Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Speaking and spoken of

Happy Leap Day! Two events coming up in “the droghte of March” [1] to share with you today. First, I will be giving a presentation at the Art Center in Corpus Christi, along the “Texas Riviera”. This is not a free event (the cost is $20), but if you are within a day’s march, come out on March 3 at 1:00 PM to hear me speak about J.R.R. Tolkien and source criticism. Short notice, I know, but I am driving more than seven hours to be there; at least you can do the same! I will also have some copies of my book on hand at a 30% discount — and if you want them, the autograph and dazzling smile are free. ;)

To register for this event, follow this link. Yes, sadly, they did misspell my name, and the error has regrettably been repeated by newspapers and events websites in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and elsewhere. You all know how I feel about that. Ah well, as Mae West said, to err is human, but it feels divine (apologies to Pope).

I realize some of you may live 1,500 miles north of the Lone Star State. Unless you have come south for the winter, I can’t expect you to turn up in Corpus Christi, so here’s an alternative. On March 11, members of University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society convene for their monthly meeting. This is one of the oldest and most venerable of the Tolkien groups still in business today, founded by the renowned Tolkien scholar, Richard C. West, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in September 1966 — while Tolkien was still alive! The topic of their March meeting is “Tolkien’s Sources”, and they will be focusing on my book and on Mark Hooker’s. If you are in the vicinity of Madison, drop by at 7:30 PM; the gathering is free and open to newcomers to the UWTS. Follow this link for more information about the time and location. I wish I could be there myself!

[1] Especially apt for South Texas!

Friday, February 24, 2012

In a library near you?

I’ve been keeping an eye on Worldcat as libraries — mainly at universities — acquire copies of my book. For a complete list, follow this link. I’m very pleased to report that seven months from the date of its publication, my book is now in more than 100 libraries. Those copies are spread across 34 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, as well as four countries outside the United States — Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

My book has made it into some wonderful university collections, including those at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Wheaton, Marquette, Cornell, Berkeley, Rice, and even the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy! I’m sure there are copies in municipal and other non-academic libraries as well, but I don’t know of any way to get a handle on that information. I do know it’s in the U.S. Library of Congress and in the British Library.

If you live in a U.S. state which doesn’t have a copy (at least, not one registered in Worldcat), then please contact a librarian and request that s/he purchase the book. Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island. I know students, professors, and even librarians in some of these states. I won’t name names, but I will say, tsk! If you are reading this and can help get my book into another library, please do. :)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My book reviewed in Beyond Bree

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the first extended review of my book appeared in Beyond Bree (October 2011, p. 7). The review was written by the editor, Nancy Martsch, and with her very kind permission, I am reprinting the entire review here.

When I wrote to her for permission, she added to her reply that she had noticed one slip: “Mary isn’t always represented with dark hair (Rateliff, p 149). She’s blond in Northern European art. (And in some places, dark-skinned.)” For the full context, John had written that “(the physical depiction of [Mother Mary] in traditional iconography is again entirely unlike that of Galadriel, with Mary’s dark hair and blue robes forming a striking contrast to Galadriel’s golden hair and dressing all in white”. Although I think brunette Marys outnumber blond ones (based on a totally unscientific survey), Nancy is right: there certainly are blond Marys. And not only in northern Europe. They were common in the Italian Renaissance as well. Above is a lovely example, Raphael’s Colonna Madonna (ca. 1508).

Something else, not specifically related to Nancy’s review, but this keeps coming up. In spite of the effort I have made to explain why source criticism can be valid and worthwhile in spite of Tolkien’s personal dislikes, people continue to argue the point. For example, here is Beth Withers commenting on the book at GoodReads: “Since Tolkien didn’t care for source criticism, or people spending hours trying to decide where he got his ideas, it seems strange that this book should come together. The author makes it clear from the beginning that there is indeed value in wondering what influences might have been present when Tolkien wrote his most famous work. […] But, if I am understanding Tolkien correctly, he intended only that we enjoy Middle Earth [sic] and not try to second-guess how it came into being.”

Now don’t mistake me. People are welcome to do this — it’s perfectly fair to question my assertions, pace Tolkien — but here is a good analogy which I hope may help drive home the point.

Tolkien did not like the idea of biographies of him either (“strong disapproval”, “premature impertinences”, “I doubt its relevance to criticism”), but nobody questions the value of biography in Tolkien studies today. There are several indispensable ones, and of course, a few that are not so good, along with one or two that are quite bad (but so it is in all things: good and bad, valuable and useless, mixed together). Would anyone prefer that Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s Chronology or John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War had never been written, simply because Tolkien was uncomfortable with being the subject of biography? The question is purely rhetorical. So if nobody avoids biographical studies (writing them or reading them) on the basis of Tolkien’s dislikes, then why do so with source criticism? One may certainly object to source criticism on other grounds, but one should not object to it merely on the basis of Tolkien’s wishes for how he should or should not be studied. That is not up to him. I tried to say this at one point in my chapter in the book (see p. 41), but I didn’t make the case as well as I could have. I hope this clear analogy helps.

Anyway, enough preamble: here is the review from Beyond Bree. I have added a few comments in square brackets, marked “/JAF/” — not to be confused with Nancy’s bracketed comment near the beginning. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Review by Nancy Martsch

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays ed by Jason Fisher; McFarland & Co, Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2011. Paper, 5 15/16 x 9'' (15x22.9 cm), 240 pp; $40. Ten essays plus Introduction, Preface, and Index. Cover: “A Conversation with Smaug” by Ted Nasmith, with brown borders and yellow lettering above and below. [The sketch for “Smaug” was in “Beyond Bree” Oct’10. Ed.]

The purpose of this well-written and well-edited volume is to define “source criticism” and to provide examples. Tolkien expressed his disapproval of source study: should this preclude us from practicing it? The answer is a resounding “No!” In his “Introduction” Tom Shippey cites specific reasons why Tolkien might have objected to the study of his sources, and he proposes three areas where source-criticism can enhance our appreciation of Tolkien’s work: personal/ cultural, professional/historical, and the “Cauldron of Story”.

The first two essays attempt to define source criticism. EL Risden describes types of source criticism, especially its derivation from the study of Biblical sources. Jason Fisher defines the terms of his study: How do we recognize a good source? Tolkien, Fisher asserts, resembled the Medieval writer who is willing to modify his sources but not to invent from scratch. [Note: that’s not exactly what I say. Both Medieval writers and Tolkien certainly did invent from scratch. See pp. 32–4. /JAF/] If a scholar cannot verify a source, says Fisher, then he should present his findings as a comparative study.

The eight remaining essays are examples of source criticism, following the criteria defined above. In “The Stones and the Book: Tolkien, Mesopotamia, and Biblical Mythopoeia”, Nicholas Birns sees echoes of Old Testament stories in Tolkien’s legendarium: the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood. Two of these, the Creation and the Flood, predate the Hebrew Bible, having antecedents in Mesopotamian myth — and many discoveries about Mesopotamia were made before or during Tolkien’s lifetime. If the world of his legendarium pre-dates the Bible, then Tolkien could incorporate Semitic prehistory into his work. But the Fall, being of Hebrew origin, remained off-limits.

Astronomer Kristine Larsen takes the Classical legend of Ceyx and Alcyone (Halcyon), married lovers who were transformed into sea birds, and compares it to various forms of the story of Eärendil and Elwing. Tolkien knew the legend from both Classical and Medieval sources. Larsen remarks on Tolkien’s astronomical knowledge, and equates Eärendil and Elwing to the planets Venus and Mercury in the morning and evening sky. [Something that has occurred to me but isn’t in the book: if Larsen is correct, as I think she is, then Tolkien has reversed the genders again, just as he did with the Sun and Moon. In Classical mythology, Venus is a woman and Mercury a man. /JAF/]

In “‘Byzantium, New Rome!’ Goths, Langobards, and Byzantium in The Lord of the Rings” Miryam Librán-Moreno lists many parallels between Byzantine history and events in LOTR, noting that Tolkien mixed and recombined his sources. She suggests that, if Byzantium = Gondor, and Byzantium could be seen both as corrupt and as a keeper of knowledge, then Aragorn might represent Charlemagne, who both revived knowledge and restored the purer Northern tradition.

Thomas Honegger offers a resolution to the apparent contradiction of the Rohirrim as “Anglo-Saxons on horseback”. When Tolkien needed a language related to modern English to represent the speech of the Rohirrim, he used Mercian Old English, a language which he knew well. Furthermore, of all the early Germanic languages, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) has the largest extant literature, and provides the most information about its speakers. Thus Tolkien could envision his fictional Rohirrim as representing the “pure Germanic spirit” while speaking Anglo-Saxon.

Judy Ann Ford suggests “William Caxton’s The Golden Legend as a Source for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”, noting that this medieval best-seller, a compendium of saints’ lives, contains many fantastic elements. “Religious” writing should not be overlooked as a source for fantasy! John D Rateliff gives an analysis of Rider Haggard’s She (which Tolkien read as a boy), comparing Ayesha and Galadriel; Leo & Ayesha and Beren & Lúthien; Kôr, Gondolin, and Númenor; and the concept (and problems) of limited immortality. Mark T Hooker does a similar study of three works by John Buchan: Midwinter (Tom Bombadil, deep pit, ring), The Blanket of the Dark (Old Forest, Strider), and Huntingtower (many similarities to Bilbo and elements of LOTR). The Huntingtower segment is reprinted (with permission) from “Beyond Bree” Sept, Oct, Nov’08. (There are a couple of other borrowings (uncredited) from “Beyond Bree” in this book. [I am not sure what Nancy is referring to here. It must be other passages from elsewhere in Mark Hooker’s essay. /JAF/])

Lastly, Diana Pavlac Glyer and Josh B Long use Tolkien’s life as a source, focusing on autobiographical elements in “The Lost Road”, “The Notion Club Papers”, and Smith of Wootton Major.

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources is an excellent book which can serve as a “how-to” guide for both research and writing. The authors are careful to avoid the assertion x = y, noting that Tolkien drew upon many sources. It is important to consider Tolkien’s work in relation to events of his time (such as the discovery of Hittite). And finally one may derive ideas from Tolkien’s work, such as Librán-Moreno’s comparison of Aragorn to Charlemagne, which may not have been intended by the author but which may enhance the reader’s enjoyment of his writing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is this a review? You tell me.

I learned a few days ago that Amon Hen, the monthly publication of the Tolkien Society in Great Britain, had just published a review of my book in its most recent issue. I am afraid I let my subscription lapse some years ago, so I had to beg a copy of friends. The editor very kindly obliged. I had been warned already that it was not particularly flattering, but I have no objections whatsoever to a critical review — if it is an informed, carefully considered, and constructive one. Sadly, this review is not that. I hesitate to call it a review at all.

I am really at a bit of a loss after reading it. It comes across as less a review, per se, than the personal credo of a true believer. How dare I look behind the curtain, and that sort of thing. For those of you who know it, I was reminded a bit of the preface to the first edition of J.E.A. Tyler’s The Tolkien Companion (1976). This preface, with its true-believer silliness, was wisely dropped from the more recent reprint edition of that book. But it appears there are still fans of this stripe going strong, dutifully defending the Professor from every perceived attack of scholarly investigation. The nerve I have!

It’s a great pity, in my view, that a serious scholarly book, which ought to call for a serious scholarly review, should be subjected to such careless and pointless ramblings. And of the shameful abuse of a Tom Shippey quotation, the less said the better! My consolation, of course, is that no serious reader will take seriously a “review” of this sort. But I have already said too much, when I had intended to remain above the fray. Let me say no more now, but allow the review to speak for itself. I welcome your comments and reactions (though let's keep it civil).
TOLKIEN and the Study of His Sources CRITICAL ESSAYS
(McFarland, 2011 ISBN 978-0-7864-6482-1; PB 240pp)
reviewed by Adrian Tucker

Source Criticism – something to strike fear and loathing into the hearts of those of us who like to believe that The Lord of the Rings is a true account of an alternative world history. We can console ourselves with the knowledge that Tolkien felt the same way.

Clearly someone with his classical education would have been aware of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire, and would have used it to give a sense of familiarity to his history of Númenor; but to quote Tom Shippey in his Introduction “no-one needs to know… to appreciate The Lord of the Rings.” Still, there are those who must enquire into everything, and the name for such people is Source Critic.

Anyone can set themselves up as a Source Critic: there is no academic qualification to be attained, only access to a Search Engine such as Google. Just type in a word like “Uruk” and see what pops up. It won’t be long before there’s an App for it!

There are various areas to be explored, such as Biblical, Nordic, Classical, Byzantine, Anglo-Saxon, and Medieval; but the most interesting for me is contemporary fiction.

My School Library, like Tolkien’s, was stacked with Henty, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and Buchan. Like him, I was brought up on adventure, and treasure hunts in the Wild Places, unlike modern children, who have to make do with gritty tales of urban realism.

I was surprised to learn that J.R.R. was a fan of She, a tale which enchanted my early years, but it never occurred to me to regard it as a source for Galadriel! Indeed, Ayesha seems to me a much more powerful figure than the Lady of Lórien, who plays a fairly peripheral part in the Destruction of the One Ring. Almost any tale of mines and caves can contain allusions to Moria or Cirith Ungol, but we have to show that Tolkien actually read them and he has admitted to having read Haggard in his schooldays. Unlike him, I missed out on John Buchan’s historical novels, which are hard to find nowadays except perhaps in a Charity Shop.

Anyway, this is all quite fascinating, so long as it does not spoil one’s appreciation of the Book which never disappoints, no matter how many times it is re-read. Let those who wish, seek for Sources even in the pages of The Beano!!