Saturday, June 3, 2017

Moria with the lights turned on

So the maze of twisty little passages that I've been holed up in for the last two days is the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, a vast expanse of meeting rooms (at least 50 on each of several floors of each of several buildings) that look as if they've been xeroxed from each other, appropriately so as rumor has it that this used to be a Xerox corporate training center, and what you were mostly being trained in was how to find your way around. The title of this post is a description one attendee has of the place.

And the conference that's occupying some four of the rooms in one corner of the building (but with the sleeping rooms over here and the dining hall over there, so walking is necessary) is MythMoot IV, a Tolkien conference sponsored by Signum University, an online learning venture specializing in teaching Tolkien-relevant subjects that brick universities can't work up the critical mass for any more, like Old Norse. The presiding genius is Corey Olsen, who podcasts as "The Tolkien Professor."

Sometimes my aging Tolkienist friends wonder where all the younger Tolkien scholars are, or indeed if they are. They are. They're here. Most of the presenters here are young, they're all as sharp as we were at their age, as insightful, as well-educated, and they give great papers. I feel very gratified when a young man can say to an appreciative audience, "I don't think I have to explain to most of you who Boethius is." There's a few of us veterans around, and we add up to a total of 120, about Mythcon-sized.

I've heard papers tracking the disappearance of the Ilkorindi from the legendarium, defining the Destruction of the Ring as the final resolution of a plot beginning with the Rebellion of the Noldor, computer-analyzing the text of The Hobbit to see which chapter stands out for the words used (it's not the one you'd think), and considering the awareness of Tolkien's characters that they're part of a cyclical history, and another one arguing much the same about Beowulf. I gave a paper myself, titled "C.S. Lewis, Númenorean" (from which it should be possible to guess its subject), and spoke on a panel describing and outlining the journal Tolkien Studies along with my co-editors, who are also here: it was a rare chance for us all to meet in person.

They're both special guests, giving robust plenary speeches, Michael Drout on the challenges of being a philologist in an age when philology is discounted and the secrets of the great philologists of the past, like Tolkien, are largely lost; and Verlyn Flieger on instances of the sense of wonder in Tolkien's work. (When Gimli rapturously describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond to Legolas, he's marveling at the caves, but we're marveling at how they have raised the gruff, taciturn Gimli to eloquence.) There's more. Ted Nasmith displayed his Beren and Luthien art, and John DiBartolo told how his song about Gil-galad's spear, Aiglos, inspired an enthusiastic swordsmith to design and make a reproduction of the spear, which he brought along. Not a form of Tolkien art I'd have thought of, but it was a beautiful piece of work.

There was a session teaching Scottish Gaelic waulking songs ("waulking" is beating new-woven cloth to soften it, and waulkers sing work songs for the same reason that sailors and chain-gangs do: the results are strophic verse/choruses, but built totally unlike conventional folk songs), and last evening about a dozen of us gathered outside in the warm night air around a firepit to read aloud, round-robin, Tolkien's "Tale of Tinúviel" from The Book of Lost Tales and lately reprinted in the new Beren and Lúthien. I liked some of the unusual pronunciations we got, of which my favorite was "Tuna-ville."

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