The final day of MythCon 46 was Monday August 3rd, during which I only took notes on one presentation: Vicki Ronn on “Graphic King Arthur,” that is, the history of King Arthur comic books. Ronn presented a series of comics featuring or starring the mythical king, evaluating each for the quality of its illustrations, story, and characterizations, from Prince Valiant to Camelot 3000 and beyond.
Mike Barr and Briand Bolland worked on Camelot 3000 from 1982-85, a DC Comics series that was able to escape the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, by selling only to comic book stores. There were several surprises in this series, noted for its 1980s camp. The story is that King Arthur has been cryo-frozen and has been awoken in the futuristic world of 3000 AD. Galahad appears as a Japanese samurai, Gawain as a South African Zulu, and Tristan is Tristana–a woman! This last is remarkable because many comics of the past rarely featured women, King Arthur and His Knights by Frank Bellamy (1955-6) actually having an all-male cast. Morgan Le Fay also appears in Camelot 3000 as the leader of an evil alien force. Unforgettably, the final panel contains the image of a very weird alien drawing Excalibur from a stone, hinting that the Arthurian mythos repeats itself throughout time and (outer) space. Another interesting observation I had, when allowed a chance to view the comic, was that Arthur’s knights are each represented by a special sigil on a wall, not unlike the sigils of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
The Knights of Pendragon included Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four and Iron Man–not to mention the Incredible Hulk, who was interpreted as a kind of Green Knight figure. It was printed on environmentally friendly paper and references modern poetry. Fables: Camelot was a series Ronn described as quite compelling, a post-9/11 treatment of the Round Table as a place for those who need a ‘second chance.’ Instead of culminating in a huge, epic battle at the end, the two forces, led by fairy tale characters Rose Red and Snow White, decide to put aside their differences and go their separate ways.
Here are several links to various pieces of Arthuriana that Vicki Ronn listed during her presentation:
The swift abstract to my presentation is the following:
“A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing Charles de Lint’s New Fantasy in Moonheart“
Charles de Lint’s modern fantasy novel Moonheart: A Romance (1984) represents utopia by distending consensus reality and merging contemporary urban Canada with supernatural forces from First Nations and Celtic folklore. Steven Lawrence terms de Lint’s novel a “new fantasy” for Canada’s “majority multiculture.” Referring to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I will present Moonheart as symbolically resolving cultural anxieties about Canada’s colonial history, through its Othering of the figure of the colonizer in its romance structure. De Lint’s use of fantasy functions as a tactic of representational space in opposition to the strategy of realism, the hegemony of capitalism, and the state’s production of space. Historicizing Moonheart locates it as a text that imagines a utopia during the rise of Canada’s policy of liberal multiculturalism, while using fantasy as a visionary technique to resolve anxieties about the Other, the colonial past, and the capitalist present.
Brian Attebery was in attendance and his comment to me was that although Moonheart does project a resolution to the colonial history of Canada, the ending has always left him dissatisfied. There is a certain lack of closure that leaves the social issues unresolved, even though they are resolved symbolically through the fantastic adventure in contains.
My reply to him today, after reading through the first two chapters of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious yet again, would differ only a little from the one I offered him that Sunday.
Yes, de Lint leaves the social issues unresolved. There is a disconnection between the decisive victory of the protagonists and the changes this brings to Ottawa at large in the novel–namely, the fact that there are no social changes that result from the supernatural battle.
What does happen is that Sara, the novel’s main protagonist, recognizes that she shares the legacy of imperialism, being a woman of Anglo-Canadian stock. More importantly she learns that she must carry this legacy with her into her everyday world. Presumably, this means she must now work as an white-Canadian ally of Native Americans in order to work for real social justice. However, in Spiritwalk, the sequel to Moonheart, she spends most of her time in the Otherworld with Taliesin, her lover (a Welsh bard), instead of working to repair the real damage of colonial abuse. Of course, the problem might as a whole be too big for Sara to ‘solve’ alone, providing it can be ‘solved’ at all, but the fact is that we never see her, for example, lending a hand to Native American homeless kids, campaigning for better on-res living conditions, etc.
The idea behind such political readings of fantasy literature is not to get on Charles de Lint’s case about not writing fantasy that is sufficiently politically engaging, but to prove that all narratives are situated in history. If de Lint had made Sara into an Aboriginal rights crusader, the story would only reveal other contradictions existent in Canadian society–the difference being that they would be deeper contradictions.
What these kinds of analysis can prove for our times is the relevance of fantasy to our society–it enables us to imagine other worlds and suggest new ways of overcoming problems. The best fantasies are progressive, not merely reactions, but callsto action.
And on that note, I conclude my final report on MythCon 46. I hope the posts over the last few weeks have taught you something new about fantasy and myth you might never have thought about before. Till next time!
Sunday 2 August 2015 was the date of my long-awaited presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia. Although this post will not include a copy of my presentation–that will be for next week, when I will discuss the final day of lectures at MythCon 46–I do include a significant panel involving the inestimable Brian Attebery, one of the key scholars of fantasy literature, whose studies The Tradition of Fantasy in American Literature: From Irving to LeGuin and Strategies of Fantasy have been highly influential in the history of fantasy criticism. His most recent work is Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth.
First up was David Bratman’s presentation “How Do You Solve A Problem Like King Arthur?” in which he discussed the complexity and uncertainty in unearthing the historical Arthur. The real Arthur, if he ever existed, was a post-Roman warlord and not the highly romanticized Tennysonian richly-caparisoned lordly king of the popular imagination. Authors such as T.H. White have attempted to place Arthur accurately in the medieval past, while Jack Whyte situates Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, in the post-Roman era. Books such as The Discovery of King Arthur have attempted to unearth the historical Arthur once and for all, but inevitably we know too little to create any consistent narrative about the king.
For those who feel uninitiated to Arthurian legend, don’t feel too bad. There’s no standardized, linear plot of the entire Arthurian cycle that incorporates all the adventures and significant events that are attributed to Arthur and his knights; the Disneyfied versions most folk encounter are as complete as any other retelling. An anthology of Arthuriana I own, The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation by James J. Wilhelm, does its best to establish a canon of Arthurian texts that when read together give some kind of impression of the different stories associated with the famous king, from the originally oral tale of the Celts, Culwch and Owen to Malory’s Morte Darthur, one of the first printed texts in England.
Our Montreal-based Author Guest of Honour Jon Walton has a series of Arthurian novels. Other authors such as Kris Swank give Arthur an ethnic twist by bringing black characters into the cast. Tales from the point of view of the servants also abound including, in addition to Mark Williams’s Sleepless Knights, Squire’s Blood and Squire’s Honour by Peter Telep.
If so many different versions of Arthur exist, how did we get the colourful, valiant, shiny version of Arthur with which most people are familiar? The answer to this might lie in the colourful illustrations that accompanied the sanitized story of The Boy’s King Arthur, in which the scenes containing episodes of adultery have been cut out. The illustrator M.C. Wyatt was also a major contributor to our images of Arthur. Of course one might also add Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, Looney Tunes, and Monty Python as other inevitable sources.
One last item to add to this list was Camelot 3000, a comic from a certain era that was not mine, but which was full of 80s camp. In this, the Knights of the Round Table are awoken from cryogenic chambers in the far future. Other Arthurian comics are cataloged on Camelot 4 Colors.
Following this, Daniel Gabelman presented one of the original classics of nineteenth-century fantasy that later inspired C.S. Lewis’s conversion and “baptised” his imagination, according to his memoir Surprised by Joy. The presentation was entitled “MacDonald’s Phantastes and The Last Chronicle of Sir Percival, or Phantastes: the Original MythCon?”
I am currently reading the Phantastes, called the first full-length prose novel of modern fantasy, and I’m recognizing a familiar Romantic fascination with sickly, snow-pale women who function as Muse to the hero. MacDonald himself was a highly religious man–this I don’t doubt from having glimpsed at a few of his sermons–but Phantastes reads more like a Romantic text than an explicitly Christian one. I have recognized a certain joy animate the hero, Anodos, as he enters Fairyland, which I can only imagine was the same joy of the imagination that C.S. Lewis felt deeply when he read Phantastes. Reading this novel as an allegory of Lewis’s conversion is an interesting way of reading it, but at any rate, not precisely the way Gabelman read it.
Phantastes was explicitly called a fairy tale for adults, representing a moment when fairy tales began to adopt more realistic techniques to attract an audience beyond the nursery. MacDonald includes heavily allusive epigraphs from works in English and in German throughout his novel, tying his thought to German Romanticism. Gabelman said Phantastes is very much about the reading experience, especially considering the number of times Anodos either hears a story or reads one, especially the embedded tale of Cosmos, a youth who acquires a cursed magic mirror. Being unfamiliar with the Phantastes at the time,I regrettably could not absorb the crux of Gabelman’s poststructural argument about textual play in MacDonald and Lewis, but I was left with a good impression of the overall presentation.
Alicia Fox-Lenz, a Mythgardian and graphic designer, presented a well-designed slide presentation of “The Union Between the Two Towers and the Twin Towers,” which was about the impact of 9/11 on the reception of LOTR. She referred to the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to issues regarding warfare in the generations that followed WWII. Like Modernists such as W.H. Auden, Tolkien’s literary career is overshadowed by an involvement in world wars. Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I is a Mythopoeic Press collection of essays that discuss the impact of the Great War on many different authors of modern fantasy. Rather than writing realistic narratives about the social reality of the post-war years, Tolkien became an “interwar hipster” by returning to the heroic ideal in a non-realist literary form.
Later generations interpreted LOTR as relevant to the trials facing their generation. So there were unauthorized paperback copies of LOTR available to the Vietnam generation, while the hippies of the Summer of Love adopted the slogan, “Frodo Lives!” Tolkien’s novels gained a subcultural following he certainly could never have foreseen.
Peter Jackson’s films reinvigorated interest in LOTR just around the time of the New York terrorist attacks. Like the Black Riders that infiltrate the peaceful Shire, Islamic fundamentalism entered the consciousness of a reeling and traumatized American public.
The result, Fox-Lenz argued brilliantly, is that online Amazon reviews of Tolkien’s trilogy before 9/11 stress a lofty, idealist view of the heroism of Tolkien’s characters, while the reviews after 9/11 use a more negatively connotative vocabulary, making more references to the battle between good and evil, moral absolutes, and biblical language. Reviewers became more obsessed, as a whole, with words such as ‘evil,’ and the name of Sauron was more frequently mentioned. One reviewer even stated that fighting a war for peace is a galvanizing theme in LOTR. Galvanizing for what, the invasion of a certain Middle-Eastern country? In short, these reviews echoed, more and more, the wartime rhetoric that led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Frodo was even treated as a zealot, a suicide bomber off the destroy Sauron. Tolkien surely rolled over in his grave, but this is exactly the sort of overblown, shocking statements one tends to find in comments sections on major websites these days. The Rohirrim in Jackson’s films also become seen as a parallel to Homeland Security. And then, of course, there are the cheap allegories in which Frodo is America, bin Laden Sauron, Sam Gamgee America’s allies (Canada, Britain, Australia, etc, all being somehow encapsulated by the loyal gardener), and Isildur is … you guessed it, also ‘merica–the earlier ‘merica under Bush Sr. I might add, from a different political standpoint, that Wormtongue and Theoden (before his conversion by Gandalf) would have made a lovely pair as Cheney and Bush respectively. But would this allegory make the Ring a WMD? Well, let’s try to keep in mind that using the enemy’s power to destroy evil was Boromir’s brilliant idea and it got him killed. Frodo was out to destroy the One Ring, to destroy Power—the Ring was a WMD that really did exist.
Leaving this bitter and controversial political world aside, it was then time for me to go to the next talk, which was about worldviews as such. Mary Kay Kare, Janice Bogstad, and Jo Walton made up the panel for “Fantasy and Worldview” with Brian Attebery as moderator. Attebery’s 1979 dissertation had been on American fantasy, responding to the post-W.R. Irwin academic climate. Irwin called fantasy the “game of the impossible,” but Attebery was convinced of the sterility of this description, that fantasy was not simply impossible. Fantasy represented instead a deeply meaningful worldview. Naturally, various cultures on planet earth share disparate worldviews that do not always align with Western, postmodern understandings of “reality.” Provided of course postmodernity has any sense of “reality” at all. To say fantasy is a literature of the impossible is to define it according to how the privileged class in power define “reality” and “possible.”
The panel discussed the notion of consensus reality–and its inevitable violation–as an important feature of fantasy literature, a way in which fantasy and not just science fiction can act as a ‘laboratory’ with which to try out new ideas. My own opinion about consensus reality is that it should always appear beneath scare quotes. I mean, reality never asked your opinion. Even if a cult believes with all their faith that if they jump out a window, they’ll be able to fly, they will wind up flat on the ground and sorely disappointed. And this isn’t just because physics cannot be violated, but because even social reality is exterior to the subject. I also believe that reality can never really be a consensus, because the very term implies the covering up of any negations or violations of that consensus. However, when writing a fantasy novel, the notion of reality being a consensus is a useful way of structuring characters’ reactions to the fantastic; whatever the norm of belief is in your novel–maybe dragons and magic already exist, maybe not–you need to establish that consensus up front, so your readers understand the novum of your subcreated world, that is, how the fictional universe differs from the reader’s own.
The panel raised some interesting points and referred to some interesting texts. For example, there is Grace Dylan’s Native American science fiction novels and other works of speculative fiction that come from other cultural frameworks than your typical white, Anglo-Saxon authors. “Tolkien’s Realist Magicism” is an essay by Jo Walton in which she describes how Tolkien treats magic realistically, challenging standard realism. Also, the issue of angel literature was raised: a belief in angels is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, making it one concrete example of a situation where one reader might read a such a narrative as ‘supernatural fiction’ while another reader, a believer, might read it is as realistic. Surely there are other people all around the globe who genuinely believe in phenomenon commonly called “fantastic,” such as the Maori of New Zealand some of whom profess belief in taniwha, a race of shapeshifting dragon.
Another interesting facet to this question is: what was considered fantasy in the Middle Ages? If heaven, hell, demons, monsters, witches, werewolves, angels, and miracles were all a part of the world back then, what would constitute imaginative literature? Petrus Nennius wrote a dream vision about a Democritan world where the afterlife was different from the Christian one–except for the dream frame around it, this might be declared a fantasy in the Inklings spirit!
Claude Levi-Strauss argued, and here once again I paraphrase one of the panelists, that human thought was never primitive–different societies just cut up the world differently. Myths are a way of defining phenomena in the world. I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the famous structural anthropologist when in The Political Unconscious, he describes Levi-Strauss’s observations of the facial tatoos of a certain tribe that serve to symbolically resolve the unease developing as their society becomes increasingly socially stratified. Jameson argues that narrative is one way we seek resolution to concrete historical contradictions–and fantasy is one significant way in which we attempt to create such resolutions.
One society that experiences a lot of social contradiction is a version of medieval England in which a hereditary monarchy presides over a socially-conscious anarcho-syndicalist peasantry, apparently led by one Leftist churl by the name of Dennis. What contradictions this society produces, however, lead not to tears but laughs. David Oberhelman discussed the Pythons’ masterpiece in his talk “‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place’: Myth, Politics, and Parody in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Holy Grail was a symbolic resolution to the concrete historical situation in which Britain found itself after the war, during the time of the Sex Pistols and pre-Thatcher discontent. Both Left and Right had discredited themselves. How could modern England reconcile itself to its conservative, monarchical past and present? Totally opposite political philosophies sparred and sparred in Parliament, till the Pythons just decided to poke fun at the whole situation with one of their funniest sketches. Not only is King Arthur treated as out of touch with socially mobilized peasant reality, but the Trotskyists are also mocked equally, as completely out of touch with reality.
Following this talk, I gave my presentation (news about that next week!) and afterwards, it was time for the banquet and Jo Walton’s Guest of Honour speech. In short she spoke about different writerly strategies of integrating the fantastic into a story. She advised the audience not to throw the fantastic at readers too fast, or they will be lost, but to introduce information about the world gradually. The readers and characters who are unfamiliar with the fantastic are like children constantly absorbing information, so it is usually a good idea to at least have one character who is unfamiliar with the world, so the readers can see through their eyes, while another character may be familiar with the fantastic, providing a model for the norm of your fantastic world. Walton provided an elegant rhetorical twist where the details of a fantastic autumn ceremony she kept alluding to in her speech as an example became gradually revealed to us, as she kept gradually giving us examples that eventually fleshed out the idea of a dragon fire-breathing ceremony. That was some meta-worldbuilding.
Stay tuned next week to hear the next installment of stimulating intellectual discussion!
Lately my blog posts have been slowing down because of the attention I’m giving to my research assistantship with Professor Robert Lecker at McGill University–we’re researching the history of literary agents and agencies in Canada. As such I have not had the occasion to post about my experience of MythCon 2015 as I did with MythCon 2014. The conference went well and perhaps in the coming months you will hear the whole story. Suffice it to say that my presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia went smoothly and I even had a conversation with Brian Attebery about it.
Today, I’m going to be giving a brief sketch about an idea I might work on for another presentation adjacent to my main thesis. I may present the paper that this post might become, eventually, at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference (NeMLA), where a panel is being organized around the topic of war in science fiction and fantasy literature, especially as it pertains to utopian and dystopian fiction.
I was inspired to think up a topic for this panel because of a Mythopoeic Press publication, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. In here is a treasure hoard of essays contextualizing and historicizing the work of the Inklings (including Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield), along with G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison, and T.H. White. These guys are fantasy’s T.S. Eliots, W.H. Audens, W.B. Yeatses, and Earnest Hemingways: authors who responded to the horror of World War that ushered in the age of modernity. However, Tolkien and crew approached literature in ways that were fundamentally different from their Modernist compatriots and–at times–associates: they were, generally speaking, more invested in preserving the heroic legacy of romance and adventure that fell out of favour in the literature after WWI. Plus they were less invested in realism, more invested in fantasy and mythopoeia.
I asked myself, in seeing the similarity between the essay collection’s theme and the topic up for discussion at NeMLA, how I might have contributed to Baptism of Fire, if I had been in a position to do so. It did not take me long to think of a topic.
The works of Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) have been neglected by critics for too long. Thankfully, Douglas A. Anderson has published a glorious volume of his collected short stories, republished for the first time in many, many years: a book called The Dragon Path. Part of the reason for this neglect stems from the fact Morris was for most of his life a Theosophist, publishing his poetry and short stories through Theosophical publications. In addition to this, his contemporaries thought his work too obscure to publish much of it in his own time–making him something of a fantasy writer hipster, writing parable-like works of historical fantasy way before Tolkien made the genre mainstream. He had a small but devoted audience.
His novel The Chalchiuhite Dragon: A Tale of Toltec Times went unpublished until long after his death, when Douglas A. Anderson sought to republish it in a new edition in the 1990s. I have already read and reviewed this novel here, but for those who want a recap, here’s the simple version of the plot:
The city of Huitznahuacan is a utopian enclave in the Mexican jungle during the pre-Colombian era. The residents participate in religious festivals and worship their gods as real, but they have never before heard of war as a practice among men. They believe that they alone are the only civilization on earth. But when the Toltecs arrive during a festival and encounter their culture, they appear as even stranger than the gods: the Huitznahuatecs are not alone! Soon, however, a religious hierarch of a foreign city, misled by anger and envy, plans to manipulate jungle savages to commit a series of murders that will deviously draw the peaceful civilization into armed conflict. The novel concludes with an anticipation of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the Prince of Peace, who gives the Toltecs a new law.
Given that Morris began writing his rather obscure third novel in the 1920s and finished writing it, at last, in 1935, it was written during a time Europe was recovering from the shock of World War I and the world was dealing with the Great Depression. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were just on the horizon. Had Morris been writing his novel through Britain’s negotiations with the Third Reich, it might have been possible to read a more or less direct correlation between Huitznahuacan’s failure of pacifism and the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, Morris would die before the beginning of the Second World War.
Although my first thought about how to historicize The Chalchiuhite Dragon was shot by the simple fact of Morris’s death in 1937, it did not deter me from investigating deeper. On a second revision, it appeared to me that the novel was still very much about pacifism anyway. Especially when reading the significance of the utopian enclave in his novel, it occurred to me that Morris was writing, quite possibly, about Point Loma, itself a utopian enclave, and Theosophy in general. A resident of San Diego for a long part of his life, and born in Wales, Morris never served at the front–at least Douglas A. Anderson mentions no such engagement. Morris was too busy writing short stories and poetry for the Theosophists.
Here is where W. Michael Ashcraft’s book Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture comes into play. This study of the community to which Morris devoted his life–quite literally, since it was his busy lecture schedule that may have contributed to his declining health–describes Theosophical positions to war, pacifism, and patriotism. In a nutshell: the Theosophists of Point Loma were more actively pacifist than the German branches of their movement, while in the States they participated with “other Americans in condemning the war and called for peaceful solutions to international problems” (169). Being an international society with a vision for the common brotherhood of humanity, Theosophists served patriotically during WWI, but always under the reverence of a ‘higher patriotism’ towards humanity as a whole. Katherine Tingley, a leader of Point Loma who asked Morris to write a novel on a pre-Columbian subject, which lead to The Chalchiuhite Dragon, was active in organizing and sponsoring meetings that promoted pacifism. Given how Huitznahuacan resembles Point Loma in its devotion to peace and the sacred as well as its being closed off from the outside world, it is difficult not to see where Morris derived his inspiration for the novel.
The thesis that emerges from this evidence is that Morris was expressing a Point Loma style of pacifism in The Chalchiuhite Dragon, as way to respond to the desolation of World War I, which must have affected him in some way, even if he was far from the front lines in San Diego, and that he also did so as a response to the growing climate of unease leading up to World War II. Further evidence of Morris’s reaction to the First World War might be sought out in the short stories and poems he was writing between 1914 and 1918, including the years directly following the war.
Although this post only shows a sketch of my ideas, I think the idea is electrifying. I hope the post, at least, might bring more people to read Kenneth Morris, whose short works, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, explore various historical civilizations that span diverse cultures, such as ancient China, India, medieval Spain, Scandinavia, and the worlds of Welsh myth. In fact, Anderson credits him with being the inventor of modern Welsh fantasy. His style is read-out-loudable and very musical–occasionally, literally inspired in their cadence and theme by composers like Beethoven. His works, which often thematize the universal spiritual brotherhood of mankind and the importance of knowledge through experience, are tales relevant to any era and particularly for today.
The first of the two legendary panels that happened on Sunday–just before my own presentation, which was the last before the banquet and awards ceremony–was entitled “Fantasy and Faith.”
Chip Crane moderated, and Carl Hostetter, Sorina Higgins, and Lynn Maudlin were discussing the Inklings. What is the place of faith in the fantasy genre? What place does religion have in LOTR? Oddly enough, there are no religions in Tolkien, despite his firm Catholicism; the elves have no need of religion, given their certainty that the Valar live in the West. Tolkien himself explained that LOTR was a “fundamentally” religious and Catholic work–unconsciously at first, but conscious during revision. This means that “fundamentally,” or “at base,” LOTR is religious, though not “fundamentally” in the sense of “extremism.” That would be decidedly un-Tolkienian! The Legendarium of Tolkien–the complex of legends that build up Tolkien’s world–is filled with Catholic metaphysics, well-informed by Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Yet the only hint of religious ritual is when, as Chip Crane’s two young children so learnedly pointed out, Faramir and his men bow to the West before meals, as a veneration of their “host.”
Tolkien was firm that one should not read LOTR as an allegory of faith or Christianity itself. He was no conjurer of cheap symbolic tricks, although some have thought C.S. Lewis to stoop a little lower artistically. However, it is not fair to reduce Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to allegory: Aslan is not representative of Christ, Aslan is Christ–just in another dimension of reality. Lewis’ Christianity is a whole other area of study. If you don’t know him from his fantasy novels, you know him as the Christian author of Surprised by Joy. But what you might not know, is that he was a science fiction writer too–his Space Trilogy is Christian sci-fi, where the cosmos is not Galilean and heliocentric but medieval, geocentric.
The oddball of the Inklings was the Christian-Rosicrucian Charles Williams. Like H.P. Lovecraft, William fills his novels with occult secret societies and fanatic cults. In War in Heaven, what begins like a straightforward detective thriller morphs into a quest for the Holy Grail, a spectacular blending of genres. His description of a black mass around the Holy Grail, explained Sorina Higgins, is loving, precise, and sexual in mood. It suggests experience at having actually conducted such masses, of having participated himself in the described ritual.
Orthodox C.S. Lewis he was not.
In another novel, The Place of the Lion, Platonic archetypes run amok in the English countryside. In Shadows of Ecstasy, a cult of Africans plan a revolutionary movement to supplant European civilization. His novels have no Everyman character with whom the reader can relate, no Lucy Pevensey or Frodo Baggins. He tries, in a Modernist manner, to distort and challenge the reader. Why have I never heard of Williams before?
The Inklings were also big on Arthurian literature–which, by the way, is the theme of next year’s MythCon. Sorina Higgins was back in action as moderator for “The Inklings and King Arthur.” Chris Gaertner, Yannick Imbert, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson were the panelists. In May, Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur was published, a work that had long been sitting in the archives. But Lewis and Owen Barfield too, another Inkling, all wrote Arthurian legends. The Inklings were concerned with national mythologies and legends that describe the acting-out of human history. History can be seen as a long defeat, or as something to identify with, and when you do attach yourself to history in that way, history becomes mythology.
Owen Barfield deserves a paragraph on his own, even though few have ever heard of him. He was the first and last Inkling. Tolkien had the greatest regard for him; Barfield changed his whole outlook on philology. Lewis called Barfield his wisest teacher. Barfield was deeply aware of how ancients saw nature as having a consciousness, although our scientific, Cartesian universe draws a separation. He tried to restore readers’ awareness of this separation through literature. His Night Operation is a science-fiction novella, a grail story, and a dystopian tale of the Blitz, where society relocates to the London sewers to avoid the bombs. The effect of the Blitz on fantasy literature has been considerable, when you think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it was almost as if the Inklings saw the space of their nation’s city threatened, forcing them to escape into other spaces–even fantastic space.
I left this brilliant discussion, which I would have liked to hear more of, to high-tail it to my own presentation. You can read the summary of my main points here, and look at the PowerPoint I used here. I have no interest in re-hashing my thesis, but suffice it to say, the presentation went on without a hitch. The comments I received were constructive, although the audience cannot be said to have been intimately familiar with Guy Gavriel’s Kay’s work, as they might have been, for instance with Lewis or Tolkien. But most of the people I’d met over the weekend were there: Brenton Dickieson, John McGeaery, Daniel Lüthie, Rebecca McCurdy, Sorina Higgins, Carl Hostetter, and Mark Williams. Lüthie directed me towards Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal to explore the nature of Story more closely, and the audience was curious as to how I would analyze alternate history, or historical fantasy set in the primary world, such as Tales of Alvin Maker. I confess I don’t know how I would investigate alternate history–it would depend on the individual novel. But all suggestions were welcome.
Following my presentation was the banquet, for which several people dressed up as obscure, and not-so-obscure, characters from fantasy. The Author/Artist Guest of Honour was Ursula Vernon, whose web comic Diggerwas popular, though I had never heard of it. It is a beast-fable comics series that explores the mythologies and societies of different species of animals. It stars Digger, a groundhog miner who winds up in all sorts of trouble.
Then to the Mythopoeic Awards, in which Mark Williams’s book Sleepless Nights was denied victory, though so was Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker won the Adult Literature Prize. Father G. Ronald Murphy rose to take the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies for Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. Murphy was the only Mythopoeic Award-winner present that evening. Another important work that won an award for Inkling Studies was Tolkien and the Study of his Sources: Critical Essays, edited by Jason Fisher. Lastly, Holly Black won the Children’s Literature award for Doll Bones.
Silliness ensued with the reading out of the clerihews and the presentation of the Clerihew Award. A clerihew is a four-lined poem with rhyming couplets, meant to satirize lightly like a limerick. Tolkien was fond of them. The Masquerade presented all the costumes people brought to the conference. There was Galadriel, a steampunk Fourth Doctor, and Gandalf, among others. This show included Chris Gaertner’s tragic soliloquy as King Arthur, a memorable moment, as well as Sorina’s reading of passage from Charles Williams, as Morgeuse.
Then there was Golfimbul. We lined up outside the depression in the quadrangle known as the Dimple and played T-ball with a doll’s head attached to a “Mordor U” jersey (a converted MacDonald’s uniform). This was our “goblin” and our goal was to knock off its head with a baseball bat and get it as close as possible to a plastic rabbit. This unusual sport is based on the anecdote Tolkien accidentally left in The Hobbit explaining how Bilbo’s ancestor, who was tall enough to ride horseback, once whacked the head off a goblin chieftain, so that it rolled into a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf. It is a MythCon tradition and I am happy to say I lost–so bad, in fact, that they had to give me a prize Monday morning. The paper plate commemorating my lack of Golfimbul skills remains on my desk to this day. It is known as the much-coveted “Linguist” trophy.
To close the day, I participated in Bardic Circle. There were ten or so sitting in a circle in the common room of one of the dorms, and we went in a circle, reading poetry, telling stories, or singing–whatever we brought to share. Sea shanties, Celtic reels, and our own creative mythopoeic poetry were all recited. When it came to my turn, I was put in the situation of Caedmon, who in Anglo-Saxon England was asked to sing a song, and was so embarrassed he ran off into a stable. When he returned, he played the harp and spoke the first poem in all of English, “The Creator’s Hymn,” which is earlier even than Beowulf. My version of this hymn was from this very website, which I was able to access from my smartphone. I recited “Vision: Evening Prayer” and, on my second round, “Eternal Guarantee,” which is my own humorous take on the Arthurian mythos.
And so ended Sunday, a most memorable day
In the morning, I was sad, because this was going to be the last day of MythCon, an event I had been waiting for months to attend. It would now be over, and I would move on to the next thing: my Master’s degree (though not before a little Boston vacation with my aunt, uncle, and cousin). Thankfully, John McGeary’s morning presentation “C.S. Lewis and C.G. Jung: The Fine Line Between ‘Myth’ and ‘Archetype'” had a lot of energy and useful ideas.
McGeary tried to look at Carl Jung through Lewis. Specifically, he searched for a way to restore Lewis’s idea that myths and archetypes are part of natural law, rather than the Jungian collective unconscious. Genetic memory, Jung claims, creates archetypes, which are instinctual, genetic predispositions towards certain images. For instance, Dracula: he is universally scary because he combines the archetypes of vampire, dark lord, and werewolf (he has furry hands and controls wolves), which excite deep-seated primitive fears in our psyche.
McGeary cited Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, an anti-neo-darwinist philosophic return to objectivism, as a reaction against relativism. If natural law was the premise on which archetypes are based, that would mean archetypes are “out there” in the universe–not merely instincts or social conventions. In archetypes, Augustine and Plato saw the numinous, which functions alongside natural law, and can be a good or an evil force. Lewis argues that it is the numinous that is at the core of the archetype, not the unconscious itself, or merely.
This perspective has the possibility of challenging how we see the world. If the archetypes are a result of the numinous, then as with any human encounter with the numinous, we must have an existential reaction. For example, upon seeing a spirit or a ghost (or a taniwha, or elves), our most profound reaction is to think, “I’m afraid of how I exist, now that I know this exists.” If the fantastic, or the numinous, exists, what does that make us, here in the mundane world? If archetypes are a part of natural law and imbued with this numinous quality, then that changes forever how we understand out existence–there is something else out there.
Playing around with these archetypes is what mythopoeia–myth-making–is all about. This is what Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams were on about. It’s what the whole conference was on about. Surely Lewis believed there to be a divine origin for the myths he told: that’s why Aslan is not like Jesus Christ, but actually is Him. Maybe it’s also true that his Christ-archetype objectively exists. I challenge, however, that thinking about archetypes as objective realities must of necessity introduce the divine, for God is a divisive subject. For many people, it’s either you believe in Him or you do not, and there is a danger in making the question of God the same question as whether or not there is any objective reality to archetypes.
It’s like the old Cartesian supposition: “God, if he exists, guarantees my senses to reflect objective reality accurately, yet I see often that my senses deceive me, ergo God cannot guarantee my senses.” This opens the scepticism that leads to the separation between consciousness and nature that Barfield would be the first to show us was not the way of the ancients, but a feature of our modern consciousness. Furthermore, just because archetypes excite me emotionally does not mean that, for example, dragons really do exist–although I will accept that they do exist in my mind, and are “real” in that sense. I wonder how Nagel reinforces his argument for objectivism, and what uses McGeary will put him to. I suppose I better read Nagel.
And it is with this highly existential and worrying philosophical conundrum, the separation between nature and consciousness, that I must leave you. After McGeary’s talk, it was all but over.
We had the MythCon Members’ Meeting, where we were allowed to give input on improving the conference for next year in Colorado. I said we should be given more time to travel between lectures; the schedule made it necessary to teleport between presentations, a luxury none of us had. Following this, we had the MythCon closing ceremonies and we sang the traditional MythCon songs “Chorea Magna” and “The Baby and the Bird,” a tribute to “the place that draws me ever / When my fancy’s running wild, / That little pub in Oxford / Called The Eagle and The Child.” Then it was checkout.
I hope you all enjoyed sharing in my intellectual journey these past four weeks. In an ideal world, these would have been published during the conference, but I was far too caught up in the moment to bother updating WordPress. I have no regrets, in the end. These copious ideas could lead on to a Master’s thesis or research paper, so long as I don’t rehash someone else’s thesis (I am actually giving a lot of thought to space, post-colonialism, and magic realism right now). In addition to all that I learned, I have plenty of new authors and thinkers to discover. McGill’s MacLennan library beckons.
Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.
Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.
The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.
The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).
Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.
The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.
Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.
John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.
Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.
Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.
Day 2 of MythCon began Saturday morning. After breakfast, I really came to appreciate how many people had come to Wheaton College. In addition to seeing many of the faces I saw on Friday, Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, was there.
Allow me to explain one thing about this guy: I first listened to his podcast years ago, likely when I was still at Dawson College in Liberal Arts, and from him, I first learned about Tolkien’s “On Faerie-Stories” and eucatastrophe. I had no idea previously how to read Tolkien through a critical lens, but listening to Olsen’s podcasts gave me the vocabulary. Only this was years and years before I got serious with my Honours thesis. I was listening to the podcasts for intellectual pleasure, but it planted a seed, and that seed grew. Pretty well, you could say Olsen indirectly inspired this blog.
After breakfast, our first order of the day: Scholar Guest of Honour Richard C. West gave his talk “Where does fantasy fit?” This question was the theme of the conference. West has been a Tolkien scholar since the 60s and his 1970 book Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist became a key source for subsequent bibliographies.
Tolkien associated “green suns” with faerie–two words that describe the nonexistent is what fundamentally lies behind the structure of fantasy. Opening with this remark, West proceeded to give an early history of the fantasy genre. He gave a catalogue of fantasy novels including Starplex by R.J. Sawyer (a sci-fi novel which contains a green sun), James Stevens’ Deidre, E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, Mervyne Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which inspired Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Throughout his talk, he attempted to show how fantasy and science fiction have always grown together as a genre.
Next was a panel talk: “College-level Tolkien: Teaching Middle-Earth Sixty Years Later.” Brian Walter moderated and Chip Crane, Verlyn Flieger, Kristine Larsen, and Corey Olsen were answering our questions. Crane talked about how he uses the films to teach the books: for example, analyzing why Peter Jackson made Arwen summon the river to wash away the Black Riders, rather than having Frodo make his heroic stand alone, as he does in the book. Kristine Larsen talked about using Tolkien as a lead-in to scientific discussion in the classroom–the early chapters describing creation in The Silmarillion are a text in point. Verlyn Flieger had been smuggling Tolkien into the classroom almost from the time the books first came out. She takes Tolkien as a war writer, no less relevant to modernity as Hemingway. In his playing with language, Tolkien is similar to James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. I’d have to read Joyce to confirm that.
Comparing Tolkien to the Modernists certainly does sound like a brilliant strategy–and possibly awarding as an MA thesis. But Tolkien studies does have its pitfalls–Olsen told us many non-scholars register for classes at the Mythgard Institute, expecting an easy saunter. At the same time as you shouldn’t dumb Tolkien down as a teacher, you must be careful and precise when dealing with his works as a scholar.
Eleanor Simpson presented an excellent paper after lunch, “Tolkien’s Evolution and Clarification in his Portrayal of Nature through Fantasy: Foreshadowing Critical Animal Theory and Anti-Speciesism.” Speciesism is the prejudice or bias towards your own species, versus the interests of another species (ducks, rabbits, trees, aliens). Referring to the theoretical work of Peter Singer, Simpson gave a structured analysis of The Hobbit and The Lord of theRings, describing how Tolkien represents animal, plants, and rocks differently in either book.
Although Old Man Willow in LOTR is a tree described as a menace, Treebeard is the epitome of the dignity Tolkien saw in trees. The author’s evolution, or progression, towards anti-speciesism is irregular, but he does become more of an eco-writer in LOTR. Whereas The Hobbit contains the skin-changer Beorn, a bear who is significant to the quest only because he has another form, a man, The Lord of the Rings contains an little-know episode with a fox. The fox approaches Frodo and Sam, who are sleeping in a forest clearing, sniffs around for food, and wonders what danger in the wood could have brought the hobbits to sleep in the open. He then runs away to quest for more food. The episode is striking because the fox is fully his own character, with his own motivation (to find food and determine if there is a danger in the wood). Although Tolkien anthropomorphizes the spiders in The Hobbit, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings is fully a spider, and Sauron’s peer.
Ryan Lawrence’s talk “Tolkien’s Creative Process: Retelling and Expanding Norse Saga in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,” rather than focusing on how the author invented his own stories, focused on a description of his use of source texts. After all, Tolkien is an “unoriginal” author. Or perhaps “traditional” is the right word: rather than inventing his own, new stories, he constantly returns to old, make that very old, texts.
In the Codex Rigius, there is a story of Sigurd, Germanic hero of the Volsunga Saga, but a “great lacunae,” or gap, has caused about 8 pages to become lost. Scholars have been puzzling over this lost piece of narrative. What story fit within this break with the text? Tolkien’s creative juices flow whenever presented with these kind of gaps, the empty, silent spaces of history. In his own treatment of the Volsunga Saga, Tolkien elevates the figure of Sigurd to Christ, redeeming the pagan Norse gods–perhaps paving the way to Aragorn’s character. To aid his work, Tolkien only had the translation provided by William Morris and Erikr Magnusson, whose text was in English couplets. Tolkien, a poetic translator badass, made his poem into alliterative verse to keep it consistent with Germanic style.
To close the day, I attended a final paper presentation by Rebecca McCurdy, “Comedy, Tragedy, Romance: A Study of Tolkien’s Eucatastrophe.” How does eucatastrophe fit in a genre that mixes comedy, tragedy, and romance? This was a presentation I knew I must attend, given McCurdy’s focus on eucatastrophe and her angle on genre, which was not dissimilar to the theory behind my Honours thesis. McCurdy–not to mention one comment made during the earlier panel–made me rethink my Honours thesis, a little.
Even in the happily-ever-after faerie-story, a comedy, eucatastrophe is constantly in a tension with catastrophe, or tragedy. So saying catastrophe cannot blend into a eucatastrophic novel is technically not true. Happy endings and trying times exist in all fairy tales. Besides, plenty of modern authors have written catastrophic fantasy that is not quite horror or absurdism–we call it dark fantasy. Furthermore, McCurdy challenged me further with her example from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, which highlighted how eucatastrophe needs catastrophe in order to become “joy beyond the walls of the world, as poignant as grief” (“On Faerie-Stories”). I may need to refine my thesis, or at least add a footnote as a disclaimer!
As if that wasn’t enough for a day, after dinner, we had a collaborative reading of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. Since I, alas, did not take any Old English courses, I could not read the original, but I did get up to read a translated paragraph where Beowulf does battle with Wiglaf, his ward, against the dragon.
Following this, I has a Sam Adams in the hospitality room and had a conversation with Corey Olsen. I also struck up rapport with Sorina Higgins, whose Twitter account @Oddest_Inkling is all about the Christian-occultist Charles Williams and his wild, genre-bending works of fiction. I also noticed my earlier acquaintance Mark Williams was up for an award–a Mythopoeic Award for his hilarious novel Sleepless Nights. The only way to describe it is as a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Remains of the Day. It is the most British book in the universe, and it is told from the perspective of King Arthur’s butler. (In the end, disappointingly, when the announcements happened on Sunday, Mark did not win. But then again, Neil Gaiman, who was nominated, did not win either. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker took home the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature.)
And so ended another brilliant day at MythCon!
Stay tuned to hear all about Sunday–and how my presentation went!
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.