk/.


As always, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.



Talks on Tolkien II: Irina Metzler on Tolkien & Disability Studies


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Continuing in this summer series of Talks on Tolkien II, in which I’d like to highlight pre-recorded talks on new books or on different disciplinary approaches to studying Tolkien, I turn to Irina Metzler’s presentation at the 2016 Tolkien Seminar in Leeds. Dr. Metzler outlines some of the basic concepts in the growing academic field of disability studies and discusses some of Tolkien’s characters in that light.

The Society for Disability Studies defines this field of study: “Disability Studies recognizes that disability is a key aspect of human experience, and that the study of disability has important political, social, and economic implications for society as a whole, including both disabled and nondisabled people.”  Dr. Metzler, a historian of medieval culture and currently a research fellow at the University of Swansea in Wales, has written several books on disability in medieval culture, which you can read about on her blog.

Her talk demonstrates how characters from stories such as The Children of Húrin and The Lord of the Rings can be viewed through the lens of disability studies.



Talks on Tolkien II: Kristine Larsen on the Inklings & Science


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In this summer series of Talks on Tolkien I’d like to highlight new/forthcoming books or different disciplinary approaches to the study of Tolkien — Interdisciplinary Tolkien, as I like to think of it.

Dr. Kristine Larsen

Dr. Kristine Larsen

Who better to exemplify the interdisciplinary study of Tolkien than Kristine Larsen, known to many as “The Tolkien Astronomer.”  Dr. Larsen is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Central Connecticut State University and someone who is a prolific Tolkien scholar. In addition, she’s written about Stephen Hawking, Neil Gaiman, Dr. Who — and astronomy, of course.She’s also the person who runs the very popular astrolabe workshops every year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo.

The following video is from the second New York Tolkien Conference, which took place a couple of weeks ago. Kristine Larsen was one of the keynote speakers, and as is evident from the title of this talk, she likes to make them long*: “Lewis, Tolkien, and Popular Level Science: What the Well-Educated Inklings Actually Knew about the Universe (As Reflected in the Details of Narnia, Middle-earth, and Other Secondary Worlds).”  The talk concludes with a plea for “STEAM” rather than just “STEM” education.**

The video has a few buffering glitches, but with patience you can hear or understand almost the whole talk. Anyone who would like to know more about astronomy and Middle-earth can check out Dr. Larsen’s website, The Astronomy of Middle-earth.



* Dr. Larsen’s longest record-breaking title so far appeared in the Vermont Tolkien Conference program here.

**STEM = science, technology, engineering, math
STEAM= science, technology, engineering, art, math

Talks on Tolkien II: summer series. Flieger on Kullervo


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In the winter months of 2015, I posted a series, Talks on Tolkien, which consisted of presentations by Tolkien scholars that had been previously recorded and made available on the internet. As I was watching a live stream this morning from the New York Tolkien Conference Facebook page, I was reminded of how much I like being able to hear other scholars give presentations on their research, and how wonderful it is when you can get access to these talks even if you can’t travel to various conferences and special lectures around the world.

For that reason, and the fact that my previous winter series apparently appealed to quite a few viewers, I’ve decided to do a summer series. For the next couple of months, I’ll post every week a previously recorded video or podcast by a Tolkien scholar, usually with some comments and/or links to more information about the speaker and their topic. Just to be clear, I haven’t recorded any of these talks myself; as with my winter series, I’m simply collecting and curating already available videos and podcasts.

In this summer series, I’m planning to focus on new or forthcoming books and on approaches from different disciplines to the study of Tolkien.

Verlyn Flieger on The Story of Kullervo

The Story of Kullervo. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. V. FleigerFirst up for this week is a podcast featuring the eminent Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, who has edited Tolkien’s Story of Kullervo. This is the latest in the “new” books by Tolkien that have been published in recent years, including his Beowulf, Fall of Arthur, and Sigurd and Gudrun. The Story of Kullervo was available in the UK and Canada late last summer but only a few months ago in the US, so the book is still fairly new to most Tolkien readers.

This edition includes the unfinished story about Kullervo that Tolkien wrote as a 22-year-old, inspired by the Finnish epic Kalevala. The book also includes drafts of an essay by Tolkien on The Kalevala, as well as Professor Flieger’s commentary on the material.

Professor Flieger’s talk offers an interesting view of this early work by Tolkien. She enumerates the ways in which Tolkien discovers and exercises his creative abilities in writing this story, and she presents ideas about how the story of Kullervo influences the tales that come later in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

Verlyn Flieger at Exeter College, Oxford. from http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/node/1897.html

Verlyn Flieger talking about Kullervo at Exeter College, Oxford. 12 October 2015. Image from http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/node/1897.html

The audio file can be found on the Exeter College site here. Or you can listen to Professor Flieger right here:


To view more about Verlyn Flieger’s many scholarly publications and editions and her creative writing, check out her website, mythus.com

For information about Tolkien’s inspiration for Kullervo, visit the Finnish Literature Society’s site on The Kalevala.




Tolkien events in Leeds


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If you’re in the vicinity of Leeds, you can attend a number of Tolkien papers over the next few days.  On Sunday July 3, the Tolkien Society Seminar will take place in the Hilton Leeds City.  This one-day series of presentations focuses on the theme of Life, Death, and Immortality.  You can read the full program here.

The Tolkien Society has cleverly scheduled the seminar a day before the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, which runs from July 4 to 7, so anyone who is around can attend the IMC sessions on Tolkien.  You can explore the full IMC program here.  I’ve copied below the information on the sessions on Tolkien, organized by Dimitra Fimi.  Let me know if I’ve missed any others!

Session 331 J.R.R.Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

Oganiser: Dimitra Fimi;  Chair:  Chris Vaccaro
Monday 4 July 2016: 16.30-18.00

Abstract: This session will address the complexities of Tolkien’s modern Middle Ages. Andrew Higgins will explore Tolkien’s appropriation of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Finns in his legendarium. Aurélie Brémont will examine parallels between Tolkien’s and T.H. White’s medievalisms. Sara Brown will revisit Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings via the practice, philosophy, and symbolism of alchemy.

‘Those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and manners of an elder day’: J. R. R. Tolkien, Finns, and Elves
Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar, London

J. R. R. Tolkien and T. H. White: Modern Brits and Old Wizards
Aurélie Brémont, Centre d’Études Médiévales Anglaises (CEMA), Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

Stirring the Alembic: Alchemical Resonances in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Sara Brown, Department of English, Rydal Penrhos School, Conwy

and one more session (updated on July 2, thanks to Kris Swank):

session 431
 ‘New’ Tolkien: The Story of Kullervo and A Secret Vice – A Round Table Discussion

Monday 4 July 2016: 19.00-20.00
Organiser and Chair Dimitra Fimi

Abstract This round table discussion will focus on works by J. R. R. Tolkien published during the last 12 months. Participants will comment on The Story of Kullervo, edited by Verlyn Flieger, a creative retelling of a tragic episode from the Finnish Kalevala; and A Secret Vice, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, an extended edition of Tolkien’s essay on invented languages together with new material on philology, contemporary language theories, and language as art.

Participants include Brad Eden (Valparaiso University), Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University), and Goering Nelson (University of Oxford


I wish I could be there, but at least I’m hoping that we’ll see some blog posts and tweets to give us an idea of what was discussed (I’m looking at you, Dimitra, Andrew, Sara, and Aurelie!).

Kzoo 2017 calls for Tolkien papers


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The approved sessions for Kalamazoo (the International Congress on Medieval Studies) have just been announced. In spite of very well attended sessions in the past and plenty of paper submissions, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group has once again been reduced by the conference organizers, as have other groups attending the Congress.  For 2017, only two sessions were approved for the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group, and one other as a separately-sponsored session. The ICMS organizers seem determined to downsize their conference, a process that has been ongoing for a few years now. As far as I know, those proposing sessions are not given explanations for the selection or rejection of their submissions, leaving everyone to guess which topics might “go” and which might be turned down every year — and how many might be allowed.

In any case, here are the calls for papers for the three Tolkien sessions in 2017. The complete list of calls for all sessions can be viewed here.

Tolkien at Kalamazoo sessions

Tolkien and languages

This session will explore Tolkien’s contributions as a philologist of both early languages as well as the creation of his own languages.

Asterisk Tolkien

This session will examine various threads and tangents related to Tolkien studies and research.  This may include papers on influences, lacunae, and other related topics important to the field.

The deadline for submission of proposals is September 1, 2016 to Dr. Brad Eden at brad.eden@valpo.edu.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Brad.

The Hill School session

“Eald enta geweorc”: Tolkien and the Classical Tradition

“Finnish,” J. R. R. Tolkien famously commented, “nearly ruined my Honor Mods”: but even a bottom-of-the-barrel Second on the first examination in Litterae Humaniores in 1913 reflects a considerable depth of classical learning by our standards a century later. Despite his academically dangerous attraction to the northern fringes of Europe, Tolkien’s scholarly and literary projects could no more escape the intellectual relics of Greco-Roman civilization than could the Anglo Saxons whose landscape still showed its physical ruins, the “old work of giants.” This session seeks papers which will consider Tolkien the medievalist as receiver and transmitter of the classical heritage.

organizer: John Wm. Houghton
The Hill School
Dept. of Religious Studies and Philosophy
717 E. High Street
Pottstown, PA 19464

Anyone thinking of submitting a proposal to these or any other sessions should read the information on the conference website about the forms that need to be sent in with abstracts. You can also contact the session organizers for information.

Tolkien’s King Sheave story


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Atlantic seashore

I’m finding Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers* a fascinating and deep well of ideas. Last summer at the New York Tolkien Conference, I commented on the sub-creators who appear in the story; this year, for my conference presentation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I talked about another part of Notion Club, the embedded legend of King Sheave (which was also part of the Tolkien’s plan for the earlier and unfinished The Lost Road).

According to Christopher, his father called the King Sheave legends “an astonishing tangle.” My presentation was an attempt to untangle at least one or two threads, but I had to ignore how tightly woven into the picture are texts such as  “The Seafarer” and “The Death of St. Brendan.” There’s only so much you can do in a 15-minute presentation.

I started with what is likely to be the most recognizable appearance of Sheave in English literature: the Scyld Scefing story that opens the Old English poem Beowulf. The Beowulf-poet merges two mythical or legendary figures. The first is the warlike Scyld, the eponymous founder of the Scyldings, another name for the Danes in the poem; (“sc” is pronounced like “sh” in Old English). The other figure is Scef (or Scéaf / Scéafa): Sheaf, who is an ancient culture-hero or corn-god. In numerous sources, this Sheaf is said to arrive from an unknown land as a child sleeping on a boat with a sheaf of grain by his head. In his Beowulf commentary, Tolkien finds this Sheaf figure “the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth” of the two.

Atlantic salt marsh

Other medieval sources also mention one or both of these figures. Alexander Bruce, in his book Scyld and Scef, publishes and discusses 43 references from English, Danish, and Icelandic sources, in chronicles, poems, and genealogies, covering several centuries — in other words, the legends must have been well known in early Germanic cultures. In my talk, I enumerated a few sources that Tolkien used and reshaped in his own version of Sheaf / Sheave (Tolkien spells it differently in different places), including the one unique version of the legend, the Beowulf story in which Scyld Scefing is given a ship burial at the end of his life, sent back out to an unknown destination with treasures piled around his body.

But what is even more interesting to me are the ways in which Tolkien’s version is different from his medieval sources.  For one thing, Tolkien’s story is remarkable for its vivid visualization of details added to the legend. Here you can see Tolkien’s characteristic descriptive style, with an attention to the visual qualities of light: “a ship came sailing, shining-timbered, without oar or mast, eastward floating. The sun behind it sinking westward with flame kindled the fallow water.” (NCP 273-74).

Tolkien adds other elements to the story, such as the harp that comes with the child, and how Sceaf reveals his extraordinary powers through song. In most legends, Sheaf is meant to bring agricultural fertility; in Tolkien’s version, he also brings linguistic and artistic ripeness to the people. Tolkien’s version brings us right into the events of the story imaginatively and vividly, as if we too are there witnessing the scene along with the other marvelling people who rush out of their houses to gaze on and listen to Sheaf.

Atlantic seashore and clouds

Finally, Tolkien adds hints or glimpses of how his King Sheave is tied to his own mythology of Númenor and the Blessed Lands to the West. For example, Sheaf’s ship sails in from the West to a dark, shadowed, deprived Middle-earth. There are also premonitions of the Eagles of the Lords of the West, a repeated refrain in NCP deriving from the story of Númenor as several characters experience or see it.

As interesting as I find Tolkien’s version of King Sheave, the full meaning of the story has to take into account not only what Tolkien makes of the legend but where he puts it. For Tolkien’s story of Sheaf is only one layer, deeply embedded, in a narrative about envisioning the past and about sea-longing. The Sheaf story is told in an Anglo-Saxon hall in King Éadweard’s reign, recited by Tréowine and concluded by his friend Ælfwine. This layer comprising of Ælfwine and Tréowine is in turn framed by the 20th-century story of Lowdham and Jeremy, two members of the Notion Club who are experimenting with time travel and are telling the story of Ælfwine and Tréowine to their friends.

Layer upon layer upon layer, with connections in word and image between layers “coming through” or “glimpsed” as the characters frequently say — the layers create a palimpsest or a pattern of recurring elements, made up of history and myth, including Tolkien’s own mythology. Verlyn Flieger has pointed out that framing has thematic significance in NCP, and the framing of the King Sheave story in several layers of time creates a tightly woven pattern that is impossible to unravel completely in this short summary.  Obviously, I have more untangling work to do this summer.

* NCP is an unfinished text published by Christopher Tolkien in Sauron Defeated, volume 9 of The History of Middle-earth.






Tolkien Unbound entertainment at Kzoo


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Every year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors a reader’s theatre event and a musical entertainment. This year’s Tolkien Unbound session will take place off campus. If you’re going to Kalamazoo, here is the event information from organizer Brad Eden:



SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2-5 P.M.



(5 minutes from Bernhard Hall)


Reader’s Theatre performance of

Tolkien’s Kullervo


Maidens of Middle-earth VI: Mothers of the Half-Elven

New Song Cycle by Eileen Marie Moore

Song cycle:

Lúthien’s Lullaby (poem by Jane Ellen Louise Beal)

Idril Celebrindal (poem by Eileen Marie Moore)

Lost (poem by Anne Reaves)(story of Mithrellas, the Silvan elf-maid)

Elwing in Travail (poem by Candace Benefiel)

Celebrían–Moon’s Daughter (poem by James Vitullo)

Arwen Undomiel (poem by Edward L. Risden)


Directions from Bernhard Hall 

1)    follow W. Michigan Ave and take left onto Monroe St.

2)   follow Monroe St. and take right onto Academy St.

3)    follow Academy St. and take left onto Thompson St.

4)   Connable Recital Hall, Fine Arts Building, Kalamazoo College is at the corner of Academy and Thompson Sts.

For a Google Map of this route, go to https://goo.gl/maps/ehDXRgd4qHK2

Car rides will also be available from 1:15-1:45 from Bernhard Hall, and back again after the performance. Rides will be arranged at the Tolkien at Kalamazoo business meeting on Saturday, May 14, noon, Bernhard 212.

Tolkien in Vermont 2016 program


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Tolkien in Vermont conferenceThe Tolkien in Vermont conference will take place this coming weekend. This is a small, friendly conference that brings together every year a group of faculty, independent scholars, and students. This year’s theme is Tolkien and Popular Culture.

If you look at the program below, you’ll see a couple of pretty long titles! This is all in the spirit of fun — Kris Larsen has been devising longer and longer titles every year, and when the keynote speaker Robin Reid saw Kristine’s title, she decided to go one better with her own lengthy title. In reaction, I’ve decided to stick to one-word titles!

April 8-9, 2016
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
Lafayette L207

Friday, April 8
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Tolkien Fireside Reading
Lafayette L207

Saturday, April 9
8:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Lafayette L207

Session 1: 8:30 – 10:00

Yvette Kisor (Ramapo College) “Queer Tolkien: State of the Field”
Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University) “Sister-sons” read the abstract here [pdf]
Chris Vaccaro (University of Vermont) “Saruman’s Sexual Otherness”

Session 2:  10:00 – 11:45. Undergraduate Voices

Christopher Kelm (U. of Vermont) “Magic and Sorcery: Good and Evil in Tolkien’s Middle-earth”
Kit Loomis (U. of Vermont) “Not Dead, Legally: Necromancy, the Vyne Ring Curse, and Oath Limitations”
Liam McAuliffe (U. of Vermont) “Lost in the Lens Flare: Tolkien’s Many Shades of Evil”
Ryan Quinn (U. of Vermont) “Iarwen Ben-Adar: The Ancient Evil of Arda”

Lunch break  11:45-1:00

Session 3: 1:00-2:30
Keynote:  Robin Reid (Texas A&M University – Commerce)

Tolkien and popular culture: Being the Chronicle of Quests from Fandom to Academia and Back Again as the Island of Anglophone Literary Studies in the United States underwent Transformations During the 1970s to 2000s of the Fourth Age of the World Due to Progressive Movements of the Twentieth Century Challenging Oppressive Hierarchies Relating to Gender, Race, and Sexual Identification (Though not so much Class because “America” and Its Weird Obsession with Bootstraps) as Cultural Studies Swept like a Wave Over the Ivory Towers (Keep in Mind It’s a Simile not an Allegory). Plus Tattoos.

Session 4:  2:30 – 4:00

Kristine Larsen (University of Connecticut) “Kind People!!!: The Adventures of Svetlana Snape Down the Hobbit Hole; Being a (Semi) Serious and Scholarly Dissertation on The Thread ™  That Ate the Tolkien Society Facebook Page (And Judged it to Strangely Taste Like Bacon); In Which the Author Endeavors to Answer Two Great Primordial Questions, Namely (1) What Do Palindromes, Trebuchets, Quantum Physics and Hello Kitty Have to Do With the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien (Clearly a Rhetorical Question Given That the Obvious Answer is – Very Little), and (2) What Exactly is a Pant of Thong Ale? (The Answer to Which Promises to Shed Great Light on the Gestalt of the Tolkien Fandom)”
Andrew Peterson (Independent Scholar) “Hobbit Forming: How the Animated Versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King by Rankin / Bass introduced Middle-earth to a Generation of Wanderers”
James Williamson (University of Vermont) “Tolkien and Popular Publishing: the Creation of the Fantasy Genre”

Session 5: 4:00 – 5:30

Gerry Blair (Independent Scholar) “Tolkien Fandom and Pop Culture: The Polite and the Vulgar”
Leonard Neidorf (Harvard University) “Creation from Literary Criticism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur

Tolkien in Vermont 2016 poster