Sunday, April 03, 2005

Getting Back to the Drawing Board

March 24, 2005
Hi Dr. Derrick,

I'm very serious about completing all that is required in order for me to earn the MA in Humanities that I was working on, and as expeditiously as possible. On January 21, I got a graduate study carrel in the library. I loaded it up with books and everything I thought I needed to get going on this project, but because of distractions of home and business occurring since then, my efforts to complete my thesis work have been sparse and ineffective. Last Friday, March 18, 2005, in a drastic attempt to change this situation, I left the distractions of my home and business in Terre Haute, along with my loving wife and step-daughter, and drove to my Dad’s house in Coshocton, Ohio, in order to start writing my thesis.

Now, nearly a week later, I sit here in the basement of his house surrounded by about 50 books, about half of which are by or about Tolkien. The rest of them are about ideology and related subjects. I also have all the data I produced as a grad student during my active period at ISU. At least I thought I had everything. Now I'm sure I don't, because I have been looking through the folders containing all the paper work for our ENG 600 class, and I can't find a copy of the annotated bibliography I produced for one of the first assignments. Neither is there a copy of it in the ENG 600 file on my computer. I remember doing it, for sure. And I believe I posted an html version of it on my student page on the blackboard website we used for that course. I'm sure I printed off a copy of that student page, but now I'm wondering why it isn't with the rest of the paper work I saved from that class. I guess it's probably at home in a box somewhere. I hope so, anyway. What I do have with me seems pretty incomplete. For example, I have assignment sheets from some class meeting times, and not from others. I have the evaluation guide for the second report, but not for the first. And I don't have a comprehensive description of what the second report should include, even though the evaluation guide advises me that I should cover “3 topics (bibliographies/ editions/ criticism).”

The last time we talked about it, my understanding was that we agreed on what I had to do in order to complete our ENG 600 course. That must have been some time ago. I know it was at least a year ago because my wedding reception at Westminster Village was held in February of last year. (Thanks again for coming to our reception.) But I'm not even sure we discussed this issue at that time. What I do remember, and this is what I keep saying even though it is your decision, is that I need to complete the First Report, which is to “document the status of the life records, literary remains and selected criticism of the works of the person most central to the topic,” which is Tolkien, of course. And I need to complete the Second Report, which I believe concerns bibliographical issues and textual criticism. As I remember it, you were looking for each report to be about 4 pages in length. So that's fine. I think I will try to produce these reports before coming back home. I think I can do this.

I have a copy of Greetham, pages 153-169, 270-305, 322-372, and parts of Appendix I and II which give examples of types of scholarly edition. I have other paperwork and reference material from the class, also, including the Harner and Mann texts. I only detailed the Greetham work because it seems to be of supreme importance in understanding these issues, for the purpose of the Second Report.

I understand the content of the Research Methods course. My goal for these reports will involve coherently documenting my efforts at searching for information and criticism relevant to my topic in a number of different places and in a systematic way. I have found good source material in several journals and other periodicals, dictionaries, directories and encyclopedias, by searching the Library of Congress subject headings, posting queries on online databases such as WorldCat and even through networking with scholars I met at a Tolkien Convention at Marquette University last October.

But in addition to the First and Second Reports, I believe you will require me to produce a Third culminating essay, which makes use of the information and insights gathered through the experience of creating the first two reports. Also, I will need to assemble a portfolio of “some of the most meaningful (“learning-ful”?) activities from English 600 … and write a brief self-assessment of how they contributed to my learning.”

I believe I can do this, although the portfolio might be a little skimpy. It’s possible that I might be able to locate another folder full of documents from the course, and that would help provide more possibilities for the portfolio.

A problem is the absence of the Course Documents from the blackboard website. Is there a current web site that I could access? Do you have a backup of the old web pages?

Could you comment on my assessment of what is required for me to complete this course? Would you be willing to take a look at your earlier assessment of my performance and completion of course assignments? It was the Fall semester of 2000 when I took that course. I’m sure I completed the final exam for the course, as I have the graded paper with your comments. And I also have a transcription which I composed of the title page of A Middle English Vocabulary, by J.R.R. Tolkien, for which I received a check mark. Do you have it recorded that I completed the Annotated Working Bibliography assignment? Did I have an approved proposal for the research paper topic?

Would you like to offer an alternative way for me to complete the course?

My topic is slightly more refined than it was four years ago. Though I’m still struggling with it, I’ve decided to minimize the force of my concern with a relationship between mythology and ideology and eliminate long discussions attempting to arrive at suitable definitions for them to use as components of my inquiry, and simply say that my perspective and approach is textured by an awareness of their functions in literature, generally, and in Tolkien’s creation, in particular. Aside from stating the necessary ideological status of my own perspective, the main point about ideology, I suspect, is best left alone after establishing that literature posits values of which both the writer and reader may be unaware, and it is the goal of my critical analysis to discover what these values might be. Actually, a residual effect or consequence of such an admission of my own ideological perspective or bias is an impulse to attempt to nullify it with a pretense to the kind of objective analysis that often leads to relativistic conclusions. The resulting stance is rather disabling considering the need of the thesis to engage an issue, take sides and argue for a position. Actually, for me, sometimes, I suspect that the notion of ideology moves my thinking from a contemplation of religious issues to political ones, linking them somehow. Possibly, for me, at least, this notion of ideology is valuable in affirming the urgency of activism. But maybe it just reminds me that Bush is robbing all of us poor people, or something like that. But seriously, I think the link I mentioned between religious and political thinking is the same thing as the relationship between myth and ideology. And it’s an effect of ideology separating man’s consciousness from its origins, which is perhaps a result of modernity. Science and industry have blotted out the mythologically oriented consciousness in the mind of contemporary man. And Tolkien’s myth, especially the cosmological revelations in the Silmarillion, even if they only apply to Middle-earth, puts at least my consciousness, though by no means mine only, back in touch with the origins of consciousness, or what one might also think of as ‘reality’ in a more ultimate sense.

The primary focus of the paper I want to produce for the ENG 600 course concerns the relationship between language and mythology in Tolkien’s works. Tolkien’s contribution, whether it’s narrowly thought of as a contribution to the science or discipline of philology or more widely thought of as a contribution to the broader Humanistic subject areas of Language and Mythological Studies or Comparative Mythology Studies, has been clearly documented by both Tom Shippey, a noted philologist and Professor of Humanities at St. Louis University with close ties to Tolkien himself, and John Garth, an English journalist who produced a recent biography of Tolkien which focused on the impact of World War I on his work. Both Shippey, who has produced possibly the two most important critical book-length works on Tolkien, and Garth have the rare and rather exclusive distinction, along with Humphrey Carpenter, of being authorized by the Tolkien Estate to study Tolkien’s original drafts and letters.

Tolkien’s contribution, in so far as demonstrating the relationship between language and mythology, mainly arose out of his invention of Elvish languages and the congruent creation, or perhaps even ‘discovery’ of the tales chronicling the development of their cultures and civilizations. But the actual real-world proof of this relationship exists in comparing the development of the ancient languages that Tolkien studied with the traditional tales, folklore and mythology connected to the cultures of the peoples who spoke them. As a professional philologist, Tolkien understood this relationship quite will, and he successfully applied it to the languages and mythology he created, in the writing of, or rather re-writing (and hence-forth re-creating) of these same traditional tales, folk stories and myths according to the linguistic matrix established in his invented languages, resulting in new and quite distinct cultural flavors for the races and peoples of Middle-earth.

There’s more to it. For example, these insights can lead us to a better understanding of the way a member of one of these cultures might think, because we can determine the order in which their language would link the individual concepts in a complete thought. But I think this kind of discussion would be beyond the limits of the thesis of the paper I want to produce to complete our English 600 course.

To conclude this message, I’ll just say that I hope it is not too late now for me to complete our English 600 course. I am not sure what kind of petition will have to be made to the graduate school on my behalf, whether it is something I can do or what they will require. Both Dr. Jennerman and Dr. Nicol are in their final transitional sabbatical semester of employment at ISU, and though I hope they will be able to continue their official participation as members of my MA thesis committee, I am not sure how it all will actually go down.

I still have to produce a paper for Jennerman on the Odyssey. And I need to produce a paper for Michael Shelton in order to get him to change the incomplete in an English Literature course I took from him in the Fall of 2002. He said that all I had to do to complete the course was to write a paper on Tolkien. But I think it should be more interpretive, concerning Tolkien’s political orientation or rather his response to the ideology (or ideologies) of his time. I have the backbone of that paper , as far as Tolkien himself is concerned. It’s just the trick of describing the literary atmosphere of his time, and I’ll be tempted to get caught up in confusing theoretical issues, like whether the literary atmosphere is related to the political atmosphere, or whether it’s the same thing calling the political atmosphere the dominant ideology, or trying to use a new term like ideological climate, and then not knowing whether I’m still talking about the residual effects on “Tolkien’s ideology” of literature or politics anymore. Shippey puts it simply as “war, despair, failure, [and] disillusionment.” And that’s not so different from both Garth and Marjorie Wright, another critic I’m looking at very closely. The larger context of Shippey’s characterization follows:

“The standard accusation made by my critical colleagues about Tolkien is that his work is "escapist." I think this is the exact reverse of the truth. Like Orwell's 1984, or Golding's Lord of the Flies, or Laxness's Gerpla, Tolkien's fantastic or antiquarian works confront the major problems of the twentieth century, which have been war, despair, failure, disillusionment. And they provide answers which seem strangely old-fashioned, but which have come alive again. They are serious answers to serious questions, which in my opinion it is escapist to ignore.” (Shippey “TOLKIEN AND ICELAND: THE PHILOLOGY OF ENVY”)

The point is that when so many of the most talented and highly acclaimed authors,were writing a negative response to their time, this time in history, Tolkien (as well as CS Lewis and Charles Williams, incidentally) responded to the same disillusionment, but in a positive way, affirming those beliefs and values behind the themes which are expressed in his writings. I am aware of the circular reasoning in this statement. But the illustrations that substantiate this point are both the matter of Wright’s posthumously published PhD dissertation, and the paper I plan to write for Dr. Shelton. In their critical works, both Garth and Shippey also amply supply points which illustrate and support this thesis.

I look forward to your response to this message. I hope some of what I have said here is interesting to you. I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely, Walter.


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