Thursday, December 26, 2013


So, thanks to now having further explored a link someone sent me in a comment (thanks Allan), I not only discovered a fellow fan of the great but underappreciated ADandD modules L1 (The Secret of Bone Hill) and L2 (The Assassin's Knot) but also came across an amusing solution to the too-many-dwarves problem.

One of the things both Tolkien, in writing THE HOBBIT, and Peter Jackson's scriptwriters, in adapting it, has to deal with is the problem of a having a dozen or so similar characters: the dwarves. Tolkien solves this by giving them a sort of corporate identity; there are plenty of places in the narrative where they speak in plural (some said . . . others argued . . . ). This he leavens by highlighting a few among them: Thorin, Balin, and Bombur, mainly, plus to a lesser degree Dori and the pairs Fili-Kili and Gloin-Oin. Dwalin, Ori, Nori, Bifur, and Bofur pretty much fade into the background.

Now along comes Timrod, aka the "Unfrozen Caveman Dice Chucker, who proposes, only half-seriously, that maybe there's no Nori at all. That is, when Gandalf or Thorin or somebody is taking rollcall, Ori puts up his hand when his name is called, and then again a moment later puts up his other hand when "Nori" is called out, his goal being to get an extra share of the treasure, extra rations, or what-not. Here's the link:

Sad to say this ingenious proposal breaks down when you look at the text of THE HOBBIT closely enough (Nori and Ori appear side-by-side in the two-dwarves-at-a-time approach to Beorn's house in Chapter VII: Queer Lodgings). What's amazing, though, is that there's actually precedent for something like this in Tolkien's own work.

The passage in question comes in an odd passage Tolkien wrote late in life (1968 or ff) about the fate of Feanor's youngest sons, Amrod and Amras. Part of a larger unfinished piece on the various elven names of royal elven house called by Christopher Tolkien "The Shiboleth of Feanor", it was published in the last volume of The History of Middle-earth (Vol. XII: THE PEOPLES OF MIDDLE-EARTH -- cf, specifically HME.XII.352-355).

In this, it's revealed for the first time that one of Feanor's sons dies in the Ship-burning, without ever setting foot on Beleriand. Since Feanor forbids anyone to ever speak of his accidental murder of his son Amrod, the fiction is carried on throughout the next five centuries or so that Amras and Amrod, the twins, are acting as one in their various deeds in the wars of Beleriand -- when in fact it's only Amras, acting alone but crediting his deeds jointly in his name and in that of his long-dead brother. Quite possibly the most bizarre concept Tolkien came up with during those philological and metaphysic essays he sketched out late in life.

So, the idea of a faux-member of a largish homogenous group (Thorin's Company, the Sons of Feanor) does have genuine Tolkien precedent -- it's just not so in this particular case.

--John R.
current audiobook: MOCKINGJAY (just started)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Desolation: New Faces

So, thing that surprised me most on a third viewing of the second HOBBIT movie (which I was able to enjoy on Thursday, in company with Anne and Sigfried) was the closing credits. I thought I'd spotted something here on the second viewing, and I was able to partially confirm it on the third: Martin Freeman didn't get top billing.
From my hastily scribbled notes, the top of the cast list went something like this:

1st. Ian McKellan (Gandalf)
2nd. Martin Freeman (Bilbo)
3rd. Richard Armitage (Thorin)
4th. Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug and Sauron)
5th. Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel)*
6th Lee Pace (Thranduil the Elvenking)
7th ?
8th. Stephen Fry (Master of Lake-Town)

My first response: it just feels wrong, somehow, to not have the actor playing Bilbo, THE Hobbit, get top billing in a movie named THE HOBBIT.
On the other hand, I can see the argument that if you've got Sir Ian McKellan playing a lead role in your movie, that's a Good Thing and you want to put that fact front and center.
So I can see both sides of this, but it still struck me as a bit odd.

The second point that arises from this cast list sequence is how important the new characters are to this  second film.**  Most of the returning characters from the LotR films who helped anchor the first Hobbit movie to Jackson's earlier trilogy (Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum) don't reappear in this second movie. Gandalf is really the only such figure to play a prominent role here. And of the important characters introduced in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (essentially the fifteen members of Thorin and Company plus Radagast and Azog), all except Gandalf, Bilbo, and Thorin play smaller roles in this one, the second-tier roles essentially being reduced to make room for the new characters introduced in this second installment.  The high quality of some of the performances of characters introduced in Jackson's second LotR film (Theoden, Eowyn, Gollum) having been a major factor in that film's success, I thought it'd be good to take a look at this second HOBBIT film's equivalences.

*Thranduil (the Elvenking)
We'd glimpsed this character in the prologue/flashback at the beginning of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, but we get to see much more of him now (plus, he gets to have more than one expression). First off, I was vastly relieved to find he's not another Denethor. Denethor was portrayed as a malevolent loon in Jackson's RETURN; by contrast, in the Elvenking we have an unsympathetic but well-motivated character, and smart to boot (he pretty much figures out Thorin's plan from the get-go). He's closer to the Elrond of the original movie trilogy (the Rivendell scenes in the first HOBBIT film having featured a kinder, gentler Elrond, more like the character Tolkien had described). He's an interesting character in that what he offers sounds reasonable on the surface, so that Thorin seems churlish to reject it with insults. But we're shown clear signs that Thranduil can't be trusted (as when he murders a prisoner he'd promised to release), signaling that Thorin was probably right not to make a deal with him; it wd be entirely in character for this Elvenking to renege on any agreement made "between kings" on the basis that Thorin is not, yet, a king. It's a particularly bad sign that in a sentence or two Thranduil echoes the Goblin King, right down to phrasing.
--the odd little scene in which Thranduil lost control and part of his face melted away puzzled me a bit, but I think Janice got it right when she said this was elven glamour that masked the Elvenking's true face slipping for a moment under stress. That makes sense, given the glamours we're shown in the book of elven feasting among the trees: what we see in Mirkwood and the wood-elves' realm isn't necessarily reality. The scars also help lend weight that he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to just how dangerous dragons are.

The most important character contending for Not-Appearing-in-the-Book is clearly Tauriel. I don't suppose her creation and insertion is a bigger departure than Elves-at-Helms-Deep, or for that matter Arwen's presentation as Arwen, Warrior Princess in the FELLOWSHIP film, but it's still the point at which purists are allowed to have their qualms. That said, if they were going to invent such a character, at least they did a pretty good job. For one thing, they gave her a reasonable outfit, which puts them ahead of most online fantasy games, many an rpg cover, and quite a significant percentage of fantasy book covers as well.
As a purist, I naturally prefer the film to follow Tolkien. But I find some departures bother me more than others. In particular, I think I'd prefer a new character be invented to fill some plot function in the movie than that a genuine Tolkien character be distorted beyond recognition (as with the TWO TOWERS' Faramir). Thus the introduction of a not-quite-as-good-as-Legolas elf-warrior doesn't particularly bother me, though I cd have done without the romantic subplot.

After having been a bit put off by the character design, I found I rather like the movie's Beorn, though I thought this section was too brief. Maybe we'll see more here on the extended edition.

Here's a major character who looks rather like Inigo Montoya but is given a personality more like a combat-adverse Strider. That makes a certain amount of sense, since Bard and Aragorn are both rightful kings of fallen kingdoms. His sudden change from helping the dwarves to publicly hindering them was too abrupt for me, though I understood the logic of it. On the whole, good enough, though the jury's still out, depending on how well the character comes through in the third and final movie.

Here's an odd case of Azog being given Bolg's role (in the book, where he's the commander of the goblin/warg army) while Bolg is given what had been Azog's role in the first movie (in charge of the pursuit and persecution of the Dwarvenking). Adequate, but not quite up to the standard of the orc-leaders in the LotR Jackson film trilogy.

Enormously impressive, though I don't know why they altered Tolkien's character design to make Smaug look clumsier (Tolkien's Smaug doesn't have his forelegs attached to the wings, and thus was more sinuous and graceful). Much of Tolkien's original dialogue between Bilbo and Smaug made it in the famous talking-to-the-dragon scene, which is altogether a Good Thing. Cumberbatch did a great job with the voice. The whole running combat between the dragon and the dwarves went on much too long, but at least the Smaug scenes captured the dragon's power -- this is not a some garden-variety dime-a-dozen wormling but a truly impressive wyrm.

The Master of Lake Town (and sidekick)
What a wasted opportunity: the great Stephen Fry given little to do and doing little with it. His sidekick does his best Uriah Heep, but that best is not good enough. Pity.

For a lot of movie fans of the LotR film trilogy, the reappearance of Legolas must mark a high spot in the HOBBIT films so far. For me, he almost took over the wood-elves, barrel-dwarves, and (new) combat-in-Laketown sequences, but not in a good way. In this film Tauriel serves as a sort of second-tier Legolas; I hope that's reversed in the next one, so that she's given a larger part than his.  We'll see.

And, of course, we've yet to learn what new characters may yet debut in the third and final film.

--John R.
current reading: TREE BY TOLKIEN by Colin Wilson [1974]

*my note for 5th place isn't particularly legible, what with the dark and 3Dglasses and haste and all, so it's possible that instead of "Lilly" I might have instead written down "Legolas". My memory says that Orlando Bloom (Legolas) came in the end-cap position on the top-cast list, but memory can be deceiving; this'll have to wait until another time to know for sure.

**as if to emphasize this point, the cover of the movie tie-in book THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG VISUAL COMPANION by Jude Fisher has Tauriel, Bard, and Bilbo on the front cover (along with some barrel-dwarves), while the back cover shows Legolas.

CORRECTION: Updated Th.12/26-13 to correct Inigo Montoya's name, as per the comment by Robert. Thanks for the correct, Rbt.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


So, I'm now officially a Tolkien Expert, according to SMITHSONIAN.

As in, when they called and asked if I'd help them identify the sourcing of specific elements in Peter Jackson's new HOBBIT movie, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, I said 'yes'. This is of course something I'm quite interested in: which details of the films come from the original book (e.g., Bilbo's climbing up to see the butterflies), which are ported over from its sequel, THE LORD OF THE RINGS (e.g., Legolas), which are expanded or extrapolated from brief mentions in either of these two (Radagast), which come from elsewhere in Tolkien's writings (the merest wisps), and which are entirely of Jackson's invention (Tauriel).

last year's article:

Reading over the piece now, I find that I came across as more negative than I intended -- after all, I did enjoy the movie, very much, as a third viewing this past Thursday (with friends Sig and Anne -- hi Sig! hi Anne!) confirmed. Now that the suspense is over and I can see what got in, what of left out, what got changed and what got invented, it's easier for me to enjoy as a whole. This is still THE HOBBIT, even if it deviates more from the original than a purest like myself would want. But then, that's why we're purists: we want our Tolkien adaptations to be as close to Tolkien's originals as possible.

I was glad to see that Janice got cited as well (albeit only as "Rateliff's wife") for what I thought was an insightful observation linking the bewilderment of Mirkwood to enchanted woods like Melian's Doriath (N.B. also "The Sea-Bell" and, from the earliest stage of the mythology, the theme of Earendel's wanderings through enchanted isles meant to baffle all who would try to navigate past them.

So, many thanks to Rachel Nuwer, the article's author, for devoting a lot of time to trying to get the details right.

Here's the link.

--John R.
current reading: bits and pieces

P.S.: For the record, I do not consider the Tolkien Estate 'libelous' or even particularly 'litigious'  -- I'd say 'vigilant' wd be a more accurate descriptor.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stephen King, Tolkien Fan

So, recently I did something uncharacteristic: I read a Stephen King novel. Just as this is atypical o me, so too was this particular book atypical of him, a new hardboiled murder mystery called JOYLAND, part of a new series by various authors that tries to mimic and recapture the look-and-feel of pulp crime novels of the forties and fifties, complete with lurid covers (Donald Westlake being the author whose work they most want to emulate).

This particular example is set in a fading amusement park in the summer of '73, and works hard to capture the time and place. The main character, a college student, works a summer job at a small amusement park with one genuine ghost, though for most of the novel the hero is focused more on mundane things, like being dumped piecemeal and long-distance by his girlfriend, meeting a dying kid with what in another novel King called 'the shining', discovering the person behind an old murder, and finding he has a true talent for working with people.

All of this wd go down for me as just an enjoyable enough light read, were it not for a number of Tolkien references King works into the book. A New England guy stuck in small-town North Carolina, with a broken heart and only co-workers to socialize with, our hero occasionally feels the need to get away and spend time on his own. One of the things he does is obsessively listen to albums by The Doors. And the other is to read (or re-read) THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

". . . That was my year to embrace loneliness. I sometimes went to the movies in Lumberton or Myrtle Beach . . . but I spent most evenings in my room, re-reading The Lord of the Rings and writing letters . . . I also wrote a fair amount of poetry, which I am now embarrassed even to think about . . . I added a new and satisfyingly grim record to my / small collection -- The Dark Side of the Moon" (p. 136 / 137)

". . . it was still warm and breezy when I set off down the beach. On many of those walks back to town I liked to watch my long shadow on the waves, but that evening I mostly watched my feet. I was tired out . . . I'd go back to my room, settle into my chair by the window, and read me some Tolkien as I ate. I was deep into The Two Towers.
   "What made me look up was the boy's voice . . . " (p. 148)

"I had the weekend free, and you know what happened. I guess the idea that it always rains on the weekends must be an illusion, but it sure doesn't seem like one; ask any working stiff who ever planned to go camping or fishing on his days off.
   "Well, there was always Tolkien. I was sitting in my chair by the window on Saturday afternoon, moving ever deeper into / the mountains of Mordor with Frodo and Sam, when Mrs. Shoplaw [his landlady] knocked on the door and asked if I'd like to come down to the parlor and play Scrabble" (p. 163 / 164)

[After the game] "I returned to my room, sat in my chair by the window, and tried to rejoin Frodo and Sam on the road to Mount Doom. I couldn't do it. I closed the book and stared out through the rain-wavery glass at the empty beach and the gray ocean beyond. IT was a lonely prospect . . . " (p. 169)

I knew that King was a Tolkien fan from reading THE SHINING years ago and having concluded that the father of the family's scenes down in the boiler room were King's affectionate parody of Gollum in the Cracks of Doom. But it's nice to see some confirmation, and to see Tolkien used as a bit of local color, so to speak, for re-creating that era.

current reading: Amarna book (Kemp) [slowly pressing forward; now about a third of the way through]
THE FIFTH BEATLE (graphic novel, the life of Brian Epstein) [just finished]
A LITTLE GOLD BOOK OF GHASTLY STUFF by Neil Gaiman [2011] -- my prize from the book exchange at yesterday's year's end gathering for our local fantasy reading group (Mithlond).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Desolation

So, now I've seen the new HOBBIT movie (Friday morning, with JC and friends). And again (Friday evening, w. JC). And hope to again sometime in the next week or so. It's taking me some time to process my thoughts, so this will just be some first impressions. Warning: Spoiler Alert.

First off, I enjoyed the movie, though I wish there'd been more Tolkien in it. Up till now, there'd been two schools of thought about the Peter Jackson HOBBIT movies. Some people (mainly film critics and non-Tolkien fans) thought the first film, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, was too slow. They complained about the flashbacks that explained what was going on, about the extended scenes of character development and interaction (the dwarves at Bag End, the meeting of the White Council). These folks wanted an action movie, pure and simple, and objected to the parts of the film that were faithful to the book.

At the same time, a separate group (mainly diehard grognard Tolkien fans) thought Jackson had turned the book they loved into an action movie. They complained, at length, and bitterly, about the tendency of orcs to show up every time acting started to break out and things were getting good, in some Middle-earth equivalent of the old crime novelist (Chandler?) who said that whenever things slowed down, he just had a guy come through the door holding a gun. They wanted the action sequences trimmed (or, in some cases, cut altogether) and the mood pieces with character interaction brought to the fore.

Jackson, of course, did both: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY included both the character interaction and the battle scenes. For the new film, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, he seems to have decided to listen to the movie critics and go the action movie route --understandable, as he has no doubt concluded (rightly, I think) that nothing will appease the purists and he might as well ignore them; there's no point of taking the irredeemably hostile into account when deciding how to present his version of Tolkien's story.

The best example of this is the barrel-rider scene. In both movie and the book, Bilbo lurks about the wood-elves caves, comes up with a clever scheme, frees the dwarves, gets them in barrel and the barrels (and himself) in the river. In the book, this is followed by a few scenes of Bilbo alone coping with the difficult journey atop a barrel down the Forest River; a nice character-building moment. I assumed it'd be cut down to one of Jackson's signature montages he does so well, of characters moving through spectacular New Zealand/Middle-earth landscapes. Instead, in the movie he decides that Dwarves hidden inside barrels where we can't see them isn't visually interesting; that having the dwarves riding in open barrels makes the scene more visually dramatic. Fair enough.

Except that being swept down the river and through rapids etc. isn't enough for Jackson: he adds a war-band of Orcs attacking the dwarves as they sail past. And then he has to trump this by having elves attack the orcs attacking the dwarves riding in barrels through rapids. The house that Jack(son) built, so to speak, turns out to have a frantic pace. One of the early reviews I saw of the movie praised it by comparison to the Indiana Jones films, and I think that's justified. It's just that this descriptor covers a lot of ground, from the freshness and excitement of the original RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the self-parody of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, the hapless follow-up. Luckily I think Jackson delivers a superior grade action movie. It's just that THE HOBBIT is so much more than an action novel.

If the barrel-riding scene is good Indiana Jones, then bad Indiana shows up in the long sequence of The Dragon That Cdn't Shoot Straight. The decision by the dwarves that, rather than die of starvation cowering in some hole, they're going to make a good-faith effort to kill the dragon and give it their all is a good one in that it makes perfect sense in terms of the story as they're telling it. But the fact that the most powerful non-god creature on Middle-earth can't even wound a single dwarf no matter how many times he tries broke secondary belief for me: I quickly realized that for purposes of this scene all the dwarves and Bilbo were immortal and invulnerable, which drained it of all drama. From then until Smaug's departure from the mountain it was just a matter of watching pretty special effects. And they were mighty impressive: no one does this kind of thing better than Weta Workshop. But that's not what I go to movies to see.

Which is not to say there's not much to admire here. Once again Martin Freeman delivers a phenomenal performance as Bilbo. McKellan has said that, as a fellow actor, one of the things he most admires about Freeman is the way he portrays what a character is thinking by the changing expressions on his face (or sometimes just by body language), and that is on display to good effect in several scenes here. Then too, to have a movie in which one of the greatest actors of our times, Sir Ian McKellan, plays one of the great characters of all time, Gandalf the Grey, is something to be cherished. And I have to say that Armitage's Thorin is growing on me, and that I prefer the dwarves in their more disheveled mode (beards and hair braidings coming undone) as they are here in the post-barrel scenes. But I'm sorry that the individual dwarves have less to do, even in background scenes. Of my three favorites, only one (Balin) gets a good amount of screen time; Bofur is less prominent than in the first film, and Bifur vanishes into the background, his quirky little bits being almost entirely omitted.

Hence, although I enjoyed the film, I wanted more Tolkien: more wonder and less action. 

More later on the new characters introduced in this middle film of the series.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Praise of Elliott Bay Books

So, for my birthday Monday  (I'm now old enough that I actually qualify for some senior discounts. Gah.), Janice took me up to Elliott Bay Books, Seattle's best independent bookstore, and let me have a good pokearound. Two hours is about right to prowl through their various sections and see what interesting books have come out that I didn't know about. I enjoyed seeing the latest by authors I like but am falling a bit behind on --Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, Patricia McKillip, Terry Pratchett-- as well as have a look-see at various books I'd heard about but not seen (e.g., The Folgio's Girl Genius novel) and to find out about others just by seeing them on the shelf (e.g., a new biography of Edward VII, an underrated king).

Of course, it wdn't be a visit to Elliott Bay if I didn't go by their archeology section, where I tend to find interesting books I didn't know existed until walking up and finding them on the shelf. I wanted to pick up one as a birthday gift to myself, and in the end it came down to three contenders: a book on Ahknaten's city, Amarna; a book on Neanderthals, taking into account the many new discoveries; and a book on Stonehenge, again taking into account recent excavations of the riverside and processional. I wound up opting for the Egyptian one, which'll go nicely with the one on Abydos I bought on a previous birthday visit three years ago (that occasion being the first time I'd been to what had been a favorite store's now new location*) and also with all the great Egyptian exhibits we got to go to last year. It's a fairly slow read, being an awkward size (to allow for more pictures, which are great, as is usual with a Thames and Hudson book), but I've made a good start and it looks to be an interesting read overall. We'll see. And I'll have to plan things better so as to make it back to Elliott Bay more often, if only to pick up those other two books at opportune times.


*Elliott Bay Books is now no longer on Elliott Bay, but up on Capitol Hill (so named because Seattle's founding fathers thought the state capitol wd be up there. It wasn't.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Cat Report (W. 12/11-13)

With poor Chipotle laid low and new kittens Hilo and Ducky enjoying an evening at home with their foster-er, it was surprising how full the room seemed with just seven cats: RUNA, ZIPPY ZOE, ANNETTE, SPIDGE, BENTLEY, little PEPE, and newcomer SCRUFFY. Given that five out of seven are black cats, the sixth mostly black, and the seventh white-with-black, I found I kept doing double-takes to identify who was who: noticing details like Spidge's silvery-grey mane overtones, Bentley's crooked tail-tip, Runa's I'm-the-boss attitude, Annette's smooth fur and Scruffy's spiky bits. At least little Pepe and Miss Zoe are easy to keep track of.

Started off with four walks: Runa, Zoe, Annette, and Mr. Scruffs, and ended the shift with another walk for Runa, because she asked for it so beseechingly. RUNA and ZOE did pretty well. ANNETTE did better, aside from a tendency to go in circles (turn right, turn right, turn right, turn right, turn right . . . ). Somewhat to my surprise Mr. SCRUFF did best of all: he set out to explore and learn about his new surroundings. Think he's a smart cat from the way he was mapping it out and taking it all in.

Once walks were over it was time for everybody to come out. I put MR. SCRUFFS up on the cage-tops, where he first spent time fussing with the little wicker bed, then buried himself inside a large paper bag that'd obviously been placed up there for him. He stayed up there pretty much the whole morning, coming out from the bag after the first hour or so; at noon he came down with no trouble at all. A cat with personality. Be interesting to see what happens when (and if) he decides to engage with the other cats.

I wanted to see if I could get ANNETTE to enjoy herself without hiding, so placed her atop the cat-stand by the door (Zoe's usual spot). She was greatly pleased, enjoying a petting session before stretching out for a glorious snooze. Unfortunately, ZOE was much put out by having her spot taken. Twice she jumped up there, had a hissy fit to find it occupied, and jumped back down again. Finally about mid-morning I gave in and moved Annette over to the top of cat-stand #2, by the cabinet. She and Zoe both settled down after that, but each seemed a bit grumpy. Did console Zoe by giving her a good scratching/petting/massage, starting at the base of her spine and working forward; she surrendered herself to it with enthusiasm. 

RUNA was in observer mode today -- spent some time in the basket on the bench, and also came out from time to time to see what the younger cats were up with, but didn't interact with them much today. She did make an exception when the laser pointer came out, though.

SPIDGE and little PEPE really went at it today, wrastling on and off. Spidge plays hard, so I had to break them up once or twice, but Pepe mostly seemed to hold his own. I'd brought in crinkly paper AND a (catnip-laced) box, which between them kept the younger generation entertained. In addition to playing all morning , both came up every so often to touch bases with me: get some attention and a little petting before going back to their games. Bentley and Runa mostly watched the boys playing from a safe distance. At one point, Spidge managed to get his head through a tear in the paper, which then turned into a makeshift cape that sent him scampering back and forth before he ripped his way out of it and taught it a lesson. Pepe was fascinated, and helpfully jumped on the paper to keep it from escaping.

BENTLEY kept more to herself, hanging out around the base of the cat-trees near the door. Occasionally Spidge decided he needed to reduce Bentley to minion status, but she wasn't having any of it. She got curious and friendly when it came time to clean out cages on her end of the room; she went in each and inspected my work in progress.  She seemed pleased when her own cage got cleaned, last of all, and made no fuss about going in.

Quite a few visitors, but none who came into the cat room. Did talk to a man who turns out to be Bonnie's husband: he reports that Mr. Brothers still gets his daily coffee and that Sammy is also still doing well (as is their third cat, whose name I forget, the only one of the three not from Purrfect Pals). Good to hear that a great cat/person match-up is still going strong.

We now have a good age distribution: two senior cats (Zoe [14] and Annette [13]), two mid-age cats (Runa [5] and Mr. Scruffy [7]), two half-grown cats (Bentley and Spidge [6 months each]), and one out-and-out kitten (Pepe [three months]).

health concerns: has little Pepe always had a pink spot on his nose, or did someone scratch him right on the tip?
Poor Chipotle!

--John R.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Squirrelbite incident

So, Sunday I was out back filling up the downstairs finch feeder, bringing some pots of violets in to protect them from the cold, and giving some (shelled) peanuts* to the crows, when the squirrel came up. It's not a regular resident but an on and off again visitor that comes up about once a week or so. Once or twice I've gotten it to eat off of my hand, so I gave that a try. No problem: the squirrel was glad to have a few and then turned to getting some for itself off the ground. I finished up, gathered things together, and was getting ready to go back inside (it was, after all, the coldest day of the year so far), when the squirrel came back. I put a few more shelled peanuts on my hand and offered it some. Whereupon it nuzzled my fingers, and then bit me.

My response: Ow!

Stupid Squirrel.

On the negative side, it hurt, and like all injuries to a fingertip bled more than you'd think from such a small wound. So that was annoying. And of course there was the chagrin from an avoidable injury.

On the positive side, I guess, this does add a new one to the litany of Things That Have Bit Me:
--the catbite incident** (which led to thirteen days in the hospital)
--the time a few years back when I got bit v. slightly by a mole I was rescuing from some cats
--the snail I rescued from the road (a gentle rasping, like being licked by the tiniest puppy ever)
--and now, squirrels. Gah.

On the other hand, there was the time I wasn't bitten by a parrot (it crushed my ring instead).

Guess that's the nice thing about feeding crows; they're wary enough that I've never tried hand-feeding them -- though they're smart enough that I suspect they'd do a better job on their end than that squirrel did.

--John R.


*I used to give the crows peanuts in shells, but because of concerns over empty peanut shells possibly blocking up gutters I had to switch to shelled peanuts in the complex, while I use peanuts in shells when out and about

**which was itself the second of three times I've been bitten by a cat badly enough to require medical assistance

Sunday, December 8, 2013

THE DARK TOWER radio play

So, the day before yesterday I learned from a friend (thanks, Allan) about a new radio play based on C. S. Lewis's unfinished time-travel story, THE DARK TOWER. It'll be an hour-long piece consisting of two thirty-minute episodes, which ambitiously not only presents this little-known story but also provides an ending to Lewis's abandoned tale. There are six parts, three female (teenager Juniper, forty-something Eleanor, and Camilla Benbridge, presumably the female lead and the only one of these three to come from Lewis's original) and three male (Dr. Orfieu the mad scientist, Michael Scudamor  the male lead, and C. S. Lewis himself), these latter being three of the four main characters in CSL's original (they've cut the fourth, my personal favorite, the Scotch skeptic McPhee). While there are only six performers, there are more than six characters, since several of them have Othertime alter egos -- e.g., Othertime Scudamour (the Stingerman), described as "arrogant", which comes from Lewis's story, while Othertime Lewis ("a sinister figure") is their own creation.

Those interested can find under the following link not just a brief synoposis (which reveals the full name of this adaptation to be THE STING OF THE DARK TOWER) and listing of personae (see above) but also an eleven-page excerpt from the script, including bits of the Eleanor-and-Juniper frame story and two Orfieu/Lewis/Scudamour scenes plus another with O/L/othertimeS and Camilla. The most memorable detail is Othertime Scudamour (the former Stingerman)'s enthusiasm for English fish and chips (OT Scudamour to OT Camilla: "They're delicious. You'll never want to go back"*).

So, looks like an interesting, quirky project. Hope it makes it to fruition; I'd like to hear how it comes out.

Here's the link.

For those interested in THE DARK TOWER itself, I wrote at length about Lewis's unfinished story in my essay in TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM, where I place it in the context of Tolkien and Lewis's time-travel/space travel bargain. While we don't have enough of the story to be able to tell how it would have ended (our fragment is the equivalent of the first eight or nine chapters of OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, about to the point at which Ransom meets up with the first hrossi), I laid out a few elements I thought the ending would include, based on the strictures of the Tolkien/Lewis bargain and a passing comment Tolkien makes about the work in a letter. Since then there have been two more attempts to projected a conclusion, one by Jared Lobdell, the other by Jonathan Hime. None of these three shares any element in common, which makes me all the more curious to see what the radio-playwright will come up with.


*this little bit reminds me of a famous Ray Bradbury story about some time travelers back from a not quite dystopian future who give themselves away by their not being able to stop themselves from overindulgence in luxuries like readily available alcohol and tobacco.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

We've Bought the Tickets . . .

Friday, December 14th, 11 a. m., Kent Station

is when Janice and I will get to see the second HOBBIT movie, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, for the first time.

Less than a week and counting


Friday, December 6, 2013

The Cat Report (W. Dec. 4th)

Just last week we were joined by the three new kittens, FELIX and SYLVESTER and PEPE, and now already two of them have been adopted together -- hurray for both! --  so Wednesday morning we were back down to just six cats. I was expecting some new ones to show up that day but they hadn't done so by the time I left (12.30). However, noticed we were out of trash bags so swung by briefly Thursday to drop off a few and so got to meet both the new arrivals: SCRUFFY (yet another black cat) and CHIPOTLE, albeit briefly. And two more (black and white) kittens on the way, so it shd soon be a full house again, and of mostly black cats. And I we'll have at least four male cats (don't know about the two new tuxedo kittens on their way) in what's usually a girl-cat dominated room.

Since there were only six cats Wednesday, I decided to take them all on walks. ANNETTE hadn't seemed to enjoy being out that much in the past, but hearing someone else's report about how well she'd done on the leash I decided to give it another try, and she did v. well. She's pretty calm, whether inside or outside the room. Afterwards I boosted her up to the cage-tops so she could have some quiet time to herself, and she quickly chose the little cat-bed up there that pleased her best and happily slept the rest of the morning away. She's so well-behaved it's easy to overlook her when it comes to petting time, so I'm trying to make it a point to see she gets her fair share of attention.

RUNA did great, as usual. Last week she only walked in one direction: straight back toward the room, so that our 'walk' consisted of me carrying her to various parts of the store, putting her down, and following behind as she makes a beeline back to the cat-room door. This week she did better, and was willing to negotiate about what direction to go next; she actually did some exploring. Several times she walked up to people she saw in the aisles and made herself agreeable (rubbing legs, arching back, and I suspect purrs). Once we got back to the room she was v. active the rest of the morning -- playing games, interacting with the other cats, going high and back down again, exploring, and coming up and asking for attention several times. Tried her in my lap, but she was a little too restless for that, though she did welcome a petting session. The bench seemed kind of crowded, so last week I moved one of the wicker short cat-stands onto the floor beside cat-stand #1, and she loved it; Runa immediately claimed the stop atop it as her very own. This week she was in-and-out of the wicket baskets, never quite settling in any one spot. What a sweetheart.

Little SPIDGE thinks maybe he should be the boss-cat of the room, but Runa's attitude towards that seems to be 'yeah, right'. He's very friendly, very playful, and full of beans: he pretty much played the whole time I was there, finally crashing and sacking out after about three hours. His favorite toy was the sheet of crinkly paper I laid down for them: he'd shredded it pretty good by the end of my shift. Interesting to see him play alternately with both Pepe and Runa, but not all three together -- seems like he can shift focus to play with whoever else wants to play. Last week he'd been wrastling with the kittens, esp. Felix. That made for an interesting dynamic: the kittens discovered that Spidge was bigger than they were, but that there were more of them, so it all balanced out. I was curious to see how little PEPE wd fare against him this week, but Pepe turns out to be such a quiet, well-mannered little fellow that he took himself off to a comfy spot and slept instead. I shd note that Spidge was very nervous when out on the leash and is still working out the rules; he purred when returned to the room, relieved to be back in safe and familiar surroundings. Pepe took what I assume was his first walk, and did pretty well; he tends to hunker down instead of panicking when something alarms him. He too purred upon returning to the room, and enjoyed being picked up and cuddled from time to time. He also got interested in the whole cage-cleaning deal and joined in as my little helper. A gentle, friendly little fellow who'll make someone a great little lap-cat companion.

ZIPPI ZOE had a good day. She did really well at first on the leash, then panicked and started giving out distress calls (Mrr! Mrr! Mrr!), so took her back in. She claimed her usual spot atop cat-stand #1, from which she accepted petting sessions with enthusiasm, showed she's second to none on the feather game, and generally was her usual sassy little self. It was amusing at one point where she was inadvertently playing with Spidge: she had a mouse and he had the other end of the string it was tied to, so every time he pulled in one way she pulled it back the other. I like how she's cunning in games, making sure to grab hold of whatever string or feather toy that comes her way so it can't get away. She loves the string and feather games the most, though she demonstrated that she knew all about, and approves of, the gopher game as well. Basically if you can paw or swat it without having to leave your comfy spot to chase after it, she likes that game.

Little BENTLEY surprised me by being sociable; think it just takes her a while to get to know and become comfortable with people. She most hung out around the bottom of the cat-stands near the door, emerging to pounce on crinkly paper and occasionally chase some feather-toy that was swishing by. Later in the morning, after the other cats were settling down, she came up and requested a petting session, which went to her great satisfaction. I'd offered her a walk this morning, which she strongly declined. 

No health concerns, fortunately.

An odd note: I sat down and had a cup of tea at one point, to see if anyone wanted some lap time. Both Runa and little Pepe declined, but both expressed astonishment at the smell of hot tea, as if neither cd quite believe I'd willing drink such stuff. 

--John R.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Unfinished Reading

So, Tuesday I came across a piece about how Orlando Bloom recently confessed to never having read THE LORD OF THE RINGS (or at least not all the way through). This did not surprise me much, but I was intrigued by a link to a list of books that people begin but never finish. Not sure of their methodology, but looking through it I realize my reading habits must be v. different from those of most folks (or at least most folks who engaged in this survey). Of the books they list, I've read about half: forty-five out of a hundred. In addition, I've started, but not finished, six others. That is, the vast majority of the ones I've not read are ones I've never even started (and, to be honest, in most cases have no particular interest in reading). I do abandon a fair number of books, but as a rule of thumb if I make it through the first twenty or thirty pages, I tend to read them all the way through. I think one reason I tend to finish books, once I begin them, is my Reading List (most recent entry, #II.3124: WATSON IS NOT AN IDIOT by Eddy Webb [2013]). I don't get to add a book to the list unless I read it all the way through, so it's an incentive to keep going in some cases where I might otherwise flag (cf. my current struggles with SARTOR RESARTUS). Oddly enough, in recent years I've found that books I'd bogged down on when reading them in print (e.g., Strange and Norell) I've been able to finish by switching to the unabridged audiobook version.

Here's the list.

And here are the six books out of their hundred that I've started and not finished:

--LOLITA (which I intend to go back and finish; just got to be too much for me and I had to take a break)

--FINNEGANS WAKE, of course.

--Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE, where I faltered after just a few pages (I have seen the movie, but of course that doesn't count)

--Kafka's THE TRIAL (I've found I much prefer Kafka's short fiction, all of which I've read, to his longer pieces)

--THE MISTS OF AVALON (I tried, and failed, to read this three times and finally admitted defeat on the fourth)

--WICKED (the only good argument I've ever come across against works passing into the public domain. Let Maguire write stories about his own characters and leave Baum's stuff alone)


Beethoven's metronome

So, Sunday morning by chance I heard a piece on NPR that really got my attention, even though it's outside my realm of expertise. I caught a segment of Radio Lab, a show Janice really likes but which I've only heard bits and pieces from. And they were discussing Beethoven's metronome.

It turns out that, late in life, Beethoven got ahold of the newly-invented metronome and marked up all eight of the symphonies he'd written up to that point to show what speed they shd be played at -- that is, how many beats per minute. No longer did he have to rely on vague descriptors like "allegro" and "adagio" ; instead he cd mark the beat exactly as if he were conducting it.

You'd think that, for those interested in a composer from pre-recording days, who had only sheet music to preserve his music, this wd be a godsend. Except that it turns out performances of Beethoven's works routinely ignore his directions because they think it makes the music sound too fast. The Radio Lab segment explored various arguments folks have used to explain away the markings (B's metronome was broken, there were transcription errors, his deafness prevented his recognizing a false tempo) and ended by suggesting that Beethoven wanted his music to sound edgy, and so deliberately avoided the grand, stately measures which we've come to associate with him.  They ended by having a string quartet play a bit from The Fifth at Beethoven's tempo, and then trump this by playing at even faster rates; by the end they gotten to something truly fascinating that sounded like a cross between Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebees" and the theme music from the old Jeremy Brett SHERLOCK HOLMES series. Here's the link.

If you want to just hear the Beethoven, here's a link to a stripped-down version of the segment, with just two examples of the music but showing the actual musicians, so it's worth checking out.

One nice added feature of this second link is that it includes a listing not in the original, in which they went out and compared various recordings and, not surprisingly, found that most played the Fifth too slowly. Ironically, the one recording that got it right -- that is, played Beethoven's Fifth at exactly the speed Beethoven wanted -- is Walker Murphy's A FIFTH OF BEETHOVEN [1976]. Guess I'll have to dig out my old (vinyl) record and give it a listen; it's been a while.

The thing that interested me most about this is that, if they're right, it means Beethoven suffers from exactly the opposite problem as that which bedevils Scott Joplin. People play Beethoven too slowly and stately, and they play Joplin's ragtime (which was intended to be dance music) too fast. At least recordings of Joplin at the proper speed are available (e.g., in Joshua Rifkin's excellent cd, or in a piano roll from Joplin himself.* Now to see if I can find a whole symphony of L.v.B. at fast tempo.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tolkien's OTHER Desk

So, Monday I got to make one of my periodic trips down to the university library (Suzzallo-Allen) to return a stack of books, poke around the shelves a bit, photocopy* some material, and work for a while in the abbey-like Smith Reading Room. This visit was more concerned with returning a stack of stuff I'd checked out back in August and finally worked my way through. Still, as has become my habit I swung by the literature shelves to skim through an index or two in the back of a modern British writer's biography or collected letters to see if there might be any references to JRR Tolkien. This time I checked a biography of Iris Murdoch, a fellow Oxford novelist who I think may have actually known Tolkien slightly (he mentions in a letter of Jan. 1965 receiving a fan-letter from her; LETTERS OF JRRT p. 353). And I found a bit of Tolkien trivia I hadn't been aware of before.

In a section on Iris Murdoch as a correspondent, her biographer writes

"She always answered rapidly, in her own hand, without secretarial help
 ('I could not bear a secretary'), on J. R. R. Tolkien's rolltop desk, 
which she and John had bought in the 1970s
apologising when absence delayed her reply . . . " (p. 569)

--IRIS MURDOCH: A LIFE, by Peter J. Conradi [2001]

Now, I knew about the desk at Wheaton, a photo of which appears in THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT (second edition, p. 2) and another of Tolkien himself sitting at it in Pam Chandler's photo collection ("Pamela Chandler Portraits of J. R. R. Tolkien"). But I'd forgotten about the rolltop desk, nor ever wondered what had become of it. Having now seen this reference, I remembered seeing a photo of Tolkien sitting at it as well.  After some searching I've now located it in Dr. Blackwelder's pictures-of-Tolkien collection, TOLKIEN PORTRATURE [1993], which includes a poor-quality photocopy of the photo as image #Pl 24 (photograph, right side, #24). Unfortunately, he does not identify the source, other than that the photograph itself dates from 1971. I know that eventually I'll come across the article where this photo appeared, at which time I'll try to remember to post an update giving the source.

Murdoch herself died in 1999 at the age of eighty, after having suffered from dementia for several years (as dramatised in the movie IRIS [2001], which I've not seen). I assume the desk is still owned by her husband, John Bayley; I wonder if he knows what a treasure he has? And where it'll end up.

In any case, a fun little linkage, and reminder that Oxford is, or at least was, a small world with many interconnections, many of them not obvious to an outsider.

--John R.

*although it turns out that in a tech upgrade since my last visit the library's done away with photocopiers: now you have to scan items in and then hike over to the Allen building to print them out. On the plus side, you can now choose to print or to copy the scan onto a jump drive. Progress? or merely change?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lewis biopic, A. N. Wilson style

Having finished my previous post about a spate of recent efforts to bring a Tolkien or Lewis or Tolkien-and-Lewis biopic to the big screen, I didn't manage to work in one amusing bit where Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson weighs in. So I thought I'd give it here, as a kind of afternote. Here's the passage (emphasis mine):

"the 1993 film SHADOWLANDS told a romanticised version of the story of Lewis's marriage late in life to an American fan, Joy Davidson (the title of SUPRISED BY JOY, published much earlier, started to look prescient). It both increased, and somewhat distorted, his reputation.

"The problem, says Wilson, is that "almost none of it is true. There's only one stepson [in the film], not two stepsons [as in real life], and so on. Anthony Hopkins, a brilliant actor, is immaculately clad in a dark suit, while Lewis was a filthy old man dripping beer and tobacco everywhere. But apart from that, it makes out that this big thing in Lewis's life was the marriage -- and in fact it was just a little thing that happened at the end. For 33 years, he shared his life with the woman he called Minto, Jane Moore ((the mother of one of Lewis's boyhood friends)). She was the love of his life -- she was the main thing. I want to write a screenplay for Helen Mirren to play Minto."

While I don't think the Helen Mirren Minto is likely to grace screens anytime soon, Wilson's point is interesting. He's right that Janie Moore was the love of Lewis's life (a point many Lewis scholars are reluctant to acknowledge), but I don't think he's fair to SHADOWLANDS. Some have used the latter to claim that Lewis's life was empty till he met Joy Gresham, that he was wonderfully happy during their brief time together, and that he was a broken shell of a man after she died. That's clearly a distortion. The truth seems to be somewhere in-between: Janie Moore was the most important woman in his life, yet his marriage (soon after her death; Joy seems to have caught him on the rebound) was a major episode that moved him deeply.

To see Wilson's comments in context, see Sam Leith's piece in THE GUARDIAN of Tuesday November 19th, which includes evaluations of CSL by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Wms, A. N. Wilson, Philip Pullman, and A. S. Byatt. Be warned that while most both praise and criticize, overall they're rather harsh on Lewis. Here's the link:


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tolkien Biopic

So, while there's a lot of Lewis activity because of the great milestone of his having been honored with a plaque in Westminster Abbey, there's also been some interesting bits regarding Tolkien of late.

[I] First off, thanks to the Mythsoc list I learned about a Tolkien biopic that's supposedly in the works, simply called TOLKIEN: The Movie (thanks to Douglas Kane for the link):,0,6989541.story#axzz2lKE1cqRX

I've been expecting that eventually they'd be Shadowlanding Tolkien -- after all, we've been creeping up on it through the 'dramatic re-enactments' of various scenes, like CSL's conversation or an imagined Inklings meeting, in various documentaries on his (or Lewis's) works in recent years. Just hope that when, and if, someone actually does this that they do a decent job of it. This particular one is said to focus on "his formative years at Pembroke College and as a soldier in World War I" -- i.e., the years 1915-1918 and 1926-1945. The former block includes his marriage (though it leaves out all the courtship), the loss of the T.C.B.S., and the start of work on the Legendarium, while the latter includes academic triumph, the Inklings' glory days, THE HOBBIT, and most of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Though of course, being a movie, I doubt they'll stick to chronology. Still, the two periods mentioned give an indication of where the film's emphasis is likely to be: early and mid-career Tolkien.

Given that the film is said to be "in development", a stage from which few projects emerge, odds are this will never get made. But being obsessed with all things Tolkienian I'd love to see that script the director, David Gleeson, is said to be working on.

[II] I had been vaguely aware of the mooted MIRKWOOD movie mentioned in the above post, described as "a fantastical look at his work as a codebreaker during WWII". Given that Tolkien was not a codebreaker in World War II, that seems not to leave them much to go on. There's also the complication that the novel I assume it's based on, Steve Hillard's MIRKWOOD (which is NOT about Tolkien's work as a codebreaker), is the worst of all the novels featuring JRRT as a character that I've read, so that project's collapse might be just as well.

What I did not know, until learning of both through another post in that same Mythsoc thread (thanks, Marcel B), is that two more Tolkien biopics either are or have been in the works in recent years.

[III] The first of these, TOLKIEN AND LEWIS is described in the following link:

The poster shows Aslan and a Nazgul, with the tag-lines "Friendship Changes Everything" and the obligatory "Based on an Incredible True Story"; the accompanying descriptive paragraph gives a better idea of the film's apparent focus: "Some friendships last forever. Others last until they are no longer needed . . . "

This actually sounds like an interesting focal point: the two men's friendship as Tolkien struggles with THE LORD OF THE RINGS and Lewis begins his career as an apologist with rock-star fame on the radio. Unfortunately, there are ominous signs of psychobable  in references to Tolkien's need "to face his psychotic nightmares" (are they talking about Numenor?) and CSL's need "to rediscover his inner child" (Huh?), and of Tolkien's "jealousy" and "neurosis" (what neurosis?). So I'd say these folks have hold of an interesting approach but seem likely not to know how to handle it.

[IV] The second, THE LION AWAKES, is (or rather was) primarily a Lewis film, though a FAQ about the project asserted that "J. R. R. Tolkien will be featured for the first time on film in this movie". The script was said to be by Louis Markos (who recently wrote a book on Tolkien, ON THE SHOULDERS OF HOBBITS [2012]), which I've not read, and Darren Scott Jacobs, whom I don't know. The project was announced in April 2012 (apparently there was a Kickstarter) and declared defunct in August 2013,  Here's that link:

While the project's website is shut down, there's still a two-and-a-half minute promo clip on Youtube which includes the tagline 
"In a time of war and chaos, 
doubt gives way to faith,
fear gives way to courage,
and friendship changes everything"

Watching this trailer, it seems to be claiming that CSL's radio broadcasts won the War (kind of like the similar, and equally silly, claim made in THE KING'S BROADCAST). The similarity between this project and the "TOLKIEN AND LEWIS" film cited above, even down to being set in the same year (1941), made me wonder if one had morphed into the other, but that other project lists different scriptwriters (Jacqueline Cook and Paul Bryan), so apparently not. Seems a bit worshipful at the shrine of St. Jack, but also seems to avoid the psychoses and neuroses of the other. I'd be nice to see a film which acknowledged that Tolkien and Lewis were complex, gifted men without either haliography or pat pop-psychology. 

FINALLY, there's the actually existing and already broadcast piece on BBC radio's "Afternoon Drama"show,  LEWIS AND TOLKIEN: THE LOST ROAD (thanks to Janice for the link)

Unfortunately, I didn't actually get to listen to more than the first three minutes (and three seconds) of this myself, having put it off during a busy week and then discovering that my laptop had trouble streaming it. By then it was on the next-to-last day of the one-week window during which it'd be available online for listening. I made plans to play it the next night on Janice's laptop, which is newer than the one I use, and which had no problem with the streaming. Unfortunately again, I miscalculated, and forgot to take into account the difference between UK time and Seattle time. So while I was getting ready to sit down and listen to it, we found it'd already expired.


Apparently, so far as I can tell, it is not available on dvd or as an mp3 file. There's still one hope, in that some past episodes of AFTERNOON DRAMA are made available for purchase a month or two after they've been broadcast, but I have no idea whether this Tolkien and Lewis piece will be one of the chosen few.

Alas again.

And I'd been particularly interested in this one, since I've made a special study of THE LOST ROAD and THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, and wrote an essay about Tolkien and Lewis's bargain as my contribution to Christopher Tolkien's festschrift (TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM [1996])

So, if anyone out there learns that this is or becomes available, let me know. Failing that, any critiques/synopsis of the piece beyond what's given in the link above wd be welcome.

Great picture of JRRT on the 'Afternoon Drama' page, by the way; clearly taken from the 1968  TOLKIEN IN OXFORD special. Nice to see.

--John R.