Friday, April 24, 2015

Jo Walton's Two Thoughts on Tolkien

So, since getting back from my latest trip I've continued to read, on and off, Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT [2014]. This is a very dip-able collection, given that it's composed of a hundred and thirty blog posts made over the period of more than two years (July 2008 thr Febr 2011). I've also felt no compunction about skipping around and reading the individual entries in whatever order took my fancy, since for the most part they're independent of each other -- the exception being  when she does a block of entries on the same author, such as the five on Cherryh (none of which so much as mention any of the Cherryhs I've read), the fifteen on Lois McMaster Bujold, or the eighteen on Steven Brust (which I think is at least seventeen too many).

Naturally, the first one I read is the one on Tolkien, specifically THE HOBBIT (#122, Sept 2010, p. 412-416). Walton takes the standard line that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a masterpiece and THE HOBBIT isn't but is merely "journeyman work" (obviously, I disagree). There are a lot of good points in this piece, which I'd like to return to another time, but for now I wanted to highlight two really interesting comments she makes towards the end of her piece.

First, she points out what shd have been obvious but which in fact had never occurred to me before, nor do I recall ever seeing it commented on before: Bilbo has no servants. That seems perfectly normal to us reading THE HOBBIT today, seventy-plus years on, but as Walton points out it wd have been remarkably unusual for the time. Even the Tolkiens, who were by no means as rich as the Bagginses, had servants. Bilbo not only does his own cooking but his own cleaning, including doing the dishes. Yet by the standards of the time a large home like Bag End wd have had a sizable live-in staff: maids, cook, butler, et all. We do find out in THE LORD OF THE RINGS that Bilbo had a gardner (Holman), but that seems to be about it.

Second, does it make any difference to the story that Bilbo is male? To evoke what C. S. Lewis wd have called a supposal, would the story be any different if this were one of the tales of one of those hobbit-lasses we hear tell of who went off on adventures after listening to Gandalf's tales? If this were, say, Belladonna Took's adventure, wd the story be much the same with just the names and a bunch of pronouns changed?  I'm inclined to think Walton is right in suggesting that it wdn't change the story much, which is an interesting thought.*

More on her book as a whole once I've had a chance to finish reading it.

--John R.

*for one of Tolkien's oft-overlooked intrepid female characters, see the dragon-killer Miss Biggins in the revised (1960s) version of his poem "The Dragon's Visit".

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

C. S. Lewis calls W. H. Auden "a pansy"

So, the problem with slang is that it changes meaning over time, and it can be hard to pin down what it meant at a particular time and place, when a particular person uses it. Take, for example, the case of C. S. Lewis at one point criticizing the poet W. H. Auden as "rather a pansy" (COLLECTED LETTERS, Vol. III, page 714; letter of Leap Day 1956).

So far as I can tell, this originally mean "effeminate" but later came to mean "homosexual".  The OED is careful to trace the evolution of new meanings of words, but it's no help here, since it doesn't deal with slang (though it's rather nice to have confirmed that 'pansy' is an anglicization of pensee, or 'Thoughts').  I'm not sure if slang dictionaries give the dates at which new meanings are attached to words, and I'm too wrapped up right now to make a library run to find out.

So the question is, shd CSL's comment be glossed as "too much of a sissy" or "too gay"?

--John R.
current reading: TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Crackpot vents on Tolkien

So, about a month ago I was following a series of links from an online piece of C. S. Lewis's voice (thanks to Janice for the original link) to a presentation by my friend the late Christopher Mitchell, to some other Lewies-and-Tolkien sites, finally ending up by stumbling across a weird spiel by a crackpot.

Over the years of reading everything I can by and about JRRT I've seen plenty of pieces I considered a bit odd and occasionally one that was downright weird (like the one about elves being lizards from space), but I've never seen one before who equated linguistic talent with demonic possession. But now I'll have to use the past tense for that statement.

The piece in question is called "JRRT and CSL -- Occult Affiliations" by one Robin M. Fisher, whom I don't otherwise know; it was posted November 11th 2014. Despite being on YouTube it's audio, not video. Here's the link:

Listening to this, or as much as I could of it (I confess to tuning out during some of his rants, and I skimmed a bit), I was surprised by how much hatred he shows towards his fellow Xians --James Dobson, Focus on the Family, Charles Colson, and Joel Osteen all come in for particular venom.  Nor do non-Xians fare any better -- or, as he calls them, "vile unsaved people" To which I'd say: you mean, like the people Jesus hung out with a lot, to the annoyance of the Pharisees?

Among the things that particularly upset him and that he finds as signs of witchcraft at work are that James Dobson's Focus on the Family offer for sale a book called FINDING GOD IN LOTR for (dum-dum-dah) $13 (13 = promoting Satanism).

Another sign of Satan? He says Tolkien, writing in the midnight hours (dum-dum-dah!),  took twelve years to write LotR, and published in the 13th (dum-dum).  

More examples? Hobbits are "hybrid, demonic-like creatures". "Elves are demonic creatures". "Elves, gnomes, trolls, fairies: all demonic-type entities". Tolkien used runes, which not only smack of occultism but Hitler used them too (Fisher doesn't seem to know that they were just an early alphabet). Tolkien said "I desired dragons", which Fisher interprets as opening himself up to "Pure Evil, Satan Himself."

But I think the weirdest parts of his rant have to do with his equating Tolkien's facility with languages, reading and speaking them, with evil. That Tolkien wd make up new languages of his own, "Elf-ish" provokes the outcry "this is not from God!". That Tolkien then admittedly drew inspiration from his invented language in writing LotR --"that right there shows you how demonic LotR is".  For Fisher, the story was "channelled through him by demonic spirits as a result of this demonic language"; he equates Tolkien's writing LotR with automatic writing and demonic possession (just like Led Zeppelin, he says).

As for people who claim to find Xian themes in Tolkien's work, Fisher is having none of that: "There is much rank blasphemy in Tolkien's work, such as the death and resurrection of the wizard Gandalf".  As for Tolkien's translating The Lord's Prayer into "Elfish": "That's how blasphemous he was".

After about 37 minutes he wanders off onto CSL, but things don't really get any better after that. At fifty minutes or so he drifts onto Charles Williams and the Golden Dawn and the wheels really come off the bus. A few standout lines shd give a pretty good indication of this section: "a reader of Wms' biography is apt to come to the conclusion that he was rather creepy".* Among other things, Wms wrote about King Arthur and Holy Grail ("evil stuff here, okay?"). Fisher quotes someone named David Meyer (Myer?) who apparently has claimed that CSL and JRRT were both closet members of the Golden Dawn, but Fisher rather surprisingly is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and considers them just fellow travellers. Fisher does insist that two Inkings were in the Golden Dawn: Ch. Wms (whom he says was "demonically possessed") and W. B. Yeats (he pronounces it 'yeets').

All I can say is that the claim that CSL was a member of the Golden Dawn is not just untrue but reveals a staggering ignorance about CSL's mental makeup and attitude towards the occult. Charles Williams was, of course, a member of a Christianized offshoot of the Golden Dawn (founded by A. E. Waite, who had hoped that Wms wd succeed him as head of that order; Wms instead left to found his own), but he hid those associations from his fellow Inklings. And to claim that Yeats was a member of the Inkling is to ignore (a) all histories of the group, which show Yeats never attended a meeting and probably never met Tolkien, (b) that Lewis met and greatly disliked Yeats personally, specifically for his occultism, an (c) that Yeats, a Nobel Prize winning poet and one of the two greatest poets in English in the century, was much too big a fish to swim in the Inklings' orbit.

Towards the end he does swing back to Tolkien in passing, and delivers himself of the following judgement: 

Fisher believes that
fantasy literature is "the particular genre that Satan so chose to use to indocrinate millions and millions . . . into the occult."

and also that
"CSL & Tolkien are going to be responsible for the blood of untold millions of people on their hands, most likely"

It turns out that after more than an hour of this it's just the first half of a much longer diatribe that goes on into another link, but frankly I'd had about all I cd stand by this point.

The one good thing I got out of all this? Fisher's bemused observation that

"JRRT had a middle middle name"

--That's a good one, but I certainly had to wade through a mile of mud to find it.

--John R. 
current reading: WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT by Jo Walton [2014]
current anime: RWBY

*THE WIFE SAYS: To be fair, Charles Williams was creepy.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tolkien and Women: Dorothy Everett

So, there's that phenomenon every scholar knows where you research, write, and publish a piece, only to later find out that you got something wrong. Some piece of information you relied upon turns out to be wrong, or you simply find new evidence which contradicts a conclusion you made based on all the information available to you at the time. That's why we have errata, and revised editions: to be able to set things to rights with a minimum of fuss. Still, it's a sinking feeling which helps keep us humble.

I don't think there's a word for the opposite phenomenon, that happy moment when you come across some fact that actually strengthens your argument, made on other grounds: something you'd gladly have included in your original piece had you only known of it at the time.

I had an example of that this week. I've been doing some research on the Clarendon Chaucer, Tolkien's never-finished collaboration with Geo. Gordon, as part of my Kalamazoo piece, and ran across a passage that'd escaped my notice before. It seems that in May of 1951, when Tolkien turned over all materials for the long-abandoned project to Oxford University Press in hopes they might be able to find another Middle English scholar to complete the book, Tolkien "has suggested that Dorothy Everett might complete the book" but the head of the Press "does not want to distract her from another project" (Scull-Hammond CHRONOLOGY, p. 375). Given that earlier it had been suggested that E. V. Gordon, Tolkien's collaborator on the SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT and several other unfinished projects, and fellow future Inkling J. A.W. Bennett might take over the project, that Tolkien wd suggest Everett for the job seems to indicate that he had a high regard for her ability to do a good job as his collaborator. I had argued in my piece "The Missing Women: JRRT's Lifelong Support for Women's Higher Education"* that Tolkien was a strong supporter of women taking advanced degrees and pursing medieval scholarship (as opposed to the much more dismissive attitude of his friend C. S. Lewis), and this provides just another example which I'd have been glad to include, had I noticed it in time. As for Everett herself, I need to look up more about her. As it is, she flits through the great Scull-Hammond CHRONOLOGY without making much of an impact, leaving behind the general impression that she was someone who went to a lot of the same committee meetings as JRRT. I do know she died just two years after being mooted for the Clarendon Chaucer project, so that may have had something to do with its ultimately being abandoned.

--John R.

*recently published in PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN, ed. Croft & Donovan

Friday, April 10, 2015

Good Advice (D&D)

So, a blog I like to check once in a while that doesn't update nearly as much as I'd like is Steve Winter's HOWLING TOWER blog. Lately he's been giving out some good advice re. gaming, which I thought I'd share:

I know when I'm playing a game, be it an rpg or boardgame, I try to plan out my next move over the course of the other folks' turn, so that I know basically what I want to do when my turn comes around. But all too often something will happen that renders all my planning moot, in which case I've found I'm not good at coming up with a good plan on the fly. Of course there are those wonderful moments when something you've spent the two previous turns setting up finally goes off without a hitch. Those are good moments, and all too rare.

So, I'd say re. Steve's post: good advice, harder to follow sometimes than others.

--John R.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Elemental Evil, 5th edition style (D&D)

So, Tuesday (the seventh) was the official release date for the second* mega-adventure for the new Fifth Edition D&D: LORDS OF THE APOCALYPSE, by Rich Baker. I've been looking forward to this since I first learned it was on the way, having (a) been a fan of Rich's work for years** and (b) learned that it was a fifth edition successor/sequel to T1-4. TEMPLE OF ELEMENTAL EVIL, an adventure with a long and illustrious history. There are some (myself among them) who wd give this the nod as the single greatest D&D adventure of all time. It's certainly Menzter's masterpiece, *** his own 'personal best'. Even a decade after its release it was still selling 5k copies a year, simply by word of mouth, before it was deliberately taken out of print. And of course it had superb cover art by the inimitable Keith Parkinson.

That's a hard act to follow, especially when there's already been a 'Return to' back in Third Edition, wherein Monte Cook created a sequel to the original that's also highly regarded, if not quite the legend of the First Edition original.**** I played through T1-4 as a solo adventure, creating an entire party of PCs and running them through as DM, all through what wd otherwise have been a cold, lonely Christmas break  (I know I was fair because I lost a lot of PCs slogging through all the menaces in that Temple). But for RETURN I got to play in a playtest run by Monte himself. Unfortunately, deadlines being what they are, we didn't have time to play through the whole adventure: just the early parts (those set in the updated Hommlet), and in the mines, before the playtest had to wrap up so editing cd begin. I confess to this day I've never read the rest beyond Hommlet and Nulb, in the hopes that someday I might be able to play through the whole thing as a player. The publication of this new version has me finally admitting to myself that that's never going to happen, or at least that the chances of it are vanishingly slim.

So, given that background I was excited to hear that Rich and his team were going to tackle an old classic and give it a new Fifth Edition twist. I admit to being a bit disappointed when I heard it wasn't going to be an update nor a sequel per se but a new adventure addressing the same theme: Elemental Evil. Now that I've got a copy I need to read through this before I can give it any kind of evaluation about how well they pulled it off. The only things that stand out immediately are

(1) unlike the original, which was set against a backdrop that was officially somewhere in the vague world of Greyhawk but was genericized enough to easily drop into your own campaign world, this new adventure is firmly set in the FORGOTTEN REALMS. And I have to confess that, only three support products into the new edition arc (the Introductory adventure, the Tiamat adventure, and now the Elemental Evil adventure), I'm already tired of the FORGOTTEN REALMS, which I think has overstayed its welcome.  I come from the old tradition where each DM (or all the DMs belonging to the same player group) has his or her own campaign world, either creating his or her own adventures or adapting published modules into it with little regard for which TSR world they officially came from. So while I greatly enjoy some of the TSR/WotC game worlds (Ravenloft, Mystara, al-Qadim, and Eberron being particular favorites), I've never been one to ascribe much of a campaign's success to the world it was set in: the adventure itself has always been more important to me.

(2) I'm glad this is a campaign-adventure, a form I particularly like and think brings out the best in D&D:***** starting with low-level characters (1st level is best) and working them all the way up to 10th level or so by the end of the mega-adventure. The game is at its most challenging, and hence for me its most enjoyable, at 1st level, while it's good for those who persevere to receive the award of seeing that character come into his or her own by the end.

(3) My biggest complaint, and it's a biggie: the absence of author's name from the front cover. Or the back cover. Or the title page. The general impression WotC seems to be trying to convey is that all their products are produced by committee. I think it's an impression that serves them ill. The best adventures, and rules sets, et al, bear the distinct impression of an author's personality. Accurately crediting who wrote what is one of the most important things a publisher wants to convey to its audience. It's simple, it's useful, and it's the right thing to do.

--John R.

current reading: this and that
current audiobook: A History of Ancient Egypt
current viewing: RWBY, Howard Zinn documentary (YOU CAN'T BE NEUTRAL ON A MOVING TRAIN)

*we started at TSR the same month (Oct 1991) and I've long considered him one of the best TSR/WotC had to offer: one of the Great Underrated.

**the first having been the HOARD OF THE DRAGON QUEEN/RISE OF TIAMAT two-part mega-adventure by Wolf Baur, Steve Winter, and Alex Winter, which I have but have as yet only skimmed.

***although Gygax's name appears first on the cover, his contribution seems to have been limited to the already-published T1. Village of Hommlet and some notes regarding the subsequent adventure which he turned over to his amanuensis, Mentzer.

****it also ranked in the top ten in the Thirty Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time list, a few steps behind the original, at #4 and # 8 respectively [DUNGEON MAGAZINE #116, November 2004]. The only other 'Return to' adventure that made the top ten was Bruce Cordell's superlative RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORRORS, at #10, which I think far superior to its original S1. (which came in at #3).

*****other exceptional examples of the campaign-adventure model being NIGHT BELOW by Carl Sargent and RETURN TO THE TOMB OF HORROR by Bruce Cordell, plus (non-D&D) SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH by Sandy Petersen (et al).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Gifts from Crows

So, thanks to Janice for forwarding me the following link -- amusingly enough, a BBC story about a local Seattle-area event.

I've also gotten gifts from crows, though only twice, and once that may have been accidental. But the other time there was no doubt: I was walking south along 64th street to meet up with Janice after work, tossing the occasional peanut over my shoulder as I went, which were then swooped on by the very attentive crows in the trees overhead, who carried them off and stashed them, then came back for more. As usual the crows kept moving to get ahead of me, making sure I saw them move across my line of sight, and letting loose the occasional caw-caw-caw, when a crow dropped a chicken bone right in front of me. It was an old, old bone, a drumstick, completely dessicated, and they'd clearly gotten the last bit of good out of it, but there was nothing accidental about their dropping it in front of me. I think they were returning the favor for all the peanuts, but whatever their thinking (and crows definitely can think) there was no doubt about the action.

The key takeaway I get from the article, and personal experience, is that crows are smart birds. They see, and they remember. If something they do gets them the result they want (for example, a peanut), they do it again. I have several populations of crows that know me: the local ones here at Bayview as well as smaller populations around four spots in Tukwila and Renton. I visit two of these spots about once a week or so, but for the others weeks at a time can pass between visits, yet the crows there remember me very well when I do show up. They can also recognize both cars. They have several calls, and if the caw-caw-caw doesn't get them the result they want some will give a little wheedling cry which I suspect is the sound baby crows make to their parents.

So, I'm not the only person in the area to discover how interesting crows are, and how rewarding it is to feed them. They're ungainly compared with the small birds who come up to our feeder (mostly goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, and of course the hummingbirds) but they're also far more interesting.

--John R.
current anime: RWBY