Thursday, June 21, 2018

I Was Wrong (The 1930 Hobbit)

So, as I mentioned in my last post, the newly arrived splendidly illustrated catalogue for the current Bodleian Tolkien exhibit, TOLKIEN: MAKER OF MIDDLE EARTH by Catherine McIlwaine, contains valuable new information about the dating of THE HOBBIT.

For years we've been bedeviled by contradictory information as to when Tolkien started the book: Tolkien's emphatic statement that it was after he moved to the new house on Northmoor Road, vs. his two eldest sons' insistence that it had been at some point while they were still at their previous house (right next door), and therefore sometime between 1926 and 1929. Now we have new evidence which makes the earlier date certain. McIlwaine writes

Tolkien began to write The Hobbit in the late 1920s, 
reading it to his sons in instalments during the evening
in his study, the proper 'place for such amusements'.*
His eldest son John recorded in his diary for New Year's 
Day 1930, 'In the Afternoon we played in the Nursery. 
After tea Daddy read The Hobbit'.
(McIlwaine p. 290)

That about as decisive as anyone cd possibly wish. This is the best kind of evidence: first hand, contemporary, and unambiguous. We're lucky to have it.  I'll have to go back and revise my account in MR. BAGGINS giving the chronology of the book's writing.

My preliminary conclusion in the light of this new evidence is that what we have in JRRT's account of sitting at this study in the new house on a summer's day writing that iconic first sentence of his book is a composite memory. In his 1964/65 Guerroult radio BBC interview he describes a mental image that he now realizes is a 'beautifully worked out pastiche' of his father's house in Bloemfontein with his grandfather's house in Birmingham, features of both appearing in a composite in his memory. Something of the same must have been the case in his memory of creating that first page of THE HOBBIT.

Now if only more evidence wd turn up to help nail down when Tolkien finished the book as well.

--John R.

*quoted from LETTERS OF JRRT, p. 21

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Bodleian Tolkien Exhibit Catalogue

So, Thursday we found a note on the door that FedEx had failed to deliver a parcel but wd try again. The next day a heavy (6kg) package arrived from Oxford, being the two catalogues for the just-opened Tolkien Bodleian Exhibit. One, TOLKIEN: MAKER OF MIDDLE-EARTH is a four hundred page work showing the more than 180 items that make up the exhibit (an 'item' sometimes being multiple pages, such as several closely related maps or letters. The second is TOLKIEN TREASURES, a smaller a hundred and forty-four page softcover filled with gems from the displays; this one concentrates mostly on the art work with fewer manuscripts, letters, and photographs.
Both are by Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodley's Tolkien Archivist. It'll take time to absorb the riches contained in these books, but a few things do pop out on a first page-through.

First off, this is a beautiful book. It doesn't just reproduce a stunning array from Tolkien's papers but also has a lot of information. The first eighty pages of the book contain six essays by Tolkien luminaries:

J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch by Catherine McIlwaine
Tolkien and the Inklings by John Garth
Faerie: Tolkien's Perilous Land by Verlyn Flieger
Inventing Elvish by Carl F. Hostetter
Tolkien and 'that noble northern spirit' by Tom Shippey
Tolkien's Visual Art by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

There's much here, and in the pages that follow, that I'll enjoy going through and absorbing, esp. since it now looks like I'll be able to see the exhibit after all sometime near the end of its run. I've already been struck by the first page of THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, by Terence (later Terry) Pratchett's thoughtful fan letter re SWM, by the news that Tolkien was part of the Cretaceous Perambulators (I have to go back now and compare the text given in the little 1983 pamphlet of the same name with Tolkien's draft text on Catalogue p..245), by the realization that Tolkien kept a good deal of his fan letters, or at least a judicious selection of the cream of the crop (e.g.,, the one he got from Iris Murdoch -- didn't spot the one from Mary Renault, alas).

All in all, a wealth of material, highly recommended to anyone interested in Tolkien's life and interested in this extended glimpse into how his mind worked as an author (and artist and linguist).

One particular highlight for me is conclusive evidence that Tolkien had already started work on THE HOBBIT before summer 1930, which I had argued was the no-earlier-than-by date.  Thanks to a mention in Fr. John Tolkien's diary for 1930 we know know JRRT was several chapters into the book by New Year's Day, a few months earlier. So I was wrong about Tolkien's start date, a topic important enough that I'd like to devote a separate post to it.

But for now, and between now and when I'm over there, I'll be reading and re-reading this major acquisition too my Tolkien Library.

--John R.
--current reading: BEYOND NEW HORIZONS

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Danny Kirwan dies

So, yesterday I heard about the death of Danny Kirwan, the chief creative force behind my favorite Fleetwood Mac album, BARE TREES (1972). Kirwan had joined the group when he was eighteen or nineteen and been fired when he was about twenty-two, about the age most folks finish college, mainly for being a mean drunk, and spent most of the succeeding years a derelict. A pity, since I think he was the most talented of all the many talented guitarists to pass through that group in its half-century of existence. I'd even go so far as to say that I think the Kirwan/Christine McVie dominated BARE TREES deserves to be ranked with the much more famous Buckingham/Nicks/Christine McVie FLEETWOOD MAC 'WHITE ALBUM' and RUMOURS. In addition to songs like the title track and 'Child of Mine', Kirwan's best instrumental ('Sunny Side of Heaven')* can be found here as well as well as the playful near-instrumental 'Danny's Chant'. And now the grimly beautiful 'Dust' takes on new resonance: melancholic but melodic.**

When the white flame in us 
  is gone 
And we that lost the world's delight
  Stiffen in darkness
Left alone
  To crumble in our separate night

When your swift hair is quiet in death
  And through your lips corruption 
Thrusts to steal the labour of my breath

When we are dust 
When we are dust  
When we are dust  

--John R.
--today's album: BARE TREES; today's song: DUST; current reading CHASING NEW HORIZONS by Stern & Grinspoon

*even better, perhaps, is the instrumental version of his song 'Dragonfly' as adapted by the London Rock Orchestra
**the lyrics are taken from a Rupert Brooke poem, the latter stanzas of which are rather more hopeful than Kirwan's version. The album also includes the great Christine McVie piece about being on the road, 'Homeward Bound'.

Friday, June 15, 2018

North Texas RPG Con

So, this time last week I was in Dallas, attending the NORTH TEXAS RPG CONVENTION as one of their special guests. I'd been a bit apprehensive about going, giving that a lot of living legends in TSR history wd be there -- like Tim Kask, the original editor of THE DRAGON and later champion for FINIEOUS FINGERS, who I never did meet; and Merle Rasmussen, creator of the original TOP SECRET, who I did.*

As it turns out, folks were very welcoming and I had a great time.** I got to play not one but two sessions of my favorite game (1st edition AD&D), both run by Paul Stormberg, who I knew as a Greyhawk guru and friend of Dave Sutherland in the latter's latter days; we've exchanged the occasional gaming-related email with over the years.

The first game was THE MANSION OF MAD PROFESSOR LUDLOW by Jim Ward. This had appeared in one of the first issues of DRAGON magazine I ever saw (the mid-40s) back when I was just getting into the hobby, years before I met and came to work for Jim. We all played boy (and girl) scouts exploring the weird mansion of a mad scientist; v. Jim Ward-ian.

The second game was the sample dungeon from the original DMG expanded into a full-length module. A great idea, and we had great fun with it. I remember Jonathan Tweet having worked on his own version of this at some point (presumably adapted to third edition) but don't recall if that ever got into print. I'm only sorry we didn't get all the way through (prob. inevitable in a four-hour slot). Anyway, a good time had by all.

The third game was a change of pace: Jeff Grubb running a CALL OF CTHULHU scenario of his own. Inspired by the original Lovecraft story that gives the game its name, it pitted our curious but clueless Miskatonic University college students against Weird Creepy and Violent Supernatural Things Going On. I'd played an earlier version of this a good ten years or more ago but that didn't prevent my enjoying this iteration.

I never did locate the Tolkien gaming room until the last evening of the con (having walked right by it all weekend), when I sat in on a session of The One Ring rpg; from what I saw I'm impressed yet again now good a job they did of crafting a Tolkien-specific rpg. Pity about the (near) tpk.

And then of course there was the Dealers' Room, from which I emerged with a book about Dave Arneson and a recent reprint of DARK TOWER, the first module I ever bought but now in rather dilapidated condition; having a new copy has filled me with the ambition to run it. If I get to go back next year, this wd be my choice of what to run. That, and the old D&D module MAZE OF THE RIDDLING MINOTAURS adapted from solo to group play.***

A good trip, and some great games. We need more events like this one.

--John R.

* more recent luminaries included Jon Petersen, who is continuing the good work of PLAYING AT THE WORLD on his blog, which I definitely need to start checking out on a regular basis.

**it helped to see familiar faces like Jeff Grubb, Steve Winter, and Bill Webb, who I see in my (more or less) weekly D&D game, plus getting to meet some folks I'd previously only known from online.

***my copy fortunately being fully keyed.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

More on the Oxford Exhibit

So, David B. has posted a detailed and appreciative description of the Tolkien Exhibit at the Bodleian:

And John Garth has published a review of the exhibit and relates the thoughts it evoked for him about the interconnectivity of all Tolkien's work.

In addition to the exhibit itself, the Special Events that will accompany it throughout its run have begun:

I don't know the first of the three named speakers (whose name has now rotated out of the updated site), but I'm told by someone who was there that Verlyn and Dimitra were "were brilliant as ever". I don't doubt it.

Reading through David's and Garth's piece has started me thinking that with Tolkien everything we have is at the cost of something else. We wd like there to be more paintings, but we shd know that they'd be at the cost of more stories. Or more stories, but that wd come at the cost of some scholarship. Or more scholarship, but that wd cost us more on the languages. It's all connected, and each piece we have is at the cost of something we don't have.

Or, to put it another way: what we don't have (e.g. SILMARILLION) we don't have because we do have something else (e.g., THE LORD OF THE RINGS).

--John R.
--waiting in the airport for my flight to Dallas and an Old School rpg convention: NTrpgCON