Friday, July 31, 2009


So, while I'm on a Doug Anderson kick, I wanted to celebrate the recent launching of Doug's collaborative blog. Doug is not just a superlative scholar but better than anyone I know in finding out things about obscure dead authors (we were once on a panel together of that name at Wiscon along with several other people, and his author was more obscure, though not more dead, than any of the other offerings).

A while back Doug starting doing reviews in a little journal called WORMWOOD. Now, as of sometime in June, he's started a blog to which he and other contributors make postings similar to the fare in the journal, although so far there seem to be fewer reprints of old impossible-to-find stories from decades ago and more articles and notes about such works--which seems to me to make the blog a good complement to the physical journal.

I haven't read all the posts yet, the blog having been already in progress when I discovered it, but already there's been at least one real gem: Sidney Sime's colour illustration of the first JORKENS story back in 1926, which features Sime's portrait of Dunsany himself as Jorkens. So far as I know, this is Sime's only portrayal of his longtime partner. It thus makes a nice accompaniment for Dunsany's intensely moving word-portrait of Sime, which he wrote upon learning of Sime's death in obscurity and poverty in the early days of World War II, the first and last sentences of which read

"We have lost, in a time of losses, when loss is nothing out of the ordinary, a genius, whose stupendous imagination has passed across our time little more noticed by most people than the shadow of a bird passing over a lawn would be noticed by most of a tennis party."

"And now that vast imagination has left us, having enriched our age with dreams that we have not entirely deserved."

(THE GHOSTS OF THE HEAVISIDE LAYER [1980], pages 168-175)

I first saw this illustration in Edinburgh during a research trip in May 1987 but have never been able to get a copy (the Milwaukee Public Library's records state that they have one, but it's in storage in their sub-sub basement, and I was never able to retrieve it on mulitple efforts). Thus, I am delighted to find it posted here ( Quite aside from its associational value, it has intrinsic interest in that it reveals that by 1926 Dunsany had already gone entirely grey, if not white -- I suspect from the stresses of the war years, particularly his harrowing experiences of 1916 (which had such an impact on his work that I devoted a whole sub-section of a chapter to it in my dissertation). I had always assumed that the pictures of Dunsany that appear as frontispieces to the three volumes of his autobiography -- PATCHES OF SUNLIGHT [1938], WHILE THE SIRENS SLEPT [1944], & THE SIRENS WAKE [1945] were contemporaneous with those books' publications. I now believe they are instead pictures of Dunsany as he appeared during the years covered by those volumes, so that (for example) the photograph of Dunsany that appears in the middle volume -- my favorite image of him, the only one which makes him look like an author -- probably shows him as he was at age forty, when the book opens, rather than nearing sixty, as he was when it was published.

And all this from just a single post from a newly launched blog. WORMWOODIANA promises great things, and I've already added it to my short list of sites I check regularly; when I have time, I'll have it added to the list of recommended links on my website. Well done Doug (and associates)!

--John R.

In the meantime, here's the link:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Interview with Doug Anderson on Tolkien Online

So, about two weeks ago, a friend (thanks Jessica) sent me a link to an interview with Doug Anderson that had just been posted on the TOLKIEN ONLINE website. It's a nice piece, so I thought I'd pass along the link for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. In it he talks about the origin of THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT, books on Tolkien he'd recommend, the relationship between his book and mine, his discovery of other fantasy authors (and medieval lit.) after reading Tolkien (with a place of honor going to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series), post-Tolkien authors he enjoys (singling Holdstock out for particular praise), how TOLKIEN STUDIES came about, and what he's working on now. Surprisingly, there's no mention of his latest major project, the Flieger-Anderson edition of TOLKIEN ON FAIRY-STORIES. If you're interested in the journal TOLKIEN STUDIES at all, be sure to follow the link within the interview to the cumulative index of all six volumes, which is incredibly useful.
Here's the link to the interview itself:

--John R.
--current reading: Jonathan Hime's essay on THE DARK TOWER.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Rebuke from 1772

So, last week I finished reading TALES BEFORE NARNIA [2008], a v. interesting collection put together by Doug Anderson as a sort of companion book to his TALES BEFORE TOLKIEN [2003]. It's a very good collection which makes readily available some fine hard-to-find pieces such as Tolkien's "The Dragon's Visit" [1937] (the original, superior version) and Kenneth Grahame's FIRST WHISPER OF WIND IN THE WILLOWS* [1944]. Also here are some real discoveries, such as a chapter from Roger Lancelyn Green's never-before-published THE WOOD THAT TIME FORGOT, which Lewis and Green both agreed had been a major inspiration for Narnia; or C. F. Hall's "The Man Who Lived Backwards", the story Lewis acknowledged in his Preface to THE GREAT DIVORCE [1946] as having been the source for one of his ideas in that book. Since Lewis could not remember the author or title of that story, Anderson's re-discovery of the tale in question is a real coup. And what's more, now that we have the story itself we can see its influence on THE DARK TOWER as well. I also found the final story, by Wm Lindsay Gresham (Joy Davidman's first husband, the father of Douglas and David), surprisingly moving -- Gresham is so often presented as a sort of walk-on villain in accounts of CSL's life that the fact he was a talented writer often gets overlooked.

All that aside, I was struck by a passage in one of the antecedents to THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS that held far too much resonance to today. The book in question, INFERNAL CONFERENCES; OR, DIALOGUES OF DEVILS [1772] is by Rev. John Macgowan, a hellfire Baptist preacher. In a long diatribe attacking the Inquisition, Macgowan has one of his devils extravagantly praise the Inquisition's work:

"One holy inquisitor goes beyond an hundred of our fraternity in the art of cruelty, which you know is the first of the learned sciences . . . Such wonderful inventions of torturing, one would have thought, could never have been contrived. What ingenuity does the rack display! How excellently formed for exquisite torture! What an apt resemblance of the infernal furnace is the dry-pan! A contrivance worthy the most skilful among the Beezebubian artists. But their watery torment, the gag and pitcher, is what raises them most in my esteem. Almost every blockhead hath some notion of a hell fire but it is peculiar to the skill of an holy inquisitor to contrive a hell of water. In this, Fastosus, we must all knock under to them, for indeed they are our betters. And, to enhance their merit, their torments are inflicted upon the unhappy wretches, who fall into their hands, under a shew of the greatest sanctity towards God, and pity to the unhappy victim of their cruelty. And so very strictly do they and their assisting familiars observe the rules of inviolable secrecy, that the world can never know the hundredth part of their villainy."

That's right. The worst thing the fervid imagination of a hell-fire and damnation preacher two hundred years ago could come up with to accuse the Inquisition of was WATERBOARDING. Worse than The Rack. Worse than being slowly roasted to death in an iron box.

And made all the worst by being done by holier-than-thou torturers who are careful to keep their misdeeds secret.

Sounds all too familiar.

--John R.

*Charles Williams fans will also be glad to find his only short story reprinted here, so far as I know for the first time since Boyer & Zahorski's VISIONS OF WONDER [1981].

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three Things

[July 22nd]

So, the day before yesterday I saw a hummingbird drinking nectar out of catnip blossoms. I'd moved the indoors plants out onto the table on the balcony to take advantage of the summer sunshine, and later I happened to look out the window while doing dishes and there it was. Since the catnip stalks are tall (between one and two feet, I'd say) and flexible, when the hummingbird licked it pushed that stalk away, and the bird followed, only to have the stalk bend back when it'd gone too far. So the tiny little bird and the catnip swayed back and forth as it worked its way through the stalks, one by one. Quite the sight.

Then yesterday while waiting for Janice to get off work I saw a crow eating a banana. Someone had thrown down an old black banana peel in the far corner of the parking lot, and this crow was working on it, pulling off bite-sized pieces of banana and eating them one by one with great satisfaction -- so much so that he ignored a few peanuts I offered him. Clearly a crow who goes his own way. But then one crow who frequents that parking lot and can see me coming a mile off is the only crow I've ever know who's figured out how to solve the three-peanut problem.

And now today I noticed for the first time that the little mimosa tree in the yard has the first beginnings of what will eventually be a little pink blossom. I've raised this little tree from a seed (thanks, Jennifer!) and nurtured it through for about five years now, initially in a series of ever-increasing pots indoors until I finally took the plunge and planting it in the yard last year. To my great relief, it survived the winter and seems to be flourishing. Here's hoping that long may it thrive.

--John R.

Update, W. July 29th
This post was drafted before we left for a few days' vacation on Whidbey Island, so I can now add to the list above having recently seen a harbor seal (from a distance), harbor porpoises (from a boat at Deception Pass), guillemots a plenty, a cormorant, a bald eagle (the first I've seen in a long time who wasn't being harassed by crows), and a kingfisher (who came and went repeatedly from a dock we could see during dinner our last night on the island.

And of course having the chance to pet a marvelously friendly cat named Broadway Billie at The Kingfisher, a fine little bookstore in Coupeville: a pot-bellied little cat who purred so aggressively that you could hear her five feet away. In the words of Professor Higgins, 'How delightful!'

--John R.

current reading: Tom Shippey's piece on Screwtape and Verbicide in TRUTHS BREATHED THROUGH SILVER, ed. Jonathan Hime [2008]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Janice is Commended

One major event from last month which I should have blogged about but didn't at the time was Janice's receiving the Regional Commissioner's Citation for her work with the agency (SSA). My posting about it got deferred because the next day we left for Milwaukee, but it's too big a deal not to celebrate here.

The Awards ceremony was held at the Hyatt up in Bellevue -- a really nice venue I'd never been in before. There was a huge crowd there, perhaps not surprising given that the 'Region' covers four states: Idaho, Oregon, Washington, & Alaska.

As it turned out, Janice was the very first person presented with her award. Luckily the presenter had warned them all ahead of time that the award itself was heavy (being a big piece of beautiful cut glass or crystal with her name inscribed in it).

The specific reason given in the accompanying program book, ARCHITECTS OF GREATNESS, for her Citation reads "In recognition of sustained high productivity and accurate work in the Kent field office while shifting work assignments in the Title XVI Unit."

So, congratulations to Janice. It's nice to have this recognition of just how good you are at what you do.

--John R.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Mythopoeic Award

So, last night at the awards banquet at Mythcon, THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT won this year's Mythopoeic Award. These awards are given out each year by the Mythopoeic Society, a group devoted to celebrating the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. There are four awards in all; the one I won is the Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies, with the others being the Fantasy award (for the year's best fantasy novel), the Children's Literature (actually, Young Adult) award, and the non-Inklings fantasy scholarship award. Here's a link to all four of this year's winners:

And here's another link listing the five finalists. Scroll down to the end to get the 2009 nominees; as you can see, there was stiff competition:

This is quite an honor -- previous winners include such works as Garth's TOLKIEN & THE GREAT WAR, Shippey's AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY and ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH, Verlyn's A QUESTION OF TIME, Wayne & Christina's ART & ILLUSTRATOR, Doug's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT, and others going all the way back to Kocher's MASTER OF MIDDLE EARTH and beyond. I've actually contributed to works that won the award before, in 2002 (TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM) and 1997 (THE RHETORIC OF VISION), but this time I'll get the actual award -- a statue of a lion, unofficially known as an 'Aslan' -- to put on the mantle by my grandfather's clock.


ahem. let me repeat that.


Finally, while I wasn't able to attend this year's Mythcon, here's my acceptance speech that I would have delivered if I'd been there.

"Thag you very buch."

If I were as laconic as Mr. Baggins himself at the celebrations in Lake Town, I'd just stop there and be done with it. But, as the nine-hundred-plus pages of my History of the Hobbit suggest, such is not the case.

And so, on this festive occasion, I would like to thank the Society, and the Awards Committee, and Mythcon itself for this very great honor. I wish I could be among you to accept this award in person. Having first joined the Society more than thirty years ago—in the same year in which Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper shared the award for their then-new biography of C. S. Lewis—I honestly never imagined then that a decade later I would attend my first Mythcon. Or that two years after that I would help run another, or that I would present chapters from this book at two other Mythcons, much less one day receive this award.

I had originally thought of taking this opportunity to thank all the people who helped me on my book. But on second thought this might, like Bilbo's 'eleventy-first' party speech, drag on a bit for those esteemed Mythconners at this banquet, especially since it would be in the form of a person, who isn't here, thanking other people, who are also not here.

I do want to seize this opportunity, though, to thank one person whose acknowledgement inadvertently got left out from the original (UK) printing of my book. David Bratman's name should have appeared among those people before whom I presented earlier drafts of various chapters from this eternal work-in-progress from time to time, since I benefitted greatly from his encyclopedic knowledge and attention to detail. Even though this was fortunately fixed in time for the American edition, I still wanted to thank him here and now.

As for my book itself, what can I say that I have not already said, at length, within its pages? I took as my inspiration C. S. Lewis's words to J. R. R. Tolkien, back around the spring of 1936, that there were too few of the sort of books they liked to read in the world and that they needed to write some themselves. This is essentially what I have done: written the book I'd like to discover on a bookstore's or library's shelf. For a time I feared that I was the only one who would want to read it. This award has quelled those fears.

After he plowed through The History of The Hobbit, Charles Noad wrote "surely nothing remains to be said." Happily he was wrong. Trying to get to the bottom of a Tolkien story is like staring into an ent's eyes: deep wells very much in the present but filled with the memory of ages. But who wouldn't drink deep of that well, given the chance? So: the work goes on. And so my thanks for this encouragement, and this honor. Thank you very much.

—John D. Rateliff

Sunday, July 19th, 2009.

Friday, July 17, 2009


So, it turns out there's a name for it: PROSOPAGNOSIA, the inability to recognize faces.

For most of my life, I've had the problem that when I met somebody, I wouldn't be able to recognize them again the next time I saw them, even if it was the next day or only an hour later. I remembered them of course, but I couldn't tell who they were by what they looked like unless there was something striking about them (an unusual outfit or odd hairdo). This is not a problem with people I know well, but only those I've just been introduced to or do not see on a regular basis. It's not a problem of memory per se, since I can often remember specific conversations I've had with someone I don't recognize ("oh, so that was you?"), even if it's been years since I've last seen them (for example, at GenCon or MythCon), but might pass right by them in the halls.

Well, thanks to a piece in the current FUNNY TIMES, I just found out that some other people have the same problem. I don't have the extreme form, which is usually brought on by a head injury (as in the famous case described by Oliver Sacks), for which I'm grateful. It's something I can work around -- though I used to have terrible time recognizing my students when they weren't sitting in their usual seats -- but it'd be better not to have to. At least I now know how lucky I am to have such a mild form of it.

UPDATE: With a little more checking, I see that what I have is more properly called "Congenital prosopamnesia". It's not that I don't recognize a face, it's more that it doesn't get stored in my long-term memory. In my case, this applies to names as well; I can rarely connect the names with the faces of people I've just been introduced to. Since I've had it since at least the third grade (I remember looking around trying to find the people I'd been playing with at the last recess but not being able to identify them), it's not a sign of senile decay but just the way my mind works. Or, in this specific case, doesn't quite work in the way you'd expect it to.

Mr. Lewis, Belfast Solicitor

So, as long as I seem to be on a C. S. Lewis kick, now seems to be a good time to share something I dug up while at Marquette last month. While there, I went over into the old (Memorial) library looking for a passage in a book I read almost twenty years ago:* THINE IN STORM AND CALM: AN AMANDA MCKITTRICK ROS READER, edited by Frank Ormsby [1988]. This collection of excerpts from the various books by a writer of legendary awfulness, of the 'It-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night' variety interested me because various accounts of the Inklings mention how the group occasionally, when conversation lagged or no one had brought any work-in-progress to read, would pass around and read aloud from McKittrick Ros's IRENE IDDLESLEIGH, which was to prose fiction what McGonagall's 'Bridge of the Silvery Tay' was to verse. Supposedly the challenge was to see if anyone could read a whole chapter without cracking up -- a feat eventually achieved by young John Wain on Th. Nov. 28th, 1946 [Warnie Lewis, BROTHERS & FRIENDS, p. 197].

What I had not known from such accounts, however, was that Lewis had a personal (if indirect) connection with Ros. However, back when I first read Ormsby's book I came across the following letter by McKittrick Ros, reproduced on page 141, that seems suggestive:

8 December 1905
It has just come to my notice that you have the Tinker-like impertinence to send me the enclosed. Would you be surprised to know that I don't owe Porter one cent? If not, I'm here to inform you. What importation are you, by the bye? I thought Belfast already stuffed with such priggish prey. And you demand my damned 2/6 for writing 'THIS' piece of toilet paper. Well, I wouldn't give you 2/6 for all the WC requisites in Belfast, and solicitors included, mark you -- for I hold that all trash emanating from such 'would be's' fit for no other purpose, therefore I return it, inasmuch as you presumably have as much call for it as I, thanks ARFULLY. If such PUPS as you would mind their own business and not stick your nose into that of a lady's, I consider that you would have quite enough to do, and more than enough. I am quite content to transact my own business without the intervention of such noodles and if I were as near you now as I am to my pen, I'd give your neck a twist you'd probably remember. Whisper -- do YOU owe anything? If so, go and pay it. Just let Mrs Ros alone, she neither regards you nor all the bloodhounds in Britain one diluted damn . . .

The source for this is given as "Quoted by Jack Loudan in O RARE AMANDA!, page 99" -- i.e., from Loudan's 1954 biography of McKittrick Ros.

Now, there were probably a lot of people named Lewis in Belfast in 1905. And there were probably any number of solicitors. But we do know of one specific solicitor named Lewis who was practicing in Belfast in 1905: Albert Lewis, CSL & Warnie's father. If, as I suspect, this letter by Ros was written to Lewis Sr., it might help explain how his sons found out about both the book and Ros's savant-loopiness. And, I might add, that Albert L. found such a blast against him funny and didn't take it personally, which must have been the case for it to have been preserved, reflects well on him.

--John R.
current reading: TALES BEFORE NARNIA
current audio 'book': THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT by Bob Brier

*[#II.1423, Sat. Dec 1st thr Mon. Dec 3rd, 1990]

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More Revealing Than He Realized?

So, this may be a case of 'too much information'.

This morning I had to look something up in C. S. Lewis's autobiography, SURPRISED BY JOY, which I haven't read all the way through in a while. I was struck, and not in a good way, by the following passage:

". . . in the hive and the anthill we see fully realized the two things that some of us most dread for our own species -- the dominance of the female and the dominance of the collective" (CSL, SURPRISED BY JOY: THE SHAPE OF MY EARLY LIFE, pages 8-9; emphasis mine).

That Lewis includes himself ("us") and uses the present tense, I have to conclude that this was still his position in his late fifties, after he'd written TILL WE HAVE FACES and less than a decade before his death --either just before or more likely between his two marriages to Joy Gresham. I know I've seen several attempt to defend Lewis against charges of misogyny, but this particular example seems particularly egregious to me.*

One other passage, a little earlier in the same paragraph, is of interest for another reason. Here's how Lewis describes the nightmares brought on by his childhood fear of ghost and phobia about insects:

"My bad dreams were of two kinds, those about spectres and those about insects. The second were, beyond comparison, the worse; to this day I would rather meet a ghost than a tarantula. And to this day I could almost find it in my heart to rationalize and justify my phobia" (SURPRISED BY JOY, page 8; emphasis mine).

If we were to grant Diana Pavlac-Glyer's argument that (1) Tolkien's having Lewis to read aloud chapters of THE LORD OF THE RINGS to as he wrote them (2) must therefore have influenced what Tolkien wrote to take Lewis's likes and dislikes into account, then (3) it could be argued that scenes such as The Paths of the Dead and especially Shelob's Lair must have had quite an impact on CSL. Interesting.

In any case, the 'dominance of the collective' passage in the first quote above works very well as a gloss on THE DARK TOWER, where it finds vivid expression in the sinister world of the Stingermen seen through the chronoscope, where ordinary folk are subjugated to a sort of group mind when they are turned into the Jerkies. And the 'dominance of the female' might tie in to Hooper's guess that the aggressive, assertive Camilla of our world might turn out to have been a changeling for the passive, submissive Camilla that Scudamour meets in the otherworld, both of whom, in the end, might wind up exchanged to their proper worlds. Again, interesting.

--John R.

*though not as bad as his description of one of his students, to whom he owed his discovery of E. R. Eddison's work, as "som poore seely wench that seeketh a B.Litt or a D.Phill, when God knows shad a better bestowed her tyme makynge sport for some goodman in his bed and bearing children for the stablishment of this reaulme or els to be at her beads in a religyous house" (CSL, writing to ERE in pseudo-middle english, letter of November 16th 1942; COLLECTED LETTERS, Vol. II, page 535).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Unwritten Book

So, we've known for a long time* that Tolkien and Lewis once thought of collaborating on a book about language ("Nature, Origins, Functions"), called at one point LANGUAGE AND HUMAN NATURE. The two men first came up with the idea in late 1944, at the same time that Tolkien was starting up THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS and Lewis began (or at least came up with the idea for) THE DARK TOWER (cf. JRRT's 18 December 1944 letter to Christopher, which discusses all three works; LETTERS p. 105) and abandoned the project around the beginning of 1950 -- or at any rate that is when Lewis gave up on it (see Lewis's letter of January 12th 1950, published in COLLECTED LETTERS Vol. III pages 5-6). Blame for the project's floundering, or rather for its never getting off the ground, has by all commentators been laid entirely at JRRT's door, because Lewis implies in his 1950 letter that it was all Tolkien's fault. I've always had a suspicion, which I now find is widely shared, that Lewis's late book STUDIES IN WORDS, which from what little I've read of it seems thoroughly Barfieldian in approach, was Lewis's attempt to write up the project on his own, just as THE DARK TOWER can be seen as his giving up on Tolkien's writing a time-travel story to match his own space-travel story OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, as per their original bargain back in the spring of 1936. I've also attributed Tolkien's hostility to STUDIES IN WORDS ("ponderous silliness"—cf. JRRT's 12 Sept 1960 letter to CT; LETTERS p. 302) to the same source; nothing aroused his ire so much as something than ran close to something he was interested in writing himself, or actually had written -- witness his distaste for Charles Williams' Arthurian poems, which he did not discover until some time after writing his own Arthurian work (the still-unpublished THE FALL OF ARTHUR).

So, as I said I've always assumed that STUDIES IN WORDS was as close to 'LANGUAGE AND HUMAN NATURE' as we were ever going to get, and not particularly close at that, as Tolkien's criticism of that work shows.

Turns out I was wrong. Because, as I learned this week from reading Jason Fisher's blog, a researcher from Texas is claiming that he's found a draft of a fragment of this work in the Bodleian, in a notebook containing various odds and ends by Lewis. According to the following piece, which I found by following the link on Jason's site (, Professor Beebe, the Chairman of the Dept. of Communication Studies at Texas State, has an article describing the discovery in the next volume of VII, and negotiations are now underway with the Lewis Estate to publish the fragment itself -- no doubt with added editorial material recounting what little is known about the project, the story of the fragment's re-discovery, and a placing of what Lewis says in it in context with his other works. This is something I very much look forward to, both Beebe's essay and the eventual publication of the original piece.

In any case, here's Jason's original post announcing the discovery:

and here's his thoughtful follow-up discussion of its possible ramifications:

--if you follow this link, be sure to read the comments as well, in the first of which Beebe himself elaborates a bit about his forthcoming article in VII. Well done, Jason, for discovering and spreading the news.

current audiobook: THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann

*I first learned about it in LETTERS OF JRRT in 1981, though apparently first public mention of it had come in Chad Walsh's book on Lewis in 1949.

Monday, July 13, 2009


So, a few years back I decided that it'd be a good thing to have a copy of Caroline Hillier's WINTER'S TALES FOR CHILDREN* [1965]. And now, at length, I've been successful, via various indirect means -- i.e., I found it as a used book listed through Unfortunately, it seems that third-party sellers there are reluctant to send books overseas, so I asked a friend in England with whom I do a book trade if he could get it for me. He wasn't able to, but put me in touch with someone else who could make the trade. He did, and the book itself arrived today.

The reason for wanting this book, of course, is for the two Tolkien poems contained therein: "Once Upon a Time" and "The Dragon's Visit". Both were reprinted a few years later in Lin Carter's THE YOUNG MAGICIANS [1969], but that book's hard to find itself (not unnaturally for a forty-year-old paperback). Since then "The Dragon's Visit" -- which had originally appeared in THE OXFORD MAGAZINE back in 1937, and was thus available to folks with a university connection through indirect means like InterLibrary Loan -- has been reprinted twice: in Doug Anderson's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT [in the revised & expanded edition of 2002] and in his recent collection TALES BEFORE NARNIA [2008]. In both cases, Doug reprints the original (superior) version of the poem, rather than the revised version with a different ending that appears here.

So, "The Dragon's Visit", one of my favorite Tolkien poems, while not as well known as I would like is more available than it used to be, largely thanks to Doug's efforts.

The same is not true of "Once Upon A Time", unfortunately, which is little-known for a late Tolkien work -- particularly one this good. The revised version of "The Dragon's Visit" probably dates from 1961-62, when he was putting together THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL, collecting and revising old poems from the twenties and thirties and writing a (very) few new poems to accompany them. By contrast, I think "Once Upon A Time" is slightly later, because otherwise I don't know why it wouldn't have been included in the book. For one thing, it's a Bombadil poem in the literal sense that it's about Tom and Goldberry, making it the third in the sequence, after the original "Adventures of Bombadil", which is rather fun, and "Bombadil Goes Boating", which I've always thought rather an effort at forced jollity. For another, it's considerably better than some poems which did make the cut, both of which points make me think that if it'd existed by the time Tolkien was finished putting the book together he would have included it.

We know relatively little about how Tolkien's poems came to be in Hillier's book, but a brief physical description of the book appears in Wayne Hammond's DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY (page 311) and some brief entries in Wayne & Christina's COMPANION & GUIDE [2007], the main one of which (READER'S GUIDE page 689) quotes eight and a half lines from this forty-two line poem but cannot really convey the utter charm of the original. Here Tolkien finally manages to write a "Goblin Feet"/"Princess Mee" type of poem which is neither precious nor cloying.

He's also in fairly good company here -- while I haven't read the collection yet, Hillier seems to have had an eye for assembling some unusual talent. In addition to JRRT, the contributors include Elizabeth Jennings (who as a child had received one of his original author's copies of THE HOBBIT) with two poems, Ted Hughes (at that time not yet the Poet Laureate), who contributes a poem on The Loch Ness Monster, Rosemary Sutcliff with one of her Roman Britain stories, Philippa Pearce, and some others. I suspect the entries that would have interested Tolkien most (aside from his own) are the contributions by Kevin Crossley-Holland: a retelling of the story of Caedmon (based on the account in The Venerable Bede) and a translation of three Old English Riddles (I assume from The Exeter Book, though I have not yet checked).

So, a nice enough collection, which did well enough that it established a series that followed with a new volume every year for a number of years to come. But its main interest remains the Tolkien, and it is indeed really good to have these two poems readily accessible on my shelves rather than filed photocopies.

Perhaps someday we'll get an expanded edition of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL which will include "Once Upon a Time" plus those poems Tolkien considered including in the book which did not make the final cut.

--John R.

current reading: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER by Philip MacDonald [1959]
current audiobook: THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann [2009]

*I assume the title is a homage to the famous line in Shakespeare's A WINTER'S TALE [1611], one of his last plays:

QUEEN HERMIONE: Come, sir, now . . . Pray you, sit by us
And tell us a tale.
LITTLE PRINCE MAMILLIUS: Merry or sad shall't be?
HERMIONE: As merry as you will.
MAMILLIUS: A sad tale's best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
HERMIONE: Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down. Come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites, you're powerful at it.
MAMILLIUS: There was a man . . . Dwelt by a churchyard . . .

(Act II, Scene 1, lines 22-30)

--M. R. James, a little more than three centuries later, re-created the tale young Mamillius started and never had a chance to finish: "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" [circa 1924, first published in COLLECTED GHOST STORIES [1931].

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Christopher is Distinguished

So, a while back I was in a Borders and thumbed through a new(ish) biography of John Mortimer,* the English writer best known as the creator of Rumpole of the Bailey. As is my wont in such cases, I turned to the index and looked to see if there were any references to J. R. R. Tolkien.

To my surprise, there weren't any entries for JRRT, but there were two for Christopher. Looking them up, I found that the first, in a passage regarding Mortimer's grudge against his parents for sending him off to The Dragon School in Oxford, gave a brief description of the school's history and noted that

"John [Mortimer]'s generation, like every other, produced alumni of distinction: the historian E. P. Thompson, the writer and publisher Richard Ollard, The Times's music critic William Mann, and J. R. R. Tolkien's son Christopher" [p.19]**

The second reference comes much later in the book, when discussing how Mortimer's son Jeremy applied to Oxford:

"He was interviewed for New College by Christopher Tolkien and John Bayley, who were eager to hear all about his co-ed schooling, and awarded him an exhibition to read English" [p. 274]

--Here we see Christopher very much the Oxford don, evaluating applicants for his college; the sort of administrative work we knew he must have done but which rarely surfaces in the public record. It's easy to forget that he was well on his way to establishing himself as a distinguished Middle English and Old Norse scholar in his own right between the late fifties and mid-seventies, when he left Oxford to devote himself to editing his father's manuscripts full-time.***

So, it's nice to see Christopher getting some of the credit he deserves independently of JRRT.

--John R.

*A VOYAGE ROUND JOHN MORTIMER, by Valerie Grove [2007]

**other, more recent, alumni include Humphrey Carpenter (whose father was after all the Bishop of Oxford) and Hugh Laurie; see

***His translation/edition of THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREKS THE WISE is my favorite saga. He also co-edited three Canterbury Tales in school editions with Nevill Coghill, and wrote an introduction to another edition of the same saga (this latter being one of the items I picked up in May at Kalamazoo). He also wrote a wonderful essay about the Goths and Huns for the Viking Society's SAGA-BOOK, which he was able to draw on just this year for his commentary in THE LEGEND OF SIGURD & GUDRUN.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

And Then There Were Nuns (Poke-Em-With-A-Stick-Wednesday)

So, last week I saw a piece about the Nun Crisis:

This is something I'd been vaguely aware about for a while, but not seen any numbers on before. Basically, people are asking 'where have all the nuns gone?' As this piece points out, at the end of Second Vatican, when the population of the U.S. was about two hundred million people, there were something like 180,000 nuns in this country. Today, when there are more than three hundred million in the US (with many of the new immigrants having come from mostly-Catholic countries), there are less than 60,000 nuns left.

Nor is the crisis limited to the U.S.: according to a BBC article from a few years ago, the worldwide nun population declined by a quarter during just John Paul II's reign -- again, at a time when the number of Catholics overall went up. []

And things are made still worse by the aging nun population: most of the remaining American Catholic nuns are elderly. One piece I checked said there were more nuns past the age of ninety than there were under the age of thirty; another that the average age was over seventy and less than six thousand were under fifty. Recruitment has almost ceased for many communities, and the remaining nuns are struggling economically, with many of them now government-supported.*

Now Pope Benedict has dispatched an Apostolic Visitation -- the equivalent of a Papal Legate -- to investigate the crisis and report back. And meanwhile the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith** seems to have launched its own investigation. Initial signs suggest that the goal is to reign in those who embraced Second Vatican's call to go out into the world and help change it*** rather than remain cloistered but doctrinally pure.

What I think we're seeing here is the beginning of an attempt at renewal. When an organization, whether the Republican Party or Catholic nuns, start to lose members at an unsustainable rate, there are two schools of thought about how to solve the problem. One is to broaden the group's appeal by modernizing its ideas to attract those who had been put off by some aspect of the group's earlier incarnation. The other is to pull back to a faithful core of true believers in hopes their fervor will re-ignite the group so it can grow and thrive again. This will be a story I'm hoping to keep my eye on. Although only a bystander -- my denomination hasn't had nuns or monks in four and a half centuries, and I've only known two nuns**** -- I'd be sorry to see a tradition that goes back to the early Dark Ages fade away.

I guess we'll see.

--John R.

*[convents typically aren't supported by Church funds but by the wages earned by sisters from their jobs, usually as nurses or teachers. Janice has taken many a SSI claim from nuns.]

**[nobody expects the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith!]

***[the inspiration for a v. bad Mary Tyler Moore/Elvis Presley movie, 'Change of Habit']
****[one a fellow grad student at Marquette, the other a downstairs neighbor during the one period when I lived in The Core.]

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


So, today Hastur was sitting peacefully in my lap -- a rare occurrance -- when she suddenly sat up and growled. I looked out and, sure enough, a Post Office van had just pulled up outside in our driveway (there's no visitor-detecter as good as a nervous cat). By the time I'd gotten disentangled and all the way downstairs and out to the porch, the mail-carrier was gone, but she'd left behind two promising book-shaped parcels.

One, which came all the way from Belgium (first time I've ever ordered a book from Belgium, I think) is Andrew Warn's CONSTRUCTING NATIONS, RECONSTUCTING MYTHS -- the T. A. Shippey festschrift and the last of the books I ordered at Kalamazoo. This is a non-Tolkien-themed volume which focuses instead on 19th century philology, with what look to be interesting essays on MacPherson's OSSIAN and The Four Branches of THE MABINOGI and of course Grimm, and titles like "How Elvish Were the Alfar?" and "What is 'Middle-Earth'?: Origin, Evolution, and Mythic Function". The latter, by Paul Battles, looks to be one of the two in the collection devoted in whole or part to Tolkienian themes, the other being the always interesting Jonathan Evans' "Worter, Sachen, und Wahrheit: Philology and the Tree of Language in Tolkien".

It's the other new arrival, however, that's captured my attention, since I have the lead article in this year's TOLKIEN STUDIES: "A Kind of Elvish Craft: J. R. R. Tolkien as Literary Craftsman". It's a great honor to appear in Tolkien Studies at last, and as the lead piece, complete with a John Rateliff Checklist of my scholarly works. This is the written version of the speech I gave at Marquette back in October 2007 as that year's Blackwelder Lecture, and I'm glad to see it in print** to see what folks make of my argument (that Tolkien deliberately crafted his style to evoke participation in the subcreation on his readers' part). I also make a case for Tolkien's prose being so interwoven and carefully constructed that it's difficult to change any detail without unintended consequences somewhere down the line -- something I've more recently been looking at in another piece (just finished) on the various films and radio adaptations. And of course I love seeing a page from the HOBBIT manuscript on the front cover of this year's volume, thanks to Marquette and the Estate.

Actually, I'm in this issue of TOLKIEN STUDIES twice, since I wrote a review (of the Walking Tree Press collection TOLKIEN'S SHORTER WORKS, this topic having been a longstanding interest of mine*) as well. Looking over both pieces now, there are passages I like, places where I'd tinker with the wording a bit, a comment there I'd moderate, a point here I'd emphasize -- but on the whole I'm relieved to find I'd essentially say the same thing if I were writing it today.

So, if you come across and read this, let me know what you think.


*cf. my contribution years ago to the Tolkien Society's little volume LEAVES FROM THE TREE

**I understand it's been available online through Project Muse for about two weeks, but I don't have access to that -- and, besides, there's great satisfaction in getting an actual copy of something you wrote in print and making a new place for it on your shelves.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Private Eye piece on Tolkien

So, for the last few days I've been hearing about an article on Tolkien that appeared in the rather snarky British magazine PRIVATE EYE. Now a friend in England has sent me a scan of the relevant page (thanks D.) and I've had a chance to read it myself. It's a relatively short piece --only a little over two columns-- that starts out as a review of SIGURD & GUDRUN but at mid-point abruptly pivots, so that its second half is a call for a new biography of JRRT.

The anonymous reviewer then briefly what he considers "the two contenders": Carpenter, whom he finds worthy but too constrained by its need to get family approval, and Michael White's much later effort, which he dismisses outright as too obviously derivative from Carpenter to have any standing as an independent work (a judgment which quite overlooks White's biographical fictions and sheer inventions, such as the infamous hole-in-the-carpet story). For some reason, he ignores Grotta-Kurska entirely (odd in that while filled with inaccuracies Grotta-Kurska's is much better known that White's) and, even more surprisingly, John Garth's account of Tolkien during the War years, which has been highly praised on pretty much all sides since it first appeared.

Where it really gets interesting, from my point of view, is in the basis of its call for a new biography: that "it's time for one of the great literary figures of the English-speaking 20th century to get a decent memorial". Indeed, he finds it "extraordinary" that "in a literary landscape where even minor figures get twice or thrice appraised" a major figure like Tolkien hasn't gotten more attention, "a decent memorial".*

Twenty years ago, anyone trying to make such a claim would have been pilloried. Sometimes the world changes in a good way.

--John R.

*one thing the many years of essentially having only one standard biography, the Carpenter, has done is that it's established a consensus view of Tolkien's life that is both fair and largely favorable -- as opposed, say, to the trash 'em biographical style of a Goldman or a Kelley. Imagine if the only bio. of JRRT had been something along the lines of the Dorothy Sayers biography SUCH A STRANGE WOMAN? Brr.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Dam We Didn't See

So, it's been a plan of mine for a while now that one of these weekends or holidays we'd drive up the Green River to see the Howard Hanson dam. After all, it might be interesting to see for ourselves what kind of shape it was in, and whether we shd immediately be re-arranging everything in the box room and garage for a potential flood, especially since we'd just seen reports that it'd degraded much more than expected in the first half of this year.

Yesterday --a warm, sunny day rounding off a holiday weekend -- we decided was a good time to actually do it. Janice printed out driving directions from Google Maps and I dug out my various roadmaps so I cd navigate, and off we headed, naturally packing a thermos of tea for the trip. We went out through Covington, and followed the Kent-Kangley road almost all the way to Kangley, as far as the Green River Headworks Road.

And there, just a mile or so down the road alongside the river, we came to a halt when we got to the signs and barricades forbidding entry to non-authorized vehicles. Nothing in the things we'd researched online warned us about this, and it brought us up short. So, we made it to within three or four miles of the dam, but were not able to see it -- and, as it stands, there seems to be no prospect of our getting to do so anytime in the foreseeable future.

Not that it wasn't a nice drive out there and back, and while we were in the area we took advantage of that and visited the Kanaskat-Palmer Park, where we got to wade in the Green River near some mild rapids at one point and on a wide slightly submerged shelf opposite a cliff with a deeper channel at its foot (sort of half-a-gorge).

Here's a link with a picture of the dam; the two links under "History" have some interesting information about The Old Days before the dam was there when, like the Red River down in my part of the country, the Green River used to overrun its banks on a regular basis.

--John R.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My Mind Boggles (China Mieville)

So, while I was in Milwaukee Jeff Grubb* forwarded to me a link to a piece which boggled my mind:

Here, it's not so much what's said (Tolkien is the major shaping influence on modern fantasy) as who's saying it that's remarkable. Perhaps the most notable Tolkien-basher of the last decade has been China Mieville, most famously in the following bit from, I think, 2003:

Even more negative, though I can not now find that link to it, is a short bit he contributed to a tribute to Tolkien several years back (circa 2001?) in which he gloried in being the sole negative voice; I remember he was specifically hard on Bombadil.

I've always assumed that Mieville's statements were less expressions of his convictions (political or literary) than attempts to curry favor with Moorcock and similar fringe figures of an older generation whom he personally admired. And, frankly, try to ride on Tolkien's current high popularity from the 'Author of the Century' polls and the movies' buzz to get a little shock-jock publicity for himself. Maybe now that he's no longer the new kid in town but has established himself as a major talent in contemporary fantasy --indeed, probably the preeminent writer in the 'New Weird' movement-- he feels he can ease off a bit. And, it must be said, completely reverse himself in every detail of what he'd previously said about JRRT.

Still, it's nice to see him come around.

--John R.

* (check out the June 27th entry for a picture that includes both Janice and myself)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Strawberry Season

So, a few days ago we discovered that one of the great things about summer in Kent was here again -- i.e., that the strawberry place along the Green River is open again for business. There's nothing like fresh-picked fruit and vegetables, food grown to be picked when ripe and eaten right away, and the Al Duris Strawberry Farm on the Frager Road, which hugs the far bank of the Green River, is one of the last places in the Green River Valley still devoted to farming.

Most years you can pick-your-own, but this year because of the too-long winter and too-dry summer the season, which normally lasts about six weeks, is less than three. We've already made three visits, two of which were to get half-flats (six pint containers) for freezing, so we can have fresh frozen strawberries throughout the year. From what they said today, they'll only have strawberries through this weekend (and yes, they are open on the Fourth, though they'll close early).

So, if you like strawberries and want to taste fresh, local-grown, picked-ripe ones, pay them a visit while you can and also help out a local farmer in a year that's not treating the farmers or their crops kindly.

--John R.

P.S.: For a little more on the Al Duris farm, the main part of which seems to be down in Auburn, check out the following link:

and also this one (read down to find the part about the Duris farm):


current reading: JUMBEE AND OTHER UNCANNY TALES by Henry S. Whitehead [Arkham House, 1944]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Poke-Em-With-A-Stick-Wednesday: Rhode Island

So, there's a good chance Rhode Island will soon be changing its name, according to a news report from last week*

Why? Well, there are advocates who argue that shortening it will make a statement against slavery.

Slavery? Isn't it a little late in the day to take a principled stand on that?

Here, so far as I can follow it, is more or less how the argument goes. The full official name of what we were all taught in school to call 'Rhode Island' is actually "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" -- the longest name for the smallest state. That's because, tiny as it is, it's actually made up of the union of two original colonies: one on The Island (originally Rhode Island, now sometimes called Aquidneck Island) and the other on the mainland called the Providence Plantations. To some folks today, the word "plantation" is inseparably mixed with the slave plantations that developed a century or so later in the South. Hence, they argue, removing the words "Providence Plantations" from the state's name will somehow be striking a blow for freedom. Somehow. Aside from pointing out that they're about a hundred and forty years too late, it's deeply ironic that "Providence Plantations" was actually the colony founded by the man who was pretty much America's first abolitionist, Roger Williams, so that this change actually eliminates some of his admirable legacy.

What next? Legislators in Arkansas moving to change the spelling back to "Arkansaw" so clueless out-of-staters can pronounce it right? Or folks in one of the Dakotas changing their state's name to just "Dakota" so that the other (whether "North" or "South") looks like a poor relation, a la "Virginia" and "West Virginia"?