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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Tolkien 2009 in Vermont – a report

N.E. Brigand

Apr 19 2009, 5:58am

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Tolkien 2009 in Vermont – a report Can't Post

In October 2004, about a dozen TORN members, myself among them, attended “The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder”, a conference on Tolkien held at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Over the next six months, they presented a series of reports on most of the nineteen papers that were delivered there.* (The actual conference proceedings were published in 2006.) Since then, I’ve attended another twelve conferences where Tolkien was featured, but have followed up here with only one full report, on the Birmingham “Ring Goes Ever On” conference in 2005.

Starting with this post, I’m trying to catch up, having written up my notes in a more or less coherent form, and I’ll be posting them here over the next few months. In each case, I’ll have some questions (printed in boldface) for discussion – respond to as few or as many as you like. For the most part, my summaries won’t be as detailed as those for the Marquette conference: expect highlights rather than full synopses. One reason for this is that even with my notes in hand, too much time has passed to recall the presentations clearly. Another and more important reason is my realization that the presenters’ chances for publication can be hurt if their papers are described in too much detail in a public forum – for the most part, these papers are works in progress, which when presented have not yet been accepted by any journal or collection. The Marquette papers, by contrast, were already known to be forthcoming in the Proceedings mentioned above (and I like to think that a few people purchased that book because we discussed them here).

I begin with the event freshest in my memory: last weekend was the sixth Tolkien conference at the University of Vermont, which I attended for the third consecutive year. This intimate event in Burlington is organized annually by Christopher Vaccaro, of UVM’s English department. As you probably know, he sometimes posts here as Istar Indigo, and has had students in his online courses post questions here from time to time. Each year the conference has a general theme, to which many of the presentations relate, in one way or another, and this year that was Sex and Gender in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The conference is free and open to the public, but most of the attendees are academic presenters or Vaccaro’s students.

I arrived about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, and opted to walk (twenty minutes) from the airport to my hotel. The weather in Burlington was much better than in the past two years, with clear skies and temperatures near 50 degrees (Fahrenheit). Both Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump were clearly visible to the east and southeast, respectively, as were the Adirondacks to the west, across Lake Champlain.

Besides our gracious host, there were two other TORNadoes in attendance this year, as I was joined by weaver, who drove in with her husband from their home along the St. Lawrence River in New York. (It actually took them longer to drive in than it took me to fly from Cleveland.) They arrived shortly after I did, and picked me up at my hotel – my thanks to the weavers for transportation both days! We had dinner together at a little restaurant called Bove’s: “lasagna now available every night!” Then he dropped us off on campus before heading back to their hotel.

As in past years, the conference opened with an evening of “Open-mike fireside Tolkien reading” – the fireplace (gas) is in a bookstore-café in the student center. This was a pleasant, low-key event, in which anyone attending was encouraged to step up and read from Tolkien’s works. As no one else seemed eager to go first, I kicked things off with Tolkien’s 1934 poem, “Firiel”. Tolkien later rewrote about half of this poem (53% of the words changed, and 5% more were moved) and retitled it “The Last Ship” when he included it in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil collection of 1962. Does anyone else see a connection between Tolkien’s original version and Bobbie Gentry’s song, “Ode to Billy Joe”? Later in the evening, I got to read once more, and picked the passage from Smith of Wootton Major in which Smith relinquishes the fairy-star to Alf and returns home.

With one notable exception described below, all of the other readings came from LOTR, including passages from “The Shadow of the Past”, “A Knife in the Dark”, “The Ring Goes South”, “A Journey in the Dark”, “Lothlórien”, two selections from “Farewell to Lórien”, “The Riders of Rohan”, “The Passge of the Dead Marshes” (a credible imitation of Andy Serkis), “The Black Gate Is Closed”, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”, “The Siege of Gondor”, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”, “The Steward and the King”, “The Grey Havens”, and “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”. Vaccaro’s two selections were from “The Road to Isengard” and “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”. And weaver did very well by some paragraphs of “The Old Forest”. If you had to choose one passge to read aloud from the LOTR chapters listed above, what would it be? If you had to choose one Tolkien passage not from LOTR to read aloud, what would it be?

Most impressively, three presenters recited from memory, and three more sang! The song selections were Galadriel’s lament (“I sang of leaves”); Charles Randolph Grean’s “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” (originally performed by Leonard Nimoy) with guitar accompaniment and delighted audience response; and best of all, “The Stone Troll”, sung and acted by a student in hobbit costume.

The evening ended with Vaccaro, by request, reading a passage from The Wanderer for someone who knew that Tolkien was influenced by Old English poetry but wanted to know what that sounded like.

On Saturday, the conference continued (and concluded) with five sessions of papers and discussion. There were three papers in the first morning session, which were loosely related under the heading, Difference: Sexual, Gendered, and Spiritual. Opening the day was Elizabeth Bateman’s “‘Not all tears are an evil’: Tragedy and Consolation in The Lord of the Rings.” Bateman was only obliquely concerned with Gandalf’s last words; as the question she addressed was this: why does Tolkien, when referring to the story of Beren and Lúthien in LOTR, downplay that tale’s happy aspects? And what does this say of his views on the uses of tragedy? What do you think? Along the way, she identified two parallels between LOTR and The Silmarillion that I don’t think I’ve seen addressed before, first between “The Council of Elrond” and “Of Beren and Lúthien”, and second between “The Choices of Master Samwise” and “Of Túrin Turambar”. Do you see any connections there?

Bateman was followed by Corey Olsen with “Tolkien’s Theory of Gender in The Silmarillion”. First Olsen set aside the case of Éowyn, as a “red herring” whose gender-subversion Tolkien, it may be argued, excuses due to her particular circumstances. Then Olsen turned to The Silmarillion, where gender even in the angelic Valar is a “difference of temper [that] they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice”. He quoted some gender descriptions in that book –as of Ossë (“in storm he delights”) vs. Uinen (“calm upon the waves”)– which might be seen as “merely investing traditional stereotypes with supernatural glamour”. His paper considered alternatives to the usual gender roles in The Silmarillion. Can you think of some examples? Olsen concluded that Tolkien’s portrayal of gender actually subverts expectations.

The scheduled third presenter was running late, so Christopher Vaccaro moved forward his own paper, “Queer Theory and Tolkien’s Middle-earth: A Review of the Scholarship”. As indicated by his title, Vaccaro presented an assessment of critical opinion, with an eye to “addressing gaps and identifying new directions”. This included a helpful re-cap of Queer Theory, which questions the supposed immutability and timelessness of gender. Vaccaro thoroughly summarized critical opinion of sexuality in LOTR, from Edwin Muir’s claim in 1955 that Tolkien’s characters were asexual juveniles; to Brenda Partridge’s argument in 1983 that sexuality is presented in coded fashion, as in the encounter between Sam and Shelob; to more recent and sophisticated studies like the work of Anna Smol, Esther Saxy (who compares Frodo and Sam to Maurice and Scudder, lovers from different classes in E.M. Forster’s Maurice), and –one of squire’s favorites– “Gazing Upon Sauron: Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of The Postcolonial Optic”, by Jes Battis. Coming in for Vaccaro’s censure was the late Daniel Timmons, for a “surprisingly homophobic” Mythlore article of 2001, “Hobbit Sex and Sensuality in The Lord of the Rings”, which apparently argues that Frodo’s experience with the Ring renders him unable to live a proper heterosexual life. One of the longest comments that Vaccaro reported, with approval, was this one written in a non-scholarly setting – can you guess who the author is?

Sam's love for Frodo and for Rosie are two different kinds of love… I don't think Sam imagined that the one would affect the other. Whether one is 'higher' and the other 'deeper' or 'more grounded' is hard to say. But Sam's love for Frodo is linked to his love of the Elves, and stories, and eventually with the sound of the Sea, so it's bound up with mystery and longing. His love for Rosie is comfortable, and safe, and home-bound. He needed them both, as Frodo understood – Frodo had the same experience of being 'torn in two' when Bilbo left, after all. Remember that he offered to go with Bilbo, but Bilbo knew that Frodo was 'still in love with the Shire.' Now it's Sam who's still in love with the Shire, and Frodo who must leave. I love how the circle is completed!

Vaccaro also made two general points, apart from the survey. First, that many members of the LOTR readership/audience are obviously willing to consider queer readings, at least for comic effect – among several examples, he pointed to the existence of at least two different parodies titled “Brokeback Mount Doom” on youtube (I’ve just watched two such: the one structured like a preview trailer is better than the music-montage). Second, that the roots of the homosocial aspects in Tolkien’s book can be found in Victorian and Edwardian literature. Just today, I came across this commentary at Jeffery Hodges’ blog, concerning Tom and Arthur in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Hodges poses a question about that book that we could ask about interpretations of LOTR: “Have we lost our innocence or gained an insight?”

Each paper session concludes with a question-and-answer period. Here are some that followed these first papers: What is the effect of Eärendil’s story on the characters and readers of LOTR? Could Elves be said to represent the female aspect of humanity? How do people in cultures where intimate gestures between male friends are more commonplace than they are in the English-speaking world respond to the relationship of Frodo and Sam?

Papers in the morning’s second session, Tolkien and the Literary Tradition, ranged widely from that theme. The first scheduled presenter was absent, so we missed her paper on “similar images between Éowyn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice”. (Do you think the characters are in any way alike?) Instead the session opened with the paper skipped in the first half of the morning, Trudy G. Shaw’s “(As it were) a Vocation’: Frodo’s Celibacy from Tolkien’s Traditional Catholic Perspective”. Shaw’s paper grew out of what she saw as misconceptions concerning Frodo’s celibacy, particuarly from non-Catholics: for instance, that it makes him an incomplete person, or that it is a result of the Ring’s influence. Unfortunately, Shaw’s paper ran long, and hadn’t nearly reached a conclusion before she was compelled to wrap up and allow the next two speakers to present. So, besides being useful for story purposes –leaving Frodo available for an adventure– why does Frodo never marry? Feel free to refer, as Shaw did, to the LOTR drafts, or Tolkien’s biography, or his letters (like the one quoted in her title – and why does Tolkien say there that Frodo is “less interesting”?), or to the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as you wish.

James Williamson followed Shaw with “History, Love, and Bodies: Tolkien and Morris”, which explained that despite Tolkien’s acknowledgment of the Victorian artist and author, William Morris, as an influence, and some obvious similarities in certain plot elements and style, they took very different approaches to the display of physical affection. Morris is much more forthright concerning “smooching and body-mushing”, though he obscures his action in archaic prose. Williamson read from LOTR and from Morris’s 1896 book, The Well at World’s End. I don’t know Morris’s book, but based on Williamson’s description of how the hero, stopping for lunch at an inn, first overlooks his hostess but then comes to realize she is both fair and sad, as selectively quoted from from this chapter, and particularly from this paragraph:

So when he had eaten and drunk, and the damsel was still there, he looked on her and saw that she was sad and drooping of aspect; and whereas she was a fair maiden, Ralph, now that he was full, fell to pitying her, and asked her what was amiss. “For,” said he, “thou art fair and ailest nought; that is clear to see; neither dwellest thou in penury, but by seeming hast enough and to spare. Or art thou a servant in this house, and hath any one misused thee?”

…I thought that Williamson was building a connection to the interaction of two LOTR characters in particular (Does it remind you of anything in particular from LOTR?) but reading it now in context, I can see why he responded in the Q&A that the connection was tenuous – “small would be the harm if I should kiss thy lips and face” just isn’t Tolkien. Williamson wrapped with some comments on the different “historical” weight Tolkien and Morris give their romantic plots within the stories.

The morning sessions concluded with a presentation by Rob Wakeman on The Children of Húrin. His previously announced subject had been connections between COH and the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo (for which Tolkien prepared both a student edition and a translation). However, since submitting his abstract, Wakeman had found his paper going in different directions, and leaving Sir Orfeo aside, he gave his paper a new focus and title, which I failed to record – but it might have been “Some who wander are lost”, as his subject was Túrin’s wanderings, in several senses. Wakeman’s paper itself wandered, I thought, but not without striking several good insights on ways in which Túrin is, as he calls himself, “blind” and “lost”. How so, do you think?

There were fewer questions following this session: What connections are there between Sir Orfeo and The Children of Húrin? How does the fantasy of Mervyn Peake relate to that of Tolkien and Morris? Then the conference broke for lunch, where weaver and I were able to join the presenters –thanks, Chris!– and spent most of our time talking to Jacob Seliger and James Weldon. We also heard from Jane Chance that, having begun her Tolkien research in the 1970s, she early amassed a substantial collection of Tolkiena whose value has notably increased.

Chance followed lunch with her keynote speech, “‘In the Company of Orcs’: Peter Jackson’s Queer Tolkien”, which will appear later this year in a collection called Queer Movie Medievalisms (edited by Tison Pugh and Kathleen Coyne Kelly). She showed two film clips that I hadn’t seen before: the chapter (scene 62) from the ROTK extended edition whose name appears in her article’s title; and what is probably the best-known scene from Neil LaBute’s 1997 film, In the Company of Men, in which cruel corporate climber Chad (played by Aaron Eckhart) compels an intern, Keith (played by Jason Dixie) to expose himself, ostensibly to prove his manhood. Among other things, Chance’s paper argues that LaBute’s scene influenced Jackson’s – though strangely, Chance never mentioned an amusingly appropriate line that Eckhart delivers in the scene: “The ring is just dangling right there.” And who chose the titles for the LOTR DVD-chapters – was it Peter Jackson? Was it post-facto? Does anyone know why this title was chosen? She compared Jackson’s interpretation to that of Rankin-Bass; revisited the history of Queer Theory and its application to LOTR that Vaccaro had addressed earlier; contrasted Tolkien with William Blake on the subject of repression (with reference to Blake’s characters, Los, Enitharmon, and Orc); and argued generally that the choices made by Jackson’s team brought forward ideas of masculinity and feminity that are present but hidden in Tolkien. As often, I had hard time time following Chance’s arguments, and there were some mistakes; also, sometimes it wasn’t clear whether she was describing the books or films. Still, her interpretation of film-Frodo’s request to “Hit me, Sam, start fighting” was at least provocative! So was her interpretation of the film’s image of the chain around Frodo’s neck, though I think she missed a chance to cite Blake again, for a specific detail in Blake's picture (which she showed) in which Los is jealous, “resulting”, Blake writes, “in the tightening of the girdle around [Orc’s] neck”. But I’m not sure she’s entirely off-base: at least, I don’t think Tolkien describes the Ring-chain actually digging into Frodo’s neck – so why did Jackson & co. film it that way? Chance also made a connection, I’m not sure why, between the famous joined-hands image in the film’s Mount Doom resolution (and in the Anduin in FOTR, though Chance missed it) to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Is there anything to this?

Chance was asked the following questions, among others: Is there another literary antecedent of “In the Company of ——” , that would explain both Jackson and LaBute, as well as the Angela Carter story (and Neil Jordan film), The Company of Wolves? Is film-Saruman’s creation of orcs from slime meant to be a parody version of God’s creation of man? Does the emergence of the Uruk-hai derive from Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film? And I have one more for you: Do any of the other essays in the forthcoming collection interest you? I’m curious about “Danny Kaye and the ‘fairy tale’ of queerness in The Court Jester”, as I enjoy parts of that film.

There were just two entries in the next session, Theorizing Tolkien. First, Jacob Seliger’s paper, whose title had been announced as “A Hegelian Reading of the Elves: Synthesizing the Master-Slave Dialectic in The Silmarillion”, but which he modified slightly (I didn’t write down the new title). Of Hegel, I know only what I read this week on wikipedia. I’m not sure what Hegel’s theories say about the relationship of Elves and Morgoth. Here’s a question Jane Chance asked: Is there an opposition in Middle-earth between becoming and decay?

James Weldon gave the day’s last paper, “Elvish Agency: Performativity and Arwen Evenstar in The Lord of the Rings”. Compared to Lúthien, Arwen seems at first glance to be, in Melanie Rawls terms, just a “well-bred gentlewoman”, and is even less obviously active than she was in the LOTR drafts. Weldon analyzed the style of two of the three paragraphs in which the Aragorn’s standard is unfurled, and considered that action and the weaving of the banner as “speech acts”, with a nod to Mythopoeia and the scholarship of Verlyn Flieger. What is the relationship between Arwen and the banner?

Here are some questions asked at the conclusion of this session: Can the Dead see Arwen’s design on the banner in the darkness when it is first unfurled? What is Ilúvatar’s role in the dialectic of Middle-earth? Is there a connection between the names “Tinúviel” and “Undómiel”? After a snack break, the conference ended with an hour-long free discussion between presenters and audience on the title theme of the conference. Weaver had to leave about halfway through this session, to start her four-hour drive home. Meanwhile, I didn’t take notes, but can report on the question with which Christopher Vaccaro started off the dialogue: Is anyone turned on in The Lord of the Rings? And another that came up along the way: When does Sam blush in the story, and why?

I had dinner with some of the presenters and Vaccaro’s students in the solarium dining room at The Daily Planet restaurant in downtown Burlington –For an appetizer, would you have selected the crab cake, or the duck lollipop?– enjoying conversation with Corey Olsen and Jamie Williamson, before walking back to my hotel. My plane left at six the next morning, Easter, and I found when I disembarked at Newark to make my connection back to Cleveland that Jane Chance had been on the same flight.

T.A. Shippey - "History in Words: Tolkien's Ruling Passion"
J. Garth - "Frodo and the Great War"
P.E. Thomas - "Tolkien's Imagination in the 1930s"
S.B. Hunnewell - "Tolkien and His Nay-sayers"
C. Scull - "What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?"
D. Bratman - "The Artistry of Omissions and Revisions"
M. Burns "King and Hobbit" & J. Chance "Subversive Fantasists"
J.D. Rateliff - "Middle-earth as Mythic Prehistory"
M. Drout - "Rhetorical Evolution of … Monsters and the Critics"
M. Fisher - "Tolkien, St. Augustine, and the Beowulf Poet"
C.F. Hostetter - "Elvish As She Is Spoke"
M. Foster - "Teaching Tolkien"
V. Flieger - "Green Hill Country" (Reading)
V. Flieger - "Tolkien and the Idea of the Book"
D.A. Anderson - "The Mainstreaming of Fantasy"
W.G. Hammond - "Special Collections in … Tolkien Studies"

We're discussing The Hobbit in the Reading Room, Mar. 23 - Aug. 9. Everyone is welcome!

Join us Apr. 13-19 for "Over Hill and Under Hill".
How to find old Reading Room discussions.

Subject User Time
Tolkien 2009 in Vermont – a report N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Apr 19 2009, 5:58am
    Thoughts. Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 19 2009, 10:51pm
    Just a few thoughts. Dreamdeer Send a private message to Dreamdeer Apr 20 2009, 1:02am
    A few answers, some to the point sador Send a private message to sador Apr 20 2009, 10:14am
        FFH it was! N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand Apr 20 2009, 10:31pm
            Woah! FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Apr 21 2009, 8:57am
    A few answers (second installment) sador Send a private message to sador Apr 20 2009, 1:32pm
    Quack, quack ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Apr 20 2009, 5:45pm
        Yes, Gríma too, good catch. And how about lust for the Ring? Or other lusts? Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 20 2009, 5:56pm
            Onward turning... Dreamdeer Send a private message to Dreamdeer Apr 20 2009, 9:46pm
                Tolkien had a higher regard for Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 20 2009, 10:58pm
                    True, but ... visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Apr 21 2009, 1:56pm
                        We don't get to know Arwen. Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 21 2009, 2:45pm
            Ring Writhes Dreamdeer Send a private message to Dreamdeer Apr 20 2009, 9:49pm
        Those who argue that are, of course, wrong Voronwë_the_Faithful Send a private message to Voronwë_the_Faithful Apr 20 2009, 10:54pm
    Blushing in the metaphorical dark, I'll give a lame answer (or two) squire Send a private message to squire Apr 20 2009, 11:08pm
        I would love to hear Ian McKellen read that passage! It reminds me Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 21 2009, 5:43am
            What a great clip! visualweasel Send a private message to visualweasel Apr 21 2009, 1:52pm
    **stands up straight, salutes NEB..**. weaver Send a private message to weaver Apr 21 2009, 6:06am
    Ah, Springtime in Vermont dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Apr 22 2009, 12:42am
        Duck lollipop Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 22 2009, 1:46am
            Quack! dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Apr 22 2009, 2:11am
        More than UUT Dreamdeer Send a private message to Dreamdeer Apr 22 2009, 3:44am
            Yes, we did. Eowyn of Penns Woods Send a private message to Eowyn of Penns Woods Apr 22 2009, 4:18am
            You did already sador Send a private message to sador Apr 22 2009, 6:38am
            When exactly did the wind change? Curious Send a private message to Curious Apr 22 2009, 3:25pm
                Thank you for the generous summary! // Dreamdeer Send a private message to Dreamdeer Apr 23 2009, 7:17pm
            I think there may be some magic FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Apr 22 2009, 4:23pm
    Almost OT Luthien Rising Send a private message to Luthien Rising Apr 22 2009, 9:24pm
    I feel like I had been there myself! Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 7 2009, 12:10am
        Nice to see you around the place! squire Send a private message to squire May 7 2009, 1:07am
            feels like home Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 7 2009, 1:30am
                Guten Tag! Sally, baby, here she comes! squire Send a private message to squire May 7 2009, 5:43am
                    It's all true! // Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 10 2009, 12:56am
        welcome back! weaver Send a private message to weaver May 7 2009, 1:37am
            I will definitely try to go next year // Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow May 10 2009, 12:58am
        *Peers around WMU's computer lab* N.E. Brigand Send a private message to N.E. Brigand May 7 2009, 9:16pm


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