Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Epic of the Decade?

So, Friday I picked up the new issue of TOTAL FILM magazine (not something I usually read), which proclaimed on its cover their selection of Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy as The Epic of the Decade. This designation turns out to be less distinctive than it might be, since the magazine turns out to have ten nested covers, each inside the other: Best Epic, Best Blockbuster, Best Sci-Fi, and the like. Still, LotR did get priority of place, both as the first cover and first write-up for the lead story (pages 62-65) -- which focuses mostly on Jackson who, seeing the films again for the first time since their release (in order to get his mind working on THE HOBBIT project), muses on ways his films had influenced the way other films had been made, right down to specific shots. Better still, there's a small box about the upcoming HOBBIT movie, which is due out the end of next year: they've now finalized the look of Smaug, the wargs, spiders ("visually striking, in a different way to Shelob; massive but very nimble") &c. Apparently filming starts late this spring -- not so far away at all now, the day before Groundhog's.

Retrospectives are always interesting, and when the tenth anniversary of the first film rolls round I'll be curious to see what the consensus opinion will be about how well they hold up. There may be remakes someday (given the way Hollywood works, or doesn't work), decades down the road, but I suspect these will remain the film adaptations people think of when they hear the phrase "Tolkien movies".

--John R.
current reading: THE RABBI'S CAT by Joann Sfar.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New Tolkien Roleplaying Game

So, this past week brought the announcement that, later this year, we'll see the publication of a new Tolkien-inspired roleplaying game. Here's the short version, in the form of a news clip on ICv2:

And here's the longer version, from the publisher's website:

At this point there's obviously little specific information, but I'll be posting more as we find out more about the game. Here's hoping that this new effort avoids the problems that plagued the old MERP and Decipher games.

--John R.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tesla Would Be Proud

So, I may have mentioned that a few months ago the local Kent paper started getting better. Their coverage of the threat of flooding has been good, and from time to time they have an interesting local-interest piece.

Such was the case the other day when their 'feature-a-local-Kent-business' page had a full-page article about how a company here named LaserMotive has just won a NASA contest relating to the Space Elevator NASA is hoping to build somewhere down the line.

Now, I'm dubious about the whole Space Elevator concept, but I'm impressed that they're thinking far enough ahead to start encouraging work on some of the technology that'll be necessary to make it useful if they ever do manage to get it up and running in the first place. Hence the contest: make a robot capable of climbing a one-kilometre tall cable. Which the folks from Kent just won, giving them boasting rights, a sense of achievement, and $900,000 prize money.

Their breakthrough idea? Their climbing robot, named "Otis" after the elevator company, didn't have to carry its own power pack or generate power for itself. Instead, the bottom of the robot was covered with photoelectric cells, which they kept charged while it climbed by focusing a laser on it.

The result? Broadcast power. Or at least that's what Tesla might have called it. As I've heard the story, Tesla was famous for claiming the better part of a century ago that he'd found a way to transmit power over a distance without any wires or cable: electricity like radio waves. So far as I know, no one's ever found any evidence of how he planned to do this. Most assume it's another 'cold fusion', but Tesla was brilliant enough, and paranoid enough, that it's just possible he was on to something but left no records behind. And now the Kent folks have figured out a way to transmit power, via a concentrated beam of light, to a distant engine's photoelectric cells. Neat.

And in other news, there are definite signs that spring thinks it's here, despite it's being far too early in the year for that kind of thing. Weekend before last I saw the first dandelions, the daffodils in the yard are all coming up, and today the first cherry blossoms. And on the bird front, the swans disappeared for a while but are now back. Except that there are now fourteen of them. Turns out they're probably Tundra Swans, and the slightly smaller greyish ones are definitely youngsters. Janice speculated that the unusually low level of the lakes this year (they've been keeping them half-emptied so the water will have someplace to go if the river gets too high) might have made the neighborhood more appealing to them somehow. Or maybe it's climate change at work. Or maybe just luck. Hard to say.

--John R.

Kent Levys

So, for a change we're not worried about the levees here in Kent (which are holding up just fine so far -- it helps that the river, while moderately high, is behaving itself so far this winter). Rather, it's time to think about the levys -- that is, the three proposals for funding schools and libraries that appear on our mail-in ballot that came a few days ago.

On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer. I mean, what's a better use of tax money than funding public schools and libraries? That's as American as apple pie. But then so is the tradition of Tax Deadbeats (see: the Whiskey Rebellion). So, just what are these levys?

The first is to bypass one of Eyman's initiatives (which is reason enough to vote for it all by itself). The King County Library (third busiest in the nation. who knew?) gets almost all its funding through property tax. Since 2001, property tax increases have been capped at 1% a year. So the Levy is to allow a one-time, one-year exemption and boost the library levy rate to fifty cents on every thousand dollars. So, if your home's worth a hundred thousand dollars, in 2011 you'll pay the one-time rate of fifty bucks to keep the public libraries going. Sounds good to me.

The second and third both relate to local schools, and in each case they renew an existing levy for another four-year term rather than establish a new one. The first provides Kent schools with a fifth of their operating budget -- so, if it doesn't pass, they have to lay off 20% of their teachers. The second is for technology -- buying new computers to replace old ones that wear out, and the like. Again, supporting public education is one of those things everyone shd be willing to do, whether you have kids or not.

--I shd note that I started to draft this post last week but got bogged down; the arrival yesterday of our Voter's Pamphlet has stirred me to get it done. Of the four measures covered in it, three don't relate to us (i. e., they're not on our ballot), with the exception being the library levy. I was bemused to read the 'Statement in Opposition', which essentially took the tack that it's morally wrong to raise taxes in times as hard as these. I'd take that more seriously if I thought for a minute that the person making it had advocated investing more in libraries and other public services back when the local economy was booming. Somehow I suspect not. They also note that kids neglected by their parents often wind up spending lots of time at the libraries, since they're warm and clean and safe -- so, they're rather the kids huddled on street corners in the rain?

One of the measures described in the voter's pamphlet sounds like Federal Way's version of our Kent tech levy (why ours isn't in there I don't know). Again, the 'Statement in Opposition' is hard to take seriously: "There is little evidence that computers have been able to enhance student achievement" -- i.e. 'computers? who needs computers? why, in my day . . .'

So: whatever your opinion on these issues, be patriotic: vote. And, if you can, be a good citizen: vote yes.

--John R.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tolkien and the Distributists

So, a few days ago I learned through a post on the MythSoc list that the St. Austin Review, a Catholic journal (of "culture, literature, and ideas"), has a new Tolkien/Lewis themed issue out (TOLKIEN AND LEWIS: MASTERS OF MYTH, TELLERS OF TRUTH). Here's the link to the Table of Contents:

Most of these are names I don't recognize (but then I don't keep up with Lewis studies the way I do with Tolkien studies); of the rest, James Como and Thomas Howard are the best-known aside from the issue's co-editor, Joseph Pearce, the most prominent advocate of the Tolkien-as-Catholic-writer meme. I'm particularly curious to see Como's review of Barfield's EAGER SPRING, which I worked on.

It was also interesting to be able to read the sample article on Tolkien and Distributism ("Distributism in the Shire", by Matthew P. Akers), which they've kindly made available online:

I enjoyed reading this article--having long heard that Tolkien is supposed to have shown affinities with Chesterton's Distributism without seeing any detailed explanation of what this means, it was good to finally have that rectified--although the references Akers dropped in about "global markets" and "free trade" sounded a gratingly anachronistic note without seeming to have any relevance to Saruman's plans. I wish, in offering up the Scouring of the Shire as a model for reforming the modern economy, Akers had taken into account that the 'industrial' changes Tolkien disparages had only been imposed on the Shire for a matter of months, not years/decades/centuries as in the modern world--it seems like it wd be easier to roll back unpopular changes imposed from outside quite recently than to achieve systemic change of long-standing practices. I also found myself thinking, in reading his description of what Saruman's goons had done to the Shire, as if I were reading an account of Colonialism from the point of view of the colonized (say, the Boer War from the point of view of the Afrikaaners*).

But I realized at the end that there are some things about Distributism I still don't understand --most of what I know being the result of having read I'LL TAKE MY STAND by the Agrarians (also known as The Fugitives, among other titles) back in a Southern History class in college.** If the basic idea is to have land distributed as equally as possible among the populace, what's Distributism's approach towards breaking up large estates? For example, Gaffer Gamgee gets his little bit of garden back, which is all to the good, but taking the ideals of Distributism to their logical conclusion would seem to suggest the vast holdings of the Tooks and the Brandybucks, et al, ought to be broken up as well and redistributed.

So, if there's anyone out there knowledgable in Distributist theory, here's my question: what is Chesterton's position on breaking up those with huge landed estates (especially given that, in England, many of these were the result of local squires enclosing commons two centuries before)? Clearly Tolkien himself was not in favor of it, since a return to the status quo marks his happy ending for the Shire-folk.

Perhaps the issue's not so moot as we might think. Just this morning I saw a piece on CNN (I think) in which a self-identified expert on Haiti was discussing how agriculture had collapsed there since the 70s, sending large numbers of people from the countryside into the city. With the current crisis, many are returning from Port-au-Prince to their old villages, and he was suggesting that one of the best long-term things folks could do for Haiti wd be to help them rebuild their small-farm family agricultural system.

In any case, I'll probably be ordering a copy of this issue and will be keeping my eye out for future issues in hopes they have more Tolkien content.

--John R.

*relevant in the case of Tolkien, of course, because the little country in which he was born had ceased to exist by the time he was ten years old, having been forcibly (and violently) incorporated into the world's largest empire.

**including, most notoriously, the essay "Forty Acres and a Mule" which, if I remember rightly, decried black migration to the industrial north and instead suggests they be repatriated from the cities to rural settings as small independent farmers in the South.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Mystery of the Missing Poe Toaster

So, the title above does not apply to household appliances named after famous American authors (the Hawthorne Dishwasher, the Whittier Microwave) but to a gentleman who, every year, shows up at the gravesite of Edgar Poe to leave a bottle and some flowers.

Except, this year, he didn't.

For the article about the ensuing consternation, and speculation about the reasons behind the no-show, check this link:

And, if you follow the two links at the bottom of that story, you'll find (1) a brief note about one of Poe's least successful books having just sold for far more money than the impoverished Poe made in his entire lifetime, and (2) a detailed account about a bizarre faux-funeral some fans held for Poe back in October, in which they dressed up as famous people who'd known Poe and recited little funeral speeches -- the idea being to give Poe the grand funeral he'd have gotten if he'd been as famous then as he is now. I wonder if his Aunt Clemm, the person closest to him after his wife died, was represented. At least it's good news that John Astin was the master of ceremonies; Janice and I got to see him do his one-man show of Poe in Chicago back around 1997 and thoroughly enjoyed it; he by and large avoided the histrionics, which was all to the good.

And so, it seems like today a tradition died. Too bad, but so it goes.

--John R.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Green Dragon

So, I was v. interested to read, in the newest issue of BEYOND BREE, a paragraph by David Bratman in which he reports his discovery that Oxford once had a Green Dragon pub:

". . . According to AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OXFORD PUBS, INNS AND TAVERNS by Derek HOney (Oakwood Press, 1998) . . . a Green Dragon stood in St. Aldate's, by Christ Church, until 1926 when it and two other pubs were demolished to make way for the War Memorial Garden. This is also close to Pembroke College, to which Tolkien was attached beginning in 1925, so it's possible that he had a pint or two in Oxford's Green Dragon in his day . . ."

I'm not surprised that Tolkien might have patronized a real Green Dragon, but had I known that there was one that close to his own college at Pembroke that first year after he returned from Leeds, I would certainly have included the fact in MR. BAGGINS. A nice little discovery on David's part.

--John R.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Barfield Event

So, this past week I learned that Owen Barfield's newly published marchen, THE ROSE ON THE ASH-HEAP (check for details),* has now been adapted into a play (or at least "dramatisation". Having first been performed at the big Barfield conference at Goethenum, Switzerland last year, it's now scheduled to be presented in London in two months' time -- specifically, Thursday March 25th, 1.30 to 5.30 pm, at St. Ethelburga's in London (78 Bishopsgate, near the Liverpool Street Station). The first half of the event is given over to talks about Barfield and his ideas, the speakers being Owen Barfield (grandson of the author), Gary Lachman (whose work I don't know), and Simon Blaxland de Lange (Barfield's biographer). The second half is the actual performance, which will feature Paulamaria Blaxland de Lange (actress & storyteller) and Liehsja Andrea Blaxland de Lange (harp). I hope they'll tape it for those of us who can't make it to the event.

At any rate, good news that Barfield, the most brilliant of all the Inklings and by far the most underrated, is getting a little well-deserved attention. Here's the link to what looks like a programme for the event:

I'd be v. interested in hearing from anyone who does make it to this event how it went.

--John R.

*I shd point out that although this forms the final section of Barfield's long, unpublished novel ENGLISH PEOPLE, it's entirely unlike the rest of the book, which is a contemporary story set in the 1920s, a novel of ideas written rather in the mode of E. M. Forster.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Kent Coin Show

So, today I got to go to the Coin Show being put on down at the Kent Commons, hosted by 'the Boeings Employees Coin Club'. I've gotten to go two or three times before in years past -- a few years back I picked up a spare copy of my lucky coin (a 100-mon piece bought for me by my father when I was in second grade) and two coins from the Belgium Congo as a gift for a relative of mine who was born there (his father having been a Presbyterian missionary stationed there for forty-five years) -- but usually I don't find out about it in time and either miss it or can only squeeze in a cursory visit. This time, forewarned by the local paper, I was able to go and have a good, long poke.

And a thoroughly rewarding time it was, too. As someone who used to be an avid collector in my youth but whose hobby has lain mostly dormant for a long time now, it was amazing to see the things available at the various booths. In fact, it reminded me of going to the Antiquarian Book Fair and seeing a first edition Poe, a Kelmscott Chaucer, a Tolkien letter, and similar treasures, not in a library or museum collection but available for purchase for those with deep enough pockets. That's pretty much how I felt today seeing a dealer with five early silver dollars --beautiful coins, all from the 1790s, and all selling for from $4,000 to $5,000 each. Or the guy with twenty St. Gaudens double eagles spread in a row. Or the booth with a wide array of coins from the Roman Republic. Or the Colonial U.S. coinage, when the colonies or newly independent states were minting their own money. Or . . .

My own purchases were far more modest: three farthings (one each from Victoria, Edward VII, and George V), an ounce of silver cast in the shape of a silver-dollar-sized Buffalo Nickel (rightly one of the most popular US coins), and two coins from Kurdistan. Yes, Kurdistan, both dated 2006. I was not aware Kurdistan was a country, let alone minting its own money -- do the Iraqis, Turks, and Iranians know about this? But putting that aside, I got them because they were so striking in appearance. The twenty-five hundred dinar piece is an unusual example of bimetallism, having a small circular yellow-brass center surrounded by a large square copper frame (rather than the usual copper/nickel pairing). One side shows an oil refinery, while both it and the smaller (round, brass) fifty dinar piece, which shows a grey heron on one side, have on the other side what at first I took to be pyramids but turn out to be mountains, with a rayed sun above them.

In addition, I made several non-coin purchases. These ranged from a book on Celtic coinage (which I figured wd be a gd way to educate myself on the Celtic kingdoms as they were just before they were overrun by the Romans), a Roman key (only about an inch long), and two Billy-&-Charleys (mid-Victorian fakes of medieval artifacts). I wasn't familiar with the story behind Billy & Charley but was much taken with the two art pieces, beautiful bronze medallions, one of which shows a saint in his coracle (Brendan, perhaps?), the other a bearded king with a five-horned crown.

Turns out Billy (Wm Smith) and his partner Charley (Charles Eaton) started out as do-it-yourself amateur archeologists who dug up odds and ends to sell to antique stores for the antiquarian trade. They soon ran out of genuine artifacts and so started producing their own, which they succeeded in selling for years. Like so many famous forgeries, some people cried foul almost at once, while others defended their authenticity for years (largely, it seems, out of disbelief that two illiterate Londoners cd produce such beautiful work on their own). For a quick precise of the Billy & Charley story, check here ( For a longer, more detailed account, try here ( And to get some idea what their pieces actually look like, check out this site which shows images of all the known items ( If you click on 'Badges' and then the year '1012', mine turn out to be the second and fifth items there, #54br and #76, though they're much more appealing in person than these photos convey.

So, a pleasant afternoon poking about, during which I saw a lot of things, learned a lot of things, and brought home a few interesting things. This didn't include a Zachary Taylor dollar (I find I'm too cheap to pay $3.00 for a $1.00 coin that's supposedly in circulation), but I'm hoping to go back tomorrow to see if one coin I passed on is still there. If you're a coin collector, or just want to see the amazing stuff that's out there, their hours tomorrow are 10 am to 4 pm -- but be warned that, as I discovered last year, folks start to pack up their booths at least an hour before closing time.

--John R.

current reading: THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman [2008]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Recommended Reading (Tolkien)

So, a few days ago in a comment upon another post I was asked

"What are some recommended works of Tolkien criticism,

outside of the two Shippey books and John Garth's

Tolkien and the Great War (which I already have)?

I'm looking to branch out in my reading and would like

to ask someone knowledgable to point me in the right direction."

Good question, Brian. There are hundreds of books about Tolkien, and I can't say I've read them all (though I have hopes of getting through the backlog someday). But I have read a lot of them, and a lot of good ones at that.

Given that you've already ready Shippey and Garth, I assume you've also picked up the two essentials, Humphrey Carpenter's TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY [1976] and LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN [1981]. If not, you'll want to put these at the top of your list: the one is the default for understanding Tolkien's life and career, the other cd easily have been subtitled 'Tolkien On Tolkien' since in it he gives answers to the many questions readers sent in year after year.*

While it's not a book most people wd 'read' (though I did once read it, front to back), you'll find Rbt Foster's GUIDE TO MIDDLE EARTH [1971] enormously helpful for finding passages in THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The expanded edition (THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO MIDDLE EARTH [1978]) covers THE SILMARILLION as well. Alas, when it comes to the History of Middle-earth series, you're on yr own.**

It's nearly thirty years old now, but I still think Paul Kocher's MASTER OF MIDDLE-EARTH [1972] is the best and most insightful introduction to Tolkien's work. Kocher's focus is on THE LORD OF THE RINGS but he makes a good-faith effort to cover all of Tolkien's work, even lesser-known pieces like "Imram" and "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun". The main thing dating his book is that it came out before THE SILMARILLION. Highly recommended.

Other books I'd recommend are Verlyn Flieger's INTERRUPTED MUSIC [2005], the best book I've seen explaining just what Tolkien was trying to do with his legendarium; Marjorie Burns PERILOUS REALMS [2005], which both explores Tolkien's complex relationships with his sources and emphasizes his ability to always see the other side of every argument; and Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull's TOLKIEN: ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [1995], which shows just how important JRRT's artwork is for revealing more about his stories.

If you're at all interested in THE HOBBIT, you'll want to get ahold of Doug Anderson's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT -- the second expanded edition [2002], if you can.

There are also individual essays which are excellent, like Richard West's "The Interlace Structure of THE LORD OF THE RINGS", which appears in A TOLKIEN COMPASS, edited by Jared Lobdell [1975].*** The problem with collections, of course, is that they can be a pretty mixed bag; a good essay can appear in a bad collection and vice versa. If you are at all interested in the History of Middle-earth series then I recommend the book TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Carl Hostetter -- though this may sound self-serving, since I'm a contributor.

Once you feel inclined to tackle an 'advanced course', as it were, check out Hammond & Scull's two-volume set THE J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE [2006]. Both volumes are about a thousand pages long and jam-packed with information. The CHRONOLOGY presents Tolkien's life using a format like that in the LotR's Appendix B: The Tale of Years, or one of the Annals of Valinor & Beleriand in the HME. The other volume, the READER'S GUIDE, is even longer and consists of everything from lengthy essays to brief notes on all kinds of Tolkienian topics.

Does this help? There's a lot of good stuff out there, and more being added all the time. The shelves upon shelves of books can be a little foreboding at first, but there's no need to try to read everything at once. If you can pick up and skim an author, you shd be able to tell pretty quickly if he or she writes on the topics you're interested in and in a way you enjoy reading.**** Here's good wishes for good reading.

--John R.

*I suspect the book of Interviews and Memoirs currently in the works by Doug Anderson & Marjorie Burns will also be similarly useful in this respect.

**although if you can find a copy of THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH INDEX [2002], a compilation of the indexes from all twelve volumes of the HME series, you'll find it surprisingly useful.

***another essay in the same collection does the best job laying out the difference between the original and revised editions of THE HOBBIT of any piece I know of.

****for example, since you obviously enjoy Shippey, why not try his essay collection ROOTS & BRANCHES [2007]?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Treasures of Greece: Myth Becomes History

So, lately I've been getting through a lot of history by way of audio books, on Greece and Rome, and the Middle Ages (Early, High, and Later), and then Greece again, and currently Sumer and its successor states in Mesopotamia, with the Hittites possibly in the offing. So when I heard that this year's History Lecture Series at the Univ. of Wash. would be a three-part series on Ancient Greece, I thought that'd be something worth seeing if we cd manage it.

After a little more investigation, I decided that unlike the Tolkien lectures two years ago,* where I went to all the ones I cd, this time I'd just sign up for a single lecture, the first, which focused on the historical accuracy or otherwise of Homer's world as described in THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY.** Janice and I had planned to go together, and meet up with our friend Jeff Grubb (who loaned me some of the aforementioned audiobooks) there, but by the time the night of the event came round Janice was struggling with a cold and insisted I go without her. So I drove up on my own, met up with Jeff (who fortunately had saved me a place in line, given the unexpectedly sizable crowd), and got to enjoy the event.

The lecturer truly knew her stuff, and we all enjoyed the introduction by another UW professor who turned out to be her husband; it was an added bonus to me that she had a delivery style rather like that of my friend Verlyn Flieger. Some of what she said I already knew, like the parallels that have been drawn between Homer and 20th century Balkan oral poetry, and there are only so many times I need to be told in a single night that the Parthenon was "a perfect building" (I'm not any more likely to believe it the eighth time than the first). I'd also have liked to hear more on the whole question of whether the Greeks really lost the ability to read and write for four centuries (the so called 'Dark Ages'). But I enjoyed her account of the modern search for the site of Troy (which I'm currently reading a book about). Her most interesting point, to me, was her belief that the Greeks have been living where they are now, on both sides of the Aegean, for a very long time now; about nine thousand years. I would have liked to ask her how this fits in with the 40% question -- that is, since only 40% of ancient Greek words are Indo-European in origin, where did the other 60% of their vocabulary come from? The traditional answer has been that it derived from the language of the local, non-Greek, population (the 'Pelasgians') that was subjugated when the Indo-Europeans arrived. Bernal, on the other hand, asserts that most of the non-European words can be traced back to Phoenician and, more remotely, Egyptian borrowings. She did win points, I thought, for noting that the Greeks were not just great innovators but inspired borrowers who learned a lot about architecture from Egypt, probably by way of Crete.

I was less enthused about her assertion that "we are all Greeks" (quoting Shelly, my least favorite Romantic poet, I think); I've been getting a lot of 'I-heart-Greece' from the various things I've been reading and it's wearing a bit thin, frankly (the ancient world's equivalent of Merrie Olde England medievalism). But if you do love All Things Greek, and you live anywhere in the Seattle area, you should consider trying to go to the remainder of the lecture, if they're not all sold out.

Lecture Two (T. 1/19, 7pm, Kane Hall): INSPIRING OTHER CULTURES

Lecture Three (T. 1/26, 7pm, Kane Hall): FORGING MODERN GREECE

here's the link for more information of the lecture series:

And, I shd add, Prof. Thomas has written or co-written or edited seventeen books, some of which she listed (too briefly!) at the end of her talk in a 'further reading' postscript. Here's a link to the ones in the Univ. of Wash. library:

I have a feeling I'll be reading some of these down the road. One title (not by Prof. Thomas) I did jot down which sounded interesting is Eric Havelock's PROLOGUE TO GREEK LITERACY [1971], which turns out to be a slim volume of only about sixty pages. I'll have to check this one out sometime and contrast it with Bernal's CADMEAN LETTERS [1990].

--John R.

*here's the link for the Tolkien series:
At the time, they were offering a set of cds of the course, though I don't know if these are still available.

**this is because the second and third lectures focus on Greek influence on later cultures and modern images of Greece, respectively, neither of which interest me as much as ancient Greece itself, particularly the Mycenaean and Minoan era.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The New Arrival: VII

So, today the mail brought the always-welcome sight of a new issue of VII, the journal put out by the Wade Center at Wheaton devoted to the seven authors in their collection: MacDonald, Chesterton, Ch. Williams, Tolkien, Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and Barfield. This being the twenty-sixth volume of this well-established journal, the contents are pretty much what one would expect -- two essays on Lewis, one on Sayers, and one on MacDonald and Wms and Dante. But the editorial is of unusual interest, being an account of the recent (October 2009) presentation of the Kilby Lifetime Achievement Award to Walter Hooper for contributions to Lewis studies. This is only the third time the Wade has handed out this award,* and it's hard to think of anyone more deserving in Lewis studies. In addition to a photo of Hooper receiving the award and a close-up of the award itself, they also reprint one of the Tributes read aloud at the event -- a rather curious exchange of angelic letters written by David C. Downing as a sort of antithetical twist (if I can put it that way) to the Screwtape Letters, this about two angels ('Suriel' & 'Jophiel') arranging for Hooper and Lewis to meet. V. odd.

Of course, I have an additional reason to be looking forward to this issue's arrival: its inclusion of what is now my latest publication, my review of Elizabeth Whittingham's book THE EVOLUTION OF TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY: A STUDY OF THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH [2007]. While I like the idea of this book and think it helps pioneer a new branch of Tolkien studies, I had felt at the time that I was rather hard on it, rather reluctantly pointing out the book's shortcomings despite having a favorable opinion of it overall. The issue of unfavorable reviews has been on my mind of late, since I've recently written two more reviews that are still forthcoming, both of books I found sadly lacking despite having wanted to like them (sometimes it's hard to say that, however well-intentioned a book was, it just didn't succeed in achieving its aim). But skimming through the other reviews in this issue I see mine of Whittingham's book was not only more positive than I remembered it but far from the most critical one here.

For example, there was Fr. Peter Milward's review of TOLKIEN AND SHAKESPEARE in which he comments that at one point it "exceeds my powers of understanding" to follow the thought processes of one contributor, or when he ends by applying Tolkien's alleged comment** on Shakespeare's plays to these essays about Tolkien and Shakespeare: "they just haven't got any coherent ideas behind them". Ouch.

Or there's Donald T. Wms' review of Lee Oser's book on THE RETURN OF CHRISTIAN HUMANISM: CHESTERTON, ELIOT, TOLKIEN, AND THE ROMANCE OF HISTORY, in which he finds the book worth reading for its occasional insights but advises the reader to "Lower your expectations" (!), saying he "found myself defeated in my attempts to find his book wholly satisfactory by [the author's] overly allusive style and lack of focus . . . much elegant phrasing but little guidance . . . how well the goal might have been achieved had the author been less in love with the seductive possibilities of allusive suggestiveness in his own prose and possessed of a bit more no-nonsense . . . discipline and clarity".

On the other hand, it was interesting to see Ch. Huttar's review of TRUTHS BREATHED THROUGH SILVER: THE INKLING'S MORAL AND MYTHOPOETIC LEGACY, which I reviewed myself elsewhere (in MYTHLORE). I'm glad to say that Dr. Huttar was able to praise it more than I did. With so much coming out these days, so much of which has to be bought sight-unseen if at all, I'm finding the review section of TOLKIEN STUDIES and MYTHLORE and VII more important than ever in sorting out the should-buys from the if-there-were-worlds-enough-and-time.

So, it's on to read the rest of the reviews in this volume and see if there are any gems I've missed, or books resting unread on my shelves that should be bumped onto the 'read soon' pile.

--John R.

*the first was to Barbara Reynolds, original editor of VII, for her work on Sayers; the second to Aidan Mackey for his Chesterton work.

**the phrase was put in Tolkien's mouth by Humphrey Carpenter in his re-creation of an Inklings meeting; I'm not sure if H.C. had an actual source for this or penned this line himself to represent Tolkien's view.

CORRECTION (Th. 1/14-10): In the original post, I gave the title of one of the books mentioned above as 'Tolkien On Shakespeare'. The correct title, of course, is TOLKIEN AND SHAKESPEARE. I suspect I'd conflated the title with TOLKIEN ON FILM, which sits next to it on my shelf, having the same editor. Thanks to Merlin for pointing this out to me; accuracy is always a Good Thing. Accordingly, I've fixed the title in the main body of the post.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

St. Cuthbert

So, for years all I've known about 'St. Cuthbert' comes from playing D&D, in which he is the patron for all those who think most problems can be solved by hitting somebody upside the head. I was vaguely aware that there'd once been a real Cuthbert, whom I associated with Iona, and who wd no doubt be astonished to find himself transformed into one of the fictional gods of Greyhawk by Gygax et al.

That's why I was bemused last week to read the Venerable Bede's life of Cuthbert, Vita Sancti Cuthberti, written about 721, or only about thirty-four years after Cuthbert's death in 687. Since Bede himself was born in 673, the two actually overlapped, and though Bede seems never to have met the man himself he incorporates a number of first-person accounts from various monks he knew who had known Cuthbert and been present at the events described.

Among some of the more interesting bits was the discovery that medieval monks took afternoon naps (part XVI), that the king of Northumbria's half-brother was exiled to Scotland for his love of literature (part XXIV) but recalled upon the king's untimely death to accede to the throne, and that tent revival meetings aren't a 19th/20th century American phenomenon like I thought but go back to early medieval times (XXXII)*.

Cuthbert was first an Abbot, then a hermit, and finally a bishop; I found the account of his years as a hermit the most interesting -- such as when birds came and fed on the barley he'd planted but all left when he reminded them it was unfair to reap what they had not sown (XIX), or his banishing the two crows who shared his island because they took straw from the thatch of the visitor's hut he built (so people who came to see him would have their own place to sleep and not intrude on his own cell); one came back a few days later and begged pardon for itself and its mate (successfully). Bede ascribes Cuthbert's ability to talk with animals and have them obey him as a sign that Adam's power of dominion over creation, denied to most of us, had been restored to him (XXI). Another theologically interesting passage comes somewhat earlier when after discussing Cuthbert's ability to extinguish raging housefires with just prayer he adds a personal note: "But I, and those who are, like me, conscious of our own weakness and inertness, are sure that we can do nothing in that way against material fire, and, indeed, are by no means sure that we shall be able to escape unhurt from that fire of future punishment, which never shall be extinguished" (XIV) -- apparently the 'born-again' conviction of guaranteed salvation was no part of the experience of the Venerable Bede, officially recognized as a Doctor of the Church, and his fellow monks. Hmm.

And, in a final note, it sounds as if Cuthbert was one of those who made it his mission to put down the native Celtic church and substitute Roman rites and customs in its place; there are no less than three mentions of his enforcing new practices: defending those whom the locals accused of having "taken away from men the ancient rites and customs" (III), imposing new practices upon those fellow monks at Lindisfarne who "preferred their ancient customs" (XIV), and on his deathbed denouncing those "who err from the unity of the Catholic faith . . . by keeping Easter at an improper time" (XXXIX).

So, a fairly interesting person, who was already being venerated as a miracle worker in his lifetime and whose remains were treated as saint's relics almost immediately, and in rather unsettling ways. A few famous saints, when you come to read their life's story, don't hold up too well to modern scrutiny, but Cuthbert, while no Francis of Assisi, comes off better than most.

In any case I don't think I'll be able to face him in a D&D setting again without thinking of the real person.

--John R.

*"he came to a mountainous and wild place, where many people had got together from all the adjoining villages, that he might lay his hands upon them. But among the mountains no fit church of place cd be found to receive the bishop [Cuthbert] and his attendants. They therefore pitched tents for him in the road, and each cut branches from the trees in the neighbouring wood to make for himself the best sort of covering that he was able. Two days did the man of God preach to the assembled crowds, and minister the grace of the Holy Spirit by imposition of hands upon those that were regenerate in Christ" (part XXXII).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Good Day

So, today we re-instituted our policy, begun in January of 2007, of going someplace new or trying something different once a month.

This weekend it was to celebrate Janice's birthday. First, we indulged ourselves with a breakfast consisting largely of homemade rolls (my grandmother's recipe, which these days I can only make on non-Atkins feast days).

Next, we drove down to Sumner (which seems to be a nice little town) to have high tea at The Secret Garden, an English-style teahouse which takes up the ground floor of an old nineteenth century 'Queen Anne' house called The Herbert Wms House (built in 1890). We had the little sun room to ourselves, where in addition to the tea (English Breakfast for me, Darjeeling for Janice) we had some most excellent freshly made scones (still warm), an array of bite-sized quiches and the like, traditional tea sandwiches (which of course I passed on), and more bite-sized desert morsels (a stick of shortbread, a mini gingerbread muffin, &c). Highly satisfactory!

From there, we headed down to Olympia, which we've passed through on several occasions on our way down to Portland or Trout Lake, but only visited the city itself once, years back, as part of a group who went down to see The King in Yellow -- perhaps the worst play I've ever actually seen performed.

This time, we visited the state Capitol building, which turns out to be suitably impressive, as one might expect. Lots of marble and massive stairs and grand vaulting columns and public statuary (bronze) and a great high dome; huge legislative chambers on either side and galleries above; a warren of little rooms belowground. This makes the third statehouse I've seen (the others being in Little Rock and Madison) and the third Janice has seen (her previous ones being in Springfield and Madison).*
After poking about for a bit, we strolled around the grounds, taking in the Story Pole (a painted totem), the WWII memorial/monument, the sunken garden (now in winter-resting mode), and walked by the (closed) conservatory --basically an oldstyle greenhouse, currently abandoned, dating from the FDR era (1940 to be precise, according to the official plaque on the side listing Roosevelt as president and Harold Ickes as Director of Public Works). Apparently it's unsafe to go through these days; hope they fix it up rather than tear it down.

I shd note that we were not the only tourist: there were hordes of well-dressed high school kids, either on a field trip or there for some sort of Boys State event (assuming they still have Boys State), and outside at the overlook for Capitol Lake we were much amused to see two Buddhist Monks in their traditional saffron robes taking vacation photos.

From there we walked down to the Japanese Garden: smaller than the Arboretum's walled garden, which we like to visit a few times a year (on good days we get to feed the turtles) and larger than Kent's little Kaibara Park by the (temporarily closed) library. Apparently they'd been having some event that was just ending involving a lot of tarps set up over folding tables; the one thing we saw were two men pounding rice with wooden mallets -- which was interesting, but we missed whatever story went along with the demonstration.

On the way back we decided to walk through rather than around a tiny park, and hence discovered the Sequoia. Rather grandly named The Daniel J. Evans Tree (sequoia sempervirons), it was obviously a relatively young tree (as sequoias go) but still towered over the other trees in the little park. Not being surrounded by other giant trees, it had little branches sticking out all round rather than a vast stretch of bare trunk with all the branches way up at the top, as in most pictures I've seen of sequoias. A nice foretaste of the redwoods we'll be going down to see later this year.

And after, back home for a quiet evening with the cats. A pleasant enough trip; we'll have to try Olympia again sometime. One of the things I enjoyed the most about the day were the long conversations we had -- though truthful disclosure requires me to reveal that apparently Janice had a bet with herself about how long it'd be before I brought up Tolkien. We arrived at the tea house at 10.40, and I did the expected about ten minutes later.

Happy Birthday!


*plus of course we've visited the U. S. Capitol in D.C.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Goodbye, 2009

Sometimes, a cartoon says it all, as in the case of these episodes of SINFEST -- a v. funny, thoughtful, and occasionally profane online strip I discovered through Jeff Grubb's GRUBBSTREET.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

So That's What They Were . . .

So, a few weeks ago I happened to look out the window and noticed a number of small, brown, v. active little birds feeding from the tight little cones in our stunted conifer on that side. I wasn't able to see them v. well, given my eyesight and their size and speed, but was certain they weren't a kind I'd see before, being even smaller than the chickadees, yet the tails were too long and straight for them to be wrens. Then a week or so later they came back and Janice and I were both able to see them. And now for the past several days they've been appearing on-again & off-again at the suet feeder out back -- quite an amazing sight, mixing freely with the occasional chickadee (which helped me confirm that they were definitely smaller than the chickadees, previously the smallest birds I've noticed aside of course from our hummingbirds).

So yesterday I asked the folks at Wild Birds Unlimited, where I'd gone to stock up on finch mix (there being heavy demand this time of year) what they might be. Small, fast, brown, thin, appearing in flocks of ten to twenty, attracted to the suet, longish tail. Ah yes, they said: bushtits. Except they would be grey, not brown. They showed me the picture in a bird-book, and they were right. A little research since revealed that bushtits, the smallest of all passerine birds, were first identified as a species in the Seattle area, so it's probably just chance I've never noticed them before. I did find one image online that gives a pretty good idea of what our suet feeder has looked like when they descend upon it:

--John R.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Tolkien on Ireland, part two

So, since making my earlier post about Tolkien's odd comment about the land of Ireland being saturated with evil, I've been able to locate the original source cited in PERILOUS REALMS. The particular passage starts a new section of the three-way discussion between Kilby, Carpenter, and Sayer (which took place on September 29th, 1979), with its own header. Here's the whole passage:

"On the Influence of Tolkien's Love of Nature in General on his Use of Natural Images in his Writings"

Professor Sayer:

I've gone for one or two walks with Tolkien, and he did talk to me about natural scenes he visited. One of the things I noticed, which surprised me from the start, was the way in which he regarded certain natural scenes as evil. This came up most strongly after he'd been examining in order -- that is to say classifying students in an Irish University according to their achievements in the English language and literature. He described Ireland as a country naturally evil. He said he could feel evil coming from the earth, from the peat bogs, from the clumps of trees, even from the cliffs, and this evil was only held in check by the great devotion of the southern Irish to their religion. This was a very strange view, and was not one I could even have guessed.


I have nothing to add to that extremely illuminating reminiscence except that, to say that he was a very knowledgable [sic] observer of the details of scenery . . . [he then goes on to describe Tolkien's 'nature ramble' with the Lewis brothers, after wh. Kilby describes Tolkien as a gardener].

[source: MINAS TIRITH EVENING STAR, January 1980, Vol. 9 no. 2, pages 15 & 16]

--so, as per Jason's comment on my original post, it's now clear that Humphrey C. cd not have shed more light upon this; apparently it was a new anecdote to him. It's not that odd that Tolkien might have identified a particular area as evil -- many who experienced trench warfare on the Western Front came to feel that way about No Man's Land -- but that he wd apply this to Ireland. As David points out, Tolkien is on record saying that he liked both Ireland and the Irish (though not the Irish language, much preferring Welsh).

Quote #1

"I am very untravelled, though I know Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay), and know something of France, Belgium, and Ireland. I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, and am since last July actually a D. Litt. of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in 'Eire' in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive." [JRRT to HM Co., June 1955; LETTERS p. 219)]

In a second letter, Tolkien is even more explicit:

Quote #2

"I do not travel much. I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resorts, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with." [JRRT to Rhona Beare, draft of October 1958; LETTERS p. 289]

So, on the one hand Sayer tells us Tolkien considered Ireland a land saturated with evil, and on the other Tolkien twice goes out of his way to say that he liked Ireland and its people. I don't think there's any way to reconcile these two positions, other than to assume that Sayer somewhat misunderstood Tolkien -- that Tolkien had been describing his experiences at a particular spot in Ireland (say, one of the peat-bogs, from which the Bog People are occasionally recovered), and Sayer mistakenly extrapolated it into a general remark about the whole island. That's my best guess, at any rate.

As for Extollager's comment: the idea of demon-haunted waste spaces was certainly familiar to Tolkien -- cf. Grendel's Mere -- and they feature memorably in some of his works. The classic example in English literature is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". Given Tolkien's sensitivity to landscapes, I see how he could feel this way about specific places he'd encountered, of which Sayer gives us one example (apparently not the only one). I know the most sinister-looking place I remember seeing, a woods of twisted trees you have to walk through for a mile or more to see a petrogylph-site, looked menacing but didn't feel that way at all. The only time I did get an odd feeling from a landscape was on the Isle of Wight when I climbed Tennyson Down. Walking around the top in the fog, I v. much got the sense that I was in Britain, not England. This is the only time I've felt anything like that in my five trips to the UK; what some might call a numinous feeling. It was v. striking, and memorable, but not at all sinister.* Luck, perhaps?

--John R.

*the frightening part came a little later. Since I'd climbed up one side, I assumed the other was pretty much the same. So later, after I'd sat down to rest and think a little, when the fog lifted saw I was less than five feet from the edge of a sheer cliff dropping what looked like hundreds of feet to The Needles, my acrophobia kicked in big-time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Six Hundred Books

So, a new year and a new decade, both of which inspired me to look back at my reading list to see how I've done. I used to read about a hundred books a year, but in recent years I've slowed down and now average about sixty or so. Partly this is because I read a good deal on-line -- certainly more than I used to do with the occasional newspaper or magazine. Partly it's because I listen to a lot of recorded books, which I don't count in the reading list (and which I've never been able to keep a separate list for, for whatever reason). Partly it's because these days I read a lot of manga, which again doesn't count. And of course all the anime I watch (usually during meals when I'm by myself, or at night before going to bed) cuts into what used to be reading time.

Still, I find I do get through a fair amount. January 1st 2000 found me reading book #II.2204, MURDER IS SERVED [1948] by Richard & Francis Lockridge -- one of the Pam & Jerry North mysteries I'd picked up years before; I'd been curious to read this because my sister was named after Pamela North (from the tv show based on the books).

And January 1st 2010 finds me finishing up #II.2816, THE LOST STRADIVARIUS by Jn Meade Falkner [1895] -- an absolute dud of a ghost story more interesting for its sanctimonious passages that are almost a parody of Victorian public piety than for any merits as a story.

And in-between? Rather than list all six hundred and twelve books, here's a sampling of ones that I was particularly struck with at the time, either because I thought they were especially well-written, or thought-provoking, or for some other reason really stood out from the crowd.

--CASE CLOSED by Gerald Posner [1993]
--uncollected short stories by Lord Dunsany
--SEVEN NIGHTS by Jorge Luis Borges [1984]
--ONLY YESTERDAY by Frederick Lewis Allen [1931]
--*THE LAND OF LAUGHS by Jonathan Carroll [1980]
--CADMEAN LETTERS by Martin Bernal [1990]
--*THE DYING EARTH by Jack Vance [1950]
--an unpublished piece by Verlyn Flieger [circa 2001]
--*TEA WITH THE BLACK DRAGON by R. A. McAvoy [1983]
--TO THE CHAPEL PERILOUS by Naomi Mitchison [1955]
--*A NIGHT IN LONESOME OCTOBER by Roger Zelazny [1993]
--BLACK ATHENA STRIKES BACK by Martin Bernal [2001]
--*THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD by Patricia McKillip [1974]
--A PLEASING TERROR by M. R. James [2001]
--*SWORDS AGAINST DEATH by Fritz Leiber [1970]
--*A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay [1920]
--*THE BRIDGE OF BIRDS & *EIGHT SKILLED GENTLEMEN by Barry Hughart [1984 & 1991]
--*THE DREAM OF X & *THE NIGHT LAND by Wm Hope Hodgson [1912]
--NIGHT WATCH by Terry Pratchett [2002]
--*THE SECRET MOUNTAIN & *THE BOOK OF THREE DRAGONS by Kenneth Morris [1926 & 1930]
--*HOBBERDY DICK by Katharine Briggs [1955]
--*THE SILENT MIAOW by Paul Gallico [1964]
--LOST LANGUAGES by Andrew Robinson [2002]
--*PERSUASION by Jane Austen [1818]
--*LUD-IN-THE-MIST by Hope Mirrlees [1926]
--INTERRUPTED MUSIC by Verlyn Flieger [2005]
--PERILOUS REALMS by Marjorie Burns [2005]
--COLLAPSE by Jared Diamond [2005/2006]
--MISQUOTING JESUS by Bart Ehrman [2005]
--OWEN BARFIELD (biography) by Simon Blaxland de Lange [2006]
--CORALINE by Neil Gaiman [2002]
--BEOWULF A (verse) & BEOWULF B (prose) plus the PWYLL fragment & misc. related texts, tr. J. R. R. Tolkien [unpublished]
--THE FRODO FRANCHISE by Kristin Thompson [2007]
--*THE GODS OF PEGANA by Ld Dunsany [1905]
--THE LEGEND OF SIGURD & GUDRUN by J. R. R. Tolkien [2009]

A fairly mixed lot, I wd say. Looking through the list, I see I don't re-read Tolkien nearly as often as I used to, but that probably because when I get the itch to do so I'm just as likely to listen to it on audiobook -- which I really shd upgrade from cassettes to cds.

And now, on to the next book.

--John R.

* (an asterisk indicates this is a rereading)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sir Peter

So, yesterday I was surprised to find in the local paper (or, rather, at the website wh. is what remains of the local paper) the news that Peter Jackson appears on the New Year's Honours List and henceforth can style himself 'Sir Peter'. His knighthood is specifically for "services to film", but the account I saw v. much emphasized THE LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy and the upcoming HOBBIT duology.*

It's nice to see someone mainly known for his work on Tolkien to be honored in this way. In part it seems a sign that the old custom of only giving out knighthoods to people in the entertainment industry when they were at death's door (Hitchcock, Chaplin, Wodehouse) has finally given way to recognizing them while their careers are still ongoing (e.g., Sir Ian McKellen). Even so, Jackson is on the youngish side to be receiving this award. Good for him, I say.

--John R.

*as opposed, say, to his brilliant but little-known mockumentary, FORGOTTEN SILVER