Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Quote #1: Cutting-Edge Thirteenth Century Science

So, my favorite line from Fr. G. Ronald Murphy's GEMSTONE OF PARADISE: THE HOLY GRAIL IN WOLFRAM'S PARZIVAL, an interesting book about why Wolfram portrays the Grail as a stone rather than a cup or platter, is the following quote from the great scholar Albertus Magnus (d.1280):

". . . nearly all kinds of stones sink in water"

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of the reply 'very small rocks!' from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. In Albert's defense, the context of the chapter makes it clear he was including ice as a kind of rock, since it was translucent like some gemstones. A good example of how statements that sound absurd may actually make sense in their original context, and how categories that seem perfectly obvious to us can look arbitrary and comical from the outside.


That Which Was Lost . . .

. . . Is Found, thanks to my wife and our Senior Cat.

Last Tuesday night I lost my ring -- not the wedding ring, fortunately (given that Wednesday was our anniversary), but the silver ring spelling out my name in Egyptian hieroglyphs which Janice gave me ten years ago (Dec. 1996), which I wear on my right hand. I missed it when I was doing dishes that night, but I'd been so many places earlier that evening that tracing it proved impossible: I'd gotten the charcoal ready for grilling, walked all three cats in three different directions, re-potted several plants, and also planted a few things in the yard to help repair some unintended collateral damage from the complex's groundskeeping crew. I searched that night and the next day; Janice searched; I even went through the trash and recyclables in unpleasant detail, all to no avail. Having reluctantly resigned myself to the loss, I was beginning to wonder if the Mid-East Imports place in Milwaukee's Mayfair Mall, where we got the original, might still be there, since I'm doing a booksigning in that mall a little over two months from now.

And then, when I got back from last night's D&D game, Janice handed me the ring. She'd taken Rigby out for a short walk, and when they were coming in she looked down and there it was, simply lying on the back patio. Did it spill out when I dumped out the trash or recyclables and I just didn't see it? Had it been under a planter? Was it out in plain sight all that time and our eyes just skipped over it each time we searched? No knowing. But Rigby (and Janice) are the Heroes of the Household. Praise them with Great Praise!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter

So, I've been avoiding most of the articles about Harry Potter, first in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers and then because, once I'd read the book, there didn't seem to be much point. But a brief piece in last week's TIME rather stumped me. The author, Lev Grossman, argues that Rowling's work is a radical departure from the mainstream tradition of fantasy because it's not Christian, like the work of "her literary forebears", JRRT and C.S.L., concluding that "Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis". [TIME, July 23 2007, page 15]

Well, I don't think she derives all that much directly from Tolkien or Lewis, but she's definitely in the fantasy tradition. The idea that this tradition had been predominantly Xian before the first Harry Potter book, however, strikes me as decidedly odd. Granted, George McDonald was a former preacher (until his congregation sacked him) and his piety is deeply ingrained in all his work. But Wm Morris was anything but orthodox; Lord Dunsany sometimes used Xian imagery in sentimental fashion (e.g., at the end of "The Highwayman") but ended one of his novels with the 'happy ending' of having a priest convert to paganism and preside at a ritual sacrifice; E. R. Eddison was himself pagan, a devout worshipper of Aphrodite; Cabell might have been an old-school Episcopalian but you'd never know it from JURGAN et al; and so forth. If most of the famous fantasy writers of the past were Xian, they certainly kept it out of their work, to the extent that L. Sprague de Camp (not the most perceptive of men) openly wondered how a Christian like Tolkien could write fantasy.

The same applies if we think of the Potter series as children's literature: you'd never know from reading ALICE IN WONDERLAND that "Lewis Carroll" was actually Rev. Charles Dodgson; the only god to show up in THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is Pan, not Christ; Doctor Doolittle never goes to church in any of the Hugh Lofting books that I can recall; there's no Xianity, explicit or implicit, in the Hundred Acre Wood (despite C.J.L. Culpepper's hilarious essay to the contrary in THE POOH PERPLEX); if there's a church or graveyard in Oz, I missed it. There have been talented Christians working in the field, like L'Engle and Lewis himself, but they stand out because they're a minority, not the mainstream.

So why does the piece in TIME think otherwise? Is it as simple as Grossman's never having read any fantasy except Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling, and concluding 'one of these things is not like the others'? Have to admit that seems the likeliest explanation to me.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Tale of Two Black Mountains

So, one of the interesting things I discovered in working on MR. BAGGINS was that "The Lonely Mountain" was not Tolkien's original name for the place that had held the Kingdom Under the Mountain. In fact, as the original manuscript page makes clear (Marq. 1/1/22:4), Tolkien originally wrote "the Black mountain", then at some point cancelled the word "Black" and also at some point (not necessarily the same time) capitalized "Mountain".
Now, in itself this is simply another example of Tolkien changing his mind about the proper name of a person or place within the tale, alongside Medwed > Beorn, Gandalf > Thorin, and Bladorthin > Gandalf. But just this week while looking something up in THE SHAPING OF MIDDLE-EARTH, I was reminded that this is not the only place where Tolkien used the name:

"Morgoth flees from Valinor . . . and returns to the Northern World and rebuilds his fortress of Angband beneath the Black Mountain, Thangorodrim." (Annals of Beleriand, first sentence; HME.IV.295).

This is made all the more interesting by the fact that these two references are more or less contemporary with each other. Tolkien began work on THE HOBBIT in the summer of 1930, according to our best evidence, and the page naming The Black Mountain as the goal of their quest belongs to that very first layer, one of the three surviving sheets of what I have named 'The Pryftan Fragment'. And while we don't know the exact date of the "(Earliest) Annals of Beleriand", they were written to accompany the 1930 Quenta, so they must date from 1930 or very shortly thereafter.

While I don't think this means that the dwarves and wizard were inviting Bilbo along for a raid on the ruins of Thangorodrim, it is interesting to see Tolkien try out a name or idea in two entirely different contexts at about the same time (and a warning that not all places which share the same name are necessarily the same place). More interesting still, even after the lost dwarvenhome became 'the Lonely Mountain' some connection between the two remained in Tolkien's mind, some mental image: compare his depictions of The Lonely Mountain in the painting "The Death of Smaug" with his drawing of Thangorodrim in "Tol Sirion" (PICTURES BY TOLKIEN, plate 36; see especially the original pencil sketch on the left-hand page of this spread).

Was there ever a writer so adept are adapting and re-using odds and ends from earlier works into later parts of his ongoing mythology?


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Do Unto Others . . .

Came across an interesting idea in the June 16th issue of TIME. There's a huge imbalance between the number of people who need organ transplants and the number of people who have signed up to be donors, resulting in long delays and many deaths. The new proposal is blindingly simple: in order to be eligible to receive a transplant, you also have to have volunteered to be a donor. Those who don't want to be donors for religious or personal reasons can therefore simply opt out ("neither a borrower nor a lender be"). Interesting . . .


Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Death in the Somme

Wednesday they buried a fellow member of Tolkien's regiment, Private Richard Lancaster, ninety years after he died on the Western Front. The full story can be found here:


It's a rather forlorn account in its very simplicity. Apparently about seventy bodies are found each year in the Somme even now, almost ninety years after the war ended. Lancaster, who like Tolkien belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, was one of 360,000 British war dead whose bodies could not be recovered. Some, like the remarkable horror writer Wm Hope Hodgson (THE NIGHT LAND, CARNACKI THE GHOST-FINDER, "A Voice in the Night"), were blown to bits, leaving nothing to bury; others, like Lancaster, died in action and were simply never found among the mud and chaos of No Man's Land (reflected in Tolkien's work in The Dead Marshes, which envisions the rotting bodies transformed into their folklore equivalents, Corpse Candles). Lancashire is unusual in that, unlike most of the bodies or body parts uncovered in recent years, they were able to identify him (unlike the two other bodies found with him).
Reading this, it's hard not to think how lucky we were. Tolkien could easily have died in that battle, leaving behind only a few odd poems about Earendel (i.e., the abortive volume THE SHORES OF FAERIE), as his friend G.B. Smith left behind only enough poems to fill one slim volume, the aptly named SPRING HARVEST. Having entered the war so late, we Americans don't remember it as the devastating event it was for all the countries of Europe*: Lord Dunsany tells the story of having gone to the funeral of an old teacher of his around 1930 or so and realizing that Dunsany himself was the only survivor from his year. It somehow seems apt to quote what Dunsany intended to be his epitaph, written when he was posted to the Western Front (not long after having been shot in the head by the rebels during the Easter Uprising, but that's another story):

Farewell my readers. Though the Press Bureau
Is dumb about the way by which we go
Yet somewhere close I know there waits for me
A nameless ship upon a censored sea.

And so farewell, for bits of nickelled lead
Flit all day long about our destination.
A poet, if he gets one in the head,
Does no more singing in that incarnation.


*(my own grandfather served in it and came home safely, while a great-uncle returned a life-long invalid from a gas attack).

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


So, the day before yesterday my copy of Part II: RETURN TO BAG-END arrived from amazon.co.uk.
And there was much rejoicing.

A list of the inevitable errata will soon follow, with rather less rejoicing.
All in all, however, it's a beautiful book; the good folks at HarperCollins did a wonderful job taking the huge text files I sent them and converting it into these handsome volumes. I'd like them even if there weren't my own; as it is, I'm positively doting.
And now that the complete book is out, we wait for the first review. Here's hoping.