ThursdayThursday was arrival day, which of course gave a bit of extra hassle. I had found that renting a car at Heathrow would not be much more expensive than taking the train, but on arriving I found that I had to part the car a goodly way from accommodations and the events of the conference. Still, I checked in to a student room and got myself ready to four days in something close to a Tolkien geek's idea of paradise.
At the gatherings of the whole event, it was obvious that many people know each other from countless Oxonmoots and what-have-you in the Tolkien Society, but there was also a significant amount of 'good to finally meet you in the flesh' going on between people who have interacted — sometimes for a very long time — on the internet.
There were two lecture sessions yesterday, and for the first session I had chosen to go to a couple of talks on 'Philosophy and Ethics . First up was a professor from an American university, Laura Miller-Purrenhage, ‘Teaching Leadership and Ethics through Tolkien’, who spoke on how she had constructed a course on Tolkien by focusing on creating objectives in the subjects leadership and ethics. It was an interesting approach to a literature class (one often gets the impression that ‘reading Tolkien’ would be the normal answer to the objective of a Tolkien class). Fortunately the subject on how to construct a good course on Tolkien's work becomes more and more relevant to more and more people, but I will admit that I had a hard time relating to a number of the problems and issues that she was talking about — a result of never having been in her situation, nor being likely ever to do so.
The second speaker was Franco Manni from Italy who spoke on ‘Tolkien versus the History of Philosophy’ how Tolkien related to a list of specific philosophers starting with Plato and ending with a number of twentieth century relativist philosophers. The paper was very interesting and engaging, and Franco Manni spoke with an obvious passion for his subject. To put it very shortly, Manni's thesis was that Tolkien reacted positively to (parts of the works of) most ancient and medieval philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boëthius, Aquinas. Tolkien also, according to Manni, reacted to some of the nineteenth century romantic philosophers, but only indirectly as these philosophers reached him by the way of the great philologists. Finally Manni found that Tolkien mostly ignored most twentieth century philosophers, having no use for their ideas.
After a short break the second round of sessions was due. For that I had chosen a session on ‘Tolkien's Sources’. The first speaker, Allen Jenkins, ran a comparitive study between Tolkien and the native American authoer, Sherman Alexi titled ‘Of Elves and Indians: The Aboriginal Outsider’. He drew up a number of interesting parallels, in particular between the situations of Tolkiens' Elves and the reservation Indians in Sherman Alexi's books, and he believed that the idea of peoples under threat (Tolkien's Elves under threat from the Age of Man) was the common denominator that brought them together.
The rest of this session was an hour-long panel on Tolkien and ‘Source Criticism’. Chaired by Verlyn Flieger and with participation from Tom Shippey, Mark Atherton, Renée Vink and Alex Lewis, this was a lively panel with a good interaction with the audience and discussions covered many interesting corners. Tom Shippey crying out that ‘Authors lie!’ and telling us in no uncertain terms that Tolkien did so too is a memory that stands out, but it was certainly not the only memorable point that was made. In the end it was proposed that source criticism is one of the tools we have to try to understand the mental landscape in which Tolkien's stories grew, and I think I can subscribe to that as a worthwhile endeavour (more than trying to show where Tolkien got his ideas from or ‘how he worked’).
|Exhibition & Dealers' Room
Photo: Andrew Wells
FridayFriday dawned brightly . . . I'm sure, though I cannot really say as I was still in bed at the time.
Having got to bed after midnight, I decided to do breakfast late and then go to the first session, but a minor confusion about the location of the breakfast venue meant that I skipped breakfast.
My first session today was with Alex Lewis and titled ‘The Lost Arthur’. Alex Lewis is writing a book on Arthurian influences on Tolkien, and made a rather intersting point by saying that the unpublished (for almost a year more) The Fall of Arthur acted as a filter through which the matter of Britain influenced Tolkien's Middle-earth writings. To some extent this plays into John Rateliff's idea of Tolkien borrowing from himself more than anything else — from the Arthuriana to Tolkien's Fall of Arthur and from there to Middle-earth. Another essential point that Lewis made in his presentation was about viewing these source studies (or the game of what influences what — actually Lewis was talking about how Tolkien's texts influenced each other) as caleidoscopic: each perspective adds to our understanding, but none of them is the complete picture. All in all it was an enjoyable presentation, though I think Lewis fired his best shots in the beginning (defining LotR as ‘mythic history’ and talking about the ‘Tolkien Conundrum’ — that much of Tolkien's writings were unfinished, that they were very much in flux and even the published writings cannot be considered as Tolkien's last thought on the matter).
In the second time slot, I went to a session titled ‘Biography’. The first speaker was José Manuel Ferrández Bru who gave a talk titled ‘J.R.R. Tolkien's second father: Fr. Francis Morgan and other non-canonical influences.’ For the most part this talk covered some of the same ground as Bru's article in Tolkien Studies VIII, but this time with the addition of illustrations which at some points brought Bru's points out better than the article (pictures of letters, for instance). This time round, I was also more intrigued by Bru's suggestion that the inspiration for the wind-riddle in The Hobbit should be sought in a Spanish poem by one of Fr. Francis' family members, which stood in Fr. Francis' library. Towards the end, Bru suggested, half-jokingly I think, that there might be some echoes of Fr. Francis' influence on Tolkien in some specifics of Tolkien's fiction — apart from the wind-riddle, the Barrels out of Bound chapter might reflect also Fr. Francis' family's involvement with the sherry business, Minas Tirith may derive some qualities from a Spanish town (white houses, mountainous location), and the scouring of the Shire may owe something to the Spanish casting out Napoleon.
Bru was followed by Colin Duriez who spoke on ‘The origins of the Inklings.’ Some of the things that I took away from this was related to specifics of the history of the Inklings: when were they meeting in what way, the differences between the reading-sessions in (mostly) C.S. Lewis' room in Magdalen and the pub-meetings, the informal and unstructured nature of the club and the centrality of C.S. Lewis.
Photo: Andrew Wells
Taking a short break to lie down for half an hour made a big difference for my readiness for the video of Tom Shippey's talk at the 6th Lustrum, ‘The Ancestors of Hobbits - strange creatures from English Folklore’. At this event Tom Shippey spoke about a number of the creatures mentioned in the Denham Tracts, explaining what is known about them etc. The main point was to highlight that the Denham Tracts carries a suggestion of what he called ‘the lost world of English folklore’ — the indication that the lower mythology of England had not always been the poor and watered-down affair that the folklorist found once they finally got round to write things down: the hint of a much richer English folklore hiding just a few hundred years before the texts were written down.
|Tom Shippey lecturing
Photo: Andrew Wells
In the post-talk discussions, I managed to get a little better insight into Shippey's dissatisfaction with Tolkien's analysis of Maldon — my problem being that we have in current use in Denmark the word overmod which has a meaning very close to that which Tolkien assigns to O.E. ofermod in his treatment of the Maldon (‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son’ and the related essay ‘ofermod’). Possibly because I was managing to look very fan-boyish, I was very kindly invited to share a beer with Shippey and Ronald Hutton before dinner.
SaturdayFriday was the day where I went to bed three times — the first time shortly after midnight and the last time about 11PM. The result is that I approached Saturday feeling considerably more sprightly than Friday, which was certainly a good thing. However, after this I got rather busy, so you'll hopefully forgive me for not continuing the tale until now, when I have returned to that spot of Middle-earth that I call home.
In the first time-slot, I went to a session on the Ainulindalë. This was lead off by Peter Gilliver (one of the authors of The Ring of Words), who spoke on ‘Making the Music, a possible source for the Ainulindalë.’ The premise of this talk was a very striking correspondence in both imagery and wording in Gerald Manley Hopkins' ‘notes on Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises’ to imagery and phrasing in Tolkien's Ainulindalë. However, though written in 1881, these notes remained unpublished until 1937, far too late for them to have influenced imagery and phrases in The Book of Lost Tales, and while possible connections could be made, these were all much too tenuous for anyone to assert a source. Gilliver had then looked at other texts containing the image of a creator having angels sing for him and a musical rebellion leading to a fall of angels, and had found two cases (one of these an interesting Babylonian text), but ultimately the consensus was that it seemed more likely that there was a general idea floating about in the Oxford Catholic circles (in 1919 there were about 100 Catholic students in Oxford) regarding a musical interpretation of the rebellion of (some of) the angels.
After this came Reuven Naveh who spoke on ‘The Ainulindale and Tolkien's Approach to Modernity.’ Naveh suggested that the descriptions of the Discord of Morgoth are consistent with early receptions of atonal music emphasizing dissonance. While Naveh used Arnold Schönberg as his example, this was not because he felt that Tolkien's words' necessarily were a reaction to Schönberg in particular, but to his ‘type of music’ more generally. This took Naveh on to Tolkien's general reaction against modernism, of which Naveh perceived a strong rejection by Tolkien. One of the interesting points that Naveh made was that Tolkien seemed to have been rooted in tonal music and it's emphasis on harmony that even Wagner's play with a greater element of dissonance (though still within context of tonal music) may have felt, to Tolkien, for that very reason, ugly and incomprehensible.
At this point, I took a break, so that the next couple of time-slots were kept empty. I did, however, have a nice chat with David Doughan (whom I've met on-line), who had also attended the morning session on the Ainulindalë and who had some very interesting further comments on the musical talk (David clearly being far more knowledgeable than I about what might broadly be termed ‘classical music’). Also I took the time to enjoy the exhibition of Tolkien-inspired artwork. There was an impressive list of artists who exhibited their work at the conference, and while I do not as a rule get the vivid images while reading that I understand many do (and I believe Tolkien did), I can certainly enjoy good art. I found something enjoyable in nearly all of the artists works, and for a few of the artists, I found most of their work enjoyable (no one mentioned, and thus none forgotten), though even among these well-loved artists, the all-pervasive imagery of the Jackson films could not be wholly escaped: there was a blue Galadriel that seemed to me inspired more by Jackson's vision than by Tolkie's words, just as there were more than one depiction of Viggo Mortensen (who is, I am sure, a very nice man who deserves every portrait) that claimed to depict Aragorn / King Elessar. The dealers' stalls were dangerous waters for me — the temptation to over-spend on the many interesting books there was great, and perhaps I should be grateful that the Tolkien Society Trading's stall only had two different volumes of Tolkien Studies on their ‘½ price’ shelves (none of which I had — the past tense being important here . . . )
Photo: Andrew Wells
The second presentation of this session was ‘From 2012 to Atlantis and back again. Tolkien's Time-Travelling and the Notion Club Papers Mystery’ by Xavier de la Huerga. Weaving a thread through Tolkien's Notion Club Papers, ideas of (biologically) inherited memory, Mayarin calendars and meteorological phenomena, de la Huerga gave me the impression that he wanted me to believe in some kind of mysticism (though he didn't exactly say it in that many words), and as a physicist I have to admit that I resented this feeling, and though it is possibly completely unintended, possibly a complete misunderstanding on my part, it did prevent me from connecting to the presentation as I would normally do.
From the Notion Club session, we hurried on to hear Verlyn Flieger speak in the big auditorium where Tom Shippey had entertained on Friday. Verlyn Flieger didn't entertain (though she did use humour), but instead she provoked: her talk on ‘Tolkien's French Connection’ was thought-provoking in the very best sense of the word, and despite a very different lecturing style from Tom Shippey, she had the audience every bit as much in thrall as he. Starting out from Tolkien's use of the French words aventures and quest in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Flieger took us through the magical forest of Broceliande, where Knights Errant went for simple aventures (as recounted e.g. by Chrétien de Troyes) and to the noble nights in Le Morte d'Arthur of which some (like Gawain) went on aventures while others went on quests. These she compared convincingly to Bilbo's [u]adventures[/u] (teaching us to say the word with her as she read all the, IIRC, eleven occurrences of the word in the description of the first day (Tuesday) in The Hobbit ). Though it is not repeated as many times, Frodo's story is clearly about a quest, and Flieger showed how the distinction and the two types of stories were tied up with a French romance tradition.
The last item on the Saturday agenda was the auction. In addition to various donations from attendees and others (including four boxes of the ‘Mines of Moria’ Lego set and some wonderful artwork by attending artists), there were a lot of old fanzines on auction. This being because the Tolkien Society has closed it's lending library and now only maintains an archive (from which members can get photocopies of articles for their research), so they were selling out of their doubles (or triples or whatever). The words in The Hobbit about the prices at auctions applies here, with early issues of obscure smial journals fetching several tens of pounds. I got myself a Mallorn 43 and a Mythlore 12 for a total of £6.50 — mostly for the fun of being a part of it. And it certainly was great fun.
I was followed by Maureen Mann, to whom I had afterwards to apologize, because it took me the first ten minutes of her presentation to get back to the here and now, and when I finally caught up with the thread of her talk on ‘"various queer things": The House of Tom Bombadil and Fairie,’ I realized that it was highly interesting, and that it took up very excellently where I had left off (had the programming been reversed, I would have just as smoothly taken up the thread where she had left it). Maureen Mann dealt with one episode from The Lord of the Rings that I had left out: Tom Bombadil's power of narrative enchantment, which she discussed in depth and in further context. Where I had merely skated the surface, barely scratching it, in my presentation of an overarching idea, Maureen Mann expertly drilled through the ice in one spot and drew from there crystal-clear waters. After getting back home I have been mailing with Maureen, and will very much enjoy getting to read her paper in my own time.
The last spot in our session was a talk about ‘Tolkien's Faerian Drama: Origins and Valedictions’ by Janet Brennan Croft. This took up the idea of the dream-vision as an example of Faërian drama, the enchantment Tolkien describes in ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ and investigated this topic with examples from other authors as well as from Tolkien. I very much enjoyed the presentation, particularly the attempt to extract some common characteristics of a Faërian Drama Dream-vision (which includes the meeting, the intersection, of aesthetic and ethic) based on examples ranging from medieval stories (such as Pearl) via Dickens to Tolkien. Going through my notes and writing up these comments, I come to wonder how she deals with Tolkien's rejection of dream-stories as proper fairy-stories (I can see at least a couple of possible routes, none of which might be the one that Croft would choose).
After lunch I went to another session on ‘Tolkien's Sources’, starting with Yoko Hemmi who spoke on ‘Tolkienesque Transformations: Post-Celticism and Possessiveness in ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’.’ The paper (at least as it seemed to me) had two main theses. One was the idea of ‘post-celticism,’ which, as I understood it, is created by adding ‘the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things)’ (Letters, no. 131) to the authentically celticism of the ancient Breton lays, and the other was that Tolkien, in his Lay of Aotrou and Itroun also added possessiveness as a moral flaw (the following discussion also suggested a connection of possessiveness and the desire for immortality). The presentation as a whole followed very well on to Verlyn Flieger's presentation on Saturday, though I am afraid that this somewhat bland summary doesn't do it justice.
Next up was Gerard Hynes with a presentation that fell directly within one of the areas of Tolkien studies that I am very interested in. Speaking of ‘Tolkien’s Boethius, Alfred’s Boethius,’ Gerard Hynes argued that the changes made to the text in the Old English translation of Boëthius' Consolation of Prophecy attributed to King Alfred (Hynes called it a re-interpretation rather than merely a translation) makes the translated text a more likely source for Tolkien than the original Latin. Summarising Hynes' summary of the relevant differences, Alfred's version loosens causality, allowing a greater option for changing providence — the Latin version deals with the freedom to think, the Old English version with the freedom to act. Thinking of this presentation afterwards, this summary seems to me to match nearly perfectly the differences in the operation of free will between Men and Elves in Tolkien's world (as described by Verlyn Flieger, Charles Noad and myself — you have no idea what pleasure it gave me to write this comment :-) ): Elves following the model of the Latin Boëthius and Men following the model of the Old English Alfredian Boëthius. Such a model would seem also strangely appropriate in other ways (which is probably why I am at once attracted to it and reluctant to adopt it).
The last presention of this session on sources took moved the focus a few centuries forward to discuss ‘Tolkien and Romanticism.’ The basic idea of Anna Thayer (née Slack) was to place Tolkien in a Romantic tradition, though not quite as radical as the original romanticists, and I think the idea went down quite well. It does certainly seem straightforward that Tolkien incorporates a number of ideas / themes / images adopted from romanticism, though I would probably be more cautious about calling Tolkien a romanticist as such (a claim, it must be emphasised, that Anna Thayer did not make!). Ending with the image of the piercing beauty, and the consolation gained from the untouchability and eternalness of Sam's sighting of a star while in Mordor closed the loop nicely to several other presentations (including my own) touching on Tolkien's idea of Faërie.
The last of the day's multi-track sessions, I spent with a panel on ‘Tolkien Research’ chaired by Janet Brennan Croft (editor of Mythlore) and including Verlyn Flieger, Bob Blackham, John Garth, and Angie Gardner (note that only one of these was a university professor doing academic research on Tolkien). There were several very positive and inspiring things to get from this panel: it is possible to access most of the things if you have a good reason (and someone to recommend you in the case of the Bodleian), the exceptions being all the Silmarillion papers and the private papers (both in the Bodleian) that are controlled by the Estate. Part of what I took away from this panel is a list of libraries featuring important archives of Tolkieniana, including what they contain and how to get into them (though ‘present myself’ at the Marquette might present a bit of an obstacle, but only due to it being in Wisconsin, USA and my living in Denmark). Overall I found the session informative, inspiring and encouraging — what more can one hope for in a session focusing on the possibility for contributing to Tolkien studies by independent researchers and scholars.
Photo: Andrew Wells
|Ben Barootes, Christine Davidson Memorial Lecture
The final point on the agenda before the grand Banquet also covered thirty years with a relation with Tolkien's work. Having to call my wife (Sunday was, after all, her birthday), I missed the start, but still got to hear most of Brian ‘Sibley in Middle-earth: A Thirty-Year Ramble.’ Full of entertaining anecdotes, this ‘ramble’ (let's honour Brian Sibley by keeping his own name for it) also proved thought-provokingly interesting for me as a firm book-lover (who put any adaptation far below the original, and any narrative adaptation even lower . . .) — I have certainly learned a greater respect for adapting artists (regardless of whether or not I like their adaptation as an adaption).
|Troels (me) at the banquet
Monday — the last day.Already from the morning there was a certain degree of closure and breaking up in the air. Over breakfast I finally got around to hear Andrew Higgins about his current work (he is working on a Ph.D. with Dmitra Fimi while at the same time doing his day-time job — impressive!) but in the various breakfast conversations one could also hear the consciousness of there being only a few hours until we would spread to all the corners of the world.
After breakfast I managed to nearly finish my packing before the first session, which was a panel called ‘Lifelong Learning Tolkien: Face-to-face and Online’ with Corey Olsen as chair, and Shaun Gunner (of the Tolkien Society and the Tolkien Gateway), Mick Ennis (of the Ironville & Codnor School Myth & Magic Reading & Language Group), Dimitra Fimi (of Cardiff Metropolitan University), and Christine Ahmed (LotR and the Scottish border). Corey Olsen's pages as the Tolkien Professor and his Mythgard Institute are (I hope) well-known, as is Dmitra Fimi's work (which also includes on-line Tolkien classes), and the Tolkien Gateway. Mick Ennis' story about the school-children and their travels moved me strongly — this group offers these kids a chance to grow and develop in so many ways; not just intellectually, but also socially, emotionally and in other ways. It's really amazing! Another highlight was the look on Shaun Gunner's face when he asked how many present had accounts on the Tolkien Gateway, and even Dmitra Fimi raised her hand . . . priceless! Overall the panel was good with its focus on the many ways to learn more about Tolkien that is available, but also with the ever-present warning to not trust the internet inherently: check up on everything if you can.
For the last session, I chose to go to a final session on ‘Tolkien's sources’. Andrew Morton started with a promise of explaining ‘Everything you need to know about the real Bag End’ — and then some. The presentation included a number of pictures of the real Bag End, where Tolkien's maternal aunt, Jane Neave, had lived and farmed. Tolkien is known to have visited the farm only twice: on reconvalescence in 1923 and later on with the whole family. The presentation contained a lot of visual evidence, without which a summary will merely appear bland. However, the pictures and related discussions spiced with a lot of interesting bits of information about his old house (a settlement at this place goes back to before the Norman period), and the family (including Jane and Mabel's father, John Suffield, and his love for his daughter's farm), made the talk quite interesting to follow.
The final bit of scholarly work that I got to enjoy at the conference was Dmitra Fimi's presentation on ‘Elves, Goblins and Other ‘Fairy’ Things in The Hobbit: Tolkien’s Victorian and Edwardian Inspiration’. This again relied on visual evidence — mainly Victorian images of faries, and discussed how Tolkien had relied on some of these Victorian faries, though the very petite creatures with wings that he came to resent so strongly, and how their influence can be traced quite a lot longer than I had previously thought: even after Tolkien had renounced them so strongly in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories.’
After this, all that was left of this fantastic conference was the closing ceremony. Allowing us a last opportunity for cheering, this included some additional award-giving. First Nancy Martsch presented the Beyond Bree awards that are given ‘in recognition of outstanding contribution to the study of JRR Tolkien, from the Readers of Beyond Bree’. Unlike previous award votes, the readers had this time voted for a single clear winner, Mark Hooker. Honourary mentions went to Dinah Hazel (The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-creation) and Phil Goss (the Compleat Gyde to Tolkien Calendars). Congratulations to all — the awards are well-deserved!
Finally the chair of the conference, Lynn Whitaker, took the stand for the closing words. All the people who had helped make the conference were duly thanked (including the participants), and of course the committee. In the middle of this, the chair of the Tolkien Society, Sally Kennett, had to take over in order to present the society's Gold Badge to the conference's booking's officer, Lyn Wilshire, after which she proceeded to present one also to the chair, Lynn Whitaker. When the cheering had finally subseded, that was it — the Return of the Ring was over, and all that remained was to check out of our rooms and go back each to our own corner of this middle-earth.
|Weapens of la Compagnie du Dragon Vert
|Live re-enactment by la
Compagnie du Dragon Vert
Writing in this diary-like form obviously skips over some things. Where, for instance, would I put something about la Compagnie du Dragon Vert (The Fellowship of the Green Dragon) — the French re-enactment group whose camp I passed several times per day and from whom I bought a Gondorian penny (or whatever the name of the Gondorian coin may be)? Yet their presence was certainly very important to the atmosphere of the conference as a whole, and I enjoyed looking at their camp very much.
And what about the meals? Which day was it that a fortunate lack of space at other tables landed me in a very interesting conversation with Ben Barootes? I can't remember, but it was a very pleasant dinner. The same questions can be asked about other conversations — I also had a very interesting talk with Merlin DeTardo over a meal one day, but these things tend to blur a little and unless they're in the programme, I lose track of which day it was (I did keep copious notes from all the lectures, presentations, talks, lectures and panels that I went to, but for some reason I forgot to do the same for my meals — something I should perhaps remember next time . . . whenever that may be.
|Taking notes. I may not be looking intently at the speaker
(David Doughan), but that is because I am busy taking
notes in my book.
Photo: Andrew Wells
One of the points that Lynn Whitaker, the chair of the Return of the Ring, made at the closing ceremony was that it had been an aim of the conference to combine, put together and not least break down perceived barriers between fandom, entertainment and academia — a goal that I find that the Return of the Ring fulfilled, even to top marks! I never once perceived any kind of barriers, but rather often experienced people crossing freely where such barriers should have been, had they ever been erected.
What is left to say? I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to come to this conference (in particular to my family for putting up with it — they are not Tolkien enthusiasts). Also I am grateful for the friendship that I've been shown both from people that I had met on-line before the conference and from new people, and I have been dumbfounded at the kind words about my presentation and what other things I've done in Mallorn and here. When we get right down to it, this is what is the true purpose of going to conferences like this: to meet people and connect in our shared love for professor Tolkien's work.