Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Return of Poke-em-with-a-Stick Wednesday (Franklin Graham)

So, today saw the news that Franklin Graham, son and heir of the late Billy Graham's evangelical empire, has give up on Republicans, Democrats, and Tea Party-ers alike. Instead he's calling for Xians to run for local office. The goal seems to be to urge "godly men and women" to seek secular power in order to impose a kind of Xian sharia law  (or, in his phrase, "uphold biblical values").

To put it another way, his goal is to unseparate church and state. To subordinate the political to the religious. Which, to my way of thinking, wd be disastrous for the church side of the equation. Trying to channel faith into the pursuit of political power hasn't worked out too well in the past. History has shown pretty clearly that Xianity shows its best side under adversity and has been at its worst when it held temporal power. Do we really want to go down that dark road again?

Here's the link:


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Day at Elliott Bay

So, while mourning bookstores lost, it's good to also celebrate good bookstores that are still with us. And in the case of Elliott Bay Books, which wd certainly have to go on anyone's list of Seattle's best, they seem to be thriving in what I still think of as their new location, atop Capitol Hill. Despite being inconveniently located for us down here in Kent, I make it a point to visit at least once a year, usually around my birthday.Their fantasy/science fiction section is fine, but what I really go for is to look through their shelves on prehistory, early history, and mythology, all of which are excellent. I never fail to find some intriguing book I didn't know about on their well-stocked shelves. This year's new acquisitions are a nicely mixed group:

I. THE SPECTACLE OF THE LATE MAYA COURT: REFLECTIONS ON THE MURALS OF BONAMPAK by Mary Miller & Claudia Brittenham [2013]. A huge coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated, with extensive commentary describing the murals and putting them in context. In many cases they reproduce images twice on the same page: once in color (to see the beauty of the artwork) and once in black and white (for better clarity of seeing what's being shown, given how badly the murals are damaged). Not so much a book for sitting down and reading through as for leaving open and mulling over, occasionally dipping in to read sections and slowly absorb the whole.

II. ROYAL CITIES OF THE ANCIENT MAYA by Michael D. Coe (text) and Barry Brukoff (photography). Another coffee-table book, but this time of a more manageable size. Again it was really the pictures that attracted me here: I've never seen a book on Mayan ruins that so strongly conveyed what it'd be like to be in each of these places. This one is text-light and about half the weight and size of the previous book, so I'll definitely be reading it as well as enjoying the images.

III. LONDON FOG [2015] by Christine L. Corton. A rather odd topic for a book: the great London Fog, particularly during its height in the last half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, when millions of coal fires in homes combined with river mists and industrial pollution to create  a toxic yellow smog, so thick that at times when out walking in it you wouldn't be able to see your own feet. The book is full of really striking photos and paintings depicting what the fog looked like. both from within and without. Looks to be an interesting read.

IV. CONSTELLATION MYTHS by Eratosthenes and Hyginus, tr. Robin Hard. Ever wonder where all those stories about who became what constellation and why came from? Me neither, but it turns out that at least part of the answer is these works. This one was frankly an impulse buy, thinking it'd be a good book to read in snatches spread out over as long a period of time as it took.

V. A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION: ROMAN BRITAIN, by Peter Salway. Background reading for my current project; I was drawn by a brief discussion of curse tablets, something that's directly relevant to the Nodens evidence. I've started in reading this and already come across a number of interesting things I didn't know, so picking it up was definitely worthwhile.

In addition, there were some runner-ups wh. I might have picked up had the above not already strained the budget: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CELTIC MYTH (which on a quick skim didn't look to contain anything I didn't already know about Nodens), AFTER YORKTOWN (which focused on the two remaining years the international wars we think of as 'the American Revolution' continued after we dropped out of it), and YURIE: THE JAPANESE GHOST (a look at a spooky bit of folklore that sometimes impinges on various anime or manga but which I don't know first-hand other than in obvious sources like Lafcadio Hearn).

And then aside from the Elliott Bay books, some other new arrivals came by post: two 'C. S. Lewis Mysteries' by Kel Richards: C. S. LEWIS AND THE CORPSE IN THE CELLAR (retitled here 'The Corpse in the Cellar') and C. S. LEWIS AND THE COUNTRY HOUSE MURDERS (retitled just 'The Country House Murders'). I learned of these through David Bratman's posts (which I'm no longer able to find the link for, unfortunately). Each attempts (and, I think, fails) to both present a mystery novel in the mode of the 'golden age' while alternating the mystery-solving with theological discussions between CSL and the callow narrator. Richards apparently is fond of writing mysteries using real-life people as his detectives: in addition to this C. S. Lewis series (of which a third has either been published or is soon to be so, and a fourth on the way) there's also at least two books in which his version of G. K. Chesterton solves mysteries. Plus he has several Sherlock Holmes books to his credit (or otherwise, as the case may be), some of them supernatural. And one or two books of apologetics without the fictional guise.

In brief: not the worst Inklings-as-characters novels, but in the bottom half of the list.

The only other new arrival is TOLKIEN AMONG THE MODERNS, ed. Ralph C. Woods. I'd ordered this thinking it'd be interesting to see Tolkien treated as a Modernist (like Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, et al) or anti-Modernist (like Orwell, Larkin, &c). On first glance, however, I can't seem to grasp their definition of modernism -- one essay compares Tolkien to Cervantes (a contemporary of Shakespeare, and hence 'modern' only by a very generous definition); another deals with Nietzsche (later nineteenth century), another with Iris Murdoch (a younger contemporary of Tolkien's who's actually closer to Postmodern than Modern, if we're going by how academia breaks up English literature). There is one piece on Joyce and Tolkien, which is pretty much the only example of the sort of essay I thought wd make up the entire book. In the end I have to admit that a quick glance has left me at a loss as to their definition of Modernism is or how it relates to Tolkien's work. Perhaps a more thorough examination later on will bring clarity.

current Kindle: CARTER & LOVECRAFT by Jonathan Howard.
current viewing: various old DOCTOR WHOs.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bookstore Lost (Milwaukee's Renaissance)

So, thanks to Janice (and also Doug) for sharing the news from Milwaukee that the city's years-long struggle to condemn the legendary Renaissance Books has finally succeeded.

This is sad news, since that's long been a Milwaukee landmark and was the last of the old, run-down, over-stuffed,  jumbled bookstores that downtown Milwaukee was well-stocked with when I first moved up there. Renaissance Books, in an old warehouse alongside the river, was four floors of shelves with books everywhere, many of them decades old. Here's where I stocked up on misc. volumes of James Branch Cabell and filled out my working library of Dunsany books from the library discards on their shelves (the latter appeared a few days after a library sale in which they'd snatched them up for a nickel a volume at the very start of the library sale, then offered them for sale the next week at $10). They also had a smallish area of records, at which I got one or two albums (I think the two Danny Kirwan's solo albums I have came from here).

All this was great, but leaves out the other side: that the building was basically derelict. "Ramshackle" barely begins to describe it: leaning walls, sagging staircases where the steps were only attached on one side, having come off the other; cracks in the wall, floors that tilted. In its latter days, things got worse: books spilling off shelves to lie scattered on the floor and I think they put the top floor off-limits as too unsafe to walk across.

And then there was their bizarre policy of not putting prices in books. Instead, they'd make up a price when you brought the book up to check-out. You'd hand them whatever book(s) you wanted to buy, and they'd glance them over, size you up, and come up with a price. Sometimes it sound fair and sometimes not; I put a lot of books I wanted back because I thought they were asking too much. The whole practice might have fitted in well in a Moroccan market, but I found it endlessly annoying in a Milwaukee bookshop.

All of which made it all the more amazing when Renaissance opened up a branch in the Milwaukee airport (Mitchell Field). It was full of interesting books, like the motherstore, but here they were well-organized, well-shelved, and priced, all in a clean and well-lit room. It quickly became my favorite airport bookstore anywhere, bar none: I stop in there every chance I get when passing to or through Milwaukee.

So, I guess the cry shd be: Renaissance Books is dead; long live Renaissance Books.

But I do hate the thought of all those old books being bulldozed and ending up in a landfill.

--John R.
current reading: Kel Richards' THE COUNTRY HOUSE MURDERS [2014]

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Thought


The Thought: This book reminded me of TWILIGHT, but not in a good way.

--John R.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Cat Report (W.12/16-15)

With poor Sams and Sugar back at the main shelter to get treatment for their colds, and the recent string of adoptions (CoCo came and went without my ever seeing her), we had just three cats in the cat-room this morning: ZOE GIRL (white and black, fluffy), Mr. DERMOT (fluffy black tuxedo cat), and newcomer FLUFFY (a sort of cream-colored tortoiseshell with very intense blue eyes).  

I started out by offering Zoe and Dermot walks, but both were too scared of the Big Room Outside and asked to come back inside immediately. Oddly enough, Dermot seemed particularly worried at the sound of birds in the distance (they're going to get me!).

Back in the room Zoe settled on the cat-stand near the cabinet while Mr. Dermot moved around a lot. At first he stayed near the door — sometimes on the floor, sometimes on a cat-stand, before shifting to Up High in a box on the cagetops (he knows all about using the steps). Before going up there Dermot let me put him in my lap at one point and purred. I discovered he has dirty ears and cleaned one of them for him, which he didn’t appreciate. He also has a sore on his chin that we’ll need to keep an eye on. Dermot loves games of all sorts, but seems to like feather games best. At one point I had the feathers on a fishing pole swinging back and forth between Zoe at one end of the room and Dermot at the other both batting at it when it came by. But I think his favorite was crunching down on the peacock feather, which is now somewhat worse for wear.

As for Zoe, she sometimes played and sometimes snoozed, sometimes purred and sometimes batted away the extended hand — in short, a typical Zoe-morning. She’s no fan of Dermot but is willing to ignore his existence for the most part, content with a hiss or growl if he gets too close. Her favorite game turned out once again to be the string game, which had her running back and forth the length of the cat-room as well as tearing up her favorite cat-stand in hot pursuit. With Fluffy hidden behind her blankets and Dermot hard to spot up high in his box, Zoe got most of the attention from passers-by.

Our newest arrival, Miss Fluffy, is very shy. She stayed in all morning, hidden under the blankets in her cube but eventually let me re-arrange things so she could peep out without being too exposed. Twice she came over to her food dish and ate a little while being petted. She was adamant about not coming out, so I straightened and cleaned her cube around her. Later on she expressed an interest in joining in with games, so long as it didn’t involve coming out of her cube. She likes the feathers best, but thought string games good too; her favorite seemed to be the gopher game. Interesting to note that Fluffy perked up when Willie arrived for the early afternoon shift and looked much more alert and confident.

heath issues: none, other than Dermot’s ears, and Dermot’s chin.

—John R.

P.S.: Not having written up or posted a cat report for a while, here are the names of other cats who have passed through the Cat Room since I posted last: Mr. Apollo, Lucee, Suri Reese, Hopkins, Grimsley (aka 'Grimsley Addams'), Tazz, Trouble, & Thumper; Louie Louie, Houdini ('Houdin'), James Dean ('Dean'), Miss Timmie, Opus ('Opie'), Purdy Samms & Sugar Baby; Chase & Deuce.

I'm particularly happy that Mr. Apollo, a majestic fluffy grey cat with a lot of presence, found a home after what seemed a long wait; came down to see him one last time when he came by Banfield (the vet's inside PetsMart) to get his checkup a few days after his adoption. Here's hoping that it's Miss Zoe-Girl's turn soon. Also that Samms and Sugar, a bonded pair (Samms is the ten-year-old son of thirteen-year-old Sugar), feel better soon; Samms had been an enthusiastic walker when he first arrived, so his disinterest in going out last week, along with Sugar's lethargy, was a bad sign. It's hard for cats to be looking for a home at that age, so hoping they're soon well and back in the adoption room in hopes of making that right connection with just the right person.


Friday, December 11, 2015

A Bullet Dodged

So, it was with foreboding that I read the news flash about an active shooter on the campus of Arkansas State University.  Luckily, in this case the first responders talked the person down from using either his shotgun or setting off the two propane tanks he'd brought with him.  Here's the initial report from yesterday:

Have to admit that this one hit home, because I used to live in Jonesboro, just off-campus. And though I haven't been back in decades, I still remember it well, and it's chilling to combine those memories with these current events. I had a bit of that feeling at the time of the murders in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, having just been there a few months ago attending this year's MythCon. But it's different for tragedy to strike a place you've visited once and for the threat to fall on a place where you've lived.

The year we spent in Jonesburo was one of the most miserable in my life, but I do have some good memories from then, and I'm grateful that in this one case tragedy was averted. Time we got serious about getting rid of guns and put an end to this tragedy-of-the-week cycle we're currently trapped in.

--John R.

P.S.: Here's a brief follow-up story.

Colbert again

So. Here's more on the Colbert proudly self-identifying as One Of Us (i.e., someone obsessed with Tolkien), a seven-minute clip in which he not only names THE SILMARILLION as his favorite book but mentions reading second-tier Tolkien works such as FARMER GILES OF HAM (a particular favorite of mine), SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR, and LEAF BY NIGGLE and name-drops people and places such as Arathorn, Lothlorien, Luthien, Beren, and the dungeons of Sauron.

Later in the clip it gets a little weird when it segues into Colbert-as-Atticus-Finch.

Thanks to Janna (forwarded via Janice) for the link.

P.S. Bonus points to Colbert for describing baseball as "like watching grass grow [but] with people
in the way"

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The New Arrival (Studies in Celtic Heathendom)

So, yesterday another of those old books I tend to acquire when researching a piece arrived, the curiously titled  LECTURES ON THE ORIGIN AND GROWTH OF RELIGION AS ILLUSTRATED BY CELTIC HEATHENDOM by John Rhys.* This copy is from the original printing in 1888, based on the 1886 Hibbert Lectures. While old, it's in pretty good shape, and I'm pleased to see two previous owners have written their names in it -- one an old signature, probably of the same era as the book itself, the other being a much more recent bookplate. Mine has now joined them as the third in the series. There's a copy of this book in Suzzallo-Allen, which I've looked through years ago the first time I thought of tackling this project, but it's much more handy to have the book at home ready of access anytime I might need it, rather than being at the mercy of anyone who can get it recalled if they want a look at it (students and faculty of U.W. quite rightly coming before 'friends of the library' like myself).

For the curious, here's the Rhys book in its proper sequence among the other pieces I've assembled over the years which shd between them provide the key sources for my current piece:

by the Rev. Wm Hiley Bathurst (1879)

by John Rhys (1888)

by Arthur Machen (1890)

by T. E. Ellis (1922)

by H. P. Lovecraft (1926)

by R. E. M. & T. V. Wheeler (1932)

Just out of curiosity, can anyone spot the common thread among them?

--John R.
current reading: THE INN AT CORBIES' CAWW (Flieger), A NOBLE CAUSE (Doug Niles)

*this is the same John Rhys whose book CELTIC BRITAIN is probably Tolkien's source for the word 'Ond'/Gond (stone).

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Kickstarter I'm Backing

So, I don't do many Kickstarters -- for one thing, they tend to be on the pricy side and game purchases cut into the buying-books-on-Tolkien budget. And for another I'm not v. plugged in these days to what new projects are currently live (even in the TSR days I was the last to hear any rumor going round).

But there's one project I plan to make an exception for: Scott Gable's THE FAERIE RING. Here's the link describing the project:

This has been in the works for a long time (I did some editing work on it, or perhaps an earlier form of it, years ago) and I'm glad it's now well on its way to seeing the light of day.

The reason I liked it so much was (1st) that it was well-written and (2nd) that it struck me as an original take on the material. I've read a LOT of rpg material based on fairy lore -- after all it's one of the core elements of D&D from the original MONSTERS & TREASURE booklet (1974) onward, as well as being one of the core source-streams that flowed together to make modern fantasy.* But I found Scott's interpretation interesting and disturbing, and he makes some connections that I think are unique, such as linking the Fir Bolg (who are usually treated as just the hapless folk who got caught between the Formorians and the Tuatha de Danaan) to the Wild Hunt.

So, this is one time I'm going to take the plunge and support an interesting-sounding Kickstarter.  They're currently at about one-third what they need to fund the project, with twenty-two days to go. I'll post an update later about how it goes.


*along with medievalism and mythology

The Perils of Resembling Gollum

So, here's one of those weird cases when Tolkien and things related to Tolkien have a major effect on the real world.

Some time ago, a Turkish doctor named Bilgin Ciftci posted pictures of Andy Serkis's Gollum, as he appeared in Peter Jackson's LotR films and the first HOBBIT movie, alongside similar pictures of the Turkish president, Mr. Erdogan, poking fun at the president by drawing attention to the similarities between the way Erdogan and Gollum look.

Trouble is, turns out it's illegal in Turkey to criticize the president, or even to make fun of him. Thus not only has Dr. Ciftci lost his job but he now faces a jail sentence of up to two years.

Dr. Ciftci's defense is to deny that Gollum is an evil character or indeed a bad person, so that comparing him to Erdogan wouldn't be an insult. The judge, being no expert in JRRT's works (nor indeed it seems of film), has decided to appoint a panel consisting of "two academics, two behavioural scientists or psychologists and an expert on cinema and television productions" to consider the matter and report back to him with their literary judgment. With Dr. Ciftci's freedom hanging in the balance depending on what they conclude, their interpretation of the character. Here's a link to how the story was reported in the Turkish press:

Sir Peter has weighed in with the well-intentioned claim that what Ciftci posted are not pictures of Gollum but instead of Smeagol. This is a fascinating argument in itself, since it hinges on being able to tell, from visual clues, which half of a split personality is foremost at a particular given moment. I don't think there's any precedent for this, where a person's freedom hinged on such an intricate piece of literary/filmic interpretation.

In any case, it makes my mind boggle is that Tolkien has now become so mainstream that interpretations of his characters are now the subject of legal cases, with the stakes over the outcome including jailtime.

Here's a link to one version among many of the story, this one highlighting Jackson's efforts on Ciftci's behalf:

--John R.

P.S.: By the way, it looks as if Dr. Ciftci lives in Aydin, a place with a lot of history (like most of Turkey) -- in Biblical (New Testament) times it was called Antioch; further back it was a Lydian city, home to the river Meander (which figures in Homer).

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Peter Jackson yanks our chain

So, I forget if it was Stan or Steve or Jeff who  told me about the teaser clip making the rounds hinting that Peter Jackson was going to be directing an upcoming episode of DOCTOR WHO, but it was definitely Janice who provided me with the link (for which thanks):

What I hadn't been told, until I saw the clip for myself, was the nudge-nudge wink-wink  Jackson had worked in for Tolkien fans: that's a copy of THE SILMARILLION on the desk in front of him. It's hard to see at first, but around mid-clip Jackson's daughter while pretending to look for her dad's glasses on the table picks the book up and waves it around, setting it down more conspicuously where we can see the stick-up notes marking pages in it.

Yes, stick-up notes. As if Jackson were marking it up for some hypothetical Silmarillion movie.  Which isn't going to happen, but which he apparently gets asked about enough that he thought it worth including a tease in this clip.

All of which aside, it'll be interesting to see what Sir Peter does with DOCTOR WHO: the current Doctor is doing a good job in the role (as is Jenna Coleman as his companion, Clara), albeit struggling with oft-mediocre scripts. Here's hoping his second season is an improvement (the first episode, the only one I've seen so far, bodes well).

--John R.

P.S.: Here's a somewhat longer version of the clip:

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ten Years

So, I forget the exact day (November 30th? December 1st?), but this week marks the tenth anniversary of my being let go from TSR/ Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro for the third and, it turns out, final time.

I was pretty unhappy about it at the time -- it was the only one of the three that I took personally -- but it turned out to be a blessing, albeit well-disguised. When I'd been laid off the previous time (about a year after Third Edition came out) I'd kept in close touch with my former co-workers and did several projects freelance for WotC* (most notably co-editing d20 CTHULHU). This time I decided, rather than going the freelance route, to devote myself full-time to completing my  edition of THE HOBBIT manuscript ('THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT'), then already many years in the works but slowed by my only being able to work on it evenings, weekends, and vacations.

Since that massive project was completed and published (and gone through two subsequent revisions) I've been really busy with other Tolkien-related projects, including several in the works right now (like the Flieger festschrift). When the schedule's allowed I've done a little rpg work as well, mostly for the good folks at Kobold (with some for SuperGenius and others). But not for WotC -- by their choice, not mine (they simply never returned any of my calls inquiring about possible freelance work). Which is a little sad, but did help me make a clean break and start anew with Tolkien as my main focus. Which has worked out really well.

So here's to celebrate ten years of doing the thing I most want to do, with hopes that I'll be able to continue doing it for a long time to come.

--John R.

*and others, including Green Ronin, Decipher, White Wolf, Guardians of Order, et al

In Moderation (2)

So, a few weeks ago I switched to moderating comments in order to screen out some annoying spam that was targetting my blog. I seem have been successful at that, but shortly afterwards comments stopped coming in altogether. I was sorry about that, as I enjoy hearing what people think, but figured it was just a dry spell.

No so, it turns out. Instead, some upgrades and changes to the old computer in attempts to keep it going seem to have shuffled all incoming comments off into a separate folder I didn't know about (instead of coming to my email in-box, as had been the case). Now that I know where they are, I've posted all the ones that had been silently piling up. I hope to be able to drop the moderating eventually but am keeping it for now, just to make sure the spam has truly gone away.

So, thanks to those who sent in a comment here, a comment there over the past month or so; sorry for the delay in getting them up.

--John R.

UPDATE (Sunday December 6th):
The spam has showed up again, so I'm afraid we'll have the posts moderated for the foreseeable future. By all means send them in; I'll make a habit of checking them daily so they get posted without undue delay.  --John R.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


So, yesterday I learned a new word for an all-too-familiar phenomenon: 'Goldfinching'. As in, the pattern that happens again and again when a book gets too popular -- like, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS about the time of the millennium polls -- and the critics come out and start bashing both the book and, more importantly, the people who read it. Weiner, the author of this particular piece, is writing specifically about fiction largely by women and largely enjoyed by women, but the behavior she sees is part of a larger pattern, perfectly familiar to those of us who championed Tolkien back in the day (or, for that matter, admired Pratchett's work before he got the knighthood, and Gaiman's before he got the Newbery).

It's an odd and regrettable fact that some people (some critics and reviewers, others academicians) believe deep, deep down that if people enjoy a work, and read it without being made to, then it can't really be literature. A good example would be Frost, who's not taught in universities the way Eliot and Pound are,* because you can read and enjoy and understand Frost without having him explained to you.**

Which is a pity, because it casts everything into mutually exclusive categories, so that those of us who admire Pound AND Larkin, Woolf AND Tolkien get it from both sides. And people who stick to one side or the other miss out on a lot of good stuff.

Luckily, the solution is easy: just sit down and read, ignoring the naysayers. There are works whose appeal is immediate and enduring, and others which take work to appreciate but reward those who put in the time and effort. Give anything that sounds interesting a try, and enjoy the results.

--John R.

Here's the link:

*at least this was the case when I was in grad school; perhaps things have changed, but I rather doubt it.

**extra points if you can name the Four Great Twentieth Century American Poets.  If you can, odds are good that you have a Masters or Ph.D in literature.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Colbert on Tolkien (Iandumoema smeagol)

So, Steven Colbert has done it again, proudly identifying himself in public as a Tolkien geek. The context this time does not involve Balrogs but spiders -- specifically the report that a newly discovered Brazilian spider is being named after Smeagol. This Iandumoema smeagol is, according to an online article, a "troglobitic harvestman" -- from which I take it it lives in caves (troglodyte) and isn't really a spider at all but a Daddy Longlegs ('harvestman'; closely related to spiders but distinct from them). Here's a picture:

Unfortunately, this little arachnid has gone from being unknown to being extremely endangered; according to the article its habitat comprises as area of "only a mere 4.6 square km".

Colbert seems to have approved of the tribute to Professsor Tolkien but took exception that they named it after Smeagol (Gollum's original name, used when he still lived on the river-bank with his grandmother) rather than Gollum (the name Bilbo gives him after several hundred years of lurking in the dark has transformed him) or, better yet, Shelob (who is of course a spider).  I wd have held out for Ungoliant myself.

Here's the Colbert clip; thanks to Janice for the link:

For two more brief glimpses of Colbert at his best, here are two brief segments in which he defends his Tolkien fan credentials against a rival (thanks to Wendell for posting these on the MythSoc list):

Finally, as a Tolkien scholar myself, I'd just point out that this isn't the first time a spider has been named after something in Tolkien's books: witness the fossil proto-spider Attercopus fimbriungis, extinct since the Devonian (H.o.H. 321).

--John R.

Monday, November 23, 2015

What I Would Have Asked Witwer (What Happened to Gygax?)

So, this past Tuesday I wanted to head up to Elliott Bay Books* and see a reading by Michael Witwer, author of the recent biography of Gary Gygax (co-creator of roleplaying games, and co-founder of TSR and thus the rpg industry).

Several of us** heard about it and made tenative plans to drive up as a group, but our plans all fell through because of the weather: dark, rainy, and with blustery winds (up to fifty miles per hour).

Still, there's one big question I've had for years, which Witwer's book didn't address, that I would have asked, had I been there and had he been taking Q&A: What happened to Gygax around 1982 that broke him as a writer?

Years ago I made up a list of every book and boxed set and sourcebook and module for D&D/AD&D, current up to about the end of 1996, giving the title, author, and date. And in the process, I noticed that for Gygax himself the years leading up to '82 are filled with milestone after milestone: Gygax's work set the industry standard, and pioneered elements in adventure design that have become the models virtually all writers who have followed him in the field have drawn from ever since. But that faltered in 1982 and ceased altogether by 1985. Just take a quick look at the highlights of what he accomplished between '74 and 82 (leaving out most of the collaborative works) :

co-created D&D (with Arneson providing the basic idea and Gygax creating most of the rules)

 co-wrote GREYHAWK, the first supplement to the original core rules

 co-wrote ELDRITCH WIZARDRY, the third supplements to the original core rules

1977-79: creates AD&D, the definitive 'classic' version of the game
  Monster Manual
  Player's Handbook
  Dungeon Master's Guide

The G-series (G1, G2, G3): Jack the Giant Killer comes to D&D, as well as the first linked series of adventures.
The D-series (D1, D2, D3): Gygax invents the drow: elves as bad guys; introduces the Underdark.
S1. Tomb of Horrors. The classic iteration of the killer dungeon.

T1. Village of Hommlet: the default village, the base to launch adventures from
B2. Keep on the Borderland: the interactive dungeon that changes in response to the PCs' activities

S3. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: not a favorite of mine but beloved of many; the first crossover adventure.
The Greyhawk folio: a minor work in itself but the harbinger of great things: the campaign setting

     1981: almost nothing

S4. Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (a neglected minor classic): a last hurrah
WG4. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (shd have been a classic but wound up merely minor)

    1983-85: extremely minor

EX1 and EX2: weak parodies of Lewis Carroll.

   1984:  nothing

WG6. Isle of the Ape: weak King Kong parody
T1-4. Temple of Elemental Evil: one of the greatest adventures ever written, but there's reason to think almost all the new material was written by Frank Mentzer, and that Gygax's contribution was limited to the reprinting of T1 and some campaign notes.

   And after that, the wheels really come off the bus.

CYBORG COMMANDO, probably the most disappointing flop in rpg history up to that point***

MYTHUS, a second major flop. Had TSR not given it notoriety by their lawsuits it would have died an embarrassing painful death on the shelf (as witnessed by the next entry).

LEJENDARY ADVENTURES, the third and final flop, after which Gygax basically retired.

So, what happened? How did Gygax go from being the greatest of rpg designers, to tossing off little parodies, to someone putting his name on other people's work? The glory years of 1977-1980 may well have been, and probably were, unsustainable, but the falling-off is more drastic than we wd expect from mere burnout. If it'd been estrangement from D&D after he was shuffled out of TSR (first off to Hollywood and then out altogether), why was there no rebound when he was free to do whatever he wanted? Was it the drugs? The ego, after he had 'gone Hollywood'? Some otherwise undetected minor stroke, years before the major strokes that wrecked his health? Or are editors and collaborators like Mike Carr and Frank Mentzer rarer than you'd think?

At any rate, I think the break is definitely there, though the reasons behind it may remain murky. For my part, I've come over the years to appreciate the classic stage of Gygax's career, and his achievements then, rather than let the latter and much lesser work distract from them.

--John R.

*which is not on Elliott Bay
**including several who had worked at TSR, one of whom had worked with Gygax
***you know it's a bad sign when a review of the game starts with a spirited defense against charges that this is the worst rpg ever written

The New Machine

So, I have a new laptop.

There may be some hiccups as I get used to new features, unexpected presets/default, and the like,* so bear with me over the next few days.

Plus I now have my new glasses (both pair, the near and the far), with adjustments going on there as well as I get used to being able to see better than I could just a short time ago. Which is nice, but still disorienting.

--John R.

current viewing: some more Pink Floyd documentaries and some Monty Python. I've now finished skimming the documentaries accompanying THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES and the extra/enhanced scenes therein and will now be turning to watching the full extended edition of the movie itself.

*my old machine lasted six years, so I have a lot of catching up to do

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Wife Says

Here's a post Janice made a few days ago that I thought I'd share:

Races in Kent WA - "White alone 48.4%". That's right kids. I live in a minority-majority community and have for years. And refugees? We've got them. Somali, Iraqi, Afghani, Burmese, Nepalese, Ukrainian, Russian, and I'm sure I'm leaving out a few. And then there are the immigrants from India, Korea, China, Vietnam, England, Mexico, etc, etc, and etc. Are there Muslims in my community? You bet there are. I see them everyday. We also have Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists. We have Christian churches, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and Muslim mosques. We don't have a Jewish synagog but Tukwila and Des Moines are just up the road.
You know what we haven't had even 1 of? A terrorist incident. 
Do I expect Syrian refugees to be resettled just up the street from me? Yes I do. Does that bother me? No it doesn't. Because experience tells me that the vast majority of them will work very hard to make better lives for themselves and their families. There will be some lazy butt whiners in the mix but that's true of any group of people.
So good on you Governor Jay Inslee. I was beginning to worry that we'd have to strike "home of the brave" from the Star Spangled Banner. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"The Dear Bishop's Tuesdays"

So, I was dipping into one of Warnie Lewis's books today (THE SUNSET OF THE SPLENDID CENTURY), and came across a passage that I think suggests more than it says.

Here's the passage in question; WHL is describing the shortcomings and character flaws of Louis Auguste de Bourbon, better known as the Duc du Maine, one of The Sun King's legitimized illegitimate children:

[Had he been made an Abbott] his life  would
have worked itself out in the service of his order. 
Even happier perhaps had he been the Bishop 
of some not very important See, for he shares with 
Cowper and Richardson something of their chaste craving 
for constant and intimate female companionship. His piety, 
his conversational charm, the very shyness which so 
handicapped him in the world, would in more fortunate 
circumstances have made him the focal point 
and oracle of a circle of elderly ladies 
-- "the dear Bishop's Tuesdays" -- 
we can almost hear the conversation
[pages 96-97]

What's striking about this is that WHL seems to me to be holding young Louis (and the poet Cowper. and the novelist Richardson), in contempt for preferring the society of women over that of men. Perhaps we need look no further into the question people sometimes raise about why there were no women in the Inklings.

--John R.
current watching: more BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES dvd extras.

My Sime

So, a few weeks ago I learned from Jim Lowder (thanks Jim) that a major Dunsany collection was being auctioned off. Too rich for my blood, as they say, but my attention was fixed by one side-item: an original piece of artwork by the great Sidney (S. H.) Simes. I consulted the budget and, having been saving up for something else, I decided I cd just manage a bid if it came in at the bottom of their estimated price. It did. So I've been anxiously awaiting its arrival day-by-day ever since. And today it came.

It's not one of his Dunsany pieces, the art that made him famous  (and for good reason: those Dunsany himself bought, and they're hanging in Dunsany castle*).  But it's a stiking image nonethless: a dark, moodly little sketch of a waterfall, only about as big as a Kindle, done not on canvas but panel (i.e., a piece of wood). I'll have  to arrange to have it properly framed, and possibly cleaned/conserved as well. I already know just where I want to hang it.

It's not often that you get the chance to find an original piece by one of your favorite artists: today is a good day.

Now if only someone would start selling replicas of Clark Ashton Smith's little sculptures . . .

--John R.
current viewing: MOCKINGJAY (part one), THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES extras
current reading: THE INN AT CORBIES'S CAWW

*or at least were when I was there in '87

P. S. : Here's what the piece looks like. Evocative, isn't it? It looks like a place that shd have a story behind it, except there's no story (unlike his famous work with Dunsany on THE BOOK OF WONDER, where Sime drew the drawings and then Dunsany wrote stories inspired by them).

Saturday, November 14, 2015

By Hand

No, my post title's not a reference to the neglected classic THE PUSHCART WAR, by Jean Merrill (1964). Instead, it's about the hummingbird on Monday.

There have been a few times when the hummingbirds came up and fed out of the feeder while I was holding it, but it hasn't happened for a long time. So when I went out and took down both feeders to clean and fill them, upon my return I found an impatient hummingbird hovering near the dowel their feeders hang from, waiting for me to get on with it. I decided to see just how impatient it was, and held out the feeders in its direction. After flittering about suspiciously for a few seconds, it dove right in and helped itself. It would take a swig, back up and eye me, move back in for another sip, over and over until it'd had its fill and moved off, whereupon I hung up both feeders and went back inside.

This was not the only notable bird behavior of the week. The crows have been keeping a sharp eye out for my comings and goings since things have turned cool and rainy. One morning a few days ago I was tossing them some (shelled) peanuts from the balcony, making a clicking noise as I often do to call them, when one of them started making the same noise back at me. So we had a bit of a conversation, which I think went something like this:

(me) here's something for you to eat
(the crow) please, may we have some more?
(me) certainly. here you go
(the crow) thank you very much

And then there's the chickadees. I've seen them several times coming to the hummingbird feeder, I think trying to work out what kind of feeder it is and whether it has anything that's any good from a non-hummingbird's point of view.* I mentioned the crows' monitoring my comings and goings; today, a chickadee joined in. I was walking down to the mail kiosk to mail off some disks and see if anything interesting had arrived,** rescuing a few worms on the way. As usual the crows followed hopefully to see if peanuts might make a sudden appearance. That's when I noticed that a chickadee was following along and watching my activities as well, keeping its distance from the bigger birds. I suspect it did some gleaning after the crows had had their go, and wonder if this is the first time it's done this or if I just never noticed it before.

Finally, though I'm not the one who saw it, Janice reported that a few days ago she looked out and saw an orange cat under one of the trees downstairs, watching the finch feeder carefully. A little later it'd moved to directly under the finch feeder, looking up.  Since we didn't find a little pile of feathers down there the next day, we assume no tragedy happened (aside from the cat, a relative newcomer whom we assume belongs to one of our neighbors, having been a frustrated predator)

--John R.
current dvd: MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS, a documentary on the early history of Pink Floyd, Mark Twain Tonight
current reading: THE BURIED GIANT by Kazoo Ishiguro (awful)
current listening: Pink Floyd's "One of These Days", which sounds an awful lot like their version of the DOCTOR WHO theme.

*especially now that the yellow jackets seem to have given up the ghost; haven't seen one in over a week. It wdn't surprise me if one or two comes by on warmer days even into the winter, but they're effectively done for the season.

**I have something really interesting that's supposed to be on the way; more on this when it arrives

Monday, November 9, 2015

Fingers at Five

So, Friday I had a visit to the eye doctor for the first time in at least three years (it'd been so long that the doctor I'd seen last time has retired and they've moved the clinic to a new building across the street). I'd been having a lot of trouble with my eyes these past few months, both short-range vision (reading, using the computer) and long-range (seeing where I'm going, driving, and just about everything else), so a visit seemed overdue.

As expected, the verdict is that I need a new prescription, both for near- and -far vision. The good news is that I finally get to abandon bifocals (or 'progressive lenses' as they're called now), which I've always hated and have had to put up with for forty-seven years. Instead I'm getting two separate pairs: one for short-range (reading a book, working at the laptop) and the other for everything else (also known as not-running-into-things).  But instead of one main 'progressive' set and one non-progressive reading set I'll now have one for near and the other for far, pure and simple.

The unexpected news was that the reason I've been having problems with the ranged vision, such as it is, is that my long-range vision has slightly improved, so that my old glasses no longer quite match what I need. That's never happened before. I always assumed my eyes would keep getting worse and worse, since this is the experience I've had ever since I started wearing glasses in third grade (and had confirmed every time I've visited an eye doctor from the age of ten onwards). Imagine my surprise when they'd told me last visit that they thought my eyes would stabilize over the next decade or so and then actually begin to improve somewhat. That prediction now looks to have been on the mark: my new long-distance/general duty glasses will actually have a slightly weaker prescription than my current pair. Weird. But welcome. Even so, it'll take longer for my distance-vision pair of replacement glasses to arrive: they have to send off for the lenses.

As for the near-vision set, I find that I belong to the category my eye doctor refers to as "very nearsighted". I asked where I fit on the 20/20 scale. He said that with the glasses I was 20/25. And without them? He said I'm  what they call "fingers at five". He demonstrated, taking one step back and holding up two fingers. Then he took another step back and whatever number of fingers he held up I can't tell you. As he said, very nearsighted -- though, oddly enough, its

And yes, I still have elongated eyes (apparently a side-effect of the near-sightedness). Which gives me a bit of sympathy for Smeagol and his 'long eyes'.

And now, to await the arrival of the two new pairs of glasses!

--John R.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

60 Minutes D&D Piece

So, while reading a (mostly negative) review of the new Wilwer biography of Gary Gygax on the NEW YORKER site,* I came across a link to the old 60 MINUTES segment on D&D, which I think dates from around 1985. I've often heard about this but never had the chance to see it, so it was interesting to finally have the chance. It wasn't as bad as I'd been told: they basically interview Pat Pulling and Th. Radecki of the anti-D&D movement on the one hand and Gygax with a TSR spokesman on the other. It's not a hit piece so much as credulous, assuming that with this much smoke there must be fire. Had they actually done into investigation into the claims they wd have found them to be bogus, so it's a failure of due diligence on CBS's part. Still, it's nice to see the Gygax bits, and also to see (and hear) Ed Bradley again, my favorite of all the 60 MINUTES crew back in the day.

Thomas Edward Radecki,

Here's the link to the whole piece; sorry about the poor resolution of the video:

--John R.
current reading: still the Montague LOVECRAFT
current viewing: a documentary about Pink Floyd (a group about whose early days I was previously uninformed).

Thanks to Monte for the link.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

My Newest Publication: book review

So, one of the things that's kept me busy lately is working on a book review, my first contribution to the online JOURNAL OF TOLKIEN RESEARCH. It's now finished (at last!) and up on their website. Here's the link to the journal

and here's the one that shd lead directly to my piece.


Feedback welcome.  --JDR

current reading: H. P. LOVECRAFT: THE MYSTERIOUS MAN BEHIND THE DARKNESS by Charlotte Montague, 2015


Friday, October 23, 2015

The New Arrivals (Five Books)

So, last week was one of those weeks when a bunch of things, ordered at diverse times over a long period, all arrived in rapid succession.

First was Grevel Lindop's new biography of Charles Williams, CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING. Years in the making, this promises to be the default biography of Wms henceforward. Just opening it at random a half-dozen times, I found out things I didn't know at each dipping (such as J. W. Dunne's probable influence on THE PLACE OF THE LION). Really looking forward to reading this one, when there's time to devote to it.*

That was Tuesday; Wednesday brought Wayne & Christina's new book, THE ART OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a handsome slipcased companion volume to their earlier THE ART OF THE HOBBIT. That book did an excellent job of presenting Tolkien's art, maps, and sketches for his earlier book, and this looks to repeat the performance with an equally impressive treatment of its sequel. There are more maps and fewer drawings this time around, just from the nature of the material, but that's just the nature of what Tolkien created for this book. There's a lot here I've never seen before, so I'm looking forward to working my way carefully through the book, at a slow enough pace to enjoy the individual pieces.**

Another Wednesday arrival was Verlyn Flieger's new book, her edition of THE STORY OF KULLERVO, JRRT's first story, an adaptation from the KALEVALA along with Tolkien's essay on the latter and her own essay explaining these materials. All this appeared in TOLKIEN STUDIES a few years ago, but it's really nice to have it as a slim standalone volume. And I'm glad to see the publisher used Tolkien's own artwork for the cover (as is right & proper).

Either also Wednesday, or perhaps Thursday, came a (used) copy of Joseph Pearce's collected essays and reviews, LITERARY GIANTS, LITERARY CATHOLICS (2005), which I wanted to consult for something I was working on but which looks to have some interesting odds and ends in it as well, such as a short memoir of Owen Barfield. ***

And finally Friday brought either the missing or replacement copy of TOLKIEN STUDIES Volume X, so that my set is now finally complete (or complete once more, depending). It's nice to have a full set of such a major resource.

So, quite a week. By contrast, no books at all have arrived through the mail this week. Just serendipitous

--John R.

*for those in England, according to a posting on the MythSoc list Lindop is giving a talk on Wms this coming Tuesday (Oct 27th) at Wolfson College (Grevel Lindop, "Unveiling an Esoteric Life: Writing the Biography of Charles Williams").

**I consider it a good sign that yesterday I saw it in the local Barnes & Noble, on the Tolkien shelves.

***have to admit, though, that I can only identify five of the six figures on his dust jacket: Tolkien, Dante, Wilde, Chesterton, and Shakespeare (who probably wasn't Catholic). Belloc, perhaps?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dr. Caligari

Well, I know where I'd be Monday night,* were the timing not appalling: at Silent Movie Monday down at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle, watching a screening of the silent movie classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. I've seen this on video, years ago, but never on a big screen,  the way it was intended to be shown.  It impressed me as the only silent horror film I've seen which is still disturbing. Most, like NOSFERATU, have too many bits which are deliberately silly, where the ham acting badly undercutting any horror element. CALIGARI has its overdone bits too, but between its story and its unsettling set design manages to pack quick a punch, even almost a century later.  If you have the chance, check it out.

--John R.
today's song: "Dogs" (from Animals, by Pink Floyd)

*thanks to posters and postcards for it I picked up at Trader Joe's today.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Cat Report (Sept/Oct)

A bunch of the cats being up at Arlington being treated for their colds, we had just two cats in the Tukwila cat room this morning, though at noon one of these left to go back to the shelter and three new ones arrived, bringing our current total up to four: 

Mr. APOLLO (our long gray-haired King of the Roost) 

THUMPER (a five-month old grey tabby kitten)

ZOE GIRL (not to be confused with our own Zoe [Zippy Zoe] from a while back; this is a white with grey three-year old) and 

SURI REESE (a black-and-white tuxedo cat; at nine-and-a-half the oldest cat in the room)

It having been some time since I did a cat report, thought i'd do an overview of the past few weeks, just to orient myself. When I got back from my trip to the MidWest I found three cats in the cat room (9/16): 

BRIE (whom I already knew): v. short-haired roly-poly grey cat of strong opinions, the strongest of which was that other cats shd keep their distance. 

APOLLO a beautiful, fluffy cat with an amazingly thick tail, still a bit shy from having not yet found his bearings.

Mr. MURDOCH: another beautiful cat, sociable and full of self-confidence, who had a most excellent time with the string game and also expressed his entire approval of the paper bag with catnip in it. 

When the four kittens arrived (PRECIOUS, SQUISHY, BENGAL, & TROUBLE), they watched Murdoch play from a respectful distance, making me think he'd laid down the law to them on an earlier meeting.

The next week (9/23), it was no surprise that Murdoch had been adopted in the meantime, leaving just  BRIE and APOLLO for the morning (w. the kittens arriving towards noon). Apollo was feeling a little more confident and was out and about more.

This was the week that I finally figured out Brie. She has two moods, linked to two places. If she's on the floor beneath the taller cat-stand near the door, she's v. territorial, warning the other cats off with strategic hisses and growls. When she's atop that cat-stand she's a happy camper: feeling no one can sneak up on her she completely relaxes. Took them both for a walk, wherein I discovered that Apollo gives out tiny little mews when nervous and that Brie does indeed have the most delightful deep, loud purr. After the walks Apollo retired into the box with catnip in it while Brie went back atop her cat-stand, from which she got combed, which she liked, and brushed, which she liked, and a bath (with a wet washcloth) followed by a towel-dry (with a dry washcloth), all of which taken together made her just melt and purr, purr, purr.

The week after that (9/30) two new cats had arrived, FELICITY ("little miss white whiskers") and LOUIE. Plus, of course, the kittens. Oddly enough, Louie, who's a young cat (about three), looks and acts more like a senior cat, maybe from having had a hard life (he's missing some of his teeth), while Felicity, who's about double his age, acts like a young cat. Apollo didn't approve of the newcomers, so Louie Louie went high and Felicity went onto the top shelf in the cabinet and purred; later she went exploring. Both Louie and Felicity expressed a preference for the kittens' litter, both sneaking into the kittens' cage at some point to use their box.

The week after that (10/7) saw the same four cats and the same four kittens. All the grown-up cats had walks. Louie Louie surprised me by being the best walker of them all. He went as far as the loading dock, which he explored carefully. Both he and Felicity were v. sweet. Discovered that Brie and Apollo both have a Favorite Place, and it's the same favorite place: atop the tall cat-stand near the door. This week Apollo got there first, much to Brie's displeasure; she defaulted back to her old place on the floor and her old behavior of keeping to herself aside from growling the other cats off. For his part, Apollo was sprawled atop that cat-stand, glorying in being out of all the other cats' reach. 

Did notice an endearing trait of Brie's I'd not seen before: she likes to dip her paw in a water-bowl and then lick that paw dry. Saw her to it over and over, quite deliberately. 

Last week (10/14) colds had laid low poor Louie and the kittens, while Brie had a problem with her eye and had to go to get treatment back in Arlington as well. That just left Apollo and Felicity the sole cats in possession. Felicity had a quiet day, alternating between exploring and snoozing. Apollo had uncontested sway over His Favorite Spot, making it his turn to have a towel-bath (greeted with much purring). Also discovered towards noon that Apollo loves the laser pointer. It was great fun to see him spin round and round and round at top speed in pursuit of the little red dot. So I went and got him one of his own, stopping back by later that afternoon to drop it off.

As for today (10/21), most of the morning there were just two cats: Apollo and newcomer LUCEE ('Lucille'), a little mamma cat without her kittens.  Though she's small (about half his size) and young (about a year and a half old), as soon as they were both out of their cages she charged him and chased him to the far end of the room. I picked him up and put him up high, whereupon all seemed well. She prowled a bit then settled down in the box and then back near the cabinet. Later he settled into His Favorite Spot -- turns out he knows how to use the stairs. He'd had a walk when I first arrived, mostly a carry-around with some walking here and there, v. wary. Hence my surprise when I took advantage of Cher's dropping by to take him on a second walk late in the morning. He did great! He walked on his own, going up and down the aisles, going up and flirting with people, and generally showing off his delightful sociable side. Glad to report no inappropriate swatting or nipping today, even though we had a vigorous game of gopher.  He even let me clean out his ears. He was enthused about the box with catnip, as usual, but oddly enough not that interested in the laser pointer today. I decided to hold off giving Lucille a walk until I knew her better and she'd be likely to be more comfortable with the whole idea. 

As I was leaving, three new cats arrived (see above). Lucee attacked one, reaching a paw through the bars of her cage and around the corner to do so, which was really uncalled for. In any case, she went back to Arlington; perhaps she'll have calmed down a bit by the time we see her next.

I know there were kittens that came in since last week, all of whom got adopted before I ever saw any of them: glad they found homes so quickly. I've lost track whether Felicity got adopted or is on sick leave with the rest.* 

Really hoping that Apollo finds a home soon. The stories of him climbing into a carrier and then into a shopping basket show how badly he wants to go to a home of his own. 

And finally, we had a milestone: one of the cats when out for a walk (either last week or maybe the week before) jumped to the top of the cabinet outside the cat-room, across from the manager's office. He or she then walked over to the snack machines and back before jumping down again. Unfortunately my notes are in such disarray that I don't remember now who did this (Felicity? Louie?). But it was a milestone nonetheless: none of our other cats have ever done such a thing, or even tried, so far as I know. 

And that's a summary of what would have been six weeks' worth of cat reports.

--John R. 

*update: I've now been reminded that FELICITY got adopted; good news for a sweet little cat. Thanks Erin.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Very English Voice (Lord David Cecil)

So, earlier this month I managed to find a recording of Lord David Cecil's voice. I'd been searching for this for years, sure that there must be some snippet somewhere on the BBC, but never turned up a clip until now, thanks to a link within a link passed along to me by Marjorie Burns, who'd learned of it John Garth.

The reason I've wanted to find this is that Kingsley Amis, in his MEMOIRS, describes Cecil's voice as if it were only one step up from the wah-wah-wah of adults in PEANUTS. That didn't fit at all with my own recollection, the one time I spoke to Cecil. I'd arranged a meeting with him when I was in England for my 1985 research trip, the one in which (almost) everything went wrong, but when I phoned to fix the day, he told me his whole household was strickened with the flu and he had to cancel our get-together. And since he died the following year, before my next (1987) trip, I never did get to see him, to my regret.

This being the case, I wish I had a better memory of that one phone call, but I cdn't take notes because I had to keep feeding coins into the pay phone (my memory is that I'd cashed in five or ten pounds worth and blew through it all), and the other because I was marvelling at his voice, which I thought the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard. I didn't know there were people who actually talked like this.

Which made it all the more annoying that I cdn't, afterwards, remember just what it'd been like. I have a good memory for music but a bad memory for voices (maybe somehow linked to the face-blindness; I don't know). But when I read Amis's vicious little account, I was certain it didn't at all represent what I'd heard.

Here's how Amis in his MEMOIRS (which he largely used to settle old scores) describes Cecil lecturing:

Laze . . . laz and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet . . . dough mean . . . looks like Chauthah . . . dough mean . . . looks like Dvyden . . . dough mean . . . looks like Theckthpyum (or something else barely recognizable as 'Shakespeare') . . . Mean looks like Shelley (pronounced 'Thellem' or thereabouts). Matthew Arnold (then Prestissimo) called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel Matthew Arnold had face (rallentando) like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane . . . Austen . . . '
(Amis, MEMOIRS [1991], 101)* 

Amis also adds that Cecil's lectures were popular with women (apparently another black mark against him in Amis's reckoning), that he had pseudo-homosexual mannerisms without actually being gay, that he took offense easily and held grudges (which seems to be more aptly a self-description of Amis himself). In fact, he was nothing more nor less than 'a caricature of an Oxford don'.

It's easy to miss in all this that Cecil was one of the finest biographers of his generation, author of the best book on Jane Austen I've ever read. On the one hand he was linked to Bloomsbury by having married the daughter of Desmond MacCarthy, one of the core members of 'Old Bloomsbury'.** On the other, he was a champion of aesthetics at a time when literature was supposed to be judged by its social worth and contribution to various agendas. In the latter role he was cast by the vitriolic F. R. Leavis of Cambridge (one of the few critics and teachers whose main focus was to actively discourage students from reading books***) as the representation of all that was wrong in English academia.  Leavis's mania about Cecil was so marked a feature of Leavis's books that it plays a major part in the chapter devoted to Leavis in Frederick C. Crews' brilliant parody of mid-century schools of literary criticism, THE POOH PERPLEX [1963]: "Another Book to Cross Off Your List" by 'Simon Lacerous' (=Leavis), in which Cecil is represented by the figure 'Lord Wendell Dovetail'.

Here's how Amis ranks Cecil compared with his fellow Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien:

lecturers at Oxford . . . could be divided into the hard and the soft . . . The hard men gave you information, usually about language. Old and Middle English, strong verbs, vowel shifts and fearful old poems like The Dream of the Rood and The Owl and the Nightingale, and what they gave you was likely to reappear in the relevant parts of the final examination. The hardest lecturer I ever heard, and the worst technically, in delivery and so on, was J. R. R. Tolkien, but you sat through him because his explanation of the anomalous form 'hraergtrafum' was likely to be called for as the answer to a 'gobbet' on the paper. The soft men offered you civilised discourse with perhaps some critical interpretation and ideas about the past. The only reputable hard-soft merchant was C. S. Lewis, also the best lecturer I ever heard . . .  Lord David . . . was the softest of the soft, and undergraduates set on getting good degrees . . . tended to give him a short trial followed by a prolonged go-by' [Amis. 102]

Quite apart from his books, which won him his professorship in 1948****, he belonged to a distinguished family (something I suspect English readers are far more aware of than Americans like myself. His father had been in Churchill's cabinet and his grandfather Prime Minister. This tradition of high office went all the way back to Elizabethan days, when Lord Burleigh and Lord Cecil had been Elizabeth I's most trusted advisors.  Within Oxford, he was a leading figure among those advocating that literature had not ended in 1830, the cut-off date of Oxford's official syllabus, but might reasonably be expanded to included the Victorian era -- a viewpoint about which Tolkien was ambivalent (originally opposed, but gradually coming to favor later on) but CSL fervently opposed.

As for his voice, now that I can finally listen to it again and judge for myself, I find that it resembles neither the beautiful quintessentially English voice I remembered nor the vicious parody of Amis. What I didn't remember was the bit of a lisp, which makes him sound a bit like Bertie Wooster. What I heard instead was the deep, rich voice beneath it. Here's the link:

--John R.

current reading: "Old Bloomsbury" by Virginia Woolf

*N.B. that Amis credits this little snippet to Inkling John Wain. The figures he's talking about in the opening lines are Chaucer ('Chauthah') and Dryden ('Dvyden').

**whose members included the Stephen sisters (Vanessa Stephen Bell and Virginia Stephen Woolf), Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell, and possibly two or three others, like Saxon Sydney-Turner, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Frye.

***that is, books of which Leavis did not approve -- which over time came to include all but five or six novelists: Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, and above all D. H. Lawrence

****behind Wrenn, far behind Tolkien, but ahead of Lewis and Coghill

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Le Guin is Eloquent

So, a while back I bought a book of letters, chosen to show a wide array of interesting people from unusual or unexpected or revealing points of view. Seems like the person who put that together has done a follow-up volume, some samples from which can be found here:

The standout from this latest batch is the first one: Ursula K. Le Guin declining to provide a Foreword for an anthology of stories on the basis that doing so wd make her the only woman to appear in the volume. Her short letter is a masterpiece of economy, making her point politely, forcefully, and memorably.

There's a reason she's always ranked as one of the greats.

--John R.

In Moderation

So, recently spam has been showing up here in the comments. I've taken several steps to block it, to no avail. So for the time being I'm moderating comments to see if that solves the problem. Sorry for what will probably be a slight delay between yr posting a comment and its appearing on the blog.

--John R.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Witwer's GYGAX

So, I've now gotten a copy, and read, Michael Witwer's new biography of Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D and (co)founder of TSR: EMPIRE OF IMAGINATION: GARY GYGAX AND THE BIRTH OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (2015).

This is clearly intended as a Gygax-friendly book, based on extensive interviews with his wives and children. It tries to be even-handed about some things (Gygax and Arneson's respective contributions to D&D) while not even bothering to try on others (the events leading up to Gygax's loss of control over TSR, Gygax's post-TSR career), where it simply presents Gygax's point of view. It's v. readable, but the journalistic style, complete with invented conversations, detracts from any sense that it's giving anything resembling an authoritative account -- for that, you'd have to go to Jon Peterson's work (PLAYING AT THE WORLD, "Ambush at Sheridan Springs", et al).

Best thing: the endpapers and cover art.

We're always told not to judge a book by its cover (something most of us nonetheless do all the time), but in this case the endpapers and cover are by far my favorite part. The endpapers are a map of Lake Geneva with Gygax and TSR sites identified, done by an old-school TSR employee (Stephen D. Sullivan), all on a square grid and in the non-repo blue so familiar to gamers of my generation. The map cd serve as the basis for a good TSR walking tour of Lake Geneva; I know it helped me sort out the relative locations of some TSR sites that were before my time.

As for the cover, it's a clever parody/homage/reimagining of the cover to UNEARTHED ARCANA (1985), painted by the same artist who did the original thirty years earlier, Jeff Easley (one of the Big Four of the early eighties: Parkinson and Elmore and Easley and Caldwell).

Things I learned: Reading this book, I was struck by how young everyone was. Gygax was thirtysomething when he organized the first GenCon, as opposed to Mike Carr, who was sixteen when he ran FIGHT IN THE SKIES there at GenCon I, or Rob Kuntz, who was 14 when he joined Gygax's wargaming group. Arneson himself a college student of twenty-one when he met and began collaborating w. Gygax.
One gets the impression, fairly or not, that the only other adult in the room was Don Kaye, Gygax's partner in founding TSR.

Things I Want to Know: was the term "role-playing game" really invented in a 1976 ad for TUNNELS & TROLLS as a way to describe a D&D-like game without using the words "dungeons" or "dragons"?  (p. 128)

Things he Got Wrong: Witwer twice states that 2nd Edition AD&D (1989ff) was a financial flop (p. 197, 236), saying that sales fell off by 50% when it was released. This is simply wrong. Artistically, as a piece of game design, it was a lesser offspring of 1st edition AD&D. But financially it was everything TSR cd have hoped: it sold like hotcakes and revitalized the company. Similarly, he writes that SPELLFIRE and DRAGON DICE were expensive flops, which is half-true: SPELLFIRE made money hands over fists, while DRAGON DICE lost it in heaps.*

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book, though I initially skipped over the early chapters, before he'd done anything interesting, and only came back and read about his childhood after I'd read the rest of the book. It's entertaining, and I learned things I didn't know that helped me put together my mental map of who came on when among the early TSR folk. But I think the author's decision to fill the book with imagined conversations was a real mistake: offputting. 

The nadir of this sort of thing comes in Gygax's death scene:

On Tuesday, March 4, 2008, a dark-robed figure entered Gary's bedroom. Gary was immediately startled and could do nothing but pull the covers up to his face. The figure stood motionless at the foot of Gary's bed for several moments, its face shrouded in darkness.

Gary tried to shout for help, but the sheer terror of the moment prevented his vocal chords from producing anything more than a whisper.

The form slowly raised its arm and unfurled a bony finger toward the corner of the room, illuminating a chess board that hadn't been there previously.

"Wanna play?" said a raspy voice that chilled Gary to the bone.

Gary studied the figure in disbelief and then glanced at the stately chess set. It really was a nice set. Gary cleared his throat and sat up against the bed's headboard.

"Well . . . " said Gary, matter-of-factly, "I never could say no to a good game of chess."

Gary was outmatched that day, just as he knew he would be, and the game was lost.

The legendary Gary Gygax had passed away. But his newest adventure had just begun . . .

(p. 218)

Ingmar Bergman he ain't.

Reading this book made me wish someone would extend the Peterson treatment to the years 1980-1995, where all the good work at TSR tends to get ignored in accounts of both the company and that era in roleplaying games.

current reading: MEN & MAGIC (1st ed D&D, booklet #1)

*actually, DRAGON DICE initially did great, but as the original stock was selling out Management made the bad decision to re-order in vast quantities and have the new stock shipped from China by the fastest, most expensive method available. Only to have that new stock arrive just as the game's brief fad was fading. Alas. --John R.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Needed: a copy of TOLKIEN STUDIES volume X (2013)

So, one of the things I've discovered as I've been getting the shelves in my office in order is that I seem to have misplaced my copy of TOLKIEN STUDIES volume 10. After a good deal of looking I have reluctantly concluded that it's not in any of the places where I might expect it and at this point might not turn up for the foreseeable future. Which means I really ought to get a replacement copy so as to have it with the other volumes on my shelf. 
   To my surprise, buying a recent copy of this prestigious journal is harder than I wd have thought. The publisher doesn't have it. Amazon doesn't have it. Abebooks and ebay don't seem to have it. So I thought I'd put out an appeal: does anyone have a spare copy of TOLKIEN STUDIES volume X (2013) they'd be willing to part with? I have duplicate (contributor's) copies of Vol. VI (2009) and VII (2010, the Kullervo issue) if anyone wd like to trade.
   If so, let me know.

--John R.

current reading: EMPIRE OF IMAGINATION, the new biography of Gary Gygax

UPDATE: Copy found! Thanks to NFB Elf for the tip. -- JDR

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Gygax Biography is Out

So, I've been waiting for the copy I ordered of the new biography of Gary Gygax, (co)creator of D&D, to arrive in the mail, only to find it today on the shelves at the friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble.  At a quick glance it looks chatty and informative, with a useful timeline and listing of E.G.G.'s publications (rulesbooks and modules; don't think it included his many articles and interviews*)

Here's a link to a brief discussion of the book: EMPIRE OF IMAGINATION: GARY GYGAX AND THE BIRTH OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS,  by Michael Witwer.

--John R.

*perhaps a Gygax bibliography wd be a gd project for someone else out there. Though I suspect Jon Peterson has probably already done all the work during the research for his own opus.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Best Tolkien Interview, Ever

So, sometimes I belatedly discover great things out there on the web.

In this case, it's thanks to Marjorie Burns passing along to me something she'd learned from John Garth, that Tolkien's 1965 radio interview with Denis Gueroult is available online.* Not only that, but this recording is much fuller than the one I currently have, the one issued on an old cassette by AudioForum back in the 80s or early 90s. That one was about thirty minutes in length;** this new one is thirty-nine, so about a quarter of it is new material.

I think this is by far the best interview Tolkien ever gave. It's one of only two that extends to a good length (the other being the Henry Resnik interview, as printed in NIEKAS) and the only one in which the interviewer had both done his homework and clearly carefully prepared for the interview. Just as importantly, Gueroult was not been content with extracting from Tolkien a few disconnected soundbite but asked follow-up questions and pressed Tolkien to expand upon his answers. Would that we had a half-dozen interviews like this. Instead we have only one, but what a treasure it is. It's rare that I write any article on Tolkien in which I do not quote from this interview at some point.

Here's the link:

--John R.
current reading: ibid.

*and apparently has been since April. I will say, in my defense, that this has been a really busy year.

**with an interview with Basil Bunting on the back

UPDATE: I've substituted the correct link, for Tolkien, in place of the one on Lord David Cecil (which belongs to a pending post instead). Thanks to Magister for the corrective.  --JDR

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Good Day for Marquette

So, one of the interesting things that happened when the pope was over here on his American visit the week before last was his naming of four great Americans he personally admired: Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

Now, of these four, two are universally famous and the third pretty well known: our most popular president, a martyr to civil rights, and an icon in mid-century Catholicism. But the fourth, Dorothy Day, is less well known, esp. to a southern Presbyterian like myself.

I knew about her from the Marquette Archives. Two of their most extensive collections, which cd not be more different, are J. R. R. Tolkien's manuscripts* and Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker papers.**  And so just by osmosis I came to know a bit about her in a general way. And I've come to realize there's much to admire: she was a pacifist and worker for social justice, someone who took quite literally the gospel injunctions to love thy neighbor, feed the poor, et al. I was also bemused, within the last year or so, to learn that there's both a movement to declare her a saint and an opposition movement opposing her canonization.

Clearly, at any rate, someone it'd be worthwhile to find out more about.

Here's the link.

--John R

current reading: IDYLLS OF THE KING, by Tennyson (tedious), STRIKE THE BLOOD (young adult 'light novel').


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Another RPG Purge and a disgruntled cat

First, the photo.

Note the disgruntled cat (not one of ours) as he surveys the boxes of old rpgs.

Next, the explanation.

On the way back from my most recent trip, I was thinking of getting back to work on various projects once we got home. I'd made a stab at straightening my desk before we left and now began to think of ways I could free up some space in my office. My shelves are drowning in books and the area around my desk in piles of papers and stacks of books, which makes finding what I need at any given moment more difficult than it need be. The only solution was to move some stuff out of my office to make room. So I decided, partly inspired by the example of my father-in-law and also of some friends in decluttering, that it was time to let go of a lot of the old rpgs I never play (or, in some case, have never played). This included all of MERP (for which I found a good home) but also other games like JAMES BOND 007 (for which I kept only the boxed set, giving away all the supplements), CHILL (likewise), DOCTOR WHO (likewise), EVERWAY (plus its three supplements), EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE / TEKUMEL,* et al.  The only things I kept everything of from all the games kept in my office were (1) all the AD&D/D&D stuff (of course),** (2) all the CALL OF CTHLUHU, and (3) all the PENDRAGON.

By now being on something of a role, I next tackled the old TSR games on the shelves down in the box room. Aside from the original Marvel Superhero Game (which felt prey to water damage long ago) and the WotC Star Wars game (which I never had any interest in), I had pretty much all the rpgs TSR had put out before and during my time with them. So out the door went AMAZING ENGINE (except for the two that I worked on), all of ALTERNITY (including DARK MATTER), BUCK ROGERS (both IN THE 25TH CENTURY and HIGH ADVENTURE), CONAN (by Zeb Cook!), DUNE, INDIANA JONES (all), DRAGONQUEST, DRAGONLANCE SAGA SYSTEM, MARVEL SAGA SYSTEM, all of d20MODERN, all of STAR FRONTIERS; even BULLWINKLE and POKEMON JR.  The only things I kept were all of GANGBUSTERS, all of BOOT HILL, all of the original TOP SECRET (getting rid TOP SECRET / SI), and the original GAMMA WORLD box and first two modules.  Whew.

All these have now found new homes --- quite a bit of it with a friend whose cat, pictured above, was displeased that his owner's attention was on the new games and not said cat.

Next up, it's time to purge those d20 shelves. Which will take a deal of sorting.

Being both a collector and something of a horder, I hate to see all this go, but it's a good feeling to have more shelves to work with. And it'll be worth it to have what remains be so much more accessible and to have my office in much better shape.

--John R.

*I kept only the original 1975 EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE boxed set, the much later T.O.M.E. boxed set, and the one JUDGE'S GUILD adventure for EPT (i.e., three out of thirteen items).

**virtually everything from 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th edition, as well as virtually everything from D&D that predated or was parallel with AD&D.