The cost of roaming the fields

A new blog post at the Tolkien Society, “A reviewer’s complaint”

Thomas Honegger [in 2015, complained of Tolkien] scholars unaware of major and basic work in the areas they are covering. “How are we going to advance Tolkien studies if scholars in the field are ignorant of each others research?”

Well, I know how and why this happened. It’s the explosion in the size of our field.

I’d also suggest it’s the cost, and sometimes the difficulty, of obtaining the needed items. To obtain the “little opinion piece by Thomas Honegger”, for instance, I’d need to spend £20 plus postage for a print copy of a little-known German scholarly journal. Since I don’t need anything else that’s in the journal issue, and a quarter of the essays are in German anyway, £20 is not an enticing price.

Let’s say that one wishes to make a basic start in Tolkien scholarship. That’s a little less daunting than starting on someone comparable like H.P. Lovecraft, since Tolkien scholarship is not so saddled with rare book collectors. Even so, a basic small shelf for Tolkien is probably around £500. That’s less than the perhaps-£800 you’d need to make a start on Lovecraft and do proper fannish scholarship (not the risible slander which Lovecraft usually gets from fly-by university professors). But with Tolkien, the somewhat lower per-item costs are then balanced out by the larger range of items you’d need to see a clear outline of the field. There are also higher ongoing costs to keep up with the ongoing wash of Tolkien scholarship, compared to the relatively small trickle of annual Lovecraft scholarship (the valiant efforts of S.T. Joshi and co. aside) that’s worth reading. There is admittedly a very good survey in each annual issue of Tolkien Studies, but just acquiring the last four issues of Tolkien Studies would cost me $280.

Such startup costs would be no problem for an academic on a whopping £38,000+ a year, or even for an £18k funded PhD who has miraculously found a friendly librarian with ample funds for inter-library loans and book purchases. But even an initial £500 outlay would be daunting for most impoverished independent scholars. Especially as that initial £500 would soon need to be matched by another £500 for runs of paper journals, books and obscure out-of-print items. Even if one was very frugal, and also knew how and where to hunt items online, and how best to wrangle with Google Books etc, one could still end up having to spend at least £300 on ‘needed item’ print books. All in order to write a new book that may only sell 30 copies and get one review.

The other problem, in terms of Honegger’s complaint, may be the cost of getting a detailed pre-publication reader’s report from someone at the top of the field. Thus enabling one to sidestep the sort of snags that so antagonise reviewers. Perhaps Tolkien studies now needs some kind of subsidised pre-publication peer review system, for substantial new books from outside the academy. Or one might publish the PDF online for free for 18 months, with a public “call for comments” and commenting system, then publish a revised and corrected final-version in print two years later.

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Mary Flynn in Stoke

“Farewell to Faha’s Friend”, the orthopaedic nurse Mary Flynn…

“Last week the small community of Faha outside Kilmacthomas [County Waterford, Ireland] mourned the death of one of its oldest and longest residents.

[When young] Mary and [her sister] Philomena found it difficult to get [nursing] work experience at home [in Co. Waterford, deep in rural Ireland]. Undeterred, they decided to travel to England to seek work, heading for Stoke-on-Trent where their aunt worked as a radiographer and a ward sister in City General Hospital. Mary had embarked on the daunting journey firstly, followed shortly afterwards by Philomena.

With little money and no modern telecommunications, they travelled to Dún Laoghaire to catch a ferry to Holyhead [in north Wales], a train to Crewe, and another train to Stoke-on-Trent. Travelling outside Waterford for the first time, Mary and Philomena faced many challenges but recounted their time in England with fond memories. Mary spoke of nursing the late English soccer international Sir Stanley Matthews, widely regarded as one of the greatest ever players of the game in Britain.”

A wander in the Morlock Mountains

I’ve been reading the new essay by H.L. Spencer, “The mystical philology of J. R. R. Tolkien and Sir Israel Gollancz: monsters and critics”. One of the things I was pleased to learn was that Tolkien seems to have known Wells’s The Time Machine, on the genesis of which I’ve recently written a book. The evidence for Tolkien having read The Time Machine is that he wrote a poem, circa 1927, which satirised the fearsomeness of “exalted” academics by describing them in proto-Gollum terms. In both person and topography, since they live underground and beyond the “Morlock Mountains”. The reference being, of course, to the Morlocks — the devolved subterraneans in Wells’s The Time Machine.

This poem was titled “Knocking at the Door” and subtitled: “Lines Induced by Sensation When Waiting for an Answer at the Door of an Exalted Academic Person”. It was published 18th February 1937 in The Oxford Magazine (page 403, as ‘Oxymore’). Sadly it seems The Oxford Magazine is not online, and the original version of the poem seems not to be available online in any form.

The 1962 version is however online on YouTube, in several readings, and also at the Tolkien Gateway in text form. Here are the final verses…

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they’ve finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips – and the Mewlips feed.

The similarity to “flap-flip”-footed Gollum, in his bone-strewn cave under the mountains, should be obvious. So it’s interesting that Gollum could have started off as a prototype as early as 1927 and in the form of a satire on slippery student-gobbling “exalted” academics. H.L. Spencer explores the possibility that the academic who Tolkien had in mind was his rival at the time for Gawain, Sir Israel Gollancz. But finds the evidence rather vague, and offers some counter-evidence on Tolkien’s sentiments at the time. It’s difficult to tell, without seeing the original poem. For instance, was “And there they count their gold.” in the 1937 original? Or was it something more academic, like “And there they scratch so bold.”?

The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion & Guide comments on the later version of the poem, that…

“Knocking at the Door seems to be a comment on the trepidation of a student calling on a professor; transformed into The Mewlips and divorced from its original meaning, it is a work purely of mood and imagination.”

To be specific, it was re-titled, stripped of its explanatory sub-title and apparently re-worked (how much?) for children, and thus tamed. It was reprinted as “The Mewlips” in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962). Most people then assumed it was meant to be taken as a bit of Shire folklore. But was “The Mewlips” tweaked extensively, to make it appear more like a proto-Gollum poem? Until someone puts the February 1937 The Oxford Magazine online, it seems we can’t know.

But we do know one of the changes, since H. L. Spencer usefully comments in a footnote in the essay, that…

“The Mewlips are later said to live beyond the ‘Merlock Mountains’; in the original [1927/1937] version, these are the ‘Morlock Mountains’, referring to H. G. Wells’s cannibalistic underground creatures”.

I’d add that this shift from Morlock to Merlock also shifts the register from the Biblical (Morlock recalls Moloch) to the Arthurian (Merlock recalls Merlin). I’ve discussed Wells’s Biblical Moloch link at length, in my recent book on the genesis of The Time Machine. One then has to suspect that Tolkien easily spotted that Wells was quietly referencing Moses and Moloch worship throughout The Time Machine, and would thus have puzzled out all the subtle re-uses of such Biblical elements and names. In which case he knew that Morlock must recall Moloch for the fellows of Oxford who read The Oxford Magazine, which must then key the poem’s theme to the similar and well-known forms of Moloch worship. This can then be seen to tie in with certain other aspects of the information given in H. L. Spencer’s essay, and even with a certain gruesome later development in Gollum’s back-story as given in The Lord of the Rings.

Also interestingly, Tolkien’s apparent reading of The Time Machine, if in perhaps circa 1924/25, would have been closely paralleled by H. P. Lovecraft reading The Time Machine for the first time in New York during November 1924.1 It’s strange to think of them as such contemporaries in horror, like that. Shortly after experiencing the underground cannibalistic Morlocks, Lovecraft writes “The Horror at Red Hook” (underground, child sacrifice), and Tolkien writes “Knocking at the Door” (underground, student-eating).


1. Lovecraft thought Wells was a tedious and canting socialist, which he was by that point. But a young protege of Lovecraft was making a collection of very early SF, then largely forgotten, with the aid of the used bookshops of New York City. He encouraged the master to at least read The Time Machine.

Tolkien Society Seminar, July 2018

Tolkien Society Seminar, 1st July 2018, at the Leeds Hilton in the UK. Including a session on “Tolkien the Pagan?”. Sadly not a “let’s think hard about the pagan aspects inherent in Catholicism” session, but more about exploring how modern neo-paganisms have taken up aspects of Middle-earth. Which is historical context of a kind, I suppose, if it delves back to the 1965-1985 period. But the most interesting papers for me would be those on the deeper historical context: “Tolkien’s Agrarianism in its Time” and “A Man of His Time?: Tolkien and the Edwardian Worldview”. Rather too expensive for me, though, just to hear those two papers: £35 + a £45 train fare to arrive after noon = £80.

Free: “The mystical philology of J. R. R. Tolkien and Sir Israel Gollancz”

Excellent, I’ve found the essay “The mystical philology of J. R. R. Tolkien and Sir Israel Gollancz: monsters and critics”. It’s in full-text Open Access at the Oxford University Research Archive. No need to pay $70 for it, in a copy of the latest edition of Tolkien Studies where it forms the lead essay.

I also found a summary on the author’s blog of the other interesting essay “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer”.

Though sadly the volume also contains the desirable “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2014”, which isn’t going to be Open Access any time soon.