and Epigones to
Quidditch Drones and
Drudge of Thrones
Recently of an evening, having finally gotten a break from the profound joys of proofreading symbolic logic in
format (but then, once you’ve mastered cuneiform, anything is easy), I shook my head as I finished editing a collective academic crawl that would have to find its feet before it could even be classified as pedestrian, comprising a whole congeries of jeremiatribes on the evil taint on English prose that is Tolkien. “Unclean! Unclean!” it shouted from every line, and one could tell the authors fully felt the bind they were in, wishing to protect themselves with crosses from the undead they had sought for decades to bury, stake in chest, in the non-academic branch of the cemetery, while being disarmed in this line of defense by the force of their own collegiality toward a fellow academic, not to mention the bitter irony of having to use such means to protect themselves against such an opponent. Natch, the introduction started with his irremediable religiosity, followed by his militarism and his hatred of women, since while every character in the novel was evil except the orcs, who were merely following orders (which was deemed an acceptable excuse when fighting lily-white cultural imperialism), the lack of women was also evil despite the fact that every single woman would also have been evil no matter how many women had been included, continuing through his evil evil colonio-imperialism, and culminating in the fact that his love of trees had been stoutly misrepresented by his defenders, for it bespoke the ecological evil of English society’s refusal to admire the ecological greatness of wetlands and the desert plain of Mordor while surreptitiously celebrating the medieval conquest of Wales.
Sheer pikers this lot, bereft of basic philological chops! Not one of them picked up on the obvious fact that The Lord of the Rings is a grossly repellent, indeed vicious piece of scurrilous anti-Eastern-European abuse.1 Ered Lithui, Ephel Duath, and the Mountains of Shadow are clearly and obviously the Carpathian Mountains reflected in a mirror the same way he wished his novel to reflect reality, and the Dead Marshes joyously commemorate the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 that ended the incursions of the Hungarians, who appear in the novel as Orcs through metathesis of a liquid continuant (only acceptable in Elvish phonotactics) and final devoicing: ogre ‘Hungarian’ > ork ‘id.’, not to mention the fusion of Magyar [ˈmɒɟɒr] and German Mord with a mockery of Hungarian vowel harmony savoring scandalously of the Mongolian vowel harmony system, assuredly not by accident. Note that all that benighted land lies beyond the forests of Mirkwood and Fangorn; the additional anti-Romanian sentiment of this trans-sylvanian connection couldn’t be clearer had he made the Ringwraiths vampires!
I hasten to add that the one arguably philological essay in the collective (s)crawl was no better than its target, seeking to show that all attested forms of the Black Speech were nothing more than reconstructed proto-Altaic roots in twisted guise, with a few Hungarian roots of dubious pertinence thrown in to paper over the gaps (e.g., Hungarian egy ‘1’ ~ BS [as it were] ash ‘id.’). Surely it is no great accomplishment to compare one conlang with another; one might as well compare Black Speech with Esperanto, Ido, or (heaven forfend) Volapük, and one might proceed more profitably by comparing all of the above to glossolalic utterances.2
Indeed and most profitably, instead of following such malign wills-o-the-wisp into a navel-shaped barrow, one need only examine the sole attested inscription in Black Speech, which any true philologist will see at a glance is modelled on Turkic runiform script, such as the indication of vowels on the sign for the following consonant, with a dollop of Indic-Tibetan conventions (the use of diacritical vowel signs) thrown in to make sure all the bases are covered. Granted, the inscription is quite pretty; in much the same way, squirrels have attractive bushy tails but are still just outdoor rats, just as groundhogs are cute in their own flea-bearing way yet pose the ever-present threat of, natch, the Black Death. But, natch, saying all this is, like, tantamount, man, to pointing out that the Beatles were in fact decidedly silly chaps whose nifty musical touches made a nice cover for the utter vapidity of their lyrics.
Which, of course, brings us to Tolkien’s vision of the Shire, clearly inspired, rather like fandom of the Beatles, by smoking too much weed while soaking in Brandywine: The only point of similarity between hobbits and the inhabitants of actual shire villages is their small height, whereby Tolkien erected into biological essence the malnutritional results of medieval agriculture. Indeed, Hobbit society is portrayed as charming, blithely ignoring that the nature of the beast had already been revealed by the early documentary dramatic work, or docudrama, The Witch of Edmonton: The inhabitants of a medieval village were uniformly nasty, brutish, and short, putting the “Hobbes” in “hobbitses.”
I was struck again by the irony of this, having passed the local all-ages dance club a few evenings ago when The Devil Dog of Edmonton was headlining both that night and its morrow. Indeed, it was as if Dekker3 et Cie had actually seen the place,4 and I rejoiced on the band’s behalf that they had escaped it, though the judgment in the music press was that they hadn’t, for their concert was universally panned as nasty, brutish, and short—not only was it musically indigestible, there wasn’t enough of it. I then noticed that opening for them was Morris-Dancing Yokels, clearly another Edmonton band presenting a hard-boiled slice of daily life for their fortunate betters elsewhere, as well as the clod-hopping yokels round these parts.
And certainly it must have been5 a far cut above the pandering they usually get from such local powerhouses as Raspberry Sundial, whose ground-breaking hits like “We Didn’t Start the Fire, We Just Built a City in It and We Feel Fine” are a fixture of the scene, since after all, as their album announces, Where’s the Soyburger is the New Bigger Stinking Boat We Don’t Need. Which has, of course, been dismissed as the album we neither want nor need, and the group has even been described as “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but certainly emitting the sharpest odor in the outhouse,” which is really just a case of its being pedal to the metal all the way down.
Of course, in our day and age that is truest nowhere else than academia. Leave aside the recent foundation of the Trent Slater Institute for Snowclone Studies, which eats funding and that stuff up like sickly sweet technicolors in a low-rent patbingsu and spits out, well, nothing yet, or likely ever; even respectable linguists seem to have a fondness for snowclone studies, which is of a piece with recent syntactic analyses of jokes from The Simpsons6 and philosophical analyses of The Gong Show. One almost longs for the day not so very long ago when academia was in thrall to irony, preciousss irony, but that seems to have stretched too thin and faded away. But then that is all par for the course when scholars start with the Heike Monogatari and Taeko Kōno, progress in the next scholarly generation to Toshirō Mifune and Banana
ramayamamoto Yoshimoto, and a few iterations further end up singing along to Star Blazers7 and grappling seriously with tentacle porn—irony runs away like a frightened pony once those doors have been opened.
What should we do instead? Should we not return to our intellectual roots and do fieldwork preserving the lore of generations before us? It puts me in mind of the Koryak folktale of the old man who pretended to die, so his children dumped him in a tepee on his wife’s orders, and when they saw him cooking in the tepee, she plucked a live thunderbird, cut off her breasts and sewed them on it, and made the thunderbird sit on the chimney of the tepee, whereupon the old man returned home and told his wife, “We are old.”8 And then once we have collected and analyzed such tales with full philological rigor, we should discern in the gaps and similarities the Urmythen that they reflect, and from that create art that integrates that which went before with that which concerns us now, create new patterns that all will behold in awe and that will soon set rigidly and echo with increasing diminution with each new chain in the tradition: SHA-Na-Na, or perhaps SHA-nna-ra, it’s all the same, and all set for the future generations of scholars to analyze.
Or perhaps not.
1 We repeat what AZP has written in the past at such junctures, “Which I hasten to remind the reader says nothing about its truth.” We have no idea if he’d say that here, but as he was musing sadly the last time we saw him on the need to gin up his popularity as a writer, that seems like a sure-fire way to exponentially increase those sweet, sweet clicks for him. —Eds.
2 One of our number added at this juncture that this comparison (as opposed to, or perhaps indeed just like, we’re not sure which, the comparative-methodicalitiness of the thing) is apter than AZP is letting one, as both Black Speech and proto-Altaic are the tools of Nazguls doing their damnedest (and boy, are they ever that!) to prop up a malign force of profound evil that should have been laid decently to rest but simply will not die. However, the rest of us hasten to add that there is no evidence that any Altaist is a lexicalist, and thus this animadversion should be studiously ignored. —Eds.
3 Thomas, not Desmond. Though for once it’s all good.
4 We asked AZP whether different Edmontons in different nations weren’t meant, and he merely scowled and replied that Edmonton is legion, or perhaps lesion, and permeates the world all about us like miasmal sin. —Eds.
5 Because the music reviewers ignored them, of course.
6 About which the immediate question is whether they are the bleeding edge of theory or a failed attempt at unearned relevance. That surely depends on which season the data are from.
7 Because it’s dubbed, of course.
8 Yes, that’s the story. No, I don’t know.