Monday, April 23, 2007

The Children of Húrin 

People are starting to ask me about The Children of Húrin, the new Tolkien yarn which was released. For anyone who doesn't know, this is an old yarn, which Tolkien began writing before 1920. He never completed it, and our knowledge of the story comes from references in The Lord of the Rings and the cut-down versions produced by his son Christopher for The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Other materials related to the story were published by Christopher Tolkien in The War of the Jewels and The Lays of Beleriand, vol. 3, which contains a remarkable version in alliterative verse. The Children of Húrin is a new attempt by Christopher Tolkien piece together a longer, more novelistic version from his father's unfinished drafts. I have not yet read the new volume; my copy should arrive sometime in the next couple of days. My greatest fear is that it will be too similar to the materials we have seen before. But my disappointment should that prove to be the case, is not a critical judgement on its quality as a work of literature.

In fact, the first couple of reviews have already appeared on the web: Bryan Appleyard's odd piece in The Times, Elizabeth's Hand's review in the Washington Post, and the blog "review" of Michael Drout. I am struck by the fact that Appleyard, who is unsympathetic to Tolkien's writing, claims to like The Children of Húrin. [Note: This is updated wording. My original post accidentally lumped Elizabeth Hand's approach in this categoricy and thus misrepresented her review. Thanks to Hand for pointing this out.]

Appleyard's approval (however qualified) has got me thinking. Perhaps Tolkien's impact and influence is simply undeniable now, and saying you don't like Tolkien is beginning to sound simply contrary--like saying you don't like Shakespeare. It is legitimate to quibble about details, but dismissing Tolkien's work as rubbish, as some critics once did, is perhaps no longer possible.

I wonder, however, if there is not something else at work here. The Children of Húrin does not have a happy ending; it is ultimately a tragedy. I don't want to say much more for fear of introducing spoilers. Instead, I want to think about the possibility that this tragic quality is in fact what is triggering the approval of normally unsympathetic critics. Tragedy is somehow weightier and more profound than comedy (in the medieval sense of a story with a happy ending) or romance (which also gestures in that direction). Perhaps the arbiters of modern taste feel that Tolkien has finally obliged them with a work which meets modern criteria. I think this is a bit unfair with respect to the dynamism of Tolkien's earlier published work (especially as this tale has already appeared in shorter forms). On the other hand, this would be the first complete free-standing tale in the tragic genre--and perhaps there is something new and significant in that. I have always felt that the tale of the Children of Húrin--even in condensed and draft forms--was particularly powerful, and this version might enhance that power considerably. Perhaps this is the workfor which Tolkien could have said,

Go litel bok, go litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make yn some comedye.
But litel bok, no makyng thow n'envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye,
And kys the steppes where as thow seest pace,
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lukan, and Stace.
I hope at least, that this new work will give the reflexive comparisons to Homer and Virgil a new meaning.

More on The Children of Húrin once I've actually read it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

More on Space 


Some weeks ago I wrote an opening piece on some thoughts about space, which, unfortunately, I have not been able to follow up on. (The reasonse are the subject of another blog entry). I do still intend to write more on this subject. For now, however, I want to link to "When Virtual Worlds Collide", a recent article in Wired which treats the question from another angle (video games). My commentary will follow soon (hopefully).


In the comments to this post, Sharon points out that there is a response to the Wired article at Terra Nova, and also a Tablula Rasa role-playing game which exemplifies the convergence of online gaming communities. I don't have time for a significant commentary this morning, but some of the issues under discussion resemble narrative intertextuality. It might be interesting to think about how such intertextuality functions in the construction of community. More later, but, for now, thanks for the tips, Sharon.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

An LA moment 

I just got back from the Medieval Association of the Pacific Conference in Salt Lake City. Most of my spare time for the past few weeks has consisted of getting my paper ready, so I haven't had much time to post new blog entries. Despite it's being an easy trip between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, I'm pretty tired from the conference, so now I'm in recovery mode.

My one achievement since arriving back in LA has been to help my wife shop for a formal attire business event tomorrow. So here's the LA moment. The saleswoman in Macy's shoe department, when she learned that my wife was looking for shoes to match her dress, enquired: "Are you looking for something for the Academy Awards?" We were much amused.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Save the 76 Ball! 

For background, see the BBC News article "Can we have our balls back, please?".

Save the 76 Ball!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A question of space 

I have been thinking for some time about the existence in our mode of though of a grand narrative which, through a convergence of various fields of knowledge, defines the function of space in the Middle Ages. The narrative in general goes like this: the medieval period lacked the technology of large-scale movement of people and information; medieval society was thus characteristically local, and its cultures defined by local conditions. In modern times, more advanced technology allowed for greater movement and interaction. This allowed for the growth of bureaucracy and the overlay of larger ‘imagined communities’ such as the nation on top of older, disparate affiliations (so argues Benedict Anderson). Today, that technology had propelled us into the post-modern world in which whole populations are displaced from their geographical origins and juxtaposed, and in which complex communications between geographically distant locations can take place in cyberspace. Communities no longer function within the contiguous boundaries of nations, and geography is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In short, communities functioned first within regional space, then national space, and now in cyberspace.

There are lots of holes in this narrative. Local communities are just as likely to be ‘imagined’ as national ones. The nation is pre-dated by plenty of examples of bureaucracy and ideology that were shared across diverse geographical spaces. And it has yet to be shown that the entry of the participation of the human intellect in virtual communities involves a breaking free of the cultural constructs of the region where its body is housed. Indeed, there are thousands of web sites devoted to local communities. Even the web sites of multinational corporations often divide themselves into subwebs based on region. Finally, many web sites contain proprietary sections not accessible to the global community. (For example, most universities have web-based enrolment and administration sites, as well as on-line teaching sites, which are accessible only to members of those universities.) One possible lesson to take from this is that, as communities expand, they also shrink. There will always be microcosms within the macrocosm. The question is, how do they relate?

Well, I don’t intend to supply an answer in this blog entry, as I don’t have time to write more than a couple of not-very-polished paragraphs at a time (they don’t pay us to write at universities with 4-4 teaching loads). But in the coming weeks I hope to address different aspects of this question in further entries.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Some delays 

Today is the first day of classes, but, as my first one is at 11 am, I have time for a quick blog entry. The inteneded writing I mentioned earlier has been somewhat delayed by my duties on the personnel committee (we had thirteen candidates to evaluate for retention, tenure, and promotion) and by continuing problems with my house. Whilst I was at the MLA Convention in Washington DC, my wife discovered a leak in a copper pipe inside the living room wall. She had to have someone come and rip open the wall to repair it, but the damage was done. Dehumidifers under the brand new carpet installed after the last flood prevented any mould growth, but our place is trashed. However, the laminate flooring which makes up approximately half of our floor space, has started to come up, and the nature of the beast is that the entire floor must be replaced. I am estimating that all the repairs will cost about a tenth of my annual gross income, and I am not sure how much will be covered by insurance.

Wish me luck in dealing with the money pit where I live. In the meantime, , since it's pretty obvious that I'll have to abandon any hope of substantive research activity in the near future, rest assured that I will get around to writing something more substantive here in a few days.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Not what I needed to read 

Looking through the film reviews in The Week (a journal which gathers assorted media views on a wide range of topics). I came across one for Tristan and Isolde -- sorry, Tristan & Isolde -- which quotes David Germain in the Associated Press as follows: "Great, now Hollywood's handing out homework." The review continues: "Tristan & Isolde may not be quite as mind-numbing as a weekend assignment to read the works of Thomas Malory, 'but it's close'."

I have no opinion on the film -- which I haven't seen -- but isn't it lovely to know that one's subject matter is viewed with such sustain, and that great literature is nothing more than a boring chore?

On a slightly less critical note, the review points out that, although the story "packs as much longing and dramatic pedigree" (I think they're still quoting Germain here) as the stories of Romeo and Juliet and Lancelot and Guinevere, it "has, for the most part, been relegated to history's dustbin" (a quote from the review, not Germain). I'd agree with that. I wonder why?

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