Sunday, March 24, 2019

Larry DiTillio Dies

So, I was sorry to hear the news from the Chaosium newsletter (Ab Chaos) that gaming legend Larry DiTillio has died. I never got to meet DiTillio -- one of those legendary figures like Greg Stafford (whom I did meet) or Sandy Petersen or Tom Moldvay -- but I highly recommend his work. Among his many achievements, he wrote what I consider the best rpg adventure ever -- and not the one you're thinking of, either.

That is, DiTillio is famed as the author of the legendary MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, widely considered to be the best adventure ever written for CALL OF CTHULHU, one of the most widely loved and highly respected of all roleplaying games (now in its thirty-eighth year and seventh edition). But I personally think that, good as MASKS is, there are other CoC campaigns that are even better (including THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH and especially SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH).*

More importantly, DiTillio wrote another rpg adventure that is even better: THE GREY KNIGHT, for PENDRAGON. The first adventure for a new game is all-important to that game's success: it tells the players and DM what sort of things their characters will do in the new game.  In the case of THE GREY KNIGHT, the adventure runs the whole range of knightly activity: jousting in a tournament, courtly intrigue, flirtation, combat against fellow knights, magical trickery, and more. DiTillio's adventure deserves particular praise for not making a too-common mistake of setting the adventure around the margins of the game: Here player-character knights get to meet and interact with major characters in the setting, like Sir Gawain and Sir Tor and Morgan le Fay.  A brilliant piece of work.

Here's a tribute to DiTillio from Chaosium:

--John R.

*I might modify that position if I'd ever actually played MASKS; as it is I've read it (a long time ago now) but only played a small part of it.

The Festschrift is a Finalist!

So, I was happy to learn* that A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS is a finalist for this year's Tolkien Society Award in the Best Book category. The competition is formidable: Catherine McIlwaine's phenomenal MAKER OF MIDDLE-EARTH catalogue of the Bodleian Exhibit, which I'm on record as saying is a major contribution to Tolkien studies, and THE FALL OF GONDOLIN, Christopher Tolkien's final book, the self-announced conclusion to decades of editing and making available his father's works.  It really is an honor to have been nominated, and to stand alongside two such significant works on their shortlist.

Here's the link to the announcement. Voting is still open until Friday the 29th, so if you're a Society member don't forget to sign in and vote.

And here's more about the awards, including past winners:

--John R.

current reading: The Music of the Valar, from BLT; 'They Also Serve' (my favorite Mervyn Wall story, closely followed by 'The Hogskin Gloves'), and THE COLUMBIAD (which is both earnest and inept, a bad combination).

*thanks, Paul, for sharing the good news.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

A Remedy for Nostalgia

So, one of the most interesting things to turn up in my recent round of sorting down in the Box Room is a folder containing correspondence and other material related to my first dissertation topic, the one which went down in flames.

I find that when I think of Marquette these days what I remember is the good-parts version: spending time in the Archives, my fellow grad students, courses from professors I liked, teaching continuing ed. courses (night school) on Tolkien and fantasy, my long-running D&D campaign, &c.

What I tend to forget is the down side,* and the papers in this folder are a reminder of the latter.

Well into my dissertation process, when I'd done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and come up with a topic and thesis I thought wd make for a good dissertation ('THE EMERGENCE OF FANTASY AS A MODERN LITERARY GENRE'**),  I found myself at an impasse. Two of the people on my three-person committee (including the dissertation director) approved the topic while the third kept requesting changes, requiring me to re-write the proposal time after time for a period of months (almost a year, all told). Eventually she rejected my topic completely, calling it

"unworkable as a project, 
unpublishable as a book, 
and something that would be ripped to shreds 
if any of it did ever get published"

And that, pretty much, was that. I had to start over again with a new topic with a new committee, not including the person who'd given the thumbs down on my previous effort. That turned out to be my Dunsany project, which I enjoyed researching and learned a lot doing, so no regrets there, though the change in topic did set me back and delay my finishing my Ph.D. by several years. 

At the time I was bitter about it, but over time I've become more exasperated than anything else. If that one committee member didn't agree with my thesis and was determined not to approve a dissertation along those lines, as turned out to be the case, why didn't she just tell me at the start?***
It wd have saved a lot of time and bother all round.

And now, back to Tolkien.

--John R.
--current reading: A FLUTTER OF WINGS by Mervyn Wall

*I had a paragraph about the down side here but on second thought deleted it.
**which might just as well have been called The Role of Tolkien in the Emergence of Fantasy as a modern literary genre.

***she told me later she was trying to do me a favor, since I'd never get a job in academia if I kept writing about fantasy and Tolkien.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The First Review for the Festschrift

So, the first review of A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS, by Nancy Martsch, has now appeared, in the current (March) issue of BEYOND BREE.  She covers a lot of ground in the space of a single well-packed page, briefly describing and then evaluating each piece. She devotes the most time to the collaborative essay by Hillyard, Cook, Burns, Rohlin, & Stegen on dream and enchantment, which she judges "a significant contribution" our understanding of faerian drama. She concludes with a words any contributor of this volume will be glad to hear:

"This book is a worthy tribute"

--John R.
--first day back working with the manuscripts again.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Why is Tolkien not an 'Anglo-Saxon'?

So, here I am back in Milwaukee for another research trip. But first I wanted to post about a curious passage I came across when reading THE FALL OF GONDOLIN last week (book #II.3500 on the reading list, for those who are keeping count).

The line that caught my eye was Tolkien stating, in a letter to Stanley Unwin,

Unfortunately I am not an Anglo-Saxon

The context in this 1951 letter is Tolkien's recalling the outside reader's report rejecting THE SILMARILLION fourteen years earlier, in which the reader 'allowed it a kind of Celtic beauty intolerable to Anglo-Saxons in large doses'

But why shd Tolkien preface his comments about THE SILMARILLION's refusal to be suppressed with the comment about not being Anglo-Saxon?

Is Tolkien being ironic, along the lines of 'if Anglo-Saxons don't like this kind of stuff, and I do, then I must not be one of them'? I know Tolkien in some times and moods described himself as a Hwicce, but that doesn't seem apropos in this case. Indeed I wd have thought JRRT had a better claim to calling himself an 'Anglo-Saxon' than many, being of Saxon ancestry on the Tolkien side and Anglish descent through the Suffields.

In any case, one of Tolkien's more oblique statements, I thought.

--John R.

current music: THE WHO'S TOMMY (esp. the second half)
current reading: BEREN & LUTHIEN, some Japanese light novels.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Is Jeff Bezos a Tolkien Fan?

So, it's more than a full month since our quick visit to New York to see the Tolkien Exhibit. Accordingly, this seems like now-or-never time to add a brief postscript to my posts about the event.

First off, to repeat: this exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime event, both in its Bodleian and Morgan iterations, and no doubt in the forthcoming Parisian Exhibit as well. I'm glad I got to go purely for the access to the items on display. But there was more: getting the chance to spend time with Tolkien friends, visiting New York City (albeit briefly) for the first time, hear some interesting talks, and in general enjoy being a Tolkienist among My People.

One interesting side-event took place when during Verlyn's lecture the person sitting next to me (Carl) asked in a whisper if  I recognized the person sitting at the end of the row in front of us. When I said no, he said "that's Jeff Bezos".

As in Jeff Bezos, president of Amazon. The richest man in the world. Sitting in the audience showing every sign of enjoying the talks along with the rest of us.

Later we saw him again at the reception, standing right in front of us during Simon Tolkien's talk about his grandfather, after which Carl spoke to him very briefly (some conversational pleasantry along the lines of 'glad to see you here, Mr. Bezos') and shook his hand. *

Afterwards I did a little digging and found there was precedent in his being at an event at the Morgan:  he had chosen the Morgan as the venue where he announced the release of the Kindle 2 almost exactly ten years earlier (Feb. 9th 2009).

Bezos has Tolkien connections as well, having personally intervened to seal the deal last year when Amazon was negotiating rights to make an ongoing streaming series as a prequel+remake of LotR (also known as 'the billion dollar deal').**

Finally, there was unadvertised presence of several members of the Tolkien family: not only did Simon Tolkien speak at the reception, but I was told that Michael George (JRRT's oldest grandson) was there as well; they also had announced a little earlier in the evening that Priscilla Tolkien had wanted to come but in the end not been able to make it.

Which casts interesting light upon comments made by Douglas Kane on my previous post in which he quotes some intriguing remarks by the head of Amazon Studios, the people who'll be making the new Tolkien adaptations:

In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke was bizarrely quoted as saying in "early February" that "The Tolkiens are coming to New York, all those estate holders. The older ladies, who are now, I think, in their 80s and 90s. His daughters and the grandchildren, they're coming to New York, and Jeff Bezos, me, Jeff Blackburn, a team of us are going and they've invited us to a dinner and see some art, some creative work that they haven't shown the world yet." Setting aside the rather astounding fact that the head of the studio that is making this secretive new TV show apparently doesn't know how many daughters Tolkien had, it immediately occurred to me that you had mentioned that Simon Tolkien was in New York on February 7 (presumably just after she made this comment in "early February"). Were any other Tolkien family members present at the reception?

All this came on the same day that Mr. Bezos announced that he was the target of attempted blackmail by the NATIONAL INQUIRER,*** and just the week before Amazon abandoned their plans to set up a major new headquarters on Long Island, so there was clearly a lot in the works, both on the Tolkien and the Bezos front, that week in February.

Leads me to suspect that Paul Allen wasn't the only billionaire to be a Tolkien fan.

--John R.

*that I didn't recognize him myself is unsurprising (that pesky face blindness thing again), but then this is me we're talking about, a person who once walked past Kareen Abdul Jabbar at an airport and didn't notice him.

**more on the forthcoming series in an upcoming post


Saturday, March 2, 2019

NyQuil Days and door-dasher cats

So, having failed to head off a cold, I've spent the last three days trying to ride it out with the help of  rest, punctuated by regular doses of NyQuil. My wandering attention and tired eyes have prevented me from getting much done in the way of reading, unfortunately, though I have made my way through a bunch of anime (some good, some bad). The one good thing about this spell of sickness is the distractions coming in the form of curious inquiry by the new cats (whatcha doing? do Tarkus/Tyburns like it?) who have happily joined me on the couch or in the rocker in trying to sleep my way through it. 

In other news, we've now opened up the garage and box room to Tarkus and Tyburn, the last part of our place that'd been off-limits. They like it. They like it a lot. And luckily they're happy to come back upstairs when the time comes. That just leave two remaining hurdles: the balcony (which Tarkus has visited several times while on a leash; Tyburn after one trial thought it was much too scary) and walks outside (to teach them how to find our place again in case they ever get out by accident).

--John R.