The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004:
Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder
Raynor Memorial Libraries
Department of Special Collections & University Archives
Day 1; Friday,
Preliminary notes and ramblings:
Due to worries about construction that has just commenced on
8:45, first speaker. Nicholas Burckel, Dean of
Dean Burckel bade us welcome, and noted that attendees represent 35 states and 5 different countries. There will be a total of 20 sessions over two days. For those enthusiasts unable to attend, the conference notes will be published by Marquette Press sometime in the not-so-distant future.
8:55, second speaker. Charles Elston, former head of Department of Special Collections & University Archives.
Mr. Elston brought us up to date on just who Richard E. Blackwelder was an etymologist (that’s bugs, not words) at the Smithsonian Institute, the
9:05. first lecture. Thomas Shippey: “History in Words, Tolkien’s Ruling Passion”
Professor Shippey started out with a bang, pointing out the difference between philologers and psychologists on a panel. Psychologists sit back away from the microphone, speaking quietly so as not to intimidate anyone, while philologists seize the microphone, leaning forward, eyes glittering, speaking enthusiastically, and glaring menacingly at anyone who dares beat a retreat toward the exits. Prof. Shippey then proceeded to get down to business. Fantasy promotes lateral thinking, but also invaluable for this task are dictionaries and concordances. They’re laid out alphabetically, which is to say from a philological standpoint, completely at random. He spoke about Onion’s dictionary of Entomology, published by
Shippey declared that Tolkien was aware of the history of words on what can only be called a gut level, a visceral level, hence his statement that the foundation of the Lord of the Rings were the invented languages he used. Tolkien felt (as does Shippey) that tales gain power by being filtered through different minds and tongues. Shippey went on to talk about the “pedantry” of Tolkien’s writing, a word derived, according to Onion’s, from the Latin phrase meaning “a slave who accompanies a child to school,” thus a teacher (or grammarian) of a kind. Tolkien described grammarians somewhat self-effacingly, Shippey said, as those have transmuted knowledge to lore. Shippey also drew a parallel between Tolkien and Gollum, with both being interested in the “roots” of things, evidenced by the entomology of “Sméagol.”
He spoke of Tolkien’s feeling of an intellectual revolution having been forgotten, and the dilemma of how to make the history of words live again. Tolkien’s answer was to examine the connections (or “connexions” as Tolkien would have it) between ancient words and roots and how they’ve flowered from the chaotic but fertile “leaf mould” of the mind into new words. Shippey suggested that philology and words are as directly related as mythology and beliefs. He gave several examples from his books on how Tolkien took “lost words,” or words with lost meanings and have them new life in his LOTR series; for example Ents, or the relationship between the word “wraith” in the sense of being twisted and its linguistic forebears and cousins, “wriđan” “writhe” “wroth” and “wrath.”
Shippey wound down by examining a pair of “odd words” from Tolkien. Sam’s self-directed insult, “ninnyhammer,” in what we might call a “low Hobbitish” dialect, displays a characteristic of English to “nunnate,” or to add an initial |n| (also seen in the names of characters in Smith of Wooton Major). Shippey hypothesizes that the term “ninny” derives from a nunnation of “innocent,” a progression of “an innocent”-> “a ninnocent” -> “a ninny,” in the sense of someone “unfit for practical purposes,” someone who as the Gaffer might be inclined to put it, “don’t know ee’s been born!” “-hammer,” Shippey then suggests, is from an old English word “ammer,” a “little rascal.” We may then take “ninnyhammer” to mean “someone so foolish as to be almost criminal.”
From “low Hobbitish” we move to “high Rohirric” and Eowyn/Dernhelm’s word “dwimmerlaik.” We see a similar root word in “Dwimorberg” or “haunted mountain” but that is too simple. We hear Gríma call Gandalf “dwimmer-crafty,” referring to his abilities in the magical arts, but that doesn’t quite fit the bill for a winged Nazgûl. As it turns out, “dwimmer” is of the same mold as “glimmer” or “shimmer,” something hard to make out. It lives on in the obscure Scottish word “dwam” or something that is lost. Easier to decipher is “-laik”, related to “lark” in the sense of sport or play. We can then define “dwimmerlaik” to be something along the lines of “sport of nightmare,”
Shippey closes by saying that part of Tolkien’s appeal is his enormous vocabulary. He can be arcane, yes, but he is also frequently highly colloquial. We delight in such things as hearing the Hobbits trying to change their speech to fit the halls of Edoras or Minas Tirith, bridging the ridiculous and the sublime in one breath. This, Shippey argues, is remarkably refreshing, coming as it does in the midst of modern and post-modern literature, which seems, at times, to be nothing more than a weary trawl through the voices of self-professed “victims.”
Note: I apologize for my recount of Shippey’s lecture being as long as it is. He was the speaker I was most excited about hearing, and I took rather copious notes on what he said. The rest of the lecture notes should be shorter. Hopefully.
9:40. second lecture John Garth: “Frodo & the Great War”
Mr. Garth examined elements of The Lord of the Rings as they may have reflected Tolkien’s experiences in World War I. He defined “escapism” as the flight of the fugitive, not the deserter. Mr. Garth suggested that the true enemy of WWI, as Tolkien may have seen it, was not the Kaiser’s troops, but industrialism and materialism manifesting themselves in the war. He noted that many “realism” works view the soldiers of WWI as “passive sufferers.” He noted that The Hobbit saw the transformation of an ordinary person into a larger, unexpectedly heroic character, with the Hobbits portraying a version of the rural Englishry, a people who rarely rise from the ridiculous to the sublime, but who did with distinction during WWI. Like Bilbo in The Hobbit (hereafter abbreviated “TH”), a predominant theme in the post-War years of the 1930s was one of dissatisfaction with current life (for examples, just look at the 1939
Mr. Garth paralleled the frequent elements of a soldier’s life during WWI, the root march, the trenches, relief and rest with Frodo’s haste in leaving the Shire, the attack by the Nazgûl, his flight across the Ford and his recovery in Rivendell. He suggested that the Ring is a physical analogue of Frodo’s burden. He suggested a similarity between Sauron as a potential element of a fascist world and Orwell’s “Big Brother” character, both authors having served in WWI.
He offered the idea that the screeches and sibilant speech of the Nazgûl may have been suggested by speech through gas masks and screaming shells on the battlefields of WWI. Mr. Garth pointed out how the chalky landscape of the Barrow-downs echo the
Following the downfall of Sauron, we see in Frodo the same “grief that the war is over” that we saw in returning soldiers. Perhaps Frodo’s loss of a finger parallels a loss of integrity that he feels at both returning alive and being unable to fulfill his duty when the time came. Upon his return, Frodo’s desire for peace cheats him of the honor he desires and deserves, leading him to a self-view as a misfit, as was the case with many soldiers. He finds his resolution only in a kind of “wish fulfillment,” with his journey to the Undying Lands perhaps paralleling Tolkien’s return home from war aboard a hospital ship, with the hope that peace will be found at the end of the journey.
10:35 third lecture Paul Edmund Thomas: “Toward Quite Unforeseen Goals: Tolkien’s Imagination in the 1930’s”
Tolkien, as Mr. Thomas reveals, had quite a theatrical streak. Initially, his storytelling was for his children, with simple tales making up his repertoire; The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham. However, his children began to outgrow these uncomplicated stories, around 1933, with TH paused at just after Smaug’s defeat, and the tale found itself facing a 3-year hiatus (before finally being published). What changed in Tolkien’s imagination during this time?
Letters suggest that TH was initially independent of Silmarillion lore and mythology. Why then did he connect it to the mythos? Perhaps we can trace it to his defense of Beowulf, and the idea of its “impression of depth.” Tolkien began to experiment with creating his own impression of historical depth with his changes to TH prior to its 1936 publication, and explored it more in his historical fiction work The Lost Road.
Mr. Thomas told us of Tolkien’s response when urged to write a sequel to TH, “I cannot think of anything more about Hobbits.” When finally he did begin to write, it was only in bits and pieces. By December of 1937, he still had no coherent story line. (For more information on this subject, may I recommend Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume “History of Middle-earth”). He continually wrote to his publisher, forecasting his completion of the sequel by June of 1939. Then by Christmas 1939. Then by spring of 1940. He was, it would seem, quite unaware of just how far his imagination would take his storytelling.
11:15. fourth lecture John D. Rateliff: “And All the Days of Her Life Are Forgotten: Middle-earth as Mythic Prehistory”
Mr. Rateliff expounds upon the notion that the resonance and poignancy in LOTR stem from the concept of Middle-earth as a prehistory of our world, presented not as a delight in things, but as an elegy. Tolkien’s fantasy world was created for the express purpose of destroying it. Every race, city, forest and mountain is doomed to extinction. This elegiac tone is an elemental part of the story; it is a story of lost tales. Tolkien set out to create a mythology for
A key element of the immersiveness of LOTR is “recovery,” a restoration of a sense of wonder in everyday things. When we read LOTR, our appreciation is (or should be) heightened by the “knowledge” that all these things no longer exist. In trying to evoke these emotions, he wrote a work that is an “elegy to vanished Light.” The sense of loss is pervasive in LOTR, and that’s as it should be. As a linguist and medieval scholar, Tolkien was keenly aware of how much of our culture has been lost or forgotten. We read Tolkien, then, to read something new that is in the manner of something ancient. This ties into Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation,” that we “make because we are made.” We learn from The Silmarillion that Eru Iluvatar does not create Middle-earth, he makes it real from the Music of the Ainur. Tolkien had the idea that this sub-creation was both a liberation from and a homage to the Maker (not “Creator”) of our world, and had a lingering supposition that our world bore the hallmarks of being a sub-creation itself. The destruction, therefore, of what we create is not defeat, he felt, for if it is “good” it will one day be taken up again. Mr. Rateliff closed with the thought that Tolkien included a caution in his tales of the races of Middle-earth: the elves and Black Numenoreans so desired to preserve the past or the present that they sought to prevent the future from making its own contributions.
1:00. fifth lecture Christina Scull: “What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?: Planning, Inspiration, and The Lord of the Rings”
Note: A great deal of this lecture dealt with the presentation of the drafting process outlined in Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth, which I had already read. As such, I only have notes on a few of the more notable things Mrs. Scull touched on, although her presentation was nothing short of fascinating.
Tolkien’s drafts were things of varying complexity, with some versions of the tale seeming to write themselves, with very few changes to what first flowed from his pen, to chapters that went through six or more iterations before reaching anything close to final form. Some of these changes proved to be small initially, but set huge changes into motion. The decision to make Bilbo’s ring something more than a harmless trinket became the catalyst for a major metamorphosis. The rider that overtakes the Hobbits on the
Strider’s character was one that caused innumerable changes. Initially named “Trotter” he was in early drafts an odd, brown-skinned “Hobbit ranger!” Then Tolkien thought that rangers were better if not Hobbit. Time and again in his drafts he writes “Who is Trotter?” After going through several other characterizations, a random ranger, an elf in disguise, and a kinsman of Elrond, he finally decided in1939 that Trotter was definitely not a Hobbit, but a descendent of Elendil. With that one decision, Aragorn was directly linked to the lore of The Silmarillion.
Even with all these changes, Tolkien constantly underestimated the length of the tale in the writing. What he thought would be one chapter frequently turned into two or three. As he said in his forward to the second edition, he paused a while at the Mines of Moria, but ultimately when he resumed the tale in autumn of 1941, he knew of Gandalf’s fall, return, and had many familiar plot elements falling into place.
1:40. sixth lecture David Bratman: “The Artistry of Omissions and Revisions in The Lord of the Rings”
Covering some of the same ground as Mrs. Scull’s lecture, Mr. Bratman examines some of the changes made in even greater detail, which is as it should be, since Tolkien had said “I like things worked out in detail.” However, detail without meaning is sterile, and so we examined what editorial revisions Tolkien made after completion.
One major factor, apart from the inevitable typographical mistakes, was the rise of a copyright dispute following the “bootleg” Ace Paperback editions of LOTR published in the
As it turns out, there’s wasn’t a great deal that needed doing. In the second edition of TH, there were about 60 editorial changes made that could be considered major over the course of 19 chapters. In the second edition of LOTR, over 60+ chapters and 6 times as many pages, a little over 120 changes were made. About 75% of these were changes to capitalization (e.g. “Hobbits” as a race became capitalized). Around 19% of changes were due to alterations to English pronunciation of Elvish words (e.g. the letter “C” in words being pronounced |k| rather than |s|, or the reversal of the decision not to use “dh” for a |đ| sound in words because it looked “uncouth” in English). The majority of the rest of the changes were additions to the denouement in the Fields of Cormallen after Sauron’s fall, changes to the history of the Palantiri, or changes to the amount of humor in the books. Humor was added for Merry (viewing himself as a bit of baggage) and taken away from
2:20. seventh lecture Marjorie Burns: “King and Hobbit: The Exalted and Lowly in Middle-earth and Beyond”
I must open this with a delightful quote from Professor Tolkien that Ms. Burns shared, “Every morning I wake up and think, ‘Good! Another twenty-four hours’ pipe-smoking.’”
Tolkien was quick and more than willing to view and describe his world in hierarchical terms. His works contain stratification upon stratification among both heroes and villains. For example, Melkor>Sauron>Saruman>Gríma>Lotho, and Eru Iluvatar>Valar>Maiar>Istari. Yet, almost without fail, Tolkien’s prose lets us feel that we are in among the noblest and highest of the high. The Eagles are kings among birds, we encounter the chief of the Ravens, the Arkenstone outstrips all other gems, Shadowfax is chief of the Mearas, Gwaihir is lord of the eagles, Fangorn is oldest among the Ents, even Ghân-buri-Ghân is headman among the Druadaín. Even Frodo is among what we may call “Hobbit aristocracy.” Rarely if ever do we leave hierarchy and status behind. Only Sam rises significantly, and unlike most other noble characters, his status is not one that can be handed down to his descendants.
And yet, Tolkien also works to undermine his established hierarchies, even without dismantling them completely. His literature is chock full of alls from favor. Melkor was first “born” of the Valar, falls as Morgoth, and is replaced from within by Manwe, his “brother in thought.” Boromir falls, and is replaced from within by his brother Faramir. Saruman falls and is replaced from within by Gandalf, one of his order. The elves, firstborn of Iluvatar, move on and Men, their “younger siblings” take over, preserving the hierarchical order. As modest people, people without any real power, we get sort of a subversive thrill in seeing these mighty and often unjust characters fall. Yet despite all this simultaneous undermining and preservation of hierarchical structure, we do see some true elevation of the commoner, in Samwise and Beregond. These characters, Sam in particular, help us maintain a connection with the otherwise predominantly noble class of characters in Tolkien’s work.
Note: As an afterthought, how do you think Tolkien would have reacted to the elevation of all four Hobbits in the film adaptation of “The Return of the King?”
3:10. eighth lecture Jane Chance: “Subversive Fantasists: Tolkien on Class Difference”
Critics have accused Tolkien of being monarchist, classist, elitist, racist, and fascist to boot. Certainly selective reading of his works could conceivable give this impression. However, while Tolkien was a conservative Roman Catholic, it must be remembered that he chose to write fantasy, and fantasy is innately a subversive mode. Where, then, can we see this subversion, in a manner akin to, say, Chaucer? We see it in some of the techniques employed by Tolkien to dismantle the class differences through philology.
In his analysis of two Chaucerian tales, Tolkien invariably sides with the virtuous if uneducated commoners rather than those of “high birth” who engage in regional stereotyping. Tolkien argues that, among other things, regional dialect and identity is not directly related to intelligence, gentility or innate nobility, and in fact goes so far as to generally reject the notion of innate nobility of an aristocratic class. He subverts the classist ideology and elevates those of virtue and nobility regardless of social class. Tolkien is neither a snob nor a fascist, but rather seeks to subvert and invert xenophobia and social class-driven ideology wherever he finds them. Indeed, he suggests that it is the xenophobia of certain Shire inhabitants (i.e. Ted Sandyman) that paves the way for the spread of fascism and darkness under Sharkey and Wormtongue in “The Scouring of the Shire.”
While Tolkien does establish social class differences, his elevation of the lowly directly undermines those, and his exaltation of the commoner can border on Marxist at times. The heroics displayed by his commoner characters converts the tendency (even among the rustics of the Shire) to engage in class stereotyping. Residents of Hobbiton distrust Bucklanders, and vice versa, but Farmer Maggot serves to undermine those suspicions. Similarly, Shirefolk distrust Breelanders initially, but that too is undermined by a union against a greater, and truer Enemy. Tolkien uses this inversion to show that the “Otherness” of someone is not necessarily bad, evil, or inferior, especially as different races and classes unite against a common Enemy. We see this theme repeated as the splintered Fellowship comes to Rohan, Gondor and Ithilien, and there too the initial suspicions give way to trust. Tolkien gives all a level playing field, aristocrat, bourgeois and commoner alike.
3:50. ninth lecture S. Gary Hunnewell: “Tolkien and his Nay-sayers”
This lecture examined the roles of characters who voice skepticism, ignorance and provincialism in Tolkien’s works. While there are no major characters who voice doom and doubt, all of them serve to add depth, even if it’s only “shallow depth.”
In TH, Gloin is among the first nay-sayers. Ironically, it’s his disparagement of Bilbo that instills the desire in the hobbit to prove himself, time and again. Then Thorin derides Bilbo, and only grows to respect him after being convinced of the hobbit’s burgling abilities. Finally in TH we find Bard the bowman, quite the cranky man, and quite suspicious. To his credit, however, he does slay Smaug and lead the people of Dale in the rebuilding efforts.
On to Farmer Giles of Ham, which Mr. Hunnewell suggests reading after downing a pint of dark ale on an empty stomach, as everything then becomes very funny. In this tale we see the smith, with the dour nickname of “Sunny Sam” constantly forecasting doom and taking a certain perverse delight in it as he does. The Miller also does everything to call Farmer Giles’ bluff, and winds up at the end as a fool prancing before the King.
Leaf By Niggle finds Niggle’s entire society deriding his work, art for art’s sake, as having no worth as it is neither practical nor economic. In Smith of Wooton Major, we find Nokes taking credit that is not due to him, and even denying the power of fay when confronted by the magic of the King of Faerie himself.
Finally, we move on to The Silmarillion and the LOTR trilogy. Interestingly, in The Silmarillion, we find few nay-sayers save for a smattering of faithless Men shunning the Elves. In the trilogy, we find examples of nay-sayers in three characters, only one of them major. Ted Sandyman is of the belief that if it’s not seen, it’s not true, suggesting more than a few world leaders of last century. Gríma Wormtongue casts aspersions on Gandalf, and is deceitful in that all he expects of Gandalf he then refuses to do himself when given a chance by a renewed Théoden. And lastly, we can view Boromir as a nay-sayer. First he advocates use of the Ring, not listening to description upon description of its dangers. Still doubtful, he is the only one against going through Moria, preferring to head for the Gap of Rohan, again unheeding of the dangers it presents. Then he’s against entering Lothlorien, even after Gandalf’s chastisement not to speak of “that which you do not know.” Finally, on Amon Hen, he attempts to convince Frodo to take the Ring to Gondor, whereupon Frodo asks him “Were you not at the Council?” Ouch. Ultimately, we see that Boromir is a nay-sayer because he listens little and learns not at all.
In conclusion, would Tolkien’s work still exist without nay-sayers? Yes, but it would undoubtedly prove to be a bit duller, and a bit simpler.
End of Day 1