Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pegana Colorado

So, yesterday was a travel day, first to fly to Denver and then to drive down to Colorado Springs, site of this weekend's MYTHCON (at the Hotel Elegante). The evening yesterday was devoted to unpacking and settling in. Wanting to be well-rested for the con, we made an early night of it,  which turned out to be a good choice.

Today we went out and about, visiting what sounded like the thing we'd most regret missing if we didn't go by & see it while in the area: THE GARDEN OF THE GODS.

These are spectacular pillars and columns of brick-red sandstone, deeply eroded. I was expecting something somewhat like the Hoo-doos of Yellowstone,* something like the eroded ridges of Frenchman's Coulee,** but despite a few similarities here and there this was really different. If you like this kind of thing at all, you really should make the trip out; it's spectacular, it's easy to get to and easy to walk around in once there. I was particularly struck by the wildlife: at one point there was a deer feeding perhaps twenty feel away from us, sheltered by a row of wild sunflowers. I saw a magpie (or at least some sort of unfamiliar jay) on the way there and several more unfamiliar birds while there, but was most taken with the swifts, who nest atop the rocks and were disturbed by climbers getting too near their nests.

Given the recent cave-in of the ice-caves at Big Four Mt, which we visited last year, JC and I took the warnings about hazardous areas with high potential for falling boulders more seriously than did many of our fellow visitors: there were lots of kids among those posing beneath a crumbling cliff with some rocks half-fallen and at this point only being held up by other rocks. Luckily, today Fate refused to be tempted.

And of course we saw the dinosaur -- a single skull, discovered more than a century before, which is the only piece of this particular kind of dinosaur that has ever come to light; a good reminder of how happenstance our evidence of the long-ago can be.

In the end, I thought that rather than 'The Garden of the Gods', a better name for the place would be PEGANA. One can easily imagine those tall, eroded, sometimes tumbly red rocks in the background for one of Sime's pictures for Dunsany's first two books (e.g., 'The King That Was Not'). But that's probably just me. A classicist wd almost certainly see the heads of Titans and their hands reaching up out of the soil; anyone acquainted w. the Mythos wd recall the carven crags in the Dreamlands; a Tolkienist wd recall the Argonath; and any Eddist wd immediately recognize this as Troll country.

There are plenty of interesting things to see and do in this area, from the modern-day reconstruction of cliff-dwellings and a chance to feed giraffes at the local zoo to the Arkansas River riverwalk down in Pueblo, But I think Janice was right to give this one the nod as 'if you only have time to do one touristy thing in this area, this is the one'.

And now, off to do some final small preparations for the con.

--John R.
current reading: POETRY AT PRESENT by Charles Williams [1930]
THE MOON POOL by A. Merritt [1919]

*which were really memorable, despite being perched on the edge of any acrophobist's nightmare. worth the terror.

**for an inadequate description thereof, see

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Today I'm Drinking . . .

. . . Ernest Hemingway's tea.
And that's "Ernest Hemingway" with a circle-r following it.

Saw this in World Market a few weeks back and was bemused enough to buy it. Turns out to be ordinary Assam they've put Hemingway's name and picture on as a selling point. How very odd. I did buy some "C. S. Lewis Blend" a good while back via mail-order from a tea shop in Austin, but then Lewis was famous as a tea-drinker -- cf the quote that starts off Hooper's Preface to CSL's essay collection ON STORIES:

'You can't get a cup of tea large enough of a book long enough to suit me' 

Whereas if Hemingway drank tea that fact has eluded my admittedly somewhat slim knowledge of his biography (derived mostly from reading his autobiography and Carpenter's GENIUSES TOGETHER). 

Still, it's odd how some thing stick to an author's 'myth'. In Hemingway's case it's polydactyl cats, yes; tea-drinking, no; living in Cuba, yes; dying in Idaho, no. 

And there's this to consider: Hemingway was a fan of Dunsany's early work, which is just about as different from Hemingway's own as it's possible for two writers to get. So I think I'll have a cup of tea and think kindly thoughts for that about a writer who, though v. good, is not exactly my cup of tea.

--John R. 

The Game of Opposites

So, I came up with an odd sort of word game while I was finishing up my Wms paper.*

Here's the challenge: what word least describes an Inkling?

For Williams, the one who got me started on this slightly odd line of thought, I'd opt for 'sincere' or 'sincerity', or perhaps 'straightforward': to read his letters is to get a sense that he was always playing a role, always assuming a persona.

Applying the same technique to CSL, the word I would choose that least describes C. S. Lewis would be "vain" or "vanity". Lewis was famously free of vanity when it came to personal appearance, once describing himself as "bald and fat" and dressing in shabby clothes. And despite his extraordinary gifts (not many students get a triple first) as a writer and scholar, he seems never to have thought his talent makes him entitled to any special treatment (Janie M. still made him walk the dog and take out the trash).

For Tolkien, it's harder. "Stolid, staid" are somewhere in the right territory but inadequate. Descriptions of him make it clear there was something elusive, mercurial, almost bird-like about him, but 'dapper' needs to go in there somewhere as well.

At any rate, that's what I came up with on a first attempt. I'd be interested what descriptors others would find appropriate.  Might make a good discussion topic over a meal at Mythcon.

--John R.
current watching: STARSHIP OPERATORS

*which is now done, and revised, and rehearsed. whew.  It ran to twenty pages but with Janice's help I've cut it down to fourteen, which is more like what'll fit into the available programming space. Though I'm sorry to see those various sections go.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Fails the Most Elementary Test of Historical Possibility"

So, in the last few days I found praise for my work in a place I wdn't have expected it: a discussion of a Hugo ballet. And I found criticism of my work ("fails the most elementary test of historical possibility") in a somewhat more likely place, a book on Tolkien (we Tolkienists being a fractious lot).

First the Good: here's the link to David Bratman's recent blog post explaining his votes in this year's contentious election for the Hugo Awards:

The part where I'm referred to occurs under the heading of Best Fan Writer, entry #3:

Best Fan Writer
3. Jeffro Johnson. If we were going to honor someone who writes about classic fantasy in an RPG context, we should have given a Hugo years ago to John D. Rateliff. Still, Johnson is a good writer, if somewhat condescending towards his topics, and though of crabby social views, he does not spend his time whining about SJWs, which sets him apart from the rest of this category.

This must be a reference to my CLASSICS OF FANTASY articles (which ran to nineteen installments). I'd still like to revisit and revive that series some day: there are any number of interesting writers yet to cover (e.g. Cabell, Howard, Vance, Carroll, not to mention newer writers like Jonathan Howard and Susanna Clarke). In any case, glad to see they're not altogether forgotten, and nice of David to say nice things about them.

And, just to keep things balanced, here's the bad: there's criticism of my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT in the new faux-biography of Tolkien, just out:  J. R. R. TOLKIEN: CODEMAKER, SPY-MASTER, HERO: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by "Elansea", with Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie as "consultants".

The full quote referencing my work reads thusly:

. . . Tolkien is not inventing, but using places
that he had seen firsthand to fashion his own
fictional backcloth for the settings of his stories.
 J. D. Rateliff's attempt to deny this in his
History of the Hobbit fails the most elementary
 test of historical possibility . . . Taking each of
his points, Tolkien would not have visited the
sites of the Swiss Lake Villages during the 1911
trip; he was not interested in them until the 1930s
and he was a junior member of the party, not the
one setting the itinerary (and Lake Town resembles
them only in principle, not any specific detail).
Tolkien did not need to visit Lydney whilst writing
the 'Note on the name Nodens'; that was pure
philological work on the name of a deity, not a
place whose setting might be relevant. And Tolkien
could not have visited Sutton Hoo whilst writing
about the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings; that
was during the Second World War when 'tourism'
was impossible in Britain -- and to put the tin lid
on it, Sutton Hoo had been taken over by the military
as a tank training ground! Not that Tolkien needed it
as visual inspiration; it's only a barrow-field, and
there are plenty of those much nearer Oxford.

So Rateliff's counter-examples fail, and the basic
principle that Tolkien was writing about real
landscapes stands. (p. 114-115).

--all this in response for my agreeing w. Carpenter that Tolkien tended not to feel a need to visit in person places that inspired his writing -- unlike some authors, who find a bit of fieldwork inspirational.

At this point I've only skimmed Elansea's book, so take the following as just provisional.

Basically it's a 'What If?' biography.
What if JRRT secretly spent WW II as a British codebreaker?
What it his father, Arthur Tolkien, had been spying on the Boers for the Empire?
What it Joseph Wright were a spymaster who recruited young John Ronald as a likely lad for espionage work?
 What if, all that time Tolkien was supposed to be 'in hospital' he was actually just using that as a cover story while off on a secret mission behind enemy lines (somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, I think*)?
 What if strings were being pulled behind the scenes to rig the election to his Oxford professorship in his favor?
 What if all those times he was away 'grading as an external examiner', or any time he claimed to be stalled in his writing, he was really engaged on undercover work?
What if he because a spymaster and recruiter himself in time?

That's a lot of ifs, but the major one that comes to mind is this: What if none of this is true and they just made it all up?  So far as I can tell, they don't supply any evidence for any of their speculations: it's all in the realm of what CSL called the supposal.

In essence this is the first fictional biography of Tolkien. If someone wants to film a movie "inspired" by the life of JRRT but in no way restricted by the facts, this book could  provide a template. 

To say that 'Elansea' is the new Giddings and Holland is to do the late Elizabeth Holland's memory a disservice.

--John R.

current reading: POETRY AT PRESENT by Charles Wms [1930]
THE MOON POOL by A. Merritt (second reading)

*their 'evidence' for this is that Tolkien once made a slighting reference to Athenian democracy, which they claim cd only be possible if he had first-hand knowledge of the place. (p. 187)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Some Days You Just Can't Get a Good Watermelon* (a rant)

*with apologies to Adam West.

So, for several days now with Janice's help I've been looking for a watermelon. A real watermelon, the kind with seeds in it.

  • None at Fred Meyers
  • None at Trader Joe's
  • None at Uwajimaya's
  • Sold out at the Kent farmer's market ("we had ten, and they went right away")
  • None at Valley Harvest, which turns out to have gone out of business since our last visit
  • None at Carpinito's
  • None at the Great Wall Mall's Ranch Market

Finally bought one of those seedless abominations, at Uwajimaya, since a mediocre watermelon is better than no watermelon at all. But seriously, what happened to good melons? My standards might be high, since I come from the area that produces the best watermelons in the world (my home town's only some thirty-odd miles from Hope, Arkansas). But still, watermelons without seeds are like those supermarket tomatoes of a few years ago, bred for shipping and not taste. Heirloom tomatoes and local-grown filled in the gap there -- where are the Black Diamonds, Dixie Queens, and the like?

--John R.

My Schedule at MythCon

So, the schedule for events at Mythcon (to be held Friday July 31st through Monday August 3rd at the Elegante in Colorado Springs) is now out.* And I'm signed up to take part in a total of five events:

(1) Friday July 31st, The Aspen Room, 4.30 to 5. 30 pm
This will be a nine-person reading of The Fall of Arthur using Thom Foy's abridged script from last year's Kalamazoo, used with permission.  The performance then went really well so I have hopes it'll be just as enjoyable for folks this time around.

(2) Saturday August 1st, The Summit Boardroom, 9 to 10.15 am
This is the Opening Ceremonies, followed by my Scholar Guest of Honor speech,  "The Lost Letter: Seeking the Keys to Williams' Arthuriad". I'm hoping they'll enjoy my re-assessment of Williams and his work.

(3) Saturday August 1st, The Breckenridge Room, 1 to 2.45 pm
"Reclaiming Tolkien's Women for the 21st Century." This brings together some of the contributors to PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS AND LIFE OF JRRT to recap some of the points made there and discuss issues arising therefrom. My contribution thereto is "The Missing Women: Tolkien's Lifelong Support for Women's Higher Education".

(4) Saturday August 1st, The Aspen Room, 4.15 to 4.45 pm
A two-person reading of Mark vs. Tristan by Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis, by JDR and JC. I think this is a little unsung gem, so I'm looking forward to sharing with others who are likely to like this sort of thing as much as I do.

(5) Sunday August 2nd, The Aspen Room, 3.45 to 5 pm
" 'That Seems to Me Fatal': Pagan and Christian in The Fall of Arthur". This is a reprise of the piece I presented an excerpt from  at last year's Kalamazoo, looking at some of the difficulties Tolkien faced in seeing through his conception of the Arthurian myth. It seemed appropriate, given the Arthurian theme of this year's Mythcon.

Of course I'll be at the Awards Banquet to hear Jo Walton's Guest of Honor speech, and throughout the weekend I'll go to as many panels as possible and see as many people as possible, enjoy seeing friends and meeting new people. Really looking forward to it.

--John R.

just finished book #II.3247,  A. E. WAITE: MAGICIAN OF MANY PARTS by R. A. Gilbert, a biography of Wms' friend and magical mentor Waite, a good accompliment to Gilbert's history of the Golden Dawn (TWILIGHT OF MAGICIANS). I'd read this once before, in a copy borrowed from my friend the late Jim Pietrusz. This time I tracked down a copy of my own; I'll think of Jim any time I re-read or consult it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lewis and Sitwell

So, sometimes when working on one thing (Charles Williams' Arthurian poems) you make a discovery, or what seems to be a discovery, on something entirely unrelated (Edith Sitwell's possible influence on C. S. Lewis).

Case in point: having noted CSL extravagant (and, I can now attest, undeserved) praise for Edith Sitwell's 1924 book SLEEPING BEAUTY, I hunted down a copy and read it. And in the course of forcing my way through its doggerel, I found two lines that really stuck out:

Hell is no vastness, it has naught to keep
But little rotting souls and a small sleep
(p. 61)

Now that sounds remarkably like one of the key underlying premises of Lewis's THE GREAT DIVORCE (1945). Or perhaps it's just a coincidence. In any case, I thought it worth sharing.