This exciting event was a 7-hour brain-feeding frenzy for nerds. We met at 10 am on a Saturday (during parents’ weekend, a football game, and the outer bands of a hurricane) to talk about fantasy literature, science fiction, and Tolkien. I’ve been attending some version of these Mythgard events for a few years now, and I must say: the scholarship is growing up! But what’s really exciting is that the baby academics are growing into real academics, without losing their enthusiasm and without killing the joy of the literature. It’s grand.
So we started the morning with three papers on Tolkien. Dominic Nardi, a PoliSci guy, talked about “How to Adapt Politics in The Silmarillion for the #SilmFilm Project,” and some funny stuff about government problems when the participants are immortal. Tom Hillman gave a paper entitled “Hobbit Verses Versus Verses By Hobbits.” It was a very beautiful look at the variety of techniques Tolkien uses in the poetry in The Hobbit and LOTR. I loved his detailed look at rhythm and rhyme, with their social and emotional implications; this may have been the best paper all day.
Then Marie Prosser did “One-Word Trivia!” about hapax legomenon in Lord of the Rings. It was a hilarious (and also intelligent, and well-supported) word-game about terms that occur only once in Tolkien’s works. Her presentation was so popular that it continued for an extra hour over lunch. It’s amazing how far you can go into a deep discussion of Tolkien’s world-building by following the implications of just one word.
After lunch, I had the very great privilege of interviewing the magnificent Dr. Verlyn Flieger onher brand-new edition of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervogiving a donation to Signum University to support innovative online education, and don’t forget about the Creative Writing contest I’m running at the same time!)
Then we got to hear April Neal Kluever talking about “Gods and Aliens in Tolkien and Lovecraft,” Kevin Hensler leading a discussion on “Consideration of the Strange and Sophisticated Materialist Theology of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Series,” and Dr. Dan McMahon using a presentation on “Narrative Strategies in Ted Chiang’s Speculative Fiction” to try to persuade us to read Chiang’s work.
The last third of the day was called “Speculative Fiction Across Media,” and it fell apart just a little bit at this point. I think there were a few too many sessions; Dr. Flieger’s should have been quite a bit longer, and the whole day did run over (intentionally) by about half an hour. So let’s have few sessions next time, with a much longer block for the special guest.
Michael Therway had a fun talk about “The Sarlacc, The Rancor, and Jabba the Hutt: George Lucas’s Trifurcated Dragon” in which he argued that Jabba takes on most of the qualities of the fairy-tale dragon. Neil Ottenstein gave a fly-by called “Prophecy from Oedipus Rex to Babylon 5”: a list of various prophecies in literature and film. Thomas Johnson talked about Into the Woods, mostly comparing the musical and the film. Brandon Minich examined “Twin Peaks as a Dark Faerie Story,” and Trevor Brierly closed the day with a discussion on “Last words on Faery from Tolkien?” about what might have been the last nonfiction prose JRRT wrote regarding the land of Faery and fairy tales (from an essay he wrote in 1966 to go with the publication of Smith of Wootton Major).
The best part of the weekend for me was spending so much time with the Signum people, especially the big brains: Verlyn Flieger, Corey Olsen, Ed Powell. I got to talk to them about many important subjects (such as the new job I’m doing of Thesis Coordination for the M.A. students)—and including a goal we at Signum/Mythgard should strive to meet in the next couple of years. Many of the presentations here and at other events, as well as many of the papers I grade in my capacity as Preceptor for Signum courses, are comparison papers. Their premise is often: “Such-and-such is similar to so-and-so in these ways.” They are often interesting, entertaining, and engaging comparisons. What we want to work toward now is deeper analysis. We want to look at what is gained by such a comparison. We want to ask which text influenced the other, and what evidence there is of such influence. We want to know why the comparison matters and how it enables us to read either or both text differently. We want to ask, in short, “So what?” about our comparison and then answer the so what question rigorously. So that is one of my goals in my teaching at Signum and in whatever capacity I may continue to have at events: to encourage the deeper analysis. Students, scholars! Step up. We can do this.
Plus we need some papers on Charles Williams. Obviously.
I agree completely with the last paragraph. I’ve been searching the Web for a how-to guide entitled, “I’d like to write a literary analysis, but I’m a scientist.” Lack of such a thing is keeping me on the sidelines, dissecting Tom Hillman’s talks in search of the élan vital.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love that title! Maybe you should get an M.A. in Literature from Signum, and then YOU can write that book!
As someone whose primary work generally explores literature in relationship (comparison and contrast) to surrounding literatures and contexts, I can’t agree more with that last paragraph. It is always tricky to prove influence or understand its direction, although one might also suggest that trying to “prove” it may be missing the point – the fact of two bodies of literature or context pointing toward the same thing may be enough (in my dissertation, I necessarily fudged the issue a bit by suggesting the Biblical and Patristic wisdom as a “context of development” for Old English wisdom).
But then as you note the really interesting and tricky matter is the “so what” question – tricky because without it such comparison is pointless, but with it there is always the temptation to appropriate and refashion literature to our own ends rather than listening to its actuality, such that the text simply becomes an answer to “modern problem x” rather than itself – though paradoxically and speaking out of a broad Christian humanism, it is also a roundabout and unexpected way to talk about “modern problem x” because the problem is human and the text is written for humans.
I suspect that this is in part what drove the Inklings to speculative fiction, the desire to cultivate the most human things at the core of the literature they dealt with without too directly and uncarefully mapping a modern definition of humanity back onto the past. It is clear that the fiction of the Inklings reveals the heart of why they did the scholarship they were doing – but what I like so much about it is that this is expressed not by refashioning old authors as proto-heroes (that is to say, proto-Inklings), but by setting up a creative and careful conversation through dialectic and analogue (especially analogue) surrounding these old authors. It seems to me the same reason why so much of what passes as modern historical fiction is bad (the author has simply projected him or her self into a caricatured past), but why conversely medievalists love works like Game of Thrones, that certainly engage matters of the medieval and medievalism, but that also avoid suggestion of full correlation or the precise discovery of an uncomplicated “meaning” or “truth” discovered behind the data one has seen through.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you for these thoughts! I agree with your analysis and think you’ve probably got real insight into matters of fantasy literature.
What a rich taking up of the matter – thanks! I’m easily tempted to ‘possible influence/conscious interaction’ giddiness, and more relaxed and flexible comparison is a corrective and complement. Analogue illustrated can let any leaven work in another as well as going on working, not always fully consciously, in the initial noticer.
Williams’s almost casual little illustrations about woods might occasion a rewarding paper in this context.
Thanks for the entertaining write-up! And yes, I agree that deeper analysis is often harder to pull off, but much more fruitful and interesting to the audience. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t presented before – I feel I would have difficulty putting together a presentation with any ‘meat’ or substance to it.
But games are easy 😉
LikeLiked by 1 person
Keep growing, reading, and writing! You’ll get tehre.
Thank you, Sørina, for your kind words. There were a number of excellent presentations that day. “So what?” is of course the big question, and a hard one to answer in a ten minute presentation no matter how practiced one is. But it is the target to aim for.
And thank you, too, Joe. I am so glad you enjoy my papers. I don’t think what we do is so different, at least not in approach. I pore over “data” until I see something, make a connection, and then a hypothesis; then I stare at the data some more, gather more data, and refine my hypothesis. And so on.
And your game was a blast, Marie, even if Sørina wouldn’t let me answer more than one question at a time.
As always, it was a blessing to share the day with people who had read all the right books.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I was both the Time Tyrant and the Quasher of Fun. That’s me.
Sørina, I just posted about the symposium. here’s the link: http://alasnotme.blogspot.com/2015/10/hobbit-verses-versus-verses-by-hobbits.html
And you made a wonderful Time Lady by the way.
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a lot of talks-one-would-have-liked-to-have-heard-and-seen – or papers one would like to read! Do, please, update about availability of the latter! April Neal Kluever on “Gods and Aliens in Tolkien and Lovecraft” jumped out especially as I am just now getting reacquainted with “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, dumbfounded at how little I remember – and delighted at the Inklings and other comparisons (and contrasts) that keep striking me. (And, is the interview with Verlyn Flieger for reading, or hearing – and seeing? Easily – or archivally?)
I don’t know about the presentations/papers — I can ask April if she plans to post or publish hers anywhere. Verlyn’s was recorded and will be produced as a podcast in the upcoming “Signum Scholars Series,” which will include the Guest Lecture Series (http://www.mythgard.org/academy/guest-lecture-series/), Faculty Chats, and Thesis Chats.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The trivia game is available to anyone as a Powerpoint presentation – simply send me a message on facebook, and I will forward it on to you. It’s not exactly an academic paper!
Lovely write up! Thanks to your inspiring blog, by the way, I recently included Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion in an online Philosophy and Literature course. I paired it with Plato’s Phaedrus, and the class discussion boards were extremely interesting. The students really seemed to take to it!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wow, that’s great to hear! I’m so glad you did that.
Oh I wish I had been able to go! You know I would have presented a topic. And I would have loved to meet Dr. Flieger after taking her class two years ago. But alas, I can no longer call the Mid Atlantic home. But if there were to be MidMoot in the South……. Anyway glad you had a wonderful turn out.
Pingback: Historical Note – Idiosophy