Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Frozen Custard, Tolkien Manuscripts, and Old Friends

So, this time last week we had just gotten back from a week in Milwaukee, a trip that included getting together with old friends like Jim Lowder, Jim Pietrusz, Jeff and Jan Long (fellow original members of The Burrahobbits, a fantasy book-discussion group I helped found a quarter-century ago), and Mike Foster, among others, as well as meeting new folks such as three young Tolkienists accompanying Mike on his annual visit up from mid-Illinois to the Marquette Archives, one of whom (Adam Smith of Tolkien Library.com) had interviewed me a while back, while another was a fellow D&D player. Sorry I didn't get to spend more time with these three, but I did get to spend most of two days in the Archives, mainly looking at the various film script for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, especially those by Chris Conkling (what eventually morphed into the Peter Beagle script for the Ralph Bakshi movie) and John Boorman (brilliant but bizarre, for his never-filmed 1970 LotR project). I also got to look at a newly arrived Tolkien letter from 1964/65, and spent a little time with the Timelines. These latter arrived at Marquette near the end of my time there, around 1990, and I've always meant to give them a close scrutiny someday, making this an ongoing project I can pick up again on my next visit where I left off this time.

In addition to the Tolkien work, Janice and I took some time out to enjoy visiting restaurants we've missed since leaving the area: a grand meal at Mader's, which still lives up to its old standards; a breakfast with friends at Miss Katie's Diner; frozen custard (in my case, a caramel peac, as we used to call it the summer I worked at Leon's*). About the only old favorite we missed -- aside from those no longer there, like the Coffee Trader -- was Genghis Khan on Highway 100, which set the standard for Mongolian Barbeque in my book, but I think we more than made up for it by sharing a pie-in-a-bag from The Elegant Farmer. Needless to say, the Atkins was in abeyance for the duration, but has now resumed since our return.

It was interesting to see signs of change yet with many old landmarks the same as they'd ever been. There's lots of construction on the Marquette campus: both Parent's Park and Tory Hill are now gone. I took a little time and went into the old library, which I hadn't entered since the Archives shifted to the new building next door several years back; turns out they left almost all the books behind in the old building (Memorial Library), rather than shifting them to Raynor Library. I collected several items from the shelves to photocopy various bits out of (more on these later), and went down to where the old Archives used to be and tried to figure out exactly where the Lincoln Room and The Vault (or Cage) used to be; now that floor's all compressed shelves for old bound periodicals.

It was also nice to visit the Lakefront; we saw a wonderful octopus kite that I wish I had a picture of, and went into the War Memorial for the first time. The period posters for World War I and WW II were interesting, esp. the 'Great War' ones' menacing depictions of 'the Huns', but I was somewhat creeped out by a room with big paintings of the Enola Gay and Bock's Car, the two planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,** with individual photographs of the entire crew of each plane and a glowing report of their missions. Brrr.

On a sadder note, we swung by the house where we were married and found that it was in the process of being torn down. Given how beautiful the woodwork was in Janice's upper flat, it's a real shame; apparently it and the house next door are making way for condos. And yet when we swung by Kane Place, the decidedly downscale apartment building where I was living when I got Parker, it's still there and looks just the same, at least from the outside. I thought at first glance that The Abbotsford, where I lived the first two years I was in Milwaukee, was gone as well but it turned out just to be blocked from view by new construction; if this keeps up I'll soon be haunted by detailed memories of buildings that no longer exist.

We did get a drive down to Rockford, though, so as to get together with some Coulters, and thus experienced some real sweltering summer weather; I'd forgotten how the 'lake effect' with its cool breezes really makes a difference.

All in all, a delightful trip which reminded us both of how much we enjoyed living in Milwaukee. It was especially good to be there at a time when we got to see a lot of Tolk. folk whose company we enjoy, a little sad to think of those who are no longer with us, like Taum. I know I got a lot done, and I'm already looking forward to next visit.

--John R.

*the inspiration for Arnold's in HAPPY DAYS, and still a Milwaukee icon.
**I hadn't known they were planning to drop the bomb on Kokura but were diverted by cloud cover and so decided to destroy Nagasaki instead.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Am Po-Faced and Dreary

So, last week a fellow Tolk-folk (thanks Jeremy) sent me a link to an article by a New Zealand poet critiquing the so-called 'Tolkien Industry', or posthumous publications of JRRT's works.


The author, Jack Ross, makes clear that he loves Tolkien and he welcomes the release of new material, such as SIGURD AND GUDRUN, and he's eagerly awaiting "accessible editions" of THE LAY OF AOTROU AND ITROUN and IMRAM (apparently not having noticed that the latter is included in HME.IX) and THE HOMECOMING OF BEORHTNOTH BEORHTHELM'S SON. But he deplores the whole phenomenon of Expanded Editions, such as Verlyn Flieger's SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR, Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull's FARMER GILES OF HAM, Baillie Tolkien's LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS, Doug Anderson & Verlyn Flieger's TOLKIEN ON FAIRY-STORIES, and my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (he includes the Hammond-Scull ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR as an expansion of PICTURES BY TOLKIEN and the recent re-release of MR. BLISS as well). He's ambivalent about THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH, liking the LotR volumes but feeling that "all proportion has been lost" and that twelve volumes are far too many (thank god he doesn't seem to know about the thirteenth volume containing the compiled index).

For those who don't want to read through the whole post, here's how Ross describes my work:

"[Christopher's] most noticeable legacy, unfortunately, seems to be a ragtag and bobtail (to use a Tolkienian term) of mostly American scholars who specialise in ever more recondite and fatuous explorations of the implications of the papers and manuscripts which Tolkien himself sold them so long ago. Is a two-volume History of the Hobbit really necessary, for instance? Especially on top of Douglas A. Anderson's magnificently-illustrated (and basically light-hearted) Annotated Hobbit of 1988 [s.e.e. (=special expanded edition) 2002]?

"The History of the Hobbit is fun to read, mind you. I enjoyed it greatly. But it's not as much fun as it should be. Because it's 900 pages long. Because it's immensely repretitive and overly detail on points of no consequence. Because its author, John D. Rateliff, has no sense of proportion. Because its publishers know that anything with Tolkien's name on the spine will sell in gazillions (take the recent reprints of parts of Unfinished Tales under the stand-alone title of The Tale of the Children of Hurin, for instance). Rateliff, alas, is no Christopher Tolkien."

After this, he goes on to lament that we don't get works like JOURNEYS OF FRODO or THE ATLAS OF MIDDLE-EARTH or Carpenter's biographies anymore, though he makes an exception for John Garth (and, earlier in his piece, for Tom Shippey). Instead, "[f]or the most part . . . what we tend to see now are compendiums of essays by ghastly Academic second-raters, dictionaries and grammars of Tolkien various made-up languages, and other ever more po-faced and dreary reponses to the simple delights of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings." (emphasis mine)

After that, he goes off the rails a bit, comparing the editions of posthumous Tolkien books to the ghost-written works published under the name of 'V. C. Andrews (TM)' -- which is a gratuitous slander against the Tolkien Estate, who have striven mightily to clamp down on people publishing sequels and prequels and side-stories set in Tolkien's world for years (and an unending and thankless job it's been, too). His conclusion that "Not even the death of Christopher can halt it now" is pretty tasteless by my standards, and I found his statement that "[Tolkien's] legacy has long since fallen into the burning cancerous hands of . . . the professional Anglo-American Academic establishment . . . from [which] there is, I fear, no escape" funny in light of the fact that most of the works he slammed or praised are done by those outside that establishment: independent scholars like Doug Anderson and myself, journalists and professional writers like John Garth and Humphrey Carpenter, archivists like Wayne Hammond, librarians like Christina Scull, and the like, whereas Ross himself IS ensconced in Academia (according to his bio on his blog, he teaches at Massey University).

So, he doesn't like the kind of stuff I do. Actually, I'm fine with that. I'm sorry he didn't enjoy my book more, but I'm glad he at least found some things of interest there. I think it's fair to sum up his position as saying that he doesn't want another version of THE SILMARILLION, or a different draft of the Bombadil poems, but to see those still-unpublished or uncollected Tolkien works get into print. I'm certainly eager myself to see THE FALL OF ARTHUR, THE BOVADIUM FRAGMENTS, SELLIC SPELL, the BEOWULF translations, and the rest get published. But I differ from him in that I'm fascinated by all the new material revealed by the expanded editions of, say, OFS. And, though I'm not a linguist, I'm happy that the linguistic material is being made available for those whose focus is on the languages, since I don't think mine is the only approach, nor innately superior to others.

And there's where I think Ross and I really part company. We both love Tolkien, and we're both delighted by works published both in Tolkien's lifetime and since. But he, given the choice, would prefer that those works that don't interest him personally never see print at all, even if it meant burning the original manuscripts. In this I think he's part of the F. R. Leavis tradition, which assigns moral worth to its own preferences and condemns all that lies outside it. Whereas I most emphatically am not; I'm glad to recognize greatness even in works that leave me cold.

By the way, if you do follow the link and read Ross's full original post, don't neglect the comments, some of which are hilariously ill-informed -- such as the one lamenting that nothing's been published on the tengwar, apparently written by someone completely ignorant of the work of Arden Smith. I could relate to Ross's own comment that "I just know I'm the hapless slave of whatever new bit of Tolkieniana they choose to issue", but unlike him I don't dread having more new Tolkien to read but delight at the prospect. Funniest of all was a poster's prediction that, ten years after their release date, the Jackson films would be so badly dated that no one could watch them except for nostalgia or kitsch value -- apparently he hasn't looked at a calendar lately, or he would have realized that's only two years away now (THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING having been released in 2001).

--John R.

current reading: ALL WHAT JAZZ? by Philip Larkin [1970]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Snake I Saved and the Snake I Didn't

So, today I'm working on the last bit of an essay I sent off last week, the dreaded WORKS CITED page where I have to pull out all the books and articles I consulted in the course of writing the thing and make sure I've gotten them all properly credited, and in the right format, when I hear a commotion outside. It's the crows, who have been objecting since we got back from Milwaukee about the new regime (the one in which I don't toss them lots of peanuts, since I've heard the shells are clogging up drains).*

I look out the window, and see that the crows aren't just making noise; they've got something they're pestering, which looks very like a snake. I go tearing downstairs, and find they do indeed have one of the little black grass snakes who live on the path near the stream trapped on the asphalt with a curb preventing its escape.** I chase them away, but am now faced with the problem of getting the snake to safety. I don't have anything with me suitable for protecting my hand if I try to grab it, and I'm slow enough that I'm pretty sure it'll get me before I could nudge it or pick it up, especially given my wonky finger, which will be bad for me. It's small enough that I doubt a bite would do any damage, but what if I can't get it to let go afterwards? If I leave to go inside to get a leather glove or even my hat, the crows will quickly come back and finish it off or carry it away, which will be bad for the snake.

So I try to calm down the snake, which is actually panting it's so worked up (something I didn't know snakes could do). No luck. To it I'm like an even bigger crow that's going to swoop down on it the moment it turns its back to flee. Eventually I manage to distract it with a bit of plastic and grab its tail, then carry it (very unhappy about being grabbed, picked up, carried, and being upside down) over to drop it on the grass alongside the path by the little stream/drainage ditch. Once again it's all hissy bits, too wary to look away, then in a flash it's gone. A job well done.

And yet. Later in the day, after Janice is home from work I hear the crows fussing again and, looking down, think maybe they might have something again, though my eyes are too bad to tell for sure. Just to be on the safe side, I go down, and sure enough it's another snake, just like the first one (black, with a yellow stripe along its length) but somewhat smaller. Only this one wasn't as lucky, or I didn't get there in time. Its head is limp and unresponsive, although its tail and most of its body coil and move and are responsive when stroked. After several attempts, I can think of no way to help it and so, after briefly taking it in to show it to the cats (all of whom were fascinated, and sniffed it carefully, but weren't allowed to paw it) I put it out back under the mimosa -- if there's still life in it, that should be a safe spoke for it to recover; if not, it's a peaceful spot to pass away.

But I have to ask: what's with the sudden war between the Snakes and the Crows? Have the snakes been after crow eggs? -- the crows certainly extract vengeance on those who mess with their own. Or is it simply a good time of year to catch snakes as they come out to sun themselves on the margins of the path? In the words of Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

--John R.

*I'm experimenting with shelled peanuts, or luring them off-site for their treats, but it's a work in progress.

**just as a neighbor's cats once trapped a mole, which I also managed to rescue -- but that's another story.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Old Comics Store Burns Down

We don't watch the local news much, so it was just by chance that today Janice had it on and we happened to catch the story that last night there was a pretty serious fire in Renton. Luckily everyone seems to have gotten out of their apartments safely, but one casualty was The Comic Den, the comic store of choice for all the Wizards of the Coast folks ever since the TSR crew arrived in these parts back in the fall of 1997. I was sorry to hear about this, since the people who run it and work there are good folks, and these times are hard enough for small businesses, even well-established ones, without catastrophes making them even harder.

Here's the main story, from the online version of the RENTON REPORTER:


And here's a follow-up story, less about the fire than its impact on the surviving but damaged businesses in that block:


Though it won't have much direct impact on me -- I've slowly drifted away from American comics over the years, to the point where I'm not following a single title these days, having shifted entirely to manga -- it's a sad loss. Each comic book store is unique, and this one had (and I hope will still have) a loyal customer base of people who dropped by the same day every week without fail. I hope they'll be able to re-open. In the meantime, the tv news story mentioned something about a collection being taken up for the two stores that were destroyed, one of which is The Comic Den; if I hear more about this I'll post the information for those who might want to chip in.

But for now, goodbye Comic Den.

--John R.

current reading: CONVERSATIONS WITH C. S. LEWIS by Rbt Velarde [2008]

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Derleth Revisited

So, it turns out my local library is rather good at Interlibrary Loan. I'd tried them a few years ago and given up; turns out I shdn't have been asking for articles but for novels. In just the last month they've not only gotten me more Derleth, a David Lindsay I need to re-read, and a Henry Whitehead I'd started at Kalamazoo but not had time to finish.

Which brings me to THE SOLAR PONS OMNIBUS, a voluminous two-volume set of some thirteen hundred pages which, so far as I can tell, collects together all the short stories plus the one short novel. I haven't gotten that far yet, but I was struck by two passages in the opening piece, "From the Notebooks of Dr. Lyndon Parker". In one passage, he talks about how autographed books sometimes get sold by heirs who don't realize what's on a book collector's shelves (p. 35). This struck a chord because my wife has three books autographed by Harry Stephen Keeler, the famously quirky mystery writer, which she bought years ago. What's more, two of them are autographed to August Derleth himself, and obviously came from his collection. Did his heirs not appreciate what he had?

A few pages later Derleth (or, rather, the character who serves as his spokesman) makes some comments that are interesting
in light of Derleth's own history as a forger (building much of his career on passing off his own work as that of others). Pons gives as his opinion that it's better that collectors who bought books with forged autographs in them not know the signatures are fake; in his opinion, most people are happier thinking they have a genuine autograph than knowing the truth. I disagree with that entirely, but does it suggest that on one level Derleth's own misrepresentations were his little way of trying to make the public happy? That is, fans want another Lovecraft story, so Derleth writes one and claims he's just tidied up and completed an unpublished draft, when in fact he's created the whole thing himself? Or is it more a case of Derleth being like the mildly vindictive painter in another story ("The Adventure of the Aluminum Crutch"), who unfairly lost a competition when young and devotes the rest of his life to creating forgeries of paintings by famous artists which none of the art critics who rejected him can tell from the real thing?

Hard to say, though I lean towards the more cynical interpretation by looking at how Derleth made a career (and considerable profit) out of linking his name to Lovecraft. With some forgers, it's clear what the motives are. I'm beginning to suspect that Derleth, by contrast, was a rather complicated person and that his rationale(s) might be complex as well.

--John R.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Attributed" to Tolkien

So, the next-to-last book I'm expecting from those I ordered at Kalamazoo has now arrived: Seth Lerer's award-winning CHILDREN'S LITERATURE: A READER'S HISTORY FROM AESOP TO HARRY POTTER [2008]. Not only does this look to be interested and informative, but it devotes part of its chapter on "Fairy Tale Philology" to a discussion of Tolkien's works. What particularly grabbed my attention as I was skimming through it in the bookroom, though, is the reproduction of a full-page piece of art on page 226. This is a very detailed drawing of the world of Norse mythology: at the top is the World Tree ("Yggdrasil, the world-ash") with "Ratatosk" and "The Eagle". Below this comes the middle world, with the dome of the sky held aloft by four figures; to one side is a lean wolf chasing the sun and to the other another pursuing the moon. Below is "Nidhogg, the dragon", perching in the tree's roots, and at the bottom amid swirls of mist "Niflheim, the realm of Hel".

According to Lerer, this piece (taken from E. V. Gordon's AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD NORSE [1927]) is "Attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien" (caption on p. [226]). In the accompanying discussion, he is even more emphatic. Speaking of the Juniper Tree in Grimms' story of the same name clapping its hands in joy, he asks "How can we not see the great ents embodied here? How can we not see, too, the great tree Yggdrasil of Old Norse mythology -- the tree that spans the range from hell to Middle Earth, the tree that Tolkien himself illustrated in a line drawing in a textbook by his colleague E. V. Gordon, AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD NORSE? How can we not recall the image of the Tree of Tales itseld, where history is "ramified," where life branches off?" (Lerer, p. 225)

The problem is that this picture doesn't really resemble Tolkien's work at all. At best you could say that the long lean wolves and the tree's graceful limbs are vaguely reminiscent of some of Pauline Baynes' work, but not Tolkien's own.

Nor does it bear Tolkien's initials anywhere that I can see.

Nor is it attributed to Tolkien in Gordon's original book (in my copy, a trade paperback of the 2nd edition as revised by A. R. Taylor, this piece appears on page 196). Gordon's book includes a half dozen or so illustrations -- most famously the drawing of Hrolf Kraki's Hall that helped inspired Tolkien's picture of Beorn's Hall in THE HOBBIT -- but none of them is credited to a specific artist. Indeed, in ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [1995] Wayne & Christina even attribute the mead-hall drawing to Gordon himself (p 122 & 124), although so far as I can tell this is just an educated guess on their part (i.e., if any documentation exists to confirm their ascription, I'm not aware of it). Now Lerer has gone further and attributed another of the drawings to Tolkien himself, without offering any explanation of why he thinks this piece is by Tolkien -- not even a passing reference or footnote.

Without any evidence to support the claim, and the strikingly non-Tolkienian nature of the artwork itself (esp. when compared with the work JRRT was doing circa 1927, like THE BOOK OF ISHNESS and ROVERANDOM), this seems to be a false ascription. But I'd be interested in hearing if anyone has seen it before. Does it originate with Lerer -- i.e., is the "attributed" in the caption on page 226 no more than a reference back to his own assertion on page 225? -- or is he picking it up from another source? If he has a source, what is it? Is it reliable or otherwise? Given the nature of false information to linger on and on no matter how many times it's been refuted, I worry that once such a claim has been made it'll pop up from time to time no matter what the evidence or lack of it.

--John R.

current reading: ARDA RECONSTRUCTED by Douglas Kane, ALL WHAT JAZZ? by Philip Larkin.

UPDATE (Th. June 4th):
I've gone back and corrected one error and one typo; thanks to Jason for pointing them out in the comments.