Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Newest Publication!

So, a few days ago I got the news that my newest publication is now out, the essay "The Missing Women: Tolkien's Lifelong Committment to Women's Higher Education", which appears in the collection PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS AND LIFE OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN,* ed. Leslie A. Donavan and Janet Brennan Croft, from the Mythopoeic Press.  There doesn't seem to be any entry up for it yet on the Mythopoeic Press site (http://www.mythsoc.org/press/), though it's available for order through amazon.com:


I have not yet gotten my author's copy, but gather it shd soon be available as a e-book as well.

I have to say, I'm delighted to have this essay finally be in print. It's an idea I've had for years; at least since I first learned that there was now a J. R. R. Tolkien Professor at Oxford, an endowed chair, and that it was attached to one of the women's colleges (this wd have been about the time of the 1992 centenary conference or possibly before).  I kept waiting for someone better qualified than myself to write it. Ideally the author of this topic shd be a woman, an academic familiar with the Oxford system, preferably English and of an older generation. I'm none of these things, but eventually concluded that if I didn't do it myself it just wasn't going to get done. I hope that at the least I've started the ball rolling; raised the topic so that others now can join in and carry it in more directions than I cd in a single piece -- it's really more a topic for a book than an essay, though I did my best within what space I had. I think this all the more likely because when I delivered it at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo the year before last (May 2013), the comments I got on it from people who came up and talked with me afterwards all took the form of pointed out more examples I could use, things that would add to and expand my case.

In brief, I argue against the widespread notion that Tolkien was a man who spent most of his time, by choice, in exclusively male company. As a corollary of that, I lay out the evidence that Tolkien was throughout his entire career a staunch supporter of women pursuing advanced degrees (a viewpoint not universal at Oxford in his day -- C. S. Lewis being an unabashed advocate of the opposite view).

As for the book as a whole, I remember the bad old days when critics of Tolkien used to glibly talk about how Tolkien didn't have any female characters -- something true of THE HOBBIT but not so much of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention THE SILMARILLION.  The advent of the Jackson films did a lot to challenge that preconception: those who felt Jackson had gotten the characters of Arwen or Galadriel or Eowyn wrong were moved to discuss what they felt these characters' true natures to be, and that discussion, having long since drifted from film-and-text comparisons back to purely literary discussion, shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, as the contents of this collection show.

I'm looking forward to getting my copy so I can read through my fellow contributors' contributions. It shd be enlightening.

--John R.

current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: An Inspector Morse novel by Colin Dexter [1992]
current dvd: AMERICAN RADICAL: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein [2009]

*I think my essay's inclusion is the reason for the 'and life' in the title;  I think mine is the only biographical piece in this collection.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/21-15)

So, with the adoption of little SPIDER MONKEY (now 'Ebony') to a v. good home, we're now down to five cats. This allows for a certain roominess, with the cats not being too crowded. And it shows: now that last weeks' newcomers are settling in the hissing has stopped as everyone has found some favorite places.

With there only being five cats, I was able to walk them all, one by one. Mr. TIZZY's walk was lengthy but uneventful. ANUBUS found out how to open the front door and was all for going out to have a look-see at the great outdoors; I had to dissuade him. CAMEO discovered the big cushions along the back wall and thought she'd like to climb up on them and, once up, to settle down and enjoy all the cushiness. She was a little indignant at having to move. All in all, she did very well. GYPSY, after some initial suspicion, also had a good time exploring, and a still better time coming back in (or so I assume from all the purring when she came back in). GUNNAR was v. nervous and squirmed when held but was somewhat braver when on his own furry feet. 

After everyone was back inside I tried to tempt Tizzy with a game, but he wasn't much interested. He shifted from the cat-stand by the door to the bench, where he found himself face-to-face with Gypsy; neither hissed, I'm glad to say. Then he passed right by Cameo (again, with neither hissing) to claim his favorite spot: the cat-stand by the cabinet (the top level today, given that Cameo was already on the level he usually chooses). 

Cameo lazed about on the mid-level of the same cat-stand. Gypsy stalked a bug that may have been imaginary (though in any case she had a good time pursuing it). Gunnar found the fresh catnip in my bag, dragged it out, and eviscerated the little bag it was in, strewing it all about  so everybody could have a share. And there was much rejoicing. 

Gypsy and Gunnar have learned how to use the steps to go up and come down from Cagetop Land. Gunnar, the most active and alert cat in the room today, discovered Anubus's secret place (behind the blankets on the top shelf in the cabinet) and tried to work out how to get in there and share that spot but couldn't figure it out. I'd say he's well on his way to asserting himself as Boss Cat, mainly through all the other cats not caring one way or the other.

Just before the cats went into their cages,  a PetsMart employee came in with three little pouches of cat-treats that someone had just given the room's cats for a donation. Cameo recognized them for what they were right away and came straight over to turn on the charm and ask for one. I felt bad not giving her one, but last I knew we morning cleaner/socializers weren't to give the cats any treats -- I assume that still holds?

When it was time for everyone to go back inside at end of shift, I noticed that Cameo was water-dipping her food. Or, to be more accurate, she'd take a bite of cat-kibble then turn her head to the left, over the water bowl. A piece or two would drop into the water, and she'd fish it out and eat if off her paw. She did this time and time again, over and over. A bit odd, but very cute.

And that's about it for another week. We've got a good set of cats -- no psycho-kitties, not too crowded, with the cats more inclined to ignore each other than get into tussles or hiss-offs.  Here's hoping more adoptions are in the offing soon, esp. for Tizzy and Anubus, who've been with us about two months now.

--John R.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Confederate Ancestor

So, I've long known that my great-great grandfather, James Shelton Rateliff, fought in the Civil War -- after all, I've visited his grave near Hope, Arkansas, which is marked not with a headstone but with a Confederate cross. I knew the family was living in Mississippi at the time and moved to Arkansas (via NW Louisiana) immediately following the war (I assume to escape the famine that swept the South following the collapse of the Confederacy*). According to family legend, he spent time in a prisoner of war, but lacking information about where in Mississippi he came from I've been unable to trace the family further back.

Until this week, when I was poking about online and finally found a reference to J.S.R. and his Confederate career. I still don't know what unit he belonged to, but apparently he enlisted on May 9th 1862 in Monroe, Louisiana (I would have assumed some Mississippi regiment) and was indeed a prisoner of war, albeit briefly. According to the posted information, which I have yet to confirm, he served in the siege of Vicksburg (a truly horrific episode, often overlooked in accounts of the war, which tend to focus on events back east). After the town surrendered, he was taken prisoner (on July 4th, 1863) but surprisingly was released just two days later "after signing an Oath of Loyalty" (July 6th, 1863). Initially I thought it a bit odd that, having captured the town, the victorious Yankees simply let all the defenders go home, unless it was plain that the starved defenders were simply clearly in no shape to pose a threat to anybody. But a little further reading shows that this was standard practice during the first half of the war -- in fact, apparently most of the men who surrendered at Vicksburg made their way to Mobile, where they were re-armed.

I know some about the Mississippi River campaign from living in Arkansas and having visited both Shiloh (a crucial Southern defeat) and Vicksburg back in my Boy Scout days; now I'll have to find out more. If the posted information is right, he signed up just after the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), but I'm not sure what the Army of Mississippi was doing in the year between Shiloh and the surrender of Vicksburg. I also don't know whether my great-great grandfather was one of those who showed up at Mobile a month after leaving Vicksburg -- if so, he may have taken part in the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and the rest of the (ultimately futile) effort to stop Sherman.

But, at any rate, I now have a starting point; a place to begin and explore outwards from. It'll be interesting to see what I can uncover about the rest of this ancestor's military career once he got caught up in the bloodiest war we've ever fought.

--John R.

*in the words of the song,
"In the winter of '65
We were hungry
just barely alive"
--Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

BBC Sound Archive preservation project (Tolkien in the top seven)

So, thanks to Janice S. for sending me the link about a project the BBC Sound Archive is launching to preserve their older and more fragile material -- much of it on archaic media, going all the way back to wax cyclinders. As with the US film preservation project that's been going on for some years now, they're faced with the problem that the material is disintegrating faster than they're copying it.

Given such a situation, the group doing the preservation has to prioritize, and that's when things get interested for a Tolkienist. Among "a selection of seven of the most important sound recordings currently held in the library, which were among the first to be saved", is one by JRRT, the 1930 Linguaphone Institute language lesson "At the Tobacconist". So according to the BBC Tolkien ranks with Tennyson, Joyce, Florence Nightingale, and the like in historical importance. That's a 'cultural treasure' status that goes beyond popularity or best-sellerdom or any passing fad.

Now if they could only spell his name right (it's 'Tolkein' throughout the entire piece, though the TELEGRAPH seems to have updated their caption to now read 'Tolkien').

Here's the list of the seven:

1. Christabel Pankhurst demanding votes for women
2. Florence Nightingale
4. James Joyce reading from ULYSSES
5. Noel Coward taking a curtain call
6. Tennyson reading a snippet of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
7. a zither rehearsal for the score of THE THIRD MAN

Some of these I have to take on faith, given the poor quality of the surviving recording: I think the Tennyson must be the oldest one here given that he died in 1892, the year Tolkien was born.

I also have to add the caveat that while it's good to know these recordings are being preserved, in at least the case of Tolkien there are multiple surviving copies of the original  recording (I have an original .78 rpm of the Linguaphone recording myself).

Here's the article:


--John R.
current reading: O'Malley's THE ROOK

UPDATE (Fr. 1/23-15):
As 'Trotter' pointed out in the comments, it's actually the British Library and not the BBC who have launched this laudable project; my mistake.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/14-15)

So, with the adoption of little PANYA (a great little cat; v. charismatic; I'll miss her), and the arrival of four new cats (on Tuesday, I think), we went from three cats to just two cats and then back up to six cats by the time I arrived Wednesday morning -- but not for long.

Our two stalwarts, ANUBUS AUGUSTUS (Gus) and Mr. TIZZY, thought the room a bit crowded with all the newcomers but soon adjusted. Both were very vocal when I first arrived but quieted down once out of their cages.

Mr. Tizzy seemed unhappy about all the new cats, so I put him up on the cagetops. From there he observed all that went on below, eventually deciding that All Was Well and jumping down to claim his favorite place, the middle rung of the cat-stand by the cabinet. From there he plopped himself down and dozed the rest of the morn. He welcomed attention and was happy to lean into any petting or grooming that was going on, so long as he didn't have to move or exert himself; he's a lazy predator. Glad to report that he seems to finally be over his stomach upset and other digestive problems, so far as I could tell. Now that we've found the right food to feed him, we'll need to see he gets exercised to avoid putting on some weight.

Anubus Augustus remembered the place I'd put him last week that he liked so much and made a bee-line straight for it: hop down from his cage, hop up on the cat-stand by the cabinet, make a mighty leap onto the top shelf, and then burrow down in the blankets there, invisible to the outside world unless he opens his eyes while they're looking right at him. He (like TIzzy) was very affectionate and vocal when I first opened their cages; once in place he accepted attention but was just as pleased to be left to his own devices.

Of the four new cats, CAMEO is a beautiful tortoiseshell. She came out, explored, and then went into Tizzy's cube. She loves being petted but had a fairly quiet day, getting used to the new place. I'm curious to see how she takes to the leash, but didn't give it a try, thinking that so many new cats needed time to sort things out.

SPIDER MONKEY, the little black bouncing ball, small and sleek like an overgrown kitten, was here and there all over the place. Despite still having stitches from her surgery she's full of energy. She loves attention (being petted, head-butts, purring) and games of all kinds, but gets hissy when she thinks any other cat is getting too close.

GUNNAR and GYPSY, the bonded pair, couldn't be more different. Gunnar is a long, lean (indeed boney) cat, black fading to brown along his flanks. He's very shy and an expert burrower, preferring to hide under the blankets in his cube rather than on them. But he's also an explorer and came out several times finding his way into all kinds of unexpected spots. Gypsy, a light grey tabby with eyes that shine red a lot, likes to follow him, and has a touching but not altogether accurate belief that anywhere he can go, she can follow (she's somewhat roly-poly, but clearly in her self-image she and he look the same). She did something I've never seen a cat do before: gnaw on the whisk-broom (maybe she needs some cat-grass the check on for roughage?).

The cats did enjoy some games: Spider Monkey and Gunnar loved the feather duster, while Gunnar and Gypsy both loved the peacock feathers (Tizzy showed some interest as well). Gunnar and Spider Monkey showed great appreciation for catnip, as did Gypsy. The cats showed wary interest in catnip bubbles; Gypsy pursued them from up atop the cages while Spider Monkey monitored them from atop the cat-stand by the door.

At one point Spider Monkey went into Gunnar's cube: she hissed at him and he burrowed down under the blankets. Gypsy rather likes going up high, and prefers to spend as much time as she can outside the cube.

Gunnar and Anubus are both champion burrowers, but while Anubus can disappear under a cat-blanket leaving no sign that he's there beneath it, Gunnar's arrangement are messier (but still effective).

The big news of the morning was that the retired woman and her adult daughter who'd visited the cat-room the week before and petted Anubus, Tizzy, and Panya came back again, reminisced a bit about her much-loved, recently deceased cat, adopted from our cat-room about six years ago, all the while bonding with little Spider Monkey.  It was clear she had a huge cat-shaped hole in her life, and the long and the short of it is that by the end of the day Spider Monkey was in her new home.  And from two updates since it's clear that she's very much making herself at home in her new surroundings. So, a happy ending.

And have to say, as a note to end on, that it was fun to see Tizzy and Anubus' reaction to hearing another volunteer's voice: Tizzy roused himself and started talking, and Anubus stuck his face out of the cabinet. They definitely know the various volunteers, and show that they approve of our coming to see them.

--John R.

Friday, January 16, 2015

John Bellairs' ST. FIDGETA

So, seeing egregious examples this week of what might be called misapplied theological precision, I was reminded of how the late great John Bellairs* had used this for comic effect. In his first book, ST. FIDGETA & OTHER PARODIES [1966],  Bellairs gently mocked Catholic culture as it was in the old pre-Vatican II days.

Take, for example, the fourth item in this miscellany: The Question Box. Here Bellairs mocks question-and-answer columns from back in the old pre-Vatican II days, with questions such as

Does the olive in the martini break the Lenten fast?

The answer, delivered in suitably authoritative, somewhat officious tones, is that it depends:

Is the olive qua olive part of the martini qua martini?
Or is the olive a substance unto, of, and within itself,
per se in the drink rather than pre accidens?
. . . the last word, as usual, goes to St. Thomas
[Aquinas], who remarks in his Summa Contra Omnes . . . 

More relevant to the misplaced precision theme is the exchange between the woman whose family is freezing because Pope Pius IX denounced central heating as a modern error. The Question Box Moderator replies

You might try electric blankets, 
which Pius IX didn't know about, 
although some theologians claim
that we are bound by what a Pope
is likely to have thought of 
if he had lived long enough

And there, in the idea of our being bound by things a religious leader wd have condemned if he'd thought of them, I think we have the idea of misplaced theological precision in a nutshell.

--John R.
--current e-book: THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss (nearly finished! finally!)

*author of one of my alltime favorite novels, THE FACE IN THE FROST [1969]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Words Fail Me . . .

So, just to show that odd behavior based on theological tenants isn't limited to adherents of any single religion, here's a story of an Israeli newspaper, HAMEVASER ('The Announcer') that photoshoped out the image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from what looks to be becoming an iconic photo of world leaders marching in solidarity after the Paris terrorist attacks last week. Netanyahu and Abbas, Hollande and Merkel, all appear together in the forefront of the crowd -- except for readers of this one newspaper, for whom Merkel has vanished, with no sign to show she was ever there.

 At first I wondered if this could be due to anti-German sentiment, but no, the editor explains that it was "due to modesty concerns". It seems their audience (unidentified, but described as "ultra-orthodox") believes it "immodest" for pictures of women to appear in public; apparently members of this group do a lot of vandalism against posters, billboards, and advertisements.

What got me about the story was not the editor's rather incoherent attempt to explain that he had to do the censoring for the sake of the eight-year-old children who might see it, but the unknowns. Does this paper make sure, when deleting images of women, to mention in the text or accompanying caption that the woman in question was there? Do children whose parents belong to this group know what Golda Meir looked like, or even who she was? If Hilary Clinton were to become president, would this newspaper avoid printing her picture all the time she was in office, or would they devise some workaround to represent her without actually showing her?

Questions, no answers.

Here's the link