Wednesday, November 25, 2015


So, yesterday I learned a new word for an all-too-familiar phenomenon: 'Goldfinching'. As in, the pattern that happens again and again when a book gets too popular -- like, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS about the time of the millennium polls -- and the critics come out and start bashing both the book and, more importantly, the people who read it. Weiner, the author of this particular piece, is writing specifically about fiction largely by women and largely enjoyed by women, but the behavior she sees is part of a larger pattern, perfectly familiar to those of us who championed Tolkien back in the day (or, for that matter, admired Pratchett's work before he got the knighthood, and Gaiman's before he got the Newbery).

It's an odd and regrettable fact that some people (some critics and reviewers, others academicians) believe deep, deep down that if people enjoy a work, and read it without being made to, then it can't really be literature. A good example would be Frost, who's not taught in universities the way Eliot and Pound are,* because you can read and enjoy and understand Frost without having him explained to you.**

Which is a pity, because it casts everything into mutually exclusive categories, so that those of us who admire Pound AND Larkin, Woolf AND Tolkien get it from both sides. And people who stick to one side or the other miss out on a lot of good stuff.

Luckily, the solution is easy: just sit down and read, ignoring the naysayers. There are works whose appeal is immediate and enduring, and others which take work to appreciate but reward those who put in the time and effort. Give anything that sounds interesting a try, and enjoy the results.

--John R.

Here's the link:

*at least this was the case when I was in grad school; perhaps things have changed, but I rather doubt it.

**extra points if you can name the Four Great Twentieth Century American Poets.  If you can, odds are good that you have a Masters or Ph.D in literature.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Colbert on Tolkien (Iandumoema smeagol)

So, Steven Colbert has done it again, proudly identifying himself in public as a Tolkien geek. The context this time does not involve Balrogs but spiders -- specifically the report that a newly discovered Brazilian spider is being named after Smeagol. This Iandumoema smeagol is, according to an online article, a "troglobitic harvestman" -- from which I take it it lives in caves (troglodyte) and isn't really a spider at all but a Daddy Longlegs ('harvestman'; closely related to spiders but distinct from them). Here's a picture:

Unfortunately, this little arachnid has gone from being unknown to being extremely endangered; according to the article its habitat comprises as area of "only a mere 4.6 square km".

Colbert seems to have approved of the tribute to Professsor Tolkien but took exception that they named it after Smeagol (Gollum's original name, used when he still lived on the river-bank with his grandmother) rather than Gollum (the name Bilbo gives him after several hundred years of lurking in the dark has transformed him) or, better yet, Shelob (who is of course a spider).  I wd have held out for Ungoliant myself.

Here's the Colbert clip; thanks to Janice for the link:

For two more brief glimpses of Colbert at his best, here are two brief segments in which he defends his Tolkien fan credentials against a rival (thanks to Wendell for posting these on the MythSoc list):

Finally, as a Tolkien scholar myself, I'd just point out that this isn't the first time a spider has been named after something in Tolkien's books: witness the fossil proto-spider Attercopus fimbriungis, extinct since the Devonian (H.o.H. 321).

--John R.

Monday, November 23, 2015

What I Would Have Asked Witwer (What Happened to Gygax?)

So, this past Tuesday I wanted to head up to Elliott Bay Books* and see a reading by Michael Witwer, author of the recent biography of Gary Gygax (co-creator of roleplaying games, and co-founder of TSR and thus the rpg industry).

Several of us** heard about it and made tenative plans to drive up as a group, but our plans all fell through because of the weather: dark, rainy, and with blustery winds (up to fifty miles per hour).

Still, there's one big question I've had for years, which Witwer's book didn't address, that I would have asked, had I been there and had he been taking Q&A: What happened to Gygax around 1982 that broke him as a writer?

Years ago I made up a list of every book and boxed set and sourcebook and module for D&D/AD&D, current up to about the end of 1996, giving the title, author, and date. And in the process, I noticed that for Gygax himself the years leading up to '82 are filled with milestone after milestone: Gygax's work set the industry standard, and pioneered elements in adventure design that have become the models virtually all writers who have followed him in the field have drawn from ever since. But that faltered in 1982 and ceased altogether by 1985. Just take a quick look at the highlights of what he accomplished between '74 and 82 (leaving out most of the collaborative works) :

co-created D&D (with Arneson providing the basic idea and Gygax creating most of the rules)

 co-wrote GREYHAWK, the first supplement to the original core rules

 co-wrote ELDRITCH WIZARDRY, the third supplements to the original core rules

1977-79: creates AD&D, the definitive 'classic' version of the game
  Monster Manual
  Player's Handbook
  Dungeon Master's Guide

The G-series (G1, G2, G3): Jack the Giant Killer comes to D&D, as well as the first linked series of adventures.
The D-series (D1, D2, D3): Gygax invents the drow: elves as bad guys; introduces the Underdark.
S1. Tomb of Horrors. The classic iteration of the killer dungeon.

T1. Village of Hommlet: the default village, the base to launch adventures from
B2. Keep on the Borderland: the interactive dungeon that changes in response to the PCs' activities

S3. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: not a favorite of mine but beloved of many; the first crossover adventure.
The Greyhawk folio: a minor work in itself but the harbinger of great things: the campaign setting

     1981: almost nothing

S4. Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (a neglected minor classic): a last hurrah
WG4. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (shd have been a classic but wound up merely minor)

    1983-85: extremely minor

EX1 and EX2: weak parodies of Lewis Carroll.

   1984:  nothing

WG6. Isle of the Ape: weak King Kong parody
T1-4. Temple of Elemental Evil: one of the greatest adventures ever written, but there's reason to think almost all the new material was written by Frank Mentzer, and that Gygax's contribution was limited to the reprinting of T1 and some campaign notes.

   And after that, the wheels really come off the bus.

CYBORG COMMANDO, probably the most disappointing flop in rpg history up to that point***

MYTHUS, a second major flop. Had TSR not given it notoriety by their lawsuits it would have died an embarrassing painful death on the shelf (as witnessed by the next entry).

LEJENDARY ADVENTURES, the third and final flop, after which Gygax basically retired.

So, what happened? How did Gygax go from being the greatest of rpg designers, to tossing off little parodies, to someone putting his name on other people's work? The glory years of 1977-1980 may well have been, and probably were, unsustainable, but the falling-off is more drastic than we wd expect from mere burnout. If it'd been estrangement from D&D after he was shuffled out of TSR (first off to Hollywood and then out altogether), why was there no rebound when he was free to do whatever he wanted? Was it the drugs? The ego, after he had 'gone Hollywood'? Some otherwise undetected minor stroke, years before the major strokes that wrecked his health? Or are editors and collaborators like Mike Carr and Frank Mentzer rarer than you'd think?

At any rate, I think the break is definitely there, though the reasons behind it may remain murky. For my part, I've come over the years to appreciate the classic stage of Gygax's career, and his achievements then, rather than let the latter and much lesser work distract from them.

--John R.

*which is not on Elliott Bay
**including several who had worked at TSR, one of whom had worked with Gygax
***you know it's a bad sign when a review of the game starts with a spirited defense against charges that this is the worst rpg ever written

The New Machine

So, I have a new laptop.

There may be some hiccups as I get used to new features, unexpected presets/default, and the like,* so bear with me over the next few days.

Plus I now have my new glasses (both pair, the near and the far), with adjustments going on there as well as I get used to being able to see better than I could just a short time ago. Which is nice, but still disorienting.

--John R.

current viewing: some more Pink Floyd documentaries and some Monty Python. I've now finished skimming the documentaries accompanying THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES and the extra/enhanced scenes therein and will now be turning to watching the full extended edition of the movie itself.

*my old machine lasted six years, so I have a lot of catching up to do

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Wife Says

Here's a post Janice made a few days ago that I thought I'd share:

Races in Kent WA - "White alone 48.4%". That's right kids. I live in a minority-majority community and have for years. And refugees? We've got them. Somali, Iraqi, Afghani, Burmese, Nepalese, Ukrainian, Russian, and I'm sure I'm leaving out a few. And then there are the immigrants from India, Korea, China, Vietnam, England, Mexico, etc, etc, and etc. Are there Muslims in my community? You bet there are. I see them everyday. We also have Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists. We have Christian churches, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and Muslim mosques. We don't have a Jewish synagog but Tukwila and Des Moines are just up the road.
You know what we haven't had even 1 of? A terrorist incident. 
Do I expect Syrian refugees to be resettled just up the street from me? Yes I do. Does that bother me? No it doesn't. Because experience tells me that the vast majority of them will work very hard to make better lives for themselves and their families. There will be some lazy butt whiners in the mix but that's true of any group of people.
So good on you Governor Jay Inslee. I was beginning to worry that we'd have to strike "home of the brave" from the Star Spangled Banner. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"The Dear Bishop's Tuesdays"

So, I was dipping into one of Warnie Lewis's books today (THE SUNSET OF THE SPLENDID CENTURY), and came across a passage that I think suggests more than it says.

Here's the passage in question; WHL is describing the shortcomings and character flaws of Louis Auguste de Bourbon, better known as the Duc du Maine, one of The Sun King's legitimized illegitimate children:

[Had he been made an Abbott] his life  would
have worked itself out in the service of his order. 
Even happier perhaps had he been the Bishop 
of some not very important See, for he shares with 
Cowper and Richardson something of their chaste craving 
for constant and intimate female companionship. His piety, 
his conversational charm, the very shyness which so 
handicapped him in the world, would in more fortunate 
circumstances have made him the focal point 
and oracle of a circle of elderly ladies 
-- "the dear Bishop's Tuesdays" -- 
we can almost hear the conversation
[pages 96-97]

What's striking about this is that WHL seems to me to be holding young Louis (and the poet Cowper. and the novelist Richardson), in contempt for preferring the society of women over that of men. Perhaps we need look no further into the question people sometimes raise about why there were no women in the Inklings.

--John R.
current watching: more BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES dvd extras.

My Sime

So, a few weeks ago I learned from Jim Lowder (thanks Jim) that a major Dunsany collection was being auctioned off. Too rich for my blood, as they say, but my attention was fixed by one side-item: an original piece of artwork by the great Sidney (S. H.) Simes. I consulted the budget and, having been saving up for something else, I decided I cd just manage a bid if it came in at the bottom of their estimated price. It did. So I've been anxiously awaiting its arrival day-by-day ever since. And today it came.

It's not one of his Dunsany pieces, the art that made him famous  (and for good reason: those Dunsany himself bought, and they're hanging in Dunsany castle*).  But it's a stiking image nonethless: a dark, moodly little sketch of a waterfall, only about as big as a Kindle, done not on canvas but panel (i.e., a piece of wood). I'll have  to arrange to have it properly framed, and possibly cleaned/conserved as well. I already know just where I want to hang it.

It's not often that you get the chance to find an original piece by one of your favorite artists: today is a good day.

Now if only someone would start selling replicas of Clark Ashton Smith's little sculptures . . .

--John R.
current viewing: MOCKINGJAY (part one), THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES extras
current reading: THE INN AT CORBIES'S CAWW

*or at least were when I was there in '87

P. S. : Here's what the piece looks like. Evocative, isn't it? It looks like a place that shd have a story behind it, except there's no story (unlike his famous work with Dunsany on THE BOOK OF WONDER, where Sime drew the drawings and then Dunsany wrote stories inspired by them).