Friday, June 24, 2016

Orcrist no. 4: and, Searching for Deborah Rogers

So, the Mythopoeic Society has a brand new member -- me. Yes, I know, I know, how could I have waited so long after being almost halfway done with a dissertation? Well, much like my membership in the Tolkien Society, which I joined so I could participate in the wonderful 2015 Tolkien Seminar in Leeds, England, I needed a boost -- I might talk about that later.

Anyway, they sent me an issue of Orcrist #4 (dated 1970) as complimentary to new members. Leafing through it, and I noted a number of interesting things:

  • Lloyd Alexander, author of The Prydain Chronicles, wrote a letter to the editor, Richard W. West. He praises LOTR as "one of the greatest masterpieces of literature." That shouldn't have surprised me, except it kinda does. I don't think it mentioned that on his wikipedia page when I was looking him up. The letter is especially intriguing because I'd read The Prydain Chronicles a few months ago. So . . . huh. A Tolkien connection!

  • Another letter to the editor, this time from Bonniejean Christensen. She refers to William Ready's book about Tolkien as "dreadful" and deserving a review entirely "condemnatory" in nature. Again, this wouldn't be noteworthy except that I just leafed Ready's book a few days ago, looking up a reference. So, double huh. Who'd a thunk it. What a co-winky-dink, as they say.

  • And third (and most intriguing): Orcrist #4 published the dissertation proposal of someone named Deborah Webster Rogers. This is interesting because, well, who'd ever think to publish a dissertation proposal? I admire her gumption as well, plus Mythsoc for being interested such a thing in the first place. Anyway, according to Orcrist, the proposal was accepted on 5-19-1970. Then I searched through ProQuest Dissertations and saw her dissertation published two years later in 1972.

So, naturally, I wondered, "What has happened to Dr. Deborah Champion Webster Rogers" (as her name appears on ProQuest)? Tales of grad school survivors always fascinate me. I couldn't remember ever seeing any published criticism from her, so what did she do? How did she fulfill her academic promise? Did she ever get her ideas out there?

A quick google search reveals a book co-written with her husband. The reference appears in a bibliography compiled by J.R.R. Tolkien and his Literary Resonances, edited by George C. Clark and Daniel Timmons. The book also appears on Amazon, and the citation is:

  • Rogers, Deborah Champion Webster, and Ivor A. Rogers. J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

But then the name of "Twayne Publishers" rang a bell . . . and, after a few searches, I discovered that my library has a copy, and that I'd browsed that book just two days ago. Basically, hunting down references for my current diss chapter, I leafed through every Tolkien book owned by my library. I instinctively distrust anything prior to 1981-1982 (the Letters and The Road to Middle-earth, respective), so I hadn't paid it much attention. Nonetheless, the mind boggles as scholarship comes full circle.

Rogers also did a brief bit for American Notes and Queries and an excerpt from something (presumably her diss) for Contemporary Literary Criticism. After 1980, though, academic searches don't pull up anything. Nor does google reveal anything else substantial. So, a little goose chase. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Cool Thing; Plus, a Review of a Bad Book on Fantasy

Well, a contributer to Scientia et Humanitas just asked if he could take me out to lunch as a "thank you" for my help in publishing his essay. I was pleasantly surprised and told him I'd be delighted to accept. He probably had to work harder than any of our contributers to make it into the journal. His paper was in economics, which none of us understood of course, but we got independent confirmation that his argument was sound. More significantly, though, his prose was littered with EFL mistakes. (He's originally from Bangladesh.) We made him go to the Writing Center 4-5 times, gave it to a heroic copy editor, and even then I had to meet with him several times to fix passages and hammer out the References page. All in all, I must have spent 10-15 extra hours working with the contributer to get the paper publishable. The ends, though, justified the meanings. I've never seen anyone so proud to get their academic work published, and he even got a Deans' Distinguished Essay Award, given to the top essays in the issue. 

I love working on an academic, even a small-scale one like Scientia.

Anyway, time now for the book review.

Went to the library last night intending to edit my Saruman paper, but putzed around reading a fantasy monograph I'd heard about instead. Turns out, the book's awful. 

Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of the Imagination. New York: Twain, 1997. Print.

An extremely superficial book aimed for the (very) general reader. He has an all-inclusive, reader-response definition of fantasy as “a fiction that elicits wonder through elements of the supernatural or impossible” (2). He lists nearly “all of the surviving literature of the ancient world” as rooted in fantasy, thus enabling his overview to cover all centuries and continents imaginable. He runs through a plot-description-heavy laundry list of all texts that include anything marginally non-natural, from Gilgamesh to Mahabharata. Not only does he ignore every cultural context in which these diverse work appears, he also ignores the historically shifting concepts of the “natural-supernatural” divide. Personally, it makes no sense to me to talk about “fantasy” literature until about the 19th-century. (C.W. Sullivan has the same critique in his review of the book.)

Mathews then turns to chapters on William Morris and Tolkien. Sadly, they focus mostly on plot summary and biography. Then he uses some Northrup Frye to give some theory to his observations. Frankly, I didn't waste much time with unpacking what he was trying to do there. Ultimately, he seems to believe that Morris’s heroes are “rooted to the human community, charged with the task of becoming his own god, overflowing with the need to explore individual and psychological potential,” whereas Tolkien’s heroes are “dislocated in a fallen world, charged with the task of renouncing the temptations of human power, surrounded by others clearly different . . . finding his hope in creating from his sufferings an immortal written word” (94)—meaning Frodo, of course. He also thinks Frodo foreshadows “the alienation of Donaldson’s wounded hero Thomas Covenant” (95).

He also covers Robert Howard and Ursula Le Guin, but I skipped those sections. Again, their emphasis on plot summary and biography overshadowed any buried interpretations he may have had of their work -- interpretations which, given the intended audience, were neither new or all that exciting to an academic.

Anyway, Mathews also thoroughly undermines himself by occasionally making absolutely ridiculous statements. I skimmed the rest of the book after struggling through the pedantic first chapter, so the following list is far from exhaustive:
  • "Unlike realistic fiction, fantasy does not require logic . . . to explain the startling actions or twists” (3): um, fantasy requires logic like anything else.
  • "Although those who heard or read the [ancient fantasy] texts may have believed them to be literally true, the artists who created them clearly placed significance on nonliteral metaphoric or mythic purposes” (6). Um . . . do you have any proof of this? No, of course you don't -- cuz it doesn't exist.
  • "Tolkien bestowed a kind of academic blessing upon fantasy” (54): just no. Academia mostly ignored his fiction (when they didn't outright hate it) until recently.
  • "Piers Anthony, whose fantasy novels, which combine Tolkien’s scale and inventiveness and his own style, humor, and theme. . .” (83): is he seriously putting Anthony in the same category as Tolkien? Worse, does he actually think Anthony has SCALE???????

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Issue 6 of Scientia et Humanitas published!!!!

Our latest issue of Scientia just came from the printer's. Mostly, it looks pretty good. A noticed a few things, though, which was aggravating. The cover page, which I never had a chance to proofread personally, used a semi-colon instead of a colon. Don't even know how that got in there, since I assumed the formatter just copy-and-pasted. Then I saw another typo in Nick's essay that I should have caught, but it's pretty obscure so I hope no one really notices.

But then I noticed that the headings for our biology paper were screwed up as hell. I know I did those correctly, and they're right in our latest .pdf version. That means that the headings got screwed up by the printer in some way. How the hell does that even happen?

I forgot to double-check the formatting for our economics paper, but I got my fingers crossed that the printer didn't screw up any of the special formatting.

Nonetheless, it feels good to see the issue in print. I look forward to working on Scientia next year.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Charles Williams is a Bad Writer

So, okay, a few weeks ago I reviewed two of CW's novels. Now, I gave All Hallow's Eve a  chance, and -- well, okay, let's be blunt. Over and above any eye-roll-inducing supernatural themes Williams may endorse, I've come to the conclusion that he's just an awful stylist. I was still on the fence with his first two novels. Although I didn't really enjoy either, I gave him credit for a talent for characterization, and I got through the relatively plotless Descent into Hell by skimming the long prose passages. But my patience finally hit a wall with All Hallow's Eve. I couldn't force myself to read more than half of it and, after two and a half novels, I feel confident in grading Williams's style from mediocre to bad.

The Good

  • He does have some lovely diction and phrasing
  • Strong mixture of sentence structures
  • I do like his deftness in interweaving literary and biblical references

None of that, however, overcomes . . . 

The Bad (and the ugly)
  • long, long, and long (and tedious) prose descriptions of mental states and so forth. Dialogue makes a book sound snappy, but Williams always subordinates his dialogue to these dense passages of prose.
    • In fact, these passages can get very confusing, the natural effect of skipping over small sections of text that contain plot-important details. Several times, I had to re-read sections just to find out how I got from Point A to Point B.
  • A truly weird mix of authorial omniscience (i.e., Williams's point of view) and focalizer (the point of view of some character, although usually as seen through the author's position"outside" the character's consciousness, though not always). He goes from one to another without any apparent consistency
  • Abrupt switches between focalizers. Sometimes the narration will be focalized through Lester, then abruptly it'll be focalized through Evelyn, then the evil magician, and so forth. Even if you're paying closer attention than I am, the effect can be jarring.

The absolute worst, however, is 
  • a fatal reliance on weak verbs

I had a hard time, at first, pinpointing why I found his prose so unreadable. After all, he does have some very nice rhythms to his sentences. Then I did something that I only do for my freshman students -- I went through his text and counted the "to be" verbs. Flipping open pages at random, I counted 10 on the first page, 12 on the next, and goddamn 18 on the final. Great Samuel Johnson's ghost, how does anyone incorporated 18 "to be" verbs on a page only 400 words long in the first place? Partly, that's Williams never writing "helped" when "were helping" will do, but you basically have to employ a "to be" as your main verb in just about every sentence. Even when he avoided the is's and the was's, he'd often use a weak verb such as "had" or "has."

I will never, ever read another Williams novel. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

REVIEW: Arda Reconstructed by Douglas Charles Kane

A review of Arda Reconstructed by Douglas Charles Kane. I did this a few years ago, only just thought to put it up here. Apparently some of Kane's criticisms of Christopher Tolkien caused a stir, which I can see -- although not wrong per se, they're more than a little unfair. Ultimately, my main criticism will be Kane's reflexive acceptance of the integrity of authorial "intention." Otherwise, though, I thought this a quite useful book. I've consulted it upon a number of occasions.

Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published "Silmarillion"(review)

            One of the more perplexing questions about J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion concerns how, and to what extent, Christopher Tolkien changed or advanced the work of his father during the editing process. Typically, there are two main camps of thought: either Christopher merely assembled Tolkien’s relatively finished notes into a publishable form or he wrote the bulk of material himself from what notes from his father existed. Thanks to the publication of Douglas Charles Kane’s Arda Reconstructed, Tolkien scholars and fans alike now have a basis for deciding the issue. Kane’s basic methodology is simple – he compares the text of The Silmarillion with the source material now available in the multi-volume The History of Middle-Earth (also edited by Christopher Tolkien). Kane argues that, while most sentences and ideas come from somewhere within Tolkien’s notes, Christopher exercised a heavy editorial hand that changed the organization, style, and sometimes even meaning of Tolkien’s mythology. A picture emerges of an editorial process both remarkably faithful and lamentably divergent from Tolkien’s authorial intent.           
Many previous works have traced the development and themes of Tolkien’s vast mythology. Most of the best insights come from Christopher via his comments in the works he has edited. Otherwise, the most exhaustive account of the development of the mythology comes from the essay by Charles Noad in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on the “The History of Middle-Earth” edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter. Also, The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, edited by Allan Turner, considers the key question on whether the original The Silmarillion has been superseded in the Tolkien canon by the publication of The History of Middle-Earth. Yet neither work manages to comment much on the actual textual choices made by Christopher during his editing process. This is precisely what Kane seeks to catalogue. To that end, every chapter and paragraph in the published 1977 text is cross-listed with its source material. All major changes are noted. Kane uses his prose to explain the tables and to amplify the significance of the changes he notes.
The introduction of Arda Reconstructed is where Kane outlines the design and methodology of his book. Three large sections analyzing the textual changes in The Silmarillion comprise the rest of the book. The first section handles the major editorial changes in the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta. Tolkien continually vacillated on whether his mythology should exist in a flat or a round world – a flat world tended to strengthen the power of Tolkien’s imagery, but he also felt that his mythology ought to be compatible with a scientific understanding. Christopher (rightly, according to Kane) chooses to make the text conform to a flat world, although this did entail excising many lines from the original sources inconsistent with a flat world.
            The second section of Kane’s work, however, on the Quenta Silmarillion, demonstrates most clearly Christopher’s editorial tendencies. Here, wide-scale editorial changes push “the limits of editorial intervention.”[1] Material originally from one chapter is freely juxtaposed with material from another. Occasionally, Christopher inserts text from different stories entirely, or removes text to place in another story. At certain points, Kane claims that Christopher’s changes run counter to what Kane deems to be Tolkien’s original authorial intent. One such change occurs in the third chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion. When the Valar summoned the elves to Valinor, Christopher removes an explicit statement from a later reworking of the original manuscript, to the effect that the elves’ summons is a profound error, albeit one of good intent. This sense remains in the published text – except Kane cites a piece of scholarship, unknown to Christopher in 1977, suggesting that Tolkien had decided the summons derived more from anxiety and fear than “good intent.” Without establishing the validity of the new scholarship – a difference exists, for example, between the last change in an uncompleted sequence and a final change – Kane rather confusingly suggests that such evidence “provide[s] a cautionary example of the limitations of comparing the published text with the texts printed” in The History of Middle-Earth.[2] Such a claim undermines Kane’s criticism that “Christopher’s edits appear to seriously change his father’s intentions,”[3] especially if the basis for that claim is scholarship of which Christopher could not have been aware.
            The third section, dealing with the Akallabeth, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, as well as the Appendices, is by far the shortest section of the three. These stories, according to Kane, contained the fewest changes. A short conclusions rounds the section off; here Kane outlines five major tendencies of Christopher’s editing. First, the editing process removed too much of Tolkien’s original philosophical speculation. Second, many sections were condensed or eliminated entirely, and this particularly harms the story of the fall of Gondolin. Third, Christopher had “virtually re-created” the story of the ruin of Doriath. Fourth, aiming at absolute consistency within the published text, Christopher had chosen to remove all references to the oral and/or written means of transmission of the many stories in the final published work.[4] Tolkien himself was by no means clear in his own mind about how he wanted such information conveyed, if at all; nonetheless, many of The Silmarillion’s stories appear as if ex nihilo.
On Kane’s view, however, the fifth and most egregious editorial intervention is the systematic reduction of the role of female characters – a reduction which makes the published The Silmarillion “a lesser work.”[5] Kane lists many examples, of which one will suffice. In the fifth chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion, Kane notes that the published text calls Galadriel “beautiful,” whereas the original source text – later published in Morgoth’s Ring and The War of the Jewels – call her beautiful and valiant.[6] Such a change cannot be explained through space restrictions. It seems minor and unnecessary. It is especially concerning to Kane because one of the more frequent complaints against Tolkien was that he ignored women in his writings, and the edits of Christopher Tolkien “unfortunately only serve to exacerbate those complaints.”[7] Yet Christopher had a clear opportunity to lay them partially to rest. What are the reasons for such an action? Careful as Kane is to frame his criticisms in the most diplomatic manner possible, he never raises the question. Some benign hypotheses might have served a good purpose, however. 
            Kane is also generally content to leave out theoretical questions, even those vital to his argument. For example, all five of his main criticisms center on the concept of authorial intention. What does authorial intention mean, however, in an unfinished work? However much we might pore over the mythology and believe we see the workings of Tolkien’s mind through the years, the fact remains that there cannot be any intention without finality, and Tolkien was infamous for never achieving finality, as least in his mythology, as his late (attempted) incorporation of a round world demonstrates. For my own part, it seems more reasonable to see The Silmarillion as a collaboration between Christopher and his father, rather than a misguided deviation from an original, authoritative, and non-existent text. In this way, we might avoid the even trickier question of the extent to which authorial intention – even when determinable – constitutes a methodologically sound guideline in a text so thoroughly accepted in the Tolkien canon. We might also note that Kane’s criticisms are permanently flawed in that he had no access to Tolkien’s actual notes. These will remain in Christopher’s possession until such time (if any) they are given to some official collection. Until that moment, we cannot with certainty know what unpublished notes or knowledge Christopher may be working with, even as careful as he is to make his editorial decisions transparent.
            Nonetheless, the carefully constructed tables cross-listing the text of the published The Silmarillion with its published source texts will be Kane’s outstanding contribution to the study of Tolkien’s mythology. Arda Reconstructed will be an excellent reference text for scholars and Tolkien devotees alike, just as Kane has claimed. Moreover, while Kane’s specific criticisms of Christopher’s editing cannot be wholly satisfactory, the documentation of the systematic reduction in the role of female characters in the texts might prove a valuable insight for extending Tolkien studies along feminist lines.

1.        Douglas Charles Kane, Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion (Bethlehem: Lehigh UP, 2009), 55.
2. Kane, Arda Reconstructed, 64.
                        3. Ibid., 63
                        4. Ibid, 252 - 253.
                        5. Ibid, 252.
                        6. Kane, Arda Reconstructed, 74.
                        7. Ibid., 26.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Glen Cook: Best Hack Writer Ever

While I've been hard at work on my Saruman chapter, I've also been reading The Instrumentalities of the Night by Glen Cook. Cook is, probably, my most favoritest hack writer, and I'd actually forgotten just how good he can be. I'm currently reading the fourth and final volume of the series. Interesting story about that. Two years ago, book IV earned the great distinction of being the only book I've ever "pre-ordered" -- and that includes the full hardcover price. Seriously, years went by with me on pins and needles as I waited for him to finish. Then . . .

. . . .then the book arrives, I get about 60 pages in, and . . . blah. I just put it down. It wasn't bad, but that was exactly the time when I'd begun studying for my Preliminary Exams. I was so excited to start that nothing off-list could entice me. So the book went to the shelf, and I let Cook simmer on the back-burner.***

Then, a few weeks ago, I found an out-of-the-way peer-reviewed fantasy journal, and I thought, "Huh. I still got an old conference paper on Cook, which I'd been holding on to until he finished the series. Now maybe I can re-vamp that paper, add some length, and get an easy publication out of it."

So that's what I plan to do: finish my Saruman chapter, then spend a week or two polishing up the Cook paper. In the meantime, I'm finishing up Book IV and wondering how I ever managed to put it down.

***See what I did there? Just a little academic blog humor -- "let Cook simmer on the . . . " Okay, well, maybe you had to be there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My First Dip into Charlie Williams

So, while I've heard about Charles Williams in relation to Tolkien, I'd never actually read anything by him. In fact, only last summer did -- as I read Carpenter's The Inklings -- did I begin to know anything about Charles Williams at all. Being famed for the "third Inkling" is a bit like being famed for being the third wheel.

Anyway, while Carpenter had a fairly positive portrayal, he couldn't well ignore Williams's intense interest in supernaturalism and the occult. That put me off instantly. I'm already at a disadvantage in Inklings studies insofar as I can't take their religious views as seriously as they did, but the marginalization of hocus pocus and superstition is one of the happiest byproducts of the Enlightenment, so Williams's major theme had absolutely no personal interest for me. But duty calls, so I finally read two of his novels: War in Heaven and Descent into Hell.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. Williams has a quite a bit of talent as a novelist. His handling of narrative in War in Heaven engaged me, and he created a highly distinct and vibrant cast of characters. And it's funny, too -- basically a detective story that adds a touch of farce to the main occult themes. For example,

  • “So through the English roads the Graal was borne away in the care of a Duke, an Archdeacon, and a publisher’s clerk, pursued by a country householder, the Chief Constable of a county, and a perplexed policeman. And these things also perhaps the angels desired to look into” (120).

Because of the occult, the novel could almost be considered "magical realism," although that tends to be more self-conscious a mode than War into Heaven allows itself, taking occultism very seriously. Also, of course, occultism has a lot of historical baggage that magical realism doesn't have, especially in the way Williams interweaves it into his sincere Christianity. It made me wonder about possible personal bias, though, so that genre relationship might be something to look into if time ever allows.

Alas, Descent into Hell wasn't nearly as good -- although comparative terms like "good" and "bad" are a little inapplicable here, considering how unique the novel is. Williams foregos the detective story in favor a more plot-less psychological/spiritual novel. I only got into the book about halfway through. I particularly liked the sections dedicated to the doomed Lawrence Wentworth, who conjures up a succubus-creature because of unrequited love for a younger woman.

Still, I found myself skipping broad swaths of the novel because of Williams's tendency to devote long descriptive passages to spiritual states of one sort or another. In fact, there's comparatively little dialogue, and I had absolutely no patience for the intricacies of such-and-such a spiritual condition or mental state, which really demands the reader share some of the author's beliefs about the importance (or existence) of such things.

Some observations:
  • Peter Stanhope the playwright (a stand-in for Williams himself) formed the philosophical core of the novel, but his sections became preachy, especially in the long speech-like conversations with Pauline where he expounded his views. 
  • Pauline's fear of the doppelganger was a nice touch. 
  • Lily Sammile, though, was less an antagonist -- after all, this isn't a plot-oriented novel that really requires antagonists -- and more an alternative to the doctrines proposed by Stanhope. Her presence was somewhat creepy, but not overly so. 
  • Overall, philosophical novels can certainly work well (Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy, etc), but this one seem to emphasize the philosophy over the novel aspect much too much.