Tolkien at IMC Leeds 2019 – round-up

It’s taken a bit longer than usual this year, but this is my brief report on an outstanding series of papers and a roundtable discussion on Tolkien at the International Medieval Congress 2019 at Leeds in early July 2019. This overview of all presentations is based on my live-tweeting during the sessions, so you will find a link to the relevant twitter thread under each session title. Just like last year, I should warn you that my reporting of the papers is uneven at best, and doesn’t always reflect the richness and depth of each individual presentation (often because I got engrossed in an interesting argument and forgot to tweet!) But at least readers will get a flavour of the scope and range of topics covered. I also should say that all the Tolkien sessions were once more very well attended, and this year the IMC had given us nice, spacious rooms!

Last but not least, during this year’s business meeting, I announced that – after five years – I am stepping down from organizing the Tolkien at Leeds sessions. It’s time for someone else to benefit from this experience, and I am pleased to pass the baton to my former PhD student and co-editor Dr Andrew Higgins. For CFP for Tolkien at Leeds 2020 see here.


1st #Tolkien session @IMC_Leeds: “Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, I”

First up: Kristine Larsen on “Medieval Automata and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin”


  • Larsen is talking us through the sort-of-mechanical dragons in the Fall of Gondolin. Are they mechanistic dragons? Surreal hybrids of beast and machine? Are they related to WWI tanks?
  • Larsen: In Melkor’s fires foreground Saruman’s reliance on the machine – resonances of the Industrial Revolution and related philosophical perspectives.
  • Larsen: before Ilúvatar accepts them, Aule’s dwarves are a kind of automaton. Idea of automata going back to classical tradition – Talos is a paradigmatic example.
  • Larsen now takes us through medieval automata and the tensions they embody: between technology and sorcery/demonic forces. Melkor’s dragons in Gondolin fit well within this model.
  • Larsen: including models of medieval designs of dragon-like vehicles! (1430, Kyeser’s Bellifortis)
  • Larsen argues that this is the point of Tolkien’s mechanised dragons in Gondolin: they navigate the dichotomies between nature/machine, magic/technology, the medieval and the modern.

2nd speaker: Deidre Dawson on “Tolkien as Letter-Writer”.


  • Dawson begins by explaining that the well-known edition of #Tolkien’s letters represents only a fraction of his letter-writing practice.
  • Dawson recounts anecdotes of Tolkien as a prolific letter-writer, which – despite apologies for delays in respoding and for brevity (!) – often were thousands of words long!
  • Dawson: Tolkien talked about the “appalling mass of letters” he received – but still took every letter seriously, especially those from children + older people. (Images of letter to a young reader, reproduced in the Bodleian exhibition volume)
  • Dawson: during WWII #Tolkien used airgrams to correspond with his son Christopher – they would have looked like this (and Tolkien had to be concise!)
  • Dawson: Tolkien loved using his Hammond typewriter – he started using it more for letters as his hands couldn’t cope with writing that many letters anymore. He also used Latin + Old English in his letters to Christopher -a way to deal with wartime censorship?
  • Dawson: there are a number of letters in Carpenter’s edition that were never sent – self-censorship! See also Dawson’s handout with a selection of quotes of #Tolkien as a contrite letter-writer!

3rd speaker: Andrew Higgins on “I glin grandin a Dol Erethrin Airi: An Exploration of Tolkien’s ‘Heraldic Devices of Tol-Erethrin’”. Higgins will be focusing on #Tolkien’s early heraldic devices.


  • Higgins: these heraldic devices are collectively called “I glin grandin” – the attractive towns? But could have Tolkien forgotten the mutation in “glin”? Could it be “clin”? Could it be “the resounding towns?
  • Higgins: the devices themselves were linked with specific locations significant to #Tolkien at the time he was working on the Lost Tales. Tau(v)robel: Great Haywood in Staffordshire (notice the bridge connection!)
  • Higgins: Cor-Tirion = Warwick (where #Tolkien and Edith got married). Celbaros = Cheltenham (where #Tolkien and Edith re-united after a 3-year separation).
  • Higgins: placement of devices on the page – from bottom to top the progression of #Tolkien’s relationship with Edith, while at the same time chronicling parts of his (then evolving) history of the elves/fairies in The Book of Lost Tales.


2nd #Tolkien session @IMC_Leeds: “Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, II”

First up: Gaëlle Abaléa on “Corpses, Tomb, and Barrows: The Materiality of Death in Tolkien”

  • How are people in Middle-earth dealing with death? Abaléa is drawing upon Louis-Vincent Thomas’s “Les Chairs de la mort” in her analysis.
  • How do the Rohirrim and the men of Gondor face death differently? Glorious/heroic death for the former – buried in mounds outside the city. The latter: tradition of ship building and ship burials (my book was referenced on this point! 😊) but also tombs inside the city.
  • Decline of Númenor: corruption via the fear of death – in the Third Age they are embalmers, building great tombs (parallels with Egypt – again, nice to be quoted here! ☺️)
  • Abaléa: Funereal practice in Middle-earth seems to be homogeneous: burial. Cremation as a mark of “bad” death.
  • Abaléa: Boromir’s burial – combination of ship burial tradition + social necessity.

2nd speaker: Aurélie Brémont: on “‘Cleaving the undead flesh’: Solid Blades and Invisible Foes in Middle-Earth”

  • Frodo will use Sting (which he’s inherited from Bilbo) only once, in the Mines of Moria – it passes on to Sam, by the end of the book. Courage + appropriate (magical) weapons/aids seem to be a powerful combination: the mithril coat + phial of Galadriel amplify Sting’s power.
  • Brémont: at the barrow-downs Merry seems to be “inhabited” by a dead warrior from the past – Flieger has linked this incident with concepts of reincarnation in the legendarium (e.g. in The Lost Road or Notion Club Papers + Elvish reincarnation)
  • Brémont: what if Merry’s dream had an influence on his storyline, leading him (indirectly) to the moment of killing the Witch-king? Was this a way for Tolkien to make a hobbit into a hero?

3rd speaker: Asli Bülbül Candaş on “Be Careful What You Bring for Your Journey: The Fate of the Fellowship Beaconed by Their Provisions”

  • Bülbül Candaş: emphasis on description of weapons and provisions when the fellowship leaves Rivendell – argument: the fellowship’s weapons are crucial for the resolution of The #LordOfTheRings
  • Bülbül Candaş: Narsil/Anduril – Anduril cannot be forged until the One Ring has been revealed. The decoration of Anduril is significant: Sun, Moon, stars – all forces of light are gathered together against darkness.
  • Bülbül Candaş: Anduril’s power is revealed gradually: at Rohan and then in Gondor. It marks Aragorn as the King. It seems to have a light of its own (and perhaps its own agency?) @IMC_Leeds @TolkienSociety #IMC2019
  • Bülbül Candaş: Boromir’s horn – its cleaving seems to chime with the breaking of the Fellowship (especially when Denethor asks for an explanation for the broken horn).
  • Bülbül Candaş: Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, serves as an icon of the white light, the Flame Imperishable, at the point of conflict with the Balrog.

3rd #Tolkien session @IMC_Leeds:
“Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, III”

First up: Erik Mueller-Harder on “Tolkien’s Elvish and Archaic First Map of Middle-Earth: Lost Connections in Space and Time”


  • Mueller-Harder: Ptolemaic cartography as leaning towards modern cartography – still, how about chorography in medieval cartography? (Attempt to represent the world based on experience and experience)
  • Mueller-Harder: examples of chorographic maps in literature (including that for Winnie the Pooh!)
  • Mueller-Harder: other examples of literary maps: Hunting of the Snark, Gulliver’s Travels, and Utopia – can we describe them all in terms of chorography?
  • Mueller-Harder: Tolkien seems to have used some standard cartography conventions in his first #LordOfTheRings map, like the ones in this 1917 book
2nd speaker: Sara Brown on “From Mushrooms to Man-Flesh: The Cultural Significance of Food in the Material World of J.R.R. #Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”


  • Brown: food is a celebration in the first part of the #LordOfTheRings but a matter of survival later on. Food is also an indicator of good and evil in Middle-earth.
  • Brown: if we consider Lévi-Strauss’s theorising, lembas is “civilised” food (cooked) and it’s significant that it never rots. Gollum can’t eat it – he partakes of the uncivilised (the raw).
  • Brown: Orcs are not just raw-eaters but cannibalistic. Shelob also has unwholesome desires. Sauron is the ultimate consumer – cf. the Towers of the Teeth guarding Mordor.
  • Brown: Orc draughty as repulsive – Kristeva’s notion of abjection. Is it repulsive because of its associations? It doesn’t seem to harm the hobbits in any way, if anything it helps them.
3rd speaker: Joel Merriner on “From Finwë’s Winged Sun to the ‘Wheel of Fire’: Tolkien’s Heraldic Emblems as Signifiers in the Works of Sergei Iukhimov”


  • Merriner: Iukhimov is in intertextual dialogue with medieval and later iconography as in this illustration of Sam
  • Merriner: Tolkien’s own art often responds to similar material – e.g. Lúthien’s heraldic device
  • Merriner: Iukhimov seems to blend Tolkienian and Christian imagery as in the 8-pointed star
  • Merriner: Iukhimov seems to be borrowing direct from Tolkien in his design of the Black Gate
  • Merriner: the symbol above Frodo in Iukhimov’s illustration of Galadriel’s farewell and the same symbol illuminating Frodo in his illustration of the Taming of Sméagol seems to stand for light – positive or negative – showing a blending of Tolkienian + Christian iconography


4th #Tolkien session @IMC_Leeds: “J.R.R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches”

First up: Andrzej Wicher: “How Christian is The Lord of the Rings?: Tolkien’s Work Seen in the Context of the Biblical and Theological Tradition”


  • Wicher’s main thesis is that the more Tolkien tries to avoid religion in The #LordOfTheRings, the more he ends up including it. He begins with Tertullian and the idea of Christianity as a paradox.
  • Wicher: The One Ring as a peculiar avatar of the Anti-Christ, from a theological point of view. It’s history has resonances with the story of Cain and Abel.
  • Wicher: the “Gollumian” aspects of Boromir – just like Sméagol and the birthday present, Boromir seems to want to rectify something he sees as “illogical“. He is revealed as agnostic. His portrayal may chime with that of doubting Thomas.
  • Wicher: Aragorn to Boromir: “I forgive your doubt…. I am but the heir of Isildur, not Isildur himself” – again echoing Jesus’s identification as the Son of God, not God himself. Boromir as a “double” of Aragorn in the tradition of Thomas Didymos (Twin).


2nd speaker: Dennis Wilson Wise on “A Straussian Approach to Tolkien’s Medievalism: Or, Reading Tolkien’s Literary Adaptations in Light of the Conflict between Ancient and Modern”

  • Wilson Wise: four approaches of studying Tolkien
  • Wilson Wise: now traces major Straussian themes which *may* be useful to study Tolkien
  • Wilson Wise: the most fertile theme for analysing The #LordOfTheRings is the ancient vs. the modern. There is already some discussion that applies Straussian lens to #Tolkien


3rd speaker: William James Sherwood on “The Medieval Faërie from Keats through Morris to Tolkien”.


  • Sherwood: #Tolkien scholarship has neglected Keats but there’s a line of influence from Keats, to Morris, to Tolkien.
  • Sherwood: Keats as a significant inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Tolkien definitely read Morris and referred to the Pre-Raphaelites (esp. as an analogy for the TCBS).
  • Sherwood: some references to Keats on #Tolkien’s scholarship but marginal. But notice similarities in diction between Keats and Tolkien’s early poetry.
  • Sherwood: mental flight as a strong trope of Romantic poetry coupled with synesthesia – a Keatsian element. Note these in this extract from The #LordOfTheRings
  • Sherwood: Morris’s poetry is also full of examples of synesthesia. The chain of transmission from Keats to Tolkien goes through Morris.


4th #Tolkien session @IMC_Leeds: New Voices and New Topics in Tolkien Scholarship: A Round Table Discussion

#Tolkien at @IMC_Leeds concluded with an excellent round table discussion on new voices and new topics in Tolkien scholarship! Thank you Dennis Wilson Wise, Anahit Behrooz, and Michael Flowers!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *