Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More on "Tolkien in Oxford"

So, now that I've had a chance to re-watch TOLKIEN IN OXFORD and take notes, I find that my opinion of it has come up. At first watching, the dashed expectations get in the way: that they had the chance to ask Tolkien so much and decided to take him to a bonfire to watch pretty fireworks takes some getting over. But, that said, it's still wonderful to have at least this much footage of Tolkien 'as he lived and breathed'. And some of the things he says are fairly striking as well.*

First off, when discussing why he wrote THE LORD OF THE RINGS, he seems as detached as Poe in the latter's famous 'The Philosophy of Composition" (where Poe explained that his first move in writing The Raven was to determine to write a poem about a hundred lines long). After briefly discussing the origin of THE HOBBIT (wrote that phrase on the back of a student paper, hobbit as reluctant hero, published in 1937) he goes on to describe his goal in undertaking LotR thusly:

"I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really stupendously long narrative and to see whether I had sufficient art, cunning, or material to make a really long narrative which wd hold the average reader right through", adding that "one of the best forms for a long narrative is, as was found in THE HOBBIT, though this is a much more elaborated form, is the pilgrimage or journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted."

--Particularly of note here is his ambition and the practicality with which he undertook the project.

A more surprising bit comes a little later, when he's out walking the Merton grounds. Much of this is barely audible, at least to my ears, but with patience it can be made out and turns out to be autobiographical:

"I was on the whole a rather puny, overmothered, timid little creature who was not much of a success. I eventually became a rather ordinary scholar . . . (turned out to be) rather good at rugby football, of all odd things. Let me say at once that owing to the casualties of the War . . . there were v. few people to elect. Too big a job for me, really. Which means to say that I was legally removed."

--I don't think I've ever heard Tolkien being more self-depreciating than this. It's not clear what he mean by lack of competition but I assume he's referring to his election to the Pembroke professorship in 1925, rather than his Leeds post or his original admission and scholarship to Oxford (the OED post, his first academic job, he was of course superbly qualified for, as even he wd have had to admit). As for not being up for the job I assume this in some way refers to his retirement, which had taken place about eight/nine years before. In any case, it's a striking example of his characteristic humility, in this case carried to an extreme.

Finally, a minor mystery that had puzzled me somewhat has now been cleared up. In the Landseer video (I think it is), there's a bit of film in which Tolkien talks about how THE LORD OF THE RINGS is ultimately about death. That's all well and good, but he proceeds to astonish me by pulling out of his pocket a clipping from which he quotes Simone de Beauvoir, of all people, on the individual tragedy of inevitable death. The quote itself is thoroughly Tolkienesque, but I shd no more expect Tolkien to be quoting de Beauvoir than I wd him quoting Virginia Woolf, given that de Beauvoir was (a) French and (b) closely associated with Jean Paul Sartre, the originator of Existentialism, a philosophy one wd hardly expect Tolkien to be in sympathy with.

Now the mystery is solved, since we now see that bit of film in context. Tolkien proceeds it by saying that he had recently been reading a biography of a composer he liked, Carl Marie von Weber,** and found in it the de Beauvoir quote. That Tolkien wd be reading a composer's biography isn't anything new: he comments a time of two in old age that he's been reading a biography of Beethoven (cf. his 1958 letter to Deborah Webster Rogers in LETTERS). So there's one less mystery, and one possible trend to look for.

As for miscellaneous points, there's his shrewd assessment of why his books shd be so popular in America (a section unsubtly introduced by shots of Frodo and Gandalf buttons while THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC blares):

"I don't live in America. Surely they shd tell me. I shd like to ask them some questions about how these things arise. I observe in general that America has . . . North America has always been more easily kindled than England (or) indeed any country in Europe and for instance -- the Dickens cult -- the extraordinary excitement about Dickens so that . . . people came down to the quay to watch the mail ship, the only thing they wanted to know was what happened to the next chapter; they weren't worried about goods"

One curious point -- I wd have guessed that this was filmed on Guy Fawkes Day (early November 1967), given the bonfire and fireworks, but S&H date it to February 5th thr 9th 1968 (COMPANION & GUIDE vol II p. 716). In which case the bonfire, fireworks, &c must I suppose just have been put on especially for the film? In any case, being a good Tolkienist I note that it was on the night of the first-quarter moon and, though I don't have any confirmation of this, that looks like young Simon in the foreground next to his grandfather in one of the nighttime shots.

At one point we actually hear him cuss, just a bit, from a third-story window (". . . Can't get out -- there's a great damned thing in the way -- I'll try & climb out. One minute!")

Re. trees, he says: "I have always for some reason, I don't know why, been enormously attracted by trees . . . all my works are full of trees. I suppose I actually in some simple-minded (way) always long to -- I shd have like to be able to make contact w. a tree & find out what it feels about things. ha ha." I particularly liked this part, since his depiction of trees was what first drew me to Tolkien's work and remains one of my favorite parts about it.

re. smoking (cf. 'At the Tobacconist' from almost four decades earlier): "I've always . . . always smoked. I sometimes smoke beyond the point when you enjoy it, which is silly, but I do smoke & enjoy it & as a matter of fact it's now so tied to writing that I can't write without it."

and, though it doesn't come at the end, a suitable last word:
"it's a pity the book didn't catch on a bit sooner, isn't it?"
a pity indeed, but I'm glad he got to know that the book showed every sign, nearly twenty years after publication, that it was going to last. And it has.


*I haven't had a chance to triple-check them, so exact word-for-word fidelity of quotes not guaranteed.

**someone whose work I'm not familiar with at all.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tolkien Documentary IV: Tolkien in Oxford [1968]

So, last Thursday (the 19th) I got to see something I've heard about for years but never thought I'd get to see for myself: the 1968 BBC documentary on J. R. R. Tolkien. A few stills from it appeared in print at the time, and some bits made their way into one of the Tolkien documentaries (the 1992 Landseer, I think), with a few more snippets having shown up inexplicably on You-tube a few years back.


I'll be posting more once I've had a chance to re-watch it and take notes, but here are some first impressions.

(1) while there are some interesting bits, anyone coming to this with great expectations after listening to the excellent BBC Radio half-hour interview w. Denis Gueroult will be sorely disappointed. In that case, the interviewer had clearly done his homework; he came to Tolkien with specific questions to ask, and made follow-ups to make sure he got answers, even if they were often obviously not the answers he'd expected. By far Tolkien's best interview.

(2) here, the documentarians seem to have shown up at Tolkien's doorstep and, finding him a thoughtful, rather shy and self-effacing man, not at all the bon-homme self-promoter some authors are, seem to have been rather at a loss what to do. So their back-up plan turns out to have been to make him wear a big furry hat and go out to watch some fireworks. Other footage shows him wandering around various college grounds and gardens, murmuring inaudibly about the trees and various other topics. They fill the rest of the half-hour with students and other people expounding upon what they like or despise about Tolkien's works.

(3) far too much of it is their attempt to coyly depict something of 'the Tolkien phenomenon'. Thus they ask one Oxford student to summarize the plot of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. After a minute or so, they cut away, then come back to her some time later, then cut away again, over and over throughout the half-hour. Their last time is particularly cruel, since they show a bit of someone talking about how fans of the book will drone on and one about it if given the chance, then immediately cut away to her, then cut away yet again.

(4) the final shot is surreal, starting with a shot of Tolkien on a wall (the old city wall? one of the college gardens?) and then panning out into the far distance -- apparently it was shot from a helicopter over Oxford.

(5) Tolkien's favorite part of the whole proceedings was clearly the part where they asked him about food (given the hobbits' enthusiasm for the subject), then whether he liked to drink (he obliged by happily demonstrating that he did indeed like beer) and smoke (the most animated his face ever got was during the lighting of his pipe and happily filling the air with smoke).

(6) we shd all be grateful to have this material -- it's wonderful that they got some live-action film of Tolkien more or less in his element, however modest its achievements as an interview or lacking it is as a documentary. We'd gladly have a few pages of original manuscript from one of Shakespeare's plays, even if it was one of the real stinkers like TITUS ANDRONICUS or TIMON OF ATHENS. So here: we'd all love to have some well-informed, well-intentioned interviewer sit down for half an hour's lively discussion with Tolkien. But we have this instead. So, I'm grateful for what we do have.

Many thanks to both Jessica (who's actually in it, twice) and Charles for drawing it to my attention. Now if the BBC would only sell copies . . .

As for the content of the thing, that's a subject for another post.

--John R.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The New Arrival: Pug-Ugly

So, Thursday brought the new (next year's) Tolkien calendar in the mail. I'd had to order it from amazon.com, since they're getting harder and harder to find in the bookstores these days. And a good thing, too, since if I'd seen it first I might have had second thoughts. Suffice it to say there have been great Tolkien calendars in the past (those featuring Tolkien's own art), bad Tolkien calendars (e.g., the Brothers Hildebrandt offerings), and the hilariously inept (the so-called 'Great Illustrators' calendar [1980?])

And then there's this. This year's calendar is illustrated by Cor Blok,* a Dutch artist now in his mid-seventies who has the unusual distinction of having shown his works to Tolkien himself, during a visit to Oxford in August 1961. To me Blok's work looks like a deliberate and unsuccessful attempt to capture a naif primitive style, screened through the pyschodelia that was briefly popular for science fiction and fantasy book covers back in the '60s and early '70s (cf. Barbara Remington's covers for the Ballantine LotR and E. R. Eddisons, or Bob Pepper's work for the Adult Fantasy Series). So I'm astonished to learn that Tolkien apparently liked them. Indeed, he liked them so much that he bought two of them**and accepted a third as a gift from the artist, and apparently went so far as to frame two of the three. This is all the more surprising, given how prickly Tolkien cd be about artists attempting to illustrate his work (he once famously described Pauline Baynes' Gollum as looking like the Michelin Tire Man -- and this was by an artist he liked) and the fact that Blok makes no attempt to be factually accurate: he portrays Gollum as a kind of giant duck*** and has Eowyn stab the witch-king in the lips with a needle-thin spear. The overall effect is both comic and weird, as if Jay Ward's Bullwinkle tried to reproduce some medieval Flemish art.

The best of these pieces are the large-scale battle-scenes, such as The Battle of the Hornburg (August) and Frodo's Vision from Amon Hen (April), which in their crowded muddles echo Brueghel (esp. his Triumph of Death) and create a sort of Garden of Earthly Delights -like creepiness. And he's at his worst with any small-scale scene which involves depiction of actual characters, like the laughably amateurish March of the Ents (May). It would be hard to imagine a worse Ent: I think Blok has probably claimed the all-time-worst prize in this category.

Ironically enough, the lengthy essay by the artist that fills the first few pages of this calendar, "Pictures to Accompany a Great Story", is far more interesting than the art itself. In the essay, Blok gives a brief overview of his career, explains how he came to create his Tolkien art (more than a hundred pieces, all in the period 1958-1962), describes his meeting with Tolkien, and provides a brief technical explanation of how he creates his effects.

From this account, it's clear that Blok was a kind of kindred spirit to Tolkien in one very important and unusual way: just as Tolkien created invented languages set in his own subcreated world, starting in his late teens Blok began to create art from his imaginary country of Barbarusia ("invented to provide the setting for a fictional history of art running from Palaeolithic cave paintings to a local version of 20th century Futurism"). That is, he worked to develop his own distinct style to reflect what the art of this imaginary European country might have looked like. And it was on this Barbarusian art that Blok drew when he turned to painting scenes from Tolkien. The Brontes wrote their shared-world stories, Tolkien created his vocabularies, and Blok painted his Barbarusian art: all differing expressions of a similar impulse.

Perhaps it's better to simply try to enjoy these pieces -- either as art or as outstanding pieces of dadaesque folly, depending on how they take you -- than as anything actually illustrating Tolkien's story. Certainly this is how Tolkien himself took them, writing the he found them "attractive as pictures, but bad as illustrations" (JRRT to RU). Blok, for his part, admits that he gets plenty of details wrong but falls back on the argument that "There is a distinction, after all, between depicting and describing . . . This is why I refer to my work on The Lord of the Rings as 'accompanying' rather than 'illustrating' the story." and again "My pictures try to re-tell parts of the written narrative by means of pictorial signs. They are not projections of whatever images Tolkien's text conjured up before my mind's eye. They are pictographs, not photographs".

In short, these are the visual equivalent to music 'inspired by' a poem or story; they have no real value as illustrations but stand or fall as pure art. That's probably why I, personally, find so little value in the result. But, as a wise man once said, your milage may vary.

--John R.

*I first became aware of Blok's work through four paintings reproduced in REALMS OF TOLKIEN: IMAGES OF MIDDLE-EARTH [1996], the second of two art collections from HarperCollins that came out in the mid-ninties; the one-page artist's bio on Blok in the back quotes from two of Tolkien's letters to him. I was incredulous even then that Tolkien wd have liked this stuff, but the evidence seems too solid to doubt.

**"The Battle of the Hornburg", reproduced here as the illustration for August, and what Blok calls a version of "The Dead Marshes". The picture Blok gave him as a present was of "Dunharrow"; the two Tolkien had framed were "Dunharrow" and "Helm's Deep" (i.e., "The Battle of the Hornburg").

***in the illustration for June I just assumed he had a liripipe (a la Baynes' Smith), odd though that wd be; but the illustrations for October and November makes his giant-duck shape (complete with bill and big duck feet) irrefutable.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Arkansas Room, continued

(continued from previous post)

The other book, a biography of Orville Falbus,* looked like a v. good place to find out more about the most discreditable episode in my home state's history: when the governor (Faubus) used the national guard to keep black students out of the Little Rock schools, with the result that the president (Eisenhower) sent in the army to escort them to and from school, with the result that Gov. Faubus shut down the school system altogether for the year (better ignorant than integrated cd have been his motto). Surprisingly enough, although I grew up in Arkansas, took a required course in Arkansas History (7th grade) and a college course on History of the South (junior/senior year), and even lived in Little Rock for a year when I was a kid (second grade), I knew nothing about this episode until after I left the state and was living in Milwaukee, when I came across it quite by chance while at Marquette in the early/mid '80s.**

As it so happens, I've actually seen Gov. Faubus, when as ex-governor he was trying to stage a come-back in the early '70s. Having always been interested in politics, my mother and I went down to the courthouse to see him deliver an old-fashion stump speech,*** flanked by two other ex-governors: Gov. Ben Laney (a Magnolia local & v. nice man, whose shoes I used to shine; he was also grandfather of two of my friends) and Gov. of Louisiana Jimmie Davis (who sang his old hit "You Are My Sunshine").**** The event was even complete with a ringer in the crowd, a black man in a suit who was obviously not a local, who circulated around shouting things like "he's right!" and "hear, hear!" at the stage to try to make the listeners seem more enthused than they were.

While his name is now a hissing and a byword, and rightly so, Faubus was in his time an amazingly successful politician who dominated the state by serving SIX consecutive (two-year) terms as governor -- a record matched only I think by Clinton, who also served twelve years before resigning mid-way through his last term to serve as president (but with a two-year interruption between his first and second terms). My own parents, I found out, had voted for Faubus when he was first running, since he promised to put more money into education and raise teachers' salaries (a campaign pledge he apparently delivered on). But his grandstanding during the Little Rock crisis, which was largely a disaster of his own making, brought the state into disrepute we still haven't altogether lived down, although Central High is now a national landmark (my cousin's son just graduated from there this spring).

Reading over Reed's account of events, it's interesting to see how Faubus took a tricky situation and through his grandstanding and demagoguery turned it into a full-scale crisis. This was ground zero on integration, where Brown vs. The Board of Education was to be put into practice. Going into the crisis, Faubus had the reputation of a moderate -- at any rate, he was no Strom Thurmond or Senator Bilbo. Coming out of it, he inspired the next generation of empowered racists, like George Wallace. There was the famous meeting with Eisenhower in the early days of the stand-off, where each man came away convinced the other had agreed with his position (Faubus that Eisenhower wd leave him a free hand to deal with things, Eisenhower that Faubus wd tone down the rhetoric and wdn't embarrass him), only to discovery they were both dead wrong. It's staggering to think of federal troops (the 101st Airborne) descending upon a state capitol, to enforce federal law on the recalcitrant citizens. This is the only time I know of since the horrors of Reconstruction that we've come this close to martial law being imposed over a major American city when there was no natural disaster involved (e.g., Hurricane Katrina).
After it was all over, Faubus claimed he'd acted so as to head off violence, the sort of murders and lynchings and church bombings that struck in Alabama and Mississippi in the following years, but Reed makes a good case that (a) Faubus actually had one of his trusted aids present in the crowds outside Central High School stirring up trouble with carefully-staged scenes designed to inflame the crowd, and (b) Faubus's actions emboldened the racists: Wallace (one of the most repulsive figures in American politics) in particular he depicts as a protege of Faubus's.

The grimmest part of all this? How much Faubus and his supporters wd fit in smoothly with today's Tea Parties, particularly in Faubus's racism, support for States' Rights, disdain for the Supreme Court (what we wd call today 'activist judges'), and willingness to plunge ahead into what wd pay off electorially in the short term, howevermuch damage it might do in the long run.

One ray of light in all this? Faubus, and his ilk, lost. The schools were eventually integrated, even though in places this happened more than a decade later (in Magnolia, it happened the summer between when I was in fifth and sixth grades).***** And Faubus never lived down his role in all this: there's no native son Arkansans are more ashamed of -- and Reed's book suggests Faubus slowly became aware of that in his later years.

An added bonus is that I have a new hero to add to my private pantheon of Admired Persons: Adolphine Fletcher Terry, sister of the poet John Gould Fletcher. I'd read a little about her in the John Gould Fletcher biography (she supported her brother financially for most of his adult life), and what the Faubus biography adds is only to her credit. Turns out not only did an organization she helped found, the Association of Souther Women for the Prevention of Lynching, effectively put a stop to public lynchings in the South (cf. Reed, p. 253), but during the Little Rock crisis she and two friends organized The Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, which Reed depicts as the most effective group undercutting Faubus's local support and ultimately leading to the school's re-opening, integrated, a year later. She seems to have been a bit of a snob, but her heart and mind were clearly in the right place.


**Mind you, it did take place before I was born, but not by much. I think it was partly the awful tendency of our schools to not teach recent history and partly people not wanting to talk about events that made us all really look bad.

***just as, on another occasion, we went to the county airport for the chance to meet Gov. Clinton as he was passing through, and once got to see Gov. Rockefeller, a famously inept speaker, stumble his way through a speech (he kept forgetting he was in Magnolia, and referring to our town occasionally as Camden or El Dorado).

****it was on this occasion that my mother overheard a conversation between Davis and some fellow-Louisianans that still ranks in my mind as a classic. One woman told Davis she had friends in Homer, to which he asked if she meant Homer or Houma (both towns in La, Homer in the NW and Houma in the far south of the state), and she replied Homer. But what makes the story is that both cities are pronounced in such a way that a local can tell them apart but to an outsider they sound just the same (just like I can't hear the difference between pen and pin). So that to my mother, the conversation sounded something like

Woman: I have some friends who know you from Hom-ah [Homer]
Gov. Davis: Now, is that Hom-ah [Homer] or Hom-ah [Houma]?
Woman: Homah [Homer].
Gov. Davis: Oh, I know plenty of people from Homah [Homer] . . . [&c]

*****the exact same year, incidentally, that private all-white Xian schools got set up in my home town, obstensively to provide a quality education but really to protect the racists from the real world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Arkansas Room

So, this really shd be Part Two of 'What I've Been Reading", albeit a week late (the time between being filled with me-being-on-deadline).

Two of the things I really enjoyed about being in Arkansas this last trip were finally getting a courtesy card from my old college library (where I worked the whole time I was at SAU, as a work-study student) and finding 'The Arkansas Room' at the Magnolia library.* The latter I'd heard described as 'the genealogy room' and so I hadn't paid much attention to it my last two visits, given that I didn't have time to do any family-history research on those trips (wh. wd have started instead w. me trying to get all my scattered notes together anyway). It turns out this is only half its contents, the other half being books by Arkansas writers or on Arkansas topics. Hence I came across an intriguing (self-published?) building-by-building description of a ghost town along the Buffalo River and a nicely-illustrated booklet of Caddo head-pots, both of which I hope to take a closer look at next time. But the two books which interested me most, both of which I only had time to read in part, were FIERCE SOLITUDE: A LIFE OF JOHN GOULD FLETCHER by Ben F. Johnson III [1994] and FAUBUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN PRODIGAL by Roy Reed [?1997].

The John Gould Fletcher book, of which I read the latter half (Chapters IV & V), told me a lot I didn't know about a figure I'd been only vaguely aware of -- I think the book I read on the tarot up at Fayetteville back in my master's degree days might have come from Fletcher's library, now at the Univ. of Arkansas, and there were a number of other vaguely-interesting-looking books in that collection I never got around to looking at, like a copy of AMANDIS OF GAUL.

The first thing I learned is that his name was "John Gould Fletcher" and not 'John Fletcher Gould', as I'd always thought (and also not to be confused with fellow-Agrarian John Crowe Ransom, one of the inventors of New Criticism). The next was that aside from having been one of the Agrarians and a contributor to I'LL TAKE MY STAND [1930], his main claim to fame was from having travelled in the same circles with Pound and Eliot when a young expatriate in London in the 'teens and 'twenties, before returning to Little Rock around 1932/33. I got the sense that, as an extremely minor poet,** he deliberately sought out a small pond in hopes that this wd make him a big fish, only to declined into a regionalist, eventually killing himself in 1950 (ironically, by drowning himself in a small pond).

Johnson does a good job of presenting a rather minor figure's limited claim to fame (mainly through the people he knew, rather than any achievements of his own), working hard to be fair without actually making Fletcher likable in the least -- in fact, his frequent tirades make him come off as distinctly unpleasant. But it was interesting to read about his membership in an ever-shifting movement (first the 'Fugitives', then the 'Agrarians', then the regionalists), which made for a good reminder that members of a literary group (say, the Inklings or the New Critics) all remain quite distinct as individuals, whatever common elements unite them or seem to unite them in retrospect.

The book contained a lot of information, some interesting (such as his urging people to boycott the talkies in 1929, or his admiration for Wm Morris's anti-industrialism) and some appalling (such as Fletcher's extreme racism, his support of lynching,*** his anti-Semetism, &c). One minor episode in Fletcher's life spoke volumes for me, and gave me a sense of a bullet we collectively dodged as a nation. Early on in the Depression, Fletcher and two of his most extreme TAKE MY STAND colleagues, Donald Davidson and Frank Owsley (the latter of whom wrote the most viciously racist essay in the collection), tried to launch what they called the 'Gray-Jackets' movement. Inspired by Mussolini's Brown Shirts and Hitler's Black Shirts, this wd have been a pseudo-Confederate youth movement, whose activities wd have included things like blowing up statues they disapproved of and intimidating Chambers of Commerce who tried to lure Northern factories to Southern towns. Given how volatile things were in the v. early thirties, I think we're all lucky this Tea-Partyism of its day sputtered and died.

(continued in next post)

*actually the Columbia County library, but I always think of it as 'the Magnolia library'.

**based on the poems Johnson quotes, which are unimpressive.

***his sister, by contrast, was a prominent anti-lynching activist who organized a group to fight against lynchings (the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching).

Friday, August 13, 2010

What I've Been Reading (Part One)

So, after reading so many books from the Bad Old Days -- Haggard's "Long Odds", Doyle's "MARACOT DEEP", Alexander Macdonald's THE LOST EXPLORERS -- I thought I needed to take a break and read a few things written on this side of the great Politically Correct divide, where racist thought and race-bating words occur only in the mouths of unregenerate villains and Tea-Party types.

Just before my recent trip started I finished up YSABEL [2007], a Guy Gavriel Kay book I'd tried several times before but always failed to get beyond the first chapter; this (fourth?) time I finally made it beyond the opening and all the way through to the end. A new Kay book is always good news, but this was a curious one for three reasons: it was the first to reuse characters who had appeared in a previous novel, it's the first to re-visit a geographical/cultural area he's used before, and it's the first to be completely set in the modern-day. Well worth reading, but not his best (that, I'd say, is still TIGANA), though I loved the portrait of the eccentric English writer who'd settled in Provence. Ironically, it took me so long to read this that he's now got a new one out -- this time I think calqued on ancient China.

On the trip itself, I read Anthony Bourdain's MEDIUM RAW [Kindle edition], in which in keeping with his persona he swears up a blue streak but carefully avoids racist slurs (proudly taking the part of Guatemalan line-cooks over the James Beard folks any day). Not his best -- he seems to be ambivalent throughout, devoting half of each essay to countering the previous half -- though it gets better towards the end, particularly when he's naming people he considers heroes & villains in the cooking world, and why (hint: writing a review trashing a restaurant he once worked for as a way to get back at him over a slight makes you an uber-villain in Bourdain's book, as does dissing the people who actually cook yr food).

Next up was a young-adult novel that'd caught my eye at the Federal Way Borders a week earlier, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart [2007]. The first in a series about four orphans/semi-orphans/runaways brought together by an eccentric narcoleptic to undertake an undercover mission. Good fun, esp. for showing how each has a v. different approach to a problem. They're rather like a fledgling superhero team without any actual super powers; recommended.

After that came another Kindle book, this time THE WEED THAT STRIPS THE HANGMAN'S BAG by Alan Bradley [2010], the follow-up to his excellent first book featuring 11-yr-old chemist/detective/future poisoner Flavia de Luce, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. This one didn't quite recapture the impact of the first but was enjoyable enough that I'm looking forward to the third in the series, already in the works.

Finally, on the flights back and on the recovery day after my midnight touchdown, I zipped through JOHANNES CABAL, THE DETECTIVE by Jonathan L. Howard [2010], about a necromancer fleeing on a zeppelin who's forced to assume the role of detective after an unexpected string of disappearances and murders break out on board. The writing of this one is a delight, full of phrases you want to underline or quote. Or maybe it just somehow punched all my buttons. Kind of a mix of Randall Garrett's breeziness and Clark Ashton Smith's cold-bloodedness (though without Smith's vocabularic exuberance). I know I'll want to read the first book in the series, and will be keeping an eye out to see if there's a third.

(continued next post)

--John R.

Speaking Australian

So, I got an interesting query after making my recent post re. Alexander Macdonald's THE LOST EXPLORERS [1906], asking whether the author included any examples of Aborigine language in it. The answer is, a little but not much. But since I'd fd this aspect of the book interesting myself, esp. given Tolkien's endemic interest in languages, and since I got the query, I thought I'd go ahead and make this second, follow-up post re. what little 'native language' is included in the book.

First, there's ghingi, or more properly the ghingi-ghingi, the sound made by a monster or demon or god that can apparently be mimicked by a clever Outbacker through a device rather like a bull-roarer. (p. 84-85)

Next, there's Wangul, the name for the great Dweller in the Waters, apparently another god/beast/monster. Like the Bunyip, this seems to be something greatly feared rather than sought out. (p. 246/247)

Also, there's Babba, or "water", which gets repeated over and over during what's meant to be a comic scene when they capture a native and torture him a little to get him to lead them to his tribe's hidden water supply. (p. 260-263)

Last of all, there's the term Bilya Bakan, meaning 'sorcerer', applied by an advanced tribe to one of the captured explorers who they've become convinced has magical powers. Shaman or witch doctor wd probably also be rough equivalents in other cultures. (p. 346/347).

In addition to these, there are two brief descriptions of what Aborigine language sounded like to the English interlopers:

[a native] "addressed Mackay in a series of unintelligible ejaculations -- presumably of inquiry" (p. 334)


"the aged chief suddenly hastened forward, and shrilled a few words to Bentley, which had the effect of arousing that happy man to a true sense of his responsibilities. He answered the old warrior in an odd monosyllabic language, which he spoke with perfect ease, much to the astonishment of the youthful members of the group, who had never before heard a white man converse so fluently in the savage tongue. For some moments they held high conversation thus . . . " (p. 345)

Of course, I don't believe for a moment that there's such a thing as a single Aborigine language spoken all over the continent, any more than there's a 'Native American' tongue or a language known as 'European' or 'Asian'. But a few universals for words like 'water' don't push probability too badly, even after over 40,000 years of divergence. I'd hoped when reading this to catch some hints of the origins of Ghan-buri-Ghan, but if anything I'd afraid they're more like THE HOBBIT's goblins. Alas. Would that it were not so.

--John R.

current reading: CROW PLANET [2009]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

St. Veep

So, years ago (September 1978) I wrote to Blackwells and asked if they had for sale any of a list of books to which Tolkien had contributed. And they wrote back that yes, they had one: OXFORD POETRY 1915. So I bought it, for fifteen pounds (plus an extra pound's postage); the first of the few more-or-less rare Tolkien book I own*

*another being the report on the Lydney excavation containing Tolkien's note on The Name Nodens, a particular favorite of mine among his lesser works.

Edited by G.D. H. C. (= mystery writer GDH Cole) and T.W.E. (= T. W. Earp, the original twerp), it's actually an interesting little volume, containing poems not just by Tolkien but fellow T.C.B.S. member G. B. Smith (I suppose the only book Smith's work appeared in during his lifetime) and also poems by Dorothy L. Sayer and Aldous Huxley. In fact, while I'm glad to have it, Tolkien's poem ("Goblin Feet") is one of the volume's weaker entries.

One of the poems in it I've always rather liked is the following. I know nothing about the author (Esther Lilian Duff), except that she was a 'home student', whatever that is**

**(I'm writing this from the Little Rock airport, with no chance to look things up)

In any case, thought I'd share. Here it is:

"A Kalendar"

I made a Kalendar of Saints

To name upon my rosary,

And daily I entreat their aid for thee.

To guard thee during sleep

I name St. Veep;

St. Prisca has thy wardrobe in her care,

And blithe St. Hugh the dressing of thy hair;

St. Madoc aids the toilette of my fair.

When thou betimes to household tasks repair,

St. Silvester is there;

St. Chad inspects the linen and the lace;

Each polished spoon reflects the shining face

Of St. Remigius, minister of grace,

And o'er the meal presides St. Boniface.

To keep thy missal, tempting thee to read,

I name St. Bede;

And later, when thy friends shall visit thee,

Ensuring that the talk be blithe and free,

I seek betimes the bland St. Alphege;

Whilst to thy pen, lest haply thou shouldst need it,

Attends St. Deusdedit.

And when the little masque of day is over,

Gentle St. Damien of Villanova

Takes charge of thee, and all that thou shalt know

Of this hour's passing is that thou wilt grow

Dreamily willing for the night, and so

(Turning a bead in prayer to deft St. Probin

For thine unrobing)

To guard thee during sleep

I name St. Veep.

—OXFORD POETRY 1915, ed. G.D.H.C. & T.W. E. (p. 3–4)