Thursday, December 18, 2003
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Andrea Harris in this entry points out a number of flaws in some superficial 'Christian' readings of Tolkien. She also mentions that she wrote a paper on Christian themes in Beowulf, and one of her commenters mentions a hostile reception by Anglo-Saxonists of a Christian-focused Beowulf translation.
I thought it might be useful to mention what exactly we do know about the Christianity of Beowulf and what Tolkien thought about it, since I've read more than a few things on the web that are, well, confused.
Beowulf the poem, as we have it (i.e., in its manuscript form, not some postulated earlier version), is definitely written by a Christian. However, there is not a single reference to Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, or the New Testament, which is very strange for an Anglo-Saxon Christian poem. The only real proof of a Christian (as opposed to a general monotheistic) poet is the inclusion of Cain and Abel (and, strangely enough, "Cain" is spelled wrong both times the word appears in the manuscript. More on that in some other post).
As Tolkien points out, the references to God aren't to Christ or specifically the Christian God, but to The Ruler, The Lord, The Measurer, etc. Why would a Christian poet, who knew about Cain and Abel, do this?
Tolkien's explanation has never been bettered: the poet was a Christian, but he was setting his story back in the pre-Christian past. He knew that the people in his story weren't Christian, but he also believed that Christian truths explained the way the universe worked. So he can say that The Ruler determined the outcome of a battle even if he knows that Beowulf wasn't Christian himself.
Now part of the brilliance of this interpretation is that it can't really be disproved by any one example. Tolkien even notes a few places he thinks that the poet has failed in tone (when pagan Hrethel is said to have "chosen God's light", i.e., died, Tolkien says that the phrase has "escaped from Christian poetry). And Tolkien thought that lines 175-188, which sound, to the ear familiar with Anglo-Saxon poetry, much more like a Christian homiletic piece than do any other lines in Beowulf, had been added to the poem at a later date. So the idea of a poet who is deliberately writing a kind of 'historical fantasy' is still preserved.
Now I think it's not a great stretch to suggest that Tolkien was doing much of the same thing in his work. If you look at the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, which is in Morgoth's Ring in the History of Middle-earth, you see Tolkien suggesting that men, back in the First Age, had a kind of prophesy that one day the creator would enter his own creation for the purpose of healing it. That day hadn't happened yet, so Tolkien was setting his Middle-earth stories before the incarnation. Thus he doesn't mention Christ, etc. Just like the Beowulf poet.
Andrea mentions Christian themes in Beowulf, which is a slightly different kettle of fish. I think Tolkien, and many scholars, would argue that the poet put those Christian themes there, but you actually don't need that hypothesis if you're a Christian who truly believes: since in the Christian worldview, the world works in a certain way, you'd expect to see those workings be universal. Similarly, physics is universal, so someone who knows no physics could describe, say, the behavior of a spring and we'd recognize the phenonemon. Thus if someone described, say, mercy, 'sapientia and fortitudo,' forgiveness, etc., a believing Christian could say that these fit into the way the world works.
As for the Beowulf poet, I think that he was a Christian looking back on the pagan past. Actually, I think he was a tenth-century monk revising an old and received poem, but that's the kind of assertion that starts bar-fights (or at least beer-throwing) among Anglo-Saxonists. And as for Tolkien, I think that his Christianity could not help but influence the world he created, but that looking for a didactic Christian message that was somehow hidden in the Lord of the Rings is perhaps not the most critically useful approach.
Also: Tolkien discovered Finnish in college and he never became fluent in the language, though he used its phonology as a basis for Quenya.
Also: I'm going to be talking about Tolkien and WWI on National Public Radio's "The Talk of the Nation;" we're taping tomorrow, so I'm guessing it'll be broadcast on Friday. I was on WBUR today; link when I find one.
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Just got back from the Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. Over 2000 people, about 75% of them in full costume, attended. Over 100 showed up one afternoon to hear me talk about Beowulf. It was a great experience, more professionally run than all but the ISAS-level conferences, in a beautiful location and with wonderful people. I wish I'd been able to stay longer. Anthony and Jessica -- thank you for inviting me. I got to meet some great people, including my favorite Tolkien illustrator of all time, Ted Nasmith, and I was able to bring the importance and beauty of Beowulf to a whole new audience. Great, exciting stuff.
After the reaction to the OE reading, I definitely need to do the recording of the Beowulf MP3 sometime soon (my idea is to record the entire poem and then allow it to be dowloaded in sections; I'll be talking to the college radio station.
Did some interviews with Christian Science Monitor, WBUR, and a few others today and have an NPR interview on Talk of the Nation tomorrow between 2 and 3. Will post more later when I dig out from under the avalanche of email and pre-Christmas (and pre- seminar students over for dinner) work I have to do. And I have to figure out how a baby grand piano makes its way up to the second floor tomorrow....
Friday, December 12, 2003
I normally try not to feed the trolls, and there's more trolling going on over here, but I'll take one more swing at this annoying, shallow topic.
I've previously shown, in this post, that the charge that Tolkien was personally a racist is completely contradicted by biography and published writing.
But there are actually three different charges mixed in with the tiresome 'Tolkien is a racist' attack. The first is the intentional, discussed in the links above. The second is only a little harder to counter: it's that the work itself is racist because readers can make links between, say, orcs and African Americans (my African-American wife and daughter have, well, strong feelings that this comparison is not polite or accurate). I think it's pretty simple to show the origins of the orcs as tortured elves, their lack of humanity, and, most importantly, this distinction from the Southrons, who could be matched up with people of African descent, shows that the case for orcs=black people is pretty weak.
Likewise the foolishness about the blond, blue-eyed overlords doesn't quite work if you actually read the books. Almost all the elves are supposed to be dark-haired and gray eyed (Galadriel is a major exception due to her ancestry; more on her later). Likewise the "high men" of Gondor. It's the "middle men" of Rohan who are Nordic blonds. [n.b.: there are some complexities here that I'll deal with in a moment].
But there is a third thread in the racism charge that is harder to deal with only because it is cast an an irrefutable charge: Tolkien is racist because he posits entire races of creatures that can only be dealt with by genocide (orcs; trolls). Q.E.D., Tolkien is promoting the genocide of 'inferior' or 'evil' races.
I think Tolkien obviates this problem by making the evil 'races' exist without true free will. That is, they came about either via the torture of elves or, and this is the latter, more developed explanation in the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, they proceeded from Morgoth like icebergs calving from a glacier. The amount of evil in the world remained the same, but Morgoth reduced himself by breaking off dragons, orcs, trolls, etc.
The real source of new evil in Middle-earth, then, is from Men who can be converted to evil through the mis-use of their free will. Since they are Men, the same 'race' as the other men, racial genocide isn't an option.
There are still problems here, because Tolkien ended up, through the power of literature, giving the orcs more "personality" than their metaphysical natures warranted (see Shippey, "Orcs, Wraiths and Wights" for the best discussion). All of a sudden it's not so clear cut that exterminating them is morally unproblematic. But that's a good thing about literature: as Iris Murdoch said, it forces you to admit that other people really exist. Frodo says that he pities even Sauron's slaves, and he is right to. But that doesn't mean that they don't have to be killed when they are a threat.
Thus I would say that if you want to read the Lord of the Rings as advocating genocide, I can't stop you. But I think your reading is shallow and uninformed, and I wonder at the kind of experiences of life and literature had by people who seem so intent on applying theories (political or otherwise) that they miss the great and beautiful individuality of the works that they are not really reading.
[*the complexities of the blond overlord class in elves comes because while 90% of the Noldor and Sindar in Middle-earth are dark-haired, the golden-haired strain of the House of Finwe comes from the Vanyar, the "higher" kindred of the elves. Feanor is jealous of Fingolfin, his younger half-brother, in part because half of Fingolfin's blood is from the "higher" caste among the elves. Thus, while there aren't any real "blond overlords" in the Lord of the Rings, you can find them in the Silmarillion (though the Vanyar pretty much just sit at the feet of the gods and sing; not much overlording for them...).]
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
In the final meeting of my senior seminar on Tolkien and Le Guin, I asked students to make some kind of judgment about the value of fantasy literature, particularly these two authors. Now these students are senior English majors; they don't just read fantasy by any means; they've had a full complement of courses in the traditional canon and beyond.
Yet to a one, they thought that Tolkien belonged right in with all of the other great writers they had studied. "He's trying to do different sorts of things than they are," one said. "So he set himself some major aesthetic goals, and met them. Isn't that the definition of a great writer?"
Another student talked about Tolkien's heroes: "We've got all of these books, hundreds of books, with anti-heroes or failed heroes: Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Beloved, Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye... but can the anti-hero even work when you haven't had a regular hero? And is there even a regular hero in Tolkien? Aragorn, maybe, but Frodo and Gandalf really save the world (one directly, one through inspiration), and neither of them fits the hero template. If Normal Mailer is a genius for coming up with an anti-hero, isn't Tolkien more of a genius for coming up with a hero without supernatual powers who also isn't an anti-social, violent, destructive, self-involved jerk?
I love my students.
Friday, December 05, 2003
(or, why do so many people think English professors are full of crap, part II)
Here is Part I
At the end of the previous post I put the suggestion that simply rejecting PoMo theory folks as being full of it was possibly not the most productive intellectual stance one can take. As Gary Farber notes, it's really easy to take a quick step from thinking that the disparagement of Tolkien by "high culture" literary people is stupid to arguing that the only good writing is genre fiction or that all literary judgments are just bogus snobbery. I don't think that's right.
First, I categorically reject the idea that genre fiction can't be good literature. Such a stance is akin to saying that sestinas can't be good poetry because that form is inferior/dated/impossible. Almost any chosen form, I think, could produce great literature and it would be great in part because of the ways that it interacted with the conventions of the genre (and there are just as many conventions -- and those just as unreal -- in 'standard' literature as there are in fantasy).
So the real question is, how does one go about recognizing good literature in fantasy? You can go with the gut instinct approach, or you can develop detailed sets of rules and definitions and see if a work fits them, or you can say "who are you to judge?" But whatever approach you take, you will be judging the literature, if only in the sense that you'll choose to ration some of your 2 billion seconds of life to reading the work.
The approach taken by mainstream critics could be summed up as: 'the best fantasy literature is that which is closest to mainstream literature in as many particulars as possible,' and this would explain the favorable treatment given to 'magical realism' of Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Llosa, Calvino, Rushdie, etc.
Another approach might be to try to determine which works within the genre create the most powerful aesthetic effects. One can do this simply by solipsistic reporting (it gave me goosebumps) or by sociological survey (x number of people felt this way -- often oversimplifed as x number of people bought this book). Or you can take some kind of aesthetic theory and figure out how the book fits with it.
Finally, you could determine how closely the book fits in with other books in the genre and how influential it has been on other authors.
Tolkien enthusiasts who've stuck with me this far will see that each of the approaches has been applied to Tolkien. He's like a bunch of mid-century authors (Golding, T.H. White) who used fantasy to argue big issues of good and evil; he makes medievalists get goosebumps when he tackles cruces from Beowulf; many nerdy people like me and other super smart folks love/buy Tolkien, therefore he's great; a work of fantasy should say X, and Tolkien says X....
I think in fact just about everyone who is a good critic ends up going with the gut feeling and then constructing an ex post facto explanation for it along the other lines. Only really tedious, programmatic people approach the texts with the theory in hand, waiting to see how it fits (the theory might be unconscious in everyone, but when it's right out there, you're setting up for a boring article).
If English professors better explained that many of us are trying desperately to give some kind of logical, rational, and perhaps even scientific explanation for our gut instincts and prejudices, I think we'd get more sympathy from normal readers who haven't had their brains damaged by grad school. But, sadly, the approaches that I've been reading toward Tolkien by non-Tolkienists (who have every right and responsibility to comment) have tended to sound like pronouncements on high from the Gods of Good Literature. Those Gods are dead. In the age of the internet, I think you have to convince people rather than trying to bully them into doing what you think is right (that's the purpose of syllabi, captive audience classes, and students who desperately need your class to graduate... heh heh heh).
Follow up post will try to get to some specifics of Tolkien's work that, IMHO, substantiate the idea that LotR is great literature.
Thursday, December 04, 2003
It's hard to comment in detail without spoiling the movie for others. But there's an interesting literary question raised by the fact that so many Tolkien enthusiasts among my students immediately wanted spoilers. If you know the books well, wouldn't spoilers be the last things you'd want? You already know how the story will turn out, after all, so the only real suspense would be how the director has adapted the story.
Unfortunately for me, I think that's how I watched the film: constantly thinking about what and why Jackson cut or added what he did. I don't think this is a particularly good way to watch a film, and I'm glad that, for whatever reason, I did it less with RoK than with FoR or TT and thus enjoyed RoK much more (and I think many Tolkienophiles will feel the same way).
But I wonder how important 'suspense' is in LotR, anyway. I first had the books read to me when I was about five years old, so I can't really remember whether I was terrified, say, at the Tower of Cirith Ungol (though I'd guess I was), but the 40 or so times I've read LotR since then seem to prove that, for me, the great value of the book isn't in surprises in the plot (or, Tolkien's illusion is so perfect that one re-lives the story again and thus gets all the old feelings even though the twists are known).
Since so many people do re-read Tolkien frequently (an amazing fact, given the length of the book), it's clear that there is something about Tolkien's work quite significantly different from most literature. It would be useful to figure out why this is so, and I have a guess at a partial explanation for the phenomenon.
Tolkien very skillfully withholds information in LotR so that the reader experiences the story (in terms of information) much in the same way as the mediating characters--the hobbits (except for the brief shift to the point of view, in 3rd person associated pov, of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli). For example, Strider appears out of nowhere and slowly develops as a character; even after Weathertop Sam isn't 100% sure of him. The hobbits are surprised by the landscapes they enter and the characters they meet. They don't have all the background until the Council of Elrond, and even then the whole history of the Ring is really only sketched in. The hobbits almost never know more than the reader, and thus the reader's consciousness must be, in some way, similar to the imagined consciousnesses of the hobbits: both are confused at the same times, startled at the same times, etc.
The delivery of information is one aspect of the films that I disliked a lot: everybody knows everybody else before they've met. Aragorn is famous; everyone is clear on the map, and when things aren't perfectly clear, Gandalf spells them out in somewhat tedious detail. Obviously in the films Jackson couldn't spent lots of time on introductions, getting to know characters, etc., but that one aspect of the presentation makes the films a lot more like your classic, cliched Conan-type fantasy ('the treasure is in the cave of Gror guarded by the beast of Snirga behind the mountain of Ploth, etc.' speech that cliched fantasy characters always give).
Critics have written a lot about the 'illusion of depth' in LotR (and now that we have Silm, UT and History of Middle-earth, it's clear that the depth wasn't really that much of an illusion!), but lots of subsequent fantasy has elaborate backgrounds. The difference is, Tolkien had the ability to hoard his information, to release just enough that the reader could follow things without being overwhelmed by characters who know everything (and those characters, like Gandalf, Elrond, and to some degree Aragorn, who do know everything are rather taciturn about it). This deft touch with information is one of the many things that make Tolkien so much better than his immitators, and make the job of a film-maker so much more difficult. [update: fixed stupid typos].
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
I saw Return of the King today thanks to some very generous support from a Wheaton alum. I won't give a full review, because I don't want to spoil things for people who have to wait until the middle of the month, but let me say that as a movie this one manage easily to top the other two. I could come up with all kind of picky criticisms (and I have some larger ones, as well), but on the whole this just blew me away--and I actually quite disliked Two Towers. The sheer spectacle, the visuals, the landscape, the special effects (seamlessly integrated)...
The audience was made up of jaded film critics and theater owners, and had only about 50 people in attendance. But spontaneous applause and cheering broke out three times and I myself got misty in more than one place. That might be the film just reminding me of the great scene in the novel, but I still give Jackson some props for getting the emotions right.
Ok, you probably want me to wear my Tolkien-critic hat: the treatment of Denethor is even worse than that of Faramir and shows that the critique of Tolkien for having 'black and white' characters is incredibly off the mark. Tolkien treats Denethor with great subtlety; Jackson does not -- it's over the top, in fact. The editing of the movie is odd: some things are very rushed, while we get image after image of catapults firing, many slow motion scenes, etc. On the other hand, no one is paying me 300 million dollars to have a deft hand in building tension, so perhaps there are reasons.
My critique about Middle-earth seeming too small is even more accurately applied to this movie, but it is already 3 hours and 15 minutes long, so I don't think more travelling scenes would have worked. At times I felt that the pace was breakneck and yet Jackson was leaving so much out, and I realized that it's probably impossible to do justice to LotR in less than, say, 24 hours of film.
Tomorrow I'll try to talk about why I think that the movies--whether you like or hate them -- really won't do much to Tolkien's legacy of work. But today, fresh out of the movie, I'll end with a few comments about it that hopefully won't spoil anything:
I said that I didn't think the scale of the battle of the Pelennor Fields being ten times larger than Helm's Deep would really make that much of a difference. I was really wrong.
Gimli's comic relief wasn't heavy-handed and worked in this film.
You've never seen such an amazing volcanic eruption.
And, finally, and most importantly to my students, I think:
Saturday, November 29, 2003
Got interested in this piece in Andrea Harris' blog and then, via another train of clicks that I can't replicate, found this discussion via Volokh.
I think there are some very important points in both posts, and even though they are on different topics, there are some unifying themes. I also thought I'd risk being one of those annoying pseudo- (but only pseudo, mind you) defenders of academia by saying that some of the commenters in Andrea's thread, and also other writers on the web whom I respect, like Stephen den Beste, are perhaps making a couple significant intellectual mistakes in their criticism of the humanities.
First, Andrea, Stephen, and commenters are exactly right in saying (in so many words), 'you should read any damn thing that gives you pleasure, and who cares what some academic dude with initials after his name says.' Absolutely true. Academics who try to 'cure' people of their reading tastes are doing an enormous disservice; it seems to me an ethical violation of sorts.
But (you knew there was a 'but' coming), literary studies, when done well, can and should enhance the pleasure you get from your reading, and they should lead you to other things that you'd also get pleasure out of, and they might even teach you how to get pleasure (and a lot of pleasure) out of texts you might otherwise think you wouldn't like.
And the criticisms in the Crooked Timber piece about post-modernism are more than reasonable. The claim of the supporters of Butler, Bhaba, et. al. is that to escape from Foucault's "prisonhouse of language" you have to be free to stretch logical and grammatical relations as far as they will go, thus opening up room for logical freedom otherwise trapped by language. I think that the 'hard' claim of the Foucaultians, that language actually and effectively stops people from arguing about certain relationships, etc., is straightforwardly contradicted by the data: Foucaultians talking about the prisonhouse of language, etc. So most people make a 'soft' claim about language: that it shapes unconscious thoughts, etc., through pre-programmed logics that are favorable to dominant power structures. But this 'soft' claim, it seems to me, doesn't justify the contradictory and incoherent writing by B, B, et. al., since the remedy for the kind of 'favored' inbuilt constructions of language would seem to be clear demonstrations of these things (i.e., 'the linguistic/logical embedded idea that black is the opposite of white is getting you to believe impossible things about people once you have classified them using this black/white system').
Ok. That was a long way to go. Anyone still with me?
The 'bad writing' among post-modernists, is, it seems to me (and here I'm in agreement with the Crooked Timber post) a way to disguise rather banal, cliched or rejected assertions. Butler's 'performative' is an example. Gender, according to her, isn't just something that 'is', it's something that has to be enacted or performed (there, I just saved you from having to read Gender Trouble). But a person isn't free to just indulge in any performance he/she wants to, since society constrains not only what those performances can be, but how they will be 'read' (there, you can now skip Bodies that Matter). There's nothing terribly objectionable about this, I think, but it reduces pretty quickly to 'so what?'
There's also another element to the argument. Philosophy, as practiced by real philosophers, is difficult. Every argument must abide by the rules of logic and, at the foundation, the principle of non-contradiction (you can't say A = ~A). But for some of the things that the postmodernists want to do, the principle of non-contradiction is a serious impediment. So you write your argument in an elaborate, circuitous way so that you end up harnessing the "slippage" between signifier and signified (Derrida modifying Saussure) so that you're asserting, logically, that A= ~A while you can deny that at any single step you said that A = ~A. Stanley Fish is particulalry good at this trick; he also uses the related trick of taking a description of something (people decide on the acceptability of a given interpretation of a text via the interaction of rhetoric and politics in 'interpretive communities') and making it into a normative statement: people should make literary judgments strictly due to the politics of interpretive communities.
Now, it may be necessary to assert that A = ~A in order to bring on the revolution, but you'll have to excuse me and a lot of other people if we find this to be a very weak foundation on which to build a theory of literature (and while we're on this, I find Fish's 'interpretive community' theory to be banal sophistry).
The problem for those of us who are literature professors and young(ish), is that the alternative to the PoMo ideology has been (or at least has been perceived to be) the kind of criticism that simply rejects any role of theory (any theory) at all. This is problematic, to say the least, not because we need theory for its own sake, but because the sorts of aesthetic judgments that people want to defend (this book is 'good' because...) come crashing down when you try to talk about aesthetics as self-evident. Self-evident to whom? The real role of a literary theory is to try to decide what the criteria are for good work. Or, if you want to just avoid the whole good/bad debate, you still want to figure out how the work of literature works, why it produces the effects it produces.
So, the old-fashioned critics invented the idea of "authorial intent." But, as Barthes and Foucault pointed out, while there almost certainly was an intent in the minds of the authors creating the works, recovering that intent, from the works themselves is, at the very least, highly problematic. I'd go so far as to say that the reasoning is circular: we know that the Beowulf poet wanted to create effect X in Beowulf because, by reading Beowulf, we find effect X, which therefore the poet wanted to put there, because he's a great poet. Why is he great? He wrote a great poem like Beowulf. I am only stereotyping a little bit here.
Now the philosophical problems with the approach I've given above should be obvious. Scholars who want to reject the PoMo approach (perhaps because it is fundamentally contaminated by Marxist assumptions not shared by many young scholars, perhaps for other reasons), have been seen to be stuck going back to the hoary "authorial intent" approaches, which, I believe, have been philosophically discredited (not merely fallen out of fashion).
Now here is where I can make this blather self-promotional, and say that my How Tradition Works book is an attempt to bypass the whole PoMo approach (well, maybe stealing some of its useful bits) and to try to find a way to approach literature and culture that is not author-intent focused and not PoMo. But that's for a different post.
Rather, I'd like to end this half of the post (the follow up will be on Tolkien, so everyone can read that; I'll post it after I see Return of the King tomorrow) by just reminding the people who are up in arms against English professors that there are serious philosophical problems that are raised by the PoMo's. I don't think that the PoMo solutions are correct, but I think to deny the problems, or to imply that academics are fools or are out to ruin literature for others, is, well, not a very productive intellectual position to take.
Thursday, November 20, 2003
I got my copy of the National Geographic video today and, after rescuing it from the vcr that was trying to eat the tape, watched it.
Verdict on the whole thing: Much better than I'd thought. When I was first asked to be in the video, I questioned the premise of linking Lord of the Rings with people and events in history who weren't necessarily (or were even definitely not) inspirations for Tolkien. It seemed potentially silly.
But give the producer and National Geographic some credit. They managed to play up the universalism of Tolkien's ideas by showing the similarities to historical situations. They didn't try to make connections in the wrong direction (i.e., Tenzing and Hilary inspiring the Frodo/Sam relationship), but instead showed how the literature sheds light on the history.
So LotR is put to the service of some nice little history lessons, and it all comes together quite well. My wife, who had been very skeptical, ended up enjoying it.
Verdict on Me: They actually used a fair bit of the interview and they spread it through the whole piece, which is a nice compliment. I'm not embarrassed, which is a relief.
Sunday, November 16, 2003
The Boston Globe article on Tolkien
that I was interviewed for is now out, and I guess it didn't come out too badly. I'm described as "shortish" "balding" and cocky, but I guess that's all probably true (though maybe not necessary to say it, Ethan. How about "compact, energetic and wise-looking" or "tonsured"?).
Anyway, read for yourself and see what you think.
Two minor corrections: I didn't give a paper at ISAS in Arizona; I introduced one and I'm not talking very much about the unpublished translations of Beowulf at the Gathering of the Fellowship, more in general about the relationship of the poem to Tolkien's work, particulary to the themes in Return of the King. (Though to be fair to the reporter, I probably hadn't decided on my actual talk for GoTF when I spoke to him about that stuff).
Oh, and my students do not think of me as their "friends." They all exist in perpetual and abject terror of my wrath....
Later this week I'll get to see the National Geographic Special. I'll keep you posted.
Monday, November 10, 2003
...is finally over. Now we'll see what the registration demons do to my enrollments for spring semester. After the experience of having 51 students in a medieval lit class in which I still, insanely, assigned and have graded (and to grade) 4 short papers, one long paper, a midterm and a final, I wonder how I will have to modify my Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon classes next semester if I have gigoon enrollments. I know other faculty just decide that any large class has no papers, or only a final paper, and regular exams, but to me that seems a lousy way for students to learn medieval literature (no matter how much easier it makes my job).
UPDATE, 11/17/2003: I have ended up with 32 students in Chaucer and a mind-shattering 40 (!) in Anglo-Saxon, making my Anglo-Saxon a candidate for the largest A-S class in North American. Run, students, run! You still have time to switch to something else. Get out while you still can! Do you realize with an enrollment this high that I can push the class as hard as I want? Even if half of you drop out, I'll still have a fine class. Bwahh haa haa haa. Be ready to hit the ground running (heh, heh, heh).
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
I've been having a few conversations (email and otherwise) about how one becomes a Tolkien scholar, so I thought I would blog about it, particularly because the whole topic raises issues of credentialing, etc., that I think we in academia should be addressing right now.
It is an interesting fact that a great many of the very best contemporary Tolkien scholars are not professors: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, Doug Anderson, David Bratman, Richard West, Carl Hostetter... many of these scholars have academic affiliations (at libraries, etc.), but they aren't professors of English or history or cultural studies. Yet they are among the best.
One big reason for this phenomenon is that Tolkien scholarship has not been an academically respected field. The only person I know who did a dissertation on Tolkien and has an academic position (and tenure) is Verlyn Flieger (also one of the very, very best Tolkien scholars ever). So, with academia rejecting Tolkien scholarship for whatever reason, the field was open for independent scholars to make a mark.
[Aside: this is not to say that indep. scholars can't make a mark in field where there is a strong academic presence, just that it is, I think, much harder. Academics have huge advantages of time and access over scholars who also have to have a real job to pay the bills. That so many indep. scholars have contributed to so many fields is testament both to the problems of academia and the brilliance of people who take the indep. route].
I am, I think, less biased against indep. scholars than many of my English colleagues because Anglo-Saxon studies has a long tradition of great independent scholars. Numismatics, place-names and local history are well-populated by 'amateurs' whom the 'experts' respect as knowing as much or more than the experts. This is a good thing.
So, in answer to people who want to contribute to Tolkien scholarship but don't have a credential: Just Do It. Study medieval lit, WWI lit, Victorian and Edwardian lit, and, most importantly, Tolkien's works themselves. Write up your conclusions and send them to me at Tolkien Studies. I'll have them anonymously reviewed and, if the reviewers agree, I'll publish them. You'll have the opportunity to be taken seriously (and thus both admired and attacked) just like any other Tolkien scholar.
To add one more thing: I am a pretty big Tolkien geek. I have read the History of Middle-earth, all twelve volumes, more than twice. I've read the LotR over 40 times and the Silmarillion about 30 times. I've memorized a lot of the poetry. I understand the logic behind the alphabets. But I know for a fact that there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about the internal elements of Middle-earth than I do. These people are enormous resources for Tolkien scholarship, and they should be encouraged and listened to, not mocked or derided. I think that my additional training in literary study, ancient languages and linguistics gives me the opportunity to add value and context to the analysis and discovery by people who work only within the materials of Middle-earth, but I don't ever pretend that I know more about Middle-earth than they do.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Tolkien Studies, the first academic journal devoted entirely to J.R.R. Tolkien and his works, now has a publisher, though I want to wait until there's a signed contract before I say who. The first issue has been done for a while, so hopefully it will be out ASAP. I'm now working on all the little fine-tuning and other bits of things that take up huge amounts of time for little (seeming) effect.
We're still accepting submissions for volume 2, by the way. We're not quite filled up yet.
In other news, I'll be giving a lecture in Columbia, SC in January and I'll be speaking at the Duxbury Public Library in Mass. on January 28th.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
In the past week I've received a few email queries about where to go to graduate school to study J.R.R. Tolkien. It's probably worth a blog post.
It's important to note is that we don't have a graduate program at Wheaton, so some of my information may be seven years out of date, so take all that follows with some NaCl.
First, what do you want the degree for? If you want to become an English professor with a tenure-track job, you need to think long and hard about studying Tolkien. The job market is much better this year than any year in the past ten, but it still sucks wildly. Departments get 100+ applicants for each tenure-track job, so you need to both 'stand out' and be in some sub-field that the department thinks it needs. A tricky balance.
Because where would you fit Tolkien? I've argued that he should be considered a 20th-century author, but I think it would be very unusual for someone to get hired to take up a whole 20th-century slot with a dissertation solely on Tolkien. You might have a shot if you worked on, say, Tolkien, Golding, T.H. White, Orwell, C.S. Lewis, but even then you're on shaky ground when the department wants someone to teach Virginia Woolf through Toni Morrison.
The other approach, and the one that has worked for me, is to become a medievalist and then also work on Tolkien. The problem with this approach is more global than local: almost all the good Tolkienists are medievalists, so the criticism tends to continue to be divorced from current discussions in 20th-century lit. (which makes it hard to get noticed in that field) while at the same time medievalists want to talk about, well, medieval literature, which, of course, Tolkien didn't write. You can try to carve out a niche on Tolkien's scholarship, of course, but your dissertation director will say "why the meta-scholarship when there's so much primary work to be done?" -- and he or she will be right. And if you don't like medieval for its own sake, you will not survive doing a medieval Ph.D. -- no matter how good you are, you'll be competing with 100 people who love medieval lit.
But let's say you, like me, refuse to be discouraged by well-meaning advice. Good. Your head is probably just rock-hard enough to make you a good English professor. Then here's what you should study in order to be a good Tolkien scholar:
Short List: 1. Medieval Literature, including Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Gothic, German, Middle English (particularly non-Chaucerian Middle English), and "mythological" literature in general, esp. Finnish and Danish. You'll also need to be good in Latin.
2. 20th Century Literature, focusing on WWI authors, particularly the non-canonical ones.
3. Later 19th-century adventure- and children's literature.
This is the intellectual approach to becoming a top-notch Tolkien scholar. As far as I know, there is no program in the U.S. or England that would provide all of this for you; your better bet would be to put such a program together by taking classes or studying with a good prof. at a top English program. You need to do some research to feel out who is amenable. Of the people I know personally at big schools, Rick Russom at Brown or Verlyn Flieger at Maryland come to mind as the most likely people to study with, but I don't know if they are taking grad students, etc. right now or if their departments support Tolkien studies for graduate students.
The other approach, which I don't endorse, but which might work better than what I've suggested, is to study Tolkien in one of the big pop-culture programs. There are a growing number of jobs in pop-culture, and the LotR films have, strangely, legitimized Tolkien in pop-culture studies. I question this approach because almost all of the scholarship on Tolkien that I've seen from this direction is shallow and unconvincing. But it doesn't have to stay that way. If you became an academic specialist in, say, the influence of Tolkien in film, video, gaming, etc. (which would mean, by the way, that you'd have to explain how awful and dangerous Tolkien stuff was and how socially defective everyone in the gaming / on-line world was, whether you believed this or not), you'd have a shot at making a mark.
But could you really understand Tolkien and make a real contribution without knowing the medieval material? It would take some work to convince me.
Friday, October 10, 2003
It's that time of year again: the October Job List for English and Modern Languages is out and hordes of graduate students, assistant professors unhappy with their current jobs, and exploited adjuncts are getting ready to apply. This is an utterly horrible process and I am so, so glad that I don't have to do it. There is not one redeeming aspect to the way that hiring is done in humanities academia and I want to start by saying that I think the whole thing is unfair, demeaning, dishonest and inefficient (I also don't know how to go about fixing it). But since I've been on both sides of the process I thought that perhaps I'd share a few thoughts and suggestions. I can do this because this year we are (finally!) not hiring anyone so I am not (I hope) providing tendentious advice for the purpose of making my life easier.
I should also note that my advice is geared towards people applying to liberal arts colleges where teaching is a priority. That's what I know. If you're only applying to research-only institutions, don't follow my advice (which, by the way, is worth exactly what you are paying for it)
First, you have to understand the numbers. There were, by my rough count, about 40 tenure-track jobs in medieval lit this year. That's pretty good; there were 20 the year I got my job. But for each of those jobs, the institution will receive at least 150 applications (the numbers, on both sides, are bigger for things like American Lit). At Wheaton, the applications that come in go into a computer paper box, in alphabetical order, with a cover sheet that has a list of every faculty members in the department and the following categories: Definite Yes, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Definite No. Faculty read the cover letter and the vita and put a check-mark in one of those boxes. The department secretary and the chair flip through the applications each day. As soon as someone gets two "definite yes" or "definite no" votes, their status changes, either into the "ask for dossier folder" or into the "no further action" folder. "Maybe" candidates eventually migrate to one or the other files as they get more checkmarks. In addition to checkmarks, faculty write in comments about why they voted as they did.
So what does this mean for the applicant? Very busy faculty are reading lots of letters. You have got to catch someone's eye, or avoid alienating them, in the first couple paragraphs of your cover letter. Obviously you deserve closer consideration, but to be realistic, it isn't always going to happen, so try to squeeze all the filler out of your opening grafs. Second, you're being read by a bunch of faculty in all different disciplines. The only one who won't be reading your application is the retiring medievalist! So you need to explain your work to a wider audience. It's not enough to say that you re-dated the Rule of Chrodegang. You've got to say, right away, why this is important (and give specific reasons). You also need to explain your dissertation research quickly. Your readers are going over 150 applications. Don't invoke theorists unless it's essential. Don't spend 250 words setting up the problem. Cut right to the point.
And this leads me to my two pet peeves as a reader (shared by at least some members of my department): you are not fooling anyone with the tiny margins and micro font. I've done this myself, trying to cram in everything in the world into a letter. Don't do it. When a faculty reader has 150 applications to read and comes across your letter -- which looks black when held at arm's length--he or she is not likely to be favorably disposed. Brevity, brevity, brevity.
Second, for the love of God, do not say "My dissertation is the first to apply the theories of X to the texts of Y." I must have read 100 letters like this in a previous search. Who cares if you were the first to apply the theories of X if those theories are wrong? Who cares if you studied the texts of Y if those texts are crappy? Answer, right away, the dreaded "So What?" question. You need the equivalent of a sound bite that your advocates among the readers can bring up: "oh, he's the guy who studies chickens in Old English" is better than "he's the guy using Foucault to question the traditional authority of authorship..." Within reason, you want to be "chicken guy."
Two other tips: if you're applying to a place like Wheaton, mention teaching in your first paragraph. That's one of our weeding-out tools. Second, if you've got something great on your vita that a non-specialist won't know about (i.e., getting published in Anglia is a huge deal) then mention it in the letter. But otherwise don't bother to just put your vita in narrative form in the letter. Your readers will resent it.
You have to realize that the on-paper part of the process is the biggest crap shoot. Some people reject everyone with a degree from a certain place because there is already someone from there on the faculty. Other people reject anyone who seems "too early" or "too late" or "too general" or "too specialized." It is completely unfair. So hate that and rage at it, but don't let it undermine your confidence in yourself and your work.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to do research and tailor each letter to each place. I resisted this approach, and it was a mistake. Get on the web, look at course lists and syllabi, figure out what you could teach, and mention it in your letter. If it looks like you have a sincere interest in an institution, you'll move up in the estimation of the readers. Even if this is a week of work, it is worth it: the difference between getting a tenure-track job and having to piece together a living from adjunct work can be 25 to 30 thousand dollars. Isn't it worth a few hours of research and a number of customized letters to give yourself a better shot at that?
In a few weeks I'll talk about the dossier process and then the interview process. But just thinking about all of this makes me sick to my stomach. For all of you out there who are applying: good luck, and I wish you didn't have to go through this.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
I've finally finished my review of Rome and the North, an essay collection about the reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic medieval Europe. It's impolite to scoop your own reivew (for Mediaevistik), but I wanted to talk about the difficulties of reviewing and why reviews in academia are more important (in the long run; they don't do a lot for immediate sales).
The Humanities are faced with a crisis of specialization. People carve out narrower and narrower niches hoping -- reasonably -- to be the "world expert" on something. It's what you do for your Ph.D. But then it's really hard to get your super-specialized work published. I received quite a few rejection letters on the Wills article that said "well done, but too specialized for super-journal X."
Then, when you finally find a place that wants to publish you, you have to try to convince other people who only read about 10th century Anglo-Saxon Female Saint's Lives (and really only those without identified Latin sources) that they need to read your book for valuable context. So you desperately hope that your reviewer is interdisciplinary enough to be able to understand what you've done well and what's ground-breaking.
Not easy to find (or be) one of those.
A friend of mine had a review begin "I don't know much about Anglo-Saxon, but I know what I like." Now this was a very positive review, but I think my friend would rather have someone engage her on real points of argument, or even point out that hapax legomenon can only properly be applied to a unique lexeme, not to a unique inflected form of that lexeme. Just because a word only appears once in the accusative case does not make it a hapax legomenon if there are 30 instances in the dative case. But I digress...
The book I reviewed was difficult because I'll never been current on scholarship in Middle Dutch, Old Frisian, or the various Germans, and I'm only somewhat current on Old Norse. So I fell back on the one piece of advice I have to give: when in doubt, write a short, clear and fair summary. And, to quote a fellow member of ISAS: "It's nice to be important, but it's imporant to be nice."
Thankfully I haven't had to review a really bad book, yet.
Thursday, October 02, 2003
Well, the contracts have now been signed, so I can reveal that it is Routledge (a very good academic press) that will be publishing The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Thanks to all who have already sent suggestions (and please keep 'em coming). I need to get some things organized and then I will be back in touch.
The other news is that the Boston Globe story on Tolkien (for which I was interviewed) is now slotted for November 16. I'm still waiting to hear about the National Geographic video, which is supposed to be out soon.
I'm hopeful I'll soon have news I can post about the publication of Tolkien Studies
But I'll finish this post by saying that I have the greatest students on earth. My two research assistants this year are practically managing my life at Wheaton for me now (because I am so swamped, I've suggested they they wheel me around the campus in my chair, putting me in front of the relevant classrooms, meetings, computers, etc.). And one of my former students, who had joked about being willing to do some bibliography review for me, actually wrote first-rate reviews of the stuff I sent out (my sending it out was meant to be a lesson about the horrible things that happen to you if you volunteer for things). But instead of a dead badger in my mailbox, I got excellent reviews and summaries of things I hadn't had time to read. I made a real mistake letting this student graduate. Maybe I will fail my research assistants so that I can hang on to them for an extra year...
Thursday, September 25, 2003
In between the six million other projects I'm involved in (and the giant pile of letters of recommendation requests that students have dropped on my desk in the past week -- all with a deadline of October 1), I try to snag time to work on a wacky idea I've been working up. Thought I would run it past you.
The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin" seems to describe a ruined city with hot baths. The poem (which I blogged about below) is found in the Exeter Book, which dates from between 950 and 975 (and Pat Conner says between 950 and 970). My argument is one of those incredibly complex mish-moshes that either is wonderfully convincing or too hard to follow (like Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual History of the English Benedictine Reform, which I find brilliant but which others violently disagree with. But I digress).
On May 11, 973 a second coronation was held for King Edgar in the city of Bath. This is a highly unusual event, unprecedented in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a lot of speculation as to why Edgar was re-crowned. The leading theory is that the Anglo-Saxons were trying to make an emperor of him. And this is in some ways the highwatermark of the Benedictine Reform, so it might make sense to say that they had imperial aspirations, thus explaining a second coronation: for the first, he's a king. Now he's an emperor.
The location of this second coronation in Bath is fairly anomalous. Bath wasn't a particularly major city, unlike Winchester, the seat of the West Saxon kingdom and home of the dynasty, or Canterbury or London or Worcester. Even Crediton and Exeter may have been as important. I could be ignorant, because I'm just starting my research, but thus far I've found no convincing explanation as to why Bath.
Now Bath is famous for the natural hot springs there, the only ones in England. These were made into Roman baths, which, by 973, were apparently ruined.
The next bit of evidence was pointed out to me by the brilliant young Spanish Anglo-Saxonist (and my friend) Mercedes Salvador: there are a number of continental, Latin sources from this time period that wax poetical about ruined monasteries, etc. There's also a passage in the poem Christ (also Exeter Book) that can be interepreted as being related to ruins.
So it could be a coincidence that there's an Exeter Book poem that mentions Bath, and ruins, that there was an anomalous second coronation at Bath (where there were ruins), and that the theme of ruins was popular at the time period. And of course any two of the three could be related but not the third.
There are a number of ways to try to solve this puzzle (if puzzle it is), and I'm running long and late, but let me leave you with a sketch. If Pat Conner is right about the date, then the Ruin is written down before the coronation. Therefore we can argue that the coronation ends up at Bath because of a general interest in ruins (and in particular in Roman ruins) that can perhaps comes from the continent. Ruins become popular in the Benedictine Reform and no ruin is more interesting than that of Bath. There's also a section in the Life of Charlemagne that depicts him in a large bath giving out laws, etc., so that's another possible connection (the Benedictine Reformers liked the Carolingians)--i.e., to baths. And what could be better, then, than a ruined bath (I'm being facetious here).
The other option is that the Ruin is written right after 973, but the tone of the poem doesn't seem right to me (though we're missing parts of it. In an irony that a postmodernist would love, the manuscript of the Ruin is badly damaged) for it to be a celebration of the coronation.
Oh, and there's a will from the Reform group that is associated with Bath; I need to deal with that, too.
So I probably haven't enlightened you a great deal, but you do get to see the kinds of interesting literary/historical puzzles that Anglo-Saxonists get to deal with.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Composer Stephen Hartke has written a new symphony (No. 3) as a response to September 11. In it he uses a translation--his own! Of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Ruin."
Googling Mr. Hartke turns up this bio in which we learn that he and I have another weird connection besides Anglo-Saxon: we both lived in Orange, NJ at one time (although he was born there and I only lived there for a few years when I was ages 3-5). Another bio says that he has degrees from Yale (where he could have studied with Fred Robinson) and Penn (where he could have studied with Ted Irving) and UCSB. Maybe I'll email him and find out how he knows OE.
You can read Hartke's translation here in Google's cached html version or the original pdf (which is easier to read, but a pdf) here.
My quick take on the translation is that it's quite good. Hartke doesn't try for the meter (which might be suprising in a composer, but he is a modernist), but he does preserve the caesura and makes a stab at alliteration when he can.
I'm particularly interested in this adaptation because I'm in the very early stages of doing an article on "The Ruin" and King Edgar's 'coronation' at Bath. The first stages in the article are always doing your own translation of the poem, using a diplomatic text or a facsimile and trying not to be guided by scholarship (not at this stage). Tomorrow I'll try to talk about that, and to go over the Hartke translation in more detail.
Monday, September 22, 2003
My first set of Medieval Lit papers has come in today, and they look pretty decent thus far. But they gave rise to a few interesting ethical questions.
When teaching this particular medieval class, I use the SEAFARER program (no link, since it's password-protected due to copyright issues), an early hypertext program developed at Loyola by my dissertation director. Seafarer is organized around "modules" such as Rank, Labor, Monastic Life, Penance, The Book, etc. Each of these includes a narrative, lexicon, images, bibliography and "link" questions that students can answer for their papers.
Now here's the ethical issue: Seafarer's ideological approach is much more marxist than anything I'd regularly teach and is far away from anything that I actually believe in. That's exactly why I teach it, so that students get exposed to some of the variety of medieval studies instead of getting The World According to Drout.
But this post isn't just an exercise in self- back-patting. I'm having major second thoughts about the approach I've taken.
On the one hand, great to give students a taste of opinions and interpretations I don't have, avoid indoctrination, etc. On the other hand, I am pretty certain that marxism, and marxist interpretations of history, are wrong. Therefore it would seem that I'd have an obligation not to expose students to these incorrect interpretations.
Ah, but down that path lies indoctrination. Most of my colleagues at Wheaton are, it seems to me, dead, absolute certain that (just to give an example), the war in Iraq was wrong. And many of them teach this in their classes. I am simply not comfortable with that kind of use of the classroom. First of all, I want my students to think for themselves. Secondly, I think attempted indoctrination nearly always backfires.
But where do you draw the line? I do say things in class like "A recent critic claimed that Asser's Life of King Alfred is a forgery by Byrhtferth. That critic is wrong." Should I hem and haw about that? At a certain point, students get absolutely (and reasonably) sick about academic waffling. I have a friend in medieval studies who, in a seminar at the Newberry Library, used to say that every question was "fraught." 'The relationship of Beowulf to the Blickling homilies is 'fraught,'' 'The connection between the Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross is 'fraught'' etc. At a certain level it's an annoying graduate-student tic: saying things are 'fraught' and refusing to give an opinion on them suggests that you've read all the criticism and have an open mind.
But in the end it's your job to have an opinion about the big questions in your field. You have a responsiblity to give the "on the one hand/ on the other," but you have to figure out where you stand. And you need to express these ideas to students without getting them hopelessly confused by the critical opinions. Academics hate sound bites (sometimes fairly), but you can't communicate everything as a lengthy treatise.
Which brings me around to the original question, but from a different angle now. Somehow there's a distinction to be made between ideological approaches that I believe are wrong (but that could, potentially, produce valid insights simply by directing attention in different directions) and facts that I think are wrong, but that's not the easiest line to draw (whimp out, cliched, safe comment).
So I just make it up as I go along (the truth).
Saturday, September 20, 2003
How can I possibly be this swamped only three weeks into the semester? Sixteen SciFi/Eng 101 papers, 10 Sr. Sem. responses, a review of a book about Gregory the Great's reception in Northern Europe that was due a while back, I think (email lost in hard-drive crash in June, so If anyone out there has an issue of Mediaevistik, please tell me how long the reviews generally run). Then another 52 (dear God!) Medieval Lit papers come in on Monday. The fellowship applications are mostly done, but now there's an article due on "How the Monsters Became Important: From 'The Monsters and the Critics' to Today" by Dec 15 for an essay collection being published in Italy. And then there's an essay on Tolkien's Beowulf translations due Jan 8 for Western Michigan...
And that nice little whine sets me up for today's brief topic: the rapid switch from famine to feast that stops you from really producing another big piece of work.
When I was first starting out in academia -- or even just a couple years ago -- I would write articles and then spend gobs of time (actual years in the case of the wills article) sending them out, having them rejected, sending them out again... lather, rinse, repeat.
Now, all of a sudden (and when it matters much less thanks to tenure). Everyone is asking me to write articles. I can barely keep up with my publication committments. It's crazy. Ten years ago, no, five years ago, I would have killed to be included in essay collections. Now it's becoming a chore.
It's a nice chore, don't get me wrong. And much better than being ignored. But I can see how writing an essay here, an essay there could really cut into one's ability to produce a big, sustained book. Not only that, but you kind of reduce the impact of your big work if it's all been published in pieces elsewhere.
But will I start saying 'no'? Doubtful. How can you say 'no' to your friends or to people you've admired for years, or to people who gave you a chance when you were getting started?
My two research assistants, though, claim that they're going to start intercepting my mail and email to prevent me from starting any new projects...
Friday, September 19, 2003
First, though, a big thank you to everyone who has emailed me about The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. I was serious about wanting to enlist the help of many people (it's completely essential for the project), and I have been saving emails into a file of "potential contributors." As soon as the contracts are signed, you'll be hearing from me.
But now on to what I've been really doing: Fellowship Applications. I have to start by saying that my whining here shouldn't be taken too seriously. There are far worse ways to earn a living, and at least one fellowship allowed me to finish my dissertation. But the entire process is a little, well, surreal.
One applies for a fellowship to be able to take a longer academic leave and do more research. For example, in the fall of 2004 I'll be on leave from Wheaton and spending all my time writing. Great deal. But I'm actually allowed to take the whole 2004-2005 academic year. An awesome privilege. But there's a catch: if I take the whole year, I only get half of my salary. Unfortunately, I won't have only half the bills (though the half-year off at full pay is mighty generous), so if I can't find some outside source of support, I can't take the proffered full year. (Boo hoo some might say, and they'd be right if I were honestly complaining).
Enter Foundations like the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, etc. These entities offer grants to scholars to complete interesting research. It's amazingly generous. It's fabulous. It's psycho competitive. Every senior person I know seems to be applying for a Guggenheim every year. Thus the awards are rare and hard to get. Likewise the NEH, ACLS, APS, etc.
But that's not the surreal part. It's no surprise that a lot of people would like "free money" to study what they are already going to study. It is passing strange that in order to do this, you have to write a summary of the book you haven't written or researched yet. Yes, dear readers, I've spent the past two weeks writing a summar of my next brilliant project, From Tradition to Culture: The Making of the Anglo-Saxon Eleventh Century. Of course since I'm just applying for the support for the project, which is supposed to be done during my academic leave, it's pretty difficult to figure out what brilliant conclusions I'll arrive at. But did I let that stop me? Hah! My book will be the Unified Field Theory of the humanities. Just you watch!
Actually, while I complain about the process, and it's weird, I now am very excited about the new book project and I came up with some ideas for it that are interesting (at least to me). So maybe the process isn't so bizarre, after all.
I still think it would make a good Borges story, though: "Summaries of Books that Have Never Been Written."
Saturday, September 13, 2003
The semester has gotten off to a good start. I like my students very much: they seem very motivated and particularly energetic this year. Medieval Literature has a ridiculous number of students (52). I've tried to scare them away, but no luck thus far (and the drop date is past).
The Tolkien Seminar seems to be quite good. There was already good discussion, etc., last week. We'll see how they do with The Hobbit tomorrow. And my independent in Old Norse looks good, as does my English 101 / SciFi class. Too much work, and I'm already snowed under, but that's to be expected.
The news comes in the form of something that is a complete surprise to me, but I guess it shouldn't have been. Since we're still negotiating the contract (note: I am a terrible negotiator; I haven't gotten one things I've asked for; I need an agent), I won't say the name, but a certain press has decided to publish The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia with yours truly as the Editor. (Remember when I said to hit me in the head with a brick if I ever agreed to edit anything else? Where were you guys, huh?). So I will now be editing an 816 page (where they got so specific a number, I don't know), 500,000 word book with 100 illustrations. If you have ideas about what should be in it, or if you want to write short articles for it, let me know. I'll need a legion of writers and a huge pile of suggestions.
This is definitely one of those "be careful what you wish for" situations. On the one hand I really believe in the project and think that it will be a great addition to the scholarship and a good way to move Tolkien studies towards more effective approaches (so, for example, a graduate student could write a dissertation on Tolkien and hope to get a job). On the other, I am terrified at the amount of work. I am actually (this is supposed to be embarrassing for an academic to admit) quite good at administration, but it's still scary.
But quite a compliment to be asked, and, as you know, I'm a sucker for those things.
Friday, August 29, 2003
One of the many great things about being a professor is that you get to stay plugged in to the great cycle of the year in a way that many other professions don't. (For my wife the engineer, for example, there's no real difference in work between an average September and an average April). September has that same "back to school" feel that it had when you were a kid, but it is even better in that there's less (for me, at least) of the trepidation that went with the return to school.
My syllabi are now finished. I'm teaching Medieval Lit (in translation), a Senior Seminar on Tolkien and Le Guin, and an English 101 that's linked to a Math First Year Seminar and focuses on Science Fiction. It should be a fun semester. I also may continue teaching Old Norse (if the student wants to continue). For the first time in a while I'm not directing an honors thesis (I don't think).
It's immensely satisfying to be able to plan out an entire semester, right down to the chapter and page for each day. Of course it never goes entirely according to plan, but I can be pretty sure how each week in the semester will be working out: what the students will be reading and writing, what my own grading workload will be, etc.
There's nothing quite like the excitement of walking in to a new set of classes in September. I'm hopeful that these will be as wonderful as the ones I had last year.
Friday, August 15, 2003
Sorry to take so long to give the post-ISAS roundup (that my three readers just couldn't wait for; but where else can you get a blog entry on the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists?
It was five times hotter than the surface of the sun in Phoenix/Scottsdale, but the conference itself was (as always) pretty fabulous. Some absolutely great papers, including one by the genius Mechthild Gretsch in the session I chaired. A very good complement of graduate student papers, also, which is good news for the field, particularly since the abstracts were all judged blind this year.
I'm not sure what it means that almost all of my favorite papers were by women: Joyce Hill, Jo Story, Mary Swan, Kanerva Heikkinen. Anglo-Saxon studies used to have a reputations as one of the few sub-disciplines in English that was still a boys club. I guess that's not true any more.
The best paper was the plenary address by my dissertation director, Allen Frantzen (and he didn't tell me to write that), but there was another really fabulous plenary by John Blair, from Oxford. The talk, "How Christian was Early Christian England?" really tied together an enormous quantity of loose threads. It was one of those papers that you enjoy while you're hearing it, but then get another burst of pleasure out of when it all sinks in and you think about it later. And the great thing about ISAS was that I was then able to have lunch and dinner with John Blair (whom I'd never before me) and talk in great detail about Anglo-Saxon history, archeology, etc.
In fact, I learned a lot about archeology from a variety of people at this conference. Bottom line (for my readers): those Anglo-Saxon strap ends and Sceattas on eBay are probably legitimate, but you want to try to deal only with people who document their finds and report them. Metal detectors are finding an enormous number of artifacts and it's not necessarily unethical to buy them as long as the type of find and location is reported. So now I can buy a strap-end or a sceat with good conscience.
I could give more info, but I came home to the hideous task of re-writting all of my references in How Tradition Works to make them conform to MRTS style. Hellish job, but it's now done. More later.
Thursday, July 31, 2003
I offer this little piece as a reminder for myself as well as a hint for other scholars.
Background: A student of mine works for the department secretary here at Wheaton. This is one of those jobs that alternates between total boredom and manic overwork: for days at a time no faculty are in the office except for me, and then all of a sudden everyone shows up with forty piles of work that all need to be done immediately. To try to keep the students who have this job from losing their minds, the department secretary asks me to come up with projects that can keep them both busy and interested. These projects have had a tendency to take on a life of their own. The Tolkien Bibliography began one summer when I asked a student (who was in high school at the time) to start ILL-ing Tolkien articles. This is now a gigantic project from hell that will never end.
So I decided to ask the current student to first collect a complete bibliography of scholarship by Albert S. Cook. I did a dissertation chapter on him that is past due to be turned into an article, but I want to nail down loose ends, etc. After the student finished that, she wanted more work (and is getting good at biblio), so I've asked her to gather all the articles ever written about the Ruin (a poem in the Exeter Book).
I hope L doesn't read this blog, because after she gathers all the Ruin articles, I'm not going to read them. And that's my connection to the title of this post. The worst thing you can do when starting an article is to go read all the bibliography. You will almost certainly fail to produce anything really original or interesting because you will be sucked into whatever the critical debates were in the articles that you read. To be original, you need to interact with the poem first on your own, then write down your ideas, then read the bibliography and work your argument into the critical conversation. This is not to say that there aren't some basic critical problems that are inherent in particular poems. For example, in the Seafarer you just can't get away from the argument about the number of speakers and (if there are two) where to divide them. But if you read all the arguments first your own inchoate ideas, which might be original, will be magnetically attracted to what has gone on before. Reading all the bibliography and not immersing yourself in the poems themselves is the biggest mistake graduate students make. I always know when someone has fallen into this trap when he or she begins a conference paper with four minutes of summary of scholarship.
So to avoid this fate I'm doing my translation of the Ruin, working as closely with the manuscript as possible, before I read any criticism. Should be fun.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Way back in April or May I promised to write something about Kalamazoo. Now I'm just getting ready for leave for ISAS (and just got asked to chair a session... hellooo reimbursement!). Let me explain.
Because the academic world is so specialized, it's pretty unlikely that you'll have another person at your college or university who works in exactly the same area. So scholars go to conferences like pilgrims to Canterbury (and act like some of the pilgrims, too, but that's another story) to share their work, get new ideas, see old friends, and drink a lot.
For general medieval studies, the two big English-language conferences are at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo) and the University of Leeds in England. Kzoo is always in early May, Leeds in July. Both are huge conferences, with hundreds of papers; there are always at least twenty sessions (with three papers each) going on at any one time. There are different strategies for getting the most out of the huge conferences. You can rush around, trying to get to all the papers relevant to your sub-field (what I usually do), or you can allow for some serendipity. One year I just stayed in the same room for the whole conference, listening to every paper presented there, regardless of topic. It was interesting.
ISAS, the conference I'm off to in a week, is very different. First, it is really specialized: Anglo-Saxon stuff only. Second, there are no separate sessions; one paper at a time is delivered to the entire conference (probably 200 people or so). So it's very competitive to get papers accepted and there are some rather arcane rules for balancing sub-sub-disciplines, geographic regions, etc.
Whether because of these strictures or in spite of them, ISAS is by far the best conference I ever go to. It's only held every other year, on alternate sides of the Atlantic, and I'd estimate that over 80% of the papers are eye-opening and brilliant. I always walk away excited about Anglo-Saxon and ready to dive into new projects (which is actually the real reason to go to conferences; you can learn things when the publications come out, and you can keep in touch with friends by other means, but nothing charges you up like a good conference). It also helps that, for whatever reasons, the people at ISAS are the least phony and most collegial in academia. They would fit in very well at Wheaton (and that's a serious compliment)
Thus, while I'm not totally thrilled about the idea of Arizona in August, and I don't want to leave wife and daughter for a week, I can't wait for ISAS.
Monday, July 28, 2003
So much for the resolve to blog daily. How Glenn Reynolds does it is beyond me. But there is some pretty big good news to share. First, Beowulf and the Critics won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies for 2003. It's a big honor to be chosen for something like this, particularly since the people doing the choosing are those best qualified to evaluate my work. Since I put so many years into B&C, it's even more gratifying. And best of all, I get a statuette!!!
Then, out of the blue last week, I was called by National Geographic TV & Video to be an expert talking head for a show/video, "Beyond the Movie: The Return of the King." It all happened very quickly: from a call one day to a meeting at the airport the next, to flying to Princeton to be interviewed on Wednesday. The TV people work quickly and don't mess around! It was very cool, though. I really got along well with both the producer and the tech people; they were incredibly efficient and professional, but also friendly and up-beat. The show will air sometime in either October or November, and since I talk between each of the segments, not all of my jabbering will be likely to be cut out. Fun.
There's more news, also, but I have to keep quiet about it for a while longer (nothing huge, but another pretty cool thing).
What I want to do now is to try to keep pace with my Anglo-Saxon stuff, because in another eight months, none of this media attention, etc. is going to exist. On the other hand, I'll always have Beowulf, and the fact that I had such a great time teaching the poem to inner-city kids from Brockton (kids who were awesome, by the way), suggests that I'll never get tired or burned out, the way I'm starting to feel about Tolkien stuff.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
Maybe. There are so many reasons for my long hiatus of blogging that there's no point in going over them all. But here goes anyway:
But now I had a new computer, some of the other crap is done (not enough) and it is blissful, sweet summer.
Summer is probably a good 50% of the reason that I'm in academia. Even though I probably put in just as many hours of work per week in the summers (and in fact I've been in my office more hours/days per week in June than I was during the semester) as I do during the semester, summers are still golden. I think it's a deep psychological thing implanted by growing up on the Jersey Shore.
Anyway, while I was blog-silent, a few good things happened. I was given the Faculty Appreciation Award at Wheaton, which is a huge honor and was a total surprise. I gave well-received papers at Bucknell (on Tolkien's Mythology for Anglo-Saxon England), Palermo (on the intellectual history of the study of Monsters -- teratology), and Kalamazoo (on Tolkien's Beowulf translation). I finished my book chapter for Jane Chance and my article for Tolkien Studies. I've gotten the grammar book revision rolling. I put up a screen door, planted trees and shrubs, built a vegetable garden planter out of 4x4's (all squirrels must die!), and the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup(!!!!)
Tomorrow's post will be about Kalamazoo and it's significance in medieval studies. I'm hoping to post daily from now on.
Monday, March 17, 2003
But it's been a busy semester, teaching Old Norse for the first time and running a Beowulf seminar (both as unpaid overloads) as well as teaching SciFi and English 101 all eat up a lot of time. And now I've got a graduate student (and we don't even have graduate students at Wheaton) who has come all the way from Hungary to study with me. Bizarre, the thought that someone would travel that far just to study with me... (and actually, he's really here because he needs to work with the mammoth bibliographical collection... he doesn't need me, just my volumes of photocopies...).
The post-tenure bug hasn't really hit too badly, except that I now find it easier to decide to go to bed instead of staying up late to plow through more work. But if a proposal I'm working on comes through (and there's some good signs) I'll have cool Tolkien-related news soon and an exciting project to work on this summer (though my wife suggests that now that I have tenure I can spend the summer putting in a new floor in our upstairs and painting the outside of the house...)
Thursday, February 06, 2003
I've spent the past week (in between teaching English 101, Science Fiction, Beowulf and Old Norse) doing revisions on How Tradition Works. Part of this process has been reading new books suggested by my outside reviewers. Some of these have proven helpful, some less so.
My question is: when do you just say "stick a fork in it, it's done?" I finished HTW in April, revised it in August, and then got reader's reports back in December and January. But really the bulk of the reading and research was done when I was on research leave in 2001. Since then there has been a lot of important scholarship that has come out. But I can't completely re-write HTW each time I read a new book on Memes or on the 10th century. It's frustrating. For example, I just read Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. Brilliant argument. Only tangentially related to my book, but I wonder if I should go through HTW and at least reference each time Boyer's argument might be useful or connected or (my favorite) "not incompatible" with my thesis.
Any writers out there have good rules of thumb for deciding when to stop and just include all the new scholarship in the sequel?
Saturday, February 01, 2003
But the big news is that my book of my own research, How Tradition Works: A Descriptive Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century received its second favorable reader's report. So it looks like it will be published, but I am in the throes of revisions.
For my family members and non-academic readers, let me explain how this process works. An academic press has procedures in place to try to keep things on the level: books shouldn't be published because you're a drinking buddy of the editor-in-chief, etc. So presses get external, anonymous reviewers to go over a manuscript and recommend whether or not it should be published. Both of my outside reviewers said "publish," and the ed-in-chief of the press seems to have liked the book before he sent it out, so I am much of the way to publication. I now have to do the revisions that the readers suggested (or decide that they're bad revisions, but more than 90% of them are in fact good), then write a letter to the Board of Directors of the press, explaining what I did and why (i.e., I took these pieces of advice, but I thought this was wrong because...). Then the Ed-in-Chief and the Board meet and decided whether to offer me a contract. This isn't a done deal, but with two very strong reader's reports, my willingness to actually make the changes (i.e., sometimes you are asked to make changes that you just don't want to agree to), and the Ed-in-chief already having read the book, things look very good.
And I got the news on the Friday after I got tenure, so it was a big week.
Once I have a book contract in hand, I'll say who is going to publish How Tradition Works, though you can figure it out if you read through my site.
With the publication of How Tradition Works, Beowulf and the Critics and the big articles coming out on the Old English translation of the Rule of Chrodegang (JEGP) and on the Anglo-Saxon wills (SELIM), I'll be in good shape to focus my attention on getting the first issue of Tolkien Studies edited and printed by May 1 and getting my essay collection, Anglo-Saxon Poetry in its Tenth-Century Context in shape to give to a press [hear that, contributors, I have three essays; I need the other four so I can edit over Spring Break in March]. Maybe I can get enough done so that I can spend part of the summer painting my house....
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Today the tenure committee at Wheaton voted to promote me to Associate Professor and award me lifetime tenure. It's actually a serious honor (as opposed to bogus things that one might win) because it's awarded by people who actually know you day in and day out. So I'm pretty thrilled even if I means I now get to die in Norton, Mass.
And if people thought I was insufferable before, think what I'll be like now that I can't be fired...
Monday, January 20, 2003
Sorry for the light blogging of late. First there was the media firestorm and now my tenure case is tomorrow. So at this time tomorrow I'll either have a guaranteed job for life or I'll be fired. I don't think I'll sleep much, though I'll pass the morning waiting quite well by taking my daughter to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. If you haven't been, you should: they're a great, old fashioned set of museums all linked together.
Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to begin a continuing series (which I already started in the post below about Beowulf line 1382) about the ways that some Post Modern ideas are actually better illustrated (and even make sense) in light of medieval literature.
Today The Author Function. The "author function" is associated with both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (the flip side is the "death of the author" essay that every English student is force to read two or three times during his or her trip through purgatorial required theory classes). The basic idea of "death of the author" is that reading to try to find out 'what the author is trying to tell us' is impossible and foolish, since author's themselves aren't always sure and even if they were they might lie and anyway, if the author just wants to tell us something, there are simpler ways than writing a sonnet.
The "author function" suggests that there is a value put on an artifact if it is associated with a particular artist that goes beyond the intrinsic value of the artifact. There are lots of good Modernist examples, especially from surrealist and dada art, but there's a better example in medieval literature.
At some point after Chaucer's death, some people wrote up some additional tales to fill in the "missing" Canterbury Tales (if you look at Chaucer's original conception, laid out in the General Prologue, there would be a lot more tales than there are in the completed work). Of these pseudo-Tales, the one that was considered the best, and which lasted the longest, was the Ploughman's Tale. This was probably written in the fifteenth-century (remember that Chaucer died right at the end of the 14th century) and for various political reasons dealing with Lollards (which are interesting, but which always make my students' eyes glaze over), it was appended to the Canterbury Tales right next to the Parson's Tale (the Ploughman is the Parson's brother).
This work was printed as part of the Canterbury Tales in William Thynne's 1542 edition of The Canterbury Tales dedicated to Henry VIII. Presumably other authors who were influenced by Chaucer's work read this Tale and commented upon it. It was, for a while, part of the literary tradition.
Then, when scholarship had become good enough to recognized the Ploughman's Tale as spurious, it was deleted from the Canterbury Tales and is no longer studied as part of the Chaucer canon. This deletion raises some important questions. Is the Ploughman's Tale a good piece of literature independent of Chaucer's authorship? Should it be included in the Canterbury Tales since, for a while, it was part of the tradition? If it's a crappy tale, but later on we discover that it is by Chaucer, does it become un-crappy?
Let me give another more modern example: There's a line in Moby Dick about a "spoiled eel." Critics went on and on about the meaning of this beautifully poetic phrase and how Melville was, well, you can imagine what a genius he was to have combined these two words. Then a textual scholar found out that this was simply a printer's error for "coiled eel." Not particularly poetic, and many a thesis was now invalidated. The question arises, then, how much of the "genius" that we perceive in art is due to our reverence for an author so that we accept lousy work or non-sensical statements from him because he's an author.
I think this problem is at the heart of the ACD vs. others debate on other blogs (links via Andrea Harris). If you allow in the facts (and they are facts) that often what genius we attribute to authors is due to accident or later error (Michelangelo's Moses has horns due to a translation error), then you have to accept that a lot of definitions of "greatness" are very contingent on what critics say and have said (the horror). The evil Stanley Fish takes this idea as far as it can go (in a demonstrative rather than logical sense) by noting that aesthetic interpretation is based upon "interpretive communities" : if you can convince enough people that something is "good," then it's good. There's nothing intrinsic about it.
This is the ruling paradigm in the arts today, and I don't like it. Not because I can't follow its logic, and not because I hate its political ramifications, but because there seems to be some intelligent middle ground that can be staked out. I'm hoping that my work with meme-theory, as well as more recent work in psychology of perceptions, will help to provide us with a new starting point to dicuss these issues in a way that involves a lot less of the appeal to the author function and much more to finding some way to logically and empirically characterize aesthetic effects in a cultural context.
P.S.: Mozart wrote a piece of music, K. 522, A Musical Joke that's probably based on transcriptions or memories of his pet starling's songs. K. 522 is not usually considered one of Mozart's triumphs, but does that make him less or more of a genius for creating it? Is it possible that our "author function" for Mozart is getting in the way of us simply recognizing a not-so-great piece of music and instead over-analyzing so that we convince ourselves that it's great?
Monday, January 06, 2003
Sunday, January 05, 2003
Andrea Harris links to and discusses my earlier post about academia vs. intelligent non-academics on the internet. A.C. Douglas (with whom I'm still going to disagree about myth. Writes a nice post in response to some of my comments.
The "Town / Gown" problem is long standing and not resolvable on an obscure blog (or even in Andrea's), but I thought it might be useful to talk about what exactly we scholars do besides grade [and I am not making this up] a stack of papers that was 27 inches high, every single one of which I read and commented on, though, sadly, less than 30% of the students will pick them up.
One of the things that makes Beowulf (and other medieval literature) so interesting is that it takes up some of the more standard tropes of postmodernism and shows how they really might work. Let's take the famous "indeterminacy of the text" that Derrida is so fond of. Derrida and others would like you to believe that "reading is impossible" because there is no way to fix a meaning to a given text, dictionaries notwithstanding. This critique (which is philosophical in nature) falls on deaf ears because people see themselves reading and think "this French stuff is a load of BS"). But a text like Beowulf is truly indeterminate. First of all there are errors, manifest errors, in the manuscript. But because we know there are some errors, we can't be sure about others. For instance, in 1731 a fire at the ironically named Ashburnham House damaged the Beowulf manuscript. Subsequent use in the 18th century led to a gradual loss of letters around the edges of the page. Fortunately many of these can reconstructed by the transcripts made by Grim Jonsson Thorkelin and a scribe the hired. But the two transcripts do not agree with eachother, and at times they disagree with the manuscript. So, for example, in line 1382, the manuscript reads "wundmi." This is not a possible word in Old English, so editors have tended to emend it. The Thorkelin B transcription reads "wundini," which would be the only example of an archaic (i.e., before the Age of Bede) spelling in the manuscript. However what is in the manuscript can be read as "wundun" (I'll show why below), which would be a regular, late West-Saxon dative/instrumental. All of a sudden the evidence of an early 8th century date disappears, sort of.
The reason this is so confusing is that all of the various words are construced similarly in the script that the scribe is using. wundimi would be "wundiiii," with the i's "ligatured" into "mi" (note that there are four minims, which I've represented by "i" in the form. Then note that "wundini" would be "wundiiii" -- same number of minims, just ligatured differently. Likewise "wundun" would be "wundiiii" -- again note 4 minims with different ligatures.
I like to throw 1382 in the face of scholars who prattle on about the indeterminacy of the text. Yes, such you have in James Joyce, but not anywhere to the degree in Beowulf, where we must constantly struggle with the mediation between manuscript and editors. Which conjectures will you accepts, and which will you throw out. Do you dare to emend yourself (I haven't emended Beowulf yet, but I've emended a few lines in the poem The Fortunes of Men. I'll explain why in another post.
But to return to the original topic: I think that a lot of students and intersted individuals, particularly scientists and engineers, would be less hostile to English if they knew that a lot of what we are doing (at least among the medievalists) is attempting to do logical detective work to figure out what the text is in front of us before we read it. Of course we can't be 100 % logical in prospects; we use creativity. We then try to use logic to justify our conjecture. And, to end which Tolkien, which is all anyone who reads this blog really cares about, Tolkien's genius was that he was able to combine, without sacrificing either, the hard-core linguistic analytical ability with a wide-ranging historical knowledge and a true poet's sensibility toward literature. He could thus put together widely separated pieces of data and use it to reconstruct lost history and culture. But that's another post.