Tolkien and the Electro-Imaginary: the 2013 Inklings Conference

Last week I attended the 2013 CS Lewis and Inklings Conference, my first time actually presenting an essay academically. I was only able to stay for the first day, but the people I met and lectures I heard were intriguing to say the least. Positions on New Media varied, from scathing critiques of Peter Jackson's the Hobbit to the promise of new art forms, like digital story-telling. Others were cautious, advisory, informing us listeners on how to avoid getting "poked" by the Dark Lord. I've got a copy of the schedule, but I'll try to upload or link to it later (once the Inklings page uploads it). I'm also hoping some bits and pieces were recorded. In a few days, I'll post a recording of my own lecture and the first day's plenary lecture by Ralph C. Wood.

Ralph is a captivating lecturer, widely read and articulate, so I enjoyed his presentations very much. The first lecture was on Tolkien's distinction between the Quest and the Adventure. While an Adventure is a "there and back again" kind of story, a Quest is more like a pilgrimage. A Quest requires lifelong dedication, even in the face of defeat or minor victory. A Quest is taking the "little victories" as your small part to play in a larger story.

I took this plenary discussion and reflected on how it might alter my view of video-game culture. RPG's and adventure games are often just that – adventures – or "there and back again" stories.

Ralph suggested that an Adventure is often something done out of boredom. Seeking excitement. A break from the norm. But too often we are merely pleasure-seeking. Life sucks, so let's log-out for a while. A Quest is far more difficult, but I'd like to suggest with books like "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, video-gamers are getting the "calling" – not merely to adventure, but to change the world. A process that is multi-generational, and where each of us must play our little parts. In McGonigal's book, she suggests that video-gamers are equipped with unique problem-solving tools, and can use games to help change the world. Spending hundreds of thousands of hours in simulated reality – like a deep dream or altered state of consciousness – brings us back down into the "real world" with new ideas, and new expectations. We can use the tools we gained in the Otherworld to change our reality. Yep, sounds like a Quest to me!

Plenty more thoughts ruminating in my head. Like the role of machines in nature. Two presenters suggested the dark side of technology to be its obsessive quality – the iPhone 5 being like the ring, "my precious," one phone to rule them all! And yes, obsession is a reality we must face. Yes, there are dark sides to technology, but it would seem that our tools, like magic, are ubiquitous, and here to stay.

Whether or not we will become corrupted sorcerers, like Saruman, or retain our responsible use of our powers is yet to be seen. I for one believe that the technological extensions of self-and-society are here to stay. It is more of a matter of how we might humanize them, and let them extend our greatest qualities rather than amplify our darkest. Easier said than done.

I was also left wondering if we might consider technology a new "force of nature," as Kevin Kelly suggests in his books What Technology Wants and Out of Control. That further complicates things, forcing us to re-consider both what it means to be an organic, fleshy human and how we define life. And I wonder what Tolkien might think of that, if he saw the "net" crawling over towns and cities like an electronic forest. But I'll leave those questions up in the air for now. More posts to come.

Abstract accepted! C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference at LeTourneau University

I'm happy to announce that my abstract to the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference at LeTourneau University, Texas, was accepted! It's my first conference. I'm excited and anxious to present. But this year's theme was too enticing to pass up. For those of you following my graduate research (if you know me from Facebook or Twitter) you'll understand why:

"Fairytales in the Age of iPads: Inklings, Imagination and Technology,"

It runs from March 21-23.

Undergraduate students, graduate students, and professors are invited to submit papers on the theme of Inklings, imagination and technology as it relates to the works of C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, George MacDonald, and Dorothy L. Sayers. However, papers on other subjects related to the above authors will also be accepted.

My paper is entitled: "Electric Fairytales: the Importance of Mythopoetic Thought in the Age of New Media." Here's a snippet from the abstract:

This essay examines the Internet – and digital media at large – as a form of dreaming, trance, or imaginal experience. It examines electronic media's role, since its inception, in retrieving and re-constellating the role of fairy tales and myth in popular consciousness. The ancient world of myth and lore finds an uncanny match with the binary brainchild of Western Civilization.

I'll cover as much of the conference as I can. Including interviews, recordings, etc.

So, Dr. Ralph Wood is the plenary (just learned this word) speaker at this event. He has an impressive background: Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Texas, editor for the Christian Century, and on the editorial board for the Flannery O'Conner Review. His books include: The Comedy of Redemption in Four American Novelists, and The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom of Middle-Earth. Phew! First off, O'Connor has been growing on me since late 2012. Secondly, both of his books sound intriguing. I am very much looking forward to hearing this guy.

For those of you who are interested in reading up on this topic yourselves, look no further than Tolkien's essay: "On Fairy-Stories," or his poem, Mythopoeia, from which the very word was coined. What rung true to me about Tolkien's creative process was the suggestion that we don't create worlds like engineers. We find them. A good writer is someone who can master the story-telling of these places. Like an adventurer returning from a trip to unknown lands. We write what we see. If we treat our imagination "as if" it is autonomous, it yields surprising results.

Tolkien wasn't the only person to suggest this idea. Carl Jung's process of "active imagination" was based on a very similar idea of an autonomous – that is, independent in some degree –psyche. He used to say that we are made up of "little persons," who are indeed the "little folk" of old fairy tales. According to Jung, they now exist in the psyche, wreaking havoc. For the Greeks, the "little people" were our "daemons," our muses as artists and philosophers. Our genius.

All these ideas are fluidic and interchangeable. But do they have to do with the "imagination in the age of iPads?" Well, consider this.

Millions are online right now. In a digital world-space populated by images, icons, animated avatars and imaginal worlds – like MMORPG's or other such spaces. What kind of effect does that have on our minds? On the act of imagination and world creation? What kind of world are we actually creating with these technologies? I argue that such a world is more friendly, and welcoming to the realms of myth and myth-making. Indeed, perhaps the study of myth, and mythopoesis (myth-making) is essential in this age to understand what's happening in digital culture at large: an explosion of the Imaginal worlds.

More later!

The Hobbit – A Little Review



“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” – The Hobbit

So I watched the Hobbit last night with Miri. We went to the final showing, 10:25; practically an empty theater. I found myself humming tunes from the old 1977 cartoon version (which I'd just re-watched to prep myself for the new movie). Friends had been telling me to go see The Hobbit for weeks, and raved about it.

Well, what's the verdict?

While the movie is certainly entertaining, family-friendly fun, it doesn't deliver the same magic as the LOTR trilogy. Not by a long shot. You're not watching a movie, you're going for a roller coaster ride of lights and magic. As Gandalf  said in the original 2001 film: "Do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks!" Unfortunately, The Hobbit might have done exactly that.

Now a lot of people liked it. It had sentimental value – opening with Elijah Wood and Ian Holm, playing the right music at the right time and zooming in Gandalf saying something profound.

But there were no challenges. No attempt to reinvent the world of the prequel and give it the same level of mystery, and terror, like the original film did. Plenty of luster and little wonder. There was a problem with the way Peter Jackson "built" this world. More on that in a moment.

I mentioned the cons. Here are some of the pros.

Some parts of the film were visually fantastic: the epic rock giants battling each other, the grotesque Goblin King and his eerie hoards of minions that inhabited the mountain. And aside from their oddly polished faces, I thought the dwarves had terrific costumes and personalities.

There were jokes a-plenty, and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) did a wonderful performance, though I wish his perspective was shown more throughout the film.

Some of you might be wondering about the infamous scene with Gollum. Here is where I think the movie failed to do something genuinely new, instead relying on the audience to giggle and delight over the return of this beloved creature. He wasn't scary. A lot has improved since the first film, CG-wise. So he looks great. Gollum's facial movements are by far, more realistic and expressive.

But what about the fear? Real fear (something along the lines of the image above). So many creatures in this world, from goblins to trolls to Gollum himself, could all very nearly gobble up Bilbo and his companions. The movie didn't really capture that. I think the original 1977 film did it far better. Check it out:


Tolkien believed that writing stories and making good art allowed us to create what he called a "secondary world." Art is only successful to the extent that it creates a portal into these imaginal spaces. World creation, for Tolkien, was not so much world engineering as world discovery. Good story-telling acts like a portal into these worlds, approximating their likeness and giving them a nearly numinous presence. They become living myths. As artists, we can only hope to relate the audience to the real magic that comes from exploring the murky realms of the imagination. Tolkien coined a word for this. It's called "mythopoesis," or myth-making.

As far as good myth making goes, I have to say Peter Jackson's The Hobbit was a far fly from the original LOTR trilogy. Let's hope there are far less conjuring of cheap tricks and a lot more good story telling in the next installment.