Friday, January 28, 2011

The Bones of the Ox

Thirdly and finally, he said, I wish to make an ANNOUNCE-MENT. He spoke this last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could.”

No, unlike Bilbo, I am not going away; you will all be stuck with me for quite a long while yet. But I do have an announcement, and a pretty big one. A few of you will know this already, but for the most part, I have kept it pretty quiet. But here it is: I am delighted to be able to announce my first book! Some of the details could still change a little, but I have checked with my publisher, and they have given me the green light to go public. Alors, allons maint’nant!

“The Bones of the Ox”: J.R.R. Tolkien and Source Criticism is being published by McFarland. If you know your Tolkien, you’ll recognize the quotation from “On Fairy-stories” (itself a quotation of Sir George Dasent). This phrase spotlights the central issue of the book: source criticism, as applied to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a multicontributor collection which I have been assembling, then editing, for more than two years now. Its purpose is basically two-fold: (1) to explain and justify source criticism as a valid critical approach to Tolkien’s works, and then to lay out a systematic methodology for how it ought to be conducted; and (2) to demonstrate it through a series of new source studies, ranging across Tolkien’s works and through the many periods and literary sources from which he borrowed — and transformed — so many ideas, images, characters, episodes, phrases. To put it another way: (1) theory, and (2) practice. In the end, I hope also to answer the inevitable, “so what?” That is, what is the point? What good does source criticism do us as readers? What can we learn, and why should we care? I happen to believe there are very good answers to these questions.

Why has it taken so long for these seeds to bear fruit? Admittedly, a lot of the time was spent in plan(t)ing the book: ruminating on what I wanted to accomplish with it, what it should do that other books about Tolkien have not done before, and so on. Then too, I spent a good while considering which scholars I wanted to invite into the project, after which I sent out personal invitations to that effect. Nearly all the scholars I wanted — those whom I most admire and whose research fits best the goals of my book — were able and eager to accept. A few others were eager but unable; there is only time enough for just so many projects. But as things turned out, I had such an embarrassment of riches that I could not have accepted more in any case. For that reason, I never needed to run a general call for papers — and this explains how the project remained so secret.

We then met — online mostly; in a few cases in person or by telephone — “to discuss our plans, our ways, means, policy and devices”, the kinds of essays I was looking for, what I hoped the book could bring to Tolkien studies, and so on, and then the writing began. As drafts came in, we moved into a collaborative stage — posing and answering questions, tracking down ref-erences, reading drafts, suggesting revisions, reading and commenting on those, and so forth. And then came more editing, copyediting, structural arrangement, and layout — which was a much bigger job than I had bargained on. If I make it sound exhausting, it was! But exhilarating too. I have a completely new appreciation now for the work that goes into a multicontributor collection — such as many a one I have so cavalierly marked up with the reviewer’s pen. Well, turnabout is fair play, and I expect no less thorough a treatment from my reviewers as I would give this collection myself (as indeed I have already given it myself). I think it can stand up to the best and the worst of them.

So here we are. I walked to the post office and mailed off the final manuscript to Jefferson, North Carolina this very morning. As you can see from the photo above, it’s a pretty big one. I never quite appreciated just how big until I printed the whole thing out, all 325 pages of it. To give it another metric, it’s a bit more than 100,000 words — longer than The Hobbit. It consists of eleven chapters, of which three deal with the theory, and eight the practice, of source criticism. Treat this table of contents as preliminary — though I do not expect it to change in any substantial way. I hope after reading this you will be as excited about the book as I am. In addition to a preface, index, and various other front and back matter, the contents are:
  • Introduction: Why Source Criticism? / Tom Shippey
  • Source Criticism: Background and Applications / E.L. Risden
  • Tolkien and Source Criticism: Remarking and Remaking / Jason Fisher
  • The Stones and the Book: Tolkien, Mesopotamia, and Biblical Mythopoeia / Nicholas Birns
  • Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorphoses of Eärendil and Elwing / Kristine Larsen
  • “Byzantium, New Rome!”: Goths, Langobards, and Byzantium in The Lord of the Rings / Miryam Librán-Moreno
  • The Rohirrim: “Anglo-Saxons on Horseback”? An Inquiry into Tolkien’s Use of Sources / Thomas Honegger
  • William Caxton’s The Golden Legend as a Source for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings / Judy Ann Ford
  • She and Tolkien, Revisited / John D. Rateliff
  • Reading John Buchan in Search of J.R.R. Tolkien / Mark T. Hooker
  • Biography as Source: Niggles and Notions / Diana Pavlac Glyer and Josh B. Long
One other exciting piece of news: thanks to the kind permission of the Tolkien Estate, I’m pleased to bring readers some new primary material: quotations from a handful of previously unpublished letters as well as from Tolkien’s unpublished lecture notes on the “Legends of the Goths” (these are not in the same chapters). If your appetites weren’t already whetted enough, that certainly ought to do it.

I don’t have a release date yet, but when I know it, you’ll know it. Stay tuned for more news as it develops.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Middle-earth and Beyond — first look!

It has been a little while since my last update on Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, the new collec-tion edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kaščáková and forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Publishing. You still won’t see it on the CSP website just yet, but I am very pleased to report that the book has gone to print and should be available in about one month’s time!

I’m also pleased to be able to give Lingwë readers the first look at the cover, which features Ted Nasmith’s gorgeous new painting, Bilbo and the Eagles. The back flap of the dustjacket describes the collection, thus:
One wonders whether there really is a need for another volume of essays on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Clearly there is. Especially when the volume takes new directions, employs new approaches, focuses on different texts, or reviews and then challenges received wisdom. This volume intends to do all that. The entries on sources and analogues in The Lord of the Rings, a favorite topic, are still able to take new directions. The analyses of Tolkien’s literary art, less common in Tolkien criticism, focus on character — especially that of Tom Bombadil — in which two different conclusions are reached. But characterization is also seen in the light of different literary techniques, motifs, and symbols. A unique contribution examines the place of linguistics in Tolkien’s literary art, employing Gricean concepts in an analysis of The Lay of the Children of Húrin. And a quite timely essay presents a new interpretation of Tolkien’s attitude toward the environment, especially in the character of Tom Bombadil. In sum, this volume covers new ground, and treads some well-worn paths; but here the well-worn path takes a new turn, taking not only scholars but general readers further into the complex and provocative world of Middle-earth, and beyond.
And here is the final table of contents, including (as I think you all know by now) an essay I first presented at the 37th annual Mythopoeic Society Conference at the University of Oklahoma:
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction / Kathleen Dubs
  • Sourcing Tolkien’s “Circles of the World”: Speculations on the Heimskringla, the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Hereford Mappa Mundi / Jason Fisher
  • Staying Home and Travelling: Stasis Versus Movement in Tolkien’s Mythos / Sue Bridgwater
  • The Enigmatic Mr. Bombadil: Tom Bombadil’s Role as a Representation of Nature in The Lord of the Rings / Liam Campbell
  • Tom Bombadil – Man of Mystery / Kinga Jenike
  • Grotesque Characters in Tolkien’s Novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings / Silvia Pokrivčáková and Anton Pokrivčák
  • “It Snowed Food and Rained Drink” in The Lord of the Rings / Janka Kaščáková
  • “No Laughing Matter”, Kathleen Dubs
  • “Lit.”, “Lang.”, “Ling.”, and the Company They Keep: The Case of The Lay of the Children of Húrin Seen from a Gricean Perspective / Roberto Di Scala
  • Contributors

Friday, January 14, 2011

"What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

Attention: This post contains strong language which some readers may find objectionable. Proceed with care.

I’m coming to this party a little late, but I have some strong opinions about this, so I thought I might as well usher in the new year at Lingwë with something controversial. Just to give you the background (though probably unnecessary): Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, is producing a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which every occurrence of the word nigger — more than 200 of them — is replaced with slave. You can read more about it here. Or just ask Google; everybody seems to be talking about this. But in all the discussion, one thing is not being said much. The offending word itself. That’s part of the reason for this post.

By the way, a note for my international readers. It’s possible that some of you don’t quite grasp what a taboo word nigger is in the United States. It is perhaps the most offensive word in the modern American colloquial lexis—much worse than fuck, shit, cunt, etc., all of which have venerable histories, by the way. And the profusion of the word nigger in hip-hop culture, ironic as that is, makes it even more taboo in mainstream conversation. Even scholars and newspeople cannot or will not utter the word, not even in discussions of what Professor Gribben is doing to Huck Finn. That’s right: the word is so distasteful that we can refer vaguely what Gribben has done to the text, but we aren’t supposed to actually say it. Usually, “the n-word” is substituted. Everybody knows what that means, though, so what is gained by referring to the word without actually saying it? This is much too Puritanical for me. But I digress …

More to the point is whether bowdlerizing the text is right or wrong. People on one side are crying censorship; while those on the other hail the change for bringing the book to a new audience, one that would otherwise be much too squeamish to touch it. Still others point out that since Huck Finn has gone into the public domain, anyone can do anything he likes to the text — which is true; how long until we have a zombie version?

The issue is a troubling one. I feel that bowdlerizing a text is never the right answer. In full disclosure, I have something of a vested interest; I’ve been a big fan of Twain for as long as I have Tolkien — since I was about Huck’s age. The very first book report I ever gave in school was not on The Hobbit, but on The Autobiography of Mark Twain. (This book is in the news again too, with the recent publication of material suppressed from it for the past one hundred years. But that’s a topic for another post.)

A satellite issue that I find equally troubling is that so many people crying censorship are unwilling, themselves, to put front and center the word at issue: nigger. They are, in effect, voluntarily censoring themselves while decrying the censorship of Twain. I posted some of these thoughts on one of my friend’s blogs; he removed them (with apologies) because they actually spelled out the heinous word that must never even be spelled out.

I don’t suppose I blame him for this. It is a horrible epithet, freighted with a history of bigrotry and murder. But before and after all of that, it is just a word. True, the word may remind us of that history of bigotry and hatred; it should, however painful the reminder. Might refusing to say it or even spell it be an attempt to ignore or forget that history? I’m not calling my friends ostriches, but to me, there is no reason that intelligent people making intelligent arguments should be unable to utter the word. How can we rationally discuss a difficult subject if we are unwilling even to name it out loud? The very people who have historically been the target of this epithet should applaud its use in thoughtful conversations about race.

Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest the word should regain it old currency. I’m not saying anyone should hurl it at anyone else; that is absolutely wrong. Words can naturally be used as weapons — this word, along with many others. But words are not weapons inherently, by their fundamental nature. We should be able to use any word in a critical discussions about words.

Apart from the dangers of bowdlerization in a (supposedly) free society, I have another problem with the substitution of slave for nigger in Huck Finn. The former actually occurs in the novel, maybe half a dozen times, as compared to a couple hundred of the latter. By replacing one word with another that actually occurs in the text, you lose the ability to distinguish between the substitutions and the cases where Twain actually wrote slave.

As to substituting n—, which is often suggested, that would be better than a different word, but not very much better [1]. It’s still a problem for young readers, because they will naturally ask what n— means. The people who have a problem with exposing young people to Twain’s own words would have great difficulty answering, probably offering something like, “that’s a very bad word which none of us is allowed to say; it’s so bad, I can’t even tell you what it stands for.” Is a lame answer along these lines really the way to educate our children? I don’t call that education.

Kids are going to find out one way or the other, so you’ve only kicked the can a little further down the street — but at the cost of vandalizing Twain’s masterpiece. Are children’s ears really so sensitive? Or is it not rather the parents who are so uncomfortable? This reminds me a bit of the attitudes of shame and avoidance by everyday Germans about the Holocaust in the decades following World War II. Even today, I’m told this topic is verboten in polite conversation in Germany. I would be pleased to hear from my German friends on this point.

I do sympathize with Professor Gribben’s aims. His point in making the change is to bring the book — all but that one word, anyway — to students who would simply not be allowed to read it otherwise. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, he might say. On the surface, it’s a laudable goal, but is bringing these readers a bowdlerized book better than keeping the original from them? A legitimate question for debate, but I don’t think so. Better would be to continue chipping away at the prejudices in the Deep South from the inside until they’re ready for the real thing. These prejudices are the reason the book can’t be taught as written. To change the book seems to me to be coddling these prejudices, rather than confronting them. They shouldn’t change the book; the book should change them.

My friend referred to Twain’s observation that “the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”, and that is spot-on. In the case of Huck, to substitute the lightning bug for the lightning itself is nothing more than hiding away the very issue that should be at the heart of the discussion, and hiding it from kids at precisely the age where these prejudices can be most effectively battled.

I’ve read that the book makes one other change, substituting Indian for injun, the latter being now also regarded as a racial slur (though evoking nowhere near the reaction of nigger). This change is total nonsense. First, Indian is not accurate; if you want to vandalize the text, just substitute Native American. Second, injun is not a racial slur — or at least, no more than Indian is — it’s a dialectal variation. It really just comes down to local accent, represented orthographically by Twain. And by the way, injun only occurs about ten times in the novel, about one-twentieth the frequency of nigger. Were there Native American schools refusing to teach Huck Finn because of the word, or is this merely meddling to suit the tastes of the editor? And if an editor wants to change this particular word, why not flatten out all of Twain’s meticulous use of dialect? Twain carefully reproduces six distinct regional dialects, if I recall. This is something we ought to preserve, not smooth away.

[1] This has been tried before, and recently. Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus — oh my god, it’s right there in the title! Children, avert your eyes! — was reissued in 2009 by WordBridge Publishing as The N-word of the Narcissus. In this bowdlerization, every occurrence of the word nigger, including in the title, was changed to n-word. Absurd. Even when the book first appeared in America (a little more than a decade after Huck Finn), it was published here under a different title, The Children of the Sea. It is seldom read today, almost certainly because of the offense this word continues to give.