Saturday, September 7, 2019

Secrets of Blackmoor

So, thanks to Doug A. for  the link to an article revisiting the great Arneson-Gygax credit controversy, arguing once again over which man contributed more to the creation  of D&D (and thus all roleplaying games). The article pulls no punches, coming down squarely on the anti-Gygax side. And by 'anti-Gygax' I mean not just Gygax as an interesting person with character flaws who treated people badly but Gygax-as-villain, Gygax as Snidely Whiplash, a figure of melodrama rather than history (most notably in the comments from Rob Kuntz, a former Gygax sidekick). There's plenty to criticize about Gygax, but  this attack wd be more convincing if it recognized his enormous contribution.

Here's the link;

The same may be said of the trailer for the documentary, which can be seen here:

The movie itself, I'm happy to say, adopts a milder tone and is much more devoted to boosting Arneson than in tearing Gygax down (I think Gygax first showed up at the 77-minute mark). It's a long and slow version of 'tell me about your character', but since the people doing so were, for example, the first person to ever play a dwarf in a D&D game, it's worth sitting through. Especially when you consider the people who they get on film: progenitors such as Wesely and Megarry and, through archival footage, some Arneson.  I'm sorry the late Dave Sutherland (the member of the Minneapolis group to most successfully transitioned to Lake Geneva, where he stayed with the company more than twenty years) is totally absent; if he was more than mentioned I missed it. I wish they'd have included interviews with Mike Carr, who again is mentioned a time or two in passing (regarding his being a neighbor of Arneson's yet the two first met at GenCon) with no hint of how important he was to the D&D/AD&D transition.  Oddly enough, the closing credits say they interviewed Tim Kask (the founding editor of THE DRAGON) but didn't use any of that footage.  Perhaps it'll be in the second part to this documentary that they promise at the end.

I can't end without a note about Arneson's dad, who appears several times and is surprisingly eloquent about never having really appreciated what all his talented son and his friends were doing down in his basement every weekend for all those years. I get the feeling the lack of underappreciation ran both ways: old Mr. Arneson mentions being puzzled that his son knew everything about Napoleon's battles (and battles Napoleon might have had, had events in history played out differently) yet had no interest in his own father's first-hand experience in World War II and Korean. That reminded me of a story TSR's Roger Moore told in one of his editorials, the point of which was that wargamers don't want to know what war is like.

So, essential if you want to delve deep into the prehistory of D&D and don't mind doing so through an extremely skewed account.

current reading: just read four books in three days: a Nero Wolfe (re-read) and three Georges Simenon MAIGRET novels (all bad). Now I've started two more: THE PEOPLES OF MIDDLE EARTH (HME.XII) and ASTOUNDING, the Campbell/Heinlein/Asimov/Hubbard biography.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The New Arrivals (Cilli, Young, & Nevala-Lee)

So, several books that I've long had on order have begun to arrive, along with a few I only learned about and ordered recently. Here are some first impressions, which I wanted to get down so as to be able to come back and revisit when I've read the books through.

The first of these, in the long-awaited category, is Oronzo Cilli's TOLKIEN'S LIBRARY: AN ANNOTATED CHECKLIST. This is flat-out a great idea: to list every book JRRT is known to have owned or read. And it's one of those dip-able books that you look up something in, to have that make you think of another author or title you want to check, and that leads to another, and so forth. It's like surfing on the net: it's easy to get sucked in in a most enjoyable way. The tricky part comes in with methodology. Cilli addresses this by identifying the evidence for each book as primary source (e.g. the actual book survives with Tolkien's signature) or secondary source (Tolkien quotes from the book). All in all, illuminating and deeply interesting.

The second is  RACE AND POPULAR FANTASY LITERATURE: HABITS OF WHITENESS by Helen Young (2016). Here's a case where the title and subtitle shd have been swapped: HABITS OF WHITENESS is a much stronger, more eye-catching title. I only know Young as the organizer of the 'Tales After Tolkien' track at Kalamazoo's yearly Medieval Congress. This is less a book I expect to enjoy and more one I want to read to prepare myself for dealing with the current hostile environment by seeing first hand what Tolkien's distractors are saying. Surprisingly enough, given her theme, there's no entry for Norman Spinrad or THE IRON DREAM anywhere in the  index; does she not know about this book?

The third is an e-book on the Kindle: ASTOUNDING, a joint biography of John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein,  Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. It comes as something of a shock to find that the one with the most reprehensible ideas was not Hubbard nor Heinlein but Campbell. I'm curious about this one to see what it might have to say about the recent moves to re-name literary awards because of objections to the person after whom the award was named, like the Campbell Award, the Lovecraft 'Howie', and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. The  'Hugo' is still the Hugo, but I wdn't count on its remaining so, given the current trend. In retrospect perhaps Glen GoodKnight was wise in naming his group The Mythopoeic Society and its award The Mythopoeic Award; the Charles Williams Award cd have in the current climate been more problematic.

In any case, that's my first impressions, which I expect will change quite a bit in the course of reading them.

And I have two more to look forward to:  TOLKIEN'S CHAUCER and John Garth's new sites-that-inspired-Tolkien book, both of which are currently 'forthcoming'.

--John R.
current reading: some misc. bits in THE BOOKS OF EARTHSEA; also continuing the C. S. Lewis reception and reputation book (which travels lightly, and tactfully, over issues involving Lindskoog vs. Hooper, and things like Mrs. Moore's role in CSL's private life.).

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The True Shape of a Tree

 So, here's another of Tolkien's late thoughts that show how deeply he considered each aspect of his subcreation that drew his attention during his late metaphysical writings in which he tried to work out how everything worked. This one is particularly fitting, given how it deals with something that he made iconic in his works:* the nature of trees.

[Something] which distinguishes the living from the unliving** is that the living employ Time in their realization. In other words it is part of their nature to 'grow', using such material as is needed or is available to them for their embodiment. So that a living pattern does not exist fully at any one moment of time (as do unliving patterns); but is complete only with the completion of its life. It cannot therefore rightly be seen instantly, and is only imperfectly envisaged even with the help of memory. Only thosewho conceived its pattern and whose sight is not limited to the succession of time can, for instance,see the true shape of a tree.

Comments on 'The Converse of Manwëwith Eru'
(pages 112 & 114; emphasis mine)

* "In all my works I take the part of trees"—JRRT, 1972 (Letters.419)
**e.g., an 'unliving' material such as iron

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Tolkien Piano

So, for a long time I wondered whether there were any Tolkien pianos left in the world. We knew that Tolkien's ancestors were known for making pianos and, earlier, clocks (and, at least one of them, for writing music). But that was more than a century ago: did any of those old pianos survive? Eventually I heard that yes, at least one had made it down through the years, still in the possession of a member of the family.

And now it appears that total of known surviving Tolkien Pianos has increased to two. I was skimming through the latest issue of AMON HEN when I saw the following notice about someone who had a Tolkien piano, complete with stool, that'd been in his family since 1919, having been made about thirty years before that. And, in an act of stunning generosity,  he wanted to give it away to a good home. Here's his picture of the piano in question: much less utilitarian and more elegant than I had expected.

And here's hoping it finds a good home.

--John R.
--current reading: THE FAME OF C. S. LEWIS by Stephanie Derrick

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Raymond Edwards' footnotes

So, I shd add that quite apart from the quality of  Raymond Edwards' biography of JRRT, I only discovered as I was wrapping it up that he is a footnoter after my own heart.

In his account of Tolkien's early days as a writer, Edwards quotes G. B. Smith's comment that one of Tolkien's poems reminded him the woman who wore all her jewelry after breakfast. Then in Note 46 on Chapter 1 (page 301) Edwards points out that the quip is not original with Smith but had earlier been used "by the poet and critic Arthur Symons about the novelist George Meredith's verse." He then goes on to clarify:

"This Symons should not be confused with
the biographer A. J. A. .Symons (The Quest for Corvo),
brother to the crime writer Julian Symons,
nor any of them with the historian and homosexual
proselytizer John Addington (J. A.) Symonds.
All are roughly contemporary, which does not help."

This even outdoes the note in my Dunsany dissertation distinguishing E. Nesbit (Edith Bland)--the English writer and friend of Dunsany's who first published one of his important works-- from Evelyn Nesbit (the notorious femme fatale at the center of a lurid murder and subsequent scandalous trial).

I bow to the master.
-- JDR

In Praise of Raymond Edwards

So, I've finally finished reading Raymond Edwards' biography of JRRT, which I first dipped into back in 2016 (reading roughly the last third of the book in Marquette Library's copy)* and returned to this summer with a copy of my own, working my way through it in starts and stops. I conclude that it has to be the most under-appreciated work on Tolkien in years: a major work that everybody seems to have ignored. This is what Tolkien biographies should be like, not another rehash of Carpenter but a rounded account that takes into account the wealth of information in the Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY and other resources not available when Carpenter was blazing his trails. Edwards is particularly good on Tolkien's academic milieu (just how much time Tolkien spent at his day job), his Catholicism (of great importance, but not the end-all and be-all of everything he wrote), and the difficulties he faced when trying to complete THE SILMARILLION.

It took me a long time to work my way through it because it's one of those books that starts the reader thinking -- I literally stopped every page to consider some point, or go look up some connection. The result was that it was a very slow read for such a reasonably sized book (300  pages not counting the Notes/Bibliography/Index).

An example of the sort of thing Edwards does well can be found in the section titled 'English at Oxford', part five (of seven) of Chapter Two, wherein Edwards follows his previous section's account of what Tolkien was up to during his student days at Oxford with a history of the men who were the philology and literature dons at Oxford, both while Tolkien was a student there (including which ones taught him what) and in the half-century or so before he arrived, setting the stage. Names which tend to swirl by in most accounts here emerge memorably: Richard Rawlinson, Joseph Bosworth, John Earle ('poor old John Earle' Tolkien called him), John Josias Conybeare, Arthur Napier and his sidekick Kenneth Sisam (Tolkien's tutor), Henry Sweet (rumored to be the model for Shaw's Henry Higgins), Walter Raleigh (who championed literature against the dominant emphasis on philology) and his assistant David Nichol Smith (who endured long enough to be an older colleague of Tolkien's), W. P. Ker (known to most of us primarily as a foil in 'The Monsters & the Critics', but so energetic and well-regarded as to have been a don at University College London, and Oxford, simultaneously), and most importantly of all Joseph Wright (Tolkien's hero).  All this, and more, in about eight pages, and judiciously written by one who is himself a philologist and wholly sympathetic to Tolkien's academic endeavors.

I would have thought a book this good would have won all the major Tolkien scholarship awards and become one of those rare books that everybody agrees ought to be ready at hand on your shelf. And I confess myself puzzled that instead it seems to be slipping into obscurity. Is it a case that so many books on Tolkien come out each year now that even a book this good can get lost in the crowd?

Anyhow, a great book: Highly Recommended.

--John R.
--current reading: just resuming a book begun and abandoned in June, when I was on the road.

*I think on the recommendation of Bill F. If so, thanks Bill.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The New Arrival: 2020 Tolkien Calendar

So, after the chaos of trying to get last year's Tolkien calendar, I order mine for this year, from Amazon, as soon as I heard from Janice that it was out.  It arrived today -- a neat trick, since it's not out till tomorrow. Guess there are some advantages of living within walking distance of a major warehouse in a city rich with Amazon locations and facilities.

As for the calendar itself, anyone who's been getting Tolkien calendars for a number of years learns that there are good ones and (God knows) bad ones. This is a good one. Only had a chance to give it a quick skim so far, but it strikes me as vintage Alan Lee. In fact it has a sort of valedictory feel to it.

--John R.