This website contains archives of the Tolkien Discussion Group from 2009 to early 2013.

The discussion group continues to meet
in Second Life in Alqualonde the Swanhaven. Contact AelKennyr Rhiano in Second Life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

10th Annual Tolkien Conference at UVM - Lectures

« Photos « 

April 5-7, 2013
University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 

Once again, Lihan reports on her favorite geeky weekend.
I do not have all the speakers' names recorded. 

This year, the conference was canceled when the university cut off its funding.  Then, at the last minute, the conference was re-formed, without funding and without a keynote speaker.

This year's theme was Hobbits.

Friday night 

we had Open Mic Fireside Reading, complete with a video of a burning fire.  Everyone read favorite Tolkien passages out loud.

Then we watched “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey.”

Saturday Lectures

Hobbit Society – Martha Monsonn

Tolkien modeled some aspects of hobbit society on the Warwickshire villagers of England of the late 19th century.  The foods mentioned in The Hobbit were all common in that time, though most were invented earlier.  But we should remember that not all aspects of hobbit society are identical to 19th century England.

In The Treason of Isengard, Christopher Tolkien describes a “typical hobbit of the Shire” – the prototype of Peregrin Took and Fredegar Bolger -- as “cheerful, nonchalant, irrepressible, commonsensical, limited, extremely fond of creature comforts.”

The Prologue to Lord of the Rings tells us “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs.”  This is similar to early Germanic culture.

We know that the Shire had a money economy, since coins are mentioned several times.  We do not know whether those coins were minted by hobbits, or whether they came in trade from other parts of Middle-Earth.

Since Dwarves prefer buying, rather than growing, their food supplies, it is easy to imagine major trade between the Shire and Dwarves, especially the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains.

Hobbit families are “patrilineal.”  That is, family names are passed down in the male line.  However, hobbit women exercise nearly equal authority to hobbit men, within a family.  The role of head-of-family typically passed from the eldest male to his wife, and then to their oldest son.  In some cases, a daughter, or a daughter's husband inherited the role of head-of-family.

We have descriptions of hobbit birthday parties.  We know almost nothing about hobbit weddings – though surely a hobbit wedding must include a large party.  Apparently, hobbits have no organized religion.

Anachronism in Farmer Giles of Ham

One of the aspects of The Hobbit which the Tolkien children least liked was “chummy” tone of some of the passages.  In “Farmer Giles of Ham,” Tolkien had the opportunity to write a lighthearted story, without talking down to his audience

“Farmer Giles of Ham” is one of Tolkien's few fantasy stories which is not set in the “Middle-Earth” universe.  The humans in Farmer Giles in many ways resemble hobbits.

The story is a carefully crafted mash-up of eras and genres, and full of inside jokes.  It starts by treating Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, a notoriously inaccurate document, as if it were serious history.  Knights from French courtly romances of the 12th century and firearms from the 17th century coexist with 3rd century kings.  The wimpy dragon, the inadvertent hero who tames –  rather than kills – the dragon, and the bumbling – rather than scary – giant could not have appeared earlier than the 19th century “literary” fairy tales, which sometimes poked fun of their genre.

Tolkien knew history, including linguistic and literary history, very well, and would not have done this accidentally.

Farmer Giles uses a blunderbuss.  The first firearms in Europe appeared in the 14th century; blunderbusses in the 17th century.  The name “blunderbuss” comes from the Dutch, “donderbus,” meaning “thunder gun.”  There was a small version of a blunderbuss appropriately called a “dragon.”  The definition given by “the four wise clerks of Oxenford” is in fact a direct quote from the modern Oxford English Dictionary.

"A blunderbuss is a short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded in civilized countries by other firearms.)"

Tolkien himself wrote a few definitions for the Oxford English Dictionary, and knew the editors – the “four wise clerks.”

On another level, Tolkien knew that anachronisms were themselves “historical” -- that genuine old folk tales often acquired anachronisms as they were passed on from century to century.  Sir Gawain, a 5th century knight of King Arthur, goes off to the Holy Land to fight the Saracens.  Christian priests wander in the Mabinogion  lands of the Welsh gods and goddesses.

Syzygy:  Being an Alignment of Astronomical Bodies – Kristine Larson

In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses the phases of the moon to mark the time of the protagonists' journey, and to compare the dates of events taking place in different locations.  Tolkien worked out those moon phases carefully and accurately, based on an actually calendar (for the year 1942, leaving out a lunar eclipse of that year, and making adjustments for the dates in the Middle-Earth calendar).

There is some element of plausibility to “moon letters” as described in The Hobbit – writing which can only be read by the light of a certain phase of the moon.  The polarization of moonlight varies, depending on the phase of the moon.

The moon phases in The Hobbit are not so accurate.  In the first edition, the moon's phase when the Dwarves meet the trolls doesn't fit with the moon's phase when Elrond reads the moon runes.  Also, Bard sees the moon rising in the east, only two days after Durin's Day (when the rising moon would still be hidden by the rising sun).  Tolkien's attempts to revise the chronology only made matters worse.  He was, at the time, using 28 days as the length of the lunar cycle.

In The Hobbit, the Dwarvish New Year starts on “the first day of the last moon of Autumn.”  This day is called “Durin's Day” if the moon and sun are seen together, that is, if the tiny crescent of a new moon no more that 24 hours old is observed.  {The lecture included a description of “solar,” “lunar,” and “soli-lunar” calendar systems, which I won't repeat here.  Modern people remain interested in observing the first crescent of a new moon because each month in the Islamic begins at the observed (rather than merely calculated) appearing of the new moon.}  The current record for youngest new moon seen with the unaided human eye is 15.4 hours old.  In order for the Dwarves to observe the new moon of Durin's Day, they would need an unobstructed view of the western horizon, with clear air.  The distant Misty Mountains might have, in fact, been in the way.

Are Dwarves Not Heroes?

The speaker discussed, very rapidly, a number of journals and reports summarizing Tolkien research.

Another main point of this lecture was that any “fact” about Tolkien's opinions or thought process needs to be considered in its context.  For example, Tolkien's scorn for Shakespeare is often quoted; however, his comments were taken from a debate, in which he was assigned to defend the anti-Shakespeare position.  Likewise, Tolkien's comment that there is no relation between the One Ring and Wagner's Ring – beyond “both rings were round” – was written in response to one ill-informed reviewer.

The paper takes its title from the question of whether Tolkien's Dwarves reflect an anti-Semitic attitude.  Tolkien describes the Dwarvish language as having elements borrowed from Semitic language family (Hebrew, Arabic,and related languages).  The Dwarves have also suffered a diaspora, maintain their own secret language, and, um, have notable beards – which may be taken as resemblances to Jews, or perhaps to popular stereotypes of Jews.  So, when the narrator in The Hobbit says,

“There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”

is that a subtly anti-Semitic comment?  On the other hand, both Thorin Oakenshield, and Dáin (who killed the father of Bolg) are portrayed as heroic.  And Tolkien, snubbing a German publishing house, spoke of Jews as “that noble race.”  So the case for antisemitism is not strong.  In all cases, it is important to keep track of when, and in what context, Tolkien made various comments.

Physicality in The Hobbit

The speaker makes a distinction between “high,” formal language, which lends itself to describing noble, dignified behavior, as opposed to “low,” coarse, earthy language, which lends itself to describing undignified or comedic behavior.  “High” language typically uses simile; “low” language typically uses physical description.

Tolkien uses both forms in The Hobbit.  The trolls are described:  

“they were fighting like dogs, and calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names in very loud voices. Soon they were locked in one another’s arms, and rolling nearly into the fire kicking and thumping, while Tom whacked at them both with a branch to bring them to their senses —”

In constrast, Elrond's description take the form:

“He was as noble and as fair in face as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer.”

The last 6 chapters of The Hobbit (from 14 on, starting with the destruction of Lake Town) Tolkien admits were more strongly influenced by the Silmarillion, which he was writing at the same time.  From the meeting with Elrond, and especially in the last 6 chapters, the “high” style predominates, there is less coarse comedy, and less physical description.  However, we do still see Bard emerging from the lake with his hair dripping, and Bilbo suffering a head-cold in Laketown.


Springlering Hobbit Festival

No comments:

Post a Comment