A physicist loose among the liberal arts

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


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


  1. What? No mention of my wit and charm? 😉 Thanks, Joe, for all your work in putting these together. I guess you really weren’t playing LOTRO while you were so engaged with your laptop.

  2. Joe

    I try not to quote people’s jokes, in case they’re like me and want to use them again. But just for the record:

    Tom won by acclamation the (non-existent) prize for Best One-Liner of the Symposium for pointing out the schedule of this panel allowed him to have Grace between him and Death. Bravo!

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