Academic Teaching

Alan Garner’s The Owl Service has its 50th anniversary today!

One of the books I’ve worked with very closely during the last few years is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Garner’s creative re-use of the tale of Lleu, Blodeuwedd, and Gronw from the Welsh Mabinogion made it a prime candidate for inclusion in my recently published monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). In Chapter 5, I explore the way in which Garner creatively reshaped and appropriated this Welsh legend, and I argue that he created a “prototype text” in which the supernatural erupts into the mundane and intrudes into family and/or romantic relationships of teenagers. Books such as Jenny Nimmo’s The Chestnut Soldier and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge has followed this tradition, using Welsh myth as a way of dealing with psychological traumas, internal anxieties, and the perennial problems that often concern teenagers
(romance, sexuality, intergenerational and sibling conflict, etc.).

Having been published in 1967, I knew that the book was going to be 50-years-old at some point this year, so I got in touch with HarperCollins to find out the exact date. Thanks to their archivist, Dawn Sinclair, I now know that The Owl Service was published on 21st August 1967, so it celebrates its 50th anniversary today. Dawn very kindly tracked for me the relevant page in the Collins Complete Book Catalogue, Autumn 1967:

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers Archive

To mark the 50th anniversary of The Owl Service, I contributed this article to the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) online today:

I look forward to teaching the book again this year and to sharing its haunting qualities with my students.

Two books, two conferences, and other news

I am on annual leave at last (hooray!) and it’s time for another long-overdue update. It’s been a very busy few months, mainly taken up by working on two books (!) and being involved in a number of events.


Dr Andrew Higgins graduated in July. Very proud of him!

First things first: together with Andrew Higgins, I have been working on a scholarly edition of a series of manuscripts by J.R.R. Tolkien on the invention of fictional languages. Tolkien connoisseurs will be aware of Tolkien’s essay ‘A Secret Vice’, which was first published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, in 1983. Our book will be a new, extended edition which will reveal significant new material by Tolkien and will be accompanied by a substantial introduction and commentary. The book is scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in February 2016. You can pre-order the book from Amazon here… and here’s the link to the HarperCollins page.

Andrew Higgins, my co-editor, finished his PhD on The Genesis of Tolkien’s Mythology under my supervision last February, and graduated this July. It was a very proud moment to watch him cross the stage at the Wales Millennium Centre. It was a pleasure to collaborate with him on this book – and we still have lots to do (proofs are expected soon!)


Impressive views from the top of the Weston Library, Oxford

This book necessitated a few visits to Oxford to consult Tolkien’s manuscripts. It was lovely to work in the newly refurbished Weston Library (previously known as the New Bodleian Library) where Special Collections (including the Tolkien material) are held. Here is a photo of the spectacular views from the top of the building.

The second book I have been working on is a research monograph, tentatively titled Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy and under contract with Palgrave Macmillan as part of their Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series. I should be done by Christmas and the publication date will be at some point next year. The book explores the ways contemporary children’s authors have rewritten, revised and adapted Irish and Welsh medieval sources to reveal matters of identity and ideology. Children’s authors I discuss include Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Jenny Nimmo, Pat O’Shea, Kate Thompson, and Henry Neff.


Talk at the Centre For Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University in June on re-writing the ‘Mabinogion’ in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

While working on this monograph, I have already shared initial and interim findings in my research-led teaching and in conference papers and talks: first, my Masters course for the Mythgard Institute in Spring term 2014 (Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy); second, a number of sessions of my Year 2 undergraduate module Monsters, Cyborgs and Imaginary Worlds; third, my talk at the Centre For Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University in June (“Welsh heritage for teenagers: Re-writing the ‘Mabinogion’ in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider”); and, fourth, my recent paper at IMC Leeds in July on “‘Celtic’ Myth and Celticity in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain” (see below).

In other research news, I gave a paper for the “Enchanted Edwardians” conference organised by the Edwardian Culture Network and the University of Bristol. My paper was on “Kipling and Tolkien and their ‘mythologies for England’”. This was a wonderful conference with excellent papers and an outstanding keynote lecture by the inimitable Professor Ronald Hutton. What a treat!


Aurélie Brémont, Kris Swank and Andrew Higgins talking about Tolkien’s Celtic sources at IMC Leeds

The second main conference of this academic year – as per the hint above – was the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I organized two sessions on Tolkien and I gave a paper for a third session. My first Tolkien session focused on “things Celtic” and was aimed specifically at early career researchers who contributed exciting new work in Tolkien studies. Aurélie Brémont and Kris Swank tackled Tolkien’s Irish sources, especially the immram genre, while Andrew Higgins talked about Tolkien’s earliest uses of the Welsh language.


Speaking at the “new” Tolkien session together with Professor Nick Groom and Dr Mark Atherton (chaired by Dr Gerard Hynes) at IMC Leeds

My second Tolkien session was a roundtable discussion with Professor Nick Groom, Dr Mark Atherton and myself: we discussed “new” Tolkien publications, focusing mainly on The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien’s Beowulf translation and commentary.


Paper on: “‘Celtic’ Myth and Celticity in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain” at IMC Leeds

My paper was given for a different session, organized by the Tales after Tolkien Society. I talked about Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, particularly his use of dubious “Celtic” sources and his construction of a sense of “Celticity” which is at odds with modern scholarship. This paper was part of my research for the book I am working on at the moment.

Leeds was generally wonderful – lots of brilliant sessions, many friends and colleagues to catch up with, lots of medieval crafts and re-enactments, and an impressive book fair. I was particularly chuffed to buy a very affordable copy of the late Professor Rachel Bromwich’s edition of Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain – a book that I previously hadn’t been able to find for less than £200 anywhere!

A full posting on the Leeds sessions I was involved in can be found here. Also, for another, comprehensive blog post by Gerard Hynes (who kindly chaired the roundtable discussion I organized) see here.

Meanwhile, all sorts of other things have happened. I have reviewed the newspapers for BBC Radio Wales a couple of times; I read an extract from The Lord of the Rings for Tolkien Reading Day 2015 (this year’s theme was ‘friendship’); and my work was featured in Anna Smol’s blog as part of her “Talks on Tolkien” series.

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My article in The Conversation for the 150th publication anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Also, I authored a new article for The Conversation on the occasion of the 150th publication anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, focusing on the book’s appeal and its openness to interpretation: “After 150 years, we still haven’t solved the puzzle of Alice in Wonderland”.

Last but not least, the open access Journal of Tolkien Research, for which I sit on the editorial board, had its first articles and book reviews published. Remember, these are peer-reviewed publications that you can access free of charge! Here are the titles and links you need:


Book Reviews

And – before I close – a look ahead:

  • I am off to Oxonmoot in September, to give a paper on construction of childhood in Tolkien and meet friends and colleagues, of course! Drop me a line if you’ll be there!
  • Also, Kalamazoo and Leeds deadlines are coming up, so watch this space for potential sessions and papers for next May and July respectively!

2001 A Space Odyssey in kid’s TV

QPootle5(1)Having a 17-month-old toddler means that I was well awake and CBeebies was on at 7:40 am this Sunday. I was pulled out of my half-awake, half-asleep state, when in this morning’s Q Pootle 5 episode a monolith suddenly appeared in the early morning light, discovered by the bewildered Q Pootle 5 as soon as he woke up. What made me jump, was the sun slowly rising behind the monolith, and Q Pootle’s initial reaction – hesitation over whether to touch and explore the mysterious object or leave it alone. Now, where had I seen all of that before?

QPootle5(2)Q Pootle 5 is an animated series, inspired by the books by Nick Butterworth. It follows a small friendly alien, Q Pootle 5, and his friends Oopsy, Eddi, Stella, Ray, Groobie, and Bud-D on the planet Okidoki (there’s one more major character, but he’s actually another planet, Planet Dave!) Nick Butterworth, who worked closely with his son to bring Q Pootle from page to screen, has pointed out in a recent Radio Times interview that the world of Q Pootle 5 is:

“A combination of low tech and high tech. I drew inspiration from the way children’s imagination trumps reality. A cardboard box becomes a boat or a spaceship. A hair dryer makes a great outboard motor – or a lateral stabilising jet! Cushions, chairs, a bit of old hi-fi equipment with knobs to twiddle, these are all you need to go exploring.”

This already sounds like convincing world building based on good old science fiction tropes and using science fiction as a symbolic way to reaching, exploring and engaging with a toddler’s imaginative play. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that this morning’s episode decided to “play” with one of the canonical cinematic texts of modern SF, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.

maxresdefaultSF is a subject I teach to my undergraduate students, and 2001 is a text I always include in my survey SF module: its iconic aesthetics, its philosophical underpinnings and its “big ideas” (not necessarily radical and new ones by the 1960s, but definitely memorably explored) make it a compelling text to examine in class. Q Pootle this morning grappled with the ontology of the monolith, the mysterious object in Kubrick’s film that seems to be some sort of catalyst for mankind’s evolutionary leaps: from hominid ape, to Homo sapiens, to the mystical and poetic “Star Child”. With my students I discuss Nietzsche’s ideas, SF tropes of alien intervention in human evolution, and what the heck is that Star Child. Q Pootle and his friends make different educated guesses as to the nature of the monolith, trying to use it as a blackboard, a slide and a see saw!

QPootle5(5)Groobie finally arrives to solve the riddle. He presses some invisible button on the monolith, which promptly causes it to lift up gracefully in the air (complete with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra playing in the background and the sun appearing behind it as if it is just rising) to reveal a table tennis net sprouting on one side, and folding legs on the other! Groobie exclaims: “It’s my Galacto 2001 pop-up ping-pong table!” And if that’s not enough of a “homage”-cum-parody scene, one of the folding legs of the table quickly fails, and Bud-D fixes it with his spanner, which he then throws in the air in triumph: we see it rising up in slow motion and rotating, bringing to mind both the famous “transition” scene in 2001 from the first tool (the bone) to the most evolved one (the spaceship), and the spanner Bowman uses later on to “terminate” HAL (arguable, the longest murder scene in modern film).
QPootle5(7)Playful intertextuality is nothing new in children’s books, and has been used for ludic purposes by masters of the picturebook form such as Anthony Browne. But it was still lovely to have my brain exercised at 7:40 am on Cbeebies. And I am wondering – since intertextuality often works in anarchic ways – whether my toddler son will exclaim: “That’s Groobie’s ping pong table!” when, one day, he gets to see 2001 A Space Odyssey!