Over 700 Tolkien fans and scholars from around the world, including a respectable sprinkling of American "Mythies" (members of the Mythopoeic Society), gathered at Aston University in Birmingham, England, Aug. 11-15, for a grand celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Hosted by the British Tolkien Society, the event lacked only a Party Tree under a Pavilion to be a perfect portrait of Bilbo and Frodo's Birthday Party; it did indeed have a similar effect on the village food supply, with the popular local pub, "The Sack of Potatoes," running out of various necessaries such as cider and ale (and food!) by the end of the week. Despite labyrinthine buildings which could never be confidently navigated and a ventilation system inadequate to the hordes of warm bodies descending on it, the University and the Society were excellent hosts, with a program as entertaining as it was edifying, costumes exquisite in design and detail, and fellowship such as only Hobbits and Elf-Friends can properly appreciate.
Highlights, in no particular order: Tom Shippey was everything he is advertised to be, and more. He showed us in The Road to Middle Earth that he is a philologist capable of following Tolkien's mind through all its highways and byways; he showed us in Author of the Century that he is an astute literary critic capable of seeing through the arrant nonsense that passes for wisdom among contemporary critics. What you see more clearly when you hear him in person is the genial wit and robust love of his subject that go with the other qualities to make him the premier Tolkien scholar on the planet. His paper on "Wisdom and Wise Sayings in The Lord of the Rings" was a model of what good scholarship ought to be, using his great learning to show us things we could not easily have seen for ourselves, but presenting it in a civilized and engaging manner blessedly free of jargon.
Priscilla Tolkien, a regular at British Tolkien Society events, held a fascinating question and answer session about growing up with her famous Dad. A stooped and elderly Hobbit in whose face one could see hints of her father's features, she spoke in a voice that would remind Americans of Queen Elizabeth. Did she realize how special she was as a child? No, she thought it was normal, assuming that everybody's Daddy made up languages and told stories like that! Who was her favorite character? She confessed to having "a soft spot in my heart for Sam." She was frightened of the Black Riders as a child, and still finds those passages frightening to read. Did the Black Riders in the movies have the same effect? "Absolutely not! Not at all. Well, that's what vulgarity and commercialism get you, now, isn't it?" Ahem. No further commentary is necessary. The lady has spoken.
It was gratifying to see the strong showing that the Mythopoeic Society made in the midst of this glorious feast. Verlyn Flieger kept popping up on the program, Ellie Farrel led an interesting panel discussion, I especially enjoyed papers by Eric Rauscher and David Bratman, and they even let me have a go at the audience with a paper of my own. The Not Ready for Mythcon Players were as unready as usual, Hildefonse Took returned Golfimbul to its original homeland, and the traditional Songs were rousingly led by Lyn Maudlin. Truly we have been There and Back Again. Like every journey to Loth Lorien, it ended too soon. Only the shining faces of my students (and running out of pounds sterling) could have lured me back to the states. But the Road goes ever on and on, and I must follow if I can.
From the Falls of Henneth Annun,
Donald T. Williams, PhD
Toccoa Falls College