MythCon 45 Day 2: Where does fantasy fit?

Richard C. West, Scholar Guest of Honour

Richard C. West, Scholar Guest of Honour

Day 2 of MythCon began Saturday morning. After breakfast, I really came to appreciate how many people had come to Wheaton College. In addition to seeing many of the faces I saw on Friday, Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, was there.

Allow me to explain one thing about this guy: I first listened to his podcast years ago, likely when I was still at Dawson College in Liberal Arts, and from him, I first learned about Tolkien’s “On Faerie-Stories” and eucatastrophe. I had no idea previously how to read Tolkien through a critical lens, but listening to Olsen’s podcasts gave me the vocabulary. Only this was years and years before I got serious with my Honours thesis. I was listening to the podcasts for intellectual pleasure, but it planted a seed, and that seed grew. Pretty well, you could say Olsen indirectly inspired this blog.

After breakfast, our first order of the day: Scholar Guest of Honour Richard C. West gave his talk “Where does fantasy fit?” This question was the theme of the conference. West has been a Tolkien scholar since the 60s and his 1970 book Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist became a key source for subsequent bibliographies.

Tolkien associated “green suns” with faerie–two words that describe the nonexistent is what fundamentally lies behind the structure of fantasy. Opening with this remark, West proceeded to give an early history of the fantasy genre. He gave a catalogue of fantasy novels including Starplex by R.J. Sawyer (a sci-fi novel which contains a green sun), James Stevens’ Deidre, E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, Mervyne Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy, T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which inspired Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Throughout his talk, he attempted to show how fantasy and science fiction have always grown together as a genre.

Next was a panel talk: “College-level Tolkien: Teaching Middle-Earth Sixty Years Later.” Brian Walter moderated and Chip Crane, Verlyn Flieger, Kristine Larsen, and Corey Olsen were answering our questions. Crane talked about how he uses the films to teach the books: for example, analyzing why Peter Jackson made Arwen summon the river to wash away the Black Riders, rather than having Frodo make his heroic stand alone, as he does in the book. Kristine Larsen talked about using Tolkien as a lead-in to scientific discussion in the classroom–the early chapters describing creation in The Silmarillion are a text in point. Verlyn Flieger had been smuggling Tolkien into the classroom almost from the time the books first came out. She takes Tolkien as a war writer, no less relevant to modernity as Hemingway. In his playing with language, Tolkien is similar to James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. I’d have to read Joyce to confirm that.

Comparing Tolkien to the Modernists certainly does sound like a brilliant strategy–and possibly awarding as an MA thesis. But Tolkien studies does have its pitfalls–Olsen told us many non-scholars register for classes at the Mythgard Institute, expecting an easy saunter. At the same time as you shouldn’t dumb Tolkien down as a teacher, you must be careful and precise when dealing with his works as a scholar.

Teachers of College-Level Tolkien

Teachers of College-Level Tolkien

Eleanor Simpson presented an excellent paper after lunch, “Tolkien’s Evolution and Clarification in his Portrayal of Nature through Fantasy: Foreshadowing Critical Animal Theory and Anti-Speciesism.” Speciesism is the prejudice or bias towards your own species, versus the interests of another species (ducks, rabbits, trees, aliens). Referring to the theoretical work of Peter Singer, Simpson gave a structured analysis of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing how Tolkien represents animal, plants, and rocks differently in either book.

Although Old Man Willow in LOTR is a tree described as a menace, Treebeard is the epitome of the dignity Tolkien saw in trees. The author’s evolution, or progression, towards anti-speciesism is irregular, but he does become more of an eco-writer in LOTR. Whereas The Hobbit contains the skin-changer Beorn, a bear who is significant to the quest only because he has another form, a man, The Lord of the Rings contains an little-know episode with a fox. The fox approaches Frodo and Sam, who are sleeping in a forest clearing, sniffs around for food, and wonders what danger in the wood could have brought the hobbits to sleep in the open. He then runs away to quest for more food. The episode is striking because the fox is fully his own character, with his own motivation (to find food and determine if there is a danger in the wood). Although Tolkien anthropomorphizes the spiders in The Hobbit, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings is fully a spider, and Sauron’s peer.

Ryan Lawrence’s talk “Tolkien’s Creative Process: Retelling and Expanding Norse Saga in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,” rather than focusing on how the author invented his own stories, focused on a description of his use of source texts. After all, Tolkien is an “unoriginal” author. Or perhaps “traditional” is the right word: rather than inventing his own, new stories, he constantly returns to old, make that very old, texts.

In the Codex Rigius, there is a story of Sigurd, Germanic hero of the Volsunga Saga, but a “great lacunae,” or gap, has caused about 8 pages to become lost. Scholars have been puzzling over this lost piece of narrative. What story fit within this break with the text? Tolkien’s creative juices flow whenever presented with these kind of gaps, the empty, silent spaces of history. In his own treatment of the Volsunga Saga, Tolkien elevates the figure of Sigurd to Christ, redeeming the pagan Norse gods–perhaps paving the way to Aragorn’s character. To aid his work, Tolkien only had the translation provided by William Morris and Erikr Magnusson, whose text was in English couplets. Tolkien, a poetic translator badass, made his poem into alliterative verse to keep it consistent with Germanic style.

To close the day, I attended a final paper presentation by Rebecca McCurdy, “Comedy, Tragedy, Romance: A Study of Tolkien’s Eucatastrophe.” How does eucatastrophe fit in a genre that mixes comedy, tragedy, and romance? This was a presentation I knew I must attend, given McCurdy’s focus on eucatastrophe and her angle on genre, which was not dissimilar to the theory behind my Honours thesis. McCurdy–not to mention one comment made during the earlier panel–made me rethink my Honours thesis, a little.

Even in the happily-ever-after faerie-story, a comedy, eucatastrophe is constantly in a tension with catastrophe, or tragedy. So saying catastrophe cannot blend into a eucatastrophic novel is technically not true. Happy endings and trying times exist in all fairy tales. Besides, plenty of modern authors have written catastrophic fantasy that is not quite horror or absurdism–we call it dark fantasy. Furthermore, McCurdy challenged me further with her example from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, which highlighted how eucatastrophe needs catastrophe in order to become “joy beyond the walls of the world, as poignant as grief” (“On Faerie-Stories”). I may need to refine my thesis, or at least add a footnote as a disclaimer!

Reading Beowulf

Reading Beowulf

As if that wasn’t enough for a day, after dinner, we had a collaborative reading of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. Since I, alas, did not take any Old English courses, I could not read the original, but I did get up to read a translated paragraph where Beowulf does battle with Wiglaf, his ward, against the dragon.

Following this, I has a Sam Adams in the hospitality room and had a conversation with Corey Olsen. I also struck up rapport with Sorina Higgins, whose Twitter account @Oddest_Inkling is all about the Christian-occultist Charles Williams and his wild, genre-bending works of fiction. I also noticed my earlier acquaintance Mark Williams was up for an award–a Mythopoeic Award for his hilarious novel Sleepless Nights. The only way to describe it is as a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Remains of the Day. It is the most British book in the universe, and it is told from the perspective of King Arthur’s butler. (In the end, disappointingly, when the announcements happened on Sunday, Mark did not win. But then again, Neil Gaiman, who was nominated, did not win either. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker took home the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature.)

And so ended another brilliant day at MythCon!

Stay tuned to hear all about Sunday–and how my presentation went!

Mythopoeia

Photo Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia

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