Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tolkien Open Thread

Houseguests, deadlines, Halloween costumes, unfathomable amounts of grading, and moving my wife's business have all led to me being unable to post much the last week. NEVERTHELESS, the Tolkien thread has been going strong in my absence.

So, I offer for your commenting pleasure a Tolkien open thread. You can say whatever you want here (within reason -- here's Da Rulz), just so long as it's about Tolkien. Don't say I never did nuttin' for da peoples.*

*Quoted from that famed philosopher, Strongbad.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

England Defeated by French Invaders at Hastings ... again

A couple of weeks ago, Steve Muhlberger linked to a BBC article about a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. I didn't comment on it here, mostly out of disappointment that there was no video, but he has since found someone's photos of the event.

You'd think that the Anglo-Saxons would have figured out how to defeat the Normans by now, but reports are that the Normans plan a long occupation of the island.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tolkien and Literary Tradition

I received an e-mail a week or so ago from Matt Fellows, in which he raised some issues about the relationship between Tolkien and fantasy fiction. From his comments, I realize that I left some things implied that needed to be explicitly said in "The Lord of the Rings and the Medieval Literary Tradition."

He wrote:

I have been a long time fan of your blog and was today reading through your essay entitled "The Lord of the Rings and the Medieval Literary Tradition". I found it very insightful, yet on a certain point would enjoy more detail. This being your statement that Tolkien created fantasy fiction or more specifically that in his fiction Tolkien found himself "breaking into a new cavern that we today know as fantasy fiction"(emphasis obviously mine).

Anyone with the least bit of knowledge of modern fantasy knows that much is but cloned Tolkien. That being said, I would rather say that Tolkien innovated fantasy fiction in a direction that is most characteristic of the genre today. To imply that he created the genre minimizes the genius of earlier writers such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany or E.R. Eddison, who were in my opinion all brilliant writers that simply did not break into the public scene. That Tolkien brought fantasy to its peak I will whole heartedly proclaim, yet if the writings of the aforementioned authors aren't examples of modern fantasy fiction, then what are they?

The fairly recent 'New Weird' movement in fantasy also illustrates the endurance of darker authors like Mervyn Peake and H.P. Lovecraft. I can understand not thinking the above authors important due to personal aesthetic preferences, yet that should not hinder their proper categorization in the fantasy fiction genre.

I responded:

I don't mean to minimize the work of other contemporary or early fantasy writers. As you point out, however, much of what passes as fantasy fiction is the army of Tolkien clones.For the creation of a genre, one must have many people following the work of a set of writers. While fantasy geeks like you and me might know of the contributions of these other writers, by-and-large they did not build durable followings of other authors. Their influence, then, far less than Tolkien's (and Robert E. Howard's).On the other end, of course, Tolkien is really discovering fantasy fiction for himself, not following another's work (this, of course, happens relatively often -- that a particular zeitgeist will lead thinkers independently to the same end). If Tolkien is following anyone's school of thought, it is the work of much older, medieval writers of romance (like Chretien de Troyes).

He responded:

You make a good point. If only a select few are reading your work then it really isn't reaching a large enough audience to leave a genre in its wake. In that sense we can never really look at what is 'big' in a genre to know what is the best. I mean, look at the horror genre! It's not Poe, Lovecraft or any of the masters that are big, it's third rate writers like Stephen King.

Tolkien certainly did follow his own unique path in fiction. While he mentions enjoying the works of Dunsany, and Eddison's classic Worm Ouroboros, he was always sure to mention they were not influences on him. Indeed, I am not sure where, but C.S. Lewis went as far as to say that in their Inklings meetings 'no one influenced Tolkien, he was as hard to influence as a Bandersnatch.'

I completely agree with you about Tolkien's continuation of earlier literary traditions. It was this aspect of his writings that has lead me to discover the great Medieval, and even Classical, writers.

I think Fellows was responding to a hole in my argument that I need to fill in a bit. What does it take to be an artist, and part of a tradition? I take my own position from T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (which can be read in its totality from the link). To crudely summarize Eliot, innovation of the individual talent only has value within a particular artistic tradition. Why does your love poetry from the 10th grade stink so badly? It's because you didn't read poetry, and so didn't have a good understanding of where poetry was coming from.

I understand Fellow's point about not discounting other contemporary and earlier fantasy writers. At the end of the day, though, the other writers he mentioned were admired, but not followed -- and THIS is what it takes to make a genre. The only possible exception in that group is Mervyn Peake, who, strangely enough, makes his dark vision best felt in the area of children's fantasy, in the works of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and the first Harry Potter book (no, I'm not claiming that Rowling had read Peake, but that she was following through Dahl).

On the other hand, we have people like Lovecraft ... who is much loved, much admired, but not much imitated.* Occasionally we'll see people trying to write in Lovecraft's world, using his pantheon, and this might be the beginnings of a "Lovecraft school," but it's too early to be sure. At the moment, I don't see too many fantasy writings exploring the "Unspeakable."

*Full disclosure: I'm among the fans of Lovecraft. I even taught him in a graduate seminar once, linking his "unspeakable" to Freud's "unheimlich," and the two ideas worked quite nicely together.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Medievalism Open Thread

I've gotten a couple of complaints because I haven't posted a medievalism open thread for a while. Well, consider it posted here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Public Speaking Engagements

As regular readers of this space know, I'm available for public speaking engagements, such as civic groups, reading or book clubs, church groups, science fiction/fantasy conventions, high school English classes, etc. These tend to be on medievalist themes (like King Arthur, Tolkien, medieval magic, etc), and are aimed at popular audiences. They also tend to be very well received, so you won't be accused of arranging something boring (unless you want me as a guest speaker at a high school, where all adults are considered boring).

Looking at my schedule for this last quarter of 2006, I see that my calendar is filling up. If any Wordhoarders out there would like me to come to your convention, meeting, or whatever, I would strongly recommend you e-mail me sooner rather than later. Between engagements in Asia, end-of-year family commitments, completing research projects, and so forth, not too many days are left unaccounted for.

E-mail me soon if you want me to speak. If you have a specific subject you want me to speak on (something for which I don't already have a prepared talk with audio-visuals), you have to give me even more warning time to prepare new materials.

Beowulf Brew

I find this little video quite charming. It starts off as an enactment of the first two fights Beowulf has, and ends up a faux commercial. Perhaps what I find most charming of it is "Grendel's Mother," who seems very confused in the battle scene.

I wonder if the video is more influenced by John Gardner's Grendel than the poem. The prop that is Grendel is, at one point, in a tree, reminding me of Grendel being stuck in the crook of a tree in Gardner's book.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Back from SEMA

As I mentioned in this post, I went to the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) conference to chair two sessions. If I had been paying close attention, I'd have realized that I was scheduled to chair THREE. In addition to the two I mentioned earlier, I also chaired:

Alliterative Traditions: Beginnings and Endings

  • Susan E. Deskis, Northern Illinois University, “The Origins of Some Middle English Alliterative Proverbs”
  • Ordelle Hill, Eastern Kentucky University, “The Alliterative Revival: A New Beginning, an Ending, or a Lateral Move?”
  • John T. Sebastian, Loyola University New Orleans, “Apocalyptic Beginnings and Indeterminate Verdicts: Judgment in Wynnere and Wastoure
I was pleased that all three of my sessions had very good papers; not a stinker in the lot.

I also got to meet William Smith of Weatherford College, who's a regular reader of this space, and even though I didn't get a chance to talk to him about the Wordhoard, I did get to hear his really interesting paper on the Benedictine Reform and private prayer.

My only disappointments were that I didn't really have a chance to chat beyond banalities with Jim Hall or Roy Liuzza (two really nice guys), I didn't get enough time to catch up with my old friend Leslie Lockett, and I didn't even realize that Eileen Joy of In the Middle was going to be there for the BABEL Working Group until after I got back from the conference. I'd like to have met Eileen.

The nice thing about being a medievalist, though, is that even when you miss someone at a conference, there's always the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

SEMA 2006

I'll be heading off to the Southeastern Medieval Association conference bright and early in the morning. I'll be chairing two sessions there:

Designing Images
Thursday, 2:45-4:15
  • Helen T. Bennett, Eastern Kentucky University, “The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf: Endings Embedded in Beginnings”
  • Lindsey N. Phillips, Florida State University, “Reconstructing Woman’s Place: Feminized Architectural Allegories in Christine de Pizan and Hildegard of Bingen”
  • Elizabeth Sklar, Wayne State University, “ ‘Stuffed with Ymagarye’: EmarĂ©’s Robe and the Construction of Desire”


Tenth-Century Anglo-Saxon History
Friday, 10:45-12:15
  • Patrick W. Conner, West Virginia University, “Documenting Vernacular Performance in the Anglo-Saxon Parish Guild Banquets”
  • William H. Smith, Weatherford College, “The Benedictine Reform and the Beginnings of English Prayer”
  • Nicole Marafioti, Cornell University, “Memory and Its Obliteration in the Murder of King Edward the Martyr”

I've already gotten copies of most of the abstracts and a couple of the papers; these sessions ought to be pretty good.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wordhoard Abierto

Ever wonder what Unlocked Wordhoard would look like in Spanish? No? Never?

Well, someone did, and here's the result.

Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korean Nuclear Test

I've been diligently restricting Wordhoard content to medievalism these days, but given how many people asked me about the North Korean nuclear test before it happened, I expect to be deluged with questions now.

Fortunately, if you want to know what the South Koreans think about all this, you don't need me as your intermediary; most (all?) major newspapers in Korea publish an English version, with varying quality of translation.

Here, then is a list of links I put together for a Korean-themed composition class we did as part of a US State Department program a few years ago. The page suffers a bit from link rot, but I think all the links to English-language versions of major dailies still work. For those of you who, like me, are great lovers of Stalinist rhetoric, I strongly recommend reading the (North) Korean Central News Agency for a feeling of nostalgia for Soviet propoganda with its over-the-top tropes and references to such songs as (I'm not kidding) "The Leader Has Come," and "He Has Come to Ryongnam Hill Again," as well as such groups as "Youth Group for the Study of the Juche Idea," "Protectors of Arts for the Century," and "Down-with-Imperialism Union." No word yet from the "Up-with Imperialism Union."

We now return to our regularly scheduled medievalist programming.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sand Castles

I'm a liar. In class, I play the Devil's advocate so often that it moves into absurdity. A frequent trope of mine is to introduce a text by asking, "What was this about? I haven't actually read it, myself," in order to force the students to describe a work as if to someone who hasn't read it. Of course, they all know that I've read it (either that or I'm the best guesser of details in the world), but it's a fun sort of fiction to maintain. I'll often pretend that anecdotes I tell are simply random digressions, and then act surprised when, 40 minutes later in the class, some student manages to see how my apparently-unconnected story actually illustrates something important about the text we are reading. It takes a lot of work to make a lecture seem off-the-cuff (well, I suppose it takes very little work at all if it is all actually off-the-cuff, but then it isn't likely to go anywhere, is it?), but it's simply my own take on the Aristotle's dialectical pedagogy. In his case, Aristotle pretended to be an idiot who needed things explained to him. In my case, I pretend to lecture when I'm actually casting lines out for the students to use to make connections. Sneaky, huh?

Rarely, then, am I surprised by anything that comes up in class (though I frequently act surprised). My students' sudden insights are discoveries I have buried for them to find in most cases. Last week, though, I really was surprised by something a student brought up -- sand castles as medievalism.

I confess, I had never before thought about sand castles as a manifestation of medievalism -- though now that I think of it, it's painfully obvious. When you've got a beach full of sand and you decide to make a structure, why make a sand castle? Why not a sand fortress? A sand beachhouse? A sand skyscraper? Castles are not otherwise particularly associated with sand or beaches, I think.

In the class discussion that followed, we came up with two theories about this, neither of which are satisfying the more that I think about it. One theory is that certain kinds of buckets form a shape that is generally like a square structure with for "turrets," one on each side. While this is true, it doesn't seem to me that this necessarily suggests a castle, nor is it necessarily the most common form of beach bucket (I think the rounded kind is more common). The other theory was the theory of the moat. Beaches offer the opportunity to have a real moat with real water, and this suggests a castle (since their aren't many apartment buildings with moats). I favored this idea in class, but when I went online and began to look at images of sand castles, I began to reject this idea, as castles with moats seem to be in the minority.

What is it, then, about sand castles that makes them sand castles? Any suggestions from the Wordhoarders out there?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blogger Misbehaves

I've just had to delete two posts here, because, for some reason, Blogger republished this Claymation Grendel post twice in quick succession. I'm not sure why Blogger is suddenly republishing random old posts. My apologies to Wordhoard subscribers, who must have felt as mystified as me to find old posts popping up in the e-mail.

Bad Blogger! Bad!

Kinslaying, Tolkien, and the Bible

Apparently, my mention of "kinslaying" in my Beowulf & Grendel review has sparked a thread over at The One Ring. I'm glad that N.E. Brigand still reads the Wordhoard, as he's the only One Ringer I've ever met (so far as I know), and a really charming guy.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

World of Warcraft Pardoner's Tale

One of my former students sent me this link to the World of Warcraft "Pardoner's Tale." It is a pretty faithful re-enactment of Chaucer's original, "acted" out with World of Warcraft characters. According to the notes, it was a school project, and they received 120% grade on it. Well deserved, I think.

I'm curious, though, as to what the author thinks of this film version. I hope at some point Geoffrey Chaucer reviews it on his blog.