Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading Lewis's Space Trilogy

 . . . and by "reading" Lewis's Space Trilogy, I mean I sure as heck tried to read his Space trilogy. I got through  1 1/2 of the books. You see, I'd made the conscious decision a few months back to work my way through the Inklings besides Tolkien. My Charles Williams project didn't go very well (except maybe for War in Heaven), so I was hoping to redeem myself with my Lewis project. I've actually read the Narnia series twice. I remember enjoying it during my first stint in grad school, back in 2007 or thereabouts, although I don't recall quite picking up on all the religious elements. They darn well punched me in the face during my second go-around, though. I re-read the series last winter break, and Lewis's didacticism and brazen certainly just got to me. But I get it -- I'm not the target audience.

Well, it was more of the same with his Space trilogy.

I did get through this one in its entirely, and it had some definite selling points. There's the Robinson Crusoe theme of Elwin Ransom being on the planet trying to survive. He meets some strange species, and so on, and so forth. Rather typical sf stuff, actually, but his final confrontation with Weston -- where he tries to "translate" grandiose notions of human space travel into the language of Malacandra -- is a minor comic masterpiece. I also tried to cut Lewis some slack on basic Mars conditions, since he was just using the known science at the time, but the dating certainly doesn't help. Still, the familiarity of the Crusoe theme means that OSP just wasn't that captivating -- although kudos for trying.

Oh gawd. First couple of chapters are intriguing, but the book goes downhill from there. Endless pages of description about anything are never good, and using them to describe an alleged paradise like Perelandra just exasperated me. Worse, the narrative action of the book centers on Ransom trying to refute a Devil-Weston through argumentation. According to wikipedia (which actually finished the book), apparently there's some chasing Weston around the planet stuff and whatnot towards the end, but reading straight-up theology would be more interesting than this thinly-disguised lighter fair. I mean, I appreciated some of  the arguments and questions Lewis tried to tackle, and he certainly made a noble effort in trying to make this sort of thing narratively interesting, but it's a bit like seeing Plato's dialogues performed as actual dramas -- it just doesn't work.

Final opinion on Perelandra: this sums it up.

Anyway, John Rateliff has some interesting comments on the Space Trilogy over on his blog, mostly about the proper reading order (in his view), so I'll link that here. Ironically, he posted that just when I was beginning my Lewis experiment, and it basically convinced me not to even bother trying That Hideous Strength.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 is full of Rainbows and Puppies

So, meant to post this a month ago, but it slipped my mind. After I published my essay on Saruman, Thrasymachus, and rhetoric, I also posted it to Then I forgot about it.

Well, I opened the site back up in late October, and two messages were awaiting me. One guy -- someone from the London School of Economics, no less -- complimented me on my "beautiful writing," which warms my heart. I certainly try, y'know. Another was from a faculty member in classics and world religions who thought my essay's introduction would be a great way to introduce Gen. Ed. students to standard issues from philosophy and rhetoric.

Pretty awesome.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Grumpy's Book Peddlers

Well, on this happy Gobble Day, I'm where I always am -- Starbucks, working on the dissertation. A few days ago, I helped my friend Sarah get a load of P.G. Wodehouse books she'd put on layaway at a used bookstore called Grumpy's. Apparently, she got quite a deal -- 40 Wodehouse (pronounced "wood-house," I was told quite vehemently ) books in hardcover, at 8 bucks apiece but 20% off.  So, mission happily accomplished.

What made the encounter intriguing, however, was how thoroughly it proved to me that I lived in a red state. The guy had a "Trump" sticker on his front door (this is a business, mind you!) and a "Jesus is Lord" sticker as well. That actually reminded me of another business in town that has had "Obama did not build this" painted prominently on the side of its outside wall. Well, I walked into the bookshop to the sound of Christian talk radio, which is unsurprising enough, but then I saw that Mr. Grumpy himself was doing an open-carry. Ayup -- a big ole' holstered pistol at his left hip. I'm not sure if used bookstore get robbed at a higher rate than liquor stores, but yeah, there it is.

Later, when I told Martina about the open-carry gun, she was mad that I didn't point it out to her when she was in the store. (She's European, you see, and the American love of guns is a source of both horror and fascination.) Apparently she wanted me to nudge and point and snicker like it was rhinoceros or giant turtle caught in a compromising position at the zoo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Deconstruction running amok!

Came across this facebook post I did about a year ago, well before I began the blog here. It's about one of the deconstructive postcolonial articles*** in the special issue done by Modern Fiction Studies back in 2004 or so. I was amused:

Oh, bother. I'm reading a postcolonial/deconstructive critique of LOTR, and I came across this sentence: "Thus, any critical 'naming' of Tolkien's work that this analysis may arrive at, if such a naming is indeed possible, will be double-voiced, traced with echoes, shadows, and split subjects."

Translation: "Read through the next 20 pages, and I double-dog dare you to find one single assertion in the whole piece. Seriously, just one proposition -- I'll give you a million dollars. If this entire article doesn't waste your life, then I've wasted my time in stringing together all these unrelated words and sentences."


The rest of the article actually turned out decently -- but only because the author didn't hold true to these initial qualifiying statements and actually came out with pretty clear position.

*** For the sake of the morbidly curious, the article is:
Battis, Jes. "Gazing upon Sauron: Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of the Postcolonial Optic." J.R.R. Tolkien. Spec. issue of Modern Fiction Studies 50.4 (2004): 908-926. Web. Academic Search Premier. 22 May 2015.

Monday, November 14, 2016

REVIEW (Part II): Special Issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3

This is the second part of my review of JTR's special issue on "Authorizing Tolkien" -- the first part can be found here. Not to keep anyone in suspense, but let me say that I really liked what this issue is doing. The following are all high quality articles and, although I have a special place in my heart for the piece by Thumma-Walls, every following piece certainly deserves a perusal.

Reid, Robin A., and Michael D. Elam. “Authorizing Tolkien: Control, Adaptation, and Dissemination of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Works.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-10. Web.

The editors' introduction. The issue of “adapting” a work, especially when the themes of that adaptation differ from the original author’s, is a highly vexed question. The editors argue that “one needn’t be alarmed by adaptations” (2) because we should see the act of “borrowing as one that has analogies—even if not perfect—in a long view of literary history” (2). The “translation paradigm” of adaptation which posits faithfulness to the original as the highest virtue is inadequate (5). Early work on Tolkien often tried to distinguish between fandom and Serious Literature, and the editors think this a mistake, especially as fans are the most important adapters. I certainly agree.

Young, Helen. “Digital Gaming and Tolkien, 1976-2015.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-22. Web.

This one's a straight-forward look at gaming in Tolkien. Although post-2000 discussion of digital gaming is common, “[g]aming and Middle-earth have been entangled in since the mid-1970s” (2 [sic]). Like 21st- century game connecting “their products with existing movie franchises,” 20th-century gaming did the same (5). “The Lego digital games and brick sets are illustrative of an overall shift in the franchise towards the family market which was initially marked by LOTR: Aragorn’s Quest (2010)” (14), a move into the children’s and family market which Young thinks “makes commercial sense” (14). Middle-earth was a great setting for these game because “the complexities of Tolkien’s world brought depth and meaning to games that either entirely lacked or had only very rudimentary graphics to help players’ imaginations” (19). Overall, Young's piece is a great example of "I would never write this, but it sure is nice that someone else did" genre of academic work, and it's a valuable reference for anyone interested in this subject

Brown, Adam and Deb Waterhouse-Watson. “Playing with the History of Middle-Earth: Board Games, Transmedia Storytelling, and The Lord of the Rings.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-32. Web.

Specifically concentrating on board games, these authors note that “a once relatively isolated hobby has become a globalized subculture” (1). Tolkien, the games, and Jackson have all given “rise to complex transmedia processes of narrative construction and gamer identification" (2). The major objects of study here for a“close analysis of the transmedia intertextualities” are two major board games, Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings (2000) and the war strategy game War of the Ring (2000, 2004).

The authors' central claim is that although the new narratives created during the course of game-playing never become canon, they nonetheless "offer different means to engage with aspects of the storyworld, from perspectives often not offered in more ‘conventional’ narrative modes” (25). For example, “[t]ransmedia storytelling facilitates considerably more diverse, flexible, and interactive frameworks within which textual meanings are generated than traditional notions of ‘adaptation’ have typically allowed (3). The major issue in the transmedia experience is how “board games are (pre-)constructed and players are positioned to identify with (or against) the characters within these narratives” (6). I found it interesting that the authors upheld the notion that an "implied reader" or "ideal recipient" is necessary in order to theorize about “gamer identification” (8) -- that's a classic component (and source of critique for) basic reader response theory. Also noteworthy, a significant conflict exists between the game controlling the gamer’s experience and allowing the gamer freedom to do what they like—which often leads to non-canonical things like elves fighting dwarfs. Indeed, the principle of cooperation exemplified by the Fellowship often gets undermined in competitive tabletop games. Knizia, for example, encourages cooperation, but other games do not.

I don’t play such games myself but, again, well-done piece.

Alberto, Maria. “‘The Effort to Translate’: Fan Film Culture and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-40. Web.

Alberto takes up the issue of fan-produced films -- and, considering the attitude of the Tolkien Estate towards fan works, I was surprised that there were any fan films. Alberto argues that fan “films are made primarily for the kudos of fannish audiences where commercial films are made primarily to generate cash, or revenue, for parent corporations” (28). That is to say, fan films want the respect of fan community, and they do not have the burdens of making profit or generating revenues—indeed, in order to stay within copyright, they highlight their lack of financial compensation. Fan films are better at direct “translation” of the source texts, meaning that they aim most often for fidelity, whereas commercial films “adapt” films because they must incorporate or delete those elements that could put their bottom lines at risk. (Tellingly, Alberto doesn’t claim that this necessarily makes fan films better, although it does earn her admiration.) “[F]an films are free to pursue the kudos approach of putting Middle-earth on film in a way that commercial films cannot” (8). Alberto specifically discusses the fan films Born of Hope (Kate Madison 2009), Hunt for Gollum (Chris Bouchard 2009), and The Hobbit (TolkienEditor 2015)—which is especially notable by simply paring down Jackson’s film trilogy to a single four-hour film.

One issue that Alberto might have pursued is the recent kerfluffle between Star Trek copyright and Trekkie fan films -- I would have been interested to see how those issues played out with Tolkien fan films. Still, I can't complain -- I certainly learned more than I ever thought I would about fan films!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

REVIEW (Part 1): Special Issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3

Still reeling from the shock and horror of last Tuesday, but academic blogs, as they say, go on. Issue 3.3 of The Journal of Tolkien Research was a special issue dedicated to adaptations (primarily game and popular culture adaptations) of Tolkien's work. I gotta say, I really liked the general concept of the special issue. Although I myself have very little interest in ever writing an article on popular culture, it is still something that can tell us a lot about audiences and how those audiences look at and view Tolkien. It's a very new area of research and maybe might help define the identity of JTR, carving out a critical space that Tolkien Studies seems unlikely to delve into.

Any critical comments I might have are very minor, and they relate to typos and some inconsistent citation.  (JTR's style guide for citation seems both crazy and unhelpful.) But I would like to start this review on what may be one of the best -- if not the best -- article on Tolkien written this year, although with the obvious caveat that the 2016 issue of Tolkien Studies has not come out yet. Because the article is so fantastic, I'll spend a lot of space on it.

Walls-Thumma, Dawn M. “Attainable Vistas: Historical Bias in Tolkien’s Legendarium as a Motive for Transformative Fanworks.” Authorizing Tolkien. Spec. issue of Journal of Tolkien Research 3.3 (2016): 1-61. Web.

One of the important unexplored areas of criticism on Tolkien, I believe, centers on examining Tolkien's use of historiography. My upcoming article in TS looks at this issue, and it looks like Walls-Thumma has had the exact same idea, although she attacks it from a completely different angle. The first half of her essay is the most intellectually stimulating -- DWT looks at the issue of historiography in the published Silmarillion in-depth, ultimately claiming that most of the extant text gets filtered through Pengolodh's perspective. 

The second half is less relevant for my own research interests, but nonetheless well-thought-out and significant. Here, DWT looks at how fan fiction responds to the issue of historical bias. The correlation -- using real honest to goodness empirical evidence! -- isn't as strong as DWT hoped, but it's still there. Perhaps the most surprisingly revelation to me was that 85% of fan fiction is produced and consumed by female fans.

First Half

Walls-Thumma begins by quoting E. H. Carr’s well-known statement that the first question history readers should ask themselves “should not be with the facts it contains but with the historian who write it” (qtd. in 1). What comes next is a systematic analysis of historical bias in Tolkien’s legendarium followed by a discussion of fan fiction, which often attempts to handle this bias. 

For the fans, the big question is the degree to which they’re free to deviate from the published authorized texts, with people taking the range of options from absolute freedom to nearly none. The central question is one of authority, and “Tolkien fan fiction writers differ in the amount of deviation from the source text they are willing to tolerate in a successful Tolkien-based fan fiction” (3), which affects the forums in which they can share their work on-line.

For my money, the best discussion comes about historiography. As in ancient sources, the pseudohistory of The Silmarillion ascribes single causes to events (4), and these “singular causes mimic the approach taken to history by ancient writers and indicate the possibility of historical bias” (4). Her method for detecting bias is as follows:

  • (A) Subjects either lavishly treated or skipped over entirely suggest positive or negative bias, respectively.
  • (B) Descriptions of characters or events that defy credibility, either due to lack of first-hand knowledge or positive/negative emotional coloring. In such cases, “the historian has not achieved the level of objectivity needed to rise above his personal and cultural preferences and is using historiography to manipulate readers’ perceptions of those subjects to better align with his own” (4).
    • (Incidentally, I employ both these methods in my own article on The Silmarillion.)

 In particular, although Alex Lewis argues for the House of Elrond as a source of bias, DWT argues for Pengolodh from Gondolin as offering the primary vantage point. Considering that Tolkien alternately ascribed various texts to Rúmil or Pengolodh, this shows “that Tolkien deliberately considered and assigned which loremaster was most appropriate for each text in his pseudohistory” (6). As a man in a hidden, xenophobic realm, Pengolodh must have come by his sources second-hand, usually through oral tradition. Since he also relied on a relatively autocratic ruler like Turgon, he likely favored Turgon’s points of view — hence, “Turgon’s staunch hatred of the House of Fëanor would have created an intellectual climate that did not exactly encourage looking too sympathetically upon the motives and actions of the Fëanorians,” and it’s doubtful that Pengolodh would have risen high “in Turgon’s esteem for challenging the status quo” (11). 

Thus, also, “Living in an isolated community that was highly partisan on the subject of certain people, Pengolodh was steeped in a worldview that attributed many of the struggles of the First Age to the greed and pride of Feanor and his sons and the downfall of Gondolin to a series of unwise and malicious decisions by Aredhel, Eöl, and Maeglin” (11). We are thus “left to conclude that most of that history was compiled by a loremaster who directly witnessed almost none of it and relied upon sources who corroborated his deep cultural bias” (12).

Next, DWT counts the number of times characters get mentioned by name in the text -- again, a great means of detecting bias in my opinion. She finds that only “one of those top ten slots is held by a member of the House of Fëanor: Fëanor himself” (13). She agrees with Lewis's observation about Fingon's deeds that the “surprisingly small amount of attention [given to him] in the texts” is due to his close affiliation with the House of Feanor. Pengolodh also gives overwhelming attention to “the three hidden realms: Gondolin, Doriath, and Nargothrond” (15) and also Nevrast, which is only surprising until we recall that that is Pengolodh’s birthplace. 

Also, although the text makes clear that the Fëanorians took the most dangerous lands of Beleriand, the ones most likely to be invaded by Melkor, the “[h]idden cities that Pengolodh could not have visited himself earn sumptuous descriptive detail while Fëanorian realms that admitted high levels of traffic go unrepresented” (16). 

“For the sons of Fëanor in particular, the blank space in the text that represents much of their existence in the history of the First Age only serves to throw into relief their malicious deeds at the end of the First Age . . . and nullify their positive contributions to the history of the First Age” (16).

Second Half

Fan fiction, therefore, tends to incorporate significant point of view shifts. DWT looked specifically at Silmarillion-based fan fiction, and then she conducted a survey of Tolkien fan fiction readers (yes, real empirical research!) (1,052 total valid participants). The most astounding discovery, at least for me, was that 88.5% of these readers identified as women. According to the information, few identified “correcting [negative] historical bias” as a motive, but she found a like-motive expressed in the answering of other survey questions. “That three archives—including the two archives between the most Silmarillion-base fan fiction—showed moderate correlations between historical bias and a character’s popularity suggests that, while certainly not a universal for all Tolkien fan fiction writers and communities, historical bias does motivate the creation of fan fiction for many writers” (34).

“David Carr’s exhortation to use historiography to give voice to people marginalized or erased by history is very similar to the use many Tolkien fan fiction writers make of historical bias as an entry point for their stories” (36). Henry “Jenkins’ theories presented fanworks not as an act of trespass but of shifting authority from the author alone to including readers and fans as well” (36). Given the gender composition of fan fic writers, many of these writers tend to be aware of gender bias most of all. “When a male characters garners the favor of the narrator, fan fiction writers tend to lose interest in his character. This is not true of women characters" (40). Overall, “the presence of historical bias in the texts sanctions the shift of authority from the author (and his fallible narrator) to the fan” (41).

All in all, a brilliant essay.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Tolkien and Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha

Recently read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), mostly for reasons of the (distant) Tolkien connection. Tolkien read it, and liked it, and apparently Longfellow earned some inspiration from the meter -- trochaic tetrameter -- of the Finnish Kalavala. John Garth, after noticing the similarities between the death of Smaug and the death of Megissogwon, already did a nice piece on the connections,** and I don't really hope to add anything major beyond a few observations.

In the Letters, the only reference to Longfellow is indirect -- when Tolkien compared his philology to Lewis Carroll's fascination with math, he makes an interesting remark. With characteristic self-deprecation, he says that "this stuff of mine is really more comparable to Dodgson's amateur photography, and his song of Hiawatha's failure than to Alice" (Letters 22). The poem Tolkien is referring to is Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing," a comic little poem that Carroll deliberately modeled after Longfellow' poem. There's no real reason why Hiawatha is the main speaker, though -- perhaps the image just struck Carroll as amusing? Anyway, Tolkien evidently didn't like the poem, and it isn't great poetry, but I thought it was fun, if light.

Anyhow, back to The Song of Hiawatha.

It's actually quite boring -- I read it for several nights in a row just before going to sleep, and it worked like a charm. Things I liked:

  • the trochic tetrameter is quite melodious, as well as the well-placed use of anaphora (beginning consecutive sentences with the same word). It's like reading two hundred pages of a babbling brook.
  • I enjoyed the Native American names much less than Tolkien did (a bit too alien), but I did quite appreciate all the little tidbits of material culture (wampum, deer-skin) and nature (birch, cedar, sandstone, squirrel, rabbit) that Longfellow worked into the poem. 
But here comes the hammer:
  • It's basically a series of loosely-connected legends which, beyond their Native American subject matter, are quite unremarkable. I.e., we get Hiawatha's miraculous birth, his famous deeds, descriptions of his famous friends, the courtship of his wife and her eventual death, and so on. No one scene is all that memorable.
    • By the way, Longfellow did brag that he could give chapter and verse for all these legends, but I couldn't help feeling that this poem was much more American than it was Native American -- as might be expected from a cultural outsider writing about a different culture which he knew only through books and interviews. The poem ends with Hiawatha getting Christianized, for Pete's sake.
    • Likewise, it seems that the criticism that Longfellow cemented the "noble savage" stereotype in the American imagination is pretty sound.
  • No truly memorable lines -- nothing that leaps up as quotable. 
  • Longfellow's interest in psychology is sadly lacking. This is entirely a "plot-only" poem. The major interests here are the legends, the names, nature, and Native American material culture. A number of myths (this is why this is such-and-such) round out the picture. 
  • Oftentimes, Longfellow's use of imagery can be quite abstract. That is, we get generalized meadows and waterfalls, but nothing that suggests from he derives his detail from places he ever visited

All in all, I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm finished with it. :)

** Summary of Garth's key points. (A) A similarity in the two death scenes. (B) the name Wanōna used by Tolkien in his translation of the Kalavala is similar to Longfellow's name for Hiawatha's mother, Wenonah. Both have similar personal qualities. (C) Loved the strange names in Longfellow, (D) As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1912, there was a play performed called The Death of Minnehaha, who was Hiawatha's wife, so Tolkien probably encountered parts of the poem performed live.