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".