Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Relics of GenCon (I)-- CALL OF CTHULHU 7th edition

So, it's been a long time since I made it to GenCon (not since it left Milwaukee in 2002*), but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy hearing from friends returning therefrom about what New Thing had folks there at the con excited. In addition to the good news that Kobold Press won the Ennie for their Worldbuilding Guide (congr. all around), this year there was much ado about Wizards' release of a massive (288-page) preview of their forthcoming DandD FIFTH EDITION (more about this one in its own post). And, more low-key, this GenCon also saw the release of the QuickStart rules for CALL OF CTHULHU 7th edition. And now, thanks to Anne and Sig (hi Anne. hi Sig. Thanks!), I have a copy of my very own.

CALL OF CTHULHU is famous as one of the best game designs ever, ranking right up there with ADandD first edition (the classic against which all other roleplaying games are judged) and PENDRAGON. Indeed, so influential has Sandy Petersen's CALL OF CTHULHU been that it's led to a renaissance in Lovecraft himself, who was a pretty marginal figure back in 1980/81 when Petersen was putting together these rules: now he's ranked as the most influential American horror writer of the twenties and thirties, maybe even of the first half of the twentieth century.

What made C.o.C. so outstanding is that its rules evoke a style of play that mirrors what occurs in a typical Lovecraft story; you're rewarded for acting like a Lovecraftian character and punished when you behave in non-Lovecraftian ways. Characters encountering eldritch horrors who advance to engage in combat, tommyguns blazing, are likely to die horribly and, what is worse, futilely, while those who scream and run when they see a shoggoth are likelier to live long enough to figure out a way of defeating, avoiding, or driving off the thing.

Better yet, C.o.C. is self-limiting. The longer you play a character in ADandD the more powerful that character becomes, until he or she finally drifts off into the realm of legendary hero (or villain) like unto a demigod. By contrast, in C.o.C. the more you know about what's going on, the less able you are to deal with it. Encounters with Cthulhoid monsters, learning about the Mythos, reading old Tomes, gaining the ability to cast useful spells: all erode Sanity, so that characters who are powerful are inevitably also fragile, until they either go mad or are forced into a twitchy retirement to husband those last few SAN points.

For a game that's been around (and continuously in print, and played) for thirty years, C.o.C. has changed remarkably little. It's also famous for backwards compatibility. While they have made some changes to rules over the years (adjusting the skills list a bit, making injuries slightly less lethal), you can still play the first-ever published C.o.C. adventure (and still the best), SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH, as is, without any but minor adjustments. Whereas 4th edition ADandD is recognizable as a descendent of 1st edition but clearly not the same game, in the sense that the majority of target numbers, spell effects, monster stats, et al have changed; running a 4th edition scenario with 1st edition rules wd produce chaos.

So, why a 7th edition? Basically because every five to ten years Chaosium brings out a new edition so their loyal fans will buy the core rules again; it's a way to keep the company going, and most of the game's diehard fans end up buying the game again to show their support. This time around, though, they're actually changing the rules a good deal. Why? Well, while there have long been third-party scenarios for C.o.C. released by other rpg publishers (a tradition dating back at least to Theatre of the Mind/TOME in the mid-eighties), recently several new Cthulhu games that don't use the Chaosium C.o.C. rulesystem have gotten a lot of attention (e.g., Pelgrane Press's TRAIL OF CTHULHU). And Chaosium's response seems to be to see if they can make their game a lot more like everybody else's and hope that this doesn't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs -- not in great profusion, but reliably, and for decades.

So, the changes: C.o.C. character stats are v. obviously derived directly from the six classic DandD ability scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma; C.o.C. renames the last of these Appearance and replaces Wisdom with POW (Power: originally 'Willpower' in early editions of the game). To this they add Size and Education. Hit points are not rolled randomly (as in right-minded versions of DandD) but derived from averaging Size and Con. In addition, there are four derived stats important in gameplay: KNOW (=Edu x5), IDEA (=Int x5), LUCK (=Pow x5), and SANity (which starts as Pow x5 but fluctuates throughout the game). Characters also get Skill points to assign to skills like Occult, Library Use, and Spot Hidden, as appropriate to their chosen profession.

In the new rules, they've abandoned the 3d6 ability scores for character stats and replaced them with a percentile system. For the quickstarter, there are no random rolls: you just assign one of the following among the eight stats: 40%, 50%, 50%, 50%, 60%, 60%, 70%, 80%. Mechanically this is the equivalent of having 8, 10, 10, 10, 12, 12, 14, and 16 as your stats, but the new system works through catagories of successes, so once you've assigned each number you also have to divide it twice so you wind up with three numbers: your score, half your score, and one-fifth your score (e.g., POW 80/40/16). That's because you used to roll percentile dice and, if you rolled under your target number, so succeeded. But if you rolled very low, you got a critical success (this mainly applied to combat, where you did extra damage). Now there are four levels of result: failure (you roll over the target number), "a regular success" (you roll under your skill total but above the half-way mark), "a hard success" (you roll under half your skill total but above the one-fifth mark), and "an extreme success" (you roll in the bottom one-fifth; similar to what used to be called an impale). If two characters are directly opposing each other (say, one's trying to push a door open and the other trying to hold it shut), both roll and compare levels of success: a regular success beats failure; a hard success beats a regular success, and an extraordinary success beats a hard success. Whoever has the highest base score wins in the case of a tie. Replacing a straightforward success/failure die roll with a failure/three categories of success roll seems to me a good way to introduce a lot of annoying complications; we'll see how it plays out in actual gameplay.

Both the KNOW roll and the IDEA roll seem to have gone away, replaced by simple 'Edu' and 'Int' rolls (now that those are percentages anyway).  They've also added bonus and penalty dice (copped apparently from the forthcoming edition of ADandD) -- another complication -- and added a rule for 'Pushing', allowing you to retry a roll but at an added risk (e.g., trying to break a locked door down, then 'pushing' to try again but hurting yourself if you fail the second time).  The Sanity rules, one of the most iconic features of the game, still work the same way but now have a different resolution: if a character fails a Sanity check, the Keeper (DM) gets to control his or her next action. If the character goes temporarily insane, the Keeper assigns him or her a phobia or mania OR changes some fact about the character's backstory. An insane character is also prone to hallucinations, which can be fought off with a successful "Reality Check" (clever name, that). The combat rules have been made less lethal and more complicated -- for example, in addition to possibly having a damage bonus (for characters who are large and strong, as in the traditional rules) characters and creatures now have a separate stat called "build" which works like size categories in ADandD 3rd edition grappling rules (alas). Injuries now fall into categories: Minor (flesh wound), Moderate (wound), Severe (that'll leave a scar), Deadly (could kill you), Terminal (will probably kill you), and Splat (very, very dead).

I know it's probably only a feature of the QuickStart's having been hastily put together, but it is mildly amusing that they give four examples of favorite Occupations (Professor, Journalist, Occultist, and Archeologist), and then provide eight sample occupations don't include two of those four (Occultist and Archeologist). The player picks a profession then assigns the following skill levels in those eight skills that go with that profession, plus the ninth score on Credit Rating: 70%, 60% x2, 50% x3, 40% x3. This approach puts more emphasis on Credit Rating, something that in previous editions the Keeper and players could either make much of or ignore outright, depending on their druthers. With the new regular/hard/extreme categories you'll need to generate the half-value and one-fifth value for each skill as well.

The rest of the QuickStarter is devoted to an introductory scenario, and here in a nice nod to tradition they've included an updated version of THE HAUNTING, which I think has appeared in the rulebook for every C.o.C. edition starting w. the v. first. I'm looking forward to running this one soon to see how the new rules work out in practice.

So, on the whole a lot of changes, very little of which looks like a good idea in the abstract. The ruling spirit seems to be change for the sake of change, as if Coke decided brown was an old-fashioned color for a cola and bright green wd be more up-to-date. The categories of success and grapple/build rules look to be problematic, while the new when-you-go-insane rules look promising (I particularly like the 'Reality Check'). Maybe in the full version of these rules they'll even bring back 'Insane insights', a rather fun idea that fell by the wayside after about the third edition. 'Pushing' might be an interesting tool for players and keepers alike, while the bonus dice/penalty dice is just an abomination.

On the whole, more of a departure from the traditional game than any of the previous editions. There's more change in the rules system between the current edition and this one than changes in all the previous editions put together. We'll see how the full edition comes out, but here's hoping they back off on some of these changes before they become official. If no, I suspect a lot of us will pick up VIIth edition, read it, and then continue playing 'classic' CALL OF CTHULHU.

--John R.

*My GenCon attendance was v. much location-based: I never made it to any before they moved to Milwaukee, then attended every GenCon from 1986 through 2002, except for 1992 (which I missed because I was in England, as had been the case with the first Milw. GenCon in 1985), then I've missed all the ones since they moved further east outside familiar territory.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thomas Wms Malkin of Allestone, worldbuilder

So, reading the Harry Bauer book (SEASONED TO TASTE) introduced me to an interesting historical figure I'd never come across before: Thomas Wms Malkin, who appears in two of Bauer's pieces ("These Are My Jewels", p. 6-7, about biographies by parents of their own children, and "Reading Readiness", p. 16-20, entirely devoted to T.W.M.).  Through these I learn that more than two hundred years ago Malkin was an inventor of an imaginary world with its own maps, stories, history, and invented language:

". . . Malkin devised a language for his fanciful island 
and compiled a dictionary for his imaginary subjects. 
Appended to the history was a table of Remarkable Events"
 (Bauer p. 19) 

 When he died in 1802, young Malkin was even working on a comic opera set in his imaginary world of ALLESTONE ("The Entertaining Assembly") and finding it rather heavy going. Which was not surprising, because he was six and a half years old at the time.

Now, there are plenty of us who at one time or another create our own world (just speak to any DM*). A few go far beyond what's needed for the particular story he or she is writing at the time, so that world-building becomes a major creative enterprise in itself: two well-known examples being Austin Tappen Wright's Islandia (which, I gather, he made no attempt to publish in his lifetime) and J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth (which only made it into print more than twenty years after he'd begun work on it). And there are quite a few juvenalia featuring invented worlds, such as C. S. Lewis's Boxon and E. R. Eddison's world of THE WORM OUROBOROS (which he identified with Mercury -- in the sense that all there are 'mercurial', rather than its being a hot bare place brightened by the sun). But while Boxon, like most such worlds, was deliberately abandoned by the Lewis brothers when they grew up, Eddison's imaginary world persisted: drawings survive in the Bodleian of recognizable scenes from THE WORM made when ERE was ten. Which category Malkin's ALLESTONE wd have fallen into is impossible to tell, but there's certainly enough of interest here to make me wonder what he might have made of it, given the chance.**

As is often the case with things, once they're brought to yr attention you find you have material on them ready to hand. For example, it'd passed unnoticed to me that the map Th.Wms.Malkin drew of ALLESTONE is in J. B. Post's ATLAS OF FANTASY, a work I've had for years but obviously never looked closely enough at (I only noticed this time because I'd been looking for Bernard Sleigh's map of faerie, which featured prominently in this year's Guest of Honor speech by Doug Anderson at MythCon***).

Since Thomas Wms died so young, you'd have thought he'd have been wholly forgotten. The reason he was not was that his father, Benjamin Malkin, wrote a biography of his gifted son in 1806, his own version of 'A Spring Harvest'. And therein lies another tale. Today that biography is famous, not for preserving the memory of young Thomas, but because the frontispiece, a portrait of young Th Wms, was made by a friend of his father's, an unknown artist by the name of William Blake. In fact, according to what I've read, Malkin Sr. devotes a good deal of his preface to a sketch of Blake's life and work, making it a major source of information on Blake's biography from during Blake's lifetime. In the process, he included several of Blake's poems, publishing for the first time now-famous pieces like THE TYGER ("Tyger, Tyger, burning bright . . . "). I've even seen it claimed that it was through Malkins' work that Wordsworth and Coleridge first learned of Blake's work.

All this makes Malkin Sr's book about his son sound all the more interesting, esp. since Bauer notes that  Malkin Sr. includes "numerous stories, fables, and parables", as well as "The epic of Allestone, written in a series of disconnected letters"  and "the history of his island kingdom". Finding a copy of the original book wd be prohibitively expensive, but fortunately the book is available through warious print-on-demand services, though one warns the reader of "very fine print" (a chilling phrase). So I'll probably be picking this up, come September; if so, and once I've had a chance to look through it, and assuming that look-see turns up something of interest, I'll post again.


current reading: THE RING GOES SOUTH ("Farewell to Lorien")
current audiobook: The Great Courses: The Western Canon. by Prof. John M. Bowers (Univ. of Nevada), a series with a number of Tolkien references along the way.

*(Not to mention those half of all fantasy writers who write Coleridgean rather than Wordsworthian fantasy)

**for a sample of one of young Th.Wms' stories, see the (extended) write-up under the Amazon.com entry for Benjamin Malkin's book, which purports to include one of his stories in its entirity: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2AZCIEGTPGNY4/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1854772104&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

***Sleigh's map being (poorly) reproduced on pages 92-97 of Post's book

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tolkien and Harry Bauer

So, having discovered that Tolkien corresponded, at least briefly, with H. C. Bauer (see previous post), I set about trying to see if I cd find out anything about Bauer. I quickly discovered he's no longer with us (b. 1902, d. 1978), which means he can't answer our questions directly, but he turns out to have been a well-known local figure in this time: Director of the University of Washington's Library (1947-1959, having been asst. director before that) and then professor of library science until his retirement (1959-1967). Originally from St. Louis, he was a decorated combat intelligence officer during World War II, receiving the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Air Medal; he was also a Mason, a Shriner, a Kiwanis, and member of the American Legion. And, one rather suspects from hints here and there, a character. A number of photographs of him are available online, such as these two::

(1) http://content.lib.washington.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/portraits&CISOPTR=231


(2) http://content.lib.washington.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/uwcampus&CISOPTR=166

Another example of Bauer's being well-known* and respected in the community is that during the dust-up back in the 40s and 50s about whether comic books led to juvenile delinquency Seattle's mayor appointed a commission to investigate the problem: Bauer wrote the committee's report, suggesting that banning comics wd do little good and that offering more activities (Boys' Clubs, scouting) was a better solution to prevent delinquency -- a moderate position at the time, when a witch-hunt was on that almost destroyed comic books in this country.**

From my point of view, I'm most interested in Bauer as an author -- specifically, in identifying, if possible, the piece he sent Tolkien. The factors we have to go on are

(1) it existed by November 1966, when Tolkien thanked him for sending it

(2) it was probably by Bauer (though this is not a certainty)

(3) it probably related in some way to Tolkien (or else why wd he send it?)

(4) it may have related in some way to Sinclair Lewis (or else Tolkien's sudden seque into BABBITT and reading all of S.L.'s work is a bit of a non-sequetor)

It turns out Bauer was relatively prolific, though many of his publications were what I suppose we might call technical in nature -- yearly listings of publications by the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example. The most promising item is a book he wrote of literary essays called SEASONED TO TASTE -- but it came out in 1961 (published in Seattle, University of Washington Press), which seems a bit early. I now have the library's (much marked up) copy of this book, which turns out to be a collection of some sixty-four essays, most of them quite brief (two or three pages). All but two*** of these in turn are said to have been taken from Bauer's column of the same name, "Seasoned to Taste", which ran monthly in the WILSON LIBRARY BULLETIN for ten years, from September 1951 (Vol. 26, number 1, page 6) through June 1961 (Vol. 35, number 10, page 799). Out of these hundred issues, he selected those he included in his book.****

Having read his book, I can testify that there are no mentions of Tolkien or of S. Lewis anywhere within its pages. Similarly, I have so far gone through half the run of his columns (1951-1954 and 1960-1961) and found nothing that at all fits the parameters; I'll still have the years corresponding to the original release of THE LORD OF THE RINGS to go through, so I'll report back here if I find anything of interest in Volumes 29-33.

So, how is Bauer's book? Let's just say that his jokes haven't aged well. His occasional pieces on current issues involving libraries are for the most part dated but still occasionally relevant. Most pieces are comments on books and authors and themes that have caught his attention, and some of these are interesting in their own right. By far the most interesting was one on Th. Wms Malkin, a child prodigy who died in 1802 at the age of six and a half, having already created his own imaginary world, written stories set therein, and even come up with an invented language spoken therein. Young Malkin is so interesting that I need to devote a separate post to him.

In short, Bauer's column resembles nothing so much as a blog, with him expounding upon whatever topic has seized his attention since the last entry.

For now, I've had no luck in finding just what it was Bauer sent Tolkien. I'll continue the search, but it's quite possible I won't be able to discover it -- instead of one of these columns,  it might just as easily have been a book review (say, of LotR upon its first publication, dug back out at the time of the book's campus popularity in the mid-sixties) for a local newspaper (Seattle used to have two, but the better one folded a few years back) or any of a number of other outlets.

In any case, I'm glad to have learned about Bauer, and through him about Malkin, but the identity of the piece Bauer sent Tolkien remains as elusive as ever.

--John R.
current reading: THE RING GOES SOUTH: "Journey in the Dark"
current audiobook: "Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS -- Literature?" (lecture thirty-five in Jn M. Bowers' THE WESTERN LITERARY CANON IN CONTEXT (2008)

*(when I went into the Suzzallo-Allen special collections to see if they had any Bauer materials, the special collections librarian there looked at the form and said "Oh, Harry Bauer!" -- clearly he'd been a personality whose reputation still lingers)

**"Comic Books Problem", the LIBRARY NEWS BULLETIN 17 (1949), being the report on Mayor Devin's Citizens' Committee on Comic Books. Note that the infamous Fredric Wertham launched his attack on comics in 1948, through an article appearing in the SATURDAY REVIEW and also READER'S DIGEST, six years before his famous book  SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.

***the two exceptions, according to his Preface, come from the BULLETIN OF BIBLIOGRAPHY (1956) and the WASHINGTON ALUMNUS (1949)

****note that the WILSON LIBRARY BULLETIN only puts out ten monthly issues a year, taking a hiatus for the school vacation months of July and August, and starting each new issue in the fall (September). For reasons unknown, Bauer missed the issue of September 1953, in which his column does not appear.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tolkien and Sinclair Lewis

So, one of the surprising things in the EMP Fantasy exhibit we went to a few weeks back that I didn't mention in that earlier write-up (because I wanted more time to research it) was a letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Professor H. C. Bauer. While quite brief and typed, not handwritten, I found it of great interest, because (a) I'd never heard of a Tolkien/Bauer connection  and (b) the letter to Bauer, brief as it is, contains information I'd never come across before.

In the letter, dated November 1966, Tolkien thanks Bauer for an article or reprint Bauer had sent him. What this piece was I have been unable to establish, there being no entry for Bauer in West, Johnson, or Jonsson's bibliographies. Nor is he mentioned anywhere in the index to the Scull-Hammond CHRONOLOGY and/or READER'S GUIDE. However, it must have had something to do with the work of Sinclair Lewis, since Tolkien immediately segues into saying that he is now inclined to think that the word hobbit owes something to Lewis's BABBITT. That information is already known to us from the Plimmer interview a few months later (see HoH.59, Note 6), and indeed I now suspect Tolkien brought it up to the Plimmers because of this then-recent exchange with Bauer.

The Bauer letter does resolve one puzzle. In The History of The Hobbit (page xxxvii) I pointed out the difficulties of BABBITT having influenced Tolkien's creation of the word 'hobbit' on what turns out to be the false assumption that Tolkien may have learned of Sinclair Lewis's book through S.L.'s winning the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to be so offered. But that was in November 1930, whereas the evidence suggests Tolkien invented the word earlier that year, in the summer (and those who disagree with my argument for that date all want to date it earlier, not later).

That problem disappears with Tolkien's statement in the Bauer letter that he read all of Sinclair Lewis. Even if we assume that by "all" he means not literally everything S.Lewis had ever written (some two dozen books) but the famous ones: MAIN STREET (1920), BABBITT of course, the only title we know for certain, since in his remarks to the Plimmers Tolkien describes Babbitt's character and its shortcomings (1922), ARROWSMITH (1925), ELMER GANTY (1927), possibly DODSWORTHY (1929), and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE (1935).

Quite aside from being interesting in its own right -- I look forward to the first article comparing S. Lewis's and Tolkien's works -- this new information helps put to rest the idea that Tolkien was largely ignorant of literature after 1400. He was of course conversant with pretty much everything a literature major today would have known about English literature up to the start of the Victorian era (i.e., through the Romantics and Austen), and we know from scattered miscellaneous evidence that he knew a fair amount about works from the following century or so, especially the Georgians, but like many of us did not keep up with many of his contemporaries (e.g. Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf). If we were picking names at random, the idea that Tolkien was fond of the work of Sinclair Lewis would seem unlikely -- but here we are fortunate enough to have direct evidence from Tolkien himself that he must have thought highly of S.L.'s work to read so much of it. A nice little discovery to make, which wd have made the visit to the Fantasy exhibit worthwhile just in itself, even without all the other enjoyable exhibits.

Next up: more on Harry Bauer.

--John R.
current reading: THE RING GOES SOUTH
current audiobook: Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON (tenth of thirty-four disks).

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Renaissance Fair

So, a few weeks ago Janice learned that there's a Renaissance Fair down in Bonney Lake three weekends every summer. Since we both enjoy RenFairs, and since it's been several years since we've been to one (and we'd never been to Bonney Lake), we decided to give it a go, and so spent a few hours down there last Sunday (the 11th).

I've been to three different RenFairs before. The first and best by far was King Richard's Fair,* held every summer on the Illinois/Wisconsin border, which I've been to two or maybe three times. I remember once Janice and I went with fellow Burrahobbit Pat Bowne, and I was able to prove to them both that I really do know how to shoot a bow and arrow (having earned the Archery Merit Badge back in my scouting days). I also made one quick visit there alone, dashing in to buy a massive set of wind chimes we'd seen there on our previous visit which I then surprised Janice with, much to her dismay.** The second was Camlann, up at Carnation, a year or two after we moved out here; it was enjoyable but clearly in decline. And the third was the Kent Canterbury Days right here in downtown Kent, wh. served as the local street festival until it was abolished a few years ago and replaced by the much less interesting 'Kent Cornucopia Days'.

As with most good RenFairs, there was a lot to see and do. Most of the shops had RenFair gear, which we took a pass on, but some of the little tent-booths had interesting wares -- some pottery dice (got a pair of d10s, a d8, and a d4), passed on a nice little pottery bowl with a Minoan octopus design we'd seen in the Ashmolean last year). A stand called Brunetta Blacksmithing had a small bronze dragon I would dearly love to have picked up, but they were asking five hundred dollars for it, which just wasn't happening. And it was a one-of-a-kind piece, too, so no prospect of at some point managing to get a limited-edition duplicate. Alas. If I'd taken a picture of it I'd post it here, but I didn't. Again, alas. Here's a link to their website, but nothing there gives a hint of how charismatic and appealing that little bronze dragon was:

While at the Fair, in addition to wandering around, we stopped by to listen to some madrigal singing. They were good, but too many songs about drinking, and too much mugging by the lead, for my tastes. Also, if I'm going to hear that kind of music I consider it a missed opportunity if they don't do PDQ Bach's My Bonnie Lass She Smelleth, which they didn't 

They were followed by a fencing group from north Seattle. I thought it was about a dozen guys; Janice thinks fewer (say eight to ten). In any case, they demonstrated the reasons the longsword gave way to the rapier and then demonstrated the evolution of the Italian, spanish, German, and French styles. Nicely done.

Next up we went over to the tourney grounds, where we'd missed the musketry and halbards display (Goode's Company of Pike and Shotte) but were in good time to see gypsy horsemanship ("Ma'Ceo Gypsy Horse Extravaganza, presented by Cavallo Equestian Arts"), which was worth coming to the fair in and of itself. As impressive as the performers were (and they were very impressive), I was even more impressed by the horses, who were equal partners in the act: they clearly knew exactly where to be at exactly the right time and what to expect from their human partners. Very nice.

After that, a pause for lunch (Janice had quail; I, more mundane, had barbarqued pork), then on to a stand-up comic named Broon, who was phenominal: smart and fast and funny, with jokes that led into other jokes and far-ranging cultural references. I'm not much for stand-up comedy, really, but this guy was good; I'd gladly sit through his show again.

Finally, we stopped by a Punch and Judy show, already in progress. I'd been curious to see if they were still as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the traditional shows I'd read about from the 18th and 19th centuries (cf. the M. R. James story "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance")***  Also, I'd heard Mr. Punch traditionally has a v. strange voice (or so Neil Gaiman wd have us believe), and I wanted to find out what it sounded like (rather Donald Duckish, it turns out). The answer is, not quite as grim as the original but still surprising what they included in entertainment for kids (e.g., Punch accidently dropping his baby son in the meat-grinder, and then beating his wife to death when she finds out). Bowdlerization hasn't done its work here.

The only other thing I'd comment on is that it was a large crowd of people, well-behaved, enjoying themselves. Lots were in costume -- it looked like a serious proportion of the crowd were wearing their inner pixie on the outside. And, if like the Grinch's heart, their inner pixie was a few sizes too small, no harm done:  the sort of outfits that show up at MythCons and GenCons and look somewhat out of place, but fit in perfectly here.

So, I'd definitely go back again, preferably with a group.

Here's a link to the fair's website, in case anyone's thinking of going next year.


--John R.

P.S.: THE WIFE SAYS: "dismay" is putting it mildly.

*(which may have already changed its name to the much less interesting 'Bristol Renaissance Fair' by the time I first went there).

**my surprise gifts to Janice have about a 50/50 great success/total failure ratio. The bronze of Mayland Long, the 'Tea with a Black Dragon' dragon was one of the former. The wind chimes were v. much of the latter, which is why they're now in my room, not the living or dining room.

((Of course, by 'wind chime' in this case I mean a set of six tubular bells, each about two inches wide and ranging from three feet to well over four feet long. I want to say they weigh about eighty pounds, but I might be misremembering and they may be only about sixty pounds. In any case, heavy, and loud, and beautifully musical: like have a set of church bells in your study.))

***though I'm still left in puzzlement about what a 'toby dog' is and how it figures in. My guess (and it's only a guess) based on the James story is that it's a real dog that sits in front and is trained to howl at appropriate times.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A cross-section (Books on the floor)

So, I had to empty out the bookcases in the living room over the past few days, and stack them upstairs in my office, where they take up a good part of the floor. I did a rough estimation* and concluded there are about five hundred and twenty books here, give or take, temporarily arranged in twenty-eight stacks. Which book wound up uppermost on each stack I decided gave a kind of snapshot cross-section of our hardcover fantasy, so I thought I'd share. Keep in mind that if the same author appears twice, that  means he or she fills an entire row and then some:**


THE EMPTY HOUSE -- Blackwood


SMITH --Ja. Branch Cabell






IN THE LAND OF TIME -- Dunsany***


THE GOLDEN AGE -- K. Grahame

OUT OF THE STORM -- Wm Hope Hodgson


TIGANA -- G. G. Kay

KINGDOM COME (graphic novel)


THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM -- ghostwritten Lovecraft




FEET OF CLAY -- Pratchett

LYRA'S OXFORD -- Pullman


MISC. WRITINGS -- Clark Ashton Smith


THE COMPLETE FURSEY -- Mervyn Wall (autographed!)

ISLANDIA -- Austin Tappen Wright

A lot of books. And yet I keep coming across interesting-sounding ones I'd like to add, and a few among these that lose their place on the shelves from time to time, either going down to the box room, onto the read-and-decide-whether-to-keep pile, or (eventually) out the door.

--John R.

*roughly forty books per shelf, thirteen shelves on three bookcases somewhat taller than I am (the remaining two shelves being filled with old vinyl record albums. which I also had to move. those I haven't tried counting)

**excluding, of course, the less-interesting books which are downstairs in the Box Room, not having made the cut. And the paperbacks, which have a bookcase of their own in the Dining Room. And the Tolkien, which lives upstairs in my office. And all the other categories of books other than fantasy that have their own appropriate places and didn't have to be moved, this time.

***you might conclude I have a lot of Dunsany. you'd be right. I'm actually surprised Hodgson didn't turn up twice.

Wywiad z Johnem D. Rateliffem (I Am Interviewed . . . in Polish)

So, Friday brought a new experience: for the first time in my life, I got mail from Poland.* Enclosed in the parcel were two items I'd been looking forward to: AIGLOS: ALMANACH TOLKIENOWSKI (volume 18, the current issue) and AIGLOS Special Issue #2 (Summer 2012). Unlike, say, Gary Hunnewell, the master of Tolkien fanzine studies, I've had relatively little contact with the burgeoning Tolkien fandom and scholarship in (continental) Europe, especially eastern and southern Europe, where I know just enough to know that interesting things have been going on for quite some time now. So when I was contacted by The Tolkien Section of the Silesian Science-Fiction Club (Sekcja Tolkienowska  Slaskiego Klubu Fantastyki) and asked if I'd do an interview I was pleased to discover they'd even heard of me and my book so far afield (about 5300 miles away). They sent me some questions, I sent in answers, and the results (now translated into Polish) appear on pages 164-169 of the current issue. Here's how the opening paragraph looks (sans the special characters which I can't reproduce on this keyboard):

Wywiad z Johnem D. Rateliffem

John R. Rateliff jest dobrze znanym badaczem tolkienowskim swiazanym z Marquette University, gdzie obronil prace doktorska na temat lorda Dunsany'ego. Na szersze wody swiatowej tolkienistyki wyplynal wraz z publikacja w 2007 roku The History of The Hobbit ['Historii Hobbita']. Wczesniej jednak wspoluczestniczyl w wielu tolkienowskich przedsiewzieciach, miedzy innymi w przygotowaniu zbioru Tolkien's Legendarium. Essays on "The History of Middle-earth" ['Legendarium Tolkiena. Eseje o Historii Srodziemia'].

It's a strange experience seeing yourself described in a language you don't read; I can pick out enough of this to know that this is my mini-bio ("doktorska . . . lorda Dunsany" being a reference to my dissertation of Lord Dunsany). It's stranger still to see your own words and not be able to read them; not remembering exactly what the questions were or what I said in response to them makes the whole piece seem both mine and not-mine at the same time. Interesting experience.

Of course, my piece is far from the only HOBBIT-themed one in this issue; there are reviews of Corey Olsen's and Noble Smith's books, as well as extensive discussion of the Peter Jackson movie. The cartoons scattered through the volume are particularly amusing, since some of them translate extremely well without any need for words (a demonstration of how inconvenient it is for an elf-lord to ride an elk and maintain his dignity) while others are intriguingly elusive (e.g., two elves with I.V.s riding giant snails). There's also a write-up of the Loughborough conference, including a photo of a panel with Verlyn Flieger, Tom Shippey, and two others whom I don't recognize. All in all, the contents look interesting enough that it makes me wish I could read them.

Which is why the other volume included with this one is so welcome: the 'Special Issue' reprints, in English, a number of pieces from earlier volumes. Even on a quick skim I can see one article of particular interest: Tadeusz A. Olszanski's "The First Tolkienists", a look back at the first five critics to publish book-length studies of Tolkien: Carter, Kocher, Kilby, Ready, and Helms. The author notes that Carter and Kocher are readily available in Polish translation, and that he'd been unable to find a copy of Ready at all, so he focuses on Kilby and Helms. I'm looking forward to reading the resulting piece: Kilby remains well-known (both for providing one of the relatively few memoirs of Tolkien and for his role in founding the Wade Collection), while Helms has virtually dropped off the map: I rarely see him cited and think he's more or less vanished from the collective memory. I'm glad to hear Kocher's well-known over there, since I think his is still one of the best books on Tolkien even now, forty-plus years later.

There's also a generous interview section which shows I'm in good company for being a more recent part of that series, with interviews in English with Wayne and Christina, Shippey, Verlyn, Michael Drout, and Alex Lewis (some thirty-six pages in all).

And I have to say the art's pretty good as well, tending more towards a naturalist style with realistic-looking characters rather than a more faerie strangeness often seen in Tolkien-inspired art (the realistic being the approach favored by Tolkien himself). In particular, I think the illustration by 'Kasiopea' on p. 332 of Morwen and young Turin is the best I've ever seen of those two characters, capturing perfectly the proud haughtiness of that pair in their beleaguered days of poverty.

All in all, a nice thing to find in the mailbox on a summer's day. Here's hoping my own piece gets picked up and reprinted in some Special Issue #3 somewhere down the line.

--John R.
current reading: SEASONED TO TASTE by Harry Bauer [1961]
current autobook: Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON, read by Bernard Mayes

*(Even without the return address, I probably cd have guessed this from the huge stamps of Pope John Paul the second)