Saturday, January 16, 2021

Tolkien the barbarian

I recently finished a re-read of The Lord of the Rings, which inspired me to revisit Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of JRRT. I'm still in the early/pre-Oxford period of Tolkien's life, covering his days at King Edward's School in Birmingham, and encountered this particular scene:

There was a custom at King Edward's of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek. On another occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; and on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon.

It makes one wonder again whether Tolkien did in fact enjoy Robert E. Howard's Conan. I like to think he would have, and did.

Flashing Swords: More from the S&S collection

Hardcovers, paperbacks, but a complete collection. Still not sure why Gary Viskupic drew a 
horned-helmeted warrior springing from the head of an otherwise pleasant, oblivious young lass
(Flashing Swords #4).

The five-volume Lin Carter-edited Flashing Swords series (1973-81) is my next selection for gratuitous display. Gotta go with the cover of #1 for best art, but Frazetta's second piece in the series for Flashing Swords #2, featuring iconic warrior, wizard, and angry Ent, draws a close second.

I'd like to also call out the dedications: Carter dedicates the first volume to Robert E. Howard, "without whom we would all probably be writing nothing but science fiction stories," vol. 2 to Henry Kuttner, "one of the best Swordsmen and Sorcerers of 'em all," vol. 3 to Clifford Ball, "one of the first writers of Sword & Sorcery, now, sadly, forgotten and, even more sadly, uncollected," and vol. 4 to Norvell Page, "our late colleague, the chronicler of the saga of Hurricane John." Oddly, vol. 5 does not have a dedication, at least in the Nelson Doubleday Book Club Edition that I own.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Book porn: Pyramid sword-and-sorcery

For no other reason than it brings me great joy, I present you some book porn today: My copies of the L. Sprague de Camp edited four volume sword-and-sorcery series, published by Pyramid (last volume Putnam) between 1963-1971. Classics of the subgenre.

I'm not a collector. I don't particularly value items that are inherently collectable (i.e., rare, highly coveted, mint condition, bagged and as unhandled as possible). I don't care if the books I have are in excellent condition or are worn readers' copies, though obviously given a choice I would prefer the former. I am a man of utility. I buy books for what they contain, in order to read them, enjoy them, and occasionally write about them here and elsewhere. 

That said I am a completist. Not owning a particular volume in a series gnaws at me until I can track it down and add it to the shelf, with a sigh of relief. I've got a few holes that I'm working to fill.

I'm also a lover of print. Outside of a couple digital subscriptions to new publications, I far prefer books over e-pubs/Kindle and the like. I love books for their artwork, their feel, the smell (creepy?), and being able to cast my gaze across a full bookshelf or three, and get lost in the titles and the thought of what I will read next.

I'll do more of these posts

Wonderful covers by Finlay, Gaughan,
Steranko. Favorite cover = The Spell of Seven. 

in the coming days. I won't always have anything to say. The pictures will mostly do the talking. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Boris Vallejo at 80

My first post of 2021 is up on the blog of DMR publishing. Check it out here:

Boris Vallejo is not my favorite artist of all time, but he's produced some amazing pieces over his eight decades on the planet. I share some of them in the essay. 

And he's damned prolific and continues to work to this day.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Closing the door on 2020, and a look ahead

That was a year to remember, no? 2020 will go down as a year many will look back upon in horror, or choose to forget and move on from, but I have to say it was not so bad for me, personally. I did not lose anyone in my family to COVID-19. I kept my job, bought a home gym, had published my first book, connected with some old friends, and managed to read 51 books. My oldest daughter completed her first semester of college while living at school and staying healthy. As a family we cancelled parties and trips, and missed dining out and seeing concerts and shows, but also hunkered down and grew closer as a family. 

As for The Silver Key, I cranked out 67 posts in 2020. A few that might be of interest to you:

Most popular: Of sword-and-sorcery, politics, and the Flashing Swords that Wasn't. With 862 views and 15 comments, this was both my most-viewed and most-commented upon post in 2020. This one tackled both a highly controversial issue (Robert Price's utterly out-of-place introduction to Flashing Swords 6) and was linked to from many places on the web, so no surprise there. In general I'm trying to stay away from controversy and shit-stirring (I came close to writing a post ripping Time's ridiculously garbage "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time" list, for example, then canned the idea) but I felt compelled to comment on this story.

Second most popular: My Father, the Pornographer, a Memoir. My review of Chris Offutt's memoir of his father, Andrew J. Offutt, was my second most viewed post of the year. This book also happens to be one of my favorite reads of 2020. If you are interested in Offutt's sword-and-sorcery, growing up in rural Kentucky in the 70s and 80s, convention life, father-son relationships, or just appreciate good writing, I can't recommend this one highly enough. It's raw and honest and incredibly well-done.

A painful memory: 2020 sucked for many reasons, but the loss of Neil Peart back in January is particularly painful. I grew up listening to RUSH and idolizing the band for their lyrics and musicianship, and Peart was the brightest talent in an extraordinarily talented trio. I'll be playing a few RUSH songs on New Year's in honor of his memory. We also lost the great Charles Saunders this year, D&D artist Jim Holloway, and others.

Some great reads. Of the 51 books I read this year most were at least good/very good, a couple sucked, and a few were great. Some of my favorites included H. Rider Haggard's The Wanderer's Necklace (review on DMR Blog), the aforementioned Offutt memoir, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Frans Bengtsson's The Long Ships. Right now I'm in the middle of a re-read of The Lord of the Rings, wrapping up The Two Towers, and I've no doubt that this is the finest work of fantasy ever written. I re-read The Broken Sword earlier this year and that too is as good as I remember.

A heavy metal party cataloged. If you haven't read my posts recollecting the heavy metal themed parties I threw at my house from 2011-2018, a couple with a live Judas Priest tribute band in my living room, give these a spin. I still can't believe that shit happened (and I remained married afterwards).

What's coming next? Your guess is as good as mine. I've decided not to launch a podcast, but I (think) I've hit upon my next idea for my second book. I'm going to keep blogging here, and guest-posting on a few sites around the web. If you have any ideas for subjects or topics, or authors or titles you'd like to suggest I cover (or not cover), leave me a comment here or send me an email. I always love getting comments and suggestions.

Thanks for reading, and here's to turning the page on 2021.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Tom Moldvay/Basic D&D "Inspirational Source Material" vs. Appendix N

Gary Gygax’s Appendix N has been the recipient of much analysis, praise, scrutiny, and exploration. With Appendix N Gygax provided a roadmap for the literary inspirations of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in a now famous list located at the back of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, one that has since served as the launching pad for aspiring D&D historians, fantasy readers, authors, and podcasters. For example, we now have a work of non-fiction based on the list, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the Appendix N Book Club podcast.

This is all well-deserved attention and praise, in my opinion. D&D can certainly be played as-is, without knowledge of the literary influences that gave to the ruleset its unique flavor and a suggested style of game play, but knowing and reading the sources Gygax used when drafting the rules makes for a better game, in my opinion. D&D is both a dice-based strategy game with wargaming roots, and an immersive roleplaying and shared storytelling experience, and the latter aspect is enriched by classic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery literature. I have not sat at a table and played a game run by a DM raised on a strict diet of modern videogames, for example, but I would bet good money that the experience would be quite a bit different than a game run by a DM steeped in Tolkien and Moorcock and Howard and Vance.

With that as a preamble, I believe that a similar list provided by Tom Moldvay in the 1981 Basic D&D rulebook, “Inspirational Source Material,” provides a slightly superior roadmap than Gygax’s Appendix N, and probably deserves a bit more attention. Like its more famous cousin, Moldvay’s suggested reading list is a wonderful gateway to a rich lode of imaginative material, and for many (myself included) served as a roadmap for stories sought out in the days of youth.

There is significant overlap between the two lists. Appendix N includes a few authors not listed in Moldvay including Frederic Brown, August Derleth, Margaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum. I have read some Derleth, and St. Clair’s The Shadow People is on my TBR list, but am not familiar with Brown or Weinbaum. Brown appears to have written mainly in the science fiction genre, as did Weinbaum, with Brown also branching out into mystery. These seem to be idiosyncratic choices unique to Gygax; not being familiar with their work I can’t readily say if there are aspects of their work that Gygax borrowed for AD&D. I’ll leave that for someone else.

Where Moldvay’s list eclipses Appendix N is in its completeness and attention to detail. Gygax has a tendency in Appendix N to settle for the shorthand Latinate “et. al” (“and others”). Gygax states that in some cases he meant to cite specific works, but when no works were listed he simply recommends all of a given author’s writings. This has the benefit of allowing for more open-intended interpretation, but lacks precision. This may not so much a problem now, but in the pre-internet days of 1979 it makes an aspiring readers’ job a lot more difficult. It was for me, and I found Moldvay’s list a lot easier to access (the same could be said for the clarity of the Moldvay rules themselves, which I find superior in many ways to AD&D first edition, but that’s a post for another day). Moldvay appends “et. al” to at least as many authors as does Gygax, but always lists at least one, if not multiple, actual book titles for the reader.

Moldvay’s list is more comprehensive, while still managing to be confined to a single page in the basic rulebook. Some big names I’m very fond of jump out at me immediately: Moldvay lists Karl Edward Wagner (Bloodstone, Death Angel’s Shadow, and Dark Crusade), E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, Lloyd Alexander (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldon, the Castle of Llyr), Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. None of these appear on Appendix N. Perhaps most noteworthy, Moldvay also lists Clark Ashton Smith (Xiccarph, Lost Worlds, Genius Loci). Many have pondered why Gygax did not include the third of the Weird Tales holy trinity along with REH and Lovecraft, as Smith’s lush, ornate prose recalls something of Gygax’s writing style, and his dark necromancers and evil spellcasters seem like they could easily have stepped out of The Vault of the Drow.

Moldvay cheats a bit and gives us a quick list of “additional authors of fantasy fiction” which allows him to slide in authors like James Branch Cabell, H. Rider Haggard, John Jakes, C.L. Moore, Meryvn Peake, and others. Both Gygax and Moldvay list Lin Carter as recommended, though they target different titles (Gygax lists Carter’s “World’s End” series, while Moldvay cites Carter’s contributions as editor of The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories as well as Flashing Swords).

In general Appendix N seems to be far more idiosyncratic and indicative of Gygax’s particular tastes, while Moldvay’s is curated with a broader base and general fantasy reader in mind. Moldvay’s specific call-outs to adolescent fantasy appears indicative of an intended younger target audience for Basic D&D. B/X served as a gateway to the hobby (“Ages 10 and Up,” it noted on its cover), while AD&D and its dense, encyclopedic manuals were probably better suited for later teens and early 20-somethings. Moldvay also lists several recommended works of non-fiction.

I would say, you can’t go wrong using both lists as a basis for your own reading and filling in gaps in classic works of the imagination. Certainly any work that makes both lists is something you probably should read while you’re still making rounds around the sun. You can read Appendix N in its entirety here. I have included a screenshot of Moldvay’s Inspirational Source Material below.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What I've read to date, in 2020

I keep a relatively modest goal of reading one book a week, about 52 books in a year. I wish I could increase that total, but between work, family and friends, keeping a modicum of physical fitness, writing, housework, other obligations, and occasional bouts of laziness, a book a week is the most realistic number for me these days.

It appears that I'm not going to quite hit that goal this year, though I'm going to come real close (I've just begun The Two Towers and I have the rest of the year off from work). Yes, I fudged a bit with a bunch of disparate short stories I read in preparation for the Goodman Games S&S panel, but I figure the combined page count was about right to qualify as a "book."

The list follows:

1. Tolkien and the Critics, Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (finished 1/5)

2. Hap and Leonard, Joe Lansdale (finished 1/12)

3. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, Jamie Williamson (finished 1/26)

4. Getting Things Done, David Allen (finished 2/2)

5. Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins (finished 2/6)

6. The Last Celt, a Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, Glenn Lord (finished 2/9)

7. Jack London Stories, Jack London (finished 2/16)

8. The Door to Saturn, Clark Ashton Smith (finished 2/29)

9. Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, Gardner Fox (finished 3/1) 

10. Kothar of the Magic Sword, Gardener Fox (finished 3/8)

11. Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse (finished 3/19)

12. The Wanderer’s Necklace, H. Rider Haggard (finished 3/28)

13. Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman (finished 4/5)

14. Outlaw of Gor, John Norman (finished 4/10)

15. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (finished 4/14)

16. The Return of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs (finished 4/23)

17. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (finished 5/7)

18. Hannibal, Thomas Harris (finished 5/13)

19. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard (finished 5/22)

20. The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber (finished 5/28)

21. Swords and Ice Magic, Fritz Leiber (finished 6/9)

22. Swords Against Darkness, Andrew Offutt ed. (finished 7/3)

23. The Knight and Knave of Swords, Fritz Leiber (finished 7/6)

24. Witches of the Mind, Bruce Byfield (finished 7/12)

25. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (finished 7/17)

26. Darkness Weaves, Karl Edward Wagner (finished 7/22)

27. My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, Chris Offutt (finished 7/25)

28. The Conan Companion, Richard Toogood (finished 7/26)

29. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr. (finished 8/5) 

30. Heroes of Atlantis and Lemuria, Dave Ritzlin ed. (finished 8/11)

31. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (finished 8/24)

32. Artists, Outlaws, and Old-Timers, Tom Barber (finished 8/30)

33. The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (finished 9/7)

34. “Laughing Shall I Die”: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, Tom Shippey (finished 9/20)

35. Sword-and-sorcery short story mix (“The Shadow Kingdom,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Black God’s Kiss,” “Hellsgarde,” “Liane the Wayfarer,” “Turjan of Mir,” “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” “The Seven Geases.” Etc.). (finished 10/2)

36. The Tritonian Ring, L. Sprague de Camp (finished 10/4)

37. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (finished 10/8)

38. Bloodstone, Karl Edward Wagner (finished 10/12)

39. The Broken Sword (1971), Poul Anderson (finished 10/19)

40. Hammer of the Gods, Gavin Chappell ed. (finished 10/24)

41. ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King (finished 11/1)

42. Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/8)

43. The Guns of Avalon, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/15)

44. Sign of the Unicorn, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/17)

45. The Hand of Oberon, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/22)

46. The Courts of Chaos, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/26)

47. The Long Ships, Frans Bengtsson (finished 12/7)

48. Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (finished 12/14)

49. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien (finished 12/22)