Tolkien Society Seminar

Winter 2021: Twenty-first Century receptions of Tolkien


13 February 2021 12:00 utc — view in local time


    № 1: “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” as the new shadow

    Jelena Filipovic

    The video game Middle-earth: Shadow of war (2017) takes place in an alternate storyworld that depicts events preceding LotR and yet it does testimony to the very danger Tolkien envisioned for a possible sequel to LotR when he said, it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of [man’s] nature: their quick satiety with good” (Letters, No. 256). Shadow of War sheds a new light” on Tolkien’s conception of morality throughout the legendarium but threatens it at the same time.

    The game expresses a diabolical dualism of Dark Lord (Sauron) vs Bright Lord (Celebrimbor) and its gameplay focuses heavily on the anti-villain trope. At the core of this problematic, where good and evil seem to merge, is René Girard’s anthropological concept of mimetic rivalry. This is a paradox that occurs when antagonists confront one another so implacably that they begin to resemble one another more and more. The initial differences that separated them are now dissolved.

    On a more political level, the game also problematizes ideas of sovereignty and war: Orcish governance and rebellious cults, Sauron’s vision of an earthly utopia, and a perpetual war of all against all in Mordor — political concepts which can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes’ political theory in Leviathan (1651). These elements, along with the mimetic rivalry, do extend Tolkien’s canonical storyworld, but are they also the inevitable dangers which the author had foreseen? Can we view Middle-earth: Shadow of War as a 21st century digital representation of Tolkien’s meaning behind the new shadow?”

    № 2: Nazgûl taller than night: Tolkien and speculative realism

    Nick Groom, Professor of Literature in English, University of Macau

    This paper is an introduction to recent developments in philosophy and critical theory through the work of Tolkien that comprise a new in the reception of his work. The aim is fourfold. First, to provide a readily accessible and straightforward introduction to this new area, often called Speculative Realism’ – beginning with Eugene Thacker’s The Horror of Philosophy (2011−15) to Graham Harman’s Weird Realism (2012). Secondly, to show how twenty-first-century approaches such these as can provide startling new readings of Tolkien. Thirdly, to show how Tolkien’s own writing has influenced these new critical approaches, and to suggest why this may be. Fourthly, and in conclusion, to widen the focus and explain how Tolkien’s writing provides a perspective on the bigger conceptual and environmental concerns of the Anthropocene’.

    It would of course be impossible to provide a definitive reading in an individual paper, so I will take a single example as a way of illustrating these approaches and, I hope, stimulating ensuing thought. My case study will be a close reading of the representation and significance of darkness in the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The nature of darkness, while (as I have argued elsewhere) draws on earlier depictions of darkness influenced by John Milton and Edmund Burke, is also part of the spectrum of the weird and the eerie — terms suggestively revived by recent thinkers. There is effectively a spectrum’ of philosophical darkness, from the early and medieval Christian theology of Pseudo-Dionysius and The Cloud of Unknowing (with which Tolkien was familiar) to Thacker’s contemporary Black Illumination’. Tolkien’s uses of darkness both draws on the earlier tradition and influences present-day thought, making his work potentially a key text for the twenty-first century.

    № 3: Post-pop Tolkien

    Jem Bloomfield, Assistant Professor of Literature, University of Nottingham

    This paper briefly sketches a taxonomy of Tolkien’s reception since the 1950s, before arguing that the twenty-first century saw the emergence of post-pop” Tolkien.

    The taxonomy:

    • literary: attention on the novels in the literary marketplace and cognate art forms (e.g. the song cycle The Road Goes Ever On)
    • cult: (references and images borrowed as markers of recognition in counter-cultural discourses (e.g. Gandalf for President” badges)
    • pop: works interpreted within dominant discourses of popular culture (e.g. the meme When a Legolas girl becomes an Aragorn woman”) post-pop: works historicized in terms of traditions which shaped them, and as contributing to those traditions (e.g. the prayer O Elbereth, gracious mother…”)

    This post-pop” Tolkien is articulated in two strands: medieval studies and Catholic Christianity. The recent new publications of Tolkien’s own works have moved from elaborating his fictional world to disseminating his medieval scholarship: e.g. his Beowulf and Gawain. Though essays like The Monsters and the Critics” were always influential in academe, this marks a development in the popular image of Tolkien.

    At the same time, increased attention to the theological aspects of Tolkien’s novels has positioned him as not only a Catholic novelist — contemporary with, but very different to, Greene, Waugh and Lodge — but as one whose ideas have shaped people’s experiences of Catholic Christianity. At least one priest I know includes Elbereth” in the titles by which they address the Virgin Mary, as the image originated from the Catholic tradition and can reverently be used within it. Post-pop Tolkien is a distinctive mode of reception, and identifying it can clarify his role in contemporary culture and controversy.

    № 4: Peter Jackson’s phantasia: A modernized myth

    Elise McKenna

    The ability of a story to so command one’s attention as to suspend disbelief is the mark of a great storyteller. On December 19th, 2001, the film adaptation of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, premiered worldwide. The queues of people waiting were excessively long. The box office draw for the film was incredible. Tickets had to be purchased hours in advance. Nearly every show sold out that first weekend. People of all ages were eager to experience this event. The desire for an epic story definitely played a part.

    Peter Jackson revived the sleeping world of Middle-earth for a new millennium. However, as a trailblazer servicing society’s desire for a modern myth, as the late Joseph Campbell believed was needed for our modern society to evolve, Jackson still relied heavily on the original work to guide his phantasia. Jackson reached into the discovered past of elves, men, dwarves, ents, orcs, and the like, drawing forth the jewels of Tolkien’s mythology and rendering the rural past relatable to the modern film-goer. This paper will examine what Jackson’s visual storytelling of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring had done to engage a modern audience.

    № 5: Thrice welcome: How The Hobbit teaches hospitality

    Kathryn Olsen; and Lorienne Schwenk

    From Bilbo’s first Good morning” to his exhortation of don’t wait to knock” to the surviving members of the company of Thorin Oakenshield, the story of Bilbo Baggins models good principles of hospitality. He begins as an unassuming character who seems more like a grocer than a burglar and is considered an elf-friend by the last chapter. 

    This paper will consider and discuss the hero’s quest as framed by Mr. Baggins’ innate need to create a safe space both at home and abroad, in formal words and in extraordinary deeds. Tolkien frequently highlights the struggle between the Took and Baggins sides of Bilbo’s nature and while the reader sees the Took side develop as he riddles with Gollum, struggles with spiders, and discourses with a dragon, his less adventurous side is never beyond reach. 

    This paper will also consider the hospitality of sacred reading practices as a common ground for both the new reader and the lifelong reader. While textual criticism has its place, and studying the author’s life is fascinating, thematic readings often give entry to many readers to explore The Hobbit together and see themselves in the text. Hospitality builds community and traditional sacred reading practices from a variety of spiritual traditions translate well to reading a nuanced and complex text like The Hobbit.

    In short, this treatise will explore the ways in which the comfortable and hospitable culture that Tolkien introduces at Bag End is a fundamental and invaluable influence on the culmination of the quest for Erebor for readers and hobbits alike. By exploring the ways in which Tolkien invites readers through the door of a hole in the ground, readers will be better equipped to invite themselves and those they meet to share in an adventure.

    № 6: The use of storytelling through J.R.R. Tolkien’s works in the fantasy genre for young learners

    Priscila Mateini, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

    The aim of this paper is the use of storytelling to introduce fantasy genre in the context of children literature. J.R.R. Tolkien works have a range of sources to teach children through fantasy and fairy tales to develop reading and writing skills. Since a child has the interaction with those books, the possibility to create and engage themselves throughout the readings can be very significant to become a vivid readers in the future. Storytelling has been part of some schools curriculum, what allows the teachers work some readings materials as well as creative writing for Young learners. 

    The research has been working as part of engagement in a project based learning pilot in a private school in Rio de Janeiro, where the use of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and tales have been empowering young learners to write their impression about the extracted parts from — Treebeard song from The Lord of the Rings and Leaf by Niggle.” Those two pieces were worked with students in the 6th and 7th grades during the pandemic, in an online format (virtual classes) as part of exploratory practices in the field of Literature and English studies.

    № 7: The Ring goes south: The Brazilian translations through time and the perceptions and receptions within fandom and scholarship

    Erick Carvalho de Mello

    The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had three Brazilian Portuguese translations through time. Each one of them with different approaches and receptions. From a social and historical perspective, all those efforts transformed the Brazilian reading experience and created a specific cultural memory around its readers and enthusiasts.

    The aim of this paper is to consider those elements through a social memory perspective and try to show how the differences between those translations could help us to understand the multiple uses of Tolkien’s writings in a large Portuguese speaking culture since the first translations from the 70s to the most recent ones nowadays.

    № 9: Tabletop games of the 21st Century inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien

    David Means

    Humans have been playing board games for at least 5,000 years. Boards and playing pieces have been excavated from tombs in Mesopotamia and Egypt, some dating back to 3000 BC or earlier. This demonstrates that game-playing is not a modern development. In 1995 Klaus Teuber released The Settlers of Catan (now just Catan), which was the first German game to catch on outside Europe, and really took off in the US. The popularity of Catan and other designer’ board games sparked a revival in board game design in the U.S., and much of it was focused on games with inter-generational appeal. This surge of interest in board games started just before the surge of popularity in Tolkien’s works caused by the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. 

    Board game players and fans of J.R.R. Tolkien have something in common: a rich imagination, and the ability to suspend disbelief while they are playing/​reading. At some point it was inevitable that these two fandom streams’ would cross. Each new game that is created can be considered an adaptation (some more successful, some less) of Tolkien’s work, bringing new perspectives to the way we view Prof Tolkien and his legendarium.

    № 10: Tolkien’s grave as a site of memory

    Mina Lukić; and Dejan Vukelić, Research assistant, Српска академија наука и уметности

    The paper examines Tolkien’s grave as a multi-layered site of memory. Firstly, its regular function of a funerary monument is discussed, followed by its contextualisation within cultural memory studies. Inscriptions on writers’ tombstones are analysed, especially the cases where implicit connections between authors and their work are established. In this light, Tolkien’s epitaph is considered as his personal statement and the testimony of his intention to once again affirm the connection between his marriage and the story of Beren and Lúthien. Furthermore, a special attention is given to current memory practices related to Tolkien’s final resting place, stressing its role of a distinctive pilgrimage site. The results of a survey conducted among Tolkien fans are presented to ascertain what visiting the grave means for them, as well as illustrate their attitudes towards the monument and their understanding of the messages it conveys. In addition to individual, private acts of remembrance, the ceremony of Enyalië, the final stage of Oxonmoot, is examined as an organised commemorative act adding new layers of meaning to the overall reception of this site of memory.

    № 11: Artists from Middle-earth: A 21st-century dive into Tolkien’s secondary world

    Marie Bretagnolle

    Tolkien has always inspired book illustrators, from Pauline Baynes in 1949 for Farmer Giles of Ham to the 2020 new edition of Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth embellished by the triumvirate of Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Nasmith.

    Yet the 21st century has seen a new direction in artists’ reception of Tolkien’s secondary world. There is an increased will to enter ever further into Middle-earth, and to make it a world one can visit as if in an experience of virtual reality. This translates into many different mediums, including video games and the cinema, but it also touches traditional art and illustration. Four artists in particular embody this new stance. On the one hand, Alan Lee and John Howe both published so-called sketchbooks”, taking the readers and viewers on a walk from one corner of Middle-earth to the other, and even beyond, as if they themselves had crossed the ford of the Bruinen or survived the Redhorn Pass and had brought back pencil sketches made on the motif. On the other hand, Tómas Hijo and Jay Johnstone explore the possibilities of paintings and linocut prints as artworks created by Middle-earth artists.

    They all echo Tolkien’s often quoted letter 131 to Milton Waldman in which the author wished for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” to prolong his creation, but Johnstone, Hijo, Howe and Lee have set out to offer us art from” Middle-earth rather than art about” Middle-earth, as Tómas Hijo explained in an interview for the Tolkien Collector’s Guide. The four of them offer viewers of the 21st century an unprecedented visual tour of an invented world and the artworks that may have been created there.

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    date recorded 📅2022-01-24
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