Texts That Made Me: Graham Williams

Save the revelation that was Chaucer in high school, there isn’t too much obvious competition for me here. I first read my father’s copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit probably when I was about ten years old. I’ve always loved baths, and I read it entirely in the bathtub. It was the biggest book I’d read up to that point, and it probably took me several weeks. I savoured it — plus I was a slow reader, still am. I suppose the reprints really hit a sweet spot for lucky kids like myself who grew up in the 1980s, a golden age of fantasy, watching the likes of Star Wars (as well as the mid-80s adventures of the Ewoks of Endor, don’t forget) and movies from the genius mind of Jim Henson, epitomised in The Dark Crystal.

I’d seen those movies by the time I’d read The Hobbit, but the Shire and its hobbits stood out as a fantasy world like I’d never experienced before. When Tolkien created Middle Earth he really tapped into something that I know many others have similarly found to be an exhilarating sort of homecoming, at once familiar and fantastic (medievalists often say the same of the Middle Ages). People, including myself, wanted to be a hobbit or an elf, to battle goblins and orcs (the distinction between the two continues to be a matter of debate), to find rings of invisibility, and be chased by the undead! Other cool kids clearly felt similar, which is how Dungeons and Dragons happened. I got myself The Player’s Handbook, and holy smoke: funnest thing ever! The fact that these texts made me, just as much as Tolkien’s original, is probably reflected in the fact that I play more D&D now than I did when I was ten. But made me into what the skeptic asks? A Dungeon Master, of course.

Texts That Made Graham (into a Dungeon Master)

In addition to being the Dungeon Master for me and my friends’ D&D campaign, the other thing I am is a philologist who teaches medieval language and literature. Don’t ask which comes first. Tolkien himself was a philologist, and in fact he borrowed many of his ideas from medieval literature, e.g. the ubi sunt expressed in ‘Lament for the Rohirrim’ (Two Towers) taken from the Old English The Wanderer (I tear up just thinking of the line, Hwær cwom mearg? ‘Where has the horse gone?’ It’s so sad!) . By the time Tolkien was an academic, the clear departmental division between what he called the ‘bogeys’ of English Literature, on the one hand, and English Language, on the other, had mostly cemented itself into its present state; but he was not entirely approving of this (see his Valedictory Address from 1959), and I’m sure he’d be happy to hear of Sheffield’s Language and Literature degree. Tolkien was a passionate student of literature, but he had great linguistic know-how, historically and cross-linguistically, and in fact Middle Earth in some sense serves as an elaborated context for what he described as his ‘secret vice’ for constructing languages. Today, the fruits of this vice, especially by way of examples like Sindarin (Elvish), have provided inspiration for a new generation of conlangers and neoconlangers, bringing flavour to new texts and movies in the shape of fantastically (un)familiar alien languages, like the Heptapod ink-language featured in Arrival. Things come full circle, as one of the newest classes I contribute to is Constructed Languages, and I get to lecture on the history of Elvish. God I love my job!

My grandmother, rest her soul, used to echo Robert Burns in telling us (usually after a few drams) that her heart was in the Highlands. I think my heart may be with the hearts of many others, in the hills of Middle Earth. And now that I’m of respectable age, I’m drinking ale in the Green Dragon, admiring a newly acquired magical item, ideally just after an inspirational seminar on Middle English.

Graham Williams

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