A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: September 2016

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.

Fragments of a Geographical Approach to Fantasy Criticism

My presentation from the Mythgard Mid-Atlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium 2016. It begins with the paper from this summer, drops the math, and investigates what happens if we try to apply the same methods to other fantasy works.

Primary Geography of Sub-created worlds


A subcreated world is derivative of the primary world, so fantastical geography is going to be derivative of primary-world geography.  This work began last winter when I stumbled across Oliver O’Brien’s public-access database that lets you type in a name and see where in the UK people are called that. Geographers have done extensive work on matching names with places all over Europe, it turns out. Like hobbits, English people move around only slowly, so names are strongly associated with places. When I was given the opportunity to map a family name in Great Britain, the second name I tried was “Baggins”. The distribution of that name is centered near Birmingham almost exactly over top of J.R.R. Tolkien’s boyhood home.

It turned out that this is not a coincidence.  Tom Hillman pointed out that the connection wasn’t dumb, and is worth pursuing. So let’s see what we can learn about fantasy novels by using real-world geography. This talk will tell you about three of them. The title has the word “fragments” because they don’t fit together into a solid piece of china.

The Lord of the Rings

Alone among the denizens of Middle Earth, hobbits have family names. They’re  conscious of their difference.  They effortlessly slide into “Peregrin son of Paladin” phrasing when they encounter Men.  As Tolkien wrote in letter 25, “[hobbit] family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.”

map of Baggins

There had always been a Baggins at Bag End. Computed by Oliver O’Brien.

I took this comment, along with another from Letter 211,  as explicit permission to look at The Lord of the Rings with real-world geography.  Hobbits are from different parts of England, according to their role in the story, and we know this is intentional because the story was stretched to fit them, if they didn’t match.


When we start looking at names, we can identify three categories of hobbits. Some people you keep close to you. They could be family, or they could be just friends.

JRRT was from the West Midlands; the close-by hobbits have names from that region. The Tooks and the Bagginses, despite their considerable differences in temperament, are quite close.

map of Took

The Tooks of Birmingham

This shows up on the map as surely as it does in the text. The Cottons are nearby, too, as is Hob Hayward, whom Sam picks out of the group of Shirrifs as being someone friendly. The readers Tolkien had in mind would have heard “Hayward” as going perfectly well with Cottons or Bagginses.


The second group of hobbits we find are neighbors who aren’t exactly bad, but they frequently seem to act in a way that interferes with others getting on with their lives. It’s good practice to keep them at arm’s length. They might be an unwisely-chosen in-law, or a cousin who borrows books and doesn’t return them. For example a Sackville-Baggins, rather distant from Birmingham to start with, can be led further from the fold by marriage to a Bracegirdle, who’s practically a foreigner in hobbitish terms.

The last category is the “liminal” hobbit-names. Hobbits in Buckland and the

Marish have them. Their family names in our world are either concentrated far from Birmingham, or they don’t appear in the UK at all,

underhill map

Underhills in the UK

like the Maggots or Brandybucks don’t. Frodo uses the name “Underhill” when he’s in Bree because Gandalf knows that someone who hears it won’t think of the bearer as living anywhere near the Shire. You can see here how well Gandalf knows his business. The Hornblowers are in this group, too. They’d “hardly ever set foot in Hobbiton before.” Although “Brandybuck” isn’t a name found in England, “Buckland” is. It’s on the extreme east outside Dover, that is, almost in France.


I mentioned that Tolkien would stretch the story, if a name didn’t fit.  Sam Gamgee is the conspicuous example. We know from Letters 72 & 144 that “Gaffer Gamgee” was a name Tolkien made up to amuse his children. It was a pun on “cotton”, like the Cotton family, and it occurred to him because there was a Dr. Gamgee at the University, but — it turns out that the name “Gamgee” doesn’t come from the West Midlands.

map of Gamgee

Serving the Bagginses may have involved commuting.

How then can Tolkien make Sam, whose presence in the story is essential, fit the pattern? The solution he found to this problem explains something I wondered about since the first time I read the Appendices.

Why is it worth half a page of Appendix F to write a lengthy discourse on the subject of how “Gamgee” isn’t really a family name, but more an epithet derived from the town of Gamwich whither their ancestors had decamped several generations back? This is why – Tolkien needed to get his hero within shouting distance of Birmingham. A London name wouldn’t do at all, but a nickname isn’t definitive.

Map of Gardner

Mayor Sam Gardner’s family

The final resolution of the story is in Appendix C. We learn that upon his accession to Mayor, Samwise changed his family name to “Gardner”.


That name has a much closer association with the West Midlands, though it’s not primarily in Birmingham. Evidently, three generations of residence plus saving the whole world from evil is almost sufficient to get one accepted into Hobbiton society.

The match of names isn’t perfect, but it works. As Tolkien says in the Prologue, “By the time of this history these names were no longer found only in their proper folklands.” Of course there will be some leakage across the boundaries for artistic purposes, and perhaps some because geographic information systems in the 1950s were less accessible.


At this point I went off looking for another novel I could subject to the same scrutiny. First consideration, I needed a world that was linguistically integrated. Most fantasy novelists don’t take the time to do that. They just pick names that sound cool. Unfortunately, this gives a geographical critic nothing to work with.

Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, seemed ideal. First, most of the names sound Italian. Second, the author makes a grateful mention of the cartographer in the acknowledgements. He mentions that having clear maps guided him to fix some problems with the story. There are five maps in the TOR paperback edition, so it was reasonable to suppose that geography is important.

Tigana isn’t as famous as The Lord of the Rings, so here’s what it’s about in a few sentences. Two warlord/sorcerers are contending for the Peninsula of the Palm.

Frontispiece map from Tigana.

The Peninsula of the Palm

The Palm is divided into a small number of pseudo-feudal states. In the process of conquering the left side of the Palm, one warlord lost his son in battle. To punish the country that he was fighting at the time, he devised what may be the most absolute revenge ever conceived: The cities were razed, the populations were dispersed, and he cast a spell so that nobody can remember or even say the name of the country any more. Except, some of the people who were born there have formed a resistance movement, and when they induct another Tiganan (by birth) into their cell, they teach him or her the name. Covert action is only half of their subversion; the greater crime is memory. In the second part, a Tiganan woman has insinuated herself into the king’s seraglio to assassinate him, but ended up falling in love instead. Her love of her country gets opposed to her love of Brandin. In a nutshell, these are Kay’s two themes: love and memory.

So this is where I went looking for geographical significance in the text. What I found was several early mentions of the shape of the peninsula. Its shape is important to the characters in the first few chapters. After that, though, maps and geography are almost never mentioned. What’s going on?

Kay wants us to read this as an upside-down Italy. In case an inattentive reader didn’t notice the place names are all Italian (though the character names aren’t), he includes an epigraph from Dante. There are plenty of other inversions, once you start to look for them: Italy looks like a foot, the Palm looks like a hand. Italy points south towards a desert, the Palm points north towards a desert. Lower Corte, the new name given to the lost land of Tigana, is actually uphill from Corte. The queen of the empire to the east is named Dorotea, flipping the Byzantine Empress Theodora.

Putting the book in an inverted Italy has two purposes. First, this book is about memory. The former Tiganans, even if they don’t know that’s what they are, have a nagging feeling of uncertainty about their past. The spell isn’t perfect, so they have fleeting half-memories that leaked around its edges. I confess that’s a pretty good description for my own education in history – I never know if I’m remembering something correctly. For example, I had to hit up Wikipedia to see if there actually was a Queen Dorotea somewhere, to whom Kay was alluding. So this reader (at least) has the same sort of feeling about the past that the heroes do.

The second purpose is that, rarely among fantasy novels, Tigana fits into single volume. Using a mirror-image of our own world lets Kay focus his efforts on constructing his meticulously-crafted moral dilemmas. Kay uses this technique in many of his books. He invites us readers to use medieval Italy as a touchstone, any time we feel like we need a detail that didn’t interest the author. There’s no danger of taking us out of the story when he does this, because when we supply details from our own memory, they feel right automatically. But it’s not historical fiction, which brings us to the third book.

A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin told January Magazine, “the only problem I have with historical fiction is that I know too much history. So I always know what’s going to happen. … With this sort of thing you can take people by surprise. It reads like historical fiction. It feels like historical fiction but you don’t know how it’s going to come out.”

It’s obvious that Martin isn’t interested in writing about anything but political history. He’s said as much, in fact. Perhaps out of respect for Tolkien’s precedent, there’s a map in the front of A Game of Thrones, but we can get an idea of its importance to the story by noticing that Chapter 2 takes place in a city that’s not on the map.

Westeros is the British Isles

Westeros, by KingofFairview, via  Brilliant Maps

When Martin does take the time to describe a landscape, in the very next sentence he’s back to politics. Here are two consecutive sentences. Catelyn is riding through the lands where she grew up. She hasn’t seen them in a long time.

North of here the Kingsroad ran along the Green Fork of the Trident, through fertile valleys and green woodlands, past thriving towns and stout holdfasts and the castles of the river lords. Catelyn knew them all: the Blackwoods and the Brackens ever enemies, whose quarrels her father was obliged to settle; Lady Whent …; Lord Frey ….

A Game of Thrones, P. 241

The first sentence jumped out at me because it’s almost a pastoral lyric, by GRRM standards. I’ve elided about 40 words of aristocratic political detail with those ellipses. It’s clear that the political actors are the important part.  Martin uses the land as a board to hold the pieces in his chess game, and that’s all. His text doesn’t encourage geographic analysis.

His fans, though, seem to have overruled him.  By now, twenty years after the first volume was published, Westeros has been invaded by amateur geographers like Adam Whitehead, professional demographers like Lyman Stone, and what appears to be a large detachment from the Stanford University Department of Geology.

The geologists support Martin fairly well. Mapping what must be happening in his world from beneath, they can find analogues to the earth’s crust. Nothing they found in the book is obviously absurd.

The geographers and demographers, on the other hand, are pretty brutal. They find only one way to make sense of the population densities, the city sizes, the number of ethnic groups, the patterns of dynasties, and so forth. They conclude that A Song of Ice and Fire has an unreliable narrator. If you assume that city populations are a factor of 10 too large, that all the distances are 5 to 10 times too broad, and that spans of time are 2 to 5 times too long, then Westeros at least is a self-consistent world. In a sense, Martin has reproduced a familiar problem – all the way back to Herodotus, sizes of armies and all the casualty figures are inflated by anyone’s-guess-how-much. Martin has actually expanded that mis-feature of ancient historiography into new areas.

At this point, I was all set to declare that my objective – using real-world geography as an approach to understand fantasy stories – must be limited to only a few, extremely thorough authors. But then I read a post by Adam Whitehead. Martin is listening to his fans, so these criticisms are feeding back into the series. In A Feast for Crows, Whitehead notes that the characters have begun mentioning that you can’t exactly trust things you hear from the maesters at the Citadel. The characters now know the lore is wrong.


I’ll conclude, therefore, by saying that Tolkien, and the writers who followed him, do to a large extent “keep their feet on their own mother-earth,” so this approach can be useful.

But subcreation is becoming a new and different thing.   World-building need not be an author’s solitary pursuit. It can be a collaborative effort, drawing on a range of knowledge that is limited only by the breadth of the author’s fan base. And not only “can be”, soon we may find that it must be. Once an author has a fan base, he may find that a world will be built whether he likes it or not. And literary criticism via the sciences is no longer a passive pursuit. In some cases, it appears to be able to affect the work it studies.

Signum University Fall Fundraiser

It’s that time of year again.  Signum University is having its annual fundraiser, with all the festivities appertaining thereto.  I gravely doubt that anyone who reads this page doesn’t already know that, but there are forces in this world beyond our ken.  Let this be as a sacrifice to the search-engine gods, that prosperity may rain down upon Signum like a summer shower.


I can’t believe I just noticed this: Hobbits don’t like boats, right? The Shire is a fictional version of the West Midlands, right?

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

Of the nine regions of England, eight are on the coast. I’d expect that from a country that’s (a) an island and (b) a maritime power. One of the regions doesn’t touch the sea. It’s only natural that, compared to the others, West Midlanders would get a reputation as incompetent mariners.

So is this the origin of the sidelong remarks in The Lord of the Rings about how incompetent hobbits are on the water? Even if it’s not, I’m perfectly happy to find another reason that the Brandybucks belong in the “liminal” category.

Next question – is this why mariners are exotic heroes from far away in LotR and The Silmarillion?

What do I do for an encore?

My abstract has been accepted for the Mythgard Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium 2016.  What am I going to talk about?  It’s not really done yet, but half-baked ideas are the soul of this blog, so here goes.

Applying geography to LotR worked pretty well. How do I extend this to other books?  Since Tolkien, it’s almost required for fantasy novels to have maps in them. Fantasy novels that include maps invite geographic analysis, but it’s rare to find an author who spends the effort to build the understory of a world to the extent that JRRT did.

In a nutshell:  Speculative fiction begins with world-building, so it ought to be the easiest genre to which science-based criticism could be applied. However, scientific approaches were invented for the real world, which is much larger than any one sub-creator’s imagination. How do I constrain the breadth of the analysis to a scope that is consistent with the author’s intent?

So my talk will show three examples of where geographical analysis gets you.  I’ll start with re-using parts of this summer’s project for The Lord of the Rings, in which geography illuminates implicit references in the text.  Then I’ll review Lyman Stone’s analysis of A Song of Ice and Fire, which runs aground because George R.R. Martin didn’t use geography for anything — Stone’s analysis exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the story.  My third example will be Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay has lots of maps in that book, but doesn’t use geography for the story per se.  I think he’s using it like a website theme:  there are countless details about his world that don’t interest him; his maps and the references to them in the text give the reader permission to fill in any gaps with Renaissance Italy, and it will be fine.  There’s a tangible virtue to that – Kay’s story is the only one of the three that fits into a single volume.

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