A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: scholarship (Page 1 of 5)

Anglo-Saxons Weren’t Cynics

Elaine Treharne of Stanford University did a podcast interview recently. She gives a beautiful reading of the poem that she does not want to call “Wulf and Eadwacer” because it’s not really about those two guys. It’s about the woman who narrates it.

Titles are a problem in other ways, too.  The podcast is unfortunately entitled “Reading After Trump”, as if the current president of the USA were in some way responsible for the thirty-year assault on the humanities, rather than just collecting its foul harvest. But let’s pass that by.

The interviewer asked an interesting question: What have we lost, that the Anglo-Saxons of a thousand years ago knew? Prof. Treharne’s response was “hope”, which I think any scholar of Tolkien would applaud. She contrasts that with the cynicism of our modern age. She finds no trace of anything like it in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. That got me wondering about cynicism. Whence does it come? The Bosworth-Toller dictionary contains nothing about cynics. 

Looking at the reasons for cynicism, it’s easy to see why it’s a relatively recent development. I studied with expert cynics in my youth, who taught me what to look for:

A government official who takes an oath of office, which he immediately abandons in favor of handing out money to his supporters. This doesn’t apply at all.  An Anglo-Saxon expected this of his king. Any king who didn’t do that would get ditched for one who would. They would even flatter a king by calling him goldwine, “gold-friend”. There’s no ground for cynicism here.

A boss who’s several levels of management above me is clueless about what’s really happening, and will make foolish decisions because of his exalted distance. Not generally a factor, because the medieval orders were clearly distinct. The baron to whom I and my ox reported was the highest official who concerned himself with my job. The king was forbidden by custom to care how I did my job, just as I didn’t care how he did his. (Notwithstanding the continental practice of giving Charlemagne credit for figuring out how to grow wine grapes in Germany.) Cynical gossip around the village well wouldn’t happen as a result.

Advertisers who lie to me to get money from me. Not a factor, either. The Anglo-Saxon economy was largely based on gift-exchange. That’s an economics term; it doesn’t mean festive wrapping paper and bows. It means you’re dealing with people you know so they’ll give you seeds in the spring because you will still be around at harvest time to pay them back in the fall. Anglo-Saxon peasants worked that way because they didn’t have much money. (OK, this is disputed, but generally all the cash money got siphoned off as Danegeld.) In fact, one purpose of money is to make it possible to have economic interactions with people whom you do not trust. Kings have to do that all the time, but the general public did not. Money and cynicism go hand in hand. Without the former, it’s not surprising that we don’t see the latter.

People who pretend to love me to get their hands on something of mine. This seems like it should have been possible in a medieval society, even before they had French people running things. In fact, it’s possible that the narrator of “Wulf and Eadwacer” is running a scam like that.  This is the one solid case where I’d expect to see hope failing and cynicism prevailing.

So of the top four reasons to be cynical, I find three that don’t apply to Anglo-Saxon England, but one that definitely does.  The fact that we don’t see a cynical reaction to that last is some pretty solid evidence for Prof. Treharne’s idea.

Skin Color in Roman Britain

There has been quite a stink over the past few weeks about what color skin the Romans in Britain had.  The BBC put a dark-skinned Roman official in a children’s cartoon history program, and the denizens of social media were off to the races. [1] Mary Beard and Neville Morley picked up the standard for the classicists. Among the alt-right antagonists was the pop market-analyst N.N. Taleb, who got famous for coining the term “Black Swan”, but seems not to have the chops to back up his reputation. The noise from the racists got so loud that the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge felt obliged to weigh in. This is kind of amazing to me. I was sure everyone knew that the Roman Empire stretched well into Africa and Asia.  They even had an emperor called “Philip the Arab“, for crying out loud!  When the Roman generals chose troops to occupy a far-flung province, prudence dictated that their preferred troops not have any language in common with the subject population except Latin.  So claiming that the Romans in Britain were all light-skinned seems unsupportable.

But let’s see what they’re saying.  As nearly as the the alt-right are willing to be understood, they’re basing their objections on a map of genetic markers in the current British population.  A 2015 study of the fine-scale genetic structure of the UK doesn’t show much sign of African genes.  They think this “hard science” is much more important evidence than squishy, historically-based evidence, even when the historians have eyewitness accounts.  The Guardian article I linked at the top lists some good reasons why genetic surveys might not be the best evidence for claims about ethnicity 2,000 years ago.

I’d like to add another reason:  There resemblance between the genetic survey’s clusters and the patterns of family names in the UK is not strong. Leslie et al. tracked autosomal DNA, not mitochondrial, so there should be strong parallels.  Surnames and genes are inherited from the same ancestors, after all. A map from the Nature article looks like this:

Leslie et al. map of clusters

Clusters of genetic similarity.

In the course of tracking down hobbits, I found the work of James Cheshire and his collaborators,  which shows a strong relationship  between clusters of family names in the UK and the cultural/administrative regions of the country.  Here’s a map published by Cheshire, Longley, and Singleton in 2010.

Clusters of family names

There are some general resemblances. The big homogeneous blob in the East and South East is there, though family names don’t let it extend all the way to Northumberland.  I can see hints in the light-blue smear in the North West and the purple smear in the southern West Midlands. Below the coarsest level, though, the two distributions do not resemble each other very well.  In particular, the genetics suggests that the people of Pembrokeshire (the southern peninsula of Wales) are affiliated with the Scotch-Irish borderlanders.  Family names suggest they’re more like the West Midlanders.  And if there’s a family resemblance between Yorkshiremen and Cornishmen, it doesn’t show up in their names.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the genetics is pointing us in a common direction with external markers of family ties. There really is something there, and a salute to the geneticists who have managed to tease it out. However, the signals are accompanied by a lot of noise.  We can’t yet use genetic evidence with any precision.  When we have a person standing next to an Ethiopian legionary on Hadrian’s Wall and writing about it, it would be foolish to try to contradict him with our rudimentary genetic surveys.

Post-scriptum: I really enjoyed the line, “History is written by the winners; genetics is written by the masses.”

[1] Sorry.

Trying to love Modernism

Sørina Higgins’s plenary talk at Mythmoot IV, and the reaction it got from the high-octane scholars in the room, convinced me I should try to engage idiosophically with Modernism instead of treating all the Inklings’ works separately from it. But here’s the first hurdle: Modernism doesn’t appeal to me. What do I gain by putting my favorite book in a set with a lot of books I don’t like? How do I get over my distaste for most early-Twentieth-Century literature?

Maybe by skipping media. If I zoom ‘way out, I can find another modernist work I love. It’s a musical composition, not a book. “The Planets” by Gustav Holst might be the only “popular” piece in all of Modernist music. It’s older than all but the earliest things JRRT put on paper.

“The Planets” is a suite of seven movements, one for each planet except Earth. Holst doesn’t give the planets their Greco-Roman mythological significance; the subtitles are Theosophical instead. Though I don’t have any written evidence about JRRT ‘s opinion of Theosophy [1], I feel confident that it rose no higher than slight regard. Therefore, I’m not going to look for any congruence in the meanings of the pieces. I’d rather look at environmental effects. The parallels will more likely appear in the emotional responses the artists invoke, not their content.

“Mars, the Bringer of War” was written before World War I, so its depiction of the horrors of mechanized slaughter isn’t a mirror so much as a prophecy. This is an instantly-recognizable piece all over the world. David Bratman talks about it being echoed by Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld™, and also tosses in an allusion to the early drafts of the Quenta Silmarillion in which the dragons are described as mechanical, like tanks. To which I’d add the blaring trumpets that we hear when the Black Gate opens:

They came within cry of the Morannon, and unfurled the banner, and blew upon their trumpets; and the heralds stood out and sent their voices up over the battlement of Mordor. … even as the Captains were about to turn away, the silence was broken suddenly. There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.

LotR V, x

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” matches up well with the tone of JRRT’s prose that I hear in elvish lands, once I get past the things that my baroque ears still hear as weird dissonances. Here in Legolas’s speech about mallorn trees in LotR II,vi, the constantly-shifting rhythms match this piece well: “Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers, and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” Actually, now that I think of it, elvish music probably has all kinds of weird dissonances in it, by Western standards. After a thousand years or so, a single mode of composition might sound dull to even the most conservative audiences.

“Mercury, the Messenger” doesn’t have a good match in LotR. Its anti-gravity and velocity have a lot in common with Bilbo’s poem “Errantry”, but that mood is rare in the book proper.

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, is the most fun, and it has hobbitry all over it. Bratman (op cit.) points out that Holst makes good use of English folk tunes in several of his compositions. [2] The Prancing Pony must have sounded like this in the years after the return of the King.

“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” was supposedly Holst’s favorite movement of the seven. That opinion points toward the reason I generally don’t like Modernism — slow, ponderous works of art are far less interesting to me than the liveliness of Jupiter or even the heavy-metal brutality of Mars. I was taught in English class that the morbid obsessions of the Modernists were a consequence of WWI, but this piece is evidence that they were already intensely focused on mortality before the war. It makes me wonder if we have the causality relationship backwards. I hear the passage through the Dead Marshes in this one.

“Uranus, the Magician” brings us into the full-scale theosophical rewriting of myth. “Magician” is quite a demotion from Uranus’s old job! This is a fun piece to listen to. I don’t quite get the processional feel to the music — what does that have to do with magicians? Perhaps Holst didn’t want me to be able to decide whether he meant a stage magician or Aleister Crowley. In any case, this works. Saruman might have told the musicians to play a piece like this as his army marched out of Isengard to make war on Rohan. He was probably conducting the band himself, using a wand as a baton.

“Neptune, the Mystic” is another Theosophical demotion. Amazing how a bunch of mystics set out to discover the nature of planetary intelligences, and one of the seven just happened to be a mystic. [3] It was almost half a century ago, but I remember the liner notes from my father’s recording saying this was “the pure, disembodied essence of sound.” Why that’s a good thing, the liner-noter didn’t say. They couldn’t have gotten further from my understanding of music if they’d tried. I suspect JRRT might have shared my opinion. His poetry begins with rhythm, and this piece has almost none. So even though it’s not so complimentary to the two artists, there’s a parallel here, too. Confession time: “Ainulindalë” bores me to the edge of coma. That’s not how the universe began; the universe began with a C-Major chord. (Some people say E-flat, but that sort is notoriously unreliable.) Tolkien and Holst made the same conceptual mistake (as I so humbly see it): because matter as we know it didn’t exist in their context, they went for slow, rhythmless modulations to represent something that’s as placid and introspective as the interior of a blast furnace. This is worse than wrong. It is French.


The parallels between Holst and Tolkien are there, and easy to see. Tolkien is a Modernist; Sørina isn’t crazy. [4] They have similar (6/7 cases) things in mind that they want their audiences to think about. Time to admit it; my favorite author is right smack in the middle of a bunch of artists I don’t like very much. Perhaps we should define a kind of “pop-modernism”, to go with all the other hyphenations of modernism that critics have created, to encompass those participants in the first half of the twentieth century who don’t owe future generations an apology.

[1] Theosophists have plenty of things to say about JRRT. I do not recommend searching “tolkien theosophy” until they make a search engine that filters out pages predominantly composed of deceased intestinal flora.

[2] Holst even wrote a suite of music for Morris dances. (!) They’re kind of tame. I don’t think they would protect against Elf invasions.

[3] Maybe they were using a reflecting telescope and installed the mirror backwards.

[4] Well, not in this case anyway. Trying to teach Idiosophers to dance weighs rather heavily against this conclusion.

Mythmoot Lúthien Seminar

Since Beren and Lúthien was just published, we paid a lot of attention to it at Mythmoot IV. In this paper session, it got crowded in the dell under Weathertop. Along with Aragorn and the hobbits, Kate Neville, Tom Hillman, Trevor Brierly and about 20 others were eavesdropping. This took the form of three talks about Beren, Lúthien, and the song of Tinúviel. All three talks referenced the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow, appropriately enough.

Kate Neville: How much does a linden-leaf weigh, anyway?

Kate handed out four different versions of the song Aragorn sings, written over 30 years. What is a ballad, anyway? We don’t know what JRRT’s definition was, but the etymology is “something to dance to”. Repetitions of words match repeated steps in a dance. The ballad is separate from the “Tale of Tinúviel”. The ballad has seasons in it; where the story takes place over a few days. Kate thinks putting the dancing Luthien into a song is the origin of her power as a singer.  “Whenever I see the leaf in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think of a linden.”

Hemlock umbels, high enough to dance under

Umbelliferous Hemlock

Since we’re discussing Lúthien’s weight, let’s discuss her height, too. My farm got a lot of rain this month. Most of the hemlock-umbels are four feet off the ground, as usual. A few, though, are almost seven feet high. A daughter of Thingol could easily have danced under the tallest ones. We know Tinúviel had extraordinary grace, because the tall hemlocks are all on a riverbank where the land is on a one-to-one slope. Only an elf could dance there without falling in the water.

Tom Hillman: “She died.”

Tom started with a contentious assertion: that Aragorn’s coda to the song was the biggest disappointment in Peter Jackson’s movie. That’s a tough competition, but he made a good case. Aragorn’s step away from his historical role means that he has to reduce Arwen’s eventual choice to a purely personal level. This is one of the moments where the depth of Middle-Earth comes out, in the book. The movies were completely de-mythologized, so that had to be deleted. There’s no hope in the movie version. No Silmarils, no victory over Morgoth. How could there be? In the movies, the indicator of enormous evil power is that you’re really big and can hit a lot of people with one swing of a mace.

One metaphor I loved: In the Mythgard class, Corey Olsen made a big deal out of identifying exactly where JRRT brought the two worlds of the Silmarillion and The Hobbit into conjunction. Tom points out that this is a necessary consequence once the world was made round. Parallel lines never intersect in a flat geometry, like the world before Ar-Pharazôn’s little folly. But parallel lines always eventually cross on a globe. In the Third Age, the Hobbit and The Silmarillion couldn’t be kept apart.

Trevor Brierly: how Lúthien became a “maiden, elven-wise”

Lúthien doesn’t do anything in the earliest poem, but the “Tale of Tinúviel” makes her into an agent. The part where Beren is stalking her stops being creepy, because she knows he’s watching and encourages it (without telling him, of course). In The Fellowship of the Ring version, she actively embraces Beren. As Kate interjected, “Beren keeps trying to get away, and she keeps showing up wherever he is.”

We had a great discussion afterwards, which only happens when everybody is keyed onto the same topic. That doesn’t always happen when three distantly-related papers get put into a session.

One item that came up, relevant to my chairmanship of the Committee for the Defense of Celeborn: The reason Celeborn always just says “yes, dear” is buried deep in the First Age. “At times Melian and Galadriel would speak together” and Galadriel learned a lot. Celeborn was watching, too. He saw how Thingol never listened to his wife, and what happened to him. Celeborn let his wife do the talking, and he lasted through two more Ages of the world. Smart guy.

Verlyn Flieger – Wonder is a three-body effect

In which your humble Idiosopher follows the Straight Road, or as some might say, goes off on a tangent

Edited to add:  A video recording of the lecture is now online.

Verlyn Flieger gave the Saturday plenary lecture at Mythmoot IV. She took the theme of the conference “Invoking Wonder” literally, with spectacular results. This has taken me a long time to get written, so there are some good reviews out there already. Kelly has a comprehensive recap, which is a good place to start. Sørina has a précis. Lee zooms in on one feature of the lecture — how to teach wonder. I’m going to zoom in on another.

As Prof. Flieger describes it, “wonder” is a three-body situation. Otherness is one essential component; a thing that’s outside the viewer’s experience is where it starts. An observer, someone looking at it, is the party of the second part. “Hey, look!” is their reaction. (Or “Ele!” if you’re an elf seeing the stars for the first time.). Which brings us to the third part – the observer needs someone to say that to. You can’t keep wonder to yourself. The term Prof. Flieger uses is “rebound”, like a combination shot in billiards. Back in Cuivienen, JRRT writes the awakening of the elves so the elves see the stars, and the wonder of the stars bounces off the elves and comes to us. Then she quoted Owen Barfield, who once said that there is no such thing as an unseen rainbow. The metaphor is so exact that I’m sure Prof. Flieger intended us to think of the way a rainbow is generated, as light from the sun bounces inside raindrops and back to our eye. She then followed with a list of examples where JRRT does the same thing. The Arkenstone, the Window on the West, the Glittering Caves…. Curious — more than half of the examples involved refraction. I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that her first book was entitled Splintered Light.

Prof. Flieger polled the audience to see how many of us were fans of E.R. Eddison. (Five.) She used him as a not-so-good example of invoking wonder through extravagance, not recovery. Her passage from Eddison overwhelmed the reader with almost Rableaisian lists that include both familiar and exotic delicacies. I’m one of the fans, so I felt like leaping to his defense. Eddison could use the rebound effect himself when it was important.

Let me interject a personal confession here: I don’t grok heroes. High romance needs heroes to make things come out at the end, but it’s hard to make a character unique and flawless at the same time in a way to which I react well. One reason I love Tolkien is that he managed to write Aragorn exactly the right way to do that. (Peter Jackson couldn’t.) The only comparable achievement I know of is what John Steinbeck did with Lancelot, whom I’d never cared for until then.

E.R. Eddison uses the rebound technique in The Worm Ouroboros to get around the fact that Lord Juss is such a good guy that, to me, he’s a blank spot on the page.
Here’s Lord Brandoch Daha:

His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly wakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. … His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl’s face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some disdain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios.

We know him. The too-pretty, too-well-dressed façade that conceals a deadly fighter is a perennial figure of romance, like Aramis in The Three Musketeers or Simon Templar or Sir Didymus. I can root for this guy. Lessingham assumes he must be Lord Juss, but no. There’s another remarkable figure there, for whom the earthling makes the same mistake,

… apparelled in black silk that shimmers with gold as he moveth, and crowned with black eagle’s feathers among his horns and yellow hair. His face is wild and keen like a sea-eagle’s, and from his bristling brows the eyes dart glances sharp as a glancing spear. A faint flame, pallid like the fire of a Will-o’-the-Wisp, breathes ever and anon from his distended nostrils. This is Lord Spitfire, impetuous in war.

We know him, too. Heroes who are like birds of prey form a long line: Hawkeye, Hawkmoon, Hawkwind, Hauksberg… and that’s just the “H”s.  Then we meet Lord Goldry Bluszco:

[Y]on lord that bulks mighty as Hercules yet steppeth lightly as a heifer. The thews and sinews of his great limbs ripple as he moves beneath a skin whiter than ivory …. Slung from his shoulders clanks a two-handed sword, the pommel a huge star-ruby carven in the image of a heart, for the heart is his sign and symbol. This is that sword forged by the elves, wherewith he slew the sea-monster, as thou mayest see in the painting on the wall. Noble is he of countenance, most like to his brother Juss, but darker brown of hair and ruddier of hue and bigger of cheekbone. Look well on him, for never shall thine eyes behold a greater champion than the Lord Goldry Bluszco, captain of the hosts of Demonland.

Of course the big kid whom none of the other kids can tackle might be the oldest trope in epic literature. He’s such a compelling figure in stories that he can serve equally well as the villain if (e.g.) we only have the Hebrew version of a tale.

Here’s where Eddison sets up the five-way combination shot: Spitfire is first to say Lord Juss is the best general. Goldry Bluszco wouldn’t want to fight Juss hand to hand. And when Brandoch Daha and Juss are traipsing up mountains in search of hippogriff eggs, there’s no question who the tougher soldier is. So even though Eddison doesn’t have Tolkien’s chops as a writer, Lord Juss is wonderful because all these familiar heroes are vouching for him.

That was a long digression, but it shows the power of this formal construction of wonder. As always, Prof. Flieger set up an excellent punchline to her lecture, with Gimli’s description of the Glittering Caves to Legolas. We’d never seen Gimli show a lyrical side before, but here he goes to extremes and even uses a sea metaphor to impress the Elf. This isn’t just us seeing a wonderful site through his eyes: the complete ricochet is Gimli->Legolas->caves->reader->Gimli. JRRT wants us to see Gimli, not the caves, when we read this passage.  Altogether, a wonderful lecture and a way to perceive the issue I would never have thought of myself.

The Hippogriff:  Lord Juss’s Emblem

Sørina Higgins: Real Modernisms

Edited to add: A video of this lecture is now online.

Sørina Higgins gave the Sunday plenary talk at Mythmoot IV.  She thinks we need a new story for imagining literary communities and literary modernism. She uses the Great Dance at the end of Perelandra as her starting point.

He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity — only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern was not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated.

C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 218
Cover of Perelandra, 1979 MacMillan edition

I’m writing this on the porch, on a sunny day in June. The book cover matches the lawn beautifully.

Professor Higgins’s revision to the story of the Inklings is radical: there was no group called “the Inklings”, in the sense that there was a group called “The Beatles”. The name is better thought of as a constantly-changing configuration of influences among people who flowed in and out of each others’ notice, and whose significance in each others’ works ebbed and flowed over time.

If you try to use rigid identifications to describe something as chaotic as twentieth-century communities, you’re bound to miss things.  In the case of the Inklings, what you miss is their engagement with Modernism. If you think of four Dead White European Males turning their backs on the industrial world you don’t see: women, Americans, pulp magazines, romance novels (in the XXth Century meaning), or their keen perception of advances in science.  Others have noticed this before, of course. Critics have designated a raft of /[a-z]*-modernist/ schools. That regular expression could be low, high, pulp, pop, inter, outer, or whatever else. Any time you have an explosion of hyphenations in scholarship, it’s a sign that we’re ready for some kind of theoretical unification. (They give Nobel prizes for that in physics. It’s what quarks do.)

Prof. Higgins proposes that we should use network theory to create “meta-fictional narratives”, and basically told the audience to get to work. (This was the second action item from a plenary talk last weekend.)  OK, let’s.

It’s easy to see how the network nodes are defined; there’s almost certainly going to be one for each person. The value of the writer’s nodes will be time-dependent, describing their works in progress. We’ll need some specific non-null value for anyone who’s not writing something, but interacts with writers in other ways. (I’m thinking of Joy Davidman, and that may be the most discreet sentence I’ve ever written.)

The links in the network will be the hard part. Interactions between writers don’t fit onto a numerical scale. (And that may be the worst understatement I’ve ever written.) I have no idea what kind of quantitative analysis is possible when a link value is chosen from a set like {influenced, discussed with, expanded upon, refuted, deliberately ignored, stole from, converted, ran off with the wife of, …}.

Link values will also be time-dependent, so the whole network will be time-dependent. I foresee lots of cool animated graphics at future conferences, if Professor Higgins has the kind of influence on Modernist Studies that I suspect she will.

Michael Drout: The Decline and Hoped Rebirth of Germanic Philology

Michael Drout gave a fascinating keynote address at Mythmoot IV. Honestly, the last thing I expected to hear was a call to action.

Edited to add:  A video recording of the talk is now online.

We 120 were a big audience, by Germanic-philology standards, but it was not always so. In 1848, Jakob Grimm was Guest of Honor at the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung where they wrote the Constitution. “Who is a German?” was the defining question for 150 years of European history. Philology was a tool in this nationalistic task, and Jakob Grimm was the master philologist.

Grimm’s work wasn’t confined to an ivory tower.  His methods made it possible to read long-dead languages, and thereby investigate cultural history in words. Success in application makes something important. Because it had real-world effects, philology dominated scholarship before WWII the way physics did afterwards. But philology was basically wiped out, between 1945 and 1951, an effort that was enthusiastically supported by literary scholars who wanted to erase their Nazi-sympathizing pasts. It doesn’t exist any more as a requirement for an English degree.

Apart from institutional antipathy, another problem that bedevils philology is the absence of good textbooks. You can’t learn it without a good teacher. It’s taught by the apprentice method, which is unsurpassable for quality of education, but, being highly susceptible to Baumol’s disease, isn’t a good way to rebuild an entire field of study. Professor Drout stated ex cathedra that current philologists are fewer and less capable than their predecessors. He bolstered the assertion with examples of archaeological discoveries that were more-or-less predicted by philological analyses of ancient texts, and said that such skill has vanished, now. (I’ll take his word for it; but some day I’d like to see all the predictions that didn’t come true.) “How do we know that?” asked Timdalf, which was a very good question. Drout’s answer is that he sees signs of it all through the old literature — many parts of reviews and commentary aren’t explained because everybody knew them. There are traces all through the journals of vanished networks of communication and understanding. We have no referents for them.

Professor Drout next developed his story with a diatribe against Literary Theory. He’s not so well educated as his predecessors because he had to learn Theory to get a job. Even from my brief incursion into the field, I know what he’s talking about.  “The theorists tried to destroy philology, which cursed them as it died.”

The general decay of literary studies is a consequence of losing the academic rigor that philology brought. Literary Theory doesn’t have much of it. Here is Professor Drout’s call to arms: let us, Signum University faculty, students, and scholars in its orbit, restore philology to its proper place.  The old philologists didn’t completely understand this a hundred years ago, but now we know philology is grounded in neuroscience. Philology is a way for literary studies to catch up with the rest of the academy in rigor. Without a philological foundation, no theoretical treatment should be taken too seriously. In conclusion, he suggested that we, the Tolkien fans who have become philology fans, are like gardeners who are watering the seeds, against the day when philology sprouts again.

The conclusion was inspiring. The last thing we expected from a plenary talk was to be charged with a mission. (It wouldn’t be the last of the weekend!). Not all the eyes in the audience were dry when Professor Drout finished.

I was left with two questions to ponder.

  1. Professor Drout is one of the best at speaking Anglo-Saxon that I’ve ever heard. He’s so good at it that he can sell recordings. Seth Lerer is the other; both are philologists, not just literary critics. It seems likely that studying philology is necessary to pronounce an ancient language well. Is it sufficient? Or are other skills needed, too?
  2. The knowledge that philologists used to have isn’t well-represented by a chain of facts. It’s a network. This seems like the sort of thing Google Scholar was invented for. Might it be possible to program a neural net with the corpus of the technical literature, which can then serve as an assistant to someone who wants to reproduce and extend the old discipline?


Bullet Lists from Mythmoot

Mythmoot IV is over and done, and it was a blast. I heard a lot of good scholarship, met a lot of interesting people, bought some books, and was stalked by Tevildo, Prince of Cats. (Starsha tried to get photographic proof, but taking a picture of a black cat in the middle of the night is among the most difficult tasks in the visual arts.)

Things I have never done before:
  • Pronounced “oidhche” (even if I didn’t do it right)
  • Drawn up a tax code for Gondor
  • Danced the Virginia Reel with a priest
  • Sørina Higgins is so good at asking questions of panelists that I frequently find myself noting her questions rather than the answers.
  • Verlyn Flieger is not only extraordinary at delivering the punch line to a lecture; she can even improvise them.
  • Michael Drout can read an audience as well as the best stand-up comics.

I’ll have more detailed notes on some highlights coming up, though not a full “proceedings” like I did last year.

Publishing On Line

I’ve put the final version of the Ardagraphy paper on a couple of social networks.  The first is the Humanities Commons, which is brand new and looks encouraging.

The second is Academia, which gets a high page rank on Google. I’m not exactly sure of what that site is doing, though.  For example, it put the PDF I uploaded into Scribd.

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.




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