The H. R. Department of Middle Earth

“Hob and nob, snuffle, toast each other, elect each other by order of least resistance and seniority to this or that post of honor or profit . . . That is Academicism.”

“Academicism is now triumphant as it never was before.  To secure so much as a publication you must bow to some image or another of Minerva; to be reviewed at all you must subscribe to some Fifty Articles; to be reviewed favorably you must kiss some gentleman’s great toe.”

Ford Madox Ford, Thus to Revisit (1921)

A reader kindly forwarded the Call for Papers for the 2021 Tolkien Society Summer Seminar, which is to be conducted this year on-line.  Although Seminar participants will not have to leave their easy chairs, Seminar organizers propose to go where no man has gone before.  It is humbling to read the Seminar theme, “Tolkien and Diversity,” for it forces me to ask, why didn’t I think of that?”

It is doubly humbling to find that the army ants of “Tolkien scholarship” are already on the case, since “interest in the topic of diversity has steadily grown in Tolkien research,” and organizers confidently anticipate a plethora of papers on “representation in Tolkien’s works (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, ages, etc.”  Also “Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and post-colonialism” and the place of “alterity in Tolkien’s works.”

That last one really humbles me, since I completely missed the hamlet-like soliloquy in which Gollum (perhaps addressing a dead fish) picks the scabs of his psychology and recalls how he was bullied by his Halfling playmates.  Just because he was different.  He did not ask to be born with his covetous nature, and those long-ago taunts by the riverside are at the root of all his troubles.

I am not, however, too witless to see the shot on colonialism, since the parallels between Sauron’s army of Orcs and the U.S. Cavalry stick out a mile.  Oh, but wait a minute!  The Ring of Power is obviously White Supremacy.  Boromir is a xenophobe who yields to Hate.  That cave beneath the Dwimorberg is really the Path of the Dead (White Men).  Have no fear.   I can stick all of these propositions together with the academic Gorilla Glue of polyvalent irony (what a Tolkienite might call Wormtongue’s Fork or Theoden’s Cat)

* * * * *

When I first read Lord of the Rings, I had a good friend who combined a keen intellect, a capacious memory, and a studious addiction to trivia.  He also read the trilogy, but only the trivia of the appendices fired his imagination.  I was so simple as to think that the appendices were a backdrop to the romance.  My friend understood that the thousand or so pages of romance was just a prolix preface to the appendices.  To each his own is my philosophy, but bright-eyed discussion of the glories of Tolkien could never be part of our friendship.  I wasn’t about to let his pedantry drain the color from Tolkien’s poetry.

Pedantry is not half so bad as academicism, though.  A pedant is persnickety about trivia.  An academic is punctilious about the customs and novelties of his school.  It is not by chance that we refer to gregarious fish as a school, since the essence of a school is to look alike and move together.  It is only because fish do not speak that I cannot liken academic jargon to the identical idioms of our finny friends.  It is only because fish do not have fingers (although what they do not have, they surely can become) that they do not type up papers and read them aloud to other fish.

“It takes no diligent research to discover that the American professor . . . is as slender a reed as ever bent before the sweep of organized blather, bogus idealism, and mob fear . . . . And this entertaining barnyard bumkin . . . who brayed in chorus with all the official donkeyisms during the late war, and who has lapsed from that bellicose imbecility into the faltering feebleness and jackass pontificating of his standardized academicism, is the nearest approach to an American intelligentsia!” 

Joseph B. Harrison, A Short View of Menckenism in Menckenese (1927)

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