Saturday, May 16, 2020

John Garth on Zoom

In a covid-free world, John Garth would probably have given his talk on his upcoming book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth, sponsored by the Wade Center, at the Wade Center, and I wouldn't have been able to be there. Instead, it was webcast, and by signing up in advance, 60 people from all over were able to listen in.

Unfortunately, it was on Zoom, which I hadn't known before I tried signing in on my desktop, which then had to download and install Zoom while interviewer Laura Schmidt, the archivist at Wade, was giving her introduction. All spectators were automatically muted both for sound and video, but that didn't prevent Zoom from acting in its usual manner. Strange thing about Zoom is that, while you don't have to click on "Start Video" to see the existing video, you do have to click on "Join Audio" in order to hear. And it refused to do that because it couldn't find a microphone on my computer for the very good reason that I don't have one. I had to hastily fetch my tablet, which I already had Zoom installed on, and join the meeting again there, in order to hear a blessed word. But not all of them, because as before it stuttered a lot and I missed much.

One thing was clear: that despite the book's title, it is not a travelogue of "the places that inspired" as previous books by the likes of Robert Blackham and Matthew Lyons have been. And indeed, I was pleased to see that Garth is at pains to avoid what he delicately calls "erring on the side of credulity" of these works. The problem, Garth says, is that if you see a place and are reminded of invented places in Tolkien, you tend to think that if Tolkien saw it too it must have inspired those places. This is most often obvious nonsense, chronologically impossible, and most importantly diminishes the fiction by making fictional place A a simple encoding of real place B.

In fact, as Garth says, Tolkien was a great synthesizer who merged and reconciled loads of even contradictory inspirations; this is true of all his sources, not just geographical, and from the excerpts read from this book, the author is taking a similar approach that he took to Tolkien's early inspirations in his book Tolkien and the Great War. This is less a book about the real places than it is about what was going on in Tolkien's mind that the real places operated as the merest seeds for. Most of the research took place in Tolkien's papers and in written period material rather than out on the ground.

I'm hoping, then, that we may see an end to such inane ideas as that a couple of stacks in Birmingham were the "real" original of The Two Towers, and indeed there's an appendix specifically dealing with such debunking. If I had been going to ask a question (questions were submitted by chat), it would have been whether he was dealing with that, but I didn't have to.

The bulk of the book, it emerges, is divided into chapters by the type of place dealt with: the sea, the mountains, rivers and waterlands, forests, warscapes, craftscapes, and, yes, towers. Plus beginning discussions including Tolkien's early attempts to transmute England directly into his fiction, and on geographic inspirations from outside England.

Well, I'm looking forward to getting this large-format and well-illustrated volume. Tolkien and the Great War is a monument in Tolkien studies, and I expect this one to be as well.

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