Marquette Tolkien Conference, October 22-23rd.
The title of the conference was “The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004, Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder.” The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lord of the Rings is an obvious subject for celebration, Richard E. Blackwelder less so, unless you are familiar with the small world of serious Tolkien scholarship. Blackwelder became a Tolkien devotee late in life, but, after retiring from a distinguished academic career in entomology, turned to his hobby with a remarkable passion and thoroughness. Besides amassing a formidable collection of Tolkiana, he performed such indispensable cataloging functions as creating an index of photographs of Tolkien that had appeared in publications, a glossary, and a thesaurus. He left his collection to Marquette, plus an endowment to further expand the holdings, which has been put to good use. Thus, he was a fitting subject for honor, and he was well honored by the many fine papers given at this symposium.
After the usual greetings, the conference was given a rousing start by Professor Tom Shippey, author of “Tolkien: Author of the Century,” and probably currently the best known Tolkien scholar. He was followed by John Garth, author of “Tolkien and the Great War,” who expounded upon the extent that Tolkien’s own wartime service may have influenced The Lord of the Rings.
Then we had: Paul Edmund Thomas on the development of Tolkien’s thought during the 1930’s, a well done paper, and John Ratliffe on Middle Earth as prehistory and the effect of Tolkien’s choice to write his world as a precursor to our own, and thus doomed to fade away, as opposed to setting it on some other planet.
Cristina Scull, in “What Did He Know, and When Did he Know It?” gave an interesting talk on the inspiration and experimentation that went into ‘Lord of the Rings.” David Bratman was very entertaining in his story of textual detective work in the (probably doomed) quest for a perfect text.
Marjorie Burns delivered a very penetrating analysis of class in “The Lord of the Rings,” showing the extraordinary extent that it is nearly always the highest and best that take roles in “The Lord of the Rings.” Jane Chance gave the following paper on “Tolkien on Class Difference,” which took an opposite tack from Burns, but unfortunately not very effectively. This was probably the weakest paper given, which took a doubtful premise and did not support it either clearly or well. Gary Hunnewell does not pretend to be an academic: nevertheless, his light-hearted talk on Tolkien’s Nay-Sayers developed a thread in Tolkien’s work very nicely.
The second day began with Michael Drout, who gave some new information on the evolution of Tolkien’s famous Beowulf lecture. He was followed by Matt Fisher, who compared Tolkien, St. Augustine, and the Beowulf Poet in their approaches to Christian heroics. A well-done paper, and one that I wished I had heard before last WisCon, since it contained answers to a couple of issues that were hotly debated there.
Carl Hostetter, in “Elvish as She is Spoke” entertainingly raked Internet linguists (and those who worked on the recent movies)over the coals for inept attempts to expand the fragmentary Elvish languages into “conversational” lexicons. Ironically, a following paper, “Tolkienian Gothic”, by Arden R. Smith, delved into Tolkien’s own attempts to do just that with the dead Gothic tongue—but perhaps more carefully.
Other excellent papers or talks: Michael Foster on “Teaching Tolkien,” a survey of his university teaching experiences; Verlyn Flieger, “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book,” discussing the idea of the historical text, as in the “Red Book of Westmarch,” Douglas A Anderson on “Mainstreaming Fantasy,” (a good idea); Richard C. West, “Her Choice Was made and her Doom Appointed,” exploring the history of Arwen as a character and her story; and Wayne Hammond on “Special Collections in the Service of Tolkien Studies,” which thoroughly surveyed the resources to be found a well- and lesser-known libraries and collections.
Coupled with the opportunity to dine and chat with some out-of town friends and other interesting people, we had an excellent time.