Friday, December 30, 2011

Tonight I'm In . . .

. . . Shreveport, after a v. busy day, large parts of which consisted of sitting still, either while driving or during Visitor's Hours.

Tomorrow, it's up to Magnolia for a few hours, during which I have many chores and errands that need doing. We'll see how many I can get through and still get back to Shreveport before dark.

Meanwhile, tonight I'm reading a v. interesting book about pyramids (had not been aware that each Egyptian pyramid had its own name in antiquity); I've skipped ahead to read the section about the Sphinx.

Tomorrow, I'm hoping to start in on a booklet from one of the more notorious entries in the so-called 'Old School D&D Revival', loaned to me by a knowledgable friend. Having not even been aware there was an Old School Revival, I obviously have much to learn.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tonight I'm In . . .

. . . Dallas, having flown into Love Field tonight. My first time to go through Love Field. Seems to be a nice mid-size airport, smaller I think than Chicago's Midway (which I passed thr to & fro on my way to Kalamazoo last year) but larger than Milwaukee's Mitchell Field (at least, that's my impression of it from a brief late night deplaning walk-through).

Another first was going through Albuquerque, a place I've never visited but which is set amid some really striking landscape, as seen from the air.

Next up: heading on to Shreveport tomorrow. My rental car is a Volkswagon Beetle: another first. Turns out they don't put the motors in the trunk anymore. What's up with that?

Oh, and back home the Green River is at Flood Level 2. That is, the stage where they send all residents in the Green River valley, like us, alerts telling us there's nothing to worry about.
Comforting, that.

--John R.

current reading: S. S. Van Dine's THE CANARY MURDER CASE (solved by the dilettante-detective playing poker with the chief suspects to discover which has the right kind of personality and mental processes to have been the murderer).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Geekiest of the Geeks

Thanks to Janice, for pointing out the following link to me, in which THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT* heads the list of the geekiest gifts of the season:

Here's what their first contributor, Nikki Rau-Baker, has to say about the book:

"A must for anyone gearing up for the upcoming big-screen version of The Hobbit:"The History of The Hobbit" by John D. Rateliff, covers the beginnings of The Hobbit with such tidbits of information as the original names of the dwarves and the shocking revelation that the leader was initially called Gandalf."

--to which I have just two words to say: Woo and Hoo!

--John R.
current audiobook: THE WAR LOVERS [2011]**
current reading: THE CANARY MURDER CASE by S. S. Van Dine [1927]***

*the new one-volume edition, I assume -- geeks being early adaptors, they'd want H.o.H. 2.0
**(T.R., Lodge, Hearst, &c)
***a re-reading

Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE HOBBIT trailer considered

Here, courtesy of Richard West and Kristin Thompson, is a better link to a good site to see the new trailer on:

Now that I've had a day or two to mull over things, and move beyond the don't-disturb-this-moment feeling, here's my take on this first trailer.

I've seen most of the little teaser mini making-of documentaries, which have done a great job of engaging the audience from the LotR films into this new project and laid a lot of the wilder rumors to rest. But this feels different: the first whiff of the real thing. They clearly want to do a lot in one short piece.

Foremost among them: to convey to fans of the LotR films that this is more of the same. That it's not just another Tolkien movie, but deeply and directly connected to the first. Thus we get to see McKellan's Gandalf, and Blanchett's Galadriel, and above all hear the sinister whispers of Serkis's Gollum. Even small details, like a glimpse of the shards of Narsil, are included -- something really not v. important for Bilbo's story, but no doubt included for the flashback to the moment between Aragorn and Boromir (and Aragorn and Arwen) in the first film: comfort food, so to speak, for the fans of the first film.

Just as important (or, for me, even more important) is establishing the new cast of this new story. We get to see a lot of Bilbo, and get used to the idea (after the initial shock, and some inner resistance) of seeing Freeman's face rather than Ian Holm's. And all thirteen dwarves are thrown at us in rapid succession, so that the full roster of Thorin & Company is presented right away.

Speaking of the dwarves, it looks like there'll be two contradictory things juxtaposed here. Their looks are quite silly (with the old silent-movie beards and moustachios), yet they turn into experienced killing machines in combat. There was some of that in the first films' Gimli; looks like there'll be even more of it here (To be fair, there was some of this in the original Tolkien too).

The exception is Thorin, whose look and behavior seems locked permanently in the serious battle-mode. In the book it comes as quite a shock when Thorin succumbs to dragon-sickness and becomes Bilbo's enemy. In later writings like THE QUEST OF EREBOR and THE 1960 HOBBIT, Tolkien anticipated those developments by including hints that Thorin was going bad, or at least had the potential, all along: anticipating the end result by drastically rewriting the character (and thus unfortunately losing the shock value of the original ending). I suspect that's what's going on here: Dark Thorin isn't the result of the character's going mad in the end but the essential character all along. I suspect he's this film's Boromir.

Which ties into an observation Janice made: this looks more like THE 1960 HOBBIT than it does THE HOBBIT itself.* There are no hints here of the whimsy of the original story, in which the dwarves bring highly impractical musical instruments along for the Unexpected Party, only to apparently abandon them forthwith, given that none of them are ever mentioned again. Jackson & Co. need not be borrowing directly from Tolkien's unfinished re-write, but they're clearly trying to achieve the same goal: recast THE HOBBIT into the style of LotR.

This ties into a point David Bratman made on his blog,** in which he suggested that Jackson is presenting THE HOBBIT as the prequel to LotR. So far as the films go, this is perfectly correct: most people who go see THE HOBBIT in theatres this time next year (and again the year after) are fans of the three-film Jackson trilogy and expect this movie to be just like the earlier films they know and love. That naturally imposes some audience expectations and means the films will probably be quite different from what they might have been like had they been made in chronological order.

---the biggest surprise: no dragon. To have a dragon and not show it is an exercise of restraint I'd not expected.

---the biggest twist: a brief tender moment between Galadriel and Gandalf.***

---the standout moment: the beautiful dwarf-song. Tolkien said Bilbo found it moving; Jackson has found a way to move the audience with it as well. Score One for Team Jackson.****

--John R.


*Richard West made much the same point in an email today, in which he points out how Tolkien's book famously starts like WIND IN THE WILLOWS and ends more like NJAL'S SAGA, as C. S. Lewis observed long ago; here it's saga all the way through.

***this is a good example of the kind of unanticipate-able element Jackson likes to throw into his films.

****it's clearly based on the king's song Aragorn sings at his coronation which, if I remember rightly, was Mortensen's own composition; hope he gets a royalty here!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

THE HOBBIT trailor

So, as of seven o'clock tonight, the trailer for THE HOBBIT (part one) is up.

There are many places you can see it online; I watched it here:

Analysis as to where they are and aren't faithful to the book can come later. For now, it's time to luxuriate in the feeling of seeing this: after years of delay, it's real, and it's coming. One year to go.

I so want to see this movie.

--John R.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Who's Naughty and Nice (Occupy)

So, I haven't posted on the Occupy movement, mainly because I've had too much to say. I've gathered enough material for three separate posts, but sorting out just what to say about each aspect proved entangled to the point that none of the three actually got posted.

Then, when we were down at the Pike Place Market on Saturday, picking up my father-in-law's Xmas present (which shd go off tomorrow, and get there Thursday), I saw a Santa handing out 'Occupy Seattle' stickers. It reads simply "WE ARE THE 99%" and gives the url for Occupy Seattle .org. I've been wearing it on my jacket ever since.

I mean, if anybody keeps track of who the good guys are, of who's naughty and who's nice as the old song puts it, it's gotta be St. Nick. Plus, for those who are into 'the Reason for the Season', the Gospels are pretty explicit about eyes of the needle and all.

Good enough for me.

--John R.
current audiobook: THE WAR LOVERS by Evan Thomas [2010]
current book: ANCIENT EGYPT AS IT WAS by CHarlotte Booth [2008; 2011]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Calendrical (The Long Count)

So, yesterday (Tuesday) the new Mayan Calendar arrived in the mail. I've ordered one of these each year for the past several years now: they're filled with pictures of Mayan ruins, carvings, and artifacts, making them among my favorite wall-calenders ever. Though they have to compete for space on our walls with the Tolkien calendar up in my office and with a simpler calendar we don't mind marking up and writing on in the kitchen. Last year and again this coming one that hasn't been an issue so far as the office goes, with the Mayan art easily trumping Cor Blok's eccentricities.

This year, I was curious how they'd handle 12/21/12, the date at which the "long count" comes to an end. Some folks have made a lot of fuss about this (cf. Y-2k*), as if time itself ends when we reach the end of a measurement of time. I've assumed that, just as a car doesn't suddenly fall to pieces when its odometer reaches 999,999.9 miles, but just turns over and starts again at 000,000.1, so too wd the Mayan calendar.

Turns out I'll have to wait till next year to find out. Opening up the new calendar, and admiring the art therein and the explanation in the front about how the various interlocking Mayan calendar systems work, I discovered when I reached the last page that their calendar for December is unfinished, ending at December 21st (day in the long count). After this follows a note about how to order their 2013 calendar ("20% off; . . . offer expires December 21, 2012"--I thought this last touch was a hoot). As an added bonus, the art for that page is the Tortuguero Monument 6 ("the only text in the Maya world known to mention December 21, 2012 AD.").

So, I guess we'll have to wait and see how they handle the start of the New Count. It's rare for a civilization to have a mechanism for marking the End of an Age (as Tolkien wd have called it). The Mayans clearly thought a system that cd cover every date between August 11th 3114 BC and Friday December 21st 2012 was good enough for government work. I tend to agree.

*or, at a slightly less significant but similarly fussy point, folks who insisted the new century and millennium started at 2001 rather than 2000. Or, to harken back a few decades, the dawning of 'The Age of Aquarius'. At least we got a good song out of that one.

1st Edition: How It Went

So, last Saturday we gathered for the long-planned AD&D 1st edition game. We turned out having a relatively small group (for us): four players and myself as DM (it wd have been more, but deadline pressure took out two other players and a last-minute cold struck down another).

How did it go?

Well, I had a blast. As for the players, you'd have to ask them -- but so far as I cd tell, it went well. I know it was slightly weird afterwards to find out that Janice, who'd gone upstairs with her I-Pad when we started rolling the dice, had been able to follow the game through FaceBook postings taking place during the event.

The scenario I chose was B1. In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr. As much as I respect Carr's work putting together the AD&D game,* I'd always had a grudge against this adventure, because it's not playable as published. It contains a map, a detailed history of the place, and a description of each room with some background about its original use before the underground stronghold of Quasqueton was abandoned and became a dungeon. What it's lacking are fully keyed encounters.** Instead there are two lists (not tables, or easily divisible by die rolls), one listing monsters and the other treasure, which the DM is supposed to go through and decide where to place. In short, exactly the sort of things you buy a published module in order to have already done for you.

For this adventure, I went through the room descriptions, altering them freely to match the dungeon I wanted to run (this included moving some walls and doors around as well). Most of the monsters from the original I jettisoned; instead, I went through the MONSTER MANUAL and picked out monsters I thought it'd be interesting to use and then placed them throughout the complex. In my read-through, I was reminded of just how many interesting monsters the game system has jettisoned over the years, so aside from a few classics (skeletons, zombies, giant rats) I deliberately skewed my monster selection to include things like a gelatinous cube, green slime, and a unique monster or two. I also added a few specific treasures (e.g., a nearly-depleted wand of magic missiles) that I carefully placed, relying on Carr's list for minor treasure from random encounters. Finally, to shake things up, I decided one of the lair's two builders had been an Illusionist, rather than the Magic-User of Carr's original; that allowed for a number of effects that misled the party from making the most effective response to things they encountered (e.g., not trying to Turn creatures whose undead nature was disguised by illusions).

The player characters were a mixed group: a half-elf cleric (LG), a human paladin (LG), a half-orc Fighter/Thief*** (CE), and a half-elf Fighter/Cleric (CG) whom we half-jokingly decided cd be his sister. No magic-user, which normally wd have put them at a disadvantage, but the presence of two clerics was actually v. much to their advantage, since unknown to them I'd stocked the dungeon primarily with undead (which seemed to make more sense for a long-abandoned complex than the berserkers of Carr's original, who are apparently guards who have hung around for thirty years or so waiting for their bosses to come back). Menaces they faced included

--a corpse infested with rot grubs (too bad they burned it before finding the wand of magic missiles [7 charges] still clutched in one dead hand)
--an apparently endless stream of skeletons who emerged from secret doors near the entryway to attack trespassers and cut off their line of retreat (they finally, after encountering this four times, to spike shut the doors the skeletons used to reach their ambush points).
--a kitchen in which unseen servants were chopping and slicing up the corpse of the last adventurer to come through.
--a dining room, to which the unseen servants delivered the wh apparently had a decapus in it**** who attacked as soon as they entered. Here I did a switch. In its original appearance (in B3), PCs enter a room and see a group of men around a table attacking a woman with knives with apparent cannibalistic intent. But this is just an illusion, covering up the actual menace: a ten-tentacled monster who tries to gobble up the intruders. I decided to reverse that: in my dungeon, they saw the decapus, which here itself was an illusion hiding a room full of eight zombies. A secondary motive, besides creating a tough fight, was to throw off anyone who'd figured out which module we were playing (given that one of the players, Steve Winter, was already working for TSR about the time the adventure I was using was published back in '81), which was after all a classic. By throwing in an iconic monster from a different adventure, I thought it might muddy the waters -- and for those who hadn't played the old adventures it work just fine as a stand-on-its-own encounter.
--an underground garden overgrown by mushrooms. The PCs pulled back without running into any danger here, partly because the cleric's songbird began to tweet in panic as they entered this area, and partly because some of the mushrooms started hopping towards them,which weirded them out.
--a shrine to Our Lady of Darkness, where a summoned servitor offered them healing if they swore an oath to her goddess. The paladin and LG cleric declined; the other two decided to go for it, and both gained a level (1st > 2nd level) but learned that their bodies wd spontaneously animate as undead when they died. This encounter was to insert a role-playing opportunity into the dungeon, as well as parallel the level-bumping power of some magic items and, indeed, one of the magical pools elsewhere in the original module. And of course to give the party increased odds of survival by having character potentially gain an extra level with its attendant hit points, spells, &c.

There were other encounters and places they explored; unfortunately, we ended up with a total party kill when they decided to take on some monsters they cd easily have avoided (having already learned the monsters activated when someone opened the door but did not pursue intruders beyond the room, they entered the room to take them out). Here was another case in which illusion played a key role -- in this case, hiding that the three humans in the room were actually ghouls. Ouch.

The lesson learned? Despite what you may hear, 1st ed. AD&D is really easy to run. It has lots and lots of rules, but you can ignore most of them; most of them are there to resolve specific circumstances, while the core mechanic is really simple. By contrast, in Third Edition you pretty much HAVE to play it the way it's written; the rules are so interlocked that you drop or modify one at yr peril. And of course Third Edition is so complicated that it's rare to even see a stat block with all the details right . . . but that's a discussion for another day.

It also became clear that Third Edition is a much safer world for PCs. In Third Edition, if your character dies, it's because you did something wrong, and then had really bad luck on top of it. In the normal course of play, that shd almost never happen. In 1st edition, death is always just around the corner, and your character can die at any time, not because you made a bad choice but just because of a bad die roll. Consequently, it takes much more skill to keep a character alive in 1st edition, and working your way up from 1st level to 2nd, then 3rd, &c is a real achievement you can feel proud of.

That this arbitrariness is a deliberate part of the system is shown best, I think, by the Potion Miscibility Table (DMG.119). Faced w. the question of what happens when you drink a potion while a previous potion is still in effect, the simplest solution wd be to just say each takes full effect. Not 1st ed. AD&D, which provides a handy table enabling you to determine if one cancels out the other, if one or the other's effects become permanent, or if the imbiber explodes. It helps show that you're in a weird, unpredictable world where the stakes are high and danger is never v. far away. In fact, I suspect that the style of 1st edition role-playing is alive and well today as the basis for most online fantasy games, far more than any later iteration of those rules or its derivatives.

In any case, having whetted my appetite, I want more, and hope I'll be able to organize another game sometime. We'll see. I know another member of the group has volunteered to run a D&D game, using the third edition of the D&D rules (Moldvay's BASIC and Zeb's EXPERT rules). I always played AD&D, not D&D, so I'm really looking forward to it.

--John R.

*it was Carr, as editor of all three hardbacks (PH, MM, DMG), who seems to have put together the material by Gygax (et al.) into coherent form.

**originally B3. was issued in similar unkeyed format, but Moldvay's re-write fixed that problem, and greatly improved the adventure overall. Unfortunately, B1. was never given the Moldvay treatment; the closest it came was when TSR released the compilation B1-9 IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE -- which despite its designator omitted B1 altogether, aside from reprinting the maps!

***(he wd have been a Fighter/Assassin but cdn't quite make the pre-requisites)

****cf. B3. Palace of the Silver Princess; it's on the cover (of both the suppressed original and the standard green-cover version).

Monday, December 5, 2011

1st edition

So, this weekend I'm running a 1st edition AD&D game. My thinking was: it's been too long since I played my favorite game, which I also happen to believe is the finest roleplaying game ever published: 1st edition AD&D. CALL OF CTHULHU is a fine game, and it's my game of choice these days, but that's mainly because I didn't make the jump from Third to Fourth Edition. I've played Fourth Edition, and enjoyed it, but it was the camraderie around the table I was enjoying and not the rules system. Even after a year or so of occasional gaming in 4e it never really came together for me: it felt like a miniatures game with a card game overlaid on it, with an optional roleplaying veneer on top of that. Third Edition, for all its faults, was still recognizably D&D. Fourth Edition, for all its virtues, feels more like an attempt to re-create the experience of playing a computer game. It's kind of like a novelization to a movie: a reminder of something you enjoyed rather than something to enjoy in its own right.

So why first edition? Well, consider that it's the most successful roleplaying game of all time. Millions of people played it obsessively for years. And while a good deal of time has passed since then, there's no reason to think the rules won't still work as well as they ever did. Just as there are some books I loved to read back in the day that are just as good as they ever were when I pull them off the shelf now, there are some old classic games that I still enjoy as much as ever when I get the chance to play them. Which isn't nearly often enough.

Of course, it's also true that there are some things that don't age well; once-favorite books that no longer have the same appeal. When I occasionally mention my enduring fondness for the classic game, I'm often told in response that it's just nostalgia speaking, with the implication that the game only gets better with every new edition.

So, let's see. I've got a group of a half-dozen or so who've expressed an interest in playing. I've picked the adventure and am jotting down notes as to monsters, traps, and treasures they may encounter. And I'm immersed in skimming through the PH and DMG to remind myself of the rules, rather than just rely on my memory (it has after all been a few years). Come Saturday they'll bring the characters they rolled up and we'll see how it goes.

--John R.

Oh, and The Wife Says: What's Up with all that Tiny Print?* We must have all had better eyesight back then. --JDR

*i.e., in the orignal PH, DMG, and MM.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Lewis Fiction

So, Friday the new issue of VII arrived, containing as its lead article the first publication ever of some early (circa 1927?) fiction by C. S. Lewis, here given the title the "EASLEY FRAGMENT" (THE EASLEY FRAGMENTS wd have been more apt, given that it consists of two disconnected pieces). This is something Lewis scholars have known about for a long time -- three sentences were quoted from it as far back as 1973 -- but it's only now seeing the light of day. It's quite brief: nine pages in Warnie's original transcription in THE LEWIS PAPERS and taking up pages 5-12 & 12-15 in this edition* -- and thus less substantial than, say, THE DARK TOWER (sixty-four Ms pages); more along the lines of AFTER TEN YEARS (fifteen Ms pages and similarly consisting of two disconnected pieces). Even so, I'm impressed with the generosity of the Lewis Estate in allowing this new Lewis story to appear in a scholarly journal rather than, say, in some new edition of complete short fiction by CSL.

As for the piece itself, the first chapter is a first-person account of a Bristol doctor visiting his late father's family in Ulster for the first time not long after the Great War (in which he served in the trenches, while they stayed safe at home wrapped up in their own concerns). Having always taken them at their own evaluation, he learns that they are not at all as they presented themselves in their own guilelessly self-serving accounts in the letters he has occasionally received from them. The fragment breaks off, however, before we actually get to meet them; all we get is a bit of the narrator's background and his long conversation with a self-satisfied cadger of drinks he runs into on the ferry over. So Lewis's "Irish novel" doesn't actually get as far as actually landing in Ireland itself -- though, to be fair, he opens by claiming that 'Belfast' begins at the Liverpool ferry terminal. Lewis's goal is clearly to let unlikeable characters reveal their character flaws through their speech, completely unaware of what a bad light they show themselves in, while the narrator forebears to make comment. Jane Austen cd pull this off; unsurprisingly it turns out the young C. S. Lewis had not mastered the art.

The second fragment is sometime later in the internal chronology of the story and consists of an argument between the doctor and a minister. The doctor's aunt is suffering from a terror of damnation, and the doctor accuses the minister of driving her mad with such nonsense. The minister responds that he considers a concern over salvation or damnation as a sign of mental health, not madness. The scene is not v. interesting as a piece of fiction (too talky; a thin fictional frame for a philosophical debate), but as documentation of Lewis's views it's fascinating. We know that at the time he wrote this,** Lewis was, from all accounts, in agreement with what he presents here as the doctor's point of view (the doctor also resembles young CSL in other ways we need not go into here). And yet we know that within a few years, Lewis had swung around 180 degrees and was fully in agreement with the minister's view. So can this passage be taken as a prefigurement of his shift? Or an example of how totally he switched his deepest held convictions? Or can it be read as occupying some middle ground, a way-station on the path?

The other interesting thing about this fragment is how it fits into the biographical narrative of Lewis as a failed author, which I discuss in my piece on his famous bargain with JRR Tolkien that resulted in THE LOST ROAD, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, and THE DARK TOWER.*** It was through his discovery of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS and THE PLACE OF THE LION, and through that bargain, that Lewis concluded that genre fiction was the right medium for him, while Tolkien though he made a good-faith effort discovered the opposite was true for him: he had to follow his own, sui generis course. So it's interesting to see CSL here try his hand at a sort of local-color fiction, another genre outside the mainstream of his day.

And with this publication, I think we have pretty much all CSL's significant work now in print, except for his unfinished Morris-ian Arthurian romance THE QUEST OF BLEHERIS (about sixty pages) and his philosophical papers (which really shd be published in conjunction with Barfield's interlocking responses.

--John R.

*between brief headnote, notes, bibliography, and commentary by the editiors (David C. Downing and Bruce R. Johnson), it takes up pages 5-26 of this issue (VII. vol. 28).

**assuming Warnie got the date right, which seems a reasonable enough assumption -- esp. since he was compiling THE LEWIS PAPERS while living w. CSL (as I understand it, they were actually typed in a side-room in Lewis's office at Magdalen), and he cd easily have asked his brother when the work dated from. Were it not for that, I'd have thought it from the early twenties rather than towards the end of the decade.

***cf. my essay appearing in TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM [2000]

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reprehensible Behavior . . .

So, I mentioned recently that I'd ordered what I considered a second-tier book on Tolkien -- by which I mean one that might be interesting, but not a must-have given my particular interests. One I'd put off because of the price, but finally decided to get because of the out-of-print price madness I'd seen take place a time or two in the past that I'd rather not get mixed up in.

Turns out I was just a little too late: The book in question (Alison Milbank's CHESTERTON AND TOLKIEN AS PHILOSOPHERS) went out of print between my ordering it on November 5th and Amazon's shipping the rest of my order on the 16th. Checking now, I find that $39.93 (pretty much the original price of the book) will now only get you a dog-eared, marked-up copy: 'like new' will run you $141.42 at least. And if you miss this one, the other two 'new' copies are priced at $160.61 and $223.29, while the remaining 'used' copies come in at $135.80 (a pretty bit jump from $39.93), $358.58, and a stunning $900.00. I have no idea who Bordee Books might be, or why they think people wd pay $900 for this book.

As for online book services, ABEbooks came up a blank, but Bookfinder came through with a lot of options. Used started at $43.92 -- which sounded good, until you realize that this is the entry and is no longer operative. The next-best used price was $118.78 for the hardcover and $119.49 for the softcover -- though why, give the choice, anyone wd buy the paperback when they cd get the hardcover for slightly less is beyond me. After various amazon.this-or-that-country, the final (and most expensive) used option listed was from A Libris for $362.57 -- again, bizarre, because A Libris also lists it New at $181.45.

Clearly the 'New' book options looked much better at Bookfinder -- that is, until you actually tried to use them. The first one, from Barnes &, says they're offering the book for $34.15, but once you actually click on the button and go to the B&N site, it turns out they're offering it for $117.46, $185.78, and $358.58. I don't think this is a bait-and-switch, though, so much as the price being updated as it soared in one place and not in the other. The Super Book Deals listing promises it at $42.36, but clicking on the button reveals that the book is no longer available. The offer of $42.90 simply turns out to be a broken link.

However, there is hope: The link does work, leading to the book, new, in paperback, for twenty-one pounds. Which comes out to about the same as the original price wd have been before they ran out of it.

The real fascination here is the price-gouging of a book that hadn't made any particular stir when it first appeared and now, a few years later, went out of print without the public much noticing. But as I understand it the online book-dealers have some sort of software that alerts them to books that go out of print and in some cases (presumably when linked to authors whose readers are as obsessive as we Tolkienists)* immediately doubles or triples the price on any remaining stock. And then others seems to have a variant of that same software than prices their just a little bit higher or lower than those results. And yet others triple that highest price, apparently in the odd belief that, given the choice, people will prefer the most overpriced of all available options.

As for me, I ordered it from Blackwells -- whom I'm happy to give my business (I've bought books from them before, but only when I was in Oxford on one of my rare research trips over there, never before on-line. Now to wait till it arrives, and see if it was worth all this hooplah.

--John R.

*the same thing happened a year or two back with Frederick & McBride's WOMEN AMONG THE INKLINGS, copies of which on Bookfinder start at about $100 (i.e., more than double its original price), with one bookseller offering it for $1503.00. And I'm afraid to say even outdoes this, offering a dozen or so copies in the $100 to $200 range but with one dealer asking $1995.06 for his copy.** Unless it's written on mallorn leaves by elven calligraphers, this is grossly overpriced.

**plus shipping. You'd think that might throw that in gratis. You'd be wrong.


So, another book to arrive the same time as the Sammons and the Loo (but in a different package) turned out not to be anything like the book I thought I was ordering. According to, they were offering a book by Tom Piccirilli (a name new to me in Tolkien scholarship) called DECONSTRUCTING TOLKIEN. From the title, I assumed this was a Deconstructionalist interpretation of JRRT's work, which sounded bizarre enough to be potentially entertaining -- perhaps worthy to go on the same shelf as Giddings & Holland or Eaglestone. I mainly know deconstructionist theory second hand, having suffered through a lot of it while at Marquette (the department there was theory-mad in the eighties; don't know if that's the case today); my own take on it was that it stated the blindingly obvious as if it were profound, and in practice more closely resembled performance art than literary criticism (I'm thinking here in particular of a dubious talk by Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's translator), at a critical symposium Marquette hosted. But I only saw an interesting and insightful application of deconstructionist ideas for the first time this past year at Kalamazoo. That made me realize that the two--deconstructionism and Tolkien-- can actually be brought together and be worthwhile, so I decided to opt for the book.

Turns out it's not at all as advertised. For the first thing, Tom Piccirilli (whoever he is) didn't write it: all he did was contribute a two and a half page introduction. The bulk of the text that follows is by Edward J. McFadden III, who I also hadn't heard of: turns out he's the editor of FANTASTIC STORIES OF THE IMAGINATION, which is described as 'one of the largest fiction magazines in the country'.

Also, it turns out the book has nothing to do with Deconstruction; the author just used the term in the sense of getting back to basics. So too the subtitle (A FUNDAMENTAL ANALYSIS OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS) doesn't have anything to do with Fundamentalism.

As for the book itself, it turns out I'd seen it before, on Doug Anderson's shelves, when I was visiting there last year. It's too bizarre to have forgotten, but any note I made of the title at the time has since gotten misplaced, and at any rate I was certain I didn't have any book on Tolkien by anyone named Piccirilli. As indeed I still go not.

The weirdest thing about this book is not the mis-ascription of authorship by but the fact that only about every other chapter is by McFadden. The rest are by an eccentric array of authors: Edgar Poe, H. G. Wells, Jane Yolan, Chaucer, and Lovecraft. McFadden's procedure is to write an essay, then follow it up with a story (e.g., Wells' THE VALLEY OF THE SPIDERS or Poe's WILLIAM WILSON), then another essay, then another story, and so forth. Sometimes the reasons why he includes a particular story are self-evident (e.g. the Wells, which is a sort of "Leiningen & the Ants" except with spiders rather than formians). In other cases, it's nothing short of baffling (Chaucer's THE COOK'S TALE*)
And the book itself? Well, so far I haven't had time to read it, but the bits I dipped into (e.g., the chapter on changes made in Tolkien's story for the Peter Jackson film) seem okay.** I'll try to post an update once I actually get around to reading the thing -- but my first impressions remain that this book'll wind up being on the fringes -- not as far out there as Vander Ploeg,*** but still not one of those that winds up being central to Tolkien studies either. We'll see.

--John R.
current reading: ON CONAN DOYLE by Dirda
current audiobook: THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST by Larsson

*included, McFadden says, to show how Tolkien imitated Chaucer's language in LotR

**quote #1: "picture your greatest literary influence . . . on plastic cups at Burger King"
quote #2: "I don't think that fantasy has been well served by cinema"
quote #3: I could hear the text of the book in my head as I watched the scene"

***this is the one that reveals the Elves are really lizards from outer space. No, really.