Friday, March 31, 2017

ICFA in Orlando, 2017

I meant to post this about this a few days ago, but academic work swamped me. Last Tuesday, I returned from a wonderful 6-day trip to the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Two days were spent in travel, 3 in intense conferencing, and a final day was spent in Disney World -- our way of celebrating my dissertation defense. The conference itself was amazing. Highlights:

  • tons of free sf and fantasy books
  • a host of back issues from JFA
  • saw someone, completely unexpectedly, someone I had gone to my first undergrad college with -- way back in 1998.
  • heard a lot of fantastic papers. My favorites were both on one panel: G.P. Canavan proposed a new typology of fantasy texts, and Matthew Oliver wrote on 1st-person epic fantasy, which deserved kudos for mentioning Glen Cook
  • the panel I moderated on Robert E. Howard was a rousing success with a fantastic discussion afterward. Howard's got some major fans out there. My anecdote about reading Howard for the first time just as I was told I would be moderating the session was a big hit.
  • My own paper reading went quite well, although sadly only two people besides my wife heard it.
All in all, this was easily the most fun conference I've ever attended. Now, I just have to resubmit all my reimbursement paperwork to CGS (groan).

Sometimes half of life . . .

. . . is simply showing up, as they say.

Today marked the poster presentations for Scholars Week 2017 here at MTSU. My own poster (based off my dissertation, of course) managed to snag 2nd place. That's not quite the accomplishment it sounds, however -- there were only two graduate students from the Liberal Arts presenting, so I was simultaneously the 2nd best and absolute worst in my category. Still, the prize money remains quite hefty, setting me ever closer to my ultimate goal of acquiring Bill Gates-like wealth through academic labor. And it looks good for our English department, always a nice goal.

Monday, March 20, 2017

In Memoriam: Okla Elliot

I have sad news to report. A fella I knew from my MA program at Ohio State, Okla Elliot, passed away two night ago. That he was in his mid-30s is tragic enough, but he was also one of the most energetic intellectuals and academics I've ever known. Although he was around my age, here's a list of his accomplishments:

  • Ph.D. in Holocaust and Legal Studies
  • co-author (w/ Raul Clement) of a science fiction novel The Doors You Mark are Your Own
  • Published a book of short fiction called From the Crooked Timber
  • Published a book of poetry called The Cartographer's Ink
  • Published a translation of a book of poems by German author Jurgen Becker
  • Author of a well-received book on Bernie Sanders; Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide
  • Just finished another book on Pope Francis: Pope Francis: The Essential Guide
  • Co-edited an on-line magazine, As It Ought To Be, to which I once submitted a short article
  • Published a host of poems in various prestigious literary magazines, plus tons of reviews of books. And he also wrote opinion pieces.
  • Oh, and he was also working on a second doctorate in theology, having recently become a Catholic after life-long atheism.
I knew him only slightly from OSU and, although I  kept up to date on his facebook books, I had only interacted with him only a few times after graduation. Nonetheless, he was someone I admired, and he'll be missed. Had he had lived a few more decades, he could have become a major figure of American letters.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Dissertation Defense: 3-17-2017

Passed, one dissertation defense: "Rage and Recognition in Middle-earth: The Political Conflict Between Ancient and Modern in J.R.R. Tolkien."

Much gratitude for all of those who came -- about 10 people besides my committee, faculty members and friends -- it meant a lot that so many people showed up.

All that's left is some tweaks and fixing up the formatting, then this puppy goes to the MTSU College of Graduate Studies!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A look at the Zaleski's THE FELLOWSHIP: Literary Lives of the Inklings

Biographies and I have a vexed relationship. On one hand, they're probably the most accessible types of scholarly writing out there. On the other hand, if you're already decently conversant in the subject of the biography, the ratio of "new facts" to "time invested" starts sinking rapidly. Thus, while I'd been hearing about The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Phillip and Carol Zaleski for a while, I've deliberately avoided it. I already know Tolkien pretty well, and the other Inklings aren't that vital to my research. (Plus, my brand of lit crit doesn't rate biography very highly, although I won't ignore it.)

Anyway, I picked it up, and it's pretty good -- well-written with lively prose and story-telling. I'd been worried at first after seeing some snide remarks in a few on-line commentaries, but the book is generally impressive. All the Zaleskis' other books have to do with spiritual matters, and they even dedicated their book to Stratford Caldecott, a very prolific Christian writer (who once, incidentally, did a book on Tolkien, which I own). As such, the Zaleskis have a very Christian-centric interpretation of the Inklings, which might seem like an obvious angle to take, but a lot of the good criticism -- on Tolkien, anyway -- tends to be less interested in that aspect of their thought, thus making this book a good corrective.

Structurally, it's organized chronologically, so that multiple Inklings appear in every chapter, which gives a strong sense of the Inklings as a group evolving over decades. I'd quibble with some of their interpretations of various works (like I said, they hit the Christian angle hard, which means they sometimes exclude other possible interpretations) and I detected a few misstatements, but nothing that really ruined the book for me. Their writing is peppered with gems, and here's one I particularly liked:

  • “One could imagine Dorothy Sayers as an Inkling, but Joy [Davidman] would have never passed muster: her sex, nationality, ethnicity, and impending divorce (finalized on August 5, 1954) made her a walking catalogue of disqualifications” (429).

Incidentally, I looked up several reviews on The Literary Lives of the Inklings. Most were positive, but I thought the following typical in that it dismisses the Inklings because their intellectual concerns do not match the reviewer's own. Granted, I'm rather far from sharing many of their viewpoints, but such disagreements are hardly grounds for dismissing them entirely.

Here's the review. Elizabeth Hand writes in an article for the Los Angeles Times:

  • "Still, in our own multicultural landscape, it's difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the Inklings' countless heated arguments on Catholicism versus Anglicanism or the critical head-butting with F.R. Leavis. Their scholarly machismo made it possible for Lewis to do a very public volte-face from heartfelt atheism back to Christianity but never entertain the thought of a female Inkling."
Now that's just depressing.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Syllabus for 20th-century Fantasy Literature

So,  yesterday, I was complaining about the endless hours consumed on bureaucratic tasks that, at best, have marginal value -- i.e., the creation of upper-division syllabi in the hopes that some search committee might, maybe, possibly think slightly better of your application.** Anyway, against my better judgment, I really got into the whole syllabus-creation thing . . . and I ended up creating another syllabus for a 15-week course in modern fantasy literature.

Now, what kind of books should go on such a thing? Well, I'll exclude the 19th-century people (Dunsany, Morris), although I'd probably include them in a more comprehensive survey-level course. I'd have to have a smattering of sword and sorcery texts, given its influence, plus a sampling of the relevant Inklings. After that, I'd have to go with the various responses to Tolkien's influence. Overall, though, I want to avoid the massive tomes that generally mark post-Tolkien fantasy -- there's only so much you can cover in 15 weeks, and I can't justify spending 3 weeks having them read Game of Thrones or The Wheel of Time

Here's what I came up with:
  1. Howard, Robert E. The Essential Conan. Ed. Karl Edward Wagner. 1998.
  2. Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword. 1954.
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 1950.
  4. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937.
  5. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968.
  6. Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. [Book 1 of The Earthsea Cycle]
  7. Lackey, Mercedes. Magic’s Pawn. 1989. [Book 1 of The Last Herald-Mage]
  8. Cook, Glen. The Black Company. 1984. [Book 1 of The Black Company series]
  9. Pratchett, Terry. Jingo. 1997. [A Discworld novel]
  10. Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. 2015. [Book 1 of The Broken Earth Series]

Howard's essential not only for the S&S factor but because he lets me introduce the role of Weird Tales into the genre. Anderson's also follows up the S&S angle and, in addition, is a short work that cements the influence of northern heroic cultures on the genre.

Lewis and Tolkien are givens, and I picked their shortest representative works.

After that, though, you have to deal with how writers choose to respond to Tolkien. Beagle's work was a revelation of post-Tolkien fantasy, and Le Guin (besides being awesome) helps show the impact Tolkien had on children's fantasy. 

After that, my choices get a bit idiosyncratic. Lackey and Cook may not be considered "typical" or canonical fantasy authors, but they give the lie to the belief that 1980s fantasy was just Tolkien-clones. Lackey's book is about a non-straight male, so that let's us cover a Queer angle. (I also considered the feminism of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I just never warmed to her books myself.) Cook might be an even odder choice, but he wrote gritty fantasy before Stephen Erikson and George R. R. Martin made it a thing. Plus, Cook's a lot more original than may be commonly recognized.

Pratchet, of course, is a must, and he's one of the few successful people to do comic fantasy. Jemisin's book is arguably not even fantasy (unlike her earlier One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I didn't care for), but she's destined to become a canonical writer and was the only non-white fantasy author I could think of. Her book also is the only one on the list with a female protagonist, which is surprisingly rare. (The Golden Compass, perhaps? But then I wished to avoid too much children's fantasy.)

Anyway, this seems like a fun list. I kinda want to take this course myself.

**Wait, did I say "complaining"? I meant that I, uh, was noting the truth of Max Weber's claims about bureaucracy and rational systems that actually create irrationality. See, it's not whining if a major German theorist can be invoked.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tolkien Syllabus

When you're on the job market, one of the aggravating recommendations they give is to compose a number of upper-division syllabi for courses you might someday teach. In theory, having such syllabi makes you look more prepared. In reality, by the time you're ready to teach such classes (and assuming you ever get a job), you're probably older and wiser and have updated your pedagogy considerably. 

Anyway, regardless, I'm working on a Tolkien syllabus. There's a couple of good resources out there: a Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers website, as well as the recent book edited by Leslie Donovan, Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

There's any number of ways to do a course like this, but I decided on a single-author course that covers Tolkien's life and works. The major question is this: what works should one require in a 15-week course devoted to Tolkien? I came up with the following list:

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition, 2005. ISBN: 978-0618640157. (Any post-1994 edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1967. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. ISBN: 978-0547928227. (Any 3rd edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia.” Boston: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN: 978-0007105045. 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Smith of Wootton Major / Farmer Giles of Ham. New York: Del Rey, 1986. ISBN: 978-0345336064. 
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN: 978-0618057023. 
  • Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: Rev. and Exp. Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN: 978-0618257607

The Shippey book and the Carpenter biography seem like obvious choices to me, although I'd use them as supplements rather than spend on class time on them. Otherwise, my reason for the works by Tolkien are as follows:

LoTR and Hobbit are the obvious ones here. I'd skip The Silmarillion, not because it's not important, but mostly because it's not a very accessible text for undergraduates. Granted, Tolkien courses tend to attract Tolkien fans, but skipping S is my attempt at accommodating the newbies.

In terms of Tolkien's non-legendarium writings, "Leaf by Niggle," "Mythopoeia," "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," and Smith of Wootton Major all offer major pathways to Tolkien's life and way of thinking. (Plus, they're all relatively short.) My favorite non-legendarium text is actually Farmer Giles of Ham, but that's a bit harder to fit into the framework of Tolkien's life. (It might, however, potentially be an attractive way, given the mutual Oxford-connections, to introduce students what the heck Tolkien was thinking when he created Tom Bombadil.)

I'd skip Tolkien's major essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy-stories," partly due to time constraints. (Even so, I think OFS is a bit over-rated in terms of practical literary criticism.) I'd also skip providing much in the way of Tolkien's medieval sources. For one thing, I'm not a medievalist, and a teacher has to play to their strengths. For another, reading and discussing such texts as they deserve would take too much class time. Nonetheless, I'd probably supplement Tolkien's works with handouts of certain medieval works. Pairing "Homecoming" with The Battle of Maldon is an obvious choice, as is the Earendil poem and the sections of Beowulf that Tolkien lifted for Aragorn et al's approach to the king of Rohan.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Critical Theory (comics!) and LoTR

Came across an "existential comic" that focuses on critical theory and The Lord of the Rings. On one hand, the joke's pretty clever, so give them props for that. On the other hand, I think this is indicative of why scholars informed by critical theory have a tough time saying anything nice about Tolkien --the moral norms of the text, including all the social hierarchies, are precisely the kind of thing that motivated critical theorists to develop their theories (which, as you may have surmised, are critical of the status quo).

The comic may be found here: existential comics involving The Lord of the Rings.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


Furnish, Timothy R. High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth. Oloris Publishing, 2016. Print.

I ordered this book off interlibrary loan, highly suspicious that it might be one of those vapid, dreary productions for a general audience, but Furnish only needed two pages to win me over with his intelligence, insight, and assiduous scouring of the secondary literature. His book is a "political history" of Middle-earth, which means that he examines the structure and organization of the various political entities that mark Middle-earth. Much of this information, of course, can already be found in Tolkien's texts and appendices, but Furnish collects them together and situates them inside a theoretical context provided by contemporary political science and international relations. The result is a highly accessible, highly enlightening examination of how wide and varied Tolkien's sub-created polities actually are.

Between the Elves, Dwarves, Men, and so forth, there are "some 50 or so polities on both the Good and Evil sides, across racial/species lines" (57). One of the more interesting distinctions made isbetween state, pre-state, and post-state peoples. The state-organization is most common -- all the various kingdoms, such as Gondor, and additional polities, such as the Shire. Several groups, however, are organized at the pre-state level -- such the Men in the First Age or the Wainriders. Post-state peoples are relatively rare (as in Primary World history), but the Dunedain can be categorized thus.

In terms of "types of governance," Furnish provides the classic division according to Rule by One, Rule by a Few, and Rule by Many. He hits upon one of the key features (at least for me) of government in Middle-earth: the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy. Monarchy is never questioned as the de facto best form of government (just think of the title of Tolkien's third book in LoTR), and Furnish says, the "system of monarchy is never really questioned; nor, for that matter, is the right of the descendants of Númenor to rule benevolently over all of Middle-earth. . . . Thus, the Sub-Creator’s approval of monarchy is clearly reflected in his creation” (90). Nonetheless, examples of absolute monarchy are relatively rare. Aragorn, for example, delays entering Gondor partly out of consideration of the people. Hence, although Tolkien polities never reach the level of true democracy, there does exist an element of accountability in his various leaders -- and accountability to the people is a thoroughly modern political principle.

I also greatly enjoyed Furnish's account of international relations in Middle-earth. He offers a great account of First Age politics, which he describes as the domination "by Morgoth’s hegemony, which the Noldor attempted to counter via a balance-of-power strategy” (93). Incidentally, here's a nice description of the Elven kingdoms during the First Age:

“In a certain sense, then, Beleriand south of Thangorodrim was under almost total Noldorin rule and can plausibly be seen in toto as Elven feudalism writ large, with the various Elf nobility ruling their own realms under the overall sovereignty of Fingolfin [the High King] (and Thingol existing as a separate, Sindarin power base). Alternatively, since Maedros was Fëanor’s eldest son, his brothers can be viewed as ruling realms that were feudal ancillaries to him” (78).

In terms of Third Age international relations, Gondor is the hegemonic power as well as the best bulwark against the aspiring hegemony of Mordor (94). Furnish supports the interpretation, first offered by Tom Shippey, that “Middle-earth’s history, in terms of international relations, seems more reminiscent of medieval and even early-modern Primary World history than of ancient times" (95).

Overall, this is a worthwhile contribution to Tolkien scholarship (despite its production design as a coffee table book, which is one of the things that initially made me skeptical of its value), and I'll certainly be checking out Furnish's follow-up volume on the military history of Middle-earth.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The MythSoc Scholarship Awards 2017

I volunteered to be one of the (many) judges for this years awards in two academic categories, and I'm really excited about the long lists. I can't give any details, but I doubt it would violate any ethical standards to note that everything on the lists looks fascinating. Interlibrary loan just got my first round of orders, and hopefully they'll get here soon -- dissertation schmissertation, I can't wait to have at 'em. I haven't read nearly as many of the books as I thought I would have, but that's just part of the fun.

Updates for Scientia et Humanitas, Issue 7

I meant to post about Scientia a while ago, but I'm looking through my February entries and realize it must have slipped my mind.

We had our Spring deadline for submissions on February 10th. I was quite pleased to see that we had 10 new submissions from a host of fields (biology, economics, political science) to go along with our usual concentration of English department contributions.** That brings our yearly total up to 24 submissions, which greatly exceeds last years total of 18 submissions . . . and the year prior to that, before I was at the helm, had only 10 submissions. So, our efforts over the last two years have paid off.

Following the Spring deadline, our staff also really stepped up, and we managed to get all submissions reviewed within two weeks. Given that the wait time on submissions for most academic journals is usually measured in months, I think the Scientia collective earns itself another gold star.

Out of our new submissions, quite a few got mentally marked as "promising." Considering that we already had three articles from last semester accepted, revised, and run through copyediting, it looks like Issue 7 will be a nice full issue. The acceptance rate for this year projects to be about 40%, although that may fluctuate depending on how well the authors manage their revisions.

All in all, things are looking good!

  • ** Given that our editors and most of our staff are English majors, it's inevitable we get over-saturated with English submissions -- much easier to plead, cajole, and threaten the people one sees everyday for contributions, doan y'know.