Over the course of this past semester, I confessed to several of you that I was actually pretty miserable. About three weeks into the semester, as my son was screaming in my ear about an hour past his bedtime, I told my partner “I quit.” At the same time, I regularly tell people how lucky I am. I love my job. I have colleagues telling me that I’m doing a “good job.” And, presently, I’m still here, here being in this PhD program, and I don’t have any actual intention of leaving, leaving being not completing the degree program requirements.  How does that make any sense? It’s not at all a case of indecision – I think instead it’s a symptom of the multiple stresses in my life right now. And I also think it’s a matter of intention and choice in working to manifest the present I want, and not quite yet succeeding.

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Astrology in the Middle Ages

 A Brief Overview: Astrology as Natural Science

Lynn Thorndike has called astronomy/astrology “the supreme natural science of the medieval world” (Carey 888). Hilary M. Carey notes: “It permeated most aspects of mediaeval intellectual, cultural and political life, and it is not possible to enter sympathetically into mediaeval society without understanding it” (888). We might consider as analogous modern day germ theory; while the non-medical professional doesn’t necessarily understand the science of microbes, this theory is still one epistemological model through which we understand our world. Therefore an in-depth knowledge of astrology is not necessary (we do not all need to read Ptolemy or Albumasar [Abu Ma’sar]), but a general awareness is helpful.  For example, to anyone who has read the works of Chaucer it should be apparent that a basic understanding might be helpful for understanding his work.

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Unexpected being the key word, in this case.

If you’ve been following this blog with any regularity, you know that Wood-walkers just put on a symposium on the subject of The Hobbit.  While the presentations there did tie in with the new Peter Jackson three-part epic of the same name, quite a few of them (and in turn, quite a few of us) were more focused on the original text as a part of Tolkein’s work. Don’t get me wrong- we did talk about some of the later versions of The Hobbit, and the keynote address about different illustration styles used across the globe was absolutely fascinating – but these were usually in context of how the variations were more or less faithful to the original. There was a good bit of good-natured trash-talk about the animated version, for instance, which seemed to be widely considered… well silly. Unfaithful to the original, certainly, and at least a little nonsensical in how it had changed the story.  We weren’t all clear on how Tolkein’s slim children’s book would translate into three movies of at least two hours, not yet, but surely it couldn’t be worse than that Rankin and Bass tomfoolery.

So it was with the symposium in mind that I went to the pre-screening of The Hobbit, with a copy of the book in my bag and, if not exactly high expectations, then at least expectations of something good. What I got instead was confusing. (Here There Be Spoilers.) Continue Reading »

Here are the individual presentations and papers that will be delivered at the Woode-walkers Symposium commemorating the 75th anniversary of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For more information on the event, please see the Hobbit Symposium Tab at the top of this blog.

  • 9:00 am—Roundtable: Teaching the Inklings in High School and College

Session Moderator: Matthew Miller, St. Louis University

Charles Hussung, St. Louis University High School: “Teaching Charles Williams in High School”

Paul D. Nygard, St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley: “Teaching Tolkien at St. Louis Community College”

Paul L. Fortunato, University of Houston- Downtown: “The Hobbit as Religious Literature: Teaching College Students about Bilbo’s Quest”

Justin T. Noetzel, St. Louis University: “The Bird and Baby Blog: Community and Collaboration while Studying the Inklings”

Matthew R. Bardowell, St. Louis University: “Of Scribblers and Inklings: Teaching Tolkien in a Writers Community”


  • 10:45 am—Session I: The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Life and Scholarship

Session Moderator: Ashley Nolan, St. Louis University

Nora Alfaiz, George Washington University: “‘We Are Your Friends, Frodo’: Relationships and the Relation between Tolkien’s Life and Works”

Paul Acker, St. Louis University: “Tolkien, Old Norse and Philology: Dwarf Names in The Hobbit

Anthony Cirilla, St. Louis University: “‘Not the Hobbit you once Were’: The Prosimetric Structure of Tolkien’s Hobbit”

Priya Sirohi, St. Louis University: “Tolkien and The Hobbit as Juvenile Literature”


  • 1:15 pm—Session II: The Hobbit among Tolkien’s Greater Mythology

Session Moderator: Beth Kempton, St. Louis University

Chelsea A. McGuire, St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley: “Standing Tall beside Giants: The Hobbit as the Essential Introduction to Middle-earth”

Brian Kenna, Marquette University: “Labours and Sorrows: The Role of Memory in The Hobbit

Amanda Cherian, St. Louis University: “The Aesthetics of Song and Map in The Hobbit

Ruthie Angeli, St. Louis Community College-South County Center: “Separating Truths from Myths of Tolkien’s Female Characters”


  • 3:00 pm—Session III: Myth and Mediation: Tolkien Films, Video Games, and Songs

Session Moderator: Thomas Rowland, St. Louis University

Trish Lambert, Mythgard Institute: “Snow White and Bilbo Baggins: Disney, Tolkien… and Jackson”

Paul D. Nygard, St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley: “The History of Middle-earth Network Radio”

Jasmine Tillotson, St. Louis University: “An Unexpected Story: Consequences of Japanese Influence on Sierra’s The Hobbit Video Game”

Paul Hahn, St. Louis Symphony and Chorus: “Singing in Elvish: Adapting Tolkien in Music and Song”


  • 5:00pm—Plenary Address: “Annotating and Illustrating The Hobbit

Douglas A. Anderson, Independent Scholar and editor of The Annotated Hobbit, Tales Before Tolkien, and other fantasy literature and Tolkien criticism.

All of the Tolkien fans out there have a busy and exciting few weeks coming up. The Woode-walkers are of course most excited about our symposium on The Hobbit, and as always, you can read the specific details at our symposium website. There are also a lot of other events and stories, and I have collected just a few here. Please add links to anything that I have missed in the comments below!

Before you read anything else, check out The Hobbit Blog, where you can read about Gollum attacking Wellington airport, watch an unexpected airline briefing video, and hear Peter Jackson talk about the entire movie-making process. That last video is the final video in a series of eight that premiered over the summer, and I recommend all of them.

A man named Emil Johansson, a university student in Gothenburg, Sweden, and my new personal hero, spent the last few years assembling a comprehensive census and family tree for the more than 900 of Tolkien’s Middle-earth characters. You can see the project here, and prepare to be blown away! Seriously, there are enough charts and statistics and maps and information to keep you busy for a whole weekend.

The Audience Research Unit at the University of Waikato (New Zealand) with Ryerson University (Canada) is conducting research into audience perception of the upcoming films, and you can find their 30 minute survey here. For more information, please see here.

Former St. Louis U. professor Tom Shippey wrote a piece for the Telegraph in which he discusses why The Hobbit is still so popular 75 years after its release.

NPR has a short interview with Corey Olson, the author of Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, one of the books that we will be raffling off at the symposium.

Geek Dad, one of my favorite blogs, has an interview with Noble smith, who tells you how to eat like a Brandybuck, drink like a Took, and otherwise live a long and happy life in The Wisdom of the Shire. Part two of the interview is here.

Valparaiso University is hosting a Tolkien Conference in early March that will feature some great plenary speakers, a symphonic performance, a themed banquet dinner, and a ground-breaking presentation on Beorn and Tom Bombadil on Sunday morning at 10:30 by an up and coming young scholar.

Oh, and there is a movie coming out in a few weeks that you might be interested in seeing…

As part of my assistantship in the VFL I was assigned the job of curating an exhibition in the lobby of Pius XII Memorial Library, on display Oct.1-Nov.1 2012 . Below are some representative images and further information on its organization and content:


“How shal the world be served?” Aspects of the Medieval Secular World

Curated by Ashley R. Nolan

Though the term secular might suggest any range of discourses concerning the separation of church and state in contemporary culture, for the medieval audience this differentiation is much more complex. In fact, the medieval application of the word secular distinguishes the spaces of religious life—a person who lives ‘in the world’ (secular)—from a person who lives in monastic seclusion (religious).

The first part of this exhibition’s title takes its sentiment from the monk of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose exclamation “How shal the [earthly] world be served?” expresses his interest in earthly, rather than spiritual realms. The monk’s lavish clothing and yen for hunting further sets him at odds with the discipline of solemn study and physical labor followed by his Benedictine order, revealing fluidity—perhaps problematically—in what constitutes religious and secular pursuits. This exhibit of medieval manuscript facsimiles focuses on secular themes in vernacular and Latin manuscripts:

Secular Origins features manuscripts concerned with The Matter of Troy, or the texts that adapt the classical stories of the Trojan War, including the adventures of Aeneas.

Secular Adventure encompasses a wide assortment of early adventure narratives that span the regions of Germany, Budapest, and Spain; these facsimiles include some of the oldest and best-known manuscripts of this genre.

Secular Leisure develops the idea that those who had lots of money also had lots leisure time. These facsimiles detail some manifestations of this leisure in the hobbies of hunting and falconry, as well as in courtly love (amour courtois), and will demonstrate that the range of leisurely activities often extends into discourses of love.

Secular Health brings together a variety of texts concerned with health and wellbeing, and includes medical miscellanies, anatomical images, and herbal treatises.

Secular Animals displays an assortment of realistic and imaginary illustrations of animals. Perhaps the greatest appeal of these representations lies in the proximity with which humans interact with these animals and the imaginative influence they aroused in the medieval artists who rendered them.





Song of Roland

On 10/4, I presented to the Woode-Walkers on the Song of Roland. Sadly, I don’t have nearly the talent Justin hopes for, and so I won’t be writing this in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, for both your safety and mine. I also won’t try to repost my entire handout, which can instead be found here. I will, however, try to cover a couple points here that I am most interested in concerning the Song of Roland.

Named Weapons

There are a number of characters in the Song of Roland who have their own named weapons (almost all swords, though one, Baligant, has a named spear). I’m fascinated by the inclusion of these weapons, because there aren’t a great deal of literary heroes who have them. I’m interested in both their origins (as trope and as items with history) and what they signify in the text.

For example, one of the obvious calls when reading the Song of Roland and noting all these named weapons is that they are a literary device to tell you to pay attention to the owner. Of all the named characters in the text of Song of Roland, only Roland, Oliver, Turpin, Charlemagne, Ganelon, and Baligant have named weapons (well, in the text – Ogier the Dane has one, but it doesn’t get mentioned in Song of Roland). These are also arguably the most important characters in the poem.  Roland, Oliver, and Turpin, all members of the doomed rearguard, have their swords (Durendal, Hauteclaire, and Almace), and they’re the only French characters in the battle who really have any lines. Charlemagne, as the great Christian and Frankish emperor, gets one (Joyeuse), and so his opponent, the Emir Baligant, must also get one (well, two – Precieuse and Maltet – maybe he overcompensates a bit). Even Ganelon gets one, though he never uses his sword – it seems to be there only to emphasize how traitorous he is (“On the relics, are in his sword Murgles, Treason he’s sworn, forsworn his faith away.” Song of Roland 46:607-8). Even though other characters seem important – the other 10 Peers, Ogier, Naimon, Marsilion – the ones with named weapons are the focal points.

I don’t think the weapons are solely a narrative device, though. They do seem to have their own history; in Karlamagnus saga (a Norse saga collecting tales of Charlemagne, Roland, and related characters), Charlemagne, in return for setting a man’s brother free, receives three swords crafted by the famous Weyland – Durendal, Cortana, and Almace. These swords eventually go to Roland, Ogier, and Turpin, respectively. Joyeuse, according to Wikipedia (yes, I know, terrible source), is on display in the Louvre – though Wikipedia also notes that it likely isn’t actually the sword of Charlemagne.  This isn’t much different from the sword of Saint Ferdinand III of Castile, whose sword, Lobera, is kept in the Seville Cathedral. Joyeuse, at least, is believed to have been Charlemagne’s real sword, so why not those of the others?

Also, Roland’s use of Durendal make it clear that these named swords – or, if not all of them, then at least his sword – were something special. While he is dying in the poem, he realizes that there might still be foes left to steal his sword, and so at first he tries to break it (and, amusingly, creating La Breche de Roland, or so legend goes); even hacking into a mountain doesn’t destroy it, though. When he finally realizes that he lacks the strength to break his blade, he lays down on top of it so that anyone who finds his body won’t immediately see it. The fact that the sword won’t break and that Roland feels a need to hide his weapon show that it isn’t Roland that makes the sword important; the sword has its own value, and he feels it is too dangerous to allow enemies to take it. This is possibly my favorite angle of discussion for the weapons – that, at least for Roland, Durendal is so important to him, and so dangerous, that he would rather destroy it then lose it to the enemy.

Someone else has done quite a bit of research on the weapons (and other items) in the Song of Roland, and that page can be found here.

After Song of Roland

The Song of Roland spawned a number of contemporary works that tell the stories of Roland, the Peers, Charlemagne, and others involved; the Karlamagnus saga is one, as is something called the Pseudo-Turpin or the Historia Caroli Magni. Ganelon even makes appearances in a number of later works – he’s in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 32, alongside Gianni de Soldanier; he shows up in two Canterbury Tales, the Shipman’s Tale (lines 193-94) and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (line 3227).

The works I’m interested in, though, come much later. The first time I heard of the Song of Roland wasn’t through assignment in class or hearing about it from a professor or teacher – my first exposure came in late 1999, in a comic book store. I picked up a graphic novel called Roland: Days of Wrath, a retelling of the Song of Roland in comic book form, and I was hooked. I bought my first ‘real’ edition of the Song of Roland a week later. So I have an understandable interest in seeing how the work ages and what other works it has inspired, partially or in full.

The most famous is also the most tenuous: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. King has admitted that one of his inspirations for this series was the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, and in that poem, there are several things that point to the titular Roland being the character from Song of Roland. The most obvious is the name; then his status as childe – a young man of noble birth, or one about to be knighted; and finally, in the next-to-last line of the poem, he uses a slug-horn, possibly referring to the older Roland’s olifant. If Browning’s Roland is meant to be a younger version of the Song of Roland’s title character, then King’s work is just barely linked to it.

The French military apparently felt that Roland’s sword was so cool that they named a few things after it – the BLU-107 Durandal, a bomb designed to destroy airfield runways, and the SNCASE SE-212 Durandal, a 1950s-era fighter jet prototype that never made it into full production. While the plane was a failure, the bomb was a success, and is apparently still in use today.

One of my personal favorite links to the Song of Roland is truly nerdy, because I’m a huge nerd – the Song of Roland is almost directly responsible for the Paladin in Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, once listed a number of books he felt were his main sources for material for the game (Appendix N), and one of those books was by Poul Anderson, called Three Hearts and Three Lions. The main character is a reincarnation of Ogier the Dane, and he is essentially the character used as the basis for the Paladin class; this isn’t unusual, because the Peers of Charlemagne were sometimes known as paladins themselves. Some translations even note Oliver as a paladin: “Both his nephew, count Rollant, as I think, And Oliver, that courteous paladin;” (Song of Roland, 43:575-6). The paladin today is not a byword for Charlemagne’s Peers, but rather the idea of a knight or warrior in service to a divine entity.

Apparently, the video game designers at Bungie (makers of the HALO series of games) are also fans, or at least familiar, with the Song of Roland and related materials; the second- or third-most popular character in the series, the AI who is the Master Chief’s constant companion, is named Cortana, after the sword of Ogier the Dane. The Halo games have several other references like this – the MJOLNIR armor, HRUNTING/YGGDRASIL prototype armor, and Project GUNGNIR, among others. Cortana wasn’t Bungie’s first use of something from the Song of Roland material – in 1995, when Bungie created a sequel to their game Marathon, they named it Marathon 2: Durandal; like Cortana, Durandal was an artificial intelligence. I find it interesting that both of these artificial intelligence characters were named after weapons, since that seems to denote their purpose as weapons.

While there’s quite a bit more I could cover, I think I’ll just stop there and see what others have to say.


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