Thursday, March 27, 2008

A new book on the Inklings

News on Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, edited by Jonathan Himes and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishers. As I wrote last November, this new collection on the Inklings includes my essay, “Tolkien’s Felix Culpa and the Third Theme of Ilúvatar” (pp. 93–109). The announced release date of February 1, 2008 came and went, but the book has finally been printed! Amazon hasn’t updated its release date and doesn’t have copies quite yet, but it can only be a matter of days now. I just heard from the editor that his copies arrived earlier this week, and he’s very pleased with how they turned out. I should be able to add my own assessment to that once I get my contributor copy.

If you head over to Amazon, you’ll also see that the book has a cover now (pictured above). The price of $59.99 is targeted toward the academic/library market (and as such, is not typically discounted by Amazon), but if you’d like to get a copy, let me know, and I can get you one for 30% off the list price. Send me an email or leave a comment, and we’ll go from there. For those of you in the U.K., Amazon is offering a discounted price of £19.79 (just a teensy bit more than the price I can offer — and not guaranteed to last).

Even better than a glimpse of the cover, the CSP website has a thirty-page preview (in PDF format). The preview includes the full Table of Contents (my essay is the sixth chapter, right before Tom Shippey!), the editor’s Introduction, and about 70% of the first essay (by Joe Christopher). To whet your appetite (I hope), my own essay is summarized in the Introduction as follows:
In another paper on Tolkien, Jason Fisher brings our attention to the concept of the felix culpa, revealing some telling points of divergence between Tolkien’s Catholicism and the theology of his subcreated world. Many acts of goodness and heroism in Middle-earth appear not to have been possible without some prior, precipitating act of evil. In fact, evil itself is woven into the very design of the world before its physical creation. This alleviates certain problems of fictional invention while leaving some eschatological issues of Middle-earth unresolved. (xv)
Thus comes to fruition a paper I have been thinking about for a long time, as this lively thread from January 2002 reveals (please overlook the misspelling of Ilúvatar). I encourage you to take a peek at the online preview and share your thoughts.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cleaning out the liquor cabinet

As you know by now, I’m in the middle of moving after eight years at the same address. And with moving (especially after eight years! ;) comes the tedious chore of going through everything one has accumulated since the last move and getting rid of at least a third of it. Out with the old, in with the new. And that includes the liquor cabinet. So I dusted off a few exotic bottles I’d only opened once — or in some cases never yet — to give them a proper sendoff. In the order tasted, they were:

This is a distilled spirit made out of honey from the pollen of the xtabentún flower. It comes from the Yucatán Peninsula in eastern Mexico, and the name (like the recipe) is Mayan. It goes back more than a thousand years and was once a libation offered to the gods. Xtabentún, according to our good friends at Wikipedia, means “vines growing on stone”, which reminds me of the Scott Smith novel The Ruins (now a Hollywood film). Fortunately, Xtabentún is not so insidious, but it is every bit as potent at 30% alcohol by volume.

It tastes just like you’d expect — like fermented honey, with just a hint of cough medicine, hae. It’s very sweet and syrupy, and it’s a pale straw-gold in color. The bouquet (have I crossed over into total pretentiousness yet? :) is very herbaceous, and reminded me at once of Drambuie. Overall: pretty good.

Chinese Honey Wine
A friend brought this bottle back to me from a visit to mainland China. He told me it was between this bottle (a completely clear distilled honey wine) and the bottle that was full of actual bees. I wish he’d picked the bee-filled bottle, if only for shock value, but a gift is a gift. I never could read the Chinese label, though, so I can’t tell you much else about this one, except that it’s a completely transparent spirit, with a fainter nose than the Xtabentún, a drier flavor, a less syrupy viscosity, and probably a higher alcohol content (I’m guessing 35–40%). Overall: not bad; better in some ways, worse in others, than the Xtabentún.

Gusano Rojo Mezcal
One of the better known of the genuine Mezcals from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not in Tequila that you find the infamous worm (the Mexican bottling authority prohibits insects in Tequila — funny that somebody felt a law was necessary for that!); it’s in Mezcal, of which there are probably as many varieties as there are species of the agave plant from which it’s made. Again, thanks to Wikipedia, there are two common types of “worm” used in Mezcal (and actually, neither one is really a worm at all). In my case, the gusano rojo is “the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth, one of the several kinds of ‘maguey worm’, found on the agave plant.” Bottoms up!

First, let me say this: if you haven’t tried Mezcal, you’re in for a shock. I’ve tried a few, and (paraphrasing George Orwell), drinking a shot of Mezcal feels like being hit in the back of the head with a rubber mallet. God help those who drink an entire bottle! I can’t understand the appeal of it, to be honest. It tastes terrible — however, it’s even more potent than Tequila, so I suppose it’s alluring to anyone with something to forget. Whatever else it is, Mezcal is not subtle. It’s 40% alcohol by volume, but it feels much worse. Anyway, this Mezcal was a pale yellow in color (a little paler than the Xtabentún; perhaps it was añejo), with a pale white “worm” and a packet of salt and ground chili pepper to chase it. And it needed chasing, let me assure you! As bad as the Mezcal tasted, the worm was nothing at all. It was soft and basically pickled, and I chewed the fellow up almost without realizing it.

El Señor Mezcal (con Scorpion)
Andrew Zimmern, look out! I saved the “Fear Factor” shot for last! Most Mezcals are made con gusano (“with a worm”), but on a trip to Mexico, I saw this bottle, con scorpion (“with a scorpion”), and simply could not pass it up. It made for quite a conversation piece on our wine rack, let me tell you! A buddy and I drank a shot of this a couple of years ago, but the scorpion was safely chillaxing at the bottom of the bottle ... until now.

This Mezcal, at a disingenuous 40% alcohol by volume, was completely clear (joven or reposado, I expect), the better to highlight the critter at the bottom. The scorpion was a good deal bigger than the worm, and the second biggest scorpion I’ve ever actually seen with my own eyes (the biggest was the “pet” of an old high school and college friend). See the photos below for an idea of what I was up against! But down he went! The Mezcal was just as bad as ever, and this time, the critter was worse. Years of pickling had done nothing to soften this bastard’s exoskeleton, so the crunchy texture was the worst part about it. As to the taste (the worm had none), eating this fellow was rather like chewing up tree bark, and I was picking bits of him out of my teeth all night. More than you wanted to know, I’m sure!

Monday, March 24, 2008

But Hobbits don’t wear socks!

Still busy, busy, busy moving, but I just saw this and had to share — hobbit socks (courtesy of Boing Boing). Of course, Hobbits themselves don’t wear socks, and rarely wear footwear of any kind (though Bilbo did don a pair of boots during part of his travels). Still, if they did wear socks, I’m sure any Baggins, Took, or Brandybuck would love a pair of these! Heck, I wouldn’t mind a pair myself! Very cute, and nicely made. Complimentary color scheme and design elements from Tolkien’s dust-jacket design for The Hobbit, too, as you can see here.

Actually, they match the color scheme of my blog, too. Easy on the eyes. You’re welcome! ;)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ergo silebo

Just a quick note to explain the dearth of activity here over the last week or two. After eight years in the same place, we’re in the process of moving out of our townhouse and into an actual house. A mighty time-consuming and stressful endeavor, I can tell you! I hope to be posting regularly again in the near future. Until then, I hope you’ll keep checking back. Perhaps read some of my older posts again (or get back to the ones you may have missed).

Monday, March 10, 2008

A tragic story, (briefly) revisited

A few months ago, I shared the deeply distressing story of the death of Edi Vesco at the hands of her troubled teenage son. Over the weekend, I heard from one of Signora Vesco’s personal friends, and I’d like to share what she had to say:
Edi was a very good friend.... She wrote some chapters of the book in my home.... We laughed so much...She was a delightiful, joyful person.... Her son is a gentle boy, I don’t understand what happened...Please, remember Edi as a joyful and loving woman, and forget those horrible details....
This is very good advice, I think — to try to remember the good and not to allow the distubring details to take (and keep) hold of us for too long.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Snow in Dallas — in March!

Snow isn’t very common here in Dallas — a fact which makes a lot of sense when you consider that we’re at the same latitude as the northern Sahara of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia as well as the arid Near East of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. We do get it occasionally, but it’s seldom very much, seldom stays on the ground very long, and seldom never falls in March! But here we are with snow twice in one week in March (with the possibility of still more scattered flurries today and tonight). The system that passed through yesterday dropped as much as 9 inches of snow on parts of North Texas (and brought tornadoes as well). Oh, and between the snowfalls, we had a sunny, beautiful, 71° day. Madness!

Here’s a video showing what it looked like in parts of Dallas:

Near our house, we only got a light dusting (“no more than a white coverlet to cool a hobbit’s toes”). Here are a few photos I took this morning near White Rock Lake (click to enlarge):

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tackiest headline ever

As some of you may have heard, Gary Gygax, the cocreator of the immensely popular game, Dungeons and Dragons, died yesterday at the age of 69. I played my share of D&D as a kid, forging many adolescent friendships over those campaigns. The game has been responsible for reinforcing (and in some cases, helping to actively define) the fantasy genre for more than thirty years now. It was even featured in the film, E.T., at the height of its popularity. (And don’t get me started on Mazes and Monsters, first a novel and then a dreadful film, released the same year as E.T., and starring a young Tom Hanks.) D&D was also the forefather of new games like the customizable card game, Magic: The Gathering, as well as online games like Everquest and World of Warcraft — though the text-based MUD culture was an intermediary facilitator in their development.

So what’s the tackiest headline you can imagine for announcing his death? How about this one — “D&D cocreator Gary Gygax now beyond scope of healing spells.” And yes, this is a real headline. Here’s the source. For their sake, I hope they roll a 20 on their “save vs. hatemail” throw. Heh.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Visualizing the Silmarils

In another of John Rateliff’s exegetic essays in The History of The Hobbit, he takes on the appealing, but controversial, idea that the Arkenstone of Thráin could be, literally or figuratively, a Silmaril of Fëanor [1]. This is a question that has come up many times online, but not very often in the scholarly literature — it seems to have been enough to acknowledge the similarity without mining that particular lode any more deeply. Tom Shippey, for example, reminds us that “Thorin Oakenshield’s disastrous fascination with the Arkenstone parallels the disastrous quests for the Silmarils” [2]; Verlyn Flieger says the Arkenstone is “a shimmering crystal gem whose likeness to the Silmarils is unmistakable” [3]; and of course, several scholars have noted Tolkien’s use of the Old English word eorclanstánas (“Holy Stones” > *Arkenstones) for the Silmarils, foremost among them, Christopher Tolkien in the History of Middle-earth series, passim.

I found Rateliff’s essay particularly interesting for two reasons. First, its specificity: his is the most detailed treatment of the subject of which I am aware. Second, its directness: Rateliff really considers the possibility that Tolkien may have seriously considered making the Arkenstone a Silmaril. Most discussions consider only the account in The Silmarillion — published more than forty years later and posthumously edited — overlooking the fact that these legends were still very much in flux (not to mention unpublished) at the time Tolkien was writing The Hobbit during the early 1930’s. Rateliff dissects the evidence from The Book of Lost Tales, the 1926 “Sketch of the Mythology”, the 1930 Quenta, and the 1937 Quenta (written after The Hobbit had been completed), and concludes that while Tolkien’s later view of the disposition of the three Silmarils is pretty clear, at the time he was writing The Hobbit, this was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post: visualizing the Silmarils. To decide how similar the Arkenstone may have been to them, one would naturally want to consider the physical descriptions of these gems. “Unfortunately,” Rateliff writes, “we cannot compare them in detail, because [...] Tolkien only rarely describes the Silmarils themselves, and then more in terms of their effect on the viewer than in appearance” [4]. Rateliff considers such descriptions are there are, concluding that some make the Silmarils out to be smooth, others faceted, and still others are noncommittal. However, one important point Rateliff appears to have overlooked is that Tolkien himself illustrated the Silmarils, not just once, but at least four times.

All four are emblems or heraldic devices. Specifically, the three devices representing Fëanor, Beren, and Eärendil each seem to depict a Silmaril; and there is also an emblem for the Silmarils themselves, perhaps the best representation we have of Tolkien’s own idea of their appearance. All four are reproduced on Plate 47 of Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien [5] — you can see them for yourself above (click to enlarge). One of them, the heraldic device for The House of Eärendil, is also reproduced in Hammond and Scull’s Artist & Illustrator [6], with a relatively late date of 1960. If the other emblems are roughly contemporary, then we should be able to say that this was probably Tolkien’s final conception of the Silmarils. How he pictured them in 1930, however, may be another matter. Be that as it may, it would have been nice to see Rateliff mention these illustrations, which clearly show faceted Silmarils reflecting and refracting multicolored light. Perhaps they’ll make it into the softcover edition.

By the way, is it just me, or are Tolkien’s Silmarils reminiscent of the life-clocks in the film version of Logan’s Run (1976)? :)

Maedhros, Maglor, and Eärendil showing off their Silmarils

[1] Rateliff, John. The History of The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 603–9.

[2] Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, p. 241.

[3] Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Rev. ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002, p. 110.

[4] Rateliff, 606–7.

[5] Tolkien, J.R.R. Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. Foreword and notes by Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979, [not paginated].

[6] Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1995, p. 193 (Figure 190).