Thursday 4 June 2015

50th International Congress of Medieval Studies - Tolkien at Kalamazoo Round-Up

Mae Govannen!

Well its has been over a month since I returned from the fantastic International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo Michigan (May 14-17), which was my second year of attendance.   I returned from Kalamazoo and went right into the final stages of finishing the manuscript of a new edition of Tolkien's A Secret Vice which I have co-edited with Dr. Dimitra Fimi and will be published by HarperCollins in Feb 2016 as well as the start of the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival (a.k.a my day job!).

The Tolkien at Kalamazoo Beowulf Dramatic Reading Group
This year's conference was really brilliant - the seminars, the papers, the colleagues I got to talk to and the fun of being part of a dramatic reading of the prose version of Tolkien's 2014 Beowulf in a brilliant adaptation by Thom Foy.

It was also quite exciting to give my second paper at Kalamazoo (now as Dr. Andrew Higgins!) - which this year occurred on the last day of the conference.  Here is a brief outline of the Tolkien related seminars/roundtables that I attended and papers given.

The first session kicked off the exploration of Tolkien brilliantly with 'Tolkien as Translator and Translated'.
  • Sandra Hartl, a Phd student from Otto-Friedrich-University, Bamberg, gave a very interesting paper on Tolkien's use of Classical Sources (the subject of her PhD), with a specific focus on parallels between the Classical and Medieval Orfeo story and Tolkien's Beren and Luthien.  Sandra focused on Tolkien's early and continued interests in the Greek and Roman works, which does not receive as much attention in Tolkien scholarship as his interest in Northern literature.  Sandra drew out some interesting parallels between Ovid and Virgil's treatment of the Orfeo story and the Medieval version, which Tolkien himself translated and supervised A.J. Bliss's B Lit thesis on in 1947 (Chronology, p. 313 - does that still exist I wonder!).  Sandra's research is very interesting and I look forward to seeing more of her treatment of the classical sources Tolkien dipped his ladle in for his 'soup of story'. 
  • Maria Volkonskaya explored Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  This paper focused on how Tolkien's modern English translation of Sir Gawain echoed the quality of the types of words that the Gawain poet used in the original poem.  Maria started her paper by indicating that in the glossary of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (compiled by Tolkien and E.V. Gordon) - of the 2,650 words - 250 of them are of Scandinavian origin and another group  are derived from French.  The French words are used by the Gawain poet for stylistic reasons such as for descriptive passages like when the Green Knight enters.  In this description of the Green Knight the beautiful and the grotesque are shown and emphasised through the poets choice of language.  The poet uses French words to describe the Green Knight's garments; whereas the most grotesque elements of the Green Knight are described using English or, in a few cases, Scandanavian words. The Green Knight's language itself is brutish, native and local containing many words with Scandanavian influence.  However, when Gawain is at the Castle of Sir Bertilak there are more instances of words with French borrowings.  Maria explored one line in the original Sir Gawain (ll. 224-225) where English and French words clash -  'Wher is', he said, 'the governour of this gyng" (SGGK, ll. 224-225).  Which Tolkien translates as 'Now where is', he said, 'the governor of this gathering' (Gawain, p. 23) maintaining the sense of the French and English words for 'governor' and 'gyng/gathering'
The showpiece of the first day of the conference was definitely the round-table 'Christopher Tolkien as Medieval Scholar'.  The dream-team partipants of this round-table were Douglas A. Anderson, John D. Rateliff and Brad Eden, who each spoke on aspects of the body of academic scholarship that Christopher Tolkien has done in his own right.  
  • Douglas Anderson (who originally suggested this idea as a round-table for the conference) focused his talk on Christopher Tolkien's work in 1950-1960 and then again in 1969 with fellow Inkling Neville Coghill on scholarly editions from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales of The Pardoner's Tale (1958), The Nun Priest's Tale (1959) and ten years after them The Man of Laws Tale (1969).  These editions came out of Coghill's publishing of a popular edition of The Canterbury Tales with Harrap, and Coghill asked Christopher to work with him on these two editions.  Doug spoke on Christopher's work on these volumes and showed us various editions of them, 
  • John D Rateliff started his talk by making the observation that up to 1974 Christopher Tolkien was known as a Medieval scholar and had he not worked on The Silmarillion (1977) and the 12-year labour of  publishing his father's mythology in The History of Middle-earth series, that is how we would think of him today.  John very kindly posted a written version of his talk on Christopher Tolkien's The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. What I got out of John's excellent talk is that you can see the editorial blueprint for how Christopher structured The History of Middle-earth in the editorial work he did on Heidrek, which was one of a series of books in Nelson's Icelandic Texts.   
  • Brad Eden gave a really intriguing talk by comparing how Christopher worked on and edited his father's mythology by suggesting that a similar use of texts was employed in stories of the Saints especially the Life of the Anglo-Saxon Saint Guthlac. 
The final session of the first day of the conference was a session on  'Tolkien and Victorian Medievalism' with three excellent papers exploring different aspects of this topic.  

  • Sharin Schroeder (National Taipei University of Technology) focused her paper on Tolkien's Oxford lectures on Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale and key elements he highlighted in these lectures that also suggest Tolkien's own thoughts on the folk-tale elements of Chaucer's tale, which she suggested have their origins in the work of 19th century folklorists.  She also drew some interesting parallels between Chaucer and Tolkien as story-makers.  Her paper sign posted the opportunity for more work on the Tolkien's own scholarship of Chaucer.  
  • Amanda Giebfried (St Louis University) gave a paper on 'Maps and Landscape in William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Her paper focused on the trips William Morris made in the 1870's to Iceland and explored how Morris's description of landscape in his own fictional works, which would subsequently influence Tolkien, was inspired by the actual journeys through the landscape of Iceland and the descriptions he used in these journals (which are brilliant adventure novels in their own right!). 
  • The final highly-anticipated paper of this session was by acclaimed Tolkien scholar Jane Chance (Rice University) who spoke on 'Tolkien's Victorian Fairy-Story Beowulf'.  Jane's paper suggested that Tolkien's work 'Sellic Spell' (included in the 2014 edition of Tolkien's Beowulf) was his re-writing of the Beowulf story as a fairy-tale.  In this work Tolkien turns the tragedy of Beowulf into a 'eucatastrophe' with a happy ending, the dragon never comes.  Jane drew out interesting parallels in 'Sellic Spell' to Andrew Lang and William Morris and also explored some of the more 'fairy-tale' elements of this work (including magic swords and rings) and suggested that in this version of the Beowulf story 'Bee-wulf' is much more like an Arthur figure.  I thought one of the most interesting points, of many,   Jane made is a need in Tolkien scholarship to take into consideration all the many projects (academic and creative) that Tolkien was working on during the writing on a key work (like 'Sellic Spell') and how they may have influenced each other.  Clearly Tolkien did not work on projects in isolation and an analysis of any work required looking at all the other projects he was working on during this time - an interesting point that I will add to my own methodology in researching Tolkien.   

On the next day of the conference The Tales After Tolkien Society held a round-table 'From Frodo to Fidelma:Medievalism in Popular Genres'.  

Kris Swank of Pima Community College and a Signum/Mythgard Institute Tolkien scholar and colleague gave a brilliant talk on 'Black in Sherwood: Race and Ethnicity in Robin Hood Media' in which she explored how the saracens of the Robin Hood legend are depicted in modern versions of the story.  Kris made the point that in modern adaptions the saracen 'other' is portrayed either as the strange foreigner or as the integrated muslim who is part of the band of merrymen but is still marked as 'other' through their dress and the following of strange customs.  She also explored how some of Robin's Merry Men have been portrayed in modern movie and televisions adaptations by people of colour.  

I thought the most interesting example Kris brought out here was the film Robin and The Seven Hoods with Frank Sinatra where Sammy Davis played Will Scarlet.  In this film the rather randy Maid Marion (played by Ava Gardener) seduced all of Robin's Merry Men except for Will Scarlet because he was being played by a black actor.  This was a brilliant presentation and I believe Kris is publishing related articles in an upcoming publication of The Tales After Tolkien Society. 

There were other interesting papers in this roundtable - next to Kris's the standout for me was John Marino of Maryville University called 'The Zombie Apocalypse in the Classroom' which related how John had used a simulated zombie attack to teach his students about survival and what is was like to live in the 14th century during the plague - very cool!   

The concluding day of the 2015 Congress had two very strong Tolkien sessions. 

On Sunday at 8:30am I was very pleased to see a full-room for the session 'Tolkien as Linguist and Medievalist'.  The panel for this session was made up of myself, Eileen Marie Moore, John D. Rateliff and Kris Swank.

My paper 'The First Red Book: An Exploration of Tolkien's Exeter College Essay Book' explored some of the earliest academic essays Tolkien wrote in his red covered Exeter College Essay book (the first Red Book).  My analysis of these essays, which were all written around 1913-1915, suggested links to the creative and intertwined myth-making and language invention Tolkien was developing at the time and suggests that these essays, just one source of Tolkien's own early academic work, gives us interesting insights into  understanding how Tolkien used elements of his own academic training in 'lit' and 'lang' in his own early mythopoeia and glossopoeia work. 

Eileen Marie-Moore gave an excellent paper on 'Inter-Elvish Miscommunication and the Fall of Gondolin' in which she explored one strand of the fate of the fall of Gondolin coming from the incursion of the speech of mortal interlopers into the 'nexus' of Elvish languages and dialects that were spoken in Gondolin.  Eileen gave some really intriguing examples of how this miscommunication was achieved through the blending of tongues, with a special focus on the Dark Elf Eol. 

John D. Rateliff's paper 'A Scholar of the Old School: Tolkien's Editing of Medieval Manuscripts' convincingly showed that contemporary criticism of Tolkien's process of editing Medieval manuscripts, as with the current 2014 edition of Beowulf, does not take into account how editors of Tolkien's own time thought about the actual process of editing manuscripts. Tolkien and his contemporary editors had a confidence in their knowledge of the texts and felt they had the philological knowledge to be able to change the scribes (not the original writers) emendations if they did not agree with them.  As is evidenced by Tolkien's edition of Exodus and Beowulf, Tolkien would emend certain passages and not tell the reader.  John highlighted the P. J. Lucas review of Tolkien's Exodus, which indicated that Tolkien's presentation leaves much to be desired.  John also made the point that Tolkien felt that the editor of a text should be invisible 'the trail of the passing editor' and that distractions should be removed from the text so that the work was a work of poesis or art.  The key point was that Tolkien had the confidence to do this and John's paper really helped me to understand the way Tolkien presents texts like Exodus, Sir Gawain and Beowulf to the modern reader.  

Kris Swank's 'Immram Roverandom' has to be one of my favs from the conference.  In this tour-de-force work of Tolkien scholarship Kris examined a recognisably Irish strain in Tolkien's 1925 children's story Roverandom, with a special focus on the immram, a class of Old Irish tales concerning a hero's sea journey to the Otherworld which were written in the Christian era but contains elements of Irish mythology. Kris's excellent paper identified key elements of the immram in Tolkien's Roverandom showing Tolkien's interest and use of Irish myth and legend.  Kris has an article coming out on this subject in the next volume of Tolkien Studies which I can not wait to read.  

The last Tolkien session of the conference brought us back to Tolkien's work on Beowulf.
  • John R. Holmes's (Franciscan University of Steubenville) paper "That Does Not Attract Me": Lang/Lit. and the Structure of Tolkien's Beowulf Commentary' focused specfically on Tolkien's commentary on Beowulf, drawn from his Oxford lectures, which show the working of the tutorial mind who both knows and is trying to train students in framing  arguments.  Holmes gave several interesting examples of how in the commentary Tolkien follows a particular argument to its conclusion only to show that it is actually a dead-end, in other words showing students how to build an argument to ultimately show its weakness - a key focus of an Oxford student's preparation for their exams. 
  • I was really looking forward to the next paper 'Can a Geat Be A Knight? Tolkien's Use of Chivalric Terminology in His Translation of Beowulf' by Professor Brian McFadden (Texas Tech University).  Tolkien's use of the term 'knight' in his prose translation of Beowulf has puzzled me since my first reading it last May.  Professor McFadden's made the point that the use of the word 'knight' in Beowulf was not unique to Tolkien and he been used in at least nine earlier translations - including John Earle's 'Deed's of Beowulf', which Tolkien first read as an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford (the one that starts of with 'What Ho! We have Heard'). McFadden suggested that like the word 'Elf' which he explored in On Fairy-stories, Tolkien was attempting to recover the word 'knight' to its original meaning which was connected with the Anglo-Saxon words of thane, retainer, earl, secg, leod, rinc.  McFadden pointed to Tolkien's notes on translation in the Clark-Hall prose translation of Beowulf when he explored the use of more contemporary words to signify older ideas...which yours truly needs to re-read! 
  • Amy Amendt-Raduege focused her Beowulf exploration on 'The Weird Word Wyrd' examining the use of 'wyrd' ('fate')  in Beowulf.  Amy explored that the word 'wyrd' appears 12 times in Beowulf and is the subject of two of Tolkien's commentaries, with a record seven pages of commentary by Tolkien on 'wyrd'.  Amy recognised the actual meaning of wyrd is a crux in itself and examined several sources drawn from Old Norse and Jacob Grimm's link of wyrd to the Christian God.  Amy's talk made me go back and re-read Tolkien's very interesting notes on Wyrd in Beowulf!  
In addition to the Tolkien focused seminars and papers there were also some brilliant seminars focused on both 'lit' and 'lang'.  Of the most interesting for me was 'Words and Verses' sponsored by Society for Medieval Germanic Studies which included a paper by Dr. Nelson Goering of Oxford University (a brilliant Tolkien scholar as well) who gave a really interesting paper which looked at the metrical structure of the Word-Foot Theory of Old Germanic Meter.  Nelson is doing really brilliant work on Germanic metre and it is an area I am trying to read-up on and become more proficient in.

And the book rooms at Kalamazoo did not disappoint!  The list of books I purchased included two volumes that I am sure Tolkien read.  First The Principles of English Etymology by Rev. Walter W. Skeat in an Oxford Clarendon Press edition of 1887.  Secondly, Tolkien's former student G. Turville-Petre's Origins of Icelandic Literature (1953) which includes in the introduction 'J.R.R.Tolkien has also made many useful suggestions'

So another brilliant year of Tolkien exploration, discussion, debate and fun at Kalamazoo!  Based on the Tolkien at Kalamazoo Business meeting I think 2016 will be even more exciting (more to come on that!).  

Now it is on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July where I am very excited to be giving a paper on the panel 'Celtic Literature in Tolkien's Medievalism' organised  by Dr. Dimitra Fimi - in which I will be exploring the 'lit' and 'lang' of Welsh Princesses and Cats in Tolkien's Tale of Tinuviel - having fun digging back into the Lost Tales materials!

I also recently posted an extended version of the Francis Thompson paper I gave this March at The Enchanted Edwardians Conference in Bristol to here.

Namárië for now! 

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