Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Song (Boiled in Lead)

So, here's the lyrics to a song that I think says a lot for this Christmas season.

recorded by Boiled in Lead [1987]
from the collection OLD LEAD

Born in the middle of the afternoon
In a horse-drawn carriage on the old A5
The big twelve-wheelers shook my bed
"You can't stay here" the policeman said
"You'd better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift!"

Born in the tatty hoagan time [= ? potato picking time]
In a canvas tent by the [tatie field]
The farmer said "Your work's all done.
It's time that you were moving on.
You'd better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift."

Born in the common by a building site
Where the ground lay rutted by the trailer wheels
The local people said to me: "You lower the price of property
You better get born someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go. Move. Shift."

Born in the back of a blackthorn hedge
Where the white hoarfrost lay all around
No Eastern Kings came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift

You'd better get born in someplace else.
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift.

The eastern sky, it was hung with stars
But one shone brighter than all the rest.
The Wise Men came, so stern and strict,
And they brought the orders to evict:
"You better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift!"

So wagon-, tent-, or trailer-born
Last month, last year, or in far-off days
Born near or thousand miles away
There's always men nearby who'll say
"You better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along.
Go. Move. Shift."

Move along, get along, move along, get along.
Go. Move. Shift.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Layoffs at Wizards of the Coast

Day before yesterday I had lunch with one of my friends who was caught up in what has become one of the holiday season's worst traditions: Christmastime layoffs at WotC. Having been there myself, I wish everybody who was part of this one good fortune in job-hunting and the smoothest possible transition to life on the outside, as part of what I've come to call the Great Majority: ex-TSR, ex-WotC.

And I really don't know what else to add. I didn't hear word about what'd happened until late the day after, and was so upset I couldn't draft a coherent response for a week. And when I did, it was so strongly worded that I was advised not to post it. For a more moderate response, see Jeff's posting at Grubbstreet (

I guess all I'd add is that I'm sad to see folks let go who have put in five, ten, fifteen or more years working there. And I'm sad that, so far as I can figure, they're now down to between eight to twelve people left from among those I worked with at the old TSR in Lake Geneva, auld lang syne.

--John R.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Linguaphone Update

So, my first attempt to listen to the Tolkien dialogues on the Linguaphone records has ended in failure. The new turntable I bought would neither play the records (it kept cutting out every thirty seconds or so) nor allow me to turn them into mp3 files I could play on a laptop or ipod. It's now been returned to the store from whence it came, and we've started in on Plan 2, the first stage of which (thanks to Janice's computer-fu) has met with success as of tonight. Now on the stage two; more about this later.

In the meantime, I've now done a little more research about the Linguaphone Institute, and found the preliminary results interesting. Originally Wayne Hammond dated these records as "[circa 1940]" in the Hammond-Anderson DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY [1993]. By the time of the Hammond-Scull COMPANION & GUIDE (Chronology p. 153; Guide p. 822) this had shifted back to "June 1930", with a referent to a piece by Rene van Rossenberg in THE TOLKIEN COLLECTOR as their authority. Accordingly, I dug out my copy of that issue of THE TOLKIEN COLLECTOR (#5, Nov. 1993, p.18-20) to compare what Rene had to say with the box of records before me.

And this is where things get interesting. For the set of records Rene saw differs in minor but notable ways from the set I got. Mostly these are insignificant variants -- for example, the case mine came in is tan/brown, not black. Mine included the full set of fifteen records but lacked the sixteen record (the pronunciation guide) he mentions, although the accompanying text for it is included in the back of the booklet. Mine came with only one book, not the four he saw; I assume there was at least one extra book with mine at some point that either fell apart or was lost (the remaining hardcover clearly having seen much use over the years) -- cf. Andrew's comment to my previous Linguaphone post about his own set having two booklets.

The remaining book itself differs in several ways from Rene's description. For one thing, the book he saw "contains a preface and an introduction in Dutch" (RvR p.19). He specifically notes that this preface is dated "June 1930". Whereas my book is entirely in English, and its Preface is undated. And while both his and mine had blue covers, his front cover had "a gold five-pointed star" on it, and the address of the Linguaphone Institute at the bottom, both of which mine lack*

So, it seems that each such set once had the fifteen (or sixteen) records, the case, the hardcover booklet, and probably at least one booklet in the language of whatever country the set was being adapted to. I don't know how many languages this set was available in, but the last page of the booklet gives the street (mailing) addresses of the various offices of the Linguaphone Institute in twenty-three other countries besides the home office in England. Some of these, of course, spoke the same language, more or less (e.g. Canada, South Africa, and the United States, or the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies). It's strange to think of a set of these records being listened to in Turkey, or Batavia -- though no stranger, I suppose, than that they should one day wind up Seattle.

More to come on Tolkien's actual contribution to these. The most surprising detail so far as actual contents go I'd say is the casual mention of television, by that name, in the final piece on "Wireless" (radio). I hadn't realized the extent to which people knew about, and were ready for, tv, years before it actually became available.


*i.e., my cover simply reads
[at top]
Conversational Course


[towards the bottom]

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Last Days of Socks the Cat

Sad news this past week that Socks the Cat is nearing the end of his ninth life. I was surprised to see the news, since I'd read a false report several years ago that he'd died shortly after Clinton left office. Instead he's had a long, peaceful retirement and is now nineteen -- about the same age Parker would be if he were still with us.

So, fare well Presidential Cat; go easy into that good night.

see here for an account of Sock's life in retirement after his abandonment by the Clintons and adoption by Bettie Currie:

and here for the news of his current condition:

--John R.

current reading:

current audiobook: VARNEY THE VAMPIRE [1847]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fordyce Hall

So, Saturday night I began running my new CALL OF CTHULHU adventure, "Fordyce Hall". It's a CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT scenario, set in 1884 in the English countryside, and falls into two parts.

The adventure begins with the first set of Investigators arriving by train at the remote village of Tysoe Abbey in 'Momerset' (the nickname for Somerset among folks who aren't from there, Christopher Wiseman told me); think Somerset/Devon/Gloucestershire.

In Phase One, which we just started, all the PCs are servants who work for the new heir of Fordyce Hall, young Sir Charles Fordyce, a London gentleman who has just inherited the estate from an elderly great-uncle who kept the old place closed up and lived in town (York) instead. Neither Sir Charles nor any of the PCs have ever been there, but the new baronet wants to celebrate Christmas in his new manor and so has sent these trusted servants ahead to get the place in order for the family to follow a month later.

Without giving too much away, at least some of the fun of the adventure should come from multiple layers of distancing. The players are all Americans but here they're playing Englishmen. We're all 'middle-class' but they're playing servants--the "downstairs" of a vanished Upstairs/Downstairs world--but servants off on their own, without any of the Family present. And their characters are city-dwellers used to the modern conveniences of Kensington, like gaslight and modern plumbing and the new central heating, here thrown into a remote manor house that hasn't been renovated for more than half a century--rather like someone from today's Manhattan being dropped off at a Depression-era Kansas farmhouse.

So, on the one hand there's their task at hand, which for various reasons they couldn't have anticipated turns out to be greater than they imagined: a much bigger house, in a greater state of disrepair, on vast ground left to run wild year after year. So far they've done a great job of pulling together, getting organized, and making a preliminary survey. Next comes their first night at the manor, as they start the herculean task of getting enough of the place cleaned up enough that the Fordyces can enjoy a stay in their new ancestral home.

And, of course, I'm curious what they make of the various sanity-sapping occurrences they'll soon begin to encounter. So far what they've encountered has been more in the way of obstacles than mythos threats. They took the first minor shock or two well, but it's early days yet; they've only just arrived at the Manor and had their first look around to get the lay of the land. To use a Tolkien analogy, they're like the Fellowship when they'd only taken a step or two to disturb the dark waters of the Watcher's pool; any vast tentacular beast that might lurk below has given off nary a ripple yet, much less risen to the surface. Without giving too much away, the nature of the threat they face in this scenario is unusual, not your typical C.o.C. fare, and I'm curious how they rise to the challenge.

We'll see.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Total! Drama! Island!

So, a few weeks ago I got hooked on a reality show. A cartoon reality show, on Cartoon Network (appropriately enough), called TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND.

By and large, reality tv is a phenomenon that passed me by, like rap music or the gentrification of tattoos. I know it exists, I just don't see the point: it just has no appeal to me. The sole exception is TOP CHEF, which Janice hooked me on during its second season (still never had a chance to watch season one, but so it goes). And so all the tropes that make up the genre (the meanie everyone's supposed to love to hate, the eat-disgusting-things episode, someone being voted off the island at the end of each episode) I know only through cultural osmosis.

Which makes it all the stranger that this hilarious parody of reality shows should so suddenly become a favorite. Partly I suppose that it has a distinctive animation style that I find appealing. And it has an interesting cast, nicely distinguished through the voice acting. While they all adhere to the cartoon convention that each only seems to have one outfit he or she wears everyday, their actions are all 'true to character', and they're a nicely diverse group without forcing the issue, which is good to see.

But I suspect the greater part of the show's appeal is its mastery of a sense of absurdity. Why should a lake in Ontario have sharks in it? Because, it breezily informs us in a later episode, they're freshwater sharks (no explanation for the piranhas is ever forthcoming). I only started watched about the sixth episode or so before the end, so it was a great help when they re-ran the whole season just before the finale -- where the character I was rooting for didn't win (dang!). That I cared at all shows they're doing something right. I'll definitely be checking out the second season, which (according to Wikipedia, Source of All Knowledge) will be called TOTAL DRAMA ACTION* and will parody movie genres rather than reality shows.

I don't know why, but for some reason the funniest part of the whole show for me is that it's Canadian. There's a valley girl, but she's a Canadian valley girl; a goth, but she's a Canadian goth; a juvenile delinquent, but he's a Canadian juvenile delinquent, and so forth. There's even what looks like a Hawaiian surfer dude, but he's apparently from a Canadian part of Polynesia none of us knew about, like we didn't know there were freshwater lake sharks, Canadian cursed Tiki Island, &c.

Best episode: I'd recommend the one about two-thirds of the way through that parodied the teen slasher flick, in which the goth girl keeps reminding them of the rules of slasher movies, only to have the others ignore them and disappear one by one. This also has one of the best lines from the whole series, where the announcer, Chris, says in effect "This could be really good for the rating . . . but really bad for the lawsuits!"


*check here for a trailer:

UPDATE: I should also have pointed out the insidiously catchy theme song ("I Wanna Be Famous"), which could easily fit alongside one of the sixties or seventies classic cartoon opening themes like Scooby Doo, Where Are You.

Also, Janice points out that there's soon going to be a TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND movie, apparently due out this month, though I haven't been able to find a more specific release date than just "December".

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"At the Tobacconist's", "Wireless"

So, Monday a box from Oslo arrived.

Inside, carefully packed in Norwegian newspapers, is a set of English language lessons on fifteen .78s recorded for the Linguaphone Institute back in 1930.

Why, since I already speak English as well as I'm ever likely to do, am I ordering language lessons from almost eighty years ago, and ones intended for foreign speakers at that?

Because it felt like I should spend part of the royalties from MR. BAGGINS on an addition to my modest Tolkien collection, something that I'd would otherwise never just come across (as opposed to, say, another interesting copy of THE HOBBIT). And these records include two dialogues which feature the earliest known recordings of Tolkien's voice: "At the Tobacconist", where he expounds upon the joys of smoking (which I've had a tape of for years, courtesy of a friend), and "Wireless" (which I've never heard before) where, somewhat surprisingly, he talks about how great radio is.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to listen to these yet, since, being from 1930, they're .78s, and our stereo only plays .45s and .33s. So, tonight we picked up a new turntable that supposedly converts records of all kinds (.78, .33, .45) into mp3 files which can then be downloaded to a computer, burned onto a disk, or put on an ipod. It might take a day or two to figure out the instructions, but when the reward is getting to hear some new Tolkien, the incentive is high.

--John R.
current audiobook: OF LIONS, DRAGONS, & TURKISH DELIGHT: C. S. LEWIS FOR LATTER-DAY SAINTS by S. Michael Wilcox (!)

current reading: DEATH'S JEST-BOOK by Th. Lovell Beddoes [1829]

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


So, today was my fiftieth birthday.

Fifty. Half a hundred. Still not dead.

Or, as my wife puts it, "Too late to die young!"



Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Owen Barfield's EAGER SPRING

So, recently a long-delayed project finally saw the light of day. Back around 1985, I spent the greater part of a research trip to Wheaton reading and making notes on his long unpublished novel ENGLISH PEOPLE. Ever since I've been firm in my judgment that this is one of the great lost Inklings works, and that anything I could do to help get it into print would be well worth the effort. So when the idea of printing some of Barfield's unpublished works was mooted a few years later by Bookmakers Guild, an Oregon publisher, and I was asked to write an introduction to one, I accepted with enthusiasm. I would have preferred for it to have been ENGLISH PEOPLE, but understood the publisher's reluctance to lead off with a long (500-page) novel written about 1930, the only surviving typescript of which was missing one crucial section.

The text I was sent instead was EAGER SPRING, a short novel Barfield had just written, which I quickly discovered was v. good indeed -- one of his best works, to be ranked with UNANCESTRAL VOICE, THIS EVER DIVERSE PAIR, and ENGLISH PEOPLE. It was surprisingly contemporary, being concerned largely with the threat of deforestation and toxic wastes yet stylistically more in keeping with Jean Giono's THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES, and no one reading it would have guessed its author to be in his late eighties. I wrote my Introduction in short order, sent it off and had it accepted by both Mr. Barfield and the publisher, and waited with great anticipation for the book to appear.

And a much longer wait it turned out to be than I expected. Not long after I completed my work on the introduction (January 1991), the publisher went out of business.* Thereafter the project languished and the unpublished book sank into obscurity. Indeed, after Barfield's death (in late 1997, not long after his 99th birthday) I was contacted by one of his executors, from whom I learned that my by now rather tattered photocopy of the typescript was the only copy of the text known to remain in existence, and would I please provide them with a copy (I was glad to oblige).

Thereafter occasional queries on my part led to assurances that one or another of the executors had plans for one or both works, but nothing seemed to come of them. Part of the marchen that ends ENGLISH PEOPLE, "The Rose on the Ash-heap", eventually got published in A BARFIELD SAMPLER [1993], and recently [2006] Simon Blaxland-de Lange, whom I'd met in 1998 at the Lewis/Barfield Centennial Mythcon at Wheaton, completed and published his biography of O.B., one chapter of which included a detailed synopsis of ENGLISH PEOPLE. But a synopsis, while welcome, cannot really take the place of well-written fiction, and "The Rose on the Ash-Heap" is by no means representative of the work as a whole any more than "Virginia's Conte", the final section of EAGER SPRING, is of that later and much shorter work; in each case the main text is far, far superior in every way to the relatively brief marchen or conte that follows.

And so the years flowed by until fall 2007, when to my surprise someone new took over management of Barfield's opus: his grandson (also named Owen Barfield), who made it his first priority to get his grandfather and namesake's works back into print. One of his first projects was EAGER SPRING, which I'm happy to say has now at last seen the light of day, complete with my Introduction (slightly revised to take into account the passage of another sixteen/seventeen years). My copy finally arrived on November 10th, 2008** -- making this the longest gap (so far) between my completion of a project and its seeing print.

For more on EAGER SPRING, and future plans for the Barfield Press, see

current reading: FRAGMENTS OF ANCIENT POETRY by James MacPherson [1760]

*they did manage to release one Barfield, several years earlier [1986]: a re-issue of THE SILVER TRUMPET, his first book.

**along with another new Barfield, NIGHT OPERATION, a dyspotian short story that had originally appeared in the journal TO-WARDS in 1983/84. While the story itself is not at all my cup of tea, I have to say that Janet Hipolyto has done a wonderful job with her introduction, bringing out elements in the tale that I certainly missed on my first reading of it years ago (e.g., that the three main characters in a sense represent Barfield, Harwood, and Lewis, or that it turns into a kind of grail-quest in the end).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Last Twelve Books

So, one of the things I do a lot is make lists. Sometimes these are useful lists, like notes re. the release date of forthcoming manga, or anime I may be interested in renting. Often they're to-do lists of things I need to take care of in a given week or day, or simply have pending. Occasionally they're more miscellaneous, like interesting and unusual names I've come across and might want to use for a character at some point, or ideas I want to weave into the next game I run. Most of these lists either serve their short-term purpose or get misplaced and lost; others vanish, only to reappear years later as strangely cryptical bookmarks.

A few lists are more in the nature of informal catalogues, like a list I made years ago of all TSR rpgs (now sadly outdated), or of Tolkien books (not by but about) that I own, or of what Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith books I'm missing (in case I run across one at a used book store, which does happen occasionally).

By far the most useful of all my lists, and the one I've kept the longest, is my Reading List. More than thirty years ago I started keeping a list of all the books I read, writing down the title, author, and date when I read it. For example, book #1 in the list is THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION by Nicholas Meyers, which I read on 8/8-75, followed the next day by THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (tr. Christopher Tolkien). Not only does this help me find a book again, but it's an incentive to finish reading one I might otherwise bog down in (books don't get added unless I read the whole thing). Despite a mishap in the summer of 1981, when I left the original list of six hundred or so books on the London underground and so had to start anew ("Series II") on August 15th 1981 (book #7 of the new list being MR. BLISS, then in manuscript at Marquette, and #8 my first reading of THE FACE IN THE FROST by Jn Bellairs, which instantly became an all-time favorite). About the only refinement I've added over the years in the date of the book's publication.

So, as a pretty representative example, here are the last twelve books I've read (along with a few comments).

II.2745. SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE by Austin Grossman [2007] (an interesting first-person account of what it's like to be a comic book super-villain)

II.2746. THE ENCHANTED CASTLE by E. Nesbit [1907] (part of my research into yet another magic ring of invisibility)

II.2747. MR. FAIRLIE'S FINAL JOURNEY by August Derleth [1968] (Sherlock Holmes pastiche, picked up as a curiosity at the Book Fair)

II.2748. TOLKIEN'S SHORTER WORKS: ESSAYS OF THE JENA CONFERENCE 2007, ed. Hiley & Weinreich [Walking Tree, 2008] (a collection of essays on JRRT's minor works, which I read & reviewed)

II.2749. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN by Woodward & Bernstein [1974] (sometimes it helps to remind ourself of just how bad a specific point in the past was, and just how similar to the present it is in some ways)

II.2750. THE RIDDLE OF THE THIRD MILE by Colin Dexter [1983] (an Inspector Morse mystery, picked up a year ago in Oxford. These things are all over the place there, like moss on Seattle trees. Unpleasant but erudite.)

II.2751. TOLKIEN'S OXFORD by Rbt S. Blackham [2008] (an illustrated guide of places connected with JRRT; another piece read & reviewed).

II.2752. FULBRIGHT THE DISSENTER by Haynes Johnson & Bernard M. Gwertzman [1968] (Janice found this one. Interesting to find out more about someone who, when I was growing up, was nearing the end of his remarkable career in ignominious fashion, out-of-touch and arrogant --most of us in Arkansas thought Robert Redford's THE CANDIDATE was about Fulbright vs. Bumbers. History will not forgive his refusal to support civil rights or basic lack of trust in the U.S. constitutional system, but at least he stood up to McCarthy and was way ahead of the curve in opposing Vietnam).

II.2753. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman [2008] (Gaiman is always worth reading, though here the idea -- a new take on THE JUNGLE BOOK, with the Mowgli raised by ghosts and a vampire rather than animals -- is better than the execution)

II.2754. JOHNNY & THE DEAD by Terry Pratchett [1993] (my third reading; not so good as I remembered it, but still vintage Pratchett, and I suspect an influence on N.G.)

II.2755. JAZZ WRITINGS by Phillip Larkin, ed. Richard Palmer & Jn White [1999] (Larkin was a born reviewer, opinionated and articulate, who could make even a dead art form interesting).

II.2756. TOLKIEN'S GEDLING 1914 by Andrew H. Morton & Jn Hayes [2008] (an account of JRRT's Aunt Jane & how she abandoned an academic career to become a farmer; 'Gedling' is the suburb of Nottingham where her farm lay, and where JRRT on a visit wrote what he came to consider the first poem in his Mythology. My review of this one is still in progress).


current reading: ABBEY LUBBERS, BANSHEES & BOGGARTS by Katharine Briggs [1979]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Bradley Effect

Among the sea of partisan pieces in the days leading up to the election just past, the most interesting non-partisan piece I saw was the following post from October 13th about the so-called "Bradley Effect" -- that is, the idea that polls overpredict how well a black candidate will do, the theory being that people claim to the pollster that they're open-minded when they're really not.

The short version of this article is that, according to the pollster of the person who beat Bradley back in '82, there IS no Bradley effect. According to him, it was simply the result of bad polling by Bradley's people; the other side knew that the race had tightened to more or less even (45% Bradley, 44% Deukmejian) by election day; Bradley got slightly more votes from those who went to the polls that day (and thus those who talked to exit pollsters) but Deukmejian got a significant edge through the absentee ballots, which won him the election.

Here's the link:

Personally, I've always been baffled by the whole idea that racists CARE what pollsters think about them. If anything, I'd expect any misrepresentation to swing the other way (i.e., for racists who intend to vote for minority candidates to not be willing to admit to it in public).


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part four)


IX. And so, after WotC took a pass, the Tolkien license went to Decipher, who in 2002 produced their own LORD OF THE RINGS ROLEPLAYING GAME. Then in June/July 2001 I was caught up in the latest round of layoffs and left Wizards of the Coast. Before the day was out, I had a verbal agreement with the folks at Decipher, where most of Christian's Last Unicorn team had gone after leaving WotC at the time of the previous layoff, to work on their Tolkien rpg. My contribution was to write descriptions of the game world; hence the first section of the main rulebook, "There and Back Again: The Realms of Middle-Earth" is mainly my work (material which was re-used in booklet form as the text in the MAPS OF MIDDLE-EARTH boxed set [2002]).

Once again rather than create a rules system to match Tolkien's world, Decipher decided to use their pre-existing house system (the CODA System), created for their Star Trek game, for their new LotR game. Given that their license came directly through New Line, they were not only able to use the era and characters from The Lord of the Rings (i.e., the end of the Third Age), but their books were chock-full of movie art, most illustrations being stills from the films. Unfortunately, since they were dependent on the films and, like many media licensing deals, had an onorous approval process to go through, their releases sadly lagged behind the films themselves: for example, their MORIA boxed set, which shd ideally have come out around the end of 2001 or early 2002, didn't see release until 2003; their Rohan sourcebook, which I wrote roughly half of, never came out at all. It soon became clear that Decipher's main interest lay, not unreasonably, in the real money-maker, their LotR collectable card game, and the roleplaying game languished. Eventually (June 30th 2007, according to Wikipedia, the Source of All Knowledge) their license expired, with the result that currently there is NO Tolkien roleplaying game being published, a situation unprecedented since the early 1980s.

X. And so, here we are. The license is currently in abeyance, awaiting re-licensing for the forthcoming HOBBIT movie(s). There will no doubt be yet another Tolkien rpg in a few years' time, but if history is any guide it will probably appear from a second-tier publisher and make a relatively minor splash, being more collected and read than played. Most Tolkien fans will continue to get their gaming fix through homebrew campaigns or tweaks to their favorite game system --most recently d20/3.5/Open Gaming, now no doubt soon to shift towards 4th edition D&D/GSL, given its solution to the longstanding 'cleric-less adventuring' problem. Just as attention has shifted over time from Tolkien boardgames (SPI in the late '70s) to rpgs (ICE in the '80s and '90s, Decipher in the new century) to collectable card games (ibid), so now MMOs rule the roost, like Turbine's The Lord of the Rings Online [2007ff]), and it is here that the bulk of attention will focus next time around.Nt6 It also seems likely that such efforts will be tied more closely to the films than Tolkien's books; certainly THE SILMARILLION, UNFINISHED TALES, et al. will play no significant role.

But, just as Decipher released a roleplaying game as well as a ccg, we will almost certainly get not just new LotR computer games but also yet another new rpg (with yet another new rules system), a new ccg, a new collectable miniatures game, &c. In the meantime, we have fan-based efforts such as Other Hands, Other Minds, and, more recently, MERPCon's EÄ Project, whereby those who combine a love for JRR Tolkien's work with a love for gaming create their own rules in order to enjoy their own versions of Tolkien gaming.

--John D. Rateliff, July/August 2008.


Note 1. As collaborating evidence of this obvious fact, cf. the second sentence of the first paragraph of the 'Fantasy Supplement' to CHAINMAIL, the miniatures rules system that preceded Dungeons & Dragons and directly gave rise to it:

"Most of the fantastic battles related in novels more closely resemble medieval warfare than they do earlier or later forms of combat. Because of this we are including a brief set of rules [i.e., the 'Fantasy Supplement'] which will allow the medieval miniatures wargamer to add a new facet to his hobby, and either refight the epic struggles related by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or you can devise your own 'world,' and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it. (emphasis mine*)

*my citation comes from page 28 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL [1979]; my thanks to Scott Riddick and all at for confirmation of the fact that this sentence reads the same in the earliest printings.

Note 2. Or, in the special case of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar tales, a double-hero who can trade off taking center stage and act as each other's sidekicks at need.

Note 3. This is a reference to the Nazgul being the original wraiths in CHAINMAIL; in the first and second editions of that work, the entry on Wraiths read "WRAITHS (Nazgul, etc.):". I am grateful to Scott Riddick at The Acaeum, the D&D game collector's site, for helping me confirm this information.

Note 4. Compare the unattributed illustration of a dragon pursued by a knight in the CHAINMAIL booklet with Pauline Baynes' illustration of Farmer Giles pursuing Chrysophylax Dives in Farmer Giles of Ham (page 44, third edition [1975]). The CHAINMAIL illustration† is clearly redrawn, almost traced, from Baynes' work, the main difference being the farmer's replacement by an armored knight.

†This appears on page 37 of the third edition of CHAINMAIL, but I am told it appeared on the first page (page 33) of the Fantasy Supplement in CHAINMAIL 's first edition. My thanks to Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick, and all at the acaeum D&D collectors' forum for this information.

Note 5. They released a new entry-level game every year from 1991 to 1996, only the first of which could be considered a success.

Note 6. Kristen Thompson reports that the computer games based on the three Jackson films made about a billion dollars per film. (THE FRODO FRANCHISE, page 9).

My thanks to the many who helped me in my research of specific details for this piece, including Bruce Leonard, Allan Grohe, Scott Riddick and all at (cf., Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, Shelly Baur, Angus Abranson, Jeremy Edmonds, David Pulver, Roderick Robertson, and Dave Watry of And my thanks to Hawke Robinson, the organizer of MERPcon, for inviting me to give this year's Guest of Honor speech.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Favorite Election Story

So, while I was in Magnolia this time two weeks ago I went by the courthouse to see if I could find a really good Columbia County map (I did, thanks the the county judge's office) and discovered that early voting was already underway. I'm no longer a resident, and it's been many years since I voted absentee in Arkansas elections, but I'm still interested in how things go in my old home state, so I picked up the sample ballot and several of the informational leaflets regarding the various initiatives.


(1) It wd remove the ban on state workers serving as voting officials (clearly an anti-corruption measure to prevent incumbents from rigging an election in the Bad Old Days--memories of the Brooks-Baxter War lingered a long time in Arkansas).

(2) It removed a reference to having to show a receipt that you'd paid the poll tax before you can vote, the poll tax itself having been abolished long ago.

(3) It removed a ban "providing that no idiot or insane person shall be entitled to the priviledges of an elector".

That right: until this election idiots and lunatics were banned from voting in Arkansas. This is no longer the case, as of two weeks ago, when that language was struck from the state constitution on the grounds that such terminology was "disrespectful" and in any case lacked legal definition. This wd not have been the case back when the constitution first took effect, of course -- cf. S.J.Gould's THE MISMEASURE OF MAN for the notorious Oliver Wendell Holmes ruling.

So the general upshot is that now idiots and crazy people can vote in Arkansas, just like anyone else.

Now that's progress for you.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part three)


VI. Re-enter TSR: 1992.

And this is where I enter the story. I'd begun working at TSR as a games editor in October 1991, and it was well-known around the office (and indeed around everyone who knows me) that I was a big Tolkien fan; my expertise with fantasy literature in general and Tolkien in particular was one of the reasons they hired me (my dissertation was on the great Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany; hence I like to say that 'I have a degree in fantasy'). I had already,in my first few months there, edited The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings (which would have sold significantly better if they'd titled it The Complete Book of Halflings & Gnomes). Thus, when TSR began negotiations with Tolkien Enterprises to see if they could reach an agreement on a Tolkien license for a TSR Tolkien game, I was assigned to be the game's editor, while Bill Connors was assigned to write the game. Even though no license had yet been signed, we got to work on the project and the game was tentatively added to TSR's Master Schedule. Thinking you might be interested, I brought a few relics of it with me today: the prototype cover art by Robh Ruppel, character creation rules, and two versions of the character sheet (one of them marked up from a playtest). In hopes that TSR might be able to expand the line beyond what Iron Crown had been allowed to do, I was even dispatched to meet with Christopher Tolkien (as representative of the Tolkien Estate) and Mary Butler (who was in charge of managing the Tolkien line at HarperCollins, who had recently taken over as Tolkien's publishers), incidently becoming the first person to ever receive official permission to miss GenCon in order to attend those meetings.

In the end, however, the Estate was not willing to grant to TSR rights they'd adamantly denied to everybody else—unsurprisingly—such as permission to write and publish sequels and prequels to The Lord of the Rings, commission artbooks, release its own line of calendars, and the like. What TSR could do was exactly what Iron Crown had done: release its own Tolkien roleplaying game, which I have no doubt wd have sold v. well indeed. To which Lorraine Williams, president and owner of TSR, uttered the immortal line

'Not worth our while'

Thus died the TSR Tolkien game, banished into the land of might-have-beens. Shortly thereafter came news of the renewal of Iron Crown's license, and a new edition of MERP followed in 1993. While it's my impression that this later iteration was not as successful as the game's first run, it did well enough to see the release of some two dozen supplements, the last of which (Hands of the Healer, #2026) was released in 1997.

VII. By this time, Tolkien gamer's attention had largely shifted to collectable card games. The first such game, MAGIC: THE GATHERING, had been created in 1993 by Richard Garfield at Peter Adkison's request and was an immediate hit. By 1994 the rest of the industry was scrambling to put out their own ccgs. It is not well known, I think, that among the ccgs Wizards of the Coast had been asked to create at this time based on preexisting rpgs, such as JYHAD for White Wolf [1994], LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS for Alderac [1995], and NETRUNNER for R.Talsorian [1996], was a MERPs-based ccg for Iron Crown. When after a year or so Wizards decided not to do a Tolkien card game after all, the (sublicense) rights reverted to Iron Crown, which released MIDDLE EARTH: THE WIZARDS in 1995 to great success; it remained one of the best-selling ccgs for several years thereafter.

VIII. Despite the great success of METW, the associated roleplaying game languished, having either quietly lapsed or at least gone into abeyance after 1997. By 1999, the Tolkien license was up for grabs again, with anticipation of the Peter Jackson movies (already in production) raising the stakes. That's when the second Tolkien rpg I was involved in began to take shape, and by mid-2000 WotC was in serious negotiations for the license. This time around, I was scheduled to be one of the game's three writers, along with Rich Baker (a longtime Tolkien fan whose favorite Tolkien book is The Silmarillion, not The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings) and Andy Collins; Christian Moore, formerly of Last Unicorn Games and now the head of 'WotC South', was to head the team. The 320 page book would have been edited by Gwendolyn Kestrel, Jon Pickens, and Jeff Quick and was scheduled for a November 2001 release.

We did a good deal of discussion about what form the game would take: I wanted it to be a D&D game world, like GREYHAWK or THE FORGOTTEN REALMS, but the eventual consensus was that it would be a stand-alone but D&D compatible system, much like the Wheel of Time game that followed the same model a year later. I have not been able to locate any of my notes from that project, but I recall our debate over how to handle healing (with or without clerics) and whether or not to allow PC spellcasters; Rich's Ranger prestige class; and (best of all) Andy's truly awesome Nazgûl template. Whereas the old TSR Tolkien game from 1992 would have been a kind of D&D lite, catering to TSR management's obsession at the time with entry-level games,Nt5 it was clear that this was going to be a very, very good game. That's what made it so crushing when the license fell through. I was told, by the person in charge of negotiating game licenses, that she had deliberately decided not to pursue the Tolkien license in order to let a rival game company have it. Otherwise, she argued, we might be open to charges of being a monopoly, since we had just acquired the Star Wars license. I thought this implausible then, and I think the same today—but then this came from the same management team that justified cancelling another game by explaining that while it would have made money, it would have been 'the wrong kind of money'. Looking back at it after all this time, I think it far more likely that there was only so much money in the licensing budget to go around and, having chosen to line the capacious pockets of George Lucas, there simply wasn't enough left for another major license, particularly since the Tolkien game license, bouyed by expectations from the Peter Jackson films, wouldn't have come cheap. The fact that the folks in card R&D were adamantly opposed to creating a Tolkien ccg, for reasons they would never articulate, no doubt contributed something to the decision. So, WotC execs made the decision to go with Star Wars rather than Tolkien; from my point of view (amply supported by subsequent history), the wrong choice.

The one good thing that seems to have come out of it all was the appearance in 2000 by Hasbro UK of the Reiner Knizia boardgame THE LORD OF THE RINGS; an amazingly innovative design by a brilliant designer and probably the single best Tolkien boardgame ever. WotC, however, had so little interest in it that Hasbro soon sublicensed it to another company, and Fantasy Flight Games released all the follow-up tie-in boardgames, rather than Hasbro or WotC.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs (part two)


IV. The advent of Tolkien Enterprises into our story complicates things: most people do not realize that almost all the Tolkien-related items they see aside from books and (some) calendars are not approved by the Tolkien Estate but instead are part of "film licensing", over which the Estate has almost no control, due to the poorly defined licensing rights in the original contract Tolkien signed back in the 1960s. Among the things that fall under Tolkien Enterprises' control are not just the Peter Jackson movies (and the older Bakshi film), and obvious movie tie-in products such as posters, chess sets, and replica swords, but the entire MERP product line. That is, all officially approved Tolkien roleplaying games, collectable card games, boardgames, and computer games for the last thirty years have been licensed not from the Tolkien Estate but from Saul Zaentz as examples of "film merchandising".

V. One effect of TSR's transparent (but legally successful) attempt to genericize D&D and get it away from its Tolkien roots meant that after about 1977 there was no longer even an unofficial Tolkien roleplaying game on the market. The abject failure of the Bakshi film, financially and creatively, seems to have forestalled any attempt to officially license a Tolkien rpg for some five years, but by 1982 Iron Crown Enterprises had acquired the Tolkien license, launching MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) in 1984.

However, while a long-running rpg line, MERP never won over the majority of Tolkien fans who were gamers, who continued to run D&D varients; despite a core of devotees it remained a game more collected than played. I think the reasons for this were threefold. First off, D&D's unofficial motto has always been "plagiarism is our friend"—that is, it has always stolen so widely, and been such a flexible system, that it's easier for most folks to tweak the game they already knew (which in any case originated as a pseudo-Tolkienian game in the first place, and still remained close to those roots) into a Tolkienian system than to learn a new game in order to play out Tolkienian scenarios within Tolkienian settings. Second, once they got the license Iron Crown did not create a new rules system from the ground up designed to capture Tolkienian roleplaying, but simply adapted their house system, ROLEMASTER (itself evolved from a D&D varient), to Tolkien's world—as may be seen from the fact that ICE began releasing Tolkien modules as early as 1982 (e.g., ANGMAR) while the actual MERP rules did not follow until two years later, in 1984. The decision to use a preexisting system rather than create a new Tolkien-centric game led to some disconnects—the most serious of which was the presence of Animist (Clerics) as one of the core player-character classes, when Tolkien's works are so resolutely devoid of clergy, spell-casting or otherwise (a problem that has bedeviled most Tolkien rpgs to date). Third, since this was an official license, its modules and sourcebooks could use names & places taken directly from Tolkien's books (no 'halflings' and 'mithral' here). But Iron Crown's decision, no doubt dictated by the terms of their license, to stringently avoid the actual story & time of Tolkien's familiar story, meant we got no adventures w. Aragorn, no epic boxed sets allowing us to play through Bilbo's journey or the various component quests that make up The Lord of the Ring. Instead, we get detailed sourcebooks set (for the most part) a milennium and a half before—which is interesting for die-hard Tolkien fans like myself, but lacks the mass appeal of, say, a 'Fellowship in Moria' adventure might have. (It's rather like having a Columbus-discovers-the-New-World game which focuses exclusively on Christopher C.'s early life and never touches on any of his four history-making voyages.)

Nevertheless, as I said, it was a fairly successful line, lasting for a full decade while other games came and went. But by 1991/92 it was at a low ebb, and when the license came up for renewal Tolkien Enterprises let it be known they were interested in negotiating with other companies to publish some all-new Tolkien rpg to replace MERP.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Two Bad Movies -- part two


So, if THE HAPPENING is an interesting idea with a failed execution, like most of Shyamalan's films (always excepting the superlative SIXTH SENSE), by contrast the second film, OBSESSION, is a competent documentary with a heinous goal. The idea here is not just to make you afraid, but to make you very, very, very afraid. So afraid you'd launch a few more wars, be glad to bomb a few more countries, be willing to have people kidnapped and tortured, so long as it might protect you from Scary Foreign People. While it gives lip service to the claim that it's not anti-Muslim, just against the wrong kind of Muslim, its entire thrust is indistinguishable to me, as someone who grew up in the Segregated South, from racism.

Among the most disturbing things here: a deliberate attempt to portray the Palestinians as Nazis, as much footage of child warriors as they could cram in, vicious anti-semitic rants from crackpot imams, and trying to blur all Muslims who oppose our foreign policy into a monolithic foe. Either the filmmakers don't know that Iran and al-Qaeda hate each other (which is hard to imagine) or, in their conspiracy theorist heart-of-hearts they just can't believe it, or (worst of all) they know what they're saying is untrue but it serves their purpose to say it anyway.

For me, the most interesting part about this film comes at the mid-point in which they briefly raise the obvious question: why do these people hate us so much that they'd kill themselves just for the chance of hurting us? And, having posed the question, the filmmakers immediately steer away from it to a safe, simple non-answer: they're deranged by hatemongers, so their actions don't make any kind of rational sense. It's as if in the aftermath of Nat Turner's uprising white Southerners had concluded that slaves attacked slaveowners because they were violent and irrational (which isn't far off from what they did conclude). A little basic history often helps us understand why our enemies do what they do; willful ignorance of the facts never helped a nation make itself safer.

And now they've made a follow-up film, THE THIRD JIHAD. I've not seen this, and probably won't bother (the first was bad enough), but the previews and excerpts available online make clear that its focus is on "homegrown domestic terrorism". So I suspect its unstated goal will be to make viewers accept whatever spying on Americans the government deems necessary as "a small price to pay" to protect us from "further attacks" -- of which it claims there have already been dozens, each foiled only by the vigilance of our Homeland Security.

The kicker here is that Senator Joe Lieberman appears in this one, lending his stature as one of this country's leaders to the anti-Muslim hate-mongering both films want to convey. Lieberman deserves every American's respect for having been a Freedom Rider back during the civil rights movement, but this is a truly shameful end for a career that started out with such idealism.


Two Bad Movies--part one

So, last week I watched not one but two truly bad movies on dvd, each of which was bad in its own distinctive way.

The first was M. Night Shyamalan's THE HAPPENING, which I'd wanted to see in theatres but missed. I'd been intrigued to learn it was inspired by Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon that's been wiping out the bees, and thought Shyamalan wd be able to make a pretty interesting story out of that. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The short version: this is a thirty-minute episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, sans Rod Serling's genius, stretched out to ninety-one minutes (but it seems longer).

The slightly longer version: this is Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, sans Hitchcock's genius, except with trees rather than birds.

It's an interesting premise -- one day trees in Central Park start to release a biotoxin (think phemerones) which causes everyone who inhales them to immediately commit suicide. In short, it's the story of a suicide plague that starts in NYC, then spreads to Philadelphia and other large east-coast cities, then to towns, then villages, then small groups of refugees, then single people. People initially assume it's some sort of terrorist attack using nerve gas and only gradually begin to figure out the truth.

That cd be an interesting film, but unfortunately it suffers from some massive logical gaps. Why is the tree's defense mechanism first triggered in a peaceful spot like Central Park rather than, say, a Weyerhaeuser tree farm being chainsawed and clearcut in the Pacific Northwest? Why does everybody affected by the plague instantly realize the most effective way to kill themselves and immediately carry it out flawlessly? Shyamalan does make v. effective use of Zooey Deschanel ability to look unearthly when standing silently and staring, but it'd have been better yet to have likable lead characters in a compelling plot; the main story here feels more like an afterthought, a frame that wanders around to enclose the twenty or so little snuff films that are the focus of Shyamalan's real interest.

And, I just have to say, that the last time I saw a bad movie named "The Happening" (about forty years ago) at least it had a great theme song by The Supremes. Not the case here.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Brief History of Tolkien RPGs

The following was my guest-of-honor speech at MERPcon this past August, which I thought I'd share. It's lengthy, so I'm dividing it into several postings. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Tolkien roleplaying games

When deciding on an appropriate topic for this talk, I considered various possibilities from my seventeen years in the industry, twenty-eight years as a gamer, and thirty-five years as a Tolkien scholar, and ultimately decided that it would be fun to combine all of these and share with you some stories from an insider's point of view about the long, sad history of various Tolkien roleplaying games, including some I worked on that never saw the light of day. So here goes.

I. First off, the history of Tolkien roleplaying games begins not with the publication of the first licensed Tolkienian rpg, Middle-Earth Role Playing ('MERP'), but a decade earlier with the origins of roleplaying gaming itself. At about the time of Tolkien's death in September 1973, a little start-up company with the unpromising name of Tactical Studies Rules ('TSR') was putting the finishing touches on their new game, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Dave Arneson had come up with the idea a year or two earlier, and Gary Gygax had figured out how to make a game out of it (in the sense of writing rules so others could learn how to play), making them the Founding Fathers of our hobby.

The original D&D was clearly based in equal parts on JRRT & on Rbt E. Howard's Conan stories,Nt1 with a magic system inspired by Jack Vance (The Dying Earth) and John Bellairs (The Face in the Frost) and an attitude copped from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser series, w. bits of Pratt & de Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and various pulp stalwarts thrown in. Most of these influences were openly acknowledged, both then and later—see, for example, the final appendix in the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide, 'Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading' (DMG page 224)—which makes it odd that the profound influence of Tolkien on D&D is generally overlooked and downplayed. This was certainly not the case in the dawn of roleplaying, as we'll see in a minute.

The reasons for this disparagement of Tolkien's influence on D&D, and thus ALL roleplaying games, are I think twofold. First, there's the simple fact that Tolkien's innovations are so great that they have, ironically, come to be considered "generic". In fact, they only appear that way because the genre of Modern Fantasy is something Tolkien himself largely created: he is the exemplar that defines the category. The very idea of a player character party—a group of diverse individuals of differing races with differing talents and specialties who set off on an adventure together—is a uniquely Tolkienian innovation, unprecedented in earlier fantasy, where we either have a hero, or a hero & a sidekick.Nt2 In other words, Tolkien influenced fantasy and gaming so profoundly that we take his imprint on other authors for granted. His impact has become invisible—just look how many people spell "elves" and "dwarves" with a 'v' rather than elfs and dwarfs: elves may be partly due to Dunsany, though I doubt this, but dwarves is Tolkien's invention, which others use without even recognizing their indebtedness.

Second, there was a deliberate attempt in later years by Gygax and others, continuing to the present day, to play down Tolkien's influence, most notoriously in Gygax's famous editorial from the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine (issue #95, pages 12¬–13). Titled "The influence of J. R. R. Tolkien on the D&D® and AD&D® games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world", it argues that Tolkien had NO discernable influence on the development of D&D, aside from a few surface similarities based on Gygax's drawing on the same sort of sources as Tolkien himself had used.

Now, there are three theories regarding this claim, which was met with incredulity at the time and more or less universally dismissed ever since, being belied by the evidence both past and present. The first is what we might call the cocaine theory, the widespread belief that years of rumored drug abuse during E. Gary Gygax's time heading up TSR's Hollywood branch had addled his brain. The second is that Gygax simply forgot by the mid-eighties how he'd created the game in the early seventies; certainly his story changed a number of times over the years, and the general trend of those changes is to shift credit away from others (e.g., Arneson) and onto himself. So maybe he simply resented sharing credit with JRRT. The third is, in a word, lawyers, and a salutary fear of lawsuits if any good case could be made for D&D's debt to Tolkien's work. And, as we'll see, he had excellent reason based on personal experience to believe this was a very real threat, which might explain why he was so adamant about denying any Tolkien influence in his 1985 piece, which freely admits to influence from a number of other lesser writers.

For, no matter how much Gygax might have later denied it, Tolkien's fingerprints are all over original D&D. Look at the four player-character races in the original three-booklet boxed set from 1973/74: Men, Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits (Vol. I: Men & Magic, pages 6–8)—all found in Tolkien, and three out of the four directly derived from his work. And, to break chronology for a moment, a similar dominance is shown in the 1st edition AD&D's Player's Handbook [1978], which adds half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes; two out of three come directly, unambiguously, from Tolkien, while the single nonTolkien race proved the most unpopular player character race throughout AD&D's thirty-year history, finally being deleted with this year's release of Fourth Edition [2008]. Or, going back to 1973/74, look at the monsters these earliest adventurers were to encounter: of the sixty or so creatures listed in the Monsters & Treasures booklet (Vol II), a dozen come directly from Tolkien's work—that is, about a fifth of the whole, with the rest deriving from classical mythology (dryads, medusae, centaurs, minotaurs), medieval legend (wyverns, manticores, unicorns), folk lore (pixies), and horror stories (the undead); contributions from other modern fantasy writers (with the sole exception of Dunsany's gnolls—Vol.II page 8) are notably absent. Furthermore, the monster descriptions that follow repeatedly cite Tolkien as the source for that monster (mispelling it 'Tolkein' each time): Orcs (page 7: "the number of different tribes of Orcs can be varied as desired, basing the decision on Tolkein or random chance"), wights (page 9: 'Barrow Wights (per Tolkein) are nasty critters . . ."), spectres (ibid: "The Nazgul of Tolkein now fall into this category rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL"),Nt3 and even Rocs (page 17: "This term has been used to encompass large and fierce birds such as the 'Eagles' of Tolkein . . ." [emphasis mine]). And of course the book is marked with the presence not just of Tolkienian spellings (dwarves, elves) but of names the Professor invented: not just Hobbit but also Orcs, Balrogs, and Nazgul—this last was even featured, so labelled, on the title page. And I shd note that this usage continued in the early D&D supplements, such as Supplement I: Greyhawk [Febuary 1975; cf. page 5], and Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry [April 1976; cf. page 3], and even into the earliest printings of the D&D Basic Set [i.e., D&D 2nd edition] by J. Eric Homes [1977]. Even the piece of artwork that appeared on the very first page of the original 'Fantasy Supplement' that preceded the stand-alone D&D rules was obviously based directly on an illustration from a Tolkien book.Nt4

II. Not only was D&D in its first incarnation riddled with Tolkien borrowings, but TSR even put out a Battle of Five Armies boardgame in 1976, wherein Dwarves, Elves, Men, Goblins, Wargs, Giant Eagles, and Beorn fought various permutations of the great battle from The Hobbit. Since this year's theme for MERPcon is dwarves, I should note that my favorite variation listed in the rules is the all-dwarven one where the dwarves attempt to fight off Smaug's original attack on the Kingdom Under the Mountain, which includes the special rule "For this scenario Smaug may only be killed by Bowfire. Note: In this scenario the Dwarves have no Bows." Think about that for a minute. The only thing missing seems to be The Hobbit himself, since there is no counter representing Bilbo nor any mention of him within the game; he seems to have turned invisible & missed the battle, and game, altogether.

So, we see that in the years immediately following D&D's creation, TSR products borrowed heavily, and openly, from Tolkien. Sometime in 1977/78, however, Things Changed. Words like "hobbit" and "ent" and "balrog" suddenly disappear from reprintings of the D&D digests, replaced by "halfling" and "treant" and "Type VI Demon" [Eldritch Wizardry page 3]; we hear no more of "Nazgul" but only of "spectres" and "wraiths"; no more Tolkien boardgames like Battle of Five Armies appear from TSR. That these changes were only on the surface is shown by the AD&D Monster Manual—the first hardcover rpg book, released in late 1977—describing 'Halflings' as falling into three subgroups: Hairfeet, Stouts, and Tallfellows, which correspond exactly to Tolkien's Harfoot, Stour, and Fallohide.

III. So, what happened? The answer can be found, albeit obliquely, in Kristen Thompson's excellent book The Frodo Franchise [2007], a history of the making of the Peter Jackson movies. In her account of the way film rights to Tolkien's book got sold and resold to various filmmakers and studios, she describes how finally Saul Zaentz bought both the film and film merchandising rights in 1976, and by 1978 had set up Tolkien Enterprises to handle all licensing based on the Bakshi film (everything from Lord of the Nazgul piggybanks to puzzles that when assembled made photo-portraits of JRRT himself). This is important, because while conventional wisdom ascribes to the Tolkien Estate a reputation for laying down the law and descending like a hammer on people who use Tolkien names and characters without approval, in almost all cases I've been able to trace this is in fact not the Tolkien ESTATE—that is, the Tolkien family—but Tolkien ENTERPRISES, or Saul Zaentz. Given the uncertain state of the Tolkien copyrights in the 1970s (which is another story I can come back to later it you like), it's almost certain that it was NOT the Tolkien Estate, but rather Zaentz's Tolkien Enterprises, that sent TSR their cease & desist back sometime in late 1977. Whereupon Gygax and Company at once filed the serial numbers off, except in a few odd cases such as "orc" (which they ludicrously began to claim came not from Tolkien but from an Irish word for pig, leading to the silly-looking pig-snouted orcs of the Monster Manual [page 76]) and 'mithral' (which they simply decided to misspell) and otherwise went on their merry way.

A Good Day (Obama Wins)

So, Mr. Obama won, and won decisively. The popular vote, the electoral vote, and the number of states carried all went his way. Plus healthy working majorities in both houses of congress. Plus a huge upswelling of public support, not just here but around the world.

In the end, people voted their hopes, their convictions, and their consciences rather than their fears or their prejudices.

It's at times like these that I'm truly proud of this country.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

My Father's Birthday

Today would have been my father's seventy-seventh birthday.

I'm proud to share the name of the smartest man I ever knew; a songwriter who could never get his work recorded, a natural-born teacher who helped inspire my love of history, a parent who no matter how overworked was never too busy not to read us a bedtime story. Some people have trouble imagining their parents or grandparents as young; for me it's hard to imagine what he'd be like in his seventies, now that he's been dead for forty years after only living to the age of thirty-seven.* I do know he'd be deeply interested in the current election: I remember trying to make sense of the tv coverage of the 1968 Chicago convention he was watching, and that he was disappointed by Nixon's defeat of Humphrey just weeks before his first heart attack; my first date-able memory is his deep distress while watching the news (Huntley-Brinkley?) about JFK's assassination.** A war veteran himself (a radio operator in Korea) who hated war and whose best friend in the army was black, he'd be fascinated and proud we'd come so far as to nominate an African-American as one of the two candidates for president. His field was American History, and he was years ahead of the Dee Brown revolution in his admiration for Chief Joseph, and Geronimo, and the other American Indians leaders of the late nineteenth century. His favorite president was Jefferson; having recently come to consider Adams the better man of the two, I wish there were some way to have a conversation with him about the two men's respective merits. His death left a hole in our family that nothing ever filled, but I'm grateful to have been old enough to remember him.

From all of us who still remember you, rest in peace Papaw.

--John D. Rateliff, Jr.

*especially since none of his brothers lived past their sixties, no doubt in part due to heredity (Uncle J.W. had a stroke at 56, Uncle Aubrey an aneurism at 62; Uncle Trig and Uncle Curtis both died in their late sixties), and in part to smoking -- my father smoked three and a half packs of Pall Malls a day, or about ninety cigarettes.

**I was actually taken to see Kennedy when he came to Texarkana in the 1960 campaign, but of course I was too young to remember anything about it. I do remember seeing Johnson speak there when he was running for re-election in 1964 -- the only time I've seen a President while he was in office (I've shaken hands with Clinton, but that was while he was governor, and with Carter, but that was while he was on a book tour as ex-president).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Two Anniversaries -- Edgar Poe

So, today is the anniversary of Edgar Poe's death back in 1849. I didn't manage to swing by his gravesite in Baltimore on our trip to Silver Springs and D.C. this summer -- maybe another time -- but it is ironic that he's buried not where he lived most of his life but simply where he happened to have been overtaken by unexpected disaster (the details of which we shall never know) and suddenly died. I commemorated the event ('celebrated' is not the right word) by re-reading his last, unfinished story, "The Light-House", about which we know nothing other than it was found in his trunk after his death. A fitting mystery to end his remarkable career on, I think.

Thought I wd share a more recent tribute to Poe, a poem by Ray Bradbury I found when I picked up Bradbury's WHERE ROBOT MICE AND ROBOT MEN RUN ROUND IN ROBOT TOWNS [1977] on my first visit to a Half-Price Books (March 21st, 1987, in Austin Texas, in the company of Douglass Parker). Just about everybody knows how good a short-story writer Bradbury is (he's the means whereby 'science fiction' escaped the pulp ghetto into literature, giving him an importance in the 20th century matched only by Wells' in the 19th), but not many folks realize he's a pretty good poet as well. Here's some excerpts from a playful little piece he wrote about our debt to E.A.P.:

"I Have A Brother, Mostly Dead"

I have a brother, mostly dead
And angels curled upon his head
Most of my life, mostly unseen,
And yet I feel with him I've been
A cohort playmate friend of Poe
Who tours me where live friends can't go . . .

And so my brother, dead, you see
Is wondrous literate company.
Thus if my Muse says: Nevermore!
I hear a tapping at my door;
My brother comes to saviour me
With graveyard biscuit, rictus tea . . .

So Idea Ghosts sit up again . . .
And shape themselves with words for clothes.
All this my long lost brother does
This sibling spent before my cause . . .

[He shouts:] sweet brother, flower my tomb
With words so rare and phrase so bright
They'll bonfire burn away the night.

All this to me lost brother is
And I his live sweet Lazarus.
His shout ignore? his cry refuse?
No, no! Much thanks, long-dead fine Muse.

--Ray Bradbury


Two Anniversaries -- TSR

So, seventeen years ago today (Monday October 7th 1991) was my first day of work at TSR, back in the days when there was still a TSR, at Lake Geneva, back in the days when the folks who made D&D were still based in Lake Geneva. There's been a lot of coming and going, a lot of good people I'm glad to have had the chance to work with, a lot of projects I'm proud to have been part of. The hundreds of hours spent commuting in the worst Wisconsin winters had to offer, and only spinning out backwards across four icy lanes of interstate traffic once. All the unofficial overtime, and all the extra work we put in to make projects better. A whole department full of smart, creative, talented people who were in it for the love of the thing, not the money. The most disfunctional upper management I've ever encountered anywhere (far worse than the worst academic politics I came across, worse than government bureaucracy), and the smart, savvy lower management who did the best they could under the radar to help us turn out adventures and sourcebooks, the best of which were the best of their kind in the world.

I started the same month as Rich Baker (10/14-91), Thomas Reid (ibid), and Wolf Baur (10/21); Tim Beach came on in the RPGA about a month later. Of us all, Rich is the only one still at TSR > WotC > Hasbro; he's now been there longer than icons like Zeb Cook or Jeff Grubb had been when we first arrived, and last time I checked was still turning out first-class material that shd have long since ranked him as one of the legends of the industry. Thomas moved up into management, then out into freelance fiction and, later, working on the computer gaming side of the industry. Tim drifted out of the industry, unfortunately, though he had a good run (about five years) and still puts in a good appearance at the occasional con. And Wolf had the savvy to see the writing on the wall and shift from TSR to Wizards of the Coast before the Day of Doom in Lake Geneva, then similarly moved on from Wizards to Microsoft a few years later before WotC became a 'brand' of Hasbro; more recently he's staked out his own territory with the Open Design project and his own magazine, KOBOLD QUARTERLY.

So, here's a cup of tea (Keemun) raised to colleagues past.

--John R.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Alan Parson Project

So, I've been a longtime fan of the Alan Parsons Project since discovering their second (and still best) album during my summer at Fayetteville in 1978. Recently I've been trying to track down various odds and ends that I hadn't been able to find before, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet just over the last week or so I've finally gotten three new things.

The first was KEATS, which I first heard of about five years back. A friend (hi Rich) had loaned me a tape of Eric Woolfson's FREUDIANA, which I'd liked v. much and was trying to find a copy of for myself. Woolfson was Parson's partner in all of the albums they made together up through about 1987 or so, after which the two split (which is why there hasn't been an 'Alan Parsons PROJECT' album since, although there have been four 'Alan Parsons' albums, three of wh. have been good, one of them a match for the Project itself in its glory days.

Anyway, I first heard of KEATS as a second Woolfson solo project, in which it (and, puzzlingly, FREUDIANA) was described as a 'soundtrack'. After years of hoping I'd come across it somewhere, even taxing the expertise of the good folks at Silver Platter Records, a renewed search showed it was (a) not by Woolfson, and (b) not a soundtrack. Instead, it was Alan Parsons' studio musicians joining up with a singer to put out an album by themselves.

The results, regrettably, sound like content-free Alan Parsons Project: the sound is there but no concept; song flows into song without leaving an impression behind. You know you're in trouble when the best thing on yr album are the two commentary tracks added years later to the cd in which a member of the group and Alan Parsons himself reminisce about the attempt. So, pleasant enough background noise but only for completists.

The second recent purchase was a newer [2003] album I'd completely missed: a sequel by Woolfson (without Parsons) to their first album together (TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION, aka the Poe album) and still one of their three or four bests. Woolfson's follow-up (unimaginatively titled POE: MORE TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION) sounds much more like FREUDIANA than it does any Alan Parsons Project album. The main problem is that, while some of the songs are good or at least interesting or amusing, most of them have nothing to do with Poe. Whereas the original Parsons album had all its songs based on Poe stories and poems, that's the case with only four of the twelve songs here. The rest are filled with songs Woolfson somehow feels appropriate to Poe's life and times, like a lullabye his mother might have sung to him as a small child ("Tiny Star". The best song on the album, "Train to Freedom", about building the railroad, has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe, so far as I can tell (other than that they DID build railroads in his lifetime), but is a sort of John Henry spiritual with hints at the underground railroad (wh. Poe, I'm sorry to say, wd probably not have supported). "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is Poe-based, but gimmicky (it rather resembles the much better "It's Funny You Shd Say That" from FREUDIANA) and sounds like a production number from some musical; "Goodbye to All That", which seems to be inspired by Dunsany* rather than Poe, wouldn't be out of place as an out-take from EVITA. So mark this one down as interesting but not really good; perfect for a completist who enjoys both the musician and his topic (as I do).

The third purchase, and best of all, came courtesy of Itunes. In the course of poking around to find out what Alan Parsons material might be out there that I didn't know about, I came across two songs included in recent deluxe re-releases of classic Alan Parsons Project albums: "Edgar", a song by Woolfson that predates TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (the first Parsons Project album), and "No Answers Only Questions", a Parsons Project song that didn't make the cut for some album, now released as part of a greatest hits package (one of the group's many). Neither is so outstanding that you'd feel robbed not to have had them all these years, but both are unmistakably the real thing, and v. welcome.

And, best of all, all this new music has had me listening to my old Parson Project/Alan Parsons albums more than usual.


*I'm thinking of the devastating little story "In the Twilight", a first-person account by a drowning man, from THE SWORD OF WELLERAN [1908].

UPDATE (W.10/8): A closer listen and a look at the lyrics shows I was wrong about "Goodbye to All That", which is more a cynical counterpoint to Paul Stookey's "Wedding Song" than anything else. The liner notes for the cd claim it's about Poe's marriage to Virginia, but nothing in the lyrics supports that. --JDR

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Marquette Tolkien Lecture

So, it was exactly a year ago today that I gave the 2007 Blackwelder Tolkien Lecture at Marquette. It was and remains a great honor, for which I'm very grateful, and I'm immensely pleased that my talk is to be published next year.

I had hoped to be able to make it to Marquette again so as to attend this year's lecture, but as it turns out I've done too much travel already this year (including the recent unexpected sojourn in Montana) to be able to manage another trip to the Midwest. Which is all the more pity, since it looks to be a good one; the Speaker this year is Matthew Dickerson, who is mainly known for having written FOLLOWING GANDALF [2004], one of a group of books on Tolkien from a theological point of view that came out several years ago, and more recently co-authoring (with Jonathan Evans) ENTS, ELVES, AND ERIADOR: THE ENVIRONMENTAL VISION OF JRRT [2006]. The latter, which seeks to place JRRT in a tradition of Xian environmentalism, got a scathing review from Patrick Curry, who himself had written what was previously the most well-known book on Tolkien and environmentalism (DEFENDING MIDDLE-EARTH [1997]) -- but that's a review mainly notable for its constant complaints that Dickerson and Evans didn't quote from him enough.

The title of Dickerson's talk is to be "Beyond Romanticism: J. R. R. Tolkien's Practical Agrarian Romance"; it'll be presented at Marquette University library at 4 o'clock on Thursday, October 23, 2008. It's described on the library website as follows:

"Professor Dickerson will explore one element of Tolkien's comprehensive ecological vision expressed in his Middle-earth legendarium: the agrarianism of the Shire, and its contrast in the industrialized agriculture of Sauron and Saruman. While Tolkien's works might be dismissed as mere romanticism--idyllic fantasy with no implications to our world--the talk will defend a claim that the underlying ecology in these works is fundamentally practical (at many levels)."

here's the link:

If someone who does live in the area makes it to the lecture, I'd enjoy hearing about how it goes.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Open Circle Theatre's NECRONOMICON

So, it's October again, my favorite time of year. And that means it's time again for this year's Lovecraft play from Open Circle Theatre. Most years they adapt a trilogy of Lovecraft stories, sometimes with an original Lovecraft-esque tale of their own or framing story thrown in.

This year's something different: not an adaptation of an actual Lovecraft story but a wholly new piece loosely inspired by HPL. In this it's more like a typical Lovecraft movie than one of their earlier plays.

For those who live close enough to the Seattle area that they might be able to see this, it opens on Friday October 10th (a week from tomorrow) and runs through Thursday November 15th -- essentially over six weekends. Here's the link:


God Bless Russ Feingold

So, Senator Feingold once again steps forward when no one else will.

It turns out I was one of the lucky ones. I took our laptop with me on the research trip to Oxford last October, where it proved invaluable for my research in the Bodleian. What I didn't know at the time was that it could have been confiscated upon my return. Here's the quote summarizing the law as it currently stands:

"Most Americans would be shocked to learn that upon their return to the U.S. from traveling abroad, the government could demand the password to their laptop, hold it for as long as it wants, pore over their documents, e-mails, and photographs, and examine which Web sites they visited--all without any suggestion of wrongdoing," Feingold said. "Focusing our limited law enforcement resources on law-abiding Americans who present no basis for suspicion does not make us any safer and is a gross violation of privacy."

Here's the link to the newstory:

It's good to know that Adam Smith, my congressman here in Kent, co-sponsored the bill. Also that Maria Cantwell, who was a massive disappointment her first four years in office, continues to show that she's finally become the senator people thought she'd be when she was first elected.

It'll be interesting to see if Feingold can roll back the Homeland Security people.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pictograph Cave

So, probably the most interesting thing we saw while in Billings, Montana, with the possible exception of the Rimrock (a cliff wall that stretches for miles and miles all along the north side of the city) was the Pictograph Cave, which is in a rimrock-like formation about five miles east of the city.

Although it's called a 'cave', that's actually something of a misnomer, since they're actually more like rock shelters -- recesses in the cliff where the rock is deeply undercut by erosion (in this case, from above; at Meadowscroft in Pennsylvania, from a nearby river that flows past). And there are three of them, not just one: Ghost Cave on the left, Pictograph Cave on the right, and Middle Cave (the shallowest of the three) between them. When we visited, Ghost Cave, Middle Cave, and the path between them were all fenced off, presumably because of rockfalls from the unstable clifftop above.

Despite having the Worse Signage Ever for any state park or historical site I've ever visited,* it's a fascinating place and well worth a visit if, like me, you like this sort of thing and happen to find yrself in the area. In addition to being a beautiful sight, we enjoyed watching the local rabbits (which pull themselves up into balls, like little boulders, rather than lay flat, like Kent rabbits), a hawk, some moo-ey nearby cows, and the antics of a small flock of ravens (who clearly roost atop the cliffs to the right and mightily objected to the hawk's hanging around over the cliffs to the left). Unfortunately, what they don't tell you till you reach the rock-shelter itself is that hardly any pictographs are left. There used to be plenty of them, but that was before they decided to do a restoration of the rock-paintings. With sandblasters. These days there are only a few faint markings left on the cave walls, with a display for you to compare what was once there and try to puzzle out where. In a way it was remarkably like the sun-bleached original copy of the Declaration of Independence we'd seen a month earlier, which is so faded that you can just tell there was once writing on it (well, on most of it) but not actually read any of it. Alas.

Since the rock-art shown on the mounted display was really unusual, I wanted to find a local postcard, or poster, or booklet, or anything of the sort showing the site and/or the pictographs. In this I was utterly unsuccessful. In fact, the guy at the best local/independent bookstore I found in Billings, said he'd never seen anything of the sort, and he had a good section on local Indian material.**

Luckily, sometimes the internet will provide. Turns out there's a pretty good website devoted to the Pictograph Cave, which includes both pictures of the area and tracings made of the pictographs before they were destroyed. Here's the link:

Click on the "Park Images" button on the left to see photographs of the site. For the lost pictographs themselves, click on the "Tracings" button a little further down on the left, then click on each icon to enlarge the picture. The only one of these that is still visible today, at least to someone with my eyesight, is the third one from the left on the top row, the images of seven rifles in red (which must have been some of the last added, given the topic).

As a Tolkienist, I was fascinated by how much the stranger and sillier of these Native American doodles reminded me of the 'goblin scribblings' mingled with the Neolithic cave paintings in Tolkien's famous painting in the 1932 Father Christmas Letter.


*Most such sites -- e.g., the various geyser basins at Yellowstone -- have little pamphlets you can pick up for a dollar that guide you around, but the equivalent here just pointed out interesting plants and the like in a vague way. Worst still, each little sign along the path bore a pictograph and was positioned so as to point you towards one of the surrounding cliffs. Therefore we quite naturally spent a good deal of time staring at the cliffs, trying to see the image before us in that rock wall. Turns out once you get to the display outside the main 'cave' that almost all those icons are of pictographs inside the cave, not on the surrounding cliffs. They were just added to those lookout signs as a decorative element, not because it was anything you could see from there. Gah!
These folks could have learned a lot from the people who set up the petroglyph walk near Kona in Hawaii (on the dry side of the Big Island), which (a) had some modern reproductions of petroglyphs near the parking lot for those mobility-impaired visitors who cdn't manage the walk to the actual site) and (b) had that actual site clearly marked.

**[I picked up an interesting oversized monograph on the Crow at the time of their contact with Lewis & Clark, along with a little book of troll legends which included the turned-to-stone-by-sunlight motif, and what must be Thor Heyerdahl's last book, which I'd not seen before.]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

arlo guthrie nails it

So, we've now been to the local branch of our bank, and All Is (ostentatiously) Well, with no evidence of their precipitous collapse, take-over, shut-down, and buy-out except that FDIC announcements about how safe your money is have discretely popped up everywhere.

Recently Janice and I have felt the odd urge to sing snatches from an old song whenever we hear financial news about the latest bailout. Though I know it from Arlo Guthrie's performance on PRECIOUS FRIENDS [1982], it was originally written [circa 1979?] by Tom Paxton (as Guthrie himself is careful to note). See if it sounds more applicable than is quite comfortable:

"Oh the price of gold is rising out of sight
And the dollar is in sorry shape tonight
What the dollar used to get us
Now won't buy a head of lettuce
No the economic forecast isn't bright

"But amidst the clouds I spot a shining ray
I can even glimpse a new and better way
And I've devised a plan of action
Worked it down to the last fraction
And I'm going into action here today


"I am changing my name to Chrysler
I am going down to Washington D.C.
I will tell some power broker
What they did for Iacocca
Will be perfectly acceptable for me
I am changing my name to Chrysler
I am headed for that great receiving line
So when they hand a million grand out
I'll be standing with my hand out
Yes sir I'll get mine

"When my creditors are screaming for their dough (for their dough)
I'll be proud to tell them all where they can go
They won't have to scream and holler
They'll be paid to the last dollar
Where the endless streams of money seem to flow

"I'll be glad to tell them what they all can do
It's a matter of a simple form or two
It's not just renumeration
It's a liberal education
Ain't you kind of glad that I'm in debt to you?


"Since the first amphibians crawled out of the slime (of the slime)
We've been struggling in an unrelenting climb
We were hardly up and walking
Before money started talking
And it's sad that failure is an awful crime

"Well it's been that way for a millennium or two (um or two)
But now it seems that there's a different point of view
If you're a corporate titanic
And your failure is gigantic
Down in Congress there's a safety net for you


"I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler" by Tom Paxton, as performed by Arlo Guthrie.


Friday, September 26, 2008

A Seventh Ring

So, thanks to Steve Morrison's comment on my earlier post* (thanks Steve), I've now learned about another Ring of Invisibility, this one occurring in E. Nesbit's THE ENCHANTED CASTLE [1907]. Turns out (thanks again, Steve) the first to point this out seems to have been a Dean Hazelfan back in 2003:

More recently (Sept. 13th), Wayne & Christina have posted a more detailed account of the book's magical ring and the specific ways it might have influenced Tolkien (thanks Wayne):

Now that I've read the book for myself, I agree that it might well have been another element in the pot that contributed to Bilbo's ring. The most distinctive shared feature, as Wayne and Christina point out, is that Nesbit's ring makes the wearer invisible but not her shadow, which creates awkward situations. There are some minor points that may also be worth mentioning, such as one character's constant concern for missed mealtimes, the difficulty of getting meals when one is invisible; the breezy narrator is also at times rather like that in The Hobbit.

One interesting point is that Nesbit's is not really a ring of invisibility at all; rather, it's a ring that causes whatever its wearer says to come about. Thus at first it makes various of the characters invisible; then it makes one an old man, then another twelve-feet tall, then another a statue; eventually it brings two lovers together and creates a ghost. While it does at first seem tricksy, eventually the children learn how to use it properly; it's not in any way sentient, or evil, though its effects usually cause terror in all viewers.

It's not as good a book as FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, which we know was a direct influence on JRRT (the 'It' reappears in ROVERANDOM), nor an important influence on THE HOBBIT, such as Kenneth Grahame's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS and Loftings DOCTOR DOLITTLE books. But it's definitely worth considering as another element in the mix.



Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bank Failure

So, today the Federal Government shut down our bank. It wasn't entirely unexpected -- we'd been talking for several days about what happens when a bank fails, something outside our experience, and made a few emergency preparations, just in case. All the accounts are protected by the FDIC (thanks again, FDR: there's a reason you're still our greatest president), but we'll find out the practicalities involved over the next few days. How does a bank failure affect direct deposit? Is money from checking or savings accounts temporarily frozen? Have they shut down their Tyme machines, as seems likely?

Turns out this is the biggest bank failure ever ($310 billion dollars). I put it down to deliberate mismanagement -- they've done everything they could to wrack up as many bad mortgages as possible in order to collect as many processing fees as possible -- but their recent decline in customer service (every in-person visit now involves a sales pitch to give them more money) and name change from Washington Mutual to 'WaMu' (which sounds like a sick killer whale in faux-Inuit) couldn't have helped. Now WaMu is KaPu, it seems. Too bad.

In connection with the shutdown, they're being bought out by J. P. Morgan (the legacy of one of the most repulsive robber barons of the Gilded Age). Some of their branches will be shut down; I assume the name will change. For now the new owners promise to carry on with business as usual (but presumably less incompetently). Here's the link:

And on a day like this what did the best local paper have as its lead story? A piece about police tasering an emu. I kid you not:



More details about the downfall of Washington Mutual:

and here's another about what the new combined bank might look like:

Both of them leave out the big one I've become more and more convinced of: a bank shd not be traded on the stock market. Doing so creates obsession with short-term profit at the expense of long-term stability. Long-term is what a bank is all about; trying to run one like a start-up high-profit stock company is a recipe for disaster.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When is a Hill a Mountain?

So, I've always assumed that something was a hill or a mountain depending on who named it -- otherwise, why would the Black Hills be higher than the Ozark Mountains? Well, it turns out that there's a more or less official definition that if it's 2,000 feet high, it's a mountain; anything less than that is a hill.

This became relevant (well, as relevant as it gets) when they re-measured a Welsh hill this week and found out it's actually a few inches higher than they thought. So they're reclassifying it as a mountain. Thanks to Janice for drawing this story to my attention.

Here's the bbc article with a short video report:

And here's a bbc radio report on the same topic:

Finally, just for fun, here's a little piece on some volunteers fixing up one of England's chalk figures (the Cerne Abbas Giant). I got to see the White Horse when I was there in October, thanks to Charles and Tammi Ryan, and on my next visit I'm hoping to visit all three of the surviving Chalk Figures -- the White Horse, Long Man, and Cerne Abbas Giant (and possibly the sites of two destroyed figures, the Red Horse of Tysoe and the Plymouth Giants Gog/Magog). So, if like me you're interested in what Paul Newman called "The Lost Gods" of England*, enjoy:

--John R.

*[not the actor, but the author of the same name who wrote LOST GODS OF ALBION: THE CHALK HILL FIGURES OF BRITAIN]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tom Taylor

So, three years back as part of an ongoing effort to build up my library in books needed for a long-term Tolkien project I had (and have) in mind, I picked up an 1865 copy of BALLADS & SONGS OF BRITTANY, translated by Tom Taylor from Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarque's BARSAZ-BREIZ, the source for Tolkien's "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun". It's a fascinating little book, not least because it includes the original Breton tunes in the back, set to music by "Mrs. Tom Taylor" (i.e., Laura W. Taylor).

For years, this has been all I've known about Tom Taylor. Then this summer I came across a reference to him in Anthony Trollope's AUTOBIOGRAPHY, where he lists Taylor as one of the literary friends he made once he began to be successful as an author [circa 1864] and get invited to join the right clubs (in this case, the Cosmopolitan in Berlekey Square). This still did not tell me much about Taylor, but at least it gave me an idea about what circles he moved in.

Then in August (8/14-08) I was visiting the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. and found in their gift shop, of all things, a copy of the play Lincoln was watching the night he got shot: OUR AMERICAN COUSIN by Tom Taylor. I checked, and it is indeed the same Tom Taylor. It turns out that Taylor was a prolific playwright, writing more than a hundred plays, though this is the only one that lingers on in even a ghostly existence because of its accidental notoriety.

There's no entry on Taylor in my [1995] edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA -- one of the things that balked my initial cursory research -- but he's well represented in the Ninth Edition (Vol. XXIII of the 1888 American edition, pages 95-96), which reveals the further surprising information that he was, for most of the 1870s the editor of PUNCH.

As for OUR AMERICAN COUSIN [1858] itself, no one would ever call it a good play, but it does have its points. Think of the Beverly Hillbillies meeting up with Bertie Wooster and you more or less have the gest of the thing. It is amusing to note that some of the peculiar Americanisms of the main character's speeches include such words and phrases as 'small potatoes' , 'a swap', 'barking up the wrong tree', 'take the pledge', 'get hitched', and 'doughnut', all of which the English aristocrats who make up most of the cast find baffling and quaint.
So: there it is; another unexpected connection.


*[Trollope also mentions getting to know a number of politicians at the same time and in the same way, mentioning among others Knatchbull Huguessen (Jane Austen's great nephew, and the author of "Puss-Cat Mew", a childhood favorite of Tolkien's). Another literary acquaintance, mentioned elsewhere in the volume, was the now forgotten Fitzjames Stephen, Virginia Woolf's uncle.]