Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (1)

Saturday morning -- The Cambridge Tolkien society are doing their dramatic reading (actually, a full scale performance with singing and sound effects) of highlights from the Brian Sibley radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings. We have got as far as Shelob's lair. And I'll need your star-glass Mr Frodo; you did lend it to me, and I'll need it, for I'll be always in the dark now... I glance around the audience to confirm I'm not the only person who appears (inexplicably) to have something in their eye.

Over the course of the convention, I think I attended a total of 33 (*) lectures on different aspects of Lord of the Rings. It is doubtless very interesting and important to learn about the root of the elvish word for 'tree', to wonder about the influence that Shakespeare or William Morris might have had Tolkien's writing; or to compare Melkor with Milton's Satan. (They were both evil. The end.) I am even prepared to own up to a little light filking. But it was nice to be reminded of why the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Lord of the Rings is an event worth commemorating. Just how many books are there which, even on the twentieth reading, can still make you laugh and cry. Sometimes on the same page. Sometimes at the exact same moment. Now sir, you shouldn't laugh. I was being serious.

Saturday lunchtime -- Stagger out of Martin Barker's lecture on sociology, thinking 'I now have a spare hour to get some lunch.' Find printout pinned to door saying 'Extra talk: Michael Scott Rohan on Tolkien and Wagner.' It was that kind of weekend.

The root of the elvish word for 'Tree' is the same as the root of the elvish word for 'Light'.

Some people imagine Elvish to be an artificial language, the sort of thing that you could learn and have a conversation in, like Klingon and Esperanto. In fact, Tolkien left only a grammatical structure and a few hundred words of his made up languages. His primary interest was in philology. How language develop; how words form; how mythology informs language and language informs mythology.

(The award for 'lecture I understood least of' goes to the promisingly entitled 'Tolkien as I knew him', which turned out to be an elderly Swedish academic explaining the finer points of the Anglo-Saxon and middle English PhD that Tolkien had supervised him in. But it contained one fascinating scholarly anecdote: Tolkien met a French academic, and was able to say to him 'I expect in your dialect you pronounce such-and-such a word in such-and-such a way' -- purely by applying the rules of philology and sound change)

Within the mythos of the Silmarillion, 'the light that was before the Sun and the Moon' came from the Two Trees of Valinor: so of course 'tree' and 'light' are the same word... because they are the same concept. (c.f Gil-galad, star-light; Galadhrim, tree-people.) In a lecture entitled 'Galadhremmin Ennorath', John Christie pointed out that the images of 'trees' and 'light' are consistently connected in all of Tolkien's writings from the terribly early poems about Earendal down to the Lord of the Rings and beyond. And there is also an association between light and hair: (Galadriel's hair is said to resemble the light of the Two Trees) and between light and gems (Feanor captured some of the light of the Trees in the holy gems known as Silmarils). One example of the images appearing in conjunction occurs in Sam's song in Cirith Ungol – shortly after he has taken Galadriel's star-glass from Frodo:

Or there may be tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

This kind of thing almost scares me. Lord of the Rings is so dense; Tolkien put so much into the book without drawing attention to it. In fact, he probably didn't 'put it in' at all: light and trees and hairs and jewels just come out together because he is thinking in Elvish. How much more of this stuff would there be to discover if I knew more Quenya?

Friday Night : The Cambridge Tolkien Society also revived their 'Reduced Silmarillion Company' revue, which was first performed at Oxonmoot in 2002. There are not too many social settings in which you could get uproarious laughter out of, say, the textual history of 'The Fall of Gondolin' while depicting the Silmarils as three cans of beer. The story of Beren and Luthien was done in pantomime style rhyming couplets, but it appears that some real lines from the 'Ley of Lethian' were smuggled in.

It was a lot funnier than I am probably making it sound.

But I wonder who had the brilliant idea of staging this satyr play first, and following it up with the Greek Tolkien society's extremely serious performance entitled either 'Oedipus and Turin' or 'Doom and Fate: where myths meet.' It will be remembered that both Turin and Oedipus marry a close family member, and both of them have a black sword, apart from Oedipus. I take my mithril coat off to the Greek people: can you imagine a group of Brits saying 'I know, when we go to the Athens Tolkien convention, we'll put on a play involving some excerpts from the Silmarillion and some excerpts from Hamlet. And in case that's too easy, we'll do it in Greek.' A fairly literal dramatisation of the last few pages of Turin's story made out a pretty good case for it structurally resembling a Greek tragedy (messengers coming in with terrible news and begging to be allowed to keep silent, and all that). The substantial excerpt from Oedipus Rex made better theater; presumably because Sophocles was a slightly better playwright than Tolkien. This successfully made the point about the difference between Doom and Fate. Turin marries his sister because the malicious dragon wants to harm in, and because Morgoth has cursed him. Oedipus marries his mother because...well, because life's like that and fate's a bastard.

But still, I felt sorry for the guy playing Turin. He walked onto the stage in a pretty good costume and started declaiming serious lines at a pasteboard dragon, and all anyone in the audience (well, me at any rate) could think of was the R.S.C version we'd seen ten minutes before in which Turin was depicted as an over-enthusiastic school-boy delivering lines like 'I know, I think I'll go forty leagues out of my way in order to commit a pointless act of genocide against a civilian population'!

Thursday: Inexplicably, all conventions have opening 'ceremonies'; equally inexplicably, people go to them. It's the only point at which all attendees are assembled in one place, and can be addressed by the convention committee. I'm glad I showed up this time. The 'one or two surprises' turned out to be a short speech by Priscilla Tolkien, the Professor's daughter. Priscilla sometimes feels a little like the Tolkien society's equivalent of the Queen Mother. At the Oxford conventions, the society committee is always very protective of her -- clearly, a very old lady doesn't want to be mobbed by fanboys, or more importantly, by journalists. According to tradition, I was briefly introduced to her at my first Oxonmoot, but it was nice to hear her make an actual speech, and even better, to hear her do a brief question-and-answer session in a packed lecture hall the next day. Not surprisingly, she politely avoided all controversial and scholarly questions -- but it was extremely moving to hear the little domestic details.

To think: we are actually in the same room as the little girl who first received the Father Christmas letters. All a bit overwhelming, really.

It appears that we have learned to stop worrying and love Peter Jackson.

Well, that may be an exaggeration. When we are consciously or specifically debating the movie, we are likely to be very critical of it. Priscilla told a story about having re-typed the early chapters of Lord of the Rings for her father, and being terrified to the point of nightmares by the Black Riders. Someone asked if she had seen the movies. With her very English (almost headmistressy) tact, she said that she would 'rather not go into that'. The questioner just wondered if she had still found the Black Rider's frightening in the film. 'Oh, good God no!' she exclaimed, adding something about 'spectacle and sensation'.

Thunderous applause.

On the other hand, Martin Barker gave a talk about a massive sociology project which he is involved with, researching the impact of and response to the movies. His statistics show that the more times someone has read the book, the more likely they are to like the movies. Applause from floor. 'I wonder why you applauded?' he asked.

Voice from floor: 'Because there is too much Jackson bashing!' More applause.

(He has also discovered that people who first read the book in the 1960s are more likely to miss Tom Bombadil than people who read it more recently...)

But in general, the movies seem increasingly to be accepted as another text; a fact to be taken into account, a piece of data that you need to refer to. An American academic talking about 'The theme of sacrifice' mentioned that Frodo says to Galadriel 'I know what I must do, it's just I'm afraid to do it'....and left the lecture room relatively unscathed. This would not have been the case three years ago. The aforementioned talk about light and hair used stills from The Fellowship of the Ring alongside texts from The Book of Lost Tales. A very helpful piece in the 'religion' stream pointed out that although a lot of the specifically Christian elements of the book vanished from Jackson's screenplay, the film retained a lot of very Catholic looking visuals. (The evenstar looks like a cross or a traditional star of Bethlehem; Minas Tirith looks like a cathedral; Aragorn's mum looks like a Madonna; and the Red Book looks like a Bible.)

People wishing to stay up all night had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the movies on a projection TV. On Day 3, the sign outside the video room offered a 'prize for the best heckle'. So we obviously haven't all made friends with movies. Maybe it's more of a watchful peace.

(My entry in the clerihew competition failed to win a prize.

Elijah Wood.
Is not particularly good.
His fidelity to the text is not exactly slavish
But at least he isn't John Rhys-Davies. )

A film-studies lecturer gave a talk on a soft-porn movie called Lord of the G-Strings, and for the first time ever, the Tolkien society admitted the existence of slash fiction.

Saturday: That journalist was spot on about the way the audience spontaneously mumbled along with Tom Shippey when he quoted All that is gold does not glitter / not all those who wander are lost. This is called 'spotting a telling detail', and is, I guess, how one gets to write feature pieces for the Guardian.

I have often wanted to present certain of my colleagues with a diagram of a human figure, with two labels, clearly delineating the 'arse' and the 'elbow.' In the same way, certain academics seem to require recognition guides enabling them to clearly distinguish between 'wood' and 'trees'. A very interesting scholarly lecture made out a good case for the 'endless knot' or pentangle on the shield of Sir Gawain in the middle-English poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' which Tolkien edited and translated having been recognisable to medieval English people as a three-men's Morris board. (Pentangles engraved in church pews are therefore less likely to be pagan survivals and more likely to be a means of passing time in boring sermons.) Someone from the floor got in before me with the obvious question: 'Is it significant that Gawain has a game-board on his shield, given that playing games is so much what the poem is all about?'. 'That hadn't occurred to me' said Mr Speaker.

Mr Film-Studies Man was surprised that we laughed when he referred to a character called 'Ara-porn' in Lord of the G-Strings. 'It didn't really occur to me that this stuff was funny,' he said.

As the weekend progresses, I started to feel that I didn't need to hear any more about how Tolkien was influenced by, or the influence he may have had upon, Shakespeare, William Morris, G.K Chesterton, Phillip Pulman and a large number of people I had never heard of. I am also not sure that I need to be told that, say, the myth of the Ents and the Entwives in some ways resembles modern gender politics and in other ways doesn't.

One occasionally ended up feeling sorry for the academics. It must be rare enough for them to be addressing students who have actually read the text under discussion; and unheard of to have an audience who have all read it dozens of times. One speaker made the mistake of implying that Frodo only goes to the Undying Lands in spirit, and had to deal with quotes from the Silmarillion in the question and answer session. Another one asked how anyone could possibly know the Rhyme of the Ring, since it was spoken by Sauron on Mount Doom...and lots of people told him.

A ten year moratorium should be established on referring to Tolkien's metaphor of the 'soup of story' in lectures about sources and influence.

Most obscure subject for a talk: 'Middle-earth re-enactment in Estonia'.

Tolkien never quite made up his mind about Galadriel's back-story. In one version, Feanor asks for three strands of her hair (which, it will be remembered, resembled the mingled light of the Two Trees.) She refuses him. Centuries later, Gimli unknowingly makes the same request. Because of his courtesy, she grants it to him. He says that if he survives the War of the Ring, he will preserve the threes hairs in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of his house forever. At this point, Beth Russel, who was giving a talk entitled 'Galadriel and her lovers' speculated out loud; 'I wonder if he put them in one crystal, or in three.' I swear that there was a gasp of astonishment from the audience. Because, of course, three crystals, each containing a hair of Galadriel (which resemble the light of the Trees) would be an obvious symbol of the three Silmarils, which Feanor made, and which contain the actual light of the Trees. Given that Feanor made the Silmarils because Galadriel had refused him her hair, the symbolism is irresistible. I repeat. It scares me that Tolkien's legendarium (as we like to call it) has this much depth and complexity: that every time you study a passage, you find new connections which you hadn't spotted before.

'I bet there weren't any women there,' said a colleague by the water-cooler on Wednesday. Actually, I would have said the ratio of Ents to Entwives was very nearly 50/50; including married couples with kids; older looking people with grown-up children; aging hippies with scraggy beards; and someone with the badge-name 'Gramps.' On the other hand, despite the international flavour of the event it was, as the fellow said, hideously white. More people were inclined to begin sentences with ' my church' or '...well, as a Christian, I...' than would probably be the case at a Star Trek convention. I was twice asked 'What's your field', expecting the answer 'What did you study at college?' not 'What's your job?'

Tolkien's books contain a lot of singing; and most of the songs have now got established tunes; I guess that everyone agrees the tune of Gil-Galad was an elven king is the one which Stephen Oliver wrote for it, despite that fact that someone demonstrated that it can be sung successfully to 'When the saints go marching in.'

At lunch time on the last day, there was an impromptu musical session in the canteen on the top floor. Some of it was more or less normal convention filking; Tolkien fans being as capable of silliness as anyone else. (Thar's been a courtin Pippin Took / On Ettenmoor bah t'at etc etc etc.) There's also been an outbreak of rather good Beatles filks which I sadly didn't get the words of. (All you need are rings, rings, rings are all you need.)

But before long, someone was doing a heartbreaking Bilbo's Last Song in a version I didn't know, and someone stood up and did In Western Lands un-accompanied.

The truth is, of course, that conventions are the normal and sensible part of life, and everything outside them is crazy. What could be more rational than an environment where everyone knows the same corpus of stories and wants to study them, talk about them, make up serious plays about, burlesque them, sing about them; where everyone can be assumed to be friends with everyone else because everyone loves the same things. It seemed rather a shame to have to go back to the weird fantasy world where you have to interact with people who don't love Lord of the Rings.


"The title of my talk is "Pennas Echuir Enydon", on the origin of the ents. Yes, I came all the way from America to show you my Pennas."

"Tolkien said that he cordially disliked allegory, which must have made writing Leaf by Niggle a very unpleasant experience for him."

"How is it that everybody says that they don't read slash, and then goes on to make generalisations about it?"

"I was doing some research into Star Trek fans....Don't laugh. People laugh at you."

"Well, he didn't like spiders, but I never heard him mention beetles..." (Priscilla, answering a question on Tolkien's attitude to the popular music of the 1960s.)

(*) Frodo as Sacrificial Hero; Tolkien: the critic and the fiction writer; Invented and Borrowed Myths; Tolkien and Williams; Wise Sayings in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien as I knew him; The Science of Lord of the Rings; Tolkien's lunar creation myth; Influence of Climate on myth; the loss of the Entwives; Tolkien's theory of reading; WWI and the passage of the Dead Marshes; Tolkien in Fiction; Tolkien and Oral Tradition; LOTR international audience project; Tolkein and Wagner; Peter Jackson and catholicism; Tolkien and Christianity; Satan and Melkor; An ecumenical approach to Tolkien; Tolkien the pagan; Tolkein Dirty: The Lord of the Rings and sexploitation movies; the Inklings in their political context; the Question of the Round Arda; Death and Mortality; 'Galadhremmin Ennorath; Sir Gawain's pentangle; Hobbit names aren' from Kentucky; They might have been giants (the origin of the ents) ; Snergs, Hobbits and Pygmies; Narratorial authority in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien and Shakespeare; Galadriel and Her Lovers; the Ace Copyright Affair; Tolkien in the 60s.

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