Linsanity Is for Real

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I don’t follow the NBA, but it’s hard to miss the story of Jeremy Lin, who captained Palo Alto High School to a CIF title in in 2005–2006, only to receive zero scholarship offers.

He then went to Harvard, which does not offer basketball scholarships, and set numerous records, only to go undrafted. He ended up with the Golden State Warriors, then the Houston Rockets, and then the New York Knicks — where he played only 55 minutes through the Knicks’ first 23 games.

Then he was given a chance and “came out of nowhere” to outperform just about everyone — he even outscored Kobe Bryant.

Jonah Lehrer notes that professional sports teams are terrible at picking talent, as a recent analysis performed by the economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams demonstrates:

[NFL] Combine measures examined in this study include 10-, 20-, and 40-yard dashes, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 20- and 60-yard shuttles, three-cone drill, and the Wonderlic Personnel Test. Performance criteria include 10 variables: draft order; 3 years each of salary received and games played; and position-specific data. Using correlation analysis, we find no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance, with the notable exception of sprint tests for running backs. From a practical standpoint, the results of the study should encourage NFL team personnel to reevaluate the usefulness of the combine’s physical tests and exercises as predictors of player performance. This study should encourage team personnel to consider the weighting and importance of various combine measures and the potential benefits of overhauling the combine process, with the goal of creating a more valid system for predicting player success.

Lehrer doesn’t mention, by the way, that Lin is Chinese in a very not-Chinese sport.

A Search-Theoretic Critique of Georgism

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Bryan Caplan presents a rather esoteric search-theoretic critique of Georgism:

Economist Henry George famously advocated a 100% (or near 100%) “Single Tax” on the unimproved value of land.  Many modern tax economists, most notably Joseph Stiglitz, conclude that George’s logic was sound: Since the unimproved value of land is perfectly inelastic, even an expropriatory tax is non-distortionary.  Economists’ main objections to Georgism are merely that (a) it is difficult to implement in practice, and (b) politically impossible.

My co-author Zachary Gochenour and I have a new working paper arguing that the Single Tax suffers from a much more fundamental flaw.  Namely: A tax on the unimproved value of land distorts the incentive to search for new land and better uses of existing land.  If we actually imposed a 100% tax on the unimproved value of land, any incentive to search would disappear.  This is no trivial problem: Imagine the long-run effect on the world’s oil supply if companies stopped looking for new sources of oil.

As I noted there, this comes down to a problem of defining unimproved:

So, a tax on the unimproved value of land doesn’t work when things that dramatically increase the value of land — finding it in the first place or finding better uses for it — aren’t treated as improvements and do end up taxed. OK.

Actually, isn’t the real problem that the State receiving these tax revenues isn’t a profit-maximizing firm? An enlightened sovereign would pay geologists to locate oil on his land, after all.

One commenter felt that there was no “new land” to be found and that there was no difference between rent, mortgage payments, and land taxes — but I disagree:

I don’t know how much “new land” is still out there for the taking, but much of the English-speaking world was “new land” not so long ago — at least as far as tax-collecting governments were concerned.

Now, if we want to compare and contrast (a) a leasehold, (b) a freehold with a mortgage, and (c) a freehold with a land value tax, we need to think about how the “rent” is determined and how it changes.

In the case of a leasehold, with literal rent, the lessee has no incentive to improve the site, because the owner will reap the benefits; the owner can increase the rent to reflect its new higher value.

In the case of a freehold with a mortgage, the nominal owner has every incentive to improve the site, because he owes the bank a fixed amount; he can sell or rent at the increased value.

In the case of a freehold with a land value tax, it depends how we compute the land value. Any improvements that aren’t exempted push us toward the leasehold case. If carving a new homestead out of the wilderness means you have to pay full rent on the newly arable land, no one will do the work of homesteading. If discovering oil means you have to “rent” the site of a potential well, then no one will go to the effort to discover oil.

These problems aren’t insurmountable; they’re just issues that come up if you propose a simple land value tax without simultaneously proposing a few complications.

Dan Klein shares Fred Foldvary’s “fairly clear presentation of a geo-rent tax proposal” in Econ Journal Watch — which is “fairly clear” to EJW readers.

I find these discussions can often devolve into near-theological debates:

One problem with using Georgist language is that it raises the philosophical question of just what unimproved means — which we can debate endlessly — when what we really want is a tax (or rent, or mortgage) scheme that aligns incentives efficiently.

It doesn’t really matter what the unimproved value of the land under Manhattan or Tokyo is — or what that even means — when what we really want is a negligible marginal tax rate on improving existing lots — or creating new lots, however that might be done.

As I’ve mentioned here before, local government could operate as a for-profit firm, like a mall-management company, with home plots as leaseholds rather than freeholds — or as something in between:

Our ideal division of property rights would align incentives so that a tenant living in a house would gain a dollar by (wisely) investing a dollar (or a dollar’s effort) in the house and would lose a dollar by neglecting maintenance by a dollar (or a dollar’s effort), and the management company running the larger neighborhood or city would similarly gain or lose depending on how well it provides “public” services.

I suggest that we could achieve this by having the city sell semi-freeholds encumbered by a flexible tax-like rent, paid to the city — but this quasi-property tax wouldn’t be based on an individual plot’s value (with improvements). Rather, it would be based on the individual plot’s acreage (area) and the average price per acre of the surrounding land.

Thus, rents would go up as property values go up, but no one property-owner would face the disincentive that comes with ordinary property taxes — doubling his own property’s value through improvements wouldn’t double his property taxes; it would only increase his property taxes infinitesimally.

Book of the Three Dragons

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

John Rateliff calls Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century and praises his Book of the Three Dragons:

“[T]he ancients did not posit omniscience or omnipotence
as qualities of those whom they called the Gods:
they saw evil in the world, and were logical….
[T]he Gods were the great generals and battle-captains
in the eternal war against evil:… they… stood
in need of us as a general stood in need of his… soldiers.
… So the effort would have been, not to obtain help
from the Gods, but to give help to them.

— Kenneth Morris, Preface to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914)

Obscure even in his own time and almost forgotten today, Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) is one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century. He wrote only three novels — the first, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914), published under a pseudonym (“Cenydd Morus”, the Welsh version of his name) by a theosophical press the month after World War I broke out, when the world had grimmer things on its mind; the second, Book of the Three Dragons (1930), released in a cut version by a publisher who lopped off the final third of the story and then tried to market what was left as a children’s book; and the third, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, not published until fifty-five years after his death (i.e., in 1992) — plus some forty short stories (including juvenalia and short-shorts), all of which appeared in theosophical journals and almost all under a weird array of pseudonyms (Quintus Reynolds, C. ApArthur, Sergius Mompesson, Wentworth Thompkins, Fortescue Lanyard, Aubrey Tyndall-Bloggsleigh, et al.). Ten of his best tales were collected by Morris into The Secret Mountain (1926), a superb collection from a major publisher which was remaindered within a year; not until 1995 did The Dragon Path, his collected short stories, appear. This neglect would not matter much if Morris were only a minor talent and an interesting footnote in the development of modern fantasy, but in fact Book of the Three Dragons is perhaps the single best fantasy adaptation from a real-world mythology (in this case, the Welsh Mabinogion), and the best of his tales (e.g., “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and perhaps “Red-Peach-Blossom Inlet”) are among the finest fantasy short stories ever written.

“Who shall say where history ends and myth begins?
What is the dividing line between them? All these heroes
I doubt not were living men as well as everliving principles,
or rather they were the former and represented the latter.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

The Mabinogion and Welsh Fantasy

It is said that the Welsh have given two great legends to the world. The first is the King Arthur story, which has inspired countless authors through the centuries and is still going strong today. The second, unknown until rediscovered and translated into English in the 1830s and 1840s, is The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales that preserve what little remains of the lost mythology of the Britains. [1] It is these elusive myths, and his own imaginative re-construction of the ancient pantheon that underlay them, that inspired Morris to create his masterpiece: Book of the Three Dragons. This was typical of his fantasy, almost all of which was myth-based. In fact, his short stories are remarkable in that rather than build up a sequence of linked tales practically every other story in The Dragon Path draws on a different mythology (Norse in “The Regent of the North”, Chinese in “The Eyeless Dragons”, Moorish in “The Night of al-Kadr”, Hindi in “The King and the Three Ascetics”, Christian in “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, Greek in “A Wild God’s Whim”, or his own fantasy pantheon for “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, etc.). His final novel, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, unpublished until a generation or more after his death, was inspired by the Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl (“chalchiuhite”, by the way, simply means “jade”). But by far his two greatest sources of inspiration were his own Theosophical faith[2] and Welsh legend, in particular The Mabinogion.

“In the Welsh Mabinogion, as in books of Eastern legend,
the ancient story of the soul is told.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

“It was Morris’s belief that the great theme of the world, of its philosophy
and its mythology, was the evolution of the soul of man”

— Douglas A. Anderson, Introduction, The Dragon Path (1995)

In his duology made up of The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of the Three Dragons, Morris recasts the plot from parts of the Mabinogi into a story all his own. His is not a novelization of the old tales or an attempt to retell the same stories in a more modern idiom — for that, see Evangeline Walton’s quartet Prince of Annwn (1974), The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and The Island of the Mighty (1936, 1970). Nor is it a re-enactment of one of the Mabinogi stories in modern times, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967). Instead, Morris chooses to create a new story that takes its characters and rough outline from the traditional tale (especially the First Branch, with parts of the Second Branch and Third Branch woven in as well) but has a plot and emphasis essentially new, enabling him to overlay a theme of his own creation upon the old legend. And in the process, he deftly transforms mythology into fantasy. He does not, however, depart so far from the originals as Lloyd Alexander, whose Chronicles of Prydain — The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), and The High King (1968) — take characters, names, and elements from the Mabinogi stories but change them drastically to fit the demands of a wholly new plot set in a completely imaginary world, so that the result bears only a passing resemblance to their source, Morris’s story, while greatly changed in places, is still recognizably the story of Pwyll, Rhiannon, and Manawyddan.

“It would be an ill thing if wonders were for the seeing,
and we without the seeing them.”

— Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The first of the two books, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, takes the plot of the First Branch of the Mabinogi, “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”[3] and infuses it with cosmic significance. In Morris’s hands, the events of the old tale become more than just an evocative sequence of wonders that befall the hero. As in the original, Pwyll accidentally offends the ruler of the Underworld (Arawn, lord of Annwn) and, to make amends, agrees to take his place for a year. After returning to his own land, he meets and woos a supernatural lady (Rhianon), winning her after overcoming many challenges and obstacles. Unluckily, disaster strikes and their infant son is stolen away, and he cannot save her from undergoing years of undeserved penitence before their child is restored to them. From these lean bones, Morris spins an ornate tale that expands upon the original more than tenfold, delighting in its own extravagance all the while. More importantly, he unified all the incidents by imposing a grand scheme upon the whole: In Morris’s book, the gods have decided to elevate a mortal into godhood, and they choose Pwyll as the worthiest candidate. All his exploits — his sojourn in the Underworld, his courtship and marriage to an immortal goddess, and the rest — are here tests whereby they seek to see if he is worthy of deification. In the end, he fails, bringing a curse upon himself and his land. The final half of Fates of the Princes describes the miseries that fall upon Pwyll, Rhianon, and their kingdom until mother and land are redeemed by the deeds of their heroic young son, Pryderi.

Unfortunately, while impressive and elegantly written, The Fates of the Princes is Morris’s least successful book in terms of quality — not quite juvenilia, but definitely journeyman work. (Morris himself later admitted he “piled on the adjectives” and wrote it “in a very Welsh mood”.) Morris delights in rituals and patterns, so that almost every scene contains repetitions of almost the exact same thing happening over and over again. For example, when Pryderi seeks to free one of his mother’s magic birds from imprisonment (one of three very similar quests), he greets and fights a warrior barring him entry; after slaying this foe, he is opposed by ten of his fellows, each stronger than the first; after slaying them, by a hundred mightier than those who came before; after their defeat, by a thousand who are mightiest of all. Sometimes almost identical actions and dialogue are repeated, as when Pendaran Dyfed uses the same trick four times in the same chapter to cow the usurpers into acknowledging Rhianon’s queenship. This method works extremely well in fairy tales, but there’s a reason fairy tales are short; the repetition of patterns becomes wearisome in a novel-length work. Finally, there is the matter of the gods’ testing of poor Pwyll, which starts reasonably enough but continues to the point where it verges on the sadistic (e.g., forcing him to witness what he thinks is his infant son being murdered before his eyes); being gods, they can extend temptations indefinitely, repeating them until at last he fails. But for all these faults, the book is a bold attempt to create a new myth out of the fragments of an old one, and it blazed the way for much better things to follow — chief among them its sequel, Book of the Three Dragons.

Said Manawyddan, “The greeting of the god and the man to you…”
Said the Dragon, “The greeting of the man and the dragon to you…
For what reason have you come here — for fighting or for peace?
It will be better for you to go back to the Island of the Mighty at once,
having exchanged this friendly greeting with me.”

“Lord Winged One,” said Manawyddan, “let more than greetings be exchanged!”

“More than greeting would be fighting,” said the Dragon.

“Of your courtesy and your kindness, fighting let it be,” said Manawyddan.

“Here is the fighting it will be,” said the Dragon. “You will remember
longingly all the battles and torments of your years, and they will seem
to you like quiet sleep and dreaming in comparison with it.”

“Lord Splendor of Heaven,” said Manawyddan, “for the sake
of such fighting as that I came here.”

With that they raised their war-shouts and the fighting began…

— Manawyddan challenges the dragon Gwron Gawr, Book of the Three Dragons

Book of the Three Dragons

With the second book in his duology, Book of the Three Dragons, Morris achieves a stunning breakthrough. Although written around the same time as The Fates of the Princes was published (i.e., circa 1910-1911),[4] the book was drastically revised during the long gap between its completion and publication, allowing Morris to perfect his style and show just how much he had learned as a writer by writing the stories collected in The Secret Mountain. The result is so impressive that it’s no wonder that Ursula K. Le Guin chose an excerpt from this book as one of her three examples of the best that fantasy can offer (along with E.R. Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien):

“[I]f [Book of the Three Dragons] ever had a day of fame
it was before our time. I use it here partly in hopes of arousing interest
in the book,[5] for I think many people would enjoy it.
It is a singularly fine example of the recreation of a work
magnificent in its own right (the Mabinogion) — a literary event
rather rare except in fantasy, where its frequency is perhaps proof,
if one were needed, of the ever-renewed vitality of myth.
But Morris is also useful to my purpose because he has a strong
sense of humor… I think Morris and James Branch Cabell
were the masters of the comic-heroic. One does not smile wryly,
reading them; one laughs. They achieve their comedy essentially
by style — by an eloquence, a fertility and felicity and ferocity
of invention that is simply overwhelming. They are outrageous,
and they know exactly what they’re doing.”

— Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973), repeated in The Language of the Night (1979)

With this second part of his story, Morris departs altogether from his model; although Manawyddan is the hero of both Book of the Three Dragons and the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, except for a single chapter adapted from the ending of the Mabinogi‘s Second Branch (“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr”) the plots are completely different. Morris’s story follows the miserable final days of Pwyll until he expiates his failings and is reborn in Ceridwen’s Cauldron as Manawyddan. In the original Mabinogi, Pwyll and Manawyddan are separate characters, the heroes of the First and Third Branches respectively, with their only common element being that they are the first and second husbands of Rhiannon; Morris has transformed them into a Before-and-After portrait of the same person, with Manawyddan being Pwyll as he should have been (an awakened soul, so to speak). Even though it forms a direct sequel to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons is self-contained enough to stand alone; one can read it without having read the earlier book — in fact, since some might be put off by the first book’s shortcomings, I’d recommend reading Book of the Three Dragons first and then going back and seeking out the earlier book.

With Manawyddan’s story, Morris’s art reaches its apotheosis. In all his fantasy he seeks to lift legend up into the numinous; here, as in his best short stories, he achieves it. Rarely has any fantasy been so infused with a sense of the author’s vision. Furthermore, Morris’s is an unusually benign worldview, especially for a fantasist; one gets the sense that he didn’t really believe in “Evil” with a capital “E”. As a result, though his stories feature plenty of villainous characters, they are always drawn so that the reader knows exactly why they do what they do; we have empathy though not sympathy with them. For example, the sorceress Ewinwen, servant of Tathal Twyll Goleu (Tathal Cheat-the-Light, one of the three great thieves who are the chief villains of the story), who has fossilized more than a thousand heroes and is trying her best to similarly petrify Manawyddan, does not think of herself as evil:

“It would be the pity of pities,” she thought , “for such a man
to go roaming free, a mere mortal, in the Island of the Mighty,
when the immortality of stonehood might be put on him,
and he preserved forever in Uffern through my ministrations.”
and, after he defeats her
In pity she sighed, and her tears came near falling; she foresaw
mortal life and death for him through his stubbornness, and
no attaining immortal stonehood. Woe was her, that she
could not save him!

Similarly, Gwiawn Llygad Cath (Gwiawn Cat’s Eye the Sea-Thief) has his own distinct moral code, though it is not the same one our hero espouses:

His conscience began to trouble him sorely, thinking how
shamed he would be if [Manawyddan's magical] shield
were left unstolen… Thinking he was, that there would
not have been the like of it in the world since the days of
… Arthur. And alas, he had never attained stealing [Arthur's
shield]; and whispers had gone abroad to his discredit
over that… “Unwise the man who neglected stealing it:
imprudent he who filched it not from its lord when he might.”

And all this is while he is running full tilt away from Manawyddan with the well-armed warrior in hot pursuit! Some of Gwiawn’s interior monologues are positively Vancean; if Morris’s exceptional Master Thieves owe something to Dunsany (e.g., “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnolls”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”), it seems quite likely that the distinctive conversational style of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld owe something to Kenneth Morris.

Even the zest for battle that marks both books comes across as joyous, not bloodthirsty. (“Opposition I desire, and extreme fighting, and not to go forward until usage shall have been complied with” — Pryderi, The Fates of the Princes; “Lord Dragon,” said Manawyddan, “it was for the sake of enjoyable conflict I came here, if there were anyone with the kind courtesy to grant it to me” — Manawyddan, Book of the Three Dragons) In part this might be because of Morris’s belief in reincarnation — slain foes are described as being freed to seek better lives — but mostly I believe it comes from the extreme politeness with which all parties conduct themselves. One of the outstanding set pieces of Book of the Three Dragons is Manawyddan’s battle with Gwron Gawr, an immortal disguised in dragon form, which though extremely violent — the two fight from dawn to dusk on three consecutive days, and in the end are reduced to snatching up great boulders and beating on each other with them — has nonetheless to rank as the most polite dragon-battle in all of fantasy: the two exchange courteous greetings each morning before they set to, and equally polite farewells at the end of each day’s battle. The stakes, too, are suitably grand for the most epic of heroes — when Manawyddan is forced to pursue the thief Gwiawn Cat’s Eye through Uffern (a Welsh Hell), he not only redeems and reforms Gwiawn once he defeats him but vows not to depart until he has freed all the petrified souls he has seen and passed during their battle, giving the climax of the book a truly eucatastrophic tone.

In the end, Morris not only created a new subgenre of fantasy (fantasy inspired by Welsh myth, with Walton, Garner, and Alexander as the most notable to follow in his footsteps) but offered up a superb book that transcends its inspiration. His career is proof that even a writer with a small output can achieve greatness if there are gems of the quality of “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and Book of the Three Dragons among them.

“I think… that we too go upon these adventures”

— Kenneth Morris, “The Epic of Wales”

The Mabinogi and Your Game

Fantasies that have been read by few and unfamiliar myths make prime ground for DMs looking for characters, plots, settings, and magics to enrich almost any campaign. The Mabinogi has all these elements in plenty, and Morris puts his distinct stamp on them as well; his Master Thieves would make a particularly useful addition to a fantasy setting, while his distinctive dragons ennoble the whole concept of wily, powerful wyrms. The sorceress Ewinwen and the armies of petrified men Manawyddan encounters in Uffern would also spice up or creepify an adventure. Hardest, perhaps, to imitate would be his characters’ speaking style, but a DM or player character who achieved it would have an immensely effective roleplaying device. In addition, all who love bards would be well advised to read Book of the Three Dragons, since bards play major roles throughout the story, both in casting spells and even more importantly in breaking enchantments.

“The only fault I find with him is,
that he does not write more,
and oftener.”

— Talbot Mundy on Kenneth Morris

Bibliographic Note

The Fates of the Princes, first published in 1914 and re-released in trade paperback by Newcastle in 1978 as part of their “Forgotten Fantasy” library, is now long out of print but readily available through online used book services like (sometimes under “Kenneth Morris” and sometimes under “Cenydd Morus”). Similarly, Book of the Three Dragons, released in 1930 and re-issued by Ayer in 1978 as part of their “Lost Race and Adult Fantasy Fiction” series, is woefully out of print but available online from specialty book dealers. Fortunately for those who would like to see what Morris’s prose is like before paying $45 to $100 for a rare book, the first quarter of Book of the Three Dragons is available online at, along with two short stories and a play (The Archdruid).

The final third of Book of the Three Dragons has, alas, never yet published, although the manuscript does survive. I can only echo the words of Doug Anderson, the foremost Morris scholar: “A one-volume edition, containing The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons, and the unpublished ending, is sorely needed in order to demonstrate the real scope of Morris’s achievement and to tell the whole story of the Princes of Dyfed and the Family of Pwyll.” (Introduction to The Dragon Path, p. 26). At the very least, since Book of the Three Dragons is so vastly superior to its predecessor, a complete edition with Manawyddan’s confrontation with Llwyd ab Cilcoed (the third of the three Master Thieves) and his reunion with his wife and son restored in their proper place would be a boon to fantasy readers everywhere.

“[T]hey are not only crazy but Welsh”

— Ursula K. Le Guin


[1] The title is actually a misnomer; it should be The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (cf. Patrick Ford’s excellent translation, The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales), but the name “Mabinogion” has stuck ever since it was first used by the original translator, Lady Charlotte Guest (1838), to refer to the contents of the 14th century manuscript known as “The Red Book of Hergest” (itself the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “Red Book of Westmarch”). It includes the four Mabinogi tales as well as four others (including the oldest and possibly oddest Arthurian tale, “Culhwch and Olwen”) and three Arthurian romances. Ford’s translation omits the three romances and two dream-visions but adds the Tale of Taliesin from another manuscript.

[2]Although Welsh, Morris spent most of his adult life in America, living and teaching at the Theosophical commune at Point Loma, California, from 1908 till 1930, and spending his final years as a Theosophical missionary in Wales, giving lectures and establishing new lodges; he even assigned the copyright of The Fate of the Princes to the head of the Order, Katharine Tingley. It’s fair to say that Morris was as devoted to proselytizing his beliefs through his works as C. S. Lewis was to infuse Xian doctrine in all his own writings, but aside from his juvenalia, Morris was considerably more subtle in how he went about it.

[3]Regarding the pronunciation of the names: Morris provides an extensive section in each book explaining in detail just how each name should be pronounced in Welsh, then ends with the following observation: “[A]n excellent plan is just to decide for oneself what one will call each of the people in the book, and stick to that. Thus if you elected to call Pwyll simply Pwil, and call him that every time his name cropped up; — why, you would get along charmingly, and he wouldn’t mind in the least. It doesn’t sound so nice as Pooeelh perhaps, but then — !” (Book of the Three Dragons, p. xi-xii). The same applies to the names in The Chalchuihite Dragon; readers unfamiliar with Mesoamerican orthography will be surprised how quickly they become used to Toltec nomenclature once they become absorbed in the story.

[4] My thanks to Doug Anderson for providing this specific dating.

[5]Le Guin’s enthusiasm for the book may have been directly responsible for reviving interest in Morris’s work; note that both Fates of the Princes and Book of the Three Dragons were reprinted shortly after her essay (originally circulating in chapbook form) appeared, after decades of neglect. In any case, certainly many readers first heard of Morris’s work through her praise, which led many to check out his writing for themselves.

Rolling Speed Harmonization

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Sometimes you have to go slower to go faster:

This is the thinking behind some recent trials on Colorado’s vital, increasingly congested I-70 mountain corridor. Once the number of cars on the road reached a certain level (initially, 1,100 vehicles per hour per direction), highway patrol vehicles, riding in tandem with lights ablaze, set an artificially low travel rate of 55 mph — on a highway where cars and trucks might travel 70 and 30 mph, respectively — “pacing” a series of vehicle platoons on a segment of the highway. Gone was the furious weaving, the sudden squalls of brake lights — this was a NASCAR pace lap.

Welcome to “rolling speed harmonization.” As one report describes it, speed harmonization “holds that by encouraging speed compliance and reducing speed differential between vehicles, volume throughput can be maximized without a physical increase in roadway dimensions.”

The concept plays, in part, on one of traffic engineering’s core truths: Big speed differentials are dangerous. This is laid out in the “Green Book,” the bible of the American Association of Surface Highway Transportation Officials. “Crashes are not related as much to speed as to the range in speeds from the highest to lowest,” the book states. “Studies show that, regardless of the average speed on the highway, the more a vehicle deviates from the average speed, the greater its chances of becoming involved in a crash.”

The common retort to this statement by the “average driver” is precisely as described in the opening paragraph: See, just get everyone going the same fast speed and it will be safer! There are a number of problems with this interpretation, but let’s take the one most relevant to I-70: When there is a long queue of suddenly stopped vehicles (whose speed is zero), the higher the speed of following traffic is, the greater the differential, and thus the greater the crash risk.

The I-70 mountain corridor is a rather unusual piece of highway. As Ken Wissel, a transportation engineer with the Denver firm Stantec, who oversaw the project, describes it, I-70 has two of the highest peaks in the entire Interstate Highway system within 25 miles of each other. There are four major ascents, a two-mile-long tunnel that dips under the Continental Divide, a terrifying descent that features one of the country’s most-used emergency truck ramps, and a number of merge zones where traffic must jockey as the highway goes from three to two lanes before entering the tunnels. To complicate matters there’s snow, a lot of snow (“We had 600 inches last year,” Wissel says); and traffic, a lot of traffic. “We end up with some real long queues,” Wissel says. Backups as long as 30 miles have been reported.

These conditions are exacerbated on weekends during ski season. “If you go past Denver International Airport, and take a look at the rental car lots, about the only thing for rent is an SUV or four-wheel-drive cross-over,” Wissel says. “There’s a lot of inexperienced drivers who come here for a vacation.” It’s the “curse of the SUV,” he continues: “They have enhanced traction going uphill, to the point where it takes away some of the sense of how dangerous that road is. We have a lot of spinoffs, drivers hitting the median.”

Enter Operation “Icy Falcon” and Operation “Snow Tortoise.” That’s Colorado Department of Transportation slang for a program, rolled out several years ago, that used highway patrol cars to pace civilian cars in inclement weather, both to avoid chain-reaction crashes once a crash occurs and to prevent crashes from happening the first place. (The Colorado State Patrol claimed it was able to cut crashes in half.) The program’s primary impetus was safety, but Operation Snow Tortoise also mitigated congestion: no crashes, no congestion.

The program “showed such good results,” says Wissel, “we said, ‘Why don’t we do this more often?’ ” And so the program has been tested twice on a clear, dry stretch of I-70. There were no crashes, and CDOT is hinting (though numbers are still being crunched) that throughput — how many vehicles are moving through any one section of highway at a given time — improved during the experiment.

One to key to explaining why is the merge zones. At the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel, CDOT notes, every minute of backup translates to eight minutes of recovery time. This is another law of traffic: It takes exponentially longer to get out of a traffic jam than to get into one. Rather than having drivers go full-tilt into a jam at the tunnel entrance, drivers approach more slowly; even though their speed may be temporarily reduced, the system is now processing vehicles faster. It’s the famous rice-and-funnels effect popularized by former Washington transportation commissioner Doug MacDonald: The slower your pour the rice, the faster it gets through the bottleneck.

Colorado’s program is an exercise in what’s known as “active traffic management.” Rather than just posting static speeds and fixed infrastructure, and letting drivers work things out for themselves (a more passive approach), the idea is to shape traffic algorithmically based on changing conditions — automatically slowing drivers ahead of a construction work zone, opening up a shoulder when peak congestion levels are hit. There are a bounty of studies from Europe showing that technologies like “variable speed limits,” which generate specific speeds depending on traffic conditions, can, under the right conditions, help reduce crashes and even improve highway throughput (even as mean speeds are lowered).

But it can be hard for the individual driver to appreciate the subtle beauty of system optimality. “I actually got caught up in it Sunday,” said one online commenter at the Denver Post’s website. “I’d have to say it did nothing except congest/pack the drivers together.” This, of course, is part of the point: to reduce “headways.” Traffic engineers know, for example, that a highway can move more vehicles per hour at 55 mph than 85 mph. Another commenter sounded a typical refrain: “Get rid of the idiots who drive too slow and you can get traffic through the tunnel faster.” This would presumably involve removing truck traffic, which struggles mightily with the upgrade, from the highway. Which is fine, unless you possess a crazy desire for, say, a functioning civilization.

Post-Campus America

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Megan McArdle contemplates what college might look like if distance learning takes off:

  1. Education will end up being dominated by a few huge incumbents.
  2. Online education will kill the liberal arts degree.
  3. Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance.
  4. 95% of tenure-track professors will lose their jobs.
  5. The corollary of #4 is the end of universities as research centers.
  6. Young job-seekers will need new ways to signal diligence.
  7. The economics of graduate school will change substantially.
  8. Civil society will have to substitute for the intense friend networks that are built at college.
  9. The role of schooling in upward mobility will change.
  10. The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s.
  11.  The tutoring industry will boom.
  12. If the credentials become valuable, cheating will be a problem.

I love her explanation of the end of universities as research centers:

As I’ve noted before, tenured academics has worked a great scam. They’ve managed to monetize peoples’ affection for regional football teams, and their desire for a work credential, and then somehow diverted that money into paying academics to work on whatever they want, for the rest of their lives, without any oversight by the football fans or the employers.

Her point about diligence seems misplaced, according to at least one commenter:

It’s a different experience in a lot of ways, but I’ve seen that it magnifies the tendency of screwup students to screw up. My online classes actually have a higher drop rate than my face to face classes.

Valentine’s Day

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday. Saint Valentine is the name of fourteen different martyred saints — and the one whose feast falls on February 14? We don’t know anything about him, beyond his name, except that he was born on April 16 and died on February 14. And he was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969.

In fact, it doesn’t look like Saint Valentine was associated with romantic love at all until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls in 1382 in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

And that reference probably was not to February 14 — mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England — and Chaucer appears to be making up a fictional tradition that never existed.

The notion caught on though, and we see it mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Donne’s Epithalamion a couple hundred years later.

Around that time Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene gave us a rhyme that should sound familiar:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

It inspired the modern cliche Valentine’s Day poem, which appeared in Gammer Gurton’s Garland in 1784:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.

Game of Thrones Valentines

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with these Game of Thrones Valentines:

Measuring the things universities say they want students to learn

Monday, February 13th, 2012

The big open secret in American higher education, Jonathan Zimmerman says, is that most institutions have no meaningful way to measure the quality of their instruction:

My New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa recently tracked several thousand undergraduates as they moved through two dozen U.S. universities. They found that almost half of them didn’t significantly improve their reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college. And after four years, subsequent research showed, more than one-third of students still showed no significant gains in these areas.

Arum and Roksa based their conclusions on results from the College Learning Assessment, or CLA, an essay test that tries to measure the things universities say they want students to learn: critical thinking, complex reasoning and written expression. One sample question provides several documents about an airplane that crashed, then asks students to advise an executive about whether his company should purchase that type of plane. Another test item presents crime data from a city and asks students to counsel its mayor about how to respond to criticisms of his policing policies.

The CLA was administered to more than 2,300 students at 24 institutions, ranging from big state universities and selective liberal arts schools to historically black and Latino institutions. Forty-five percent of the students showed no significant gains on the CLA between their freshman and sophomore years, and 36% didn’t improve significantly between their freshman and senior years.

And why should they? College students spend about 12 hours a week studying, on average, and one-third of them report studying less than five hours per week. More than half the students in Arum and Roksa’s sample said they had not taken a single class in the semester before they were surveyed that required a total of 20 pages of writing.

Watership Down

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Watership Down qualifies as one of the more unusual fantasy classics:

“All the world will be your enemy,
Prince with a Thousand Enemies,
and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.
But first they must catch you…
Be cunning and full of tricks
and your people shall never be destroyed.”

— Lord Frith’s promise to El-ahrairah

Every time critics and fans of fantasy begin to feel that they’ve seen it all, that it’s all been done, along comes a work from a totally unexpected direction that blows them away and changes everything. No sooner had Lin Carter, in the wake of Tolkien’s phenomenal popularity, constructed a history of fantasy that led from Morris to Dunsany to Eddison to Tolkien to the “Tolk-clones” than along came a work that didn’t fit into the pattern in any way. Rather than harkening back to medieval knights’ tales with suitable dollops of folk tale, fairy tale, and mythology thrown in, Watership Down [1] harkened back to an entirely different tradition: the beast-fable, to which Adams gave a whole new lease on life.

Among the most ancient of all literary types that have come down to us — Aesop’s Fables have remained perennially popular for over twenty-five centuries now — beast-fables have been used for everything from social satire (Reynard the Fox) and political commentary (Animal Farm) to trickster tales (Brer Rabbit) and children’s stories (The Wind in the Willows). Richard Adams, using the unlikeliest of materials — the story of a bunch of rabbits journeying to establish a new home — raises the form to the status of epic and subtly merged it with the burgeoning fantasy genre: the result was a masterpiece that transcended its genre, achieving best-seller status, [2] becoming one of the few modern fantasy novels to have a movie adaptation, [3] and inspiring a host of imitators. [4]

The moon sailed free of the cloud and lit the heather…
Fiver was looking far out beyond the edge of the common.
Four miles away, along the southern skyline, rose the seven-
hundred-and-fifty-foot ridge of the downs… “Look!” said Fiver
suddenly. “That’s the place for us, Hazel. High, lonely hills,
where the wind and the sound carry and the ground’s
as dry as straw in a barn. That’s where we ought to be.
That’s where we have to get to.”

A Place Where We Ought To Be

Rather than tell the story of a grand quest, a there-and-back-again with elves, dwarves, wizards, damsels, and all the other paraphernalia of generic modern fantasy, Adams looks back to an older model, Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells the story of a hero fleeing disaster (the Fall of Troy) with a few companions, seeking to find a new home where they can live in safety and establish a new community (Rome). Adams has specifically said (introduction to the Perennial Classics edition, 2001) that his inspiration for Fiver, the quiet little rabbit given to visions foretelling disaster, is the Trojan princess Cassandra, who warned of the coming doom but was not believed (it being her curse that her prophesies would always be true but never believed until too late). In a sense, his book is a “what-if” — what if a few friends had believed Cassandra and fled Troy before it was too late? What if, like Aeneas and his companions, they find a seductive temporary home that almost spells their doom (Carthage and the Land of the Lotus Eaters, Cowslip’s Warren of the Shining Wires)? What if, having reached their destined home, they are forced to fight their new neighbors (Turnus and the Latins, Woundwort’s Efrafans) to keep it? By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, [5] Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Vergil told it (in 19 BC). [6]

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder,
a tenacious band who understood each other… There was no more quarreling…
They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities.
They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended…
Without Hazel [and the others] Bigwig would have died. Without himself he would have
died, for which else, of them all, would not have stopped running after such punishment?
There was no more questioning of Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s insight,
Blackberry’s wits or Hazel’s authority.

A Band of Brothers

The most appealing feature of Adams’ book, perhaps, is his cast of characters. Many fantasies (and science fiction, mysteries, and so on) center entirely around one character, with perhaps a partner, love-interest, or sidekick to provide some interaction and the occasional plot-element (this is, incidentally, why so many of them make poor models for roleplaying games, which are all about the interaction of characters who are distinct but more or less equal). Watership Down, by contrast, is very much an ensemble book. There is never any doubt that Hazel is the main character, or that Fiver the prophet and Bigwig the warrior are almost as important (each becomes the point-of-view character for a chapter or more of his own). But Blackberry, the brains of their group, and Dandelion, the storyteller and fastest runner, are also not just likable characters but essential to the group’s success, while Pipkin, Silver, Hyzenthlay, and Blackavar are appealing in their own way, to say nothing of the impact of more eccentric characters like Bluebell the joker, Kehaar the seagull, and the sinister General Woundwort. From the Argonautica (the story of Jason & the Argonauts) and Robin Hood’s Merry Men to Star Trek and Tenchi Muyo, authors have understood the value of an ensemble of very different personalities, where almost any reader can identify with at least one of the characters and interest in and affection for the cast of characters becomes a chief appeal of the work.

Ultimately, the story works because Adams makes us care for his characters, and care passionately for what happens to them. With unobtrusively fine writing (some of his nature descriptions to set the scene and mood are outstanding, such as the passage on moonlight in Chapter 22), he manages a careful balance between very real animals and literary characters. Many beast-fables have the animals acting just like people — for example, The Wind in the Willows’ Mr. Toad drives a motor-car (very badly) and lives in a grand house (Toad Hall), while his friend Ratty (a Water-Rat) loves to go boating on the river; Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit loses his new shoes and best blue jacket in Farmer McGregor’s garden. By contrast, Adams’ rabbits do not wear clothes, do not live in houses, and do not act like people in animal’s skins. They always remain rabbits first — digging burrows, eating silflay, passing hraka, and thinking about mating.

Rather unusually for an epic fantasy, Adams keeps the fantasy elements minimal; his would be a realistic novel except for three elements.

First, his rabbits can talk — and not just with each other, but (albeit haltingly, through a hedgerow ‘common speech’) with mice, hares, rats, cats, and even birds. Here Adams taps into what Tolkien called “one of the primal desires” at the heart of fairy-stories: “the desire… to hold communion with other living things” (JRRT, “On Fairy-Stories”, 1947). Ironically, the only ones they cannot communicate with are humans, who are cut off from all other animals.

“There is terrible evil in the world” [said Fiver].
“It comes from men,” said Holly. “All other evil [predators] do
what they have to do… Men will never rest
till they’ve spoiled the earth… ” [7]

Second, in addition to talking, his rabbits can think and plan at a level far beyond that of ordinary animals. While it’s true that science is now shifting to the view that animals are far more intelligent than previously thought — see, for example, the book The Parrot’s Lament, which argues that pet owners and zookeepers have a far better grasp of animal intelligence than do lab scientists — still, Adams’ rabbits’ ability to talk to each other enables them to have an oral history and wherewithal to coordinate action that is pure fantasy. That animals have distinct individual personalities, every pet owner who’s had more than a single pet knows; Adams’ achievement is to build on that insight so that he can create his rabbit characters with a minimum of fantasy, giving his work a convincing realism that improves the plausibility of his story.

Third and finally, we have Fiver’s visions. These appear supernatural even to his fellow rabbits; it’s a form of second sight that comes with no explanation, something that simply is and has to be accepted or rejected on its own merits. Given the number of people in the real world who believe in at least the possibility of some form of precognition, even this element only becomes overtly fantastic due to the precision and accuracy of Fiver’s foretellings. If not for the visions, the story as we have it would never have taken place, but Adams keeps this an intriguing undercurrent in the book rather than mere plot device; this is a considerable achievement in itself.

[T]he Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness… he is that cold,
bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today
and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows
where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit
is not far off… [The Black Rabbit] will come in the night and call a
rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him…. Some say
that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is
. . . that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task
— to bring about what must be. We come into the world and we have to go
[out of it]… We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle and only
by his will.

A Rabbit Mythology

One final memorable feature of Watership Down, which elevates Adams’ rabbits beyond clever animals into furry people (albeit still very much rabbits), is his construction of a whole rabbit mythology. Fantasy authors have been creating mythologies since Lord Dunsany created the first fantasy pantheon back in 1905 (The Gods of Pegana), but Adams does a particularly neat job of it. Rather than hashing out the standard cliches, or providing a poor adaptation of some well-known real-world pantheon (e.g., the Greek, Norse, or Egyptian deities), he worked out a creation myth, belief system, and legendarium that fits in smoothly with the actual life of a wild rabbit. They are, quite naturally, sun-worshippers, so Lord Frith (the sun) is their all-powerful Creator-God. Nighttime is when their many predators (“the thousand”) are most active, so their Grim Reaper is the Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle being their word for the moon). Adams even, in the Epilogue, gives us some idea of the rabbits’ afterlife in a moving scene describing the eventual death of Hazel from sheer old age that closes the book.

Rather than churches, doctrine, and sacraments, Adams’ rabbits have stories, legends they tell and re-tell, about El-ahrairah, “the Prince of a Thousand Enemies”, the apotheosis of Brer Rabbit into “Everyrabbit,” the ultimate trickster. In the course of the book Adams incorporates five inset tales of El-ahrairah into his overall narrative (“The Blessing of El-ahrairah,” “The King’s Lettuce,” “The Trial of El-ahrairah,” “El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle,” and “Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”), as well as snippets from another (“The Fox in the Water”). [8] Not a deity but a cultural hero a la John Henry or Odysseus, El-ahrairah’s exploits inspire and encourage the rabbits who believe in him, while those who do not (those of Cowslip’s Warren) become profoundly unnatural, essentially losing their ability to function as wild animals. In a particularly neat touch, near the end of the book Adams includes a brief passage where Hazel hears a rabbit mother tell her children a version of part of the adventures of Hazel and his friends as an El-ahrairah story. Hazel himself remarks “I seem to know this story… but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it,” and it becomes clear that, since El-ahrairah is a celebration of all that’s clever and indomitable about rabbits, the deeds of brave and exceptional rabbits get caught up into his legend and become part of the tale, a rather fitting form of immortality for Hazel and his friends.

‘And what happened in the end?’ asks the reader who has
followed Hazel and his comrades in all their adventures…
[The authorities tell] us that wild rabbits live for two or three years
. . . but Hazel lived longer than that. He lives a tidy few summers — as they say in that part of the world — and learned to know well
the changes of the downs to spring, to winter and to spring again.
He saw more young rabbits than he could remember.
And sometimes, when they told tales on a sunny evening
by the beech trees, he could not clearly recall whether
they were about himself or about some other rabbit hero
of days gone by.

— From the Epilogue

Watership Down and Your Game

The great popularity of Watership Down among fantasy readers in the 1970s is reflected in its being the inspiration for an early roleplaying game, Bunnies & Burrows (FGU, 1976), essentially an unlicensed adaptation of Adams’ work. Many years later, Steve Jackson Games published a much expanded version of the game adapted for use with the GURPS rules system (1992); like the original, it is now long out of print. Given the appeal of the book, there have also been any number of homebrew systems for Watership Down-inspired rabbit adventures over the years, some of them quite effective. Even for those who have no desire to roleplay rabbits, Hazel and company are one of the best available models of an ensemble of characters with very different personalities and talents adventuring together.

Bibliographic Note

An extremely successful book, Watership Down is readily available in libraries and bookstores across the country, in both paperback (ISBN 0380002930) and hardcover (ISBN 068483605X). The “Perennial Classics” edition (ISBN 0-06-093545-6) of 2001, a trade paperback, has the added feature of a new Introduction by Adams describing the origins and inspiration for the book. As a sign of Adams’ success, perhaps, it is usually shelved in the Literature/Fiction section of bookstores, not the fantasy/sf section. It has never been out of print since its initial publication, now over thirty years ago.


[1] The title, “Watership Down,” refers not to some aquatic disaster but to the place where the story takes place: a down is a specific type of long, narrow hill, usually made of chalk (cf. the Barrow-Downs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Watership Down itself lies thirty-odd miles south of Oxford in south-central England and about thirty miles north of the neartest point of contact with “Big Water” (the port of Southampton); for those with access to a large-scale map of England, the story begins in the country of Berkshire (Sandleford Warren) but then travels into Hampshire (everything south of the river Enborne, which they cross in Chapter 8). The website posts dozens of photographs of the actual, real-world landscape in which the story takes place, including the Down itself, Nuthanger Farm, the Iron Road, and so on.

[2] With the recent success of authors like Robert Jordan in America and Terry Pratchett in England, it’s easy to forget how exceptional it was for a fantasy author to hit the mainstream best-sellers’ list before the 1990s: Tolkien had done it in paperback in the mid-60s, but aside from Adams (the #2 bestselling fiction book of 1974) the only ones to achieve these heights were Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the year’s #1 in 1972 and 1973) and Tolkien himself with his long-awaited The Silmarillion (#1 for twenty-one consecutive weeks in 1977-78).

[3] Watership Down was adapted as a feature-length animated film (1978), with distinguished voice-actors such as Michael Hordern (the voice of Gandalf in the BBC Lord of the Rings), Joss Ackland (who played C.S. Lewis in the original Shadowlands), Nigel Hawthorne, Sir Ralph Richardson, Roy Kinnear, Dernholm Elliot (of Indiana Jones fame), John Hurt as Hazel, and Zero Mostel as Kehaar (his final film). The movie is actually grimmer than the book, killing off several additional characters. An interesting example of late 70s animation and a rare example of an animated film made in England rather than America or Japan, it was not a commercial success and largely disappeared until the recent explosion of back-catalogue DVD releases coupled with the revival of interest in animation and fantasy film was made it available again; it was released on DVD last year (2002).

[4] Perhaps foremost among a host of imitators are William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (1980), which is about moles, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (1985), about cats. Brian Jacques’ extremely successful “Redwall” series (Redwall, 1986; Mossflower, 1988, and so on), which now consists of over sixteen books, has superficial similarities but in fact harkens back more to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) than to Adams’ tradition.

[5] While the Iliad and Odyssey are more esteemed today (quite rightly, in my opinion), Virgil’s imitation of them in the Aeneid was far more influential in the Middle Ages: virtually every nation in Christendom sought to trace its ancestry back to the Trojans. Hence, the beginning of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight (c.1370s) describes how, while other refugees fled to Rome and Tuscany and Lombardy, Felix Brutus led the Trojans to Britain (a legend given in more detail in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, 1136). Even the Icelandic Prose Edda (c.1220s) includes a passage rather bizarrely tracing Odin’s descent from King Priam of Troy.

[6] This literary origin for Adams’ work also comes across in the quotations with which he prefaces each of his fifty chapters. Unlike the quotes from rock music that punctuate much of modern fantasy (or as much of it as includes quotations from other works), Adams’ come from literature (with a capital “L”): Auden, Yeats, Bunyan, Browning, Tennyson, Blake, Hardy, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Greek playwrights, Dostoevsky, Austen, the Bible, and a host of others. These citations, which always contain extremely apt allusions to the theme of the chapter, help give a literary air to Adams’ book that many more generic fantasies lack.

[7] The evil that men do is a persistent theme in Adams’ work: his next book after Watership Down, Shardik (1974), vividly depicts the evils of slavery. The Plague Dogs (1977) is, along with an engrossing tale of yet another desperate escape, an extremely effective condemnation of vivisection and the torture of lab animals (but he did takes pains to include a few humans opposed such practices). The Girl on a Swing (1980), at once a haunting love story and horrifying ghost story, has at the hidden core of its plot an act of almost unbelievable cruelty that ultimately determines everything else that happens in the book. Traveller (1988) tells the story of America’s most brutal war, from the point of view of Robert E. Lee’s horse, rather in the manner of Robert Lawson (Paul Revere’s Horse, Ben and Me, Captain Kidd’s Cat). In a recent interview, Adams stated that he is currently, at age 83, at work on a new novel about slavery (“Where Are They Now?”, Book magazine, July/August 2003 issue).

[8] The complete tale, along with several others about El-ahrairah, are included in the eventual follow-up book, Tales from Watership Down (1996). This collection of nineteen short stories includes nine stories about El-ahrairah not found in Watership Down itself (one of which, interestingly enough, is directly based on the story “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” by M. R. James; see the “Classics of Fantasy” column for October 2002), a nonsense tale, a rabbit ghost story (again touching on the theme of human cruelty; see [7] above), and finally eight stories that together make a sort of inconclusive novella pendant to the original book, telling what happened to Hazel and the others over the next few months (the winter, spring, and early summer following Woundwort’s defeat).

Weird and Wonderful Movies That You’ll Never Get to See

Monday, February 13th, 2012

The TCM database estimates that only 4.8% of all films ever made are currently available to the public, Gordon Jackson notes, which suggest that there are many weird and wonderful movies that you’ll never get to see — like Ingagi, from 1930:

The first “found footage” movie and a precursor to King Kong, the film involves a group of explorers encountering an ancient tribe who sacrifice women to gigantic gorillas.

Purporting to be a documentary, the film was a box-office smash at the time of its release, but ran into a whirlwind of legal troubles when an audience member recognized an “African native” who’d come straight from Central Casting. Challenging its authenticity, the MPPDA ordered Congo Pictures, Ltd., Ingagi‘s distributor, to cease all distribution and exhibition of the film immediately, claiming that much of it was actually shot in Los Angeles. Congo filed a suit against the MPPDA for $3,365,000 in retaliation.

By September of 1930, Photoplay Magazine uncovered that one of the film’s actors had sued the producers over his salary, claiming he had been offered $6.50 per day, but was later promoted to “the gorilla division”. By October, a private detective in employ of the MPPDA convinced Hollywood make-up artist Charles Gemora, known publically as “King of the Gorilla Men”, to sign an affidavit swearing he played the film’s lead gorilla. The detective was also able to uncover that all scenes featuring gorillas were filmed on sets built by William Selig at the Los Angeles Zoo, and that much of the African footage had been stolen from earlier films, including Lady Grace Mackenzie’s 1915 documentary “Heart of Africa” — prompting another lawsuit from Mackenzie’s son, Byron.

To make matters worse, the American Society of Mammalologists protested the film, taking special umbrage at a species of venomous reptile seen within called the “Tortadillo”, which was later revealed to be a leopard tortoise with wings, scales and tail attached. The group demanded Sir Hubert Winstead, Ingagi‘s chief explorer, have his credentials checked, leading to an investigation from the Better Business Bureau which discovered no such man existed. By 1933, the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease and desist order against Ingagi, demanding the film no longer portray itself as a factual record, and in consequence resigning it to obscurity. King Kong would be released later that year.

The film’s controversy proved to be a financial boon, earning Ingagi an astonishing $4,000,000 in 1930 alone, though $150,000 would go to Byron Mackenzie in damages. Ten years later, a sequel, Son of Ingagi, was released — the first genre film in history to feature an all-African American cast.

The whole list is weird and wonderful.

The Night Land

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential as The Night Land, John Rateliff says:

“In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable,
so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults
the book might possess… it impresses the reader
as being… the last epic of a world beleaguered
by eternal night and by the unvisageable
spawn of darkness. Only a great poet
could have conceived and written
this story.”

— Clark Ashton Smith

Imagine that you were lucky enough to find true love, your destined soulmate who completed you. That you and your love were happy together as man and wife. That you lost your beloved to untimely death. Imagine that you had a vision of a future life, a reincarnation millions of year in the future, in a time when the sun had died and humankind was almost extinct. Imagine you lived on one of two great fortresses, besieged by the monsters that stalked the darkened Earth outside.

Then imagine that you discover that your beloved has been reborn into the other fortress, separated from your own by vast distances across a nightmare landscape haunted by evils that can devour the soul as well as the body. That the other fortress was being overrun and its people slaughtered, and your beloved in dire peril of not just death but annihilation, from which there would be no rebirth. Imagine that you ventured forth alone into the Night Land in an attempt to save her . . .

“. . . one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.
The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race
concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged
by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness,
is something that no reader can ever forget. Shapes and entities
of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort — the prowlers
of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid
— are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency;
while the night-bound landscape with its chasms and slopes
and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror
beneath the author’s touch.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Dream of X

Welcome to The Night Land. Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential; among the writers directly inspired by it are Clark Ashton Smith (the best of the Weird Tales writers, in his Zothique sequence), Jack Vance (The Dying Earth/The Eyes of the Overworld), and very probably Roger Zelazny as well (Jack of Shadows, possibly Damnation Alley). This is all the more remarkable for its being the first novel by an author who died after all-too-brief a career (he was blown apart by a direct hit from a mortar shell in the last days of World War I; his remnants lie in an unmarked grave on the Western Front), leaving behind only four novels and a few dozen short stories. [1]

The Night Land (1912) is an uncompromising work that demands to be taken entirely on its own terms; Hodgson even invented his own dialect of English to write the story in, anticipating the efforts of Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, 1962, with its punker slang) and Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker, 1981, with its post-apocalypse English) by more than half a century. Based on the language of 16th and 17th century writers such as Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678) and Hakluyt (Hakluyt’s Voyages, 1589), it is as distinctive a distancing device as Tolkien’s Elvish nomenclature or Lovecraft’s 18th century affectations, immediately establishing that this is not a Connecticut Yankee or a modern-day mind translated into a fantastic setting a la Twain or Wells but a heroic figure from the past (the narrator’s “present” seems to have been late Tudor or perhaps Stuart times) relating a vision of a fantastically distant future. Even more impressively, for a language largely devoid of finite verbs (Hodgson prefers emphatic tenses and infinitives), the reader rapidly becomes acclimatized; though it appears odd when excerpted, his pseudo-archaic English reads very naturally after only a few pages. [2]

And some shall read and say this was not,
and some shall dispute with them; but to them all
I say naught, save “Read!” And having read
that which I set down, then shall one and all
have looked towards Eternity with me — aye,
unto its very portals. And so to my telling:

— The beginning of the vision

A Darkened World

A deft blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Hodgson’s imagined world depicts the End Times, when once-human monsters and otherworldly supernatural horrors inhabit a landscape unlit by the dying sun; it is as if Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones were finally free to roam the world and wreak havoc on all that fell into their grasp. Building on the ideas of Sheridan Le Fanu (and, to a lesser extent, M. R. James), Hodgson evolved a mythos that posits a malign supernatural realm abutting the human world from which we are fortunately shielded; at times Forces from that realm break through into our reality, with invariably catastrophic results. In The Night Land the barriers between this nightmare dimension and our once-mundane human world have broken down, and with it what we liked to think of as reality has come to an end. The only oasis remaining for the surviving humans are the two Redoubts, great metal pyramids within which the last humans live out their lives, besieged by Watchers (Great Old Ones), hovering like sharks around their prey, and a plethora of lesser evils: the Night Hounds, the Giants and Humped Men, the Silent Ones, and a host of other beings.

And when the Pyramid was built, the last millions, who were
the Builders thereof, went within, and made themselves a great house
and city of this Last Redoubt. And thus began the Second History
of this world… And, later, through hundreds and thousands of years, there grew up in the Outer Lands… mighty and lost races
of terrible creatures, half men and half beast and evil and dreadful . . .
And, at whiles, through the forgotten centuries, had the Creatures
been glutted time and again upon such odd bands of daring ones
as had adventured forth to explore through the mystery of the
Night Lands; for of those who went, scarce any did return;
for there were eyes in all that dark; and Powers and
Forces abroad which had all knowledge; or so
we must fain believe.

This is not the whole story, however. In a striking departure from the similar conception later evolved by Lovecraft (the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”), Hodgson believes there are forces of good as well as of evil loose in the world, though they move in mysterious ways and cannot be evoked in any way by mere mortals; they simply sometimes manifest to intervene at (some) crucial moments. Decades later, August Derleth took this concept from Hodgson (whose complete novels he published in the early days of Arkham House, along with two collections of his short stories) and grafted it onto Lovecraft’s Mythos, where it was ludicrously inappropriate, and then made matters worse by claiming that the resulting amalgam of “Elder Gods” vs. “Great Old Ones” represented Lovecraft’s true intentions. On its own terms, however, Hodgson’s mythos works exceedingly well. The unexpected interventions having the effect of sudden, unexpected, exceptionally rare miracles that relieve what would otherwise be the intolerable bleakness of his dying world:

[T]here were other forces than evil at work in the Night Land,
about the Last Redoubt… even as the Forces of Darkness
were loose upon the End of Man; so were there other Forces
out to do battle with the Terror; though in ways
most strange and unthought of by the human soul. And of this
I shall have more to tell anon.

Love Among the Ruins

The most controversial element about The Night Land, however, even more than the archaic dialect Hodgson invented to tell his story in, is the love story at the heart of his tale. A number of critics who have otherwise enjoyed and admired the book for its stunning imaginary world and the detailed description of the hero’s exploits as he makes his way across the blasted landscape, dodging horrors and battling monsters all the way, come down sharply on Hodgson’s choice to focus not purely on the setting and the hero’s quest but also on the passion that inspires it — which is rather like criticizing The Lord of the Rings for including hobbits, or Gone with the Wind for focusing on the home front. [3]

Yet, though I did call many a time unto the everlasting night,
there came no more the voice of [my beloved],
speaking strangely within my spirit; but only at times
a weak thrilling of the aether about me.
And, at the last I grew maddened with the sorrow of this thing,
and the sense and knowledge of harm about the maid;
and I stood upright upon my feet, and I raised my hands,
and gave word and honour unto [her] through all the blackness
of the night, that I would abide no more within the Mighty Pyramid
to my safety, whilst she, that had been mine Own through Eternity,
came to horror and destruction by the Beasts and Evil Powers of that
Dark World. And I gave the word [telepathically], and bade her
to be of heart; for that until I died I would seek her.
But out of the Darkness there came naught but silence.

— Our hero sets forth

Thus C. S. Lewis, discussing the very best works ever written that create their own imaginary worlds (in which he includes not just The Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros but works by Morris, Coleridge, Spenser, Malory, Homer, and Ray Bradbury, among others), ends by stating that “W. H. Hodgson’s The Night Land would have made it in eminence from the unforgettable sombre splendour of the images it presents, if it were not disfigured by a sentimental and irrelevant erotic interest” (On Science Fiction”, 1955; italics mine). This is eerily similar to Lovecraft’s remark that, for all its virtues, the book was “seriously marred by… artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1934).[4] In deploring the “distraction” of the love-story, Lovecraft and Lewis are exactly like those wrong-headed critics Tolkien mocked in his classic essay Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics (1936), who lamented that we had the story of Beowulf fighting Grendel and the Dragon when the poet could have written instead about internecine feuds of the Danes, a top of interest to the historians but no one else. Note that Smith, a better writer than either, did not voice the same criticism, though he did find the book a trifle long (“In Appreciation of Wm Hope Hodgson”, 1944).

And I stood upright, for there did be no more use to hide;
and I knew that I must walk forever until that I have Mine Own
to the Shelter of the Mighty Refuge, or to walk until I die;
for only with speed might I save her . . .

— His beloved is mortally wounded

That Lewis could dismiss the main theme of the story as “irrelevant” to the monster-bashing he evidently preferred is a prime example of mistaking the trappings of a tale for its core (the book’s subtitle is, after all, “A Love Tale”): it’s as if playgoers shouted out for the actors to stop saying dialogue and get out of the way so the audience could enjoy viewing the stage-sets. What unifies Hodgson’s book, all the loving detail of this strange new world, the minutia of the hero’s journey, the vivid battles, is the story of a knight-errant on a quest to rescue his lady fair. Hodgson has cunningly transported his characters from medieval or renaissance times, where his theme would fit in perfectly with dozens of similar tales, to a horrific science-fictional setting where the threat of human extinction hovers not very distantly in the background. But the essential story is the same: his hero wears armor, carries a magical weapon, and walks through a wasteland more deadly than anything Sir Gawain or Child Roland ever faced, braving every peril to rescue the damsel because nothing is more important to him than his utter devotion to their love. It’s not a theme for everyone, this story of courtly love transposed to the end of time, but in the end Hodgson’s tale is deeply moving precisely because the microcosmic human world is, after all, where we live. The grand scope and magnificent setting are, quite properly, only the backdrop for a very human story:[5]

And… I to be now scarce fifty paces from [safety];
and did be nigh to fall; for I did be all wounded with the fight,
and ill with a vast weariness and the despair and madness
of my journey; and moreover… I not to have slept,
but to have carried the Maid… through days and nights,
and to have fought oft…. [A]nd I to gather my strength, and to charge with despair and to smite and never be
ceased of smiting; so there did be dead creatures all about.
And behold! I brake through the herd, with Mine Own,
and… I stept over the Circle; and a thousand hands
did come forward to help me

— The final desperate struggle to reach the Great Redoubt

An Utterly Appropriate Miracle

In the end The Night Land is, like many works of genius, a difficult book: intensely personal, apt to provoke extreme reactions (both favorable and very much otherwise) from its readers, unlike anything else ever attempted before or since in fantasy, science fiction, or horror. It offers a supreme example of what Tolkien called “Eucatastrophe”: that heartbreaking moment when everything suddenly comes together and tragedy turns to rejoicing, when the reader feels that everything the characters have suffered has been worth it to reach this perfect ending.

For those daunted by a 583-page book that combines three genres, written in its own new dialect of English, upon which so much praise and derision has been heaped, there is fortunately a perfect way to first experience Hodgson’s sublime vision. To secure his American copyright, back in 1912 Hodgson prepared a “best parts” version of the story only one-tenth the length of the original book. Published as The Dream of X, it contains the most moving scenes from the full-length book, presented as the remaining fragments of a destroyed manuscript left behind by the hero. Reading this short version of the tale is by far the best way to enter Hodgson’s future world; those who like it will be eager to get the full tale, while those it leaves cold are better off searching out other books more to their liking. [6]

. . . for there did stand in the midst of the Hall of Honour,
. . . a Statue of a man in broken armour, that did carry a maid forever.
And I did be dumb; and how of this Age shall you know the Honour
that this to mean in that; for it did be an Honour that was given only
to the Great Dead; and I to be but a young man, and did be
so utter far off from greatness; save that I love with all mine heart and with all my spirit, and therefore death to be but a little thing
before love . . .
And I to have gained honour; yet to have learned
that Honour doth be but as the ash of Life, if that
you not to have Love. And I to have Love.
And to have Love is to have all . . .

— The final scene in the narrator’s vision.

Other Works

All three of Hodgson’s other novels are of interest: The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” recounts the horrors encountered by survivors in the two lifeboats from a sunken ship; like much of Hodgson’s other sea stories, it makes much use of the Sargasso Sea and floating derelicts of uncertain age. The House on the Borderland contains some memorable bits but unfortunately is his worst novel, since the story stops dead half-way through. The Ghost Pirates tells the grim fate that awaits all who sail on a haunted ship; it is his most straightforward novel and very effective within its limits.

Hodgson was also a gifted short story writer, having to his credit at least two of the best sea-horror stories ever written: “The Voice in the Night” and “The Derelict”. In addition, his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1910, expanded edition 1947) is still the best psychic detective series, bar none, and will be the topic of a future column in its own right.

“[T]alk about the Night Land — it is all here,
not more than two hundred miles from where you sit,
infinitely remote…. If I live and come out of this
(and certainly, please God, I shall and hope to)
what a book I shall write if my old ability
with the pen has not forsaken me.”

— Hope Hodgson, 1918, in a letter written from the Front just before his death

The Night Land and Your Game

No one has ever dared to publish a game setting as bleak as Hodgson envisioned here; even Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, nihilist as it is in theory, in practice emphasizes the heroism of the microcosmic human world, not the bleakness, while D&D‘s Ravenloft and White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade similarly keep the emphasis on the human and near-human rather than the end-of-time cosmic horrors Hodgson describes. Dark Sun, which from its name might be expected to project a Hodgsonesque world, instead focused on an uber-Conan sand-and-barbarians campaign. Perhaps the best use of his material for an ambitious DM would be to create a scenario or short-term campaign in which characters from a more typical campaign were projected into the Night Land; they will be guaranteed to be exceedingly grateful to get back out again.

By contrast, Hodgson’s Carnacki stories have been the inspiration for a Forgotten Futures expansion (Forgotten Futures #4: The Carnacki Cylinders, 1996), though this has never been made available as a print product (it originally circulated on a subscription-only disk and is currently available as an HTML download). A few concepts from Hodgson’s work have also crept into the Call of Cthulhu game, mostly anonymously; though many a Keeper has created homebrew scenarios inspired by the Carnacki stories none of these have ever seen print.


[1] Hodgson’s other three novels are The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), and The Ghost Pirates (1909), all well worth reading. Although it was published last, The Night Land was actually written first, in about 1905; all of his novels have been published in reverse order.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern-day small press movement, all Hodgson’s novels are currently in print from specialty houses: The Night Land itself from Wildside Press (2001), ISBN 1587156042 (trade paperback) or 1587156059 (hardcover). Be warned that some editions of the book are censored (see note 4 below).

While Hodgson scholarship is still in its infancy, those interested in The Night Land can find an excellent website devoted to the book at

[2] Hodgson was fond of writing his stories in mildly archaic dialogue; The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” takes place in the early 1700s (we are told at the beginning this account was set down a generation later in 1757) and seems to derive its style mainly from Daniel Foe (or “Defoe”, as he preferred to be called). The House on the Borderland is presented as a scavenged manuscript written sometime in the early 1800s but is generally devoid of quaintness. Only The Ghost Pirates is more or less contemporary, making excellent use of Hodgson’s years as a sailor to capture the talk of ordinary uneducated people as well as the more literate narrator.

[3] Similarly, some have criticized Jane Austin for focusing in her novels upon whom her heroine will spend the rest of her life with rather than, say, the Napoleonic Wars that raged at the time her books were written and published (and which Austin was well aware of since several of her brothers served in the conflicts). For a work in which the love-interest, while present, is firmly kept off center stage and in the background, see Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, especially the section of Appendix A called “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” Tolkien’s point is the opposite of Hodgson’s, that sometimes quiet virtues like friendship, decency, or a simple sense of duty can motivate greatness.

[4] Lewis and Lovecraft also both expressed distaste over Hodgson’s archaic diction, with CSL calling it “a foolish and flat archaism of style” and HPL “painful verboseness, repetitiousness,. . . an attempt at archaic language” he found “grotesque and absurd”. That Lovecraft, with his own bizarre idiosyncratic vocabulary (including “eldritch,” “squamous,” and “rugose,” to name only a few, occasionally with New England rural dialect and 18th century orthography thrown in), should criticize another writer’s style is simply an example of how tastes differ. Some writers prefer a bluff plainstyle such as Lewis typically employed, while others craft a more ornate style tailored for a more individualized flavor (e.g. Dunsany and Morris). Both approaches can be extremely effective; insisting all writers subscribe to one or the other is simply foolish.

[5] Which is not to say the book is perfect by any means. Those two chapters where Hodgson describes the sexual politics of ninety-plus years ago and the petty struggles for dominance between the lovers once they are united (Chapters One and Thirteen) in particular has not aged well, and first-time readers might do well to skim through these sections on a first reading. In fact Lin Carter, despite otherwise being a Hodgson fan, disliked this part of the story so deeply that in his two-volume edition of the book for Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (1972) he deleted most of Chapter Thirteen, thus creating essentially a 500-page abridgment of a 550-page book, which is an extremely unsatisfactory solution. LC also included The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” in the AFS (1971), wisely choosing Hodgson’s two best novels for his series.

[6] The Dream of X was reprinted by Donald Grant publishing in 1977 in a handsome slim edition very effectively illustrated by Stephen Fabian. This edition is unfortunately long out of print but well worth tracking down, and you may find it readily available through online used book searches (e.g., for little more than the original cover price. A new edition has been announced as forthcoming from Night Shade Books as part of volume five of their Collected Fiction of Wm Hope Hodgson project, the first volume of which is due later in 2003.

Why Manga Publishing Is Dying

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

American sales of Japanese-style comics, or manga, have dropped 43 percent since their heyday in 2007, even further than American sales of American comics.

Apparently Borders’ bankruptcy did not help, because Borders led the way in selling manga and may have represented a third of all manga sales in the US.

Manga sales aren’t great in Japan though, either. They peaked in their homeland in 1995.

While manga publishing is dying, as a business, the product is still popular — just not with paying customers. So-called “scanlation” aggregators make the pirated product available online for free, and the old-school publishers haven’t adapted.

As usual, the fans analyzing the problem don’t understand fixed costs, variable costs, and bundling:

One problem is that Japanese manga publishers still rely on magazines to launch new titles, and the magazine model itself is obsolete. If you’re buying songs on iTunes, you don’t need to buy an entire album when all you want is one song. And there’s no way I’m signing up for Starz network when I only want to watch Torchwood: Miracle Day.

In the same way, manga readers can’t be expected to buy an entire 400-page manga magazine anymore when they only want to read their one favorite title.

It doesn’t cost the publishers one-tenth as much to produce just the 40 pages you want to read. Again, really, you’re not paying for the channels you never watch.

The Face in the Frost

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses another almost-forgotten classic of fantasy, The Face in the Frost:

Several centuries (or so) ago,
in a country whose name doesn’t matter,
there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero,
and not the one you’re thinking of, either.[1]

At the very back of the original 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide by Gary Gygax et al. (1979), tucked just before the index and glossary, was a little half-page section called “Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.” This suggested reading list combined works that were major, direct influences on D&D (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Conan series, Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Vance’s The Dying Earth) with works filled with characters, monsters, villains, plots, magic items, and the like that aspiring DMs could happily loot for their own campaigns. Gygax’s list ranged from hacks like August Derleth, Gardner Fox, and Lin Carter to sublime fantasy masters like Lord Dunsany and Tolkien and most points in-between (Zelazny, Moorcock, Poul Anderson, de Camp & Pratt, Lovecraft). Most of the twenty-nine authors he listed were either well-known pulp writers or recognized masters of the genre, but one obscure little gem made his list: John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost.

Prospero and Roger Bacon, the two main characters
in a story that seems crammed with wizards, were wizards.
They knew seven different runic alphabets, could sing the Dies Irae
all the way through to the end, and knew what a Hand of Glory was.
Though they could not make the moon eclipse,
they could do some very striking lightning effects
and make it look as though it might rain
if you waited long enough . . .
Both of them had used [magic] mirrors to visit
or look at other times and places;
this naturally affected their speech, their mannerisms,
and (God knows) the character of Prospero’s house.

– from the Prologue

Possibly the single best fantasy novel to come out of the 1960s, and by my reckoning one of the ten best fantasy works of the century, The Face is the Frost has never achieved great fame. Lin Carter, editor of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (which from 1969 to 1974 reprinted most of the best of classic fantasy and helped launch the careers of up-and-coming writers like Beagle and Kurtz), went so far as to rate it one of the three best books since The Lord of the Rings,[2] but noted that it “has received virtually no recognition as yet, overlooked alike by reviewers and fantasy buffs.” Despite praise from Le Guin (who wrote the blurb for the paperback edition), Peter S. Beagle[3], and others, it remains obscure and, ironically, one of its author’s few works to slip out of print. His young-adult novels are found in most neighborhood libraries and proved so popular that another author has been commissioned to continue his series since Bellairs’ death, while his only work of adult fantasy is now only available secondhand, in e-book form, or as an audiobook.[4]

In the roadside towns, the wizards picked up stories and rumors.
One man told how frost formed on the windows at night,
though it was only the middle of September.
There were no scrolls or intricate fern leaves, no branching
overlaid starclusters; instead people saw seasick wavy lines,
disturbing maps that melted into each other and always seemed
on the verge of some recognizable but fearful shape.
At dawn the frost melted, always in the same way: At first
two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth
that spread and ate up the wandering white picture.
In some towns people talked of clouds that formed long opening mouths.
One man in the town of Edgebrake sat up all night, staring
at a little smiling cookie jar made in the shape of a fat monk;
it stood on a high cupboard shelf, smiling darkly amid shadows.
The man would not tell anyone what was wrong, or what he thought was wrong.
Doors opened at night inside some houses, and still shadows
that could not be cast by firelight fell across beds and floors.
People who lived near forests and groves dreamed
that the trees were calling to their children;
in the daytime, pools of shadow that floated trembling
around the trees seemed darker than they should have been,
and when the children showed an unusually strong desire to play
in the woods, panicked parents locked them indoors.
Voices rose from empty wells,
and men locked their doors at dusk.

The Face in the Frost tells of Prospero, a kindly old wizard who wakes up one morning to the sudden realization that someone is trying to kill him. With his best friend and fellow wizard Roger Bacon, he sets off on a quest to find out who is behind the sinister magical attacks. After a few harrowing encounters, he learns that an old rival has acquired a magical book so powerful that with it he can do any number of terrible things. In fact, the evil book is too powerful; a book that reads you and ends up devouring its owner’s mind, turning him into a channel whereby it can eventually destroy reality itself by letting things enter our world that do not belong here — ancient elemental forces bound long ago that now seek to escape:[5]

He had been staring for some minutes when the clouds
began to move very strangely. They came apart in places,
in stringy rips and seams, like torn cloth. The sky that showed
behind was dark red . . . The shadows below contracted to pinpoints
and shot suddenly out into acre-wide blots. Across the road that ran
toward Brakespeare the ground opened, a huge saliva-strung mouth,
and out of it crawled shapes with arms and legs. . . In a loud splintery
ripping of wood . . . the front door flew open and something
Prospero refused to look at stepped in . . .

Stopping the evil wizard seems impossible, since he seems to have died some seventy years before, but Prospero vows to try at whatever cost to himself, journeying on through a darkening landscape to challenge an enemy who grows stronger and stronger the more he reads of the magical book. Perhaps one of the most effective things about The Face in the Frost is that the heroes are thoroughly human and heroic only in their determination. Despite being powerful wizards, Roger and Prospero are not superhuman but only two old men. They get cold, wet, tired, and frequently frightened and are grateful for simple comforts such as a pipe or a soft bed and a good meal after long hungry days on the road. They lack the rather austere dignity of a Gandalf or Merlin — it’s hard, for example, to imagine Gandalf putting up with a cranky but competent magic mirror, summoning the ghosts of flowers, or living in a house filled with “such things as trouble antique dealers’ dreams,” or Merlin having a weathervane shaped “like a dancing hippopotamus” that when the wind blows makes “a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof.” Eddison’s Lord Juss (The Worm Ouroboros; see March’s column) has a bed proper for a hero, carved with scenes of derring-do; Prospero’s bed has “a bassoon carved into one of the . . . headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated.” In short, Bellairs’ heroes are frankly rather silly old men — more hobbit than magi.

“. . . and so I went to work on a brazen head
that was going to tell me how to encircle England
with a wall of brass, to keep out marauding Danes
and other riffraff. I think something went wrong . . .
At any rate, when I chanted the formula the next day
. . . I heard a sound like crumhorns and shawms, and behold!
All of England was encircled with an eight-foot-high
wall of Glass! . . . The first boatload of Vikings
that came over after the wall went up turned around
and went back, because it was a sunny day
and the wall glittered wonderfully.
But the next day, when they came back,
it was cloudy. One of them gave the wall
a little tap with an ax, and it went tinkle, tinkle,
and now there is a lot of broken glass on the beach.
Not long after that I was asked to leave.”

– Friar Bacon and the Brass Head

Humor . . .

The preceding description of the book probably conveys the impression that it is more horror than fantasy — a grim little work describing a desperate attempt to stave off the end of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in fact a comic masterpiece — a hilarious account that constantly celebrates its author’s love of out-of-the-way historical trivia. Parodies of Lovecraft and various fantasy cliches punctuate the story, sandwiched between the horrors in such a way that it increases the effectiveness of both the humorous and the scary portions of the work. No other work known to me is both funny and frightening at the same time; it’s a mixture that has reduced any number of would-be horror movies to the status of shlock. Bellairs shows that, contrary to common opinion, it can be done, and done brilliantly.

That The Face in the Frost is, on its surface, such a funny book no doubt accounts for its being relatively ignored by critics and historians of the genre. There has always been a bias against taking comic works seriously and of recognizing them as great art comparable in quality with their more solemn peers. Even those few comic masterpieces that gain an indisputable place in English or American literature (e.g., the work of Mark Twain or Chaucer) are valued by critics more for their social commentary than for the humor that keeps people reading them even after all these years. Similarly, Bellairs’ achievement has been underprized, despite being (in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin) “Lively, witty, unpretentious.”[6]

Once he was actually inside the forest . . . Prospero knew
what was wrong. There are times when you feel that you hear
doors slamming in the distance, voices calling your name;
you see blurred things, far away or very close up,
that look like people until you focus on them. That was
the trouble. The whole place seemed slightly out of focus,
very slightly off . . . [Prospero] had to stare at a tree
for several seconds before it looked like a tree
and not a leaning furry shadow . . . The light on
the forest floor, even at noon, was dim, with little
wavering circles in clusters here and there.
The circles moved back and forth in a way
that Prospero did not like; the branches
shifted and did strange things
just out of his line of vision.

– Prospero enters the Empty Forest

. . . And Horror

Side by side with the story’s humor lies its horror. Unlike Lovecraft, whose quaint, mannered fictions are intellectual curiosities that leave the reader completely unmoved, Bellairs’ book is truly frightening; The Face in the Frost has been known to give impressionable readers nightmares. Many sections read like transcriptions of actual nightmares, described with such evocative power as to capture some of the actual feeling of the original dreams. Like M. R. James, who seems to have influenced him more than any other author, Bellairs grounds his horrors in mundane settings — a darkened cellar, an empty road, a wooded clearing, an unfamiliar room in a roadside inn. But beneath the comfortable veneer lurks the nightmare, able at any moment to warp the scene in disturbing ways as the evil pursuing our heroes manifests itself once more. Despite taking place in a fantasy world, his horrific scenes are filled with realistic touches that make them easy to imagine transferred to our own surroundings, giving his more nightmarish sequences considerable impact. All in all, it’s a good book not to read when alone in a darkened room.

Perhaps Bellairs’ most impressive technique is his mastery of the adjective. Bellairs demonstrates over and over again how heaping on carefully selected adjectives can create sharp mental pictures and vivid impressions of scenes, and how evocative details help the reader imagine the scenes as if it were happening to him or her. There is nothing vague about his disquieting descriptions:

He had not gone a mile when he saw . . . the light of a campfire . . . and
stepped off the road into the swishing wet grass. But as Prospero got near
the fire, he saw that . . . it was burning in a very strange way. The flames
moved back and forth as if blown by suddenly shifting breezes . . . he
noticed a little stream running nearby. He was drawn by what he first took
to be a reflection of the firelight on the water . . . There on the bottom,
in a speckled green trembling light, was a smooth triangular stone,
and on it was painted his face. The moving water was slowly flaking away
the paint . . . and the face appeared to be decomposing. He saw a thin film,
like a piece of dead skin, wriggle off the portrait-mask and float away
down the stream . . . . [T]he fire . . . was dancing faster now — it was moving
to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He knew the words that must have
been said: “When the fire dies, let him die too.” . . . [T]he whole stream
began to boil, and out of the lurching, hissing water rose a smoke shape
with arms. It moved toward Prospero and settled around him . . . He felt
as if his eyes were made of blank white chalk . . . Prospero stared
with open eyes into that stony nothingness, and he shouted a word
that sorcerers can only speak a few times in their lives . . .

The Face in the Frost and Your Game

As Gary Gygax himself put it in his review of The Face in the Frost (The Dragon #22, February 1979), the book is “an absolute must for any D&D player . . . can not be recommended too highly.” If Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth provided D&D with its fire-and-forget magic system, Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost certainly provided the concept of the traveling spellbook. Beyond this, Bellairs’ setting of the South Kingdom (a medley of autonomous duchies and the like) and the seven kingdoms of the North makes a pretty good ready-made campaign world for a homebrew campaign, and both his good wizards and the villains employ any number of interesting spells that would make interesting additions to the d20 system. From small details like animated leaves detaching themselves from trees and attacking travelers to the grand scheme of the evil wizard using the book to melt reality into something unpleasantly nightmarish, the book is full of things to enrich a D&D game. The mysterious undecipherable book obviously owes something to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and the whole plot could easily be transferred to a modern-day d20 Call of Cthulhu or d20 Modern game.

Other Works

While The Face in the Frost is Bellairs’ only fantasy novel for adults, he wrote fifteen young-adult horror-fantasy novels which also contain a number of interesting motifs that could be adapted for an ongoing dark-fantasy or horror RPG. Among the best of these are The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the first of the Lewis Barnavelt books (all set in Michigan in the 1940s) and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, one of the Johnny-and-the-Professor series (set in Massachusetts in the 1950s); a third series, the Anthony Monday books, was set in modern-day Minnesota. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, Brad Strickland completed four more books in the first two series (one of which, The Doom of the Haunted Opera, is especially recommended) and has since written six more books on his own using Bellairs’ characters, with a seventh due this August. The more recent of Strickland’s stories are essentially Cthulhu Mythos books for young adults, odd as that sounds (The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge is a sort of recasting of or sequel to “The Colour Out of Space,” for instance), and it provides an interesting extension of the Lovecraft Circle into new territory.

Bellairs also wrote two books before The Face in the Frost: a thin Thurber-ish tale called The Pedant and the Shuffly (not recommended) and a delightful collection of parodies of pre-Vatican Council Catholicism called St. Fidgeta & Other Parodies (highly recommended).


[1] “The one you’re thinking of” is, of course, Shakespeare’s Prospero, the hero of The Tempest (c.1611) and probably the most famous wizard in English literature if we exempt traditional figures such as Merlin or modern creations like Tolkien’s Gandalf.

Roger Bacon is, by contrast, a real person and one of the most learned men of his time (the thirteenth century — among other things, he was the first European to discover gunpowder); after his death, legends gathered about the name and transformed his reputation into that of a master wizard whose deeds were retold a few centuries later in an old Elizabethan chapbook (Friar Bacon) and play (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene).

[2] Lin Carter, Imaginary Worlds (1973), pages 165-167. The other two absolutely first-rate fantasies to appear in the preceding twenty years were, in his estimation, Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) and Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1971), both of which he published in the Adult Fantasy Series. It’s worthwhile to note that he rates these two and The Face in the Frost above other worthy competitors he discusses such as Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Kurtz’s Deryni, the latter of which was a discovery of his and also published in the series.

[3] “To read [Bellairs] is to realize what a loss his death was — not simply to fantasy . . . but to the English language, and to the art of storytelling, which he served so well in the short time he had.”– Peter S. Beagle, tribute quoted on a Bellairs tribute site. (Another Bellairs tribute site is the Compleat Bellairs site.)

[4] The original hardcover (Macmillan, 1969) is long out of print, and the most readily available version is probably the Ace paperback editions (1978 and 1981, IBSN 0-441-22529-2) through one of the many used book services. There have also been two later small-press editions in various classics-of-fantasy series. Ironically, while unavailable in book form, an unabridged audio reading is available (Recorded Books Incorporated #94434, 1995, read by George Guidall).

[5] The mysterious book, with its odd pictures and undecipherable script (of which Bellairs provides a sample in the book), is almost certainly inspired by the Voynich Manuscript, a book written in an unknown alphabet and an unknown language that exists in a single copy of unknown origin (now in the Beinecke Library at Yale). It has been traced back to Bavaria in the 1570s but not beyond; Voynich himself, who discovered it in Rome in 1912, believed it belonged to Roger Bacon (d.1292). No one has ever been able to prove this, but Bellairs clearly availed himself of the legend when constructing his book, as Clark Ashton Smith had done thirty years before when he based his imaginary tome “The Book of Eibon” upon it (see “The Holiness of Azedarac”, Weird Tales, 1931).

[6] Ursula K. Le Guin, blurb for the Ace paperback edition. Le Guin also appreciates the book’s darker side, since she goes on to say “The Face in the Frost takes us into pure nightmare before we know it — and out the other side. This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.”

Roman Cursive

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Most of us are familiar with Roman “print” — or engraving, really — which became the basis for Times New Roman and other modern fonts, but what did Roman cursive look like?

Old Roman cursive, also called majuscule cursive and capitalis cursive, was the everyday form of handwriting used for writing letters, by merchants writing business accounts, by schoolchildren learning the Roman alphabet, and even emperors issuing commands. A more formal style of writing was based on Roman square capitals, but cursive was used for quicker, informal writing. It was most commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD, but it probably existed earlier than that.

New Roman cursive, also called minuscule cursive or later Roman cursive, developed from old Roman cursive. It was used from approximately the 3rd century to the 7th century, and uses letter forms that are more recognizable to modern eyes; “a”, “b”, “d”, and “e” have taken a more familiar shape, and the other letters are proportionate to each other rather than varying wildly in size and placement on a line. This evolved into the medieval script known as Carolingian minuscule, which was used in 9th century France and Germany in the imperial chancery, and whose revival in the Renaissance forms the basis of our modern lowercase letters.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Friday, February 10th, 2012

John Rateliff describes A Wizard of Earthsea:

“[T]hat which gives us the power to work magic
sets the limits of that power. A mage can
control only what is near him, what he can
name exactly and wholly. And this is well.
If it were not so, the wickedness of
the powerful or the folly of the
wise would long ago have sought
to change what cannot be changed,
and Equilibrium would fail. The
unbalanced sea would overwhelm
the islands where we perilously
dwell, and in the old silence
all voices and names
would be lost.”

— Master Namer of the School on Roke

Sometimes, the most important thing an author can know is when to stop. Fans will always want more, publishers love a sure thing, and it’s always easier to repeat yourself than to try something new, which makes those authors who do continually reinvent themselves so important. The pressure to convert a stand-alone work into a series can be enormous, so much so that during the 1980s and ’90s stand-alones became the exception, not the rule, in a field dominated by sprawling open-ended single-story series by authors like Jordan, Eddings, Card, Turtledove, et al.[1] Ideas that might once have been a single book were expanded into multiple volumes, all of which had to be read to get the complete story. Those authors who stuck to trilogies often let them swell in bulk to fit the trend of the times — Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (also known as The Dragonbone Chair series) is a case in point. Its three volumes come in at 2,400 hardcover pages (more than twice the length of The Lord of the Rings); it would have been a masterpiece if compressed to one-third that length. Even series of finite length, like Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (a projected seven volumes, each larger than the last) and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (also known as the A Game of Thrones series; the three dense volumes published so far, out of a projected six, are already longer than Tad Williams’ entire trilogy, with at least as much more still to come), stand in contrast to the single books and trilogies of fantasy’s early days.

Only a few writers have bucked the trend, such as Guy Gavriel Kay (whose work has consisted of one trilogy, one duology, and three stand-alone novels, including the brilliant Tigana) and, more recently, Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials being a single trilogy, with a fourth volume of essays and commentaries forthcoming). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series seems to conform to the Jordanian sprawl but though they share a setting and sometimes even characters, each of his books is a complete story, rather in the style of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, or James Branch Cabell’s “Mind of Manual” series, rather than the single story spread over as many volumes as sales will justify.

For many years Ursula K. Le Guin was among this small but esteemed company who was content to let her famed Earthsea trilogy stand alone while she moved on to other heroes and heroines, other settings, other stories. Recently, however, she has begun adding new volumes to the series, unfortunately diluting the whole. Unlike some of her more commercially minded peers, however, Le Guin’s return to Earthsea is motivated not so much by a desire to sell more books as by a change of heart. Like W. H. Auden, who went back in his old age and rewrote his most famous poems (often taking out the best lines) to reflect his evolving political beliefs, Le Guin has become convinced she got it wrong; her latter books in the series are a deliberate attempt to recast the world into something more politically correct so that she can make amends for not having been doctrinally pure enough in her original conception. [2] In effect, the author deconstructs her own world, undermining her myths and replacing them with something she thinks might be more acceptable to her present-day audience.

Given her latter-day uneasiness with her original books, Le Guin had several options. She could have gone back and altered the original trilogy, a la George Lucas, into a “special edition” that reflected the way she would have written it if she were doing it over again today — rather like the fate of the Doctor Doolittle books, only censored versions of which are available today.[3] Fortunately, she instead decided to let her original work stand but to frame it with other tales that would change the character of the setting as a whole; it’s as if C. S. Lewis had gone back and written seven more Narnia books arguing that Christianity was no better or worse than Islam, Wicca, or Buddhism; the new stories are designed to change the message and the world as a whole. The effect has been rather like taking a fine watercolor and tacking on new canvas with less subtle designs that stand in stark contrast to the original. In this column, therefore, we will by and large disregard her latter-day afterthoughts and concentrate on the original book, wherein the series’ claim to greatness lies.

The Making of a Wizard

“Wizards do not meet by chance.”
“Weak as women’s magic.”
“Wicked as women’s magic.”

— Sayings of Earthsea

Second in popularity only to Tolkien in most readers’ polls, Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy is among the most widely read of all fantasy and is found in virtually every public library in this country.[4] Despite officially being labeled as “young adult” books, they have always attracted a wide audience of adults as well as teens, as have other outstanding fantasy authors that have sometimes been similarly pigeonholed, like Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Phillip Pullman, John Bellairs, et al.[5] Initially the “series” consisted of two short stories (still the artistic high point of the whole): the beautifully bleak “The Word of Unbinding,” which introduces Le Guin’s vision of Earthsea’s Afterlife, and the wickedly funny little cautionary tale “The Rule of Names,” which tells the story of the Dragon of Pendar (whom we meet again in Chapter 5 of A Wizard of Earthsea) and the time he spent among the hobbitlike folk of Sattins Island in what became the East Reach.

To these two tales she several years later added our novel, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), describing the trial and errors of a supremely talented young wizard as he learns how to control both his power and himself. Three years later she added a second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1971), with a new point-of-view character and her former hero reduced to a supporting role (he does not even appear until more than a third of the way through the book). The third and final book of the original series, The Farthest Shore (1972), introduces yet another point-of-view character; he is a sort of young prince Arthur, who embarks with the wizard (now an Archmage at the height of his powers) on an epic quest that leads them into the land of the dead and back again. In the end the world of the living is saved but at the cost of all the wizard’s power; henceforth he retires to live the life of an ordinary mortal. Although officially a “trilogy,” it might be more accurate to describe these three books as a triptych: three independent episodes from a single character’s life, with other major adventures referred to in passing but not included in one of the narratives.

Several elements made A Wizard of Earthsea stand out when it was originally published, and still make it remarkable today. First and foremost is the excellence of Le Guin’s writing: she remains among the very best fantasy and science fiction writers of her generation. Second was the evolution of her character: She takes him from a precocious child to sullen teen to rash youth to confident, capable adult to wise elder — a rare case of an entire life passing in snapshots, as it were. Then, too, there is Earthsea itself: a strikingly different fantasy world from the Tolk-clones that dominated fantasy for so long. The world is built of a hundred or so major islands (and many more small ones), each different, each with its own potential story, and all linked by the great sea. Although Le Guin never truly fulfilled its potential, it remains one of the all-time best fantasy settings. Finally, the book is a “bildungsroman” or coming-of-age story, going behind the white-bearded wise old wizard stereotype (Gandalf, Merlin, and so on) and showing the character as sorcerer’s apprentice, full of talent without the knowledge of how to use it, and with very human fears, flaws, and ambitions. She never loses our sympathy for the character even when he does something foolish, perhaps because he is always willing to pay the consequences for his actions. Le Guin succeeds in bringing the stereotype to life; her Sparrowhawk is a fully realized, three-dimensional character.

Death is a Dry Place

[S]uddenly he thought the child
was dying in his arms.
Summoning his power all at once
and with no thought for himself,
he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit,
to bring it back home. He called the child’s
name… Thinking some faint answer came
in his inward hearing he pursued, calling once more.
Then he saw the little boy running fast and far
ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of
some vast hill. There was no sound. The stars
above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.
Yet he knew the constellations by name…
They were those stars that do not set, that
are not paled by the coming of any day.
He had followed the dying child
too far.

— Ged inadvertently visits the land of the dead

Like most works that stand the test of time, A Wizard of Earthsea has more than one interesting idea underlying it. To the striking fantasy-world-as-archipelago setting and making-of-a-mage story she adds imaginative depth: Earthsea has a sense of history behind it, artfully sustained by passing reference to a number of works reciting the deeds of great heroes from the distant past, with clear indications our hero’s tale will one day wind up remembered through just such a tale, the Deeds of Ged. From Tolkien’s ents (and dwarves) she takes the concept of True Names and builds her entire magic system around it: to know the name of a thing is to control it; to know True Speech is to know reality itself, and how to manipulate it — her hero’s greatest challenge in the book comes when he accidentally summons a shadow-creature that seems to have no name and thus cannot be defeated. This striking concept gives Earthsea’s magic a very distinct flavor that is unlike that of any other fantasy setting.

Perhaps the most impressive element of her fantasy world is her description of its afterlife (a topic usually neglected if not outright ignored by fantasy authors). Presumably inspired by images out of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” she creates a bleak land of the dead that is silent, unchanging, and dry: a place where no rivers flow through dry streambeds and the dead simply wait, emotionless, forever. This grim vision, already fully formed in “The Word of Unbinding” (1964), underlies a striking scene in A Wizard of Earthsea and the entire plot of The Farthest Shore (1972). Beyond this, she graces Earthsea with dragons that succeed in being truly Other, not merely nasty monsters for the hero to fight; they are a genuine contribution to fantasy dragon-lore. And she unifies the whole with a strong philosophical underpinning deriving from her Taoism: Le Guin is as doctrinaire as C. S. Lewis, but few readers realize it since the average reader is more likely to recognize Gospel stories than maxims from the Tao Te Ching (the closest thing Taoism has to holy scriptures; Le Guin published her own translation of Lao Tzu’s book in 1998). In a sense, the entire Earthsea trilogy is a Taoist fable that celebrates abrogation, in which the hero learns to how to attune himself to “the Equilibrium” (what Lao Tzu called “The Way” or Tao) and learns when to act and when to refrain from acting. Thus, her hero’s loss of all his magic at the end of the third book, which strikes most readers as poignant if not downright tragic (rather like Frodo’s being forced to give up the Shire and sail into the West), is meant to be more like a passage into sainthood and a willing embrace of passivity.[6] He has finally learned the lesson of his first master, Ogion the Silent, as saintly a figure as Le Guin has ever created. The wisest of his fellow wizards sums it up thusly: “He is done with doing.”

Earthsea and Your Game

[He] wondered
what was the good of having power
when you were too wise to use it.

— Sparrowhawk, age 13

Despite its continuing popularity for over three decades, there has never been an Earthsea game — perhaps in part because of Le Guin’s contempt for swords-and-sorcery fantasy and perhaps because a setting in which the more experienced you become, the less you do is a poor model for RPG adventuring. Nevertheless, Earthsea is such an appealing world that it would make an ideal place for a highly unusual D&D campaign — one focused more on roleplaying and exploration than hack-and-slash. Each island would become its own “dungeon” distinct from the rest, with the PCs’ wanderings taking them from isle to isle. Characters such as Serret the sorceress (one of the book’s most elusive figures); foes such as Cob and the Dragon of Pendar, the stalking shadow and the shadow-possessed gebbeth; places associated with the Old Powers of Earth (such as the dark labyrinth at the Tombs of Atuan or the secret room of the Stone beneath the Court of the Terrenon) and the silent lands of the dead: all would contribute to a vivid, evocative game world. Any quest set in such a world, however, would have to be more than a treasure hunt to be worthy of the setting.


The original two Earthsea stories, “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names,” are both available in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). The Earthsea trilogy — A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972) — can be found in most bookstores and almost any library. The three later books are Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990; an ill-conceived direct sequel to The Tombs of Atuan), Tales from Earthsea (2001; five stories plus “A Description of Earthsea,” an appendix making explicit much that was previously implicit about the world), and The Other Wind (also 2001), which starts well but soon devolves from poignantly mythic to cozily domestic. Fans of the original series should be warned that all three of the latter books sabotage the assumptions underlying the earlier stories in various ways; the final book even backs away from her original bleak concept of Earthsea’s afterlife and substitutes a warm and fuzzy fate for the dead in its place. Those who may be fascinated by how far an author can twist her creation to suit her evolving beliefs (by the fifth and sixth book the wizards, who were her paragons of wisdom in the original book, have been revealed as the source of virtually everything that’s wrong with the world) will want to read all six books, but most readers of fantasy would be well advised to stop after the third.

[1] This trend may now be reversing since the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. Hollywood is eagerly searching for more fantasy titles to film, and stand-alone books stand a much better chance of being adapted than does a volume from an interminable series.

[2] In her essay “Earthsea Revisioned” (1992, published as a pamphlet 1993), Le Guin discusses the charge that she wrote Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea book, as “penance” and prefers to call it “affirmative action.”

[3] Lofting’s books were altered by his estate long after his death. The changes mostly involve deleting any artwork that shows his comic African prince, Bumpo. One of the rare cases of a book being improved by an author’s afterthoughts is The Hobbit, a chapter of which (“Riddles in the Dark”) Tolkien replaced more than a decade after the book’s original publication with a far superior version. In his old age Tolkien began rewriting the entire Hobbit in the style of The Lord of the Rings but wisely abandoned the project after only a few chapters, preferring to let his earlier work stand on its own merits.

[4] The original trilogy’s ubiquity can be attributed to the second volume’s having won the Newbery Award for the best children’s book of 1972; every public library with a children’s literature section strives to stock a full set of Newbery Award winners. It is ironic that The Tombs of Atuan, the weakest volume in the trilogy, won the award rather than the far superior A Wizard of Earthsea or even the flawed but ambitious The Farthest Shore, but fortunately the win of a single volume has meant libraries have the full three-volume set (just as a similar win for Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, the final volume in his Chronicles of Prydain, helped keep all five volumes on library shelves).

[5] Recently, the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series inspired publishers to actually put different covers on the books designed to appeal to different age groups, so that each book has multiple covers each aimed at a distinct group of readers.

[6] Or, as Le Guin puts it elsewhere, “Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it” (Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting Lao Tzu, in “Earthsea Revisioned,” 1992).