Sunday, May 26, 2019

TSR Games Library (Lake Geneva Days)

So, recently I came across some pictures of gamers gaming that I thought I'd share. These were taken in the old Games Library in the TSR building sometime between October 1991, when I came on board, and December 1996, when I walked the plank. Since no one appears in them who came on in 1995-96, my guess is they date from '93-'94.*

If you've never worked for a game company, you may have wondered what people who write and edit rpgs all day long do on their breaks. The answer is they play games for fun between playing games for work.

The Games Library was supposed to be our reference library, containing every rpg, wargame, and boardgame TSR had ever produced (though many, esp. the rarer items, had gone missing), as well as many by other companies: many review copies for DRAGON magazine wound up here. Having worked in a library during my undergraduate days,  I took it on myself to organize the Games Library and to add new TSR products as they came out. But mostly it was our dedicated gaming area, where you cd set up a complicated boardgame and still have it be there the next day, and the next, and the next, for however long it took.** It was also a good place to run short scenarios of rpgs: I remember running GANGBUSTERS and BOOT HILL at  one pt when I was educating myself on old before-my-day TSR rpgs.

Here are the four photos that turned up:

Photo #1, right to left: Bruce Heard, Jon Pickens, Thomas Reid. For the obscured figure to the right, see photo #4 below. In the background between Bruce and Jon is the infamous Whiteboard.

 Photo #2: Rich Baker (left) and Bill Slavisek (right).

 Photo #3: Colin McComb to the left, with I think Bruce Nesbit on the right.

Photo #4, left to right: Thomas Reid, Jon Pickens, Bruce Heard, and Steve Winter. An alternate shot of #1, where this time you can see Steve at the right but not Thomas's face to the left.

I showed these to Steve Winter and Jeff Grubb, who were able to confirm my i.d.s; ironically Steve's face having been the one I cdn't identify on my own. Steve was even able to identify what boardgame they were playing.

--John R.
current reading: BOGIE TALES OF EAST ANGLIA (1891; rpt 2019)
-- the rules to MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY: THE RESTRICTED COLLECTION, which I hope to play later today.

*Bill Slavisek, who came in about a year after I did, appears, so that narrows it a bit.

**I remember one BLUE MAX game that ran for weeks.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Rest of Kalamazoo XII

Then came the conference itself.

I attended all the Tolkien sessions on Thursday and Saturday (that being the grouping this year),
including the business meeting to plan out proposals for next year's sessions. We came up with some good topics  though I'm not sure how the paper I hope to do wd fit in under the umbrella.

I also went to the two CSL sessions (back-to-back on Friday)* and the two for Tales After Tolkien (ibid Sunday), though I missed the latter group's business meeting, not having noticed that when they changed the time they changed the location too. I thought both seem to have expanded their target audience with good effect.

I'm happy to say the overall level of the Tolkien papers was high. There were one or two that I thought cd have done with a tighter focus, but I thought the average was as good as I've seen at Kalamazoo.

Rather than try to review each paper, I'd like to mention two that stick in my mind a week and more later: the papers by Andrew Higgins and Kristin Larsen, respectively. AH has the knack of writing about Tolkien's invented languages in a way accessible to non-linguists like myself. In this case, he looked at four character's names from THE FALL OF GONDOLIN to see what use Tolkien made of them in the later mythology: Egalmoth, Ecthelion, Glorfindel, and Legolas. Of these, Egalmoth vanished altogether. Ecthelion survived only as the name of a Steward of Gondor (in fact, Denethor's father). Glorfindel resurfaced in LotR, with the original character who had borne that name being brought back to life (literally) to reappear in the later legends (cf. the last chapter of LotR Bk I and the first of LotR Bk II). And Legolas was taken over and applied to a wholly new character, as if the original elf of Gondolin had  never existed. AH concludes that Tolkien valued 'a well-crafted name' and sought to reuse them, using different strategies, when occasion offered.**

KL's piece, by contrast, was astronomical in focus, looking at Tolkien's fascination with an astronomical event that can't actually take place: the evening star appearing within the dark part of a crescent moon. She found two visual depictions of this in his early watercolors  (see MacIlwaine #65 p.203) and more in descriptions such as the original 1914 Earendel poem. For someone like me who was a serious astronomy hobbyist back in my Scouting days*** this was great stuff, especially since she tied it in with the Ptolemaic system. It's been known since ancient times that the moon is nearer us than any other astronomical body, but apparently a point of contention arose between those who thought Venus and Mercury were within the orbit of the sun, like the Earth and moon, and those who thought they lay outside the sun's circle, like the outer planets Mars and Jupiter and Saturn. After several years of close scrutiny of Tolkien's astronomical bits, she's coming to the conclusion that JRRT wasn't so much concerned to get his astronomy right as to capture his inner vision, possible or not, and that some of the stars and constellations he names may be fantasy invention and not correspond to any real-world equivalents.

My own paper was the last one in the last session Saturday. I'd finished the draft just before heading out to Kalamazoo but not had a chance to give it a trial read-aloud until Friday night. To my dismay I discovered that it took me twenty-two minutes to read, whereas we only get about fifteen minutes each on a panel. So I went in and did some fairly drastic cuts, shortening it by more than a third. When I mentioned this to the session moderator at mid-day Saturday, she said that actually we had time and it'd be fine if I did the whole piece. Which I did, grateful to not have a choppy delivery the way it wd have been in the abridged version.

As for the conference as a whole, there was actually a boycott going on in which Medievalists Of Color were staying away in protest over a recent dust-up between those sympathetic to the alt-right and social justice warriors. It was hard to tell if this was having much of an effect or not. On the one hand, the Tolkien sessions were really well attended and pretty much filled the room most of the time. On the other, the dealer's room was really quiet: there didn't seem to be many people book-buying until lateish on Saturday afternoon, when things really picked up.

Courtesy of Nodens Books (thanks Doug), I was able to have two recent things I worked on available in the book room: the little chapbook CHU-BU AND SHEEMISH, and the Flieger festschrift A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS in both hardcover and trade paperback. Hope the people who picked up one or the other enjoy them.

Myself I was extremely moderate in my book-buying this year, coming home with only four books I hadn't had when I arrived.First was a hardcover of THAT HIDEOUS NOVEL,**** and second a collection of East Anglia folktales and folklore edited by M. H. James, a cousin of the great M. R. James. Third I picked up a book on the Master himself: MEDIEVAL STUDIES AND THE GHOST STORIES OF M. R. JAMES (by Patrick J. Murphy, 2017). Finally, we made an after conf. visit to the great used bookstore in Three Rivers, a bit south of Kalamazoo itself, where I picked up the fourth, a picturebook I hope to pass along to one of my great-nieces.*****

For all the papers and panels and interesting new (and old) books, like Kalamazoos before the best of all was lots and lots of Tolkien-talk with my fellow Tolkienists.

And now to revise my Kalamazoo paper and start making notes for the follow-up piece. And turn back to CLASSICS OF FANTASY, which I had to put aside in mid-revision in order to work on my Kalamazoo paper.

--John R.
--still slogging through a dreary Seattle-based urban fantasy but looking ahead to better things, like the (MR) James and (non-MR) James books.

*organized by Joe Ricke and sponsored by the Lewis Center at Taylor College.

**this probably accounts for the slightly disconcerting presence in Gondor of some characters with Silmarillion names, like Hurin of the Keys; the name was probably no more unusual in late-Third-Age Minas Tirith than Alexander or Arthur are today.

***when I cd still see a lot more stars than is  now the case, though part of that is due to light pollution in these parts.

****not a book I'm fond of, but one I occasionally need to reference and the only one of the space trilogy I hadn't had in hardback, the paperback of which is starting to wear out.

*****yes, I'm getting to that stage where my nieces have nieces.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The TOLKIEN Biopic

So, the organizers of Tolkien Day in Kalamazoo arranged for a special showing of the new TOLKIEN biopic to a room full of Tolkien scholars. We were on the whole a skeptical bunch as to whether the filmmakers cd pull it off, but willing to see how it had come out.

The first thing that struck me was the trees. Tolkien famously said you can't get much about trees into a play, one reason he considered drama inferior to fiction, but the filmmakers showed this is not necessarily the case for film. I don't know whether the director, or cinematographer, or both shd get the credit, but the long loving bits as the camera pans over trees, past trees, and esp. up trees from trunk to branches helped quietly establish a setting that felt Tolkienesque. In fact this one aspect of the film was so successful I'm sorry they didn't do it even more.

The look and feel of the movie was also a success: it had that Merchant Ivory look about it that captured the place and the time (turn-of-the-century Birmingham). Maybe it's just me, but I find it much easier to relate to shows set in the near-past (say the last century or so), with their familiar clothes, furniture, etc., than to costume drama of earlier periods, which have a certain stagey-ness for me.

Also of note was the even-handed treatment of how being poor and an orphan deeply restricts a person's options -- I was going to say, in that time and place, but the same applies equally to the modern day. And the movie scores points for not making villains out of the people who stand in Ronald and Edith's way, like Fr. Francis (lacking empathy but comes round in the end) or Mrs Faulkner (the landlady, self-centered but not malicious).

So much for the good. The not-so-good came from the problem that's bedeviled many a biopic before it: the difficulty of showing on screen an internal process, whether it be art, or music, or writing.  To their credit they tried with the 'cellar door' scene showing young Ronald creating a story out of an invented name.* It's therefore odd that they avoid having any of Tolkien's real drawings and paintings appear, or to use his actual invented languages. Presumably this wd be because of failure to get permissions to do so, but why then are they able to close the film w. the actual first words of THE HOBBIT? Bit of a puzzle, that.

I also have to admit that I liked the invented (amalgam) character 'Sam' as Lt. Tolkien's batsman. But the scenes of a fever-strickened, delirious Tolkien wandering around No Man's Land at the Somme in the midst of an all-out attack, seeing hallucinations of a Balrog** et al were bizarre. Apparently they wanted to show Tolkien on the battlefield but not have him take part in the battle, but it didn't work at all for me.

The greatest shortcoming of the film, however, was simply that it was oh. so. slow.  Every scene seemed to go on too long. There's not any particular bits that I'd advocated cuttiing; it's the pacing of the whole that got to me. This movie feels much, much longer than its actual running time.

Perhaps this is a result of my knowing Tolkien's life-story extremely well, so that I knew everything that was going to happen at the beginning of each scene (the only surprises were the things they made up, which thankfully were surprisingly few). I've heard from some who have seen it who knew nothing of Tolkien's life, and they found the story of the doomed group of Tolkien's friends*** deeply moving.

So, not a disaster some feared, not the travesty it cd have been, just not the success I'd hoped for.
On the whole I'll count that as a bullet dodged.

--John R.

current reading: Recently finished up a biography of Warren G. Harding by John Dean, part of the Schlesinger presidential series. Disappointing: Dean admires Harding and overdoes the rehabilitation bit.

Currently trying to force my way through Megan Lindholm's WIZARD OF THE PIGEONS, a mid-eighties urban fantasy set in Seattle that has certainly not aged well and is thoroughly unpleasant to boot (I've already gotten through the cat-mutilation scene and skipped the pages describing in extreme detail what it's like to chop off the heads of a bunch of chickens, including your special pet).

*for me this scene had echoes of one in A BEAUTIFUL MIND where the main character invents new constellations.

**unless it's meant to evoke the Sauron of the opening scene in Peter Jackson's FELLOWSHIP.

***i.e., the TCBS: John Ronald, Chris Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and Geoff Smith, to whom he paid tribute a half-century later, and one of whom I was fortunate enough to meet.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Back from Kalamazoo

So, after a week away I'm now back from Kalamazoo and back at work at my desk again -- much to the cats' satisfaction, as they like to be able to keep track of me.

It was a busy week -- one of those times when I'm too busy doing something to blog about it. Time to make up the arrears before memories of the details begin to fade.

First off, I took part in the Tolkien Day event, where we take advantage of so many Tolkienists gathering for the Medieval Congress, where there aren't enough slots for us all to present in, to hold what is essentially a one-day conference. I did my "Tolkien's Meteorite" piece there last year and this year teamed up with Marquette Tolkien Archivist Bill Fliss to tell folks about the manuscript reprocessing project, showing them the new organization I've been working on these last few years, whereby every draft of every chapter of the LotR manuscripts and typescripts is placed in relation to where it goes in the sequence of composition (the horizontal axis) and also in the development of that specific chapter (the vertical axis). Essentially it's like a giant flow chart. Since it has to cover some ten thousand pages, it's pretty large: the mock-up we had for show-and-tell at the presentation is a banner about twenty-four feet long, and that doesn't include the Front Matter (foreword, preface, title pages, tables of contents, ring-verse) and Appendices (which have their own separate line of development). This being a Tolkien project, in homage to the Professor we call it The Tree.

By the way, several people took pictures of us holding up the banner; if you're one of them, please send me a copy.

Tolkien Day was followed by The Film. That is, the organizers had arranged for a special showing of the new biopic on Tolkien (called, with admirable directness, TOLKIEN). More on this in a separate post tomorrow.

--John R.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Ready for Kalamazoo

So, the day before yesterday I completed my paper for Kalamazoo, "The Flat Earth Made Round and Tolkien's Failure to Finish THE SILMARILLION'. It's a good feeling to have it all done and printed out, ready for delivery.

I'm scheduled to deliver it Saturday at 3.30 as the third of three speakers on a panel; as you can see, I'm in v. gd company.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop by and let me know what you think.

--John R.

Session 449 Tolkien’s Legendarium and Medieval Cosmology, Saturday 3:30 BERNHARD BROWN & GOLD ROOM 
Organizer: Judy Ann Ford, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce Presider: Judy Ann Ford 
“It Lies Behind the Stars”: Situating Tolkien’s Work within the Aesthetics of Medieval Cosmology 
Connie Tate, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce 
Cynewulf, Copernicus, and Conjunctions: The Problem of Cytherean Motions in Tolkien’s Medieval Cosmology 
Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ. 
Binding Faerie with the Chains of Time: Tolkien’s Failure to Finish The Silmarillion John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar 

P.S.: I shd have mentioned that the title of my paper has changed, its focus have shifted somewhat in the writing. Which is unusual for me; usually I have the title for a piece v. early on and it stays the same all the way through publication.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

One Week to Kalamazoo

So, it's now just one week before I depart for the Tolkien events at the Medieval Congress, which I'm v. much looking forward to. For the past few weeks I've been working away at my paper, hoping that even if not complete I'd still have enough material to fill my time slot. Now I've gotten far enough along that I have more paper than I have time to deliver. So from this point on it's less a matter of finishing my paper than to extract a satisfactory abridgment for presentation. Here's hoping it goes over well.

--John R.
--current reading: THE RISE OF TOLKIENIAN FANTASY by Jared Lobdell