Thursday, January 29, 2009


A few more words about Samuel Johnson, and I am done.
Dr. Johnson's peculiar mannerisms were always a subject of comment, and they often seemed beyond his control. A series of spasms or grimaces would cross his face (tics, we would call them now), as well as compulsive gestures (as shown in Joshua Reynolds early portrait of Johnson above), and a constant rolling of the legs even when standing still. He obsessively had to touch every post he passed in the street, and went back if he missed one. At one point in his life he saved all his orange peel. I think all these symptoms, coupled with his social difficulties and hard to control temper, might lead now-a-days to a diagnosis of Aspberger's Syndrome.
This demeanor of his (and his slovenly clothes) led the artist William Hogarth, when he saw him at the writer Samuel Richardson's house, to suppose Johnson an "ideot" who had been put in Richardson's care. But when Johnson stalked forward to join in Hogarth and Richardson's discussion and took up the subject with eloquence and learning, Hogarth was astounded and really thought the "ideot" had been "inspired", that is, taken over by a spirit!
Johnson also had the habit of checking the bookshelves in whatever house he visited, sometimes to the extent of becoming oblivious to his hosts. He once told Boswell that when he was at any gathering and the talk turned to society, he would "abstract" himself and think of "Jack the Giant-Killer", one of the children's chap-books from his youth.
Johnson was an amateur physician and "chymist", at a time when most scientific knowledge could be attained by one man. He had a laboratory set up at his lodgings, and Boswell would sometimes be greeted by the chemical stinks of one of his experiments. When Johnson had a stroke, he quickly made some Latin verses to test whether his mind had been impaired (one of his greatest fears). He found that they were poor, but that he knew they were poor; he concluded his critical faculties were undamaged.
Johnson may well have been at least partially a model when Arthur Conan Doyle was creating Sherlock Holmes. Certainly Watson ends his tribute to his friend after his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls by calling him "the best and wisest man I have ever known." This is exactly how Boswell concludes his famous biography of Johnson.
And now to finish my own work with the words Johnson used to Boswell in a fit of pique when his friend had been unusually persistent in his questions: "Sir, you have only two subjects of conversation, yourself and me; and I am heartily sick of both!"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Samuel Johnson: One Of My People, Part II

After the publication of the Dictionary, Johnson entered what became the most famous stage of his life. Universities scrambled to honor him with degrees; it is from this time on that he became "Doctor" Johnson. The government honored him with a pension: it was this, not any money he might have made from selling his work, that allowed him to live an easier life. He began to be courted by society; Henry Thrale, a rich brewer, and his wife, Hesther, had him as a regular guest in their home, and the prescence of the literary lion lent the middle class family a certain cachet.

For all this, Johnson remained largely unchanged. When a lady asked him how he came to define a fetlock as a horse's ankle, he replied, "Sheer ignorance, madame." When another lady commented that she approved that he had left out the naughty words, he replied slyly, "What, my dear, you went looking for them?" Johnson's clothing and manner changed little with his new-found status. He was usually poorly and casually dressed and his manners, picked up while bolting his meals when he coul get them, caused adverse comment. Hesther Thrale remarked that it was a disgusting spectacle to see him eat "plum pudden".

Still, he was highly respected for his wide-ranging intelligence and as a moral philosopher. And he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Even before his success and pension, he was taking care of a stable of unfortunates: a poor spinster, a blind lady, an indigent physician who treated the even poorer for next to nothing. A special case was Francis Barber, an emancipated slave that was given into his care. Though "Frank" acted as a servant to him for many years, Johnson was in many ways his foster-father, paying for his wedding and making him his sole heir on his death. Johnson even bought oysters himself for his cat Hodges; oysters at the time were extremely common food eaten by the very poor, and he was afraid Frank would be embarrassed to be seen purchasing them. (At the time of the American Revolution, Johnson said that no-one was calling louder for liberty than the American slave-drivers). Johnson always had care and sympathy for the marginal and outcast of society.

But he also moved in the very highest circles of society. He engaged in controveries with the likes of Lord Monboddo, a sort of proto-Darwinist, and Adam Smith, the economist; he exposed the literary fraud of James McPherson's Ossian and investigated the Cock Lane Ghost. Joshua Reynolds, the age's pre-eminent painter, David Garrick, the pre-eminent actor, Oliver Goldsmith, the novelist and playwright, Edward Gibbons, the pre-eminent historian, were all members of The Literary Club, of which Johnson was the star ornament, and a personal friend of each. And into the middle of this came James Boswell.

Boswell was everything Johnson was not. He was young, aristocratic, well-dressed, dissolute, and Scottish. Johnson at that time had a well-known "animadversion" to the Scotch, and this made their first meeting a little awkward. However, Boswell was persistently pleasant and persevered, and soon they were getting along well. Boswell was trying to find his own way in the world, and felt that Johnson had the steadiness and gravitas he needed. Boswell was constantly asking him for personal advice, and questions about Johnson's early life, and even hypothetical questions to see how he would react. Boswell went so far as to take him on a journey to Scotland, which largely modified the older man's views. Boswell wrote it all down in his journals.

So it went to the end of Johnson's life. He wrote a little and talked a lot. He was a famous rambler, liked tea and lemon "squash", and loved his cats (there is now a statue of his cat, with the famed oyster shells, in London; people put coins in the shells: the money is collected to help stray cats). After his death Boswell composed and published his monumental "Life Of Johnson", that fixed the character of Johnson in the public mind forever and became a high water mark in biography. The next generation of writers, the Romantics, rejected his classical, orthodox views, however, and did much to foster the image of him as "The Great Bear", blinkered, ugly, and stilted, that still persists to this day.

But I would like to leave you with another image of Samuel Johnson, one that won my heart. A good friend of his, one Bennett Langton, recalled how, in Johnson's old age, they were walking at the top of a steep hill behind Langton's house. Johnson suddenly turned, looked at the slope, and announced that he was determined to take a roll down it. Despite all his friend could say to dissuade him, he emptied his pockets of anything that could fall out or hurt him, declaring he hadn't had a good roll in a long time. Then he laid himself parallel to the hillside and rolled all the way to the bottom.

Perfect Casting For Samuel Johnson

English actor Jim Carter, who played George Fox in The Madness Of King George, and also appeared in The Way We Live Now on PBS.

Samuel Johnson: One Of My People

Samuel Johnson's reputation in the historical and literary world seems to follow the pattern of his personal life; first there is the awareness of a gruff, imperious surface that on greater acquaintance reveals deep, even tender, concerns. Born to a poor bookseller and his wife who were already past prime child-bearing age, he was sent to nurse with a local woman who unfortunately passed along a tubercular infection of the lymph glands known as scrofula along with her milk. This scarred him and left him with poor eyesight throughout his life, but he declared that what he lacked in acuity of sight he had to make up with precision of observation, and that this led him to his analytical turn of mind.

Despite this misfortune he grew up tall and strong, if ungainly, and like many children of older parents he developed a precocious intellect. After a few years in a "dame school", being taught to read and write, he became largely an autodidact, learning mostly from reading the stock in his father's failing bookstore. Under the influence and example of a rich, intellectual uncle, Cornelius Ford, he attended Oxford for nine months, but when the uncle passed away and money became tight he left without graduating. During the time of his education he was honored for being more learned than all his schoolfellows if a little lazy, and a habit of pride and independence that he had were only deepened by his obvious poverty among his collegiate fellows.

He returned home to further family tragedy. His only brother, Nathaniel, appears to have committed suicide, though this was hushed up for shame. Johnson puttered around at home, helping with the family business and trying to make a living with his pen, but the distance between his hometown of Lichfield and the cultural center of London made this difficult. At the age of 25 he astonished his family and history by marrying the widow Elizabeth Porter, who was 46. Monetary reasons have been adduced, but he himself declared that it was a "love match", and that "Tetty" as he called her saw past what he saw as his own failings and flaws to the worth underneath.

He used most of her money to establish a school at Edial with himself as the primary teacher; educational efforts have been the desperate fallback for learned people for a long time. The school was never very successful, and when it failed Johnson decided it was time to set off for London to try to earn a living by his pen in earnest. He set off walking (to save coachfare) accompanied by his favorite and last remaining pupil, David Garrick. Garrick went on to become the greatest actor of the age, and Johnson began the tough climb up the ladder of success as an author.

This was a particularly hard time for Johnson. When he first arrived and asked a prominent publisher for help and advice, he was told (as the man looked at his gigantic stature) to get a pad for his back and take a job as a porter, or moving man. Johnson took any writing job, mostly as a journalist, writing articles to supply grist for the weekly journals and digests. Many nights he didn't have the money for a room and walked the streets until morning. Tetty was established in a house in the suburbs and most of the money went to support her. Eventually Johnson landed the job of reporting on the speeches of Parliament; since rules at the time precluded anyone from outside being present, only the names of the speakers and the gist of their arguments were given him; he would then write up the speeches as they ought to have been, and many a Member was astonished to find the eloquence attributed to them that they scarce could dream of.

Essays for The Idler, poetry, biographies, all added to his growing fame. He still had sometimes to take purely practical jobs, and one was cataloging the contents of a vast private library that was going up for sale; when the broker who hired him found him reading one of the volumes to ascertain its value berated him for wasting time, Johnson in anger felled him with the weighty volume. His life on the street made him ever ready to defend himself physically as well as in debate; he often carried a cudgel as a walking stick through the streets in case he was set upon by hired ruffians from someone he might have angered.

His literary chops being established, he felt it was time to cement his position with some great work. And he settled on a project that had bedevilled the book world for some time: to produce the first complete general dictionary for the English language. It took him more than a decade to produce, with the aid of a dozen assistants and none of the patronage of the wealthy to encourage him. During the period of its' compilation Tetty died, his father and then his mother passed away (he wrote the short novel Rasselas to pay for her funeral); when Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson had applied for help and been ignored, tried to attach his name to the project, Johnson sent him a letter coldly rejecting any such connection as now unnecessary, since anyone he could have pleased by his success was gone, and "I am grown solitary." The age of patronage heard its' death knell, and "Dictionary" Johnson was born.

Coming soon (I hope), Part Two: Success and Boswell

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cryptozoological Playset

AlanDP over at Blogonomicon ( has brought to my attention that Accoutrements is bringing out a set of cryptid figures in February. The Cryptozoological Playset will include five of the all-time great mysterious monsters: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster (in three segments), Mothman, the Jersey Devil, and a Chupacabra. These figures appear not to be action toys, but single molded PVC figures. The Bigfoot bears a very close resemblance to their scuplt of the Bigfoot action figure, which included an inkpad and a footprint shaped stamp on the bottom of it's feet for making the famous tracks. The price is $14.99, and they are available for pre-order at Entertainment Earth (

Also in the news at Entertainment Earth: they've pushed back the release for the new Kingdom Hearts figures to February.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Slew Review

In this past week I've got a slew of new books, some from Amazon, some from Hastings, some from Half Price, and some from Bargain Books. Here follows a list with short comments on each. Books in BOLD are hardback, those in italics are softcovers.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Robert E. Howard
Boxing Stories, by Robert E Howard
More in my efforts to own the complete works of Texas' authentic Fantasy original.

The Solitudes, by John Crowley
Volume I in The Aegypt Cycle, originally titled Aegypt, now edited and issued with the other three volumes in a uniform format.

The Knights of the Cornerstone, by James P. Blaylock
A good read, but seems to me to be almost a Tim Powers story as written by Blaylock. Modern Templars try to protect their secrets from greedy interlopers.

Boxen, by C. S. Lewis and W. H. Lewis
A new issue of the Boxen stories, with added material not in the original Boxen. Excellent color reproductions of the schoolboy pictures by the Lewis brothers.

Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn
Japanese ghost stories written by the American expatriate and illustrated with traditional-style Japanese woodblocks. I have some of the stories anthologized in other volumes; this is the book itself.

In The Suicide Mountains, by John Gardner
The tale of Chudu the Goat's Son, Armida the beautiful but enormously strong blacksmith's daughter, and Prince Chistopher the Sullen, who all want to destroy themselves, and why they don't.

Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana, by Anne Rice
The story of how the Vampire Queen Rice returned to Catholicism is one of the unexpected turn-ups in the land of literature. This is Volume II in her series on the life of Jesus.

Collected Short Stories, by Robert Graves
Stories by the "mad Irishman with a bee in his bonnet" about myths, who wrote the I, Claudius books.

The Magician's Book, by Laura Miller
Subtitled, "A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia", this is a genial look at the Narnia phenomenon from a non-Christian's viewpoint, and she finds much to admire. An evenly balanced assessment and a fresh angle on the books.

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, by "Newt Scamander"
Quidditch Throught The Ages, by "Kennilworthy Whisp"
Two slim volumes by J. K. Rowling, faux books from the Harry Potter world. I've come to a sort of peace with Harry Potter now that the main phenomenon has settled down.

The Sandman: Book of Dreams
Book of short stories in The Sandman mythos, edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer.

Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician, by John Matthews
Profusely illustrated look at the cultural phenomenon of Merlin and his image. I once started a xeroxed collection containing many of the images contained in this book; it's gratifying seeing someone carry this to its' conclusion.

English Myths and Legends, by Henry Bett.
Old Lore galore.

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, by Thomas Kirk
Classic monograph from the 17th Century; the author was said to himself been taken by the fairies at the end of his life.

Chaucer, by Peter Ackroyd
Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd
Ackroyd is a wonderful author, but his factual biographies and histories read better than his novels.

The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry
A book on appreciating and writing poetry by the man perhaps best remembered for portraying the mad Lord Melchett. His factual books also read much better than his novels, for some reason.

Fabulous Feasts, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman
Medieval Cookery and ceremony, with many recipes for cooking authentic dishes from the Middle Ages. Contains the recipe for Hippocras, which some readers of this blog may remember. I've wanted a copy of this book since high school.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Fool's Prayer: Favorite Poems


The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!"

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the monarch's silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: "O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

"No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but, Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

"'Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
'Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end:
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Amid the heart-strings of a friend.

"The ill-timed truth we might have kept--
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say--
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

"Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders--oh, in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes.
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!"

The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
"Be merciful to me, a fool!"

--Edward Rowland Sill, 1841-1887

I first read this poem back in middle school, and it moved me then. Many years later I bought an anthology volume at a library sale and found that it had belonged to a teacher at our old grade school, a Mr. Bonarden, who had a reputation of being a bluff tough kind of guy. The two poems particularly marked in the book were "Little Orphant Annie" and "The Fool's Prayer", which lead me to wonder about the inner life of people we think we had figured out.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Anyone who hasn't see this remarkable cartoon has a chance to see the entire season tomorrow (Jan. 18) on Cartoon Network.

It tells the "misadventures" of young Flapjack (voiced by series creator, Mark "Thurop" Van Orman), a foundling being raised at the ricketty refuge of Stormalong Harbor by his foster-mother/boat/house Bubbie the whale (voiced by Roz Ryan) and tutored in the ways of the adventurer by the dubious Captain K'nuckles (voiced by Brian Doyle-Muray, who seems fated to play a pirate). The Holy Grail or White Whale of their adventures is the search for the fabled "Candied Island", an island made entirely of sweet treats; when they are not actively seeking it Flapjack and K'nuckles just seek out candy and engage in adventurer training that is often simply thinly disguised efforts for the Captain to get out of work or do what he wants. Bubbie tries to counter these efforts to safeguard Flapjack and keep him sweet and innocent and alive.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oh, Pooh!: Living On Our Cultural Fat

What is arguably the English language's greatest toy-based children's classic is in danger.

Eighty years after A. A. Milne dotted the last line of his magical, melancholy tribute to the memory of childhood and childhood's end ("So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."), The A. A. Milne Estate and Trust (which at this late date does not include Christopher Milne, who spent most of his life trying to move out of the shadow of having been Christopher Robin) has decided that was not the end, and have hired author David Benedictus to pen a new volume, Return To The Hundred Acre Woods, slated for publication this October. To take the curse off and remove any objections, The Estate has dedicated 2/3 of all profits to charity, and have declared as long as some of the money goes to poor kids and people can enjoy new stories, what's the harm?

This is all part of an alarmingly increasing trend of what I call living on our cultural fat. Instead of producing new works, publishers are all too often choosing books with "name brand recognition" (like The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan) and turning them into franchises or re-visionings, dumbing down longer books for modern children who no longer have parents to read to them before bed-time and explain the harder words and passages, or removing any politically incorrect elements from the past (Doctor Dolitttle in his original form is almost completely extinct). The point is that works of genius are bastardized or pastiched to become sellable with little care for the original author's intent or talent, and the millions of dollars projected for this Pooh project is a hefty profit even minus the charity.

It is a slippery slope. L. Frank Baum himself could not match his original quality of the first two Oz books, and when Ruth Plumley Thompson began carrying on the series, first from his notes and then from her own imagination, the nature of Oz changed from unique to increasingly ordinary. These books are little read today save from curiosity or by Oz completists. Christopher Tolkien has only published work actually written by his father JRR (albeit edited), but the concept of a new movie by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh based only on hints of what happened between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings must give us pause, since the most jarring elements of the popular movies have turned out to have all been scripted by the ladies; one can but fear that the original spirit of Tolkien might take backseat.

In the Middle Ages there was produced what could be considered the first literary fantasy, Amadis of Gaul, based not on legends but produced by one anonymous author. It proved so popular that it spawned dozens of continuations of varying quality, until Cervantes in Don Quixote has his fictional people burn them all except the original, which even these skeptics accept as a work of genius. True, the original Pooh books will remain, but they may well become (as I would argue the Tolkien books have become) like a beautifully inspired house in the middle of a slum that has grown up around it, composed of parodies and "takes" on the original architect's idea.

God save Winnie-the-Pooh.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Few Old Memories Without Comment

Pictured from bottom to top: cereal premiums from the old Saturday morning cartoon "Around The World In Eighty Days"; Palmer Monster "little animals" (we had the Wolfman); and talking hand puppet from cartoon show "Off To See The Wizard."

Monday, January 12, 2009

John Mouldy: Favorite Poems


I spied John Mouldy in his cellar,
Deep down twenty steps of stone;
In the dusk he sat a-smiling,
A-smiling there alone.

He read no book, he snuffed no candle;
The rats ran in, the rats ran out;
And far and near the drip of water
Went whisp'ring about.

The dusk was still, with dew a-falling,
I saw the Dog Star bleak and grim,
I saw a slim brown rat of Norway
Creep over him.

I spied John Mouldy in his cellar,
Deep down twenty steps of stone;
In the dusk he sat a-smiling,
A-smiling there alone.

--Walter De la Mare.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


This week I got the box set of Seasons Three and Four of Duckman, completing my collection. Duckman ran from 1994 through 1997 on the USA Network, and featured the adventures of Duckman (voiced by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander), Private Dick and Family Man. He was a feathered bundle of nerves, a ranter with a raging libido and little skill in his chosen field of private investigation, where he was aided by the omnicompetent, Joe-Friday-sound-alike pig, Cornfed. He balanced dealing with his fractured family (sister-in-law shrew Berenice, the flatulent, comatose Grandma-ma, dimwitted son Ajax, and two-headed bitterly intelligent sons Charles and Mambo) with fending off the plots of foes such as arch-nemesis King Chicken ("Moo-hah-hah! Buck-buck-buck!") and Agnes Delrooney ("Insane killer by day, psychotic murderer by night!").

I love this show and am glad that it is finally available. It is a hilarious keepsake of all the angst of the time, from New Age to televangelism to daytime talk shows to political correctness; Duckman took all that they could fling at him, and still managed to come up with a shaky but sane answer to them all. It was the days when The Simpsons was still new, and animated shows would emerge and be gone like the Loch Ness monster in the mist. Duckman managed to persist for four seasons, which was a kind of a record, and was, as they mention in one episode themselves, "critically acclaimed if little watched." Guest voices of the 'Nineties are a joy to identify, with people as diverse as Tim Curry, Ben Stein, Chris Elliott, Andrea Martin, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Eugene Levy joining the cast. The episodes swing from satire and fables to movie parodies; years before Stewie and Brian took "The Road To Rhode Island", Duckman and Cornfed took "The Road To Dendron."

This boxed set cost $39.99 for seven discs. And it is worth every penny of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sister Benedron

The next series of World Of Warcraft action figures is out. From the lot shown above I chose to get Sister Benedron: Human Priestess. They were all pretty interesting, but she has a book, so that really decided me. This seven inch tall figure has no articulation points at all; she is fixed in one pose. But the striking color scheme, detail, and sculpt are so singularly beautiful I can forgive that with pleasure. The white and gold costume, metallic wings, and brilliant green eyes are all offset by ebony black skin: she may be a Human priestess, but no human of any shade like that exists in the real world. Besides her book she has an axe and a medallion on a chain hanging around her waist; there seems to be no way to remove them. At just slightly under $20 these figures are a bit on the pricey side, so it might be a while before I get any others of this bunch, neat though they all look. I just wish they could come up with some better handles than these D&D cookie-cutter names. Benedron sounds like something you would take for an allergy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Whitman Tiny Tales

I've spent most of this morning doing New Year's tidying up still, re-arranging shelves and dusting, figuring out what can go into storage, making new room I'm sure I'll fill up again before I know it. In doing so I ran across four little volumes again, and I was distracted for a while by old memories. I never had these precise stories (they came in an auction lot of old books and Jack and Jill magazines) but we had a few and their style effects the old Proustian rush. I always thought of them as "balloon books."
Whitman's Tiny Tales each cost only five cents, and featured simple stories of children and animals, illustrated in what I can only describe as a soft happy style. The Whitman publishing policy for them was explained on the page above; reading that, I remembered how magical a mother's or grandmother's purse could seem when you were very small, a bottomless well supplied with candy and tissues and distractions for the kids.
I include a sample page from Little Chick-Chick, to show the style. For some reason crickets were often shown as playing the banjo to symbolize their noise-making; I do not know why.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

J. R. R. Tolkien: One Of My People

J. R. R. Tolkien was born on this day in 1892. I wonder if his parents ever could have guessed looking down at his little apple head that out of it would come one of the greatest cultural influences of the 20th Century. I'm not going to talk about the details of his life or work here; these can easily be looked up elsewhere. I'm going to talk about my history with him, and the impact his work has had on my life.

The first time I became aware of Tolkien's work was in 1973. I was in third grade, and we went to see the high school's production of The Hobbit. I remember being impressed when Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves ran down the aisles, fleeing goblins, and the spookiness of Bilbo's encounter with Gollum. Years later when I attended the same high school I acquired several souvenirs from the drama department, including some pointed hats and the scriptbook of the play.

Still, it was some years before I progressed further. In middle school they had the book of The Hobbit in the library, and I remember passing it by numerous times, noting the strange word, connecting it to the play, of course, but thinking it looked a little advanced for me. Sometime in 7th grade, I think, I buckled down and read it, and then I was hooked.

It was magic. I learned runes. I drew Thorin's Map, again and again. My writing took that "Celtic" look, with curved t's and hooked h's. I really started to try to draw, and my first pictures were of dwarves with long, sloping noses. Gandalf stooping low to find the white stones that marked the path to Rivendell, the spider-haunted gloom of Mirkwood, the deep-throated singing of dwarves in their ancient halls, these were all images that haunted my imagination. I wanted to live in a hobbit hole. When one of my grandmother's customers left behind a copy of The Hobbit in her beauty parlor and she passed it on to me, I was ecstatic. It was one of the first "chapter books" that I ever owned. And in its pages were announced the existence of three other works: the books of The Lord Of The Rings.

They weren't in middle school, and there were no local book stores at the time. But when my elder brother Mike advanced to high school and told me they were there, I bartered a whole year's worth of chores if he could get them for me. And he did. Tolkien became, in the words of Peter S. Beagle, "the center of my secret knowledge." Things really took off . I read them avidly, and was able to pick up a copy of The Tolkien Reader. I'll never forget when a guy noticed it on top of my pile of schoolbooks and said, "Oh. You're one of those people." I didn't know exactly what he meant, if anything. I had no idea of the phenomenon that Tolkien was. In the cultural wilderness of our backwater town, it was just good news from a far country.

Bakshi's movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings came out in 1978, and for all it's perceived flaws we loved it. I say "we", because I was already being enthusiastically contagious to my brothers. There was an upsurge in Tolkien merchandising, and books, calendars, and action figures were all suddenly more available. Although it could only have been a few short years between the time I first became interested in Tolkien and the publication of The Silmarillion in 1980, it seemed an eternity to me as I yearned for more JRRT. I branched out reading more "Fantasy", and while I had found many good things, LOTR is what I held up as the measuring stick to each one.

With The Silmarillion, I entered what I call the "modern age" of Tolkien. The next years brought the publication of volume after volume of previously unpublished material. Mr. Bliss. Roverandom. The complete twelve volumes of The History Of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson's movie adaptations started coming in 2001, and suddenly Tolkien was on the big radar. Awards for The Book of the Century, The Author of the Century. I felt, somehow, as if my cultural stock had hit the jackpot, that my time and interest had been validated in the only way the world will acknowledge validation. But even if it never had, JRRT would still have been my "secret Magus."

And so J. R. R. Tolkien is one of my people. He is a mentor and a Father in Art. I turn to his opinions and examples again and again, and, even if I do still fumble with the pronunciation of his name, will stoutly defend him and his principles to anyone so foolhardy as to challenge them in my presence. So thank you again, Professor, and Happy Birthday.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Vinegar Tasters

Presented for your philosophical consideration this New Year's Day, a picture of a popular print from old China. It is called The Vinegar Tasters. It shows the three teachers of the three main philosophies of China, gathered around a jar of vinegar representing the world. On the left is Confucius, who tastes the vinegar with a sour expression. His philosophy finds the world degenerate, and in need of rules to correct human behaviour, and so finds life sour, like ruined wine. Gautama Buddha in the center tastes with a bitter expression. According to the teaching of Buddhism, life is pain and distraction, and so Buddha finds life bitter, polluting body and soul. On the right Lao Tzu, the expounder of Taoism, tastes the vinegar with a sweet and happy expression. The way of Taoism is to accept reality as it is, without preconceptions or expectations as to what it should be, so all experience is acceptable and "sweet." Although most interpretations of this picture usually award the palm to Taoism, others feel that since all three are gathered around the pot that all three are "one."

Personally, I, myself, like pickle juice.