This week offers quite a range of talks by Tolkien scholars, and all online of course, so even if we can’t meet in person, we can attend sessions that would normally be out of reach.
The Tolkien at Vermont conference is back this year with a one-day event on the theme of Tolkien and the Classics. The keynote speaker is the Very Rev. John Houghton, who will be giving a talk on “Tolkien’s calques of classicisms: Who Knew Elvish Latin, what did the Rohirrim read, and why was Bilbo cheeky?”
Other papers at the conference trace Tolkien’s connections to Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and more. The conference takes place on Saturday, April 10, from 8:30 – 6:00 EST, free on Zoom. Check out the full schedule and how to request the Zoom link on the Tolkienists.org website.
Also on Saturday, April 10, the Tolkien Society AGM will feature Professor Verlyn Flieger as the annual guest speaker, talking about “Waiting for Earendel.” Members of the Society will get a Zoom link, but the general public will be able to watch on Facebook and YouTube. Go to the Tolkien Society announcement for more details.
From the classics to modern literature: earlier this week, Signum University sponsored an author chat with Dr. Holly Ordway, author of the recently published Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages. Dr. Ordway discusses the importance of acknowledging Tolkien’s interest in contemporary literature. You can find this Signum Symposium on YouTube.
Although we’re probably all weary with our various restrictions and lockdowns, one positive consequence of moving conferences online is that they are now open to a far greater audience. The Tolkien Society, which in the past has sponsored a seminar day in Leeds in July, is now offering Seminar 1 (how many will there be?) on Saturday, February 13. It will be free for everyone either through Zoom or live-streamed on the Tolkien Society YouTube channel. The theme of the Seminar is “21st-century receptions of Tolkien,” and the presentations will be given by both non-academics and researchers. Go to the Tolkien Society Seminar 2021 page for the schedule of talks and information about how to tune in. If you’re in North America, prepare to get up early on Saturday!
I usually post full details of various conference programs closer to the time of the events, but for now, I’ll just post session titles for an overview of the upcoming Tolkien conference season this spring and summer. Details may change over the next few months, so always follow the links to the official programs for final details.
Tolkien at Vermont: April 4
April 4, 2020 University of Vermont, Burlington, VT Organizer: Dr. Chris Vaccaro
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
Special theme: Tolkien and Classical Antiquities
The Tolkien in Vermont website describes the conference as “an annual weekend of academic papers, fireside readings, and bonhomie, bringing together seasoned academics, students, independent scholars, and the general public…” — very true, in my experience.
The program hasn’t been posted yet, but this 17th annual event at the University of Vermont has announced its keynote speaker, John Wm. Houghton, well known to Tolkien scholars for his various publications and editorial work. Go to the website for more details.
Tolkien at Popular Culture Association: April 15 – 18
April 15 – 18, 2020 Philadelphia, US Organizer: Dr. Robin Anne Reid
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
May 7 – 10, 2020 Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan
[May 12 edit: conference cancelled due to COVID-19]
For more details about these sessions, you can check the sneak preview of the Congress program. Registration opens in February.
Thursday, May 7. 10 a.m. Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, His Precursors and Legacies Sponsor: Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow Organizer: Dimitra Fimi, Fantasy Research Hub, School of Critical Studies, Univ. of Glasgow; Kristine A. Swank, Univ. of Glasgow Presider: Kristine A. Swank
Friday, May 8. 1:30 p.m. Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien-inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion) Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society Organizer: Geoffrey B. Elliott, Independent Scholar Presider: Carrie Pagels, Independent Scholar
Saturday, May 9. 10 a.m. Tolkien and Se Wyrm Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College
Saturday, May 9. 1:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Paratexts, Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (A Roundtable) Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.
Saturday, May 9. 3:30 p.m. Tolkien’s Chaucer Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo Organizer: Christopher Vaccaro, Univ. of Vermont Presider: Christopher Vaccaro
Sunday, May 10. 8:30 a.m. Tolkien and Manuscript Studies Organizer: William Fliss, Marquette Univ. Presider: William Fliss
For more details about these sessions, go to the sneak preview of Congress sessions. The final program will be posted on the ICMS site.
The special theme of the 2020 Congress is “Borders,” which explains why there are three sessions on Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism. Registration opens on February 10th.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Deirdre Dawson, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Monday 6 July (11:15-12:45)
New Sources and Approaches to Tolkien’s Medievalism – A Round Table Discussion Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Tuesday 7 July (19:00-20:00)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism I Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (9:00-10:30)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism II Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Moderator/Chair: Sara Brown, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (11:15-12:45)
Borders in Tolkien’s Medievalism III Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow Organiser and Moderator/Chair: Dr. Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar Session Day/Time: Thursday 9 July (14:15-15:45)
And looking ahead to the summer:
Mythcon: July 31-August 3
July 31 – August 3, 2020 Mythopoeic Society – Mythcon 51 Albuquerque, New Mexico
[May 12 edit: conference postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19]
Theme: The Mythic, the Fantastic, and the Alien
Registration is now open but the call for papers and program haven’t appeared yet.
Oxonmoot: September 3 – 6
The Tolkien Society – Oxonmoot September 3 – 6 St. Anne’s College, Oxford
[June 6 edit: Oxonmoot will be held online. Oxonmoot Online will take place September 18-20. Check the Tolkien Society website for more details as they become available.]
Registration is now open but a program will come later. The call for papers will open February 9th.
I’d be happy to hear about any conferences I’ve missed in the comments.
I had just finished my Tolkien class yesterday when I returned to my office and found my social media sites flooded with news of Christopher Tolkien’s death. Just an hour before, I had been telling my students that, as Tolkien researchers, we owe a great debt to his son Christopher.
My students have been doing presentations on sections of The History of Middle-earth that include drafts of The Lord of the Rings. This exercise gives them just a glimpse of this immense project (12 volumes in all!) that Christopher Tolkien edited. I had just been saying to my students that morning that Christopher has given us all — students, fans, scholars — the means to experience what it is like doing specialized archival research with manuscript drafts. While we only get a few samples of Tolkien’s actual handwriting in The History of Middle-earth (HoMe), which is often the most difficult part of deciphering his actual papers, we can at least gain an understanding of Tolkien’s revision process for The Lord of the Rings, a glimpse into what characters and ideas he was developing and what ideas he knew he wanted from the start.
The presentations I’ve assigned my students are inspired by Yvette Kisor’s article, “Using The History of Middle-earth with Tolkien’s Fiction” which appears in Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. As she explains on p. 75,
Christopher Tolkien’s commentary, replication of different drafts, description and dating of manuscripts, determination of the order of composition, and other scholarly apparatuses expose students to the editorial tasks that go into the production of any authoritative edition.
But it’s not just Lord of the Rings drafts that are included in HoMe. There is a wealth of material, including unfinished stories like “The Notion Club Papers” which I’ve been working with in recent years. I’ve heard very occasionally the criticism that Christopher shouldn’t have published unfinished drafts without knowing if his father would have wanted the world to see them. But had those drafts been placed in the Bodleian Library with his other unpublished papers, I would have written about them anyway, as researchers do. Instead, Christopher gave access to such materials to a wider public.
HoMe is not the only publication that Christopher produced. Having trained as a medievalist, he edited and translated several medieval texts before resigning his position at Oxford to work full-time on his father’s materials. The Silmarillion is one of the texts that Christopher compiled after his father’s death (with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay), and although he wasn’t satisfied in later years with all of what he had produced, it nevertheless must have been a daunting task to make sense of these disorganized papers, something that his father himself was not able to do. The Silmarillion that was published in 1977 gave the world the first look at the mythology Tolkien had been working on for most of his life — the backdrop, in a way, to the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Christopher was always closely bound with his father’s writing. From listening to his story-telling when a child, drawing maps for The Lord of the Rings, typing up drafts, and, as an adult serving in the RAF during the Second World War, reading and commenting on chapters of The Lord of the Rings that his father mailed to him, he knew his father’s work intimately.
Christopher Tolkien dedicated his career to providing us with the materials for understanding his father’s works, and I am immensely grateful for that opportunity.
Here he is reading the ending of The Lord of the Rings:
You can find the submission guidelines here. Different sponsoring groups have different deadlines. For example, the Tolkien at Kalamazoo group would like proposals by September 1st (tomorrow!) while the final deadline for ICMS proposals generally is September 15th — though no one is advised to wait that long. You can search the complete call for papers for the Congress here.
Tolkien at Kalamazoo is sponsoring 3 sessions:
Tolkien’s Paratexts: Appendices, Annals, and Marginalia (Roundtable) Following the medieval manuscript tradition, Tolkien’s literary fiction includes charts, maps, annals and other paratextual elements, many found in the Appendices. These elements deserve further critical study. Taking his father’s lead, Christopher Tolkien has been meticulously editing J.R.R. Tolkien’s manuscripts, supplying commentary and emendations concerning the many cruxes within the notes and typescripts. As medievalists, we will bring this often ignored back matter and marginalia to the foreground.
Tolkien and Se Wyrm Tolkien admits to being influenced by the dragons of Beowulf and the Volsungasaga. In those medieval epic texts, the dragon is monstrous but somewhat uncanny and familiar to human kind; distinctions are blurred. Something similar happens in Tolkien’s fictions, presenting exciting new considerations on the subject of monstrosity. Papers could explore the interdisciplinary relationships between the dragons of medieval legend and those of Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s Chaucer With the upcoming publication of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (edited by John M. Bowers, Oxford University Press, 2019) readers of Tolkien have the opportunity to explore how Tolkien read Chaucer as well as how that reading influenced his fiction. This paper session might explore fourteenth-century ideas of romance, neoplatonism, self in relation to society, constructions of gender, etc., as they related to Tolkien’s texts.
Proposals for the above sessions should be sent to:
Dr. Christopher Vaccaro Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also send Chris a proposal for the Tolkien Symposium which takes place on the Wednesday before the start of the conference. While the official CFP will come out later with a January deadline, the Symposium usually has an open theme and you can propose a paper now.
University of Glasgow, Fantasy Research Hub
Medieval World-Building: Tolkien, his Precursors and Legacies The recent volume Sub-creating Arda: World-building in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works, its Precursors, and Legacies (2019), edited by D. Fimi and T. Honegger, examines the importance of invented story-worlds as spaces for primary-world social commentary, or as means for visualizing times and places not accessible to the reader. Tolkien was one of the foremost proponents of literary world-building, what he called “sub-creation,” and his Middle-earth has had unrivaled influence on subsequent world-building efforts. Yet, Tolkien’s own sub-creations were born from medieval story-worlds such as Beowulf,Kalevala, Volsungasaga, and others. This paper session examines the emergent, interdisciplinary research field of world-building through Tolkien’s Middle-earth, its medieval precursors, and/or its modern legacies. Papers might be on such topics as mythopoeia, design, systems of magic, geology, geography, cartography, cosmology, ecology, sociology, demographics, cultural anthropology, materiality, religion, philosophy, language—literally anything that goes into world-building—in conjunction with the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, or his medieval/medievalist precursors, or his worldbuilding legacy in literature or other fields. Papers on interdisciplinary topics are welcome.
Please send your proposals with “Tolkien World-Building” in the subject line to: Dimitra Fimi (Dimitra.Fimi@glasgow.ac.uk) AND Kris Swank (KSwank@pima.edu).
Marquette University Archives
Tolkien and Manuscript Studies J.R.R. Tolkien the scholar studied and taught medieval manuscripts. In imitation of these, Tolkien the author incorporated fictional manuscripts into his tales. He produced an enormous quantity of his own manuscripts in the course of crafting his Legendarium, which his son Christopher and others have closely examined. In his influential essay “The Great Chain of Reading: (Inter-)textual Relations and the Technique of Mythopoesis in the Túrin Story” (2002), Gergely Nagy explains that Tolkien’s mode of narrative development was akin to that of the medieval European tradition, writing, redacting, and expanding of numerous versions.
This session proposal invites papers on the role of manuscripts (as mise-en-page and mise-en-scène) in the life and works of Tolkien.
Contact: William Fliss Phone: (414) 288-5906 Email: email@example.com
Tales After Tolkien Society
Deadscapes: Wastelands, Necropoli, and Other Tolkien Inspired Places of Death, Decay, and Corruption (A Panel Discussion)
Legacies of Tolkien’s Whiteness in Contemporary Medievalisms (A Roundtable)
Contact: Geoffrey B. Elliott PO Box 292970 Kerrville, TX 78028 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 (email@example.com) and Dr. Andrew Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 6th September
Length of abstracts: 100 words. (Papers will be 15-20 minutes long while roundtable contributions will be 10-12 minutes long). With your abstract, please include name and details of contributor (affiliation, address, and preferred e-mail address).
A note on how Kalamazoo and Leeds organizers select papers differently: for the ICMS in Kalamazoo, the session topics are first approved by the Congress organizers and then the session sponsors select presenters to fill the sessions. At Leeds, the session sponsors select presenters and send in the full session proposal to the Congress organizers to await approval. Sometimes, sessions are not approved.
On the day before the Congress begins (Sunday 5 July), the Tolkien Society sponsors a Tolkien Seminar, a full day of presentations. The call for papers will be available later this year.
The Tolkien Society’s 50th Anniversary celebration, Tolkien 2019, is over. Taking place in Birmingham from August 7 to 11, the event featured guest speakers, entertainments, an art show, masquerade, orchestra, the play Leaf by Niggle, and many speakers, of whom I was one.
For those who were fortunate enough to go, it was a wonderful opportunity to greet old friends and meet new ones, but no one could possibly attend every session in the program. For those who could not go to Birmingham, I know how hard it is sometimes to read all the excited posts about other people’s experiences. Luckily, a number of summaries have been posted of quite a few talks, and the special guest presentations are available on video, so there is much that can be seen both for those who missed the whole thing and also for those who were there but couldn’t get to every session.
Several bloggers have summarized the sessions they attended:
Marcel Aubron-Bulles at TheTolkienist.com posted late-night accounts of Day 1, 2, and 3.
Maria (pencilphilos) on Middle-earth News published photos and summaries: Part 1 covering Day 1 and 2, and Part 2 for Days 3 and 4.
Luisge on luiyo.net managed to get to an impressive number of sessions and events, all described here.
Jeremy Edmonds on TolkienGuide.com has posted the Tolkien Society videos of the special speakers and guest panels. You can also find the videos on the Tolkien Society channel on YouTube. These include talks by Dimitra Fimi, Tom Shippey, Wayne Hammond, Christina Scull, Brian Sibley, Jay Johnstone, Ted Nasmith, Alan Lee, and panels on illustrating Tolkien and on the upcoming LotR on Prime.
The Prancing Pony Podcast has offered some Ponderings on the conference, and their live interviews with some of the guests will be online on September 15.
Marie Bretagnolle has started her own summary of her experience of the conference events. Day One has been posted; keep going back to her site for the rest.
You can find abstracts of all the presentations and biographies of the speakers on the Tolkien 2019 website; click on the Programme and scroll through towards the end of the document.
Many of the summaries above comment on the same sessions. I’ll add a few speakers that I was interested in:
Dr. Sara Brown, “Taking Care of the Land: Stewardship in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.” Dr. Brown gave a thorough definition of the concepts of “home” and “stewardship” in Tolkien’s works.
Dr. Aurelie Bremont, “‘We should look at green again’: of magic, Green Elves, and the battle of good vs. evil.” Dr. Bremont discussed traditional medieval interpretations of green, the splintering of the light in Tolkien’s legendarium, and where Green Elves fit in the spectrum of Light and Dark Elves.
Kris Swank, “Travellers in Time: Tolkien and Joseph O’Neill.” Kris Swank discussed these two modernist authors of time-travel narratives who used similar themes.
Penny Holdaway, “Would you buy a house from the architect of Bimble Bay?” Penny Holdaway’s talk discussed “the rise of ecocriticism in the 1920’s-1930’s and how Tolkien’s Bimble Bay series, particularly his poem ‘Progress in Bimble Bay,’ connects to that movement” (Programme, p 38).
Dr. Una McCormack, “‘Not worth doing’: Fanfiction Writers and the Fourth Age.” Dr. McCormack explored some fanfiction stories dealing with the aftermath of the War of the Ring. Hers was one of a number of talks on fandom during the conference.
Marie Bretagnolle, “Artists in Middle-earth: Illustrating The Lord of the Rings.” Marie Bretagnolle compared two sets of illlustrations, one from the 1977 Folio Society edition by Ingahild Grathmer and Eric Fraser and the other by Alan Lee in the 1991-92 edition. This was one of several presentations on art and illustration during the conference, including talks by and about artists.
Dr. Andrew Higgins, “Four Brethren Heroes of the Gondolindrim – Egalmoth, Ecthelion, Glorfindel and Legolas: A mythic and linguistic exploration.” Dr. Higgins explored the philological and mythical aspects of these four characters present from the earliest Fall of Gondolin story.
Luke Shelton, “The Lord of the Rings, Young Readers, and the Question of Genre.” Luke Shelton presented some very interesting results from his research, which indicates that young readers do not think of genre in the same way as adults: critics tend to apply single genre labels but young readers tend to be more inclusive.
William Sherwood, “Rewriting the British Literary Tradition: Keatsian Echoes in Tolkien’s Early Works.” William Sherwood discussed the echoes of Keats’s poems in Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales I and II.
Erik Mueller-Harder, “The Lost Connections of Tolkien’s First Map of The Lord of the Rings: Reconstruction.” The photo shows Erik’s first slide in his presentation but doesn’t do justice to the way in which he expertly illustrated the layers and overlaps in Tolkien’s first map of The Lord of the Rings. This was one of a number of interesting digital projects on Tolkien and his works, including those by James Tauberand Marquette archivist Bill Fliss.
As for my presentation — I’ll add a summary in the next few days. Watch this blog!
Before I post the final item, I’ll just mention Luke Shelton’s thoughts on post-conference feelings and imposter syndrome. As Luke points out, after several days of being energized and “on,” it can be hard for some people to come down. It’s important to know that you’re not alone in this feeling.
And now, if you’ve read this far, here is a treat: the closing plenary talk of the conference by Dr. Dimitra Fimi, in which she combines research and singing and audience participation in her “Tolkien, Folklore, and Foxes: A thoroughly vulpine talk in which there may be singing!” Enjoy!
(Please leave a comment if you’ve found some other good links about the conference.)
March 25, designated by the Tolkien Society as Tolkien Reading Day, is meant to encourage the reading of Tolkien’s works individually or in group events. A new theme is announced every year, and for 2019 it’s “Tolkien and the mysterious.”
My current reading focuses on Tolkien’s
verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Beorhthelm’s Son – let’s call it The
Homecoming for short – and a specific moment in the play in which one of
the characters experiences a mysterious vision.
It’s not one of Tolkien’s best-known works, so first a quick summary: The Homecoming is a short drama for two voices based on the events recounted in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” which describes an English defeat at the hands of Viking invaders in the year 991. Beorhtnoth is the English lord who is killed in the battle, but his loyal followers fight on against hopeless odds. Often-quoted lines from the poem are spoken by an old warrior, here in Old English, then followed by Tolkien’s translation:
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, Mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.
“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.” (124)
Tolkien wrote that he thought these Old
English lines weren’t original in this poem but instead “an ancient and
honoured expression of heroic will” (124).
The events of Tolkien’s play The Homecoming occur after the battle is over, when two servants are sent by the local Abbot to find and bring back Beorhtnoth’s body for burial. They are out on a gruesome battlefield in the dark of night, surrounded by mangled corpses, trying to understand what happened in the fighting. They think of ghosts, are startled by a hooting owl, and face sudden danger when they come upon and fight some corpse robbers. After they identify a few of the dead who were closest to Beorhtnoth, they make their way to where they discover what remains of their lord. One of the servants is a young poet who shows several times that he is capable of composing verses in moments when the two men honour their dead lord. Eventually they carry his body to their wagon and start on the way home. That’s where the young poet, lying in their cart, starts nodding off and speaks “drowsily and half dreaming” (140):
There are candles in the dark and cold voices. I hear mass chanted for master’s soul in Ely isle. Thus ages pass, and men after men. Mourning voices of women weeping. So the world passes; day follows day, and the dust gathers, his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it, and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle. So men flicker and in the mirk go out. The world withers and the wind rises; the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.
This young man, whose name is Torhthelm or Totta for short, seems to be seeing into the future – the present or near future in hearing mass chanted for Beorhtnoth among the monks in Ely — but then followed by a sweeping view of ages in the future until the “world withers” and all seems to die out.
This view intensifies in the next few moments. The stage directions state that Totta continues with “the voice of one speaking in a dream,” and he seems to enter into a mysterious vision, recounted in the present tense, as if he is partaking urgently of some other reality:
It’s dark! It’s dark, and doom coming! Is no light left us? A light kindle, and fan the flame! Lo! Fire now wakens, hearth is burning, house is lighted, men there gather. Out of the mists they come through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth. Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting: stern words they sing with strong voices. (He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more proud the spirit as our power lessens! Mind shall not falter nor mood waver, though doom shall come and dark conquer
At that moment, the cart goes over a bump
and jolts Totta out of his dream, back to the reality of his companion who
disapproves of the young poet’s words. The play ends shortly afterwards.
You’ll notice that in this intense
visionary experience, Totta hears men chanting the lines that will become part
of “The Battle of Maldon” – “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, / more
proud the spirit as our power lessens!” – although he adds two further lines
that don’t appear in the Old English poem.
Who are these ghostly men that Totta sees
gathering in the hall “out of the mists” and that he hears chanting? Where is
Totta in this dream-vision? He seems to
be participating in the experience in the present moment, but is he
imaginatively partaking of a past event or a future one? The mystery of where
this dream comes from and what kind of experience Totta is having as he speaks
it out loud in a dream-like voice contributes to the significance of this climactic
moment in the play.
I’ve written about this mysterious event (and other aspects of the play) in a forthcoming essay on The Homecoming,* where I conclude that Totta is “penetrating to the heart of heroic tradition,” accessing what Tolkien called that ancient expression of heroic will, which lives in poetic tradition. I also think that Totta’s experience is similar to other mysterious instances in Tolkien’s fiction where the power of a story or poem leads people into a dream-like state in which they experience other times and places — for example, the hobbits listening to Tom Bombadil’s stories, or Frodo enchanted by poetry in Rivendell, or the Notion Club members following Lowdham and Jeremy’s adventures in an Anglo-Saxon hall.
These visionary experiences are mysterious
in the sense that they are puzzling, obscure, hard to understand. They may also
resonate with the sense of “mystery” as denoting something mystical or beyond
What’s your interpretation of these mysterious
*My essay is forthcoming in a new book from Walking Tree Press, “Something has gone crack”: New Perspectives on Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Annika Röttinger and Janet Brennan Croft. I’ll post more when I have information about a definite publication date!
The image used above is “Before” by Tolkien, one of his early drawings estimated to have been made around 1911-1912 (Hammond and Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, page 65, footnote 12. The drawing is fig. 30 in their book.)
My quotations from Tolkien’s Homecoming are taken from the play published
in Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins,
2001. The play was originally published in the scholarly journal Essays and Studies, vol. 6, 1953, pp.
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!
March 25, the downfall of Sauron, is the date chosen by the Tolkien Society to celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is “Home and Hearth: the many ways of being a Hobbit.” Around the world different groups will be holding events celebrating Tolkien’s work — see the Tolkien Society page for reports from some of them — or individuals will simply be reading their favorite passages at home. Check out the #TolkienReadingDay hashtag on Twitter or Instagram to see what people are reading today.
One of the ways of being a hobbit is to love songs, often songs celebrating simple homely pleasures: “Sing hey! for the bath at close of day,” “Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go,” “Upon the hearth the fire is red,” or songs that are just meant to be fun, such as the “ridiculous song” Frodo sings at the Prancing Pony, “There is an inn,” or that Sam recites as “just a bit of nonsense,” his song about trolls.
There is one song that Sam sings, however, that is much more serious and that shows another side of being a hobbit: the ability to find hope in the face of overwhelming odds. That song is “In western lands.” I’ve always loved this poem and especially one beautiful image in it.
The song occurs in The Return of the King in “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” chapter. Frodo has been captured by orcs, and Sam is feeling defeated, unable to find him. Suddenly, he starts singing, and gradually his voice rises and the words of the poem come to him “unbidden.” The song calls forth a response from Frodo, allowing Sam to locate him in the Tower.
In the song, the speaker situates himself in the farthest reaches of despair: “Though here at journey’s end I lie/ in darkness buried deep,/ beyond all towers strong and high,/ beyond all mountains steep” — and yet, he can imagine that this is not the entire world. “In western lands, beneath the Sun/ the flowers may rise in Spring…” He imagines a blooming world that “may” be alive, and by the end of the poem, he is certain that there is an eternal world elsewhere that is not affected by his seemingly hopeless situation: “above all shadows rides the Sun/ and Stars for ever dwell….” The final lines express his resolve: “I will not say the Day is done, / nor bid the Stars farewell.”
Detail from Tolkien’s “The Elvenking’s gate from across the river,” fig. 50, The Art of The Hobbit
My favorite lines come in the first stanza: “Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night / and swaying beeches bear / the Elven-stars as jewels white / amid their branching hair.” Tolkien’s landscapes are usually alive and active; here, the trees and stars, two recurring and significant images for Tolkien, are connected in one image of softly dancing trees whose branches seem to be wearing the jewellery of starlight as if in their hair. By the end of that first stanza, the poet’s gaze is already moving from the flowers rising from the ground up to the stars in the sky, as if getting ready for the ideas that conclude the second stanza. I remember one summer night sitting outside, looking up through tree branches at a few stars, when these lines came immediately to mind as the perfect expression of that sight.
Donald Swann set this poem to music, although I think I prefer the Tolkien Ensemble version of it. You can listen to it here:
The hope of hobbits — little people who did not think they could change the world — is a valuable thought to hold on to.
Family and friends joined me in the Tolkien Birthday Toast on January 3rd, a global event sponsored by the Tolkien Society. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your own toast is part of a continuing wave of glasses raised around the world every hour at 9 p.m. local time. This year, I was fortunate to be sitting by a warm fire while the winds blew with hurricane force and the air dropped to bitterly cold temperatures outside. I had another reason to celebrate: close to the end of December, the latest volume of Tolkien Studies arrived in my mailbox, with an article that I co-authored with my colleague Jeff MacLeod: “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.”
I have spoken on this topic at a few conferences over the last few years (for example, at the 2015 New York Tolkien conference). One especially pleasurable part of the research was the opportunity to look at some microfilm and digital images of Tolkien’s drawings in the Marquette University Archive. Archivists and the Tolkien Estate are quite rightly wary of allowing direct access to Tolkien’s original artwork even though every scholar and fan interested in Tolkien’s art would love to handle his pictures; however, I soon realized that when examining digital copies, I could expand the image and see it even more closely than I might have just by eyeing the original. That ability led to some interesting observations, as I hope you’d agree if you have a chance to read our essay.
That research trip contributed one part to the overall argument that Jeff and I are making in this article. I’ll quote a section from the opening paragraph that summarizes our four main points:
[We begin by citing a number of critics who discuss Tolkien’s artwork, and then continue:] All of these critics make a strong case for the importance of Tolkien’s “encounters with art and imagery” (Organ 117), but their focus is on the influence of other artists and artistic movements on Tolkien’s art and writing. We propose to turn our attention to Tolkien’s own practice and knowledge of visual art in order to examine how it is an integral part of his writing craft, his creativity, and his ideas. We look at four main ways in which the visual image and the written word merge in Tolkien’s creative work. First, we examine how his visual practice aids in the drafting of his stories. Second, we look at how it influences him on a stylistic level in his descriptive prose choices — our focus is on landscapes in The Lord of the Rings for an analysis of these first two elements. Third, and more generally, we find that Tolkien’s visual imagination and skill combine with writing in inventive ways, as in his alphabets, his calligraphy, and his monogram. Fourth, we explore how Tolkien’s artistic practice influences his theories about fantasy and illustration. We contend that Tolkien’s art and his visual imagination should be considered an essential part of his writing and thinking. (pp. 115-116)
I can’t copy the whole article here, but let me give you a taste of some of our ideas and show you a few of the images we discussed but couldn’t reproduce in our essay.
Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch, Sauron Defeated, p. 19.
If you flip through the pages of Christopher Tolkien’s volumes of The History of Middle-earth or examine the books on Tolkien’s artwork by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, you’ll see some of Tolkien’s sketches that appear as anything from a squiggle in the middle of a line, to diagrams and maps, to sometimes more developed pictures, such as his Tower of Kirith Ungol (still spelled with a “K” in the earlier manuscript). We discuss the interplay of text and image in the example shown here. (This isn’t the best version of the image that you can find; check out Hammond and Scull’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings for that).
A manuscript sketch like the Tower of Kirith Ungol poses intriguing questions: when did the drawing start taking over the page? Were the words written after the drawing? Did the sketch guide the wording of the passage? Was the sketch revised after the pencilled text was written over in ink? We examined only this page in detail, but it would be interesting to expand this kind of study to other sketches in Tolkien’s manuscripts that bring us closer to an understanding of his process of composition.
From looking at Tolkien’s process of drafting in this part of The Lord of the Rings, we move on to consider his prose descriptions of landscapes to discuss what we call his “painterly” style. In this, we were influenced by Brian Rosebury’s analysis of Tolkien’s prose, in which he declares that Tolkien describes like a painter. Although Rosebury then qualifies his claim, we agree with the initial assessment. We also ground our analysis on insights from a 1981 article in Mythlore by Miriam Y. Miller on Tolkien’s use of colours. What we found typical of Tolkien’s landscape descriptions is the use of some basic colours modified by qualities of light, along with an artist’s attention to the composition of the image.
Here is an example of that painterly style: Tolkien’s description from the “Fog on the Barrow-downs” chapter, in which he describes the land “in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colors, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance.” From here, our eye moves to the horizon, where there’s a “guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky” (FR, I, viii, 147). This impressionistic prose style describes the land entirely in painterly colours, lights, and shapes. A visual analogue (though not meant to be an illustration of the Barrow-downs) can be found in one of Tolkien’s early watercolours, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (Artist 21, fig. 16).
Tolkien, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill.” Artist & Illustrator, fig. 16
This is only one example of many that we could point to in Tolkien’s landscape descriptions that demonstrates the eye and imagination of a visual artist.
A couple of other main points in our essay extend our view of how the verbal and the visual intersect in Tolkien’s creative imagination. His monogram, his invented writing systems, his calligraphy all demonstrate ways in which the visual and verbal cohere to make meaning. And of course, some of his theoretical discussion of subcreation in “On Fairy-stories” is delivered in visual terms. For example, when talking about the recovery afforded by fantasy, Tolkien states, “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (OFS p. 67).
Tolkien, “The King’s Letter” second version, Art of Lord of the Rings fig. 187
Our concluding paragraph:
Tolkien’s special talent, in so many facets of his creative life, was the ability to combine the written word with the observational skills of a visual artist. Although he is renowned as a philologist and creative writer, his artistic practice and visual imagination, we contend, should be seen as more than just a life-long hobby or a secondary skill. While his artwork is beginning to gain some critical attention on its own, our study suggests that the literature-art connections made by earlier critics such as Brian Rosebury and Miriam Y. Miller can be significantly expanded. Our examination of Tolkien’s composition process, his descriptive prose style, his monogram and other forms of calligraphy, and his theories about fairy-stories and illustration demonstrate the interplay of the visual with the verbal throughout his work. We believe that Tolkien’s artistic vision and skill should be acknowledged as an integral and crucial part of understanding his imagination, writing, and ideas. (pp. 127-28)
Full details for our article:
Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol. “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2017.0009.
Tolkien Studies is an annual publication that can be purchased from West Virginia University Press. If your library has a subscription to Project Muse, you can get a copy that way. If you don’t have the means to get a copy of the article, please let me know.
Our bibliography contains a number of resources on Tolkien’s art and prose style. The ones that I’ve mentioned in this post are:
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2015.
Miller, Miriam Y. “The Green Sun: A Study of Color in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 7.4 (Winter 1981): 3 – 11.
Organ, Michael. “Tolkien’s Japonisme: Prints, Dragons, and a Great Wave.” Tolkien Studies 10 (2013): 105-22.
Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Extended edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2008.
_______________. Sauron Defeated. The History of Middle-earth, vol. 9. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.
It’s hard to trace the development of this article. Some of it was inspired by a discussion in The Reading Room discussion boards on TheOneRing.net many years ago. Many discussions with Jeff over the years, himself an accomplished artist, took us in this direction. We are both grateful to our university for providing us with research grants and sabbatical leaves and to the Tolkien Estate for allowing us access to some of Tolkien’s papers. I am especially indebted to archivist William Fliss at Marquette University for listening to my theories and allowing me a glimpse of the real thing!
I’ll post more on other resources for studying Tolkien’s art later this week.