I’ve been quiet of late, mostly because I’ve had several projects all coming to fruition more or less at the same time, followed by the end-of-term throes that I’m slogging through right now.
Managing to get it all done put me in shut-up-and-work mode for a few months.
The last of those items to manage is the first one I’ll talk about here:
The Livingston Paleography Traveling Show
As an academic I’m a medievalist: I study the culture of the Middle Ages. All aspects of medieval culture are subject to my examination — history, literature, theology, philosophy, language, etc. — for one could hardly examine any of those cultural phenomena without an awareness of the interplay among all of them.
Nevertheless, one must specialize. And to date my primary specialty has been in the editing of medieval texts: making them accessible by moving them from manuscripts onto the printed page. All of my academic books — including this next one, just finished, that I’ll discuss in a later post — have found me reading and editing manuscripts.
And to do that, folks, I have to engage in paleography: the study (and thus the ability to read) old handwriting and abbreviations.
I was incredibly fortunate during my first Master’s degree (at the Medieval Institute) to learn paleography at the feet of Tim Graham, who has since gone on to head-up the medieval programs at UNM and to write what may be the best modern introductory textbook on manuscript studies. I then honed my skills in a Master’s thesis (editing the Kingis Quair) before doing manuscript work for the Middle English Texts Series (eventually joining the Advisory Board) and publishing my own scholarly editions. Even as a graduate student I was teaching graduate courses in paleography and editing, which was pretty cool.
All of which leads me to my Spring Break. No, I wasn’t lounging about a beach somewhere. I was at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, teaching a week-long paleography workshop.
I received my undergraduate degree from Baylor in 1998, and I hadn’t been back since. So when Tom Hanks invited me to come to campus to give this workshop for the Medieval-Renaissance Research Seminar — with funding from the departments of English, History, Modern Foreign Languages, and Religion — I jumped at it.
It is a rare thing for me to get nervous, but I’ll admit to a little pre-game jitters to run a workshop for a mix of graduate students and faculty from four departments at my former undergraduate institution.
Happily, things could not have gone better.
The graduate students I met were incredible. Passionate and interested, they willingly spent two hours every evening — from 7:30 to 9:30 — learning codicology and paleography. Just wonderful. I also had the opportunity to give an hour-long public lecture — on Tolkien, of course — that seemed to be very well received.
And of course I was able to revisit many old haunts and former professors. It was remarkable that so many folks remembered me — and many with good memories even! The chance to thank those who helped me get where I am was priceless.
So it was a splendid workshop, a splendid remembrance of times past, and hopefully only the first of many more similar opportunities.
School started today, which meant a number of students coming to my office to ask what I thought about the new Hobbit movie. The short answer is I liked it.
. . .
The long answer — indeed, the long-winded long answer of a scholar who publishes on medieval literature, Tolkien, and fantasy in general — follows.
[In what follows there will be spoilers concerning both book and film. You've been warned...]
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a good movie, and I mean that in all sincerity. If you like this sort of thing at all — and if you don’t, why the hell are you reading this review? — then you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s entertaining.
That said, Unexpected Journey is not a great movie.
And, truth be told, it never could be.
Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a busy month, but that’s not news.
What is news is this: Last Monday I was awarded the Citadel’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Scholarship, Teaching, and Service. It’s a new award, and it’s pretty darn nifty honor to receive it.
Even better, my parents — who are on a cross-continent trip-of-awesomeness — surprised me by showing up for the little presentation ceremony.
Well, truth be told they were coming to surprise me for my birthday, which was the following day, but by chance that meant they were able to be there for my award and a celebratory dinner afterward.
Quite the great few days, to be sure.
Things are otherwise moving along in this neck of the woods. I’ve sent two articles off this past month, and I have two more on the desk awaiting a spare hour or two to polish them off for submission. The Owain Glyndwr Casebook moves along — steady as she goes — and the end of the term approaches.
It seems like time goes faster and faster these days, and I’m sure hoping science can put a stop to that. I have work to do, damnit!
Some weeks ago, a student of mine posed a question to me in the minutes before class began:
If you could meet five people, from any time in history, who would they be?
I didn’t have time to think about the notion then, and I’d essentially forgotten all about it until just now. But I’ve pondered it for the past three minutes or so, and I think I’ve got a working answer, which is to break these five spots into categories — personal, religious, political, cultural, and spiteful — and I’ll choose one figure from each.
For many reasons, this kind of list is inherently dependent upon the context of the moment and the individual. My answer probably won’t be the same tomorrow. And even my idea of categories might break down altogether: After the next presidential
lie-a-thon debate, for instance, I might want just five political figures; that would give me more folks with whom to drink away our dreams for the future of this nation.
Regardless, here’s the list for now:
1. [Personal] My Grandfather. When I was in eighth grade, I won the school science fair and got to go to the state competition. My grandfather on my mom’s side had been a science teacher, and he was, in the purest sense of the word, a good man. We had always been close, and so I called him. He was thrilled. He said he was proud of me. He was coming to visit us soon, and he couldn’t wait to hear all about it. That was the last time I spoke to him, and I’d like to see him just once more, just for a moment, just to tell him that I love him and to hear him say — as I hope he is — that he’s proud of me.
2. [Religious] Jesus. Some good comes from religion. So does a whole hell of a lot of evil (far more than comes of atheism, as it happens, but that’s another topic). In fact, I’m devilishly tempted to fill the rest of this list with religious founders just so that I could get them all to see what is done in their names. Then I’d parade them out in front of everyone so we could all get their stories straight. Probably wouldn’t go well, though. I suspect that a great many Christians would stone Jesus in the name of Jesus. Would be surreal, but sorta not cool.
3. [Political] Thomas Jefferson. I will freely admit my bias in saying this: I think that mine is the greatest country on the planet. And it is so because of a group of flawed human beings who saw their weaknesses and their strengths and wisely came together to form for this new world a new vision of freedom. I’d like to chat with them all, frankly, but I think I’m most fascinated by Jefferson. No, America doesn’t get everything right. Health care is a mess. Our political system is dangerously fractured by demagogues and ideologues. And in the name of freedom we are astonishingly willing to sacrifice our freedoms and those of others. Frankly, I’d like to know what Jefferson would think of it all. I don’t know that he’d have great solutions, mind you — he’d probably be too mesmerized by my iPhone to think straight — but it would be fun to talk with him about the issues just the same.
4. [Cultural] Geoffrey Chaucer. I know, I’m a homer. It’s honestly a tough call betwixt my boy Geoffrey, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Michelangelo, but in any case it mostly comes down to me wanting to shake the man’s hand. Sure, I’d also like to ask them some questions — “So, Geoff, did you really intend to write more Canterbury tales? And how did you die, anyway?” — but more than anything I would just like to shake their hands firmly, look them in the eyes, and say thanks.
5. [Spiteful] Adolf Hitler. I want the chance to kick him in the gonads. Scratch that. I want us all to have the chance to kick him in the gonads. Town by town, country by country, I’ll take Hitler around the world he wanted to rule and give everyone an opportunity to line up and swing away. I’ll ask only for donations — a dollar, a dime, a can of corn for the homeless, whatever you can afford — and it’ll be the greatest tour in history: “Kick Hitler in the Sack! In Topeka for One Night Only!”
So that’s five for the moment. Who y’all got?
My next academic book is a “casebook” about Owain Glyndwr. It’s shaping up to be a terrific volume, with a number of great essays and (most importantly, I think) the primary medieval and early modern sources about his life, presented in their original languages (mainly Latin, Welsh, Anglo-Norman, Old French, and Middle English) and facing-page translations.
In some ways this is a much easier project than the casebook for the Battle of Brunanburh. I have a co-editor this time (Welsh scholar John Bollard), and there are fewer languages and fewer essays to deal with. On the other hand, Brunanburh only had 53 sources, and I was only responsible for 14 of them. This time, there are (at current count) 88 sources, and I am responsible for 31 of them. Since I am also (as with the Brunanburh book) doing all the formatting and book design myself, this means I’m sorta kinda busy even when I’m not teaching and grading and what-not.
What’s been fun, though, is that many of those 31 sources I’m editing and translating are in Anglo-Norman, a language I’ve dabbled in but never had to utilize extensively. No longer! This morning, for instance, I will spend most of my time in the office translating a letter written by Hotspur to King Henry IV in November 1401.
Don’t even try to tell me my life isn’t pretty cool.
A writing retreat is a good thing.
With no worries but the words, the pressures of life relieve a little bit. And being surrounded by like-minded people frittering away on their keyboards … well, you tend to get a fair amount accomplished.
Now add in a beautiful location, good weather, and good friends old and new. That’s what made my recent days at the Woodthrush Writing Retreat (ironically) indescribably awesome.
Article Series - Chaucerizing
I am, as noted, at a writer’s retreat hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’ve been here an hour and already it is many shades of wonderful.
One of the great things about a retreat like this is the truly terrific folks you get to meet. Last year, for instance, I got to meet and hang out with Monte Cook, who is a Legend in the world of role-playing games. Plus, he is a helluva nice guy.
Monte is quite particularly known for his connections with Dungeons and Dragons, so I told him last year that I would Chaucerize one of my favorite D&D spells in his honor.
I then completely forgot about it.
Until this afternoon, as I was driving through Atlanta traffic on the way to the retreat at which I would see him once more.
So — and please don’t try this at home kids — I Chaucer’d the Fireball Spell right then and there.
I hereby present, in honor of his Monte-ness and with great apologies for its tardiness, the Bal of Fyre Spel:
First, the original, taken from the d20 site online (thank you, iPhone!):
A fireball spell is an explosion of flame that detonates with a low roar and deals 1d6 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 10d6) to every creature within the area. Unattended objects also take this damage. The explosion creates almost no pressure.
And how Chaucer might’ve said it:
A Bal of Fyre Spell is a blasyng of flamme that goeth oute with a low noyse and giveth IdVI partes of fyre harme for eche witch ranke (up to XdVI) to everi creature nere unto hit. Thinges not helde taketh this harme als wele. The blasynge of flamme ne maketh not pushing of the aire.
There were some difficulties in translating this — being in Atlanta traffic being one of them — but the part that most bent my mind around was how a fourteenth-century fellow might think about our modern idea of air pressure, particularly of the concussive variety. I settled on a push of air, but I can’t say I’m completely sold on it.
Anyone else out there have a better idea?
I’m fried. That’s the sad truth of it. Teaching an overload, ramping up duties for this and that, working night and day on the Owain Glyndwr project … I can honestly say I’m not firing on all cylinders.
I like to think that other folks — my students especially — don’t notice, but even if they don’t, I do.
And I don’t like it.
What I especially don’t like is how the strain of the constant workload has essentially shut down my fiction writing output.
And that, folks, is why today is a Very Good Day. Because today I head up to a writer’s retreat run by Mary Robinette Kowal. For the rest of the week, I’ll be surrounded by writers. There will be no Latin or Anglo-Norman to translate. There will be no essays to grade. There will be no articles in need of revision or submission in need of editing.
Just me, good people, and the fiction.
I can’t wait to get started.