Friday, August 31, 2012

Bill Nye vs. Mr. Akin (Scientist vs. Creationist)

So, yesterday there was a very funny and very profane piece posted online about Bill Nye, the Science Guy, totally losing it when being told by an interviewer that Todd Akin, would-be senator from Missouri (the guy who doesn't think women can get pregnant by being raped), blamed Nye for Hurricane Isaac. Much to the horror of his hosts, interviewers from the Smithsonian, Nye let loose with an expletive-filled rejoinder to Akin. The piece went viral and was so popular that the website hosting the story crashed.

Except it never happened.

The set-up seems true enough: that a week ago Nye made a public appeal for people not to teach their children creationism. As one wd expect from Nye, it's a well-reasoned, impassioned, yet polite call:

Unsurprisingly, this provoked some outcry from the people who disagree with him, but Nye stuck to his guns and remained polite in his rejoiner:

I think at this point the hoaxers decided to have fun writing up what they imagined Nye must really be thinking beneath the polite, mild mannered facade. In any case, they clearly tapped a vein. I suspect their profanity-laced rant corresponds all too well to what the great majority of people think but, like Nye himself, are too polite to say.

Here's the link to the original 'scoop'. Be warned that the original contained a lot of foul language (somewhat censored here), if such things offend you, and also that it's merciless towards Akin and those who share his belief in 'creation science' (which is after all an oxymoron, like 'dry water').

I think my favorite part of the whole dust-up was that it spawned one online image of Nye wearing a t-shirt with the great slogan:

"You and Me.
Any Time. Any Place.
Debating Science. Mano-a-Mano.
I'll Bring the Facts."

I think "I'll Bring the Facts" might be a new tag-line of mine.


hrolf kraki, con't

[con't from previous post]

Until now, I mainly knew the saga through Jesse Byock's translation fr. Penguin books [1998], which is nicely readable as well as having a useful introduction and helpful notes. I'd also read Poul Anderson's novelization, done long ago for Ballantine's famous Adult Fantasy Series [1973], but don't recommend it: a truly unpleasant piece of work. THE BROKEN SWORD [1971] has a well-deserved reputation for being bleak and depressing, but Poul A.'s HROLF KRAKI'S SAGA revealed a truly nasty side of P.A. I hadn't expected to find there.

The Tolkien connection with this particular translation is that Stella Mills, the translator, was one of Tolkien's students at Leeds who became a lifetime family friend;* the book is dedicated

E. V. G.
J. R. R. T.
C. T. O.

--i.e., E. V. Gordon, who contributed a short Introduction; J. R. R. Tolkien (her old professor, who later helped her get a job at the O.E.D.), and C. T. Onions, one of the 'Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford' immortalized in FARMER GILES OF HAM, the fourth and final editor of the original OED who finally brought that massive project to completion.

Mills' book being extremely rare (I've been hunting for a copy for years, unsuccessfully till now), it's a real boon to have it available at last.

And it's an extra added bonus for this Nodens Books edition that Priscilla Tolkien has contributed a new Foreword about Mills and her friendship with the Tolkiens; a short piece that would have gone wonderfully in THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM and adds a lot to what little we know about the Stella Mills/JRRT connection. (It's particularly timely to me, since I'm just starting to sketch out an article on JRRT and his lifelong support for women's higher education).

So, if you're interested in sagas, in Tolkien's medieval sources, or in works by those closely associated with JRRT, I highly recommend picking this up.

Here's a link to a description of the book on the Nodens Books website; it can be ordered at amazon et al.


*she is one of the people to whom Tolkien gave one of his original author's copies of THE HOBBIT when it was first published (cf. Appendix V in THE HISTORY OF 'THE HOBBIT')

Monday, August 27, 2012

The New Arrival: Stella Mills' HROLF KRAKI

So, the deadline's now past, the piece done and sent off (to await the inevitable 'needs this, needs that' wh. always follows the completion of a project).

Which means it's time to straighten up the office (books pulled off shelves tend to stack up in the final stages), answer some e-mail, deal with various little tasks that have been put on hold, nail down some details for the upcoming trip, and get going on the next few projects, one (small) one due this week and four (larger) ones all due in the two-week period from the last week of September through the first week of October (announcements on those soon).

Speaking of books piling up, it's been more than a week now since the latest release from Doug Anderson's new publishing imprint, NODEN BOOKS, arrived, making it high time I got around to it. THE SAGA OF HROLF KRAKI is one of the more interesting surviving sagas for any Tolkienist, since it was almost certainly the source for the figure of Beorn/Medwed in THE HOBBIT. It also is of particular interest to Old England and Old Norse scholars because its story overlaps with the first half of BEOWULF, but with the events told from an entirely different point of view. In BEOWULF, wise old King Hrothgar reigns in Heorot, a kind of Danish King Arthur, honored throughout the land, though there are some foreshadowing of trouble to come from his nephew, who it's hinted might usurp the kingship from Hrothgar's young sons. In HROLF KRAKI, the point of view is reverse: here it's the member of the younger generation ("Hrothulf" in BEOWULF, Hrolf in the saga*) who's the hero, with the main emphasis being divided between his spectacularly dysfunctional family (incest and murdering each other being family traditions) and his champions, of whom Bothvar (the Beorn-figure) is the chief.


*or, as we wd say it today, Ralph. 'Kraki' is a nickname meaning 'beanpole', the king being tall and thin.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Too many topics

So, I'd been planning to post some CALL OF CTHULHU characters I created for an adventure I ran at the last GwenCon, thinking pregens are always welcome and that it'd be something appropriate to post at the rate of one per day during GenCon (which started yesterday).

But then Janice showed me the trailer for the Gygx documentary

Which wd go nicely with a bit about the recent Scooby Doo D&D episode

Not to mention having just discovered that there's a 'tone poem' based on JURGEN

Or the news story about a whistleblower menaced by English police

But I think the post I most want to make is the kitten at the Guantanamo gulag (Gitmo Kitmo?)

Once the deadline pressure lets up, and I get that final section finished and can go back and make a final pass (the piece currently being in the unenviable position of being slightly too long and yet not quite finished).

So, for now they'll have to wait a bit.

--John R.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Modern America has virtually no use for the modern British children's book" (What Hath Harry Wrought?)

So, yesterday I was looking up something in Humphrey Carpenter's SECRET GARDENS, his book on the classic writers of the Golden Age of children's books (Kingsley, Carroll, Alcott, MacDonald, Grahame, Nesbit, Potter, Milne, Barrie) and came across a rather strikingly dated statement.

Writing in his Epilogue, about Tolkien and Lewis, Carpenter concludes

"Both writers [T & L] became hugely popular
in America; but they were the last English authors
for children to do so." (p. 214, emphasis mine)

The reason, as Carpenter sees it, is that after Catcher in the Rye American and British writers diverged, with the former following J. D. Salinger's lead in writing realistic novels about children's attempts to cope with the adult world,* while British writers like Garner opted instead for a return to roots, incorporating bits of old folklore into their tales. He concludes:

"Modern America has virtually no use

for the modern British children's book." (p.216)

This was written in 1985. Even then, I would have protested that McKillip and McKinley and Alexander et al. had built up a body of work to match the Garners and Coopers and Wynne Jones: the transAtlantic dichotomy he describes just doesn't seem to have been that much of a factor, to the writers at least.

As for his lament that Americans just don't read children's books by British authors, it's ironic how much the landscape had changed, just a decade later. 1995 saw the publication of Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS (a.k.a. NORTHERN LIGHTS), which certainly made a splash over here, if not as big a one as it made in the UK.** And just two years later came the first of Rowling's HARRY POTTER novels, which were as hugely popular over here as they were over there, uniting both countries in a decade of Pottermania.

It's not Carpenter's fault, of course, that things changed: it's just that his statement is so emphatic that it emphasizes just how much things HAVE changed, and in such a short time. In retrospect, a better case could probably be made that Tolkien and Lewis's popularity in America turned out to be indicators of a mainstream tradition, not outliers.

* * * * * * *

By contrast, sometimes a predictor gets lucky. Thus C. S. Lewis, in the first book review of THE HOBBIT ever published (and thus the piece that inaugurated 'Tolkien studies' back on Oct. 2nd, 1937) wrote "Prediction is dangerous, but THE HOBBIT may well prove a classic."

--How right he was!



*He does note that during this period "American writers were also starting to create (for the first time) a large body of fantasy writing for children. Admittedly much of it has consisted of inferior imitations of Tolkien" (p. 215), but doesn't seem to feel this counters the main point he is making. (he does exempt Le Guin & Hoban from that criticism)

**probably because of a fundamentalist Catholic/Evangelical backlash in this country

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd and the ship of Theseus

So, I was surprised to see an advertisement on the big flashing billboard next to the ShoWare center in downtown Kent that Lynyrd Skynyrd are performing there on Sept. 27th. I'm old enough to remember the night their plane crashed (we were spending hours in a bus on a band trip, as I recall) back in '77, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and putting an end to the group (several of whom were badly injured and years in healing). They were already fading as a group at the time, but the tragedy bestowed a 'legendary' status on them, as it so often does (cf. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jim Croce, et al.)

I knew about the Rossington-Collins band the survivors had briefly formed (circa '79-80), which was pleasant enough but not memorable: their instrumental version of "Freebird", for example, felt meandering and unfocused. It turned out, as is so often the case, that the singer/songwriter lead vocalist is the one member a band can't do without.* And I was vaguely aware that more recently some (not all) of the survivors had re-formed years later for some special event, with Van Zant's little brother standing in as their vocalist. But I guess I hadn't realized they'd stayed together after the tribute was over.** A little checking online revealed that of the six band members who'd been alive after the crash (guitarists Rossington, Collins, and King; pianist extraordinaire Powell, drummer Pyle, and bassist Wilkeson), only three are living now (it has been thirty-five years ago, after all, and the southern rock lifestyle does not encourage longevity): Rossington, King, and Pyle. And of those three, only one is still in the group (Rossington).

Which raises the question: is a band with only one original member still the same band? At what point does it become "those people touring the local casinos as 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' " rather than the real thing?*** How big a role does continuity play (e.g., the Rolling Stones only has three of its original members; the newly reformed Beach Boys only two, Pink Floyd only one****)?

It turns out there's a classical precedent for this, the so-called paradox of 'the Ship of Theseus', which goes something like this:

Plutarch writes that even in his day (1st century AD) the Athenians still had on display the original ship Theseus used (presumably in his famous voyage to and from Crete some twelve hundred years before, the one that ended badly when he forgot to swap-out his black sails). But it'd needed maintenance over the centuries, with rotting timbers replaced by new ones as needed, until there was actually no piece left of the original ship. The question: is it still the same ship, or not?

In the philosophical conundrum, it depends on whether you value the whole or the parts, the ideal or the material, the continuity or a particular moment in time (and, if so, which).

In the case of the band, I think the announcement that Lynyrd Skynyrd is scheduled to play the Republican national convention later this month answers that question: I don't think the band that wrote and recorded "Things Going On", not to mention the denunciation of Wallace and Nixon in "Sweet Home Alabama", their most famous song, wd be a good fit for the gathering in Tampa. Which leads me to think, in this case at least, the answer is No: Not the Same.

--John R.

P.S.: Thanks to my sister, who gave me a copy of Skynyrd's SECOND HELPING just before I moved to Fayetteville, telling me it was so I'd listen to something else besides the music I usually listened to (Captain & Tennille, the Beatles). I still have that album, and still listen to it once in a while (though more often to the version on Itunes). At Fayetteville I added SILVER AND GOLD (which I think had been recommended by my friend Franklin; I know I got it at the Record Exchange, where he was working at the time) and a cassette of their first album (which also, amazingly enough, still plays just fine, over thirty years later). Music and Memories: how well they go together.

* cd. INXS for a more recent example.

**which apparently violated an agreement they'd all made with the widows of two members killed in the crash, that the survivors wdn't use, and thus cheapen, the name 'Lynyrd Skynyrd'.

***a question people used to ask about Jefferson Starship, with its endless shifting line-up.

****although in the later two cases one of the 'replacements' has been with the group since very early on (mid-to-late sixties)

Monday, August 13, 2012

I Talk to a Reporter

So, this morning I had a phone conversation with a reporter who's writing a piece on JRRT and THE HOBBIT and said she'd been told I knew a lot about that topic. It was a good talk; she had clearly done her due diligence, reading several books on JRRT (e.g., Carpenter, Shippey, Letters) to get a solid footing. I hope I was able to provide her with information she can use, and look forward to eventual publication of her piece. More about this down the line, when her article appears.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

On Deadline

So, thanks to a weekend spent mostly at the desk, I've now finished over 5800 words of my current project, which must come in at no less than 6000 and no more than 7000 words. Still have two sections (out of seven) and the concluding paragraph to go, so it'll be a hard squeeze to get it all in. When I reach the end, there may be a need for going back and inflicting some judicious trimming. I hope not. We'll see.

The one good thing is that I still have a little time before it's due (end of September), but then I'll be busy for most of that month with our trip to England right in the middle of it. Plus I need to go through and make sure the format fits the one prescribed by the publisher before it'll be ready for turnover.

Still, it's better to be plugging away and nearing the end six weeks out than to be doing the same two or three days before the deadline. So there's that.

Here's hoping I can finish it up in the next few days.


current reading: just finished MEMOIRS OF HECATE COUNTY (saint be praised!). [#II.3017]
beginning on Wilson's third, and thankfully last, mini-novel: THE HIGHER JAZZ.

audiobook: just finished a re-listen of an old Borges tape (regretfully, not read by the great man himself)
current audiobook: Dylan Thomas declaiming some of his poems (a gift long ago from my friends Peter & Mary, back in Milwaukee days).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And the Winner Is . . .

. . . Carl Phelpstead, for TOLKIEN AND WALES, which has just* been awarded the Mythopoeic Award for the year's best work in Inklings Scholarship.

Congr. to Dr. Phelpstead and also to all the finalists.**

This is an interesting book, and I hope winning the award brings it to the attention of a wider audience, especially over here (given that it's a University of Wales Press book). It carries on a theme of renewed attention to Tolkien's Celtic sources and influences that began with Verlyn Flieger's INTERRUPTED MUSIC and Marjorie Burns' PERILOUS REALMS, then was developed by Dimitra Fimi's TOLKIEN, RACE, & CULTURE; now the focus narrows in specifically on Welsh. We've learned a lot about Tolkien's 'Celtic Library' in recent years, and it's been illuminating. And Phelpstead's book carries on that tradition.

So, well done, and congratulations.


*actually, I think the winner was announced last Sunday night, but for some reason the news seens slow to perculate out.

**disclosure alert: I was a contributor to one of the other finalists, the Jason Fisher edited volume TOLKIEN & THE STUDY OF HIS SOURCES

Friday, August 10, 2012

More on Arndis Thorbjarnardottir

So, thanks to Morgan Thomsen's providing some links in his response to my last post (and thanks also to JL for the google-translated version of the full piece), here's a translation/synopsis that originally appeared on Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson's blog back in 2010; it makes for an interesting read:

Obviously, this is full of interesting information. To note just a few high points:

(1) the part about "The house they had just bought" (=20 Northmoor Road) and going over next door (=#22) to dig up flowers they'd left behind (hope they cleared that with the new owners first!) confirms the date as 1930.

(2) the "Mrs. Gro" Arndis mentions is clearly 'Aunt' Jennie Grove, Edith's elderly cousin who was a sort of honorary grandmother to the Tolkien children.

(3) this is perhaps the most negative view of Edith Tolkien I've ever seen, and contrasts sharply with descriptions of her from Walter Hooper (who met her late in life and liked her v. much). Though I must say the part about her not playing the piano is odd. I wonder if she had arthritis -- my own grandmother had a piano in her house, but during the years we lived with her I never heard her play it but once (beautifully, though apparently not up to her own standard).

(4) the part that interest me most of all (of course, it wd) is the statement about THE HOBBIT "(which he started writing at the time she was working for him)", and again "Tolkien had started writing THE HOBBIT while I was there". That's pretty definite, and agrees with timeline I reconstructed for MR. BAGGINS. So while not conclusive, it's nice to have another little bit of collaborating evidence to add into the mix.

MT also sent a link to an online discussion of this story from back in 2008. For the relevant entries, see the post by "Lalaith" and the reply by "Findegil", about three-fifths of the way through the thread (scroll down to see the posts for Sept 5th & 6th)

If all this were not enough, last night spoke to a friend who's been in touch with someone in Iceland who (a) confirms the authenticity of the original article -- that is, this interview really did run in the 1999 issue of that paper -- and (b) thinks he can put me in touch with someone who can provide a full translation. That'd be great; if we can manage it, I'll post news of it here.

I know that if I were in Iceland right now I'd be trying to track down those letters . . .

current reading: MEMOIRS OF HECATE COUNTY (still! gah!)

UPDATE 8/12-12:
I've gone in and fixed Morgan's name, which is THOMSEN, not 'Thomas'. My apologies, Morgan, for the mistake. --JDR

Thursday, August 9, 2012

An Icelandic au pair?

So, not long ago Nancy Marie Brown had an interesting piece on her blog ("Bilbo's Ride through Iceland"*) about Tolkien, Morris, and Iceland. In the comments that followed, one reader included a link to a newspaper clipping from Feb. 28th 1999 that, as summarized in NMB's follow-up post, is a profile of a very old lady (89) named Arndis THorjarnardottir who said that she'd once been an au pair girl in the Tolkien household. What's more, she claimed to have told the Tolkien children stories drawn from Icelandic folklore about trolls turning to stone in daylight which thus, by implication, provided Tolkien's source for that distinctive motif in THE HOBBIT. As I said, I can't read Icelandic, but looking at dates in the piece her stay with the Tolkiens seems to be dated to 1930. Here's the link to the clipping:

and here's Nancy Marie Brown's follow-up post about it:

Two observations:

(1) I'd be very interested in learning more about this story. Best of all would be a translation of the whole thing into English; if anyone knows of one, I'd appreciate being pointed in its direction.

(2) Tolkien had already had the chance to learn all about Icelandic folktales of trolls turning to stone at the first touch of sunlight from Helen Buckhurst's 1926 lecture; see THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT p. 80-82 and H.o.H. rev. ed. p. 110. The stories Buckhurst relates are very much of a piece with the ones NMB retells, confirming that such tales were v. likely Tolkien's source, however he first learned of them.

Finally, a nice bit of collaboration comes in the two photos reprinted in the 1999 newspaper article. One is identical with that published on p. 55 of THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM (Tolkien and toddler Priscilla), while the other was obviously taken at the same time as the picture on the facing page of the FAMILY ALBUM, except that the Icelandic newpaper's picture has Edith, all four children, and another woman (presumably Arndis), while the FAMILY ALBUM version has Edith, the children, and JRRT. The two photos, though not identical, were obviously taken at the same occasion (check the white tea-pot as a confirming detail). I conclude it's v. likely JRRT took the version appearing in the newpaper and Arndis the FAMILY ALBUM one. The FAMILY ALBUM photo of JRRT and Priscilla is dated there "Summer 1930", while the group shot is captioned "Family party, 20 Northmoor Road, March 1930" -- that is, mere months before the likely start date of JRRT's work on THE HOBBIT.

All in all, an interesting discovery.

--John R.

--check the seventh comment for the link to the 1999 piece.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wheaton College and Rachel Maddow

So, had the tv on Monday watching the Rachel Maddow show* and just as I was turning it off as our D&D playtest group was arriving, saw that the next story was something about Wheaton College. That got my curiosity up, and I wondered if it was the same Wheaton College, home of the Wade Collection, wh. I've been visiting once a year or so since about '83, or the Wheaton College in Massachusetts where Michael Drout teaches, or some other Wheaton College altogether.

A little poking around yesterday reveals that yes indeed, it is the Wheaton in Wheaton, Illinois. Here's the clip from Maddow's show that I just missed:

And here's a somewhat more tempered reporting of the story that offers a little more background into how this came about.

The saddest part comes at the end, where a representative of the group managing the lawsuit suggests the college just drop all health care for everyone who works there. I hope that this doesn't happen. And, if that does come to pass, the group steps forward to provide free health care to all those Wheaton employees.


*which we'd gotten out of the habit of when it got too self-indulgent and are recently dipping back into now and again

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

F. Scott Fitzsgerald on Dunsany

While I'm doing a bit of Dunsany spotting, seems like a good time to revisit the mention of Ld D. in F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE [1920], written just when Dunsany's reputation was at its height. I drew attention to this in passing in my dissertation, but in context with Wilson's passing reference it might take on a little added significance. In any case, I think it bears repeating.

The passage comes in Book I: The Romantic Egotist, [Chapter] II: Spires and Gargoyles, which deals with the main character's college days. In one of several reading lists* dealing with what Amory Blaine is devouring at different times in his life. Amory's college reading includes, most significantly, his discovery of Oscar Wilde, whom he'd only known previously as the person said to have inspired a character in the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera PATIENCE [1881]. So taken is he with THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY that he practices epigrams in the mirror and one of his friends takes to calling him "Dorian". Here's the list:

"So he found 'Dorian Gray' and the 'Mystic and Somber Dolores' and the 'Belle Dame sans Merci'; for a month was keen on naught else. The world became pale and interesting, and he tried hard to look at Princeton through the satiated eyes of Oscar Wilde and Swinburne -- or 'Fingal O'Flaherty' and 'Algernon Charles', as he called them in precieuse jest. He read enormously every night -- Shaw, Chesterton, Barrie, Pinero, Yeats, Synge, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Keats, Sudermann, Robert Hugh Benson, the Savoy Operas -- just a heterogeneous mixture, for he suddenly discovered that he had read nothing for years."

[Penguin Classics edition (1996), p.

Then, after a bit more about Wilde, comes the exchange that most interests me:

One day Tom and Amory tried reciting their own and Lord Dunsany's poems to the music of Kerry's graphophone.

'Chant!' cried Tom. 'Don't recite! Chant!'

Amory, who was performing, looked annoyed, and claimed that he needed a record with less piano in it. Kerry thereupon rolled on the floor in stifled laughter.

'Put on "Hearts and Flowers"!' he howled. 'Oh, my Lord, I'm going to cast a kitten.'

'Shut off the damn graphophone', Amory cried, rather red in the face. 'I'm not giving an exhibition'.

[ibid, p. 48]

--It's interesting, to me at least, that Fitzgerald singles out Dunsany's poems (of which no collection was issued until 1929) rather than his short stories (which work very well indeed read aloud) or his plays (which tend to be short and 'poetic' but not metrical). The idea of reciting to phonograph accompaniment made me wonder if this was a carryover from the silent movies of the day, which were always accompanied by music (anything from a house orchestra to a piano player, depending on how grand or otherwise the theatre).

Also interesting, but not in a good way, is the editor's decision about which of these authors to identify in the notes he provides in the back of the book. Thus Patrick O'Donnell, the editor, glosses Wilde, Keats, Chesterton, Yeats, Synge, Dowson, and Symons [p. 263], having already glossed Shaw from an earlier mention; Barrie gets glossed on a later appearance over a hundred pages later. The rest-- Pinero, Sudermann, Benson, Gilbert & Sullivan ("Wasn't the comic opera, 'Patience', written about him?")--go unidentified, as does Dunsany. O'Donnell may have felt that Pinero and Gilbert & Sullivan were well-known enough to need no identification, but that seems unlikely, since he identifies the far more well known Keats, Yeats, and Shaw. Or he may have felt these five were unimportant, though in that case his selection criterion seems off to me. Personally, I'd say it's the less well known figures, like Sudermann (once a well-known playwright whose reputation has since faded) who need the gloss more than a Nobel Prize winner like Yeats. To fail to identify Dunsany means that whatever point Fitzgerald was making by making his hero an enthusiast for Ld D. at one time in his life is lost.


--John R.

*Fitzgerald was fond of these, apparently; cf. the lists of books he drew up for Sheilah Graham to education herself by reading, since published in COLLEGE OF ONE [1967]