Saturday, April 1, 2023

Tolkien in Vermont

The University of Vermont has been holding a small annual Tolkien conference for ages now, and I'd have liked to attend were it not for the extreme exertions required to get to Vermont from here. However, this year they did it hybrid. (Apparently last year also, but I didn't hear about it.) So I signed up. That did mean getting up at 5:30, but this is something I normally do. However, going back for a nap is something else I normally do, so I only caught about half of the 15 presenters.

Very good stuff, though, focusing on obscure literature of Middle-earth's Second Age. Gratifyingly advanced presentations, assuming the auditors knew not only Tolkien's writings in detail but the scholarly literature as well. I particularly liked two papers performing some deep character analysis of Aldarion and Erendis. I claim that Erendis is Tolkien's greatest female character. If she's unfamiliar to you, you should read Unfinished Tales, which I think is the posthumous Tolkien book that the most fans of The Lord of the Rings would most like. I've written about her myself, but mostly to introduce her to the unfamiliar, not at the advanced level heard here.

A couple speakers, including the keynoter, explored a topic which has gotten a lot of discussion over the years, the internal sources of the history. Who is telling the story of the Silmarillion, and what are their interests and biases? This is not just an imaginary topic of the invented world, but a vital question concerning how Tolkien wrote the story. Also, what real-world influences inspired his story, and what does that say about his interests and biases?

There were also some theoretical papers which unraveled the question of whether Tolkien was racist or anti-racist, sexist or anti-sexist, and how much of each. Actually in each case he was both, and you won't understand him until you've figured that out. I see it as that Tolkien's instincts were fairly egalitarian, but he had drunk deeply of the racial and sexual cantish rhetoric of his time and absorbed it as his own.

And, of course, many wise ones maintain that it doesn't matter what the author intended, it matters what the readers see. This perspective has its value, but I see it as limited. Some readers aren't paying close attention and just misread. Others are exploiting the work for their own ends and desires. They should acknowledge that cheerfully, and some do. These cases say a lot more about the readers than about the work. But even leaving those aside, I don't favor blaming the author for readings that only come into favor decades later.

Much to chew on. Glad I heard as much as I did.

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