Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tolkien 2010 at UVM — Schedule

Like last year, I’m not going to be able to attend the annual Tolkien conference at the University of Vermont, but that’s not going to stop me from promoting it to anybody who can. If you live within driving distance of Burlington, you really should stop by. The conference is free, thanks to the generosity of the university hosting it, so you have no excuses!

The seventh annual conference at UVM will be held in about two weeks’ time, April 9–11, 2010. The theme this year is “Tolkien in the Classroom”, with the keynote — quite appropriately, since she has a forthcoming book on this topic — delivered by Leslie Donovan of the University of New Mexico. Leslie will also be attending Mythcon in Dallas this coming July. The schedule for this year’s Tolkien 2011 at UVM follows:

TOLKIEN 2010, APRIL 9–11
Theme: Tolkien in the Classroom

Open-mike fireside Tolkien reading and performance
Fireside Lounge, Living/Learning
7:00–9:00 pm

Full Day Conference
Fleming 101 [Note the new location!]

Continental Breakfast, 8:15 am
[aka “The Ovarium” — hark, the legend is true!]

Session I — Tolkien in the Classroom I
8:30–10:00 am

  • “Reading the Ring as an Exemplary Figure: The Council of Elrond as a Model for Teaching The Lord of the Rings” – Andrew Hallam (University of Denver)
  • Teaching the ‘Long Defeat’: The Lord of the Rings in the Modern Classroom” – Marc Zender (Peabody Museum, Harvard University)
  • “Tolkien in the Environmental Classroom” – Matt Dickerson (Middlebury College)

Session II — Tolkien and Gender
10:00–11:00 am

  • “Feminine Duality in The Lord of the Rings” – Rich Fahey (University of Vermont)
  • “Tolkien on the Margins: Wanderers in Middle-earth” – Peter Grybauskas (University of Maryland)

Lunch break, 11:00–1:00 pm

1:00–2:00 pm
“Transgressing Boundaries: The Legacy of Teaching Tolkien” – Leslie Donovan (University of New Mexico)

Session III — Tolkien in the Classroom II
2:00–3:30 pm

  • “‘In the Beginning’: Tolkien and the Teaching of Creation Myths” – Kristine Larsen (Central Connecticut State University)
  • “Traditional Storytelling, Tolkien and Contemporary Fandom” – Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University)

Afternoon break, 3:30–3:45 pm
Coffee, Tea, Cookies

Session IV — Roundtable Discussion
3:45–5:00 pm
Tolkien in the Classroom
[Audience participation encouraged]

Springle-ring Day Festival
CBW Green

Update: Marc Zender informs me that he has unfortunately had to withdraw his paper due to an academic conflict.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Before Tolkien’s unexpected party, an unexpected reference

In 1935, C.S. Lewis let slip into print a curious reference to J.R.R Tolkien: “Professor Tolkien will soon, I hope, be ready to publish an alliterative poem” [1]. He offers no explanation of who “Professor Tolkien” might be, so we must assume in these days before the publication of The Hobbit that Tolkien was already well enough known among the likely readers of Lewis’s essay as to require no further identification, not even a first name or set of initials.

What indeed had Tolkien published by this time? As I said, not The Hobbit, nor had he yet published (nor even delivered) his famous lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. By 1935, Tolkien would have been chiefly known for his and E.V. Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925); his Middle English Vocabulary (1922); two substantial essays “Sigelwara Land” and “Chaucer as a Philologist” (both 1934), and several smaller ones; his reviews of new publications in philology for The Year’s Work in English Studies (1924–7); and a handful of published poems.

But here, Lewis refers to an alliterative poem, and it seems to me he has a specific work-in-progress clearly in mind. If so, which one was it? There are several possibilities, among them the following.

Still during Tolkien’s lifetime, J.B. Bessinger and S.J. Kahrl decided that Lewis must have been thinking of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which Tolkien published in Essays and Studies in 1953 [2]. Maybe, but Beorhtnoth is really a drama, though one written in verse form. In any case, Lewis was clearly very wrong to think it would “soon” appear, “soon” being an adverb seldom, if ever, applicable to Tolkien. By 1950 — if not long before — Lewis had learned better, calling Tolkien “that great but dilatory and unmethodical man” [3].

But I’m inclined to think Lewis might have been referring to something else. The emphasis in Lewis’s remark is squarely on a forthcoming alliterative poem by Tolkien. Lewis might have had in mind Tolkien’s Lay of the Children of Húrin. Tolkien worked on this long alliterative poem in the 1920’s, but he never managed to finish it. Tolkien shared with Lewis parts of The Lay of Leithian, another work on which he was engaged during roughly the same years. This was a rhyming, not an alliterative work, but they may have also discussed the great alliterative poem that had occupied his imagination during the same decade. It is unfortunate he never completed either of the great lays, but Lewis said it best when he wrote of Tolkien: “His published works (both imaginative & scholarly) ought to fill a shelf by now: but he’s one of those people who is never satisfied with a MS. There mere suggestion of publication provokes the reply ‘Yes. I’ll just look through it and give it a few finishing touches’ — wh[ich] means that he really begins the whole thing over again” [4].

There’s another possibility, this time something that Tolkien actually did finish. During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Tolkien worked diligently on the two companion poems, Völsungakviða en Nýja [“The New Lay of the Völsungs”] and Guðrunarkviða en Nýja [“The New Lay of Gudrún”], each executed in hundreds of meticulously crafted Eddic fornyrðislag stanzas. The Old Norse alliterative meter was, for all intents, nearly identical with the Old English. Indeed, immediately following his reference to Tolkien’s poem, Lewis writes that “the moment seems propitious for expounding the principles of this meter to a larger public than those Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse specialists who know it already”. Tolkien was a “specialist” in both, and fortunately for posterity, he finished the two Volsung poems — though if this was the work Lewis had in mind, then “soon” turned out to be almost seventy-five years! It was only last year that The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was finally published.

This is not, by the way, the only time Lewis promised a forthcoming work by Tolkien. I suppose he may, in part, have been attempting to motivate Tolkien further by putting the promise of the work into print, thereby exerting a friendly pressure on Tolkien to “get on with it”. The most famous example is in the preface to That Hideous Strength, where Lewis wrote in 1943: “Those who would like to learn further about Numinor [sic] and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien”. If such was Lewis’s aim, it seems Tolkien got the point; he wrote to a correspondent in 1955, “[Lewis] used the word [“Numinor”], taken from my legends of the First and Second Ages, in the belief that they would soon appear. They have not, but I suppose now they may” [5]. Of course, they didn’t — not for another twenty years.

But getting back to alliterative verse, I’d like to close with an amusing bit of Lewis’s own (of which his essay is full of examples). This one, which refers to Tolkien by name, was probably concocted out of an old bar anecdote [6]:

We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us;
‘I seen ’em myself’, he said fiercely. [7]

[1] Lewis, C.S. “A Metrical Suggestion.” Lysistra, Volume 2 (May, 1935): 13–24. Reprinted as “The Alliterative Metre” in Rehabilitations and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939: 117–32. Reprinted again in Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969: 15–26. The curious reference appears in the opening paragraph of the essay.

[2] Bessinger, Jess B., and Stanley J. Kahrl, eds. Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1968, p. 316 note 1. Bessinger and Kahrl reprint Lewis’s essay on pp. 305–16 of their book. Much more recently, Carl Phelpstead pointed to a note — “Alliterative Metre” (1969), p. 15 note 2 — in which Walter Hooper throws doubt on the assumption that this could be Beorhtnoth and gives Tolkien’s own guess that Lewis probably had in mind “The Fall of Arthur” (incomplete and still unpublished). See Phelpstead, Carl. “Auden and the Inklings: An Alliterative Revival” in JEGP, Vol. 103, No. 4 (October, 2004): 433–57, p. 441.

[3] Lewis, W.H., ed. Letters of C.S. Lewis. Rev. and enlarged ed. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966. Reprinted San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993, p. 399.

[4] Ibid., p. 376.

[5] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, #169.

[6] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 389.

[7] Lewis, “Alliterative Metre” (1939), p. 122.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Schedule published for CSLIS 13

The C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society is not particularly well known, especially outside the south central part of the United States where it is based, but it really should be. Apart from the importance of its central mission of “uphold[ing] and promot[ing] the advancement of scholarship, teaching, writing, and other professional activities related to the life and works of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings”, the group puts on a wonderful annual conference. I’ve spoken there twice before, and I always hear stimulating papers and make new friends. The gathering also welcomes graduate and undergraduate voices.

This year the conference is in Oklahoma City, a little less than a three-hour drive from where I live in Dallas. It’s too late now to propose a paper (as you will have deduced from the title of this post), but it’s not too late to register to attend. If you live within driving distance of OKC, I highly recommend it. You can learn more about the Society here, and you can register for CSLIS 13 here. The Guests of Honor are Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis; and Diana Glyer, author of the award-winning, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.

So, as I have already hinted, the schedule is now up. I’m not going to give the title and presenter of each and every paper below (you can see them for yourself here), but I would like to give you an overview. Since I’ll be speaking at this conference, I will give you details of my own session (bulleted below).

Friday, April 9

Plenary Session. “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God: C.S. Lewis and the Music of the Spheres, Part One”, Michael Ward

Session I-A. Philosophical Issues: On Fate, Freedom, and Science in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Session I-B. Lewis and Tolkien on Modernity and Modernism.

Session II-A. Mythopoeia, Content and Form in C.S. Lewis’s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s and G.K. Chesterton’s Works.
Session II-B. Discovering Relationships in Life and Fiction: George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien and Warnie Lewis.

Session III-A. C.S. Lewis, Socrates, and Logic.
Session III-B. Discovering Influences in Lewis’s Writings: Norse Mythology, Dante, and G.K. Chesterton.
Session III-C. Panel Session: Discovering Truths in the Enduring Question About the Problem of Pain.

Session IV-A. The Struggle of Good and Evil in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

  • “Ringwraiths, Dementors, and the Un-man: Evil Incarnate in the Worlds of Tolkien, Rowling, and Lewis”, Jonathan Hall, Oral Roberts University.
  • “Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wonderful Web of Words”, Jason Fisher, Independent Scholar.
  • “Return to Spiritual Warfare: The Seven Deadly Sins in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, Emily Redman, Purdue University.

Session IV-B. The Edenic Motifs in the Inklings’ Works.

Conference Banquet.

Keynote Speech. “C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Discovering Hidden Truth”, Diana Glyer.

Saturday, April 10

Plenary Session. “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God: C.S. Lewis and the Music of the Spheres, Part Two”, Michael Ward.

Session V-A. Discovering Esoteric Knowledge in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.
Session V-B. Issues of Faith: Prayer and Repentance in C.S. Lewis’s Works.

Readers’ Theatre. “The Major and the Missionary: A Script Based upon the Letters of Warnie Lewis”, a one-act play by Diana Glyer. Read by Diana Glyer and Michael Ward.

Panel Session. “Behind the Book: The Creative Writing Process”, with Michael Ward and Diana Glyer.

Session VI-A. The Triune of the Creative Mind and the Romantic Imagination in the Inklings’ Works.
Session VI-B. Discovering Virtue and Magic in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Session VI-C. Travel, Transcendence, and Transformation in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

“Two shades frozen in a single hole”

Let me preface this post by admitting I am no expert on Dante — far from it — but Dante’s conception of the lowest circle of Hell as frozen waste rather than a confla-gration seems pretty unique. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall many other literary conceptions of Hell like that of the Inferno.

But apart from the imaginative force of novelty, why a lake of ice (Cocytus) instead of the more familiar lake of fire (Phlegethon)? Wondering where Dante got this idea, I made a very cursory search of the scholarship and didn’t find nearly as much as I expected to on the subject. Perhaps I don’t know where to look. One model (as seem obvious enough) could be Virgil, who hints at both burning and frigid regions of the underworld (cf. frigidus annus, i.e., winter, in Æneid, Book VI, at l. 311). Milton, by the way, picks up the same thread for his geography of Hell in Paradise Lost (cf. “a frozen continent” where “cold performs the effect of fire”, Book II, ll. 587, 595).

I’ve read that some Islamic stories depict a frozen underworld, as do some other Asian mythologies (e.g., Chinese, Tibetan, Hindu). And certainly this is true of the legends of the frozen north, as for example, the Old Norse Niflheim. But I can’t see any of these being a model for Dante. So, apart from Virgil, where else might Dante have gotten this startling image of sinners up to their necks in ice, Satan beating a cold wind from his enormous wings, and the rest? Where is the ice in Christianity? Given the overtly Christian skeleton of Dante’s poem, this seems a pretty orthodox backbone to me.

I was thinking about this recently, as I have from time to time, and a new idea struck me. Could it be a case of simple word-play, from the similarity of the Italian words, inverno “winter” and inferno “hell” [1]? Poetic conceits are often born in just this way; at least, they were for me when I wrote more poetry, once upon a long time ago. In fact, it was while reading another poet [2] that this idea sprang into my head. In Dante’s case, the two words differ by only a single letter — in fact, in both cases the letter is a labiodental fricative consonant, one voiced, the other voiceless. Words don’t get much closer than that. It’s even possible that Renaissance folk-etymologists conceived of a connection between the words (though this is nothing more than a random thought on my part). Does anyone know whether this theory (inferno / inverno) has ever been suggested in Dante circles? (No pun intended! :)

And could it be that simple? It’s certainly the kind of idea that would occur to (and appeal to) the philologically minded. After all, Dante did write one of the earliest serious works on the relationship between languages, De vulgari eloquentia (“Eloquence in the Vernacular”), in which he makes the case for the possibility of eloquent expression in the vernacular [i.e., Italian], as opposed to Latin. This incomplete work is one of the earliest “modern” explorations of grammar, philology, and historical linguistics (albeit at a primitive stage).

Dante clearly seems to have had the requisite appreciation for and facility with words that could have led him to build an extended metaphor on the association of inverno with inferno, whether through (a) serious-minded presumptions of common etymology, (b) playful and poetic legerdemain, or (c) subconscious imagery implanted by near-homophony. It might even be read as a “low philological jest” worthy of Tolkien [3]. Whether right or wrong, whether the whole story or only a small part of it, I think it’s a striking idea. What do you think?

[1] Dante uses both words in the poem: inferno, in addition to the title, occurs throughout; inverno pops up twice, in cantos XXI (“bolle l’inverno la tenace pece”) and XXXII (“d’inverno la Danoia in Osteric”). The first is especially interesting, juxtaposing as it does the senses of winter and boiling (implying extreme heat rather than cold). For other occurrences of both words over the course of the entire Divine Comedy, see Edward Allen Fay’s Concordance of the Divina Commedia, New York: Haskell House, 1969 (a new edition of the original, published by The Dante Society in 1888).

[2] I was reading Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitán in a bilingual edition when, for whatever reason, invierno fairly jumped off the page at me. Perhaps it was Neruda’s alchemical word-magic, particularly of nature and the passage of the seasons, but the similarity of Spanish infierno, invierno struck me, and I thought immediately of the same implied pairing in Dante’s Italian. In French, they aren’t quite so similar, retaining more of the phonetic flavor of the original Latin (hiver, enfer, from hībernus “wintry”, infĕrus “below, underneath”).

[3] My good friend Merlin DeTardo sums up the connections (what few there are) between Tolkien and Dante in an entry for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Ed. Michael D.C. Drout, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 116–7.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Word of the Day: Oligopsony

Okay, my last Word of the Day (so-called) was about four months ago! But however inapt the label is, let’s press on with a new one. Today’s WOTD is a recent coinage in the science of economics, first minted in the middle of the 20th century, and assembled out of trusty Greek roots — ironic, considering the state of Greece’s economy these days! It’s a pretty uncommon word (it isn’t in the spelling dictionary for Microsoft Word, always a fair guide), and in fact I had never heard it until recently. So how did it land on my radar screen? You might guess it was from reading the political and economic news, but while I do read a lot of that, I haven’t seen oligopsony there. No, I learned of the word reading Robert Burchfield’s excellent book, The English Language (OUP, 1985).

According to Burchfield:

oligopsony (from the prefix oligo–, Greek ὀλίγος ‘small’, in plural [ὀλίγοι] ‘few’, and ὀψωνειν ‘to buy provisions’) first recorded in 1943 in the sense ‘in marketing, a situation in which only a small number of buyers exists for a product’ […]. [1]

Other definitions emphasize that in addition to a small number of buyers, oligopsony often implies a large number of sellers. Now, this struck me as the mot juste, indeed parfait, for describing the situation in publishing scholarly books about J.R.R. Tolkien. A great many people are producing (or want to produce) them, but there aren’t nearly so many buying them. Indeed, I have it from several people in a good position to know that most monographs on Tolkien sell no more than a few hundred copies. That sounds like an oligopsonistic marketplace to me!

As a side note, Robert Burchfield has a direct connection to Tolkien himself — or had, I should say; he passed away in 2004. But long before that, he studied under both Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford. During Burchfield’s last couple of years there, Tolkien supervised his graduate work on “an edition of The Ormulum, a late-12th-century text the language of which requires knowledge of the early Scandinavian languages as well as, of course, Old and Middle English. Tolkien had the necessary erudition, and was an inspiring supervisor” [2]. His accomplishments were too numerous to list here, but a few of the most relevant for students of Tolkien:

  • He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, as Tolkien had done decades before; and in fact, Burchfield eventually became Chief Editor, something Tolkien never did.
  • He contributed an essay, “Ormulum: Words copied by Jan van Vliet from parts now lost”, to the Tolkien Festschrift, English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (eds. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, Allen & Unwin, 1962). Burchfield’s essay runs on pp. [94]–111.
  • Also in 1962, and in the year leading up to it, Tolkien completed his edition of the Ancrene Wisse with assistance from Burchfield [3].
  • Over the course of roughly the same years again, culminating in 1966, Burchfield assisted C.T. Onions with The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Onions was one of the editors of the OED during Tolkien’s time there almost a half-century earlier, and he was one of the “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” Tolkien gently lampooned in Famer Giles of Ham (the other three were Murray, Bradley, and Craigie).
  • Finally, a point not relevant to Tolkien, but I can’t resist pointing it out: Burchfield was a Kiwi, just like another of my favorite etymologists of roughly the same years, Eric Partridge.

I highly recommend his book, The English Language. It’s different in many respects from similar books (such as those of David Crystal, Charles Barber, Bill Bryson, and of course, Eric Partridge). The Birmingham Post — paper of record in Tolkien’s old stomping grounds — described it as “so skilfully [sic] written that it must surely take a place among the best three or four books ever written about our language.” I certainly agree, but sadly, Burchfield’s book seems to have gone out of print. Well, scholarly books on the history of the English language are an oligopsonistic market. So it goes.

[1] Burchfield, Robert. The English Language. Oxford Language Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985; revised and reprinted, 2002, p. 44.

[2] The Independent. “Robert Burchfield. Workaholic Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries.” 9 July 2004.

[3] See Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s Chronology for the years 1961–2.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The new editor of Mythprint

At the outset of its fortieth year (and nearly my own), I am very pleased to announce that I have been appointed the new editor of Mythprint, the monthly bulletin of the Mythopoeic Society. Incredibly, Mythprint has been in continuous publication since 1970 (the year I was born) — preceded only briefly by the Mythopoeic Bulletin (1968–69). Considering its lineage, it is with uncharacteristic humility that I assume the post; however, I hope to put my own distinctive stamp on the bulletin in short order. And fortunately, this is no longer a postage stamp!

That is to say, my appointment coincides with the newsletter’s move to an electronic-only format (excepting libraries, which will still receive it on paper). With the change in format will come other exciting changes. Now that the newsletter is no longer constrained to such austere limits on its length, format, size, and so on, many things become possible. For one thing, I hope to introduce more color into Mythprint. Also, while continuing our long and respected tradition of publishing book reviews, I hope to introduce (or in some cases revive) many other kinds of publications as well — news items and announcements, short notes and queries, interviews, calls for papers, and more.

So let me encourage anyone reading this post to consider contributing to Mythprint. Please drop me a line if you’d like to contribute artwork, book reviews, short essays, or news and announcements. If you are a publisher, an author, or know one, we accept copies of new books for review — providing they are fantasy, science-fiction, or scholarly treatments of the same. Contact me if you have any questions or need a mailing address.

And finally, let me encourage you to join the Mythopoeic Society, if you are not already a member. You can do this from anywhere in the world. And now that Mythprint is an electronic publication, it is more affordable than ever to join the Society, and thereby, to aid its mission of the promotion and appreciation of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and their milieu — as well as fantasy and science-fiction literature more generally. You can become a member, with a subscription to Mythprint delivered right to your email inbox, for only $12 USD per year. That, my friends, is hard to beat!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Colloquium on fantasy and science-fiction at UNM

It’s short notice, but the University of New Mexico’s Hobbit Society organization is hosting its second annual Fantasy and Science-Fiction Colloquium in about one month’s time. The colloquium, on the provocative theme of “Intellectual Hooliganism”, is set for Thursday, April 1, 2010 and will run from 5:30—8:00 p.m. The event will consist of 8—10 presentations, each 10—15 minutes in length, “dealing with any fantasy and/or science fiction text in a scholarly fashion.”

The announcement I read makes it sounds as if all — not just UNM students or faculty — are welcome to submit a proposal to speak, but interested parties might want to check with Leslie Donovan to be sure. Assuming paper proposals are being accepted from the scholarly community at large, the announcement indicates that abstracts are due by 5:00 p.m. on March 10 — that’s just over one week from now, so chop-chop! Send them to

In any case, if you’re in the neighborhood, the event is free and open to the public. If UNM were a bit less than a ten-hour drive, I’d consider going myself. Also, for those still paying attention, Leslie will be the guest of honor at the University of Vermont’s Tolkien conference this year, April 9–11. A bit more on that event in a future post.