Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tolkien, On Film

So, my prediction of a few months back has come true:* the new wave of Tolkien films looks to be not adaptations of his works, like THE SILMARILLION (which I think poorly suited to film adaptation anyway) nor FARMER GILES and FATHER CHRISTMAS (which I think cd make excellent animated films but are probably below the radar for Hollywood blockbuster thinking) but movies about Tolkien himself. The logic's not hard to follow: Tolkien is hot, with five billion-dollar blockbuster in his track record and a sixth to come this fall, but there's no follow-up. Rights to THE SILMARILLION won't be coming. But you can't libel the dead, and you can't copyright a person's life. Which means that a biographical film, or even pseudo-biographical (which is more often the case) can proceed without the co-operation of his family, permission of the Estate, &c.  Of course, doing this without the Estate's approval means they won't be able to quote from any of Tolkien's works, or from any of his letters -- which means, ironically, that the 'Tolkien' of the movie won't be able to quote Tolkien. And I think it highly unlikely they'll get an actor to capture his highly distinctive speech patterns.

For more information, here are two posts by David Bratman, from which I learned about these projects:

And here is a link to the ROLLING STONE article David references . . .

. . . and a related piece in which they propose five actors they'd like to see play JRRT: Cumberbatch (who'd be much better as Lewis, surely), Tennant (sounds a bad idea to me), Jeremy Renner (the only one of the five I'd never heard of), Radcliffe (having seen one of his post-Potter films, I hope not), and McKellan (who's good in everything). Janice pointed out they forgot Freeman.

and also appendige, 'Five Actors Who Could Play Tolkien'  [JC: they forgot Martin Freeman!]

Finally, here's more on the Xian Lewis/Tolkien movie, which from what little we know of both films at this point (which isn't much) to be the more inaccurate of the two, in that it seems to be less interested in Lewis and Tolkien than in the story it wants to use them to tell.**

It'll be interesting to follow these two projects over the next few months and see if they survive the ruthless process of getting a modern film made and, if so, what the final products will look like.

More as thing develop.

--John R.

*cf my posts of January 2013 ( ) and December 2013 ( ).

**There's also more about both movies at Tor.Com:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


So, on Saturday I got to hear part of a segment of THIS AMERICAN LIFE on NPR that dealt with one man's efforts to succeed at DIPLOMACY.

For those of you who don't know it already, DIPLOMACY is one of the most interesting boardgames ever created. Each player takes the role of one of the 'Great Powers' in pre-World War I Europe: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungery, Russia, or the Ottomans. Each starts with only three (or, in the case of Russia, four) pieces. The goal is to seize your opponent's territories, and force him to lose his pieces. But he'll be trying to do the same to you, resulting in a stalemate -- unless you can outmaneuver him, by tricking him into thinking you're doing one thing when in fact you do something else, forcing him into a disadvantageous position. What makes the game fiendishly complicated is that all seven players are trying to do the same thing at the same time to each other. Which means that the easiest way to defeat a foe of equal strength is to ally with another player and team up against him. But what if he and your supposed partner have secretly teamed up against you? And how to cope if your enemy in turn allies with someone in a position to do you a bit of no good? And so forth. The game is full of promises, threats, betrayals (it's the only game I know of where the players are explicitly given permission to lie: it's in the rulebook), vendettas, and the like. It's endlessly fascinating, like trying to play chess with seven players all sharing the same board but with only three chessmen apiece. And it's uniquely frustrating. Most who play it do so in play-by-mail format (it cuts down on the shouting). Most people have never heard of it, but it's been thriving for decades, having probably hit its peak in the 1960s and into the 70s.*

Here's the link, about a guy who loved DIPLOMACY but was terrible at it because he couldn't read people: cdn't tell who to trust and who was lying to him, didn't understand why some got mad at his moves and countermoves and others took them in stride. So he took the unusual step of bringing in a professional diplomat, the guy who negotiated the Oslo Accords for Clinton,** to sit in with him and give him advice on who to trust. The results can be found here:

--John R.
who's only played DIPLOMACY three times, and while I never came close to winning I only ignominiously lost once.***

 *Though not long back I found lessons on You-tube giving you advice on your opening moves, each different depending on which country you wind up playing, with all the ramifications inherent in each choice.

**which, if I remember rightly, were a disaster that led directly into the ever-worsened situation in Israel/Palestine over the past twenty years.

***so far.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jodorowsky's DUNE

So, from friend Jeff we heard about the documentary about a never-made film, Alejandro Jodorowsky's DUNE (circa 1974).* Given how much we enjoyed LOST IN LA MANCHA [2002], the highly informative and entertaining documentary about Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to film a Johnny Depp movie in Spain (the project collapsed after a day and a half of shooting), it seemed like this would be something worth watching as well.  And it was, though not in the sense that it made me think that the unmade movie it's about would have been worth watching. On the contrary, it's v. evident that DUNE fans dodged a bullet when Jodorowsky's pie-in-the-sky we'll-do-this, we'll-do-that deflated like a house of cards upon first contact with reality. Gilliam at least produced enough footage to make a thirty-second trailer; Alejandro never got further than a storyboard. And the acid-trip** movie he intended reminded me not of anything to do with Frank Herbert's work but instead of John Boorman's abandoned LORD OF THE RINGS script (also from the early/mid-seventies), which similarly would have been a trippy dippy abomination, had it ever gotten filmed.

I must say, though, that while Boorman's film would have grossly misrepresented Tolkien's novel, it's at least recognizable as the same story. I'm not sure the same can be said for what Jodorowsky would have done to Herbert's DUNE. One thing people connected with the project say over and over in the interviews in this documentary is that they'd never read the novel, knew nothing about the original book, and apparently never did bother to look up the story they were supposed to be adapting.  That's probably because 'adaptation' really doesn't begin to describe Jodorowsky's approach, as when he proudly proclaims:

"I change the end of the book . . .
It's different. It was my DUNE.
When you make a picture,
You must not respect the novel.
. . . I was raping Frank Herbert"

So, my conclusion, weird as it may seem, is that the David Lynch version so many fans hated (and which was my own introduction to Herbert's work, since I saw the film before ever reading the novel) was much, much more faithful than what this earlier adaptor wd have produced, had his project not fortunately fallen through.

--John R.

*He's since blogged about it:

**literally: he says in this documentary he wanted viewers of his film to experience all the effects of being high on LSD without actually taking the drug.

First Trailer for the Third HOBBIT movie

So, as of yesterday I got to see the preview for BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES, the third and final film in Peter Jackson's HOBBIT. Here's the link, thanks to Janice:

My first impression is that they wanted to prevent the viewer from being able to tell anything about the plot. What we have here are a series of striking images, in which pretty much all the major characters from the first two films flash past. What's lacking -- and this has to be deliberate -- is any sense of context. For that we'll have to wait.

Still, while we're waiting, we get to see this interesting collection of vivid snippets to puzzle over. So it's all good, for now. But it does make December seem both near and a long way away.


P.S.: While I'm on the subject of films of THE HOBBIT, this weekend I saw a dvd three-pack of the three animated Tolkien films from the seventies: The Rankin-Bass HOBBIT (which was bad), the Bakshi LORD OF THE RINGS (which was awful), and the R-B RETURN OF THE KING (which was even worse than the first two put together, and then some). So it says a lot about how much I like Tolkien that I already have all three. Still, I was tempted to pick this collection up, if only for the fantastically inappropriate extras attached to each disk -- for example, the Rankin-Bass HOBBIT has an old Droopy cartoon attached.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Twenty-two years and counting.
As Janice said in a card, it's no longer 'Grow Old with Me' but now 'Grow Older w. Me'
Sounds like a good plan to me.

Tolkien Letters (WRITING Magazing)

So, a few weeks back I learned (from Janice, who'd seen it on Andrew Higgins' blog*) that the most recent issue of WRITING magazine includes an article that quotes some previously unpublished Tolkien letters. Seeing them on-line was great, but I thought it'd be even better to have them in print (there's only so much enlarging I can do on-screen), so I ordered a copy of the magazine, which has now arrived.

The article in question is called "Tolkien on Writing . . . and Me", by Paula Coston, who I'd not heard of before but who has apparently just written her first novel, ON THE FAR SIDE, THERE'S A BOY. though she seems to be more famous for her 'Otherhood movement', which focuses on childless women (though whether childless by choice or not is not entirely clear from my quick skim of their online material).

Here's the link to her book

And here's to one about her 'Otherhood' movement

She also has a blog, in which she briefly recounts her friendship with Tolkien

As for the article, it's charming to hear how Tolkien dealt with letters from a precocious eleven-year-old would-be author (then Paula Iley), her grandparents being next-door neighbors (or, should I say, neighbours) of the Tolkiens at Sandfield Road. Tolkien seems to have taken her poems very seriously, and his comments on them reveal his overriding concern with metre and word-choice. Tolkien was gifted in his ability to write in demanding metres (such as the Pearl-stanza), in which he was dramatically at odds with the literary movements of his lifetime. To young Paula he uses analogy that writing a particular verse form is like playing a game with demanding rules: the true demonstration of skill is to know the rules and yet still deliver a telling blow (or, in his words, "hit the ball with force"). Or, to put it another way, "all verse-writers (who write in regular metres or patterns) . . . know that their imagination may be stirred by the actual struggle to find a rhyme or a word that will fill the place, and they may end by thinking and saying something better than they first intended".

Sometimes there are more personal revealing bits, as when Tolkien writes "I feel sympathy with [her poems], because you seem to be moved by colour, and by day's ending, twilight, evening".  It's rather sad to hear JRRT's account in a January 1969 letter of leaving Oxford: "I have fled from Oxford not wishing to witness any more of its destruction, and being also obliged to escape, to an unknown destination, from the every-day persecution of the press etc." Lamenting the chaos caused by his move,** he writes "My work is delayed and disturbed".

Also of interest is that he repeats the 'green great dragon' story in much the same way as we've seen it before, but with a somewhat different moral: "It was quite a shock, and I have always remembered it, because it was my first introduction to the fact that English (without which I could have said nothing) was not 'mine', and had its own ways".

All in all, a pleasant little addition to our store of knowledge; it was good of Iley/Coston to share them with us (having refused to share them with Carpenter back when he was writing his biography).

--John R.

current reading: Heinlein's GLORY ROAD (ugh), TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF (resumed, again)


**although he does not go into the distressing details here, apparently he fell down the stairs at Sandfield Road and hurt his leg badly, which meant he was in the hospital when the actual move occurred. Which in turn means that he didn't supervise the actual packing of all his papers; this was done by somebody else. With the result that upon arriving at his new house he had no idea where anything was among all those boxes of manuscript and typescript, and seems to have spent the first year or two at Bournemouth simply sorting things out. I personally think any chance JRRT had of finishing THE SILMARILLION vanished when he fell down those stairs in October 1968, though he himself didn't realize it for another two or three years.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

BoBo Shinn

I know somebody who vanished.
Dropped off the face of the earth. Was never seen or heard from again.

This summer marks thirty-six years since BoBo Shinn vanished. Presumably kidnapped and murdered, probably by a serial killer. Her body has never been found. Police, family, and friends know no more now about what happened to her than they did the day she disappeared.

We actually knew her brother, Jay Shinn, who was about my sister's age, better than BoBo herself. He'd taken art lessons along with my sister (who was better at it than I was) and myself from Margie Chamberlain.* That had eventually petered out, but I pretty much knew how to paint in oils by the time I started college. But I wanted to learn how to handle pastels and also watercolor, and that's how I got to know BoBo herself, whose class I attended once a week as one of maybe a half a dozen or so students. I only remember three pictures I completed, the most successful of which was a watercolor of a landscape beneath a green sun.

I was away from Magnolia that summer, up at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (thanks to a modest scholarship from my church, for which I'll always be grateful to Rev. Hoffius) -- my first time away from home for more than a week at a time, in a city I'd never seen before. I loved it: meeting the person I consider my mentor (Dr. T. C. Duncan Eaves), soaking up the resources in a town that seemed filled with bookstores and a huge university library, making contact with an Inkling for the first time (an exchange of letters with Nevill Coghill). But two bizarre events marked that sumer.

The first was the death of my uncle Aubrey (or Uncle Orb, as we called him) -- at sixty-two about average for a Rateliff (of his four brothers, one died in his mid-thirties, one in his mid-fifties, and the other two in the late sixties/early seventies). I felt bad not being able to go to his funeral (being without a car and at the opposite end of the state), but at least all indications were that he died suddenly and peacefully, apparently of an aneurism;  a cigarette he'd lit but not had time to smoke was still in his hand, all one long uncrumbled row of ash.

The other was BoBo's disappearance, which I heard about it on my weekly phone calls home. Whereas what happened to Uncle Orb was obvious and final, everything was up in the air about BoBo. Who left behind everything but the clothes she was wearing, not even taking her purse, keys, car, or shoes. There are some people who choose to just walk away from it all (like the guy whose two years spent hitchhiking around the country is retold in INTO THE WILD). This was not one of those cases.

And finally, this past Sunday, they held memorial services for BoBo, attended by her surviving family, and put up a grave marker for her in the local cemetery (where my father is buried). After all these years, it's a letting go. But it's still unsettling that no one knows who killed her, and where she's buried. And we probably never will.

Rest in Peace.

--John R.

P.S.: thanks to my sister, mother, and Janice, who all forwarded the news as if appeared on the Magnolia Times website and in the Magnolia Banner News paper. Here are the links.

*from Margie Chamberlain, a local character -- but that's a subject for a different post

Another Unfact about Tolkien

So, last night I came across another of those odd claims people make about J. R. R. Tolkien from time to time.  This time it was that JRRT was a friend of Christopher Lee. I'd heard or seen somewhere that Lee was a Tolkien fan from way back who had gotten THE HOBBIT when it was first published, but this degree of contact between the two seemed inherently unlikely.

First off, the venue in which this claim was made is not a promising one.

It comes from the packaging accompanying a cheap compilation of three old horror movies on one dvd (one featuring Vincent Price, one Bela Lugosi, and one Christopher Lee) that I'd bought because the third of these had been the inspiration for a good CALL OF CTHULHU scenario from Pagan P. and I wanted to see how much it owned to its source and how much to their treatment of it. I bought this ten years ago and never opened till now (having in the meantime found a single dvd with the one movie I wanted on it and watched that copy instead, while this copy drifted to a back-shelf until my current watch-and-get-rid-of-phase. Having watched one and skimmed another of the two films I hadn't seen before, I've already added this to the discard/giveaway pile.

Second, there's the actual claim, which is given (under the header VESTIGES FROM THE VINTAGE WAULT) as one of a number of bullet points/ paragraphs of THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THESE CLASSIC FILMS . . . UNTIL NOW! , followed by factoids about Price, Legosi, and Lee, the relevant one of which reads

Christopher Lee
was a friend and
student/historian of
J. R. R. Tolkien long
before portraying the
role of Saruman in 
Peter Jackson's "Lord Of
The Rings" films.

As for the truth of the matter: according to The Source of All Knowledge (a.k.a. wikipedia), Lee in his 2003 autobiography says he once met Tolkien. I haven't yet tracked down a copy of the book to see if there's any more than that, but it's clear that they didn't really know each other. So, a Tolkien fan: Yes. A personal acquaintance, No.

So, a minor point, but it's good to point out 'facts' that aren't when opportunity arises. 
There's a lot of disinformation out there, and reducing its impact is a Good Thing.

--John R.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Cat Report (W.7/23-14)

Very glad to hear the news about Mr. TeaTime's adoption. He was a great, friendly, charismatic cat, so I thought it wdn't be long.
Sad, though, to hear about Kaspar's un-adoption. I wish she'd have given him more time and seen how things sorted out. I assume he's gone to one of the other adoption rooms to give him a chance of starting over in a new setting.

Things were quiet yesterday morning. With only six cats, I was able to give everyone a walk. In some cases this was just a quick out-and-please-let-me-back-in, but even those I held and carried around the store for a bit. We don't have any born walkers like Miss Blackberry, but both Molinni and Tawny are getting better by the week. They've got the rules down and, once they get used to the idea, actually do a little exploring, with lots of petting from me for reassurance.  It's the one time I get to work on cleaning the sleep out of little Miss TAWNY's eyes, and also combing her fur with my fingers to get the loose hair out. I snipped off a few clumps but couldn't do much with the matted fur on her left towards the back. Tawny likes the little collection of cat-stands near the middle of the back wall of the store -- not to climb, but to work her way through the bases of. She's also fine with being held and being petted, so long as it's out on a walk -- once back in the cat-room she goes straight into her nice safe hole and swats at anything that tries to intrude on her privacy. But when not poked or prodded she seemed relaxed for once, with her paws hanging out.

I have noticed that while Molinni and Tawny seems nervous during the walks, those mornings that I carry them around and then let them pokearound on their own four feet they're much more relaxed and in a good mood afterwards, back in the room. This was really evident today with Molinni, who I think ought to be called MOLINNI the Panther, given how she prowls about. She went into her basket as usual but then came right back out and spent most of the morning hanging around with Scruffs near the door and under the cat-stands near the front of the room. She let me pet her a little (not much) and also explored a little, seeming very much confident and in-charge.

PHOENIX, by contrast, had a muted sort of day. I put her up high and she stayed on the cagetops all morning, mostly in the box up there, keeping herself to herself. Felt bad for neglecting her; she didn't like my getting her down and then putting her back in her cage straight away. But she'd enjoyed her walk earlier so maybe she'll forgive me. 

MR. SCRUFFS was in good form, enjoying that cool breeze that comes under the door, putting those scratching posts to good use, and watching the world go by. He was much admired by visitors, especially when at one point he jumped up and arranged himself decoratively atop the cat-stand by the door. He played with Molinni some but mostly they just hung out together (last week they'd had great fun with games, both taking turns to pounce on string or feathers).
It's sounds silly, but I've noticed he's getting two white spots on his fur. Is this from aging? The hair in my own black cat (Mr. Feanor)'s ear has been turning white as he ages, but I've never seen anything quite like this before. Do cats get premature greying?

BUXTER was more approachable today, from her roost atop the cat-stand by the cabinet. I think she's a naturally grumpy cat who, because of that, misses out on her share of attention (petting, being played with, &c). She and her sister seem to me to get along pretty well -- the only exception being last week when I'd put Buxter in (against her will) and then put Maebe in right next to her immediately afterwards; Buxter hissed at Maebe, who made herself small. After a minute Buxter calmed down and Maebe went past her and into the other cubby. While they're not overly affectionate with each other, I think Maebe may know how to handle Buxter better than anyone else. In any case, the combination of (very) short walk, a safe perch well away from the other cats, and some petting and games all her own seemed to be just what Buxter needed.

MAEBE, for her part, was full of surprises this morning. First off she wouldn't come out of her cube the first two hours or so. Then when I made her move so I could clean things up* she made her way to the top of the cat-stand by the door, where she plopped herself down and looked about with great satisfaction. I let her stay out last of all the cats, and took her out for a short walk of her own at the very end. She Gave Voice with that yowl cats only make when they're very, very unhappy. Though she did calm down quickly she clearly wasn't enjoying herself, so we didn't stay long.

--no health concerns. Looks like Scruffs and Phoenix have lost a little weight, though it's always hard to tell from just looking

--tried a new treat, which Scruffs, Molinni, and Phoenix voted the best thing ever; Maebe also liked them.  Tawny and Buxter's response was eh.

--today was focused more on petting than games (whereas last week was just the opposite). A quiet day, but think the cats mostly enjoyed it. Next week I'll try for a more even mix of petting/attention and games/walks.

--John R.

*discovering in the process that someone had messed on the blanket, so I changed them all

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chris Mitchell tributes

I've now written a slightly more formal tribute to Chris Mitchell, which has just been posted at the Wheaton College site. Here's the link. The entries are arranged alphabetically (after the first two, by Wheaton College's president and by Chris's predecessor as Director of the Wade, Lyle Dorsett), so just scroll down to find my contribution.

Having read through these, I'm struck with how many of them make the same points: a good indicator that Chris was the same with people he met and fell into conversation with, not different men in different contexts.  Oddly enough, I think it was Warnie Lewis, as quoted by Diana Pavlac Glyer, who really captured the moment. Writing about the sudden death of Charles Williams, Warnie put it like this:

“Well, goodbye, see you on Tuesday Charles” one says
 — and you have in fact though you don't know it, 
said goodbye forever. He passes up the lamplit street, 
and passes out of your life forever. And so vanishes 
one of the best and nicest men it has ever been 
my good fortune to meet. May God receive him 
into His everlasting happiness.’

--John R.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Story Identified (Davidman's SMOKE)

So, having posted a query to see if anyone out there might recognize a science fiction story Joy Davidman uses, in synopsized form, as a chapter-opener in her SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN [1954/55], I was surprised to have the answer the very next day. Many thanks to Doug Anderson for reposting my query to folks who were able to identify the story in question, and to John Boston for being the font of knowledge that held this particular piece of information and was generously willing to share same.

It turns out Davidman is retelling, probably from memory, a story that had been published in ASTOUNDING back in March 1940: "THE DWINDLING SPHERE" by one Wm. Hawkins. I've never heard of Hawkins before, but a subsequent posting provided a link to the entire story online:

Interestingly enough, this story seems not to have been reprinted or anthologized between its original publication and the date of Davidman's book.* Also, it's clear from reading the story itself that it differs a good deal from Davidman's version, which is thus probably being retold from memory (which might explain why she fails to name the author) or only known to her at second-hand, in a version told her by someone who remembered the gist of the story but not any detail. The most significant departure is that Davidman provides an ending for the story (a brief glimpse of the last human, floating dead in space, after the world has been completely used up by its inhabitants): an ending entirely appropriate and indeed rather better than the one the original author provided, but definitely not taken from the 1940 publications.

And this offers up some interesting possibilities. Did Davidman read this story when it first came out, when she was in her mid-twenties? If so, that wd suggest she was more deeply involved in science fiction than is our general impression of her. Or was the story told to her at a later date, which wd suggest she was plugged in to the science fiction community (fans and writers) more than published accounts have let on. Now that we know her husband knew Heinlein, and Fletcher Pratt, et al, and that Davidman knew Clarke and John Christopher, maybe it's time for someone to research and write up a piece on "Joy Davidman and Science Fiction".

--John R.
current reading: INTO THE WILD by Krakauer  (just finished), FRANZY AND ZOOEY by Salinger (still painfully slogging through), TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF (re-started)

*rpt in MASTER'S CHOICE, ed. Laurence M. Janifer [1966]; THE GREAT SF STORIES 2 (1940), ed Asimov & Greenberg (DAW, 1979); ISAAC ASIMOV PRESENTS THE GOLDEN YEARS OF SCIENCE FICTION, ed Asimov & Grrenberg (1983).  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This Week in God

So, Monday was Weird News Day so far as organized religion went.

First off there was the interview in which the pope lamented that 2% of all Catholic priests are pedophiles. Given that there are over 400,000 priests worldwide, that works out to about EIGHT THOUSAND PEOPLE.

And when the story was published the Vatican denied,  not the main revelation of EIGHT THOUSAND PEDOPHILE PRIESTS,  but that anyone currently serving as Cardinal was included.

That's right. "currently serving". Not, say, recent or retired.

Great Googly Moogly.

Does this man not know how to lie?

I'm beginning to think that if anyone can save the church, it'll be this pope.

And then, as if that weren't enough, the Anglicans met in their General Synod and finally voted to allow women to serve as bishops. This is something that had been a long time coming, and bitterly fought every step of the way, until (v. like gay marriage) the opposition suddenly melted away. Just to see how lopsided the victory, the women-as-bishops measure got a 'yes' vote from

37 out of 40 bishops,
162 of 191 clergy, &
152 of 200 lay members

The first of these two links gives the numbers and puts things in a larger context (e.g., how it brings the English church more in line with the Episcopals). The second has a fascinating passage that almost slipped by without comment:

The conservative evangelical block, which holds that men must never be taught by women, was not entirely pacified by the promise that a male bishop would be appointed who shared their view that the "headship" of the church must be male. Their lay members voted consistently against, as they had done two years ago.
Although the influential conservative evangelical Philip Giddings announced early in the debate that he would vote in favour of the new legislation – there had been moves to unseat him from his post as chairman of the House of Laity after he voted against in 2012 – a number of speakers from his faction, many of them women, announced their continuing opposition and complained that they were marginalised for their convictions.

It's that final sentence that's the kicker: women who believe men ought not to listen to women complained bitterly that no one was listening to them.

The human mind is truly a fascinating thing.

And then finally there's the Presbyterians. I posted a few weeks back about the General Assembly's decision to allow gay marriages to be performed by pastors who wish to do so and also to divest from Israel. Now my mother has forwarded to me a little informational slip that was handed out to all church members in good standing letting them know the high points of what the Assembly decided at their big meeting. My friend Jeff loved the opening line ("Here we stand, so to speak"), which does have something quintessentially Presbyterian about it (what, did they not want to offend any of our sitting brothers and sister in the church?).

The divestment issue is treated in a paragraph: they make the odd distinction that although the Presbyterians are going to divest, we're explicitly NOT joining the Divestment or B.D.S. ('Boycott, Divest, & Sanctions') movement. That's a bit too fine a point for me.

The gay-marriage ruling has an interesting rider: a proposal to officially change the definition of marriage as between "a man and a woman" to instead "two people, traditionally a man and a woman". That part still needs to be ratified, by 87 out of 172 presbyteries. Be interesting to see how that plays out.

There were other issues as well: rejection of an anti-zionist pamphlet, an appeal for all Presbyterians 'to work to reduce gun violence by advocating for stricter background checks and a ban on semi-automatic weapons', a criticism regarding secrecy in drone strikes, rejection of a proposal to 'trim back references to Israel in liturgical materials' (???), and a rather sad note that 350 congregations had gone walkabout since the last General Assembly, most over the gay marriage thing, and with the new vote now 'more departures are expected' -- possibly including 17 of 54 affiliated overseas churches. They considered but rejected divestment from fossil fuels, 'choosing instead to explore relatd issues that might lead to action by a future assembly'

All in all, an interesting set of developments. And it's only mid-week . , , 

--John R.
current reading: THE MASK OF CIRCLE (Henry Kuttner, 1948)
J. D. SALINGER: A LIFE (by Paul Alexander, 1999)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What Story Is This?

So, at the start of one chapter in her SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, Joy Davidman provides the following synopsis of a science fiction story to make a point. She does not, however, give the title or identify the author.* Does the following seem familiar to anybody?

In a finite world, continually increasing conumption is just not possible. Some modern fabulist once put this very neatly; he wrote of a wonderful atomic converter which took common earth and stone and turned out whatever goods you wanted. Men rejoiced at the end of all poverty and laughed at the few reactionaries who feared that the world might get used up. Five thousand years later, astronomers were disproving with mathematics the popular legend that the earth had once been much bigger than the moon. Ten thousand years later the story ended-with one starving ancient, perched on his converter, adrift in empty space.


*assuming, of course, that such a story actually existed and she didn't just make it up to make a point.

Davidman's SMOKE

So, having inadvertently helped spark a testy string of posts and counterposts over on the MythSoc list as an indirect result of my post here about Wm Lindsey Gresham, I thought one poster had a good point when she asked if other posters had read Davidman herself. So I decided now wd be a good time to read Joy Davidman's most famous work, SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, her book of apologetics, a la Lewis,  on the Ten Commandments (one chapter per Commandment, plus another on Christ's Love Thy Neighbor).

The physical book turned out to be surprisingly difficult to find -- no copies anywhere in the King County Library System, which was unexpected, nor in the University Library. However, I found the entire text available online, in the helpful format of each chapter being accessible through its own link on the T.o.C.  Here's the link to the book as a whole:

Reading the book a few chapters per night, I found it a v. strange experience, because I kept hearing Lewis's voice, literally. I have several audiorecordings of Lewis reading aloud various essays, relics of old on-air broadcasts, and as I was reading Davidman's sentences I found Lewis's voice in my ear. Maybe it'd be different if I knew what Davidman's voice sounds like (if any recordings of her survive, I don't know about them); all I know is that Lewis intruded himself like a ghostly presence; v. odd.   I don't think it was the vocabulary but, I suspect, the cadences: it'd kick in for a few sentences, then fade out, then start up again, coming in and out of focus. Which I suppose is one way of saying that Davidman successfully produced a Lewis pastiche here. Oddly enough, the introduction by Lewis was the one part that DIDN'T sound like CSL: stiff and formal and maybe a little ill-at-ease.

I have to say that, so far as the book itself goes, as a work of apologetics, I didn't get anything much out of it other than one good line. At one point Davidman offers her own, inspired, variant of Samuel Johnson's famous dictum: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". But in Davidman's version, this becomes

 The Old Testament is the last refuge of a scoundrel

I know what she means, having grown increasingly distressed over self-proclaimed Xians who seem to take all their doctrine from the worst parts of the Old Testament. And if they do quote from the New Testament, it's almost always from Paul and not the Gospels. So the book was worth reading for that one good line -- but if I'd have known that one good line ahead of time, maybe not.

So: not as good as Lewis's better books of apologetics (THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, THE GREAT DIVORCE, THE PROBLEM OF PAIN), but better than the worse among them (MERE XIANITY, THE ABOLITION OF MAN, MIRACLES).

--John R.
just finished: THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS, by L. Frank Baum (1902)
just started: THE MASK OF CIRCE, by Henry Kuttner (1948)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chris Mitchell

So, Friday brought the unexpected sad news that Chris Mitchell, former head of the Wade, had died suddenly the night before. He'd been out enjoying a hiking and fishing trip with friends when he suddenly collapsed; apparently it was all over within minutes. Which isn't a bad way to go -- no long lingering illness -- but hard on those left behind, who thought they'd be able to enjoy his friendship for years to come (he was just sixty-two). And I'm sure it's very hard on his family to cope with the sudden loss.

I got to know Chris when he came to the Wade Center, replacing Lyle Dorsett (also a scholar and a gentleman) who wanted to get back into teaching. Chris was an excellent Director, making scholars from around the world feel welcome, healing old rifts, and expanding the collection in a lot of interesting ways (for example, by acquiring the papers of scholars who'd worked on Lewis or other Wade authors). I didn't get to see him that often -- usually once or twice a year -- but I always enjoyed our get-togethers when I did. About a year or so ago he left Wheaton in order to be able to spend more time teaching and in scholarship: his current big project was a close look at C. S. Lewis's THE ABOLITION OF MAN. It's a good indicator of Chris's talents that while I think this one of CSL's worst books, I was looking forward to seeing what Chris had to say about it, to see if I cd appreciate any virtues it might have through Chris's eyes.  

For those who weren't lucky enough to know him in person, luckily there are a number of pieces of him online -- such as a lecture he gave at Seattle Pacific University ("C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien: Scholars and Friends") available through i-Tunes, and some videotaped lectures at the Biola College site via the following link:

I also have a four-dvd set of Chris presenting a series of lectures on MERE CHRISTIANITY (another work I rank relatively low among CSL's books, and hence am looking forward to hearing what in it Chris found so appealing). This is something I picked up at Wheaton; from the packaging it seems to be  part of something called THE C. S. LEWIS STUDY PROGRAM sponsored by a group called 'The C. S. Lewis Institute' I hadn't gotten around to watching it, but I think working my way through it now would be a good way to celebrate Chris's life and work.

Here' a link to a Biola University site* telling of Chris's sudden death

And here's what Wheaton College has to say at its own site:

Beyond that, I don't really know what to say. Since I only saw Chris once or twice a year, the reality of his absence won't be felt at first, until those meetings fail to happen, and then keep on failing to happen, from now on.

He was a good man, a scholar and a gentleman. Rest in Peace.

--John R.

*thanks to Carl, who was the first from whom I heard the news, for the link

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Cat Report (W. 7/9-14)

What a change just a week makes!

With the home-ing of Miss Blackberry (who I miss terribly but am so glad she's in a home of her own*), we were briefly down to seven cats. 

But then the arrival of Mr. TeeMan (who I keep thinking of as Mr. TeaTime), we're back to eight and a pretty full room, considering that they're not the most sociable eight.

I arrived late (9.30) and stayed late (till almost 1) to make up for it, with most of the cats out of their cages most of that time. I started with giving TAWNY a walk. I noticed last week that her fur was beginning to look like she wasn't taking care of it, so decided to treat her like Edna Jane (for those of you who remember her): pluck her out of her cage first thing in the morning, while all the other cats are still in their cages, putting the leash on, and taking her for a walk around the store, putting her down from time to time to sniff and explore a little. Mostly she wanted to explore the spaces behind or under the shelves, but still it got her out of that cage and out of that room and I think did her some good. I combed through her fur with my fingers and it came off in great masses: I was all over cat the rest of the day. But that's that much more fur that won't be giving her a hairball, so it's all good. I also cleaned the sleep out of her eyes, which was getting pretty bad on one side. Once back in the room she went into the short cat-stand on the bench (Phoenix's favorite place) and stayed there the rest of the morning.

Miss PHOENIX herself her usual friendly, well-behaved, calm cat as ever. I sometimes think I overlook her, the one altogether normal cat in the room, because she never causes any trouble and, while welcoming attention, rarely asks for it. Held her in my lap and petted her, and later ran my fingers through her fur and got a fair amount of loose fur off her as well (though it didn't seem like much, her fur being so short and fine). She chose the base of the cat-stands near the door as her spot to hang out. Her calmness had a good effect: at one point I saw Caspar go over and sniff her tail and, getting no response, wandering on off -- if he'd tried that on, say, Molinni or Tawny or one of the bonded pair I think there might have been hissing & so forth. She also spent some time atop the cages

Speaking of CASPAR, he's settling down quite a bit. He still has a tendency to grab and to nibble, but not on the first stroke and not as energetically. He and Mr. Scruffs get along quite well, I've noticed; they hang out together near the door, enjoying the cool breezes. They shared a game of bug-on-a-stick, and it was funny how their different personalities came out. Caspar is all energy and enthusiasm, while MR. SCRUFFS shows experience and cunning. While Caspar pounces, releases, pounces, releases, Scruffs bites down on it and drags it into his lair, like some captured mouse or little bird he intends to messily devour. One of the other cats (Phoenix, I think) also joined in for a while, but it was clearly the two guys' game. Scruffs refused a walk at the end of the morning, and was upset with me for making him go back into his cage afterwards -- think in retrospect that he wanted some time with himself as the only cat out.

MOLINNI was her usual self-possessed self: she came out when she was good and ready, claimed her favorite place (inside the basket on the bench), and didn't budge until I put her back (unwillingly) into her cage at the end of morning. I don't think Molinni likes me v. much, which is too bad, since she's a neat little cat. Does she interact more with the other volunteers?

The sisters, MAEBY and BUXTER, stayed in until I made them move so I could clean their double-wide. Buxter I put atop the cat-stand by the cabinet, which she found entirely to her liking and lorded over for the rest of the morning, gladly accepting attention and petting but warning other cats to stay back. As for Maeby, last week I'd had trouble getting her to come out and then more trouble trying to get her to go back in. This week I tried something new that worked really well: I put her on the shelf inside the cabinet with the cat-blankets. She loved it, and was perfectly happy to be petted and played with while safely hidden up there. She even groomed me a little. It turns out her favorite game is the string-game played with a piece of yarn -- I took away the little bit of yarn I'd brought but will be bringing her her own piece next week.  

And that just leaves the delightful MR. TEATIME ('Tee-Man'), who's a great cat. What a charmer. He loves attention, purrs when petted, enjoys games, and mostly just wants to love and be loved. Think he'll find himself a new home quickly. Hope so anyway. I put him up high, and he went into the box up on the cage-tops, coming out to get attention whenever I was near or when anybody came into the room. Seems to get along fine with other cats too. He loves lap-time. Did notice that he needs a bath: lots of dander on his lower back, near the tail. I wiped him down with a moist cloth, which helped a little, but this kind of dry skin usually needs a full-scale bath to set right.  

I'd noticed a while back that Phoenix has a lump in her tail near the base -- was it broken at one point? Thought of it because Mr. TeaTime has a little kink near the end of his tail. Doesn't seem to bother either of them though.

Lots of visitors, who gave the cats attention that both visitors and cats seemed to enjoy, but no serious prospects so far as I could tell. 

Someone brought a young dog and kept it near the cat-room or an extended period (15-20 minutes); after some initial intense staring on Caspar's and Mr. Scruff's part the cats decided to ignore him. Glad to see they took it so well.

Health concerns: the sneezing seems to have subsided, and the lethargy of last week seems to be receding. The only one I saw sneezing was Caspar, who took his medicine with alacrity. Molinni licked it off her paw; I put some on Tawny's side and think she licked it off. Mr. Scruffs refused his dose altogether. Caspar let me clean his chin some; I also wiped him down with a wet cloth to get some of that loose fur off.

--John R.

*I know we're not supposed to have favorites, but I admit she'd been a favorite of mine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Three Glimpses of Gresham

So,  recently I've seen three passing references to Wm Lindsay Gresham which, while each brief in itself, add up to provide a little more insight into this elusive figure.  Gresham is mainly remembered today, if at all, as a shadowy and slightly sinister figure on the edge of Lewis biographies, the first husband of Joy Lewis and parent of CSL's heirs David and Douglas Gresham.

But Gresham was much more than this: a volunteer who fought fascist in the Spanish Civil War, an up-and-coming novelist whose first book was made into a noir film (staring Tyrone Powers) but whose subsequent books failed to live up to his early promise, eventually spiraling down into a serious drinking problem. He ended by dying relatively young (53) of suicide when his terminal cancer became too much for him to bear. In many cases a sad life, with someone of real talent for the most part unable to focus it to produce the works those who knew him early on believed he was capable of.

He also moved in some interesting circles, and it's from scattered references in reminiscences by others from those days that we get a glimpse of him in his own right, not as a walk-on roll in the Jack-and-Joy story.

First, there's Martin Gardner's autobiography; this one I learned about from Wendell Wagner's posting to the MythSoc list.* Here's how Gardner remembered Gresham:

I met Bill Gresham. Bill was the author of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, the best novel ever written about carnival life. It became a movie starring Tyrone Power . . . Bill once said to me that one day he realized that his geek was a symbol for all the persons who bitterly hate their jobs but have no other way to make a living.

Bill had been married to Joy Davidman, both once active members of the Communist Party. Joy was drama and poetry editor of the party's NEW MASSES magazine. She finally became disenchanted with Communism and wrote a series of articles for the NEW YORK POST titled "Girl Communist." As a result of reading books by C. S. Lewis, Joy became a convert to the Anglican Church. She began corresponding with Lewis, then an elderly bachelor in England, best known for his Narnia fantasies for children, and for his many books of Christian polemics.

One day Joy, who had become increasingly bitter about her marriage, said to Bill she was planning to divorce him and to take her two children to London where she planned to marry Lewis!

Bill thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard. Then suddenly, to his vast astonishment, Joy did exactly what she said she would do. She divorced Bill, took her sons to England, and sent word to Bill that she and Lewis would soon be married!

After the marriage Lewis published a book titled SURPRISED BY JOY . . . Bill once said to me that the book Lewis wrote was wrongly titled. It should have been OVERWHELMED BY JOY. As all Lewis fans know, the joy was short-lived . . .

After Joy's death, Bill visited Lewis to arrange for the care of his two young sons. He took with him a copy of my ANNOTATED ALICE, inscribed to Lewis as a gift. I asked Bill to ask Lewis if he had ever read one of Baum's OZ books. The answer was no. . . 

Bill was a great admirer of L. Frank Baum . . . he wrote a moving essay telling of a time when he was deeply depressed over his divorce from Joy. He phoned a friend who allowed him to spend the night in a daughter's vacant bedroom. In the room Bill found a copy of Baum's THE SCARECROW OF OZ, a book he had loved as a child. He spent the night reading the book again. It got him through the night.

(from UNDILUTED HOCUS-POCUS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN GARDNER [2013], Chapter 17: "Math and Magic Friends", p.171-172)


The second glimpse came in a June e-mail from Richard West, who had come across the following sentence when rereading Frederik Pohl's memoir (THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS [1978]) for a book group discussion:
"William Lindsay Gresham was there a lot just at the end of his life, an irascible, mean-mouthed man who was having troubles he could not handle, and one night a little later, checked into a Times Square hotel and killed himself." (ch. 9, p. 216).

By "there" he means "the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute" which in the early 1950s was "an immense house in Highlands owned by Fletcher and Inga Pratt, twenty-three rooms, on acres of land rolling down to the Shrewsbury River. ... some two hundred years old, with sculptured plaster ceilings in the billiard room and immense fireplaces in the drawing room and the dining hall, and a strange, huge painting that went with the house (because there was no way to remove it) on the landing of the stairs." (p. 215) The Pratts hosted many visitors, not only the Pohls (who happened to live nearby) and other science fiction writers and editors (Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp. Lester del Rey, John Campbell, et al.), but people like Basil Davenport and John Ciardi, so Gresham coming there is not strange, but it's one more bit of information about him. There's nothing else about Gresham in this book, though, and it's now too late, alas, to ask Fred Pohl for any further memories.
The interesting thing here is that it shows Gresham very much at home with the science fiction community gathered around Pratt, which puts him in a different context than we usually think of for him. It also, by the way, ties in very well with Joy Gresham's befriending John Christopher and Arthur C. Clarke, among others, during her time in London following her move to England, before she shifted her base of operations to Oxford.

It's obvious that Pohl and Gresham didn't hit it off, but "troubles he could not handle" sounds a bit harsh as a description of terminal cancer of the tongue, which eventually prevented him from eating and made drinking very difficult. Perhaps Pohl meant Gresham's problem with alcohol (which we mainly know about through Joy's account during the time they were breaking up). The timing of Pohl's account also seems a bit off -- since Pratt died six years before Gresham did, the latter cd not have been dropping by Pratt's house "just at the end of his life"

Thanks to Doug Anderson, who sent me the following link, we also have a somewhat expanded version of Pohl's impression, a piece that appeared on Pohl's blog (under the header "Fletcher Pratt, Part 5: Shadow Over the Ipsy"). The relevant section is as follows:

. . . Remember that I once said that, with all the social drinking that went on of an Ipsy weekend, I had only once seen anyone unpleasantly drunk?

This was that once. The man in question I did not know well, though I had read some of his work. His name was William Lindsay Gresham.

To discuss William Lindsay Gresham, I must first ask if you have ever seen the play or film SHADOWLANDS? Gresham never appears in it, but he is a very significant character all the same.

You see, SHADOWLANDS is the story of C. S. Lewis -- yes, the SCREWTAPE LETTERS man -- and his tradical love for the American poet Joy Davidman. What made that love tragic was William Gresham.

When I heard that William Gresham would be present at the Ipsy that evening, I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him, which we had somehow never managed to have on his previous visits. The title of his signature book was NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a brutal but brilliant novel of life among the carnival workers, which I had enjoyed and respected. But my notion of author-to-author chatting with the man didn't work out. Gresham was too drunk for chatting, and too aggressively foulmouthed for any civilized kind of talk at all. Remember the somewhat quaint and actually endearing pass-the-port-to-the-left fantasy that Fletcher had erected around Ispy-Wipsy weekends? Gresham's presence showed how a single drunk could destroy a fantasy. I left early that night.

And I never saw the man again.

I did heard about him from time to time, and then, some years later, the tabloids published his final chapter. Slowly going blind and recently diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, Gresham had checked into the Dixie Hotel, just off Times Square. There he consumed an overdose of sleeping pills, and died.

In addition to establishing that Gresham attended more than one gathering at the Pratt House (e.g., through the references to not having the chance for discussion with him on previous visits), this portrait agrees with other evidence that Gresham was a mean drunk, not a happy drunk or convivial drunk. This more detailed account also fits in better with the timeline of events as we know them from other sources, and is a good description of Gresham's darker side.

Here's the link to Pohl's blog piece:


FInally, I knew I'd once run across a brief passage where Heinlein mentions Gresham but I'd not been able to locate the passage again. Once I mentioned this to Doug Anderson, he turned up the relevant quote at once: it comes not from GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE, as I'd thought, but Heinlein's EXPANDED UNIVERSE [1980]. The passage begins with a quote:

"You'll never get rich peddling gloom" -- Wm Lindsay Gresham

It then continues

The late Bill Gresham was before consumption forced him into fiction writing a carnie mentalist of great skill. He could give a cold reading that would scare the pants off a marble staute. In six words he summarized the secret of success as a fortuneteller. Always tell the mark what he wants to hear. He will love you for it, happily pay you, then forgive and forget when your cheerful prediction fails to come true -- and always come back for more.

The bit about being forced into fiction by TB strikes a bit of an autobiographical note, this being Heinlein's history as well. The main interest of this piece is, however, that it confirms that Gresham (and possibly also Joy) moved in circles that included the top science fiction writers of the day and that Gresham himself had great personal charm (a point worth stressing, since what we know about him through Lewis channels is mainly to his disadvantage): he was dynamic and had keen insight into what made people tick. And anyone who reads the short story of his Doug Anderson included in TALES BEFORE NARNIA can see that he had talent to an impressive degree. There's now a short story collection of his work, just recently published,*** and the description thereof revealed to me for the first time that Gresham also wrote crime fiction and science fiction. The introductory essay to the collection also looks to be revealing, both about Gresham's career and incidently the disintegration of his marriage to Joy (including an account of how he came home and found she'd not only moved but had sold every piece of furniture in the place).

So, glimpses rather than extended accounts, but still interesting in the ways they contradict the Received Version and in the new light they place on his career and contacts.

Many thanks to Wendell, Richard, and Doug for providing me with the building bricks for this post.

--John R.

**for a photograph of the Pratt House, or 'Ipsy-Wipsy Institute', see the follow (with thanks to Doug Anderson for the link):


Monday, July 7, 2014


So, a few weeks ago I found out the release date of the new 5th edition D&D STARTER SET and visited a local game store (relatively local: down in Federal Way) and preordered myself a copy. Late Friday afternoon I got a message from them that it was in, and today I combined a work-session down in the Federal Way Barnes & Noble with a visit to the game store and picked up my copy.

At a quick glance, it looks pretty good. In fact, it looks a good deal like the game I've been playing in various playtest versions for the last two years or so (in mini-campaigns run by Jeff Grubb, myself, and, for the last year or so, Steve Winter). And that's reassuring, since the various rule sets sent out for playtesting have swung wildly back and forth during that time, with each new iteration of the playtest rules seeming determined to differ greatly from the one that went before.

This looks good in basics: the basic four character classes (fighter, cleric, wizard, rogue), the four basic player-character races (human, dwarf, elf, halfling), the classic six character stats (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Chr), alignments (which seem to conform to the standard nine-point alignment system), and so forth. I'd say it has more in common with third edition than any other. There are still more vestiges of fourth edition than I'd like, but those shd be easy to homerule out. I'm sorry they left out any character generation rules at all -- something I consider essential to any starter set/beginner rules -- but other than that, this looks good at a first skim.

It looks like my favorite hobby is making a come back.

More later.


Sunday, July 6, 2014


So, Wednesday (the second) marked a great event: the arrival of my copy of my latest publication, the T. A. Shippey festschrift TOLKIEN IN THE NEW CENTURY: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF TOM SHIPPEY, just out from McFarland. I'm both an editor (along with Jn Houghton, Janet Croft, Nancy Martsch, and Robin Reid) and contributor, my piece being called "Inside Literature: Tolkien's Explorations of Medieval Genres". It's a great relief to finally have this out, since it's been a long time in the works (five or six years).

More on this one later. For now, here's a link from the publisher's website that shd, if all goes well, include a Table of Contents listing:

And here's the Amazon listing:

No table-of-contents listing here, but there is a paragraph summarizing the book's contents (e.g., mine is referenced as "Tolkien's interest in medieval genres", which gives a pretty good idea of what's in the book.

No reviews yet, but it's early days.

Here's hoping Professor Shippey is pleased by these offerings.

--John R.

current reading: IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER (still)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tolkien Spotting (The TIMELINE game)

So, at NorWesCon back in April I watched some people play an interesting new game called TIMELINE, which looked intriguing enough that I picked up a copy about two weeks ago and finally had a chance to play it last night.

The rules are simple: each card in your hand represents an invention or discovery or significant event. Your goal is to play your cards into correct chronological position with the cards already in play. Thus if the cards in play are, say, THE INVENTION OF THE WINCHESTER RIFLE [1866] and THE INVENTION OF BLUE JEANS [1873], and you want to play THE INVENTION OF THE TYPEWRITER, you have to decide whether this comes before both events, between both events, or after both events.*  If you guess right, your card joins the timeline, and placing the next card just got that much more difficult. If you're wrong, your card gets discarded and you have to draw another. Since the goal is to be the first to run out of cards, the more cards you place correctly the better you're doing. Cards can range from modern (the computer mouse, the ball-point pen) to ancient (fire, agriculture) to just about anything in-between (corks, crossbows).

But the card that really got my attention when it came up last night was "LORD OF THE RINGS PUBLISHED (FIRST VOLUME)", accompanied by a picture of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS. They even got the right dust jacket for the first edition Allen & Unwin hardcover and, of course, the date [1954].  Nice to see Tolkien's book ranked with things like THE DISCOVERY OF THE ASTEROIDS and INVENTION OF THE LIGHT BULB.

Here's an image of the card:

I can see that if you play this game a lot, you'll eventually learn the right dates to a lot of things. And it's for this reason, I assume, that the people who make it have put out four or five supplements (Discoveries, Diversity, Historical Events, Music & Cinema), each I assume with another deck of similar but new cards, to keep things challenging. I know one is themed towards the arts (music, literature, the theatre), which I'll probably be picking up.

Since noticing this at a number of booths in the dealers' room at NorWesCon I've seen it at a game store (The Fantasium), at one of the area Barnes & Nobles (the one in Federal Way) but not at another (the one near SouthCenter), as well as available online from and, of course, from the folks who actually make it: Asmodee (this being a French game translated into English).

I see there's an Ipad version but haven't seen or played that yet.

--John R.

current reading: IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER by Ian Hamilton [1988]

I shd note that, to my delight, the set includes not just Tolkien but also the invention of rpgs [1974] 

*The correct answer, according to the game, is in this case "before both" [1714], which is much earlier than I wd have guessed

Friday, July 4, 2014

Three (or four) More Points about Paton Walsh

So, there were a few more points I ought to make about Jill Paton Walsh's new Peter-and-Harriet novel, THE LOST SCHOLAR.

(1) I think this was much the best of the four books she's written so far featuring Sayer's characters: I enjoyed reading it, and will probably be getting a hard copy in addition to the Kindle version. I don't know how much is judgment is affected by the fact that this is an Oxford novel, and I'm disposed to think well of books set in Oxford, and how much it's her finally making the characters her own.

(2) It's disconcerting to find that all the novels published by Sayers in the real world (e.g. THE NINE TAILORS, STRONG POISON, GAUDY NIGHT) also exist in the fictional world Peter and Harriet inhabit, except that there they're "Harriet Vane" novels rather than "Dorothy L. Sayers" novels, with titles such as "MURDER BY DEGREES" (= GAUDY NIGHT, I suppose) and "TWIXT WIND AND WATER" (= ?HAVE HIS CARCASE). The only difference seems to be that in Harriet's novels, the mysteries are solved not by Lord Peter Wimsey but by her series detective, Robert Templeton. We're told that the plots of these follow the events of Peter's actual cases very closely, even including having a Harriet Vane analogue (whose name I don't think is ever mentioned). All this seems rather strange, especially when it becomes a plot-point, with a prospective murderer lifting plots from Harriet Vane books as templates for his own attempted murders. That last point is an interesting idea, but Van Gulik did it better (in the last Judge Dee book, MURDER IN CANTON).

(3) I was startled by Paton Walsh's depiction of Peter Wimsey as an atheist ("most of the time").  I can't think of any passage in the original Sayers books to support that characterization, and it struck me as very unlike Sayers.

(4)  Finally, there was an odd scene where a student hoping to become a medievalist explains to Wimsey his course of study: Old English, Middle English, and literature up through Milton, only to have Lord Peter incredulous that anyone would submit to a course of study that failed to include a single Romantic poet. That seems in line with what students like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman felt, yet Sayer herself was deeply interested in the medieval, and seems to have had far more interest in Dante and ROLAND and Donne than Wordsworth or Shelly.

So, an entertaining book, but not to be taken as a guide to the personalities or actualities of the time and place. This is a fictional Oxford, where the descriptions of buildings are more true to life than those of the people.

--John R.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jill Paton Walsh disses Tolkien

So, I hadn't known that the fourth of Jill Paton Walsh's Peter-and-Harriett faux-Sayers series of mysteries was out (or even that a fourth one was coming out, given that the third ended with what seemed a good place to wrap up the series)* until I saw a mention of it on the MythSoc list (thanks to Joe Christopher, who posted a capsule review)**

I got this one on the Kindle because I was troubled by something Joe mentioned, about the way Walsh describes Tolkien. And now, having just read it for myself, I can see that it's even worse than I thought: Walsh explicitly calls Tolkien a misogynist.

Or, to be more accurate, she has Lord Peter Wimsey do it, referring to JRRT as  "this misogynist professor". Here's the passage in full:

[HARRIET:] 'Well, do you know that the Merton Professor of English here will not take women pupils for tutorials? With one exception, that is -- he will tute girls sent to him by Miss [Elaine] Griffiths.'
[LORD PETER:] 'Have I heard of this misogynist professor?'
[HARRIET:] 'Didn't you read The Hobbit to the boys during an air-raid?'
[LORD PETER:] 'Yes, I remember that.'
[HARRIET:] 'That's him -- the Merton Professor is Tolkien'

Tolkien never appears in the book, though he's referred to twice more: once as being one of several medieval scholars at Oxford -- Lewis and Tolkien and Wren*** -- who tried (unsuccessfully) to find out who wrote a damning review in the TLS, and once near the end when a new term begins and life goes on, signalled by mention of new lecture series by Lewis, Bowra, and one J. L. Austin.

So, where did Walsh get the idea that Tolkien was a misogynist?  Certainly it means she doesn't know much about Tolkien, who was well-known at Oxford from his earliest days as a tutor for being unusually welcoming of women as students**** (the exact opposite being the case with CSL, whom she treats more favorably). I suspect the truth is that Tolkien famously once expressed criticism of Sayer's novels, saying that he was thoroughly tired of both Peter and Harriet by the time of GAUDY NIGHT (a sentiment Sayer herself seems to have shared, since she only wrote one more novel in the series after that point), and that Paton Walsh is gratuitously blackening his name as a belated revenge.

By contrast, Lewis is on record saying some good things about DLS, which I think here translates into a warmer depiction, despite the fact that Lewis had some real issues with women as students. It turns out Wimsey's brother-in-law, Inspector Parker, is a SCREWTAPE and NARNIA fan who, when in Oxford, asks to visit the Eagle & Child so he can see the great man go by -- not to meet or talk to or anything like that, but just to see in the flesh. This reminded me of Cripsin's famous "There goes C. S. Lewis -- it must be Tuesday". Perhaps there's now a tradition of characters in mysteries seeing CSL coming or going to that pub (if two examples seventy years apart can form a 'tradition').

As for Elaine Griffiths, it's nice to see a fictional portrayal of someone who played a key role in THE HOBBIT reaching a publisher, even if Walsh's apparent desire to honor an old friend does lead her to present Griffiths as the pre-eminant Old English scholar in all of Oxford, which one very much suspects was simply not the case.

As for Paton Walsh's portrayal of JRRT, technically you can't libel a dead man, so we need to come up for a new word for posthumous blackening someone's reputation with falsehoods. 

--John R.
current reading: THE LATE SCHOLAR by Jill Paton Walsh (2014) [just finished]
IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER by Ian Hamilton (1988)

*spoiler alert:
Duke's Denver catches fire, Peter's brother the duke dies of a heart attack while trying to save it, and Peter inherits the dukedom and family home, or what's left of it.


***sic; presumably she means Tolkien's successor as Rawlinson-Bosworth Professor, fellow Inkling C. L. Wrenn

****for the evidence of this, see my forthcoming essay "The Missing Women", which I delivered at Kalamazoo last year.