Saturday, February 29, 2020

Name-checking a relic of the past (METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA)

So, I've started reading the new Aaronovitch novel, the latest in the RIVERS OF LONDON series, and found that once again he shows a deft hand at dropping in references to fantasy and sci-fi fan culture.* In this case, a character finds that his co-workers at his new job, a tech company, like to spend their lunchtimes playing rpgs.

The next day . . . 
I managed to ingratiate myself with a number of
mice [=co-workers]  and Victor invited me to join one of the floating role-
playing games that assembled in one of the satellite
conference rooms accessible from the Cage.

"Metamorphosis Alpha," said Victor, when I asked what we were 
playing. Which turned out to be an ancient game from the 1970s with a
horrible resolution mechanic but I'm not a purist about these things.

. . . [Another worker] spotted us playing in the corner of the Cage and came over
to glower at me, and then walked away shaking his head.

"I bet he prefers World of Darkness," said Victor. 

Bonus points here to Aaronovitch for the mention of METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA by Jim Ward, one of the first science fiction games ever published, which led directly to GAMMA WORLD (also by Jim Ward),** one of the earliest post-D&D rpgs from TSR.***

It's clear here that he's referring to the 1976 original and not the Slade Henson version (circa 1993)**** for the short-lived AMAZING ENGINE game. And the scorn W.o.D. gamers felt for those playing older more traditional games is spot-on, and just as funny now as it was then.

I look forward to seeing what else he comes up with over the rest of the novel. He's already worked in more Douglas Adams references than I wd have believed possible.

--John R.
--current reading: Aaronovitch (good), Nicholas Blake (bad).
--currently working on: The Ainulindale.

*like the Tolkien references in several of his earlier books in the series
**who hired me on at TSR back in 1991. thanks, Jim
***I think predated only by BOOT HILL
****which I edited

Friday, February 28, 2020

Tolkien Biopic: The Musical

So, while my attention was drawn to Kickstarter, I learned about several Tolkien-related projects, one of which I wd have subscribed for had I known about it at the time.

I've seen last year's 'based on a true story' film biography of JRRT of course, but hadn't realized there was a musical back in 2016 covering much the same ground, the title of which was either TOLKIEN or UNFOLDING TALES (the latter no doubt meant to echo JRRT's UNFINISHED TALES).

The Kickstarted relic of this project was the Cast Soundtrack of twenty-two songs, a generous sampling can be heard here:

If you're interested in JRRT's biography and the sometimes strange ways it get expressed, or a fan/collector of Tolkien-inspired music, you might want to try to track this down.

--John R.
--current viewing: DEAD OF WINTER, a Chaosium-sponsored CALL OF CTHULHU adventure.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

a William Hope Hodgson kickstarter

So, I've long been an admirer of Wm Hope Hodgson's work since I was first introduced to it by my friend Jim Pietrusz back in the mid-80s.* So it was good news to learn from friends Jeff, Steve, and Stan at the Monday night game that there's a Kickstarter in the works to fund an rpg
based on his Sargasso Sea stories.


From the look of it this is a minimalist rpg, pretty much a one-shot with pregenerated characters that through stretch goals is expandable into campaign mode.

Now if we cd get a Carnaki rpg as well, that wd be something.**

Dare we dream someday of a NIGHT LAND campaign? When I first heard that TSR had a setting called DARK SUN in the works as a follow-up to RAVENLOFT, I was excited by the thought it might be something truly Hodgsonesque, only to get ConanLand instead. Oh well.

--John R.

*for an example of my critique of Hodgson, see my 'Classics of Fantasy' piece on his masterpiece, THE NIGHT LAND (written circa 1905, published 1912).
**there was one in the FORGOTTEN FUTURES line, but that was a good quarter-century ago, and it took minimalism to an extreme.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tolkien and the Nobel Prize

Now this is interesting.

Thanks to Dunsany scholar Martin Andersson -- who wrote an interesting piece on Lord Dunsany and the Nobel in 2018* -- we now know that Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature at least three times:

in 1961, when he was nominated by C. S. Lewis.**

in 1967, when his name appeared on the (alphabetical) long list as #58 of 70 nominees.

and in 1969, when he was #90 on the long list of 103 names.

So far as I know he did not make the short list any of these times.

This was not Tolkien's first encounter with the Nobel prize. Back in 1954 he had served as a nominator rather than nominee, putting forward E. M. Foster, that quintessentially English author, for the honor.  Tolkien was clearly chosen for his position as Merton Professor of English, and it's interesting to note that his nomination of Forster was seconded by Sir David Cecil*** and thirded by F. P. Wilson, all three professors of English at Oxford.

We know that C. S. Lewis put Tolkien's name forward in 1961, no doubt from his status as professor of Renaissance literature at Cambridge.

 The nominator who put in Tolkien's name in 1967 is one Gosta Holm, professor of Nordic languages ("nordiska sprak") at the Univ. of Lunds in Sweden. So I suspect he knew or knew of Tolkien through their shared interest in philology.

link 3 

The nominator in 1969 was R. E. Wycherley, an archeologist and professor of Greek ("grekiska") at Univ. of North Wales in Bangor.

link 4

Of his fellow nominees on the 1969 list, twelve did go on to win the prize:
Samuel Beckett (that same year, 1969),
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970),
Pablo Neruda (1971),
Heinrich Boll (1972),
Patrick White (1973),
Eyvind Johnson (1974),
Harry Martinson (also 1974),
Eugenio Montale (1975)
Elias Canetti (1981),
Jaroslaf Seifert (1984)
Claude Simon (1985)
and Gunter Grass (though he had to wait for it thirty years, 1999).

Of these, I have to confess that I've read only two: a lot of Beckett (all his plays and even a few of his novels) and one by Solzhenitsyn (his Nobel Prize speech, which we were required to teach to college Freshmen at Marquette).****

Tolkien doesn't have to worry on one account: the Nobel committee is famous, with the hindsight of history, for passing over many of the greats -- such as from the 1969 list not just Tolkien and Forster but also Auden, Frost, Nabokov, Larkin, and, notoriously, Borges.

--John R.

*appeariing in THE GREEN BOOK, vol. 11, 2018.
**the following year CSL nominated Rbt Frost -- an excellent choice and testimony of how highly he rather the New Engander's work
***fellow Inkling, distinguished biographer, and bete noir of F. R. Leavis
****which the students didn't much care for, though at least Solzhenitsyn fared better than Chesterton though perhaps not as well as Bronowki.

Kickstarting Tolkien Tapestries

So, thanks to Denis B for letting me know that the Aubusson Tolkien Tapestry project has plans to re-create two more of JRRT's iconic artworks from THE HOBBIT in tapestry form. Currently they're running a funding drive on Kickstarter, with a goal of 100.000 euros (about $107,000):

Of the two paintings chosen, one is Bilbo and the Eagle (BILBO WOKE WITH THE EARLY SUN IN HIS EYES), generally considered one of his best illustrations. The other, Bilbo and the Dragon (CONVERSATION WITH SMAUG), is one of my two favorites of all Tolkien's paintings for THE HOBBIT.*

For a closer look at what an Aubusson Tolkien tapestry looks like, take a look at the debut of their RIVENDELL -- which clip, coincidently, includes Christopher's last public appearance

If this is a project you'd like to see come to fruition, the Kickstarter runs till March 21st.

--John R.

*the other being BILBO COMES TO THE HUT OF THE RAFT-ELVES, aka The Forest River, which I have hopes of someday seeing rendered in stained glass.

UPDATE March 26th
--and I have now corrected the spelling of the name from 'Aubesson' to AUBUSSON. Thanks to Denis for pointing out my mistake --JDR

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Art Garfunkel's Reading List

So, while sorting out some old papers last week I came across a reference to Art Garfunkel, of Simon & Garfundel, and his reading list. A little quick research showed that what was true in 2006 is still true in 2020: not only does Garfunkel still keep up his list but he's made it easily available on his website. The total now stands at 1299 books, from Rousseau's CONFESSIONS (June 1968) through the most recent, Atwood's  THE HANDMAID'S TALE.

In addition, Garfunkel has a special list of his favorites, which itself runs to 170 books. I didn't go through his whole list, but of the favorites I've only read twenty-two out of the hundred and seventy. And while my list is longer than his* that's to be expected given that reading is a side-line for a great musician whereas it's a large part of what I do as an editor and scholar.

Here's the list.

*(it currently stands at 3558 from the restart date in 1981, with the previous list having gotten to 536 books between 1975 and 1981)

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Washington State Primary

So, this week we had a micro-election: only one thing to vote for on the ballot, whether to renew a school levy. Naturally I voted for this -- supporting public education is a Good Thing in my book.

Then today came the voter's pamphlet for our next election: the primary for this fall's presidential race. We vote on March 10th -- less than a month away.

The Republican side of this is simple: the only option is to vote for Trump or don't vote at all.

The Democratic side is,  predictably, messier. If anything there's an over-richness of options (rather like the Republican campaigns of 2016 and 2012). Of the twenty-three people who at some point were running for the nomination, thirteen made it this far, or at least were still running at the point when this pamphlet went to press. Ironically among those to have dropped out is Washington state governor Jay Inslee, who wd have been a 'favorite son' candidate if he'd gotten this far.

The candidates who made the ballot are

Michael Bennet
Joe Biden
Michael Bloomberg
Cory Booker
Pete Bettigieg
John Delaney*
Tulsi Gabbard
Amy Klobuchar
Deval Patrick
Bernie Sanders
Tom Steyer
Elizabether Warren
Andrew Yang

At this point my first choice is still in the running despite troubles in Iowa and New Hampshire, and my second choice is still running and doing quite well -- so I can still entertain what-if scenarios wherein one gets the nomination and the other is his or her running mate. We'll see.

I do wish the list had fewer billionaires (as in: none) and fewer old men. It does feel like some of the candidates who don't get the nomination cd make for interesting Cabinet Secretaries. Again, we'll see

--John R.
--current reading: the MURDERBOT series by Martha Wells. didn't know they wrote them like that anymore: highly entertaining.

*I thought I'd been following the campaign fairly close, but admit to not having heard of Delaney before

*among those to have dropped out

Thursday, February 13, 2020

So this is what Diversity looks like

So, I don't much follow the local news since our city's local paper ceased issuing a print edition a few years back and went to being a news web-site rather than 'paper' as such. Which means I wdn't have seen the following (from a regional news station) had Janice not drawn it to my attention.

It turns out Kent, one of the outlying towns that make up the Seattle area, where we live, is the tenth most diverse city in America.

I'm surprised by this because 'diversity'' turns out to look perfectly normal. I've lived in areas with large minority components pretty much all my life. What's different now is how many ethnicities and nationalities one city can absorb with little outward sign. The school behind my house may belong to a school district prepared to teach kids in a hundred and thirty languages but it looks like any other school. The Kent library has an impressive array of books in a surprising number of languages but is just like any other town library.

And I say: Welcome.

--John R.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Colbert vs. The Hobbit (-eh-)

So, thanks to friend Stan for pointing out that Steven Colbert had some Tolkien content on his show last week. Here's the link, with the lead in to the Tolkien talk starting at about the four and a half minute mark:

The context for this is his guest's having just finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to his daughter, raising the question of what next. Colbert maintained that at age ten she wd now be ready to plunge into THE LORD OF THE RINGS. When the father suggested THE HOBBIT instead, Colbert responded with -eh-   At six or even eight, he said, maybe THE HOBBIT wd have done.

Given his status as a stalwart Tolkien fan, I was surprised to find him so dismissive of what I think is one of Tolkien's masterpieces. It was revealing that the parts of THE HOBBIT he really likes are the parts that tie in with LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION: the Gollum story, the swords from Gondolin, the Elvenking. It sounds to me as if he loves LotR and is deeply conversant in THE SILMARILLION, but not much interested in Tolkien's other work, like FARMER GILES or SMITH or, it turns out, THE HOBBIT. 

I know there are some people who like THE HOBBIT but not LotR  (a minority opinion).

And there are quite a few who view THE HOBBIT as just a 'prelude' to LotR, something you need to get through to get on to the good stuff (a much more widely held view, though one I think wrong). I find a lot of people in this position had read LotR first and then THE HOBBIT, like Colbert himself.

And then there are those of us who love both THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS (the majority) -- and often much much more. Many in this group read THE HOBBIT first, then went on to read LORD OF THE RINGS (sometimes after a gap).

I count myself lucky to belong to the most inclusive of these groups. I'm sorry to find Mr. Colbert's sympathies more limited than mine, but though we eventually come to a parting of the ways I'm glad our road runs together for as much of its length as it does.

--John R
--current reading: ALL SYSTEMS RED by Martha Wells. The Murderbot series, Book I
(v. enjoyable; a loan from friend Jeff)

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Baggins Passes

So, day before yesterday I was sorry to hear about the death at age 91 of actor Orson Bean who played (that is, provided the voice for) Bilbo Baggins in the 1977 Rankin-Bass HOBBIT. This animated movie was much reviled, and with good reason. But back in the late 70s we Tolkien fans had to make due with what we cd get, and so I got this two-record set of the soundtrack (on Saturday December 24th 1977) and listened to the album over and over again in those pre-home VCRs days.

 And the Rankin-Bass HOBBIT did have two things going for it. First, it was better than Bakshi's LotR.* And second, it had a remarkable array of voice talent. The great John Huston made for a great Gandalf, and Richard Boone (his last role) a languid yet menacing Smaug. Hans Conried was an excellent Thorin and Bean made for a slightly snarky Bilbo (the line of his that sticks in my mind is his comment upon learning he has a magical ring of invisibility: "How convenient!").**

I'd never seen Bean in anything before, and I don't remember seeing him in anything afterwards, with the major exception of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), a movie I recommend but won't say anything more about because of spoilers.

So, thanks for the memories, Mr. Bean.

--John R.

*though even Bakshi's dud was better than the horror that was the Rankin-Bass RETURN OF THE KING.

**I pass over without comment on the more eccentric vocal castings that didn't come off: Cyril Ritchard as Elrond, Otto Preminger (!) as the Elvenking, and 'Theodore' as Gollum.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Levees

So, I'm happy to report that the levees along the Green River held and we didn't have a flood here this week in Kent. But it was a near thing.

We've had a lot of wet weather, and the reservoirs can only hold so much. So sometimes they have to let as much water through the dam as they can, to make room for more water on the way, given that it hadn't stopped raining yet. Better to have a controlled release if they can and let the levees do their work.

They send out the warning in stages. Phase Two involves an email and a phone call letting those of us down on the valley floor know that there might be some flooding in rural areas upstream of Auburn (the next town over).*

The Phase Three warning came at 1.13 in the morning, which is an unsettling time to get a do-not-panic-all-is-well phone call. It let us know that "Moderate flooding" was expected but that urban areas shd be okay. Later that day (Thursday) Janice and I went out walking on the Green River Trail near the Neely-Soames House and were startled by how high the river was. I'd only seen it this high before once; Janice said this was the highest she'd ever seen it.

Friday evening came the Phase Four warning, which is rather alarming:

The Green River is in flood phase 4. Major flooding may occur. Critical flood control levees may weaken from saturation. Sudden changes in flood conditions are possible including rapidly rising water, widespread inundation, road closures, and utility disruptions. Be alert and prepare to respond quickly. 

At this point, all you can do is have flashlights near at hand in case the power fails (it did not), know where the cats are so we cd grab them up in case a hasty exit was called for, and hope the levees do their job.

They did.

We wd probably have been okay, since as low down as we are (about thirty feet above sea level) we're not at the lowest point of the valley floor. But it was still a relief when they went back to Phase Three, meaning that the crisis had passed. And it's good to know that the levees are in good shape. They've been upgrading and reinforcing the levee in stages ever since the last big scare about nine years ago.**  Nice to know preparedness paid off.

To wrap things up, Saturday we went walking along the Green River in Tukwila just east of SouthCenter, and it was a good-god-amighty moment seeing the submerged underpasses and flood level markers showing how high above sea level the water got at various places. We saw one that hit 26 feet, with a red mark to indicate flood level just over 31 feet. Too close for comfort. And seeing the river about three times its normal width due to having submerged so much of the banks on either side was deeply unsettling. And Algernon Blackwood was right: stands of willows do make a distinctive sound when half-submerged in racing floodwaters.

So, All Is Well. But I'd rather not come that close to having An Adventure, if it's all the same to the Powers That Be.

In the midst of all this I think the thing that amused Janice most was my response to the lights flickering. Facing the prospect that we might lose power and possibly spend a day or two sheltering in place, I made myself busy in the kitchen making up six thermoses*** and caraffs of hot tea to see us through.

--John R.
--current reading: a lot of old manga that's on its way out the door

*(I've never actually gotten a Phase One warning, which I assume is just an internal state of alert among the dam-minders)

**when the dam was compromised and they had to sandbag the levee for a year or so till they cd get the dam repaired

***thermosoi ?

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Kay and Christopher

So, I've been delayed getting this post up by three smallish projects I wanted to get off my desk. Don't want to bog down and get distracted again so I'll try to keep this short.

First off, thanks for the many interesting and well-informed Comments.

My own take on the the respective roles of Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay in putting together the 1977 SILMARILLION is simple: I don't know of any evidence that Kay wrote any of it. And I wd be surprised if he did.

I think it far more likely that Kay helped in the sorting and sequencing of the manuscripts, that all-important stage of surveying just what materials existed for each chapter or associated work, after which Christopher wd have decided just which Ms he wd use as his text(s). I think Kay also served as a sounding board, whereby Christopher wd occasionally ask his opinion on specific points. Sometimes Christopher took Kay's advice, and we know of one or two specific examples. But the decisions wd have been entirely Christopher's to make.

In short, I see the Christopher/Kay working relationship as paralleling Christopher's working relationship with Taum Santoski a decade later on the LotR Mss, probably because I was there to see the latter.

By contrast, Kilby's role a decade before CT/GGK 's work was quite different: every other day or so for a month Kilby dropped by Sandfield Road and picked up a typescript of a given chapter of SILM, talking about the preceding chapter with Tolkien*, and repeated the process day by day. So what he saw was the latest version of the component pieces (including associated documents like the ATHRABETH), what I call 'the 1966 SILMARILLION'. Of the three --Kilby, Kay, and Taum -- I think Kilby had the least input and Kay probably the most, with Taum between the two, closer to Kay than Kilby.

And I'm grateful to them all.

--John R.
--current reading: Richard Sala graphic novels (EVIL EYE, THE CHUCKLING WHATSIT)

* though given the interconnectedness of everything in Tolkien, in practice they spent more time talking about the legendarium than that day's specific piece.