Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tolkien's Desks

Tolkien's desk at the Wade Center
Tolkien had two desks that have achieved some fame. The first is the more simple desk, given to him by his wife in 1927. In 1972, he donated it to the charity Help the Aged, who sold it at auction. In the accompanying letter, Tolkien noted that: "It was my first desk, and has remained the one that I chiefly used for literary work until her death in 1971. On it The Hobbit was entirely produced: written, typed and illustrated." This desk has long resided in the Wade Center at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois.

The Tolkien/Murdoch roll-top desk around 1990
The second of Tolkien's desks that has achieved some fame is the roll-top desk later owned and used (for letter writing) by novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). Murdoch's husband, John Bayley (1925-2015) was a Fellow of New College, Oxford, from 1954, and was therefore a close colleague of Christopher Tolkien, after he got a Fellowship at New College in 1963.  In January 1965 J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael that he had received a "warm fan-letter from Iris Murdoch." A.N. Wilson noted in his memoir Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her (2003): "The Lord of the Rings she read and reread, enjoying detailed conversations about it with its author, or with Christopher Tolkien, the author's son" (p. 224). Murdoch herself, in private correspondence, was somewhat more critical. On 18 January 1969 she wrote to Rachel Fenner:  "Have you read Lord of the Rings yet I wonder? I have just been reading The Hobbit which has some very good scenes in it. (Tolkien muffs all of the big scenes in L of R I'm afraid—it should be much more drawn out.)" In the recent thick volume of her letters, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 (2015), there is a photograph of Tolkien's roll-top desk, and another of Murdoch sitting at it. The latter photograph has a caption from a 29 March 1990 letter to artist Harry Weinberger, reading "I have a new desk and one of your big sea (harbour) pictures hangs above it and inspires me"—implying that the desk was new to her in 1990.  But this implication is incorrect. Murdoch's biographer, Peter J. Conradi, in his Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001), noted that she and husband John had bought the desk in the 1970s (p. 569), but even that might not be correct.  A.N. Wilson noted in his Murdoch memoir that she had the desk when Wilson first met her, around September of 1969, while Tolkien was still very much alive. The desk itself can be seen in photographs of Tolkien's room in Merton College in the mid-1950s.  He would have cleared it from Merton when he retired in 1959, but it was probably sometime around the summer of 1968, as he prepared to move from Oxford to Bournemouth, that he sold the desk to Murdoch.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Turning in the Widening Gyre

My father in 2011, before the Parkinson's diagnosis
A very brief post here. My father passed away on the last day of May.  He was a few months shy of 88 years old.  He hadn't walked since some back surgeries about eleven years ago, though for some of those years he could get about the house with a walker. He endured lots of health problems, from pneumonias to broken ankles, but Parkinson's Disease was the most debilitating, relentless to the very end, leaving a working mind trapped inside a wasting and barely-responsive body. I was his caregiver. The last three or four years were very difficult, to put it mildly. The last six months were appalling, more so for him, of course, but appalling for me as well, if in different ways. Now his suffering is over. I'm grateful to many sympathetic friends who have helped me to keep going through this difficult time. And I'm looking forward to getting back to a number of projects that have stalled at various points over the years while filial duties took precedence.

On a much lighter note, Mashable has put out a three-minute version of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.  It's just the right length.  View it here.  Enjoy.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Some Tolkienian updates: "lost" poems and secret vices

Note: as per my previous January 9th blog post on the sale of hardcovers of Tales Before Tolkien, I should have enough remaining copies of this book to extend the sale through the end of March.  Same terms and ordering procedure as in the original post.[update March 31st, 2016. This special has now ended.]

After all the media nonsense in the last few weeks about newly discovered "lost" Tolkien poems (actually discovered three years ago), I commend Troels Forchhammer for correcting the record in his post here.  The little bit I can add is to say that the first fruit of Humphrey Carpenter sharing with me his notes on then-undiscovered Tolkien appearances were the poems in Leeds University Verse 1914-1924 (1924). This booklet includes three Tolkien poems, "An Evening in Tavrobel," "The Lonely Isle," and "The Princess Ni."  The table of contents to a proposed collection of Tolkien's poems that Troels suggests was The Adventures of Tom Bombadil was for an entirely different collection.  Tolkien's first planned poetry collection was The Trumpets of Faerie, which was turned down one hundred years ago by Sidgwick & Jackson on March 31st 1916 (no doubt some journalist will seize upon this apparent "anniversary" and inflict an inaccurate puff-piece upon the world). After this rejection, Tolkien kept a kind of working collection through the 1920s and late 1930s, intending this collection to become a published volume, which he submitted to two publishers in the 1920s. The proposed table of contents that gives the publication information on "Shadow-Bride" ("The Shadow Man") probably dates to the very late 1930s.

It's great to see Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins's edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages announced for publication in the UK on 7 April 2016, in hardcover and ebook formats.  The publisher's description notes that:

This new critical edition, which includes previously unpublished notes and drafts by Tolkien connected with the essay, including his ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’, goes some way towards re-opening the debate on the importance of linguistic invention in Tolkien’s mythology and the role of imaginary languages in fantasy literature.

And due out next week is a new collection of fifteen essays on science fiction by Tom Shippey, Hard Reading, from Liverpool University Press at some hideous price (£75.00, hardcover, same price for the ebook!). The publishers description reads:
The fifteen essays collected in Hard Reading argue, first, that science fiction has its own internal rhetoric, relying on devices such as neologism, dialogism, semantic shifts, the use of unreliable narrators. It is a “high-information” genre which does not follow the Flaubertian ideal of le mot juste, “the right word”, preferring le mot imprévisible, “the unpredictable word”. Both ideals shun the facilior lectio, the “easy reading”, but for different reasons and with different effects. The essays argue further that science fiction derives much of its energy from engagement with vital intellectual issues in the “soft sciences”, especially history, anthropology, the study of different cultures, with a strong bearing on politics. Both the rhetoric and the issues deserve to be taken much more seriously than they have been in academia, and in the wider world. Each essay is further prefaced by an autobiographical introduction. These explain how the essays came to be written and in what ways they (often) proved controversial. They, and the autobiographical introduction to the whole book, create between them a memoir of what it was like to be a committed fan, from teenage years, and also an academic struggling to find a place, at a time when a declared interest in science fiction and fantasy was the kiss of death for a career in the humanities.

Grevel Lindop's long-anticipated biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling came out in late 2015, and I've been reading it, with admiration for the biographer, and enlightenment (as well as bewilderment) on the subject. I've just seen the first (to me) extensive review of it, by A.N. Wilson in First Things (click here to read it).  It's got the usual dose of Wilsonian pronouncements and his bombastic tone, but overall I tend to agree with much of what he says. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

TALES BEFORE TOLKIEN hardcover special for January through the end of March 2016

**update March 31st 2016.  This special has now ended**

**update February 24th 2016. I've still got some copies of this book, and will extend this special sale to the end of March**

In resorting boxes of books, I've found a cache of new hardcovers of my 2003 anthology, Tales Before Tolkien (Ballantine Books). It was published simultaneously in hardcover (originally priced at $27.95) and trade paperback, but the hardcover didn't get very good distribution. In any case, I bought a number of copies from the publisher way back then, and I can offer these as brand new, fresh out of their boxes.  For the rest of January 2016, or until I run out of copies, I'll offer them for US$13 each, postpaid to US addresses.  I can sign/inscribe copies if requested to do so. Payment via Paypal, to nodensbooks[at]gmail[dot]com.

Anyone outside the US who is interested please inquire (to the same email address) and I'll see what the postage would be (some years ago, the international rates went up considerably. At a rough estimate, postage alone for this book to the UK, via the cheapest option of First Class International, now looks to be around US$26. Sorry, I'm aghast too.)

My original title for the book was Roots of the Mountain: Fantasy Before Tolkien, but the marketing department didn't like that. Here is the table of contents of the book:


“The Elves” by Ludwig Tieck
“The Golden Key”  by George Macdonald
“Puss-Cat Mew”  by E. H. Knatchbull-Hugessen
“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” by Frank R. Stockton
“The Demon Pope”  by Richard Garnett
“The Story of Sigurd”  retold by Andrew Lang
“The Folk of the Mountain Door”  by William Morris
“Black Heart and White Heart: A Zulu Idyll” by H. Rider Haggard
“The Dragon Tamers” by E. Nesbit
“The Far Islands” by John Buchan
“The Drawn Arrow”  by Clemence Housman
“The Enchanted Buffalo” by L. Frank Baum
“Chu-bu and Sheemish” by Lord Dunsany
“The Baumoff Explosive” by William Hope Hodgson
“The Regent of the North” by Kenneth Morris
“The Coming of the Terror” by Arthur Machen
“The Elf Trap”  by Francis Stevens
“The Thin Queen of Elfhame” by James Branch Cabell
“The Woman of the Wood” by A. Merritt
“Golithos the Ogre”  by E. A. Wyke-Smith
“The Story of Alwina” by Austin Tappan Wright
“A Christmas Play”  by David Lindsay

Author Notes and Recommended Reading

Monday, January 4, 2016

The State of the Field in Tolkien Scholarship

First, a quick note to say I've uploaded to my review of Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition edited by Verlyn Flieger.  Direct link here.  And a teaser below:

Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition, edited by Verlyn Flieger and utilizing the Bodleian Tolkien manuscripts, was first published in Great Britain in 2005. Ten years on there comes a newly formatted pocket edition (6 1/4 by 4 3/4 inches), slightly revised, and with some material new to this edition (mostly comprising illustrations by Pauline Baynes). Neither the 2005 or the 2015 edition has had distribution in the United States—scholars must order the British edition. The differences between the two editions are given a close comparison here, followed by an overdue and detailed description of some of the serious flaws of the original edition which, unfortunately, remain unaddressed in the new one. . . . 

Second, I'd like to call  attention to  a piece by Thomas Honegger, also just posted at, entitled "A Reviewer's Complaint."  It's a short, one-page piece, and you can read it all here. Basically, it notes some alarming trends in recent Tolkien scholarship, ranging from pure sloppiness and the lack of copy-editing, to the more serious lack of engagement with existing scholarship in the field.  I've noted these problems growing in occurrence for some years now. Some potential scholars seem to be treating scholarship as equivalent to the writing of blog-posts--chatty, personal, and one dimensional.  While blog-posts can be just those things (chatty and personal especially) they don't have to be. There are many bloggers whose blogs are up to rigorous standards of scholarship, and I think that's a good thing. Perhaps it is not amiss to suggest that bloggers might practice more scholarship, and that potential scholars should cease to emulate blogs. Honegger's charge that new scholarship exhibits a limited knowledge of the field is more serious and more problematic. The first "scholar" who comes to my mind as guilty of all these traits is Adam Roberts, whose publishing credits include some truly execrable parodies of Tolkien (they sold well enough in England that Roberts has been laughing all the way to the bank), and a cosmetic "revision" of Lin Carter's Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (1969; "updated"--barely--by Roberts in 2003), which manages (among other problems) to retain Carter's basic errors of plot-points.  Roberts moved on to write a book-length blog on The Riddles of The Hobbit (2013), which simply ignores most previous scholarship on the subject. Yet the book was published by a respectable academic publisher, Palgrave Macmillan (What were they thinking?  Merely that they should publish some Hobbit-related book while the Peter Jackson Hobbit films were current? Palgrave should be ashamed.).  Roberts's contribution (on "Women"--probably the worst essay in an otherwise very good book) to Stuart D. Lee's Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (published by another academic publisher, Wiley Blackwell) similarly has almost no engagement at all with  the work of other scholars. Yet on these credentials Roberts was invited to deliver the second "Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature In Honour of J.R.R. Tolkien" on 2 May 2014, at Pembroke College Oxford. The mind boggles.  Here glib trendiness has pushed aside the opportunity for real scholarship, and the chance to honor Tolkien became instead a slap in the dead writer's face. How completely depressing. I (for one) think Honegger's complaint is too soft. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

End of the Year Chatter

Book Reviews

There has been a good number of book reviews posted at Journal of Tolkien Research since I last posted on this blog, and I invite readers to have a look at them. They include:

Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition (2015) by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger
Douglas A. Anderson

A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (2014), ed. Stuart D. Lee, reviewed by Andrew Higgins
Andrew Higgins

"The Hobbit" and Tolkien's Mythology (2014), ed. Bradford Lee Eden
Thomas Honegger

The Hobbit Party (2014) by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
John D. Rateliff

Tolkien's Intellectual Landscape (2015) by E.L. Risden
John Houghton

Access all of them, plus articles, via the front page of the journal.  More book reviews are in the works

A Shiver in the Archives

I've started an additional blog to highlight various discoveries (mostly minor) that I've made in my various researches, ones which don't really have a current place to be utilized, but ones which are worth sharing somewhere.  Check it out here

Daniel Grotta (1944-2015)

Daniel Grotta (formerly Daniel Grotta-Kurska), who wrote the first biography of Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth (Running Press, 1976), passed away in Philadelphia on 13 December 2015.  The error in the book's title ("Middle Earth" for "Middle-earth") is a harbinger for the quality of the text inside.  I'll say no more here about my few encounters with Grotta, but refer anyone interested to the comments section to a post from 2012 at Jason Fisher's blog, Lingwë, which you can access here.