Tolkien studies is a busy academic field. Here are a few calls for conference papers or essays that have come my way in the past few weeks. I don’t expect to keep up with every single call, but if you’re interested, you can search for the open Facebook page “Tolkien CFPs.” You can also find listings of conferences and more informal gatherings of fans around the world in the Facebook group “International Tolkien Fellowship,” a public page run by Becky Dillon.
My list is arranged according to the deadlines for proposals.
Tolkien Society Seminar
Leeds, July 4-5. Theme: Adapting Tolkien. Deadline for proposals: April 5. Details here.
[May 12 edit: The Seminar will go online on July 4. Look for more details in a later blog post or check the link above]
German Tolkien Society Seminar
University of Augsburg, October 23-25. Theme: Tolkien and Politics. Deadline for proposals: April 30.Details here.
Tolkien Society Oxonmoot 2020
St. Anne’s College, Oxford, September 3-6. Open theme. Deadline for proposals: April 30. Details here.
[edit June 6: Oxonmoot is going online. Check the link for more details about Oxonmoot Online, which will now take place September 18-20]
Mythopoeic Society / Mythcon 51
[edit May 12: Postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19]
Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 31- August 3. Theme: The Mythic, the Fantastic, and the Alien. Deadline for proposals: May 15. Details here.
Walking Tree Publishers: Cormarë Series
Theme: The Romantic Spirit in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, a publication to be edited by Julian Eilmann and Will Sherwood. Deadline for proposals: May 31. Details here.
I usually post full details of various conference programs closer to the time of the events, but for now, I’ll just post session titles for an overview of the upcoming Tolkien conference season this spring and summer. Details may change over the next few months, so always follow the links to the official programs for final details.
Tolkien at Vermont: April 4
April 4, 2020 University of Vermont, Burlington, VT Organizer: Dr. Chris Vaccaro
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
Special theme: Tolkien and Classical Antiquities
The Tolkien in Vermont website describes the conference as “an annual weekend of academic papers, fireside readings, and bonhomie, bringing together seasoned academics, students, independent scholars, and the general public…” — very true, in my experience.
The program hasn’t been posted yet, but this 17th annual event at the University of Vermont has announced its keynote speaker, John Wm. Houghton, well known to Tolkien scholars for his various publications and editorial work. Go to the website for more details.
Tolkien at Popular Culture Association: April 15 – 18
April 15 – 18, 2020 Philadelphia, US Organizer: Dr. Robin Anne Reid
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
May 7 – 10, 2020 Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
For more details about these sessions, you can check the sneak preview of the Congress program. Registration opens in February.
Thursday, May 7. 10 a.m. Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, His Precursors and Legacies Sponsor: Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow Organizer: Dimitra Fimi, Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow; Kristine A. Swank, Univ. of Glasgow Presider: Kristine A. Swank
Friday, May 8. 1:30 p.m. Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion) Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society Organizer: Geoffrey B. Elliott, Independent Scholar Presider: Carrie Pagels, Independent Scholar
Saturday, May 9. 10 a.m. Tolkien and Se Wyrm Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College
Saturday, May 9. 1:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Paratexts, Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (A Roundtable) Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.
Saturday, May 9. 3:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Chaucer Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Christopher Vaccaro
Sunday, May 10. 8:30 a.m. Tolkien and Manuscript Studies Organizer: William Fliss, Marquette Univ. Presider: William Fliss
For more details about these sessions, go to the sneak preview of Congress sessions. The final program will be posted on the ICMS site.
The special theme of the 2020 Congress is “Borders,” which explains why there are three sessions on Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism. Registration opens on February 10th.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Deirdre Dawson, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Monday 6 July (11:15-12:45)
New Sources and Approaches to Tolkien’s Medievalism – A Round Table Discussion Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Tuesday 7 July (19:00-20:00)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism I Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (9:00-10:30)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism II Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Sara Brown, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (11:15-12:45)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism III Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator/Chair: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (14:15-15:45)
And looking ahead to the summer:
Mythcon: July 31-August 3
July 31 – August 3, 2020 Mythopoeic Society – Mythcon 51 Albuquerque, New Mexico
[May 12 edit: conference postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19]
Theme: The Mythic, the Fantastic, and the Alien
Registration is now open but the call for papers and program haven’t appeared yet.
Oxonmoot: September 3 – 6
The Tolkien Society – Oxonmoot September 3 – 6 St. Anne’s College, Oxford
[June 6 edit: Oxonmoot will be held online. Oxonmoot Online will take place September 18-20. Check the Tolkien Society website for more details as they become available.]
Registration is now open but a program will come later. The call for papers will open February 9th.
I’d be happy to hear about any conferences I’ve missed in the comments.
All of the presentations in Leeds were given to packed audiences, to the point that people had to sit on the floor in some sessions, and a few of the later panels had to be moved to larger rooms. Lots of interest in Tolkien! We’re hoping that the same number of sessions will be approved for next year’s IMC conference. (The Tolkien Society Seminar, on the other hand, will be suspended for next year, as attention will be focused on the big Tolkien 2019 conference in Birmingham later in the summer.)
From Leeds in the UK, Tolkien conference activity now moves to Mythcon 49 in Atlanta in the US, from July 20 to 23, with the theme “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The keynote speakers are Dr. Robin Anne Reid, the scholar guest of honour, and Donato Giancolo as the artist guest of honour. The Mythcon 49 Schedule page includes a list of speakers and topics. “What do you do with a drunken hobbit?” — you have to be there to find out!
Here are some Tolkien conferences coming up in the spring and summer — prime conference season! I can’t claim to list every event that’s going on, so if you’d like to add something to the list, please let me know in the comments section. If you want to know about Tolkien-related events around the world, not necessarily just conferences, I’d suggest the public Facebook group International Tolkien Fellowship List of Events. Also, Troels Forchammer’s monthly Tolkien Transactions usually catches more items than I’m aware of. But here are the conferences that I do know about:
Popular Culture Association (PCA)
March 22 -25, 2016
The preliminary program, organized by Robin Reid, can be viewed here. The speakers include Martin Barker presenting on the World Hobbit Project; an academic editors’ roundtable discussion with Leslie Donovan, Janet Croft, Brad Eden, Janice Bogstad, and Martin Barker; and numerous other papers on adaptation, translation, reception, and more. The nice thing about the online PCA program is that you can dig down into each session and read the abstracts of all the papers. There are eight sessions in the Tolkien Studies area, another successful year for this new subject area at the PCA national conference.
13th Annual Tolkien in Vermont conference
April 8 – 9, 2016
This year’s theme is “Tolkien and Popular Culture,” with keynote speaker Robin Reid. A program will be available on the Tolkien in Vermont website. This small conference, organized by Chris Vaccaro, is always a friendly mix of faculty, students, and independent scholars.
Tolkien’s Philosophy of Language
13th Seminar of the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft (DTF)
The Friedrich Schiller University Jena and Walking Tree Publishers
May 6 – 8, 2016
International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Michigan
May 12 – 15, 2016
I’ve already posted a schedule of sessions on Tolkien and medievalism as they appeared in the preliminary program. There are seven sessions dealing with Tolkien, mostly organized by Brad Eden and a few others. This year, one of the plenary speakers will be Jane Chance talking about “How we read J.R.R. Tolkien reading Grendel’s mother.” The ICMS is a huge conference, usually drawing around 3,000 participants in sessions on all aspects of the Middle Ages and medievalism.
Tolkien Among Scholars: 7th Unquendor Lustrum Conference 2016
Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society and the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor.
June 18, 2016
The keynote speakers for this international conference will be Thomas M. Honegger and Paul Smith. The program will be posted on the conference website.
Tolkien Society Seminar 2016
July 3, 2016
The theme of this year’s seminar is “Life, Death, and Immortality,” and if you’re interested in giving a paper, there’s still time: March 25 is the deadline for submissions. You can find the Call for Papers and more information here. The Seminar takes place the day before the International Medieval Congress begins at Leeds University, where you’ll find more Tolkien sessions (see below).
International Medieval Congress
July 4 – 7, 2016
Dimitra Fimi has organized two sessions on Tolkien for this conference. Like Kalamazoo, the Leeds conference draws thousands of medievalists every year. The program will be posted on the conference website.
New York Tolkien Conference
Baruch College, New York City
July 16, 2016
This conference, organized by Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge, is back again after last year’s successful inaugural event. The special theme for this year’s conference is “The Inklings and Science,” with guests of honour Kristine Larsen and Jared Lobdell. The call for papers has not yet been posted, but keep checking the conference site for information as it becomes available.
San Antonio, Texas
August 5 – 8, 2016
My weekly “Talks on Tolkien” series continues with a video presentation by Dimitra Fimi. Dr. Fimi was part of the Beowulf Launch Party organized by the Tolkien Society and Middle-earth Network last spring, when Tolkien’s Beowulf and other related texts were first published. Dr. Fimi’s talk is a little different from my previous video selections in that she is not reading a paper to a live audience at a conference. The Launch Party was an online event featuring several commentators throughout the day who were giving their first impressions of the Beowulf publication. If you’re interested, the other recordings from that day are also worth a look.
One reason I chose this talk was to highlight the fact that the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf includes more than just his translation of and commentary on the poem — intriguing as that is to Old English and Tolkien scholars. Dr. Fimi’s presentation focuses on one of the texts included with Tolkien’s Beowulf translation: a folktale called “Sellic Spell” (which can be translated as “wondrous tale”) that Tolkien wrote in both modern English and in Old English. The other text that’s included in the volume is a poem, or two versions of a poem, titled “The Lay of Beowulf” which is written in rhyming stanzaic form, very different from the original Old English alliterative meter.
The publication of these texts has given us not only Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf (an interesting research topic in its own right), but also adaptations of the Beowulf story in different genres — ripe material for analysis! Further, I believe that Tolkien’s rendition of “Sellic Spell” in Old English warrants study of his ability to think and write in Old English. In the following video, Fimi outlines another approach to the story through the lens of folklore research.
To read “Sellic Spell” or “The Lay of Beowulf” you’ll have to buy Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. But if you’re interested in the original poem itself, you can listen to a few lines of it on Michael Drout’s Anglo-Saxon Aloud website. The poem exists in a single manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A. XV, held in the British Library. You can find information about the manuscript in the British Library’s Online Gallery, and you can also leaf through the digitised manuscript (go to f.132r to see the beginning of Beowulf).
Adaptations of Beowulf have proliferated since the late nineteenth century in books for children and adults, and more recently as films. Some of you may know the 2005 Beowulf and Grendel movie, or more likely, the 2007 Robert Zemeckis version featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. I especially enjoy the 1998 animated version made for TV featuring Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes, which you can view below. It’s just one among many examples of Beowulf adaptations — and now we have more of Tolkien’s work that can be examined as part of this rich store of material.
If you have any favorite Beowulf adaptations, or if you want to say something about “Sellic Spell,” let us know in the comments!
It’s time to start organizing my travel to various conferences this spring and summer. I wish I could attend all of these meetings, but I’ll be fortunate enough to go to a couple of them at least. My list focuses on North American conferences because I know those best, but please let me know in the comments if there are others. I hope my list will demonstrate the healthy state of academic Tolkien Studies and maybe entice you to go to one of these events — if you’re not already booking your tickets. And while there will be plenty of professional scholars at these conferences, most of these events draw a lively mix of academics, independent scholars, writers, artists, fans of all kinds.
The first meeting will be held in a few weeks – not exactly springtime where I live, but still it does kick off the conference season:
This is the second annual Popular Culture and the Deep Past event sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State U. According to the event website: “this will be a full-fledged conference, itself nested in a broader ‘carnival’ of popular and traditional cultural events and activities.” Sounds like there will be something for everyone.
This is a massive conference that draws scholars from a huge variety of fields. The newly established Tolkien Studies area, organized by Robin Reid, is sponsoring eight sessions plus a business meeting for a second year in a row. The final program should be posted soon on the website.
This year’s theme is medieval narrative verse, with Michael Drout as the keynote speaker. According to the conference organizer, Chris Vaccaro, a program will be posted soon on the website. This is usually a small and friendly conference attended by faculty, students, and the general public, with an open mic night on Friday followed by a day of presentations on Saturday.
This annual conference draws thousands of medievalists every year, but it also includes anyone interested in the scholarly study of Tolkien (not always the same as a medievalist). The Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors as many sessions as are allowed by the Congress organizers, and other sponsoring groups have sessions on Tolkien or on medievalisms as well. You can search through the conference program for what interests you.
The special theme is the Arthurian Mythos. I expect that more details about the program will appear on the website soon. This conference is usually a nice combination of serious academic papers and fun social events, readings, and more.
I realize on looking over this list that it is heavily skewed towards Tolkien as a medievalist. If there are any other conferences you feel people should know about, please feel free to add them in the comments. It would also be interesting to know about other Tolkien conferences beyond North America and the UK.
Update Feb. 12: Thanks to Marcel Aubron Bülles here is another conference program:
The international appeal of Tolkien was recently highlighted for me when I was informed that Italian Tolkien scholar Roberto Arduini had translated CF Cooper’s Mythcon reports for the Associazione Romana Studi Tolkieniani / Roman Association of Tolkien Studies. The post, “Premio a Verlyn Flieger: diario della Mythcon 44” is obviously written in Italian, which I do not read. However, I somehow managed to get the gist of it, mainly with the help of some Latin floating in the back of my mind. An English page gives some information about the Association and its activities.
One of the features of Mythcon is that presenters come from many different disciplines, and on Sunday (July 14) I decided to take in some of the talks from fields outside the areas I typically work in. I started off the day listening to Andrew Higgins undertake “A Linguistic Exploration through Tolkien’s Earliest Landscapes.” Andrew’s examination of Tolkien’s earliest invented language lexicons and the way in which Tolkien constructed place names for his emerging mythology with a careful consideration of base roots was too detailed for me to attempt to summarize here. While I do work with Old English and Middle English language and literature, Qenya and Tolkien’s later linguistic creations are still largely unknown to me. Andrew’s talk made me realize I’d like to start branching out into this area more seriously. You can read more about Andrew’s thoughts on Tolkien generally on his blog, Wotan’s Musings.
I then went to Meghan Naxer’s musicology paper, “There and Back Again: A Musical Journey in Middle-earth.” Meghan showed how Donald Swann’s song cycle, The Road Goes Ever On (composed in collaboration with Tolkien) represents musically each of the different cultures of Middle-earth. Although I have no musical training at all, I do know how to scan poetry, and Meghan’s talk illustrated for me the basics of how poetic rhythm is transformed into a musical meter. But her paper offers much more as well for those who understand the technicalities of musical composition. She has generously made her paper, slides, and audio clips available on Google Drive.
One of the program streams at Mythcon features contemporary writers of fantasy literature. I decided to step outside of the Tolkien sessions that I had been focusing on to listen to the Author Guest of Honour, Franny Billingsley, give some pointers about writing fiction, which she did in an honest, funny, and serious presentation. She later addressed the conference in an after-dinner talk as well. Listening to Franny Billingsley brought home to me the fact that someone could select a very different Mythcon program from the one I had done — you could follow, for example, a contemporary fantasy and creative writing schedule in which you would attend author readings and participate in the evening bardic circles where people share their stories, songs, and poetry. If only there were enough timeslots to sample everything.
The presentation by Wayne C. Hammond and Christina Scull on “Writing The Art of The Hobbit” was one that I was particularly interested in, given my research on Tolkien’s painterly style. As I had mentioned in my talk, no one can discuss Tolkien’s visual art without consulting Wayne and Christina’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and their recently published The Art of The Hobbit. Their presentation gave us some insight into dealing with publishers and the kinds of decisions that need to be made in compiling a book like The Art of The Hobbit. I was extremely interested to hear Wayne and Christina say that there is still some unpublished Lord of the Rings artwork (mostly map sketches, I think they said) and that more could still be done on Tolkien’s heraldic doodles, his landscapes, his calligraphy, and his “ishnesses.” Show us more, please!
The final presentation I attended came on Monday morning (July 15), the last day of the conference, when I went to hear a fellow Canadian, Isabelle Guy, give a talk on “The Influence of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law on Tolkien’s Metaphysics.” Isabelle presented a convincing discussion about how Iluvatar’s children are expected to fulfill a divine plan through their natural inclinations which they can resist or deny, similar to Aquinas’ concept of Natural Law.
Over the four days of the conference, I certainly heard a number of interesting presentations, but Mythcon is not just a serious academic conference. There is fun to be had as well. The Sunday night banquet offered up a feast of local foods. I had a chance to sit with some people I knew and to meet others I didn’t know, quite a few of them being students from the Mythgard Institute. * And why was someone walking around to different tables showing off his plate of food? Why were people applauding this demonstration? That’s one of the mysterious traditions of a Mythcon you have to see for yourself. This was an evening for creative fun: we heard the winning verses in the clerihew contest; we saw the costume parade (where everyone gets a personal prize); we watched the Not-Ready-For-Mythcon players put on a skit (Watership Downton Abbey); we applauded the winners of the golfimbul competition; and we listened to the Mike Foster Group sing Motown-inspired songs such as “Frodo was a rolling stone.”
Mike Foster Group. The photo unfortunately doesn’t capture the Motown-style dance moves of some members of the Group.
Finally on Sunday night, I decided to stop by the hospitality suite, which had been open every night of the conference. What I found were drinks, snacks, and a lot of people streaming into the hotel room for some late-night socializing. I managed to find a corner to sit in and had a cozy conversation with Douglas Anderson and his sister before calling it a night.
The closing ceremonies of the conference on Monday featured another Mythcon tradition. I was wary, I have to admit. I thought it might feel silly. But it actually turned out to be quite lovely: the closing sing-a-long. I first discovered Diane Paxson’s “The Baby and the Bird” in a 1970s Tolkien magazine; to me, it was a piece of archival history. But on the last day of Mythcon, unexpectedly, I heard it as a living song. The lyrics run through several verses about famous literary pubs until this stanza:
They sing of famous taverns,
But considering them all,
The one where I had rather
Been a fly upon the wall,
Would be the Inn where Tolkien,
Lewis, Williams too,
Met with the other Inklings
Asking, “Who has something new?
I have to admit that “Who has something new” gave me a little sentimental thrill as we sang the lines together. Concluding with the interactive “Weigh, heigh, the Mythcon’s over,” I was surprised and charmed by this shared experience of singing together.
“What shall we do with a drunken hobbit” kept running through my head as I boarded the airport bus with several other Mythcon participants. We said our first good-byes to each other as we got off the bus at the airport. Knowing that I had a few hours before my scheduled flight, I took a seat at one of the airport restaurants. Shortly afterwards, Kelly Cowling and Roger Echo-Hawk wandered in, their flight having been delayed by several hours. This proved a great opportunity to hear more about the Grey Havens Group in Colorado, which Kelly had founded and which is going strong, with several meetings a week at a local library. In that airport restaurant (in our very own extended edition of Mythcon), we traded summaries of our presentations, and once again I was reminded of the many interesting papers that I hadn’t had a chance to hear. Kelly told me about her talk on the Inklings and contemplative tradition, and I heard more about Roger’s paper on the parallels between Pawnee legends and Tolkien’s myths; you can find out more about his ideas here.
I then said good-bye a second time and walked off to my gate, only to find that my flight had also been delayed. Before I knew it, there was Roger once again strolling through the airport and later Kelly as well; another chat, and a third good-bye. This time, my flight took off, and I hope that Kelly and Roger and all my Mythcon friends, however they were travelling, were able to get back again safely.
The second day of the Mythopoeic Society conference began with a Mythcon tradition: a procession of attendees into the auditorium to listen to the first plenary talk. Our pre-conference updates suggested that we wear our academic regalia for this event — have you ever tried to cram an academic gown into a carry-on bag? I decided I needed other clothes more and was relieved to find that only a couple of people were decked out in their scholarly robes as we filed up the stairs and into the meeting room to begin the first full day of programming.
The conference theme, Green and Growing: The Land and its Inhabitants in Fantasy, was addressed in a variety of ways in the presentations I attended on this Saturday (July 13). The Scholar Guest of Honour, Douglas A. Anderson, led off with a talk about British authors who wrote about faery in the 1920s and 30s. As usual, Doug demonstrated his knowledge of little-known fantasy authors. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the book cover designs and illustrations. Here are a couple that Doug showed us.
Illustration by Sidney Sime for The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
Doug finished his talk with the example of Bernard Sleigh, a Birmingham wood engraver, author, and creator of An anciente mappe of Fairyland, newly discovered and set forth, which you can explore in detail here.
I think that many of us came away from Doug’s talk with a new reading list and an understanding that a number of British authors continued to be interested in fairy literature even after the First World War and the Cottingley Fairy scandal.
Tolkien’s painterly style
My talk was scheduled in the next round of presentations. I spoke about “Tolkien’s Painterly Style: Landscapes in The Lord of the Rings,” a collaborative project that I am working on with my colleague, Jeff MacLeod, who unfortunately couldn’t be at Mythcon this year.
Tolkien’s Painterly Style. Mythcon 44.
Jeff and I had previously published a Mythlore article titled “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy” that started us on this line of research. Aided by the insights of a 1981 article by Miriam Y. Miller (“The Green Sun: A Study of Color in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings“), we have found in our examination of landscapes that Tolkien describes as if he is painting an impressionistic scene. Using a limited colour palette and descriptions of the quality of the light, as well as guiding our eyes through a carefully composed scene, Tolkien allows us to enter imaginatively into his landscapes. Although many readers would say that Tolkien describes Middle-earth in painstaking detail, he actually leaves a lot up to the reader’s imagination, thus creating the “invitational style” that Steve Walker identifies in his book The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style.
Whenever I’m giving a presentation that relies on slides, I’m anxious about whether the technology will work, but all went smoothly enabling me to show some examples of Tolkien’s visual and verbal art. Of course, anyone working on Tolkien’s art is indebted to Wayne C. Hammond and Christina Scull, two of this Mythcon’s distinguished presenters, whose books J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The Art of The Hobbit are invaluable in showing us aspects of Tolkien’s creative process and visual experimentation.
Part way through my talk, I decided to pause to ask the audience some stylistic questions. In order to demonstrate features of Tolkien’s descriptive style, I thought that a contrasting example from another fantasy writer might help to illustrate what is distinctive about Tolkien’s approach. I had no idea whether the audience would see the passage in the same way that I did, but I’m happy to report that people responded quickly and fully, analyzing the text in the same way that I would do. Corroboration!
One of the practices at Mythcon is to have copies of presentations available for sale afterwards. This is a difficult procedure for someone like me, a chronic niggler who cannot put the final touches on a paper until very close to the actual moment of stepping on stage. In other words, I had no copies of my talk to hand out at Mythcon. However, if anyone would like a copy, please contact me and I would be happy to send the paper to you.
Gardening, Pipe-weed, and Tree Spirits
Feeling pleased with the positive response to my presentation, I settled in to listen to further talks throughout the afternoon on the theme of a “Green and Growing” fantasy land. Eleanor Simpson’s “Thinking of Gardening: How Sam’s Profession Cultivates His Role in The Lord of the Rings” discussed how Sam’s identity as a gardener shapes his role as a caretaker in the Ring quest and afterwards. Eleanor’s comparison of Sam to other cultivators of nature, Yavanna and Tom Bombadil, also emphasized the importance of a nurturing role in Tolkien’s mythology.
David Oberhelman took a look back in history to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, outlining the economic and cultural history of the tobacco trade between Europe and the American South as a parallel to Tolkien’s history of pipe-weed. David’s presentation, “Westmansweed to Old Toby: The Economic and Cultural Herblore of Pipe-weed in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” demonstrated that the cross-cultural contacts of the tobacco trade were analogous to the Secondary World trade in pipe-weed, with similar economic and political complications.
I concluded my day of conference presentations by going to hear Verlyn Flieger, another distinguished Tolkien scholar at this year’s Mythcon, talking about “How Trees Behave.” Dr. Flieger used as a jumping-off point a passage about tree-fairies or dryads in MS B of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (which she and Douglas Anderson have edited for HarperCollins). With her usual careful handling of manuscripts and dates and with close textual analysis, Dr. Flieger considered three of Tolkien’s trees, Old Man Willow, Treebeard, and the Huorns, as examples of these tree-spirits that Tolkien calls “inherent powers of the created world,” capable of good or evil actions.
After dinner, I decided to skip the evening’s entertainment in order to go for a walk around campus to look at some real trees. Although it was still quite hot, it was a refreshing change from the hotel meeting rooms and the cafeteria where we were spending all of our time. The Michigan State University campus in East Lansing stretches out in broad roads, bike trails, expansive lawns, and tall trees. No sightings of tree-spirits, though — alas.
After a very full and satisfying day, I called it a night. I only wished that the wedding guests drinking and shouting to each other in the hallway and banging hotel room doors until 3 a.m. might have been more courteous.
To be continued: Days 3 – 4: linguistics, music, art, philosophy, and traditional Mythcon entertainments.
Travelling to Mythcon in East Lansing, Michigan, I wondered what to expect at my first Mythopoeic Society conference. I later realized that the Tolkien 2005: The Ring Goes Ever On conference that I attended in England was a combined Mythopoeic and Tolkien Society meeting, a fact that I barely recognized at the time in that swirling mix of different events. But at least I can now say that my first undiluted experience of a Mythcon occurred last week in Michigan. I was not disappointed.
The Mythopoeic Society focuses on the works of J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and on fantasy / myth generally. A quick poll of the audience at one point indicated that most people were first drawn to the conference through an interest in Tolkien, as in my case. But whatever the hook that helps to reel people in, the conference attracts the kind of participants I’ve always enjoyed in Tolkien studies: a combination of university professors, librarians, independent scholars, teachers, grad students, fans, and writers from all walks of life. A community of diverse readers, in other words, who are interested in serious ideas and serious fun.
At Mythcon you will find people who have been attending the conference for 20, 30, even 40 years, but plenty of newbies also showed up. Two of us stepped off the Michigan Flyer bus into the midday heat of downtown East Lansing and stood looking for the hotel shuttle, giving me the opportunity to meet C.F.Cooper, a writer from New York. (Read his Blog of Mythic Proportions here for another view of the conference). Once we got to the hotel and registration desk, I saw a number of familiar faces and old friends, mostly regulars from the Tolkien at Kalamazoo conference. By this point, the first papers were about to be delivered, so I checked into my room as quickly as possible so that I could get to Megan Abrahamson’s paper on Tolkien fanfiction.
Fanfiction can be a controversial topic, and Megan’s paper — “J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and ‘The Freedom of the Reader'” — certainly drew out some lively comments in the short discussion time that followed her excellent presentation. I found her paper to be a thorough exploration of Tolkien’s opinions and ideas about sub-creation, source studies, canonicity, the domination of the author, as well as a consideration of Tolkien’s own creative practice. Rather than just quoting Tolkien’s well-known Letter 131, which expresses a wish that “other minds and hands” should take up his mythology, Megan tackled complex and sometimes contradictory issues in Tolkien’s views.
The discussion afterwards circled around the usual arguments about the ethics and legality of playing with an author’s characters and world, and of course in our times legal issues of copyright have to be considered (though fanfiction is typically a non-profit enterprise). In my view, there is nothing immoral about the impulse to tell stories about well loved or interesting characters, yet for some reason the recent outpouring of internet fanfic often evokes strong disapproval. In contrast, early issues of Tolkien zines* such as I Palantir and Mallorn featured poetry, stories, and songs based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Did Tolkien fans object to these fictions in the 1960s, 70s, 80s? I haven’t found any letters to the editor or articles decrying the writing of fanfiction in these early zines. So what has changed? **
I was not surprised when later in the conference it was announced that Megan’s paper had won the Alexei Kondratiev Student Paper Award — although given the excellent papers that I heard delivered by graduate students over the next few days, I imagine that the jury must have had a hard time making its decision.
After the paper sessions, we emerged from the air conditioned hotel into a blast of hot air and bright sun in order to cross the street to the cafeteria for dinner and then to an ice cream social on the hotel patio, giving everyone a chance to meet new people and greet old friends. I was part of a mini TORn reunion (N.E. Brigand, Modtheow, and Drogo, for those who might know our Reading Room screen names from a few years ago. I also met Wonderbroad, though I didn’t get a chance to reveal my TORn identity to her).
Although other evening activities followed, such as the bardic circle, I soon called it a night. My 4 a.m. trip to the airport was beginning to take its toll, and I still had my paper to review for the next day.
To be continued: Day Two: twentieth-century faery lands, tree spirits, the Elizabethan tobacco trade, and my paper on Tolkien’s painterly style.