Tuesday, December 31, 2002

There's a long-running debate going on about myth on and off of Andrea Harris' blog. I have said what I have to say, so I won't repeat but will just suggest that you scroll down for that discussion, but I wanted to add a clarification: My contention is that there is no such thing as a 'genuine' myth. There are simply stories, some of them older than others. Every one of these stories was made up by a human being. The difference between a "myth" and any other old story simply seems to be that a myth has circulated widely through a culture over a long period of time, with many "singers" or "poets" adding value at each iteration. That transmission process may be the explanation for why "myths" appear to be so aesthetically effective, since there's a rigorous selection process at work for many generations, but that does not mean, as someone keeps asserting without argument or evidence, that "myths" are fundamentally different than any other story.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Stop the Insanity!

Ok, a little attention was nice. A lot is, well, creepy. Don't believe me? Read the thread here on Slashdot.

I've temporarily removed my further comments regarding any potential future work with Tolkien since I found my words being copied, edited and moefied, without my permission , in various media.

Media Focus

It's a little strange how things just spread through the media. Out of nowhere on Thurs I got a call from the London Sunday Times and did an interview with them about the Tolkien stuff. Then all of a sudden the floodgates burst open and I've been getting calls from Australia (!) and England and doing radio interviews, etc.

UPDATE: I've temporarily removed my further comments regarding any potential future work with Tolkien since I found my words being copied, edited and modfied, without my permission , in various media.

Hard Drive Crash

Of course just as people are becoming interested in Beowulf and the Critics and sending me tons of email, my hard drive crashes. I'm working from a backup now, but if you emailed recently, I've now lost your email address and the email itself, so please email me again and I will try to get back to you.

And if anyone has a recommendation for data recovery, I'd appreciate knowing about it. Norton won't find anything on the disk even though I've been using File Saver. I'm hoping that Wheaton's IT guys (who are amazing) can help me on Thurs, but we'll see. Will be blogging more about JRRT stuff and the various newspaper / radio stories later.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

How Not to Influence People (even Intellectuals)
This is so unfortunate, because the author is actually not a moron; he's a deservedly well-respected historian. Other bloggers have already pointed out the manifest inaccuracies and distortions in the article, so I want to try to figure out why an obviously intelligent person (ok, not from the article, but if you read his other work) would write something so stupid.

This is an important question, since self-described intellectuals really need to ask themselves "why do they hate us?" of, well, just about everybody. I think the scorn and contempt directed at intellectuals in general is a bad thing, but it's been partially earned by articles like this and by the behavior and statements of the most high profile intellectuals in the arts and humanities over the past many years. Scholars do have useful things to contribute (at least I think I do) to a better understanding and fuller enjoying of, say, The Lord of the Rings, but foolish categorical statements and the petty bashing of fandom makes it very hard for people to give scholars a chance to convince anyone outside their immediate cocoons.

The dumbest thing in Fernandez-Arnesto's article is this:"But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply: contact with other cultures, insights into the past. They enhance your life by stimulating your understanding, for the arts of every civilisation are rooted in its myths."

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. There is no evidence whatsoever that myths "spring from collective effort." Every study of South Slavic guslari, every analysis of Beowulf or the works of Snorri shows exactly the opposite: epics are created by different individuals each adding a bit to the story. Different singers bring different geniuses to their songs. All myths are invented by inventors. Therefore the idea that some myths can give us actual "insights" into the past or "contact" with other cultures but fantasy cannot is a logical contradiction. It's all made up, and so the only thing separating fantasy from myth is time and popularity. In fact, some "genuine" epic literature is far more tedious than The Lord of the Rings could ever be accused of being. I love Njal's Saga, but 85% of the chapters begin "There was a man X. He was the son of Y who was the son of Z..." out to the fifth or sixth generation." I'm a crusty medievalist and like wading through such stuff, but it's hard to make an argument that by stripping away such material, Tolkien didn't make his material more palatable to the audience in the same way that a Homeric bard or a guslar would have adjusted his song to a particular audience's reactions.

Also, no one should print a line like "For the intellectuals in the audience, the only pleasure lies in observing a world created by cannibalising exotic cultures and eluding rational limitations." and expect not to be hated. I don't have quite as many degrees, honorary and otherwise, as Prof. F-A, but if I can't be also considered an "intellectual," then it's a very, very exclusive club indeed. So simply by my taking pleasure in the film (though not nearly as much as I take in the books), I have disproved his paragraph and called into question his general reliablity. In English we tell students "avoid sweeping generalizations: they're too easy to prove wrong." Maybe historians could learn from us.

Finally, I want to refer to a few of the comments on Andrea Harris' post. First, it doesn't matter, for the purpose of judging his fantasy literature, that Tolkien was a major scholar of Old Norse (he knew ON forward and backwards, but he published very little on it, btw). Either he created great art, or he didn't: his scholarly credentials can be used to argue for a disputed reading of a medieval text; they cannot justify his own art. Second, the idea that people reading fantasy literature is some kind of problem is absurd, but it springs from a reasonable premise: that we have not world enough and time to read everything good, so that every moment spent on fantasy is one not spent on Dante or Plato. True enough. But, as an economist would point out, the person who wants to argue this point needs to prove that fantasy is substituting itself for Plato rather than substituting itself for some other pleasure. Impossible to do. In my experience as a teacher of fantasy and of medieval literature, students who read fantasy can be drawn to other literatures and traditions, and they can expand their reading horizons (and fantasy is actually in and of itself good, anyway), thus being more likely to read Plato than if they had never encountered fantasy (I've lured quite a few students into Plato by mentioning the Ring of Gyges...)

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Andrea Harris, whose blog I read daily, has an interesting discussion of this exercise in missing the point by David Brin. Andrea has already done a thorough job of taking the argument apart piece by piece. I just wanted to add something about the "nostalgia" in LotR.

There is indeed something "backward looking" about LotR, but it's not anti-technology (what are the Elven Rings, after all, but good technology that allows for Lorien and Rivendell?) or wholly pro-monarchy. It is rather a completely and characteristically human longing for the good things in the past (I mean here the personal past), projected by Tolkien into a deep, bittersweet sadness about inevitable loss. You might say it's what someone would feel in 1918 looking back at the summers of 1913 or 1914 (but that's another posting).

I have an amazing two-year-old daughter, and I love watching her grow up, but every once in a while you get an incredible pang of sadness at what will never happen again: she'll never fall asleep on my chest like she did when she was a tiny baby; she'll never wear certain things again, or like certain toys. The past is gone forever. Tolkien's genius was to capture that emotion and give it a shape and form, so that Frodo at the Grey Havens is immediately understandable to readers in a deeply personal way. People, like Brin, who want to claim that this feeling is politically retrograde or base or wrong are simply missing out on a great deal of human emotion. We don't have to live in the past, and in the character of Denethor Tolkien shows how destructive such living could be. But it is not merely acceptable but actually good to remember, long for, and even grieve for those things that were great and beautiful but which are now, as a price paid for our free will and open future, gone forever.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

In regard to this idiotic screed that the Lord of the Rings is racist, I recommend this MISTing by Vegard Valberg. He does a lovely job proving that the writer for the Guardian is, well, a fool. I particularly like his noting that the Southrons are not inherently evil, but simply deluded by Sauron and are in fact valiant fighters.

Let me just add a few bits. First, Tolkien in the 1930's made it very clear that absolutely hated the German race laws and wanted nothing to do with them. He said that Hitler was guilty of "ruining" and "perverting" the noble Northern spirit with his "Nordic nonsense." He also stated publicly that he hated apartheid in 1959.

The "good is white / black is evil" thing may be traditional, but it's not really completely true in the Lord of the Rings. The livery of Gondor is black (they are good guys, you know). Saruman is "the white" and his symbol is the white hand (duh!).

Finally, the evilness of orcs does not come from "genetic engineering," Mr. Guardian writer doofus, but from their original torture and enslavement by Morgoth (and anyway, the origins of orcs was a vexed question for Tolkien). Saruman may or may not have crossed orcs with humans to allow the Uruk-hai to travel in daylight (which is not the point that our genius film critic was making), but the evil in the orcs is inherent; it's one of the rules of the world.

"Strip away the archaic turns of phrase and you find a set of basic assumptions that are frankly unacceptable in 21st-century Britain." What kind of pompous ass could even live with himself after writing a sentence like that? Someone who shouldn't try to review work that is so far beyond his crabbed, simplistic, self-righteous understanding.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

I've now been a real live author for a day or so, and it's pretty nice. But the weird thing is that the book has been finished for so long (the real writing was done in October 1999) that mentally I guess I'd moved past it. Now I'm much more excited about the possibility of How Tradition Works being accepted for publication (one favorable reader's report down, one -- hopefully -- to go)

But now all of a sudden everyone wants to talk about Beowulf and the Critics and there's this weird mental gear-shifting that goes on. Anyway, here's what I know: when my author copies shipped from the bindery (probably Mon. morning), the rest of the print run should have shipped to the publisher (MRTS) and I assume immediately from there to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. So this link, which says "not yet published" should soon say "published" and the book should ship to all of you who ordered it. I will keep you posted.

And more importantly, thanks for all the supportive emails in the past few days. It's good to know that some people are interested in what was an immense amount of work (and also a whole lot of fun; I'm not complaining at all).

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

The Two Towers

That Two Towers review... I actually don't want to do a real review, since that might spoil the movie for some, but I'll give a few tidbits. This movie is very consistent in style with Fellowship. If you liked Fellowship, you'll like this movie. If you hated what Jackson did with Fellowship, you'll probably hate this movie even more. There is the majestic setting, the amazing combat scenes, the grandeur of the epic, etc. Someone did their research on Anglo-Saxon art and architecture, so Rohan is technically correct. There were, it seemed to me, fewer wince-inducing moments. But there are many plots changes, both great and small. Some I could understand as helping to shoehorn Tolkien's opus into a Hollywood format. Others just seemed stupid to me, and the worst part was that they combined to make Middle-earth seem small both in terms of absolute scale (people zip from Lorien to Helm's Deep in a day or two) but also in terms of everyone knowing everything and everybody. I'm not sure how much of that was necessary, but, well, nobody is going to give me 300 million dollars to make a movie, either.

There were some very well done bits; I think Eowyn is very good, and I liked the look (but not the speaking or the characters) of the Ents. The Gollum cgi is just amazing; I wish I could say the same for his dialogue. The battle scenes have to be the best ever filmed, and I wonder how they are going to top Helm's Deep in The Return of the King.
More later, perhaps, when I digest the 3 hour movie.

Ok, it's been months, and my Tolkien book was finally published today, so I should update my blog. And I saw the Two Towers, so if I still have any readers besides family members, you might want to know about that, too.

First, the Tolkien Book. It's called Beowulf and the Critics, and was written by Tolkien in the 1930's. From it he drew his celebrated British Academy lecture, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." The book I edited was donated to the Bodleian Library by Christopher Tolkien. The Tolkien Estate gave me permission to edit it a number of years ago, and after publication delays, etc., it is finally out. I think it will be of interest to almost anyone who is interested in Tolkien's overall life's work, of which his scholarship was a very important part. You will need to read Beowulf first, to understand what is going on. Seamus Heaney's translation is famous, and a great poem, but it's really a modern poem based on Beowulf rather than a straight translation. Roy Liuzza's edition is closer to the original (and very nicely done). Or you could just learn Old English from my on-line Grammar Book and then read the poem for yourself.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Well, it's been a long time since I've had time to blog (not that I have time now), but I thought it would be useful to try to get back into the habbit. The big news right now is that my edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics is due to be published either tomorrow or early next week. You can buy the book at amazon via this link. I think serious readers of Tolkien will enjoy the book and the glimpse it gives into JRRT's work and thought.

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Well this is kinda sad, but not unexpected: Toni Morrison makes idiotarian comments.

Now some of this may be by the reporter, rather than by Morrison. You be the judge:

Inaugurating a new lecture series started by fellow Nobel laureate, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Morrison on Monday retold the story of "Beowulf," the epic of how good triumphs: by continuous, bloody and escalating violence, until evil is destroyed.

"You may be reminded of events, rhetoric and actions of many current . . . violent upheavals," she told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 U.N. officials and diplomats.

For centuries, the language of war was inspiring and glamorous, and it was the language the world accepted, Morrison said. "The heroic language of war was rivaled only by religious language."

First of all, if you're going to talk about Beowulf, you should actually know something about it, which she obviously doesn't.

Let me quote that again: "good triumphs: by continuous, bloody and escalating violence, until evil is destroyed."

This may perhaps be the single most stupid thing ever said about Beowulf. Good triumphs? At the end of the poem Beowulf is dead and his people are anticipating being exterminated or enslaved by their enemies.
"Escalating violence"? What the hell does that mean? The dragon is a more deadly enemy than Grendel or Grendel's mother, but that doesn't show "escalation." It's a different sort of violence, brought about for different reasons, not an "escalation."

But the really idiotarian thing is the idea that if we replace the rhetoric of violence with the rhetoric of non-violence, anything will change. Try non-violence and understanding with Grendel and see what happens. (hint: he'll eat you). The problem that is at the heart of Beowulf is the problem that we're still dealing with: to give up war and hope for peace is only possible when you are so strong that your enemies fear to attack you. But you can only become that strong by gaining a fearsome reputation in war. Beowulf is seen as a great king because he did not use his power unjustly (see his dying speech) and because his reputation allowed his people to have peace and prosperity.

Morrison's thick-headed analysis provides just another data point to support Drout's Nobel Prize Theory of Stupidity. To wit: once you win a Nobel, you begin to act like a moron because you no longer get criticized or edited, and you can say stupid things and people will not contradict you. Losing your feedback loop, you lose your connection to reality and you become an idiot. The same phenomenon can be see in the work of popular writers, culture makers like Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, etc.: once you stop getting edited, your work goes to hell.

But the main point: if you don't read Old English, don't comment on Beowulf.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Since September 11 I have had numerous nightmares about my daughter dying. She is only 21 months old, brilliant, beautiful, loving... and on Flight 11, which came from here in Boston, was a 2-year-old whose parents almost certainly felt the same way about him. Four people that my wife worked with died in that flight, and it could have been much worse, as many more of her co-workers were supposed to have been on it, but had gone out on Monday.
But since Sept. 11 I have had horrible dreams in which my little one is dead. Not killed in a highjacking incident, but dead in some other way. I wonder if there are other people who've had this happen.
I just want to remind people who say things like "you have to understand..." about Sept 11.
There is no possible way that 2-year-old could have done anything evil, or wrong, or deserving of his death. And that fact alone invalidates any possible cause the terrorists could have had. The fact that he was on the plane, and they knew it, and they didn't abort their evil plan for that reason alone makes them subhumans.
Not that we were lacking in evidence for their subhumanity before, of course.

Friday, June 14, 2002

I've just spent a little time making the Wormtalk page look a little better (though it's no Lileks site) and I realized that people might take my title the wrong way. Oh well. "My life among the invertebrates" does refer to my being often ashamed of my profession (as well as being homage to a Far Side cartoon). But it's not a reflection of where I teach, since I happen to be a part of what is probably the only English department in the country that is not a nest of vipers (to mix in a vertebrate metaphor). And the college I teach at is itself far less idiotarian than the rest of academia. We actually care about teaching our students rather than indoctrinating them.
But, sadly, the profession as a whole is one of invertebrates, though that may be changing with the passage of generations. One hopes.
Mickey Kaus points to this Peggy Noonan essay and agrees with her that "Homeland Security" is an awful name. Kaus and Noonan both seem to think there are Nazi overtones to "homeland." I'm not sure I agree about that, but I do agree that "Homeland Security" is awful, and stupid. Kaus is also right that the agency should be called the "Department of Defense" and the current Defense Department should go back to its original name of "War Department." I would go further and push these eminent commentators (and everyone else who would listen) to STOP USING EUPHAMISMS.
They don't fool anyone, you know. You can call it "Public Safety" all you want, but it's still the campus police. I won't even go on with the rest of the stupid list of common and idiotic (and everybody knows they're idiotic) euphamisms. And I don't care who started it, liberals or conservatives ("family values" or "differently able" or "collateral damage"). Just stop. Ok, big time journalists? Call things what they are. People will appreciate you for it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Glenn Reynolds here points to this article to show that Chomsky's opinions on matters linguistic are not faring so well.
It's a little misleading, though. Now don't get me wrong. I loathe Noam for his political nonsense as much as the next person, but his intitial insights into language really are all they are cracked up to be. Syntactic Structures was a ground-breaking book. The problem with Noam is that after Syntactic Structures, people stopped challenging him. With no honest feedback, he became loopier and loopier. And the American tenure system means that if you do something great when you're 35, the world is stuck with you for the next 30 years, whether you do anything else good or not (viz. Harold Bloom, who had one good idea in 1973). Chomsky is arrogant and close-minded. I've heard stories from reputable sources that he has corrected native speakers of a language when they say something that doesn't agree with the current version of his theory. But the underlying elements of the theory--d-structure and s-structure and transformations--are accepted by just about everyone in linguistics.
Well, I've been lurking around the Blogosphere since late 2001 and I figured "Hey, this would be a great way to undermine my tenure case." So here goes.