Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Day of Mourning

So, today Christopher Tolkien died, full of years.

He was the last of the Inklings, as well as one of the few remaining  combat veterans of World War II.

He will be missed -- all the more so as time passes and the magnitude of his achievements come to be fully appreciated.

I'm glad I got to meet him,

both humble and proud that he entrusted me with editing one of his father's works,

 and always delighted when a letter from France would arrive at certain intervals, addressed in the most beautifully legible handwriting I've ever seen.

The world is a sadder place now that there will be no more of these.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Anatomy of Authors

So, thanks to friend Stan for the loan of a new book of cartoons, just out from Kickstarter:
ANATOMY OF AUTHORS by Dave Kellett, which gently lampoons a wide array of authors (everyone from Austen to Stan Lee). And being a Tolkienist, naturally the first thing I do when picking up a book like this is to look to see if Tolkien's in it. And he is, right on the front cover in fact, which he shares with Shakespeare, Poe and his raven, Angelou, Austen, and Stan Lee. The back cover goes this one better and reproduces the whole Tolkien entry as well as images of Agatha Christie, Douglas Adams, Sun Tzu, and Phillis Wheatley.

I'm happy to say I know who all the fifty-two authors* included, though I'll admit there were some I didn't recognize from the illustration (like Adams -- the towel and cup of tea shd have been dead giveaways). And I confess there are some of these who I've never actually read.
Still, forty-two out of fifty-two's not bad.

If you're a purist, be warned that Kellett's goal is to amuse and he feels no compunction about making stuff up. The people he presents are based on legend, not real life, though there are factual underpinnings when he finds these funny enough. Nor is he too proud to go for low-hanging fruit: his Tolkien entry includes a joke about Tolkien's grocery list.

Interestingly, his illustrations are more true-to-life than his text. Tolkien for example holds a book (BEOWULF) in one hand and a bar glass filled with some frothy foamy drink (labelled THE EAGLE & THE CHILD) hoisted in the other. He's also smoking a pipe at the same time: clearly a multitasker.

As I said, this was a Kickstarted project. I don't know if it's available to those of us who missed the subscriber deadline, but you can find more information here:

And, on the left, you can see the ANATOMY OF AUTHORS cover (you might have to scroll down a little).

Plus if you poke around a bit on his website you'll find Kellett also offers a few posters and a pin for Gandalf Airlines, whose motto is Fly You Fools.

--John R.

*Kellett's definition of author is a generous one, including not just Tolkien and Lewis (C.S.) but Nietzsche, Seuss, Rod Serling, and two Chekovs

current weather: cold. snowing (the first big storm of the season). A good time to stay in with the cats.
current music: Helen Reddy's Greatest Hits (dug out because of the recent news of the ERA, no doubt)
current reading: another book on ancient Egypt, Kidnapping chapter of a Lindbergh biography
current audiobook: VOODOO HISTORIES by Aaronovich (a history of conspiracy theories)

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Tolkien biopic extras

So, I saw the Tolkien biopic (simply named TOLKIEN) at a special showing at last summer's Kalamazoo. At the time I thought it a beautiful and respectful film but found the pacing much too slow. Every scene seemed to be about twice the length it felt like it shd have been.

Accordingly, I knew I'd want a copy to re-see the movie at some later time and to have on hand for reference but was in no hurry to pick one up. Recently it occurred to me that there might be special features on the dvd that might be worth checking out --a 'making of' or 'behind the scenes' or 'The Real J. R. R. Tolkien' or the like.

I've now viewed the disk, and while there are some special features, they're sparse.

First, there's the audio commentary by the director, for those who like such things

There's also a gallery: pictures of the director directing

The sneak peaks show trailers for  a strange array of movies I won't be seeing

By far the most worthwhile of all these extras are the deleted scenes (seven in all) and a First Look mini-documentary.

The  mini--documentary mostly shows the lead actor and lead actress talking about the movie, with a few comments by the director thrown in. Basically these represent the idea behind the movie, what they focused on and why.

As for the deleted scenes, it's pretty clear why each was in the film and why each was taken out. Several include a single really good line (like Tolkien's calling Welsh  'the most beautiful language in the world' or Rob Gilson complaining that he's trying to keep up his art in the trenches but 'I keep running out of brown').  But the time spent on build-up wd have slowed the movie even more.

But the best thing about the movie, by far, remains its treatment of trees. It's a rare talent, but the director has managed to capture and convey Tolkien's love of trees. He even comments on this briefly in his commentary on one scene, and it shows up well in the deleted scene with Fr. Francis in a garden.

So, not essential, but not a waste of time either.

--John R.

Did Tolkien's Piety Affect His Scholarship?

So, in the course of his description of some of the Notes Tolkien made while working on the never-finished anthology now known as The Clarendon Chaucer, John M. Bowers records a remarkable remark regarding the following lines from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales relating to the Monk (whose tale was one of the three Canterbury Tales included in the Gordon-Tolkien edition):

. . . a monk, whan he is recchelees,
Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees,
That is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre
But thilk text heeld he nat worth an oystre.
And I seyde his opinioun was good.

Bowers notes that Tolkien found fault with these lines, and ascribes it to Tolkien's faith rather than his scholarship:

As a devout Catholic, Tolkien responded to the portrait's worst 
anti-monasticism by rejecting a particularly unflattering passage 
as spurious: 'we can scarcely accept [lines 180-184], as they
stand in our text, as Chaucer unadulterated.' Editors sometimes
rationalize censoring their texts by claiming anything they
dislike could not have been by their author. Skeat raised 
no doubt about the authenticity of the lines that Tolkien
questioned, nor does the current Riverside Chaucer.

(Bowers 178, emphasis mine)

Certainly Tolkien very much subscribed to the old or 'heroic' school of medieval manuscript editing, wherein modern-day scholars had great confidence that they understood Old and Middle English texts better than did the scribes who were actual speakers of those languages. And Tolkien's subsequent work on Chaucer ('Chaucer as Philologist: The Reeve's Tale') is posited on the idea that the manuscripts of Chaucer's works represent corrupt texts in need of editorial correction. What is remarkable is that Bowers ascribes Tolkien's dissatisfaction with the lines in question directly to their Xian content. So we have Tolkien's statement, without explanation, linked with Bowers' statement, again without explanation.

Reading Bowers' discussion of Tolkien's stance on editing makes me want to dig out my old essay on Tolkien as an editor of medieval texts, given at Kalamazoo a few years back but set aside when still only about two-thirds written down when other projects crowded in and interfered with its completion. Worlds enough and time.

--John R.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Things I'd Do Differently (Dorothy Everett)

So, a few years back when I was writing my essay about Tolkien's lifelong support for women's higher education, I made no mention of Dorothy Everett, who certainly wd have been included if I'd known of her connection to Tolkien at the time.

Now, reading Bowers' book (TOLKIEN'S LOST CHAUCER), I learn that Everett was among the scholars Tolkien recommended in 1951 as a possible partner to take over and complete the stalled (since 1928) Clarendon Chaucer project.* That Tolkien was willing to turn over the project to Everett is one more piece of evidence that he took women scholars seriously, and I'm sorry I didn't include it in my piece.

So it goes.

--John R.

*looking back now I find this information was available at the time in Wayne and Christina's COMPANION & GUIDE: I simply overlooked it.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Tolkien's Birthday

So, today is J. R. R. Tolkien's hundred and twenty-eighth birthday.

A good time to dig out and reread a favorite from among his many works.  For me, this year it's THE DRAGON'S VISIT, a little gem that exists in two versions --both good, but I much prefer the earlier variant, the one which ends

     The moon shone through his green wings
        the night air beating,
     And he flew back over the dappled sea
        to a green dragon's meeting.

--John R.
--current reading THE PENGUIN HISTORICAL ATLAS OF ANCIENT EGYPT by Bill Manley (1996)

Thursday, January 2, 2020

H. G. Wells' last books

So, just about the time I moved out here, over twenty years ago now, I read a compilation of two little books by H. G. Wells that between them represented his final thoughts on the fate of humanity. Having recently come across the photocopy of this I made at the time, I thought it'd make for an interesting re-reading.

Wells was a meliorist, which is to say that he believed that by working together it was possible, little by little, to make the world a better place (say, by medical research leading to vaccines or improvements in agriculture; things that improved quality of life). It was slow and hard but real progress was possible.

Writing in the last months of World War II, at a time when he was nearing eighty, suffering from cancer, and living in bomb-torn London, he decided he'd been wrong. In particular he laid a good portion of the blame on 'the necessity common minds are under to believe they have natural inferiors, of whom they are entitled to take advantage' (.11).

His response to this was twofold: one lighthearted whimsical little work and one a pessimistic prediction; the juxtaposition of their dating from about the same time makes them interesting.


In the first of these two little books he celebrates escapism through dreams: 'this delightful land of my lifelong suppressions, in which my desires and unsatisfied fancies, hopes, memories and imagination have accumulated inexhaustible treasure' (.22). Wells embraces not what Tolkien wd call the eucatastrophe of a Happy Ending but what he dubs the Happy Turning of a compensatory dream.

Wide ranged and rambling as this brief little book is, the best parts were Wells' depiction of old age as a time of falling into habits* and the two chapters in which Wells dreams of conversations with Jesus --part five: 'Jesus of Nazareth discusses his Failure' and part seven: 'Miracles, Devils and the Gadarene Swine' (particularly his take on the miracle of the loaves and fishes). The tone of these exchanges reminds me more of Blake (THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN & HELL)  than Lewis (THE GREAT DIVORCE, written at about this time).

The strangest part, by far, is his chapter devoted to cursing sycamore trees. That the book is rambling, not to say weird, is one of the things that marks it as one of those books a writer writes purely for personal satisfaction.


Much more focused, and rather less interesting, is its companion piece, in which Wells announces that humanity, having had its chance, is now headed to extinction. A new species will replace us, which may be descended from homo sapiens or might be wholly unrelated. There's nothing we can do, Wells believes, to avoid this fate. He counsels what at first looks like a form of existentialism but is more probably stoicism: that we each meet the end with what dignity we can muster.

The two approaches, which the book's editor finds diametrically opposed, are in fact easy to reconcile if we take them in reverse order and assume that the withdrawal into dreams is one example of an individual's facing extinction (of individual and species) on his own terms.

So there it is: a great reformer turns in the end, at the end of his tether, to the cold comfort of stoicism and the warm comfort of dreams, and between them still has the wherewithall to engage in a little whimsey. It's as if Tolkien and Lovecraft collaborated on a project: the result wd no doubt be interesting but unsatisfactory.

--John R.
--current reading: Wells, THE MIND AT THE END OF ITS TETHER (#II.3549; a rereading; just finished)

*part 1: 'How I came to the Happy Turning' (.21-22). Wells' description of of his life sinking down into a repertoire of a routine of several favorite outings may strike a cord with those experiencing encroaching age or persistent ill health (I particularly liked the bit about baiting one walk with a visit to a bookstore). All in all, I thought it was the best thing in this little book, the one sign that the author of 'The Truth about Pyecroft' and similar stories had not altogether lost his touch:

In my daytime efforts to keep myself fit and active,
I oblige myself to walk a mile or so on all days that
are not impossibly harsh. I walk to the right to the Zoo,
or I walk across to Queen Mary's Rose Garden 
or down by several routes to my Savile Club, or
I bait my walk with Smith's bookshop at Baker Street.

I have to sit down a bit every now and then, and that
limits my range. I've played these ambulatory variations
now for two years and a half, for I am too busy to go
out of town, out of reach of my books . . .

I dream I am at my front door starting out for the 
accustomed round. I go out and suddenly realise
there is a possible turning I have overlooked!
And in a trice I am walking more briskly than
I have ever walked before, up hill and down dale,
in scenes of happiness such as I have
never hoped to see again . . .