Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chasing la fée verte

I’ve wanted to try absinthe since I first started reading Hemingway in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, it was outlawed in the United States in October, 1912, considerably before my time. In fact, Hemingway fans reading The Sun Also Rises when it was first published may have found themselves nursing the same curiosity about the spirit, just as unable to try it as I was. The interesting thing is that it was outlawed in France in 1914, in the decade before Hemingway himself was drinking it in Montparnasse (“every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café”). I guess there were ways for motivated devotees to track down la fée verte.

In 2007, absinthe was officially (re)legalized in the U.S. I began to hear about French or Czech absinthes one could order online, but the prices were a touch high, and I didn’t want an entire bottle until I had tasted it. I finally managed it yesterday. The absinthe in question is brand-new to Texas, and it has a celebrity sponsor (like some tequilas and vodkas): Marilyn Manson. The portmanteau name for the spirit? What else but Mansinthe. Sounds like a 1970’s Kraftwerk bootleg, doesn’t it?

So, I finally caught the green fairy. How was it? Not bad. Not amazing, but pretty good. For those who haven’t tried it, the overwhelming flavors are anise and fennel (one might just as well say double-black-licorice). I happen to like this flavor — I also like ouzo and sambuca —but many people do not. No doubt I’d enjoy it even more were the whole ritual observed: slowly dripping water over a sugar cube to release the full bouquet of la louche, etc., and I have been promised the whole grand affair when I travel to England later this summer (where absinthe has never been officially banned). I had expected that to be my first experience with absinthe, and perhaps it should have been! But as I say, it was pretty good; just a little anticlimactic after all these years.

I actually tried three other spirits at the same tasting which I like more. The first was Boca Loca Cachaça (80 proof). This is a spirit made from fresh sugar cane, so it’s a sort of cousin to rum, but it tastes nothing like it. The aroma is exactly like fresh sugar cane, and the flavor follows the nose closely. Drunk neat, it has a kind of smooth, milky sweetness, a really wonderful flavor. In cocktails like the Brazilian caipirinha (which I’ve had before), the flavor of the cachaça itself tends to be overpowered by the fruit. I tasted it neat and in a cairpirinha at the event. Next, I tasted an organic rye vodka flavored with organic cucumber, Square One Cucumber (80 proof), which was really delicious and refreshing, and then an unclassified botanical spirit, Square One Botanical (90 proof), which deserves some elaboration.

I should start by saying that it was amazing. If I’d had a little more wiggle room in the budget, I would definitely have bought a bottle. It’s similar to a vodka, perhaps closer to a gin, but really, it’s its own distinct entity — a botanical spirit — so that’s what she called it. More unique, which I like. It’s an “organic rye spirit infused with the essence of 8 organic botanicals: pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary, coriander, and citrus peel”. Right up my street! I also met the owner of the distillery, Allison Evanow, who was very nice and answered all my questions. She also made us a cocktail, called Pear of Roses: Square One Botanical, Meyer lemon juice, muddled pear, lavender syrup, and fresh rosemary. Boy, was it good! They also make a Basil Vodka, using four different varieties of organic basil, which I’d really like to try.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Leo Con 2012 — April 14, 2012

I will be speaking at another science-fiction/fantasy event in Texas next month, and this time I can give you a little bit more notice! The event is the inaugural Leo Con, the “first annual sci-fi, fantasy, anime/manga, and gaming convention” at Texas A&M-Commerce. It’s a single-day event, though I hope it will grow in future years. They’re getting off to a good start too, with a pair of excellent Guests of Honor: John D. Rateliff, author of The History of The Hobbit; and Douglas A. Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit. Bringing two experts on The Hobbit to North Texas is no accident: part of the aim of Leo Con 2012 is to celebrate the 75th anniversary of that classic, genre-making work of fantasy.

In addition to introducing John and Doug and moderating the Q&A portions of their presentations, I will also be giving a talk of my own. It will be along the same lines as the workshop I gave earlier this month in Corpus Christi, an introduction to source criticism as applied to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The con is open to registration by the public, and if any of you can make it out, I would love to see you. If you want to give a presentation, they are open to that as well, though you’ll have to get in touch with them soon — no later than April 1! I’ll be posting more details (e.g., a schedule of events) as I learn them, but for now, here is the informational letter Robin Reid, Professor of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M-Commerce is sending out.

LEOCON will take place on Saturday, April 14, 2012 in the Hall of Languages (mostly) at A&M-Commerce.

LEOCON is the first science fiction and fantasy con at A&M-Commerce, organized by Sigma Phi Phi (Syphers). Our organization aims to cover all the genres, areas, media, and types of science fiction and fantasy, and we have special interest groups in anime/manga, costuming and cosplay, steampunk, tabletop gaming, card games, online gaming, live action role playing, superheroes, and more!

You can find more information on LEOCON here:
We have opportunities for presenting in all the areas of interest that our group covers: you can participate in a number of ways.
  1. If you have a paper on an sf/f topic in any media, you can give an academic presentation.
  2. If you have a group of friends who like to talk about any sf/f topic in any media (urban fantasy, Dr. Who, Mass Effect 3, anything!), you can organize a roundtable (5–7 people having a ‘conversation’ and involving the audience). No writing necessary here!
  3. If you have a skill you’d like to teach, you can give a workshop (we have ones already scheduled on fanfiction and livestreaming) on “How to Do X”!
  4. If you write in any fantastic genre, you can read your creative work (poetry, fiction, it’s all good)!
  5. If you create and sell anything related to the fantastic (and we have a pretty flexible definition of the fantastic), you can get a table as a vendor (if you are planning only to promote/sell your work, you don’t have to pay the very low registration fee!
  6. If you want to use this event to promote your student organization, we can bring you in as a “vendor” and provide a table.
So, if you’re interested, check out the blog and send your proposal to:

(As long as you register by April 1, you can pay the early bird rate at the door!)

Live Long and Prosper!


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Visualizing The Iliad

Among the many blogs I read, there are some which never almost never cross paths with my interests in mythology and literature. One of these is FlowingData, a blog that “explores how designers, statisticians, and computer scientists are using data to understand ourselves better — mainly through data visualization”. Catching up on recent posts this morning, I learned of a new data visualization project by Santiago Ortiz, in which he maps out the relationships between characters in The Iliad.

There are two distinct visualizations — actually three, since one of the visualizations is really a two-for-one. That’s the “network” view. It gives a grid on the left, mapping out the intersections between characters, and a sort of three-dimensional node map on the right. Move your mouse over either and observe the results!

This view, for my money, is the more difficult to use and understand, but take a look at the “stream” view (part of which is pictured above). In this two-dimensional view, the books of The Iliad are laid out horizontally (scroll with the mouse), with parallel streams representing the major characters. As in a word-cloud, the larger a character’s name, the more prominent his role at each point in the poem. It’s a little bit like the classic xkcd representation of The Lord of the Rings (if you haven’t seen it, follow this link; and note: it’s the film version).

Fascinating, eh? I think these sorts of creative visualizations can really help students grasp the complexity of expansive literary works like those of Homer, Virgil, and Tolkien.

Note: The visualizations use the HTML5 <canvas> element, so you’ll need a browser capable of rendering it. That’s most of them, but with the conspicuous exception of any version of Internet Explorer except the latest (version 9).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The already-dead, the not-quite-dead, and those who have clearly overstayed their welcome

It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.
There’s a big difference between mostly dead
and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.
— Miracle Max, The Princess Bride*

I read an interesting blog post on the morality of the torture of Gollum yesterday, and some of the comments reminded me of another issue which has long preoccupied me: death and its exceptions in Middle-earth. One commenter wonders “about Aragorn summoning the Dead and compelling them to participate in the war against Mordor. This seems awfully close to the cursed practice of necromancy. I take it that Sauron is called ‘the Necromancer’ on account of the Ringwraiths, who are dead men.”

But the Nazgûl aren’t dead men. Not quite, anyway. They can’t be killed in any of the usual ways — “The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him,” says Gandalf — but they do appear to be more or less “alive”. If not, how else is it the Witch-king of Angmar can be hurt and then killed by Merry and Éowyn? Perhaps Miracle Max would say the Nazgûl are mostly dead, but slightly alive. In the text “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, we find the best description of them:
Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and under the domination of the One, which was Sauron’s. And they became for ever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death. [emphasis added]
But this passage raises more questions. If they are (or were) living men, how is it within Sauron’s capacity in the context of Tolkien’s larger theogonic structure to extend their lives so far? For Men, Death is the Gift of Ilúvatar (at least, according to the traditional Elvish interpretation), so how does Sauron have the authority to delay or circumvent it? If he could, does that mean Gandalf would have this power also? It seems hard to swallow. Some may point to “voices of death” to suggest the Nazgûl are, in fact, dead, but I don’t think that’s the intended reading. Rather, I think Tolkien means they are bringers of death, their cries perhaps meant to echo those of the Celtic Banshee.

One might be inclined to argue along these lines: (1) Sauron himself is immortal; (2) he put the greater part of his own power (hence, his immorality) into the Ring; (3) with the power of the Ring, he ensnared the Nine; (4) thus, he imparts to them some measure of his own immortality, making them, if not immortal, then at least longaeval. The same basic argument might be made to explain the extension of the lifespans of the bearers of the Ruling Ring, come to that, and here the argument might be a little stronger because Gollum, Bilbo, et al., actually wore Sauron’s ring, rather than merely becoming enslaved to its creator. (The Seven Rings of the Dwarves are another matter altogether!)

But the argument is problematic either way. The Ainur had no part in the making of the Children of Ilúvatar, and it is too great a leap to suppose that Sauron (who is only a Maia, not even one of the Valar [< Ainur]) could impart any of his own nature to Men. Sauron’s slaves might imitate him, but could Sauron fundamentally alter their nature? Again, the idea is hard to swallow. Could even Melkor have done this? It was within Melkor’s power to “ruin” Elves and Ents (the genesis of Orcs and Trolls). This is also problematic from the standpoint of Tolkien’s fictive theology, though he states it explicitly (but may have become uncomfortable with the idea later in life). The Valar have the wherewithal to promote to Eärendil to something like immortality, though one could argue that his nature is altered with and through the direct authority of Eru. And there are other exceptions. But those who have utterly rejected Eru (e.g., Melkor, Sauron) could make no such appeal and channel no such power. There are no exceptions to the design of Eru except through Eru, and since through Eru, they are not exceptions at all, but merely his will and his design. This is how supreme godhead works!

But the Ringwraiths are more than 4 ,000 years old by the time of the War of the Ring. How could Sauron accomplish this, and why would it be permitted by the theology Tolkien has established for his fictive world? Unless of course, Tolkien is not playing by his own rules — a distinct possibility.

The other plotline which seems to present difficulties for Tolkien’s theological structure is the journey on the Paths of the Dead. Tolkien explains that the Men of the White Mountains had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years before the establishment of Gondor, but they swore allegiance to Isuldur in the Second Age. When Isildur called them to war, they failed in their trust, and Isildur cursed them never to depart the earth until their oath should be fulfilled. This would have occurred in the waning years of the Second Age, making the spirits of the Dead roughly 3,000 years old, give or take. If we are skeptical of Sauron’s power to prevent or delay the Gift of Ilúvatar, we should be even more dubious that Isildur could do so!

Unlike the Ringwraiths, the Dead that haunt the Dwimorberg are actually dead, not even slightly alive. Is Tolkien cheating at his own game? Can we reconcile this with what Tolkien has written elsewhere about the fates of Men and Elves? I’m not sure we can, though one obvious strategy might be to point out that all that is written in the “Silmarillion” is from the Elvish point of view. They could be mistaken about the fate of Men, or the transmission of their mythology could be faulty or incomplete, or they could be unaware of “exceptions” permitted in the design of Eru.

Another possibility would be to argue that Eru — or at least the Valar, through Eru — is taking a hand here. That Isildur’s curse would normally carry no more weight than an ordinary curse (“words, words, words”), but Eru heard his plea and empowered it with his own authority. But this seems like rationalizing away a thorny slip in the logic of Arda. And in any case, it’s hard to see how the same argument could be made for the lifespans of the Nazgûl. I don’t see any of their actions as “providential pivots” in the events of the War of the Ring.

For a novel that is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” this is a tricky problem to resolve. The actual answer may be that Tolkien is indeed “cheating”. That is to say, he sometimes bends the rules of his carefully ordered theology in the service of storytelling. And why not? It’s his story, not history, after all.

* I would have quoted the “bring out yer dead” exchange from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but the banter isn’t easily excerpted, and many of you probably know it by heart anyway.