Remember I wrote recently that my earthly Eden is a moveable feast? This past weekend, it moved to Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where Mythcon 45 was held. This conference is an enjoyable compromise between a stuffy academic conference and a cosplay fan gatherings. There were many excellent scholarly papers and lots of fun events involving costumes, poetry, and music of many kinds. This is the first of a few posts I intend to write summarizing the highlights of the weekend for me.
Friday afternoon started off auspiciously with what was undoubted the most important paper of the entire conference: “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters” by Brenton D.G. Dickieson. In this talk, he took us through ways of analyzing structural elements in the Ransom books, then dropped the big bomb. Are you ready for it? Here it is! There is a previously-unpublished preface to The Screwtape Letters that brings the demonic correspondence into the world of the Space Trilogy and The Dark Tower! You can read a bit about it here, in Notes and Queries. In this preface, Lewis-as-narrative-persona writes that he received Screwtape’s letters from Dr. Ransom, who had translated them from the Old Solar language! This is huge. This has almost endless implications for CSL’s fictional universes, providing new and numerous ways to connect them up imaginatively with each other and with those of Tolkien and Williams. Keep your eyes open for future publications by Brenton Dickieson on this topic. I hope they will be legion.
So that was a magnificent start to the weekend. There followed several lame papers, then finally the high point of the day: Michael Drout took the stage to talk about Tolkien’s Beowulf. Ask anybody who attended, and just about all of them will say that this was the best thing that happened in the whole four days. Prof. Drout is a shining example of the perfect teacher: He is enthusiastic, kind, brilliant, funny, and in love with literature. If only every student on the planet could study writing and literature under someone like him! Then we wouldn’t have all this insanity about “English is boring” and “I can’t write” slogging around. Sigh.
Anyway, Mike started out by presenting the same material he wrote about in this blog post, regarding his involvement with trying to publish JRRT’s Beowulf some time ago. He studied the MS and started to work on an edition, but some through nasty circumstances, dropped the project. Instead, he went on to do some very exciting and important work of applying a lexomics approach to Beowulf.
But then he got into the really good stuff: What is actually in this edition of JRRT’s Beowulf? Is it any good? What’s all the padding in the volume? The translation, Mike said, is a little clunky — but then later he revised his opinion after we read chunks of it out loud together! But then again, he said the translation is so good that it’s bad: It’s even better than the poem itself in many places! And then the real wealth, the real value, of this book is JRRT’s commentaries. They are worth the price of the book. They are brilliant, original, and daring. And they’re also a lot of fun.
Mike demonstrated how fun JRRT’s commentaries can be by discussing the lines in which Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother. JRRT talks about just one word, about the use of the point of the sword, and explains that Beowulf must have used a piercing technique rather than a chopping motion. Mike acted this out for us, describing the invisible coils of the snake-like creature winding around his body as “Grappling cruelly she clutched at him,” then pushing the point of his wooden sword against her scaly side, slowly, slowly, until “Through and through the sword pierced her body doomed.”
As if that wasn’t cool enough, his answer to one question from the audience showed his brilliant teaching skills even more. Someone asked, “How is Beowulf relevant for the 21st century? Why still read and study this book today?” His reply was that it shows our struggle with two kinds of evil in vivid, embodied, memorable ways. First, Grendel is an evil as the result of sin: evil that we deserve or that comes as a just consequence of our actions — because Hrothgar is a pagan. Second, the dragon is an evil that does not come as as the result of sin: an undeserved, un-looked-for evil that comes because of the general fallen nature of the world. Michael became very passionate as he explained this, carrying the audience along on his love of the literature and his belief in its relevance. I think there was not one person there who remained unmoved.
And that was the first day of Mythcon 45! More to follow. Cheers.