If you are reading this you probably know already that I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, to the point that I joined the Spanish Tolkien Society (Sociedad Tolkien Española) almost 20 years ago and I usually don't miss any of their events.
Since recently I also belong to the Tolkien Society, and after having missed for probably important (but now forgotten) reasons Tolkien 2005 and Tolkien 2012, the last major events that they organized, I was not going to miss Tolkien 2019. In 2005 the gathering marked the 50th anniversary of the complete publication of The Lord of The Rings. In 2012 the conference was held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. This year the Tolkien Society celebrated in Birmingham its own 50th anniversary with the largest celebration of Tolkien ever held. More than 550 attendees and more than 150 activities including talks, panels, workshops, signing sessions, music, theater,…
I have a lot of things to do but I don't want to miss the opportunity to write here some quick impressions of my experience there. (last minute edit: Quick is an euphemism, as I have spent several hours writing this article). Also, Pablo has published (in Spanish) a fantastic summary of his own experience in Tolkien 2019 and the scarce overlap between our experiences there has encouraged me to complete the article as much as possible.
TL;DR: The good part: I attended around 40 activities, most of them top quality content, and I realize now that more than a third of them had a female speaker. That is a lot. I met in person lots of interesting people, and had the opportunity to spend time and learn from people that I admire. The bad part: I didn't like the venue, the corridors were too small, it was full of steps and only two of the rooms were big enough for an event like this with >500 participants. The lack of a lunch break not only forced everyone to skip good contents, but also made it much more difficult to meet other people and do proper networking.
Let me summarize some of the talks and activities I attended:
Heirs of Tolkien? The Major Contenders, by Tom Shippey
The opening keynote was delivered perfectly by Tom Shippey, it was the ideal kickoff for an event like this combining interesting facts and humor. I admire him since long time ago, but even more after having met him in person during the last XXIV Mereth Aderthad. Reading Beowulf together while drinking beer creates some bonding, who could have imagined it.
Shippey, with his usual simple (but effective) slides, started with the slogan of the Deustche Tolkien Gesellschaft: Ohne Tolkien, Keine Fantasy (without Tolkien, no fantasy) stressing how this motto is still correct nowadays. Tolkien was the first author to achieve mass market success with ambitious and top level quality high fantasy, something that was even more difficult in the previous century. Mass market success in fantasy works is more common nowadays, and this is only because of Tolkien's legacy.
He commented that he is working in a taxonomy of fantasy authors, and also explained who could be a worthy successor of Tolkien. In his opinion only three authors are candidates in quality with their own genuine style: George RR Martin, Stephen Donaldson and Michael Swanwick, all of them heavily influenced by Tolkien. This part was related to the talk he gave in May in Spain comparing the characters, works and values from Tolkien and Martin.
Enrico reminded us the relationship of Tolkien with fairy-tales, and explained the folklore tales that the Professor received as input for inspiration, being the most acknowledged of them the Kalevala. The speaker then explained that the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault were not the first ones to write fairy-tales in Europe, as there was an Italian author Giambattista Basile that was the first one (that we know) to include fairy-tales tales in Lo Cunto de Li Cunte. His tales included the first appearance of Cinderella, Rapunzel or the Sleeping Beauty.
On the nature and corporeality of Elves and Fairies according to Tolkien, by Massimiliano Izzo
Very interesting and well documented talk, about how Tolkien speculated on the real nature of elves and how this vision evolved through his life. Metaphysical and sometimes even philosophical discussions that will deserve a quiet read when the proceedings are published.
Andrew Higgins explained very briefly how these four important characters are related to heroes from the Classical and Medieval works Tolkien could have known. He commented how Tolkien could have thought the names for each of them, linking as usual the meaning with the character. Again, it will be nice to read the final paper in the proceedings.
Two Realms: Finished and Unfinished Business, by Ted Nasmith
This was the first of many talks focusing on the illustration of Tolkien's works. This time, Ted Nasmith himself showed us some of his recent commissioned works related to Middle-earth and at the end also to The Song of Ice and Fire. It's impossible to articulate in words what he showed us: lots of illustrations including preliminary drafts or color tests that I would happily put in my walls.
Ted is not only a gifted artist but also proved to be friendly to his fans and methodical in his work.
Leaf by Niggle, by Puppet State Theatre (@PuppetStateThtr)
Richard Medringtone from the Puppet State Theatre showed us how one single person on stage can grab the attention of the audience for more than an hour. He is clearly a top professional in acting, and the adaptation of Leaf by Niggle fitted his style perfectly. The stage setting, despite being minimalistic, was adequate and the protagonist made good use of almost all its elements. I loved the play and will see it again without hesitation.
Clothing in Tolkien’s world and what we can see through its historical analysis, by Dr. Ester Torredelforth (@Torredelforth)
Ester, Doctor in medieval art and fashion, made a brilliant exposition of the facts that can be understood or extracted from the way Tolkien describes clothing details. Se used several designs prepared by herself to support her lecture, describing how Tolkien must have known with a decent level about medieval fashion and its utility and symbolism.
Aratalindalë - The Making of a Myth, by Maggie Percival
I was not sure about this talk, but I'm glad I finally attended it. The purpose of the lecture was to describe the process she and some other colleagues from the Tolkien Society followed to prepare the Masquerade for the London WorldCon of 2014 where they won several prizes including Best overall. They prepared a group costume entitled Aratalindalë that included eight Valar as they are described in The Silmarillion.
Maggie explained with lots of details the reasoning after all the designs including the selection of fabrics and how they combined traditional dressmaking skills with modern technology using LED lights in the costumes with certain level of animation designed for each Vala. There are several pictures online but I haven't found the full video where all the lighting features can be seen properly.
Oronzo described his research about the relationship between Tolkien and Italy. He traveled there at least a couple of times and apparently there are several details that show he enjoyed and was influenced by the Italian culture. For example, it is known that Tolkien joined the Oxford Dante Society.
One of the editorial releases of the year related to Tolkien studies and scholarship. The book is just a list of what could have been part of the Professor's own library, and for each item Oronzo describes if the entry comes from a primary source, a secondary source, etc. Quite interesting if you are curious about the type of works Tolkien owned or had read. As new evidence appears, the list will have to be expanded with new entries.
The room was full also because Tom Shippey wrote the foreword and also participated in the lecture.
My colleague from the STE is becoming a regular for these types of events, and no wonder it's like that with the quality and amount of research he has been doing over the last years. This time the lecture was about how a very young Tolkien got a job as tutor of a bunch of kids during a trip to France. Without spoiling the details, let's say that the task was suddenly complicated and could have disrupted Tolkien in a unique way.
It was believed that a couple of towers from Birmingham (Perrott's Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks tower) may have provided the inspiration for the Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings. John Garth started his keynote explaining why he does not consider this argument very solid. First of all, which two towers? Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith? Orthanc and Barad-dûr? It's still ambiguous. Garth reviewed all the early designs that we have from Tolkien about those towers, analyzing the evolution of them.
The lecture also served somehow as a teaser for his next book, titled for the moment as Tolkien's Worlds.
LOTR on Prime panel, by Shaun Gunner (@ShaunGunner) with Brian Sibley, Dimitra Fimi (@Dr_Dimitra_Fimi), Anke Eißmann (@khorazir), Jeremy Edmonds (@TolkienGuide) and Marcel Aubron-Bülles (@The_Tolkienist)
This panel was promising, first of all because the selection of participants was very well balanced with writers, scholars and artists offering different perspectives about their expectations. Of course they did not give any factual data, and probably that is the reason they were there in the panel giving their opinions freely and not Tom Shippey that is directly involved in the project.
I specially liked the contributions by Brian Sibley, who was fully engaged in all the Peter Jackson films, and Anke Eißmann, who is eager like me to see in the new series a more daring production compared specially to The Hobbit films. Let's hope they don't try to imitate the style of Game of Thrones.
Despite the main room was completely full, the organization switched off the lights for the audience and everyone was in absolute silence listening to the careful explanations by Alan Lee. It was almost magical and completely amazing. We could see dozens of sketches explained from the genius himself, from watercolor exercises to architectural blueprints. Lee's view on Middle-earth is engraved in the mind of many people (including mine) and we were very lucky that his vision was also omnipresent in Peter Jackson's films.
There was also time for him to answer a lot of questions from the audience, and perhaps the most interesting were related to their relationship with other artists like John Howe.
Orchestra Concert, by The People's Orchestra (@ThePeoplesOrch)
After enjoying a couple of beers in a nearby pub we came back for the concert, and we were very lucky as we were able to take seats in the front row just behind the Orchestra director. We were entertained not only with the soundtracks of all the LotR and The Hobbit movies, but also with several other compositions from our vast geek popular culture. Both the orchestra and its conductor demonstrated an impressive quality and charisma, one could see the effort to please the audience.
The People's Orchestra is a charity apart from a standard symphony orchestra. They provide professional musical training and even work opportunities for unemployed people. Impressive.
The speaker was humorous and kind with the audience, taking into account she delivered the talk without any kind of visual support very early on Friday morning. As the recognized expert in the field that she is, Jane spoke clearly and concisely about the role of Grendel's Mother in Beowulf. After that, she managed to link the topic with the attitude of Tolkien about women in his professional academical experience. The talk was interesting but I could not connect some dots on the spot, hopefully I will with the proceedings.
After having met Jay in the Dealer's Room and having enjoyed his own amazing pieces of art, I was curious about this talk. I expected him to explain not only his admiration for the artist but also his opinion as a passionate collector. I received what I expected, by far.
Pauline Baynes was a prolific and very special artist. She illustrated or contributed to more than 200 books, gaining international fame as the first illustrator and cover artist of some Tolkien minor works (Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Smith of Wootton Major, …) and Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. As an example of masterpiece, the speaker showed us the illustration she did for a Nursery Rhymes book, in which she featured 56 different characters from the collected tales in one single page.
I learned in the talk that Pauline illustrated Farmer Giles of Ham by pure chance, according to Jay Tolkien was visiting his editors to complain about the artwork proposal he had received and luckily a sketchbook by Pauline was open over a table.
Jay showed us some less known drawings and we were amazed both with the artwork and Jay's explanations during the entire hour. He clearly infected me with his passion, I entered the room knowing Pauline Baynes only a little and left as a new declared fan.
Artists in Middle-earth: illustrating The Lord of the Rings, by Marie Bretagnolle (@MarieBreta)
The abstract of the talk announced that Marie Bretagnolle was going to compare two of the most important British editions of The Lord of the Rings, also the only ones with commissioned illustrations inside. First the 1977 Folio Society edition, and the second by Alan Lee for the 1991-1992 Centenary edition.
Marie delivered a clear and interesting talk, comparing the illustrations in both works and analyzing the importance of each drawing depending on the location. For example, the artist needs to take into account that an illustration that appears before the passage that is portrayed can provide inspiration for some readers but it can also work as a small spoiler for others.
Maria is also to blame that I just spent a small fortune in the Folio Society website.
The source texts for Tove Jansson's illustrations for The Hobbit, by Sonja Virta (@SonjaVirta)
Third talk in a row about illustration. This time the content was focused on the controversially illustrated Swedish edition of The Hobbit in 1962. It was (or is) controversial for the somewhat gloomy tone of the drawings but specially because Tove Jansson presented Gollum as a huge moster. The speaker explained her thorough research on the topic, and the influence that the first Swedish translation of 1947 could have had in Tove Jansson for the 1962 edition.
The Shape of Water in Tolkien's Middle-earth, by Norbert Schürer
Another pleasant surprise, thanks to the good work of the speaker. Norbert explained with high detail the research he is doing about the influence of the water in Middle-earth. He started the paper after discovering that there was not a lot of scholar work about it, despite the water is omnipresent in The Lord of the Rings in all its forms/states: liquid, solid and gaseous. I'd add another shape to his list of occurrences: the absence of water. After all the tragic journey of Frodo and Sam towards Mount Doom, the absence of water is what finally makes them realize that there is no possible return.
The speaker described as well the taxonomy he is working on, based on the type of representation of the water in each moment: figurative, purely instrumental, only geographical and intentional. This is again a paper I will enjoy reading again once the proceedings are published.
Bilbo, Ulysses and the Greatness of the Unknown, by Gloria Larini
Bilbo and Ulysses, two great characters in two epic adventures. The speaker, taking advantage of her knowledge in Latin and Greek literature, compared both characters and how they embarked on their adventures. For example, both go for the unknown but the initial step is quite different. Ulysses has no choice but Bilbo on the contrary is suitable for the enterprise (at least according to Gandalf).
Another interesting difference between the stories is that Homer did not include the journeys in the narration, but Tolkien does.
Memory, Lore, Knowledge, by Thomas Honegger
Another quite interesting talk. The speaker explained the concepts, remarking the difference that Tolkien made among them. For example, regarding memory we can find live memory (Gandalf, Galadriel, …) and dormant memory (the ring verse, old Gondor lore). The main part of the talk was about the difference (almost opposition) between knowledge and lore. In Middle-earth, knowledge is perceived as negative (Saruman is the main representative) but Lore is usually positive (Ioreth, as the best example). Lore cannot be learned, it needs to be handed over or it will be lost. That is why knowledge can increase, but Lore can only decline.
The Hobbits and I: My Travels in Middle-earth, by Brian Sibley
I knew Brian Sibley since long time ago, what I didn't knew (shame on me) is that he is still an active tolkienist and such a prolific writer recently.
This keynote was merely self-biographical, as Brian explained in a careful and detailed way his career and complete evolution. He focused first on his biggest hit, the 1981 BBC radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings, to finish with his recent projects including the chronicles of the making and movie guides of the two trilogies by Peter Jackson, the awesome The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-earth book with John Howe and even an authorized biography of Peter Jackson.
Christina Scull gave a nice lecture about the creative process of Tolkien. The quote in the title is from Tolkien himself in one of the letters, in which he explained how his own understanding of the characters was changing along the writing process. No surprises here, being Tolkien a huge perfectionist and having spent writing The Lord of the Rings more than 10 years.
Listening to Christina was a delight but for those that did not attend, calm down as it won't change much respect reading the paper yourselves.
I don't have much to say about the banquet, except that maybe in any hypothetical next event I will consider seriously not attending. We had a good time and it was fun, but it was due to my companions at the table. Being used to the STE gala dinners, I found this banquet insipid and uninteresting. I can live with only three brief toasts and no songs, but the self buffet format was annoying with some starting dinner while others had already finished… it was almost impossible to interact with people from other tables. On top of all this, it was absurdly expensive even for UK standards.
Anyway, I did like a gesture that I will try to copy in our Spanish association. During the banquet, probably the time with more people in the same place, they gave commemorative badges to those who have been members of the Tolkien Society for 10 (a splendid generation!) and 25 years. It is a recognition that is always welcome and appreciated.
Ten Years of Books in Tengwar, by Tsvetelina Krumova
Tsvetelina Krumova thinks that Tengwar should never be written by a machine, as it goes against its nature. According to this reasoning, that I fully share, she began 10 years ago to transcribe some books using Tengwar. She brought some copies to show us and the result is astonishing, even ignoring the infamous amount of hours this woman has spent writing. She also described how the activity itself of writing in Tengwar forces her to focus so much, that she is using this also as a kind of relaxing or meditation experience on a daily basis.
I took another important thought of this talk. Despite the amount of pages and studies that we have today it is still not possible to cook like the elves, to fight like them or it is not clear how could we dance like the elves did. But we can write exactly like the elves, even if we need to write Tengwar in English or Spanish. Food for thought!
Taniquetil: A tale of two cities, by Denis Bridoux
I took some risk, choosing this talk instead of a Sword fighting showcase or a Dwarven Beard workshop, but now I know that I did right.
As Denis was researching on Tolkien's Taniquetil drawing for the Aubusson tapestry, he realized that there was a mystery to solve in the drawing. At the foot of the Holy Mountain, next to the coast, there are two very very small cities, so small that people usually don't notice them. Would they be Tirion and Alqualondë? The descriptions in The Silmarillion don't match adequately with the drawing, despite the low level of detail.
It started to make more sense when he noticed that the watercolor drawing by Tolkien is dated in 1925 when he had already written most of what was published as The Book of Lost Tales (written in 1916-1919 according to the speaker) but not yet the main contents of the Quenta Noldorinwa (written in 1930). This could explain how the drawing depicts more clearly a book that was, in fact, published later.
An Archaeology of Hope and Despair in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, by John Whitmire
This lecture presented the research that John Whitmire is doing, with permission from the Tolkien Estate, using the still unpublished materials in the Tolkien Collection of the Marquette University. His study is about the use of Hope and Despair (as absence of hope) centered in the Characters of Aragorn and Arwen.
The lecture, that will also deserve a slow read in the proceedings, described how he organized the contents in different strata or layers during his research according to the known archaeological practice.
- Stratum A is the tale “of Aragorn and Arwen” from the original manuscript
- Stratum B1, B2, B3,… are the different revisions of the original manuscript
- Stratum C is the fair copy of the tale after all the B revisions
- Stratum D is a more refined version, where we find Ivorwen identifying Aragorn personally as hope and Elrond calling Aragorn directly Amir (that means hope)
The Dim Echo of the Catcher, by Nils Ivar Agøy
In this lecture Nils, that receive during the banquet a badge for belonging to the TS since 25 years ago, describes his research about the connections between Tolkien's comments on the Nodens Celtic deity and his own legendarium. It is known that the Professor studied about this, to the point he wrote a paper about the name of the Nodens deity and probably traveled several times to the excavations. The speaker described some parallelisms and the presence in The Silmarillion of mentions to a catcher or hunter deity. Interesting read.
Tolkien and His Publishers, by Wayne Hammond
Wayne Hammond with his wife Christina Scull are a reference about Tolkien and his work. They have published several key books about the art of Tolkien in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (that I eagerly possess) and the most important Reader's Companion and Companion and Guide.
The speaker shared part of this vast knowledge, this time focusing on the relationship of the Professor with his publishers and editors. He told some anecdotes in an entertaining way, including a couple about Tolkien being famous among the publishers for making very slow progress. It was really interesting hearing his comments about the economic negotiations, in which Tolkien apparently was very successful as it is clear now, specially for his heirs.
This panel is another hardly repeatable thing that happened in Tolkien 2019. Only John Howe or the Hildebrandt Brothers could match them in quality and/or popularity. Shaun did a good job distributing his own questions and the ones from the public, so we could all enjoy an interesting session with genuine views and the most relevant opinions of the industry.
Tolkien and the Classics, by Claudio A. Testi with Tom Shippey and Thomas Honegger
Claudio Testi, with the help of Honegger and Shippey, presented a new collection of essays that explore the relationship between the Professor and Classic authors. As they explained, the goal is not always to find connections where there are none but to do the exercise just to assess the result, as is usual in comparative literature.
The collection is organized in three sections:
- Tolkien and Authors from Antiquity
- Tolkien and Authors from the Middle Ages
- Tolkien and Authors from the Modern Period
The Masquerade itself was nice, with some great costumes and/or performances and the rest more or less fine. I have to say that the best part of the evening was during the interlude, when some organizers presented several performances. There were three of them, two portraying the Professor and another one about Sauron motivating his troops, that were hilarious. Sadly I don't remember the names, sorry.
The parody of the BBC radio show Just a Minute was fine but maybe too long, but I understand that the format was perfect to allow waiting more or less time until the judges agreed the winners of the contest.
The result of the Masquerade contest is the least important thing, but I did not like that they gave prize to practically all but 2-3 participants. I don't think it would have been very difficult to give 2-3 more prizes and a weird situation (at least for me) would have been avoided.
After reading Colucci's bio I was curious about the talk. I have to say that my worst fears were fulfilled and in the end the talk was 75% a generic International Relations lecture with a not very subtle American imperialism tone, and 25% how geopolitics and strategy reflect in Tolkien's works. He stressed that in Middle-earth wars are never won with magic, they are always won or lost with medieval style war tactics and strategies that apparently Tolkien understood and was able to articulate.
Colucci gave us interesting quotes like “as Americans we feel that we are Gondor, keeping other actors like The Shire in peace” followed by another statement about the willingness of the US to prevent Russian invasions to Sweden despite the Swedish do not want to belong to NATO.
Second lecture of the day about politics, that also left me with bittersweet feelings. Shaun, current chair of the Tolkien Society, explained what could be the political inclination of Tolkien based on what we know about him and his context. Based on his research he claimed that Tolkien was in favor of the Scottish independent movement despite feeling proud of his country and idealizing England as The Shire. According to Shaun, the Professor was against all kinds of communism or imperialism, to the point that the idealistic Shire was a Benevolent Anarchy with the Thain acting just as a ceremonial figure without real authority.
The speaker also tried to explain why Tolkien is beloved by millions of people from the whole political spectrum. Related to this, he also said that the Tolkien Society was created in the sixties to claim Tolkien back from the hippies.
Power and Choice in the Second Age: A Political Primer, by Sarah Rachel Westvik
Luckily this third talk was not as opinionated as the two previous ones. The speaker, a student of International Relations, analyzed all the political context and tensions that we can see in the Second Age. She grouped the explanation in realms to cover Númenor, the Elven kingdoms (Lindon, Eregion and Greenwood), Mordor and the Ainur. Nice presentation from an eloquent speaker.
Five or Six Ponies?, by Jessica Yates
The premise of the talk was intriguing. In the 2004-2005 revision of The Lord of the Rings, the editors changed Merry's line: “There are six ponies in a stable across the fields…” to “There are five ponies…". The reasoning for the change was that the original six ponies were for five hobbits plus a pack-pony, assuming that when Tolkien reduced the number of adventurers to four, he forgot to alter that line. Apparently there has been some debate about this change, and Jessica researched as much as she could to solve the mystery.
As part of her research, Jessica draw (and shared copies with the audience) a plan of the house of Crickhollow. I won't spoil the surprise, if you want to know the answer wait for the proceedings.
Shippey's was probably the best opening keynote and undoubtedly this was the perfect closing keynote. Dr Dimitra Fimi taught us and entertained us smartly and passionately.
The keynote started remembering the audience about the Rhyme of the Troll, the verses that Sam sung to the rest of the fellowship when they encountered Bilbo's trolls. Dimitra didn't just remind us about the song, she sang and encouraged the audience to sing, so we sung. It was fun and easy.
Then she reminded us that the rhyme is based on a traditional English folk song called The Fox. She encouraged the audience again, and the audience carried it out enthusiastically.
But obviously a folklore song was not written in our English. She researched further until she got the original lyrics in Middle English. As you can imagine Dimitra no longer had to ask us to sing, although this time not everyone could pronounce properly but that was not important. Try to imagine a room with 400-500 people of an average above 40 years singing in Middle English. We only lacked a beer in the hand.
There is no better way to finish this article than with a recording of Tolkien himself singing the Rhyme of the Troll. If you are still here, please enjoy:
See you in the next Tolkien gathering!!