Thursday, January 16, 2020

Christopher Tolkien, 1924-2020

Here is what I wrote about Christopher Tolkien when he was Guest of Honor at Mythcon 18 in 1987. It's vastly out of date for all the remarkable work he's done since, but it's work of the same kind, and this will serve as an introduction.

The words "edited by Christopher Tolkien" appear on the title pages of most of the many works by J.R.R. Tolkien that have been published since that author's death. For many readers, Christopher Tolkien is a dimly perceived figure residing far inside his father's shadow. But as he is to be the scholar Guest of Honor at Mythcon XVIII this summer, it's time to bring out his scholarly achievement as editor of his father's works, and to pay tribute to it.

Christopher Tolkien was born in Leeds, England, in 1924. As a child he was privileged to hear the works that later became The Hobbit and The Silmarillion; in an interview, he once said that "among my earliest literary recollections are my father telling me stories from The Silmarillion." After service in the Royal Air Force during World War II (while overseas he received newly-composed parts of The Lord of the Rings as a sort of aerogram serial), Mr. Tolkien completed his undergraduate degree in English at Trinity College, Oxford; C.S. Lewis was among his tutors. While there, he began to attend meetings of the Inklings, at first in his father's company, but soon as a separate member in his own right. He took over from his father the practice of reading aloud the new sections of The Lord of the Rings, as the Inklings agreed that the younger Tolkien had a superior reading voice. (Mr. Tolkien's reading voice can be heard in two excerpts from The Silmarillion issued by Caedmon as LPs in the late 1970s.)

After earning his bachelor's degree, Mr. Tolkien took a fellowship as a lecturer in English at New College, Oxford, and taught there for over twenty years. (His position would be called a professorship at an American university, but the title is not used so extensively in England.) The major scholarly work of this period of his career was a translation of a medieval Icelandic tale, The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. He also prepared, in collaboration with fellow-Inkling Nevill Coghill, editions of three of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: The Pardoner's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale, and The Man of Law's Tale.

In 1973 Christopher Tolkien became his father's literary executor upon the latter's death. To him fell the daunting task of editing all the unpublished papers that his father had left. This was not a labor that could be undertaken lightly; Mr. Tolkien eventually resigned his fellowship and moved, with his family, into isolation in rural France in order to devote full time to this work.

To the position of his father's literary executor Mr. Tolkien brought many signal skills: a knowledge of old English and other Germanic linguistics; training in text editing; considerable familiarity with the material; and, above all, an understanding of and sympathy with his father's aesthetic interests and creative imagination. Combining this with editorial restraint and taste of an uncommon order, and a meticulous skill at piecing together the patterns and significances in manuscripts that are often very complex and difficult to follow, Mr. Tolkien has prepared for publication a series of nine books (to date) of increasing assuredness and artistry in editing. (Each has been published by Allen and Unwin (now Unwin Hyman) in Britain and Houghton Mifflin in the U.S.)

The first fruit of this labor was the simplest: J.R.R. Tolkien's translations of three Middle English poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, in 1975 (now out of print). These translations had been complete for many years, and the editorial labor consisted of compiling commentaries from the relevant papers.

Two years later, in 1977, followed that long-awaited work, The Silmarillion (HM trade pb, $7.95; Ballantine pb, $3.95). In editing this complex and diverse work, Mr. Tolkien set himself the task of preparing a single coherent and (as nearly as possible) consistent text, without editorial commentary, out of writings by his father dating over a long period, many with inconsistencies and stylistic differences. This editorial goal was achieved masterfully, bridging the seams in the tale with commendable skill. In this work, Mr. Tolkien had the editorial assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay, now better-known as the author of The Fionavar Tapestry.

The Silmarillion as published succeeded at the purpose it was intended to achieve - presenting a single narrative which could be read and enjoyed by people uninterested in the textual history - but it gave a one-dimensional view of the nature of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings on the First Age, and left the reader ignorant of the wealth of literary invention and discovery that went into them. For this and other reasons (notably to correct the mistaken impression that the editorial labor on The Silmarillion had involved substantial original composition, and because of the fragmentary nature of many of the remaining J.R.R. Tolkien manuscripts), Christopher Tolkien has taken a different editorial approach in subsequent books of his father's writings. Rather than polishing over textual problems as a literary editor would, he has brought them out to the forefront as a textual editor would. Ironically, though textual editing involves less emendation of manuscript, it yet requires a greater editorial presence, as the editorial explanation of a particularly complex piece of text can begin at times to take more words than are in the text itself. Over the course of Mr. Tolkien's editions, the reader can sense the editor becoming more confident with his material, and making bolder and more imaginative decisions as to its treatment and presentation.

Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (out of print), published in 1979, was a collection of paintings and drawings with copious notes by Christopher Tolkien. Most of the contents had appeared over the previous few years in a series of Tolkien calendars published by Allen and Unwin. Unfinished Tales (HM hc, $15; trade pb, $8.95), a collection of Middle-earth miscellanea, followed in 1980. Most of its contents bear in common only the state of never having been brought to completion by their author, though the beginnings of some were revised and polished to a high degree. It is the first posthumous Tolkien book in which the editorial apparatus is essential to the reader's understanding of the material.

Christopher Tolkien assisted his father's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, in preparing a collection of Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1981 (out of print, but still available remaindered), and then made a selection of his father's nontechnical scholarly essays, published in 1983 as The Monsters and the Critics. This required minimal editing inasmuch as all but two of the essays had previously been published in journals and books. Mr. Tolkien then embarked upon his major work as editor of his father's papers, "The History of Middle-earth."

This multi-volume work (four volumes published to date) is, simply put, an attempt to study the Silmarillion from a historical perspective, going through all the manuscripts roughly in the order that they were written. As the Silmarillion, in any form, is not a simple work, and many changes were made to the story over the sixty years of its gestation, merely reading this material is an awesome enough task, comparable to juggling several balls while negotiating a complex maze. The role of the editor of such manuscripts is to guide the reader gently through the maze, displaying all the wonders of the landscape while ensuring that you also keep your eye on the balls. Christopher Tolkien has accomplished this with remarkable patience and care. The volumes of "The History of Middle-earth" (The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1, HM hc, $15.95, trade pb, $8.95; The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2, HM hc, $16.95; The Lays of Beleriand, MN hc, $16.95; The Shaping of Middle-earth, HM hc, $16.95; a fifth volume, The Lost Road, is due out later this year) are among the most elaborately and carefully annotated books ever devoted to the posthumous papers of a great writer.

For this, and for all his other editing work, the Mythopoeic Society honors Christopher Tolkien and welcomes him to Mythcon XVIII.

Oscar the grouch

I haven't seen a single movie on this year's nomination list. Not one. I wouldn't be surprised if I haven't seen any eligible ones that aren't on the nomination list either.

Actually, there's a couple I'd like to see, and have intended to but not gotten around to it (Little Women, Jojo Rabbit), as well as a couple I wouldn't see on a bet (Joker, anything with Star Wars in it).

But in general, I'm not Movie Guy, and am getting even less so all the time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

47, life, the universe, and everything

The latest meme is some economist's claim that people in the developed world are most miserable at age 47.

Not me. The year I was 47 was a good year for me. It's the year I completed my bucket-list goal of visiting all 50 U.S. states before the age of 50. The small-ship cruise that B. and I took through the southeastern waterways of Alaska, my 50th, is one of the two golden vacations that we shared when we were both still young and limber enough to do it. The other was our trip to Italy two years prior.

It's also the year I started my blog, and - not coincidentally - the year I discovered my second career as a concert reviewer. For it was a concert review I'd written for this blog that I submitted to SFCV, and they published it and paid me and began asking me to cover other concerts.

In general, I had no reason for a mid-life crisis because I was content with the way I was living, and I had things I wanted to do and was on the way to do them. I think life crises of this sort arise from not wanting to be at the stage of life you're at, and for me mid-life was the ideal stage.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

inanimate loss

Passengers in my little Honda Fit have sometimes wondered what it would be like in a major accident. Well, now I know.

At 8 AM this morning, as I was heading out on errands, I was gently pulling to a stop behind another car at a traffic light, when suddenly I was slammed into from behind by a third car, containing a woman ferrying her son to school. This pushed my car heavily into the car in front. I heard both major bangs, and felt myself being heavily jostled back and forth. I didn't immediately notice that the air bag had deployed, but I did feel the front compartment of the car partially collapse. Fortunately not so much that I couldn't unbuckle and get out. The rear also collapsed.

Both my car and the one behind were total wastage, and got towed off to the knacker's. I phoned the police, who came and took a report.

Nobody seemed seriously injured. I gathered my stuff and walked the two miles home. Right then that seemed preferable to even getting into a car, let alone driving one. Over the day I began feeling sorer, especially around the neck and jaw, and eating is a little dicey. B. heated me soup with very small bits in it for dinner. After contacting B. and calling the insurance company, I made an appointment with my doctor to be checked out, though I'm going to wait a couple days to do it, both to see how I'm doing and to hope I'm feeling ready to get back in a car again. That's Thursday, which is also the beginning of a set of work (reviewing) assignments I have to drive to.

I may be subsisting on rental cars for a little while. I don't have the heart to buy another one. I had this car for less than eleven months.

secrets of Seattle

Two small improvements introduced in the last few years on life in Seattle have come to my attention, but few other people's. I took advantage of them on my just-concluded trip.

1. Commercial air flights to Paine Field. Paine Field has long served as the runways for the big Boeing plant in Everett, and I think it also handles general aviation. Just a couple years ago a small commercial terminal was opened, and now Alaska Air runs an active service there, including two flights daily from San Jose. (United also runs a few flights.) Hardly anyone knows about this; my flight in was only about 1/4 full. I only discovered it by accident while browsing booking sites for flights. But it's so convenient to the north side of Seattle, which is where I'm usually going: no further than SeaTac, less difficult a drive, and as a tiny airport it's far easier to handle. There's just 2 or 3 gates and one baggage claim.

When I got home, by the way, I was accosted at the gate by anxious passengers of the return flight to Everett. They wanted to know how bad the snow was. I'd awoken on Monday morning to find everything gone white. (Many of the morning flights had been canceled in terrified anticipation.) But the roads were quickly cleared by plows and/or the heat of traffic, and despite a few subsequent flurries and a brief hailstorm, everything was fine. Air temperature was at freezing all day, but even in a light jacket I found that no bother at all.

2. Rachel's Ginger Beer. My trips to Seattle always include a few regular foodie stops at Pike Place Market. The highlight is Pike Place Chowder, which has the best soups of the kind you've ever had. (My favorite is the seafood bisque, but they're all good.) The problem with Pike Place Chowder is the shop is tiny, and it's fantastically popular, so getting a seat is difficult, and when you do you're bumping elbows with everybody else.

That's where Rachel's Ginger Beer comes in. It's a newish tenant a couple doors down at the end of the same building, and serves an exotic variety of ginger beer flavors on tap. (I had spicy pineapple, how about that.) And it's roomy: lots of seating and no crowds. So take your cup of chowder, which is served adequately sealed, and a compostable spoon from the counter, walk to Rachel's and buy a glass of ginger beer as the drink for your meal, and dine in peace. I saw I wasn't the only person doing that.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

memorial for Andi Shechter

I heard this was being planned: an e-mail was sent me, and then I saw it announced more widely. I decided I had to be there if I possibly could. And that's what I'm doing in Seattle.

The memorial was held in the meeting room of a distant and isolated branch of the Seattle public library. I guess it's what they could get. It was a small room, holding about 50 people, which is what showed up. I knew at least forty of them, though some I had not seen in decades.

There was gathering and talking, there was munching of food, there was browsing through some of Andi's books and other possessions which had been brought for those who wished to have something to honor her memory with (so now I'm reading a book on the history of the concept of nonviolence).

Many spoke also, of whom one I did not know was Andi's long-time massage therapist. She pointed to the basket of Andi's progressive political message buttons and said, "Andi's here, in that button basket."

But Andi was also many things. Tom W. said, "Trying to encompass all that Andi was is something only Andi could do." And Andy H. warned not to make assumptions from seeing Andi arguing with friends. If she argued with you, he said, that meant she found you worth arguing with. It's if she wouldn't argue with you that you were in trouble.

For my part, I repeated much of what I'd said in my original memorial post. I specifically singled out dancing with Andi, as Kate S. had just shared a memory of the same (different kind of dancing). My memories reached back: I was one of the few there (we counted hands) who knew her when she was married to her first husband: heck, he even introduced me to her. But that others entered Andi's life more recently shows a virtue on her part, that she continued to add friends throughout her life.

I was pleased to see so many of them there. The gathering was warm if the occasion was sad.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

concert review: Seattle Symphony

(Anybody still reading this: Seattle? Whut?)

The young, small, and bouncy Maxim Emelyanychev conducted two warhorses and a premiere in the pleasant precincts of Benaroya Hall.

The premiere was the suite from an opera Figaro Gets a Divorce by Elena Langer. No, it's not pastiche of Mozart (or Rossini), but it has some of the same verve and color, as well as a clarity of utterance not often heard in new music. Interesting stuff.

Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony came out raucous, like the Italian street music Michael Nyman used to write. Could those outrageous blares from the trumpets and horns be intentional? Had to be, since they kept recurring whenever the passage came back. (Emelyanychev took the first movement repeat, which hardly anyone ever does.) And he kept jabbing to produce emphatic sforzandos in the padding march of the Andante, as well.

Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was somewhat more restrained orchestrally, as is appropriate for, even in the fast music, it's a gentle and elegant work. The oddities came from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the keyboard. His sound was strangely unresonant and boxy, and he kept seeming to trip over himself all over his runs. Some nice stuff, though, in the "music box" second theme, and the transition to the finale.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

book review

On Division by Goldie Goldbloom (Farrar Straus Giroux)

So the regional Jewish community has one of those annual programs whereby they encourage everybody to read the same book so that they can talk about it. This novel is this year's book, and my library committee was asked specifically to read it so that we can brainstorm a program idea around it.

The brainstorming session is yet to come, but the reactions, to the book as a novel, from three of us who've read it is so negative that a fourth person decided not to bother reading it. This is, in fact, just the kind of novel that made me so detest mainstream literature when I was in school. A blurb compares it to Mrs. Bridge, which was one of the books I read in school which I found so horrible, and yes it's pretty much like that: author wants to depict a character who finds her life devoid of meaning, and does so by example, by penning a novel devoid of meaning.

"Division" is, I gathered and eventually confirmed from a map, a street in Williamsburg, Queens, the district of NYC where the Chasidim flock. It's hardly mentioned in the book. The central and (almost) only viewpoint character is Surie, a Chasidic grandmother. She's 57, she's been married for 40 years, she's had 10 children and uncounted grandchildren, but her youngest child is now 13, so she's perplexed to find herself pregnant again. With twins. She spends almost the whole book pregnant, and not telling her husband, and her husband not noticing (apparently she's fat, as well as always draped in heavy garments, but really?), and her midwife urging her to tell her husband, and her wondering why she doesn't: she finds him a good man, kind to her, and they've always been close. It just goes on and on and on like that. The book starts out depicting the community, but as it increasingly centers on Surie's personal situation it becomes increasingly solipsistic and feverish.

Eventually Surie decides to tell her husband at the incredibly inappropriate moment that he's sitting shiva for his mother, but he's not wearing his hearing aid so he doesn't hear a word she's saying. Then at the end the babies are born - stillborn, though by this point the viewpoint is so hallucinatory I can't ignore hints that she might have killed them because she can't undertake mothering infants at her age. Then her husband finds out she'd been pregnant, and he asks, "Why didn't you trust me?" And she says, "I can't understand myself."

Yeah, well, neither can I, and neither, I suspect, can the author. Problems descend on Surie throughout the book, some of her own making, but overall they give the impression there's a giant thumb pressing down on her. But it's not God's, as the Chasidim might believe. It's the author's.

The Chasidic community is depicted less as embracing, which is its intent, than as suffocating and isolating. This is weird from an author who's a Chasid herself. And it becomes less and less real or believable as it goes on. I was astonished that, in a community of observant Jews, the spectacle of an unexpectedly pregnant 57-year-old fails to generate even one reference to the matriarch Sarah until Surie goes into labor, and even then it's only passing. That increases the impression that the story is solipsistic and not about the Jewish community at all.

This book is farkakt.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

the violins of hope are coming

A couple months ago I reported here on a press lunch I attended for the impending Violins of Hope residency. Now I've published a preview article all about it for the Daily Journal, which will tell you what it is that I'm talking about.

I compiled this article basically by boiling down the residency's extensive calendar, looking for the important items and those taking place in the immediate San Mateo area, where the DJ's readership is located. But there's nothing in the calendar to say specifically, for instance, that the Jan. 16 concert is the central event or that it's being repeated twice in other places. You have to read through all 50 or so listings and pick them out, so I did that.

Attempting to describe the meaningfulness of having the violins play would be a challenge for me. I consider ascribing significance to hearing a particular violin just because it went through the Holocaust to be something of a stunt. So I just picked out an appropriate quote from the press release and used that. I'm going to be reviewing some of these concerts and my only interest in the specific violins will be in how they sound.

On the other hand, I was gut-struck by one of the photographs in the museum exhibit, where the luthier who's collecting the violins opened one of them up for repair to discover that a previous 1930s German repair-jobber had scribbled Nazi graffiti on the inside of the violin, leaving his spoor where the Jewish owner wouldn't notice it was there. That's significant, and disturbing.

Friday, January 3, 2020

a toast to the professor

Because it's Tolkien's birthday, obviously. What isn't obvious is that I'm going to deal with some leftover New Year's stuff, rapidly going stale in the fridge. (And that metaphor actually reminds me that there's something I intended to throw out from there but forgot.)

At the New Year's Eve party, I found at least two other people besides myself who were there without spouses who were home sick. (B. is rapidly improving now, thanks.) For the food table, I made a dish which proved to be of a unique kind among the offerings, a fruit salad. I had to label it to make sure folks got the current-events pun:
What kind of salad am I?
I'm Peach-Mint
Yes, that's a real thing and I found a recipe online. Other ingredients, mozzarella cheese, lemon juice, a little honey.

It's still such a novelty to return to the era in which more works entered the public domain every Jan. 1, an event that once passed completely without remark, that people are making lists. This year the works are those of 1924. Here's some of the good work entering the public domain, and, for something different, here's a list of the crap.

The last item on the list of crap, a movie titled Sandra, rang a bell. I checked and sure enough, it makes an appearance in the children's fantasy Half Magic by Edward Eager, as the movie the book's four children go to see in the chapter where Martha, the youngest, uses the magic charm to become half-invisible. The movie doesn't get a good review here either:
When they came into the theater Barbara LaMarr in Sandra had already reached its middle, and the children couldn't figure out exactly what was happening. But then neither could the rest of the audience. ... The four children did not grasp any of it, but Barbara LaMarr had lots of hair and great big eyes, and when strong men wanted to kiss her and she pushed them away and made suffering faces at the audience with her eyebrows, Jane and Katharine thought it was thrilling, and probably quite like the way life was, when you were grown-up. ... Martha hated it.
I put this in the article's comments section and got some tickled responses from other old-time Eager fans.