Friday, January 30, 2015

A Bad Movie disses Tolkien

So, several months back I saw some discussion online (I think on the MythSoc list) about a new movie that at one point spoke slightingly of Tolkien.  While the description sounded pretty bad, I wanted to suspend judgment until I had a chance to watch it for itself, both to confirm the quote and to make sure I got it in context. And it turns out to be just as bad as they said.

The movie in question is THE CONGRESS [2013], staring Robin Wright as an aging actress named 'Robin Wright'. Nearing the end of her career, she reluctantly agrees to sell rights to the studio to continue to make films using her digital image.

Although this sounds like descriptions I've read of Connie Willis's REMAKE [1995], the filmmakers instead credit Stanislaus Lem's THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS [1971], which I've also never read. In any case, Ari Folman, the director, says that he added the entire opening third of the film (the whole framing story regarding 'Robin Wright'); he also said that his film shd not be thought of as an adaptation of Lem's work but as having been inspired by it.

As for the Tolkien content, this comes in the scene, about thirty-two minutes into the 2-hour movie, in which 'Wright' is being badgered by her studio's executive to sign away all digital rights to her image. In need of the money, she eventually agrees but her agent stipulates a few reservations: no Nazis, no porn, no sci-fi. The executive  ("Jeff", a vicious parody of arrogant, clueless Hollywood tycoons in general and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein in particular*) protests that Nazis and Holocausts bring in awards but eventually waives the point. He insists, however, on the sci-fi as a big money maker, which leads to the following exchange:

No sci-fi, Jeff. Sci-fi is a dumb genre in our opinion. She's never done sci-fi before. And she's not gonna do it now.

Well if she'd done one sci-fi this contract would be worth six times as much!
No sci-fi, no contract.

['Robin Wright'] 
Then no contract.

Why? Why, sci-fi — Sci-fi's fantasy.

 Do you know how many people read Lord of the Rings?
One-thousandth of a single percent, of the people
that went to see the movie, read the book.
And you wanna know why? Because it's one hell 
of a complicated read, that's why.
It's a nightmare to get through. it's boring!

Did you read it before you made the movie?

ha ha. Are you kidding?
But I saw the movie. And that's why we make movies.

Aside from the obvious irony --- a character in a sci-fi movie deriding sci-fi movies -- this is wrong on so many levels. Granted that 'Jeff' is presented as an expert who doesn't really know what he's talking about, scriptwriter Forman** has picked an egregiously inappropriate example. If he were to go with, say, how many people have read THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ as opposed to how many have seen the film THE WIZARD OF OZ, or how many have seen Hitchcock's film PSYCHO vs how many have read Rbt Bloch's novel, his example might hold up better. Some books are buried by their movie adaptations, but THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not one of them.

Granted that the Tolkien movies were huge, world-wide hits (bringing in about a billion dollars each at the box office, plus another billion each through dvd sales, plus billions more through computer games and merchandising), his math simply doesn't work out for the simple reason that a LOT of people have read Tolkien. There's no way to know just how many, but estimates run to some one hundred and fifty million copies of THE LORD OF THE RINGS sold,*** and about another hundred million copies of THE HOBBIT. And while not everyone who's bought a copy has read it, there are many, many copies in libraries out there.

Now it's been a long time since I did much math, but given that the world population is now about seven billion people (7,000,000,000), one percent of that would be about seventy million (70,000,000). And a thousandth of that would be seventy thousand (70,000) -- which is obviously off to a massive, staggering degree so far as the number of people who've read Tolkien goes.  Or to look at it from the other direction, take a hundred and fifty million readers (150,000,000) and multiply by a thousandfold, which get us about a hundred and fifty billion (150,000,000,000). Then multiply that by a hundred for a total of fifteen trillion (15,000,000,000,000). In short, the movie's claiming that the number of people who've seen THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies massively exceeds the total world population.

No wonder the movie-making industry is notorious for 'Hollywood accounting'!

The natural conclusion is that the film-maker wanted to make a point about films reaching a massively larger audience than a work of literature -- a debatable point in itself, given that some books are far more successful than the movies based on them, while some movies are more popular than the book they're based on; it depends on the book and the movie -- and picked an egregiously inept example to try to make his point.

--John R.
current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS by Colin Dexter [1992]
today's song: Tecolote by Bread.

P.S.: Did I mention that the movie was bad? The first third is slow and mannered, with the characters self-consciously delivering speeches rather than carrying on dialogue with each other.  The remaining (animated) two-thirds is incoherent, more stream of consciousness than anything else. It may have a plot, but if so the director doesn't feel any obligation to share it with the viewer.

*just to show that they're specifically targeting Weinstein, the fictional studio is called MIRAMOUNT in the movie, an obvious dig at Weinstein's MIRAMAX (as well as also Paramount).

**some of the blame shd probably go to script editor Ori Sivan, who really shd have fixed this.

And yes, they're counting all three volumes as one book, so this figure doesn't mean 50 million each of the three volumes but 150 sets or single-volume editions -- a truly staggering amount.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/28-15)

Thanks to beautiful gentle Cameo's adoption Tuesday night we're back to four cats today: MR TIZZYANUBUS AUGUSTUS (GUS), and bonded pair GUNNAR and GYPSY. And I think for the first time since I've been volunteering we have more male cats than female ones (three to one).

We started out the morning with long walks for all four cats. There was some anxious mewing at times but they're all starting to get the hang of it and I think enjoying getting out of the room. Gypsy kept climbing up on the big cushions along the back wall of the store and purring; she'd clearly like to take one of them 'home' with her. 

The new cat-stand and new arrangement of the room looks good. Anubus went into his favorite place, Tizzy settled atop the basket on the bench, which got him pretty close to where he used to go on the now-vanished catstand -- though he keeps thinking he can squeeze between the two uprights on that stand and keeps finding out he's wrong. Gypsy was out and about, while Gunnar enjoyed the cagetops. 

We had plenty of time for games. I discovered that Tizzy rather likes the gopher game. The feather duster was a winner with Gypsy, Tizzy, and Gunnar. The string game went over well with Gunnay, Gypsy, and Tizzy. And everybody loved the catnip.

Late in the morning when doing up the input/output sheets I noticed several people commenting on how much the cats liked the new feathers-on-a-string, so I broke that out and wow, were they right. All four cats were enthusiastic; even Anubus wanted to play, though since he didn't want to come out this meant I had to try to swish the feathers so that they'd land on his shelf inside the cabinet. Easier said than done. Still, they had a good time all around, and sad faces when it was time to go back into cages. 

Several visitors, plus the cats made some friends when out on their walks, but no one who seemed to be thinking about adoptions. 

All in all, a quiet morning.

--John R

P.S. And just as I'm finishing this up this Thursday evening comes news that we now have four new cats, bringing us back up to eight -- not far shy of a full room. Here's hoping the newcomers get along well with those already in Tukwila (a fairly easygoing bunch).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Congratulations are in Order (THE JOURNAL OF TOLKIEN RESEARCH)

So, last week (Thursday?) I received word that the new online JOURNAL OF TOLKIEN RESEARCH has now launched, posting the first article* from their first volume at the following link:

It's good to see another venue for Tolkien scholarship, to join such journals as TOLKIEN STUDIES, MYTHLORE, MALLORN, VII, the JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES, et al. Unlike these more traditional publications, the JTR is electronic, with no print edition -- that is, as I understand it, it's more like a dedicated website than a print journal.  The editor is Brad Eden, organizer of the Tolkien track at Kalamazoo and also editor of two collections of Tolkien criticism: MIDDLE-EARTH MINSTREL (about music and Tolkien) and THE HOBBIT AND TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY (which includes my own essay "Anchoring the Myth: The Impact of THE HOBBIT on Tolkien's Legendarium"). And the Review Editor is Doug Anderson, best known to Tolkien scholars for THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT and his work establishing the text of THE LORD OF THE RINGS but also widely published in fantasy and horror criticism (e.g. his anthologies of the works of Kenneth Morris and of Wm Hope Hodgson and, more recently, of Evangeline Walton**).

This being a new kind of format for a Tolkien journal,  it'll be interesting to see how that new model works, how often new pieces get posted, and the like. I hope they get a diverse and lively set of reviews up, since this is something I always enjoy in a journal (and find a prime source of suggested reading as well).   I also hope that at some point old issues cd be made available in shelf-able form for those among us who like our reference material within physical covers.

So, here's wishing them success in a new and interesting venture.

--John R.

*a look at elements of the Orpheus/Eurydice legend in the Luthien and Beren story.
**cf. his 'Tolkien and Fantasy' blog ( and also the site Wormwoodiana (, to which he is a contributor.

A Book I Won't Be Reading

So, they've just announced that the first Stieg Larsson book not by Stieg Larsson is due out in August.  I won't be buying, or reading it.

I enjoyed the three-book series by Larsson himself (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST),* scarifying as it was in places, but there's no need to read faux-Larsson books.  Not only did Larsson (inadvertently) down pen at a good stopping place, but the whole 'V. C. Andrews (TM)' trends needs to be discouraged whenever possible.

For those who feel otherwise, here's the link:

--John R.

*as well as the movies based on them -- the original Swedish ones starring Noomi Rapace, that is, not the Hollywoodized Daniel Craig remake.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Newest Publication!

So, a few days ago I got the news that my newest publication is now out, the essay "The Missing Women: Tolkien's Lifelong Committment to Women's Higher Education", which appears in the collection PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS AND LIFE OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN,* ed. Leslie A. Donavan and Janet Brennan Croft, from the Mythopoeic Press.  There doesn't seem to be any entry up for it yet on the Mythopoeic Press site (, though it's available for order through

I have not yet gotten my author's copy, but gather it shd soon be available as a e-book as well.

I have to say, I'm delighted to have this essay finally be in print. It's an idea I've had for years; at least since I first learned that there was now a J. R. R. Tolkien Professor at Oxford, an endowed chair, and that it was attached to one of the women's colleges (this wd have been about the time of the 1992 centenary conference or possibly before).  I kept waiting for someone better qualified than myself to write it. Ideally the author of this topic shd be a woman, an academic familiar with the Oxford system, preferably English and of an older generation. I'm none of these things, but eventually concluded that if I didn't do it myself it just wasn't going to get done. I hope that at the least I've started the ball rolling; raised the topic so that others now can join in and carry it in more directions than I cd in a single piece -- it's really more a topic for a book than an essay, though I did my best within what space I had. I think this all the more likely because when I delivered it at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo the year before last (May 2013), the comments I got on it from people who came up and talked with me afterwards all took the form of pointed out more examples I could use, things that would add to and expand my case.

In brief, I argue against the widespread notion that Tolkien was a man who spent most of his time, by choice, in exclusively male company. As a corollary of that, I lay out the evidence that Tolkien was throughout his entire career a staunch supporter of women pursuing advanced degrees (a viewpoint not universal at Oxford in his day -- C. S. Lewis being an unabashed advocate of the opposite view).

As for the book as a whole, I remember the bad old days when critics of Tolkien used to glibly talk about how Tolkien didn't have any female characters -- something true of THE HOBBIT but not so much of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention THE SILMARILLION.  The advent of the Jackson films did a lot to challenge that preconception: those who felt Jackson had gotten the characters of Arwen or Galadriel or Eowyn wrong were moved to discuss what they felt these characters' true natures to be, and that discussion, having long since drifted from film-and-text comparisons back to purely literary discussion, shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, as the contents of this collection show.

I'm looking forward to getting my copy so I can read through my fellow contributors' contributions. It shd be enlightening.

--John R.

current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: An Inspector Morse novel by Colin Dexter [1992]
current dvd: AMERICAN RADICAL: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein [2009]

*I think my essay's inclusion is the reason for the 'and life' in the title;  I think mine is the only biographical piece in this collection.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/21-15)

So, with the adoption of little SPIDER MONKEY (now 'Ebony') to a v. good home, we're now down to five cats. This allows for a certain roominess, with the cats not being too crowded. And it shows: now that last weeks' newcomers are settling in the hissing has stopped as everyone has found some favorite places.

With there only being five cats, I was able to walk them all, one by one. Mr. TIZZY's walk was lengthy but uneventful. ANUBUS found out how to open the front door and was all for going out to have a look-see at the great outdoors; I had to dissuade him. CAMEO discovered the big cushions along the back wall and thought she'd like to climb up on them and, once up, to settle down and enjoy all the cushiness. She was a little indignant at having to move. All in all, she did very well. GYPSY, after some initial suspicion, also had a good time exploring, and a still better time coming back in (or so I assume from all the purring when she came back in). GUNNAR was v. nervous and squirmed when held but was somewhat braver when on his own furry feet. 

After everyone was back inside I tried to tempt Tizzy with a game, but he wasn't much interested. He shifted from the cat-stand by the door to the bench, where he found himself face-to-face with Gypsy; neither hissed, I'm glad to say. Then he passed right by Cameo (again, with neither hissing) to claim his favorite spot: the cat-stand by the cabinet (the top level today, given that Cameo was already on the level he usually chooses). 

Cameo lazed about on the mid-level of the same cat-stand. Gypsy stalked a bug that may have been imaginary (though in any case she had a good time pursuing it). Gunnar found the fresh catnip in my bag, dragged it out, and eviscerated the little bag it was in, strewing it all about  so everybody could have a share. And there was much rejoicing. 

Gypsy and Gunnar have learned how to use the steps to go up and come down from Cagetop Land. Gunnar, the most active and alert cat in the room today, discovered Anubus's secret place (behind the blankets on the top shelf in the cabinet) and tried to work out how to get in there and share that spot but couldn't figure it out. I'd say he's well on his way to asserting himself as Boss Cat, mainly through all the other cats not caring one way or the other.

Just before the cats went into their cages,  a PetsMart employee came in with three little pouches of cat-treats that someone had just given the room's cats for a donation. Cameo recognized them for what they were right away and came straight over to turn on the charm and ask for one. I felt bad not giving her one, but last I knew we morning cleaner/socializers weren't to give the cats any treats -- I assume that still holds?

When it was time for everyone to go back inside at end of shift, I noticed that Cameo was water-dipping her food. Or, to be more accurate, she'd take a bite of cat-kibble then turn her head to the left, over the water bowl. A piece or two would drop into the water, and she'd fish it out and eat if off her paw. She did this time and time again, over and over. A bit odd, but very cute.

And that's about it for another week. We've got a good set of cats -- no psycho-kitties, not too crowded, with the cats more inclined to ignore each other than get into tussles or hiss-offs.  Here's hoping more adoptions are in the offing soon, esp. for Tizzy and Anubus, who've been with us about two months now.

--John R.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Confederate Ancestor

So, I've long known that my great-great grandfather, James Shelton Rateliff, fought in the Civil War -- after all, I've visited his grave near Hope, Arkansas, which is marked not with a headstone but with a Confederate cross. I knew the family was living in Mississippi at the time and moved to Arkansas (via NW Louisiana) immediately following the war (I assume to escape the famine that swept the South following the collapse of the Confederacy*). According to family legend, he spent time in a prisoner of war, but lacking information about where in Mississippi he came from I've been unable to trace the family further back.

Until this week, when I was poking about online and finally found a reference to J.S.R. and his Confederate career. I still don't know what unit he belonged to, but apparently he enlisted on May 9th 1862 in Monroe, Louisiana (I would have assumed some Mississippi regiment) and was indeed a prisoner of war, albeit briefly. According to the posted information, which I have yet to confirm, he served in the siege of Vicksburg (a truly horrific episode, often overlooked in accounts of the war, which tend to focus on events back east). After the town surrendered, he was taken prisoner (on July 4th, 1863) but surprisingly was released just two days later "after signing an Oath of Loyalty" (July 6th, 1863). Initially I thought it a bit odd that, having captured the town, the victorious Yankees simply let all the defenders go home, unless it was plain that the starved defenders were simply clearly in no shape to pose a threat to anybody. But a little further reading shows that this was standard practice during the first half of the war -- in fact, apparently most of the men who surrendered at Vicksburg made their way to Mobile, where they were re-armed.

I know some about the Mississippi River campaign from living in Arkansas and having visited both Shiloh (a crucial Southern defeat) and Vicksburg back in my Boy Scout days; now I'll have to find out more. If the posted information is right, he signed up just after the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), but I'm not sure what the Army of Mississippi was doing in the year between Shiloh and the surrender of Vicksburg. I also don't know whether my great-great grandfather was one of those who showed up at Mobile a month after leaving Vicksburg -- if so, he may have taken part in the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and the rest of the (ultimately futile) effort to stop Sherman.

But, at any rate, I now have a starting point; a place to begin and explore outwards from. It'll be interesting to see what I can uncover about the rest of this ancestor's military career once he got caught up in the bloodiest war we've ever fought.

--John R.

*in the words of the song,
"In the winter of '65
We were hungry
just barely alive"
--Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

BBC Sound Archive preservation project (Tolkien in the top seven)

So, thanks to Janice S. for sending me the link about a project the BBC Sound Archive is launching to preserve their older and more fragile material -- much of it on archaic media, going all the way back to wax cyclinders. As with the US film preservation project that's been going on for some years now, they're faced with the problem that the material is disintegrating faster than they're copying it.

Given such a situation, the group doing the preservation has to prioritize, and that's when things get interested for a Tolkienist. Among "a selection of seven of the most important sound recordings currently held in the library, which were among the first to be saved", is one by JRRT, the 1930 Linguaphone Institute language lesson "At the Tobacconist". So according to the BBC Tolkien ranks with Tennyson, Joyce, Florence Nightingale, and the like in historical importance. That's a 'cultural treasure' status that goes beyond popularity or best-sellerdom or any passing fad.

Now if they could only spell his name right (it's 'Tolkein' throughout the entire piece, though the TELEGRAPH seems to have updated their caption to now read 'Tolkien').

Here's the list of the seven:

1. Christabel Pankhurst demanding votes for women
2. Florence Nightingale
4. James Joyce reading from ULYSSES
5. Noel Coward taking a curtain call
6. Tennyson reading a snippet of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
7. a zither rehearsal for the score of THE THIRD MAN

Some of these I have to take on faith, given the poor quality of the surviving recording: I think the Tennyson must be the oldest one here given that he died in 1892, the year Tolkien was born.

I also have to add the caveat that while it's good to know these recordings are being preserved, in at least the case of Tolkien there are multiple surviving copies of the original  recording (I have an original .78 rpm of the Linguaphone recording myself).

Here's the article:

--John R.
current reading: O'Malley's THE ROOK

UPDATE (Fr. 1/23-15):
As 'Trotter' pointed out in the comments, it's actually the British Library and not the BBC who have launched this laudable project; my mistake.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/14-15)

So, with the adoption of little PANYA (a great little cat; v. charismatic; I'll miss her), and the arrival of four new cats (on Tuesday, I think), we went from three cats to just two cats and then back up to six cats by the time I arrived Wednesday morning -- but not for long.

Our two stalwarts, ANUBUS AUGUSTUS (Gus) and Mr. TIZZY, thought the room a bit crowded with all the newcomers but soon adjusted. Both were very vocal when I first arrived but quieted down once out of their cages.

Mr. Tizzy seemed unhappy about all the new cats, so I put him up on the cagetops. From there he observed all that went on below, eventually deciding that All Was Well and jumping down to claim his favorite place, the middle rung of the cat-stand by the cabinet. From there he plopped himself down and dozed the rest of the morn. He welcomed attention and was happy to lean into any petting or grooming that was going on, so long as he didn't have to move or exert himself; he's a lazy predator. Glad to report that he seems to finally be over his stomach upset and other digestive problems, so far as I could tell. Now that we've found the right food to feed him, we'll need to see he gets exercised to avoid putting on some weight.

Anubus Augustus remembered the place I'd put him last week that he liked so much and made a bee-line straight for it: hop down from his cage, hop up on the cat-stand by the cabinet, make a mighty leap onto the top shelf, and then burrow down in the blankets there, invisible to the outside world unless he opens his eyes while they're looking right at him. He (like TIzzy) was very affectionate and vocal when I first opened their cages; once in place he accepted attention but was just as pleased to be left to his own devices.

Of the four new cats, CAMEO is a beautiful tortoiseshell. She came out, explored, and then went into Tizzy's cube. She loves being petted but had a fairly quiet day, getting used to the new place. I'm curious to see how she takes to the leash, but didn't give it a try, thinking that so many new cats needed time to sort things out.

SPIDER MONKEY, the little black bouncing ball, small and sleek like an overgrown kitten, was here and there all over the place. Despite still having stitches from her surgery she's full of energy. She loves attention (being petted, head-butts, purring) and games of all kinds, but gets hissy when she thinks any other cat is getting too close.

GUNNAR and GYPSY, the bonded pair, couldn't be more different. Gunnar is a long, lean (indeed boney) cat, black fading to brown along his flanks. He's very shy and an expert burrower, preferring to hide under the blankets in his cube rather than on them. But he's also an explorer and came out several times finding his way into all kinds of unexpected spots. Gypsy, a light grey tabby with eyes that shine red a lot, likes to follow him, and has a touching but not altogether accurate belief that anywhere he can go, she can follow (she's somewhat roly-poly, but clearly in her self-image she and he look the same). She did something I've never seen a cat do before: gnaw on the whisk-broom (maybe she needs some cat-grass the check on for roughage?).

The cats did enjoy some games: Spider Monkey and Gunnar loved the feather duster, while Gunnar and Gypsy both loved the peacock feathers (Tizzy showed some interest as well). Gunnar and Spider Monkey showed great appreciation for catnip, as did Gypsy. The cats showed wary interest in catnip bubbles; Gypsy pursued them from up atop the cages while Spider Monkey monitored them from atop the cat-stand by the door.

At one point Spider Monkey went into Gunnar's cube: she hissed at him and he burrowed down under the blankets. Gypsy rather likes going up high, and prefers to spend as much time as she can outside the cube.

Gunnar and Anubus are both champion burrowers, but while Anubus can disappear under a cat-blanket leaving no sign that he's there beneath it, Gunnar's arrangement are messier (but still effective).

The big news of the morning was that the retired woman and her adult daughter who'd visited the cat-room the week before and petted Anubus, Tizzy, and Panya came back again, reminisced a bit about her much-loved, recently deceased cat, adopted from our cat-room about six years ago, all the while bonding with little Spider Monkey.  It was clear she had a huge cat-shaped hole in her life, and the long and the short of it is that by the end of the day Spider Monkey was in her new home.  And from two updates since it's clear that she's very much making herself at home in her new surroundings. So, a happy ending.

And have to say, as a note to end on, that it was fun to see Tizzy and Anubus' reaction to hearing another volunteer's voice: Tizzy roused himself and started talking, and Anubus stuck his face out of the cabinet. They definitely know the various volunteers, and show that they approve of our coming to see them.

--John R.

Friday, January 16, 2015

John Bellairs' ST. FIDGETA

So, seeing egregious examples this week of what might be called misapplied theological precision, I was reminded of how the late great John Bellairs* had used this for comic effect. In his first book, ST. FIDGETA & OTHER PARODIES [1966],  Bellairs gently mocked Catholic culture as it was in the old pre-Vatican II days.

Take, for example, the fourth item in this miscellany: The Question Box. Here Bellairs mocks question-and-answer columns from back in the old pre-Vatican II days, with questions such as

Does the olive in the martini break the Lenten fast?

The answer, delivered in suitably authoritative, somewhat officious tones, is that it depends:

Is the olive qua olive part of the martini qua martini?
Or is the olive a substance unto, of, and within itself,
per se in the drink rather than pre accidens?
. . . the last word, as usual, goes to St. Thomas
[Aquinas], who remarks in his Summa Contra Omnes . . . 

More relevant to the misplaced precision theme is the exchange between the woman whose family is freezing because Pope Pius IX denounced central heating as a modern error. The Question Box Moderator replies

You might try electric blankets, 
which Pius IX didn't know about, 
although some theologians claim
that we are bound by what a Pope
is likely to have thought of 
if he had lived long enough

And there, in the idea of our being bound by things a religious leader wd have condemned if he'd thought of them, I think we have the idea of misplaced theological precision in a nutshell.

--John R.
--current e-book: THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss (nearly finished! finally!)

*author of one of my alltime favorite novels, THE FACE IN THE FROST [1969]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Words Fail Me . . .

So, just to show that odd behavior based on theological tenants isn't limited to adherents of any single religion, here's a story of an Israeli newspaper, HAMEVASER ('The Announcer') that photoshoped out the image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from what looks to be becoming an iconic photo of world leaders marching in solidarity after the Paris terrorist attacks last week. Netanyahu and Abbas, Hollande and Merkel, all appear together in the forefront of the crowd -- except for readers of this one newspaper, for whom Merkel has vanished, with no sign to show she was ever there.

 At first I wondered if this could be due to anti-German sentiment, but no, the editor explains that it was "due to modesty concerns". It seems their audience (unidentified, but described as "ultra-orthodox") believes it "immodest" for pictures of women to appear in public; apparently members of this group do a lot of vandalism against posters, billboards, and advertisements.

What got me about the story was not the editor's rather incoherent attempt to explain that he had to do the censoring for the sake of the eight-year-old children who might see it, but the unknowns. Does this paper make sure, when deleting images of women, to mention in the text or accompanying caption that the woman in question was there? Do children whose parents belong to this group know what Golda Meir looked like, or even who she was? If Hilary Clinton were to become president, would this newspaper avoid printing her picture all the time she was in office, or would they devise some workaround to represent her without actually showing her?

Questions, no answers.

Here's the link

My New Book is released!

So, today's the big day when the new, revised, abridged edition of my book comes out: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT.

Though note that here 'Brief' is a relative term. I've cut the original text by about 40%, from about a thousand pages to 542 (550 with the index). The original version was about 50% Tolkien and about 50% Rateliff: my goal in this revision has been to cut down on my commentary while keeping all the Tolkien. Thus I cover most of the same topics but with much more brevity, omitting tangents (there are a lot fewer notes this time around) and often rephrasing things more succinctly.

I did have to drop the Appendices, which is a pity, as well as the Addendum from the one-volume edition, and also omitted one new section I'd worked up (on 'The Quest of Erebor'): there simply wasn't enough room. And I worked in a few small new bits where possible, such as the evidence from an unpublished 1966 letter confirming Tolkien's familiarity with the work of Sinclair Lewis.

I'm hoping that this streamlined version will encourage folks who might have hesitated before the weighty tome of the one-volume edition to discover for themselves the fascinating story of how Tolkien came up with and put together the book we know as THE HOBBIT, which I've done my best to lay out for the reader in this new edition of the manuscript.

Here's the link

--John R.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Fatwa Against Snowmen

So, recently it snowed in northern Saudi Arabia, and people made snowmen.

And then, somebody thought to ask: hey, is this okay? Are we allowed to do this? And they asked a prominent Islamic scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Munajjid, who gave them an official ruling: No.

Snowmen, he reasons, are representations of people, and The Prophet's teachings forbid the making of images. You can make snow fruit, or snow trees, or snow buildings, but not anything with a soul.

So it's official: no snowmen.*

The good news is that, like the Biblical ban on eating bats (Leviticus 11.19, Deuteronomy 14.18), the ban on making snowmen in Saudi Arabia is likely to be a ruling that's relatively easy for folks to follow.

Here's the link:

--John R.

*though I'm not sure how far the Sheikh's authority runs; it may be limited to Sunnis in the Saudi kingdom. In which case an imam living in, say, Minnesota, might issue a different ruling.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Stephen Colbert, the biggest Tolkien nerd of them all?

So, a little before Christmas I came across the current issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in the Kent library and decided I needed to hunt down my own copy, which I did the next day. It had what is probably the last Tolkien cover I'll see on a mass-market magazine for a while, and have to say it's a fun one: Stephen Colbert dressed as Bilbo. This turns out to be one of three special covers, all of which feature Colbert professionally made up as a Tolkien character (Bilbo, Gandalf, and Legolas respectively) by Peter Jackson's wardrobe/make-up people. The accompanying article is fun and unexpected.

Think of it: here's Stephen Colbert, probably the best-known Tolkien fan in America, given the cover story for a major mass-market magazine, One wd expect him to use that forum to celebrate the ending of his spectacular eight-year-run on THE COLBERT REPORT.  Or to plug his upcoming show, when he takes over as host of THE LATE SHOW from David Letterman early this year.

Instead, he chooses to let his Tolkien geek flag fly, and talks about what Tolkien means to him. As Colbert himself puts it,

Tolkien's world has been a lifelong haven for me -- truly
a light in dark places when all other lights went out.
For an awkward teenager, Middle-earth
was a world I could escape to.
Peter Jackson's Middle-earth also gave me
a world to escape to, but by the time
his films came out, I was rich and famous
and didn't really want to escape my life anymore.
Still, great movies.

This is in part tongue in cheek, of course, but not entirely. The best kind of escape is the one that's there for you when you needed it, and which ultimately leaves you in a better place than the one you were escaping from: you're no longer escaping because you've arrived someplace else.

What's more, Colbert, who famously appeared in a cameo as a Lake Town spy in the second of Peter Jackson's HOBBIT movies, interviews Jackson himself as part of this feature. In particular, the two men talk about how Tolkien is NOT science fiction but more like historical fiction. And Jackson makes the interesting observation, or perhaps prediction, that "I'm sure in 50 years people will probably still be going to New Zealand because of these movies". Which, if the past decade-plus is anything to go by, might well turn out to be the case. Colbert also, in the accompanying article, includes a bit about his own apprehensions, way back when he first learned about plans for Jackson to film LotR, about how he hoped and feared for the results, esp. given his response to the Bakshi and Rankin-Bass LotR films.* He frankly admits

"I was afraid that Jackson would be just another thief 
come to take my treasure -- my hoard of Middle-earth memories.
 It was a very possessive, obsessive, dragony feeling.
   "Or worse, he might not treat them with respect . . . 

   "And I began to have hope . . . 

". . . And the movies came, and they were more than good.
 To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, they were beauties that pierced 
like sword or burned like cold iron. It was clear 
that the filmmakers, like the elves of Lorien, 
put the thought of all that they loved into all
 that they made."

So. Stephen Colbert: for being an unabashed Tolkien fan in a very public place, we salute you.

--John R.

current dvd: BARBARELLA

* "while I was happy to see someone finally take a live-action stab at the trilogy, I was worried. Because with previous attempts at bringing LOTR to the screen, I had been burned. Take Ralph Bakshi's 1978 quasi-animated Lord of the Rings, a mishmash of The Fellowship and The Two Towers that never even finished the story. And of the 1980 Rankin/Bass The Return of the King, the less said the better. We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!" --Stephen Colbert, December 2014

Saturday, January 10, 2015

And here's another of our cat FEANOR

And, not to be left out, here's some pictures of our cat Feanor, also from Anne (for which many thanks). I''m happy to say that at his official weigh-in on Thursday at McMonigle's, our most excellent local vet, is now down to a slimmer 16.65 pounds, after having peaked at 20 pounds a few years ago.* We've had him on a diet that has taken off about a pound a year, so that he now, while not exactly sleek, no longer has his tummy sway from side to side when he walks. The vet is going to keep an eye on him to make sure the weight loss is due to the diet and not early warning signs of hyperthyroidism or  anything of the sort (given that Feanor, like Hastur, has now reached the mature age of twelve).

Feanor clearly felt the effects of his booster shots and the upset of visiting his least favorite place, but he's loved the extra attention he's gotten the past two days: much petting, having a soft blanket laid down for him in front of the fire, and the like. He's a cat that spends a lot of time alone but blossoms under attention, happily purring when petted and made much of.

So, here's the pictures.

--John R.

*cf. my earlier post, "My Cat Weighs Twenty Pounds"

and here's an interim report from about two years ago

Here's a good picture of our cat HASTUR

So, here's a nice picture of Hastur, our little psycho kitty. Looking at it, I realize I really only take snapshots, intended to remind me of people (including cats &c), places, and things I find striking. The contrast with a photograph taken with a good-quality camera by someone who knows what she's doing is impressive. So thanks to Anne T. for the photo.

And, while we're at it, here's a picture of me, taken at Lincoln Park in West Seattle a week ago. I've been assured that the cane, which I do not normally use, adds years. Once again thanks to Anne for the image.

--John R.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Return of The Cat Report

So, between the trip to Arkansas and the holiday schedule, i've been remiss about writing up notes on how the cats are doing; I'll try to do better in 2015.

Have to say how happy I am about all the end-of-year/holiday season adoptions: Buxter (who had to wait so long for her turn -- since May!), The Kittens (Avalonea and Hagruphus), Toulouse and Monet (now "Cuddles" and "Whiskers"), the Other Kittens (Wysteria and Fuschia, who were adopted, unadopted, and readopted), and Maebe (to my friends Owen and LJ). It was a real pleasure to visit Maebe (now Maeb) in her new home and see how much they wanted to make her feel at home. 

By last week (W.Dec. 31st) we were down to just three cats: ANUBUS AUGUSTUS ('Gus')Mr. TIZZY, and little PANYA. That meant a lot of time to devote to each cat, with walks for all. Tizzy thinks the store is a big, big place. Also, there are dogs. And he gets lost and doesn't know how to get back to the cat room, which starts him meowing. He's the friendly sort, though, and when he spots people he likes to follow them, no doubt thinking they must know where they're going. Anubus was reluctant, and vocal, and didn't stay out long. The real surprise was discovering that Panya has learned all about walking. The week before it'd been all I cd do to stop her from bolting under the shelves (I managed to convince her she wdn't fit), and we'd spent most of her walk in the little corridor with the manager's office and snack machines. She'd been really nervous until she smelled a little piece of sawdust by the door behind which they keep the extra birds &c. That interested her greatly. Then she found a piece or two of dried hay of some sort and happily ate it. That must have made for a good memory, for this week she came right out and explored. She loves to roll over and lie belly-up on the concrete.

I'd brought in two peacock feathers as a special treat, and all three cats loved them. Unfortunately Tizzy and Gus didn't stand a chance: Panya declared that All Games Belong To Her and took them away. It was the same with any other game I broke out: the others might show an interest, but Panya wound up with it all her own sooner or later through sheer manic energy.

Did notice one endearing behavior on TIzzy's part: if he notices anybody watching him through the windows, he mews at them. 

In the time between last week and this week a new cat (EMMA LOVE) arrived, settled in, and got adopted, all without my ever having seen her. Great news that she spent so little time finding her new home, though I'm sorry not to have met what sounds like an amazing purrbox of a cat.

This week (W.Jan 7th 2015) we were back to the same three cats again: ANUBUS, TIZZY, and PANYA. In just the short time since last week Panya had declared herself the Boss Cat, with neither of the others interested in challenging her (though her energy seems to bother Mr. Tizzy sometimes; think he'd prefer a little more peace and quiet). Anubus was funny: last week I'd showed him the blankets on the top shelf inside the cabinet, and he'd loved it as the Best Hiding Place Ever. Clearly he remembered it too, because I'd no sooner let him out today than he climbed to the top of the nearest cat-stand, launched himself onto that shelf, and burrowed back to settle happily into a nice soft nest, hidden from the world. It was particularly funny showing him to visitors in the room, since he was entirely invisible with his eyes closed but reappeared when he opened them.  One woman who visited was very taken with Anubus because he reminder her of own cat, who she said had been adopted from our cat-room six years back (before my time) and who'd died just two days before.  In any case, she petted and fussed over Gus and I think it did them both good. 

Mr. Tizzy settled himself on the cat-stand furthest from the door, where he mostly slept the day away. Tried to interest him in games but he kept dozing off. He's a lazy predator, wanting the game to come to him so all he has to do is swipe a paw. He did love being wiped down with a wet cloth, which from his reaction I think reminded him of being bathed as a kitten. Need to figure out something he really enjoys that Panya can't take away from him. Did notice that he's not at all afraid of dogs, though he watches them carefully. Panya too is brave around dogs and actually sniffed two (one of them a miniature greyhound) through the fence at one point. 

One of my fellow volunteers came in to visit the cats during my shift, and it was fun to watch the cats' reaction to her: Augustus came out of where he'd been hiding and Tizzy mewed at her, while Panya of course wanted to play. Definitely got to see a different side of them when she was there. Good to remember that the behavior I see out of the cats can be very different from how they act around others.

All three cats got walks (brief for Augustus, moderate for Tizzy, lengthy for Panya), during which he got petted by one of the kind ladies at Banfield. 

There's no doubt that little Panya was the star of the morning, especially after I set out the fence so she could lie outside the room and show off her stuff pouncing on little mousies -- the mouse-on-a-string toy was far and away her favorite. No less than three sets of people came by who expressed an interest in adopting her. It was fun to see the little girl accompanying one of these people solemnly playing with Panya through the fence. Another visitor had recently lost her cat and I think looked at all three of ours as a sort of first step to getting used to the idea of taking a new cat into her home. Finally there was a woman who recently lost a beloved cat (seems to be a lot of that going around -- friends of ours in our book group lost one of their two much loved cats last week) who looked almost exactly like Panya; seeing Panya seemed to be a way of reconnecting with some good memories. 

All in all, a busy day for visitors coming in to meet the cats.  Panya is the center of attention; hard to believe someone won't be won over by her charm soon, though I hope Anubus and Tizzy find homes themselves sooner rather than later.

--John R.

P.S.: Have to say it was great to see the photos of PHOENIX in her new home, very much in charge of all she surveys. And good to know that her health's improved with the weight loss. --JDR

UPDATE: An I'd no sooner posted this than I saw the news that PANYA has been adopted by one of my fellow volunteers. Great news! 

Hope it'll soon be Anubus's and Mr. Tizzy's turn.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Verlyn Flieger online lecture

So, thanks to Janice for letting me know about this one: an online lecture for the TED channel (which aims to present short, thought-provoking talks on a range of subjects) with Verlyn Flieger talking about THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Her piece is called "Imaginary Creatures -- Real Experience"; here's the link.

Having just watched this myself, I found it very good (as I wd expect from a piece by Verlyn), bringing into sharp focus an aspect of the book (and Tolkien's writing in general) that tends to get overlooked, or at least underappreciated. And, in the way the brain connects things with other things, I was struck with how well Verlyn's insights fit with a point is made by Ursula K. LeGuin in her classic essay on Frodo as Mrs Brown.*

I hope we get more pieces like this: I could watch Verlyn talking Tolkien all day long, and learn things with each new lecture.

--John R.

*"Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" [1976], in THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT [1979]; le Guin's point being that in Frodo Baggins fantasy literature had found a compelling portrayal of a small, humble, but indomitable figure of the type Virginia Woolf had lamented was not to be found in the mainstream fiction of her day.

P.S.: For those who like this sort of thing, here's a short piece by John McWhorter on constructed languages, which includes a good deal of focus on JRRT, including some amusing brief animations based on Tolkien and/or his work. Apparently it's part of a longer piece, which I have not yet seen.

Second Postscript:
I shd add that Janice's source was a post by Andrew Higgins; many thanks to A.H. for letting us know about his piece, which I'd have been sorry to have missed. -- JDR

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


So, get together with an interesting group of people and you learn interesting things. Case in point: last night's D&D session, wherein we continue our unmethodical but painstaking exploration of the BARROWMAZE.* Along with news of the sad fate of the Kalakala (an old art deco ferry they've been trying to save since around the time I first moved out here) and some live-action anime casting (if that's not too much of a contradiction) I found out about the recent discovery of the causeway to the Great Pyramid. I was not aware it was missing, and that the drawings of the pyramid complex I've seen apparently contain a large degree of conjecture. Thus I was glad to learn of this find, and that it was less like a roadway and more like a ceremonial tunnel: deeply intriguing. Time I went back and resumed reading on Lehner's THE COMPLETE PYRAMIDS, which was full of photos, drawings, and maps of all the known pyramid complexes.

In any case, here's the news; thanks to Stan B. for the link.

P.S.: while the post itself is interesting, I'd suggest steering clear of the comments, which seem to be largely dominated by invictive aimed at the former official in charge of antiquities for the Egyptian government, who apparently didn't encourage space alien theorists and thus must suffer their wrath. On a quick skim their arguments seems to me full of grassy knolls.

--John R.

current fantasy reading: THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss (whom I'm beginning to conclude has Tad Williams disease)
current Tolkien reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY ed. Liedl & Reagin (some interesting stuff, but wobbly on the fact-checking)
current audiobook: FOOD:   CULTURAL CULINARY HISTORY by Ken Albala (The Great Courses series)
current anime: TOKYO ESP (re-watching)
today's music: PYRAMID by The Alan Parsons Project

*Here's the link to a review of BARROWMAZE, for those interested: basically a great big old-school sprawling dungeon full of undead, which we've been exploring using the new 5th Edition rules.
Of course it helps when you have Steve Winter for your DM and fellow former TSR employees making up the bulk of the players.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy Tolkien's Birthday!

Happy Tolkien's Birthday, all.

--John R.

--current Tolkien-related reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY, ed. Liedl & Reagin