Now in expanded ebook – Strange Country: Sir Gawain in the moorlands of North Staffordshire

An expanded ebook of my book Strange Country: Sir Gawain in the moorlands of North Staffordshire, an investigation is now available on Amazon, at an affordable price. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you’ll recall, is one of the most famous supernatural tales in English literature.

This book offers a concise overview of the existing Gawain research relating to North Staffordshire, and then adds a wealth of new detail and facts drawn largely from previously overlooked sources. The case is clearly made that one of the most famous works of English literature belongs to North Staffordshire. Obvious new candidates for both the Gawain-poet’s patron and the Gawain castle are suggested, and these are found to fit naturally and almost exactly when compared with the expected dates, castle features, dialect location, social status and life-story. A wealth of surrounding detail is also explored, such as: the history and role of the King’s Champion; English contacts with full-blooded paganism during the Prussian crusades; the two lavish courts at Tutbury; and the history of the Manifold Valley. This ebook is well illustrated and copiously referenced with linked round-trip footnotes.

Available to buy now!

The show goes ever on…

I thought the ‘Tolkien in Staffordshire’ touring exhibition had finished touring. But the Express & Star today brings news, URL-dated as 27th May 2019, that it’s just opened at Cannock Chase Visitor Centre. They’re not very clear on specifics though, and offer no finish-date.

Initially I wondered if this report was actually a press-release re-writer bot, erroneously re-writing a press-release from 2018? The website at has died and the Staffordshire Council events pages are giving me 404s, so no luck there in terms of discovering more.

But a recent press report on the biopic movie, in the neighbouring Shropshire Star, mentions the exhibitions and gives an inkling as to the current situation for the show…

“Part of that new exhibition has now found a new home at the Great War Hut at the Marquis Drive Visitor Centre [on Cannock Chase] where people will be able to visit every weekend, and Bank Holidays”

I suspect that that’s it, and that it’s now opened as a cut-down permanent exhibit, perhaps with the information boards in leaflet form.

Another Tolkien biopic review

Another review of the new Tolkien biopic has landed, and this time it’s a long one that’s not behind a paywall. Tolkien — A Review is pithy and very well-written take, whose summary line might well be…

the film’s connect-the-dots literalism obscures and diminishes the daunting richness of creativity behind Tolkien’s construction of his Middle Earth fantasies

The reviewer sees not just a minimization of his Catholic faith, as some other reviews have suggested without specifics, but an outright blanking of it. I guess this might have seemed to the scriptwriter to be somewhat justified by the historical record, since the practice of his faith (if not his actual faith) does seem to have been rather lost in the initial boisterous phase of his encounter with Oxford. Specifically he was somewhat cursory or hasty in observance, from October 1911 until very early in 1913. Carpenter’s biography states that Tolkien said his first years at Oxford saw… “practically none or very little practice of religion”. This does not mean that faith had died in him, since in early 1913 Tolkien required that Edith become a Catholic for him, but rather that his observance and church attendance was probably minimal or cursory at that time.

It is also true that Tolkien’s very late letter to his son Michael (Letters, No. 250, 1963) recalled that throughout the busy 1920s he “almost ceased to practice” Catholicism. But letting one’s formal practice lapse is of course not quite the same as letting one’s belief lapse. Nor does it indicate that he ceased to cherish the various church rituals in his memory and on special occasions such as Easter. But here is another indication that during the early and formative period of the legendarium he was not always as suffused with a burning nimbus of Catholicism as some modern adherents of the faith might now wish him to have been. Interestingly, this implies that Tolkien, at periods during the 1910s and 1920s, may thus have been more open to playfully holding in his mind certain textual pagan concepts and alluring ‘tricksy lights’ emanating from rare pagan perhaps-survivals, the better to try to get at the nub of the language and the meanings involved.

But back to the review, which bluntly notes that the portrayal of his wife-to-be Edith… “skirts perilously close to hectoring Virginia Woolf-style feminism”. A portrayal which, so far as I’m aware, goes against her real character.

The reviewer stresses the Worcestershire angle a couple of times, in a rather boosterish way — but appears unaware of the tight conjunction of several county lines as they enter Birmingham, and the local patriotism that set Birmingham above county origin. My guess is this is perhaps a function of the movie having apparently set up a sharp and dramatic dichotomy between a Mordor-like urban Birmingham and its Shire-like rural fringes, and as such may be an example of the way that a film can skew one’s perceptions of the topography of a place. Perhaps it’s also a function of trying to map the elder Tolkien’s understanding of his family and place-histories in 1941 (“any corner of that county…”) back onto what the teenage Tolkien would have understood of the same. Again one senses a subtle distortion perhaps induced by Tolkien-promoters, this time the ‘it was all inspired by Moseley’ brigade.

The reviewer also rather lumpenly suggests an intended conflation of Gandalf’s “Stand, men of the West!” with the folk of the West Midlands. Ouch. What was that you were saying about “connect-the-dots literalism”?

Still, it’s another useful and thoughtful review and in a high-quality journal.

Dimitra Fimi reviews the new Tolkien biopic

Dimitra Fimi’s sympathetic review of the new ‘young Tolkien’ biopic feature-film has appeared in the latest TLS ($ paywalled). Fimi opens by picking up on some of the many factual errors, omissions and storytelling shortcuts, and notes that Tolkien’s Catholic faith is minimised in favour of making space instead for musings on the nature of language and Philology. Lucky Philology.

I read that one of his tutors at Oxford, the great Joseph Wright, appears and is played by Derek Jacobi no less. I’m sure Wright would have been tickled by that. I hope Jacobi did the correct accent rather than played it as Gandalf, and I assume he got the accent right. As for the other characters, Tolkien’s future wife Edith apparently becomes a sharp intellectual (she wasn’t) and his friend G.B. Smith is made out to be gay (he wasn’t, so far as I know).

As with several other expert reviewers of the film, Fimi concludes that it is best understood as being about a Tolkien-like character with many of the same interests, but not the real Tolkien. Regrettably this is now part of how popular culture works, and every well-loved and/or real character is taken and mutated into a changeling replacement.

Fimi ends the review by pointing out that the film does broadly get the emotional arcs about right, and it may thus be useful in nudging some of the more intelligent and sympathetic members of a new generation toward a deeper appreciation of Tolkien in his historical context…

It opens the door for many more potential readers and viewers to appreciate Tolkien us a writer of his time, shaped as much by his experiences and historical context, as by the literary tradition he knew so well as a scholar.

I’ll be interested in how well the film portrays Birmingham, Oxford and mid Staffordshire, but no review I’ve yet seen is from someone able to comment on the topographic and architectural aspects of the film-making.

I haven’t seen the film yet, and I’m not even sure it’s managed to wend its way to the cinema here in Stoke-on-Trent. I shall probably hold off seeing the DVD (extended cut?) until my book on the young Tolkien is out, so as not to risk any ‘skewing’. Apparently there’s another biopic on the same ‘young Tolkien’, which hasn’t yet been released. So this film is just the first of two.