media, internet and overnight expert-dom

Discussion in 'Bickering' started by Unbeknown, Apr 30, 2015.

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  1. Unbeknown

    Unbeknown Senior Moderator

    On the other hand, due to the media exposure, my work came to the attention of a wider range of people than it otherwise would have, and I received a great many kind, interesting and intellectually stimulating letters and emails. I began to be asked to give talks on Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon and Tolkien and Beowulf, and so was able to encourage more students (of all ages) to read and enjoy the literature that we all love. And I have received some additional opportunities as an “international Tolkien expert” (it’s very interesting how I knew exactly the same amount about Tolkien before and after the media exposure, but after that exposure I was now an ‘expert’). I got to be on a National Geographic Special aboutThe Lord of the Rings, to edit the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, and to help found the new journal Tolkien Studies (about which you can learn more at

    Now that my name is on the web and in the rolodexes of a bunch of reporters (many of whom never actually interviewed me), I get regular inquiries about Tolkien, Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon, and a host of other things, many of which I know nothing about (question: “Why is Tolkien so popular in Toronto?” How in the world would I know? How would anyone know? My answer: “It’s Andy Orchard’s fault.”). Although I’m sick of being a “Tolkien expert,” I’m happy to keep sharing my enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon studies. Unfortunately the only people who think being an Anglo-Saxonist is more important and more exciting than being a Tolkien expert are the readers of this newsletter, and that may never change, but at least a few more people in the world are now interested in Old English and Beowulf.

    I’ve also learned a few things that might be useful to readers of OEN in case you ever have to deal with the media in regard to our profession:

    • Reporters want pithy sound bites. Prepare some in advance, or reporters will mangle your own words into one. For example, you may say “the word ‘ent’ in Old English probably means some kind of giant, but we don’t really know exactly what the Anglo-Saxons were thinking about when they used the word.” You will get “Tolkien’s ents, the talking tree-people, come from Anglo-Saxon.”
    • No matter how hard you try, reporters cannot be made interested in the Sievers types.
    • You should spend a lot of time trying to distinguish between Old English, Middle English, and Shakespeare’s early Modern English. It won’t matter, because the reporters will mix it all up, but spending a lot of time explaining is your duty for being a medievalist. Think of it as a penance.
    • Reporters do not care about glosses.
    • Reporters like manuscripts a lot. They love the story of the Cotton fire. “The aptly named Ashburnham House” always gets a laugh. I also got a lot of mileage out of the Ragnrudis Codex. They all agree that The Tremulous Hand of Worcester is an excellent name for a murder mystery (if you steal this idea from me, I will sue you). Every single one of them asked why we don’t carbon-date the Beowulf manuscript.
    • Reporters always want to know who the ‘greatest living expert’ is on any topic. They don’t want to hear that there are four or five people, on two or three continents, who disagree with each other. I now just answer “Don Scragg.”
    • The name ‘Byrhtnoth’ is never going to be spelled correctly in a newspaper story, even if you spell it out letter for letter and email it to the reporter.
    • Everything is validated if there’s a movie made about it. Sword of the Valiant is possibly the worst medieval-based movie ever, but as soon as I said that Gawain and the Green Knight was the inspiration for a movie with Sean Connery in it, the reporter wanted to know how to spell “Gawain.” We may have been studying The Wanderer for 150 years, but the fact that Tolkien adapted a few lines from it for a poem in The Two Towers, and then these lines were re-adapted for the movie and recited by a moderately famous actor makes them “actually very interesting” (a reporter said just that to me).
    • When you say “the dating of Beowulf is actually a very complicated and contentious issue. There are several schools of thought, and experts can be found who would date the poem anywhere from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Tolkien himself thought that the poem was written circa 750, in the so-called “Age of Bede,” but…” reporters hear: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah 750.” And they write “Beowulf, which Drout says was written in 750…” And then you get agitated emails from your colleagues.
    • It does not matter how many times you say that we don’t use the phrase “The Dark Ages” anymore. Someone will refer to you as a “professor who studies the Dark Ages.”
    • Only you yourself and the readers of OEN will be mortified that someone might think that you said “Beowulf was written in 750” without qualification. Even your spouse will think that you have better things to be mortified about, like the fact that in one of the pictures you look like a grinning, cross-eyed maniac with a very shiny head.
    • Your publisher will wonder, politely, why you weren’t able to work the press’ phone number and web address into every story. At least hold the book up under your chin, even if it does make you look like a grinning, cross-eyed maniac with a shiny head. Next time I will wear a t-shirt that says:”
    Finally, try to be philosophical, even if the reporters get everything wrong. As my dad said: “Just be glad you’re in the newspaper as ‘world expert’ (on anything) rather than ‘suspected axe murderer’.”

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