Now that I’ve recovered from my trip to the Big Apple, and the bottle of Pellegrino is half empty at my elbow, I have a chance to write down what I saw and heard at the NY Tolkien Conference 2016. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, and hear a lot of interesting ideas. Mission accomplished! The conference was held at Baruch College (part of the City University of New York), and the obvious joke was already made for me: When I registered, they handed me a rubber wristband reading “Baruch Khazâd”. Let the record show that I did in fact pass a short man with a long white beard on 24th Street as I entered the building.
Here are my notes on the talks I was able to attend. Bronwen put a bunch of videos online — Hurrah!
Lewis, Tolkien, and Popular Level Science
The Inklings were no scientists, but they were members of a generation that could take for granted a substantial familiarity with science among their audience. C. S. Lewis used current developments in astronomy to build credibility for his work, even when it led to some odd juxtapositions. My favorite is the fact that Narnia, which is geometrically flat in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, has correct stellar evolution above it in The Last Battle. Kris informed us that the stellar evolution part was brand-new science, just publicized by Fred Hoyle. Lewis used it despite his slight regard for Hoyle.
This is the second academic discipline in which I’ve been present for a Hoyle-bashing session. The thing about Hoyle is that his ideas were wrong as often as they were right, but proving him wrong is worth the effort even today. I learned as much physics detesting Hoyle as I learned admiring Einstein. (BTW, Kris, we certainly can blame Uncle Al for nuclear bombs. But I was of draft age during the Reagan Administration, so I’m more likely to say “credit” than “blame”.)
There was an entertaining discussion of lunar phases, too. They are correct in LotR, totally screwed up in the Hobbit. Lots of writers work astronomy into their stories; Kris pointed out that there are very few built around the theory of evolution. (Would Pokémon count, I wonder?)
Conclusion: The interplay between science and the arts is what we need to encourage. Kris has an acronym: “STEAM” studies instead of “STEM”. JRRT and CSL might approve. Since I’m working in an engineering job with a liberal-arts degree, I concur.
Self-Imposed Reading Assignment:
- Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time
- Ray Bradbury, All Summer in a Day
Janet Brennan Croft:
Doors Into Elf-Mounds: JRR Tolkien’s Introductions, prefaces and forewords.
Diana Glyer calls the preface-writer a “resonator”. Resonance is a good physics word — it means that oscillatory energy introduced into a system at certain frequencies doesn’t dissipate. It feeds back into the system, so it persists for a long time. If energy is supplied at a constant rate, the oscillation of the system can become very large in amplitude. In particle physics, it can even lead to the creation of new things. This talk gave some explicit examples of JRRT resonating, and the new things that emerged.
Janet didn’t audibly structure her talk this way, but all four relationships between forewords and texts were there:
|Text -> Foreword||JRRT is frequently an unacknowledged editor of a work, not just the writer of the introduction.|
|Text -> Text||JRRT wrote an introduction to Dialect of the Huddersfield District , which dialect later found its way into hobbit mouths.|
|Foreword -> Text||“Smith of Wootton Major” began as an introduction to MacDonald’s The Golden Key. JRRT wasn’t fond of the moral allegory, so he found his introduction turning negative in tone. That wouldn’t suit the purpose at all, so it became a stand-alone story.|
|The Red Book of Westmarch first appeared as a meta-fictional frame in the preface to the 1957 edition of The Hobbit. It later formed the backbone of the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings second edition|
The question session was a free-for-all, with the audience tossing out lots of other things Tolkien wrote that count as paratextual material. Janet is going to have to give another talk on this in the future, twice as long.
Self-Imposed Reading Assignment:
- Diana Glyer, Bandersnatch
Yr. Humble Idiosopher
Ardagraphic Information Systems: Locating Hobbits on the Map of England
Three Inklings and the Sciences of Language
Prof. Lobdell is the author of A Tolkien Compass, which I read in a previous century, and lots of other books which I have not. He talks about the Inklings in a friend-of-a-friend kind of way that made the whole room envious.
This talk was mostly about a collaboration between JRRT & CSL on a book called Language and Human Nature that was never written. I have to admit, I was kind of lost by his delivery. He seemed to be talking to the lectern, not the people in the room. But it was worth it for the zingers he slipped in. “Tolkien used words so precisely as to make them a pun,” was one of his own. One he took from the Inklings themselves: “Conversations with [Charles] Williams make me understand how the Inquisitors could have burned people. Some students are eminently kickable; Williams is eminently combustible.”
The science of sub-creation in Tolkien’s corpus
Becky is a student in the Ph.D. program at Waterloo, and it shows. She slings impenetrable academic jargon around like a master sushi chef wields knives. I wish her the best of luck getting her thesis approved quickly, so she doesn’t have to say things like “iconophobia” or “transmedial” any more.
She addressed her topic via the MMORPG Lord of the Rings Online. In particular, she looked at how it tries to scare you, even when you’re playing as one of the Orcs. For the “good guys”, fright comes from animal characteristics (fangs, scales, etc.) grafted onto a human form. When you’re an Orc, it comes in the form of verbal abuse from your superior officers. (You always have a superior officer.)
There was a long discussion following about how the corporate structure of the content owner (I hate business jargon, but it’s inescapable here) affects the structure of an adaptation of a story to a new medium. There’s something extremely interesting in there, especially since I’ve worried so long about how American intellectual-property laws seem to be strangling the arts.
Another question: does the cultural embedding of Tolkien count as an adaptation? I’m referring to the image macros, the YouTube mashups, the fan-fiction, the wisecracks in business meetings, and the hundreds of other references to LotR that you can find. Is there such a thing as crowd-sourced subcreation?
Laurel Michalek & Kaleena Ma
The Importance of Genealogy in Tolkien’s Works
Genealogies are to characters what etymology is to language. This topic was the closest to what I was talking about. (Kaleena actually referred to my talk, a couple of hours before. Thanks, Kaleena!) Laurel and Kaleena’s presentation was a review of something Tolkien thought was tremendously important, even though it shows up only peripherally in the text. (Diana Glyer mentions that the biggest revisions in LotR were hobbit genealogies. !) It was half lecture (Laurel’s word) and half audience-participation trivia game.
The original Call for Papers wanted group presentations, not just people reading papers. Kaleena and Laurel are the only ones who gave the organizers what they asked for. The presentation was kind of weak on the “so what?” question, but everybody was having a great time so who cares?
This was my first shot at contributing to a conference in any role other than wisecracks. I could see that most of the other speakers were citing each other’s previous work. I did what I could, but this is going to take a lot more reading. Next year’s theme is the 80th anniversary of The Hobbit. Less science, more fiction. Looking forward to it already!