Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Invented Language (1954)

So, in 1954 a man born in the 1890s and widely known as a critic, despite having a few literary pieces appear over the years, published a fantasy in a medieval setting which included passages in an invented language.

I refer, of course to --- Edmund Wilson.

The work in question, a play called CYPRIAN'S PRAYER, was inspired by a Frank Stockton story. It's a sort of 'sorcerer's apprentice' story, and while on the whole I think best left in its well-deserved obscurity, the passages in his invented language add an interesting touch. The main character, having made a pact with the devil, finds himself saddled with three annoying imps as assistants. From time to time, they or some of the other infernal characters speak in what Wilson describes as "their native diabolic language". Here's a sample:

The Little Devils, emboldened now, come out and

begin to jeer at him in their native diabolic language.

BONGO. Mákka-nánya oónya gígna-weésta!

STINGO. Mákka-nányi gánzi gleésta-gleésta!

SLINGO. Gánza wíddi-wíddi skímba-nímbi!

ALL (pointing and prolonging the vowels

in a final intensive insult).

Nímba-nambáyanyi-neeésta neeésta!

(They break into derisive laughter.)

and here's another

JEZEBEL (to the Little Devils).


and another.

LUIGI (hypnotic and soothing).

Abátha amátha-náthas.

(Per-emptorily and sharply)

Jezebel, amákkin-tákkyulak knáthas!

Now, for all I know this might be a real-world language,* though I doubt it (when Wilson tells us in a stage direction that the word "strúmpstharso" should be stressed on the syllable "strúmpsth" that seems to be pretty clearly a slightly garbled version of 'strumpet' (particularly since the line's addressed to Jezebel). Similarly, "Zoop-zoop!" as a scornful dismissal sounds suspect to me. And it might be a pre-existent artificial language, though again I doubt it. I suspect it's simply highly detailed gibberish, which Wilson has gone to some pains to spell as phonetically as possible.

So, any created-language linguists out there interested in taking on the challenge of deciphering Wilson's 'diabolic' speech?**

--John R.

*according to the Poe Principle, as set down in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the very fact that it sounds like language helps confirm that it is gibberish.

**of which there are several more examples in dialogue.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Riddle Me This

Question: How do you tell it's time to get a new oven?

Answer: When the firemen get back in their truck and leave, it's time.

More later.

--John R.

Advance Reading Copy

So, for the first time ever, I think, I've been sent an advance reading copy of a forthcoming book on Tolkien. I've read unpublished books before, of course, including works on (and by) Tolkien and D&D novels. But that was usually when the author loaned me the Ms (Ts, files, &c) and asked my opinion (something I myself do with most of my work: it helps to have a fresh and well-informed set of eyes to look over a piece to help find things I might have missed). This is a special occasion because it marks the first time a publisher has ever let me see somebody else's forthcoming book (it probably helps that they're my publishers too: Houghton Mifflin, who brought out the American edition of my History of The Hobbit).

The book in question, Corey Olsen's EXPLORING J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S THE HOBBIT, is forthcoming this fall (Sept 18th release date, just in time for Bilbo's Birthday on the 22nd). This is one I've been looking forward to since I first heard about it a few months ago. I'm not a great follower of podcasts, but I'd seen Corey present a piece on a HOBBIT roundtable at Kalamazoo a year or two ago and been struck by the detail with which he treated Tolkien's poetry, which is usually given short shrift.

What we have with this book is a chapter-by-chapter close reading of THE HOBBIT: nineteen chapters in Tolkien's original corresponding to nineteen chapters of Olsen's explication. I can't go into detail, since it's still forthcoming and it wdn't do to give away the best bits, but I enjoyed it quite a lot and will probably be using it for reference for a long time to come. Corey both scrutinizes specific scenes and follows the appearance of some major themes that recur throughout the book. One specific example I can mention is his treatment of the Riddle-game, since in lieu of some last-minute cancellations, he allowed that section to be read out loud in absentia at this year's medievalist congress. I've never seen as in-depth a discussion of the various riddles that make up Bilbo's and Gollum's exchange, pointing out how they tend to form matched pairs thematically or symbolically, how each works as characterization for the one telling the riddle, &c. I'm not sure that Tolkien intended all themes Olsen finds here, but that can be said of a lot of detailed explication, mine included. In any case, it's really an impressive piece of work.

So, if you're interested in THE HOBBIT you'll definitely want to check out this one.

More later, once the book's actually out.

--John R.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Praise of (Other People's) Basements

So, we don't have basements, or attics, where I come from. And, since moving up north (and later west), I've discovered that the nice thing about basements is they Accumulate Stuff. And, at certain intervals, the urge comes to clean out significant amounts of said stuff. And thus, a friend last night gave me a bunch of old calendars he thought I'd like.

Old Tolkien calendars.

As in, the 1974 Tolkien calendar, the first (I think) with Tolkien's own art.

As in the 1975 Tim Kirk calendar, which I don't think I've ever even actually seen before -- I've seen the art, or most of it anyway, but don't recall seeing the calendar itself.

Add to that the Hildebrant calendars from 1976, 1977, and 1978 (one or two of which I have, or at least had at one point -- not sure if they survived the house or not). The Bakshi calendar of 1979 with the movie art. The 1980 'Great Illustrators' calendar, with its hilariously, famously bad picture of the death of Boromir based in equal parts on images of St. Sebastien and the Pieta.

Living down in Arkansas as I did, I don't think I had the chance to buy a Tolkien calendar for myself until I discovered Land of Legend, the Zaentz marketing company for items centered on the movie (like the Lord of the Nazgul piggy bank), along with a few other interesting items -- such as Tolkien calendars, Anne Etkins' little book, et al.*

So now I'm going to get out all my old calendars that have survived time, decay, and many many moves, and introduce them to their new friends. And find a new home for them all, in the box room.

Thanks Jeff!


*this wd have been 'long about '78.

P.S.: The Wife Says: Thanks, Jeff.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

D&D Editions as Rock Groups

Have to say, the more I work my way through the new ruleset for the D&D Next playtest, the more I like it. Particularly liked the statement of purpose near the beginning to the effect that this playtest's goal was to find out whether these rules support the style of play each individual group favors. A decade or so ago the idea grew up that D&D players are monolithic in their likes and style of play, which is self-evidently not the case. The new edition's embracement of the diversity of their audience shows their head and heart are in the right place: a good sign.

Meanwhile, as I've been reading through the adventure and planning out customizations to make things more interesting (I hope) and certainly less predictable for my players (all of whom have played through this adventure at some point in the past -- some of them multiple times), I've been mulling over ways to characterize the different editions of AD&D that got us here so far.
So, how's this for an analogy?

1st Edition: The Beatles

2nd Edition: The Eagles

3rd Edition: Journey or Jefferson Starship

4th Edition: Duran Duran

5th Edition: ???

There was plenty that came before 1st edition, of course: think of that as analogous to early Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard.*

Also, by "Edition" I don't just mean the core rulebooks but the whole of what was published under that rubric. Thus '1st edition' includes the PH and DMG but also T4. Temple of Elemental Evil, G1-3. Against the Giants, &c.; '2nd edition' includes the RAVENLOFT and al-QADIM campaign settings and adventures like DRAGON MOUNTAIN and RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORROR; 3rd edition includes 3.5, and so forth.

Ideally, from my point of view, 5th Edition would turn out to be a Coldplay rather than a Lady Gaga or Eminem.

--John R.

*essentially, all the music Don McLean celebrated in "American Pie" [1971]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lin Carter on Dunsany

While on the subject of fantasy fans and writers making the pilgrimage to see Dunsany when, after decades, he resumed his visits to America in the mid-1950s, here's what Lin Carter had to say about the time he saw Dunsany in person:

I met him in 1954, on what must have been his last speaking tour of America.* (During an earlier tour, in November of 1919, a deeply moved young member of his audience was the then amateur writer, H. P. Lovecraft, who was still years away from becoming the most celebrated American author of supernatural tales since Edgar Allen Poe.) When I saw him, on the evening of February 24th, 1954, at the Theresa L. Kaufmann Auditorium of New York's YM-YWHA Poetry Center, Dunsany was tall, slender, erect, and vigorous for a man then in his seventy-sixth year. He had ruddy apple-cheeks, sparkling frosty blue eyes, a trim little spike of snowy goatee, and was dressed in a sloppy, baggy suit of nondescript grayish tweeds, with a soft-collared white shirt and a loosely tied old-fashioned foulard instead of a tie.

--Foreword by Lin Carter to the Adult Fantasy Series edition of THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER [June 1969]

*actually, no; according to his biographer, Mark Amory, Dunsany made lecture trips to America in 1953 (as described by Hazel Littlefield Smith in her memoir LORD DUNSANY: KING OF DREAMS), after a gap of decades; in 1954 (when Carter saw him), and in 1955; a planned 1956 trip didn't materialize, and he died in 1957.

--It's a pity that with so much detail about the time and place and exactly how Dunsany was dressed, Carter fails to mention a single thing Dunsany said. Alas. Rather as if someone were to visit Tolkien and leave behind a detailed account of the weather that day and exactly what flowers were blooming outside the house on Sandfield Road. Still, nice to know he made the pilgrimage to see the legended figure and pay homage when he had the chance.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bradbury on Dunsany (and Sime)

So, Ray Bradbury's passing reminds me of his brief account about the time he went to see Lord Dunsany on one of the latter's trips to America near the end of his life, in the mid-1950s.

"The Seeming Unimportance of Being Sime"

At UCLA some 25 years ago* Lord Dunsany stood before a mob of students and was about to name the finest writer of English during our century.

He hestitated before giving us the answer. My mind flashed authors at me. Aldous Huxley? Thomas Hardy? Writer of English? Well, after all, Hemingway did write English, yes, and what about Faulkner, or even Steinbeck? Then back to the English -- English: Shaw. Yes, Shaw must be it!


Lord Dunsany waited on himself, and made us wait as he gathered the name like a dry wisdom in his mouth. Then he uttered it.

Rudyard Kipling.

A gasp ran through the crowd. A shocked laugh knocked itself out of my throat. Good old Ruddy Rudyard, of course. An old love of mine, lately gone out with the tide, but perhaps now coming back.**

Indeed, Kipling has come back. Not all the way, but he will survive because he is truly excellent.

Meanwhile, Lord Dunsany himself went out with the tide. But as with all things of varying quality, especially fantasy writers, he is re-appearing in our midst.

And Someone named Sime with him.

--at this point, Bradbury goes into an discussion (interesting, but tangental to our purposes) of how the young generation were teaching their teachers the value of science fiction and fantasy: "Heinlein and Tolkien and Clarke", while at the same time rediscovering for themselves "the imaginative calligraphies of Escher, the storm-wracked arthritic landscapes of Rackham, the shadowed haunts of Dore, the delightful animal and bug frolics of Grandville, and perhaps now into such territory as Sime seems to have inhabited". He concludes with the possibly rhetorical query: "Can you name another time in history when such a literary and artistic rediscovery rused and fired by teenagers -- existed or existing -- succeeded and prevailed? I can think of none."

--Introduction to SIDNEY H. SIME: MASTER OF FANTASY, cmp Paul W. Skeeters [1978]

*this was written in 1978 --JDR

**given that folks have been predicting Kipling's come-back since 1939 at least (cf. Auden's poem on Yeats' death), I'm thinking it's time we stopped waiting for that Godot. Ain't gonna happen. --JDR

So, an interesting little glimpse into a great writer of one generation coming all too briefly into contact with a great writer of a previous generation. I'm glad we have this little vignette; wd that we had more like it.

--John R.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nyarlathotep anime

So, these with a tolerance for silly weirdness shd check this out.

I recently found out there's an anime version of Nyarlathotep with her (yes, her) own series called NYARUKO-SAN: ANOTHER CRAWLING CHAOS.

Now, it's been obvious for a while that Japanese pop culture was pretty well infiltrated by the Cthulhu Mythos, esp. in its rpg form. PRINCESS RESURRECTION, for example, takes as its tag-line the famous Lovecraftian quote "That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die" and has featured Deep Ones and the Great Race, as well as a Serpent Man; the Great Race in particular was obviously directly modeled on the rpg's art. But there the Cthulhu monsters have just been one element among the mix, which has included vampires, werewolves, spirits, can't-keep-'em-dead serial killers, kami (small gods), zombies, mummies, the invisible man, and others.

Here, by contrast, the concept itself is Cthulhu-mythos based -- but with a school-comedy anime twist. The main character is attacked by night-gaunts and rescued by a silver-hair schoolgirl who turns out to be Nyarlathotep -- or, to be more specific, A Nyarlathotepian rather than "The" Nyarlatoptep. She and he are soon joined by a red-haired girl with a terrible pash for Nyarlathotep (or "Nyarko-chan", as she prefers to be known): she is identified as Cthugha (one of Derleth's unauthorized additions to the Mythos). Soon a boy named Hastur (complete with the Yellow Sign) joins the group as well, all of whom have intense crushes on each other (except the main character, who just wishes they wd all go away and let him live in peace). Their mascot is a miniature Shantak -- except the animators misunderstood Lovecraft's description of them as hippocephalic (horse-headed) horrors and so gave them hippopotomos-heads. "Cthulhu" and "Hastur" turn out to be rival console game companies in rivalry over Earth, while the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods are revealed as space aliens (well, at least that's genuinely Lovecraftian) whose interest in our planet is the great anime, manga, and computer games we produce.

The result? Silly, with a dash of fascinated horror at the twists they've put on the material. They're clearly deriving this from the CALL OF CTHLUHU role-playing game, not the original Lovecraft stories: at one point Nyarko tells the main character that yes, she can assume other forms, but that'd reduce his SAN to zero, and we cut away to a quick glimpse of a C.o.C. character sheet. The Yellow Sign associated with Hastur is the familiar image designed by Chaosium. As a show, it runs through the cliches of the school-romance/harem genre in a self-consciously parodying way, plus the quirky Cthulhu overtones. I enjoyed what I've seen of it so far, but definitely not everyone's cup of tea. Purists be warned: watching this will cost you SAN points, and not in a good way. Those with a casual interest in the Mythos shd check this out: anybody who likes both the roleplaying game and anime shd really enjoy it.

Here's a link to Crunchyroll, where you can watch the first nine episodes of the series (so far; they're being added to weekly), so long as you have a strong tolerance for commercials.

For more about the series, see

--John R.
--slouching towards R'lyeh.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury: The Greatest Science Fiction Writer

So, today came the sad new that Ray Bradbury, the greatest living science fiction writer, has now become the greatest science fiction writer, period.

Here's what the NYP obituary had to say (thanks to friend Richard for the link):

Jeff Grubb has a moving personal response about what Bradbury meant to him:

My own personal favorite wd have to be "The Utterly Perfect Murder", a story that shows Bradbury understands everything about growing up, and holding grudges, and letting go. I think that was the point at which I realized Bradbury was not just a major (I wd say the major) science fiction writer of his time but a literary figure, the one most responsible for elevating science fiction into "literature".

It was also about that time when I discovered that Bradbury was a pretty good poet (at least when he cd shake off the malign influence of Melville and Whitman, which was not always the case). And what's kept coming back to me today is my favorite among his poems, I Have a Brother, Mostly Dead:*

I have a brother, mostly dead
And angels perched upon his head
Most of my life, mostly unseen
And yet I feel with him I've been
A cohort playmate friend of Poe
Who tours me where live friends can't go.

He teaches me his mortal park
And where the firefly stops for spark
And how the shade within the night
Is a most fine delicious fright.

I give him words, he gives me bone
To play like Piper when alone;
And so my brother, dead, you see,
Is wondrous literate company.

Thus if my Muse says: Nevermore!
I hear a tapping at my door;
My brother comes to saviour me
With graveyard biscuit, rictus tea,
That tea in which, perused awhile
One finds a lovely mummy's smile
And then again, he bids me snuff
Egyptian dust . . .
So Idea Ghosts sit up again . . .
And shape themselves with words for clothes.

All this my long lost brother does,
This sibling spent before my cause.

He moves my hand and Lo! O Lord!
His tombstone my Ouija Board.

He shouts: Stay not in buried room,
Come forth, sweet brother, flower my tomb
With words so rare and phrase so bright
They'll bonfire burn away the night.

All this to me lost brother is
And I his live sweet Lazarus.

His shout ignore? his cry refuse?
No, no! Much thanks, long-dead fine Muse.**

*I've provided the stanza breaks.

It was a good long life (almost 92 years). The world is a better place for his having been here.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The New Arrivals

So, yesterday brought a new book by Tolkien -- sort of.

At Kalamazoo I heard the news that Michael Drout's book BEOWULF AND THE CRITICS, the draft versions of JRRT's famous essay THE MONSTERS AND THE CRITICS, was going into a second edition. They didn't have copies for sale at the event (or if they did, these were already gone), but I was able to pre-order it at the conference discount -- which, considering that this is a 58$ book, makes a difference. And yesterday there it was, waiting on the doorstep. No time to look through it yet, but glad to have this; it'll definitely come in handy for future reference somewhere down the line. And it's a handsome volume, too: a nice leather-brown instead of the white of the first edition.

And Saturday had brought treasures of its own, with the arrival of the latest MALLORN (along with AMON HEN). Again haven't had time to read this yet, but pleased to see a review of TOLKIEN AND HIS SOURCES, including my essay, got a favorable review: it's always gratifying when a reviewer's comments shows that the idea you were trying to convey got across.*

Quite beyond that personal connection on my part, the issue as a whole looks good too: the lead article is by Kristen Larsen, who's made quite a name for herself as the Tolkien astronomer through a string of interesting pieces over the last few years.** There's also a piece on Tolkien's not getting the Nobel, on why Tolkien was called 'Reuel', and on time-travel parallels in other authors to Tolkien's own time-travel stories. Plus of course another half-dozen reviews besides the one that immediately drew my attention. All in all, looks like good issue.

And, perhaps best of all, Wednesday had brought a whole new book about Tolkien's work, about which more later.

--John R.

*and, conversely, discouraging when this is not the case, as in a review of my 2004 Blackwelder essay, alas.

**to my chagrin, she told me at Kalamazoo last year that there was an error in the moon-phases I'd printed as part of The 1960 Hobbit in RETURN TO BAG-END -- or, rather, that Tolkien had made an error and I'd not caught it. I've tried to fix this in the new revised one-volume edition, but given that I refer to these entangled chronologies and timelines as "the section that broke my brain", let's hope I got it right this time around.

Monday, June 4, 2012

D&D Next

So, yesterday I signed up for the D&D 5th edition (now dubbed "D&D Next") playtest and downloaded the playtest packet.

First observation: no character generation rules, just five sample pregenerated characters.

Rateliff's Rule #1: Without character generation rules, it's not an rpg.

That's not a fatal flaw in this case, since this isn't an rpg: it's a playtest document. It's more akin to a crash test dummies car, as opposed to a roadster or sportscar, something you cd actually drive: i.e., designed to find out how certain things will happen in certain circumstances and make adjustments accordingly.

That said, haven't gotten too far in the rules yet, but there's a lot to like here. The characters provided come from the four traditional D&D classes: Cleric, Fighter, Wizard (e.g. Magic-User), and "Rogue" (as they're still calling the Thief)-- and four traditional races: human, dwarf, elf, and halfling.* The six traditional ability stats are all here, and used for more or less traditional applications.**

Two new things so far:
(1) Hit points now equal your Constitution score plus a die roll based on yr character class: d8 (Cleric), d12 (Fighter; an inflation from the traditional d10), d4 (Wizard), and d6 (Thief).

Based on the pregen characters, they've assigned a default value of half for each 'die roll' (e.g., the Fighter has Con 14, a d12, and 17 hp [14+ (0.5x12)=17]), but to their credit the rules are firm on rolling for hp rather than assigning a maximum or average, with a reasonable back-up rule in case you roll really badly. They deserve a thumb's up for that.

So, these rules preserve the long tradition of hit point inflation from edition to edition, but in a whole new and rather interesting way. Don't know if I like it yet --the end result looks to be that characters basically start out at the equivalent of third level so far as hit points go yet with essentially first level abilities -- but they're to be praised for restoring a random element in 1st level hit point generation, which reduces the sameness of too many characters being too much alike in stats.

Rateliff's Rule #2: Randomness makes for a better game; predictability for a diminished one.

(2) the 'Advantage/Disadvantage' rule is new, so far as I can tell (if there was something like this in 4e I certainly missed it). It's another interesting idea, but completely unlike D&D. So, better than the myriad bonuses and penalties that have plagued the system since shortly after 3e debuted, but not quite in keeping with the 'look and feel' of D&D tradition; have to see if its utility overcomes that. I suspect in my own game I'd just drop the advantage/disadvantage rule altogether and leave it up to DM discretion.

Finally, perhaps the best sign of all is the adventure they've provided for the playtest: THE CAVES OF CHAOS, the dungeon-delving section of B2. KEEP ON THE BORDERLAND. This represents a nod to shared experience, since more people have played this adventure than any other D&D adventure ever published: the quintessential dungeon crawl with a workable dungeon ecology and rationale to go with it. I got to write the sequel adventure (RETURN TO KEEP ON THE BORDERLAND) as part of the 'Silver Anniversary' series back in '99, so it's a setting that I have a particular interest in.

Now if I cd only find a gaming group to playtest with (both the groups I signed up with petered out back in February): I already have some wicked ideas of things to throw at them.

current reading: D&D NEXT Playtest Rules

*as opposed to, say, the furries with tails and horns that had come to dominate the player character races section of the D&D PH.

**though I'd shift things like jumping a chasm from Str. to Dex.; perhaps less realistic but seems a better intuitive fit (as it stands, the big burly fighter can make that leap but the nimble acrobatic thief cannot).

Friday, June 1, 2012

Final Thoughts re. Wilson

So, three more scattered tidbits that might (or might not) be worth sharing.

(1) Wilson thought so highly of his attack on Tolkien ("Oo Those Awful Orcs") that he sent a copy to Cabell, asking his opinion of Tolkien's book. [EW to JBC, Apr 12 1956; LETTERS ON LITERATURE AND POLITICS, p. 542-543]. There's no record of Cabell's response (I even once asked Leon Edel to help me find if there was one, but to no avail), other than that Wilson found it "a delightful surprise" [EW to JBC, May 16th 1956; ibid p. 543].

(2) There's no record, so far as I know, of Wilson's ever having read C. S. Lewis (I suspect he wdn't have considered any of CSL's fiction "literature"*), but as an equal-opportunity insulter, he did once make a passing slap at Charles Williams, in the poem "The Mass in the Parking Lot"

. . . And whom should we meet there, on the loose,
But Andre Gide in a big burnoose.
What were his words of wisdom? Damn it,
He was whooping it up for Dashiell Hammett.
More correctly garbed, we encountered later
T. S. Eliot, the Great Dictator.
Having just awakened from troubled sleep,
He told us Charles Williams was terribly deep.
And Wystan Auden, with rigorous views
But his necktie hanging around his shoes,
Expounded his taste for detective stories,
Which he reads to illumine the current mores . . .

[NIGHT THOUGHTS, 1961, p. 181]

(3) Finally, yesterday I found out that Edmund Wilson's son with Mary McCarthy was named . . . Reuel Wilson.
Can't make this stuff up.


*what with the trilogy being science fiction, and the Narnia books children's books. TILL WE HAVE FACES might have interested him, but that book of Lewis's didn't do v. well and there's no reason to think Wilson ever heard of its existence. Plus, of course, Wilson disliked Xianity, and CSL's apostlizing was the single best-known thing about him.