Vermont Softworks

Where good things develop

Posts for Tag: Tolkien

On reading “Here be cartographers”

    cartography     Tolkien

Nicholas Tam, occasional blogger at Ntuple Indemnity, wrote an immensely enjoyable post entitled “Here be cartographers: Reading the fantasy map” last … well, not “last” anything. Last April of 2011.

You know you’re reading a “long-form” blog, when it’s not until the seventh and eighth paragraphs that a writer tells you what he plans to write about:

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere — I would be astonished if there weren’t — but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

And so he does. Tam begin’s with “Thrór’s map” printed on the end paper of The Hobbit, observing that it can be thought of as a map drawn by Tolkien for The Hobbit, by Thrór for his heirs, by Bilbo Baggins (copying Thrór’s map), or by Tolkien (copying Bilbo‘s copy). And we’re down the rabbit hole.

With illustrations of different editions of Thrór’s map, and maps from The Princess Bride, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, Treasure Island, Star Wars, a Soviet Hobbit, the Oz books, Peter Jackson’s movies, the Duncton books, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, as well as pulling in references to Mercator, Cassini, Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo, Pratchett, and Carroll.

He concludes:

Mapmaking does not seem to permit carefully targeted ambiguity with the same flexibility as prose alone. With other forms of book illustration, one always gets the sense that the visual depictions could always be replaced or re-envisioned some other way. Maps exert a stronger form of authority: any improvements or revisions by readers or in future editions take place within the author’s borders as if they were immutable, objective truths.

It is a strange twist indeed that we are less liable to accept in fiction than in reality that cartography is a form of language: a medium for our perception of place, not to be confused with place itself. If there is a remedy for this, it may resemble the solution we developed for language, and take the form of self-conscious experimentation with maps as narrative voices — subjective, perspectival, and often unreliable. Literary writing deserves a literary map.

For anyone interested in cartography, fantasy writing, publishing, or semiotics (and, truthfully speaking, how many of us are not?), Tam’s essay is worth reading in full. Make sure you have a good half-hour for it; you’ll likely be thinking about it for days.

Facsimile of Tolkien’s full 1956 letter to Cotton Minchin

    maps     primary sources     Tolkien

Tolkien’s letter to H. Cotton Minchin, page one

page two

page three

page four

page five

See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981, #187.

The American auction house RR Auction recently sold Tolkien’s 1956 letter to H. Cotton Minchin.

2016-11-04: RR Auction has recycled its item numbers; this link now points to another item. — Ð

Much of the text of this letter has been available in the form of Humphrey Carpenter’s abridgment of Tolkien’s draft of the letter.

As part of the auction, RR Auction made available good-quality scans of all five pages of the letter, affording us the opportunity of reading the full text of Tolkien’s final (beautifully penned) draft for what I believe is the first time.

Pieter Collier at The Tolkien Library has republished the scans (as I have here, too), and has transcribed the letter in full. An ad hoc group of Tolkien scholars promptly submitted a number of corrections and suggestions, which Pieter immediately incorporated into his transcription. The result seems to be a highly accurate reading of Tolkien’s letter. Some highlights:

Maps take a lot of time and work. It would of course be impossible to make a map of an ‘invented’ tale, or rather to write a mappable tale, unless one started with a Map from the beginning. That I did — though inevitably some inconsistencies, needing the adjustment of map or text, crept in in the course of a long work, constantly interrupted. But there is a wide gap between a rough map, though accurate in scale and distances, and one drawn and lettered passably enough for reproduction!

You would, by the way, render us a very great service, if more and better maps are to be produced, if you would be so kind as to send us any notes of faults, inconsistencies, or omissions, in maps or text.


Vermont Softworks creates site for Tolkien in Vermont conference

    conferences     Tolkien

I am very pleased to announce that the annual “Tolkien at UVM” conference finally has a home on the web. Now known as “Tolkien in Vermont,” the conference can be found on-line at http://tolkienvt.org.

Vermont Softworks is responsible for its unabashedly spartan design, and is footing the bill for its hosting at Pair Networks.

Many thanks to Chris Vaccaro for putting this excellent conference together for so many years. Best wishes for the 11th annual conference (the 10th anniversary!) and for many decades to come.


Support for Tolkien at UVM conference

    conferences     Tolkien

The University of Vermont has financially supported an annual “Tolkien at UVM” conference for most of its ten-year history. My understanding is that this has not been a large sum, but has been sufficient to pay a speaker’s honorarium and travel fees, as well as to provide a simple breakfast and light refreshments through the day.

I was told UVM had found that the bequest which had been funding the event should not have been used for such a purpose (fair enough: these things happen), but that no effort was made by the university to find an alternative source of support or to provide any stop-gap funds even for the scheduled 2013 conference or its engaged keynote speaker.

2016–11–16: Link again updated yet again, to reflect most recent URL. —Ð

Andy Peterson drafted the following letter to the editor of UVM’s student newspaper, The Cynic, which our colleague Mark Kaminsky and I whole-heartedly signed.


Dear Editor,

We are writing to express our appreciation for both Chris Vaccaro, Senior Lecturer of English, and to The Tolkien Club at UVM for their outstanding work during the 10th annual Tolkien at UVM conference.

This year’s conference was organized in the face of financial adversity and administrative apathy.

With no funding from the college, the students of The Tolkien Club offered their time and money to make sure that those guests and lecturers in attendance were provided with coffee and donuts for breakfast and pizza for lunch. These students took it upon themselves to welcome the Tolkien academics who journeyed to Vermont for the conference. Their hospitality and generosity was much appreciated by all in attendance. We offer a tip of the hat to Anders Albertsson, Haley Markosian, Brenden Anderson, Braden Kaiser, Kerry Oster, and Corey Dawson for making us feel welcome. We look forward to seeing them again at next year’s conference.

Tolkien at UVM is the only conference of its type that is held annually on the East Coast. As such, it is an event that has been attended by such Tolkien luminaries as

and many other noted academics from other institutions including Middlebury, Rice, and Harvard.

These academics are a veritable “Who’s who” of Tolkien studies. They and many other independent scholars gather at this conference to share their thoughts and ideas about Tolkien’s legendarium. Of particular importance is the presentation of papers by students of Tolkien Studies under the scholarship of Chris Vaccaro. As Tolkien Studies is one of the only academic areas that allow for independent scholars to be actively involved in scholarship, this platform for their work should not only be encouraged but eagerly supported by the administration at UVM.

Chris Vaccaro should be congratulated for organizing the annual Tolkien at UVM conference for the past ten years. It is our hope that future conferences will be well-funded by the administration at the University of Vermont and that, once again, academics from all walks of life will gather to hear the thoughts of both the current and the next generation of Tolkien scholars.


  • Andrew C. Peterson, ALB candidate, Harvard ’14
  • Mark Kaminsky, MIT/Lincoln Laboratory; ALB cum laude, Harvard ’10
  • Erik Mueller-Harder, Vermont Softworks; ALB cum laude, Harvard ’99

Speeches of this kind

    film     Tolkien     Timothy Boyd

2016-11-20: URL updated to reflect today’s reality. — Ð

This piece by my good friend Timothy Boyd is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of posts by guest authors. Dr. Boyd teaches Greek, Latin, and World Civilizations at the University of Buffalo.

— Ð

I have now seen Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (I) twice. Owning and having viewed the extended version of his The Lord of the Rings a number of times, and having read and heard various things about this new film, I went with some hesitation. From the previous films, I knew something of what to expect: the story would focus more upon movement than upon discourse — most of the original dialogue would disappear — or reappear, sometimes in the mouths of others, or at other moments — and there would be scenes missing, at least some of which I, for one, would trust that the author had considered important enough to have included in his telling. It is possible, of course, to explain small changes here and there by the nature of adaptation: after all, novels and films are different media and the length of focus demanded by a 1000-page-plus series of books would be impossible in the compressed — and action-focused — world of film. If the previous films were anything to go by, it might also mean that there would be larger changes, deviations from the printed text as Professor Tolkien had written it. While I might accept some things as being part of the adaptation, others might be difficult to accept, mostly because they would seem to me unnecessary, such as, in The Lord of the Rings, a clownish drinking contest at Edoras, Sam being dismissed by Frodo at Cirith Ungol, the over-the-top presentation of the Paths of the Dead, with its cascading skulls, among others.

And so I went, as I’ve said, with some hesitation. Because I wanted to be as fair as I could be, however, I went to a showing with all of the technology: 3D, 48fps and did so for both viewings. I’m not sure how I felt about what I saw in terms of that technology: at times, I had the odd sensation that I was watching one of those BBC TV series from the 1970s, in which indoor scenes were filmed on a set and outdoor filmed on location. Some moments jumped out, but others seemed oddly flat.

See Douglas A. Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit, revised and expanded edition, NY: Houghton/Mifflin, 2002, 56–57. In the 1937 edition, he is even more anonymous, being simply called “a goblin”.

It was not by those effects, however, that I found myself disturbed: rather, it was by what seemed to me to be radical changes to the text. We see a character named “Azog”, for example, who appears to have some sort of family feud with Thorin and who pursues the dwarves and hobbit throughout the entire movie. Who is Azog, I wondered, and how, in several recent readings of The Hobbit, had I missed him and this relentless pursuit? In fact, he was rather easy to miss, occurring only in a single sentence, spoken by Gandalf to Thorin in the 1966 revision: “‘Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.’”

See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings A.3.09–A.3.38 (50th anniversary one-volume edition, pp. 1073–1076; all subsequent citations are to this edition).

In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, we are given more information, being told how Azog dealt with Thror and almost did the same to Thrain, before he was killed, then beheaded, by Dain Ironfoot. A difficulty here is that of chronology. Dain had killed Azog at the battle of Nanduhirion, in Third Age, 2799, and The Hobbit begins in Third Age, 2941 (see Appendix B 1088–89). Thus, we are seeing in the film a major plot element which involves what is, in fact, a minor figure engaging in an activity not only not in The Hobbit, but seemingly impossible, seeing that that figure has been dead for nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years. What are we to make of this?

I believe that an explanation lies in an interview by Ethan Gilsdorf with one of the adapters, Philippa Boyens, on wired.com. Gilsdorf begins his interview with the words,

Ethan Gilsdorf, “Hobbit Week: A Conversation with Hobbit Screenwriter Philippa Boyens”. Wired: 2012–12–11.

If you have quibbles or major beefs about how The Hobbit was adapted for Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Philippa Boyens has answers.

Boyens, in her initial response, says,

It is episodic. That was a big challenge. You do tumble from one adventure to the next, not necessarily building on each other and not necessarily interconnected, either … a little bit disastrous in terms of the film grinding to a halt. But having to take that chance as a screenwriter when you’re adapting a novel, and figure it out and to make it work, it does mean that you take liberties.

The question is, of course, what is a “liberty”? Is a slight abridgement, for the sake of giving the story a faster pace, a liberty? Is the introduction of a character who is no longer alive at the time of the story? Is having that character turn into a major adversary of one of the protagonists? Is, as we know from studio and fan gossip, the invention of a character out of whole cloth, the elf-warrior “Tauriel”? And how far can one take liberties before one is no longer simply an adapter, but someone who is coming dangerously close to becoming a usurper, who begins to ignore the original text and substitute for it one’s own creations? When is what we are viewing no longer an adaptation of “The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien”, but rather something more like “An Impression, with Many Improvements, of The Hobbit by Philippa Boyens and her Collaborators”?

And here I am reminded of Tolkien’s description of Isengard:

LR LRC §3.08.108, p. 555.

But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived — for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr

LR LRC §3.08.108, p. 555).

These adapters of The Hobbit aren’t evil, as Saruman becomes, but they may be misled, just as Saruman was. In his arrogance, he had been tricked into believing that he had become the rival, rather than the main Istari opponent, of Sauron, which is why Isengard had become so different from “A strong place and wonderful … and long it had been beautiful”

Are the adapters turning Tolkien’s work into their own “child’s model”, blinded to the worth and skill of the original work by their pride in the fact that they have been so commercially successful with their earlier films? I would hope not, although the movie I saw certainly seemed to me at times to have become more the work of the adapters than the author. And then there was this remark, later in the Boyens interview:

A Conversation with Philippa Boyens”, as above.

So, in the end, there’s always going to be naysayers. There’s always going to be people who have imagined they understand how these things work and how storytelling works. But in the end, you have to accept that they don’t. You have to trust yourself and that’s what we did.

Surely the person to trust is Professor Tolkien? But perhaps this is Saruman speaking (less grammatically than the original) to us. Certainly that claim of ultimate wisdom and the rejection of other opinions sounds like him when he says to Gandalf:

LR LRC §2.02.161–2.02.163, p. 259.

You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends, … I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice…. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.

It is clear that Saruman trusts himself. But then, these adapters are the same people who changed the story of the latter part of Saruman’s life, rejecting Tolkien’s cautionary tale of how, just like Sauron, Saruman had attempted a comeback in Middle Earth, ruling — and ruining — the Shire and dying for it. Perhaps, then, we should reply to Ms Boyens’ claim of superior authority with Gandalf’s reply to Saruman:

LR LRC §2.02.164, p. 259.

I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.

To which we might add, “and eyes”.