Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Well, This Is Weird

So, I've been plugging away at re-reading C. S. Lewis's WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD, his contribution to the book ARTHURIAN TORSO [1948], where it was paired with Wms' unfinished book on the Arthurian legend, THE FIGURE OF ARTHUR. Lewis's piece was apparently written in 1946 and was based on a lecture series Lewis had done in the fall of 1945, just months after Wms' death. For the most part it's a v. helpful explication of Wms' rather opaque private mythology. It suffers somewhat from Lewis's overestimation of Wms' work -- but then, wdn't it be worse if looking back some sixty-odd years later we saw Lewis being dismissive of a friend's work rather than overpraising it?

One passage in particular, however, really threw me when I ran across it earlier today, for the sheer oddity of what Lewis was saying. He's talking about Wms' poem "Taliessin in the Rose-Garden", from Wms' second* book in the Taliessin cycle, THE REGION OF THE SUMMER STARS [1944]. In the context of explaining references to the Fisher King, the Red Spot on Jupiter, and all the women of the Empire, Lewis writes

Williams assumes** that the huge reddish spot which astronomers observe on the surface of Jupiter is a wound and the redness is that of blood. Jupiter, the planet of Kingship, thus wounded, becomes, like the wounded King Pelles, another ectype of the Divine King*** wounded on Calvary. And finally we have one of those physiological symbols which will seem grotesque to many readers but which spring inevitably from the poet's whole view of the body and are meant with all seriousness. The menstrual flow in women presents certain problems on the scientific level in so far as it is not really quite paralleled by what seem at first to be the parallel phenomena in the females of other species. Williams sees it as a 'covenant in the flesh'. By it all women naturally share in the great sacrifice. That, indeed, is why they are excluded from the priesthood; excluded from the office because they thus share mystically in the role of the Victim;

Well are women warned from serving the altar
who, by the nature of their creature, from Caucasia to Carbonek,
share with the Sacrifice the victimization of blood.****

So far as I can tell, the bit about "certain problems on the scientific level" is Lewis's intrusion and doesn't represent anything Wms wrote. On the other hand, occasionally Lewis draws on conversations he had with Wms to elucidate passages in the poems, though generally he identifies his source. In any case, I have no idea what science or pseudo-science Lewis is referring to here.

The idea that women's having periods disqualifies them from the priesthood is a much, much older excuse and does indeed seem to genuinely represent Wms' thought, though it turns out he had an unusual take on this (as on practically everything else). The primitive idea (cf. the Old Testament) is that this makes them 'unclean' in some way. But saying 'Moses thinks girls have cooties' isn't much of a reasoned argument for excluding women. For his part, Lewis in his essay "Priestesses in the Church" -- which I once dubbed his single worst essay -- falls back on cliches about masculine and feminine principles representing eternal verities as his justification for proclaiming that only Men can serve as Priests.

Wms turns this around completely: in an argument diametrically opposed to that in Lewis's essay, he identifies all women with Christ himself because both bleed ("all women . . . share mystically in the role of the Victim"). I confess I don't understand how this is supposed to sync up with the doctrine that the priest stands in for Christ during the mass, assuming Wms believed that. Perhaps "mystically" is a code word meaning that what he's saying can't be translated into rational terms. In any case, I find it interesting that when Lewis came to write his own essay on the topic, the same year that WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD was published, he completely ignored Wms' ideas and entirely went his own way.

In any case, for anyone thinking of reading Wms' poems, I'd advise just plunging right in at the beginning and reading both volumes straight through. Like Pound's Cantos, you're supposed to enjoy the word-music and flow of ideas and images first and can go look up all the references and try to make sense of it later. Anyone who's read Yeats and Pound and Eliot will find that Wms, while no Frost, isn't nearly as stiff going as reputation wd have it.***** Wms isn't one of the greats -- there's a reason he never made it into the canon or onto the syllabus -- and as an attempt to retell the Arthurian legend it's a mess (all Wms is really interested in is the Grail; he isn't interested in Arthur himself at all). But if he's a minor poet, his poetry is still distinctive and worth reading, esp. if you want to see just how far through the looking-glass an Inkling cd go.


*actually his third, but most people ignore HEROES AND KINGS [1930] which, given some of the surprises contained therein is a good thing for Wms' reputation.

**I wd have said, 'adopts the conceit that'

***i.e., Christ

****p. 334 in the Eerdmans omnibus edition I have, a gift from Kath Filmer, which prints TALIESSIN THROUGH LOGRES, THE REGION OF THE SUMMER STARS, and ARTHURIAN TORSO with continuous pagination. The three lines at the end quoted from Wms' poem appear on page 144.

*****one final shortcoming of Lewis's commentary worth noting is that while he does admit to (and lament) one poem's showing T. S. Eliot's influence, he nowhere credits Yeats as the source of Wms' central image, Byzantium as a symbol of Order in a changing word (e.g., "Sailing to Byzantium" [1928]).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Matchbox Models of Yesteryear

So, our visit to the LeMay antique car museum down in Tacoma a few weeks back reminded me of, and made me nostalgic for, the old Matchbox 'Models of Yesteryear' cars I had as a kid. A few years back I'd seen what called itself a Matchbox Models of Yesteryear down at SeaTac Mall (now 'The Commons'), but it was clearly part of a later run, being slightly larger and also simpler than the originals I'd known. I wondered if the originals might be available online secondhand -- after all, everything else is, more or less -- but a quick check convinced me they were few and far between and wd cost an arm and a leg.

Now, revisiting it a few years later, I find from a little time poking about online, including a few exploratory dips into Ebay, that there's a lot more information available. And while mint condition in original boxes from some forty-odd years ago WILL cost you a fortune, less pristine cars can be quite reasonable (say, four or five dollars each). Not bad. A few weeks later, and I now own a not-quite random assortment of seven of the Models of Yesteryear, many the same as those I enjoyed so much so long ago.

Best of all is a 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, just like my favorite of them all and the very first one I ever got, back in second grade (1966/67) either at the Blass or the Montgomery Ward (where my mother worked) in the new University Mall in Little Rock.* I think the other earliest one I had was a 1911 Maxwell Roadster, bought about the same time or a little later, which I think might have originally been my sister's that I later inherited; have to look for one of those too.

Also among these new acquisitions is a nice yellow 1913 Cadillac, another of the the early ones I got maybe around Fordyce (1967) or Jonesburo (1968) days. Too bad I wasn't able to get the little white 1909 Opal Coupe, one of the simplest cars in the series (apparently it was advertised as a doctor's car, steady and reliable).

Another favorite was the 1914 Stutz Bearcat, which was not only a beautiful car but had the neatest name ever; this one I think I got after our return to Magnolia in early 1969.

So, a lot of memories, packed into a few old toy cars. Well worth it. There are a few more I'll be on the lookout for, and I may try to get a few I didn't know about then. For example, one I picked up that I don't remember at all from the old days, though it's a good-looking car that looks vaguely familiar, is the 1909 Thomas Flyabout; this one came with a somewhat damaged roof (which is at least better than the roof's being completely missing, as with the Stutz.

We'll see.

--John R.

*recently torn down, alas, so that it's once again a huge hole in the ground, just as when I first saw it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Excursions

So, it's been more than three and a half years now since Janice got the great idea of our trying once each month to do something we haven't done before -- go to a new place, try a new activity, and the like. It's all too easy to fall into a routine,* or to never get around to seeing some of the interesting places not that far away. And, inevitably, we'd find some things we'd want to do over.

Hence our return visit weekend before last to the first place we went, back in January 2007: the Museum of Flight, a Boeing-sponsored place full of airplanes --vintage, historical, significant, or just plain interesting. They've got everything from a mock-up of the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk plane to a retired Air Force One and the Concorde. But the time we went the Space exhibit was closed for re-modeling. So, this second visit we made a bee-line straight for the spacecraft section, where we spent most of the rest of the afternoon. Rockets (from Goddard and Van Braun onwards), satellites, the US and Soviet space programs, probes, &c. were all there. It was somewhat surprising to see a Lunar Module, a Lunar Rover, a segment of the Int'l Space Station, one of the Mars rovers, &c and see how bulky and low-tech some of them were, held together with rivets and screws.** Some of these were prototypes, some training modules, some replicas; a good mix of each (as opposed to the WWI room, which is almost entirely reproductions with only a smattering of genuine old planes). Their signage and voice-overs didn't always agree with what I thought I knew about the space program(s), so I'll have to do some digging to find out if I'm wrong on various minor points.

They did have an illuminated rotating globe that was great: push any of ten buttons and its surface replicated that of any planet in our solar system (plus the Sun itself). Be nice to have a home model of this. On the whole, I'd say that museum staff might go batty listening to JFK's we will go into space speech over and over again, but overall they have a great exhibit. So much so that I lingered until there wasn't time to see much more of the rest of the museum. So we headed over to the WWI exhibit for a quick look at the planes there, being careful this time to avoid the horrifically depressing trench warfare part of the exhibit and listening to as little of the voice-overs describing what the war was really like as possible.

And then, this past weekend, we did something completely different: once again took part in the farm tours held once a year in this area. This time instead of just the two of us we met up with The Monkey King and little Heidi and drove up to see three farms in the Snolquamie Valley: two on the verge of Falls City and the third just south of Carnation. The first had a lot of animals (miniature donkeys, friendly horses, pheasants, a tom turkey, interesting-looking chickens, quail, &c). The second had alpacas. And the third had a pick-your-own pumpkin patch and a hayride. It's interesting how visiting a farm with a four-year-old changes yr perspective on an excursion like this one. Sorry we didn't make it to an orchard this year, but all in all, an enjoyable outing. Perhaps next year we'll do the Vashon Island farm tour, since we still haven't ever gotten over that way yet in thirteen years.

And next month we plan to stay in a B&B shaped like a 16th century castle. More on this later.

--John R.

current reading: WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD (by CSL), WICKED (by Maguire).

*our code for this is 'needing to get off the West Valley Hwy'.

**an interesting exception was the Space Station unit, which deliberately avoided touch-panel on/offs, since that wd make it too easy to activate (or deactivate) something just by brushing against it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Poor Poor Pitiful He

So, earlier this week I came across a piece someone had posted online and got so much grief about it that he not only deleted his post but gave up blogging. Ouch. Here's the original story as I saw was on Huffington Post a few days ago:

As it says, the original post had already been deleted by the time I heard about it, but such is the internet that the full text was still available elsewhere, having been re-posted by someone else interested in the issue:

If you're interested at all, be sure to read at least the first few comments in the thread afterwards, in which Henderson provides a lot more information and moderates some of his assertions.

Finally, for sympathetic commentary from someone who feels his pain, check out

This commenter wins points from me by saying ". . . fine. I’m willing to pay my share, albeit begrudgingly."

My own point of view? Yes, if you make a quarter-million a year, you're near enough to rich that you might as well describe yourself as "extremely well off" rather than "just getting by". But living in a major city is prohibitively expensive, and buying a too-large house is a good way to run up more debt than you can handle, especially if you and your wife combined already owe student loans that combined total MORE THAN DOUBLE your gross income each year. If you live like your income was four or five times what it actually is, you'll still be strapped no matter how much money you make. But talking about your maid service, your yard service, your "nanny" (actually just off-site daycare), and private schools lose you a lot of good will. Mr. Henderson also voids a good deal of sympathy by his falsely misrepresenting the expiration of a temporary cut as "raising my taxes": like his griping about all the things he doesn't want his money going for it makes him sound like a tax deadbeat.*

Here's one way to put it:
Paying about two-fifths of your income in taxes sounds about right, but then most people have a fantastically exaggerated idea of how low a 'fair' tax rate should be, based more I think on local sales taxes than what it actually costs to run all those government services we all rely on. I suspect most think one-tenth or so sounds about right, though of course if they got that they wd complain bitterly about its still being too high.

To put it another way:
If you're making a quarter-million dollars, and you're barely getting by, you're doing something wrong.

Hence my favorite quote from among all the comments I read, in which one person who did consider himself well-off passed the following judgment: "The reality is that anyone that complains of the minimal tax pinch on $250K earning families is either so hopelessly financially incompetent that they need to turn they're financial matters over to a guardian [or] completely clueless as to life's realities . . ."

--John R.

*what don't I want MY money going for? the easy answer, for a pacifist, is: War. Much better to think of your portion as going for the things you approve of that your government does, like, say, free public libraries, rather than the things you dislike.

Postscript: Janice pointed out another interesting commentary on Henderson's post, which I found well worth reading:


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reflections on REFLECTIONS

So, since I'd just read the Book of Psalms (at 150 Chapters the longest book in the Bible), this seemed a good time to read CSL's REFLECTIONS ON THE PSALMS [1958], one of his minor apologetical works and one of the few of his books I've never read. Having now finished it, after plugging away bit by bit for two weeks, I'm afraid I found it a minor effort -- neither a high (e.g., THE DISCARDED IMAGE) nor a low (e.g., THE ABOLITION OF MAN) of his career, but trending towards the lower end. I'd thought it grew out of CSL's work revising the Psalms (for which he served on the same committee as T. S. Eliot and is said to have mainly voted to keep everything the same as it had been since Coverdale's day), but Hooper's COMPANION & GUIDE sets me straight on that point; it turns out it was the other way around, and that the Archbishop invited him to take part immediately after REFLECTIONS came out.

As its title suggests, this is not one of Lewis's carefully constructed book-length expositions of a quirky thesis but a disjointed book of not-quite random essays on various points he wants to discuss, all relating in various ways to the topic at hand. It did have a few surprises -- for example, I hadn't really appreciated how deeply he hated the government, but all his similes to government are extremely hostile (cf. p. 10, p. 15, & p. 70). Since there's really no central thesis to respond to, I thought I'd just list a few of the points that struck me as I was reading through.

First off, it's his view that the Bible evolved out of earlier texts and myths and legends, just as humans evolved out of primates. He's not a Literalist but advocates what we might call today a sort of 'intelligent design' theory of the Bible, whereby over time it transcends its human origins to become suffused with divine wisdom. Thus on p. 111 he puts it this way: "I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature -- chronicles (some of it obviously pretty accurate),* poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God's word . . . There are prophets who write with the clearest awareness that Divine compulsion is upon them. There are chroniclers whose intention may have been merely to record. There are poets like those in the Song of Songs who probably never dreamed of any but a secular and natural purpose in what they composed . . . On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure."

I have particularly been struggling with passages in which the Bible advocates evil,** so I wanted to see how Lewis handled passages like Psalm 137.9: "Happy is he who smashes your little ones' skulls against the rocks". Lewis has two ways of dealing with such passages, aside from suggesting they're a relic of "the terrible distortion of the human medium" through which the Bible tells its story (p. 114).

The first, and more interesting, is to suggest (p. 20) that they hint at the degree in which we play a role in each other's damnation -- someone who has been wronged will often respond poorly, in ways that endanger their moral well-being, so that the sinned-against may sin in response (think Nat Turner). Essentially Lewis devotes an entire chapter (Ch. III: The Cursings) to the problem. He doesn't really satisfactorily answer my question, but I give him points for at least addressing the issue.

His second attempt, near the end of the book (in Chapter XII: Second Meaning in the Psalms), is to allegorize the passage so that the problem simply magically goes away: "From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in [Psalm] 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us "I don't ask much, but", or "I had at least hoped", or "you owe yourself some consideration". Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock the little bastards' brains out. And "blessed" he who can, for it's easier said than done.' (p. 136).

I have to say I found this not just unhelpful but specious; perhaps, like Tolkien, I have a built-in suspicion of allegory as an easy out. But I was vastly amused by a side-point where Lewis displayed a stunning lack of self-knowledge. Given the (spiritual) damage we can do each other in his view, he goes off into a little rhapsody about himself: "I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates, give hearty thanks for it." (p. 25). To which I say: tell it to John Betjeman, who considered that Lewis ruined his life and held a grudge against him for decades.

Page 26 offers a beautiful example of manipulating an argument through selective quotation.*** Talking about how curses that occur in the Psalms are balanced out by "the corrective" of more generous sentiments, he cites Proverbs 25.21 as proof, where Solomon says "If thine enemy hunger, give him bread". But (and here's the virtue of reading the whole Bible, verse-by-verse, in order w. no skipping) he omits the following line: "for [thus] thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head". That is, both Proverbs (and Paul, who quotes the whole passage approvingly in Romans 12.20) suggest treating your enemy well as a way of bringing about his damnation. GAH!

Pages 29-30 had an extended passage worthy of THE ABOLITION OF MAN: Lewis recounts an episode when he fell in with some young soldiers during the early days of World War II and was horrified to find that they didn't believe official government propaganda ('They took it for granted, without argument, that this was all lies, all propaganda put out by our own government to "pep up" our troops'). Lewis concludes, in a stunning non-sequitur, that they must have been entirely lacking in moral sense: "Clearly these young men had . . . no conception of good and evil whatsoever." The identification of moral worth with naivete about propaganda has to mark one of the book's low points.

But not its nadir: that does not come until pages 67-68, which have to rank among Lewis at his v. worst. The context is his discussion of how much can a person trying to live a virtuous life associate with those who are not virtuous. A perennial problem for all who try to hold themselves to a different standard than those around them, not trying to impose their standards on others but also keeping to their private code of conduct among those who do not follow the same strictures (e.g., a prohibitionist among social drinkers, a non-smoker among smokers). Lewis, however, falls back on longing for the old days of social ostracization for such people, and laments that it's no longer the practice to smash a rascal in the face with a riding crop "if [he] were ever bold enough to speak to a respectable woman". He wishes for a return to the days of "moderate rioting" rather than "the evils of our present tameness", and would like to see windows broken, "certain people . . . put under pumps" (i.e., held face down until semi-drowned, the fate he inflicts on one of the villains in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET) and "pelted in the streets" (but with mud, not stones -- he's not willing to go quite as far as lapidation). Is it possible that Lewis was a tea-partier ahead of his time? Or is this just his sadistic side, which he's usually successful in supressing, breaking out here? Personally, I'm glad for there to be less mob rule, not more, and think that Lewis ought to bethink him that dishonorable mobs are more likely to do this to good men and women as his hypothetical honorable mobs are to do it to rotters.

By contrast, another passage on p. 89 shows Lewis at his v. best where, after a brief discussion of Egyptian monotheism, he briefly envisions (and rejects as too cerebral a religion for this messy world)**** a kind of alternate history in which ". . . if only the priests and people of Egypt had accepted it, God cd have dispensed w. Israel altogether and revealed Himself to us henceforward through a long line of Egyptian prophets". He ends by offering up a prayer for Akhenaten:***** "what gentle heart can leave the topic without a prayer that this lonely ancient king, crank and doctrinaire though perhaps he was, has long seen and now enjoys the truth which so far transcends his own glimpse of it?"

So, not his best. Some good bits, but not enough to counterbalance the rest. I'm currently re-reading his WILLIAMS AND THE ARTHURIAD (part of ARTHURIAN TORSO) [1948], but think my next will be LETTERS TO MALCOLM, to see if I can get any insight into why Tolkien hated it so much (it was reading MALCOLM that set Tolkien to write THE ULSTERIOR MOTIVE).


*From my occasional archeological reading over the past few years, I'd have to disagree with him on this one.

**For example, a passage in Jeremiah I listened to yesterday in which a priest of Jerusalem offended the prophet, who then prayed that the priest's children would starve to death. So far the account of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness and their conquest of Canaan are the worst offenders, but there are plenty such passages in the Psalms (cf. Psalm 137).

***In fact, the original title of this post was to be "Selective Quotation", but as I read on I found too many other points I wanted to address, hence the revised header "Reflections on REFLECTIONS"

****Elsewhere he concludes that God deliberately refrained from presenting his theology in a clear, logical way; otherwise Jesus wd not have spoken mainly in parables. He gets downright catty re. the apostle Paul: "I [i.e., CSL] cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him [Paul] so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition." (p. 113)

*****He also earlier (p. 108) expressed his hope that Plato and Virgil had long since achieved salvation: "For we can pray with good hope that they now know and have long since welcomed the truth; 'many shall come from the east and the west and sit down in the kingdom.')"

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


So, I was delighted last week to learn that this fall there'll be a new, fiftieth-anniversary edition of Christopher Tolkien's edition and translation of THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE coming out from HarperCollins.

I found out about this through the notice in the Sept. issue of BEYOND BREE, but quick confirmation and more details came via Tolkien Library:

And it was through Tolkien Library that I learned the entire text is currently available online, thanks to the generosity of The Viking Society:

I'm particularly happy about this since HEIDREK's is my favorite saga, and the first one I read (back when I had to get special dispensation from the college library to check out books there, since I was still in high school). Though it came as a bit of a shock to discover that Heidrek himself was the 'hero' of the saga only in the sense of protagonist: a kin-slayer and wife-murderer and generally dangerous and disagreeable person to be around. The most striking character for me was (and is) not Heidrek but his mother, Hervor*, who summons her own dead father from the grave to demand the family heirloom, the cursed sword Tyrfing (made by Durin & Dvalin), which had been buried with him. This scene was one of the first bits of Old Norse lore to be translated into English** at the beginning of the revival of interest in old legends and mythologies and literatures in the mid-18th century. Tolkien fans will probably be more focused on the Riddle-game, which was surely one of Tolkien's main sources for Gollum's riddle-game (along with two lays in the ELDER EDDA): one of Gollum's riddles ("no-legs") actually appears in one of the HEIDREK manuscripts. There's also the famous battle between the Goths and the Huns that ends the saga, although this occurs after Heidrek's day and in fact is set in motion by his children.

I managed to get a copy of my own a few years back to replace the photocopy of the entire book I'd made right at the start of the MR. BAGGINS project. But that took years of searching, and the generosity of friends; now others can get it just by placing an order online. Well worth it for anyone who loves a good saga (they don't get any better than this), and for anyone interested in Tolkien's sources (e.g., the riddle-game, the name Durin, the cursed sword, &c.).

And, if you like this, make sure you track down CT's essay on THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE GOTHS AND HUNS, which originally appeared in SAGA-BOOK, the journal of The Viking Society, back in 1955. It's a tour-de-force focusing on the possibility of a real historical battle underlying the one in the saga, and attempts to establish where it took place. Now if we only had the text of CT's lecture on Attila (and how differently he is portrayed by the Romans historians vs. the Germanic sources) praised by JRRT in a Feb. 21st 1958 lecture (see LETTERS p. 264); that an endnote in LETTERS quotes from it (p. 447) suggests it still survives.


*this being a family saga, there are two Hervors in it -- Heidrek's mother and also his daughter, the latter a probable model for Eowyn who dies heroically fighting the Huns. There are also three Angantyrs; Hervor's mother (i.e., Heidrek's grandfather), the original owner of the curse sword, and Heidrek's brother, whom he kills, and Heidrek's son (Hervor the younger's brother), who succeeds him.

**v. badly, by Thomas Grey, better known for quiet fare such as "Elegy Writ in a Country Churchyard".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Licking Crocodiles

Hmm. Hadn't realized it'd been a week since I posted last, due to a combination of being both busy and unfocused. A series of short posts on miscellaneous topics shd follow, but before I forget here's a quick one that has to rank as perhaps the weirdest story I've come across lately.* Before finding this on the Huffington Green site I hadn't been aware that hippos like to lick crocodiles, and sometimes nibble their scales. Perhaps they just have a mossy flavor hippopotami enjoy, like cats love found water. In any case, it's not just the supreme confidence of the hippos wading into a group of swarming crocodiles who are in the middle of tearing apart and devouring their latest prey but the passivity of the crocs -- either they know full well that one wrong move gets them stomped flat or they genuinely don't much mind (cf. their famous habit of allowing small birds to forage among their teeth). Their forbearance towards a baby hippo suggests the latter.
Here's the link:

And, since weird hippo stories don't come up every day (though perhaps they shd, given documentaries like the one of the pet hippo who insisted on sleeping on her owners' bed, much to their dismay), I'd recommend anyone who likes a quirky, touching story to check out the history of Owen & Mzee -- the former being an orphaned baby hippo, apparently the only survivor of his herd from the 2004 tsunami, and the latter the giant turtle the animal rescue people put him in the pen with. Like all babies do, little Owen quickly bonded with the old (130-years) reptile. There's a great little children's book released about a year or so later that tells the story, but here's a link to many photos of the two together, this being a case where a good picture is worth a thousand words.

--John R.

*and much more cheerful than the story of the man who was shot four times by police for whittling

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PICTURING TOLKIEN (forthcoming publication)

So, today I found out that a book I've contributed an essay to has now been listed on the publisher (McFarland)'s website. Although it won't be published till next year, it's apparently available for preorder:

The book itself, PICTURING TOLKIEN: ESSAYS ON PETER JACKSON'S THE LORD OF THE RINGS FILM TRILOGY, is the brainchild of Jan Bogstad and Phil Kaveny, whom I knew back in my Milwaukee days when they were stalwarts of the Madison science fiction community (they were among the founders of WisCon) and the long-lived University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society. My own contribution is my essay "Two Kinds of Absence: Elision & Exclusion in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings", which focuses on the film's decision to omit the Bombadil chapters and the consequences thereof to the story.

I'm quite pleased by this, naturally -- not just that this piece, which I wrote especially for this collection, seems to be well on its way to seeing the light of day, but that when it does I get to read all the other contributor's essays, something I'm v. much looking forward to. I've been getting a lot more essays finished and submitted lately, which feels good; part of the release from all those years of working on one big project (MR. BAGGINS) is tackling a lot of the smaller projects I've wanted to do for years but not been able to steal time for. Most recently this has included the piece for PICTURING TOLKIEN, the guest editorial in the newest MALLORN, reviews in TOLKIEN STUDIES and SEVEN and MYTHLORE, my piece for this year's Kalamazoo ("Inside Literature"), my piece for MythCon ("SHE & Tolkien Revisited"), and just today I started work on a small side project (more on this later) and sent in my proposal for next year's Kalamazoo (here's hoping it makes the cut), as well as reached a milestone in an editing project that's been percolating on and off for over a year now.

Busy busy busy. And yet there are still so many projects that were researched and begun but then set aside that are impatiently waiting their turn -- for example, the proposal I just sent off for Kalamazoo is an idea I sketched out in 1980/81 and am only now finally getting back to. Worlds enough and time, but we'll see what we can do.


--John R.

current audiobook: THE BOOK OF ISAIAH (all-prophecy, all-of-the-time), THE IMPERIAL CRUISE (surprisingly depressing).
current book: REFLECTIONS ON THE PSALMS by CSL. (soon to be the subject of a post of its own, probably).

And this post itself marks something of a milestone: #501 in the three and a half years since I started blogging. --JDR

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lost Posts

So, I just became aware last week through an email from a reader (thanks Paul W.) that the links to all the CLASSICS OF FANTASY articles on my website no longer function. Instead of the article in question, clicking on each link merely brings you to the Wizards of the Coast's book website. The same is true of my movie review of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, although the review itself turns out to still be up there (cf. ) -- oddly enough, the links for my reviews of THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING are still functioning.

Luckily, a quick online search revealed that the folks at EN World have recently revived ("necro'd") an old discussion thread about my column, and in one comment there a poster ("Plane Sailing") provides links to four of the articles which are still available online: the IVth (Leiber), Xth (Le Guin), XVth (Clark Ashton Smith), and XVIIth (Tolkien).

While I'm certainly pleased that these have been archived by, I'm naturally perturbed that the other fourteen don't seem to be available. If anyone is aware of their being archived elsewhere, I'd appreciate your letting me know so I can get those broken links on my main webpage fixed.

So, bear with me while I work to find a solution to this. Given how much work I put into these, I'd like them to be available for anyone interested in those authors, or indeed in classic fantasy, if there's a way to arrange it.

I've also been thinking of reviving the series on my own website, possibly on a quarterly rather than monthly schedule (since monthly pieces wdn't leave enough time for all the other things I'm working on; there are a LOT of pieces I want to write, now that I've finally gotten MR. BAGGINS out of my system). Likely forthcoming authors if the series were to be revived ('in queue', as it were) include Rbt E. Howard (CONAN), Jack Vance (THE DYING EARTH), and James Branch Cabell (THE MIND OF MANUEL). I'd probably also expand the focus a bit to include some more recent authors worthy to stand in the company of such classics, like Gaiman and Pullman and Kay.

We'll see.

--John R.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tolkien on Cars

So, in addition to having a car, Tolkien also wrote about cars in two of his stories (one posthumously published, the other still languishing unpublished), as well as rather pointed remarks in one of his major essays.

The best known of these, of course, is MR. BLISS, which was probably (as Carpenter says) inspired by Tolkien's misadventures immediately upon buying a car of his own.* Here the car is the impetus for Mr. Bliss's adventures, the framework to get the story going, rather than the story actually being about the car itself.

Much more obscure is THE BOVADIUM FRAGMENTS, a short tale partly in English and partly in Latin. Here we have Clyde Kilby to blame, at least in part, for the tale's not being better known, in that when Tolkien was thinking against publishing it circa 1966 Kilby advised against it -- a pity, since an anti-car environmental message from Tolkien published in the mid-sixties might have done some good.

Almost (but not quite) as strong an anti-car statement can be found in OFS:

Not long ago . . . I heard a clerk of Oxenford [i.e., a fellow Oxford don**] declare that he 'welcomed' the proximity of mass-production robot factories,*** and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into 'contact with real life'. He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twnetieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. In any case the expression 'real life' in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more 'alive' than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more 'real' than, say, horses is pathetically absurd . . ."

I think many Americans read this passage without realizing how specific it is: Tolkien is talking about the Morris motorworks out the Cowley Road, not far from where Tolkien eventually retired to on Sandfield Road; The Kilns also lays out that direction. Most of England's factories were in the north (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), making the car-plants just east of Oxford the exception rather than the rule. It's ironic that the English equivalent of Henry Ford who set up his factories here should have shared the same name with one of Tolkien's heroes, William Morris (afterwards Lord Nuffield).

Two final snippets re. Tolkien and cars, while we're at it: if memory serves me rightly, Michael Tolkien in a radio interview recounts his anguish when in his youth they cut down all the trees (elms, I think) that lined Broad Street while expanding the road, presumably widening it to accommodate cars. Another reason for Tolkien to have no fondness for cars, especially given that he was living in a city perfect for foot-travel and bicycles. Finally, there's the further account in THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM that on family vacations during the years 1934-38, Edith wd travel by train with Christopher and Priscilla, John and Michael wd cycle down over the course of a few days, and JRRT "would drive Jo 2, weighed down with luggage, squeezing in himself at the last possible moment. He wd be surrounded by large numbers of Priscilla's soft toys, which she insisted shd share the holiday: on one trip someone asked him if he was a travelling salesman in teddy bears!" (FAMILY ALBUM, p. 64)

*this assumes we discount Joan Tolkien's claim that this story was modeled not on an actual car but on her husband's toy car from 1928. In any case, associational evidence within the tale proves that the story as we have it dates from circa 1932-36 (probably 1932/33), not to the late '20s.
**so far as I know, whichever of Tolkien's colleagues who said this has not been identified; Flieger-Anderson note that in the early drafts of OFS he is described as "the head of an Oxford college", which narrows the field somewhat.
***i.e., factories with automated assembly lines, not factories for building robots.

Tolkien's Car ("Charge 'Em And They Scatter")

So, one afterthought since visiting the car museum has been: do they have the kind of car Tolkien drove? The simple answer is that I don't know, because I didn't think to look up what I'd need to know to find out ahead of time.

Luckily, we know what kind of car Tolkien drove (and how he drove it) Carpenter's account

. . . in 1932 . . . Tolkien bought his first car, a Morris Cowley that was nicknamed 'Jo' after the first two letters of its registration. After learning to drive he took the entire family* by car to visit his brother Hilary at his Evesham fruit farm. At various times during the journey 'Jo' sustained two punctures and knocked down part of a dry-stone wall near Chipping Norton, with the result that Edith refused to travel in the car again until some months later -- not entirely without justification, for Tolkien's driving was daring rather than skillful. When accelerating headlong across a busy main street in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other vehicles and cry 'Charge 'em and they scatter!' -- and scatter they did. 'Jo' was later replaced by a second Morris which did duty until the beginning of the Second World War, when petrol rationing made it impractical to keep it. By this time Tolkien perceived the damage that the internal combustion engine and new roads were doing to the landscape, and after the war he did not another car or drive again." (TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY, p. 162)

So, he only owned a car from 1932 through about 1939 or so. THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM tells much the same story about the trip to Hilary's (suggesting that the Tolkien children were Carpenter's source for that bit), although with only one flat tire, but does not repeat the 'charge 'em and they scatter' story. They not only add a few details -- for example, that it was after their vacation to Lamorna Cove with the Wrenns that Tolkien bought the car (FAMILY ALBUM page 62). Since the visit was during the summer of 1932 (probably in August), and on at least one other occasion the family visits to Hilary was scheduled for around or towards the end of harvest time, that puts circa September/October a likely time for the new car purchase.

What's more, THE FAMILY ALBUM actually has a photo of Jo (or Jo II). It's labelled as "Jo II" but the license plate is that for the original Jo -- perhaps in England you get to keep the same plates when you get a new car? One other slight suggestion that this might be the original Jo is that the closet match I cd find online for the one pictured here is the 1933 model -- but then not knowing the date of Jo II makes it harder to find which model this might have been, at least in a casual online search. Here's a link to the closest match I cd find to the car shown in the FAMILY ALBUM:

Of course, in addition to owning a car himself, at least for the better part of a decade, Tolkien also wrote about cars in two stories (one published, the other still unpublished) and one essay -- which I think wd make a good topic for the next post. (to be continued)

--John R.
current reading: OSSIAN REVISITED

*six people: JRRT, Edith, John, Michael, Christopher, and little Priscilla. Quite a crowd for a single car, assuming they cd all make the trip. The FAMILY ALBUM is a little more discreet than Carpenter, simply noting that "only part of the family was willing to make the return trip in the car" (p. 63).

**for a photo gallery of many makes and models of Morris cars, see

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Car Museum

So, the past few days I've had little snippets of the song "Big Yellow Taxi" (aka They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot) running through my head off and on. Except the lyrics I hear are

"They took all the cars
And put them in a car museum
And charged the people twelve dollars*
Just to come and see 'em".

The reason why is that on Saturday Janice and I went down to the LeMay American Car Museum in Tacoma. I'd suggested we might want to visit a museum as part of the holiday weekend, since we hadn't been to one in a while, and Janice came up with the idea of seeing what there was to see in Tacoma, rather than in Seattle, since each is about equidistant for us here in Kent. It was an easy drive down, and we took a leisurely hour-long tour of the cars that, since it was the last of the day, the guide stretched to two hours, so our group had plenty of time to look around.

Not that two hours was enough; it's the sort of place you could easily spend a whole day at and still not see everything. For one thing, this was only one of two facilities -- not the main LeMay collection but the part of it that'd been donated and turned into a museum, on the grounds of an old Catholic military junior high/high school run by nuns that, having become unpopular during the VietNam era, had been bought by Mr. LeMay** to store his cars in.

How many cars? I gathered the whole collection ran to more than three thousand cars, about half of which were still in the family's hands. LeMay himself seems to have been a man who, having a hobby, was not afraid to indulge it; apparently there were times when he bought a car a day. Of course there was a lot of duplication -- I don't remember what specific car it was, but the guide at one point did say LeMay had sixty of a particular car. Not sixty made by that company, but of that specific year (say, a 1953 Studebaker coupe, just to make up an example). Now apparently many of them are stored in barns and the like all over the Tacoma area, anywhere he could arrange to stash them. At the LeMay museum, there are a lot in the old gym, more in the rifle range and pool room (the pool now being covered with plywood), and many more (stacked three high on shelving all along the walls) in a vast barn-like structure created especially for them.

There were many, many cars from companies that disappeared long ago: Nash and Packard and De Soto and La Salle and Hudson. There were many from those still with us, or at least with us until recently: Fords (Model-A, Model-T--perhaps the default American car for nearly a half-century-- &c) and Plymouths (I looked for one like my grandmother's but could only come close-ish) and Cadillacs and much much more. And there were many from companies I'd never heard of, like Mercer or Windsor or Wolseley or Kaiser*** For an idea of what treasures they've got, take a look at the sampling featured on their website:

I am sorry I missed one exhibit due to our timing: they usually have three cars together -- an electric car, a Stanley Steamer, and a Ford Model-N [from 1906]. I hadn't even been aware there was such a thing as a 'Model N', but from the postcard I bought it was an appealing looking car. I'm glad to have seen the electric car, the only one of the three currently not on tour elsewhere (apparently it had a range of about a hundred miles and a top speed of fifteen to twenty miles per hour --good for city driving, but not out into the country), but I'd love to have seen a real Stanley Steamer as well.

One car they're clearly really proud of is their 1948 Tucker, which the guide spent more time on than any other single car in the collection. Ironically, while the guide made much of this, he only briefly mentioned the car parked next to it, a 1937 Cord -- one of the most remarkable cars ever made; having first read about it when I was maybe ten or so, I'm glad to have now actually seen one.

So, if you like old cars (and what American doesn't like cars?), a visit here is well worth the trip. I know after we got back that night I was searching online for information about those old Matchbox 'Models of Yesterday' that I used to own long ago (having bought all the ones that came out circa 1966-69), starting with the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost the year we lived in Little Rock. It also made for an interesting thought experiment on the drive home, looking around in traffic and wondering what of the cars around us might someday wind up in a similar museum. I suspect not the ones we'd think . . .


current audiobook: THE BOOK OF JOB
current reading: THE BRETHREN by Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong [1979]
plus OSSIAN REVISITED, ed Howard Gaskill [1991]

*with the triple-A discount, that is.
**who apparently made his fortune by founding a trash-collecting business just after WWII, now the tenth largest in the country, according to our guide.
***in addition to the Kaiser Dragon, they also had a specially modified "2007 Custom Drakko 'Dragonster'" -- that is, a drag car made to look like a green dragon -- in its own little pit. Janice spotted it and the Tolkien reference written on the chalkboard beside it:

Puff, Peter,
Smaug [crossed out] Deceased

one Bilbo Baggins
aka Burglar, Thief
for conspiracy &
the Murder of

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two Things I Didn't Know About Jonah

So, among the interesting odds and ends that continue to turn up during my reading through the Bible is the discovery (new to me, anyway), that the prophet Jonah does not just appear in the Book of Jonah but also makes a passing appearance in the second book of Kings, where it is said of King Jeroboam that "He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher (2nd Kings 14.25).

At first I thought this might well be another Jonah -- there are certainly many people in the Bible who share the same name, such as all the Marys and Josephs of the New Testament -- but checking the opening line of the Book of Jonah shows it's definitely the same guy: "Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai . . ." (Jonah 1.1). There's not a lot of cross-referencing between the later parts of the Old Testament, so this reference took me a bit by surprise. A nice little detail to know about, and something I missed during the previous time I read all the way through the Bible (where I didn't read the books in order but skipped around a good deal*).

The second was a piece of Jewish legendry I came across,** recounting that there was an old tradition that Jonah is the boy Elijah the prophet raised from the dead, the widow's son (cf. 1st Kings 17.17-24). This is just a tradition, like the idea that Mary Magdalen might be the woman in the 'cast the first stone' story, but it's an intriguing one, I thought.


current audiobook: The Book of Esther

*also, that time I did the chapter-a-night approach and took about two and a half years to read the whole thing, by which time my memory for the details of some of the parts I'd read earlier on had somewhat faded.

**in wikipedia, 'the source of all knowledge'

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Biblical Inerrancy Takes A Hit

So, my listen-to-the-Bible as audiobook project is going along well -- I'm currently nearing the end of the 'Historic' books (mid-way through Nehemiah) and will probably take a break before moving into the next section (JOB plus the books attributed to David [Psalms] and Solomon [Proverbs/Ecclesiastes/The Song of Solomon]). I've always tended towards reading the Bible literally -- after all, once you start explaining away that it doesn't really mean what it says, where are you? But one advantage of reading the whole thing straight through, in order, from the beginning, is that it does highlight some of the Bible's flaws -- such as when one chapter contradicts another chapter. I'm not talking variations here, such as what some claim as separate versions of creation, but flat-out contradictions. Or when it states things that simply cannot be true.

Case in point: King David's reign. We're told that David rules forty years. And during that reign there was the strange episode of his son Absalom. To make a complicated story as simple as possible, one of David's sons (Ammon) decides to rape his own sister (Tamar). After waiting two years (2nd Samuel 13.23) for his target's guard to be down, Absalom avenges his sister by murdering his brother. Fearing the king's wrath, Absalom flees and remains in exile three years (2nd Samuel 13.38). Eventually he is recalled but still forbidden to see the king for two more years (ibid 14.28), after which he is fully pardoned. Another forty years pass (ibid 15.7), during which time Absalom becomes far more popular than David and ends by stating a coup against him to usurp the throne.

The problem, of course, is that we have a detailed account of events taking place over forty-seven years which are only part of David's forty-year reign. The reference in 2nd Kings 15.7 is obviously factually wrong.

A second, simpler, and much more amusing example of bad chronology occurs in 2nd Chronicles 21.20 vs. ibid 22.2. The first of these relates how King Jehorum reigned eight years, having become king at the age of thirty-two (32+8 = 40). The second relates how he was succeeded by his son Ahaziah, who reigns only one year after becoming king at the age of forty-two.

So: explain how a man who dies at age forty turns over the kingship to his son, who is already forty-two at the time.


Of course, this is only a problem if you think that, since the Bible is the word of God it has to be perfect. But the world, too, was created by God, and it's far from perfect. So why shdn't the same be true of the Good Book?


current reading: THE SCROLL OF DEATH by David Stuart Davies [1998 & 2009], part of THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES series.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


So, today's mail brought my copy of the newest volume of TOLKIEN STUDIES -- number seven in the series, and it continues to keep up the high standard of the whole run to date. This time the stand-out item is THE STORY OF KULLERVO, Tolkien's first piece of heroic/fantasy fiction: his own version of the Kullervo story out of the KALEVALA, along with his essay ON 'THE KALEVALA' OR THE LAND OF HEROES (two versions: both the manuscript draft and subsequent typescript). All of this edited by Verlyn Fleiger with Introduction and Notes. A major new contribution to Tolkien studies, and worth the price of the volume by itself.

Also here is a charming little contribution to Tolkien biography by John Garth, who has identified the child Tolkien refers to in ON FAIRY STORIES as dismissively scoffing at the idea of flower-fairies: he turns out to have been the little (half-)brother of Rob Gilson, one of Tolkien's closest friends.

The book review section also contains a major piece: a thirty-page review-essay on SIGURD & GUDRUN by T. A. Shippey (who better?).

I'm also particularly pleased with this issue for two other reasons. For one thing, it contains two reviews by me -- one of Mark Hooker's THE HOBBITONIAN ANTHOLOGY (p. 330-335) and the other of J. S. Ryan's TOLKIEN'S VIEW: WINDOWS INTO HIS WORLD (p. 340-345). For another, this time around David Bratman's ever-impressive annual survey of everything of significance written about Tolkien, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" has gotten up to 2007, and thus includes mentions of MR. BAGGINS & RETURN TO BAG-END. In fact, my book gets two mentions.

First, in his introduction giving an overview of the year's corpus, he follows up a mention of Shippey's ROOTS & BRANCHES collection with a paragraph about "long awaited" works by myself and Diana Pavlac Glyer (both of which were in-process since the early nineties). He calls THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT and THE COMPANY THEY KEEP "the keystone works of 2007's scholarship", saying that mine is "highly welcome after the long wait" and notes that both won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award (in Inkling Studies): hers in 2008 and mine in 2009. (TS.VII.348)

Then, two pages later, he devotes pretty much a full page to THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, noting that while it's my name on the title page the book "is every bit as much a work by J. R. R. Tolkien as is THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH" -- which is absolutely true. In fact, I went back and forth so much about whether or not Taum Santoski's name shd appear with mine on the front cover (e.g., perhaps as "with the assistance of Taum Santoski") that the obvious question of putting JRRT's name up there first simply never came up. Most of David's paragraph is a succinct description of my book's contents (trust a bibliographer for being able to convey a lot of information clearly in a short space), but when I read his last line my head started swelling to the extent that I might have to get a new hat. He says of the mini-essays that I add throughout the book following each chapter: "Each of some fifty essays by Rateliff would make a major research paper on its own." I certainly put as much work, both research and writing, as for a full-fledged essay into each (one reason the book took me so long to finish!). In the end, I find my work keeps coming back to my favorite mantra from Keats: "load every rift with ore".

And all this isn't even taking into account the first half of this volume of TOLKIEN STUDIES, with ten essays from scholars both well-known, like Kristine Larsen, and others whose work is new to me, like Vladimir Brljak and Sherrylyn Branchaw. I haven't had a chance to read any of these yet, but once again looks like this volume will be full of good things. Congratulations to its editors.

--John R.

current reading: CROW PLANET by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
current audiobook: KING JAMES BIBLE (2nd Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah

UPDATE 9/7-10:
Vladimir Brijak to Vladimir Brljak
and Sherrylun Branchaw to Sherrylyn Branchaw,
thus inadvertently reinforcing the point that these scholar's names were new to me.
my apologies for the errors; thanks to Merlin for spotting the slips. --JDR