The42ndGuy writes: Hi there TORN! Sending along a report on a Tolkien event at my school.
On Wed. 20 February, Prof. Edward James, a medievalist at the UK’s University of Reading, gave a lecture on “Tolkien and the Middle Ages” at Yale University. There weren’t enough seats in the hall for the over 100 people present– many latecomers, including me, had to sit in the aisles.
Prof. James’s talk focused on Tolkien’s work on “Beowulf” as it related to “The Lord of the Rings.” I missed the first half, but it seems to have been about Tolkien’s “Beowulf” work (“The Monsters and the Critics,” etc.) and his conception of power, since James referred back to that concept several times without explaining it in detail.
As I walked in, James was talking about Tolkien’s Catholicism as revealed in his fiction. He discussed Frodo as a Christ figure, lembas as the Eucharist, and so forth; these kinds of references, James said, were subtle but pervasive, and only began to strike him after he recently read Tolkien’s letters, which talk about his faith’s impact on his fiction several times. These subtleties James contrasted with Narnia, which James said Tolkien called privately “as bad as they could possibly be”– a quote I hadn’t heard before, and quite a strong one at that!
James concluded by talking about Tolkien’s work, both academic and fantastic, as a coherent whole. First, he described one critic’s frustration with “Beowulf” for having (I paraphrase throughout in these quotes) “irrelevancies in the center and all the interesting parts on the periphery.” This critic was talking specifically about the story of Ingeld, who was Hrothgar’s old enemy and the kind of duty-bound, vengeful hero this critic preferred to Beowulf: “the story of Ingeld would be worth far more than acres and acres of dragons.” (My thought: Tolkien loved “green great dragons” so much… he can’t have appreciated that!) Tolkien, James said, loved “Beowulf,” and used most of its narrative strategies, such as including peripheral detail that richens the story by reference and gives it resonance. Ingeld serves that kind of purpose in “Beowulf”; in Tolkien the many references to his legendarium do the same. James quoted one reviewer who asked, “Who could possibly care about the cats of Queen Beruthiel?” His reply: everyone cares, of course, but since there’s no answer it makes the world all the more realistic. And in fact, Ingeld does show up in “The Lord of the Rings,” after a fashion: Aragorn’s name, in early drafts, was Ingold. For Tolkien, James said, his fiction was a way of appreciating medieval literature, and a more flexible one than scholarly publication would allow: he could, for example, speculate about how the Anglo-Saxon cavalry would look in a novel. Far from a diversion from his scholarly work, as many of his colleagues and critics claimed, writing his fiction was its culmination.
Questions from the floor dealt with everything from Tolkien’s relations with C.S. Lewis to the Englishness of the Shire to one woman’s suggestion that the Dwarves seemed Jewish. The last point was a piece of speculation I hadn’t heard before, and not entirely without merit: the phrase “Baruk khazad, khazad ai-meinu” sounds like Hebrew, they live largely as a diaspora hiding their native language, they are seen by others as a people apart and foreign. James responded with interest, telling the well-known story of Tolkien’s response to the German publisher who wanted to check on his racial background; but that discussion was speculative and brief, since the questioner was not a devoted Tolkienite and Prof. James knew no Hebrew.
The response afterwards was enthusiastic. It was great to see a gathering of students and professors alike to hear Tolkien discussed seriously, as he deserves.