Friday, December 30, 2011

Tonight I'm In . . .

. . . Shreveport, after a v. busy day, large parts of which consisted of sitting still, either while driving or during Visitor's Hours.

Tomorrow, it's up to Magnolia for a few hours, during which I have many chores and errands that need doing. We'll see how many I can get through and still get back to Shreveport before dark.

Meanwhile, tonight I'm reading a v. interesting book about pyramids (had not been aware that each Egyptian pyramid had its own name in antiquity); I've skipped ahead to read the section about the Sphinx.

Tomorrow, I'm hoping to start in on a booklet from one of the more notorious entries in the so-called 'Old School D&D Revival', loaned to me by a knowledgable friend. Having not even been aware there was an Old School Revival, I obviously have much to learn.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tonight I'm In . . .

. . . Dallas, having flown into Love Field tonight. My first time to go through Love Field. Seems to be a nice mid-size airport, smaller I think than Chicago's Midway (which I passed thr to & fro on my way to Kalamazoo last year) but larger than Milwaukee's Mitchell Field (at least, that's my impression of it from a brief late night deplaning walk-through).

Another first was going through Albuquerque, a place I've never visited but which is set amid some really striking landscape, as seen from the air.

Next up: heading on to Shreveport tomorrow. My rental car is a Volkswagon Beetle: another first. Turns out they don't put the motors in the trunk anymore. What's up with that?

Oh, and back home the Green River is at Flood Level 2. That is, the stage where they send all residents in the Green River valley, like us, alerts telling us there's nothing to worry about.
Comforting, that.

--John R.

current reading: S. S. Van Dine's THE CANARY MURDER CASE (solved by the dilettante-detective playing poker with the chief suspects to discover which has the right kind of personality and mental processes to have been the murderer).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Geekiest of the Geeks

Thanks to Janice, for pointing out the following link to me, in which THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT* heads the list of the geekiest gifts of the season:

Here's what their first contributor, Nikki Rau-Baker, has to say about the book:

"A must for anyone gearing up for the upcoming big-screen version of The Hobbit:"The History of The Hobbit" by John D. Rateliff, covers the beginnings of The Hobbit with such tidbits of information as the original names of the dwarves and the shocking revelation that the leader was initially called Gandalf."

--to which I have just two words to say: Woo and Hoo!

--John R.
current audiobook: THE WAR LOVERS [2011]**
current reading: THE CANARY MURDER CASE by S. S. Van Dine [1927]***

*the new one-volume edition, I assume -- geeks being early adaptors, they'd want H.o.H. 2.0
**(T.R., Lodge, Hearst, &c)
***a re-reading

Thursday, December 22, 2011

THE HOBBIT trailer considered

Here, courtesy of Richard West and Kristin Thompson, is a better link to a good site to see the new trailer on:

Now that I've had a day or two to mull over things, and move beyond the don't-disturb-this-moment feeling, here's my take on this first trailer.

I've seen most of the little teaser mini making-of documentaries, which have done a great job of engaging the audience from the LotR films into this new project and laid a lot of the wilder rumors to rest. But this feels different: the first whiff of the real thing. They clearly want to do a lot in one short piece.

Foremost among them: to convey to fans of the LotR films that this is more of the same. That it's not just another Tolkien movie, but deeply and directly connected to the first. Thus we get to see McKellan's Gandalf, and Blanchett's Galadriel, and above all hear the sinister whispers of Serkis's Gollum. Even small details, like a glimpse of the shards of Narsil, are included -- something really not v. important for Bilbo's story, but no doubt included for the flashback to the moment between Aragorn and Boromir (and Aragorn and Arwen) in the first film: comfort food, so to speak, for the fans of the first film.

Just as important (or, for me, even more important) is establishing the new cast of this new story. We get to see a lot of Bilbo, and get used to the idea (after the initial shock, and some inner resistance) of seeing Freeman's face rather than Ian Holm's. And all thirteen dwarves are thrown at us in rapid succession, so that the full roster of Thorin & Company is presented right away.

Speaking of the dwarves, it looks like there'll be two contradictory things juxtaposed here. Their looks are quite silly (with the old silent-movie beards and moustachios), yet they turn into experienced killing machines in combat. There was some of that in the first films' Gimli; looks like there'll be even more of it here (To be fair, there was some of this in the original Tolkien too).

The exception is Thorin, whose look and behavior seems locked permanently in the serious battle-mode. In the book it comes as quite a shock when Thorin succumbs to dragon-sickness and becomes Bilbo's enemy. In later writings like THE QUEST OF EREBOR and THE 1960 HOBBIT, Tolkien anticipated those developments by including hints that Thorin was going bad, or at least had the potential, all along: anticipating the end result by drastically rewriting the character (and thus unfortunately losing the shock value of the original ending). I suspect that's what's going on here: Dark Thorin isn't the result of the character's going mad in the end but the essential character all along. I suspect he's this film's Boromir.

Which ties into an observation Janice made: this looks more like THE 1960 HOBBIT than it does THE HOBBIT itself.* There are no hints here of the whimsy of the original story, in which the dwarves bring highly impractical musical instruments along for the Unexpected Party, only to apparently abandon them forthwith, given that none of them are ever mentioned again. Jackson & Co. need not be borrowing directly from Tolkien's unfinished re-write, but they're clearly trying to achieve the same goal: recast THE HOBBIT into the style of LotR.

This ties into a point David Bratman made on his blog,** in which he suggested that Jackson is presenting THE HOBBIT as the prequel to LotR. So far as the films go, this is perfectly correct: most people who go see THE HOBBIT in theatres this time next year (and again the year after) are fans of the three-film Jackson trilogy and expect this movie to be just like the earlier films they know and love. That naturally imposes some audience expectations and means the films will probably be quite different from what they might have been like had they been made in chronological order.

---the biggest surprise: no dragon. To have a dragon and not show it is an exercise of restraint I'd not expected.

---the biggest twist: a brief tender moment between Galadriel and Gandalf.***

---the standout moment: the beautiful dwarf-song. Tolkien said Bilbo found it moving; Jackson has found a way to move the audience with it as well. Score One for Team Jackson.****

--John R.


*Richard West made much the same point in an email today, in which he points out how Tolkien's book famously starts like WIND IN THE WILLOWS and ends more like NJAL'S SAGA, as C. S. Lewis observed long ago; here it's saga all the way through.

***this is a good example of the kind of unanticipate-able element Jackson likes to throw into his films.

****it's clearly based on the king's song Aragorn sings at his coronation which, if I remember rightly, was Mortensen's own composition; hope he gets a royalty here!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

THE HOBBIT trailor

So, as of seven o'clock tonight, the trailer for THE HOBBIT (part one) is up.

There are many places you can see it online; I watched it here:

Analysis as to where they are and aren't faithful to the book can come later. For now, it's time to luxuriate in the feeling of seeing this: after years of delay, it's real, and it's coming. One year to go.

I so want to see this movie.

--John R.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Who's Naughty and Nice (Occupy)

So, I haven't posted on the Occupy movement, mainly because I've had too much to say. I've gathered enough material for three separate posts, but sorting out just what to say about each aspect proved entangled to the point that none of the three actually got posted.

Then, when we were down at the Pike Place Market on Saturday, picking up my father-in-law's Xmas present (which shd go off tomorrow, and get there Thursday), I saw a Santa handing out 'Occupy Seattle' stickers. It reads simply "WE ARE THE 99%" and gives the url for Occupy Seattle .org. I've been wearing it on my jacket ever since.

I mean, if anybody keeps track of who the good guys are, of who's naughty and who's nice as the old song puts it, it's gotta be St. Nick. Plus, for those who are into 'the Reason for the Season', the Gospels are pretty explicit about eyes of the needle and all.

Good enough for me.

--John R.
current audiobook: THE WAR LOVERS by Evan Thomas [2010]
current book: ANCIENT EGYPT AS IT WAS by CHarlotte Booth [2008; 2011]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Calendrical (The Long Count)

So, yesterday (Tuesday) the new Mayan Calendar arrived in the mail. I've ordered one of these each year for the past several years now: they're filled with pictures of Mayan ruins, carvings, and artifacts, making them among my favorite wall-calenders ever. Though they have to compete for space on our walls with the Tolkien calendar up in my office and with a simpler calendar we don't mind marking up and writing on in the kitchen. Last year and again this coming one that hasn't been an issue so far as the office goes, with the Mayan art easily trumping Cor Blok's eccentricities.

This year, I was curious how they'd handle 12/21/12, the date at which the "long count" comes to an end. Some folks have made a lot of fuss about this (cf. Y-2k*), as if time itself ends when we reach the end of a measurement of time. I've assumed that, just as a car doesn't suddenly fall to pieces when its odometer reaches 999,999.9 miles, but just turns over and starts again at 000,000.1, so too wd the Mayan calendar.

Turns out I'll have to wait till next year to find out. Opening up the new calendar, and admiring the art therein and the explanation in the front about how the various interlocking Mayan calendar systems work, I discovered when I reached the last page that their calendar for December is unfinished, ending at December 21st (day in the long count). After this follows a note about how to order their 2013 calendar ("20% off; . . . offer expires December 21, 2012"--I thought this last touch was a hoot). As an added bonus, the art for that page is the Tortuguero Monument 6 ("the only text in the Maya world known to mention December 21, 2012 AD.").

So, I guess we'll have to wait and see how they handle the start of the New Count. It's rare for a civilization to have a mechanism for marking the End of an Age (as Tolkien wd have called it). The Mayans clearly thought a system that cd cover every date between August 11th 3114 BC and Friday December 21st 2012 was good enough for government work. I tend to agree.

*or, at a slightly less significant but similarly fussy point, folks who insisted the new century and millennium started at 2001 rather than 2000. Or, to harken back a few decades, the dawning of 'The Age of Aquarius'. At least we got a good song out of that one.

1st Edition: How It Went

So, last Saturday we gathered for the long-planned AD&D 1st edition game. We turned out having a relatively small group (for us): four players and myself as DM (it wd have been more, but deadline pressure took out two other players and a last-minute cold struck down another).

How did it go?

Well, I had a blast. As for the players, you'd have to ask them -- but so far as I cd tell, it went well. I know it was slightly weird afterwards to find out that Janice, who'd gone upstairs with her I-Pad when we started rolling the dice, had been able to follow the game through FaceBook postings taking place during the event.

The scenario I chose was B1. In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr. As much as I respect Carr's work putting together the AD&D game,* I'd always had a grudge against this adventure, because it's not playable as published. It contains a map, a detailed history of the place, and a description of each room with some background about its original use before the underground stronghold of Quasqueton was abandoned and became a dungeon. What it's lacking are fully keyed encounters.** Instead there are two lists (not tables, or easily divisible by die rolls), one listing monsters and the other treasure, which the DM is supposed to go through and decide where to place. In short, exactly the sort of things you buy a published module in order to have already done for you.

For this adventure, I went through the room descriptions, altering them freely to match the dungeon I wanted to run (this included moving some walls and doors around as well). Most of the monsters from the original I jettisoned; instead, I went through the MONSTER MANUAL and picked out monsters I thought it'd be interesting to use and then placed them throughout the complex. In my read-through, I was reminded of just how many interesting monsters the game system has jettisoned over the years, so aside from a few classics (skeletons, zombies, giant rats) I deliberately skewed my monster selection to include things like a gelatinous cube, green slime, and a unique monster or two. I also added a few specific treasures (e.g., a nearly-depleted wand of magic missiles) that I carefully placed, relying on Carr's list for minor treasure from random encounters. Finally, to shake things up, I decided one of the lair's two builders had been an Illusionist, rather than the Magic-User of Carr's original; that allowed for a number of effects that misled the party from making the most effective response to things they encountered (e.g., not trying to Turn creatures whose undead nature was disguised by illusions).

The player characters were a mixed group: a half-elf cleric (LG), a human paladin (LG), a half-orc Fighter/Thief*** (CE), and a half-elf Fighter/Cleric (CG) whom we half-jokingly decided cd be his sister. No magic-user, which normally wd have put them at a disadvantage, but the presence of two clerics was actually v. much to their advantage, since unknown to them I'd stocked the dungeon primarily with undead (which seemed to make more sense for a long-abandoned complex than the berserkers of Carr's original, who are apparently guards who have hung around for thirty years or so waiting for their bosses to come back). Menaces they faced included

--a corpse infested with rot grubs (too bad they burned it before finding the wand of magic missiles [7 charges] still clutched in one dead hand)
--an apparently endless stream of skeletons who emerged from secret doors near the entryway to attack trespassers and cut off their line of retreat (they finally, after encountering this four times, to spike shut the doors the skeletons used to reach their ambush points).
--a kitchen in which unseen servants were chopping and slicing up the corpse of the last adventurer to come through.
--a dining room, to which the unseen servants delivered the wh apparently had a decapus in it**** who attacked as soon as they entered. Here I did a switch. In its original appearance (in B3), PCs enter a room and see a group of men around a table attacking a woman with knives with apparent cannibalistic intent. But this is just an illusion, covering up the actual menace: a ten-tentacled monster who tries to gobble up the intruders. I decided to reverse that: in my dungeon, they saw the decapus, which here itself was an illusion hiding a room full of eight zombies. A secondary motive, besides creating a tough fight, was to throw off anyone who'd figured out which module we were playing (given that one of the players, Steve Winter, was already working for TSR about the time the adventure I was using was published back in '81), which was after all a classic. By throwing in an iconic monster from a different adventure, I thought it might muddy the waters -- and for those who hadn't played the old adventures it work just fine as a stand-on-its-own encounter.
--an underground garden overgrown by mushrooms. The PCs pulled back without running into any danger here, partly because the cleric's songbird began to tweet in panic as they entered this area, and partly because some of the mushrooms started hopping towards them,which weirded them out.
--a shrine to Our Lady of Darkness, where a summoned servitor offered them healing if they swore an oath to her goddess. The paladin and LG cleric declined; the other two decided to go for it, and both gained a level (1st > 2nd level) but learned that their bodies wd spontaneously animate as undead when they died. This encounter was to insert a role-playing opportunity into the dungeon, as well as parallel the level-bumping power of some magic items and, indeed, one of the magical pools elsewhere in the original module. And of course to give the party increased odds of survival by having character potentially gain an extra level with its attendant hit points, spells, &c.

There were other encounters and places they explored; unfortunately, we ended up with a total party kill when they decided to take on some monsters they cd easily have avoided (having already learned the monsters activated when someone opened the door but did not pursue intruders beyond the room, they entered the room to take them out). Here was another case in which illusion played a key role -- in this case, hiding that the three humans in the room were actually ghouls. Ouch.

The lesson learned? Despite what you may hear, 1st ed. AD&D is really easy to run. It has lots and lots of rules, but you can ignore most of them; most of them are there to resolve specific circumstances, while the core mechanic is really simple. By contrast, in Third Edition you pretty much HAVE to play it the way it's written; the rules are so interlocked that you drop or modify one at yr peril. And of course Third Edition is so complicated that it's rare to even see a stat block with all the details right . . . but that's a discussion for another day.

It also became clear that Third Edition is a much safer world for PCs. In Third Edition, if your character dies, it's because you did something wrong, and then had really bad luck on top of it. In the normal course of play, that shd almost never happen. In 1st edition, death is always just around the corner, and your character can die at any time, not because you made a bad choice but just because of a bad die roll. Consequently, it takes much more skill to keep a character alive in 1st edition, and working your way up from 1st level to 2nd, then 3rd, &c is a real achievement you can feel proud of.

That this arbitrariness is a deliberate part of the system is shown best, I think, by the Potion Miscibility Table (DMG.119). Faced w. the question of what happens when you drink a potion while a previous potion is still in effect, the simplest solution wd be to just say each takes full effect. Not 1st ed. AD&D, which provides a handy table enabling you to determine if one cancels out the other, if one or the other's effects become permanent, or if the imbiber explodes. It helps show that you're in a weird, unpredictable world where the stakes are high and danger is never v. far away. In fact, I suspect that the style of 1st edition role-playing is alive and well today as the basis for most online fantasy games, far more than any later iteration of those rules or its derivatives.

In any case, having whetted my appetite, I want more, and hope I'll be able to organize another game sometime. We'll see. I know another member of the group has volunteered to run a D&D game, using the third edition of the D&D rules (Moldvay's BASIC and Zeb's EXPERT rules). I always played AD&D, not D&D, so I'm really looking forward to it.

--John R.

*it was Carr, as editor of all three hardbacks (PH, MM, DMG), who seems to have put together the material by Gygax (et al.) into coherent form.

**originally B3. was issued in similar unkeyed format, but Moldvay's re-write fixed that problem, and greatly improved the adventure overall. Unfortunately, B1. was never given the Moldvay treatment; the closest it came was when TSR released the compilation B1-9 IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE -- which despite its designator omitted B1 altogether, aside from reprinting the maps!

***(he wd have been a Fighter/Assassin but cdn't quite make the pre-requisites)

****cf. B3. Palace of the Silver Princess; it's on the cover (of both the suppressed original and the standard green-cover version).

Monday, December 5, 2011

1st edition

So, this weekend I'm running a 1st edition AD&D game. My thinking was: it's been too long since I played my favorite game, which I also happen to believe is the finest roleplaying game ever published: 1st edition AD&D. CALL OF CTHULHU is a fine game, and it's my game of choice these days, but that's mainly because I didn't make the jump from Third to Fourth Edition. I've played Fourth Edition, and enjoyed it, but it was the camraderie around the table I was enjoying and not the rules system. Even after a year or so of occasional gaming in 4e it never really came together for me: it felt like a miniatures game with a card game overlaid on it, with an optional roleplaying veneer on top of that. Third Edition, for all its faults, was still recognizably D&D. Fourth Edition, for all its virtues, feels more like an attempt to re-create the experience of playing a computer game. It's kind of like a novelization to a movie: a reminder of something you enjoyed rather than something to enjoy in its own right.

So why first edition? Well, consider that it's the most successful roleplaying game of all time. Millions of people played it obsessively for years. And while a good deal of time has passed since then, there's no reason to think the rules won't still work as well as they ever did. Just as there are some books I loved to read back in the day that are just as good as they ever were when I pull them off the shelf now, there are some old classic games that I still enjoy as much as ever when I get the chance to play them. Which isn't nearly often enough.

Of course, it's also true that there are some things that don't age well; once-favorite books that no longer have the same appeal. When I occasionally mention my enduring fondness for the classic game, I'm often told in response that it's just nostalgia speaking, with the implication that the game only gets better with every new edition.

So, let's see. I've got a group of a half-dozen or so who've expressed an interest in playing. I've picked the adventure and am jotting down notes as to monsters, traps, and treasures they may encounter. And I'm immersed in skimming through the PH and DMG to remind myself of the rules, rather than just rely on my memory (it has after all been a few years). Come Saturday they'll bring the characters they rolled up and we'll see how it goes.

--John R.

Oh, and The Wife Says: What's Up with all that Tiny Print?* We must have all had better eyesight back then. --JDR

*i.e., in the orignal PH, DMG, and MM.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Lewis Fiction

So, Friday the new issue of VII arrived, containing as its lead article the first publication ever of some early (circa 1927?) fiction by C. S. Lewis, here given the title the "EASLEY FRAGMENT" (THE EASLEY FRAGMENTS wd have been more apt, given that it consists of two disconnected pieces). This is something Lewis scholars have known about for a long time -- three sentences were quoted from it as far back as 1973 -- but it's only now seeing the light of day. It's quite brief: nine pages in Warnie's original transcription in THE LEWIS PAPERS and taking up pages 5-12 & 12-15 in this edition* -- and thus less substantial than, say, THE DARK TOWER (sixty-four Ms pages); more along the lines of AFTER TEN YEARS (fifteen Ms pages and similarly consisting of two disconnected pieces). Even so, I'm impressed with the generosity of the Lewis Estate in allowing this new Lewis story to appear in a scholarly journal rather than, say, in some new edition of complete short fiction by CSL.

As for the piece itself, the first chapter is a first-person account of a Bristol doctor visiting his late father's family in Ulster for the first time not long after the Great War (in which he served in the trenches, while they stayed safe at home wrapped up in their own concerns). Having always taken them at their own evaluation, he learns that they are not at all as they presented themselves in their own guilelessly self-serving accounts in the letters he has occasionally received from them. The fragment breaks off, however, before we actually get to meet them; all we get is a bit of the narrator's background and his long conversation with a self-satisfied cadger of drinks he runs into on the ferry over. So Lewis's "Irish novel" doesn't actually get as far as actually landing in Ireland itself -- though, to be fair, he opens by claiming that 'Belfast' begins at the Liverpool ferry terminal. Lewis's goal is clearly to let unlikeable characters reveal their character flaws through their speech, completely unaware of what a bad light they show themselves in, while the narrator forebears to make comment. Jane Austen cd pull this off; unsurprisingly it turns out the young C. S. Lewis had not mastered the art.

The second fragment is sometime later in the internal chronology of the story and consists of an argument between the doctor and a minister. The doctor's aunt is suffering from a terror of damnation, and the doctor accuses the minister of driving her mad with such nonsense. The minister responds that he considers a concern over salvation or damnation as a sign of mental health, not madness. The scene is not v. interesting as a piece of fiction (too talky; a thin fictional frame for a philosophical debate), but as documentation of Lewis's views it's fascinating. We know that at the time he wrote this,** Lewis was, from all accounts, in agreement with what he presents here as the doctor's point of view (the doctor also resembles young CSL in other ways we need not go into here). And yet we know that within a few years, Lewis had swung around 180 degrees and was fully in agreement with the minister's view. So can this passage be taken as a prefigurement of his shift? Or an example of how totally he switched his deepest held convictions? Or can it be read as occupying some middle ground, a way-station on the path?

The other interesting thing about this fragment is how it fits into the biographical narrative of Lewis as a failed author, which I discuss in my piece on his famous bargain with JRR Tolkien that resulted in THE LOST ROAD, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, and THE DARK TOWER.*** It was through his discovery of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS and THE PLACE OF THE LION, and through that bargain, that Lewis concluded that genre fiction was the right medium for him, while Tolkien though he made a good-faith effort discovered the opposite was true for him: he had to follow his own, sui generis course. So it's interesting to see CSL here try his hand at a sort of local-color fiction, another genre outside the mainstream of his day.

And with this publication, I think we have pretty much all CSL's significant work now in print, except for his unfinished Morris-ian Arthurian romance THE QUEST OF BLEHERIS (about sixty pages) and his philosophical papers (which really shd be published in conjunction with Barfield's interlocking responses.

--John R.

*between brief headnote, notes, bibliography, and commentary by the editiors (David C. Downing and Bruce R. Johnson), it takes up pages 5-26 of this issue (VII. vol. 28).

**assuming Warnie got the date right, which seems a reasonable enough assumption -- esp. since he was compiling THE LEWIS PAPERS while living w. CSL (as I understand it, they were actually typed in a side-room in Lewis's office at Magdalen), and he cd easily have asked his brother when the work dated from. Were it not for that, I'd have thought it from the early twenties rather than towards the end of the decade.

***cf. my essay appearing in TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM [2000]

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reprehensible Behavior . . .

So, I mentioned recently that I'd ordered what I considered a second-tier book on Tolkien -- by which I mean one that might be interesting, but not a must-have given my particular interests. One I'd put off because of the price, but finally decided to get because of the out-of-print price madness I'd seen take place a time or two in the past that I'd rather not get mixed up in.

Turns out I was just a little too late: The book in question (Alison Milbank's CHESTERTON AND TOLKIEN AS PHILOSOPHERS) went out of print between my ordering it on November 5th and Amazon's shipping the rest of my order on the 16th. Checking now, I find that $39.93 (pretty much the original price of the book) will now only get you a dog-eared, marked-up copy: 'like new' will run you $141.42 at least. And if you miss this one, the other two 'new' copies are priced at $160.61 and $223.29, while the remaining 'used' copies come in at $135.80 (a pretty bit jump from $39.93), $358.58, and a stunning $900.00. I have no idea who Bordee Books might be, or why they think people wd pay $900 for this book.

As for online book services, ABEbooks came up a blank, but Bookfinder came through with a lot of options. Used started at $43.92 -- which sounded good, until you realize that this is the entry and is no longer operative. The next-best used price was $118.78 for the hardcover and $119.49 for the softcover -- though why, give the choice, anyone wd buy the paperback when they cd get the hardcover for slightly less is beyond me. After various amazon.this-or-that-country, the final (and most expensive) used option listed was from A Libris for $362.57 -- again, bizarre, because A Libris also lists it New at $181.45.

Clearly the 'New' book options looked much better at Bookfinder -- that is, until you actually tried to use them. The first one, from Barnes &, says they're offering the book for $34.15, but once you actually click on the button and go to the B&N site, it turns out they're offering it for $117.46, $185.78, and $358.58. I don't think this is a bait-and-switch, though, so much as the price being updated as it soared in one place and not in the other. The Super Book Deals listing promises it at $42.36, but clicking on the button reveals that the book is no longer available. The offer of $42.90 simply turns out to be a broken link.

However, there is hope: The link does work, leading to the book, new, in paperback, for twenty-one pounds. Which comes out to about the same as the original price wd have been before they ran out of it.

The real fascination here is the price-gouging of a book that hadn't made any particular stir when it first appeared and now, a few years later, went out of print without the public much noticing. But as I understand it the online book-dealers have some sort of software that alerts them to books that go out of print and in some cases (presumably when linked to authors whose readers are as obsessive as we Tolkienists)* immediately doubles or triples the price on any remaining stock. And then others seems to have a variant of that same software than prices their just a little bit higher or lower than those results. And yet others triple that highest price, apparently in the odd belief that, given the choice, people will prefer the most overpriced of all available options.

As for me, I ordered it from Blackwells -- whom I'm happy to give my business (I've bought books from them before, but only when I was in Oxford on one of my rare research trips over there, never before on-line. Now to wait till it arrives, and see if it was worth all this hooplah.

--John R.

*the same thing happened a year or two back with Frederick & McBride's WOMEN AMONG THE INKLINGS, copies of which on Bookfinder start at about $100 (i.e., more than double its original price), with one bookseller offering it for $1503.00. And I'm afraid to say even outdoes this, offering a dozen or so copies in the $100 to $200 range but with one dealer asking $1995.06 for his copy.** Unless it's written on mallorn leaves by elven calligraphers, this is grossly overpriced.

**plus shipping. You'd think that might throw that in gratis. You'd be wrong.


So, another book to arrive the same time as the Sammons and the Loo (but in a different package) turned out not to be anything like the book I thought I was ordering. According to, they were offering a book by Tom Piccirilli (a name new to me in Tolkien scholarship) called DECONSTRUCTING TOLKIEN. From the title, I assumed this was a Deconstructionalist interpretation of JRRT's work, which sounded bizarre enough to be potentially entertaining -- perhaps worthy to go on the same shelf as Giddings & Holland or Eaglestone. I mainly know deconstructionist theory second hand, having suffered through a lot of it while at Marquette (the department there was theory-mad in the eighties; don't know if that's the case today); my own take on it was that it stated the blindingly obvious as if it were profound, and in practice more closely resembled performance art than literary criticism (I'm thinking here in particular of a dubious talk by Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's translator), at a critical symposium Marquette hosted. But I only saw an interesting and insightful application of deconstructionist ideas for the first time this past year at Kalamazoo. That made me realize that the two--deconstructionism and Tolkien-- can actually be brought together and be worthwhile, so I decided to opt for the book.

Turns out it's not at all as advertised. For the first thing, Tom Piccirilli (whoever he is) didn't write it: all he did was contribute a two and a half page introduction. The bulk of the text that follows is by Edward J. McFadden III, who I also hadn't heard of: turns out he's the editor of FANTASTIC STORIES OF THE IMAGINATION, which is described as 'one of the largest fiction magazines in the country'.

Also, it turns out the book has nothing to do with Deconstruction; the author just used the term in the sense of getting back to basics. So too the subtitle (A FUNDAMENTAL ANALYSIS OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS) doesn't have anything to do with Fundamentalism.

As for the book itself, it turns out I'd seen it before, on Doug Anderson's shelves, when I was visiting there last year. It's too bizarre to have forgotten, but any note I made of the title at the time has since gotten misplaced, and at any rate I was certain I didn't have any book on Tolkien by anyone named Piccirilli. As indeed I still go not.

The weirdest thing about this book is not the mis-ascription of authorship by but the fact that only about every other chapter is by McFadden. The rest are by an eccentric array of authors: Edgar Poe, H. G. Wells, Jane Yolan, Chaucer, and Lovecraft. McFadden's procedure is to write an essay, then follow it up with a story (e.g., Wells' THE VALLEY OF THE SPIDERS or Poe's WILLIAM WILSON), then another essay, then another story, and so forth. Sometimes the reasons why he includes a particular story are self-evident (e.g. the Wells, which is a sort of "Leiningen & the Ants" except with spiders rather than formians). In other cases, it's nothing short of baffling (Chaucer's THE COOK'S TALE*)
And the book itself? Well, so far I haven't had time to read it, but the bits I dipped into (e.g., the chapter on changes made in Tolkien's story for the Peter Jackson film) seem okay.** I'll try to post an update once I actually get around to reading the thing -- but my first impressions remain that this book'll wind up being on the fringes -- not as far out there as Vander Ploeg,*** but still not one of those that winds up being central to Tolkien studies either. We'll see.

--John R.
current reading: ON CONAN DOYLE by Dirda
current audiobook: THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST by Larsson

*included, McFadden says, to show how Tolkien imitated Chaucer's language in LotR

**quote #1: "picture your greatest literary influence . . . on plastic cups at Burger King"
quote #2: "I don't think that fantasy has been well served by cinema"
quote #3: I could hear the text of the book in my head as I watched the scene"

***this is the one that reveals the Elves are really lizards from outer space. No, really.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Inadvertent Piercing

So, Rigby, our Senior Cat, loves to be up high. She loves to leap on things, and is apt to use us (esp. me, since I'm already somewhat stooped over) as stepping-stones to get where she wants to go. So tonight, thinking she looked a little at loose ends, I thought I'd indulge her by putting her atop the bookcases in the living room, a spot she used to visit a lot before we re-arranged things and took out her mid-points between High and Low.

She seemed pleased enough, but had ideas of her own: rather than jumping atop the bookcase, she decided to explore and climbed behind the books on the top shelf (intermittently a favorite spot of hers). Unfortunately she soon realized there wasn't room and, after an amazing act of turning around in a v. small space, came back out on my shoulder again. And that's where things began to go horribly wrong.

I thought she'd now want to continue on her way to the bookcase's top, while she debated whether to jump down or give the shelves another try. And in the process, I moved, and she moved, and then she lost her balance and grabbed hold of whatever was handy to steady herself. Which turned out to be my left earlob. Into which she sank a claw, which promptly got stuck there so she cd not draw it out.

It was at this point that I tried to convey to Janice that something was amiss, but it's remarkably hard to say what you mean in a few well-chosen words at such times. I meant to say something like 'Rigby's claw is stuck in my ear; can you help us get loose?', but it probably came out more like 'Ah - she's - um - Can you - ah! - some . . .' In any case, one glance conveyed the situation and she came to our rescue -- though by the time she reached me Rigby had pulled loose and was off. Now all we had to worry about was the blood leaking out of my ear.

Luckily, I always carry a handkerchief, and with Janice's help I soon had my involuntary piercing (luckily it didn't go quite all the way through) washed and disinfected. It bled more than I wd have expected, but then with our experience of cat-bites &c [cf. "The Cat-Bite Incident"] we know that's a (relatively) good thing.

Except that about ten minutes later when I checked to see that it'd stopped bleeding, my touch accidently started it up again. This time I had to resort to a second handkerchief, and then a third; plus a bandage, and then another; and eventually a hand-towel drapped over my shoulder to avoid getting more blood on my shirt.

All of which sounds extremely dire and yet it wasn't: it was simply a small injury that didn't even particularly hurt but that wdn't stop bleeding and stay stopped. I literally cdn't finish the dinner dishes because I had to hold one hand to the ear.

That's when we decided to consult the Home Remedy people Janice had discovered via NPR a few weeks back. Their suggestion: put ground pepper* on the little cut and bandage it over, and there'd be a good chance it'd stop the bleeding.

We tried it.

It did.

And now I'm wondering if it'll leave a mark, to go with the nonfunctioning joint from The Catbite Incident or perhaps the scar from the pillow fight. I guess we'll see.

As for the cats, Rigby is sleeping peacefully on Janice's leg, Hastur is doing the Rug Otter, and Feanor is curled up in a box on my desk upstairs. Peace and harmony restored.

So, how was your evening?

--John R.

*black pepper, that is. I wdn't advise using habaneros or anything along that line

Monday, November 28, 2011

The New Arrivals

So, one of the problems about not-blogging when I get busy or just bogged down is that the things I want to blog about (books arriving, the 'Occupy' movement, unnecessary surgery) tend to pile up, so that the longer I wait the bigger the log-jam.

Case in point was the most recent post about the new book arrival, wh. was also my newest publication; finally got this off a day or two ago, after having begun a week before. During that time, another three packages with books arrived on the door step. So in the interests of playing catch-up, the following descriptions may be briefer and brisker than wd otherwise be the case.

In any case, this current lot represent books I ordered to fill in around the corners, mindful of the difficulty that can result if I wait too long (e.g., the ridiculous prices some books on Tolkien shoot up to when they go out-of-print).*

New Tolkien Book #1: Martha C. Sammons' WAR OF THE FANTASY WORLDS [2010]. This is one of two books I've been meaning to get for a year or so but kept putting off month by month because of the expense (in this case, $45 for a text that sans notes &c. runs less than 200 pages).* I'm interested in this one, because books on Tolkien and Lewis tend to conflate the two, which I think does an injustice to both: they were v. different men, with v. different ideas and aesthetics; more alike perhaps in their goals than in how they tried to reach them. Sammons, by contrast, looks to stress the differences between their writings. We'll see if she's able to do justice to an interesting thesis.

What shd have been New Tolkien Book #2, Alison Milbanks' CHESTERTON & TOLKIEN AS THEOLOGIANS, was also fairly pricey ($40 for a 200 page paperback), and while quite interested to see what she had to say about Tolkien as theologian (a topic about wh. not much has been written), I admit to being put of by the fact that what I've read of Chesterton's theology (ORTHODOXY) didn't make me inclined to read more if I cd avoid it. In this case, looks like I hestiated too long: Amazon cancelled this book from my order, claiming the book is no longer available. I can still get it used, but again there's the dis-encouragement of now having to pay $40+ for a secondhand book

Book #3 is Oliver Loo's A TOLKIEN ENGLISH GLOSSARY ("2004-2009"). That title might cause some confusion, given that Tolkien is writing in English, but the subtitle clarifies things: A GUIDE TO OLD, UNCOMMON AND ARCHAIC WORDS USED IN THE HOBBIT AND THE LORD OF THE RINGS. So, if you were a bit puzzled by words like "eyrie" and "furrier" when first read THE HOBBIT, this is the book for you; Tomnoddy, Attercop, Lob, and Cob all make an appearance. On the other hand, it's cluttered with words that are far from exotic, like "rug" and "toe"; Loo seems to presuppose that his target audience is a bright ten-year-old. Which is all well and good, but it means that practically anybody who'd buy his book wdn't need it, having already mastered difficult words like Glossary and Archaic. I'm sure his inspiration must have been the (v. useful) glossary of archaic words Christopher Tolkien appended to THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, but Loo sets the barrier much, much lower. I suspect his book wd be of most help to non-native speakers reading LotR in English but not entirely conversant in the large vocabulary Tolkien delights in using.

--John R.

current book: 1948
current e-book: THE HOUSE OF SILK

*Frederick & McBride's WOMEN AMONG THE INKLINGS being a case in point, having only attracted minor attention until it went out of print, whereupon prices soared.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Newest Publication: Volume 258

So, Thursday a week ago brought a copy of my latest publication to the porch: a reprint of my 2007 Marquette lecture " 'A Kind of Elvish Craft': Tolkien as Literary Craftsman", which had first appeared in TOLKIEN STUDIES volume four [2009]; before that it'd been the 2007 Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette. I'd been surprised and pleased when a few months ago I got a request from Cenegale (formerly Gale) Publishing, the folks who do long series of encyclopedia-sized books like CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM and NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE CRITICISM and TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERARY CRITICISM,* asking if they cd include a reprint of my piece in their latest volume. This was new territory to me, but after taking advice I said sure, asking for a copy of the volume in question in return. And now, after being backordered for a month or two, here it is: Volume 258 of TWENTIETH-CENTURY LITERARY CRITICISM.

Rather than author-by-author, which had been how volumes by Gale I'd consulted in years past had been organized, this volume has three sections, each devoted to a different literary movement: The Abbey Theatre (p. 1-123), The Confessional School of Poetry (p. 124-203), and The Inklings (p. 205-313), followed by over 150 pages of indexes. My contribution is the concluding essay of the third (Inklings) section; while familiar enough with the Abbey Theatre through my work on Lord Dunsany (whose first plays were produced there, before he had a falling out with Lady Gregory), I confess I had to look up who the 'Confessional School' were -- turns out this is their label for Berryman, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass (the last of which I'd never heard of before, I'm sorry to say; the rest are all famously manic-depressive).

Since others interested in Tolkien and in the Inklings might want to know what's in this volume (besides my piece, of course), here's a run-down on the contents of their 'Inklings' section:

After an anonymous Introduction (perhaps by series editor Kathy Darrow, or one of her thirteen-person-strong editorial staff) comes a select bibliography of Representative Works by Barfield, Cecil, GKC, Coghill, Dyson, Fox, CSL, WHL, Lindsay, Geo MacD, Mathew, CT, JRRT, Wain, & Ch Wms. The inclusion of Chesterton and MacDonald, neither of whom was ever an Inkling, is explained by their being considered formative influences on the group. It may be significant that in this bibliography of suggested reading Tolkien is represented by just five works (HOBBIT, LotR, Silm, Letters, plus Middle English Vocabulary), far less than CSL (thirteen, including BOXEN) or even Wms (eleven), being about the same as Barfield (six), Cecil (four), and Warnie (five).

Next up come the reprinted essays, as follows:

(1) Gareth Knight, fr. The Magical World of the Inklings (1990) [201–214]

(2) Fredrick & McBride, fr. Women Among the Inklings (2001) [214–230] (including a section on Sayers, 'Not Quite an Inkling")

(3) Diana Pavlac Glyer, Mythlore essay (2007) [230–236]

(4) ibid, fr. The Company They Keep (2007) [236–265]

(5) Walter F. Hartt, "Godly Influences: The Theology of JRRT and CSL", Studies in the Literary Imagination, 1981 [266–270] (L & T as Xians)

(6) Maria Kozyreva, "Chesterton's World in the Mirror of His Poetry", Inklings Jahrbuch, 1996 [270–275]

(7) Rbt W. Maslen, "Towards an Iconography of the Future: CSL and the Scientific Humanists", Inklings Jahrbuch, 2000 [275–285] (which devotes a good deal of space explicating THE DARK TOWER, I was glad to see, since I consider this work overly neglected)

(8) Rolland Hein, "Doors Out and Doors In: The Genuis of Myth", Truths Breathed thr Silver (2008) [285–290]

(9) David L. Neuhouser, "The Role of Mathematics in the Spiritual Journey of Geo. MacD", Truths Breathed thr Silver (2008) [290–297]

(10) Kerry Dearborn, "The Sacrament of the Stranger", Truths Breathed thr Silver (2008) [297–303]

(11) JDR "A Kind of Elvish Craft", from TOLKIEN STUDIES Vol. VI (2009) [303–313].

--I was interested to see that three essays come from the same book, a book I happen to have published a review of a year or two back.*

Finally comes an extremely brief (two-item) list of Further Reading, being a piece by Rachel Falconer ("Rereading Childhood Books: CSL's The Silver Chair") & another by Carl Phelpstead ("Auden and the Inklings: An Alliterative Revival") [313]. Given how impresive Phelpstead's recent TOLKIEN & WALES book looks, I'll have to track down a copy of this latter, which appeared in JEGP back in 2004.

And that's basically it. I'm pleased to see my essay get picked up and reprinted in a new venue, and hope it helps disseminate my argument (Tolkien was a meticulous writer who made every detail count, who used stylistic variations to prompt his readers' creative involvement in his subcreation) to new audiences. We'll see.

--John R.

current reading: THE DIARY OF EDWARD VI, 1547-1553

current audiobook: TOLKIEN & THE GREAT WAR by Jn Garth

*as well as, it turns out, less well-known lines like NATIVE NORTH AMERICAN LITERATURE.

**a review which prompted one contributor to write a rebuttal that has since appeared in MYTHLORE; I'd like to write a counter-rebuttal but haven't gotten around to it yet.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Well, This Won't End Well

So, Wednesday morning as I was driving along Military Road north towards the PetsMart where I volunteer with the Purrfect Pals cats, I saw an unusual and disconcerting sight. I was stopped for the light when a pickup truck passed me headed east. After he'd gone by, I noticed there was something dragging behind his truck. It took me a few seconds to realize it was a red plastic gas can, resting right side up, held by some cord and scooting along the asphalt. The tailgate of his truck was down, and I suppose he'd had the gas can in the back and it'd fallen out but somehow had gotten its handle tangled in something that kept it attached to the truck. By the time I processed what I'd seen, he was gone and I had no way to overtake or catch up with him (given that I was stopped for a red light and other traffic had the right-of-way at that busy intersection). I think he may have gotten on the on-ramp for I-5 North, but I hope I'm wrong about that. I didn't hear any news reports that evening of dramatic incidents on the expressway, so I suppose it all worked out okay. Maybe the gas can was empty, though I don't think so from the way it stayed right-side up. Maybe someone else was able to flag him down before there was any damage done. I don't suppose I'll ever know, but the memory of that alarming sight will linger . . .

--John R.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dirda on Doyle (and Dunsany)

So, quite by chance on Monday* we learned that the author of a new book on Arthur Conan Doyle (called ON CONAN DOYLE) wd be giving a talk or reading Tuesday night up at Elliott Bay Books, one of our favorite (but rarely visited, due to location) Seattle bookstores. We made plans to attend, if all went well, but in the event weren't able to make it -- not surprising, considering the workday schedule, traffic, early darkness, &c. A pity, but so it goes.

Curiously enough, my attention had been drawn to Dirda just a few days before in a post to the MythSoc list by Wendell Wagner, who included the quote:

"What Conan Doyle is to the detective story, Dunsany is to the modern fantasy: the Master"

That's a statement I agree with completely. There were detective stories before Doyle (e.g., Poe's Dupin), and there was fantasy fiction before Dunsany (cf. Wm Morris). But each man remade the genre, so that everyone who came after was influenced by their achievement.** It's rare to come upon a right-minded individual who feels as I do on this point, so I'm naturally am curious to find out more, being both a Dunsany scholar (one of the few people who can claim that, I suspect) and a longtime admirer of the Holmes stories.

I haven't been able to find a copy of Dirda's book yet, but thanks to Google Books I've now discovered that most of his discussion of Lord D. focuses on the Jorkens stories. This is rare; most people who know Dunsany at all know him through his so-so novel THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER; those who really like him know of his early short stories (the ones written between 1905 and 1916), which are superb,*** and perhaps a few of his plays like A NIGHT AT AN INN. But, on further reflection, Dirda's praise of the Jorkens tales makes sense; they're club stories, and probably the most Holmesian of Dunsany's work (in the 22B Baker Street sense, not in the content)**** In this he's in agreement with S. T. Joshi, who also admires the later Dunsany and once chided me for my agreeing with Dunsany himself (and Lovecraft, for that matter) that Dunsany's later work marked a significant falling off. Dunsany is one of those people who kept on writing long after he'd run out of things to say, and his lesser later works damaged his reputation and got in the way of folks rediscovering his earlier masterpieces.

Still, I'm glad to see Dirda give praise where praise is due, and look forward to reading his book about Doyle -- a fascinating, talented, and gullible man who created a character more memorable than himself.

--John R.

*as in I saw part of the Seattle newspaper lying abandoned at a table when I stopped in a coffee shop at Kent Station to have some tea while I waited for Janice to get off work, and glancing through it saw a piece about Dirda's pending presentation.

**one might extend the example to include Wells for science fiction, though there the match is not quite so tight (there's Verne to consider).

***the best body of fantasy short stories in English, by far; perhaps Borges and Kafka are his peers if you go multilingual.

****Dunsany did write some fair detective stories himself, the most famous of which, TWO BOTTLES OF RELISH, Alfred Hitchcock declared the story he'd most wanted to do for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, but been unable to because the mores of the time wdn't have stood for it (e.g., the murderer getting off scot-free, quite aside from other unpleasant details we need not go into).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Bad Movie and A Bad (Audio-) Book

So, on Friday we sent to see a movie the former English major in me had been hankering after for a while, although Janice had her doubts and had suspected we'd be better off waiting for it to reach the three-dollar theatre.

Lesson number one: listen to the wife.

ANONYMOUS scores points as a costume drama -- if you like the look of Elizabethean England, this film does a good job of conveying it. Also, it has Derek Jacobi in the modern-day frame story (a minute or two at the beginning and maybe a half-minute at the end). Other than that, there's not much to say in its favor. And here's where the spoilers start.

As an action film, it fails: it feels like events move in slow motion, and things aren't made easier by frequent extended flashbacks. It's pretty hard to keep straight when we're in the present day of the story (e.g., 1601 or thereabouts) or a few decades (a generation or two) earlier. And the fact that different actors play the characters at different ages, it takes a lot of attention and some guesswork to figure out who's supposed to be who and when. Also, it's talky, but not in a good way (as a film about Shakespeare might well be); this movie cd lose a half-hour or more and no one wd miss it. It's a bad sign that the brief snippets of Shakespeare soliloquies jump out from among the drab-by-comparison dialogue of the movie; these people only sound like 'Shakespeare' et al. when they're quoting the real Shakespeare.

As a historical drama it looked pretty but had the fatal flaw of having characters who have the name of historical figures but are unlike the actual person in every conceivable way. This is a pet peeve of mine: if I encounter a character in a story named 'Conan Doyle' or 'H. P. Lovecraft' or 'John Tolkien', I want that character to be more or less like the actual person, or at least recognizably so. In this case the movie's cast are utterly unlike what we know of the historical people they're supposed to be: Elizabeth, the Cecils, Ben Jonson, Essex, and (God knows) Shakespeare -- who in this movie didn't just not write the works of Shakespeare but is illiterate: he can read (even sophisticated love-poetry) but not write even a single letter, like 'i'. Moreover, he's a talentless ham actor, a blackmailer, and a murderer; the actor who plays him seems to be alternately channelling Weird Al Yankovich and Ya-hoo Serious. No, really.

Why? Well, because the movie's theme is that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare. Why? Because Shakespeare was a nobody -- a working man's son rather than a rich nobleman by birth, a man who picked up how to write plays by acting in them rather than studying poetics at a prestigious university. Whereas adherents of the 'Baconian' and 'Oxfordian' theories argue, essentially, that only someone important -- a nobleman, a person of wealth in a position of power -- cd have written poetry and plays this good. This is particularly funny, because virtually all the great poetry and prose and plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobin eras* were written by commoners, people we'd never have heard of had they not been writers: Spenser and Marlowe and Jonson and all the other known playwrights (Kyd, Greene, Nashe, Dekker, Beaumost, Fletcher, &c), Donne, &c. &c.; about the only exception is Sir Philip Sydney (who died young) and perhaps Walter Raleigh (remembered for a poem or two).

Finally, as a conspiracy movie it's so far-fetched that it made my brain want to escape out my ears. I knew to lower expectations when I saw an interview with the director in which he explained about an illegitimate son of Elizabeth's being the rightful heir to the throne -- which just goes to show that he doesn't really know what the words 'rightful heir' and 'illegitimate' mean. Even worse is a line given to the nobleman portrayed in the film as having really written all the plays ascribed to Shakespeare that all writing is political; unless it has a direct political aim, what's it good for? Gah!

Basically this movie desperately needed Geoffrey Rush, and to not take itself so seriously.

And, as David Bratman observed on his own blog, the title shd really be 'Pseudonymous'

And, at the same time, I was listening to the audiobook version of THERE ARE THINGS I WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT STEIG LARSSON AND ME by Eva Gabrielsson

Lesson number two: a book about an interesting book might well not be interesting itself.

Basically, this book sets forth the claim by Larsson's longtime companion to be his Yoko Ono. She argues that she should control all the literary rights to Larsson's estate, as well as write the fourth book in his 'Millennium Trilogy' (despite the fact that she needed a co-author just to write this short memoir and manifesto) -- better known over here as 'The Girl Who . . . ' series [THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO; THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE; THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST], and decided who gets all the money from his books. Unfortunately for her during their thirty years together they never got around to getting married, and Larsson never bothered to draw up a will, which means that his nearest relatives (his father and brother) inherit the estate. She considers this monstrous, and rails against the unfairness of it all, without ever convincing the reader that (a) she's capable of writing the next book** or (b) has any more insight into Larsson than any other reader of his work -- she knows a lot more about him personally, of course, but that's not the same thing.

At least Gabrielsson's book is better, and more interesting, that ANON. But that's not a particularly high bar to make.

--John R.

*and most other eras, at that. Lord Dunsany is a rare exception for the twentieth century.

**and that's not even getting into the morality or otherwise of going the 'V. C. Andrews, TM' route.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Am Scouted (sort of)

So, about a week ago I got a call out of the blue asking if I'd be interested in dropping by a local Starbucks on Saturday and finding out more about the president's new jobs bill. I haven't been paying much attention to the latest round of debacle in DC, having largely tuned out after the disaster of the 'debt ceiling' fight --which in turn followed on the tax-cut-extention disaster, which in turn succeeded the train-wreck that was the health-care debate. After all that battering, I've scaled back on what political news I read in recent months, mostly following the bemused follies of the Republican candidates and wondering which one will be running as Third Party against Romney come the fall. Checking the calendar to find we weren't already scheduled for something else we needed to be doing at that time, I said sure.

Turns out "yes" isn't good enough; these people are persistent. They called again to confirm, and then yet again, but this third time they no longer presented it as a one-on-one presentation or information dissemination but mentioned that it was being run by the Obama re-election committee. Okay; I'd been a big supporter of the president during his run for office, and despite my deep disillusionment since at his repudiating most of the things he ran on I was curious to see what this latest proposal that wasn't going to get enacted was all about.

So, we showed up, got ourselves some tea (chai), and had a long talk with a v. nice guy who identified himself as the state director of the re-election campaign -- partly about specifics of the bill (insofar as the information sheet and little pamphlet he gave us laid them out) and partly about what the president shd or cd do to gain support. I'm afraid that while some of the bill's provisions sound good in the abstract (others, like cutting back on collecting Social Security, don't; that's just guaranteeing bigger trouble down the line), he wasn't able to convince us that it was anything but moot: Obama's assumption is that this time the other side will see reason, and compromise, and raise taxes. Why on earth shd they start acting responsibly now, when simply sabotaging the national government has worked so well for them for three years now? It was interesting to hear that he's about to resort to the 'executive orders' route of governing by fiat, which seems v. unlike his everybody-must-agree-upon-this style, but even that won't solve the major problems, all of which require funding and thus congressional support.

In the end, we were asked if we'd be interested in doing any volunteer work with the campaign. So we might end up stuffing envelopes at some point, or I may wander around the neighborhood knocking on doors; get-out-the-vote stuff (though neither of us is interested in making phone calls, having been on the receiving end of too many ourselves). Maybe at some point my enthusiasm will be rekindled, but at this point I really doubt it. Too many broken promises, too many surrenders without a fight. We'll see.

--John R.

current Kindle-book: 1956 (re. Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


So, the second new Tolkien book to arrive this past week was THE ART OF 'THE HOBBIT', by Wayne and Christina. I'd known this one was in the works for a few months, and even got to see a preview of some of its highlights this summer. It's a beautiful book, and one that anyone interested in Tolkien, Tolkien's art, or in THE HOBBIT, will want to get their hands on it as soon as possible (I got mine via Their previous JRRT: ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [1995] was a major work that shd be on every Tolkien scholar's shelf, and this is a worthy, if more narrowly focused, successor.

Basically they've brought together every known illustration, map, or rough sketch Tolkien made for THE HOBBIT,* arranged them into order of where they fit into the story, and added a page or so describing each piece or set of closely related pieces. One particularly nice feature is that they've been able to use multiple gatefolds to bring together sequences, where Tolkien went through a series of attempts to capture a particular scene, like The Hill at Hobbiton, or the Elvenking's Gate, or Smaug flying 'round the Mountain.

I did my best to demonstrate the importance of Tolkien's art to the story in THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, but there I only had twelve plates and two frontispieces to convey what they've used 144 pages to get across. And it's wonderful to see (particularly for those of failing eyesight, like myself -- the community of Tolkien fans and scholars alike being an aging one) the pieces are, as Wayne & Christina point out, "reproduced . . . as large as possible" [p.17], rather than shrunk down (as I needed to do to 'stuff every rift with ore', as Jn Keats wd put it). It helps that this is an oversize square-format book (ten & a half by ten & a half inches) in a handsome slipcase, resembling the original edition of PICTURES BY TOLKIEN more than it does ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR.
The results are, I repeat, wonderful. Tolkien didn't have much confidence in himself as an artist, but like Thurber and Lofting (fellow artistic autodidacts) his work is distinctive and instantly recognizable; it's part of the tales.

And this is a definitive collection: there are a few pictures here even I've not seen before -- for example, the more detailed picture of Elrond's house [#18], or the rough sketch of Eagles' Eyrie [#40], or the first version of The Three Trolls Are Turned To Stone [#14] (I find I prefer the trolls' faces here to the final version). And many more here reproduced in sharper detail than ever before -- e.g., all the dwarven activity at The Back Door [#69]. Others I've seen at some point but not paid much attention to; here they stand out much more when placed in the right context (like #35: The Misty Mountains, which had previously been tucked at the end of the index of ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [H-S#200]).

This book is relatively text-light, compared with ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR, which is as it shd be: here the focus shd all be on presenting Tolkien's art as clearly as possible. Their introduction does a good job of covering a great deal of territory in relatively little space: only eighteen pages to discuss the origins to the book, explain how the art came to be created, and comment on the "rich visual experience" of the results. I particularly admired the economy with which they addressed various complex and thorny issues -- as, for example, dating when Tolkien began and finished the story:

". . . around 1930 (the evidence is too contradictory to give a precise date), [Tolkien] began to write [The Hobbit]" [p.9]
". . . It may have reached substantially its published form by the time Tolkien lent it to C. S. Lewis around the start of 1933, or it may be that its final chapters . . . were not composed until Allen & Unwin showed an interest in the work in 1936" [p. 10]

--While I think the 1930 date is pretty firm, that's a great way of getting a lot of information judiciously into v. little space (even the choice of the word write is significant, given speculation about oral tales); likewise, they acknowledge but do not take a position re. the Carpenter hiatus. Anyone who's delved into the complexity of the evidence re. these two points can appreciate how difficult it is to clearly explain them without oversimplification: here I think there's just the right amount of simplification for this context (where the emphasis is, and shd be, all on the art).

Finally, I'm envious of one thing. They've pulled off something I wanted to do in RETURN TO BAG-END but in the end wasn't able to: assemble all eight known pictures of Bilbo** onto one spread. In my case, I simply ran out of space, and in the end agreed w. my editor at HarperCollins that it'd be better to include two more new pieces rather than devote a page to reproduction of pieces already appearing elsewhere in the book, esp. given how small the eight pieces wd have to be to all fit onto one (nine-inch by six-inch) plate. Freed of that restriction, Wayne & Christina reproduce enlargements of them all. Looking at these side-by-side is illuminating: it's clear that Tolkien had a v. clear image of what Bilbo looked like; despite his difficulty with drawing faces there's a recognizable likeness in BB's features in the majority of the portraits. It's also interesting to note that Bilbo wears some sort of footwear in four of the eight pictures (Tolkien having meant to insert a passage re. Bilbo's getting shod at Rivendell before heading up into the mountains but never having gotten around to doing so). Well done!

--John R.
*with the possible exception of the tracings of the two hasty sketches of Gandalf's hat that appear in the end of the new one-volume H.o.H. [p.901]

**at the doorstep of Bag End, inside Bag-End smoking, in the bushes by the trolls, barrel-riding (two images from different versions of this scene), bowing to Smaug (in silhouette), resting in the Eyrie, and in the sketch he drew for Houghton Mifflin, this last having first been reproduced in H.o.H.).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The New Arrivals: ART OF THE HOBBIT and MR. BLISS

So, a while back my wife saw a box from that had just arrived and asked, 'have we run out of books over here that we now have to start importing them?'

Well, maybe. It used to be in the old days that the only way to get ahold of a book published in England but not the US was to set up a trade with someone in England wherein you'd buy books for them over here and ship them over there, while they'd buy an equivalent amount of books over there and ship them over here. I've had three book-trades going on over the years (with Jessica Yates, and Christina Scull, and Charles Noad), and I have them to thank for many items I'd never have been able to come across myself (such as the limited edition HOMECOMING OF BEORHTNOTH and all those Pratchetts Charles stood in line to have signed for me), and sent off many a volume from this side to hold up my end.

Nowaday with, it's easier to just buy direct -- but not always, as some items can only be sold in one country or the other (e.g., the soon-to-be-released Kindle version of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, which initially at least will be UK-only, alas). You can get killed on the exchange rate and shipping, but for some books it's worth it. And the latest such are two that arrived together on Wednesday: the new edition of MR. BLISS, and THE ART OF THE HOBBIT

To take the first one first, I remember the days when MR. BLISS was The Great Unknown: we knew there was an unpublished hand-illustrated children's book by Tolkien at the Marquette Archives but v. little about what it was about. My first letter to the Archives (which Chuck Elston showed me still in the files years later) was in fact a request to see if I cd have a copy made (they said no). And so the first task on my first weekday in Milwaukee once I arrived there in August 1981 was to go to the Archives, introduce myself, and ask to see MR. BLISS. I spent what little free time I had (this was the opening week of grad school for me to work on my Ph.D.,* and also the week I started teaching freshmen English at Marquette, along with all the business of moving into a new apartment in a new city) transcribing it into a notebook (which I still have, having unearthed it from among The Boxes not long ago). And I remember shortly thereafter when the photographers came in to take careful pictures of the original book in preparation for its publication the following year (in 1982).

To be honest, while it was a thrill to read a new piece by Tolkien, the story itself was a bit of a disappointment. Unlike FARMER GILES OF HAM, which is a little gem in its own right, and THE FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS, which have a sort of charm of their own, I've never really warmed to MR. BLISS or ROVERANDOM (which I heard a lot about in 1987 but had to wait to read till 1998, like everybody else).

This being the case, I have to say I really like this new (third) edition of BLISS. The first combined a facsimile of the original with typeset text on facing pages -- not really necessary, I thought, since Tolkien used clear and highly readable 'uncial' lettering -- but unfortunately they decided to replace the original cream-colored pages (from natural browning of good-quality paper over the preceding fifty years) with greyish paper, which bleached out the art somewhat.

This was replaced by a beautiful slipcase edition in the same format (facsimile on right-hand pages, facing typeset transcription on facing left-hand pages) but kept the original paper-color, so that the art came through better). I saw this second edition in Blackwells while in England in 2007 but have never seen it for sale over here; they really did a nice job of it.

Now here comes the third edition, which is really two books in one. The front cover shifts the orientation of the book from manuscript's horizontal orientation (i.e., the pages are wider than they are tall) to a more normal vertical orientation (like, say, FARMER GILES or TREE & LEAF or any of the other smallish Tolkien volumes). They've also typeset the whole with the pictures interspersed where needed, making for an attractive little book.

And for those who prefer the original, all you have to do is flip the volume over and there's the whole story again, this time in its original horizontal orientation, facsimile pages, and facing transcription pages. So in fact here we have the same book twice, starting from the respective outside covers and both ending in the middle. It's an interesting and I thought highly effective layout; well done, HarperCollins! There's also a brief (two-page) introduction [unsigned] that sets the stage while adroitly avoiding the various unknowns about the tale (exactly when it was written, its inspiration, &c).

All in all, a nice little volume that shd get a little more attention to this minor but amusing little bit of Tolkien.


--John R.

*and also the week of the infamous episode in which I met with my advisor for the first time, and he told me "I don't want to catch you working on Tolkien while you're here". Ah, those were the days.

Monday, November 7, 2011


So, today brought the long-awaited author's copy of the new, one-volume, expanded edition of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT.


A quick skim shows that the new note about trolls turning to stone (citing Grettir's Saga and Helen Buckhurst) [p. 110] made it in, as did a new page of material about yet another version of Denham's list to surface (the earliest one yet) [p. 854]. The notes and citations in Appendix IV: Tolkien/Ransome, have now been straightened out. All the illustrations from the original edition are here, including both frontispieces and all twelve pages of plates, plus one new illustration: two sketchy depictions of Gandalf's hat [p. 901]. I see to my regret that the additions to the Acknowledgments, esp. my thanks to Charles Noad for all his help proofing this new edition, didn't make it in.

This new edition does have APPENDIX V: AUTHOR'S COPIES LIST, which identifies all the people on a list Tolkien drew up when he was trying to decide who to give his twelve author's copies to.* And it includes the ADDENDUM, or 'Seventh Stage': some new manuscript material Christopher Tolkien found and sent me too late for inclusion in the original edition. I've divided this into six short sections:

i. Timeline of Events [the fifteen days following Durin's Day]
ii. Notes on a Parley [detailed description of the Front Gate]
iii. Responses to Queries [some proofreader's concerns addressed by JRRT]
iv. Personae [an interesting listing of Thorin & Company]
v. Runic Charts [details on using dwarven runes]
vi. Feanorian Letters [details on writing in tengwar, including punctuation and numbers]

It's a great pity that the latter two weren't published in the Longmans Green edition of 1966, which seems to have been when the bulk of this was written -- just think how readers in the initial wave of Tolkien mania wd have loved a detailed account of how to write in Elvish (tengwar, that is). Ah well: better late (forty-plus years) than never.

There were also extensive errata that should have been incorpoarated into this new edition that I haven't had time to check yet; with in any luck, we took care of any remaining typos and fixed various small glitches here and there (Langland! Langland! Langland!)

On the whole, I find I stand by what I wrote; this edition adds a little here and there, but aside from a thirty-two page addition of new material it's substantially the same book as before -- just larger and more portable, with many small refinements of detail.

Contrary to initial report, it does not weigh five pounds, 'only' two pounds thirteen & a half ounces (1.29 kg for the metrically inclined).

As my wife said: IT'S STILL DONE. AGAIN!

--John R.

*I find it vastly amusing that he initially wrote down C. S. Lewis's name, then crossed it off
--not because he didn't want to give him one, but because Lewis already had an advance copy (in order for him to do the reviews). Still, it's amusing.

Local Election, 2011

Election 2011

So, to match Janice's write-up on the various issues and candidates she posted on Facebook, here are my own thoughts re. the local election tomorrow. All opinions are my own.



1125. Normally I'd vote 'yes' on this one, since it's anti-toll road, and I'm an opponent of tolling public roads. I also like it's provision that any toll be specifically targeted to a single road or bridge and retired after that project had paid for itself -- as I understand it, that was the case w. the Tacoma Narrows bridge and the 520 Floating Bridge.

But in the end I had to vote against it because (a) there's a sting in its tail in that it chokes off funding for public transport, like the badly-needed expansion of the new light rail, and (b) Tim Eyman supported it, which means that whatever it says on the surface its true purpose is to defund government. NO

1163: reinstate background checks on nursing home workers. Given the potential for abuse, increasing scrutiny here is a good thing in my book. YES

1183, the hard liquor bill: we got not less than nine flyers asking us to vote against this one (eleven if you count portmanteaux flyers that also opposed 1125 and, in one case, supported 1163), and four against.

This is the rock-and-a-hard-place vote for me, since I'm opposed both to the law as it is and to the proposed change. I don't like the state running liquor stores any more than I like the army fighting unjust wars or a governor executing accused criminals. But on the other hand, I don't want there to be MORE liquor stores, which is what the bill would allow. So as a Prohibitionist I voted NO: fewer hard liquor outlets is better than opening the floodgates.

Joint Resolutions

8205: this is v. much an editor's bill, standardizing the Constitution's text so it agrees in various places about the state's residency requirement to vote in elections. YES.

8206, the rainy day fund. The tobacco settlement was squandered by tax deadbeats in the state legislature (think this was back in the early Bush days), and the rainy day fund that replaced it under Gregoire has been a godsend to keeping the state from going under during the Great Recession. This bill requires extra deposits into the fund in boom times so that a little of that windfall is there to offset the next crash. YES.


County Assessor, Lloyd Hara, unopposed. Seems to have done a decent job. YES

Director of Elections, Mark Greene vs. Sherril Huff: HUFF. As Janice points out in her facebook post re. the election, Greene rambles about how they did him wrong back in '04 rather than trying to explain what he'd do if elected. And so, while it might be fun to have an anti-interventionalist playwright in a major elective post, I'm going with the incumbent here.

Appeals Court Judge, Michael Spearman, unopposed. YES. Judge Spearman sounds like a good candidate, and I trust Gregoire's judgment in having appointed him to the post he's now seeking election to.

Port Commissioner, Richard Pope vs. Gael Tarleton: TARLETON. Pope comes across as a tax deadbeat who wants to divest port assets; Tarleton talks about transparent bidding, disaster preparedness, clean air standards, and free wi-fi at the airport. This one's a no-brainer.

Port Commissioner, Dean Willard vs. Bill Bryant. Both these candidates sound good, and I cd go with either of them. In the end, I gave Willard the edge because of what Janice wrote re. Bryant's favoritism towards executives over workers. WILLARD.


Deborah Ranniger vs. Bailey Stober: RANNIGER. Not only is she a strong supporter of city parks (one of the nicer things about living in Kent), but Stober ran a nasty attack ad in the local paper. Stober also seems to have a background of not paying his own bills, while critical of the current city council for not managing finances better (ironic, that). In the abstract, Stober is the more attractive candidate; we cd use a community activist on the city council. But the closer you look the less he walks the walk.

Les Thomas vs. Nancy Skorupa: THOMAS. Thomas lists a string of achievements that have bettered Kent in recent years, then goes and ruins it by going pie-in-the-sky, promising to cut taxes while providing even more good things. Skorupa just whines about taxes without offering anything. And so even though Thomas did some annoying grandstanding recently at council meetings, he edges out the (other) tax deadbeat.

Bill Boyce vs. Debbie Raplee: normally Boyce wd get my vote here, but his having been on the school board that provoked the teacher strike two years back has to count against him. I've been unable to find out how he voted back then, but he seems to have been on the anti-teacher side of the issue. Raplee as incumbent gets to align herself with the various good things Kent has done to keep afloat in recent years. So, RAPLEE, by default.

Dana Ralph vs. Michael S. Sealfon: Ralph doesn't make much of a case for herself, but then Sealfon doesn't really give any reason at all why we shd elect him, other than that he seems to think he shd have the job. RALPH.


Larry Sims vs. Russell Hanscom: SIMS. Even though Sims didn't bother to submit a profile to the voter's pamphlet, he still outperforms Hanscom, who can't decide whether he'll serve or not if elected (cf. KENT REPORTER, Oct 21st, p.2). Ironic, given that Hanscom's voter profile boasts of how he's "committed to making the Kent School District the best . . . in the State". Yeah, right. Sims' statement printed in the local paper basically says he thinks things are on-track and wants to keep them that way. I'm okay with that.

Karen L. DeBruler: an actual teacher, running unopposed. No-brainer. DEBRULER.

Debbie Straus vs. Leslie Kae Hamada: HAMADA? Neither candidate spoke strongly to me, but Straus seemed more pie-in-the-sky about "our mission to Successfully Prepare All Students for Their Future" (caps hers), as if she thinks in bullet points.


Paul Joos vs. Mary Alice Heuschel: JOOS. Flyers in the mail seem enthusiastic for Heuschel, but I'd rather have a stakeholder like Dr. Joos making decisions about a hospital than an outsider with no hospital experience, like Heuschel (a school superintendent). Besides, I like Joos' promise to reduce the number of administrators and hire more nurses instead.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

November 1st, 1931

Today (Tuesday the 1st) would have been my father's eightieth birthday. It was my last full day in Magnolia, so I was able to go by and put flowers on the grave. I still picture him as looking like he did when I knew him, and since he died just after turning thirty-seven I find it almost impossible to picture what he'd look like as an old man. How I'd love to have the chance to talk to him, adult to adult, and ask his opinion of this and that. I know he'd be particularly interested in following the presidential election, the 'tea party' nonsense, and other current events. But as wistful as I am for the forty-two (now almost forty-three) years without, I'm grateful for the ten years I had with him. Storyteller, songwriter, teacher extraordinaire, and a great dad. Rest in Peace.

--John R.