Monday, August 25, 2014

Tolkien's mildew

When I wrote in a previous post that John Carey had reported that "green mildew grew on [Tolkien's academic] gown," but I queried whether this was really likely, Chaz Brenchley referred me to Tolkien's Gown & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski (Constable, 2004) for the definitive word on this vital topic.

Gekoski became the unlikely owner of this relic in 1972. The newly-widowed Tolkien, on moving into a residence owned by Merton College, asked his scout, Charlie Carr, "to help clear away a lot of unwanted rubbish," including his gown and some old shoes and jackets. (14) Carr thought of Gekoski, whom he had scouted for when Gekoski was a grad student a few years earlier, as a possible customer. Gekoski, by then teaching at Warwick University, whimsically decided to take the gown, and stored it in his attic for some ten years, until he sold it through his catalogue when he began a new career as a rare-book dealer.

How does Gekoski describe the gown? As a "raggedy old scrap of black cloth" with "many DNA-rich stains," and, in book-dealer language in his catalogue, as "slightly frayed and with a little soiling." (14-15)

At the question of whether Carey, a bored undergraduate sitting some distance away in a lecture, might have mistaken these stains for green mildew, I find I have reached the limit of my devotion to Tolkienian arcana.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

third eye

In addition to posting on my own blog on Blogspot and LiveJournal, I now have a third place to appear.

Actually I was invited to join the group of Tolkienists blogging for The Tolkien Society several months ago, but it took this long for me to approach the hump of figuring out how to log on and work the thing, and even then it took several stupid questions patiently answered by the TS chairman, Shaun Gunner, who's responsible for this and I hope not by now regretting it.

My first post up is the review of John Carey's The Unexpected Professor posted here yesterday. The nice repro of the book cover along with it is not my doing, but I expect that of Daniel, their WordPress guru. I expect that from now on my Tolkien-related posts will appear there as well as here, and perhaps the more recondite ones may appear only there, though if so there will be a link from here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

John Carey speaks

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber)

I knew I had to get hold of this book after reading John Garth's review. It is as Garth says, a readable and often funny book that, while it claims to be "a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on" (xi), it's actually a personal memoir about a usual run of subjects. It's just got a lot of book talk injected in it.

Carey was a student at Oxford (undergraduate and then Ph.D.) in the 1950s, then became a tutor and don there, winding up as the Merton Professor of English Literature (not the post Tolkien held, this is the other Merton English professorship) for the last quarter of the 20C.

He knew Tolkien in his student and early don years, then, and some of the other Inklings, and could be expected to say interesting things about them. Carey is known to be anti-Tolkien. He used the opportunity of a review of Carpenter's biography in 1977 to slag Tolkien for a number of ridiculous sins, including stylistic feebleness, disliking the industrial rape of the landscape, and failing to keep au courant with modernist literary crap - charges adequately dismissed by Brian Rosebury, who called Carey a "cursory disparager." Carey was so appalled when The Lord of the Rings won a number of end-of-the-century readers' polls that he became one of the foolish academics who claimed that the sinister and all-powerful Tolkien Society had manipulated the voting.

The Carey of this book, though equipped with a certain pose of wounded innocence of the "Why don't people like me when I trash their books in my reviews?" sort, is a much more likeable chap than this portrait would suggest, though he's still not fond of Tolkien. As an undergraduate, he writes, "I went to university lectures which were, on the whole, a waste of time." (This doesn't prevent him from promoting them urgently when he becomes a don.) "J.R.R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf, was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood." (121-2)

Though that puts Carey in the long list of students who detested Tolkien's lecturing - there's another list, not quite as long, of those who adored it - this is at least a great image. I wonder, though, if it's influenced by Carey's perception of Tolkien's work. J.I.M. Stewart, present in this book as a teaching colleague of Carey's, turned the avatar of Tolkien in his "Staircase in Surrey" novels, J.B. Timbermill, into a lost soul out of touch with the world, wandering the streets of Oxford at night. Was Tolkien's academic gown really mildewed? Most other descriptions have him a rather snappy dresser.

Some other well-known characters make appearances. Diana Wynne Jones is the wife of a teaching colleague (147). Tom Shippey is another teaching colleague: "a science fiction fanatic [not a scholar, or even a fan, but a fanatic!] who ... became the world authority on the mythical universe of Tolkien." (239) A few Inklings appear too. When Carey is teaching at Keble, C.S. Lewis's friend Austin Farrer is Master there. Farrer invites Carey to lunch to meet Lewis, who is impressively humble when Carey gauchely (by his own account) one-ups him on a literary reference (178-9). That sounds characteristically Lewisian. Nevill Coghill, "a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care," appears as a nervous professor making his inaugural lecture (143-4). John Wain comes along to a guest talk by Philip Larkin, and puts down everyone else in the room for being "critics" instead of "writers" - "they can't and we can." (271) That sounds unlike Wain, who prided himself on being the compleat man of letters, critic and teacher as well as poet, novelist, and dramatist - that's why he admired Dr. Johnson, whose biography by Wain Carey mentions, so much, since Johnson did the same. Men of letters don't put down criticism; they're too guilty of it themselves.

Most interesting to me is a full description of the colorful Hugo Dyson, Carey's impossibly difficult grad-work supervisor (135-6) - and George Steiner's too (142-3). I wish I'd had this to quote when I was writing my biographical article on Dyson twenty years ago. "I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale. ... On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met ... He was an old-style don who did not really believe in literary 'research'. Literature was for enjoyment and it was misguided to turn it into something arcane and scholarly. That was a common view in Oxford at the time."

Carey goes immediately on to say that "it was well known that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was not to [Dyson's] taste," in the same context making it sound as if Carey knows this just as personally as the rest, but his only evidence of it is to retell (without any source reference) the well-worn but dubious story of Dyson cursing out an Inklings reading of it - which I've always taken as showing Dyson's distaste not for this particular work, but for readings at Inklings meetings, which kept him from dominating the conversation.

With its (mis)quotation of Dyson's words straight from A.N. Wilson's C.S. Lewis biography, the only known source for this story, I wouldn't take Carey's account of it as independent confirmation, and the unreliability of his second-hand info comes up in another Tolkienian context, when he's grumbling at having had to study Beowulf and offers as a topper that "those who found it repugnant ... pointed out that W.H. Auden had famously got a third-class degree because he couldn't stomach Beowulf." (103)

Someone was feeding Carey nonsense. Auden did get a third-class degree, but by his own testimony - see The Dyer's Hand - he adored the Anglo-Saxon poetry, which Tolkien's Beowulf lectures had introduced him to. Auden's own alliterative verse - he was one of the few modern English poets besides Tolkien to essay this form - shows his dedication. It was Auden's fellow aesthetic students who were aghast at this taste of his. Carpenter in his biography of Auden attributes the poor marks to Auden's having a poet's mind rather than a scholar's, and having coasted through too-lax tutoring (Nevill Coghill again) on the strength of his general brilliance left him unprepared for the rigors of final exams.

Still, this is a fascinating book with a lot of entertaining stories. I had to read B. the one about Carey's cat: "When I was working late at night he used to climb up and lie across the back of my neck, his forelegs and head hanging down over my left shoulder, his back legs and tail over my right, and go to sleep, occasionally snoring. I found it a comfort, like wearing a live scarf." (187) This has nothing to do with the ostensible theme of discovering English literature, but I was glad to read it. Carey's book talk is actually the most skippable part, and leaves me unmoved to make another stab at trying to read Milton or Donne, but I will have to search out his critical work The Intellectuals and the Masses, a controversial book (he proudly cites its many bad reviews) postulating that modernist literature, and modernist art in general, was invented around 1900 by elitist intellectuals trying to keep on top of the newly educated masses by creating something those masses still couldn't understand.

Strangely, having created this hostile thesis, Carey doesn't seem to think that this nasty project was a bad idea. He admires these awful writers who fostered that elitism, like D.H. Lawrence, and even tries to make excuses for Lawrence's totalitarian philosophy on the grounds that somehow he didn't really mean it, and besides, he was such a good writer (251-3). Meanwhile, a writer like Tolkien, deeply morally upright and the counterblast to that elitism, who was trying to "hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them," only earns Carey's contempt, and even his disbelief that Tolkien succeeded at his aim (see ref. to sinister and all-powerful Tolkien Society above). It's a strange world, and such people in it!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mythcon, days 3-4

(a long-delayed report conclusion)

Paper by French scholar attempting to trace the reputations of Dunsany and Lovecraft.  It looks kind of different from the French perspective.

Professional study of Tolkien's work by a psychoanalyst.  Begins by saying that this is the first time he's presented to a Tolkien audience instead of a psychoanalytic one, so he'll skip over the justifications for studying Tolkien.  Refreshingly free of what lay folk like me tend to consider psychoanalytic blither.  Raises a chuckle when, after noting the established observation that hobbits are essentially Tolkien's idealized English country folk, he says of LOTR, "The action begins when these Englishmen, disguised as hobbits ..."

Panel outlining the Inklings' expression of their religious views in their fantasy.  Fortunately, the panel contains a well-briefed Williams scholar, a relief as there's essentially nothing else about Williams at this year's conference.

My paper, and my first attempt at using installed AV, raising pictures on someone else's laptop and throwing them up onto the room's big screen.  This is C.S. Lewis's Dark Tower: . This is what it should have looked like, with the stinger on top:

What's weird is that the second tower was actually built, in Oxford, some 15 years after the date usually assigned for Lewis having written the story, and just after he left Oxford for Cambridge, where the first tower is located. That in itself is evidence that the story isn't a later-date forgery, as the putative forgers could hardly have resisted this, same as the forgery-claim advocates postulate that the forgers were unable to resist borrowing from the plot of A Wrinkle in Time, not published until several years later even than the tower.

Manically funny GoH speech from Ursula Vernon on her childhood experience with Narnia, and the horribly crushed feeling she had on finishing the last book and discovering that Aslan was Jesus. "I couldn't have been more surprised if he was Keyser Söze" (or words of that order). Lewis intended his zinger to lead children who loved Aslan to welcome Jesus, but on some, including young Ursula, it had the opposite effect. Later I catch her and recommend The Magician's Book by Laura Miller, who had the same experience.

Paper ruthlessly analyzing a book whose title is displayed on the screen as This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things by J.R.R. Tolkien - better known as The Silmarillion. The analysis is in terms of contemporary feminist theory on sexual consent. Skirts close to the fallacy of using a hammer for a pipe wrench job, but keeps on the comprehensible side. Discussion arises as to whether Galadriel takes the Fëanorian viewpoint on the story's conflicts. Co-author Megan Abrahamson exclaims, "Galadriel hates Fëanor! She unfriended him!"

Next year in Colorado Springs. Mem Morman chairs, thereby becoming the eighth person to lead more than one of these things. It's possible to survive; I'm one of her predecessors.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Am I still recuperating from Mythcon and hoping to finish a con report later? I am.

In the meantime we still need to eat. Lunch and dinner food service at Mythcon having consisted largely of A Dozen Ways of Reheating the Same Leftover Chicken, we got a little tired of chicken and I called a moratorium on it for our dinner-making, which I've kept up for 9 days now.

The problem arose of what to do after we were invited to a potluck on Sunday and I volunteered to bring the fruit salad. I had this leftover melon and pineapple, more than I'd want for breakfasts in the time it was still good, and what to do with them? I tried searching online for dinner recipes that included melon, with very little success. A suggestion to put steamed veggies in a hollowed-out melon to impart its flavor was only practical after I finished eating the honeydew, and the results weren't very impressive. An Indian melon curry, recipe found online, seemed beyond my capacity to make from scratch, but there are large Indian groceries here that carry lots of curry mixes, so I went to one of them to look. No luck, and when the clerk offered to help, it turned out that he was handicapped by not being sure what a melon was; he seemed to think it was akin to a kidney bean. I didn't want to risk using some other mix; Indian curries seem to be quite specific.

Then there was the pineapple. What uses pineapple? Sweet and sour! We don't eat pork here, and chicken was out as previously mentioned; how about shrimp? I wound up using this recipe, though I cut out the bell peppers and cherries and substituted other veggies instead, and maltodextrin for sugar (my normal substitute) and organic, no-sugar-added tomato paste for ketchup (for what is ketchup anyway but tomatoes with added sugar and vinegar, both of which are in the recipe already?). This was one of those recipes that was a lot more time and trouble to prepare than to cook, but the results were tasty; a thick sauce, but not goopy or oversweet like many sweet & sours.

Now I have half a can of tomato paste left. Historically, this will sit in the fridge until it turns green. I want to avoid that. What else uses tomato paste? Meat loaf glaze. Off to find a recipe for meat loaf with ground turkey.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

flying reviews

As in, seen or read on an airplane.

Veronica Mars: The Movie
Veronica is back, still solving lurid crimes largely by sneaking unauthorized looks at other people's cell phones and computer files, eavesdropping on their incriminating conversations, etc etc. You'd think they'd learn to keep their devices locked under passcode by now, but no. That makes me sound like an old hand at the TV show, which actually I barely remember and had trouble following at the time (largely because I didn't find the plot twists that interesting). But several of the characters popped back into mind as soon as I saw the actors' faces again, and the plot was no trouble to keep track of, as it's done in two hours instead of taking an entire TV season. I don't think you need to have seen the TV show at all to enjoy this if you just want a capable if amoral detective thriller.

Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Watt-Evans
I picked this up at the Mythcon sales table for a buck for a light read, because I know LWE as a most reliable current practitioner of light fantasy in the Leiber (Lankhmar)-de Camp (The Goblin Tower) manner. Wizard's spell goes wrong and his soul leaves his body and splinters into pieces that enter the furniture in the room, all of which becomes animate and runs away, leaving nobody but his apprentice to hunt them all down and reverse the accident. This book having been written in the last couple of decades, the apprentice is female. Chasing animate couches around the city makes for less risible a story than you might expect. Why the furniture runs away when it's the wizard's soul that animated it at all is never made quite clear, and there is ample room for a sequel in which high authority chews the restored wizard's head off for having created so much trouble and chaos.
Hardest thing about the book was pronouncing (in my mind) the wizard's name. Eventually decided to render it as "Ethan Allen," which is of course the name of a furniture store. Is LWE making a deliberate allusion?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

oh, it's a Robin Williams post

One on my FL is chiding the world for paying more attention to Robin Williams' death than more urgent problems, but the point is, I don't have anything to say right now about global warming or transphobia or the Middle East that I could possibly expect you to want to read.

We learned of his death from one of the 38 channels of television offered by JetBlue on the flight home from Boston, during one of the brief intervals when they weren't all playing commercials.  This is the first time that I've learned of any significant news event from television news, excluding only live feeds directly connected with presidential elections, for well over 25 years.  After this, I'm not minded to shorten the interval.  I spent most of the flight listening to the classical radio station.

I was never a fan of Robin's standup, inasmuch as I saw any of it.  It seemed to me that its humor lay more in the speed and intensity of his delivery than in anything he actually said.  I did enjoy Mork and Mindy, insofar as I saw any of that, but my real appreciation of his work probably dates from seeing The World According to Garp in first run in 1982 - I was in Spokane on the way back from Moscon, as I recall - a movie that earned my highest accolade, "That was weird."

So I appear to have thought of him primarily as a dramatic actor.  Certainly he had the desirable quality for a comedian wishing to broaden his range of being able to be serious - you didn't look at him waiting for the jokes to crack - and that in itself puts the lie to the statement that he was on permanent manic and couldn't turn himself "off".  Of course he could.  I liked him in movies like Insomnia - crooked urban cop Al Pacino chases elusive rural creep Robin Williams through the wilds of Alaska, what a weird concept, and, like RW and SMG in The Crazy Ones, they worked well together.*

Of the manner of RW's death I have only this to say: that the bios have reminded me that he was a friend of Christopher Reeve, which in turn brought to memory this story, that after Reeve's accident he felt suicidal, so his friends snuck Robin Williams into his hospital room in the guise of an eccentric Russian doctor intent on performing a colonoscopy.  Reeve laughed, and it was then, he later said, that he decided to live.  So of Williams you could say: Others he saved.  Himself he could not save.

I have a memory of a Robin Williams movie role that I can't identify in the filmographies.  Or maybe it's a dream.  He played an uncredited cameo as a research doctor or bioscientist of some kind who suddenly bustles in to a lab or hospital scene or some such well into the course of the movie.  Anybody recognize what I'm talking about?

*SMG issued a memorial statement describing RW as her father figure (like Buffy, she was largely absent of a real one), which sounds strange until you realize that she's 26 years younger than he was. So, yeah, that's about right.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mythcon, day 2

Paper showing that Tolkien shows more respect for animals in LotR than in The Hobbit, and not just the favored ones. It's just as true of the wargs. All except the Eagles, whom he treats as a taxi service.

Paper proposing that Bilbo is able to keep the extent of his wealth secret from his neighbors because he lives in the hills. No, I don't get that line of reasoning any more than you do.

Paper declaring that Lewis holds a simplistic caricatured view of Biblical-inerrancy fundamentalists. Post-paper questioning of presenter revealed that no, some of them really are like that.

Paper finding Tolkienian eucatastrophe in several classic mainstream literary works by presenter reading out plot summaries of them (e.g. Pride and Prejudice, King Lear) at tongue-twisting top speed. Good post-paper discussion finally devolves into dispute over whether Wrath of Khan (the first version, of course) is eucatastrophic. Me= no. Everyone else (Trekfen, it turns out) = yes.

Collaborative readimg of selected sections of Beowulf. Volunteers come up from the audience and read a chunk, in Anglo Saxon or Tolkien's translation, their choice. A magical hour. I get part of Beowulf's announcement of his arrival, my favorite section. Afterwards, GoH Ursula Vernon compliments me on my reading. A kind remark, but others were better still. Only at Mythcon.

Late evening chatting with the pipe-smokers outside about Ardmore and Rutgers and Colorado Springs. Warm, balmy evening in the dark.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Mythcon, day 1

Discovery - apparently this has been published, though I have not seen it - of an unpublished preface to the Screwtape Letters, attributing their discovery to Ransom and stating that they are translated from the Old Solar, which puts quite a new perspective on the context.

Lone professor bearing the Sisyphean load of counter-acting Jacksonian readings of Tolkien by showing his students film scenes of, e.g., Aragorn being angsty about the burdens of becoming king, or Arwen hauling Frodo around like a sack of potatoes, and then saying, "Now let's look at how Tolkien did it." Yet another rebuttal to the lie that most Tolkienists like the movies.

Richard West's GoH speech on the place of sfnal views of the universe in fantasy, and of fantasy-oriented insights in sf. Lot of good stuff, includong the discovery of green suns, Tolkien's key example of the subcreative imagination, in Robert Sawyer's Starplex. Take-away quotes: "Science fiction is fantasy masquerading as realism." "I prefer fuzzy sets to definitions."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

mysteries of Boston

1. Taxis at the train station
On arriving, we headed to the taxi rank, where the only two cabs present were leaving with other passengers. Then a windowless, black minivan pulled up and a nattily dressed driver hopped out and addressed me with "Taxi?"
I looked at his van, which was entirely unmarked. Then I looked back at him and said, "You're not a taxi."
Interestingly, he didn't try to argue the point, he just accosted the next person in line. I didn't see what happened next, as just then what actually looked like, and indeed was, a taxi pulled up.

2. The restrooms at the Boston Public Library
No toilet paper. No paper towels. No dispensers.

3. Boston's reputation as hard to navigate
I've done London. I've done Rome. Boston, not so tough.
After 3 days in town, I finally rented a car to get out to the suburbs. OK, on the way out, unexpected one way streets did send me on a slightly exciting twisty tour of Beacon Hill. But despite my suburban host's horror that I was planning to drive back downtown, in the dark, without a GPS, I guessed at the right routes and exits and pulled up directly to the hotel's front door with no delays. Navigation-fu at its mightiest.

4. Using "wicked" as an adverb
When did this become a thing? I never heard it until about a decade ago, and then from just one Bostonian I had not previously known. Now it's all over subway hoardings, t-shirts and other tourist kitsch, even the name of the municipal wifi network.
Surely such a heavily commercialized usage ought never to be heard on the lips of any self-respecting local again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


The older buildings are mostly of red brick. Not as attractive as the stone edifices of Princeton. Wait till B sees Yale, someday.

The building security guards don't want you to use the resstrooms, though the buildings are open to the public.

All the art museum galleries are closed, in preparation for being consolidated into one giant art museum.

We contented ourselves with the Museum of Semitic Archaeology, which was small but free and quite interesting. Walk-through exhibit of daily life among the ancient Hebrews.

First try at a used book store not quite as enticing as the little old ones over in Boston.

Ride on subway reminded me of Tom Lehrer's unrecorded song listing the stations. How many songs are there about subways, anyway? The Man Who Never Returned, Take the A Train, JC Cohen, Gilbert and Sullivan's Nightmare Song ...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

culture in Boston

Most everyone that matters to me in the performing arts is off at Tanglewood or somewheres, but there is a little going on.

1. Noon concert in King's Chapel with a viola da gamba and theorbo (bass lute) playing music of Marin Marais. Very melancholy. Well, it is by Marin Marais.

2. Shakespeare in the Common. 12th Night. I didn't find any of the romantic leads very inspiring, and the clown trroupe might as well have been wearing big signs reading "We're the clowns, so laugh already!", but Malvolio (Fred Sullivan Jr) in the scene where he finds Maria's letter was awesomely good, a complete transformation from sober pomposity to absurdity, so good in fact that, as this was the last scene before intermission, and as Shakespeare in the Common isn't designed for attendees who brought neither blanket nor lawn chair, so I had spent the whole first half standing up, leaning against a tree, and I was tired of that and didn't fancy an 11 pm walk back anyway, and I knew they couldn't top that scene, I just left then.

Monday, August 4, 2014

8 states in one day, without moving a muscle

MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA. Via Amtrak.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

not where you'd expect

I'm spending the weekend researching in a Catalan library. No kidding. There are two rooms, and the shelves are filled with books in Catalan. I'm not using them, but they're there, and impressing everyone with their sheer existence in one place so far removed from their home.

Outside in the hall, there's one small bookcase of books in Spanish. If you must.