Wonder, awe, amazement, curiosity, yearning, longing, joy, sehnsucht — these permeate the literature that has shaped my mind and determined much of my life. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on “The Heraldry of Heaven,” as C. S. Lewis called one particular form of romantic, spiritual desire; you can see me talk about it here:
Wonder infuses ancient myths and modern fantasy novels, moments of magic in Shakespeare’s plays and modernist poetry, the most lofty epics and the cheapest science fiction. The characters in the books may be filled with wonder, or the reader may be uplifted onto heights of awe while reading.
“Invoking Wonder” was the theme of Signum University‘s conference, Mythmoot IV, last weekend in Virginia, and the conference certainly lived up to its theme. What’s more, I believe that Mythmoot has now taken its place among the best academic conferences on the Inklings, speculative fiction, fantasy literature, myth, and science fiction. Those of you who work in these areas should now add Mythmoot to your regular conference circuit along with the Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University in Indiana and, of course, Mythcon.
Everything about Mythmoot was excellent, but here are the academic high points from my perspective. I’ll post links to YouTube videos later as they become available.
- The “VIP Panel” on “Invoking Wonder” featuring John DiBartolo, Dr. Michael Drout, Dr. Verlyn Flieger, Ted Nasmith, and Dr. Corey Olsen, which I had the honor of moderating. Here’s the video: a dry, alienating discussion of imaginative techniques in literature and of the history of the word wundor and blah blah blah. Apparently I forgot who my panelists were! Before we got halfway down the line on the first question (“What is your earliest memory of being filled with wonder?”), at least one panelist and more than one audience member had tears in their eyes, moved by the powerful reality of awe. They talked about which books, music, conversations, or works of art affected them as children and since then. We discussed whether wonder can be taught, by teachers or parents. We talked about the mysteries of nature, whether reality or fantasy is more moving. We argued whether curiosity is the same as wonder, or leads to it, and whether wonder is a specifically spiritual, even mystical, experience. It was a great privilege to talk with these great scholars and artists, and even more special to share some of the deep feelings of their hearts.
- Dr. Michael Drout’s
keynote talk “‘A Lesser Son of Great Sires’: On being a Philologist in the Twenty-first Century.” Mike spoke with great aplomb and hilarity about the very serious subject of the decline of philology as an academic field of study over the past century. This decline is partly due to the unfortunate (perceived) entanglement of philology with Nazism, but also arguably due to the rigor of the subject. Mike led us on a romp through the history of the field as it was in Tolkien’s day through the middle and end of the twentieth century to where it is today: hardly a philologist is to be seen on the faculty of any English departments these days. (As a side note, Signum has several philologists on faculty and is adding more!) Then he applied his own considerable philological skills to a close reading of a textual crux in Beowulf, and all while keeping us roaring with laughter, and all before 10:00 in the morning. I also enjoyed several good conversations throughout the weekend; thanks, Mike! Here is the video of Mike’s awesome talk:
- Dr. Verlyn Flieger’s
keynote talk “The Eye of the Beholder.” This was a detailed, close-reading, inspiring examination of one technique Tolkien uses to invoke wonder in the reader. Verlyn called it “rebound,” after a pool technique wherein the player hits another ball such that it then hits the one s/he wants to move. In writing, the author doesn’t have the narrator describe an event directly. Instead, a character’s response to the event is described such that the reader can inhabit the character’s thoughts and feelings during the event — and then experience the event through the character rather than through narrative description. Dr. Flieger used several powerful examples of this technique in The Lord of the Rings, including when Sam views the dead Southron, and when Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond to Legolas. If I were to sum up her talk, I’d say that these lines from Hopkins do it best:
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.
Part of her argument was that wonder does not reside in the object or event itself, but in the response of the reader, viewer, listener, etc. There’s a strong Barfieldian influence present in this concept, as well as the idea from Hopkins. I found her talk so moving that it was operating as a double rebound on me! Watch Verlyn’s wonderful keynote here:
- I also enjoyed giving a keynote talk myself, and was pleased by how well it fit the sequence of plenaries. I called it (most pretentiously) “Real Modernisms: Revising (Meta)Fictional Modernist Narratives,”
and what Mike Drout did for philology, I tried to do for modernism. I talked about the state-of-play in modernist studies, how it’s changing to include previously marginalized voices, including mass market genres that have previously been snubbed. This opens up opportunities for Inklings scholars to put their beloved authors into fruitful dialogue with “high modernist” writers–which I began to do. I also argued that “the Inklings” do not exist as a closed, fixed group, but that they were a fluid network of connections and associations.
- Finally, I had the very great joy of chairing two Thesis Panels filled with members of Signum University’s first graduating class, and of helping to officiate at the first-ever Signum Graduation! I am so very proud of our first 11 graduates and their excellent research. We had two panels, and topics included Tolkien and women, Lewis and the Great Chain of Being, Gothic literature and modern fantasy, Doctor Who and fairy tale, Tolkien’s politics, and a praxeological approach to literature. The graduation was a perfect expression of those things that make Signum unique — or “weird on purpose” — such as a hand-forged spear called Aiglos, a chanting of a Mythgard-specific “Tra-la-la-lally,” home-brewed Northern Courage, live-streaming online with participants around the glove, diplomas available in Latin or Quenya upon request, a lovely “Quest” speech by Dr. Flieger, and a few tears on the part of Corey Olsen and some of the grads. Congrats to our first graduating class! Those, then, were the academic highlights for me. I’m sure there were others, as I did not get to attend all the papers or presentations. But in addition to the important academic achievements of all present, there were the unforgettable conversations and social times — most notably, the Masquerade Ball and the dancing! Lots and lots of dancing. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I got to teach Marie’s Wedding, The Virginia Reel, and Foxtrot with the intrepid Corey Olsen for my dance partner. And then we danced a tango demo. Only don’t call it a tango. I’m of Swedish extraction; Corey is Norwegian.
- Q: What do you call it when two Viking literary scholars dance?
A: A tanglo-saxon! (watch our fairly shabby but fun tango here)