Underworld as Otherworld: Combined and Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy Fiction

Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.

Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.

Moonheart            Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.

Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.

How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.

This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.

Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).

Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.

In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.

20160308_162556-1Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.

Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.

What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.

20160308_162621-1            I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.

A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.

The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.

Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.

This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.

The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.

 

Did you like this article? You might also like:

Part 1: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Part 2: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My Interview with Charles de Lint

 

 

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MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part II: Race, Raciness, and the Fifty Shades of Charles Williams

20150802_125245For this post I apologize immediately for the title and would like to state that most (the greater half anyway) of this post will be concerned with how Tolkien treats race in his fiction–not how Charles Williams is racy. The lurid revelations about Charles Williams, ‘The Oddest Inkling,’ that have now come forth were just impossible a) to ignore and b) to avoid association with the infamous erotica novel. I mean, what’s the problem with the world today? First, if you’re Canadian, you have the Gian Ghomeshi scandal, then of course there’s Bill Cosby … now even the lurid deeds of obscure Christian mythopoeic poets are at last coming to light.

Saturday morning was the Scholar Guest of Honour speech. John D. Ratecliff is an Inklings scholar and this MythCon’s Scholar Guest of Honour. With his softspoken Texas accent, he began to lecture on “The Lost Letter.” He discussed the problematic friendship between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams while contextualizing the textual history of some of Williams’s works in relation to some Modernists, including T.S. Eliot who wrote an incomplete essay on Williams’s drama. He also presented us with a great photo of Williams posing with none other than William Butler Yeats (see below).

Ratecliff during his archival spelunking recovered a typescript of Williams’s thought-to-be-destroyed commentary–a necessary document for the comprehension of William’s work because, of all people, even Eliot, as highly allusive, illusive, and difficult a poet as he is, called Williams’s poetry ‘obscure’! The problem for a long time was that C.S. Lewis was known to have burned away this key commentary, rather brutally altering his friend’s literary legacy.

Williams’s obscure poetry in the Arthuriad is highly mythical and difficult to interpret, although it is fairly evident that his character Taliesin is, more or less, a biographical representation of himself, with other characters occasionally representing people he knew nom-a-clef style. Williams in some ways was like more ‘mainstream’ Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, in that he wrote about mythic themes from a religious perspective. But Charles was an odd duck: a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a christianized version of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as practicing ritual magician and an occultist.

He also thought sexual arousal could stimulate poetic inspiration.

Just as Taliesin in one part of Williams’s Arthuriad reaches over the bound, fully naked body of Morgeuse, before sitting down, lyre in hand, to compose great poetry, so did Williams–in actual, real life–have the custom of fondling a woman’s breast before stopping just short of consummation. He could then return to his ink and pad filled with erotic energy to scribble off another verse.

“I made her the victim of Love’s laws,” the poem goes. “The queen of Orkney, the queen Morgeuse!”

Tolkien got his inspiration from ‘the refracted light’ that enters humanity from heaven to make us subcreators within God’s creation. Lewis got inspiration from Christian joy. And now we all know what Williams was up to.

What an exemplary Christian mythopoeic writer! But his dirty mind only gets stranger. Ratecliff also distributed copies of a map of Europe called Williams’s “gynecomorphic map,” showing locations from his Arthuriad. If your Greek is up to snuff, you’ll realize that this map showed Europe as the form of a woman (gynaika)–undressed, naturally. Furthermore her body parts correspond to various cities and culturally-significant locations in Williams’s story. Byzantium is situated at the navel, London at the lips, Rome at the hands. The rest was not PG. Let us say Jerusalem in a mystic, or sorta disgusting, way was located in the crotch area, while Southern France–do I really have to specify?–her breasts (due to the ‘nourishing’ quality of the universities in that part of the world, I’m told), while, rather racistly, Ispahan, an obscure Islamic city below the Caspian Sea, took up the fecal rear. Caucasus made up the rest of the gluteus for some unknown reason.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing: the giant swarming tentacles at the woman’s feet do not designate Cthulhu but P’o-lu, the court of a fictitious, headless emperor. Although these appear south of Arabia, P’o-lu is supposedly in Java.

So anyway, the moral is that Williams is unanthologizable, unteachable, and such an obscure cockney that you must read him, like you read Hemingway, in a drunken stupor. And I thought modernist poetry was difficult!

Williams's map from the Arthuriad
Williams’s map from the Arthuriad

Time to leave behind all the other shades of Charles Williams and turn to some other, interesting topics.

Stepanie K. Brownell and Sara D. Rivera gave a wondrous talk on a work I had heard about before, but never really thought about reading, although they totally sold me on it. I’m slowly making my way through the novel right now. Their presentation was “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Knowing nothing of this novel except that it’s title sounded vaguely familiar, I went to the presentation a bit late, but I was blown away by the subject matter. Oscar Wao wants to be the Dominican Tolkien–he’s a black, fat Caribbean nerd boy totally into magna, DND, and genre fiction. He goes on a sort of quest to the Dominican Republic after experiencing a dream vision of a mongoose, where he seeks answers to the fuku (in English, the curse), that has blighted his family and his people ever since the days of slavery and especially since the days of the dictator Trujillo, who the narrator explicitly compares to none other than Sauron himself.

Oscar Wao is the postcolonial/diasporic novel meets geekness, and I had no idea these worlds have ever joined in a single novel until now. I knew Caribbean fantasy/science fiction to be existent, having read a little Nalo Hopkinson and read criticism about her work, but this is about science fiction and fantasy as much as it was about colonialism and race.

The novel offers a postcolonial critique of Tolkien and his project. Tolkien attempted to write a ‘myth for England’ but what about the Dominican Republic, which is much more desperately in need of narration, having been subject to various tyrants and colonizers in its history? As an imperial subject, DR needs narration.

Oscar falls out with his idol, Tolkien, when he cannot reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the figures represented in LOTR. One passage reads “out of Far Harad, black men like half-trolls…” While Oscar naturally identifies with the Elves and Men and Hobbits of Middle Earth like any other reader, when he comes to this passage he realizes that there is no place for heroism in Middle Earth for those of his skin colour.

Junot Diaz, the author of Oscar Wao, wanted to give readers–especially black readers–a mirror so they can see their own race represented in fiction without feeling that it is a monstrous one. “If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?” (178), he writes.

This novel straddles a grey area between magical realism and fantasy, although as far as I’ve gotten in my reading, it is a quirky but still an essentially realistic story. It’s epigraphs are from Derek Walcott and Stan Lee–a peculiar mix that represents the book’s themes.

While I continue my readings for my MA Thesis, which is partly about analyzing fantasy as a global form, I can’t help but think about this novel and how works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, are receive and interpreted by readers and other authors in nations such as DR. Does the transference of forms from Europe to the ‘periphery’ and the Third World carry a progressive or a detrimental effect towards local literature and national self-image? This talk raised a whole lot of questions that seem to me vital about getting a full picture of what fantasy is doing worldwide.

Once again the issue of race emerged–and specifically, Tolkien’s ideas of race–with Roger Echo-Hawk’s presentation “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs.” Here Echo-Hawk, a Native scholar and author of Tolkien in Pawnee Land, argued that Tolkien borrowed descriptions of Mongoloid skulls when describing his orcs. He related this argument to the discourse of eugenics that was ripe around the time Tolkien was writing–the creation of an ideal human race through selective breeding. I can personally contest to this discourse being ‘in the air’ at the time because I noticed several book ads during my searches through early issues of Canadian Forum during my RAship. Supposedly it was guaranteed that ancestry and genes carried the destiny of a society. There were supposedly four ‘races’ in Europe: Mediterranean, Alpine, Tutonic, and Celtic, with the Negoroid and Mongolian types on other continents.

Although Tolkien was aware of Huxley’s arguments about such racial ideas being unscientific, he still approached race from a Eurocentric sense of mission to the ‘lesser’ races. Tolkien would come to begrudge Hitler’s perversion of the idea of the great Northern racial spirit. In fact, in a 1938 letter Tolkien called such racial theories a “holy pernicious and unscientific doctrine.”

Echo-Hawk continued by referencing an Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of the Mongoloid race and finding close correspondence between its specific description of Mongoloids and Tolkien’s descriptions of the “slant-eyed” orcs. Orcs had “sallow” skin–in other words, the yellow skin corresponding to East/Central Asian ancestry. Furthermore his “squint-eyed Southerner” in the Inn at Bree had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood, but rather invokes the same Mongoloid race as a trait of evil.

Another observant bit of scholarship on Echo-Hawk’s part was proposing that Tolkien was aware of the discovery of a negroid Malay skeleton during the war, which may also have influenced his depiction of orcs. Tolkien kept tabs on the Eastern theater during WWII, a note about a Japanese attack on Malaya having been found behind one of his exam papers. Did he note Malay because he had been paying attention to the discovery? Unfortunately, we may never know. What we do know is that Tolkien’s attitude to race was not entirely straightforward and that his placing of importance on race as a stable entity unfortunately reifies–or stultifies–societies into distinct groups characterized by absolute difference.

To close off the day, I attended a discussion panel on Rudyard Kipling, whose short fiction occasionally ventures into the fantastic, but whose journalistic representations of India still define how people–even Indians themselves–see India today. There were no terribly fascinating theories discussed, but it was an opportunity to hear some things about this complex colonial author. Although his novels like The White Man’s Burden is usually seen as trite, jingoistic, and complicit with imperialism, he presents an honest and surprisingly deep picture of Indian society that frequently find sympathy with the locals instead of representatives of the British government.

The panel mentioned how Kipling’s prose actually scans, like poetry. I almost wanted to quote Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where the patient tells Hana, “Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.” Another author who writes as carefully as Kipling is Kenneth Morris, whose fantasy short fiction was collected in a volume called The Dragon Path–he even wrote fiction inspired by Beethoven.

Fantasy authors who refer to Kipling and acknowledge their debt to him include Poul Anderson and Tim Powers, whose novel Declare refers to The Great Game. C.S. Lewis in Selected Literary Essays also has an essay on Kipling in which he calls him the “Poet of the Inner Ring,” which is code for male friendship.

And … that’s about all I could pack in to this post. That Saturday was packed full of lectures. In another week, I will be publishing my Sunday notes, including a brief report on my presentation.

Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats
Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats

Pacifism and Kenneth Morris’s The Chalchiuhite Dragon

The Chalchiuhite Dragon by Kenneth Morris

Lately my blog posts have been slowing down because of the attention I’m giving to my research assistantship with Professor Robert Lecker at McGill University–we’re researching the history of literary agents and agencies in Canada. As such I have not had the occasion to post about my experience of MythCon 2015 as I did with MythCon 2014. The conference went well and perhaps in the coming months you will hear the whole story. Suffice it to say that my presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia went smoothly and I even had a conversation with Brian Attebery about it.

Today, I’m going to be giving a brief sketch about an idea I might work on for another presentation adjacent to my main thesis. I may present the paper that this post might become, eventually, at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference (NeMLA), where a panel is being organized around the topic of war in science fiction and fantasy literature, especially as it pertains to utopian and dystopian fiction.

I was inspired to think up a topic for this panel because of a Mythopoeic Press publication, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. In here is a treasure hoard of essays contextualizing and historicizing the work of the Inklings (including Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield), along with G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison, and T.H. White. These guys are fantasy’s T.S. Eliots, W.H. Audens, W.B. Yeatses, and Earnest Hemingways: authors who responded to the horror of World War that ushered in the age of modernity. However, Tolkien and crew approached literature in ways that were fundamentally different from their Modernist compatriots and–at times–associates: they were, generally speaking, more invested in preserving the heroic legacy of romance and adventure that fell out of favour in the literature after WWI. Plus they were less invested in realism, more invested in fantasy and mythopoeia.

I asked myself, in seeing the similarity between the essay collection’s theme and the topic up for discussion at NeMLA, how I might have contributed to Baptism of Fire, if I had been in a position to do so. It did not take me long to think of a topic.

The works of Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) have been neglected by critics for too long. Thankfully, Douglas A. Anderson has published a glorious volume of his collected short stories, republished for the first time in many, many years: a book called The Dragon Path. Part of the reason for this neglect stems from the fact Morris was for most of his life a Theosophist, publishing his poetry and short stories through Theosophical publications. In addition to this, his contemporaries thought his work too obscure to publish much of it in his own time–making him something of a fantasy writer hipster, writing parable-like works of historical fantasy way before Tolkien made the genre mainstream. He had a small but devoted audience.

His novel The Chalchiuhite Dragon: A Tale of Toltec Times went unpublished until long after his death, when Douglas A. Anderson sought to republish it in a new edition in the 1990s. I have already read and reviewed this novel here, but for those who want a recap, here’s the simple version of the plot:

The city of Huitznahuacan is a utopian enclave in the Mexican jungle during the pre-Colombian era. The residents participate in religious festivals and worship their gods as real, but they have never before heard of war as a practice among men. They believe that they alone are the only civilization on earth. But when the Toltecs arrive during a festival and encounter their culture, they appear as even stranger than the gods: the Huitznahuatecs are not alone! Soon, however, a religious hierarch of a foreign city, misled by anger and envy, plans to manipulate jungle savages to commit a series of murders that will deviously draw the peaceful civilization into armed conflict. The novel concludes with an anticipation of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the Prince of Peace, who gives the Toltecs a new law.

Given that Morris began writing his rather obscure third novel in the 1920s and finished writing it, at last, in 1935, it was written during a time Europe was recovering from the shock of World War I and the world was dealing with the Great Depression. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were just on the horizon. Had Morris been writing his novel through Britain’s negotiations with the Third Reich, it might have been possible to read a more or less direct correlation between Huitznahuacan’s failure of pacifism and the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, Morris would die before the beginning of the Second World War.

Although my first thought about how to historicize The Chalchiuhite Dragon was shot by the simple fact of Morris’s death in 1937, it did not deter me from investigating deeper. On a second revision, it appeared to me that the novel was still very much about pacifism anyway. Especially when reading the significance of the utopian enclave in his novel, it occurred to me that Morris was writing, quite possibly, about Point Loma, itself a utopian enclave, and Theosophy in general. A resident of San Diego for a long part of his life, and born in Wales, Morris never served at the front–at least Douglas A. Anderson mentions no such engagement. Morris was too busy writing short stories and poetry for the Theosophists.

Here is where W. Michael Ashcraft’s book Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture comes into play. This study of the community to which Morris devoted his life–quite literally, since it was his busy lecture schedule that may have contributed to his declining health–describes Theosophical positions to war, pacifism, and patriotism. In a nutshell: the Theosophists of Point Loma were more actively pacifist than the German branches of their movement, while in the States they participated with “other Americans in condemning the war and called for peaceful solutions to international problems” (169). Being an international society with a vision for the common brotherhood of humanity, Theosophists served patriotically during WWI, but always under the reverence of a ‘higher patriotism’ towards humanity as a whole. Katherine Tingley, a leader of Point Loma who asked Morris to write a novel on a pre-Columbian subject, which lead to The Chalchiuhite Dragon, was active in organizing and sponsoring meetings that promoted pacifism. Given how Huitznahuacan resembles Point Loma in its devotion to peace and the sacred as well as its being closed off from the outside world, it is difficult not to see where Morris derived his inspiration for the novel.

The thesis that emerges from this evidence is that Morris was expressing a Point Loma style of pacifism in The Chalchiuhite Dragon, as way to respond to the desolation of World War I, which must have affected him in some way, even if he was far from the front lines in San Diego, and that he also did so as a response to the growing climate of unease leading up to World War II. Further evidence of Morris’s reaction to the First World War might be sought out in the short stories and poems he was writing between 1914 and 1918, including the years directly following the war.

Although this post only shows a sketch of my ideas, I think the idea is electrifying. I hope the post, at least, might bring more people to read Kenneth Morris, whose short works, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, explore various historical civilizations that span diverse cultures, such as ancient China, India, medieval Spain, Scandinavia, and the worlds of Welsh myth. In fact, Anderson credits him with being the inventor of modern Welsh fantasy. His style is read-out-loudable and very musical–occasionally, literally inspired in their cadence and theme by composers like Beethoven. His works, which often thematize the universal spiritual brotherhood of mankind and the importance of knowledge through experience, are tales relevant to any era and particularly for today.

Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talbot_Mundy

Point Loma's Raja Yoga Academy and The Temple of Peace, c.1915
Point Loma’s Raja Yoga Academy and The Temple of Peace, c.1915

MythCon 45 Day 4: Faith, Myths, and Archetypes

Fantasy and Faith Panel
Fantasy and Faith Panel
J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien

The first of the two legendary panels that happened on Sunday–just before my own presentation, which was the last before the banquet and awards ceremony–was entitled “Fantasy and Faith.”

Chip Crane moderated, and Carl Hostetter, Sorina Higgins, and Lynn Maudlin were discussing the Inklings. What is the place of faith in the fantasy genre? What place does religion have in LOTR? Oddly enough, there are no religions in Tolkien, despite his firm Catholicism; the elves have no need of religion, given their certainty that the Valar live in the West. Tolkien himself explained that LOTR was a “fundamentally” religious and Catholic work–unconsciously at first, but conscious during revision. This means that “fundamentally,” or “at base,” LOTR is religious, though not “fundamentally” in the sense of “extremism.” That would be decidedly un-Tolkienian! The Legendarium of Tolkien–the complex of legends that build up Tolkien’s world–is filled with Catholic metaphysics, well-informed by Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Yet the only hint of religious ritual is when, as Chip Crane’s two young children so learnedly pointed out, Faramir and his men bow to the West before meals, as a veneration of their “host.”

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C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

Tolkien was firm that one should not read LOTR as an allegory of faith or Christianity itself. He was no conjurer of cheap symbolic tricks, although some have thought C.S. Lewis to stoop a little lower artistically. However, it is not fair to reduce Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to allegory: Aslan is not representative of Christ, Aslan is Christ–just in another dimension of reality. Lewis’ Christianity is a whole other area of study. If you don’t know him from his fantasy novels, you know him as the Christian author of Surprised by Joy. But what you might not know, is that he was a science fiction writer too–his Space Trilogy is Christian sci-fi, where the cosmos is not Galilean and heliocentric but medieval, geocentric.

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Charles Williams
Charles Williams

The oddball of the Inklings was the Christian-Rosicrucian Charles Williams. Like H.P. Lovecraft, William fills his novels with occult secret societies and fanatic cults. In War in Heaven, what begins like a straightforward detective thriller morphs into a quest for the Holy Grail, a spectacular blending of genres. His description of a black mass around the Holy Grail, explained Sorina Higgins, is loving, precise, and sexual in mood. It suggests experience at having actually conducted such masses, of having participated himself in the described ritual.

Orthodox C.S. Lewis he was not.

In another novel, The Place of the Lion, Platonic archetypes run amok in the English countryside. In Shadows of Ecstasy, a cult of Africans plan a revolutionary movement to supplant European civilization. His novels have no Everyman character with whom the reader can relate, no Lucy Pevensey or Frodo Baggins. He tries, in a Modernist manner, to distort and challenge the reader. Why have I never heard of Williams before?

The Inklings were also big on Arthurian literature–which, by the way, is the theme of next year’s MythCon. Sorina Higgins was back in action as moderator for “The Inklings and King Arthur.” Chris Gaertner, Yannick Imbert, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson were the panelists. In May, Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur was published, a work that had long been sitting in the archives. But Lewis and Owen Barfield too, another Inkling, all wrote Arthurian legends. The Inklings were concerned with national mythologies and legends that describe the acting-out of human history. History can be seen as a long defeat, or as something to identify with, and when you do attach yourself to history in that way, history becomes mythology.

Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield deserves a paragraph on his own, even though few have ever heard of him. He was the first and last Inkling. Tolkien had the greatest regard for him; Barfield changed his whole outlook on philology. Lewis called Barfield his wisest teacher. Barfield was deeply aware of how ancients saw nature as having a consciousness, although our scientific, Cartesian universe draws a separation. He tried to restore readers’ awareness of this separation through literature. His Night Operation is a science-fiction novella, a grail story, and a dystopian tale of the Blitz, where society relocates to the London sewers to avoid the bombs. The effect of the Blitz on fantasy literature has been considerable, when you think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it was almost as if the Inklings saw the space of their nation’s city threatened, forcing them to escape into other spaces–even fantastic space.

I left this brilliant discussion, which I would have liked to hear more of, to high-tail it to my own presentation. You can read the summary of my main points here, and look at the PowerPoint I used here. I have no interest in re-hashing my thesis, but suffice it to say, the presentation went on without a hitch. The comments I received were constructive, although the audience cannot be said to have been intimately familiar with Guy Gavriel’s Kay’s work, as they might have been, for instance with Lewis or Tolkien. But most of the people I’d met over the weekend were there: Brenton Dickieson, John McGeaery, Daniel Lüthie, Rebecca McCurdy, Sorina Higgins, Carl Hostetter, and Mark Williams. Lüthie directed me towards Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal to explore the nature of Story more closely, and the audience was curious as to how I would analyze alternate history, or historical fantasy set in the primary world, such as Tales of Alvin Maker. I confess I don’t know how I would investigate alternate history–it would depend on the individual novel. But all suggestions were welcome.

Following my presentation was the banquet, for which several people dressed up as obscure, and not-so-obscure, characters from fantasy. The Author/Artist Guest of Honour was Ursula Vernon, whose web comic Digger was popular, though I had never heard of it. It is a beast-fable comics series that explores the mythologies and societies of different species of animals. It stars Digger, a groundhog miner who winds up in all sorts of trouble.

Then to the Mythopoeic Awards, in which Mark Williams’s book Sleepless Nights was denied victory, though so was Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker won the Adult Literature Prize. Father G. Ronald Murphy rose to take the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies for Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. Murphy was the only Mythopoeic Award-winner present that evening. Another important work that won an award for Inkling Studies was Tolkien and the Study of his Sources: Critical Essays, edited by Jason Fisher. Lastly, Holly Black won the Children’s Literature award for Doll Bones.

Mythopoeic Awards! (It's a sphinx.)
Mythopoeic Awards! (It’s shaped like a sphinx.)

Silliness ensued with the reading out of the clerihews and the presentation of the Clerihew Award. A clerihew is a four-lined poem with rhyming couplets, meant to satirize lightly like a limerick. Tolkien was fond of them. The Masquerade presented all the costumes people brought to the conference. There was Galadriel, a steampunk Fourth Doctor, and Gandalf, among others. This show included Chris Gaertner’s tragic soliloquy as King Arthur, a memorable moment, as well as Sorina’s reading of passage from Charles Williams, as Morgeuse.

Christ Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)
Chris Gaertner as King Arthur (the hair is real)
Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse
Sorina Higgins as Morgeuse

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Then there was Golfimbul. We lined up outside the depression in the quadrangle known as the Dimple and played T-ball with a doll’s head attached to a “Mordor U” jersey (a converted MacDonald’s uniform). This was our “goblin” and our goal was to knock off its head with a baseball bat and get it as close as possible to a plastic rabbit. This unusual sport is based on the anecdote Tolkien accidentally left in The Hobbit explaining how Bilbo’s ancestor, who was tall enough to ride horseback, once whacked the head off a goblin chieftain, so that it rolled into a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf. It is a MythCon tradition and I am happy to say I lost–so bad, in fact, that they had to give me a prize Monday morning. The paper plate commemorating my lack of Golfimbul skills remains on my desk to this day. It is known as the much-coveted “Linguist” trophy.

Golfinbul
Golfinbul

To close the day, I participated in Bardic Circle. There were ten or so sitting in a circle in the common room of one of the dorms, and we went in a circle, reading poetry, telling stories, or singing–whatever we brought to share. Sea shanties, Celtic reels, and our own creative mythopoeic poetry were all recited. When it came to my turn, I was put in the situation of Caedmon, who in Anglo-Saxon England was asked to sing a song, and was so embarrassed he ran off into a stable. When he returned, he played the harp and spoke the first poem in all of English, “The Creator’s Hymn,” which is earlier even than Beowulf. My version of this hymn was from this very website, which I was able to access from my smartphone. I recited “Vision:  Evening Prayer” and, on my second round, “Eternal Guarantee,” which is my own humorous take on the Arthurian mythos.

And so ended Sunday, a most memorable day

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Monday

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In the morning, I was sad, because this was going to be the last day of MythCon, an event I had been waiting for months to attend. It would now be over, and I would move on to the next thing: my Master’s degree (though not before a little Boston vacation with my aunt, uncle, and cousin). Thankfully, John McGeary’s morning presentation “C.S. Lewis and C.G. Jung: The Fine Line Between ‘Myth’ and ‘Archetype'” had a lot of energy and useful ideas.

McGeary tried to look at Carl Jung through Lewis. Specifically, he searched for a way to restore Lewis’s idea that myths and archetypes are part of natural law, rather than the Jungian collective unconscious. Genetic memory, Jung claims, creates archetypes, which are instinctual, genetic predispositions towards certain images. For instance, Dracula: he is universally scary because he combines the archetypes of  vampire, dark lord, and werewolf (he has furry hands and controls wolves), which excite deep-seated primitive fears in our psyche.

McGeary cited Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, an anti-neo-darwinist philosophic return to objectivism, as a reaction against relativism. If natural law was the premise on which archetypes are based, that would mean archetypes are “out there” in the universe–not merely instincts or social conventions. In archetypes, Augustine and Plato saw the numinous, which functions alongside natural law, and can be a good or an evil force. Lewis argues that it is the numinous that is at the core of the archetype, not the unconscious itself, or merely.

This perspective has the possibility of challenging how we see the world. If the archetypes are a result of the numinous, then as with any human encounter with the numinous, we must have an existential reaction. For example, upon seeing a spirit or a ghost (or a taniwha, or elves), our most profound reaction is to think, “I’m afraid of how I exist, now that I know this exists.” If the fantastic, or the numinous, exists, what does that make us, here in the mundane world? If archetypes are a part of natural law and imbued with this numinous quality, then that changes forever how we understand out existence–there is something else out there.

Playing around with these archetypes is what mythopoeia–myth-making–is all about. This is what Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams were on about. It’s what the whole conference was on about. Surely Lewis believed there to be a divine origin for the myths he told: that’s why Aslan is not like Jesus Christ, but actually is Him. Maybe it’s also true that his Christ-archetype objectively exists. I challenge, however, that thinking about archetypes as objective realities must of necessity introduce the divine, for God is a divisive subject. For many people, it’s either you believe in Him or you do not, and there is a danger in making the question of God the same question as whether or not there is any objective reality to archetypes.

It’s like the old Cartesian supposition: “God, if he exists, guarantees my senses to reflect objective reality accurately, yet I see often that my senses deceive me, ergo God cannot guarantee my senses.” This opens the scepticism that leads to the separation between consciousness and nature that Barfield would be the first to show us was not the way of the ancients, but a feature of our modern consciousness. Furthermore, just because archetypes excite me emotionally does not mean that, for example, dragons really do exist–although I will accept that they do exist in my mind, and are “real” in that sense. I wonder how Nagel reinforces his argument for objectivism, and what uses McGeary will put him to. I suppose I better read Nagel.

And it is with this highly existential and worrying philosophical conundrum, the separation between nature and consciousness, that I must leave you. After McGeary’s talk, it was all but over.

The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious "Linguist" trophy. I won.
The ceremonies for the awarding of the not-so-prestigious “Linguist” trophy.

We had the MythCon Members’ Meeting, where we were allowed to give input on improving the conference for next year in Colorado. I said we should be given more time to travel between lectures; the schedule made it necessary to teleport between presentations, a luxury none of us had. Following this, we had the MythCon closing ceremonies and we sang the traditional MythCon songs “Chorea Magna” and “The Baby and the Bird,” a tribute to “the place that draws me ever / When my fancy’s running wild, / That little pub in Oxford / Called The Eagle and The Child.” Then it was checkout.

Meeting-Place of the Inklings
Meeting-Place of the Inklings

I hope you all enjoyed sharing in my intellectual journey these past four weeks. In an ideal world, these would have been published during the conference, but I was far too caught up in the moment to bother updating WordPress. I have no regrets, in the end. These copious ideas could lead on to a Master’s thesis or research paper, so long as I don’t rehash someone else’s thesis (I am actually giving a lot of thought to space, post-colonialism, and magic realism right now). In addition to all that I learned, I have plenty of new authors and thinkers to discover. McGill’s MacLennan library beckons.

Until next week, then, so long.

The road leads ever on and on…

The banquet on Sunday evening.
The banquet on Sunday evening. (Clockwise from left: Miguel Angelo Fernandes Rodrigues, Marie Perrier, Sørina Higgins, Paromita Sengupta, Chris Gaertner, Daniel Lüthi, Brenton Dickieson.)

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Photo Credits:

Eagle and Child:http://jtchatter.blogspot.ca/2012/03/dinner-at-eagle-and-child.html

Owen Barfield: http://barfieldsociety.org/Poem.htm

Charles Williams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_%28British_writer%29

Tolkien: http://cslewisjrrtolkien.classicalautographs.com/jrrtolkien/index.html

Lewis: http://shoutitforlife.com/profiles/2010-2/cslewis/

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

MythCon 45 Day 1: Prose, Genre, and Tolkien’s Genius

Wheaton

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This is a series documenting my intellectual journey at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA (8-11 August 2014). Although I will attempt to summarize the arguments made by presenters, the series does not replace the presenters’ scholarship, but will represent my attitudes towards the topics.

Having arrived early the Thursday, I had already killed a lot of time on campus and slept over one night by the time I showed up for the first presentation at MythCon 45. Early friday afternoon, I attended “Perception and Ambiguity in Tolkien’s Prose Style” by Christopher (Chip) Crane. It drew me straight out of my lethargic state of mind and into the full-blown academic rhythm of the conference, which I had been anticipating for months.

The classroom in the science building where Chip presented was fairly empty when I arrived, but filled up quickly. I was surprised that so many had come to hear about style, which could seem to be a dry topic, even if it was Tolkien’s style. However, Chip Crane’s quantitative analysis of Tolkien’s prose style proved to a fascinating, highly relevant topic.

TolkienHaving read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a long, long time ago, I knew the passages Crane talked about: when describing a possibly magic phenomenon, Tolkien frequently adopts words and phrases like “seems,” “as if,” “[comma] 0r,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” Crane has run digital searches to quantify the frequency of these terms in many of Tolkien’s works. The results show more hits on “seems” in LOTR, where it appears almost once for every page, than in The Silmarillion, for example.

Any serious stylist knows “seems” is a vague word, subject to deletion via the red pen. However, to say Tolkien was a good stylist is to be just as vague. He was more specifically a master, and a philologist to boot–one who studies the evolution of words. If he uses “seems” so much, it is no accident.

But why use “seems?” Could it merely be academic precision, or a symptom of polite British sensibility? Perhaps the One Ring seemed to Frodo to exude an aura of pure evil … but what Frodo subjectively perceived may have had no basis in reality. Or, perhaps Tolkien meant, eh-hem, that the Ring may have just perhaps exuded such an aura, if you don’t mind my saying so, good sir.

The answer of course is more complicated than subscribing any one reason for all the instances of “perhaps” or “seems.” Sometimes the ambiguity is academic and polite. But it is also a rhetorical strategy, Crane argued, to let the reader decide for themselves whether there is magic–or rather, more accurately, to guide the reader to the conclusion that magic is happening. He might say, for instance, in Father Giles of Ham,  that “giants seem less unlikely [at night].”

Even in “On Faerie-Stories,” Tolkien employs this ambiguity. He says, for instance, that Beowulf is a Christian story of a pagan past, “or an attempt at one,” an example of his academic carefulness. It seems to me that this use of language opens up Tolkien’s text to more various interpretations, since his above sentence would still be considered logically correct, if Beowulf was a successful Christian-Pagan poem. In his fiction, Tolkien creates ambiguity around some of the central moments of LOTR. Creating these spaces, he gives readers more room to form their own meanings.

In Materiality and Sociology of Text, a class I had several years ago at McGill, we explored how readers sometimes can “poach” meaning from a text by forming interpretations outside of the narrator’s ideology. Although Tolkien’s tales must rely on the authority of the teller to give them truth-value, using these ambiguous turns-of-phrase empower the reader. Perhaps they hint that Tolkien may have believed that finding meaning in literature is a dialectical process, that the power of meaning-creation that authors have is not absolute, that readers form their own equally legitimate meanings.

Upon leaving Chip Crane’s talk, energized with a new enthusiasm for Tolkien, I came to Joe Christopher’s presentation of “Tolkien as a Generic Poet.” I have not often had the opportunity to read Tolkien’s poetry, although his best (and worst!) work is certainly embedded in LOTR: everything from Aragorn’s prophecy to Tom Bombadil’s nonsense verse. What I found most fascinating in Christopher’s presentation was his juxtaposition of Tolkien with the Modernists.

Beowulf Manuscript
Beowulf Manuscript

Modernism, as one of its maxims, has Ezra Pound’s Chinese translation: “Let there be daily renovation,” or in plain parlance, “make it new.” The Modernist poet looks at old forms of poetry and renews the old forms, such as ballad, sonnet, and aubade. While the Inklings, who generally held by a common Christianity, were not involved with Modernist scepticism and doubt, they were not un-modern. In Charles Williams’ words, it was better to be modern than minor. They addressed the Modern age and even if they did not fit in with T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, they were still products of the same age, the same shaping forces.

Tolkien was less emotionally involved in his anti-modernism than C.S. Lewis, and knew the classics not through modern poets, but by training. He wrote alliterative verse in Old English style, such as “Sigurd and Gudrun.” He took the Poetic Edda and Nibelungenlied as his models. His poetry also includes the use of such various forms as the clerihew and nursery rhyme. (At MythCon on Sunday evening, there was an award handed out for the greatest clerihew written during the conference.)

Did Tolkien succeed in making it new? I would answer using a qualified “yes.” No, he did not renew poetic form into something unseen or unheard of before. But he did succeed in producing imitations and translations that could only have come from a mind thoroughly engrossed in a literary era that to us “normal” scholars feels so distant and remote. Like Pound, he was a translator. And from his knowledge, building on some Victorian and early twentieth-century precedents, he composed a sprawling fantastic romance about an all-powerful Ring, which was set in a meticulously thought-out secondary world based on a fictional history he had constructed in order to explain languages he had invented–for fun.

So he did fulfill Pound’s Chinese maxim, although the most unique part of his work was most likely his prose, instead of his poetry.

BeowulfMichael Drout’s presentation of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf capped the evening, and what a memorable talk it was! Drout is an editor for The Tolkien Encyclopedia and even helped edit the edition of Beowulf in question, which includes the Tolkien short story “Sellic Spell” (O.E. for “Happy Story”). Drout has been credited with “discovering” the Beowulf translation, but maintains that Christopher Tolkien had donated the translation a long time ago to the Bodlein Library–Drout simply helped make the material available to a readership, among his other editorial duties.

Tolkien’s translation is a perfect example of his ability to write in the style of the Anglo-Saxons. However, his beautiful alliterative verse translation of Beowulf was omitted from the published text, so what readers are presented with is his prose. In return, explained Drout, the reader gets a precise prose translation of the Old English according to how Tolkien interpreted it; you will see Hrothgar’s vassals called “knights,” for example. Although leather and chainmail does not fit our Victorian image of the knight in shining, plate-steel armour, it is technically the correct term.

Tolkien originally did not wish for his Beowulf to be published, but it is available anyway. Christopher Tolkien’s comments on the text are invaluable, however, and give you an idea about how the author’s mind worked. He was nothing short of genius. For instance, he argued against the translation of the Old English term for “whale-road,” arguing that it could not have referred to a whale precisely, but to a species related to the porpoise that lived in those times in the North. “Dolphin’s riding,” is Tolkien’s sarcastic suggestion.

Tolkien also interpreted the metonymic use of the word “point” to mean “sword” as incorrect. In the passage in question, Beowulf is wrapped in the coils of Grendel’s mother. In a most lively manner, Drout acted out Beowulf’s situation during his presentation using a wooden sword, demonstrating that the only way for Beowulf to escape the death grip was to stab his foe with the point (a.k.a. tip) of the sword.

So deep was Tolkien’s knowledge of Beowulf that he argued the characters in Heorot–like Hrothgar and Unferth–belonged to a cycle of heroic poems similar to the medieval romances of Arthur and his knights. Without any evidence whatsoever, Tolkien believed he was right. No scholar of the present age would dare make such extravagant claims today. The absence of historical documents did not faze him, with the result that “Sellic Spell” is his own story, written by him, which is supposed to be a translation of what the original source text of Beowulf would have been like–making it, if Tolkien was miraculously correct, the oldest story in English, even older than the actual oldest story in English. And, of course, he translated “Sellic Spell” into Old English!

Tolkien’s genius enabled him to have the confidence–perhaps warranted, perhaps not–to commit what in today’s terms would perhaps be called crimes of historical fantasy. But we forgive him for it because he was so good. Tolkien may not have been a Modernist, but he was exceptionally good at being the precise antithesis of a Modernist. He was so at the service of those older texts that he believed his original work to belong to the tradition of Old English rather than to the modern tradition.

The world will never see another of his kin.

Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened
Mars Science Center, Wheaton College, where most of the talks happened

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Next Week: My Journey at MythCon 45 Continues!

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Photo Credits:

Beowulf and Sellic Spell: http://www.fantifica.com/literatura/noticias/beowulf-tolkien-traduccion/

Beowulf MS: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf

Tolkien: http://www.gallerynucleus.com/blog/lotr/archive?month=09&year=2013