Airship Airlift

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

The Gulf War of 1990–91 revealed a logistical gap between the US military’s small, overnight airlift capabilities and its immense, but far-from-overnight sealift capabilities. Those first combat troops to arrive had no way to sustain combat operations until supplies arrived weeks later, via “fast” surface ships. Fortunately, their Iraqi enemy gave them months to build up their forces, and 95 percent of American materiel eventually arrived via sealift.

This need for mid-term transport led Lieutenant Colonel Donald E. Ryan, Jr., of the USAF to consider the airship’s potential for airlift. In his estimation, a modern Hindenburg would be able to carry roughly as much as a cargo jet, would be able to reach anywhere on the globe within 10 days, and would cost just a fraction of what a jet costs.

Further, airships can land without an airstrip, they can carry “outsized” cargo, they’re almost invisible to radar, and they’re surprisingly robust:

For example, the only US airship lost in combat during World War II, the K-74, took three 88mm gun hits and 200 rounds of 20mm cannon fire from a submarine it was attacking before finally going down.

Never Enough Sleep

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Children have been getting less and less sleep over the years — and “expert” recommendations have kept pace:

Background and Objective: There is a common belief that children are not getting enough sleep and that children’s total sleep time has been declining. Over the century, many authors have proposed sleep recommendations. The aim of this study was to describe historical trends in recommended and actual sleep durations for children and adolescents, and to explore the rationale of sleep recommendations.

Methods: A systematic literature review was conducted to identify recommendations for children’s sleep requirements and data reporting children’s actual total sleep time. For each recommendation identified, children’s actual sleep time was determined by identifying studies reporting the sleep duration of children of the same age, gender, and country in the same years. Historical trends in age-adjusted recommended sleep times and trends in children’s actual sleep time were calculated. A thematic analysis was conducted to determine the rationale and evidence-base for recommendations.

Results: Thirty-two sets of recommendations were located dating from 1897 to 2009. On average, age-specific recommended sleep decreased at the rate of –0.71 minute per year. This rate of decline was almost identical to the decline in the actual sleep duration of children (–0.73 minute per year). Recommended sleep was consistently ?37 minutes greater than actual sleep, although both declined over time.

Conclusions: A lack of empirical evidence for sleep recommendations was universally acknowledged. Inadequate sleep was seen as a consequence of “modern life,” associated with technologies of the time. No matter how much sleep children are getting, it has always been assumed that they need more.


Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

As World War II came to a close, the Soviets began developing the now-iconic AK-47 assault rifle.

Like the German Sturmgewehr 44, the fully automatic AK-47 didn’t shoot full-power rifle ammunition, like a light machine-gun, or pistol ammunition, like a submachine-gun, but instead shot an intermediate round — a shortened .30-caliber rifle round, the 7.62x39mm. The American military considered the AK-47 a machine-carbine.

Russian industry had difficulty producing the AK-47 in large numbers until it was redesigned in 1959 as the AKM with a simpler receiver that didn’t need to be carefully machined. The AKM is the model that was mass-produced and distributed throughout the world. It is estimated that there are 100 million AK-family weapons available worldwide, primarily AKM-style.

The Soviets themselves moved on to a new model in the 1970s, the “cleverly” named AK-74, which uses a glorified .22, like the American M-16 — in this case, 5.45x39mm.

Now, Izhmash, the Russian firm that produces AKs, has a problem. The world is awash in AKs, and the Russian military has 17 million AK-74s for one million troops. So they have designed a new AK, the AK-12, with features that would appeal to foreign buyers:

  • Ambidextrous forward charging handle.
  • Smaller ejection port.
  • New safety switch.
  • New fire control switch with three modes of fire (single shot, 3 round burst and full auto).
  • New hinged top cover. The cover is a lot more rigid that the previous AK rifles.
  • Quad Picatinny rails.
  • Folding and length adjustable stock.
  • Ergonomic pistol grip (with a decent radius between trigger guard and grip).
  • New muzzle brake that attaches to standard NATO 22mm threading.
  • Improved barrel rifling.

Picatinny rails — named for America’s Picatinny Arsenal, which defined the standard — are great for mounting the kind of optics few Russians can afford.

The Mechanism and Technique of Warfare

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

The introduction to this 1915 book on the mechanism and technique of warfare might surprise you:

It is a far cry from the noble Homeric combats on the Plains of Troy to wholesale assassination with gas or hand grenades in a neighboring trench a city block away. We are so civilized that we scout with aeroplanes and drop bombs into quiet places where women and children tend their old-fashioned gardens. We come up with a torpedo under the boilers of a great passenger steamer with the aid of a submarine. We invite every force — God-created and man-created — to destroy our fellow man and his hard earned property. The glamour of war is gone, it is hard, unsentimental, unchivalrous, but not uninteresting.

This volume is not a history of the great European war, nor will it depict its horrors — there are already too many books on the war — but it does give a succinct account of what war really means, how it is carried on, how men are gotten up to position, fed, bathed, fought, imprisoned, wounded and killed. It describes how forts are built and reduced, how mines are laid and destroyed, how barbed wire entanglements are made and destroyed, how submarines carry on their audacious and successful enterprises. It is like no other book, being very largely from the pens of high army and navy officers whose names cannot be used in many cases owing to departmental orders. This book could never have been compiled except from the files of the Scientific American, the foremost authority on Naval and Military affairs in the United States. All matter with trifling exceptions is derived from this source which is therefore a guarantee of reliability in a sea of impossible newspaper misinformation.

Yeah, that’s the Scientific American War Book. I don’t think they’ve compiled another one lately.

Aging of the Eyes

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Many age-related medical problems may stem from the aging of the eyes:

It was not until 2002 that the eye’s role in synchronizing the circadian rhythm became clear. It was always believed that the well-known rods and cones, which provide conscious vision, were the eye’s only photoreceptors. But Dr. Berson’s team discovered that cells in the inner retina, called retinal ganglion cells, also had photoreceptors and that these cells communicated more directly with the brain.

These vital cells, it turns out, are especially responsive to the blue part of the light spectrum. Among other implications, that discovery has raised questions about our exposure to energy-efficient light bulbs and electronic gadgets, which largely emit blue light.

But blue light also is the part of the spectrum filtered by the eye’s aging lens. In a study published in The British Journal of Ophthalmology, Dr. Mainster and Dr. Turner estimated that by age 45, the photoreceptors of the average adult receive just 50 percent of the light needed to fully stimulate the circadian system. By age 55, it dips to 37 percent, and by age 75, to a mere 17 percent.

“Anything that affects the intensity of light or the wavelength can have important consequences for the synchronization of the circadian rhythm, and that can have effects on all types of physiological processes,” Dr. Berson said.

Several studies, most in European countries, have shown that the effects are not just theoretical. One study, published in the journal Experimental Gerontology, compared how quickly exposure to bright light suppresses melatonin in women in their 20s versus in women in their 50s. The amount of blue light that significantly suppressed melatonin in the younger women had absolutely no effect on melatonin in the older women. “What that shows us is that the same amount of light that makes a young person sit up in the morning, feel awake, have better memory retention and be in a better mood has no effect on older people,” Dr. Turner said.

Another study, published in The Journal of Biological Rhythms, found that after exposure to blue light, younger subjects had increased alertness, decreased sleepiness and improved mood, whereas older subjects felt none of these effects.

Researchers in Sweden studied patients who had cataract surgery to remove their clouded lenses and implant clear intraocular lenses. They found that the incidence of insomnia and daytime sleepiness was significantly reduced. Another study found improved reaction time after cataract surgery.

“We believe that it will eventually be shown that cataract surgery results in higher levels of melatonin, and those people will be less likely to have health problems like cancer and heart disease,” Dr. Turner said.

The gun and its development

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

I recently mentioned that the old books in Google’s digital library really drive home how the past is a foreign country. Take this intro, from William Wellington Greener’s  The gun and its development:

Weapons which would kill at a distance were possessed by man in the prehistoric age; but what those arms were the archaeologist and ethnologist must decide. For the purpose of this treatise it is of small moment whether primitive man was better armed than the modern Ainu or the African pigmy. It is probable that the races of men coeval with the mastodon and the cave-bear were better armed than is generally supposed; the much-despised Australian aborigine, notwithstanding his lack of intelligence, is the inventor of two weapons — the boomerang and the throwing-stick for hurling spears — which races much higher in the scale of humanity could not improve upon.

How W. Milton Farrow became a crack shot

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Google’s wonderful digital library includes a number of historic shooting books. The beauty of old, out-of-copyright books is how the past is so clearly a foreign country — just look at W. Milton Farrow, author of How I became a crack shot: with hints to beginners:

I was born at Belfast, Waldo County, in the State of Maine. My father was a native of Bristol in the same State, and served his country during the war of 1812. It was his misfortune to be for a time confined in the prison at Halifax. My grandfather was a sergeant in one of the companies during the war of the Revolution, and was present at the surrender of Cornwallis. Descended from such stock my claim to be a thorough American is certainly a valid one.

From my earliest recollections the love for powder and bullets, rifles and guns, was paramount to balls, tops, marbles, or any of the games of boyhood. Cannons, improvised from tin pen-holders, mounted on blocks with pins, were the first essay. The premature explosion of this weapon with its natural consequences brought disfavor from parental source, and powder was one of the interdicted substances. By a lucky trade with an old junk man a rusty horse-pistol barrel was obtained, mounted on an oak block, secured by an iron staple. It proved a source of great delight. The standing piles on the pier-head, 300 yards’ distance, was the enemy, and many were the pounds of lead fired away in the attempt to make “Long Tom” do fine work.

School vacations were spent when possible on board father’s vessel, a goodly schooner of seventy tons burthen, plying in the coasting trade from Belfast, east and west; here the use of the shot gun was learned and chances for practicing on coots and ducks were never neglected. The feelings of triumph were most keenly enjoyed when returning to the vessel in harbor from some neighboring ledge of rocks or island in the bay with a goodly bag, to hear the hearty praises from older lips. Never will I forget my first bag of that most wily bird, the “Black Duck” of the coast. One November morning I noticed with the telescope a flock of ducks feeding over the bar running from Tory’s to Trumpet Island in Eggemoggin Reach, a sinuous passage amongst the islands, running east and west on the coast of Maine. The schooner was in Centre Harbor. I informed father of the ducks in sight and I desired to go after them. Smiling and shaking his head, he replied: “Black ducks! you want to go after black ducks, it takes an older hunter than you are to shoot black ducks.” I at last got his consent to try.

After stepping the mast in the boat alongside and the gun passed in I pushed off. A light southerly breeze soon carried the boat out into the Reach. Yes, the ducks were still there. Steering for the leeward point of Tory’s Island, my plan was formed to land on the side opposite the birds and try to stalk them through the grass. Gun in hand I stepped on the outer shore of the island to walk towards the. farther point where the birds were feeding. The high bank would conceal my approach up to one hundred yards, then the grass was barely high enough to conceal one lying flat. The gun I carried as I took my way along was an old muzzle-loading twelve bore which was in the usual condition of guns kept on ship-board, barrels like a rusty bar, the locks inclined to be weak, and the hammers rather shaky, but for all that it had a reputation for killing coots and ducks second to none in the county. My progress through the grass was very slow as I pushed the gun in advance. I had received minute instructions from father never to get in front of the gun in crawling or working my way up to birds, as it was better to occasionally lose a shot than to run the risk of shooting myself drawing the gun towards me by the muzzle. The grass was getting thin in front. I must be near the bank on the side next the ducks.

With both hammers at full cock I raised nearly up, my left elbow still on the ground. Thirty yards in front were the ducks, a flock of fifteen or more. Aiming for the centre of the bunch I pulled the trigger; a sharp click was the only response, but every duck’s head was straight up at the sound. Nervously my finger felt for the left-hand trigger, when bang went the other barrel, without any aim, up went the ducks as only “blackies” can “go up ” not a feather touched. I could have cried, as I lay and watched their receding forms. Presently I noticed they had changed their course, were swinging toward me with intent to cross the bar between the islands, but the strong southwest wind blows them leeward fast, they are flying at right angles to the wind and will cross within shot. I feel for another “G. D.,” but the box of caps was left in the boat. On come the ducks. I sit up now and look at them, sixty, forty, only thirty yards away, and bunched so beautifully.

I put up the old crow-bar as I had called it, to show what I could have done had I not forgotten the caps and derisively pulled the trigger right at the middle of the flock. Bang! — I was nearly laid flat. Enough of the fulminate from the ” G. D.” cap had remained on the cone to cause the explosion of the powder. Jumping to my feet I looked for the birds. The aim was deadly. Five of them dropped on the point and the shore, two others left the bunch and after a moment set their wings and slowly settled to the waters of the Reach. My joy knew no bounds. How I caressed and patted the rusty barrel which the moment before I had so feelingly dubbed a crow-bar. I picked up my ducks, three with broken wings and two killed outright, put them in the boat and started in the direction I had marked the two crippled ones. One only I found floating dead, then headed the boat for the harbor. I carefully concealed the ducks under the stern sheets and ranged alongside. “Pity the ducks were so shy. Hand up the gun. I was watching through the glass when you fired. How near did you get to them?”  ”About thirty yards,” I replied. “Thirty yards and not drop one! Well, well, I expected better work than that after all my instructions; what was the matter?” “Oh, the gun missed fire and I pulled off the second barrel without taking aim.” “I thought I heard you shoot a second time. What did you fire at?” with a little impatience. “Come, jump up out of that boat.” Coming to the side of the vessel just as I pulled out one duck he said, “What have you got there?” “Where?” I answered, as I tried to conceal the bird behind me. “A black duck?” inquiringly and with some astonishment. “Yes,” I shouted, “and another and another,” I repeated, until I had tossed on the deck the six beautiful birds. My triumph was complete, and boy like, I shouted, “Now I guess you will think I can shoot black ducks as well as some older hunters.” I cannot describe his astonished looks. He had seen the ducks fly away uninjured, and then to have them introduced so suddenly to his attention was too much for his equilibrium. “Well done, well done!” “Six.” “Why — how — how — did — you — do — it?” and he looked at the ducks then at me two or three times. A full explanation followed with congratulations encore. I remember at the next meal, however, the favors of kind Providence were mentioned most devoutly in the Grace.

Hobberdy Dick

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Hobberdy Dick is obscure, even compared to other fantasy classics:

Woe’s me, woe’s me!
The acorn’s not yet
Fallen from the tree
That’s to make the cradle
That’s to rock the bairn [lad]
That’s to grow to a man
That’s to lay me.

— The Cauld Lad of Hilton’s Song

Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones. For every fantasy novel or series as famous as the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories or Watership Down, there’s another which is little-known, even among aficionados of the genre, like Lud-in-the-Mist or The Night Land. Given the vast amount of fantasy published in the last century and a half, and the scattered nature of it in the century between modern fantasy’s creation by authors like Morris, MacDonald, and Meredith in the 1850s to the flash-point of Tolkien’s publication of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1950s (1954-56) giving the genre shape and definition, it’s not surprising that some books, even those popular in their own day, somehow fell through the cracks. Few of these are so worthy of renewed attention of Katharine Briggs’ Hobberdy Dick (1955).

The story is in many ways a familiar one: A new family moves into an old house, and gradually they begin to realize that something strange is going on. They are sharing their home with something supernatural — something that’s been there a very, very long time. Many stories that follow this pattern are horror (e.g., King’s The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls), while others feature more benign boogiemen (The Canterville Ghost, McKillip’s The House on Parchment Street, Tony DiTerlizzi’s recent Spiderwick Chronicles, etc.). [1] Briggs departs from the pattern by turning it inside out: Her point of view character is not one of the humans newly arrived but the centuries-old creature who has been there all along, the title character Hobberdy Dick himself.

“[Brownies] are generally described as
small men, about three feet in height,
very raggedly dressed in brown clothes,
with brown faces and shaggy heads,
who come out at night and do the work
that has been left undone by the servants.
They make themselves responsible
for the farm or house in which they live…
A brownie will often become attached
to one member of the family…
he has a right to a bowl of cream or best milk
and to a specially good bannock or cake…
Any offer of reward for its services
drove the brownie away…
Where he was well treated, however,
and his whims respected, a brownie
would be wholly committed
to the interests of his master.”

— Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies

Of Hobs, Lobs, and Hobgoblins

Dick is, as his name suggests, a hob — a type of friendly faerie creature variously called a hob, a lob, or a brownie (i.e., little brown man). Hobs, unlike goblins, are solitary, shy, helpful creatures, so long as they are not crossed; a house-hob will mend items, sweep floors, churn butter, and generally help out by completing unfinished chores if treated well (the “elves” in the Brothers Grimm tale “The Shoemaker and the Elves” are clearly hobs). Wise homeowners will reward him with a saucer of milk or small cakes spread with honey left out for him at night. But, like many of “the fair folk”, they have a sinister side; a hob who was offended would either abandon its post or, worse, turn into a boggart or bogle (the English folklore equivalents of a poltergeist), spoiling work instead of completing it. Those who fell between the helpful and the malicious were generally called hobgoblins, like Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck; the Irish pooka (known to American audiences via the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey) is a similar creature, and some have even suggested that the Robin Hood legend began as a hob story (Rob [or Hob] -in-the-Woods). Aside from being the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “hobbit” [2], hobs have largely failed to make the transition from folklore into modern fantasy, unlike other faerie creatures such as elves and dwarves, mythological beings like sphinxes and dragons, fairytale favorites like witches and ogres, or even fellow folktale creatures such as giants and goblins.

“That was our little man,” she said…
“Hobberdy Dick?” said Marion, whispering.
“I don’t know his name,” said Martha. “He’s a
little ragged man that does things about the house.
I see him sometimes.”

Perhaps one reason for their dropping out of sight is that hobs, unlike the aristocratic elves, master-craftsmen dwarves, scheming witches, or huge lumbering giants, were neither the heroes of stories nor the monstrous foes overcome by heroes. Their lot was humbler; they were very much the supernatural helpers of servants, not companions of lords and ladies — and before Tolkien few fantasy authors expressed much sympathy or interest in the “Downstairs” side of the Upstairs/Downstairs equation. [3] Morris’s, Dunsany’s, and Eddison’s heroes tend to be princes and lords, and the same is true of most other fantasies of the times; even the apparently ordinary protagonists of novels like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953) and Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp’s Land of Unreason (1941/42) turn out to be reincarnations of Ogier the Dane and Frederick Barbarossa, respectively. And while working class “proletarian” heroes were a well-established folktale tradition, their stories — Jack the giant killer, the tailor who killed seven with one stroke, etc. — were far more active and dramatic than those who, in Milton’s phrase, “stand and wait”. Briggs achieves what J. K. Rowling more recently tried and failed at with her Dobby and Kreature: take a nearly forgotten class of folklore creature, personalize a single member of that group, and imbue his steadfast attempts to protect his home and adopted family in troubled times with a heroism of its own.

“. . . If there’s a beast more on a farm
than ye can reckon for, pay good heed to it.
Ye never know who put it there.”

Charity looked up at him with large eyes.
“What do you mean, Mr. Batchford?”
she whispered. “Not the fairies?”

“Name no names,” said George Batchford. “There’s
some makes good neighbors if they’re treated right,
and Widford is well known to be a lucky place
and well guided. Least said soonest mended…”

A Time and a Place

The second distinctive feature of Briggs’ book, aside from her choosing an almost forgotten folklore creature as its title character, is the time and place in which she chooses to tell her story — a country house near Oxford in the year 1652, during the upheaval that followed upon England’s Civil War (1642-1651) and the establishment of Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth. Vague, idealized medieval settings have been the default for fantasy since William Morris’s day, with modern-day tales the recognized alternative. Fantasy set in other periods, especially when the author is specific about when and where, were a rarity until quite recently (cf. the Tor “Fairy Tale series” launched the late ’80s, which started a vogue that has continued to the present day). Briggs is not only very specific, having her characters visit many real-world sites (such as the famous Rollright Stones, a neolithic stone circle that also appears briefly in Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham), but grounds her book in the events of the time. The story begins when the traditional owners of Widford Manor leave, ruined by supporting the losing side in the war, and new owners arrive, a family of London merchants from Cheapside who aspire to become landed gentry. Dick almost leaves with the last of the old family at the beginning of the story, but decides to stay behind:

Dick had half a mind to… scramble into the cart
. . . before running water parted them. The Culvers
had been good friends to him, and he would
have liked to share their fortunes a little longer…
But he had been at Widford time out of mind
and had only known the Culvers for a little over
two centuries. He would stay with the old place
a little longer and give it a chance of life;
it would soon fall into ruin if he left it.

The opening chapter, describing the hob in the empty house, conveys vividly how desperately a hob needs people about him and things to take care of (as Briggs puts it, “hobs fare ill without [human company]“), and the touching degree to which he becomes attached to the only living thing left at the desolate house, a little red hen who escaped being rounded up after the auction. When the new family comes, not only are they city folk who know nothing of country ways and customs, they are Puritans who scorn old superstitions as ungodly. Briggs is very good at portraying unsympathetic characters without villainizing them. Mr. Widdison, the father, is a stern man with little use for any point of view but his own, yet he is redeemed for the reader by a fundamental core of decency, a determination to do the right thing as he sees it, and his devotion to his ailing mother-in-law, the mother of his first wife who he makes sure has a comfortable home with him to her dying day. Mrs. Widdison, the second wife, is a selfish and self-important woman, but Briggs always shows how her occasionally cruel treatment of others is partly due to vanity, party to thoughtlessness; she is not a “wicked stepmother” but simply a bad parent and worse employer, something far more believable. [4] The eldest son (and only child from the first marriage) and the young woman who comes to serve as Mrs. Widdison’s lady-maid (the last living member of the deposed family who once lived there), quickly come to be the main human characters, along with some of the servants; it’s hard to deal with a large cast, some of whom play very minor roles in the story, and keep their personalities distinct, but Briggs pulls it off.

Old Ursula scolded as if she were
an eight-day nagging machine
newly wound up.

Most difficult of all, perhaps, is her treatment of the mother-in-law, old Mrs. Dimbleby. Here we have a person so good that she is actually surrounded by a kind of halo that Hobberdy Dick can see, though her fellow humans cannot (“Dick was rather frightened of her because of a luminous cloud in which she often sat, but he was fascinated, and she looked so mild and quiet that he could not think her dangerous”). The difficulty of presenting genuinely good characters who are both likable and believable is well-known, and very few writers of fiction can pull it off — most prefer to create a good villain, which is much easier. Charles Williams tried several times to create such a numinous character and failed, as did C. S. Lewis (cf. Ransom in That Hideous Strength); Tolkien managed it with Faramir and Elrond, but witness those characters’ fates at the hands of Peter Jackson, where all the character traits that make them admirable are stripped away. And every gamer is familiar with paladins who come off as sanctimonious and self-righteous rather than living examples to admire and inspire. That Briggs is able to believably present the story from a whole range of points of view, getting inside of good and bad people alike and showing how events look from their perspective, is one of the greatest strengths of her work, and a fine example for other authors to follow.

“The trouble with we,” [the Taynton Lob] went on sadly,
“is that we’re neither one thing nor t’other.
We’re frittened [frightened] of their holy water and the great
things that come around them when they pray,
but we’re main frittened of their black bugs [bugbears, bogymen]
and their counter-pacings [widdershins] and the deathly things they say
[i.e., witchcraft]. And it seems there’s no place now
for the likes of we.”

The Way of the Hob

A final strength of the book is the degree to which it is specific, not generalized. So much contemporary fantasy of the last three decades derives from synthesized stuff such as the writings of Joseph Campbell, Northrup Frye, or Carl Jung, rather than the actual stories these critics boiled down to construct their theories from. Briggs, by contrast, was probably the leading folklore scholar of her generation (her colleagues recently issued a thirteen-volume set of her Collected Works), and she draws inspiration directly from the original stories and tales collected over the last two centuries or so, many of which she published in collections such as British Folktales (1977), which includes the hob story “The Brownie”. She also wrote several highly respected works on folklore: A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976, also published under the variant title An Encyclopedia of Fairies) is undoubtedly her masterpiece, and probably the definitive work identifying and describing various folklore creatures, often accompanied by brief versions of the original stories in which they occur. Also significant are The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legend (1978), The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Pale Hecate’s Team (1962, a book on Elizabethan beliefs on witchcraft), The Anatomy of Puck (1959, which does the same for Elizabethan fairy lore), and Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies (1979, a sort of Dictionary of Fairies lite).

Out of this expertise, Briggs has focused on a very specific part of all this lore; her plot is new, but the creatures and traditions are all authentic, and all drawn from English folklore of the period in which her story is set. This wealth of actual knowledge gives the tale a distinct flavor and realism more eclectic fantasies often lack. Nor do her self-imposed limitations hinder the story; she includes not just hobs (Long George, the Taynton Lob, Patch of Iccomb, Lull of Kingstanding, Hairy Tib of Bruern, the Shining Boy of Widley Copse, and Hobberdy Dick himself) but ghosts (the evil one in the West Attic and the miser’s ghost haunting the bed from London), witches (Mother Darke) and their familiars, a will-o’-the-wisp (Willy Wisp), the old Grim of Stow churchyard (an ancient spirit that was once a god and is now a Hound of the Baskervilles-ish black dog), an Abbey Lubber (whose presence foretells doom for the house it haunts), and more. In short, she vividly recreates a now-lost folklore and, in a tour-de-force, presents it from inside, from the point of view of the supernatural creatures, with all their fascination of humankind. Nor does she make the mistake of listing off all Dick’s powers at the onset; the reader finds out what he can do only by reading along — a triumph of “show, don’t tell.”

Once, when they were both unawares,
he caught a moment’s glimpse of Dick
and stopped, startled and almost frightened;
but Dick rallied all his powers,
and thought of a clump of ferns
with a rabbit peering out of it
until he looked like one,
and Joel went on, reassured.

In the end, Briggs’ book is as satisfying a fairy tale as any of the ones she draws inspiration from. In the best fairy tale/fantasy tradition, everything works out the way it should. She ends with a particularly poignant final note, with a Eucatastrophe Tolkien could be proud of. In the final chapter, her newly united lovers present Hobberdy Dick with a choice: They lay out three presents for him. If he chooses the green suit they have made for him, he can enter the hollow hills and fairyland, becoming a member of the seely court. If he chooses the red suit, his time on earth is at an end and he can follow the humans he loves into the afterlife. And if he chooses the little broom, he can remain as he has always been, and witness what the next few centuries will bring to his beloved house and its people. I will not reveal his choice here, other than to say that it is both moving and entirely fitting — the culmination of the entire book in its final pages.

Hobberdy Dick and Your Game

Katharine Briggs has long been one of the most influential authors in gaming; her work has been a major resource much-used by RPG designers for years, often uncredited. Anyone wishing to give a fey flavor to an adventure could not find a better source than A Dictionary of Fairies, and simply leafing through its pages should provide a wealth of material that sparks dozens of encounter ideas. Beyond this, her novel is a splendid example of how to take traditional material from old stories and weave it together into a satisfying new tale. Folklore is one of the three or four major sources from which modern fantasy was created (along with medieval romance, mythology, and perhaps adventure stories), and it’s never been put to better use than in Hobberdy Dick.

Finding a Hob of Your Own

Unfortunately, while Briggs’ scholarly works are relatively easy to come across, her novels are scarce in the U.S. Hobberdy Dick appeared in England in 1955 but had to wait until 1977 for an American edition (followed a year later by a paperback); both are long out of print. Relatively few libraries have it on their shelves, meaning that fantasy lovers who want to find the book must either resort to second-hand book services such as or import their own copies from the UK, where it is readily available, having gone through seven or eight editions (cf. One reason for this neglect in the U.S. might be due to its being marketed as a children’s or young-adult book; its specific historical setting makes it more difficult for American children — few of whom know England even had a civil war, much less who the sides and stakes were, and who know “Puritans” only as early Massachusetts colonists who followed the Pilgrims — than their English counterparts. In addition, Hobberdy Dick is a book that would greatly benefit from annotation, given its heavy reliance on authentic folklore and customs. For example, readers who do not know what a fetch is may be baffled by the scene midway through the book where Dick sees young Nicholas Culver, a boy he liked who had been the heir of the previous owners, slide down the bannister and run out into the yard, then vanish. In fact, Nicholas has just died of the plague miles away in Bristol, a fact disclosed in passing several chapters later; his spirit’s lifelike appearance at his old haunts is a classic piece of folklore (cf. Defoe’s “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal”). But even without annotations, the story is a masterpiece, and highly recommended. Briggs’ only other novel, Kate Crackernuts (1963), is a fairly straightforward novelization of an old folktale and thus less interesting than her original story.

. . . but for all that
Widford was a lucky place
and well-guided in their time,
and their children’s,
and for many a long year after that.

— The closing lines of the book


[1] So familiar is this motif, in fact, that a movie like The Others can both use it and ultimately invert it.

[2] Briggs herself made the discovery in 1976 that the word “hobbit”, which Tolkien had simply made up, actually once existed in folklore. A mid-19th century collector of folklore, Michael Aislabie. Denham, had once published a list of folklore creatures based on one that had first appeared in Reginald Scot’s famous debunking The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584). Scot’s original list had included “Robin good-fellowe” and “hob gobblin”; among the creatures Denham added were “hobhoulards”, “hob-thrusts”, “hobby-lanthorns” (will-o-wisp), “hob-headlesses”, “brown men” (i.e., brownies), and “hobbits” — this last probably a diminutive of hob. See Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, especially her entry on The Denham Tracts (1892 & 1895)

[3] The degree to which they’ve dropped off the radar can be shown by their near-total absence in urban fantasy; given the modern-day phenomenon of “McJobs” and the vast numbers of the overworked and underpaid, many of whom keep homes going while working two or more part-time jobs, one would think the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a helper who sometimes chipped in and completed chores left undone through sheer exhaustion at the end of a long, hard day would have made a resurgence. The only example of a hob known to me in urban fantasy is in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, where a female hob rescued by the heroine moves in and takes care of her. There are doubtless others, but their rarity underscores the point; the office hob, a fantasy icon ideally suited to the present day has yet to make its debut.

[4] The story does have a wicked stepmother, but she’s relegated to a minor role, having been dead several centuries. She appears as the evil ghost who haunts the West Attic, whose exorcism forms one of the high dramatic points of the novel.

The Hobbit

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

The Hobbit is one of the few classics of fantasy that needs little introduction:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations

What do you say about the second most famous book by the world’s most famous fantasy author? Without The Lord of the Rings, there would be no genre of modern fantasy, and without The Hobbit there would be no Lord of the Rings. There was certainly fantasy before Tolkien (see my earlier columns about William Morris and Lord Dunsany in particular), but it was Tolkien who pulled together all the disparate threads of pseudo-medieval romance, fairy tales, folk tale, novelization of myths, children’s literature, and adventure stories to create the genre as we know it by producing the masterpiece that serves as the paradigm — the book by which all other fantasies are judged. The Lord of the Rings (LotR) divides all other fantasy authors into precursors or successors of Tolkien, and its popularity has long since spread beyond just genre readers into the general public (witness its being declared “Book of the Century” by several end-of-the-millennium polls a few years back, none of them genre-oriented). Only two other modern fantasies have had this kind of impact and universal acceptance: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland [1] and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. But Carroll’s book is one-of-a-kind, with no true heirs; it stands alone rather than as the wellspring of a tradition — the only remotely successful work in the same vein being Carroll’s own brilliant The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Similarly, though the Oz books were very popular (Baum himself wrote fourteen between 1900 and 1914 and the series was continued by his estate for years after his death) their impact on modern culture comes entirely through the 1939 movie [2] and they too failed to establish any widespread or long-lived “tradition” of similar books by other writers.

By contrast, Tolkien is a much-imitated author; there was a time when few fantasy books appeared without some reference to “like Tolkien” or “the next Lord of the Rings!” in the cover blurb, and just this fall a new author’s publisher arranged with a major bookstore chain to shelve his book out of alphabetical order so it would appear in the Tolkien section rather than by the author’s name, a fairly transparent ploy to attract attention by implying the book was something Tolkien’s fans would like. So deep and pervasive is Tolkien’s influence that most readers and fantasy authors no longer consider his major innovations particularly “Tolkienesque” but simply generic fantasy; they work with his toolbox just as he drew on actual medieval lore and simply accept his constructions as “found” artifacts. To take a single example, Tolkien’s elves are a brilliant innovation: He reintroduced into English literature for the first time since Spenser (in his little-read but masterful King Arthur epic The Faerie Queene) [3] the idea of elves as human-sized, near-immortal, elusive, and dangerous beings. Before Tolkien, the word “elf” conjured up images of flower-fairies and twee, cute little rather silly fairy-folk: Peter Pan‘s tiny, flighty, winged Tinkerbell perfectly encapsulates the dominant image of an elf or fairy (the two words were used interchangeably) during the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. There are echoes of this silliness in the Rivendell chapter of The Hobbit and the elves singing “tra-la-la-lally” in the trees, but things shift dramatically by mid-story (the scenes in the hall of the wood-elves, who are elusive and evocative and yet believingly flawed), and by the end of the book the elves are presented as the most dangerous element in the elven-human-dwarven alliance in the Battle of the Five Armies. Even the spellings “elves” and “elven” are deliberate choices by Tolkien harkening back to Elizabethan times in defiance of the accepted twentieth century forms “elfs” and “elfin,” while the parallel “dwarves” and “dwarven” are Tolkien’s inventions which he was hard-pressed to preserve from the efforts of well-intended proofreaders (note the title of Disney’s movie, which debuted the same year The Hobbit was first published: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). [4] Tolkien was a philologist, a lover of words who understood that even a subtle shift in spelling could change the associations of a word and help it escape a whole host of unwanted connotations, and his fictions have had so great an impact that “elves” and “dwarves” now conjure up quite different images in a reader’s mind than “elfs” and “dwarfs”. The “Precious Moments” little folk of a century ago have by and large given way to the human-sized yet more-than-human ancient race familiar through D&D and the literally hundreds of fantasy novels written in the post-Tolkien era and in “the Tolkien tradition.”

“Gandalf!… Not the wandering wizard…
who used to tell such wonderful tales…
about dragons and goblins and giants
and the rescue of princesses
and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?
Not the man that used to make such
particularly excellent fireworks!…
Dear me!… Not the Gandalf who was
responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses
going off into the Blue for mad adventures?
Anything from… visiting elves to stowing away
aboard the ships that sail to the Other Side?
. . . I beg your pardon, but I had no idea
you were still in business.”

— Mr. Baggins meets the wizard

There and Back Again

By the time he came to write The Hobbit in 1930-1933, [5] Tolkien had already been writing fantasy for at least a decade and a half, going back to his “Earendel” poems of c.1914 and The Book of Lost Tales (c.1916–1920). He already had in place his cosmology (how his fantasy universe was organized) and cosmogony (how it came to be), his pantheon with all its complex interactions between his demiurges, his peoples and their mythic histories. He had written long narrative poems about Turin and about Beren and Luthien, a collection of myths about the struggles between the Valar and the wars of the elves, and much more. What was lacking was a human perspective, a way of transforming a collection of myths into a coherent story. Tolkien solved this problem by bringing together the two parts of his creativity: the mythic background from his “Silmarillion” cycle (the “Lost Tales”) and the narrative flow from the various stories he had written for his children (the original drafts of Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom). The result was The Hobbit, a book unlike any that had preceded it. In the relatively short space of some three hundred pages Tolkien lays down the blueprint for the modern fantasy novel (which he later expanded upon for his own LotR), complete with all the now-necessary paraphernalia: a map, a strange unfamiliar alphabet (based in this case on the traditional Old English runes [6]), a world like our own in the past (compare Lake Town with the Swiss Lake Villages of the Neolithic era) but with features never found in history, only in folklore (dragons, goblins, elves, dwarves, giants), the coming together of a band of very disparate adventurers to achieve their goal, an epic quest to find (but then renounce) a great treasure, an inexperienced protagonist who grows into a true hero, and perhaps best of all a world which, varied as it proves, promised far more riches left unrevealed at the end of the story.

One of Tolkien’s most effective techniques as an author is the way he blends traditional fairy-tale creatures (albeit re-imagined ones bear the strong stamp of his imagination, as per the already-discussed elves) with new ones of his own creation. Alongside the dwarves and elves and trolls, the goblins and giants (who would have fit in well in an array of earlier works, from the mid-Victorian stories of George MacDonald to the Elizabethan chapbooks about Jack the Giant Killer), he inserts wholly new creatures — most notably the hobbit himself, but also Gollum and Beorn (and, in LotR, the ents and the balrog), not to mention the giant eagles and talking spiders. This knack enables him to expand beyond the material he has inherited from folk-tale and myth in new and interesting ways, as well as allowing him to generate a good deal of humor by juxtaposing some of the various elements (as in the sometimes hapless Bilbo’s conversations with the grand and solemn beings he encounters along the way).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of the dragon Smaug. A distant threat hovering in the back of the reader’s mind since the beginning of the book, Smaug proves to be everything rumor promises and marks the rediscovery of the dangerous dragon back into fantasy. Before The Hobbit, dragons had diminished from the epic foes fought by legendary heroes such as Beowulf and Sigurd to become the sly, comic creatures of such books as The Reluctant Dragon, The Land of Green Ginger, or any number of comic retellings of the St.George & the Dragon tale. [7] Tolkien, by contrast, re-created the dragon as a believable fantasy menace, making them intelligent, powerful, evil, implacable:

“I kill where I wish and none dare resist.
I laid low the warriors of old
and their like is not in the world today.
Then I was but young and tender.
Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…
My armour is like tenfold shield,
my teeth are swords, my claws spears,
the shock of my tail a thunderbolt,
my wings a hurricane,
and my breath

— Smaug boasts

Smaug is perhaps the greatest of all fantasy dragons, the icon of ancient wisdom, reptilian malice, enormous power, endless greed, and uncontrollable fury captured in one figure, who has the power to bring death and destruction on a wide scale even after his own death. He is not a mindless monster or a quaint polite figure but a vivid personality combined with one of the great archetypes of myth: the book’s chief villain, a sharply drawn character, a monster, and a force of nature all in one. Tolkien originally intend to have Bilbo kill the dragon, stabbing him in his sleep, but wisely thought better of it and had the dragon die in the midst of a rampage, perishing along with his own victims by a combination of his own hubris and a hero’s willingness to take a final desperate chance [8] — a great villain deserves a great death scene, and The Hobbit delivers in spades. Not even as great a work as The Lord of the Rings can match The Hobbit in this one point: its depiction of one of the great iconic creatures of fantasy brilliantly realized.

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum.
I don’t know where he came from,
nor who or what he was.
He was Gollum! — as dark as darkness,
except for two big round pale eyes…
Goblin he thought good, when he could get it;
except for two big round pale eyes…
but he took care they never found him out.
He just throttled them from behind,
if ever they came down along anywhere
near the edge of the water while he was prowling about.
They very seldom did, for they had a feeling
that something unpleasant was lurking down there,
down at the very roots of the mountain…
Sometimes [the Great Goblin] took a fancy
for fish from the lake, and sometimes
neither goblin nor fish came back.

The Importance of Being Baggins

The Hobbit holds the enviable distinction of being perhaps the only fantasy more widely read than The Lord of the Rings. Although overshadowed by its sequel (and a marketing campaign that labeled it as a “charming prequel” to LotR), the earlier book is quite distinct in its own right. Many readers never move past The Hobbit to the sequel, and of the many who do some actually prefer its self-effacing and self-contained tale to the grand epic that followed and grew out of it. We should not forget that, in a famous Locus poll (1987) of the all-time greatest fantasy books, The Hobbit came in second only to The Lord of the Rings, getting far more votes for first place than Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (which came in a distant third). For most, the story of Bilbo’s adventures serves as an introduction into the world of Middle-earth, the first of two complementary tales. We must remember, however, that The Hobbit was intended as a stand-alone work, and it is best appreciated as such. Tolkien never intended to write a sequel and only did so when the original book proved so popular that the publisher demanded more of the same. Even so, seventeen years passed between the publication of The Hobbit and the first volume of its “sequel”, The Lord of the Rings, which turned out to be quite distinct in theme, intended audience, approach, and scope from the earlier book.

This is not surprising, since Tolkien never repeated himself: The Hobbit is as different from The Lord of the Rings as either is from The Silmarillion, “Leaf by Niggle”, or Farmer Giles of Ham. The fantasy world that both books share dated back to the early days of World War I, but Tolkien chose to put it to a very different use in The Hobbit than he had for his earlier tales, picking and choosing from among the material he eventually re-wrote into The Silmarillion. For example, prior to The Hobbit, dwarves had always been an evil people in Tolkien’s works, minions of Morgoth and allies of the orcs. Re-imagining them as the mostly sympathetic companions of the hero in The Hobbit would have been just as startling to anyone who had read Tolkien’s earlier unpublished work as if he had chosen a goblin for his hero. Many characters and elements from Tolkien’s earlier stories appear in The Hobbit, either in the story itself or mentioned as part of the background: Elrond and the half-elven, the three races of the elves, the Necromancer (the villain of the Beren and Luthien story, who in time becomes the namesake villain of The Lord of the Rings), Gondolin, the old dispute between the wood-elves and dwarves (i.e., the quarrel over Luthien’s silmaril that led to Thingol’s murder; cf. The Silmarillion, chapter XXII), and even (in the original draft) Beren and Luthien themselves. But he has given a new coherence to them by throwing them into the background of his new story; out of a wealth of old material he has made something new that is nevertheless enriched by all the previous stories that underlie it. And in turn The Hobbit provided him with the blueprint for his masterpiece, the crowning achievement of the genre: The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, The Hobbit deserves accolades on its own merits; it is full of good things, and by itself would have won Tolkien fame as one of the greatest of all fantasy writers. Within the space of a single book he evolves the modern genre, moving from the fairy-tale mood of the opening chapters to the grand epic of the scenes at the Lonely Mountain, where friend turns on friend, heroes betray their companions, and the author displays a willingness to kill off likeable characters; something unheard-of in the children’s books of the time. What starts out as a children’s book with a delightfully intrusive narrator (“I imagine you know the answer, or can guess it, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking”) becomes something that transcends any given age or audience. Tolkien’s book stands out from its precursors and contemporaries by his willingness to introduce gray into a fantasy world of black and white, his believably flawed hero, his assumption that the good guys will often be tempted to take an easy way out (as when Thorin, talking to the Great Goblin, is described as “not quite knowing what to say… when obviously the exact truth would not do at all”) or behave in less than admirable ways (“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” said Gandalf [to Thorin]. “But things may change yet.” [note: they do]). It’s hard to imagine any other book of the day featuring a character like Gollum, a sinister, sympathetic, menacing, pathetic, wholly horrible figure. Everything about him is left a mystery: where he came from, what he was, how he came to be as he is — all that is left is a vivid, indelible impression. This chapter may stand as the single best piece of fantasy writing, from the tour-de-force of a character waking up alone and lost in total pitch blackness, through the encounter with the dangerous yet piteous Gollum, madman and murderer and lost soul all in one, to Bilbo’s decision to not repay evil with evil, whatever the cost. And, of course, the introduction of a certain little gold ring that plays a major role in determining the outcome of the rest of the book, not to mention setting up the quest for the book that followed. In short, “Riddles in the Dark” can stand for The Hobbit itself; it both opened up a vast horizon, and a working method that others could imitate but never quite match. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[F]or ever after he remained an elf-friend,
and had the honour of dwarves, wizards,
and all such folk… but he was
no longer quite respectable.

He was in fact held by all the hobbits
of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’
— except by his nephews and nieces
on the Took side…
[H]e did not mind…
though few believed any of his tales,
he remained very happy to the end of his days,
and those were extraordinarily long.

A Shelf Full of Hobbits

Since Tolkien’s work is so successful, there are literally dozens of different editions that have been published over the last sixty-seven years, and that’s not even counting all the foreign translations. The first edition is now highly collectable, with copies in good condition going for thousands of dollars; it differs dramatically from the second and all subsequent editions in that the Gollum story was later re-written to match the sequel (LotR) — in the original, Gollum did not try to kill Bilbo after he lost the riddle-contest but instead showed him the way out; this variant of the familiar story can be found in Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit (1988; 2nd rev. ed. 2002). Tolkien, ever the perfectionist, also made many small changes to the book over the years; Anderson’s edition incorporates all of these as well as providing the original readings for comparison.

For those artistically minded fantasy fans, there have been many illustrated editions over the years, from the solemn grandeur of Alan Lee (1997), to the children’s book mode of Michael Hague (1987), to the cartoony Rankin-Bass (1989, illustrated with stills from the animated film). There has also been a reasonably faithful graphic novel adaptation by David Wenzel (1989-1990). Many of the foreign editions are illustrated, some beautifully and some so ineptly as to stagger belief; a representative selection of this art can be found in Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. The best illustrator of Tolkien’s work remains Tolkien himself; his black and white drawings reveal a good deal of how he saw Bilbo’s world and thus provide a valuable addition to the story, and his five color paintings are beautiful, especially the stained-glass-window-ish “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” of the barrel-riding Bilbo on the tree-lined forest river and “Conversations with Smaug”, an exceptionally detailed portrait of the great dragon upon his hoard, complete with depictions of the Arkenstone, mithril-shirt, and a dwarven curse on an inscription.

While we have been lucky enough to get Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to wash the taste of the 1978 Bakshi film out of our minds, there has as yet been no announcement of a forthcoming comparable film of The Hobbit, although Tolkien fans everywhere live in hope. If we discount a miniseries on Finnish television, The Hobbit has never been filmed except for a single bad cartoon adaptation from Rankin-Bass in 1977, which at least had the benefit of an excellent cast of voice-actors (John Huston as one of the best Gandalfs ever recorded, Richard Boone as Smaug, Hans Conried of “Bullwinkle” fame as Thorin, et al.).

Luckily, several excellent audio adaptations have been released over the years, with the best being Tolkien’s own reading of the Gollum chapter (available as part of the “J. R. R. Tolkien Audio Collection”). The best of the non-authorial versions is the wonderful full-cast radio play from Minds Eye Theatre (available in a wooded boxed set). Nicol Williamson’s four-record set, although regrettably somewhat abridged before release and now long out of print, is also highly recommended, particularly for the troll scene (“Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrow“). Recorded Books Inc. offers an unfortunately pedestrian but nonetheless unabridged reading by Rob Englis, and more recently Durkin-Hayes Audio has released a new (abridged) recording by Martin Shaw, whose accent interestingly enough gives a more working class/proletariat slant to the tale.

Alive without breath
As cold as dead
Never thirsty, ever drinking
All in mail never clinking

— Gollum’s riddle

The Hobbit and Your Game

Tolkien’s influence on roleplaying games is greater than that of any other author, even Robert E. Howard; all but one of D&D‘s player-character races come directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the sole exception being gnomes, which as a result have always been something of a fifth wheel), as does the concept of the player-character party (characters of widely varied background, race, and abilities uniting for an adventure): one of the two or three fundamental core elements of RPGs. The original edition of D&D was quite open about its borrowings, until a cease-and-desist from the American company that owned the licensing and film rights resulted in the renaming of a goodly portion of the creatures in the original “Monsters and Treasure” book (1974; one of the three booklets that made up the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons game): thus hobbits became “halflings”, ents >”treants”, balrogs > “balor”, and Nazgul > “wraiths” and “spectres”, while wights (i.e., barrow-wights) simply silently dropped the explicit Tolkien connection. Oddly enough, the name “orc”, Tolkien’s invention for a goblinoid race, remained unchanged on the dubious logic that it resembled an Old Irish word for pig. Still, while the game has developed far from its roots (as have all the RPGs deriving from it — that is, every RPG in existence), Tolkien’s influence still remains a strong background element even now, with significant overlap between Tolkien fans and roleplaying gamers.

Besides its influence on D&D, Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been the inspiration of two licensed RPGs. The first was Middle Earth Role Playing (“MERP”), a much-read, little-played game published by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) in 1984 and followed by dozens of supplements over the next dozen years. Although featuring some beautiful artwork and maps, especially on its early releases, MERP was notorious for its torturous rules system and bizarrely un-Tolkienesque development of his setting (a female Nazgul, an adventure featuring Morgoth’s daughter, spell-casting priests as standard PC party members, and so on). An associated collectable card game, Middle-earth: The Wizards followed in 1995, again with stunningly beautiful art and glitch-filled rules. Iron Crown also published several Hobbit-based boardgames: The Battle of Five Armies (1984), The Lonely Mountain (1984), and The Hobbit (1995); of these, The Lonely Mountain is the most interesting (explore the dungeon and escape without alerting Smaug) and The Hobbit has the highest production values (but unfortunately again with significant rules glitches).

A second Tolkien RPG debuted from Decipher in 2002; although called simply The Lord of the Rings it includes material from The Hobbit as well. Several supplements have followed, benefiting greatly from the game’s close ties with the Peter Jackson films (stills from the films are used as illustrations throughout the core book). A second LotR-based collectable card game has also seen the light of day, likewise using photos from the films. Remarkably enough, neither of the two officially licensed Tolkien RPGs have ever recreated the quests from either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in adventure form.

Finally, there have a number of Tolkien boardgames from other RPG publishers, dating all the way back to TSR’s Battle of the Five Armies (1976) through classics such as SPI’s War of the Rings (1977) and ICE’s Fellowship of the Ring (1983); more recently, the world’s most famous boardgame designer, German Reiner Knizia, released The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most innovative Tolkien boardgame ever (Hasbro, 2000) featuring as it does the idea of cooperative rather than competitive play (i.e., all the players work together against a common foe, rather than try to beat each other); it has since been followed by several supplements, including one based on The Hobbit (Fantasy Flight, 2001). Beyond these, there have been several Tolkien-based computer games over the years, most recently a series of major releases tied into the Peter Jackson films. For those who like their roleplaying gaming through a computer, rumors of a MMORPG based on Middle-earth have been circulating for the past several years, and its eventual appearance seems highly likely.


[1] Here I am considering both parts of Alice in Wonderland — e.g., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) as two parts of a single book. Even if they are considered separate works, the essential point still holds, that Carroll proved inimitable and did not found a tradition of Carolingian fantasy; indeed, his own horribly sentimental and sappy Sylvie and Bruno (1889 & 1893) shows he could not sustain his own success.

[2] All the familiar tag-lines associated with Oz — “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” “Surrender Dorothy!” “If I only had a brain” “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” “I’m melting!” “There’s no place like home” and so on — come from people quoting the movie, not the book. The degree to which the book, with its FOUR witches, has been overshadowed by the movie can be indicated by the title itself: Baum’s book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie drops the Good Witch of the South (among much else) and adds such elements as the threat to Toto from the malicious neighbor (Miss Gulch), Dorothy’s running away from home, and all the connections between characters in Dorothy’s Kansas and those she meets in Oz (adding the three farmhands who correspond to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Woodsman, the mean old lady who corresponds to the Wicked Witch, the traveling showman who corresponds to the Wizard, and so on). Perhaps most strikingly, the “Emerald City” in the original book is white; it only looks green because its inhabitants wear green-tinted glasses, and the movie’s famous “ruby slippers” are instead “Silver Shoes” in Baum’s tale.

[3] In Book One of The Faerie Queene, which retells the story of St. George and the Dragon, characters keep mistaking George for an elf because he’s such a great warrior; like Aragorn, he is a human raised by elves who excels the human norm. Unfortunately, few read Spenser’s tale because (1) they are put off by its being in verse, (2) no one has told them the best way to read Spenser is to ignore the allegory and just read through and enjoy it for the story, and (3) all modern editions of his book retain the Elizabethan spellings (unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, whose spellings are almost invariably modernized). Any fantasy fan who can read Shakespeare might want to give Spenser a try sometime and might be pleasantly surprised by how like a fantasy novel they will find his story of knights, maidens, evil enchanters, treacherous and beautiful sorceresses, bold and capable heroines, monsters, enchantments, and of course the Dragon.

[4] The first paperback edition of The Hobbit, the 1961 Puffin edition (an imprint of Penguin), actually used “dwarfs”, “dwarfish”, and “elfish”, much to Tolkien’s displeasure.

[5] Tolkien began the story sometime during the summer of 1930 and finished it in January of 1933; for more specifics on how we can establish these specific dates from the surviving evidence, see my forthcoming book Mr. Baggins: The History of The Hobbit.

[6] Tolkien even went to the trouble of transcribing a long, detailed version of the book’s title into the design that runs all along the borders of the dust jacket, providing different versions to match the English and American editions.

[7] Tolkien himself wrote one story with a sly, clever, and rather cowardly dragon (Farmer Giles of Ham‘s Chrysophylax Dives), who nevertheless proves extremely dangerous when fighting under conditions of his own choosing, perfectly capable of slaughtering or putting to flight an entire kingdom’s cadre of knights. See also his poem “The Dragon’s Visit”, an amusing cautionary tale about a peaceful visiting dragon who, when provoked, destroys an entire town and all but one of its citizens.

[8] For more on this and Tolkien’s other rejected plot-ideas in the original draft of The Hobbit, see The History of the Hobbit. For the opening chapter of The Hobbit seen from Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ point of view, see “The Quest of Erebor”, published in Unfinished Tales (1980) and as an appendix to the second edition of Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit (2002).

5-Hour Energy

Friday, February 17th, 2012

I don’t quite understand the allure of 5-Hour Energy, which packages the caffeine of a large coffee or over-the-counter pill into a vile-tasting two-ounce “shot” — but it has made Manoj Bhargava, now 58, a lot of money:

Bhargava was born into affluence in Lucknow, India, thriving capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. His family left their comfortable villa to move to America in 1967 so his father could pursue a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Their new residence — a third-floor walkup in West Philadelphia that rented for $80 a month — offered a potentially dispiriting contrast to life in Lucknow. But young Bhargava was, if anything, inspired, using his talent for mathematics to win a full scholarship to The Hill School, an elite private academy.

When he was 17, Bhargava became an entrepreneur, purchasing a Chevy dump truck for $400 and removing debris from demolition sites in poverty-stricken North Philly. He banked $600 over a summer, then resold the truck for what he’d paid for it. This was his first taste of profit, and he liked it — no matter the squalor that surrounded the enterprise (rats larger than cats, murders taking place nearby).

Bhargava made it to Princeton in 1972, but what he found — a snobbish social scene and insufficiently-challenging math courses — didn’t agree with him. He left after one year, moving back in with his parents, who had relocated to Fort Wayne, Ind., where his father had a PVC plastics company.

The country was in the economic doldrums, and Bhargava was adrift. He began to read about a Hindu saint whose life had been spent on a spiritual quest; it struck him as a worthy pursuit. By 1974, he was back in the country of his birth.

Bhargava wasn’t, strictly speaking, a monk, but “it’s the closest Western word,” he says, for what he did in India. He spent 12 years on and off in ashrams, trying to learn to “still the mind,” but came back to the U.S. from time to time, where he took odd jobs such as cab driver. Once he returned to America to stay, he obliged his parents, who had been rather upset about his dropping out of Princeton, by going into the family business.

Despite having absolutely no interest in plastics, Bhargava became something of a turnaround artist. By 2001, the company had become a serious success, with $25 million in annual sales. Financially secure, he moved to Michigan, where his wife’s family lived, and declared himself retired.

But Bhargava had learned an important lesson from his time in PVC manufacturing: “Chemicals are really simple,” he told Forbes. “You mix a couple things together and sell it for more than the materials cost.” He applied that simple idea in the spring of 2003, after attending a natural products trade show in Anaheim, Calif. There he encountered a booth whose attendants were hawking a 16-ounce elixir that purported to raise productivity for hours. Bhargava drank it, and was impressed. “For the next six or seven hours I was in great shape. I thought, Wow, this is amazing. I can sell this.”

But not exactly that. Sixteen ounces was too much — too much like the recently-released Red Bull, and sure to have to compete head to head with Coke and Pepsi. So Bhargava looked over the ingredient list, and cooked up his own, much lower-in-volume version.

The formula: “a blend of B-vitamins [like niacin], amino acids [such as taurine] and nutrients,” and “about as much caffeine as a cup of premium coffee,” according to 5-Hour’s website. But as Forbes reports, a 2010 independent analysis by determined that 5-Hour contained levels of vitamins “thousands of times higher than recommended daily allowances,” as well as “207mg of caffeine — a massive amount per ounce, but less than the 260mg in a Starbucks tall coffee.” Still, it clocked in at only four calories and contained no sugar at all — major selling points featured prominently on 5-Hour’s diminutive, shrink-wrapped bottle.

It took Bhargava only six months, from the time he sipped that inspiring potion, to get 5-Hour into stores. Then his sales team went to work, convincing GNC (GNC) to carry it, then Walgreens (WAG), Rite Aid (RAD), and regional grocers like Sheetz.

But his greatest triumph was landing 5-Hour in the Walmart (WMT) checkout aisle. (Every Walmart store in the U.S. sells all four flavors of 5-Hour; Sam’s Club carries 24-packs.) “Getting it next to the register isn’t hard,” Rise Meguiar, Living Essentials’s vice president of sales, told Forbes. “Keeping it there? Very hard. Anything that sells, the stores will try. To own that space is really hard.”

“What we did wasn’t rocket science,” math whiz Bhargava told Forbes. “It’s not the little bottle. It’s not the placement. It’s the product. You can con people one time, but nobody pays $3 twice.”

The Book of Wonder

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, John Rateliff reminds us:

“I do not know where I may be
when this preface is read…
But it does not greatly matter where I am;
my dreams are here before you
amongst the following pages…
[W]riting in a day when life is cheap
[e.g., the middle of World War I],
dreams seem to me all the dearer,
the only things that survive…
[I] offer you these books of dreams…
as one throws things of value,
if only to oneself,
at the last moment
out of a burning house.”

— Lord Dunsany, “Preface”, The Last Book of Wonder

For the last half-century, J. R. R. Tolkien has stood alone as the most influential writer of fantasy: the author most imitated, the one who set the paradigm of the genre, the single person who most defined what fantasy is. But before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, who dominated the first half of the twentieth century in the same way JRRT dominated the latter half. Without Dunsany, modern fantasy would be very, very different from what it is today, and immeasurably poorer. Unlike Tolkien, who was best in long fictions (e.g., the 1200-page Lord of the Rings), Dunsany excelled at the short story; no one has ever surpassed him in the fantasy short story, a form he essentially perfected. Among his admirers were William Butler Yeats (who asked him to write plays for the Abbey Theatre and edited the first omnibus of Dunsany’s work), Ernest Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, H. L. Mencken (who helped introduce his work to America), James Joyce, H. P. Lovecraft (who went through a “Dunsanian period”; see April 2003 column), J. R. R. Tolkien,[1] Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin (who in an autobiographical essay proclaimed herself “A Citizen of Mondath”, a land in one of Dunsany’s tales), Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Arthur C. Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges (who considered him a precursor to Kafka), Rudyard Kipling, Clark Ashton Smith, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name only a few. In addition to short stories, he also wrote novels (including one fantasy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter), plays (many of them fantasy; he once had five plays running in New York at the same time), poetry (eight volumes), essays, and three autobiographies. A true Renaissance man, he ran for Parliament (twice), went on numerous safaris around the world, played competition-level chess, fought in three wars (the Boer War, the Irish Uprising, and World War I, being reluctantly sidelined to the Home Guard because of age in World War II), campaigned tirelessly for various causes (everything from condemning synthetic foods to decrying the practice of docking dogs’ tails), and divided his time between his ancestral 12th-century castle in Ireland, his London townhouse, and his country home in Kent. Dunsany truly lived the life some pulp writers ascribed to their larger-than-life heroes.[2] But out of it all, it is by his books that he deserves to be remembered, and among them the best of the best are the eight volumes of fantasy short stories he wrote between 1904 and 1916 (published between 1905 and 1919)[3], which reached their pinnacle in the three volumes A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), and The Last Book of Wonder (1916).

Come with me, ladies and gentlemen
who are in any wise weary of London:
come with me: and those that tire
at all of the world we know:
for we have new worlds here.

— “Preface”, The Book of Wonder

A Dreamer’s Tales

By the time Dunsany came to write A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), his fourth book, he had already created the first fantasy pantheon[4], an innovation whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. The Gods of Pegana (1905; his first book), introduced cosmogony (creation-myths) and fantasy deities to the genre, one of the fundamental elements of modern fantasy; it was the direct model upon which Lovecraft based his Great Old Ones (the very core of “the Cthulhu Mythos,” in its turn the most influential concept to come out of pulp horror[5]) and Tolkien his Valar, who underlie the entire history of Middle-earth from The Book of Lost Tales through The Lord of the Rings; all writers influenced by these elements in either Tolkien or Lovecraft are therefore influenced by Dunsany as well, even if they have never read his work themselves. Dunsany had also already written what is essentially the first “sword and sorcery” tale, “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1907, in The Sword of Welleran), in which an evil magician and his many minions can be defeated only by a magical sword (“Sacnoth”), and the sword can be forged only out of the spine of an invulnerable dragon:

“[I]t is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug [the dragon],
for no sword can pierce his hide; his back
cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown.
In one way only can Tharagavverug
die, and that is by starving.”

— “The Fortress Unvanquishable… “

These two achievements alone would guarantee him a high place among fantasy masters, but it was Dunsany’s distinguishing characteristic as an author that he disliked repeating himself. Thus, it was thoroughly typical of Dunsany that, having created these innovations, he quickly moved beyond them: No sooner had he created a new cosmology (like that of Pegana) or subgenre (e.g., sword and sorcery, the thieves’ tale, and so on) than he tired of it and went seeking new challenges. His work is thus a treasure-trove for his fellow writers — Dunsany throws out ideas and then leaves the development of them to others; he is an explorer, not a settler. This is in part what makes him so impressive: The sheer variety of his work is staggering. Dunsany was no Tolkien (nor even a Pratchett), to painstakingly and lovingly craft a setting and then develop it slowly over the course of decades; after his first book, he rarely used the same setting for more than a story or two, preferring to create a whole new setting and cast of characters each time he wrote a new tale — and this despite the fact that he wrote some two hundred stories in those dozen years (roughly a third of them fables). Some are set in fantasy worlds, others in modern-day (i.e., early twentieth century) London, still others in dream-lands that are nonetheless somehow linked to our world (a motif his disciple H.P.Lovecraft would later develop at greater length). While occasionally a story is linked to an earlier tale by a reference to a character or place that had appeared elsewhere, each is essentially a stand-alone piece. It’s small wonder Dunsany burned out after 1916, when, among other disasters, he was shot in the head by his fellow countrymen during the Easter Uprising; then sent from the hospital to the Western Front to take part in the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in human history; then put to work writing propaganda for the government for the rest of the War, as soul-killing a task as one could imagine). What’s amazing is that he could throw out so many ideas, so finely realized, in such a short time — an achievement that has never been equaled in the fantasy field.

I dreamt that I had done a horrible thing,
so that burial was… denied me either in soil or sea,
neither could there be any hell for me. I waited
for some hours, knowing this. Then my friends came for me,
and slew me secretly and with ancient rite,
and lit great tapers, and carried me away.
… It was all in London that the thing was done,
and they went furtively at dead of night along grey streets
… until they came to the river…. They took me
down a stairway that was green with slimy things,
and so came slowly to the terrible mud.
There, in the territory of forsaken things,
they dug a shallow grave…

— “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”

The Book of Wonder

This creativity is Dunsany’s hallmark: Most of his stories are quite short — each was written in a single sitting and is intended to be read the same way, as a stand-alone exploration of an idea or motif. Their brevity and compression is part of the impact, as is his mastery of style (Le Guin considers him one of the three or four master stylists of the genre; compare to her “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”), his knack for mixing the exotic and the homey, the humorous and the grim, the evocative and the ironic, and his gift for nomenclature (unexcelled by any other fantasy writer and equaled only by Tolkien — and most subsequent fantasists have followed Dunsany’s example rather than Tolkien’s, going with what sounds right rather than what is lexicographically consistent). The reader literally never knows quite what to expect from a Dunsany wonder tale, other than that potentially sentimental material is likely to be treated with a light touch and a refreshing cynicism. A place might be haunted by something terrible that has not yet happened, but casts its shadow backwards from the future (“The Field”). Denizens of a fantasy world may laugh disbelievingly at descriptions of our world (“Idle Days on the Yann”), but our own world can turn disconcertingly unreal at a moment’s notice (“Taking Up Piccadilly”). A hero may achieve a perilous quest and yet utterly fail to achieve his aim (“The Quest of the Queen’s Tears”). A story might prematurely conclude, with a promised revelation lost forever (“The House of the Sphinx”, “The Hashish Man”, “The Secret of the Sea”, “Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn”), or an experience be simply related and not explained (“The City on Mallington Moor”, “Bethmoora”, “The Ghosts”). The narrator might be a dreamer (“Idle Days on the Yann”, “Bethmoora”), a drug addict (“The Hashish Man”), or a madman (“The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap”); the point-of-view character an animal (“The Lord of Cities”, “Furrow-Maker”), an inanimate object (“Blagdaross”), or the damned corpse of a dead man (“The Highwayman”, “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”). Dunsany’s protagonist might be a fairy-tale hero (“The Fortress Unvanquishable… “, “How One Came, As Was Foretold, to The City of Never”), or, equally, a villain of the blackest die (the evil sorcerer of “A Narrow Escape”, the garrulous cannibal of “Poor Old Bill”, the intrepid thief of “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”) or, more interestingly, somewhere in-between.

It was quite dark when he went
by the towers of Tor, where archers
shoot ivory arrows at strangers
lest any foreigner should alter their laws,
which are bad,
but not to be altered by mere aliens.

— “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”

Such is certainly the case with one of Dunsany’s most appealing subseries, the thieves’ tales (including “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”, and “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”), each of which recounts a risky exploit by a bold thief to gain some precious treasure from its current (rightful) owner, usually resulting in the unpleasant demise of said thief either before, during, or after the theft.

[T]hey came… to that lean, high house
where the gnoles so secretly dwelt…
[Nuth] sent the likely lad [up] with the instruments
of his trade by means of the ladder to the
old green casement. And the moment that Tonker
touched the withered boards, the silence that, though
ominous, was earthly, because unearthly
like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath
offending against the silence… and [he] prayed
that a mouse or a mole might make any noise at all,
but not a creature stirred… And then and there,
while yet he was undiscovered, the likely lad
made up his mind, as he should have done
long before, to leave those colossal emeralds
where they were and have nothing further to do
with the lean, high house of the gnoles,
but to quit this sinister wood in the nick of time
and retire from business at once and buy a place
in the country. Then he descended softly and
beckoned to Nuth. But the gnoles had watched him
through knavish holes that they bore in trunks of
the trees, and the unearthly silence gave way…
to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up
from behind — screams that came faster and faster
until they were incoherent. And where they took him
it is not good to ask, and what they did with him
I shall not say.

Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house
with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin,
for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him;
then he stole nimbly away…

— “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”

Just by focusing on a single thread such as the thieves’ tale, we can see Dunsany’s influence on Clark Ashton Smith (“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”), Jack Vance (“Liane the Wayfarer”), and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (e.g., “The Jewel in the Forest”; compare to the November 2002 column), and this is only one of literally dozens of possible examples. In these eight volumes of stories Dunsany explored so much new territory, experimenting to find out just what the fantasy short story is capable of, and in the process laid the groundwork for all the writers who would follow him, many of whom chose to develop their own some small patch from among the ground Dunsany had surveyed. If Tolkien is the genre’s father-figure, then Dunsany is clearly the grandfather. His work is little read today because the genre’s emphasis has shifted from short self-contained fictions, at which he excelled, to epic interlinked novels, which were outside the scope of his talent. But within his chosen medium, his work is as readable, enjoyable, and impressive as the day it was published: a true, timeless classic.

The Last Book of Wonder

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Dunsany’s art is to look more closely at a single representative story. There are many fine ones to choose from — “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” (the first sword and sorcery story), “Chu-bu and Sheemish” (the story of two squabbling idols; Tolkien’s favorite Dunsany tale), “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (the source of D&D‘s gnolls), “The Bird of the Difficult Eye” (one of his most effective modern world/fantasy crossovers), “Bethmoora” (a quiet, haunting reverie that represents his more lyrical side), “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” (a grim picture of a very individual damnation) — but perhaps one of the most representative is “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”. Here we have all the elements of a classic fantasy tale: irredeemably evil villains (the cannibalistic Gibbelins, who stockpile treasure purely as a way to lure humans to their tower and hence into their larder), a fantastic treasure (“they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires… In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Men, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again”), a bold hero (“Alderic, Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King’s Peace of Mind, a man not unremembered among the makers of myth”), and a cunning plan whereby the hero plans to defeat the villains (“he had studied carefully for several years the manner in which burglars met their doom when they went in search of the treasure… “). Dunsany carefully lays out the problem, and the steps by which the knight prepares to resolve it — as, for example, when he decides he needs a dragon-mount to carry out a daring scheme:

This was his plan: there was a dragon he knew of
who if peasants’ prayers are heeded deserved to die,
not alone because of the number of maidens
he cruelly slew, but because he was bad for the crops… .

So [Alderic] took horse and spear and pricked
till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him
breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted,
“Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?”
And well the dragon knew that this had never been…
“Then,” said the knight, “if thou would’st ever taste
maiden’s blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed,
and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee
all that the troubadours tell of the doom of they breed.”

And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth,
nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire;
for well he knew the fate of those that did these things…

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

And yet, in the end, having built up so many expectations based on fairy tale and medieval romance, Dunsany utterly reverses them in the last two sentences: the clever scheme proves to be not-quite-clever enough, the bold hero no more successful than all those who have gone before, as the cliches turn inside-out. The reader who may have thought he or she was reading essentially a fairy tale (which tends to be the story of the one prince who wins through to Briar Rose, not the hundreds who tried, failed, and perished) finds Dunsany’s tale is more complex and unpredictable, and the expectation that this hero will succeed totally unfounded. Dunsany thinks nothing of killing his heroes, sympathetic or otherwise, in the last sentence of a story — like his contemporaries O.Henry and Saki, he was fond of surprise endings, sudden twists that confound reader expectations. A villain may escape scot-free, a hero perish miserably, a carefully-wrought plan suddenly come to naught because of some overlooked detail. The freedom to take a story in an unexpected but ultimately satisfying direction is one of Dunsany’s best bequests to modern fantasy writers:

And without saying a word, or even smiling,
They neatly hanged him on the outer wall
— and the tale is one of those
that have not a happy ending.

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

The Books of Wonder and Your Game

Dunsany’s stories, being short and self-contained, make ideal stand-alone scenarios; there is more often than not a character, location, or plot-idea in each one that would enrich any fantasy campaign. His specific contributions to D&D are harder to trace, aside from his providing the name of the gnolls (acknowledged by Gygax and Arneson in the “Monsters & Treasure” booklet for the first-edition D&D game [1974] — although Dunsany’s own “gnoles” were quite different, and far more dangerous and impressive), but his Gods of Pegana is still one of the most interesting fantasy pantheons, particularly in its treatment of the god of Death (Mung) and the wary relationship between the (absent, transcendent) creator god, the petty but still powerful Small Gods who rule over the worlds, and the humans who worship them. His thieves’ tales are a fine model of perilous adventuring, and some of the dilemmas he sets his heroes — defeat a dragon who can die only by starvation, steal a holy jewel whose god will come to retrieve it personally if his minions fail, investigate a haunting without falling prey to the things that haunt ghosts — are as good as story hooks today as they were eighty years and more ago. His villains — the sorcerer Gaznak and his three servitor dragons, the evil emperor Thuba Mleen (the original King in Yellow), the gnoles and the Gibbelins — are also potent models for challenges to throw in player characters’ ways in any fantasy campaign.

[I]t does not become adventurers
to care who eats their bones

— “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”

Bibliographic Note

Dunsany’s work has been issued and re-issued by many publishers over the last ninety-eight years; luckily, most of his early short-story collections are currently back in print. The easiest way to get them is in the massive Fantasy Masterworks omnibus, Time and the Gods (Millennium Books, 2000), which collects six of the eight early short story collections together in one volume: Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, The Last Book of Wonder, and The Gods of Pegana (which it bizarrely places at the end of the otherwise chronologically sequenced volume), omitting only Fifty-one Tales (his book of fables) and Tales of Three Hemispheres (a miscellany of odds and ends). Although not available in the US, it can be ordered on-line via In this country, Wildside Press ( has reprinted five of the early collections: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, and Fifty-one Tales, omitting The Sword of Welleran, The Last Book of Wonder, and Tales of Three Hemispheres (Wildside has also re-released two volumes of Dunsany’s plays, his first novel, and — bizarrely enough — the first of his two books of wartime propaganda). Chaosium ( released a more modest omnibus volume, The Complete Pegana (1998), which includes The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, and the three-story sequence from Tales of Three Hemispheres known as “Beyond the Fields We Know”.

Unfortunately, none of these collections include the artwork by S. H. Sime that accompanied these books’ original editions (nor, for that matter, did the Owlswick Press editions of A Dreamer’s Tales published in the late 1970s). This is a serious flaw because Dunsany considered Sime not an “illustrator” but his partner, even sharing a dual byline with him for The Book of Wonder‘s first appearance. So great was his confidence in Sime that for this book the two men reversed their usual procedure: Sime did the artwork first, then Dunsany wrote stories inspired by them (a procedure that had earlier produced the fine tale “The Highwayman”). Reading Dunsany without the Sime illustrations is like watching a black-and-white print of a color movie; what remains may be entertaining, but an essential element meant to contribute to the overall impact is missing.

Several anthologies of Dunsany stories have been put together at various times — three by Lin Carter for the Adult Fantasy Series (At the Edge of the World, 1970; Beyond the Fields We Know, 1972; Over the Hills and Far Away, 1974), one by E. F. Bleiler for Dover (Gods, Men, and Ghosts: The Best Supernatural Fiction of Lord Dunsany, 1972), and most recently The Hashish Man and Other Stories (ed. Jon Longhi, Manic D Press, 1996), with another recently announced as forthcoming (In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, Penguin, March 2004). Aside from the Bleiler (which gives a pretty good one-volume overview), these have tended to be eccentric selections; any serious reader of fantasy is better off avoiding them and searching out the original collections. Although the stories themselves are independent, Dunsany did not group them randomly; each of his eight early volumes has a coherence that will be missed by a reader who has access to only a random selection mixing tales from different books (rather like songs from concept albums spliced onto “greatest hits” collections).

Unquestionably by far the best way to read Dunsany, for serious fantasy aficionados, is in the original collections, sequenced as he arranged them and with the accompanying art he fought to have included. For those willing to haunt used-book dealers and online sites such as, the J.W. Luce editions of the late teens are recommended, since these include the original artwork by S. H. Sime; so do the Books for Libraries Press print-on-demand copies from 1969-1970. Since Dunsany was so popular in his time, the original collections were reprinted many times, and a scattering of them can be found in almost any well-stocked used bookstore as well as most larger public libraries (usually stored in their below-ground stacks, some of them undisturbed for decades).


[1] When American Clyde Kilby arrived in Oxford in the summer of 1966 to offer Tolkien “editorial assistance” in finishing The Silmarillion, one of the first things Tolkien did was hand him a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and told him to read it before starting work on Tolkien’s own story.

[2] Dunsany came by his adventurous streak honestly; one of his mother’s cousins was the Victorian explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights, first European to visit Mecca, and one of the searchers for the Source of the Nile. Dunsany’s full name and title was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, with “Edward Plunkett” being his name before he succeeded to the title “Lord Dunsany” at age nineteen. The correct pronunciation, by the way, is “Dun-SAIN-y” (rhymes with “rainy”) not “DUN-sah-nee”.

[3] The eight volumes are The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915; a collection of fables also known as The Food of Death), The Last Book of Wonder (1916; retitled by his British publishers “Tales of Wonder”), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919, a collection of odds and ends put together by his American publisher).

[4] The first fantasy pantheon: Some would credit William Blake’s visionary poems from the late 1700s about Los, Orc, and Urizen as the first synthetic pantheon, but closer examination shows that Blake is writing psychomachia, a form of allegory in which each figure stands for a part of the human psyche (e.g., Urizen is Reason, Orc what we would now call the rebellious Id, and so on.). By contrast, Dunsany is writing fantasy: Mung the god of death is simply Death Himself as a character, not some allegorical abstraction.

[5] Lovecraft borrowed from Dunsany not just in concept but in detail. For example, two of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones derive their names from Dunsany: Nyarlathotep from Dunsany’s Mynarthitep (“The Sorrows of Search”) and Shub-Niggurath from “Sheol Nugganoth” (“Idle Days on the Yann”). More importantly, Dunsany’s concept of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, the sleeping creator-god who dreams the universe into being, creating without being aware of it, whose eventually wakening will spell disaster for our universe, inspired both Great Cthulhu (in lost R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming) and Azathoth.

The Upside of Dyslexia

Friday, February 17th, 2012

The upside of dyslexia is better peripheral perception:

Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject’s field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row’s outer reaches.

Mr. Geiger and Mr. Lettvin’s findings, which have been confirmed in several subsequent studies, provide a striking demonstration of the fact that the brain separately processes information that streams from the central and the peripheral areas of the visual field. Moreover, these capacities appear to trade off: if you’re adept at focusing on details located in the center of the visual field, which is key to reading, you’re likely to be less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the broad regions of the periphery.

The opposite is also the case. People with dyslexia, who have a bias in favor of the visual periphery, can rapidly take in a scene as a whole — what researchers call absorbing the “visual gist.”

Intriguing evidence that those with dyslexia process information from the visual periphery more quickly also comes from the study of “impossible figures,” like those sketched by the artist M. C. Escher. A focus on just one element of his complicated drawings can lead the viewer to believe that the picture represents a plausible physical arrangement.

A more capacious view that takes in the entire scene at once, however, reveals that Escher’s staircases really lead nowhere, that the water in his fountains is flowing up rather than down — that they are, in a word, impossible. Dr. Catya von Károlyi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, found that people with dyslexia identified simplified Escher-like pictures as impossible or possible in an average of 2.26 seconds; typical viewers tend to take a third longer. “The compelling implication of this finding,” wrote Dr. Von Károlyi and her co-authors in the journal Brain and Language, “is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent.”

Why Do People Oppose Development?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Why do people oppose development? Usually they cite noise, traffic, and congestion, but, Megan McArdle notes, there are other legitimate concerns:

In DC and New York, the two cities I am most familiar with, “Safety” is indeed a strong objection, at least to the “affordable housing” segment of the development market. The fact is that subsidized housing is associated with higher crime — not just in the fevered imaginations of affluent homeowners, but in the crime statistics.


In New York, at least, “views”, aka “light”, are also a big deal — in ways that I think it’s hard for people in other cities to imagine, though you can come close by picturing what it would be like to sell your upstairs and move into the basement. Living in perpetual shadow, as many New Yorkers do, really is depressing. I didn’t realize how depressing until I moved out of my first floor Manhattan cave and into a light-filled second floor apartment in DC.


For smaller towns, the cost of the new residents is a huge burden, particularly if the new homes are on the small side. It’s very expensive to provide schools, sewers, roads, ambulance service and so forth to a bunch of new people, and in “starter home” developments, those people are rarely paying enough in taxes to cover their costs to the community. Larger communities can absorb this pretty easily, but if a new townhome complex is going to add 5-10% to the local population, you’re essentially asking existing residents to raise their own property taxes so that other, poorer people can move in. Unsurprisingly, this is not popular, for the same reason that you do not earmark 5% of your income to support townhome development in far-flung exurbs.

Then there are the positive externalities. People benefit from having other people around them who are a lot like they are. That’s not necessarily because they dislike those who are different. Rather, living near lots of people who want the same things out of life means that more of those things will be supplied conveniently close at hand, right there in your neighborhood. Professional DINKs want lots of bars and restaurants, and retail carrying the kind of high-end goods they can afford to splurge on. Middle income families with three children want good schools, affordable day-care, plenty of parking so that you can quickly move those children around, and places where the kids can spill soda on the plastic tablecloths. Poor families want affordable retail pitched to limited incomes and convenient social service providers. Immigrants want churches that speak their language, and grocery stores that carry all their beloved favorites from home. And so forth.


But most of us do not want to say “I want to live around people who consume the same stuff I consume”, or “I don’t want to live near poor people”, or “I would rather not have more families in town because they’re just going to be a financial burden on me”, or “I think it would be better if you had fewer alternatives to shopping at my store”, so we talk about… noise, congestion, and traffic.

A Rendezvous in Averoigne

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Clark Ashton Smith was one of “The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales” — but he was always the least popular, if the most talented, according to John Rateliff:

“In sheer daemonic strangeness
and fertility of conception,
Mr. Smith is perhaps unexcelled
by any other writer, dead or living.”.

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

L. Sprague de Camp called the three leading writers to emerge from what is now called the “Weird Tales” school of pulp fiction “The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales“: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Of the three, both Lovecraft and Howard were popular in their own time within their own limited circles[1] and have retained devoted cult followings to this day. Specialty presses (Arkham House, Gnome Press) have been founded with the express purpose of rescuing their work from the crumbling pages of out-of-print magazines and preserving it in book form for a wider, more permanent audience.[2] A number of their works have been filmed, usually with no particular concern for fidelity[3], and both men — noted misfits even by the generous standards of pulp-writers — have been the subject of much biographical speculation. In all the excitement, somehow the third and most talented of the three, Smith, has been overlooked.

This is hardly surprising — Smith has always been the least popular of the three, and his work is an acquired taste prized by those who appreciate his elegant, morbid, sensuous touch — but it is unfortunate all the same. For if it’s fair to say that Lovecraft and Howard are more important historically, through their influence on other, better writers, than in their own right — i.e., that HPL’s creation of the Cthulhu Mythos and REH’s giving definitive form to the barbarian adventurer motif are events whose importance far exceeds the literary value of their actual stories — then the exact opposite is true of Smith. Smith’s work creates no new paradigm, blazed no new subgenre of comparable popularity to Lovecraft’s or Howard’s. This is not to say, of course, that Smith’s influence has not been important. It’s hard to imagine Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series or John Brunner’s The Traveller in Black ever having been written without Smith’s example before them. But the tradition of writers influenced by Smith has been a substrata of fantasy/horror, not a main thread. His importance rests essentially upon the sheer excellence of his work: the man who wrote Lovecraftian stories better than Lovecraft himself, the most literate of all pulp writers, who showed what an extensive and erudite vocabulary can do in the hands of a Master. Clark Ashton Smith just might be the means by which pulp fantasy and horror transcended their roots and ascended into Literature.

“[Smith's] stories more than any others…
had everything to do with my decision…
to become a writer…
[I]n the short story form
CAS stood alone on my horizon…
[his] influence was… complete
and… compelling.”

— Ray Bradbury, introduction to A Rendezvous in Averoigne


Smith’s stories have a “literariness” that eluded his fellow pulp writers, due no doubt to the unusual route by which he came to pulp fiction. A child prodigy, he had already written a full-length novel by age 14[4] and published four short stories in mainstream fiction magazines (The Overland Monthly, Black Cat) between the ages of 17 and 19. By the time he abandoned fiction and shifted his attention to poetry as a teen, he had already achieved the competency in prose many of his pulp peers (e.g., Frank Belknap Long or E. Hoffman Price) never surpassed in their long careers. His poetry also won early acceptance: Hailed as a prodigy, an up-and-coming young poet, he was embraced by the literary mainstream, publishing his first book of poems before he was twenty (1912) and having his poems appear in such journals as The Yale Review, The London Mercury, and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set.

Unluckily for Smith, however, just as he became identified with the San Francisco literary establishment (which had dominated the West Coast since the days of Bret Hart and Mark Twain half a century before), that literary world began to self-destruct; its remaining literary lights vanishing at an alarming rate — Ambrose Bierce (disappeared 1913), Jack London (committed suicide 1916), and Smith’s own mentor, the now-forgotten George Sterling (suicide 1926). Furthermore, the literary style Smith embraced and embodied in his poetry, melodious and formal and melancholy, descending from Poe and Baudelaire (whose Fleurs du Mal Smith translated), was kicked into the dustbin of history, displaced by the Modernism championed by Ezra Pound (who urged his contemporaries to stop imitating the poets of seventy years before and try writing something new for a change). It was Smith’s tragedy, perhaps, that he by age twenty achieved the goals Lovecraft and Howard strived for in vain all their lives, only to have it all slip away before he was thirty.[5] Reduced to writing a Biercian column for the local newspaper, his eventual return to fiction a decade later was due largely to the urging of H. P. Lovecraft, whom he quickly surpassed in his own field.

[Smith's tales] are, above all, sensually compelling.
… [A] fiction writer must… enclos[e] his characters,
and therefore his readers, in a scene, an atmosphere…
Once you have trapped your readers in sights, sounds,
smells, and textures… [they] will be unable to resist
… Take one step across the threshold of [CAS's] stories,
and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell,
and texture — into language.”

— Ray Bradbury

Word Music: from Prose Poem to Weird Tale

The secret to Smith’s stylistic breakthrough, the element that so strongly differentiates his work from that of his contemporaries, seems to come from his mastery of the prose poem, a form he had begun experimenting with in his early twenties; his third book, Ebony and Crystal (1922), included as its final section a score of prose poems which are far more effective than the finely crafted but utterly static traditional poems in verse that precede them.[6] When, desperate in the early days of the Depression to find a regular source of income to help support himself and his two elderly and ailing parents, Smith returned to authorship in 1929, he created his own distinctive new style of fiction by essentially expanding prose-poems out into full-length stories by the addition of characters, dialogue, and plot. The result is a heady mixture of what looks to the careless eye like language run riot but reveals itself, on closer scrutiny, to be entirely under control:

Beginning with late spring, the Cistercian monks
were compelled to take cognizance of sundry odd phenomena…
They… beheld flaring lights, where lights should not have been:
flames of uncanny blue and crimson that shuddered
behind the broken, weed-grown embrasures
or rose starward above the jagged crenellations…
Hideous noises… issued from the ruin by night… and the monks
…heard a clangor as of hellish anvils and hammers… and
… deemed that Ylourgne was become a mustering-ground of devils.
Mephitic odors as of brimstone and burning flesh…
floated across the valley; and even by day…
a thin haze of hell-blue vapor hung upon the battlements.

… Observing these signs of the Archfoe’s activity
in their neighborhood, they crossed themselves
with new fervor and frequency, and said their
Paters and Aves more interminably than before.
Their toils and austerities, also, they redoubled.

–”The Colossus of Ylourgne” (1934)

Sights, smells, sounds: Smith appeals directly to the senses in passages like these that pile on the carefully chosen adjectives, in rhythmic prose that incorporates many techniques normally associated with poetry (alliteration and cesura in particular). Smith may prefer a polysyllabic colorful word to a simple short one, but the word he chooses, however unusual, will always be precisely correct. Just as Hemingway deliberately chose a plainstyle vocabulary and short, simple sentences to emphasis the ordinariness of his characters and encourage reader identification with his protagonists, his contemporary Smith takes the opposite approach that is just as viable, deliberately stressing the artificiality of the tale through a style that pulls out all the stops and makes use of the entire available vocabulary English has to offer — a feat few authors before or since have dared to attempt. It’s the difference between (say) a recorder flute or acoustic guitar on the one hand and a church cathedral’s pipe organ on the other.

“As to my employment of an ornate style,
using many words of classic origin and exotic colour,
I can only say that it is designed to produce effects
of language and rhythm which could not
possibly be achieved by a vocabulary
restricted to what is known as ‘basic English’.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, letter to S. J. Sackett (1950)

Naturally, advocates of one style tend to denigrate the other, and Smith is often derided for actually knowing words the critic doesn’t, and daring to use them. His deliberate choice to follow Poe’s example and create “word-music,” where sight and sound of the words are an essential element of what’s being said, rather than journalistic prose that stresses message over medium, meant that to a degree he was willing to accept a limited audience, one not put off by the demands his vocabulary puts on the reader , or at least willing to put in the effort to follow where he led (the same could be said of two more of his contemporaries, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound). His disciple Jack Vance has largely avoided similar criticism by incorporating a strong element of humor in his baroque prose, especially the dialogue, making clear that his style is at least partially a joke he’s sharing with his readers. Smith also has a strong and largely unrecognized streak of humor that lightens his work, and on occasion deliberately piles on the polysyllabics for comic effects:

What unimaginable horror of protoplastic life,
what loathly spawn of the primordial slime had come forth to confront us,
we did not pause to consider or conjecture… [I]ts intentions were
too plainly hostile, and it gave evidence of anthropophagic inclinations,
for it slithered toward us with an unbelievable speed and
celerity of motion, opening as it came a toothless mouth
of amazing capacity…. We saw that our departure from
the fane of Tsathoggua had become most imperative…

— Master-thief Satampra Zeiros encounters fiction’s first Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)

In short, Smith could simply have said “it rushed toward us with its mouth open to try to eat us, so we decided to run away”; the humor comes from the hapless thief’s saying it in a slow and stately overly elaborate way. Again like Poe, roughly a third of whose tales were comic pieces, albeit with grim overtones (e.g., “Some Words with a Mummy”, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral”, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, and so on), Smith can include a touch of humor in his tales without negating their essential horror; this is a difficult balancing act that few horror writers achieve.

“Cast a Cold Eye/
on Life, on Death”

Smith’s most typical tone, however, is one that can be described only as cold-blooded. Whereas in Lovecraft’s stories there comes a point where the author will stop and coyly remark that what follows is “too terrible to describe” (typically followed by the narrator fainting like a maiden aunt of Victorian days), by contrast Smith at such points quietly proceeds with the description, which often turns out to be horrific indeed (see, for example, the narrator’s gruesome death at the end of “The Seed from the Sepulcher”, or those caused by the brain-devouring creature in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). Small wonder that several of his stories were censored by Weird Tales, which demanded he excise certain gruesome or salacious details before publishing them.[7] Nor are his characters given to fainting away; some of them calmly accept death, not so much out of suicidal impulses as a deadly mix of fatalism and ennui, while others fight bravely to the last and occasionally even triumph, though in Smith’s cosmos all such victories are qualified. Even those who defeat their foes and win love are wise not to examine their happiness too closely: the beloved may prove to be a monster herself (e.g., the lamia of “The End of the Story” or the title character of “The Enchantress of Sylaire”) or, perhaps worse still, merely an ordinary woman (“Morthylla”). On the whole, Smith (inspired no doubt by the French Decadents and fin-de-siecle) prefers to avoid being overly judgmental — the villain of one story is sometimes the hero of the next (cf. “The Maze of Maab Dweb” and its sequel “The Flower-Women”, or the Averoigne tale “The Holiness of Azedarac” and its projected but unwritten follow-up “The Doom of Azedarac”).

His ability to adopt unconventional points of view — Smith opens one tale with an account of a character’s escape from the Inquisition, and within two pages makes the reader regret that he got away (“The Colossus of Ylourgne”) — shows up best in his treatment of the dead (and undead). It’s hard to imagine another writer who could title a play The Dead Will Cuckold You and end up presenting the main female character’s seduction by a zombie, when it comes, as a tender, touching moment rather than a vile act of necrophilia. Nor, in the hands of most Cthulhu Mythos writers, would a corpse-devouring Great Old One served by a ghoul priesthood turn out to be relatively benign (“The Charnel God”), concerned only with the dead and indifferent to the living. There’s a reason Smith’s work has inspired any number of game writers dealing with necromancers (see below). It’s not just his utter lack of squeamishness but his ability to adopt, and persuasively convey to the reader, what death is like from the dead’s point of view (“Necromancy in Naat”). In “The Empire of the Necromancers”, one of the Zothique stories, he even in an amazing tour-de-force switches the point of view mid-way through the story from the necromancers to the animated subjects they have raised from the dead; the undead mount a successful revolt against their living masters for the sole purpose of once again returning to the untroubled calm of death.

After his death, he forgot that he had died;
forgot the immediate past
with all its happenings and circumstances…
[H]e began to play with the thought of some presence
— immortal, lovely, and evil — that… would respond
to the evocation of one who… had longed vainly
for visions from beyond mortality.
Through headstone aisles of moon-touched solitude,
he came to a lofty mausoleum… Beneath it,
he had been told, were extensive vaults…
To his startlement a woman, or what
appeared to be such, was sitting
on a fallen shaft beside the mausoleum.
He could not see her distinctly…
“Who are you?” he asked…
“I am the lamia Morthylla,” she replied.

— “Morthylla” (1953)

The Dead Will Cuckold You

Oddly enough, despite his preoccupations, Smith’s work is not repulsive or grotesque but weirdly beautiful. One of the reasons is that he admits into his fictional worlds not just horror but also love — ennui but also passion. It’s significant that Smith’s works are filled with well-drawn female characters. In this he stands alone among his Weird Tales peers — compare the enchantress Moriamis (“The Holiness of Azedarac”), the sorceress Sephora (“The Enchantress of Sylaire”), or even Sabine, the late wife of Gilles Grenier, who avenges herself upon her husband even after he kills her (“The Mandrakes”) with Howard’s personality-lite trophy-maidens in the Conan stories. Smith’s work would be seriously diminished without the femme fatales his protagonists encounter, who are usually smarter, more powerful, and more effective than their male counterparts; in contrast , Lovecraft’s only fully realized female character turns out to be a man magically possessing a woman’s body(Aseneth Waite Derby from “The Thing on the Doorstep”). Lovecraft considered sex a rather tacky distraction from the intellectual game of horror and avoided it as much as possible; Howard treated it as a rote off-screen reward for his heroes; Smith simply assumes it’s an essential, and delightful, part of life that, for better or worse, continues even beyond the grave.

He had killed her one even in autumn,
during a dispute of unbearable acrimony,
slitting her soft, pale throat in self-defense
with a knife which he had wrested
from her fingers when she lifted it against him.
Afterwards he had buried her
by the late rays of a gibbous moon
beneath the mandrakes in the meadow-bottom,
replacing the leafy sods with much care,
so that there was no evidence
of their having been disturbed…

— Gilles Grenier kills his wife Sabine, who later returns the favor “The Mandrakes” (1933)

All of these qualities help define Smith: A vivid imagination with a morbid twist; a poet’s command of language, a prose-poem writer’s ear for word-music, and perhaps the largest vocabulary of any horror writer in English; a fatalist’s acceptance of death coupled with a decadent’s appreciation of sensuality; a noted lover of women (Smith was notorious for his many affairs) who created strong female characters, and a pessimist not afraid of killing off his heroes if it gave a story a necessary ironic, bitter note; a writer whose devotion to his craft paved the way for Bradbury, and Zelazny, and Ligotti, who pushed pulp fiction as far as it could go before ascending into literature; a member of the Lovecraft circle who could write “Lovecraftian” stories better than HPL himself, whose contributions to the “Cthulhu Mythos” (Tsathoggua, The Book of Eibon) were enthusiastically taken up by Lovecraft and made canonical; a pulp writer who churned out roughly a story a month for three years (the vast bulk of Smith’s stories were written between 1929 and 1932, when writer’s block began to overtake him, who wrote bejeweled prose that has far outlived the ephemeralness of his medium. (He finished only a handful of tales between 1937 and his death twenty-five years later.) Clark Ashton Smith was a man of many talents and the finest writer of weird tales of his day. [8]

“I, Satampra Zeiros… ,
shall write with my left hand,
since I have no longer any other,
the tale of everything that befell
[my companion] and myself
in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua
… as a warning to all good thieves and adventurers
who may hear some lying legend of the lost treasures
… and be tempted thereby.

— “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)

Averoigne and Your Game

A writer like Smith, who could throw off ideas like a flaming pinwheel, has proved a godsend to DMs and RPG designers over the years: his works were full of monsters, characters, ideas, and motifs that could be sprung on unsuspecting players who had never read the original tales, as relatively few have. The first RPG product based on his work, Tom Moldvay’s excellent Chateau d’Ambreville (a.k.a. X2. Castle Amber, 1981) was not only an exceptional D&D adventure in itself that enabled PCs to play through the four major Averoigne stories (“The Colossus of Ylourgne”, “The Enchantress of Sylaire”, “The Beast of Averoigne”, “The Holiness of Azedarac”), it also provided the template for one of the most famous of all AD&D modules, I6. Ravenloft, and the Ravenloft campaign setting that followed. The original stand-alone module was further developed by products like Gaz 3. The Principalities of Glantri (1987), eventually becoming a major part of the D&D “Known World”/ AD&D Mystara setting — cf. the Glantri boxed set by Monte Cook and the audio-CD adventure Mark of Amber (both 1995).

In addition, Smith’s work has not only inspired a number of D&D monsters but also has set the tone and thus had a major impact on the treatment of necromancy as it has appeared in roleplaying games, in such products as The Complete Book of Necromancers (1995), the Al-Qadim setting’s Cities of Bone (1994), Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998), and Secret College of Necromancers (2002). Surprisingly enough, his stories have had little impact on the Lovecraftian Call of Cthulhu game, being represented only by a very few scenarios — e.g., a single encounter in Trail of Tsathoggua (Chaosium, 1984), a markedly un-Smithian use of the sorcerer Eibon in Spawn of Azathoth (Chaosium, 1986), the Great Old One Mordiggian hovering ineffectually in the background of The Realm of Shadows (1997, probably Pagan Publishing’s weakest CoC release), and the like. Gamers who are admirers of Smith’s work are better off creating their own scenarios around his ideas. Zothique, his end-of-time setting for some of his best stories, is probably too bleak for an ongoing campaign, though very effective for self-contained scenarios inserted into a pre-existing game (e.g., in Pelgrane Press’s The Dying Earth RPG). But Averoigne is perfect for fans of both D&D and Call of Cthulhu: It combines the medieval sensibilities and possibilities for heroic adventures of the one with the eerie horror, lurking menace, and overwhelming terror of the other. (I am myself currently running a d20 Call of Cthulhu campaign set in Smith’s Averoigne and can testify to its effectiveness as a setting.) Considering its historical links with the development of the whole “Land of Mist” concept underlying Ravenloft, the domain of Averoigne can easily be into a Ravenloft campaign; Averoigne is also an apt setting for a Vampire: the Dark Ages scenario (it even already has its resident vampires, “A Rendezvous in Averoigne”‘s Sieur Huge du Malinbois and his wife Agathe).

“Old age, like a moth in some fading arras,
will gnaw my memories oversoon, as it
gnaws the memories of all men.
Therefore I write this record of the true origin
and slaying of that creature known as
the Beast of Averoigne. And when I have ended the writing,
the record shall be sealed in a brazen box,
and that box be set in a secret chamber of my house
at Ximes, so that no man shall learn the dreadful verity
and that box be set in a secret chamber of my house
of this matter till many years and decades have gone by.”

— Luc le Chaudronnier, “The Beast of Averoigne” (1932)

Bibliographic Note

Unlike the Zothique and Hyperborea story cycles (cf. Necronomicon Press’s Tales of Zothique [1995] and The Book of Hyperborea [1996]), Smith’s Averoigne stories have never been pulled together into a single volume but remain scattered over various books. All eleven completed tales were published by Arkham House in their six collections of Smith’s work between 1942 and 1970 (Out of Time and Space [1942], Lost Worlds [1944], Genius Loci and Other Tales [1948], The Abominations of Yondo [1960], Tales of Science and Sorcery [1964], and Other Dimensions [1970]) — these are now all quite expensive collector’s items, but paperback reprints of them issued in England in the 1970s by Panther Books can be found somewhat more easily. The so-called “best of” collection, A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1988, re-released in 2003), reprints four of the Averoigne stories (including two of the best ones). In addition, various plot outlines and notes for several additional unfinished tales are included in The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House, 1979) and Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of Clark Ashton Smith (Greenwood, 1989).

A second attempt to publish the complete Smith — and the first to bring his work to the attention of a mass-market paperback audience — was made by Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series in 1970-1973, but ironically their “Averoigne” volume was to be the fifth in a series that was cut short when the publisher was bought out and the line terminated after volume four. Pocket Books released three CAS collections in their “Timescape” line in 1981-1983, but these, while fine selections, deliberately emphasized the variety of Smith’s work and so only included five Averoigne tales — though to their credit Timescape did include all four of the best in the series. Finally, The Emperor of Dreams: The Lost Worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, the recent Fantasy Masterworks trade paperback (2002) that runs a massive 580-pages, includes three Averoigne tales (though only one of the best four). Of all these, only the Arkham House A Rendezvous in Averoigne and the Fantasy Masterwork omnibus are currently in print; neither is likely to be in your average bookstore, but they can be ordered online either directly from Arkham House or, respectively.

A note of warning: Readers tempted by Chaosium’s The Book of Eibon (2002) in the hopes that it presents a definitive collection of Smith’s Mythos writings, a la their excellent Robert Bloch (Mysteries of the Worm), Henry Kuttner (The Book of Iod), and Robert E. Howard (Nameless Cults) collections, should be warned that unlike these The Book of Eibon contains only two genuine Smith stories, the rest of the book being hackwork pastiche by Lin Carter and others (some of it falsely labelled as “collaborations” between Smith and Carter, much as Derleth used to forge Lovecraft’s names on stories of his own creation).

Finally, Smith is fortunate in having an exceptional website devoted to his work, which makes available on-line all of his currently out-of-print writings as well as biographical information, pictures of some of his artwork, and much, much more: see

The Averoigne series has unfortunately never been collected into a single volume. Arranged by internal chronology, the eleven completed stories and four story-fragments are as follows: *”The Oracle of Sadoqua [e.g., Tsathoqqua]” (set in Roman times), “The Maker of Gargoyles” (November 1138), “The Holiness of Azedarac” (a time-travel story starting in 1175, going back to 475 A.D., then flashing ahead to 1230), *”The Doom of Azedarac” (c.1198), “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (late spring 1281), “The Beast of Averoigne” (summer 1369), “The Enchantress of Sylaire” (n.d.), *”The Werewolf of Averoigne” (n.d.), “The Mandrakes” (? c.1400), *”Queen of the Sabbat” (n.d.), “The Disinterment of Venus” (April 1550), “The Mother of Toads” (n.d.), “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (? c.1550), “The Satyr” (? c.1575), and “The End of the Story” (November 1789).

An asterisk (*) indicates an unwritten story that survives only as a plot outline, ranging from a single paragraph to several hundred words.

I am endebted to Steve Behrends’ Starmont Reader’s Guide on Clark Ashton Smith (Starmont House, 1990) — the single best book on Smith’s work — for help in establishing this sequence; the conjectural dates in the preceding listing are Behrends’.


[1] Lovecraft was the second most popular Weird Tales writer among the magazine’s readers, behind only Seabury Quinn, author of a long string of execrable supernaturally-themed Hercule Poirot pastiches (the “Jules de Grandin” series). Howard’s popularity near the end of his career was such that Weird Tales published the Conan tales pretty much as fast as he could write them; between December 1932 and September 1936 there was only once a gap of longer than two months between issues carrying Conan stories, and often they appeared sequentially month after month.

[2] Arkham House, while founded to publish Lovecraft, also extended its mission to the “Lovecraft tradition” as represented by his fellow Weird Tales writers. Smith’s high standing among his fellow “Cthulhu Mythos” writers (as opposed to his limited acceptance by the reading public) is indicated by the fact that his Out of Space and Time (1942) was the third book published by Arkham House, preceded only by Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others (1939) and Derleth’s self-published Someone in the Dark (1941). By contrast, Donald Wandrei, the imprint’s co-founder with Derleth, had to wait until their fifth release in 1944 for his first Arkham House book (following close on the heels of their second Lovecraft book in 1943). Other members of the Lovecraft Circle did not join the queue until after Smith’s second book, Lost Worlds (1944): Bloch’s The Opener of the Way (1945), Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1946), Howard’s Skull-Face and Others (1946; Arkham House’s nineteenth book), Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents (1947), et al.

[3] See, for example, The Haunted Palace (1963), an inept adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward starring Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr; The Dunwich Horror (1970), which devotes most of its attention to an interpolated love-interest; the Jeffrey Comb Herbert West, Re-animator (1985), a most un-Lovecraftian medley of gallows-humor, sex, and gore; et al. Most of these take only the names of (some) characters and a few motifs from Lovecraft and make no attempt to reproduce the plots of his stories. In recent years, however, a thriving amateur film scene has grown up around independently produced Lovecraftian short films such as “Cool Air” and “Return to Dunwich” (both 1999); these short films make serious attempts (some more successfully than others) to remain faithful to their originals.

As for Howard, see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), which significantly did not take its plot from any of Howard’s own stories, or even from the pastiches by de Camp and Lin Carter, but owes more to the Marvel comic books based on the thriving Conan-pastiche market that grew up in de Camp & Carter’s wake. Howard himself has been the subject of a film, The Whole Wide World (1996), starring Renee Zellwedger, based on the memoirs of REH’s one-time girlfriend, Novalyne Price. Rather surprisingly, given his eccentric personality, no film has yet been made of Lovecraft’s life.

The only Smith video adaptation of note is a minor episode of Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery (1972) based on the (equally minor) Necronomicon story “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931), starring Vincent Price and Bill Bixby.

[4] The Black Diamonds, an Arabian Nights tale not published until 2002 (Hippocampus Press). At 90,000 words, it is nearly double the length of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft’s longest fiction, and twenty percent longer than Howard’s sole novel, The Hour of the Dragon (a.k.a. Conan the Conqueror). While it lacks the elegance and word-music of his later fiction, it is quite readable blend of ideas and adventures and amply demonstrates that he had already reached at a precociously early age the competency most pulp writers settle on for their entire careers (e.g., Frank Belknap Long or E. Hoffman Price), only to surpass them when he returned to fiction in 1929.

[5] Lovecraft’s dream was to see his work appear in book form; for his long and futile pursuit of this goal, see S. T. Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996). Howard’s was to graduate from the pulp magazines — the lowest rung of the fiction world — into the pages of the slightly more upscale Argosy and other “slick” magazines; see de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (Arkham House, 1976) and also his Howard biography, Dark Valley Destiny (by de Camp, de Camp, & Griffin, 1983).

[6] For a complete collection of Smith’s superb prose-poems, a form he seems to have adopted from Poe (cf. EAP’s “Silence” and “Shadow”), see Nostalgia of the Unknown: The Complete Prose Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith (Necronomicon Press, 1988).

[7] For the most part, these have since been published in “The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith” series, released as individual pamphlets by Necronomicon Press (1987-1988); the Averoigne story “The Mother of Toads” was among them. Other stories that Smith was forced to re-write include the Averoigne tales “The Satyr” (to eliminate the scene in which the cuckolded husband ruthlessly murders his wife and her lover, impaling them with his sword while they are making love) and “The Beast of Averoigne” (whose original version took the form of documents left behind by multiple narrators, a format apparently considered too difficult for Weird Tales’ audience). The modern-day story “The Return of the Sorcerer” also had its original conclusion — wherein a murderer is killed by his dismembered rotting limbs of his victim (shades of Jeffrey Comb’s Herbert West, Re-animator) — toned down a good deal for publication.

[8] While any list of the best of Smith’s tales will perforce be subjective, nevertheless any “best of” collection deserving the name would have to include “The Empire of the Necromancers”, “Morthylla”, and “Necromancy in Naat”, all three set in his end-of-time era Zothique (as is his marvelously creepy play, The Dead Will Cuckold You); “The Enchantress of Sylaire”, “The Holiness of Azedarac”, “The Beast of Averoigne”, and “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (the four best Averoigne stories, with “The Mandrakes” not far behind); “The Last Incantation”, “The Death of Malygris”, and “The Double Shadow” (all three set in Poseidonis, his version of Atlantis); “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (set in Hyperborea, comparable to Howard’s Hyborian age but written with much more wit); “The Vault of Yoh-Vombis” (truly horrific science fiction set on Mars); and “Genius Loci” and “Nemesis of the Unfinished” (two modern-day stories, the latter an effective fictionalization of the crippling writer’s block that brought Smith’s own career to a premature end a quarter-century before his death).

Cracking the Long-Jump Code

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

When Bob Beamon leapt 29 feet, 2½ inches to set a world record at the 1968 Olympics, Scott Cacciola says, his performance was a total anomaly:

He smashed the old record by nearly two feet. It helped that Beamon was jumping in the thin air of Mexico City with a slight wind at his back, but Beamon also benefited from a flash of biomechanical wizardry not even he could replicate.

Experts who have watched the jump on video say Beamon was somehow able to sweep his trail leg across his body at twice his normal rate as he hit the board, creating an explosive whipping action that launched him into the exosphere. Beamon never again broke 27 feet. His record stood for nearly 23 years until Mike Powell eclipsed the mark by two inches in 1991 — a record that still stands.

Video technology has made a major impact on the long jump:

Ramey, who’s studied the sport since the late 1950s when he was an athlete at Penn State, now uses a point-and-shoot camera that records at 200 frames per second, which is seven times more powerful than most video cameras. Though long jumpers only spend about .15 seconds on the takeoff board, his camera is fast enough to capture 30 frames of that sequence alone.

The trouble, Ramey said, is that long jumpers don’t merely want images to study. They want numbers. In the absence of those numbers, jumpers are often left to go on “feel” during training: Does one technique feel more effective than another?

That’s where BMW engineers and their cameras come in:

The distance of a long jump hinges on the moment when a jumper transfers his horizontal velocity (running speed on the runway) into vertical velocity as he leaps off the board. Most elite long jumpers are able to generate a vertical velocity that is about a third of their horizontal velocity — but, generally, the higher that ratio, the longer the jump.

BMW’s research involves using a special “stereo” camera outfitted with two lenses to film athletes as they jump. The camera, which BMW is developing for the purposes of lane-detection systems in its automobiles, turns video into data that is processed through an algorithm on an open-source robotics system. After a jump, the system spits out three crucial numbers on a trackside monitor: A jumper’s horizontal velocity, his vertical velocity as he left the board and his angle of flight.