Tolkien Lecture 2021

We are still very much in No Public Meetings mode here in the UK, which means that this year’s J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature will again take place online. While I will miss my annual trip to Oxford, I have to admit that online lectures make it much easier for both speakers and audience to come from anywhere in the world. The main constraint is time zones.

With that in mind, I am delighted to report that the 2021 lecture will be given by one of my favourite writers of fantastic fiction, and also someone who knows Tolkien’s work well because of his work on The Silmarilion. I am talking, of course, about Guy Gavriel Kay. The lecture will be at 6:00pm on Tuesday May 11th, and you can book a (free) place here.

Queering Medusa

At long last the final piece of my LGBT+ History Month tour has dropped into place. This is the video interview I did with Dan Vo for the National Galleries Scotland exhibition on Ray Harryhausen. The basic idea is that each of Dan’s interviewees would pick a Harryhausen creature and explain how it connected to queer history. My choice was Medusa, and the edited interview is now available to view.

The most obvious thing about it is that I am still really bad at TV and should not be let anywhere near a camera, but at least I have a decent background. I’m pleased to have given a supporting role to Ifor the Dragon.

Also the story is good. There’s a lot in there about African history and Amazons. I also manage to reference Sandy Stone and Dorothea Smartt. If you want to know what they have to do with Medusa, you need to watch the interview.

What didn’t make it into the final cut was my plug for Liz Gloyn’s book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture. I did try, Liz. If you want to know why I was plugging it, check out my review on Salon Futura.

My thanks once again to Dan, and to National Galleries Scotland, for inviting me to be part of this series. And now, without further ado, here is the show:

New From Academia Lunare

The lovely folks at Luna Press Publishing have a new project underway. It is the 5th in their Academia Lunare series of non-fiction collections. You may remember that book #3 in the series, Gender and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, won a British Fantasy Award. Also book #4, The Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a finalist for this year’s British Science Fiction Association Awards. What’s more, the books have achieved these honours despite both having essays by me in them.

So, book #5. It is titled, Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction. As usual it has a stellar international cast of contributors, and me. You can find the full contents list and contributor bios here. My offering is titled, “Worldbuilding with Sex and Gender”. It is, of course, about queer animals, because if our natural world is full of outrageously queer behavior there is no reason why your invented world can’t be either.

Pre-orders will open sometime in the spring, and in the meantime Francesca will be doing the PR thing by releasing abstracts of the various essays to whet your appetites.

Also the CFP for book #6 in the series is now out. It will be titled, Not the Fellowship. Dragons Welcome. The idea is to write about one of the lesser characters from The Lord of the Rings. You can pick anyone except a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, including Smaug. I wonder how many proposals they’ll get arguing one way or the other about Tom Bombadill. Guess I’d better put my thinking cap on.

In Search of Trans Celts

On Friday I gave a talk for the lovely people at Aberration as part of their LGBTHM festival. They asked me to look for evidence of trans people among the Celtic inhabitants of Britain. This isn’t easy, and my talk was hedged around with caveats. I promised a blog post that would explain things in more detail. Here it is.

I need to start off by explaining what I mean by “Celtic”, because the Romans did not use that word to describe my ancestors. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that they often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on.

However, the Greeks used the word “Keltoi” to describe people who lived up the Danube, so north of the Balkans, including places like Hungary and Slovakia. The modern word “Celtic” is used to denote a group of Bronze/Iron Age tribal cultures that are united by a common language and culture. They spread all the way from Britain and Spain to Eastern Europe and possibly even China. Archaeologists will refer to Hallstatt Culture (named after a town in Austria) as a general term for these people. There are regions of Spain and Poland known as Galicia because the Romans knew them as home to Gauls.

This is all very simplistic, of course. The reality of the archeology is much more complex as we shall see. Also shared culture is not proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.

The only reference I could find regarding trans people in possibly-Celtic culture comes from Tacitus in his book, Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, “Germany” was somewhat displaced east from our modern idea of the country. The people he was talking about were a tribe called the Nahanarvali, who were part of a larger confederation of tribes called the Lugii. Their home territory was in modern Poland, between the Oder and Vistula rivers. Tacitus wrote:

Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis.

On the face of it, that’s pretty good. Sacred groves are things that we associate with Celts, and these people lived in an area where Hallstatt materials have been found. But were they Celts? And if so, would the same gods have been worshipped in Britain? Well, it is complicated.

Depending who you read the Lugii are described as Celtic, Germanic, or proto-Slavic. We do know that the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals lived to the north-east of Lugii territory, and that they gradually pushed westwards through the Roman era. But Tacitus says that the grove is very old, so hopefully that indicates a Celtic origin.

Then there’s the language. The Lugii sound like they are associated with the Celtic god Lugh (Irish) or Lleu (Welsh). There is an unrelated tribe with the same name in Scotland. But the name of the god, Alcis, suggests a Germanic root and an association with deer.

Also, sacred groves are not unique to Celts. I have turned up evidence of one in Sweden, and Cybele (the patron goddess of trans women) was worshipped in a sacred grove on Mount Ida in her home in Phrygia.

Then there is the nature of the gods. Tacitus says they are twin boys, and compares them to Castor & Pollux. But those gods are traditionally associated with horses, not deer. There is good evidence of a pair of twins associated with horses being worshipped by the locals in the Spanish Galicia during Roman times, but we’ve still got the wrong animal.

Of course none of this proves anything about the ancient Britons, so I turned to the Mabinogion to see what surviving Welsh legend might tell us. Somewhat to my surprise, I found something.

In the Fourth Branch, as a precursor to the tale of Blodeuwedd, we get a story about two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Gwydion goes on to have many other adventures, but Gilfaethwy is known only for his obsession with a young girl called Goewin. She’s not interested, and she’s a special virgin servant of King Math of Gwynedd so untouchable. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy therefore kick off a small war by stealing some pigs from a rival king, Pryderi of Dyfed. While Math is away dealing with the inevitable retaliation, Gilfaethwy is able to rape poor Goewin.

When Math gets home he finds out what the boys have done and is furious. He turns them first into deer (significant?), then into boar, and then into wolves. In each case one of the boys becomes a male of the species, and the other becomes a female, and they have children, whom Math adopts.

So what we have here is a tale of divine brothers who go through species and gender changes and produce offspring, which is all a bit reminiscent of Loki. Also the boys’ sister, Arianrhod, becomes the mother of Lleu.

At this point the story is so complicated that it is impossible to say anything concrete without sounding like Robert Graves or James George Frazer. You start to understand why they wrote the things that they did. My mind has been racing down rabbit holes ranging from Castor & Pollux and their sister Helen on the one hand, to Freyja and Freyr on the other. I could easily concoct a whole neo-pagan theology around this.

But I am a responsible historian, so I just have to say that we don’t know. It is all very mysterious.

In the meantime, if you have been sent here by the folks at Aberration, you can find a lot more about trans Romans in my academic writing. And the books that I mentioned on Friday are:

Talks This Week #LGBTHM21

LGBT+ History Month continues apace. Here’s what’s happening in public this week.

Tomorrow evening, I will be at the M Shed in Bristol in conversation with the wonderful Nicola Griffith. We’ll be talking about her novel, Hild, about sexuality in early mediaeval times, and about a whole lot of other things. You know, women warriors, Sutton Hoo, co-option of ancient history by the far right, and so on. This is a free talk, and you can book here.

On Wednesday evening I will be at Strawberry Hill House in South London where I will be talking about Charlotte de Beaumont, Chevalière d’Eon and being trans in the 18th century. This one you have to pay a small amount for, but it should be well worth it. I have had so much fun doing the research for this and could easily talk for two hours rather than one. The talk will have war, espionage, gender transition, ridiculous quantities of wine, two revolutions, the Hellfire Club, Rousseau, William Blake and so much more. You can book here.

Also I did a talk for a student group at Cambridge today. I’m doing one for a private client on Wednesday afternoon. And Thursday thru Saturday I’ll be helping run the Historical Fiction Research Network annual conference, and giving a paper about Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s hugely successful novel, The Last Days of Pompeii.

Glasgow Does D&D

The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow University, in collaboration with the univeristy’s Games Lab, have run an online event about the origins and history of Dungeons and Dragons. It was fun, and really heartwarming to see so many young people who love RPGs watching the event. As history, however, it could have been better. That’s one of the things about having been there when it happened. You remember stuff.

John D Rateliff, who was the principal speaker, used to work for TSR, and for the company we tend to refer to as Wizards of the Cost, so he knows his stuff. But he didn’t start playing D&D until 1980 so he missed a lot of the frenzy of development in the early years. Heck, Runequest was two years old by then.

Rateliff did mention a book by Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift, which chronicles the early history of the hobby with some reference to fanzines. A quick scan through shows that the fanzines referenced were mostly American (many of them from Bruce Pelz’s collection), but I did see a few names that I recognised. Peterson does mention postal Diplomacy quite a lot, and En Garde!, all of which is very familiar.

When it comes down to it, there are basically only two main debates about RPGs. The first one is about whether the game should be set in a closed world (e.g. a game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or on the Arthurian legends), or in an open one where GMs are free to create their own world. D&D started off open-ended, went through a phase where the owners were trying to lock people in, and has now apparently gone back to being open-ended again. Given that Tékumel is older than D&D, you can argue that this debate has been raging from the start. I was pleased to see Rateliff cite flexibility as D&D‘s key selling point. Back in the 1970s we all used say that we played “D&D“, even though most of us had tossed those first edition rulebooks and made up our own rules.

The other main debate, which has absolutely been with us from the start, is the narrative v rules debate. Those on the narrative side see the game as what we used to called Improvised Freeform Theatre (a term I think Paul Mason may have coined), and the rule-players see it as a form of wargame where knowledge of the rules is crucial to success. I’m delighted to see that the young gamers at the event were pretty much all on the narrative side. Maybe that’s because all of the rules-players have gone off to do Warhammer.

Rateliff, who is a highly-respected fantasy fiction scholar, was very solid on the fictional roots of the game. He seemed to know a bit less about the wargaming side. I was a bit surprised to see no mention of Tony Bath’s legendary Hyboria campaign. But the two elements have always been side-by-side. I bought my first D&D set thanks to an ad in one of my father’s copies of Minature Wargames. I played my first game thanks to friends who had discovered it through the Tolkien Society at St. Andrews.

With all this academic interest in roleplaying, I hope that someone will one day write a history of the early days of the hobby in the UK. Most of us are still alive. They could interview Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Marc Gasgoine and so on, and a lot of us hobbyists.

In the meantime, you can watch tonight’s show below:

World Fantasy Awards

The winners of this year’s World Fantasy Awards were announced last night. As the convention was virtual this year, I was able to “be there”. The full list of winners is available on the Locus website, but I want to focus on just two.

Firstly, the ridiculously titled Special Award – Non-Professional category was won by Fafnir – The Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research. This is apparently the first time that the award has been won by an academic journal, and it is one founded by Finns.

I have to confess a certain amount of bias here. I am on the Advisory Board for the journal, but they haven’t actually needed any advising, so I can’t claim any credit there. I also have an article in the current issue, but that was published this year and therefore should not have been considered by the World Fantasy Jury.

There are lots of people who deserve congratulations. The current editors, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Laura E. Goodin & Esko Suoranta, will get the trophies. But there are two other people I’d like to draw attention to. Firstly there is Merja Polvinen of University of Helsinki. She’s the Chair of the Advisory Board, and was very much a driving force in getting the journal started. The other is Irma Hirsjärvi, because the Journal is very much an outgrowth of the academic tracks that we run every year at Finncon, and Irma is one of the main instigators of those. (I just turn up to comment on the papers.)

Finally, we should note that while Fafnir is an academic journal, it is open source. That is exactly the sort of academic publication that the World Fantasy Awards should be honouring.

The other winner I want to mention is in the Novel category: Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender. Kacen is non-binary person of colour, using they/them pronouns. I’ve had the book on my Kindle for several months but haven’t got round to reading it yet. Given that it beat both The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Gideon the Ninth, it must be very impressive. And the fact that someone like Kacen can be voted the author of the best fantasy novel in this year, of all years, fills me with joy. I think you can work out why.

Glasgow Gets Fantastic

Nope, this is nothing to do with the Worldcon bid. This week saw the launch of Glasgow University’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. There’s a really great group of academics there, and GIFCon is still an event I very much want to go to. But now the University has now acknowledged their presence by setting up a centre of excellence. It is great to see such interest in fantasy literature on this side of the Atlantic.

The Centre had an official launch event today. It included a wonderful keynote address by Ellen Kushner, and a great panel featuring Terri Windling, Brian Atterbery, and Rob Maslen, the academic who first founded an M.Litt. course in Fantasy at Glasgow. It was streamed live to YouTube, so you should be able to watch it below.

Tomorrow – Outing the Past

Tomorrow the lovely folks behind LGBT History Month will be holding a virtual symposium on, you guessed it, LGBT History. This one will be all about history and creative production. My good friend Dan Vo is hosting a session at 13:00, and I will be one of his guests. There might be Romans, and mosaics, and Greek theatre.

The event is free, and you can find full details here.

HFRN 2021, Also Virtual

Another academic conference that I’m a regular at (and now a Trustee of) is the annual meeting of the Historical Fiction Research Network. The conference is normally in February, and that’s now definitely uncertain as far as in-person events goes, so we are going virtual. Hopefully that means we’ll be able to pull in people from all around the world (though in fairness a bunch of lovely Aussies are regulars and we had two Russians last year).

Anyway, in keeping with the times, our theme for 2021 is depictions of catastrophe. It was the end of the world, or at least it seemed like it at the time. From the Great Flood in Gilgamesh to the Heat Death of the Universe, humans have always imagined disasters. There’s so much to talk about. Here’s the Call for Papers, and the link to buy memberships.

HFRN 2021- Online
Theme: Remembering Catastrophe

Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form:
Deadline 30th September.

We welcome paper proposals from Archaeology, Architecture, Literature, Media, Art History, Cartography, Geography, History, Musicology, Reception Studies, Linguistics, Museum Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Re-enactment, Larping, Gaming, Transformative Works, Gender, Race, Queer studies and others.

We welcome paper proposals across historical periods, with ambitious, high-quality, inter-disciplinary approaches and new methodologies that will support research into larger trends and which will lead to more theoretically informed understandings of the mode across historical periods, cultures and languages.

This year we are using a form. Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form.

Deadline, 30th September.
Tickets from Helm: £40/£15

Outing the Past Goes Virtual

Outing the Past is an annual academic conference on the subject of queer history. Normally I attend, but this year it got scheduled for September 12th, and I had already accepted an invitation to go to Augsberg in Germany for a science fiction conference organised by the wonderful Sabrina Mittermeier. Of course that isn’t going to happen now. Sabrina and her colleagues have already put some of the proposed events online, including my chat with Sabrina and Maria Turtschaninoff. You can find that and several other events, on the covention’s YouTube channel. (And let me tell you that I’m seriously chuffed to be on the same programme as the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire.)

So what about Outing the Past. Obviously it is going virtual too, and that means you can all join in the fun. There will be a special one-day event on September 12th called Completing the Past. It will be all about LGBT+ History and Creative Production. There are a lot of great speakers lined up, and in particular I would like to draw your attention to the panel titled, “Heritage at home: Connecting and engaging with the LGBT+ past through creative production.” That will be hosted by Dan Vo, and it will feature a bunch of guests talking about works of art that open a door on the LGBT+ past. I can’t tell you any more about it than that now, but you know that if Dan is involved then it is goign to be awesome, right?

Ill Met by Moonlight

Via my friend Stephanie Budin I have discovered a rather interesting conference scheduled for next April. ‘Ill met by moonlight’: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture, is part of a project on Gothic Literature by a group of academics based at the University of Hertfordshire. How I have not heard of them before, I do now know. They’ve been going since 2010, and running annual conferences on all things creepy and going bump in the night. I mean, how can you not love a literary project called, Open Graves, Open Minds.

Anyway, the 2021 conference is about Fairies. Sadly I am scheduled to be in Sweden then, so even though I suspect that in-person events will still be impossible by then, I can’t in good conscience submit a paper on War for the Oaks, even though I want to.

However, you good people are hopefully not so constrained, and therefore might want to get involved. The full CFP is here. If Emma Bull doesn’t appeal to you, they also specifically mention works by Neil Gaiman, Liz Hand and Jeanette Ng. (Sorry Jeanette, you are canon now!). Hie thee to a word processor, and cast thy Puckish imaginings to the aether.

Queering the Classics

Today is International Non-Binary People’s Day (neatly positioned half way between International Men’s Day, which does exist, and International Women’s Day). I am rather pleased that today is also publication day for volume 49 of the CUCD Bulletin, in which I have an article.

CUCD stands for Council of University Classics Deparments, which is a professional forum for all teachers of classical Greek and Roman subjects in British Universities. That makes the Bulletin a pretty serious academic venue, albeit one that will cover issues of pedagogy as well as research. My article is titled “Queering the Classics”, and it is primarily a review of this book, Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World.

However, in order to explain the importance of the book, I had to do the whole thing of talking about understanding gender and sexuality in the ancient world. And it is this that makes publication on International Non-Binary People’s Day so appropriate. The short version is that gender is a social construct, and every society constructs it differently.

Huge thanks are due to the Bulletin‘s editor, Professor Susan Deacy, who has been very supportive of my baby steps in the Classics world.

Feminism & Fantasy

In September Maria Turtschaninoff and I were supposed to be guests at Imagining Alternatives, an academic conference in Augsburg, Germany. The event had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, but the organisers have been busy putting stuff online. Last week Maria and I recorded an interview with Dr. Sabrina Mittermeier. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but if there’s one thing I said that I want to highlight it is this: if you like the books of Ursula K Le Guin then you should check out Maria’s work as well, because I think you will like it. See here for some reviews.

All You Need Is Love

And lo, I can bring it to you, courtesy of Academia Lunare.

Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy & Science Fiction is the title of the latest collection of academic essays from our very lovely friends in Edinburgh. The book is due to be published on July 28th, but the table of contents has just been released. You can find it here.

You all want to read a paper by me titled, “Robot Love is Queer”, don’t you.

Pre-orders will open in May.

Love Diana?

No, not the Goddess. Not even Diana Prince. I am, of course, talking about Diana Wynne Jones.

Last year an academic conference about Diana’s work was held in Bristol. My friends Farah Mendlesohn and Cathy Butler were the main movers behind the event. An ebook of papers from the conference has since been published. You can get a copy here.

If you buy it, you are buying direct from the publisher, i.e. the conference. Everyone who provided content and helped create the book has given their labour for free, so all of the money from sales goes back into the project. The plan is to use revenue from book sales to finance another conference. Just 25 copies of the £10 will generate enough income for a deposit on the venue.

It would be great if other academic conferences worked like that, instead of getting tied in to the scam of academic publishing.

Update: Farah tells me that some independent professionals were involved in creating the book, and were paid for their services, But I understand that those costs have now been covered. So all future revenue will go towards the next conference.

Queer (Romans) in Brighton

Here’s something I am doing this weekend, which I didn’t tell you about earlier because by the time I got the details it had sold out. Which is very pleasing.

Anyway, immediately I finish at Trans Pride in Bristol on Saturday I will be on a train to Brighton. It is a mad schedule, but Sunday morning trains are crap and I need to go on Saturday to make sure I get there in time.

On the Sunday afternoon I will be at Brighton Museum for their monthly Queen in Brighton LGBTQ+ History Club. I will be talking about being trans and intersex in Ancient Rome. There will be gender reassignment surgery; there will be gossip about the Imperial Family; there will be stand up philosopher contests; and being the Romans it will all be a bit gruesome.

What have the Romans done for us? They invented the dick pic.

If you want to know more, and be sad that you can’t get a ticket, the booking page is here.