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This is my brief (for me!) report on the presentations made during the first day of the Tolkien Seminar.
First: I’ve been presenting on Tolkien, organizing conference sessions (for the International Congress for Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, and for the Tolkien Studies Area of the Popular Culture Conference) since 2004. I have also attended Tolkien-themed conferences created and run at their universities by Christopher Vaccaro and Brad Eden. I have done two bibliographic essays in which I review all the scholarship on a specific topic (female characters for one, race and Tolkien for the other).
Takes deep breath
I have never seen a stronger group of presentations than I saw today (and I expect tomorrow will be similar).
Second: the short descriptions I give for each cannot begin to convey the scope, theoretical strength, depth of analysis, and beauty of expression of the presentations. Moreover, the dialogue and connections between presentations created a stronger sense of coherence than many organized “sessions” — I suspect that we owe thanks to Will who selected and organized the sixteen papers into a two-day event.
I am more familiar with the theory and methods in some presentations than others which means I may err in my summary. To the presenters: if you see any way in which I misrepresented your ideas or arguments, please feel free to send me a correction (robinareid AT fastmail DOT com).
Third: one thing I noticed in a lot of the attacks on the Tolkien Society and the presentations is how they copied and pasted the titles but never mentioned the names of the authors.
I am including both in my report not only because of academic standards (the first thing one acknowledges is the writer/author), but also because as I read through piece after piece mocking the titles and the unnamed authors, I began to see the rhetoric as dehumanizing, as attempting to wipe out any awareness of the human beings who love Tolkien, who spend hours reading, writing, and thinking about Tolkien, and who have to much to share and teach us about their readings of Tolkien.
So, on to the presentations!
Cordeliah Logsdon “Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings”
Disclaimer: I already know something of Cordeliah’s work because their essay will be published in the anthology I am co-editing with Chris Vaccaro and Steve Yandell (‘We Could Do with a Bit More Queerness in These Parts’: Tolkien’s Queer Legendarium). I knew when I first read the essay that it was unique in Tolkien studies, and we are lucky to be the first to publish it.
Cordeliah’s presentation on Finduilas (her presence/absence in the text) and Denethor, on the history of the Stewards of Gondor, on the complexities of narration and character speech, all in the context of trans semiotics, was both new and somehow familiar. By that I mean, that as they developed their argument, drawing from Tolkien’s text, I recognized the material, but I was looking at the work through new eyes, similar to Frodo seeing Cerin Amroth, seeing “no colours but those he knew.… but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had that moment perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful” (“Lothlórien”).
Clare Moore “The Problem of Pain: Portraying Physical Disability in the Fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien”
Clare’s presentation compared how Tolkien’s described injuries to characters in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings in the context of Disability Studies/theories, an exciting new field. I am sure this presentation is part of a larger project because there is so much that can be said. I enjoyed how she highlighted the ways in which the narrative works, from describing injuries at the moment of the event to (in some cases) showing the psychological and spiritual effects later in the life of the character (most notably with Frodo).
V. Elizabeth King “ ‘The Burnt Hand Teaches Most About Fire’: Applying Traumatic Stress and Ecological Frameworks to Narratives of Displacement and Resettlement Across Cultures in Tolkien’s Middle-earth”
Elizabeth’s presentation drew upon theories about trauma and displaced peoples, including the concept of intergenerational trauma, to discuss the Elves as peoples, and Elrond as a character. I have long thought that scholars paid too little attention to Elrond, and Elizabeth’s discussion showed how much there is to say about how the events of his life, and the history of the Elves’, affected his choices as a character.
Sara Brown “The Invisible Other: Tolkien’s Dwarf-Women and the ‘Feminine Lack’ ”
Sara’s presentation fills a huge gap in the scholarship on female characters and gender construction in Tolkien’s legendarium, a gap that now seems glaringly obvious but which (as far as I know) nobody ever noticed before. Drawing from French and Anglophone gender theory and bringing evidence not only from The Lord of the Rings but the tangled threads of the History of Middle-earth to show Tolkien’s complex process of thinking/rethinking Dwarf-Women, Sara provides a model for thinking about gender and Tolkien, but an approach that I think could be applied to fan fiction as well where some fans have attempted transformative and reparative ‘readings’ of Tolkien’s Dwarves.
Sultana Raza “Projecting Indian Myths, Culture and History onto Tolkien’s Worlds”
Sultana’s presentation (like others) has a potential scope that goes far beyond the time she had today, but her introduction to the similarities between figures from Indian myths and Tolkien’s legendarium is a strong contribution to the body of work on Tolkien and myth that exists. A good deal of work has been done on the influence of myths from European cultures, often with emphasis on the similar themes, characters, and tropes. Sultana’s work expands that “universal” focus outside of Europe and the “West.”
Nicholas Birns “The Lossoth: Indigeneity, Identity, and Antiracism”
Nicholas’ presentation on the Lossoth, appearing only in Appendix A, addresses the lack of attention paid to this culture and is a strong contribution to the small but growing anti-racist scholarship on Tolkien. Drawing on the history of indigenous peoples in colonialist settings in the 20th century, Nicholas identifies the complexity of the Lossoth’s relationship to the history of Númenor.
“The Problematic Perimeters of Elrond Half-elven and Ronald English-Catholic”
Disclaimer: Like Cordeliah’s, this presentation is part of a larger essay that will be published in the anthology I am co-editing with Chris Vaccaro and Steve Yandell (‘We Could Do with a Bit More Queerness in These Parts’: Tolkien’s Queer Legendarium). Kristine Larsen considers the contradictory claims that Tolkien made at different times, claiming his likeness to Faramir, and to hobbits and then compares the biographies of “Ronald” (an English Catholic in a time and place where Catholics were marginalized) and “Elrond” (half an Elf, half a Man) to tease out similarities between the two lives. There was no claim of intention or allegorical meaning, as opposed to how authors connect to characters they create, but I found the argument compelling because of the textual and biographical details.
Cami Agan “Hearkening to the Other: Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”
Disclaimer: I have never been able to make it through this part of Morgoth’s Ring, or to make any sense of the (few) presentations I’ve heard on the chapter. The metaphysics are too dense for me.
Cami’s presentation made me want to go see what I was missing although I may wait and hope that the essay is included in the Conference Proceedings so I can read the two texts side by side. Even then it will probably take a few readings! I know how important this text is to Tolkien’s thoughts about one of the major themes of his legendarium, the difference between the life spans and deaths and lives after death of Humans and Elves. I think it is important, as Cami noted, that this debate concerns the only Human/Elf pairing in which the Human is the woman (something I had grasped, and have thought important in terms of constructions of gender in the legendarium), and that it is presented as a conversation in which the characters strive to learn from each other (rather than, as far I can tell, “win” the argument)!
There will be another full day – eight presentations – tomorrow! I believe you can still register for the free seminar here
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