Sunday, September 20, 2020

Oxonmoot, day 3

I didn't attend very much of the programming on the last day of Oxonmoot because I was asleep much of the time, something unlikely to have blighted an in-person conference, or at least I hope not. In particular anything from the breakout track that interested me was only on when I wasn't there to try it, so that feature of virtual congoing remains mostly untried by me.

Highlight of what I did hear was the concluding keynote talk by Yvette Kisor on the conference theme on Tolkien and diversity. This was fascinating and lucid, and turned out to be a sympathetic analysis, rather than a critique, of racial/ethnic/species hierarchy in Tolkien. This is based rather straightforwardly on the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, and Kisor spent considerable space explaining that, all of which I remembered from medieval civ class. Kisor wasted no time criticizing Tolkien for employing this concept, but concentrated entirely on what he did with it, which included adding some free choice by peoples to explain their exact places in the hierarchy: thus the responses of the varying Elven peoples to the call of the Valar. Kisor concluded by considering how this hierarchy is read: it's regretful that it affords the works the opportunity to be co-opted by racists, but The Lord of the Rings itself emphasizes diversity among the good guys. (And all the Star Trek fans in the audience were murmuring "IDIC" in the chat function.)

Kisor attributed much of the co-opting of Tolkien to reinforce racial bias to the Jackson movies and their treatment of orcs. Tolkien doesn't devote much attention to orcs and rarely describes them physically, but you can't miss the constant camera attention to orcs in Jackson. And their skin color is black.

What Kisor didn't note is that this contradicts Tolkien. She did quote that Tolkien envisaged orcs as "degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types" (Letters 274), itself a racist stereotype, but she didn't emphasize that the few occasions Tolkien does describe orcs reinforces this: their eyes are slanted and their skin is "sallow," i.e. yellow or light-brown. Thus, if Tolkien's orcs are a racial abuse it's of Asians, not Blacks; but unlike Jackson he doesn't wallow in it. Tolkien was uncomfortable with his own treatment of orcs and never came up with a satisfactory resolution of this.

The other paper I heard all of was Mariana Rios Maldonado on ethics, femininity, and the Other, which was interesting enough to keep me awake for a half an hour at 4 am, even though it was more a precis to her research than an account of any findings. (To be fair, I think she's just starting working on this for a PhD.) She seems to have independently re-invented Melanie Rawls's concept of the feminine principle in Tolkien, and when I found on asking that she hadn't read that paper I urgently recommended it.

This was preceded by a summary of a lecture on dragons that Tolkien gave in 1938, and which I'd just discovered yesterday had been published a couple years ago in the facsimile printing of the first edition of The Hobbit, but not in the form of that that I bought. So now I've hived off to order the right one online, and it'll have to be a late addition to the Tolkien Studies bibliography.

Oxonmoot traditionally closes with a wreath-laying at Tolkien's grave in Oxford. That had to be done in absentia, so we got a film of the ceremony performed by just the two con chairs and the chairman of the Tolkien Society, who belied his reputation for disliking poetry by reading aloud the entirety of the long poem "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil."

Due credit to the Tolkien Society for an awesome job putting this conference together, and for their gentle but not pestering reminders to their membership to sign up for it. I didn't attend the virtual Worldcon so I can't compare them, but technical glitches here were minor and short-lived, and in general everything worked and ran on time, and was easy to use. I contented myself with being a silent audience member on the main programming track, kibitzing in the chat function and asking an occasional question of the speakers. That I didn't much try out the breakout tracks with live social interaction was a function of my own lack of ease with this online idiom in any forum other than with limited close friends, and not due to anything the TS did wrong. Nevertheless I'm glad the Mythopoeic Society didn't try to hold this year's Mythcon this way, because I'm sure I would not have been able to give it the kind of full-bodied participation that would have been expected of me as a Guest of Honor, or that would have been a completely enjoyable Mythcon to me.

Still, I wouldn't have been at Oxonmoot at all without this, even in the absence of a virus, so better than nothing. And better too for all those others who couldn't attend for reasons of distance, cost, or personal physical limitations. Adding an online component to future in-person conferences is the obvious next step, and they're on it.

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