Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Tolkien conference in New York

The reason for silence over the last week is that I was fully occupied in the events surrounding the New York Tolkien Conference to which I've previously alluded. Living in a tiny hotel room in the middle of Manhattan, going out every day on the subway to here and there, is not my normal life, and I found the physical strain of so much tromping around on concrete and climbing stairs (escalators and elevators are only occasional luxuries on the subway) to be stressful to the point of damaging on this aging body, so I'm glad I don't have to live that way very often. But my, it was exciting and adventurous while it went on.

The inspiration for the conference was the importation to the Morgan Library, one of NYC's more notable private museums, of the Bodleian's fabulous Tolkien exhibit that it put on last year. The Morgan version is still going on through May 12, and I'd urge anyone interested who's not already seen this to get there and do so.

It's worthwhile even though it's a much smaller exhibit than the Bodleian put on. I'd estimate that about a quarter of what the Bodleian displayed made it over, but that does include such precious objects as the original art for the Hobbit jacket, the working map of Middle-earth for The Lord of the Rings with all its corrections and pasted-on overlays, and the cover of the composition book labeled "The Cottage of Lost Play," the beginning of the first version of the Silmarillion.

Having traveled to England for the Bodleian exhibit, I wouldn't have gone to NY just for the Morgan version (though, again, I'd encourage you to do so if you're in the US and haven't seen either), but I was glad for the renewed acquaintance; and the opportunity to also attend and participate in a Tolkien conference, in the NY series I'd heard of but had never attended before, was the kicker, as the opportunity to attend a Tolkien conference is the main thing likely to get me on the road these days.

The conference came in two parts:

1) Saturday afternoon, March 16, a 3-hour symposium in the Morgan's lecture hall. This had five selected guest speakers from the passel of Tolkienists coming in.

2) Sunday, March 17, an all day (10 am-5 pm) conference, mostly three tracks of papers, held on the 6th and 7th floors of a "vertical campus" belonging to CCNY's Baruch College. This was about ten blocks away from the Morgan, like it on the east side of midtown Manhattan.

Once I learned that the program would include a performance of the Tolkien-Swann song cycle The Road Goes Ever On (more on that below), plus a paper by David Emerson analyzing "Errantry" from that cycle (impressively insightful), I decided to resurrect my old Mythcon paper "Music in Middle-earth", on the kinds of primary-world music I think Tolkien had in mind when describing the music within the secondary world. This paper is fun to give because it comes with lots of musical illustrations. I brought my sound files on a flash drive and, amazingly, it all worked perfectly on the classroom's computer on the first try.

Lots of interesting stuff, but the most enlightening two hours came from 2-4 on Sunday afternoon, in which a vehemently insightful paper by Nicholas Birns on the roles of unmarried males, as such, in The Lord of the Rings was followed by a panel of brief presentations labeled "Queer Tolkien." These seemed to me to be ideal models for the study of sexuality and sex roles in Tolkien's work. Instead of having an agenda of "proving" that Frodo and Sam are gay, in violation of both the text and the author's inspirations, as has been done so often in the past, these all started without agendas and studied what Tolkien actually wrote about sexuality, and seeing what comes out. Chris Vaccaro, convenor of the panel, had introduced the concept of "homo-amory" in his talk the previous day, defined as the demonstrative love between men without assuming either the presence of a sexual relationship or its absence. This attitude freed him from a lot of irrelevant baggage and enabled a clear view. I was also particularly impressed with Yvette Kisor's analysis of Tolkien's actual use of the word "queer", though she didn't have time to give much more than her statistics. She showed good reason to see Tolkien defending the word "queer" from the negative connotations of his time, thus almost prefiguring the recent reclaiming of the word by the very people it's been hurled as an insult at.

I didn't attend bass-baritone Peter Walker's performance of The Road Goes Ever On at the conference, but that was because I'd heard him and his pianist, David Alpher, at a small house concert in a high-rise apartment near Lincoln Center the previous evening. In addition to Road and the Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel with which they paired it, at the house concert they had the time to add a few more appropriate songs by the likes of John Ireland and Ivor Gurney. Peter's strong deep voice made an ideal Treebeard, he enunciated excellently, and he had good control over his high notes, which was particularly desirable in the VW, a work sometimes attempted by tenors who can't quite manage it.

There was more to my visit to the Morgan and to Manhattan in general beyond this, and I'll tell you more about it later.


  1. It's been an absolute pleasure seeing you again, even if only in passing.

    I am glad to hear from you that the Swann rendition was good as I'm neither musically trained nor in any other shape or form able to pass judgement on the quality of music - but standing outside in the hall, listening to the music was pure joy.

    See you in Birmingham!

    Best wishes,

    1. Alas, Birmingham is out for me for scheduling reasons. I grieve.