Monday, April 30, 2007

We Buy a New Car

So, after months of planning and years of saving, we finally took the plunge yesterday. We decided about two years ago that both our cars were getting a bit long in the tooth (1992 and 1995, respectively) and, while they were still running well, it was better to make plans to replace them before they started giving out than during or after. Since I work at home and Janice walks to work, this also seemed a good time to start the transition from being a two-car family down to just one. And since we care about the environment and don't think gas is going to get cheaper anytime soon (or indeed ever), a hybrid seemed the way to go. If it'd been available, I would have gone for an electric car, but the US auto and oil industries have made sure between them that that's not an option (see the documentary WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR for the gruesome details). And since we don't need a big car, it essentially came down to three options: a conventional compact (for the comfort factor and proven technology), a Toyota Prius (their smallest hybrid), or a Honda Civic (ibid). In the end we've taken the plunge with the Honda, picking up our new car earlier this evening. There'll be an adjustment period as our resident Luddite (me) gets use to the new touches, but I think we've made a good choice. If nothing else, we've essentially just doubled our gas mileage. Now come the difficult part (stage one) of saying goodbye to one of the old cars.

More later


Thursday, April 26, 2007

2007 Blackwelder Lecture

It's official. I've been invited to give this year's Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette University. The date will be Thursday, October 4th, starting at four o'clock in the new Library building. The evening before (W. Oct. 3rd) I will probably be doing a presentation and signing at one of the area bookstores, but the details for that are not yet finalized; more as it develops. I'm certainly following in good footsteps: the first speaker in the series was Tom Shippey (2001), then Doug Anderson (2002) and most recently Eduardo Segura (2006).

My tentative title is "A Kind of Elvish Craft: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman"; my topic is looking at HOW he wrote rather than what or why (areas that have already received a lot of attention). The key quote I'd like to use as a springboard comes from "On Fairy-Stories":

"To make a Secondary World . . . commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement . . . indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode"

Using the wonderful resources at the Marquette Archives, and the riches of the History of Middle-earth series, we can now get a very good idea of Tolkien's writing habits, and how they shaped his works, clearing up a lot of misconceptions along the way.

If you're in the area, drop by and say hello. The lectures are open to the public, although you might have to show an i.d. to get in the library building. See you there . . .


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tolkien in Who's Who

Did a spot of research in the university library (Suzzallo-Allen) the Sunday before last to resolve a question I'd been wondering about for a while: when did JRRT first come to be listed in WHO'S WHO? Most recently this came up when I was trying to work out whether children's author Arthur Ransome had written to Tolkien directly in late 1937, having gotten his address out of WHO'S WHO, or whether he'd sent the letter to his own former publisher Stanley Unwin for forwarding.

I'd discovered years back (circa 1997), while browsing in the Marquette library, that he was already listed when THE HOBBIT came out (that is, in the 1937 volume), and supposed it must have been for his BEOWULF essay ("The Monsters and the Critics"). However, more recently I'd read that all Oxford (and Cambridge) professors were listed, and realized his appearance must go much further back.

Checking the old volumes on the shelves confirms this, but reveals a few interesting details I hadn't expected: Tolkien first appears in the 1925 volume (page 2855), even before he was awarded the Oxford professorship, as Professor of the English Language at Leeds. The entry, which lists his recreations as "tennis, fives", had been written before the previous November, since it lists him as the father of two sons, not three. By the time of next year's volume (1926, page 2903), he's listed as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and the father of three sons, with Exeter College given as his address.

The 1937 volume, the one I was particularly interested in, does indeed give his home address (20 Northmoor Road, Oxford). In addition to the entry on Tolkien himself (p. 3359), his fellow Inklings C. L. Wrenn (p. 3684), Lord David Cecil (p. 578), and Rev. Adam Fox (p. 1162) are also listed, as is future Inkling Charles Williams (p. 3601). Nevill Coghill appears only listed as the heir in his father's entry (p. 666), while C. S. Lewis isn't listed at all, not yet having made much of a mark. Barfield is also missing, but various significant non-Inklings are there: Ransome himself (p. 2777), both E. V. and George Gordon (p. 1308 & 1309, respectively), Stanley Unwin (p. 3417), and fellow writers connected with Tolkien or the Inklings like Lord Dunsany (p. 976), E. R. Eddison (p. 994-995), and Dorothy Sayers (p. 2983). The 1938 volume is of interest because it adds THE HOBBIT and the Beowulf essay to Tolkien's write-up (p. 3381, joining A MIDDLE ENGLISH VOCABULARY and his edition of SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT).

CSL doesn't make an appearance until 1943 (p. 1842), primarily I suspect on the reputation gained from his wartime radio talks rather than the body of critical work he'd built up by that point; it's characteristic that while Tolkien's entry that year (p. 3118) is unchanged from the one in 1938, six of the nine Lewis books listed in CSL's entry were written or at least published in the years since. Lewis's 'recreation', by the way, is given as "walking"; the 'recreation' line having disappeared from Tolkien's entry by the 1937 volume.


CORRECTION (5/1-07): The two Gordon entries referred to actually come from the 1938 volume, not the 1937 one as stated above. --JDR

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Wicked Thought

So, while we were walking home tonight my wife had what she herself called a wicked thought. Given that there are some people so vehemently opposed to the Peter Jackson movies that they boycott not just the films but the work of anyone involved with them, what do they do when faced with a new Tolkien book illustrated by one of the films' art directors -- i.e., Alan Lee's illustrated edition of THE CHILDREN OF HURIN?

Do they wait a year hoping for a paperback edition without the illos?

Do they buy a copy and tear the pictures out, discarding the dust jacket?

Do they simply avert their eyes from the artwork as they read through?

Have to admit I have no idea. Given that they can't get the Tolkien book without the Lee artwork (and very nice it is, too, I might add) I suspect they quietly put their principles aside when the alternative is going without a new Tolkien, but the thought does highlight the problems behind 'Secondary Separation'.


I Am Put In My Place

So, I like to listen to music while I work: mostly classic rock, nice and loud. And, if there's no one around to hear me, I sometimes sing along. But yesterday I got put in my place in no uncertain terms. Rather unusually for me, I had just started whistling (while listening to Part Two of "Layla"), when I noticed the cats' reaction. Rigby was, perhaps fortunately, off in another room, apparently out of range. Feanor, in the box beside the desk, was giving me a pained, incredulous look. But Hastur, atop the cat stand, got down and came across the desk top, where she pawed me with a concerned look, apparently thinking I was making some sort of distress call (this being from a cat that can't mew, merely purr, gurgle, and squeak). Note to self: no more whistling when somebody can hear me, and that 'somebody' now includes the cats.

In any case, it's not quite as bad as the time I was asleep and, I'm told, snoring (back in the bad old days before the low-carb diet) and woke up to find that Parker, a smart cat with very low tolerance for not getting things his own way, had walked up, reached out, and put a paw on my mouth. With one claw extended and gently hook on the lower lip, just to make sure I got the message.

Somedays, as when I take them for walks or provide Warm Laundry, I think the cats wholly approve of me. Other days, not so much.


My First Retraction

So, a few posts back I mentioned meeting some friends at the CHILDREN OF HURIN launch event at the Bellevue branch of the University Bookstore, one of whom was a fellow clarinet player.

Except she isn't. I don't know where I got the idea, but turns out it's just not so.

So this is just to set the records straight: fellow Tolkien fan, yes; clarinetist, no.


A Thing of Beauty

So, yesterday an unexpected delight arrived: a copy of the deluxe slipcase edition of the new J. R. R. Tolkien book, THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. The text is the same as the standard UK edition, but instead of a solid blue-grey the cover is blue-grey near the spine and elsewhere grey, with the dragon-helm of Dor-lomin embossed in gold on the front; the slipcase itself is a blue-grey box with the dragon-helm in gold. And it includes a signed bookplate, autographed by Christopher Tolkien and by Alan Lee. Wow. Many thanks to the sender.

As for the book itself, I'm still working my way slowly through it. After all, it's not like I don't know how the story ends, having read and re-read the earlier publication of a good portion of this since it appeared in UNFINISHED TALES. And how many more times will I get the chance to sit down and read a new Tolkien book? Yes, there are still some treasures in the vault (The Bovadium Fragments, Sellic Spell, The Fall of Arthur), but they're mostly either short or unfinished, not the final version of one of the central stories in the legendarium like the Turin tale. It's a moment to savor, and I intend to make it last. I only wish I had an audiotape reading of the whole.


Friday, April 20, 2007

I Am Interviewed . . .

. . . by my hometown newspaper.

Yesterday, out of the blue I got an e-mail, followed up by a phone call today, from a reporter on the MAGNOLIA DAILY BANNER-NEWS.* They were contacting me for a quote about THE CHILDREN OF HURIN and also to ask about the forthcoming book. It's been a long time since I left Magnolia (August 11th 1979, the day after my college graduation), though I still go back home to visit family at least once a year, so I don't know how they heard about me. Still, it was nice to be asked. I only hope I managed to give her some appropriate quote expressing how impressed I am with THE CHILDREN OF HURIN; I'm not at my best when speaking off the cuff.

Sometimes people forget how widely dispersed Tolk folk are: I know I was not the only Tolkien fan living in Magnolia back in the '70s: I actually petitioned the English Department at Southern Arkansas University to offer a Tolkien class one semester, which I naturally took. There just aren't that many of us, proportionally speaking, who want to read (and re-read) EVERYTHING -- but even so, there are more than you'd think, and more widely dispersed. And the numbers are only going to grow in the years ahead, as some of the people who discovered Tolkien through the films evolve into the next generation of Tolkien scholars. It's going to be an interesting ride.


*which has been publishing since 1878, my the way: longer than the Seattle Times (1891) but not the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, made up from the merger of the Weekly Intelligencer (1867) with the Seattle Post (founding date unknown) in 1881.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tolkien at the University Bookstore

So, Tuesday night Janice and I went up to Bellevue to attend the Event the University Bookstore there was hosting for the release of THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. We had no problems with traffic and in fact arrived early enough for a look around at the books, not having been to that branch before. Had a nice chat with Duane, the event organizer, and although turnout was light there were some familiar faces there: Shelly (a fellow clarinetist -- see previous post) and Allen (from Mithlond, our local fantasy reading group). Both Allen and I signed up to take a stab at reading aloud from the new book, along with three other people. I did my best, but must admit that in places the Elvish defeated my best efforts; when it came his turn Allen put his acting experience to good use. The whole thing only lasted about an hour, but I was glad we came. In addition to seeing friends and having a nice chat with a fellow Tolkien enthusiast I hadn't met before, there was a surprise bonus: those who took turns reading got a bookplate signed by Christopher Tolkien and Alan Lee, as well as a poster of Lee's cover art. V. nice.

And then yesterday my copy of the book itself arrives from England. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, this is essentially the full version of the NARN, sizable excerpts from which were published in UNFINISHED TALES. It does not include other related works, such as "The Wanderings of Hurin" (published in HME XI) nor "The Second Prophecy of Mandos" (ibid, HME V p.333) but sticks to the main story of Turin and, to a lesser extent, his sister. So we finally get one (and alas only one) of the 'Great Tales' told at full length by Tolkien when at the height of his powers. I've seen one clueless reviewer who was particularly irked by the opening paragraph, which describes Turin's grandfather. He (or she) has obviously never read a saga, which always begins a generation or two back to set the scene before moving forward into the hero's arrival on the scene.

For that's what THE CHILDREN OF HURIN is: a full-length prose saga, with the generational sweep, dark tone, terse prose, character interaction, and fateful exchanges typical of the great sagas: this is more akin to NJAL'S SAGA or HEIDREK'S SAGA or HROLF KRAKI'S SAGA or above all to the VOLSUNGA SAGA than to the novel tradition of the last three centuries. As I think Richard West was the first to point out, while the Turin story drew its core plot from THE KALEVALA it takes its tone and mood instead from THE VOLSUNGA SAGA -- that is, the story of Sigurd, a doomed hero who does great deeds. When I first read the NARN, as presented in UNFINISHED TALES, back in 1980, the story struck me as Shakespearian in its tragedy (not surprisingly, I was reading all of Shakespeare at the time), how the deaths and disasters become inevitable because the doomed hero refuses to turn aside or change his course. Now, with a lot more reading under my belt in the years since, it's easier to see its affinities to the saga tradition instead. E.R.Eddison, who wrote a saga himself (STYRBIORN THE STRONG [1926]) would have loved it.

More later.


current reading: THE CHILDREN OF HURIN by JRRT, ed. CT [2007]; BEHIND THAT CURTAIN by Earl Derr Biggers [1928], FINDING GOD IN THE HOBBIT by Jim Ware [2006]

current anime: LE CHEVALIER D'EON

Ents & Clarinets

So, the day before yesterday a batch of back issues of MALLORN arrived. It'll be a while before I have time to sit down and read them properly, but I have begun browsing, starting with the reviews of the first installment of the Peter Jackson movies (MALLORN 40, Nov. 2002). Rather surprising to see balanced, mostly positive comments, some of them from people who went on to become harsh critics of the whole series. It'll be interesting to trace the evolution of their stances through the next two issues, which respectively cover the second and third installments of the film.

One article did catch my attention, because one aspect of it hinged upon a point in THE HOBBIT, and not surprisingly THE HOBBIT rather dominates my mind these days. In "Treebeard's Voice" (volume 40, page 28), John Ellison goes beyond the obvious that the ent sounds like a woodwind (as stated in LotR itself) and asks what kind of woodwind. In passing, he makes the (to me) interesting point that the clarinets Bifur and Bofur bring to Bag-End are anachronistic, since these are 18th-century instruments. I should have remembered that, since I'm a clarinet player myself (or was, back in junior high and high school--I actually had a band scholarship my first year in college), and commented on it in my discussion of the anachronisms (real and perceived) in that chapter.

As for what Treebeard sounds like, if C. S. Lewis's claim that he was the model for Treebeard's voice is true, then the old ent sounds like Sean Connery impersonating Alfred Hitchcock -- at least that's what CSL's voice sounds like on the surviving tapes I've heard (THE FOUR LOVES, his inaugural lecture, his talk on Bunyan, &c). It certainly does give me a whole new perspective on one of my favorite characters.


current reading: BEHIND THAT CURTAIN by Earl Derr Biggers [1928]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Online Chat

Today for the first time in a long time I took part in an online chat, hosted by a Tolkien-centric site as part of their celebration marking the release tomorrow of JRRT's THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. Despite a moment of panic when I thought I wouldn't be able to log on, it seems to have gone fairly well; it was a nice group of folks with some pertinent questions. I hope I was coherent in my replies; the mid-chat discovery that trying to type in a parenthesis deleted the whole sentence threw me a bit. Still, it was an enjoyable interlude, and utterly unlike proofing galleys, to which I returned once it was over. We may be able to do another one once my book is out; we'll see.

And in contrast with the internationalism of the online chat (where my worst problem was figuring out the time-zone differences on the schedule), tomorrow night brings a (more or less) local event: a group reading of THE CHILDREN OF HURIN at the University of Washington Bookstore's Bellevue branch (990 102nd Ave. NE), starting at 7 o'clock. We plan to attend, get a first glimpse of the new Tolkien, and maybe sign up to be among the volunteer readers. Here's hoping we see some familiar faces there.

current reading: SAVING MONTICELLO by Marc Leepson, THE CHINESE PARROT by Earl Derr Biggers.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

CHILDREN OF HURIN online release party

It looks like I'll be taking part in an online chat tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. my time (17:00 GMT), assuming I'm able to log on (not being certain if my laptop is compatible with their system -- we'll soon find out). For the official announcement of the event, check this link:úrin_Release_Party

It's short notice I know, but hope you can join us.

In other news, I'm planning to attend a reading of passages from THE CHILDREN OF HURIN being held at the University Book Store in Bellevue on Tuesday night. According to the local paper, the event starts at 7 pm.


current reading: SAVING MONTICELLO by Marc Leepson [2001]

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crows Show Brand Loyalty

Having now finished IN THE COMPANY OF CROWS AND RAVENS by Jn M. Marzluff & Tony Angell,* have to say I don't think they succeeded in proving their thesis, which was that just as crows adjust their behavior over time to take into account changes in human culture, so too human culture has been influenced in major ways by crows.

Even so, the book is still well worth reading. The best anecdote was an experiment thought up and carried out by one of the authors' eight-year-old daughter. As is well known, crows love french fries. So she put some french fries in a McDonald's bag, and some in a plain brown paper bag. The crows went for the McDonald's bag first every time (IN THE COMPANY, page 225). It's probably not so much that they recognize the logo as that they understand the significance of the whole ensemble -- logo, color of the bag, &c.

For those interested in the topic, Candice Savage's BIRD BRAINS: THE INTELLIGENCE OF CROWS, RAVENS, MAGPIES, AND JAYS [1995; pb. 1997] is not just highly readable but full of beautiful photos (as one would expect from a Sierra Club book). I don't think it's seeped into our consciousness yet that corvids are the smartest of all birds, but this book makes a good case for it. Visually, my favorite image was of a crow scolding a bald eagle from only a foot or so away (page 73); the eagle looks astonished, as if it can't quite believe what it's seeing. I can relate to this one from personal experience; once in a long while I'll see a bald eagle in this area, and most of those times it's being harassed by a number of crows. There's also a bald eagle who likes to perch in a tall tree by the shore in Des Moines, and it always has a cohort of crows in the branches above and behind it fussing at it.

A much deeper look into corvid behavior can be found in Bernd Heinrich's MIND OF THE RAVEN [1999], which carefully documents raven behavior, both from his captive birds and observation in the wild (e.g., on trips to Yellowstone, Greenland, &c). You have to feel sorry for the ravens who went through some of his experiments (like the time he put on a bear suit and went into their cage on all four to see if they'd recognize him. He says they showed great distress, which would pretty much be my reaction if the person who fed me started crawling around on all fours and growling). Still, a fascinating read.

I've not yet been able to bring myself to read SEEKING THE SACRED RAVEN: POLITICS AND EXTINCTION ON A HAWAIIAN ISLAND by Mark Jerome Walters [2006], which I picked up in a bookstore in Hilo last September -- a detailed account of the failed attempt over a decade or so to save the last few Hawaiian Crows from extinction in the wild. While we were on the island I tried to visit the aviary/sanctuary where the last survivors of the species (fifty or so birds) are being bred in captivity, but apparently it's not open to the public. More on this one later.


*book #2660 in my ongoing reading list.

current reading: THE BLACK CAMEL by Earl Derr Biggers [1929], one of the Charlie Chan series.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Cat Who Didn't Come to Stay

So, yesterday morning on her way to work my wife came across a little grey cat on the path near our apartment. Remembering that a week back someone had posted a notice by the mailbox kiosk about the missing little grey cat they'd been fostering, she picked it up and brought it back to our place, sequestering it from our three in the box room/garage with some food, water, and a dirtbox. It was obviously not a stray, since it was very tame and seemingly well-fed. Unfortunately, the flyer down at the mailboxes had disappeared, so she made up a "Found" notice and I walked down and put it up. That's when I got the idea that the original notice might still be up at the other set of mailboxes nearer the complex's entrance and, if not, later in the day I might walk around and check those for some of the neighboring complexes. I was in luck: a copy of at the other kiosk, so I called and left messages that we'd found the missing cat.

Except it turned out they'd already found her. This wasn't their missing cat at all. So, after making sure, I took the little cat back outside, let her go, and gave her a good meal for the road. She stayed around for an hour or so till the sprinkles of rain stopped, then went her way. A very friendly little cat whom I hope to see out and about in the neighborhood. An inveterate namer, I decided her unofficial name will be Lady Jane.

And our cats? They staked out the garage door from the stairwell while she was there, and once she was outside they moved into the box room windows to watch her while she was in sight. All outsider cat smells having been extracted from my hands by assiduous sniffing, all three joined me in my office for the morning work session, peace and harmony restored in the home.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Return of The Cat Bite Incident

So, folks who know me fall into two categories, those who knew me before 'the cat bite incident' of '91-'92 and those I met afterwards.

The short version: I got bitten by a frightened cat I was trying to get out from under a house, and a fang went into the middle joint of my left index finger. I got septic blood poisoning (red streaks going up the veins in my arm) and ended up sending thirteen days in the hospital hooked up to a saline drip, undergoing multiple operations on the finger, several sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, and a few months of physical therapy after my release, not to mention having to re-teach myself touch-typing for my daily work at a word processor.

So, you can no doubt appreciate our alarm when last night one of our cats suddenly bit me on the same finger, with a fang going in deep. Luckily it just missed the end joint (that is, the joint that still works). The end of the finger is numb but otherwise seems okay; typing is a little self-conscious but seems like no real harm was done. Luckily my priority the rest of this week is more proofing.

And yes, the cat is fine. It wasn't really his fault; I'd picked him up unexpectedly and must have touched a tender spot, causing him to lash out while he was squirming to get down. He's the gentlest of our three cats, and we've already made up. Meanwhile, Janice and I will be watching the finger as if we were crows and it was an unclaimed peanut.

More later


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Am Interviewed . . .

. . . in Belgium.

With the official release date of MR. BAGGINS, Part One of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, now exactly four weeks away (Tues. May 8th), I've started getting interesting requests relating to the book. Some of these have been in the works for a while -- a possible book signing in Seattle, another in Milwaukee in connection with an event there, and even one in Holland (contingent however on my being able to make a side trip to Holland during my next research trip to England). Now I've been interviewed by, a Belgium-based website for collectors of JRRT's work that posts regular updates about new releases, such as the much-anticipated CHILDREN OF HURIN. They sent me a list of questions a while back, and I finally managed to get back to them with a set of answers; the results can be seen at

And, as if to underscore the internationalism of Tolkien's audience, today comes a query about the book from Poland. I've known for years from Gary Hunnewell's work that we Tolk Folk are everywhere, but it's one thing to see a list of fanzines, newsletters, and journals from abroad and another to have direct contact via e-mail with people who share my interest in Tolkien and THE HOBBIT but live not just thousands of miles away but on another continent. We may have finally realized the old dream of Tolk Folk everywhere to meet others who share our enthusiasm for the Professor and his works: everywhere you go, there we are.

current reading: IN THE COMPANY OF CROWS AND RAVENS by Seattle's own Jn M. Marzluff & Tony Angell [2005]

current audiobook: HIS EXCELLENCY: GEORGE WASHINGTON by Joseph J. Ellis [2004]