11 September 2017

The evolution of a commonplace

I discovered Tolkien when I was eleven and, as you've probably gathered, I rather liked his work. From then until I went to college seven years later, I read The Lord of the Rings probably three times a year. When I got to college I meant to study English as well as Classics, but to go to graduate school and write a dissertation on Tolkien. I must have mentioned this to someone on the English Faculty because somebody, I no longer remember whom, made it clear to me how very little chance there was that I would be allowed to write such a dissertation, and how doing so would be academic suicide. As I said, I don't recall who told me this or whether it was meant kindly or contemptuously, but it was enough to decide not to be an English Major.

Fifteen or so years later, with a doctorate in Classics firmly stitched into the lining of my then spiffy ego, I was sitting in a paper session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (then called The American Philological Association) listening to another young scholar answer questions about his paper. He was doing fine. His paper had been good, and he had handled the questions deftly. Then he chose to illustrate a point he was making by reference to an episode of Star Trek. Again, I don't recall the particulars, but I remember recognizing (as a lifelong Trekker) that the allusion he was making was absolutely appropriate to his subject, but utterly wrong for this audience. As I was thinking "No, no, no, don't pick that", I felt the room slip away from him.

Another twenty-five years down the line, popular culture has a much wider acceptance within the academic world. Indeed the flowering of disciplines unheard of as little as three decades ago astonishes me. Some of them speak to me, and some don't. Some I don't understand at all, but understanding is not necessary. Not everyone that speaks, speaks to me. Not every message is meant for me. That's okay. I try not to be so arrogant as to think that something has no value if I don't understand it or like it. 

But recently I was chatting with someone about a forthcoming article on Tolkien I had written, the main title of which is 'These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For', a rather obvious allusion to the famous line in Star Wars: Episode IV: 'These are not the droids you're looking for.' The person I was speaking to suggested that I would be wise to change it, since an allusion to Star Wars might put some people off. 









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