Friday, December 19, 2014

McWhorter on Sindarin

So, while I'm working on my review of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (which I liked better than I expected, and enjoyed more on a second viewing than the first), here's an interim piece I wanted to share, in which linguist John McWhortor (author of THE POWER OF BABEL, which figured prominently in my piece for the Blackwelder festschrift ). It's nice to see Tolkien taken seriously by The Powers That Be (McWhorter is Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University) -- it's a long time now since language-invention was a 'secret vice'.  And I think the key to that transformation was Tolkien's insight that the language has to be used for something before it can capture the imagination. People want to learn Sindarin (et al.) because it's a means of getting deeper into an enormously appealing subcreated world, and I assume to same applies to devotees of Klingon, Dothraki, &c.

Anyway, here's the piece:

--John R.
current reading THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY, ed. Liedl & Reagin (2014)


So, I'm happy to say I've been interviewed for a piece on the new Tolkien film. The interview was yesterday morning, and the piece is already up on SMITHSONIAN.COM:

This is the third of three pieces by the same SMITHSONIAN author, Rachel Nuwer,* concerned mainly with distinguishing the layers of what came from Tolkien (especially when brought in from elsewhere than THE HOBBIT) from what is Jackson's invention. It's also a good place to find out more about what Michael Drout (who wrote his own review, available here**) thinks about the films.

For the two earlier pieces in 'The Tolkien Nerd's Guide to THE HOBBIT', they can be found here ( and here ( Enjoy!


*who's also the author of a number of other interesting pieces on (itself an interesting site in general); check out for a sampling.

** .  I shd note that Drout's judgment of the films is much harsher than mine.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two Days and Counting

So, tonight Janice and I picked up tickets to the Wednesday morning showing of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES at Kent Station.

It's been a long wait; hard to think that the day after tomorrow it'll be here.

Tick tock

--John R.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Halfway to Eleventy-One

So, technically I suppose I was half-way to 'Eleventy-one' on my unbirthday six months ago, but close enough.

Another birthday, another milestone; now I probably really do qualify for some of those 'senior discounts'.

This was one of those rare birthdays spent in Arkansas, where I got to see lots of family, with an enjoyable get-together at what for years and years has been my favorite restaurant in Arkansas, Franke's in Little Rock, followed by a gathering at my uncle's, where I was able to show my mother et al me on a dvd (part of the dragon-commentary on the extended edition DESOLATION OF SMAUG). We looked at unexpected family pictures in some old Southern State College yearbooks Mama and I had found a day or two before and did a lot of visiting and catching up.

Janice wasn't able to be with me this trip, but her little book PARKER'S CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE was a big hit.

--John R.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Me, in Bremerton

So, I've been asked to give a talk on THE HOBBIT at an upcoming Hobbit Event at the Sylvan Way library in Bremerton. After some thought, I've decided to give a redacted version of my Blackwell-Wiley essay, "THE HOBBIT: A Turning Point", since (a) I don't think many if any people there will have seen the original essay (it having been published only in the U.K. and I myself not having yet received my author's copy) and (b) it places Bilbo's story in context with the rest of Tolkien's work, both mythological and scholarly, a subject I find fascinating; one I've done a lot of work on and which I feel comfortable expounding upon. It'll be followed by a question and answer session, and then some more Hobbit-party-ish activities. So, if you have any questions re. THE HOBBIT, now is the time to come and ask them.

Here's a link to the library's description of the event:

--John R., still in Arkansas (Magnolia)

Friday, December 5, 2014

DMG is out!

So, it'd be remiss of me when passing through Little Rock not to stop by the local Barnes & Noble to check their Tolkien shelves (to see if they had anything I didn't already have),*  refill the thermos, and sip tea while waiting for the thunderstorm to die down. And so I came to discover that, in addition to 100 copies of THE HOBBIT,** they had the new Fifth Edition DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE. This completes the long-awaited Fifth Edition rules set, and I have to say I'm impressed. It's certainly better than Fourth Edition and should give 3e a serious run for the money as the best core rules set since 2nd edition.***
   Looking forward to incorporating this new material into our ongoing game.  And to there being an ongoing game these past few years, after the wandering in the wilderness during the period 2007-2011 or thereabouts of not being in a regular D&D campaign.

--John R.

*the answer turned out to be yes: an end-cap had the latest of Brodie's guidebooks to New Zealand sites used in the filming, plus Sibley's 'Battle of the Five Armies' movie guide.

**plus 22 more packaged with sets of LotR

 ***the classic 1st edition still rules supreme as the best iteration of the best rpg. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lewis's Memory

So, I've now finished reading Leslie Baynes's article "C. S. Lewis's Use of Scripture in the 'Liar, Lunatic, Lord' Argument" in THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES (Vol 4 No. 2 p. 27& ff), and I think it probably has to be ranked as one of the major essays in Lewis studies. Not for its specific topic and thesis, which are very narrowly focused, but for its larger ramifications.

In brief, Baynes is writing about Lewis's argument, in MERE XIANITY and elsewhere, that it's impossible for anyone to view Jesus as a great moral teacher but a fellow mortal. Instead, Lewis argues, anyone who made the claims about himself that Jesus did could only be a villain, a madman, or God himself. I've never taken this argument very seriously, given that it's self-evidently false: millions of people, from Gandhi to Thomas Jefferson,  HAVE taken Jesus to be a great man but not divine.

Rather than address the question of Jesus's divinity, about which he seems fully in agreement, Baynes's concern is with Lewis's citations from scripture in support in his dictum. He reaches the surprising conclusion that Lewis's argument fails because Lewis quotes inaccurately, conflating the various gospel accounts. And, more seriously, Lewis takes words that appear in the gospels not in their original meaning but as they were defined by church councils in the 4th century. This is startling, because one of the things Lewis is known for as a literary scholar is his insistence that a modern day reader must be aware of the historical meanings of words. That is, if I read Shakespeare or Spenser, I need to be mindful that some words they used have changed meaning over the past five centuries. For me to read those words in the modern sense is to misunderstand what the author from an earlier time is saying. And yet Baynes demonstrates that Lewis does just that when he puts on his theological hat, particularly when it comes to terms like "Son of Man" and "Son of God", which had different meanings in Jesus's time than they did at the time of the church councils that established Catholic orthodoxy.

So, Baynes shoots a hole in Lewis's 'lunatic/liar/lord' theory through the backdoor method of showing that Jesus didn't make the claims Lewis claims he did, and that what Jesus did say meant something quite different from what Lewis thought it did. That's interesting in and of itself, but relatively minor so far as I wd be concerned, since it only applies to one argument Lewis made that I thought floundered under its own incoherence even as he was making it. But to extrapolate from Baynes is to raise a far larger point, with consequences for CSL's literary work: just how reliable was CSL's memory, and how accurate or otherwise are his citations?

Anyone who reads much C. S. Lewis biography comes to be familiar with the claims that CSL had an enormously retentive memory for books.* Yet there's reason to think his memory was less photographic than legend makes it. For example, we know of one case when he was asked about a book he'd read just a few months before about which he could not remember the author, nor the title, and had only a distorted memory of its contents.** What if his memory for literary quotes is no better than Baynes had demonstrated his theological citations to be? Hence, I'd be curious to hear from anyone who has ever checked Lewis's citations against the originals in his scholarly articles, to hear how accurate they turned out to be. I suspect that CSL's literary citations will turn out to be more accurate than his theological ones, but it'd be nice to know.

--John R.
current anime: GOLDEN TIME
current reading: THE SIMON IFF STORIES [1917-1918] by Aleister Crowley

 *In part this may just have been a side-effect of his fondness for re-reading favorite books over and over again; thanks to Janice for that thought.

**This occurred in his first (1942) letter to E. R. Eddison.  I was surprised, a while back, having always read that Charles Williams was venerated by the Oxford undergrads he lectured to, to find he was a figure of fun among the undergrads for his habit of always misquoting poetry. I don't think anything of the sort is true of CSL; merely that he might have been a little less superhuman than is generally believed.