Thursday, June 30, 2011


So, a few days ago I got word that another piece I worked on is now out: the second installment of Scott Gable's THE FAERIE RING,* which I edited. This one does a good job of showing the eclecticism of Scott's project, going far afield from the usual Celticism of most fey and drawing instead on Japanese folklore (v. successfully, I thought). Here's the link:

--John R.

*(aka the Feyonomicon, part two)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I'm Back

So, last night we got back from our trip to Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas (mostly St. Louis and Arkansas).
I'm hoping to blog about some of the interesting things we saw and did -- seeing some Tolkien friends, visiting Cahokia Mounds, going to Kadoha Village, &c -- but I've come back to a mountain of pressing work, so thought as a stopgap I'd just list some things from the day before yesterday:

--visited my father's grave
--saw a car on fire in the median on the freeway
--planted a cape-jasmine bush in the yard where my grandmother's house used to stand*
--discovered that, given the chance, blue jays will happily eat dry catfood
--seen a young blue-jay following its parent from branch to branch, hopefully expecting to be fed
--discovered that sparrows are mighty predators; I saw two of them after a bug, and it made me glad the proportion size between them and me is what it is (a good reminder that dinosaurs aren't dead, they just evolved). I rescued the beetle and left them a few shelled peanuts in reconpense
--picked up the first and only toad frog I saw on the trip (though we saw some huge water-frog in the St. Louis botanical gardens). which involved some hand-washing afterwards
--saw two Tiger Swallowtails, my favorite butterfly.

John R.

*the day before having driven my mother by the place where my other grandmother used to live: the little house was still there, though now long abandoned and practically invisible from the road. Glad to see the old black walnut tree's still there, at least.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Return of the Emu

So, recently I came across a reference to a forthcoming book on J. R. R. Tolkien, this time a children's biography. There have been many of these in the past, mostly for (younger) teen readers, but this is the first one I've seen that seems to be targeting grade-school kids. At just 32 pages, it looks to be more of a picture book than text-heavy. I admit to being curious to how they reduce JRRT's life into this format. Most biographies for younger readers are essentially biographical fiction that focus mainly on the subject's early life (i.e., up to about the age of the intended readers) and then pass lightly over the rest, just touching on the high points. Let's hope this one doesn't fall into that pattern.

In any case, I've preordered the book and will soon (in about two months) be able to see for myself, at which time I'll post a brief update here. But what I can say about the book right now is that seeing the cover art (available here*; be sure to click on the cover art to enlarge the icon) took me back to the bad old days of the original Barbarba Remington art for the covers of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There the artist, not being allowed time to read the book, created a collage of fantasy images, such as a castle, a lion, an emu, and an eggplant tree. The results was both a bad piece of art and something wholly inappropriate to Tolkien's story.**

Here, there's no excuse to not having Tolkien's story available to the artist, which makes this cover a bit of a poser. For one thing, if shown the portrait on the cover out of context (i.e., without the background), I wd not have been able to recognize it as intended for a likeness of JRRT (I think, if pressed, I might have guessed Stephen Frye). By contrast, the portrait of Bilbo (or perhaps Frodo) looks fine, furry feet and pipe and cloak and all, and among the background details the dragon is wholly appropriate (though the wrong color if he's intended to be Smaug), as are the Ring, the cup, and I suppose the spider. But what are we to make of the moth, the owl in front of a castle, and worst of all the little winged fairy? I suspect the moth comes in through confused memories of the film (Gandalf's messenger). The owl I suppose might be borrowed from T. H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE, or (more likely) the Disney movie derived therefrome; the fairy's just some little bit of generic fantasy motif, no more appropriate than a unicorn or pegasus wd be.***

So, if we were to (pre)judge the book by its cover, we'd expect a bright, cheerful story that follows the facts, more or less, in broad outline**** but isn't particularly interested in getting the details right. We'll see: time will (soon) tell.

And if only Dr. Blackwelder were still alive, I cd forward this to him to be added to his gallery of TOLKIEN PORTRATURE; I even know where it'd fit into his classification. Now there's a project I wish someone else wd take up and re-create, perhaps as a website. But I assume the permissions wd be prohibitive. Pity.

--John R.


**the inappropriateness was not her fault, of course; the overall quality was (although perhaps mitigated by her only being given a weekend to do that job).

***if I recall rightly, one of the three Ace Books covers of the first LotR paperback did feature a pegasus -- but at least two out of the three were more or less appropriate to the book, putting them worlds ahead of Ballantine's effort.

****For example, I don't expect them to pass my litmus test for Tolkien biographies: those who state (falsely) that he was 'born in South Africa" and those who (correctly) say that he was born in what is now South Africa -- which is about as different as saying that someone born in East Prussia was 'born in Poland' (I actually know someone of whom this cd be said, since the country of his birth has dramatically shifted its borders during his lifetime).

Pratchett's Homage to Tolkien

So, for a lighter touch -- and Pratchett is all about the lighter touch -- here's Pratchett's little affectionate parody of Tolkien: a brief scene in WITCHES ABROAD [1991]:

Above the noise of the river and the occasional drip of water from the ceiling they could all hear, now, the steady slosh-slosh of another craft heading towards them.

'Someone's following us!' hissed Magrat.

Two pale glows appeared at the edge of the lamplight. Eventually they turned out to be the eyes of a small grey creature, vaguely froglike, paddling towards them on a log.

It reached the boat. Long clammy fingers grabbed the side, and a lugurious face rose level with Nanny Ogg's.

' 'ullo,' it said. 'It'sss my birthday.'

All three of them stared at it for a while. Then Granny Weatherwax picked up an oar and hit it firmly over the head. There was a splash, and a distant cursing.

'Horrible little bugger.' said Granny, as they rowed on. 'Looked like a troublemaker to me.'

'Yeah,' said Nanny Ogg. 'It's the slimy ones you have to watch out for.'

'I wonder what he wanted?' said Magrat.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Getting Very Near the End

So, Monday I heard the sad news that Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors, is nearing the end of the line. Sir Terry* was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's a few years back; he's kept busy for as long as he could but is now apparently losing ground. He's been working to complete one more book and another movie, this time not a Discworld film like the other four but a documentary about assisted suicide. Nor is this simply a topic of academic interest to him, as he's making arrangements at an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland. Here's the link, with more information at the link in that piece to the original Guardian article:

--John R.

current reading: WITCHES ABROAD [1991]

*just learned today that the motto on his coat of arms is the thoroughly appropriate: Noli Timere Messorum (Don't Fear the Reaper)

Saturday, June 11, 2011


So, today I saw for the first time an in-print copy of my latest publication: THE LOST CITY, a D&D (4th edition) adventure that lacks both Cynideceans and Yuan-ti but has plenty to make up for them. Being neither a reprint* of module B4. THE LOST CITY (one of Tom Moldvay's fondly remembered classics or, in this case, near-classic) nor a revisiting of DWELLERS IN THE FORBIDDEN CITY (an early work by TSR stalwart Zeb Cook that introduced Howardesque snake-men to D&D), it's an all-new adventure by Logan Bonner, et al.** I think elements of both precursors found their way into this, though, in the form of the lizard-like folk lurking in the city who behave in interestingly peculiar ways that shd lead to lots of role-playing opportunities (for thems that likes to actually role-play in their role-playing games).

Anyway, it's all-new, 96 pages, 4e D&D from the good folks*** at Open Design/Kobold Quarterly. Here's the link:

Nor is this the only roleplaying credit that shd have been included in the updates I've been meaning to make on Sacnoth's Scriptorium. A few months back saw the release of THE FAEIE RING by Scott Gable, which I also edited:

Actually this is just the Introduction to a much longer work. Originally it was to be ten chapters, of which six are already fully edited; I understand the plan is now to divide this into two volumes, each detailing five Faerie Lords (think the old Ravenloft Darklords each with his or her own realm and you'll get the idea). What I've seen of it so far is really intriguing and well done, with some highly unusual takes on the material that really break away from the fey stereotypes into something much darker and more horrific, on the whole. Hence my own private nickname for it, the 'Feyonomican'

And finally there's one more that's finished but not yet come out: a five-part CALL OF CTHLUHU adventure, RED EYE OF AZATHOTH, in which the characters play through five segments of the same campaign set in five different historical eras: Lindisfarne during the Viking Age, Feudal Japan in the 12th century, Inquisitorial Spain, colonial Roanoke (want your characters to find out what happened to the Lost Colony by being part of it?), and the Wild West. I thought it was a fascinating concept, and used the hook of similar events playing out in wildly divergent places to great effect -- although be warned that the scenarios are quite gruesome, much more so than is usual with C.o.C. Here's the link:

If you pick up any of these three, let me know what you think.
--John R.

*nor updated expansion, a la the Silver Anniversary 'Return to" series, several of which I worked on

**i.e., Logan is the author responsible for the overall project, with Jobe Bittman, Michael Furlanetto, Tracy Hurley, and Quinn Murphy joining him in writing individual chapters detailing adventures in different parts of the underground city; I edited the whole, smoothing out the occasional disconnects between the different chapters.

***hi Wolf! hi Shelly!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Chauvet Cavern)

So, the weekend before last (specifically, Sunday the 28th), we went and did something we haven't done for a while: went out and saw a movie. I forget what the last movie we saw in a theatre was, except that it was long enough ago that all the things we saw previews for then have since come and gone and are now available as dvds by the checkout stands in supermarkets. So it's been a while (the thing about falling out of a habit is that you usually do it gradually enough that you don't much notice, except in retrospect).

This one, however, sounded good enough to lure us out: a documentary about cave art -- specifically, Chauvet Cave: the oldest of the three famous Paleolithic caves with paintings of animals (many of them now extinct), the most recently discovered, and the one I knew the least about. Plus, the film was by Werner Herzog, whose GRIZZLY MAN showed just how well he cd do a documentary, while his INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS is perhaps my second-favorite mockumenary.* I've never seen a 3-d movie before, and hadn't realized until arriving at the theatre (in The Commons in Federal Way, near the recently departed Borders) that it was '3-d'. I'm not much eager to see one again -- glasses over glasses is an awkward fit -- but it really was appropriate here, since it turns out the cave-painters used the shape of the walls as part of their images, somethings painting heads on bulges or bending figures around curves.

All I can say is that this film (made under difficult conditions in order not to disturb the site) does a great job of showing the art. It gives a good sense of what it's like to be in there, wh. is important since so few of us will ever get to see the cave in person (the closest approach I've made is to Pictograph Cave near Billings Montana, though I hope to make it up to Nanaimo Petroglyph Park in British Columbia one of these days). And I won't hold against it the one annoying moment, when he wants to emphasize the silence of the cave by overdubbing first heartbeats and then the soundtrack over the scene of characters standing quietly.

Now I wish I cd find equally good depictions of the two other such caves. The first, Altamira, was discovered as far back as 1879 but not generally admitted to be authentic until from around 1902 onward; this is the one that inspired Tolkien's cave-paintings in the 1932 FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTER. The second, Lascaux, was discovered in 1940 and, I gather, recognized as the real thing right away. But Chauvet, although only rediscovered in 1994, is much, much older: the art here is about 32,000 years old. That's a long, LONG time ago.

I have a book on Altamira (borrowed years ago from a co-worker at WotC, to whom I cd never return it because the person I thought loaned it denied all knowledge of the book and none of my subsequent attempts to find its owner were ever successful), but it's rather technical in tone and shows v. little of the art. And I have a beautifully illustrated oversized book on Lascaux, picked up at Elliott Bay Books several years ago, when they were actually near Elliott Bay, but have not yet read it. Now I'll need to be on the look-out both for a good documentary about the other two caves and a good, well-illustrated book about Chauvet to ponder over.

Two things that bemused me: First, the fact that you can't go and see these caves for yourself. Both Altamira and Lascaux are now closed to visitors to prevent wear and tear on the site, and access to Chauvet is severely limited for the same reason. Or, as my wife put it, "the cave must be preserved for future generations, who won't be allowed to see it either".

Second, the persistence of chronological snobbery (as Barfield called it). When Altamira was first discovered, people simply refused to believe that "cave-men", who they imagined as brutish, stupid, and barely able to say "Og", could have created such beautiful art. When Altamira was finally authenticated, and with the later discovery of Lascaux and much more contributing evidence (like the discovery of musical instruments), the experts had to adjust their conception of what the people from that time were like. That is, people just like us. And yet each time they assume the new evidence they've found comes right on the cusp of people first being able to do that thing. There are a few mentions in the Chauvet documentary of humans having just gained the ability to draw like that -- a wholly unwarranted assumption. The best corrective I know is to read THE LOST CIVILISATION OF THE STONE AGE, which argues eloquently that the basics of civilization -- people living in little villages, with domesticated animals and some crops, trade-routes extending thousands of miles, wearing woven cloth and probably with pottery -- go back a long, long way. The basic human experience we share in doesn't start five thousand years ago in Egypt or Mesopotamia but tens of thousands of years ago, much of it in places now inaccessible (because of rising sea levels after the Ice Ages).

In any case, here's a link to the one thing I thought missing from the film: a diagram of the cave to help convey a sense of where what you're seeing is in relation to everything else:


**beaten out, I think, by Peter Jackson's FORGOTTEN SILVER, which people viewing it have actually mistaken for the real thing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Panel at WisCon (People of Color in Fantasy Worlds)

(1) So, recently David Bratman had an interesting post about the single fact about Earthsea that most readers miss: that Ged is black. I think this is because Le Guin fails to clearly signal this simple fact to the reader,* but David here does a good job of arguing otherwise by bringing together all the references in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA to characters' skin color:
What I found particularly interesting in this is David's drawing attention to the fact that Le Guin avoids describing Ged; a nice piece of subtlety, even though I think it backfired on her here.

(2) In any case, she avoided the misfortune of having been on the panel at WisCon David mentions and provides the link to, where one panelist (the talented Mary Doria Russell) sparked the ire of one person in attendance, who seems to have spent the rest of the weekend telling people that Russell had made racially insensitive remarks and trying to get people upset and outraged over what seems, from a distance, to be a perfectly harmless comment. Here's the offended party's description of the panel, along with her critique at the end of what upset her so badly:

(3) Despite the panel's general inconclusiveness and the outrage of the report's author, it's an interesting topic and I wd have attended if I still lived close enough to make it to WisCons. This was something that came up in D&D all the time, particularly among those of us at TSR in the early nineties who were trying to include as much gender and ethnic diversity into the adventures and boxed sets and sourcebooks we wrote and edited as we cd (particularly the art).

The problem is that acceptable terminology changes over time, so that "white" and "black" (which have the benefit of being universally understood) have been challenged and replaced by the more neutral terms "Caucasian" and "African-American". But in a fantasy world like Greyhawk or Mystara, there are no Caucasian Mts nor any Africa, so those referents are woefully out of place. The Forgotten Realms tried to address the problem by creating an area of African-style jungle called "Chult", but that solution itself was open to charges of tokenism (the Realms' Asia analogue, ORIENTAL ADVENTURES, was vast by comparison, as were its later Central-America analogue and Mideast analogue; only its Africa analogue was disproportionally small -- whereas in the real world Africa is the second largest continent, huge by comparison to Europe).

In the end, the problem wasn't solved so much as side-stepped. With the coming of settings like PLANESCAPE and later Third Edition it was simply assumed that the human population of those settings was racially mixed, with ethnicity no longer corresponding to culture -- that is, much more like post-modern America.

Ultimately, I don't think we ever found a good way to describe ethnicities in rpg products, and mostly fell back on the art instead -- though here too we quickly ran into difficulties (but that's a whole 'nother story).

So, I have no good solution. 'People of Color', the current acceptable term, will no doubt one day seem terribly quaint in its turn; I can only hope that by then people will look back on all this in mild disbelief that the people of our time were so obsessed by distinctions and gradations that no longer exist.

--John R.

*just as, in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, there's one scene in which she intended the reader to visualize the alien as a woman although she keeps referring to the character as "he" throughout. I think in both cases there's a disjuncture between what Le Guin sees in her mind's eye and what she conveys to the reader.

Friday, June 3, 2011

As Catholic As The Day Is Long

So, just before heading out to Kalamazoo I ordered a copy of the new Joseph Pearce documentary about J. R. R. Tolkien as a Catholic writer. Originating as an hour-long show on Catholic TV (i.e., EWTN*), this had been discussed on the MythSoc list not long before, but I decided I'd like to see it for myself and also have a reference copy. And now I do, as it arrived here the day after I got back.

Unfortunately, I found it somewhat lacking. In format it went back and forth between three modes. First, we have narration by Pearce, who's standing in some woods wearing a backpack and carrying a walking stick. Occasionally we break away to a scene in which an actor playing Tolkien (and, in one scene, a second as C. S. Lewis) looks up from his desk, recites some snippet from JRRT's letters, and puts his pipe back in his mouth. Finally, rather too often we see a still picture of a piece of Tolkien-inspired art that serves as a backdrop to a voiceover reading of some passage from THE LORD OF THE RINGS or AINULINDALE.

As with any production, there are some minor errors (Fr. John Tolkien is referred to as "a Jesuit priest"), but on the whole they've done their homework and the biographical summary is fairly solid.

It's not the facts but the interpretation where this piece falls down for me. The argument is not just that Tolkien is a Catholic writer -- a self-evident truth -- but that a Cathl0centric point of view is the only valid one through which to interpret his work. To try to build his case, Pearce resorts to heavy allegorization of the evidence. Thus he asserts that "Tolkien's Melkor is merely another name for Satan" and "merely different words for the same thing: Melkor IS Satan". The Lord of the Ring himself is "Sauron, the greatest of Satan's servants".

But thinking through the consequences of its claims is not this documentary's strong point. Instead, its blurring of Tolkien's story and orthodox Catholic doctrine produces some odd effects and distortions to both. For example, Pearce claims that March 25th (the date of the Ring's destruction) is the most important holy day in the entire Xian calendar -- which shd come as a surprise to those of us who celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Elsewhere, and rather bizarrely, Pearce claims The One Ring is Original Sin itself. One wd think this wd be good news -- if Original Sin got tossed into a volcano and destroyed for all time thousands of years ago at the end of the Third Age, then Satan has never been able to take physical form in historical time (Jesus must have been imagining his presence throughout the Temptation in the Wilderness of the Gospel account).

Pearce says quite bluntly at one point that a chain of allusions he constructs (Sauron > saurian > lizard-like > the Serpent in the Garden) has the effect of "rendering impossible, or at least improbable, any but a theistic interpretation of the book".

I cd not disagree more. Tolkien was a complex man. To seize upon one aspect of his life -- his medievalism, his faith, his love of trees, his language-creation, his status as a writer of fantasy or a survivor of the Great War or a mid-century writer, his compulsion to write even without hope of publication, his belonging to the Inklings or being a friend of Lewis's -- and insist it's the only one that's important is to seriously distort the picture.

Two final examples say a lot about this documentary.

First, one long scene (some fifteen minutes, out of a total running time over only about an hour) dramatizes the famous walk in which Tolkien and Lewis debated whether myths cd convey truth, which ended in Tolkien's assertion that Xianity was the one true myth. While v. well done, it contains two fairly major distortions. It presents Tolkien as doing almost all the talking while Lewis listens attentively, offering up a few respectful questions from time to time. This bears no resemblance to any account of Lewis as a conversationalist I've ever seen. It also portrays this as a dialogue, completely omitting Hugo Dyson, the third participant in that debate -- and assuming Dyson (a devout Xian but deeply bigoted against the Catholic church) held his tongue and had no influence on Lewis's decision to rejoin the Anglican church rather than become Catholic upon his return to Xianity is an iffy proposition.

Those changes can be defended on the grounds of dramatic license (after all, we only have Tolkien's account of this meeting, which doesn't include any indication of what Dyson said). But the second is far more problematic. Pearce has the actor playing Tolkien** repeat a passage from a 1958 letter to Deborah Webster Rogers: "I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic." But this is deeply deceptive, for the very next sentence goes on add "The latter 'fact' perhaps cannot be deduced". That is, Tolkien felt that his Xianity was obvious to an attentive reader but his Catholicism was not, and Pearce seems to be manipulating the evidence to hide this fact.

All in all, a missed opportunity. By overstating his case, Pearce has weakened it. I think it's one of those times when, having picked up a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Pearce's first book (TOLKIEN: A CELEBRATION) did a great job of pulling together pieces that argued for taking Tolkien's Catholicism seriously as an important part of his make-up; it was a genuine contribution to Tolkien studies. But by the time of his second book (TOLKIEN: MAN AND MYTH), Pearce had begun to claim that only Catholicism held the key to understanding Tolkien, granting it a sort of magical skeleton key status that cd unlock all doors. And this documentary belongs more in the latter category than the former.

current reading: THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END (Kindle)

*'Eternal Word Television Network': the 'Global Catholic Network'

**Kevin O'Brien, who does a wonderful job. Al Marsh, who plays CSL, does okay but has to struggle against type, being too tall, too well-dressed, and w. too much hair for the heavyset, chain-smoking, balding, disheveled Lewis.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The War on Drugs

This just in: we lost 'the War on Drugs'

I expect this news flash to be followed soon by another to the effect that President Nixon's other big initiative, the war in Vietnam, isn't going all that well either.*


*I mean, when even a Prohibitionist like me gives up on it, you know its days are numbered.

Lewis Loved Being Read To . . .

So, yesterday I had a wicked thought.

I was working on something else, and came across some print-outs from an online discussion I'd taken part in a year and a half or so back about C. S. Lewis's response to the ending of THE HOBBIT. My main point was that we simply don't know what about it he didn't like and can only make more or less well-informed guesses. But in passing I had suggested, somewhat light-heartedly, that maybe Lewis just had trouble reading Tolkien's handwriting and this irksomeness got in the way of his enjoying the final part of the book (that is, the handwritten conclusion to the composite typescript/manuscript Tolkien circulated among his friends between early 1933 and mid-1936) -- forming a barrier between him and full 'secondary belief' submersion in the text.

Re-reading this, and taking into account a new idea I'd had recently regarding the two missing pages from the DARK TOWER manuscript, it suddenly clicked with something Tolkien once said, which I now saw cd be taken in a whole new light. In a 1965 letter to Dick Plotz, Tolkien wrote how

". . . C. S. Lewis was one of the only three persons who have so far read all or a considerable pan of my 'mythology' of the First and Second Ages, which had already been in the main lines constructed before we met. He had the peculiarity that he liked to be read to. All that he knew of my 'matter' was what his capacious but not infallible memory retained from my reading to him as sole audience . . ." (LETTERS p. 361)

What if Lewis's preference that Tolkien read aloud all his works to him stemmed from an aversion to making his way through JRRT's notoriously bad handwriting? Obviously this can't be the whole story -- we know he sometimes borrowed manuscripts, as when he made such detailed commentary on "The Lay of Leithian" and when he inadvertently destroyed the only copy of one of Tolkien's stories. But I know I'll be on the look-out now, reading memoirs of Lewis and the like, for accounts of others besides Tolkien whom he invariably preferred aloud read to him.

--John R.

just finished: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD by Kenji Miyazawa.

just starting: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON by Edmond Hamilton.