Monday, April 12, 2010

CSLIS 13 Conference Report

I have just returned from a wonderful two days in Oklahoma City attending the 13th annual conference of the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society. It’s been three years since the last one of these I attended (then, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas). Why does this sound the beginning of a confession? “Forgive me, Father, for I have not been to CSLIS in far too long …” :)

As usual, the event was jam-packed. Over only two full days, there were forty-five presentations (four of them plenary). Of these, thirty-four dealt with C.S. Lewis, fifteen with J.R.R. Tolkien (including mine), three with Charles Williams, two each with G.K. Chesterton and Dante Alighieri, and one each with George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, and H.G. Wells. Note that the numbers add up to more than forty-five, because many papers dealt with more than one author. Moreover, papers by a couple of talented undergraduate students from Oral Roberts University dealt with three authors each: Abby Griffin looked at Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams; and Jonathan Hall talked about Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.

Schedules as packed as this one, with as many as three sessions running simultaneously, always present some tough choices. I chose eighteen papers catering (mostly) to my own personal interests and tastes. Some highlights (kept to a few, for the sake of brevity, and given in the order I heard them):

(1) Abby Griffin’s look at Adamic figures in the works of the Inklings; during the Q&A, I suggested Abby take a look at “The Tale of Adanel”, from Tolkien’s Athrabeth;

(2) Mike Milburn’s investigation into Tolkien’s idea of Truth (capital T); Mike has an essay in the forthcoming volume of Tolkien Studies;

(3) Joe Christopher’s thoughtful inquiry into the significance of Lewis’s allusions to Dante in his early poem, “The Nameless Isle”;

(4) Emily Redman’s paper on the seven deadly sins in Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Emily contrasted Lewis’s representation of these sins with that seen in the 13th and 14th centuries — in Dante and the anonymous morality play, Mankind, respectively;

(5) Jonathan Himes’s close look at the Bodleian manuscript of Lewis’s controversial and unfinished novel, The Dark Tower; it was especially exciting to hear Jonathan discuss unpublished fragments that Lewis struck from the manuscript.

The plenary presentations were (as usual) in a class entirely by themselves. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, gave an enthralling two-part talk (some two hours of material altogether). In it, he summarized the findings he has published in his book, and he discussed how the insight came to him. A wonderful speaker, he had us on the edge of our seats — not easy to do first thing in the morning. For those of you who couldn’t see him in person, you must read his book!

Diana Glyer gave a terrific and lively after-banquet keynote speech, in which she discussed the central hypothesis of her own book, The Company They Keep: whether, and to what extent, Lewis and Tolkien (and to a lesser degree, the other Inklings) influenced one another, and moreover, what “influence” itself really means. I say “hypothesis”, but the persuasive power of Diana’s argument is such that it is hardly that any longer. I regard it as established fact. If you haven’t read Diana’s book, put it on your list as well. Go ahead and do it right now. I’ll wait.

Finally, a real gem, the very Arkenstone of the entire weekend’s embarrassment of riches: Diana Glyer and Michael Ward performed a reading of selected letters from the unpublished (as yet) correspondence of Major Warren Lewis and Blanche Biggs, a missionary doctor stationed in Papua New Guinea. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, Warren Lewis? But trust me, their correspondence, of which we heard roughly a quarter of the extant material, was funny, affectionate, clever, and in the end, profoundly moving. It brought tears to my eyes. For anyone thinking of coming to Mythcon in July, we are planning to stage the same performance — take my word for it, you will not want to miss this. (Notice I’ve refrained from my usual habit of peppering a paragraph with exclamation points, just so you’ll take me seriously. Do.)

Oh, and one last thing, at the risk of immodesty (as if the photo above weren’t immodest enough already* :). The CSLIS held a competition this year for the best papers by scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates, and I won first prize in the scholar category — “best in show”, in the words of Diana Glyer. Seventeen papers were submitted for consideration, roughly one in three on the conference schedule, and the winners and runners-up were:

Best Undergraduate Student Paper: “Ringwraiths, Dementors, and the Un-Man: Evil Incarnate in the Worlds of Tolkien, Rowling, and Lewis,” Jonathan Hall, Oral Roberts University

Honorable Mention: “The Yellow-Booted Enigma: Tom Bombadil’s Role in The Lord of the Rings,” B.J. Thome, Oral Roberts University [Great title, eh?]

Best Graduate Student Paper: “The Planetary Architectonics of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy,” Seth Wright, Baylor University [“Look at the big brain on Brett!” ;)]

Honorable Mention: “Blood and Thunder: Penny Dreadfuls and the Novels of G.K. Chesterton,” John C. Moore, Baylor University

Best Scholar Paper: “Dwarves, Spiders, and Murky Woods; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Wonderful Web of Words,” Jason Fisher, Independent Scholar [My use of alliteration was obviously a cheap trick to curry votes. :)]

Honorable Mention: “A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C.S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty,” Donald T. Williams, Toccoa Falls College

Congratulations to all the other winners! Needless to say, I was thrilled to win, and I am very grateful to the committee (Joe Christopher, Jonathan Himes, and Larry Fink) for taking the time to read and consider so many wonderful submissions. Theirs must have been a very difficult job.

Next year’s CSLIS conference will be held at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma (dates to be determined, but probably a week or two after Easter). I plan to be there, and I hope some of you will too. It was wonderful reconnecting with old friends and making new ones — including people who knew me from this blog, or from Mythprint. What a small world it is, after all. I hope you’ll come out to CSLIS 14 next year, and help make it a little smaller still.

* By the way, I had no idea my hair looked so bad on Saturday! I wish somebody had told me. Ah, well. The silver lining: just when my ego threatens to explode, a couple of unflattering photos appear to let some of the air out.


  1. Ah, you were just all windblown from the tornado of ideas sweeping through the conference!

  2. Hahae, perfect; I love it! Though the real explanation probably has more to do with applying hair gel without looking, while reading my paper aloud for the tenth time and hastily scratching notes on it Saturday morning. :)

  3. Perhaps your paper will come to be widely known by its subtitle as JRRT's WWW.

  4. I like that, John. At least I didn’t write of Tolkien’s World Wide Web of Wonderful Words. Now that would have been overkill!

  5. Congratulations Jason, the conference sounded terrific. Is your paper published anywhere, or will it be? I'd like to read it.

  6. Thanks, Brian. It has not been published yet, but it probably will be, yes. I shouldn’t say anything more just yet; since it will get a double-blind peer-review, I wouldn’t want to accidentally tip anybody off. Though, I suppose, if a potential anonymous reader has read this post, he or she would recognize the title. Well, anyway, still better not to say just yet. You can be sure I will announce its publication once it has been accepted. I’m very gratified by your interest in reading it. I hope not to keep you waiting too long. :)

  7. Great, thanks Jason. Keep me (and all your readers) posted!

  8. Gary Schmidt4/12/2010 8:47 PM

    Congratulations, Jase! It's fantastic that you are getting the recognition you deserve. Sounds like you had a great collection of papers at CSLIS, too. And as a bonus, you got a chance to return to your roots as an Okie. :)

  9. Thanks for this account! I've been following Michael Ward's Facebook posts about his travels. He's agreed to be my supervisor for the undergraduate thesis on Lewis I'm writing this summer. I spent my spring break reading his book, and while I was initially extremely skeptical, he had a much stronger argument than I expected. It was very well done. I might see if we can get him to reprise his role as Maj. Lewis for the Oxford CSL Society this fall!

  10. The FishWife4/13/2010 12:35 AM

    How do I find the words? You're brilliant, superb, your mind is so agile, your intellect and depth of knowledge always has me in awe...all of that seems so pale. I'm unbelievably proud of you and all of your accomplishments. I'm thrilled people see in you all that I've known for so very long. Love, your biggest fan :)

  11. Gary, thanks! You’d find it funny that because I neglected to remind Salwa Khoddam (the conference director this year) that I was from Texas, she had me in the schedule, and on my award certificate, as “Jason Fisher of Oklahoma” — not even realizing that on one level she was totally correct, hahae. :)

    Cole, having Michael Ward as you thesis director will be fantastic. He’s so knowledgeable of Lewis’s entire body of work, the fiction, poetry, academic, and religious works — all of it. And I think everyone was initially skeptical of his hypothesis, just as everyone is now pretty much convinced of the truth of it. It’s quite a discovery!

    And to my FishWife, thank you most of all! It’s really always been you I have striven to impress. Everything else is just the icing. :)

  12. Catching up with my reading after a terrible bout of 'busy' since Easter, I come a bit late with my congratulations, but they are no less well-meant for that :-)

    It is occasionally frustrating to sit in Denmark where Tolkien-related conferences are not even once per decade and hear the rumours of the many interesting conferences in, in particular, USA, but I hope that the best papers will find their way to the journals of Mythsoc and the British TS so that the rest of the world can have a chance to enjoy them (did that sound just a bit envious? well, if so it is perhaps not entirely unwarrented) ;-)

  13. Hi, Troels. I can understand your envy, and it is sadly quite justified. There are some strong Tolkien groups in Scandinavia, but this is mainly in Sweden and Norway. You may, for example, be aware of the Omentielva conferences, the first of which was held in Stockholm (this conference, of course, places a particular emphasis on Tolkien’s glossopoeia, which is not everybody’s cup of tea). Perhaps you could volunteer to host the next one in Copenhagen? :)

  14. Harm J. Schelhaas6/13/2010 6:13 PM

    My ‘bout of busy’ has lasted even longer, I find that I’ve neglected your blog for nearly two months.

    Just posting here to comment that Omentielva Cantëa in 2011 will be hosted by Helios De Rosario Martínez in Valencia, Spain. But we would of course be looking for a place for Omentielva Lempëa in 2013 and for Omentielva Enquëa in 2015, etc.

    Although for 2015, being the probable 100th anniversary of Q(u)enya, Finland has somewhat of a priority, and it would be desireable to hold the Omentielva in the Americas sometime (hopefully by that time I can afford to come over) ...

  15. I would be delighted to see the event come to the United States; this is the only way I would be able to afford to attend!