Sunday, February 14, 2010

A recap of Boskone 47: Talking Tolkien with Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey might be the closest connection we have to J.R.R. Tolkien himself, save for Tolkien’s son Christopher. Shippey met Tolkien and had a few conversations with him shortly before the latter’s death in 1973. He followed in Tolkien’s footsteps as a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, inheriting Tolkien’s chair and syllabus. Most importantly of all he understands the source material of Tolkien’s legendarium probably better than any man alive, including works like the Finnish Kalevala, Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Icelandic sagas. Shippey has also written two highly regarded critical works on Tolkien (certainly the two most impressive I’ve read), J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien created a new mythology.

Entering Friday’s night’s Boskone 47 conference at the Westin Boston Waterfront in Boston, MA, I was hoping to steal a minute or two of Shippey’s time to ask him some questions about my favorite author. I’m pleased to say I got much more!

I arrived at the conference a little before 6 p.m., checked in and got my badge and conference literature, then slid into an ongoing panel discussion about works of science fiction that don’t seem to be aging well (“What’s Showing Its Age?” by Daniel Dern, David Hartwell, and Peter Weston). The session let out at 7, just in time for an autographing session with Shippey, children’s author Jane Yolen, and sci-fi author Andrew Zimmerman Jones. The autographing session was being held in the Galleria, a large exhibition hall full of book dealers, purveyors of fantasy sculpture and miniatures, original artwork by the likes of John Picacio and Michael Whelan (the latter of Elric book cover fame), and much more.

When I entered the hall I saw that Yolen had a line of some 15-20 people deep waiting for autographs; Shippey had only a couple! Within minutes I was shaking the hand of perhaps the greatest Tolkien scholar ever, offering thanks for teaching me more about Tolkien than any other author, and garnering signatures for my copies of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth.

I was prepared to be swept aside by other autograph seekers, but with none coming I got to speak with Shippey for quite a while. I felt completely out of my depth and initially a bit flustered, but he put me at ease with his friendly banter, warmth, and genuine sense of humor. Shippey is a lifelong fan of fantasy and science-fiction beyond Tolkien which also helped put me at ease.

I could not resist asking such fannish questions as:

“What was Tolkien like?”

“Have you read Michael Moorcock’s Epic Pooh? What did you think?”

“Which was a greater influence on Middle-earth: Old Northern or Christian mythology?” (this last question sparked some interesting side-conversation on Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth).

“Was Middle-earth our actual earth in some pre-cataclysmic age? Or did Tolkien intend it purely as a fictional creation?” (The former, Shippey said)

Shippey took the time to answer them all. I won’t share all of Shippey’s comments here as it was personal, candid conversation, but I will relay a few things. For example, he mentioned how Tolkien was very Hobbit-like: He cared about things like football scores and people’s names and their origins. Shippey also talked about the declining enrollment of English majors and the marginalization of literature studies and critics (I agree completely). It’s strange to say, but having spoken with Shippey I now feel two degrees removed from Tolkien himself (and technically, I now am)!

Afterwards I attended two panel discussions featuring Shippey and others: The Lord of the Rings Films: 5 Years Later (which ran from 8-9 p.m.) and The Problem of Glorfindel and Other Issues in Tolkien (which ran from 9-10 p.m.). These were very enjoyable.

In general, Shippey enjoyed the Peter Jackson films and thought they were well done. He has some problems with them, of course, and stated that he didn’t like what Jackson did with the character of Theoden. Aragorn’s fake death when he falls over the cliff was derided by the panel, as were some of Jackson’s over-the-top scenes of grue (his horror influences spilling through).

But in general the panel thought the films were very good, and that the changes from the book were necessary in adapting it to a film medium while ensuring that the movie remained profitable and accessible for a broader audience. Someone else asked why battle scenes were downplayed in the books, particularly their graphic details, while in contrast the battles were huge set-pieces in the movies. Shippey responded, “Everyone who Tolkien knew was a veteran—there were things you didn’t have to explain,” whereas audiences today are “civilianized.”

Speaking of profitable, Shippey quipped that Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings “must have been the biggest return on investment in the history of the universe,” noting that Tolkien used scrap paper and borrowed ink to write the early drafts, and only had to sacrifice a college professor’s spare time (which is essentially worth zero, joked Shippey, who is a professor himself).

Shippey said Jackson made some “very gutty decisions” with the script, including leaving the ending as-is, keeping its tone of sadness and loss when a Star Wars-like ending might have been more palatable for a modern audience. Fellow panelist Michael Swanwick commented that the end of The Lord of the Rings “breaks your heart,” in that it’s happy and sad all at once. One of my favorite moments was Shippey’s comment that Sam’s final line (“Well, I’m back”) is “such an Anglo-Saxon thing to say:” It’s all of three syllables and in one respect pointless (of course Sam is back!), but at the same time means so much more. Shippey noted that Sam paradoxically came back to die, but also to live with his family and as Mayor of Michel Delving.

The panel took some questions from the audience, including one from yours truly about the decision to remove the Scouring of the Shire. Other panelists than Shippey weighed in, but the general consensus was that there were already too many endings and that the Scouring was anti-climactic and works better in a book than on film (I don’t really agree, but there you have it).

As for whether or not these films still resonate, a member of the audience pretty much answered that with a story about a trip to New Zealand taken by his friend and friend’s fiancé. The two were pleased to discover that the country’s tourist maps are marked with all the sites from the films. The couple hiked up “Mount Doom” and brought him back a piece of igneous rock from its now legendary slope.

The second lecture/panel discussion I attended, The Problem of Glorfindel and Other Issues in Tolkien was a discussion of the minutea in Tolkien’s legendarium and some of its seeming inconsistencies. Panelist Mary Kay Kate of the Mythopoeic Society commented that, “We care about trivial things because [Tolkien] succeeded so well at creating his world—he can’t have just made mistakes.”

The panel opened with a discussion of Glorfindel. Elves in Tolkien’s legendarium do not reuse names, therefore the Glorfindel who died fighting a balrog in the First Age (as told in The Silmarillion) must have been reincarnated into the Glorfindel we know from The Lord of the Rings. However, it was unclear (and remains so) if Tolkien intended this, or whether he merely re-used an old name by accident. Shippey remarked that Tolkien had an uneasy attitude toward reincarnation—while he didn’t deny it, when asked whether he believed in its possibility Tolkien answered, “I’m a Catholic.”

There was a lot of conversation among the panel and the audience regarding Tom Bombadil, why this section of the book feels different, whether or not it’s important to advancement of the plot, etc. I admit that I’m rather ambivalent about this section of the book and so took few notes.

Shippey, who had been quiet for much of this discussion, then took off on a spellbinding 10 minute talk about Tolkien’s lifelong habit of revising and re-revising his work: “Niggling,” Shippey called it (Tolkien wrote a story entitled “Leaf by Niggle” which addresses this facet of his personality). This led to some problems and could have potentially wrought significant havoc with Tolkien’s creations. For example, Shippey stated that Tolkien was strongly considering a sixth revision of The Hobbit which would have significantly altered and softened the story, but fortunately reconsidered when a confidant said, “That’s all well and good John Ronald, but it’s not The Hobbit”). Shippey added that Christopher Tolkien told him that “his father never would have finished The Lord of the Rings if it were not for C.S. Lewis.” Shippey also noted that Tolkien went a large part of his latter academic career without publishing any scholarly works or papers, which was frowned upon by administration.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the session was the panel’s discussion of the problem of orcs. Some critics have called Tolkien’s depiction of the orcs racist; also troubling is the fact that orcs seem like an unredeemable race (whereas others in Tolkien’s legendarium choose evil, so they can theoretically repent their ways and be granted mercy).

Shippey noted that orcs share many human-like values: For instance, they value loyalty and abide by rough Geneva-like conventions of warfare (Shippey quoted the “regular elvish trick” line from the orc Gorbag who finds Frodo bound in webs and abandoned on the orc-path; Gorbag is at least outwardly appalled that a soldier would leave a wounded fellow soldier to die). “Orcs are all right!” Shippey said. But he also laid his finger on the root of the orcs’ evil: The problem of Ufthak. Ufthak was the unfortunate orc who was found by his comrades alive, emeshed in Shelob’s webs. Rather than freeing him, the other orcs laughed and left him hanging in a corner to die a horrible end. Saving him wasn’t their business.

Shippey made a compelling case that the problem of Ufthak demonstrates that the orcs have a thoroughly modern mindset: They know the difference between right and wrong and have a theoretical knowledge of good and evil, but don’t put into practice. They act self-centeredly, separate from standards of decency. This attitude resulted in the major man-made holocausts of the 20th century.

On a final note, when the moderator asked the panelists for closing remarks, Shippey with his booming voice told everyone that Tom Bombadil is “not a Maiar, or a Valar. He’s a land wight!”

Sounds reasonable to me, and who am I to argue?


Taranaich said...

Damn, Brian, I wish I could've been there. I don't blame you for feeling the jitters.

The explanation for why Tollers didn't do much description of battles makes perfect sense. Most people of Tolkien's own generation were veterans too. Nowadays, the horror and terror of warfare is not really understood by the general public.

Regarding the Scouring: I understand the decision to remove the Scouring, even if I don't agree with it. It's the fact that the Shire is completely untouched by the ravages of the War that bothers me. After all that, the fat, lazy little Hobbits of the Shire were completely unaffected and unphased by the titanic struggles of the land. It really bothered me that they didn't do something, anything, to rectify that.

If I were doing it, I would've had the Hobbits return home to find the Shire in ruins. Injured Hobbits, burned Hobbit holes, wreckage everywhere. Obviously, the Shire was affected by the war. Over time, the Fellowship Four help rebuild the Shire, until it's back to its old self. It wouldn't take substantially more screentime than what we got in the film, and it would at least grazingly suggest that the Scouring could've happened, but just wasn't shown.

It's one of the reasons I really feel LotR deserved a miniseries.

Bombadil as a land wight, eh? Why the hell not.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Al, I like your idea. I too have played out ways in my head of including The Scouring of the Shire; the one I like most is to make a separate 90 minute film about it!

While I don't think the Scouring of the Shire is the point of The Lord of the Rings, it is certainly an important point, and its exclusion lessens the Jackson films.

I wish I could have followed up with Shippey about the land wight comment! I'm not sure they were wholly serious: They were the last words in the session and caused a spontaneous round of applause (like the "Do balrogs have wings?" question, Bombadil's nature is another of those trivia questions that will be discussed ad infinitum. I suspect Shippey's answer was a tongue-in-cheek way of providing some finality to the question).

Gabriele C. said...

The eternal editing loop, tell me about that. I didn't know Tolkien suffered from it as well, but it makes me feel a bit better. ;)

G. Benedicto said...

"Tom Bombadil is 'not a Maiar, or a Valar. He’s a land wight!'"

Care to speculate on what Shippey meant by this?

Great write-up! Sounds like it was quite the mental feast. Would have loved to have been there.

Anonymous said...

...a land wight. Ah jeeze, this is why I had to put down "The Treason at Isengard". There are just some things some of us Bombadl-ites don't need to hear. If you have not read the above mentioned book, it provides all early drafts and "niggling" concerning Bombadil, in which he is no longer a Maiar, a Valar or even a land wight...he is just an NPC. Yes, I take it all too seriously. But "The House of Bombadil" and "Fog on the Barrow Downs" are a haunting and somehow hope infusing element to the story. OK I'll shut up now. Beautiful interview thanks for sharing.

Falze said...

per Merriam-Webster: wight - a living being : creature

So, Shippey's dead on, I guess...Tom is a living being of the land.

It's all so clear now...

David J. West said...

Thanks for relaying all of that to us Brian.

Lagomorph Rex said...

thanks for sharing this with us. I've personally giving up caring what Tom is.. I just enjoy him for what he is.. and still consider peoples ongoing dismissal of him and in some cases outright derision of him to be silly.

Much like the Scouring of the Shire.. I really wish he'd managed to make it into the Peter Jackson movies.. They would have added so much more too it than elven warrior maidens, pot jokes and farting dwarves.

Scott Oden said...

I am biting with envy, Brian! Great recap, and great stuff about the Orcs! I've always thought they were just men, but harder and more savage, respecting their own code (which to all others simply reeks of evil as it's self-centered and more focused on the "lesser good"). Shagrat and Gorbag are the pinnacle of Tolkien's orcish expression, IMO.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Ah, the Glorfindel problem. That's a real stickler for all us "continuity geeks."

As a writer, I find Tolkien's (bad?) habit of revising and re-revising both frustrating and illuminating. It led him to beautiful work, but it also left much of that work unfinished. I mean, the story of Aldarion and Erendis, or Turin Turambar, could have been finished and polished with a fortnight of hard work. When is something DONE? When do we let go? It appears that Tolkien had some trouble figuring that out.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi everyone, thanks for the great comments! Responding to a few...

Re: Tom Bombadil as land wight: I think Falze has this right in the main--like Tolkien, Shippey is first and foremost a philologist. If you view the extras on one of the LOTR discs (I think it was Fellowship of the Ring), Shippey breaks down the roots of the word wraith, which means to "writhe" (as in a being in torment) or "wreathe" (a twisted shape). These are characteristics of the black riders, the Ringwraiths. If I knew the derivations of the word "wight" that might get us closer at the answer. But in short, I think Bombadil is the land, personified.

Scott: How did I know you'd appreciate the orc-talk :)? I agree, Shagrat and Gorbag are quite memorable.

Eric and others re: revising: Yeah, I've always wondered how much more Tolkien could have finished in his lifetime had he dropped the niggling habit and made publishing a priority. Editing and revising is also what makes his material so internally consistent, but it's all about balance, of course. From what Shippey was saying Tolkien tilted too far and edited to the point of diminishing returns.

Laurie Mann said...

I was very happy to finally meet Shippey (I was the moderator for the LOTR Films Five Years Later) panel. Jim (who chaired Boskone) and I have been suggesting Shippey for years as a guest, so when Jim was named Boskone Chair, it was one of the first things he did.

I agree with the "too many endings" problem for ROTK (which many people complained about anyway; including "Scouring" would have made that problem worse).

However, if in 20 years, someone decides to make a LOTR mini-series...that would be less of a problem. I just hope when LOTR is re-imagined in the future, they leave out Bombadil!

Laurie Mann said...

I was very happy to finally meet Shippey (I was the moderator for the LOTR Films Five Years Later) panel. Jim (who chaired Boskone) and I have been suggesting Shippey for years as a guest, so when Jim was named Boskone Chair, it was one of the first things he did.

I agree with the "too many endings" problem for ROTK (which many people complained about anyway; including "Scouring" would have made that problem worse).

However, if in 20 years, someone decides to make a LOTR mini-series...that would be less of a problem. I just hope when LOTR is re-imagined in the future, they leave out Bombadil!

Gary McGath said...

Shippey was a great guest; I attended his kaffeeklatsch and one panel ("The Magic Goes Away") but had other interests and responsibilities; thanks for filling me in on the rest!

Falze said...

M/W also provides the etymology for 'wight', Murph:

Etymology: Middle English, creature, thing, from Old English wiht; akin to Old High German wiht creature, thing, Old Church Slavic veštĭ thing

Scott Oden said...

You think Tolkien's revision-itis had something to do with his general ambivalence to publishing? His letters paint a picture of a man who wasn't overly concerned with getting it "out there". He seemed to write for himself, alone. Perhaps for his wife and kids . . . the rest of the world be damned.

Brian Murphy said...

More great comments, everyone!

Laurie: Thanks for dropping by, and I thought you ran a great discussion. You and Jim certainly made a great choice inviting Shippey.

Someone else mentioned LOTR as a mini-series; I'd be all for it except that most made for TV miniseries seem to be done on a shoestring budget and the quality of the acting, effects, the script, etc. all seem to suffer.

Gary: I would have loved to have gone to "The Magic Goes Away" and would very much like to hear a brief report of it. Friday was all I could manage, unfortunately.

Falze: Thanks again for the research. I like this bit: Old Church Slavic veštĭ thing.

Scott: I'm not entirely sure about that. Tolkien obviously cared about getting his legendarium "right", but I know that he very much wanted Houghton Mifflin to publish The Silmarillion and was disappointed when it was rejected.

Kate Nepveu said...

Hi! I was pleased to find your blog quite randomly, as I hadn't even bothered trying to search for your name.

It's Mary Kay Ka_r_e, by the way. My notes are up here: ; can I link to yours there?

It was great to meet you!

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Kate, I'm glad you found me! And I realized now that, in my Shippey enthusiasm, I failed to mention that you were on the panel. You did a great job.

Please feel free to link here.

Kate Nepveu said...

Linked in comments, and thanks again.

Harm J. Schelhaas said...

Very interesting report, thank you very much for it!

Just two things ...

Tom Shippey will certainly not have said “not a Maiar, or a Valar. He’s a land wight!”, he is too good a philologist to mistake plurals for singulars, whether in Quenya or English. Of course he said “not a Maia, or a Vala. He’s a land wight!”

And it was not Houghton Mifflin, to which Tolkien offered The Silmarillion, and had it rejected, it was Stanley Unwin. Twice. However popular Tolkien might be in the States, he was still an Englishman, and published with a British publisher, whom he knew personally. Houghton Mifflin basically were just the US licensees of Allen & Unwin (and still are, of Harper Collins nowadays).

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Harm, thanks for stopping by. You're quite right on both counts!