It didn’t have to be this way. When I was fourteen, all of my comic books (and my dad’s) and my Dungeons & Dragons books were lost in a fire. I also lost my “Farms Not Arms” shirt. I just didn’t have the heart to start over.
And, surprisingly, comics were not as much of a chick magnet as you’d imagine for a teenager with bad teeth and bad skin who couldn’t look girls in the eyes. By fifteen I got braces to straighten my alien teeth, and found good, kind friends who told me when my hair looked dumb or when I was being a dork. It was a chance to start over.
I did well for a while, living the life of the almost normal. Never fully normal, of course. But the 90s were pretty good for individuals. Kurt Cobain appeared on Rolling Stone, and suddenly my slovenly look and edgy music made me mainstream. I was popular at my youth group and did well at college. I was on a roll, and even managed to convince someone to marry me after college. When you are a closet geek, you have to jump at these opportunities.
Then along came charts. I know, I know. Charts for many people are benign. Charts are just a part of life for most, just a way to organize data.
For me, though, charts were the gateway drug to greater Geekdom. I used charts first in my teaching as a way to synchronize huge ideas into simple patterns. I loved it. Then I started doing basic graphic design (think 90s internet style… very cool), and when Powerpoint came along, I was a like an innocent traveler in the Dark Lord Microsoft’s hands.
About this time I started reading for fun again. Working full time through college had been brutal, and by the time I got my B.A., it had been some time since I read a great book. At first my reading was filled innocent things like the latest bestseller, books that aren’t likely to make you disappear into literary woods forever. But soon I rediscovered J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King. I devoured J.K. Rowling and Ursula K. LeGuin (the books, not the people), and took a graduate class called “Books, Children, and God.” I haven’t stopped reading since.
You have to watch out. If you want to avoid Geekicity, you need to avoid reading good books at all cost. The worlds of those books and others sucked me in. By the end of grad school I was creating worlds of my own and my bedside reading pile threatened to topple. It’s been that way ever since.
Eventually I took the next step in Geekianity. I began blogging, and discovered a digital universe of like-minded folks. Not all geeks are created equal, of course. I’m on the fantasy, theology, and politics side of the Geekist scale, while others are more into SciFi, horrror, photography, poetry, interpretive dancing, and medieval languages. I’m sure there are readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia who even love puzzles and cat videos (or videos of cat puzzles), but they haven’t admitted it openly.
Reading, Writing, Blogging … it’s a slippery slope. One thing led to another and I’m doing a PhD in fantasy literature and presenting papers at Mythcon. It has been an epic descent.
Now, some of you have been reading this and thinking, “That’s not all that geeky. What’s the harm of a little fantasy literature and a few teaching aids?” Anyone who has asked this has never been to Mythcon.
Mythcon is a new level of Geekism.
As it turns out, no one had to be asked to remove his or her wimple or light saber during the paper presentations. The papers themselves were of generally high quality. There were some fan presentations, but most of the sessions were led by grad students, authors, and academics who laid out hard-hitting ideas.
I’d encourage you to watch The Oddest Inkling blog as Sørina captures a few of the highlights. I attended great talks on Neil Gaiman, Harry Potter, H.P. Lovecraft, Beowulf, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis & Carl Jung, and various Tolkien topics. The panels were real features. I was on the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel, and realized I was the least among greats in the weekend panels, with topics like “Faith and Fantasy” and “Teaching Tolkien.”
There are different kinds of folk at Mythcon in sometimes overlapping groups. There was a pretty hardcore Tolkien contingency. I had lunch with someone who was fluent in Tolkien’s languages, and was amazed that whenever someone quoted an obscure passage from the legendarium, heads nodded throughout the room. There was a large Christian contingency, folk who feel that fantasy helps capture the basic existential fact that the universe is made up of more than matter. There were subcultures of neopagans, professors, fantasy writers, theologians, grad students, linguists, and philosophers. There were probably some attendees that were all of these.
There were some odd moments at Mythcon. I heard a great paper from a student on Tolkien’s evolving Anti-Speciesist ideas. I asked a question that began a dialogue I could not have anticipated.
“Thanks for the great talk,” I said. “A question: When Tolkien writes, ‘The fox thinks…,’ is he being anthropocentric?”
The presenter was about to respond, when someone from the crowd spoke.
“When animals speak with me telepathically….”
And it went on from there as the speaker talked about his praeternatural calling to lead a dying community of sentient-sapient forest animals in a last chance resistance to a Mordor-like human conspiracy to crush them. Believe it or not, the presenter had not prepared an answer ahead of time to that perspective, but I thought she handled it beautifully.
There was a general medieval feeling to the weekend conference. There was always a sword nearby (when needed), and one could often see a Mythcon participant having to sweep back his or her robe sleeve in order to tap out a text message. I heard renditions of “Edge of Night” (Pippin’s song) and the Last Unicorn song. I sat in a room as dozens of people recited the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by heart (a useful skill I discovered) while a friend texted an alluring photo of himself as King Arthur to his wife.
Yes, I admit that the pinnacle of Mt. Geek is dominated by Comic-Con in San Diego and Doctor Who listserves, where hardcore fans critique comma splices in the thousands of episodes they’ve learned by heart. Doctor Who fans understand commitment to the craft.
Where Mythcon shines, though, is in its inclusiveness. I had dinner with the Doctor at Mythcon, but he had the bowtie of #11 and the shoes of #10–a syncretism that many fans would never allow. At Mythcon it was greeted with a blessing in one of Tolkien’s elvish tongues (I think … it might have been Vulcan, or Portuguese).
It’s true, there were some pokes and jabs throughout the weekend, but they were mostly harmless. For example, late at night we were standing in a failed horse stable using a junior baseball bat to hit a zombie head of Prince William off of a dummy wearing a 1970s McDonalds uniform with the hope of hitting a fuzzy rabbit toy. Typical Sunday night. When someone flubbed it, there was a low murmur from the crowd, chanting, “Linguist … linguist ….” Linguists, apparently, were fair game (see below).
Even that, though, just accentuates the Geek-embracement of Mythcon. There were some trolls (as you can imagine), but for the most part they weren’t overfed. There were some popular folk at Mythcon, but they seemed to act more like mentors than alpha leaders. Overall, everyone was supportive and encouraging. I was hoping to get more pushback on my ideas, especially since I was speaking to a group that knew more than I did. Overall, though, I was thrilled with how easy it was to connect with others.
Other geeks, that is. It would be a shocking event for anyone who thought they were mainstream and über cool because they knew the 3 Laws of Robotics, Tolkien’s given names, or why there are two dots above the “u” in über.
Sorry friend, you are a geek. But, the good news is that you have a space at this table. Pull up a chair and dig in to some roast beast. Oh, can you pass the pepper? It’s behind Lewis’s lost Athurian poem and next to the guy with the tentacles and the woman handing the Light of Eärendil to that little hairy fellow. They won’t bite.
*Hard to explain that game with the bat except by quoting The Hobbit:
“If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfibul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf was invented at the same moment” Tolkien, The Hobbit.