Friday, April 17, 2015

A Crackpot vents on Tolkien

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

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


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


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


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

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

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



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

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



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


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

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


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

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

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

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

"JRRT had a middle middle name"

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


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


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

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tolkien and Women: Dorothy Everett

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

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

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

--John R.

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




Friday, April 10, 2015

Good Advice (D&D)

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

http://www.howlingtower.com/2015/03/a-need-for-speed.html

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

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

--John R.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--John R.

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




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


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

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

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


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



Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Gifts from Crows

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

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026


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

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

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

--John R.
current anime: RWBY

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Thunder Plains (Monte Cook Games)

So, when we got back from our great weekend of whalewatching, during which time I was mostly offline, I learned about a nasty little flamewar that'd hit while I was away, and was sorry to see some friends be the direct recipients of the worst the web has to offer.

The immediate flashpoint was the posting online of a petition against Monte Cook Games over accusations of insensitivity in their depiction of native american culture in their new game THE STRANGE. I haven't played THE STRANGE -- what gaming time I have these days gets devoted to CALL OF CTHULHU and the new D&D, plus some boardgames -- but as I understand it, the adventuring worlds in THE STRANGE, called 'recursions', resemble various cultural archetypes and stereotypes from our world -- similar to the domains in RAVENLOFT (which echoed various horror tropes) or the realms in TORG or, for that matter, the nations in the D&D KNOWN WORLD (esp. the ATRUAGHIN CLANS, Gaz.14). I gather that these recursions are supposed to be generated by the collective unconsciousness, and there's no denying that the myth of 'cowboys and indians' looms large in our collective imagination.

But what's shared culture to some is appropriation to others; hence the petition:

https://www.change.org/p/monte-cool-games-we-the-undersigned-demand-immediate-removal-of-thunder-plains-and-all-related-content-from-all-monte-cook-games-publications-current-and-future-and-request-an-immediate-public-apology-for-harm-done-regardless-of-supposed-intent-fro


Having read this, I find I'd have more sympathy for the petitioner's  position if
(a) it didn't use the word 'DEMAND', which always puts me off, and
(b) didn't call for an APOLOGY, as if the petitioner's feelings were more important than the issue at hand, and
(c) if its depiction of Monte and Bruce's actions bore any resemblance to behavior I've seen from them in the twenty-odd years that I've known both. It simply fails to do so, and so loses credibility with me on that account.

The thing that strikes me as most ironic about the petition is this: a key idea that seems to underlie the petitioner's position is that The Thunder Plains offends by offering up a cultural icon based on only one single native culture, which fails to represent the vast variety of native cultures that existed in preColumbian America. And yet the petitioner seems to feel that she has the self-appointed right to speak for all those hundreds of tribes, past and present, surviving and extinct. That seems to me  to claim a wholly unwarranted authority; I simply can't see why this person's opinion shd carry any more weight than anyone else with a website. The First Nations never had a unified voice, or any single speaker to represent them, and to claim that role for yourself smacks of hubris.


For their part, Monte and Bruce have replied with a measured response explaining what's been going on from their point of view:

https://plus.google.com/+Montecookgames/posts/DhyFE67jFoZ

This was followed by voluminous commentary, some of it thoughtful but a good deal of it sheer vitriol.*  I have to say that Bruce and Monte's reaction is much more engaged and interactive than mine would have been: I'd have either ignored the nay-sayers or, if I thought they had a point no matter how misguided their methods, deleted the material in question. That Monte and Bruce are going to go back and replace this material with new material that they hope will fill the role they'd originally planned for the Thunder Plains shows a willingness to meet people more than halfway. It seems unlikely that the nay-sayers will be swayed by this (given their own emphatic statements to that effect in the string of online comments), but it speaks well of Monte Cook Games that they wanted to be thoughtful in their usage.


--John R.
current reading: WOULD I FIGHT (just resumed) 


*Reading through it, I did learn a new term: SJW, which turns out to have nothing to do with SJG (Steve Jackson Games) but instead is an acronym for 'social justice warrior' -- someone who talks up a position with great fervor but, as the saying goes, is 'all hat, no cattle'.








Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Lord Howard de Walden Spotting

So, there are far more people interested in an incidental or passing reference to Tolkien (or Lewis, or Rowling, or Pullman) than to Lord Howard de Walden, an interesting but largely forgotten figure who  was one of the first to write works inspired by the MABINOGION. Lord Howard de Walden was a friend of Dunsany's (the two collaborated on an early lost story), gets mentioned in a biography of EDWARD VII as an Olympic fencer, had connections with Sime (who did the stage designs for some of his plays). But I didn't expect to see him referenced in a work on Old English literature.

The reference comes in STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE, a collection of essays and articles by Kenneth Sisam, Tolkien's old tutor, in the third piece, entitled 'Seasons of Fasting'. Here's the passage referencing Lord Howard de Walden in full:

When he was examining the transcripts of Laurence Nowell 
which Lord Howard de Walden gave to the British Museum, 
the late Robin Fowler found in MS. Addit. 43703, transcribed 
by Nowell in 1562, a copy of a poem on the observance of fasts 
which, except for the incipit recorded by Wanley, had been lost 
when MS. Otho B XI was burnt in the Cotton fire of 1731. 
Flower's death prevented him from making the edition he planned, 
and it fell to Professor Dobbie to publish the editio princepts 
in his Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, 1942 . . . 

So, to the sequence of playwright-fencer-collaborator we need to add: generous donor who helped preserve what wd otherwise have been lost Old English material.

This notice is also interesting because it brings together, briefly, two underappreciated figures: Lord Howard de Walden and Laurence Nowell. Nowell is one of the unsung heroes of Old English studies, whose greatest claim to fame is that he preserved BEOWULF: the first page of the manuscript that includes the only surviving copy of BEOWULF bears the inscription "Laurence Nowell 1563". We have no idea where this manuscript (now called THE NOWELL CODEX) was before Nowell found and preserved it, a full century and a half before it fell into Sir Rbt Cotton's hands.*

Nor is this all: Nowell also compiled the first OLD ENGLISH dictionary, which I have a copy of: VOCABULARIUM SAXONICUM, probably compiled in the 1560s but not published until 1952.
And furthermore David Salo believes, rightly I think, that Nowell's dictionary had a direct influence on Tolkien. For example, the word 'orc' is usually translated 'monster' and associated with the demon Orcus (a derivation Tolkien is on record as doubting**): Nowell's entry is far more evocative of Tolkien's own usage:

Orc.  Orcus; a goblin, a Robin Goodfelowe. Entas & eotenas & orcas. [Nowell, p. 134]

So, there it is, dating all the way back to Tudor times: an association by a great Old English scholar of orcs not with Latin terms for Hell but with native faerie lore: goblins. Very Tolkienesque, is it not?

--John R.


*here's a query for the well-informed: is there a complete catalogue listing all the books in Cotton's library, a brief description of their contents, and a notice accompanying each entry on whether or not that particular book survives?

**cf. H.o.H.217