I Am An Oxford Student

 

A month after touching down in London’s Heathrow airport, I suppose it’s time for a belated update: I am an officially matriculated doctoral student at the University of Oxford. My assignment from my supervisor for the first term is basically to read everything in sight, and follow up on anything interesting by (guess what!) doing further reading, so I’ve had to spend a great deal of time running around and finding all the libraries and figuring out how they work. It has been a great deal of fun but has not left a great deal of time for writing.

Aside from reading, I’ve joined the Oxford Union (debating society) and the Tolkien society; I’ll be the assistant stage manager for a production of Sondheim’s Assassins coming up later this month; and I’ve become a copyeditor for The Oxford Student and a news writer for Bang! Science – the local student-run science magazine. I’ve also managed to find the sports centre, where the archery club and pistol club both hold practices. I’ve also, of course, spent a great deal of time figuring out the myriad idiosyncrasies of Oxford, some of which are attributable to UK/Canada differences in general, and most of which are just Oxford being Oxford: the unofficial motto, after all, probably goes something along the lines of “Well, we’ve been doing it that way since the 12th century …”!

So without further ado, here’s a quick run down of the awesome and the irritating (there aren’t many) aspects of adjusting to life at Oxford!

 

On the plus side:

– The libraries are absolutely gorgeous, and ancient, and possibly indescribable to anyone who hasn’t visited them. (I think “sublime” is possibly the right word here, and I use it with a full awareness of its usual application in Romantic writing and criticism.)

– Warmer weather means that I’m able to do a large amount of reading and studying outside (Addison’s Walk, the Botanical Gardens, the Christ Church Meadow, the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden, etc.)

– The ease of ordering, and consulting, rare books

– The Turville-Petre room in the English Faculty is dedicated solely to Old Norse-Icelandic books, and is simply an amazing place

– Blackwell’s (the major bookstore across the street from Exeter and the Bodleian) is as large as any library, stocks everything, has a café on the first floor, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases dedicated exclusively to Tolkien, multiple editions of every classic book you can name, a rare books section, a second-hand books section, the largest room of books I’ve ever seen (the Norrington Room), a fabulously large language section, with novels in French and German (and Russian and Welsh and Spanish and all sorts of others), a superb collection of mathematics, physics, and astronomy textbooks, and comfy chairs to sit and read.

– Oxford has a critical mass of medievalists which is simply a joy. The Old Norse literature and language classes I am auditing draw about twenty-five people a week; the Beowulf class closer to sixty. The Tolkien & Beowulf departmental seminar last week had to move to the main lecture theatre because too many people showed up to fit in the seminar room. We’ve got a core group of medievalists within Exeter College, as well – perhaps surprising giving how small Exeter actually is.

– There are at least two main medieval literature seminars per week, and seminars do not apparently happen at this university without an abundance of free tea, coffee, and biscuits (aka cookies). Wine and/or champagne is also fairly common.

– Not only is there a student-run Old Norse reading group, and an Old English reading group, there is apparently also an Old Frisian reading group. The modus operandi of all of the above is to meet up in a pub, read a text aloud, and translate it on the spot – the default assumption is that one’s language ability is sufficiently good to do this without having done any preparation in advance.

– My new part-time job with the Disability Advisory Service: I’m paid to attend engaging lectures, by world-famous academics, that are teaching relevant skills for my research – and to take notes, which I would have done anyways.

– Lots and lots of great cafés and bakeries

– The Oxford Union: where my love of rhetoric and Cicero can run riot. The weekly debates expect speakers – and students – not only to be good at constructing and defending an argument, but also to be good at delivery, style, and rhetoric. Also, scheduled guests for this term alone include the producers of Game of Thrones, Buzz Aldrin, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Jo Brand, Viviane Reding (EU Commission), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize, 2006), Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (Google), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Imelda Marcos … and more British MPs than I can possibly count or name. They also run competitive debating workshops, which I have started to attend. (After my first (practice) attempt at opening a debate, I was promptly told I should be either a lawyer or a politician – I am still not sure whether to take this as a compliment!)

– Free dinners & speaker events at Exeter College: this past Sunday, Lord Butler of Brockwell (UK parliamentary committee on intelligence) came to give a talk, and in a couple of weeks, Peter Jackson (yes, the Peter Jackson) will be coming to Exeter for one of their 700th anniversary lectures. Also, Exeter’s catering staff are generally very good at coming up with excellent food. And wine. There is always wine.

– The Language Centre: offers well-taught, fast-paced courses for the fee of £35 per year, unless of course you can prove that studying said language is relevant to your research (in my case: German), in which case there is no fee at all.

 

On the less positive side:

– Smoking seems to be much more common and more socially acceptable in public places; given that the smell of cigarette smoke gives me a headache almost instantly, this is not a good thing.

– All the tourists! I realize that Oxford is a magnet for tourism, but even during the week – during the school term – there are simply hordes of them. And my normal walking speed is about twice or three times as fast as the average tourist’s, which makes them a decided inconvenience when I’m trying to get from one class to another in five minutes.

– My dear suitemates have not quite mastered the idea of silence after 11pm; fortunately for my continued sanity, Exeter House does have people who enforce the rules.

– Clothing. Sorting out when to wear (“formal” clothing + gown) vs. (sub fusc + gown) vs. (formal clothing + no gown) vs. (sub fusc + no gown) is quite the interesting – albeit also amusing – challenge. (For the uninitiated: sub fusc involves black shoes, black stockings and skirt or black trousers and black socks, white shirt, black suit jacket (men), and either a black tie, a white bow tie, or a black ribbon tie. Yes, the rules are enforced; showing up wearing white socks to an exam is apparently a really bad idea.) Also, the knee-length pencil skirt seems to be an everyday and fairly universal women’s wardrobe item in this town: people bike in them. I’ve definitely made a few improvements to my wardrobe since arriving in Oxford, but as someone who values being able to walk properly, all I can say is I won’t be adopting that trend any time soon.

 

But frankly, I have nothing to complain about, because somehow – I’m still not sure how, and I do keep needing to pinch myself – I’m in Oxford. And I get to ignore all the “private” signs telling tourists to keep out, because I’m also a student here. And somehow I have the audacity to walk the paths that Tolkien and Lewis and so very many other famous people walked, and sit and study and write and learn there.

I have no idea where I’ll end up, but hopefully it’s an auspicious beginning!

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The Library in My Head

 

So I started this blog eight months ago with a list of books, and now that my MA is done, I thought I might as well post another list – this time, a list of books I actually read in the last year.

I must confess that this is not a new or particularly original idea. When I was growing up, my parents a) banned television and strictly limited computer games in favour of encouraging us to read, and b) provided the following incentive to ensure that my sister and I would in fact keep track of the books we read: for every one hundred books read, we would get to choose a new book of our own, which my parents would buy. Therefore, for every grade I was in school, there exist – somewhere, buried in my mother’s files – long lists of books that I read that year, and my report cards from kindergarten through Grade 9 (in the “Reading” or “English” sections) contain comments like “Over 250 books read this year” (Grade 1) or “Over 350 books read this year. Many more books read and not recorded. Try to work on this.” (Grade 4).

Naturally, as I got older, the books got longer, the lists of other work I had to do also got longer, and the number of books read got shorter – I certainly can’t claim that my speed-reading skills improved that much with age! But for anyone who was wondering – yes, this is how I can legimitately say that I read almost all of the 4,000-odd books in my basement, and mostly before age 14.

One of the things I noticed during my last year of university, however, was the rather unsettling fact that I had become so busy doing school, and work, and more work, and more school, and theatre, that I hadn’t spent very much time at all reading for pleasure. So at the beginning of May 2013, I decided to go back to the list-making, both as a way of making sure I prioritized reading, and as a way of keeping track of how much reading I was actually doing. This, twelve months later, is the result. I can’t say I got anywhere close to my youthful statistics, but 160 is also much better than I suspect the number would have been for my last year or two of undergrad!

There were a few rules I imposed on myself while making this list:

– 1. Skimming didn’t count.

– 2. Books that I only read a few articles from for research purposes didn’t count.

– 3. Textbooks would make the list if and only if I had completed them thoroughly enough that I would be comfortable being tested on all chapters.

– 4. Individual articles didn’t count – unless they were long enough to be books in and of themselves. (A somewhat flexible definition, admittedly, but I figured 200+ page articles of dense mathematics really ought to count …)

– 5. Books could only be listed once. (e.g. I have no idea how many times I read Beowulf this year – I had to translate the whole thing, amongst other details – but it appears once.)

The classifications are somewhat flexible (“classic” literature is in quotes for a reason!), but are perhaps illustrative nonetheless. Books are in no particular order otherwise, though I have tried to group books by the same author together. An asterisk (*) indicates that I had read the book at least once before.

 

Fantasy/Sci-fi: (52)

– His Majesty’s Dragon (Naomi Novik)
– Throne of Jade (Naomi Novik)
– Black Powder War (Naomi Novik)
– Trickster’s Choice (Tamora Pierce)*
– Trickster’s Queen (Tamora Pierce)*
– Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold (Terry Brooks)
– The Black Unicorn (Terry Brooks)
– Belgarath the Sorcerer (David Eddings)*
– The Elder Gods (David and Leigh Eddings)
– The Treasured One (David and Leigh Eddings)
– Crystal Gorge (David and Leigh Eddings)
– The Younger Gods (David and Leigh Eddings)
– A Study in Silks (Emma Jane Holloway)
– A Study in Darkness (Emma Jane Holloway)
– A Study in Ashes (Emma Jane Holloway)
– The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan)*
– The Light Fantastic (Terry Pratchett)
– Mort (Terry Pratchett)
– Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett)
– Sourcery (Terry Pratchett)
– Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)
– Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett)
– Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)
– The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
– Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)
– Eric (Terry Pratchett)
– Small Gods (Terry Pratchett)
– Maskerade (Terry Pratchett)
– Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)
– Gardens of the Moon (Steven Erikson)
– Deadhouse Gates (Steven Erikson)
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)*
– Life, the Universe, and Everything (Douglas Adams)
– Mostly Harmless (Douglas Adams)
– Lord Foul’s Bane (Stephen R. Donaldson)*
– William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Ian Doescher)
– Allegiance in Exile (Star Trek – The Original Series; David R. George III)
– Space Cadet (Robert Heinlein)
– Star Trek: Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru (Michael A. Martin & Andy Mangels)
– Storm Front (Jim Butcher)
– Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)*
– Vulcan! (Kathleen Sky)
– The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister (G.R.R. Martin)
– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Chronicles: Art and Design (Daniel Falconer)
– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Official Movie Guide (Jude Fisher)
– The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
– Dragon Prince (Melanie Rawn)
– Enterprise: The First Adventure (Vonda McIntyre)
– Star Trek: Legacy (Michael Jan Friedman)
– Star Trek TNG: Survivors (Jean Lorrah)
– The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
– The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien)*

 

“Classic” Literature: (30)

– The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)
– My Ántonia (Willa Cather)
– The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy)
– A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf)
– Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)
– Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)*
– The Metamorphosis (Kafka)
– The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
– The Man Who Was Thursday (G.K. Chesterton)
– Beowulf* [Old English]
– Oroonoko (Aphra Behn)
– Svarfdale Saga and Other Tales
– Emma (Jane Austen)*
– Persuasion (Jane Austen)*
– Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
– The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)* [Middle English]
– The Saga of the Volsungs*
– Njal’s saga [Old Norse]
– Nitida saga [Old Norse]
– Klári saga [Old Norse]
– The Decameron (Boccaccio) [translation]
– The Teseida (Boccaccio) [translation]
– The Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson)* [translation]
– The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
– Middlemarch (George Eliot)
– The Song of Roland* [translation]
– The Loeb Classical Library: Cicero [In Catilinam I-IV, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco]* [Latin]
– A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
– The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad)
– Native Son (Richard Wright)

 

Math & Science: (15)

– The Cosmic Landscape (Leonard Susskind)*
– Quantum Electrodynamics (Richard Feynman)
– Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Richard Feynman)
– What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Richard Feynman)
– Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays (Stephen Hawking)
– An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Chris Hadfield)
– Heisenberg’s War (Thomas Powers)
– The Millennium Problems (Keith Devlin)
– A Mathematician’s Lament (Paul Lockhart)
– A Mathematician’s Apology (Hardy)
– Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (Lawrence M. Krauss)
– Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (Edward Frenkel)
– Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python (John V. Guttag)
– “Electromagnetic Duality and the Geometric Langlands Program” (Anton Kapustin and Edward Witten)
– “Modular elliptic curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem” (Andrew Wiles)*

 

Drama: (23)

– Britannicus (Racine) [French]
– Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)*
– Henry IV, part 1 (William Shakespeare)*
– Henry IV, part 2 (William Shakespeare)*
– Much Ado About Nothing (William Shakespeare)*
– Two Noble Kinsmen (William Shakespeare?)
– Double Falsehood (William Shakespeare?)
– Antony and Cleopatra (William Shakespeare)*
– A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (Thomas Middleton)
– A Fair Quarrel (Thomas Middleton / William Rowley)
– The Revenger’s Tragedy (Thomas Middleton)
– The Playboy of the Western World (J.M. Synge)*
– Six Characters in Search of an Author (Luigi Pirandello)
– Mary Stuart (Schiller)
– The Rez Sisters (Tomson Highway)
– Amigo’s Blue Guitar (Jean MacLeod)
– Copenhagen (Michael Frayn)
– A Short History of Night (John Mighton)
– Scientific Americans (John Mighton)
– Possible Worlds (John Mighton)
– Shadows in Little York (Kyle Climans)
– The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First (George Peele)
– Edmund Ironside (anonymous – possibly Shakespeare)

 

Other fiction: (18)

– The Iron King (Maurice Druon)
– Surveillance (Jonathan Raban)
– The Elusive Pimpernel (Baronness Orczy)
– Sir Percy Leads the Band (Baronness Orczy)
– The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (Baronness Orczy)
– I Will Repay (Baronness Orczy)
– Illegal Action (Stella Rimington)
– Isaac’s Storm (Erik Larson)
– The Chess Machine (Robert Löhr)
– The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie)
– Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
– Tales from Watership Down (Richard Adams)*
– Field Guide: A Novel (Gwendolyn Cross)
– Letters from Pemberley (Jane Dawkins)
– More Letters from Pemberley (Jane Dawkins)
– Bee (Emily Short)
– The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
– Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Raleigh Legacy (L.B. Greenwood)

 

Literary Criticism & Theory: (19)

– Course in General Linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure)
– Writing and Difference (Jacques Derrida)
– The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Margaret Clunies Ross)
– Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland (Marianne E. Kalinke)
– Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens: Women in early English Society (Kathleen Herbert)
– Old Norse Images of Women (Jenny Jochens)
– Women in Old Norse Society (Jenny Jochens)
– Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words, and Power (Jóhanna Katrín Fridriksdóttir)
– Old Norse Women’s Poetry: the Voices of Female Skalds (Sandra Ballif Straubhaar)
– English Medieval Cometry References Over a Thousand Years (E.G. Mardon, A.A. Mardon, C. Herrick)
– Chaucer’s Constance and Accursed Queens (Margaret Schlauch)
– Communicative Language Teaching Today (Jack C. Richards)
– The Medieval Archer (Jim Bradbury)
– Medieval Warfare (Helen Nicholson)
– The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow (Hugh D. Soar)
– Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England (Nicholas Howe)
– Modern Critical Interpretations: The Knight’s Tale (ed. Harold Bloom)
– Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Medieval Political Theory (Stephen H. Rigby)
– An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)*

 

Other: (3)

– Canadian Firearms Safety Course Handbook
– Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course Handbook
– The Unencyclopedia (Gideon Haigh)

 

Why Graduate School?

 

There is an awful lot of material out there on the Internet about graduate school, the basic drift of which is that doing a PhD in the humanities is absolutely pointless because you’ll waste years that you could be working, and you’ll probably end up hating the program and your thesis, and you’ll very likely not have a job afterwards because the academic job market is horrible.

Having read the wisdom/negativity that the Internet has to offer, and having been given frank assessments of graduate school and academic life more generally by a number of professors and fellow students, I am still planning to do my doctorate.

Why?

Because the worst-case scenario actually goes like this:

I graduate with my doctorate at twenty-four (or twenty-five, or twenty-six, depending on the length of the program), with no student debt whatsoever. I don’t find a tenure-track job. I end up as an adjunct while pursuing a theatre career on the side, or end up switching back over into editing or journalism or writing or publishing or library science or any of a few dozen other related fields that I enjoy – where my MA might be handy, but where I certainly wouldn’t need a PhD. Or I go back and finish a physics degree and do something else entirely. (I have done crazier things!)

I will also have spent three to five years living in a great city, at a world-class school, with mind-blowingly fabulous library resources, being paid to study and research what I love in the company of professors and fellow students who love it as much as I do. (And who can give me a run for my money in discussions!) I’ll know an awful lot more than I do now about a group of  languages that I have been fascinated with since about age fourteen, and about the English language more generally. I’ll have grown as a writer and as a scholar.

I’ll also have had three to five more years to show up at all the physics and astrophysics and math department colloquia in my spare time. And I will have been paid to spend three to five years living in or next to a city that is at the heart of its country’s respective theatre scene (Toronto / NYC / London), with all the accompanying opportunities for training and auditioning and performing and building my artistic résumé.

… now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Now, I am also optimistic enough to imagine that I do in fact have a shot at an academic job afterwards, but if that Plan A doesn’t happen, I can also produce plans B through Z, in none of which do I see myself regretting the years spent doing the PhD.

(Or, to sum up rather simplistically: I like reading and studying and writing. Someone’s offering to pay me a salary to do just that for the next five years? Seriously? This sounds like an awesome idea! And though I’d love to be a professor, and will work towards that end, I won’t consider myself to have wasted my time if that doesn’t happen.)

So my own thoughts on the “graduate school in the humanities” problem:

– Don’t do it if it’s just something to do while you’re figuring out what you actually want to do.

– Don’t do it if it requires getting into debt. (Aka: it should be funded.)

– If you want an academic job afterwards, the reality of the situation is that you should be going to a top school. I applied to some “safety net” schools for my Masters, but didn’t bother for the PhD – because if the only schools I could get into were the “safety nets,” then I figured I should probably be re-evaluating my choice to pursue the doctorate in the first place. Also, the academic job market is such that you need to be willing to move. I’m not tied down to any one location, but that is obviously not the case for everyone.

– Get as much information as you can, so that you’re making an informed decision. I already know what being a teaching assistant is like, so I know exactly what I’m signing myself up for when a university tells me that part of my funding is dependent on working X number of hours as a TA. I also know what working on an independent research project is like – again, I’ve done it. And I know I enjoy it.

– Be realistic: if you only want an academic job and think the world will end if you don’t get one – you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Keep your other options open.

But if you have a field of study that you love, where you excel, where even the most minute of details are fascinating, and where “work” and “what you like to do for fun” are essentially synonyms?

Then go forth and prosper.

Academics Read Things They Wrote as Kids

 

This evening, I participated in a fundraiser entitled “Academics Read Things They Wrote as Kids.”* It was organized by the Graduate English Association, and the rules were simple: fifteen or so professors and graduate students have about 5 minutes each to read something (a card, diary entry, poem, story, play, etc.) that they wrote before age thirteen.

When I signed up to participate, back in December, this all sounded quite straightforward. I knew I’d written quite a bit as a kid; all I had to do was find something moderately amusing (and hopefully not too terribly embarrassing!) and show up with it.

What I failed to take into account was just how much I apparently wrote before age thirteen – with the result that I have spent a fair amount of time in the last week sorting through Appleworks document after Appleworks document and trying to figure out just what on earth I should read. (If you have absolutely no interest in the literary creations of a mildly precocious child Jennifer, the remainder of this may be of no interest. Otherwise, prepared to be entertained?)

There were, for example, the “books” that my younger sister (J) and I wrote when we lived in New Brunswick – “My Violin Story” and “My Ballet Story” and “My Figure Skating Story” and so forth. There were the “essays” that my father tried to teach us how to write when I was six (and J was three – essentially all I remember from that lesson is that I thought hers was silly because she wrote about Barbie dolls.) There were all the assignments I wrote for the writing course I did through Stanford online when I was eleven; there was the account I wrote of the spelling bee after the first year I participated; and there were all sorts of of short tales, like the one about the Shoshoni girl who got caught in a blizzard and ended up saving her village from being attacked.

There were also the “newspapers” that my sister and I periodically created under the name of the Bearville Weekly Register, that generally centred on the imagined activities of the exceptionally large collection of stuffed animals that my mother and sister have amassed over the years. These are at times very lengthy documents, always featuring editorials, opinion pieces, fake advertisements, recipes, and tales of adventure and derring-do on the high seas by my sister’s favourite stuffed dolphin, the pirate Captain Flipper, and his band of ne’er-do-wells:

“So, it’s young master Spots,” said Flipper, peering over his glasses as Spots entered the Captain’s cabin. “With my good mate Midnight. How can I help ye?”

“Well sir,” said Spots slowly – he was somewhat intimidated by the dolphin, who looked about as much at home in the ship cabin as a live lobster looks in a dresser drawer – “I… was wondering if… well, if it’s not too much trouble… I was sort of hoping for… well you see…” he broke off, and turned to Midnight, unsure of how to continue.

“Spots here is hoping that he could get a job on shipboard,” explained Midnight. “He’s itching for a bit of adventure, and thought this might be a good place to find it.”

“Aye, that it is, that it is. As it happens, I’m in need of a few more hands on deck at the moment. My next voyage is planned for down around the Great Coral Reef, and I’ll be needing a few more animals than most of my previous voyages have required. I’ve planned to stop at Donkey Island along the way, and pick up a few extra, but still… I’ll be needing three or four. Can you work hard, Master Spots?”

“Yes, sir!”

“And you’re not scared of the water? I certainly don’t need any more crew members who are terrified out of their wits the first time they have to dive overboard after a storm.” Flipper shot a sideways glance at Buddy, the Sea Pearl’s cabin boy, who had entered as Flipper was speaking.

“No sir, I’m not scared!” Spots sounded braver than he looked, but Flipper nodded his head.

“Can you cook? I’ve a good spot for a young part-time assistant cook…”

Occasionally they even featured sappy love poetry – there was the time when we decided that one of the “editors” of the paper, a stuffed black panther named Midnight, should fall in love with another stuffed cat named Amber, and proceeded to attempt to woo her by publishing excessively elaborate, over-the-top sonnets.

Diary entries? Well, it was pretty sporadic, but I did in fact keep a diary when I was younger – but I ruled this out for a few reasons. One, the entires are written in multiple languages, and two, even if they are ostensibly written in English, they’re written in code. (Yes, I spent a very long time obsessed with classical cryptography and codebreaking. The result of which is that I can write fluently in quite a few different systems, several of which I made up.) But three, they’re mostly fairly boring accounts about what I did on any given day, or extended rants about how I didn’t like living in Ottawa and wanted to move back to New Brunswick!

By far, however, the largest group of writings that I have from my pre-teen years falls into two categories: the productions of the JR Theatre Group, and the many, many early manuscript versions of The Golden Crown. These were the two sources that I was primarily looking at, but they also proved to be the most difficult to sort through – somehow I had managed to forget just how much material was involved.

The JR Theatre Group productions were created by four people: myself, my sister, and our two friends (R & R). I was eleven, J was eight, and R & R were ten and twelve. The name came from our initials (J&J, R&R), and we went by a number of names: the JR Band (complete with a logo and T-shirts), the JR Ensemble (when performing at special events), or the JR Theatre Group. All four of us were homeschooled, so we’d get together in the afternoons, after our schoolwork was done, and one of our favourite things to do was create plays and musicals. Between the four of us, we played a very wide variety of instruments and had varying levels of vocal background, so it was not atypical for an ordinary character to suddenly burst into song.

We developed a fairly standard practice: first, we needed a rough plot. We would brainstorm ideas, and if ideas were lacking, each person would go around in a circle and say a random word or name, and with the three or four resulting words, we would construct a plot. (The Golden Crown, though not a theatre production, originated in the same way – from “knife,” “a girl named Janet,” and “a northern land”.) Once the plot took off, we didn’t feel obliged to stick to these words in any way: try to find a notable “knife” or a “northern land” in The Golden Crown, and you may be disappointed!

The next step was to take on roles and improvise the entire play through once. Given that we had four performers and perhaps dozens of roles, these were exceptionally fluid: I might play a character in one scene, and Janet might play the same charater in the next scene, if that character (A) had to talk to another character (B) whom I had also played in a previous scene.

After the script was created, we would rehearse it all the way through, usually only once, with whatever costumes, lights, sounds, music, or other special effects we could concoct. Finally, we would find our very tolerant mothers, who were usually socializing in an entirely different area of the house, and insist that they sit down and watch our performance. From start to finish it was about a three-to-four-hour process, perfect for an afternoon of fun.

The plays were often site-specific, and were created in a fairly wide range of environments: Animals vs. Flowers was done in R’s bedroom; Movie Mix-Up was primarily enacted in the backyard of a church after a guitar group event. Nonetheless, we did have one primary space in which the majority of the plays were performed: the basement of my home.

Our [J’s and mine] basement is usually most notable for the some 4,000 books that line the walls. The room with the books, however, is also quite large, and features a couch at one end, against a half wall separating the space from the rest of the basement. This couch was perfectly positioned to hold our captive audience; the ceiling allowed for the hanging of not one but two curtain rods, so that we had a fine red curtain a couple feet from the audience, and a white curtain about four feet from the back to provide us with a backstage and changing area. If we were feeling particularly diligent, we could cover all the bookshelves and walls with black fabric, to give us in effect a tiny black-box theatre. The half-wall allowed us to set up “spotlights” (anything we could find that would give us a small circular beam counted – including, on occasion, flashlights) on top of it, and operate them from the other side of the wall – behind our audience. The main basement lights were the “house” lights, which were usually turned off during performance. Lighting on stage was then from the lights on the half wall, and the one main light that conveniently had a separate switch and was located in the very centre of the stage.

The result? Well, the result was a great deal of fun and silliness – we weren’t terribly concerned about either historical accuracy or internal logic.

The following opening to The Cinnamon Story is perhaps representative:

Narrator: Once upon a time there was a king and queen who were good and kind and wise, almost the best rulers that you could have. There was only one problem: They were both allergic to cinnamon. Whenever the king smelled cinnamon, his eyes got all red and puffy and he started sneezing.

King: Achooo! Achoo! Achooo! Achoooo! Achooo!

Narrator: And all the babies started crying, and all the mothers started moaning, and all the little sisters started screaming, and all the little brothers started laughing, and the fathers would just shake their heads and groan.

Whenever the queen smelled cinnamon, her eyes got all red, and she started screaming.

Queen: Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh! Cinnamon! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

Narrator: And all the dogs started barking and the cats started yowling, and the horses neighing, and the lambs bleating, and there was no peace in the kingdom.

Narrator: Finally the king had had enough.

King: I outlaw cinnamon! There shall be no cinnamon for anyone in the kingdom!

Narrator: Now the king and queen had a daughter, Mary. Mary’s favorite food was cinnamon. Whenever she saw cinnamon, she would run to it and eat it all up.

(Mary runs to cinnamon container when Narrator says, “Whenever she saw cinnamon….”)

Narrator: When Mary heard that her father had outlawed cinnamon, she was so sad. She cried all day and all night. She moaned in the morning and wailed in the afternoon. And all the dogs started barking, and the cats started yowling, and the babies started crying, and the little brothers started laughing, and the little sisters started screaming. And there was no peace in the kingdom.

(Mary is screaming and crying on stage in her chair.)

Narrator: As you can guess, the king was not pleased.

King: Mary, what is the matter with you? The whole kingdom’s in an uproar.

Mary: You outlawed cinnamon and it’s my favorite food in the entire world!

Narrator: The king was flabbergasted! How could his daughter like cinnamon when he was so allergic to it?

King: Mary, I had to do it! The kingdom was in an uproar! Will you please stop crying?

Narrator: But the king’s reasonings were to no avail. Mary only screamed the louder.

[Matters go downhill from here. Two orphaned girls, Anne and Marcia, subsequently discover a cure for cinnamon allergies in the library. The king and queen are ‘cured’, the ban on cinnamon is repealed, and the girls are appointed Royal Scientists. Their teacher, the ever-so-creatively-named Mrs. Terrible, is thrown in jail for having sold cinnamon illegally and generally being a horrible person to put in charge of an orphanage. The play concludes with a version of the can-can.]

Other sample titles include Movie Mix-Up, The Girl Who Had Bad Luck Eating Purple Jelly, Lost in the Silmarillion (and Lost in the Silmarillion 2, and Lost in the Silmarillion: Return to Aman), The Crazy Camping Adventure, and The Russian Ballerina.

The copies that I have of these plays exist because, well, if you think I’m organized now, you should have met my eleven-year-old self. After we had created a play, I would go home, sit down at the family computer upstairs, and type out not only a script, but also a complete cast breakdown by scene, and usually costume notes as well. In the same folder, I also kept copies of plays written by two or three members of the group, which were later performed with everyone – R & R, for example, created musical versions of The Princess and the Pea and Cinderella, and my sister and I created scripts for the historical dramas Roman Times and Medieval Times, all of which were later staged by the whole group.

The scripts are, as a whole, pretty revealing – even if I hadn’t recorded all the cast lists, it’s very easy to tell from the lines who was speaking at any given time, and we certainly didn’t mind poking fun at ourselves. For instance, the following is an excerpt from Medieval Times. I was slightly older when this was written – thirteen, I think – and the plot involved two interwoven stories: one concerned the kidnapping of Lady Jane Grey (aka my sister) by the French, and her subsequent rescue by a squire named Galen who had a crush on her; the other involved another squire – Justin – who was actually a girl in disguise, because she’d run away from home to become a knight (me, obviously).

(And yes, I also created/played Ned):

 

(The squires’ quarters. […] A few squires are onstage.)

[…]

Will: New boy?

Dan: Says his name’s Galen. He’s taking Consett’s place. Justin’s been showing him around.

Will: Justin’s been showing him around? Since when did Justin develop social skills?

Ned: That’s not the question. The question is since when would Justin take the time. (Rolls eyes.)

Will: Where’s the boy now?

Ned: Gone to deliver a message for Sir Thorny.

Will: A message boy?

Dan: No, the pages were just all busy.

Will: Where’s he from? (Disdainfully.)

Dan: I think I heard he’s from Somerset. An earl or something. Here he comes – you can ask him yourself if you like.

(Enter Galen.)

Galen: Ned, do you know where Justin is? I can’t find him anywhere.

Ned: (Gives a significant look to the others.) Have you tried the archery range yet?

Galen: No, it’s almost evening.

Ned: Check the archery range.

Will: If he’s not there, check the training field.

Galen: The training field? (Perplexed.)

Ned: If he’s not practicing archery, he’s practicing swordplay. If he’s not practicing swordplay, he’s practicing riding. If he’s not practicing riding, then he’s practicing something else he’s dreamed up to help him “improve” his fighting.

Galen: Is that normal?

Will: Normal for Justin.

The next scene opened at the archery range, with an exceptionally long-winded – even for me! – description of Justin practicing archery, landing multiple arrows dead centre, and then becoming frustrated when the last one missed by an inch.

(Perfectionist?? Me? Whatever do you mean?)

Several years ago, I attempted to combine all of these scripts into one document – imagining that this would be a great way to preserve the collective creative endeavours of the JR Theatre Group in one place. The resulting document totalled some 300 pages in MS Word.

I had one final option: The Golden Crown. This sprawling fantasy novel, and its prequels, and assorted poems, and chronicles, and languages, and writing systems … originally opened with the ever-so-dramatic – and now notorious – line: “Janet tiptoed past her mother’s room, trying not to disturb her rest. Her mother needed rest.” Early versions also included many samples of bad poetry – I was firmly convinced, at age ten, that poetry was not poetry if it didn’t rhyme. And of course, there was this ancient and supposedly mysterious Prophecy of the North – which had to be poetry and therefore had to rhyme:

Hark to my words, o mighty ones!

     Evil’s doom cometh swift on wing

The realm shall be delivered

     Restored shall be the king

[…]

The planets halt in their dance

     A comet streaks the sky

The stars twinkle with glee

     Morcel’s servants soon shall die.

But as it turned out, I did try playing a dozen characters in five minutes – with a slightly shortened rendition of one of the JR plays. Although The Cinnamon Story was never intended to have a moral, the belief underlying it is nonetheless clear: when in doubt, go to the library. When in distress, go to the library. When the kingdom is falling apart and everything is completely chaotic, go to the library. You will find a book with a solution. Everyone will live Happily Ever After.

(No wonder I grew up and became an English major?)

*Inspired by “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids”: http://www.grownupsreadthingstheywroteaskids.com/

*All excerpts are unedited. Errors of spelling or grammar are entirely the fault of my ten- (or eleven-, or thirteen-) year-old self.

The Millennium Problems:

The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time

(A brief review)

Popular math and science books have to walk a very fine line: on the one hand, if the material gets too complicated or abstract, you’ll lose readers. The corollary to this is fairly straighforward: editors and publishers tend to be wary of the complicated and the abstract, because they’re afraid of losing readers. (Stephen Hawking was apparently informed that each equation he included in A Brief History of Time would halve the sales. He therefore limited the number of equations to one, E = mc2.)

On the other hand, in the quest to make everything as manageable and benign as possible, writers can oversimplify to the point that they misrepresent the actual material. This is both irritating (and/or confusing!) for a reader who does have some background in the subject, and – in my opinion – does a disservice to the then (misinformed) public and (misrepresented) scientific community.

I have immense respect, therefore, for those authors who manage to produce engaging, accurate, comprehensible, and accessible accounts of their research – especially considering that most of the scientists and mathematicians who undertake to write these popular books are not trained writers.*

The latest entry on my reading list does a superb job of carrying off this balancing act, and quite honestly, it’s a book that I’d love to go back in time and give to my fourteen-year-old self, or that I’d recommend as a gift for any budding young student with a good grasp of high school math.

The book is The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time, by Keith Devlin, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton, and who normally teaches at Stanford, where he is the Executive Director of the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute.

The premise of the book is quite simple: the Millennium Problems are, as the subtitle suggests, seven of the greatest mathematical problems for the 21st century, which have baffled all of the world’s leading mathematicians for up to a couple of hundred years. In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute, after conferring with leading experts around the world, announced a competition: they selected a list of seven problems, that are not only extraordinarily difficult, but whose solutions will have extraordinary implications in advancing the frontiers of mathematics, physics, computer science, or engineering. Anyone who can solve one of these problems will be awarded a prize of $1 million. (Now almost fourteen years after the contest was announced, exactly one of those problems – the Poincaré Conjecture – has been solved.)

It should be clear right now that none of these problems are remotely easy. To give you an idea of the challenge Devlin took on in agreeing to write a book that would explain all these problems to a general audience, let me quote the technical formulation of the Hodge Conjecture, one of the seven problems:

Every harmonic differential form (of a certain type) on a non-singular projective algebraic variety is a rational combination of cohomology classes of algebraic cycles.2

I suspect even those with undergraduate or graduate degrees with mathematics might have difficulty understanding that one! Some of the other problems – the Riemann hypothesis or P vs. NP, for instance – are a little less complicated at first glance, but none of them could ever be termed “easy”. Nonetheless, Devlin does an admirable job of introducing the history of each problem, sketching in some detail the implications that a solution would have for modern science and technology, and translating what is often highly technical mathematics into intelligible English prose.

The book is also an accessible (!) tour of some of the most fascinating branches of modern mathematics that students are rarely exposed to unless they are studying to become mathematicians themselves – like algebraic topology (third-year class at most universities), complex analysis (also a third-year class), number theory (ditto), and partial differential equations (fourth year/graduate level). Do you have to be a mathematician to read this book? Absolutely not – Devlin assumes only a reasonable knowledge of high school level mathematics; some background in calculus would be helpful, but is not – in my best judgment – essential. That being said, if the idea of any equation harder than E = mc2 has you running for the hills, this is not your book: the level of mathematics presented is a good deal higher than in most popular books I’ve encountered. (So do be prepared to do some thinking – these problems have been giving the professionals headaches for years!)

But if you’d like an introduction to the frontiers of mathematical research today, or you happen to know a student who likes math and is wondering what one might, well, do with that interest, I’d say that this would be a great place to start. It’s also sufficiently accurate and well-written that (as a reader who does have a somewhat more advanced background) I found it a really worthwhile and engaging read.

(Now I need to go find a textbook on cohomology classes …)

1Some other names that come to mind, off the top of my head, of scientists who are also excellent writers for a general audience: Leonard Susskind, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Feynman (physics); Jeffrey Rosenthal (statistics); Ed Frenkel (mathematics – Langlands program).

2 Devlin, p. 214

What Happened to Mathematics?

 

When I was four years old, this was my favourite book:

9780860209898

Apparently I carried it everywhere, including up trees, to playgrounds, and whenever I went over to play at my next-door neighbour (and best friend) J’s house.  One of my earliest memories, actually, concerns a certain science project that I wanted to do, involving a simple circuit, a light bulb, a switch, and a buzzer. J had to ask her mother’s permission, because it used electricity, and I distinctly remember flipping to the relevant page in the book to explain just what it was we wanted to do. J, as it turned out, was then forbidden from getting involved because her mother was worried about us getting electrocuted.

I’m not quite sure why that incident was so memorable – possibly because even at four, I was conscious of the injustice of the situation: there was absolutely no way we were going to electrocute ourselves with two 1.5 volt batteries, a pile of short wires, and a light bulb. On the other hand, my ability to explain this cogently and convincingly to J’s mother when I was only a couple of feet tall … was undoubtedly more than a little questionable.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that despite the fact that I’m an English student, I’ve discovered enough of a lecture scene here in Toronto that math and physics and astronomy are going to crop up quite frequently. And, well, I know from experience that when I mention math in front of literature students, I generally get one of two reactions:

“… That’s weird, and you’re crazy.”

OR

“… That’s kind of cool, and you’re still crazy.”

(or, more recently, from a fellow MA student: “You could have said you did anything else in your spare time, and I would have been more able to relate.”)

So before I confuse everyone who knows me almost exclusively as a writer and an actor, I’m going to talk a little bit about my own background in mathematics, because it’s eccentric at best, and really downright odd compared to the usual system.

 

Elementary School

I took exactly one mathematics course, pre-university, in the conventional school system, and exactly two mathematics courses as part of my undergrad degree – the rest of my mathematics background is entirely attributable to a combination of homeschooling, self-study, and online coursework.

My parents chose to homeschool me for a number of reasons – the foremost of which was that the school system where we lived at the time was terrible, to the extent that the Grade 1 teacher at the local elementary school, a friend of my mother’s, advised her to “put her [aka me] anywhere but here.” Living in a small town where the high school was well known to be the worst in the province (the elementary school and middle school weren’t much better), the options for other schools were extremely limited, and my parents decided to homeschool on the premise that they would take things one year at a time, and if they couldn’t do better than the traditional school system, then I should be put back in school immediately. To that end, I wrote yearly standardized tests that covered all aspects of the normal public school curriculum, and my parents would use my results on these tests both to gauge how well I was doing compared to my cohort, and to plan the next school year. The premise was that if I was doing really well in reading comprehension and writing skills, but my social sciences scores were lower, we’d do more history, geography, and economics the next year.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the tests were useless for distinguishing which subjects I was good at and which subjects I needed to work on, because my scores were so uniformly high that the test at my grade level didn’t give any useful information. So my parents simply got me to write tests above my grade level – eventually, five years above my grade level became the new norm.

In Grade 6, I scored above the 99th percentile on all math-related sections of the Grade 11 test. (My reading/editing/verbal scores were all downright mediocre by comparison!) This was possible because for the first several years of elementary school, I did two grade levels of math per year. When we visited my cousins in Ontario when I was nine, my oldest cousin was in the ninth grade – and for years, the way I remembered how much older she was … well, was based on the fact that we discovered partway through the visit that we were using the same math textbook. After Grade 6, I worked through a textbook called Saxon’s Advanced Math – which, in retrospect, is roughly equivalent to the contents of the Grade 12 advanced functions and data management courses, plus the vectors part of the calculus and vectors course. In Grade 8, I then took a short detour by doing a full year of geometry, which gave me a rigorous background in proofs, before starting calculus in the fall of Grade 9.

Up until this point my mother had a pretty good system going: she would hand me a textbook, and assign me a lesson to do each day. I would read the textbook, learn the material, and do the problems; only if I had any questions would I ask my mother, who would then sit down and explain the concept to me. For the most part, however, I worked completely independently. After every four lessons there was a test; these were supervised and timed, and any score lower than eighty percent was unacceptable. These lessons were further supplemented by daily speed computation drills. By the time I got to Advanced Math, I was bored by the endless repetition in the textbooks we used – in a daily problem set of twenty questions, there might be five or six on that day’s topic and the rest would be review of previous topics – so my mother let me use my own judgment to decide which problems I needed to do, and which ones I had already mastered. As long as my test scores remained high, this continued; if my test scores had been lower than 80%, I would have had to go back and do the review problems.

This system began to fail when I started calculus at the beginning of Grade 9. In general, I was pretty good at teaching myself from a textbook. But when I did get stuck on something, I’d always been able to ask my mother, who studied science in university and was a bit of a math whiz kid (her profs thought she should have been an accountant). When I got to calculus, my mother realized that she didn’t have all the answers anymore – although she’d done quite a bit of math in university, she would have had to relearn it in order to continue teaching me.

So she did a bit of research, and, for the latter half of Grade 9, signed me up to do first-year calculus with Stanford University, since it was offered as an online course through their Educational Program for Gifted Youth.

Every math course I’ve taken since has had the burden of trying to measure up to Stanford. It was simultaneously the most rigorous, most exhausting, and most mentally exhilarating course I’ve ever taken. I did have all the necessary background, but Stanford stressed independent and creative thinking in a way that my previous textbooks hadn’t. As I said, when I got stuck on something at home, I asked my mother and she explained the concept; I then went and did the rest of the problems. When I got stuck on a twenty-step complicated derivation in Stanford’s course, the tutor provided a hint for how to tackle step one, and then would expect me to work the rest out on my own. Roadmaps were not, in short, provided – instead, you were expected to think.

My background in geometric proofs stood me in good stead; so did all those speed math computation drills my mother had insisted upon (Stanford entirely banned the use of calculators); and so did a very strong work ethic. All the same, for those three months of the year, I spent four hours a day doing calculus. At the end of it, I had both my mark from Stanford, and my second perfect score on an Advanced Placement exam (my first was microeconomics, written back in Grade 7).

 

High School

That summer, the summer I was fourteen, I was reading a high school physics textbook in my spare time (from Apologia Publishing, to be precise), and partway through the section on the structure of the atom, we got to orbitals and electron clouds. The textbook pointed out that these were described by an equation called Schrödinger’s equation, but that the solution of said equation was far beyond the scope of the text, since students would have to do a couple of years of mathematics beyond calculus in order to have any hope of understanding it.

Those who know me well will know exactly what’s coming next. Telling me I’m not capable of learning something is a pretty effective way of getting me determined to learn it: I have, after all, spent the last fifteen years of my life operating under the very firm conviction that there is no (academic) subject that I cannot master with enough hard work, and I haven’t been proven wrong yet.

Ergo, I armed myself with the Internet, my Stanford textbook, and a score of my parents’ old math and physics textbooks, and set out to master Schrödinger’s equation for the hydrogen atom.

In the process, of course, I had to teach myself a fair bit about differential equations, which were only briefly treated in the Stanford course, and I became quite fascinated by everything that had anything to do with quantum mechanics (and quantum field theory, string theory, cosmology, high energy particle physics more generally…)

That fascination would be sufficient for another post entirely, but for the moment I’ll stick to the mathematical side of things. My further studies in mathematics were seemingly derailed when I went to high school that fall – I spent two years at a school noted for its strong Advanced Placement program – and I was exempted from taking any math classes based on my calculus marks.

The one math course I did take in high school was AP Statistics/Grade 12 Data Management, which was an exercise in futility from beginning to end: the class only covered about two-thirds of the AP curriculum, and it was the two-thirds that I already knew from the Advanced Math textbook. I ended up teaching myself the rest of the AP material, and spent class time working through the rest of Stanford’s calculus textbook – the first-year course had only used the first eight chapters of a sixteen-chapter textbook that the university also used for higher-level courses, so I worked my way through multivariable calculus while my classmates were learning about standard deviations and how to work a graphing calculator.

My course load during those two years left little time for casual study outside of class, but I didn’t abandon math entirely – multivariable calculus and differential equations became my recourse in any class that was exasperatingly easy.

 

Gap Year

I wanted to go to Princeton, or Waterloo, or Toronto … or virtually anywhere, I must confess, other than Ottawa, and since my parents weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea of me taking off on my own at age sixteen, they encouraged me to take a gap year before applying to university. In fact, they actively encouraged me not to study – to take a break and relax, as it were.

This lasted from the end of June until the middle of August, whereupon I became thoroughly bored of doing nothing, and decided I would write a few more AP exams, using free lectures posted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology online to prepare.

While visiting the University of Toronto’s bookstore that summer, I also picked up Quantum Mechanics: An Accessible Introduction, by Robert Scherrer, which was, at the time, the textbook that Toronto’s physics department used to teach their third-year quantum mechanics course. I was working at a fast-food place for most of the year, and I took Scherrer with me and spent my breaks reading through the text and working out the problems in a little notebook. (My managers probably thought I was more than a little eccentric, but I worked hard when I wasn’t on break, so they were happy in the end!) In the process, I had to acquire a basic knowledge of linear algebra; fortunately for me, Scherrer’s text assumed no previous knowledge of it, and spent a couple of chapters explaining, in accelerated format, all the linear algebra that was needed in order to understand the rest of the book.

 

University

So, at this point, the question might (justifiably) be posed … how exactly did I end up in English?!

Well, I applied to universities as a double major in physics and English – chiefly because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to do a doctorate in medieval literature, or a doctorate in theoretical physics. (I distinctly remember a conversation in Montreal in which a fellow actor had to convince me that doing two doctorates would be patently absurd.) My interest in medieval literature has a similarly lengthy story, but in brief: blame Tolkien, the national spelling bee, and a very persistent fascination with other languages.

The reasons I switched out of the physics major, though, were more complicated. Analyzing my own decision-making process is never an easy task, but there were basically three reasons:

1) I really wanted to act. And so if I wanted to work in theatre, why wasn’t I studying theatre?

2) I became progressively more convinced that, as an alternate to theatre, English and writing were the way I wanted to head. A major in physics became less of ‘career preparation’ and more of ‘something I really like studying as a hobby’.

3) This was, to a large extent, because the math and physics classes that I took in my first year at UOttawa were a bit of a disaster.

Those who know me well might not be surprised to hear me quote Sherlock Holmes on this one:

 “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. But I abhor the dull routine of existence.”

I was able to skip first-semester calculus and first-semester physics, chemistry, and statistics, based on my Advanced Placement marks, but the University of Ottawa will only grant a half-year exemption for AP courses that cover a full year’s worth of material.*

The physics class, therefore, covered exactly what I’d done previously via MIT. The calculus class (supposedly for scientists and engineers) was taught by a professor who had to remark the entire first midterm after realizing that she’d taught a major unit on real-world applications of the integral … and had completely forgotten to account for the existence of gravity. She made similarly egregious errors on a regular basis when ‘explaining’ proofs, so sitting in class, at least for the first third of the term, was an exercise in sitting on my hands and biting my tongue. I survived with my sanity intact by skipping the last two-thirds of the classes and showing up to write the final, on which I apparently got an 98.

Linear algebra, in contrast, was well-organized, and well-taught – the professor was excellent, and so was the textbook he’d chosen.

Unfortunately, compared to what I was used to, the class also moved at the pace of the proverbial snail, and I have never felt so much like Hermione in my life – she has a tendency to get insanely high marks, well over 100%, on tests and exams. In the case of linear algebra, the professor included bonus questions on all assessment items: it was entirely possible to get 123.5% on all three assignments and 107% on both midterms.

(I have no clue what I got on that final because I never saw it afterwards, but I’d bet quite a bit that my average in that class was well over a hundred.)

Obviously I can’t fault the professor on this one – about half of the class either failed or dropped the course, so clearly it was at least moderately challenging for the average incoming student! But when I am not challenged, I get bored. When I really, really am not challenged, I turn off.

 

So … I’m impatient, now what?

My lack of patience with the trivial is undoubtedly by some accounts a serious character flaw. Granted. For better or for worse, my need to be challenged and my continual desire to learn something new, are part of who I am, and appear to be here to stay.

To put things in perspective, though, by the end of my first year at university, the last time I’d taken a math course that actually challenged me was the Stanford class when I was fourteen. I wanted to learn; I desperately wanted to be challenged; and my classes weren’t giving me that. Everything interesting that I’d learned about mathematics since Stanford had come from my own study: from textbooks and online lectures freely available to anyone in the world with a working Internet connection. Is it all that surprising that I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to study math and science, I would do better to buy the textbooks and work at my own pace, rather than sit through another round of boring second- and possibly third-year classes until we finally got to something I hadn’t learned?

Or so went my logic at the time. If I’d accepted Waterloo or McGill, where I would have been placed straight into second-year courses, would I have made the same decision? I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s simply that I like too many things: abandoning theatre for too long makes me miserable, and the same goes for English, writing, and literature … and exactly the same is true for math and physics. Never yet have I encountered a university that would actually let a student study everything in depth! (Though Toronto is coming close – more on this in future posts.)

But yes, I am a writer who likes quantum mechanics, and an actress who can derive Laplace’s equation in the polar coordinate system on a blackboard if you hand her a piece of chalk, and an essayist who spent her childhood building radios and telephones and airplanes and running wires up four flights of stairs to construct a telegraph because her parents wouldn’t let her drill a hole in the ceiling.

Crazy? No. Eccentric? Possibly. Way too much fun? Yes.

I spent most of today writing an article for The Varsity about the importance of fostering youth engagement in science, and the importance of promoting math and science literacy, so there will be more on this topic eventually, but this is also something I believe quite strongly: obviously not everyone takes the route I did. Most people, in fact, don’t take the route I did. But everyone should learn basic math and science skills. Being interested and engaged in current developments in physics, chemistry, biology, aerospace – that shouldn’t be something just for “nerds”, or just for STEM students. It’s not “irrelevant” or “unnecessary” or “weird”, and I shouldn’t have to be doing a PhD in physics to be interested in Arkani-Hamed’s recent discovery of the amplituhedron  – this knowledge is essential, in more fields and occupations than I think people realize. And the innovators in these fields will and have and continue to change the world.

 

 

 

*While this was obviously problematic, in UOttawa’s defense I must say that they are remarkably generous, compared to other schools, about the total amount of AP credit they will allow a student to count towards their degree – I was granted a full year’s worth of credits.

To Write a Research Proposal (SSHRC)

 

Or, the elephant in the room: what I’ve really been spending the last three months doing when I’ve been holed up in either my room or the library or UOttawa’s library.

 

Preparing graduate applications involves pulling together quite a few different pieces, all of which are equally important and necessary … but to borrow shamelessly from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.

 

For anyone who hasn’t dealt with the grad school admissions process, the list of important pieces looks like this:

1. Transcripts.

2. Letters of recommendation – two or three, depending on the application.

3. CV: teaching experience, research experience, and publications.

4. For schools in the United States: the GRE General test, and the GRE English Literature subject test.

5. A 15-20 page writing sample.

6. The statement of purpose (MA) or research proposal (PhD).

 

Most of these I don’t have to lose too much sleep over. My transcripts are great, sure, and so are the transcripts of every other applicant. All that’s required here is to remember to order them, and check to make sure they’ve arrived. My recommenders know me and my work well – and I don’t see what they write, so there’s very little point in worrying about it. The only difficulty here is making sure that they get all the information they need: CV, transcripts, the graded copies of the essays I submitted in their classes, forms, and so forth. My CV is, again, respectable, but it’s not likely to make or break my application. Many, many students successfully apply to graduate school without any research or teaching experience whatsoever. My test scores? Well, I wrote the GRE tests halfway through my second year of undergrad, well before starting MA applications, and did sufficiently well that there would be absolutely no point to rewriting them this year. So no headaches on that score!

 

That leaves arguably the most important entries on the list: the writing sample and the research proposal. For most schools, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the writing sample – it’s a graduate program in English, for goodness’s sake, they want to know if you can write. And if you can develop a logical argument and so forth.

 

But in the case of grant applications, like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s doctoral fellowships, an applicant doesn’t submit a writing sample at all – the only sample of the applicant’s writing that the committee will ever see is the two-page research proposal.

 

In other words, of all the entries on the list, this is the time-consuming one. Which might seem baffling, at first glance. After all, two pages? Single-spaced? That’s only a thousand words!

 

Well, yes, but in those thousand words you must convince the reader of your own thorough knowledge of all the existing work in your field, establish your credentials to carry out research in this field, describe your proposed thesis, identify how your thesis will extend current knowledge in said field and engage with current questions or debates in the field, discuss your methodology or theoretical approach, demonstrate that you have a clear plan for how you will carry out this research, and make a cogent argument for why this research is so interesting and so necessary that the federal government must provide up to $105,000 worth of funding to support it. It must also, practically speaking, be written in such a way that any moderately intelligent non-specialist reader will understand it, because it could very well be read by committee members who specialize in Chinese history or developmental psychology.

 

Hence the reason that when I was applying for MA programs, I started work on my statement in April, when it wasn’t due until October.

 

I didn’t get started quite that early for PhD applications, mostly because I was in Vancouver for most of May and June, but on the other hand I was able to build on the work I’d previously done for the MA applications, so I guess it balanced out alright. My main project, for the last half of the summer, was the literature review: it’s very hard to obtain a thorough knowledge of all the existing work in a field without, well, reading said existing scholarship. Mercifully the University of Ottawa did not cut off my access to their online databases over the summer, which meant I was able to consult articles online without any difficulty, and in early August, I made a special trip to Toronto to get my library card and subsequently to borrow about thirty volumes from Robarts Library. (At last count, I now have just over fifty volumes checked out and piled on my desk.)

 

… and I’m in a pretty obscure field, as fields go! I shudder to think of what writing a research proposal that had anything to do with Shakespeare would entail.

 

All that being said, it’s a really useful exercise in terms of focusing a research project – it forces you to clarify ideas, to be concise, and to delve quite deeply into one narrow subsection of a field.

 

Or, at least for me it has been useful, since my problem with graduate statements has never been that I don’t have ideas for a proposal. My problem has, rather, been that I have far too many ideas, and writing a proposal forces me to pick one, and only one, and focus it down to something that I could reasonably finish in three years. 

 

At the same time, it’s definitely a relief to remember that I’m not setting the next three-to-five years of my life in stone. I am writing an application, and most students will change topics entirely or even change fields over the course of their graduate career. Obviously I’ve picked a project that I’m very much interested in and would like to pursue further; obviously I’ve chosen something that I could reasonably see myself spending three years or so developing into a thesis. But if I decide in six months’ time that I don’t want to write on anything to do with the Old Norse sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, and want to switch to American modernism instead, the world will not come to a crashing halt. (Er, that is definitely not going to happen, but the point is still valid!) This is especially true of MA applications, but it’s also true of PhD applications: you’re being evaluated on your ability to research and write an intelligent proposal. No one, apparently, expects you to follow it to the letter afterwards.

 

It still has to be written. So I am very, very relieved to say that SSHRC, at least for this year, is over.

 

(Now I just have to rewrite it and tailor it to each individual school and program that I’m applying to …)

Jennifer at the Hackathon

(or: the lengths to which I will go to write an article)

 

So, there is a reason why I’ve looked pretty sleep-deprived for most of the last week: I spent last weekend surviving on caffeine, ice cream, and pizza, at the University of Toronto Computer Science Student Union’s first annual thirty-six hour hackathon.

 

…. Wait, what?

 

First confession: I know practically nothing about computer science. Second confession: when the science editor of The Varsity drafted me to write about CSSU’s coding marathon, I was more than a little skeptical.

 

I mean, let’s be honest. I can handle math; I can handle physics; I can handle chemistry. I’ll happily answer questions on Riemannian manifolds and the Hamiltonian operator, and I’m not overly fond of biology, but if you hand me a textbook to memorize, I manage just fine. But programming??? The only programming languages I know anything about are HTML, CSS, and Python – and when I say I know “something” about Python, I mean I know how to get IDLE (= the shell you write stuff in) running, and how to make it print “Hello world” and do basic arithmetic. I’ve never taken a computer science course in my life, despite the fact that my mother has told me more times than I can count that it would be fun and I’d probably enjoy it. (Her reasoning went along the lines that she was good at math and consequently liked programming; I was good at math; therefore it was probable that I would like programming. Or something like that. The last time my mother programmed a computer was also back in the days when Cobol and punch cards were still a thing.)

 

Third confession: my mother was right, and computer science is actually really cool, even if it took  thirty-six hours of almost no sleep for me to realize this, and even if I still only know ever-so-slightly-more-than-nothing about it.

 

So, in no particular order, a few highlights from the weekend:

 

– Explaining to my aunt that a “hackathon” does not involve illegal hacking

– One hacker doing his level best to convince me that Linux was much better than Apple, complete with demonstrations – at 2:15 AM

– An introduction to Puppet (= tool for managing the configuration of certain types of systems), at 2:30 AM

– Perching on a bench on the second floor of the Engineering building at 2:15 AM the next day madly writing down notes, because the recorder on my cell phone had run out of space half way through the interview I’d just done

– Finally figuring out what “API” meant and what the difference between “frontend” and “backend” was

– All the projects designed to improve University of Toronto’s registration system, ROSI, which is apparently as notorious as the University of Ottawa’s Rabaska

– Every coder who nonchalantly mentioned that they had to learn a new programming language or two in the first two hours of the event in order to work on their project

– Hand to ASL: the app to recognize and interpret sign language

– Webkin: the project that used a Microsoft Kinect to let you make a webpage by simply standing in front of a voice and motion sensor, saying what you wanted on the page, and then pointing to where you wanted it

– The talk on legal aspects of creating a new start-up

– The raffles at 2 AM and 4:30 AM and other insane hours of the night, and the fact that almost everyone was still awake and attended these

– Unlimited free ice cream at 4 AM

– One of the organizers: “We got over 600 cans of Red Bull and there were none left this morning”

– The approximately seven hours of judging and final presentations

– All of the organizers who welcomed me, introduced me to people, and answered my (at times) rather clueless questions

– Every single participant who not only had a brilliantly creative idea, but was willing to take the time to explain it in a way that an English student could understand how it was designed and how it was going to work

– The moment the science editor assured me that no, I didn’t have to stick to the 500-word limit she had originally suggested

 

 

** There is a reason I got away with doing this – my research proposal for graduate school grant applications is in a state that I am moderately happy with, hence my ability to take the weekend off as a break from research.  Post on those applications is coming soon, I swear. **

“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

 

Toronto International Film Festival. Chess Club. Memorizing paradigms. Carmen. Rapier Wit. Auditions. Physics Colloquium. Robarts. Gerstein. Teaching Fundamentals Certification. HH Chamber Strings. Copyediting. Translation assignments. Archery Club. The Mythgard Institute. Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. SSHRC and PhD applications. Quizbowl.

Free time???

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a Richard Feynman book because it really is a good phrase to describe my first two weeks in Toronto! I’ll get back to books, language, and science shortly, but since I haven’t written anything about Toronto yet and I’ve been doing a lot of exploring, I’m going to hit a few of the highlights:

Free Food

What can I say? Every student organization at this university has concluded that it is impossible to hold an orientation or a welcome without giving out free food. Grad House had a barbeque the night I arrived, the Graduate Student Union hosted a barbeque the next night, and the Graduate English Association has hosted more receptions than I can count. The Graduate English Association also seems to operate on the principle that no meeting is complete without visiting a pub afterwards and distributing free beer. (I say “free” … I am sure it’s included in my student fees somehow.) Grad House also hosts weekly coffee nights, and though 9 pm is much too late for coffee as far as I’m concerned, the cupcakes are delicious.

Grad House

The graduate student residence is lovely – I seem to have won a room on the Floor of Sepulchral Silence. This has a number of distinct advantages, the foremost being that I can study quite contentedly in my room if I don’t feel like walking to one of the libraries or to my individual study carrel in the English building. My suitemates are possibly quieter than me, if such a thing is possible! For violin, piano, vocal, and monologue practices, there is a music room in the basement, which has a well-tuned piano, sound-proof walls, and has been free every time I’ve stopped by. The subway is a very short walk; the bank is across the street; the library is next door; and there’s a grocery store within a block. Also, a ten-minute walk will put me in Chinatown, where there are a couple of fabulous inexpensive bakeries.

And for someone who’s used to getting up at 6:30 am to commute to 8:30 am classes, the five-minute walk to the Jackman Humanities Building is definitely a luxury!

On Stage: Carmen and Rapier Wit

About a month and a half ago, an audition notice went out for dancers and extra performers in a production of Carmen that just finished playing in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (Opera Lyra). I had to talk myself out of auditioning, and I’m sorry to have missed it, because quite a few of my friends ended up performing! Last Friday, however, I did make it out to the ‘Buddies in Bad Times’ theatre here in Toronto, to see their production of Carmen. There were some stellar performances from the leads, and the most interesting thing about the production, for me, was the director’s choice to set the production in post-WWI New York City, explaining Don José’s erratic and violent behaviour as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own theatrical endeavours have also begun – I’m doing my next level of stage combat certification with Fight Directors Canada, so Tuesday nights I do two hours of unarmed martial arts followed by two hours of broadsword, and Wednesday nights are two hours of smallsword followed by two hours of rapier and dagger. Rapier and dagger is one of my personal favourites (two blades equals twice as much mental gymnastics equals twice as much fun), but I’m also a big fan of smallsword, because it requires so much precision. Smallsword is also the one weapon where I can keep switching hands – I’ve made a point of learning to be ambidextrous when it comes to stage combat, but whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t really matter for broadsword or rapier and dagger, since you automatically use both hands anyways.

About a third of Tuesday’s class was dedicated to obstacle rolls, which was a great refresher – it’s a lovely technique to be able to pull out of your back pocket on set, or on stage, mostly because sporadically dive-rolling over a hospital bed dodging bullets, or picking up a rapier mid-roll, or rolling over a table with a quarterstaff in hand … well, just simply looks awesome. It’s also a technique that I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time practicing over the last few years, because when I was first introduced to unarmed stage combat techniques in Montreal back in 2010, I’d never done an aikido roll in my life – I didn’t even know what one was.

I’ve also had a few auditions , and though I won’t hear anything definite for a few days yet, it was good to dust off some of my monologues from the spring and play with them again.

The Physics Colloquium

The University of Toronto’s physics department has a weekly colloquium on Thursday afternoons, where invited speakers from all over North America give a one-hour talk on some aspect of their current research, followed by a time for questions and discussion. Last week’s presentation was by Jim Sethna, of Cornell University, and concerned the mathematical methods that scientists use to model reactions in systems biology. It was a cool presentation for a number of reasons – one, his research draws on fields that normally don’t talk to each other much (using differential geometry and geodesics and hyper-ribbons to work out problems in cell biology); and two, the mathematical results are beautiful.

He and his team have been looking at a long sequence of protein reactions (it’s not just a single sequence – there are two secondary pathways and a feedback loop thrown in as well, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a series of reactions that results in the production of a certain amount of a new protein). Theoretically, in order to create a model that would accurately describe the results, they would have to account for forty-eight different independent parametres; when you actually look at the equations, this works out to a system of twenty-nine (non-linear, of course, everything interesting has to be modelled by a non-linear equation!) differential equations. It’s impossible to find these individual parametres with any degree of accuracy – the most accurate ones vary by a factor of fifty, and the least accurate can vary by factors of almost a million.

However, it turns out that certain combinations of parametres affect possible predictions more than other combinations of parametres. One of Professor Sethna’s recent students, Mark Transtrum, worked out a way (which makes perfect mathematical sense, but does require a decent knowledge of differential geometry to understand, so I won’t go into depth here – for details, the department posts recordings of all of their colloquia online*) to figure out which combinations of parametres were “stiff”, and which ones were “sloppy” – in other words, which parametres could be effectively discarded while maintaining a model that fit the experimental data as well as the original model. A conceptually parallel approach, known as renormalization, has been actually used in quantum field theory since the 1940s.

Bottom line is that instead of a system of twenty-nine non-linear differential equations with forty-eight parametres, it becomes a system of six differential equations with twelve parametres (AKA it is, in fact, possible to solve!) and the new model still makes highly accurate predictions about the amounts of the different proteins that are produced.

This week’s colloquium – and yes, it’s definitely in my calendar – is entitled “The Lunar Surface: A Dusty Plasma Laboratory”, and will include an update on the status of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, which was just launched on September 9th.

The Varsity

I used to copyedit and (very occasionally) write for the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, so over the summer I did a little research on U of T’s journalism scene, and sent off an email to the senior copyeditor of The Varsity, which has been published since 1880 and therefore is apparently the second-oldest student newspaper in Canada. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, therefore, have been spent with pen and highlighter in hand – correcting spelling errors, changing awkward wording, and adding the missing Oxford commas.

I’ll also be writing for the science section in a few upcoming papers – I had already purchased tickets to the inaugural Toronto Science Festival, coming up at the end of the month and featuring a keynote talk by astronaut Julie Payette, so I’ll be covering that, and apparently I’ve also been volun(told) to write a couple of other articles.

Quizbowl

I play academic trivia because it’s a great deal of fun, it’s a good way to meet awesome people, and it’s a guaranteed way to learn quirky, interesting, or simply bizarre random facts – not because I’ve ever been exceptionally good at it. However, I thoroughly approve of question packs that allow me to power questions on Tolkien’s obscure works and minor characters in Carmen, and then have bonus questions on both a) founder of structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure and b) black holes, event horizons, and the work of Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking on the “no hair” theorem. (Packs that include both Tolkien and black holes are pretty rare!)

Oh, Yes, Classes …

Lest everyone now think that Jen is spending all her time in Toronto taking in the sights and running around to various extracurriculars without doing any work, I should probably mention that everything I’ve talked about thus far is what I’ve been doing in my, er, free time, and that the majority of the hours of any given day have actually been spent buried in books, translations, and linguistic paradigms.

I have three classes this semester, and the highlight of the entire week was a guest lecture in my Old English course, given by Professor Andy Orchard. Prof. Orchard has taught at the University of Toronto for years, but is leaving to take up the Bosworth and Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – the post that Tolkien once held, and arguably the single most prestigious position in the field. He’s an excellent lecturer, and it was really quite exciting to meet him in person after having read far more of his books than I should probably admit to.

My other classes are Old Norse (we’re currently translating selections from the Prose Edda), and Critical Topographies, which is common to all English MA students at the University of Toronto and charts developments in literary theory. It’s quite similar to the critical theory course I took as an undergrad, but with about twice as much reading. I have already read about half of the reading on the course syllabus, thanks to previous work, so for those who have accused me of starting to write final essays on the day the assignment is given out … in the case of Critical Topographies, I must confess the accusation to be justified. And in the case of Old English, I have no final essay, but over the last couple of days I’ve finished the weekly translation assignments through until almost the end of October; I can claim no such diligence in Old Norse, though, mostly because I don’t know it nearly as well!

The other major project I have underway is my research proposal for PhD applications – but that’s going to have to be a separate post, because it’s almost midnight.

… and because I’m both a Tolkien nerd and an Old English nerd, I have to close, at least once, with the following:

Wes þú hál!

*http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~colloq/

In Defense of The Silmarillion

 

I’m used to being the only one in a given conversation who has read the posthumously-published prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and I’m also used to hearing about its flaws from people who loved either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, started The Silmarillion, and then gave up partway through because they couldn’t take it, it was too difficult, there were too many names that started with the letters “Fin,” and it just didn’t read like a novel.

I typically manage to ignore these complaints, because for me, The Silmarillion is only difficult in the way that King Lear or The Iliad is difficult. Yes, unless you have a pretty stellar vocabulary and solid reading skills, both Shakespeare and Homer are complicated. They’re still classics, and the fact that we have to work a little harder to appreciate them doesn’t detract from that. And the complaints were ones that I couldn’t really relate to – when I first read The Silmarillion, I was thirteen and on a quest to read everything that J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote, and I devoured the book just as I devoured the History of Middle-Earth series, all of Tolkien’s academic essays on obscure philological topics, and his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

But within the last few months, I’ve heard similar complaints about The Silmarillion from the most unlikely sources. Independently, two good friends – avid fantasy fans, voracious readers, well-used to enjoying complicated texts à la the Malazan series, one of them has a degree in English and history and is as much of a Lord of the Rings nut as I am – have expressed similar opinions. They couldn’t get through it. Or they did manage it once but it was boring. It was just so different from The Lord of the Rings. 

So, because today is the 40th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, I’m going to attempt to explain why The Silmarillion matters – why it is the heart of Tolkien’s mythology, why it’s impossible to understand the rest of Tolkien’s work without it, and why I think it is one of the most moving and tragically beautiful stories ever written.

(And, yes, why if you set me on a desert island and told me I could only have one book, I’ve always said that I wouldn’t take The Lord of the Rings – I’d take The Silmarillion.)

***

I’d like to start by going back to the very beginning of Tolkien’s mythology. Although The Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien’s work on what would become The Silmarillion started much earlier. The four “Great Tales” – the stories of Beren and Lúthien, of Túrin Turambar, of the Fall of Gondolin, and of Eärendil – were first written in 1917, while Tolkien was recovering from trench fever. Together with some additional framing material composed around the same time, “it is not too much to say that the outline of The Silmarillion was visible by the end of 1917 – or would have been if it had found any readers” (Professor Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 224).

These stories grew out of Tolkien’s love of invented languages. Most fantasy authors today start with a story and some characters, and then realize that they’d like a cool language to go with it, so they cobble a few words of something together and call it a language. Tolkien’s stories, on the other hand, were created because he had already started by inventing the languages, and then wanted to write about the sort of peoples who might speak them.

Sixty years, (1917 – 1977) elapsed between the earliest versions of Tolkien’s mythology, and the version that we have today. The stories that make up The Silmarillion were, however, the closest to Tolkien’s heart, and certainly of all his fiction the closest relatives to his academic work. The fact that there was a sixty-year delay in publishing them was not for lack of effort.

(When publishers clamoured for a sequel to The Hobbit – which originally had very little relation to the earlier legends, but was drawn into them gradually – Tolkien sent them the poetic version of the romance of Beren and Lúthien, and the prose text of the Silmarillion. Through a complicated mix-up at the publishing house, only the former was ever actually read, and Tolkien was returned a polite letter asking him if he would, please, start work on a sequel to The Hobbit. When he finally finished The Lord of the Rings, he initially insisted that anyone wanting to publish it had to commit to publishing The Silmarillion as well, with it. Several stalling and/or skeptical publishers later, he eventually relented and let them publish The Lord of the Rings on its own.)

But to read The Lord of the Rings without The Silmarillion is to miss much of the depth and power and sheer complexity of The Lord of the Rings itself. There’s a great deal that happens in The Lord of the Rings that only fits together because of the legends behind it – the legends that make up The Silmarillion. In fact, although The Lord of the Rings is usually read as a stand-alone work, it is the one place where Tolkien brings together and resolves all the strands of narrative and story that have played out over the last seven thousand years of Middle-earth’s history.

Case in point: Galadriel.

Tolkien’s elves are not perfect, pristine, all-powerful, all-knowing creatures, no matter how they may seem on screen – in fact, they’re very flawed and very complicated. The angelic Galadriel of Peter Jackson’s films was actually a fiery warrior princess – given the name Nerwen, “man-maiden,” essentially because of her strength and her stubbornness – who wanted her own kingdom to rule, was a leader in the elven rebellion against the Valar, saw her uncle, five brothers, three cousins, and all their children slaughtered fighting a hopeless war, and proudly scorned the Valar’s offer of pardon to the exiled elves at the end of the First Age. Why is that scene in Lothlórien when Frodo offers her the Ring so crucial? Because she is tempted, because the Ring represents the power that she has always dreamed of, the power that she once would have taken for herself without hesitation: “…my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer,” she says. “For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 410). When she rejects that power, the ban keeping her out of Valinor is finally lifted. That is why she can then say “I pass the test … I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (p. 411). But until that moment, she has quite literally been exiled from all of her remaining family for the previous seven THOUSAND years of the Second and Third Ages – and none of that can one possibly understand without the background of The Silmarillion.

The stories of Arwen and Aragorn, of Elrond, of Gandalf, of Glorfindel, of Éowyn and the Witch-King, of the Men of the West, of Sauron, of the Ents, of the hostility between Dwarves and the Elves, of the Balrog and even of the stars that Frodo and Sam see from Mordor – all of these are, similarly, inextricably bound up with the earlier legends.

But I’d like to stay with Galadriel for a moment, because both she and Celeborn know very well what it is to stare failure in the face and not bow to it: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400). She is not just referring to the fading of the Elves at the end of the Third Age: she is referring to the entirety of Elven history, in which the Elves have faced evil that is not in their power to defeat, and have kept fighting regardless. And in that, The Silmarillion shares a very close kinship with the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends that Tolkien was in part inspired by.

I’d like to quote part of Tolkien’s own commentary on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, because it applies equally well to The Silmarillion. Speaking of the pre-Christian English mythology, he points out that both the gods and the heroes of Norse mythology are “within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness” (p. 25).

Throughout Beowulf, the reader is continually reminded that any victory is only temporary. Recall that on the Norse side of things, the world ends when the gods and heroes lose at Ragnarök. In Beowulf, every time the hero achieves a great victory, the poet turns around and notes that treachery and destruction will follow eventually. Of the great golden hall of Heorot, that Beowulf defends, the poet writes:

the hall towered,

its gables wide and high and awaiting

a barbarous burning. That doom abided,

but in time it would come: the killer instinct

unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (81-85, trans. Seamus Heaney)

Though the Shielding nation is described as “not yet familiar with feud and betrayal” (1018), such feuding is shown to be unavoidable, and the hall is doomed to fall.

Even events that should be (theoretically!) joyful occasions are marked by this omnipresent foreshadowing of doom: at one point in the poem, it is mentioned that the Danes and the Heathobards, two warring peoples, plan to mend their feud and make peace through the marriage of Freawaru (princess of one tribe) to Ingeld (son of the leader of the other tribe). Although they hope that this woman “will heal old wounds / and grievous feuds” (2028-2029), destruction cannot be avoided so easily. Beowulf’s prophecy concerns future events, but he speaks as though they have already happened, emphasizing the futility of fighting against fate: the mood of the spearman “will darken” (2043, emphasis mine) and he will begin to incite violence. This strife is clearly inevitable, which is why Beowulf can speak about these future events as certain and as though they had already happened. Internal strife, feuding between in-laws, is the fatal threat:

“Then on both sides the oath-bound lords

will break the peace, a passionate hate

will build up in Ingeld and love for his bride

will falter in him as the feud rankles.” (2063-2066)

When Beowulf slays the dragon at the end of the poem – and in doing so, saves his people from the immediate threat of a flying fire-breathing creature incinerating them and their homes – the poet ever so cheerfully reminds us that his victory really was pointless. Because Beowulf died in the process of slaying the dragon, he has left his people without a strong leader, and they shall promptly be attacked, raided, and slaughtered by neighbouring tribes.

Within Beowulf, then, death is inevitable. Defeat is inevitable. Victories are only temporary.

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien continues: “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the go∂lauss viking, without gods: marital heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” (p. 25-26, emphasis mine).

That potent but terrible solution is the potent but terrible solution behind the entire action of the First Age of Middle-earth.

For those who may not have read The Silmarillion (or who may have given up before finishing the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta and therefore never got to the Quenta Silmarillion proper!), I’ll summarize in brief:

The Elves originally awoke in Middle-earth, under the stars, but the Valar (akin to angels, the guardians of the world) talked them into travelling over the sea to Valinor, ostensibly for their own safety. The Dark Lord, Morgoth (Sauron’s former master), destroyed the two trees of light that provided light in Valinor, and stole the Silmarils, three jewels that were the greatest work of Fëanor, greatest craftsman of the Elves (and ancestor of Celebrimbor, who would later forge the Rings of Power!) Fëanor swears a terrible oath of vengeance and leads a great portion of the Elves out of Valinor, and back to their homeland in Middle-earth, to wage war on Morgoth directly, since the Valar don’t seem to be doing anything useful:

“.. turning to the herald he [Fëanor] cried: ‘Say this to Manwë Súlimo, High King of Arda [= head of the Valar]: if Fëanor cannot overthrow Morgoth, at least he delays not to assail him, and sits not idle in grief. […] Such hurt at the least will I do to the Foe of the Valar that even the mighty in the Ring of Doom shall wonder to hear it. Yea, in the end they shall follow me. Farewell!” (The Silmarillion, p. 91)

The Elves who leave Valinor do so knowing that if they do, they can never return. “[F]rom end to end of the hosts of the Noldor [=Elves] the voice was heard speaking the curse and prophecy which is called the Prophecy of the North and the Doom of the Noldor. Much it foretold in dark words, which the Noldor understood not until the woes indeed after befell them; but all heart the curse that was uttered upon those that would not stay nor seek the doom and pardon of the Valar.

‘Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. […] To evil end shall all things turn that they being well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.” (p.94-95)

The Elves then spend the entirety of the First Age of Middle-earth in exile waging war against Morgoth, who is a fallen Vala and therefore has godlike powers and cannot be killed.

They are fighting a hopeless war, a war in which the only possibility is that they will eventually die without having achieved any sort of lasting victory.

Recall what Galadriel said: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400).

Within Time, the “monsters” will win. But the Elves refuse to bow to tyranny, refuse to cave in or surrender, refuse to back down. They find, in short, “a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.”

It’s a solution that leads to Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, challenging Morgoth to single combat before the gates of Angband, Morgoth’s fortress.* It’s a solution that leads to Beren and Lúthien sneaking into the very heart of Angband, because her father has decreed that he’ll only approve of the (mortal, human) Beren if the man shows up with a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth himself. It’s a solution that leads to the last stand of Fingon at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and the last stand of Huor, and the twenty-eight-year imprisonment of Húrin while Morgoth tortures him by making him watch every single horrible thing that happens to his family in that time.

And in perhaps the saddest and yet most beautiful story of the entire legendarium, The Fall of Gondolin, the hidden city of Gondolin is betrayed to Morgoth by one of its own people. The story is told in much greater detail in the Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, but I’ll quote from the published Silmarillion here:

“…the red light mounted the hills in the north and not in the east; and there was no stay in the advance of the foe until they were beneath the very walls of Gondolin, and the city was beleaguered without hope. Of the deeds of desperate valour there done, by the chieftains of the noble houses and their warriors, and not least by Tuor, much is told in The Fall of Gondolin: of the battle of Ecthelion of the Fountain with Gothmog Lord of Balrogs in the very square of the King, where each slew the other, and of the defence of the tower of Turgon by the people of his household, until the tower was overthrown; and mighty was its fall and the fall of Turgon in its ruin.” (p. 291)

The city is sacked, the inhabitants are slaughtered, and the few who aren’t only make it out alive after terrible sacrifices. Glorfindel (yes, the same Glorfindel who – later reincarnated a couple ages later – prophesied that no man would defeat the Witch-King, and who met Aragorn and the hobbits on their way to Rivendell) duelled a Balrog to ensure that Idril  and Tuor and Eärendil escaped.

And even then, with their cities in ruins, their lands destroyed, their children and friends and relatives dead – the elves simply don’t give up. Even in the face of complete and utter destruction, they fight on.

That is the tragedy, and the power, and the beauty, and – yes – the terror of The Silmarillion.

Yes, it’s bleak. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s complicated and most of the chieftains of the Noldor have similar sounding names – but so do the heroes of the Norse sagas, and if you’ve ever had to keep Thorkell, Thorlak, Thorleif, Thormar, Thormod, Thorod, Thorolf, and four different Thorsteins straight, Fingolfin and Finrod don’t look so bad by comparison.

Tolkien wasn’t trying to write a novel when he wrote The Silmarillion – so yes, The Silmarillion doesn’t pretend to follow novelistic conventions. What he was trying to write was a mythology. He knew quite well that readers didn’t always have a taste for that – in a 1956 letter, he noted that he did “not think it would have the appeal of the L.R. – no hobbits! Full of mythology, and elvishness, and all that ‘heigh style’ (as Chaucer might say), which has been so little to the taste of many reviewers” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 238).

The mediation provided by the hobbits – more relatable, perhaps, to the average reader than the heroic characters of the older legends – is entirely absent from The Silmarillion. As Christopher Tolkien writes in his introduction to the Book of Lost Tales, “in ‘The Silmarillion’ the draught is pure and unmixed; and the reader is worlds away from such ‘mediation’”.

Perhaps I’m biased in my love of myths and epics and heroic legends – I’ve always found them fascinating, and clearly fascinating enough to do a grad degree in them. But I think there is something about myths and legends that has fascinated millions of people for thousands of years – because they speak to our hearts and to our imaginations, because they move us, because they inspire us, because they reflect who we are or who we want to be.

And for me the very factors that people object to about The Silmarillion – the heightened style, the lack of mediation, the unmixed draught of mythology as it were, the sheer scope and horror of the tragedy and yet the determination that emerges from that tragedy – are what I love most about it.

So if you’re expecting a second Lord of the Rings – yes, you will be disappointed in The Silmarillion.

But if you’re looking for timeless myths?

Pick it up. Skip the endless list of names in the Valaquenta and start with the Quenta Silmarillion proper if you have to, and keep a finger in the back of the book to refer to the family tree of Fingolfin, Finrod, and the rest if you get confused. They really are distinct characters in their own rights, and if you stick with it, you should have no trouble telling them apart. Don’t expect it to be something it’s not, but appreciate it for everything that it is, and let the stories do the rest of the work.

(Wow, that ended up way longer than I intended. As always, comments / thoughts / arguments / other perspectives are welcome!)

*I won’t comment on this duel here because I’d just end up quoting the passage in its entirety – I can’t possibly do it justice. But together with the Fall of Gondolin, it is burned into my memory for all of time.