Monday, December 29, 2008

Buying used books online? Guilty as charged. But should I feel guilty?

The following post is a detour from the usual posts on fantasy, but it concerns books and publishing, another love of mine.

The New York Times on Dec. 27 published this thought-provoking piece by David Streitfeld about buying used books online. Streitfeld asserts that purchasing used books from ebay or from used online book dealers in lieu of buying new books is severely hurting brick-and-mortar book stores and the publishing industry as a whole.

To be honest, I'm feeling a little stung after reading the article since I'm very much guilty of this practice. For example, I got a $40 Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and instead of using it to buy one or two new books at a B&N outlet, I chose to pop online and purchase five used volumes from a handful of authorized B&N booksellers (the titles, if you're interested, include four books on or about J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis. I can't wait to get started!)

Now, I don't buy all my books used. I will buy new books for currently publishing authors that I particularly enjoy (Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin spring immediately to mind). Also, if I love a book so much that I plan to read it again and again, or if I'd like to have said book in a handsome hardback volume--The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, for instance--I'll buy it new.

But I do purchase far more used books than new. Basically it boils down to the fact that I'm a fairly heavy reader and I purchase a lot of titles. New books can get expensive. Why should I feel obligated to buy a new copy of The Worm Ouroboros, or an H.P. Lovecraft short story collection, when there are plenty of used copies floating around online for a buck?

It also seems wasteful to stop purchasing perfectly fine, lightly used books. If someone wants to sell a book, why should I, or someone else who wants to buy and read it, feel guilty about buying it cheaply? What's the alternative for such books--a recycling bin or a landfill?

On the other hand, I also bemoan the loss of brick-and-mortar book stores and hobby shops, and for every book I buy over the internet, I know that it's one less sale at my local Borders. I don't want to see real bookstores go away, to be replaced by online sellers. There's something to be said for holding an actual book in your hand and browsing through real shelves. It's a rich, tactile experience that you will never get from plugging in keywords in an internet browser bar or viewing a JPG of a dust-jacket cover.

So what's the answer? I'm not sure myself, but Streitfeld's story is certainly food for thought.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coming home to the dark: A review of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

—Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising

In the height of a blinding pre-Christmas snowstorm, and with the uncertainty of the New Year looming on my mind, I recently re-read (after the passage of some 20-odd years) Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. For anyone familiar with Cooper’s novel, the second in her acclaimed five-book The Dark is Rising Sequence, you’ll understand why I couldn’t have picked a better time to re-visit the series.

The setup for Cooper’s book is not terribly original: Forces of the dark and light are locked in an ageless struggle, and into this conflict is thrust Will Stanton, a boy of portentous birth (a seventh son of a seventh son). Will is an Old One, a small group of immortals who exist outside time, and it is up to him to combat the forces of the dark, whose power waxes over the midwinter and casts a pall over the Christmas season until it threatens to consume all of the Thames Valley.

Although he has the potential to combat the dark, Will’s power is unfocused and weak. He must harness it by recovering six symbols, one each of iron, bronze, water, fire, wood, and stone. As Will seeks out the symbols, a dark agent, a rider in black, marshals the forces of the dark in an attempt to foil Will and bring him to despair. Bitter cold, choking snow, floods, and dark flocks of birds are a constant menace in the story.

But while its themes are well-trodden, what makes Cooper’s book an enduring work of young adult fantasy is its execution. Cooper is a fine writer and uses her considerable skill to craft a tale that literally feels timeless: The setting of The Dark is Rising is at once familiar and remote, modern and ancient. Although Cooper wrote The Dark is Rising in 1973, and the events of the story take place in 20th century England, I can’t recall a single mention of an automobile or a telephone in the story, for instance. If you squint a little it could take place in an isolated 18th century farming village. The whole book feels like a dream of an 11-year-old—and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is.

The war in which Will finds himself has been raging for 4,000 years—predating Christ, who is notably absent in Cooper’s book. Cooper infuses her story with Welsh legends, including the horned huntsman Herne and the legend of King Arthur. Merlin appears in the book as Merriman Lyon, a character who first appears in Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the sequence.

The forces of dark and light are quite vague, portrayed deliberately as broad archetypes by Cooper (I found this at turns compelling and maddening), which has the dual effect of making the story seem mythical, and every character and event allegorical. The Dark is Rising is loaded with symbols and archetypes, all the way down to the main character’s name—Will is not chosen lightly, as his will, and our will, is necessary to save us from the dark.

For example, the symbols that Will seeks out are in the shape of a circle evenly quartered by a cross (not to be confused with a Christian cross). Cooper never reveals their significance, but my own take is that these six elements represent different ages of man, and that we can find answers by tying together the lessons of the past and present. The dark gains its strength from fear and chaos and disharmony, a situation which brought about the rise of the literal Dark Ages. Yet we have within each of us the rough elements to find an inner peace and master these fears. Cooper alludes to old roads that, if followed, offer protection from the power of the dark. These roads can be viewed as a mindset, a map to our own salvation.

The story can also be viewed as the end of innocence and the arrival of adulthood. Twelfth night is the conclusion of the 12 days of Christmas, the end of merrymaking. In Cooper’s story, it coincides with Will’s 11th birthday, which marks the end of his childhood and the arrival of power and responsibility. The time for tough choices has begun. As a young adult, he will be sorely tested and must choose his own road.

I dislike books which feature “chosen ones,” or characters fated to do great things and blessed with plot immunity. I’d rather read about characters that create their own fate and succeed and fail on their own merit. At times, Cooper crosses this line in the sand. For instance, Will is frequently bailed out of trouble by Merriman Lyon (Merlin), a powerful Old One who is the light’s equivalent of the dark rider. J.R.R. Tolkien had a similar character (and a similar problem) in Gandalf, but he wisely kept him off the stage and allowed the hobbits to (mostly) fail or succeed on their own. At times, Will becomes as a passive participant in the struggle, pushed along in a tide of events in which he apparently has no control.

But Cooper adds depth to her tale by including The Walker, a symbol-bearer who betrayed the light by choosing to ally with the dark, and is cursed to wander the ages as an outcast. The Walker is obviously inspired by Tolkien’s character Gollum, a pitiable figure that also failed out of his own weakness, and serves as a reminder of the consequences of ill choice.

The true magic of the story is Cooper’s message that there are things older and stronger than the dark, and that, while it can sew fear and havoc, the dark cannot destroy us if we choose not to give in to despair. In all, The Dark is Rising is a terrific read and certainly worthy of inclusion on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Talking Beowulf, Steven King, Robert E. Howard, and more on

Merry Christmas everyone! I'm relaxing in the afterglow of a great Christmas day spent with friends and family. I hope you all enjoyed the holiday as well. What better way to end the day than with a new blog post, so without further ado...

Anyone who reads The Silver Key probably knows that I write occasional reviews for, a cool Web site which carries reviews, news, and links to various science fiction and fantasy stories around the internet. Hosts Jesse Willis and Scott Danielson recently asked me to participate on one of their weekly podcasts. We spent an hour chatting about a wide range of subjects, including
  • Seamus Heaney's Beowulf
  • Steven King
  • Bernard Cornwell and shield walls
  • Robert E. Howard
  • audio book listening habits
  • and much more

Overall I enjoyed the experience very much. The interview was 100% unscripted and occurred at 8 a.m. ET on a Sunday morning, just after my first cup of coffee of the day. Consequently I thought I stumbled around a bit in parts of the interview. I was also a bit nervous as it was my first-ever podcast experience, and the new microphone which I purchased for the interview kind of sucked sound-wise (I sound a bit robotic and broken-up). But in listening to the podcast again it's not too bad and at least I didn't embarrass myself.

You can check it out here if you're so inclined. Thanks again to Jesse and Scott for having me on and allowing me to ramble a bit about all things fantasy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Merry Christmas to me: John Howe's Myth and Magic art book a nice find

Christmas is all about giving, but while shopping for a present for my kids in Borders the other day I was overcome by a selfish urge and made a purchase for myself. Sitting on a bargain book table and priced at a very affordable $7.99 was Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe. This sweet baby retails for about $39.95 (though it was not made in Grand Rapids, Michigan), and includes some 250 illustrations by Howe, a bona-fide fantasy art kung-fu master.

Normally I'm not an art book collector for two reasons:

1. It's expensive. Were I loaded I'd start my own fantasy art gallery, but that's never going to happen.
2. I prefer text over photos and would rather let my own imagination do the work.

Well, the $7.99 bargain-bin price tag overcame barrier # 1, and Howe is a rare exception to rule #2. His work, and in particular his illustrations of Tolkien's books, are bar none among the best fantasy artwork you can find. I find Howe inspirational, his images capable of conjuring stories in the mind. His artwork actually enriches my favorite scenes and passages from the books as they cause me to rethink my own mental images. For example, I hadn't thought of Tolkien's dwarves in The Hobbit as very warlike or grim until I considered this shot of Roac delivering news to Thorin atop Lonely Mountain (look at Thorin's knotted pipes!):

Howe has illustrated the works of such diverse fantasy authors as David Gemmell, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Robin Hobb, and, as did the immortal Frank Frazetta with the Lancer Conan paperback series of the 1960s, has undoubtedly boosted their sales. Myth and Magic has a chapter entitled "Works of Art: Fantasy and SF Book Covers," which includes some pieces that have graced these authors' covers, as well as critical appraisal by the authors themselves. Universally, they state that Howe's art nails exactly--if not surpasses--the images they had in mind while writing. "John Howe's images of the characters and settings from my book do not match up with my mental images at all. They are far better," Hobb writes. "His art has the jagged edges of another reality, one that snags the viewer's attention with detail and colour."

I've included a few pieces of Howe's work from this book as a demonstration of the man's staggering talent. I note that Peter Jackson drew heavily from Howe's images when having the sets of The Lord of the Rings built, which are often near-exact replicas of Howe's fertile imagination. For example, Bilbo's hole at Bag End looks awfully familar... does this image of Mount Doom, straight out of Jackson's ROTK:

I love this shot of Gandalf in particular. Look at the purposeful look on his face, his long, league-eating stride. He looks as though he were caught on some important errand, perhaps en route to research Bilbo's mysterious ring in the library at Gondor:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fighting the World: Too few shining examples in a fantasy film wasteland

A couple of the regular blogs I visit have recently posited that all fantasy films more or less suck. Granted, Noisms and James were both discussing fantasy films in the context of the absolutely awful Dungeons and Dragons film, and the generally bad idea of trying to bolt narrative structure onto a role-playing game. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these observations. But both bloggers also state that, in general, there are no good fantasy films. That I cannot agree with. I can only say that these guys must have never have seen Excalibur.

Now, I'll admit that the genre is awash in drek: Beastmaster, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Willow, Kull, The Scorpion King, the Dungeons and Dragons movie (one of the worst films I've ever seen--someone, somewhere, owes me an hour and a half of my life back), are shite. These and other awful films certainly make fantasy a tough genre to defend.

But for all that I would argue that there have been three great fantasy films made. In order: The Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, and Conan the Barbarian. You can make case that the Star Wars films are fantasy with SF trappings, and if you agree, that brings the total of great fantasy films to five (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back). After these handful, I also think there's a handful of watchable and/or pretty good fantasy films to consider: Dragonslayer is one, and Ladyhawke is another. I haven't seen the latter in many years but remember enjoying it quite a bit as a youth.

The problem with most fantasy films is that they stack up very poorly with the source material: I love Conan the Barbarian, but it's not Robert E. Howard, and we have nothing approaching Beyond the Black River or Red Nails on celluloid. I adore The Lord of the Rings but understand that it deviates from Tolkien's novel in many places, and respect the opinions of those who found Peter Jackson's adaptation not to their liking.

Fantasy filmmakers have also largely shied away from making bloody, bleak, grim, and, most importantly, adult fantasy films in favor of safe, theatre-filling, PG-13 drek. There's nothing even close to The Broken Sword on film, or the bawdy, bloody, good humor of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. 300 should have been the marvelous Gates of Fire, but, a few good scenes notwithstanding, was completely over-the-top and apparently written for teenage boys in the throes of raging hormones. We desperately a need a film based on Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord trilogy or the Saxon Stories, with shield walls and hall-burnings and historic accuracy, but instead we have the disappointing King Arthur and The 13th Warrior, two shaky pegs on which to hang our horned helmets.

What fantasy films don't need are more special effects. The Lord of the Rings works because of Sam's bravery and Boromir's "My captain, my king" speech; Conan is great because it's a classic revenge story--as we watch Arnold grow strong on the wheel, or seek out the symbol of Set, we're behind him all the way. Fantasy film directors would do well to avoid the trap of seeking to please fantasy fans, but instead focus their efforts on telling good stories that resonate. Captivating stories, and the empathy we feel for the characters that populate them, are the pumping heart beneath the breastplate of good fantasy films.

Which brings me back to Excalibur. John Boorman's film bucks fantasy heartbreak by hewing remarkably close to the source material, which is no mean feat given the plethora of Arthurian sources from which Boorman had to draw. It's a dark film, downright savage in places, poetic and uplifting in others, a heady mix. The dark is rising throughout the film, but not despair, so long as a few brave knights stand fast.

Nigel Terry plays a sympathetic King Arthur whom you want to see ascend to the throne of England, carve out his kingdom, and win the war against the usurper Mordred. Launcelot's return on the battlefield at Camlann is heroism at its highest and is deeply affecting, as is Merlin's speech to Arthur atop Camelot, silhouetted against a blood-red setting sun, symbolic of the end of a golden age of man. The cast really makes this film stand out: Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana) and Terry are brilliant, and Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart also shine in small roles.

Unfortunately, films like Excalibur and The Lord of the Rings are so rare, and the bulk of their sword and wizardry company so shabby in comparison, that the result is aspersions and a dim view of the genre as a whole.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sea of Trolls: Children's lit with a viking spirit

This recent post over at Black Gate reminded me of how much good writing, past and present, has been done in the fantasy genre under the guise of young adult literature. Some classic series for children that I enjoyed back in the day (and still do) include Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and of course, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Nowadays J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are at the forefront of the young adult fantasy field. I can't vouch for either of these series, since I haven't read Pullman's trilogy and have only dipped my toe in the water of the Potter books. But I will highly recommend another semi-recent entry in young adult fantasy: Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls (2004).

Despite the good work being done in the genre I'll freely admit that the young adult tag had me a bit skeptical at first, but any hesitancies about reading The Sea of Trolls proved ill-founded. Indeed, for the viking-lover in me, Farmer's work gets a hearty thumbs-up. It just proves that good writing transcends age limits, which are largely artificial designations anyway. Good books are good books regardless of how they're categorized.

The Sea of Trolls certainly pushes the young adult envelope--although there's no sex and gore, it does contain quite a bit of violence, and plenty of suffering, fear, and loss. But I wouldn't hesistate recommending it for any young teen. Although I'm generally no fan of children as protagonists (they're usually portrayed as too adult-like, are granted with superhuman powers and/or surrounded by a halo of protection that makes them invulnerable, or are just plain annoying), Jack, the main character of The Sea of Trolls, was well-drawn and likeable.

Jack is a young, bright boy living on the Irish coast and is taken in by the powerful, reclusive Bard as a servant and understudy. But Jack and his sister Lucy are abducted in a viking raid led by the berserker Olaf One-Brow (yes, the tale bears more than a passing resemblance to Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea). Through his own pluck, good fortune, and magical training learned at the feet of Bard, Jack proves his worth and avoids being sold into slavery. He manages to befriend Olaf and become the berserker's personal skald, and even warms the heart of his icy daughter Thorgill.

But later Thorgill decides to give away Jack's sister Lucy, her thrall, as a gift to Ivar the Boneless and his half-troll wife Queen Frith. This begins an epic quest to the magic troll-lands of Jotunheim in which Jack has to rescue Lucy before she is sacrificed to the goddess Freya.

Farmer's book is a wonderful blend of action, myth, norse legends, viking raids, and magic, all wrapped up in a well-told, albeit lengthy, tale. At 480 pages, The Sea of Trolls is a hefty read, and I have to wonder how receptive young adults are to this book. As much as I love fantasy lit I know I would have balked at a novel that size as a kid. Then again, I'm consistently amazed at the success of the Harry Potter books, which, despite their telephone-book girth are devoured like candy by both adults and young kids, so what do I know?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A reign begun in blood: A look back at Stephen King's Carrie

Warning—spoilers ahead

Along with J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King was the first author for whom I had feelings approaching reverence. For a good long while—darn near 13 years, or the period roughly from 1974’s Carrie all the way through 1987’s Misery—King produced brilliant horror fiction. I consumed King novels in my high school years like I would consume cheap beer a few years later in college. King was “the king” of my reading world, and not just of horror but all fiction.

In my opinion King’s meteoric career hit its first snag with The Tommyknockers (1987), a meandering, unsatisfying novel with some ridiculous, head-scratching elements thrown in. He recovered with some excellent books like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Half, but cracks began to appear in the 1990s with very forgettable books like Gerald’s Game, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher. Also, as my tastes changed and I began to read more widely, I realized that other authors had just as much to offer.

But though I now view King as a mere mortal, he’s still undeniably great. For every bad ending (of which he’s penned a few), or every too-long novel that could stand to be put through the wringer by a merciless editor, there’s a Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Stand, or Different Seasons, which I consider near-perfect examples of the modern novel/novella (Different Seasons may be my favorite stand-alone King book). When he was at his best, King was, to use a baseball analogy, throwing high 90s with nasty stuff. He was just damned good.

Now that you know how I feel about the early King, you’ll understand the thrill of glee I experienced last weekend when I went into my local library and found a copy of the Simon & Schuster unabridged recording of Carrie sitting on the shelf. As fans know Carrie was King's first novel and provided the ignition on his rocket ride to the top of the publishing world. While it’s not a great book, I’ve always liked Carrie, and it had been at least 15 years since I last read it. So I decided it was time to read (or, more accurately, listen) to Carrie again. This audiobook had the added appeal of being read by Sissy Spacek, who was brilliant as Carrie White in the terrific 1976 film adaptation of the novel. For the record, she’s a great reader, too.

While it’s ostensibly about a girl with telekinetic powers (or TK, as the book describes this ability), Carrie is really all about conformity and the torments inflicted on the less fortunate on the edges of society—in short, of the awful realities of high school. Raised by a psychotic mother whose fundamentalist Christian ethos is turned up to 11, poor Carrie never has a chance. Meek, emotionally stunted, and forced to dress in a spinsterish hand-made wardrobe, she goes through life as an easy target for the other kids in school.

King himself provides a nice introduction to the Simon & Schuster audio book, and he tells a story that leads the reader to believe that Carrie may be a rather long apology on his behalf. King says that Carrie White was an amalgamation of two girls he knew in high school, both of which were targets of practical jokes and harassment. While King says that he never joined in on the hazing, he does say he was a silent partner in it, and it’s obvious he still harbors some guilt. Many of us probably feel the same way—high school can be a cruel place.

Carrie begins with a memorable opening scene in which Carrie experiences a long-overdue first menstruation in the shower of the girls lockerroom. Unaware of the workings of her own body, Carrie reacts in a predictable fashion—tears and terror, fearing that she’s bleeding to death. Her classmates humiliate her and the traumatic experience brings Carrie’s latent telekinetic ability to the fore.

One of the girls involved in the incident, Sue Snell, later repents for her part (while not a tormenter, she looked on and laughed). Snell asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the senior prom. He accepts, and, to the horror of her God-fearing mother, Carrie does too.

But like Medea or some other brilliant yet horrible Greek tragedy, wheels of disaster are set in motion. Chris Hargensen, a particularly vindictive girl whose daddy is a lawyer and who takes pleasure in beating down anyone who tries to move out of their “station” in life, devises a plan with her boyfriend Billy to dump buckets of blood on Carrie at the height of the prom. I listened with one ear shut (is that possible?) during the climactic scene, hoping that somehow the buckets of pig blood wouldn’t fall this time—but of course, they do, and all hell breaks loose. I actually found the ensuing scene of the fire in the high school gym difficult to listen to—it evoked awful memories of the horrible Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003 (note: I wasn’t at that fire but I’ve been in a few clubs like it, and the images from the news are still too awful to think about). There’s more than a little raw, dangerous, revenge fantasy in the prom scene, as well as in Carrie’s subsequent rampage through the streets of Chamberlain.

But it isn’t the scenes of carnage or the awful potential of telekinetic power unleashed that makes Carrie so memorable. Rather, it’s the haunting question “If only”—if only the teachers paid more attention to Carrie’s torments, if only all the girls hadn’t laughed, if only someone, at some point in her life, showed a bit more compassion for Carrie, her life may have turned out otherwise. Carrie exposes the uncomfortable truth that many people are, to put it bluntly, pigs in the way they treat the less fortunate.

King also does an admirable job with the character of Sue Snell, whose motivations for asking her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom are quite complex—is it guilt? Did she secretly hope that something bad was going to happen? Or was it a genuine act of repentance?

I also found King’s message about religion a bit muddled. His portrayal of Margaret, Carrie’s mother, was a bit overblown and clich├ęd, and also more than a little frightening—as loony as she was, it’s hard to not shake the impression that Margaret was right in her bible-thumping plea not to let her daughter attend the prom, her "whore of Babylon" screeching aside. But then again, Margaret's brutal methods of discipline and rule of fear are hardly anyone’s idea of the Christian way. And had she not attended the prom, Carrie surely would have died a slow, drawn-out death, crushed under the yoke of under her mother's ceaseless, merciless rule. It's just further proof that Carrie's life was tragically doomed from the start.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Don't look now, I'm a Superior Scribbler

I'm always pleasantly surprised to find that people actually read and enjoy my blog. Today I recieved a nice surprise in my inbox from Julie Davis over at the Happy Catholic, as Julie tipped her cap to The Silver Key by bestowing a "Superior Scribbler Award" upon it. Julie writes:

Brian Murphy discusses books, movies, and much more. I'll just say it like this. The guy reviewed an audiobook of Beowulf in such a way that I now can't wait to get my hands on one. Beowulf! I ask you! So, yes, he's a compelling writer who opens your eyes to hitherto unknown realms.

Thanks Julie. Anytime I can get someone to pick up a book--or an ancient poem of heroic epic fantasy--my work is done.

So now it's my turn to honor five blogs I make it a point to visit with "Superior Scribbler" awards of their own. These include:

The Cimmerian
The premiere Web site for news about Robert E. Howard and in-depth reviews of seminal works in the fantasy field. Regular posters Steve Tompkins and Leo Grin always have something intelligent and interesting to say. And even though Steve compared my beloved Conan the Barbarian film to Li'l Abner versus the Moonies, I forgive him. His recent posts about Armistice Day and World War I-inspired fantasy writers and his speculation on the forthcoming The Hobbit film more than made up for that sleight.

Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature
Not really a blog, but Black Gate, publishers of a fantasy fiction magazine, recently started a daily stream of thoughtful blog posts about fantasy penned by various writers. I don't know if they can keep up this current trend of quality output but it's got me heading over to check it out each day. You should too.

Grognardia is the premiere blog for fans of old school Dungeons and Dragons and its literary heritage. Author James Maliszewski offers brilliant analysis of the origins of the game and convincing explanation of why the older editions worked and continue to work, blowing up the myth that fans of AD&D and OD&D are simply stricken with an unhealthy nostalgia.

Jeff's Gameblog
Jeff's "blog about games and stuff" is compulsively readable and suffused with a palpable love for RPGs. You can't fake this kind of enthusiasm. It's also a place to find wonderful ideas to lighten and liven up your game sessions. He puts the "game" back in role-playing games.

The Dwarf and the Basilisk
Matthew Conway's blog is a wonderfully eclectic mix of posts about computer games, role-playing games, horror films, Dr. Who, and the most exhaustive, in-depth recap of James Bond films I've ever seen in one place. I find myself nodding quite a bit when reading his posts. Another regular stop of mine.

Nice job folks! Winners are also required to post the rules of the contest, so here goes:
  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.

  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List (scroll down). That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: An epic listen

Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let anyone who can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

--from Beowulf, author unknown

As I've stated in past posts I'm a devotee of audio books. They give me something constructive to do on my hour-long commute to work each morning. A good audiobook can lift you above traffic and the drag and drain of daily worries and transport you to better places where skalds sing the deeds of great men.

The world described in the ancient poem Beowulf is such a place. It's an era of warrior-heroes, men of martial prowess who value honor, bravery, and the everlasting glory that comes with a life spent performing great deeds. It's a tale of spear-Danes and the great kings who ruled them with courage and greatness. And Beowulf, the hero of the tale, stands head and shoulders above even these proud men.

I recently checked out a BBC recording of Beowulf translated and read by poet and critic Seamus Heaney. If you're also a fan of audio books and in particular of heroic fantasy, this one is definitely a must-listen.

The poem itself is a straightforward, simple story that begins with the tale of the monster Grendel harrying the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, slaying and devouring his retainers at night. Beowulf arrives from over the sea with a small band of hand-picked spear Danes to put a stop to Grendel and his mother, a monstrous hag living beneath a tarn. Act two fast-forwards the reader 50 years later where an aging Beowulf, now a lord of renown, must strap on his shield and armor one last time to stop a dragon from ravaging his kingdom. That's pretty much it.

Beowulf's real reward is in its wonderful language. Heaney's translation is a joy to listen to. Great warriors are "wreckers of mead-benches" and kings are "generous ring-givers." The ocean is a "whale road," the sun "the world's candle," a gleaming sword a "battle-torch." It's also loaded with alliteration. Some might find this language tedious but I loved it. Here's an example of a passage that describes Beowulf's boat heading back home, loaded with riches heaped upon the crew by a grateful Hrothgar:

Then the keel plunged and shook in the sea, and they sailed from Denmark. Right away the mast was rigged with its sea-shawl. Sail ropes were tightened, timbers drummed, and stiff winds kept the wave-crosser skimming ahead. As she heaved forward, her foamy neck was fleet and boyant, a lapped prow loping over currents, until finally the Geats caught sight of coastline and familiar cliffs.

Beowulf contains an interesting mix of old pagan gods and beliefs meeting the new. Christianity is definitely on the upswing and we hear continued references to a singular God, "the glorious almighty." But the poem also contains references to "the wyrd," or the fate from which no man can escape. Great warriors are burned on funeral pyres, and we are not certain where men's souls return after death. When Hrothgar's great-grandfather, Scyld, dies at the beginning of the tale and his wealth-laden ship is set out to sea, "No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran, knows for certain who salvaged that load."

J.R.R. Tolkien admits to being heavily influenced by Beowulf, and it's clear that the scene in The Hobbit of Bilbo filching a cup from Smaug's horde is lifted straight out of the poem (it's also no coincidence that Beowulf's dragon has a soft spot beneath his nigh-impenetrable scaly coat, another device used by Tolkien in Smaug's battle with Bard over Dale).

The poem also gives an invaluable glimpse into the morality of the era. Dictums by the poem's unknown author provide us with the values and behavior which men upheld in roughly 5th-7th century Scandinavia. For example, reverence of the dead: "Then 12 warriors rode around the tomb, chieftains sons, champions in battle, all of them distraught, chanting in dirges, mourning his loss as a man and a king. They extolled his heroic nature and exploits and gave thanks for his greatness, which was the proper thing, for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear, and cherish his memory when that moment comes when he has to become void from his bodily home."

And this one: "And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving freely while his father lives. So that afterwards in age, when fighting starts, steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line. Behavior that's admired is the path to power for people anywhere."

In short, highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A fantasy blast from the past: The Enchanted World

My two daughters have recently started a habit that does my fantasy-loving heart good--paging through a series of Time-Life Books I purchased years ago, The Enchanted World. A really cool television ad that received a lot of airplay back in the early-to-mid 8o's roped me into buying several of them as a young teen, and they still stand proudly on my bookshelf today. Now much younger eyes and hands than mine are enjoying their wondrous contents.

Does anyone else remember these books? They were one of those deals where you bought the first book at a discounted price, then Time-Life would send you one each month (or maybe it was every other month) with "no obligation to buy." But of course these were so awesome I felt pretty darned obligated to purchase as many as I could afford. These books weren't cheap at the time, I think $20 each, but I couldn't resist buying several volumes. My collection includes:

Wizards and Witches

Spells and Bindings



Fairies and Elves

Legends of Valor

Giants and Ogres

I wasn't a big novel reader back then and The Enchanted World hit a sweet spot: Some text mixed in with gorgeous, full-color paintings and other illustrations. I've included a few of my favorites in this post. They were beautifully laid-out and fairly well-written as well.

Eventually my money ran dry and I had to stop collecting the books. I'm not sure how many of them Time-Life eventually published, but the collector in me sometimes has the urge to complete the run. In particular, I wish I hadn't missed The Fall of Camelot.

For the D&D fans out there, the picture below is The Wild Hunt, albeit a slightly different depiction than the one in Deities & Demigods. From Time-Life Books Ghosts:

Their great horses screaming, their hellhounds howling, the riders of the Wild Hunt coursed the northern skies. A host of the dead, they sought new companions from among the living.