Thursday, May 12, 2022

days 2-4 at Kalamazoo

No, you didn't miss day 1: I did. I bought a membership in the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which is being held online this week (and is organized by and in pre-pandemic times held at Western Michigan University, thus the eponym), but I haven't Zoomed my way in to very much.

There was a Tolkien panel on Tuesday, on his use of medieval conceptions of evil. The paper most interesting to me was on music in the Ainulindalë. The presenter pointed out that evil v. good in the Ainulindalë is expressed as dissonance v. consonance, and then stated - which was news to me - that the association of dissonance, even the abominated tritone, with evil was purely an 18th, even 19th, century concept; medieval writers just thought dissonance sounded bad, they didn't make any moral judgments on it. So Tolkien is being modern here, not medieval.

This led to consideration of Wagner, and I was interested to note how little these medievalists knew about even the existence of voluminous writings in other areas of Tolkien studies over the contentious question of what, if anything, and if so how much, of his plot and themes regarding the Ring(s) Tolkien borrowed or derived from Wagner as opposed to other sources.

Wednesday there were no Tolkien sessions, and all I got to was a part of what said it was a virtual visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval art collection, which turned out to be a PowerPoint display of photos of intricately carved ivory scenes, together with the curator holding up a plaster cast of one so that she could point at various features. I asked a question about the techniques and tools by which these were carved, but got only further exclamation of how intricate the work is.

Thursday I'd gotten decent enough sleep the previous night that I was up at 6, which meant that I could attend the best session so far, one on Tolkien and medieval depictions of animals. Fascinating papers. Tolkien's homages to medieval bestiaries, including the oliphaunt poem. The modernism of the fox in The Lord of the Rings, which isn't medieval at all; and the significance of the repeated image of dancing bears in his work. Tolkien's dragons, an obvious but well-explored topic. Tolkien and bats, yes bats, of which there's more to say than you might think.

But I was less pleased with a session on Tolkien's poetry, which featured one speaker who had so much trouble with his microphone one could not make out more than half of what he said, and I was dismayed at all these Tolkien experts who could not pronounce Húrin or Eärendil properly. Not one! It's especially dismaying when you're discussing the rhythmic pattern of poetry and you think that Eärendil has only three syllables. If this had been a live session I might have tried to read the room to see if I could phrase an acceptable way of correcting all of this. Instead I just slipped quietly out, which on Zoom you do by clicking the "Leave" button.

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