It has been four months since I attended this year’s Congrès Boréal, so a write-up on the conference is probably overdue. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions of my first foray into this predominantly French-language science fiction and fantasy convention.
Congrès Boréal is probably Québec’s main literary fantasy and science fiction convention. It was held in Montreal at the Masonic Temple on Sherbrooke Street last May. I attended to see some familiar faces–Jo Walton and Claude Lalumière were both participating in panels in the English stream–and to acquaint myself with the Francophone writers participating in the convention.
The first panel I attended was called “L’imaginaire a-t-il une langue? Différence culturelle dans l’imaginaire anglophone et francophone” (“Does the imagination have a language? Cultural differences in the anglophone and francophone imaginary.”) The panelists included Olivier Paquet, a science fiction writer from France, Patrick Senecal, a thriller/horror writer in the vein of Stephen King, and Marie Bilodeau, whose English novels have been translated into French.
The discussion was lively and interesting. While there is perhaps less difference between French and English science fiction and fantasy literature than might be assumed at first, the panelists did spot some general trends that mark some dramatic differences. For example, the panelists seemed to agree that sensuality, graphic violence, and unhappy endings are generally more acceptable to French-speaking audiences than to anglophone audiences. Perhaps this was result of old fashioned Anglo-Saxon puritanism, or the American love for Walt Disney-style happy endings. Either way, this traits seemed to me to mark the greatest difference.
Much Québécois horror is inspired from the European horror scene, which tends toward serial killer narratives more than, say, fantastic horror. However, as Paquet explained, pessimism is not the only story in France. The country that produced the scientific optimism associated with Jules Verne continues that tradition in its brand of science fiction that focuses more on sociological issues, as well as adventure.
One interesting idea that arose: language does not inherently carry the values of a society. Rather, culture does. The different traumas and schisms that define a society do have a much greater influence on national literature. For example, Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, remarked one of the panelists, is marked by the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. This echoes how French SF is marked by the policy of laïcité (state secularism), the origins of which go back to the French Revolution. There did seem to be truth to this observation, given how French-language SF is in a sense more “secular” in its embrace of violent and sexual themes that would religious people shiver. On the other hand, anglophone SF retains a more “puritanical” attitude in the literature it produces and censors, particularly in the United States.
This being said, certain attitudes to the French language itself do influence French SF. Patrick Senecal pointed out later in the discussion that French-language editors have a tendency to homogenize the different registers of the language, leading to less linguistic diversity. When editing dialogue, French publishers often edit out regional dialect in favour of “le Français internationale.” The result is a banal, grammatically correct French, where all characters sound the same. These editing decisions do not accommodate the regional French spoken in certain regions of Québec, for example, which leads to a more monovocal (as opposed to polyvocal) body of literature. This is not just unappealing; it’s unrealistic and unrepresentative of how French is actually spoken. As Senecal quipped, “Il n’y a personne qui parle comme Radio Canada!”
It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about the French-language SF scene here in Québec. As a McGill student and a West Islander, I guess I’m a quintessential Anglo. I don’t read much in French. But perhaps the reason, aside from the language barrier (I read slow in French), is because I’ve never really sought out French literature I enjoy.
Back in March, I picked up Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings in Emmanuelle Chastellière’s French translation, La Chute de La Maison aux Fleches D’Argent. I’m still working through it, but I’ve managed to banish the disagreeable, singsong voice that used to play in my head whenever I would read French books. This voice is a relic from my high school experience reading in French and I’ve finally managed to suppress it. This greater maturity has helped me enjoy reading in French. Though I still have ways to go, breaking my self-imposed taboo has been one mark of progress.
I purchased several issues of Brins d’Éterinté at the con, a Quebec SF magazine, as a promise to myself to read more and expand my vocabulary. One issue had published a translation of a Helen Marshall story, which I certainly appreciated as a fan of her work. French SF writers tend to read English SF a lot more than anglophone writers read French SF, but maybe I can buck that trend. I was pleasantly surprised that several attractive revues SF were represented at the con, such as Clair/Obscure, Étranges Lectures (from France), and Horizons Imaginaries, a CEGEP Marianopolis-based publication which won a prize at the con.
Perhaps working on my French can be my excuse to dig deeper in Quebec SF. In any case, the con was an eye-opening experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in attending. The next conference will be in Sherbrooke in 2019.
After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.
I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.
Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)
In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.
My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.
My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.
Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.
In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?
Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.
Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.
Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.
Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.
But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.
Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).
Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.
Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.
Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?
Today’s post is another YouTube video, in which you will get to listen to my own reading of a piece of short fiction I wrote for the Mythgard Institute “Almost an Inkling” creative writing contest. The contest is still going on, but now that the current week’s voting is over, I was really enthusiastic to share this piece with the public.
The story is a brief historical fantasy that I originally conceived as a cross between Lord Dunsany’s wonder tales and T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Check it out.
John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.
Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.
Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.
Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.
Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.
Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.
What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.
Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.
Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.
Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.
Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.
Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:
1. He avoided all labels.
Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.
2. He was over-educated and underemployed.
Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)
3. He was into retro.
Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…
4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.
Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.
5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.
Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.
Perusing the books on sale at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College in Norton, MA this summer, I stumbled across a most peculiar historical fantasy novel. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Kenneth Morris, The Chalchiuhite Dragon.
Well-known, if not actually famous, for his modern Celtic fantasies such as The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of Three Dragons, Morris was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings, though he spent most of his time within the tight-knit community of the Theosophical Society in Wales and California. The Chalchiuhite Dragon, his final novel, was left unpublished at his death, and is the only classic fantasy based in Mesoamerica that I have read. Due partly to the prompting of Ursula K. Le Guin, who valourized Morris’s writing style in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” a famous 1970s essay on proper diction in fantasy writing, this final novel was edited and published fifty-five years after the author’s death in 1992.
I was left in utter amazement that Morris’s book should be resurrected from the dead in the early 90s in a book cover style that seems to label it as a bestselling, contemporary novel. This astonishing story in the history of fantasy publishing is all the more remarkable since Morris’s writing style is at least partly the reason why editors felt it was valuable to publish this novel posthumously. The style is anything but contemporary; in fact, I might call the style as opaque as jade. When mixed with the obscure, impossible-to-pronounce-without-a-guide Toltec names, following the novel’s storyline was a labour. The dictionary of names at the back of the book is a necessary tool, and the absence of a map makes the storyline still more difficult to follow. Yet there is no doubt that it is written in a high style.
In terms of reading difficulty, Morris is between Tolkien and E.R. Eddison–Tolkien being the easiest to read and Eddison being the most difficult. It is these two authors, with Morris and George MacDonald, whom Le Guin declares to be the true masters of epic diction in modern fantasy. Especially for fantasy authors who are themselves interested in imitating the formal epic style of modern fantasy, The Chalchiuhite Dragon can make an instructive read in addition to an entertaining one.
The prose is a rock wall over which you must climb to access the spectacular Mesoamerican vistas. The novel should reward any devotee of modern fantasy who is willing to work through passages such as the following:
On the night of the Arrival of the Gods, every priest in Huitznahuac watched in his deity’s temple for the Divine Event. Thus the Royal Uncle Acatonatzin, being Tezcatlipocâ-priest, watched from the koo of the Soul of the World.
There are words you will not understand and some characters have more than one name, like Nopal’s alternatives names, Nopalton and Nopaltontli. But despite the density of the prose, it can make a rewarding reading for those interested.
Believe it or not, the story behind the The Chalchiuhite Dragon is one that lies behind a story that will be familiar to some. It is about mythical Huitznahuacan, a capital city of a kingdom that has never known war, and the events leading up to the birth of the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, whose form in a jade (chalchiuhite in Toltec) statue becomes a key image in the novel. Yes, this is (approximately) the same Quetzalcoatl whom the Aztecs, according to legend, mistook for Hernàn Cortes during the Spanish conquistador’s invasion of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is like the Jesus Christ of Mesoamerica, a Prince of Peace and lawgiver for the Toltecs. However, the main action of the story is the lead-up to this miraculous birth during the holy month of Teotleco.
At times reading like an anthropological description of an ancient people’s religious practices, The Chalchiuhite Dragon comes across as a subtle mix of classical literature and political intrigue. When the Huitznahuatecs encounter foreign ambassadors during a festival, a whole new and dangerous world becomes introduced to them–Toltec civilization. Toltecs have a mysterious practice called war, with which the Huitznahuatecs are unfamiliar. The utopian, though naive, city must survive the conquest of the Toltecs and the wily machinations of its war leaders. A story about innocence lost and the hope for future peace emerges, a rewarding, oddly Christmas-y conclusion to a particularly well-written and neglected modern fantasy classic.
Imagine if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings sixty years ago, but it was only published this year. That is was what the intrigue behind The Chalchiuhite Dragon must have been like in 1992. Now in 2015, it is up for a new generation of Morris fans to determine whether it will be celebrated and for how long it will be remembered.
The semester is just about over and it’s time for some poetry! The Veg, one of McGill’s student literary magazines, is holding a launch later tonight at 8:00pm at Le Cagibi, where I will be reading a selection of poems including my haiku. I will be running a fuller post next week describing the event in detail, along with yesterday’s launch of Scrivener Creative Review’s Fall 2014 online edition.
In the meanwhile, for this week, I leave you with this session of the program Radio is Dead on CKUT 90.3 FM, a Montreal/McGill campus community radio station. I gave a reading on air and was interviewed by Clara Lagacé. Another interviewee, Julia Isler, is in my seminar on Canadian Modernism with Professor Brian Trehearne.
You can click here in order to download the show. Simply click the Monday November 24, 2014 airing of Radio is Dead. You can stream in online, or download it, if you have iTunes.
This is a series documenting my intellectual journey at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA (8-11 August 2014). Although I will attempt to summarize the arguments made by presenters, the series does not replace the presenters’ scholarship, but will represent my attitudes towards the topics.
Having arrived early the Thursday, I had already killed a lot of time on campus and slept over one night by the time I showed up for the first presentation at MythCon 45. Early friday afternoon, I attended “Perception and Ambiguity in Tolkien’s Prose Style” by Christopher (Chip) Crane. It drew me straight out of my lethargic state of mind and into the full-blown academic rhythm of the conference, which I had been anticipating for months.
The classroom in the science building where Chip presented was fairly empty when I arrived, but filled up quickly. I was surprised that so many had come to hear about style, which could seem to be a dry topic, even if it was Tolkien’s style. However, Chip Crane’s quantitative analysis of Tolkien’s prose style proved to a fascinating, highly relevant topic.
Having read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a long, long time ago, I knew the passages Crane talked about: when describing a possibly magic phenomenon, Tolkien frequently adopts words and phrases like “seems,” “as if,” “[comma] 0r,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” Crane has run digital searches to quantify the frequency of these terms in many of Tolkien’s works. The results show more hits on “seems” in LOTR, where it appears almost once for every page, than in The Silmarillion, for example.
Any serious stylist knows “seems” is a vague word, subject to deletion via the red pen. However, to say Tolkien was a good stylist is to be just as vague. He was more specifically a master, and a philologist to boot–one who studies the evolution of words. If he uses “seems” so much, it is no accident.
But why use “seems?” Could it merely be academic precision, or a symptom of polite British sensibility? Perhaps the One Ring seemed to Frodo to exude an aura of pure evil … but what Frodo subjectively perceived may have had no basis in reality. Or, perhaps Tolkien meant, eh-hem, that the Ring may have just perhaps exuded such an aura, if you don’t mind my saying so, good sir.
The answer of course is more complicated than subscribing any one reason for all the instances of “perhaps” or “seems.” Sometimes the ambiguity is academic and polite. But it is also a rhetorical strategy, Crane argued, to let the reader decide for themselves whether there is magic–or rather, more accurately, to guide the reader to the conclusion that magic is happening. He might say, for instance, in Father Giles of Ham, that “giants seem less unlikely [at night].”
Even in “On Faerie-Stories,” Tolkien employs this ambiguity. He says, for instance, that Beowulf is a Christian story of a pagan past, “or an attempt at one,” an example of his academic carefulness. It seems to me that this use of language opens up Tolkien’s text to more various interpretations, since his above sentence would still be considered logically correct, if Beowulf was a successful Christian-Pagan poem. In his fiction, Tolkien creates ambiguity around some of the central moments of LOTR. Creating these spaces, he gives readers more room to form their own meanings.
In Materiality and Sociology of Text, a class I had several years ago at McGill, we explored how readers sometimes can “poach” meaning from a text by forming interpretations outside of the narrator’s ideology. Although Tolkien’s tales must rely on the authority of the teller to give them truth-value, using these ambiguous turns-of-phrase empower the reader. Perhaps they hint that Tolkien may have believed that finding meaning in literature is a dialectical process, that the power of meaning-creation that authors have is not absolute, that readers form their own equally legitimate meanings.
Upon leaving Chip Crane’s talk, energized with a new enthusiasm for Tolkien, I came to Joe Christopher’s presentation of “Tolkien as a Generic Poet.” I have not often had the opportunity to read Tolkien’s poetry, although his best (and worst!) work is certainly embedded in LOTR: everything from Aragorn’s prophecy to Tom Bombadil’s nonsense verse. What I found most fascinating in Christopher’s presentation was his juxtaposition of Tolkien with the Modernists.
Modernism, as one of its maxims, has Ezra Pound’s Chinese translation: “Let there be daily renovation,” or in plain parlance, “make it new.” The Modernist poet looks at old forms of poetry and renews the old forms, such as ballad, sonnet, and aubade. While the Inklings, who generally held by a common Christianity, were not involved with Modernist scepticism and doubt, they were not un-modern. In Charles Williams’ words, it was better to be modern than minor. They addressed the Modern age and even if they did not fit in with T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, they were still products of the same age, the same shaping forces.
Tolkien was less emotionally involved in his anti-modernism than C.S. Lewis, and knew the classics not through modern poets, but by training. He wrote alliterative verse in Old English style, such as “Sigurd and Gudrun.” He took the Poetic Edda and Nibelungenlied as his models. His poetry also includes the use of such various forms as the clerihew and nursery rhyme. (At MythCon on Sunday evening, there was an award handed out for the greatest clerihew written during the conference.)
Did Tolkien succeed in making it new? I would answer using a qualified “yes.” No, he did not renew poetic form into something unseen or unheard of before. But he did succeed in producing imitations and translations that could only have come from a mind thoroughly engrossed in a literary era that to us “normal” scholars feels so distant and remote. Like Pound, he was a translator. And from his knowledge, building on some Victorian and early twentieth-century precedents, he composed a sprawling fantastic romance about an all-powerful Ring, which was set in a meticulously thought-out secondary world based on a fictional history he had constructed in order to explain languages he had invented–for fun.
So he did fulfill Pound’s Chinese maxim, although the most unique part of his work was most likely his prose, instead of his poetry.
Michael Drout’s presentation of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf capped the evening, and what a memorable talk it was! Drout is an editor for The Tolkien Encyclopedia and even helped edit the edition of Beowulf in question, which includes the Tolkien short story “Sellic Spell” (O.E. for “Happy Story”). Drout has been credited with “discovering” the Beowulf translation, but maintains that Christopher Tolkien had donated the translation a long time ago to the Bodlein Library–Drout simply helped make the material available to a readership, among his other editorial duties.
Tolkien’s translation is a perfect example of his ability to write in the style of the Anglo-Saxons. However, his beautiful alliterative verse translation of Beowulf was omitted from the published text, so what readers are presented with is his prose. In return, explained Drout, the reader gets a precise prose translation of the Old English according to how Tolkien interpreted it; you will see Hrothgar’s vassals called “knights,” for example. Although leather and chainmail does not fit our Victorian image of the knight in shining, plate-steel armour, it is technically the correct term.
Tolkien originally did not wish for his Beowulf to be published, but it is available anyway. Christopher Tolkien’s comments on the text are invaluable, however, and give you an idea about how the author’s mind worked. He was nothing short of genius. For instance, he argued against the translation of the Old English term for “whale-road,” arguing that it could not have referred to a whale precisely, but to a species related to the porpoise that lived in those times in the North. “Dolphin’s riding,” is Tolkien’s sarcastic suggestion.
Tolkien also interpreted the metonymic use of the word “point” to mean “sword” as incorrect. In the passage in question, Beowulf is wrapped in the coils of Grendel’s mother. In a most lively manner, Drout acted out Beowulf’s situation during his presentation using a wooden sword, demonstrating that the only way for Beowulf to escape the death grip was to stab his foe with the point (a.k.a. tip) of the sword.
So deep was Tolkien’s knowledge of Beowulf that he argued the characters in Heorot–like Hrothgar and Unferth–belonged to a cycle of heroic poems similar to the medieval romances of Arthur and his knights. Without any evidence whatsoever, Tolkien believed he was right. No scholar of the present age would dare make such extravagant claims today. The absence of historical documents did not faze him, with the result that “Sellic Spell” is his own story, written by him, which is supposed to be a translation of what the original source text of Beowulf would have been like–making it, if Tolkien was miraculously correct, the oldest story in English, even older than the actual oldest story in English. And, of course, he translated “Sellic Spell” into Old English!
Tolkien’s genius enabled him to have the confidence–perhaps warranted, perhaps not–to commit what in today’s terms would perhaps be called crimes of historical fantasy. But we forgive him for it because he was so good. Tolkien may not have been a Modernist, but he was exceptionally good at being the precise antithesis of a Modernist. He was so at the service of those older texts that he believed his original work to belong to the tradition of Old English rather than to the modern tradition.
J.R.R Tolkien, born this day in 1892, would be 122 if he were alive today, one of the oldest people in the world. Alas, his physical body perished 2 September 1973, even though his textual body lives on, with much thanks to the continued labours of Christopher Tolkien, his son and editor. I would love to celebrate Tolkien’s birthday with a pint at the Eagle and Child Pub, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings used to meet. Being landlocked in Pierrefonds, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, I cannot, however, and must compensate by posing a question to you all.
Does Tolkien’s spirit live on in 2014?
It would be hard to deny, upon first glance. Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie has hit theatres and a third is on the way. New editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are being produced, while many of his more obscure works appear on shelves at Chapters—including The Fall of Arthur, his Arthurian poem in the style of the Alliterative Morte Darthur. Many people around the globe cling loyally to Tolkien’s legacy. The entire epic fantasy genre claims strong ties to Tolkien’s example.
However, behind such observations lies the assumption that Tolkien’s survival depends on his economic value. They do not tell us how, in specific, people perceive his legacy, aside from the obvious. Such observations can tell us nothing of people’s attitudes towards his ideas, aside from a vague sense that they are willing to temporarily “buy into” his aesthetics, his politics, and philosophy. Do his ideas have any deeper resonance for those who buy his books?
I have never conducted a poll among Tolkien-readers. Perhaps it is for the better, though, since I would be asking strange questions for people who just want to read The Hobbit. “What are your beliefs about mythology?” “Do you believe that the deepest human yearning is the desire for communion with nature?” “Do you believe that the subcreator’s power is the refracted light of the Creator’s primary creativity, imparted to the subcreator by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?”
Chances are these questions never cross our minds when first fingering a Tolkien paperback. We may outright disagree with some of what he believes. Tolkien tied his theory of art closely to his identity as a Catholic and likened the creation of art to an act of communion. Although he draws a beautiful system in “On Fairy Stories” and his poem “Mythopoeia,” the religious imagery might fly over the heads of non-Catholics.
His ideas about mythology might also be described as “essentialist.” Because of his religious convictions, he says he believes that mythology comes from a objective, transcendental source—whether the Tree of Tales, or God Himself. After Lacan and post-structuralism, however, mythology is not viewed as being so much transcendental as born out of sexual drives inherent in all humans. These developments in the theory of mythology place a shadow over Tolkien’s more Victorian conception of fairy tales and myth.
Admittedly, most of us make no account of these ideas. We may read Tolkien for the sheer pleasure of escape. Though we may not be aware of the abstract, theological ideas saturating Tolkien’s philosophy of art, we should not feel that we ought to be aware of those ideas. Each reader reads Tolkien differently and should. But how can we reconcile our investment in Tolkien as a culture to our postmodern (hyper)reality?
How does Tolkien survive today?
Do we still desire old things? Or are we so ingrained in this commodified, throw-away culture that we no longer consider old ways of viewing the world, trees, nature, and birdsong? I feel personally that I spend far too much time dealing with ephemeral trivialities. There is no better time to think about our wasteful society than just after Christmas. It’s sad, but I can’t think of a time of year when our fetishization of the commodity is more evident than late December and early January. As Christianity turned pagan Saturnalia into the Birth of Christ, capitalism has secularized Christmas into a fest of selfishness, line-up rage, and dissatisfaction.
But trees and old songs are free. Nature never goes out of style. “The lilies do not sow,” goes an old Bible verse, “yet Solomon in all his wisdom was not clad as richly as one of these.” Yet, even while faced with the deficiencies of commodity culture, do we still care about these lilies, or is commodity simply too enticing?
Perhaps we need to be refreshed in our understanding of nature. We need to go back and recognize what we have been missing—the simple truths of reality and beauty.
But in our twenty-first century, there is no reality. Or, if there is, it is not reality as Tolkien understood it.
Our age has been called “hyperreal.” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites are rapidly becoming the new definers of “reality.” I mean an entirely new definition of reality: separate from science and theology both. Someone can become world-famous simply by posting pictures of themselves online, never leaving their dark, lonely basement. Nothing is real unless it’s documented. Wedding pictures are not as frequently printed as posted. Your trip to the Louvre can only be said to have happened if you take a picture of the Mona Lisa, a picture you have seen a thousand times before. (Did you hear the Mona Lisa was a fake? The real one’s hidden in a vault.)
Some of us think archaeologists will need these pictures in a hundred years, as absurd as the thought may seem. But if you do not even glance at your own photo documentation after you have saved it on a hard drive—let along print them—why would an archaeologist care about your selfie? Even the things we pretend to treasure today are as disposable as anything else we own.
Our culture is obsessed with the new and with copies of reality rather than reality itself. Where can Tolkien’s idea of Renewal fit into our world? Can we “clean our windows” from triteness and ennui if the windows we look through are themselves copies of other windows? Perhaps we have lost something fundamental to reality itself.
Tolkien’s Elves, constantly aware of the thinning of magic, would not doubt weep its loss—to the sound of harp strings. No wonder they left Middle Earth before it was too late.
Perhaps I am being too rough on postmodernity. The last thing I want is to sound like a nostalgic old man getting angry at these newfangled computers and social media sites. I recognize that there is a danger in glorifying the past. I am not saying we must worship Tolkien. But I am saying there is something profound in his work about the role of fantasy in renewing out perceptions of reality, whenever our workaday, commodified lives threaten to bore us to death.
I’ve encountered a breaking point where this shallow world confines you inside your house and prevents you from going outside and encountering nature. Even if hyperreality suggests that Renewal is impossible in this age devoid of a central reality, Tolkien can still cause us to realize that hyperreality itself is only one way of seeing the world. This is not a denial of reality: it is an opposition to consensus, a force in a struggle.
We may be forevermore influenced by hyperreality, but that does not make resistance futile. Tolkien’s works—and other stories and art inspired by his ideas—argue that fantasy is the best way to clean our windows this new year. Fantasy tells us that the world was not always like it is. In particular, historical fantasy can do this to superb effect (see John Crowley’s Aegypt), but other genres of fantasy can also help us see our daily lives in a different light.
Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.
Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.
Here we go.
1. Writing is murder.
When I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.
Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.
2. Cadence comes before meaning.
Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.
Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.
3. Texts are physical and unstable.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.
One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.
4. Form matters.
Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.
5. Things happen and are done in texts.
When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…
6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.
A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting your language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.
However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.
7. You can analyze anything.
Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.
Guy Gavriel Kay
8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.
I learned this in my first semester.
“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”
The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.
9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.
When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.
If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.
Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.
10. Reading poetry must affect you.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.
Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.
Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.
Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.