Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do Tolkien’s Elves have free will? Do we?

Free Will!The question is less innocent than it sounds. At Mythcon earlier this month, I heard two presentations on the subject of whether the Elves in Middle-earth exhibit free will or some kind of predestination. I gave a short summary of the two papers, by Carl Hostetter and Verlyn Flieger respectively, in my conference report, here. As I wrote in the report, an argument (but a civil one) took off immediately and raged during the entire weekend, and now well beyond it, giving “the whole Shire something to talk about for nine days, or ninety-nine more likely.”

Last week, I opened this Pandora’s Box on TORn, posting the same summaries and ultimate question: do Tolkien’s Elves have free will? The debate there has been one of the liveliest I’ve ever seen on the site, with almost 150 responses — and counting! Carl Hostetter has even stopped by to further elucidate Tolkien’s unpublished thoughts on Elvish fate and will, as situated in their concepts of ambar and umbar.

In a way, the question can actually be abstracted to ask to what extent a fictional being created by any author (with the authority, one might say, equivalent to that of God, but within a narrower scope) can exhibit free will. (Hence my illustration above, which I hope you enjoyed. I spent entirely too much time on it! ;) We tend to talk about Tolkien’s Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits as if they were actually real, living beings, independent of their Author. Dorothy Sayers has much to say on this subject in The Mind of the Maker, and I could appeal to Tolkien’s concept of the sub-creator, too (as described in “On Fairy-stories” and in his published letters). Sayers was a Catholic like Tolkien, but Lewis, an Anglican, espoused similar views on sub-creation.

And so, to continue, might we argue just as well (or ill) about whether Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had a free choice whether to go to England or not (whereby avoiding death)? That may sound silly, but the question isn’t entirely rhetorical — just ask Harry Potter fans whether they feel that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are “real” people capable of making their own “free” choices. In a way, the whole essence of fanfic is to follow through on the consequences of such assumptions. I didn’t bring up any of this on the TORn thread, though; I think they’re just about ready to start throwing things at me as it is! ;)

A thorny subject, but an interesting one! Perhaps it’s even worth getting scratched up a little in the debate. Stop by TORn and read along, or post your own thoughts — there or here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A new site for comparative mythology studies

Ulmo, Lord of Waters (Detail) © 2003 by John HoweLast month, my friend Randy Hoyt (who is, incidentally, the webmaster for the Mythopoeic Society) launched “a new online magazine devoted to the study of myth — particularly comparative mythology and the role of myth in our everyday lives.”

The online ’zine takes its name from Tuor’s journey to the sea to meet Ulmo, as Randy explains here. Depictions of those rare personal encounters between gods and lesser beings have the potential to be extremely powerful, especially when handled by a writer with Tolkien’s skill. (C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton had this gift as well; let me refer readers to Till We Have Faces and The Man Who Was Thursday.) The choice of “Journey to the Sea”, therefore, seems very appropriate indeed — representing a place for deeply mythical experiences at the margins between the domains of the gods and of men, or between the quotidian world and Faërie.

Two issues have been published so far: Issue 1 (July 1, 2008), and Issue 2 (August 1, 2008). If all goes as expected, we should have another issue next week. Randy, I assume you are working on this now? The site is beautifully designed, too, with muted grey-scale illustrations, and the kind of balance between illustrations and text, and between white space and content, that could only come from a professional web developer (which Randy indeed happens to be). For the sake of comparison, visit just about any page on MySpace or LiveJournal (which I’m convinced have set web design back at least a decade).

Reading over these two issues, I particularly enjoyed the article on Milton’s Satan. Why don’t you stop by and see which ones speak to you. And if you keep coming back, you may just find a contribution by yours truly in the not too distant future.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mythcon Conference Report

I’m back from Mythcon and finally (I think) caught up. Mythcon 39 at the Central Connecticut State University in New Britain was only my second Mythcon. My first was two years ago, in Oklahoma, before I started writing Lingwë. Like that gathering, this one was on the smaller side — or so the long-time Mythies tell me — and the first ever in New England. In addition to the conference report to follow, you can read some others’ opinions in this thread, as well as David Bratman’s posts on the conference, here and here. (I’ll add others as I happen upon them, and I invite those who were also there to chime in as well.)

The conference officially began Friday afternoon, but people (like me) started trickling in as early as Thursday afternoon. Those early birds got a head start enjoying such amenities as no air conditioning in the dorm rooms, no sheets or pillow cases (only a scratchy “prison blanket” and lumpy pillow), no towels for the shower, no soap or paper towels in the bathrooms ... I could go on. Suffice it to say there was no lack of things lacking!

The food was edible, if not exciting. Think Army food. Most meals seemed to consist of the same exact set of dishes, with one or two new ones added to each meal and the earlier ones eventually running out. There was a green-bean-with-mushrooms side dish that I swear I saw at four or five meals in a row. Ditto some kind of cold penne with onions and feta cheese. Not something you really want sitting around for days on end, is it? We also had the privilege of being drowned out by the football team during most meals. I found myself actively trying to get to the chow hall early, hoping to have finished around the time they came rampaging in like stampeding elephants. One memorable image: some kind of linebacker — or something; what do I know? But he was big! — shaking a chair he’d broken over his head in triumph while his teammates hooted and hollered. I couldn’t help but think of the Dum-Dum in Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes.

But despite all those little (and not so little) things worth complaining about, and which we all joked about together in common suffering, the Mythcon itself was great. I heard some excellent papers from familiar scholars and new ones, sat in on a couple of panels (plus my own), broke bread many times with many different combinations of people, and stayed up talking late into the night (or early into the morning, depending on your point of view). Here’s a rough idea of what I did and heard at Mythcon.

My own paper was the first of the conference. I thought it went well; I’m getting good feedback. I had a large audience, just about filling the room. I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or more people, including Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, Verlyn Flieger, Carl Hostetter, Arden Smith, David Bratman, Janet Croft, Alexei Kondratiev, Chris Gilson, Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge, Faye Ringel — and three friends from the Reading Room at TORn, two of whom I was meeting for the first time. My PowerPoint slideshow worked pretty much as I’d planned, though the second slide gave me some trouble (for some unfathomable reason — personally, I blame Windows Vista). The Q&A also yielded some great comments, in particular from Carl and Faye. I won’t say anything else about my own paper, but invite others to offer their thoughts — including criticism. I know, for example, that one particular section of my paper (on Khamûl) isn’t particularly persuasive, even though I still like it myself. I had planned to listen to David Bratman’s paper immediately following, but I missed half of it because of hallway conversations after my own. So next, for me, was ...

Carl Hostetter, “‘The Circles of the World’: Fate, Free Will, and the Oikumeme in Elvish Thought” — Little did we know that this was just the first salvo in what would become the Great Debate around which the entire conference eventually seemed to revolve. More on that in a moment. Carl’s paper was less a paper (at present; he’s continuing to work it up into one) than a series of quotations from Tolkien on the subject, including about three pages of unpublished notes from late 1968 or 1969 on the Elves’ ideas of fate and free will. That was very interesting, and Carl did a nice job explaining Tolkien’s sometimes sketchy and confused adumbrations (though it will be even more convincing once Carl has written more of the apparatus to connect the parts). In the final analysis, Carl demonstrated Tolkien’s apparent view that the Elves do indeed possess free will. This is the side on which I find myself, too, but not everyone agreed. I also appreciated Carl’s disquisition on the Elvish terms ambar and umbar, from the root MBAR; I had touched on this in my last Mythcon paper (two years ago), but I don’t think I’d had the relationship between them quite right in my head then.

The Planetarium Show — Kris Larsen, in addition to presenting a full paper later in the weekend, put on a wonderful show in the planetarium in Copernicus Hall (where she works). She took us on a tour of the Ainulindalë, pointing out the stars, planets, and constellations Tolkien describes in his legendarium — at least, the ones which have been identified with any degree of certainty. I hadn’t been to a planetarium show since childhood, and I really enjoyed it (a crick in the neck notwithstanding). The only thing I would suggest for Kris is that she work on her Elvish pronunciation a bit — talk about a Connecticut Yankee in King Thingol’s Court. ;) Moving on to Saturday morning ...

We held Opening Ceremonies, followed by the Guest of Honor presentation by Marjorie Burns. Unfortunately for me (and you), I didn’t have my pen and paper to take notes, so I simply had to enjoy the talk without being able to record any of the specifics. It was a very solid piece of work, however. In it, she compared and contrasted Mary, Varda, and Galadriel, as well as related figures and elements. The touchstone there was the conference theme of the “valkyrie and the goddess.” She also had much to say about George MacDonald’s Curdie books, which I really ought to read. (I’ve so far done no more than skim The Princess and the Goblin.) Others will no doubt be able to do a better job summarizing it, so I will leave it at that. One interesting note is that Marjorie was wearing a traditional, hand-made bunad. My photos weren’t great because of my distance from the stage, but here’s the best I can offer.

Marjorie Burns

After this, I attended the paper by Don Williams. He had veered away from his previously announced topic and gave a largely theological talk on the so-called trilemma of C.S. Lewis (from Mere Christianity). I didn’t quite get the new title, sorry. In his paper, Don attempted to mount a defense of Lewis’s argument against three critiques of it: an earlier one by John Beversluis, and two published within the last year, by N.T. Wright and Marvin Hinton. Apart from having ‘merely’ read Mere Christianity, I wasn’t well enough grounded in this debate to venture much opinion. I can, of course, argue a point of logic, and quite doggedly, but there seemed no purpose to it. David Bratman, on the other hand, was riled up for the debate; he interrupted twice, grumbled to himself frequently, and disputed several of Don’s points. David and Don know the subject far better than I ever will, so I’ll leave the debate to them. Later that day came a paper I’d been eagerly awaiting ...

Christina Scull, “Memory as Evidence in Tolkien Scholarship” — This was a beauty of a paper, spotlighting the question (often overlooked) of whether and to what degree personal recollection may be put forward as evidence in scholarship. And we aren’t talking only about the memories of Tolkien’s family and friends, but of the Professor himself. One of Christina’s examples was well known to me (Tolkien’s various mistaken statements on the date of the Andrew Lang lecture which eventually became “On Fairy-stories”), but others were less familiar. In particular, the memories of George Sayer and Michael Tolkien were called into question. The paper was a cautionary tale to scholars of all levels of experience, presented with skill and humor by a prima inter pares.

Panel, “The Valkyrie and the Goddess: Women and Mythopoeic Fiction” — The panel consisted of Marjorie Burns, Verlyn Flieger, Leslie Donovan, and author Guest of Honor Sharan Newman, with Jessica Burke moderating. I thought the conversation was pretty good, though it meandered quite a bit. It turned out that Jessica was not able to present her own planned paper for Mythcon, on Guinevere, so I was glad to hear her bring some of that into the conversation. Sharan Newman also had some interesting contributions, and since I was unfamiliar with her fiction (and her scholarship) before this, I welcomed the opportunity to hear more.

The evening belonged to Verlyn Flieger, who presented a paper on “Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth” — basically the counterargument to Carl’s paper the day before. Verlyn opened by pointing out how her talk would demonstrate the true nature of scholarship: two scholars evaluating the same evidence and coming to antipodal conclusions. Her take on the question was that Men do, but Elves do not, possess free will. The paper was beautifully written and delivered, but I have to question the conclusion. As I said earlier, the debate between Carl and Verlyn was acted out again and again in hallway and meal-time conversations over the whole weekend (and was parodied brilliantly by the Not-Ready-for-Mythcon Players too, see photo below). As a side note, Verlyn indirectly cited me in her talk when she noted that the Tolkien and Modernity collection from Walking Tree contains three essays on the same topic — one of those is mine. Nice to know Verlyn has read it. :)

The Not-Ready-For-Mythcon Players

On Sunday, I attended the panel, “Fairy Stories: A Discussion of ‘On Fairy-stories’” — which unfortunately jumped the track (in my view) early on and never seemed to get back onto it. I couldn’t stay for the entire panel, but I heard the same from others. The overall conversation was pretty interesting, don’t get me wrong, but unfocused. And in any case, it wasn’t a discussion of “On Fairy-stories”, which was disappointing considering that one of the editors of the new expanded edition of that work was on the panel! That’s Verlyn Flieger; joining her was Marjorie Burns and Bernadette Bosky, and the moderator was Anthony Burdge. I felt that by failing to really steer the conversation into the territory of the essay, an opportunity was missed. Verlyn herself had to caution more than once (and rightly) that Tolkien’s Faerie is not the same, nor necessarily even compatible with, the many other views on that realm being brought up by the audience (and even others on the panel). As I said, I had to leave the panel after about an hour to head over to ...

Wayne Hammond, “At Home Among the Dreaming Spires: Tolkien and Oxford University” — Another remarkable paper. This might not have been everybody’s cup of tea, I suppose, but the purpose of Wayne’s talk was to describe Tolkien’s relationship with and work for the university, over some thirty years. This subject is often given short shrift, or ignored completely, but Wayne and Christina are in the unique position (from having written their Chronology) of understanding its importance better than probably anybody else in the world. Wayne brought home, powerfully, the incredible volume of labor Tolkien had to do for Oxford — teaching, attending meetings, committees and societies, advising and examining students, and so on, ad defatigationem — leaving us all the more amazed that Tolkien was able to accomplish anything else at all (academic research, fiction, correspondence, maintaining a personal diary, creation of his own invented languages — let alone spending time with his family). And yet he did all of those things, something one can’t fully appreciate without having some understand of the details of Tolkien’s professional career.

One side-note. My cell phone — or rather, my wife’s — went off during Wayne’s paper. I had thought I turned it off, but Duran Duran’s “Rio” loudly proclaimed otherwise. It was embarrassing, but funny. I apologized then, but let me do so again: if you’re reading, Wayne, or anybody else who was there, I’m very sorry for the interruption. I’ll see to it that it doesn’t happen again. Or if it does, that it’s at least Tolkien’s own performance of the Troll Song, or something else more suitable. :)

Following Wayne’s paper, I heard Diana Glyer, “C.S. Lewis in Disguise: Fictional Portraits of Jack in the Work of the Inklings” — The paper, Diana herself told us, had not (so far) revealed any major conclusions or unearthed any significant new understanding of the Inklings. But even so, the paper was very enjoyable, and well presented. I hadn’t met Diana before, but this was (I thought) a great introduction. She pointed out the hidden caricatures of Lewis in three works of Barfield (which I now must read), and two of Tolkien (of which I was aware already). The paper, like its author, was witty, personable, and charming. Wonderful. And let me add my congratulations to Diana (and David Bratman) for their Mythopoeic Scholarship Award! (And Diana is scheduled to be the Scholar Guest of Honor at next year’s Mythcon.)

Kristine Larsen, “Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorphoses of Eärendil and Elwing” — This was another excellent paper. For those of you who don’t know Kris or her work, she’s an astrophysicist who both uses Tolkien in her teaching and studies his use of astronomical and meteorological elements in his fiction. This is a unique enough avenue for research, but that she does it so well is all the better for us. I first met her in April 2007 at the University of Vermont, where she gave a paper on Varda (subsequently published by Mallorn). She’s also been published in Tolkien Studies (and elsewhere), and I think she’s doing some of the most fascinating specialized work on Tolkien today. Her Mythcon paper was a source study of Eärendil/Elwing in the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, recorded severally by Hesiod, Apollodorus, and Ovid (among others), and transmitted again (in part) in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. It was some great work, and it was refreshing to see Eärendil approached from a new angle. As Carl Hostetter pointed out during the Q&A, Ceyx and Alcyone is hardly the only source for Eärendil and Elwing, but it’s pretty clear that it was one of Tolkien’s sources.

Kris Larsen

Nicholas Birns, “Esoteric and Democratic: Tradition in Rowling, Tolkien, and Lewis” — I last saw Nick at the same Vermont conference I just mentioned, as well as the one before that (2006). I also had an advance look at his review of The Children of Húrin for the current volume of Tolkien Studies. The thing that amazes me about Nick is that he appears not to be reading his papers at all! Either he is somehow doing so with the best use of peripheral vision I’ve ever seen, or he’s got it completely memorized, or he is able to assemble a cogent, articulate talk on the fly from notes. Any one of these is impressive! Although I think his paper could have benefited from a clearer statement of purpose up front, and a fuller and clearer summarization of conclusions at the end, it was good, its argument sound. Nick made some very good points about the differences between the three authors (though Lewis got the shortest shrift). Particularly apt was Nick’s observation that “magic is more pluralized” in Rowling than in Tolkien (and Lewis), and that there is no systematized education in Middle-earth, where learning and teaching are rather more “asymmetrical.” (Nick might want to read David Oberhelman’s essay in Truths Breathed Through Silver for a discussion of libraries and repositories of knowledge in Middle-earth.) He had some good insights into why also, and I think that if he expanded on that, the paper would be improved still further.

After this, I had my panel. “Language and Myth: The Role of Language and the Birth of New Languages in Fantasy” — which has drawn some editorial (favorable, fortunately) in the comments to this post. I thought it went well — but too quickly! My chief aim had been to keep to the stated purpose and scope of the panel, announced in advance, which meant hitting not just language, but myth, and not just either, but both together, and not just Tolkien but other fantasy writers as well — all of which was a tall order for a one hour panel. I had four panelists on stage with me: Carl Hostetter, Arden Smith, Alexei Kondratiev, and Sharan Newman. I also tried to involve the audience, but tried not to allow them to take over. I enjoyed the whole experience, and once again, it spawned some great hallway conversation.

Apart from all these details, there was plenty more fun and merry-making that I won’t elaborate on here. For example, staying up until after 3AM Sunday night talking to the Davids (Bratman and Emerson), Lynn Maudlin, and others. Music, and play-acting, the dueling twins Ambar and Umbar, “fated to kill each other of their own free will” (believe me, the joke would take too long to explain and is much too nerdy to be worth the effort), and much besides. Randy Hoyt and I (foolishly?) revealed that we’d like to bring Mythcon to Dallas in two or three years, on which idea everyone in shouting distance seized with an unbreakable grip, so there seems to be no going back on it now! :)

Anyone else who attended Mythcon, please feel free to use the comments below as a scratch pad for your own reactions. I certainly didn’t attend every paper and panel, so maybe we’ll hear about some of those from others. And let me encourage anyone who didn’t go to think about attending next year’s Mythcon in southern California.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mythcon this weekend!

It’s been pretty quiet around here for the last couple of weeks, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve got no shortage of things to blog about, but I’ve had too little time lately to do it. Instead, I’ve been working on my paper for Mythcon, a 40-minute linguistic odyssey which could leave my audience cheering for more, glassy-eyed with apathy, or sapped of all will to live. Or a mixture of all three. (Yes, I realize that while a “40-minute lingustic odyssey” sounds appealing to me, quite a few people might prefer an “odyssey” to the dentist’s office. Or maybe a good, sharp poke in the eye. I have to hope those brave souls I see in front on me Friday afternoon have at least read the abstract and chosen to give me a try. We’ll see soon enough. :)

To go along with the paper, I’ve assembled an animated slideshow which I hope will help people to better visualize the relationships between the words I’ll be discussing. It’s the most ambitious PowerPoint presentation I’ve put together, and so I’ve naturally spent a lot of time on it — hence, again, less time for Lingwë in recent days. I’ve also been trying to practice the timing involved in delivering the paper and triggering the various animations that go along with it — not as easy as it might sound. Kind of like juggling feathers.

And finally, I’m moderating a panel on Language and Myth (Sunday evening right before the big banquet), so I’ve had to do some preparation of material, questions, and quotations with which to lead and stimulate the discussion among the panelists and audience. This will be my first panel, so wish me luck.

Once I return from Connecticut, the middle of next week, you can expect new posts to follow. One of these will, of course, be a detailed conference report. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Farewell, Pauline Baynes

Wayne Hammond, who wrote the entry on Pauline Baynes for British Children’s Writers, 1914-1960 (Dictionary of Literary Biography) and has been at work for some time on “an annotated collection catalogue” of her work, reported over the weekend

We’ve just had the sad news that Pauline Baynes, the esteemed artist, illustrator of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, Smith of Wootton Major, Bilbo's Last Song, etc., and of Lewis’s Narnia books, passed away a few days ago at her home in Surrey. She would have turned 86 next month.
David Bratman responds here, by reminding us of Tolkien’s first reaction to Ms. Baynes’s illustrations for Farmer Giles: “I am pleased with them beyond even the expectations aroused by the first examples. They are more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme. I showed them to my friends [the Inklings] whose polite comment was that they reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings.”

She will be missed, but her illustrations will never be forgotten. The one shown above is from Smith of Wootton Major.