Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mythmoot & Invoking Wonder: Storytelling in J.R.R. Tolkien

      This past weekend I attended Mythmoot IV, a scholarly conference for all those involved with Mythgard Institute and Signum University and open to all who love Tolkien's work. Special guests at the conference included Corey Olsen, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Drout, Ted Nasmith, Sørina Higgins, and John Di Bartolo. 
      With the theme of the conference being Invoking Wonder, Verlyn Flieger's plenary address examined the subtle ways that J.R.R. Tolkien himself invokes wonder within his Lord of the Rings, noting that the way in which he does so almost always includes a "rebound effect" in which the reader experiences wonder and awe not directly from the narrator, but by means of redirection through a character within the story. One of her most clear examples of this within The Lord of the Rings was the scene in which Frodo encounters Lórien for the first time:

"The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain" (350).
   Lórien, therefore, is not merely described, but experienced—and specifically experienced through Frodo. In fact, it is singularly through Frodo, as if there is a spotlight on him as he alone stands "lost in wonder" as the others take respite among the grass. In this moment of quiet and solitary wonder Frodo, as Flieger noted in her address, sees things anew: familiar colors "were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them" and ordinary shapes seem "as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes." For Frodo has been blind (and literally so, as he was until this moment blindfolded) until this raw moment of wonder when he sees things fresh and anew.

     Tolkien rebounds the sense of wonder from the character to the reader so that the thought and experience of Frodo becomes our own. And, as Flieger noted, an important element in invoking this wonder is Tolkien's removal of language within the passage. Familiar and defining words are gone as the narrator states, "a light was upon it for which his language had no name." Likewise the colors Frodo sees are indefinable and new, being "as if he had at that moment perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful." In the removal of language here, Flieger noted, Tolkien makes us experience something new. We and Frodo alike are no longer grounded in familiar definitions and language. Here is a scene immeasurable in language, experienced only in thought, in wonder

   While Flieger suggests that Tolkien uses languageor rather the lack of language to invoke wonder, I would expand this to suggest that he likewise does so with storytelling and song, using Frodo and the hobbits to redirect wonder upon the reader. As he did by removing the words or language, Tolkien often removes the story from the hobbits or reader. And often true wonder is achieved best through a lack of the story rather than the story itself. While there are plenty of moments Tolkien gives us history and information (like what we see in the Shadow of the Past and histories of Gondor in later in LotR) and even songs, when it comes to the story and storytelling, a lot of the time Tolkien gives us pieces rather than the whole [1].  In On Fairy Stories Tolkien calls fantasy "the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds" (14). This idea that we experience fantasy with a glimpse of the otherworld rather than a whole view is one that is essential to Tolkien and his own fantasy. Significantly, the reader's introduction to the magic within The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is not done with an immediate and full picture of the elves. It is done with fragmented stories and glimpses, found only within the "shadowy marshes" (OFS) of Tolkien's own Perilous Realm. In The Green Dragon we learn that Sam, 
"believed he had once seen an Elf in the woods, and still hoped to see more one day. Of all the legends that he had heard in his early years such fragments of tales and half-remembered stories about the Elves as the hobbits knew had always moved him most deeply" (77).
Ted Nasmith
As readers, we are invited to share in Sam's wonder of the Elves. But more than that, we are invited to share in Sam's faith in stories. Believing beyond doubt, in the face of cold reality ( or Ted Sandyman) that these fleeting, fragmented stories are true. This glimpse into Faerie, coupled with the invocation to believe, invokes wonder within stories that are not actually told to us as the reader.

So when we come to hear tales later on in the novel, it's no surprise that the most enchanting stories—like those fragmented tales Sam once heard—are the ones that aren't told in full. No clearer is this felt than in the House of Tom Bombadil, where wonder is invoked not through answers but by riddles. Not by fully recounted stories, but by the enchantment felt from storytelling: 
"When they caught his words again they found that he had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake. Then suddenly he stopped, and they saw that he nodded as if he was falling asleep. The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted; and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars. Whether the morning and evening of one day or of many days had passed Frodo could not tell. He did not feel either hungry or tired, only filled with wonder" (168).
We are given no complete story here. Instead, we experience enchantment and wonder through Frodo. As readers, we are no longer being asked to believe in the truth of stories, but rather in their ability to bring us to enchantment. Tolkien does this again in Rivendell when Frodo listens to the singing of the elves:
"At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world" (281).
     Frodo is swept away by words he doesn't understand, far lands he has never seen, and "bright things he had never yet imagined." It is in this context that we are shortly given Bilbo's song of Eärendil, a tale that is wondrous all the more for the build up in enchantment that precedes it. It's clear that the reader would not experience the same level of wonder in the songs, histories, and stories actually given (like those of Eärendil, Tinùviel, or Nimrodel) without these moments in which Tolkien leaves out a complete story or song to show us the ultimate power of storytelling and song. By doing so, Tolkien ensures that we are never become disillusioned with the magic or history within The Lord of the Rings. Even though we, like Sam, come to know and experience it, we are always guided to a new, deeper enchantment: the enchantment of a story we have never—will never—hear. There is always more, always something deeper that we cannot quite touch.

  This concept extends out to the actual experience of reading the very book in our hands. Our wonder is elevated when we experience this second layer enchantment reached through storytelling within the novel itself. It reminds us of what the best literature, the best stories, can evoke. Throughout The Lord of the Rings the reader is subtly, but strongly reminded of the magic of storytelling itself, even as she takes part in reading that same story.

       In his own write up about the Mythmoot IV conference fellow Mythgardian and friend Tom Hillman points to the poem Bilbo recites shortly before Frodo and the company leave Rivendell:

I sit beside the fire and think 
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring 
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green

I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago
And people that will see a world
That I shall never know

But all the while I sit and think
Of times there were before
I listen for returning feet 
And voices at the door

This poem isn't about Bilbo's grand adventures. No dragon, dwarf, gold, great mountain, or wizard makes an appearance. It has no story. And yet is clearly nonetheless about wonder. There is a clear connection between past and present: of what was, what is, and what will be. But it is equally about what never was, no longer is, and what will not be for Bilbo himself. This poem is recited just after Bilbo reflects, "I’ll do my best to finish my book before you return. I should like to write the second book, if I am spared" (333). And thus the wonder and poignancy lies within what this poem doesn't describe. Perhaps even within the story that Bilbo's book and thus the very book in our handscan never tell. Like the maps of Hobbiton, the enchantment lies in what's beyond the edges.

And so it is along the edges we walk. Within the "margins of the world" we touch upon greater legends, greater stories, enchanting storytelling. If we go back to the scene in Lothlórien, with Frodo standing alone in wonder and awe of the world before him, we can see that Tolkien doesn't go very far before reminding us what story and song means within his work:
Ted Nasmith
"He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. ‘It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,’ he said. ‘I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more Elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning’"  (351).
Naturally, in this moment of wonder, there is no actual song. Wonder is invoked all the more clearly and strongly without one. Just as Tolkien removed the words to describe Lórien from Frodo, he likewise removes the song from Sam. And as so often is the case with Tolkien, wonder is felt most strongly in its absence. As readers we may walk along the edge, but every so often if we're lucky, we stumble into the indescribable Perilous Realm, gaining a glimpse of something new. We become part of a story that has yet to be told, a song in the making.

Ted Nasmith 

[1] Meaning not of course, what was posthumously published in The Silmarillion, of which we are often given a song in LotR instead of the story in its entirety.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

I'm Published! "Harry Potter for Nerds: Vol. II" Now Available!

Some very exciting news to share with you all! The newest book of Harry Potter studies, "Harry Potter for Nerds 2" edited by Travis Prinzi of and Kathryn McDaniel features my essay on the Hogwarts ghosts and their liminal status between gothic and comic traditions (just in time for Halloween!). This book includes some amazing works of scholarship: everything from house-elves, Remus Lupin, dystopian elements, philosophy, quidditch, reverse alchemy, and Native American elements are all explored by some of my favorite fantasy scholars writing today.

I'm particularly honored to be included in this volume because my favorite Potter scholars and fellow mythgardians are a part of it as well: Mythgard Professor Dr. Amy H. Sturgis and fellow students Katherine Sas, Kris Swank, Laura Lee Smith, and Emily Strand all have outstanding essays in this book. If you are a fan of Harry Potter, love studying Literature, or are just a Ravenclaw at heart, I think that you will not only enjoy this book and learn a lot from it, but also be down-right blown away at the ways in which these scholars talk about the series. All the essays are accessible, brilliant work on Rowling's world and the Hogwarts Professor John Granger himself calls it a "seismic event" within Harry Potter scholarship!
"For Serious Readers of Harry Potter, this is essential reading for greater understanding of the Hogwarts Saga, powerful scholarship in conversational language that delivers insight after insight."  
                  -John Granger, The Hogwarts Professor and author oHarry Potter's Bookshelf. 

My own chapter, "When Gothic Meets Comic: Exploring the Ghosts of Hogwarts Castle" looks deeply at some of the most important--but often overlooked-- liminal characters within the Harry Potter world. The Hogwarts ghosts, it turns out, are complex: they are not only textually in between life and death, but they are also in between two literary conventions: the gothic and the comic. Rowling herself has said that death "is one of the central themes in all seven books." My essay explores how the ghosts, as supernatural beings that are "neither here nor there," have a profound influence over Harry's developing attitude towards death. I really hope you get a chance to read it and the other marvelous and stunning essays that are included in the volume. The book is available both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

"To have essays of this depth still coming out…there's more to say still, there's deeper things to say and there's better conversations to be had--and I think this book represents that." 
              - Travis Prinzi, editor of Nerds 2, and author of Harry Potter and Imagination's MuggleNet Academia recently devoted a whole episode to discussing this book, which you can check out right below:

Psstt! also! Unlocking Press is offering something special for everyone who buys a hard copy or eBook before Halloween. Send your proof of purchase to John at HogwartsProfessor dot com and you will receive a link to the Harry Potter For Nerds members only website, where you’ll have access to free videos and live or recorded discussions with the world’s finest Potter Pundits, which includes a talk with one of my favorite Harry Potter scholars and current Star Wars professor (!!) Amy H. Sturgis!  Woo! 

Read more about Harry Potter for Nerds 2 and purchase the book on GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Further reading and listening for Harry Potter scholarship:

Harry Potter for Nerds Vol. 1
Harry Potter and Imagination
How Harry Cast his Spell
The Ravenclaw Reader
MuggleNet Academia episodes! Particularly:
episode 31: "Books Within the Books of Harry Potter" (I guest host!)
episode 9:  "Fairy Stories--Comparing Rowling and Tolkien"

Monday, December 22, 2014

Battle of the Five Armies Review

 The Desolation of Smaug ended with Bilbo’s horrifying realization that he has just played a part in releasing an angry dragon on the town of Esgaroth: “what have we done?” he asks in horror before the screen turns black. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with the terrifying answer. Smaug’s attack on Lake-town is a visually superb experience: we get some beautiful shots of Smaug flying in the night sky paired with images of the terrible carnage and chaos he inflicts on the town. After watching the cat and mouse game between Smaug and the dwarves in the previous film, it was a treat to actually see Smaug as a formidable and frightening creature. This is the Smaug that attacked Erebor all those years ago. This is Smaug, the last of the great dragons of Middle-earth. His desolation of the town was paced well with the exploits of the master, Tauriel and the dwarves, and Bard. The ensuing conversation between Smaug and Bard begins to pull us out of this experience, yet those who have read The Silmarillion are reminded that this too, is how Tolkien’s dragons fight. They manipulate humans with words, feeding of their weakness and fear. Here, Smaug mistakes love for weakness and tries to instill fear and cowardice in Bard by taunting him with his son’s demise. But this moment only drives home what will be one of the main themes of film: that love, family, and home should be valued above the anger and greed that comes with gold. Bard shows just how powerful family is in defeating Smaug when he figuratively and literally uses his son as a weapon against the dragon.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Literary Alchemy in 'Hunger Games' Part 2: Peeta and President Snow in the first Mockingjay Teaser

(This is the second part in a series exploring the literary alchemy of the Hunger Games. You can read a brief outline of the alchemical imagery of the trilogy in Part One, right here.

President Snow's chilling address to Panem in the first teaser trailer for Mockingjay Part One was released last week. One of the most interesting things about it is the use of the color white throughout. Even the casual reader or viewer of The Hunger Games can sense that this first trailer is all about President Snow and that the whiteness reinforces Snow's power, corruption, and control over Panem.

If you read my previous post, however, you'll remember that the color white in an alchemical novel is part of the cleansing, purifying white "Albedo" stage-- something that President Snow far from represents to Katniss. This trailer, by dousing President Snow and Peeta in white imagery and putting them side by side, points to something that is a bit more subtle in the books: that Peeta and Snow are both "white" characters that compliment and contrast one another…

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Literary Alchemy in 'The Hunger Games': Part One

 If you're a serious reader of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, chances are you've heard of John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor (and if you haven't heard of him, you should go ahead and click on that link). You might even recognize his name from this very blog, as he was the one who introduced me both to literary alchemy and ring composition, which I've touched on before here and here
In light of the first teaser trailer of Mockingjay Part 1 released just last week, I'd like to turn to literary alchemy once again. Because once you know the symbols and images that correlate to alchemy, it's near impossible not to feel as if the trailer is wrought with alchemical meaning. John gives a lengthy but extremely readable discussion of literary alchemy and how Suzanne Collins particularly, uses it to structure her Hunger Games series here. I recommend reading through it at least once, but here is a short snippet that very simply describes the process of alchemical literature: 
"Alchemy is a three stage work in its simplest outline...with each stage represented traditionally by a different color and set of meaningful images. In the first, the person to be enlightened is broken down, shattered really, to their core idea or ‘prime matter.’ This process when represented in metallurgy was one of “burning down” and was known as the nigredo or black stage because of this process. The second stage is one of purification or cleansing. The shattered survivor of the nigredo here is washed and restored in preparation for the chrysalis of the remaining stage. Unlike the first stage, then, which was represented by the color black and fire, the second stage, the albedo, that is the opposite of the first, is about the color white and purifying water. The last stage is red because the person’s transformation and illumination accomplished in the albedo is revealed usually in the red-hot crucible of the story’s final crisis. It is is called the rubedo and as you’ve probably guessed is represented by red figures."