Sunday, July 31, 2011

More on Horne

Well, I've now finished Mark Horne's shortish biography of Tolkien (#II.2932). And while Horne writes pretty well and has the occasional insight (such as suggesting [p. 89] that writing for his children enabled Tolkien to overcome the self-consciousness that paralyzed his more ambitious works), this biography has two things going against it. First, like most of the Tolkien biographies published in the last two decades, it's essentially a paraphrase of Carpenter (except for the two chapters which derive from Garth). Second, and more seriously, it has a lot of errors.

Most of these are relatively minor, such as the claim that Tolkien couldn't finish A MIDDLE-ENGLISH VOCABULARY without E. V. Gordon's help, or that the Tolkien-Gordon edition of SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT set the standard for students of Old English for decades thereafter (it's in Middle English). Some are more problematic, such as the claim that Christopher Wiseman helped Tolkien create his invented languages (news to me, and I shd think unlikely -- at any rate, Wiseman never made any such claim to me). Or Horne's statement that Tolkien felt Lit. students shdn't have to study any philology [p. 84], which is the exact opposite of what Tolkien set out in the syllabus he got enacted at Oxford. And even minor errors add up when you keep making them.

And then there's the problem of focus. Horne spends most of his book on Tolkien's youth, a feature of juvenile and young-adult biographies (which assume the reader mainly wants to know what a famous person was like at their age and a bit thereafter); only about a dozen pages are devoted to the last quarter-century of JRRT's life. And this is a pity, because the latter chapters (regarding the writing of THE HOBBIT, LotR, and afterwards) are much the best part of this book: I suspect that Horne, a Presbyterian minister who's also published a study of the GOSPEL OF MARK, is good at bringing to life a well-known story. Another 'juvenile/young adult' feature is that several of the early chapters begin with fictionalized passages (or, as Horne puts it, scenes to which he's added "imagined conversational details"). There's certainly precedent for this: Carpenter devoted a central chapter in both TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY and THE INKLINGS to a fictional re-creation of a 'day in the life'. But whereas H.C. synthesized information from many sources into a single smooth narrative; Horne just re-tells a single scene. Here's the longest such example, from the beginning to Chapter 3 (1910-1911):

"Watch this, Edith," the teenage boy said to the
pretty girl sitting across from him as he picked up
a sugar lump from the bowl at their table. To any
onlooker, he appeared handsome and athletic -- partially due to
a hearty commitment to playing rugby with his schoolmates.
But there were no onlookers here on the second floor.

The couple's favorite Birmingham tea shop had a balcony
overlooking the street below. From there they sat and sipped
tea and watched the foot traffic beneath them, talking of trivial

The boy was too mischievous to merely watch. He had
just spotted a large, flowery hat parading below. It presented
a tempting target for a teenage boy who wanted to impress
a girl. "Don't do it, Ronald." said Edith, in a tone that did
nothing to make Tolkien hesitate in executing his plan. He
gently tossed the lump of sugar at the wide brim passing on
the steet.


"Oh no," whispered Edith, ducking back behind the bal-
cony rail.

But she didn't need to worry. The sugar lump hit the street
silently, and neither the woman underneath the hat nor anyone
else near her noticed it. Tolkien grabbed another fast, before the
hat was out of range. "This time I'll make it."

He reached his target. Tolkien grinned and Edith giggled as
the lady walked away with an extra sugar lump decorating the
brim of her colorful hat.

"My turn," said Edith . . .
[Horne, pages 26-27]

Harmless enough, but is it really worth devoted almost two pages out of such a brief book (only 130 pages of text before the endnotes & recommended reading)?

Oddly enough, for a book written by a pastor and published as part of a series called 'Christian Encounters', there's relatively little on religion in this book -- certainly no more than in Carpenter, and I'd say probably less.* Although there is one strange passage [p. 12] where the author suddenly denounces Unitarianism; in a podcast interview about his book** Horne speculates that Tolkien's mother appointed Fr. Francis her sons' guardian to keep them out of the hands of the "non-Xian influence" (!) of old John Suffield, their grandfather -- which seems to be overstating things. Horne also has theories about a strong corrolation between creative people and being orphaned, which he brings up twice [p. 6 & p. 17] but unfortunately muddles his math when trying to explain.

Finally, it turns out Horne has his own Tolkien blog, which is well worth checking out:***

In addition to this biography and the book on MARK, he's also written WHY BAPTIZE BABIES, co-authored UNNATURAL AFFECTIONS and a work rather alarming titled HOW TO KEEP THEM FROM TAKING YOUR CHILDREN AWAY, and contributed to A FAITH THAT IS NEVER ALONE, which is a response to 'the Westminster Seminary', whatever that is.

On the whole, I have to say that if you're only going to read one book about Tolkien, you should read Carpenter. But having read Horne's little biography, I think he shows enough flashes of insight that I find myself hoping that rather than another book he'll write some stand-alone essays on various Tolkienian topics.

--John R.****
current reading: THE MAN IN THE MOONE by Francis Godwin [1638]

*but then Bishop Carpenter's son was interested in religion, if not particularly sympathetic to it.

***although be warned; he seems to be something of a Creationist, if you'd find that a sticking point.

****disclaimer: Horne does cite me in one footnote (regarding the corrected dating of Tolkien's letter about Sam Gamgee), though he doesn't mention my name [Note 8 to Chapter 4, pages 134-135]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Well, This Is Weird

So, about the only lighter moment involved with the ongoing debt/default/government shutdown crisis is that over the last two days various Republican politicians have taken to accusing each other of being various characters in Tolkien's LotR.

It all started with a WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial which portrayed the House Republicans as naive "tea party hobbits":

The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama. The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.

This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell* into GOP Senate nominees . . .

Here's the link to the full piece from which this passage comes.

It probably would have ended there, had not John McCain taken it up and read this same passage from the floor of the Senate (so this Tolkien analogy is now officially in the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD -- how weird is that?) on Wednesday; see the C-Span footage included under the following link:

Things got even more complicated after that, with Rand Paul wandering into the fray, mildly observing that it's better to be a hobbit than a troll,** and the hapless Angle referring to the original "fable".

But they reached apotheosis when Steven Colbert, who like Adam Savage has serious LotR geek credentials, had a go at it on his show; the Tolkien bit starts about a minute into the four-minute segment:

And that seems to be a good place to leave it.

--John R.

*who herself is something of a Tolkien fan

**though it's weird in itself that anyone named after Ann Rand cd admire Tolkien's hobbits.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Even Newer Arrival

So, I'd no sooner posted about the three new books to find their way into our house (a thriller, a Tolkien biography, and translations from the Old English) than upon the doorstep arrives the long-awaited TOLKIEN AND WALES, by Carl Phelstead. This turns out to be a fairly slim volume -- just about 120 pages excluding the bibliography and notes (which extend its length by half again as much). I heard good things about this one at Kalamazoo, and got to see a copy when I was in St. Louis.

From what I've seen so far, it's a good example of a thorough treatment of an important subject which the author has been careful not to belabor: it's a good topic for a short book, not a massive one. Knowing when to stop is a good gift to have in a writer, and I'm looking forward to reading this one to seeing how well Mr. Phelpstead covers such an interesting topic. I strongly suspect it'll be a serious contender for next year's Mythopoeic Award.

The only thing I'd warn against is the price-point. Not for the trade paperback, which is out already, and v. reasonably priced (you can get it online for around $20). But the hardcover, which I got on the assumption that it probably wdn't have a US edition and any paperback wd be years down the road (quite wrong, as it turns out), comes in at a staggering $148 (sans tax). Here the outrageous pricing for books from university presses and equally outrageous prices for imported books seem to have run together into an ungodly result.

So, profit from (not following) my example. Time now to return to and finish up the Horne biography so I can move on to greener pastures . . .

--John R.
current reading: RED EYE OF AZATHOTH
current audiobook: THE PICKWICK PAPERS [1837] (just finished!)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Nineteen Years (And Counting)

So, it was great to have guests, and to see family again, and to head out in a group to see the sights. But today's being our anniversary reminds us that it's also nice to have quiet time together, just the two of us. Yesterday we went out to High Tea at a teahouse we'd never been to before, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Miyagi's people, Ginger & Doug, from the last time we cat-sat him, expressed in the form of a gift certificate to the Village Eatery and Tea Company.

Now, both Janice and I love a good English High Tea, and have been to them at a variety of places over the years -- Bits of Britain in Milwaukee (long since gone, alas*), the Empress in Victoria (now there's some folks who really know how to throw a High Tea), Queen Mary's Tearoom in the U-district (which we had liked, but which changed recently, and not for the better), Secret Garden in Sumner (a fairly recent discovery, a year or two back, and our current favorite), and probably one or two others we tried in passing when we were visiting various cities.** So trying one of our favorite things in a new place seemed like a good 'something old/something new' thing to do for the anniversary.

The teahouse itself is way up in Bothell, on the far (north) side of Seattle from here, but easily accessible from 405 (once local construction let us get on 405, that is). It turned out to be part of a little faux-rustic pedestrian mall called Country Village -- a bit like Delevan's Miss Millie's Pancake House, but on a larger scale. The Tea itself was v. nice: mulligatawny soup (good, but surprised to see it as part of a Tea), tea sandwiches (which I naturally skipped) and fruit (which I v. much enjoyed), and a fine array of tea-cookies and pastries; the scone was particularly memorable, as was the pecan bar I picked up on the way out (which turned out to have some dried fruit in it; v. nice!). We didn't technically have their 'high tea', because (oddly enough) it turns out they don't serve high tea on Sundays. Still, what we had was the next step down (everything their High Tea wd have offered, except for a salad, and honestly who ever went to a High Tea for a salad?). The only thing lacking, actually, was the tea itself, which was generic to begin with and got increasingly bitter as it continued to brew in the pot throughout the meal. I bought a few small packets of loose tea to bring home afterwards (rather startled to find Bloody Mary pictured on one of them!), but they turned out to all be generic black tea under a variety of names.

Still, we had good fun, between the tea for two, exploring the neat toys-for-brainy-tots shop, admiring their v. calm ducks and wading crows, and seeing the weird chicken: a wandering rooster who seemed to have the run of the place, inside and out; with his mop-top of feathers he looked a bit like a secretary bird wearing a wig.

Then, as if this had not done our diet enough mischief, the next night we went down to Federal Way to have gnocchi (and bruschetta. and lasagna. AND dessert.). Another quiet meal together, reminiscing about how we wound up together. And since the story of my proposing to Janice is more fun when she tells it, I'll stop there.

--John R.

*I have a great picture of Janice and Taum on my desk, taken there many years gone by.

**I know there's a great one in Oxford I discovered on my last visit there which I'm really looking forward to introducing Janice to next time we're over there together

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The New Arrivals

So, while we were on Whidbey Island (on Tues. the 19th), I got to stop by Kingfisher Books in Coupeville and renew acquaintance with their delightful bookstore cat Miss Broadway Billie, a pastel grey-orange longhair with long, soft fur and a placid, winning disposition (i.e., she purrs vigorously and licks your hand and her shoulder alternately when stroked).* I also took advantage of the brief visit to see if they still had a book I'd looked at and decided against when there two years ago: they did, so I picked it up this time.

That was a mistake, as it turns out. I'm glad to have supported an independent bookstore and all, but the book, despite its interesting premise, was seriously lacking. Called SEVERANCE PACKAGE (by Duane Swierczynski, 2008), it sounded more interesting than it is. Basically a company's staff is assembled for a meeting at which the boss announces there's good news and bad news. The company is being shut down, effective immediately, and they're all out of a job. That's the good news. The bad news is that they're secretly a front for an intelligence agency and they're all being terminated the lethal way: either drink the poisoned champaign or get shot dead; sarin bombs trap the exits for those inclined to make a run for it. What follows is a free for all in which various surviving employees hunt each other down one by one within the sealed-off building. That sounded like it had the potential to be THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (the old Robert Redford movie) mixed with BATTLE ROYALE (by Koushun Takami, 1999, tr. 2003**), but instead it turned out to be filled with long, lingering descriptions of slow, painful deaths, with multiple characters surviving horrific injuries for improbable durations. It's rare that I definitely abandon a book unfinished (as opposed to putting it down and just never getting back to it, which happens quite frequently), but this one is an exception: back on the shelf it goes, for good.

Later that day, we returned home to find not one but two new books had arrived in the mail in our absence: the first a new biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, the other translations from the Old English.

The first of these, simply titled J. R. R. Tolkien, by Mark Horne [2011], is a new (young adult?) bio in the 'Christian Encounters' series from Th. Nelson -- a series that includes figures you might expect (Jn Bunyan), those who are rather unexpected but who you can easily make a case for being included (Jane Austen, daughter of a minister and sister to two more) or Isaac Newton (who spent a lot of his time trying to rediscover mystical Old Testament measurements), to those whose presence makes me scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking (Winston Churchill? really?). The Tolkien book comes out the same month as the one on one of my personal heroes, George Washington Carver, the man who invented peanut butter to solve a problem in sustainable agriculture practices.***

I'm currently about two-thirds of the way through the Horne book, so I'll hold off on any detailed critique, other than to observe that he does more fictionalizing than I'd like, seems to consider The Silmarillion of little importance to Tolkien's life or career, and has
done relatively little research. Rather than a bibliography, he recommends five books as particularly "important, helpful, and enjoyable": Carpenter's biography (which he paraphrases throughout) and LETTERS OF JRRT (ibid), Garth's GREAT WAR (his source for his account of the TCBS and Tolkien's War service), Leslie Ellen Jones's Greenwood biography (which he often cites for facts which Jones herself derives directly from Carpenter), and Michael White (seemingly unaware of how controversial White's book was). You'd have thought a biography published in 2011 would have taken into account the masses of biographical information published five years earlier in Scull & Hammond's massive J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE: CHRONOLOGY. But you'd be wrong; Horne doesn't even seem to be aware of its existence.

There also something strange going on with his citations: he often credits information readily available in Carpenter or LETTERS to some abstruse source -- as when he claims he found a quote from a JRRT letter not from Carpenter (who includes that exact passage to open a chapter which Horne synopsizes in his v. next paragraph) but in a book called THE MANY FACES OF VIRTUE by one Donald De Marco (Ch.2, Nt9). Similarly, he claims that the information about Tolkien requesting the names 'Beren' and 'Luthien' be carved on his tombstone came from Donald Clark Measels' MUSIC MINISTRY: A GUIDEBOOK, rather than Carpenter (whom he quotes in the following paragraph) (Ch 4, Nt28). I don't have Measels and De Marco's books to see if they in fact contain these quotes, but I find it incredulous to think Horne was forced to learn that information from such out-of-the-way sources when it's easily found in standard works he's paraphrasing immediately before and after.

As one additional oddity, Horne has an odd reluctance to name people. He thus refers on four separate occasions to "Edith's cousin" but never once tells us her name (Jenny Grove). And did Christopher Wiseman really help Tolkien co-create his invented languages, as Horne claims (p. 23)? I'd like to see a source for that.

Finally, the third book to arrive is the last of those I ordered at Kalamazoo back in May, being Craig Williamson's BEOWULF AND OTHER OLD ENGLISH POEMS, w. a Foreword by Tom Shippey (which frankly is what attracted me to the book and, after a quick skim, convinced me to buy it). Having several BEOWULF translations (including Tolkien's) but only a smattering of other OE poetry in translation -- e.g. Pope's SEVEN OLD ENGLISH POEMS and Kennedy's AN ANTHOLOGY OF OLD ENGLISH POETRY--I'm pleased to have a more extensive collection here. Williamson's volume includes "The Battle of Maldon", "Deor", "The Wanderer", "The Seafarer", The Wife's Lament, some Exeter Book riddles, Caedmon's Hymn, two Beastiary poems (including the one JRRT turned into "Fastitocalon"), and a smattering of other pieces, ending on the exceptionally high note of "The Dream of the Rood" (a work more read about than read, unfortunately; it was worth learning a little Old English just to have been able to read this in the original). More later when I get a chance to actually read Shippey's Foreword and Williamson's translations; I have high hopes for this one.

current reading: J. R. R. Tolkien (Xian Encounters series) by Mark Horne [2011]
*all characteristics she shares with another store cat I got to revisit yesterday (Saturday), Miss Millie, the cat-in-chief at Wild Birds Unlimited in Burien, who looks enough like Billie to be her sister.

**itself the subject of the most pug-ugly manga adaptation I've ever seen.

***here's the full list given in the back of the Tolkien book of their "Close Encounters of the Christian Kind" (their header, not mine): Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet, Wm F. Buckley, Jn Bunyan, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, St. Francis, St. Patrick, D. L. Moody, Sergeant York, Galileo, Geo. Washington Carver, & JRRT.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Well, That Was Fun

So, over the last few days I had family in town (for only the second time in fourteen years of trying): my niece Misty, my nephew-in-law Allen, and their sons Logan (age 8) and Memphis (age 8 months). Horray!

Which meant we left town to go visit places and see the sites, since it's a kind of rule that you tend to go see local/regional landmarks when there are visitors to show them to. Among the sights, we

saw a waterfall -- and a spectacular waterfall at that: Snoqualmie Falls. A good reminder of how the Cascades got their name.

visited another country -- driving up to the Peace Arch at Blaine, where we saw the monument Sam Hill (the famous roadbuilder and pacifist*) put up to celebrate a century's having passed since the last time we were at war with England (1814/1914). Both the US and Canada share the park, so you can enter from either side without a passport, enjoy the park, and then exit back into yr own country again. I'd never been there before (though I suppose we must have driven by it during two of our three trips up to Vancouver); V. nice.

went whale watching -- taking a ship from Bellingham out to circle San Juan Island in a six-hour tour that actually lasted about seven & a half, given how good the whale-watching turned out to be. On the way there we saw a buoy that had two sea lions sunning themselves on it (one Stellar and one Californian, according to our on-board naturalist), and we'd seen what must have been a harbor seal from the restaurant the night before. Unfortunately I missed the Minke whale -- a pity, since they're fairly rare and I haven't seen one before -- but there were orcas a-plenty. We even saw a baby orca with its mom, and off Lime Kiln Lighthouse saw two orcas (or the same orca twice) on his back slapping the water w. his tail. Great fun all around, and much nicer than going down to Point Defiance (which'd been a back-up plan).

crossed a terrifying bridge and walked along the beach -- this being the high bridge connecting Whidbey Island to the mainland at its northernmost point, and the nearby West Beach.

explored an abandoned coastal gunnery station -- i.e., Fort Casey on Whidbey's western coast; a vast array of concrete bunkers intended to ward off imaginary Russian or Japanese fleets in the early years of the twentieth century: manned for decades and never fired a gun in anger. Now they're spooky underground rooms with rusty iron doors, a grass-grown hillside, and everywhere steps and ladders up and down all around.

rode the monorail -- something Janice had done but which I'd never been able to get my nerve up to before, due to the acrophobia. Not as bad as I expected, though the getting on and off wasn't pleasant (the flooring being that open gridwork that enables you to look down and see the street two or three floors below).

visited the market -- to see the fish fly, to pass by a spot apparently featured in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (which I'm beginning to believe is a much bigger deal everywhere outside Seattle than it is here), to sample street food (Mee Sum!), and generally to show off something you cdn't see in Waskom or Marshall or Shreveport. While at Totem Pole Park (at least that's what I call it; if it has an official name I've never heard it***) I enjoyed watching the bold little scavenger birds pouncing on each dropped crumb and was gummed by a horse named Officer Charlie. The one down side of the outing was that we ran into more panhandlers than I'd seen before, and those who weren't buskers or Real Change agents were much more aggressive than I've ever seen in Seattle. I mark it down to all the cuts in benefits during the current rotten economy.

waited while the rest went up the Space Needle -- see acrophobia, above. I may have been able to manage the monorail, but zipping up 500+ feet to a place full of glass windows displaying all the walls gravity cd get you just wasn't going to happen. Accordingly, I waited below enjoying a chai from Starbucks in Center House (how 'Seattle' can you get) and a visit with friend Sig, who just happened to be passing by as the others were leaving to head up.

No time, alas, for Schmitz Park (in West Seattle) or The Earth Sanctuary (on Whidbey Island). And, sad to say, the Mountain remained in hiding behind clouds the entire time of their trip.** Maybe next time. Interestingly enough, while we enjoyed all these activities, the down times of just sitting and visiting (e.g., showing Logan how to play CLUE) were great too. Kudos to Janice for having planned a successful trip.

And what did I do to relax after seeing our visitors off at the airport? Spent the next day looking after a strong-willed five-year-old while her new sister was busy being born. We had a blast. But that's a subject worthy another post.

--John R.

just finished: LEONARDE'S GHOST (1628)
started & abandoned: SEVERANCE PACKAGE (2008) [life's too short!]

*Hill also put up Fake Stonehenge down in southern Washington, on a beautiful spot overlooking the Columbia River Gorge; it's also a peace monument, this time to those killed in World War I. His mansion (now a museum) down in those parts is well worth a visit too.

**I'd thought that mountains and oceans being two things this region has to offer not to be found in their part of Texas, these wd be good to focus on. We wound up doing pretty good on the 'ocean' end, but had to give up on Mt. Rainer because (a) the snow was too deep for us to get to Paradise (a sentence that sounds really strange to type but is literally true)**** and (b) DELTA AIRLINES IS NOT OUR FRIEND, having delayed or cancelled or re-booked then to the extent that they lost a full day and a half on their way out. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all to them, in retrospect, might have been it's being forty degrees cooler here than what they'd left back home -- the temperature having hovered around sixty degrees the whole time they were here while much of the rest of the country was suffering 100+ degree days.

***Victor Steinbrueck Park, it turns out

****correction: Janice turns out we cd have gotten to Paradise, but not left the parking lot

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cahokia Mounds

NOTE: This post was originally much longer, but a glitch in the system deleted it when I hit 'send', so I'm having to reconstruct this from an earlier draft

So, one of the highlights of our trip to Missouri (aside from seeing friends, enjoying the fireflies, and seeing just how much rain could fall on us in the shortest possible time) was our visit to Cahokia Mounds. This is a place I'd heard about in a vague way several years back but that had come into sharper focus on my horizon with the desultory reading I've been doing on and off about the Caddo, having all been part of the same general mound-building agrarian culture that took in most of the lower Mississippi River valley (and its tributaries). Then I saw there was quite a lot about it (and also a little about the Caddo as well, and what De Soto did to them*) in Charles Mann's 1491: NEW REVELATIONS OF THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS -- which I've still only skimmed but am v. much looking forward to reading in detail when things are a little less hectic (i.e., when multiple deadlines don't impinge). And, having made it to Toltec Mounds nr Little Rock a few years back (built by the Plum Bayou People), and the remnants of the mounds in Rockford just earlier this year,** being so close to Cahokia, the greatest of all North American mounds, was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I have to say I was impressed. I know that what survives is only about half at most of what was once there, but what survives is impressive: it's easy to forget that many of the most famous ancient monuments -- the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, Stonehenge -- are similarly ruinous. And it's impressive in itself that any of it survived, the similar Mounds in St. Louis ('Mound City') having all been destroyed in the 1870s or thereabouts.*** Even with all its structures gone, Monks Mound is huge: about a hundred feet high (almost as high as England's Silbury Hill), with two tiers, and a great view of the whole site, from 'Woodhenge' to the Great Plaza and, once upon a time, the Stockade as well. It's pretty clear that the same impulses that organized the great Mezoamerican cities was at work here as well, and that it was civilization in every sense of the term.

One good thing about visiting Cahokia is that a few days later I got to see Ka-Do-Ha village nr. Murfreesboro, which is to Cahokia as Magnolia is to St. Louis is to Magnolia: a town or village as opposed to a city, but clearly part of the same overall agrarian/moundbuilding culture. Here you could walk around the (looted) mounds (I think what you'd call 'a self-guided tour'), visit their museum room, hunt for arrowheads in the most stone-less field of red dirt I've ever seen (Janice did find one small black stone, which we carried away in triumph). But the main attraction, aside from the mounds themselves, was the museum store. I'd learned about this site from their online presence, The Caddo Trading Company. In addition to some Caddo pots, many arrowheads, and a great 'Native America Mount Rushmore', the standout items for me were two Mayan vases, both of which I'd have snatched up like a shot if I had the money to do so: beautiful.

What I did come away with, aside from memories of walking around both sites and a greater than ever appreciation of the Caddo/Mississippian farming/moundbuilding culture, were (a) books and (b) a replica of the Birdman Tablet. The books were CAHOKIA: CITY OF THE SUN and CAHOKIA MOUNDS: AMERICA'S FIRST CITY and Thames & Hudson's THE MOUNDBUILDERS on the one hand and on the other THE STORY OF THE KA-DO-HA INDIAN VILLAGE AND THE KADOHADOCHO PEOPLE (a grand name for a sixteen page pamphlet), SAM DILLINGER: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARKANSAS (about an archaeologist's struggles against the pot hunters, esp. those who looted Spiro Mound), and THE KENT AND JONNIE WESTBROOK COLLECTION (an artbook showing photos of many artifacts, mostly Caddo). So far I've only read the first items in each of these two lists, both of which suffer from state-speculation-as-fact disease, unfortunately. The tablet is a little four-inch-long piece of sandstone (nicely sized to fit in your hand) found on Monks Mound etched with the image of a bird-man (shades of Easter Isle!) that I found v. appealing.

So, I'd highly recommend a visit to Cahokia if you find yourself in the area, and I quite enjoyed Ka-Do-Ha village as well; it's a humbler site in every way, except that you can leave here with an actual artifact rather than a replica. For those who can't make the trip, here's a link to a site with some images that give a pretty good idea of the place; if you scroll down, on the right there's an image of the Birdman Tablet.

current reading: LEONARDE'S GHOST
current audiobook: PICKWICK PAPERS (resumed -- finally nearing the end)

*back in my Boy Scout days I went for a week every summer to Camp De Soto, over nr. El Dorado (appropriately enough). Looking back on it now, knowing what I now know about De Soto, I think Camp Charles Manson would have been less egregious a honorific.

**reminiscent of the all-but-obliterated mounds in one of the lakefront parks in Milwaukee and of course at Lake Lawn Lodge (now sadly defunct) in Delavan.

***I see on the map that there's also a Mound City in Illinois nr Cairo, but I gather it's on a much humbler scale.

****almost as tall as Silbury Hill, in fact. Perhaps I'll get a chance to compare

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The New Studio Ghibli

So, thanks to Janice, who thanks Anne, I've now seen the trailer for the newest Studio Ghibli film, ARIETTY, based on Mary Norton's THE BORROWERS. Looks good. Looks very good. Here's the link to the clip:

Having been a bit disappointed by EARTHSEA and PONYO (though THE CAT RETURNS and HOWL were top-notch), I'm hoping this one marks a return to form. We'll soon see.

Definitely time for another anime night soon.

--John R.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The New Arrivals: Eddas and Fanzines

So, Friday brought two long-awaited and strangely parallel publications to our doorstep. The first is the latest volume in Ursula Dronke's THE POETIC EDDA (Vol. III, rather confusingly subtitled 'Mythological Poems II). This is the third installment of a long-term project, Vol. I (Heroic Poems) having appeared in 1969 and Vol, II (Mythological Poems) almost thirty years later, in 1997. I first encountered Volume I in the Magnolia college library and have never been able to find a copy for myself (having been forced to fall back on a photocopy of the Suzzallo-Allen copy). And I somehow missed any announcement that Volume II had come out till some time after the fact, meaning that when I ordered a copy of that one all I got was a print-on-demand tome -- easier to reference than the photocopy of the first volume, but still a bit of a disappointment considering what I paid for it.

And now Volume III, which I actually did know about beforehand, having seen it advertised in a catalogue; I even pre-ordered it, paying for a copy at the Oxf. Univ. Press booth at Kalamazoo,* and have been eagerly awaiting its arrival ever since. Now that it's out, I see it's a much slimmer volume than the other two, Dronke having changed the plan she'd announced in Vol II whereby the remaining twenty Eddic poems wd be covered in Volumes III (the Helgi lays & Sigurd cycle**) and IV (the remaining misc and mythological pieces). Given that she'd only published thirteen of twenty-nine poems in the space of forty-two years,*** there's cause for concern whether she'll ever finish this superlative edition: we can but hope. Perhaps it'll become a multi-generational project, like James Murray's OED.

In any case, this new volume contains four more poems: HAVAMAL (the source of Fimbulfambi) and HYMISKVITHA (Thorr vs. the World Serpent), GRIMNISMAL (Odin on the Tree) and GROTTASONGR (the story of Frothi/Froda's mill). Text, translation, and extensive commentary mean this is a slim but substantial work of about 150 pages. I have to admit that, having devoted twelve pages of MR. BAGGINS to an essay about a character who doesn't actually appear as such in that book, I have a soft spot when I see that Dronke has similarly devoted a section (four pages) to a scene that doesn't appear in the poem she's editing ("The Missing Rowing Scene").

So, even though I'm not an Old Norse scholar, this one goes high up on the list of books to read -- though I'm strongly tempted to go back to that first volume and re-read that first, followed by Vol. II (which I've only read pieces of), culminating in Vol. III. So many books in proportion to the time available to read; we'll see.

As for the other new arrival, it too is the latest installment in a multi-volume work, although on a smaller scale, this being Gary Hunnewell's magisterial survey of Tolkien fanzines in chronological order. Having started from the beginning (November 1959 -- just a year or so after my own beginning!), he's now produced three of these: the first covering Tolkien fandom up to 1964, the next devoted to 1965, and now this to 1966; its formal title is THE YELLOWSKIN OF TUCKBOROUGH: TOLKIEN FANDOM REVIEW 1966. In it Gary lists the contents of each Tolkien fanzine, or other science fiction/fantasy fanzine that had Tolkien content, with a brief description of each essay or poem or editorial. It's the sort of project that requires encyclopedic knowledge, a superb collection to draw from, good organizational ability, and a great deal of stick-to-it-ness. Well done!

--John R.
current reading:

*thus getting a small but welcome discount against its staggering list price of $180 -- making it the most expensive book I'll buy this year, barring some spectacular used-book find, which I'm not expecting.

**i.e., the material Tolkien drew on for SIGURD & GUDRUN.

***not counting however many years' work went into the creation of that first volume, still my favorite of the set -- she mentions in her preface to it having finished work on one of its component poems in 1963.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Two Outta Three Ain't Bad

So, one of the things that really caught my attention in BLOOMSBURY PIE* -- Regina Marler's account of how 'The Bloomsbury Group' went from being a literary writers' circle (loved by some, hated by others) to a social phenomenon (e.g., Woolf's face on coffee mugs and tote bags) -- is her claim (p. 160) that the two signs that an author has 'arrived' are, first, "the formal establishment of a society devoted to a literary figure"** and, second, the publication of that author's "letters and diaries in . . . complete and unexpurgated editions". By these standards, Woolf has ranked as a major author since the 1970s.

And how does Tolkien stack up by her proposed standard? Well, we've had a Tolkien Society for decades -- indeed, several societies. But I think she overestimates the importance of that in establishing an author's reputation. After all, at a glance how are we to distinguish between a gathering of like-minded scholars and a fan club? Browning had one, Harry Potter has the other; Tolkien's societies have tended to be a bit of both.

As for her second standard, Tolkien scholarship is lagging far behind C. S. Lewis in this regard: CSL has been the subject of no less than three major biographies (Green-Hooper, Sayer, and Wilson), his diary is in print (as well as a generous selection of his brother's diaries, which are far superior), and we now have a massive three-volume (4000 pages) COLLECTED LETTERS, plus three or four collections of memoirs and recollections. By contrast with Tolkien we have to content ourselves with the authorized biography (excellently supplemented by Garth and Scull & Hammond) and the selected letters, both more than three decades old now.

That would seem to indicate that Tolkien has yet to arrive, so far as the Academy is concerned -- something also backed up by T. A. Shippey's observation about all the major literary journals who've never published a single piece on JRRT.

But there are some more metrics I think relevant that Marler fails to take into account. One I've been v. much aware of is the publication of scholarly editions of an author's rough drafts, showing how their works were put together. We've had this for years with Woolf, but the supreme example remains THE JAMES JOYCE ARCHIVE, which reproduces in facsimile every page of Joyce's literary manuscripts, page proofs, &c known to survive in sixty-three huge folio volumes. Here Tolkien triumphs: the treatment of his drafts and unpublished literary manuscripts is unparalleled in being both massively detailed and wildly popular (the JJA never got hardcover AND mass-market paperback editions, for example). Here's also where Tolkien's posthumous trajectory has been more in line with the treatment accorded 'canonical' authors than has CSL's -- partly no doubt because Tolkien left behind masses of manuscripts of vast interest to his readers, while relatively few of Lewis's manuscripts survive, and the treatment of Walter Hooper when he published one of the more significant ones, THE DARK TOWER, was not such as wd encourage any editor to release more material.

One more metric I'd argue is predictive of creeping canonization is the outpouring of dissertations focused on Tolkien's work -- something that marked Tolkien studies right away (the first thesis came out within a year or two of the book's publication) and shows no sign of ceasing all these decades later.

So, while Tolkien's current status doesn't fulfill all of Marler's conditions -- something which in itself accurately reflects Tolkien's still uncertain status as he edges ever closer to acceptance within the academy (or what's left of it) -- the signs are promising. And that's not even taking into account the establishment of TOLKIEN STUDIES as a well-respected peer-reviewed dedicated journal nor the extraordinary number of books on Tolkien's works published in the last forty-five years.

--John R.

*thanks to Doug Anderson for recommending this one.

**she quotes another scholar that the establishment of such a Society serves as "a kind of predictive index to that figure's scholarly weight" (ibid).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poke-Em-With-A-Stick-Wednesday (Joseph Wright Takes On Saul of Tarsus)

So, I've finally gotten around to reading THE PARGITERS: THE NOVEL-ESSAY PORTION OF 'THE YEARS', an edition of Woolf's unfinished first-draft attempt at the work that later became her demi-penultimate novel, THE YEARS. I've had a copy since 1986 (when I bought it at People's Bookstore in Milwaukee, on the lower east side), but given that THE YEARS is one of her weaker books I've obviously taken my time in getting around to it, spurred on by my recent reading of two other books on Bloombury or by Bloomsbury figures.

The most interesting thing about THE YEARS, from my point of view, has always been that one of the characters in it was inspired by Joseph Wright, Tolkien's tutor; Woolf had been deeply impressed by Wright's biography (written by Mary Wright) and his enlightened attitude towards women (which might in turn have explained Tolkien's support of women's higher education, which many of his generation at best tolerated and more often disparaged). In fact, in the course of my researches I found a letter Woolf had written to Mrs. Wright unknown to the editors of her Collected Letters (after I drew it to their attention they did get it added in, but I forget whether in the trade paperback reprinting or a supplement -- it's a long time ago now).

What startled me this time was coming across a quote attributed to Wright in the editor's introduction to this volume (p. xii). It so happens that I own the two-volume biography of Joseph Wright (although I confess I haven't read it yet; in this case I've only had the book since 2005, so I shd get to it one of these years), so I looked it up. It's a good thing I did, since the editor in fact compressed the quote, leaving out half a sentence without any indication of having done so. Here's the quote as it appears in Wright's book:

"St. Paul and the likes of him have much to answer for, and it is ever my most pious wish that they will reap their due reward. It is due to them, and them alone, that woman has been such a downtrodden creature in the past. It is only the present generation of women that is beginning to realize the abject state of woman in the past. Not so very long ago -- it still exists in many old-fashioned families -- a woman was regarded as a poor weak and feeble-minded creature who had no right to think for herself, but must leave all that to her husband, however silly and stupid he might be. Nay, things were even worse, for a woman was not generally allowed to chose her own husband, that was practically settled for her by her parents or guardian. I am thankful that all this is passing away. Apart from every other consideration, it is much better for the whole human race . . ." *

This is, of course, overstating the case -- Roman law and Mediterranean/Mid-East culture were both pretty misogynistic all on their own -- but he's right in that Paul of Tarsus put a theological imprimatur on misogyny that lasted for centuries (in fact, in some circles it's not over yet).

And did JRRT absorb this lesson from his mentor, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of out-of-the-way words and thirst to learn all he cd about their origin, or dogged determination to see a lengthy project through until its final triumphant completion and publication? Impossible to say, but it is interesting to note that for an author as old-fashion and traditionalist as Tolkien is generally held to be, there's a marked lack of emphasis on 'Obey'. Might be interesting to go back and re-read "The Mariner's Wife" from that perspective.

--John R.
current reading: THE PARGITERS by Virginia Woolf

*letter of Joseph Wright to his fiancee, Mary Wright; Sept. 5th 1896. Boldface emphasis mine; italic emphasis his. THE LIFE OF JOSPEH WRIGHT, by Elizabeth Mary Wright. (London: Oxford Univ. Pr, 1932). Volume I, page 315. My copy of this book bears a worn sticker in the shape of a green shield that I take to read "[B]oots/[Boo]klov[er']s/[L]ibrary"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Henri d'Orn

So, I've been having a lot of fun lately with the character I'm playing in our current CALL OF CTHULHU game, one of the SuperGeniusGames adventures being run by Sigfried Trent as our Keeper. While I have a few favorite types I enjoy playing in C.o.C. -- the tenacious private eye (e.g., 'Martin Urnst'), the unscrupulous book/artifact collector (e.g., 'Mr. Damascus'), the Woosterish innocent (e.g., 'Capn. Mercer'*)-- once in a while it's fun to play something out of the box.

Hence my current character, Henry Dorn. Or, as he prefers to be known, Henri d'Orn. Most C.o.C. characters start out relatively normal and, though exposure to the Mythos, become increasingly unhinged as the campaign progresses, acquiring phobias and obsessions and frequent guest status in nearby asylums along the way. Not Henry, who lives in a world of his own right from the start (think Elwood P. Dowd). While others who see him see a street person, in his own mind he's a ranger lord, with all the skills and abilities (and responsibilities) to match. For him, life is one long D&D game (1st-edition, of course), and he interprets everything that happens in those terms. Others might be disturbed by evidence of weird half-serpent/half-human creatures slinking around in elevator shafts and ventilation ducts; he immediately concludes that New York City is currently undergoing infiltration by yuan-ti and that he and his newfound comrades are just the folks to stop it.**

All this has its drawbacks, of course. For one thing, for all his belief that he's tenth level, he's still (this being C.o.C.) just a normal human, with only a handful of hit points. Thus, when he bravely took on a maniac attacking a puppy with an axe, he saved the puppy by getting the axe-head buried in his torso. He survived and is even ambulatory, thanks to First Aid rolls, but he's still wandering around pursuing his Quest when he really should be in some hospital somewhere, preferably one that doles out pain medication with a generous hand. . I suspect he'll not fare well in whatever major encounter ends the adventure; we'll see. In the meantime, he's off in a world of his own that has more plausible interconnections with the real world than you'd imagine.

For those who might be interested, here's Henry's stats:

HENRY DORN (Henri d'Orn, Ranger Lord)
Str 12 Int 12 Wis [Pow] 13 Dex 16 Con 12 Chr [App] 8
13 hp (currently 7) Size 13 +d4 damage bonus
LUCK 65 IDEA 60 KNOW 95 SAN 64
mental status: psychotic schizophrenic
limited druidic spell ability. 'animal companion': Mr. Tentoes***

Conceal 50 MYTHOS 15 Dodge 32 Hide 80 Listen 90
Nat'l History 80 'Occult' (D&D Lore) 70 Sneak 85
Spot Hidden 85 Track 90 Weapon (bow) 50

Bat Form, Charm Animal, Cloud Memory, Command Animal (dog),
Deflect Harm ("shield"), Dream Vision, Heal, Heal Animal, Shrivelling
("magic missile"), Song of Hastur ("fireball")

His 'Mythos' score reflects his having memorized the eight pages devoted to the Cthulhu Mythos in the first edition/first printing of DEITIES & DEMIGODS -- which means (for example) he knows nothing about Yig and the serpent people but all about Hastur and the Necronomicon. Similarly, his 'Occult' score reflects his ability to find some plausible analogue within the AD&D rules to something he's encountered (e.g., a spell, artifact, or monster). His spell ability is the best C.o.C. analogue I cd come up with for the low-level cleric & druid ability a high-level ranger shd have. You'd be surprised how many times the police try to take your bow away when you're homeless.

The most amusing thing about playing him? How easy it is to fit anything that happens in our C.o.C. game into the 1st edition AD&D rules which Henry uses to understand the world. And how, after three sessions, they're still letting Henry talk to people when they really shd know better.


current reading: THE PARGITERS by V. Woolf [1932/1977]

*who, after surviving four and a half years on the Western Front as a balloonist, returned obsessed with zeppelins and convinced that what people really wanted in a post-war world as individual (two-seater & four-seater) zeppelins, setting up dirigible-works on his uncle (Lord Worplesdon's) country estate.

*cf. MONSTER MANUAL II -- which of course he carries around w. him in his backpack, along with the other core 1st ed. AD&D books

Saturday, July 2, 2011

It Begins

So, Thursday I bought a copy of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for the first time in a long time -- not for any interest in the cover story (about a show I've never watched, and hadn't even known was based on a novel series by a writer now living in my old hometown*), but because I saw a little headline in the upper left corner: "THE HOBBIT: A Sneak Peek from Peter Jackson."

This turns out to herald a four-page piece on the forthcoming film, three and a half pages of which are pictures and the remaining half-page a brief interview with Jackson. And with this, the whole game of lamenting the things Jackson changed can begin.**

Up till now, those of us interested in the film have mainly been wondering how much of the original Jackson was going to include (the consensus: just about everything), which actors & actresses from the LotR film trilogy wd be returning in at least cameo roles (the answer: just about all of them who can plausibly do so), and what bits of off-stage action (like the White Council) or flashbacks (Smaug's original attack on Dale & the Mt, Thrain's doomed expedition) might find its way on-camera (the evidence so far: at least some). But what we cdn't tell was what Jackson might add, and what he might change. Some of the things he added to the original films worked spectacularly well (most memorably the beacon-fires sequence) while others fell spectacularly flat (Frodo repudiating Sam's companionship nr Cirith Ungol). The same was true of the things he changed: some proved to be great ideas (recasting Sam as more a friend than a lackey) and others duds (Denethor as a slavering loon). But there's been no way to guess what Jackson would add or change this time around.

Until now. Two very small examples can be gleaned from this article, brief as it is. The first is mention of the casting of an actress (Evangeline Lilly) to play an elf named Tauriel -- a character nowhere appearing in Tolkien's book. I suspect she wears a red shirt, but more on that another time. So here we have something new added -- we run into quite a lot of wood-elves in the course of the story, only one of whom (Galion) is given a name, so working up one of that faceless lot into a recognizable character makes sense.

The other example is the sort of innocuous change that drove Tolkien into a state when it occurred in the Zimmerman script,** the only film adaptation of one of his books he's known to have examined closely. One of the shots from the film shows Bilbo examining his contract, which is a long, long many-folded ream of paper, quite unlike the simple, terse contract given verbatim in the book (and reproduced in facsimile by Tolkien himself as a single two-sided sheet). Furthermore, the accompanying caption explains that

"Bilbo's actually got to sign a contract the dwarves have written up, and there's nothing like Dwarvish fine print"

Thus, the scene as Tolkien wrote it, with the contract being left on the mantle for Bilbo to find the next day after the dwarves have left, will be changed for a bit of comic business. What's not clear is how the new scene they'll have to write to replace it will play out -- just that the idea that they've offered him their terms rather casually, which he'll accept simply by turning up, seems to gone by the way. All we know is that the scene as filmed will be rather different from what's in the book. How well the new story will work or not we'll just have to wait and see (literally).

At any rate, from here on out we shd be getting a stream of detailed information about the film, although paradoxically I suspect this will give us relatively little insight into what the film itself will be like.

--John R.
current reading: BLOOMSBURY PIE by Regina Marler and PORTRAITS IN MINIATUE by Lytton Strachey.

*TRUE BLOOD and Charlaine Harris, respectively.

**Tolkien objected, strongly, to the scene in the script at the Prancing Pony where the innkeeper assigned Mr. Underhill room number fourteen and had him sign the registry.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bilbo's Clue (clew)

So, here's something I came across a while back that I found interesting and thought I'd share.

In the original edition of RETURN TO BAG-END,* I noted in my discussion of Bilbo's riddling self-identifications of himself to Smaug that while most refer to v. specific events, there was an exception:

I am the clue-finder --this could refer to any of several episodes.
It might mean Bilbo finding the key to open the trolls' lair (page 97,
Chapter II) but more likely refers to his discovering the exact application
of the moon-runes on Thror's Map and thus enabling Thorin & Company
to find the keyhole at the exact moment on Durin's Day (Chapter XI).

Thanks to Anders Stenstrom, we can now narrow this down, and the passage should read as follows in the new edition:

I am the clue-finder -- this probably alludes to Bilbo's finding
the spider-thread and using it to guide his friends through the tangles
of Mirkwood in Chapter VIII, since 'clue' originally meant a ball of thread,
specifically the one used by Theseus to navigate the labyrinth
(Concise OED Vol I, page 434, under the spelling 'clew').
I am grateful to Anders Stenstrom for drawing this
etymology to my attention.

At the time I first drafted replacement text for this passage and posted it among the Errata on my website (Sacnoth's Scriptorium) [circa 2008, I think], I thought Anders' explanation was convincing, but more recently I came across some more information in quite another context that makes me certain of it. I was listening to an audiobook of an account of a famous murder from the early days of Scotland Yard, THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER** by Kate Summerscale, which includes the following passage:

"The word 'clue' derives from 'clew', meaning a ball of thread or yarn.
It had come to mean 'that which points the way' because of the Greek myth
in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way
out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. The writers of the mid-nineteenth century
still had this image in mind when they used the word. 'There is always a
pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which
will guide to certainty', observed Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848. William Wills,
Dickens' deputy, paid tribute in 1850 to Whicher's brilliance by observing
that the detective found the way even when 'every clue seems cut off'. 'I
thought I had my hand on the clue', declared the narrator of The Woman
in White in an installment published in June 1860. 'How little I knew,
then, of the windings of the labyrinth which were still to mislead me!'
A plot was a knot, and a story ended in a 'denouement', an unknotting.
--page 88.

Of course, it this identification is correct (and I think it is), then Bilbo here is making reference to something that's no longer in the published story, since the whole 'Theseus theme' dropped out of the Mirkwood chapter and was replaced in the final book by the Enchanted River section. This it can now be identified as another fossil in the story, preserving evidence of an earlier version of the tale.

current reading: BLOOMSBURY PIE: THE MAKING OF THE BLOOMSBURY BOOM by Regina Marler [1997]

*pages 521-522

**subtitle: A SHOCKING MURDER AND THE UNDOING OF A GREAT VICTORIAN DETECTIVE [2008]. It is Summerscale's thesis, which she demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt, that this particular 1860 murder inspired the whole genre of the 'English Country House' murder mystery and exerted enormous influence on the detective story, esp. Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE [1865].



Mr. Whicher