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Bod queue

Hundreds of Tolkien fans, scholars and members of the public flocked to the Weston Library today (23 June) to see a recently-discovered map of Middle-earth.

The exhibition was supposed to be for one day only - but due to popular demand it has now been extended for another day, from 9am-5pm tomorrow (24 June).

As a queue snaked around the Blackwell Hall in the Weston Library and Bodleian staff, the members of staff behind the cafe called it "the biggest queue we have ever seen here".

The map, which is annotated by JRR Tolkien, was acquired by the Libraries earlier this year. Visitors can see Tolkien’s copious notes and markings on the map, which reveal his vision of the creatures, topography and heraldry of his fantasy world where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place.

The map went unseen for decades until October 2015 when Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford offered it for sale. It had previously belonged to Pauline Baynes (1922 – 2008), the acclaimed illustrator who was the only artist approved by Tolkien to illustrate his works during his lifetime. The map was a working document that Tolkien and Baynes both annotated in 1969 when Baynes was commissioned to produce a poster map of Middle-earth.

At the time, The Lord of the Rings had never been illustrated so Tolkien was keen to ensure that Middle-earth was accurately depicted. His copious annotations can be seen in green ink or pencil on the map, most notably his comments equating key places in Middle-earth with real world cities, for example that ‘Hobbiton is assumed to be approx. at [the] latitude of Oxford.’

He also specified the colours of the ships to be painted on the poster map and the designs on their sails as well as notes about where animals should appear, writing ‘Elephants appear in the Great battle outside Minas Tirith.’

The map has joined the Bodleian’s Tolkien archive, the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world. It was purchased with assistance from the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Bodleian, and the display coincides with the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the Bodleian.

Versailles

A ten-part BBC drama focusing on the court of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles is underway.

The Daily Telegraph calls it "the BBC's new steamy period drama", though its co-creator David Wolstencroft has higher ambitions for the programme.

'Sometimes it takes a different context to shine a light on history,' he says.

Dr Alison Oliver, research editor at the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford University, gives Arts Blog a scholarly take on the new series:

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby?

The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles…

Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on.

Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon.

The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

Lucy Gregory

Ruskin Degree Show opens this weekend

Matt Pickles | 17 Jun 2016

These striking works of art have been created by Oxford students and will be on display in the city when the annual Ruskin Degree Show opens tomorrow.

RUSKIN.SHOW will be the first degree show held in the new studios on Bullingdon Road.

It is also the first degree show featuring the work of undergraduate finalists and the new intake on the Master of Fine Art course at the Ruskin School.

The degree show will be open from Saturday 18 June until Wednesday 22 June, 12pm-6pm. It will be held at The Ruskin School of Art's new building at 128 Bullingdon Road.

For more information, visit the Ruskin School of Art's website.

Alvin OngBy Alvin Ong

Mirren KesslingBy Mirren Kessling

Disney

With Johnny Depp’s ‘Mad Hatter’ returning to cinemas in Disney's ‘Through the Looking Glass’, an Oxford academic reveals the real-life influences on Lewis Carroll’s portrayal of insanity and the insane in his Alice books.

Franziska E. Kohlt of the Faculty of English Language and Literature explores Carroll’s knowledge of Victorian psychiatry in the current issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture.

She explains that Carroll’s close relationship with his uncle, Commissioner in Lunacy Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, was his primary connection to the profession. A well-connected barrister, Skeffington was responsible for inspecting lunatic asylums; many of his psychiatric colleagues became friends of Carroll’s too.

Skeffington also had a keen interest in photography, which he passed on to Carroll. It was through this hobby that Carroll came into contact with a friend of his uncle’s, Dr Hugh Welch Diamond of the Surrey lunatic asylum, who believed that photography had an important role to play in diagnosing and recording mental illness. According to contemporary theories, the state of one’s mind was reflected in one’s appearance – which made photographs a highly useful tool.

Ms Kohlt writes: 'Carroll's engagement with Diamond’s work illustrates how the influence of Skeffington and his profession were multifaceted in their nature and consequently found their way into his nephew’s writing via indirect routes. It further indicates how Skeffington’s professional contacts provided Carroll with the opportunity to witness professional practices first hand.'

Through his contacts, Carroll developed an understanding of the practical aspects of psychiatric practice. The Mad Tea-Party in Alice’s Adventures was inspired directly by the tea parties held in asylums as ‘therapeutic entertainments.’ ‘That the types of insanity of the tea-party’s members draw on popular imagery of insanity is made explicit at the earliest instance when the Cheshire Cat informs Alice they are ‘both mad’,’ she writes.

Carroll was also very aware of the class and wealth distinctions between ‘lunatics’ and ‘pauper lunatics,’ which had so much bearing on where and how a Victorian patient was treated. Though never actually referred to in the novel as ‘the mad hatter’, Ms Kohlt feels the character ‘illustrates vividly’ the case of a typical pauper lunatic.

'Carroll's Hatter is consistent with Victorian asylum environments in other aspects, as impoverished hatters and other manual workers and artisans were frequently to be found among a pauper lunatic asylum’s population,' she says.

Ms Kohlt says writers and satirists like Carroll played an important role in raising public awareness of psychiatry. They also shaped the popular image of insanity through their plots and characters.

She says Alice is far more than just a children's novel. 'Alice stands in dialogue with both psychiatric practice and popular perceptions of insanity,' she says.

Follow Franziska Kohlt on Twitter.

Google FHI

Oxford academics are teaming up with Google DeepMind to make artificial intelligence safer.

Laurent Orseau, of Google DeepMind, and Stuart Armstrong, the Alexander Tamas Fellow in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, will be presenting their research on reinforcement learning agent interruptibility at the Uncertainty in Artificial Intelligence conference in New York City later this month.

Orseau and Armstrong's research explores a method to ensure that reinforcement learning agents can be repeatedly safely interrupted by human or automatic overseers. This ensures that the agents do not “learn” about these interruptions, and do not take steps to avoid or manipulate the interruptions.

The researchers say: 'Safe interruptibility can be useful to take control of a robot that is misbehaving… take it out of a delicate situation, or even to temporarily use it to achieve a task it did not learn to perform.'

Laurent Orseau of Google DeepMind says: 'This collaboration is one of the first steps toward AI Safety research, and there's no doubt FHI and Google DeepMind will work again together to make AI safer.'

A more detailed story can be found on the FHI website and the full paper can be downloaded here.

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