Friday, January 19, 2007


J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

(Correction January 2014: I gave the wrong email below. It is now correct: My apologies to those who may have tried to respond into the ether, and I hope you will try again. - squire)

Well, the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia that I contributed to (as recounted in my last blog) was finally published this past November. Editor Michael Drout has documented his disappointing experience in completing the book to his preferred standards: a change of management at the publishers led to the thing being taken away from him and published in a rushed reduced printing, with no regard for final copy editing or author review of proofs.

Especially when I heard that the print run would be 800 copies rather than 2500, I raided the piggy bank and bought my own copy (at a contributor discount) for an extortionate $150. Now it sits by my computer and glares at me. I glare back. Whenever I'm stuck for something to write about on TORn, I open the book and read an entry or two.

And then I write my impressions in a diary. Rather than run screaming down the road, I process my emotions into constructive criticism. Because, frankly, some of the articles in the Encyclopedia drive me mad. And some are just frustrating. And some are good, but could be so much better. And some are really fine -- first rate examples of what I thought the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment was supposed to be.

I've written about 40 little reviews so far, and my colleagues from TORn have contributed a few more. That leaves less than 500 articles to go. At this point, I thought I'd bring the diary out and offer it to the Tolkien studies community, as a kind of conversational vehicle for evaluating the Encyclopedia, article by article.

J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

If you have access to one (and so few, so very few, do - $175! 800 copies!), please feel free to email me your short, subjective article reviews.

email your contributions to

I don't know if this has any larger purpose than a giant kind of group hug/cry/vent. I have found it valuable in reminding me that the dodo articles are not in the majority, even if the stellar ones are not either.

I put a lot of myself into my contributions to the Encyclopedia - perhaps you did too. If so, this is a way for us to put a value on that contribution, to get reviewed, to set a baseline of what's acceptable and what's not in this kind of collective Tolkien scholarship. It's also a way actually to read the Encyclopedia - which is not a bad thing to do, after all.

Friday, May 12, 2006


squire's Excellent Adventure

A four-part blog that I originally posted in April on Reading Room forum, as part of a structured discussion (East & South: 1 2 3 4 5; Treason: 1 2 3 4 5 6) of the forthcoming J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.

squire's Excellent Adventure
Queering the Post-colonial Optic in a Suburban Library

Chapter 1: Some quicksands are quicker than other quicksands.

On March 3, 2005 I got an email from Altaira inviting me to submit my name to contribute to The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, a major scholarly reference work then in preparation by Routledge Publishing, under the editorship of Tolkien scholar Michael Drout.

Evidently Elf Maven, a professional editor, had heard about it during Drout’s live Colloquy webcast the previous fall, had contacted Routledge in hopes of contributing her services, and had through a comic misunderstanding been offered several articles to write instead!

Not considering herself a Tolkien specialist, she had declined the assignment, but she thought of the Reading Room at TORn, and wrote Routledge that she might know some people who could help out. The answer came:

Please feel free to e-mail me with any names and e-mail addresses of possible contributors, and we will contact them in due course.

Elf Maven made some inquiries around TORn, noting that her deadline had been May 2005, but these things were negotiable. The available topics were kind of up to Routledge, of course. Reading Room Valie Altaira began organizing things, soliciting volunteer contributors, and hence her invitation to me.

I visited the Encyclopedia website, checked out the list of unassigned topics, and then I replied:

OK, sure, I'd be interested in joining the immortals.
I have to say, judging by the notes on the website, they seem to be aiming for professional academics who are also Tolkien fans. I am a Tolkien fan, and I am an intelligent person, but by their standards I am an amateur. Now, if Elf Maven is also an "amateur" and they immediately assigned her the Color article, not to mention the Father Christmas piece, then maybe they are throwing a wide net indeed.
In that case, let me say I would try to tackle:
Art & Illustrations
Middle earth creatures and peoples
Notice these are all things that come from the texts themselves, rather than from the sources or background elements of Tolkien's mind and professional experience. I am certainly the wrong person to volunteer to do the language or literature side of things, for instance!
My qualifications, briefly, are a thorough acquaintance with Tolkien's actual texts; a B.A. with a history major; an M.F.A. in scenic design; a facile writing style; and a love of research. If that is good enough for them, it's good enough for me.
Let me know if I need to do anything else within the bounds of decency.

Well, I took the ensuing silence of the airwaves as a definitive reply on what was “good enough for them”.

But to my complete surprise it was just the slow wheels of justice grinding exceedingly fine, because two months later on May 9 I heard from N. E. Brigand that the thing was still on, and was I still interested?

Brigand explained that the delay was due to the difficulty of breaking through Routledge’s assumptions of what constituted a Tolkien scholar – but he had personally approached editor Michael Drout at the Kalamazoo conference that past weekend, and Drout had said, essentially, send me some samples of your people’s work, and I’ll consider it. Brigand, clever fellow, knew that Drout was on record as saying that the Tolkien “scholarship” conducted by fans online was not necessarily to be sneezed at, and now the Reading Room was going to call his snuff, er, bluff. Big time.

Drout got a full-body Reading Room sneezebath, courtesy of NEB, a week later. Here is the letter he sent. NEB let me review it, and I commented:

Well, we can only try. I admit it is gratifying to be involved in this. Good luck, and I hope you at least get touched: N.E. Brigand: “Farewell my friends! I go to a better place!” Reading Room: “Oooooh! The Claw! The Claw!”

Drout collapsed in defeat, writing NEB on May 18:

. . . thank you also for the somewhat overwhelming amount of information below. I had some familiarity with, but I hadn't realized how much information and discussion there was at this source.
I have to admit that I am having some difficulty in sorting out who is who and who wants to do what, so perhaps it would be easier to present the list of outstanding entries and see which ones (if any) you and your fellow discussants might be interested in completing. Then, when I assemble responses with responses that have been coming in from other Kalamazoo participants, I can perhaps assign the entries more intelligently. Thus, here are the outstanding entries.
With best wishes, Mike Drout

Bible (1000) Bournemouth (250) Children's Literature and Tolkien (1200) Christ: Advent Lyrics (700) Dante (500) Devil's Coachhorses (1000) East, The (500) Epic Poetry (750) Gaze (500) Genesis (500) Greece: Reception of Tolkien (500) Hierarchy (750) Ireland (250) Juliana (500) Justice and Injustice (500) Knowledge (600) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1000) Maps (2500) Marriage (1500) Marxist Readings of Tolkien (750) Merchandising (1000) North Borneo, Reception of Tolkien (500) North Polar Bear (500) Philo-semitism (500) Possessiveness (500) Prophesy (500) Ransome, Arthur (250) Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman and Post-Roman Site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire (700) Russian Language (500) South, The (600) Spenser (500) Suffield Family (250) Tolkien Remembered: Humphrey Carpenter (600) Treason of Isengard (1000)

As I perused the list, I felt rather like someone going into a dark cavern where dragons were once reported to live. A long time ago, but reliably reported all the same. I replied to NEB:

Subject: A Drout of Qualification Impends

Oh, Lord, all the easy ones are taken.
I have to say, of all those topics, the only one I remotely feel I could tackle without disgracing myself and disappointing Prof. Drout, is "Maps". In a pinch, maybe "East" or "South". Or "Treason of Isengard", at least I've read it. Once.
Are the numbers next to the entries, dollars, word-count, or both?

NEB said that Maps was properly given to arquen, since she is a professional geologist. I could have the East, South and Treason articles. The numbers were for word-count. He hastened to reassure me:

Also, after attending the Kalamazoo conference, I feel that Reading Room stalwarts know as much as any of the presenters there--except Douglas Anderson--about Tolkien, though perhaps not about medievalism or literature generally.

I agreed to volunteer for those three subjects, giving myself my own brief of what I guessed would be required:

Subject: Rolls all three eyes, wiggles green antennae...

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more a HoME volume might be the ticket. Most of the topics are meant to connect Tolkien to other academic fields; a knowledge, not just of Tolkien, but of the other academic field, is required. Arquen is perfect for Maps.
South and East will require some serious research into the "meaning" of those regions in relation to the NW Europe of Tolkien's literary sources. Not hard, I suppose, and fun; but all I'm really going to have going for me is the internet and my fine local county library system. The NY Public, and the hours required to use it properly (it's just heaven!) are not available to me just now.
Whereas Treason of Isengard is going to be a kind of summary of C. Tolkien's work, and the LotR draft history it contains. Much more doable by a wonky Tolkien amateur, late at night after a hard day at work.

On May 23, N. E. Brigand, moving fast, opened a Yahoo Groups private forum so that the Reading Room Encyclopedists could exchange thoughts, drafts, research, etc. without risking copyright violations involving public posts of proprietary material.

On May 25, the other shoe fell. I received a formal invitation / contract from Routledge to write three articles for the Encyclopedia by September 1, 2005.

TERMS OF AGREEMENT BETWEEN ROUTLEDGE (“Publisher”) and *squire’s real name* (“Contributor”)
Entry Title - Ms Due - Words - Scope Notes
East, The - 9/1/2005 - 500 - Location, explanation, discussion, and symbolism; connections with race, blue wizards, and migration of the elves.
South, The - 9/1/2005 - 600 - Explanation and discussion; connection to men of the South, connection to race and depictions of race
Treason of Isengard - 9/1/2005 - 1000 - Summary and discussion; new information revealed, contribution of Christopher Tolkien

I came near to a-spoilin’ me pantaloons! This was beyond serious. This was real! What had I been I thinking? Yes: it’s all very flattering. Yes: the glory of publication etc. But the glib arrogance of my blithe “If my resume’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me” had clearly boomeranged.

They didn’t care about my resume at this point -- they cared about handing out article assignments as fast as possible, to anyone in the room who raised his dumb conceited hand.

Now it was sink or swim for poor squire, in the same meme pool as Michael Drout, Verlyn Flieger, and Tom Shippey. If I sank, I somehow knew, no tears would be shed: someone with a Ph. D. in medieval geomancy would get a quick call in September to knock out a “real” article on, say, The East to replace “the crapola we got from one of those One Ring fanboys.”

And September was only three months away.

Chapter 2: Talkin' Tolkien with Marian the Librarian

September was only three months away. It was already the end of May. I was going to have to focus like a laser to get through this thing alive.

Not. At the end of June, with my Reading Room discussion on the Letters completed, I finally emailed Routledge, accepting the assignment but asking for an extension on the Treason of Saruman article. They agreed. My panic was fading a bit. And I began to get to work, more or less.

Assignment: write 500 words on “The East” in connection with the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. Specifically: “Location, explanation, discussion, and symbolism; connections with race, blue wizards, and migration of the elves.”

Wooh! I had some idea of what this entailed. After all, as a geek of the 32nd degree, I’d read LotR, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion; and also The Letters, the History of Middle-earth (some of it), and such seminal critics as Paul Kocher, Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger. Most importantly, the topic was pretty much “internal” to Tolkien; I didn’t have to be a scholar of the Bible, Old English, Feminist Theory, English archaeology, or Epic poetry to pull this off, unlike some of my RR Encyclopedist colleagues!

Assignment: write 600 words on “The South” in connection with the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. Specifically: “Explanation and discussion; connection to men of the South, connection to race and depictions of race.”

How hard could it be? It’s only 500 or 600 words, about a page and a half.
It seemed to me that in a page and a half, I basically had space to present what the East or the South “was” in Tolkien, and – oh yeah -- then quickly review what scholarship had been done on these subjects.


Just what ‘scholarship’ had been done on these subjects?

Some background: this Encyclopedia is meant to be fundamentally different from, say, the Tolkien Companion or the Encyclopedia of Arda. It’s not just what Tolkien wrote; it’s what’s been written about Tolkien. Professor Michael Drout and his merry band of editor/scholars are trying to provide a reference baseline for future researchers, students, and scholars in “Tolkien Studies”, a budding and under-respected academic discipline. If the Encyclopedia does its job, anyone with a serious interest a few years from now in researching a Tolkien topic will be able to check quickly and reliably what’s already been done – something that is remarkably hard to do today, because of the diffuse and almost samizdat nature of Tolkien Studies.

In a way, the entire project is Phase III of Drout’s Master Plan. Phase I was his 2000 essay/bibliography, The Current State of Tolkien Studies. Phase II was the new academic journal, Tolkien Studies, entirely dedicated to peer-reviewed, guaranteed-academic-quality, articles about Tolkien. Now he was going public: this Encyclopedia was meant for every town and gown library in the land, for researchers from high school to graduate school.

So: what scholarship had been done on my subjects? Drout was the key. His bibliography showed that he had, to some degree, already reviewed what was out there. It seemed obvious that he expected the Encyclopedia to be a three-dimensional version of his massive book-list, with hundreds of contributors acting as editorial integral functions, assembling a shining city of meaningful prose summaries, topic by topic, from the seemingly infinite plain of existing but obscure scholarship on Tolkien.

*ahem* Yeah. Well, have you seen the Bibliography? It’s long, it’s thorough, and it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it. So I databased it, and two or three others that I found are in the public domain (Richard West, etc.)

It beat thrashing the internet for fan articles and movie reviews, which seemed the only other option. When I was done, a week or so later, it was a structured list in MS Excel. I identified all possible listings that could, by their titles, have something to do with my topics; I marked them off, and after a quick filter and sort, had a kind of shopping list of books and articles I thought I needed to look at.

Oog. How to get them?

Next stop, my town library. They were actually wonderful to work with. It turns out that enough authors live in my town that the library is used to professional research. The kindly little old ladies at the reference desk would politely explain to me the procedures for scouring not just the stacks, but the entire County system, and after that, the entire academic library system of the U.S., which would, with some prompting and enough time, cough up anything I could find in the computerized catalogue. And speaking of computers, the library subscribed to several of the lesser academic databases, and by using my card I could download anything I could find there – stuff that is not on the public internet. And I could do all this from home via the library’s website! Those kindly little old lady librarians cast some heap powerful hoodoo these days.

For the rest of the summer I put in for the several dozen Tolkien books that I could find in the library’s various catalogues. The further away they were, the longer they took to come in. I particularly enjoyed getting “The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien” from Wheaton College library, with its invaluable dissection of The Treason of Isengard. (Wheaton is Drout’s college – there’s only one reason why that book was in that library).

So the books began to drift in through July and August. They began to stack up in my study; and my wife couldn’t help but notice that every evening I’d be slapping stickies into three or four more extremely weird Tolkien books between boredom-induced snoozes.

Ah, the boredom. Yes, there is such a thing as too much Tolkien. Most of the books were sort of interesting, but as the deluge flooded in in August, I just didn’t have the time to read them – just scan as quickly as possible for something, anything, about directionality, geography, ethnography, cartography, racialism, Eden and the fall of Man, or the History of Middle-earth. It all became a kind of blur, leaving in its wake only a overdue heap of tomes in the corner with a fungal growth of yellow and purple stickies marking what I had yet to extract into my note files.

The pathetic thing was just how few of the books and articles on my original list actually materialized. In the end, if it wasn't in my library's catalogue, I didn't get it. Here, for giggles, is the final list of "works consulted" for my three articles. I didn't use everything here (some duds), but I read it all (or at least skimmed it between naps). Note the almost total lack of overlap between that ambitious first list and the final one!

Wait, you say. Isn’t it all on the Internet?

Well, no. That is, you’ll find stuff, but it’s typically not scholarship quality. And since I work all day online, I had plenty of opportunity to do searches. I found some material, sure. The white supremacists for Tolkien thing was interesting. But books remain the only way to really do Tolkien studies.

There comes a time in every Encyclopedist’s life when you realize: 1. You are never going to get a single issue of Mallorn or Mythlore from anyone, anywhere. 2. Whatever Inklings: Jahrbuch fur Literatur und Asthetik is, you’re not going to get that, either. 3. In fact, perhaps it’s best if you give up on trying to get any decent journal articles at all. 4. The 1992 Centenary Conference Proceedings is cited by every Tolkien scholar – it’s just brimming with first-rate articles by the stars of the field. You’re not going to get that, either. It’s out of print and rare. 5. Tolkien’s Legendarium is indispensable for anyone studying the History of Middle-earth books (like The Treason of Isengard). You’re not going to get it. It’s not even in the catalogue --

Oh, yes I am! Dammit, I’m going to buy it!

Yeah. There came a time . . . when money changed hands. I bought the Legendarium off eBay, for a slight discount. I bought The Peoples of Middle-earth (HoME XII). I bought Tolkien Studies, vol. 2. I bought Rosebury’s book (the best discovery of the summer! Thanks, NEB!) And -- this was actually so painful it was fun -- I bought

Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon. Anglicana Turkuensia, no. 12. Ed. by K.J. Batterbee. Turku: University of Turku, 1993

from Finland, no less. Since any kind of international money order or check effectively doubled the cost to either them or me, I paid for it eventually by stuffing cash euros in an envelope and mailing them off in a burst of optimism.

The entire summer was that kind of experience: pure romance, pure research. I felt like a scholar, occasionally: a fun feeling. It was a path not taken in my life, a long time ago, and now, it hadn’t made all the difference, not quite. I’m not an academic, but I play one on TORn.

And in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.

Chapter 3: “It is nice just to know that you are about the place”

A huge help for me in staying sane last summer during this adventure was knowing that many other souls were also on the edge of mental breakdown. Or that they were nervous, at least.

I am referring to the Yahoo Groups board that N. E. Brigand set up in May, that allowed us TORn Encyclopedists to share thoughts, research, criticism, suggestions, and just a hand to hold from time to time.

The first weeks on the board were full of twittering excitement. Routledge sent out its assignments to us in the last week of May, and it was then that the difference between the few, who were professional academics, and the many, who were not, became apparent. Briefly, the dialogue went thus:

Amateurs: Waaaaaaah!
Pros: There, there.

The few were drogo_drogo, modtheow, and Penthe. They were amazingly there for us. I’m sure they were struggling with their own private demons like overcommitment and straying outside their fields into Tolkieniana. But for those of us with nothing but a love of Tolkien and maybe a bachelor’s degree in the dim past, they were Gods. They had real libraries that subscribed to scholarly journals, they knew how to footnote, they knew where the bodies were buried, and they were not afraid of Michael Drout. In short, they didn’t need no stinkin’ badgers.

But we amateurs pulled our weight, too. Not only by sharing sources and methods and anxieties; there was the sheer comfort factor of being just one of the many sheep in the fleecing-sluice. As I struggled with the overwhelming mass that is the Tolkien bibliography, seeking in vain for articles and books titled The East and The South in Tolkien’s Fiction and The Treason of Saruman: A Scholarly Evaluation, I would vent on the board:

Access to current offline scholarship is exactly what I don’t have

And it was very consoling then to read things like:

So far I have run down very few references on maps
What I am wondering is how to see which of these journals might have applicable articles?
Is it a bad sign when the article description includes basically everything you know about the subject?
I was thinking of throwing myself on the mercy of the local college librarians – would that be a good place to start?
I’m still in the process of exhausting info in my own collection of books, and am already overwhelmed.

The mid-summer quieted down a bit, as people got to work. One debate we went back and forth on was just what the editors wanted: an original essay, or a dull bibliographical note on the existing scholarship. The answer turns out to be, both, and keep within the word count while you’re about it.

“Word count” became a common curse as the deadlines approached and drafts began to get written. It became clear to all of us, under the gentle tutorship of the pros, that while an encyclopedia article may be only 500 words long, it represents about 5000 words of distilled research – and every carefully chosen word stands in for ten. That’s a fatal amount of port.

Cooperation? Help? You had only to ask, and you would receive. By the end of the summer, I had received at least three original sources from Encyclopedists modtheow, N. E. Brigand, and Anchises Ghost, either by fax, messenger service, or emailed jpegs of scans (fuzzy but legible). Neither rain nor snow nor narrow band, etc.

I also was encouraged by my colleagues’ willingness to write to the authorities for help. When you need to know what Bible Tolkien owned personally, you write the world’s leading collector of Tolkien books. When you need something that can only be found at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, by God, you write the Bodleian Library. We work for Michael Drout, mister, and we don’t expect any trouble from you, hear?

It was with this spirit that I found myself in correspondence with two Tolkien scholars, Margaret Sinex and Gloriana St. Clair. Both were extremely courteous and seemed happy to help me with with copies of articles they had written that were either still in pre-publication, or long since out of print. Each got about half a sentence of text in one of my articles, and another immortal reference in a published bibliography. Dr. Sinex also got four pages of my not always acidic commentary on her draft article on Tolkien’s use of the medieval idea of the South. I haven’t heard from her since, but I know she appreciated it.

Chapter 4: Writing the damn thing

As August rolled by, I was torn by conflicting emotions.

On the one hand, I now felt like a Tolkien god. I bestrode my topics like a colossus. I was the world’s expert on The East and The South in Tolkien. Wild fantasies of an academic article, or a book, tantalized my sleep-deprived mind. Surely all the stuff that I now knew, that was not going to make it into those little 500-word entries, should see the light of day elsewhere!

On the other hand, I was all too aware that I had actually acquired pitifully few of the original books and articles on the list I compiled back in June. All I really had was what my county library system had gotten me. What was I missing? And what about all those articles? What did Drout know that I didn’t? And when did he know it?

Luckily, a careful reading of the Encyclopedia guidelines provided me some comfort about my not having references to things like Orr, Robert: “Some Slavic Echoes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth;” Germano-Slavica 8 (1994): 23–34.

Avoid works that most users would not be able to find in a research library.
Cite works that can be easily found and avoid obscure sources.

Still, sheer cussed instinct tells you: when it comes to research for an authoritative reference work, too much ain’t enough!

As the clock ticked toward September, I frantically waited for those last few books still outstanding from my last call request at the library. I begged other Encyclopedists for articles they said they could get me (have you ever read Tolkien’s article Sigelwara Land from Medium Aevum, 1931-33? Don’t bother. But thanks anyway, modtheow, you can bet it’s in my footnotes all right!). I hounded Dr. Sinex for the draft of her forthcoming article on Harad. I shook my fist in rage (metaphorically) at Jared Lobdell, when I finally got his new article with the tantalizing title "In the Far Northwest of the Old World" -- and found almost nothing of value.

One thing I felt good about: I had a hook. I’d felt from the beginning that I needed an organizing principle for my twin “compass point” articles – something theoretical, perhaps. In the set design game, we call it a “visual concept”. In the army, they call it the artillery, which “lends dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl”. Just so: my articles craved dignity.

Originally I thought I could adopt “directionality”, because Ursula LeGuin uses that term in her fine essay on LotR. Unfortunately, no one else seems to use it in the context that I wanted. Then I stumbled on “Moral Geography”. Jackpot!

Moral Geography associates moral qualities with physical places. Montaigne first proposed this as a way to study geography, famously pronouncing that the inhabitants of southern European countries are inherently lazier than their northern neighbors. I found a bunch of other stuff on the internet (that’s what the internet is really good for: faking it) that convinced me it was still a valid buzzword today. I could pull off a mention (or two! introduction and conclusion) of the term to explain why The East and The South, as they appear in Tolkien’s works, are worth talking about in today's academy. Dignity? I’ll show you dignity.

My first two pieces were due September 1, 2005. I had the knowledge, I had the research, I had the hook. In short, I had my academic mojo, yeah baby! It was time to start writing.

'Then suddenly Anchises Ghost saw it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Thought was in the squire’s face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, on the screen the words could be dimly seen as remote flickering glyphs, rolling up, drifting: meaning lay beyond them.
'But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the desk beneath the Shippey book. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its lead paragraph like a glittering thesis: and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the net a great "TORn!".
'At that sound the bent shape of the squire sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his swivel chair he typed in all caps, more bold than any there had ever seen a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Writers of Routledge!
Whole themes awake: order your clauses!
stickies shall be shuffled, sharpies be splattered,
word a day, book a day, ere the deadline arises!
Write now, Write now! Write about Tolkien!

'With that he opened a great file from Anchises Ghost his proof-reader, and he swiped such a quote from it that it burst the Clipboard™. And straightaway all the screens of the host were lit up in prose, and the writing for the tomes of Routledge in that hour was like a storm upon the colleges and a thunder in the libraries.'

(Just a little inspirational nonsense I put on the Yahoo board in late August to dispel the writer’s block that some of us were suffering from, with a week until deadline.)

I sat back down in my swivel chair and got to work. The first outlines I put together, and the rough notes to accompany them, were comprehensive, lucid, and about 10 times too long.

Not to worry. The trick was to cut away everything unnecessary, and cut absolutely every remaining thought down to one sentence each. Even more important was structure. Here’s the final outline:

Intro (include buzzword!)
Occurrence and meaning of term in Tolkien’s books
Summary of critical opinion and scholarship
Conclusion (buzzword again)

Each Tolkien book got a few lines, with LotR in the lead. Quick presentation of geographic, historical, moral, or racial issues involved. Each critical “school of thought” got a line or short paragraph. Verlyn Flieger got named in the text because her take is the best one. Polish up the conclusion, and it’s a wrap. Two hours each.

Hah! That was easy!

Not so fast. The absolutely best thing about the Yahoo Encyclopedists Group was this: you could get reviewed and criticized for the asking. I don’t know if this is what they call peer-review, but I felt peer-reviewed. It’s a huge plus. I pity the fool who doesn’t get peer-reviewed.

As soon as I posted my drafts, I got thoughtful responses from colleagues who were probably budgeting the very minutes of their lives at that point to get their own papers done on time. Most were pretty kind, with helpful suggestions for tightening up the prose and incisive questions about the birthplaces of the dwarves (in the East? Or not?).

Luckily for the future of Tolkien Studies, though, entwife wandlimb was now the world’s expert on “The Bible as it relates to Tolkien.” She commented on The East draft article on August 31, with one day to go (as always, this is highly skimmable!):

Entwife wandlimb: That looks great! The one problem I have is with the phrase, "replacing [Europe's Eden in the East] with a Hell on earth." This seems to say Tolkien replaces Eden with Hell in his cosmology, when we know many scholars and the man himself felt he tried to avoid retelling Eden at all. I think a careful reading will reveal that you mean that Tolkien is just re-placing Eden -- emphasizing a different orientation than the European tradition. But, I persist that while Mordor is certainly hellish, Hell is the Void. Satan is not the king of hell; hell is where God punishes the wicked, including Satan (Matt 25:41). Sauron is not punished in Mordor, he rules there and is destined for hell (or the void) along with his master, Morgoth. Your last sentence is very clear ("In Tolkien's moral geography the ongoing struggle with satanic Evil has an actual geographic locus, in the East.") I suggest you say something like: "Tolkien's major variation from European Christian cosmology is his disregard for an eastern Edenic paradise in favor of his invented physical seat of evil." That's not perfect, but I feel like its more precise. Or, maybe I'm just being nit-picky!

squire: Thanks for your last minute help, Wanda and Ghost!
I tried to write down the Eden problem since it caused such problems in the first draft, but it just won't go away.
One of the problems is that critics read Tolkien both from the perspective of a Catholic writer who is encoding his religion into his creation, and from the perspective of the creation itself. There are significant differences between the legendarium and Christianity when it comes to Eden, sin, and mortality, and these are as meaningful in the mythology as the "hidden" similarities. Shippey and others point out that a possible "Fall from Eden" episode lie in the past of Men when they first appear in The Silmarillion, allowing for a possible consistency with Tolkien's Christian faith. Tolkien himself elaborates on the episode in the famous Debate of Andreth and Fingon[?] in Morgoth's Ring, which he wrote out when he was beginning to freak at the possible consequences of his mythology's divergence from Christianity.
But other critics have noted that Death is a gift for Men from the beginning, not a punishment; Men are given a fear of death, not death itself, in the Fall that they suffer under Morgoth; and that the world is created originally Evil, thanks to Morgoth, so that Men as untainted Children of Iluvatar are not of the world the way the innocent Adam was.
In general, the "Men" in Tolkien are not exactly "Mankind" as we regard ourselves, due to their imaginary existence as just one of many intelligent races, and of lesser grace than the Elder Children, the Elves. The entire theology is really Elf-oriented, not Man- oriented; but I feel that as Tolkien wrote for his own satisfaction Man became more and more important.
Meanwhile, back at the real ranch, the Elves' world, I think it is very arguable that they flee to an artificial Eden from their creation in Hell, i.e., in the corrupted original Eden which is Cuivenen in the East. That place by the water, though protected by Eru to some degree, is surrounded by a world corrupted by Morgoth's taint. Valinor is their created Eden, and Feanor's corruption by Morgoth and his fall and departure back to earth (back East) is Tolkien's reworking of the Fall myth into Elven terms; and I think that is more important to The Silmarillion than the obscure tale of Men's origins.
This has gotten me in trouble for lack of space to talk about all this. Technically, the "Hell on Earth" can be considered all of Arda as "Morgoth's Ring" in comparison to Iluvatar's universe as Heaven. Or else Valinor is Heaven, and the rest of Middle-earth (it's all "East" of Valinor, after all) is Hell in that Morgoth dwells there, and rules it all except the rebel Elvish kingdoms, in the First Age. This is what Lobdell means in my article where he argues that the three-tiered Medieval "heaven above - earth in middle - hell below" structure is replaced by all three cosmogonic levels existing on the surface of earth itself, in a west-center-east arrangement.
Of course, by the more geographically realistic time of LotR, Heaven has been removed from the world - and so has Morgoth. Sauron's realm in Mordor is not literally Hell in a Christian sense, but neither was Thangorodrim, as Morgoth had no damned souls to rule over. Tolkien remains silent to the end as to the fate of Men who deny Eru's existence, i.e., sinners, but there is certainly no mention of any kind of place of eternal damnation such as Hell for Men (this goes back to my point about Death being a gift. In Tolkien's universe, it really is, if you think about it in this way).
The upshot is, I refer to the East on Middle-earth as "a Hell", not "Hell" -- but I think I will edit it to "a metaphorical Hell" thanks to your comments, in hope that will make the difference clearer.
I really appreciate all the comments and help I've gotten on this project from everyone on this site!

Anchises Ghost: The most debated single word edit ever?
I think my only real word of advice would be to remember that Tolkien himself did not rationalise his cosmology effectively, and that all this mess and conflict was a representation of Tolkien's own uncertain attitude towards what he'd made.
My personal position, after some reading of Morgoth's Ring etc., is that Tolkien initially wrote a romantic legendarium founded on entirely un-Christian sources and interests (Kalevala?, Nibelunglied, the Classics) and semi-Christian but basically pagan stories (Beowulf, the Sagas) - and only after writing the LOTR, which ended up (though was not intended as) a realistic Christian story did he seek to retro-fit the whole legendarium into a scientific and Christian system.
In short, I think Tolkien began creatively and enjoyed the freedom of myth, and then later came back to the idea of trying to fit what was essentially invention into some sort of 'real-world' religious and theological system. As CT concludes, I think he was screwed from the start.
So frankly my advice would be to hint at Edenic ideas or whatever, but then remind the reader that Tolkien's mythology was never fully Christianized and that attempts to rationalise it too deeply as such will probably come unstuck.

I'm telling you, if that ain't peer review, I don't want whatever peer review is, I like this better. Notice that the entire thing resulted in me adding one adjective to my article.

It was a wrap. By the time my stuff had been through the wringer with the Reading Room Encyclopedists, it was ready for prime time! When I submitted my articles, I proudly added after my name, "an independent Tolkien scholar, affiliated with’s Reading Room online forum"

As you know, we can't show you our actual articles due to copyright and exclusivity agreements (teaser: look at the background to this page. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). But I think the real story of the Reading Room contribution to the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia is the human story I have tried to tell here. We tested ourselves and our love of studying Tolkien against a professional academic standard far more rigorous than our free-wheeling internet discussion board, and we succeeded. In doing so, we brought honor to that board and our friends there as well as to ourselves.

Professor Drout wrote to our fearless leader N. E. Brigand in January 2006:

I've been very, very happy with everything that I have received from The One Ring Reading Room people.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

Richard Nokes in Unlocked Word Hoard proposes that scholarship and fandom are just two ends of one spectrum of literary appreciation. His formula for scholarship when put into terms of fan appreciation goes like so:

1. -- Wow, that was cool.
2. -- Gee, I wonder what made it so cool?
3. -- Hmm, now that I think about it, I know what made it cool.
4. -- But how does that coolness work?
5. -- Ah, some guy has a theory for why things are cool. When I apply it here, you can REALLY see how cool it is.
6. -- Maybe I should write this down so other people can see how cool this is and enjoy it more.

His clever breakdown of the critical appreciation process highlights, for me, the difference between what he calls "serious study" and "serious professional study".

I see a big divergence between step 3 and step 4. When I (a non-professional) take the time to analyze my appreciation of (say) Tolkien, I focus on the "now that I think about it" part. That is, I try to apply my decades-old undergraduate education:

I go back and read the text closely for clues in the vocabulary, sentence structure, and prose style. I try to find interesting ("cool!") connections with other parts of the same text, other texts by the same author, and with other authors that gave me something of that same "cool!" feeling. If I'm getting ambitious, I'll go past reaching into my memory for all this, and do some reading. I might even read or re-read a critical essay by a professional that I have found to be understandable in past encounters, to see what he or she thinks. With Tolkien and a few other subjects, I can even proceed to step 6, and post my thoughts in a more or less amusing essay form on any of several internet discussion boards that I've discovered, where some folks may provide me with some feedback, appreciation, and criticism. It doesn't get more gratifying than that.

Is this "serious" study? You tell me. What I don't do, as I see it, is dig deeper into "how does that coolness work?" I usually feel, if I got as far as I've described above, that I've gotten as far as I'm going to get on how that coolness worked. Is it enough for me? Yes, in that I've had some intellectual exercise, I usually have some kind of new insight at the end that I didn't have before, and I can reflect with satisfaction once more on the lifelong value of a liberal arts education. Then I have to get back to my life, my family, my day job, and my need for sleep.

The professional, on the other hand, evidently doesn't stop with "now that I think about it". The impressive conclusion "I know what made it cool" is not nearly enough. He proceeds to step 4: he begins to investigate his own recent investigation. Looking around for, finding, and applying "some guy's theory" allows him to, as Nokes puts it, REALLY see how cool it is. And then, as he says, one proceeds to step 6 "in an organized setting", i.e., one writes it down in the approved and formal manner that is appropriate for professional publication. In the end, it still doesn't get more gratifying than that, I'd guess.

Nokes and Drout have both fairly recently blogged on the value of "theory" in conducting literary research, while debating to what degree theory separates or even alienates the "lay" community from the academic literati. This seems another example of the same phenomenon. It's exactly Nokes' inclusion of theory in his schema that seems to separate "scholarship" from "fan appreciation".

Do I wish I could do the theory part? Not really -- it isn't so much that it seems "hard" (though it does: "the text transgresses the generic norms to such a degree as to form a new genre" has got to be a joke. Right, Prof. Nokes? Right??) as that it requires far more abstract study and work than I will ever have time for in my life today; and I harbor a nagging doubt that the reward would be worth the effort in terms of just how cool I find the literature that I enjoy (or my other subjects of study, by the way, like history or science) to be. But there: how will I ever know?

[Oh, and by the way. At the risk of sounding like a oversensitive geek, I fear that "Fanboy" is not really being used correctly by our esteemed academic bloggers as they delicately wade into the TORn-y thickets of Tolkien fandom. Fangirls, as I understand the term, are kind of the Beatlemaniacs of the Lord of the Rings movie fan base. Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, and Sean Bean live in fear of them, and I risk a certain amount of opprobrium by omitting here some of the other variously adored male members of the cast. Thus Fanboys, if there is such a thing, presumably swoon at the thought of meeting, write poetry to, post luscious pictures of, and generally obsess about Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, and possibly Cate Blanchett (there are also of course those Fanboys who are as one with their female compatriots in lusting after Elijah, et. al.)
Expressed with all the good will in the world, comments like Nokes' "So, fear not, One Ringers ... we're all Fanboys here" and Drout's "I am, obviously, a huge fanboy" tend to give me the nervous giggles. Both gentlemen are obviously, and wonderfully, simply, like so many others of us, just Fans.]

Friday, September 30, 2005


Tolkien fans: on the edge of lit crit

A reply to Scott Nokes' comments on The One's discussion of his and Michael Drout's blogs on the state of literary academia:

"They seem to feel as if they have little right to talk about the literature they love," you conclude.

I don't think that captures the spririt of the discussions by the fans and "amateurs" at The One Ring. Remember that on that site, at least, the topic is solely the literature of Tolkien, and just try and tell a Tolkien fan he or she has no right to talk about it! Endlessly.
Furthermore, (almost) no serious academic writing on Tolkien that I've read is particularly obscure or difficult on theoretical grounds - perhaps this is not a coincidence, if Prof. Drout's Tolkienian polemics against impenetrable critical prose are typical of his field.

But if, as Drout and others repeatedly and direly assure us, Tolkien studies is a kind of straight-talking ghetto in the City of Letters, it seems we serious Tolkien fans are shut out of the conversation in any case, on some kind of mock-sociological, or more properly, ideological grounds.

The question Drout is addressing, it seems to me, and the question N.E. Brigand raised for general discussion at The One Ring, was, how does the apparent impenetrability of modern-day theory affect the readers of more mainstream English fiction? His question led off with "OT", that is, "Off Topic": it was not meant to be a purely Tolkien-oriented post. Of course, knowing his audience, he linked Tolkien to the question by asking how the Fan/Scholar relationship in Tolkien studies (a topic on which Brigand is our resident expert) correlated with the General Readership/Academy relationship in contemporary English literature.

Brigand appealed to the academics among the One Ring membership to comment on Drout's droll comments on the decline and fall of sheer cussed brilliance (like Tolkien's and Mayr's) in academe, and your replies on the pros and cons of professionalism run rampant. When last I checked, our resident academics had not weighed in, and he was still getting non-academic, and so fairly Tolkien-oriented, responses.

I think you may be right that many of the responses so far seem to reject "theory", or cling to an illusion that Drout (as an instance of a professor whose criticism is highly legible) is therefore "anti-theory", just because the theory seems so often to substitute for clear writing rather than provide a base for it.

But lit theory doesn't really enter my life (outside of my hobbyist's interest in Tolkien studies). I'm hard pressed to find time to read literary fiction, much less the criticism on it.

This immense body of critical insight, this massive deployment of all the most modern ideas about reading and understanding: who does it reach? who does it benefit? I imagine it is meant primarily for the undergraduates to march off with into a future of enlightened reading -- and, perhaps only through the mass media book reviews, for a more general, but still highly-educated, adult audience. Is that enough? Even if theory is wielded to illuminate fiction, not obscure it, as you hope, how far is that light reaching?

Thursday, August 18, 2005



I registered to start this blog so I could comment on another blog on this site. Quite a way to build a blogatele.

I'm not sure what I have to say to an unknown audience, but if I think of something, I'll be back.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?