Monday, July 27, 2015

"Fails the Most Elementary Test of Historical Possibility"

So, in the last few days I found praise for my work in a place I wdn't have expected it: a discussion of a Hugo ballet. And I found criticism of my work ("fails the most elementary test of historical possibility") in a somewhat more likely place, a book on Tolkien (we Tolkienists being a fractious lot).

First the Good: here's the link to David Bratman's recent blog post explaining his votes in this year's contentious election for the Hugo Awards:

The part where I'm referred to occurs under the heading of Best Fan Writer, entry #3:

Best Fan Writer
3. Jeffro Johnson. If we were going to honor someone who writes about classic fantasy in an RPG context, we should have given a Hugo years ago to John D. Rateliff. Still, Johnson is a good writer, if somewhat condescending towards his topics, and though of crabby social views, he does not spend his time whining about SJWs, which sets him apart from the rest of this category.

This must be a reference to my CLASSICS OF FANTASY articles (which ran to nineteen installments). I'd still like to revisit and revive that series some day: there are any number of interesting writers yet to cover (e.g. Cabell, Howard, Vance, Carroll, not to mention newer writers like Jonathan Howard and Susanna Clarke). In any case, glad to see they're not altogether forgotten, and nice of David to say nice things about them.

And, just to keep things balanced, here's the bad: there's criticism of my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT in the new faux-biography of Tolkien, just out:  J. R. R. TOLKIEN: CODEMAKER, SPY-MASTER, HERO: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by "Elansea", with Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie as "consultants".

The full quote referencing my work reads thusly:

. . . Tolkien is not inventing, but using places
that he had seen firsthand to fashion his own
fictional backcloth for the settings of his stories.
 J. D. Rateliff's attempt to deny this in his
History of the Hobbit fails the most elementary
 test of historical possibility . . . Taking each of
his points, Tolkien would not have visited the
sites of the Swiss Lake Villages during the 1911
trip; he was not interested in them until the 1930s
and he was a junior member of the party, not the
one setting the itinerary (and Lake Town resembles
them only in principle, not any specific detail).
Tolkien did not need to visit Lydney whilst writing
the 'Note on the name Nodens'; that was pure
philological work on the name of a deity, not a
place whose setting might be relevant. And Tolkien
could not have visited Sutton Hoo whilst writing
about the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings; that
was during the Second World War when 'tourism'
was impossible in Britain -- and to put the tin lid
on it, Sutton Hoo had been taken over by the military
as a tank training ground! Not that Tolkien needed it
as visual inspiration; it's only a barrow-field, and
there are plenty of those much nearer Oxford.

So Rateliff's counter-examples fail, and the basic
principle that Tolkien was writing about real
landscapes stands. (p. 114-115).

--all this in response for my agreeing w. Carpenter that Tolkien tended not to feel a need to visit in person places that inspired his writing -- unlike some authors, who find a bit of fieldwork inspirational.

At this point I've only skimmed Elansea's book, so take the following as just provisional.

Basically it's a 'What If?' biography.
What if JRRT secretly spent WW II as a British codebreaker?
What it his father, Arthur Tolkien, had been spying on the Boers for the Empire?
What it Joseph Wright were a spymaster who recruited young John Ronald as a likely lad for espionage work?
 What if, all that time Tolkien was supposed to be 'in hospital' he was actually just using that as a cover story while off on a secret mission behind enemy lines (somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, I think*)?
 What if strings were being pulled behind the scenes to rig the election to his Oxford professorship in his favor?
 What if all those times he was away 'grading as an external examiner', or any time he claimed to be stalled in his writing, he was really engaged on undercover work?
What if he because a spymaster and recruiter himself in time?

That's a lot of ifs, but the major one that comes to mind is this: What if none of this is true and they just made it all up?  So far as I can tell, they don't supply any evidence for any of their speculations: it's all in the realm of what CSL called the supposal.

In essence this is the first fictional biography of Tolkien. If someone wants to film a movie "inspired" by the life of JRRT but in no way restricted by the facts, this book could  provide a template. 

To say that 'Elansea' is the new Giddings and Holland is to do the late Elizabeth Holland's memory a disservice.

--John R.

current reading: POETRY AT PRESENT by Charles Wms [1930]
THE MOON POOL by A. Merritt (second reading)

*their 'evidence' for this is that Tolkien once made a slighting reference to Athenian democracy, which they claim cd only be possible if he had first-hand knowledge of the place. (p. 187)


David Bratman said...

Yes, those essays are what I was referring to. You once gave me a bound set of printouts of them, which I am glad to have, not just because the online originals are now hard to track down. It struck me that Johnson was writing in the same context you were, and while he's decent enough at it, you were much better.

It seems to me, in my simplicity, that "Elansea" is both misreading what you wrote and reinforcing, rather than contradicting, your point, insofar as s/he understands it.

Paul W said...

I know those essays likely belong to WOTC, but I, for one, would love a collection of them, either bound in hard copy or in pdf.

Please do find the time to come back to that topic!

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.
Glad you found the print-out useful. I enjoyed doing them, and am sorry that Wizards cut the links. In any case, thanks for the good words.

Hi Paul
I've tried several times to see if I cd get permission to make them available again. What tends to happen is that someone at WotC takes my name and contact information and promises to get back to me, and never hear back. It's simply too low a priority for them, in the great scheme of things. About time I gave it another try, though -- you never know.
--John R.

Trotter said...

This has been pointed out on other sites but if take the initials of "Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie", you get "L and C" or "Elansea"