Tolkienists.org

Mythcon

Mythcon 51: A virtual Halfling” Mythcon

51st annual Mythcon



Session 13

1 August 2021 22:00 utc — view in local time

    Papers

    № 1: Race, racisms, and Tolkien: A roundtable

    Megan B. Abrahamson, Part-time instructor of communication, humanities, & social sciences, Central New Mexico Community College; Robin Anne Reid, independent scholar; Craig N. Franson, Associate Professor of English, La Salle University; Will Sherwood, independent scholar; and Helen Young, Lecturer in Literary Studies, Deakin University

    The small but growing body of work on race in Tolkien studies includes medievalist, modernist, and postmodernist approaches analyzing Tolkien’s or Jackson’s texts and, increasingly games and transformative works. The release of the films accelerated debate over the question of racism, especially in relation to the origin and nature of the Orcs. The context for this scholarship includes the growing attention to medieval constructions of race in response to the idealization of an imagined White Middle Ages among neo-fascist and white supremacist groups. Dimitra Fimi has shown in Tolkien, Race and Cultural History that Tolkien’s construction of the races of Middle-earth was not limited to his medievalist knowledge but responded to the contemporary scientific and popular knowledge about race and racism of his lifetime. Helen Young, in Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, traces how Tolkien and Robert E. Howard’s fiction established racialized tropes in genre fantasy, tracing not only literature but fan cultures and the effects of digital communications. This roundtable examines the current state of the scholarship, the gaps that exist, and the exclusions that have hampered consideration of constructions of race in Tolkien’s work (including reliance upon authorial intentionality, disciplinary and methodological differences, and the lack of attention paid to Whiteness as a raced category). Robin Anne Reid will discuss her plans for an anthology on race, racisms, and Tolkien and her recent work with The Free Orcs AU” (a transformative work). Craig Franson will discuss the history of Tolkien’s reception and appropriation by white supremacists. Will Sherwood will discuss the impact of the Tolkien Society’s recent seminar on the theme of Tolkien and Diversity. Megan Abrahamson will showcase some Silmarillion fanart and explore the Tumblr subcultures that, by diversifying portrayals of characters who have not (yet) been codified in film, plumb new depths of fantasy worldbuilding where the socially constructed concept of race is truly different from our own. Helen Young will discuss why understanding whiteness as a raced category is important for reading Tolkien and why critical readings are inherently hopeful, and open up who can love Tolkien.

    № 2: Spray-painting the Sistine Chapel: Aesthetic problems in Leaf by Niggle”

    John R. Holmes, Professor of English, Franciscan University of Steubenville

    No work of the allegoriphobic Tolkien is more manifestly allegorical than his short story Leaf by Niggle.” Because of the story’s unmistakably allegorical nature, when the reader encounters the four-word sentence that opens the second paragraph — Niggle was a painter” — the initial response might justly be to read painter” in a more generic sense to mean artist in general.” Indeed, the best criticism of this story tends to read Niggle’s problem as an analogue of Tolkien’s problem as sub-creator of Middle-earth, primarily in writing. But because Tolkien’s rendering of Middle-earth sometimes took form in pencil sketches and watercolors as well, Niggle’s painterly dilemmas sometimes illuminate particular compositional challenges, dilemmas of form and texture that Tolkien had himself encountered and solved in his drawings and paintings. This paper will enumerate the problems specifically identified in the story. These problems include:

    1. Detail vs. Design. Niggle is described as the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.” Yet he wants to paint whole forests, yet with each leaf in that forest as perfect and as individual as the single leaves he paints so well. A look at some of Tolkien’s most successful landscapes will explore how he resolves the tension between the part and the whole, a quality medieval theorists of beauty (particularly Aquinas and Bonaventure) call integritas.

    2. Spray” Painting. Niggle’s most nagging problem is the treatment” of a spray” he imagines in his painting. In medieval manuscript illumination — the one artform on which Tolkien could reasonably claim authority — the primary meaning of spray” is images of foliage emanating from large capital letters.” By 1300 the spray” became the cliché perch for briddes” in lyric poetry (Barbour, Bruce 16.64; Chaucer Topas 59). Compositionally, Niggle imagines the spray as a foregrounding to create depth with the nearest design element, a distant mountain to the left. Illustrations of Tolkien using this technique will be shown.

    3. Legibility. The permeability of the boundaries between painting and storytelling is betrayed when AtkinsNiggle’s schoolmaster — said of the only scrap surviving from Niggle’s painting was damaged but still legible.” In what sense is a painting legible”? Is that the right word? Well, it is revealing.

    4. Visual Imagination and Eternity.

    The essentially incompatibility of overall design with the ambition of spending Niggle-like attention to every leaf in a forest of millions (no exaggeration: a mature oak has 200,000 leaves, so it only takes five trees to make a million leaves). Impossible for a single artist even in the CGI era (sit through the credits of a CGI film if you think computers totally eliminate Niggle’s problem), in a single lifetime. But given eternity — well, that explains the ending of Tolkien’s story.

    As much as possible, I hope to illustrate each of these four issues with art by Tolkien in my presentation.

    № 3: Sterner stuff: Sansa Stark and the system of gothic fantasy

    Joseph Rex Young

    George R.R. Martin’s characterisation of Sansa Stark is among the contentious aspects of the reception of A Song of Ice and Fire. The violence, indignities and threats heaped upon Sansa have been described as gratuitous, cited as evidence of an unusually cold-hearted writer, and marshalled as evidence by those querying the story’s feminist credibility. Sansa’s passive acceptance of such mistreatment could mark her as a character denuded of agency, which would seem either tasteless or a serious misstep by an author of stated feminist sympathies.

    In an alternate reading, however, Sansa’s travails and her capacity to absorb them mark her as a heroine recognisable in William Patrick Day’s system of Gothic fantasy. Despite (indeed, because of) her determination to become a chivalric damsel, Sansa is carefully established as possessing recognisably modern characteristics. She is then thrust unknowingly into a medievalist world that carries numerous resonances of the Gothic tradition, particularly in its capacity as a vehicle of systemic barbarism, violence and abuse. In accordance with Day’s system, Sansa’s capacity to absorb passively this abuse serves a dual purpose. It enters the barbarism of Westeros into the narrative record, damning her persecutors as atavistic monsters, while her ability to cope with such atavism demonstrates the capacity of modern sensibilities to overcome the perceived iniquities of the past. This point becomes particularly clear when Sansa is compared to her brother Robb, who in his relentless but fruitless attempt to overcome the world around him clearly instantiates Day’s construction of the archetypical Gothic male hero. The Gothic world is set up to defeat modern action, but cannot outlast determined passivity; in the context of Day’s model, Sansa is a far more effective opponent of Westeros’s carefully stage-managed iniquities than any of her relations.

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    date recorded 📅2022-01-23
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