The Other President: Donald Trump’s First Briefing by the Magical Congress

broncobusterremingtonsculptureThe President sighed, put his hands in his pockets, and looked at the portrait of George Washington above the mantle. He thrived on crowds and cheers and chaos, so had never believed that he would be relieved for the silence. Even there, in the quiet of the oval office, the noise was still ringing through his skull. Then the memory of the good hours swelled up inside of him and he caught Washington’s eye. The place wasn’t his yet—not really his—but he would keep Washington above the fireplace. The Nixon letter would have to go somewhere else.

Not that big clock, though. Each second rang out like the striking of hammer to stone. It was obviously too old and would have to go. President Trump’s eyes fell to the carpet. What seal did Reagan use? He’d have to find out. And the desk. He didn’t want the Resolute Desk. That lightweight Bush used it. It really isn’t big enough to get any real work done anyway. It was time Washington got a little more New York.

Still, it was a well-built desk. Trump ran his fingers across its woodwork as he walked to the window. How thick was that glass? The scare earlier came to mind, and he decided that looking into the inky black of the early morning hours didn’t suit him. Just to the right of the window was that statue he had seen his first time in the office. “Bronco Buster,” one of his staff had called it. This he liked. As he looked at man and beast in motion, Trump found himself for the first time being drawn into a greater story, the story of America’s struggle between ground and sky, the struggle to break free from limitation and achieve greatness. Trump looked at the rider’s hard set jaw and determined stare, balancing between heaven and earth on a thousand pounds of animality. Trump knew then he would have done well in the wild west.

Suddenly, the rider slid off the horse’s back, put his hat in his hands, and looked up at the President with a brisk nod. The shift from still to animation was so seamless that it took a moment for Trump’s mind to catch up with his eye. It was the rough accent of the desert-formed frontier that awoke him to the moment.

“Mr. President, sir. The President of the Magical Congress and the Secretary of No-Maj States are on their way to the Oval Office.”

President Trump’s stunned silence was broken by the sound of steel on marble. He swung around to see the fireplace screen slide away from the grate unaided. He jumped as bright green flames burst into life where the last fire lay dead. Trump watched, mouth open, as a pale, thin man appeared in the flames, spinning as fast as a top. Seconds later, he stepped out of the fire and placed his feet on the wood floor. With intense, dark eyes he looked at Trump, brushed ash from the sleeves of his jet black suit, and stepped to the side.

Once again the fireplace filled with green flames and a woman’s face appeared in the fire beneath the marble mantelpiece. An older woman in purple and black robes stepped into the oval office. She was very tall—almost as tall as President Trump—with long silver hair and a single streak of blue. The woman smiled warmly at her No-Maj counterpart.

The small man strode forward, shook Trump’s hand stiffly, and spoke in a tight, crisp voice.

“Good morning Mr. President. Daedalus Blackberry, Secretary of No-Maj States. This is Dr. Rolanda Fontaine, M.A., DPhil, Professor Emeritus in No-Maj Studies at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Advisor to the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and President of the Magical Congress of the United States.”

“Please, Daedalus,” President Fontaine said with a chuckle. “America’s new President is no doubt overwhelmed.” Fontaine crossed the floor and took Trump’s hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Trump. Please call me Rolanda.”

“Rolanda,” he repeated, his eyes never leaving hers. It had been a long campaign, filled with late nights and early mornings. Somewhere in the last year he had traded his life for this office, and he was disappointed to discover that in the bargain he had lost his sanity.

“Shall we sit?” She asked.

Trump nodded, and found himself moving involuntarily toward the couch. When he looked up, Blackberry had taken out a folder and placed it on a side table, while President Fontaine was sitting with her hands resting on her lap, smiling at her counterpart.

“I imagine you will find this a strange briefing, Mr. President,” she said.

“Donald,” the President croaked, involuntarily. He reached for a glass of water on the side table and brought it to his lips. It was only after he had taken a drink that he realized the porter had not left him any water.

“Donald,” Fontaine repeated. “We will not take much of your time, and you should only hear from us on rare occasions. What we have to tell you is of a highly sensitive nature, so that even your most senior staff do not know that we exist.”

“Who is ‘we,’ exactly?” Trump still did not know if he was crazy or not, but he was certainly not going to lose control in his own delusion.

President Fontaine smiled, and Trump wondered for a moment if she was not, actually, very young. He found her compellingly beautiful.

“Donald, we are people of legend who live in reality. There are witches and wizards like Daedalus and I living throughout the world, hidden from sight. We have powerful abilities that have at times terrified your ancestors. At other times magic folk have healed your people and tilted the balance of power. We are very few, but we are your neighbors and coworkers.”

“I’m sure I would have noticed….”

Blackberry interrupted the President.

“No, sir. You will not have noticed. There have been witches and wizards in your senior staff and campaign team since you became a person of interest.”

The President brought the drink to his lips again.

“Person of interest?” he asked after swallowing. He determined that his voice was not going to remain unsteady.

“What Daedalus is referring to is an informal list that senior officials at MACUSA keep. Aurors—this is the magical equivalent of your FBI—are assigned to watch people who have the ability to do great good or great evil. You have been employing our people for some time, Donald.”

Trump let the glass linger for a moment in mid-air before setting it down.

“Which list am I on, Rolanda? Good or evil?”

Blackberry was about to speak, but Fontaine interrupted him.

“You are the President of the United States of America. You must know by now that you will do great good and great evil. Only you can tell us which will tip the scales of history’s judgment.”

Trump nodded, set down his empty glass, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He looked directly at Blackberry.

“What did you say your position was?”

“I am the Secretary of No-Maj States, Mr. President.”

“What’s ‘No-Maj?'”

“It is slang for non-magical people, Mr. President.” Blackberry’s eyes were level, his gaze intent. Trump wondered what having a man like this on his team would be like.

“So, me in fact?”

“Yes, sir. You and most Americans.”

“How many of you are there?”

Blackberry smiled for the first time.

“Well, sir, the statistical analysis is quite interesting….” President Fontaine interrupted him.

“Donald, we will leave you a briefing note that only you can read. To your staff it will look like your company stock reports….”

“The company of your children, sir,” Blackberry interrupted. Trump resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Precisely,” Fontaine continued. “The folder includes essential parts of our history, including moments of crisis globally and in the U.S. It should make for some enlightening reading!”

Fontaine concluded brightly, and watched as Trump’s brow furrowed at her description.

“There is also an audio feature,” she added. “In case you are busy.”

Trump nodded, clearly relieved.

“You mentioned times of crisis,” he said.

Daedalus Blackberry nodded, then began a succinct listing of the precise dates when No-Majs and magical folk interacted, beginning with the founding of MACUSA, the period of the Revolution and the Civil War, and the great crises that defined the first half of the twentieth century. While Trump typically did not prefer to think about history—he knew his job was to think about the future—he was fascinated by the dry outline Blackberry provided for him. Parallel to the wars that defined America was a global crisis that could have, he realized, mattered more than the struggle between East and West or between Axis and Allies.

When Blackberry had finished, including the recent magical civil war in the United Kingdom, Trump leaned back on his couch and rubbed his face. The witch and wizard sat quietly in that place of power.

“You’re real,” he said, finally.

“We are,” Rolanda Fontaine replied in a soft tone. “You are not dreaming. You are not crazy. And you need not be worried.”

Blackberry nodded curtly and rose to his feet. He walked over to the Resolute Desk and placed his fingers, one by one, on particular notches in the woodwork. A drawer slid open with a pop. Trump jumped up from his seat and went to the desk. The drawer was empty and, the President was sure, a physical impossibility.

“This magical drawer is a direct link to our headquarters in New York….”

“New York?” Trump interjected with surprise.

“Yes sir. We have been in New York since the late 19th century. We were in the Woolworth building until the construction of One World Trade Center provided an opportunity for a more spacious headquarters.” Blackberry continued to describe how, during the building of the new complex, magical architects were able to create parallel spaces that, with certain security codes and spells, provided the administrative and political center for the U.S.A.

Trump nodded. It was a move he would have ordered if he was in charge.

“Magical space,” Blackberry continued. “Can be bigger on the inside than the outside.”

Blackberry pulled a pen from his robes and placed it inside the drawer and closed it. When he put his fingers in the wood carving again, the drawer opened. It was completely empty.

“You can place items you feel we need to know about in here and we will receive them—though we have researchers that keep track of No-Maj news. From time to time, you will be notified that there is an item in here from us, especially when No-Maj security is concerned.”

Trump nodded. He could not imagine what harm a little man like this could do, besides tie up an auditor in red tape. But as he looked over at President Fontaine, he suspected their power went far beyond parlor tricks. President Fontaine then spoke.

“In the case of dire emergency, Mr. President, you can use this drawer to escape to our headquarters in New York.”

“I can fit in there?” Trump asked doubtfully.

Blackberry scowled as he answered.

“Yes sir. In fact, it has fit a number of people at one point, but that was hardly an emergency of the magnitude that we imagined when we created the mechanism.”

“Kennedy?” Trump asked.

“Precisely,” Blackberry responded.

“I will have to keep this desk then,” Trump said.

“You will find it very difficult to dispose of,” Fontaine answered with a smile.

“How do I access it?” Trump inquired. Blackberry demonstrated.

“You simply put your fingers in these notches. It only works for magical folk with proper clearance, and you Mr. President.”

“How did you know my fingerprints?” he asked. “You have that on file?”

“We do not need fingerprints, Mr. President. You reset the mechanism the first time you touched the desk a few minutes ago.”

Trump nodded. Then President Fontaine reached out her hand and took Trump’s.

“We have taken too much of your time already, Donald. You have done very well. Your predecessors have typically called for security.”

“It didn’t work though, did it?” Trump asked.

“No sir,” Blackberry answered, smiling thinly. Trump wondered if it might be time for a cabinet position shared by both governments. But, then, he doubted Daedalus Blackberry would survive the hearing.

“Provided things go well,” Fontaine continued. “You will see me very rarely. Best wishes in your term in office, and blessings upon your family. We are here if you need us, but you will find we will not typically offer the kind of help you will wish from us. But we will always help.”

Witch and wizard moved toward the fireplace. Though the President had wanted them to leave from the moment they arrived, he now found he did not want them to go at all. A thought nagged at the back of his mind, and he found the question coming out of his mouth before it was fully formed.

“Magicians,” he said. “You have tilted the balance of power before. You didn’t have anything to do with the election….”

Fontaine turned away from the fireplace and fixed the President with a gaze that contained within it the hint of a smile.

“We are wizards, Mr. President. Miracles are not in our line.”

Then the Secretary threw some powder into the fireplace, stepped into the emerald flames, and vanished with a whooshing sound. President Fontaine followed, and within moments the oval office was what it had always been.

The President stood there, quite motionless, and then fell back to his seat. Absentmindedly, he reached for his phone, thumbs on the ready. This was incredible news. He knew that he couldn’t tweet out this experience. Surely this was too far, even for twitter followers—who, he realized long ago, would believe almost anything. He knew that he should never, as long as he lived, ever dare mention this encounter to a living soul. For who in the wide world would believe him?

Then the other President looked down at his phone and decided to find out.

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Why I Chose not to Perform at Trump’s Inauguration

After deep consideration and advice from my friends and family, I have decided to join the growing list of those who have chosen not to perform at Trump’s Inauguration on Friday. That includes A-list celebs like Kanye West, Céline Dion, David Foster, Ice-T, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Aretha Franklin. Even Kiss was invited, though Gene Simmons declined—which makes me sad. I think the symbol of four aged performers with too much make-up and all their best work behind them would make an interesting symbolic moment on America’s stage.

Unfortunately, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” was not written for Donald Trump. Kiss won’t be rock and rolling all night on Friday. For Gene Simmons and artists like him, supporting Trump is a deuce of a problem.

Even getting a DJ is tough. It was rumored that The Chainsmokers were going to do it, but it was just a Twitter joke. Moby—do you remember Moby?—well he offered to DJ if he could play Green Day’s “American Idiot.” It doesn’t look like it will work out.

Not everyone pulled out because they were anti-Trump or offended by his ideas about race, gender, sexuality, political allegiances, immigration policy, fiscal management, employee relations, foreign relations, spirituality, how to respond to criticism, or how women are designed to serve his personal needs. Sometimes the world’s leading stars were just busy or not interested.

Trump sent a nice note when Elton John was joined in civil partnership with David Furnish, so there is no bad blood there. Sir Elton just didn’t want to be involved in the American political scene and suggested they just get one of those “one of those [expletive] country stars. They’ll do it for you.” Not Charlotte Church, though. She said his team should have done their research better.

Paul Anka is a long-term friend of Trump, and would even have rewritten the words to “My Way” for the occasion. Unfortunately, someone took his “Having My Baby” too seriously and he is in a custody battle that day. It’s too bad. I was hoping he would do that killer cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Again, for symbolic value.

I understand how difficult these choices are. When you disagree critically with something or someone, the hardest thing is to decide when to engage and remain in the space of influence, and when to step out altogether.

There is no institution that is free of taint. Choosing to remain in your political party, church, school, office, partnership, knitting circle, or home and school association means negotiating a complex series of compromises that seems designed to take the heart out of all our choices. I get how painful these decisions are: it is the same for the student and the street performer as it is for the pop star and the politician.

Regardless of who ended up being elected in November, each American was going to have to go through another cycle of taking the bad with what seems like an ever diminishing good. Each Christian, feminist, activist, educator, refugee, writer, factory worker, and tap-dance shoe designer would spend the months and years of the winning team’s administration trying to justify the way they engage in public life. Until the world’s leaders are women and men of breathtaking integrity and vision, this is what it means to be a citizen.

So this is why even though I am disappointed in the artists who backed down after public pressure, I understand what they went through. For the first time they were faced in most certain terms with what the little moral choices they make each day really mean. No one ever told them before that ­­our character is formed by the little decisions we make in the dark, not just the big decisions we make in the limelight.

Though I don’t understand why there are church choirs and leggy women dancing in a line at a Presidential inauguration, I admire the choir member or Rockette who steps off the stage—and maybe loses his or her career—because of what they believe. It is hard to admire the superstar who backs down after signing a contract because they realize they are now hated by a whole bunch of people with twitter accounts. If the strengths of our convictions are not enough to withstand public outrage—and how the public loves to be outraged these days!— we did not really have convictions that were worth standing up for.

But I suspect no one has ever told them that this is what it means to be a moral person. My decision whether or not to perform is the same whether the public will be pleased or outraged.

I was tempted to perform at the inauguration just because I was turned off by the morally gutless late exits by some people who suddenly grew a conscience. I was also tempted because of the public hypocrisy of moral outrage. There will be thousands of support workers at the inauguration, including line cooks, security guards, intelligence workers, President Obama’s staff, janitors, water boys, and journalists. If problematic engagement is wrong, where is the moral outrage against these support workers? It is clear we have a disturbed relationship with our celebrities.

And I was tempted to perform because of the strange reaction of liberals, progressives, and true conservatives who are protesting this President. Yes, you should hold him to account. Even if he has asbestos in his soles, if you do not hold his feet to the fire you are betraying your community. But he was America’s free choice, for better or worse. He has earned the right to be on that stage with hot acts like 3 Doors Down, a Bruce Springsteen cover band, and half the Rockettes (all the women of color and their supporters backed out).

Still, despite all the good jerky reasons to perform, I am choosing not to go to Washington on Friday.

I am not opting out because Trump is conservative. He’s not conservative in all the deepest ways, but even if he was that would not affect my decision. And it is not because Trump is Republican. I don’t think he is Republican either, but a partisan choice for me is not necessarily a moral one. And it is not because he is part of the 1%. America’s political system is for the elite; Donald Trump simply understood how that would work better than some. Presidents have been elite since I was a child. This is what Americans keep choosing. It would be hypocrisy to pretend otherwise.

No, my reason for not performing is much simpler: there isn’t enough money on the table. The offer isn’t big enough. When rejecting what has to be one of the weirdest invitations Trump’s team issued—to the women who sang “Not Ready to Make Nice” about President Bush—Dixie Chicks manager Simon Renshaw quipped that if anyone accepts the inauguration invitation, “I hope that the check they get is in the nine figures. Because it’s probably the last check they’re ever going to get.” Renshaw’s got a point. Based on the current offer, I’m out—though I would take seven figures if that super popular 80s cover band The Reagan Years suddenly grows a conscience and joins a hippy colony in one of DC’s drained swamps.

What’s the difference, after all, between selling out for big money and selling out to a crowd addicted to the lure of outrage?

The Trump team knows how to find me.

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Books Long Enough for Tea (a post about a lot of nothing)

lewis-tea-book-quoteOne of the legendary sayings of C.S. Lewis is that he has never encountered a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit him. His brevity in writing is well known, yet his true love was to sit and work through long books on rainy days or in dusty libraries or when he was ill.

I wish I had his attention span and ability to struggle with big books. Unless they have absolutely taken me up, I tend to get lost in them in the first half. For me, though, the 2nd half of any good book is always shorter than the first as I sweep through to the ending.

I had secretly wanted to make 2016 a “Year of Long Books,” which is kind of silly. If there ever was an artificial benchmark, that would be it. Yet the length of books tells us a lot about reading culture. I am stuck in the middle of John Calvin’s 700,000 word Institutes of the Christian Religion—light reading for people with my training in any other age. I am a reader of less literary stamina than the great grand-patriarchs of the past.

Carpenter Tolkien LettersIn 2016 I did read some long books. The Bible has about ¾ million words, but many of those are very short. I finished C.S. Lewis’ Collected Letters, about 4000 pages total with the last book being almost half of that. I do love letters, though. I am reading Tolkien’s letters (about 210,000 words), and I hope someday to work through Dorothy Sayers’ 5-volume Letters (just shy of 2000 pages).

While they have written many letters, both Lewis and Sayers were very eOHEL English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama CS Lewisconomical with words. The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord Peter Wimsey stories are filled with tight, disciplined books. C.S. Lewis’s only long book is his Oxford History of English Literature’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, which is about ¼ of million words long and took nearly ¼ of a century to write. With a title like that, we would be disappointed if the book wasn’t big. OHEL—as Lewis called it—is as long as either Narnia or the Ransom Cycle or a collection of his other literary critical books.

Infinite JEst david foster wallace 21In 2016 I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At 1000 pages, 548,067 words, it is a brilliant, sprawling non-epic that remains one of the longer contemporary American novels (though I only skimmed the 100,000 words of footnotes). While Wallace’s strange book is hefty, in terms of sheer weight Stephen King is tree-killing royalty. I’ve read a dozen or so of Stephen King’s books that run double or triple a normal paperback thriller. His great work is IT, which clocks in at 444,414 words, and I am tempted to return to it this winter. We’ll see. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is tempting me (with its 662 pages).

tom clancy executive ordersOne of my shameful confessions is that I have read most of the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan books (7 of 9), in order. I love the Jack Ryan character and am big on spy stories (though usually on film). The series begins at a weighty 160,000 words, but its full verbal obesity is shown in Executive Orders, which comes in at 462,282 words. I finished Executive Orders in 2015. Midway through I promised never to read another Tom Clancy book. As I closed the cover, I started watching for The Bear and the Dragon at yard sales (which is much shorter, at only 1137 pages). I actually use a razor blade to cut Clancy books in half so they are easier to hold.

This photo released by Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas shows A 1997 softcover edition of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, that sold for a record $19,120 in a rare books auction conducted online by Heritage Auction Galleries, March 6 and 7, 2009. The anonymous winning bidder is from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and is described by the auction house as "a collector of vintage comic books whose wife is a huge fan of the Harry Potter series." (AP Phoyo/Heritage Auction Galleries)

I think the series got away on Clancy, but he is certainly not the only author to feel the weight of the world grow beneath his fingertips. The Harry Potter series clocks in at nearly a million words—The Order of the Phoenix being a quarter of that and itself as long as the Narnian heptalogy. Heptology? Hepatology? Truthfully, I wish it was longer, and would read another seven-pack that either prefigures Harry or comes after him (as long as it is imaginative, thorough, and dynamic). We’ll see how the movie series goes.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienI want to spend my 2020s in the Tolkien legendarium. This lot continues to grow, but this unusually brilliant website suggests The Lord of the Rings is 481,103 words. The Hobbit and The Silmarillion are 95,356 and 130,115 words respectively. This fellow did not count the History of Middle Earth, but I would guess that they are 2.8-2.9m words—plus the fun supplementary work. A great way to spend a decade I think!

An author’s work or a series can make the word count add up. Although I could take an evening to count and be witches-abroad terry pratchettcertain, I would guess that C.S. Lewis’ total published works are about 21,000 pages, or 5-6m words. At 40+ books, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is probably about 2 million words, and I am just over halfway through a chronological read. I would someday like to read the Wheel of Time cycle, begun by Robert Jordan and now over 4.3m words. One day I will have to succumb to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is approaching 2m words. And I have been slowly collecting Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at yard sales and thrift stores, which are just over 2m words. We’ll see if I ever get there.

1q84-harukamiSF and Fantasy are great for longish books and series. I would like to finish Gene Wolfe’s informally named Solar Cycle (I have read about 1/3 of 1.4m words). I would like one day to finish Frank Herbert’s Dune series (840,000 words total) or Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga (1.3m words). I have on my shelf 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, which most people tell me is 928 pages of awesome, but it is a stinking heavy book for a man with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Richardson_pamela_1741Big books are certainly not a new trend, and I suspect that books are getting shorter, not longer.

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, not as long as his Clarissa (984,870 words, and perhaps the longest English novel), still clocks in at 225,000 words. It felt about twice that long. Painful. It was necessary that I read it for my work in epistolary fiction, and I suspect that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a response to Clarissa. But, then, Jane Austen pride_and_prejudice 1st editionperhaps had more leisure to read long boring books than I have.

It is not all bad news, though. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is over 1000 pages, so probably about 350,000 words. Honestly, I wish it was longer. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment—one of my favourite books ever—is 211,591 words. But it is his Russian brother who has earned the cold weather writer award. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287 words, and I keep putting it off even though I know it will be rewarding.

spenser-The-Faerie-Queene-CoverEach autumn I tend to pick up a longish book that fits in the past. Last year it was The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George (928 pages), and the year before was Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1248 pages—though poetry has far fewer words). I haven’t thought through to next year, so maybe it is time for Tolstoy.

ulysses-corrected-textOr Joyce. I haven’t read some of the weightier novels, like the American Gone With the Wind or James Joyce’s Ulysses. But we cannot expect that every long book is going to be rewarding. Because of its often unseen influence on American politics, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. There are some good moments in the book, and the story has a stickiness factor to—despite the anemic worldview it offers. But it is 561,996 words of sermonic drivel, “a point weak, speak loudly” pulpit-pounding, post-moral moralistic, didactic drudgery centred on an idea designed to collect Harold Bloom how to readhuman creativity and ingenuity into a plutocratic few. I will never, ever return to it.

Well, this was a post about nothing, really. To my credit, though, it was a lot of nothing. I like big books and I cannot lie. But I also admit that I can get bogged down in a larger text—either by the length of the book or the number of characters. A character map helps me with older books and fantasy worlds, while a razor blade helps lighten the muscle strain on the Clancy-Kings of the world. And then there is the refreshing break of picking up a when you reach me stead coverbeautifully written children’s book and taking it in by gulps.

So, what’s your preference? Do you like long books, or find them disheartening? Are you length-fluid, weighting all your choice on the story or character or world? As culture slims expectations, are you secretly rebelling by reaching for something older or longer? Tell me your story, but do make it short. There is reading to do.

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“One Fantastic Rogue Beast” Live Discussion

one-fantastic-rogue-beast-1-263x263Last Friday night I had the privilege to be part of a unique panel discussion. Signum University hosted an impromptu Signum Symposium called “One Fantastic Rogue Beast.” The discussion featured a team of fantasy bloggers and podcasters who spend their time thinking about the intersection of culture and film.

Sørina Higgins, chair of Literature and Language at SignumU, hosted a discussion of two hot films: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These are two hot insertions, one into the Star Wars universe and one into the Harry Potter fictional world. We had a great chat, and Sørina signed off after the 90 minutes we had allotted. When she slid away, the rest of us stayed on the software to chat for a bit, thinking that we were now a closed room. Obviously there was more to say as none of us actually agreed to keep talking. It just happened, and we had a great discussion for about 45 minutes afterwards.

The great joke on us was that the film was still rolling and there were dozens of people still online! You can catch it all on the SignumU youtube page, or just click on the video below. The panel helped me think through the films, and you can see how the conversation spun off into all kinds of interesting ways.

Here are the quick media details of each of the panelists:

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“One Fantastic Rogue Beast” Live Discussion Tonight!

one-fantastic-rogue-beast-1-263x263For today’s Friday Feature, I want to announce a free Signum Symposium coming up tonight. “One Fantastic Rogue Beast — An Impromptu Star Wars/Harry Potter Chat” will feature of team of bloggers and podcasters who spend their time thinking about the intersection of culture and film. Thanks to Kat Sas for posting this announcement, and to the intrepid Sørina Higgins for hosting. I look forward to participating–though I come in as clearly the least qualified. Still, two hot films within huge mythic worlds that have influenced a generation of fans. T’will be a good chat–so you should join in at 7pm EST tonight!–and a great chance for readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia to catch up on the work of these other bloggers.


This Friday, starting 7pm Eastern Time, I’ll be joining several friends to discuss the latest installments of the Harry Potter and Star Wars film franchises: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One. The group of panelists are all teachers and students at Signum University and I’m sure we hold a lot of Potter and SW knowledge between us. We look forward to discussing these new movies as adaptations and expansions of their respective stories and worlds, their approach to casting and diversity, how they function as prequels, and their endings. Will we sing their praises as thoughtful and thought-provoking engagements with these beloved sagas, or will we decry them as yet two more installments in Hollywood’s increasingly franchise-driven climate? Who knows! Tune in to find out.

The panel will consist of Sørina Higgins, Brenton Dickieson, Kelly Orazi, Emily Strand, and of course my…

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A Brace of Tolkien Posts (125th Birthday Week)

hobbits-raising-a-pint-tolkienbirthdaytoastIt is the week of Tolkien’s 125th birthday. In honour of the Professor’s twelfthty-fifth year, I thought I would catalogue the Tolkien posts featured here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. I hope you enjoy the great selection of guest bloggers and feature posts, filling out your Tolkien reading between now and Tolkien Reading Day (Mar 25th, 2017).

Frodo, Sam and Gollum in IthilienTolkien’s Ideas

Tolkien’s work is rich with reflection on the world around us. In posts like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” and “Affirming Creation in LOTR,” I explore themes related to ideas that are central to Tolkien’s beliefs. The latter idea, creation and good things green, is covered also with Samwise Gamgee here and with Radagast the Brown here. One of the ones that resonates long after reading is the theme of providence, which I explore in “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark.”

One surprising connection was “Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings“–a pairing that many would find unusual and includes some great old footage. Guest blogger Trish Lambert rounded out the discussion with “Friendship Over Family in Lord of the The Rings.” Author Tim Willard talks about “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” And you can follow Stephen Winter’s LOTR thought project here.

My most important contribution, I think, is my Theology on Tap talk, called “A Hobbit’s Theology.” It is one of the ideas I am struggling with most specifically in my academic work. And one of the more popular posts this year was a very personal one, “Battling a Mountain of Neglect with J.R.R. Tolkien.” Though I am still not sure if I should have written that post, it continues to connect with readers.

lord of the rings tolkien folioTolkien as Writer

I remain fascinated by Tolkien’s development as an author, and spent some time of late exploring the theme. The most popular of pieces I wrote was the coyly titled, “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” The reason is, of course, not all that shocking, but could be helpful for the subcreators amongst us. Two more substantial posts on the topic are “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” and “The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat.”

C.S. Lewis took an interest as well in Tolkien’s formation (see “Book Reviews” below). You can read more about it in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and in this blog post, “‘So Multifarious and So True’: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’ support for Tolkien did not go unrewarded. Besides the great joy of Tolkien’s work, there was a time when Tolkien interceded a time or two on Lewis’ behalf. Friendship goes both ways.

Film Reviews

When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!

My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it, “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:

What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.

When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count anyhow. I titled my blog, “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know. Make sure you check out the other reviewers link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.

While these aren’t substantial reviews, I featured two indie films: a documentary on Tolkien’s Great War, and a fictional biopic recreating Tolkien’s invention of Middle Earth called Tolkien’s Roadboth inspired, perhaps, by John Garth’s work.

Book Reviews

There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion, but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.

Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”

I realize as I do this survey that I haven’t written a review of any of Tolkien’s key Middle Earth texts. I did, however, feature the Father Christmas Letters in our last season of advent.

The Read-Aloud Hobbit

One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 7 3/4-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading aloud adventures here.

In reading aloud I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes.

Hobbit and Art

I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”

There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson, whose work as a whole is visually stunning, even for those who don’t feel he was true to the books. One of my favourites was captured in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.

With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature!

radagast-the-brownTolkien’s Worlds

I would like to spend more time thinking about the speculative universes of J.R.R Tolkien. Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. I take some time here to put a comment that Lewis made about Tolkien’s work in the context of other speculative writers, especially J.K. Rowling.

You can also check out the work of people like the Tolkienist, the links on the Tolkien Transactions to catch what kinds of conversations are about these days, or the academic work of people like David Russell Mosley. And, of course, we are all interested in Tolkien’s work on Beowulf. I have it at my bedside table in preparation for a free SignumU three-lecture class with Tom Shippey.

And Just For Fun….

Because I can, and because some things are entirely meaningless, I will leave you with a quiz: What Character in the Hobbit Are You? You will not be surprised that I am Thorin Oakenshield!

Plus this. Or this!


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@TolkienProf’s “Exploring the Hobbit” $3 today only on Audible #TolkienBirthdayToast

Today is J.R.R Tolkien’s 125th birthday! He is resting now, but the rest of us are celebrating, including a toast at 9pm tonight. It appears that Audible has joined in. Recently the audiobooks for some of Tolkien’s lesser known fiction have been released, which might be a nice way to fall back into these old stories.

But today, the Audiobook Daily Deal is Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is on sale for $2.95 USD, until midnight.

The Hobbit is one of the most widely read and best-loved books of the 20th century. Now Corey Olsen takes listeners deep within the text to uncover its secrets and delights.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is a fun, thoughtful, and insightful companion volume, designed to bring a thorough and original new reading of this great work to a general audience. Professor Olsen takes listeners on an in-depth journey through The Hobbit, chapter by chapter, revealing the stories within the story: the dark desires of dwarves and the sublime laughter of elves, the nature of evil and its hopelessness, the mystery of divine providence and human choice, and, most of all, the transformation within the life of Bilbo Baggins.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is a book that will make The Hobbit come alive for you as never before.

Hopefully this link will work, though I’m not sure if the sale is on for non-American clients. This is a book by the Tolkien Prof that I am definitely adding to my list.

Also, make sure to check out the Mythgard Institute class on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf with Dr. Tom Shippey. The class is free (though a $20 donation is requested), and runs 3 Thursdays beginning Jan 12th at 4:00-5:30pm EST. Upcoming Signum University classes on Tolkien and Lewis–as well as some other dandy topics–are open for registration this week.

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