Thursday, April 19, 2018

Who would be Shakespeare If there were no Shakespeare?

So, as we were going in to see the play last weekend, Janice asked me an interesting question I cdn't answer: who would be Shakespeare if we didn't have Shakespeare?

That is, given that Shakespeare is generally considered the greatest writer in English,* who would play that role if we didn't have Shakespeare's work?

Thinking it over, I think that in that case subsequent history wd have been  so different that we can't know the answer. It's not a matter of Milton or Keats stepping into that role: without the key figure everything around and after him wd change. To use a more modern analogy, without The Beatles we don't get a British Invasion headed by the Rolling Stones and The Animals: we don't get any British Invasion at all, nor all the things contingent upon it.

On thinking it over some more, I suspect that in such a world English literature wd be far more like French literature -- that is, in the absence of a superlative native tradition English writers wd have looked even more to continental models than they did in the century or so following W.S.'s time. But that of course is just guessing: the real course of altered history wd be so different that we can't do more than just guess at it.

With my interest in the Canon of literature, and the way works migrate in and out of it, I do find myself musing sometimes over who's up and who's down compared to the canon as it was when I was in grad school, especially given the pressure the academy is under to open up and diversify. Who's in and who's dropping out? Tolkien has benefitted by the shifting tides, and is nearer acceptance now than ever before, while I find myself half-expecting to hear that Milton is being edged  towards the exit.

Time will tell.

--John R.

*indeed, Tolkien thought Shakespeare's achievement had been so great it bent English literature towards drama rather than narrative prose (which he much preferred).

Sunday, April 15, 2018

More Shakespeare

So, we've been seeing a lot of Shakespeare lately -- JULIUS CAESAR a while back, and more recently TIMON OF ATHENA (his worst play) and MACBETH (perhaps his best), and now THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.

I was of two minds about whether to go to this one. On the one hand, I remember having enjoyed the Portia scenes. On the other, the parts dealing with the Merchant himself, Shylock, are deeply racist.  Kind of like reading a HUCK FINN where the narrator is of the same mindset as Pap Finn. I didn't know if I'd be able to take it.

Now that I've seen it, it's not the fairy tale challenge + screwball  comedy of the Portia scenes but the nastiness of the antisemitism that stays with me. I found myself wondering what it'd be like if Shylock were black instead of Jewish.  Would that be even harder to take?

At any rate, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to bring myself to watch this one again.

--John R.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

New Tolkien Book Rumored

So, thanks to Doug K. on the MythSoc list (thanks Doug), I've now learned of the news about a forthcoming Tolkien book said to be due out this fall (August 30th, to be precise): THE FALL OF GONDOLIN by JRRT, ed. by CT.

So, how real is this?
Real enough that is taking preorders.* **

Real enough that The Tolkien Society is helping to spread the news.

Real enough that amazon thinks it has 304 pages, making it a fairly substantial volume, about the same size as last year's BEREN AND LUTHIEN.

If there is such a book (as the evidence suggests), then it will probably v. much along the lines of BEREN & LUTHIEN, bringing together into one volume all the existing bits of the various forms of the story: the BLT-era FALL OF GONDOLIN (the only complete version of the story), the wonderful fragment Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin (previously appearing in UNFINISHED TALES), concise but eloquent excepts from the ANNALS, and perhaps a few misc. bits.

Publication of a stand-alone FALL OF GONDOLIN would complete one of Tolkien's unrealized dreams: to publish each of the (three or four) 'Great Tales'*** that underlie the Silmarillion as stand-alone books: the stories of TURIN, BEREN & LUTHIEN, and now THE FALL OF GONDOLIN.  All that wd leave is the (unwritten) TALE OF EARENDEL, the first of them all but the only one never to have any completed form (the longest bit being Bilbo's Lay of Earendel sung in Elrond's hall.

That makes the following excerpt from the Amazon produce description perhaps the best of all:

After a minutely observed account of the fall 
of Gondolin, the tale ends with the escape 
of Túrin and Idril, with the child Eärendel, 
looking back from a cleft in the mountains 
as they flee southward, at the blazing wreckage
 of their city. They were journeying into a new story,
 the Tale of Eärendel, which Tolkien never wrote, 
but which is sketched out in this book from other sources.

That is, it sounds as if Christopher has brought together all the fragments of poetry and the quickly jotted outlines about what wd have appeared in Earendel's story--just as he did in the penultimate chapter of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES Volume II--and placed them all together in a section of their own at the end of the work. I'm looking forward to this part of the prospective book even more than the main Gondolin section.

So, we'll see, and soon know one way or the other whether there will be celebrating or sorrow all round come the beginning of September.

--John R.
--current reading: SUN SPOTS (CoC scenario)

*I got mine in today.

**also at this link is a reasonably informative description of its contents.

***Tolkien was inconsistent whether their were three or four of these; I've tend to include Earendel's story, which raises the total to four.

Saturday, April 7, 2018


So, this week I saw the announcement that Neil Gaiman is involved in a new version of Mervyn Peake's TITUS GROAN/GORMENGHAST being adaptated for the BBC. Given Gaiman's sheer raw talent (he's probably the most talented author working in the field today) this is highly promising, so long as we don't hold his involvement in the disastrous BEOWULF movie against him. Here's the link.

I'll certainly try to watch this once it's available over here, but have to confess that while impressed by Christopher Lee's performance in the previous Peake adaptation a good while back now (2000)* I've never been a big fan of Mervyn Peake. I've tried to like his work for over thirty years now, and by and large failed. Despite having read virtually everything he'd ever written** I've never been able to make it all the way through the middle book of the trilogy -- the story just bogged down in too much Dickensian melodramatics for me so I skipped to the end, read that, decided I didn't care how it had all turned out that way, and put it aside to move on to the third book (the science fiction entry in the series, which I at least found readable***).

Peake has always been an odd-man-out in modern fantasy: one of the first two authors seriously marketed as 'fantasy, like Tolkien' (the other being the far more apt E. R. Eddison); a mainstay of the early entries among Ballantine's ADULT FANTASY SERIES -- despite the fact it's only
fantasy only if you include things like THE PRISONER OF ZENDA or WUTHERING HEIGHTS under that descriptor.

So I'm glad for Peake fans and hope the new show will add to their numbers, but I think it's time to stop thinking of Peake as a fantasy writer. Unless we're talking about things like his nonsense verse**** or his modern-day fantasy novel MR. PYE.***** Fantasy fans and Peake fans alike wd be better off.

--current reading: THE PILTDOWN FORGERY by J. S. Weiner (1956). second reading (orig. c. 1993)

*in fact, what little I watched of it marked the first time I thought I'd seen Christopher Lee put in a top-notch performance -- in retrospect a good indication of how well he'd do in his role-of-a-lifetime performance in the LotR movies which were shortly to follow.

**I did read the other two books in the Titus Groan series, plus the short story 'Boy in Darkness', plus his fantasy novel MR. PYE, plus all the contents of the giant omnibus PEAKE'S PROGRESS, as well as his wife's memoir. The one thing I think I never tracked down was THE RYME OF THE FLYING BOMB.

***its conclusion is by far the best thing about it, but it'd be spoiler to say any more

****which is okay, but he's no Lewis Carroll. He's not even a Lear.

*****which reads rather like a Thorne Smith story gone off-track, and still more like Henry Kuttner's tribute to Smith, "The Misguided Halo".

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Man who Opted Out

So, a while back the NYT had an interesting piece about someone who's chosen to opt out of the current endless political news. He voted, his candidate lost, and he can't put up with the endless back-and-forth shouting that marks our times. As someone who has at times in my life done without a tv altogether, I can sympathize. Sometimes the shouting gets to be too much and you have to just walk away for a bit. I know it probably did me good when we gave up cable tv a year and more back. The next time I'd been on one of my research trips I'd binged, watching four to five hours a night of MSNBC. I wondered if I'd do that again this trip, and the answer has turned out to be no. I've spent the evenings working on a side-project and sometimes just reading and resting up for the next day's session.

As for the subject of the article, he's using his down time to create an ecological area, his own little Walden Pond he hopes to turn into a protected nature park. So he's putting his away-time to good use.

Here's the link:

--John R.

John Bellairs movie

So, thanks to Friend Richard, I just learned that there's a new movie coming out based on the work of one of my favorite authors: John Bellairs, author of one of the best fantasy novels ever written (THE FACE IN THE FROST) and the inimitable ST. FIGETA & OTHER PARODIES.* It's based on THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS -- not his best but probably his best-known work, the start of the Lewis Barnavelt trilogy (later extended beyond the first three books into an ongoing series). Have to say, I'm looking forward to this one. It's due out in September.

--John R.

*which asks the question: Does the olive in the martini break the Lenten fast?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Waiting for the Bus

So, this morning while waiting at the corner of Van Buren and State Street for the bus to bring me from the Lower East Side, where I'm staying (in the part of Milwaukee that still deserves the title 'Cream City'), to Marquette, I saw a peacock cross the road.

 This was surprising, given that downtown Milwaukee's not the sort of place where I'd expect to see an exotic animal wandering around --especially a tropical one, given the bitter cold weather we'd had here last week. I assumed it was an escaped pet, though it certainly seemed very much at ease in its surroundings. Then a second one came and joined it, coming like the first out of the Yankee Hill complex, crossing Van Buren (a major street; luckily traffic was light) and making its way over to a green grassy spot between two apartment complexes.

I asked after I got to the Archives, and they were as surprised as I was by the unlikeliness of free-roaming peacocks in Milwaukee. I asked again at the front desk of the hotel, and the desk clerk said no, he'd never heard of peacocks roaming about, but they did have wild turkeys in the neighborhood.

So that's it. I got to see something really neat -- just not what I thought it was. And at the cost of thinking that Mr. Lacy and Dr. Rogers, who used to take me out birdwatching with them sometimes back in my Scouting days, wd be sadly disappointed if they knew about my decayed bird-identification skills.

--John R.
--working on: Council of Elrond drafts (days) and a book review (evenings)
--current reading: pre-Columbo Dr. Thorndyke stories by R. Austin Freeman (1912)

UPDATE (W. March 28th)
And here's a local news story about Milwaukee's fashionable East Side's urban wild turkeys:

Monday, March 26, 2018

Tolkien Day (unObservant)

So, thanks to Janice S. for reminding me of Tolkien Reading Day, which fell yesterday this year. It's a holiday I honor more in the breech than the observance, in that while I like the idea I tend to forget the actual event when it rolls around each year. Kind of like Arbor Day.* To be fair, I'm probably reading something Tolkien wrote, or something someone wrote about him, or something connected with his life and works, more days than not. So every day is kinda like Tolkien day with me.**

Today was good Tolkien-reading days, here at the Marquette Archives where I'm taking a look at and slowly working through the sequence of MANY MEETINGS and COUNCIL OF ELROND -- the latter one of the two trickiest chapters in the manuscripts. This is Day Six of a ten-day research trip, and despite still-lingering effects of the cold it's been a really good session this time. Here's hoping the next four days go as well, and get me to a good stopping point. 

--John R.

current reading (Kindle): THE SINGING BONE by R. Austin Freeman (1912)

*which these days seems to have been more or less swallowed up in Earth Day.
**just ask Janice C 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

I'm in Milwaukee

So, just arrived in Milwaukee for two weeks working with the Tolkien manuscripts, starting in the morning. Really looking forward to it.

--John R.

current reading: THE INKLINGS AND KING ARTHUR, ed. Sorina Higgins; WAR IN HEAVEN by Charles Williams (fourth reading, I think; this time as my read-on-the-plane book)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Texas in June (NETrpgCon)

So, I wanted to share the news that this June I'll be travelling down to Dallas to attend the NETRPGCON, or North-east Texas role-playing games convention. I've been wanting to go to this for years but other commitments have prevented that from happening. This is the year it finally all came together. I'm really looking forward to it.

First off, playing roleplaying games (esp. AD&D 1st edition, Call of Cthulhu, and Pendragon) is my favorite hobby. And the chance to spend a weekend playing games and watching other people play games and talking with folks about games is my idea of a good weekend.

And second, it's been a long time since I've been to a rpg con. I always used to go to GenCon, but the last one of those I attended was the last one held in Milwaukee, back in 2002. And this one is geared to old games, which are the ones I like best.

Here's a link to general information about the con itself.

And here's a list of guests -- some of whom I worked with back in Lake Geneva days (1991 to 1997), some I know only as legends of the industry who'd worked for TSR back before my day, whom I look forward to meeting:

We have the following confirmed guests at this time (Bill Barsh, Wolfgang Baur, Jobe Bittman, Bob Bledsaw Jr., Jason Braun, David "Zeb" Cook, Chris Clark, Michael Curtis, Darlene, Jeff Dee, Jeff Easley, Matt Finch, Ernest "Skeeter" Green, Allan Grohe, Jeff Grubb, Allen Hammack, Lance Hawvermale, Jack Herman, Jon Hershberger, Alex Kammer, Tim Kask, Doug Kovacs, David "Diesel" LaForce, Stephen Marsh, Frank Mentzer, Erol Otus, Terry Pavlet, Steve Perrin, Stefan Pokorny, Merle Rasmussen, John D. Rateliff, Mike Stewart, Dr. Dennis Sustare, Jeff Talanian, Jim Wampler, Bill Webb, Steven Winter). The lineup usually includes several of the more important figures in the history of RPGs as a whole and Dungeons & Dragons in particular.

So, if you're there and see me wander by, say hi.  If you want to sit down and talk a while, ask me about Tolkien.

--John R.
current reading: Stephen Jay Gould, BULLY FOR BRONTESAURUS (?1992)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


So, Rivendell, the long-running Minneapolis/St. Paul area smial (book group)* recently did something new for their January book-of-the-moth: a web comic. This was one I'd not heard of before, called GUNNERKRIGG COURT, but once I took a look I was hooked. It's science fantasy, about a group of kids attending a rather strange academy. Some have incipient powers (like teleportation), at least one is a mad scientist (the main character's best friend and sometimes roommate), and not all are fully human (like the girl without eyes**). The story starts with them as basically kids (I'd guess first year in junior high) and follows them through the next several years. Unlike many strips, which are locked in an eternal present, here time passes and the characters age, with some interesting consequences when hormones start to kick in. It's clear that there's a well thought out overarching story which the author gives out to us bit by bit, with the implications and consequences of things the characters do only becoming apparent a good deal afterwards (hey, kinda like real life).

The style of drawing changes a lot over the course of the strip; I'd recommend picking a random point and diving in, then if you like it going back to the start and reading straight through. At any rate that's what I did, starting with the chapter where a ghost*** tries to haunt the main character but finds she's unimpressed by anything in his repertoire; she winds up giving him advice on how to make his effects creepier. It's a good, short bit that gives a good hint of the overall flavor of the strip.

Here's the link:


current anime : Antarctica (seasick episode);Death March; Grancrest; Ancient Magus

most recent ebook: A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, the newest Flavia de Luce novel by Alan Bradley (this series finding its feet again after having ran seriously off the rails a few books back; still a bit of going-through-the-motions though with lots and lots of loose ends).

other recent books: MEDDLING KIDS, a ScoobyDoo gang, grown up, meets Cthulhu Mythos story (great concept, poor execution; THE FOURTH WALL, a murder mystery play by A. A. Milne (poor); DINOSAURS (A Very Short Introduction); and currently a collection of Stephen Jay Gould essays (good!)
**except when it rains.
***whose full backstory we get much later, including how he met his death and why he's haunting the Court.

Monday, February 26, 2018

When an Author dislikes His or Her Cover Art

So, I was bemused by the news that a fantasy author (Terry Goodkind), whose work I've not read, expressed his dislike of the cover art for his most recent book. The artist responded, with dignity if a little testily, that he'd done the job as requested and a little professionalism wd be appreciated. The comments that I saw on this were interesting in that most seemed to have no sense of the near-total lack of contact between an author and his or her illustrator.

Unless things have changed greatly, and I don't think they have, the art is the responsibility of the art director, who usually sends to the artist a detailed description of what the piece should look like. The artist produces a rough sketch and sends it in; the art director either accepts it as is or requests various changes. The artist then does the finished piece and does the turnover. The art director may send the author an image of the cover as a courtesy, or then again he or she may not. If the author does see the art and objects to something in the picture, it raises a lot of ill will but doesn't affect the outcome unless the author is someone with a lot of pull, and sometimes not even then (as in the present case).

It's sometimes more complicated than this --e.g. Marketing tends to get involved at some point-- but roughly speaking the cover art is out of the author's hands. Still, it's considered bad form for an author to badmouth his or her book's artwork, or even to request a different artist next time: those decisions lie within the art director's purview. My suspicion is that Goodkind, having sold twenty-five million books, has decided to speak his mind. Luckily a lot of people have rallied round the artist, so it doesn't seem like there will be any practical fallout from the episode, just some lingering bad feeling.

Here's the link to the story, as it was told in THE GUARDIAN:

current viewing: old Philip Marlowe movies (mostly very bad).
current reading: DINOSAURS: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION (a quick check to see how much of what I was taught in school is now discredited),

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Cat Report (W. 2/7-18)

Just two cats today: no-longer-so-shy MOUSEY and newcomer BELLA. Both were alert when I arrived, thanks to my fellow volunteers from the preceding shift: Mousey relaxed and Bella on edge. Over the course of two hours Bella went from crouching behind her litter box to sprawling on her blankets, happily sniffing up catnip. It turns out Bella loves catnip. She let me pet her, scratch under her collar, rub her chin, so long as I was petting her with a little bag stuffed with catnip. She ended the morning blissed out on her blankets. Didn’t play any games for me (most of them just seemed to put her on edge), but did watch the laser pointer with interest, so think she’ll enjoy that once she settles in. Which I don’t think will take that long.

MOUSEY had a long walk (the better part of an hour), during which he showed that he’s a smart cat: he now has the layout of the entire store in his head, and mapped out the routes he wanted to follows. He did get stymied at one point, when he wanted to get from the far side of the store over back towards the cat-room but there was a large dog barking in the way (nr Banfield); he took a lot of time trying to figure out a detour. He did slip under the shelves at one point but was quickly recovered: he’d only just ducked out of sight. I think it’s a good sign that the mewing has pretty much stopped: he’s a lot more confident on the leash now.  

Not long before the shift ended, my fellow volunteer took a call from a potential adopter who’s interested in Mr. Mousey and said he plans to drop by while an adoption councilor is there this evening. I really hope this is Mr. Mousey’s time and that it’s a good match. I’ll be really glad if he goes home, though I’ll also really miss him.

—John R.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

an early anti-Lewis, anti-Sayers book

So, just recently I've become curious about the early days of Inklings studies, and how differently things seem to have looked from a pre-Carpenter point of view.* Pursuant thereto, a few days ago arrived a copy arrived of a book I've heard about for a long time but never read: Kathleen Nott's THE EMPEROR'S CLOTHES. This is an attack on postWar English literary figures advocating a return to a traditionalist Xianity, focusing mainly on Eliot, Sayers, G.Green, and Lewis; the relevant chapter so far as Inklings studies goes being "Lord Peter Views the Soul", which is mostly a closely-argued refutation of CSL's MIRACLES (published just a few years earlier, in 1947, and generally considered the least successful of Lewis's apologetical books).

From my point of view, more interesting than its philosophical approach is the fact that Nott's book was published as far back as 1953, making it I think one of the very earliest book to devote a chapter and more to an Inkling. The only one still earlier I can think of wd be Chad Walsh's book on CSL, APOSTLE TO THE SKEPTICS (1949). Others I can think of as belonging to this ur-generation of pseudoInklings studies are Hadfield's INTRODUCTION TO CHARLES WILLIAMS (1959), and Charles Moorman's ARTHURIAN TRIPTYCH: MYTHIC MATERIALS IN CHARLES WILLIAMS, C. S. LEWIS, and T. S. ELIOT (1960).**

All of these were published during Lewis's lifetime. Am I leaving out anything? Is there a book back from those early days I'm overlooking or not taking into account?

--John R.
today's music: the new Barenaked Ladies album (thanks, Stan).

*most notably that they tend to include T. S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers as belonging to the same group as CSL, and that they tend to omit mention of Tolkien, who was not yet on their radar.


Friday, February 2, 2018

My Favorite Le Guin

So, last week when I heard the sad news about Ursula K. Le Guin's  death I wanted to make a post  about her and her work but found myself unable to come up with any suitable words. Having since come across some posts I made when we saw her give a reading and book signing in the area a few years ago, I thought I'd repost that as a memorial.

Thinking over what were my own favorite Le Guins, I realized that most people think of her first and foremost as a novelist while I've always thought her best works were short stories and essays -- that is, that I valued her most highly as a short-storyteller and critic. Hence those loom large in any short list of my time-tested favorites among her works:


--drawings of her cat in and out of ornamental pots, demonstrating the zen of cats. She kindly autographed my copy to our three cats, being careful to spell each one's name rightly.

"The Rule of Names"

--her Tolkien tribute and my favorite, bar none, of all the Earthsea stories, with a wicked little twist at the end.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT (esp "Poughkeepsie, though I no longer agree with her thesis, and "The Staring Eye")

--the book that established Le Guin as a major critic of the fantasy genre; provided a lot of clarity at a time when the professional critics and academics were stumbling over each other in attempts to grapple with the new genre of fantasy.

And finally and most hauntingly, "The Ones Who Walk Away for Omelas"

--the most unsettling utopia I've ever come across. It stays with you, this one; I was glad to see it called out by name in the NPR tribute to her.*

--John R.

current reading: THE PROUD TOWER (Tuchman),THE INKLINGS AND KING ARTHUR (Higgins)

*the other nice touch was that not only this piece but various ones from major newspapers that I saw online ALL GOT HER NAME RIGHT by including the middle initial. As someone who always uses his initial and all-too-often sees it dropped, I admire her persistence in wanting to use a specific form of her own name.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wednesday Cat Walking (Mousey)

What a week for adoptions. Since I was in the cat-room last ATLAS got sent up north to meet up with his pending adopter. We had new arrivals mother-daughter pair Millie and Tink,  and PANDA, all three of whom got adopted almost right away. Shy PEACHES had no sooner settled in than she found a home of her own as wellTo top it all off, we got reports that several recently adopted cats are doing really well in their new homes.

That leaves just our special-needs cat, MOUSEY (Mr. Wobbles).* When I arrived the morning shift had him all taken care of (food, water, clean box, attention) and in a good mood. He squirmed, as usual, when I put the leash on, but unlike previous walks, which in truth were mostly carries, he spent a lot of this one on his own four feet, exploring. He’s learned the basic rules about not trying to duck under the shelving, and proved that when put down anywhere on the west side of the store knows how to find his way back to the cat-room. 

Where he did best was the far (East) side of the store, where he became deeply interested in the big dog beds, those giant flat cushions on the shelves. He thought that if he could get up on these there was no end of interesting places behind them and on either side he could explore. He thought I was unreasonable in not letting him climb up in there, no matter how many times he asked, or how politely. His persistence eventurally paid off when I let him get on one of the large flat cardboard boxes (containing I think a collapsable dog-cage) and kept a close watch (and sometimes hand) on him while he gloried in his safe secret place. 

We also went down to the training room, where I closed the door and let him roam around at will. He immediately started mewing, just like he used to on previous walks, but stopped when he settled for a while in the far corner, from which he cd see anything entering the room (i.e., trying to sneak up on him). After a while he came over and I put him in my lap, where he drifted off to sleep.

All in all he had two walks, separated by about ten minutes back in the room. He did better on the second one — warmed up a bit, perhaps? Having someone in the room to let him back inside in case he panicked was a big help.

Once back in the room the second time he went back into his cage, where he expressed no interest in any game I offered him, not even his orange string. I did work on his ears a bit, which he seemed to like. Offered some catnip, he played it cool for a bit, then surrendered to it and rolled belly-up.

As my fellow volunteer said, it’s hard to memember how he was so traumatized when he arrived that he needed a cave of blankets to hide in. He’s come a long way in just a month.

—John R.

P.S.:  According to the previous shift, this morning someone in a wheelchair came into the room to see the cats (Mousey), and apparently he was interested in her wheelchair rather than frightened by it. If I remember rightly, his personal history said that his previous owner used a wheelchair, so perhaps if conjured up some good memories for him.

P.P.S. He came fairly close to several dogs of several sizes in the course of his two walks. He was not bothered at all, when held, by the quiet and well-behaved dogs, but didn’t at all like the barky ones.

*Mousey has Cerebellar Hypoplasia, which means he has difficulty jumping and loses some control of his back legs when frightened; he also trembles when stressed. It's not a progressive condition, though, so he's fine as long as he has step-stools and the like. Knowledge that he'd have trouble getting to safety if anything attacked him is probably a big factor in his fear of unknown places.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Winnie the Pooh Day

So, if Barnes & Noble and a handful of English newspapers are to be believed, today was Winnie-the-Pooh day (aka Milne's birthday).

Seeing all the Pooh merchandizing available through the link above -- which is only a small fraction of all the Pooh-stuff out there, reminded me of one final post I wanted to make re. things I learned from reading the Milne biography.

I've seen it said that Milne would have been appalled by all the Pooh-inspired merchandizing out there, especially that based on the Disney cartoons. That may well be true; we'll never know. But Milne, it turns out, was heavily into the merchandising, already underway by the early thirties. What's more, he was enthused at the idea of Disney adapting at least one of his works. Here's what Thwaite has to say re. the topic:

There would be a number of . . . films, both silent 
ones and talkies, made from Milne plays . . . 
Milne would not live to see what Walt Disney 
did to Winnie-the-Pooh, though in fact he might
 not have objected as much as some people assume.
In 1938 he was to write to Kenneth Grahame's
 widow about Toad of Toad Hall: 'I expect you
 have heard that Disney is interested in it?  It is 
just the thing for him, of course, and he would 
do it beautifully.  (p.212)

--TOAD OF TOAD HALL being Milne's 1921 adaptation of Grahame's WIND IN THE WILLOWS for the stage:  a work Tolkien singles out for special condemnation in OFS. Disney's adaption of same came out in 1949. Milne was still alive at the time (this was just a few years before his debilitating stroke) but I have no idea whether he saw the film or not.

--John R.
--current anime: RECORD OF GRANCREST WAR
--most recently watched anime: MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER (tonight, in the theater)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I See Shakespeare's Worst Play

So, today Janice and I went down to the Seattle Center (also known as the site of the '62 World's Fair) to see TIMON OF ATHENS, which gets my vote for Shakespeare's worst play, hands down. I'd been curious if, bad as it is on the page, it had any redeeming qualities on the stage. The answer, I'd say, is No. Too bad.

We stayed for the Q&A with the cast (most of whom were very good, esp. the guy who played Timon's loyal stewart), whose explanation for its being so bad was twofolds. First, they said Shakespeare co-wrote it w. Thomas Middleton, who they claimed wrote the worse bits. Unfortunately for this argument, the dialogue, which they blame on Midddleton, is rather better than the many, many soliloquies, which they credit to Shakespeare.

Second, they thought the play was unfinished, just a draft. So any line they didn't like cd be seen as a place-holder, meant to be replaced later by something better.

These arguments fail to address the true weakness of the play: it has an utterly unsympathetic main character. Timon* goes from being foolishly generous beyond his means (think generosity junkie)
to being bitterly misanthropic, with lots of nasty little rants about how horrible everyone is.

So, it's good to get a chance to see this, but while the play is better on the stage than on the page, it's, in the words of Marvin the Paranoid Android, "still very bad though". Though it does make me want to see MACBETH on stage if it comes anywhere near.

--John R.

*whose name I've always pronounced as 'Ta-MOAN', but which they said as 'TY-man', rhyming w. Simon. Though I don't suppose it matters.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Conan Doyle Disease

So, some authors come to be known by a single book, or a single series within a larger body of work. Out of the many things he or she wrote, this one work comes to be the defining legacy.*

Some writers are fine with that. They're happy to be remembered, and it doesn't bother them that they're remembered for Book A as opposed to Book B. I think P. G. Wodehouse was one of these. Far from being annoyed that people wanted more Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories from him year after year, he seems to have felt himself jolly lucky that readers still wanted more, and he was happy to oblige.**  Tolkien belonged to this category: when asked in an interview how he wanted to be remembered, he replied that he hadn't much choice in the matter: that if he was remembered at all it'd be for LORD OF THE RINGS.***

Other authors, while grateful for the popularity a successful work brings, come to feel resentment over time for being treated like a one-hit wonder. A prime example of this is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories overshadow anything else he ever wrote, and rightly so -- and it was already apparent from early on in Doyle's career that this wd be the case.****

It was A. A. Milne's misfortune that he had a bad case of Conan Doyle disease. He wanted to be remembered as a witty and popular playwright; a persuasive advocate of pacifism (when pacifism was popular) and then stern critic of pacifist (when there was an actual war going on); a bold critic of Xianity.; a serious modern novelist Instead, he's remembered for Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was already popular: the Pooh books made him famous. He was already making a more-than-comfortable living as a playwright; Pooh & company made him rich (and he enthusiastically encouraged merchandising of the same from v. early on). But he found it hard to be thought of as just a children's author, and growing harder as the years passed: not a Noel Coward but a second James Barrie.

--John R.
current reading: Thwaite on Milne (1990)
current music: THE ENDLESS RIVER (2014; the last Pink Floyd album)

*thanks to Paul W. having queried this usage in a comment on an earlier post.

**the first Bertie & Jeeves story having been published in 1914 and the last in 1974, when the author was in his nineties.

***as opposed to his scholarly pieces, which he characterized as 'small', unimportant by comparison.

****A more modern example wd be Gary Gygax, who will always be remembered as the man who wrote D&D (esp. the three volume AD&D rules set), not by any of the games he turned out in the final twenty years of his career

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Mind Boggles

So, I'm still working my way through the Milne biography, and came across an assertion* that made me do a double take.

Writing of the time when Milne and Wodehouse were still on friendly terms (i.e., before Milne slandered Wodehouse with accusations of treason), Thwaite relates how the two men sponsored a mutual acquaintance to membership in the Garrick Club. But unlike Milne, who enjoyed men's clubs, Wodehouse hated clubs, she says, and soon quit this one.

The creator of the Drones Club, probably one of the two most famous Clubs in fiction,**  didn't like clubs? I'd never have guessed it. It's a good reminder that we tend to think authors are like their characters. Even when we know this is not true as a general rule, we tend to project a character's opinions onto the author himself or herself. That Wodehouse's narrative voice is so guileless tends to make us forget that PGW is not Bertie any more than he is Jeeves, though as author his point of view is nearer the latter: the behind the scenes manipulator who pulls together all the strings to bring the story to a satisfactory ending.

--John R.

*p. 310

**the other I'd say being the Diogenes Club of the Mycroft Holmes stories

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When is a Fredo not a Frodo

So, amid the news stories generated by the current administration and its friends' shock that reactionary provocateur Steve Bannon sometimes says bad things about his allies and fellow travellers, I was amused by one tiny throwaway line in a piece on Politico.

In the main text of the piece, it notes that in the new forthcoming Wolff book, Bannon is said to have had an unflattering nickname for Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law:

Kushner, whom he privately referred to as “Fredo,” 
the traitorous brother of “The Godfather.”

A correction at the bottom of the page, however, shows that the original version of this piece mistakenly included a Tolkien reference:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story 
misidentified the fictional character name 
Bannon uses to refer to Jared Kushner as 
Frodo, a “Lord of the Rings” reference, 
rather than Fredo, a reference to “The Godfather.”

It's easy to see how the confusion might arise, given that Bannon is a Tolkien fan, as I touched on in an earlier post about the weird phenomenon of the Alt-Right's recent embracing of JRRT. And as such we wdn't expect him to call someone he was belittling by Tolkien's hero's name.

Here's the link to the original story

--John R.
current reading: the A. A. Milne biography, which is over 500 pages but feels much longer.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Evil in Ireland -- Tolkien and Warnie

So, back some time ago when I was asked to write a guest editorial for MALLORN, I pointed out that there are some things about Tolkien we know because of detailed contemporary evidence. Other things we have to piece together as best we can from fragmentary, sometimes contradictory, evidence. And still others we just have to more or less take on faith. An example of the last is Tolkien's statement that in Ireland you could feel the evil in the very ground, seeping up from below, held back only by the great piety of its people. I commented about this in a post from 2009 ), in which I reproduced the following quote:

George Sayer tells a remarkable story 
about Tolkien describing Ireland as 
'naturally evil.' He could 'feel,' Sayer relates,
'evil coming up from the earth,
from the peat bogs, from the clumps of trees, 
even from the cliffs, and this evil
was only held in check by the great 
devotion of the southern Irish
to their religion.'

A year and a half later, 'BGC' posted a comment saying
I'm pretty sure I have read something of this kind said by, or attributed to, Warnie Lewis (who was, of course, himself Irish) - maybe in his journal or attributed in a letter to Jack - but I can't seem to locate it.

It is certainly more the sort of thing Warnie would have said, in one of his deporessive moods; and very unlike Tolkien.

And now just a few days ago 'Wurmbrand' (Dale Nelson) shared his discovery of that passage BGC had remembered:*

here is the passage that BGC was recalling:

"There is something wrong with this country -- some sullen brooding presence over it, a vague sense of something mean and cruel and sinister: I have felt the same feeling in the hills behind Sierra Leone, and once in 1919 at Doagh in Co. Antrim. A beastly feeling. On the merely physical side, it was most depressing country. I have never seen any place so enclosed before: wherever you go, the grey road is flanked by old stone walls, and banks on the top of which grow thick hedges, the whole overhung by heavy motionless foliage on old trees and lidded with a grey brown sky. After a time the longing for any sort of escape from these everlasting tunnels became acute, and one almost fancied it to be accompanied by a sensation of choking from trying to breathe air from which the oxygen was exhausted. The natives were as depressing as their landscape: during the whole morning I did not see anyone of any age or either sex who was not definitely ugly: even the children look more like goblins than earthborns....I wonder can it be possible that a country which has an eight hundred year record of cruelty and misery has the power of emanating a nervous disquiet? Certainly I felt something of the sort, and would much dislike to see this place again....[Later in the day, after leaving Waterford on our run down the Suir River, we passed Ballyhack, where there were some early Norman castles.] There was [also] a long succession of big houses, all very shut in and desolate, of which J remarked that Walter de la Mare could write detestable stories: and we talked for some time about horror and its treatment in fiction."  (
BROTHERS & FRIENDS p. 111-112)
This was written in 1933, years before Tolkien himself first set foot in Ireland. And interestingly enough CSL seems to have disagreed with Warnie -- Warnie's entry for the next leg of their walking tour, in the Plymouth area recounts that

J[ack] and I argued briskly about the country [around Plymouth] we had walked through, J contending that not to like any sort of country argues a fault in oneself: which seems to me absurd . . . I suspect he was talking for victory. [ibid 112]

Congratulations to Dale N. for his connecting the dots and for sharing his discovery.

--John R.
current reading: more on Milne (who suffered badly from Conan Doyle syndrome)

*I've reposted it here because I think those who agree with me about the importance of Dale's discovery are more likely to come across it this way than if it only appeared as a comment on a post from eight years ago.

P.S.: Happy Tolkien Day, all.

Happy Tolkien Day

Happy anniversary of Tolkien's birthday (January 3rd, 1892), all.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bad Old Days at TSR

So, a while back I was interviewed for a piece by Ben Riggs of GEEK AND SUNDRY, an rpg website  whose focus seems to range from the era of Gygax days through Third Edition. They were putting together a piece on the TSR buyout and contacting various people who'd been there at the time. My perspective is a slightly unusual one, given that I was there before and after but not during. However, I gave them my uncensored opinion and waited to see the results. And here it is: an article that ranges from the creation of D&D through the collapse of TSR, the buyout by WotC, the 'Open Gaming' license, and the rise of Paizo. I'm not directly quoted but it's nice to see my name among the acknowledgments at the end.

Here are the links to the three parts that make up the piece:

--John R.
current reading: a life of A. A. Milne by Ann Thwaite (1990)

Sir Ringo

So, it was from Janice that I heard the good news that Ringo Starr has just become Sir Richard Starkey. It's sometimes hard to get my head around the fact that I live in a world where the two surviving Beatles are senior citizens of 77 (Ringo, the oldest member of the group) and 75 (Paul).

Too bad George passed away before his turn came; suspect he wd have been Sir George by now. John, of course, took himself out of contention when he returned his MBE medal as a publicity stunt.

--John R.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A New Tradition

So, something I tend to do around New Year's each year is begin a long or complicated book I've been meaning to get to for some time -- only to have my reading of it peter out. Books I've attempted in this way include Ezra Pound's THE CANTOS, THE BOOK OF THE DEAD (specifically, the Papyrus of Ani's version of THE BOOK OF GOING FORTH BY DAY), Ovid's METAMORPHOSES, and Confucius's ANALECTS.

So this year I decided on something new. Instead of trying to get myself to tackle a difficult work I've been putting off, I re-read a favorite instead. I used to reread more often than I do now, and there are books I really love that I haven't read in a decade or more.

The book I decided to start this new tradition off with is THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs -- a book I discovered from a passage quoted in my friend Franklin Chestnut's overview of modern fantasy a few months before, just after leaving Fayetteville. I found, bought, and read a copy the first week I was in Milwaukee, from one of the now-vanished bookstores along Wisconsin Avenue (probably B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, but possibly from Harry B. Schwartz back when they were still at 5th street). I remember that having started it I cdn't stop and stayed up late reading it. It's one of those rare books that, having reached the end, I immediately starting over again at the beginning, reading it twice in succession.* I'd not only rank it one of the ten best fantasy novels ever written but one of my all-time favorite books.

 Sometimes rereading a book after a gap of years is a disappointment; sometimes it's a delight. This time was a delight: so many favorite passages, so many evocative scenes. It tends to give me nightmares, but it's worth it.

So, a new tradition, off to a good start.

--John R.
current reading: John Bellairs (autographed copy!)