Thursday, October 22, 2020

Next Year's Kalamazoo

 So, it's now official: next year's Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University will be an online-only event. I still plan to attend, albeit now remotely, and am still scheduled to give my paper "Valinor in America: Faerian Drama and the Disenchantment of Middle-earth" -- currently on the back burner while I focus on another project, but I plan to resume where I left off with the coming of the new year.

I'll miss the Tolk folk I get to see at Kalamazoo and catch up on what they're working on; another of the many disruptions caused by the pandemic. Here's hoping for better luck in 2022.

--John R.

P.S.: I forgot to add that the Leeds Medieval Congress, scheduled two months after the Michigan event,  July vs. May, has also been cancelled.

--John R.

--current reading: David Lindsay's unfinished final novel THE WITCH

--current music: Tom Petty


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TIME's Best 100 Fantasy poll

 So,  this recent discussion of lists of all-time-best fantasy books turns out to be, in a word, timely.

Thanks to Andrew H. for letting me know about TIME magazine's new special issue celebrating the books that get their nod as the 100 best fantasy. I haven't let seen the actual physical issue (assuming there is a paper copy), but the online list can be found here:

For their methodology of deciding which books to include, see

Rather than rating the books, they simply had their panel of experts put them in chronological order.

Said experts include prominant figures such as Neil Gaiman and R. R. Martin, along with a few whose names I know but have read little of their work (e.g. Jemisin) and some I've never even heard of.

As for the books, I've read most of the earlier ones, but past the mid-point of the list it's like I fell off a cliff. Or to put it another way: I've read most of these books up to the mid 1990s, after which my reading becomes more sporadic. Clearly it's classic fantasy, not the contemporary works, that most appeal to me.

But while there's a lot they list that I haven't read, I'm more concerned about a great deal of what I've read that they fail to list, including books and authors I consider the best of the best, like Dunsany. It's that lack that diminishes this list in my eyes.

--John R.

--reading: THE LAST TSAR (resumed)




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dimitra's List

 So, here's the list compiled from the poll run by Dimitra Fimi, listing folk's favorite fantasy author. On the entirely reasonable grounds that including Tolkien wd dramatically skew the results (as it has in so many past polls of this sort, such as the 1987 LOCUS poll and its later follow-up) he was omitted from the poll. Nevertheless it's striking how this 2020 poll reproduced the basic pattern of Tolkien in a league of his own, Le Guin clearly the most popular non-Tolkien choice, followed by a definite gap before the number three position (in this case Pratchett, the first person knighted for writing fantasy.

My thanks to Dimitra for letting me re-post her findings:

Dimitra's List


171      Le Guin

111      Pratchett


53        CSL

50        Gaiman

45        Hobb

45        Wynne Jones


31        Pullman

28        R. R. Martin

26        Rowling

23        Sanderson


20        Cooper

18        Garner

17        Kay

17        Peake

16        Dunsany

15        Jemisin

15        Jordan

15        McKillip

14        S. Clarke

14        Moorcock


remainder of the top thirty-three: Feist (12), L'Engle (11), Wolfe (10), Eddings (8), Ende (8), Howard (8), Leiber (8), McCaffrey (8), Novik (8), Rothfuss (8), White (8), Gemmell (8), Pierce (8). 


 As for me, I've read all but five of the authors listed, but only four of those named were among the eighteen writers I devoted chapters to in my 'Classics of Fantasy' column --though I wd have included more had the series run longer.

--John R.

--current reading: Woodward's RAGE, Lindsay's DEVIL'S TOR

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Cat Report (Fr. 10/16-20)


We’re off to a great start with the newly reopened Adoption Room, with four out of seven cats finding new homes in the first week: charismatic TOM TOM, bonded pair JULIETTE and ROMEO, and sweet LUCY Grey. That just leaves three cats: ever-affectionate ELLIE (white calico) and the bonded pair of half-grown kittens CLEO (black and white) and MIGHTY MO (brown tabby).

I let everyone out right away. Ellie made herself right at home, dividing her time between the two rooms. The kittens were soon out and exploring (they love the cat-tree). What a difference a week makes. Cleo let me pet her, as long as I didn’t overdo it. Mighty Mo is shy but allowed a little respectfull petting by the end of the shift.

Ellie largely kept to herself so far as the kittens went, but asked for a good deal of attention, alternating between being petted and playing games.  I ran a damp paper towel along her back and sides to take care of any loose fur, which she seems to like, grooming my hands in return (she loves to lick you). She even groomed the laser pointer. Her favorite way of playing with it is to have that little red dot sneak right up next to her, whereupon she does a kind of little hop and lands on it.

The highpoint of Ellie’s activity was her walk (about half an hour). She went along the fish tanks and past the crickets, till she chose a spot with a good view of the front door and sat down the watch the comings and goings. I got the sense she was casing the joint and encouraged her to explore elsewhere. She also wanted to go into the warehouse, which again I discouraged. I think she’s making a mental map of the store and is wondering what’s behind the closed doors.

The kittens are a load of fun, as only kittens can be. They’ve worked out how close they can get to Ellie without provoking a reaction  telling them to back off. They enjoyed the string game, the feather-duster, the laser pointer, the mouse-under-the-cover game, the bite-able toy on the end of a stick, the chopstick, and the peacock feather. Especially the peacock feather, which Mighty Mo decapitated in ten minutes. Mo revealed his inner predator. While Cleo loves to play with toys, Mo carries them off to over beneath the cat stand, where he gnaws on them. 

Rather to my surprise, Cleo loves to be petted, once she gets to know you —she even accepted some tummy rubs, purring all the while. She’s a bit curious about Outside, so keeping her in while bringing Ellie back in from her walk was tricky. I thought it’s a bit soon to try to walk the kittens, thinking it’d be better to wait till they knew (and trusted) me better. Mo is interested in the leash, but in smelling it, not wearing it; Cleo just thinks it’s another toy.

There were a lot of people who swung by to look at the cats, so I think word will quickly spread about adoptable cats once again being available.

—John R.

P.S.: That’s a picture of Ellie, taken by Janice through the glass. I had altogether  forgotten that Ellie had been in our cat-room before, back in December of last year. No wonder she’s familiar with the layout of the store: she must be remembering from before. I even found some old note saying that she was a good walker. Sorry her previous adoption didn’t work out: hope things turn out better for her this time.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

 So, today the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic announced their next event: a centenary celebration of the publication of David Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. One of those works more acknowledged as seminal that actually read, Lindsay's strange masterpiece* looks to finally be getting the attention it deserves. The three speakers are Doug Anderson, whose name shd be familiar to anyone interested in Tolkien and in fantasy; Nina Allan, a novelist whose work I'm not familiar with; and Robert Davis, who it sounds like will be making connections between ARCTURUS and Philip Pullman's work.

The event takes place via Zoom on Thursday November 19th at ten o'clock to eleven-thirty my time (6pm to 7.30pm Glasgow time). It's one of those register-for-a-free-ticket events; I've already signed up. After all, as one of the relatively few people who has read all seven of Lindsay's novel (even the conclusion of his last one, THE WITCH), this is an opportunity I wdn't want to miss.

Here's a link to the announcement:

--John R.

--current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (1932)

My Newest Publication (Review of TOLKIEN'S CHAUCER)

So, two things of note arrived together in the mail yesterday that, while both interesting an important, cd not be more different:  the newest issue of TOLKIEN STUDIES (Volume XVII) and our Voter's Pamphlet.

The TOLKIEN STUDIES, along with much else of interest, includes my latest publication: a review of John M. Bowers' TOLKIEN'S LOST CHAUCER. Also in this volume was a detailed review of A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS, the Flieger festschrift I edited. As usual the volume contains a lot I'm looking forward to looking at more closely. For now the stand out piece is the lead article: a memorial to Christopher Tolkien by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. And with my long-standing interest in THE LOST ROAD & NOTION CLUB PAPERS I must say Hamish Williams' piece on Numenor and Minoans, Phoenicians, and Atlantians draws the eye.

And then there are the other pieces, the reviews, the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies -- in short, as usual it looks to be full of good things.

--John R. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Top Three Writers (sans Tolkien)

So,  recently I found out about an interesting poll conducted by Dimitra Fimi back in the spring asking people to name their three favorite fantasy writers aside from Tolkien. Here's her blogpost writing up the results:

Also of note is David Bratman's post commenting on this and giving his own favorites and the reasons behind his choices:*

I'm curious what others think and so would like to ask the question again, in a slightly different way: 

Who are your three favorite fantasy authors (excluding Tolkien)? 

Or, if it's easier to choose, what are your three favorite fantasy books (again excluding Tolkien)? 

--John R.

*this is actually where I learned about Dimitra's original post, which I had missed at the time.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Return of The Cat Report

So, yesterday the cat-room at the Renton PetsMart opened again, after months of being shut down due to the Corona virus. And today was my first day back, socializing and walking cats. Here's the report I sent out to my fellow volunteers (these help us track cat behavior over days and weeks).

It felt strange, but in a good way, to be back in the cat room today, after so many months away (was it March that things were shut down?).

We had a full house: seven cats in five cages: TOM TOM, bonded pair ROMEO & JULIETTE, LULU Grey, Calico ELLIE, and the half-grown kittens bonded pair MIGHTY MO & CLEO.

Tom Tom came out at once, eager for attention. A v. friendly and affectionate fellow, mostly white with orange. He has a noticible limp in one of his front legs but doesn’t seem to be in pain. I’d guess this is an old injury that he learned to get around by not putting much weight on that leg, which meant he continued to limp even after it was healed. He went out for a good walk and picked up the rules right away. He’s friendly and affectionate and trusting to boot, going right up to people. He loves being petted, enjoys a good game, and is tolerant of the other cats. Basically just a great cat who loves people. I'm not all surprised to learn that he already has a potential adopter; hope all goes smoothly for him tomorrow.

The bonded pair Romeo & Juliette, greyish tabbyish, at eleven are our oldest cats. She’s shy and stayed in all shift but was pleased to get some in-cage attention (petting). And she likes catnip spray. Her brother came out and like TomTom stayed out all shift. Romeo loves games and being petted and is also tolerant of other cats. He went out for a walk and did well as well. Watching him out on his walk I realized that he was once a much heavier cat: from behind you can see his loose tummy-fur sway from side to side as he walks.  

Ellie is a white calico, young (two years old) and energetic. She likes to sit on the cardboard scratching box, loves being petted, and enjoys games. She prefers that the other cats keep their distance. She had a short walk and did pretty well. Ellie groomed me repeatedly, esp. the hands, which apparently were not up to her standard. 

Lady Lulu Grey is also young (two) with beautiful long grey fur. I gave her a wet paper towel bath which she showed every sign of enjoying. She’s no fan of other cats but had a good deal of contact with them, since when she came out of her cage she visited all the other cages . She had a short walk, through which she had to put up with a lot of dog noise from over near Banfield.

I was expecting the kittens Mighty Mo and Cleo (brown tabby and black-and-white, respectfully) to be out and about and into everything, but they stayed in their cube all shift. When I reached in to pet them they froze up and retreated to the other half of their residence as soon as they cd. Not until towards the end of my shift did they begin to melt. What won them over was the feather duster, which they recognized as legitimate prey and dragged from spot to spot. At the very end Cleo let me pet her and they (both I think) purred. Think they’ll be much more approachable once they get over the unease of being in an unfamiliar place.

So it was three cats in and four cats out — not too bad for having been in the Renton cat room such a short time.

Lots of people passing by stopped to admire the cats. A few had questions about the cat adoption procedure so I gave them the flyer and encouraged them to go to get more information at the website.

And that’s about it for this first time back.

—John R.

P.S.: Today marks the longest I've worn a mask since the whole mask-up and socially-distant thing went into effect.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

'Not India'

So, thanks to Denis B. and Jessica Y  I was able to read a little article ("Tolkien at the Crossroads") by Bodleian Tolkien Archivist Catherine McIlwaine that had appeared in the February 2020 issue of LITERARY REVIEW (p. 64).

In it McIlwaine reports her discovery of a single index card that throws light on JRRT's decisions during the period when he was being demobilized from his military service and looking around for a postWar job. Visiting Oxford in December 1918 he stopped by the Oxford University careers service to fill out "copious forms"; the index card represents the career service's summary of the results. 

The interviewer noted that he [Tolkien] would take anything 

either at home or abroad (but 'not India') and that 

although his preference was for a lectureship

at Oxford, he would consider teaching at

a public school or working for the government

or the civil service. 

The job service's conclusion shows that they must have been pretty good at their jobs:

Despite Tolkien's willingness to consider any job on offer in 1918,

his academic achievements marked him out as a prime candidate

for a university position. The careers services advised him to remain in

Oxford and use his personal contacts to find an academic appointment. 

Doing just that, he soon secured a job as a lexicographer at the New

English Dictionary . . . but continued to pursue an academic career

by working part-time as a tutor for non-collegiate students at the 

university. He was appointed reader in English language at the 

University of Leeds less than two years later.

This relic of Tolkien's post-war job hunt* is, as McIlwaine points out, of interest because it shows a point at which Tolkien's plans were all in flux and that a career path that seems to us inevitable was by no means determined. Things cd have gone quite differently.**

The most interesting detail to me is the passing reference to "not India") --cryptic because it lacks context what might explain the why behind this note. We do know that at one point a few years later Tolkien seriously considered taking up a post in South Africa.

It's also interesting that the interviewer described Tolkien as "tall slim fair with good manners . . . capable & energetic" -- which again shows a different side of him than the weary grieved soldier of other accounts.

--John R.

--current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (resumed), Murderbot novel (re-read)

*Dunsany's play MR. FAITHFUL casts a comic light on the dilemma of so many surviving officers trying to find any job in the postWar era: his hero takes the job of a human watchdog.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Tonight We Ate Agamemnon

So, that noble potato we harvested at Trout Lake has now met his destiny: soup. 

I reburied two miniature potatoes found among the roots, just to help along the new generation next year.

Also: it turns out that tea brewed and sealed in a carafe is still drinkable nine days later, if somewhat past its prime.  Good to know.

--John R.

current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (the Knossos chapter), NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries)

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Lost Lewis Tapes

So, thanks to a posting by Wendell W. on the Mythsoc list, I've just learned of a long-lost C. S. Lewis audio recording made by Wm Gresham in 1960. 

There are three recordings on this tape: 

1. The chapter from PERELANDRA wherein Ransom arrives on Venus (Chapter III)

2. The scene in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH in which Merlin meets Ransom (Chapter XIII)

3. The General Prologue to THE CANTERBURY TALES

I've only just listened to these all the way through and was pleased to find that they are good-quality recordings. Lewis's accent is also much less here than in other audios I've heard.

This tape adds to our small body of surviving recordings of Lewis. Highly recommended for anyone interested in such things.

Here's the link, along with information on how to order it: 

and here's more information about the tape's history, from David C. Downing:

--John R.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Trout Lake, con't


The rest of Thursday passed quietly. 


Come Friday morning it was time for another walk with Big Dogs, this time alongside the echinacea fields. The most interesting thing I saw was a quail in a tree. I know quail aren't usually found up trees, but the Big Dogs who were with us made it a strategic decision. Luckily the dogs ignored our other bit of fauna: a small brown frog -- larger than the earlier little green frog but still small, and more hoppy.


Among the day's little discoveries were that cows like pears. We also picked plums. Lots of plums. Maybe a hundred, maybe more. We started with windfalls, partly because the ladder kept having one leg or another sink into the ground, until Janice said she'd had enough of the earth wanting to swallow her this trip, and we got out a steadier ladder.


We didn't give any plums to the cows, not knowing whether their insides cd handle the pits (it seemed unlikely). Plus it just seemed like a really bad idea. 


Later we harvested potatoes from one of the three vegetable gardens. Bijee was v. pleased with how this year's potatoes had done, and it's no surprise: from three plants we dug up twenty-seven potatoes, one as big as my hand. Bijee had named the previous giant potato 'Hector' and wanted me to name this newcomer. I picked 'Agamemnon'. 


That evening Janice and I bought matching new hats made by Bijee's neighbor, who brought them over to show her felting technique. Later still other guests arrived, bringing with them two non-Big Dogs: one v. old (13 years I think they said; it might have been 17) and one very young (8 weeks). We wrapped things up with another long walk.


Saturday morning's wildlife was a granddaddy longlegs, who I found inside the house and escorted outside. Then it was time to head home, the only incident along the way being a faux-convoy heading up I-5, made up to look like a presidential motorcade. I suspect these were Proud Boys or some similar group heading out for some organized thuggery.  Disquieting. 


Safely home, we were greeted by small cats, who expressed approval at our return (and to renewed access the Box Room, one of their favorite places. Tomorrow will definitely be a cat-walking day.


--John R. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

I'm at Trout Lake

 So, it's been a long time (last October) since we've been away from home for more than a few hours at a time.* Having sheltered in place for a whole year now, we felt it was time to take a trip. Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of our friend Marjorie Burns (Bijee) we got to do just that, at a suitably sequestered site.


Tuesday we drove down to the Strange High House at Trout Lake on the north side of the Columbia River gorge, right at the feet of Mount Adams, one of our favorite places. That first night we discussed Ruskin and (of course) Tolkien.


Wednesday we went for walks, three in all. The first was accompanied by Big Dogs, and among the things we saw were a deer (v. wary of the dogs) and a field of dandelions -- the first time I've ever seen my favorite wildflower grown commercially, as an herbal product. The second walk was to the end of the road and back, getting a good view of the Little White Salmon river from above; the most striking wildlife was a hawk which we heard and then saw. The late afternoon was taken up with cider-making, pressing apples and pears from the trees in Bijee's yard.** It was a lot of work but the fresh just-made cider was amazing. 


Wanting to wash the apple/pear juice off my hands, we took our third walk down the side of the little gorge behind the house to dip them in the White Salmon itself. Except the rocks were slippery. And I found myself in, not by, the little river. The water was v. cold and my clothes got wet, but I on the plus side I did get clean. 


Thursday we went with Big Dogs to The Shallows, what used to be Trout Lake but is more now like wetlands with cold clear creeks flowing through it. We saw signs that elk frequented the place, but our wildlife high point for this outing was to first hear and then late see a v. small elegant little green frog. We had some unwelcome excitement when Janice found herself sinking in the sandy bottom on the river/creek. She quickly sank to within three inches of her knees, but luckily she kept her calm and Bijee and I was able to offer her an arm to brace herself with on either side and she soon had herself out and safe again. Then it was back to the House for some down time and a load of sandy wet laundry.


Thursday afternoon the discussion was of Morris and Tolkien, while the walk was along the rim of the White Salmon's little gorge (perhaps fifty feet or so deep?--I'm a bad judge of distances), after which we once again clambered down to the river level. Just before setting out we'd fed some past-their-prime apples to the two cows who live beside the house, so I had cow-slobber on my hands (note: cows like apples. just like horses, I suppose). Cows, while interesting, do not exactly count as 'wildlife', but we did see a v. fast, v. agile little black bird flying down the river, stopping briefly here and there, and then off down the river.


Then it's back inside as the evening comes on.


--John R.


*I suspect our current set of cats have a different set of expectations than their predecessors re. our being away. We'll find out by the reception they give us when we return home: effusive or standoffish.


** It reminded me of a time when we were living at Monticello (i.e., sometime when I was between two and six years old) and we spent a day picking tomatoes at the farm of my father's friend, who I think was called Bo Pace (it may have been Bo Paste or Beau Pace-- it was a long time ago). Most of the overripe tomatoes were squeezed for juice, which seemed to me a terrible waste.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A D&D Park

 So, thanks to Janice S. for the following link about a father who built a neighborhood park in memory of his son, an avid D&D player, complete with dragon and castle.

Thinking back on the efforts over the last decade or so to create a Gygax memorial park or statue in Lake Geneva, to no avail, I suspect the one was the result of single-minded determination and the other several different groups and individuals pulling in different directions.

In any case, if I'm ever in Carbondale, which I have to admit is unlikely, I'd certainly want to swing by for a look.

--John R.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The New Calendar

 So, on Saturday I saw that the new Tolkien calendar was out, and available through Amazon. I'd realized the last time I was in Barnes & Noble (before the bad-air sequester) that their entire calendar section seems to have gone away, so I had no qualms about not 'shopping local'.* And trying to order through Amazon UK last year had been an unmitigated disaster.

And yesterday it arrived, just the third day since I ordered it. Now that's service.

As for the calendar itself, this looks to be one of the good ones. It features the work of three artists, all of whom have a long track record, dedicated fans, and a reputation for fidelity: John Howe, Alan Lee, and Ted Nasmith.** The general theme of the calendar is a celebration of UNFINISHED TALES --is it really forty years ago that this came out? It's always been a favorite of mine, and when I got the chance to have Christopher sign one of his books, this was the one I got signed.

The cover, by Nasmith, is my favorite of all the pieces in this calendar: the two Blue Wizards striding purposefully across the scene on their way east to make trouble.*** Other standout pieces include August ("A Chance Meeting"), a quintessential Alan Lee work, and October ("The Hunt for the Ring"), a brooding Howe piece divided between starkly contrasting halves, sinister Black Rider on the left and peaceful hobbitlands on the right. 

The whole is wrapped up by what might be called liner notes by Brian Sibley about UNFINISHED TALES, including a brief recollection how he was able to put some of UT's revelations to good use with his script for the BBC radio adaption of LotR, then in the works.

Have to admit that I found it slightly odd that special events called out on calendar pages were both those found on most calendars (e.g. Martin Luther King's birthday) and Tolkien-specific (Tolkien's birthday). The latter are mostly limited to the original publication dates of various of Tolkien's works (e.g his BEOWULF translation). If they were going to include the latter I wish they'd have availed themselves of Wayne & Christina's excellent CHRONOLOGY and done more of it. But this is a v. minor quibble: the art is what matters, and they've done a good job with it.

--John R.

*besides which Amazon is about as local as you can get where we are

**we have two original Tolkien pieces by Nasmith hanging in our living room downstairs, so obviously we're admirers of his work

***that is, if you go by the latest version of their legend found in HME.XII.385

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Bilbo's Birthday

So, I was pleased and surprised when Janice shared with me this Tolkien-themed item posted earlier today, a new piece of art by friend Stan! celebrating Hobbit Day. 

I'm the one in the hat.

--John R.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Centre for Fantasy

So the best news I heard this past week was the announcement of the establishment of The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, a center for fantasy studies at the University of Glasgow, which offers a MLitt in fantasy. 

Here's a great short piece by Dimitra Fimi giving an overview of the Centre's goals and planned activities:

They launched the new programme with a 'webinare' event: a lecture by Ellen Kushner and panel discussion by Terry Windling, Brian Attebery, and Rbt Maslen:

A general overview of the Centre's planned activities --"the world's first research centre focusing purely on the fantasy genre . . . everything from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons and Game of Thrones"--can be found here:

I was particularly interested in the requirements for the degree, as detailed under "Programme Structure" in the following link:,programmestructure

Looking at this, I'm immediately curious over the break-point between their two survey courses, Fantasy from 1780 to 1950 (Part I) and Fantasy from 1950 to Present (Part II). If I were to get the chance to take such a course the third topic I'd probably have gone for wd be either "Children's Fantasy Literature" (the distinction between fantasy for younger readers and for adults being a permeable one) and "Early Modern Mythmaking".

It's also exciting to know that dissertations are currently in the works on Terry Pratchett (the first person knighted for writing fantasy), stage-plays based on fantasy novels (which I assume will cover things like the popular adaptation of Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS and perhaps the LotR musical) and Tolkien as seen by younger readers.

I have to confess found myself wistful, thinking about what might have been had there been an option like this one back in 1981 when I was wrapping up at Fayetteville and looking around for someplace where I cd work on a doctorate while continuing my Tolkien studies. As it turned out, it was like pursuing two courses of research at the same time -- which is probably one reason it took me so long.

For all of those of us who were discouraged (to put it mildly) from researching Tolkien, and for those like Verlyn Flieger and Douglass Parker who found a way to teach such courses despite lack of departmental support (and sometimes downright disapproval), this is a great day.

--John R.

--current reading: THE LAST TSAR, the new Woodward book, a light novel

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Yellow Sky

Waking up this morning I saw that the sky was yellow-grey, and thought today's theme song wd be Sting's "Wild Wild Sea/The Soul Cages" with its lines "pale yellow sky" and "the sky was the color of clay." Except that it's more like the color of hay, like walking around inside an old sepia photograph.

All this is of course the result of smoke --not just from the fires down in California and Oregon and eastern Washington but closer to home, in neighboring towns on the outskirts of the Seattle area such as Sumner and Bonnie Lake (about fourteen and twenty miles from here, respectively).

It's alarming to have to stay in because the air quality's so bad but things cd be much much worse. 

The cats, for their part, know something is up and are staying close to us, keeping an eye on what we're doing, when not prowling about.

--John R.

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Warning to the source study-ist

 So, I've been reading David Lindsay's DEVIL'S TOR (1932), the last book he published in his lifetime. I'd read it before during my grad school days at Marquette --say 1984 or thereabouts-- but found I've more or less completely forgotten its contents. So I was bemused by the following passage from Chapter VII:

   The torch in hitting the ground had escaped from his hand, so, staying down, he began to grope for it, but could not immediately find it. Then, as he proceeded to crawl here and there with lightly feeling fingers, they encountered something else small and hard on the rock floor, which was not the torch. Doubtless it was some tomb treasure that he had overlooked—it surely felt like a precious stone or talisman, half-round, half-flat. Out of the question it was to examine it there and then, so he slipped the thing into his coat pocket. A moment later the torch met his fingers. 

Taken out of context, it'd be tempting to make the argument that this scene had some influence on the famous scene in THE HOBBIT (Chapter V) where Bilbo finds himself alone in the dark far below the surface. And we do know that Tolkien read Lindsay (albeit a different book, 1920's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS).

Except that it all breaks down as soon as we look at the context: we know from the dating that the two books were being written concurrently and it’s impossible for either to have been influenced by the other. It's good to be reminded that sometimes similar circumstances produce similar scenes --cf. Edgar Poe's "The Pit & the Pendulum" anyone?

—John R.
--current reading: DEVIL'S TOR and the latest 'Royal Spyness' mystery, along with some other long-read on-again/off-again works.
current music: McGear (1974)

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Tolkien's influence on D&D art

So, here's something I noticed years ago but haven't ever seen commented on, so I thought I'd share.

Setting aside the many borrowings from THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS in D&D, there's also evidence that Tolkien's short work FARMER GILES OF HAM (1949) influenced D&D. 

In a way this shd not be surprising -- in fact, I cd make a case that in plot FGH is more like a D&D adventure than either of Tolkien's major works available at the time. I think the borrowing has gone unnoticed because it's art, not text.

Here's a picture by Pauline Baynes of Tolkien's reluctant hero chasing a dragon (FGH page 44).

And here's a strangely familiar illo from CHAINMAIL (3rd edition, page 37), the work that preceded the first edition of D&D; the core that D&D grew out of.

Comparison between the two shows that the figure of the dragon in each are so similar that the later one might well be tracing.

But it doesn't end there. Take a look at the cover of CHIVALRY & SORCERY (1977), one of the first-generation D&D derivatives (along with TUNNELS & TROLLS, RUNEQUEST, ROLEMASTER, &c).*

Granted here we have similarity rather than direct copying, but I think the resemblance is striking. And partly due I suspect to the C&S artist basing his work on the CHAINMAIL art, not having seen the Tolkienian original.

--John R.
--current reading: THE LAST TSAR 1992

*Of these, CHIVALRY & SORCERY was notable for its appeal to those who wanted their fantasy roleplaying as realistic as possible. It's no surprise its title page bears a dedication to the Society of Creative Anachronism.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

TSR Faces, 1994

So, I was amused and bemused to come across this old module whose cover was a tribute by the artist (Paul Jaquays) to fellow TSR staff circa 1994. Amused, because seeing these reminds me of people I enjoyed working with; bemused because after the lapse of twenty-six years there are some faces I don't recognize. So here are the ones I do, hoping that someone else out there will identify the ones I don't:

Front left: unidentified.
Front central: Sue Weinlein.
Front right: Dave Wise

center left: Jeff Grubb (with fez).
center, with basket: unidentified
center right, in doorway: Skip Williams

back left: Wolfgang Baur, talking to unidentified (?Ann Brown)
back right, with halberd: unidentified.

In the distance, waving at us: Zeb Cook, who had just left TSR, bidding us farewell after his epic fourteen-year run.*

--John R.

*which ended on a high note, with his creation of PLANESCAPE.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

a RAVENLOFT 'LIVING DEATH' recommended reading list (1995)

Here's a piece I created long ago that I was glad to come across again: a listing of stories, mostly from the period 1890 though 1914, for DMs wishing to create their own adventures set in Gothic Earth. I wanted to be respectful of WotC's copyright, so I have cut the commentary and here give just the listing. Those wishing to see the whole piece can find it in POLYHEDRON #112, the October 1995 issue, pages 11-13.

. . . On Life, On Death . . .
Recommended Reading for the LIVING DEATH Campaign

William Hope Hodgson
Carnacki the Ghost Finder (1914), 
   Esp. "The Gateway of the Monster" and "The Whistling Room"
   See also the novel The Ghost Pirates (1909) & the short stories "The Voice in the Fog" and "The Derelict".

M. R. James
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)
More Ghost Stories (1911)
A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)
A Warning to the Curious (1925)
   Esp. "Oh Whistle & I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth", "Casting the Runes". 
   Also worthy of attention: "The Mezzotint", Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance", "A Neighbor's Landmark", "A View From a Hill", and "A Warning to the Curious".

The Master: Edgar Poe
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", "The Fall of the House of Usher", "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains", "Ms. Found in a Bottle", "The Lighthouse" (unfinished), "William Wilson", "The Pit & the Pendulum", "The Premature Burial", "The Masque of the Red Death", "Silence", "The Tell-Tales Heart", "The System of Doctor Tarr & Professor Fether", The Cask of Amontillado", and The Adventures of A. Gordon Pym (1838).

Bram Stoker
Dracula (1897) 
   Also "The Burial of the Rats" and "Dracula's Guest".

R. W. Chambers
The King in Yellow, esp. "The Yellow Sign" (1895).

W. B. Yeats
"Rosa Alchemica", "The Tables of the Law", & "The Adoration of the Magi" (1897).

Algernon Blackwood
John Silence (1908).
   Also "The Listener", "The Empty House", "The Willows", "The Wendigo", and many others.  

Arthur Machan
"The Novel of the White Powder" (from The Three Imposters,1895).

Ambrose Bierce
"The Damned Thing", "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "An Inhabitant of Carcosa", "The Suitable Surroundings", "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot", "Mysterious Disappearances", "The Moonlit Road", "The Stranger".

Sheridan LeFanu
"Green Tea", "The Murdered Cousin", "Carmilla".

Henry James
"The Turn of the Screw" (1898) & "The Jolly Corner" (1908).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892).

Clark Ashton Smith
"Genius Loci" (1933).

H. P. Lovecraft
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927).

Lord Dunsany
"The Bureau de Exchange du Maux", "The Field", "The Highwayman", "Where the Tides Ebb and Flow", "The Ghosts", "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles", "The Hashish Man", "A Narrow Escape", "The Kith of the Elf-Folk", "Poor Old Bill", "The Wonderful Window", "Taking Up Piccadilly", "The Sphinx in Thebes (Massachusetts)", "The Trouble in Leafy Green Street", "Lobster Salad", "The Three Infernal Jokes", "The Return", "The Old Brown Coat", and "By Night in the Forest".
     See also the play A Night at An Inn (1916).

Robert Lewis Stevenson
The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

R. A. Gilbert 
The Golden Dawn: Twilight of Magicians (1983).

Recent, but Still Worthy
Robert Arthur
Ghosts and More Ghosts (1963)
  Esp. "Footsteps Invisible", "Do You Believe in Ghosts?", "Obstinate Uncle Otis", & "Mr. Dexter's Dragon".

John Bellairs
The Face in the Frost (1969).

Barbara Hambly
Those Who Hunt the Night (1988).

Jonathan Carroll
The Land of Laughs (1980).

Roger Zelazny
A Night in Lonesome October (1993).

--I ended with a brief note about why Mary Shelly, Gaston Leroux, and Stephen King were not included.

While I'm thinking about the MASK OF THE RED DEATH setting, I also wrote a scenario ('The Lost Valley') for one of the LIVING DEATH tournaments (GenCon 1996 I think). I'm hoping this turns up as well, since I was quite fond of it at the time, though it's been many years since I've seen it.

--John R.
--who ran a CALL OF CTHULHU session recently based on Robert Arthur's "Do You Believe in Ghosts?" which went v. well.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Richard Adams' private fantasy world

So, in my recently dipping into Richard Adams' autobiography* I was surprised to learn that he was one of those people who as a child made up his own private fantasy world. Shirley Jackson was another, and we know that when her daughter showed an interest in writing Jackson encouraged her to create her own such fantasy world. One of the more famous of such twentieth century efforts is BOXON, created by the Lewis Brothers, while Eddison was already writing about characters and events from what came to be THE WORM OUROBOROS when he was ten. And we know that all four of Tolkien's children had his or her own world, each of which took the form of an island (John's island had lots of trains, while Priscilla's was apparently populated entirely by stuffed bears).

Yet what I found unexpected in Adams' account is that he not only kept up his fantasy world at least well into college but that his example led to several of his fellow students revealing that they too had private worlds. Like Tolkien's suspicion that there were more people than you'd think who exercise the 'private vice' of creating their own language, Adams's experience suggests there were similarly quite a few who had their own private worlds.

Here's Adams account: I've quoted the full passage to help establish the context, which begins with his singling out the things that were most important to him at Oxford.

". . . my imaginative life, which was in certain respects more real to me than reality.

"I had always had a lot of fantasy in my life — as far back as I could remember. Once it had been the kingdom of Bull Bands, its halls and state rooms secluded among the laurels; a land-locked realm, deriving its attributes largely from King Arthur and peopled with knights, whose enemies were foxes. Later, at Horris Hill and unde the influence of films and writers like Sapper and Dornford Yates, Bull Banks had become a gay, fashionable city-state of sport and pleasure, its celebrities, my companions, forever playing cricket or football matches or dancing in champagne-flowing night clubs (like those of Ralph Lynn and Winifred Shotter; Bertie Wooster; Marlene Dietrich).  At Horris Hall I had found that this Bull Banks carried so much conviction and included so much detail that other boys revealed their own fantasy countries (and one or two, I suspect, hastened to invent them). A few years ago, walking along the Embankment by Charing Cross, I ran into a friend from those days, and as we chatted, recalled those kingdoms — his and mine. 'Ah,' he said, 'but you had the ends much better tied up than I did.' Certainly a great deal of my time and mental energy went into the fantasies, which in my infancy compensated for solitude and at boarding-school for boring features like Mr Morris and Mr Arnold.

"Not the least of the wonderful things about Oxford was that it happily accepted and took on board your fantasy potential — whoever would have thought it? — developed and transformed it, blending it with magic oils, with sounds and sweet airs that gave delight and hurt not. Christopher Isherwood found exactly this at Cambridge, and wrote about it in his autobiographical Lions and Shadows. Alasdair, like Isherwood's friend Chalmers ('Already the crowds begin —'), would find phrases suggesting themselves as we listened to music. I recall how we derived, as surely as ever did Swann from the 'petite phrasee' of Vinteuil, a peculiar and personal meaning from the Leonora No. 3. (Alasdair used to sing, 'I think, he soon, will really be quite free.')

Indeed music was the great, the principal releasing agent, acting like some miraculous catalyst to bring upon us trance and ecstasy . . . "

—Richard Adams, THE DAY GONE BY (1990), page 228  

Of course there are many world-creators who do their creating primarily as adults: Tolkien himself being the most famous modern example, but Austin Tappen Wright and Cordwainer Smith fit the pattern as well. I suspect most people with such propensities these days scratch that itch by playing D&D.

--John R.

*which covers the first half of his life, to the days just following World War II

Thursday, August 20, 2020

God bless Google

So, the day before yesterday I had a line from a song I cdn't identify stuck in my head all evening.  Usually with such things I just have to give it time and over the course of a day or so the snippet will stretch to include a few words or notes to either side of the bit I have. This time it didn't seem to be making any progress, so before the morning was over I'd typed in the line I had and Google's lyrics-searching did the rest.

For the record, the line was 

does your head ever give you trouble

And, for those who want to guess it on their own, I've moved the answer to comments.

--John R.
--current listening: that song and also THE CONCERT FOR BANGLA DESH, which I'd never heard until last week. Essentially a live version of George Harrison's ALL THINGS MUST PASS, the high water mark of his solo career.

The New Arrival: Flieger's ARTHURIAN VOICES

So, last week brought a pleasant surprise: the arrival in the mail of Verlyn Flieger's new book (always a good thing): ARTHURIAN VOICES. This is a collection bringing together two independent but related works: AVILION and THE BARGAIN.* The first retells LE MORTE D'ARTHUR, the second SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT.  I contributed a back-cover blurb, which reads as follows:

In Avilion, Verlyn Flieger brings to life the personae of the Arthurian legend, specifically those in the works of Sir Thomas Malory. She offers the chance to hear the familiar story anew, giving the characters, major and minor, a chance to speak in their own distinctive voices. Out of a mosaic of perspectives emerges a heartbreakingly believable array of tales, as each character tells the story as it appeared to him or (significantly) her. 

If Malory is the first of the great Modern English Arthurians, the Gawain-poet is the last of the great Middle English Arthurians. In The Bargain, Verlyn Flieger takes us behind the scenes and into the heads of the cast of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, one of the most subtle of the great medieval Arthurian tales.

To this shd be added this evaluation by Arthurian scholar Richard West in his Preface to the work

In Avilion Flieger has brilliantly retold the life of 
King Arthur in short compass in the multiple voices and 
viewpoints of major characters in the legend. In The Bargain 
she delightfully recasts a single adventure of one of Arthur's
nephews and knights in dramatic dialogue . . . 
Prepare to be entertained.

--John R.
--current reading: Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, Adams' GIRL IN A SWING, Garth's THE WORLDS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN, and much misc. matter.

*which I always think of by its original title, MR. GREEN

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Tolkien Enterprises Again

So, another item of interest emerged in the ongoing sort-through that ties in nicely with the comments I made recently about Tolkien Enterprises being confused with the Tolkien Estate. This one comes in the British rpg magazine ROLE PLAYING INDEPENDENT, in the January 1993 issue (Volume 1 Issue 2 page 5).

In a page headed "In Brief" devoted to short news items (mostly updates about forthcoming releases), one of the ten items reads as follows:

A recent advert placed in 'YOU' magazine offered for sale a limited
edition range of pewter characters from The Lord of the Rings. We are
advised by Tolkien Enterprises that this line of "Lord of the Rings
pewter figurines offered for sale by Shire Evocations is unauthorised by
Tolkien Enterprises. The Tolkien Estate has granted Tolkien Enterprises
the sole right for quality control and licensing of merchandise based on
J. R. R. Tolkien's works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Watch
this space for further developments!

This offers a good example of Tolkien Enterprises presenting itself as if it were acting on behalf of Tolkien's heirs, when a close reading of the announcement shows they've only suggested this. No wonder people got the two (Tolkien Estate/Tolkien Enterprises) confused and never realized they were separate entities with diametrically opposed goals.

--John R.
--current reading: skimming a lot of old modules (D&D and C.o.C.). Some of them hold up really well; others have mainly nostalgia value. It's rather like classic rock, which I listen to all the time: mostly what I liked back then I still like now, and what I didn't I don't. I'm currently playing through MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP for the first time and am looking forward to reading it once the game eventually wraps up (which cd come sooner than we think, in our most recent session we came perilously cloose to the dreaded t.p.k.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ensemble hero

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I had trouble getting my head around Gygax's answer to one crucial question: the origin of one of D&D's most iconic features: the ensemble hero -- that is, a group of characters with widely divergent abilities, that very diversity being crucial for the group's success. Along with providing the main PC races (and a goodly chuck of the default monsters), Tolkien's major influence on D&D was the concept of the PC party. 

Here's the exchange, to be found on page 90 of CHEERS GARY:

"A lot of Fantasy novels focused on a single hero (Conan, Tarzan, etc.) or perhaps a hero and a sidekick.

"How did you come up with the idea of a whole party of characters adventuring in a dungeon? . . . 

"Especially since D&D grew out of table-top wargames, and tabletop wargames tended to be 1 on 1 or 3 vs. 3 types of scenarios. Most table-top wargames (unless they involved hidden movement) don't have a referee."

Gygax's answer: 
 "Fortunately I read in a lot of genres other than fantasy, including the historical war fiction one. Even there, though, crafting a story around a large cast of characters is difficult, and from such a number one or two main protagonists, and possibly an antagonist or two emerge.

"In tabletop games, the LGTSA would have teams of players, sometimes as many as six on a side. There was usually one person as umpire or referee, the one who set up the game to be played, although that individual would sometimes play as well. When I ran my later games they were usually the 'Man-to-Man' medieval ones, and as pretty common on the tabletop, each player had a command figure. A team of several defenders would plan and cooperate to try and defeat a like team of attackers.

"It wasn't much of a leap from that to single 'command figures' operating as an adventuring group. Do keep in mind that original D&D had provisions for and pretty well assumed that each PC would hire a few men-at-arms -- the old tabletop force of soldiery."

[the rest of Gygax's post talks about the time-honored D&D tactic of running away, Mordenkainen being named as a prime practitioner]

--It seems to me that Gygax is sliding around the point without answering it, since instead of a diverse group of divergent abilities he focuses instead on an earlier stage, of commanders of similar powers and stature. Or am I just missing something here? Perhaps if I came out of wargaming myself this all be simpler. 

I had recently realized that there's another major fantasy novel from that era that offers up a masterful handling of an ensemble group of heroes: Richard Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN. But that came a little too late to be an influence on D&D.

And it was nice to learn that of post-D&D fantasy Gygax was a fan of Terry Pratchett and also liked the 
LotR movies.

 --John R. 
--current reading: a bunch of old gaming magazines, as part of the ongoing sort-out