Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reinventing the Wheel? (Tolkien's sources)

So, while I was at Marquette on my most recent research trip, the name Holly Ordway came up as someone who had what looks to be an interesting book in the works: TOLKIEN'S MODERN SOURCES. I wasn't able to find out too much about it, other than this brief description:

"My current project is a literary-critical study, 
Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth 
Beyond the Middle Ages, to be published 
by Kent State University Press."

Her goal seems to be to counter the argument that Tolkien wasn't influenced by modern authors (as stated, indeed overstated, by Carpenter in his authorized biography):

"Morris was not the only modern author
 with an influence on Tolkien – I’m also
 tracing connections between Tolkien’s work
 and that of authors such as MacDonald,
 Haggard, Dunsany, and Chesterton, as well 
as others who are almost forgotten today . . . 
[such as] Tolkien’s friend Wilfred Childe"

When it comes to Morris, I think she's entirely on the right track. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's difficult to overstate Morris's influence on the early Tolkien, especially works like THE EARTHLY PARADISE, which I've long believed inspired the frame story for THE BOOK OF LOST TALES. And of course I've argued the Tolkien/Haggard connection myself, as well as stressed the importance of Dunsany on the early SILMARILLION.

But I'm puzzled by Ordway's statements about this being a new idea at odds with the mainstream of Tolkien criticism. One of the earliest books on Tolkien, Lin Carter's little TOLKIEN: A LOOK BEHIND 'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' (1969, before even Carpenter) argues that Tolkien belongs to a tradition, the major figures of which were (1) Wm Morris, (2) Lord Dunsany, (3) E. R. Eddison, and (4) Tolkien himself. A few years later the same literary pantheon, with additions, was evoked and explored in more depth by de Camp in his LITERARY SWORDSMEN AND SORCERERS (1976). More specific borrowings, such as MacDonald's goblins and Chesterton's Mooreeffoc and Haggard's Kor, are well documented and have been widely accepted. In fact, since about 1981-82 there has been a general recognition that Tolkien was influenced on the one hand by the medieval literature he knew and loved so well, and on the other by authors he found congenial from the period of roughly a century or so before the publication of THE LORD OF THE RINGS onward.

That said, it'd be nice to see someone go back and present the case for those influences in a more scholarly fashion than Carter & de Camp did, especially given how much more Tolkien we have to work with now than we did forty-plus years ago.

--John R.
current reading: GNOMES by Huygen & Poortvliet.
today's song: "Brainiac's Daughter"

P.S.:  Here's a link to a piece giving one specific example of the her treatment of the Morris/Tolkien connection:

And here's a brief profile of Dr. Ordway from her website:

"Holly Ordway is professor of English and director of the MA in apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imaginative apologetics and on the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams."

So, definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Inklings Book of Arthur

So, last week I learned about the Go Fund Me drive for Sorina Higgins' project THE INKLINGS AND KING ARTHUR, a collection of about twenty essays looking at the Arthurian works of Tolkien, Lewis, Wms, and Barfield. Apparently the book is done but permissions ran higher than expected, hence the fund drive to fill in the gap. The link below includes a complete table of contents, giving a good idea of what the book is about. I know it's certainly something I consider a worthy cause. Here's the link:

--John R.
current reading: THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (just finished; poor)
just started: THE LYTTLETON CASE by R. A. V. Morris (brother of the great fantastist Kenneth Morris)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Jim Lowder Chaosium Announcement

So, the latest issue of the Chaosium e-newsletter announces the news that my friend Jim Lowder is now in charge of their fiction line. Jim's a good guy -- I've known him since we were at Marquette in the early '80s, he as an undergrad in the honors program and I as a grad student working on my PhD while sneaking off to look at the Tolkien manuscripts in the archives in my spare time. Together we survived The Science Fiction Class of Doom (more about that some other time), having found a shared interest in fantasy, roleplaying games, and King Arthur.* Later on he became the first person I knew who worked at TSR, and gave me good advice when I eventually came to apply for a job there myself.

He's also an experienced editor and designer, both freelance and in-house, with a long string of successful anthologies to his credit, and a longtime advocate for creator's rights, especially when it comes to things like work-for-hire, royalties, and reprints. Here's hoping he can revive Chaosium's fiction line, which put out some interesting collections in the '90s but has rather languished of late.


Award-winning editor and author James Lowder has joined Chaosium as executive editor of fiction. Chaosium President Rick Meints commented: “James embodies that magic combination of wisdom and enthusiasm. Knowing his craft inside and out, he brings his advocacy and integrity to the table at every turn. Having him relaunch our fiction line is a ‘the stars are right’ moment.”

I look forward to seeing what new releases they have in store.

--John R.
current reading: THE PROFESSOR AND THE MAD MAN by Simon Winchester, an interesting and annoying book about the creation of the O.E.D.

*he later put together the Green Knight Publishing line of Arthurian reprints

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Whistleblower Freed

So, the US news sites I checked yesterday didn't even mention it, but yesterday morning whistleblower Bradley/Chelsea Manning was freed after serving seven years of a thirty-five year sentence,  sometimes under conditions international rights groups decried as torture, for leaking news about war crimes ("Collateral Murder") and an illegal surveillance program.

It's been a long time coming.

Now if only the US would stop its attempts to jail Snowden and Assange.

Here's the link.

--John R.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Gygax Tolkien-bashing

So, just before leaving for Kalamazoo I got a message from my local Barnes & Nobel that an item I'd pre-ordered had come in: RISE OF THE DUNGEON MASTER: GARY GYGAX AND THE CREATION OF D&D by David Kushner (text) and Koren Shadmi (art).  Essentially this is a biography in graphic novel form, with word balloons sometimes representing the biographer's narration or commentary and sometimes the thoughts of the character being shown instead—usually Gygax but for one chapter switching over to Arneson (co-creator, with Gygax, of D&D). Often these bits of text sound like they're answers to a question, which is because many of them were taken from interviews. 

Throughout their book Kushner & Shadmi try to be fair to both Gygax and Arneson, admirably so. There are few pure villains in their account (excepting the Blumes, whom they lambaste), which makes their unabashed Tolkien-bashing stands out all the more.

Here's the page in question:

For those who can't read the tiny print, the top half of this page proclaims Gygax's love of Rbt. E. Howard's Conan stories, the bottom half his disdain for Tolkien's work. 

— You're a fan of the "Conan the Barbarian" books by Robert E. Howard.

— You hope to evoke their swashbuckling action in a war game.

— But you loathe the major fantasy touchstone of the time, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.

— It was so dull.
— I mean, there was no action in it.
—  I'd really like to throttle Bilbo and Frodo.

(tosses the book into a box of discards)

This mainly raises my hackles because it misrepresents Gygax's relationship with Tolkien's works.

First, the two greatest influences on original D&D where Howard and Tolkien. Tolkien provided the player character races, a goodly proportion of the monsters (I once worked it out to be about a third), and the whole idea of the player-character party, the plural hero. But the world in which those characters adventure, and the kind of adventures they have in them, owe far more to Howard (and Howardesque authors, particularly the great Fritz Leiber).

What's more, Gygax's criticisms of Tolkien began only after Tolkien Enterprises (the movie people) sent TSR a cease-and-desist over their many obvious borrowings (mithril, balrogs, nazgul, hobbits, half-orcs) from Tolkien's work. After that point Gygax sought to distance his game from Tolkien, to deny (in the face of overwhelming evidence) any but the most superficial influence. But the flat dismissal they present here as his initial response goes beyond anything I've ever seen; I'd like to know their source.

Luckily it's possible to enjoy the graphic novel as a whole despite this passage.

--John R.
current reading: THE BEATLES: AN ILLUSTRATED RECORD by Roy Carr & Tony Tyler

The Cat Report (W.5/17-17)

Being neither sick nor out of town, I got to come in and see the three cats today: Avery, Edith, and Minerva. It was nice to renew acquaintance with Avry and Edith and to get to meet Minerva. All were glad to get some attention but reluctant to come out of their cages. Avery was out the most, asserting her Boss Cat credentials, while Edith seemed to be trying, not very successfully, to get Minerva to accept a position at the bottom of the totem pole. All three had long (twenty to thirty minute) walks. 

Edith went first. I carried her around the store for the first half of her walk, then she decided she wanted down on her own feet and did pretty well.

Avry objected to going out and then had a good time once out in the store. She wanted to go in the dog-training room, a favorite spot of hers, but unfortunately it was locked. She kept leading me back to it again and again, hoping I’d change my mind and be reasonable. She was deeply alarmed by the fish, thinking that anything that chose to live in water was not to be trusted. 

Minerva was a real surprise. I had a time getting the collar on her, but once outside she showed herself to be energetic and decisive. She went all over the store, inspecting each door and wanting it opened. She wasn’t bothered by the fish tanks at all, apparently deciding it they stayed on their side of the glass and she stayed on hers all would be well. Think a lot of her exploring was to map out the store in her head, taking careful note of the location of things like the row of cat-trees. It’ll be interesting how much she remembers and to see where she goes next time.

Back in the room between the walks I tried out various games, with little results. I also got slapped a lot when petting all three cats; they welcomed attention at first but quickly decided that was enough and I shd stop now.

random observations: 
Avry is definitely the Boss Cat in the room.
Avery deliberately used Minera’s box while Minerva was out on her walk. 

Edith really loves being scratched beneath her collar; think it’s a bit itchy for her there.
Edith has an amazing purr. 

Minerva doesn’t look or act like a senior cat; I’d have guessed she was about half her posted age.
Minerva is a great walker; the best we’ve had in quite a while. But it’s a real struggle getting her suited up and on her way.

—John R. 

P.S. (update):
Sorry to hear about the Calci. Glad Pierre is responding to treatment. 

Also sorry at the news that Avry’s potential adoption has fallen through. Hope she’s soon in a home of her own again.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Year Ago Today

So, it was a year ago today -- the Friday night and Saturday morning of the Medieval Congress here at Kalamazoo -- that I lost the lucky coin I always, always carry around with me, only to have it rescued and restored to me the next day by Vaughn Howland (cf. my post at the time, 'Vaughn is my hero')

 Vaughn died a few months ago, but he's in my thoughts today. For one thing, he knew about, and thoroughly approved of, the festschrift project.

He was one of the Good Guys, and he will be missed.

--John R.
--most recent book purchase at Kalamazoo: Neidorf's THE TRANSMISSION OF BEOWULF.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

festschrift flyer (Flieger)

So, I'm happy to announce that A WILDERNESS OF DRAGONS: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF VERLYN FLIEGER now has a publisher, Gabbro Head Press. Primary editing has now been all but completed. The book still needs a second editorial pass, plus an introduction and index. We're hoping for a publication date before the end of the year. Here's the flyer I'm distributing here at Kalamazoo, where several of our contributors are in attendance.

--John R.

Here's the Table of Contents for the Flieger festschrift

Monday, May 8, 2017

An Old Character Sheet

So, looking through my file of the original version I played, the one current in Fayetteville Arkansas in 1980-81, I found a bunch of character sheets. Characters tended to die very quickly in this game: no one ever advanced beyond third level because that'd make the DM have to go to a different random encounter chart, so he just killed anybody who was near leveling up (it's pretty obvious when all the monsters bypass the front-line fighters and unerringly focus all their attacks on that one character among the dozen or so in the group).

Two important stats were Reaction Time and Death Level:

--to determine Reaction Time, divided Dexterityby 3, with the result subtracted from 8

--to determine Death Level, multiply Constitution by .03 and add 1, then multiply the result by your hits (=hit points).  That this is such a needlessly complicated process says a lot about this iteration of the game in a nutshell -- but I did take away from it a strong belief in some sort of negative hit points system so that there was a brief window during which characters who'd fallen to zero hp or below cd still be brought back.

I'm off tomorrow for Kalamazoo but will try to post some of the character generation material when I get back.

For now, dere's the character sheet: