Monday, March 27, 2017

The Worst Book on Tolkien Ever Written?

So, there are many contenders for the worst book ever written on Tolkien. There are biographies that make up events that never happened. There are source-studies by those who can't tell credible evidence from casual resemblance. There are people with bees in their bonnets who think that because something deeply interests them it must have interested Tolkien too, despite the lack of any evidence thereto. Some are pedants inflicting a particular jargon on the reader and some have agendas, wanting to recruit Tolkien to shed a little shared glory on their cause.  And there are a few who are just plain crazy.

This is really not surprising: with so many books on Tolkien coming out over fifty years and more (by my estimate I have roughly two hundred on my shelves, and that's not counting the books by Tolkien himself), there are bound to be a few bad apples. But to be so egregiously bad as to stand out takes some doing. And stand out E. Michael Jones's TOLKIEN'S FAILED QUEST (2015) certainly does.

What can you say about a book that faults Tolkien for not being racist enough?

Jones' book, TOLKIEN'S FAILED EPIC, is an e-book (really a chapbook) unavailable, so far as I cd tell, in print form. His thesis is that Tolkien's work fails because while Tolkien  borrowed most of his symbolism and motifs from Wagner, he downplayed and diluted the anti-Semitic message inherent in his source materials.  Or, to put it another way, he thinks that in writing THE HOBBIT, Tolkien  attempted "a corrective re-write of Wagner's anti-Semitic Ring cycle". But since Jones approves of that anti-Semitism, he concludes that  'The legacy of Tolkien's philo-Semitism is unsolvable artistic problems, leading to an ultimately incoherent book'. Or again, 'Tolkien denied his intellectual debt to Wagner because familiarity with Wagner exposed the incoherence of his own writings.'

It does not help that Jones reads Wagner as purely a socio-economic tract (e.g., "In Wagner, the Tarnhelm symbolizes the invisibility of the creditor class in a capitalist society"). That Wagner was a composer whose given medium was music seems never to have occurred to him.  Jones also expects his reader to already be familiar with, and agree with, his (somewhat incoherent) economic agenda (mostly he just rattles on about the gold standard).* Sometimes his prejudices and preconceptions prevent him from seeing what's actually in the text he's trying to impose his views upon. Thus he takes the reference in THE HOBBIT where Thorin talks about the good old days when they didn't need to work as farmers to feed themselves and instead had more time for mining and metalsmithing and crafting: this, in Jones' eyes, is a sign that dwarves, and Jews, are lazy. Again, Jones is quite open in his racism, describing the aftermath of the dwarves' loss of their homeland in the opening of THE HOBBIT movie as "they had to endure the biggest insult of all, they had to work for a living, something alien to the Jewish race". Just in case we don't get his point, he goes on to quote Shakespeare and Aquinas on the "Jewish aversion to work". Similarly, the death of the Master of Lake Town is attributed to "The Aristocracy [being] corrupted by its addiction to Jewish usury and gold".

Jones' book ends on an unexpected and nasty note, as he abandons Wagner and Tolkien alike for a blast of pure anti-Semitism: "The solution to the current economic crisis is the same solution to every other economic crisis of the past 500 years, namely, the elimination of usury. Once usury is eliminated from the economy, those who have profited from it -- the Jews and the modern day Cahorsins -- must make restitution. They must return their ill-gotten usurious gains to the people from whom they stole them. We're talking here about the transfer of roughly $15 trillion back into the pockets of American citizens".

All in all, perhaps it's not surprising that E. Michael Jones is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a purveyor of hate speech.

In the end, it's rather to Tolkien's credit that he doesn't pass muster from such a dodgy perspective.

It's good to fail sometimes, when the standard being judged by are so appalling.

--John R.
current reading: THE GREY MANE OF MORNING

*But then his whole piece is fairly incoherent, with its references to Fatima, and Franco (a "so-called fascist") and Aquinas and Roy Campbell and Baron Rothschild and some guy who was head of the Bank of England in the 1930s and the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, among others. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

thag you very buch

So, today I'm feeling like Bilbo at Lake Town.

Here I am at Marquette, having cleared the deck and made all the arrangements to see the manuscripts. I know what I want to do and I have all the materials to do it with. And I'd no sooner set to work then I came down with a cold.

After a day or two of struggling to get the better of it, I opted for the plenty of bedrest + Dayquil/Nyquil routine + Allegra. Things seem to be on the mend; let's hope my second week's research goes better than the first.

--John R.
current reading: not much.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hope for the Bees

So, here's a bit of good news for a change: a total ban on neo-nicotoids, the pesticides strongly suspected of causing 'Colony Collapse Disorder'. It's taken several years to sort out the cause from the effects, but we've finally got a consensus straight out of Rachel Carson. Here's hoping that at some point the U.S. follows suit.

--John R.
reading: manuscripts!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Milton Waldman Wednesday"

So, today was a good day in the Archives.

Whenever I arrive for another of my periodic research trips, the first day I'm somewhat overwhelmed. So much to see, so much to do, so much to read, so much to try to find out.  Plus there are a lot of memories, good and bad, from my time at Marquette and in Milwaukee. Then during the second day things settle down a bit; I get a sense of how best to go about doing what I want to get done.

That pattern's certainly repeating itself this trip. Yesterday being my first day I was all over the place, picking up the threads of where I left off during my last trip, back in September (and the one before that, back in May). Today I started to come to grips with things, ruled out a few false starts, and got going. It's early days yet, but I'm hopeful of getting a lot done during this visit.

So today I had a very minor discovery that made me feel good. I was trying to work out the sequencing of things like the earliest title pages (including the ones with 'herumillion' on it) and the first table of contents, in which chapter 12. 'The Ring [Goes South >] Sets Out' was followed by just two more, as yet unwritten, chapters: 13. The Return of Gollum (which wd eventually become Book IV chapter 1) and 14. The City of Stone (which wd become the basis of Book V Chapter 1; The City of Stone = Ondor/stone land = Gondor; i.e. Minas Tirith). Tolkien knew there wd be at least one more chapter after that, so he wrote down a 15 as a placeholder but did not put a chapter title next to it; if he had, I suspect from various early outlines that it wd have been something like The Cracks of Doom.

All this is well-known, and deeply revealing about just how short a book JRRT thought THE LORD OF THE RINGS wd be. But what I found today related to efforts Tolkien thought of making with the goal of making the book shorter.  On an old mailer which once held various notes relating to LotR (esp., it seems, its early stages) I noticed a faint pencilling of the words

Milton Waldman

This seems to have been a reminder by Tolkien that he was going to meet with Waldman, or at least be in touch with him that day. This is of course the person at Collins who tried to lure him away from Allen & Unwin with what turned out to be empty promises to publish THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION together. Given that background, the other jottings on the outside of the same mailer perhaps gain some context. First in ink Tolkien wrote notes to 'cut slightly' Bk II Chapter 1 (='Many Meetings') and to 'cut some?' from the beginning of Bk II Chapter 2 ('The Council of Elrond'. And below this, with a different pen, he jotted down 'Reversal subject' and 'beginning of pass. [=passage?] where speaker combines.'

These I can't make much of, but it seems clear that Waldman was trying to get Tolkien to cut down THE LORD OF THE RINGS some, and Tolkien was making a good-faith effort to trim a bit here and there. In the end it wdn't be enough: Collins demanded huge cuts, Tolkien refused and withdrew the book. It was not until Rayner Unwin put two and two together and did some mending of fences that efforts to publish LotR, through Allen & Unwin got back on track again.

In the end, Allen & Unwin did publish LotR in all its thousand-page glory, and a quarter-century later THE SILMARILLION as well (which spent over twenty weeks at #1 on the NYT bestseller's list), while Collins merged with Harper Brothers to become Harper-Collins, Tolkien's publisher today.

For me, the most important takeaway from this elusive little snippet is that it suggests Waldman was more hands on in his dealings with Tolkien than had heretofore been my impression, to the point of considering specific passages in the work that might stay or go. Here's hoping that someone writes a definitive, detailed account of the whole Waldman/Collins episode at some point. There's quite an interesting story there, if anyone has access to the materials (publisher's files, correspondence, &c) from which to reconstruct it.

--John R.
current reading: THE END OF THE THIRD AGE (endlessly fascinating), THE GREY MANE OF MORNING (dour)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tolkien in NEWSWEEK (special issue)

So,  thanks to Janice and to Jeff for the heads up and the links* letting me know that NEWSWEEK recently released a special issue dedicated to Tolkien. The full title--


--gives a good sense of its overall tone. First we have Alan Lee sharing his belief that "In a few hundred years' time, people will be looking back at him as being part of the canon of literature, fitting in with Chaucer and Spenser. I've become more and more sure of that" (p. 6).  Then there's the magazine itself, calling him "One of England's most famous literary giants" and "the 20th century's most imaginative writer" (both p. 6). We're told that he and Lewis "dominated the world's imagination" (p. 24); when Tolkien died "the world lost one of its greatest storytellers" (p. 74)

In support of Tolkien's greatness they have marshaled a good array of Tolkien scholars: Shippey, Flieger, Alan Lee, as well as Lewisian Alan Jacobs, fantasy scholar Farah Mendlesohn, Tolk-clone Terry Brooks and, not directly but quoting from previous interviews, R. R. Martin, Peter Jackson, and even Christopher Tolkien. Quite a lot of these well-informed and knowledgable people have a good deal to say, making it unfortunate that most of these are represented by a brief quote rather than anything in-depth. Such is the nature of the beast.

The photos are well-done and wide-ranging, as we might expect. It's too bad that despite obvious efforts on the part of the unidentified authors of this special issue (none of the journalists involved are credited for their work), the thing was apparently never fact-checked; the end result is full of errors, albeit mostly small(ish) ones. These tend to cluster rather than being evenly spread throughout the magazine -- for example, the biographical sections seemed particularly apt at getting things not-quite-right, while the section on Tolkien's legacy seems to have been written by someone who knew a good deal about his or her subject. Who cd resist the perfectly accurate description of the creation of modern fantasy having been a 'unintended consequence'  of his book's being so successful. (p. 69).

One fun little bit I enjoyed was the picture of Alan Lee in front of his book shelves (p. 54-55), where you can make out a some, but not all, of the names of the books, including THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, Wells'  THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES and THE FIRST MEN ON THE MOON along with what looks to be a whole shelf of Wells' works; Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE and SNOW CRASH, works by Turtledove and Stirling and Tepper, and a great many Tolkiens. I was bemused to see that THE DRAGONLANCE CHRONICLES by Hickman & Weis made it, up on the top shelves just above the Wells: while it only shows the bottom half of the book, sans title, that's enough to recognize Elmore's distinctive cover art.  And in keeping with the D&D being recognized as now an increasingly accepted part of the fantasy tradition, the art on p. 71 to accompany the Tolkien-&-fantasy section shows three things: a novel (THE SWORD OF SHANNARA), a movie poster (HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE), and a set of D&D rules (4th edition; the one by Frank Mentzer, again with a Larry Elmore cover).

So, nice to see Tolkien getting this little pop culture tribute.**  I cd easily see this issue being for someone out there like the little figure on the cake from Tolkien's SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR.

--John R.


**others who have been the subject of previous 'Special Editions' in the past including Star Trek (twice), Star Wars, Harry Potter, Harrison Ford, and Sharks, just to put it all into perspective.

--current reading: NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman (just finished). THE GREY MANE OF MORNING (just started re-reading, twenty-eight years after the only other time I read it), and THE END OF THE THIRD AGE (HME.IXa), the first time I've read it as a stand-alone book.
--current viewing: SILENT MOBIUS (very much of its time).

Friday, March 17, 2017


So, as I noted yesterday, the Chris Mitchell memorial volume was one of two books to arrive together, the other being John Carswell's TOLKIEN'S REQUIEM: CONCERNING BEREN AND LUTHIEN. At just seventy-four pages, this is more a chapbook than a book, but then there's a long tradition of chapbooks in Tolkien studies, going back to the legended days of T.-K. Graphics (of which I still have two or three on my shelves).

This particular effort summarizes the story of Beren and Luthien and discusses how it works out various themes Tolkien considered important. It has a few minor glitches (Huan is not a "mighty wolf-beast" and Beleriand does not lie east of the Blue Mountains) but they don't affect the argument.

The only real problem with this book is one of audience. Carswell looks only at the legend as it appears in THE SILMARILLION, not at the many other versions Tolkien wrote of it. But anyone who's likely to buy a book like this on a specialized aspect of Tolkien studies like this is likely to have already read THE SILMARILLION on his or her own, in which case he or she wdn't need this entry-level introduction. It reminds me of the late great Paul Kocher, whose second book* basically told the reader what happened in THE SILMARILLION. But anyone picking up Kocher's book was likely to have already read THE SILMARILLION and been looking for something that went deeper than just telling them what they'd already know. A book like A SKELETON KEY TO FINNEGANS WAKE is helpful because Joyce's FINNEGANS WAKE is (deliberately) incomprehensible at first reading; whereas the difficulty of reading Tolkien's THE SILMARILLION was largely limited to the need to keep track of a lot of very similar names and was much exaggerated by professional book reviewers of the time.

Carswell may be fortunate in one thing: the forthcoming publication of Christopher Tolkien's edition of the Beren & Luthien story may attract readers to his little book that wd otherwise have overlooked it.

--John R.

*Kocher's first book, MASTER OF MIDDLE EARTH, was the best of all the early (pre-Carpenter) books on Tolkien and I'd still rank it in the top ten even today.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

New Arrivals (Chris Mitchell memorial)

So, last week's mail brought two new books I'd ordered: CHRIS REMEMBERED and TOLKIEN'S REQUIEM.

The first is a collection of memorial tributes to Chris Mitchell, former head of the Wade Center, who died in the summer of 2014. Hard to believe that's been almost three years ago now. A number of such tributes (including mine) were posted to the Wheaton website at the time. Those and many more have now been collected into a book, the full title of which is CHRIS -- REMEMBERED: REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF CHRISTOPHER W. MITCHELL, complied by Julie Mitchell, his widow.

Among the many, many contributors of pieces both brief and long are Tolkien scholars such as Marjorie Burns, Verlyn Flieger, Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, and Richard West; Lewis scholars such as James Como, Bruce Edwards, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Douglas Gresham, Rolland Hein, Don King, Andrew Lazo, Colin Manlove, Peter Schakel, Michael Ward, and Walter Hooper; Inkling scholars such as David C. Downing, Sorina Higgins, as well as colleagues such as Laura Schmidt, Jerry Root, Marjorie Mead; family, friends, students, fellow teachers, and members of his local church.

My own contribution does not begin to scratch the surface. It's available on the Wade tribute site, and on pages 25-26 of this book, but I'd like to share it here as well:

I was surprised and saddened to hear of the sudden death of Chris Mitchell, former director of the Wade. I'd known Chris for going on twenty years, ever since he first came to Wheaton. I didn't see him often, usually once or twice a year -- during what had become yearly visits to do research in the Wade on various projects, and also (most years) at a yearly gathering where we would get together, along with several other like-minded folk, and exchange notes about our respective current projects.

In his public persona, Chris did a great job as Director of the Wade, shifting the earlier emphasis from collecting to making the material already there more accessible. By temperament a peacemaker, he smoothed over a long-standing feud among factions of Lewis scholars. I sometimes think that we, as Christians, put forward an unappealing face to the world: angry, intolerant, judgmental. Chris was the sort of person comfortable in his own beliefs who felt no need to attack the beliefs of others; a man who lived his religion, setting a good example to us all. He genuinely liked people and enjoyed
meeting new people. This made him a good representative for the Wade; it also made him a person people enjoyed spending time with.

Over time he grew tired of administration: being the public face of the Wade left little time for his own scholarship (he had  solid background in theology, with a special interest in Jonathan Edwards, from his beloved St. Andrews) and he also wanted to return to teaching. Given that he could explain C. S. Lewis's ideas rather better than Lewis himself could, I was very much looking forward to the works he would have produced, given time. I'm glad he got the chance to make the change, and it was clear to see how much he was enjoying new life on the West Coast, closer to his beloved Pacific Northwest. I'm only sorry he didn't have more time: to enjoy teaching, to write more books on Lewis (and Lewis & Tolkien, et al), to hike and fish and enjoy the great outdoors he loved so much.

He was a good man. A born teacher. A scholar with things to say. I'm glad I got to know him. I'll miss him.

rest in peace.
--John R.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Thanks to Paul W. for sharing with me the news that my old module RETURN TO THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS was under discussion online:

   Without going into too much detail, I can confirm the guess one of the posters made that this adventure was never intended to be set in Mystara. I did a lot of work on Mystara during my time at TSR -- e.g. WRATH OF THE IMMORTALS (ed & dev), MARK OF AMBER (edited Jeff's text, added the timeline, and created the audio-cd dialogue), HAIL THE HERO (ed), the PLAYER'S SURVIVAL KIT (wrote), Mystara MC (edited a quarter of the whole). But that game world had gone into abeyance when TSR collapsed, and its great champion, Bruce Heard, was not among those who made the transition to Wizards of the Coast. Another factor that has to be taken into account is that several drafts of the D&D movie were set in Glantri, which meant a mandated hands-off approach for the game world so far as rpg products went.

   Similarly, it was not intended to be a Greyhawk adventure either. I deliberately wrote it to not be world-specific. Which made it a nasty shock when Powers That Be slapped a GREYHAWK logo on the back cover. I got a lot of grief for that from diehard Greyhawk fans at the time,* who pointed out non-Oerthian elements that made it an uneasy fit as an official World of Greyhawk release. I wdn't have been writing a GH product in any case, since there was a separate Greyhawk team among the department at WotC in charge of revitalizing that line, headed by Kij Johnson and including Roger Moore, and I think Harold Johnson during the brief time he was out in Renton; certainly Sean Reynolds, and I think Steve Miller.  In any case, any official WoG product wd have come out of their team, and I wasn't a member of it .

   It's also significant that when I was writing this adventure the clock had already started ticking to wind down Second Edition and ramp up to launch 3e (I was to be the co-editor, w. Julia Martin, of two of its three core books: the PH & DMG). I was deliberately eclectic and included passing allusions to a number of modules from the past: M2. Maze of the Riddling Minotaurs, L2. The Assassins Knot, B1. In Search of the Unknown, X2. Castle Amber, the Mark of Amber boxed set, B4. The Lost City, L1. The Secret of Bone Hill, et al. I even talked the art director into letting me reproduce, as a piece of pick-up art, a striking image depicting a swarm of stirges in silhouette from the original 1st edition DMG.

   I added into the mix other things that came out of my own campaign. To give just one example, the spellbook full of new necromancy spells, The Book of Dead Smiles, alluded to in one room description were in fact spells written up by a PC of mine, some of which later appeared in Tome and Blood, while others saw print in Secret College of Necromancy from Green Ronin.  Other allusions come from far and wide: a group of inattentive guards who are playing MtG; the punchline from a Yamara cartoon (from before Yamara got weird); a character from one of the all-time great fantasy short stories (Frank Stockton's 1887 "Bee Man of Orn"); a god's name taken from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide radio show ('Quonzar' simply being Zarquon swapped around).

   I have to confess, though, that all this eclecticism was not just for its own sake. I meant what I said in that third paragraph: "one of the greatest strengths of AD&D is its endless adaptability" (Return to the Keep p. 2). There it refers to home rules, but it's equally applicable to claim a little ground back from game world loyalists. It was common practice for gamers to freely adapt modules from various game worlds into their ongoing campaign. But by the mid to late '90s players were more and more locked into pregenerated game worlds, with those who liked Greyhawk avoiding The Forgotten Realms, fans of the Known World keeping their distance from Birthright, and so forth. In what was explicitly billed as an introductory module, I wanted to establish precedent for taking and adapting published adventures to a given DMs' ongoing campaign,** and for taking interesting characters or plots or groups over from one module to another, even if the latter was not part of the same continuity.  I thought that was as important in an instructional module as the scenes designed to promote role-playing (e.g., what do you do with an evil character who's not just friendly but downright helpful? Do you have enough sense to know to run away when you're in over your head?).

   Finally, re. one specific point raised in the online discussion, I can lay one speculation to rest.
Unfortunately, while I still have my copy of Jeff Grubb's "Warriors of the Gray Queen", I've misplaced my copy of Ed Stark's "The Displaced" and don't remember this mini-adventure well enough to recall specific details. But I can confirm that I don't have any memory of Duiran the Dwarf and am sure that he was not created by me and never figured in my adventure at any point. Ed was in my playtest of Return to the Keep, which I ran over lunchtimes at the WotC office for several weeks; perhaps Duiran was his character, though that's just speculation on my part. I assume Aseneth the necromancer was dropped as a player-character in the mini-adventure over qualms over having an evil pregen PC.
   'Con' by the way is a misprint for 'Cob', the character's name in my adventure.

--John R.

            *one of the reasons I've largely stayed away from forums ever since.

**This is not to say that I don't enforce strict conformity to the continuity and rules when editing a product set in a specific game world, like RAVENLOFT, SPELLJAMMER, al-QADIM, EBBERON, &c., all of which I worked on at some point. I literally have a button that reads The most rabid literary purist -- which my wife got for me after a Tolkien friend of mine concluded discussion of some point relating to Tolkien's work with the remark that 'only the most rabid literary purist' could disagree, and I promptly challenged him on the point.