A physicist loose among the liberal arts

I understand medievalists a bit better

Brad DeLong has an extraordinary economics blog. You can find there lots of economic history, center-left politics, and also unique compositions like a Socratic dialog concerning the Greek fiscal crisis, jokes about the Valar, and who knows what else.

This weekend, he posted about the (lack of) philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics. [1] That’s an interesting topic in itself, but what struck me was the fact that he was quoting from an optically-scanned PDF of a magazine article by John Bell.  The OCR program wasn’t invented for physics, so when we do things like stick a greek letter into an english sentence, it gets confused. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t hard to read.  Because I’ve been through the arguments a dozen times before, it was easy to figure out that”If we take advantage of the indistinguishability of p and p…” actually has two ρ’s in it, and one of them has a circumflex over it.  (By symmetry of the copulating conjunction, it doesn’t matter which one. [That’s a physics joke])

When I look at a medieval document, I can usually recognize a bunch of the words. But understanding full sentences isn’t as easy, so I find a paper by a medieval scholar who interprets it. How do I know she got it right?  This little exercise in point-of-view reversal has given me a lot more confidence that they know what they’re talking about.

[1] If you’re wondering why, a speculation: Prof. DeLong frequently discusses the problems with dynamic stochastic general-equilibrium models of the macroeconomy. This may be a case where he’s looking at physics for guidance about how to stay connected to reality when your equations are fiendishly complicated.

My Notes from MidMoot III

I took a lot of notes at MidMoot 3, held on September 24-25, 2016. Strung end to end, they’re too long for a blog post, so I broke them up into panels.




Janet Brennan Croft: The Name of the Ring: MidMoot 3

This paper is on line.  Janet wrote some really hairy stuff in an easily accessible style, so I won’t re-cap  much of it here.  She starts with Northrop Frye’s organization of literary forms. Myth -> High mimetic -> low mimetic -> ironic.  There are four phases of language to look for.

  • Metaphoric: subject and object linked by some power. Spells, boasts, oaths, magic.
  • Metonymic: “this” is put for “that”. Language describes something beyond itself. Bilbo uses metonymic language with Smaug, calling himself barrel-rider, ring-winner, luck-wearer.
  • Demotic: Subject and object are clearly separated. Words describe an objective natural order. Astrology is replaced with astronomy. The thing evokes the word, and the word has no power to affect anything.
  • Recurso: the cycle restarts. Matter is a form of energy, which finds science leading us back to the mythical. (!) Terms like romantic and extravagant, which were insults in the Middle Ages, are used approvingly now.

The metaphoric/metonymic distinction separates the two reasons not to speak the name of an evil power.  Songs are metaphoric. They bring you through the recurso.

Q: What did Frodo think he was doing, when he put on the Ring? Boromir, Gollum & Sam all had plans for what they’d do. Not him. Tom: the two scenes with Frodo dominating Gollum imply that Frodo did actually know how to use it. JBC: but Frodo has a pattern of rejecting authority and responsibility. Arthur: Frodo doesn’t have a “ring-induced monologue” like everyone else — does he only desire to dominate Gollum? Tim: Self-preservation is Frodo’s goal.

Q: Larry Niven’s story “Grammar Lesson” revolves around the confusion between english-speakers and an alien race when they don’t get the difference in “my” between “my heart”, “my wife”, and “my car”.  Is that what’s going on here?  A: Yes, he’s making the metaphoric-metonymic-demotic distinction clear.  Note added later: C.S. Lewis did this in The Screwtape Letters, too!

Tolkien Studies: Midmoot 3.06

My notes from the last panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Josh Ramsey: Death through a Catholic Lens

Death is a gift, not a tragedy. Catholics think it’s punishment for Original Sin. Is this heresy? The elves who perpetrated the Kinslaying didn’t die, so death is not a punishment. The Men who aided the Valar died, so immortality is not a reward for virtue.

Venerable Bede says Genesis 2:17 doesn’t refer to mortality, it says just “death”, which means spiritual death. Finrod vs. Andreth speak of death as two different things. The spirits of Elves are perfectly at home in the world, unlike the souls of men.  Finrod says it must have been in Men’s power to take their bodies with them when they died — that’s early Christian. Arda-remade lines up with Revelations. (!) Discontent with the world is an echo of our original purpose, to save the world from Morgoth.

The discussion afterwards showed an impressive range of scholarship.

AH: Luthien died and left the world, in a poem called the “release from bondage”. A: wow – haven’t thought of that. Tim: the eastern orthodox say it’s a release from bondage to the passions of the body.

Graham: are you saying the Assumption is the perfect form of Resurrection? A: it’s the 2nd fruit of the resurrection, in the eastern tradition. Marie: brings up the Assumption of Mary, but that’s a special case. She’s the first resurrected. (?) the distinction between heaven and earth is erased after the resurrection.

We decided at this point that resolving the schism between the Greek and Latin churches was beyond our charter. The Protestants in the room hadn’t even weighed in yet!

Grace Costello: Philosophical theories of Musical Expression

Her text was from the “Lay of Leithian”. Oriel feels longing as a result of the minstrel Tinfang Gelion playing underneath his window.  There are several theories of how music affects its listeners that might apply to this situation.

Formalism: music is just notes and rhythms. It doesn’t express emotions, and looks for other ways an emotion can be evoked. It could remind you of another event. It could induce physiological symptoms of the emotion.  Like mimicking a beating heart changing its rate.  Maybe a magical method? We could suppose that music could magically arouse emotions – this doesn’t have any textual support, though.  (I don’t think anybody thinks formalism is 100% of the correct answer — if it were, non-Americans could tell sad bluegrass songs from happy ones without listening to the lyrics.)

Theory of Expression: the music is full of longing. Whose? The composer’s. (Prof. Olsen: never occurred to wonder what Tinfang Warble was longing for.)

Arousalist theory – the music has it, if it arouses the same reaction in any listener. Sounds like the sea-longing Galadriel warned Legolas about.

Blogger’s Privilege again:  At this point I wondered about the note at the beginning of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. “[Errantry is] a rhyme or story which returns to its own beginning and so may be recited until the hearers revolt.”  Does revolution count as an emotional response?

Q: how does a functionalist explain the idea of a lament? A: a slow tempo drags you down by their connectin with the physiological reaction of grief.

Comment from behind me so I don’t know who said it:  Scientists have actually studied why some people are moved to tears by music. It’s partly synesthesia, partly empathy.  (Cool!)

Tom Hillman: These are not the Elves you’re looking for

The complete paper is available on line.

This is the first part of a contribution to a festschrift for Prof. Flieger. He’s starting a project on Elves. You can see Victorian diminished fairies in The Hobbit, and in Gildor, and “Errantry”. In the Lay of Leithian, Tinuviel can hide under hemlock umbels.

Tolkien was trying to turn English tradition back towards the true tradition (like Spenser, or Sir Orfeo). This isn’t an easy job, because it’s so complex. Beowulf traces elves back to Cain, like all the other monsters. Spenser’s fairy knight Redcrosse is a christian elf, with a bloody cross on his chest. Morgan Le Fay takes Arthur to Avalon, even though it’s not going to work. Indeterminacy is a key to Faërie.

The random cruelty of fairies, which I think is their defining characteristic in pre-JRRT literature, is totally missing from Middle-Earth.

This is going to be a fascinating project. I’m eager to see how it comes out.

Speculative Fiction: Fantasy : MidMoot 3.05

My notes from the second panel at MidMoot 3

Joe Hoffman: Fragments of a Geographical Approach to Fantasy Criticism

This paper is on line in its entirety,  by some strange chance.  Some of the symposium attendees looked disappointed when I mentioned I’d taken out the mathematical underpinning of the Tolkien section.  You guys are great!

A couple of interesting questions came up.

Q: Did I look for an alignment of Bree-hobbit names with Englishmen living overseas?  A: I don’t have an easy source for those, but it would be really cool if they were South Africans or Australians.

Q: Did you look along the coast of Cornwall, where Tolkien spent holidays as a child?  A: (Later) I found Chubbs there, but nobody else.

Prof. Flieger suggested the name “Trotter” might be interesting.


Distribution of Trotter in the UK, computed by Oliver O’Brien

That was Tolkien’s original name for “Strider”.  She suggested that it might be from the Scottish borderlands.

A: There is certainly a hotspot there, but the highest concentration is in Lincoln. Running through my associations with that city, I recall that Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men (aka rangers) dressed in Lincoln green. That is exactly the kind of thing I no longer dismiss as coincidence when I’m thinking about Tolkien’s writing.

David Gras: Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis & the Bridge between them

David describes himself as a Christian apologist. (I didn’t know that was still a job title.)

C.S. Lewis didn’t embrace paganism the way JRRT or J.K. Rowling did.  We shouldn’t resist the mythological resonances.  Lots of phoenix imagery in Harry Potter, for example.  Harry Potter and Aslan are bridges between the human world and the Forest. Making the self-sacrifice to save their worlds.

Q: Pre-christian myths have different status from a myth derived from Christianity. A: Lewis wrote a letter on that; you don’t have to abandon the things you learn from ancient myths when you convert to Christianity. We don’t have to avoid them, we should learn from them. The Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of Christ by medieval missionaries. Jesus was portrayed as a white stag; Harry’s patronus is a white stag.

Q: how do you deal with Christians who say that witchcraft is evil so christians must avoid it in books? A: It’s just brought in as a connection to mythology. The things in the book don’t have anything to do with actual Wicca. It’s there to communicate a moral about light, not inform about darkness.

Q: Nobody thinks they’re evil. Witches think they’re a force for good. A force within yourself (hereditary) isn’t what they think. A: When JKR was asked about that, she said that real Wiccans laugh at her books. The Navajo are kind of objecting to her latest work, by the way.

Michelle Markey Butler: Good People Doing Bad Things

A shared theme doesn’t require direct influence. It’s not a cage match, pitting authors against each other to see who did this better. Shared themes are handled very differently by Tolkien and Rowling.  Her examples are Boromir & Sam vs. Lupin, Dumbledore, & Harry.

Boromir accepts that Aragorn is the leader, which is a self-sacrifice. The fact that he’s a good guy is obvious to adults, but children don’t get it. Chesterton: children are innocent and love justice; adults are wicked and prefer mercy. One of the most psychologically-realized characters.  Sam is the hero, but he pushes Gollum past any chance of redemption. The most cynical observation in the book — that people frequently do real damage from just trying to help others.  Note:  It’s widely said that George R.R. Martin is a cynical reboot of Tolkien. This isn’t really true. JRRT has such a deep streak of cynicism that no such thing is needed.

Lupin taught most of the magic. But then he abandons his pregnant wife.  Dumbledore is kindness, patience, and wisdom. Until we learn about his past problems, like plotting to take over the world & rule through wizardry. How could the Dumbledore we thought we knew make those choices?  Harry makes choices that lead to the death of his godfather. He trusts his dreams too much, even when his friends urge him to wait. Harry can’t be a solitary hero. Without his friends, bad things happen.

Speculative Fiction: SF : MidMoot 3.04

These are my notes from the first panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Neil Ottenstein: Dreams and Prophecy in Babylon 5

I usually think of myself as a science-fiction fan. Compared to Neil, I am not. When I want to quote a work, I type out the words on a screen. When Neil wants to quote from Babylon 5, he comes to the front of the room with a stack of bound quarto volumes of scripts, opens each one in its turn, and reads passages to us with a reverent tone. That’s a true fan.

This was another in his series of talks about prophecy. It was orders of magnitude smaller in focus than his presentation at MidMoot 2. B5 doesn’t have a radical concept of prophecy. “We create the future with our words and our deeds. Prophecies are possible futures, not certainties.”

The Centauri seem to be able to make prophecies and confine them to things that are fixed. Unlike other characters who talk about things that may or may not happen, depending on people’s choices, the Centauri seem to be able to perceive “constants of the motion”, making prophecies that are going to turn out to be true no matter what.

Margaret Ann Mendenhall: The Borg: Is assimilation Fertile?

First question: is Star Trek’s humanism patriarchal? It certainly privileges Western values.

Margaret projected the text of the Prime Directive (non-interference with other cultures) up on the screen, and proceeded to slice it to ribbons. Nearly every phrase in it comes from mid-20th-century American ideology. Our perspective, here and now, isn’t that far removed. We’re in the same country, just 50 years later, but those words no longer look to us like a statement of a principle to live by. We now see terms like “healthy development” or “normal cultural evolution” as bags that carry a lot of prejudice in them.

(I’d point out here that those ideologies are honored more in the breach than the observance. Roddenberry may have been writing them down explicitly to get the US to recognize how far short of them our actions in (e.g.) Vietnam were. Which doesn’t disagree with Margaret’s thesis in any way.)

Of course, this gets taken to extremes in the show. Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive every chance he gets. As Jon pointed out, the Prime Directive is a plot generator, not an actual law to live under. Life would be very stressful under a code that was designed to maximize the frequency of exciting events.  Possibly recognizing this, newer incarnations of Star Trek have replaced the Prime Directive with an ideology of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”.

On to patriarchy. The presentation of the Borg in “First Contact” shows a feminized twist. The Borg Queen is a Great Goddess figure. (I hadn’t seen this movie – apparently the Borg have been transformed from a mechanical assembly to an insect hive.) It’s a gylany rather than a patriarchy. It works by horizontal linkages, not a command hierarchy.

Now, by assimilating other species into their collective, the Borg is perfecting them.  I got whiplash at this point, because if you say “market” instead of “collective”, it sounds like the attitude of  global capitalism.

Q: Aren’t the Borg and Starfleet both making decisions for other people. What’s the difference? A: They’re both symbolizing the unconscious.  (The subspace network the Borg use to communicate is the Jungian collective unconscious. Fascinating, to coin a phrase.)

Q: (from VF) are the theories you’re working from applicable to western fantasies at all? A: Yes. Her dissertation is about how the Hero’s Journey has been taken over by monotheists to mean pefection of the soul. She’s instead balancing Artemis, Lilith, and Isis in a lemniscate. (MM didn’t say “lemniscate”, but she laid “gylany” on us and I must have revenge.)

Kris Larsen: Mad Scientist Alphabet Soup

Mad scientists aren’t all lone wolves. Kris is talking about three organizations of mad science.  Their common features: obsession with experimental design (she says this like it’s a bad thing); Population-control mission; and complete disregard for informed consent.

First, the DHARMA initiative from “Lost”. Numerology – terms in an equation to predict the number of years left for the human race. The initiative is trying to change one of the parameters and lengthen our existence.

WICKED from The Maze Runner:  plans to eradicate half the population with a virus, because we’ve overloaded the planet. The virus didn’t work as planned. Natural immunity became a valuable commodity. WICKED used immunes to generate a cure.

NICE from That Hideous Strength:  There’s been a decades-long debate about whether this is an attack on science, or just scientism.  Their goal is to “Make man a really efficient animal.” NICE will “take charge of Man”.  Direct manipulation of the brain is their goal. Same as Wicked. Wither and Frost are two definite mad scientists. (How about Glitter and Lost?)

Lewis’s bitter observation: to parents, “Experiment on a child” is a bad thing. But offer them a seat in an “experimental school”, and they’ll sign right up.

Kris ended with an exhortation to science not to forget that we might be working from immoral principles. Fascinating exchange at the end of this talk:

  • Q: Why are there mad scientists, but nobody ever denounces mad theologians or literati? A: We scientists are highly respected.
  • Prof Olsen: do scientists have a proclivity that way? Philostrato isn’t mad, though he’s a dupe. A: Nobody wants to read a novel about normal scientists.
  • CO: it’s a compliment to scientists – in order for them to do evil, they must be insane.
  • Jon: science stripped of humanity leads to these effects.

Tolkien Studies: MidMoot 3.03

These are my notes from the third panel session from MidMoot 3.

Nicholas Palazzo and Marie Prosser: Lessons learned from the SilmFilm Project

Stanley Kubrick called The Lord of the Rings “unfilmable”. What would he have said about the Silmarillion?  Nick and Marie are the scriptwriters for this TV series that will never be produced. They’ve made hours of video, including this talk, available on Youtube.  They started off with the obvious question: Why are we engaging in such an “Epic Waste of Time”?   Nick thinks we should expect one day a Silmarillion on theater marquees, despite the fact that lawyers, guns, and money will make sure it’s never going to happen.

The most interesting parts of this project to me are when they deviate from the written text.  For example, Aragorn’s mother Gilraen is an important character in their frame narrative.  She’s bound to disagree with Elrond fairly often about the proper rearing of the future King — how do you make her fight with Elrond all the time and still remain a sympathetic character?

I’m going to exercise blogger’s privilege here, and say something about the Silmfilm project. It’s too big!  They don’t make a movie out of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, they make a movie out of “Jason and the Argonauts”. I admire Corey, Dave, Trish, and their éored for even trying to do it end to end, but if any book was ever made for cherry-picking theatrical moments, The Silmarillion is it.

Arthur Harrow: Poetry in The Hobbit: Fluff or Exposition?

Like any honorable doctor should, Arthur began with a disclosure of his interests: He has no affiliation with any Ring manufacturers; He works with Gothmog’s personal-injury firm (injuring persons since the First Age).

This talk had a nice, simple thesis: The songs in The Hobbit are there to break us out of any pre-conceived notions we might have about elves, dwarves, goblins, and what not. Thorin & Co. sing their songs, and we know that they’re neither Disney characters nor Norse-saga characters. They love their works, they carry a grudge indefinitely, and they’re careful with the crockery.  The elves of Rivendell know what’s going on, and they don’t care.  The forest elves are hard workers who know about the outside world.  The goblins are “part of the military-industrial complex”. Their short words and onomatopoeia prepare us for their brutal, slave-driving ways. The Lake-men have an almost messianic hope for the future.

Monsters don’t have songs.  (I never noticed their absence until now.) This is a big difference between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  We’ve never heard of hobbits before, so Bilbo doesn’t sing a song until the very end.

The new generation of Tolkien fans are probably going to the books from the movies.  They’re going to have a completely new set of incorrect preconceptions.  This role for the songs, therefore, is only going to grow in importance.

Graham McAleer: Contrasting LotR and Game of Thrones

Graham’s a philosopher.  He began by telling us about his latest idea for a monograph in the form of a website.  The subject is irrelevant to the conference, but it looks interesting anyway. (I’ve read a few chapters; for the subject matter, HTML is an excellent choice over print.)

He handed out the syllabus from a class he taught. Students had to read The Prince, Francesco De Vitoria On Homicide, Ferguson (XIXth Scotland) An essay on the subject of civil society [what is a “Knight”], and Karl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political. Our job was to tell us what we thought about that class.  We discussed:

  • Capital punishment.  Game of Thrones is full of it. It’s clearly part of the law in Rohan. Faramir and Gandalf are dubious of its merit.
  • Trials. They’re prominent in GoT. Aragorn tries Beregond, and Faramir tries Gollum, but none of the ludic elements of modern British or American trials are present in those cases.
  • Knighthood. Merry and Pippin learn to become knights, in part, like Arya Stark.  Nobody in LotR is born to knighthood, like the Hound in GoT.

No great problems of philosophy were resolved.

Simon Cook: The language of the palantiri

Tom Hillman read the paper for Simon Cook. What can the palantiri do, exactly? They’re for far-seeing, which is emphasized by the fact that they were originally placed in towers, which are also tools for seeing a long way.  Gandalf implies that all the stones can see Valinor. They’re a link between the real world and Faërie.  They help you look from mind to mind like Galadriel can. (She’s from Valinor, too. The palantiri are stronger.)  The palantiri are associated with temptation. There’s a compulsion to them, that doesn’t come entirely from Sauron.

The last palantir is Elendil’s stone in Emyn Beriad, taken back across the Sea at the end. It’s replaced by the Red Book in the Tower Hills at Westmarch. This lines up neatly with the way myth stops being a part of the environment and passes into history during the Fourth Age.

Q: Galadriel’s hair inspired the Silmarils – could her mirror-trick have inspired the palantiri? A: Wooo! What a cool idea.

Q: is Galadriel’s mirror Faërian Drama? Prof. Flieger responds: The palantiri and the Mirror are all about temptation. Mortals are deluded by them, but it’s not clear whether the fairies are doing that on purpose. This made me wonder: temptation comes before using the palantiri, but it comes while looking into the Mirror.  Is that an important difference?

Laura Berkholtz: The origins of Nienna

This paper was read by Ed Powell.

A few properties of Nienna. Her realm is in shadow. Pity is in her heart, and weeping comes to her. She was the spouse of Mandos, but then became the sister of Manwe. By the time he wrote the things that went into the published Silmarillion, she’s the sister of Mandos. She does passive compassion, not active healing. She turns sorrow to wisdom.

Laura makes a comparison to two figures from older mythology.  One is Mary, Mother of Sorrows. Mary seems to be able to affect events on the earth. The other comparison is to Kuan-yin. She’s a bodhisattva who hears the complaints of the world. She also can affect the real world. (It’s not obvious how much Buddhism affected JRRT.)  Nienna, by contrast, doesn’t directly affect the world. The closest she comes is through instructing Gandalf before he comes to Middle Earth.

There’s a longer discussion in “Perilous and Fair“, by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan.

Arthur points out that weaving the sound of mourning into the world doesn’t sound like a good thing. But all the acts that have really long-lasting effects are acts of pity. Note the Greek myth of Demeter, weeping for her daughter every winter. Necessary for the cycle of the earth.

Mike Therway: Color in the Silmarillion

This may be the most quantitative talk of the conference. He counted references to each color of the spectrum, and then a few others.

Orange doesn’t appear in the Silmarillion. It’s not an old word in English; we got it fairly recently from Arabic.  (I bet the Dwarves and the Orcs have words for orange!) There’s no purple or indigo, either.  Why not? Sharon hypothesized that “purple” is an ugly word and Tolkien didn’t like the sound of it.  Curiously, there’s a Sindarin word for “red-blue”.  I think Sharon wins this one.

Black is mentioned 84 times. (Is that all?) White has 106 mentions. Grey is ambivalent – usually good, but it’s the last color-word in the Silmarillion, and it’s sad.

Editing Tolkien, with Professor Flieger

Professor Verlyn Flieger was a guest of honor at MidMoot 3.  She didn’t give a formal lecture. Rather, she engaged us in a conversation about editing.  Her stories were fascinating insights into a world about which I know nothing.  Except for what Christopher Tolkien puts into the History of Middle Earth series, but of course he’s a unique case.

She consults with Christopher Tolkien frequently. Her general rule is to write down what’s on the page; let the reader decide what JRRT meant. But you can’t do that when what’s on the page is meaningless.  For instance, what if JRRT numbered the paragraphs of a lecture, but then presented them out of numerical order?

Tolkien’s legendarily bad handwriting is famous.  To me it’s an amusing anecdote.  To Prof. Flieger, it’s an endless challenge.  Many other things I thought I knew about J.R.R. Tolkien turn out to come from scribbled marginal notes.  If there are several versions, and only one of them has such a note, and it’s not the most recent version, do you include it?  What if the note is an IOU the author wrote to himself, to fix something later.  Do you fix it?

One thing I found amusing is that if you write a book that’s good enough to be translated into other languages, those are opportunities to fix things you missed. She called out the Dutch translator in particular for catching things that are inconsistent among editions. (Sometimes Dutch scholars scare me.)

We spent some time discussing “Faërien drama”. It’s a phrase from “On Fairy-Stories”. Nobody really knows what JRRT meant by that concept. (perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life?) It came up a few other times in our discussions.

Verlyn Flieger’s next project is editing Tolkien’s “Lay of Aotrou and Itroun“. It was published in a journal that promptly went belly-up, so it’s been hard to find for the last 70 years.  That has one big advantage: JRRT wrote it out legibly. Apparently it will be printed in facsimile, which will be interesting.

Tolkien and the Inklings: MidMoot 3.02

Second of my posts about MidMoot 3.

Jason Ray Carney: The real business of Bilbo, the dreams of Conan, and the Rhetoric of the Ordinary

Ten points for originality here – who would have thought to compare Bilbo Baggins to Conan the Cimmerian?

The take-away is that The Hobbit has clear dividing lines between the ordinary world and the fantastical world, but Conan stories don’t. Bilbo steps across physical thresholds. He’s startled by the differences he finds in Wilderland. For Conan, though, swordfights with fantastic monsters are portrayed as “all in a day’s work”.

The other thing Bilbo and Conan have in common is drinking parties. The Unexpected Party is all about defining individuals through their different appetites. When Conan is drinking in a tavern, no characters are identified. They’re all left in an undifferentiated blur to convey hostility and suspicion.

Corey pointed out that the distinction arises because Conan himself is the fantastical adventurer, walking around in a normal world. Bilbo is the only normal guy, surrounded by adventurers.

Kevin Hensler: Soteriology of Non-human Rational Beings in Lewis and Tolkien

I learned a new word – “soteriology” is the branch of theology dealing with salvation. If you’re not human, do you need salvation from anything? C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both addressed this question after their fashion, and came to different answers. (no surprise there.)

Lewis ran through lots of possibilities for non-humans, and didn’t much like any of them. Narnians need salvation, or Aslan wouldn’t have been sacrificed. Perelandrans don’t need salvation because they’re prelapsarian.

Tolkien’s elves go to Mandos, but they don’t outlive the world. Kevin says they require salvation from death. Are they to be saved by humans, at the very end, as humans bring about the restoration of Arda? Interesting concept. Cascading salvation, as Jesus saves humanity, then humanity saves everyone else.

I’m not sure I understood that (isn’t damnation what people need to be saved from?), but I know even less about theology than I know about Linear A, so I won’t presume to challenge Kevin on it. In any case, it won’t astonish anyone to find out that JRRT was much more conservative than CSL on the question.

Laura Lee Smith: Evil Incarnate in Perelandra and Charles Williams’s “The Noises that Weren’t There”

Charles Williams only wrote a few parts of the novel he planned to call Clarissa. The parts he did write were published in Mythlore as “The Noises that Weren’t There”.  C.S. Lewis wrote Perelandra just before Williams started his project.

Both works involve an evil spirit taking human shape.  When Lee uses the phrase “evil incarnate”, she’s speaking literally.  There are a lot of parallels in how Lewis and Williams portrayed the concept: unnatural smiles; the eyes give the evil away; the bodies are like puppets with an amateur puppeteer in charge, gradually learning the tricks of moving like a human.

(Irrelevant thing I thought at this point: that’s like zombies. Zombies are no good at controlling human bodies, but vampires are better at it than we are.)

Williams never got to finish his murder mystery, but the setup gave us a lot of things to discuss about Lewis.  I loved the part of Perelandra where Ransom slowly comes to realize that he doesn’t have some rational, modern task before him. His job is just to beat the snot out of the Un-Man.  Literally to fight evil.  Lee points out that this is exactly what got asked of the Inklings’ generation in the World Wars: sure you’re an academic literary critic or a philologist or whatever, but what we need is for you to go fight the Kaiser with guns and bayonets in the mud.

Mythgard Academy: MidMoot 3.01

These are my notes from the first panel at MidMoot 3, held on September 24, 2016. An archaeologist, a toxicologist, and an engineer walk into a literary conference…

Marie Prosser: Narrative Voice in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Lots of people have wondered: Who is the narrator of JS&MN? Marie undertook a thorough examination of all the possibilities: age, education, social class, hometown, the side they take in the Strange/Norrell debate. The part that struck me the most was the attention the narrator pays to servants. The writer is obviously upper class. What kind of upper-class Englishman pays attention to the servants? The book is completely devoid of socialists, so I have no clue.

It surprised me that there’s some debate about whether the narrator is male or female. Susanna Clarke is good at writing in distinctly male and female voices, and the narrator struck me as female from the first few pages. Ultimately Marie agrees with me and Belle Waring that she’s female, so I guess this is just making sure she’s not unduly influenced by any preconceptions.

April raised an intriguing point: if the narrator is a magician, she’ll have access to sources that regular scholars don’t. Remote viewing, necromancy, who knows?

April Neal Kluever: Externalization of Evil in Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Victorian audience believed you could recognize someone who’s evil by external cues. The book is full of such cues, if you dig back into ancient pseudoscience to find them.

April talked a lot about physiognomy. She cites a reference work from 1898, subtitled “true guide to a perfect marriage”, to general hilarity. The long description of Dracula at the beginning is all facial indicators of cunning, deceit, intelligence. Jonathan Harker doesn’t seem to know much about physiognomy, though he mentions it in his diary. Hands matter, too. There were actually “laws of scientific handreading”. (Her source looks like one of the odder corners of the Web.) Benham’s description of short fingers is funny, in the context of some running jokes in the current election campaign.

In the movies, Dracula has softened. April tracked the image from Max Schreck’s cartoonish monster to Lugosi’s aristocratic manners, to Lee’s benevolent (at first) appearance, to the “almost perfectly honest faces” of modern-day actors. Now that the audience all knows what vampires are, movie directors create horror through using outward signs of good-guys to mask the inner monstrosity.

Implication – we’re still slightly physiognomists at heart.

Meaghan Searle: Gravity Falls: Growing up and Being Grown-up

I’ve never seen Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls. It’s a Disney animated TV series. The villain is a demon named “Bill”. Meaghan unraveled its fascinating interweaving of mythical elements (which are frequently sad) and fairy-tale elements (which have eucatastrophes). Her best line: “A happy story for children finds itself in the nastier chapters of the Book of Revelations”

It’s about the last summer of childhood, so you know the children will end up in a bittersweet situation. An amusing twist is that the old men get the happy ending. The director sounds like he finds a lot of creative ways to mix humor into genuinely terrifying situations. I’m glad to hear Disney isn’t grinding the sharp edges off of fairy-stories anymore, like they did when I was young.

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