Monday, February 4, 2013

Tolkien Forum and a Few Thoughts

Last Monday the ChildLit GSA held our public discussion forum centered on all things Tolkien. For those of us peripherally interested in, entranced by, and in awe of the monumental library that is J.R.R. Tolkien's comprehensive spectrum of works, this was an ideal opportunity to come clean about our general unawareness of Middle Earth and to openly explore its themes, roots, purposes, and more. Special thanks to Jacqui Yawn, Jill Coste, and Professor Alida Allison for joining us.

The evening started with another rousing Pub(lication) Quiz, highlighting the pop cultural influences of Tolkien's works and general Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trivia. Basically it served as the perfect primer for discussion before we began our journey into Middle Earth, a balanced dose of fun, challenge, and revelry leading into illuminating discussions. Having spent time researching on various aspects of Tolkien and his works, we were able to put forth a fair number of questions to one another, beginning with topical pop culture issues like the apt or incongruent comparison between Tolkien's works and the Harry Potter Series,the cultural phenomenon that his works have spawned and how that has impacted the fantasy and science fiction genres, and Tolkien's potential opinion of the current films. By the way, if you can make it to Indiana on March 1-3, Valparaiso University is holding a Tolkien Conference.

Conversation moved into more critical issues, including one raised by critic Jared Lobdell questioning whether these works should be categorized as fantasy or not. That led into Tolkien's own perspective of his works, which we gleaned from The Letters of Tolkien, a fascinating and worthwhile read for anyone wanting to see the inner workings of the author and witness his stories unfold and develop. As a philologist, it was no surprise to read how invested and devoted he was to the construction of languages, but we did not anticipate learning that he built the stories literally around the elvish language. In some ways, Tolkien described the point of the books as a "linguistic aesthetic" before moving on to issues of life, death, immortality and the makings of a hero. He argues against critics who claim the apparent lack of religion in the texts, stating that they exist in a "monotheistic world of 'natural theology.'" All in all, I would recommend Letters for insight into his dynamics with his peers, his editors, and his fans; the ramifications of the World Wars on his writing; and classic lines about the nature of graduate student work (would helping us with research really be robbing us of our excuse for existing? He seems to think so).

In a nutshell, the evening sparked debates over many areas of his works and challenged us to consider the purpose of fantasy, of "fairy stories", and the many motivations and inspirations behind writing. We wrapped up with riddles reminiscent of The Hobbit, as well as a few written by Tolkien himself (originally in Old English, no less!). Eventually these will be shared on the ChildLit GSA website, so keep an eye out for that. And finally, for a sweet treat, we shared some sugar cookie "Lembas Bread" to sustain our journeys home. Hopefully all forums will be as fruitful in company, discussion, and baked goods.

The discussion did leave me with some larger questions about language, primarily in fantasy literature. I was particularly awed by the notion of building a story around a language (rather than vice versa as would be expected). I understand that for someone so invested in the lifelong pursuit of understanding languages, this would almost be second nature; nevertheless, the term "linguistic aesthetic" continues to play in my mind. Do The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings reflect the craft and beauty of Elvish or does language seem supplemental? Can or does all high fantasy require such treatment and focus on words? Is that how we construct myth? I would welcome any thoughts on your views of the linguistic aesthetic.

Finally, a parting thought: Tolkien once wrote on the possibility of an animated film as a welcome idea, finding the risk of vulgarization less painful than the sillification of the BBC. What do you think he means?

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