Thursday, October 29, 2020

In Praise of Len Lakofka

So, I was sorry to hear of the passing of Len Lakofka. I never met him, but his was one of the big names in the early days of my interest in D&D, the author of not one but two of my all-time favorite adventures: L1. THE SECRET OF BONE HILL (1981) and L2. THE ASSASSIN'S KNOT (1983).

I laid out just why I rate these two adventures so highly in a piece I did years ago back when I was still at WotC. I'm glad to find the piece is still up on the WotC website and can be seen here:

L2 also got chosen as one of the 30 best D&D adventures of all time --see DUNGEON magazine issue 116 (November 2004).* 

On a more personal note,  THE SECRET OF BONE HILL became my own campaign's home base. Our PCs wound up cleaning out the old castle on Bone Hill, fixed it up, and made it their own home --having discovered that while it was prohibitively expensive to build a castle or keep from scratch, it was far quicker and more within their means to restore a damaged but essentially intact ruin.

Clearly not everybody's cup of tea, then or now. But I still rank it among the greats and think it holds up well, even all these years later. 

So thanks, Mr. Lakofka. Job well done.

--John R.

*fair disclosure: I was one of the judges who proposed titles for the list and voted on the results; I'm even quoted in some of the entries, like the one for L2.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Next Year's Kalamazoo

 So, it's now official: next year's Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University will be an online-only event. I still plan to attend, albeit now remotely, and am still scheduled to give my paper "Valinor in America: Faerian Drama and the Disenchantment of Middle-earth" -- currently on the back burner while I focus on another project, but I plan to resume where I left off with the coming of the new year.

I'll miss the Tolk folk I get to see at Kalamazoo and catch up on what they're working on; another of the many disruptions caused by the pandemic. Here's hoping for better luck in 2022.

--John R.

P.S.: I forgot to add that the Leeds Medieval Congress, scheduled two months after the Michigan event,  July vs. May, has also been cancelled.

--John R.

--current reading: David Lindsay's unfinished final novel THE WITCH

--current music: Tom Petty


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

TIME's Best 100 Fantasy poll

 So,  this recent discussion of lists of all-time-best fantasy books turns out to be, in a word, timely.

Thanks to Andrew H. for letting me know about TIME magazine's new special issue celebrating the books that get their nod as the 100 best fantasy. I haven't let seen the actual physical issue (assuming there is a paper copy), but the online list can be found here:

For their methodology of deciding which books to include, see

Rather than rating the books, they simply had their panel of experts put them in chronological order.

Said experts include prominant figures such as Neil Gaiman and R. R. Martin, along with a few whose names I know but have read little of their work (e.g. Jemisin) and some I've never even heard of.

As for the books, I've read most of the earlier ones, but past the mid-point of the list it's like I fell off a cliff. Or to put it another way: I've read most of these books up to the mid 1990s, after which my reading becomes more sporadic. Clearly it's classic fantasy, not the contemporary works, that most appeal to me.

But while there's a lot they list that I haven't read, I'm more concerned about a great deal of what I've read that they fail to list, including books and authors I consider the best of the best, like Dunsany. It's that lack that diminishes this list in my eyes.

--John R.

--reading: THE LAST TSAR (resumed)




Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dimitra's List

 So, here's the list compiled from the poll run by Dimitra Fimi, listing folk's favorite fantasy author. On the entirely reasonable grounds that including Tolkien wd dramatically skew the results (as it has in so many past polls of this sort, such as the 1987 LOCUS poll and its later follow-up) he was omitted from the poll. Nevertheless it's striking how this 2020 poll reproduced the basic pattern of Tolkien in a league of his own, Le Guin clearly the most popular non-Tolkien choice, followed by a definite gap before the number three position (in this case Pratchett, the first person knighted for writing fantasy.

My thanks to Dimitra for letting me re-post her findings:

Dimitra's List


171      Le Guin

111      Pratchett


53        CSL

50        Gaiman

45        Hobb

45        Wynne Jones


31        Pullman

28        R. R. Martin

26        Rowling

23        Sanderson


20        Cooper

18        Garner

17        Kay

17        Peake

16        Dunsany

15        Jemisin

15        Jordan

15        McKillip

14        S. Clarke

14        Moorcock


remainder of the top thirty-three: Feist (12), L'Engle (11), Wolfe (10), Eddings (8), Ende (8), Howard (8), Leiber (8), McCaffrey (8), Novik (8), Rothfuss (8), White (8), Gemmell (8), Pierce (8). 


 As for me, I've read all but five of the authors listed, but only four of those named were among the eighteen writers I devoted chapters to in my 'Classics of Fantasy' column --though I wd have included more had the series run longer.

--John R.

--current reading: Woodward's RAGE, Lindsay's DEVIL'S TOR

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Cat Report (Fr. 10/16-20)


We’re off to a great start with the newly reopened Adoption Room, with four out of seven cats finding new homes in the first week: charismatic TOM TOM, bonded pair JULIETTE and ROMEO, and sweet LUCY Grey. That just leaves three cats: ever-affectionate ELLIE (white calico) and the bonded pair of half-grown kittens CLEO (black and white) and MIGHTY MO (brown tabby).

I let everyone out right away. Ellie made herself right at home, dividing her time between the two rooms. The kittens were soon out and exploring (they love the cat-tree). What a difference a week makes. Cleo let me pet her, as long as I didn’t overdo it. Mighty Mo is shy but allowed a little respectfull petting by the end of the shift.

Ellie largely kept to herself so far as the kittens went, but asked for a good deal of attention, alternating between being petted and playing games.  I ran a damp paper towel along her back and sides to take care of any loose fur, which she seems to like, grooming my hands in return (she loves to lick you). She even groomed the laser pointer. Her favorite way of playing with it is to have that little red dot sneak right up next to her, whereupon she does a kind of little hop and lands on it.

The highpoint of Ellie’s activity was her walk (about half an hour). She went along the fish tanks and past the crickets, till she chose a spot with a good view of the front door and sat down the watch the comings and goings. I got the sense she was casing the joint and encouraged her to explore elsewhere. She also wanted to go into the warehouse, which again I discouraged. I think she’s making a mental map of the store and is wondering what’s behind the closed doors.

The kittens are a load of fun, as only kittens can be. They’ve worked out how close they can get to Ellie without provoking a reaction  telling them to back off. They enjoyed the string game, the feather-duster, the laser pointer, the mouse-under-the-cover game, the bite-able toy on the end of a stick, the chopstick, and the peacock feather. Especially the peacock feather, which Mighty Mo decapitated in ten minutes. Mo revealed his inner predator. While Cleo loves to play with toys, Mo carries them off to over beneath the cat stand, where he gnaws on them. 

Rather to my surprise, Cleo loves to be petted, once she gets to know you —she even accepted some tummy rubs, purring all the while. She’s a bit curious about Outside, so keeping her in while bringing Ellie back in from her walk was tricky. I thought it’s a bit soon to try to walk the kittens, thinking it’d be better to wait till they knew (and trusted) me better. Mo is interested in the leash, but in smelling it, not wearing it; Cleo just thinks it’s another toy.

There were a lot of people who swung by to look at the cats, so I think word will quickly spread about adoptable cats once again being available.

—John R.

P.S.: That’s a picture of Ellie, taken by Janice through the glass. I had altogether  forgotten that Ellie had been in our cat-room before, back in December of last year. No wonder she’s familiar with the layout of the store: she must be remembering from before. I even found some old note saying that she was a good walker. Sorry her previous adoption didn’t work out: hope things turn out better for her this time.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

 So, today the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic announced their next event: a centenary celebration of the publication of David Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. One of those works more acknowledged as seminal that actually read, Lindsay's strange masterpiece* looks to finally be getting the attention it deserves. The three speakers are Doug Anderson, whose name shd be familiar to anyone interested in Tolkien and in fantasy; Nina Allan, a novelist whose work I'm not familiar with; and Robert Davis, who it sounds like will be making connections between ARCTURUS and Philip Pullman's work.

The event takes place via Zoom on Thursday November 19th at ten o'clock to eleven-thirty my time (6pm to 7.30pm Glasgow time). It's one of those register-for-a-free-ticket events; I've already signed up. After all, as one of the relatively few people who has read all seven of Lindsay's novel (even the conclusion of his last one, THE WITCH), this is an opportunity I wdn't want to miss.

Here's a link to the announcement:

--John R.

--current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (1932)

My Newest Publication (Review of TOLKIEN'S CHAUCER)

So, two things of note arrived together in the mail yesterday that, while both interesting an important, cd not be more different:  the newest issue of TOLKIEN STUDIES (Volume XVII) and our Voter's Pamphlet.

The TOLKIEN STUDIES, along with much else of interest, includes my latest publication: a review of John M. Bowers' TOLKIEN'S LOST CHAUCER. Also in this volume was a detailed review of A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS, the Flieger festschrift I edited. As usual the volume contains a lot I'm looking forward to looking at more closely. For now the stand out piece is the lead article: a memorial to Christopher Tolkien by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. And with my long-standing interest in THE LOST ROAD & NOTION CLUB PAPERS I must say Hamish Williams' piece on Numenor and Minoans, Phoenicians, and Atlantians draws the eye.

And then there are the other pieces, the reviews, the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies -- in short, as usual it looks to be full of good things.

--John R. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Top Three Writers (sans Tolkien)

So,  recently I found out about an interesting poll conducted by Dimitra Fimi back in the spring asking people to name their three favorite fantasy writers aside from Tolkien. Here's her blogpost writing up the results:

Also of note is David Bratman's post commenting on this and giving his own favorites and the reasons behind his choices:*

I'm curious what others think and so would like to ask the question again, in a slightly different way: 

Who are your three favorite fantasy authors (excluding Tolkien)? 

Or, if it's easier to choose, what are your three favorite fantasy books (again excluding Tolkien)? 

--John R.

*this is actually where I learned about Dimitra's original post, which I had missed at the time.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Return of The Cat Report

So, yesterday the cat-room at the Renton PetsMart opened again, after months of being shut down due to the Corona virus. And today was my first day back, socializing and walking cats. Here's the report I sent out to my fellow volunteers (these help us track cat behavior over days and weeks).

It felt strange, but in a good way, to be back in the cat room today, after so many months away (was it March that things were shut down?).

We had a full house: seven cats in five cages: TOM TOM, bonded pair ROMEO & JULIETTE, LULU Grey, Calico ELLIE, and the half-grown kittens bonded pair MIGHTY MO & CLEO.

Tom Tom came out at once, eager for attention. A v. friendly and affectionate fellow, mostly white with orange. He has a noticible limp in one of his front legs but doesn’t seem to be in pain. I’d guess this is an old injury that he learned to get around by not putting much weight on that leg, which meant he continued to limp even after it was healed. He went out for a good walk and picked up the rules right away. He’s friendly and affectionate and trusting to boot, going right up to people. He loves being petted, enjoys a good game, and is tolerant of the other cats. Basically just a great cat who loves people. I'm not all surprised to learn that he already has a potential adopter; hope all goes smoothly for him tomorrow.

The bonded pair Romeo & Juliette, greyish tabbyish, at eleven are our oldest cats. She’s shy and stayed in all shift but was pleased to get some in-cage attention (petting). And she likes catnip spray. Her brother came out and like TomTom stayed out all shift. Romeo loves games and being petted and is also tolerant of other cats. He went out for a walk and did well as well. Watching him out on his walk I realized that he was once a much heavier cat: from behind you can see his loose tummy-fur sway from side to side as he walks.  

Ellie is a white calico, young (two years old) and energetic. She likes to sit on the cardboard scratching box, loves being petted, and enjoys games. She prefers that the other cats keep their distance. She had a short walk and did pretty well. Ellie groomed me repeatedly, esp. the hands, which apparently were not up to her standard. 

Lady Lulu Grey is also young (two) with beautiful long grey fur. I gave her a wet paper towel bath which she showed every sign of enjoying. She’s no fan of other cats but had a good deal of contact with them, since when she came out of her cage she visited all the other cages . She had a short walk, through which she had to put up with a lot of dog noise from over near Banfield.

I was expecting the kittens Mighty Mo and Cleo (brown tabby and black-and-white, respectfully) to be out and about and into everything, but they stayed in their cube all shift. When I reached in to pet them they froze up and retreated to the other half of their residence as soon as they cd. Not until towards the end of my shift did they begin to melt. What won them over was the feather duster, which they recognized as legitimate prey and dragged from spot to spot. At the very end Cleo let me pet her and they (both I think) purred. Think they’ll be much more approachable once they get over the unease of being in an unfamiliar place.

So it was three cats in and four cats out — not too bad for having been in the Renton cat room such a short time.

Lots of people passing by stopped to admire the cats. A few had questions about the cat adoption procedure so I gave them the flyer and encouraged them to go to get more information at the website.

And that’s about it for this first time back.

—John R.

P.S.: Today marks the longest I've worn a mask since the whole mask-up and socially-distant thing went into effect.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

'Not India'

So, thanks to Denis B. and Jessica Y  I was able to read a little article ("Tolkien at the Crossroads") by Bodleian Tolkien Archivist Catherine McIlwaine that had appeared in the February 2020 issue of LITERARY REVIEW (p. 64).

In it McIlwaine reports her discovery of a single index card that throws light on JRRT's decisions during the period when he was being demobilized from his military service and looking around for a postWar job. Visiting Oxford in December 1918 he stopped by the Oxford University careers service to fill out "copious forms"; the index card represents the career service's summary of the results. 

The interviewer noted that he [Tolkien] would take anything 

either at home or abroad (but 'not India') and that 

although his preference was for a lectureship

at Oxford, he would consider teaching at

a public school or working for the government

or the civil service. 

The job service's conclusion shows that they must have been pretty good at their jobs:

Despite Tolkien's willingness to consider any job on offer in 1918,

his academic achievements marked him out as a prime candidate

for a university position. The careers services advised him to remain in

Oxford and use his personal contacts to find an academic appointment. 

Doing just that, he soon secured a job as a lexicographer at the New

English Dictionary . . . but continued to pursue an academic career

by working part-time as a tutor for non-collegiate students at the 

university. He was appointed reader in English language at the 

University of Leeds less than two years later.

This relic of Tolkien's post-war job hunt* is, as McIlwaine points out, of interest because it shows a point at which Tolkien's plans were all in flux and that a career path that seems to us inevitable was by no means determined. Things cd have gone quite differently.**

The most interesting detail to me is the passing reference to "not India") --cryptic because it lacks context what might explain the why behind this note. We do know that at one point a few years later Tolkien seriously considered taking up a post in South Africa.

It's also interesting that the interviewer described Tolkien as "tall slim fair with good manners . . . capable & energetic" -- which again shows a different side of him than the weary grieved soldier of other accounts.

--John R.

--current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (resumed), Murderbot novel (re-read)

*Dunsany's play MR. FAITHFUL casts a comic light on the dilemma of so many surviving officers trying to find any job in the postWar era: his hero takes the job of a human watchdog.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Tonight We Ate Agamemnon

So, that noble potato we harvested at Trout Lake has now met his destiny: soup. 

I reburied two miniature potatoes found among the roots, just to help along the new generation next year.

Also: it turns out that tea brewed and sealed in a carafe is still drinkable nine days later, if somewhat past its prime.  Good to know.

--John R.

current reading: DEVIL'S TOR (the Knossos chapter), NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries)

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Lost Lewis Tapes

So, thanks to a posting by Wendell W. on the Mythsoc list, I've just learned of a long-lost C. S. Lewis audio recording made by Wm Gresham in 1960. 

There are three recordings on this tape: 

1. The chapter from PERELANDRA wherein Ransom arrives on Venus (Chapter III)

2. The scene in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH in which Merlin meets Ransom (Chapter XIII)

3. The General Prologue to THE CANTERBURY TALES

I've only just listened to these all the way through and was pleased to find that they are good-quality recordings. Lewis's accent is also much less here than in other audios I've heard.

This tape adds to our small body of surviving recordings of Lewis. Highly recommended for anyone interested in such things.

Here's the link, along with information on how to order it: 

and here's more information about the tape's history, from David C. Downing:

--John R.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Trout Lake, con't


The rest of Thursday passed quietly. 


Come Friday morning it was time for another walk with Big Dogs, this time alongside the echinacea fields. The most interesting thing I saw was a quail in a tree. I know quail aren't usually found up trees, but the Big Dogs who were with us made it a strategic decision. Luckily the dogs ignored our other bit of fauna: a small brown frog -- larger than the earlier little green frog but still small, and more hoppy.


Among the day's little discoveries were that cows like pears. We also picked plums. Lots of plums. Maybe a hundred, maybe more. We started with windfalls, partly because the ladder kept having one leg or another sink into the ground, until Janice said she'd had enough of the earth wanting to swallow her this trip, and we got out a steadier ladder.


We didn't give any plums to the cows, not knowing whether their insides cd handle the pits (it seemed unlikely). Plus it just seemed like a really bad idea. 


Later we harvested potatoes from one of the three vegetable gardens. Bijee was v. pleased with how this year's potatoes had done, and it's no surprise: from three plants we dug up twenty-seven potatoes, one as big as my hand. Bijee had named the previous giant potato 'Hector' and wanted me to name this newcomer. I picked 'Agamemnon'. 


That evening Janice and I bought matching new hats made by Bijee's neighbor, who brought them over to show her felting technique. Later still other guests arrived, bringing with them two non-Big Dogs: one v. old (13 years I think they said; it might have been 17) and one very young (8 weeks). We wrapped things up with another long walk.


Saturday morning's wildlife was a granddaddy longlegs, who I found inside the house and escorted outside. Then it was time to head home, the only incident along the way being a faux-convoy heading up I-5, made up to look like a presidential motorcade. I suspect these were Proud Boys or some similar group heading out for some organized thuggery.  Disquieting. 


Safely home, we were greeted by small cats, who expressed approval at our return (and to renewed access the Box Room, one of their favorite places. Tomorrow will definitely be a cat-walking day.


--John R. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

I'm at Trout Lake

 So, it's been a long time (last October) since we've been away from home for more than a few hours at a time.* Having sheltered in place for a whole year now, we felt it was time to take a trip. Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of our friend Marjorie Burns (Bijee) we got to do just that, at a suitably sequestered site.


Tuesday we drove down to the Strange High House at Trout Lake on the north side of the Columbia River gorge, right at the feet of Mount Adams, one of our favorite places. That first night we discussed Ruskin and (of course) Tolkien.


Wednesday we went for walks, three in all. The first was accompanied by Big Dogs, and among the things we saw were a deer (v. wary of the dogs) and a field of dandelions -- the first time I've ever seen my favorite wildflower grown commercially, as an herbal product. The second walk was to the end of the road and back, getting a good view of the Little White Salmon river from above; the most striking wildlife was a hawk which we heard and then saw. The late afternoon was taken up with cider-making, pressing apples and pears from the trees in Bijee's yard.** It was a lot of work but the fresh just-made cider was amazing. 


Wanting to wash the apple/pear juice off my hands, we took our third walk down the side of the little gorge behind the house to dip them in the White Salmon itself. Except the rocks were slippery. And I found myself in, not by, the little river. The water was v. cold and my clothes got wet, but I on the plus side I did get clean. 


Thursday we went with Big Dogs to The Shallows, what used to be Trout Lake but is more now like wetlands with cold clear creeks flowing through it. We saw signs that elk frequented the place, but our wildlife high point for this outing was to first hear and then late see a v. small elegant little green frog. We had some unwelcome excitement when Janice found herself sinking in the sandy bottom on the river/creek. She quickly sank to within three inches of her knees, but luckily she kept her calm and Bijee and I was able to offer her an arm to brace herself with on either side and she soon had herself out and safe again. Then it was back to the House for some down time and a load of sandy wet laundry.


Thursday afternoon the discussion was of Morris and Tolkien, while the walk was along the rim of the White Salmon's little gorge (perhaps fifty feet or so deep?--I'm a bad judge of distances), after which we once again clambered down to the river level. Just before setting out we'd fed some past-their-prime apples to the two cows who live beside the house, so I had cow-slobber on my hands (note: cows like apples. just like horses, I suppose). Cows, while interesting, do not exactly count as 'wildlife', but we did see a v. fast, v. agile little black bird flying down the river, stopping briefly here and there, and then off down the river.


Then it's back inside as the evening comes on.


--John R.


*I suspect our current set of cats have a different set of expectations than their predecessors re. our being away. We'll find out by the reception they give us when we return home: effusive or standoffish.


** It reminded me of a time when we were living at Monticello (i.e., sometime when I was between two and six years old) and we spent a day picking tomatoes at the farm of my father's friend, who I think was called Bo Pace (it may have been Bo Paste or Beau Pace-- it was a long time ago). Most of the overripe tomatoes were squeezed for juice, which seemed to me a terrible waste.