Friday, July 30, 2010


So, one of the interesting side-notes I came across when preparing my Haggard & Tolkien paper was the information in John Garth's TOLKIEN & THE GREAT WAR that in 1912 Tolkien gave the King Edward's School library, where he'd graduated just a year before, a copy of THE LOST EXPLORERS by Alexander Macdonald [1906]*

This got my curiosity up, and after doing a little poking about on amazon, bookfinder, and abebooks, I managed to find a copy on the last of these (from The Book Moose, in Lincoln New Hampshire) -- in good condition, for a v. reasonable price.

Naturally, I read it in hopes of finding some hint that it'd influenced Tolkien in some way. And I have to say I drew pretty much a complete blank. Since my mind is full of Tolkien, I can suggest a few parallels and echoes here and there, but none of them are compelling and only one is strong enough that I'd think it worth drawing attention to. In general I'd have to conclude that this is a book Tolkien read and liked and wasn't influenced by. Which of course is the case with most of the things Tolkien wd have read in his lifetime, only the barest fraction of which we can identify with confidence; it's salutary to have a reminder of that once in a while.

So, it's good to know what kind of book Tolkien enjoyed,** but I won't be doing an essay on "Alexander Macdonald: A Lost Source" anytime soon.

That said, here's a quick precis of the book, followed by a listing of occasional Tolkienesque bits.

Two sixteen year old English kids decide to give up their poorly paid clerkships before they get too deeply into a rut and a lifetime of wage-slaving and take up with an explorer just back from Australia, where he lost his entire party in an Aborigine ambush. They join forces and head out to the Outback with him, where they engage in gold-mining for a hundred pages or so to earn capital for their expedition. The best thing about this part are the names of their five partners in the enterprise, all "bushmen" (outbackers) with years of experience: Nuggety Dick, Emu Bill, Dead Broke Dan, Never Never Dave, and The Shadow (no relation). The weirdest thing about this part is the evaporating gold they find, which sublimates away when exposed to air (one of our two lads finds a chemical treatment that restores the gold to its original purity. Yeah, right.

Once they've defeated the local bully (not once but three times, in three different ways), a villain who I imagined as looking a lot like Eric Campbell (the 'heavy' in a dozen of Chaplin's early shorts, most notably 'EASY STREET' [1916], they head out into the Never Never (as they call the Outback). Much detail about desert travel with camels follows, along with several encounters with the Aborigines that are painfully, teeth-grindingly racist through and through. The very worst bit, I think, comes when one of our heroes is tricked into falling into a natural cistern by a native he's chasing; once rescued his comrades not only take all the water for themselves and their camels but glory in the fact that the local Aborigine community must have hoarded this water supply for months if not years and that they'll be unable to continue living there now that it's gone. Ugh.

Eventually they reach the 'Mystic Mountain' where the previous expedition was wiped out, a sheer unclimbable peak that towers some eight hundred feet high, which is presented as a vast height they can't figure out how to get over or around. Maybe western Australia is pretty flat, or maybe I've just become a mountain snob since moving from (v. flat) SW Arkansas and (even flatter) SE Wisconsin, but I'm suspecting that Mr. Macdonald must have been a Lowlander Scot, not a Highlander.

And here's where, belatedly, the story becomes almost interesting. While most of the explorers are asleep their camp is attacked in the night by natives, who have a secret tunnel going through the mountain that, from the outside, merely looks like a crack in the rock; after the natives retreat back through it it closes with a snap. This sounds a bit like the ambush on Thorin & Co in the mountain-cave high in the Misty Mountains, but while interesting I don't think the parallel's strong enough to build much on. And, just because we haven't had any weirdness in a while, the explorer's leader decides to blow a hole in the mountain wall so our heroes can slip into the hidden tunnel without the natives being any the wiser -- we're actually told several times they'll never notice a new tunnel blasted into the side of their own.

It all ends happily, of course; the members of the previous expedition turn out to all be alive as captive guests of the tribe beyond the mountain, and despite the sad death of one of our plucky gang a little earlier, all the rest escape safely, carrying with them a small fortune in gold and a much larger one in diamonds and rubies. Finally, in a nice closing touch, when they stumble out of the desert two months later they don't recognize their gold camp anymore, since it's now a sizable town (named after one of our two teen heroes). Plus, one of the missing explorers turns out to be the long-lost uncle of one of the lads. Happy endings all round, and none too soon (at 378 pages, this isn't a quick read).

As for possible Tolkien echoes, these are disappointingly few. At one point the Shadow uses what from the description must be a bullroarer to frighten off natives, but he doesn't call it a "bull-roarer" but a ghingi (this being the name of the monster it sounds like). There's one scene where the explorer feels remorse when he realizes he's introduced wanderlust into the two likely lads which made me think of Uncle Bilbo and the youngsters he inadvertently encouraged to be adventurous -- but Tolkien never actually wrote that scene, though the original Trotter story came close. At one point they capture a native and I thought the book might be about to go into a taming-of-Smeagol scene, but instead they feed him a huge amount of salt so that he'll be so desperate he can't help but reveal his tribe's well/natural cistern (that is, they torture him a bit in what's intended to be comical fashion. again, ugh). Other slight echoes aren't specific enough -- their saying farewell, King Thorin fashion, to their dying comrade after a battle; the reflection adventures are "All not sunshine and romance and pleasurable excitement" (cf. Bilbo's sad reflections early on in The Hobbit), or the drama of the Aborigines passing by the plucky hero in the dark in the tunnel, allowing him to slip past into daylight on the other side of the mountain (cf. Bilbo's escape from Gollum), or finally the surprise of coming home and finding yourself presumed dead and everything greatly changed in the months you've been away. All these seem too generic to make much of. The lone linguistic note is a brief mention of one of the lost explorers actually being able to talk to the tribe beyond the mountain in their "monosyllabic language" (which, even knowing as little about Aborigine culture as I do, seems wildly unlikely).

So, in the end I don't think this book had much if any influence -- on Tolkien or anyone else. WHich, in a way, is more a relief than a disappointment. Because I have to admit I didn't enjoy THE LOST EXPLORERS at all. While it's certainly better than S. R. Crockett's THE BLACK DOUGLAS, Macdonald was no Haggard; his 'boys' book" doesn't transcend mere adventure into something worth reading even by those not part of his original target audience -- both in age group and time-and-place. The pervasive casual racism towards the Aborigines is particularly disturbing to any modern reader -- or perhaps the back-to-back doses of so many Haggards plus Conan Doyle plus this has rubbed me raw on that point. The colorful names (e.g., Never Never Dave and Dead Broke Dan) are a hoot, but that's really not enough to carry a reader through. Ah well; some lost explorers are just as well staying lost.


current audiobooks: EXODUS and GOD IS NOT GREAT
current reading: "The Invention of Tradition" and YSABEL.

*no relation to George MacDonald, apparently.

**I'm assuming here that since he owned the book he read it, and since he donated it to his old school he'd liked it, before having outgrown it by the time he was in college. Neither of these is actually provable, but they seem reasonable enough.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Offer, Rescinded

So, yesterday I had the surprising experience of reading something intriguing and unexpected in Marquette's alumni magazine -- alumni magazines usually being as mild and uncontroversial a format as may be imagined. This time, the outgoing president's lead editorial included two strangely allusive paragraphs referring to recent events I'd heard nothing about till then:

"At the end of this academic year I made one of the most difficult decisions of my 14 years as president in rescinding a job offer made to a candidate for dean of the . . . College of Arts and Sciences. I came to this decision only after considerable reflection on a range of factors but most particularly on aspects of the candidate's writings as they pertained to Marquette's mission and identity. You may have heard various leaders talk about how lonely it can be at the moment of a particularly critical and tough decision. For me it was actually in being alone and in drawing upon my faith and training as a Jesuit and a theologian that I was able to strip away outside voices and interests and discern my own obligations as president of this institution and the community that I love and to act accordingly -- and, I continue to believe, correctly.

"However, the decision provoked great concern among some members of the university community -- some of which stunned me, particularly accusations of bias because of sexual orientation, and all of which saddened me, because it revealed shortcomings in our own internal processes and created divisiveness on campus. But from this incident, I also learned a great deal, including our need to deepen our own understanding of how our university is both Catholic and catholic, both of the Church and inclusive, open to ideas and opinions and welcoming to all people, regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or social class. During my tenure . . . we have established a well-documented record of working for diversity and inclusivity among our students and staff and have fiercely defended academic freedom against those outside of the university who question it . . . "

--Fr. Rbt A. Wild, S.J.;
MARQUETTE Magazine (Summer 2010 issue), pages 3-4
(emphasis mine)

Curious what all this was about, since Fr. Wild tried hard to avoid actually saying anything about what he was talking about, I did a quick online search and learned that what seems to have happened back in May is roughly along these lines. The Search Committee for the new dean had picked a woman for the job who happens to be lesbian. The university first offered her the job and then suddenly withdrew the offer, apparently after the local Archbishop got involved (though his weighing in against her is hard to document). The stated reason was not her sexual orientation, they said (that sort of discrimination wd open them to all kind of lawsuits), but that fact that she had written in favor of gay marriage.

So, it's sad to see Marquette's attempt to enter the twenty-first century result in them sliding all the way back into the nineteenth instead, but not that surprising. I thought the most telling part was not that Marquette wd, in a sudden spasm, revert to arch-orthodoxy (that was the pattern at least once a year all the time I was there). Nor that Fr. Wild wd be shocked that some might accuse him of bias, simply because he'd just committed a discriminatory act. No, it was his conclusion that all this teaches him there's something wrong with their search committee. If only they'd made sure nobody who wasn't the proper sort of person holding the proper sort of opinions got the nod, he'd have been spared firing someone for holding an unOrthodox opinion before she even started to work for him.

All in all, I think the erstwhile-dean is lucky to have been fired before she even started, rather than the first time she said or wrote anything that didn't agree in full with the current administration in Rome.

current audiobook: GENESIS (Jacob & Joseph)
current reading: YSABEL by G. G. Kay

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Darkness Beneath (More Nightmares for the Tolkien Children?)

The Darkness Beneath (More Nightmares for the Tolkien Children?)

So, Janice once commented, after hearing me read out a passage from THE HOBBIT (from Chapters IV [goblin tunnels] or V [lost in dark, Gollum] I think, though it cd have been VIII [Mirkwood]), that Tolkien's bedtime stories must have occasionally given his children-listeners nightmares and gotten him into hot water with Mrs. T. I was reminded of that recently when listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks of ROVERANDOM and LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS (the expanded edition of THE FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS).* For such a light-hearted book, ROVERANDOM has one surprisingly dark passage (both figuratively and literally) that I only noticed when Jacobi's reading drew it to my attention:

[T]he deeps [of the sea] are . . . full of dark and awful places where light has never been and never will be, because they will never be uncovered till light has all gone out. Horrible things live there, too old for imagining, too strong for spells, too vast for measurement. [p.63]

cf. also the passing mention of "the deep, dark, unmentionable monsters of the black abysses [who] do horrible and wicked things." [page 71]

This rather reminded me of two passages in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, first when Gandalf is discussing The Watcher in the Water:

Something has crept, or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world. [LotR.327]

the second comes as part of Gandalf's account of his battle with the Balrog:

Gandalf: Long I fell, and he fell with me . . . we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death . . .

Gimli: Deep is the abyss that is spanned by Durin's Bridge . . .

Gandalf: Yet it has a bottom, beyond light and knowledge . . . Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone . . . We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counter . . . at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin's folk . . . Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day . . .

I know about the associations of Ungoliant with the dark places beneath the world, but these seem to me a wholly separate, parallel set of associations with (1) immemorial darkness, (2) ancient evil, and (3) subterranean waters. I've long been struck by the possibility of a link between Charles Williams' P'o-l'u and Lovecraft's Lost R'lyeh (both of which feature dark ancient octopoidal entities of uttermost evil)** on the one hand and Tolkien's Watcher on the other; these passing references in as innocuous a tale as ROVERANDOM make me think this was a more important element in Tolkien's cosmology than I'd realized; I'll be on the look-out, next time I read the earlier Silm. material, for any other hints at this, particularly in the Ungoliant/Earendel/moon-boat stories.


current reading: THE LOST EXPLORERS by Alexander Macdonald

current audiobook: GOD IS NOT GREAT by Christopher Hitchens; THE BOOK OF GENESIS (King James Bible).

*I just tried to see about upgrading these to cd, but only the audio cassette version seems to be available. Anyone know if a cd edition of these has ever been released? If not, what a pity: Jacobi does a wonderful job, particularly with FCL.

**it seems there is a chance that Williams knew of at least some of Lovecraft's work, but I haven't been able to track down anything concrete or specific. And of course both (or even all three) might be drawing on a common older source unknown to me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sinkhole in Milwaukee

So, last time we were in Milwaukee we were distressed to discover that the house we were married in,* which had the best upstairs flat ever, was being torn down.

Looks like some form of karma struck the neighborhood this past week, since Janice just found the following article about a huge sinkhole opening up at the corner of Oakland & North, a block away from where we lived. Here's the story:

Glad no one was hurt in the incident, but it's an odd feeling to read about a spot I've walked over and driven over many, many times suddenly giving way, having been undercut no doubt slowly by years and years of erosion. I assume this sinkhole more or less connects with the gully just to the south of that. What a mess it must be trying to re-route Lower East Side traffic around that.

--John R.

*eighteen years ago today!

**at the Mythcon I was just at two weekends ago, I learned from Mark Hooker's presentation that what we call "sinkholes" the British call "potholes" -- hence I was amused that here's an example that fits both definitions at once.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conan Doyle

So, recently I was reading THE QUEST FOR SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THIRTEEN BIOGRAPHERS IN SEARCH OF A LIFE, ed. by Jon L. Lellenberg [1987]. I had assumed, from its title, that this consisted of thirteen Doyle experts each writing about a part of the author's life, but instead it's thirteen chapters, each of which critiques a different Doyle biography. I was curious to read some of Richard Lancelyn Green's work (he contributes two chapters) as well as Lellenberg's ('The American' in David Grann's account). I'm pleased to discover that Green's work is first-rate, as is Lellenberg's. The only Doyle biography I've read being TELLER OF TALES by Daniel Stashower [1999], so I learned a lot here.

I still believe Doyle may have been the most gullible man who ever lived (Dr. John Dee being a distant second), and that his knighthood came from writing propaganda in defense of the indefensible, but I hadn't realized he was essentially a neocon, always ready to weigh in supporting any expansion of the Empire. The biographers try hard to argue that Doyle is Holmes, whereas a far better case can be made out for him being a Watson who thought he was a Holmes. They argue, with varying degrees of unsuccess, for the importance of Doyle's historical novels about the Hundred Years' War and other work, at one point raising the question of what would be "his place in literature" had he never written the Holmes stories. That, too, is easy for an outsider to answer: None. Without the Holmes series, he'd be about as well known today as W. W. Jacobs; it's his one enduring claim to fame. Finally, it was fascinating to see how the Doyle family --first his widow, then his son, and finally his daughter-- manipulated Doyle scholars for three-quarters of a century, dangling out the hope of access to 'the family archives' in return for biographers portraying A.C.D. the way his family wanted him portrayed (i.e., not as he was but as they imagined him to be).* This is the same archive the loss of access to seems to have driven Richard L. Green to suicide, his long-planned biography, decades in the researching, apparently still unwritten.

Quite aside from Doyle being an interesting fellow to read about, I was struck by some parallels to Tolkien studies.

First, like Doyle, Tolkien essentially created his own genre, reducing those who came before to precursors** and branding those who came after as successors.

Second, both Doyle and Tolkien enjoyed decades of popularity without academic support.

Third, each attracted the attention of a cadre of independent scholars, publishing in their own self-generated journals that only gradually, reluctantly, grudgingly over time began to gain some critical acceptance.

Still, I'm glad I'm a Tolkien scholar rather than a Doyle scholar. I'd rather defend "Goblin Feet" over THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES anyday.


*for example, none of the contributors to Lellenberg's book seem to be able to bring themselves to say that Houdini exposed Mrs. Doyle as a fraudulent medium -- a pretty big piece of evidence to suppress (one, and only one, does add a ftnt admitting that Houdini left an account of the incident that differs from Doyle's).

**one biographer's unflattering description of "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" (that is, the first generation of Doyle's imitators and successors) notes "To describe the stories as invariably clumsy would be to overgeneralize, but a brisk trot through them gives the impression of haste and disinterest, and sheer incompetence" -- which might stand as a fair description of several of the more famous 'in the tradition of Tolkien' fantasy series from the seventies and eighties and nineties.

Friday, July 23, 2010

H. G. Wells tweaks Sir Henry Rider Haggard

So, now that I'm finally done with and have sent off my Haggard paper ("SHE and Tolkien, Revisited"), it's time to clean my desk -- to reshelve books, take others back to the university library, and sort through the stacks of accumulated photocopies of various bits of resource material and file them where I can find them again (lately I've been doing it by project, which seems to work pretty well). So now seems a good time to relate a fun little bit I came across in the process of researching Haggard (who I know much less about than Tolkien).

One of the most interesting things I read was THE PRIVATE DIARIES OF SIR H. RIDER HAGGARD [1980] -- you can make the case for Sir Henry himself having been far more interesting than his books. I was much amused by one entry in particular, dated 19th November 1921. Haggard was an enthusiastic backer of the British Empire, one of his chief wartime activities being visiting the various overseas parts of the Empire as part of a resettlement scheme to get British soldiers to settle in places like South Africa and Australia and East Africa and New Zealand.*

So, when Haggard attended a banquet in celebration of The Empire, he was not expecting for H. G. Wells to make mischief by questioning whether there shd be an empire at all. Here's how Haggard tells the story:

"Yesterday I went to town to be the principal guest at the dinner of the Delphian Coterie, where the subject for consideration was 'Quo Vadis -- or the Empire a century hence?' There was a large and enthusiastic audience of a very intelligent order, gathered to welcome my fellow guest, Dean Inge, and myself. Before I spoke the Secretary read out the following remarkable and to my mind most mischievous letter from Mr. H. G. Wells: 'I regret very much that I cannot attend your gathering tonight. I hope and believe that one hundred years hence there will be no British Empire. Either it will have played its part in the development of civilisation and have changed into and given place to a much larger union of free states, or it will have become a danger and a nuisance to mankind, and have followed German Imperialism and Roman Imperialism to the dust heap.' (p. 232)

--I'd have more respect for Wells' courage if he'd made this anti-toast in person, but still it's interesting, ninety-eight years later, to see how close Wells was to the mark -- the empire dissolved right about the time of his own death some thirty-five years later. And how horrified Haggard wd be to see the bad old days slip irrecoverably into the past.


current audiobooks: (1) THE KING JAMES BIBLE [1611], and (2) GOD IS NOT GREAT, by Christopher Hitchens [2007].

*essentially a sort of homestead act, designed to help the postwar British maintain white-minority control over nonwhite-majority populations.

There, AND Back Again

So, yesterday came a most welcome parcel in the mail: my lost notebook. The good folks at the hotel in Dallas found it in our room after we checked out -- where, I can't imagine, but of course this means in future when checking out from a hotel room I'll check in drawers and under beds even more obsessively than before. The guy in charge of security (which includes lost and found) was away on vacation when Janice called (since we didn't realize it was gone until we got back here, several days following the conference, and even then had to wait an extra day while my lost suitcase caught up with us, all the while hoping against hope it'd be inside), but thanks to the information she got I was able to get ahold of the person filling in for him on the phone, who took my information, checked, and called back the next day with the welcome news it'd been found. They got it in the mail to me, and here it is -- never to roam again. Time it was retired, & in fact I've already bought a (somewhat slimmer, more easily packed in my carry-on satchel) successor.

So, just what's in it? Well, for years* I've kept a series of notebooks, since otherwise I find that any notes I take (say, when attending a conference or event) quickly get lost in the unsorted piles I'm continually trying to reduce into the order and accessibility of neatly-labelled files. So a decade or so back I switched to hardcover notebooks, which I cd cram more into and use for longer periods than the digest-sized spiral-bound ones I'd been using since about the time I arrived at Marquette (1981). The one I started about a decade ago (May 2000) got retired early, around the end of 2004, so that I cd use its remaining pages for my Reading List (#II.2221 through #II.2860 so far).** The first entry in the one just recovered, the 'Red Book', dates from July 2006 and the last from Saturday July 11th, almost two weeks ago now. During that time I attended three Medievalist Congresses at Kalamazoo, made several research trips to the Wade and Marquette, and took part in other Tolkien events and gatherings, all recorded in this book.*** It still has about thirty blank pages in the back, but I'm not going to risk taking it on another outing after this narrow escape. Though it did turn out that the title 'There and Back Again' stamped on its front cover did prove prophetic.

Welcome back!

--John R.

*starting with Mead 'Organizers' (anyone else remember them?) my first year in high school, about the same time I started keeping my Reading List (10th grade, circa 1975). I also keep a pocket notebook, but that dates back to at least 1971 and I've never found any way to organize them, though I do set aside the most valuable of them (e.g., from the 2007 Bodleian trip).

**DE NUGIS CURIALIUM [tr. 1924] by Walter Map (read May 6th-14th, 2000) and THE MARACOT DEEP [1929] by A. C. Doyle (read July 18th-22nd 2010), respectively.

***although more and more I find that notes from my visits to archives are getting preserved in Word files on my laptop, not in a physical notebook, since it's easier to add to electronic files on subsequent visits and to search them for specific points. Hence most such visits from the Bodelian research trip in Oct. 2007 and subsequent Marquette and Wade sessions aren't recorded herein.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Write Like . . .

So, yesterday I learned from the Huffington Post about a new website where you type in a bit of your own prose and it tells you what famous author most resembles your style of writing.*

It sounded like fun, so I decided to try it out. Since it's hard to sound like yourself when you're self-consciously trying to, Janice suggested I paste in something from one of my blog posts. I chose the one about our three cats having an unexpected and unwelcome visitor in the home a few weeks back (, plugged it in, and hit the 'analyze' button. The result? It says I write like . . . Cory Doctorow. Eww. Another piece from another post gave the result H. P. Lovecraft. And a third, from yet another post, said James Joyce. So apparently I either 'do the police in different voices', so to speak or the program shows its limitations pretty early on.

Then, thinking about all the faith the anti-Hooper school put into computer word analysis programs no more reliable than this one back in the day, I thought it'd be fun to plug in a passage from Lewis's THE DARK TOWER and see what it made of it. The results: P. G. Wodehouse, of all people. A passage from THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH it indeed identified as having a different style, suggesting that it might have been written by Margaret Mitchell, while OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET registered as Shakespeare and PERELANDRA as having been written by H. G. Wells.

I have to give it credit for one thing, though: when I typed in the opening sentences from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it said that author wrote like . . . J. R. R. Tolkien. So, score one out of eight for the system. I'm envious of THE DARK TOWER for having gotten the Wodehouse result, though.

--John R.
current reading: THE QUEST FOR SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE (ed. Lellenberg) & THE LOST EXPLORERS [1906] by Alexander MacDonald
current audiobook: THE FATHER XMAS LETTERS, read by Derek Jacobi

*apparently the site's inventer scanned in three books each by fifty different authors, so its sample size for comparison is relatively limited.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Back from the ArkLaTex

So, last night we finally got back from a two-part trip that ran a little over a week. First we flew down to Dallas, stayed a night with some friends (a former co-worker of Janice's in Allen, Texas), then went to MYTHCON, which was held in a beautiful hotel designed to make acrophobiacs suffer.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. Among the highlights were getting to meet a lot of people I've exchanged e-mails with but never encountered in person before (Jason Fisher, Randy Hoyt, David Oberhelman, Janet Croft), getting the chance to visit with friends I don't see often enough, like David Bratman and Gary Hunnewell and Bruce Leonard and Diana Pavlac, and newer friends like Merlin de Tardo, and meeting new folks -- like Tom Simon, or the Eddison scholar from New Zealand who's just spent a month with the Eddison papers at Leeds and another month at the Bodleian*, or the guy who did the presentation on folklore monsters of Japan, China, and Korea, or any of several others I'd mention if I had my program book (which is in my suitcase) or my 'Red Book' in which I took all my notes all weekend long (which is also in my suitcase).

And where's my suitcase? According to the airline it'll be here soon. Well, soon-ish. Any time now. Certainly no later than a few hours ago.


In any case, it was a great Mythcon. The panel I was on (with David Bratman and Jason Fisher, chaired by Merlin de Tardo) went well, and my talk on Haggard's influence on Tolkien seems to have gone okay (although the near dead silence that met me when I ended surprised me a bit). I got to go to a number of good presentations, including a reading of Ch. Wms' THE MASQUE OF THE MANUSCRIPT (which I first read in the British Library back in 1981 and never thought to see performed) and, one of the standout events of the weekend, THE MAJOR AND THE MISSIONARY, a reading of the correspondence between Major Warnie Lewis and a medical missionary in New Guinea during the last five years of WHL's life; his personality comes out as strongly here as in BROTHERS & FRIENDS. Also, I was delighted that Dimitra Fimi's book won the Mythopoeic Award -- as last year's winner, I got to read out Dimitra's acceptance speech in her absence.

Then it was on to Arkansas, where I spent some time dealing with a family crisis, more or less successfully for now; I'll be returning there soon for round two. More on this later. For now, I'm just grateful to be back home -- even after a good trip, it's nice to be home with the cats (who assure us they are Starved For Affection). Now after a good night's sleep we're settling back in. I've walked the cats and started making a few preparations for the next trip -- regarding which the arrival of my luggage wd help no end. We'll see how long it takes . . .



*the other three authors his dissertation focuses on being MacDonald, Lovecraft, and Peake.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Can Has Game!

So, today the mail brought a large packet that, when opened, turned out to be the copy of SOURCE OF THE NILE I'd ordered last week. This is a game I've only played once before, in the Games Library back at the old TSR in Lake Geneva. I liked it a lot, and recently when trying to think of good games to play with Janice, or solo, I thought this one might be a good choice. Of course it's been out of print for years -- I think it was already long out of print when I first played it, circa '95 or '96 -- but in these days of and &c you don't have to wait until you're at a con with Crazy Egor to get old and out-of-print boardgames, especially when it's a classic.

Which this is: it's an Avalon Hill game (from back when 'Avalon Hill' was an actual boardgame company, rather than an imprint of Hasbro). And I think the design was by Dave Wesley, the person whose attempt to interject individual objectives into a wargamer is said to have inspired Dave Arneson's creation of role-playing, which combined with Gary Gygax's rules-writing ability led to the creation of D&D, the first role-playing game.

Not that you'd know that from this box: so far as I can tell, Avalon Hill has removed the designer's name, in keeping with their house policy never to credit the people who made their games, even when they were reprinting a game that had already been published by some small press.

All of which is old water long under the bridge. I'm just glad to finally have my own copy to play, and it's an added bonus that it ties in nicely with all the Rider Haggard I've been reading for my Mythcon Paper. So, once I've had a little time to read the rules and sort things out, it'll be time for a boardgame night, I think.

--John R.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Death of a Holmes Scholar

So, a while back I skimmed an article about the strange death of Richard Lancelyn Green, best known to Tolkien scholars as having been the son (and near-namesake) of Roger Lancelyn Green, a younger friend of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis's (and even an occasional visitor to the Eagle-&-Child meetings of the Inklings) and eventually Lewis's biographer. Just as his father had been an expert in nineteenth century children's authors such as Andrew Lang and George MacDonald, the younger Green was a renowned Conan Doyle expert, who for years had been at work researching what he hoped wd be a definitive three-volume biography of Sherlock Holmes' creator. All of which made his death in mysterious circumstances seem all the odder.

Then, a month or two ago, I spotted a book at the Borders in Federal Way with the odd title THE DEVIL AND SHERLOCK HOLMES: TALES OF MURDER, MADNESS, AND OBSESSION by David Grann. It looks to be a pretty interesting collection,* but since I was only really interested in one essay I put in a request for it at the library and got in the queue. It's now come and I've had a chance to read the full essay and reflect on it, and all I can say is that it leaves one with the impression that Doyle scholars seems to have the same problems distinguishing between reality and flights of fancy as Doyle himself did.

The main issue comes down to whether Green was murdered, as several of his fellow Holmes scholars believe, or committed suicide, as his family and the police concluded. It's a strange tale, but an interesting one about how scholars interested in a particular author become friends, collaborate, quarrel, become rivals, &c. One of the piece's oddities is referring to one Holmes scholar, who asked not to be identified (and who is described in sinister terms by the more conspiracy-minded of Green's English friends), as "The American". In fact, a few minutes with and google reveals his name to be Jon L. Lellenberg, for years the editor of the BAKER STREET IRREGULARS' journal and the group's historian, as well as the Doyle estate's American agent. Lellenberg's most interesting book looks to be THE QUEST FOR SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THIRTEEN BIOGRAPHERS IN SEARCH OF A LIFE, which he edited and which includes not just a foreword by Doyle's daughter but two essays by his friend Green.

It all came down in the end to greed -- not monetary, but for access to unpublished manuscripts (a hot-button topic for all scholars, whatever author they devote themselves to). Green knew Doyle's last surviving daughter, with whom he'd once been friendly but long since had a falling out** (and, hence, also a falling out with Lellenberg, since he was associated with the estate), had a lot of family papers which she'd at one time intended to will to the British Library. When he heard after her death that the papers were to be auctioned off, and hence probably go to libraries and private collectors in America, he tried to block the sale with accusations of wrong-doing somewhere behind the scene if not outright theft and, according to the conspiracy-minded, was murdered so that the sale could go through. Or, alternatively, as the owner of the largest private Doyle collection in England, he wasn't able to face the fact that he'd never be able to plumb the depths of those papers before they were scattered to the four winds, and killed himself when he realized he'd never be able to finish his life's work.

Except that it turns out he was wrong. That Doyle's daughter divided the papers with some other relatives, and it was these grand-nephews of the author who were selling off their stuff, while all the most important material she'd kept for herself she did leave to the British Library, where it is today. So there was actually no reason for anybody to murder him, and he'd have been able to continue his life-long researching of the biography after all, which removes the impetus for suicide -- if he'd only known that, or been willing to believe it. A sad story, and an interesting object lesson for literary obsession.***

--John R.

--current book: SHE AND ALLAN
--cuurent audiobook: ROVERANDOM, read by Derek Jacobi.

My wife's comment, after reading this post: POT. KETTLE. BLACK!

*for example, the second essay details the well-documented case of an innocent man executed in Texas in 2004; another recounts a survivor of 9/11 suffering from trauma-induced amnesia trying to reconstruct his movements that day.
**apparently she objected to his dismissive attitude towards some of Doyle's loonier enthusiasms near the end of his life.
***destructive obsession seems to be a theme in David Grann's work, based on the only other book of his I've read, THE LOST CITY OF Z.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


So, yesterday I went and picked strawberries at the Al Duris farm along the Green River, one of the last working farms in the Green River Valley. The quality of their stuff is a good reminder of just how good this land used to be for farming, and why people settled on it back in the 1850s.

Being able to buy their strawberries right off the farm is something we look forward to each year -- there's something undefinable about just-picked fruit that's just hard to match at in a produce section, even a good one. This year they've been delayed and delayed by the rains until we thought they might not open at all, but they finally did -- for just two weeks rather than their usual five- to six-week season. But two weeks is still enough time to drop by several times and buy a half-flat (six pints) of berries, taken them home, and pop all we can't eat into freezer bags to enjoy over the coming year.

With any luck they'll still be open a few days this week. If you're going to be in the area, it's definitely worth a side-trip down that little road (Frager Road, I think) that runs past the too-quaintly named 'Old Fishing Hole' park all the way down to the West Valley Hwy.

--John R.

UPDATE (Tues. July 6th): I swung by again today, and they're still open. In fact, because the weather's turned so warm and dry they expect to be able to extend the season through this week and maybe even into the weekend. They do have a few other things from their other farms (fresh picked Rainier cherries, raspberries-- apparently their main farm specializes in cucumbers), but for my money it's their strawberries that can't be beat. --JDR