Saturday, January 31, 2009

At the Tobacconist, part two

Here's a transcript of the second half of Lesson Twenty: 'At the Tobacconist' --JDR


The Customer [A. Lloyd James:]: Can you recommend me some pipe tobacco?

The Shopkeeper [J. R. R. Tolkien]: Certainly, sir; mild, medium, or full strength?

ALJ: Oh! -- er -- medium, please.

JRRT: I have a very good mixture of my own; would you care to try it?

ALJ: How much is it?

JRRT: It's a shilling an ounce, sir, and very cheap at the price. I just keep it for my regular customers.

ALJ: Well, give me two ounces, please.

JRRT: Have you a pouch, sir, or shall I pack it up?

ALJ: Put one ounce in the pouch and pack the other . . . thank you.

JRRT: Anything further, sir?

ALJ: Yes, let me have a box of fifty cigarettes.

JRRT: Virginian or Turkish, sir?

ALJ: Turkish, please.

JRRT: Now, this is a very good cigarette, sir. I think you'll like it. Six shillings for fifty.

ALJ: All right, give me fifty. And let me have some matches, too.

JRRT: Yes, sir. One box?

ALJ: Yes, one box. How much is that altogether?

JRRT: Let me see, that's 2/- [two shillings], 8/- [eight shillings], 8/1d. [eight-and-a-penny] in all, sir . . . thank you, sir. Good morning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The New Arrival: Dimitra Fimi

So, yesterday (Tuesday the 27th) the newest book for the Tolkienist's bookshelf arrived: Dimitra Fimi's TOLKIEN, RACE AND CULTURAL HISTORY: FROM FAIRIES TO HOBBITS, just out from Palgrave/Macmillan. I've been hearing good things about Fimi's work from all sides for a while now, but haven't read any of it before. Not having known much about what her topic would be, I'm glad to see there's considerable overlap with a topic I'm interested in: Tolkien's drawing on folklore tradition. Even better, so far as I can tell so far, she draws on different sources than I did in my discussion of the folklore roots of hobbits and Tolkien's other faerie folk -- for instance, she makes no mention of Denham, or hobyahs, or SIR ORFEO, or the MABINOGI. This is all to the good, so far as I am concerned; I'm certain to learn something new by reading her book since she approached the topic by a different route, drawing on different sources, than I did. And although it's a relatively slim volume at 240 pages (roughly two hundred pages of text plus notes, extensive bibliography, and index), the type is small enough that they're relatively dense pages: there's a lot packed into the available space.

I shd also point out that it has a striking cover of a nice Tolkienian green, made by processing a photograph of Mosley Boy through a kaleidoscope.

More to come when I have a chance to do more than dip into it. In the meantime, I shd just observe that Fimi, who's based at the Cardiff University, teaches an online Tolkien class: for more information about that, see


current reading: MAKING MONEY by Terry Pratchett [2007]

Russ Feingold Strikes Again

So, looking at the unseemly spectacle involved in replacing the various senators who have resigned to take posts in the new Obama administration, Russ Feingold suggests that it's time we give up on letting governors appoint senators when a seat becomes vacant. For the first century or so of this country, we didn't get to elect senators; the state legislatures did that for us. That had come to seem so patently undemocratic that they changed the process to allow for direct election, just as with a state's governor, with the 17th Amendment (1913) -- a measure which was so popular that it was ratified in only a year. Now, almost a century after that, Feingold suggests it's time to follow through and make replacement senators be chosen by special elections rather than making it a really nice executive perk of the governor, as is the case in most states.

I've always rather liked the idea of appointments to fill out terms myself -- we've gotten some interesting people in office that way who would otherwise never have gotten in, like Hattie Carraway. But recently Paterson's incompetence, and Blagovich's corruption, has so tainted the process that I think Feingold's suggestion at least needs to be seriously considered, and I don't have much doubt that this is the way we'll ultimately go, whether now or later in piecemeal fashion. Nate Silver at argues that while special elections are expensive, what better way is there to spend money in a democracy than in setting up and running a free and fair election?

here's the link:


current cup of tea: licorice

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

At the Tobacconist, part one

So, here's the text for the first half of the first of Tolkien's two contributions to the Linguaphone Institute set of English language lessons from circa 1930. So far as I can tell, Tolkien is not the author of these lines; I suspect all thirty scripts were written by Prof. A. Lloyd James (Professor of Phonetics, Univ. of London), who seems to have supervised the entire project. However, James is careful to note in his Introduction to the accompanying booklet that the speakers had input and could add to or modify their parts, so there may be some genuine Tolkienian details or turns of phrase. Here's how James describes it (emphasis mine):

"This Linguaphone Course contains the language that educated people in England use to-day; and every effort had been made to ensure that the language shall be natural. None of the nine speakers has been asked to say anything that he or she would not or could not say in the circumstances; they have all been given an entirely free hand in emending their lines. We believe that as a result, students of English now have for the first time a course that is unique in that it embodies the actual living idiom spoken by educated English men and women of the early part of the twentieth century . . ."

Lesson Twenty: "At the Tobacconist"


If anybody were to ask me which shop-windows I found the most interesting in London, I should find it very hard to answer. My wife, I know, would be all in favour of the drapers, the milliners, and the jewellers. My eldest son would be all for the sports shops, with their golf clubs, tennis rackets, cricket bats, and footballs. The children would vote for the toy-shops -- and I -- well, I must confess to a weakness for the tobacconist's window.

Not that I smoke a lot, but there's something fascinating about seeing the neat little piles of different coloured tobaccos, the beautifully polished briar pipes, the attractive boxes of cigars and cigarettes. If you smoke a pipe, you have the choice of dozens of excellent brands of pipe tobacco; if you are fond of cigars, then you can get them at any price you care to pay; and if you prefer cigarettes, then you may have Virginian, Turkish, or Egyptian, whichever you like. Virginian cigarettes are, of course, those made of Amerian tobacco.

Matches are good and cheap, and you'll find all kinds of articles for smokers such as tobacco pouches, cigar and cigarette cases and holders, lighters, and so on, in every tobacconist's window. Many tobacconists, especially in the suburbs, are at the same time newsagents, stationers, and booksellers, so that you can also buy books, magazines, newspapers, picture postcards, and other stationary -- notepaper, envelopes, and so on.

Monday, January 26, 2009


So, given that I've taken the name for my blog from a Dunsany story ("The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth"), and given how few people read Dunsany nowadays, I thought from time to time it might be good to post here some of his work to give a feel for what his work is like. Luckily in addition to the short stories he's famous for he also sometimes wrote very brief little pieces that are more like parables or fables than short stories or prose poems, a number of which are collected together in the accurately but unimaginative named book Fifty-one Tales (1915). So, here's one of those pieces in its entirety:

"The Sphinx in Thebes (Massachusetts)"

There was a woman in a steel-built city who had all that money could buy. She had gold and dividends and trains and houses, and she had pets to play with, but she had no sphinx.

So she besought them to bring her a live sphinx; and therefore they went to the menageries, and then to the forests and the desert places, and yet could find no sphinx.

And she would have been content with a little lion but that one was already owned by a woman she knew; so they had to search the world again for a sphinx.

And still there was none.

But they were not men that it is easy to baffle, and at last they found a sphinx in a desert at evening watching a ruined temple whose gods she had eaten hundreds of years ago when her hunger was on her. And they cast chains on her, who was still with an ominous stillness, and took her westwards with them and brought her home.

And so the sphinx came to the steel-built city.

And the woman was very glad that she owned a sphinx: but the sphinx stared long into her eyes one day, and softly asked a riddle of the woman.

And the woman could not answer, and she died.

And the sphinx is silent again and none knows what she will do.

--Edward John Drax Moreton Plunkett, Lord Dunsany

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lessons of 1932

So, I've been curious lately in what we can learn about the current crisis from the last time we went through something like this, in the early days of the Great Depression. It's interesting how some thing from that era stick in our collective memory while others more or less faded out. For example, we all know about the stock market crash that started things off in 1929, and are familiar with the massive unemployment with its bread lines and soup kitchens and apple-sellers, the dust bowl that drove farmers off their land to become migrants. But we've forgotten about the congressional hearings that established how much of the boom and bust of the 1928-1929 stock market had been the result of corruption and manipulation. And, surprisingly for our current crisis, we've forgotten about the Bank Failures that came at the end of Hoover's term and cemented the country's economic collapse.

Between Hoover's defeat in the November 1932 election and Roosevelt's taking office in March 1933, the nation's entire banking system failed. Hoover, who had been propping up the nation's banks for some time by this point, made frantic and unsuccessful efforts to stem the collapse, mainly through something called the R.E.C. or 'Reconstruction Finance Corp.' -- which turned out to be about as effective as the post-Civil War reconstruction in accomplishing its end. One of the big controversies about the REC is that Hoover and his Secretary of the Treasury, Ogden Mills (and earlier Andrew W. Mellon), insisted on keeping secret what banks they loaned money to, for fear it would undermine public confidence in those banks. John Nance Gardner, the House minority leader and then Speaker of the House (and a longtime Hoover/Mellon foe), managed to get a bill passed calling for a "publicity clause" -- in modern terms, creating transparency and accountability by requiring public disclosure of where the money was going. Hoover and his team, like Bush and Paulson, strongly opposed this because they thought it would cause a run on those banks, which was what they were most trying to avoid. Jonathan Alter more or less takes their position in his discussion of the episode in THE DEFINING MOMENT: FDR'S HUNDRED DAYS AND THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE ("The amendment requiring public disclosure of all RFC loans sounds good, but it was like posting big DON'T TRUST US signs on the marble facades of ailing bands; any institution listed as receiving an RFC bailout was now at serious risk of a run" -- page 150) -- it's rather surprising to find a journalist like Alter, who works for NEWSWEEK, approving of the government's acting in secret or thinking it better the public not find out whether or not their banks are solvent, but so it goes.

By contrast, I think Frederick Lewis Allen in SINCE YESTERDAY, his 'instant history' of the 1930s published in 1939, puts it succinctly: "Perhaps the newspaper publication of the facts about RFC loans was a factor in bringing about this panic -- though to say this is to beg the question whether a banking system dependent upon secret loans from a democratic government is not already in an indefensible position. Probably the banks would have collapsed anyhow, so widely had their funds been invested in questionable bonds and mortgages, so widely had they been mismanaged . . . so lax were the standards imposed upon them . . . and so great was the strain upon the national economy . . ." (Allen, page 98; emphasis mine).

I think not only is Allen's statement frightenly applicable to the way the TARP bailouts were managed by Paulson, but his day-by-day account of the bank collapse during Hoover's lame duck period shows just how much we owe to FDR's reforms.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

More Poe

So, this week I got some of the new Poe stamps being issued by the Post Office in memory of his bicentennial. They look great, with the portrait being based on the 'Thompson' daguerreotype, one of two photographs taken in Richmond three weeks before Poe's death (the other being the now-destroyed 'Traylor' daguerreotype). It's also nice to see that they got the name right, with his signature ("Edgar A. Poe") across the bottom -- although the accompanying text on the sheet when you buy a block stumbles and gives the familiar "Edgar Allan Poe" instead. But aside from that (understandable) gaff, the actual write-up's not bad, stressing as it does that Poe excelled both as a writer of fiction and a poet (which of course sets him apart from any other major figure of the century, English or American). They might also add that he's one of the few authors taught in literature courses from that era who people still read on their own, outside of classes.

This makes me regret that, while I have the excellent two-volume set of Mabbott's edition of Poe's complete TALES, I don't have the one-volume POEMS that preceded it. And while I know there was a belated fourth volume collecting together Poe's longer fiction (i.e., THE NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM, THE JOURNAL OF JULIUS RODMAN, and some others -- all the things Mabbott died without getting around to), I haven't been able to find again the reference to who did edit that, or when it appeared.

So, I know one thing I'll be searching for on my next visit to Suzzallo-Allen.

--John R.

current reading: EDGAR A. POE: MOURNFULL AND NEVER-ENDING REMEMBRANCE by Kenneth Silverman [1991]

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Tea Boom Busts

So, thanks to Janice for letting me know about this story. Turns out there's been a huge speculator's market for fine teas in China these last few years, with people paying top dollar for the fanciest of pu'ers (compressed aged teas). Kind of like people paying too much for coffee, or wine, or tulips. Now about a third of the tea-merchants have closed up shop and some of the tea orchards (if that's the right term for them)* are being grubbed up and the land replanted with food crops. I loved the part about the wild tea trees (further investigation shows they do indeed exist, though there's great debate about those who fudge between truly wild trees, which are rare, and those "feral" tea trees from old-abandoned orchards, which are said to be good but not as superlative as the other). I don't particularly like pu'er myself -- give me a good Keemun or Yunnan instead -- but it turns out the Tea Guru from a few weeks ago was quite right: the compressed teas sold as pu'er are indeed better when they're aged, and the older the better. In fact, they're not quite 'black' teas because they're pressed, then age in tea-brick form, rather than being fermented like true black teas; they're really a special in-between category neither green nor black.

*Upton refers to its tea 'plantations', but that's a term I'd prefer to avoid.

today's teas: Clouds of Black (Great Wall Mall), Northwest Breakfast (Market Spice), Yunnan (The Tea Cup).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History Now

So, today we made history.

Too often, we're only aware of history when it touches our lives in traumatic ways. We remember watching the Twin Towers fall or the Challenger disaster, or where we were when Lennon or Reagan or Robert Kennedy or JFK were shot, just as an older generation remember the shock of Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima. We forget sometimes how vastly important things can happen quietly, peacefully,

So, today's a day to feel good about the times we get things right.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Edgar Poe's Two Hundredth Birthday

So, two hundred years ago today (January 19th, 1809), Edgar Poe* was born. In commemoration, here are two of his poems that can pretty well represent the precocious start and sudden end of his career. The first poem was written when Poe was about twenty (and when he already had his first two books behind him) but never published in his lifetime; it survives because he wrote it in the guestbook at a friend's house during a visit.

(I) Alone

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were -- I have not seen
As others saw -- I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.

Then -- in my childhood -- in the dawn
Of a most stormy life -- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold --
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by --
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

The second dates from the last year of Poe's life, when he wrote many of his best poems (including "The Bells", "Annabel Lee", and "El Dorado"):

(II) A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow --
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream

Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand

. . . can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

*Poe's name is often given (wrongly) as "Edgar Allan Poe"; while he sometimes used the middle initial 'A' (in memory of Frances Allan, his foster-mother), the "Allan" was added after Poe's death by his slanderer/biographer Rufus Griswold, probably to match the custom of the day (cf. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, &c.).


. . . some of the people

So, an Illinois politician once said

"You can fool some of the people all of the time
And you can fool all of the people some of the time
But you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

In the newest issue of THE NEW YORKER (Jan. 19th 2009, page 22), Hendrik Hertzberg adds a little more precision, observing that

"you can fool some people all the time. We now know how many 'some' is: twenty-seven percent."


Update, Jan. 19:
Tonight on MSNBC they're reporting the results of a newer poll: the Incumbent's approval rating is now down to 22%.

Forty Years Ago Today

January 17th, 1969.
R. I. P.
John D. Rateliff Sr.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fordyce Hall (second session)

So, two weeks back we gathered again for the second session of the CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT scenario I'm running, FORDYCE HALL. I think it went v. well: it showed me some things I need to make sure get covered in the write-up, and some others I've drafted that can probably be cut. I got a sense of just how far you can go without having a map for the players, and now think the final piece should have a map for the Keeper but not for the players -- or at least that the player's map, if one is provided, should lack a scale, grid, or compass: anything that helps them put what they see into rational, measurable terms cuts against the thrust of the game. The amount of detail to include in the main map(s) is still problematic, though: there's no way to detail, or even list, all the rooms in the manor (since this is a module-length scenario, not a full-fledged campaign), yet it needs to give the Keeper enough information to run the scenario AND also cover the significant spots on the nearby Estate grounds.

So far as the playtest went, I was struck by how greatly a game session is changed just by who shows up. In this case, Steve W. ("Denholm the butler") couldn't make it, which meant that the PC who should have been nominally in charge of the group of his fellow servants, and whose player had actually taken a leading role in the first session, was suddenly absent. Coming up with a good reason for that Investigator to go off on his own and not find his way back was easy enough, and his unexplained non-return even after several days served as an ominous note.

The butler's absence turned those he left behind more a collection of individuals stuck together in the same place than a co-ordinated group. The much-put-upon senior footman manfully attempted to fill in the gap, and the groundskeeper also did his bit at consensus building, while the gameskeeper, junior footman, and new hired hand did a lot of the necessary work to start making the place habitable (as well as making a few discoveries, the significance of which was not necessarily apparent to them, in the process). Overall they did manage to work pretty well simply from a sense of camaraderie, like a bunch of people sharing a lifeboat after their ship had gone down. They not only made a good start on their characters' assigned task of getting the long-abandoned estate up and running again but made progress exploring some of the mysteries of the place. But despite their valiant effort, this stage of the adventure ended with the survivors abandoning the estate en masse and fleeing in terror back toward the village -- a highly effective conclusion to Phase One, I thought!

Oddly enough, they never encountered the main challenge of the first phase -- the general gathering creepiness of the place having been enough to put them on edge so that a sudden horrific event was enough to drive them over the edge. One of the most effective locales turned out to be the abandoned apple-orchard; others that I'd thought would be important, like the huge library and the wine cellar(s), proved to be less significant -- partly because of the absence of the character with Library Research (the butler), and partly because other things took priority in the short term and they just didn't have long enough to explore as thoroughly as they'd have liked. The two NPCs (Mary the maid and Mrs. Puddley the cook) seemed to work well, both to take care of some of the practical concerns of the job at hand so the PCs could concentrate on more interesting things and, so long as they were there, as a Keeper tool to trigger some of the paranormal events (rather than waiting for a PC to stumble across them). I was glad to see their dark suspicions (paranoia?) re. the NPC cook, Mrs. Puddley, since it seemed to me exactly the sort of reaction people in their stressful situation would begin to feel.

In any case, now that the servants have all handed in their notice and fled the spot, we can bring down the curtain on Phase One, and move on in the next session to Phase Two of this two-part adventure. Here the same players generate a new set of characters, no longer servants but now the gentry arriving at the newly refurbished hall to celebrate the holiday season in Sir Charles' new country manor. Not only will the players' new characters get to benefit from the hard work of their last set, but they get to see the same setting from a whole new (privileged) perspective. I'm looking forward to seeing how they take advantage of their new opportunities, and how they face the new challenges that kick in now that the Family is back in residence after all these years.

More latter.


Today's Teas: Keemun (The Tea Cup), Yunnan (Market Spice), Huckleberry (Market Spice), Canton Red (Vital), & Flowery China Black (Upton).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Two Encounters with Tea

(i) C. S. Lewis Tea

So, I recently learned, from a post by Joe Christopher on the MythSoc list, that a online mail-order Tea retailer based in Austin Texas, The Tea Embassy, offers a "C. S. Lewis Tea Blend" (see below for the link). Intrigued, I decided to give it a try, and a few short days later it arrived. In honor of Lewis's well-known statement that 'You can't get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me", I used my biggest (triple-sized) mug. It turns out to basically just be the well-known blend usually known as 'Irish Breakfast', in this case described on its label as a mix of "bold black tea[s] from India's Assam region". I tend to prefer strong China teas (Keemun, Yunnan) over the weaker India teas (Assam, Darjeeling), but this is a pleasant enough cup; I'll definitely offer it up the next time book group gets together here (i.e., Sunday).

That one should have to go to Texas to buy a tea associated with Lewis is somewhat odd, but I take it as another sign that he's far more popular over here than in his own country. They do have the part about him being Ulster-Irish, rather than 'English', right; a point most Americans tend to ignore but which the surviving recordings of his voice make abundantly clear. Here's the text describing this tea on their website:

"Our special black tea blend of estate Assam teas honors the writer C.S. Lewis, since he was born in Belfast, Ireland and an avid tea drinker, we decided to make an Irish Breakfast tea blend in his memory. Enjoy this bold breakfast blend of excellent and tasty Indian black tea every morning or even in the afternoon. Goes well with a book."

and here's the link:

(ii) Vital Tea Leaf (Tea Bar)

Meanwhile, on Friday we went down to the Market as part of our three-day celebration of Janice's Birthday. We'd planned to go on Christmas Eve but the foul weather and uncertain transportation options led us to defer it till things improved and we could be certain of getting both there and back again.

We took a slightly different route walking to the Market from where we parked the car, and came across a tea shop I hadn't seen before: VITAL TEA LEAF, at a spot a few blocks north and a block or two east of Pike Place.* We decided to investigate, and I'm glad we did, since it turns out to be not just a place that sells bulk tea as well as delicate little tea pots and all sorts of tea paraphernalia (rather like Perennial Tea Room in Post Alley) but a tea bar. Unfortunately, their main focus seems to be on green teas, which I don't enjoy drinking. Nevertheless over the next half-hour or so we sampled a vast array of teas of all types, including some fine aged Keemun, and greatly enjoyed our tea-host's hospitality. We eventually left, two new types of tea in hand. During our stay I learned two things I didn't know before.

First, in response to my question of what he'd recommend as the must-see if we shd ever get to China (since the country's so vast that there's no way to see all the highlights), he said The Great Wall.

Second, it had always been my understanding that tea got stale, esp. when exposed to air and light (hence the good folks at The Tea Cup, my favorite source of tea, urge their customers to keep bulk teas in air-tight (opaque) cannisters. By contrast, our tea-expert here instructed me to crumble up some of the aged Keemun and expose it to air a few days before steeping. Interesting. I've now tried some the regular way; next will be to try some following his advice.

Here's the link:

*turns out they have another shop at the extreme southern end fo Pike Place Market, as well as three in San Francisco's Chinatown, two in Seattle's Pike Place Market)


today's teas:
Northwest Breakfast (from MarketSpice)
Keemun Hao Ya A (from The Tea Cup)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hilary Tolkien's book

So, while it's not as big a bit of news as word that Tolkien's SIGURD poem(s) are being published at last, there's none the less another welcome announcement about a forthcoming book by a Tolkien within the last few days.

This time, it's not JRRT but his brother Hilary who's the author. Even though Hilary died just a few years after his older brother, in 1976, the family has decided to publish some reminiscences he'd jotted down about his early years, including their growing up together in Birmingham. Titled BLACK & WHITE OGRE COUNTRY: THE LOST TALES OF HILARY TOLKIEN (after the Tolkien Brothers' nickname for the two Father-and-Son millers who ran Sarehole Mill in their day), it's to be a slim volume of some eighty pages, edited by Angela Gardner and illustrated by Jef Murray, and due to be released the end of this month.

What's more, this is the first of two planned books by H.T., the other, which should follow in a few months' time, being a collection of letters and photographs. This shd go v. well with the recent TOLKIEN'S GEDLING 1914, which focuses on the Tolkiens' Aunt Jane but has a few photographs and reminisces about a young Hilary T., and the promised forthcoming book by the same authors on Aunt Jane's farm known as 'Bag End'. We're getting more and more of these pieces about people who were important to Tolkien, and they're helpful in giving us bits and pieces that help fill in the picture.

BLACK & WHITE OGRE COUNTRY doesn't seem to be available (?yet) from amazon, but I was able to order a copy through ACD Books (; for more information about the Hilary Tolkien books, see Jef Murray's 'Mystical Realms' newsletter for January


as well as the write-up on (

There are also at least two new works of Tolkien scholarship on the way that sound interesting; more on these later. But in general it looks like 2009 will see some interesting new Tolkien releases.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Yes, We Will Have No Bananas

So, I hadn't heard about the coming Great Banana Crisis until I saw the article linked to below. Turns out this has been in the air for a while: Janice (who provided the title to this post) already knew about it. It's strange to read that the kind of bananas you see in every market today will be gone within a generation, and even stranger to find out that this has already happened once in my lifetime, without me ever noticing.

Basically, the story is that plantation farming of a single banana variety (the Gros Michel, or 'Big Mike') laid banana farmers vulnerable to a banana blight ('Panama Disease'), resulting in the disappearance of the most popular type of banana in the world back in the 1960s, when the Chiquita people switched over to the second-best variety, a Vietnamese banana known as the Cavendish. Apparently a Cavendish is quite different from the old Gros Michel ("smaller and less creamy"). Now today the process is repeating itself: Cavendish plantations are succumbing to the banana blight and they're working on a new "Banana 3.0": the Goldfinger. Which is resistant to Panama Disease (for now) but, unfortunately, tastes like an apple.

The thing that really gets me about this story is not the cautionary tale about how stupid it is to grow one homogeneous crop -- I can't help but think most cities in the US are ripe for a maple tree disease -- but that this is the first time I've known about what happened, even though I was around at the time. Maybe it has something to do with my having given up eating bananas around 1965 -- certainly by the time I entered first grade. But even though it's practically the only kind of fruit I dislike, I've still inadvertently eaten bits of banana from time to time since -- for example, when taking a big bite out of what I thought was coconut or lemon pie, only to discover it was (ugh) banana cream pie, or similar mishaps involving banana bread. And I never noticed that the newer banana was any different from the older ones. Unless the shift was already well underway by the mid-sixties, and my 'before' and 'after' are both of modern-day (Cavendish) bananas?

While, as someone who won't eat bananas, I'm v. much on the sidelines on this one, it's striking how similar this is to what happened with apples, which I definitely did notice at the time, though I didn't know the why of what was going on. There used to be three varieties of apples in grocery stores: Delicious (or Red Delicious), Golden Delicious, and Winesap. Sometimes there'd also be green apples, which I assume were Granny Smith, though I cdn't swear to it. But at some point the Winesaps disappeared -- I haven't seen one in years -- and Red Delicious and Golden Delicious both got bland and mealy, so that I stopped eating as much of them.

Turns out that a lot of other people did too: the apple-growers had shifted to growing apples that looked good over those that tasted good, and once folks started importing new varieties of apple from New Zealand in the nineties (Cox, Gala, Braeburn) it pretty much drove the Red Delicious growers out of business. Now not only have better, more old-fashioned Red Delicious returned but there's a huge variety in the mega-marts, including new varieties like the Jazz, Pink Lady, and Honeycrisp. These are good times for apple-lovers. Pity they're all so high-carb that I can't eat them v. often.

Tomatoes are another case where I saw what was going on -- the disappearance of locally-grown tomatoes for bland hybrids bred for shipping and appearance, not for taste. Here the tomato growers saved themselves by introducing the 'hydroponic' and 'on-the-vine' tomatoes, which at least were better than the new (low) standard fare. Even better was the recent introduction of 'heirloom' tomatoes -- all of which turn out to be funny-looking types I never heard of. The basic tomatoes of my youth are still missing, along with some more specialized older varieties like the Bradley Pink Tomato, but at least we got some good (if too-expensive) heritage tomatoes out of it.

Now I'm hoping they do the same to watermelons. The Dixie and Dixie Queen seem to have vanished, replaced by those pallid, bland, 'seedless' mini-melons that have gained so much favor in recent years. I'm hoping someone sees a market in heirloom watermelons like the Black Diamond. But I'm not holding my breath.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

NEW TOLKIEN: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun

So, today came the welcome news that a new Tolkien book has been announced for publication by HarperCollins. Edited with an Introduction by Christopher Tolkien, it's slated for a release date of May 2009. Here's the news item; my thanks to Joan Marie Verba of the MythSoc list for posting the link:


The relevant paragraph runs as follows:

"The previously unpublished work was written while Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University during the 1920s and '30s, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The publication will make available for the first time Tolkien's extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niflungs."

This is a work we've known about for a long time -- at least since October 1981's publication of Letters of J. R. R. T., in which Tolkien discusses it in a letter to W. H. Auden (himself a translator of the Old Norse Poetic Edda). But very little about Tolkien's take on the story -- the most famous of all Old Norse legends -- is known. I've always assumed that Tolkien would follow the original Sigurd lays* in The Elder Edda for the most part, but there's a great gap in the manuscript which means that we have to go instead to the prose Volsunga Saga for those parts of the story. My guess is that Tolkien not only merged the individual lays into a continuous narrative poem but probably re-created the lost stanzas from the prose synopsis, making this yet another of his asterisk-texts. In any case, we'll soon see -- which is a wholly good thing.

No listing of it so far on,, or the HarperCollins site, that I could find. More details later.

--John R.

*as opposed to Wm Morris, who both translated the saga (Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs) and created his own narrative-poem version of the story (The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs).

current reading: David Cannadine's MELLON: AN AMERICAN LIFE [2006], Edgar Poe's POLITIAN [1835]

current audiobook: Woodward's THE WAR WITHIN [2008]

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tolkien in Kanji

So, here's a fun little factoid (or possibly faux-fact).

Douglas Kane recently pointed out on the MythSoc list (
that Tolkien's distinctive monogram -- which has now been trademarked by the Tolkien Estate -- bears a strong resemblance to a Chinese/Japanese character. It seems unlikely that Tolkien was aware of this,* and highly unlikely that he modeled his mark upon the oriental model, and as such offers a good example of the perils of using similarity as a basis for source-studies. But nonetheless the similarity is real, and striking.

Here's the link D.Kane provided:

--John R.

*although he may have become so long after the fact -- Oxford attracted a lot of foreign students, and he is known to have given away the original of one of his pieces of art for THE HOBBIT to a Chinese student.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"Yonder's Henry"

So, last night Janice's co-worker returned from the Midwest (Appleton), having survived a trip to and from Wisconsin over the holidays. Rather than letting her face ten days of airport parking, we suggested she leave her car here and made sure she got to and from the airport. This seemed all the better an idea since she was travelling with Henry, her six-month-old dachshund, and it's always tricky flying with a pet (as Janice knew from having successfuly done so when she flew out here with Parker). It seemed cruel not to let Henry run around outside his carrier, given how many hours he'd have to stay in it once he left here, so we used a screen to block off the stairs, keeping all the cats on one side and giving Henry free run of the downstairs. Hastur, predictably, hid till it was all over, but Rigby and especially Feanor came and stared unblinkingly at him pretty much the whole time from the other side of the screen.

Anyway, both Henry and his master got off safely, and came back safely. But then came a hitch. It started snowing just before Janice and I left for the airport to pick them up, and by the time we left the airport for the ride home it was snowing heavily. We unburied her car from the rapidly accumulating snow and saw them off, telling her to come back if the roads were too bad. An hour later she called that she'd still not gotten as far as the interstate (only about two-three miles from our place) and asked if we could put her up for the night after all. We were glad to do so, though we got really anxious during the two hours it took her to make it back. In the meantime we made up the guest room and set up the cats' things where they and Henry could keep their distance (no sense asking for trouble).

The next day she and Janice went off to work, leaving me in charge of three cats and a dog. I didn't get nearly as much done on Monday as I'd planned, but it was interesting, after being so used to the cats' rhythms (and they to mine), to having our routine shaken up by a very lively little dog. I've never been near a dachshund before, so I don't know how typical Henry is or how anomalous. Ignoring the fact that he was smaller than any of the cats, he kept going right up to them, which utterly unnerved them -- even Feanor, who's almost three times his size and flattened himself into an enormous furry puddle at Henry's approach. Luckily all three quickly concluded that Henry was some sort of innocent or savant, and they never tried to scratch him (most cats are similarly insistent around toddlers and infants), although they concluded they most definitely didn't want to be anywhere in his vicinity. Sporadic chasing ensued, in which they put their superior speed and knowledge of the terrain to decisive advantage, eventually finding refuges from which they were reluctant to venture forth.

As for Henry, though he showed deep suspicion about me early on, as the day went on he got to following me around, wanting to spend time in the same room with me, and generally staying close. Eventually I put him under my desk, where he fell sound asleep. So that Feanor did not suspect his presence when he came to join me while I worked, as is his usual routine. His expression when, some time later, Henry jingled his collar and Feanor realized he'd been sleeping on top of a desk that had a DOG sleeping under it was, shall we say, complex.

A mid-day report I sent to Janice included this summary:

Hastur says the closet is, or shd be, a fine and private place.
Rigby says she's not coming out from under that bed, no way.
Feanor says what HAVE we done, and what do we intend to do about it?
Henry says -zzzz-

Eventually, after a few walks and a few errands (with Henry behaving himself in the cat-carrier), the work-day ended: he was reunited with his master, they rode off home together, and we set about restoring the status quo with our threesome.

Oh, and the header for this post is an inside joke, being the name of Thorne Smith's only short story. Not a v. good story (one of Smith's few mis-fires), but it seemed apropos, esp. since I'd just read about Smith a day or two before in Thurber's memoir of The New Yorker, YEARS WITH ROSS.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Tolkien's Birthday

Happy Tolkien Day, all!