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Tolkien at the PCA

This was the second year that the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference has had a track in Tolkien Studies, now an official study area of the Association under the chairship of Robin Reid of Texas A&M-Commerce. This year’s conference was held at the Marriott Hotel on the edge of the colorful French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Tolkien track – just one set of items in a huge four-day conference with hundreds of presentations on all manner of pop culture topics – ran all day on Friday, April 3, in one small meeting room with a usual audience of about 20. Here’s my impressions of attending much of it, taken from my personal blog:

I was there in time for the 8 am crack-o-dawn start, for Kristine Larsen to wake us up with a defense of reading the standard phrase “the living rock” in Tolkien as being a genuine aesthetic metaphor. Beings made of rock; living creatures compared to rocks. They are, she said, true ore-ganisms. Groan. Followed by Victoria Holtz-Wodzak and Margaret Sinex both discussing Silmarillion characters as being essentially the walking wounded of World War I. Yes, Nienor is a victim of shell-shock; why do you need to ask?

Next session, Megan Whobrey proposing an aesthetic hierarchy of species in Tolkien based on their musical talent; this turns out the same as the regular hierarchy. John Rosegrant on Galadriel and Shelob as masculine figures. Yes, you read that right, masculine. This is why I love Tolkien conferences: totally unexpected ideas that make sense when explained. Rich Cooper using Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories” to point out to all the anti-fantasy sci-fi guys (who weren’t in the room) that fantasy does something more important than stick to scientific fact: it offers awe and the sensawunda, the same aesthetic goals as good SF. And Janet Croft, who had alas lost her voice (we’ve put out a lost & found alert for it) getting esoteric on the symbolic terminology for the One Ring.

Third session, Steven Kelly denouncing Jackson’s Hobbit: “It looks fair, but feels foul,” to borrow a phrase. Peter Grybauskas on sporting ethics in Tolkien’s war: Morgoth (initially described as “not content with the position of first chair in Eru’s band”) goes out to single combat with Fingolfin not because he wants to, but because he’s shamed into being sportsmanlike. Me proposing that Smith of Wootton Major would look a lot different if Emma Bull had written it. And Michael Wodzak with a new theory on how Morgoth bred the orcs that was so brilliant that the margins of this web page do not contain enough space to write it down.

By this time it was 1 pm, and I skipped the next session, of papers entirely on the Jackson films,* out of fear that they’d give me indigestion, which I did not get by going out and having lunch at K-Paul’s, two blocks down the street. (One could get used to staying around here.) By the time I got back, it was time for a session with Brad Eden tantalizing us by not giving the details of the political hot potatoes in the personal library of Tolkien’s son Michael. But I gather he was on the Enoch Powell end of politics. Quinn Gerval pointed out that movies colonize your brain (which is why “The book is still on the shelf” is an insufficient answer), which is one reason Tolkien disliked dramatizations. Michael Elam reported that specializing in Tolkien is still not a good way to advance in academe.

Last session, on Tolkien fandom and fan fiction. Cait Coker is young, but she knows her Tolkien fan history, to be sure, right back to the 1950s. Good job. Then Kristine Larsen and Robin Reid regaled us with lurid descriptions of what’s out there in fan fiction. What I liked best was the labeling system for canon. Is your canon Tolkien’s published books? the movies? Tolkien’s posthumous stuff? mix it all up and don’t give a hoot? You can do anything you want, so long as you label it properly. Ah, if only scholars would do the same. Then I could reject all the “I’m supposed to be writing about the books, but I neither remember nor care what came from the movies instead” papers without having to read them first.

*The schedule did include one by Robin Reid on fan reactions to Tauriel. I must say I can’t see why there’s any fuss over her. After all the totally ridiculous changes Jackson made in the Hobbit story, I can’t really complain about one new character who rather makes sense, when Jackson has taken all the characters that were in Tolkien and rendered them completely senseless.

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.