Thursday, October 30, 2008


If I haven't answered your email or responded to your message in the past week or so, I apologize. The convergence of

1. An NEH grant application being due;

2. My paper for the medieval authorship conference in Norway needing to be finished before I actually go to the conference;

3. My students turning in their first big paper in the Tolkien class;

4. My daughter having a week off from school;

5. Halloween: costumes, pumpkins, class parties;

6. Having my next door neighbor (who is a master stonemason) have an opening in his schedule to replace our fireplace;

7. Therefore taking the "opportunity" of torn out drywall, cement dust, jackhammers in the house, etc., to paint the living room, including the cathedral ceiling.

has left me completely weeded with regard to email.

Hopefully next week, or at least before I leave for Norway.
The Only Political Post I'll Do

Friday, October 17, 2008

Well I did know that the Old English words are "lob," "cob" and "spiþra"

I got publicly corrected twice in class today.

You, Prof. Drout, were corrected about Tolkien lore?

No, not hardly (though it could certainly happen).

About philological principles?

Nope, though there are plenty of people who could do this.

About literary theory?


About spiders.

We were discussing Shelob, and I mentioned in a throw-away line that I thought her portrayal "as a tarantula" in the film didn't work for me; that Shelob, with her great horns, etc., didn't look like the Peter Jackson version.

"It wasn't a tarantula; it was a trapdoor spider" corrected one student.

"Well, ok," I said. "But I wished they'd used a bird-eating spider. They are much scarier looking." (I had just seen one in a jar up at the Harvard Museum of Natural History."

"A bird-eating spider is actually a kind of tarantula," said a different spider-loving student.

So I have not one, but two arachnophiles in my class.

Later the second student emailed me:
The Black Tunnel Web Spider was the spider that Peter Jackson modeled Shelob after. The spine that Shelob from the movie uses is inconsistent with spiders' actual morphology. Spiders have no spine on their abdomens and use hollowed out fangs to inject venom into their victims.

Shelob could not have been one of the goliath bird-eating spiders because they are tarantulas and tarantulas do not produce webs. Tarantulas rely simply on a single venomous bite to kill their prey before eating it.

Though I would add that suggests that at least some tarantulas put a veil of silk across their burrow entrances, my student is right that this is very different from what Shelob does.

My students so totally rock.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why Memorizing is Good

An email I received the other day: 

Dear Professor Drout,

I don’t know if you remember me but I took Anglo Saxon and Chaucer with you a couple of years ago. I’m teaching junior high English this year and I wanted to share a little story with you about how taking Anglo Saxon helped me with classroom management.

I was trying to define “epic” for the students a couple of days ago and no one would be quiet and pay attention. I was getting really frustrated. I tried to give them examples but everything went in one ear and out the other. Besides that none of them had even heard of The Odyssey or Beowulf! I finally I shouted “It’s like this!” and started reciting the first eleven lines of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon. In an instant the class was DEAD SILENT. They were all dying to know what that was and hung on my every word after that.

So thank you for making me memorize the first eleven lines of Beowulf!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Too many Psalms!

Dear King Alfred,

Did you really have to translate so many Psalms? 


Mike Drout

(Anglo-Saxon Aloud is now up to Psalm 110.  Not only are there still 40 to go, but 118 is an absolute monster.  My goal is still to have everything done by Christmas, but right now that's looking like a stretch if I also include those poems not included in the ASPR like "Instructions for Christians" and "The Grave" and if I go back and re-record the first 18 Psalms in spoken rather than sung form...)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Trip to the Shire

This past weekend I got a chance to visit the Shire. It was re-created in Kentucky, and it was amazing.

The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, is about 30 miles south of Lexington. This was a thriving village up until the Civil War but then fell into decay. In 1961 it was saved and has since be refurbished, with costumed actors playing the parts of Shakers. But for this one weekend, it became Middle-earth.

The rolling Kentucky countryside, the old buildings, the stone walls, the quiet (away from traffic) and darkness at night (away from street lights), combined with 144 Tolkien enthusiasts (most in costume), made the leap of imagination from contemporary America to Tolkien's Shire a very short one indeed. The people who organized A Long Expected Party brought Tolkien's vision of a joyful rural idyll to life.

I gave one of my talks in a gigantic barn, performed a bit of Beowulf in that same barn, and then got to give another talk in a 19th-century house. The audiences were amazing: incredibly informed about Tolkien (and about medieval literature), eager for more, and full of challenging and interesting questions. Even more importantly, every single person I met (and I feel like I met all 144) was interesting, kind and just a pleasure to talk to. I had originally thought that I would sneak back to my room, which was in an incredible little wash house built around 1850, and grade papers between talks, but I got caught up in all that was going on and ended up learning about armor from Michael Cook, listening to costumers discuss sewing techniques and riding a riverboat with hobbits, elves and rangers (Quote of the trip: "Spider in the boobs! Spider in the boobs!" -- the dangers of certain costumes).

Several of the organizers are involved in theatre, and it showed. The weekend never felt like a real convention event (it was not commercial, we weren't jammed into a hotel, there weren't long lines to get actors to autograph things), but by the second day it was becoming something else entirely. The only way I can describe it is to say that the organizers were in some ways putting on a play, but all the rest of us in the "audience" were becoming part of it. By the time we reached the climactic celebration of Bilbo's and Frodo's birthdays, we were pretty much integrated into a single show, the fundamental division between audience and performers completely blurred.

It was, of course, very fun for me to have so many people enjoy Beowulf in Old English (and let me tell you, an old barn, filled with 144 people and surrounded by pitch blackness--it was a new moon--is the perfect place to perform the part of Beowulf where Grendel enters Heorot and eats Hondscio), and it was gratifying to have so many people interested in medieval literature and its links to Tolkien. It was even better to have a chance to spend some time with the parents of one of my best students ever, and I loved listening to the ethereal singing of Kate Brown.
But the very best moment for me came towards the end. Bilbo's party was set up, with paper lanterns strung between trees. The Brobdingnagian Bards were performing on the stage. A large group of people, in full costume, were dancing reels and jigs. I walked pretty far away from the party, into the darkness, until I was far enough from the lights that I could look up and clearly see the stars, so incredibly bright, the milky way clouding the entire middle of the sky. I looked back, and there was the patch of gold light, surrounded by darkness, the people dancing and laughing, the music just barely reaching me. I looked back at all that, and I saw and felt what dream was for the Anglo-Saxons, the joy of people and companionship and music, the joy of the little circle of light. We feel dream, but we rarely can step back and watch it. Tolkien's works give us one way. Seeing what some people inspired by his works could create gave me another.

þær wæs gesiþa dream, duguð unlytel, holbyltla ond ylfa and manig monna and wifmanna.