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Tolkien academia for a popular audience

This Washington Post article discusses the story of a Tolkien scholar whose strategy of producing podcasts about Tolkien’s novels for public consumption seems to have won him some success in academia, not to mention a large online following.

The hub of his online activities is a website called The Tolkien Professor, which includes the aforementioned podcast lectures, links to both primary sources and criticism, and information about skype-in office hours.

Aside from the content of his work, Corey Olsen’s career trajectory strikes me as interesting in several respects. It reflects a more-or-less successful bid to make a career of studying genre literature in the academy. It reflects what I view as a commendable effort to reach out of the academy and engage a popular audience with academic research–I would love to see this happen more often, and to be rewarded rather than (at best) tolerated. Finally, of course, it raises the question of college classes being made available free and online–a trend which is extremely exciting, but which is not uncomplicated by questions about the future of academic institutions in a world where higher education costs are skyrocketing. Are universities going to go the way of the newspaper? How should we feel about that if they do?

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Let’s talk about great Fantasy

To begin, Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy comprising The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road.

Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien in compiling The Silmarillion, so he learned from the best. (On occasion when I have said this I have been corrected that this only proves Kay learned from the canon. I stand by my assertion.) The Tapestry demonstrates in every particular how deeply Kay loves stories and storytelling: it honors chivalric romances as well as modern coming-of-age novels while being in its essence high fantasy at its most wrenching.

The Tapestry‘s central metaphor is of the worlds/worlds’ stories brought together thread by thread as if on a loom worked by God (the Weaver).  This is–surely by design–not unlike the Silmarillion‘s song of creation. Following the metaphor, all things/events/people are unified in meaning, but the meaning is literally an added dimension, not something individuals can experience. 

The later books in the Tapestry draw heavily on Arthurian stories, but the overall structure is that of a portal fantasy. Five young Canadians, grad students, are drawn into Fionavar, First of All Worlds (this is a Capitalization Kind of Tale), to address a need. There is some minor back-and-forth between worlds, but mainly we’re in a romanticized late-Middle Ages type world where magic, Fate, gods, elves, dwarves, giants, &c. are closer to the surface–okay, right out there–than your average Earther experiences.

And it’s beautiful. The writing, the story, the world: all of it. Spectacular imagery dances through my mind as I write this–I am nearly reeling with it–but I do not want even to try to express Kay’s creations in my own words. So I’ll try to replicate for you my first experience with The Summer Tree. I found the book on the shelves of my local Borders and opened it by happenstance to one of the two passages in the whole book (by my calculation) that just absolutely brains the reader like a psychotropic 2×4. I offer to you the other such passage.

My father says the Tapestry was written for people in their twenties; the central characters’ stage in life is one manifestation, but, more than that, there’s a particular young and all-or-nothing energy to the writing. I am already beyond dealing with suchlike. I will perhaps never reread again the books of the Tapestry, after three times or so through over the course of my teens and early twenties.  I would love to reread them, yet by now I know too well: the foreshadowing is too intense to bear.  I feel the weight of the entire trilogy on my back in every scene. Again, I am certain that the books were expertly crafted to produce just this effect–Kay, I imagine, sees them as a whole.

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Religion in the world(s)

I recently read Mary Doria Russell‘s science fiction novel The Sparrow, after hearing an episode-long interview with Russell on the NPR show Speaking of Faith. (By the way, SOF is amazingly cool.  Terrific ideas and conversations, on average. Their tag line is “Conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas“–although I distinctly remember that a few years ago they billed themselves as “Conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas.”  An interesting tweak, I would say….) The Russell episode is entitled The Novelist as God, and also bandies about ideas such as the (human) invention of God, the value of suffering to a “good story,” and other stuff of provacativeness.

The Sparrow raises all sorts of thoughts and conflicts in my mind.  Perhaps I’ll eventually get the chance to write about several of them. Let’s start with the engagement of religion in fantasy/SF. Bryn and other writing persons recently commented here on the utility of religion in world-building, but Russell comes at it from the other side: instead of basing her “built” world (in this case, a small planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri) on a religious system, she brings modern human religions (in the form of a Jesuit-led mission incorporating also characters of other faiths) into contact with this new situation, ecology, civilization, evolutionary biology–and explores the challenges posed to faith and by faith.

As such, Russell’s novel has perhaps more in common with Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe and Francine Rivers’s The Last Sin Eater than with Marie Brennan’s Doppelganger world and Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy books. The subtlety, however, with which Russell credits religion is far beyond Card’s or Rivers’s. Both Folk of the Fringe (or, more specifically, its opening story, “West”) and The Last Sin Eater disturbed me deeply, in that the authors both chose to argue for the peace of religious acceptance by contrasting it with unqualified atrocities in their characters’ pasts.  In my world, the reason for believing is not horror at the prospect of unfettered human amorality, which it seemed to me Card and Rivers (whose books, by the way, share nothing else) both implied.  The Sparrow is one of those books that jumps back and forth chapter by chapter between then and now; I realized late in the novel that the reason had to be that the reader would feel too disoriented and betrayed by the pain and confusion and despair of the now if the beauties and hope of the then had been all that preceded it in the reading.  So you see that the horrors in The Sparrow happen inside the context of religion.  God doesn’t just come in to make everything okay.  God makes (arguably, everything), and the humans decide on their own what of it is okay, and how to deal with it.

I suppose some of my first experiences with religion in speculative fiction were probably Dune (Frank Herbert, of course) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry (beginning with The Summer Tree).  The former is–well, it’s everything (I’ll get back to that contention someday)–but I was going to say that Dune is, of the categories I sketched out, in the “Let’s see what happens to religion in this world” rather than the “Let’s see what kind of world such a religion suggests.”  Religion is organic to the world of Dune, and one cannot imagine the Fremen without it, but as on our Earth, religion is a human institution.   The Tapestry has actual gods appear and speak with, give gifts to, have sex with, &c., mortal characters, although the gods don’t rise to the level of characters themselves.  They’re more forces of nature, which is of course one perfectly appropriate way of looking at divinity (see Greek pantheon).

Jacqueline Carey’s take on religion in the D’Angeline world is quite sophisticated–the religions she presents (mostly adaptations of regular-human religions) are deeply suffused into the characters’ lives, simply a part of how they were brought up and how they experience their world, although higher beings of one form or another do show up, too.  When I wrote to Carey to tell her how deeply I identified with some of the spiritual experiences in the series, she wrote back that it was nice to hear from someone who appreciated that aspect of the story for its own sake (though she’d heard from others who read for the adventure, intrigue, politics, or for the sex).

Any other particularly interesting religious-system SF/F that you can point me towards?

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