Saturday, September 7, 2019

Secrets of Blackmoor

So, thanks to Doug A. for  the link to an article revisiting the great Arneson-Gygax credit controversy, arguing once again over which man contributed more to the creation  of D&D (and thus all roleplaying games). The article pulls no punches, coming down squarely on the anti-Gygax side. And by 'anti-Gygax' I mean not just Gygax as an interesting person with character flaws who treated people badly but Gygax-as-villain, Gygax as Snidely Whiplash, a figure of melodrama rather than history (most notably in the comments from Rob Kuntz, a former Gygax sidekick). There's plenty to criticize about Gygax, but  this attack wd be more convincing if it recognized his enormous contribution.

Here's the link;

The same may be said of the trailer for the documentary, which can be seen here:

The movie itself, I'm happy to say, adopts a milder tone and is much more devoted to boosting Arneson than in tearing Gygax down (I think Gygax first showed up at the 77-minute mark). It's a long and slow version of 'tell me about your character', but since the people doing so were, for example, the first person to ever play a dwarf in a D&D game, it's worth sitting through. Especially when you consider the people who they get on film: progenitors such as Wesely and Megarry and, through archival footage, some Arneson.  I'm sorry the late Dave Sutherland (the member of the Minneapolis group to most successfully transitioned to Lake Geneva, where he stayed with the company more than twenty years) is totally absent; if he was more than mentioned I missed it. I wish they'd have included interviews with Mike Carr, who again is mentioned a time or two in passing (regarding his being a neighbor of Arneson's yet the two first met at GenCon) with no hint of how important he was to the D&D/AD&D transition.  Oddly enough, the closing credits say they interviewed Tim Kask (the founding editor of THE DRAGON) but didn't use any of that footage.  Perhaps it'll be in the second part to this documentary that they promise at the end.

I can't end without a note about Arneson's dad, who appears several times and is surprisingly eloquent about never having really appreciated what all his talented son and his friends were doing down in his basement every weekend for all those years. I get the feeling the lack of underappreciation ran both ways: old Mr. Arneson mentions being puzzled that his son knew everything about Napoleon's battles (and battles Napoleon might have had, had events in history played out differently) yet had no interest in his own father's first-hand experience in World War II and Korean. That reminded me of a story TSR's Roger Moore told in one of his editorials, the point of which was that wargamers don't want to know what war is like.

So, essential if you want to delve deep into the prehistory of D&D and don't mind doing so through an extremely skewed account.

current reading: just read four books in three days: a Nero Wolfe (re-read) and three Georges Simenon MAIGRET novels (all bad). Now I've started two more: THE PEOPLES OF MIDDLE EARTH (HME.XII) and ASTOUNDING, the Campbell/Heinlein/Asimov/Hubbard biography.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The New Arrivals (Cilli, Young, & Nevala-Lee)

So, several books that I've long had on order have begun to arrive, along with a few I only learned about and ordered recently. Here are some first impressions, which I wanted to get down so as to be able to come back and revisit when I've read the books through.

The first of these, in the long-awaited category, is Oronzo Cilli's TOLKIEN'S LIBRARY: AN ANNOTATED CHECKLIST. This is flat-out a great idea: to list every book JRRT is known to have owned or read. And it's one of those dip-able books that you look up something in, to have that make you think of another author or title you want to check, and that leads to another, and so forth. It's like surfing on the net: it's easy to get sucked in in a most enjoyable way. The tricky part comes in with methodology. Cilli addresses this by identifying the evidence for each book as primary source (e.g. the actual book survives with Tolkien's signature) or secondary source (Tolkien quotes from the book). All in all, illuminating and deeply interesting.

The second is  RACE AND POPULAR FANTASY LITERATURE: HABITS OF WHITENESS by Helen Young (2016). Here's a case where the title and subtitle shd have been swapped: HABITS OF WHITENESS is a much stronger, more eye-catching title. I only know Young as the organizer of the 'Tales After Tolkien' track at Kalamazoo's yearly Medieval Congress. This is less a book I expect to enjoy and more one I want to read to prepare myself for dealing with the current hostile environment by seeing first hand what Tolkien's distractors are saying. Surprisingly enough, given her theme, there's no entry for Norman Spinrad or THE IRON DREAM anywhere in the  index; does she not know about this book?

The third is an e-book on the Kindle: ASTOUNDING, a joint biography of John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein,  Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. It comes as something of a shock to find that the one with the most reprehensible ideas was not Hubbard nor Heinlein but Campbell. I'm curious about this one to see what it might have to say about the recent moves to re-name literary awards because of objections to the person after whom the award was named, like the Campbell Award, the Lovecraft 'Howie', and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. The  'Hugo' is still the Hugo, but I wdn't count on its remaining so, given the current trend. In retrospect perhaps Glen GoodKnight was wise in naming his group The Mythopoeic Society and its award The Mythopoeic Award; the Charles Williams Award cd have in the current climate been more problematic.

In any case, that's my first impressions, which I expect will change quite a bit in the course of reading them.

And I have two more to look forward to:  TOLKIEN'S CHAUCER and John Garth's new sites-that-inspired-Tolkien book, both of which are currently 'forthcoming'.

--John R.
current reading: some misc. bits in THE BOOKS OF EARTHSEA; also continuing the C. S. Lewis reception and reputation book (which travels lightly, and tactfully, over issues involving Lindskoog vs. Hooper, and things like Mrs. Moore's role in CSL's private life.).

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The True Shape of a Tree

 So, here's another of Tolkien's late thoughts that show how deeply he considered each aspect of his subcreation that drew his attention during his late metaphysical writings in which he tried to work out how everything worked. This one is particularly fitting, given how it deals with something that he made iconic in his works:* the nature of trees.

[Something] which distinguishes the living from the unliving** is that the living employ Time in their realization. In other words it is part of their nature to 'grow', using such material as is needed or is available to them for their embodiment. So that a living pattern does not exist fully at any one moment of time (as do unliving patterns); but is complete only with the completion of its life. It cannot therefore rightly be seen instantly, and is only imperfectly envisaged even with the help of memory. Only thosewho conceived its pattern and whose sight is not limited to the succession of time can, for instance,see the true shape of a tree.

Comments on 'The Converse of Manwëwith Eru'
(pages 112 & 114; emphasis mine)

* "In all my works I take the part of trees"—JRRT, 1972 (Letters.419)
**e.g., an 'unliving' material such as iron

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Tolkien Piano

So, for a long time I wondered whether there were any Tolkien pianos left in the world. We knew that Tolkien's ancestors were known for making pianos and, earlier, clocks (and, at least one of them, for writing music). But that was more than a century ago: did any of those old pianos survive? Eventually I heard that yes, at least one had made it down through the years, still in the possession of a member of the family.

And now it appears that total of known surviving Tolkien Pianos has increased to two. I was skimming through the latest issue of AMON HEN when I saw the following notice about someone who had a Tolkien piano, complete with stool, that'd been in his family since 1919, having been made about thirty years before that. And, in an act of stunning generosity,  he wanted to give it away to a good home. Here's his picture of the piano in question: much less utilitarian and more elegant than I had expected.

And here's hoping it finds a good home.

--John R.
--current reading: THE FAME OF C. S. LEWIS by Stephanie Derrick

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Raymond Edwards' footnotes

So, I shd add that quite apart from the quality of  Raymond Edwards' biography of JRRT, I only discovered as I was wrapping it up that he is a footnoter after my own heart.

In his account of Tolkien's early days as a writer, Edwards quotes G. B. Smith's comment that one of Tolkien's poems reminded him the woman who wore all her jewelry after breakfast. Then in Note 46 on Chapter 1 (page 301) Edwards points out that the quip is not original with Smith but had earlier been used "by the poet and critic Arthur Symons about the novelist George Meredith's verse." He then goes on to clarify:

"This Symons should not be confused with
the biographer A. J. A. .Symons (The Quest for Corvo),
brother to the crime writer Julian Symons,
nor any of them with the historian and homosexual
proselytizer John Addington (J. A.) Symonds.
All are roughly contemporary, which does not help."

This even outdoes the note in my Dunsany dissertation distinguishing E. Nesbit (Edith Bland)--the English writer and friend of Dunsany's who first published one of his important works-- from Evelyn Nesbit (the notorious femme fatale at the center of a lurid murder and subsequent scandalous trial).

I bow to the master.
-- JDR

In Praise of Raymond Edwards

So, I've finally finished reading Raymond Edwards' biography of JRRT, which I first dipped into back in 2016 (reading roughly the last third of the book in Marquette Library's copy)* and returned to this summer with a copy of my own, working my way through it in starts and stops. I conclude that it has to be the most under-appreciated work on Tolkien in years: a major work that everybody seems to have ignored. This is what Tolkien biographies should be like, not another rehash of Carpenter but a rounded account that takes into account the wealth of information in the Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY and other resources not available when Carpenter was blazing his trails. Edwards is particularly good on Tolkien's academic milieu (just how much time Tolkien spent at his day job), his Catholicism (of great importance, but not the end-all and be-all of everything he wrote), and the difficulties he faced when trying to complete THE SILMARILLION.

It took me a long time to work my way through it because it's one of those books that starts the reader thinking -- I literally stopped every page to consider some point, or go look up some connection. The result was that it was a very slow read for such a reasonably sized book (300  pages not counting the Notes/Bibliography/Index).

An example of the sort of thing Edwards does well can be found in the section titled 'English at Oxford', part five (of seven) of Chapter Two, wherein Edwards follows his previous section's account of what Tolkien was up to during his student days at Oxford with a history of the men who were the philology and literature dons at Oxford, both while Tolkien was a student there (including which ones taught him what) and in the half-century or so before he arrived, setting the stage. Names which tend to swirl by in most accounts here emerge memorably: Richard Rawlinson, Joseph Bosworth, John Earle ('poor old John Earle' Tolkien called him), John Josias Conybeare, Arthur Napier and his sidekick Kenneth Sisam (Tolkien's tutor), Henry Sweet (rumored to be the model for Shaw's Henry Higgins), Walter Raleigh (who championed literature against the dominant emphasis on philology) and his assistant David Nichol Smith (who endured long enough to be an older colleague of Tolkien's), W. P. Ker (known to most of us primarily as a foil in 'The Monsters & the Critics', but so energetic and well-regarded as to have been a don at University College London, and Oxford, simultaneously), and most importantly of all Joseph Wright (Tolkien's hero).  All this, and more, in about eight pages, and judiciously written by one who is himself a philologist and wholly sympathetic to Tolkien's academic endeavors.

I would have thought a book this good would have won all the major Tolkien scholarship awards and become one of those rare books that everybody agrees ought to be ready at hand on your shelf. And I confess myself puzzled that instead it seems to be slipping into obscurity. Is it a case that so many books on Tolkien come out each year now that even a book this good can get lost in the crowd?

Anyhow, a great book: Highly Recommended.

--John R.
--current reading: just resuming a book begun and abandoned in June, when I was on the road.

*I think on the recommendation of Bill F. If so, thanks Bill.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The New Arrival: 2020 Tolkien Calendar

So, after the chaos of trying to get last year's Tolkien calendar, I order mine for this year, from Amazon, as soon as I heard from Janice that it was out.  It arrived today -- a neat trick, since it's not out till tomorrow. Guess there are some advantages of living within walking distance of a major warehouse in a city rich with Amazon locations and facilities.

As for the calendar itself, anyone who's been getting Tolkien calendars for a number of years learns that there are good ones and (God knows) bad ones. This is a good one. Only had a chance to give it a quick skim so far, but it strikes me as vintage Alan Lee. In fact it has a sort of valedictory feel to it.

--John R.

A Thought about Orcs

So, yesterday I was reading through some of JRRT's late metaphysical writings, during which I came across the following passage while looking for something else entirely:

The Valar feared to meddle with the Children . . . Also Eru had forbidden them to coerce their wills, daunting their minds by dread of the power of the Valar, or even amazing them with wonder of their beauty and majesty. But they [the Valar] deemed that since the rule of Arda was committed them, it was within their authority to hinder any creature from deeds of evil, or to restrain it from what might prove hurtful to itself or to others. By 'coercing the will' they understood the dominion or enslaving of the mind of a lesser creature, so that it might say 'I will', assenting to this or that against its true nature and inclination, until it lost, maybe, the power of choice.

The context of this lies in some commentary to The Converse of Manwe with Eru about elvish reincarnation.

What's interesting here is that reversing this line of thought leads to a means that satisfies some of the basics of The Problem with Orcs. What if Melkor the Morgoth, with his love of domination and free of any scruples his fellow Valar might feel as to the consequences of their work, imposed his will on the proto-orcs until they too 'lost, maybe, the power of choice'?

Not altogether satisfactory, but an interesting addition to Tolkien's various attempts (all ultimately unsuccessful) to sort out the problem of a race that is (a) sentient (b) free willed and (c) irredeemably evil.

--John R.
--current reading: J. M. W. TURNER: THE MAN WHO SET PAINTING ON FIRE by Olivier Meslay (another Thames & Hudson, but this one small-sized)

Saturday, August 24, 2019

On This Day in 1981

So, on this day, Monday August 24th 1981, I first saw, and worked with, Tolkien manuscripts. I'd  arrived in Milwaukee by train on the 22nd, having moved sight unseen to a city I'd never visited before and where the number of people there I knew, or had even met, was exactly none. There must have been some paperwork confirming that I'd been admitted to the graduate school and granted a Teaching Assistantship in the English department, but all I remember are two letters I'd received from Chuck Elston at the Archives, the first saying that no, they couldn't send me photocopies of any of their manuscripts, and the second saying that I could certainly look at their Tolkien manuscripts if I came to Marquette in person.

The days leading up to this had been busy ones: my mother dropping me off at the train station in Little Rock late in the afternoon of Friday the 21st (so she cd get well on the way back to Magnolia before dark), my catching the train around midnight and arriving in Milwaukee around six or so the evening of the 22nd, then finding my new apartment (which took a while, due to the inability of the cab driver to find the building). Sunday I either walked or took the bus* down to the Sears on Mitchell Street and got some kitchen essentials, like a set of three or four pots and pans.** Monday I reported to the English Department and started their training for new TAs, which ran the week before classes started (both the ones we'd be teaching and the ones we'd be taking). That same day I went into the Archives for the first time and met both Chuck Elston, the Archivist, and Terry Margherita, the Archives secretary.

My reading list records that I read MR BLISS that day,*** and I still have a complete transcription of that then unpublished work that I made in those early days, followed I think by what I cd transcribe of the two earliest versions of FARMER GILES (which has always been a favorite of mine).

That evening I read John Bellairs'  THE FACE IN THE FROST, for the first of what turned out to be many times. I'd previously known only through a paragraph quoted in my friend Franklin Chestnut's master's thesis, so when I saw it in the university bookstore I bought it right away. It quickly became one of my favorite books (I read it again four days later****); that it gave me nightmares might have been partly to my reading it in a near-empty apartment in a strange city.

And I'm currently making plans for my next visit to Milwaukee in September to spend a week working with the Tolkien manuscripts there. The more things change . . .

--John R.
--current reading: just finished a near-final draft of a Master's Thesis (good!)
--currently reading a small book on J. M. W. Turner, about who I know next to nothing; enjoying this as well.

*I was without a car most of my years in Milwaukee
**one of these later figured in the exploding skillet story, but I'll save that for another time
***it's number seven (#II.7) in my restarted list

Sunday, August 18, 2019

My Reading List

So, on this day in 1975 I started my reading list. The most recent entry thereto (Thursday the 15th)  was book #II.3522  -- and that doesn't include the 536 books I read between August 1975 and April 1981, whereupon my list-keeping was disrupted, causing me to start over with a new numeration that August (August 15th 1981, to be exact. It was a Saturday).

When I started my list I was just about to begin my second year of High School (eleventh grade). My motivation was that I'd read a book and then later forget the author or title. Or I might read one work of a series (say, a mystery novel) and not be sure afterwards which books in that series I had and hadn't read.  By writing down the title, author, and date I read it I was much likelier to be able to find a book again shd I need to.

Not everything I read goes onto the list. Things I left out include books I don't read all the way through, which are many, and audiobooks (despite several efforts to maintain a second list for audiobooks unfortunately it's never really taken). Short pieces are taken on a case-by-case basis, sometimes linked together as a single entry. The list doesn't include rpgs or magazines or correspondence or anything posted online (except for e-books of course, which are included in the main list).

Just for fun, here's a cross-section of books I've read.

#I. 1.  
The first book, forty-four years ago this week: Nicholas Meyer's THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, the first of what wd prove a wave of new Sherlock Holmes novels not by Conan Doyle.
The next book that followed was THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE, tr. Christopher Tolkien, the first saga I ever read and still my favorite.

#I. 340.  
Forty years ago this week (August 18th 1979):  EARTH AND SKY by The Writers' Guild -- the first (and only) release by a writers group I helped organize while in college, an anthology of student-written poetry and prose.
The previous book before this was G. A. L. Burgeon's THIS EVER DIVERSE PAIR (which I later got autographed by the author, both under that name and his real one, Owen Barfield).
The following book was THE TOLKIEN SCRAPBOOK, ed. Alida Becker.

#II. 1175 & 1176 . 
Thirty years ago this week (Fri Aug 18th 1989): I finished up SOURCERY by Terry Pratchett (Discworld V, not one of his best) and continued on to read that same day the whole of WYRD SISTERS (Discworld VI, my second reading of this much better book). I spent the next few weeks and again in December slogging through David Edding's utterly generic double quintology, finally giving it up after the eighth book in the ten-book series (and I've never been able to make myself go back and force my way through the last two books).

#II. 2167.
Twenty years ago this week (Sun 8/15 - W 8/18 1999): the SORCERER'S SHIP by Hannes Bok (awful! just goes to show not every oldie is a goodie). Far more interesting were the books before and after it: a prose translation of Chretien's PERCIVAL (with the first two Continuations) and Stephen Jay Gould's QUESTIONING THE MILLENNIUM.

#II. 2797.
Ten years ago this week (in three spurts: M 8.17 - Fr 8/21, Sun 8/23-M 8/24, & Sat Sept 6-Sun 6th 2009): THE PLEASURES OF A FUTUROSCOPE by Lord Dunsany (A posthumous publication of his last novel some fifty years after his death. Pity it's so very bad.).

#II. 3522. 
Finished up three days ago (7/10, 7/19, 7/22, Sun 8/11 thr Th 8/15-19):  Jeffro Johnson's APPENDIX N.

Between the 500+ books on the First List and the 3522 books on the Second List, that's well over four thousand books. So far.

--Current reading: starting back on the third of four books that have been left hanging with on-and-off again reading the last two months or so -- two down (#II.3521 & II.3522), two to go.

The Late Great Barry Hughart

Sad news reached me yesterday (thanks to Doug A. for sharing)  that Barry Hughart had died. I would have ranked him as the greatest living writer of fantasy, and I stand by my evaluation in CLASSICS OF FANTASY that his BRIDGE OF BIRDS is "among the ten best fantasies ever published".  I particularly admire the book's conclusion, which I described there as "the purest eucatastrophe known to me in fantasy, where all the threads come together and every single plot point is resolved. There's really nothing quite like it in all of fantasy literature".

Here's a link to the too-brief announcement in LOCUS. Note however that this brief obit gets his date of birth wrong: being eighty-five, his birth-date must have been 1934, not 1924, and wikipedia confirms this.

I'm reminded of Dunsany's words about Sime: "We have lost, in a time of losses . . . a genius
whose . . . imagination has passed across our time little more noticed by most people than the shadow of a bird passing over a lawn"

--John R.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Is Sword & Sorcery 'trashy romance novels for guys'?

Appendix N: The Book -- a mixed bag  [see first post on 7/14-19]

So, I've now had time to read through all forty-three essays, plus the introduction, three game reviews, and an interview that make up Jeffro Johnson's APPENDIX N book, and my overall impression is that it's decidedly a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's an interesting project that he sees through to the end, and the book gets better as it goes along, as he builds up a kind of critical mass along the way. On the other, he doesn't have much to say on some of these pieces and quite a few times the essay takes a sharp turn midway through and drifts off into some other topic that has little to do with the book he's supposed to be discussing. Thus his discussion of Burrough's A PRINCESS OF MARS (essay V) focuses its attention on critiquing the poster for the original STAR WARS movie (he feels the movie doesn't deliver on the promise implicit in Princess Leia's cleavage in the film's iconic poster). His discussion of Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER (essay IX) wanders off into a discussion of 1st edition AD&D's druids and monks. One of his Poul Anderson pieces (essay XXV) devotes two and a half pages to THE BROKEN SWORD and then spends the rest of its time,  four and a half pages, on 1st ed. AD&D's DEITIES & DEMIGODS. 

His comments are also occasionally weird, most notably in the entry on Howard's CONAN (essay X), where he argues first that Conan has a code of conduct (which I don't think anyone ever doubted) and then suggests that it's explicitly Xian (really? I must have missed the stories in which Conan professes 'blessed are the meek' and 'turn the other cheek'). An author need not share his or her character's beliefs, but anyone advancing this argument really shd address the fact that R.E.H. was himself a stone cold atheist.

Jeffro J.'s does strike gold at least once: the whole book is worth his moment of self-reflection where he confesses that he enjoys the sleazy side of books like Merritt's DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE (essay XVI), and muses that perhaps the book can be thought of as "a trashy romance novel for guys (p. 110). Expanding that thought out to consider sword & sorcery as a whole, and I think he may be on to something.  He also has a great line worth remembering when he describes a passage as "written entirely in High Gygaxian" (p.179)

In the end it's this book's thesis that Gygax's original Appendix N offers proof that we've been disinherited from our legacy: the great books and authors who wrote sword & sorcery (aka 'heroic fantasy') in the half-century or so before D&D debuted. Johnson concludes that these books are not just of historical interest for what they contributed to D&D but are worth reading in their own right. I on the other hand think that's only true of some of them. Some of these books and authors are great (e.g., Tolkien), some are terrible (Lin Carter, Gardner Fox), and many are in-between: an enjoyable read if you have a taste for the popular fiction of decades past (I do), a reminder of how bad bad fantasy can get if you don't.

So if the pulp fiction of a bygone era is your cup of tea, you might find this book worth your while. But be warned that if you've already read a book he covers you'll probably find yourself not learning much from his corresponding essay: his method is not to research an author or his or her works but to share his experience of reading them, to jot down thoughts that occur to him as he's reading the book in question. 

Where I think he goes wholly off the tracks is, not surprisingly, Tolkien. After having cited Tolkien repeatedly throughout the book, when it comes to the essay specifically devoted to JRRT (essay XXXXIII, the last in the book), he reverses himself and spends the whole piece arguing that Tolkien had no significance to the creation of D&D, serving only as the source of a few negligible borrowings. He even asserts that Tolkien didn't dominate fantasy in the 1970s, where he was one fantasy writer among many, but only came to dominate the field in the 1980s (p. 296). This is pretty much the reverse of historical fact.* 

The book ends with an interesting oddity: an interview with Ken St. Andre, creator of TUNNELS AND TROLLS, an early imitator of D&D. Closing a book on Gygax's inspirations by an interview with St Andre is like being unable to interview John Lennon and so deciding to interview Peter Tork instead.

--John R.
--current reading: APPENDIX N (just finished).

*for a corrective, read any good account of the Tolkien craze of the 1960s and also the role played by Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the late sixties through the mid-seventies.

Tarkus in the catbird seat

So, sometimes we walk the cats, and sometimes the cats walk us.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Spooky Van Gogh

So, I just finished reading an interesting book, VINCENT'S TREES (ed. Ralph Skea, Thames & Hudson), which I got at the Clark during our visit to Williamstown back in June. Van Gogh has long been one of my favorite artists, and I've loved trees for as long as I can remember.* A favorite artist tackling a favorite subject: seemed like a natural fit as something I'd like.

I did, though it's been a book I've nibbled at rather than plunged in and read straight through. There's a lot to go back and forth over, to look at time and agaia. I knew he painted a great many outdoors scenes in addition to the bright sunflowers he's so famous for, but until this book pointed it out I hadn't noticed how many of them feature trees. I also hadn't known his artistic career was so short (about a decade), nor how prolific he was during that time (about nine hundred pictures).

I've long considered Van Gogh a good test of Ian Richard's theory** that what you know about an author (or in this case artist) influences what you see when you experience their work.  For example, looking at one of Van Gogh's landscape at first you might notice the bright colors, swirling energy, and sheer exuberance. Being told that, a year or so later, Van Gogh walked into one of those fields and shot himself, most of us now find sinister elements on a second look. The picture itself hasn't changed, but what we see when we look at it might.

One thing I had not appreciated is how spooky I found some of the pictures. There were some that I though wd do v. nicely to illustrate M. R. James or serve as the cover for one of his books: figures standing in the middle distance looking at us but too far away to see their features, or indeed whether they even have any. Here are a few examples:

There's even a mild hint of Lovecraft in one piece: I thought the following wd make a pretty good representation of a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath while quiescent. 

Finally, so long as we're on the subject, here are my two favorite Van Goghs, both of which I used to have posters of that I hung in many an apartment and office over the years.

--John R.
--current reading: TOUCH NOT THE CAT by Mary Stewart (to see what her non-Arthurian, non-fantasy work is like).
--current viewing; an online watch-as-they-play CALL OF CTHULHU scenario set in the Crystal Palace.

*I must be one of three people who still remember the little cherry tree we had in our backyard at Monticello, or the sprawling mimosa in a neighbor's yard.

**a core element of the so-called New Criticism.

Friday, August 9, 2019

An End to the Penny

--Please put a penny in the old man's hat

--Ain't got a penny
--A halfpenny will do
--Ain't got a halfpenny
--God bless you!

So, here's a piece of English news with applicability for us over here in the States: the Royal Mint has stopped making pennies. Not that they've abolished them --there was too much of an outcry when they suggested that-- they're just not making any more. Too many already in circulation, too few actually in use, especially with people shifting to electronic transactions via their smartphones and other devices. They'll make more if and when they're needed, assuming that time ever comes, but this clearly marks a milestone.

The piece includes the astonishing statistic that sixty percent of all pennies only get used once, presumably before vanishing into a drawer or change jar.

Something of the same thing can be seen happening over here, where the cent* is now worth so little that most make their way into tip jars and I've even seen people who don't even bother to pick one up when it drops to the floor. And so far as I can tell belief in the 'lucky penny' is dying out. In practical terms, they cd simplify our coinage by dropping the cent and nickel together and let us get by with just the dime and quarter.

The coin collector in me is sad, considering how the cent and half-cent were among the first and most important US coinage (along with the dime and half-dime). The half-dime and half-cent vanished long ago. Despite the Lincoln lobby it's time for the cent and nickel to follow, perhaps into commemorative status or an array of ever-changing limited run designs, like they did with the quarters.

Here's the link:

--John R.

*we call them 'penny' and 'cent' interchangeably but they're really cents, not pennies.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Some Solo Gaming

So, I've been wanting to brush up my 1st edition AD&D knowledge, which I find has gotten overlaid with bits and pieces from other iterations of the game during all those years I spent working on 2nd edition (over forty modules, books, and boxed sets) and editing 3rd edition (about another twenty works, including co-editing two of its three core rulebooks).

My solution is to play a short solo adventure using 1st edition rules. Choose a suitable adventure, generate a party of adventurers, and run them through it. If it goes well I might resume solo gaming as a regular thing, the way I use to in the old days.

After some mulling over likely options, I narrowed down the choice of adventure to one of three:

U1. THE SINISTER SECRET OF SALTMARSH. This wd have been my choice, except that I'm hoping I can play through the recent expanded version with our regular Monday Night Game once we've finished our current adventure and don't want to spoil it by rereading the original after all these years.

I1. DWELLERS OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY by Zeb Cook. This is one of the few B/X/I series adventures I never played through back in the old days. I have a high opinion of Zeb's early work,* but I wanted to start with 1st-level characters, since I think the game is at its best (certainly its most challenging) at low levels. Thus his 4th to 7th level Forbidden City would have created unnecessary complications. Accordingly, I've tentatively lined up this as the next adventure if I continue the game on into higher levels. Either this or X2. CASTLE AMBER (a long-standing favorite of mine).

B2.5 CAVES OF THE UNKNOWN. The adventure I settled on is the one I think, of all the modules and mini-modules I picked up at last year's NTRPGcon, best captured old-style AD&D the way I used to play it. Plus it did pitch itself as an expansion of the classic B2. KEEP ON THE BORDERLAND, and thus an easy segue if needed to draw on RETURN TO THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS as well.

To save time, I took characters I'd come up with years ago for RETURN TO THE KEEP  and reverse engineered their stat blocks from late second edition back to 1st edition.

lesson number one: I'd forgotten how simple 1st edition character's stats were, before all the complications with skills worked its way in. Two or three lines is about all it takes to get down the essentials.

It took v. little time to form a party, selected the right rumor for them to hear, and send them off on a mission: recover a dead adventurer's body and gear from the bottom of the sinkhole in which he fell to his death. Well, it's a start . . .

More later.

--John R.

*esp. the two Master of the Desert Nomads adventures, my favorites of all his works. Its monsters were for me its strong points, as also seems to be the case with FORBIDDEN CITY (which introduces the Aboleth and yuan-ti, among others). The aboleth had to wait more than a decade to come into their own, with the Underdark-themed campaign adventure NIGHT BELOW (1995), one of the best things I've had the pleasure of editing during my rpg career.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Congratulations are In Order

So, this past weekend they announced this year's winners of the Mythopoeic Award.

The winner of the Inklings Scholarship award goes to Verlyn Flieger for her essay collection THERE WOULD ALWAYS BE A FAIRY TALE.

And the winner in Myth and Fantasy Studies (the non-Inkling award) is Dimitra Fimi for CELTIC MYTH IN CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN'S FANTASY.

Congratulations to the winners and also to the finalists.

--John R.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


So, on the same page as the TSR version of THE CREATURE THAT ATE SHEBOYGAN, the 1992 TSR catalogue shows another boardgame that never saw the light of day: SUN WARS. I knew nothing of this one, so I consulted with two friends who were at TSR at the time, who agree that this must have been the project whose brief was to create a game to use all the little plastic pieces left over from a previous failed game: BUCK ROGERS: BATTLE FOR THE XXVth CENTURY.*  I suspect that this one never got beyond the basic idea and wd be surprised to learn that it got as far as a prototype, though you never know with TSR.

More interesting is the game whose name is given in the catalogue as FLASHPOINT and its designer as Douglas Niles.  I knew that about this time Troy Denning had designed an excellent boardgame called DICTATORS AND DIPLOMATS,  because I got to playtest it. What I hadn't realized, and only recently discovered, is that the game I played and the one in the catalogue were one and the same, despite having different names and being credited to different designers.  It's thus the only one of these games that I'm sure got all the way through design.

And it was a v. good game, with the players each having different victory conditions. For example, Japan wins through economic dominance, while another country might use military means to achieve its goals. And, just to make things more interesting, the players didn't know each other's end goal, at least in the playtest, though you cd get an inkling by paying attention to what the other players were doing. It felt almost as if the different players are playing interlocking games at the same time with each's actions impinging on the others.

Unfortunately, it went the way of all flesh when TSR decided to get out of the boardgame business. A shame. I think it might have fared much better in today's kickstarter world. I'm still glad I got the chance to play it, not least because this is the only time I really got to meet Troy Denning, who'd left TSR not long before I arrived, to spend his time henceforth more with novels than game design. He's remembered today mostly for DARK SUN and as the designer of D&D 5th edition (The Black Box), the last successful edition of D&D (as opposed to AD&D) by TSR.**

--John R.

*TSR had a tendency to overprint, especially when it came to anything related to Buck Rogers

**Successful that is both as a coherent game system and in sales, esp. when paired with the Rules Cyclopedia.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tolkien Oral History Project

So, I was pleased to take part in Marquette's new oral history project, where they encourage Tolkien fans and scholars to record brief reminisces as to how each came to discover Tolkien, what attracted them in his work, and what Tolkien has meant to them.

Here's my own entry --somewhat shorter than the average, but it was either stop where I did or talk for days:

And here's a link to the main site, with the first set of two hundred and fifty interviews (out of what they hope will be a total of six thousand):

A brainchild of Marquette's Tolkien Archivist Wm Fliss, this is quite unlike the oral history project Lyle Dorsett launched at Wheaton in the 'eighties, where he sought out people who had known Lewis and Tolkien and got their memories down on film. Instead the Marquette recordings are anonymous, asking only the person's age and what part of the country they're from. The effect is a kaleidoscope of voices, young or old, male or female, dedicated scholar or devoted fan, that memorably brings to life the vast range of Tolkien's audience. I found listening to a generous selection quite moving and hope the ongoing project also picks up international voices as well.

It's off to a v. good start.

Here's hoping there will be much more to come.

--John R.
current viewing: SMILEY'S PEOPLE (Alec Guinness)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Buried Treasure (THE JADE HARE)

So, probably the rarest thing I have in my rpg collection, which has always been more of a working library than a collector's set, is a copy of THE JADE HARE, an eight-page module by John Nephew.  Unfortunately, my copy got mislaid a while back and I've been looking for it, unsuccessfully, for the past year or two. Last night I turned it up again, in a somewhat unexpected context.

I had picked a box to sort down in the Box Room because it was blocking me from getting to the bottom shelves of a bookcase. The box turned out mostly to be full of old TSR catalogues from the period 1989-1997,* but halfway down was a copy of HAIL THE HEROES, one of the Mystaran 'audio cd adventures' I worked on as editor. Since I hadn't looked at it in years, I pulled it out and quickly dipped into it. To my disappointment it turned out not to be the adventure I'd worked on but a sourcebox filled with miscellaneous junk: three apparently random BLOOD WAR cards, an AOL sign-up disk, flyers for rental cars, a credit card application, a Waldenbooks preferred members club, as well as an RPGA membership card and sow-on patch. It looked like somebody at some point re-purposed the box to stash a strange array of miscellaneous slush. But since I was near the bottom anyway I decided to press on rather than stuff all this stuff back in the box and put it on my MYSTARA shelf as a place holder till I found a better copy.

It's lucky that I did. The last three items turned out to be a folded-up PLANESCAPE poster, a pristine copy of  THE JADE HARE, and an issue of POLYHEDRON (#110, August 1995). Mission accomplished, after more than a year of looking.

There are actually two versions of this module, which are identical except that one has a cardstock cover (front and back) and the other lacks this.** It's the version with the cover that's the collectable one: the adventure within is identical in both. It's not known how many copies were ever released, but only about half a dozen are known to survive, of which this is one.

Two associated pieces of evidence also in this box might cast some light on this minimodule and the context in which I found it. The first is the draft of a memo that seems to be setting out what a person buying a membership in some group wd get in return: membership card, an introductory POLYHEDRON, some sort of exclusive LIVING CITY product, a sample issue of DRAGON or DUNGEON, a promotional SPELLFIRE or BLOOD WARS card, a poster, a catalogue for the Mail Order Hobby Shop (and discount therefrom), a membership car and patch, and finally a subscription to POLYHEDRON.

Now, this sounds rather like the miscellaneous array of things stuffed into that sourcebox, which were probably picked not as specific items for inclusion but as generic pieces that happened to be laying ready to hand to see how much room a similar 'wants list' wd take up.

A revised version of the memo, in the bottom of the box, helps solves one little mystery. I've never been able to remember who it was, which TSR executive, who gave Slade and myself the Games Library copy of this module (and one each for ourselves, to boot). I thought it was probably Tom Lavley but possibly Tom McLaughlin. The memo casts some light on this: it's from Scott Douglas, the head of the RPGA at the time, and addressed to Tom McLaughlin, Rick Behling, and Jim Ward. Since Tom McLaughlin is one of the recipients of the memo, this shows he was involved with issues such as special-release giveaways and makes it more likely that it was MaLaughlin who we have to thank for a handful of copies surviving.

And now to enjoy one more thing that had gotten out of place being back in place.

--John R.
current reading: various manga

*I was there myself from 1991 -1997, but was able to pick up a lot of the older catalogues when people who were leaving wd put out things they didn't want to take with them on the freebie shelf.

**this makes the two states of JADE HARE unlike the two versions of B3. PALACE OF THE SILVER PRINCESS, where not only was the background color of the covers changed from orange (B3 original) to green (B3 revised), but also the contents re-written (and much improved).

It's long been known that THE JADE HARE owes its existence from TSR's attempts at the time to monopolize titles and trademarks with the word 'Dragon' in them -- hence the module is a DUNGEONS & DRAGON(R) adventure and so labelled, while the cover (front and back) instead identifies this as a DRAGON MASTER(TM) adventure.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Old TSR Catalogues

So,  one of the things that used to fascinate me during my TSR days were the bibliographic ghosts: products that existed only on schedules or in announcements of forthcoming releases but never saw the light of day. Some of these got so far as to be including in the catalogue, often with a brief description, cover art (often prototype), and author listed.  Some were in fact written, edited, and ready to go when The Powers That Be changed their mind one day and cancelled the product (and often the entire line); many more were more ephemeral and existed only as projections. Here's one of the most notorious of TSR's many never-released games: THE CREATURE THAT ATE SHEBOYGAN.

Here's the original (SPI) version of the game.

And here's the entry in the 1992 TSR catalogue describing the new version of the game, never to be released:

Another benefit of sorting: now that I have a place to put these TSR catalogues, I'm assembling my file of them from where they've been scattered throughout many boxes with the goal of getting them in sequence. Maybe at some point I'll have time to go through and make a listing of at least some of the more interesting entries in them for things that, for whatever reason, disappeared. It's almost like a glimpse into an alternate history.

More later.

--John R.
--current reading: four different books, all of which I want to get read but don't seem able to actually make myself sit down and finish reading.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Cat Report (W.7/24-19)


Two pictures of Little Mary, who I expected is all settled into her new home by now.

And a final picture of Tim Tiger, trying to think of some way to get a treat.

July 17th
A lot of activity in the cat-room lately. First LITTLE MARY got herself adopted. Then seven kittens — a set of three (the ‘Friends’ Kittens) and a younger set of four (theTMNT’ Kittens) — arrived for a Kitten Event. The three bigger kittens got adopted right away without my ever having seen them, all I think going to the same home. Then bonded pair BLANCHIN and WAFFLES, who’d been here a few weeks ago, returned. So by this time last week (W.7/17) we had sweet puddle-cat DUBLIN, young-mom WAFFLES, overgrown kitten BLANCHIN, and the Four Kittens: LEONARDO, RAPHAEL, DONATELLA, and MICHAELANGLO. Thinking the kittens wd need games I brought in a cardboard box with holes cut in it for kittens to play with. It went down well.

 DUBLIN got a walk that was more like a carry, but think it did her some good to get away from the kittens and bonded pair. While very shy and apt to look for cover she seems to have a good start on a mental map of the store. Waffles mostly kept to herself, but Blanchin loved all the games and didn’t mind if the kittens joined in. For her part, Dublin slept on the bins, away from the kitten-activity. A time or two when someone jumped up there she froze, waiting for them to move on — no hiss or slap from her, I’m glad to say. She did like the laser pointer, but not the string game.

July 24th
Since last week Blanchin and Waffles went back to the shelter (does our cleaner make his eyes water?). Two of the four kittens got adopted, and the two remaining siblings are behaving more and more like a bonded pair. Little RAPHAEL (the fluffy all-black one) likes to seize a toy and drag it off. Little LEONARDO (maybe ‘Leonardi’ or just ’Nardi’ wd be better?), the kink-tailed dark torbie likes to chase her toys around. Both especially enjoyed the string game, the bee, and the feather duster. Raphael has the odd habit of nursing on his sister. Odd, but doesn’t seem to be doing any harm (they both purred the whole time).They’ve definitely become a bonded pair.

Dublin had a good long walk (over twenty minutes) that got her away from the kittens and got her moving around some. She’s doing much better on the leash and may turn into one of our good walkers. Afterwards she loved getting attention while stretched out atop the bins: there was a good deal of soft purring (the kind you can feel more than hear). Petting and one-on-one attention turns out to be what Dublin likes best. A bit worrying that she has places where the fur is thin or even missing. Also discovered that she has very long, strong, and sharp back claws. 

Since it was a quiet day I let several people in the cat-room, one or two at a time, to see the cats. Made sure that everyone who came in to see the kittens petted Dublin as well.

Tom picked up lots of stuff both last Wednesday and today to go back to the main shelter. The work people put in re-arranging and straightening up the cat-room makes a big difference and is much appreciated.

Hope Tiger’s doing well and that Blanchin and Waffles get better soon.

—John R.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The New Arrival: APPENDIX N (The Book)

So, here's one of those cases where I first hear about a book on Monday and have a copy arrive in the mail on Wednesday. Thanks Amazon.

The book in question is APPENDIX N by Jeffro Johnson, the compilation of pieces from an online column. Each essay in the series is devoted to one of the authors included in Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading in the back of the 1979 1st edition AD&D DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE, which completed the three-volume set of the AD&D core rules, still the best roleplaying game ever crafted.

I was wary in that while I haven't come across Johnson's work before, the introduction to his book is written by John C. Wright,* who was one of the Puppies (Sad or Angry, I forget which) who tried to hijack the Hugos a few years.

So far read the essays on Tolkien (of course), Dunsany, Bellairs, and Vance --authors I know well. Next I need to read some about books on the list I've never read. My initial impression is that he's equally enthusiastic about everyone in what is a decidedly mixed bag, ranging from the best of the best (Tolkien) to the bottom of the barrel (e.g. Lin Carter). Looking forward to seeing what he has to say, and if he can make a case for the least promising among them.

--John R.

*to his credit, Wright seems to be a Hodgson fan, judging by his list of published works over on Wikipedia

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Return of Cat Walking Wednesday

So, I'm now back from the trip, settled back in, and back at work --both putting finishing touches on my recent project and resuming work on the project I put aside half a year ago to concentrate on the Kalamazoo piece. Which means that last week (7/3) and this (7/10) I got to go in the place I volunteer and walk cats.

Here are two pictures of The Fine Art of Cat Walking. The first is a picture of Tim Tiger, a senior cat with health issues but worlds of personality; the second shows me walking him.

And here's the actual Cat Report:

Thanks to Kimiko and Gregory, who had all three cats out and in a good mood. TIM TIGER was atop the cat-stand, sweet DUBLIN on a bed on the bench, and LITTLE MARY scampering about on the floor level.

Knowing that they were coming to get Tiger for a ride up to Arlington to check his blood chemistry, I went ahead and walked him first thing, thinking the out and about wd do him  good. He was his usual intreped self, going all over the store looking for spilled treats high and low and winning praise from by-passers and staff. After we came back in, a half-hour or so later, he enjoyed some powdered catnip and then shared a game with Little Mary. They mostly played the string game but also bee-on-a-wire and a little with the feather duster.

Thinking we might get Mary used to walking in stages, I managed to put the collar on her (with leash attached) and leave it there several minutes. She didn’t like it, and rolled around trying to get it off, but she didn’t panic like she did last week, so that’s progress. Anyone who feels up to it might get the collar or harness on her for a few minutes at a time while she’s with us: we may make a leash-walker of her yet.

Sweet Dublin passed on the games but was very happy when someone petted her, and purred loudly to show it. A very gentle cat, perfect for sharing a couch. She was worried towards the end of my shift by noises outside the cat-room (they were moving some pallets around over near the new cat-trees location) and so asked to go back in her cage, where she curled up to sleep.

By that time the driver had come for Tiger Tim. Tiger told us, as clearly as he could, that he didn’t want to go in the carrier. To no avail: in he went. I was admiring how much better he looks than when he arrived, now that his shaved fur is growing back again. Think he’s also less boney, thanks to all the work folks put in finding out what kind of food he likes. Hope he’ll be back with us again after his check-up and status report.

Last to call it a day was little Mary, who climbed up and dozed off atop the cat-stand. By the time I was ready to head out, a little later, she was sleeping the sound sleep of kittens, and it was easy to transfer her into her cage.

No new cats, but I had time to clean out and sterilize Tim Tiger’s cage, so we now have two cats (Dublin & little Mary) and three empty cages (one of them the double-high supersize).

—John R.

P.S.: It’s a little late now, but I have to pay tribute to the now-adopted BEAUTY and CORKIE and GALAXY, all three of whom went on walks last week. Galaxy was v. shy and mostly got carried about. Beauty did better but was clearly nervous, so we didn’t stay out too long. Corky was completely different: she sallied forth and walked all over the store. In fact, she walked on her own all the way from the cat-room to the training room on the far corner of the store, the first cat to do so in my memory. So if there’s a follow-up how-are-they-doing message to B&C’s new owners, we might want to pass along word of Corkie’s unsuspected talent.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Another bit of old TSR art

So, another odd item that turned up in my sort-out is what I think must be the prototype cover for some DRAGONLANCE product (the figure on the left has a Goodmoon-ish look about her). Friend Jeff (a member of the original DL team) suggests it might have been intended for one of the books in the later short-lived 'Murder' line (MURDER IN CORMYR, MURDER IN TARSIS, &c), in which case it cd probably be found in one of the TSR catalogues of the era (circa 1996).

It's just a print-out on glossy paper, unsigned, but it's definitely an Elmore, so I thought fans of his work wd like to see what I presume is a lesser-known example.

--John R.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Lost Dave Sutherland Art

So, here's an example of something turning up unexpectedly. I knew I had a drawing by Dave Sutherland someplace, and I thought it was his picture of Orcus, but it's been misplaced for years.

And now it's turned up. It was among some other misc. TSR art in a box full of calendars --mostly old Tolkien calendars (lots and lots of these) but with some TSR/D&D calendars as well from Lake Geneva days, which must be how they wound up where I found them. Now that they've resurfaced I've put them together with the slender pile of other TSR art so I'll know where it is henceforward.

The Art itself is a long narrow strip, 8 3/4 inches long by 2 1/2 inches tall.

The piece itself is not signed but the matting it came in is. I think Dave, at my request, signed it when I bought it (i.e. the signature dates from 1996, not 1976).

At that night's CTHUHU game I consulted some of my friends from TSR days and one of them, Jeff G., identified it within a matter of minutes as coming from ELDRITCH WIZARDRY, Supplement III to the original three-booklet first edition of D&D. Sure enough, there it is on the bottom of page 45, illustrating the Artifact Queen Ehliss's Marvelous Nightingale.  Since the published version is shrunk down to just 4 1/2 inches by 1 1/4 inch, the reproduction loses a lot of the detail in the cross hatching et al. I can even make out some light blue underdrawing on the original.

As for how I came to have such a thing, that's due to that reprehensible charity auction in December of 1996, when upper management at TSR organized an auction to raise money from their employees for some good cause (I forget what), knowing that they were going to be laying off a significant portion of those employees the end of that week.

From what I can tell, this is one of the two oldest pictures of D&D's Orcus, the other (which I assume predates it) being on page 35 of the same book.

So there it is: unexpected, but welcome. Now to look for a suitable frame and a place to hang it out of the reach of bouncy cats.  It's good to have this as a memento of someone I knew, and liked, and respected.

--John R.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Reliques of WisCons Past

So, more time spent straightening in the Box Room means more things turn up. Some I'm deliberately searching for (I have a shortlist of four or five so far elusive items), others I'd forgotten about until they show up mixed in with other unrelated stuff in one of a multitude of miscellaneous boxes. An example of the latter is a cassette tape recording a panel at the 1986 WisCon over in Madison. The topic was Tolkien's Posthumously Published Work, which we seem to have divided into scholarly works (translations and editions of medieval texts), children's works (Mr. Bliss, Fr. Xmas), and items belonging to the legendarium (The Silmarillion and all that).

While the topic is of perennial interest, more interesting to me in this particular case are the participants: Jared Lobdell, Verlyn Flieger, Richard West, and me.

Haven't had a chance yet to do more than make sure the tape's not mislabeled and that it's still playable (happy to say the answer is good on both counts).  Once I've had a chance to listen to it all the way through a time or two I shd be making another post commenting on this relique of a nearly vanished past: the years from about 1982 through 1989 when Tolkien scholars gathered from all over the area to spend a weekend in camaraderie in conjunction with that year's WisCon. Good times and, on the whole, fondly remembered.

--John R.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Good Omens petition

So, I came late to the GOOD OMENS Petition story, but wanted to contribute my bit.

When twenty thousand people signed a petition demanding that Netflix take down the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman six-part series GOOD OMENS, they overlooked the fact that it's not on Netflix: it's on Amazon.

It's like demanding Coke cancel a flavor of Pepsi.

Here's a quick overview

and a more detailed piece

Checking out their website, we find the group involved, Return to Order, is miffed that after months of posting various petitions trying to get attention for their extremist agenda* they've finally succeeded, only to make a humiliating blunder in a very public way.

Here's the group's website

and their spokesman's comment on the current fiasco

That so many of their followers signed the thing suggests the people who sign their petitions do so blindly, without either reading or thinking about what they're supporting. That a revised petition (redirected against Amazon) got just about the same number of signatures makes me think that number is v. close to their website's total audience.

What's more disturbing is that the website's purpose seems to be to drum up sales for a book (also called RETURN TO ORDER). It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the folks who generate and circulate this stuff are among those in the reprehensible business of making money off of God. Particularly repellent among the earlier posts on their website is a post that crows over the failure of a plan to feed the poor because it was "socialistic".

I admit I have my own reservations about GOOD OMENS. The book is one of my least favorite works by either author, both of whom are among my favorite writers for others of their works.**
And the many, many years it spent in development (nearly thirty) did not bode well. The (mini)series itself had some shortcomings: the scenes with the kids were the low point of the show, closely followed by those with the modern-day witch and also the crusty old witchfinder. I could sum up my reservations by saying that for me this was a six-part series that wd have been improved by being trimmed to five parts.

That said, the two leads were superb. This is the best I've ever seen David Tennant (as Hell's agent Crowley, the serpent from The Garden), and Michael Sheen is even better as his angelic counterpart,  Aziraphale. And the storytelling was great, especially when it focused on the two main characters. They even managed to get in the music by Queen --a toss off running joke in the original book, here elevated into a recurring theme.  The use of humor to critique some of Xianity's more problematic teachings --the very thing the 'Return to Order' lot denounced-- is the work's greatest strength; it reminds me, and in a good way, of Twain's Papers of the Adam Family, CAPTAIN STORMFIELD'S VISIT TO HEAVEN, and his (posthumously published) LETTERS FROM THE EARTH, all three of which can be found in the collection THE BIBLE ACCORDING TO MARK TWAIN (ed. Baetzhold & McCullough, 1995).

The series: Recommended.
The petition: not so much.

--John R.
--now back in Kent.

*they seem to view the greatest threat to Xianity and the world today to be not hunger or hatred or violence but novelty-item Jesus toilet seats.

**I'd go so far as to say I think Gaiman the best living author of fantasy, while I've read all but a handful of Pratchett's many books.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

What is this?

So, on the light by the front door of the place I'm staying there's a most unusual structure. You can see it dangling from the bottom right corner, shaped somewhat like a tiny hot-air balloon with the opening at the bottom.

It's clearly a nest of some kind, but what kind of creature made it? It's too small for a bat or even the smallest bird.

My first thought was that it might be a dirt-dobber, though an unusual one. But cautiously touching it reveals its not made of clay dobbing, as I thought, but grey paper, which makes me think it's some kind of solitary wasp. At any rate it's not doing anyone any harm.

Thanks to Janice K. for the photo.

--John R.

Friday, June 28, 2019

C. S. Lewis and the Munich Crisis

So, I've been reading through Stephanie Derrick's new book, THE FAME OF C. S. LEWIS: A CONTROVERSIALIST'S RECEPTION IN BRITAIN AND AMERICA (2018), which draws a strong distinction between Lewis's reputation in the US, where he's mainly thought of as a children's author and an Xian author, vs the UK, where he's primarily considered an academic and 'controversialist' (in the mode of Chesterton, Belloc, and Orwell).

There's much food for thought in what I've read so far (about a quarter of the whole), but one passage in particular stands out. At the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, a fellow Magdalen don, Bruce McFarlane, noted the unusual unanimous feeling among all the Magdalen dons in opposing the pact:

The unanimity of dons is quite unprecedented. Even the President is sound. There's only one Chamberlain supporter in Magdalen—Lewis who is so otherworldly that he thinks the Munich settlement a victory for self-determination. I suggested the same treatment for Ulster & he was quite shocked.
[Derrick p. 55; emphasis mine]

I'm not really sure what to make of this -- whether Lewis was one among the many who thought the prime minister had just achieved Peace in Our Time, or this shd be marked down as an example of just how clueless and ill-informed Lewis was on current events,* or that he here, as so often, was just being a contrarian.


*His brother records having once had a conversation with CSL about the Balkans in which CSL's odd remarks puzzled Warnie mightily, until he realized that CSL thought Tito was the King of Greece.

On the other hand, Lewis came out strongly about Franco's claim that God was on his side in a nasty civil war, so he was capable of reading a complex political situation clearly

I See Lightning Bugs

Or Fireflies, depending on where you hail from.

Last night, coming back to the place we're staying here in Rockford just after twilight, we were lucky that the lightning bugs were just coming out. It was pretty much perfect viewing conditions: warm night, gathering dark, and a total lack of mosquitos.

--John R.
current reading: The Fame of C. S. Lewis

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Weird Tolkien (IV). Morgoth Rapes the Sun

So, there are many stories about the Sun-Maiden (usually called Arien or Urwendi) in Tolkien's legendarium, most of which cohere together pretty well, the most familiar of these being that found in THE SILMARILLION. But from very far back in the legendarium come hints that the sun is in some way diminished or damaged (I'm thinking in particular of the BLT's prophesized Rekindling of the Magic Sun), a point Tolkien stresses in his LETTER TO WALDMAN.*

What strikes me as extraordinary in the Myths Transformed section of MORGOTH'S RING (HME.X.380-381 & 131-132) is that how straightforwardly Tolkien presents Morgoth's rape of Arie, the Maia who ruled the sun, who we are told is "the most ardent and beautiful of all the spirits that had entered into Ea with [Varda]".  Tolkien is usually reticent about such matters, but not here:

. . . afire at once with desire and anger, [Melkor] went to Asa
[The Sun] and he spoke to Arie, saying: 'I have chosen thee,
 and thou shalt be my spouse, even as Varda is to Manwe,
 and together we shall wield all splendour and majesty. Then
 the kingship of Arda shall be mine in deed as in right,
 and thou shalt be the partner of my glory.'

But Arie rejected Melkor and rebuked him, saying:
 'Speak not of right, which thou hast long forgotten.
 Neither for thee nor by thee alone was Ea made; and
  thou shalt not be King of Arda. Beware therefore;
 for there is in the heart of [Asa] a light in which
thou hast no part, and a fire which will not serve thee.
 Put not out thy hand to it. For though thy potency
may destroy it, it will burn thee and thy brightness
 will be made dark.'

Melkor did not heed her warning, but cried in his wrath:
  'The gift which was withheld I take!' and he ravished Arie,
 desiring both to abase her and to take into himself her powers.
 Then the spirit of Arie went up like a flame of anguish and wrath,
 and departed for ever from Arda; and the Sun was bereft
 of the Light of  Varda, and was stained by the assault of Melkor.
And [the Sun] being for a long while without rule . . . grievous
 hurt was done to Arda . . .  until with long toil the Valar made
 a new order. But even as Arie foretold, Melkor was burned
 and his brightness darkened, and he gave no more light,
 but light pained him exceedingly
 and he hated it.

Nonetheless Melkor would not leave Arda in peace . . .

I think this is unique in Tolkien, the only rape scene in the legendarium, and I'm surprised more has not been written about it. For a start, it says worlds that it's only the most evil being in the whole subcreation we are told commits such a deed. And we are told that it was Melkor's intent to "abase" her.

This scene is also remarkable in that it could be read as the only account on record of deliberate murder by one Vala/Maia of another, Arie being so traumatized that she discorporates and leaves Arda for ever.

There is certainly bride-by-capture, evidenced sinisterly in "Shadow Bride" and light-heartedly in Bombadil's seizing Goldberry, with Eol & Aredhel somewhere in-between (we are told that Aredhel was 'not wholly unwilling').  The most famous such episode, appearing in one of the Great Tales (and thus in a key component part of the legendarium) and prominent within that tale through many iterations, is of course Morgoth's decision to force himself upon Luthien when he sees her dancing in his hall, an act alluded to but not explicitly stated.  Luthien saves herself through her spell of sleep. But none of these have the directness and brutality of the Melkor/Sun-Maiden scene.

*[Tolkien's Note:] A marked difference here between these legends and most others is that the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the 'light of the Sun' (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision.

--John R
--current reading: Raymond Edwards (plugging along), Stephanie Derrick (well into the second section now)

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Weird Tolkien (III). Melkor Makes the Moon

So, wanting to refresh my memory of Tolkien's account of the Making of the Sun and Moon for my Flat-Earth paper at Kalamazoo, I went to the pre-eminent Tolkien astronomer, Kristine Larsen, who pointed me to her paper in the 2005 Aston conference proceedings, where she had addressed these very issues.*

I was familiar with the BOOK OF LOST TALES/SILMARILLION story about the Moon being made out of the last fruit or flower of The White Tree of Valinor but had not made any study of the variant legends, and so had missed the odd story told in Text C* of the AINULINDALE (HME.X) in which it is actually Melkor and not the Valar who makes the moon.

Melkor . . . gathered himself together and summoned all his might and his hatred, and he said: 'I will rend the Earth asunder, and break it, and none shall possess it.'

But this Melkor could not do, for the Earth may not be wholly destroyed against its fate; nevertheless Melkor took a portion of it, and seized it for his own, and reft it away; and he made of it a little earth of his own, and it wheeled round about in the sky, following the greater earth wheresoever it went, so that Melkor could observe thence all that happened below, and could send forth his malice and trouble the seas and shake the lands . . . [T]he Valar assaulted the stronghold of Melkor, and cast him out, and removed it further from the Earth, and it remains in the sky, Ithil whom Men call the Moon. There is both blinding heat and cold intolerable, as might be looked for in any work of Melkor, but at least it is clean, yet utterly barren; and nought liveth there, nor ever shall . . . 

Among the many depictions of the Moon Tolkien made, going all the way back to his 1914 Earendel poem, I think this might be the strangest. But perhaps that's only because it's so much at odds with the familiar Lamps > Trees > Sun-ship and Moon-ship stories. Perhaps if this version had appeared, with variation, since the BLT in various iterations of the myth it too wd seem the established moon-myth in Tolkien's cosmogony.  Certainly there are many moments in his Plot Notes to LotR when Tolkien comes up with what seems to us now just wrong which only feel that way because he did, decisively, decide to go a different way instead.

--John R.
--currently at Rockford
--current reading: Derrick.
--visited a Barnes & Nobel today, my first time in a bookstore this week (last week's being a downtown Williamstown bkstr and the gift show of an art museum).

*Kristine Larsen: "A Little Earth of His Own: Tolkien's Lunar Creation Myths", The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 Conference