Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All Hail the Power of the Crazy Crawler

After school today I took my daughter fishing in the oldest artificial waterway in North America. She hooked and landed a 14-inch bass and a 12-inch pickerel within fifteen minutes of each other. And it was a big, fat bass, too. I could barely get both hands around it.

"My heart is still racing" she said when we let the bass go.

We were using the Crazy Crawler, a lure that has always worked wonders for me. You get big fish with a Crazy Crawler, and it often works when nothing else will. But the best part is that both of these fish actually leaped out of the water to attack the lure. It was very exciting.

And great to see my little girl in her pink L. L. Bean fishing vest holding a massive bass and grinning from ear to ear.

I see many fishing trips in the future...

Ave, Heddon Lures. Ave, Crazy Crawler.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Beowulf Aloud

Back at the beginning of the summer, after recording a new course, A Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion for Recorded Books, I went into the studio for a marathon session and recorded all of Beowulf in Old English.

I tried to read it dramatically without go so far as to adopt multiple voices, and I even sang Finnsburg. It was fun, but also one of the hardest things I have ever done. As exhausting as recording fourteen 35-minute lectures for a course is, reading all of Beowulf aloud and keeping up the energy level was even more work.

Then Matt Cavnar, the genius recording engineer and director who has done all of my courses for Recorded Books, edited the piece, taking out all of my stumbles and making me sound much better than I actually am.

Recorded Books will be publishing the Beowulf reading later this year, bundled in a special offer for one of their programs that hasn't been completely decided yet, but I retained the rights to sell it on its own, and I'm working right now to put together some kind of inexpensive and interesting package. I did a short lecture on Beowulf as well that goes before the reading itself, and the entire thing takes up three CDs.

So, you ask, where is he going with this?

I'd like to solicit suggestions for a few things:

a). What key information would you think would be useful to have on the liner notes (remembering that I have basically two small pages to work with)?

b). Do any of my readers know about podcasts and how to go about making them? I wouldn't mind podcasting some of the reading, but I have no knowledge in this area and pointers would be nice.

c). What other things do you think would be possible and interesting to do with Beowulf Aloud? How could it be useful to you in teaching or study?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oral Tradition Goes Online

On September 15, the journal Oral Tradition, published out of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri-Columbia by the man who taught me Old English, John Miles Foley, went on line. OT is now twenty years old and has published some of the most interesting work in literary studies (and in anthropology of culture for that matter) in those two decades. I want to encourage you all to investigate the journal, because it publishes first-rate scholarship and it will now be freely available to all users of the web, whether you have an academic affiliation or a subscription or anything. A great democratization of information. We should, I think, support this adventure.

I also have a small ideological point to make. Here at Wheaton we are undergoing a process of "Infusion" as we seek to integrate work (academic, artistic and personal) on race, ethnicity, gender and class throughout the curriculum. I am not entirely on board with the way this project is progressing (though I was one of the people who wrote the langauge that allows the process to be directed by individual professors within disciplines, which is very, very important), but I do think that some good can come out of it if people shift their focus towards the things Oral Tradition studies.

So if you do want to bring under-studied cultures and approaches into the classroom, I can think of no better way to do it than through Oral Traditional Studies. You've got it all: a greater multiplicity of cultures than just about any discipline engages with (maybe the anthropolgists are equal, but they don't deal very much with ancient or extinct culture); the highest culture from these cultures, including masterpieces such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Kalevala as well as some of the most popular culture (and sometimes it isn't a contradiction). And you're working with both "insider" and "outsider" researchers. You're pushing new boundaries in theory and practice. You can get money to do field work, to go off to New Guinea if you want to and collect stories.

I am working up an OT course either for 2007-08 or 08-09 as the culmination of my Prentice Professorship, and I am loving doing the research. Just to give you a taste, here is the table of contents for the last issue of OT:
The How of Literature
by Ruth Finnegan

The Culture of Play: Kabuki and the Production of Texts
by Andrew Gerstle

Performance, Visuality, and Textuality: The Case of Japanese Poetry
by Haruo Shirane

From Oral Performance to Paper-Text to Cyber-Edition
by John Miles Foley

Text and Performance in Africa
by Karen Barber

On the Concept of “Definitive Text” in Somali Poetry
by Martin Orwin

My Mother Has a Television, Does Yours? Transformation and Secularization in an Ewe Funeral Drum Tradition
by James Burns

The Many Shapes of Medieval Chinese Plays: How Texts Are Transformed to Meet the Needs of Actors, Spectators, Censors, and Readers
by Wilt Idema

Textual Representations of the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Drama Yuzan ji (The Jade Hairpin)
by Andrew Lo

Now there is probably no person reading this who has the skill-set (the language skill-set alone, even) to work in all of these traditions. But OT brings this material together, and edits so stringently, as I know from experience, that the articles are readable and enlightening even if they come from outside your tradition.

So I strongly encourage all of you to check out Oral Tradition on line and read some of the many fine papers. And then next month you can check back and read a dreadful paper that somehow snuck through an otherwise totally rigorous process (maybe they felt sorry for me), my little piece "“A Meme-Based Approach to Oral Traditional Theory”; if you would download hundreds of copies and send them to your elderly realives, that would be great, too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin

HarperCollins is going to be publishing Tolkien's Children of Húrin as a stand-alone volume next year. According to the press release (which I haven't been able to find on line), the text was created by Christopher Tolkien's painstaking editing together of Tolkien's many drafts. The book will include a new map by Christopher Tolkien and a jacket and color paintings by Alan Lee.
Quote from Christopher Tolkien:
It has seemed to me for a long time that there was a good case for presenting my father's long version of the legend of the Children of Húrin as an independent work, between its own covers, with a minimum of editorial presence, and above all in continuous narrative without gaps or interruptions, if this could be done without distortion or invention, despite the unfinished state in which he left some parts of it.

It is not clear from the press release (and I have absolutely no insider knowledge) that there will be anything that was previously unreleased in the book.

Various different versions of the tale of the children of Húrin have previously been published:

1977 in The Silmarillion as "Of Túrin Turambar" (prose).
1980 in Unfinished Tales as "Narn i Hîn Húrin" (prose).
1984 in The Book of Lost Tales, Part II as "Turambar and the Foalókë," and "The Nauglafring," (prose).
1985 in The Lays of Beleriand as "The Lay of the Children of Húrin" (verse in alliterative long-lines).
1994 in The War of the Jewels as "The Wanderings of Húrin" (prose).

From the press release, it seems as if these variants will be stitched into a coherent whole in the same the way that Christopher Tolkien brought together disparate texts to create the 1977 The Silmarillion

So, The Children of Húrin will not be a "new" book, but I think its release as a stand-alone volume is a very good thing for a variety of reasons.

First, the material is powerful and evocative and goes back to the very beginning of Tolkien's writings about Middle-earth, as it was originally inspired by Tolkien's reading of the Kullervo cycle in the Finnish Kalevala. The Túrin story is the element of Tolkien's legendarium that is the most "novelistic" in form, with more dialogue and detailed action than the more sweeping, historical style of the published Silmarillion. But it has been very difficult for most general readers to get a handle on the story because of the way Christopher Tolkien had to edit and publish the texts: they were part of scholarly editions, designed in large part to provide a documentary record of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. As such, they are very difficult simply to read for pleasure, the way we read The Lord of the Rings; Christopher Tolkien had to present texts, then explain variants, gaps and contradictions. So reading any of the post-Unfinished Tales pieces is a very difficult exercise for people who do not have a lot of experience with these sorts of editions (i.e., nearly anyone who is not a medievalist).

Second, by compiling everything into a whole, Christopher Tolkien is doing exactly what his father eventually envisioned for The Silmarillion (at least as best we can tell from the published record). It was not supposed to be a "novel" like The Lord of the Rings but was instead the volumes of Translations from the Elvish by B.B. created by Bilbo in Rivendell from his translations of various books of lore. Thus the Silmarillion (the legendarium, as distinct from The Silmarillion, the 1977 text), was conceived of as a tapestry woven from materials taken from various other texts, some poetry, some prose, some fragmentary, some contradictory. Although possibly frustrating to general readers who want to get to the story, the incredibly complex layering that is generated by such an approach is what gives all of Tolkien's work the impression of immense depth (the "vast backcloths" to use Tolkien's own description). Gergely Nagy, in what I think is the best article written on Tolkien in the past decade, talks about the "Great Chain of Reading" that links together various authors, compiliers, historians and translators (Heorrenda, Pengolad, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, etc.). The Children of Húrin should give us another example of the final effects of that Great Chain.

Perhaps as a result of the enormously unfair criticism leveled at him after the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien went more in a scholarly direction rather than continuing to be a synthesist and compiler. All of his work in The History of Middle-earth is incredibly valuable, but it was not the only possible approach. If The Children of Húrin volume is more like The Silmarillion, then it will be a return to something that Christopher Tolkien himself does very, very well and is perfectly in keeping with the underlying conception of the legendarium.

So even though in one sense I have 'already read' the new book, I am definitely looking forward to its release in April 2007 and will certainly enjoy reading it straight through in a way I have not previously been able to do with the Túrin materials.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Advances in Herp Care
or, odd things that I happen to know

Big Arm Woman has a highly amusing post about taking her son to a reptile show. Money quote:
There are basically two kinds of people at reptile and exotic animal shows: middle-class soccer moms with little boys who love snakes and overly tattooed goth/biker types. This makes for an intriguing mixer situation.

On the nose. Back when I was the pet store manager, it was great fun to be part of a really intense discussion about salt water fish with the huge biker guy who ran a local strip club, an orthodontist who was a fanatic about live corals, and a skinny little thirteen-year-old boy who obviously spent all his allowance on fish. These were three of my best customers: they always came into the store just before closing on Wednesday nights to see what I would unpack from the new shipments of fish. They were also fast friends, though (I'm guessing) only inside the store. Love of certain kinds of animals, and fanaticism, breeds strange interactions and friendships.

I'm writing this post because BAW say that "Hublet still won't let me buy a corn snake," and I was in the same situation for a long, long with with my lovely spouse, who finally relented after two years of pleading by my daughter.

We got my daughter (who is almost exactly a year older than her son) a corn snake for her birthday this year from Kathy Love's Cornutopia. It came FedEx.

"Pipsy" is a sweet little animal and my daughter loves her. I think handling and taking care of a corn snake is great for a little kid, because the animal itself seems to generate a lot of focused attention and gentleness on the part of the kid. Corn snakes are always on the move, so the child has to keep passing the snake from hand to hand.

But another good reason to get a child a corn snake is that "herp care" is a lot easier than it was even back in the late 80s and early 90s.

For example, nobody feeds live mice anymore, so you don't have to deal with a) live mice, b) child liking the "food" more than the snake, c) the food injuring the snake (which happened a lot). Now you get "pinkies" or "fuzzies" frozen in little plastic packages at Petco. Just thaw them out in some warm water and you're set. And the snakes you buy now have never seen live food, so they eat with no problems.

Also, some smart person figured out that if you give the snake a second, "feeding cage" (a shoebox or a tupperware container) it won't get nippy when it's in its regular tank (which is what happened to OJ, my snake -- he was named long before 1994). The snake now wants to get picked up, because it might be being taken to the food, and it doesn't think your hand is the food.

So that's what I know about herp care. Maybe in a future post I will talk about the nitrogen cycle in fishtanks and why changing the water if it gets cloudy in the first few days is a very bad idea. Or I can go back to health bulletins and possibly medieval studies at some point. We'll see.