Calculating Folk

Friday, August 26th, 2016

The dwarves of modern fantasy stories tend to be associated with Norse culture, but the dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth were inspired by another ethnic group:

We have, then, a bunch of short, bearded beings exiled from their homeland, who have dreamed forever of returning. They are linked to a place they lost long ago, dwell in other realms throughout the earth, and yet are so profoundly connected to their own kingdom that it remains vivid to them while for others it is a fading memory. There is one tribe that offers a perfect real-world parallel to Tolkien’s dwarves; there is only one nation that has remained existentially linked to the kingdom its people lost long ago even as it mingled among kings and queens and common folk of other lands throughout history: the Jews. In a reflection on Tolkein and the Jews, to which this essay is indebted, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks notes that the dwarves’  “sorrowful song of longing to return to their homeland might have been lifted from a Middle Earth Kinnot Tisha B’Av” — a reference to the lamentations read by Jews when they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem.

The dwarves of Middle Earth, the central characters of one of the most beloved books of all time, are indeed based on the Jews. This was confirmed by Tolkien himself in a 1971 interview on the BBC: “The dwarves of course are quite obviously, [sic] couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” he asked. “Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Similarly, in a letter to his daughter, Tolkien reflected, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”

This passage from The Hobbit takes on a different tone once you see the parallels:

The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it….?There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and company, if you don’t expect too much.

Tolkien himself was no anti-Semite though. Here’s his response to a German publisher inquiring into his racial background before taking on The Hobbit:

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the 18th century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Don Quixote de la Garrapata

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

I didn’t watch the Tick cartoon or the live-action show, but I did read the original comics back in the day, so I made time to watch Amazon’s pilot for a new Tick show, and I must agree with this review:

The Tick 2016 throws a bravura mix of tones at its audience: it’s campily loopy yet deadly serious, satirical yet sincere, cartoonish yet fraught with dread.

I was not expecting them to take The Tick into darker and edgier territory, but it certainly makes the hero’s delusional idealism stand out even more.

If you’re interested in the original comics, there appear to be no collections in print. Sigh.

By the way, as a gun guy I got a chuckle out of the Terror’s henchmen, armed with Ruger 22/45 Lite pistols:

Tick Terror Henchmen with Ruger Lite Pistols

High Towers and Strong Places

Friday, August 19th, 2016

In High Towers and Strong Places, Timothy R. Furnish presents a political history of Middle Earth:

Departing from the tradition of analyzing Tolkien’s works as literature, poetry, linguistics, mythology, culture and even roots in Christian theology, Furnish applies the disciplinary lens of political science and opens up into view the geopolitics of Middle-Earth; Sauron as tyrannical theocrat, Gondor as hegemon and Gandalf as the grand strategist of the West. Furnish, a former Arabic linguist and Army chaplain with a PhD in Islamic history, emphasizes that J.R.R. Tolkien, as a scholar and “subcreator” was deeply concerned with history and historical realism as a substantive basis for his fictional world that he took to “amazing lengths” of detail. This makes Middle-Earth a prime candidate, Furnish argues, to be analyzed in “real-world fashion”.

The Semiotic Rifle

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

The winning team in fourth-generation warfare tends to be the one that seizes the initiative in language — as exemplified by the heroes of Heinlein’s Sixth Column:

Ardmore is the “PanAsian-American” protagonist who suffers the horrific invasion of his native North America by his own race, known collectively as the PanAsians. He loses much of his family in the persecutions, and decides to fight back. One problem: he has no military background.

Worse: he is a former marketing executive. This weakness ultimately emerges as a great strategic strength the instant that it dawns on him: hopeless 3rd generation war tactics versus the conventional militarily superior invader state are not the only tactics available to the natives.

He realized suddenly that he was thinking of the problem in direct terms again, in spite of his conscious knowledge that such an approach was futile. What he wanted was psychological jiu-jitsu — some way to turn their own strength against them. Misdirection — that was the idea!

Whatever it was they expected him to do, don’t do it!

Do something else.

But what else?

The core idea, the hero discovers, is that the “psychological jiu-jitsu” lies in speaking unexpectedly and exploiting the assumptions of the conquering state-run army suffering incurable hubris at the highest levels, and inevitable demoralization on the ground.

To say that the Oriental was disconcerted is to expose the inadequacy of language. He knew how to deal with opposition, but this whole-hearted cooperation left him without a plan; it was not in the rules.

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” tells the tale of a modern American who gets transported back to saga-era Iceland and finds that he’s not exactly a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I stumbled across the story in one of those terrible compilations made for English classes, Themes in Science Fiction, which I had pulled off the classroom shelf — because we certainly were never assigned anything like that — and for some reason it didn’t occur to me to seek out more of Poul Anderson’s work until decades later.

(You can find it now in The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century.)

One of his stories that I still haven’t read appears in the original Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide‘s Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, The High Crusade, and it similarly inverts a popular trope:

He’s turned the standard alien invasion on its head by having the humans thwart the would-be oppressors on first contact. An alien scout vessel is quickly overrun… by Medieval Englishmen! When they get their hands on high tech weaponry and figure out what they can do with it, their first thought is to gather up the entire village, board the space craft, and take an extended vacation that would include invading France and taking back the Holy Land!

The narrator is tasked with teaching the sole surviving alien Latin so that they can force him to explain how to properly “sail” the ship. Hilarity ensues:

“You brought this on yourself,” I told him. “You should have known better than to make an unprovoked attack on Christians.”

“What are Christians?” he asked.

Dumbfounded, I thought he must be feigning ignorance. As a test, I led him through the Paternoster. He did not go up in smoke, which puzzled me.

“I think I understand,” he said. “You refer to some primitive tribal pantheon.”

“It is no such heathen thing!” I said indignantly. I started to explain the Trinity to him, but had scarcely gotten to transubstantiation when he waved an impatient blue hand. It was much like a human hand otherwise, save for the thick, sharp nails.

“No matter,” he said, “Are all Christians as ferocious as your people?”

“You would have had better luck with the French,” I admitted. “Your misfortune was landing among Englishmen.”

This is some seriously funny stuff, very nearly in the same vein as the best material of Douglas Adams. The fact that it is a straightforward science fiction story with realistic medieval characters only makes it funnier. While one might expect this sort of tongue-in-cheek delivery to get tiresome after a while, the plot moves along quickly enough that it gradually fades into the background. The Englishmen are soon (and inadvertently) deep in the process of taking over the the alien empire what would have otherwise subjugated humanity. And while the reader naturally identifies with the humans as he reads, it gradually becomes clear that there is an additional angle to Poul Anderson’s handiwork:

Actually, the Wersgor domain was like nothing at home. Most wealthy, important persons dwelt on their vast estates with a retinue of blueface hirelings. They communicated on the far-speaker and visited in swift aircraft of spaceships. Then there were other classes I have mentioned elsewhere, such as warriors, merchants, and politicians. But no one was born to his place in life. Under the law, all were equal, all free to strive as best they might for money or position. Indeed, they had even abandoned the idea of families. Each Wersgor lacked a surname, being identified by a number instead in a central registry. Male and female seldom lived together more than a few years. Children were sent at an early age to schools, where they dwelt until mature, for their parents oftener thought them an encumbrance than a blessing.

Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day.

The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government. In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen. The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”

Yes, after being the butt of so many jokes and tongue-in-cheek remarks, our “primitive” narrator has a few observations to make about the culture of the alien people he is so cheerfully invading. The shortcomings of the alien society are in fact almost painfully familiar to the typical reader of the twentieth century. Poul Anderson has deftly turned the tables on the reader: we are the punch line. It is thought-provoking to say the least, but it’s mere prelude to the coming knock-out blow:

“Well?” demanded Sir Roger. “What ails you now?”

“If they have not yet gone to war,” I said weakly, “why should the advent of a few backward savages like us make them do so?”

“Hearken, Brother Parvus,” said Sir Roger. “I’m weary of this whining about our own ignorance and feebleness. We’re not ignorant of the true Faith, are we? Somewhat more to the point, maybe, while the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home. Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”

Presto

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

If Penn Jillette looks a bit different now, it may be because — Presto! — he just lost 100 pounds.

He talks to Reason‘s Nick Gillespie about Donald Trump, his crazy diet, and Bob Dylan’s genius:

You Merely Adopted Dungeons & Dragons

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

Vox Day recently re-shared his Hugo 2016 ballot, where he listed the first draft of Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N book in the best related work category, and that caught my eye, because I’ve mentioned the original Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide‘s Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading before.

In fact, the last time I mentioned it, I cited Jeffro’s own post that he had just completed his survey of all the entries on the list.

It turns out he cited one line from my own post:

Modern fantasy writers have read a lot of modern fantasy. The early fantasy writers read history and legends.

Bane You Merely Adopted Dungeons

Tolstoy, Hypocrisy, and Puritanism

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Bryan Caplan is re-reading “the greatest novel of history’s most patiently observant novelist,” Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Maybe I do want to get the audiobook on Audible.

Books that Informed Star Wars

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Here’s a list of books that cinema scholars and Lucas himself cite as influences on Star Wars:

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series: starting as a series of short stories published between 1942 and 1950, Foundation features a Galactic Empire very similar to the one depicted in the original Star Wars trilogy. There are even characters named Han and Bail.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: besides Obi-Wan Kenobi filling much the same role in A New Hope that Gandalf did in The Fellowship of the Ring, early drafts of Star Wars had an even closer resemblance to Tolkien’s beloved tales. At one point, Lucas toyed with the idea of casting dwarfs as his main characters.

Arthurian Legend: there are many parallels between Luke Skywalker and King Arthur. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda resemble Merlin in several respects. Anakin Skywalker shares much in common with Uther Pendragon.

Frank Herbert’s Dune: the most frequently used setting in Star Wars is a desert planet. There are multiple mentions of spice, and many Jedi powers are similar to Bene Gesserit techniques. Herbert himself pointed out 37 direct Dune references in Star Wars.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: the original run of Kirby’s New Gods stories was published by DC Comics from 1970–1973. A major theme of the Fourth World comics is a hero destined to defeat an evil tyrant who turns out to be said hero’s father. Roy Thomas, then an editor at Marvel, allegedly pointed out similarities between Kirby’s series and an early Star Wars synopsis during a 1972 dinner with Lucas.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Lucas’ appreciation for folklorist Joseph Campbell’s seminal book is well known. Campbell’s treatments of monomyth and the Hero’s Journey are baked into the themes and plot structure of Star Wars.

Gone with the Wind: seriously. Watch The Empire Strikes Back and pay attention to Han and Leia’s dialogue.

Since Leigh Brackett wrote the first draft of the Empire screenplay, I might suggest one of her movies, like The Big Sleep (1945), Rio Bravo (1959), or The Long Goodbye (1973).

H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

Monday, August 1st, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers earns a snicker from anyone familiar with where his work was published — and what beliefs he held:

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.

This certainly sounds like Lovecraft though:

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.

Five Audiobooks Generating Buzz

Monday, July 25th, 2016

The Wall Street Journal discusses five audiobooks generating buzz, starting with A Game of Thrones:

The first book in Mr. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, read by British actor Roy Dotrice, has sold more than 100,000 audiobook copies this year, bringing total audio sales to more than 700,000 since its 2003 release, according to Penguin Random House Audio.

Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was among the five best-selling audiobooks of 2015 on both Audible and iBooks.

Celebrity memoirs — particularly ones by comedians — are audiobook gold, when narrated by the author.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also made the list:

Audible and other audiobook producers have found success hiring A-list actors to narrate classics. The latest is “Anna Karenina,” read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Released on July 12, it immediately hit Audible’s best-seller list. “I feel like performing this novel is one of the major accomplishments of my work life — it was so challenging and so deep,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said, according to a description on Audible. Other pairings include Charles Dickens’s “The Chimes,” read by Richard Armitage, and Helen Mirren’s telling of “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots,” a rediscovered Beatrix Potter story to be released in September.

Oddly, those “other pairings” took some work to find in Amazon’s listings.

I wasn’t learning toward Anna Karenina but rather War and Peace, but I don’t know if I’m up for 61 hours of audio.

Map of North America

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

This map of North America is in a style many of you should recognize:

North America Map in Tolkien's Style

Audible Suggestions

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

I’ve heard good things about Audible (and the Great Courses). I’m open to audiobook suggestions.

Okkupert

Friday, July 8th, 2016

I have not yet watched Occupied (on Netflix), the Norwegian 10-part mini-series about a Russian occupation of their small and peaceful country:

Many of the good people of Norway are faced with a dilemma. The growing sense of oppression becomes harder for many Norwegians to ignore but the only forces actually pushing back are hardly nice Norwegians–not nice at all. And they challenge both the values or interests of many in the Norwegian public.

As I was watching the series I happened to be reading the book Violent Politics, by William R. Polk. Polk’s book is a history of insurgencies “from the American Revolution to Iraq.” Polk’s argument is that all insurgencies follow a similar path. They start with an invasion or some other challenge to the identity of a cohesive group, whether nation, culture or tribe. At first only a tiny number of individuals fight back. They are small in number and typically poorly armed but they are dedicated and zealous. They are not nice people by a conventional definition, and they often start with terrorist acts.

As they start to take action, a number of contradictory things are set in motion. More and more people are attracted to the cause but there is typically a high degree of resistance to their methods even among the people they are attempting to win over. Polk describes General Washington’s disgust at the kind of person fighting for American independence in loosely organized militias, and he was ever attempting to squash them in favor of a decent regular army, one that would be willing to fight fair, under European rules of engagement. In Polk’s view that would have been a disaster – in fact Polk argues that were it left to Washington the war would have been lost since a conventional American army would have been no match for the British. It took the nasty guys to create the change, and to force the population to make a choice.

Polk describes a kind of dialectic, with the initial brutality of the insurgents creating contradictory responses among the populace. When the insurgency is done “right” – that is, when conditions are favorable and when the insurgents manage the dialectic effectively – the result can be a twisting road to victory.

The Norwegian insurgency follows Polk’s classic pattern perfectly – a textbook case of how to do it right.

Jack’s (Almost) Back

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Samurai Jack returns “soon,” as this behind the scenes video explains: