50 years of Tolkien Society and a tolkienist’s journey

Cristina Casagrande

Around three years ago, when I was still a master’s student in Tolkien studies, I shared in The Tolkien Society Facebook group my concerns about studying Tolkien in Brazil. That is because the university environment in my country is divided between those friendly — and even enthusiastic — to the study of Tolkien’s works, and those hostile — at least, indifferent — to such boldness (or rather, madness).

As an answer, I heard many supportive people in the group, frequently feeling identified. A special person caught my attention: Dimitra Fimi, a young but very prestigious tolkienist, answered me that the restlessness I felt was understandable, but that we shouldn’t pay attention to the negative voices but work hard and enjoy the sweetness and the bitterness of this journey. Her exact words were probably not these, but this is how my heart assimilated and kept them.

Meanwhile, professor Dimitra took a position at the University of Glasgow as Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature. Recently I got to meet her personally at the Tolkien 2019 event, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Tolkien Society, in which she was the voice of the closing lecture. In the very first day, chance — if you call it so — wanted that she sat next to me in the opening lecture by Tom Shippey. And coincidences like that were not uncommon for those who were there: we met daily with dear and admirable personalities such as Alan Lee, Jenny Dolfen, John Garth, Christina Scull, Wayne G. Hammond, Brian Sibley, and many others.  

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Dimitra Fimi, Cristina Casagrande, Erick Carvalho

Not only the well-known people made the environment exciting, but everyone there reinforced the great sense of identification and friendship, the one about which C.S. Lewis comments in The Four Loves: “Do you see the same truth?”. A member of the staff said that everything there was wonderful, but at the same time exhausting, because it required a lot of intellectual effort from us, with dozens of daily talks, art exhibitions, and books to purchase. There was entertainment as well, such as a play, an orchestra and parties. However, the feeling of fraternal friendship was always in the air.

You may want to know what the lectures were like before keeping on following my reflections. The main videos can be found in The Tolkien Society Channel and also in The Tolkien Guide post.

The schedule was always full, and it was impossible to follow everything. The opening lecture, by Tom Shippey, “Heirs of Tolkien? The Major Contenders”, excited us by showing Tolkien’s ability to inspire new literature works, the most popular one being currently A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. On the same day, we listened to Ted Nasmith’s talk, with his impressive illustrations — or, as Ronald Kyrmse usually says, his “photos” of Middle-earth. At night, the performance Leaf by Niggle, starred by Richard Medrington, from The Puppet State Theatre Company, impressed everyone there — and I am sure it would impress anyone, whether a Tolkien enthusiast or not.

On Thursday, my option was for Tolkien in Italy. Oronzo Cilli talked about the Tolkienian initiatives in his country and, after that, he showed proudly his youngest child, the book Tolkien’s Library, approved and prefaced by Tom Shippey who praised his research. Then, we watched the making of an  an episode of the nice The Prancing Pony Podcast, whose guests were the actor of the Niggle play, Richard Medrington, and the author of Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth. In his lecture “The Two Towers of Birmingham, and other follies”, Garth talked about the places that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, foreshadowing his upcoming book Tolkien’s Worlds, scheduled for February 2020.

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Tom Shippey
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Leaf by Niggle

Other important attractions were Alan Lee’s talk and the panel about the Amazon show, mediated by the current Tolkien Society chairman Shaun Gunner, with Dimitra Fimi, Anke Eißmann, Marcel Aubron-Bülles and Brian Sibley. At the end of the day, we watched the beautiful concert by The People’s Orchestra.

In the following day, my morning started in the medieval world, with Jance Chance talking about Grendel’s mother. After that, Jay Johnstone paid a very beautiful tribute to Pauline Baynes in his speech. The other activity was to participate in a koffee klatch with Tom Shippey which will return soon in this text. In the afternoon, Erick Carvalho spoke about the tolkienian initiatives in Brazil, and you can watch his talk at @tolkienista IGTV or here. In her lecture, Christina Scull brought an overview of the genesis and the development of The Lord of the Rings narrative. At the end, we listened to the good-humoured speech by Marcel Aubron-Bülles, known as The Tolkienist, who warned us about the various fake quotes attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien that multiply in the internet and other media.

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Marcel Aubron-Bülles, the Tolkienist
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Erick Carvalho, Toca-RJ

On Friday, there was also a banquet followed by a cèilidh, a party with Gaelic dances (evidently, I danced, because when in doubt one should just dance).

On Saturday, I decided to give myself a break and and participate in lighter activities, since I had already missed the workshops of calligraphy and elvish crowns. And so it happened that I watched a medieval sword fight. After that, I decided to attend lectures on semiotics in fairy tales; the unsuccessful quests in Tolkien’s stories, and hope and despair in Arwen and Aragorn’s tales. There was still time to learn more about Claudio A. Testi’s studies on Thomas Aquinas, to listen about possible female friendships with the eloquent Jason Lepöjarvi, and to attend Wayne G. Hammond’s talk on the complicated story of The Hobbit‘s and The Lord of the Rings‘s publications. To finish, we watched a pleasant panel with the illustrators Jenny Dolfen, who designed the event T-shirt, Alan Lee, Anke Eißmann, Ted Nasmith and Jay Johnstone.

That night, we watched a joyful masquerade with cosplay contests and a themed party with panels by Edoras, the Gate of Moria, the County and the Lothlórien Forest.

Amid so many thoughts and sensations — with the additional effort of facing a foreign language and culture —, the misgivings I had three years ago still troubled me. After all, what was I doing there? As an academic, this was my first international event and I was still restless.

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Tolkien Society Party

In the koffee klatch with Tom Shippey I asked him the same question of three years ago in the Tolkien Society Facebook group, about studying Tolkien in Brazil. I expected a comforting answer such as “go ahead, it soon becomes a paradise, as it is here.” However, it wasn’t like that. My mind didn’t settle until I asked: but why? And, for an answer, there was Modernity and the Supremacy of Reason looming up like Ungoliant showing her claws. But not everything was cloudy: according to Shippey, in the United States, where gender studies seem to have more voice, there is an opening for Tolkien in the canon.

The days passed by like a party, as I tried to describe briefly, so I tried to let my qualms sleep. On Sunday, I attended two talks, the first one about politics in Tolkien’s worldview, presented by Shaun Gunner, and the other was the closing lecture by Dimitra Fimi, in which she sang some songs, like the hobbitish Troll sat alone on his seat of stone, in the traditional melody of The Fox Went Out. She showed the ambivalent character of the fox in myths and folklore. Not by chance, the fox in The Fellowhip of the Ring is very mysterious, despite its brief appearance.

While professor Dimitra Fimi charmed us with her talk, the atmosphere brought me the same feelings of joy and gratitude, but also of doubt and restlessness, of those times when my research was still in the beginning. The questions about Tolkien studies in Brazil remain, but, as a friend of mine says, when we do not have an answer for a question, we may leave it unanswered. In the meantime, we will continue working hard around here.

(Leia em português)

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Cristina Casagrande is a Brazilian doctoral student in comparative literature and author of A amizade em “O Senhor dos Anéis” [Friendship in “The Lord of the Rings”].

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