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?
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.
SF 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!
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).
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!
It’s been a while since my last update: I am back to lecturing full-time now, and I really hit the ground running this term! Among other modules, I taught Literary Transformations (Year 2), Gothic and Science Fiction (Year 3) and Representing ‘the Past’ (Masters) at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I was also Visiting Professor at the Mythgard Institute (Signum University), where I taught for the first time in a synchronous online learning environment (my previous online courses are asynchronous, based on written lectures and occasional podcasts, video lectures, etc). My course was on Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy, in which I explored with my students the Irish and Welsh medieval mythological texts, and the ways they have been reshaped and re-imagined by fantasy authors addressing a child or young adult readership. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the real-time online interaction with my students (what a great bunch they were!). A sample lecture is available to watch for free and the entire course (all recorded lectures in video and audio format) is now available to buy here.
In addition to an original publication by Tolkien, the last few months brought into fruition two projects that have been in the works for a while:
The Journal of Tolkien Research (JRT) has now been launched. This is an open access electronic journal published by ValpoScholar, the publishing and institutional repository of Valparaiso University (supported by Bepress). The editor is Brad Eden and the book reviews section will be edited by Douglas A. Anderson. I am delighted to be sitting on the editorial board. See here for guidelines on how to submit, how to “follow” the journal, etc.
A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Stuart D. Lee (Wiley-Blackwell) has also just been published. This book is aspiring to be the new, complete resource for scholars and students of Tolkien, as well as fans. It covers Tolkien’s life, work, dominant themes, influences, and the critical reaction to his writing. Themes explored include mythmaking, medieval languages, nature, war, religion, and the defeat of evil. The Companion also discusses the impact of Tolkien’s work on art, film, music, gaming, and subsequent generations of fantasy writers. I contributed Chapter 23 on “Later Fantasy Fiction: Tolkien’s Legacy”, in which I explore Tolkien’s influence on later fantasists such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling.
Other activities of the last few months included:
A paper at the “Tolkien at Kalamazoo” sponsored sessions during the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, Michigan (8-11 May 2014). My paper was titled: “Where Is Avalon? Tolkien’s Otherworld in the West and The Fall of Arthur”. It examined possible sources for the mysterious death of Arthur (or survival in Avalon?) in the Arthurian legend and Tolkien’s retelling. I was also very proud to listen to my PhD student, Andrew Higgins whose paper was titled: “Approaching ‘Se Uncuthaholm’: Tolkien’s Early Study of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Prose as a Source for the Invention of Ottor Waefre”. His paper was very well-received and sparked a lot of discussion.
Also, I reviewed the newspapers for BBC Radio Wales’ Good Morning Wales Programme on Saturday 1 February and Saturday 15th June. These reviews are always great fun to do!
Last but not least: have you seen the new, revamped website of the Tolkien Society? It’s really worth a visit! (or two, or three!) It looks really great, it’s very user-friendly and it now includes blog posts from notable bloggers in Tolkien scholarship and fandom.
My University (Cardiff Metropolitan University) launched a series of Student-led teaching fellowships this year, giving students the opportunity to recognise and reward good teaching practice. The students were asked to nominate lecturers for the following award categories: Best Feedback, Innovative Teaching, Most Inspiring, Most Organized Module, and Best Preparation for Work.
I was very honoured and humbled to receive the Fellowship for Most Inspiring lecturer. The Fellowship was awarded during this year’s Graduation ceremony. I was so proud to see my students graduate (the first generation since I moved to Cardiff Met to have taught from freshers all the way to Year 3) and I was very moved to step up on the stage and receive this award during their big day! Many congratulations to all and best of luck with all of your future ventures!