Thursday, May 31, 2012

Well, This is a Weird Twist

So, pursuant to crossing a few 'i's and dotting a few 't's, as it were, re. Edmund Wilson and Tolkien, today I found a strange one.

I was already aware of the passing reference in a 1966 letter [LETTERS ON LITERATURE AND POLITICS, 1912-1972, p.660] where he notes his daughter's fondness for THE HOBBIT ("[she] read it or had it read to her innumerable times")* and concedes it must be a pretty good children's book, though noting he'd never read it himself (apparently he did not see reading aloud to the young daughter as one of his parenting duties).

Today I found a few new ones, all minor and all dating from the 1960s, but one came in such a strange context, and with odd connotations, that it floored me. Musing in old age (1967-68) on how much fuss sex has caused, good and bad, he suddenly veers (as Thorne Smith's Mr. Owen wd put it) into the following remarkable observation/assertion:

"Yet homosexuals don't seem to
have flowered and borne fruit,
don't seem to have fully matured:
Auden with his appetite for Tolkien."

(Edmund Wilson, THE SIXTIES, p. 642)
[posthumously published, 1993]

So, when in his famous Tolkien-bashing review back in 1956, when he concluded that "certain people, in England at least, have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash", was this code for homosexuals, conceived of like Waugh's Sebastian Flyte carrying his teddy bear around Oxford? I don't like to think it, but that seems to be the implication here.** By that interpretation, he approves of writers who by contrast include plenty of old-fashioned philandering, like JURGEN or (I'm told) many of the characters in MEMOIRS OF HECATE COUNTY, uncensored tales about traditionally male seducers of a long string of all-too-willing maidens, (other people's) wives, &c.

In any case, V. odd.

--John R.

*this wd be the same little girl who at age 7 loved THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

**in any case, he's quite wrong: LotR has never been a book adopted by and championed by the gay community, so far as I can tell. There have been one or two gay Tolkien scholars over the years, but that's far fewer than we might reasonably expect.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Something About Cats

So, here's the only line I know from ANCRENE WISSE, one of the three works upon which JRR Tolkien spent the bulk of his career:

ne schulen habbe na beast bute cat ane*

While Mary Salu** translates as

you must not keep any animal except a cat.

Given the context (advice to anchoresses about how to live godly contemplative lives), where the author forbids his readers from keeping a cow because it will involve her too much in worldly things, it seems cats are okay because they're self-keeping. Rather nice, though, to think about the hermit and her cat; a somewhat different mental image than I wd otherwise have had.

current reading: MY FRIEND RONALD (aka J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S DOUBLE WORLDS) by Arne Zettersten (just finished).

*Ms. Corpus Christi College Cambridge 402, folio 112b, lines 25-26
[JRRT edition = EETS vol. 249, p. 213]

**THE ANCRENE RIWLE [1955], p. 185

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tolkien and Cabell

So, while I'm on the topic, I shd mention (if I haven't already done so before) Tolkien's own opinion of James Branch Cabell.

I'd heard about this second-hand at Kalamazoo four years ago, where my topic for the ON FAIRY STORIES roundtable was Tolkien's knowledge of his fellow fantasists (e.g., MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, Eddison, Carroll, et al.). Now I'm able to confirm this from a second source: Arne Zettersten's J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S DOUBLE WORLD AND CREATIVE PROCESS (a.k.a. MY FRIEND RONALD). In one of the many passing mentions of some topic which Zettersten says he discussed with Tolkien at one point or another, A.Z. mentions sending Tolkien a newspaper article which argued that JRRT had been influenced by Cabell:

"Tolkien wrote back to me and denied forcefully that this was true. The next time we met he took up the matter again and maintained that he knew Cabell well, but that he had read only one of this books and that it was 'quite boring'." [Zettersten, p. 199]

So, looks like we can take it fairly good evidence that (a) Tolkien was aware of Cabell's work and (b) didn't think much of him. I've heard the book in question was Cabell's JURGEN [1917], certainly his most famous work, and one I wd expect Tolkien to find thoroughly uncongenial.

I do find myself wondering if Wilson and Cabell were among those Tolkien had in mind when he wrote in the Foreword to the LotR's second edition: Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writings that they evidently prefer. Ouch. Especially in the suggestion that at least some negative reviewers hadn't necessarily bothered to read the book they were criticizing.

No way to know for certain, I suppose. But interesting to speculate.


P.S.: I shd probably add that my own opinion of Cabell is considerably higher than was Tolkien's: while I haven't read anything like his full works, I do recommend first and foremost JURGEN; anyone who enjoys that might want to press on to read whichever of the following he or she comes across, in no particular order: FIGURES OF EARTH, SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, THE CREAM OF THE JEST, THE SILVER STALLION, and perhaps THE HIGH PLACE. All these were published in the decade from 1917 to 1927; of the books he wrote earlier, I've only read one, which I found underwhelming; of the ones I've read from his final three decades, all combined triviality, self-indulgence, and a real underlying nastiness (the latter already all too present in THE HIGH PLACE).

Maybe at some point I'll be able to revive my 'Classics of Fantasy' column; I'd planned to do Cabell's JURGEN in the next three or four titles I got to (after Howard and Vance). We'll see.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Edmund Wilson: wrong about everything

So, I was recently re-reading Edmund Wilson's piece on H. P. Lovecraft ("Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous", 1945), and found I'd missed his ding of Lord Dunsany that occurs in this piece in passing. In his discussion of SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE ("a really able piece of work"), Wilson says that Lovecraft "writes about [his special field] with much intelligence". He then nonetheless uses Lovecraft's admiration for Dunsany as evidence of his innate second-rateness:

"He shows his lack of sound literary taste in his enthusiasm for Machen and Dunsany, whom he more or less acknowledged as models".

While I wasn't aware of this Dunsany reference in Wilson, it's thoroughly in keeping with what I wd have expected. The only fantasy author I know of whom Wilson approved was James Branch Cabell, whom he admired for the satirical and salacious parts.

However, it turns out this was not always the case. In an earlier piece on H. L. Mencken [1926], he had taken Mencken to task as someone who "is never tired of celebrating the elegances of such provincial fops as Lord Dunsany, Hergesheimer, and Cabell, who have announced -- it is, I think, Mr. Cabell's phrase -- that they aim to 'write beautifully about beautiful things'." Here Wilson lumps Dunsany and Cabell (and the unknown-to-me Hergesheimer) among the dilettantes unworthy of serious attention.*

The same Dunsany-&-Cabell-among-the-goats attitude holds in the only other reference to Dunsany I've found so far among Wilson's reviews: this time in a 1928 piece on Thornton Wilder. Here he praises Wilder by contrasting him to Dunsany and Cabell: "he [Wilder] has a hardness, a sharpness, that sets him quite apart from our Cabells, our Dunsanys, our Van Vechtens and our George Moores. He has an edge that is peculiar to himself".

So, that Wilson wd disparage Tolkien was entirely in keeping with his decades-long disparagement of fantasy, even as practiced by the greats, like Dunsany and Tolkien. Which makes his changing his mind on Cabell all the more interesting: having attacked him when he was popular, he began to champion him after he'd slipped into obscurity. Partly this was Wilson's contrariness, which grew on him towards the end of his life, and partly it was due to his seeing his role as one who puffed the unjustly neglected and took down a peg those who were being praised more than he felt they deserved.

More on this later.

--John R.

*Mencken was well-known for promoting Dunsany and played a large part in introducing him to an American audience.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tolkien in Vermont

And, while I'm still on upcoming Tolkien conferences, it looks like next year I'll be able to make it to the 10th Annual Tolkien at the University of Vermont (Burlington). I've heard good things about this gathering for several years now, but never been able to make it before; this coming year, I gather their planned focus is going to be on THE HOBBIT. Here's a listing of their schedule for this current year, when their focus had been Tolkien's Bestiary:

More on this one as the date gets closer and I find out more details.


UPDATE: hm! This message was supposed to go out before the one about the Dublin conference. No harm in its coming third in the sequence rather than second, I suppose, esp. since I'll be posting more about this one as it approaches. Just one of the mysteries of blogger, I suppose.


Friday, May 25, 2012

And Another

While I'm at it, I shd mention another upcoming Tolkien conference I only found out about at Kalamazoo, at Gerald Hynes' presentation (in the session re. SIGURD & GUDRUN). While I won't be able to go to it, it sounds and interesting one: THE FOREST & THE CITY, being held at Trinity College, Dublin this September (the 21st-22nd). I remember going to Trinity College during the week I spent in Dublin researching my dissertation on Lord Dunsany in 1987.*

Looks like they have quite an impressive array of Tolkienists: Shippey, Verlyn, Dimitra Fimi, Drout, Henry Gee, &c. &c. Some of the topics sound good too, particularly Hynes' on deforestation and the Fall of Numenor (I assume in reference to the deliberate destruction of the White Tree).

Anyway, this one's definitely off the beaten track so far as venues for Tolkien conferences go, and all the more interesting for it. Hope they get a good turn-out and, given the amount of talent they have listed as speakers, a proceedings volume to follow. I know I'd want to read it.

Here's the link:

--John R.

*I remember being stunned at one point when I rounded a corner and saw, in a display case at the end of the row of bookshelves I'd just been looking at, the Book of Kells.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Another Upcoming Tolkien Conference

So, recently Jan Howard Finder got in touch with me to share the news about another in the series of Conferences on Middle Earth.

The first such event took place near the dawn of Tolkien studies, at the Univ. of Illinois (Urbana) back in 1969*

That was followed, two years later, by a second Conference on Middle Earth in Cleveland in 1971; among the presenters were Isaacs and Zimbardo, both Debbie and Ivor Rogers, and Richard West.**

According to Jared Lobdell's Introduction to A TOLKIEN COMPASS [1975], a third such conference was planned for Pleasantville, NY in 1973 but didn't take place; accordingly, he gathered together four papers from the First conference, four from the Second, and two submitted for the unheld Third to comprise that worthy tome.***

In fact, despite a thirty year delay, the long-expected Third Conference did indeed take place,**** though so far as I know no proceedings have been forthcoming from it yet.

And now comes word that a Fourth Conference on Middle-earth (for legal reasons called the Third Conference, Part 2) has been scheduled for Westford, Mass. in 2014. I have no idea whether I'll be able to make this or not, but wanted to help spread the word, esp. for those in the Boston/New England area.

Here's hoping they get a good turn out that and their conference is a good 'un.

--John R.

*here's a link that lists the papers presented, including Bonniejean Christensen's famous piece on changes in "Riddles in the Dark" between the first and second editions of THE HOBBIT:

***presumably one of these two additions is Richard's West's superb "Interlace" essay, given that it's not listed on either of the two conference schedules.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

review of my Bombadil article

So, had I had time and better access to the internet while at Kalamazoo, I wd have posted this the weekend before last (specifically, on the 11th). Better late than never in this case, I think.

It's a review of the new McFarland book PICTURING TOLKIEN, edited by Jan Bogstad & Phil Kaveny, in which I have an essay looking at the eight adaptations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS so far (films, unproduced scripts, radioplays, musical) and the different ways they handle the Bombadil material. I forget who gave Jan & Phil the link, but I'm grateful to them for passing it along to me.

Here's the review:

I'm particularly pleased by this review because (a) the reviewer says nice things about my essay, and I always like that, and (b) he or she concludes by saying that some of these essays actually have worthwhile things to say about the books and thus have a value that transcends just a discussion of the films.

If this were not enough, on the Teaching Tolkien roundtable at Kalamazoo one person (Jan B.) said mine was one of two essays from PICTURING TOLKIEN* she used in her course to help people get beyond the idea that a comparison or contrast between the film and the book had to end in praising one and condemning the other.

So, altogether I'm v. pleased that my Bombadil piece seems to have turned out okay. Now I have my fingers crossed that my next one, due out later this year, will also go down well. Guess we'll see.

--John R.
current book: MY FRIEND RONALD by Arne Zettersten (a.k.a. J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S DOUBLE WORLDS)
current audiobook: THE DARK IS RISING

*I think she said Verlyn Flieger's was the other

Monday, May 21, 2012

Houghton Mifflin hits a bump

So, many thanks to friend Matt for sending around the following link, with the news that Tolkien's American publisher (and thus MY American publisher), Houghton Mifflin, has filed for bankruptcy, having more than two billion in assets but more than three billion in debt.

Houghton Mifflin's mainly an educational publisher, but for decades they've been famous for having been the publishers of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, as well as most of Tolkien's other books, from LETTERS and THE ROAD GOES EVER ON to THE FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS and the whole HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH. And of course associated books such as both editions of THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT and all three editions (so far) of THE ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH, not to mention the American edition of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT as well.* Having been chosen by Sir Stanley Unwin as his American partner to help him sell a larger print run so many years ago turned out well for everyone concerned; they've survived his original British publisher by about two decades. Let's hope they make it through this trying time as well.

Here's the link:

* unfortunately, so far as I know they have no current plans to bring out an American edition of the revised & expanded second edition of H.o.H.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tolkien Unbound

So, lest anyone think Kalamazoo is all papers and panels and presentations, here's some video of the lighter side of medieval Tolkien scholarship: the Friday evening "Tolkien Unbound" session. In past years this has ranged from singing some of the Songs for the Philologists to a five-person reading of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. This year I was much taken with the comic opera version of FARMER GILES OF HAM -- but then FGH is a favorite of mine; I rank it v. high indeed (behind THE HOBBIT and LotR but able to hold its own against pretty much anything else Tolkien wrote.

This year, one of the performances got recorded and posted to You-Tube: thanks to Brad Eden for the links:

[part one]

[part two]

[part three]

Next year they're planning on staging a play of Hervor demanding the family heirloom, the cursed sword Tyrfing, from her father Angantyr (who was buried with it), a script by the late Ivor Rogers based on Christopher Tolkien's edition & translation of THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE. I'm already looking forward to it.

Oh, and the non-Tolkienists at Kalamazoo put on a skit on Saturday night spoofing Tolkienists as we appear to the mainstream medievalists in attendence -- which wd have been fun to see, but simply didn't work out as to my schedule. If anyone did make it, I'd be curious to hear how it went.

--John R.
current reading: THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Book I: The Ring Sets Out.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Valparaiso Tolkien Conference

So, now that it's been officially announced, I can talk about an upcoming Tolkien conference to be held next spring in Valparaiso, Indiana.

The featured speakers will be Verlyn Flieger, Douglas Anderson, and myself, so I'll be in good company as well as among friends.

If you're interested in celebrating the 75th anniversary of THE HOBBIT, this shd be a good way to do it.

Here's the link:

--John R.
current Dunsany play: MR. FAITHFUL

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kalamazoo 2012

So, early tomorrow morning I'm off to attend this year's Tolkien track at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo.

There's a handy-dandy listing of the Tolkien sessions here:

--alhough I must add, sadly, that two of the four people on the 75th Anniversary HOBBIT panel have had to bow out (Jane Beal and Jason Fisher). Too bad; I was looking forward to finding out what 'Hidden War' she meant, while Voluspa always gets my attention (having devoted an entire appendix of my book to just one part of it). Still, there are plenty of other interesting-sounding sessions, and of course there's all the non-Tolkien 99% of the rest of the conference to think about too.

So, if you're there, be sure to drop by and say hello.

If not, think about giving it a try another year: I always learn something new I didn't know each year.

--John R.

current audiobook: SILVER ON THE TREE
current Dunsany play: LORD ADRIAN

Monday, May 7, 2012


So, having been to see the One Man LotR last weekend turned my thoughts back to a post I'd been wanting to make for a week.

The latest news about the Peter Jackson HOBBIT movie(s) is interesting, but not altogether reassuring. Recently he showed a ten-minute segment to film buffs at a con, and about two-thirds of those viewing it disliked what they saw.

Not the acting, not the story, not the music: the actual film quality. For the better part of a century, films have been shot and shown at 24 frames per second. No doubt in the beginning this was because that represented the upper level of the technology of the time: running nitrate and cellulose through projectors -- just like films tend to have distinct breaks every twenty minutes, that being the size of the reel for the standard projector for decades. Think QWERTY, the odd arrangement of letters on the keyboard most of us never think about, which originated as a way of slowing down typists so they wdn't hit keys faster than the old manual typewriters cd actually process the results: it took time for each stroke to hit the paper.

What those who were lucky enough to be there in the audience for this new footage saw didn't match their expectations. Ironically, the film quality was so good that it looked fake. That is, the resolution was sharp enough that actors didn't look like characters: they looked like actors wearing make-up. Scenery looked like v. obvious sets. As with any shift in quality of resolution (lord know we've gone through enough of them in music formats, from transistor radios on down), in time viewers will adjust. But it's kind of rough for a movie I want to see so badly to be the test case.

However, the following piece (which, be warned, is full of spoilers) ends with an encouraging note: not every theatre will re-tool to the new technology by this December, meaning that those wanting to see it in standard (24 f.p.s.) format will be able to do so; likewise those who want to go for the new (48 f.p.s.) format, just as you can go to (most) movies now in standard or 3-D.

I did love one line in this article that deserves to be repeated:

"be prepared to tell your non-Tolkien reading friends what really happened"

--Although I'm still trying to get my head around the idea that this piece's author thought Slyvester McCoy put in a really good performance. That thought calls for greater mental re-adjustment than processing higher-speed images.

--John R.
current reading: ALEXANDER AND THREE SMALL PLAYS; "Atalanta in Wimbledon"

Saturday, May 5, 2012


So, this is something we heard about a month or so ago from an actor-friend who's in our fantasy book discussion group (thanks Allan!): a guy who travels around the country doing a one-man show based on THE LORD OF THE RINGS. We investigated, and found it's not Tolkien's LotR so much as Peter Jackson's he's doing his homage for. Furthermore, he was coming to Tacoma in the not-too-distant future.

Accordingly, yesterday (Saturday the 5th) saw us driving down to Tacoma to see what turned out to be seventy minutes that reproduce a highly abridged but nonetheless incredibly detailed and painstakingly faithful version of the Jackson films, devoting about twenty minutes to each film. The accompanying link gives some clips from his show --

--but these really don't give an idea of how kinetic the performance was: Ross was throwing himself about the stage nonstop in a way that wd have done the ever-stalwart Andy Serkis proud, filling in all the voices plus sound effects plus singing the music where appropriate. He took two brief breaks where the films stopped and started, to chat with the audience a bit and catch his breath. The clips in the link also don't convey how funny the overall effect was. Ross is serious, even solemn at times, but he also knows full well that while he's serious about what he does (you can't do a show like this without really good timing), it's also all a bit silly. The jokey-ness tends to grow a bit towards the end, but he was able to keep the audience with him. For instance, when re-enacting the scene where Saruman expounds to his minion, asking did he know where orcs come from, Ross add the aside "read The Silmarillion. No, really", and elsewhere he lamented not having Tom Bombadil in the films (he thinks Brian Blessing shd have played the part) -- just the sort of touch to warm a purist's heart.

All in all, a really impressive performance. If you don't like the Peter Jackson movies, you're not his target audience, though you might still be impressed by the complexity of his performance. If you do, but don't mind some of their oddities being gently lampooned, then you'll like this. A lot.

Now Janice and I are curious what his one-man Star Wars show is like. Although in that case I'd probably need to re-watch the movies. It's been a long time . . .

--John R.
current reading: PLAYS OF NEAR AND FAR, ALEXANDER by Lord D.

The Latest on the Hummingbird Front

About ten minutes ago, I had an amazing experience. I was making some Moroccan soup when, looking out the window, I noticed the hummingbird feeders were about empty. So I went out, collected the empty feeders, brought them in and cleaned them out, refilled them with fresh hummingbird juice (having a few days ago replenished the supply without filling the house w. smoke OR destroying another pan), and took them back out. A hummingbird flew away from the area where the feeders shd have been, and I started to hang them back out when I got an idea. Keeping v. still, I stood at the railing holding one of the feeders in each outstretched hand. Pretty soon the hummingbird came back, zoomed me a few times, with a tail-click and a few tsks. Then it v. slowly got nearer and nearer, until it was drinking out of the feeder in my left hand. When it'd had enough, off it flew.



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Signs of Spring

Can spring really be coming to the Pacific Northwest at last?
The signs look hopeful.

--the violets* have bloomed, and the strawberries in the little planter on the balcony have their first blossoms.

--last week, we saw the biggest rainbow I remember. And a strong, vivid one too, that lasted quite a while. Given Barfield's riff about the rainbow as an icon of participatory reality, it was interesting discussing with Janice what we were each seeing. For me, there was a strong band of red-orange, a yellow line, a thin streak of blue, and a bright band of green. She, on the other hand, could see the purple, and I gathered saw the individual colors more distictly. Then, interestingly enough, by focusing where she pointed I cd see the purple too, but that made the blue disappear altogether and the green shrink to a narrow ribbon. V. interesting!

--the first yellow jacket of the year scouting out the area around the hummingbird feeder.

--and we finally made our way back to Point Defiance Zoo & aquarium, for the first time in several years, to see the baby clouded leopard cubs. They were adorable; just eight weeks old. We timed our arrival to see them at feeding time: first a little wet catfood, then bottles of milk, then some playtime, after which they zonked out. Just like any kittens, albeit each is already about the size of a full-grown housecat already (well, not Feanor perhaps, but then he is a big cat). We saw their mother, too, with her long fluffy tail about the length of the rest of her hanging down from where she was lounging up in the branches.
Also noteworthy were the otters, a show-off puffin splashing about, getting to actually see the arctic foxes (they've usually been in hiding), the red wolves (which we have in Arkansas but are quite distinct from the grey wolves in most of the U.S., looking more like big coyotes), three walruses (one of whom is enormous), and the peacock. Turns out they no longer have beluga whales -- who knew?

-- as for the weather, it keeps swinging back and forth between warm and sunny and the cool, windy, and wet. Sometimes both multiple times in the same day . . .

--John R.
current reading: COMPLETE PLAYS of Lord Dunsany (currently I'm up to IF)
also: IN THE SHADOW OF THE DREAMCHILD: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF LEWIS CARROLL by Karoline Leach (recommended at last year's Kalamazoo by Doug and Dimitra; they were right)
current audiobook: SILVER ON THE TREE (the final book in The Dark Is Rising series)

*transplanted from the yard in Magnolia before the house was knocked down, and carried back as one of my more unusual in-cabin personal items on a flight.