Friday, September 18, 2020

Oxonmoot, day 1

I want to get this down, regardless of other events.

Even though I'd already signed up, I was not mentally prepared to be spending my entire day at a Tolkien conference. That's because the prep work usually involves taking an elaborate trip somewhere, and that gives time and a framework to put the mind in gear. This time I just went upstairs and clicked on a Zoom link, and there I was at the Tolkien Society's Oxonmoot in England.

I've actually been at a couple Oxonmoots in person, but those were a long time ago. This one was much more heavily programmed than the light relaxacon Oxonmoots I knew, but due to the online environment the social achievement was more questionable. We'll see if it does better tomorrow.

There were a few interesting papers by scholars of various nationalities. There was an excellent keynote address by the estimable Dimitra Fimi, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Unfinished Tales, a book she perceptively described as having been intended as a supplement to The Silmarillion, published three years earlier, but which turned out to be more of a precursor, a pre-existing last volume, to The History of Middle-earth, which began publication three years later. I also liked her suggestion that Erendis's distress at the absence of Aldarion on sea voyages had something in common with Kipling's "Harp Song of the Dane Women."

But by far the most interesting and provocative item was a panel on "Diversity in Tolkien Scholarship and Fandom," featuring three women, all of diverse Asian ancestry, two of them young, I think in their 20s, and one older. Elyanna Choi, UK-born of Hong Kong ancestry, was the author of this distressing report of her experiences with racial backlash at last year's large Tolkien Society convention, and she became tearful while recounting this, concluding that she's been hurt less by racial markers in Tolkien's texts than by the community.

It seemed to me that the discussions here had much in common with the similar ones that have been going around through science-fiction fandom lately. I wonder if the hostile reaction she describes had anything to do with the framing of the discussion, since I for one see nothing to object to in the panelists' analysis of Tolkien as both racist and not-racist at the same time. That's hardly nonsensical, as Tolkien was a complex and contradictory man, and it's long well established that, for instance, he was optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. That his non-racism better employs his imagination and creativity, the qualities he's valued for, makes it of more interest to me; but if a reader is struck by a particular undercurrent of racist parallels, that will of course be of more concern to them. Judging by the chat function going on through the panel, most of the audience agreed.

What was eye-opening to me was the readings of racial echoes, especially from panelist Sarah Westvik. The imperialism of the Númenóreans is not always criticized, for instance; and Westvik read Fëanor as a conquering invader from the West; while US Blacks, Westik also noted, tend to read Fëanor as a freedom-fighter rebelling against the oppressive Valar. (In that context, Choi sees Sindarin expansion as more equivalent to "soft" East Asian imperialism than the Western kind.) Growing up in Singapore of mixed ancestry (if I followed the description correctly), Westvik read the Elves, fair-skinned and raven-haired, as Chinese, since they were the only ethnic group in Singapore that fit that description. Westvik also reads Sauron as a queer-coded character (shape-shifting, seductive). These are all interesting and valid readings irrespective of the author's intent - it's only when you claim that your personal reading was the author's intent that it irritates me - and I felt enlightened to hear them.

Moderator Sultana Raza, an older woman from India, reported having felt welcomed in the TS, finding such racism as existed as ingrained and not conscious, and feeling similarly about Tolkien's work, the richness and complexity of which makes up for a lot of problems.

On the more social side, Oxonmoot featured a trivia quiz run successfully on an online platform. Here I was able to answer a question or two and make a few jokes in the chat function, and it felt odd but exciting to type in such a remark and then a few seconds later watch the moderators chuckling as they read it. The social breakout room I wound up in after programming was over never progressed beyond desultory conversation, and I couldn't figure out how to get a display that showed everybody who was there, so as I was getting a little tired out from all day at the computer, which wouldn't happen at a real con, so rather than look for a more congenial breakout I just signed off.

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