Friday, March 27, 2009

More Battle of Five Armies goodness

While writing my recent post on J.R.R. Tolkien's Battle of Five Armies I spent some time googling for a few accompanying photos. In so doing I stumbled across a few related items that I felt compared to share. These include:

A Battle of Five Armies live-action role-playing event. I personally have never LARPed, nor really felt the urge to do so (except after several drinks). I'm not going to sit here and ridicule LARP, since I play tabletop RPGs and that would be more than a little hypocritical on my part. But something about LARP just rubs me as ... going too far. It's just not my thing.

But you know what? This event (to be held August 14-16, 2009) looks pretty cool. I'm impressed that five individual units, each with their own Web site and forum, have agreed to meet up and participate. I just might get in on this event. Put me in the vanguard of Dain's army, or let me play one of the bodyguard of Bolg. All that I need are a foam sword and cardboard armor and shield. And a few stiff drinks.

On second thought, I'd be willing to watch this, perhaps.

The Battle of Five Armies boardgame by Games Workshop. Now this is more my speed. Tell me that the cover of this game does not rock.

I'm not a big wargamer but I used to play Axis and Allies quite a bit, which come to think of it was a battle of five armies of sorts (albeit those of Germany, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S.). But I would definitely be willing to take this game for a spin. These painted miniatures and terrain look pretty groovy, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Howard and Hemingway

Read enough Robert E. Howard and you start to see him everywhere, particularly in the works of his contemporaries. Case in point: I recently listened to an audio version of Ernest Hemingway’s non-fiction treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, and my Howard-addled brain began to piece together tenuous, but perhaps not entirely unfounded, connections between the disparate authors.

Hemingway and Howard are alike? Didn’t one write about traumatized and/or impotent war veterans named Nick and Jake, and the other about unstoppable, larger-than-life heroes from impossibly ancient times with names like Conan and Kull? I’ll admit that if the only Hemingway you’ve read is The Garden of Eden or A Moveable Feast, you’ll find little in common with these tales and Howard’s Hour of the Dragon or “The Vale of Lost Women.” But Death in the Afternoon is a very different animal than Hemingway’s softer stories. It’s a raw, unflinching look at a sport many consider barbaric and cruel, but which Hemingway admired very deeply. And then it struck me: What is Death in the Afternoon if not heroic fantasy? What are the Spanish bullfighters of Hemingway’s work if not modern-day gladiators, heroes with swords? Wealth, fame, and great heights are theirs for the taking, but are entirely dependent on their bravery, grace, and skill with cape and sword.

Could Howard have derived some inspiration from Death in the Afternoon and/or Hemingway’s stories in general? We know Howard read Hemingway. According to the REH Bookshelf, an invaluable resource painstakingly compiled by Howard scholar Rusty Burke, Howard had a copy of “Winner Take Nothing” on his bookshelf. This collection contains “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and “A Natural History of the Dead” (this latter must-read vignette also appears in Death in the Afternoon), among other short stories. Given his prodigious appetite as a reader Howard may very well have read Death in the Afternoon. Although he didn’t have it on his bookshelf at the time of his death, Howard’s sensibilities are splashed on its pages like the blood of a soft, city-bred Nemedian on a Pictish axe.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle of Five Armies

6. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Battle of Five Armies

“Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! The bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”

—Gandalf, from
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Battle of Five Armies from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is perhaps the first large-scale fantasy battle scene that I can recall reading, and to this day it remains one of my favorites, firmly rooted in my top 10 fantasy battles of all time. Guillermo del Toro had better do it justice in the planned 2011 release of the film, else he risks invoking my not-insubstantial wrath. It would take a truly artless director to screw up the Battle of Five Armies, given how much great material Tolkien has supplied.

At first reading I sympathized with Thorin’s stubborn defiance when the Elvenking and Bard come to claim a share of Smaug’s treasure. It’s highly doubtful that Tolkien intended this reaction, as we’re supposed to recognize the selfishness of the dwarves and chastise Thorin for his greed. I do, but I suffered along with the dwarves on their dangerous journey from Bag End to the Lonely Mountain, and I couldn’t help but feel the same stubborn, suicidal pride that consumes Thorin in my own breast. Don’t give it to them, Thorin. Tell Bard and the elf and their armies to take a walk. Heck, part of me still feels this way.

I cheered when Dain’s people came down from the mountains to Thorin’s rescue, the great, grim hosts wielding two-handed mattocks and armored head to toe in coats of cunningly-wrought dwarf mail. They may be outnumbered, I thought, but I wouldn’t want to tangle with this crew.

The two sides are about to meet—dwarves vs. elves and men—when Gandalf steps between the advancing armies, his timing as impeccable as ever. Gandalf issues a warning that the goblin hordes are upon them. The goblins are accompanied by an enormous bat-cloud; a foreshadowing of the unnatural darkness that accompanies the hosts of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings (though personally I think bats are cooler than darkness). Counseled by Gandalf, the allies draw up a quick battle plan: They will funnel the goblins into a narrow space between two great spurs of stone running down from the mountain where the goblins cannot bring their greater numbers to bear—provided that they aren’t in sufficient numbers to overrun the mountain itself, Tolkien ominously warns us.

The allies don’t have to wait long. The enemy vanguard appears, goblins mounted on wolf back. It’s a great image, as is the first glimpse of the army. “Their banners were countless, black and red, and they came on like a tide in fury and disorder,” writes Tolkien.

The Battle of Five Armies is not as detailed as most of the others in my list of top 10, but it’s as skillfully written as any, and more emotionally powerful than most. Bilbo plays no part, though I enjoy Tolkien’s remark that it was the “most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most—which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards.” Given Bilbo’s run-in with the spiders, trolls, and Smaug, it's a good indication of the ferocity of the encounter.

The battle is both terrible and beautiful. Tolkien recounts that the elves were the first to charge, their hatred for the goblins, “cold and bitter. Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them.” The goblins reel from the elves’ fury and the onslaught of the dwarves and men. Their lines begin to waver until a sizeable contingent manages to gain the high ground, streaming down on the defenders to attack from above. “Victory now vanished from hope,” Tolkien writes.

Next occurs my favorite sequence in the book, Thorin and co’s unexpected sally from Lonely Mountain. The goblins have regrouped in the valley and with them the bodyguard of Bolg, “goblins of huge size with scimitars of steel.” All hope seems lost, until Thorin, forgotten by this reader in the excitement of the battle, emerges from the mountain, a crowned king resplendent in war-gear of old, a vision to make tears spring to your eyes:

Suddenly there was a great shout, and from the Gate came a trumpet call. They had forgotten Thorin! Part of the wall, moved by levers, fell outward with a crash into the pool. Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire.

Thorin cuts a swath through the enemy, wielding his axe with mighty strokes as arrows and hurled stones ring harmlessly off his mithril coat. He scatters goblins and wargs alike, and the battle seems turned once more in favor of the allies—but the bodyguard of Bolg is as a sea-wall, and he cannot pierce their ranks. Thorin’s attack is overextended and the goblins counterattack, hemming the dwarves in. Bodies lay strewn on the field, including “many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood.”

Many have criticized Tolkien over the years for his overuse of the eagles as deus ex machina, either as close air support (as here in The Hobbit) or medevac helicopters (i.e., Sam and Hobbit plucked from the side of Mount Doom). But I’ve never had a problem with the eagles. They don’t negate Thorin’s bravery. And it is not they who turn the tide of battle, but Beorn, who arrives in bear form, an unstoppable, terrifying foe like the berserkers from northern myth. “The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers,” Tolkien writes.

Beorn plucks Thorin gently from the field, this great bear of a man who once treated the dwarves with suspicion. After he bears the mortally wounded dwarf from the fray, Beorn returns to smash the bodyguard of Bolg and pull down and crush the great goblin himself, effectively ending the battle.

Thorin’s death-scene tugs at the heartstrings. He lives long enough to wish Bilbo a pagan farewell as he departs for “the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” Very Ragnarok-esque. He also expresses regret for his selfishness and gold-lust:

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”

The battle has played out like a great tragedy and The Hobbit, which began so much like a children’s book, has become something quite different by the end. Sounding very much like a battle-weary combat veteran, Bilbo looks upon the corpse-choked, desolate battlefield and reflects on his own longest day:

“Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.”

Note: The amazing photo at the top comes from the blog of artist
Justin Gerard. It's easily the best rendition of the battle I've ever seen.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: A new market for swords and sorcery emerges

If swords and sorcery is to stage a comeback—and let’s face it, the genre is not only languishing these days, it’s barely got a pulse—there must be paying markets to furnish an incentive for budding writers. So I was pleased to recently stumble across what appears to be a promising, albeit yet-to-debut publication in the S&S space, and one that also offers cash upon publication: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

From a description on the HFQ Web site:

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is an ezine dedicated to publishing short works of heroic fantasy. More than that, through both prose and poetry we hope to hearken an older age of storytelling – an age when a story well told enthralled audiences. Traits of great oral storytelling survive the ages to influence treasures of literature, the pulps, radio plays, late-night game sessions, and now Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

Our favorite storytellers, a few ancient and a few not, deliver action, reaction, and repercussion – and rarely divulge the thought processes that guide a character. These storytellers know that sometimes an audience just wants to see what happens next, that sometimes it’s more interesting to watch a person open a box than to hear about why he or she decided to open it in the first place.

Not being too hung up on the divisions within fantasy (save the broad, unmistakable strokes of high fantasy and swords and sorcery), I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy on the differences between “heroic fantasy” and swords and sorcery.

Note: To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thinner: Vintage King gets new life on audio

I put off reading Stephen King’s Thinner for the better part of two decades. The dust jacket description—lawyer runs down gypsy and is cursed to become, well, thinner—seemed like a decent short story stretched out into a novel. The premise just didn’t grab me.

As it turns out, my fears proved ill-founded. Thinner is an entertaining little novel that is, at its heart, about big concepts, including guilt, the dangers of not accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and the ruinous, generation-spanning cycle of destruction wrought by revenge. Thinner is positively short by King standards (about 300 pages), moves quickly, and contains a couple nasty little shocks that keep you on your toes and leave you feeling unsettled.

I’ve stated before that Stephen King was, in his early career, batting very nearly 1.000 as a writer. If you take a look at his work from 1973’s Carrie through 1987’s Misery and The Eyes of the Dragon, King was consistently great. I submit that The Tommyknockers (1988), written at the height of his drug and alcohol problems, was the first true misstep in King’s career. Now that I’ve finally read Thinner (released in 1984), I find that my rule holds true. It’s a fine book from King’s classic period.

Thinner tells the story of Billy Halleck, an overweight lawyer who gets distracted while driving home (his wife is giving him a handjob) and accidentally runs down an old gypsy woman crossing the street. Halleck avoids what should have a manslaughter conviction because the judge is an old golfing buddy and lets him off the hook. But Halleck can’t escape the scales of justice. The ancient father of Halleck’s victim curses Halleck by laying a scaly finger upon him and uttering the single word, “thinner.”

In the coming weeks, Halleck’s weight begins to drop alarmingly. When the doctors rule out cancer, Halleck realizes that the gypsy’s curse has taken root. The rest of the novel features Halleck chasing down the gypsies to get the curse lifted as his weight plunges from a high of 252 pounds to half that.

King has the problem of trying to convince the reader that a steadily weakening lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut suburb is capable of exerting enough pressure on a stubborn gypsy clan to lift the curse. He neatly sidesteps this problem by introducing the character of Richie “The Hammer” Ginelli, a minor mafia boss and a former client of Halleck’s. Ginelli assists Halleck by lending his unique and persuasive “services” learned in the hard-knock school of organized crime.

There’s a lot to recommend in Thinner. Taduz Lemke, the old gypsy with the power to curse, is a wonderful character, an ancient soul (over 100 years old) from the old world, the last of the Magyar chiefs. Although he’s initially unlikeable, King renders Lemke and the rest of his gypsy clan sympathetic. Though they are dirty and uneducated, and routinely skirt (and cross) the boundaries of the law, the gypsies are treated with open hostility from the hypocritical communities that they visit. Men like Halleck view the gypsies as an unwelcome disease in their safe and pure suburban communities, which are actually corrupt at the core with their unequal systems of justice, “old boy” networks, and inherent prejudices. When Halleck claims that Lemke’s daughter is equally at fault for the accident, since she didn’t look before crossing the street, he shows his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his own actions. Worse, Halleck took advantage of an unfair system of justice and never had to pay for his (and his wife’s) carelessness. Lemke’s curse is a painful lesson in admitting one’s guilt: “There is no push, white man from town,” Lemke says, again and again throughout the story. “No push.”

If you’re a Generation X-er you’ll appreciate the 1980’s time machine that is Thinner. In it you’ll find references to Apples and TRS-80s, Thunderbirds and Novas. Halleck’s family physician casually blows cocaine during a checkup and it doesn’t seem out of place here, given the period. Halleck’s daughter is mentioned as playing a year long game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Thinner contains very little horror until the end and is more accurately classified as a thriller, which may be why King adopted his (unsuccessful) pseudonym Richard Bachman during the book’s initial release. In Thinner, King was attempting something a bit outside his reputation as a horror author.

Veteran actor Joe Mantegna provides the narration for Thinner and he is magnificent, particularly in his portrayal of Ginelli (no surprise here, given that Mantegna has appeared in various gangster films). I’ve previously railed against the inclusion of music in audio books, but this version by Penguin makes excellent use of it, in particular its use of a chilling, off-putting theme whenever the gypsies—or Halleck’s alarmingly plunging weight—are mentioned.

This review also appears on

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: How Dungeons and Dragons and Appendix N helped inspire a generation of readers

From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay, you will be able to pluck kernels from which to grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!

--Gary Gygax,
Dungeon Master’s Guide, Appendix N

A little more than a year has passed since we lost Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy roleplaying game and an imaginative giant, “one of the seminal influences in fantasy in the twentieth century,” according to Leo Grin, publisher of The Cimmerian.

Gygax’s death was and is still keenly felt for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he created a game of unbridled imagination that is still going strong more than three decades after its inception, surviving the rise of computer “roleplaying” games, misguided attacks by the media, and even misplaced religious fervor. D&D continues to be played by youths as well as adults who never lost their love for the game nor suffered the unfortunate calcification of their imagination.

But Gygax’s other legacy is his role as a champion of fantasy fiction. He helped to introduce a generation of gamers to the pleasures of fantasy fiction (I count myself in this group). Even those who have since moved on from D&D paused to honor and remember Lake Geneva’s most famous resident for fostering in them a lifelong love of reading following his death on March 4, 2008.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My top 10 Dungeons and Dragons monsters

All right, so I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but in joining with the semi-recent spate of bloggers around the Web listing their top 10 favorite D&D monsters, I thought I'd write up mine. Note that this list pertains to monsters published for 1e AD&D.

10. Owlbear. These ferocious beasts are one of those species of monster that, along with beholders and gelantinous cubes, just scream D&D to me. I've always been horrified at the thought of running into a hungry grizzly bear in the wild; imagine encountering of these creatures, 8' or more feet tall and 1,500 pounds of owl-headed malice: "The horrible owlbear is probably the result of genetic experimentation by some insane wizard ... they are ravenous eaters, aggressive hunters, and evil tempered at all times," according to the Monster Manual. Owlbears can be PC killers due to their deadly "hug" (2-16 points of damage that round and every melee round thereafter until the owlbear is killed for the unfortunate character drawn in to its embrace).

9. Ogre. As a player, I always considered ogres a "coming of age" challenge for PCs: These brutes were killers of low-level characters due to their high strength and damage potential, but once able to defeat an ogre your character had accomplished a great feat and had graduated from mere dungeon-fodder. Ogres are also every DMs' friend due to their inherent flexibility, as they are able to serve as lone cave-dwellers, or as hired muscle and encountered with groups of orcs and the like. My current DM uses breast-plated, warhammer-wielding ogres called the Black Hammer as shock troops to supplement orc regulars.

8. Orcus. My favorite demon-lord and probably the most recognizable D&D arch-villain. I never ran or played in a game in which the PCs encountered the Prince of the Undead, but I always liked the thought of him as being at the ultimate end of nefarious plots by evil cults and the like. Goat-headed and grossly fat with hooved feet, he looks like every demon should. And the Wand of Orcus is a great illustration.

7. Frost giant. As a fan of vikings, I always felt a strong attraction to these bearded, horn-helmeted, axe-wielding species of giant. I have a special fondness for G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl as a result, which also featured a white dragon and his mate, a white pudding (cool, who knew puddings came in different colors?) as well as the only (as far as I know) published appearance of the dreaded remorhaz (see no. 4 below).

6. Death knight. Fiend Folio gets a lot of flak from D&D fans, and I'll admit it does contain more than its fair share of ridiculous, essentially unusable creatures. But Fiend Folio also had some soaring heights of creativity, including one of my favorite monsters, the death knight. I always liked the fact that only 12 were known to exist, which, like the rare Type VI series of demon, forces the DM to get creative with their use. I used to have a list (long since gone) of names, personalities, and reasons why each of these former lawful-good paladins fell into evil. Armored in black plate-mail and riding on fire-hooved Nightmare steeds, death knights also make for a great visual image. And man, were they powerful--75% magic resistance (and if 11 or lower is rolled on percentage dice a magic spell is reflected back at the caster), plus once per day were able to use a power word of any type and generate a (20 dice!) fireball.

5. Dragon. Although dragons are the archetypal D&D monster, back when I was DMing I never used them much, probably because I was influenced by Tolkien and considered them to be exceedingly rare. I never saw the point in good dragons and prefer the standard chromatic evil dragons, including blue and black. But if I had to choose a favorite I'd go with the classic fire-breathing red, again, probably due to my love of Tolkien's portrayal of Smaug. I still love the mechanics of 1E breath weapon attacks, which did damage equal to the dragon's initial HP. You don't want to fail a save against an 88 HP ancient red dragon.

4. Remorhaz. Man, these things are nasty. A large remorhaz can swallow a PC whole on a roll of 20, and "any victim swallowed in this manner is instantly killed due to the intense heat in the monster's digestive system," according to the Monster Manual. If you touch a remorhaz's back, you take 10-100 damage (sadly I never had a PC do this, but as a DM I always wanted to break out the percentile dice to roll for damage).

3. Hobgoblin. I like orcs but they have too much of a Tolkien connection; Hobgoblins will always be more D&D to me. I fell in love with these creatures in part due to the illustration on the cover of The Keep on the Borderlands and they became my go-to monster for mass attacks. In my campaigns hobgoblins could whip up on orcs because they were more organized and took better care of their arms and armor.

2. Troll. I'm simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by the awful appearance of D&D-style/Poul Anderson-inspired trolls, with their mottled green skin, twisted, muscled limbs, wiry hair, broken teeth, and (worst of all) empty, black, shark-like eyes. Trolls' regenerative properties made for great fights, especially if the PCs fought more than one (it was always fun to have characters scrambling to apply torches to a downed but not destroyed troll as other characters desperately fought a second or third). There was also something chilling in these creatures' capacity to fight up to three opponents at once--I can picture very clearly a clawed arm independently moving to claw a PC at its flank or rear as the troll bites a PC standing at its front.

1. Lich. Outside of the gods or perhaps a handful of unique creatures like the tarrasque, was anything tougher in AD&D than a high level magic user, and, by extension, the lich? Access to a arsenal of powerful high-level spells is what makes this monster such a fearsome opponent. Combine the spell-casting power of an arch mage (18th-plus level MU) with an undead, magic-resistant body, and a supra-genius mind which has centuries or millennia to plan its schemes, and you've got a receipe for toughest creature in the game. I always thought that the lich encounter in Descent to the Depths of the Earth, if played correctly, could/should probably serve as a TPK. I mean, the thing had access to limited wish and time stop--enough said.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Dunsany’s The Sword of Welleran a cold comfort for heroes

Such was Merimna, a city of sculptured Victories and warriors of bronze. Yet in the time of which I write the art of war had been forgotten in Merimna, and the people almost slept. To and fro and up and down they would walk through the marble streets, gazing at memorials of the things achieved by their country's swords in the hands of those that long ago had loved Merimna well.

--Lord Dunsany, “The Sword of Welleran”

Every age reveres its heroes. The ancient Greeks idolized their even more ancient forebears, the godlike heroes of the Trojan War. Medieval knights modeled their chivalric ideals upon Arthur’s round table. Many in our current generation look back with awe on the deeds of the vanishing heroes of World War II.

But is this longing a form of misplaced nostalgia? Were we to strip away the romance and look with unsentimental eyes upon the grim deeds these heroes actually performed on the battlefield, how would our perspectives change?

Cloaked in rousing high fantasy trappings, Lord Dunsany’s short story The Sword of Welleran (1908) explores the myth and the reality of war and its heroes, leaving the reader at story’s end with a chill, anti-heroic undercurrent. It serves as a warning for the warriors of the next generation not to over-romanticize the way of the sword.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In memoriam

Welcome to the land of imagination. You are about to begin a journey into worlds where magic and monsters are the order of the day, where law and chaos are forever at odds, where adventure and heroism are the meat and drink of all who would seek their fortunes in uncommon pursuits. This is the realm of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Adventure Game.

--Gary Gygax, The Keep on the Borderlands

Thanks again Gary, for introducing me and so many others to this "uncommon pursuit." You are not forgotten.