Saturday, December 30, 2017


So, while our regular CALL OF CTHULHU game is in abeyance, I got it into my head that this would be a good time to run a one-shot using the original GANGBUSTERS rules put out by TSR back in 1982 (though I don't think I ever saw a copy until I went to work for TSR in 1991).

Don't want to give away too many spoilers, but here's the playlist for the 'soundtrack' I've been listening to while rolling up the characters and making notes on things I'll need to know about when running the adventure with oldschool rules I don't know well.

'Don't Take Me Alive' (Steely Dan)
'There Goes a Tenner' (Kate Bush)
'The Ballad of Danny Bailey' (Elton John)
'Pretty Boy Floyd' (Arlo Guthrie)
'The Night Chicago Died' (Paper Lace)
'Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress' (The Hollies)
'Bank Job' (Bare Naked Ladies)
'The Pink Panther theme' (Henry Mancini)
'A Shot in the Dark' (Henry Mancini)
'Peter Gunn theme' (Henry Mancini)
'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' (Flatt & Scruggs)
'Money' (Pink Floyd)

These are mostly just to set the mood, though some of them do give clues to the adventure; the trick wd be to figure out which ones (hint: 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' is there for getaway music, shd it be needed). The biggest clue wd be the mini-adventure's name: 'The Bank Job'.

More later when they've all chosen their characters.

--current music: 'The Bank Job' playlist. Also Men at Work (first two albums plus lead singer's solo), who I've not listened to in a long time.
--current reading: just finished MR. PALOMAR by Italo Calvino (a gift from my friend Jim Pietrusz); just started THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs (re-reading one of my favorite books).

Friday, December 22, 2017

Better Late . . . ?

So, the City of Rome has just rescinded the order of exile against Ovid.* Which is nice, but comes two thousand and nine years too late.

I suppose this cd be considered a case of 'better late than never'. But I'm coming to feel that the principle of 'justice delayed, justice denied' means some wrongs are so old that they can never be set right, whatever feel-good attempts we might try. So nice thought, Rome city council, but for all practical purposes the dead emperor Augustus' edict still stands.

Here's the link.

--John R.
current reading: A SPECTER IS HAUNTING TEXAS by Fritz Leiber (proof that a good idea need not make for a good book).
current gaming: preparing a one-shot scenario for GANGBUSTERS

*exiled for writing poems the emperor didn't approve of and, rumor has it, for messing around with the emperor's daughter.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tolkien's Father Christmas in THE GUARDIAN

So, tonight I saw in THE GUARDIAN a nice piece on Tolkien's FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS, the handwritten letters that Tolkien wrote for his children every year in the persona of 'Father Christmas' (the English Santa Claus). Many of the letters explain why some requested gift would not be arriving (i.e., the goblins had stolen all the train sets); more simply detail the ongoing adventures of F.C. and his friend / assistant the North Polar Bear, who was always getting into trouble of some kind.

If you're not familiar with this lesser-known but utterly charming work, check the link below for the article, which includes reproductions of several of the original letters.

--John R.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

DUNSANY: the first page of my dissertation

So, thought I'd share the first page from my dissertation, for those interested in such things:

The Man Who Was Dunsany

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, was a man of many talents. As a chess player, he won the Irish Championship and played two World Chess Champions, one of them to a draw. A lifelong sportsman, he did everything from fox-hunting and snipe shooting to big-game hunting on safaris in Africa and India. A first-rate cricketer, he organized the local County Meath team for many years and had his official portait done wearing a cricket shirt, not the baronial robes of his ancestors. A failed politician, he twice ran for a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative candidate, making a respectable showing at a time when the rival Liberals dominated Parliament. Designated by his father to be a career military man, he was not allowed to attend Oxford and study poetry as he wanted but instead sent to Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point. He served at Gibraltar and in the Boer War before opting out, and returned to fight in World War I, the Easter Uprising, and in the Home Guard during the Battle of Britain. A society figure, one of the supposedly idle rich, he was a member of the Irish peerage with a 12th century castle. He 'did' the London Season each year, married the Earl of Jersey's daughter, and divided his time between his London townhouse, Kent country home, and Irish estate. Had he lived a generation earlier, he would probably have been an explorer, like his mother's cousin Sir Richard Burton, discoverer of Lake Tanganyiki and first European to visit Mecca.  And he wrote.

--This text omits six notes.  If I were writing this today, I'd downplay the part about his playing the chess champions -- these were occasions when Dunsany was one of several players who were taking on the World Champion all at the same time. Impressive, but not so impressive as one-on-one would be.

--John R.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lovecraft was right

So, this week I heard about the giant penguins who swam the seas fifty-five million years ago.

Apparently the period after the disappearance of the marine dinosaurs and before the emergence of the whales, sea lions, and seals was an age of giant penguins, at least in areas like New Zealand, Antarctica, and Peru.

The idea of human-sized penguins is all the more amusing, because horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, in his 1936 story AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS,* had his intrepid Miskatonic explorers
encounter giant penguins in the shoggoth-haunted tunnels beneath the Elder Things' cyclopean city.
Who knew that this bit of implausible exotica wd turn out to have a real-world analogue after all?

--John R.
current reading: THE LIST OF 7 (resumed; dreadful stuff)

*the worst but most popular of his novels

I did a little more checking, and it seems that the giant Peruvian penguins (a phrase I really enjoyed writing) were discovered in 2007.  But their giant Antarctic cousins seems to have been known to science since about 1905. So HPL may have been extrapolating from the known instead of wildly veering off into the unknown, on this point.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Lesson Learnt

So, I've just finished reading THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS, a history of Progressive Rock by David Weigel. I started it not knowing what 'progressive rock' was, exactly, having heard the term for years without ever getting a satisfactory definition. Well, I still don't have a good definition, other than apparently 'bands like KING CRIMSON and EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER, but not PINK FLOYD for some reason'. Drawing on and reworking classical music was one tentpole, marking ELP but not, for some reason, ELO. Experimentation was another, lauding anything Robert Fripp* worked on but not Gilmour and Waters (or Page and Plant). Still, it was good to get some background on groups that peaked and faded before my day, like JETHRO TULL** or early GENESIS, even if it meant finding out more than I wanted to know about YES.

The best passage by far in the whole book is this brief account, which I have slightly paraphrased, of the day Keith Emerson had a very bad idea. He was in Nassau (the Bahamas) finishing up EMERSON, LAKE, AND PALMER's WORKS, VOLUME ONE when, one day,

he looked across the water and decided to swim for England.
'We realized that it was quite a long way', Emerson would say,
'but we had a compass'. The effort failed. Keith Emerson
was pulled wheezing from the water. January 14, 1977:
the last day he would use cocaine.


--John R.

*who's always just been a name to me, not someone whose name conjured up any actual music in my inner ear.
**whose earlier music I knew mainly through my cousin Sam's having played their albums a lot in the long ago.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

'Tis the season

So, anyone care to guess, sans google, what I've been listening to lately? Here are three clues, each being a direct quote:

matches, and candles, and buns

Go Freda!

It'll be the usual rubbish, but it won't cost much

--John R.
current reading: THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS by David Weigel

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

TSR bibliographic ghosts

So, one of the things that used to fascinate me back in the Lake Geneva days were the old TSR catalogues from earlier times. Each was a kind of time-capsule of the company as it was at the time it put out that particular catalogue. Particularly telling were the products that got announced as forthcoming which never saw the light of day.*

A case in point: a page from the 1984 catalogue features new and forthcoming adventures for TSR's second-tier games: TOP SECRET, GANGBUSTERS, BOOT HILL, and GAMMA WORLD. And in the course of a single page they announce no fewer than seven adventures that never came out.

For TOP SECRET, these were the adventures TIN MAN, about fighting off computer hacking (which still sounds timely), and WHITEOUT, set at a base at the South Pole (from which I conclude that somebody had seen ICE STATION ZEBRA, or indeed read the book).

For BOOT HILL, the promised modules were DELTA QUEEN, a riverboat full of high-stakes gambling, which sounds like it cd have been a really good BH adventure, and BARON OF SAN ANDREAS by Zeb Cook, about a local strongman, the self-proclaimed 'baron' of the title, who's set himself up as undisputed ruler of a small town.

For GAMMA WORLD, there was NIGHTWIND RIDER by Bruce Nesmith, which sounds as if it might have been a solo adventure, and RAPTURE OF THE DEEP, set on a mysterious island (aren't they all).

Finally, and to my mind the biggest lost among these might-have-beens, was the GANGBUSTERS adventure BASES LOADED: The Lakefront Mudcats Scandal) by Jeff Grubb, which wd have been GANGBUSTERS' analogue to the once-famous 'Black Sox' scandal in which one team was bribed to throw the World Series (way back in 1919). But then I always did like GANGBUSTERS, and was sorry there were so few adventures for it published (just five)

Here's the page in question, with more information about the individual intended releases.

--John R.
current listening: Leo Sayer, of all people

*most famously, perhaps, Gygax's SHADOWLANDS

P.S.: I forgot to include the scan. Here goes.

UPDATE (Th.Dec.14th)
Jeff Grubb has just posted an interesting account with much more detail of BASES LOADED (and TIN MAN as well) on his blog: highly recommended.


Monday, December 11, 2017

New Director(s) of the Wade

So, there's big news from the Wade Center, the most important of which is that after an interim of several years,* during which their highly skilled and dedicated staff has carried on as usual, the Wade has a new director.

Indeed, new director(plural), since Dr. David C. Downing and Dr. Crystal L. Downing become co-directors --the first time in the Wade's history that a husband-wife team will be representing the Collection.  I hadn't known Dr. Crystal's work; it seems she's a well-regarded Sayers scholar. That's outside my field of expertise, but it'll be interesting to see if that brings more attention to Sayers at Wheaton. And Dr. David is of course well-known in Lewis scholarship (an island I visit but do not dwell therein) for books like PLANETS IN PERIL and THE MOST RELUCTANT CONVERT.

Other recent big news is that the President of Wheaton College has a new book out on Tolkien:

Aside from Kilby himself, the founding father of the Wade, its directors have tended to focus of C. S. Lewis more than Tolkien (perhaps feeling, with some justification, that JRRT was well represented elsewhere), so this book's focus on Tolkien is welcome to those of us who are more Tolkienists and general Inklings scholars than whatever wd be the CSL fans/scholars equivalent (Lewisists?)

--John R.

*following the departure and then untimely death of director Chris Mitchell

Monday, December 4, 2017

Yesterday I Found . . . (Jim Ward Memo)

So, yesterday while doing a little sorting in the Box Room, I found a memo from towards the end of my TSR days (October 1995), reproduced here:

For those who can't see the image clearly enough, it's from Jim Ward, addressed to Sales & Marketing and Creative Services, dated October 10th [1995], with the Subject line 'Existing Rules'. The full text of the brief memo is as follows:

'Do not change any existing rules of any games or products without my imput. This is causing continuity problems that are hard to impossible to fix after the damage is already done.'

I remember the occasion of this announcement, but the details are gone: I no longer recall what Sales & Marketing had done that upset R&D (the editing and designing department, at the time briefly known as 'Creative Services') so much. They had already botched the release of MYSTARA and bungled that of BIRTHRIGHT, so it's hard to imagine what made the endlessly optimistic everybody-get-along Jim Ward so terse.

In any case,  I do remember that Jim prevailed in this interdepartmental power struggle, making this was one of our rare victories.

--John R.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

This Year's Tolkien Calendar(s)

So, they're getting harder to find, but between luck and persistence I now have both of next year's Tolkien Calendars.

The first is the movie tie-in calendar, though I didn't realize that when I ordered it. I really liked the cover art, which is all I saw from the online image, and had high hopes for the calendar as a whole. Which have now been disappointed. The art, all derived from the LotR movies, makes heavy use of silhouette and collage. I think the intended effect was to evoke some of the desolate landscapes Cor Blok attempted to convey. But I think they all fail, with the notable exception of the cover piece: a striking image of the Nine Walkers* silhouetted against a yellowish background dominated by the Barad-dur and Mt Doom.

What you get in most of these pieces is a silhouette of a character, taken from the film. Within that silhouette is a still of a scene featuring that character. Unfortunately in many cases it's difficult to figure out who the silhouette is supposed to be (luckily they're labelled, but that shdn't have been necessary); in others the image within the frame seem poorly chosen, almost random. Gollum fares best, because the silhouette element is strongest here. They'd have gotten a better result if they'd just used solid-black silhouettes throughout.

The second is Tolkien-themed, and reproduces Alan Lee's art for BEREN AND LUTHIEN. The art is up to Lee's usual high standard, as anyone who got the book these come from (published earlier this year) knows. Sadly, I have to confess that I'm getting tired of Lee's muted pallet. It worked wonderfully for the one-volume edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS; less well for THE HOBBIT or other works. I do like their including a well-chosen quote in Tolkien's own words at the bottom of each calendar page; these help evoke the scene being depicted.

I guess I feel like someone who wanted soup and got served steak instead. Again. It's a fine steak, but I can't help feeling wistful about the soup I'd rather have had.

There are so many fine artists out there I'd like to see do a Tolkien calendar: Thomas Canty for one, with his beautiful art decco style producing a sort of stained glass effect.  Or Michael Whelan might be interesting: he's a fine artist, but would his style accord with Tolkienian characters and scenes? Alas that we'll never see a Tolkien calendar from Keith Parkinson.

What I think would make an even better, more striking calendar, would be to feature Tolkien's calligraphy --scrawled pages that mark significant passages in the stories; careful fair copy; various examples of his invented scripts. Many of these have been published, so reprinting them in such a format would seem imminent doable.

--John R.

current reading: lots of unfinished books all left hanging, including Scott Berg's LINDBURGH (which I'd been wanting to read for some time but not been able to find our copy; it luckily turned up in some sort out/re-organizing I've been doing) -- one chapter of which covers the events that provided the historical inspiration for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

*well, eight of them anyway; Aragorn their rearguard got cut off

Where I'll Be Tomorrow Night (play reading)

So, my friend Jeff wrote a play.

And tomorrow night they're doing a read-through, where a half-dozen or so people sit in a row and read out loud their various assigned parts. It's the first step when rehearsing a play, though in this case there aren't plans to actually stage it yet.

If you have the evening free and want a to enjoy a sharply observed comedy about what it's like to work in today's corporate culture, come join us over in Burien for what promises to be an entertaining time.

Here's information about the event:

"Human Resources"
(A Corporate Comedy)

with the Seattle Playwrights Studio at the Burien Actors Theatre
14501 4th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98166

Monday, December 4th, at 7 PM

Bonus! One of the readers will be our own illustrious STAN!

--John R.
current reading: lots of stuff I'm sorting, like TSR style guides and trademark digests from the early nineties.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Meanwhile, Back in 'Birmingham

So, news of the upcoming Tolkien Amazon tv series has somewhat overshadowed the Tolkien biopic, where the big news is that filming has apparently actually begun. Here are some stills purportedly taken on location:

The actress shown interacting with young Tolkien is Genevieve O'Reilly, presumably during a break while young Tolkien is playing rugby. Interestingly enough, the character she plays isn't named, even on the imdb site (where the actress's name is given but the character name left blank).*

My guess? Aunt Jane.
Though that's just a guess, and it cd just as easily be some reimagined version of Jenny Grove (Edith's cousin and later companion) or that favorite easy-out of 'based on a true story' biopics: composite (i.e. fictitious) character.

Here's another link (like the one above, taken from the Tolkien Society's site), showing some on-location setting (this time in Cheshire) said to feature in the film:

One significant bit of casting since I last posted on the topic is Colm Meaney (Mr. O'Brien, Transporter Chief on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) as Father Francis. I wonder if this means they're making Fr. Francis Irish or if Meaney will be assuming a Welsh/Spanish accent.

Another interesting casting annoucement, for reasons having to do with the character rather than the actor, is the addition of Sam to the list of characters -- no, not the hobbit Samwise Gamgee but apparently Tolkien's batman (aide) during the war.

--John R.

* There's now a wikipedia page for the film, which also omits the character name

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Alt-Right Embraces Tolkien

So, on Monday the NEW YORK TIMES ran a piece on Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama Senatorial candidate, in which the report, Katherine Steawart, devoted several paragraphs to Moore's supporters using Tolkien imagery in support of their cause:

 . . . [they believe] Roy Moore is the hero who will lead the Republican Party to glory.

He stood there with his staff and he pushed back against the forces of secularism and he said, just like in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘You shall not pass,’ when they were going after the Ten Commandments,” Dana Loesch, an N.R.A. spokeswoman, said. Roy Moore, she added, is “the Gandalf of Alabama.”

Steve Bannon was also in Tolkien mode as he exulted over Mr. Moore’s victory in the Republican primary in September. “The hobbits are going door to door in the shire, and they’re getting everybody out,” he gushed.

. . . But they [McConnell & Ryan, et al] haven’t said — and they won’t say — a word about Mr. Moore’s theocratic agenda. Because in their hearts, they know that Mr. Bannon is right about one thing: They need to keep the “hobbits” happy.

It's another sign of Tolkien moving mainstream and finding new fans in new places -- in this case, among gun-lobbyists* and arch-conservative politicians in Alabama -- while at the same time being embraced by fringe groups among the white supremacists (something that's also happening to Taylor Swift, of all people, and to Norse sagas). Maybe Tolkien can at some point form common ground between deeply divided groups. In the meantime, I think we're going to see a lot more in the way of strange bedfellows.

--John R.

*or 'merchants of death', to evoke a name from another era

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Should Tolkien Be Canonized?

Question: Should Tolkien be canonized?
Short Answer: No.

So, I was asked by not one but two people at Thanksgiving what I thought about the move to have Tolkien declared a saint. What movement? was my reply. The next day a few minutes on google reminded me that I'd heard the first rumblings of this a while ago when a group of Tolkien's admirers in Brazil decided to take the first step back in 2015: contact the bishop of Tolkien's own diocese, Archbishop of Birmingham Bernard Longley, who replied that he was hesitant to act on his own authority until the church had officially begun the process.

Accordingly, the pro-canonization group has studied the actual process and are now officially launching their campaign, with a website ( ).  Thanks to Mike Glyer's FILE 770 for his report ( ), "Tolkien: An Unexpected Sainthood" (Oct 25th 2017). For those of us (like myself) who know little about how the church operates in such matters, here are the four stages in the official recognition:
 (1) Servant of God, (2) Venerable, (3) Blessed, and (4) Saint
The current effort is the first step in getting Tolkien declared a Servus Dei (Servant of God).
I'm personally skeptical (coming from a denomination that doesn't do saints), but we'll see how it goes.

--John R.
current reading: A TIME OF HARVEST (CoC), still

The Tolkien Canon just took on a new meaning.

Friday, November 24, 2017

More on Tolkien TV

So, in the week following news of the upcoming (or at least planned) LotR tv series broke, there were a lot more signs of what a big deal this is being seen as, and not just among the more-or-less captive audience of diehard Tolkien fans. It only took a matter of days for the news to move from VARIETY and THE ROLLING STONE to THE NEW YORK TIMES and NPR, with lots of discussion on Tolkien-devoted sites like The Tolkien Society's news page, The One Ring forum, and the MythSoc list.

Why such interest? Well, for one thing it's yet another sign of Tolkien looming ever larger in our cultural zeitgeist. There's a reason for the current struggle to claim JRRT as 'one of our own' going on between the alt-right white supremacist groups and traditional Tolkien fans; everybody wants to claim a popular and influential figure like Tolkien has become. *

For one thing, there's the sheer amount of money involved. It's been a while since I reached the sad conclusion that nothing impresses our culture more than money, and this wd seem to be a case in point. According to THE GUARDIAN, Amazon is putting a billion dollars** into this deal: $250 million to secure the rights, and then another $750 million to actually make the show. Which is apparently projected to run for six seasons.*** Which at more than $100 million per season makes it "the most expensive TV show ever" ****

For another, without my quite being aware of it until recently, the Peter Jackson movies are taking on iconic status. Indeed, reading down into the comments of some of the discussions of the various news stories reveals that there are fans of the Jackson movies worried about the new show spoiling their memories of what are for them classic films they grew up watching. So now the old guard, for purposes of this discussion, is people who watch and re-watch the Jackson movies, for whom New-Zealand-as-Middle-earth is as much a default as ruby slippers and emerald cities*****

I'm starting to notice more and more anecdotal evidence re. the iconic status. Case in point: on Wednesday I picked up THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO FANTASY: 50 GREATEST FANTASY FILMS EVER!, one of those special-issue theme magazines that come out from time to time. Their number one choice? THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Here's a list of their top ten, to get a better sense of where they're coming from: THE LORD OF THE RINGS (#1), THE WIZARD OF OZ (#2), WINGS OF DESIRE (the original; #3), LABYRINTH (#4), MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (#5), THE PRINCESS BRIDE (#6), PAN'S LABYRINTH (#7), PRINCESS MONONOKI (#8), SPIRITED AWAY (#9), and JASON AND  THE ARGONAUTS (#10).

And what am I to make of a book I saw on the remainder shelf at Barnes and Noble,  a big beautiful book named LEGENDARY MOVIES (2013)?  This is a substantial work of 600 pages, with text by Paulo D'Agostini, preface by Franco Zeffirelli. ( ). And for the cover they chose not Bogart or Orson Welles, Vivian Leigh or Audrey Hepburn, but Ian McKellan, as Gandalf (the white).

As the songwriter once sang, times are a'changing.

--John R.

current viewing: the Japanese adaptation of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (quirky, but better than -- and more faithful than -- the version currently in theatres).

current reading: A TIME TO HARVEST (Call of Cthulhu adventure).
*more on this in another post; it's too big a topic to deal with just in passing

**this is a pretty good investment when you consider that the three Jackson films between them made about ten billion dollars. And presumably Amazon can make their show more economically than Jackson's perpetual reshoot.

***though I haven't seen anything yet to indicate how many shows would be in a 'season'.


*****neither of which appear in the original OZ book.

p.s.: Aunt Jane?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tolkien TV

So,  Monday last week rumors that'd been circling around for a few days became official when the likes of The New York Times (Monday) and NPR (Tuesday) weighed in: had purchased the rights to make a new tv show based on THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Who knew that this wd be the second-biggest Tolkien-related story of the week? But by Wednesday word had spread, and since been confirmed, that Christopher Tolkien had retired as a director of the Tolkien Estate several months back.

It's hard to overstate Christopher's importance for Tolkien scholarship: the amount of material he has made available and the uniformly high quality of his editions. Having seen firsthand some of the work that went behind the proper sequencing of the LotR papers for HME Volumes VI through IX, I remain deeply impressed, as well as grateful, for the work he's done.

More later.
--John R.

current (second) reading: BEREN AND LUTHIEN (2007)


Monday, November 13, 2017

The Man Who Didn't Like Tolkien (Roger Highfield)

So, thanks to Bill F. (thanks, Bill) for drawing my attention to (and providing me with a copy of) the recent obituary of longtime Merton don Roger Highfield, who died on April 13th at the age of ninety-five. A historian of medieval Spain, Highfield was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford  for sixty-eight years -- and thus a colleague, in his younger days, of J. R. R. Tolkien. He was not, however, a fan.

We've long known that some of Tolkien's academic peers disparaged his work (a prominent example being Ida Gordon). I think we can now safely add Roger Highfield's name to that list.* Here's what his obituary has to say about Highfield and Tolkien:

One of the secrets of his longevity may have been his powers of discretion. At one stage he had rooms above JRR Tolkien, one of the college's most illustrious fellows, and he knew him well, not least as a squash partner.

However, when approached by a television producer to discuss his memories of the author of The Lord of the Rings, Highfield played down his connection and suggested that they speak to Bruce Mitchell at St Edmund Hall, who had been taught by Tolkien. After the producer went away happy, Highfield was heard to mutter that Mitchell was a rare bird indeed, because Tolkien was "very lazy and supervised few". His deflection also avoided him having to admit that all he could say of Tolkien was that he was "the worst sub-warden ever", and that Tolkien-mania left him "baffled".

Consulting the Hammond-Scull Chronology, with its many entries detailing Tolkien's work at Oxford, tutoring and lecturing and attending many meetings of many different committees, pretty well refutes Highfield's claim here. But there's more: Highfield's 'favourite anecdote' about an embarrassing incident:

At his funeral at Merton chapel, old dons remembered his favourite anecdote about the time that Tolkien offered to bequeath to the college his original (and therefore highly valuable) manuscript of The Hobbit

Champagne was ordered to mark the occasion, and Tolkien duly handed the thing over to Highfield to the sound of popping corks. When Highfield untied the string and opened the brown paper he found that the great man had wrapped a work in progress up by mistake. He duly asked for it back. "Waste of good champagne." Highfield was heard to mutter as the party gloomily disbanded.

--I've heard this story before, albeit different in the details, but think this is the first time it's had a name assigned to it (Highfield's) or found its way into print. We know from the Ready-Rota letters that by the late 1950s Tolkien's memory of the HOBBIT draft material had grown dim. I suspect that what was in that envelope was what we now call the 1960 Hobbit, material he had drafted after the sale to Marquette in '57-58 but then put aside; given that it was still unpublished at the time of the Merton incident, it's not surprising he needed it back.

As for 'waste of good champagne', I find it hard to believe the college staff, if not the departing dons, wouldn't have taken care of that on their way out.

To leave on a lighter note, Highfield's cheerful malice cd sometimes be v. funny when it hit the mark:

[a friend recalled how] "Roger once told me that in Oxford, if you find yourself talking to a stranger at a party, you have only to ask, 'And how is the magnum opus?' for the floodgates of conversation (or monologue) to be opened. A couple of years later, when he had come on a visit, I inquired, 'How is the magnum opus?' All unsuspecting, he immediately entered into details of what he was working on."

--John R.
current reading: DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE by A. Merritt (1932; so far, mediocre)

*which, I'd like to point out, is far shorter than that of his colleagues who thought v. highly indeed of his works.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Inklings that Aren't (Chesterton and Percy Bates)

So, last week I had recourse to Wikipedia's entry on The Inklings to quick-check something and found some interesting errors in its list of Inklings.

For one thing, it includes someone I've never heard of before named "Percy Bates" as a member of the group. Checking Bates' own Wikipedia entry, I find he was a shipping magnate and director of the Cunard Line (whose most famous ship was probably the Lusitania). There's no mention of the Inklings under his entry, nor in the Inkling entry is there any justification for including him in the list of second-tier members. So this seems to be an error, pure and simple.

For another error, more understandable but just as wrong, the Inklings entry includes G. K. Chesterton's name as someone who visited the group (along with Eddison and Campbell, who really did attend at least a time or two*). While they no doubt wd have been delighted to have had him (and he might have enjoyed this meeting of the minds as well), he never attended even a single meeting.

It's not really an error, but so long as it's going to mention guests, the article might be improved with listing some folks we know did occasionally visit, like George Sayer or Roger Lancelyn Green,

At least they don't make the old mistake of listing Dorothy L. Sayers as a member or visitor.

--John R.

*interestingly enough, T. H White was once invited to visit but never seems to have done so.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

John Wain (IV) -- Havard, Warnie, Tolkien

(continued from previous post)

In addition to his portraits of Lewis, Williams, and Dyson, Wain also gave brief depictions of Havard and The Major:

Of the other Inklings, only his brother and Dyson struck me as sharing Lewis's taste for the ordinary pub, though I am sure Williams, who had beer and sandwiches for lunch every day of his life, had no sort of objection to it as a convenience, as it is to any London man of letters . . . Havard, to be sure, was always expressionless and imperturbable, the man of healing who has looked on life in all its forms and its extremities, and Warren Lewis ('Warnie'), the seasoned officer, much travelled, unsurprised by anything, was gravely courteous and affable, like a Major who has been invited to take a glass in the Sergeants' Mess.

He immediately follows this with more about Tolkien:

Only Tolkien seemed mildly though attractively odd: slight in build beside the bulk of either Lewis, his utterances almost sotto voce by comparison with their deep, measured tones* or the manic sea-lion roaring of Dyson, he stood looking round him with a gnomish, lop-sided grin, irresistibly suggesting a leprechaun that has unexpectedly wandered into human company. He had no objection to conviviality, quaffed his pint of draught cider willingly enough, and yet he always seemed to me to bring with him an atmosphere too fey for the prosaic cheerfulness of an English beer-house, something that belonged in the Hall of the Mountain King.

It's a tribute to Wain's skill as a writer that this exact smile can be seen on Tolkien's face in a surviving clip of film in which Tolkien describes his glee at finding that blank sheet of paper among those he was grading and writing down the first line of THE HOBBIT. Elsewhere I've seen Tolkien described as almost birdlike, by which the writer meant his conversation hopped around from topic to topic, rather than proceeding by measured steps in a logical progression like CSL, which may be part of what Wain is getting at.

In the end, sadly, it was their very own leprechaun, who had wandered from some cleft of the wooded mountainside into their snug haven, who ruined it for them. Without consulting the others, Tolkien went to Charlier Blagrove and asked if they might have the use of the private sitting-room, regularly, every Tuesday. Glad to meet what  he thought were the group's wishes, the landlord opened up the room the next Tuesday and always thereafter. There was no going back. Jack Lewis confided to me, sadly[,] that it had spoilt his Tuesdays for him. 'I miss the sense of meeting in an open tavern.' I was very sorry. He had many problems in his life at this time,** and it seemed needless to rob him of one of his few remaining pleasures.

Personally, I can easily see that the loudest members of the group, like Lewis and Dyson, could prefer the loud outer room, while the quieter ones like Tolkien and Havard might have liked the inner room where they cd be heard. Taken with his earlier comment about Tolkien's being "almost dementedly solipsistic" (I take him to mean that Tolkien was one of those professors who taught his subject rather than his students), I get the sense that Wain is trying to be fair to Tolkien but finding it a bit hard (that 'leprechaun . . . wandered from some cleft of the wooded mountainside' seems to me to include a touch of parody).

One small corrective: Wain says that upon Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman,  CSL 'made no attempt to introduce his wife into the circle in the bar-room'. This is in error: Lewis did bring Davidman to some of their meetings in the pub, but it was not a success and she stopped coming after only a few attempts.

--John R.
current reading: THE PROUD TOWER (chapter on the Dreyfus Affair)

*surviving recordings show that Lewis's voice sounded a good deal like Alfred Hitchcock, but with a different accent. Imagine Hitchcock being impersonated by Sean Connery and you'll come pretty close.

**since Blagrove died in 1948, this must refer to about that time or slightly before, in the period when Janie Moore's health was failing due to encroaching Alzheimers.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

John Wain (III) -- from a tadpole to a young frog


So, the single thing I found most interesting in Wain's account is that at one point he gives the very words with which Lewis invited him to join the Inklings.*

. . .  my getting a First and being elected to a small . . .  Fellowship must have seemed to Lewis to turn me from a tadpole to a young frog, because he beckoned me into the inner bar one Tuesday noon and said, kindly (he was always kind)** but rather formally, 'We meet here every Tuesday at mid-day and in my rooms at Magdalen every Thursday evening: I desire your better acquaintance.' I liked and admired Lewis, though I knew already that his approach to life, and therefore to literature, were not the same as mine, and I thought then and think now that it was a striking piece of good fortune to have one's better acquaintance sought by such a man. . . my relationship with him is not the least of the gifts that Oxford has given me.  

Personae Inklingis
Given my interest is the history of the Inklings, I found this piece a valuable snapshot of the group as it was in its latter days (specifically 1945-1948). For one thing, there's Wain's list of members as they were just before he joined: Lewis himself, Tolkien, Williams, Dr. Havard, 'a couple of Magdalen dons' (whom he leaves unnamed), and Warnie. After Williams died the most significant newcomer was not Wain but Dyson, so the roster wd then have run CSL, JRRT, Harvard, Warnie, Dyson, and Wain.

Wain was deeply impressed by Williams, second only (if indeed it was second) to Lewis.*** Although Wms died before Wain started attending meetings, both here and in his 1962 autobiography Wain asserts that Wms was the most important member of the group and that his absence took a lot out of their discussions. Here's how he phrased it in the Eagle and Child piece:

. . . its personnel underwent two significant changes in the time I observed it. The first was the death of William in 1945. I was, of course, not yet formally admitted to the circle, but I registered the shock it inflicted, particularly to Lewis. Williams was the genius of the group; an unresolved genius, perhaps; a genius, if you will, that never quite came to its real achievement; though on the other hand it could be said that the genius of Williams lay not in what he did so much as in what he was. After he died, something went out of the Inklings.  I think I knew, even at twenty-one, that the group I joined there had a light and warmth rather like those of a gas fire after it has been switched off. The sustaining fuel had been the imagination of Williams. 

Wain then goes on to offer a memorable portrait of Hugo Dyson:

The second change was that Hugo Dyson, an old friend of all the group, came to a Fellowship in Merton in 1945 after twenty years at Reading University . . . and immediately added his presence to the gatherings. No circle of which Dyson was a member could be said to remain the same. He was a raconteur, a barnstormer, a wit if your definition of wit includes knock-down-and-drag-out, a performer to his fingertips. I always felt that he was driven by inward nightmares into an endless routine of conviviality, and indeed his experiences in the First World War trenches had been enough to give a man nightmares for life if he lived a hundred years. The removal of Williams dimmed the radiance of the Inklings' meetings; the accession of Dyson rekindled it, but with a smokier light.

next up: Wain's brief descriptions of Havard and Warnie, and his someone lengthier thoughts on Tolkien

(to be continued)

--John R.
current reading: more of the same three books.

 *or the closest approximation his memory can make of them

**The statement that Lewis was 'always kind' no doubt held true for Wain's relationship w. Lewis himself, though it's not how others of CSL's tutorial students remembered it (e.g. Lawlor, Betjeman, Stanley)

***elsewhere he said he considered C. S. Lewis and Edmund Wilson his role models as critics.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

John Wain (II) -- Lewis's 'Absurd Delusion'

(Wain, continued)

In addition to describing the place and the people who ran it,* Wain devotes most of his piece to talking about the Inklings. I've been wondering for some time why, of all the pubs  in Oxford, did Lewis and Tolkien fix upon the Eagle and Child rather than some place nearer to Tolkien's or CSL's colleges (Pembroke then Merton and Magdalene, respectively). Wain gives as his opinion that Lewis et al chose the Eagle and Child for their weekly meetings for two important reasons. First, that it was an ordinary place, not fancy. In a memorable phrase, Wain writes of Lewis that "He liked ordinary men, and indeed was under the absurd delusion that he was one himself.' I think this might become one of my favorite lines describing Lewis: both insightful and touching.

Second, it was convenient for Havard, whose office was just up the street, and also to the Taylorian, where Wms lectured.

I had known about Dr. Havard's clinic, and for a while now have considered it likely to have been the deciding factor, but not connected the dots about it being so close to where Williams wd be lecturing. Wain is helpful here, as after speculating on why they chose where to meet, he reveals discovering, when still an undergraduate, why the when as well:

Only gradually did I come to realize that there was a regular pattern to these Lewisian visits in that they always took place on a Tuesday at noon. What focused this fact for me was a sense of annoyance that I could not attend Tolkien's weekly lecture on Beowulf without missing Charles Williams on Milton, or Wordsworth's Prelude, or Shakespeare -- these were his three usual subjects. I wanted to attend Williams's lectures because I found them torrentially stimulating; I wanted to attend Tolkien's because I thought they might provide me with something to write down in my Schools paper on Anglo-Saxon literature, a hope that in the end was disappointed, for he was largely inaudible beyond the first row and, if one did manage to catch a few words, almost dementedly solipsistic.

'It's a nuisance', I remarked to Lewis at one tutorial, 'that Tolkien and Charles Williams always seem to lecture at the same time.'

'Yes, Tuesday at eleven,' he replied composedly. 'It's so they can meet at the Bird and Baby at twelve.'

I was evidently meant to gather from this that the requirements of civilized conversation among men of letters had legitimate priority over the requirements of pedagogy, a lesson that was not lost to me. All the same, I noticed that Lewis himself did not lecture on Tuesday at eleven. He took a lot of trouble with his lectures and I believe the capacity audiences he drew were a gratification to him, surely a legitimate one. He had no wish to clash with a crowd-puller like Williams.

Leaving aside Wain's dismissal of Tolkien as a teacher, which I think unfair, this does give some idea of Williams at his peak at Oxford,** and an interesting juxtaposition of Wms vs. Lewis as lecturers, a subject I'd like to know more about.

(to be continued)

--John R.
--current reading: THE PROUD TOWER by Barbara Tuchman (my first time reading one of her books); THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS (re-reading for a project); and A WALK IN WOLF WOOD by Mary Stewart (a gift long ago from Jim Pietrusz).

*One interesting miscellaneous detail: Wain reveals that Blagrove had originally been a horse-cab driver, in the days when such things, now remembered chiefly for their appearance in the Sherlock Holmes stories, still existed.

**Wain was a great admirer of Wms and had little use for Tolkien either as a writer or, it seems, an academic.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

John Wain (I) remembers The Eagle and Child

So, last year when I was at the Archives I got to look through a box of Taum's material that had recently come there by a circuitous route. And among the items of interest* was a 1988 piece from the OXFORD MAGAZINE by Inkling** John Wain called "Push Bar to Open". It's essentially a paean for the Eagle & Child (Wain prefers not to use the nickname 'Bird & Baby', thinking it rather silly). He describes the physical layout of the place (something not I think evident from the much-expanded building it is today) and how the family that ran the place (Mr. & Mrs. & Miss Blagrove) lived upstairs for the most part, though they did have a parlour downstairs that they sometimes allowed customers from the bar to use. Since this is the most detailed description I've come across of the place as it was in the Inklings' day, I thought I'd quote it here:

. . . a few of us, who naturally thought of ourselves as the cognoscenti, preferred the simplicity and quiet of the Eagle and Child. It was a beer house, not licensed for wine or spirits,*** with scrubbed wooden tables and linoleum on the floor, and two rooms, both small. On entering from the street, you were faced with the end of the bar, because you were sideways on to its main length, though 'length' is hardly the word in such a doll's house of a place. This oblong of bar was slightly to your right as you stood inside the door; slightly to your left a door confronted you, habitually closed but occasionally opening to reveal a flight of stairs which led to the family's quarters. Geometrically straight ahead, then as now, was the space left between the wooden partition wall of the staircase and the bar, which ran along this narrow space for some six or eight feet before emerging, less obstructed, into the second room. This had two doors. One, on the left, led into an alley-way at the side of the house from which the street could be gained; the other into a long, open backyard of the type usual in working-class houses, flanked on one side by a brick wall and on the other by a wash-house and, no doubt, in the original design of the place, all the plumbing of whatever description.

The family, Mr and Mrs Bladrove and their daughter, lived their domestic life mainly upstairs, but they must also have lived some of it in the area of the backyard, and in addition they had a parlour, which faced you when you entered the second bar-room. This room was not part of the licensed premises, but during the years immediately following the war, when the clientele increased in number, the Blagroves would occasionally, out of good nature, allow select customers to take their drinks in and sit there, if chairs were scarce or if they wanted to have an interrupted conversation. 

. . . continued in next post

--John R.

*which included, among other things, a photocopy of my second of two letters from Christopher Wiseman, which I must have given to Taum and long since forgotten that I had done so.

**and Angry Young Man, though it made him mad to be called that.

***I take this to mean you cd order beer or hard cider but not whiskey or wine. Wain is explicit that Lewis always ordered cider.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tolkien TV Series?

So, I may have been wrong about predicting that the next Tolkien-on-film we see wd be a biopic. VARIETY at any rate is reporting that a LotR miniseries is in the works, possibly to be made by Amazon Studio. Details are lacking, but Jeff Bezos himself is said to be pushing the deal. THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER and ROLLING STONE also each have a piece on the project; the former is pretty good  but I take the latter's account less seriously since they seem unable to tell the difference between the movie people (Tolkien Enterprises, an American firm formerly run by Saul Zaentz) and the Tolkien estate (Tolkien's family, often backed up by his publishers).

Here's the VARIETY piece


And here's the ROLLING STONE version.

One thing I was glad to learn, whatever comes out of this, is that the studios have finally settled their lawsuit with the Estate, who objected to Tolkien slot machines, online LotR/H-themed gambling, and other excessive forms of movie merchandising -- following what has now become the established pattern that the studios have only paid up money they owed on the previous project when they've decided to go ahead on a related project.

--John R.