The Hobbit and History: Viking Vengeance and Dwarvish Destiny

The Hobbit and History is out. Do you have your copy yet?

In the second chapter of the collection – “From Oakenshield to Bloodaxe: The Viking Roots of Tolkien’s Dwarves”, you learn about the thirst for vengeance in Tolkien’s dwarves and in historical Viking culture. Thorin Oakenshield was hardly unique in holding a grudge against those who had brought his family down. Medieval leaders waged bloody and devastating wars to right wrongs against their families. Consider the case of Ívarr the Boneless, a ninth century Dane who led a massive army to seek vengeance for his father’s death.

Ívarr the Boneless was a Viking warrior. His epithet may seem odd and has inspired furious debate. Did he have a degenerative bone condition, perhaps osteogenesis imperfecta? Was he extraordinarily limber and the byname a sort of joke about his flexible maneuvering? Or maybe the story began in some great act of daring, just as Thorin Oakenshield takes his epithet from his quick thinking on the field of battle.

Historically, Danes invading England by sea Vikings weren’t only concerned with warfare and vengeance. They were also great traders, explorers and ambitious settlers. Some ventured as far afield as Newfoundland and Istanbul, and Viking hoards have been found to contain such exotic treasures as Arabic coins and a statue of Buddha. As a recent exhibition at the British Museum reminded us, the Vikings were more than bloodthirsty marauders, they were poets, artisans and adventurers. But the Vikings were also devoted to their families and friends. Insults against a friend could spark a bitter rivalry. Attacks against a relative often spurred the Vikings onto war.

As Colin Gibbons notes in The Hobbit and History, Ívarr lost his father, Ragnar Lodbrok to a cruel and vindictive opponent, King Ælla of Northumberland. The Scandinavian king was reportedly executed by being cast into a snakepit. His sons were incensed at their father’s ill-treatment and mounted an invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the head of what is sometimes know as the “Great Heathen Army”. From 865-869, Ívarr rained ruin upon his English enemies. He and his brothers saw Ælla pay the final, horrific price for his execution of Ragnar. After conquering much of the Anglo-Saxon lands, Ívarr turned to Ireland, conquering there. By the time of his death, likely around 873, he and his brothers had triumphed over their enemies.

So, too, Thorin Oakenshield seeks vengeance against those who have wronged his family – Smaug who seized their royal stronghold and others as well. His thirst for vengeance is as strong as that of any of these historical Vikings. Learn more about the parallels between the Vikings and the dwarves when you read The Hobbit and History!

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The Hobbit and History: Five Armies & Five Kings

The Hobbit and History comes Cover for The Hobbit and historyout on Tuesday. Order your copy or pick it up at your favourite retailer soon. In the meantime, read today’s historical snippet. Chapter One by Marcus Schulzke, “The Faces of the Five Armies”, examines historical parallels from the Middle Ages and Renaissance that help you better understand the dynamics of Tolkien’s battling forces in that culminating conflict. Given that the third movie in Peter Jackson’s adaptation is all about this, with reports that the battle itself will take forty-five minutes of screen time, it can only help to get Dr. Schulzke’s smart perspective on the topic.

Today’s Getty Museum MS 88.MP.70.119blog post goes a bit farther back in history to look at another parallel for Tolkien’s riveting “Battle of the Five Armies” taken out of biblical history. This image is from a fifteenth century German universal chronicle and it depicts the defeat of five kings of southern Canaan as told in the Book of Joshua, 10:2-27. In the Bible, Joshua was following Moses’ lead to take the Holy Land for the Israelites, even if that meant deposing and destroying its current Canaanite inhabitants. After successes in the north, Joshua met renewed resistance from a coalition of five kings: the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon. Their coalition reflected many common interests: culture, religion and fear of the death rained down upon the Canaanites by the increasingly powerful Israelites. These five kings plotted against Gibeon, a city that had made a covenant with Israel. The Gibeonites appealed to Joshua who, supported by the Lord, marched south against the five kings.

This was a long and deadly battle, made longer by miraculous intervention. A devastating and targeted hailstorm wreaked havoc with the coalition against the Israelites, killing many in the five kings’ armies. According to the Book of Joshua, God manifested his powers, again, on the side of Joshua and the Gibeonites: illuminating the battlefield long past the normal stretch of hours.

Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. (Josh 10:12-13)

The five kings sought refuge in a cave where they were walled in by their foes, only to be released and executed after Joshua’s forces had eradicated all of their armies, seizing the five cities for Israel.

Some coalitions are strong, like that of Joshua and the Gibeonites, united by the power of the covenant. Others, like the coalition of the five kings, are weak. Some coalitions are supported by great magic – the miracles that the Lord provided Joshua and his army or the wonders that a great wizard and even a little hobbit with a magic Ring might possess. Some coalitions find their dark support – Ba’al or Sauron – insufficient to the task. And sometimes five or more armies might all meet upon the field for a very long day and more to hash out the future of their world.

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Women’s History Week, 2014

Do you want to know what I’ve been doing the past few weeks besides checking proofs for my next article in Rethinking History and next month’s The Hobbit and History as well as teaching a lot and grading even more? Getting ready for Laurentian University’s latest iteration of Women’s History Week!

Here’s the poster advertising all the talks that you can attend during Women’s History Week at Laurentian University, October 27-31, 2014:
Poster for Women's History Week Going strong for over twenty years, Women’s History Week explores the diverse and intriguing topics of women’s history as shown in the scholarship of Laurentian faculty and students. This year our theme is Women and Popular Culture. From antiquity to the present-day, drawing on history, literature, political science and classics, Women’s History Week has a lot to offer.

I’m giving the keynote address, Tuesday evening in downtown Sudbury on Women and Game of Thrones. Have you always wondered if Martin’s women in their manoeuvring for power were at all historically plausible? Join us at the Fromagerie at 7pm and see! We also have a roundtable on Wednesday, the 29th, on literary and media representations of indigenous womanhood along with classroom talks throughout the week.

PDF Poster for Women’s History Week, 2014

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From Historiann: The New York Times Book Review Interview

Have you read the history news of late? If so, you’ve probably seen the comment and kerfuffle over the recent New York Times book review interview with James Macpherson. With his new book out on Jeff Davis, Macpherson was asked about what books he was reading, would recommend, etc. Normal book-selling shtick, except for where some historians noted the near-complete absence of women from the esteemed academic’s list of suggestions. As you might expect, Historiann weighed right in with a pithy comment or two. She followed those observations up with her own take on answering those same questions. Delicious!

Because, damnit, gender representation matters and if your long list of books you read and admire have nearly no women and nearly no diversity on it, that says something about your habits of mind that I’m not exactly thrilled about. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there has to be a quota, but with so much amazing history being written by women and men worldwide, you need to keep yourself open to that range, not close yourself off in a comfortable corner.

Historiann challenged her readers to take the interview questions, just as she did, and answer them on their blogs. I’m doing that although a few of these questions are more challenging for me than they would be for an Americanist but, hey, what did I say about diversity and range? I teach 5500 years of history at every level from the freshman survey to the graduate seminar. If I’m not open to reading a wide variety, shame on me. Here’s my list, where’s yours or what do you think I need to read after seeing my responses? I’m all ears!

What books are currently on your night stand?

The top two (what? Who doesn’t have stacks of books on or serving as a night stand?) are The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet and Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London.

What was the last truly great book you read?

This is tough simply because I’ve read so many amazing and inspiring books in the past year. For history, I’d have to say that my most recent “oh wow!” moment came when I picked up Alison Games’ The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660. I’m so pleased that I assigned this for my second year British history students!
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Everloving Evernote

This spring I started using Evernote which, if you don’t already know it, is a multi-platform notetaking system. I’m pretty certain that I got interested in using it via Profhacker which is about the smartest group blog out there for academics of any stripe.

Anyway, I installed Evernote on my laptop and my tablet. I poked around with it and was semi-sort-of meh about the whole thing. I mean, what was in it for me? How should I use it? I made a few notes, kept track of a few things and not much else happened. My world was definitely not rocked.

Then the super-smart Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recommended a book for academics on how to use the software: Work Smarter With Evernote by Alexandra Samuel. I bought the book because, dangit!, the software really sounded helpful but I knew that I was missing the point. I read the brief book and, wow, world has definitely been rocked. My new phone has Evernote installed and it’s become a universal constant in my life, thanks to the book and other useful guides. Another Twitter star and historian, Liz Covart, cemented the deal for me with her 3 Ways Evernote Makes Research Easier. (Also see this only slightly-outdated list of Evernote power-user tips from PCWorld.)

Samuel highlighted some of the tools and organizational elements existing within Evernote that you can use to cluster your life or work in “stacks” that are easily and intuitively accessible. She showed how webpages can be clipped, documents appended and photos added to turn Evernote from a simple note tool into a total reference system.

I’m still only a novice but, wow, Evernote is so amazing. I’m putting together reading lists and class plans in course-specific notebooks that reside within my teaching stack. Tagging allows me to bridge the research and teaching aspects of the system where appropriate (which is surprisingly more and more now that I think about it). I have a personal to-do always floating around at the top to help me remember errands. Post office tomorrow to mail a small parcel, thank you, Evernote!

I’ve Evernote screenshot become an Evernote enthusiast but the real joy of the software didn’t hit home until Wednesday, during the grad class. One of the students was leading the discussion and I was making notes in Evernote on my tablet, all about the presentation when a handout materialized in front of me. Without thinking, I pulled out my phone, used the camera to snap shots of the two sides and pull them into Evernote. Then back to the tablet where I could now start making notes on how the handout and discussion intermixed. Oh, and if I’d pulled the document file out of the accompanying email or sent it to my evernote account, I could have included that there as well. In the end, I had a helpful note about the grad student’s work, incorporating their material, already labelled with the class (because Evernote reads my schedule and knows where I am at any given point in the day), that I could then tag and file appropriately. I’m now going to do one better and import my presentation rubrics into Evernote so that grading becomes more streamlined as well.

Do you use Evernote? If so, what do you love about it? If not, have I convinced you to take a second look?

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You Should Be

Term’s underway and I’m buried in work of all sorts. Four courses at present, plus additional responsibilities with M.A. and senior project supervisions to get up and running with the students involved. An unexpected committee to steer towards a rapid conclusion. A revision (done!). Other writing and editing projects on the go. And home life full of busy-ness all its own.

So when I do sit down at the computer and think about starting a blog post, I shy away as my inner voice chides “You should be doing X.” This holds for certain values of X that have to do with the next writing project, teaching preps for the coming week, more emails for administrative duties or even just cleaning the bathroom. . . again. And so, I don’t post because, hey, there are more things that need to be done. Interesting ideas I might have developed in a blog post mostly become Twitter fodder and while I love that platform, it’s hardly the same as a blog. Either way, I write less and less here as I let the guilt and internalized negativity weigh me down.

This isn’t a radical new insight. Many others have pointed out how academics can be disdainful of anyone who pursues hobbies as “wasting their time” in general or blogging in particular as unworthy. Even though I know my colleagues wouldn’t hold that opinion, it’s easy to internalize the critique, isn’t it, and ditch the personal pastimes as unworthy. Even blogging can appear a waste of time when it’s really anything but that. Blogging connects people, blogging helps to clarify thought processes, blogging sparks creativity.

So I’m going to try to embrace a new mantra: “You should be blogging.” At least once a week, throughout the term, I will post because blogging is something that I really should be doing more of, even when I’m at my busiest.

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It Can’t Be September

Because if it’s September I start teaching on the third. I also have article revisions due before mid-month.

Eep!

At least all my syllabi are ready. For those playing along at home, I’m teaching several courses this term beginning with Western Civ. So far there are fifty-five students enrolled. There’s a second-year survey on Early Modern British History with only twenty-five students because it runs at 8:30 in the morning, two days a week. I’m team-teaching a third-year class on The History of the Occult with almost forty students signed-up and then there’s the graduate seminar on historical methods. I’ll also most likely have one Directed Readings grad course running all year.

If my syllabi are ready, I’m certainly not. Time to get back to polishing the opening lecture notes and slides for Occult and to ensure I have something fun for the first class which I’ll meet on Wednesday which is the British history course. And there was that additional article which I’d hoped to complete. . . .

Push back the clock!

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