Sunday, July 15, 2018

The TSR Product List

So, I confess that in my slow sort-out of boxes filled with papers and miscellaneous contents I'm not just trying to get things better organized: I'm also looking for a few things that got swept up in the Sea of Stuff.  Like my copy of The Jade Hare or my beat-up old orange cover B3. Palace of the Silver Princess. Or somethings that ought to be in my slender folder of things by and relating to John Bellairs (like the photo of the two of us taken when he was Guest of Honor at the Marquette Tolkien conference in 1987). Or some cartoons by Dave Sutherland I mislaid long ago, Or my run of MYTHLORE, esp. the early issues. Or my list of all TSR rpg releases.

This past week (Tuesday) I hit a jackpot and found a copy not of the original list but of the published version, which appeared as part of the 1996 AD&D TRIVIATHILON. This was a D&D/AD&D trivia contest, held for some special reason nobody seems to remember, that folded out into a double-sided poster-sized sheet. On one side were one hundred questions about the D&D/AD&D game. Some of the questions were relatively straightforward (#39: How many metal coins in a pound? #15: What is the proper name for polar halflings?*). Some were more involved (#27: Lord Ragnar (fighter 16) has 12 hp after fighting six mummies. Deliah (cleric 18) casts every "cure wounds" spell she can. How many hit points could Regnar regain?). And some were downright tricky (#98, which relates to a piece of art I can't reproduce here). My favorite was  #38, which I cd never have guessed:

At a roadside inn, a weary human scout and a dwarf swordsman 
meet a resting halfling cutpurse and a gnome trickster. 
Under 1st edition rules, what do they all have in common?

I remember that everyone in the department donated bits of trivia, and that Steve Winter sorted through and picked out the best, put together the master list with the official list of answers, and was responsible for judging the results. I don't know how many people took up the challenge and sent in filled-out entries, but Steve tells me there was one perfect answer: 100 out of 100 right.

But for all that, it's the other side of the page that most concerns me, because I wrote it.

(continued on next post)

*I don't remember this one without going to look it up, and I edited the book it came from!

No Two Copies of the Same Book

So, thinking some more on The NECRONOMICON and other faux-books such as THE RED BOOK OF WESTMARCH, I was reminded of something Dr. Tim Machan said in a colloquium at Marquette back in the late ‘80s (prob. ’88-‘89). Dr. Machan was a medievalist, a specialist in Old Norse literature who came too late for me to take any of his classes but stood out as being the only member of Marquette’s faculty to take part in the 1987 Marquette Tolkien conference with his excellent piece on VAFTHRUTHNISMAL and RIddles in the Dark.

One of the points he made in his colloquium was to state that, before the advent of printing, there was no such thing as two copies of the same book. Despite the best efforts of the scribe, a copy would introduce errors. Passages would get added, passages would get dropped -- sometimes by oversight, sometimes deliberately. Comments written in the margins had a way of working their way into the main text of the next iteration, while passages that had gotten garbled would be 'fixed' as best the scribe cd manage.

And of course that's in cases when the scribes were trying to be faithful, which was not always the case. Sometimes the scribe thought he knew more than the previous scribe about a particular point and would improve it. Sometimes he was right, sometimes not.

Add to this that the creation of a medieval tome was an expensive business, comparable to buy a luxury car today, and the fact that there were so few copies of medieval texts; only important things got written down, and only the most important among those would still be considered important enough a generation or century later to be copied once the original started wearing out.*  And in the case of a book like THE NECRONOMICON, it has the added disadvantage that it's written by a madman and copied and read by those who are either crazed in the first place (or they wdn't be drawn to its contents) or are driven mad by the extended close contact needed to hand-copy the whole.**

In the case of a benign work like THE RED BOOK, here too we know that the content differs from copy to copy: that the Westmarch (Shire) copy includes material not found in Minas Tirith (Gondor) copy and vice versa. So even where great care is taken to make a faithful transcription, still material gets added and dropped (we're told that most copies omit BIlbo's TRANSLATIONS FROM THE ELVISH).

In any case, another element to consider when conceptualizing what THE NECRONOMICON was like, or expanding the range of what it could have been like. Ironically it supports the original treatment in early editions of the CALL OF CTHULHU game rather well, where a curious Investigator cd pick up any of the major Mythos tomes (NAMELESS CULTS, MYSTERIES OF THE WORM, the NECRONOMICON Itself) and hope to find among its jumbled contents a passage relating to almost any aspect of the Mythos; later attempts to identify the specific contents of a given tome cd actually undercut an accidental bit of verisimilitude.

--John R.

--current song: "Powderfinger"
--current reading: Ryken's Wade Center Hansen Lecture expanded into a book

*for some idea of what didn't survive, see Wilson's THE LOST LITERATURE OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND
**things are a little better when it comes to printed books, since typesetters were notorious for not being able to read the texts they were printing

Sunday, July 8, 2018


So, here's a thought.

I was re-reading Lovecraft's THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS and came across one of those passages that effectively serve as info dumps of the Mythos.

In the story, Vermont farmer Henry Akeley, who has first-hand experience with the Mythos, tells what he knows in a letter to Miskatonic professor Albert Wilmarth, who knows a good deal about such things second hand, from reading the books there in his university's library. Here's how Lovecraft's Wilmarth describes the exchange:

. . . a terrible cosmic narrative derived from the application of profound and varied scholarship . . . I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsthoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L'mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum . . . worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way


I'd always thought of THE NECRONOMICON more as a grimoire than anything else--that being the use Wilbur Whateley puts it to in THE DUNWICH HORROR. But Wilmarth's description makes me wonder: what if THE NECRONOMICON were more like a collection of stories (think Ovid)?  Most of the items in Wilmarth & Akeley's list have a story devoted to it, either by Lovecraft himself, or one of his friends and correspondents, or one of the writers of a previous generation from which HPL directly borrowed. What if we were to think of THE NECRONOMICON as a compilation of stories? Thus WHISPERER is the Yuggoth tale; CALL OF CTHULHU the story about Great Cthulhu and Rl'yeh; DUNWICH HORROR the tale where we learn about Yog-Sothoth; DREAM-QUEST the Nyarlathotep tale, and so forth. The middle part of the list allude to works by writers of the generation before Lovecraft, still alive and writing when Lovecraft was beginning his career: Bierce (Lake of Hali), Chambers (The Yellow Sign), and Dunsany (Bethmoora).

The analogy's not perfect  --so far as I know there's no story about Yian, or some of the other more obscure items towards the end of the list. And the chronology's all off. But it's still striking, and Lovecraft deliberately left some things vague so he cd add to or adjust elements in the Mythos as needed for later stories. The Mythos was open-ended, and to some degree self-contradictory, like a real mythology.

For instance, in what way might Bethmoora come up in Akeley and Wilmarth's pooling of their knowledge? The best way for them to have learned the legend of what happened to this city is to hear it from a deranged cultist (Akeley) or read it in an Arkham book (Wilmarth). And that legend would closely correspond to the actual tale written, and published, by Dunsany (in A DREAMER'S TALES, 1910).  For another example, if a fictional character reading about The Yellow Sign in the NECRONOMICON is learning pretty much the same story as a real-world reader reading Chamber's tale "The Yellow Sign", then the closest approach we can make to replicating the contents of THE NECRONOMICON is to compile an anthology of the relevant tales.

At any rate, that the idea I'm currently playing around with, musing over and seeing where it goes.

--John R.

UPDATE (Th.7/12-18)
My friend Charles N. (hi, Charles) points out in an email that Snorri's PROSE EDDA sounds a better match for Alhazred's NECRONOMICON: cryptic poems with explanatory background added. He further suggests that

many, if not most, of the 'authentic' quotations from the Necronomicon 
were in fact poetry in the original Arabic, but only survived as prose 
in the successive Greek and Latin translations.

We do know there's at least one "chant" in the book, referred to as such by Wizard Whateley (in THE DUNWICH HORROR) as lacking in his damaged copy.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

the children of Lilith

So, sometimes there's a gemstone hidden in the dross.

In this case, the dross is a volume of WEIRD TALES stories by Seabury Quinn, and the gem was a brief passage from a Rossetti poem I hadn't read:

. . . bright babes  had Lilith and Adam
Shapes that coiled  in the woods and waters
Glittering sons  and radiant daughters

And if this were not enough, thanks to the wonders of the Internet I was able to quickly track down and read the entire poem ("Eden's Bower"), in the process finding a second quotable passage that draws a chill, esp. when juxtaposed with the first:

. . . in the cool of the day in the garden
God shall walk without pity or pardon.

--John R.
current reading: "The Whisperer in Darkness" by H. P. L., plus a book of short stories by Seabury Quinn

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Third Silmarillion

So, the day before yesterday one of those annoying online ads along the lines of 'if you liked that, you'll certainly like this' actually came through with something I'm interested in learning about: the forthcoming boxed set of THE GREAT TALES by JRRT, the stand-alone volumes THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, BEREN & LUTHIEN, and the soon-to-be forthcoming FALL OF GONDOLIN, all of them edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee.

I was struck by how this fulfills one of Tolkien's plans for his never-completed book.

Of the several different ways Tolkien thought of presenting THE SILMARILLION, the first was a synoptic QUENTA accompanied by several smaller associated pieces: Annals, the Ainulindale or Valaquenta, Akalabeth and something on the languages, and so forth. This is pretty much THE SILMARILLION as we got it in 1977: a concise, coherent account drawn from multiple layers of drafting.

But another way to see the book is as a collection of disparate materials: poems, tales, annals, essays, histories, philological excursions, and all. Think Translations from the Elvish, by B.B.  And this is pretty much what we got the second time around, with THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH in all its twelve volume glory.

And now another iteration, this one alluded to in his LETTER TO WALDMAN, will see print: the Great Tales each as a stand-alone book in the series known as THE SILMARILLION.* We're fortunate not just that all this material survives and has been published but that we have multiple ways of accessing it to see which suits this reader or that reader best.

These are good times to be a Tolkien fan, or scholar.

--John R.
--current reading: Seabury Quinn stories (bad, but not as terrible as I remembered from a previous try).
--current audiobook: Nero Wolfe.

*all the more so if the rumor proves true and this third volume also includes what little was set down of the fourth and final Great Tale: THE TALE OF EARENDIL, bringing the set to as complete a state as is now possible. In any case, we'll soon know.