Tolkien the Playwright


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We don’t often think of Tolkien as a playwright. Fantasy novelist — of course. Poet, scholar, artist – yes. But we shouldn’t forget that Tolkien also wrote one published play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” – let’s call it “The Homecoming” for short – which was produced by BBC Radio and has been read or performed at various times.

Tolkien wrote other plays, though we don’t have the manuscripts any more, to my knowledge. As a young man, he wrote plays as holiday entertainments when spending time with his Incledon relatives; he probably wrote a farce, Cherry Farm, in 1911 and in the following year, The Bloodhound, the Chef, and the Suffragette (also playing one of the parts).  He performed in plays while at school: in 1910 acting as the Inspector in Aristophanes’ play The Birds – in Greek! and also in Greek the following year, taking the role of Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace. Near the end of 1911, his performance as Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals was praised as “excellent in every way” (Scull and Hammond, Reader’s Guide 313-17).

Tolkien as Hermes in 1911
Tolkien (centre) as Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace, 1911. Photo from the cover of Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014. The full photograph is reproduced on page 9 in John Garth’s article in that volume.

And of course, all of his debating experience, often in humourous speeches, during his years at King Edward’s and then at Oxford would require a sense of the dramatic in taking up a persona and a position in argument (See the Scull and Hammond Chronology for reports of these debates).  John Garth surveys these and other of Tolkien’s early comedic and parodic compositions, pointing out:

By thus limbering up in his early exercises as a writer, he was later able to apply the same skills—more finely tuned, of course—to the most serious topics and with the utmost gravity.”

(Garth 11)

Even later in life, Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic. Picture him at the Oxford Summer Diversions in 1938 reciting from memory Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. John Bowers, in his recently published book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, imagines the scene:

On the merrymaking occasion in summer 1938, Tolkien strode upon the stage costumed as Chaucer in a green robe, a turban, and fake whiskers parted in the middle like the forked beard shown in early portraits like Ellesmere’s.” 

(Bowers 208)

The performance received good reviews in the Oxford Mail, and in the following year, Tolkien returned to perform Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, this time producing a shortened and bowdlerized version of the tale for his performance (Bowers 208-211).  The poet John Masefield, one of the organizers of the event, described Tolkien’s dramatic abilities:

Professor Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man and sometimes tells the Tales superbly, inimitably, just as though he were Chaucer returned.”

(quoted in Bowers 209)

Above: Geoffrey Chaucer portrait and Tolkien in the 1940s (as close as I could get to the actual date of his performance). You’ll have to imagine Tolkien’s Chaucer costume! Tolkien image from The Guardian, 22 March 2014.

Tolkien’s recitations of Chaucer aren’t the only performances that his audiences remember. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter reports how he used to start his lectures declaiming the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English (137-38). Although students complained that during lectures he mumbled and was hard to follow, these moments of dramatic performance left striking impressions.

In other words, Tolkien had experience in writing and performing dramatic pieces, and I think that he put those skills to good use in “The Homecoming.”

So why don’t we usually think of Tolkien as a playwright? I can think of several reasons. For one, we only have one publication of his in this genre, easily overlooked in the volume of fiction, poetry, letters, and essays that he wrote.

I also think that there’s a tendency to view “The Homecoming” as alliterative poetry for two voices – more like a poetic dialogue not meant for performance on a stage. I would disagree based on the manuscript evidence, but my reasons will have to wait for another time.

Maybe another reason is that “The Homecoming,” inspired by the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” first appeared in a scholarly journal, Essays and Studies, in 1953. Medievalists have been interested mainly in the short essay titled “Ofermod” that Tolkien appended to the play, which deals with “The Battle of Maldon,” and compares it to two other medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But medieval scholars have not, in general, examined the play as a play.

Finally, we might not think of Tolkien as a playwright because of the negative comments that he made about drama in various letters and in his appendix to “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, for example, he claims that drama cannot adequately represent a fantasy world, but whether we agree or not, we should note that “The Homecoming” is different from Tolkien’s other writing. It’s not part of his Middle-earth Secondary World but is based on the aftermath of a battle that took place in 991 according to early English historical chronicles. “The Homecoming” is a work of historical fiction as well as being a play.

The play is now most readily available in the volume Tree and Leaf, tucked in after “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf by Niggle.”

Tolkien certainly had definite ideas about how the play should be performed on BBC Radio, as his letters tell us, though he was dissatisfied with the BBC production that aired in 1954, with a rebroadcast in 1955. He recorded his own version at home in his study, distinguishing between the two characters’ voices and adding in his own sound effects. A copy of that recording was given out at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992 (Scull & Hammond, Reader’s Guide 547). But you don’t need a copy of that tape to experience Tolkien’s voice dramatizations. Just listen to his reading of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter from The Hobbit. He does a pretty good job of performing the roles of Bilbo and especially Gollum.

Above: listen to Tolkien’s voicing of Gollum in his reading of “Riddles in the Dark”

Book cover: "Something Has Gone Crack": New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War
“Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019.

It must be pretty clear that I find Tolkien’s play very interesting; in fact, it’s the topic of my current research. I’ve written about “The Homecoming” as a World War One work in my recently published essay, “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’” in the collection “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War. There, my thesis can be summarized in this way:

Like Tolkien’s better-known works of fiction, HBBS addresses issues of war and heroism that are relevant to a modern writer who is transforming his past experiences into fiction, and as is not uncommon with Tolkien, doing so through the lens of medieval literature.”

(Smol 264)

What currently interests me in “The Homecoming” is the skilful handling of alliterative metre in the play. Yes, this is a play in alliterative verses, which may sound old-fashioned and stilted, but Tolkien’s knowledge of and handling of alliterative verses is, I think, a tour de force in his creation of different styles in a demanding medium. If you’re able to attend the International Medieval Congress in Leeds , you can hear me talking about “Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming” on Monday, July 6, 11:15, session 104. Look for an article as well, coming soon, I hope!

“Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth” Session 104, International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 6, 2020.

I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve read “The Homecoming” and what you think of it. Have you ever heard or seen it performed?

Works Cited

Bowers, John M. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. Oxford UP, 2019.

Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Garth, John. “’The road from adaptation to invention’: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014, pp. 1-44.

Scull, Christina and Wayne Hammond. J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Reader’s Guide and Chronology. Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2017.

Smol, Anna. “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’.” “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019, pp. 263-83.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 121-150.

As always, if you are an independent scholar (i.e. you do not have an institutional affiliation) and do not have access to some of these resources, please send me an email and I will try to provide private research copies if possible.

Ironic Silmarillion Collectibles? Adaptation as Analysis, part 2


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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.

Leeds 2020: Tolkien Society Seminar CFP and IMC program


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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
  • Fan-made content
  • Illustrating Middle-earth
  • Tolkienian pastiche
  • 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:

IMC 2020 Session 104 : J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches
IMC 2020 Session 905: New Sources and Approaches to Tolkien’s Medievalism: A Roundtable Discussion
IMC 2020 Session 1536: Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism, I
IMC 2020 Session 1636: Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism, II
IMC 2020 Session 1736: Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism, III

Looking forward to a stimulating week of discussions in Leeds!

Adaptation as Analysis: Student Projects on Medievalism and Tolkien, part 1


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As usual, students in my Studies in Medievalism course have created wonderful projects to demonstrate their engagement with our texts and to experience first-hand the process of adaptation, a main theme in our seminar.

Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide book cover

I’ve written about this type of assignment before in my essay “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom” that is in Katherine Anderson Howell’s volume, Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide (U of Iowa Press, 2018). One of the student projects illustrated and discussed in that essay can be seen here and a review of another year in the course is posted here.

In today’s post I’d like to share, with his permission, Dillon Hughson’s adaptation project, a modernized version of the Old Icelandic poem “Hárbarðsljóð” or “Harbard’s Song” that appears in the Poetic Edda. This is a “flyting” poem — a contest of insults between two people, in this case Thor and Harbard, a ferryman who is usually identified as Odin in disguise. As do all the students in my course, Dillon had to write an analysis of the source text and explain how he adapted it. He researched the elements of a flyting and then tried to reproduce those features by placing Thor and Odin in a modern comedic context.

Enjoy his video! And watch for more student projects posted here in the weeks ahead.

With the permission of Dillon Hughson. Written and directed by Dillon Hughson. Thor: Matthew Hughson. Odin: Brennan Hughson. Copyright Dillon Hughson.

What are Tolkien scholars talking about? Previews of spring & summer conferences


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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

Tolkien in Vermont conference

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]

Tolkien Studies Area PCA 2020
Registration is open.
All of the Tolkien sessions take place on Saturday, April 18. View the schedule here.

Tolkien Studies I:  Race and Tolkien

Tolkien Studies II: The Legendarium

Tolkien Studies III: Multidisciplinary Tolkien

Tolkien Studies IV: The Future Of Tolkien Studies

Kalamazoo, Michigan: May 6 – 10

Kalamazoo campus swan pond

Tolkien Symposium

May 6, 2020
Kalamazoo, MI
Organizers: Dr. Yvette Kisor and Dr. Chris Vaccaro

[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]

The Seminar is usually scheduled the day before the International Congress on Medieval Studies sessions begin. The deadline for proposals has just passed, but the program hasn’t been announced yet.

International Congress on Medieval Studies  

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.

Leeds, UK: July 5 – 9

International Medieval Congress, Leeds

Tolkien Society Seminar

July 5, 2020

The Tolkien Society sponsors a day-long series of presentations the day before the International Medieval Congress begins. No details available yet, but check the Tolkien Society Seminar page later.

International Medieval Congress

[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19. A pared-down version will be available online. Check later posts for more details.]

July 6 – 9, 2020
Co-organizers: Dr. Dimitra Fimi and Dr. Andrew Higgins
Go to Dr. Higgins’s blog for more details about the program.

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

Mythopoeic Society

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

Tolkien Society

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.

Christopher Tolkien 1924-2020


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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:

From JRRT: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1996


The Tolkien Society announcement of Christopher Tolkien’s death.

Yvette Kisor’s essay can be found in Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works, edited by Leslie Donovan, MLA publishers, 2015, pp. 75-83.

An up-to-date list of Christopher Tolkien’s publications can be found on Tolkien Gateway.

Last-minute Tolkien CFPs: Kalamazoo and Leeds


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With the summer conference season in Tolkien studies barely over, it’s time to plan for next year. Here are the calls for papers for Tolkien sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, May 7-10, 2020 and for the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, July 6-9, 2020.

ICMS Kalamazoo May 7-10, 2020

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

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.

Download this session CFP here.

Please send your proposals with “Tolkien World-Building” in the subject line to: Dimitra Fimi ( AND Kris Swank (

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

Tales After Tolkien Society

2 sessions:

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

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 ( and Dr. Andrew Higgins ( 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.

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.