Saturday, September 24, 2011

The New Publication: RED EYE OF AZATHOTH

So, Thursday the 15th I got together with friend Wolf* at a restaurant he'd recently introduced me to in downtown Renton called Naan 'N' Curry (which I highly recommend, if you're (a) in or passing through the Renton area and (b) like Indian food). Along with the chance to catch up on things, I was pleased to get my contributor's copy of RED EYE OF AZATHOTH, Open Design's first CALL OF CTHULHU release, which I edited.

This is an unusual C.o.C. campaign for several reasons. First off, all five adventures are episodes in a larger story. Also, despite being set in five distinct time periods and milieu, in a sense the Investigators are the same people in each, being linked across time and space. Third, the settings are highly unusual for C.o.C., which usually sticks to the 1920s, with some Victorian (CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT) and modern (CTHULHU NOW) adventures for the occasional change of pace.

The five settings are
(1) Lindisfarne, 887 AD, where the Investigator group is composed in equal parts of monks and of Viking raiders, who naturally enough find it hard to work together in a common cause.

(2) feudal Japan, 1287, where the Investigators are samurai and court officials sent by the shogunate to find out why one obscure remote village pays its taxes, in full, every year, year after year, without fail. I wonder if the Japanese of that era had a proverb equivalent to 'ignorance is bliss'.

(3) Valencia, 1487, where the Investigators start out as prisoners in the hands of the Inquisition, and things go downhill from there. This one involves a lot of running away (hence its new mechanic, a 'Chase Table', to judge whether or not those attempting flight succeed in evading pursuit), and even more not being able to run away.

(4) Roanoke Colony, 1587, where the worst of the Old World and New come together with horrific results.


(5) Arizona Territory, 1887, where the Wild West and Cthulhu horror come together in truly apocalyptic fashion: I don't think I've ever read an sequence of descriptions that matched the climax of this adventure for conveying this-is-the-way-the-world ends, with neither a bang nor a whimper but a scream.

All of these have in common one element: isolation. In most Cthulhu adventures Investigators don't call on the authorities for help because it'd be hard to get them to believe what was going on or because said Investigators don't want too much scrutiny of their own actions. In these they're well and truly on their own: allies are few and far between, and any authorities either hostile or wholly absent. I have to say that, overall, I was impressed: there's been an Azathoth campaign before, back in 1986, SPAWN OF AZATHOTH, but that was the worst of the classic Chaosium C.o.C. campaigns.* I do have to warn, though, that the adventures in RED EYE OF AZATHOTH are gruesome, violent, and unforgiving; it's a style of play that owes a lot to early PAGAN P. adventures,** and the body count in the major encounters in each scenario are likely to be high.

It's a polar opposite to the way I usually play Cthulhu, which emphasizes role-playing, exploration, and investigation and has a high Investigator survival ratio (though their sanity tends to fray after an adventure or two, and the occasional Investigator deaths tend to be spectacular when they do occur). But I think the authors pulled it off: if you like that style of play (and a lot of people do), RED EYE OF AZATHOTH is an excellent and sustained example.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who actually plays through these to find out how well they worked at the gaming table for your group.

Good gaming!

--John R.

*SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH [1982] being by far the best, THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH [1984] a worthy second place, and MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP [1984]*** rounding of the top three; after this there's a falling off with HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS [1991], an impressive project whose reach exceeded its grasp, and then SPAWN OF AZATHOTH, which was just a mess that reads like an attempt to re-hash MASKS.
Of course, if you go beyond Chaosium, Pagan P. produced not one but two superb campaigns: WALKER IN THE WASTES [1994] and COMING FULL CIRCLE [1995], which learn all the right lessons from SHADOWS and DAY OF THE BEAST and apply them with impressive results. Highly recommended.

**i.e., before they got swallowed up by DELTA GREEN, when they still did an interesting variety of settings & approaches). There's not a lot of Library Use here (though at times it's vital

***most aficionados rank MASKS the top. I don't agree. It's v. good; SHADOWS and BEAST simply happen to be better.

*a.k.a. Wolfgang Baur, The Monkey King, Kobold-in-Chief at Open Design, Editor of KOBOLD QUARTERLY, famed rpg designer, former editor of both DUNGEON and of DRAGON, and once upon a time fellow 'New Fish' at TSR with me in October 1991.

Taum Santoski XIX

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

19. Within the form of mythological epic stand some pivotal works, two based upon the form established by Tolkien. The Earthsea Trilogy and the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are derivative of Tolkien. Earthsea presents a mythology set in a world unconnected in any way with our own; Covenant is a traveler from our world into another world, Land.

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Famous Last Words (1484)

"Jesus Christ! More trouble . . . "
--last words of the poet Wm Collyngbourne

So, about a decade ago I read R. M. Wilson's THE LOST LITERATURE OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, a fascinating glimpse into works we know once existed that have now vanished beyond recall. One particular story, about the fate of a poet who annoyed Richard the Third, stuck in my mind. In any case, it's quite an interesting book, and eventually I bought my own copy, apparently during my only visit (so far) to the Bay Area, in August 2000.* But when I came to consult it some time later (probably when preparing my 2004 Blackwelder conference paper, 'And All the Days of Her Life are Forgotten'), I cdn't find the story I recalled anywhere. Eventually I discovered that there were two editions of the book, and it turns out that the passage I sought doesn't appear in the original [1952] edition I'd bought. I concluded it must be only in the later [1970] revised edition,** which must therefore be the one I read.

And so Tuesday [the 13th] when I visited Suzzallo-Allen, I not only found to my delight that the Smith Reading Room (with its stained glass windows and catherdral ceiling) is open again but was even able to sit at Senator Magnuson's desk. And while at the library I was able both to check a troubling reference in one of the PICTURING TOLKIEN essays I'd just read and to find both versions of Wilson's book. A quick check showed that the passage I remembered was indeed in the 1970 edition and not in the original.

Here's all the original [1952] version has to say about Collyngbourne [p. 199]:

". . . The well-known couplet

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our dog
Rule all England under a hog,***

was posted on the doors of St Paul's by William Collyngbourne.

And here's what Wilson adds in 1970:

". . . The well-known couplet

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our dog
Rule all England under a hog,

was posted on the doors of St Paul's by William Collyngbourne, and for this he was, in 1484,

put to the moost cruell deth at the Tower Hylle,
where for hym were made a newe payer of galowes.
Vpon the whiche, after he hadde hangyd a shorte season,
he was cutte downe, beynge alyue, & his bowellys rypped
out of his bely, and cast into the fyre there by hym,
and lyued tyll the bowcher put his hande into the bulke
of his body; insomuch that he sayd in the same instant,
'O Lorde Ihesu, yet more trowble,' & so dyed
to the great compassion of moche people.

[p. 194]

This episode serves as a reminder that Richard III was not the kinder, gentler king that Josephine Tey & others wd have us think (he was after all a usurper responsible for the deaths of many members of his own family -- in which he was v. like his successor, Henry VII; one suspects the two men were pretty much peas in a pod). Most of England's kings and queens have been pretty brutal in their dealings with those who crossed them, and those with shaky claims to the throne (like Richard and Henry) even more so than most. It's also a reminder of the days when people took poetry seriously.****

Quite aside from this, though, I think what attracted me to this quote and made it stick in my memory is the slight hint of exasperation in poor Collyngbourne's final response to what was happening to him. First hanged, then cut down, then disembowled, then having his entrails (intestines) burned before his eyes, and only dying when they reached in and started to remove his heart and other vital organs is a particularly grisly way to go, specifically designed to inflict as much pain and torment as possible. Maybe that's why Collyngborne's last words are so memorable; it's easy to feel a kind of fellow feeling for someone in extremis who sums things up so well.

--John R.

[when first drafted this post]:
current Kindle book: RENDER UNTO ROME by Jason Berry [2011]
current audiobook: NATION by Terry Pratchett [2008]
current project: "'A Fragment, Detatched': The Hobbit and The Silmarillion"

current Kindle book: THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS by Jill Paton Walsh
current audiobook: The Learning Company: lectures on Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (on loan from Jeff)
current project: ibid.

for future reading: since reading Wilson's book, I've learned from Doug Anderson that it was inspired by a series R. W. Chambers did back in the 1920s. Given how highly Tolkien admired Chambers as a scholar, I definitely need to track down those original articles at some point.

*At least so I deduce from the fact that I've written in my name, 'Palo Alto', and the date (Friday August 4th '00) on the inside front cover, and a few pages in is a bookmark for Feldman's Books in Menlo Park.

**his preface to the latter notes that "the original work has been completely re-written, with numerous verbal changes, many additions, a few omissions, and some re-arrangement of the material . . ."

***an unflattering reference to Richard III's ministers, Wm Catesby (Speaker of the House), Sir Richard Ratcliffe (who seems to have been R.III's general assistant and factotum, & Lord Lovell (Lord Chamberlain), all of whom are familiar to generations of English students and play-goers from their villainy in Shakespeare's play RICHARD III (the 'hogge' is King Richard himself, whose personal emblem was a wild boar, just as Lovel's was a wolf).
And of course 'Ratcliffe' is the only reasonably famous literary character known to me to bear a version of my own name.

****a little online research shows that Collingbourne also plotted with Henry Tudor against Richard's reign, but the specific charges upon which he was condemned to gruesome death were (a) conspiracy AND (b) writing those verses.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Steig Larsson and Tolkien

So, having now reached about the mid-point in the audiobook of Steig Larsson's fascinating if occasionally unpleasant novel THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (published posthumously in 2005, tr. 2008), I was surprised to find so far not one but two Tolkien references.

The first comes when the main character, disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist, takes time off from his latest assignment to go see a movie for a change of pace:

In the evening he went to the cinema to see The Lord of the Rings,
which he had never before had time to see. He thought that orcs,
unlike human beings, were simple and uncomplicated creatures.
--Chapter 11, page 169

This seems just part of the contemporary grounding of the novel, which is full of references to current events. However, the next goes a bit beyond that. At one point Blomkvist is suddenly confronted by one of his new neighbors, an unpleasant hermit, whose advent is described, apparently from Blomkvist's point of view, thusly:

Gollum had emerged from his cage.
--Chapter 17, page 247

That's the lot so far (I'll add an update at the bottom of this post if I come across any more): another indication of Tolkien's penetration not just into our (American/English/New Zealand/English-language) culture but indeed well beyond it.

--John R.

Taum Santoski XVIII

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

18. The schema of fantasy and mythological epic is not only a matter of gods, demi-gods and supernatural happenstances. Gods alone do not a myth make, and rhymes do not make a poet. What is at stake when a author chooses fantasy or mythological epic over some other form such as novel or poetry?

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Tea Tree Blooms

So, Thursday I discovered that the tea plant (a gift a year or two ago from Anne & Sig) had two little flowers on it. I know Anne and Sig's tea plant had bloomed earlier this year, and had assumed ours didn't because it was still struggling.

No longer the case, I think. There were two tiny blossoms, more like an apple blossom than a camellia: white petals with a yellow center, and what looked like a third blossom on the way. I took some photos and will try to figure out how to upload them, in which case I'll add them as an update at the end of this post. Just in case I don't succeed, as seems likely, here as the next best thing is a painting of a tea tree blossom:

--John R.
current reading: PICTURING TOLKIEN (last essay!), RENDER UNTO ROME, GILGAMESH.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Taum Santoski XVII

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

17. When CJRT exhausts his father's writing Middle-earth may become mothballed, standing like the empty hulk of a ship in dock filled with inert gap for preservation There are no real inscriptions, sarcophagi, coins, gems, or other remains at hand to give more information save what Tolkien has written and reported.

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taum Santoski XVI

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

16. Some might feel the study of myth, and especially the myth of Tolkien, is a path to the power and moral force of our ancestors who drew their life from belief and not knowledge. Although myth is one of the highest forms of abstract and imaginative thought, mathematics is higher, but it lacks the emotions.

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Inklings for Sale

So, on a pretty regular basis sends out themed ads for various books available through their site. And today, their theme is Books by the Inklings:

One interesting aspect of this is just whom they consider to be Inklings -- Tolkien and Lewis, of course, as the co-founders and by far most famous members, with Williams and Cecil in the second tier (a lot of Inklings scholars forget how distinguished a scholar Lord David was*). Warnie and some books about the Inklings round out the list -- rather surprisingly there's no Wain here; perhaps they felt his work went too far afield and shd be grouped with the Angry Young Men instead.

Most interestingly of all, they include Roger Lancelyn Green among the Inklings' members, giving him equal billing with Wms and Cecil. I know Doug Anderson has argued that a good case can be made for RLG as an Inkling but I think this may be the first time I've seen it taken as a given. Interesting!

And, in a related note, likes to send out monthly announcements of which ten books sold on their site for the most during the previous month. Tolkien ranked on top a few months back; this month, he's #7 behind Fleurs du Mal and Dr. No and Edward Gorey, ahead of JFK and Huxley, with a set of the first-edition LotR:

--John R.
current e-book: book five in the 'Royal Spyness' series by Rhys Bowen

*there's a reason he got an Oxford professorship so early. Though he didn't deserve F. R. Leavis's elevation of him into the epitome of all that Leavis thought was wrong with English literature and academia (i.e., that too many people listened to Cecil rather than Leavis).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Taum Santoski XV

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

15. The Peoples of Arda are the Ainur, the Valar, the Eldar and the Atani (of who all the Free Peoples are concerned).

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Monday, September 5, 2011

Taum Santoski XIV

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

14. The Music of the Ainur is Myth; Fate is mythologized history; Vision is the historicized myth; Free Will is history.

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Taum Santoski XIII

'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy'

[page 3]

13. Poetry and Song are an echo of the Great Music; Fate is a theme of Eru woven into all beings; Vision is the gift of dreams and prophecy; Free Will is a theme of Eru.

--Taum Santoski, circa 1984

Friday, September 2, 2011

Taum's Aphorisms, parts VII to XII

Here, again, are some comments and observations by me on Taum's piece I've dubbed 'Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Tolkienian Fantasy'. As before these are just my interpretations.

(7) Here we get a sequence from pure myth (the creation story) to myth presented as history (Silm) to history with an element of myth (LotR) to scholarly comment (UT); the main thing is the pattern of withdrawal/diminishment.

(8) I have no idea what Taum is talking about here, nor if these four categories relate back to the four exemplar given in the previous paragraph.

(9) In the Beginning was The Word (Logos), so before the beginning must have come the pre-logos.

(10) This part I get, about the myth to history to myth at the end of history; I don't get what the philosophy and political structures at the end have to do with it.

(11) If there were three themes in the Protologos, should there be three competing Logi?

(12) It sounded as if myth leeches out of history progressively from the time of creation on. Perhaps the 'philosophy' of Pt 10 and Pt 12 is equivalent to the 'scholastic/academic media' of Pt 7?

This brings us to the midway point. I understand this second quarter even less than the first. We'll see how it goes with Pts 13 onward.
--John R.

current reading: THE UNSPEAKABLE OATH, #19.


So, Monday I found out the unwelcome news that Kristin Thompson's excellent Tolkien film blog, THE FRODO FRANCHISE, is shutting down, apparently effective immediately (or, rather, a couple of days ago):

Apparently Kristin's plan all along was to write a follow-up book to THE FRODO FRANCHISE, one which I assume would have included the making of THE HOBBIT and the events of its release, impact, and aftermath. And the ongoing posts on THE FRODO FRANCHISE would presumably be incorporated into that book, or at least serve as part of the ongoing research into its creation.

That such a book will now never be written is a real loss to Tolkien Studies. Kristin's was the best of all the books that dealt with the movies,* and I'd have to say that hers is the best of the essays in the new PICTURING TOLKIEN that I've read so far.

The good news is that she's not disappearing: she'll be posting occasionally over at TheOneRing.Net and has two book projects in the works. The first she describes as "a book-length analysis on stylistic and narrative techniques in Tolkien's two hobbit novels"; this wd presumably be the same book mentioned to the endnotes of her PICTURING TOLKIEN piece, where it's described as "a book about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings where I will discuss such points as who the protagonists of LOTR are" [page 43, Nt 10]. Being a great fan of her earlier book on the Wooster & Jeeves series, I'll be looking forward to this one.

The same applies to her other in-progress project, though that one's further afield: "a large book project on the statuary of the Amarna period" -- i.e., Egyptian art from the time of Akhenaten, the most famous piece of which is the bust of Nefertiti. Having a longstanding interest in ancient Egypt myself, I'll certainly be looking forward to this one as well, though it's outside my field of expertise.

And so passeth a Tolkien blog. It's not one that I checked daily -- more like a place I'd go once a month and read up on what'd happened lately -- but it was a reliable source of information about a specific field in Tolkien studies, one that's not my own main focus. It will be missed.

--John R.
current reading: PICTURING TOLKIEN
current audiobook: OCCULT AMERICA y Mitch Horowitz (just finished)

*of the ones I've seen, anyway -- a few are so prohibitively expensive that I haven't picked them up yet.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Another Lost Post

How strange. Friday I drafted, and late Sunday I posted, a piece about affinities between the Tea Party and recurrent intolerant/racist/nativist movements in American culture & politics: the Know-Nothings/American party (1850s), Bedford Forrest's Klan (1860s-70s), the mainstream Klan (1910s-20s), the modern Klan (1950s-60s), and now the Tea Party (2008ff), united by religious hatred (anti-Catholic in the earlier movements,* anti-Muslim today), nativism (hatred of foreigners, esp. immigrants), racism (originally anti-Irish, oddly enough; perpetually anti-Black, and now anti-Hispanic as well),** all wrapped up in a sort of uber-patriotism incongruously linked to heated denunciations of America and their fellow Americans, a self-professed veneration for the Founding Fathers combined with heaping scorn upon the institutions they set up, like the Supreme Court. I ended by linking to a story about a study from some sociologists claiming to have identified common traits among Tea Party adherents.

But Monday, it had vanished from my list of posts. I didn't save a draft, so I really can't reconstruct the post now. I do still have a url for the piece I linked to, so here that is:

In any case, after I'd made the post, Janice sent me an interesting piece about the death of a remarkable man I'd never heard of: Stetson Kennedy, who apparently played a large role in the de-legitimatizing of the Klan in the 1940s (the 1920s Klan having widespread public acceptance, while the Klan of the '50s and '60s was a furtive, though still dangerous, remnant).*** Of his books, the "Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was" sounds like the most interesting (though I'm not clear if this is a separate book from "Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A." or merely variant titles for the same book). Luckily, Suzzallo-Allen seems to be well-stocked with his works, so I shd be able to find out soon for myself. In the meantime, here's the link to the story about his passing:


*according to family lore, the local Klan ran off my grandmother's fiancee because he was Catholic; this was in Kentucky back in the 1920s.

**as a sub-set, we cd probably add anti-German and anti-Japanese during the world wars, though that's a special case; if we go that route, might as well bring in anti-Asian (19th century West) and anti-Eastern Europe (the Palmer Raids era). And that doesn't even begin to get into anti-Native Americanism, which is pretty much the dark bedrock this country was built on (less 'how can we learn to live together' than 'let's kill them and take their stuff').

***I'm told Leonard Cline, who's mainly remembered as a horror/fantasy writer (THE DARK CHAMBER) did some prize-winning exposes of the Klan in the 1920s that started the process.