Monday, December 07, 2009

Reasons for Radio Silence: Some Equations

Swine Flu Virus Circulating


Government Ineptitude with Vaccine Distribution


Family Very Sick for Very Long


New Puppy


Revising Two Major Articles


No Blogging

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Well, I'm back

The fish were pretty cooperative and the weather was better. The boy was Joe Pro Fisher-Man this time, catching the first fish, the biggest fish (21" snook), the most fish and the most different kinds of fish (flounder, mangrove snapper, snook, jack, sea trout, sand perch, grunt, ladyfish and catfish. I got my first sea trout, a fish which looks a lot like a rainbow trout except that it has one long tooth in the middle of its upper lip. Weird.

But the mammals were more exciting than the fish. We got within inches of a pair of manatees, who stayed near the boat for a while, and we had wild dolphins following us and showing off. One circled the boat, hoping for fish, and when we caught one did the whole Flipper routine. Not a good idea to feed them, though, as it makes them too unwary of fishing line and boats.

Hope to have more bloggy goodness soon, but got a "revise and expand" letter from v. prestigious journal and want to get that taken care of asap.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Gone Fishin'

For the next week I will be pestering redfish and snook, collecting shells and looking at spoonbills and ibis.

I will have no internet access while I am doing these things. Bye.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Homilies of Wulfstan on Angl0-Saxon Aloud

For the first time in 1000 years, the Homilies of Wulfstan are recorded and available on the internet. Take a listen and enjoy all the ranty goodness of Wulfstan.

I've recorded and posted all of the Old English homilies in Dorothy Bethurum's edition. All told there are about 60 podcasts, each of about 3 to 5 minutes, adding up to a whopping four hours of Wulfstan's sermons.

I started recording these homilies at the end of June, so I've been living with Wulfstan just about every weekday since then. It takes probably about 45 minutes total for each podcast. First I read over the homily and make a few marginal notes (for example, if a cluster of small words extends across a line break, I make sure I'll keep the intonation right. If there's a really long question coming up, I'll put a question mark at the beginning of the sentence, etc.). Then I record the homily in 100-line chunks. Although this only takes about 4 minutes or so to listen to, it takes longer to record, since I make mistakes. Then there's editing, which takes a while, and the actual posting, which is relatively quick.

I've learned a lot from recording these homilies. First, prose is harder than poetry. Much harder. In recording the poems, I found I didn't have to work very hard to get the intonation right: the natural rhythm of the lines took care of that (and having sentences end at the half-line was also helpful). In prose, intonation is very tricky and requires you mentally to read ahead and parse the sentence a bit before your speech gets there. We do this all the time when we read aloud, but it's very challenging in Old English, where my speech of comprehension is just not quite as quick as it is for Modern English.

Second, Wulfstan was a big man. At least I'm pretty sure he had to be. There are just too many sentences in which it would be very easy to run out of breath, especially if preaching without amplification. If Wulfstan delivered these sermons, he had to be a powerful speaker to get out some of the huge sentences in which the payoff is only at the end.

Third, Wulfstan used a lot of aural effects. He is very different from Ælfric in that his word pairs, rhythm, alliteration, paranomasia, etc., all seem (this is unscientific, of course) to be focused on what things sound like rather than what they look like on paper. Again, totally based on gut instinct, I think Wulfstan wrote these homilies with a very good sense of how they were going to sound to an audience.

I've learned a lot by doing this, and my oral comprehension of Anglo-Saxon prose has improved immensely as a result. I still don't think I could go back to Anglo-Saxon England and carry on a real conversation, but I think I might be able to serve as a translator from OE to ModE if the problem ever came up. I really can now translate out loud on the fly in real time and without pausing, which is something I can't do for any modern language.

I am going to take a break from Anglo-Saxon Aloud until Nov. 1. I haven't decided what to do next. Ælfric is pretty daunting, and, although I will do the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at some point, I don't think I have the time right now to convert all the Roman numerals into Old English words (and, as I learned, this is something I can't quite do on the fly).

Any suggestions? What would you like to hear next on Anglo-Saxon Aloud? What would be most useful for your teaching or your learning?

P.S.: I'm not planning on creating a professionally produced CD-set of Wulfstan the way I did for Beowulf Aloud or Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits. I don't think there's enough demand, and it costs a lot of money to make the first fifty copies (not as much after that). But please contact me directly if for some reason you want to buy a 4-CD-set of Wulfstan and we'll figure something out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

History Channel, Clash of the Gods: Thor -- time change

Just got an email from someone at the History Channel, Monday's Clash of the Gods episode, about Thor, will be show at 11:00 p.m. Eastern rather than 10:00 p.m. There's some special that is pushing it back.

(You know you are old when you think "There is no way I am staying up til midnight to watch something on television" and you are in the show that you don't want to stay up for).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

History Channel, Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings: analysis

I was wondering how the producers would get The Lord of the Rings to fit their thesis that mythological stories might have historical roots that can be explained by archeology and history. After all, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 20th century, so the "digging" is literary-historical rather than archeological.

When you work on one of these shows, you don't have a script. I did get a tip off from the producers a few days before about the questions they'd be asking and the general direction they were hoping to go, but that material wasn't fit into a larger structure. So when I answered questions about Tolkien's Roman Catholicism, for instance, I didn't know that they were going to fit those answers into the larger framework (I don't really object to the way it was done, but I didn't plan my answers with that framework in mind).

Thus I was pleased that the Indonesian "hobbit" fossils didn't make an appearance and instead the show basically tried to look at influences on Tolkien's work. At times I didn't agree with emphasis, and I would have put things somewhat differently in places. Also, just as with Beowulf, it was unfortunate that a few inaccuracies snuck in to both the narration and to some of the expert commentary (I mis-spoke by saying that Fr. Francis 'adopted' Tolkien; he was appointed guardian by Tolkien's mother. It's not a huge difference, but it is a difference). For example, one expert says that when the hobbits return to the Shire it is devastated and that there are steel machines everywhere. Huh? As far as I can tell from reading the text, there is one machinery-filled mill in the Shire whose sole purpose seems to be pollute the river. Bad enough, of course, but not "steel machines everywhere." This error is similar to the statement in the Beowulf episode that Grendel's mother kills all the thanes in the hall: story-telling drama is replacing fact, and that's not good, or necessary, especially because the actual text is pretty exciting anyway.

But it's also incredibly hard not to mis-speak in these kinds of situations, without notes and without a chance to correct over-statements, etc. Part of the training for Beowulf scholars is to be repeatedly smacked (rhetorically, of course) whenever you exaggerate or change the text for the purpose of making it sound more exciting or to fit it to your thesis. I've seen this in conference papers by graduate students, for instance, where a reasonably intelligent and well-trained person just got carried away with an interpretation of the dragon fight and added some swinging, parrying, and so forth that's not in the text. But that's hard training and it takes a while, and there isn't the same kind of cultural apparatus for Tolkien studies (yet).

However, I'll also put on my grumpy hat and note that for some reason, opining about Tolkien seems to generate critical errors. The distinguished prof. Catherine Stimpson, for example, wrote a book about Tolkien in which she criticized his style by saying that Tolkien would not write "they came to an island" but instead "to the eyot they came." Unfortunately for Stimpson, the line "to the eyot they came" never appears in The Lord of the Rings, and Stimpson never thought to check. Somehow JRRT is an error-magnet.

But be that as it may, the Clash of the Gods episode was not bad, particularly considering how the producers did not have a 300 million dollar budget and were, I think, trying to stay a little bit away from the Jacksonian interpretation of Tolkien. I didn't like all the visuals, but I'm not the target audience, and I think that target audience learned something, particularly in relation to the other episodes in the series.

Net week we'll see what they do with Thor.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings

I have no idea how this episode is going to turn out. I looked over some of the prompting questions from my interviews, and I don't see an obvious way to keep up with the theme of the series: that there might be archeological or historical evidence behind various mythological stories. I'm guessing that the "hobbit" fossils found in Indonesia might make an appearance, but I don't have a clear idea of what else they are going to do. The questions that I answered were pretty straightforwardly about Tolkien and his work (at least if I remember correctly), so I don't have any insider knowledge here. It will be interesting to see how they apply the thesis of the series to a twentieth-century text.

Nothing to do but watch (10:00 p.m. Eastern) and see, I guess.

(I do hope my answer to "can you give us the plot of The Silmarillion in two minutes or less?" makes it into the episode, esp. because I don't remember how I phrased it).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Clash of the Gods: Beowulf Evaluation

An excerpt from the Beowulf episode of Clash of the Gods is now up on YouTube, and I've embedded it below [UPDATE: it was pulled down for copyright violation. That was quick!]. Overall I'm reasonably happy with how it all came out. I didn't say anything obviously idiotic, which is a relief.

I was most pleased by the way the producers worked in archeological work and material culture into the discussion, even going so far as to bring in the battle between the Geats and the Swedes (though they cut my attempted explanation of who Eadgils was -- maybe too many names in too short a time) and showing the reconstruction of one of the halls at Lejre. Since I think it's really important for us to change our view of Beowulf as being entirely set in fantasy land, as opposed to the "named lands of the North," I'm very happy to think that a wide audience heard part of the case for this view.

But the handling of the story elements wasn't quite as good. There were a few modifications of the story for the sake of drama that I think went too far: In the poem Grendel's mother drags off one thane instead of slaying many; the sword Hrunting comes not for Beowulf's men but from Hrothgar's retainer, etc. I don't think there was any intention to distort the story, but instead a game of "telephone," where one person read a translation, wrote a synopsis, listened to an 'expert,' etc., and the events of the poem end up being changed, perhaps even unconsciously, so that they more easily fit a particular storyline. Beowulf isn't a perfect fit for contemporary storytelling (which is one reason I and many others love it so).

But overall it was nicely done, though a little bloody for my kids to watch (though I do like the fact that I'm doing background narration in a scene where there is decapitation). Also happy that the 'dragons come from people seeing dinosaur skeletons' theory was given some play. In the end, I'm not sure I buy the premise that Beowulf himself was likely to have been historical: he is the part of Beowulf who for me lives in fantasy land as much as the Grendels and the dragon. It's everything around him that lives in the partially remembered world of the North. Still, very fun. I'm now very interested to see how the Lord of the Rings episode turns out, and to see if they used my answer to the question "can you summarize The Silmarillion in two minutes?" (I am not making that up).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tonight on The History Channel: Clash of the Gods -- Beowulf

Tonight we will finally find out how my talking-head performance went. It's time for Clash of the Gods: Beowulf. It airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time on the History Channel.

I haven't seen the episode, but I'm hopeful that my attempt to explain the battle on the ice at Lake Vanern and the relevance of Eadgils (among other things) got picked up.

I didn't do as much for this episode as I did for The Lord of the Rings (next week) and Thor. but I answered a fair number of questions.

So it's not quite as exciting as the Staffordshire Hoard, but tomorrow (actually Tuesday, when the kids get to watch the recording) will be a fun day at the Drout homestead.

//Below I'm pasting in a repeat of a post for the benefit of people who are googling for Clash of the Gods.//

Welcome, History Channel Clash of the Gods Viewers

Thanks for dropping by. It was a real pleasure to work with The History Channel on the series. I contributed to the episodes on Beowulf (Sept. 28), The Lord of the Rings (Oct 5), and Beowulf (Oct. 12). All the shows air at 10 p.m. on Mondays on The History Channel. I myself haven't seen them yet, so I don't know how they'll come out, but the producers asked good questions and listened to my answers, so I'm pretty hopeful that the episodes will be good.

I'm Professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where I teach Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), Middle English (what Chaucer spoke), fantasy, science fiction and courses on J.R.R. Tolkien. This year I am on research leave and trying to finish four different books (on tradition, Tolkien, grammar and philology; in retrospect, I probably should have worked on one at a time), but I am giving some talks away from campus, including at Bowdoin College in Maine (Oct. 1 & 2) and Washington College in Maryland (April). I'll also be participating in one or more Scholarly Sojourns (more info to follow).

While you're here, look around the archives, or check out some things that may be of interest:

If you want to hear Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf (and J.R.R. Tolkien's academic specialization), you can go to Angl0-Saxon Aloud, where I've posted a podcast of every poem in Anglo-Saxon (there are a lot). Some of the favorites are The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and excerpts from Beowulf.(just ignore the dialogue box; you don't need to give any info). Currently I'm recording and posting the homilies of Wulfstan, who would definitely have had a Sunday morning television show if he were alive today.

If you like Anglo-Saxon Aloud, you can buy the Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, which is a two-CD set. This includes the most popular poems both in Old English and Modern English as well as introductory discussions of each poem.

Or, if you like both Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf, I also sell Beowulf Aloud, a 3-CD set that includes the entire poem of Beowulf plus an introductory lecture.

If you'd like to learn to read Anglo-Saxon, you can use my on-line grammar book, King Alfred's Grammar. The book is designed to walk you through Old English and does not assume that you already know a lot about grammar.

My edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics is temporarily out of print, but a new edition is at the publisher, so I'm hopeful that will be available soon. My book How Tradition Works is more technical, but, I think, interesting to those who like Anglo-Saxon literature and theories of cultural evolution.

My latest course on CD, The Anglo-Saxon World, should be out from Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series any day now. Until that comes out, I have a number of other courses available in the series, including those on Chaucer, Fantasy Literature, Science Fiction, The History of the English Language, Writing and Rhetoric, Approaches to Literature, Grammar (this is actually a really fun course) and Understanding Poetry.

Again, thanks for stopping by, and I appreciate any comments, suggestions or criticism. I'm also trying to convince The History Channel that they should do a whole series (or at least a longer show) on Beowulf and/or Anglo-Saxon. If you think that is a good idea, please let them know.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Staffordshire Hoard

The largest Anglo-Saxon gold hoard ever discovered was unearthed this July in Staffordshire by an amateur treasure hunter. The website is here and a gallery of images on Flikr is here.

The hoard seems to be a "trophy hoard," a collection of items, possibly taken in warfare, that were then buried for safekeeping. They are not part of a funeral or offering, at least as far as we can tell. Many of the items are decorative parts of sword hilts and other military gear.

One of the most intriguing finds is a strip of gold inscribed with Latin: [.] I R G E : D N E : D I S E P E N T U // [.] F I N I M I C I T U I [:] E/T
[.] U G E N T Q U I O D E R U N // T T E A F A C I E T [U] A

Elizabeth Okasha takes the inscription as being:

[.]irge domine disepentu[r] inimici tui et [f]ugent qui oderunt te a facie t[u]a

which is a quotation from Numbers 10:35, though probably taken directly from Psalm 67:2, where it is also used. Translated, it means “Rise up, Lord, and may your enemies be dispersed and those who hate you be driven from your face.”

It has not yet been determined what the inscribed strip is, though it may have been part of a shield or helmet. Michelle Brown (annoying name-dropping: she's my friend!) dates the script to the eighth or ninth century. There is already some speculation that the hoard could be part the immense treasure supposedly paid to King Penda of Mercia by King Oswiu of Northumbria, but there really isn't any specific evidence at this stage.

Anglo-Saxonist websites and facebook pages are all abuzz right now. It is an incredibly exciting find, mostly because it is so beautiful, but also because of the potential to shed new light on Anglo-Saxon culture. And it's really wonderful to think that such a find could be made in 2009: what else is buried at the edges of old fields or in areas that for a long time were marginal but are now plowed or developed?

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Course: The Anglo-Saxon World (and an update on Clash of the Gods schedule)

My ninth course for Recorded Books, The Anglo-Saxon World, is now available. I'm really happy with the way it came out: as always, the Recorded Books people did an amazing job with the design and production.

It can be tricky teaching in your direct specialty. My student evaluations in Anglo-Saxon used to be consistently a little lower than in my English 101 or Chaucer courses, and this was incredibly frustrating. Anglo-Saxon is, after all, my baby. But looking back over those early evaluations, I saw that I sometimes lost The Big Picture because I was so invested in certain technical questions. I now make a special effort to make sure that even as I dive into fun, technical arguments, I keep them connected to the major points of the course. I think this worked in The Anglo-Saxon World, where I have a full lecture devoted to Anglo-Saxon from the Conquest to the Renaissance and another that goes from Thomas Jefferson to Angelina Jolie. I also used more archeology in this course that I have done in the past, in part because recent work by John Hines, John Blair and Christina Lee showed me how to integrate archeological findings with other kinds of material.

The course also has a website, The Anglo-Saxon World, which right now just includes the full translations of some of the poems I discuss--some of these were too long to fit in the course book. Recorded Books also has a blog now.

If you want more Anglo-Saxon (and who doesn't, really?) you can go to Angl0-Saxon Aloud, where I've posted recordings of the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and am finishing up the homilies of Wulfstan, and, as always, I have for sale Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits.

And this is a reasonable segue to Clash of the Gods on The History Channel. I just spoke to one of the producers--they were doing final voice-over work on the Lord of the Rings episode and needed pronunciation advice--and the schedule for the series has been revised, so that the Thor episode will now be last (I hope that means an even cooler cgi Midgard Serpent) and Beowulf will be the first of my episode to air, on September 28. That's different from what the website says (some maybe you should watch on Sept 21, too, just in case), but here's the schedule they gave me over the phone:

Sept. 28: Beowulf
Oct. 5: The Lord of the Rings
"Last": Thor (I think that would be Oct 19, because Minotaur would have to be Oct 12, but I may have lost track).

[One quick story about a reason I'm so happy about the way the course came out. A number of years ago I very publicly said that we should put a fifteen-year moratorium on Anglo-Saxon books with the Sutton Hoo helmet on the cover. So of course when Recorded Books sent me the proofs of The Anglo-Saxon World, our old pal the helmet, the most overused image in medieval studies, was on the cover (very nicely done, but still...). Part of my publishing agreement is that I don't have final say over covers, marketing, etc., so if that's what they wanted to do, I was just going to have to live it with it. But all praise to Recorded Books in that they made a new cover, using an image of Bede's Life of Cuthbert from the Digby MS. So I avoid eating crow and the cover is beautful. Win!]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

FMyLife, Academic Version

Months ago:
Snippy review criticizes my edition of Beowulf and the Critics for not discussing Haber's A Comparative Study of Beowulf and the Æneid and Bertha Phillpotts' article on "Wyrd and Providence." I get all worried. I go and re-read the book and the articles wondering why I would be so stupid to leave out something so obvious. Turns out there was a reason: the stuff was completely irrelevant.

Anonymous referee writes: "Drout should look at Title of Book." Remarkably boring, Title of Book is almost entirely irrelevant to my paper. I spent today reading it. All 400 pages. All of today. Hey, I've got a new footnote.

Clearly I am incapable of learning from my mistakes. FMAcademicL.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beowulf and the Moops

Right now on ANSAX-L, the Anglo-Saxonists' listserv, there is an argument raging about the historicity of Beowulf (Yes, some things never change).

One part of the argument goes like this:

Witega 1: We have a poem in a manuscript from the 10th century. Read that poem. As it is. Don't try to reconstruct an earlier version.

Witega 2: But there are things in the manuscript that make no sense. You've got to emend them, and when you do, you reconstruct an earlier version of the poem.

Witega 1: What you think is a mistake may not be, but if it is, it may just be the equivalent of the typo and does not give you license to go creating ancestral versions of Beowulf.

Witega 2: But the scribes of Beowulf consistently get names of people and places bollixed up. The scribes don't have any idea who the Merovingians are, or the Heruli, or Eomer, or Heardred, but the poet did. So "read the poem we have" is impossible.

Witega 1: No it's not.

Witega 2: Yes it is.

And then things quickly devolve into the Argument Sketch

or, sometimes, the Fish-slapping Dance.

Perhaps Seinfeld has something to say that might be useful. The end of the famous "Bubble Boy" episode turns on a Trivial Pursuit card. The question reads "Who invaded Spain in the 8th Century?" The Bubble Boy answers "The Moors," but on the card is printed "The Moops," and so George holds that "The Moors" is wrong. Hilarity ensues.

I think reading Beowulf 'as we have it' is like insisting upon "The Moops." George may be technically correct within the rules of the game (that what is printed on the card has final within-game authority), but he is obviously incorrect in any reasonable, meaningful sense. Likewise, I think, no one really believes that the error of "dryhten wereda" for "dryhten Wedera" or "hea rede" for "Heardred" or the complete botch the scribe made of "Merovingian" reflects what the poet wrote or what the audience of Beowulf ever heard or read or even what a scribe had in front of him. And in fact, the scholars who say "read the poem we have" don't actually keep those obvious errors in their readings, because if you keep the manuscript readings as they are, you can't actually read the poem.

So the argument is really about how much to emend, and that's a reasonable and important argument to have. Should we be reconstructing possibly lost names of tribes when the philology is inconclusive, as in "egsode eorl" at the very beginning of the poem? The safe emendation is to "eorlas," though accepting that emendation implies that the scribe made a huge and obvious grammatical blunder in the sixth line of the poem; the other alternative, that the poet made a reference to the tribe of the Heruli (exemplar something like "eorle") requires us to import a lot of meaning into a place where it's not obvious from context. Where we draw the line between an error that is "obvious" and an over-clever re-writing of the poem is a very difficult question, and we need to keep debating it.

But using "read the poem as we have it" is really more rhetoric than anything else, and if you say "read the poem as we have it," you would probably, for consistency's sake, have to agree that the Moops invaded Spain in the 8th century.

[When everyone really knows that it was Bayonne, NJ, not Spain, that was invade by the Moops, and it happened in 1926]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Clash of the Gods:
What it's like being a talking head

For additional info on Clash of the Gods, click here.
For Clash of the Gods schedule click here.

Clash of the Gods has been running on The History Channel for a few weeks (Monday nights at 1o p.m. for the premier of each episode). I haven't seen the ones I am in yet, and they're not giving us DVD copies until the specific episodes run, but, having watched some episodes on Greek mythology, I'm feeling pretty hopeful about the ones on Thor (Sept. 14), The Lord of the Rings (Sept. 21), and Beowulf (Oct. 5). The visuals are very good and, although there's a bit of repetition where the series uses the same clips again and again (Zeus sitting down on his throne, for example), the overall quality seems very good. I don't get the impression that the words of the other professors have been twisted into anything they didn't say.

Over at I Just Read About That, Paul concludes that all the guest experts were told to wear black, "or it's an amazing saratorial coincidence." He's right. We were told to wear black jackets and either black or white shirts and then they provided red ties. One expert, who was coming in right after me, didn't get the memo (or chose to ignore it), but they had a jacket for him and were muscling him into it as I was leaving.

The History Channel producers and crew were exceedingly smart and efficient the whole way through (even when they had to call me in last minute). They had a basic script that set up what they wanted to talk about, and I was given the questions that would be asked in advance so I could be prepared. It wasn't possible to have notes because you are looking directly at the producer, who stands to the side of the camera. I had learned, when doing the National Geographic "Behind the Movie" piece for the Return of the King DVD that if your eyes move away from the producer, you look shifty, so I can't imagine how you read notes unless there's a sophisticated teleprompter, which there wasn't.

What I could glean of the script from the questions made it seem pretty decent (which has been borne out so far). The writers/producers had done good work tracking down reasonable information. However, it was a little surprising how much the agenda (as opposed to the actual content) seemed to be set by Wikipedia. For example, I got asked a question about the Canterbury Charm, which I hadn't studied very much. I was impressed at how wide-ranging the inquiry was until I happened upon the Wikipedia page for Thor and found the Canterbury Charm referenced. I'm not a Wiki-hater, but the influence of Wikipedia on the script does give yet another reason why professors in relevant fields should perhaps look at the relevant Wiki entries and correct them if need be (though I, sadly, haven't gotten around to doing this yet).

The producers also were surprisingly good at not trying to put words into my mouth. Producers are generally very strong willed (they have to be in order to get anything done when dealing with a lot of creative people), and they don't like you to say "no." But in one particular case, I was just not going to say that J.R.R. Tolkien used the word "orc" to refer to the Roman god of the dead, Orcus. It's just not right. "Orc" clearly and obviously comes from an Anglo-Saxon word (see Tolkien's introductory note to The Hobbit and his comments elsewhere), and while he never laid out his case for why he thought that "orc" did not come from "Orcus," my inner Philologist-Sense (like Spidey-sense, but different) agrees totally with him that the derivation from Orcus isn't right. (Note also that the orc/Orcus connection comes from Wikipedia). In the end, I said all that, and everything was fine.

Overall the people who worked for KPI, the shop that produced the series, were incredibly professional, energetic and fun. Everything I've ever done for TV is always rushed, and this was no exception, but it was a good kind of rush, when time wasn't being wasted and a whole bunch of people were all bustling around doing things at once. I'm looking forward to "my" episodes (of course I'm just one of many experts) and pretty hopeful that I'll like the final result. Particularly if there really is a CGI Midgarth Serpent fighting Thor while I narrate the battle. That would finally be something my kids care about seeing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Professing Literature: Tendentious with Extra Tendentious Sauce

I've had to go back and re-read Gerald Graff's Professing Literature so that I can dot the i's and cross the t's for an article, and ... wow.

I'm going to break my own rule about not using rhetorical questions just to give an example of how tendentious the "history" in this book really is:

Of the "Classical College" in the early 19th century: "Classroom concerns hardly ever went beyond the endless memorization and recitation of grammatical and etymological particularities."

Endless? Is that a technical term? Is that an honest, fair, accurate historical evaluation?

Of Johns Hopkins in the 19th century: "Its early work in modern languages was so wholly monopolized by philologists that it was late in developing courses in literature proper."

Have we defined "literature proper"? Have we made an argument for "literature proper" as being separate from philology? No, we have not. Can we read "literature proper" in any language other than contemporary languages without philology? (You might think you can, but you'd be wrong). So is all literature before 1800 outside of "literature proper," or should we just assume that the philologists have already gotten everything right and we can just read their editions transparently? How comforting.

Francis A. March's description of his class "makes no mention of the meaning of Milton's works." Instead, the student went through Paradise Lost line by line, "calling for the meaning of words, their etymology when interesting, the relations of words, parsing when it would help, the connection of clauses, the mythology, the biography and other illustrative matter."

Now I'm not the president of the MLA, but it sounds to me that they were figuring out a lot about the meaning of Milton's work by *shudder* studying it in detail.

As opposed to? Well, I assume bloviating about the "meaning" of Milton without having to trouble to tether that meaning to any actual, "relations of words."

It goes on and on like this, and at a certain point I can't decide if Graff just doesn't know what he is talking about (for example, when he talks about philology or etymology), if he hasn't bothered to read the books he is criticizing (when he talks about Albert S. Cook, for instance), or if he does know and is just being tendentious to the point of intellectual dishonesty.

If you want to know why your colleagues think the odd things they do about our discipline and its history, part of the answer might be that they have read Professing Literature uncritically and without actually knowing very much about 19th and early 20th century literary studies.

Depressing. But on the other hand, in a single 24-hour period I topped out on a particular bouldering climb that had been impossible just a few days ago, got bitten by a snake and taught my son how to slide into a base (hint: if you do this at the beach, make sure you don't do a backdoor slide into a chunk of weathered basalt). Real life, when you're doing it right, can be more exciting even than academia.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Welcome, History Channel Clash of the Gods Viewers

Thanks for dropping by. It was a real pleasure to work with The History Channel on the series. I contributed to the episodes on Thor (Sept. 14), The Lord of the Rings (Sept. 21), and Beowulf (Oct. 5). All the shows air at 10 p.m. on Mondays on The History Channel. I myself haven't seen them yet, so I don't know how they'll come out, but the producers asked good questions and listened to my answers, so I'm pretty hopeful that the episodes will be good.

I'm Professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where I teach Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), Middle English (what Chaucer spoke), fantasy, science fiction and courses on J.R.R. Tolkien. This year I am on research leave and trying to finish four different books (on tradition, Tolkien, grammar and philology; in retrospect, I probably should have worked on one at a time), but I am giving some talks away from campus, including at Bowdoin College in Maine (Oct.) and Washington College in Maryland (April). I'll also be participating in one or more Scholarly Sojourns (more info to follow).

While you're here, look around the archives, or check out some things that may be of interest:

If you want to hear Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf (and J.R.R. Tolkien's academic specialization), you can go to Angl0-Saxon Aloud, where I've posted a podcast of every poem in Anglo-Saxon (there are a lot). Some of the favorites are The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and excerpts from Beowulf.(just ignore the dialogue box; you don't need to give any info). Currently I'm recording and posting the homilies of Wulfstan, who would definitely have had a Sunday morning television show if he were alive today.

If you like Anglo-Saxon Aloud, you can buy the Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, which is a two-CD set. This includes the most popular poems both in Old English and Modern English as well as introductory discussions of each poem.

Or, if you like both Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf, I also sell Beowulf Aloud, a 3-CD set that includes the entire poem of Beowulf plus an introductory lecture.

If you'd like to learn to read Anglo-Saxon, you can use my on-line grammar book, King Alfred's Grammar. The book is designed to walk you through Old English and does not assume that you already know a lot about grammar.

My edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics is temporarily out of print, but a new edition is at the publisher, so I'm hopeful that will be available soon. My book How Tradition Works is more technical, but, I think, interesting to those who like Anglo-Saxon literature and theories of cultural evolution.

My latest course on CD, The Anglo-Saxon World, should be out from Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series any day now. Until that comes out, I have a number of other courses available in the series, including those on Chaucer, Fantasy Literature, Science Fiction, The History of the English Language, Writing and Rhetoric, Approaches to Literature, Grammar (this is actually a really fun course) and Understanding Poetry.

Again, thanks for stopping by, and I appreciate any comments, suggestions or criticism. I'm also trying to convince The History Channel that they should do a whole series (or at least a longer show) on Beowulf and/or Anglo-Saxon. If you think that is a good idea, please let them know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Wanted to pass this along:

"We are issuing a call for papers for a proposed volume of scholarly essays on J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Papers should address any aspect of the work, but the editors are especially interested in works which make connections among disciplines, demonstrating the richness of the trilogy as well as its continuing widespread appeal.
Papers should be between 20 - 30 pages, note key words, and include a 250 word abstract.

The deadline for papers is 15 September 2009; decisions will be announced by 1 November 2009. "

Papers should be submitted to
Prof. Kathleen Dubs
Angol Intézet
Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem
2087 Piliscsaba
Egyetem utca 1.

Dr. Janka Kaščáková
Katedra Anglického Jayzka A Literatury
Katolícka Univerzita v Ružomberku
Hrabovská cesta 1
023 01 Ružomberok

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

That Max Planck sure was one smart feller

Bad News

A new scientific truth does not establish itself by its enemies being convinced and expressing their change of opinion

Good News

but rather by its enemies gradually dying out and the younger generation being taught the truth from the beginning.

A real spate of the good news lately. It's incredibly gratifying to read articles and dissertations where work that I did that was thought to be "out there" by certain establishment folk (whom I dearly love), is now being cited as a matter of course by a new generation of Ph.D.'s and Assistant Professors. Weird feeling, and I keep wanting to yell out "you need to get an authority better than Drout for that point..." But overall a very hopeful sign.

I do basically believe that if the idea is good, it will eventually get picked up, but it's still nice to know that "eventually" isn't as long as it could be.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Return of Anglo-Saxon Aloud: The Prose

Turns out that I miss recording and re-recording and re-re-recording bits of Old English every morning. So I am back to posting daily podcasts of Old English at Anglo-Saxon Aloud.

I had originally planned on starting with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and I'm sure I will eventually do that text, but I ended up deciding to go with the Homilies of Wulfstan. I am going to work through these in order, using Dorothy Bethurum's edition.

The first post, Wulstan homily Ib "De Anticristo" (I'm skipping the Latin homilies, as no one wants to hear me read Latin), is up here

Friday, June 19, 2009

Google Books: Actually Useful

I've been finishing up my revised edition of Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics and have cleaning up the section where I identify of all the "voices" in Tolkien's "Babel of Voices," where he presents the history of Beowulf criticism.

In doing all the necessary but tedious i-dotting and t-crossing, I've found Google Books to be remarkably helpful for nineteenth-century Beowulf scholarship. They have full text of a lot of important but hard-to-find books (hard to find because Interlibrary Loan isn't often willing to send books published in 1840), and the interface and mark-up is much better than I remember it being.

I'm still not a fan of Google Scholar, which seems incredibly random in its selection of material, but Google Books seems to be not only a copyright grab but also a useful resource.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Another Boynton Forgery!
Editorial Hypercorrection in the "Cavort" Recension of But Not the Hippopotamus

Earlier this year I announced the blockbuster news that Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton was likely a forgery by a later author who was attempting to imitate Boynton the Great. I can now show that the forger of Hippos Go Berserk, or Pseudo-Boynton, was at work elsewhere as well.

I recently purchased a copy of But Not the Hippopotamus at the Blue Bunny bookstore in Dedham, Mass. In this copy I found the following opening lines:

A Hog and Frog
cavort in a bog.
But not the Hippopotamus.

Something did not seem right, so I consulted my personal copy of But Not the Hippopotamus. Sure enough, the opening lines are:

A Hog and a Frog
do a dance in a bog.
But not the Hippopotamus.

This variation, "cavort" for "do a dance" is an editorial hyper-correction, probably based on an attempt to force Boynton the Great's artistically flawless meter into a straightjacket of perfect regularity.

Note that in the original version, "do a dance" is a straightforward anapest. I scan the lines as:

a HOG and a FROG (iamb plus anapest)
do a DANCE in a BOG (two anapests)

Pseudo-Boynton forces both lines to be iambs followed by anapests, but examination of the rest of the poem shows that Boynton only once uses the 2 / 3 pattern in the line:

a HARE and a BEAR (iamb anapest)
have BEEN to a FAIR (iamb anapest)

In the other two stanzas we see:

are TRYing on HATS


toGETHer have JUICE

These two parallels, "are TRYing" and "toGETHer" are amphibrachs, also three-syllable feet. So there is no need to assume that the iamb in the fourth stanza needs to be followed slavishly by forcing a two-syllable foot ("cavort") into the first stanza.

From this analysis of the forgery, we can conclude that Pseudo-Boynton is a highly trained scholar, but one for whom Boynton's brilliant verse is not a native idiom. We can also note that as well as lacking Boynton the Great's attention to detail (in that Pseudo-Boynton forgets to deal with the six distressed hippos who have never left in his/her version of Hippos Go Berserk), Pseudo-Boynton has a predilection for hippos. Scholars should thus re-examine the Boynton corpus to determine which other texts may have been interfered with by Pseudo-Boynton, looking for editorial hypercorrection, subtle contradictions, and hippos.

And the "Cavort" Recension of But Not the Hippopotamus must be athetized from the corpus.

Monday, June 08, 2009

"Clash of the Gods" on the History Channel

UPDATE: More stuff here.

Back in December and January I did some work for the series that is going to be on the History Channel. Today they sent me the tentative air dates (and a nice basket of English muffins!):

Clash of the Gods
Airing on The History Channel at 10:00pm

Zeus 8/3
Hercules 8/10
Odyssey(1) 8/17
Odyssey(2) 8/24
Hades 8/31
Medusa 9/7
Thor 9/14
Lord of the Rings 9/21
Minotaur 9/28
Beowulf 10/5

I am in the Thor, The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf episodes.

I'm hoping that they did what they said they would do in the Thor episode, and that my narration of "Thor and Hymir Go Fishing" includes a cgi Thor fighting a cgi Midgard Serpent.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Time-wasting and Productivity

I'm somewhat hopeful that the dead silence here and at Anglo-Saxon Aloud is coming to an end. I'm slowly but steadily extricating myself from the gigantic backlog of work and deadlines caused by:

1) the economic crisis causing me to have to spend inordinate amounts of time with spreadsheets, budgets, etc. as well having to reshuffle and reschedule the department's course offerings three times;

2) the unexpected good news that I need to do a new edition of Beowulf and the Critics;

3) my ill-considered decision to assistant-coach two different youth baseball teams (although this is incredibly fun, and I will do it again next year, it has been a huge un-budgeted time-committment);

Before those three things happened I was already scheduled to the hilt, but I would have made all the deadlines, etc. Once number 1 hit, I pretty much had to run as fast as I could to stay in place.

So having finally worked out from under most of my administrative responsibilities (annual reviews, etc.), in the past couple weeks I was able to turn my attention to real work, and it's amazing what you can get accomplished when you have a break from 40-75 emails per day, paperwork and meetings (Oh, how I hate meetings).

In a little more than two weeks I was able to:

Turn my paper from the Bergen conference into a real essay for a forthcoming book. The essay is “‘I am Large, I contain Multitudes’: The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms.”

Do revisions and complete proofing of the course book for the latest course from Recorded Books, The Anglo-Saxon World, which should be out very soon.

Finish identifying all of the "voices" in Tolkien's "Babel of Voices" in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."

Write the first large article to come out of our lexomics research: "Lexomic Methods for Analyzing Relationships Among Old English Poems." (it still needs some revisions, but I think we will ship it off to a journal at the end of next week).

Although a couple of those things were "finish," that was a lot of work to get done in a little more than two weeks when I also wrote three annual evaluations. But it as basically easy, because my time wasn't being fragmented by useless meetings and incessant email. Think of how productive we could be if we could find ways to skip all that crap.

Thus you should not expect to see me writing reports or going to meetings. I am now on a crap-skipping crusade.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Drout Bingo

More amusement from my students. This time it wasn't given to me, just left behind in the classroom. Hint to students: if you want to keep something secret from your prof, don't leave a pile of copies in the classroom.

I can't tell if this was ever actually done (though I imagine that it was), but students constructed their own boards by choosing from a list of words:
Tolkien, Beowulf, Medieval, Anglo-Saxon, Philology, Poetry, Scribe, Drunk, Battle, Monster, Myth, Revenge, Killing, Grendel, Lord of the Rings, Thane, Warrior, Unicorn, Rainbow, Syphilis, Knight, Nun, Mead, Thor, Egil, Sheep, Killer Bjarni, Jane Austen, New Jersey, Axe, Epic, Death, Virgin Mary, Armor, Sword.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Things Professor Drout Said: Spring 2009 edition

(Apparently this is becoming a tradition. The following appeared anonymously in my mailbox).

Sheep DNA from manuscripts = CSI: Beowulf.

A librarian's goal in life is to not let people touch the materials.

'Cataloguey' -- I don't know if that is a word, but I'm going to use it.

(on theories of authorship): So theory will help you decide who's responsible for the awesomeness of Star Wars... and the crapitude of Jar Jar Binks.

I haven't mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien yet in this whole class, and that's just not acceptable.

So there was this bus full of drunken Anglo-Saxonists...

Scyld overturns the mead benches. Yes, he's fearsome because he re-arranged furniture.

I do have a life ... sometimes ... Maybe I was playing Lord of the Rings online and forgot to check my email...

Is New Jersey its own ethnic group?

(on Beowulf's lack of children)
I think the perfect phrase would be "epic fail."

Grendel couldn't pay wergild. My theory? No pockets.

(on Beowulf's sword)
It's a sword! It's pointy! Like a penis! And when it fails ... I don't really know what that means or when the other sword melts...

(on Icelandic sagas)
People don't worry too much about the existential meaning of life when at any moment someone might show up at their door with an axe.

His name means "Killer Barney" and all I can think of is the purple dinosaur.

"I love you, you love me. I slaughtered some members of my family..."

Imagine how well class would go if my name was "Killer Drout."

Where's the last severed head you had in a Jane Austen novel?

(On Egil Skallagrimsson)
He's a huge, snarling, murdering freak, and everyone wants him as their ancestor.

If I live in tenth-century Iceland, I don't want to go into Egil Skallagrimsson's bed closet for any reason whatsoever.

So I mixed up my 80's hair bands ... oh God, how horrible!

(on Gawain and his shield)
"So as I'm hacking someone's arm off and making him bleed to death, I can gaze at the Virgin Mary and it makes me feel better."

Everyone has a favorite Mayan god and Tlaloc is mine.

The first circle is the good part of Hell, with nice condos.

(on the problems with the rain in the upper circles and the rain of fire in the seventh circle)
It's a vision of Hell. I don't have to explain the meteorology!

Let's play "Name that heresy!"

Then the vikings realized "Hey! We can just go over to England and take their stuff."

Newton would boil mercury for a while, go insane, be dragged back to London and then invent physics.

Word of advice: Never build torture devices for evil tyrants. Ever.

Think of the barrators as being in a fondue pot of pitch.

Look! I made it to one minute before the end of class ... J.R.R. Tolkien!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Lexomics at Kalamazoo

Do you like to count things? If so, the website our research group (me; Mark LeBlanc, prof. of computer science; Mike Kahn, prof. of statistics; and our students) is unveiling at Kalamazoo might be useful to you.

The on-line tools we have put up at help researchers examine Anglo-Saxon texts in terms of patterns of words. For example, if you would like to list all the words in The Gifts of Men in order of frequency, you can. If you'd like to see what were Wulfstan's favorite words, you can. If you want to know how many words there are in the entire Anglo-Saxon corpus, and which are most common, you can find out.

Not only can you count words in any text, but you can create "virtual manuscripts" that combine separate texts into one file for counting purposes. So if you'd like to determine the most common--or the rarest-- words in the Beowulf manuscript (not just the poem Beowulf), you now can. Want to see which words appear once and only once (or twice and only twice) in Cotton Tiberius A.iii.? Easy!

And each of the words you might countis linked to a concordance search in the Dictionary of Old English. So if you discover that meahtum appears only twice in the Beowulf manuscript, you can then click on it and, provided you have electronic access to the DOE, you can see its other appearances in Old English (yes, the texts aren't lemmatized; if you want to know why, come to our paper at Kalamazoo).

Now why would I want to count words, you ask?

First, because looking at word frequencies helps you to identify interesting words in a text. If a word appears only in the OE translation of the Rule of Chrodegang and a text by Ælfric, that's potentially useful. Our tools can thus help literary scholars zero in on words that are worth a second look and can open the way for additional literary analysis.

Also, because the counts can be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets, there are many advanced statistical techniques that can be applied to them. But saying more would give away our paper at Kalamazoo, which I don't want to do.

Instead, I want to invite you to come to a roundtable, "Computing with Style," Thursday at 10:00 in Bernhard 213, our formal paper, "Lexomics for Literature" Thurs at 1:30 in the Bernhard Brown and Gold Room, and the poster session for Digital Humanities Thurs at 6:30 in Fetzer 1035. We'll have the software there for you to try and all three of us will be there to answer questions. We're looking for people who want to use the software and for additional collaborators.

All the software is open-source and available for free at the lexomics website, and it can easily be adapted to work on any electronic corpus of texts in any language.

This work is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Initiative, Grant #HD-50300-08.

Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard

[UPDATE: Geez! Step away from the computer for a weekend so you can coach some little league teams, and, whammo! People descend from everywhere to mark a stylistic infelicity caused by splicing up one start with another. Ouch! Below is the revised. If you want to see the original error, tough.]

On a Tuesday in 1982 I was in the Monmouth County Library in Shrewsbury, NJ. I know it was a Tuesday because, as a treat, my dad took my brother and I there every Tuesday. In the metal rack of paperback science fiction books, I noticed a beat-up copy of Chronopolis. On the way home I started to read it and was completely hooked, powering through the entire book that night and reading it several times again before returning it the following week. I had never read anything like it, and the best stories from the volume, "The Voices of Time," "Deep End," "The Cage of Sand," and especially, "The Terminal Beach" have been part of my interior world ever since.

My students find it hard to conceive of "life before Amazon," not to mention "life before the internet" and "life before Barnes and Noble superstores," so they don't understand how it's possible to love a writer but be limited to the one or two volumes in the local library and the bits and pieces that you found in random bookstores. But that was the way I encountered Ballard, a new novel here, a short story there, a paperback tucked away in the science fiction section of a college bookstore. I never engaged with Ballard's work systematically, the way I did with "The Big H" writers that were so important when I was in high school: Hemingway, Heinlein and Herbert. Ballard was different, but that made his books more powerful to me: found treasures.

In college The Day of Creation came out, and for a while it was easier to find other novels. I devoured The Drowned World and obsessively re-read The Crystal World and collections of short stories, The Venus Hunters, Myths of the Near Future, Vermillion Sands. The story that got me into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I am almost certain, was my attempt to write a reverse version of The Drowned World, and I often argued for the literary value of Science Fiction by using illustrations from Ballard's work (unfortunately none of the other students in Carnegie Mellon creative writing classes had read Ballard).

But it was only in 1990-91, when I was doing my M.A. at Stanford, that I really investigated Ballard and his intellectual world: I found, but did not really enjoy, the books for which he gained so much fame: Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Concrete Island, High Rise. Much more important to me was surrealism, which I discovered through Ballard. I spent hours and hours at Stanford's art library, pouring over major and minor works, and I tried to write surrealist SF myself. Simultaneously I went though a bad period of horrible insomnia (it didn't help that I lived in East Palo Alto, which that year was one of the crime capitals of California, so there were frequent shots fired in the distance and sirens, cracked-out people knocking on the door at 3 a.m., etc.) and for a while thought I was entering into a Ballard story or a Paul Delvaux painting. Somehow this all made Ballard even more powerful and personal.

Ballard was most widely acclaimed for his non-surrealist, non-SF novel, Empire of the Sun, and he was notorious for the experimental, weird books like Crash. But those books, interesting and accomplished as they are, don't do much for me. I am instead fascinated by the visual surrealism of the shorts stories and the books from the 60's and 70's. London half-submerged under warm salt water, a bird encased in crystal, a giant beach of red Mars sand, jeweled insects, sculptured clouds, flocks of sand-rays flying through the desert, the concrete blocks of Eniwetok. Ballard managed to write visually beautiful things, images that, once read, never leave you.

J. G. Ballard died of cancer on April 19th.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Council of Elrond
Adapted by Michael D.C. Drout and August G. Stoll, III

Bizarre Email of the Week

More Council of Elrond later tonight, maybe, but I just had to let you see this:

Dear Dr. Drout,

We have learned of your published research on whales. We would like to invite your participation in our publishing program. In particular, I have in mind a new research or review article for an edited collection (invitation only) being assembled under my direction tentatively entitled "######## [no need to embarrass the editor ###" The contributions for this edited book are intended to range from 4,000-35,000 words. If you are interested in participating, please consult the Notes for Contributors at the bottom of this letter.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what I ever wrote that had any bearing on whales at all (I've never even written anything significant about Wales).

UPDATE: Google is your friend.

Apparently there is a V. Drout out there who did a 2003 dissertation on Sperm Whales and that must be the source of the confusion. I am so jealous! Although Anglo-Saxon is cooler than anything else in the humanities, Sperm Whales are way cooler than that.

And there goes my plan of seeing if I could actually write something about whales and get published in a by-invitation-only collection. Dang.

UPDATE AGAIN: It gets better: the V. Drout who writes about whales got his/her Ph.D. from the University of Bangor in Wales.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Council of Elrond: An Adapted Play

(My apologies for the lack of content. I have been absolutely buried with:
  • Administration
  • The editing and then proofing of Tolkien Studies volume 6
  • The production of the cumulative index for Tolkien Studies volumes 1-5
  • Expansions, correction and revision for the new edition of Beowulf and the Critics
  • Prepping our Lexomics presentation for Kalamazoo
  • Writing a book chapter, "The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms" for an April 17 deadline
  • Prepping to give a lecture at Amherst
  • My son's 5th birthday
  • My daughter having two weeks off from school and a violin recital
  • Easter
  • My son's birthday party (which involves knights, princesses and ponies))

So in lieu of new content, I offer you something I wrote 31 years ago (how's that for recycling?)

Back in 1978, in Mrs. Hamer's 5th grade class in Ocean Township School, my best friend Chipper Stoll and I decided to adapt part of The Lord of the Rings for a play. Mrs. Hamer, being a brilliant teacher, let us sit in the book corner in the back of the room and do this for several days.

So with the whole Lord of the Rings to draw from, what did Chipper and I choose? Well, "The Council of Elrond" Why not? We had many choices: battles, stirring speeches, deep emotional struggles, beauty and terror. Of course we chose a faculty meeting with Elves.

"The Council of Elrond" is perhaps the most infamous chapter in the book: in 2005 I did a radio show in which one caller, who ran a bookstore, said "I just tell everyone to skip that chapter, and then they enjoy The Lord of the Rings (I'm afraid I took umbrage). And I have heard the same idea from many people, which I why I'm writing a chapter for a Tolkien book (assuming the chapter and the book are accepted) called "The Council of Elrond, all those poems, and the famous F-ing Elves: Teaching the Hard Parts of Tolkien."

Recently I found Chipper's and my script of The Council of Elrond, and, after reading it over, I have to be snotty and say that we did a better job (on this particular chapter) than Philippa Boyens. Our version is not all fighty-fighty, and we managed to use a lot of Tolkien's own words. I'm also extremely amused that my pedantic, academic self manifested itself even in fifth grade: Sez Elrond: "The Rings of Power were forged by the Elves of Eregion in S.A. 1590. The One Ring was forged in S.A. 1600, by Sauron."

So, for your amusement, over the next few days I will post The Council of Elrond, adapted by Michael D.C. Drout and August G. Stoll, III.

More to come...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tolkien Classes

Recently I got an email from the Chair of a high-school English department who wanted to know about classes in Tolkien or fantasy literature that might be taught at other high schools.  I realized I have no idea.  

Furthermore, I have no idea how many college courses are now devoted to Tolkien.  Back in 2003, when I was making the case to WVU Press that they should publish Tolkien Studies, I did a rough survey, searching for "Tolkien" and "syllabus" on the same page and then weeding out by hand.  This is no longer possible: there are 37,000 results, and many duplications.  

So, instead of brute-force googling (though I'm sure those with better google-fu than I could narrow it down), let's try the power of distributed intelligence and social networking.  

If you know of classes devoted to Tolkien or having a substantial Tolkien component, at the high-school or college level, post about them in the comments here or email me.  I will assemble all the data and make a new post.  You don't need to write much, just something like: 

Wheaton College, Norton Mass:  English 259: J.R.R. Tolkien, English 401: Sr. Seminar: Tolkien and Le Guin.  

Of course if there's a link to a syllabus, that's even better, but not necessary.  And if you don't have specific data, but can remember something like "I had a course on JRRT at University of X in 2002," that's fine, too. 

My gut feeling is that the number of courses has perhaps even doubled since 2003.  Just recently I was partnered with someone from another New England elite liberal arts college, and he just mentioned, in passing, that one of their new faculty members "does this course on Tolkien, of all things, and it's really very good." (I just smiled).  Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of medievalists are now teaching a Tolkien course as well (and, yes, I'll be they are "really very good").  So I think these courses are now all over the place and are more "respectable" than they were even six years ago.  I'd like to see if this hunch is correct. 

(I'll save a description of my war with the raccoons for the next post)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yet another surreal moment (thanks, JRRT)

This morning my son and daughter were playing "Mama warg, baby warg."  Yes, they were pretending that they were bloodthirsty super-wolves, ravening through Middle-earth (though mostly it seems they were making "dens" by draping blankets over the furniture). 

So I asked them, "What are your names?  Bone-gnasher and Blood-fang?" 

Son: "I'm Cookie." 

Daughter:  "My name is Patches."  

The Lord of the Rings Online should definitely add these two as wandering Elite level 50s:  Cookie and Patches, Wargs.  

Friday, March 13, 2009

History Channel update

Back in December I did some video interviews for an independent production company on Old Norse, Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings.  The series they were filming has now officially been picked up and renamed for The History Channel and is entitled (at least for now), "Clash of the Gods."  I'm guessing, based on their schedule, that it will be out this summer.  As soon as I know dates, etc., I will post. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Triple Nerd Score!
In which I connect Beowulf, the Rev. Walter Skeat and ornithology

In Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder quote the Rev. Walter W. Skeat on one of my favorite Beowulf controversies: does the hero's name mean "bear" or "woodpecker"?  (As I said before, the Angelina Jolie "naked philology" scene might have been even more amusing if, after she asked him if he was the "wolf of the bees, the bear," he had answered "no, the woodpecker").  

Skeat comes down on the side of "woodpecker" (first proposed by Jacob Grimm in 1836 (though Skeat didn't know it when he wrote this piece in 1877).  He writes: 

I wish to draw attention to the fact that the Old Dutch biewolf, according to Kilian, was a woodpecker.  I read that the great black woodpecker is common in Norway and Sweden, and that its food consists of the larvae of wasps, bees, and other insects.  Also, that the green woodpecker, found in most countries of Europe, has been known to take bees from a hive.  The question remains, why should the woodpecker be selected as the type of a hero?  The answer is simple -- viz., because of its indomitable nature; it is a bird that fights to the death.  Wilson says of an ivory-billed woodpecker whom he put into a cage, that he did not survive his captivity more than three days, during which he manifested and unconquerable spirit, and refused all sustenance.  This bird severely wounded Wilson while he was sketching him, and died with unabated spirit.  'This unconquerable courage, most probably gave the head and bill of the bird so much value in the eyes of the Indians.'

Shippey notes: "I have been unable to trace Skeat's reference, 'English Cyclop. Nat. Hist.' IV, 345.   'Wilson' is probably John Marius Wilson, a zoologist who produced two other 'Cyclopedias' between 1847 and 1867."

But because I'm a bird nerd, I can trace Skeat's reference, or, rather I found  his source (his specific reference remains a mystery): the great ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), who wrote the great nine-volume American Ornithology and whose meeting with Audubon in 1810 inspired Audubon to start his great work. Reading anything about birds and "Wilson" in the same paragraph immediately made me think of that Wilson, but the European references at the beginning of the Skeat quote at first threw me off.  However, a quick check of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's page on encounters with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker finds the section Skeat is referring to: 
Like many naturalists and painters of the day, Wilson shot his subjects, not with a camera but with a gun, in order to paint them from life (or rather, death). Wilson wrote of shooting and slightly wounding an Ivory-billed Woodpecker a few miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. He decided to keep the bird as a pet so he could study and illustrate it at his leisure. Upon capture, the woodpecker "uttered a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child, which terrified my horse so as to nearly cost me my life."

Wilson took the bird to an inn in Wilmington, where he left the bird loose in his room while he took care of his horse. When he returned to the room, less than an hour later, the bird had nearly destroyed one wall of the room and part of the ceiling in its effort to escape.

Leaving the room again to search for grubs for the bird, Wilson decided to tether the bird to the leg of a mahogany table. Upon his return he "heard him again hard at work, [and] on entering, had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

The ivory-bill died a few days later, much to Alexander Wilson's dismay. It "displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods," he wrote. "He lived with me for three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret."
I have two other connections with Wilson (which is probably why I got the idea that he was the source). First, my colleague John Kricher has been the president of the Wilson Society, the great American ornithological group.  Second, I own a print of Audubon's painting of a Wilson's Warbler (and if you'd like to buy an Amsterdam Audubon print of the Wilson's Warbler, let me know).  

It's a small world, the connections are everywhere (and still the best tool for finding them is your brain armed with a wide variety of experiences).

P.S.:  It's been a very birdy week.  Yesterday, my son and I spotted a mature bald eagle not 100 feet away from us at the Norton Reservoir, right near Wheaton.  Today there were both hooded and common mergansers in Mother Brook in Dedham (the first artificial waterway in America and a really short walk from my house). 
Well at least I won't have to kill any more widows

I've been in the process of revising J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics for a revised, expanded and corrected second edition, and I have been driving myself up a tree not to do anything that would change the pagination of the edition.  Thus I've been, in journalists' jargon, "killing widows," re-wording lines or paragraphs to keep them from running over into a next line. It's frustrating work (but amazing discipline for improving your writing).  

But today I learned from the press that this work has been for naught (except that it has tightened up the writing considerably).  The only way to make the minor corrections I want to make throughout will mess up the pagination.  No way around it, due to the way the book was produced the first time around.  That means (and you have no idea how hard it is to type these words) I    will    have     to    do    a    new     index  ...............

You see, I've done five indices this year.  True, my brilliant students Jason Rea, Lauren Provost, Tara McGoldrick and now Maryellen Groot (learn these names: They are future professors, famous lawyers and captains of industry)  have been doing the code-insertion.  But in the end I'm responsible for the cumulative index for five volumes of Tolkien Studies.  And now I have to re-index a book I wrote and indexed nearly ten years ago.  It is enough to make you want to kill some more widows (or wander around a level-35 enemy camp completely nuking everything that moves in range of your level-56 crossbow. Not feeling like such a tough goblin now, are we Nishruk?).   

So that's the bad news.  The good news is now that there won't just be a new preface, corrections throughout and two (and, if I'm lucky, three) new sections added to the introduction.  I can do a much more thoroughgoing revision to the text, and I can integrate the new material (tables showing the evolution of the original Oxford lectures into the published lecture; the identification of the various voice in the 'Babel of Voices' section, and, perhaps, a previously unpublished note that relates to the text), and I can revise some of the conclusions (W.P. Ker is even more important than I had realized) .  So the "Expanded and Corrected" second edition will now be even more true than it was in the original plan and I will be able, with a clean conscience, to encourage you to buy either the paperback release or the planned "collector's edition" (we still haven't figured out the logistics of my signing all of them.  I suggested flying me to Arizona in the middle of winter.  They haven't said "no" that that yet).  

And one final note: if you are one of the rare few who are selling copies of my book on Amazon for >150.00, you suck (well, a little), because I have no extra copies of my own to sell and thus can't capitalize on the fortunes of an out-of-print book.  And the good news for you, though not for me, is that the ones you have will soon not only be a hard-to-get first edition, but a first edition that really is different than the second edition.  You're welcome.  Please send checks, fruit baskets or huge bars of gold to my Wheaton address.  

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Laying Down Markers

This semester I am the Chair of yet another committee (yes, before we go further, department Chairs are not supposed to have to chair major committees, but, this committee didn't look so major when I agreed to chair it.  Now we are meeting every single week and doing stuff.  But somehow the Committee on Committees -- of course we have a Committee on Committees, doesn't everyone? -- hasn't noticed and pulled me off).  We are having to make some potential hiring/searching decisions, and I've gotten into some debate with my colleagues.  And I realized that one thing that we medievalists need to do, is to lay down some markers. 

I'll explain.  The quasi-searches we are doing are for interdisciplinary-type, short-term positions, meant to temporarily augment college teaching offerings.  So we're looking at stuff we don't usually teach.  One very good candidate is a medievalist.  That is, he/she specializes in the medieval period of the non-traditional area we are looking for.  One of my colleagues said, "given this [in the news a lot] subject area, I think we should have someone contemporary." 

I decided not to let this go, as I'm sure everyone wanted me to.  Instead, I laid down a marker: we are not going to make this decision without a debate about this idea on the merits of the argument and its philosophical structure.   It will be a long, difficult, drawn-out debate, because I know my arguments very well and am happy to make them (and if they're not careful, I'll use rhetoric, I will...).  But I am not going to do the typical thing, the medievalist thing (I'm sad to say), and make one gesture and then roll over.  Instead, I'm going to be willing, as one of my colleagues put it in another circumstance "to die on this hill." 

And I'm going to do that every single time someone asserts that the study of the present is more valuable than the study of the past, or that medieval culture is less important than contemporary culture.  There won't be a motion on the floor of the faculty meeting or a discussion in a department meeting or a conversation in the Faculty Dining Room in which someone gets away with making the assertion that medieval studies isn't at the very minimum as valuable (we all know it's actually more valuable, but I'll throw them a bone) as any other discipline or sub-discipline at the colleage. Every single time people try to discount, denigrate or ignore the field, I am going to make them engage in a long debate from first principles.  

I am certain that after a while this is going to get old to the people who have to have debate after debate after debate about the first principles of a liberal arts education and the value of the past and its relevance.  And I am going to be relentless about this.  And eventually, for many people, it will just be easier to take the study of the Middle Ages seriously so as not to have to lose 2/3 of a meeting on a long, tedious but impassioned rant from / debate with Drout. 

[N.B.: I am not suggesting using these tactics if you are actually on the wrong side of your debate.  But since the value of the Middle Ages is so easy to defend, and I am on the right side, eventually, the truth will prevail.]
The bigger point is that the way medievalists can "fight" for the value of what we do is challenge every single time the absolutely brain-dead idea that what's done in psychology or sociology or urban studies or political science is more important than medieval studies . It's not even as important as medieval studies, but we'll keep that amongst ourselves.   If people make that assertion, you make them defend it with actual arguments as opposed to sighing, sneering, or going into full condescension mode.  I'll bet they can't if they're actually challenged.  

I'll keep you posted.