Sunday, February 19, 2017

Loren Eiseley on Dunsany — and Tolkien

Loren Eiseley on Dunsany — and Tolkien

So, back when I was working on my Dunsany dissertation I came across a reference to a piece that essayist and thinker Loren Eiseley, whom I knew only from his wonderful, wistful essay "The Brown Wasps", had written on Dunsany, but despite my best efforts I was never able to locate it.

Flash forward twenty-seven years, and while browsing a shelf at the local Barnes & Noble I see a two-volume set of Eiseley's collected essays, just out from Library of America. And so, checking the indexes, I find three references to Dunsany and one to Tolkien.

It turns out I was in pursuit of a bibliographic ghost, in that Eiseley seems not to have written a piece about Dunsany but instead to have referred to him occasionally to make a point. And checking those references, it immediately becomes apparent that Eiseley had a good deal of respect for Dunsany as a thinker — an aspect of Ld D's work that would have been familiar at the time of his early fame (roughly the first decade and a half of his career) but has dropped out of the collective consciousness, even among those who read Dunsany for his literary gifts. *

The first Dunsany reference comes in Chapter Eight: "The Inner Galaxy" in a 1969 book THE UNEXPECTED UNIVERSE. After describing the connection he felt with a wild bird he saw each day, and the sense of loss when one day it was gone, Eiseley notes that such feelings wd have been considered "meaningless, as the harsh Victorian Darwinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists of whom Lord Dunsany once said: 'It is very seldom that the same man knows much of science, and about the things that were known before ever science came'." (Eiseley volume I page 373).


The second quote comes from THE LOST NOTEBOOKS, a posthumous 1987 collection, in notes for an unwritten essay: "[life] has to have some kind of unofficial assurance of nature's stability . . . wasps and migratory birds . . . had an old contract, an old promise, never broken** till man began to interfere with things, that nature, in degree, is steadfast and continuous . . . [Life] has nature's promise — a guarantee that has not been broken in four billion years that the universe has a queer kind of rationality and expectedness about it. Lord Dunsany says, 'If we change too much we may no longer fit into the scheme of things; but the glow-worm shows no signs of making any change.' (Patches of Sunlight, p. 25).   (Eiseley volume I page 446).


The third and final Dunsany reference occurs in context with the Tolkien reference, from a piece called "The Illusion of the Two Cultures" that had appeared in Eiseley's final book THE STAR THROWER (1978) and appears here as the last essay in this two-volume set. This was, of course, a topic of great interest to Barfield, who devoted one of his most accessible books, WORLDS APART (1963), to an exploration of the 'two cultures' debate.  Eiseley's piece focuses on fear of imagination, and frames the argument in terms I think Tolkien wd have been comfortable with (though JRRT uses the image of 'The Machine' rather than 'tool/ technic'):

". . . the human realm is denied in favor of the world of pure technics. Man, the tool user, grows convinced that he is himself only useful as a tool, that fertility except in the use of the scientific imagination is wasteful and without purpose, even, in some indefinable way, sinful. I was reading J. R. R. Tolkien's great symbolic trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, a few months ago, when a young scientist of my acquaintance paused and looked over my shoulder. After a little casual interchange the man departed leaving an accusing remark hovering in the air between us. 'I wouldn't waste my time with a man who writes fairy stories.' He might as well have added, 'or with a man who reads them.'
   As I went back to my book I wondered vaguely in what leafless landscape one grew up without Hans Christian Andersen, or Dunsany, or even Jules Verne. There lingered about the young man's words a puritanism which seemed the more remarkable because . . . it was unmotivated by any sectarian religiosity unless a total dedication to science brings to some minds a similar authoritarian desire to shackle the human imagination."

A little more poking revealed that Eiseley reviewed two of Tolkien's books: TREE & LEAF (cf. West's TOLKIEN CHECKLIST p. 45) and THE RETURN OF THE KING. The former clearly informed his comments on the latter (see below). I don't remember seeing Eiseley's LotR review, but the following excerpt from it appears as a blurb in some old paperback editions of THE HOBBIT:

"The great tale of wonder, like the great novel, is not a preoccupation of children . . . the adult mind has, if anything, greater need of fantasy than that of the child. . . . In The Lord of the Rings a whole Secondary World is created and successfully sustained through three large volumes. These are sure to remain Tolkien's life work, and are certainly destined to outlast our time" (New York Herald Tribune Book Week)


There's also an interesting passage re. C. S. Lewis in the essay immediately preceding this one, but I'll save that for another post.

--JDR

—current reading and re-reading: the latest Rivers of London novel by Ban Aaronovitch; JRRT's A SECRET VICE (ed. Fimi & Higgins).


*which were extraordinary. As I've said often before, I rate Dunsany as the best writer of fantasy short stories in the language, the peer of Borges and Kafka — and his influence on fantasy is second only to Tolkien's.

**here I think Eiseley is right in the main but wd like to see him take into account Extinction Level Events, which have the tendency to abruptly change those rules.




Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tolkien's House For Sale

So,  if you're a Tolkien fan and happen to have one and a quarter million pounds lying about, here's something you can do with it: buy Tolkien's home.

https://www.scottfraser.co.uk/S26776291/sandfield-road-headington


Thanks to friend Jeff for passing along the news (and the link) that Tolkien's house in Sandfield Road, where he lived 1953 through 1968 -- that is, from just before THE LORD OF THE RINGS was finally published to the point where he had to leave Oxford to escape his too-attentive fans.*

Of all the places Tolkien lived after he left Birmingham, three have achieved legendary status in the mind of his admirers: the house on Northmoor Road where he wrote THE HOBBIT and most of THE LORD OF THE RINGS; the house on Sandfield Road, where he was living during the years when he became a world-famous author; and the apartment provided by Merton college where he spent the last two years of his life, when he had already become something of a legendary figure. The house on Sandfield Road, near that of his friend and fellow Inkling Humphrey Havard, is where Tolkien lived in retirement. And it's the background against which many of us imagine him, largely because that's where he was living when visited by Clyde Kilby, Arne Zettersten, W. H. Auden,** and others who who later set down accounts of their visit: one such visit famously forms the opening chapter of Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography.

This is also where the Pam Chandler suite of photos were taken, showing Tolkien in his office and also out in his garden. I've only seen it once myself, during my first visit/research trip to Oxford in 1981, when I borrowed a bicycle from the people who ran the b&b I was staying at*** and made my way out first to Sandfield Road and then on to see the Kilns (both of which I cd only see from outside at the side of the road, both at that time being private homes). In the part to the left in the picture on the real estate agent's website (see the link above) is the converted garage that served as Tolkien's study. Over the arched doorway can be seen the fieldstone plaque identifying this as Tolkien's house -- not one of the official blue historical markers (one of which I think is on the Northmoor Road house) but an attractive carving of of Tolkien's long sinuous dragons, The Hill, and the words 'J. R. R. Tolkien lived here 1953-1968'.  There's also a floorplan, thoughI get the impression the house has been built onto and gentrified; certainly the garage-office seems to have now been fully integrated into the house as a whole.

The most surprising change is that the front yard has been paved over with bricks (or, in English parlance, the garden has been turned into a yard) and there are no trees, only two or three shrubs -- though the floorplans show both a conservatory and a garden at the back of the house. To get some idea what it looked like when the Tolkiens lived there, see the photos of Tolkien in his garden that appeared on the cover of the Zettersten and Dickerson-Evans books:

Zettersten:
http://www.palgrave.com/cn/book/9780230623149

Dickerson-Evans
http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=1909#.WKi18VfSeRs


It'll be interesting to see if this gets bought by someone who turns it into A Tolkien House, in the way that The Kilns now provide housing for people dedicated to CSL's life and work, or if it remains a house like any other on its street aside from the plaque marking it as having once been the home of someone extraordinary.

--John R.






*there are stories of people coming up to the windows and taking pictures of him inside eating breakfast -- which is pretty much exactly what you don't want in a retirement home.

**Auden afterwards described it in public as 'hideous', which rather hurt Tolkien's feelings; Auden is said to have later apologized.


***the O'Shea's Cotswold House, which became the standard against which I've measured all other B&Bs henceforth




Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Did Harper Goff invent Steampunk?

So, at the tail end of my little stint of reading up on Verne (including his biography, one of his lesser-known works,* and one of his most famous**), which wrapped up about a month ago, Janice and I decided to watch the famous James Mason-Kirk Douglas-Peter Lorre film of TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, which neither of us had seen for many years. Long story short: it has not aged well -- you know you're in trouble when Peter Lorre comes across as the voice of common sense, the everyman of the story. At least the late great James Mason makes a fine mad scientist, though Kurt Douglas's harpoonist is just a bully and The Professor, who ought to be the point-of-view character, a mere nonentity.

Luckily, the extras that came on the disk had a little more going for them, even if the relentless laudatory tone of Disney's documentarians praising themselves did wear thin -- e.g. when they described at length how one fake-looking crew-vs-giant-squid fight was replaced by a quite different (but also fake-looking) crew-vs-giant-squid scene. The most interesting thing was a bit featuring an frail-looking old man named Harper Goff, whom neither of us had heard of before: he'd been art director on the project decades before. The more we found out about him, the more it seems likely that Harper Goff invented Steampunk, decades before it had a name. Or, to be more precise, he created its aesthetic.

Case in point: Goff's design for the Nautilus. Verne, who knew something about aerodynamics (or 'hydronamics' in this case), described Nemo's vessel as a cylinder -- i.e., more or less torpedo-shaped. Goff was having none of that: he added all kinds of interesting bits to the sub's exterior -- decorative prow with some interesting windows/lights, elaborate coning tower, finlike tail -- creating not an authentic mid-Victorian look but a mid-twentieth century projection backwards. And that's a key element of Steampunk: the idea is not to recreate the real nineteenth century but to present a skewed, somewhat more interesting version thereof.

Turns out that the idea that Harper Goff was the fore-father of Steampunk has been around for a long time: no less a figure than Greg Bear put it forward, and once I knew to look for it I found a nice discussion of Goff's contribution.

http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/2012/05/harper-goffs-nautilus-as-genesis-of.html 

I haven't read that much Steampunk myself, enjoying the look and feel more than the stories associated with it. Most of what little Steampunk I've read I thought pretty bad (always excepting Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal books --assuming those are Steampunk, which I rather doubt).
Rather than novels I've been much more impressed by its adoption into other media, like the rpg setting Castle Falkenstein or the online comic/ongoing graphic novel GIRL GENIUS or comic book series THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN or the Brian Kisinger WALKING YOUR OCTOPUS/TRAVELING WITH YOUR OCTOPUS picture books. Maybe it works better in visual mediums than as a subgenre of fiction.


--John R.
current project: editing the festschrift
current reading: re-reading the entire Peter Grant/Rivers of London series after having read Aaronovitch's latest book in the series


*THE GOLD VOLCANO (my advice: don't bother, unless you're a completist)

** TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (reread for the first time in many years, and reading the unabridged text for the first time ever. I conclude that (a) Verne was what we wd call today a Young Adult author, (2) Verne was a diligent author rather than one who only wrote when inspired, and (3) Verne's 'science fiction' bonafides rely less on his purported extrapolation and more on his off-the-grid episodes, such as Nemo's visit to Atlantis).


THE WIFE SAYS:
Can it really be Young Adult when there's no young point-of-view character?




Wednesday, February 8, 2017

an end to presidential dollars

So, I've been collecting the presidential dollars ever since the series debued ten years ago, picking up each new coin as it appeared and carrying it in my back pocket* until the next one came out, whereupon I retired the old president and replaced it with the new. The series has now come to an end --not because they've run out of presidents but because it's illegal in the U. S. to put a living person on a coin. Thus the Reagan dollar is the last of the series, and there are no coins for Carter, Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, or Obama (and of course no Trump).

As both a history buff and former coin collector, I really liked what they did with these coins, but their failure to get into circulation shows that there's really no point in trying to have a US dollar coin. I've seen four such attempts in my time. The Eisenhower dollar failed (too large, picked a no-longer-that-popular president to honor, ugly design**). The Susan B. Anthony dollar failed (looked too much like a quarter, picked a figure who didn't have much mythic resonance at the time, ugly design***). The Sacagawea dollar did everything right (popular figure, good design, distinctive color to distinguish it from any other coin) and still failed. And the presidential dollar coins, despite getting a fair amount of attention early on, failed so badly the mint stopped mass-producing them for circulation mid-way through. Part of the problem might be that our presidents are a mixed bag, and most of us have mixed feelings about them (at least, those of us who know much about them). I know I didn't much like carrying around a Hoover or a Nixon dollar, and I'll be glad not to have the Reagan one in my pocket anymore.

And so ends another attempt to introduce something new (a dollar coin) without taking away something old (the dollar bill).  The English succeeded with their pound coin (and now additionally with their two-pound coin) by taking the pound-note out of circulation at the time they launched the coin, and by making the coin distinctive is size, color (colour), and shape (it was much thicker than their other coins).

I wonder what we'll try next time.

--John R.


*(along with  the Sacagawea I've been carrying since 2000 and a 1907 indian head penny)

**except for the back, which was superb

***again, except for its back -- which was the exact same back as the Eisenhower




Monday, February 6, 2017

SPOILERS: The Faceless Man.

SPOILERS: The Faceless Man.

So, I've just finished reading THE HANGING TREE, the latest (sixth) book in Ben Aaronovitch's THE RIVERS OF LONDON series. And one scene in it blew me away.

The high point of this book comes when Peter Grant, the hero, suddenly realizes that the person he's chatting with about classic cars is The Faceless Man, the sociopath villain of the series, whose path has crossed with the heroes' repeatedly without their being able to capture or even identify him.

Much mayhew ensues, during which the hero is barely able to make his escape.

After the villain has absconded (in the best series villain manner), now that his cover is blown they search his house.

Turns out he's not only a psychopathic killer, he's a Tolkien fan.

On his shelves they find such works as

. . . the Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins and
The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery
in the Dark Ages which confirmed that [The
Faceless Man] was an enormous Tolkien nerd.
As if the five or six different editions of The
Lord of the Rings and the signed first edition
of The Hobbit wasn't enough proof. He
hadn't neglected the other Inklings, though
-- C. S. Lewis had a shelf. And he didn't
have any objections to YA either, judging
by the collection of Susan Cooper's The
Dark Is Rising sequence, again first editions,
but these ones far too well read to be worth
much, beside similarly worn copies of The
Owl Service and the rest of Alan Garner's books

It wasn't exactly screaming 'power mad
psychopath', although it was possible that
he was modern enough to keep all his
vices on a USB stick.*


The thing I haven't been able to decide is how much of this is window dressing (Aaronovitch is great at filling his stories with references which firmly ground them in the present day) and how much of it is significant to the character. It's as if Dr. Petrie discovered that Fu Manchu was an admirer of the Sherlock Holmes stories and had in his lair a full set of the original issues of THE STRAND in which they first appeared. The author's saying something here, but what?

The only hints I've picked up on so far to help us decide what to make of all this are that The Faceless Man elsewhere named the Dark Ages as his favorite period of English history, and seems to favor an image of Merrie Olde England, unlike the modern multi-cultural multi-ethnic London Peter Grant inhabits. Doubtless we'll find out more about the Faceless Man's plans and motivations in later books.

So, it may be significant that all the authors mentioned in the preceding passage are English**

One other clue might be the single book about Tolkien specifically identified by name: THE REAL MIDDLE EARTH: MAGIC AND MYSTERY IN THE DARK AGES by Brian Bates (hc 2002, tp 2004). At first I was puzzled as to why, out of all the many, many books about Tolkien, Aaronovitch chose out Bates' for special mention. I'm inclined to think that we're to conclude it's the real world/Dark Age Britain element that drew The Faceless Man's attention. But I'm certainly open to suggestion as to why this book rather than one of the more well-known books on Tolkien's work.

In the meantime, I'll be processing the idea of someone using 'Tolkien fan' as a characterization point for an arch-villain in what's clearly not a Tolkien-bashing sort of way. A down side of his cultural ubiquity, I'd say. We'll see if subsequent revelations circle back to this detail at some point.

--John R.
current (re) reading: MIDNIGHT RIOT (Rivers of London, Book One)




*elsewhere they examine his daughter's books:
"an interesting collection of books. Lots of YA
in the American "drown the sister" school of
social realism, plus various Malorie Blackmans,
Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the
Castle and Land of Laughs by Jonathan Howard.
--I hadn't heard of Blackmans before (but then I am somewhat outside her target audience), but it's noticeable that all these authors are Americans.

**(though Lewis self-identified as Irish, he usually 'passes' as English in the eyes of his readers and those who write about his work)