Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Helen Haines

So, as part of the work for my Kalamazoo piece ("The Missing Women: JRRT's Lifelong Support for Women's Higher Education"), I wrote up by way of contrast a short section depicting his friend C. S. Lewis's views towards women's higher education, insofar as they can be determined from comments in his letters, most significantly in his first letter to E. R. Eddison. Here he described the woman through whom he learned of Eddison's work as

"som poore seely wench that seeketh a B.Litt or a D.Phil, 
when God knows shad a better bestowed her tyme 
makynge sport for some goodman in his bed 
and bearing children for the stablishment of this reaulme 
or els to be at her beeds in a religyous house" 

(CSL to ERE, Nov. 16th 1942; COLLECTED LETTERS Vol. II p. 535).

That's appalling enough. But when Eddison, in his response, asked the name of the person who'd written about him and the title of her book, Lewis professed ignorance, saying he'd forgotten both.

Thanks to the good work of Eddison scholar Paul Thomas, who shared his discovery with me, I now know both name and title: Helen E. Haines' WHAT'S IN A NOVEL (1942). Far from being a graduate student, Haines was seventy at the time, and a distinguished figure in the field of library science (a discipline she helped establish), making Lewis's dismissive comments all the more jarring (and thus relevant to my essay).

But now having gotten my own copy of her book (which was v. popular in its day, and hence easily available on abebooks or, I find it interesting in its own right. For one thing, she does not just mention Eddison's WORM, as I'd assumed from Lewis's letter, but all three of Eddison's novels: THE WORM OUROBOROS, MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, and A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, the last of which having only been published the year before. The context, too, is significant: Haines, who's recommending books for the typical library, devotes an entire chapter to fantasy, called "Spells, Signs, and Symbols" and including therein science fiction, utopias, et al.

Of modern fantasy writers, she says two stand out: James Branch Cabell and E. R. Eddison. After discussing Cabell's Poictesme novels and ERE's three books, she immediately segues into Rbt Nathan, who shd probably be considered the third in her unofficial pantheon at the core of modern fantasy -- not at all a bad choice, though I wd have included Dunsany.  His being sidelined (appearing only in the opening paragraph to this chapter in her general overview of the field's range, and in a line about his minor late novel MY TALKS WITH DEAN SPANLEY in her penultimate paragraph) shows just how much his star had fallen since his glory days in the late teens.

So far, so good. Yet it's that penultimate paragraph that ultimately turns out to be the most interesting thing about her whole book.* As she's wrapping up, she pauses at the end to single out two bright young talents: T. H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE** and J. R. R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT. I've asked around, and so far as I've been able to find out so far, this marks the first critical discussion of THE HOBBIT in a book, all previous known references having been in book reviews and the like. So Haines is near the well-head of Tolkien criticism. And let's not forget that her book was popular, widely read and widely influential. Her praise of JRRT no doubt helped spread word that here was a good book you ought to consider having in your town library.

Here's what she has to say about Tolkien:

. . . the whole sequence [by T. H. White] is a unique,
many-faceted commentary on Arthurian legend and
on the deep-rooted, traditional English way of life. 
To many readers they may seem books for children,
but in reality they are full-fledged fantasy at play for 
old as well as young.  So is The Hobbit, or, There 
and Back Again, that adventure into the land of Faerie, 
where dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and creatures
of magic still challenge the dominion of men. Written by
 J. R. R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford,
for his own children, it fuses legend, tradition, and the 
dim beginnings of history into a robust imaginative
creation that mingles homely simplicity, humor,
drama, pictorial beauty, and a truly epic quality.

--Haines, p. 217

I think that holds up pretty well, seventy-odd years later. Now I'm curious what Haines has to say about other genres and categories of fiction, such as the detective novel, the subject of her next chapter, "The Lure of Crime" (curiously enough, she credits Woodrow Wilson with a role in its rise to popularity).

--John R.
current reading: C. S. LEWIS AND THE MIDDLE AGES by Boenig (2012)

*caveat: at least as much as I've read of it so far.

**and its first two sequels, which again were v. recent books at the time Haines was writing, the three volumes having been published in 1938, 1939, and 1940, respectively.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

More Vacation (Astoria, Seaside, Trout Lake, petroglyphs)

So, our second day in Astoria (Thursday) we went to museums. First, to the local marine heritage museum (the Columbia River Maritime Museum), which highlighted the work of the coast guard (the one of our military services of which even a pacifist can, by and large, approve). It was a nice museum, but about two-thirds of its exhibits I found distressing. We started off by watching a 3-d film about sharks, which was a mistake (though the part about mantas was wonderful, and I learned that sawfish are rays that have evolved to look like sharks, not sharks that have evolved to look somewhat ray-like). Then there were all the exhibits about how the locals had massacred the once-florishing marine life in the area. Particularly unnerving was the harpoon gun (which pointed out into the room) and a sample of the harpoons it fired to kill whales, along with a sample  o the tools used to butcher the whales once slain. Melville wd have been delighted, but it gave me the fan-tods. The final third or so of the displays were devoted to naval warfare, which was also distressing in its own way (one room contained the complete bridge of a warship (WWII era, I think), having been built around the display rather than the other way around. The parts I liked best came in the middle: a sequence of maps charting the discovery and slow mapping of the NW coastal region, including one that seemed to indicate that Bellingham was named long before Seattle, Tacoma, or Olympia existed, which I hadn't known; also that Mt Adams didn't appear on maps that did have Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Baker. That, and a diving suit that had obviously seen a lot of use. Janice noticed that the hand-gloves were semi-mittins, with thumb, two fingers together, other two fingers together. I noticed that the man who wore the suit must have been quite tall (over six feet).

After some lunch we went on to our next stop, the Flavel House. This was the Queen Anne style mansion built by the town's leading citizen back in the 1880s. Both Janice and I enjoy seeing old houses, manors, mansions, and the like, both because they're beautiful and functional and because of what they reveal about the times. This one had the largest pocket doors I ever remember seeing (though Janice says the ones at HighClere Castle must have been larger) -- I love pocket doors, never having lived in a place that had them. It also had a sequoia growing in the yard that was a sight to behold. We didn't get to see the off-limits basement or the attic, with the servants' rooms and the access to the tower lookout, but I was struck by the tin bath (apparently claw-foot tubs, like the great one at our b-and-b, came along slightly later). Janice was struck by the doors upstairs that set off the family's rooms from the rest of that floor (guest room, bath room, nursery, et al). These didn't reach all the way to the ceiling (that space being given over to wooden tracework above the doorframe), so it didn't block noise, and the family had no staircase on their side of the divide leading down, which seemed an inconvenient arrangement.

On the walk back, we passed by the house where the present-day descendents of the Flavel family live (or at least lived until recently): the Other Flavel House, a huge mansion now in a dilapidated and abandoned state that was diagonally across from our b-and-b. Badly in need of being painted, with all doors and windows boarded up and the lawn left to its own devices, it wd have done the Addams family proud. I'd have much rather toured it than the other house, but unfortunately it's not open, being stuck in litigation between the city of Astoria and Captain Flavel's great-grandchildren (the recently deceased 'Hatchet Harry', who twice tried to murder neighbors and fellow townsfolk, and his sister, who's now in her eighties).* Given the family's history of delaying tactics in their many legal disputes, it seems likely the house is doomed and will fall to pieces before any one, the Flavels or the town, can established legal title to it. At any rate, here's the link to a picture of it I found online --one of many, it seems; I'm not alone in finding it fascinating:

By now it was getting later in the day than we'd planned, so we decided to skip Fort Clapsit (a Lewis and Clark site, where they ended their long march west by reaching the Pacific) and go on to Seaside, where we walked along the beach (long, smooth, flat, and sandy), found the Lewis and Clark saltworks, where three men boiled five kettles of seawater day and night for six weeks to collect four bushels of salt for the Expedition to use on their way back. I was skeptical that anyone cd know where the exact spot is in order to put up the little reconstruction that's there now, but a nearby sign explained that around the centenary of the event, a very old woman (Native American) who was ninety or so said her father had told her when she was a little girl about the white men's strange behavior and pointed out the spot. So it's not so much documented as based on oral tradition, which might well be right (I'm thinking here of the famous example in Bede). We had supper in a Finnish restaurant (never eaten in a Finnish restaurant before, that I know of; wasn't ethnic Finn cuisine, but tasty enough), then it was back along the promenade to the car and then back to Astoria.

The next morning we packed up and were off to Trout Lake, though before going I did get the story of the current status of the (Other) Flavel House. Over the next few days we had lots of good company, good conversation, and hospitality. Astoria was great, what followed towards the end of our trip was great, but getting together with friends was the highlight of our trip.

Departing on Monday, we headed to east up the river to look at petroglyphs (and two pictographs as well). I'd only known about these previously through Beth and Ray Hill's INDIAN PETROGLYPHS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST (1974), which I'd seen at the Antiquarian Book Fair a few years ago but missed the chance to pick up then and so hunted down a copy for myself later. The Hills wrote about the thousands of petroglyphs that once lined the Columbia river gorge near The Dalles, almost all of which were destroyed when they built the big dam there. What I hadn't realized was that a handful of these petroglyphs were chiseled out of the rock wall and thus survived; in recent years, these were set up in a display in Columbia Hills State Park.  It was a great display, in which three figures particularly stood out: a (humming?)bird, an owl, and a demon-face. All three can be seen among the photos at the following website:

We didn't get to see the 'She-Who-Watches' figure, because the petroglyph trail is now closed except by appointment -- apparently due to vandalism you can now only enter the petroglyph area under ranger supervision. Still, they've propped a few dozen petroglyph-stones up in a long line opposite the parking lot, so we cd get a good view of those at least.**

After a night in Ellensburg, we backtracked a bit by driving east on I-90 to Vantage, where we visited the Gingko Petrified Forest state park. The name is a bit misleading, it turns out: these is not a forest of standing stone trees, like the stone-tree-in-a-case we saw at Yellowstone, but petrified logs buried by a eruptions and excavated in modern times. Only three or four gingko trees have been found, but since these were the first pieces of petrified gingko wood ever found,*** they named the park after it. I've been in a lot of museums and a fair number of art galleries over the years, but I don't think I've ever seen an art gallery as beautiful as the display they had there of all the beautifully polished petrified woods, many of which they've been able to identify by tree (douglas fir, redwood, magnolia, cypress, spruce, etc etc). It was truly a stunning sight. After viewing the displays inside, we went outside and round by the side, where it turns out (as Janice knew, but I didn't), there was another petroglyph display. Once again these had been rescued when their site, down near the Columbia where it flows down from the north and turns west, had been flooded by yet another of the river's many dams. There weren't many of them (perhaps two dozen or so), but they were all cemented together into one great wall, which was thus crammed with petroglyphs. Among my favorites were the one I dubbed The Grail, the one of two halo'd figures together, and the ten-legged bug. V. impressive, and a nice finale to the trip. On our way out of the park, we stopped by a rock-and-gem shop (whose name I forget) which was very like Jerry's Rock and Gem right here in Kent: beautiful pieces of petrified wood (both polished and unpolished, many of them identified by tree-type), other fossils, from a (large!) dinosaur bone to a fossil turtle, many polished stones or all kinds (I got one from Greenland as a present), and a very friendly shop cat named Mr. Wiggles, whose company it was a pleasure to make.

 From there it was the long drive back home, greeting the cats, settling back in, and getting ready for a regular working day tomorrow.

Thus endeth the vacation: it was a good one, but it's nice to be home again.


current reading: C. S. LEWIS AND THE MIDDLE AGES, by Rbt Boenig (2012)

*for more on Hatchet Harry Flavel, see Calvin Trillin's 1993 article in, I think, the New Yorker, a copy of which was available in our b-and-b as a part of local history

**There were Beware the Rattlesnakes signs all around, which I thought was pretty clever of the park rangers -- people might ignore a Do Not Trespass sign, but a Snakes Warning sign is likelier to inspire good behavior.

***before that they'd found leaf-impressions and, I gather, seeds and nuts, but no wood.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

More on G. S. G.

So, I meant to make a second post re. the Tolkien references in Geo. Gordon's LETTERS and biography, then got too caught up in other things to make good on that. Accordingly, now that I have a quiet moment, thought I'd get back to that.

First, from THE LIFE OF GEORGE S. GORDON 1881-1942, by M. C. G. [=Mary C. Gordon, Mrs. G.S.G.], 1945:

[Chapter] Six 1919-1922

The years after his return to Leeds were full of activity. By 1920 he had almost recovered his health [from his wartime exhaustion and subsequent long  illness*], except for the occasional recurrences of fever, and he was deep in plans for the development and improvement of the English School . . . The number of graduate and undergraduate students attending courses in his Department increased from 116 to 263. He created a new and prosperous Honours School . . . It grew rapidly until it became the largest Honours School in English Literature outside Oxford, the number of those reading in it increasing from seven to sixty-nine. This, it was considered, was due to his personality, and to his constant interest in the work and fortunes of the English school. 

An increase of staff became an urgent necessity. G. H. Cowling, now a Professor in the University of Melbourne, was already on the English staff. Gordon chose his new colleagues well, and soon led a strong team. Two of his old pupils in Oxford were the first to come as lecturers -- R. Knox, now a Professor in Toronto, and Herbert Davis, who became, a few years ago, President of Smith College in the U.S.A.  They were presently joined by J. R. R. Tolkien as a Reader in English Language: he now holds the Chair of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford.   E. V. Gordon, who also came as a lecturer in English Language, later became Professor in that subject in Leeds. It was a very happy community; -- 'not so much staff', said G.S.G., 'as a Club!'  And the work went well.

(p. 67; I've introduced the paragraph break to make the long passage more readable)

*shades of JRRT!

Second, THE LETTERS OF GEORGE S. GORDON 1902-1942 (ed. M.C.G., 1943) is much more forthcoming, with several references.

(1) [?May or June 1920; GSG to C. T. Onions]
"I have now a staff of 4 instead of 2: all good. And I may take Tolkien** from you: but only, I hope, to give him leisure to do texts. On the other hand, having thought it necessary, after 5 years' absence [i.e., due to wartime service and illness], not to appear to avoid University business, I find myself, as I was telling Raleigh,*** not only God's Own Head of a Department, but Dean of the Faculty, Chairman of the Board of Arts, a Member of Council, O/C O.T.C., President of the Association of University Teachers, etc., etc., --

**"J. R. R. Tolkien became one of my husband's colleagues in the English School at leeds: later professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford." [Mrs. Gordon's note]

***i.e., Prof. Walter Raleigh of Oxford.

-- the interesting thing here is that the reason given for Tolkien's leaving the OED here is to allow him time to publish, and he did indeed over the next few years publish the MIDDLE ENGLISH VOCABULARY, his edition of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (w. EVG), and worked on THE CLARDENDON CHAUCER (w. GSG).

(2) 25 July 1920, GSG to MCG, from Magdalen College, Oxford
"The Chapmans are delightfully kind . . . D.N.S.**** is dining with me here to-night. Saw Tolkien. I lunch with him on Tuesday. Also Onions, who hailed me from a bus: and almost leaped off the roof, but finally decided (with the speed of thought) to descend the stairs. I like him more every time I see him."

**** = David Nichol Smith

(3)   18 October 1921, GSG to DNS [David Nichol Smith]
"I am overwhelmed here with students, and have now an Honours School of nearly 120. I hope to prune it at Christmas. A committee has been appointed to see what can be one to find me Seminar accommodation, and I am urged to an increase of staff. Two more will be necessary: one a mature scholar if I can get him: a man of Readership or Tolkien standard in 'the other humanities'. 

-- here the interesting thing is Gordon's hoping to find "a man of . . . Tolkien standard" to supplement his staff alongside Tolkien himself, wh. suggests considerable satisfaction in the job Tolkien was doing.

(4) 29 October 1921, GSG to DNS
"Tolkien suggested a graduate called Gordon [i.e., E. V. Gordon], --at present B-Litting. His name is a disadvantage, but we could get over that. Do you know anything about him?

The rapid development of our Honours Schools, and more especially of my own, which is the extreme case, is being considered, and if an increase of staff is thought necessary, I should have authority to recruit my 2 men by the end of this term . . . 

[F. P.] Wilson of Birmingham, now with you, is the type for the senior post; and of course it is rare. I should be very glad of suggestions here. 

[Herbert] Davis will probably go to Toronto next session: which will mean another vacancy. I can't speak too highly of Davis's whole performance here.

-- the takeaway here is the role Tolkien played in getting EVG his Leeds job, which I had been previously unaware of. Reminds me a bit of the role Tolkien played in getting his friend C. S. Lewis the Cambridge post thirty-plus years later.

(5) 12 June 1923, GSG to H.D. [=?Herbert Davis], from Oxford
I don't go to Leeds till the 25th. This is sad news about Tolkien -- his illness; but E.V. says he's safe now, and pulling through.

-- as I've previously written about a few days ago, this was the passage that made me realize just how close Tolkien came to dying that summer of 1923, and how near we came to not having THE HOBBIT or THE LORD OF THE RINGS or even THE QUENTA.

So, there it is: not much material, but it rounds out some corners and provides a few suggestive glimpses into a period of Tolkien's life and career about which we know relatively little.

--John R
current reading: ORIENTAL TALES by Marguerite Yourcenar

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Another Account of the Same Events

So, it turns out my wife's account, as the only eyewitness to the events narrated in my previous post, is much more entertaining than mine. Accordingly, here it is (reposted by permission)

The Littlest Rabbit's Guardian Scholar:

Look, it's a tiny bunny! Oh My God a ferret's chasing it. The ferret's caught the baby bunny! Whatever you do when you've caught up to them don't get bit. Oh good, when John dashed up the hill at them the ferret and bunny separated and ran in opposite directions. Look, there's a crow over in the direction the bunny went. What's he doing? Oh My God! At least this time John's dashing sideways across the hill to the rescue. The crow's flown off and an exhausted Littlest Rabbit has made it safely under cover. And, best of all, John's intact.

Contact with Nature (Astoria)

So, as of today I'm off on another trip -- this time to Astoria, on the Oregon side of the mouth of the Columbia River. Beautiful little town, full of interesting buildings and businesses, and v. walkable. But the most unusual thing that happened today was my rescuing a rabbit from a ferret.

It happened like this: we were walking up the long, long slope to the top of Coxcomb Hill (600 feet) when we saw something dark explode out of the tall grass to one side. It rolled over and over, making frantic little noises. Going closer, we saw that it was a tiny little rabbit being attacked by a weasel or ferret. Both animals were small and black. I ran up and waved my hat about and shouted until the two separated and I was able to interpose myself enough to shoo off the ferret, which after some hesitation ran back off into the tall grass on the right from whence it had come. The little rabbit ran off in the opposite direction.  Good deed for the day done (at least from the rabbit's point of view; not so much, I suppose, for the hungry ferret).

Or so you'd have thought. I'd no sooner got my breath back and we'd started climbing the hill again than a crow over at the other end started swooping at something. I've read WATERSHIP DOWN* and so know all about crows sometimes attacking small rabbits, esp. possibly wounded ones, so I made a second and longer run (luckily this time without having to go up-slope) till I got close enough to shoo the crow away as well**.  That just left the little rabbit, who still seemed essentially unhurt. It ran about halfway to the tall grass on the left side of the slope, hundreds of feet from where it'd originally been, and flopped over on its side, seemingly exhausted. I hovered over it till it got its breath a little, then when I moved closer it got to its feet and hopped the last little bit to get undercover to safety.

And there I left it, having done all I could do. I hope it was able to rest and recover, and that nothing more was wrong with it than sheer exhaustion for having had to run for its life. It'd certainly fought hard against the weasel/ferret, and I'm glad I was able to give it a helping hand.

From there it was on up to the top of the hill, to walking around and admire the Astoria Column (modeled on Hadrian's Column, it seems, but with Astoria-themed scenes spiraling around the outside all the way up). Janice climbed the internal spiral stairway all the way to the observation level on the top; I was not able to (acrophobia) but enjoyed the view from the hill and the mural-like frescos on the outside.

And speaking of nature, I'd had two other incidents within the past few days I'd meant to blog on. The second was our seeing a raccoon in our complex early Sunday afternoon. I never doubted they might be around -- our previous place at Chandler's Bay had both raccoons and possums, who ate the nom we put out for stray cats -- but we'd never seen any sign of them at Bayview,*** and this was a large one too. It froze when it saw us and seemed trapped, with our car between it and where it wanted to be. Luckily when we pulled forward a bit it saw its chance and made its way over towards the nearest greenbelt and safety.

And the first and truly remarkable event was out seeing a sunbow on Saturday. We were out running errands and pulled up to Minkler's, a health-food and organics store opposite the Renton airport. A man was standing outside, holding a baseball cap up in front of his face and facing upwards. As we were about to pass him, Janice stopped and said, "Okay, you've got my curiosity up; what's up?" He explained and pointed, and when we looked up in turn there it was: a sunbow. I've never seen one before, and if you haven't either here's Janice's picture of what it looked like:


--Except that while this picture gives an idea of what we saw, the real thing was even more striking. For one thing, the area at the center was an unbearably bright dot of light surrounded by white-bright, which all comes out as one smooth white disk. And the area inside was much darker than the surrounding sky outside the ring. The ring itself shimmered with rainbow colors, the yellow on the inside of the ring, then red, then blue.  It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, and it lasted a long time -- a good twenty/thirty minutes later we saw it again from along the banks of the Green River, where we'd gone to get some locally-grown strawberries, and Janice noticed that it was now in some places a double sunbow, fragments of a second ring having formed in several areas around the main one.

Nature: red in tooth and claw, right up among us when we least expect it, and wholly wondrous in its amazing beauty.

--John R.
current reading: PAINTED DEVILS by Rbt Aickman [?1979] -- the first book I've ever successfully inter-library-loaned through the King Co. Library system.

*a masterpiece!

**another time I'd have bought it off with peanuts, but I'd forgotten to bring any with me

***Janice adds: I've seen them -- a mother and three little ones -- one night while you were gaming.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Pound, on the War

So long as I'm talking about the Great War, thought the following passages by Ezra Pound give an eloquent evocation of the loss and waste of so much talent:

THE CANTOS, from Canto XVI (1930)

. . . And Henri Gaudier went to it
   and they killed him
And killed a good deal of sculpture

And ole T.E.H. went to it*
With a lot of books from the library
London Library
   And a shell buried him in a dug-out
The Library expressed its annoyance

And a bullet hit him on the elbow
gone through the fellow in front of him
And he read Kant in the Hospital in Wimbleton
   in the original
And the hospital staff didn't like it.

And Wyndham Lewis went to it
With a heavy bit of artillery,
   and the airmen came by . . . 
And cleaned out most of his company,
   and a shell lit on his tin hut
While he was out in the privy
   and he was all that was left of that outfit

. . . and Ernie Hemingway went to it
   too much in a hurry
And they buried him for four days

. . . Liste officielle des morts 5,000,000

 And again, from HUGH SELWYN MAUBERLEY (1920)

These fought in any case
and some believing . . . 
Some quick to arm

some for adventure
some from fear of weakness
some from fear of censure
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later . . . 
some in fear, learning love of slaughter

Died some, pro patria
   neither dulce nor et decor**
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie
home to many deceits . . . 
and liars in public places

Daring as never before
wastage as never before
Young blood and high blood
fair cheeks and fine bodies

Fortitude as never before

Frankness as never before

Disillusions as never told in the old days
hysteria, trench confessions
laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad
And of the best among them
For an old [expletive] gone in the teeth.
For a botched civilization . . . 

*i.e., T. E. Hulme
**this is a reference to the tag-line from Horace, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ("it is sweet and fitting/proper to die for your country"), much-quoted early in the war but now best known through having been taken as the basis for a scathing anti-war poem by Wilfred Owen (d. in the trenches, November 1918)

More, on The War

So, in the comments on my previous post (which comments I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way), David B. made the point about all the talent lost in the War, both those who had already made significant achievements (whose future work we lost) and those who were nipped in the bud, to use seriously what has long since become a cliche: killed so young that they left almost nothing behind.

Of major voices that belong to the first category -- writers of known greatness who died too soon because of the war --  three particularly stand out from my point of view.

First, SAKI. Hector Hugh Munro's mordant wit and cynical hilarity were unique and irreplaceable: think P. G. Wodehouse crossed with Edward Gorey. He's what Evelyn Waugh tried and failed to be. Saki is lucky in one way in that while he died relatively young (mid-forties), he'd long been at the peak of his form and people knew a major voice had been silenced. They've forgotten it since, but that'd have been the same had he lived, given the to and fro of literary reputation and the undervaluing of those who, like Saki, excel mainly in the short story form (cf. Dunsany's fate).

Second, EDWARD THOMAS. I confess I'd never heard of Thomas till introduced to his work by a friend during a 1987 trip to England (the same friend who introduced me to the work of Philip Larkin*) -- a lapse which I count as a failure of our grad. school system. He's remembered today as "the English Frost" (i.e., Rbt Frost), but in his own day he was so admired, and rightly so, that young Frost (who was a good friend of his, by the way, whom he mentored) was known as "the American Thomas".  There are other poets killed in the war, but Brooke and Owen are remembered for capturing the moment (of early idealism and later despair, respectively); I doubt if either wd have had much more to say had he survived. Thomas was different. He was one of the greats, celebrating the quiet joys of English countryside, and his death and that of others like him actually changed the course of English literature, causing the emerging Georgians to be represented only by those minor poets who'd survived the war, thus opening the way to Eliot and Pound's Modernism.

Third, a name not many people have heard ranks in my mind as a major loss: WM. HOPE HODGSON. Hodgson is very much an acquired taste, but he makes the list for me because he wrote what I consider one of the finest fantasy novels ever written (it's in my top-ten list): THE NIGHT LAND. Whether Hodgson would have created any more major works had he survived was problematic -- after 1914 his works show a distinct tapering off as he sought a popular audience. But even if he'd been unable to recapture the level of his earlier works, a long life may have brought more attention to his work, including the early work that contains all his best. Or his early brilliance might have been buried under a flood of lesser stuff, as was the case with Dunsany (who did survive, barely**) or, to pick a non-war writer, Rbt Chambers. Or he might have recouped and gone on to greater heights, as is suggested by one of his last letters from the front, in which he talks about the blistering vistas he plans to incorporate into his work based on the things he's seen.

Of writers in the second category, those who did survive who'd achieved little before the war include Tolkien, of course, but also C. S. Lewis, who at the time he was serious wounded by shrapnel had written only SPIRITS IN BONDAGE (a worthy achievement in itself) and a few fragments like THE QUEST OF BHLERIS and the BOXON juvenalia.  And far too many others, like G. B. Smith left behind even less than this.



*thanks Ken!

**Dunsany was shot in the head, but this was by his fellow Irish during the rebellion, not German snipers.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Did Tolkien Almost Die in 1923?

So, among the many, many interesting books I saw at Doug's during this past Kalamazoo (hi Doug) were two that, in juxtaposition, caught my eye: a biography and the selected letters of George Gordon. I don't know a lot about G.S.G., other than that he was responsible both for Tolkien's getting his post at Leeds (and thus establishing him within his chosen field) and for JRRT's getting the Oxford professorship five years later (thus putting him at the top of said profession). These past few years I've grown more and more convinced that, in the absence of a major publication of new primary research about JRRT himself, learning more about his teachers, colleagues, students, relatives, and friends is a good way to place him in context. Luckily there's been a string of such pieces: Doug's essays on E. V. Gordon and R. W. Chambers (and his Kalamazoo presentation on Simonne d'Ardenne), David's pieces on less-well-known Inklings (esp. Hugo Dyson), Morton's booklets on Jane Suffield Neave, the Hilary Tolkien booklet, the recent biography of Father Francis, et al.

What I hadn't realized is that there's so much information on GSG (biography, letters) readily available. And, checking the index of said volumes and looking up the Tolkien references, of which there are a few --one in the Life (inconsequential) and four in the Letters (quite interesting). And reading these, I was immediately struck with just how ill Tolkien was when he came down with pneumonia in 1923.

I'd never realized before how close Tolkien came to dying. Looking at the evidence, it seems obvious. So why didn't that simple, and dramatically important, fact not impress itself upon me before? I certainly have always known how deadly pneumonia was in those days, and for long afterwards: my own grandfather died of it in 1949 (age 57), and I myself almost died of double pneumonia as a child. The treatment was more or less to make the person get lots of rest and hope for the best. So why, knowing that Tolkien had been strickened with a usually-fatal disease, didn't it really register?

Part of it seems to be presentation. Carpenter's account of this episode, which he does include, is rather breezy, focusing on the humor of young Tolkien sick in bed while old John Suffield, his Tookish grandfather, was off on a trip around the islands (Carpenter's BIOGRAPHY, p. 106). Scull and Hammond report the facts, but briefly and with detachment:

May 1923  Tolkien catches a severe cold, which turns into pneumonia. 
He is gravely ill, his life in danger; but he will begin to recover by 12 June. 

[Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY, p. 121]

and again, a little later on the same page

Late June or July 1923 Once Tolkien has recovered from his illness, 
he and his family travel on holiday

Contrast this with the immediacy of Gordon's letters:

This is sad news about Tolkien -- his illness; but 
E. V. says he's safe now, and pulling through.

(i.e., E. V. Gordon) THE LETTERS OF GEORGE S. GORDON  1902-1942  (p. 164)

It's a strange might-have-been to think of Tolkien, who'd never been a strong or healthy man, succumbing to pneumonia at thirty-one, leaving behind THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, the Turin Lay, Kullervo, two invented languages and I think one invented script, a small portfolio of strange art, and a quantity of odd verse. If any of that had gotten published at all, 'SPRING HARVEST'-like, what a strange and truncated legacy it'd have made. I suppose he'd have been remembered as a disciple of Dunsany's who died young. How grateful I am that he recovered from that near-fatal bout, and lived a good long life, with virtually all the work he's known for falling on this side of that dividing line.

Lucky him. Lucky us.

--John R.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

In Arkansas

So, internet access spots few (Country Library, MacDonalds) and far between (opposite sides of town) here in Magnolia, Arkansas. Plus v. busy with family visits. More postings soon, once back to the chilly Pacific Midwest.
--John R.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ain't It the Truth

Been v. busy lately, finishing up the notes and bibliography for my Kalamazoo paper last week and then doing the same for my Valparaiso paper this week, as well as getting ready for my trip (I'm writing this from the Dallas airport, en route to Arkansas).

So, wanted to seize this opportunity to celebrate the Dallas/Fort Worth airport's being enlightened enough to provide not just free wi-fi but a recharge-your-electronics station nr the gate by making a quick post. Few days ago noticed one of those online slideshows listing things around a theme. This particular theme was "Books People Will Judge You By" if they see you reading them. Boy, did they get that right.

Notice the appearance of Tolkien in Slot #3 of their nine-book series.

Here's the link:


current reading: C. S. LEWIS, POETRY, AND THE GREAT WAR by Jn Bremer [2012] (well-written and informative but harshly unsympathetic), THE STORY OF MERIADOC tr. Mildred Leake Day [1988] (no, not fan-fiction about Merry Brandybuck but a little-known Arthurian romance)