Saturday, 8 November 2014

Remembering Origins: "Tolkien's Lost English Mythology"

Some weeks back, just as I left on my tour of Scotland, I had the fortune of connecting with the wonderful Simon J. Cook, a particularly unique and insightful scholar, especially of Tolkien. He recently published the following book and you can find out more about him, his other work, and purchase the highly affordable book itself through the links below: 

Ye Machine - Simon J. Cook's Portfolio

Amazon -  (Don't be thrown by it's "Kindle Edition" listing, you can drop the Kindle app on any smartphone, tablet or PC and read it like any other ebook file).

Cook, Simon J. (2014-10-14). J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology. Ye Machine. Kindle Edition.

Book Description:

A path-breaking account of Tolkien’s Middle-earth as the lost world of ancient English mythology.
In this essay the award winning intellectual historian, Simon J. Cook, explores Tolkien’s lifelong project of reconstructing the ancient traditions of the North – myths and legends once at the heart of English culture but forgotten after the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the British Isles. Cook situates The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings in relation to Edwardian scholarship on the prehistory of Northern Europe and the origin of the English nation. Taking us through three key stages of his creative writing, Cook shows how Tolkien crafted stories that fit – and illuminate – our fragmentary knowledge of ancient English traditions. By the end of his essay, Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo appear in a new light – no longer just icons of modern fantasy, but also the original heroes of a lost English mythology.

So, what did I think?

Tolkien stands as icon of fantasy and of Englishness. His Shire and the resident hobbits are just one of the few embodiments of English culture. Or are they?

Most scholarship on Tolkien focuses on his relationship with the land and the events he employed which lay the ground for the fantasy genre. Namely they are either concerned about physical evidence found in the lay of the land, as the Shire is a perfect copy of English countryside or they focus on the plot and character arcs filled with particular genre tropes made famous by Tolkien's groundwork, such as the Hero's Journey.

In J.R.R Tolkien's Lost English Mythology, the intellectual historian Simon J. Cook, focuses on not on how Tolkien is the forefather and inventor of fantasy, but how he is an archeologist of the origins of English culture. He merely is the medium through which England might be reacquainted with their lost cultural origins. Or so was the original intention.

This immediately makes Cook's book a worthwhile read since it seeks to explore ground which isn't particularly acknowledged in the sphere of Tolkien scholarship.

However, despite it most certainly being a unique and thereby, valuable addition to the compendium of Tolkien discourse, there is an undercurrent of apology, particularly in Cook's "Preface" in which he describes his research to be a mere "exercise," and he also insists this is not meant to be a definitive way of reading any of Tolkien's works, particularly The Lord of the Rings, when really, the purpose of all academic research and argument is to create a space to explore, compare and to most of all, look at things in different lights. 

Cook's discourse is most definitely that and despite the attitude of the beginning, it is evident Cook's awareness of his unique perspective does lend itself well to clearly walking readers through the step-ladder of influence which eventually led to Tolkien's works.

The exploration on how Tolkien's world of Middle Earth reconstructs the lost myths of the English begins with a heavy chapter on how the English viewed history in the mid-Victorian period. However the heaviness is no fault of Cook's as the period is rife with a convoluted chaos; each scholar and intellectual field of study seeking to rise over the other with an ultimate truth. 

What follows however is a much more straightforward and easy to connect section between a particular book, The Origin of the English Nation, by Hector Munro Chadwick which reaffirms Tolkien as a man many years ahead of his time of binaries, which allowed little room for history and heritage to overlap, let alone sit in the same subject together. Cook subsequently endeavours and succeeds at showing how Tolkien's bridging of the gap led to the beginnings of his Middle Earth saga.
In short, Tolkien was not writing just to make stories of faeries (Middle Earth's elves), or quaint English countryside but to hearken readers back to a matriarchal period of time when agriculture was more queen than king was war and thus, nothing was a faerie story, but a culture. 

Fresh revelation after revelation it is easy to get caught up in Cook's perspective and to eagerly re-read passage after passage, if only to re-live the amazed realisation of some new tidbit you had not made the connection to before. As an exemplar, the link between King Sheave, or Scyld Scefing, at the beginning of Beowulf, which calls forward the culture of corn on a distant island whence much of English myth originated according to Chadwick, of whom Tolkien builds his mythological framework, was particularly powerful. Thus a fabulous interconnection of all the elements which Cook has thus far carefully laid out, come to together at the end. 

Again however, it is made very evident how Cook's discourse will open the ground for new debates as all of which he discusses alludes more toward cultural history than chronological history. Yet, the chronological history is as much part of what Tolkien is attempting to bridge in terms of his engagement with Chadwick and his reconstruction. Particularly in terms of how Tolkien alludes to the passage of these stories from Middle Earth figures, to figures of English myth. Nonetheless, Cook in all his care, leaves little ground to fault him for not spending time clarifying this differentiation as even Tolkien convolutes the two. Furthermore, at heart, this book recants that Tolkien's stories are elaborate imaginations, influenced by his personal scholarship, in an effort to illuminate the reality of Arda, or Middle Earth, as a reconstruction of as much a chronological history as a cultural one.

Cook rounds out his discourse with a final word on Tolkien's true passion, language. This, however makes Cook's use of 'English' mythology unfortunately insufficient, as he notes most of the world now speaks English. It is in the language where culture flourishes. As such, that makes Tolkien's writings today, less of a geographically English story, and more of a story for the English language, meaning any speaker of it can connect. Thus it is less a story of the English people and more a story of English speakers.

Overall, Simon J. Cook has forged a new path of study for the future of Tolkien scholars, which not so much demands acceptance of his perspective, as much as offers it as a suggestion. The book sits as a small bite of delicacy which leads to one wishing for another bite. 

Though this delicacy is perhaps not easily accessible to the casual reader, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who hasn't dipped even lightly into Tolkien scholarship, it is a highly valuable addition to the never-ending discussion to the purpose, place and origin of Tolkien's mythology. To anyone who knows Tolkien like they know an old friend, this book reads like the discovery of an old family genealogy which reaches beyond time.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Modernism: Visit Glasgow

The past week I spent wandering the moors and some cities of Scotland. Hence the supreme lack of anything on this blog.

One of those places was Glasgow.

Most people gave me an odd look, cocked their heads and were generally befuddled as to why I would stop in Glasgow. It isn't Edinburgh. But then again, the Glencoe Mountains aren't either and the Isle of Skye is utterly nothing like any of these. Each place has a unique flavour, and it is for that reason you should endevour to visit as many places as possible, avoiding the tendancy to go to somewhere twice. Though I will admit certain places do require second or fourth visits butGlasgow was not one of them. Could you skip it? Yeah. You could. But in the same breath I will say you could also skip the Edinburgh Castle or the Isle of Skye. Every place is an experience.

The Duke of Wellington statue got a pilon as a student joke one year. He sits in front of the Modern Art Museum. This is a prime example of the quirk of Scottish humour.

So, why visit Glasgow? Here are Three Magical Reasons:

1. The Glasgow Necropolis

Since coming to England I have seen a lot of churchs and cathedrals. There have been some places (Cambridge) where you can barely walk down a street without going past at least three. So inevitably, I have also seen *a lot* of old graveyards, and I am talking circa 1600's graveyards. (Some have even gone back to the 1500's though by that point they tend to resemble smooth stone rather than a monument).

I thought it was the coolest and spookiest thing when I walked into my first in Bury St Edmunds. Now, not so much. However, the Glasgow Necropolis, if you are going to visit a graveyard, this is the sort of place you need to visit. Sitting ontop the tallest hill in the city of Glasgow, just in behind St Mungo's Cathedral, is a veritable mountain of monuments which sit, crammed next to eachother, row after row after row, like a macabre picket fence lining the trails with twist up to the top. Along the way there are a few masoleums, but once you are at the top you are surrounded by ten foot tall obelisks, circular masoleums and life-size statuary. The awe these stone gians inspire is almost terrifying as you walk along, feeling as if the obelisks are leaning toward you. Whispering words, asking who you are, what are you doing there.

Plus, it affords fantastic 360 degree views of the city.

Don't miss this paragon of history.

2. The City Art

According to my landlady, about twenty years ago, Glasgow was dirty, run-down and dark. Today it is no sparkling city, but it is clean and full of upmarket shopping and classy cultural venues such as the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. It is also full of wall art. Probably done in effort to spruce up the city's style which is as mercantile and business-like as most of it's squares and street names imply of its history. Nonetheless it offers some fantastic portraiture and scenes to admire as you meander under bridges and through main streets.

3. The City Vibe

Being a city it is never quiet. There is always plenty of people wandering the streets, even on a Monday evening. During the weekdays the streets are busy, during the weekends the streets are overflowing and dotted in between these people, any day of the week are street performers and market stalls; the usual bagpipers and drummers, but also groups playing jazz, hawking jewelry and fudge, protesting something or trying to convert you to something. Then, nestled among all the upmarket shops and chain eateries sit vintage shops and so many druidic/new age corners I struggled a bit not to purchase things. (Oh the trials of living on a suitcase and carry-on). Then there are the pubs. So many pubs. One's which insist they were the first, or catered to this or that famous lord or creator of culture.

Here I would like to give a shout out to Hootenanny's, a small pub just off the back end of St. Enoch's Square. On a stretch of buildings between the road along the River Clyde and a massive Tescos. Cozy atmosphere, but not a dark one and massive portions of perfect comfort foods (the best for days of drenching rain, as such was the one I was caught in) and all for at most, 7 pounds a plate.

I enjoyed Glasgow for its city feeling. There is something to be said about letting yourself surf along the movement of busy shoppers until you pass a toottling saxophone and you slip into a side alley for a musical respite before plonking yourself down for an evening in a comfy pub booth.

Check it out. You'll be surprised at the little gems found in the less lauded corners. The sort of everyday, every-human kind.

Well, the modern-day sort anyway.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Confident Abilities

There are a million, trillion different courses out there about how, by taking said course, you can become instant-confident. A bit like instant coffee. With the caffeine high too.

The thing is, there is no such thing, like every trillion, billion other thing in the world, as an easy fix.

Confidence is especially ellusive.

Confidence can often be like trying to find the flowers in the fields of autumn. A green haystack.

Especially when you have a habit of being the sort who will flay your own back raw, regardless of the fact that getting thirty plus lashes for doing something "wrong" in this day and age, does not exist on a public, mainstream scale.

I was walking home from the pub yesterday evening with a friend and her boyfriend on the teeny stretches of English sidewalks and as such, because I am hyper conscious about giving people their bubble of space, I was practically off the road I was so close to the edge.

I got called out on it and told I could walk closer in.

What did I do in response? I apologised. Profusely. For being to hyper concerned about their spacial sensitivites.

That is not an example of a confident individual.

Except, I don't want to become a Tony Robbins character either. Note, I do really mean "character" as trying to be like him, would not be at all true to my authentic self and therefore it would just be another act.

So, if acting confident is not the way to go, because it is entirely inauthentic. What about all that fake it until you make it? Or that smile all the time and you'll eventually feel happy?

Those have their merits. But they aren't long term solutions. No. The long term solution to being confident is basically a slug through the mud. And here are the steps:

1. Be hyper aware of what comes out of your mouth. Shut it as soon as you start to apologise or debase yourself. 

2. Don't be afraid to say you are awesome. This works like the "smiling until you are actually happy" method.

3. Stare at yourself in the mirror at least once a day. Tell your reflection you are: awesome, gorgeous, profession, sexy etc. 

4. Walk down the street and pretend you are you're favourite superhero. Or a new one. (Invented entirely by you). 

5. Don't be afraid to ask for help, or to use helpful tools like microphones, timers or index cards of notes. 

6. Stop reading self-help books and watching all those TEDTalks. Those are great but they are one step above watching trashy reality tv. You've got to practice and live your confidence, not someone elses.

7. Don't force yourself to socialise, take the leadership position or the big roles. This is a process. It's slow. Like an oak tree, it's going to take time before it's strong against the wind. 

8. Be balanced. Try to do just one of these steps every day. Bad days are okay. Just remember to reflect on what went wrong and make sure tomorrow you try something else instead. 

 In short. If you want to be a confident individual you need to stop wanting it to happen now and you need to start reflecting on where you were yesterday, last week, or a year or two ago. You're human. So long as you are open and willing to change, you will change. Just slowly. If you do want it to achieve it before the age of seventy, find pride in your authentic self first and then find ways to augment that authentic self.

I'm probably going to invest in a microphone. Or at the very least a bell or whistle so I can get my students attention without yelling myself hoarse or getting progressively more frustrated because no matter how many breathing techniques I try or days spent in front of the mirror, I am just not a loud person. So I'm getting help. With a bit of technology.

What are you doing to authentically develop your confidence?