Last week my Tolkien travels took me to the far off land of Kalamazoo [see linguistic note at end]* in Michigan to the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Thanks to the brilliant and pioneering work of such Tolkien academic luminaries as Jane Chance, Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A Anderson there is now an established series of Tolkien sessions at this congress (as well as sessions on C.S. Lewis and Fantasy after Tolkien) from which many great Tolkien books have come (Tolkien and The Invention of Myth and Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages to name just two) and I was very pleased and honoured to give my first paper at Kalamazoo in one of these sessions. This was a very busy conference with much to do and there was also one of the largest collections of books I have ever seen on sale. Yours truly picked up some real good ones – including several volumes of Kenneth Morris and Clemence Housman’s The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis at Douglas Anderson’s Nodens Publishing Table (which I have had on my list to read ever since Doug recommended it during the Mythguard Institute History of the Hobbit course).
Here is a top line summary of the Tolkien at Kalamazoo papers that were given based on notes I took during the sessions.
Tolkien Session 1 – Tolkien and His Medieval Sources
Tolkien Grammaticus: The Influence of the Gesta Danorum in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
This paper was given by Leigh Smith of East Stroudsberg University. Leigh’s very interesting paper focused on the Frodi’s that are found in the Gesta of Saxo Grammaticus and suggests that Tolkien may have been inspired by some of the characteristics of the historical Frodi’s in his development of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings ; especially Frodi VI who brought Christianity to Denmark and was known to be ‘wise.’ Saxo’s work (which has not received a lot of analysis and contextualisation with Tolkien) is certainly replete with riddle contests, haunted barrows and barrow weightish creatures as well as dragons and Leigh’s paper certainly got me more interested in digging into this particular work for Tolkien sources and analogues.
Approaching ‘Se Uncuthaholm’ Tolkien’s Early Study of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Prose as a Source for Invention of Ottor Waefre
This was my paper and I will leave others to decide how interesting it was. In this paper I explored two Anglo-Saxon sources that would have inspired Tolkien in the development of his first frame narrative to link his emerging mythology to the lost literature of Faerie or England. The first of these in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith and especially R.W. Chambers 1912 edition Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend a key edition for the early Tolkien which included lots of historical, linguistic and mythic background information on the names and ‘lost tales’ in this enigmatic poem which links back to the Germanic migration period of the 5th century. The second was The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan which Tolkien read in his edition of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. This paper explored how Tolkien would have used these works as a mine of linguistic, mythic and pseudo-historical inspiration for the development of his earliest frame narrative.
Creative Corrections: Tolkien’s Response to Beorhtnoth’s Ofermod
In this paper Colin Pajda of St. Louis University showed how Tolkien used the heroic acts of the character Theoden in The Lord of the Rings to correct the failure of Beorhtnoth’s Ofermod in Homecoming. Padja suggested that Tolkien viewed the Northern Heroic spirit through the prism of his own war experiences and suggested that in both Homecoming and The Lord of the Rings Tolkien was exploring and reassessing the concept of what it is like to fulfil your duty. I was very impressed by the analysis of this paper and it has made me want to go back and re-explore Tolkien’s Homecoming again.
Hrolfr Kraki in Tolkien’s Middle Earth
Aldasaga podcast creator and my Mythguard Institute/Signum University colleague Brent Landon gave a brilliant paper on the Old Norse Hrolfr Saga Kraki and its relation to Beowulf and the character of Beorn in The Hobbit. Brent also explored Tolkien’s (soon to published) Sellic Spell which was Tolkien’s attempt to invent the fairy tale of the Bee Wolf that went behind the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf poem. Brent also made the point that the saga of Hrolf Saga Kraki was used at great battles as an example of the ‘good fight’ in various Old Norse battles.
Tolkien Session 2: The Fall of Arthur This session was focused on Tolkien’s (sadly) unfinished Arthurian Epic The Fall of Arthur (FOA) which was published last year.
‘That Seems Fatal to Me’ Pagan and Christians in The Fall of Arthur
John D. Rateliff (Tolkien scholar and author of The History of the Hobbit) gave an excellent paper focusing on Tolkien’s comment in the letter to Milton Waldman that fantasy should not include overtly elements of the Christian religion (Letters, p. 144) and yet he wrote The Fall of Arthur which does have overt Christian elements in it. In FOA, Arthur is portrayed as a crusader destroying the pagans of the East. Rateliff also indicates that in the Waldman letter Tolkien called the Arthurian corpus ‘too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetititve’ and suggests that Tolkien here was referring to the Holy Grail part of the Arthurian corpus which is not included in The Fall of Arthur. Indeed, Rateliff made this point by stating that The Fall of Arthur is a relatively low magic setting. Finally there is the very significant element that in Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur the British are the heroes and The Anglo-Saxons are the enemies NOT the heroes.
‘Double-Hearted,’ Psychomachia in The Fall of Arthur
John R. Holmes of Franciscan University of Steubenville gave a very interesting paper contextualising the inner moral struggle of Arthur and Lancelot in Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur with the Medieval concept of ‘pyschomachia’ ‘the inner conflict’ and ‘battle of spirits’ coined by the Late Latin poet Prudentius. Holmes used this concept to explore several examples of this internal conflict in Tolkien’s work including The Baggins/Took conflict in The Hobbit and, of course, Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Holmes especially explored the character of Mordred in Canto 2 of FOA which Tolkien describes as ‘Mordred’s mind wandered in dark places…’ (which reminded me of Melko in ‘The Music of the Ainur’). There are several places in FOA where Tolkien explores this idea of pyschomachia especially with Lancelot and Guinievere (‘a heart divided, half he hoped’). Holmes concluded by drawing some interesting parallels to this concept and the Old English exile poetry such as The Wanderer and Deor. Lots to explore here!
Tides of Time in The Fall of Arthur
Robert Tredray explored the motif of ‘the tides of time’ which opens Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (‘Thus the tides of time to turn backward’ FOA, p. 17). At the beginning of the poem Arthur is hoping to turn back the tides of time which Tredray suggests can be paralled with concepts of hubris and ofermod (pride). Throughout the course of the poem Arthur moves from wanting to change the tides of time to the good king who actually entrusts himself and his fate to the tides themselves (quite literally). The phrase ‘the tides of time’ is an interesting one to trace and explore in Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (and other works I would think….) ‘
Where is Avalon? Tolkien’s Otherworld in the West and The Fall of Arthur
Boy was I waiting for this paper! Dr Dimitra Fimi of Cardiff Metropolitan University (and my guiding force Phd advisor) gave a brilliant paper on Tolkien’s use of Avalon as an otherworldly island in both the FOA poem and his attempt through several fragments that CRRT publishes to link the Arthur story to his own invented mythology. Fimi made the point that Tolkien was using the English tradition of Arthur from the two source works the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the Alliterative Morte Arthure as opposed to the Welsh or French tradition. Fimi’s paper explored the concept of what Avalon is or was meant to be in Tolkien’s FOA. For this Fimi suggested a good source/analogue that Tolkien would have known and owned several copies of was ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ (Englynion y Beddeau) found in the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen. Fimi’s close analysis of Tolkien’s poetic fragment which CRRT calls ‘Arthur’s Grave’ and ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’ shows some intriguing parallels around the nature of Arthur. Fimi’s knowledge and expertise in the area of ‘Celtic’ studies highlighted lots of areas in The Fall of Arthur to explore. Fimi also suggested that when Tolkien was working on FOA (mid 1930’s) he was thinking about frames and portals and the attempt to link his Arthur work to his mythology may have been an attempt to incorporate the Arthurian material into the framework of his own mythology…unfortunately we will never know……A tour de force paper and I hope Dr Fimi will do more work in this very exciting area.
Tolkien Session 3: Tolkien’s Natural World and Sciences
The (Nearly) Discarded Image: Tolkien’s Later Tinkerings with his Medieval Cosmology
The excellent Tolkien scholar Kristine Larson of Central Connecticut State University continued her exploration of Tolkien’s use of astronomy in his work by exploring the very knotty work Tolkien did in the post Lord of the Rings versions of the legendarium (especially as published in HOME Morgoth’s Ring) on his revision of the early ‘Tales of the Sun and the Moon’ (in The Book of Lost Tales) to bring the mythology more in line with scientific theories of the time. This was exemplified in ‘The Round World’ version of the mythology which emerged in the late 1940’s-1950’s when Tolkien attempted to remove the ‘whimsy’ of the earlier creation of the sun and the moon. He did this by suggesting various alternate origins for these earlier myths. Larson also made the point that in Tolkien’s ‘Myth Transformed’ work in Morgoth’s Ring the descriptions of planetary bodies, etc. reflect the pre-Apollo moon landing description of the moon in science books of the time.
You Must Remember: Time Dilation in Middle-Earth This was a very interesting albeit at times challenging paper given by Michael Wodzak at Viterbo University on the cycles of time in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Wodzak cited several interesting sources including Thomas Burnet’s The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1816) which explores the concept of ‘deep time’ to analyse how time works in Middle Earth and how this is perceived by both Elves and Men. It was the one paper I was hoping for a bit more from and hope to hear more of Wodzak’s thoughts at future conferences.
Litany of the Ents: Treebeard’s Priesthood and the Sacred Nature of Tolkien’s Natural World Victoria Wodzak also of Viterbo University explored the Christian concept of the ‘litany’ in relation to Treebeard and the Ents and Tolkien’s comparison in Letters of the church to a tree. She suggested that given their sheparding nature the Ents can be seen has a type of sacred priesthood. Wodzak cited several compelling examples in The Lord of the Rings to support this including Tolkien’s description of the Entmoot as a ‘conclave’ and the baptismal font nature of Wellinghall. She also explored the concept of the Ent’s healing water and its purification of Orthanc.
Tolkien Unbound! And on the fun/ludic aide of the conference… Tolkien Unbound was a brilliant celebration that included
- Eileen Marie Moore’s Maidens of Middle Earth IV – a beautiful recital of Tolkien related songs,
- A Dramatic Reading of The Fall of Arthur (amazing to see Verlyn Flieger and Dr Dimitra Fimi tag team reading Guinievere and Richard West doing Mordred!)
- and a rowdy sing song of Tolkien’s Song’s For the Philologists led by Douglas Anderson and company – you could just hear Tolkien and Gordon singing these in the pub after a couple…..
As I am sure you can tell I had a brilliant time at this conference and will plan to attend and give another paper next year. We had a very good Tolkien at Kalamazoo business meeting led by Brad Eden at which we put together session proposals for next year with the objective of trying to increase (which have been cut in recent years) the number of sessions for Tolkien. So I will look forward to treading down this particular avenue of the Olore Malle to the land of Kalamazoo next year – where more Tolkienian discussion, debate and exploration awaits…already thinking of paper topics!
For now…Namarie! Nai hiruvalye Valinor….Andy x
* linguistic note – Kalamazoo – I am convinced was named by the Elves using the Qenya base root KALA – shine, golden (PE 12, p.44) combined with a later Mannish or Dwarvish word MAZAH meaning place of the geese or goslings – but this is only philological conjecture on my part…absurd.