New York Tolkien Conference Recap

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This past Saturday, I journeyed to the north in true Fëanorian fashion for the New York Tolkien Conference. What a great day it turned out to be! This was the first year for the conference (and, yes, they are interested in running it again), and for me, it was a success: obviously a huge effort pulled off with only minor snags. The Baruch College facilities were lovely, and the access to technology was great–I am a high school teacher at heart and struggle with the idea of presenting without visuals, and that was no problem here. Even my first day back in heels after two years of being brought low by inflammation issues went better than expected!

The keynote speaker was Janet Brennan Croft of Rutgers University and the editor of the journal Mythlore. As a Silmaniac and therefore a book nerd, I am generally ready for analysis of the books to replace the analysis of the films that we’ve seen over the past few years–the books are just more my schtick, the reason I’m here–but I very much enjoyed her presentation “Barrel-Rides and She-Elves: Audience and ‘Anticipation’ in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy.” I have noted–even defended the films on the basis of–the difficulty of adapting the films not only to the books but to each other, i.e., The Hobbit has to be matched in plot, character, and tone to the Lord of the Rings films, which escalates an already complex endeavor to labyrinthine. Croft’s talk, however, expanded the analysis beyond the correspondence of source material to consider topics such as how the plot had to be structured to allow each film to begin and end at a high point and how characters had to be rewritten to match audience expectations. One of my favorites of the points she made was how Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films were written to match the “American hero monomyth,” an adjustment of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces to describe Hollywood film heroes. This archetype proposes a crisis that includes institutional failure, followed by the rise of a solo and rather unassuming hero: Applying this theory, one can understand the alterations made to the characters of Denethor (who embodies the failed institutions) and Aragorn (who becomes the unassuming everyman hero who takes the task upon himself). Looking at The Hobbit, similar patterns emerge: Thranduil (institution) and Tauriel (hero), the Master of Laketown (institution) and Bard (hero), Thorin (institution) and Bilbo (hero).

I’ve proposed my share of defenses of Peter Jackson’s choices for the films and raised by eyebrows at others that seemed cheap, easy choices aimed at a lowest-common-denominator moviegoer that I’m not sure truly exists. Croft’s presentation made sense of some of the things that–to a bookverse fan like myself, coming to the films primarily hoping for an adaptation that captures that magic I’ve found in those books–can seem inexplicable or even offensive. She still didn’t explain the giant molten-gold Dwarf statue but perhaps one cannot expect that from a presenter who, after all, is still one of us mere mortals!

I presented in the next block: The video of my presentation will be coming soon! It needs a bit more editing than previous presentations so that I can incorporate my Powerpoint slides and also edit out the part where I ask my husband to get me some water to banish the perilous tickle in my throat.

After my session, I stayed for Edward McCulloch and “Norse Mythology and Its Influence on Tolkien’s Work.” The influence of mythology generally is a topic of interest to me because it’s much more complex than people want to make it. It is not a mere matter of, for example, Tolkien liking the cup-theft episode in Beowulf and so borrowing it to use in The Hobbit. (Tolkien made the claim, in Letter 25 to the editor of the Observer: “Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances.”) Rather, the influence of mythology very often is in a certain mood or sense conveyed by a culture’s myths or, as Tom Shippey has pointed out, by a desire to explain the otherwise inexplicable in a myth by inventing a story about it. For example, Shippey has noted that Tolkien’s drive to understand the difference between the Norse Light Elves (Ljósálfar) and Dark Elves (Dökkálfar) possibly influenced the development of the Eldar and Avari in the legendarium. The influence of the Norse myths on Tolkien’s world is rather delicate: present but not imitative.

The final session I saw was Anna Smol‘s “‘If you’re a vivid visualizer’: Words and Images in Tolkien’s sub-creative process,” which considered how art, sketching, and visual imagery influenced Tolkien’s development of his legendarium. Smol used The Notion Club Papers (probably my favorite “rare,” i.e., rarely considered by Tolkien fandom, source) to note how Tolkien depicted the use of visual imagery and the sounds of words and language in an inspirational capacity. Both approaches seem to have inspired Tolkien. She used map and landscape sketches from The History of Middle-earth to look at how he employed visualizations of his world to develop the narrative, showing how he sometimes stopped writing, sketched out a scene, and then seemingly with his ducks (Orcs?) in a row, resumed writing. This was a topic to which I’d given precisely zero thought up to this point, so I found her presentation extremely interesting and valuable in helping me to understand Tolkien not simply as “author” and “illustrator” but as “author and illustrator” and how his artwork reinforced and developed his writing.

The final session was a musical performance by the always enjoyable Lonely Mountain Band accompanied by poetry read by one of my favorite presenters, Corey Olsen. The performance was a nice mixture of moods and subjects related to the legendarium, and the poetry and the music worked extremely well together. It was a lovely conclusion to a very fun and interesting day!

Throughout the day, the Tolkien fan fiction community was represented in the Iaurond Room. I had compiled collections of fanworks by members of the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, Many Paths to Tread, and Faerie. The response to my request for representative fanworks that people wanted to share was tremendous, and I ended up being able to bring collections for the First Age and Earlier, the Second Age, the Third Age and Onward, Women of the Legendarium, Essays and Resources, the House of Elrond, Poetry, and Crossovers and Alternate Universes. Whenever I checked in on the books, at least one person was reading them!

Massive kudos go to conference organizers Anthony Burdge and Jessica Burke for such a well-executed and diverse day of presentations that were both fun and enlightening. I have organized my share of online fannish events and cannot begin to imagine all that went into pulling off such an endeavor. I am also grateful for the opportunity they gave me to present my research and their generosity toward the Tolkien fan fiction community by offering space for us to share our work. Even a few years ago, such an opportunity would have seemed unthinkable. When I interviewed Anthony and Jessica back in May for the Signum University Eagle, Anthony wrote, “The idea that these two sides [fandom and academia] are at odds is something that has always bothered Jessie and me because for us, fans are the first scholars.” As someone who dips her toes in both pools, the opportunity to learn new things and meet new friends from both sides and the vast expanses in between them (where I am convinced most of us, in fact, inhabit) made for a fantastic, thought-provoking day that I am looking forward to repeating sometime in the future.

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8 Responses to “New York Tolkien Conference Recap”

  1. Tristan Alexander says:

    Glad it went well and you had a good time! :) Hope we can see each other soon and you can tell us more about it!

    • Dawn says:

      Me too! :) The summer should be calmer: I’m finishing up my last class before starting my thesis in the fall, and I don’t have any more conferences in sight at the moment …

  2. Scarlet says:

    This 1st-time conference sounds very interesting.

    I did look at their schedule, to find something about the content of “Norse Mythology and Its Influence on Tolkien’s Work.” or the speaker, Edward McCulloch, but I don’t think the info there could have been any shorter….

    That is a topic I am also interested in, because of the Norse Mythology itself.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your impressions of it.

    • Dawn says:

      I am hoping that he publishes his paper in the proceedings or otherwise makes it available. It’s a great topic, and I got the impression that he only got through a very small amount of the paper during his presentation. He was an English teacher of a posh private high school in Jersey. (Which made me chuckle, since I am also an English teacher at a private high school of a completely different sort! :D)

  3. Janet/Oshun says:

    The influence of the Norse myths on Tolkien’s world is rather delicate: present but not imitative.

    I think I would describe it as a little heavier-handed, but that is a discussion for another day. That sort of thing is what I had hope to see in his written presentation. Tolkien’s borrowing from Norse myth is pretty direct and the instances numerous.

    I am shy about jumping into this with both feet. Norse myth is not my area of expertise (if I have one!) by a long shot!

    I enjoyed the talks tremendously, but just was so disappointed at standing at the candy store window and looking at all that was available and only able to sample so few and in such a rushed setting. I wish it could have been a two-day conference.

    • Scarlet says:

      I’m a bit hesitant to offer this link, but I will anyway:
      This article is titled “Tolkien and the Finish Mythology, and was written in 2009 by a member of our Tolkien community, who’s main interest is in the influence of the Celtic and Nordic mythologies on Tolkien’s writings.

      I know how bad an online translation can be, and this one is no exception, but maybe you could actually enjoy it or find some points of interest.

      • Janet/Oshun says:

        Thanks, Scarlet! Dare I try an automatic translator? Getting used to looking at Hebrew letters these days though. Living in a new apartment in one of the most thoroughly culturally Jewish neighborhoods in New York City.

    • Dawn says:

      It’s interesting that we have pretty much the exact opposite perspective here. He borrowed a lot of names (Dwarves, Gandalf, types of Elves) and details (rings, exile) but not many plot points (aside from the Völsunga Saga and Túrin’s story, which pulls even more heavily from the Finnish Kalevala). The cosmogony and cosmology are completely different. (This is huge for me but probably reflects my interests in those kinds of things! :)) Thematically, I think the legendarium is if anything an indictment of the fatalistic Norse worldview. The First Age stuff definitely has a northern coloring.

      I would have loved it to be a two-day event too! Hopefully everyone puts their papers in the proceedings, at least, so we can read them.

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