Podcasts – The Tolkien Professor

Following from the post on some of my favorite history podcasts, I want to let you know about some of my favorite literary podcasts. Today, it’s The Tolkien Professor!


The Tolkien Professor
by Dr. Corey Olsen
iTunes listing
Episode length: expect 1 – 2 hours, depending on the series

Look, if you’re a fan of Tolkien and have some listening time, you should check this one out. Corey Olsen is a professor of things medieval, Christian, and literary, and is a MASSIVE fan of all things J.R.R. Tolkien. His long-running podcast has grown to include several different series. He has seminars on several Tolkien and Tolkien-related books, courses on other famous fantasy books, Q&A episodes, interviews with people like Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith, and even fascinating reviews of The Hobbit films.

If you just look at his podcast list in iTunes, it can be overwhelming, but fear not! His website organizes all his many series and links to each episode. And they’re all lively and entertaining to listen to!

Some of my favorites are his courses going through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter. Even after some two decades of being a Tolkien reader myself, I still learn new things from these. Olsen’s work has also expanded to include courses on other subjects, such as medieval literature that Tolkien knew and loved, and even free courses through Mythgard Institute on other great works of fantasy and science fiction.

If all this college-level material (however entertainingly delivered) sounds too intense for you, fear not! He’s also been leading a merry band of conspirators on dreaming up just what an ideal Silmarillion TV-show would look like –freed from the depressing constraints of money and marketing, of course! It’s a fun exercise in speculation.

And don’t forget you can get a taste of what he has to offer by tuning into his livestream of the latest Lord of the Rings seminar on Tuesdays at 9:30PM EDT, or checking out the videos of the stream that get posted on his YouTube channel.

“Mud” – a short story

My story “Mud,” which earned a kind honorable mention from Sørina Higgins as she announced the Week 1 winners of Mythguard Institute’s “Almost an Inkling” flash fiction contest. The prompt was to write a story about portals to another world in a maximum of 333 words. It is posted here for your enjoyment.


“They call you Mud?”


The tiny blue king frowned at the pajamaed boy whose reclining body covered the dry hill. “Who does?”

“People at school.” He shrugged, giant shoulders sending loose dirt and curls of dust down the hillside.

The wind zipped by in a peevish way, annoyed that the ground was still barren. The king ignored this. “Friend,” he said, firmly, reassuring. The boy rolled over, looked at him sadly. “I too am tired of my world.”

Mud was confused. He saw only new wonders: rolling plains leading to a purple sea, flocks of four and six-winged birds singing above white sands, and a city of painted mollusk shells full of tiny blue people. “Why? It looks so much nicer than mine.”

The king waved his scepter over parched hills and plains. “Drought. I miss the soughing of scarletgrass in the westward wind. The bubbling fountains. Sweet lemonade. My city will soon die without fresh water. If we could only fill our reservoir….well, we could make it, then.”

“Wait!” Mud’s excited cry echoed over the plains; the king covered his ears.

Then it happened, in reverse of the way it had happened a few hours earlier. Mud motioned like he was throwing something from off his head….and vanished.


            Back in his bed, Mud threw off the blanket and ran to the kitchen. Soon he sat in his bed again with a large glass of water between his knees, several more within reach. The blanket went up over his head….


            The reservoir gurgled and overflowed, filling aqueducts and pipes leading to the city. Water from other glasses wetted the plains and hills.

“Smell that sweetness, O our hero-friend?” laughed the king.

“What is it?”

“Petrichor. New water on thirsty ground. And your new name here, to be followed by many glorious titles.”

Petrichor smiled. In the painted mollusk-shell city the tiny blue people cheered his new name, and all about him were new shoots of scarletgrass, a-whispering in the wind.


Constellations, spells, symbolic plants and strange objects: Questions from Jubilare

Back in June, the excellent Jubilare posted a few questions for her readers which were designed to spark creative thought about worldbuilding in fiction. They are excellent questions, but in my unfortunate and unintentional habit, I promised to answer them and then got distracted by life things and forgot. Until, quite recently, she reminded me, and I agreed that it was time to do my duty! Which, it has to be said, is a rather fun duty in this case. After all, it’s not every survey where you’re specifically asked to make up the answers!

  1. Make up a constellation and a brief story for it.

In some night skies can be seen the Racing Timepiece. It’s a constellation of a great circle, with several stars within the circle forming two straight lines of varying length, and they both emanate from the same point in the center, not dissimilar to the hands of a clock. Even more remarkable, as the year turns, so do the “hands,” swinging about in very clocklike fashion. Yet they swing at a peculiar rate which fails to match any other passage of time known to our astronomers and horologists…except for the Star Racers, itself an unreliable phenomena. Every few decades, but never on the dot, these seven bright comets streak across the sky, often coming from a different direction than the last time they were observed. Legend has it that they are the sons of the King of Galaxies, all born at the same time, and they race their fiery chariots across the universe to determine which will succeed their father. For ages they have raced, and will for ages more, as the King still lives, and the Timepiece alone tracks their progress by measurements unknown to us.

  1. What is your favorite holiday (excluding Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter) and why?

Back in the school years my choice would be any of the days that got me an extra day off. But now I suppose I’m down to two choices: July 4, because I love my country and believe it is a good thing to reflect upon the positive elements of our founding, and Talk Like a Pirate Day, because YARR, O’COURSE IT BE A ‘OLIDAY, MATEY!!!

  1. Name an object you would like to see featured in a story.

A singing sword-cane.

  1. Make up a name for a spell and tell me what it does.

Implere tributum! It does my taxes.

  1. Choose a plant and make up a symbolic meaning for it.

Wisteria symbolizes that bittersweet emotion of sadness at the passing of a good thing, but gratitude for that thing’s existence.

  1. What is your favorite ghost/folk/scary story (can be humorous or not)?

Hmm. Is A Christmas Carol scary? It’s a ghost story, and it’s one of my favorites. The book is fantastic on its own, but my favorite version is the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. My family watches it every year and I never fail to be moved by it. For more traditionally “horror”-type stories, I do kind of like Stephen King’s “N” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”

At last I’ve answered! And now I can go read Jubilare’s own responses to her own questions, which she asked her readers not to read until after they’d presented their own. What about you folks? Did you answer these questions for Jubilare when she posted them? If not, might you now, for me?

A new epic rises, and it’s looking for a title

I am near to quivering with excitement and glee.

My dear friend and accomplished artist/writer/tree-climbing crazyperson Michelle has finally kicked her long-gestating webcomic into gear. Please hop on over to read the first page of Epic Title Here!

Skittlebright likes tea.
Skittlebright likes tea.

It already has floating islands, aromatic teas, Krishna, Quetzalcoatl, and some guy who looks Sumerian, so I’m guessing he’s Gilgamesh. And two other probably-original characters who will likely become very important very soon. I don’t know, we’ll have to read and find out. The story promises to be about a young woman searching for a story, and that’s a quest I can certainly relate to. It also promises a cat named Sophocles, which I think we can all agree is something the Internet desperately needs.

Sophocles wants you to read his webcomic.
Sophocles wants you to read her webcomic.

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)


Roger Ebert, respected film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and arguably the most popular and influential man in the history of his profession, passed away Thursday, April 4, 2013. He was also the greatest blogger the Internet has yet seen. Since this blog would be very different if I had never read him, it seems appropriate that I spare a few good words for a man who never ran out of them.

My earliest memory of reading him—I mean really reading and being influenced by him—was just after I had seen Citizen Kane for the first time. I was in high school, and Orson Welles’ film had just shown me that movies could also be great art. After finishing my first viewing, I was in such awe that I immediately started it again from the beginning. Once the second viewing had finished, I ran to my computer and looked up Ebert’s Great Movies review. Welles’ greatness demanded exegesis, and Ebert delivered it. It was something of a revelatory time for me: I had never really thought of movies as art before. I had enjoyed movies greatly, but was only beginning to see them critically. And adding to this, the DVD of Citizen Kane included a commentary track by Roger Ebert himself, in which he explained in conversational tones, scene-by-scene, just what makes that movie so darn awesome. Movies “clicked” for me, then, much as literature had some years before. They were entertainment, yes, but they could also be meaningful art.

For nearly every movie I see, new or old, I find myself looking to see if Ebert has reviewed it. Sometimes I read his review before seeing the movie, to gauge whether it is worth my time. Other times I see the movie first, and then run to read what his thoughts were. Often I would read his recommendation first, see the movie, then come back to reconsider what he said. You know a writer is special if you reread him, voluntarily, for both enrichment and enjoyment.

Ebert’s history you can read elsewhere; I will not repeat it. But I would like to mention one thing about him that has long earned my respect: his willingness to have his mind changed. This type of humility is uncommon in men who know they are famous. Consider his famous “war” against 3D films, epitomized by this essay he wrote for The Daily Beast. For the space of a few years, his reviews of nearly every 3D movie that came out would end with a note on how poor or unnecessary the 3D was. By all accounts I’ve heard, he was right. But then some fascinating things started to happen as truly brilliant directors started playing around with the technology. We got Avatar, where the 3D at least ceased to be annoying (though neither I nor Ebert thought it an asset), and then Hugo in which it was fancifully pretty and charming, and most recently Life of Pi, in which the 3D actually aids in producing some of the most awesome and gorgeous frames of cinema you will ever see on the silver screen. Ebert’s reviews of these movies reveal how much fantastic art excited him, especially when he least expected it. Compare what he said in the article for The Daily Beast with this excerpt from his review of Life of Pi:

What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in “Life of Pi.” I’ve never seen the medium better employed, not even in “Avatar,” and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, [director Ang] Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film’s sense of places and events.

Let me try to describe one point of view. The camera is placed in the sea, looking up at the lifeboat and beyond it. The surface of the sea is like the enchanted membrane upon which it floats. There is nothing in particular to define it; it is just … there. This is not a shot of a boat floating in the ocean. It is a shot of ocean, boat and sky as one glorious place.

In that quote you might also note something else that appeals to me: the poetic prose he was capable of when the Muse of Cinema gripped him. Most critics use metaphors as a way to sound witty before their readers, or sometimes to hide the fact that they haven’t clearly thought through the part of the film they are commenting on. Ebert wasn’t bound to that; here he reaches for poetic phrases in his ecstasy to communicate the joy of his experience watching the movie. It was important to him that we readers to know how wonderfully the 3D is used in this movie. He knew that many of us would regard it as important. I sure do.

[The Nostalgia Critic Doug Walker elaborates on the importance of Ebert’s passion in his own tribute video, which is well worth a watch.)

When he arrived in the blogosphere, he turned his keen mind to every other subject that interested him: politics, social issues, foreign cultures, music, religion, clever YouTube videos, cartoons, photography, literature, video games, cooking—fer cryin’ out loud, this Pulitzer Prizewinner wrote a cookbook about rice! You could always disagree with his writing and feel he would respect you for it, if you knew why you thought the way you did and believed it truly. And in return I have paid him the same respect: some of his opinions I have really hated, especially when he would praise men like Hugh Hefner or his friend Russ Meyer, but I understood why he held them, and I could never hate him. I could always understand why I agreed or disagreed, because he was honest about his opinions and biases as well as he was able to be. It gives me great sorrow that—to my knowledge—he remained, in practice, an atheist to his death, despite the influence of many Christian friends. I italicize in practice in deference to his own words, published quite recently on March 1:

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.

I do believe this: that God works good even through those people who reject Him. It does honor to God to recognize this, and to honor those people through whom we have been blessed. By God’s grace, I have been blessed through Roger Ebert.

Farewell, Roger. You never knew me, but I became your friend in the way a reader befriends the soul who writes to him. I prayed for you a lot over the years, and always wished you well. Indeed, I wished you a greater happiness than you would accept for yourself. We disagreed much, and agreed much, and I owe you a great debt when it comes to how to think, write, and enjoy movies intelligently. You enriched my life. I already miss you.

God bless,


I hardly expected to break my hiatus (unannounced, for which I beg your forgiveness and thank your patience) in such a somber manner. When work and projects pile up, they easily overwhelm me, and my time ends up divided between That Which Hath Deadlines Enforced By Others and That For Which I Need Thinketh Not At All. Things in-between, which have no deadlines but are enforced by myself on myself, but which yet ask of me thought and care and passion, such as this blog, sometimes then fall from the wagon of my workload. But not blogging leaves me unhappy, and I have long been directing myself towards a return. I have so much to say, and so much to read! And I have been reading, make no mistake. Novels, scholarly works, fairy tales, webcomics. Very many of your own blog posts. I’ve seen great movies and exciting television shows. My mind needs sharpening and my soul the nutrition of fellowship. I am ready to come back. Are you ready to read?

“Morn, with the Spring in her arms…”

I submit this thesis for your reflection: The greatest possible event, in any kind of story, real or invented, is the redemption of some undeserving person through pure love and grace. Often it is at the story’s end, as with the Prodigal Son, but it need not be. In Les Misérables, it happens at the beginning. But in this particular story, in George MacDonald’s Lilith, it does indeed occur near the end. I have not yet finished the last few chapters, but when I came across this passage it was so beautiful that I had to share it.

The scene is the House of Bitterness, in which Lilith, rebel wife of Adam, who has declared herself Queen of Hell and imagines herself free in her evil, but is really a slave of the satanic Shadow, has been forcibly confronted with the depravity of her soul and her slavery to sin. Broken, scornful, and then broken again many times over, she tries to remain unrepentant even as anguish takes her soul. “I will not be remade!” she cries, “I will be myself and not another!” “Alas,” comes the wise reply, “you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?” Lilith cries back, “I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.” But she knows her words are false. She loathes herself, but fears the surrender necessary for change. For truly, she is so steeped in evil that it has slain her, even as she appears to live. She walks in death; she must die to death if she hopes to live again! The idea is fearful and incredible; how can it happen? “He will forgive you,” Lilith is told. It is too much for her, too much. She acknowledges she is a slave. She admits she is powerless even to change herself, even to cease her own existence. She cries that she is hopeless, that she should die, if she could, and she collapses.

And then comes what may be the finest passage by George MacDonald I have yet read.

Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.

Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside. Softly they stole in at the opened door, with a gentle wind in the skirts of their garments. It flowed and flowed about Lilith, rippling the unknown, upwaking sea of her life eternal; rippling and to ripple it, until at length she who had been but as a weed cast on the dry sandy shore to wither, should know herself an inlet of the everlasting ocean, henceforth to flow into her for ever, and ebb no more. She answered the morning wind with reviving breath, and began to listen. For in the skirts of the wind had come the rain—the soft rain that heals the mown, the many-wounded grass—soothing it with the sweetness of all music, the hush that lives between music and silence. It bedewed the desert places around the cottage, and the sands of Lilith’s heart heard it, and drank it in. When Mara returned to sit by her bed, her tears were flowing softer than the rain, and soon she was fast asleep.

Lilith, by George MacDonald, end of Chapter 39,

Treasure Our Young Folks and Nurture Their Minds

Young Folks Treasury, 1919
Well, my copy is green, at least. I like the drawing of the ship.

At some point last year, on the shelf at my library where they sell unwanted books cheaply, I spent $1.50 for a green leather-bound Volume One of The Young Folks Treasury published in 1919 by The University Society. It is in wonderfully good condition, with a cover as smooth as the day it was printed and but a little worn at the corners. One page out of 538 is torn, and the black and white illustrations are still charming and clear. I could not believe my good fortune, and indeed was somewhat angered at how the library had set it out where any child or careless adult could grab and abuse it. This tome has survived ninety-two years with admirable hardiness for the purpose of mankind’s enrichment, and it deserves to be treated with respect.

Making it more special to me is that this volume—one of a series of twelve, it claims—is devoted to fairy tales, fables, and poetry. Designed to be read by parents to their children, the book collects all the most famous and beloved nursery rhymes, nursery tales, childhood poems, simplified fairy tales, older poetry, fables (Aesop’s and East Indian’s), and a wonderful assortment of folk tales from around the world. If for nothing else, the book has use as a capsule of the stories children were told in the early part of the 20th century.

I was also impressed by the introduction written by Hamilton W. Mabie. In this era of transition into digital media and eBooks, and the threat of replacement of literature by movies, video games, and possibly even bloggers, I think it is important to keep his words close in mind. As an uncle of three kids with boundless energy, I see their potential and yet worry that our culture does not nurture them well. Children need to be trained to focus, to concentrate, and it is not good to feed them constant sensory distractions of many kinds all at once from the day they are born. But sitting down with a book in your hands and reading, whether for fifteen minutes or an hour or three hours, demands that the reader gather his mental faculties together and think. Engage. Converse with the author. Be patient. What are we doing to ourselves when we leave physical books to lie unopened and spend uncounted hours staring at the lights of our computer screens and television sets? What are we doing to our children if they are raised this way, knowing naught else, and what of our future?

Books are as much a part of the furnishing of a house as tables and chairs, and in the making of a home they belong, not with the luxuries but with the necessities.  A bookless house is not a home; for a home affords food and shelter for the mind as well as for the body.  It is as great an offence against a child to starve his mind as to starve his body, and there is as much danger of reducing his vitality and putting him at a disadvantage in his lifework in the one as in the other form of deprivation…

Children are helpless to protect themselves and secure what they need for healthy of body and mind; they are exceedingly impressionable; and the future is always in their hands.  The first and most imperative duty of parents is to give their children the best attainable preparation for life, no matter at what sacrifice to themselves…

These twelve volumes aim, in brief to make the home the most inspiring school and the most attractive place for pleasure, and to bring the best the world has to offer of adventure, heroism, achievement and beauty within its four walls…

No apology is offered for giving large space to myths, legends, fairy stories, tales of all sorts, and to poetry; for in these expressions of the creative mind is to be found the material on which the imagination has fed in every age and which is, for the most part, conspicuously absent from our educational programmes.

America has at present greater facility in producing “smart” men than in producing able men; the alert, quick-witted, money-maker abounds, but the men who live with ideas, who care for the principles of things, and who make life rich in resource and interest are comparatively few.  America needs poetry more than it needs industrial training; though the two ought never to be separated.  The time to awaken the imagination, which is the creative faculty, is early childhood; and the most accessible material for this education is the literature which the race created in its childhood.  The creative man, whether in the arts or in practical affairs, in poetry, in engineering or in business, is always the man of imagination.

– Hamilton W. Mabie, “General Introduction” to The Young Folks Treasury

The entirety of this volume can be read online at The Project Gutenberg, while Volume X on “Ideal Home Life” can be found here.

C.S. Lewis talks about how to write for children

The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.
~ C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”

I have sometimes wondered whether writing for children might be more difficult than writing for adults. When it comes to a story, children either like it or they do not. They do not evaluate the author’s diction, or depth of characterization, or thematic complexity, they simply respond. Childlike discernment is unrefined (although not necessarily inaccurate). The most successful children’s stories are among some of the best stories I have read, even as an adult, and often they have as much or more power than some of the best adult literature. For one thing, they seem to have more clarity and focus. The author has to know exactly what his story is and how he wants to say it.

[The format of children’s literature] compels you to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me. It also imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length.

Among picture books I read as a child that I still now enjoy, there are Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne, and Something from Nothing and Grandma and the Pirates by Phoebe Gilman (the latter rather silly, in a good way). Among so-called “young adult” fiction, there are the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeline L’Engle, the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, Perloo the Bold by Avi, Kävik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, and perhaps the whole collected works of Beverly Cleary. Not to mention a host of illustrated retellings of myths, legends, and classic literature for children, such as Saint George and the Dragon retold by Margaret Hodges, with art by Trina Schart Hyman, and the beautiful adaptation of George MacDonald’s Little Daylight that was one of the first true fairy stories I remember reading. And also, of course, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Read more

Chesterton On Democratic Civilization, Human Nature, and Telegraph Poles

Frequent contributor Mr. Chesterton here again, this time with a little story and rumination combination. What’s it about? Well, as my post title suggests, Democratic Civilization, Human Nature, and the titular Telegraph Poles. I’ve decided not to enclose the text in WordPress’ “block quotes,” because that narrows the margins and italicizes the text, making a piece even this long that much harder to read. Nonetheless, all that comes after Chesterton’s name below is his (but for one edit I made in brackets). Enjoy and ponder, please:


The Telegraph Poles

by G.K. Chesterton

My friend and I were walking in one of those wastes of pine-wood which make inland seas of solitude in every part of Western Europe; which have the true terror of a desert, since they are uniform, and so one may lose one’s way in them. Stiff, straight, and similar, stood up all around us the pines of the wood, like the pikes of a silent mutiny. There is a truth in talking of the variety of Nature; but I think that Nature often shows her chief strangeness in her sameness. There is weird rhythm in this very repetition; it is as if the earth were resolved to repeat a single shape until the shape shall turn terrible.

Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as “dog,” thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like “snark” or “pobble.” It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition. In the end a dog [looks] about as startling and undecipherable as Leviathan or Croquemitaine. Read more

Rosemary Sutcliff Describes the Thrill of Chariot-Racing

The young Roman Centurion Marcus is allowed to try out the team of black horses belonging to Cradoc, a British tribesman and charioteer:

Illustration from the hardback second edition of "The Eagle of the Ninth."

“[Marcus] took the team through every trick and test that their master ordered, until the moment came for a final burst of speed, and they were sweeping at full gallop round the mile-wide curve of the woodshore.

To Marcus that moment was always like being born from one kind of life into another. So must an arrow feel when it leaves the bow! It had been hot and sultry in the old life, but in this one the cool wind flowed against him like water, pressing his thin scarlet tunic into his body, singing past his ears above the soft thunder of the ponies’ flying hooves. He crouched lower, feeling the chariot floor buoyant and vibrating under his wide-set feet, feeling the reins quick with life in his hands, his will flowing out along them to the flying team, and their response flowing back to him, so that they were one. He called to them in the Celtic tongue, urging them on.

‘On, brave hearts! On, bold and beautiful! Thy mares shall be proud of thee, the tribe shall sing thy praises to their children’s children! Sweff! Sweff, my brothers!’

For the first time he loosed the lash, letting it fly out and flicker like dark lightning above their ears without ever touching them. The forest verge spun by, the fern streaked away beneath flying hooves and whirling wheels. He and his team were a comet shooting down the bright ways of the sky; a falcon stooping against the sun…”

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth, pg. 19-20