Ainulindalë: New Film Short

Prepare to be amazed at the artistry and creativity of the Tolkien community (again). Willow Productions has released a beautiful short film of Tolkien’s creation narrative, the Ainulindalë, which means “The Music of the Ainur.” Saith Ilúvatar, “Behold! Your music!”

Some observations:

  • The score by Far West Method Music is fitting and evocative, which is important since it is music that is the creative force of the universe.
  • Ilúvatar’s theme is not itself imagined as a melody or theme; instead, it is announced with a chime, or what sounds to me like a glass armonica.
  • The entirety of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is not narrated; the spoken voiceover (which is well done) is a very abbreviated script of the original.
  • Back to the music: I liked the brief, but clever quote of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini as a musical association with Melkor.
  • Thus, from Ainur to Valar. Tolkien’s framework of doom as established by the choice of free beings is brought out very effectively.

Verdict: a delightful rendering of this important narrative in the legendarium. h/t The Silmarillion / Children of Hurin / The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings group.

Arda Maps: A New Tolkien Interactive Project

Prepare to be amazed. Graduate student Curtis Mosters has developed a wonderful new resource for Tolkien studies. Behold:

Arda Maps Project - Tolkien

Check out the maps of the three ages of Arda. Looks like he’s still developing the family trees, timelines and maps for the journeys and regions of Arda. We here at Hogwarts Prep hope that his team is able to raise the funds needed to complete the project.

Dumbledore is Death

Dumbledore, by Mary GrandpréA theory that…wait for it…this is the Holy Graal…J. K. Rowling herself has said, “It’s a beautiful theory and it fits.”

Mugglenet captures JKR’s tweets. Read about it at Time, Hypable, and The Daily Dot.


  • He had possessed all three Hallows.
  • At King’s Cross he welcomes Harry with open arms.
  • He is the only wizard Voldemort fears. What does the name Voldemort mean again?

Well done, Harry Potter readers (do you doubt that it was a reader who noodled this out?). Go canon.

Time to explore the implications of this identity and write a few lines of parchment…

Le Guin and Torah

We’ve had more than a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin enthusiasm at the school recently, and our read-through of the Earthsea books is halfway done. (We also watched Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea (Gedo senki) recently; a review will be forthcoming (trailer).)

This post is a placeholder for what may become a conference paper or journal essay. So I’m just going to put this here for us to ponder and invite all students and faculty to discuss, challenge, question, evaluate, and so on, in the comments.

Le Guin’s world of Earthsea has a strikingly Hebraic (Jewish) theme at its core: the importance of names and the creative, sustaining power of speech. First, the relevant features of Earthsea:Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Kolisch

  • Wizards distinguish between the conventional and true names of people and all beings (Sparrowhawk/Ged, Arha/Tenar, Arren/Lebannen, et al).
  • Nature is under the command of “the Old Speech, the language of the Making” (e.g., The Farthest Shore, 39).
  • Evil is namelessness; hence, evil personified and deified is The Nameless Ones (The Tombs of Atuan).

Now the relevant features of the Hebraic tradition:

    • God changes some humanly given (conventional) names to new (true) names: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel.
    • Others change given names in light of great deeds: Gideon/Jerub-Baal, Joseph/Zaphenath-Paneah, Daniel/Belteshazzar, et al.
    • Nature, “all things visible and invisible,” is made, created, by the divine logos, or power of the speech of God (on this feature the Torah is not unique to other, especially Egyptian, creation narratives).


  • The name of God “himself,” the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “I am that I am,” is revealed to the “Archmage” Moses, to authenticate Moses’ mission to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt.
  • An ambivalence about the name of God occurs if the Hebrew God is considered as one among the pantheon of the Ancient Near East civilizations (Thales, ca 600 BCE, said that the world was full of such gods in his time). But the being revealed to Moses is unlike these other gods in that “he,” through his own name, is self-revealed to transcend the physical, space-time universe. YHWH is not a supreme being among other beings, a god of preeminent status, as one first among equals, but Being Itself, whose being is grounded in “his” aseity and is therefore self-existent. Because the divine aseity is unreachable by the human logos, or the discursive intellect, YHWH has been regarded as “the Nameless One” by some thinkers in contrast to those deities which are named.

There is much that needs to take shape here and further expound, so I welcome your comments!

New Tolkien Scholarship

The Tolkien faculty here at Hogwarts Prep are keen to let you know about two new and exciting forthcoming contributions to Tolkien scholarship.

First we have the news, care of The Tolkien Society, that a very early work, The Story of Kullervo, hits the bookshelves on August 27. Kullervo is a tragic figure from the Finnish Kalevala mythos and Tolkien scholars believe that Kullervo informs the eminent figure of Túrin Turambar.

turin-gurthang-john-howeSecond, we look forward to obtaining for the Hogwarts Prep shelves a new volume by Walking Tree Publications, a nonprofit and volunteer association: Representations of Nature in Middle-Earth. There are nine essays in the collection around the theme of the title. The publisher’s blurb should whet your appetite for this important contribution to scholarship on the theme that lies so close to the heart of Tolkien’s saga:representations-nature

[N]ature in Middle-earth plays a crucial role not only in the creation of atmospheres and settings that enhance the realism as well as the emotional appeal of the secondary world; it also acts as an active agent of change within the setting and the story.

If you can’t wait for the HPA Library to stock its copy, you can get your own copy from The Tolkien Shop or your favorite bookseller.



New Home of Hogwarts Preparatory Academy Coming Soon!

The house elves are busy migrating the site to our shiny new campus. Look for new posts and offerings very soon!

Joel B. Hunter

Alchemy in the Harry Potter Series

Lily-smallJ. K. Rowling has confirmed that alchemical symbols are (at least one) key to understanding the characters in the Harry Potter series, their relationships with one another, and their actions.

In an entry entitled “Alchemy,” she explained that [Hagrid and Dumbledore] take on a symbolic position in Harry’s life, and it’s all to do with ancient beliefs around colour.

See more on Pottermore. The Hogwarts Professor is vindicated, as are those who have studied and analyzed Harry’s saga with these literary and metaphysical tools.

Amazing Interactive Map of Middle Earth

Kudos to the designers of this fantastic map of Middle Earth! Be prepared to spend at least an hour poking around. What would you add to it?

LOTR Project Interactive Map of Middle Earth

Happy Birthday, Christopher Lee

After viewing the LOTR films’ backstory materials on the extended version DVDs, it became clear to me that Sir Christopher Lee was one of the few actors in the cast who has an actual grasp on the heart of Tolkien’s work. So it is not surprising that he joined the Tolkien Ensemble to record “Treebeard’s Song.” His basso profondo captures the wisdom and aching of the Ents. Enjoy!

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (3)

Part III–and the last–of my mini-series on how world building and artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.

To set the table for our thrilling conclusion, here are the key points from the first two posts in this series.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his Oxford rooms






In Part I, I introduced you to our two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: the “elvish craft” of enchantment (Tolkien) and translucence (Le Guin). We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish. We also began to compare the similarities in the Nna Mmoy way of life and Elvish culture.

In Part II, we examined Le Guin’s notion of translucence more closely by stepping through key passages in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” We saw that the source of translucence in story-telling is in the relationship between the language and the broader culture of a people. The translucence of the Elven language originates in their deep history and wrestling with the wider Powers of Arda, their sometimes ill-conceived oaths, and struggles against the Enemies of harmony, beauty, freedom, and delight in living things. The Nna Mmoy have none of these difficulties, nor self-awareness of their own history. The translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the complexities of the language itself because they live in a “safe,” unchallenging environment. For any language to have translucence, it must be fed by springs of complexity and variety.

In this final post in the series, I want to show that translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our best writers have that elvish craft, that ability to enchant with translucent diction. But translucence also works on listeners and readers, and the attentive reader uses and understands language that is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. If you learn to detect translucence, you may embark on an exploration of unexpected meaning, challenges, and discoveries that open up to you.


The Map

The idea that translucence explains how layers of meaning are assembled and integrated into a whole work is at first difficult to grasp. I think an analogy with how maps function illustrates what’s going on.

Compare the author gifted with the Elvish Craft, or the adult Nna Mmoy speaker, to a mapmaker.

The mapmaker translates his or her knowledge of a place, its terrain and features, onto a two-dimensional representation of the place. Without exception, the mapmaker must compromise between clarity and richness, simplicity and comprehensiveness, detail and practical applicability, and so on. The map is not in a transparent, one-for-one correspondence relation with the terrain it depicts. The map is a selective image of the real place. The map is like geography. Both maps and geography abstract from the familiar concrete world of ordinary experience in order to give the map reader a useful tool to orient himself in the real place.

The map reader uses the map to navigate the place, explore its features, and reach destinations. Now every map reader knows this: the experience of studying the map is nothing like experiencing the place itself. You can’t study the geography or a map of the Everglades to obtain first-hand experience of what it’s actually like. The point of the map is to usefully guide; it does not act as a substitute experience of the place.

But there’s something else every map reader knows. Before you ever pick up a map, you’ve already encountered many of the features depicted on the map: road, stream, hill, swamp, town. You have a familiarity with the ordinary (Primary) world that the mapmaker depends on to communicate a more comprehensive understanding of the place. What the successful map (Secondary World) does is manifold:

  • It calls attention to specific features in the Primary World;
  • It allows you to experience familiar features in the Primary World differently;
  • It allows you to experience new features in familiar places.

We pick up a map of a new place handicapped by our myopic, partial vision of the real world. We take a journey to the broader world depicted by the map and our vision gets corrected, our perspective is elevated a little higher, and we glimpse how much more interesting–perhaps scary, perhaps wonderful–the Primary World is. The map is by necessity selective. It can’t show everything. If we seek to know and experience the Primary World in all its richness and terrible desolation, we will need good maps.

Translucence is what makes the good map work. There are enough familiar, easily identifiable objects in the terrain that the novice reader can get underway. Though an image, and an incomplete representation, the good map is accurate. And once you visit the actual place, you find the real landscape exceeds what the symbols on the map only hint at: the heights and depths of the ground below, the brilliance of the sky above, the ruggedness of the coastline, the colors and smells of the city, the expansive vistas of the high plains. None of this was on the map, and yet it stands out to you once you’ve been oriented by the map. Translucence teaches you that there’s more to what you see than what you see. From your original familiarity with some features the mapmaker can draw on, your vision of the real world penetrates to new features and rises to new perspectives.

The Analogy Explained

I tried to drop enough hints in the map analogy so that you could piece together its meaning on your own. But it’s not easy, so let me spell it out a bit more.

In the analogy, the mapmaker is the storyteller or author of the story, the world-builder. The map reader is the listener, or the reader of the story. The map is the story. The symbols and conventions used on the map are the language of the story. The map is a guide to a place in the world. The map reader comes to the map like the reader comes to the story with some pre-knowledge of both the symbols (the language) and the features represented (the world and its history). There’s another interesting similarity between maps and Tolkien’s idea of the Primary and Secondary. You’ll recall that Tolkien’s Secondary World is a fictional place, but a special kind of fictional place; namely, one that sheds new light on the ordinary, Primary world. The map is a representation of the Primary world through conventions of symbol, arrangement, and scale. The map purports to show the Primary world through these conventions and representation. The map is not a fictional world, but it can shed new light on the terrain and features of the Primary world.

Storytelling, or any other cultural form of expression, including handmade crafts, is also rooted in our prior familiarity with the world, the world we perceive and that perception gives us a hold on. We come to stories with our own stock of acquired vocabulary, concepts and meanings. The author (mapmaker) exploits this background knowledge and crafts original speech that creates new meaning. We may have been to a location a hundred times before, but never noticed the geological feature shown on the map. Indeed, it may be so hidden from sight that we would never have found the feature without the map. We now have an altered perspective on a familiar place. What was once hidden to us now stands out and opens new features for us to explore. But the new feature, the original speech, always rests on a background of already understood speech.

To understand translucence and how it works we have to examine something we take for granted: our familiar stock of words and why they seem to us easily comprehensible, usually univocal in meaning, and independent of the specific voices or script in which we first learned them. Small children who do not yet speak, whether Nna Mmoy, Elven, or Terran, encounter language as something already achieved by their society, as a meaningful world enveloping them, and which they must catch on to. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this situation in which we all, from ordinary speakers to poets and storytellers, find ourselves:

Speech is, therefore, that paradoxical operation through which, by using words of a given sense, and already available meanings, we try to followup an intention which necessarily outstrips, modifies, and itself, in the last analysis, stabilizes the meanings of the words which translate it. (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, 455-6)

In stories we are not simply using our stock of familiar words and straightforward meanings. Though much of our speech might be confined to the familiar and already constituted meanings (recall my example of the coffee shop in Part I), we forget how our familiar expressions have come to us by way of an obscure and ambiguous history. We require that pre-given stock of familiar words and meanings in order to read and understand stories of new and strange places, which simultaneously conceals the deep history of the familiar words and meanings. In Le Guin’s parlance, this is the inevitable effect of our speaking “snake.” It is only with additional effort that we notice the translucence of literal words or meanings and follow their allusions and suggestions into the infinite starfish branches of earlier, oft-forgotten or misappropriated, semantic depths. In their ordinary speech, the Nna Mmoy have no habitual and obvious meanings, for the simple concatenation of one syllable to another is sufficient to branch out into original speech. The Elves, on the other hand, speak “snake” like us, but they have not forgotten their history and have its semantic depths always available to them. We are either ignorant of the historical richness and depths of our language and the events of its formation, or we tend to overlook what is now habitual and obvious.

Storytelling arises obscurely out of its history and projects itself indefinitely into the future. I say “its” history because it is more than just the individual author’s history.

Are you still with me? Good, because here’s the punchline: translucence establishes our connection to our deep history. Light is shone on what is obscure. Surprising pathways to the familiar make them strange and new. Patterns we had not noticed suddenly take shape. (Some we invent, but the more accurate maps dispel confusion.) Aloof, superficial connections blaze with new significance and import.

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s test your translucence powers! I’ve listed some simple words below, a mixture of concrete and abstract things, with which you can practice thinking and speaking starfish. Here’s what to do:

  1. Each word is the head, or center of the starfish. Let the beginning of your thought or story be the literal, physical representation elicited by the word from the pre-given knowledge you already have.
  2. Now move to another thought wherein the word indicates something more, something beyond, the limits of what the physical senses or the particular image you’ve drawn from tells you. This is an allusive, playful, suggestive movement. It could be something emotional, some moral value or disvalue, some invisible structure or pattern, and so on. Before going on to the next step, pause to reflect on two things: (a) Did your move draw from something in your knowledge of human history, including other arts and literature? (b) Did your move draw from something in the memory of your own experience?
  3. Now that you’ve made one starfish movement, use translucence again for your second movement (third thought). Let the originating word move into yet another direction (layer of meaning).

Ready? Here you go:



















Congratulations! You’re speaking like the Nna Mmoy. Your speech is translucent!

Let’s conclude with a few observations.

Each of the words in the list has a deep history of layered meaning. There is both cultural difference among these layers as well as cultural commonality. A snake, for example, may have either a dominantly positive or negative value association in a given culture. Most cultures have some degree of both (a lot of modern people are unaware of the ambiguities of meaning in their own tradition).

An author may intentionally or unintentionally draw the history of these words and ideas into her story or song. If intentional, she may pack layers of nonsuperficial meaning into her creation, but unless her new expression somehow outstrips or modifies the already available meanings, at best she is imitating rather than creating meaning. If unintentional, then she cannot foresee or control how her readers, who may have more comprehensive knowledge of the history informing the words and ideas in her story, will interpret and understand her meaning in diverse and sophisticated ways. Because of the obscurity behind her expressions and her unknowing appropriation of that history, her intended meaning is at the mercy of her readers who may recognize her expressions as familiar ones.

Not all stories are maps; not all authors speak or poets sing with translucence. Why is it seemingly so rare to encounter a story that draws you into its world like a magnet, that satisfies some deep longing, that thrills with its linguistic elegance or virtuosity, or seems to have its author always present with you as a partner “in making and delight?” It may be that the author’s diction, like textbooks or litanies of bare facts, favors opacity over translucence. Or it may be that the reader’s stock of meanings, our Elvish immersion in our cultural histories, is weak, myopic, or unformed. Such are the temptations of snake language. Our usual communication with one another (and our past) is through statements and questions that taper off into some univocal, single, surface meaning. We don’t ordinarily converse in starfish like the Nna Mmoy. We bifurcate our speech into “ordinary” and “artful,” with the dominating ordinary type valuing simplicity and practicality. In modern society we relegate the artful to the domain of private leisure and enjoyment.

Invented and novel connections to the deeper regions of our social and cultural histories requires listening and following authors from (or who are regular travelers to) those deeper regions. They are the mapmakers of the soul. Translucent stories allow us to visit the undiscovered country, to see ourselves more clearly as we really are, to transform our vision of our place, and to experience being known–and knowing–in ways that enrich and delight.