Thursday, January 31, 2013

Books That Go With Other Books

So, one of the definite keepers from the book-sort is IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELLER by Italo Calvino [1979; tr. 1981]. I've read this at least twice (three times, I think) and will no doubt at some point read it again. In short, I like this book. So while some other books of his (which I only got because I liked this one and have never gotten around to reading in the quarter-century since) are likely to go out the door, this one's a keeper.

For those who haven't ever read it, it's the story of a man who wants to read a book called IF, ON A WINTER'S NIGHT, A TRAVELLER but who finds events conspire against his reading more than a single chapter at a time. And that furthermore each time he tries again he winds up reading a different opening chapter (different copy, different setting, different plot, different characters, different genre), obviously from some other book. It's a surreal reflection on books and reading, both thoughtful and a hoot. Here's one bit from early on, in which the reader is entering a bookstore to buy Calvino's new book,  If on a winter's night a traveler ("Good for you" the author interjects). But first, the reader must navigate past the many categories of books that stand in the way:

Books You Haven't Read
Books You Needn't Read
Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading
Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written

Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered
Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback
Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too

Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages
Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success
Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment
Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case
Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Books You Need to Go With Other Books On Your Shelves
Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread
Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them
New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You
New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New
New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you)

Of these, I have to admit the following particularly spoke to me: 

—Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered (ain't it the truth?)

—Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First (I'm actually pretty good about passing these by)

—Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case (previously the source of many books now in boxes; getting better on this one)

—Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified (does Calvino know his audience or what? the true impulse buy: just because)

—Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread (a major category which only grows with time, alas)

There's also a major category I've recently become aware played a large role in overfilling on our shelves: the idea that, if I like a book by writer X, I shd buy more books by writer X (sometimes many more), which I then don't get around to reading for years on end. Sometimes just about everything by a writer is good (or at least worth reading), sometimes a writer only has one or two good books in him (or her).  This is where a lot of the current slow purge is underway.

Of course, for those who are hardcore overbuyers, there's always BIBLIOHOLISM: THE LITERARY ADDICTION, by Tom Raabe (1991)

--John R.
current reading: BRIDE OF THE RAT-GOD by Barbara Hambly (which is far better than its title wd suggest) and GREEN SUNS AND FAERIE by Verlyn Flieger (which is by Verlyn Flieger, who just seems to get better and better).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Historians Who Don't Know Their History

So, one of the books that made its way onto the go-away pile is the biography of James Monroe [2005], part of the 'American Presidents' series overseen by Arthur M. Schlesinger (Jr). I read several of these, feeling that I didn't know enough about several of our early presidents and being attracted by the fact that Garry Wills wrote the volume on Madison (which was excellent*), and that the whole was being overseen by Schlesinger (whose work, or what little I've read of it, is also both readable and impressive). Alas, the volume on Monroe was written by former senator Gary Hart, who I always thought wd have made a pretty good president (certainly better than Bush Sr. or Reagan) had he been able to exercise some self-control. But now, reading his book, I've come to doubt it. For one thing, he doesn't seem to know a whole lot about Monroe (as opposed to Wills, who knows an enormous amount about Madison). For another, a lot of what he argues isn't v. convincing -- e.g., his main theme that General Monroe was the first U. S. president to devote himself to national defense as his first priority (has there ever been a president who didn't obsess over national defense?).  Even more egregious is his claim that "Monroe . . . laid a groundwork for homeland security that would guarantee that no Americans would die on American soil from a foreign attack. That is, until September 11, 2001." (p. 82)

So much for "Remember Pearl Harbor"!

And, in a separate incident, a few days ago I was reading through the Kent paper and saw an announcement for an event held on Jan. 24th, the title of which was "The Life of Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1869".

Now, this might just be an example of the announcement gets Lincoln's dates wrong.** Twice. The event itself might have been a good one (speaker, discussion, visual aids) and I really ought to get down to the Kent museum one of these days. And it's timely, too, what with renewed interest in A.L. these days thanks to the Day-Lewis movie. But it's amazing what an effect little slips like that have.

--John R., who's been known to make egregious slips myself ("Gower").

*among other things, it completely undercuts the 'originist' or 'founders' intent' school of constitutional interpretation.

**he died in 1865.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Also Coming Up Soon: More Tolkien at Marquette

So, so long as I'm talking about interesting upcoming Tolkien events I won't be going to  --and considering that I'm going to Tolkien gatherings in March, April, May, and June, it isn't for lack of trying-- let's not forget about the third and final of the three events Marquette is hosting for this special 75th anniversary HOBBIT year. First was my talk back in October about the curious twists and turns of Marquette's acquisition of the Mss (combined with a great discussion earlier that day with Dr. Tim Machan's Tolkien class), followed a month later by Wayne and Christina's presentation on Tolkien's artwork for THE HOBBIT (a subject upon which they know pretty much all there is to know).

The third in the series, to be held on February 21st,  is a roundtable discussing the new Peter Jackson film (THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY). The panel looks to have some interesting people, all with strong backgrounds in Tolkien studies (all take part in the Tolkien Track at Kalamazoo on a regular basis) as well as a willingness to engage with the films (all four contributed to the Jan Bogstad/Phil Kaveny -edited volume PICTURING TOLKIEN: ESSAYS ON PETER JACKSON'S THE LORD OF THE RINGS FILM TRILOGY).* First up there's Richard West, who's been active in Tolkien fandom and scholarship since the sixties and who always has something interesting to say on whatever topic he writes about. Then there's Robin Reid, the former organizer of the Kalamazoo Tolkien Track who more recently launched a new Tolkien/fantasy/anime con, LeoCon, held down in Commerce, Texas.** Yvette Kisor and Edward Risden have been stalwarts at Kalamazoo, presenting on a range of topics; both are contributors to the forthcoming Shippey festshrift.*** It's certainly a roundtable I'd make sure to go to if I still lived in the area.

This is another of those events I'd love to hear a report on from someone lucky enough to attend.


"A Roundtable Discussion of Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT"
Thursday February 21st

Richard West
Robin Reid
Yvette Kisor
Edward Risden

Here's the link:

*as did I, my piece being on the status within the films of scenes appearing in the book but not shown onscreen.

**which I got to attend last year for LeoCon I. Small, but looks poised to grow a lot over the next few years.

***as indeed are Richard and Robin.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tolkien. Oxford. Spring.

So, Tolkien and Oxford and Spring in England are all good things.

And if you put three good things together, you get a v. good thing indeed.

Case in point: the Tolkien Spring School taking place in Oxford in March (Th 21st-Sat 23rd). Among the speakers will be Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova (THE KEYS TO TOLKIEN'S MIDDLE-EARTH), John Garth (TOLKIEN AND THE GREAT WAR), Edmund Weiner of the O.E.D. (RING OF WORDS), Th. Honegger (author of many works, and editor of the journal FASTITOCALON), Carl Phelpstead (TOLKIEN AND WALES), Mark Atherton (whose new book on Tolkien is just out), and two whose work I don't know yet, Anna Caughey and Maria Artamonova. This is being described as an introductory event, and sounds like it does a good job of touching a lot of the bases. I'd certainly be going if it were a little nearer (being a continent AND an ocean away). Below is the brief online description of the event; for the full schedule, see

--John R.

P.S.: I'd love to hear a report of how this one goes; sounds like a good event.

Oxford Tolkien Spring School
21 - 23 March 2013

J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the best known authors of the twentieth century, and his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have entertained and intrigued readers alike for decades, becoming some of the most popular books of all time. Many people will have read these novels, or seen the filmed adaptations, but have had little opportunity to take their interests further. To meet this need the Oxford Tolkien Spring School is being organised by the University of Oxford's English Faculty (where Tolkien taught for most of his career), aimed at those who have read some of Tolkien's fiction and wish to discover more. A series of introductory lectures by world-leading Tolkien scholars have been assembled, to take place in the English Faculty, University of Oxford, over the 21-23 March, 2013. Talks will cover Tolkien's life, his work as an academic, his mythology, the influences of medieval literature on his fiction, his languages, The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and his other lesser known works. There will also be panel discussions looking at Tolkien's place in the the literary canon. There will also be opportunities to see the sights of Oxford that were so important to Tolkien and his colleagues, as well as an introduction to some of the Tolkien collections at the University.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Next Up: Valparaiso

So, having written a piece on THE SILMARILLION's influence on THE HOBBIT ("A Fragment, Detached"), I'm currently working on the problem from the other end: looking to see if THE HOBBIT had any influence on THE SILMARILLION in return. I'm still researching and writing this one, whose working title is "Anchoring the Myth: THE HOBBIT and THE SILMARILLION; so more on it as it comes together.

This will be my presentation at the Tolkien conference being organized at Valparaiso, March 1st thr 3rd, where I'm honored to be one of the three Plenary speakers, along with Doug Anderson (5 pm Friday, "Annotating and Illustrating THE HOBBIT") and Verlyn Fleiger (9 am Saturday, "Bilbo's French Connection").*  My own talk is scheduled for 9 am Sunday morning.

Of course, there'll be a lot more going on than just the featured speakers. Brad Eden, the organizer, has put together a schedule with more than twenty papers organized into eight sessions (i.e., as many or more than comprise the Tolkien At Kalamazoo track in any given year);  in addition I'll be chairing one of these sessions of papers (on THE HOBBIT). It's a tribute to how good a program he's put together that I'm already looking at it and realizing I'll be missing good papers no matter which sessions I go to: there's just that much going on. Plus of course other events, like the Banquet, a musical performance of Tolkien-inspired songs, the Exhibit, and a live performance of Johan de Meij's SYMPHONY No. 1: THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Should be quite a week-end. If you're anywhere in the area, try to drop by; it shd be an interesting and enjoyable event.

--John R.

Here's the complete schedule of the event:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Moi, En Anglais

So long as I'm talking about my work in translation, I shd note that the piece I wrote for Tolkiendil, the French Tolkien society who published it in a special issue of their journal L'ARC ET LE HEAUME, has now been posted on their website in its original, English form: "A Fragment, Detached: THE HOBBIT and THE SILMARILLION". Here's the link: 

In this, which was also my Kalamazoo paper last year, I tackle the issue of Tolkien's many contradictory comments on the relationship between the two books. Short Version: In my conclusion, I argue that THE HOBBIT was part of the legendarium from its v. inception, though it's possible to define "The Silmarillion" (i.e., tales of the first age) in such as way as to exclude it.


--John R.

Me, in Portuguese

So, after I posted my thoughts about why THE SILMARILLION would be much, much more difficult to film than THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, I got a request from a Brazilian Tolkien group to let them post a translation of my post on their website. I was glad to agree, and the piece is now up. For those of you who read Brazilian Portuguese, or for those of you interested to see yet another example of the vibrant Tolkien fandom and scholarship going on all around the world, here's the link to my piece (and hence to their website as a whole). Enjoy!

P.S.: As per Leandro's comment after the main post, he's certainly right that I'm not a film-maker and am approaching the question of making Tolkien films from the viewpoint of a purist and a Tolkien scholar: someone who knows Tolkien v. well and has paid close attention to those adaptations of his work that have already been made. A film-maker of genius can overcome the difficulties I foresee, but that doesn't mean they're not real. The worst will be generating dialogue: there's precious little of it in the Silmarillion stories (far less than in H or LotR), and creating Tolkienesque dialogue that rings true to the story being told has proven the major sticking point in previous adaptations (with the nadir being the Rankin-Bass RETURN OF THE KING). So I stand by my concerns here, while I look forward to seeing how future film-makers (of genius, I hope) tackle and resolve the problems I foresee.

--John R.

current reading: GREEN SUNS AND FAERIE by Verlyn Flieger, BRIDE OF THE RAT-GOD by Barbara Hambly

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Cat Report (W.1/23-13)

With the adoption of TAZU and the arrival of Mr. STIG, we have nine cats today. There's a hold sign on STACHE's cage; hope this comes through for her. Sorry sweet little Tayla's adoption didn't turn out.

It was a quiet day in the cat-room. The Stay-In Club (Mr. NIKO, newcomer STIG, EDNA, and LEMURA) were in their cages most of the day. Towards the later part of the morning, two of the four allowed me to lure or lift them out and place them atop nearby cat-stands; the other two stayed in all day.  The Out And About Club (LILLY and LOU, STACHE, TAYLA) enjoyed themselves atop various cat-stands or exploring. And PASCALE made up The Dash from Cage to Cage club all by herself.

No walks today (I offered, they declined), but we did have great success with the feathers-on-a-stick game using a peacock feather on a stick I'd picked up elsewhere Lilly & Lou came bounding out of their cage to pursue it, joined by little Tayla and also Stache.   Eventually everyone except Stig and Jane got into the act, some from within their cages (pawing at it as it swished by) and some dashing about the room after it. Cheri Lou in particular demonstrated that she knew all about feathers and their wicked ways and how to deal with them, while Mr. Niko demanded it come in his cage and be properly dealt with. The end result was that they demolished it with great glee over the course of the morning. Well worth it.

NIKO was expansive, welcoming attention and expressing entire satisfaction at being petted and having his fur combed (with fingers, not brush). He purred and generally was in a pleased mood. STIG (our new Siamese) is v. shy but gentle; he went from being afraid to being glad of attention to asking for more. Lifted him out onto a cat-stand so I cd clean his cage, which made him nervous but he toughed it out until his cage was ready again. LEMURA stayed in and dozed all morning -- not like her at all. We'd better keep a close eye on her; may not be well. JANE was her usual standoffish self, but when I started to clean her cage around her she suddenly expressed a wish to come out on her own and (with a little help) leapt onto her cat-stand, where she snoozed; think she liked it. She went back in at noon, at my urging but under her own power (I moved the stand near her cage to help her make it).

PASCALE is an interesting cat: she comes out on her own and enjoys exploring but wants a clear line of retreat back to the safety of her home base. She keeps searching for the perfect hiding place -- which now exists (the hollow inside the short new cat-stand on the bench with the blanket draped over its entrance) but which ironically is so well hidden she didn't find it. Eventually she moved into the Sister's cage and slept the rest of the morning away therein. She's shy about being petted when out of a cage and usually dashes off if I try, but she was definitely interested in the feather-game.

The dominant cats today were The Sisters (LILLY & LOU), little TAYLA, and STACHE. Between them they tried out various cat-stands in various positions and combinations, two went to the cage-tops (Tayla and Stache), while the Sisters enjoyed reigning supreme. Lilly (the grey one) and I had quite a petting session late in the morning, and Lou, the shyer of the two, seemed more confident today: think they're getting used to the cat-room and less afraid of being suddenly pounced on. Stache eventually wound up near the door, where she delighted in the ping-pong game, batting them about w. great enthusiasm. Tayla is a sweet little cat but doesn't like being held or laps. 

health concerns: there was throw-up in The Sisters' cage. 
   Also, Lemura (see above).

And that's about it for another week. We seem to be short of blankets (maybe because so many are draped over cat-stands?) so I brought some home to wash and will try to have them back tomorrow.

--John R.

P.S.: To put an image to these names, see the photographs of each of these cats at the Purrfect Pals site:

P.P.S.: Looking at the pictures of the various cats in the thirteen adoption rooms Purrfect Pals runs in addition to the main shelter up in Arlington, I discovered that Mr. ASHWYN is now up for adoption again, at the Kirkland PetCo. They have some nice pictures of him up at --though they don't fully convey what a Big cat he is. Feanor weighs the same (twenty pounds) but in person Ashwyn looks the bigger of the two. Maybe it's the hair. 


Friday, January 18, 2013

Far Over Misty Mountains a capella

So, thanks to R.J.A. of the MythSoc list for posting a link to this interesting piece, in which singer Peter Hollens performs an a capella version of the dwarves' song from the new HOBBIT movie. Hollens provides all the voices, producing quite a nice effect. I still prefer the movie's original (Shore and Jackson seem to be particularly gifted at crafting a song to an actor's voice, as witnessed by Pippin's and Aragorn the King's songs in LotR), but this is an interesting and enjoyable variant of it. Besides, Hollens sings the whole song, where as in the film (the theatrical version at least) we only get the first half.

Here's the link.

There's also another version of it here, adding in a violin part by one Jun Sung Ahn

For my part, I much prefer the film version to either; the high voices on the latter parts of the first seem to depart from the tone and spirit of the opening. Perhaps I'm influenced here by JRRT's description of dwarven singing in a passage he wrote for the second edition:

"Dwarves had been long in the world and known much troublous history before the days of Thror, and when he wrote of old* he meant it: in the ancient past remembered still in those deep throated songs of lore that the dwarf-kin sang in their secret tongue at feasts to which none but dwarves were bidden. Some say that they sing still" [H.o.H.753]

As for the violin version, it made me want to hear what Shore's melody, sung by Armitage et al, wd sound like if set to the instrumentation the dwarves bring with them in Tolkien's original: harp, viols (two), clarinets (two), drum, flutes (three), and fiddles (two).** Might make for an interesting project for the musically inclined . . .

--John R.

*i.e., on the Lonely Mountain map: "Here of old was Thrain King . . . "

**so far as I can tell, Gloin and Oin have no instruments. Perhaps they're the singers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Return of the King, Uh-huh.

So, found out tonight that the best Tolkien filksong ever, Tom Smith's "The Return of the King, Uh-Huh",  is available on you-tube. If you ever wondered how Elvis might have covered Tolkien's story, wonder no more.

A word to the wise: Do yourself a favor and listen, don't watch.

If you do watch, marvel at the stunningly inept animation from Bakshi and Rankin-Bass, merged together into a train wreck of a film short that's actually worse than either one seperately. So stunningly bad it's almost good, in a twisted kind of way.


--John R.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pickles the Fire Cat

So, speaking of culling shelves and getting rid of books reminds me of the reverse: those that are keepers.

In the recent sort-out, I came across one book I would never, ever give away or sell or let go: PICKLES THE FIRE CAT. My copy is old and battered and (I just discovered tonight) missing several pages, but to me it's my Old #One Dime.* I think this is the first book I ever owned, having been so taken with it as a child that my parents had to keep checking it out from the Monticello library over and over, until they finally ordered me a copy. According to the neat inscription inside**

Johnny Rateliff 
April 10, 1963

I got it when I was about four and a half -- well before I cd actually read (that came in first grade), yet I knew every word on every page. Later it passed to my eldest niece and to her younger sisters in turn, until I reclaimed its battered remains once while visiting my sister's house after the youngest in her family had long since outgrown such things.

I discovered long ago that some books and songs and movies I liked when I was young I like just as much now as I ever did. I can remember loving "Pretty Women", "The Ballad of Jed Clampett", and the first few songs from the Beatles to hit America during the first burst of Beatlemania (I recall listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and also "Happy Just to Dance with You" in the sandbox), all before I was in kindergarden, and I still like them today. But it's perilous to go back and check old favorites you haven't read or heard in years and years and years (as JRRT found out when he unwisely re-read MacD's THE GOLDEN KEY when in his seventies!). Some turn out to be as good as ever, as was the case for me with Dr. Seuss: THE SNEECHES AND OTHER STORIES had lost none of their old charm when I re-read it in my early thirties.

Such was not the case with PICKLES. I got in nostalgic mood around 1991/92 and began looking for a copy, hindered in those pre-internet days by the fact I didn't know the author (books had authors? that wd have been a foreign concept to my four-and-a-half year old mind: books simply were, like trees and houses). It also turned out I had the name wrong: it's actually THE FIRE CAT, by Esther Averill [1960], one of the I Can Read series. I finally tracked down a copy during a visit Janice and I made to see Diana Pavlac (not yet Pavlac-Glyer) in Branson, who at that time was in the early stages of working on her dissertation (about which we had long, intense discussions: Diana and I talked a lot about Charles Wms and the group, and Janice was able to contribute a really interesting insight into JRRT as a starter of groups and CSL as a joiner). Delighted to find it in a used bookstore we visited, I at once read my old favorite for the first time in many years

And if fell completely flat. Whatever magic the book had held for me then, and in my memory ever since, the book itself cd no longer re-evoke.

That's been a good twenty years or so since then, and during which time I retrieved the old original, lost (or gave away) the newer copy, and occasionally wistfully thought of an old favorite that I cd no longer enjoy reading.

And yet, oddly enough, when I found this battered old copy again a few days ago, I'd forgotten the story so thoroughly (aside from my favorite line; see below) I cd read it afresh, and found it better than I recalled from the previous round. Today I went into Barnes & Noble (shop the big chain bkstores while we've got them, I say) and found a bright shiny and new copy*** just sitting on the shelf in the children's section (and not the only copy, either, so I must not be the only one to remember it w. fondness). Bringing it home and reading it, I quite liked the little piece. It doesn't have the old magic, but I'm happy to make its acquaintance again, like being back on good terms with a childhood friend with whom I'd drifted apart.

And through it all, one tag-line with the book remained w. me all the years, having become a slogan in our family to apply when someone happened to know something you wdn't have expected of him or her: A fire chief knows many things.

So, here's to Pickles: over fifty years old and still going strong:

Pickles, you are not a bad cat
You are not a good cat.
You are good and bad.
And bad and good.
You are a mixed-up cat.

--John R.
current reading: PICKLES THE FIRE CAT

*for those of you so unfortunate as not to have grown up reading Carl Barks' SCROOGE MCDUCK, this is the first coin that character ever earned, which he treated as a lucky talisman: all the rest of his huge Smaug-sized hoard of money was dependent on his keeping this one lucky coin, from which he'd be able to re-earn the whole pile if he ever lost it, so long as he had that old original.

**not my handwriting -- it's too neat.

***although the color scheme of the cover is different: my old original is reddish orange (as befits a Fire-Station Cat) while the new is half blue, half yellowy-orange.  It also seems they've broken down the old "I Can Read" books into four categories, with this being #1.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Didn't Make the Cut: Orson Scott Card

So, once again been culling the shelves downstairs in the box room, pulling off some books that I think I can live without. Some of these are books I read once that I can't imagine needing to read again (like Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT, or MERCIER AND CAMIER, or his STORIES AND TEXTS FOR NOTHING*), or ones I can readily enough find again in libraries or as ebooks, shd I ever need to refer to them again (like Zelazny's AMBER books**), or ones I tried reading and cdn't get more than a few pages into (like Atwood's THE HANDMAIDEN'S TALE), or ones I bought intending to read but never got around to (like Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE or Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION).  Some books I'm reading (or re-reading) before getting rid of. Sometimes the decision is hard -- not so much from the book's content as from the circumstances in which I bought it. I usually write my name and the date on the inside front cover of any book I buy (something I learned from my father, who never wrote on the flyleaf or first page), and sometimes add some additional information about who I was with and what the occasion was. Hence just having the book reminds me of that occasion, which may slip from memory forever without that reminder. But there are just too many books in boxes, too many I'll never get around to, that it's time to find new homes for, though it'll be a slow process, no doubt in many stages.

One set of books I'd have expected to be a hard decision turned out to be surprisingly easy: Orson Scott Card's ALVIN MAKER series. This had started out promisingly enough, with SEVENTH SON [1987] and its weird idea of evil water (that is, water is the evil force throughout the universe, the embodiment of entropy), but peaked early with RED PROPHET [1988]'s recasting of the events of the Shawnee Prophet and Tecumseh's attempt to rally all native peoples against the threat of extermination by the white settlers. Card's alternate history was intriguing, mainly because he didn't make the mistake of trying to explain it but let the reader look at the alternate-US/colonies map and work things out from that and passing references. Plus, he deserves credit for writing one of the few works of fantasy to deal with our horrific treatment of native Americans.

We did this one as one of our discussion books for the Burrahobbits not long after it came out, and as I recall we liked it well enough, though even Card admits Wm. Henry Harrison was not so purely evil as O.S.C. makes him in this book. But I was really bothered by Card's treatment of Wm Blake, whom he makes an appealing figure but at the cost of making him utterly unlike the real man whose name he shares. For me, it's a cardinal sin for a writer to incorporate a real-world figure in his or her fiction and not to have the fictional character share anything with the original except the name and one or two cursory traits.

But it was with the third book, PRENTICE ALVIN [1989], that the wheels came off the bus. In this book we learn that slavery is bad, Xians are bad, Southerners are bad, and and Xian Southern slave-owners are unspeakably bad. The jarring shift from story to polemic pretty much ruined the work, and during the long gap that followed before the next book came out [six years], I completely lost interest in how the series might ultimately come out, other than to hope vaguely that the characters all died horribly (not a good sign). I see now, courtesy of Wikipedia (Source of All Knowledge) that there have been three more novels since I gave up on the series, which still isn't finished yet (making R. R. Martin's failure to wrap up a much more ambitious and complex series that started almost a decade later seem quite reasonable, in context). By now it's more than twenty years since I read these three books, and now so much time has passed that I'd have to re-read the earlier books before I cd read the later ones. Even if I'd liked the series as a whole, I'd be hesitant to read what's out so far, lest Card abandon the series (again) and leave his readers hanging (again). No thanks.

And, speaking of interminable series that never seem to end, I see that the fourteenth and supposedly final book in the WHEEL OF TIME series is now out. Given that this has become the epitome of the bloated, endless, please-make-it-stop fantasy serial,***  can we make them take an oath on that "final", done at last, there-will-be-no-more part?

--John R.

*did keep ENDGAME, though, the only one of his plays I actually liked.

**though here too I did hang on to a magazine with a short story that wd have been the start of his third AMBER series, had he continued with it, since I think it'd be harder to replace if I ever decided to read an Amber book again (unlikely).

***although not without being out some serious competition, like Edding's double-quintology. At least Donaldson's trilogy of trilogies has definite stopping points between the trilogies where the reader can down tools and disembark if he or she is so inclined. And Tad Williams' MEMORY SORROW AND THORN, while grotesquely bloated, does tell a complete story in three very long volumes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sojourners article

So, we swung by the Kent library Friday to pick up a book Janice had on hold* and, while we were there, took some time to look about. I wandered over to look at the magazines, wondering what headlines wd be re. recent events. My eye was immediately drawn to one with a full-page picture of Ian McKellan's Gandalf on the cover.

This turned out to be SOJOURNERS Magazine (January 2013 issue), a magazine I'd never heard of by a group I'd never heard of. Turns out to be a religion-based social justice group arising out of the anti-war protests of the Sixties: Xian but no aligned w. any specific denomination, focused these days on pacifism and ministering to the poor.

The article in question, "Gandalf, Gollum, and the Death Penalty" (p. 22-27), by Tobias Winwright, takes Gandalf's famous comments to Frodo about not being too swift to deal out judgment, esp. re. putting others to death. Winwright freely admits to being no Tolkien scholar and not knowing whether JRRT himself opposed or supported the death penalty, yet finds these words and this exchange a good starting point for a discussion of why he opposes the death penalty.** Here's the piece:

The one deliberate execution I can think of offhand in Tolkien's work is that of Eol the dark elf, thrown to his death by order of Turgon king of Gondolin for killing the king's own sister, Eol's estranged wife. (SILM.138). And Tolkien is careful to emphasize Eol's malevolence (using a poisoned weapon and keeping that fact secret till it was too late to neutralize the venom).

There are plenty of deaths in battle, with no quarter asked or given,*** but deliberate murder is quite rare in Tolkien (e.g., Smeagol's strangling of Deagol, Wormtongue's killing and eating Frodo's cousin Lotho) and tends to have a deeply corrosive effect on the killer or to show that they are utterly depraved (the Feanoreans who leave Dior's children to starve).

In the end, I'd say this piece shows less that Tolkien opposed the death penalty than that he had a nuanced approach to this, as so many things.


Also, while on the topic of Inklings-related pieces spotted in the library's mazagine section that day, there was also XIANITY TODAY (December 2012 issue), whose cover story was "There and Back Again", about near-heaven experiences (but on the cover only; inside the story itself had a more literal an un-Tolkien-themed title, which I forget). This same issue did turn out to have a story about C. S. Lewis, entitled "Why MERE XIANITY SHOULD HAVE BOMBED", by Jn G. Stackhouse (p. 38-41), which I didn't have time to read (or, frankly, inclination, not rating MERE XIANITY among Lewis's better books). Here's the link:****

--In addition to this article, I see they've done several about Tolkien recently (see
for a list) and have even put together their own e-book, available on Kindle et al:,Divorce,J.R.R.Tolkien,Marriage,Books,PoliticsandCurrentAffairs&utm_content=7656&utm_campaign=tolkien

Unfortunately, so far as I can tell this isn't available in book form, just electronically.

--John R.
current reading: THE PHOENIX AND THE MIRROR by Avram Davidson [1969]
   GREEN SUNS AND FAERIE by Verlyn Flieger [2012]

*about the work of Edward S. Curtis, one of the most interesting men I'd never heard of but will now definitely be wanting to know more about

**(as do I)

***(Tolkien was no pacifist, but almost all his good guys are fighting defensive wars, not launching wars of aggression)

****(having now gone back and done so, I think the one line that'll stay w. me is Stackhouse's description of CSL as "the Ulstercum-Oxonian equivalent of a 'good ol' boy with a Ph.D'."

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Next Tolkien film

So, when being interviewed or the Smithsonian piece a few weeks ago, one of the questions I was asked was which of Tolkien's works I wd most want to see filmed next, now that THE LORD OF THE RINGS has been done and THE HOBBIT is in-process. The typical response, oft expressed in online forums, is THE SILMARILLION -- or, rather, a series of films, each adapting one of the 'Great Tales' (as Tolkien called them: Beren and Luthien, Earendil and Gondolin, the Turin story. It's an approach that has some basis in Tolkien's own comments, where he speaks late in life of perhaps publishing THE SILMARILLION as a series of shorter works rather than all at once in its entirety.

My own choice, which I think rather surprised her, is FARMER GILES OF HAM, which I think one of Tolkien's most underrated works: it wd make a great little animated film.

Further thinking has led me to conclude that really, deep down, I'm not so keen on seeing SILMARILLION adaptations after all, and that the project is fraught with far more difficulties than most fans who support the idea realize.

Consider: it's long been observed that the Peter Jackson Tolkien films are at their best when they stick closest to Tolkien, including in dialogue. That's because Tolkien is a great writer, and it's hard to add to a great writer's story and have your additions be at the same level as his or her greatness. Add a subplot to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and you run the risk of every word being held up to comparison with Austen's best and, quite likely, be found wanting. And yet there's relatively little dialogue in these tales from THE SILMARILLION, which means almost all the dialogue in such films will have to be created; the scriptwriters will have to provide it, and have it be up to the level of what little Tolkien did include.  And if there's one thing we've learned in fifty-odd years of fan-fiction and decades of faux Tolkien generic fantasy trilogies, it's that Tolkien can be imitated but that the imitations fall far, often spectacularly, short. What makes Tolkien 'Tolkien' is impossible to emulate.


And all this is apart from perhaps the most serious challenge: THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT are relatively 'down to earth', so far as tales of the legendarium go. The 'Great Tales' from THE SILMARILLION are grand, and remote, full of superlatives. The Jackson films are at their weakest when they have to portray, in visual form, transcendent moments (like Galadriel's beautiful and terrible: all shall love me and despair!). It was things like this that led Tolkien to believe that serious fantasy cdn't be adapted for the stage.

Consider the best known of all the SILMARILLION stories, that of Beren and Luthien (or Luthien and Beren, as it might better be called). First, the filmmaker has to cast an actress to play the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Helen of Troy might have pulled it off, but it's a tall order for a filmmaker (think PRINCESS BRIDE's Buttercup). The film has to include a huge amount of backstory (something both Tolkien and Jackson are extremely good at) in order for this particular tale to make any kind of sense against the backdrop of the larger 'War for the Jewels'. And the scriptwriters wd have to have rights to pillage the whole of Tolkien's middle-earth writings: much of the detail they'd want to use is absent from the SILMARILLION version of the story and is found in the (unfinished) LAY instead.

Beyond this, the filmmaker will have to make what will no doubt be controversial decisions: have Beren and Luthien already consummated their love before ever setting out on their quest? When reading, it's up to the reader to decide how chaste the two were in all those secret meetings in the forest after they "plighted their troth"; but the film will have to chose how it portrays them: as lovers in a romantic (chivalric) or modern (physical) sense.

And all that's why I think, even given the legal restrictions aside (the Estate's not going to license any of Tolkien's material for a long, long time to come), filming the SILMARILLION stories present so many difficulties that we still wdn't be seeing these in the foreseeable future. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.


What I think we'll see next is not an adaptation of a Tolkien story, but a biographical picture about Tolkien himself, a la CSL's SHADOWLAND.  The recent British radio piece TOLKIEN IN LOVE covered this ground in documentary fashion; it's easy to see how it cd be recast into narrative 'based on a true story' fiction.  Born in an exotic foreign land, orphaned, raised by priests, forbidden romance, lighthearted Oxford days overshadowed by war, the horror of western front, surviving the most deadly battle in history, reunited with the love of his life, and the 'happy ending': THE BOOK OF LOST TALES and the beginning of the Matter of Middle-earth. I wdn't be surprised if they ended it with him writing down that famous line, In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit . . . 

We'll see.

--John R.
current reading: THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells [1895]


So, on the principle that if you can't say anything nice, you're probably better saying nothing at all, I'd intended to pass over the recent passing of Judge Robert Bork in silence. After all, Toobin's obituary  pretty much covers it, I thought:

Then last night saw another piece that seemed worthwhile sharing for its perspective of someone who knew Bork:

So, any time you find yourself thinking about all the damage Justice Scalia has done on the Supreme Court over the course of his long tenure, remind yourself that it cd have been much, much worse. So far as I know, Scalia has never broken the law, never deliberately subverted the Constitution, never acted on the basis that if the president does it, by definition that makes it legal (and then reversed himself when someone from the other party became president).

His passing also reduces to a handful the few remaining Nixon cronies*: Kissinger and Buchanan are the only two I can think of offhand.


*whose hundredth birthday this week has once again seen efforts by Nixon apologist to scrub his record.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poke-em-with-a-Stick . . . Thursday?

So, I've been following the current push for gun control with some detachment. Fewer guns wd be good; none, aside from collector's pieces, wd be ideal.* But the prospect of getting there seems hopeless, given the lock gun-crazies have on our political system. Still, yesterday I saw something that really surprised me and gives me hope.

Essentially, we've now reached the point in the current debate where the gun folks have evoked Hitler, as always. The logic (if you can call it that) goes something like this: Hitler took people's guns away! Taking guns away means you're just like Hitler, and it's only a matter of time before the concentration camps open.

Except this time, for once, it doesn't seem to be working. Trying to prevent the recurrence of a crazy shooting first graders is being "just like Hitler"? Yes to folks like the originator of the petition to deport CNN reporter Piers Morgan for having come out, bluntly and unambiguously, in favor of gun control, who didn't present his pro-gun case as well as he might:

But to the rest of us? It's all crazy talk, whether it comes from someone as over the top as this guy or the average NRA spokesman and pro-gun Congressman.

What I think may be happening is that the Hitler card is starting to lose its effect, and this is the first sign of that. After all, it's now been almost seventy years since Hitler died, his regime destroyed and his ideas more utterly discredited than that of any other leader in history. As a culture, we've made every effort to keep his memory alive and his example vivid as the ultimate in human evil. In a way, we've made a kind of cult of Hitler. But time passes. Evoking Hitler today is, more and more, like evoking Caligula, and about as relevant. I was struck this year by how perfunctory memorials to the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination were, and conclude that this sudden shock and horror is fading away. It's like cries of "Rememer the Maine!" dying out when the last people who COULD remember the Maine were gone. We're not quite there on Pearl Harbor yet, but that seems to have become ritualized, like celebrating Veteran's Day.

Which is as it shd be. Time passes. Horrors fade. We carry on.

So Saturday night I'll be playing CALL OF CTHULHU with Mr. Smokes, my Chicago gangster, carrying his tommy gun with him everywhere he goes; it's rare that a gaming session goes by without his finding a good opportunity to use it. Which is as it shd be: guns belong in movies, and roleplaying games, and museums. Not in homes, or on the streets, or (God knows) in schools.

--John R.

*I'm a pacifist, remember?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Welcome to 13 Baktun

So, today marks the end of the holiday season for us (it being Janice's birthday). The end of feast days and the start of carb-counting and portion control and daily walks to get a little exercise.

Therefore it seems a good time for a post I've been meaning to get written up for a while now. Better late than never, perhaps.

So, I like calendars. And in addition to the calendar that hangs in the kitchen by the phone (ours is not only a land-line, but rotary-dial), I also have a little card-sized calendar I carry every day in my pocket,* a smallish one I carry in the side-pocket of my satchel (to write down appointments and events on, so I can remember them), and a large one (sometimes a Tolkien calendar, sometimes a Mayan calendar) hanging in my office where I can see it from my desk (more or less). This year I have not one but two Tolkien calendars vying for that space (the Hobbit calendar and the Beyond Bree one) and have decided to keep the Mayan calendar in the central sliding drawer of my desk, since it has so much detail that it's impossible to appreciate it from a distance. 

And of course the big issue this year with the Mayan calendar (or rather Mayan Calendar) was, were they going to have one? Last year's ended with December 21st and left the rest of the last page blank (aside from an ad urging me to order the next year's). I expected the missing days wd be accounted for at the start of this year's calendar, perhaps in a special section.  Nothing of the sort: it simply starts with January 1st, a.k.a. 2 Chuwen 14 K'ank'in, or by the long count. 

The first two of these are unambiguous, being the day-name in the Tzolk'in (Sacred) calendar of 260 days (thirteen numbers and twenty day-name), followed by the day-name in the Haab (vague Year) calendar (eighteen months of twenty days each). The two together give a fifty-two year cycle, of the Calendar Round.

All that's fairly straightforward, if requiring good record-keeping skills to keep track of. Where things get tricky this year is with the most direct of all Mayan time-keeping, the Long Count. This is a count of days, starting with August 11th 3114 BC, made up of kins (days), winals (twenty-day months), tuns (three hundred and sixty day long years), k'atuns (7200 days, or roughly a score of years), and bak'tuns (144,000 days, or roughly four centuries)

Why 3114 BC? Because that's the date that the creators of the calendar system (who were probably Olmecs, from whom the Mayans inherited it) decided this already distant to them date marked the time of the Hero Twins and the beginning of Fourth Creation. And December 21st marked the last day of Fourth Creation, with December 22nd being the first day of Fifth Creation about which we know almost nothing, the Mayans not being much bothered about the physical limitations of their system of reckoning, quite reasonably having thought that 5,126 years was long enough to measure time for practical purposes.

From our point of view, we know that December 22nd was 5 Imix 4 K'ank'in, since the Tzolk'in and Haab calendars continue unimpeded. But by the Long Count is that day the first day in a new 395-year cycle ( or the beginning of an unprecedented thirteenth Bak'tun? 

The calendar-makers have decided to go for the latter option. So my new calendar starts on Tuesday January 1st (2 Chuwen 14 K'ank'in), or (the eleventh day of 13th Bak'tun), and today (Wednesday January 9th) is 10 Kawak 2 Muwan, or

For those of us interested in other places and other times, it's good to get a glimpse sometimes into how other people conceived of time and how they chose to record it. For those of us interested in fantasy and science fiction, the time-keeping systems of other worlds and mythic realms offers a fascination all its own, and real-world systems (like that of the Olmecs and Mayans) can offer inspiration.

  And the calendar itself is really impressive, with really stunning examples of Mayan art on each page (it also this year comes with a substantial essay explaining the calendar system and the reasons for their decision to continue the Long Count in their calendar)

And finally, just for fun, here's a link to a calendar converter, designed to convert any date from our calendar (say, your birthday) into the Mayan equivalent:

--John R.

*to be fair, it's one of the many things I carry every day in my pockets (there are at least seventeen of them)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The War of the Ring (SPI game)

So, New Year's Eve found us over at the Grubb House enjoying Jeff and Kate's Game Day, most of which I spent playing a game I'd long heard about but never had a chance to play before: SPI's THE WAR OF THE RING.

This is as old school as Old School gets: hex-based grids on maps, hundreds of tiny little chits, twenty-eight pages of detailed rules, and a recommended play-time of essentially all day.  I've never been one for wargames, preferring my boardgames simpler (for complexity, I turn to roleplaying games*). Apparently it'd been a favorite of Kate's back in the day, but she'd not had a chance to play it in years, given how time-consuming a single play-through is. And for my part, I'd long wanted to try this one out, largely out of curiosity over how well it reproduced the ambiance of the books.** Digging around, I found I do have three of the four maps that make up the gameboard (I'm missing the fourth, Mordor), having salvaged them when the TSR/WotC games library was cleaned out and drastically reduced in size in late 2005.

As for the game, we played the three-person variant: Kate played Sauron and the forces of Mordor, I played the Fellowship, and their friend Frank played Saruman -- who's something of a spoiler, with his own victory conditions. Frank particularly liked the part in the rulebook that advised that the Saruman player typically enjoys himself much more once he gives up trying to win. Despite a plethora of rules and special cases, the game went remarkably smoothly. Knowing nothing about the best strategies and probabilities of success of any particular action, I decided to embrace my naivete and just have the characters more or less reproduce their actions from the book. This strategy is not as gormless as it might sound: I've observed that many wargames reward following the general trend of history -- for example, World War II wargames tend to be set up so that the German player does much better if he attacks Poland on the first turn rather than, say France.

Be that as it may, I was certainly blessed with beginner's luck. The game starts with the Fellowship in Rivendell (whereas the game I'd played that one time with Rich began in Hobbiton, and I never did get all the Nine Walkers together -- I remember Gandalf got killed by a Nazgul trying to cross a river into Rivendell, at wh. point Rich advised me to just give up and concede the game, which I did). Unable to cross the Misty Mountains, we went through Moria -- where to Kate's disgust it turned out the balrog was away. A quick stay in Lorien provided me with boats which I used to whisk my way down the great river. Then came a few turns slipping thr Ithilien (filled with enemy forces that nonetheless failed to find us), past Minas Morgul, thr. Cirith Ungol, and finally into Mordor. We ended with a grand battle on Mt. Doom, where Pippin and Merry and Legolas died, then Gimli, then lastly Gandalf, and finally Aragorn (Boromir had been lost a little earlier, in Ithilien I think, and Sam captured and carried off to the Barad-dur). So Frodo killed the last of the Nazgul, threw the Ring into the fire, and won the day. A turn later Gandalf the White showed up, just in time to re-united Frodo with Sam, who'd escaped from Sauron (apparently it's not hard to capture halflings, but it's the v. dickens to keep hold of them; they're always escaping). Meanwhile, over in Saruman's world, he'd overrun Rohan, destroyed all the Rohirrim forces, killed Eomer and Theodred and Theoden, and carried Eowyn off as a captive to Orthance, which I can't imagine she enjoyed v. much. Had I known the game better, turns out I cd have dispersed the Rohirrim so that it took him a long time to hunt them all down, rather than collecting them into Helms Deep where he just pounded away on them until they were no more (a case where following the book's plot-line served me ill). Luckily for me, his victory conditions were so high that even this success was not enough to bring him victory (apparently he had to gain control of any surviving Nazgul too).

So, thanks to Kate's run of bad luck, and my own counter-run of undeserved good fortune, I won. Glad to have finally had a chance to play this, and I'll certainly pick up a copy if I ever get the chance and can afford it (I gather they go for a pretty stiff price these days, not surprising for a boardgame that's some thirty-five years old). Think I'll quit while I'm ahead -- though I am now itching to play FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (assuming my copy turns out to be complete enough for playability) and, prob. before that, STELLAR CONQUEST -- which again I played once, years ago, and liked but have never had (or made) the chance to play again. Some boardgame night sooner than later, I think.

--John R.

P.S.: And in the Above And Beyond department: when packing away the game, Kate found that in the bottom of the box they still had a flyer advertising this and other games of the era, along with a "Complaint Card" which you were to fill out and send in if you had any pieces missing. These she threw away, and I'd no sooner gotten home that evening than I was kicking myself for not having asked for them -- being particularly interested in gaming history (esp. of Tolkienian games). I mentioned my chagrin the next day to Jeff, who retrieved them from recycling before it was too late. So now, thanks to the kindness of friends, my file for this game includes three-fourths of the map, a photocopy of the rules book and some sheets with charts, this flyer, and this card. Still not playable without the cards and many, many little cardboard chits, but enough now to have a good idea of the game and how it plays and how faithful (or otherwise) it is to JRRT's original.***

*Speaking of which, we resumed our fifth edition playtest last night (M.1/7-13). Despite considerable yo-yoing between each iteration of the rules (think this is the fifth version so far), it's starting to feel like something distinct, neither 4th nor 3rd nor 2nd nor 1st (though ideally to me it'd harken back more to 1st ed). More on this if and when the Cone of Silence comes off.

**I thought I'd played it once with Rich Baker, towards the end of my last stint at WotC (not long before they moved to the new building), but once I saw the rules for this I realized that must have been another game, prob. ICE's FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, which postdates SPI's WAR OF THE RING by several years. That time I lost, spectacularly. I do remember the hidden movement rule fondly, though.

***pretty faithful, given its brief (a wargame is not a novel); they even include Druwaith Iaur on the map, which shows somebody was paying attention. Giving the second Nazgul the name "Morgoth" was a mis-step, though to be fair less a one than Ice Crown's faux pas of making one of their Nazgul female.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

More Trivia

So, having been disappointed by a recently purchased Tolkien trivia book, you'd think I'd avoid another new Tolkien trivia book. Or at least stay away from them for a while. Such are not the ways of Tolkien scholars, who are both indiscriminate in always wanting any Tolkien book they don't already have and demanding of a high level of accuracy from said books.

This newest addition to the overloaded Tolkien tie-in shelves is THE UNOFFICIAL HOBBIT TRIVIA CHALLENGE by Nick Hurwitch, which I think had just been published* when I found it in the Barnes and Noble in Little Rock, where I stopped to check e-mail and tea-up on my way out of town for the drive down to Magnolia (this being Saturday, December 8th). I read part of it on the plane coming back, then put it aside and only resumed it a few days ago.

First and foremost, it needs to be said that this book is a far cry from MacKay's TOLKIEN TRIVIA. For one thing, it's a much more ambitious project. It's also much more substantial, running over two hundred and fifty pages and a detailed (9-page) index. The cover promises over eight hundred questions but, ironically, it turns out to be wrong about that. The end-of-chapter answer keys often give a maximum score that's several points in excess of how many questions were actually included in that chapter, with the cumulative effect that while Hurwitch believes his book has 825 questions, it actually totals 799 -- close, but no Nazgul.

Reading this book, and taking its test helped confirm to me a growing suspicion that Tolkien's gotten too complex for anyone but a savant to hold the whole in memory. Unlike MacKay, whose downfall seems to have been consulting bad sources, Hurwitch I think suffers from inconsistent precision. He has a fair number of trick questions, where the wording of a question is all-important, but he has many others which contain (mostly) small errors in the question that we're not to take into account. And there are many questions to which there shd be more than one right answer, but Hurwitch only gives credit for the one he intended. For example, the very first question in the book asks what Bilbo's home had whole rooms devoted to. The 'correct' answer is clothes, but food is just as right, based on the pantries mentioned in the book, but that's not included as a valid answer. Elsewhere he asks what monster Tolkien discussed in his BEOWULF essay: the 'correct' answer is Grendel, yet JRRT also devotes a good deal of discussion there to the Dragon. Other questions are simply flat-out wrong ("Ered Luin" is not the "Dwarvish" name for the Blue Mountains but Elven --Sindarin, I assume; Lake Town was not rebuilt on the shore following Smaug's death; Tolkien did not replace "goblin" with "orc" in later editions of THE HOBBIT; Dorwinion is not an "elvish city").

On the plus side, Hurwitch knows a lot about Tolkien and clearly went to a lot of trouble putting this book together. He even cites my book at one point (and clearly drew on it in another dozen places), which warms my cold, hard, blog-reviewer's heart towards his project. On the whole he's done a good job, and includes a lot of interesting stuff.  I just wish he'd been more careful; there's a good book here that cd have been so much better.

Oh, and my final score? I got 602 right, by my reckoning. At the end of each chapter he has an answer key and three rankings, and I got in the top ranking in eight of the nine chapters. But then at the end of the book he gives five rankings for the compiled tallies, and my showing placed me in the next to bottom of these. I'm chagrinned by some of the ones I missed that I really shd know, but I don't feel any compunction over not knowing the name of the tv show from which the famous clip of Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" comes, or the names and various production details of various non-Tolkien Peter Jackson films, and the like. I did get the question about Honda Harold right, thanks to Darrell Martin's having shared this bit of trivia with me years ago.

The one line most likely to give Tolkienists a purple leptic fit? That'd be the paragraph in which Hurwitch compares Tolkien to Bilbo, who sailed across the seas to the Undying Lands, leaving Middle-earth in the hands of its new king: Peter Jackson/Aragorn.

Despite which sentiment I'd say this is clearly the most ambitious, and by far the most interesting, of all the Tolkien quiz books I've seen.

--John R.

*at one point he refers to three HOBBIT movies and at another to two, so he clearly was finishing up the book at the time of the expansion from two to three films was announced, hence within the last few months.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I Am Interviewed (Smithsonian)

So, in addition to being Tolkien Day, today's also a good day for me because a piece I'm quoted in has just been published online at : "The Tolkien Nerd's Guide to THE HOBBIT", by Rachel Nuwer.

I was happy to be interviewed for the piece, both (a), because it's Smithsonian, and (b), because it's on a topic of special interest to me. I know the text of THE HOBBIT really well, and am also pretty well up on references relevant to THE HOBBIT in Tolkien's other work. Given the resources available to Jackson -- THE HOBBIT itself, all the references to events from the time of THE HOBBIT in LotR, and Jackson's own LotR films to which these films are prequels -- how wd he weave those strands together? Equally important, how wd he handle to tricky issue of material relevant to his work-in-progress to which he did not have the rights, like "The Quest of Erebor", "The Istari", and "The 1960 Hobbit"?

As for the article itself, I enjoyed it. It takes on an interesting subject -- how did Jackson use the sources available to him, and how did he work around relevant works that were not available? -- which I suspect will be the topic of some essay or essays in some future version of a follow-up book to Jan and Phil's PICTURING TOLKIEN. And I think it does a pretty good job with it.   It's easy to nit-pick (Tolkien's LotR is not a "trilogy", although Jacksons films of LotR arguably are; the sword's not the Necromancer's but the Witch-King's; we don't know if Thror's murder was one-on-one or not) but I know the piece's author went to a good deal of trouble to try to get details accurate.

Which, combined with problems I encountered in the two Tolkien-themed Trivia books I've been reading lately, has reminded me just how difficult it is to paraphrase Tolkien correctly. Tolkien's work has always been complex, where detail really mattered. We may have to face the fact that with the publication of so much draft and unfinished material Tolkien's writings are now too diverse and complex and contradictory to hold in the mind in toto, as we used to be able to do in the days before UNFINISHED TALES. I know for a long time I've distinguished between scholarly and popular works; the former I'm pretty ruthless with so far as details go*, while I'm aware I mentally 'grade on a curve' with the latter.

Did find the quotes and comments from Michael Drout interesting; he obviously had a v. different response to the film than I did in that while we like and dislike some of the same bits, our reaction to the parts we dislike is dissimilar.** Here's a link to his own review of the film:

In this Smithsonian piece, I disagree with Drout that "the Tolkien estate . . . are litigious". Tolkien Enterprises (the people who own the movie rights) is certainly litigious, but the Estate (an altogether different entity, being Tolkien's family) strikes me as resorting to lawsuits only when driven to exasperation (e.g., by the news of hobbit slot machines). In any case, the lines cited don't sound particularly close to me (the sentiment, yes; the phrasing, no).


current reading:
 THE PRICE OF POLITICS by Woodward without Bernstein, on the Kindle (bit dreary)
 GREEN SUNS AND FAERIE by Verlyn Flieger (fascinating, as expected)

*I once listened to, and enjoyed, an hour-long talk by my friend Taum Santoski about Tolkien artwork and, afterwards, had a one-word response: "Denmark!" -- he having at one point mis-identified which country the queen who illustrated the Folio Society's edition of LotR had come from as Sweden. To my credit, I was heartily ashamed of myself afterwards once I realized what I'd done -- which was to pick a point of disagreement as a starting point for the next round in our endless discussion of all things Tolkieian.

**I think the difference is that Drout falls into the group of Tolkienists who take those departures from the original that don't work as a sort of personal insult, while I just dismiss them as a part of the film that didn't work when it cd have worked, had they been more faithful.

Happy Tolkien Day!

So, today wd have been Tolkien's one hundred and twentieth birthday. Which makes it a good day to go back and celebrate his life and work by re-reading some favorite bit of his writings. For me, I think it's going to be "The Dragon's Visit" (original version, of course), plus a few uncollected and/or unfinished poems. How better to celebrate Tolkien Day than by reading Tolkien?

--John R.