Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beowulf Aloud: Why so Popular?

[update: I've heard back from the studio, and "The Tickle Me Elmo" of 2008" (thanks, Tom), Beowulf Aloud, will be available again in two weeks, so you won't be able to get on in time for Christmas, but it will make a great New Year's present]

I guess this speaks to the enduring popularity of Beowulf, but there has been a run on copies of Beowulf Aloud lately. Of course I'm grateful, but I hadn't expected it, so I am now temporarily out of copies until I can get new ones made (probably a week or so).

But what is so surprising to me is that Beowulf Aloud is more popular than Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, even though Beowulf Aloud has been out a lot longer and, it would seem, is less accessible. Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits has both Old and Modern English and is only 2 CDs, not 3. Any yed, I continue to sell twice as many Beowulf Alouds. Weird.

However, if you are looking for some Old English to charm your significant other this holiday season, then you should order Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits, because, although I am rushing the Beowulf Aloud masters to Boston tomorrow, I'm not sure if I'll have them ready by Christmas.

[I am also planning on working with CD-Baby to put Beowulf Aloud and Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits for sale on iTunes, but having to write and record a 14-lecture course, The Anglo-Saxon World, for Recorded Books (by Wednesday, when I have to go down to Manhattan and record) and having a pile of papers to grade so large that the papers at the bottom are starting to turn into diamond is slowing me down there.]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beowulf and the Critics

The other day I got a tip that copies of Beowulf and the Critics are selling at used book sites for well over $100.00. 'What's up with that?' I thought. I bought a few copies in September and sold them at A Long-Expected Party. Now I wish I had some extra ones in the basement to sell.

It turns out that even the super-expanded print run we did of Beowulf and the Critics has finally sold out. So the book is right now out of print. Hence the high prices (and those of you who bought B&C at ALEP -- whatta bahgain!).

But I've been in touch with the publisher, and we are going to reprint, so don't worry. The question we're working on right now is whether or not to do a paperback and whether or not to do a revised edition. I have discovered some errors that it would be good to correct, and there's a little new scholarship available (some by me, much more by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull) that could be relevant.

So only pay those ridiculous prices if you need the book for research in the next few months. Though I guess that if we do a new edition, that will make those old ones a more collectible first editions (there are two printings; the first print run was only 300 copies, and there are two different covers, one with a little banner). Argh! Why didn't I keep more than my personal copy and one in the display case at work?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Miracles of Medicine

To everyone, especially my students, whose emails I haven't returned. I'm really sorry, and I'll try to catch up, but my four-year-old son has been very sick (vomiting for 12 hours straight) and we had to take him to the Emergency Room last night for IV fluids. He's now doing much better, but it was (obviously) very tough for him and for the family.

Very sobering to think that 50 years ago, or at least 100 years ago, a bad bout of stomach flu could mean a dead child. It certainly makes one grateful for the years of science and engineering and medicine that goes into having an IV line with a peristaltic pump and sterile saline solution and the miracle drug of zofran and the ability to check blood electrolytes in less than an hour. And most of all, I'm grateful for the training and kindness of every single person we encountered in the ER. My little guy went from a limp, glassy-eyed rag doll to a somewhat contented child munching on popsicles and watching Bob the Builder in only a few hours. Thanks to you all, and to the long, long line of giants upon whose shoulders we all stand. May our own efforts be worthy of theirs and give as much to the people of the future as they have given to us.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Good Rhetoric = Bad Argument?

In a post a while back I talked about pushing the metaphor until it breaks as a way of really testing whether a metaphor is a useful heuristic, whether it illuminates what you are discussing or obscures it. I argued that "imbricated discourses" is a bad metaphor and thus just a piece of jargon intended to show that you are a member of a certain clerisy (and I just wanted to put the boot in on "imbricated discourses" yet again since this blog is now the #3 google search for "imbricated," so hopefully people will see how stupid "imbricated" is and will stop using it outside of contexts in which the metaphor, overlapping shingles on a roof, is really descriptive. If I can help make the use of "imbricated discourses" the sign of sloppy thinking and a second-rate mind, I'll be a happy person).

On the last day of classes, I was discussing Smith of Wootton Major with the students in my J.R.R. Tolkien class and gave them the famous quote by Roger Lancelyn Green that seeking meaning in Smith is to "cut open the ball in search of its bounce."

When I was giving my talk in Norway, I mentioned another nice bit of rhetoric, by Maurice Bloch, who, in criticizing meme-based theories of culture, stated that “the culture of an individual, or of a group, is not a collection of bits, traits or memes, acquired from here and there, any more than a squirrel is a collection of hazelnuts.”

Now both of these pieces of rhetoric are quite effective in that they always get a laugh and do a lot to move the audience to the "side" of the speaker. But the more I analyze them, especially as metaphors, the more I think they are fundamentally wrong and that they are a kind of sophistry that is very counterproductive to understanding the world.

The rhetorical stance of both metaphors implies that the speaker is being sensible and arguing for some kind of holistic or integrated approach that the "dissectors" (to steal a term from Tolkien's "Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics") are missing. The metaphor is supposed to show how dumb such an approach would be: What kind of an idiot would cut open the ball to try to find the bounce? Ha, ha! There's no bounce in there. Who would dissect a squirrel to find all the hazelnuts that make it up? Only a total bozo--like you, who is using this approach.

That's an effective stance in many cases, but I think it is sophistry. Because the point is that the metaphor is supposed to fail, and fail easily, and from the failure of the metaphor, we are supposed to see the failure of the larger argument to which it refers.

But in both of these cases, I don't think the metaphor actually fails, and thus the rhetorical device, when examined carefully, actually does the opposite of what the speakers intend.

Let's take the ball and the bounce. Setting aside the danger of cutting open a golf ball and having the radioactive goo inside that makes it bounce so far leak out (I believed this as a child, at least for a while), you can in fact "find" the bounce if you cut open a ball. First, after cutting it open, you examine its internal structure and determine the physical construction of the ball--solid rubber, twine wrapped around a core, air under pressure, solid wood. Then you examine those materials in more detail, perhaps producing micrographs to determine physical structure, grain boundaries in rubbers or plastics, for instance. Then you do some chemistry to figure out how the molecules of the material are arranged, noting, for example, long chains of polymers and whether they are cross-linked or not and to what degree. At a certain point, when you understand the forces of tension and compression, stored energy, etc., you have "found" the bounce; you understand why the ball behaves the way it does.

If you have never cut open the ball, you might be talking about abstract qualities of "bounce-ness," but you really would not understand it. So the rhetorical attack, which relies on the metaphor failing, actually fails itself, because the metaphor succeeds.

Likewise with the squirrel and the hazelnuts, though in a different way. A squirrel that eats hazelnuts is in fact composed of hazelnuts, but to understand how, we need to break down the hazelnuts into their component parts (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, etc.) and then understand the biochemical property by which the squirrel changes hazelnut into squirrel. Bloch has mis-identified the level of analysis of meme-based approaches, which are really working at the biochemical level but which he insists on seeing at the hazelnut level. (To be technical for just a moment, Bloch's "hazelnuts" are very large, co-adapted meme-plexes, but meme-based theory is much more interested in separating out much, much smaller memes, analogous to the complex chemicals in the hazelnuts. The structure of the hazelnuts also has something to tell us about the squirrel, as do their production, digestions, etc., etc.). So this metaphor also fails to fail in the way the device assumes it will for all right-thinking people.

When I discussed this with my students, I pointed out that they should get particularly suspicious when the metaphor seems to work too well in one way or the other. That is, a beautiful metaphor should be pushed until it breaks and then the pieces examined (or, if it does not break, then its robustness will be demonstrated). And the metaphor designed to fail should be treated as if it might actually work.

The worst intellectual failures happen when things people want to hear get put into a pleasing form. The rhetorical techniques illustrated by Green and Bloch encourage such failings. And "imbricated discourses" is still a useless bit of annoying jargon and people will think you're a doofus if you use the phrase.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The 'Canterbury Charm'?

[See below for updates]

Help! I have to do a TV taping tomorrow in New York, and the producers just provided me with a gigantic list of questions they want to ask. One set of the questions is about "The Canterbury Charm," which supposedly mentions Thor.

The problem: I know nothing about "The Canterbury Charm." I did some research, and I can find almost nothing. So I plead with my readers to help me.

Here's what I have figured out:

Wikipedia thinks there is such a thing as the Canterbury Charm and other, possibly questionable sites say:

171. Canterbury Charm:

kuril sarþuara far þu nu funtin is tu þur uigi þik þ(u)rsa trutin kuril sarþuara uiþr aþrauari
Kuril wound-causer, go now, you are found. Thor hallow you, Lord of Troll, Kuril wound-causer. Againstblood-vessel pus.
Since Thor hallows with his hammer, the ‘Thor hallow you’ must be understood as ‘Thor strike you with hishammer!’, which makes sense in this curse against a sickness.

Supposedly the charm is found in the margin of a 1073 manuscript. Another site says it is in Cotton Caligula A.xv., which indeed dates in part to 1073.


There is no mention in Ker's Catalogue of such a charm.

Searching on the strings of words in the DOE corpus produces nothing (trying sar Taura, sarTaura, funtin, trutin, etc.)

The charm is supposedly written in runes, but there is no mention of it that I can find in Ray Page's An Introduction to English Runes

These problems could be explained if the charm is considered Old Norse. C.f., the inscription on the Glavendrup stone, "þor uiki þasi runar" (Thor bless these runes). But there is no mention of it in Heather O'Donoghue's excellent intro to Old Norse/Icelandic, and it's not familiar to my go-to person on charms, magic and medicine in Anglo-Saxon England, either.

Guillame Schiltz presented a paper at ISAS in 2003 in Arizona on the charm (The Canterbury Charm: Evidence for Mutual Exchange During Conversion?), and later there was this publication:

Schiltz, G. (2004) Der Canterburyspruch oder "wie finden dänische Runen und englische Komputistik zusammen?" Ein Beitrag zur historischen Textlinguistik. In: Th. Honegger (ed.): 'Riddles, Knights and Cross-dressing Saints: Essays on Medieval English Language and Literature' (Collection Variations). Bern: Lang, p.115-138.

I don't have a copy of Stanley's The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism anywhere close, so I can't check if he mentions it.

So, dear readers, so much better informed than I am:

Does anyone know the full context of the charm?
Is the use of "Thor" an example of a Scandinavian deity being invoked in an A-S manuscript?
Why isn't the Canterbury charm in the OE corpus?

Thank you!!


[UPDATE: See John Cowan's comments below, which pretty much answer most of my questions. Far better internet search skills than I possess. And K.A. Laity via Scott Nokes sent this link, where Alaric Hall mentions it on page 4. So the charm is legit. and not just something that got dumped into Wikipedia.

I conclude that the charm isn't in Ker or Page or the DOE corpus because it is Old Norse (I guess it says something about my glacially improving ON that I just read the charm and it didn't really register what language it was in), and that it really does say something about Thor. That will have to do for the crazy TV shoot tomorrow. Thank you all!!]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pretty Amazing Conference
(and I got to eat whale).

Last week I went to the most intellectually high-end conference I have ever attended. The Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway, has got to have the most intellectual firepower in medieval studies that is assembled in any one institution, anywhere. The only place I've ever been that was similar is the Santa Fe Institute, but I was the only humanities scholar there at the time, so there's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, and this was all medievalists rather than physicists and theoretical biologists.

But enough with the qualification, this conference was awesome! "Tradition and the Individual Talent: Modes of Authorship in the Middle Ages," was the theme. It was by invitation, with only 25 papers, so everyone went to every paper and there was discussion that continued throughout the conference. I was the only person from an American institution (though there are several American scholars at Bergen now); the majority of the scholars were from Scandinavia, and my Old Norse got a workout reading the handouts. But there were plenty of papers on Latin as well as Old Norse (I was the only Anglo-Saxonist). Some of the papers (mine, Slavica and Milos Rankovic's, Atle Kittang's, Lauri Harvilahti's) were more theoretical than others, but all took the theme of the conference seriously.

It was particularly gratifying that a few people picked up some of my ideas from my paper ("'I am large, I contain multitudes,': The Medieval Author in Memetic Terms") and connected them to their own work. A real eye-opener for me was Aidan Conti's amazing paper on "Scribes as Authors? Detecting Acts of Composition in the Process of Transmission." This was one of those instances where you've had an inchoate idea and then find that someone else has done a paper on it. I started out feeling mildly resentful, because I had never gotten around to doing the cool research that Aidan had done, but as the paper went on, and it became clear how creative and rigorous he had been, my grumpiness turned into complete admiration. I don't want to spill the beans on Aidan's work before he publishes it, so I'm sorry to be so opaque here, but basically he demonstrated how "distributed authorship" and iterated, interpreted, selected and reproduced error could create textual improvements. I was practically bouncing up and down in my seat by the end of the paper.

It was also wonderful to learn about how Rune Stones were produced, to get to meet Gísli Sigurðsson (whose book The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method influenced me a lot), and to talk to Lauri Harvilahti again--he spoke to my graduate seminar in 1993 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Really, my head is completely full right now.

What summed up part of the experience for me was one of the nights when a group of us were sitting at the bar and talking and Dr. Harvilahti said "last year, when I was talking to a shaman..." "Was this in Karelia?" I asked. "No, Siberia."

And, I got to eat whale carpaccio one night. It was delicious!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Medieval Literature: Not Dead Yet (Feeling Much Better... thinks it might go for a walk...)

This year, because I am department Chair, I only officially teach three classes (because I am a doofus, I'm actually teaching four, one as an unpaid overload, and I'm directing an honors thesis, but I digress). And because I'm going to be on research leave all of next year, I had to get in some key classes in now, so I'm teaching Chaucer (in ME), Medieval Literature (in translation), and J.R.R. Tolkien all in one year. Normally I'd be teaching a First Year Seminar or a Senior Seminar or an English 101.

You'd think, with only three classes, I would not have that many students, especially since medievalists are so superfluous and medieval literature isn't popular.

So here are the enrollment totals for my official classes:

Fall 2008: J.R.R. Tolkien: 62
Chaucer: 35

Spring 2009: Medieval Literature: 37.

Keep in mind:
The average course at Wheaton enrolls 19 students. We are, after all, a small, liberal arts college. (Though that number is skewed due to small courses being mandated for first-year and senior seminars and English 101).

But also, because I knew how swamped I was going to be this year,

I deliberately scheduled these courses MWF to keep down enrollments (as you can imagine, T Th courses are more popular. Students don't like classes on Fridays).

I deliberately schedules these courses at the 10:30 and 11:30 time slots so that they would come up against a lot of other courses.

Yet the enrollments are the highest they've ever been. Even setting aside the Tolkien course, the pure medieval courses are averaging nearly twice the college average. And it's not due to my sparkling personality: there are a ton of students in these classes whom I've never taught before and wasn't able to recruit out of English 101 or First Year Seminar.

So whoever says that medieval studies isn't popular has no idea what he or she is talking about.

(I could be a real jerk and point out which other courses in which specific time periods medieval is out-drawing, but I don't need to, because it is out-drawing all of them.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008


If I haven't answered your email or responded to your message in the past week or so, I apologize. The convergence of

1. An NEH grant application being due;

2. My paper for the medieval authorship conference in Norway needing to be finished before I actually go to the conference;

3. My students turning in their first big paper in the Tolkien class;

4. My daughter having a week off from school;

5. Halloween: costumes, pumpkins, class parties;

6. Having my next door neighbor (who is a master stonemason) have an opening in his schedule to replace our fireplace;

7. Therefore taking the "opportunity" of torn out drywall, cement dust, jackhammers in the house, etc., to paint the living room, including the cathedral ceiling.

has left me completely weeded with regard to email.

Hopefully next week, or at least before I leave for Norway.
The Only Political Post I'll Do

Friday, October 17, 2008

Well I did know that the Old English words are "lob," "cob" and "spiþra"

I got publicly corrected twice in class today.

You, Prof. Drout, were corrected about Tolkien lore?

No, not hardly (though it could certainly happen).

About philological principles?

Nope, though there are plenty of people who could do this.

About literary theory?


About spiders.

We were discussing Shelob, and I mentioned in a throw-away line that I thought her portrayal "as a tarantula" in the film didn't work for me; that Shelob, with her great horns, etc., didn't look like the Peter Jackson version.

"It wasn't a tarantula; it was a trapdoor spider" corrected one student.

"Well, ok," I said. "But I wished they'd used a bird-eating spider. They are much scarier looking." (I had just seen one in a jar up at the Harvard Museum of Natural History."

"A bird-eating spider is actually a kind of tarantula," said a different spider-loving student.

So I have not one, but two arachnophiles in my class.

Later the second student emailed me:
The Black Tunnel Web Spider was the spider that Peter Jackson modeled Shelob after. The spine that Shelob from the movie uses is inconsistent with spiders' actual morphology. Spiders have no spine on their abdomens and use hollowed out fangs to inject venom into their victims.

Shelob could not have been one of the goliath bird-eating spiders because they are tarantulas and tarantulas do not produce webs. Tarantulas rely simply on a single venomous bite to kill their prey before eating it.

Though I would add that suggests that at least some tarantulas put a veil of silk across their burrow entrances, my student is right that this is very different from what Shelob does.

My students so totally rock.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why Memorizing is Good

An email I received the other day: 

Dear Professor Drout,

I don’t know if you remember me but I took Anglo Saxon and Chaucer with you a couple of years ago. I’m teaching junior high English this year and I wanted to share a little story with you about how taking Anglo Saxon helped me with classroom management.

I was trying to define “epic” for the students a couple of days ago and no one would be quiet and pay attention. I was getting really frustrated. I tried to give them examples but everything went in one ear and out the other. Besides that none of them had even heard of The Odyssey or Beowulf! I finally I shouted “It’s like this!” and started reciting the first eleven lines of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon. In an instant the class was DEAD SILENT. They were all dying to know what that was and hung on my every word after that.

So thank you for making me memorize the first eleven lines of Beowulf!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Too many Psalms!

Dear King Alfred,

Did you really have to translate so many Psalms? 


Mike Drout

(Anglo-Saxon Aloud is now up to Psalm 110.  Not only are there still 40 to go, but 118 is an absolute monster.  My goal is still to have everything done by Christmas, but right now that's looking like a stretch if I also include those poems not included in the ASPR like "Instructions for Christians" and "The Grave" and if I go back and re-record the first 18 Psalms in spoken rather than sung form...)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Trip to the Shire

This past weekend I got a chance to visit the Shire. It was re-created in Kentucky, and it was amazing.

The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, is about 30 miles south of Lexington. This was a thriving village up until the Civil War but then fell into decay. In 1961 it was saved and has since be refurbished, with costumed actors playing the parts of Shakers. But for this one weekend, it became Middle-earth.

The rolling Kentucky countryside, the old buildings, the stone walls, the quiet (away from traffic) and darkness at night (away from street lights), combined with 144 Tolkien enthusiasts (most in costume), made the leap of imagination from contemporary America to Tolkien's Shire a very short one indeed. The people who organized A Long Expected Party brought Tolkien's vision of a joyful rural idyll to life.

I gave one of my talks in a gigantic barn, performed a bit of Beowulf in that same barn, and then got to give another talk in a 19th-century house. The audiences were amazing: incredibly informed about Tolkien (and about medieval literature), eager for more, and full of challenging and interesting questions. Even more importantly, every single person I met (and I feel like I met all 144) was interesting, kind and just a pleasure to talk to. I had originally thought that I would sneak back to my room, which was in an incredible little wash house built around 1850, and grade papers between talks, but I got caught up in all that was going on and ended up learning about armor from Michael Cook, listening to costumers discuss sewing techniques and riding a riverboat with hobbits, elves and rangers (Quote of the trip: "Spider in the boobs! Spider in the boobs!" -- the dangers of certain costumes).

Several of the organizers are involved in theatre, and it showed. The weekend never felt like a real convention event (it was not commercial, we weren't jammed into a hotel, there weren't long lines to get actors to autograph things), but by the second day it was becoming something else entirely. The only way I can describe it is to say that the organizers were in some ways putting on a play, but all the rest of us in the "audience" were becoming part of it. By the time we reached the climactic celebration of Bilbo's and Frodo's birthdays, we were pretty much integrated into a single show, the fundamental division between audience and performers completely blurred.

It was, of course, very fun for me to have so many people enjoy Beowulf in Old English (and let me tell you, an old barn, filled with 144 people and surrounded by pitch blackness--it was a new moon--is the perfect place to perform the part of Beowulf where Grendel enters Heorot and eats Hondscio), and it was gratifying to have so many people interested in medieval literature and its links to Tolkien. It was even better to have a chance to spend some time with the parents of one of my best students ever, and I loved listening to the ethereal singing of Kate Brown.
But the very best moment for me came towards the end. Bilbo's party was set up, with paper lanterns strung between trees. The Brobdingnagian Bards were performing on the stage. A large group of people, in full costume, were dancing reels and jigs. I walked pretty far away from the party, into the darkness, until I was far enough from the lights that I could look up and clearly see the stars, so incredibly bright, the milky way clouding the entire middle of the sky. I looked back, and there was the patch of gold light, surrounded by darkness, the people dancing and laughing, the music just barely reaching me. I looked back at all that, and I saw and felt what dream was for the Anglo-Saxons, the joy of people and companionship and music, the joy of the little circle of light. We feel dream, but we rarely can step back and watch it. Tolkien's works give us one way. Seeing what some people inspired by his works could create gave me another.

þær wæs gesiþa dream, duguð unlytel, holbyltla ond ylfa and manig monna and wifmanna.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Off to the Shire

If I don't answer email for a few days, it's because hobbits don't have internet access (I don't know this for a fact; I am only guessing).  

I'm off to speak at A Long-Expected Party in the Shaker Village outside of Lexington, KY.   I'll be talking about Tolkien's "mythology for England" (even though he never wrote those exact words) and reading Beowulf in Old English at a huge bonfire, among other things.  Should be fun.  

I anticipate a massive email backlog when I return, so don't think I am ignoring you (unless you were rude, and then I am), but ping me if I don't respond by Thursday afternoon. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Poor Results at Emulating Tolkien's Style
(but it does show that the "Mythology for X" has moved a bit more deeply into the culture)

Today the WSJ has an editorial that begins:
Once upon a time, in the land that FDR built, there was the rule of “regulation” and all was right on Wall and Main Streets. Wise 27-year-old bank examiners looked down upon the banks and saw that they were sound. America’s Hobbits lived happily in homes financed by 30-year-mortgages that never left their local banker’s balance sheet, and nary a crisis did we have.
Then, lo, came the evil Reagan marching from Mordor with his horde of Orcs, short for “market fundamentalists.” Reagan’s apprentice, Gramm of Texas and later of McCain, unleashed the scourge of “deregulation,” and thus were “greed,” short-selling, securitization, McMansions, liar loans and other horrors loosed upon the world of men.

Now, however, comes Obama of Illinois, Schumer of New York and others in the fellowship of the Beltway to slay the Orcs and restore the rule of the regulator. So once more will the Hobbits be able to sleep peacefully in the shire.

With apologies to Tolkien, or at least Peter Jackson, something like this tale is now being sold to the American people to explain the financial panic of the past year.

Well, they really do have a lot to apologize for in that lede, mostly for butchering Tolkien's style so badly that it's not even recognizable except for the words Hobbits, Mordor and Orcs. It interests me how people do this so frequently. They recognize something different in the style, and they glom onto that, but they haven't been paying enough attention.

So here, WSJ, is how it should have been done (I make no comment on the actual content of the editorial. Not related to my purpose here):

Then all listened while X in his clear voice spoke of America, the land built by FDR, and of the Regulations of Power, and for time, peace and prosperity were on Wall and Main Streets. Wise where the regulators in those days, and young bank-examiners performed their duties well and bravely, seeing that their banks were sound. In those times the Hobbits lived quietly in the Shire in 30-year-mortgaged homes, and they meddled not at all in the balance sheets of their bankers, who were not troubled by the world outside.

But that time ended, and evil things began to stir again in the land or Mordor. And the shadow that arose was "Reagan," and his Orcs, and his "Market fundamentalists," spread across the lands. At the same time, Gramm of Texas, in flattery and imitation of the greater Reagan, began his "deregulation," a smaller shadow under his master's great shadow. “Greed,” was multiplying in the mountains, and short-sellers were abroad, now armed with securitization. And there were murmured hints of still worse creatures: McMansions, liar loans and other horrors.

I could go on, but it gets tedious, and I don't really agree either with the satire or with what the WSJ is satirizing. But my point is that it is possible to create a "Tolkienian" feel without immediately reaching for the "Lo!"

Now, because I'm a hopeless geek, I decided to see how many times Tolkien uses "Lo!" and in what situations. They are:

  1. FR: Galadriel shrinks back to regular elf woman after "All shall love me and despair." 
  2. TT: none
  3. RK: passing of the Grey Company -- this one seems unnecessary. They just go through a rock wall and there's a stream. 
  4. RK: sun on Théoden's shield -- appropriate, as the battle is taking the epic turn. 
  5. RK: Nazgûl's shadow blocks sun -- balance to previous example
  6. RK: Éowyn's fight with the Nazgûl -- if there's one place where you need a "Lo!", it's here. 
  7. RK: Théoden opens eyes when Merry thinks he's dead -- I don't think this one is necessary or that it works, though note part of epic scene
  8. RK:Éomer defies black ships -- works here. 
  9. RK: Denethor is holding a palantír -- don't think it's necessary to express the surprise. But does preserve the epic tone. 
  10. RK: In the retelling of the Passing of the Grey Company -- maybe, but I don't think it fitswith retell by Legolas and Gimli, though you could argue that they are influenced by the awe of Aragorn. 
  11. RK: When Aragorn seizes the black fleet -- appropriate for epic action, though again, this is in the indirect voices of Legolas and Gimli.
  12. RK: The Field of Cormallen, when the Minstrel sings the Song of Frodo. Utterly appropriate. 
  13. RK: When Aragorn finds the sapling of the white tree. 2 times.  Don't know if it needed both, but this is meant to be a moment where we get the Strider/Aragorn contrast, the feeling that he will not be able to be an epic king and the sign of the tree that shows he has been transformed that way. 
So, 1 example of "Lo!" in Fellowship, none in Two Towers, but 11 in RK. These are mostly in the "high epic" modes of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the events surrounding that, so the epic style is at work. If I (perish the thought) were Tolkien's editor, I would have suggested he drop the one with Theoden's eyes, the entering the cave in the Passing of the Grey Company, and probably the two in the re-telling by Legolas and Gimli. But the rest work really, really well (and the ones I object to probably work well for others).

But the larger point is that Tolkien would never (as you can see) use "Lo!" simply for the kind of background narration that happens in the Preface, The Shadow of the Past or The Council of Elrond. And that's the analogous style-situation that the WSJ writers are trying to conjure up.

Grade: C- . Needs closer study. Do the reading again and come see me in office hours. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anglo-Saxon Aloud Greatest Hits: Now Available

The studio called today, and the CDs are finished. I will be able to start shipping them on Tuesday or perhaps sooner. If you would like a copy, you can order them by using this PayPal button. Cost is $30.00 USD ($25.00 for the CD and $5.00 for domestic US shipping)

Anglo-Saxon Aloud Greatest Hits is a 2-CD set that includes ten poems in Old English, their Modern English translations, and commentaries on each of them as well as an introductory lecture. The poems included are: Cædmon's Hymn, The Battle of Brunanburh, The Wanderer, The Ruin, The Wife's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, Deor, The Fortunes of Men, Riddle 47 ('Book-Moth') and The Dream of the Rood.

I will have copies with me at A Long-Expected Party in Kentucky next weekend. For listeners who don't use PayPal or who are overseas, email me at and we can make arrangements. You can also send me land mail at Prof. M. Drout, Wheaton College, 26 E. Main Street, Norton, MA 02766, USA. Thanks to all the listeners and readers who have given me so much encouragement. And if people like Anglo-Saxon Aloud Greatest Hits, I can maybe someday put together Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Unplugged.
Medieval History Job at Wheaton

Come here to Wheaton and be my colleague.

Our History department is starting a search for a medieval historian. This is the search that go put on hold last year due to health issues in the department (which have, thankfully, all turned out ok). It's a tenure-track job, teaching load of 5 courses per year (four the first year), fully funded junior leave (1 semester at full pay or 1 year at 1/2 pay), fully funded post-tenure sabbatical (same), good yearly research/travel budget and a clear path to tenure (the tenure line is for this particular job; it's not one of those situations where three people are hired for two lines).

Although the job ad (given below) lists a variety of areas, I know that they are in strong support of medieval (but they've left their options open, depending on which classical and late antique applications they come across), and they are particularly interested in Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Carolingian history.

Wheaton is a small, highly selective liberal arts college in Massachusetts, 30 minutes south of Boston and 25 minutes (or less) north of Providence, RI. We have about 1400 students and around 120 tenured/tenure-track faculty. Average class size is 15-19 students, though that can vary depending on the subject.

For Anglo-Saxonists, it may be encouraging to know that around 25-30 students regularly take Old English (though I've had as many as 40 in a semester) and 15 or so of those go on to do an advanced class in Beowulf, so there would be a reasonably sized body of students who could do work with primary texts in Old English. Our Latinist is Joel Relihan (translator of Boethius, among many other things), and our medieval Art Historian Evie Lane (of the Corpus Vitrearum project), so we have a good community of medievalists who work closely together on our "Connected" courses and regularly visit each other's classes.

Wheaton is also a very good place for collaboration across disciplines. The scientists and mathematicians are easy to work with and interested in pursuing complex, trans-disciplinary projects (including thus far those linking English, Biology, Math, Computer Science and, soon, Psychology). We're in the process of building a beautiful new Science Center, which should be done in 2011.

Wheaton departments are fiercely autonomous in matters of hiring (as they should be), so I won't be a part of the search formally. I will be constantly lobbying for a medievalist, though.

Medieval/Ancient World

The Department of History at Wheaton College (MA) seeks a tenure-track assistant professor with scholarly and teaching expertise in the fields of classical, late antique, and/or medieval history. The History Department is especially interested in social or cultural historians whose thematic expertise includes gender, popular religion, material culture, cross-cultural contact, or the history of science or the environment. Geographic field open; preference for Celtic world, northwestern Europe, or southeastern Europe. Ph.D must be in hand at time of appointment. Send letter of interest, CV, and three letters of reference by November 15, 2008 to Anni Baker, Chair, Department of History, Wheaton College, Norton, MA, 02766. Preliminary interviews will be conducted at the 2009 AHA annual meeting. AA/EOE. Wheaton College seeks educational excellence through diversity and strongly encourages applications from women and men from historically underrepresented groups. Wheaton offers a competitive benefits package, including benefits for domestic partners.

Monday, September 15, 2008


[update: possible communications failure, either on my part or on the part of the publisher. Hard copy MS arrived today, probably too soon to have only been sent when I emailed back saying I couldn't evaluate a >200-page MS in electronic form. So all is good and I will be able to evaluate something that looks interesting].

I know that the publishing industry is a difficult one right now, that academics are a pain in the butt to work with (for example, deadlines are absolute for students, only a suggestion for many academics), and that the economic climate is very bleak right now.

But, jeez. Ask someone to review a manuscript, which, if you do a good job, is at least ten hours of work for $100.00. That's ok. It's the going rate, and it's important to the field to review, so I pretty much always say 'yes.'

But then to send the MS as an email attachment? So, I'm either supposed to read 200 pages on screen, or I'm supposed to print the 200 page MS on my own dime and my own time? You've got to be kidding me.

It's not even the money; it's the rudeness.

(So now it's time to see how a nice passive-aggressive response works. I've written back saying, "I've received your various forms and guidelines. You can mail the MS to this address." If the editor then comes back with "I already sent the attachment," then I say, "Oh, I can't read 200 pages on screen." We'll see if the editor gets the point).

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Anglo-Saxon Aloud Greatest Hits

[UPDATE: As soon as I actually have the CDs in hand, I will link in the PayPal page for ordering as well as ways to order in other ways. I have to see what the final cost is on the whole business before I can set a price. I anticipate that this will be around September 23rd]

Well, that was fun.

I've been working for a while on:

Then, on Wednesday, I checked in with the studio about when they would need the final edited master CDs and the cover art if I needed my first press run before A Long-Expected Party. "Friday morning," was the answer. So I had a pretty sleepless Wednesday night and an exhausting, fifteen-hour Thursday. But everything is now done.

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits is not just stuff pulled from Anglo-Saxon Aloud, but also what many emailers have asked for: poems not only in Old English, but in Modern English translation with short introductions. It is a 2-CD set, with almost exactly two hours of material. It took me so long because I had to write the translations and do notes for the introductions. Then, because my former student who did the graphic design for Beowulf Aloud has selfishly graduated, I had to do the cover art myself. Me and Photoshop: not a good match.

But it's done. And assuming all goes well, I'll have copies with me at A Long-Expected Party.
Contents: General Introduction. Cædmon's Hymn (all poems have an intro, Old English version and Modern English translation), The Battle of Brunanburh, The Wanderer, The Ruin, The Wife's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, Deor, The Fortunes of Men, Riddle 47 (Book-Moth), The Dream of the Rood.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Alaric Hall's Elves in Anglo-Saxon England

This is the first paragraph of my review of this excellent book for The Medieval Review. When the full text is up on their website, you should be able to find it here.

Hall, Alaric. Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief,
Health, Gender and Identity.
Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press,
2007. Pp. xi, 226. $80.00. ISBN: 1843832941, ISBN-13:

Reviewed by Michael D.C. Drout
Wheaton College

Despite its seemingly hyper-specialized title, Alaric Hall's Elves
in Anglo-Saxon England
is a book that should be read by all
medievalists. Hall's conclusions about his subject are significant,
but far more important is his methodological approach, which is a new
model for early medieval scholarship. His demonstration of the ways
that rock-solid philology can be combined with cross-cultural
historical scholarship, folkloristic analysis of later material and
some contemporary literary theory is far more deserving of the title
"New Philology" than any turn to manuscript studies and variants in
the 1980s ever was. Hall's exceedingly careful reconstruction of the
cultural categories in which ælf existed shows how comparative
philology can be extended to become comparative cultural studies. By
putting linguistic history into an anthropological framework and using
as comparanda folklore dating from as late as the seventeenth
century, Hall is able to recover information about medieval cultures
that would otherwise be lost forever. The genuine excitement of such
recovery and the technical precision with which it is done are both

Monday, September 01, 2008

"Fox" is a shade of pink?
Once more, philology illuminates language and culture

In Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, I learned that the plants we call fuschias are named after an early botanist, Professor Fuchs (and "Forsythia" is named after a Mr. Forsythe).

I thought it was interesting that what is now a color name as much as a plant name (I'll bet it is now used more frequently as a color name), was a personal name, and that that personal name meant "fox." So I did a little digging in my trusty copy of Onions and elsewhere.

Leonhart Fuchs was a professor of Medicine at the Tübingen University in the 16th century. In 1703 Charles Plumier named a plant after him, the Fuchsia (the "world's most carefully spelled flower").

In Modern German, Prof. Fuch's name means "fox." In Old High German, the word for fox is fuhs. In Old Saxon vuhs, Dutch vos, and in Old English, of course, fox, all implying a West Germanic ancestor, *fuxs.

There would then be a feminine form in common Germanic, such as Old English focge, Middle Low German vohe or Old High German foha (which according to Onions, appears in German dialect as fohe). Other related words, Old Norse fóa, Gothic fauho (final vowel is long), thus a Common Germanic ancestor of fux-, arising from *puk-. This is assumed to be the basis for Sanskrit púcchas, which means "tail."

There are parallels in Russian and Polish: pukh, meaning hair or down. Onions speculates that the origin of the word may be "the tailed one."

So, if you describe a dress as being "fuschia" (to use the American spelling), you are, through a long train, connected to a furry tailed animal that looks nothing like an exotic pink plant.

And there is another weird connection between foxes and plants. Digitalis, "foxglove" goes back to Old English, foxenglofa (second o is long) and there must somehow be a deeper connection between foxes and this particular plant, because in Norwegian revbjelde, "fox-bell" is the name for the same plant. So the "fox" is the common part: you can see how the flower can look like a glove, or look like a bell, but why associate it with the fox? I wonder.

No science is more romantic or inspiring as philology, and none better illuminates the mysteries of the past.

(Marcel, maybe we can translate that into 19th-Century German...)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hild and the Ammonites
(The connections between medieval culture and paleontology: they're everywhere!)

I've just been thoroughly enjoying reading Richard Fortey's wonderful Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, where I learned that the Jurassic Lias Formation is particularly well-exposed in the cliffs near Whitby. In that formation are many ammonites of the genus Dactylioceras, which are particularly beautiful. According to Fortey, local legend says that these ammonites (which were once among the most common molluscs on earth) are snakes that were turned into stone by Abbess Hild. Some of the fossils are even embellished with carved snake heads.

So you see, studying evolutionary biology has not just deep, but also superficial connections to medieval literature and culture!
Graduate School in English: Frequently Asked Questions

(I'm writing this up to post on the new "Graduate School" bulletin board in the department, but I thought it also might be useful here.  This is a draft, and when I get feedback from colleagues or from here, I will probably revise before giving the paper copy to the students. Some of this is Wheaton-specific, but I am too exhausted after the first day of classes to do more than paste right now). 

Frequently Asked Questions about Graduate School in English

Q: Why go to graduate school?

A: Don’t go just because you liked college and want more of the same. Go because you have a passion for a subject and want additional training. Graduate school is a significant expenditure of time and money—think carefully about your decision. If you want to be a lawyer or a professor, graduate school is essential. For fields such as teaching, you want to investigate whether or not getting a job first is beneficial: that job may, after a few years, pay your tuition to go to graduate school.
A trite but often-true comment is that you don’t go to graduate school to get a good first job (because it often doesn’t help there), but to move up the ladder faster after you get that first job.

Q: Where should I go?

A: You need to investigate. A school’s overall reputation is not particularly helpful for graduate school. You want to go to a program that teaches what you want to learn. Talk to your professors, particularly those members of the faculty who have most recently been to graduate school. Check the websites of the schools that interest you. Be willing to look outside New England. Who you study with is more important than where you study, so do some research.

Q: How do I pay for graduate school?

A: You can apply for scholarships and fellowships, but they are difficult at times to get. Large, land-grant schools, particularly those in the Midwest, will often pay your tuition and give you a stipend in return for your teaching first-year writing. Getting some experience tutoring can help you secure one of these teaching fellowships. See the Filene Center for more help with scholarship applications.

Q: When do I apply?

A: A general rule of thumb is that you want to get your applications basically finished up around Halloween of your senior year. But each program has a different deadline (usually in January), and you need to check these out on your own.

Q: Do I have to take the GRE? Which exams?

A: For most graduate programs in the US, you will need the general GRE (which has three areas, Verbal, Math and Logic). Most graduate programs in English only care about your verbal score. The GRE in English Literature is not held in high esteem by most members of the Wheaton faculty, as it measures more how many survey courses you have had rather than the in-depth thinking that we value. However, if the place you want to apply requires the GRE in English Literature, you will need to take it. We do not recommend taking both exams on the same day. Generally, you want to take your general exam in the October/November time frame and the subject exam, if you need it, in the later period.

Q: How do I handle letters of recommendation?

A: You want letters from professors who know you and your work well and can speak specifically about you. You should schedule a meeting to talk to your letter-writers well in advance of the deadline. Faculty on research leave will usually be able to write letters, but you need to give them plenty of notice. It is a good idea to give a professor a copy of your personal statement and an example of your work when you give them the paperwork for the letters.

Q: What about all that paperwork that comes with the letters?

A: You must be sure to print it unless it is to be submitted electronically (many law-school applications are, for example). Give your letter-writer:

1). Copies of all forms, filled out by you, with your signature in the “I waive/don’t waive” box. This is important and many students forget.
2). An addressed and stamped envelope. If the application says for the professor to return the sealed envelope to you, give the professor an envelope addressed to you. Write, in pencil, the deadline on the lower right-hand corner of the envelope. On the lower left-hand corner, write the school to which you are applying (this is for your benefit, so that you can put the right letter in the right packet if you are assembling it).
3). A list of the places to which you are applying and the deadlines for each of them.

Q: What is the most important part of my application?

A: For creative writing or journalism, your application will be judged almost entirely on your portfolio, and often on the first few pages of that portfolio. Revise, revise, revise! And use the resources at the Kollett Center to help you. Your personal statement will be important as much for the quality of the writing as for the content. Your sample paper (if this is requested) should be as perfect as you can make it.

Q: What if I don’t get in?

A: Try again. Graduate schools used to look at students who came straight from undergrad as “fast track.” This is no longer true. Some additional life experience is actually a big plus, so by doing something other than grad school for a few years, you will actually be improving your chances. Of course if you can sail around Cape Horn in an open boat with only a sloth and a chinchilla for companions, you’ll have a compelling story. But the average age of students in graduate school has been steadily creeping up for years. You may run into setbacks, but, as a Wheaton student, you can overcome them with the same qualities of perseverance and intelligence that got you this far.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My daughter, the famous actor, and the plastic animals:
A story of contingency

I was recently reading Dinochick Blogs and noticed that the author had just received her Primeval Predators: the plastic animals of the Burgess Shale.  You may remember these plastic animals from a few years back, when I gave a paper at Kalamazoo and used them as visual aids

Anyway, I have a story about the Burgess Shale animals, my daughter, and famous actors. 

A couple of years ago I was part of the educational programming at The Gathering of the Fellowship, part II, in Toronto, a Tolkien fan event.  The Gathering had different levels of tickets you could buy that gave you different kinds of access to the people there.  There was a "VIP" event one evening at which the various speakers, artists and actors (from The Lord of the Rings films) would meet and greet people who had purchased the VIP tickets. 

Now, the people who bought these tickets wanted to meet the actors from the films, not meet me, and I figured that I would go to the event, watch people talking to the actors, and then leave.  But there were a few wrinkles. 

My son, who was two years old, was really having trouble falling asleep in a hotel room with all the rest of us present and awake.  So while my wife worked on getting him to sleep, I  took my daughter, who was nearly six years old, down to the event.  That day we had been at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I had bought the Burgess Shale plastic animals--for my teaching, but when you have a six-year-old and you buy plastic animals, you can bet that she'll be playing with them. 

So I found a corner of a room for her to sit on the floor with Anomalocaris and Wiwaxia and Opabinia, making a little animal circus.  Then, to my surprise, a few people wanted to talk to me about Tolkien.  While I was talking, I drifted away from my daughter and got more involved in the conversation. 

Then suddenly I noticed a lot of flashbulbs going off.  When I turned around I saw, and I am not making this up, Craig Parker, who played Haldir in The Lord of the Rings sitting on the floor playing Burgess Shale animals with my daughter.  He was completely surrounded, and I am not making this up either, by a circle of (mostly) women with cameras, taking pictures of him playing with Anomalocaris, et al.   I stood there in shock and watched this, and it went on for about fifteen minutes.  He and my daughter kept chatting and doing "Burgess Shale circus" (Anomalocaris and Opabinia can both do very good backflips) and people stood around and took pictures of them. 

Now I'm sure that part of this whole thing was that Craig wanted a short break from all the people who were chatting with him.  But it was really awfully nice of him to play with my daughter all this time.  And for the rest of the event, he went out of his way to go up to her, give her a hug and say "hi."  She also became friendly with Bruce Hopkins, who played Gamling.  And so, by the end of the Gathering, my daughter was saying "There's my friend the famous movie star," and "there's my other friend, the famous movie star who wanted to take his horse surfing" (a story Bruce made up for her).    

So it all started with the Burgess Shale animals, and I think Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased and surprised what his book Wonderful Life had wrought.  Certainly all the contingency that interested him is evident in this story.  

(Last year, at the Santa Fe Institute, I got to meet Doug Erwin of the Smithsonian.  When I got back from SFI, my daughter said "The next time you see him, can you ask if we can borrow Opabinia?" I haven't dared ask that question.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Method: Push the Metaphor Until it Breaks
(or, mocking "imbricated" yet again)

I've been involved in an interesting exchange of emails with a student about how to do Tolkien studies, and that discussion have evolved into a larger discussion about intellectual practice.  This student is non-traditional, someone who has come to academia from a physical-labor and highly skilled job.  He/she asked me for some trick about how to generate ideas for papers and arguments.  I came up with a few and thought I would share one here:  push the metaphor until it breaks, then look at the broken pieces and figure out why it broke. 

So, for example, if you hear Foucault's metaphor of the "prisonhouse of language," push the metaphor: who is the warden? what shape would that prisonhouse be? Do people get work release? Is there parole?  Do people in it have just one cell mate?  Communal showers? Exercise yard?   Etc., etc. 

If you can build the metaphor bigger and bigger, and figure out how all those pieces might fit in, then that metaphor might be robust.  In Daniel Dennett's terms, it's a good "intuition pump." But if the metaphor collapses when pushed, then you know that perhaps it wasn't a good one, that it wasn't carrying the things you wanted it to carry. 

Which brings me to "imbricated," a metaphor in theory-speak for discourses that overlap, but don't overlap completely. 

Here's the problem.  "Imbricatus," especially when applied, as it originally was, to fish and reptile taxonomy (to describing animals with scales), really means "overlapping like shingles on a roof." (The alternates for scale descriptions are often "tessellatus," tessellated, like floor tiles, and tuberculatus, having small patches of scales surrounded by a lump, a tubercle). 

But do discourses really overlap like shingles on a roof?  To push the metaphor, that means that the overlap on each shingle is exactly the same amount.  And furthermore, that each shingle is identical to each other shingle, so the "imbrication" is really the same everywhere.  It seems to me that the metaphor of "imbricated discourses" breaks right here, and it breaks because the metaphorical description is not a particularly good intuition pump.  When you think of discourses as overlapping like shingles, the abstraction doesn't really help you understand anything else about the discourses.  When you start to manipulate the metaphor in your mind, you don't really find anything that you didn't already know (the way that manipulating other metaphors, such as genes as "wanting" to assist their copies--though I'm not a great fan of this metaphor--does help to uncover new relationships). 

And this is why I think that using the phrase "imbricated discourses" is really just a bit of ossified jargon whose real purpose is to obscure, not to illuminate.  "Partially overlapping" or "networked" or "intertwined" might not seem so technical, but these are actually better intuition pumps.  Hence I take the phrase "imbricated discourses" as being equivalent to a cliche in a short story: I start to think that the author hasn't put as much thought as was needed into the argument and is lazily relying upon materials pre-fabricated (and not pre-fabricated very well) by others. 

So the method is this:  don't automatically avoid the metaphor, but see if, by going along with it to the extreme of reducto ad absurdum, you can get it to break.  Then do failure analysis. 

(and I'll note that a very extended metaphor, that doesn't easily break, was developed by King Alfred in the Preface to the translation of Augustine's Soliloquies.  Alfred himself pushes that metaphor a long, long way without breaking it). 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Model
(But would it work if it were generalized?)

As you may have guess from the my post from the other day, the late Stephen Jay Gould is one of my intellectual heroes.  I have, to my sorrow, become convinced that a lot of his more theoretical biology is not right, or that he exaggerated the novelty and significance of some of  his ideas (a failing to which we are all prone).  But I still love him.  And I have to tell you that when I met Gould, he was immediately entered into the highly competitive "Famous Person who is  not a Jerk" hall of fame.  Others included in this august group include Simon Keynes, John Hines, Michelle Brown, E. O. Wilson, Sarah Beckwith, Bharti Mukherjee.  (Those who didn't make the cut include David Halperin, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathleen Biddick--sorry guys; maybe next time you won't be jerky to the little people).  But I'll tell the story of Gould and my undergraduate student's play and Gould's dinner with us later.  Now I want to talk about Gould's methodology and how I've tried to emulate it.  

Gould was a specialist on Cerion, a genus of land snails from Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He continued consistent, painstaking and excellent work on these snails throughout his working life.  He said that, to be a good scientist, you have to gather data with you own hands, do your own measurements, touch and feel the specimens.  Generalizing this kind of work beyond biology, I think of this kind of research as the "immersing yourself in the material" (such as translating for yourself very long texts or reading entire shelves of EETS material or the ASPR), and its results, in publications, as the "technical contributions" we make or the "technical research" we do.  In medieval studies the analogues would be emending (or un-emending) texts, discovering sources, re-dating material.  I think this is very, very important, and when I am in a position of judging people for endowed Chairs, tenure, fellowships, etc., I look to see if they've made any technical contributions and rate these much more highly than literary criticism or theoretical approaches. 

But Gould did not only do technical research on land snails in Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He also proposed and argued for some significant revisions of the Darwinian "new synthesis" (which had been developed when Mendelian models of heredity were coupled with the principle of Natural Selection; recent work that is called "Evo-Devo" -- Evolution and Development -- has integrated work in developmental biology into the new synthesis.  This is where bio is right now).  With Niles Eldredge Gould proposed "Punctuated Equilibrium," the idea that morphologies are static for long periods of time and then change rather rapidly rather than the continuous rate of very slow change that Gould attributed to Darwin (opponents of Gould noted that Darwin had at least made a few motions towards punctuated equilibrium and that Gould and Eldredge weren't as revolutionary as they claimed to be; the truth is somewhere in the middle -- Gould and Eldredge were excellent self-promoters, and not all Darwinians were complete gradualists, but Punctuated Equilibrium did more to change the thinking of theoretical biologists than opponents often admit).  With Elizabeth Vrba, Gould made other theoretical contributions, and in his final opus, published posthumously, he tried to revise the Evo-Devo paradigm somewhat (though there is still a lot of argument as to whether or not Gould's claims for being different are really true -- he wanted to focus on contingency in a historical sense and on constraints of possible body plans in the Evo-Devo sense--paleontologists I know say that they always believed in contingency (see K-T asteroid impact); developmental biologists whom I know say that a major part of their work is figuring out which biochemistry and morphology is absolutely constrained and which is more subject to variation).  

I would liken this aspect of Gould's work to aspects of theory or literary criticism in medieval studies: they are matters of interpretation, sometimes significant (because they lead researchers to new technical questions or they help to integrate many disparate facts), sometimes less so (because they are simply arguments over "spandrels" and how important they are in evolution or wholly insider debates). One difference might be that Gould was making a lot of the theory himself or at least modifying it significantly rather than taking the theory of X and applying it to the texts Y and Z.  Valuing this part of Gould's work is difficult.  I know one pretty prominent biologist who told me that "everything that Gould was right about was conventional wisdom and everything he was revolutionary about turned out to be wrong. Mostly he just changed emphasis."  I think changing emphasis is pretty important, but I am not a working biologist.  In literary study, I'm inclined to be a lot less interested or impressed by "The Seafarer: The 500th debate on the number of speakers" or "Yet another argument about 'ofermod'" or "How feminine is Grendel's mother?" than I am about work that integrates wide-ranging material (like that by Lapidge, Gretsch, Orchard).  

But in addition to his detailed technical work and his theoretical approaches, Gould also wrote a monthly column, This View of Life in Natural History, a magazine I had been reading since I was six years old.  Nerdy story:  when I arrived at college and first had a checking account (I only had passbook savings before then), the first two checks I wrote were to the American Littoral Society, which entitled me to their journal, Underwater Naturalist, and to the American Museum of Natural History (my favorite indoor place on the face of the earth, and where I hope someone can smuggle in my skeleton when I'm dead) which got me Natural History at college.  
Gould's "This View of Life" was the must-read for any issue of Natural History, and I can remember sitting in my windowsill at Morewood Gardens, at Carnegie Mellon, eating a quiet lunch and just loving learning about biology and evolution from Gould.  This was Gould's popular work, where he took technical materials from evolutionary biology and explained it clearly to interested laypeople (and every biologist I know read "This View of Life" religiously).   In "This View of Life," Gould made arguments about evolutionary theory for a wider audience, presented technical materials for lay readers, and he just wrote beautifully and entertainingly.  

I would liken this part of Gould's career to those medievalists, like Scott Nokes and Tom Shippey and Michelle Brown, who make a real effort, in different venues and in different ways, to explain medieval studies, and their importance, to lay people. This work not only helps to recruit new students and spread the word of important intellectual discoveries, but it makes the general public, parents, legislators and donors more willing to support medieval studies.  I also think--and here I am not a majority opinion, I think--that if you can't explain the technical materials in terms that a layman can understand (or you choose not to) you are abdicating an important responsibility of disseminating your work as well as doing it.  This doesn't mean that an article in ASE should read like a blog post (God forbid), but it does suggest that impenetrable prose is a failing.  In Wonderful Life, after all, Gould spends 118 pages on arthropod taxonomy and its significance, and that book made best-seller lists and I regularly teach it to first-year students in English 101 (as an example of extended argument and beautiful writing.  We don't skip the discussion of bi-ramous appendages and tagmosis in the cephalon).  

I will, of course, never reach Gould's level, but I have tried to model my career and my research on what I perceive of his approach (and the single best piece of advice I ever got about graduate school, I got from Wonderful Life, where Gould says that most important thing is the person you study with, not the place  you go.  Which is why I went to do my Ph.D. with Allen Frantzen despite the rest of the Loyola English department, the funding situation, etc.).   My idea is to balance real, technical contributions (my re-dating of the Rule of Chrodegang translation, for instance or, in Tolkien studies, my work on trying to figure out what Tolkien was trying to do with Goths and the ancestors of the Rohirrim) with more literary approaches (Blood and Deeds in Beowulf) and of course my theory in How Tradition Works, and at the same time doing outreach, involving undergraduates and the community in research, and communicating to as wide an audience as possible why what we do is interesting and important.   

The nice thing about this model is that I am never bored.  The bad thing is that I always have too much on my plate.  But thus far--at least 15 years since I really realized that I was going to be an academic--it has served me well.   I don't know if it is generalizable as a model of scholarship.  Elite places, correctly, in my view, value technical contributions more.  And it is a sad state of affairs that there is no humanities equivalent to Natural History (if anyone founds one, I volunteer to write the equivalent of the "This View of Life" column), so that kind of outreach is difficult.  But I can, without too much hesitation, recommend this kind of balancing.  Having to explain for a general audience sharpens your thinking.  Having to make technical contributions helps keep you out beyond the event horizon of the twin black holes of mere opinions: solipsism and politics.  Not eliminating your subjective, hard-to-argue literary intuition opens up more fields of inquiry than the re-trenchment approach of late 20th-century philology: "we will only speak of what we can absolutely prove."  

Finally, and here I shill for the liberal arts education yet again, the kind of polymath study that Gould did enables breakthroughs in all areas.  The more you know about what is going on in other fields, the more you can apply to the difficult problems in your own field.  And the more you stick with your technical projects, the more the other things will fall into place.  And really, in the end, Gould was just a great person to sit a listen to and argue with.  In my experience, the place to really find people like that is in the Science Center. Happy hunting.

Monday, August 18, 2008

You know what would have made the famous Angelina Jolie "Naked Philology" scene in the Beowulf movie even better?

If she had had this tattooed on her lower back:

"None among all the sciences is prouder, nobler or more contentious than philology, or less merciful to error."
Is that a reasonable translation, Marcel, or should I have said "No science" and "more merciless to error" to be idiomatic?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Brief Moment of Olympic Pride and Cheerleading

The country of which I am a dual citizen is just crushing everything beneath its feet in the running events. 

Go Jamaica!!
Three Medievalish Scholarly Books I Wish I had Written

Mechthild Gretsch, The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform.

(possibly the book of scholarship that has most inspired me in my life and the most learned, precise argument I have ever read in my field. I read it straight through twice the first time I picked it up. Never, in my opinion, has anyone done more to integrate disparate materials into a coherent and believable argument [though a lot of Lapidge's stuff comes close])

Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth.

(I had plans to write this book. I had an outline to write this book. Then I read it and discovered that Tom had written it ten years before I started the outline. And it was better than mine would have been. I was prepared to hate Tom for that. Then I met him and it was the opposite).

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

(Ward-Perkins manages to make a discussion of pottery shards (superficially the most boring subject in the history of earth) into a fascinating page-turner that proves a much larger points. I would give one of my various paired organs to be able to write like him).

The Three Most Inspirational Non-Medievalist Scholarly Books I Have Ever Read

Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype.
(Possibly the most beautifully constructed, long argument I have ever read).

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

(A true synthesis of the kind I have always wanted to write, and an enormous pleasure to read. Like the other books on this list, I pick it up to find a quote and find that I am still reading it forty-five minutes later).

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

(Yes, I know that not all of Gould's claims have stood up. Yes, he contradicts himself within a span of eight pages at the end. Yes, he's wrong about Hallucigenia. Don't care. I remember sitting next to my aunt's pool in the summer of 1980 and feeling like the top of my head was coming off, this book was so inspiring).  

I'm curious to know what books serve the same function for my colleagues.  

Friday, August 15, 2008

So a mathematician walks into a bar...

In a comment to the previous post, John Cowan told an engineer vs. mathematician joke. I am married to an engineer, co-teach a course with a mathematician, have published jointly with a biologist, and am in the midst of an enormous project with a computer scientist and another mathematician and a biologist. There is some truth in all the stereotypes. So here are my two favorite jokes that poke fun at the different disciplines.

First joke

An engineer, a chemist and a mathematician are all staying at a hotel after a conference. Three small fires simultaneously break out in the wastepaper baskets in their rooms.

The engineer wakes up, looks at the fire, makes a quick calculation, puts exactly the right amount of water into the ice bucket, and pours it on the fire. Fire is out and no water spills out of the basket.

The chemist wakes up, looks at the fire, fills up five different vessels and dumps them onto the fire and then, just for good measure, runs the shower on the wastepaper basket for an hour. There's a lot of water damage, but the fire is out.

The mathematician wakes up, looks at the fire, looks at the ice bucket, looks at the water tap, and says "There is a solution." Then he goes back to sleep.

Second joke

A physicist, a biologist and a mathematician are sitting in a cafe and chatting. They notice two people go into a house. A few minutes later, three people come out.

The physicist says "The initial measurement was in error."
The biologist says "They must have reproduced."
The mathematician says "If one person goes back into the house, it will then be empty."

Gratuitous completely nerdy math joke

Q: What do you get when you cross rabbit and elephant?
A: Rabbit elephant sine theta.

Gratuitous completely nerdy physics joke

2+2=5 for very large values of 2 or small values of 5.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I'm learning to think
more like a mathematician, and that's a good thing.

Last year I co-taught the "The Edge of Reason," the paired Math/Science Fiction courses that my friend and colleague, Professor Bill Goldbloom Bloch and I designed (Bill, by the way has an absolutely brilliant book on the mathematics of Borges' "Library of Babel" coming out any day now from Oxford). So every teaching day I was in a classroom with a mathematician, learning more of the very high-end math along with the students and really starting to understand how mathematicians think.

This year Bill and I are teaching an experimental course, Logic and Language, in which we will be taking students (mainly sophomores) through, among other things, Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, Computability and Logic by George Boolos, et. al., and Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Topics to be covered include transformational generative grammar, information theory, computability, Turing machines, and Gödell's incompleteness theorem.

This summer I have been collaborating with Prof. of Computer Science Mark LeBlanc and Prof. of Mathematics Mike Kahn (a specialist in statistics). We have been building some pretty cool software.

In prepping and teaching the courses, and doing the research, I've learned a lot of important reasoning skills, because mathematicians and computer scientists have different ways of thinking that are incredibly useful. Here's just one.

Let's say other people have proven a lot of things about Turing Machines. And let's say you're working on something else, like Wang Tiles. Well, a mathematician thinks, "hmmm... there's all this cool stuff about Turing Machines over here. If I can prove that a set of Wang Tiles can work like a Turing Machine then, boom!, I've just proved a whole ton of stuff about Wang Tiles without having to prove it specifically for Wang Tiles."

This sounds obvious in my summary, but it's the kind of obvious that I really only got after we'd done stuff like it a bunch of times. For example, number theory, long thought to be the most abstruse and useless part of math, turns out to be absolutely essential for doing secure credit card transactions on the internet. That's nice to know, but it's mind-blowing to work through all the underlying math and see how it all falls together.

And this brings me to just one quick opportunity to shill for a liberal arts education that includes a lot of math and science: The only way to make those kinds of connections, to say "Oh, this set of Wang Tiles is really just a Turing Machine," is to have, floating around in your head, a lot of information about different and disparate fields. That's why I read as much evolutionary biology (and now as much math) as I can get my hands on: the more I pack into my skull, I think, the more likely I am to be able to make those kinds of connections and to think like a mathematician.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Turtla (or, possibly, Turtle)

Today, after dropping off my daughter at camp, I was driving back along Route 1 here in Dedham. I noticed something on the side of the road. It was this guy (possibly girl; a female would be more likely at this time of year, but this turtle's plastron seems pretty concave to me, so I was thinking "turtla" rather than "turtle").

I was afraid that he was going to wander into traffic and get killed--and possibly hurt someone in the process, since he weighs at least 15 pounds and is about 30 inches long--so I pulled over and picked him up, thinking to take him back to the marshy woods behind TGI Fridays. But as I began to carry him through the parking lot, I noticed some workers looking at me funny as I brought the turtle closer and closer to where they were working. I rapidly came to the conclusion that they might not appreciate my letting a 15-pound snapping turtle loose near where they were working.

So I took the turtle back to my car and put it in my trunk, saying to him "You're a lucky turtle, buddy. I'm from New Jersey. Usually when we put somebody in a car trunk, they don't come back out."

I'm waiting until it gets dark tonight, and then I will release him safely.

This has been quite the year of the turtle. Last summer I rescued an endangered gopher tortoise from the road in Florida, and in June my daughter worked on a Diamondback Terrapin conservation project with my colleague Prof. Barbara Brennessel (you may know her as the co-author of the paper testing medieval medicine in Anglo-Saxon England).

At least none of these turtles peed all over me the way that the turtle I took out of the road on Cape Cod a few years back did. Who says nothing ever improves?