Tuesday, September 18, 2007

In Praise of Sharp-Eyed Readers

So, I'd missed a comment by 'Johan' to a previous post in which he pointed out an omission I'd missed. On page 835, TN5 reads "Book I [of LotR] ends with his [=Frodo's] collapse at the Ford and Book II with him awaking already safe in Rivendell some days later". As Johan points out, there's a verb missing in the second clause: it should read "and Book II begins with him". While I'm at it, "awaking", which is technically a transitive verb, really shd be "awakening", which can be intransitive or transitive as the occasion demands.

It's too late now to get this fixed in the US edition, but I'll pass it along to the good folks at HarperCollins for the trade paperback set, for which I'm beginning to gather a list of errata.

The second proposed correction by Johan relates to an illegible word on page 833. The passage reads "4 mm = 4/10 [illegible] = 20 miles" (this being the eighth line on page Ad.Ms.H.16a). Johan proposes, very reasonably, that the missing word is "centimetre", since 4 mm does in fact equal 0.4 cm. Unfortunately, this is not possible, since the illegible word seems to begin with a descender (i.e., a letter with a down-stroke, such as p- or q- or g- or y-). In fact, it turns out to be -f; looking at this squiggle again with a fresh eye yesterday I was able to crack it this time. It's not a single word but three separate ones run together: "of 50 miles". Thus, the correct reading of this passage shd be

"in the LR map 1 centimetre = 50 miles [;] the distance from Ford to head of path down is 4 mm = 4/10 of 50 miles = 20 miles."

Many thanks to Johan for having sparked my re-examination.

And, while I'm at it, many thanks to Jeff, author of my favorite blog, for showing me how to turn web addresses (such as http://grubbstreet.blogspot.com/) into links (such as grubbstreet).

--John R.

current reading: THE INTELLECTUALS & THE MASSES, by John Carey (who currently has some harsh things to say about Mr. Nietzsche).
current audiobook: JOHN ADAMS, by David McCullough (having gotten to the part where Adams, as envoy to the Dutch, just opened the world's first American embassy)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Two Threads (THE HOBBIT: Is It Or Isn't It?)

So, thanks to Johan, I've now seen two more posts on the "LotR Fanatics" forum discussing my book; one back in May (LotRFanatics thread) that includes some first impressions and bitter cries about the lack of a separate index for that volume, and another more general one from July (second thread). While reading the book itself will resolve most of the questions and queries that arose there, it's interesting to see how many of them hover around the question of THE HOBBIT's status regarding the legendarium: whether it was originally "quite unconnected" and only later retrofitted as part of his larger mythology or whether it was part of that mythology from initial conception. One curious feature of the discussion was to see unnamed "leading Tolkien scholars" cited on occasion as purportedly disagreeing with me, but no citation or even identification is ever forthcoming of who these mysterious anonymous figures might be, nor why their identities must remain a deep dark secret. V. odd. Of course I'm well aware of the fact that the current consensus holds, following Christopher Tolkien's discussion in HME VI, that THE HOBBIT stands apart from the legendarium. Tolkien himself took both positions at different times, so a simple appeal to authority cannot resolve the matter; my goal was to present the argument for, since the argument against was so well known that the other alternative had been neglected. Largely of course it comes down a matter of definition: does the appearance of characters, names, places, creatures, and items from the QUENTA and Lays in the draft of THE HOBBIT show that Bilbo's world is the same as that of the older stories, as I argue, or are these all merely incidentals without significance outside themselves, as had previously been the consensus view?** Does Tolkien's statement that he "consciously based" THE HOBBIT on "the 'Silmarillion', a history of the Elvish, to which frequent allusion is made" (LETTERS p.31), made in a context where he was carefully explaining at length the sources and origin of the book, carry as much weight as I think it does, or can it be explained away? Since Tolkien is subtle, his statements on any given point often show complexities that are easy to miss at first glance (a point made very well in Marjorie Burns' PERILOUS REALMS): fairly laying out the evidence for both sides of a disputed point, whether the relationship of THE HOBBIT to the older works or the starting date for the composition of the book or some similar topic, is I think one of the most valuable things a scholar can do, not far behind presenting new (i.e., previously unpublished) texts or discovering some new (previously unknown) information about a book or author we didn't know before.

Which brings up another point made in passing: someone in one post on the second thread referred to Christopher Tolkien as "primus inter pares" ('first among equals') among Tolkien scholars. I don't think that begins to cover Christopher's importance: he stands in a category of his own, far above all the rest of us. Christopher Tolkien knows more about his father's works, and more about JRRT himself, than any other Tolkien scholar can ever hope to. He is, literally, irreplaceable. This does not mean he is infallible --in later volumes of HME he sometimes corrects statements made in earlier volumes in the later of more evidence or further consideration-- but it does mean that the first step in writing about any of JRRT's posthumously published works shd be to see what CT has to say about it. That's our starting point.

Changing the topic a bit, one of the other items that showed up in these discussions is much simpler to resolve: the rumored fairy wife of some Took ancestor (in the 3rd edition) and the rumor of elven blood (in the 1960 drafting) are one and the same, since Tolkien used 'fairy' as a synonym for 'elf' in his early writings (cf. BLT II.10, where Luthien Tinuviel is referred to as 'a fairy').

The ROVERANDOM point raised a time or two is easily resolved without proving the main case one way or the other, but full explication will take its own (eventual) post.

--John R.
current reading: THE INTELLECTUALS & THE MASSES by John Carey (who thinks intellectualism is a scam and seems to despise most twentieth century British writers)

**In my view, the most abrupt and dramatic departure from the older material of the legendarium in THE HOBBIT is the appearance in Bilbo's story of dwarves as non-evil characters, something completely unprecedented in his earlier Middle-earth writings.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Charlie Chaplin at the Paramount

So, every year about this time the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle hosts a month of silent movie nights, accompanied by live virtuoso organ music, just as they were first presented the better part of a century ago. We've only been able to make it to two or three of these performances over the years, unfortunately, but for those who might be interested this year's line-up couldn't be bettered. They're showing three Charlie Chaplin shorts each night, and they've chosen them from the twelve he made just when he gained full creative control over every aspect of his filmmaking. Each is about twenty minutes long and features an ensemble cast, so that the same actors re-appear in different roles in each film. I've seen seven of these twelve, and the best of them rank right up there with CITY LIGHTS and THE GOLD RUSH: silent film comedy just doesn't get any better, and they can still give post-silent film competition a run for the money.

Here's the schedule; if someone does make it, drop me a line and let me know how you liked them.

Sept 10th (obviously, these are already past, but I include it for the sake of completeness)

Sept 17th

Sept 24th

Oct. 1st

--if you only get to one of these, I'd recommend the Oct. 1st showing.* THE CURE has Charlie as an inebriated dandy going to a health spa to dry out; hilarity ensue as his presence makes things spiral out of control. A short clip from this film made its way into Michael Moore SICKO. THE IMMIGRANT, the only one of these to fully feature 'the little tramp' character, mixes pathos with slapstick in CC's characteristic manner; still moving, AND funny, today. THE ADVENTURER features Charlie as an escaped con trying to blend into a party; it has the least plot but plenty of manic energy.
--John R.

*although ONE A.M., which is entirely a solo performance after the opening sequence, is an almost plotless tour-de-force that has never really been equaled as an example of the intransigence of inanimate objects and the inexorable move from order to chaos.

In Praise of Neil Gaiman

So, a while back I wondered in a post if in his script for the forthcoming BEOWULF movie, which from preliminary accounts is grossly unfaithful to the original story yet pretends otherwise, Gaiman had 'jumped the shark'. While I still have very low expectations about the BEOWULF movie (other than a fervent hope that at least it's better than the last one, BEOWULF & GRENDEL --which shdn't be hard, but you never know), in the weeks since I've seen STARDUST and, just this past week, re-read the book (STARDUST, that is) as well as for the first time reading CORALINE (the only one of his novels I'd missed) and just last night finishing up ADVENTURES IN THE DREAM TRADE (a collection of nonfiction pieces).

First, STARDUST the movie. Great fun. Not really in the tradition of PRINCESS BRIDE, to which some had compared it, being far less snarky and self-conscious; more like the old Aladdin and Sinbad movies with better effects, better story, and better acting. While full of humor it succeeds by taking itself seriously, rather like the old DOCTOR WHO. They changed the story a great deal, but for the most past for the better (the final battle with the witches was too long and drawn out for my taste, and I wouldn't have minded the airship section, while charming, being shortened by about half). It's been a long time since Peter O'Toole has played an out and out villain (THE RULING CLASS, maybe?), and it was great to see he hasn't lost his touch. Both the leads were great, as was Michelle Pfeiffer as the villain and all the supporting cast. Plus, of course, a witty script, less gritty and more light-hearted than the novel. And here's one case where no one can blame the moviemakers for "ruining the author's book" since Gaiman himself is the film's producer. Highly recommended.

Second, STARDUST the novel. I'd read this with my local fantasy reading group (hey folks) a while back and been vaguely disappointed -- nothing to complain about, but I'd just read some of his excellent short stories and had much higher hopes. I'd found in the year and more since that the book's story and characters had almost entirely vanished from my memory, which is very unusual for me -- I remembered it much less than any of his other books I'd read. Re-reading it now after seeing the movie I think the film's better; the book reads like a novelization rather than a stand-alone fantasy novel or fairy tale. There are some Dunsanian echoes in the book that I'd be sorry to miss, the Stormhold bits are v. good, and his practical approach to Faerie works v. well, but overall I'd rank it at the bottom of his fiction, alongside AMERICAN GODS. Not bad, just not as good as I expect from Gaiman. As an added bonus, the edition I read this time has a bonus short story at the end: while I didn't particularly like its frame story, the story within that frame was superb.

Third, CORALINE. Not having read this one before, I was delighted to find it his best novel yet, fit to rank alongside the best of his short stories and his two pictures books (THE DAY I SWAPPED MY DAD FOR TWO GOLDFISH and THE WOLVES IN THE WALLS -- CORALINE has definite affinities to the latter). Don't want to give any of it away in case others haven't read it yet, so I'll stop at just saying it's distinctively Gaiman, yet Ray Bradbury would I think have been proud to write this one. It's that good.

Fourth, ADVENTURES IN THE DREAM TRADE is a NESFA collection of introductions, afterwords, and appreciations Gaiman wrote for books and authors such as Fritz Leiber, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, and others. It also has several poems, three of them excellent ("A Writer's Prayer", "Neil's ThankYou Poem", and "How to Write Longfellow's Hiawatha"), several song lyrics ("A Girl Needs a Knife" seems to combine Dorothy Parker with "Sunny Came Home", v. effectively), a few short-shorts, and (providing more than half the book's bulk) a blog about AMERICAN GODS, covering the period between when the book was finished and when he finished the various book-signing tours, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at all the seemingly endless things that have to be done once a book is "finished". Like CORALINE, I'll definitely have to track down and buy a copy of this; it's something I want on my shelves.

So: while I'll suspend judgment on Gaiman as a screenwriter until I see BEOWULF, this bout of reading has reaffirmed just how good a writer of fiction he is (if there's a better fantasy short story writer living, aside from Ray Bradbury, I'd like to know about him or her) and introduced me to extended amounts of his nonfiction for the first time. I'd say rather than jump the shark he made the old cartilage-fish sing, dance, and jump backflips. In short, an impressive performance.

--John R.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Fifth Review/Taum's work

Here's another, more a description of the book and circumstances that that gave rise to it than a review, but taking note of my roleplaying ties as well (appropriate enough, given my dozens of rpg credits over the past fifteen years). The site also has a good notice of Diana Pavlac Glyer's THE COMPANY THEY KEEP just above the notice on my book and a brief piece on CHILDREN OF HURIN immediately below it.

Fifth Review

And, while not a review, here's a discussion regarding my conclusion that THE HOBBIT was part of Tolkien's legendarium from its inception: see the 'Lord of the Rings Fanatics Forum'

LotR Fanatics thread

One poster makes a comment to the effect that "I don't suppose there is any chance of us ever seeing Santoski's drafts for Mr. Baggins". In fact, as I note in my Introduction (H.o.H. vol. I p. xxviii), I've deposed a complete copy of Taum's unfinished edition at the Marquette Archives so that those who wish to compare his work with mine can do so, just as I deposited a complete, unedited transcript of the entire manuscript (page by page, line by line, stroke by stroke) so that others could compare my reading of Tolkien's handwriting with the original manuscripts. (If any do so and come up with a better reading of a difficult passage, I hope they'll share their guesses with me so I can pass them along here.)
Unfortunately, while Taum's transcription is more or less complete, he had not yet drafted the accompanying commentary, so I don't think he had addressed this particular point -- at least, not that I remember. But he was as aware as I of Tolkien's letter to Selby on the one hand (the original letter was exhibited at Marquette in 1987, and a transcription appears in the exhibition catalogue) and the mention of Beren and Tinuviel within the manuscript on the other. I don't know how much weight he put on Tolkien's letter to THE OBSERVER, in which JRRT stated

"My tale is not consciously based on any other book--save one, and that is unpublished: the 'Silmarillion', a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made" (LETTERS OF JRRT p. 31).

For me, at any rate, Tolkien's explicit statement that THE HOBBIT was "consciously based" on THE SILMARILLION is the clincher.

I shd probably correct one misapprehension, where a poster says Taum's "tragic death interrupted a brilliant scholarly career at Marquette" -- Taum's death was indeed tragic; I saw him almost every day during the last year of his life, even after he entered the hospice. But he was not a student at Marquette: he was one of the finest examples I've ever known of an independent scholar, and in fact made his living as a bartender, working at a private club during the evenings to support himself so that he could work with the manuscripts by day. Just before the end of his life he had decided to go back to school to pursue an art degree, but his coursework was at UWM (the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee), not Marquette.

current reading: CORALINE by Neil Gaiman

Book Signing in U-district

So, two weeks from tonight is my first book signing for THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, at 7pm at the University Bookstore on Tuesday Sept. 25th. We'll start with a reading, followed by a Q&A, then the signing itself. Please let people in the area you think might be interested know about the event, and drop in a line if you think you'll be able to make it.

Here's the official online schedule of the Univ. Bkstr's upcoming readings and signings, including the notice for my event:


Hope I'll see you there.
--John R.

Current (re)reading: Neil Gaiman's STARDUST
Current anime: LE CHEVALIER D'EON

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Fourth Review

New reviews continue to pop up, some of them in unlikely places. The latest one I found is in the Church Times, of all places, "the world's leading Anglican weekly newspaper", from the July 27th issue. As with Rilstone's review, it's linked with CT's THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, although most extraordinarily this one reviews my book first. Also unusual, and striking, is their reproduction of two nice, lesser-known illustrations for THE HOBBIT from my book. As for the book itself, they seem to like it well enough ("a mass of information, but often in a lively style"). Of particular note is their drawing attention to my comments on nomenclature, which I found a particularly tricky part to write: "On languages, which are important for the word-music of Tolkien's names, [Rateliff] is usually a careful consulter of experts rather than an expert himself." Fair enough. The CoH review that follows is appreciative and well worth checking out.
Here's the link: http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=42450

--John R.

Countdown: Two weeks to U.S. release

Sunday, September 2, 2007

And Yet Another . . .

Here's the third of the three reviews of my book I found this week. It's by far the longest, the best-informed (from the point of view of the reviewer knowing his Tolkien), and certainly the snarkiest. The author, Andrew Rilstone, is a fellow rpg designer (who worked on the ONCE UPON A TIME storytelling card game) and editor (of the sorely missed INTERACTIVE FANTASY, the first, and only, scholarly journal examining roleplaying games), though I don't think we've ever met. The review of MR. BAGGINS/RETURN TO BAG-END takes up the second half (approximately seven pages) of his long review of CHILDREN OF HURIN and HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT together on August 21st.


Rilstone quite likes the book, I think, but pulls few punches: he thinks my book "monumental -- indeed, . . . rather too monumental" and notes that my commentary "will almost certainly tell you more than you wanted to know". But he also credits me with "Christopherian attention to detail", which I consider high praise, thinks "some of [my] literary archeology is fascinating", and considers me "very good at pointing up the thematic links between THE HOBBIT and THE SILMARILLION". Since the latter was one of my major aims, it's enheartening to hear that the message got through, and that a by no means reverent reader found it convincing. With that under my belt, I can roll with his slightly querulous hrumph about the twelve pages devoted to Radagast (besides, David Bratman already did a much wittier job drawing attention to that in his blog over a month ago: cf. http://calimac.livejournal.com/?skip=20, scrolling down to the entry for July 17th). Best of all, Rilstone puts my book to its intended use; he reads through the texts I present and draws his own conclusions from them. Nothing could be finer than to find people using my book as a starting point from which to launch Tolkienian investigations or ruminations of their own.


And Another

Looks like reviews have begun to appear, I just hadn't been looking hard enough. This one is very brief, but favorable, and puts me in truly excellent company: it's a real honor to have my book reviewed alongside the work of Stephen Jay Gould (whose THE MISMEASURE OF MAN is a real masterpiece, although his WONDERFUL LIFE got a comeupance from Jimmy Carter, of all people). It's also amusing, given that I have a friend named Stan (www.stannex.com), to read about a new novel out there about the founding of a new religion called 'The Stan'.
I do have to admit that I was surprised to find that there was anybody these days who would willingly allow people to refer to them as "Colonists"; live and learn. And I was vastly tickled to find myself described as a "master scholar": it makes me feel like I should channel Keye Luke and use the phrase 'Young Grasshopper' a lot.