Monday, July 27, 2015

"Fails the Most Elementary Test of Historical Possibility"

So, in the last few days I found praise for my work in a place I wdn't have expected it: a discussion of a Hugo ballet. And I found criticism of my work ("fails the most elementary test of historical possibility") in a somewhat more likely place, a book on Tolkien (we Tolkienists being a fractious lot).

First the Good: here's the link to David Bratman's recent blog post explaining his votes in this year's contentious election for the Hugo Awards:

The part where I'm referred to occurs under the heading of Best Fan Writer, entry #3:

Best Fan Writer
3. Jeffro Johnson. If we were going to honor someone who writes about classic fantasy in an RPG context, we should have given a Hugo years ago to John D. Rateliff. Still, Johnson is a good writer, if somewhat condescending towards his topics, and though of crabby social views, he does not spend his time whining about SJWs, which sets him apart from the rest of this category.

This must be a reference to my CLASSICS OF FANTASY articles (which ran to nineteen installments). I'd still like to revisit and revive that series some day: there are any number of interesting writers yet to cover (e.g. Cabell, Howard, Vance, Carroll, not to mention newer writers like Jonathan Howard and Susanna Clarke). In any case, glad to see they're not altogether forgotten, and nice of David to say nice things about them.

And, just to keep things balanced, here's the bad: there's criticism of my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT in the new faux-biography of Tolkien, just out:  J. R. R. TOLKIEN: CODEMAKER, SPY-MASTER, HERO: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by "Elansea", with Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie as "consultants".

The full quote referencing my work reads thusly:

. . . Tolkien is not inventing, but using places
that he had seen firsthand to fashion his own
fictional backcloth for the settings of his stories.
 J. D. Rateliff's attempt to deny this in his
History of the Hobbit fails the most elementary
 test of historical possibility . . . Taking each of
his points, Tolkien would not have visited the
sites of the Swiss Lake Villages during the 1911
trip; he was not interested in them until the 1930s
and he was a junior member of the party, not the
one setting the itinerary (and Lake Town resembles
them only in principle, not any specific detail).
Tolkien did not need to visit Lydney whilst writing
the 'Note on the name Nodens'; that was pure
philological work on the name of a deity, not a
place whose setting might be relevant. And Tolkien
could not have visited Sutton Hoo whilst writing
about the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings; that
was during the Second World War when 'tourism'
was impossible in Britain -- and to put the tin lid
on it, Sutton Hoo had been taken over by the military
as a tank training ground! Not that Tolkien needed it
as visual inspiration; it's only a barrow-field, and
there are plenty of those much nearer Oxford.

So Rateliff's counter-examples fail, and the basic
principle that Tolkien was writing about real
landscapes stands. (p. 114-115).

--all this in response for my agreeing w. Carpenter that Tolkien tended not to feel a need to visit in person places that inspired his writing -- unlike some authors, who find a bit of fieldwork inspirational.

At this point I've only skimmed Elansea's book, so take the following as just provisional.

Basically it's a 'What If?' biography.
What if JRRT secretly spent WW II as a British codebreaker?
What it his father, Arthur Tolkien, had been spying on the Boers for the Empire?
What it Joseph Wright were a spymaster who recruited young John Ronald as a likely lad for espionage work?
 What if, all that time Tolkien was supposed to be 'in hospital' he was actually just using that as a cover story while off on a secret mission behind enemy lines (somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, I think*)?
 What if strings were being pulled behind the scenes to rig the election to his Oxford professorship in his favor?
 What if all those times he was away 'grading as an external examiner', or any time he claimed to be stalled in his writing, he was really engaged on undercover work?
What if he because a spymaster and recruiter himself in time?

That's a lot of ifs, but the major one that comes to mind is this: What if none of this is true and they just made it all up?  So far as I can tell, they don't supply any evidence for any of their speculations: it's all in the realm of what CSL called the supposal.

In essence this is the first fictional biography of Tolkien. If someone wants to film a movie "inspired" by the life of JRRT but in no way restricted by the facts, this book could  provide a template. 

To say that 'Elansea' is the new Giddings and Holland is to do the late Elizabeth Holland's memory a disservice.

--John R.

current reading: POETRY AT PRESENT by Charles Wms [1930]
THE MOON POOL by A. Merritt (second reading)

*their 'evidence' for this is that Tolkien once made a slighting reference to Athenian democracy, which they claim cd only be possible if he had first-hand knowledge of the place. (p. 187)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Some Days You Just Can't Get a Good Watermelon* (a rant)

*with apologies to Adam West.

So, for several days now with Janice's help I've been looking for a watermelon. A real watermelon, the kind with seeds in it.

  • None at Fred Meyers
  • None at Trader Joe's
  • None at Uwajimaya's
  • Sold out at the Kent farmer's market ("we had ten, and they went right away")
  • None at Valley Harvest, which turns out to have gone out of business since our last visit
  • None at Carpinito's
  • None at the Great Wall Mall's Ranch Market

Finally bought one of those seedless abominations, at Uwajimaya, since a mediocre watermelon is better than no watermelon at all. But seriously, what happened to good melons? My standards might be high, since I come from the area that produces the best watermelons in the world (my home town's only some thirty-odd miles from Hope, Arkansas). But still, watermelons without seeds are like those supermarket tomatoes of a few years ago, bred for shipping and not taste. Heirloom tomatoes and local-grown filled in the gap there -- where are the Black Diamonds, Dixie Queens, and the like?

--John R.

My Schedule at MythCon

So, the schedule for events at Mythcon (to be held Friday July 31st through Monday August 3rd at the Elegante in Colorado Springs) is now out.* And I'm signed up to take part in a total of five events:

(1) Friday July 31st, The Aspen Room, 4.30 to 5. 30 pm
This will be a nine-person reading of The Fall of Arthur using Thom Foy's abridged script from last year's Kalamazoo, used with permission.  The performance then went really well so I have hopes it'll be just as enjoyable for folks this time around.

(2) Saturday August 1st, The Summit Boardroom, 9 to 10.15 am
This is the Opening Ceremonies, followed by my Scholar Guest of Honor speech,  "The Lost Letter: Seeking the Keys to Williams' Arthuriad". I'm hoping they'll enjoy my re-assessment of Williams and his work.

(3) Saturday August 1st, The Breckenridge Room, 1 to 2.45 pm
"Reclaiming Tolkien's Women for the 21st Century." This brings together some of the contributors to PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS AND LIFE OF JRRT to recap some of the points made there and discuss issues arising therefrom. My contribution thereto is "The Missing Women: Tolkien's Lifelong Support for Women's Higher Education".

(4) Saturday August 1st, The Aspen Room, 4.15 to 4.45 pm
A two-person reading of Mark vs. Tristan by Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis, by JDR and JC. I think this is a little unsung gem, so I'm looking forward to sharing with others who are likely to like this sort of thing as much as I do.

(5) Sunday August 2nd, The Aspen Room, 3.45 to 5 pm
" 'That Seems to Me Fatal': Pagan and Christian in The Fall of Arthur". This is a reprise of the piece I presented an excerpt from  at last year's Kalamazoo, looking at some of the difficulties Tolkien faced in seeing through his conception of the Arthurian myth. It seemed appropriate, given the Arthurian theme of this year's Mythcon.

Of course I'll be at the Awards Banquet to hear Jo Walton's Guest of Honor speech, and throughout the weekend I'll go to as many panels as possible and see as many people as possible, enjoy seeing friends and meeting new people. Really looking forward to it.

--John R.

just finished book #II.3247,  A. E. WAITE: MAGICIAN OF MANY PARTS by R. A. Gilbert, a biography of Wms' friend and magical mentor Waite, a good accompliment to Gilbert's history of the Golden Dawn (TWILIGHT OF MAGICIANS). I'd read this once before, in a copy borrowed from my friend the late Jim Pietrusz. This time I tracked down a copy of my own; I'll think of Jim any time I re-read or consult it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lewis and Sitwell

So, sometimes when working on one thing (Charles Williams' Arthurian poems) you make a discovery, or what seems to be a discovery, on something entirely unrelated (Edith Sitwell's possible influence on C. S. Lewis).

Case in point: having noted CSL extravagant (and, I can now attest, undeserved) praise for Edith Sitwell's 1924 book SLEEPING BEAUTY, I hunted down a copy and read it. And in the course of forcing my way through its doggerel, I found two lines that really stuck out:

Hell is no vastness, it has naught to keep
But little rotting souls and a small sleep
(p. 61)

Now that sounds remarkably like one of the key underlying premises of Lewis's THE GREAT DIVORCE (1945). Or perhaps it's just a coincidence. In any case, I thought it worth sharing.



So, after working away at it full-tilt for weeks, putting aside pretty much everything else (including posting here), I finally finished up my MythCon Guest of Honor speech. Turned out I had more to say than I originally thought, and the finished piece runs to almost ten thousand words, not to mention another three thousand or so in the endnotes (which are still not quite done).


This is my third (or fourth) piece on Williams, depending on how you count.

The first, "Something Else Remains to be Said", was on Tolkien and Williams' friendship; delivered at the '85 Mythcon in Wheaton and afterwards published in MYTHLORE (I forget which issue).

The second, "TERROR OF LIGHT", was a look at his best play; it was written in 1991 for Huttar and Sckhal's collection THE RHETORIC OF VISION, where it appeared in 1996 under the accurate but uninspiring title "Rhetorical Strategies in Charles Williams' Prose Play".

The third would have been "The Failure of Williams' Arthuriad", which I gave as a work-in-progress at a seminar in Madison in 2000 or 2001, but it was never fully written up or published. It's effectively superseded by my current piece.

Now to practice my delivery and work out which sections can be trimmed to make it work better as an oral piece.

--John R.
current reading: about to be something not by Charles Williams, for a change.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Informative but not comforting

So, yesterday I got a new prescription and, before trying it, for once I read through all the fine print on the accompanying informational sheet. It was informative but not comforting, since it included the words "This medication" and "seldom fatal" in the same line. On the other hand, I now know a lot about just which tests were done on mice, minipigs, and Sprague-Dawley rats (a designation I was previously unaware of). Ignorance isn't bliss, but sometimes knowledge brings no joy.

--John R.

today's song: "I Lie Around" (McCarney, circa 1972)

Priestesses in the Church revisited

So, a good while back I did a little series of three posts on C. S. Lewis's worst essays, the point being that it can be revealing to look at failed works, the worst a really good writer  has to offer (cf. TIMON OF ATHENS or YOU KNOW MY NAME, LOOK UP THE NUMBER). And I argued that the worst of the worst was a little piece of his called "Priestesses in the Church",* explaining why he was against women's ordination.

There Lewis essentially came down to 'if it makes me uncomfortable, it must be wrong' as his ultimate justification for banning women from the priesthood, with 'it's against tradition' as his runner-up. These seem wholly inadequate for something of so great moment; hence my judging his piece such a failure.  So it was interesting to discover that he briefly revisits** the issue in his explication of Charles Williams' Arthurian poems, WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD, but here his reason is completely different: woman can't be priests because they have periods.

Here's what Williams' says in his poem "Taliessin in the Rose-Garden" (THE REGION OF THE SUMMER STARS, page 27)

       Well are women warned from serving the altar
       who, by the nature of their creature, from Caucasia to Carbonek,
       share with the Sacrifice the victimization of blood.

Lewis's comment on this is, in part, as follows

The menstrual flow in women presents certain problems 
on the scientific level . . . Wms sees it as a 'covenant in the flesh'. 
By it all women naturally share in the great sacrifice. That, indeed, 
is why they are excluded from the priesthood; excluded from the office
 because they thus share mystically in the role of the Victim
(ARTHURIAN TORSO p. 150; emphasis mine).

The reasoning behind this is fairly murky, but has something to do with Williams' linking menstrual blood with the blood in the chalice during communion/mass, which would then involve hypothetical woman priest as taking two roles in the same ceremony. I think. Or something along that line.

I'm curious why, if Lewis believed this, he didn't use this argument in his 1948 article. Maybe he felt he  could address such a topic in a scholarly book but not in a magazine article.

Personally, I think it all comes to "Lewis thinks girls got cooties".

Which is not the most compelling of arguments, then or now.

today's song: "LETTING GO" (McCartney, live version)

**actually, it turns out to be the other way around: the article was written in 1948, while Lewis's contributions to the book, although not published until 1948, dates from 1946.