Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don’t forget about Mythcon 41

Last month, I posted the Call For Papers for Mythcon 41, which will be held in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University, July 9–12, 2010. The chairs of this event (Randy Hoyt and yours truly) have been hard at work, and we recently finalized the pricing for room and board. Mythcon is a relatively small, intimate gathering, a bit more like a family reunion at times than other conferences I’ve attended — but please don’t let that put your off; we love welcoming new faces too! Point being, most of those attending Mythcon stay in campus housing and eat together on campus as well. We also have a wonderful banquet on Sunday evening. The pricing on room and board this year is quite reasonable, so do consider it.

Also important: we have extended early registration pricing until February 15, 2010. After that, it’s going to go up a bit, so if you’re thinking about coming, not would be a great time to register. You can either send us a check, or pay online in mere minutes. Just follow this link.

Mythcon may still be six months away, but the days will pass more quickly than you realize! If you can’t attend Mythcon yourself but know someone who can, or participate in clubs, groups, or forums, online or off, on fantasy, science-fiction, creative writing, or even horror — we would certainly appreciate your letting folks know about our event.

We now return to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Truths, in the eyes of the beholders

As you may recall from a post last summer, Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy was reviewed by Richard West for Tolkien Studies. He had very good things to say about the collection overall, but he spared only a few words for my essay. They were neither complimentary nor dismissive, but merely descriptive. But more recently, two new reviews have arrived, and these engage with my contribution a good deal more.

John Rateliff reviewed the book for Mythlore (the 2009 Fall/Winter issue). You can read the entire review online at the Mythopoeic Society’s website by following this link, but here is what Rateliff had to say about my essay:

The second essay focused on Tolkien, by Jason Fisher, looks at the question of whether or not Tolkien’s cosmology incorporates the idea of the ‘Fortunate Fall’ or Felix Culpa — the idea that greater good comes about as a result of evil than would have been the case had the evil never taken place. Here we have a case of a single essay, of moderate length, that tackles a major topic with vast ramifications and implications and yet manages to be relatively thorough within a short space. Fisher discusses all three Falls that take place within the legendarium (that of Morgoth, that of the Noldor, and that of the Númenóreans) and reaches the rather unusual conclusion that Tolkien himself did not believe many of the core theological positions underlying his mythology – for example, that “Tolkien’s world doesn’t seem to incorporate the idea of Original Sin” (101) but “certainly Tolkien himself, in his Primary World beliefs, would have subscribed to the doctrine of Original Sin” (109n15). And again, Fisher asserts “As a devout Catholic, Tolkien would have firmly believed that Lucifer played no part in God’s creation of the World” (102). I remain unpersuaded, but it’s an intriguing idea, and I’m curious to see if others will take up this proposed barrier between Tolkien’s real beliefs and the beliefs upon which he based his life’s work.
Having also mentioned me by name in his introductory remarks, Rateliff does so again in his conclusion, calling my essay one of the book’s “high points”:
In the end, this is not an essential purchase for Inklings scholars, especially given its high price for such a slim volume. But there’s certainly enough of interest here to make the book worth reading, with the high points being Khoddam’s quote from The Quest of Bleheris, Himes’s valiant attempt to sort out the mess regarding The Dark Tower, Howard’s reminiscences, and the essays by Fisher and Shippey.
I was very pleased to see this, as you can well imagine! That Rateliff isn’t fully convinced is not a great surprise. Editor Jonathan Himes and I, when discussing my essay as we maneuvered it through several rounds of revision and expansion, always knew the thesis would be a somewhat provocative one, especially among readers with an interest in theology.

More than unconvinced, however, was Charles Huttar, who reviewed the collection for VII: An Anglo-American Review, Volume 26 (2009). This review just appeared, and it is not available online, but Jonathan kindly shared a tear-sheet with me. Incidentally, Huttar blurbed the collection way back at the beginning of 2008, as I mentioned here. Huttar was just such a reader as I had in mind when I revised the essay several times in the attempt to forestall the kinds of theological objections I saw as the most likely to be raised. Had I not made such revisions, Huttar’s objections might have been more severe, but he still finds fault. Here’s what he had to say:
Jason Fisher, in “Tolkien’s Fortunate Fall and the Third Theme of Ilúvatar,” systematically shows how the omnipotent One takes all the evils that enter his creation, whether through Melkor, through Elves, or through Men, and makes them part of a larger pattern of his own devising that is good. Granted that none of these “falls” is ultimately disastrous, but is it valid to call them “fortunate”? Repeatedly the argument depends on fallacious reasoning; one example will have to suffice. “Thus, though tragic, the Fall of Man necessarily precipitates vastly greater good in the later ages of the world — is distills the good of the faithful and leads to the ultimate banishment of Sauron and his sinful influence from Middle-earth, just as the Fall of the Elves led to the banishment of Morgoth” (101). But the word “necessarily” begs the question; the phrase “greater good” rests on a comparison only with the immediate results of the evil, not with what good might have been in store had the evil not occurred (which cannot be discounted though of course it cannot be known); and the repeated “leads to ... led to” assumes a causality not proved or even argued: post hoc non ergo propter hoc [Latin for, “after this not therefore because of this”]. (Shall we sin that grace may abound?)

For the most part, I can accept these remarks as a perfectly legitimate reaction to my thesis, well within the range of responses I anticipated. I bristled just a bit at his judgment that my reasoning is repeatedly “fallacious”; his one example (to me) does not justify such a blanket assertion. I understand the limits of space imposed on reviewers as well as anyone, but if you are going to say “repeatedly”, I think you owe me at least two examples. :)

The one example given could easily prompt a protracted debate, which I will not enter into here lest I seem overly defensive. But anyway, there is no need. Why not? Because such questions as “could the good that would have arisen without the intervention of evil have been greater than the good evil itself brought about” are inevitably unanswerable, but — and here is where I lay the emphasis — that is beside the point. The point is that the Roman Catholic Tolkien would have believed in the Fortunate Fall without the need for explanation, justification, or debate. Its contrary assertion (that evil brought about greater good than would have occurred without it) is simply a matter of orthodox belief. That he would endow his Secondary World with such an element as he believed to be present in the Primary World should surprise no one; indeed, I would have expected this to be the most uncontroversial assertion I make in my essay. In other words, the very questions Huttar raises about my view of the world of Middle-earth might as easily be raised about the Fortunate Fall in our own world, but it was not the aim of my essay to tackle that thorny question. Perhaps I could have been clearer.

Overall, Huttar seems to find as the collection’s weakest essays some of the very ones John Rateliff found to be its highlights — and vice versa. For example, while Rateliff appreciated “Howard’s reminiscences”, Huttar feels Howard’s paper is “out of place in this volume. It was doubtless much appreciated as an after-dinner talk, but it does not make the kind of scholarly contribution a published paper should aim at and that the other papers in the book do achieve. In both style and content it does less than justice to the author’s stature as a contributor to Inklings studies over the years.” If you’re anything like me, you will immediately recall Tolkien’s words in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings — “the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.”

It just goes to show you: three different reviewers, three very different reviews. But I am pleased to have been singled out for extended commentary by two of the three — even when the reviewer disagrees with my methods or conclusions. This is all part of a larger conversation, an incremental grasping to understand and appreciate the vast depth of Tolkien’s creation. To all my reviewers, thank you for taking the time to read my essay and ponder its conclusions. For one of you, I have already returned the favor; perhaps the other two will feel the weight of my pen one day to come.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

When is an English root word like a Mafia don?

Here’s a philological game to pass an idle moment: try to think of basic English roots that attach to a wide variety of prefixes to form new words. I often find myself going through them in my head, always looking for the best-connected root — the Vito Corleone of English roots, if you like. Is it perhaps √SPECT “to look”, with its halo of aspect, expect, inspect, prospect, respect, suspect? Or √DICT “to say, speak”, with its wider nimbus of addict, apodictic, edict, contradict, indict, interdict, predict? And by the way, benediction, malediction, jurisdiction, valedictory, verdict, etc., don’t count, since these don’t involve proper prefixes, but are actually two roots linked together.

So, which English root has the most connections? Which is the biggest don, making the largest crowd of English prefixes an offer they can’t refuse? The basic rules of the game are: (a) start with a basic English root, usually describing a simple, concrete action — that is, not just any abstract root whatsoever, but one of the fundamental roots at the beginning of the English evolutionary chain; then, (b) see how many standard prefixes (not other roots) you can tack on to make real English words. (I suppose one could try this game in other languages as well, if they are constructed along similar morphological lines. It should work for most of the European languages, if perhaps not as well as for English.)

Does that sound like fun to you? I usually do it in my head, so I don’t have any systematic written record of my meanderings among the prefixes. But so far, the best-connected roots I think I’ve found are √JECT “to throw” and √DUCT “to lead”. For each, I’ve come up with twelve combinations of prefix and root — have I missed any? Note that these must be distinct. One cannot add adjacent or ejaculate, or conducive or educe, even though these are words with somewhat different meanings, because their prefixes are already accounted for. Can anyone think of a fundamental English root with more than twelve connections?

For √JECT “to throw”, I’ve got:
  • Abject: “thrown away from [something better]”
  • Adjective: “thrown toward, near [a noun]”
  • Conjecture: “thrown together [to make a guess]”
  • Dejected: “thrown apart, away”
  • Eject: “throw out, away from”
  • Inject: “throw in(to)”
  • Interject: “throw among, between [other words]”
  • Object: “throw against” [e.g., a point of argument]
  • Project: “throw forward” [e.g., your voice]
  • Reject: “throw back”
  • Subject: “throw under(neath)”
  • Trajectory: “thrown across, through, beyond”
And for √DUC(T) “to lead”:
  • Abduct: “lead away”
  • Adduce: “lead toward [i.e., bring forward]”
  • Conduct: “lead together” [e.g., a symphony]
  • Deduce: “lead out” [e.g., a conclusion]
  • Educate: “lead out of [childhood, into the adult world]”
  • Induce: “lead into” [i.e., persuade]
  • Introduce: “lead into [something]”
  • Produce: “lead forward [i.e., bring out]”
  • Reduce: “lead back”
  • Seduce: “lead apart, astray”
  • Subduct: “lead under(neath)”
  • Transduction: “led across, through, beyond”
Aren’t word-games fun? Along similar lines, my friend Gary and I used to coin new words by taking existing prefix + root combi-nations, and shuffling new prefixes into them. For example, we usually say that the opposite of the impossible is simply the possible, but shouldn’t it be the *expossible (on the model of impose and expose)? Or, if “making a prediction” is guessing about a future outcome, would “making a postdiction” be saying “I told you so!”, after the fact?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lewis/Tolkien special journal issue

The bimonthly St. Austin Review, which calls itself “the premier international journal of Catholic culture, literature, and ideas”, has just released its January/February 2010 issue, with a special emphasis on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Highlights from its table of contents include:
  • Tolkien and St. Thomas on Beauty, Michael Waldstein
  • Distributism in the Shire, Matthew P. Akers (read it)
  • The New Tower of Babel: Modern Ideologies in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, Marie Cabaud Meaney
  • Harold Bloom versus C.S. Lewis: Will the Real “Dogmatist” Please Stand Up?, Louis Markos
  • Reawakening Wonder: Farther Up and Farther In with C. S. Lewis, Thomas Howard
  • Inheriting the Legacy of Tolkien and Lewis: Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, Sophia Mason
  • Musica Donum Dei: Sibelius, Tolkien, and the Kalevala, Susan Treacy
And book reviews of:
  • The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis & Don Giovanni Calabria (trans./ed. Martin Moynihan)
  • Night Operation and Eager Spring, Owen Barfield
  • Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C.S. Lewis, ed. Mary Anne Phemister and Andrew Lazo
  • Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, ed. Don W. King
I have reviewed the two Barfield novelas myself (forthcoming in Mythprint), and I have been really interested in reading the Joy Davidman letters. The Latin Letters is a very interesting (and much older) collection; I highly recommend it. I have the 1999 edition, but it has just been released in softcover, at a much better price!

All together, a good collection of reviews (though where is Tolkien in them?), and what looks to be an excellent collection of essays. Thomas Howard, in particular, always brings his A-game — he’s the only scholar whom I’ve heard convincingly work the word “punctilio” into a casual conversation! And the Susan Treacy column as especially timely, given the release of Walking Tree’s new collection, Music in Middle-earth (ed. Heidi Steimel and Friedhelm Schneidewind, 2010).

If you decide to pick up this issue, you might consider ordering the July/August 2008 back issue as well. This was a special issue on “The Catholic Genius of J.R.R. Tolkien”, featuring essays by some familiar names — Elizabeth Whittingham, Sandra Miesel, Jef Murray — and reviewing a number of books on Tolkien.