MythCon 45 Day 1: Prose, Genre, and Tolkien’s Genius



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.

TolkienHaving 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.

Beowulf Manuscript
Beowulf Manuscript

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.

BeowulfMichael 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.

The world will never see another of his kin.

Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened
Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened


Next Week: My Journey at MythCon 45 Continues!


Photo Credits:

Beowulf and Sellic Spell:

Beowulf MS:


The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I, by Stephen King

gunslinger coverGunslinger.












What do you get when you combine Tolkien and the Western? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Meet Roland, the last gunslinger. He’s Aragorn meets John Wayne. A solitary man “wandering but not lost,” he carries two six-shooters that were once his father’s pistols. His single quest, which he pursues with an instinctual audacity, is summarized in the iconic first line of the novel. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but "not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king."
Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but, as the prophecy says, “not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king.”
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.










Every single sentence seeps with the brooding, gritty mood of the Western genre and with the unforgiving cadence of a landscape that has, we are continually reminded, “moved on.” The desert is the “apotheosis of all deserts,” a world reminiscent of the American Southwest. In fact, it takes place in the future, a post-apocalyptic world that shares certain features with King’s other epics, such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and It.

Gunslinger desert3We follow Roland as he runs among the ruins of a technologically advanced civilization identical to the twentieth-century USA. Most gadgets have ceased to work and people have fallen into a semi-feudal, semi-frontier society of small settlements. Petroleum, for example, is so valuable that one man becomes a Delphic oracle by inhaling fumes at a gas station.

The story follows Roland as he encounters a dweller in the wilderness named Brown and his talking raven Zoltan. Forming a brief but tense friendship, he tells them both the story of his journey to Tull, where he falls in love with a woman named Allie and has an adventure with the fire-and-brimstone preacher Sylvia Pittson. But the man in black has passed through town and his spells have laid a trap. As Roland tells his story, you find out that he is an ambiguous figure with a capacity for both heroism and merciless violence.

His real challenge comes later, when he meets Jake, a boy from New York. He takes Jake as his own ward as he pursues the man in black over the mountains at the end of the desert. In the end, however, his bond with the boy will come in conflict with his destiny, pushing Roland’s moral endurance to the limit.

This novel has entranced me ever since I read a Gunslinger novella years ago “The Little Sisters of Eluria.” I had no context to the narrative, but I immediately took to the crazy, gritty story of zombies and cannibal nuns. It further drew me on after I learned where King got the title for his series: a song from Shakespeare’s King Lear sung by Edgar, who is posing as a madman at the time.

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”

Gunslinger 2Just as the “child” Rowland (“child” or “childe” refers to a squire who has yet to be knighted) pursues the Dark Tower, so does the last gunslinger. But he isn’t British: he’s definitely American. And he is no longer a “child,” but a man. In fact, Roland at one point recalls his own rite of passage ceremony, in which he duels Cort, his training master in Gilead, Roland’s now-vanished hometown. Another work of literature featuring Roland is Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s series, however, remains the longest sustained treatment of Roland’s quest. (Of course, he is not a gunslinger in Browning, but a knight errant.)

A third factor that drew me to read The Gunslinger was how it was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In his understated introduction to the expanded edition, Stephen King describes how he knew he was going to get Norse mythology wrong if he wrote an epic too similar to Tolkien. So he borrowed from a genre with similar epic potential, a genre that forms the central mythos of American identity: the Western.

Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger
Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger

I would have to agree that King wrote a more honest Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel using the Western. Books like The Sword of Shannara slave too closely to the plots of the “father of modern fantasy” so as to seem derivative or worse: a simple copy. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and Celtic mythology because that was the mythology of his homeland, Great Britain. King borrowed from the Western mythology of his own country, the United States.

I once wrote a website (with bad links) that presented an academic argument proposing that the genre of modern fantasy was born of an Americanization of British myths into the framework of the “American monomyth.” Essentially, this monomyth is like the stereotypical Western plot: an paradisaical community is threatened by an outside force, the ordinary law can do nothing to stop it, then a hero emerges from within the community, or occasionally from the outside, and stops evil in a final battle or shootout. The story ends with him riding into the sunset. I would not say that King follows this formula precisely, but the way in which The Gunslinger was conceived reminded me of my old observations of the fantasy genre.

Shining through the baggage I brought to it, The Gunslinger left me thirsty for more. The most powerful, resonating aspect of this story is how the mood almost seems to dictate the plot. The world has moved on is the novel’s refrain and the story moves on too. Things are always going to get worse, but Roland’s resolve to encounter the man in black remains a force of constant momentum. A fair word of warning: this novel ends only at the beginning of the series, with a revelation as to the true shape of Roland’s quest, which he at first pursues rather blindly. These facts about the Dark Tower he discovers only at a terrible cost to himself and those few whom he loves.



Photo Credits:

Stephen King:


Gunslinger 1:

Gunslinger desert 1:

Gunslinger 2::

John Wayne:,%20John-Annex.htm


History as Fantasy: My Honours Thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay Summarized

The Build-Up to my Honours Thesis

I was in my second year at McGill University, struggling to find a mentor for my Honours thesis in English literature. I’m in an advanced program, and I needed it to graduate and to develop my own critical voice. Oh, the ambition! My mission was to write on fantasy literature, a genre I have enjoyed since I was young. The problem was, fantasy literature was not a subject many of my professors were familiar with. Fortunately, I lucked out: Prof. Ken Borris had read some Tolkien, was an expert on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and knew about genre theory. My quest towards historical fantasy had begun.

My thesis was entitled “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel.” As the title suggests, I reached the conclusion that history is fantasy.

Now to explain.

For my Honours thesis, I looked at the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian historical fantasy writer. Three books of his, Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven, formed the basis of my analysis of how he combines the disparate genres of fantasy and the historical novel. I first encountered Kay’s works at The Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, where he had just promoted Under Heaven (I missed him!). I picked up Tigana, taking note of the promise on its back cover that it was possibly the greatest single-volume fantasy novel ever written.

It was.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author
Guy Gavriel Kay: Historical fantasy author

Who could forget the story of Tigana’s obliterated name, and the struggles of Prince Alessan, Baerd, Devin, Catriana and the other Tiganese rebels as they worked underground to overthrow the tyrant that destroyed their nation? The ending was nothing less than sublime. I was hooked.

A few years later, having read The Lions of Al-Rassan, I decided to commit my thesis to Kay’s novels.

What a task it was! I spent an entire summer reading nearly all of Kay’s works (I could not squeeze
The Fionavar Tapestry into my summer). Emerging from that reading experience, I committed myself to understanding how exactly Kay creates this particular genre of historical fantasy.

The Argument of my Essay

Historical fantasy? What a strange term, when you think about it! One word implies the imagination, magic, wizards, and prophecy. The other, the dry, realistic rendering of cause-and-effect, dates to be memorized by rote, and certainly nothing outside of the probable, let alone the impossible.

I had to decide how Kay reconciles these two essentially opposite modes of literature.

Fortunately, Kay himself had a strategy up his sleeve: each of his novels are set in lands that I termed “mirror worlds.” These settings, such as the Peninsula of the Palm (Tigana), Al-Rassan (Lions), and Kitai (Under Heaven), resemble, but do not not actually represent, real-world historical settings: Renaissance Italy, medieval Al-Andalus (southern Spain), and Tang Dynasty China. These mirror worlds allow Kay latitude in writing his novels, since they do not have to follow real-world events. As my term implies, these settings are only reflections of reality, and the stories can be universalized, or reflected, onto any other appropriate historical context. Thus, Tigana‘s story of colonial rebellion may apply to Africa, Ireland, India, post-Communist Eastern Europe, or even my own province, Québec. The Lions of Al-Rassan‘s tragedy of sectarian warfare is easily applicable to the Middle Eastern conflicts of today.

Using these mirror worlds, Kay is able to impose structure onto narratives that form analogues to reality. This is significant because history itself often seems random, simply effects following causes. When we conceive history as flux, narratives cannot be formed about it and poets rebel. To paraphrase a line in
Under Heaven, human beings need to make stories out of history; stories are a fundamental human need.

John Clute: Theorist of the Fantastic.
John Clute: Theorist of the Fantastic.

Here is where fantasy comes in. John Clute, a writer and editor for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, proposes that what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy, aside from the existence of the impossible, is the presence of an underlying, fully exposed Story. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy flaunts its central Story, such that Clute capitalizes the word when describing it. The Story must in some way become reconciled to historical narratives, which tend to reject Story. He proposes four terms to outline the central narrative of what he calls the “fully-structured fantasy“:

1. Wrongness: this happens when the protagonist first sees a hint that something is wrong in the world, that the land will be (or already is) subjected to thinning. Think about the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings first seeing the Black Riders in the Shire. Their grim shadowed forms reveal that wrongness is at work.

2. Thinning: this may be the fading away of the land, an amnesia where the protagonist forgets his name, or the result of the unjust rule of a tyrant. When the Elves with their magic flee Middle Earth because of the growing evil of Sauron, leaving the land to the mundane race of Men, that is thinning.

3. Recognition: when the protagonist realizes that his life has the “coherence of Story” and he realizes what he must do in order the save the thinned land. Aragorn’s recognition is when he realizes that he is destined to become King of Gondor. The crownless again shall be king…

4. Healing: the salvation of the thinned land. Ring is destroyed. Aragorn becomes King of Gondor. Sam spreads his magic seeds to restore the Shire.

It is not accidental, of course, that I use J.R.R. Tolkien‘s trilogy as an example here. Tolkien anticipates Clute’s structure when he states that “eucatastrophe” (the opposite of catastrophe) is the must-have ending of a fantasy novel. Eucatastrophe more or less corresponds to healing and is the happy ending of the faerie-story, an uplifting surge of joy and renewal. It is also in direct opposition to how Bertrand Russel understands history: as essentially catastrophic. After all, how can history have a happy ending (or even an ending at all) in the midst of civil wars, genocides, and holocausts? In historical fantasy, if one is to preserve the fantasy novel structure, how can the happy ending be applied to the historical novel’s structure while still remaining truthful to historical reality?

That was my guiding question while writing this essay. I will not re-articulate my precise argument–I hope to publish the essay in its entirety online in the future–but I will summarize by explaining how
Under Heaven dealt with this issue.

The Two Smoking Philosophers:

Believes that historical catastrophe is encompassed by the joy of eucatastrophe.
JRR Tolkien believes that historical catastrophe is encompassed by the joy of eucatastrophe.


Also a pipe-smoker. Believes that catastrophe is the inevitable pattern of history.
Bertrand Russel also smokes a pipe. He believes that catastrophe is the inevitable pattern of history.











Under Heaven

Under Heaven is where Kay’s historical fantasy becomes most fully itself. It is a fully hybridized historical fantasy because it employs each of Clute’s four terms while remaining true to the nature of catastrophe.

Wrongness foreshadows the An Li Rebellion when the reader is introduced to the monstrous military general An Li, a grotesquely obese, illiterate barbarian who speaks out of turn at the court because the Emperor assigns him too much power.

Thinning happens as a direct effects of An Li’s arrogance, when he rebels against the Emperor and initiates the rebellion. Mass death, starvation, and even cannibalism ensue, as the capital of Kitai is destroyed.

The protagonist, Shen Tai, might have Under Heavenprevented the rebellion when he was alone with An Li in his carriage. However, his Recognition of historical narrative is rejected by his wise friend, the poet Sima Zian, who argues that it is arrogance to think that we can understand how our actions can change the future. Tai’s recognition is not so much a recognition of an underlying story as much as a recognition that he cannot know the story.

Complete Healing is impossible. Sima Zian says, “The world is not broken any more than it always, always is.” The poet implies that thinning is the real state of the world and that the world is unrecoverable because it is always in that state. Perhaps Tai’s recognition is that history is a story of thinning rather than healing.

However, Under Heaven does not lack a Eucatastrophe. Rather, a happy ending is possible for certain individuals, including the protagonist, when granted a refuge from historical forces. Eucatastrophe does not seek to re-make history (as it does in Tigana) but to imply that there is hope even within the terrible catastrophe of a civil war.


History as Fantasy

Under Heaven is also remarkable in how its narrator, who takes on the persona of a historian, challenges historicism. For instance, take the following quotation from the book:

It is a truth about the nature of human beings that we seek—even demand—order and pattern in our lives, in the flow and flux of history and our own times.

Philosophers have noted this and mused upon it. Those advising princes, emperors, kings have sometimes proposed that this desire, this need, be used, exploited, shaped. That a narrative, a story, the story of a time, a war, a dynasty be devised to steer the understanding of a people to where the prince desires it to go.

Desire shapes historical narratives. And what is desire, but a fantasy, an imagination, of what history should ideally look like, according to one’s own opinion? Kay’s narratives may use fantasy (in the literary sense), but he avoids the arrogance of imposing his own desire onto historical flux, by creating mirror worlds. Using this technique, he not only orders his narratives according to the conventions of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and eucatastrophe, but exposes how historians do occasionally make arrogant assertions.

In conclusion, Kay’s historical fantasy novels reveal how history is fantasy. It reveals how people compose their own historical narratives, according to their own desire, or fancy. Therefore, I also think that an understanding of history as fantasy can lead us to see how desire causes historians to compose narratives, revealing the hidden ideologies that lie behind those stories.


Works Cited:

Clute, John and John Grant, eds. “Bondage,” “Fantasy,” “Healing,” “History in Fantasy” “Kay, Guy Gavriel,” “Recognition,” “Story,” “Thinning” “Wrongness.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 125-126 337-339, 458, 468-469, 530-531, 804-805, 899-901, 942-943, 1038-1039.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. E-Mail Interview. 19 November 2012.

_____.“Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

_____.The Lions of Al-Rassan. Toronto: Penguin, 1995. 1-635.

_____. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.

_____. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Faerie Stories.” Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 3-84.

Toner, Christopher. “Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe: Russell and Tolkien on the True Form of Fiction.” New Blackfriars 89.1019 (2008): 77-87. EBSCOhost. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.


Photo Creds:

Guy Gavriel Kay:

John Clute:

JRR Tolkien:

Bertrand Russel:

Under Heaven Cover: