With the fairly rare prospect of an unbusy weekend stretching ahead of me, I decided on a whim a couple of weeks ago to book a Saturday day registration to Oxonmoot, the Tolkien Society’s annual convention in Oxford, which took place last weekend. Having spent the week resolutely Not Planning Adequately (an unhelpful strategy for avoiding anxiety around Strange People in Strange Setting), I found that I had to get up obscenely early in order to get to Oxford in time for the start of the talks.
So it was a long day.
It was held this year in St Antony’s College, a little way out of the city centre up Woodstock Road, and unfortunately not one of the old colleges. (I think it’s a graduate college in its termtime incarnation.) So having registered and found my way to the lecture theatre and met a TolkSoc friend it was time for the geekery to begin!
First up was a paper on Joseph Wright, a friend of Tolkien’s, which admittedly went completely over my head. I know almost nothing, biographically, about Tolkien; it’s Middle-earth that matters to me, not the man himself, which also explains why he wouldn’t be on my list of Authors I Would Meet if Resurrection Were A Thing. However, the speaker (Ian Spittlehouse, I think – there were some changes to the programme as I have it in my booklet) had made a rather impressive Minecraft model of Wright’s house, so that was something.
Next was another biographical talk, this one on Edith Tolkien’s dance in the cow parsley at Roos, which apparently inspired the meeting of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion and its previous incarnations. (Again, I’ve never been particularly interested in the endless ephemera and marginalia that lie behind The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.) Some quite compelling comparisons were drawn between the Beren and Luthien tale and various features of the Roos churchyard: a disembodied hand on a crypt there turns up later on Beren’s heraldry; a three-trunked tree probably might well prefigure Hirilorn the great beech in which Luthien is imprisoned by Thingol. I do occasionally find these comparisons a little tenuous, but they were convincingly argued here.
After a ten minute break there was a fantastic talk by Irina Metzler on “Myth and Faerie in Smith of Wootton Major”, featuring Comparative Mythology and the slight mendaciousness of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Tales”. Irina made the point, comparing Smith with the Irish tale of Oisin and the Japanese tale of Urashima, that contrary to what Tolkien argues in the essay fairy tales actually rarely end with what he called the eucatastrophe, the happy ending; it’s Tolkien who provides the happy ending to fairy tale structures. I think there’s more to be thought about there (and that may prove good fodder for this year’s Tolkien Reading Marathon, starting in just a couple of weeks now!).
After that was Dimitra Fimi talking about Tolkien’s three book reviews in annual journal The Year’s Work in English Studies, which was stonkingly funny (Tolkien had a most excellent wit, which can be easy to forget when mired in the vast depths of The Silmarillion) and immensely interesting to boot.
This was followed by lunchtime: to my surprise and delight, a packed lunch was included in the price of registration, and won my esteem for ever and a day by including not only the traditional packed lunch staples – sandwich, Walkers crisps, sour green apple – but also two pudding items: a slice of fruitcake and a Penguin biscuit. That was the point at which I knew I was among kindred spirits.
There was also a rather wonderful display of cakes baked by Oxonmoot attendees in various exciting Tolkienian shapes, including a positively Lovecraftian Watcher in the Water.
Then it was back to the lecture theatre for the Tolkien art slideshow, which I am told is an Oxonmoot tradition, poking fun at the many, many examples of misbegotten Tolkienian artistic interpretation. There was some upsetting Alan Lee-bashing (I love Alan Lee’s Tolkien work and will defend it unto my last breath) but all in all it was an hour well spent.
I skipped the talk on Galadriel to go look at the Art Show and Dealers’ Room, which were filled with many, many shinies of which the highlight was undoubtedly Jay Johnstone’s beautiful Tolkien oil paintings which cost approximately the same amount as my monthly take-home salary.
So those are a stretch goal, then.
The next talk was Liz Wright analysing Aragorn’s leadership style, which was amusing up to a point and then just slightly depressing. (The verdict? He is a terrible leader in The Two Towers but turns it around in time for The Return of the King.)
Adriana Taboada was next with a talk on Gollum. I always think Gollum is difficult to talk about without being reductive; you have to work really hard not just to point out interesting things about him and go “look, an interesting thing” without drawing out why it’s significant.
“Tea at Four” was next with Murray Smith, a talk on – yes – the significance of tea in Tolkien. Have you ever noticed that Bilbo is always thinking about putting the kettle on in The Hobbit but that it gets replaced pretty comprehensively by pipe-weed in The Lord of the Rings? No? Well, now you have – and, again, I think there might be some interesting work to do on why that’s the case (especially if we’re thinking about what relation hobbits have to the reader and the world the reader is sitting in).
To round off the day was Joel Cornah with a talk on some of the radio adaptations of Tolkien that there have been and the effectiveness of various actors playing various roles. (John le Mesurier as Bilbo must have been very distracting to anyone listening.)
It was, as I mentioned above, a very long day; and I think I probably missed out on the social aspects by only going for the day. I wouldn’t go again just for the day unless I lived close enough not to have to get up at 5am; but I’d quite like to go for the whole thing one year.