Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Edinburgh Tolkien Event (John Borman movie)

So, Tuesday morning I got to watch a Tolkien event hosted by the University of Edinburgh Tolkien Society. Titled "The LOTR film that never was, it was a presentation about the unfilmed John Boorman LotR script.

Here's the description:

A version of Lord of the Rings where the story of the One Ring is told via dance performance? Lord of the Rings but Aragorn marries Eowyn? Lord of the Rings but Frodo and Galadriel have an inexplicable romance? Lord of the Rings but Saruman is the Mouth of Sauron?

If you want to know what this is all about then join us as we explore some scenes of John Boorman's 1970s screenplay for the Lord of the Rings that was (luckily for us) never made into a real movie.

There was a smallish turnout, possibly because the web invitation gave the wrong time for the event, being an hour off (drat those pesky time zones). But it did include, at least for part of the discussion, Janet Brennea Croft (who's written a v. gd article on media adaptations of Tolkien) and David Emerson.

I'd seen the Boorman script before, but that had been several years ago and I was glad to renew my acquaintance. I clearly remembered some of the scenes that made my mind boggle but others had passed into merciful oblivion. And it was fun to see a group of folks, deeply steeped  in their Tolkien, encountering and trying to come to terms with this bizarre stuff.

My Final Verdict:  

We dodged a bullet. Bad as the Bakshi film is, and as much as purists lamented the Peter Jackson films' infidelities, it cd have been far, far worse. And Boorman proves it.

--JDR 

--current reading: Ordway's TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING


https://www.facebook.com/events/490682752303550?acontext=%7B%22event_action_history%22%3A[%7B%22mechanism%22%3A%22search_results%22%2C%22surface%22%3A%22bookmark%22%7D]%7D



Monday, March 1, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (LITTLE BIG HORN)

 So, here's another early TSR game I haven't played, don't own, and haven't even seen. Once again BoardGameGeek offers at least a glimpse of what the box and some of the components look like:

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/6111/little-big-horn-custers-last-stand

and Wikipedia quotes some comments Gygax later made about the game, including that it was one of several competing games commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the battle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Big_Horn:_Custer%27s_Last_Stand

Still, it's interesting to add another title to Gygax's list of credits.

sku#: unknown.


--John R.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (WAR OF WIZARDS)

So, one of the nice things about starting this string of posts about TSR boardgames from the dawn of time is that it casts an interesting light on the company's early days. It also gives me a chance to take a good look at old items in my collection that just sit on the shelf, space I badly need for the Tolkien books. And yet another is the discovery of games I not only didn't have but had never heard of.

A case  in point is WAR OF THE WIZARDS, a Tekumel/EPT spin-off from 1975 (sku # unknown). I've never so much as seen this one, but fortunately Jeff Grubb has put up a post on his GRUBBSTEET blog that gives a good idea of what this game is like: 

http://grubbstreet.blogspot.com/2021/02/old-tsr-boardgames-war-of-wizards.html

For a little more information, some of the basics are given at BoardGameGeek

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/6217/war-wizards )

The main lesson I take away from this one, and from Jeff's observations-- is that it shows TSR didn't really know how to do follow-up product early on. So they experimented with different approaches, took note of what worked and what didn't, and used those lessons to guide their efforts --until the next time, when gaps in institutional memory led to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

In short: TSR games have never been perfect little bonsai trees but untidy forests that get trimmed back from time to time.

--John R.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A Good Writer's Worst Book

 So, I've just been reading Le Guin's TEHANU, and it's got me thinking about what bad books by a good author tell us.* 

For example there's Austen's MANSFIELD PARK, where she has all the elements she usually uses in a novel but in the wrong combination. Or CSL's THE ABOLITION OF MAN, where he argues in favor of indoctrinating the young. Or one of Shakespeare's bottom of the barrel plays like TITUS ANDRONICUS or TIMON OF ATHENS. Logically the only way to avoid having a 'worst book' is to only write one book. And a given writer's worst might still be v. gd.

But when I tried to apply this line of thought to Tolkien I got into difficulties. MR. BLISS or ROVERANDOM might be serious candidates, but is it fair to include posthumous works? If we do exclude posthumous works, then I don't think there's a genuinely bad book in the fairly short list of books published in Tolkien's lifetime: H, LotR, FGH, ATB, T&L, SWM, RGEO. If I were forced to it I might opt for RGEO just because it has so little Tolkien content, but I suspect those interested in Tolkien's invented languages and invented scripts wd object.

--JDR

--current reading: Ordway, Briggs, light novel

*The inverse phenomenon, of a good book by a bad author, also occurs and is even more interesting, but that's an argument for another day. 

Ordway at the Wade

So, Thursday evening I watched the virtual book launch for Holly Ordway's new book TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING at the Wade Center. They had a three-way set up with Dr. Downing, the Wade's co-director, as host; Archivist Laura Schmidt as moderator; and Ordway as guest. For those who missed it (e.g., anyone in the UK who didn't want to get up in the dead of night) the whole thing is now up on YouTube at any individual's convenience.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTyZJi2Eyjc 


Having been on deadline all week I still haven't read more than a fraction of the book in question, so all I can give here are scattered observations and comments. 

First, I'm impressed by her meticulous research. She spends a lot of time at the start of her book explaining her criteria for establishing that Tolkien knew and read a particular book, and it was a major theme of her presentation. A lot of the value of her book is her decision to err on the side of exclusion --if the evidence seems iffy to her, she leaves that item out.

Second, she's better in print than in oral presentation. The book has the advantage of carefully chosen words  in the most advantageous structure, which is hard to beat in an extemporaneous format. 

Third, she's hard on Carpenter. She blames him with having badly distorted the truth by his statement that Tolkien felt English literature pretty much ended with Chaucer.

She is also highly critical of LETTERS for not giving the complete text of each letter. 

She considers Scull & Hammond three-volume set "the gold standard" for its reliability as a resource.

A few misc. points:

--She is certain that JRRT read Newman but cannot prove that he read any specific work of his.

She made some odd remarks on Morris which made me think she was confusing the Romans of THE HOUSE OF THE WOLFINGS with the Huns of THE ROOTS OF THE MOUNTAINS.

Finally, it's dun-SANE-ee (rhymes with rainy) not dUN-sin-ay

--More when I've had time to delve into the chapters that explore specific writers and works.

--John R.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The New Arrival: TOLKIEN & THE CLASSICAL WORLD

 So, today a new book arrived that I heard about from Andrew H.: TOLKIEN & THE CLASSICAL WORLD, edited by Hamish Wms and published by Walking Tree Press (2021) as volume 45 in the Cormare series. This being a seriously under-explored aspect of Tolkien's work despite the occasional attempt to make some headway (e.g. Reckford's 1987/88 essay or Morse's 1986 book) I v. much wanted to see what these folks had to say. So far haven't had time to do much more than skim the table of contents, but I can already tell the first piece I'm going to read: Michael Kleu's "Plato's Atlantis and the Post-Platonic Tradition in Tolkien's Downfall of Numenor", quickly followed by Lukast Neubauer's "Less Consciously at First but More Consciously in the Revision: Plato's Ring of Gyges as a Putative Source of Inspiration for Tolkien's Ring of Power", then the two pieces comparing Gondor/Rohan with Rome/Germanica: Richard Z. Gallant's "The Noldorization of the Edain: The Roman-Germani Paradigm for the Holdor and Edain in Tolkien's Migration Era" and Juliette Harrisson's "Escape and Consolation: Gondor as the Ancient Mediterranean and Rohan as the Germanic World in The Lord of the Rings".

So, it'll take me a while to get to this, but I expect it to be worth the wait.

I wonder if anyone will explore the Trolls/Cyclopes analogy.

--John R.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Tolkien Loved Libraries

So, between my current deadline and time spent sorting out yet more stuff, I haven't made much progress with the Ordway book yet -- though I'm looking forward to her presentation on it at the Wade later this week.

Her essential thesis is that Tolkien read and was strongly influenced by authors who were modern (1850-1970s) rather than medieval. It's a little odd to be told no one thought of this before if like me you're part of a number of scholars who have been working on just that for years. To be fair Ordway is much more nuanced in the book itself than she had been in descriptions of it while it was in the works.

What has caught my eye is the amount of careful research that's gone into this book. For example I learned that Tolkien spoke at the opening of a local library in Deddington, a village between Oxford and Banbury,  as reported by the local paper on December 19th 1956. 

The wealth of books to be found here is food for the mind,

and everyone knows that for the stomach to go without food

for a long time is bad, but for the mind to go without food

is even worse.

("Professor Tolkien's Whimsical Talk", Ordway p.22) 

So that's a new quote, and a nice one, to add to our collections.

More when I've had a chance to read more.

--John R.


UPDATE (T.2/23)

Thanks to Doug A. for the news that this event was reported on Morgan Thomsen's Mythoi blog back in 2012. Here's the link.

https://mythoi.tolkienindex.net/2012/04/30/professor-tolkiens-whimsical-talk-5/

Among the admirable amount of detail M.T. includes is that Tolkien closed his remarks by reciting a poem in Elvish ('the musical fairylike language that he invented').

I'm intrigued and a bit puzzled by one quote:

'I have seen visions through the wormholes 

of books printed before Caxton died, and 

from the paintings of skins of animals which

 roamed that Country we don't speak of 

at Wantage before Alfred was born'

(emphasis mine)

--So I wonder: Is 'that Country we don't speak of' the Land of the Dead (home of the Great Majority)? Or does he mean Faerie, a realm which folk are traditionally reluctant to name?

In any case, thanks to Morgan T. for the good work and to Douglas A. for pointing me in its direction.

--Now back to reading the Ordway.

--John R.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (THE AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE)

So, the only reason I thought I'd have to leave THE AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE  (1980) out of this series of posts about TSR dawn-of-time boardgames is that I don't have a copy.* But it seems a pity to leave it out when I do have a copy of the re-release from Steve Jackson Games (circa 1988), so my remarks will be based on the SJG version, not the original.

AWFUL GREEN THINGS bears a strong resemblance to SNIT'S REVENGE (and, for that matter, SNIT SMASHING) --not surprisingly since these are sibling games, all being creations of the inimitable Tom Wham.** In the case of AWFUL GREEN its inspiration was THE GREEN SLIME,***  its spiritual descendent THE CAPTAIN IS DEAD (2017).

My copy of this game is in good shape and obviously has never been played; my notes say I got it from Dale Donavan in 1999 for $3. Obviously, there's no TSR stock number on this version.

The other Wham games I know of include MERTWIG'S MAZE, published in folio format (and much later, being released in 1988); two of the six games in THE BEST OF DRAGON GAMES collection, FILE 13 (originally 1983) and SEARCH FOR THE EMPEROR'S TREASURE (originally 1981); and, best of all, there was THE GREAT KHAN GAME (1989). Published much later than most of the TSR Wham games and in sourcebox format (one of those slim boxes later used for al-Qadim adventures), this is a melding card game played on a map that serves as a board. This is the only one of the games I've been discussing that I actually picked up when it was still a new game. It's also one among those relatively few of these I've actually played --and greatly enjoyed, by the way.

The sku number is #1044, reflecting how KHAN GAME comes v. much later than the early Wham games that made his reputation. For some reason somebody decided this whimsical and wacky little game shd be set in the FORGOTTEN REALMS, necessitating the addition of 'The Whamite Isles' to the official FR map. This has given this one game a collectability factor for FORGOTTEN REALMS players lacking in SNITS or AWFUL GREEN.

--John R.

*the same problem applies with LITTLE BIG HORN, which I've never even seen, and WAR OF THE WIZARDS --but luckily Jeff Grubb has just posted a good write-up of the latter at  (http://grubbstreet.blogspot.com).

**SNIT'S REVENGE and AWFUL GREEN THINGS even share similar wording in their advice to player's section for the Snits and Green Things players.

***One of the worst science fiction movies ever made, the obvious source of AD&D's dread Green Slime.


Old TSR Boardgames (SNIT'S REVENGE)

So, of all the boardgames TSR put out over the decades without a doubt, hands down, by far the weirdest is Tom Wham's SNIT'S REVENGE (1977).




Like most of Wham's work,* this had originally appeared in DRAGON and was self-illustrated in Wham's distinctive cartoony style. 

Most of the game takes place inside the internal organs of one monster (the Bolotomus), which is being invaded by a number of small, fast creatures (the Snits). The Bolotomus player marshals his or her defenses, sending out Runnungitms (essentially antibodies) to stave off the Snits. The Snits player runs riots inside their foe, kicking things to death.

Notably for such a silly game,** SNIT'S REVENGE has a stellar cast of credits. In addition to Wham's own contributions to 'Design & Art' and Gygax's nod for "Inspirations", "Development, playtesting, and other venerable aid" are ascribed to a who's who of TSR greats:

Rob Kuntz

Tim Kask

Brian Blume

Skip Williams

Ernie Gygax

Dave Sutherland

Joe Orlowski

Mike Carr

Dave Trampier 

and Jeff Dee

Most of these had moved on by the time I came to TSR, the two notable exceptions being Skip Williams (long a stalwart of the RPGA and later driving force behind the 3e Monster Manual) and Dave Sutherland (mapper extraordinaire). But Wham cd still be seen around town sometimes, puttering around in overalls around the Lake Geneva library (I  was told he worked there as a custodian). I was also told that he'd been married to Rose Estes, who wrote a number of the early Greyhawk novels.

Wham was also exceptional in that most of TSR's early boardgames were one offs, the only boardgame TSR produced for that author. By contrast Wham created a number of such games. There was not only SNIT'S REVENGE's predecessor (SNIT SMASHING) but also its successor (RUNNGUS'S GAME). 

One of these games, THE AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE, merits a post of its own, which shd follow in a day or two.

Finally, a few features of my copy of SNIT'S REVENGE are worth calling out. For one thing, it's autographed (on the gameboard) by Wham himself. For another, I got this game in a silent auction at RockCon in Rockford in 1993 but was not its first owner. Not only had all the little chits been carefully punched out but some sheets recording the names and stats of Snits, SuperSnits, and locations set down for some long-ago gaming session by one Mike Burba were inside the box. So I'm glad this game is one that didn't sit pristine on a shelf but got played and, I hope, enjoyed.

--John R.

*By the way, the name is pronounced so that 'Wham' rhymes with 'Tom'

**It says a lot about the game that two and a half of its six-page rules come in the form of a comic strip explaining the cosmology behind the game.

UPDATE:

I forgot to add the sku designator: it's product #5003

--JDR 




Thursday, February 18, 2021

C. S. Lewis Biopic in the works

So, it seems a film biography of C. S. Lewis is now in the works, scheduled for a release late this year (or so they hope).

Called THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT, a phrase taken from CSL's autobiography, it's directed by the same director who did the Joss Ackland SHADOWLAND years ago. The story is said to be based on Max McLean's one-man show, which we've seen. The structure however sounds quite different, with three different actors portraying CSL at different times in his life, the older Lewis sometimes commenting on the younger. If done well this might recapture the feeling of its being Lewis's autobiography, where he repeatedly contrasts the himself of the present day with his earlier, starkly different younger selves.

The one article I've seen says almost nothing about the supporting cast (e.g., is Janie Moore given due prominence? what about his brother Warnie?) but it does specify that JRRT will be a character (played by one Tom Glenister), described as "one of his [Lewis's] intellectual sparring partners".

They apparently did some on-location filming in Oxford. It'll be nice to see the Kilns and Magdalen.


Thanks to David B. for the link, which I found in his post on the MythSoc list.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/15/quiet-cs-lewis-is-on-why-subject-of-new-film-could-be-right-for-now


--John R. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Report on my Glasgow talk

 So, 

one more follow-up on my Glasgow talk, in the form of a report on the Centre's blog from one attendee about how it went, plus a reading list of works, some referred to in my talk but for the most part generated in the Q&A and Chat that followed. 

I'm glad to say  that the verdict is that the presentation went well --though looking over all that was going on at the same time in parallel in the audience response as I was speaking makes me wish my responses were more focused.

Here's the link:

https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/index.php/2021/02/10/a-celebration-of-collaborative-fantasy-storytelling-a-report-and-reading-list-from-the-centres-fantasy-and-dd-event/

Many thanks to Grace and Emma and Hannah and of course Dimitra for all their hard work putting this event, et al, together.

--JDR

Old TSR Boardgames (KNIGHTS OF CAMELOT)










So, 
 the next game (product #1009) on the shelf is somewhat later (1980) and more appealing in its art and components, with an attractive cover and pleasant color pallet for both box and map. Written by the Rahmans, this is a much more substantial work than, say COHORTS of WARLOCKS & WARRIORS, with a thirty-six page rulebook, poster-sized map, encounters sheet, dice, chits, and cards.

This was another purchase from Crazy Igor, apparently a Christmas present to myself since I got it December 21st 1993 (a Tuesday). In all the time since I've only played this game once, some years back, when Steve Winter ran it for several of us who'd never played and were curious. I remember I was underwhelmed, but I don't remember why.

Similarly I know there were two editions of this game, not sure why. Maybe I'll see if I can run through a solo game before it goes out the door. It might be fun to see how well it might match with PENDRAGON. I do see from BoardGameGeek that there's a DRAGON magazine article offering rules on how to play a varlet rather than a chivalrous knight,* which again sounds worth checking out. 

One final feature of note is that the map is credited to Darlene Pekul and the cover art to "Eymoth and Erol Otus". Eymoth I haven't come across before. Otus by contrast is one of the most distinctive artists TSR ever employed. I have to say though that the cover art for this game is unusually subdued by his standards and I wdn't have recognized it as his work.

Next up: something completely different (SNIT'S REVENGE).

--John R.

--current reading: TEHANU, TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING, light novels.


*"Being a Bad Knight" by Glenn Rahman, DRAGON #58 (Feb 1982)

Friday, February 12, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (WARLOCKS & WARRIORS)




So, to resume.

As my Marie Kondo deathmarch through my shelf-full of early TSR boardgames I've had for years and for the most part never played  continues, we come to WARLOCKS & WARRIORS (1977), product #1003.

This turns out to be yet another of TSR's confusing array of intro-level games (this one retooling the target audience down to age 8 & up), with this particular entry complicating that tangled history just a little more.

It also turns out to be another of the games designed by fantasy authors Gygax liked (the 'Famous Authors' or 'Famous Writers' Series),  like de Camp's COHORTS and, presumably, Leiber & Fischer's LANKHMAR .

 In this case the sword and sorcery writer in question was Gardner Fox--who though remembered today primarily as a third-rate Conan imitator* was clearly a favorite of E. Gary G.**

The basic idea underlying this game is paring down the character classes to just two: Warlock (magic-users) and Warrior (fighter). The best thing about it, looking back from the present day, is the Dave Sutherland art, which is reminiscent of the art towards the end of the DMG depicting an adventuring group's up and downs in their explorations.

As for the game itself, the puzzle is why did they need this when they had Megarry's DUNGEON  (which is in fact advertised on the last page of WARLOCKS & WARRIORS' rulesheet)?

Just as an aside, I shd record that my copy was a gift from Slade Henson (June 7th 1994). Slade was at that time downsizing his own collection. It's perhaps amusing to note that Slade credited his having such a nice collection to his having arrived in Lake Geneva to start work at TSR (circa 1989?) on the same weekend that Frank Mentzer had a big garage sale . . . 

--John R.

--current reading: light novel, Ordway's book, TEHANU


*Fox's main claim to fame are not his fiction but his work in comic books: he played a major role in the creation and scripting of ADAM STRANGE.


**The full credits read

Game Design: Gardner Fox

Development: Brian Blume & James Ward

Graphics: David Sutherland, Brian Blume & Gardner Fox


UPDATE: FAMOUS AUTHORS SERIES

I shd have included in the post above information from Zenopus's comment on my earlier post re. COHORTS: Roman Checkers. It is clear from Z's additional researches that the three works so listed as belonging to this series are

(1) LANKHMAR  [Fischer & Leiber]

(2) WARLOCKS & WARRIORS  [Fox]

(3) COHORTS  [de Camp]

Thanks to Zenopus A. for clarifying this.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Text of My Glasgow Talk

So, just wanted to share the link to this, the script of my Glasgow talk, 'Giants in the Oerth'. This version shd be handy for anyone who may want to cite it, or if there are those who prefer text over audio/video. 

Plus, this time with endnotes.

And in the interests of fixing a small misstep, I now realize that when I said Moldvay did the 'Giants in the Oerth' column the assistance of Schick, it wd have been more accurate to say the two did it as partners.

Here's the link. Thanks again all for the questions and comments.

--John R.


https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/index.php/2021/02/08/john-d-rateliff-dd-and-fantasy-fiction-giants-in-the-oerth/


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (4th DIMENSION)


 So, this one is a bit of an odd man out, being the American adaptation / edition of a previously published English (UK) game. It'd be nice to be able to say that this game about Time Lords was connected in some way with DOCTOR WHO, but no such luck. Instead this is a positional game all about positioning your markers most advantageously; it has echoes of Stratego and Chess

And that's really about it. Perhaps the design has appeal that's not apparent from just skimming the rules and setting up the pieces. Unfortunately none comes across in the two online play-throughs I found on YouTube / Boardgame Geeks. It also has the problem that the gamepieces look too much alike and the board is too small.

One mildly shocking feature of the game is its naming one standard type of move a "suicide".  There's an unfortunate bit of word choice that wd never see the light of day today.

The games' product number/stock number is #5004; it's also a bit later (1979)  than the other games I've been looking at in this string of posts. 

In the end, I get the sense that this game functions better as a piece of set design in, say, an old episode of STAR TREK than being something someone wd actually want to play. Pity. 

--John R.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES)



 So, this might be known as The One That Got TSR in Trouble, were there not competition for that title (cf. WARRIORS OF MARS). Gygax tells the story in anecdotal fashion:

TSR was served with papers threatening damages to the tune of half a mil

 by the Saul Zantes (sp?) division of Elan Merchandising on behalf of 

the tolkien Estate. The main objection was to the boardgame we were 

publishing, The Battle of Five Armies. The author of that game had given 

us a letter from his attorney claiming the work was grandfathered

because it was published after the copyrights for JRRT's works

had lapsed and before any renewals were made. The action also

demanded we remove balrog, dragon, elf, ent, goblin, hobbit,

orc, and warg from the D&D game. Although only balrog and

warg were unique names we agreed to hobbit as well, kept the rest,

of course. The boardgame was dumped, and thus the suit was 

settled out of court at that.

—CHEERS, GARY (circa 2002) p. 108


Since it'd take a whole separate post if not more to unpack and fact-check Gygax's account  (e.g., Zaentz's 'Tolkien Enterprises' did not represent the Tolkien Estate, though they often found it useful to give the impression that they did), and because I've written about this boardgame elsewhere, all I'll say about it here is that my favorite rule can be found at the bottom of page 5 of the rulebook:

SMAUG VS THE DWARVES 

. . . For this scenario Smaug may only be killed by Bowfire. Note: In this scenario the Dwarves have no Bows.


--Think over that one for a bit. Kobayashi Maru, anyone? 


Maintaining their confusing tradition in assigning stock/product numbers, this game is #F110

--that is, the tenth in their line of boardgames, this time tagged as a Fantasy title.

On a personal note, while I'm vague on exactly when I got most of the games I'm covering in their sequence of blog posts, this one I can be specific on: I got it at Origins in 1995 (Sunday July 16th), that being the only time I ever went to Origins. It cost me $18.95, probably because all the pieces have been punched and ziplock bagged. Finally, I bought it from Crazy Egor -- not just his booth but Crazy Egor himself. *

--John R.

--current reading: three Japanese light novel (the equivalent of young adult fiction).

*I also bought the original boxed set of Chaosium's MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP at the same time and place, but it cost me $29.95.  It was worth it. And now, all these years later, I'm coming to the end of playing the adventure.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (COHORTS : Roman Checkers)




So, another of TSR's early boardgames is more significant for its associations than its gameplay. Published by TSR under the name COHORTS: THE GAME OF ROMAN CHECKERS,* it's a reconstruction of an ancient game, the rules for which are lost. The game has different names in different cultures. From a quick survey I suspect some of these are different games now associated together more than is perhaps justified. 

More interesting than the game itself is the fact that it was the work of L. Sprague de Camp. At first de Camp seemed an odd choice to create (or re-create) a boardgame. Then it hit me: one of de Camp's most famous works is his LEST DARKNESS FALL (1939), a Connecticut Yankee novel about a modern-day engineer who finds himself back in Late Antiquity Rome.  If we consider de Camp, who was something of a polymath, an expert in all things Roman, his authoring a Roman or pseudoRoman game makes more sense.**  

de Camp's name appears at the end of the rulesheet and on one of the box sides, which says

COHORTS, THE GAME OF ROMAN CHECKERS,

 has been specially prepared by world famous author L. Sprague de Camp.


The box bottom  reads

COHORTS is the third title in TSR's "Famous Writers Series", 
and this edition of the game was prepared by noted writer L. Sprague de Camp.

The phrase "Famous Author Series" appears in a starburst in the upper right corner of the boxtop.


So, what is the Famous Writers/Authors Series, and what are the other entries in it (presumably at least two, if this is the third one)? I assume the Leiber/Fischer LANKHMAR Game was one, and that the Larry Smith version of Tolkien's BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES the other.


Finally, for those trying to sort out the seqyence, this game's stock number is #5002.

--John R.

--New Arrival: Holly Ordway's long awaited TOLKIEN'S MODERN READING.


*Thanks to Steve Brown for my copy of this. 

**This was not de Camp's only contact with TSR: DRAGON MAGAZINE reprinted one of the  Harold Shea 'Incomplete Enchanter' stories.


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Lankhmar Lore --found

So, thanks to Jeff G's comment on my previous Lankhmar post, I now know where a lot of the questions I had can be answered. Jeff pointed me towards a string of articles about the LANKHMAR Game that had appeared in DRAGON Magazine in late 1979/early 1980.

In all there were seven pieces in this series, all of them written by Dr. Frederick MacKnight:*

DRAGON #30.  p.16-17 (Oct 1979)

DRAGON #31. p.32-34 (Nov 1979)

DRAGON #33. p.12-15 (Jan 1980)

DRAGON #34. p.32-33 (Feb 1980)

DRAGON #36. p.46-47 (Apr 19800

DRAGON #37. p.31-32 (May 1980)

DRAGON #38. p.44-45 (June 1980)

  

MacKnight's claim to fame is that he was the person who introduced Fischer to Leiber. He also played the original version with Fischer and Leiber and can (and does) describe it in exhaustive detail. Unfortunately he rather confusingly describes and discusses the original game ('LANKMAR'), the new game ('LANKHMAR'), and his own proposed re-design of many features of both. Here's what MacKnight has to say (emphasis mine):

I am one of the few people ever to have played the original game of Lankhmar

other than its original authors, Harry Fischer, Fritz Leiber, and Martha Fischer

There was also Prof. Lawrence (Larry) Howe of the University of Louisville,

and that is all. Harry owned the board and hadn't had many games-minded

friends since college days.


Perhaps the most interesting thing here is learning that Martha Fischer played a crucial role. Indeed, she created the map board, which had a 3D element to its terrain. MacKnight says he was Ningauble and suggests that Martha F. was Sheelba (Leiber and Fischer were Fafhrd and The Mouser, of course). And apparently there was a good deal of roleplaying when the characters came into conflict.

Playing the game took a major time investment of several days --at least a weekend. But in MacKnight's opinion it was more than worth it:

I played the game only three or four times but it was enough to convince me

that it was the greatest, most fascinating game ever invented by man.


In addition, we learn some worthwhile misc. facts:

That the board was six feet tall and three feet wide.

That the map was oriented North / South, unlike TSR's East / West, which had created blank areas that Gygax et al had filled with inserted place-names of their own devising. 

Each square was 1&1/2 inches across. 

The landbridge was twice as wide in the original. 

As for the War Cat, MacKnight sheds light on this when he groups it with mounts:

The beasts are horses and camels. In [the original game] these were represented

 by checkers: black for horses, red for camels. There was also the War Cat, 

represented by a furry button. In [the new game] the War Cat plays no 

active role. He must be too old now too leave his lair!


I admit to being curious whether the original survives and if so where it is now. We know the board was in Fischer's keeping, and that it must have survived intact down to the mid-1970s, when Gygax et al must have borrowed it to work from when creating their stripped down version. The chief reason given by Gygax for not publishing the original game as is was simply cost: the game wd have to be priced at fifty to a hundred dollars, in a day when the EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE box was considered extravagantly expensive at twenty-five dollars.

Nowdays, of course, things are different. A deluxe Kickstarter might well have a good chance of getting funded, assuming the original survives to serve as the template.

--John R.

*MacKnight's first name is given variously as Franklin and Frederick; I'm not sure which is right.

Coda: Fafhrd's Dilemma

Before moving on, I wanted to mention the seventh and last of the pieces MacKnight inflicted on DUNGEON editor Tim Kask, which was unlike the rest in that it was a logic puzzle. Here's a quick summary:

Fafhrd is in a death trap. 

The Gray Mouser has five minutes to disable the trap and free him. 

The person to whom the puzzle is posed asks questions 

to create the scene and reveal what to do to save his partner.


--JDR


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Lankhmar Lore

So, I took a look at the LANKHMAR map, cards, tokens, and rulebook in hopes that this might turn up some Lankhmar lore—details about Leiber & Fischer's world from early after its creation that might not have made it into the fiction. There turns out to be very little of this, though what's there is intriguing (see below). The biggest change is in accepting that the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd are here just two of four co-equal heroes (each being one player's character), the other two being Pulgh of Lankhmar and Movarl of Kvaach Nar. Fafhrd leads a Mingol army while The Mouser fights on behalf of the Chosen of the King of Kings (a figure wholly unknown to me).

 

 Now that I've looked through the rules, I'd say the game play must be fairly chaotic,* since there are multiple elements that disrupt each player's plans. The most amusing of these are the GEAS cards. Each player has to draw one of these at the start of each turn, and they represent quests that either Sheelba or Nignauble force that player to go on. That hero has to either temporarily abandon the war and take on the geas himself or delegate it to one of his minions. Typical Geases include

 

• "Go to the Trollstep Mountains to learn the trollstep dance and report back to Sheelba"

• "Go to the City of Ghouls and bring back a Ghoul-friend for Ningauble"

and my personal favorite: 

• "Find an earthworm from Earth's End and bring it to Sheelba".

 

Sometimes Sheelba will lend her boat to help out a hero, Sheelba's boat being another new element.

 

The typical reward for fulfilling a GEAS is to be free of it, but sometimes there's a Reward, with effects detailed on the REWARD card. 

 

The most interesting of these involve an elusive character known as the War Cat, who appears on two of the cards. The War Cat gives out gifts to heroes, but there's no clue of what he, or she, or It might be, though we do know that it lives in a cave (the Cave of the War Cat) on the far west of the map.*

 

1st card. "Go to the Cave of the War Cat and gain your choice of a sword, spear, axe, or bow and arrow"

2nd card. "The War Cat gives you aid in combat: Add +1 to the die roll of the man of your choice (hold until used). Discard when used."

 

So, who or what is the War Cat? In the absence of any other evidence I'd have assumed something along the lines of the Cath Paluc. But in the game it functions as a sort of minor Sheelba/Ningauble --less perilous to approach, distributing lesser reward. The parallel between the names Gray Mouser and War Cat makes me think the Cat is a who, not a what. That visitors are given weapons suggests faint echoes of Scathach, but that's probably pushing it. 

 

Unless of course it's just something Gygax or one of the other mid-seventies re-casters of the game put it in as some kind of private joke.

 

Perhaps someday we'll get a book-length study of Leiber that'll answer questions like these.

--John R.

 

*one good example of this is the Sunken Lands, a land-bridge that submerges at unpredictable intervals, possibly drowning an army crossing the land-bridge at the time.

A Declaration of Consciousness

Well, this is interesting.

I've now finished reading Sy Montgomery's book THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS, the author's personal account of her interactions with octopuses (including some at the Seattle Aquarium). Worth reading, though I wd have preferred less Montgomery and more octopuses.

As part of a discussion of octopus intelligence, towards the end of her book she mentions The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, a 2012 proclamation by a gathering of neuroscientists that some animal species --birds, mammals, octopus-- have the "neurological substrates that generate consciousness"; among the signatories was Stephen Hawkins. It's encouraging to see physiology catching up with observational research.

Reading this makes me look forward to the day when, post-pandemic, we'll be able to visit area aquariums again (being lucky enough to have not one but two, in Seattle and also Tacoma).

--John R.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (The Lankhmar Game)



 So, I like to make lists. For example, years ago when I was at TSR/Lake Geneva, I attempted to create a complete product list. Every D&D/AD&D rulebook and boxed set and module. Every boxed set or module for all the other TSR rpgs, like GANGBUSTERS and TOP SECRET and BOOT HILL.  Every book to come out of TSR's book department --not just all the shared world novels but also the pick-a-path books in their various guises. In the end I didn't quite manage to get everything, but I came pretty close: call it a good faith effort.

And while poking about in the company's history, I became aware aware that TSR had published a number of board games in the early days of the company. By far the most important of these, and the best known, are DUNGEON, Dave Megarry's boardgame encapsulation of D&D, and Mike Carr's FIGHT IN THE SKY / DAWN PATROL. The rest had largely vanished out of the collective memory.* 

Once I was aware these games I started picking them up as opportunity offered. I have eight and know of a ninth;  I don't think there were ever more than ten or twelve in all. Anyway, thought I'd do a few postings for the sake of those curious about this long-ago sideline. 


THE LANKHMAR GAME

Being a big Leiber fan (nobody wrote sword and sorcery better) I was excited to learn that TSR had published a Lankhmar boardgame back in 1976. Leiber fans know that Fischer, Leiber, and a third person whose name I forget created a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser boardgame back in 1937, only about three years after Fischer & Leiber had created the characters. The game, rumored to be of great complexity, thus sounded likely to reveal new information about the characters and their world. 

Imagine my disappointment then to discover that this is not the game Fischer and Leiber created back in 1937, but a modern (1976) redaction from it whipped up by Gygax, Rob Kuntz, and Brad Stock (a name I've otherwise never come across). 

The full credits are of interest in themselves:

Inspiration: Fritz Leiber

Original Design: Harry O. Fischer

Consultant and Co-Designer: Fritz Leiber

Development of Redesign: E. Gary Gygax, Robert J. Kuntz, Brad Stock

Graphics: David Sutherland

Editing: Mike Carr

Special Effort: David Arneson, Brian Blume

Printing: Patch Press Inc., Beloit, Wisc

—this is thus one of the few TSR titles to include a credit for Arneson, albeit an ambiguous one.


The account of why we are getting this game and not the one we wd have expected comes near the end of the rulebook (emphasis mine):


THE HISTORY OF LANKHMAR:

   Most readers will be surprised to learn that the Game of Lankhmar was originally conceived in 1937 and has been played down to this time! It has withstood a rather severe test of time, particularly for a game based on a fantasy concept. Those who have read THE SECOND BOOK OF FRITZ LEIBER (DAW Books, Inc. New York, 1975) will know that Harry Fischer was a prime force in the development of the world of Nehwon, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, etal. Harry conceived the basis for the game also, and he and Fritz developed it into an exciting contest, quite chess-like in its movement and combat systems -- in fact, the original playing board was squared off rather than gridded with hexagons. The result was a spectacular game with a gigantic board, raised terrain features, and impressive pieces with weapons bristling forth; and various newspapers printed pictures of the game and wrote about it over the years. In corresponding with Fritz Leiber the subject of the game was brought up, and soon a three-way discussion of its possible appeal now was underway between Fritz and Harry and Gary Gygax. The end result is the game you have before you.

   Unfortunately there was no way LANKHMAR could be produced in the form that Harry did it in originally, not unless the game could be sold for fifty or a hundred dollars!  And if the form was changed much of its appeal would be sacrificed too. As changes in sone [sic] aspects were necessary anyway, a study was begun to see how the game would be affected by certain other changes as well. Would it be possible to change the board to a hexagonal system and incorporate the latest fantasy conflict game concepts into the original design? If this were possible it was envisioned that what was lost from the original eye-appeal and sweeping movement could be off-set by additions of greater mapboard graphic detail, more realistic combat simulation, and play which brought forth more of the flavor of the world of Newhon. After a long period of development work, Fritz and Harry gave their approval to this version of their game. The original Game of Lankhmar is still herein, but in a format which enables thousands to now enjoy playing the game which was formerly limited to just a few! We certainly hope that you will find it as interesting and informative and challenging as we do. 



three misc. points in closing:

The upper right corner of the box top bears the stock number F 105. If I understand TSR's rather confusing designators at the time,  probably means that this, a fantasy game, is the fifth of their boardgames. 

Since it never saw the light of day, I hope the original is preserved in a museum or special collection. At the very least it'd be nice to see one of those photographs mentioned.

Finally, I didn't know this when I bought the box, but the rulebook inside my copy is autographed by both Fischer and Leiber. Definitely a keeper.

--John R.

*I shd have asked Dave Sutherland but never thought to.



Sunday, January 31, 2021

Giants in the Oerth

 So, my presentation (via Zoom) about fantasy fiction's influence on the creation of D&D went well.

If you missed the live event last Thursday, here's the link to a You Tube recording of the whole event. 

It starts with a welcome to the event, followed on an explanation of what D&D is for those who are new to the game. Then I do my bit, followed by a Q&A.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5Kynx0NZQA

I enjoyed putting my piece together and hope those who like me are interested in both fantasy fiction and roleplaying games will find it worthwhile. If there's anything I didn't cover in the Q&A let me know via Comments and I'll do my best to answer it here.

--John R.







Tuesday, January 26, 2021

John Garth on Le Guin and Tolkien

So, thanks to Janice for sharing the link to an interesting piece by John Garth, who suggests that Le Guin paid a hidden tribute to JRRT by making "tolk" and "-ien" mean Earth (or stone) + Sea in her invented language created for her EARTHSEA trilogy. Right or wrong (and there seems to be no way to find out now) it's an intriguing idea.

Co-incidentally I'd just re-read THE TOMBS OF ATUAN the day before --the first book of fantasy I read after Tolkien himself, way back in the fall of 1973 (when it was quite a new book). This makes it the first of many books I read after being told it was 'like Tolkien'. And I've always rather unfairly judged by that standard. Re-reading it now for what I think is the fourth (or fifth) time I still find it claustrophobic and oppressive --which is the point, of course, but still doesn't make the experience of reading it any less drab and nightmarish. 

And since I've found out over time that books change depending on what books you've read before and after them,* I now find myself wishing that someone wd do a study comparing Le Guin's TOMBS OF ATUAN with another labyrinth book:: Mary Renault's THE KING MUST DIE, with which I can now see it shares a lot of what I assume are deliberate parallels. 

Source-study and influence are always tricky, though. It would seem clear to me now that Lewis's TILL WE HAVE FACES was very deliberately written in the style and mode of Mary Renault, whose work we know Lewis admired, except that the timing doesn't work out: Lewis's book would have already been written or at least drafted by the time Renault's was published. 

Here's the link:

https://johngarth.wordpress.com/2021/01/22/ursula-le-guin-the-language-of-earthsea-and-tolkien/?fbclid=IwAR2MCF9_elBRi70lQfr-QsbMAtC6e5xXEd2iA_MCu0nMPh5oTE7E8PrV87Q

--John R.

current reading: THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS by Sy Montgomery (2015)


*the old 'statues in the garden' analogy

Monday, January 25, 2021

A Forgotten TSR Project

 So, I've been skimming Flint Dille's memoir of his time in Hollywood. While it disappointing has much less about Gygax than I'd expected, it does have some glimpses of what went so disastrously wrong with TSR West Coast --that is, the first time. 

More interestingly, it makes mention of a project I'd never heard of before: THE SCEPTRE OF SEVEN SOULS. Dille describes this as "a genre-mormorphing story that connected all of TSR's franchises at the time". That is, the story began in a D&D world with a hero-vs.-evil-wizard plot. The wizard escapes at the end of the first episode/story arc, and hero and villain find themselves atop a train in a BOOT HILL setting (the wild west). From there the story(s) continue, taking in a TOP SECRET scenario, a Fu Manchu GANG BUSTERS story, a computer-gone-mad GAMMA WORLD piece, and wrapping up with, of all things, STAR FRONTIERS*

"The MacGuffin of the series was a sceptre forged by seven ancient sorcerers that divided into seven parts. Each part was a portal to a different world. I have no idea whether we thought we could fit all of this into one movie or we were selling them on seven movies or we had a 'back pocket' idea of a TV series". 

This of course sounds like it owes something to the Rod of Seven Parts, one of the powerful Artifacts listed in the AD&D DMG. 

 One hook Gygax & Dille hoped wd serve as a lure to Hollywood Powers That Be was a mooted casting of Orson Welles as the "Dungeon Master" (whether this is the same as the villain of the series is unclear). Plus Dille at least thought it cd be filmed cheaply using already-existing backlots. 

In the end nothing came of the project and Dille confesses that he's either lost or mislaid his copy. So it seems probable that no copy survives. Sad to say, judging from what little we know, I see no sign that had this actually made it to the screen there's nothing in this account that makes me think THE SCEPTRE OF SEVEN SOULS wd have been any less dreadful than the D&D Cartoon or the D&D Movie.   Pity.

--John R.


*That of course equals six. There's a suggestion that fitting in there somewhere as the seventh wd be XXVc (i.e. BUCK ROGERS)--except that came along much later (circa 1990), whereas the project described here is dated by Dille to 1984. This suggests Dille may be conflating events in his memory, as is easy to do.


My Talk on D&D This Thursday

So, just a reminder for folks who may be interested that my talk on D&D's sources in and influence on fantasy fiction is this week.* Specifically Thursday the 28th at 6 pm Greenwich Time (10 am my time). 

The event is jointly sponsored by The Centre for Fantasy & the Fantastic and by The Games and Gaming Lab 

Registration is free, but you have to get a ticket, mainlyas a matter of logistics, so they know how many people to expect.

Here's the link:

https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk


--And now back to practicing the delivery and looking up various odds and ends.**


--John R.

*It will surprise no one that Tolkien's name comes up a time or two.

**Yes my piece has footnotes, even though I won't be delivering them. Once a footnotist, always a footnotist.


Two Years Ago for Tarkus and Tyburn

So, Janice reminds me that it's two years ago today that Tarkus and Tyburn came home with us to stay. They were gangly half-cats back then with a lot of kitten still in them. Now they're full size young adults but still energetic, loving a good game, a good warm fire, and the occasional walk. I'm glad they joined us before the pandemic: having them with us has made the quarantine easier to handle.

Though they're not going to like it when we take them in to the vet to get their booster shots sometime soon.


--And now back to practicing my talk for Glasgow.

--John R.

--current reading: THE TOMBS OF ATUAN (just finished) and THE ELUSIVE SHIFT.  Just started THE SOUL OF AN OCTUPUS and PLAYING AT THE WORLD


   

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Return of The Cat Room

So, after having been closed for the holidays and Covid crisis, the cat room is now open again for adoptions. I missed last week because of health issues but made it in today (Friday the 22nd). 

Of the five cats they reopened the room with, three had already been adopted and one gone back up to Arlington for health issues. That just left Mr. Loki, who had the room all to himself and loved it. He was out the whole two hours I was there, the first hour walking out in the store and the second playing and getting petted in the cat room. 

Having spent that much time with him one-on-one, I think that instead of ‘Loki’ (god of mischief) his name shd be Mr. Low-Key because he’s so mellow. And while he may not like other cats, he loves people. Over and over during the walk he’d go up to a customer or employee, stopping a little way off. If they spoke to him or held a hand out he’d go over and ask to be petted; otherwise he’d go off in another direction. In short he’s quite the charmer and attracted a lot of attention. Towards the end of the walk, and again later back in the cat room, he went belly-up and asked for belly rubs. For a while I held him belly-up in my lap on the bench. Luckily he’s the kind of cat who tells you when he’s had enough. 

For the rest of the time he got groomed and petted and played with. I can also confirm that he loves catnip, to the extent that he just inhales the stuff. Also that the new arrangement of stuff in the store around the cat room a great improvement, like that row of cat-trees between the cat room and the aquariums. 

Here’s a picture of him just after he’s come out to start his walk and another of him belly-up in my lap. Parker used to do that and wd even fall asleep in that position when I was in the rocker but it's rare.

A great cat who I hope will soon find a home that appreciates him.

—JDR









 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sadness

Sadness is getting back the Thinking of You card you sent a close friend, returned to you marked deceased.

--JDR 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Happiness . . .

 Happiness is having finished a complete draft eight days ahead of deadline.

Now to spend the next few days polishing, checking the references, writing up the notes, and practicing (and timing) the delivery.

But for now, being more or less done ahead of the deadline is such an unusual experience for me that I thought I shd savor it.

--John R.

--current reading: various stories by Gygax (bad), Gardner Fox (really bad), and Harry Fischer (the jury is out) that appeared in early issues of THE DRAGON.

--Jn Peterson's new book  THE ELUSIVE SHIFT

--various odds and ends relating to things I'm working on.

Friday, January 15, 2021

GREY SEAS ARE DREAMING OF MY DEATH (Wm Hope Hodgson rpg)

 So, my softcover hardcopy edition of the new Kickstarted rpg based on the Sargasso Sea stories of Wm Hope Hodgson has now arrived: GREY SEAS ARE DREAMING OF MY DEATH: A William Hope Hodgson rpg by Derek Sotak w. Kevin Ross & J. R. Hamantaschen.

With a boutique game such as this the first requirement for success is to avoid being generic. The more individualistic the better. A game based on a particular author's work shd strive to capture the flavour of that author's world, characters, and plots --in this case, Hodgson's Sargasso Sea stories as recorded in such works as "The Derelict", "The Voice in the Night", "The Stone Ship", THE BOATS OF THE GLEN CARRIG, &c. 

Since I'm hoping to play this game at some point down the road I'm going to hold off reading any of the three adventures (or 'Shanty') included in the rulebook, so lrt's skip over those for now.

The whole game is laid out in one modest booklet of about a hundred pages, of which the following hight points shd give a good idea of the game.

The DM who runs the game is here known as The Captain.

The rest of the PCs all take up positions as members of 'The 'Crew'. 

Players can choose characters from twelve pregenerated roles:

The Bosun, The Captain's Boy, The Carpenter, The Castaway, The Cook, The First Mate, The Fungal Human, The Jonah, The Second Mate, The Shore Dweller, The Surgeon, and The Whaler.


Each character has eight Stats. Instead of the familiar Strength, Intelligence, & Wisdom et al of D&D here we find

Brawn, Nimbleness, Perspicacity, Backbone, Physique, Seaworthyness, Salt, and Mettle.


The designer also provides an example of the combat system and of the overall resolution system.

Miscellaneous points include ships, weapons, available medicines, food and Monsters. 

This lengthy section covers not just the giant squid, octopuses, and giant crabs that populate Hodgson's sea-stories* but ranges further afield to include some creatures found in W.H.H.'s other work: 

Ab-humans (THE NIGHT LAND), Swine-Thing (HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND), The Watchers (THE NIGHT LAND; essentially Great Old Ones) . 

All in all, it looks like a quirky system. The designer's determination to re-name every stat and function in an effort to make the game more distinctive will annoy some and amuse others: to each his or her own.

I'll post again somewhere down the line with an update of what the game plays like.

Dibs on the fungal human.

--JDR

--current reading: collection of Hodgson stories, the newspapers


*who cd resist the chance to fight a bathypelagic centipede?




Nice Piece in Memory of Walter Hooper

So, came across a short piece in memory of Walter Hooper that I thought did a good job of acknowledging his achievements.  Here's the link to it posted on the Wade Center website (in recognition of his having won their Lifetime Achievement award).

https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/academic-centers/wadecenter/about/history/biographies/kilby-lifetime-achievement-award/walter-hooper/

Knowing that he was a great lover of cats (he occasionally made reference to one storied cat named Claire the Meek), I found myself wondering whether he had a cat at the time of his death and what provisions might have been made for her.

--John R.



 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Four Myths for Elwin Ransom

 So, I'd been thinking lately about the Biblical myths C. S. Lewis chose as the inspirations for each of the four books in his Ransom series. The myths themselves aren't that hard to identify, but looking back on them now I'm wondering if there's some unifying thread I missed. 

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET: the legend of War in Heaven and the fall of the Angels 

PERELANDRA: the Garden of Eden on the cusp of the Fall

 THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH: the Tower of Babel

THE DARK TOWER: Cain's children and the Mark of Cain (possibly with a bit of Cain thrown in)

Two of the four come straight out of the Bible, one Old Testament, the other New. One is Apocryphal (Book of Enoch), another part-canonical, part apocryphal. If there's a pattern here I don't see it. Perhaps the Biblical theme is all that was needed. 

Something to ponder over and see if at some point a plausible answer pops out.

--John R.

current reading: THE ELUSIVE SHIFT by Jon Peterson (2020), and ADRIFT ON THE HAUNTED SEAS by Wm Hope Hodgson (assembled 2005)


Friday, January 8, 2021

Robert Frost and TAM LIN

So, I've now finished reading Pamela Dean's TAM LIN, one of Windling's Fairy Tale Series. I thought I'd read this at the time it came out (1991) but it had passed from my memory so thoroughly that I was in doubt about whether I had read it before until I was half way through.

Now that I've read it again I find that, (1) like the other volumes in the series I read, the original ballad or fairy tale is so much better than these adaptations that it undercuts the entire project, and (2) the best thing about them are the Thomas Canty covers --if not his best work then close to it.

That said, I did enjoy this characterization of one minor character:

“the problem with Danny was that he felt the entire human race was so peculiar that no single peculiarity . . . made any more impression on him than any other” (page 234)


Even better was this bit about Robert Frost:

[Thomas said] “But I have other things to do.”

“And miles to go, before you sleep,” said Nick.

“My high-school  English teacher,” said Tina over the back of her seat, “said that line was about death. I never really believed it.”

“You can’t ask Robert Frost,” said Nick reflectively. “He’s dead.”

“What did you think it meant, Tina?” said Thomas, a little hollowly.

“I thought it meant he had miles to go before he slept,” said Tina. “He’s driving a horse through a snowstorm after dark and he’s a long way from home. That’s what it says. It doesn’t say a single thing about death.”

Nick and Janet looked at each other. After a moment Nick said, “While there is a great deal to be said, in the abstract, for that view of poetical criticism, I think it does miss a something in this poem. Did you like it?

“Yes,” said Tina.

“Why?”

“I liked the way it sounded and the way it described the snow. Snow does that.”

“The pleasure of recognition,” said Nick.

“What?”

“Aristotle validates your reaction.”

“Be quiet,” said Thomas, “leave the girl alone. I don't mind talking about poetry, but I'm damned if I'll talk about critics.”

(pages 164-165)


It’s pretty clear from context in the book that this is meant to make Tina look stupid. But it turns out we can ask Frost, and he'd come down on Tina's side. I used to have an audiotape from the late 1950s  of Frost doing a reading of some of his poems. And in it he insisted that several of his most famous poems, this one among them, were meant to be read literally, with no subtext. Personally I think Frost was having us on, but it does kinda undercuts Dean’s point.

--John R.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

My Talk in Glasgow (D&D and Fantasy Fiction)

 So, my next presentation has now been officially announced: 

D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth

This event is being sponsored by The University of Glasgow's Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic in conjunction with their Games and Gaming Lab. I believe the event is free but that people who take part need to sign up by getting a ticket ahead of time, so the organizers know how many attendees to expect.

https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/index.php/2021/01/06/dd-and-fantasy-fiction-giants-in-the-oerth/

The presentation takes place on Tuesday January 28th at 6 pm Greenwich time, or in about three weeks at 10 am my time. It'll be a 'webinar' similar in format with Doug Anderson et al's talk on David Lindsay back in November.* 

I'll be looking at the interconnections between fantasy fiction and Dungeons & Dragons.** If you're interested, drop by on the 28th and see what you think.

--John R.

current reading: TAM LIN (the novel) by Pamela Dean and ADRIFT ON THE HAUNTED SEA, a collection of supernatural sea stories by Wm Hope Hodgson and edited by Doug Anderson.

current music: more of the same.


* now available online at 

https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/index.php/2020/12/02/celebrating-the-centenary-of-a-voyage-to-arcturus-report-and-video-recording/

**and yes, Tolkien plays a crucial role in that process.



Yesterday's Coup

 So, two songs ran through my head yesterday as I watched and read about the attempted coup:

The Lady's Got Potential from EVITA (the recast version)

You Can't Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones in one of their more reflective moods.

--John R.




Monday, January 4, 2021

Tolkien's Birthday

 So, today being Tolkien's birthday, I thought I'd join the Tolkien Society's toast --an annual event but one I've never taken part in before. This year the magic of Zoom made it so much easier for those of us strewn about the map.

As a tea-totaler I hoisted my tea cup filled with tea as my beverage of choice. The event started off with a reading of Bilbo's farewell speech from the opening chapter of LotR, which I enjoyed v. much. There's nothing like hearing Tolkien read aloud to appreciate the quality of his prose.

First came a toast to the queen, which I passed on.

Second  was Absent Friends and the Third  The Professor, both of which I naturally joined in.

Just over two hundred and fifty people took part; those I know included David Bratman, Kristine Larsen, Charles Noad, David Doughan, Denis Bridoux, and probably others I missed.


After the main event was over came a rollover into group chats (I found myself one of eight people in group 17). We were geographically as widely scattered as Hull, London, Ghent, The Canal Zone, and Seattle. Our number included someone looking forward to visiting New Zealand after the pandemic is past and seeing the sites appearing in the Peter Jackson movies. Another had worked on the HUNT FOR GOLLUM fan film. Yet another was a Belgium filmmaker who'd done a short documentary on book collectors that I looked up afterwards and enjoyed viewing online: 

http://jonatanlyssens.be/bekijk-de-film-online/

In short, I'd say an hour well spent.

--John R.

current reading: TAM LIN by Pamela Dean (1991)


Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Reading List

So, I just finished book # II.3622, the 3622nd book in my second (current) reading list: THE WORLD OF CRITICAL ROLE by Liz Marsham, a book about a livestreaming D&D group. 

A year ago at this time I'd just finished up 1177: THE YEAR CIVILIZATION COLLAPSED by Erich H. Cline (II.3548) and TOLKIEN'S LOST CHAUCER by Jn M. Bowers (II.3547), which I reviewed, following these up with a re-reading of THE LAST BOOKS OF H. G. Wells ('The Happy Turning' and 'Mind at the End of its Tether'), II.3549.

Twenty years ago today I was reading Dick Francis's SECOND WIND (II.2281) among a string of John Bellairs/Brad Strickland books (II.2273, 2276, 2278, 2279, 2282).  

Thirty years ago I was reading and re-reading some Wodehouse, e.g. THANK YOU JEEVES (II.1432) and CODE OF THE WOOSTERS (II.1433), preceded by Pratchett & Gaiman's GOOD OMENS (II.1430)* and followed by  Hughart's EIGHT SKILLED GENTLEMEN (II.1434), a gift from my friend Taum.

Forty years ago today I was finishing up Spenser's THE FAERIE QUEENE (I.478), parts of which I read while selling tickets at the local drive-in theatre; followed by the Mutabilitie Cantos the next day, then Wm Blake's THE BOOK OF URIZEN (I.480) and Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (I.481). I cd read more in those days. Still, the two lists together come to more than four thousand books in forty-five years, which I suppose is not too bad. 

And now, on to #3623 & #3624.

--John R.

*which took twenty-nine of the intervening thirty years to finally get filmed


UPDATE: I originally misplaced the page that tells what I was reading twenty years back but have now found it and inserted a paragraph into the piece where appropriate. --JDR


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Livestreaming D&D (THE WORLD OF CRITICAL ROLE)

 So, I just finished the first book of 2021, THE WORLD OF CRITICAL ROLL by Liz Marsham (2020),* a history of and puff-piece for a livestreaming troupe who have done a lot to popularize D&D. I've only seen one and a half of their shows, both Cthulhu-themed one-offs. I greatly enjoyed their Crystal Palace adventure but tuned out halfway through a second C.o.C. adventure, annoyed by one of the actresses who kept upending the plot to draw attention to her character.

The book itself is largely the history of a Monty Haul campaign fleshed out with 'let me tell you about my character'. I found it of interest as a detailed account of the livestream gaming phenomenon: people watching people play D&D, the players being professional quality actors/actresses and voice-actors/actresses. 

It's fascinating how all the predictions that tabletop rpgs wd inevitably fade away, their audience deserting them for computer gaming, turned out to have got it backwards.** Far from fading out, in-person gaming is thriving, and more people are playing D&D now than ever before.

I wonder what Gygax and Arneson wd make of it all.

--John R.

*II.3622 on the reading list.

**I think 4th edition D&D's main weakness was that rather than playing to its strengths it more or less surrendered and tried to make D&D more like a computer game (and ccg). 



New Year's Resolution: Blog More

 So, I'm not usually much for 'Resolutions', but here're not just one but two for 2021:

First,  to post more here on the blog. My posts have always come in waves, periods of activity alternating with lacuna. Let's see if I can shorten the dry spells.

Second, to read more books --or, more accurately, to finish more of the books I start, since it's only books I read all the way through that get added to the Reading List.

We'll see how it goes.

--John R.

--current reading: CRITICAL ROLL

--today's song "The Ballad of Gillagan's Isle"