Thursday, March 7, 2013

celebrating The Hobbit in the snow

So, as the prospect of attending SF cons has been decreasing in appeal, the appeal of attending specialty Tolkien conferences has been growing in its place. The problem is that they tend to be held in obscure and out-of-the-way places. Oh, here's one at Valparaiso University in Indiana, an easy run from Chicago. It's being convened by the head librarian there, whom I've worked with by email (he edited the book with my paper on Tolkien and music in it) but have never met and would like to. And, since he's also a musicologist, there will be musical events. The conference theme is The Hobbit, in honor of its 75th anniversary (and, sigh, of the movie), and I have this old half-written paper which would be perfect to dust off and present, and it had been inspired by reading John Rateliff's The History of The Hobbit, and he will be one of the principal speakers. And, the date means I can get to the Midwest at some time of year other than when all the seas are boiling hot. So, this will be perfect. I shall go.

The journey is a story the length of Bilbo's memoirs in itself, TK, but I get there. It's spring break, so there's parking in central campus, which is good, because there's snow all over the landscape and the temperature is consistently in the 30s. (Fahrenheit. Had I wanted Celsius, I should have gone to Australia.) Surprisingly, my heavy windbreaker is enough to keep me warm between car and buildings. Though the roads and paths are swept, there's still enough snow and ice underfoot to be treacherous. I wear my crunchy all-weather shoes, to keep a grip, and I use my cane everywhere. I am not losing my balance outdoors, and I am not letting the challenge of staying upright turn me wobbly indoors.

The conference is convened not in classrooms, but in the ballrooms on the second floor of the student union building. It's small, though, maybe 75 people, all of whom know their Hobbit, including a few children. I see a goodly number of old acquaintances in Tolkien scholarship, some of whom rarely come to Mythcon, my usual haunt, but even more I know only by their published work or not at all.

The papers are grouped in sessions, making it a bit chancy to dash between the two programming rooms to catch favored items. Mine is grouped with Judy Ann Ford's on the treatment of the White Council in Jackson's Hobbit movie (a third presenter had canceled). Since the schedule had been posted before the movie came out, I ask Judy afterwards how she knew she'd have a topic. "From the trailers, I could make a good guess it'd be there," she says. "But if it had been saved for the extended edition, I would have had no paper." In fact, though, her paper attends as much to comparing a view of the Council in the book with and without the overlay of The Lord of the Rings on top as it does to comparing either with the movie's. (Regardless, she treats the movie as an entirely separate entity with no authority over Tolkien's work and without any ax to grind over why it's different, a model of how I think the movie should be addressed in Tolkien scholarship.) This fits in well with my paper, which is also about trying to see The Hobbit without The Lord of the Rings breathing over its shoulder, pick your metaphor.

So are a lot of the other papers. Verlyn Flieger argues that Chretien and Malory influenced The Hobbit. Kris Swank argues that The Father Christmas Letters influenced The Hobbit. John Rateliff argues that The Hobbit influenced The Silmarillion, oh yes he does. Years ago, in an online contretemps over Peter Jackson, John had told me that, willy-nilly, I was now an expert on Jackson's LOTR movies. I complained bitterly that that's not what I got into Tolkien scholarship for. Now, after John's paper, I stand in the back with Verlyn Flieger and I recount that anecdote, and I point up to the podium where John had just been speaking and I say, "That is what I got into Tolkien scholarship for, to listen to papers like that." Brilliant stuff.

And there's more. Paul Catalanotto finds the seven deadly sins in Smaug and the seven holy virtues in Bilbo. Michael Fox performs a Proppian analysis of The Hobbit; haven't heard one of those in a while, and it may have been just long enough. Laura Smith compares etiquette-based humor in The Hobbit and in the Pooh books. Thom Foy tangles himself up in a tablecloth woven of the distinction between "truth" and "fact" and says Worraworraworraworra. Justin Noetzel predicts that Beorn will play a major role in the Hobbit movie sequels because he's an all-purpose comic-book superhero. He's invulnerable, like Superman; he grows to giant-size, like the Hulk; and he fights with animalistic fury, like Wolverine.

Of the music, and the feasting, and the setting, and, oh, the journey, more to come.

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