Friday, May 18, 2018

My Presentation at Kalamazoo (TOLKIEN'S METEORITE)

So, my own presentation for this year's Tolkien Seminar, held the day before the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, was a piece I call 'Tolkien's Meteorite'. This is a work in progress: I've finished the first and second parts (and Appendix) but the third section still needs more work. For those who might be interested, here's the three-paragraph opening that sets up the topic. The first section that follows looks at the evidence for dating the work. The second section contrasts Lewis's and Tolkien's treatment of their common theme. And part three looks at real-world and fictional analogues which might have inspired or influenced either.

Enjoy! Feedback welcome.

--John R.
--current job: proofing
--current reading: more essays by Martin Amis. Who's certainly no Christopher Hitchens.

Tolkiens Meteorite
—A Preliminary Investigation—

In his fascinating but unfinished time-travel story, The Notion Club Papers, written circa 1944–46 but not published until 1992, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a passage in which the character based upon Tolkien himselfNt1 describes the experience of a meteor falling to earth from the point of view of the meteorite itself through a kind of psychometry or object reading.

At about the same time his fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis wrote a meditation on a fallen meteorite which took the form of a poem simply named ‘The Meteorite’. Published in Time and Tide in December 1946, and probably newly written at the time, it was shortly thereafter reprinted as the headpiece to Lewis’s book Miracles (1947), and hence presumably was felt by Lewis to have some relevance to the theme of that work of apologetics.

It seems beyond happenstance that these two Inklings would be working on different expressions of such a striking common theme at about the same time with no connection between the two. What I’d like to do in this paper is explore the relationship between these two works, starting by seeing if we can establish priority of which was written first. It also behooves us to look for antecedents and analogues, both real-world and fictional, for any common source that might underlie both men’s work.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Back from Kalamazoo (Kalamazoo Day One)

Well, that was a busy week. In fact, I was so busy going to papers, prowling the book room, and having Tolkien discussions with Tolk folk that I didn't have time to blog about it as it was happening. To make up for that, here is the first of several posts covering highlights of the extended weekend.


The official Medieval Congress started on Thursday, but I flew in Tuesday in order to be on hand for the Tolkien Seminar, an independent event held just before the conference but not part of it. This was held off-campus in the basement of a local church and, I thought, went really well. There were ten presentations in all  scheduled for that first day:

I.  EOMER GETS POETIC: TOLKIEN'S ALLITERATIVE VERSECRAFT by Luke Baugher-Sheldon took a look at Tolkien's alliterative verse and suggested that he may have been the twentieth century's leading practitioner thereof (I think Auden might be most folk's first choice).

II.  THE CLOUD OF UNSEEING: MYTHS TRANSFORMED AND PSEUDO-SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATIONS OF THE BOOK OF GENESIS by Kristine Larsen looks at nineteenth-century attempts to explain difficulties in the first chapter of GENESIS arising out of its description of Light (Day and Night: First Day) preceding the creation of the Sun and Moon (Fourth Day), comparing this with Tolkien's Myths Transformed in MORGOTH'S RING (HME.X). I found this particularly interesting because just a few days before I'd seen a documentary on Bill Nye (the Science Guy) in which a modern-day Creationist made much the same arguments she'd described from the better part of two centuries ago.

III.  LIKE YET UNLIKE: THE UNCANNY AND THE SODOMITIC IN TOLKIEN'S SARUMAN by Chris Vaccarro looked at Saruman's various sins (pride, anger, impatience), laying stress on various passages and phrases in the draft LotR that presented Saruman in a slightly better light and suggests he is capable of repentance, particularly one scene in which Merry's kind gesture sparks a genuine response. My favorite line was "the wish that the Wicked can be saved". I did find it slightly disconcerting that he pronounced 'Saruman' as if it were spelled 'Sodoman'.

IV. WHO IS MR. BLISS, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY WHAT KIND OF CONCERTINA IS HE PLAYING?: FILLING A MINOR LACUNA IN TOLKIEN STUDIES by Michael Wodzak was an informal but informative piece about two traditions regarding two different versions of this instrument, analogous to the fiddle and the violin: one a folk-instrument for home and local entertainment, the other part of the classical music tradition.

V.  Session V. was unfortunately cancelled; it wd have been about "the ring motif in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages".

after a quick break for lunch, the sessions resumed with my own presentation:

VI. TOLKIEN'S METEORITE: A PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION by John D. Rateliff marked my own contribution to the gathering; more on this one in its own separate post. Thanks to Kristin Larsen I even had show and tell; she brought two small meteorites (one metallic, the other stoney) to pass around. And I brought a flake from a meteor from Mars.

VII. TOLKIEN ON 'HOLIDAY' by Andrew Higgins drew attention to the curious theme of how badly things tend to go in Middle-earth on special occasions (most notably the Fall of Gondolin and the earlier attack on the Two Trees). More generally, he looked at holidays, feast days, and celebrations. It made me wonder: isn't Fr. Christmas's point of view in an exactly inverse position to our own, since his day of work is our day of celebration?

VIII. THE GLISTENING OF DEW DROPS: TOLKIEN, HOPKINS, AND INSCAPE by Vickie Holtz-Wodzak suggested affinities between Hopkin's verse and JRRT's works. While I only know of one direct reference to Hopkins by Tolkien I think it quite likely T. knew at least some of H's work. And certainly there were Inklings connections: Ch Wms edited two major books by Hopkins and I'm pretty sure Ch Wms. brought his friend and co-worker Gerry Hopkins, the poet's nephew, as his guest to at least one Inklings meeting (though I haven't yet had time to hunt down the reference for that).

IX. THE TOLKIEN ART INDEX by Erik Mueller-Harder revealed a project of breaktaking scope I hadn't even known was in the works. It's basically a database with a little thumbnail of each known and published piece of art by JRRT, carefully indexed and cross-referenced so you can quickly search for a specific image, or grouping of images (for example, by typing in a search term such as 'trees'). It reminded me of Dr. Blackwelder's TOLKIEN PORTRAITURE  project years ago. Kudos to Mueller-Harder for having put in so much work to create and fine-tune such an amazingly useful resource.

X. MAIDENS OF MIDDLE-EARTH VIII: WOMEN OF THE EDAIN, performed by Eileen Moore, was this year's representative of 'TOLKIEN UNBOUND (which is sometimes dramatic readings, sometime musical performances)', but I missed it this year because I needed to be in the book room at that time, helping to set up the Nodens Books table.

--John R.

--current reading: a (disappointing) collection of essays by Martin Amis.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

I'm at Kalamazoo

So, I'm now (a) at Kalamazoo and (b) have a wi-fi connection.

Yesterday's 'Tolkien Day' Seminar went well, and my own presentation seemed to go down okay.

Today's already off to a good start with an excellent morning session; in half an hour the afternoon sessions, which also look promising, kick off. I've already run into more Tolk folk than I have time to list here.

I'll post some quick descriptions of the various Tolkien-related presentations when I get a chance.

Meanwhile, it's time to go to the next session. More later

--John R.
curent reading: a most peculiar 'biography' of pulp hero Doc Savage by Philip Jose Farmer.

I''ve already bought my first book of the conference, a volume of ARTHURIANA with an essay in it about the Lost Arthurian Plays of Elizabethean England. Who cd resist?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Getting ready for Kalamazoo

So, Wednesday I reached a milestone in my getting ready for this year's Kalamazoo: I finished the draft of my paper. Now all it needs is a little polishing to improve the phrasing, tighten up any loose ends, rework weak points in the argument, get the notes and bibliography in shape, &c. So it's finished but not Done.

Now comes preparation for the actual delivery. I practiced a read-aloud yesterday and found that it runs about twenty-three minutes, a little over the fifteen-to-twenty minute time slot available to me. So I've now come up with two variant shorter versions which I now need to time.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bobo Shinn is still missing

Thanks to Pam, via Janice, for this link.

A sad but interesting update to  the cold case of the only person I've ever known who was murdered.

No one knows who killed her, nor where the body was hid.

At this distance in time, it's unlikely her remains will ever be found or her killer identified.

Here's the link.

--John R.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

what I've been up to lately

So, one thing I've come to realize about myself over the years is that I don't multitask.

I admire people who can do a little of this, then a little of that, then a little on something else, switching back and forth between projects as the need arises.  It's rare that I can work this way, something which I tend to forget when thinking about taking on side projects. When I'm working on a project I have to dig down and fill my head with it till I'm like Gorey's Mr. Earbrass writing a novel.*

As a case in point, in a little over a week I leave for the Medieval Congress at Kalamazo, where I'll be taking part in Tolkien Day, a side-session of papers outside their regular Tolkien track.

I've been working on my Kalamazoo paper for some time, since I finished up the festschrift,** but put it aside when I agreed to do a book review that I let grow into more of a project than I'd intended.

Then came the research trip to the Marquette Archives, which was extremely enjoyable and highly productive.

Once back from Milwaukee it was back to work on Kalamazoo piece. I was making good progress when I had to break off again.

Now just a week away it's time to draft the final part of my paper and polish the earlier sessions.

It's going to be a busy week.

--John R.
current reading: the latest Carter & Lovecraft novel from Jonathan Howard

Next time I'll listen to her about taking on too much at once.

*see THE UNSTRUNG HARP, Edward Gorey's first book and the funniest account I've ever seen of the writing process.

**the actual writing of it, that is: I've had the idea to write this piece since about 1987

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Audiobooks on Tolkien

So, I just finished up listening to an audiobook of John Garth's TOLKIEN & THE GREAT WAR, read by Garth itself. And it was so good, it sent me looking for more audiobook adaptations of works on (not by) JRRT. Which in turn reminded me of what an erratic lot it is. I haven't done anything like a systematic search, but even a cursory pokeabout shows how random is the pattern of what has and hasn't been made available in audiobook format.

The Zaleskis: THE INKLINGS 

Shippey: both his seminal books
Flieger: all three of her major books

Raymond Edwards

Some of what is available is as odd as what is not. Thus Carpenter's THE INKLINGS is apparently available, yet his BIOGRAPHY is not. Also, some relatively little-known books Xian audiobooks are out:

Xian audiobooks

I'd like to compile a more complete list than this initial rather random dipping, so if you know of others not mentioned above drop me a line and I'll add them to the list.*

--John R.

P.S. I didn't do a comparable search for CSL and the other Inklings, but I do know McGrath's C. S. LEWIS is available and that I'd recommend it,** while Lindop's THE THIRD INKLING seems not to have an audiobook incarnation.

*and hopefully eventually to listen to them.

**among its other virtues, the audiobook version of McGarth has the surviving bits of Lewis's own voice recordings provided as an audio appendix.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Who would be Shakespeare If there were no Shakespeare?

So, as we were going in to see the play last weekend, Janice asked me an interesting question I cdn't answer: who would be Shakespeare if we didn't have Shakespeare?

That is, given that Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest writer in English,* who would play that role if we didn't have Shakespeare's work?

Thinking it over, I think that in that case subsequent history wd have been  so different that we can't know the answer. It's not a matter of Milton or Keats stepping into that role: without the key figure everything around and after him wd change. To use a more modern analogy, without The Beatles we don't get a British Invasion headed by the Rolling Stones and The Animals: we don't get any British Invasion at all, nor all the things contingent upon it.

On thinking it over some more, I suspect that in such a world English literature wd be far more like French literature -- that is, in the absence of a superlative native tradition English writers wd have looked even more to continental models than they did in the century or so following W.S.'s time. But that of course is just guessing: the real course of altered history wd be so different that we can't do more than just guess at it.

With my interest in the Canon of literature, and the way works migrate in and out of it, I do find myself musing sometimes over who's up and who's down compared to the canon as it was when I was in grad school, especially given the pressure the academy is under to open up and diversify. Who's in and who's dropping out? Tolkien has benefitted by the shifting tides, and is nearer acceptance now than ever before, while I find myself half-expecting to hear that Milton is being edged  towards the exit.

Time will tell.

--John R.

*indeed, Tolkien thought Shakespeare's achievement had been so great it bent English literature towards drama rather than narrative prose (which he much preferred).

Sunday, April 15, 2018

More Shakespeare

So, we've been seeing a lot of Shakespeare lately -- JULIUS CAESAR a while back, and more recently TIMON OF ATHENA (his worst play) and MACBETH (perhaps his best), and now THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.

I was of two minds about whether to go to this one. On the one hand, I remember having enjoyed the Portia scenes. On the other, the parts dealing with the Merchant himself, Shylock, are deeply racist.  Kind of like reading a HUCK FINN where the narrator is of the same mindset as Pap Finn. I didn't know if I'd be able to take it.

Now that I've seen it, it's not the fairy tale challenge + screwball  comedy of the Portia scenes but the nastiness of the antisemitism that stays with me. I found myself wondering what it'd be like if Shylock were black instead of Jewish.  Would that be even harder to take?

At any rate, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to bring myself to watch this one again.

--John R.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

New Tolkien Book Rumored

So, thanks to Doug K. on the MythSoc list (thanks Doug), I've now learned of the news about a forthcoming Tolkien book said to be due out this fall (August 30th, to be precise): THE FALL OF GONDOLIN by JRRT, ed. by CT.

So, how real is this?
Real enough that is taking preorders.* **

Real enough that The Tolkien Society is helping to spread the news.

Real enough that amazon thinks it has 304 pages, making it a fairly substantial volume, about the same size as last year's BEREN AND LUTHIEN.

If there is such a book (as the evidence suggests), then it will probably v. much along the lines of BEREN & LUTHIEN, bringing together into one volume all the existing bits of the various forms of the story: the BLT-era FALL OF GONDOLIN (the only complete version of the story), the wonderful fragment Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin (previously appearing in UNFINISHED TALES), concise but eloquent excepts from the ANNALS, and perhaps a few misc. bits.

Publication of a stand-alone FALL OF GONDOLIN would complete one of Tolkien's unrealized dreams: to publish each of the (three or four) 'Great Tales'*** that underlie the Silmarillion as stand-alone books: the stories of TURIN, BEREN & LUTHIEN, and now THE FALL OF GONDOLIN.  All that wd leave is the (unwritten) TALE OF EARENDEL, the first of them all but the only one never to have any completed form (the longest bit being Bilbo's Lay of Earendel sung in Elrond's hall.

That makes the following excerpt from the Amazon produce description perhaps the best of all:

After a minutely observed account of the fall 
of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape 
of Túrin and Idril, with the child Eärendel, 
looking back from a cleft in the mountains 
as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage
 of their city. They were journeying into a new story,
 the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, 
but which is sketched out in this book from other sources.

That is, it sounds as if Christopher has brought together all the fragments of poetry and the quickly jotted outlines about what wd have appeared in Earendel's story--just as he did in the penultimate chapter of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES Volume II--and placed them all together in a section of their own at the end of the work. I'm looking forward to this part of the prospective book even more than the main Gondolin section.

So, we'll see, and soon know one way or the other whether there will be celebrating or sorrow all round come the beginning of September.

--John R.
--current reading: SUN SPOTS (CoC scenario)

*I got mine in today.

**also at this link is a reasonably informative description of its contents.

***Tolkien was inconsistent whether their were three or four of these; I've tend to include Earendel's story, which raises the total to four.

Saturday, April 7, 2018


So, this week I saw the announcement that Neil Gaiman is involved in a new version of Mervyn Peake's TITUS GROAN/GORMENGHAST being adaptated for the BBC. Given Gaiman's sheer raw talent (he's probably the most talented author working in the field today) this is highly promising, so long as we don't hold his involvement in the disastrous BEOWULF movie against him. Here's the link.

I'll certainly try to watch this once it's available over here, but have to confess that while impressed by Christopher Lee's performance in the previous Peake adaptation a good while back now (2000)* I've never been a big fan of Mervyn Peake. I've tried to like his work for over thirty years now, and by and large failed. Despite having read virtually everything he'd ever written** I've never been able to make it all the way through the middle book of the trilogy -- the story just bogged down in too much Dickensian melodramatics for me so I skipped to the end, read that, decided I didn't care how it had all turned out that way, and put it aside to move on to the third book (the science fiction entry in the series, which I at least found readable***).

Peake has always been an odd-man-out in modern fantasy: one of the first two authors seriously marketed as 'fantasy, like Tolkien' (the other being the far more apt E. R. Eddison); a mainstay of the early entries among Ballantine's ADULT FANTASY SERIES -- despite the fact it's only
fantasy only if you include things like THE PRISONER OF ZENDA or WUTHERING HEIGHTS under that descriptor.

So I'm glad for Peake fans and hope the new show will add to their numbers, but I think it's time to stop thinking of Peake as a fantasy writer. Unless we're talking about things like his nonsense verse**** or his modern-day fantasy novel MR. PYE.***** Fantasy fans and Peake fans alike wd be better off.

--current reading: THE PILTDOWN FORGERY by J. S. Weiner (1956). second reading (orig. c. 1993)

*in fact, what little I watched of it marked the first time I thought I'd seen Christopher Lee put in a top-notch performance -- in retrospect a good indication of how well he'd do in his role-of-a-lifetime performance in the LotR movies which were shortly to follow.

**I did read the other two books in the Titus Groan series, plus the short story 'Boy in Darkness', plus his fantasy novel MR. PYE, plus all the contents of the giant omnibus PEAKE'S PROGRESS, as well as his wife's memoir. The one thing I think I never tracked down was THE RYME OF THE FLYING BOMB.

***its conclusion is by far the best thing about it, but it'd be spoiler to say any more

****which is okay, but he's no Lewis Carroll. He's not even a Lear.

*****which reads rather like a Thorne Smith story gone off-track, and still more like Henry Kuttner's tribute to Smith, "The Misguided Halo".

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Man who Opted Out

So, a while back the NYT had an interesting piece about someone who's chosen to opt out of the current endless political news. He voted, his candidate lost, and he can't put up with the endless back-and-forth shouting that marks our times. As someone who has at times in my life done without a tv altogether, I can sympathize. Sometimes the shouting gets to be too much and you have to just walk away for a bit. I know it probably did me good when we gave up cable tv a year and more back. The next time I'd been on one of my research trips I'd binged, watching four to five hours a night of MSNBC. I wondered if I'd do that again this trip, and the answer has turned out to be no. I've spent the evenings working on a side-project and sometimes just reading and resting up for the next day's session.

As for the subject of the article, he's using his down time to create an ecological area, his own little Walden Pond he hopes to turn into a protected nature park. So he's putting his away-time to good use.

Here's the link:

--John R.