I just spent the weekend at Mythcon–a short, digital version of the normally weird and wonderful long weekend of scholarship and fan fun. Many of the parts of Mythcon that I love were still featured, including thoughtful and engaging panels, longer feature paper sessions to work out more complex ideas, and a bright and eclectic symposium of true lovers of imaginative literature and film. It was at Mythcon where I have met so many life-long nerd friends–and where I first launched my archival work that suggests that Lewis conceived of The Screwtape Letters as a part of the same fantasy universe as The Ransom Cycle (see here). I really love this community.
And I enjoyed the mini-con–though for this particular conference, I long to be there in person. Just as Mythcon has a tendency to encourage its participants to dust off dusty lyres and return again to fallow manuscripts when they return home, one never thinks the same again about the game of golf after Mythcon.
Honestly, I was just pleased to be able to connect at all. At this year’s online mini-conference there was a good deal of buzz about the Mythopoeic Awards. With four categories of awards (Adult lit, Children’s lit, and a Scholarship Award each for Inklings Studies and Myth and Fantasy Studies), and with five finalists in each category, the Mythopoeic Awards have a tendency to fill my TBR pile to overflowing–especially as it was a very strong slate of finalists.
While the fantasy awards are great, it’s the scholarship awards that I’m always paying attention to, especially in the Inklings Studies category (whose shortlist will, one day, contain a book with my name on the cover). Past winners include many of the scholars that we have mentioned here, including Clyde Kilby, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Humphrey Carpenter, Paul Ford, Tom Shippey, Peter Schakel, Joe Christopher, Christopher Tolkien, Doug Anderson, George Sayer, Charles Huttar, David Downing, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Drout, John Garth, Janet Brennan Croft, Diana Glyer, Dimitra Fimi, Michael Ward, and Grevel Lindop, with his recent biography of Charles Williams.
Lately, these awards have been pretty hot.
In 2018, I had a chapter in a book edited by Sørina Higgins, The Inklings and King Arthur, which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies–shockingly edging out Jane Chance’s resourceful, Tolkien, Self and other: This Queer Creature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Lisa Coutras’ pace-setting Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and two masters in the field: Verlyn Flieger’s There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent State University Press, 2017) and Christopher Tolkien’s beautifully designed and edited volume of one of his father’s greatest tales, Beren and Luthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). In 2019, Verlyn Flieger’s book took the category, deservedly so (with respect to Catherine McIlwaine’s gorgeous exhibition book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and Jonathan S. McIntosh’s Thomistic theology of Tolkien, The Flame Imperishable). In 2019, Inklings scholar Dimitra Fimi took the fantasy award with Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology.
Because there wasn’t a Mythcon in 2020, the 2020 finalists and winners were sort of bundled together with expectations about 2021. For the 2020 awards, it is not clear to me how they may have chosen out of these five excellent Inklings studies books:
- Amy Amendt-Raduege, “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Kent State University Press)
- Dimitra Fimi & Thomas M. Honegger, eds., Sub-creating Arda: World-building in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Work, its Precursors and its Legacies (Walking Tree)
- Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson & Michael Partridge, Informing the Inklings: George MacDonald and the Victorian Roots of Modern Fantasy (Winged Lion)
- Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Bodleian Library)
- John Rateliff, ed., A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (Gabbro Head)
Of that group, The Sweet and the Bitter won out, and it is a resourceful and deep study. The Fantasy Studies award category was equally strong:
- James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (ELS)
- Maria Sachiko Cecire, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (University of Minnesota Press)
- C. Palmer-Patel, The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy (Routledge)
- Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (New York University Press)
- Mark J.P. Wolf, ed., The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds (Routledge)
Gifford won that category. My vote was for Thomas’ The Dark Fantastic–and I would place it at the top of my list of Fantasy Studies volumes of the decade–and I am enjoying C. Palmer-Patel’s structuralist study. So it pleased me to see the shortlist of awards come out this weekend and include both C. Palmer-Patel and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for a second run:
- The Metamorphoses of Myth in Fiction since 1960 by Kathryn Hume.
- Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology by Adrienne Mayor
- The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy by C. Palmer-Patel
- The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
- Fantasies of Time and Death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien by Anna Vaninskaya
I have heard that Vaninshkaya’s study is great, and Kathryn Hume is always thoughtful, so we’ll see how that category goes.
But it is the Inklings Studies award shortlist that I find the most telling:
- John M. Bowers, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (OUP)
- Oronzo Cilli, Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist (Luna)
- John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth (Princeton UP)
- Catherine McIlwaine, ed. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Bodleian)
- John Rateliff, ed. A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (Gabbro Head)
Five strong books with striking individual identities that also work as a collective resource kit for Tolkien scholars and fans alike.
I have never picked the winner in these photo-finish races, so I will not begin prognosticating now. I will note the link. “Inklings Studies,” narrowly conceived, includes Tolkien father and son, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, the Lewis brothers, and a handful of more minor writers. Given the way the Inklings grew as writers and how we have grown as a fan community, we would not be surprised to find scholarly material about George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Joy Davidman, or Dorothy Sayers in that list. Strikingly, though, every book on the list is a Tolkien studies volume–though the Verlyn Flieger festschrift could have included a Lewis study or two, given her lifetime of work. It did not, however, and the list stands as a testimony to the strength of recent Tolkien studies.
However, we must admit that it is not a terribly recent phenomenon. As I argued in my series, “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?“, Tolkien studies strength over Lewis studies–not to mention the degree to which Williams and Barfield are under-studied–goes back for some years. There are exceptions in the last decade, but they simply prove the rule–and it has been a thin decade at that.
I made a quip at the mini-Mythcon that I hope one day a Lewis studies volume would be strong enough to warrant a nomination. Historically, there have been noted Lewis studies by Doris T. Myers, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Lionel Adey, Don King, Peter Schakel, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Michael Ward, Sanford Schwarts, Robert Boenig, John Bremer, and Monika Hilder, as well as good biographies by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, Alistair McGrath, Alan Jacobs, and George Sayer. So, worried that I was being overly facetious, I clarified that there were some good recent Lewis studies books, just not ones of exceptional argument, depth, or contribution to the field. It is still a tough admission to make. The publication of this award shortlist is just another confirmation that Tolkien scholarship continues to shine in ways that Lewis scholarship simply does not.
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 1: Creative Breaks that Inspired Tolkien Readers
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2: Literary Breadth and Depth
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 3: Other Factors
There is very little shade thrown on my field in those pieces, and I still struggle to fully understand the difference. I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“), and a resource pack to make all readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.” Perhaps these resources will help.
However, really the best thing I should do is write a study of C.S. Lewis that warrants a Mythopoeic scholarship award nomination. And then I have no one to blame but myself when the 2024 shortlist appears!