Friday, April 30, 2010

Aotrou and Itroun

So, yesterday I was doing some work on The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and noticed a line in the poem which may help internally date when the story is taking place:

The day wore on till it was old
she heard the bells that slowly tolled.
"Good folk, why do they mourning make?
In tower I hear the slow bells shake,
and Dirige the white priests sing
Whom to the churchyard do they bring?"
—lines 425-430

The key is in the reference in line 429 to "white priests". If we assume that this is a reference to the Cistercians (founded 1098), who were traditionally known as "the White Monks", then it means the action of the poem can't be taking place before circa 1100. The Cistercians underwent a boom of expansion in the early decades of the twelfth century under the missionary zeal of Bernard of Clairvaux; I haven't come across when they penetrated into Britanny, but in any case the evidence, such as it is, suggests the action might be taking place in the twelfth century — just in time to inspire "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun", which takes the form of a thirteenth century Breton Lay.

Maybe, maybe not; just thought I'd share.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tolkien Documentary (I)

So, I recently came across a Tolkien dvd I didn't think I'd seen before -- though at this point I've gotten the half-dozen or so that came out about the time of the Peter Jackson movies all mixed up. Some I know were good, others quite bad. But, as I say, after I while I forget which is which, or why the good ones were good, or what particular interesting bits were in which. So, I've decided to rewatch them all over the next few weeks and, if it seems worthwhile, to post a few notes here about each. Consider it a personal exercise in disambiguation.

And the first is the new one which just arrived day before yesterday: THE MASTER OF THE RINGS: THE UNAUTHORIZED STORY BEHIND J. R. R. TOLKIEN's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. With a name like this, and the thoroughly generic cover, it looks like one of the bottom-end among the Tolkien documentaries. But on the other hand, it's from Lion's Gate, who have done some good documentaries in the past.

Watching it, the thing I found most interesting is its complete lack of a narrative. With most documentaries, the filmmaker has an idea about the subject that he or she wants to get across, and he or she selects and arranges the material accordingly. Not here. Instead, MASTER OF THE RINGS offers a melange of episodes, each unrelated to the one before except that they're all in some way about Tolkien.

First, several Tolkien Society members talk about Tolkien's works -- and, to the filmmaker's credit, there's no attempt to make Tolkien fans look weird (as is all-too-often the case).

Second, a guy stands in front of houses where Tolkien lived in Oxford and talks some about Tolkien's life at the time. Unfortunately, his grasp on the details of Tolkien's biography is a little shaky; more on this latter.

Third, we have a too-long segment on what the film calls a larp but are really fantasy/medieval battle reenactments from a group called Dagorhir.

Fourth comes a segment where Humphrey Carpenter talks about Tolkien; although this only ran about three and a half minutes it was for me the highlight of the show. Plus, there were several further clips from the same interview later on. The best bits were (1) HC's observation that when Tolkien came to see his adaptation of THE HOBBIT Tolkien looked pleased at the parts from the original he'd retained and frowned at the parts Carpenter had changed, which pretty much says it all, and (2) HC on having a conversation with Tolkien: "he'd got bad at communicating, because he'd lived with it so long so he . . . never explained what he was talking about".

Fifth profiles a singer named Bob Catley who looks like David Lee Roth disguised as Ozzy Osbourne, who performs some songs from his album about Middle-earth.

Sixth features the pastor at Tolkien's neighborhood church, the one he attended when he lived up on Sandfield Road. This part was utterly charming; the guy obviously would have loved to have been there back in Tolkien's day. It's a v. simple little church; we do get to see where Tolkien usually sat, beside station #12 (= the twelfth station of the cross, I assume).

Seventh shows Roger Garland at work.

Eighth shows the Eagle and Child.

Ninth features Merton (quite untruthfully asserting that Tolkien was a "very popular professor . . . his lectures were always v. well attended") (HC chimes in to say no, not so much).

and finally Tenth briefly mentions the films, which were forthcoming at the time. Here the best quotes go to HC, who observes "the films will increase the size of his pedestal" and a TS member who worries that she "might not like it as much as I want to like it".

And periodically, punctuating it all, it returns to the guy standing in front of Tolkien's houses -- first at St. John Street and Alfred Street, then on Northmoor Road, then the house on Sandfield Road, the apartment at Merton, and finally at Wolvercote cemetery. You really think they would have gotten a guide who knew the details of Tolkien's life better than this fellow does -- he gets the general outlines right but makes a bad gaff at Sandfield Road when he points to the JRRT-lived-here plaque and claims that the dates given on it (1953-1968) are wrong -- in fact, he claims the Tolkiens went on living here right up to Edith's death in 1973. As my friend Anders once said in another context, "Wrong, wrong, wrong." Anyone can make a slip, I suppose, but this one seems particularly egregious since he's contradicting the true facts literally right in front of him. Ah well; I've seen worse distortions.

In the end, I decided that the 'assemblage' nature of the documentary was deliberate. The filmmaker I think wanted to show how people take Tolkien's work and make what they want out of it -- scholarship, music, mock-battles, painting, or whatever. The only connecting thread is Tolkien himself, and their joint love of his works.

Evaluation: you won't learn anything about Tolkien you didn't know before, but you might have an enjoyable time watching others convey the form their appreciation of his works takes. The best part are seeing the Oxford sites (including his favorite tree) and the HC bits; would that there were more.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Never Been To Spain*

So, what with one thing and another, I've been to most parts of this country at one time or another over the years, even if just passing through -- a conference in Florida, a symposium in Massachusetts, a research trip to Austin. But one area I've never visited has been the southwest: in all that vast block I've never been further west than east Texas or further south than the Bay area. There's a lot to see down there (Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and much much more), so we were thinking of going to Arizona sometime in the next year or two.

But now, with the new Jim Crow law they've just enacted, I'm thinking not so much. The idea that you can be arrested if you step outside to walk down to the mailbox without carrying your driver's license and birth certificate or passport with you is disconcerting, to say the least. I wdn't want to live in a state like that, much less visit.

As for the law itself, I wdn't think of it as much more than a sign of Arizona's slide into failed-state mentality, kind of like Zimbabwe or Somalia, if I thought it wd be impartially enforced -- i.e., if John McCain got pulled over and forced to prove his citizenship as often as the average Hispanic. But in practice I can't see it as anything other than sheer racism, and hence unconstitutional -- like the Jim Crow laws, which were only ever enforced to one ethnicity's disadvantage (e.g., white voters were tacitly exempted from literacy tests and poll taxes). The irony of an illegal law to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants adds a level of weirdness to the whole thing: who do they think they're fooling? Does anyone doubt for a moment that if the Hispanics they're targeting weren't ethnically distinct -- say, if it were a case of Idaho being overrun with Canadians -- that they'd have this new law?

It's disheartening to find that we haven't come that far from the kind of thinking that underlay the anti-Chinese laws of the mid-1800s, designed to combat the mythical threat of 'the Yellow Peril' (which took the form then of dirt-poor men doing back-breaking work laying railroad tracks). You have to wonder why the Haves (white, middle-class) are so desperately afraid of the Have Nots -- guilty conscience, perhaps? Maybe sometimes you just have to lie to yourself rather than admit you're just looking for someone who doesn't look like you to blame all your troubles on.

All this is more ironic given the backdrop of an ongoing Seattle case Janice pointed out to me, where a man was arrested for not giving his name to an officer

The main focus of the article is about his having proved the police hid evidence that supported his account of the incident, but re. our topic there's one particularly telling line (emphasis mine):

Rachner's criminal defense attorney sought dismissal of his gross misdemeanor charge, citing the Washington State Supreme Court decision that says arresting a person for nothing more than withholding identification is unconstitutional. One reason cited by the court: This practice allows police too much discretion to pick targets and punish with arrest. Also, the state constitution is more protective of these rights than the U.S. constitution.

That's right: refusing to identify yourself is a constitutional right in the state of Washington.

Janice also pointed out one more curious thing about the Arizona law: where are the people who, just a few years ago, were up in arms denouncing the idea of a National Identity Card? Or are they suddenly for it, so long as it applies to other people, and imagine that they'd themselves somehow be exempt?

In any case, for our part we've decided not to take a trip to Arizona anytime in the foreseeable future. New Mexico, perhaps.


*As for this post's name, it comes from the old Three Dog Night song, which I've been hearing over and over in my head these last few days:

Well I've never been to Heaven
But I've been to Oklahoma
Well they tell me I was born there
But I really don't remember
In Oklahoma
Not Arizona
What does it matter?
("Never Been to Spain" [1971])

Postscript: Since I drafted this, a California congressman has come forward to advocate the deportation of American citizens related to illegal aliens. Guess he wanted to prove not all the racists are in Arizona. Would that they were. --JDR

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Merton Photo

So, after discussing an unfamiliar photo of JRRT in a recent comment on a recent post, I went back to see if I cd find where I'd first come across it. And, with a little digging, I did: it was in David Barratt's little book, C. S. LEWIS AND HIS WORLD [1991], page 21. I'd been impressed by this book, which unlike most picture-heavy books actually included text that made a serious critique of Lewis's work instead of offering up the usual fluff, but what impressed me most was that he printed a photo of Tolkien I'd never seen before. In fact, I've been wondering in retrospect if I myself might have been Blackwelder's source, especially since it wasn't in the original version of his book, PHOTOS AND SKETCHES OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN [n.d. -- circa 1983?], which I also have a copy of.

Not so, it turns out, since his image (in the 1993 expanded edition, TOLKIEN PORTRAITURE) includes the original caption from its apparent first publication (wherever that was), while Barratt's reproduction has its own caption ("Professor J. R. T. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in his study at Merton College, Oxford"). And, just for the record, Barratt in his Photograph acknowledgments credits BBC Hutton Picture Library for this image.

By the way, while searching for something else today on WorldCat, to my surprise I discovered a copy of Dr. Blackwelder's never-published book listed (the 1993 version, I think), w. myself given as one of the assisting authors:

This turns out to be Marquette's copy, wh. Dr. Blackwelder would have given them along with the rest of his bequest. So I assume any researcher who visits the Special Collection there shd be able to consult it for themselves. Just don't be disappointed by the poor quality of the photocopy reproductions of the photos and drawings; the pictures are recognizable but much of the detail is lost, since this was just a working project, not anything finalized for publication.

Still, it's a handy referent, and shows how interesting a full-fledged book on the topic would be. I'd love to see a book someday similar to THE PORTRAITS AND DAGUERREOTYPES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE (by Michael J. Deas [1989]), which reproduces, in sequence, every known surviving photo or contemporary painting of Poe.* But I don't think we'll be getting one anytime soon.

In any case, as I said in my most recent Simon Tolkien post -- hooray! Today we get a new Tolkien photo!

--John R.

*a collection made all the more interesting by the little-known fact that Poe only grew his moustache the last four years of his life; before that he'd had sideburns.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Simon Tolkien Interview

So, checking the morning news, I just discovered that up on Huffington Post/Books Simon Tolkien has a short piece about himself, and how he became a writer, and a few memories of his grandfather. Worth checking out:

Also, even better, if you go to the Books mainpage (, you'll see a photo of JRRT with young Simon, a v. nice informal photo I've never seen before. Now if I cd only figure out how to make a photocopy of it from their header . . .


The Tea Tree

So, for several years now I've thought it wd be nice to have a tea tree -- since I drink so much tea, and get so much enjoyment out of it, taking care of one just felt like nice payback. And now, thanks to a gift from Anne & Siegfried (many thanks!), I have one.*

To be specific, my new Camellia sinensis ('Chinese camellia') turns out to have been "grown from seed harvested in Sochi, Russia". I knew the Russians loved tea** but hadn't thought it grew so far north --though Sochi turns out to be about as far south as Russia gets (the Georgian coast of the Black Sea), and I only recently got some Turkish tea that said it'd been grown on the Black Sea, so I guess that all fits.***

In any case, it's currently a healthy-looking little shrub about two feet high, which I just repotted this morning into what was, last year, a tomato planter. I'll be curious to see if it eventually flowers once it gets established. Luckily, according to the label, and I quote, it's "plenty hardy". I don't know how big it'll get -- the two camellias (or 'winter roses', as I liked to call them) at Williamson Street, alas destroyed when the house was knocked down, had grown over the course of a half-century to be about eight feet tall, and there's a pair on an abandoned lot on Meeker Street in downtown Kent I sometimes walk past that must be thirty feet: by far the biggest camellias I've ever seen and larger than I thought they cd get. Our new friend's label says it cd grow to eight to ten feet, but I suspect that in a pot it won't reach anything near that height.

At any rate, it's nice to have a Tea Tree of our own at last. I think I'll name him 'Camel'.

And, coincidently enough, I also learned this weekend that someone has finally rebuffed the old canard that drinking tea dehydrates you:

Given that they mention people over forty whose tea drinking makes up 70% of their fluid intake, I wonder what they'd make of someone who hits 100% on an average day?


*my several attempts to grow one from seed having failed utterly.

**a fact I learned from the climax of a bad spy novel in Readers Digest years and years ago, where a clever Soviet spy gave himself away by accepting a cup of tea rather than asking for coffee, like a true-blue American wd have done. gah. But then, I learned about the Iron Crown of Lombardy from a Richie Rich comic; you just never know where you'll pick up something interesting from.

***And a quick check at wikipedia confirms that the NE coast of Turkey -- i.e., the part of Turkey closes to Georgia -- has been home to a Turkish tea industry since the 40s & 50s, including a "Tea Research Insitute" that's about the same age I am.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Book of Jonah: Lost at Sea?

So, day before yesterday I got a notification from that they were canceling my pre-order of JRRT's THE BOOK OF JONAH, after having deferred shipping several times. Why? Because, according to amazon,

We are no longer able to offer this item for sale.
Our supplier has informed us that this item
has been discontinued and is no longer available. here in the U.S. doesn't provide much more information, and I wasn't able to trace down anything useful on the publisher's website. So for now, I guess we'll wait and see. Pity; it sounded like quite an interesting book, and a light on Tolkien we don't usually see.
And I was wondering whether they wd bring in the 14th century GAWAIN-poet connection, with PATIENCE. Ah well.

--John R.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Gandalf's Garden"

So, while getting together some of my recent Tolkien books to find places for them among my overfull shelves, I noticed something in the Richard Rudgley book (PAGAN RESURRECTION) I'd overlooked: three Tolkien-related photos.

The first shows Tolkien in his study (at Merton, I assume).

The second shows an eight-story-high poster of Ian McKellan as Gandalf, hanging from the outside of a New Zealand post office.

The third, and most interesting of all, shows the storefront of London's infamous GANDALF'S GARDEN (described in the text as a "hippy cafe" and yoga center) -- I've heard about the magazine of the same name associated with this group, but hadn't known much about the associated store, which I'd vaguely assumed was a bookstore/head shop. Apparently no. Too bad the image is in black and white, since it's obviously a colourful spread.

And, as long as I'm commenting on the book's illos, I shd have mentioned the oddest one here:* what is, according to its caption, Rudolf Steiner's dust jacket design for Bulwer-Lytton's THE COMING RACE. I had no idea Steiner was an artist, as well as a world-class occultist. Given that Rudgley dates the drawing "c.1923", it must have been done at the v. end of Steiner's life. Interesting!


*and yes, that does include the photo of a nudist neopagan ceremony from the 'twenties. ick!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clever Crows

So, want to see even more evidence of just how clever crows and rooks are?

Exhibit one: New Caledonian Crows (one of the world's smartest animals)

Exhibit two: Rooks show their stuff as well.

Pretty good showing from the dinosaurs, eh?

current reading: THE HOUSE WHERE NOBODY LIVED: A John Bellairs novel by Brad Strickland [2006]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Newest Publication: THE 100 BEST FAMILY GAMES

So, today brought a package from Green Ronin that, when opened, turned out to contain my contributor's copy of Jim Lowder's THE 100 BEST FAMILY GAMES. This is the follow-up to THE 100 BEST HOBBY GAMES [2007], also edited by Jim, and to which I also contributed an essay*. You can't very well follow up a book that includes "100 Best" in its title with another titled 'the next best' or '100 honorable mentions' or even '100 more games you might like', so I thought it canny of Jim to shift gears a bit and change the focus for this second volume in the series.

Even on a brief skimming, it's an impressive array of essays by an impressive collection of people; I'm honored to be included. The games featured range from universal favorites like RISK and CLUE and MONOPOLY and even BATTLESHIP to lesser-known cult hits like KILL DOCTOR LUCKY.

My own choice for a game that's a keeper for the ages was DOGFIGHT, one of the old American Heritage games from the early sixties and a longtime favorite of mine when I was growing up. I enjoyed Battle Cry (their Civil War game) and thought Broadsides (their War of 1812 game) fun enough,** but Dogfight, their WWI flying aces game, was always far and away my favorite of the lot. I just hope I was able to convey a little of why it was such a good game.

Kudos to Jim for having conceived of the project and brought it to fruition -- a herculean task that required co-ordinating a hundred freelancers. To do that once was impressive; to willingly do it twice a marvel. Here's hoping the book does well and inspires people to pull old games back off the shelf or try a new one they've never played before.


*on MYTHOS, the wonderful but alas defunct CALL OF CTHULHU ccg.

**though they carefully avoided telling us we LOST that war, something I only discovered years later. funny, that.

More forthcoming projects that are all done and awaiting publication (as opposed to those I'm still in the process of working on, like my Kalamazoo paper): an essay in a forthcoming book, a guest editorial in a journal, and two reviews.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bainbridge Island

So, yesterday our planned meeting of the book group fell apart on us due to a lot of complications on a lot of people's part. We had been intending to meet at the Teahouse Kuan Yin in Ballard (west of the university district) to discuss the Percy Jackson novel THE LIGHTNING THIEF, but with the afternoon unexpectedly free, we decided this wd be a good time to visit Bainbridge Island, adding it to our successful 'visit-an-island-in-the-Sound' trips, starting with last year's trips to Whidbey Island and then, a few months later, San Juan.

Bainbridge Island is much closer and much easier to reach: we just drove down to the Tukwila park-and-ride, took the light rail up to Pioneer Square, walked from there down to Pier 52, and took the ferry across to Eagle Harbor. Arriving at the August Moon Teahouse, we found it is no more, calling for a change in plan. So we strolled about a bit, stopping in a nice local bookstore (Eagle Harbor Books: "independent since 1969") which apparently does a lot of book signings and promotions of local authors. Another place had some really nice antiques and art pieces, including a Naga door and some 4,000 year old Mongolian pots, but our search for a place to sit down and enjoy a nice pot of tea continued to elude us.

One place, a candle store called Paraffine, sold tea, but it turned out to be tea leaves (in many different varieties, packaged in Finland), not tea you could drink then and there. I hadn't realized the Finns were big tea drinkers -- though it does make a kind of sense; I knew the Russians loved tea, and the Russia had ruled over Finland for a good bit of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but it hadn't occurred to me that any acculturation had taken place. I departed, three packets of tea (Sir Robert's Blend, Manor Blend, and Assam TGFOP) and three candles (a sm. yellow, a black pyramid, and a red spiced beeswax votive) the richer.

Not far away was Churchmouse Yarns & Teas, but here again there turned out to be no tea-drinking, only dry tea; we departed from there with 3 oz of their Canadian Breakfast and a free sampler of their Churchmouse Winter blend ("Created especially for Churchmouse Yarns & Teas by Steven Smith Teamaker").

And then, finally, we came across the Blackbird Bakery (and not where our map said we wd), where in addition to pastries and the like you cd buy a large pot of tea and take it outside to relax and enjoy a nice hot cup. So we sat outside, enjoyed our tea, talked about the RIck Riordan book (we both liked the whole series), and watched an industrious little sparrow take care of any crumb anyone might drop.

After that we wandered back down to the ferry, took it back across (turns out you can see Seattle quite distinctly from the Bainbridge harbor, well enough that even someone with my eyesight cd make out the Space Needle to the north and stadium to the south. Reversing our earlier sequence got us home long before dark, where the cats all insisted it must be suppertime. A pleasant trip, if less memorable than the Whidbey and San Juan ones.

Next time, we'll give Vashon a try.

current reading: the CATH MAIGE TUIRED [11th century], tr. Eliz. Gray [1983]

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Simon Tolkien Interview

So, Simon Tolkien (son of Christopher, son of JRR) has his second novel out, a historical mystery called THE INHERITANCE. I haven't seen this yet, but thanks to Wendell Wagner's April 13th post on the MythSoc list I fd out about the following NPR interview (almost an hour long). Well worth a listen, if you're at all interested in Tolkien's extended family. Pity they keep asking him questions about things that happened decades before he was born, or in which he was not in any way involved, rather than focus on his own memories; it's his own memories of his grandfather that I most valued.

It's also available through Itunes for download as a free podcast (thanks to Jo Foster, again at the MythSoc list, for this news).


Friday, April 16, 2010

Whale-Hunting as "Research"?

So, last night I was flabbergasted to see a report on a news show about whale-hunting which happened to mention that the Japanese claim all the whale-killing they do is for "scientific research". Today I did a little checking and fd out it was quite true:

Apparently this is one of those things everybody else knew that I somehow missed all these years: that we're not supposed to have known they were eating all those whales they caught every year. Given the vast depths of hypocrisy involved on the whale-killers' part, I wdn't expect much from the proposed agreements mentioned in the article. I suspect Greenpeace wd be better off if they mounted a major divestment campaign instead, and will be curious to see if they follow that route.

On a different but still whale-related note, I also discovered yesterday while reading a book about mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs, that the phenomenon of whales beaching themselves goes way back: it was known to Aristotle (4th century BC), who wrote "It is not known for what reason they run themselves aground on dry land; at all events, it is said that they do so at times, and for no obvious reason" (SEA DRAGONS: PREDATORS OF THE PREHISTORIC OCEANS by Richard Ellis [2003], page 18*). And, of course, remarkably enough we still don't know the answer today. Given the traditional misinformation about whales in the medieval bestiaries I'd been reading up on the week before last (parodied in Tolkien's "Fastitocalon"), it came as something of a shock to find some accurate information on the subject from antiquity.


*unfortunately, Ellis does not provide a citation as to just where Aristotle says this

Thursday, April 15, 2010


So, yesterday I was struck by an idea. So today I looked up some dates and did a little math.

Janie Moore's age when Lewis met and fell in love with her: just turned 45.

Lewis's age when he fell in love with Joy Gresham: 58.

I get the impression that a lot of people are incredulous that CSL could have fallen in love with someone as old as Janie Moore, but no one seems to doubt that Joy Gresham fell head over heels for someone as old as Lewis.

Odd, that.


Tolkien on April Fool's

So long as I'm looking backwards, here are two links I shd have posted two weeks ago but didn't get to at the time. They're still funny, so here they are, albeit belatedly: the two best Tolkien-related April Fool's spoofs I saw.

The first came courtesy of David Bratman's post to the MythSoc list. This traveller's guide to Mordor confirms, for anyone that didn't already know it, that one does not simply walk into Mordor -- at least without regretting it.

The second, and much more surprising, comes courtesy of Jim Lowder (thanks Jim). I'd seen a few signs that Moorcock was mellowing in his old age, but I have to say I was really impressed by his ability to laugh at himself here. Good for him.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Few More Photos

Finally, here are a few more Tolkienesque vacation photos from the Redwoods trip.

The low building with a round hobbithole-like door is a Yurok house, one of several (four I think) in Sumeg, the reconstructed Yurok village in Patrick's Point state park. Inside there's a ledge all round and a log-ladder going down into a dugout area where the firepit is. The village is still in use by the Yurok tribe for ceremonies, so some areas are restricted.

The dragon was in a gift shop in Newport -- I'd gotten one of two cat statues in a shop by the harbor when we were last there, five years or so ago, and hoped to find the other I'd passed on during this trip. No such luck, but I did see this appealing brass dragon, which I thought I'd share.

The tree was my favorite redwood (along with the fallen Dyerville Giant): The Corkscrew Tree. V. entish, I thought. Except that ents are much too small -- wasn't Treebeard about twenty feet tall? That wouldn't even come up to a tenth the size of these trees, which average about three hundred feet.

Anyway, enjoy! We certainly did.

--John R.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hobbiton USA photo gallery

So, now that we have our pictures back from the vacation, I find that the ones showing as much of Hobbiton USA as you can see from the road actually give a pretty good idea of the place. So I thought I'd share. I'm not sure how well this will work, but here goes:

Hm. The sequence got totally screwed up, but the pictures seem to have come out okay.

The New Arrival: Strange Bedfellows

So, the latest in a string of recent orders of Tolkien books arrived on Saturday, and it's probably the strangest of the lot: PAGAN RESURRECTION by Richard Rudgley. This came out four years ago without my noticing it -- not surprising, since its main topic is Odin-worship (not exactly this Presbyterian's forte) and what he sees as its revival in various forms in modern times. But how cd I resist, once I fd out it had a chapter on Tolkien -- esp since Rudgley wrote THE LOST CIVILISATIONS OF THE STONE AGE [1998], probably my favorite book on prehistory.*

Well, it's now here and I've read the Tolkien chapter (Chapter XIV: An English Mythology), which turns out to be only seven pages long and, as its title indicates, focuses on Tolkien's drawing on Norse sources in creating his Mythology for England. I'm glad to report that it's pretty solid, if not groundbreaking.

The strange part is that here we see Tolkien in a context in which, thankfully, he rarely appears. The chapter before the one devoted to Tolkien (Chapter XIII: The Dark Lord of the Rings) is about the influence of Norse myth on the Nazis, opening with a quote from Heinrich Himmler -- the rings of the chapter's title are the SS deathhead's rings they got upon being sworn in. The chapter after the one on Tolkien (Chapter XV: The Possessed) that looks at mass murderers, serial killers, and school shooters, starting with an overview of Charles Manson's career. Yikes.

On a less sinister note, he also discusses Bulwer-Lytton and, at least in passing, Rudolf Steiner, Max Muller, &c., and for some reason reproduces a v. nice picture of Snorri Sturluson's house (or actually the foundation thereof). Here's a quote that I think gives a pretty good idea of the flavor of his book:

"Odin has been identified as the prototype of Father Christmas and the inspiration for Tolkien's wizard Gandalf, yet his sinister presence is implicated in the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler as well as in the depravities of modern American serial killers. Is the pagan legacy to be found in the demonic ravings of the Ruhrer or in the gentle yet hypnotic attraction of the Lord of the Rings, or do both tell part of the tale? . . . Bearing in mind what we know of Odin's complex character and moral ambiguity, that the archetype could actually be manifesting in all these ways simultaneously cannot be ruled out and in fact obeys its own particular logic. One thing at least is clear: Tolkien the novelist and philologist, Jung the Psychologist, and Duclos the sociologist all claim that myths are alive and affect us today. All three see the power of northern myths at work in different ways in our culture." (pages 173-174)

No index, so I can't tell if there are other passing references to Tolkien in it; if so, I suspect they're pretty minor. More later if, on a full reading, results warrant.


*Rudgley argues that many of the elements that make up 'civilization' --use of fire, living in villages, art, domesticated animals, weaving baskets to store food, some limited agriculture**, &c.--were already present ten, twenty, maybe thirty thousand years ago. So it's not 'a lost civilization' as in Atlantis but as in we underestimate our ancestors and how much they were like us.

(**which he believes started to secure access to reliable supplies of inebriates and hallucinogens, not food)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Buy Them An Island

So, it turns out that there's a report that was prepared for the Vatican about what to do about pedophile priests.

A priest who specialized in investigating those who grossly abuse their office (molest children, having affairs with their parishioners, things like that), Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, spent twenty years researching the problem and concluded, in a personal report to the pope, that there was no rehabilitating them. His recommendation: remove them from contact with the public as the only sure way to prevent them sinning again. In fact, to totally isolate them, he suggested buying an island, setting up some kind of facility there, and then assigning them all to it so as to completely cut them off from the lay population and stop them from doing further harm.

The kicker? Fr. Fitzgerald submitted his report in 1963.

That's right. Almost half a century ago the Church was warned there was a serious problem, and that the only solution was to isolate the predators from their prey. If only they had acted on it at the time, what a different world we'd be in today.

Ah well. What a world, what a world, what a world.


P.S.: On a lighter note, I discovered today that there's apparently a serious Beatles fan in the Vatican, which is a nice thought:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The New Arrival: Expensive!

So, another book I ordered at the same time as the Robinson, and had similarly held off on previously because of its expense, I found waiting for me when we got back from the Redwoods:

THE POWER OF TOLKIEN'S PROSE: MIDDLE-EARTH'S MAGICAL STYLE by Steve Walker [2009]. Unlike the Robinson that arrived just before the trip, this one is a hardcover (from Palgrave Macmillan). Despite its relatively slim size of 173 pages of text (or a total of 213 once you add in notes/bibl/index), it costs a whopping $80 -- more than you'd pay for H&S's two-volume COMPANION & GUIDE set on amazon.

I can't put up an interim report on this one, because it turns out to be impossible to skim. It's a dense-argued, carefully written examination of a major topic that's gotten remarkably little attention over the years: Tolkien's style as a writer -- how he achieves the effects he does with his prose. It's a topic I'm greatly interested in -- it was after all the main focus of my TOLKIEN STUDIES piece. It looks like Walker builds on Brian Rosebury's excellent but too-little-read 1992 book, but aside from noting that Walker & I seem to reach the same conclusion (p. 172), I can't say much more than that without giving it the slow, careful reading it deserves. And so the 'must-read' pile just got a little higher.

So, highly welcome, but definitely not a fast read.

One interesting side-note: Walker is a professor at Brigham Young University. Of the five authors who provide back-cover blurbs I don't think I've come across any Tolkien work from any of them before, aside from Orson Scott Card. Two are listed as the author of books on Tolkien I d never heard of, which on checking turn out to be an honors' thesis and a master's thesis -- both of which sound interesting, esp the first.* I was not aware of work being done on Tolkien from that quarter, so that's a new discovery for me.

*Jeff Swift, "The Horror of War: Tolkien's Realistic Representation of Battle in The Lord of the Rings." Honors thesis, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2008.

Jonathan Langford, "Pathways into Maturity: Coming-of-Age among Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings." Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1990.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another Small Victory

So, today the scales said I've officially lost fourteen pounds* since the 11th of January, when I set-to to try to take off some of the holiday weight and roll back the slow gain over the last few years.

Hooray! Thank you again, Dr. Atkins.

Having met my interim goal, I feel better about this summer's upcoming trips -- it's always harder to eat right on the road, but this gives me more cushion to work with.

Now, if I can lose another seven pounds, I'll be at my goal weight. It'll take a while, but here's hoping.

--John R.

*fourteen pounds: not bad, but I got cats larger than that! twenty-one wd outweigh even Mr. Feanor.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Musicologist 'Hearts' Shore

So, here's a little piece I came across a while back, then lost track of, which has just turned up again, announcing a forthcoming book about the Howard Shore soundtracks to the Peter Jackson movies:

Apparently the book is still forthcoming, since I cdn't find an entry for it on amazon, and what looks to be the author's blog ( still refers to it as "upcoming" (the full title of his blog being THE OFFICIAL AUTHOR'S BLOG FOR THE UPCOMING BOOK THE MUSIC OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS: A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO HOWARD SHORE'S SCORES).

I'm a bit surprised by the idea of listening to film scores in concert, like they were today's equivalent to the classical symphony. But then over the years I've found that my friends more and more buy soundtracks and listen to them a lot (mainly as background noise during gaming), whereas I'm unlikely to buy a soundtrack except to remind me of the movie (the sole exception I can think of being A FISH NAMED WANDA, where I'd just really liked the music).* Apparently I'm in a shrinking minority here. I don't know if Mr. Adams' comment about hints of Sibelius are right or not, not being familiar with the Finnish master; all Shore owed to Wagner, I wd think, is the idea of the liefmotifs (admittedly, a major element in Shore's three soundtracks). The Mahler I can see; there's that general feeling of 'Symphony from a New World' in places. I guess we'll see whether or not the eventual book is something the non-musicological can follow and enjoy.

In any case, it seems to be a timely topic: in addition to this book there are at least three others either recently out or soon to be released about Tolkien and music, none of which unfortunately I've seen:

First, there's Matthew Young's PROJECTING TOLKIEN'S MUSICAL WORLDS, which I haven't bought yet because I thought the price ($54 for 92 pages) prohibitive.**

Also, there's the recently released MUSIC IN MIDDLE-EARTH, the latest collection from Walking Tree Press, ed by Heidi Steimel & Friedhelm Schneidewind. Apparently, from the entry, this is a fairly wide-ranging collection, but details are lacking.

Finally, there's the forthcoming book by Bradford Lee Eden, due out from McFarland next month (just too late for Kalamazoo, unfortunately).

Apparently an idea whose time has come.


*I wd have bought the LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM for the lively performance of a traditional dragon-song in it, but cdn't find it available.

**there is an informative review, by Jason Fisher, in MYTHLORE (vol. 28 no. 1-2, pages 175-179)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

THe New Arrival: Puzzling

So, the day before we left for our trip the latest Tolkien book I'd ordered arrived, an eight hundred page, fifty dollar tome. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so the following are a few impressions based on some skimming.

The book:

Preliminary comments:
(1) eight hundred page books really shd have indexes. The absence of one here means any passage that catches yr eye is pretty hard to find again. For instance, so far as I can tell from the Table of Contents there's only one two-page section of this book devoted to THE HOBBIT (pages 260-261), and it concerns itself entirely with retelling (not entirely accurately) the story of how that book got published.

(2) the author starts off by listing fourteen authors he prefers to Tolkien (pages 11-12).* This cd be seen as A Bad Sign: if he feels that way, why not writing about them instead? Why not a book on Le Guin's Earthsea and its two film adaptations, the horrible Sci-Fi channel miniseries and the Miyazaki Jr. anime? Answer: because, being about LeGuin, only a fraction of people wd buy it compared to those who'll buy a book about the Tolkien films sight unseen.

(3) similarly, Robinson lists fourteen directors he wd have preferred to have worked on the LotR films over Jackson (page 345), including Kurosawa (who's dead), David Lean (likewise), Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Borman, Orson Welles, and, most bizarre of all, Sam Peckinpah (!). This, despite his belief that some of those he names "none . . . would be quite right for Tolkien's kind of story". The mind boggles.

(4) however, it's hard to take Robinson's Jackson-bashing seriously, once you realize he hates the Peter Jackson films so much that he tries to denigrate them through a point-by-point comparison with Bakshi's cartoon, which he much prefers. For example, he attacks Jackson for having some characters undergo so much make-up and prosthetics that it interferred with their ability to express facial emotion (page 341).** Fair enough. But then in the very next sentence of the same paragraph he praises Bakshi for having his actors wear masks so it was quicker to get them ready for filming. This makes sheer nonsense of his argument.

(5) Robinson has a casual approach to accuracy. Sometimes these are simply slips ("Christopher Manlove", "R. Purhtill").*** Others seem to reveal a superficial knowledge of the material. For example, Roy Campbell and Roger Lancelyn Green ought not to be listed as members of the Inklings (page 39). Elaine Griffiths did not "[work] at Allen & Unwin's offices (on Tolkien's recommendation)" (page 260). Christopher Wiseman did not die on the Western Front in 1917, as Robinson claims (page 25) -- as I can personally testify, having met him in 1981 and again in 1985. Robinson also occasionally makes up details in what's meant to be facetious mockery of Jackson's work (e.g., pages 340 and 344), so you never really know if what he's saying is true, meant to be true, deliberately false in an attempt at humorous exaggeration, or simply wrong.

(6) even more oddly, Robinson seems to forget what he's written from one paragraph to the next. For example, he includes "The Immigrant Song" in a short list of Celtic-inspired Led Zeppelin songs (page 192), then on the next page (accurately) notes that the song is told from the point of view of a Viking raider -- which is not v. airy-fairy Celtic at all. And let's not even get into his describing their song "Kashmir" as another of their Celtic-themed songs (does he even know that Kashmir is not in Wales but on the India/Pakistan border?)

(7) At first I thought the book improved and the accuracy picked up when I got to the part about the films (500 pages out of the 800 page total), then realized I needed to evoke Grubb's Law: just because I knew less about this material, and thus spotted fewer mistakes, didn't mean his accuracy had actually improved. On the whole, though, his giving his opinion is preferable to his giving facts about Tolkien's life and books, since I assume the opinions are genuine whether I agree with them or not, whereas an unknown but too high percentage of his 'facts' are just plain wrong.

In the end, I'm really left wondering who the audience for this book is. It's too long, and much too expensive, to tempt any casual reader. It's too careless to hold up as scholarship. It seems aimed at people who love Tolkien but despise the movies, yet who's going to spend fifty dollars to read eight hundred pages about a movie they dislike? Maybe things will become clearer to me on a more careful reading that are a little murky on a mere skim.

--John R.

Postscript: and I have just learned this weekend that Robinson also released a second book about Tolkien on the same day as this one: J. R. R. TOLKIEN: POCKET GUIDE (272 pages, $22). I confess that I suspect this is an abridged version of the larger book, with all the parts about the movies stripped out -- not least because the three paragraphs from its Introduction given on amazon ( appear, word-for-word identical, in the larger book.


*including Petrarch, D. H. Lawrence, Jn Cowper Powys, Henry Miller, Hardy, Chuang-tzu, Byron, and Le Guin.

**Rhys-Davies' Gimli being a case in point. It's to be hoped that Jackson & Co. simplified the dwarf make-up for the new HOBBIT movie, or there'll be real trouble here.

***every book has this type of regrettable lapse -- my own most cringeworthy offender in HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT being a passing reference I made to Jn Gower as the author of PIERS PLOWMAN -- gah! All you can do is keep them to an absolute minimum and fix them as soon as some sharp-eyed reader catches them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Las Bolas de Erech

So, day before yesterday Janice drew my attention to an interesting Central American variant on prehistoric monumental stones (to rank beside stone circles and monoliths and dolmans): the stone spheres of Costa Rica. These reminded me of the Olmec heads, except that those are much earlier (the petrospheres were apparently still being carved at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, which led to the extinction of the culture)* and in an entirely different area (further to the north and west). Here's the link:

Interesting as these are from an archeological perspective, I was also intrigued by the possibility of a Tolkien link here, given his description of the Stone of Erech:

". . . a black stone, round as a great globe,
the height of a man, though its half
was buried in the ground" (LotR.820)

Cf. the description of the stones from wikipedia,** which notes that the largest are "over 2 meters (6.6 ft) in diameter . . . Most are sculpted from gabbro, the ganitic equivalent of basalt" -- and indeed, although lightened by weathering several of those pictured in the BBC article are in fact black, though not the smooth shiny black I'd imagined while reading Tolkien's passage.

Could the Bolas, as they are locally known, have actually inspired Tolkien's Stone of Erech? As far-fetched as that first appears, it actually could have been possible. The stones were first discovered in the 1930s, and drawn to the attention of the archeological community when Doris Stone published an article about them ("A Preliminary Investigation of the Flood Plain of the Rio Grande de Terraba, Costa Rica") in a 1943 issue of the journal AMERICAN ANTIQUITY (vol. 9, no. 1; pages 74-88). I haven't yet had a chance to read this piece (that awaits my next visit to Suzzallo-Allen), but checking the Bodleian's online catalogue I note that they do have this issue, and the first mention of Tolkien's Stone seems to come about a year later, in October/November 1944 (cf. HME.VIII.234 & 262). And we know that Tolkien was interested in archeology, and subscribed to ANTIQUITY magazine (the British, not the American journal).***

So, possibly coincidental, but intriguing nonetheless -- and it might explain the oddity of the Stone of Erech, which seems distinctly unlike all the neolithic monuments scattered throughout the story. I'll post a follow-up after I've seen Doris Stone's original piece and find out whether it included any illustrations.


*I don't know if that extends to the people. Let's hope not.
***one of the mailers an issue came in is preserved among his manuscripts in the Bodelian (A29/1, fol. 1)

UPDATE (W.4/7-10):
I have now read Stone's original article, the most interesting feature of which was her stressing that stone balls have been found widely distributed, all the way from Tennessee through the Caribbean (Haiti, Puerto Rico) to the southernmost tip of South America. However, most of these are hand-sized, and probably used in games.

Aside from a single two-foot-diameter stone ball found at Veracruz, all the giant balls seem to be limited to the Terraba region of Costa Rica. Stone does include an evocative picture of one of the largest stones still half-buried in the ground (Plate IV, image f, opposite page 77) that could have inspired Tolkien's description of the stone at Erech.

Could have. But that one image is simply one among many accompanying an article whose rather dull title conceals the interesting topic within. All things considered, without some more direct tie it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have stumbled across this image or essay. Interesting though it is to find that this detail from his fantasy world has a real-world parallel, in all probability it's just co-incidence.

But if anyone comes across any collaboration, I'm listening . . .