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Romance and realism


“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1901 Wikimedia

It is now week three of the Coursera course that I have embarked on Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative. It is such an interesting course for me and brings together a lot of the other courses that I lave taken on Literature, New Media, Greek Heroes and even a little philosophy.   This week we read another wonderful work John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. Although we have finished reading the The Fellowship of the Ring our viewing for this week was Peter Jackson’s movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It is many years since I read the book or watched the film. Doing both so close together highlighted the differences and also the wonderful way that Peter Jackson was able to recreated Middle Earth.

I found the title of the poem interesting. For me it read – “The beautiful woman without thank you”. Researching the old French meaning of ‘Merci’ took me on an joyous etymological trip.

I hope that you enjoy my transcripts of this weeks lectures. Please remember that I change the texts slightly to make translation easier. I remove  repetitions, false starts and fillers.. Any mistakes in the texts are my own. Please let me know if you spot any.Firstly a reminder of who the speakers are.

Jay Clayton, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, our lecturer for the course.



The class member who participate in some very interesting discussions are:-



















Romance and realism

Gameplay: The Chamber of Marzarbul

Orc captainI’m in front of the doors of the chamber of Mazarbul near the 21st hall, deep in the mines of Moria. This is the setting for one of the most thrilling encounters of the Fellowship of the Ring, the fierce battle between the Fellowship and a horde of goblins, orcs and a crazed troll. In the novel, this scene carries enormous weight. It’s the first time the whole Fellowship fights together and it will be the last time as well. For shortly after they escaped from the chamber, Gandalf has to face the Balrog. When the wizard is pulled off the bridge into the cavernous depths of Moria the fellowship is divided for good. The chamber also carries enormous emotional weight for Gimli, the dwarf. It is here that he learns the fate of his cousin Balin, who led an earlier, ill-fated mission to reclaim Moria. The film remediates the novel in a faithful and transparent fashion. The director seems to be attempting to translate Tolkien’s description directly into visual imagery. Tolkien writes,

“The chamber was lit by a wide shaft high in the further eastern wall; it slanted upward, and far above, a small square patch of blue sky could be seen. The light of the shaft fell directly on a table in the middle of the room: a single oblong block, about two feet high, upon which was laid a great slab of white stone.”

The game lets us walk up and examine the tomb in person once your character has done the requisite quests that allow you to unlock the chamber. One of the remarkable effects of the three dimensional perspective of virtual reality is that you can walk all around the tomb. Peer down at the runes on Balin’s tomb, and even bow before the fallen leader. The book of records they find in the film is nicely reproduced from Tolkien as well. The novel describes it like this.

“[The book] had been slashed and stabbed and partly burned and it was so stained with black and other dark marks like old blood that little of it could be read.”


In the chamber with the fellowshipThe game first unlocks the doors to the chamber of Mazarbul after you have successfully completed an instance in the epic quest line. This instance comes in volume two, book three, chapter nine. Those of you who are new to the game may be surprised to see how many episodes there are in the epic quest line. In Tolkien, the book Gandalf finds tells of the valiant stand of three dwarves from Balin’s company at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, Frar, Mani, and Nali, and of the drums in the deep and of the repeated phrase,” we cannot get out”. The epic quest chapter in the game is called “we cannot get out!”  and you are tasked to help Frar, Mani and Nali at the bridge defending against wave after wave of orcs. At the end of your valiant attempt to hold the bridge a Balrog appears and the three dwarves send you running back to the 21st hall to warn them there and to help the remnant of the dwarves. The three remaining dwarves at the bridge fight a doomed rear guard action.

defeinding the bridgeAs the book tells you, and as the game shows you, they all three die in their defence of the bridge. Shortly, you find yourself barricaded in the Chamber of Mazarbul, along with the few remaining dwarves, fighting against overwhelming numbers of orcs and trolls. It’s a desperate confrontation, and I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends in the game. But I’ll just say that it’s not the outcome that you expect to find in most video games. Once you’ve completed the epic quest line, you become eligible to repeat this quest in the form of a group skirmish (a special kind of instance to allow players to repeat particularly memorable instances along with their friends). We’ll come back to the chamber and one of these skirmishes shortly. But first let me return to the film to show you how it handles the Fellowship’s battle in the chamber. The film conflates Pippin’s accident at the well, with an earlier scene from the book, where Pippin drops a pebble into a well and starts the drums to beating.  Here too, the drums begin to roll and it is a terrifying sound an intermingled with the shrieks of orcs.



Credit : dcairns.wordpress.com

There’s a nice dramatic economy with having Pippin provoke the drums only moments before the battle was to begin in the chamber. As you might suspect, the film handles the fight itself very well. The fight with the troll owes a debt to countless movies from the pass, with mythological beasts and monsters in them. Think of the encounter with the Cyclops in the 1958 film, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, or the many-headed hydra in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts. CGI techniques may have improved the realism of the encounter, but we’ve seen most of the moves before. The arrows, spears, and axe blows that serve only to enrage the beast; the warrior, who leaps on the back of the monster; the character who dodges the groping arm of the troll; and the final killing blow down the gaping mouth of the monster.

As you can see, I’m in the chamber with a fellowship. The five players along with me are all good friends from my kinship “Vicarious Universe”. The instance follows the sequence of action from the book closely. Firstly, waves of orcs rush into the room and our characters take them on in a free-for-all combat. Their captain is fighting alongside them, just as he is in Tolkien. He’s a boss with a high hit point count. In the game, we learn his name is Mazog and we have several more encounters with him to come while completing the epic quests set in Moria. This isn’t the same orc captain that Frodo encountered though. Since Tolkien tells us that Aragorn cleaves that orc’s head asunder with a savage blow of his sword. We’re not interested in how close the content of these scenes match but with what our comparison of the three scenes can reveal about the various media involved. Here in the game, the greatest difference lies in the interactive nature of the experience. You are there. You are able to move around at will, take on an orc, fight the captain himself or tank the troll. If you are a healer or a ranged character, like a hunter, you will want to stand back from the fight as I’m doing here, and throw heals on the members of your group. The tank could choose to kite the troll, which means to run him in a circle, to get him away from the other members of the group while they dispatch the remaining enemies. You can also work to coordinate your attacks by choosing someone to be the target through whom you channel all your fire.

Online games excel at this kind of interactivity and it’s extremely satisfying when a group performs well together, with each player executing his or her role in coordination with others. There’s very little narrative content in this kind of interactivity. Sure, there’s plenty of interactive action but scarcely interactive dimension to the story. In both the book and the film the story progresses through the action. In the game, the story pauses while the fighting goes on. The death of the troll brings this instance to a close. It was fun for me to get together with my friends from the kinship, and revisit this instance from Moria. I hope you enjoyed it too.


Genres of Romance

Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus’ Song, by Francesco Hayez, 1813–15 Wikimedia

What do Homer’s Odyssey, Spencer’s Faerie Queene, Robin Hood, and countless Arthurian tales from Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur to Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, have in common? They are all forms of romance. Romance is one of the earliest forms of narrative. As a genre, it features thrilling stories full of action and adventure. It can have knights in shining armour, wizards and sorcerers, castles and dragons, shipwrecks and pirates, twins separated at birth. But it also can have cowboys and spaceships, Tarzan and The Three Musketeers, Sinbad and Aladdin. The fact is romance is such a versatile genre that it appears in virtually every popular narrative form that our culture has created. In the next few sessions, we will be talking about the characteristics of a romance in more detail but for now, I just want to stress three features shared by many romance works.

They tend to have plots that are action-oriented along on an adventure and suspense.  They often feature supernatural events or creatures, and sublime scenery. The characters tend to be types, rather than rounded individuals. Stereotypes sometimes, like the hero, the villain, or the deserving orphan. That last illustration is a picture from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.Quest is the archetypal structure of romance narrative. The most famous quest in the western tradition is the quest for the Holy Grail, which is featured in Arthurian romance. Quest structures lead us to episodic adventures, episodes that occur along the road as the hero searches for his goal.

1997 Dutton edition cover Wikimedai

Most popular genres today borrow freely from the romance tradition. Science fiction, westerns, detective stories, mysteries, gothic romances, thrillers, adventure stories, the post-apocalyptic tales. These popular genres all borrow conventions from romance. They are not always quest stories, but they generally share an emphasis on plot rather than character. Their themes tend to pose stark questions of good versus evil. So you’ll not only have many literary classics in the romance genre, The Odyssey, Spencer’s Faerie Queen, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but you also have science fiction like Star Wars and Avatar; fantasy, like Chronicles of Narnia, and The Never Ending Story and Harry Potter; westerns like Red River, The Searchers, The Last of the Mohicans; gothic works like Frankenstein, Dracula, or more recently, the Twilight series; costume dramas and swashbucklers, Ben Hur, Spartacus, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers; or adventure stories, like the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. You notice that many of them began life as novels, but have been made into movies. That’s because, romance can appear in any mode. It can be in poetry, it can be in novels, movies, and of course, it can appear in the mode of the online game. The children’s fantasy book, The Never Ending Story got it exactly right. Romance is inexhaustible, a story that never ends.


The romance circle

In this session we will be discussing the typical structure of the quest romance. The structure can best be visualized as a circle. The hero sets out from home and journeys through adventure after adventure and when he’s finished his quest and, conquered all the obstacles he returns to that home, a changed human. This structure is most familiar to people from Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, but I have a relied more on Northrop Frye for my version of the quest romance circle.

Romance circleThe quest romance begins, typically, in childhood. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course, you have Frodo in the idyllic scenes in the shire, but other, famous romance works, other popular romances that many people have seen, like Star Wars, also follow this same cyclical pattern. Think of the beginning of Star Wars when Luke Skywalker is an orphan, being raised by his aunt and uncle on the desert planet of Tatooine. Llittle does he know that he’s the son and heir of a powerful Jedi knight. Just like Frodo, Luke is unaware that this seemingly safe space of his childhood home is threatened by forces far larger than he can comprehend. Another example comes from the Arthurian romance stories. Prince Arthur is illegitimate, and in many late versions of the story including Walt Disney’s the Sword and the Stone, Arthur is raised and mentored by the wizard Merlin. This figure of Merlin is a clear model for Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

When the hero sets out from home the first thing that occurs is that he typically crosses a kind of threshold. If you think back to Star Wars again, Luke Skywalker’s threshold is the border town, the space port of Mos Eisley on Tatooine. The film of the Fellowship of the Ring has one of the most explicit threshold scenes I’ve ever seen in a the movie, the scene of Sam and Frodo leaving the Shire. Let me show you a clip from this movie. [

Romance circle2After the hero has crossed the final boundary that separates, what he thinks of as the safety of home. He begins a period of initiation. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo’s initiation occurs on the journey to Rivendell. There he learns what it means to have adventures and he’s tutored along the way by Aragorn the person he originally knows as Strider. In a movie like Star Wars Luke is initiated into what it means to be a Jedi by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who trains him in using a lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon, their spaceships. The next stage in the hero’s quest is typically a moment of dedication to the quest. If you remember, from the film, when they are at, that, when the fellowship is at Rivendell, and they have the council there, everyone is arguing about what to do, who will take the Ring to Mordor, and there’s a dramatic moment when Frodo steps forward and says, “I will do it.” I will take the Ring”. Let me show you a clip.

Romanitc circle 3The next stage of the quest is the visit to the underworld. This is a common motif in classical mythology. A number of heroes in the epic poems of the classic period descended into the underworld. Odysseus travels down to the underworld to speak with the shade of Tiresias. Aeneas descends into the land of the dead to speak with the spirit of his father. Even Star Wars, the, second of the original Star Wars films, the one called the Empire Strikes Back had symbolic descent into the underworld. You remember Luke Skywalker’s trained by the elder Jedi Yoda and, and for Luke’s final challenge during his training period. He must descent into a cavern on Dagobah and face his worst fears. This symbolic moment makes explicit what’s implicit in most descents into the underworld. They’re often metaphors for a descent into yourself. They are confrontations with your inner demons, what you fear most in the world. After the hero has gone down into the underworld he often has a confrontation with the spirits of evil, and he needs to exercise them. In the Christian tradition, this was referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell”. Christ, after he was crucified, descended into hell, where he divided the souls of the dead, taking with him those that were going to be saved up to heaven, and leaving behind those that were damned. What’s the equivalent of the Harrowing of Hell, in the Fellowship of the Ring? Well, of course, it’s Gandalf and the Balrog. It’s an amazing scene. One of the most dramatic scenes in the whole movie. Let me show it to you.

Romantic circle 5In a typical romance structure next comes a temptation scene. Again in the Christian religion we have the equivalent of this kind of scene: Jesus is tempted by Satan 3 times. Satan dares Jesus to turn a stone into bread to relieve his hunger. Then Satan takes Jesus up to the top of the mountain and taunts him saying if you are the son of God, throw yourself off this cliff, and let you be borne up by angels. Finally, the devil promises Christ all the kingdoms of earth if Jesus will fall down and worship him. The film of the Fellowship of the Ring also has 3 scenes of temptation, although they occur to 3 different heroes. Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn. Here are three short clips from different parts of the movie that show Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn being tempted.


Circle finalThe final climactic event in the romance cycle is the scene of recognition. The moment when the hero recognizes that he must assume this burden, and take on the role of the destined hero who will complete the quest. You have had an earlier moment symmetrically opposite on the circle as you see there when the hero dedicated himself to the quest. But, at that early stage the hero didn’t really understand what it meant to take on the burden. The hero didn’t understand what dedication to the quest would require, the kind of sacrifice that he would be called upon to make. This late moment of recognition in the quest journey is the moment when the hero knowing all that he will be required to give up, all that he will be required to sacrifice, nonetheless says for a second time, I assume this burden, I take on the mantle. I have here 2 short clips, again, from the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, which will show you, first, Aragorn accepting his role as king of his people, and then Frodo accepting that he will go all the way to Mordor and will make the final sacrifice.


Although quest romance is built around frenzied action, the urgent pursuit of a goal most quest romances also feature interludes of peace and tranquillity. Moments of calm in which the hero takes stock of himself and reflects on the distance he has come, and how far he yet has to go. In poetry, these moments are often presented as lyric interludes, which punctuate the narrative line with passages of intense beauty. They are meant to be a time out of time, a moment of lyric stasis before returning to the fray. In the Fellowship of the Ring, the first such interlude is the time spent at Rivendell. But there’s another, similar pause, again, in a land of the elves, the stay at Lothlorien. It is the fellowship’s last moment of peace before they descend into the maelstrom for good.


Allegory defined  

In this session we’re going to discuss a much misunderstood concept: allegory. Allegory has a bad name among readers these days. People associate it with didactic works, and moralistic crude, simple stories, often for children or sometimes with rather blatant political satire, so that’s what a lot of people think of when they think of allegory. You might have a comic character named Blowhard that’s meant to represent some bad politician or a politician you disagree with. That’s what people tend to think about when they think about allegory today. First I want to begin with the really basic definition of allegory.

“Allegory is a story that points towards another story.”

Coleridge in 1795. Wikimedia

Characters and actions have a literal meaning but at the same time, they seem to suggest another secondary meaning. The second set of meanings can be religious, or political, they can be moral, sometimes they can just be mythological. You can have human characters that represent mythological gods and goddesses or vice-versa, gods and goddesses that represent aspects of human behaviour like Mars represents the warlike nature of many human beings. Allegory comes from the Greek “allos”, meaning “other”. An allegory is present whenever one thing stands for something else. The romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, insisted that allegory was an inferior mode, and that all readers and above all, all great poets, should write symbolic poetry, not allegorical poetry. Coleridge is most extensive statement against allegory, appears in his work, The Statesman’s Manual, which he, which he published in 1816. There, he said

“an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into picture-language”  whereas a symbol “always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible.”

What do you think Coleridge meant by saying allegory translates abstract notions in to picture language?

Don : It could be a way of thinking about how the poet visualizes ethics, or a set of moral dilemmas rendered into a visual schema.
Jay : Moral calculus of allegories seems too simple for Coleridge.

Illustration by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia

 Don: I think so. And yet, Coleridge has things like the albatross, which I guess he would call a symbol.  (This is a reference to the Albatross  in ‘The tale of the Ancient Mariner’).

Jay: He would definitely call it a symbol! The fact that you’re segueing back and having trouble deciding whether something’s an allegory or a symbol shows how slippery Coleridge’s distinction was in the first place. What he seemed to mean about the albatross is that a symbol is a really deep, multivalent, multi-layered, allegorical representation. What else lies behind it? What does he mean about abstractions and a picture language? Killian, you want to try that?

 Killian: What I was thinking about was this idea of picture language as something that is a veneer or something superficial. One of the tensions that seem to be present for Coleridge between allegory and symbol is between something that is insubstantial, versus something that is substantial. Or something that does not have a life of its own, versus something, a symbol that achieves self-sufficiency.  As opposed to an allegory, which feels like (in Coleridge’s writing anyway) an empty spectacle. That doesn’t have an independent existence.

Chelsea:  So, you’re saying that an albatross is still a living real bird even in a situation where you’re using it as a symbol to refer to something else, whereas Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress is totally an abstraction.

Jay:  Allegory doesn’t have life. It’s not self-sufficient, according to Coleridge. Do, do you think that’s a fair charge to allegory, Deanne?

Deanne:  I don’t think so. I’m torn in my answer because on the one hand, when you’re commenting on allegory, you’re commenting on narrative, to some extent. Lots of allegories are narratives, and I like to think of narratives as having their own lives. On the other hand, symbol does seem much more open, its self-sufficiency, as you called there, its own autonomy seems to come from its ability to signify beyond itself,  as well as being self-contained.

William Blake: Christian Reading in His Book (Plate 2, 1824–27) Wikimedia

Jay : That’s a great point about allegory’s connection to narrative. What about this word, ‘translation’ that Coleridge uses? I get the sense that when he says allegory is only a ‘translation’ of abstract notions, I get the sense that he’s objecting to abstract notions (we discussed that)  but also objecting to the process of just translating a notion.  Yes Don?

 Don: I think it also suggests that there’s a reduction that takes place in the allegory. At least in terms of how Coleridge is thinking about it, that these great ideas get reduced to a certain set of types or a type.

Jay:  So maybe I’m the only one that’s hearing extravagance on the world translation. Does anybody have a thought about that word?

Deanne : I do. I think another thing that’s being objected to, is the lack of creative license that it implies, it’s not as inspired, maybe, as actually composing.

Chelsea:  Which suggests that Coleridge doesn’t really know what goes into the action of translation, because it’s a very creative process.

 Jay : I am confident that Nick Coleridge had a sophisticated notion of translation, but he’s not invoking it right now.  He’s using that word, I believe, to say that it’s just a mechanical operation, that, there’s the picture of language. Take the personification of Christian that gives you a single image of a stereotype person and, you translate it mechanically, into a single meaning according to Coleridge. I think that’s what he means. What about this word ‘picture-language’? That’s a really odd term. I bet most people are puzzled by it. Any reflections on what he could mean by picture-language? Blaine?

Blaine:  Yes. When I think of picture language it’s bringing together two modalities at once.The first thing that I think of is that looking at a picture would make these abstract concepts more digestible for a reader, and easier to understand.

 Jay : But part of (and I think that’s really true) a part of the power of allegory, but also, Coleridge is using that against allegory. He’s saying, well the picture just gives you one image and that restricts the freedom of the reader to interpret it.

Killian : It also seems like it restricts the freedom of the writer specifically. It seems like one of the things that Coleridge is responding to is this late 18th century craze for the picturesque and for wanting to look at everything, and organize everything by the rules of drawing or by the rules of painting; as opposed to the ‘writerly’ creation that Coleridge seems to be more interested in.

Jay : That’s right. And Coleridge, when he was thinking about visual imagery, was much more partial to the sublime the very awe inspiring imagery, than the picturesque. I was thinking that he may have had in the back of his mind the notion of hieroglyphics as picture-images, because hieroglyphics were much in the news in the early 19th century. The Rosetta Stone had just been removed to the British museum in 1802 and a very prominent intellectual of the age, Thomas Young, had made the first real strides toward deciphering the Rosetta Stone right around 1814. That was just a couple of years before Coleridge’s ride in. I wonder if he didn’t have in mind a notion that hieroglyphics were a primitive form of writing and that alphabetic writing was more advanced. He might be suggesting that as alphabetic script is to hieroglyphics, symbolism is, to allegory.

Let’s turn our focus, to his definition of the symbol. We’ve implied a lot of the answers to this question “a symbol always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible.” Chelsea, what do you think Coleridge meant by ‘partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible?’

Chelsea: Well a symbol can’t stand on its own, it has to be part of the texture of the environment of the time period, or whatever it’s attempting to describe.

Jay :  That’s great, like a natural symbol or a symbol that  is informed by a context that arises organically, he would say, out of the reality it’s meant to stand for. So it’s not just a label on something, it’s an organic part of that, and the word organic was very important to Coleridge and to all of the early Romantic poets as a positive value for their poetry. So that’s what he thinks symbolism is, and that’s what he thinks the merits of symbolic poetry are, rather than allegorical poetry. Coleridge won the day. For most of the 19th century, and for most of the 20th century, people have believed that symbolism is better than allegory.


Tolkien on allegory

J. R. R. Tolkien’s watercolour illustration of Sauron.

Tolkien clearly shares Coleridge’s disdain for allegory. As you know, Tolkien hated it when people read meanings into his work that he didn’t intend. He objected to that in his letters and forward to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings that that he published in 1966. That’s when he published the second edition. He made several comments disparaging allegorical readings of his novels. Here’s the most explicit one.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with ‘allegory’, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

He always made allegory sound like Sauron out to dominate the reader with, his dark meanings so.

Chelsea:  One reading to rule them all.

Jay:  Yeah, one meaning, that is so right. Thank you, thank you Chelsea for that comment, “One meaning to rule them all.” Exactly, that’s what Tolkien is suggesting in his subtext, in that attack on allegory. So why do you think he disliked allegory so much?

Chelsea: It’s curious that. I’m just thinking about the structure of the novel itself, specifically the Fellowship of the Ring. There are all these references to what’s history for characters seems perfectly in line with Tolkien’s preference for the historical value of things rather than the allegorical value.

Jay :  Blaine, what do you think he means between about distinguishing applicability from allegory?

Blaine: My sense is that, he really wants that freedom for the reader to find their own meaning in it and that an allegorical reading is too narrow. What’s interesting about that to me is by having it open then this text could have even more of an impact on the reader because they can connects it to their lives in any way that they find meaningful.

Jay : Right. That’s a really great answer. Don is this odd phrase here, clause really, ‘true or feigned history’. What’s the distinction there meant?

Don:  Well I think most basically it means the distinction between history, as constructed by someone like Tolkien ( an imaginative inventor of histories and languages)  and then literal history as we understand it and know it.

Portrait of Francis Bacon, by Frans Pourbus (1617), Palace on the Water in Warsaw. [Wikimedia]

Jay :  Right. The word ‘feigned’ of course is picking up its rather literary allusion, in that he hopes some of his readers will get Sir Francis Bacon’s, famous comment defining poetry as, ‘but a form of history’. But he calls it ‘feigned’ history as opposed to true history. Bacon is saying that poetry can be narrative and can tell a historical story that’s generally a feigned story, like Tolkien’s story of Middle Earth.

Elsewhere in the forward, not in this quote, but before it and a little bit after it, he makes a big point of saying that he composed lots of this trilogy before the build up to World War Two. And that he was much scarred by his experiences of all of his friends but one being killed in World War I. What, what’s the significance of his claiming that he wrote it well before anyone was thinking about World War II?

Don: I think going back to even Coleridge’s remarks about allegory this resistance to reducing the text to a set of events that are outside of it.

Jay : But why would claiming I wrote it well before anyone was thinking about World War II be a way to say it’s not an allegory of World War II? I’m really driving at a rather simple point about the composition of the work.

Deanne:  But it’s tied to the author’s biographical experiences.

Jay : Yes. And he’s saying I didn’t mean it that way. In a way, I think that Tolkien is falling into the intentional fallacy. He says, I didn’t mean World War II, I was thinking of World War I.

Chelsea :  Yes. I think that one of the big problems when you come to interpreting literature is to get away from the idea of a right answer rather than a bunch of perfectly compatible interpretations of the same text. It’s interesting that Tolkien is so stuck against this one particular interpretation and at the same time he’s encouraging us to find our own.

Jay : Yes. Great. But any time you begin to interpret Tolkien it becomes hard to resist allegorical readings. That’s just very tough not to read things in there. Even when I was a boy reading these novels for the first time, I found myself thinking about the symbolism of good versus evil, and I really did think about World War II. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about when the novels were written, but it just seemed pretty hard for me not to interpret this world wide struggle between the forces of darkness and the allies of the elves and the dwarves and the hobbits and the wizards. As if having some kind of allegorical relationship with titanic forces out in the world, and the one I knew about as a kid was the World War II, fascism versus the allies. Chelsea?

Chelsea : Well, I think what that speaks to is less the assumption that Tolkien is being dishonest with us or with himself, and more that this story has all these themes that are highly applicable to these things, whether or not that’s his actual intention.

Jay : Yes. That’s a good way to frame it, which chimes right in with Tolkien’s own preference for the term applicability. So, would you find that reading it that way, that the allegorical meaning would restrict your freedom as a reader?

Killian:  Yes

Jay : Tell me more.

[Credit: Tolkien Gateway]

Killian : Well, when you were talking about your own experiences of reading this as a young person I thought of mine. When I first read the books, I was most drawn to the kind of intensely, elaborate, fictional world or Cosmos that Tolkien created. I remember I had a book called the Tolkien Bestiary. This was the part of the universe that I was most interested in. I think, for me, the moment that we start saying, well this corresponds to this, I begin to lose some of that so, for me and for my memory, I really don’t want that.
Jay :Chelsea?

Chelsea : Well, I have to say that’s certainly one way in which it’s possible to take that, but then, also for example,  when the Harry Potter movies came out, some people didn’t want to watch them. They thought -no I have this idea in my head and in time you start showing the images that’s going to take away from that. I wonder to what extent it’s possible for us not to compartmentalize, but to keep separate ideas of multiple interpretations rather than just collapsing in on any one.

 Deanne . I was thinking about that in terms of allegory applicability, again where you can it’s normal to say –  oh, that has so much applicability. But you wouldn’t really say – that has so much allegory. It’s not that I think that allegory is necessarily so limiting for everyone. If you come upon this idea and you have a theory about the text it can be really exciting to search out that meaning. But it is perhaps more exhaustible, if once you figure it out which character maps to which historical figure. Maybe it’s a little bit less open to those multiple interpretations.

Don:  And then it becomes a treasure hunt,  going through the text and trying to map things on to an event, and, that certainly can be fun in this sort of treasure hunt-y sort of way. It also it reduces the text I think, speaking to what Killian was saying.

Jay: I can tell that I have a group of students that are living in the 21st century and have thoroughly internalized these anti-allegorical assumptions that Tolkien shares, so I hear what you’re saying. Let me ask about sort of more local allegories. Blaine, in the novel, there’s clearly a rivalry between the dwarves and the elves, and they seem to have prejudice against one another as peoples, would you read that allegorically?

Blaine : Definitely. I think different types of people in combat and differences between man has been, throughout our history, and has always been a theme in literature and our lives.

Jay :  So do you think that it’s some texts referring to, sort of racial strive, Or, or, just fear of outsiders in a phobia? Features like that.

Blaine:  Well, the fact that in the game there are different races. I didn’t, when I was reading it, take it to see racial strife, but just ‘others’ just a little bit of being wary of others. I didn’t take it to the extent of racial strife, but that was just my reading.

An Uruk observing his “strength” in Isengard after being born out of the mud [Wikia]

Jay : In the movies, as we’ll see, the Orcs and, particularly the Urak-hai are very dark skinned and fierce looking. Now this is the dark lord and it’s the dark tower, so ‘dark’ has a meaning very specific to middle Earth. But some people have wanted to see that in racial terms.

Chelsea : Well I certainly think it’s curious. As Blaine is pointing out, we have several races that are coexisting with each other more or less amicably. There’s a little tension when you get to dwarves and elves, but more or less they’re interacting. Then there’s another group of several species again, where they’re all seeming to interact with each other. Yet these two groups can’t interact, which I think is very interesting. It resists a mapping, there’s one race that he’s singling out which I think is in line with his not wanting to be mapped onto things.

Jay:  Yes. The whole subplot of Gimli and Legolas growing to trust one another seems to have applicability to feelings of distrust that are so common among different peoples.  Tolkien seems to be saying that if you get to know someone you get to actually learn about their values and their character. You can gain respect for them and overcome this fear of outsiders.  Yes, Chelsea?

Chelsea:  And yet at the same time Tolkien is definitely participating in the ‘evil by birth by race’ thing in a way that is distasteful.

Jay:  We spent a lot of time talking about possible allegorical readings that have to do with World War II and with prejudice against other peoples and no one has brought up the possibly Christian framework that the poem seems to evoke. Tolkien wrote in a letter that the Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work unconsciously so, at first but consciously in the revision. Do you find motifs in the novel that are religious in nature?

Deanne:  Yes, absolutely! When Frodo finds out that he has the responsibility for the ring, and says, but I’m not sure that I can do it, I’m but a hobbit.  There’s this humility of Christ in human form and sort of resonance.

Killian : You’re comment made me thing about the ring, the idea of the burden, that all the characters do seem to occupy post lapsarian states, where no one is totally immune to the possibly deleterious influence of the ring. But what’s important is what you’re going to do under that influence.

Jay:  Yes, and we will talk about scenes of temptation in another session. Let me end today’s session by saying that whatever you think of the complex meanings of Tolkien’s novel, whether you think of them in terms of applicability to your own life and experiences as Tolkien prefers us, or whether you use the more established term ‘allegory’, it’s clear that the novel, the film and the game all give us wide freedom to relate our readings to Tolkien’s original version.


Genre and plot forms

Today, we’re going to talk about genres and particularly the distinction between two of the large genres, romance and realism. Genre literally means kind or type of literature.  We’re interested in genre not in order to pigeonhole works; that has to be one of the least interesting things to do with a work of literature, just to try to categorize it and pigeon hole it. For one thing, almost all genres are mixed. There’s no such thing as a work that is purely one thing or another. Mixing of genres is a crucial way in which authors experiment. Game designers are thoroughly aware of this. They’re always thinking of how to mingle a genre or take an element from one form and put it in another. There was a movie, a year or two ago, called Cowboys and Aliens, which mixed western with science fiction.

Title page to the first edition in book form of Vanity Fair, drawn by Thackeray [wikipedia]

For the last few sessions we’ve been talking a lot about romance. What we haven’t done is to think about how romance differs from realism. I pick realism because the entire history of the novel has been fought out between romance and realism. Going way back to the 18th century, writers of Gothic romance were invoking one set of conventions, realists were invoking another. The novel, through the 19th century, has variously blended elements of romance with elements of realism. Even today, I think a lot of our assumptions about what serious literature is, and what popular literature is, conform to assumptions about romance and realism. Popular literature is generally romance literature. So-called ‘serious literature’ is generally more realistic, and so a lot of just implicit value judgments originate in a distinction that actually might not need to carry value judgment at all along with it.

Let’s begin with our discussion with really the most basic element of a genre, its plot. What are the difference between romance plots and realistic plots?

Blaine:  Romance is often formulaic, but when I think of realism they’re unique with different types of characters and plot stories.

Killian:  Yes. Here’s just one idea. Romance makes me think about movement or a journey, the idea that an identifiable hero goes from one place to another in pursuit of a goal.

Jay:  Romance tends to have heroes. One of the most famous novels of the 19th century, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, one of the great realist novels of the 19th century has a subtitle, A Novel without a Hero. That was a very calculative and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ ploy on his part to identify his work as realist. Romance plots have heroes so that suggests a certain kind of action, if you have a hero.

Killian:  Sure, battles, fights, good vs evil, all this kind of stuff.

Jay:  Adventures.

 Deanne:  A couple of observations just from the conversation. This sort of adventure narrative, the story that is sometimes stereotypical is plot driven, whereas realist novels tends to be more character-driven, more about the character’s development. When you mention Vanity Fair being humorous, it reminded me that realist novels seem more likely to be satirical whereas romances seem a little more likely to be earnest and…


Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré. [Wikimedia]

Jay:  That’s right, that’s right. The grand exception is, of course, Don Quixote, which is a great romance novel making fun of romance novels.

Deanne : I’m generalizing,

Jay : But it’s true that realism makes room for comedy. Realism is a very capacious form it’s going to be hard for us to define what realism is, because it’s so capacious. That could be an element of realism, is that it has room to be comic, it has room to be tragic, it has room to be satirical, it has room to do social analysis. Think of Jane Austen dissecting the manners and morals of everyone around her characters. Realism can register all kinds of things; it can be political. Romance can too be political, but it has to do it largely through allegory.

Chelsea : But I think one of the other really important key points of romance is that it does immerse itself in these alternate worlds as a concession to the reader’s desires, just, have fun in a completely different world.

Jay : Oh yes, a whole other chapter of romance, which is an alternative world. It’s really implicit in the definition of realism that it’s going to be about reality, a reality where we identify with this world, our world, the everyday world.

Chelsea :  Well, I think it’s equally important to note that, even in a romance, there is a degree to which it’s still about reality. But it’s reality mediated through basically a long, extended metaphor.

Jay :  And that leads us to another characteristic of romance, plots. They’re highly conventional, and that is not a criticism of them. If you have a highly conventional, realist novel, that tends to be a criticism. If you have a highly conventional, engaging, entertaining, exciting romance, it’s a quality. So, it shows the very different value judgments you have to bring to romance, versus the ones you bring to realism. Romance writers revel in conventions. They revel in invoking them, getting the reader to see them, getting the viewer to see them and then take pleasure in the variations on the theme on the cleverness with which the romance writer takes something that is well-established and plays with it. That’s what makes for a good romance. Its very quality is inherent in its ability to play with its own conventionality. That’s what makes it so great for the movies.


Lost in an episodic plot  

Let’s move on to another aspect of romance. Chelsea has already mentioned that they specialize in alternative worlds. There are all kinds of elements in romance tales that aren’t part of reality. What are some of the kinds of things you can expect to turn up in a romance that you wouldn’t see in a realist novel?

Deane :  Monsters.

Jay : Yes.

Chelsea:  Sparkling vampires.

Jay :Yes.

 Don : Superheroes.

Jay : Superheroes.

Killian : Magic.

Jay :Magic, indeed, indeed.

Blaine:  I was thinking dragons.

Jay : Dragons yes, dragons and trolls, and orcs and goblins and curses and secret marks. Characters will have a birthmark that will suddenly reveal them to the long lost prince of the kingdom.

Chelsea:   Unbelievable coincidence

Jay Unbelievable coincidences, shipwrecks,

Don: Treasure.

The shipwreck in Act I, Scene 1, in a 1797 engraving by Benjamin Smith after a painting by George Romney [Wikipedia]

Jay:  Treasure yes, Treasure Island, a Shipwrecks starts off The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s great romances.

A note on the forum from Community TA George Norby on Shipwrecks - ratified by Jay Clayton.
I think that what is meant is that shipwrecks are not the same sort of thing in reality.  In romantic fiction, a shipwreck is often a device to leave people in isolation for the rest of the action to take place in. The needed supplies will wash up on the beach, and so on. A romantic version of a shipwreck seems to be a method to set a certain stage, and to distill the situation and  characters to just what is needed by the author.

There are a lot of examples of shipwrecks setting the scene and establishing the opening plot, going back to Homer's "Odyssey", at the least. "Convenient shipwrecks" are a "Deus Ex Machina" sort of device, very common to Romance.


Jay : Grand passion in fact, I think that’s where the popular pulp genre of true romance got its name, because the romance novel, or poem, is often about a grand passion, so much more exaggerated and intense that it would seem unrealistic in realist novel. My point is not that romance is better than realism; my point is that, you should judge them by different standards. If you care to read them at all (and you don’t have to, I’m not advocating that you have to love romance) you should bring to them a different set of criteria from those you bring to a realist novel. Killian mentioned that they often have travel. It’s certainly something we’ve mentioned a lot. We often use the phrase ‘quest romance’, because such a great number of romance novels are quest novels.  That means though, that they are episodic. Plots of romance are much more episodic than realists.

Let’s take Jane Austen as our example. Jane Austen famously said that her novels were all like portraits graven on a little two inch piece of ivory. By which she, I think a bit ironically, meant to say she studied the manors and morals of a small community in a single locale. The plots were very tight. They explored issues that could be resolved in one place, by one set of characters. You didn’t have sudden reversals and wild flights across moonlit plains, people galloping to the rescue. Quest romance moves from one adventure to the next adventure to the next adventure. That’s what I mean by episodic.  In that respect it resembles picaresque, but it’s not exactly the same as the picaresque. Now the picaresque is a name for a genre that is more realistic, and is purely about a character’s episodic adventures. What is the difference between Picaresque wandering, and Quest Romance, questing?

Deanne: I think the hero of the picaresque, if we would call him that, the Picaro is more of a rogue who stumbles in to mischief, rather than setting out to conquer evil.

Jay : That’s an important distinction.

The Picaro. Statue of Ostap Bender in Elista [Wikimedia]

Killian : How about the question of fatalism? To what extent do we think of a picaresque as, again, the wandering rogue, but who’s, none the less, making choices. Not necessarily driven towards a pre-determined end goal in the same way that we think about quest romance.

Jay : That’s right. That would be my view, the most important distinction between quest romance and picaresque is, it’s really about, getting to the goal. The journey is where all the fun occurs, and so it’s actually really about the journey too, but the journey is motivated by the quest and the goal whereas, as you said, the Picaro stumbling along, getting into one scrape after another.

Jay:  Indeed! We’ve used the word ‘Knight Errant’ before which is the term for a knight on a quest. It’s a very interesting word, ‘errant’. It etymologically has a similarity to the word error, which meant, ‘wandering’, to be in error was to be wandering. It also has the sense of an errand. A knight errant is on an errand, a mission. A mission, quest, thing, as Pippin says. So that element of errantry, that element of wandering, often characterizes the middle of the plot, of romance. We saw that very starkly in the middle section of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, where the poem just seemed mired. It couldn’t go anywhere even though it was crossing this plain it was mired. Many romances have long middle sections where the hero gets lost. Games capitalize on this. The motif of the maze, the cavern you have to explore. Any gamer, who’s ever been in an online game and has entered an instance and suddenly found a maze of paths in this cave, and of course they’re blacked out until you move your avatar forward, and then they light up, both on the map and in your presence. But the entire time we’re being attacked by Orcs or sparkling g vampires as you said, or ghosts, or rats, poisoned rats. Did you have some more things?

Don: I ‘m just thinking of spiders.

Jay  Spiders, yeah, spiders everywhere, yeah a lot of spiders, lot of spiders. I’ve always been given great pleasure to see how game designers have capitalized on that major feature of the romance genre to have made it such a piece of the gaming experience. One of the most effective translations from romance to game is the fact that, as a player, you actually experience being lost, it’s not metaphoric, and if you have a poor sense of, of direction in a virtual space, as I do, it can be very upsetting. You’re trying to find your way through the maze, and then you’re being beset on all sides.

Chelsea . I was just going to say that it really, for me, when I’m playing LOTRO it really contributes to this journey aspect of the quest because I could see on my quest tracker that the place I want to go is exactly in this direction but if I try to run straight there’s this huge mountain in the way and I cannot resist the ten seconds of running futilely up it, because I just wouldn’t be able to go straight there.

Jay : Hoping that you’ll find a way through.

Chelsea : And there are no shortcuts in a quest novel, any shortcuts that you take, are long cuts.

Illustration by Sandro Botticelli: Dante and Virgil visit the first two Bolgie of the eighth circle [Wikimedia]

Deanne Oh, I’ve been there with you!  Actually we’re playing the kinship. I was thinking about how what’s happening there, as the game is translating what authors, and I think especially poets, probably all authors, have tried to do with language.  I’m thinking about Dante’s Inferno and the rhyme structure of it trying to make you feel entangled using the language, which spatially transferred into a game. It’s an interesting illustration of the overlap.

Jay :  And it’s a fascinating multimodal transfer. You have gone from a sense of entanglement in a verbal World to an entanglement in a virtual world, a virtual world that is spatial entanglement, not just, mental entanglement.  I love it that you brought up Dante, of course that poem,(The Divine Comedy) the first line,

“Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been lost.”

Well that is the iconic beginning of romances, midway, through life, the middle of the story, the middle of your life, the middle of the journey, I found myself lost in a wood.


Wandering and doubling in romance

Jay : Getting back to the distinction between the wandering in a quest romance and the wandering in a picaresque novel, both are wandering. Both occupy largely the middle of the story. But in a romance, you know that you have this fated burden that must drive you on to complete your goal. That’s, partly what makes, the whole experience of reading romance so powerful and disturbing, is that you know the character cannot swerve aside. As opposed to picaresque you’re just going from adventure to adventure.

 Don:  Which, exactly makes me think about how Lord of the Rings online, may depart somewhat in terms of its aesthetic, and what it’s attempting, what it’s actually doing with the story, in that there are picaresque moments, I would say, in terms of the various kinds of quests that one must go on, that don’t have this sort of fated-ness, or grand, implication.  Like you’re carrying a water bucket from one place to another to, cleanse the town of poisons that are in a well, or you’re gathering turtle shells or you’re settling romantic disputes between townspeople.

Chelsea: Getting medicine for dogs.

 Jay : How do you respond to that as a player? Lord of the Rings Online does borrow romance as its structuring principle, and it’s really its reason for being. Yet, the experience of playing it largely does not have that sense of being driven onward.

Don:  Has that sense of the picaresque I would say.  In terms of the moving, moving from one quest to the next and this sense of folly, or this, sense of humour that sort of pervades the sub-quests.

 Blaine: It’s also a rest to prepare you to go back to the main quest.

Jay:  In a way you step out of the main narrative into stories of your own. People that are into role playing do that a little more systematically. They decide that they’re going to stay in character and that they’re going to create a set of relationships with other players in the game that will enable them to fashion their own stories. Keeping with the theme of how the game is departing from romance, the game has given you an alternative set of pleasures and by granting you autonomy, it has also granted you freedom from narrative.

Don:  So it’s almost as though in LOTR we have this pleasurable synthesis of the romance and the picaresque.

Jay:    I’m sure the people at Turbine who made the game will appreciate that comment.

Don:   It can be frustrating too though, I mean pleasurable for not being, like thinking about it from out of it at the moment, but…

 Jay:  So no comment!

Chelsea :  I think an element of frustration in games is part of the pleasure. I think this brings into question whether a game that’s too easy is not fun because there’s no frustration and no feeling that corresponds with having accomplished.

Jay:  That’s right. We’ve talked about wandering and we have touched on, but I don’t think we’ve explored, the feature of romance plots that involves repetition. Romance relishes repetition. In a realist novel it would probably be a flaw if you found events and characters repeated over and over again. That’s part of its claim to be an original plot, is that it doesn’t move through repetitive actions. There’s a particular kind of repetition that is really central to romance, and that is often called ‘doubling’. Romance plots will often have events that are doubles, repetitions of prior events. Why do you suppose they do that? What’s the pleasure of seeing an action happen several different times each maybe being a variant of the other?

An illustration of Grendel’s mother by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf [Wikipedia]

Deanne:  I’m thinking about Beowulf, it’s a triple again. He has three battles; the battle with Grendel, the battle with Grendel’s mother (Grendel’s dam), and then the dragon. The first two are the clearest double. The battle with Grendel is in the Mead Hall. The battle with his mother is in her underwater Mead Hall and we have the relation between the two characters and what happens is that you’re able to see Beowulf’s power, as a hero, grow from battle to battle.  I think that happens in the doubling, in most romances we’re able to see the character’s development in that way.

Jay :  You’ve identified one pleasure of doubling which is seeing the actions build on each other, and each is more than the other. What about repetition that is variation on a theme but with perhaps a different character experiencing the same action?

Blaine:  You’re able to compare them and also categorize how virtuous characters are based on their actions.

Jay : It in  effect constructs a system of variations on a theme. Romance is very systematic. It relies on a typology of types of virtues and types of ‘un-virtues’. In place of complexity of character within a single character, it gives you complexity over a range of types.


Issues of theme and content

Jay :  If romance has fantastic interventions and has gods and monsters and magic items, realism, doesn’t. What does it have instead?

Chelsea :  Regular, ordinary people doing regular, ordinary things.

Jay : I think you’ve hit on something very important, that realism is striving to make the ordinary and the everyday, engaging. There was quite a change in literature from the middle of 18th century onwards. Novelist began to strive to make ordinary people hold their attention, and tell stories about their daily life. They weren’t heroes; they weren’t Achilles; they weren’t kings; they weren’t Oedipus Rex and his tragic fall; they weren’t knights on glorious missions. They were, to pick Fielding’s novel, they were named Tom Jones. You couldn’t get a name meant to invoke the ordinary and the common more effectively than Tom Jones, one of the great realist novels of the middle of the 18th century.

Dostoyevsky. Soviet Union stamp, 1971 [Wikimedia]

Don: About honesty I feel like that’s an aspect of the realist novel. I’m think especially of the great Russian novelists of the 19th Century and particularly Dostoevsky, and, Notes from the Underground where the protagonist is the opposite of a hero. An antihero might be the right term, but very crushingly honest with himself. There’s a lot of emphasis on brute honesty, grit and the idea that one cannot transcend that condition.

Jay : The way you’ve identified a theme of Dostoevsky, honesty as a formal characteristic of the genre of realism, is very iluminating, that novels often turn into themes, the very set of values that they also are trying to incarnate. They’re going to tell you the way it really is.

 Killian: I was thinking as well of a novel like Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, or the way in which the honesty that Don was talking about, can also be brought to bear on an explicit and social situation or imperative.

Chelsea: Yes. I was just going to say that’s certainly true about the realist novel, but it’s also worth mentioning, as we touched on before, that the romance novel also gives you a chance to do those sorts of things. Indeed the veil of the fantastic can allow people to speak more candidly about those kinds of social issues.

Jay : I like that I like that, and I totally agree with that but they are using a different strategyThey’re using disguise to be honest. Whereas, the naturalist, or even the realist is trying to use the undisguised, or to rip the veil off.

Chelsea : Exposé

Jay : Yes. exposé -perfect word for it. This impulse to expose the ‘nitty gritty’  truth about life became also a stylistic element. Realist novels are generally written in a more, what people used to call, the lower medium style, they’re written in a much plainer language, and more ordinary style. The style fits the subject matter, so to speak, whereas romance is pretty flowery. Even modern day fantasy novels or Tolkien with his archaic diction at times. Romance feels free to match its fantastic subject matter with flowery language. Are realist novels ever allegorical?

Chelsea: Why couldn’t they be? I ask that question because it seems to me that one of the points of allegory is to reference something that is useful to one’s everyday life. Thus it seems that there is a possibility that a situation that is directly relatable to an allegory, and therefore could be framed as such, is possible if not probable.

Don : An example of this is, I think in Middlemarch. It opens the preface with the allegory of St. Theresa. It is explicitly making allegory a component of the novel from the outset, I would say.

Orwell’s press card portrait, 1943 [Wikipedia]

Deanne: There’s an interesting connection there with Tolkien’s resisting allegory and preferring true or famed history because also in that preface George Eliot is very much referencing this history of female figures, like Dorothy, the main character of that book.

Jay : Why couldn’t it be allegorical? We’ll the answer is yes.   Realist novels are allegorical at times only minimally. If you had a sustained allegory over the entire length of the novel, people would probably be tempted not to call it a realist novel. Think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Many people have read that novel, it’s a political allegory, it’s a fable, and no one’s been tempted to call it realism, even though there are talking animals in it.

Killian : Maybe somebody like Kurt Vonnegut, for example, is right along the same lines.

Jay:  Yes. That’s good, that’s a good example there. One problem for allegory in the realist novel is that realism often relies so much on deflation. Dan really started us off in our conversation with that concept when he mentioned irony. Irony, deflation, puncturing of illusions, exposing hypocrisy, exposing injustice, all of these impulses make it hard to sustain an allegorical system where one thing stands for another because you know the reader is in the mood to puncture and deflate such expectations.

In conclusion, let me challenge each of you to think of a realist video game and ask yourself, once you’ve thought of that game, what it is you like about it, and how the pleasure that you take is related to its realism, and then contrast that with a fantasy based or science fiction video game that you like. Then examine the types of pleasures you have with those games. Are they the same pleasures?


Flat vs. round characters

Jay : Romance characters are a little strange for readers who have been raised on the realistic novel, or even, narrative cinema. What do you expect in a good character when you read a realistic novel? Deanne  you want to…?

Deanne Sure!  Some psychological complexity.  I expect to see them respond realistically to other characters in the story or to events that happen to them and maybe to grow as a person.

E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington c. 1924-1925 [Wikipedia]

Jay:   E.M. Forster, in a famous distinction in his book Aspects of the Novel, distinguished between flat and round characters.   The psychological depth you are talking about has got a lot to do with what he meant by round characters.   I think we’ve all heard that phrase; it’s common in the classroom, round characters.  We also mention growth.  Don, why is growth important in a realistic character?

Don : Well the idea that a character would remain stagnant or not change over time through these various experiences that one undergoes is implausible.

Jay:    If it’s supposed to be an important set of events in the character’s life then we expect, realistically, for it to have an effect on the person as a human being.  What else do you look for in a good character?   Vivid, striking, individuals?

Killian:  Also flawed I think.

Jay:    Flawed, uh-huh?

Killian:   In order to become emotionally entangled in a character in a way that I would like to, I cannot feel that this character is someone that I can’t relate to in any way, shape or form.  Flaws, I think help us find characters accessible in some way.

Jay:   Let’s think of great characters in literature.  Huck Finn, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Isabel Archer in Henry James’s novel, Portrait of a Lady, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice,  Jane Eyre.  All of these characters have elements of realism and rounded, full psychological depth in them.  Though, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned Jane Eyre since there’s a lot of romance elements in Jane Eyre and there’s some senses in which she is like a romance character.Blaine, who’s your favourite character in the traditional novel?

 Blaine : You mentioned Elizabeth Bennet.  I could see some of the things that she goes through in that novel, me also experiencing, so I relate to that and her struggles even though he’s in different time period.

Jay:    I think that the word ‘relate’ to something that really rings a bell with lots of people.   You often hear people that emerge from a movie and say: I like it when I relate to that character. I’ve been there, I’ve felt it.  That’s a feature of realism. You want to identify with the character.
Not every character in a novel is round and full if you consider the distinction between flat and round characters. Part of the point I’m making is that a novel might have lots of flat characters as a surrounding cast to bring out the richness of a realistic character.  What’s different about romance characters?

Cover of first edition (hardcover) [Wikipedia]

Chelsea:  Sometimes you get romance characters that appear as almost the exact opposite of the phenomenon you just described in which the protagonist will be the one regular guy in a sea of very unusual people.   I’m thinking specifically of American Gods, Shadow is a realist novel character.

Jay:   And everybody else in it?

Chelsea : Is a deity, or some form of…

Jay:    Now the word deity is important in romance.  Romance characters are often hieratic types. By that, I mean kings and heroes.  I think we mentioned last session, that ordinary people tend to appear in novels.  We talked about The Novel without a Hero, or ‘Tom Jones’ just being a kind of every name from every man.   The contrast is great with romance.  Romance tends to be really unique people.   The characters are ‘types’, and that might be the single thing to say about them. Romance characters tend to fall into types, which sometimes we call stereotypes, when you see a stereotype in a realist novel  you say humph, that’s a flaw, but it’s not a flaw in romance.  Yes, Killian?

Killian : I was going to say, I think it extends the kind of the moral economy, so to speak ,of the text as well, in the sense that  when I think about romance at least, I don’t imagine having a terribly difficult time parsing the  ‘good’ characters from the ‘bad’ characters.

Jay:  Those stakes are pretty well laid-out for us.   You have a hero and you’ve got a villain, often more than one.  You have helpers.  You have guides.  You have blocking forces.  You can identify characters and you notice each of those roles I mentioned implied a kind of action. You identify a romance character by the kind of action that character provides in the course of the plot.  We said last session that romances were plot driven this is one of the reasons why.   Chelsea, you have an insight?

Chelsea:  Yes.  Another thing about the romance novels is that, just as you can tell what type of character you’re dealing with, that character also doesn’t really change much.  In fact it irritates fans a lot of the time when a character changes too much from one volume to the next.

Jay:  A romance character might have to fulfil his or her destiny and might not understand that destiny.  So that in place of change, you get a gradual unfolding of that destiny that was there all along.  That brings us to a really important feature of characters.   Why are so often romance characters orphans?

Deanne:  I think one, one possible explanation for that is that it allows the reader to identify more closely with a character and so.

Oliver twist

Oliver twist

Jay: They’re all orphans?  Quite a few are but some people aren’t.

Deanne:   I should specify in that the character is a little less attached to a specific history so he doesn’t carry the baggage of the family lineage. For example, Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings does, whereas Frodo; of course he has associations of hobbits and the Shire: but there is this independence that’s granted to his character by being on his own, I think

Chelsea :  I think it also adds freedom for the story teller too, because – imagine if Harry’s parents were still alive.  He couldn’t have done any of that stuff.

Jay :  By Harry I suppose you mean.  Harry Potter?

Chelsea:  Yes.

Jay :  Freedom.   It enables them to set off, not to be tied down by entanglements.

Blaine: Well, I was also thinking that it decontextualizes a character from the story so that giving it freedom.  Whereas in a realist novel there’s a lot of factors and familiar factors and contextual factors that really affect that character.

Jay That’s right.  And in fact that’s one of the ways we judge a good realistic novel, is we’re able to assess the integrity of motivation by relating them to the environment that the character grew up in.  Another compelling reason to have your main character be an orphan in a romance has to do with the revelation of, of that character’s destiny.

Don:  I’m thinking more about how the orphan is a mysterious or unknown figure.   Because one cannot trace the lineage of the orphan and no precise coordinates where is this person from? Where are they coming from?   I think a character like an orphan is more likely to have this sense of destiny that isn’t charted out for him in or her in advance.

Jay : A soon as you meet an orphan hero in a romance what do you suppose he or she is going to turn out to be?

Killian:  Royalty.  I was going to say that at some point there will be a revelatory moment at which everything will be set a right. In the sense that this orphan will be put back in her or his place the rightful place, as the princess or the prince, and so on and so forth.

[credit: trespassmag.com]

Jay : That’s right.  And of course it fulfils a powerful wish fulfilment element in romance. Romance is driven by wish fulfilment, and every unhappy child who’s mad at her parents  plays with the idea of “oh maybe I’m a princess in disguise I’ve been adopted by these evil parents, and it’ll all come out that I’m actually an heir to the throne.” [Author’s note – this made me think of the film –Labyrinth]
If you’re a stereotype, if you don’t change, if you are not complex and don’t have psychological interiority as the basis for your character, you tend to be rather a one-dimensional figure.   Is that true of all characters that we’ve encountered?   Let’s just think about Tolkien’s novel.  Is Frodo one-dimensional?

Killian:  No, I wouldn’t call him one-dimensional.   I think that for example his relationship to the ring shows that he is not simply going to do the right thing all the time without ever being tempted away from the road that he’s set up upon.

Jay : So Blaine, do you, do you think Frodo changes over the course of the novel?

Blaine:  Definitely, I think, well even in the third book, by the end he’s changed.  Especially when he goes back to the Shire, he’s not able to.  So the experience has changed him.

Jay: Yes, over the three books there’s a profound sense of change.  So we’re going to have to think about how Frodo fits into the pattern of romance versus realistic characters.   He does change, he does show psychological depth, and he’s capable of intense emotions that grow, such as his friendship for Sam.

Chelsea:  On the one hand I think what Frodo really does, is that he exemplifies what’s great about both realistic and romantic characters. You get a definite sense, even from the way Gandalf talks about him, that this is always been something that only he can do.  So you have that “destiny revealed” factor. But you also have a very realistic and very human progression of just a person under immense strain for such a long period of time and how that changes them.

Jay:  Let’s remember what we said when we began this discussion about genre, which is that authors often mix genres.  That’s one of the ways you show your creativity.  That’s one of the ways you show what a powerful artist you are.   It’s clear that Tolkien is drawing on realistic characters, just as he draws on realistic descriptions and settings. There are a lot of realistic elements in the Fellowship of the Ring, blended, as Chelsea so well said, with romance elements.

Daemonic characters and romance character systems

Tolkien, aged 24, in military uniform, while serving in the British Army during the First World War, 1916

The ring seems to compel characters, whether you are good or evil that ring possess you. Tolkien uses the ring really as a way to represent a feature of romance that so often romance’s characters are possessed by a single idea that can seem monomaniacal in their push to fulfil their destiny. That’s part of what makes a hero so hard to live with. A hero is just compelled to fulfil his destiny. Some theorists of romance have talked about romance characters not being stereotypes, I use that word because it’s a familiar word, but as being inhabited by almost a daemon of their own, a daemon, that’s a version of the word demon. You have your own inner demon that possesses you and the ring is a symbol of that. It’s a powerful symbol of how a character can have a daemon that drives that individual.

Angus Fletcher, in his great book Allegory, makes much of the daemonic character of all romances. We so associate the word daemonic with demons and evil that we forget that it also can apply to good figures. It applies to anyone that is possessed by that single idea. Angus Fletcher brings it out really well. Romance characters by being more one dimensional; by being flat lend themselves to a count of systematic arrangements. Killian has already mentioned dark versus light characters, good versus evil characters. What you get really in much romance literature is a whole typology of characters, representing different dimensions of single emotions. Some people, some critics refer to this as a type and an anti-type. For example, Frodo is the type of the hero, and Gollum is his anti-type. You know he’s a fellow Hobbit, he has some of the same characteristics, but he’s the dark version of it. Tolkien doesn’t just leave it there. He provokes your sympathy for Gollum. How does he do that? Don, how does, how does he make you sympathize with Gollum?

Don : Gollum is such a sad creature. What the ring does to him through all of the time he’s acquired it, it destroys his inner sense of being and it’s really hard to hate Gollum in a lot of ways because you just feel so bad for him.

Chelsea:  Even the terrible cough he has that is basically granted him his name and reminds you of how pathetic and messed up he is every time you hear it.

Jay : That single defining trait is such a feature of romance characters. Dickens was great at this, the repeated tick of the face or the limp, the gesture, the hat that you always wear. We may sympathize with him, but he began, well, maybe, I was about to assert that he began evil, because he began murdering to get the ring, but maybe it wasn’t his fault.

Gollum in Peter Jackson’s live-action version of The Lord of the Rings. [Wikimedia]

Chelsea:  Or not only his fault.

Jay:   Not only his fault?

Chelsea : The ring started to work on him a little even before he actually  touched it.

Jay: Right.  But he was very susceptible to it. Frodo resisted the power of the ring for a long time and Gollum was giving in before he had even touched it, much less put it on. There’s something in Gollum. That’s how you can really think of him as the anti-type of Frodo. Who would be Gandalf’s anti- type. He’s a wizard. Saruman?. Why so?

Deanne:  They’re both incredibly powerful, but oriented towards good and evil respectively.

Jay : So why isn’t Sauron the anti-type?

Chelsea : Does he have to not be?

Jay :  No In fact he is. Which is another thing that romance does, you get proliferating networks of types and anti-types. You’ll see this over and over again if you read all 3 volumes. Just as you see certain kinds of episodes and certain kinds of settings repeated, you see types of people repeated. Both Sauron and Saruman are anti-types of Gandalf, though I think your impulse was correct, Saruman is a little more directly an anti-type. Sauron, it’s really incarnates all the evil in the universe.

Don:  Sauron is like the devil.

Una and the Lion by Briton Rivière (1840–1920). [Wikimedia]

Jay:  Yes, he’s like the devil. That is another way, perhaps the most powerful way, that romance enables flat characters, one dimensional characters, to bear significance. Each character may well incarnate a single idea but this proliferating system of characters ultimately gives the reader an entire grid upon which to assess the moral nature of humanity. We’ll see this really powerfully when we get to The Faerie Queene, a work that is our greatest example of the allegorical romance, much more allegorical, and much more of a romance than Tolkien is, but a great source for Tolkien.

In conclusion I think we should say that Tolkien’s novels share many features in common with the romance character but they’re not merely romance types, just as his objections to allegory were persuasive to us. We thought that if you think of allegory that way we better use his word ‘applicability’ rather than ‘allegory’. It’s too simple to say that his characters are only romance characters, they’re the only types.  Some are and you must learn to evaluate the novel by the conditions it offers, you don’t want to bring realistic expectations about growth and development to every character in the novel because that’s not the kind of work that Tolkien is writing.


Keats, –La Belle Dame sans Merci

We’re reading a short lyric by John Keats today, his Roman ballad, La Belle Dame sans Merci. It’s a short poem, a lyric poem, a particular kind of lyric which is a ballad. It is meant to evoke a whole tradition of this kind of ballad. It’s close to a medieval ballad by Thomas the Rhymer. It has many of the plot elements of that ballad by Rhymer, although it’s not exactly the same but there are a lot of close parallels. Its image of the woman who beguiles the hero and delays him on his return home is right out of Homer and dozens of other texts. Is the “belle dame” in this poem a version of Circe who turned men into swine or is she a version of Calypso who kept Odysseus there for years in love with her, or even the sirens, whose beautiful song would lure the male.

The poem has a funny composition history. Keats kept a long journal letter when he was away on a tour. He would often put pieces of verse in it. He wrote a poem and put it in his letter. I’d like to be getting letters from somebody that contained great masterpieces of original poetry, I’d even  take an email of that sort I’m not picky in that respect. Keats revised it for publication in Hunt’s magazine, he actually made it worse. The consensus of critics and certainly of this reader is that the original version is the one to read. Perhaps we should just read the poem together. Diane, would you mind reading the first stanza to us?


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has wither’d from the lake,

And no birds sing. 




O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

So haggard, and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full,

And the harvest’s done.



I see a lily on thy brow,

With anguish moist and fever dew,

And on thy cheeks a fading rose

Fast withereth too.

:  Those first three stanzas are kind of introduction, to the poem, who’s speaking?

Don:  I don’t think there’s any clue here.

 No, it seems to be an anonymous speaker.

: It’s also interesting that you get a switch between the first two stanzas and the third that we’ve read when you go from addressing the knight to a knight message.

Jay:  Yes, I see a lily on thy brow, with anguish moist and fever dew. Look, look at this imagery in these, in these three stanzas. So haggard, and so woe-begone. The squirrel’s granary is full, and the harvest done. What’s the contrast there?

Deanne: Well the squirrel has collected all the grain for the winter, so there’s a sense of fecundity, and the harvest and plenty, as opposed to the knight who is ailed by something. He’s haggard, he’s pale, seems to be the opposite of that fertility this world full of greenery.

Jay: That’s right, and it’s feverish and anguish.

Don: And no birds sing.

Chelsea:  Yeah, it’s also clearly not the beginning of fall. It’s the end of fall. Winter is about to start. All the birds have gone south. They are done harvesting and the squirrel is ready.

Jay: That’s right. The setting there is almost a character in the poem the setting is a forest.

 Deanne:  Even the flowers are mapped onto him. “The lilies on his brow. And the, the roses around his cheeks.”  And as the season changes these things have withered in his face, or faded the colour in his face.

 Jay:  That’s right. Blaine now is your turn, read us the fourth stanza.


I met a lady in the meads

Full beautiful –  a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

Jay: And her eyes were wild. It’s almost a direct quotation.  William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, which contains poetry by both Coleridge and Wordsworth, were a powerful influence on a lot of Keats’s writing. Don, read the next stanza to us.


I made a garland for her head,

And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She look’d at me as she did love,

And made sweet moan.

Jay: So fragrant zone, an archaic word for girl, again archaic in Keat’s time, he is using the word intentionally to give you that chivalric, language.

I set her on my pacing steed,

And nothing else saw all day long,

For sidelong would she bend and sing

A faery’s song.


She found me roots of relish sweet,

And honey wild, and manna dew,

And sure in language strange she said,

“I love thee true.”


Jay : These stanzas immerse you in the central world. They really evoke the senses. Chelsea?

Chelsea : I was thinking about Arwen speaking elvish to Aragon, is actually what I was thinking.

Jay : Really?

Chelsea :Yes

Jay :  Really do you feel the rhythms of this poem in Arwen’s words.

Chelsea : I think there’s a lot of resonance.

Deanne:  It’s an interesting detail that in the film, as opposed to the book, Arwen takes Frodo on her horse to get into Rivendell, which it’s sort of similar to here, except he is setting her on his horse. Whereas in Tolkien’s book it’s a different you know. He’s taken by Aragon.

Chelsea:   It’s particularly curious since the poem as you say talks about the knight putting her on the horse and yet he also says, or the speaker also says, ‘she took me to her’.

Jay : That’s right.

Chelsea:  Inconsistent.

Jay: It’s a real play of passivity and action here. I know Tolkien was familiar with this poem. Every educated Englishman of his time knew this poem. I’m not particularly claiming that this poem was a powerful influence on Tolkien. I want to compare their use of the same kind of materials. I think there are some passages in the book that seem fairly similar. Whether he got it from Keats or whether he’s just making parallel use of those same medieval materials or different uses of them is something that we want to consider.


Keats, –La Belle Dame sans Merci—II

Jay: What are some of the images in these stanzas we just read that evoke the senses?

Blaine: You get the sight of how beautiful she is. “Fragrance zone.”  So, smell. There’s also taste in the roots of sweet, relish sweet. And also sound in her song.

Jay:  He’s really one of the poets the most interested in the senses of the 19th century. He really cared about evoking the physical character of senses of sometimes ‘synesthetically’, that is, mixing of senses.


She took me to her elfin grot,

And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

With kisses four.

Jay:   I want to draw your attention to elfin. She certainly, has elf-like charm for him. He does say elfin but I think, it’s entirely possible that he means to use that word simply to evoke an atmosphere of strangeness, of fairy world, fairy land. Where does this, “she wept inside full sore” come from? It’s conventional, it’s chivalric love. Does that evoke Coleridge, for anyone?.

Don: Kubla Khan.

Jay:  Kublai Khan. Exactly.

Killian :  Also the Bible

Jay:   Yes. Also the Bible, for which Coleridge was reaching too. You know?


“Weave a circle around him thrice,

And close your eyes in holy dread

For he on honey- dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of paradise.”

Jay:  Bravo. So that rhyme, brilliantly recited by Don, from Coleridge’s lyric, Kubla Khan. Again, Keats expected you to get this. This is how illusions work, this is how the poem gets richer, when you recognize it. It’s not plagiarism, there’s a point I want to make. It’s intentional gesturing toward other great, great works in the poem.


And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dream’d-Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dreamt,

On the cold hill side.

Jay:   The latest dream, what does he mean? What’s latest there mean?

Killian: The most recent.

Jay: Yes. It’s just an old-fashioned or archaic way to say that it’s the latest. Though, in that, it really will be the last dream he ever dreamed.  This is a dream from which, we get the strong sense, he’s not going to awaken.

Deanne:  I read that the weeping, and sighing of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, as an indication of foreboding. That she knows, that she will not be able leave. I think I’m reading it, that way because of the courtly love tradition, where there are always obstacles, often insurmountable obstacles between th quester and, or the knight, and the lady that he is trying to please.

Jay:  Well you certainly have a sympathetic heart, don’t you? So you are not hearing in her weeping a part of her snares, her desire to entrap him, and seduce him. You’re saying that she’s anticipating.

Deanne:  That inevitably, something sinister may happen to the ailing knight.

Jay:  He was not ailing, before she got hold of him.

Deanne:  He is in the first two stanzas, right?

Jay:  Yes, but this is a flash back.

Deanne:  Okay. Okay, so I’m forgetting the temporal structure.

Chelsea:  I was going to say, I got something a little more sinister from that. I actually rather thought that the weeping was almost….. We’ve seen them before, villains who lament, what they’re going to have to do to their victim.

Jay:  Take it up, with “I saw pale kings.”


I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death pale were they all;

They cried – “La belle Dame sans Merci

Hath thee in thrall.!”

Killian : That reminds me of the Nazgul and the moments at which Frodo puts the ring on, and sees what they really look like. This is a similar description.
Jay: Diane, pick it up with, I saw their starved lips.


I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning, gaped wide,

And I awoke, and found me here

On the cold hill’s side.



And this is why I sojourn here,

Alone and pale loitering,

Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,

And no birds sing.

Jay:   What does this mean?

Killian:  We’ve talked about twilight or the evening. We’ve talked about this transition between fall and winter. Thinking about the figure of the knight at arms himself, it seems like we’re in these, in between spaces. One of the questions that this poem makes me think about is- is the knight at arms alive, or is the knight at arms dead, or is the knight at arms somehow, strangely, neither one nor the other?

Jay: That he’s become another of those pale knights.

Dan: This ‘sojourn’ here, this key word, in the last stanza. “And this is why I sojourn here”. We don’t really get a sense of’ why’ actually. The ‘why’ is just repetition of the first stanza; it’s exactly the same as the first, almost word for word the last three lines.

Jay: What does repetition at the end do for you? Well.

Chelsea:  It causes you, to remember the beginning. And by remembering the beginning, you realize that you now have an answer to the original question, of the original speaker. Which is, “what can ail thee?”

Jay: The repetition of a refrain, particularly at the end of a poem, has a powerful closure effect. It brings you back to where you began, as Chelsea said, with a difference.  But I am still enamoured of Don’s comment, that the question, of ‘why’ still hasn’t been answered. You’ve returned to where you began and you still don’t know why. You don’t know why she wanted to do this. You don’t know why this Belle Dame without pity, sans merci, without pity wanted to do this. You do know what his attraction was. He was mesmerized, by her beauty and her song and he was hypnotized. But you don’t know why. That circularity paradoxically reinforces the lyric moment here that doesn’t advance anything. This, like Browning’s. ‘Childe Roland To the Dark Tower Came’, is a quest without the action. This stalled lyricism is associated with beauty, with sensuality, with sexuality, with femininity, with danger, and death. There’s a profound tradition of this in romance. Do you feel like Tolkien activates that aspect of it in his novel? But what about his images of women?
Chelsea:  I think in general  his women aren’t evil. There are definitely some female characters. Like I’m thinking of is her name Lavinia Sackville-, Sackville-Baggins. And then there’s the spider.

Jay: Well there is the spider.

Chelsea:   Right, who’s definitely, described as a female, and she does attempt some brain-sucking, Okay

Jay:  But in general the Sackville-Bagginses are not this kind of dangerous femininity. It reminds you Killian, you mentioned, of one of the poems Tolkien, puts in the first volume.

Killian:  Yes. It reminds me of the poem that, I believe it’s Strider tells,  The Tale of Tinuviel. Pardon me, if I’m mispronouncing that, or Luthien Tinuviel.  This is the story, about the meeting of Luthien Tinuviel and Baron, son of Barahir. It’s a story that evokes the long tradition of stories like this. We could say that it evokes the story of Daphne and Apollo from Greek mythology, if we wanted to. But, there is a sense of pursuit, of danger, and also; because we have a meeting between an elf, Luthien Tinuviel and a man, Baron; there’s also a sense of the kind of danger involved in people from different orders of existence interacting with one another. That’s one of the things that I think is interesting about Tolkien, and his treatment of the elves. Tales like this seem to be part of the mythology of the elves, this deeper history, that’s informing Middle Earth.

Jay: Tolkien has the same association I’ve been underlining, that it’s a song sung during a rest. The very beauty of that poetry is part of the charm that lulls, our questers and distracts them from their goal.

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  1. Dan says:

    Thank you! 😉

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