Party Like It’s 1936: Songs for the Philologists

It’s the most obscure Tolkien book of all… so obscure that only fourteen copies exist: Songs for the Philologists, a 1936 collection of thirty humorous verses, by Tolkien (who wrote thirteen), E.V. Gordon, and Others.

The verses are occasionally in Modern English, but are more commonly in Old Norse, Old English, or even Gothic. So unless one is sufficiently acquainted with the languages in question, or, well, a Philologist, one is rather locked out for most of the book. Though apparently Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth (1982) contains some translations, and the Modern English ones set the tone rather well. Drinking songs, satire about the Oxford English Department, and the forerunner of Sam Gamgee’s Troll Song from The Lord of the Rings. It’s light-hearted fare, boisterously playing around with the languages Tolkien worked with academically.

The reason I mention this is that, via the wonders of the internet, Humanities Commons now have a downloadable transcript of the verses:

Chances are, you and I will never even hold one of those fourteen surviving copies of Songs for the Philologists, much less own one. As such, this is a delightful development, even for those of us without a mastery of Old English. This is one treasure that wartime bombing could not completely destroy.

Addendum: The 1944 booklet on Sir Orfeo might actually be rarer, with only five known copies:

However, seeing as the work has been reprinted elsewhere, and that Tolkien isn’t listed as editor (making it much harder to track down), its obscurity relative to Songs for the Philologists may be debated.

The Hunt for Red October: Musings on Taieri

So New Zealand has had its general election. Jacinda Ardern has managed a single-party majority government, New Zealand’s first in twenty-six years, and its first since the adoption of proportional representation. I intend to do a comment on that further down the line – my feelings on the Sunday After are that the Left should not get too excited. It may be Labour’s greatest vote share since 1946 (and the best for any party since 1951), but there are some causes for worry that I feel everyone is missing.

Today, however, I thought I would narrow my focus down, with some musings on my own electorate, Taieri.

If I had to sum up my thoughts:

  • Ingrid Leary (Labour) will be feeling more elated than she probably should.
  • Liam Kernaghan (National) will be feeling more depressed than he probably should.
  • The New Zealand news media clearly know nothing about anything south of the Waitaki River.
  • Clutha and South Dunedin are more open to ACT than anyone dared imagine (or dared fear).
  • There was a marked split between Advance Voting and On-the-Day Voting.

In large part, this was all a matter of expectations.

Dunedin South from 2011 onwards had become distinctly less Labour-friendly, especially in the Mosgiel and western parts of the electorate. Whether this was because of the (often controversial) local Labour MP, Clare Curran, can be debated, though it should be noted that the seat was not in any danger of actually flipping at the candidate level. Curran won in 2017 by some 13%, in an election where National won the nationwide party vote by about 7%. National won the party vote in Dunedin South in 2011 and 2014, on account of winning the nationwide party vote by about 20%, but even then Curran was still not in any danger of losing the electorate herself.

Come the 2020 boundary changes. Dunedin South acquired a new name (Taieri), and expanded into rural South Otago, taking in about three-quarters of the Clutha. Curran retired, and Labour selected Auckland journalist, Ingrid Leary, as its replacement candidate.

Now, this got National very excited. After all, the once impregnable Red Fortress of Dunedin South no longer seemed what it once was… and now it was absorbing National-supporting rural areas. Clutha has never actually had a Labour MP… so this must mean that Taieri was ripe for the picking?

Well, no. And this really reflects the New Zealand media’s lack of understanding of this region – “conventional wisdom” can be a dangerous thing.

Because, yes, Clutha is Blue. Yes, it has never had a Labour MP. My own great-grandfather, John Keenan, was Labour candidate (aged 69!) for the area in 1949, and he never had a hope. But it is not Dark Blue, and is certainly not to be compared with the ultra-violet farmland of Southland.

Broadly speaking, the following attributes identify a New Zealand rural area as being more likely to vote strongly National:

  • Sheep, Beef, and Dairy Farming
  • Orchards and Tourism
  • Wealthy

By contrast, the following attributes identify a New Zealand rural area as being potentially more competitive for Labour:

  • Timber and Mining
  • Freezing Works, Mills, and Processing Centres
  • Poorer

Thus the West Coast – a rural seat – is ancestrally Labour, because it is timber and (former) mining country. Moreover, Labour tends to do better in the rural parts of the lower North Island than the rural parts of the upper North. In fact, upper North Island rural areas have traditionally ditched Labour in favour of New Zealand First or Social Credit. Both those parties have historically won Northland.

So what does that say about Clutha? Well, of the areas added into Taieri by the boundary changes, there are four population centres of significance – Balclutha, Milton, Lawrence, and Kaitangata. Balclutha has a nearby Freezing Works, Milton has a history of milling, and Kaitangata is coal-mining country. Balclutha is accordingly moderately National (albeit capable of voting Labour in good years), Milton is more of a bellwether, and Kaitangata is safe Labour – which has historically made it a solitary speck of Red in a succession of safe National seats. Only Lawrence can legitimately claim to be a National stronghold.

As for the point that Clutha has never had a Labour MP, it is worth remembering that boundaries are funny things. In 1981, a level-pegging year between National and Labour, Clutha was actually marginal – because the electorate was coastal-based, and the seat included Mosgiel. In 1984, a comfortable Labour win nationwide, Clutha was comfortably National, because the electorate got redrawn inland. From the introduction of proportional representation until 2017, Clutha was lumped in with rural Southland and wealthy, touristy Queenstown – both of which are truly Dark Blue.

So taking Clutha away from safe National, and giving it to safe Labour? That just means you have a Light Blue section of what is still a Red seat. It is not enough to make the seat competitive, except in situations where Labour faces a 2014-style meltdown. Taieri can only be the cherry on top of a crushing National landslide, and while the past decade has thrown up a couple such landslides, this year was never going to be one. In a year of a 2002-style Labour landslide (or even a moderate National advantage like 2017), Taieri is perfectly safe. And so it proved.

The problem is that National (and the media) did not seem to realise these nuances, and accordingly talked up Liam Kernaghan as being in with a non-trivial shot. To be fair, Labour was not much better, basically throwing the kitchen sink into propping up Ingrid Leary, to a degree where they might have been better off in helping out Invercargill. Hence Liam probably being depressed, and Ingrid probably being elated.

The truth is that… with the proper expectations, it was an unspectacular night for Labour in this part of the country (except, in a surreal twist, Southland and Queenstown). Sure, in terms of raw party votes, Dunedin delivered as per tradition, but with the candidate vote… Leary was pottering along with a 5,000-ish vote margin over Kernaghan for most of the night, before the urban booths ballooned that out to 11,000 or so. With such a crushing margin in the party vote, something approaching 15,000 votes – or even 17,000 or 18,000 – would be more in-line with a True Labour Landslide.

In fact, given the circumstances, Kernaghan should probably be pretty happy that he kept Leary to a 42%-40% margin in the Clutha part of the electorate. Moreover, while the National-to-Labour swing in the rural parts of Taieri was about 12%, Kernaghan kept the National-to-Labour swing in the urban areas to about 5.5%. On the other hand, Leary did much better than Curran ever did on the Taieri Plains, winning the area 46%-44%. Even the extremely pro-National area of East Taieri went from 67.5%-24.2% National to 42%-37% Labour. A 24% swing.

The distinction between people who voted before election day, and people who voted on the day is also rather marked. Labour nationwide won the Advance Voting to a truly insane degree – whereas National voters waited for the day itself (Labour still won the on-the-day vote, but it was much closer). This shows up locally, with Leary cleaning up the Advance Voting in Balclutha, Milton, and even Lawrence(!). Kaitangata did not have Advance Voting, though its Advance Voters likely went to Balclutha. On the day? Kernaghan won three out of four Balclutha booths, both Milton booths, and a more than two-to-one margin in Lawrence. Kaitangata – which remember is a stalwart Labour town – voted for Leary, of course, but it was not a staggering victory. ACT managed a truly terrifying 8.5% in the town, on the day.

(So yes. Kaitangata – a lonely little speck of Red, which has never had a Labour MP before – finally had a win. My two great-grandfathers on my mother’s side would be extremely happy. And yet it did so by voting ACT in a higher percentage than the country as a whole).

I’ll call it there for now, but it’s the ACT vote that gives me chills, since ACT is now the closest New Zealand has to Trumpists. These are the people who hate climate change measures, water regulations, and gun control, while also being opposed to the Government’s COVID policies. Once upon a time, ACT was the party of Auckland and Wellington business elites… now they are the party of rural culture war. Behind the Red Tide of New Zealand election night 2020, there was a Yellow Tide finding its way into some very… non-traditional places.

A Waste of Time: The Hundred “Best” Fantasy Books

Time Magazine has put out a list of the hundred best fantasy books of all time:

It is bad. Very bad. I get that this is clickbait nonsense, but… really. Time Magazine ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Ostensibly, the selection process was as follows:

To develop our list, we began in 2019 by recruiting a panel of leading fantasy authors—Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir—to join TIME staff in nominating the top books of the genre (panelists did not nominate their own works). The group then rated 250 nominees on a scale, and using their responses, TIME created a ranking. Finally, TIME editors considered each finalist based on key factors, including originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.

I think it broadly uncontroversial to ask what on earth Cassandra Clare was doing on the panel.

I further note that despite the assurance that panelists did not nominate their own works, every panel member has at least one work on the list, including Cassandra Clare. In fact, no less than fourteen of the top one hundred fantasy books of all time… were written by this panel. Make of that what you will.

Now, as to the list itself. Where to begin?

Let me start by noting that The Lord of the Rings is one book, that was published in three volumes. As such, it would make more sense to list Rings once, rather than have it take up three separate slots. There is also a case for treating Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll in the same way (His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice, respectively). But if Time wants to do it this way, so be it.

The next thing to note is that the list is very heavy with children’s fantasy, to a degree where one wonders if the Time Editors (if not the author panel) were waxing nostalgic about their childhoods. Roald Dahl appears twice, for instance. But if we are listing children’s fantasy… where the hell is The Hobbit? It is all very well to say that Tolkien is ‘maxed out’ at three slots, but why should that matter, if the works were good or influential enough? As noted, they could have treated Rings as one book, and that would free up space for both The Hobbit and the (less child-friendly) Silmarillion.

Then there are the authors who have a legitimate claim to a place, but which have weaker books listed. Roald Dahl has James and the Giant Peach, but not Matilda, The Witches, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Terry Pratchett has The Wee Free Men, but not Small Gods or Night Watch. C.S. Lewis has The Voyage of the Dawntreader, but not The Silver Chair. There are probably other examples too.

Then there is the curious chronological bias towards recent releases. Just seven of this top one hundred list were published before the Second World War. A full fifty – half the list – were published in the twenty-first century (forty-six since 2007!). It is almost as though the Time Editors are not actually that familiar with genre history, outside memories of their childhood reading material. Though where that leaves the actual panel members is anyone’s guess – Gaiman and Martin, for a start, know a thing or two about twentieth century fantasy, but it does not show up on the list. Seeing as the list ostensibly considers a work’s genre influence, one is left scratching one’s head.

But I’m failing to note the elephant in the room. That elephant being the horde of fantasy greats who, for whatever reason, missed out… in favour of Cassandra Clare.

There is no George MacDonald, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, or David Gemmell. In terms of currently active writers, there is no Stephen Donaldson, Steven Erikson, Patricia McKillip, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, or China Mieville. No Stephen King, who writes fantasy, as well as horror. No Terry Brooks, who if nothing else was highly influential on the genre (they’ve got one from Robert Jordan). George R.R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay each get one entry, which puts them at level pegging with… Cassandra Clare. Good grief.

The cherry atop this particular pile of excrement? They only have two works before the nineteenth century. Sure, neither Arabian Nights nor Malory are ‘modern’ fantasy, but if they are there… what happened to Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied? What happened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Faust, in either its Goethe or Marlovian versions? Gulliver’s Travels? And in terms of nineteenth century material, they could at least have listed Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Kalevala. Maybe even Poe’s Masque of the Red Death or Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, to give fantastical horror its due.


As noted above, I know this is just me responding to clickbait. This is a Waste of Time, both literally and figuratively. But honestly, I would have thought that Time Magazine, in conjunction with a few people knowledgeable about the history of fantasy, could have come up with something better than this. Or at least something one could argue properly about, rather than mock. As it is… they’ve handed us a joke, to a degree that actually reflects badly on everyone involved.

The notion of condensing such a history down to a hundred “best” books is arguably a futile endeavour, but I think it potentially serves one useful purpose – helping familiarise people with the genre. Could someone reading this list (and only this list) consider themselves knowledgeable about the genre? Maybe knowledgeable in terms of the past five or so years… but there was a fantasy genre before 2007 as well. One that was not simply children’s books. Call me old fashioned, but I think reminding people of fantasy’s actual roots – rather than the current offerings – is no bad thing.

Addendum: Another thought. If these are, indeed, the best fantasy novels of all time, then logically, most of them should still be on the list in, say, 2050. Can anyone in good conscience suggest that even half of this list would qualify in 2050?

That School Debate: Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Anti-Stratfordianism

Today, I am responding to one Philip Lowe, who back in August 2019 produced an interesting but flawed piece, looking at the way in which Tolkien viewed Shakespeare:

Specifically, I want to address two key aspects of Lowe’s article – his reference to Tolkien taking the Anti-Stratfordian position in a school debate, and the notion that Tolkien hated Shakespeare more generally. I definitely think Lowe is over-egging this particular pudding, to a degree that he is inadvertently assisting Anti-Stratfordians in their campaign to find important figures sympathetic to their cause.

But first off… what is an Anti-Stratfordian? Simple. Someone who believes that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather by someone else – using William Shakespeare as a pseudonym. By contrast, Stratfordians believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems commonly ascribed to him. I myself am a Stratfordian (as is Lowe).

Why is this dispute even taking place? Again, simple. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a serious disconnect between the way people viewed Shakespeare (as a transcendental genius), and the established biography of the man. The Romantic Era thought that transcendental genuises ought to be scandalous, exciting, and educated men of taste and refinement. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was such a disappointment – mundane, lacking university education, and a money-lender. Oh, and he hoarded grain during a 1590s famine as well. This just wouldn’t do.

So from the 1850s onwards, people went looking for the “real” author – someone with the prestige to actually produce the greatest literary works in the English Language. And, yes, if you can detect an implicit snobbery to Anti-Stratfordianism, you would be quite correct. That the author of the Shakespeare plays was sufficiently lacking in geographical knowledge that he thought Bohemia had a sea-coast (The Winter’s Tale) is generally ignored.

But to cut a long story short, the Baconian Theory, the notion that Francis Bacon wrote the works (and disguised his authorship via elaborate cryptography) was the pre-eminent form of Anti-Stratfordianism from the 1850s up until the 1920s. As a nineteenth century theory, it actually got a fair amount of attention… up until no hidden cipher in the plays could be found. So things rather died down after that. The 1920s saw the rise of a new candidate, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as result of the work of J.T. Looney (rhymes with boney)… only for enthusiasm to vanish again after the Second World War. For some reason, the twenty-first century has seen something of an Anti-Stratfordian renaissance. But that is outside the scope of this essay.

So when J.R.R. Tolkien attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham, during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Baconian Theory of Shakespearean Authorship was still going strong. It was a contentious enough question to spur heated argument (see the satirical 1885 painting above)… and as such, prime fodder for a school debate. Tolkien was Secretary of the Debating Club, and so, to quote Lowe:

At school Tolkien showed himself to be a Baconian.  He took part in a debate (becoming Secretary of the Debating Society) involving the motion, “That the works attributed to William Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon.”  The school Chronicle says, “J. R. R. TOLKIEN [who spoke…on the Affirmative], poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character.”

Now, much of this is self-explanatory, given what has been described above. Anti-Stratfordians think Shakespeare was too much of an oik to have written the plays. Tolkien was arguing the Baconian position… therefore, he’d want to portray Billy as a boorish country bumpkin, unable to understand high themes or pen great literature. Well and good.

What puzzles me is that Lowe seems to take this as evidence that Tolkien actually believed the Baconian Theory. School debates do not work like that – you are assigned a position to argue, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. Tolkien was assigned to argue in the affirmative for Bacon… so he did. This says nothing about what Tolkien – even young Tolkien – thought about the matter, and I would bet good money that had Tolkien been on the negative team, he would have brought up the sea-coast of Bohemia issue. Francis Bacon – one of the most educated men of his time – would not have written Bohemia as having a sea-coast.

From this, Lowe slaps schoolboy Tolkien around a bit:

It grieves me to think that Tolkien was quite wrong here.  Then again, he was still at school. But that’s no excuse for snobbishness.

Yes, the Anti-Stratfordian position is snobby. Yes, Tolkien was arguing the Anti-Stratfordian position. But since this was a formal school debate… we cannot say that schoolboy Tolkien’s snobbery was anything other than enforced (and maybe tongue-in-cheek) role-playing. Sure, Tolkien may have believed the snobbery. We’ll never know. But if so, it never once comes up in his Letters – the place where he expresses his adult opinions. Besides, bashing someone for something their teenage self may have said in jest is utterly stupid.

(As an aside: Anti-Stratfordians are extremely keen on producing lists of people who agree with them, as a way to bolster their intellectual credentials via appeal to authority. Never mind that Mark Twain would probably have never heard of the Earl of Oxford… he has become something of an Oxfordian Patron Saint. So by labelling schoolboy Tolkien a Baconian, Lowe isn’t simply doing Tolkien a disservice, he’s inadvertently assisting the very camp he opposes).

Moving away from the school debate to the wider question of what Tolkien thought of Shakespeare, Lowe takes it as a given that the former hated the latter. Seemingly because Tolkien thought Real English Literature ended with Chaucer. As evidence of this, Lowe cites non-Shakespearean sources for “All that is Gold does not Glitter”. He does note though the well-known examples of Tolkien playing around with motifs from Macbeth. The Ents marching on Isengard is a reference to Birnam Wood. Eowyn killing the Witch-King is a shout-out to Macbeth and Macduff.

Now, it would not surprise me if Tolkien thought Shakespeare was a bit newfangled and Frenchified. Or at the very least, a primary producer of drama, as distinct from literature. However, I would suggest that if Tolkien genuinely hated Billy, he would not have engaged with him in the manner he did. If you hate an author, you either don’t engage with their work at all, or you find a way to rebut and ridicule it. Outside that school debate, Tolkien never once ridicules Shakespeare. Rather he uses the older writer as a jumping-off point for a couple of his own creations. Would a Shakespeare-hater refer to the Sam and Gollum dynamic as Ariel and Caliban (The Tempest)? I do not think so.

The best insight we have, so far as Tolkien’s view of Shakespeare goes, comes from Letter 76 (28th July, 1944):

Plain news is on the airgraph; but the only event worthy of talk was the performance of Hamlet which I had been to just before I wrote last. I was full of it then, but the cares of the world have soon wiped away the impression.

But it emphasised more strongly than anything I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare (and annotating him in the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted.

It was a very good performance, with a young rather fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific. It was well produced except for a bit of bungling over the killing of Polonius. But to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches.

So Tolkien preferred to read Shakespeare in conjunction with seeing an actual performance. It is actually a very common view of Shakespeare among aficionados – the idea that his works were meant to be watched, not read. It is also a very far cry from Lowe’s assessment that Tolkien was a Shakespeare hater. Lowe does enough biographical digging to follow up Humphrey Carpenter’s work, and the school debate… would it have killed him to check Tolkien’s Letters before jumping to conclusions?

Interview with Nikky Lee

Fellow New Zealand writer, Nikky Lee, has been doing some Q&A with other local speculative fiction authors:

Each fortnight is a different author, answering ten questions about their Writing Process. I think it’s an excellent way of helping build the profile of the New Zealand speculative fiction community – a community that traditionally has garnered little attention in a country where (1) publishers and agents are overseas, and (2) the literary scene is traditionally associated with realism. Unlike Australia, New Zealand doesn’t have a mantra of local authors being published locally, and our recognisable fantasy writers tend to be children’s authors.

Anyway, this week saw my turn at the wheel:

Yes, it is true: my most famous bit of writing is a piece of fanfiction that I will never be able to claim credit for.

The Adventures of Annalax: Volume X

The first order of business for Annalax was looting the (enemy) wizard from the end of last session. Turns out he had a flashy arcane focus bracelet (in theory useful, in the event Annalax needs to cast such a spell), and a spellbook full of naughty magic. Annalax tried to get Alan interested in the book, but he wasn’t touching that necromantic stuff with a barge poll. Honestly. What is the point of having a kidnapping victim wizard along, if he’s terrified of casting the occasional unsavory spell?

Soldiering on up the mountain, Kakh, Ember, and Annalax conversed with the non-undead Leng Rogue. The first two were asking about experiences that the Rogue regrets. Turns out he had previously dobbed in an innocent woman to raiders for cash. Annalax called him a monster, because, well, you don’t do that to women. (Male) children, yes, but not women.

It then turned into a wider question of redemption and moral compasses. Hooray for off-topic discussions about Ethics:

  • ANNALAX: “The problem with you overworlders is that you confuse moral righteousness with weakness.”
  • KAKH: “The problem with you Drow is that you confuse survival with being an arsehole.”

Et cetera. Which continued on until Annalax informed Kakh that he wasn’t taking moral advice from a tree (the Loxodon is part-Groveborn. He’s an Eleph-ent). But our Drow did reluctantly return the Leng Rogue’s weapons… Ember is very insistent that our new captives are really full (NPC) members of the party. And Annalax finds Ember terrifying, what with that whole demon thing.

(Contrary to expectations, there were no Yeti ambushes on the way up the mountain, though Yeti have been confirmed as things in this world. Apparently they follow the Wild Huntsman).

At the top of the pass, the party hit a snag. From here loomed an endless series of deep ravines and crevasses. Which would have meant a series of Athletics checks, where a mistake could prove all-too fatal. The only other way into Leng was a Leng Spider cave. And Leng Spiders are big critters.

We went with the cave. Annalax thought it for the best. He has a penalty to Strength (so Athletics would be poor), and Lolth would look over him, right? Leng Spiders – as per the Wight’s descriptions – aren’t even proper spiders, but rather hideous heretical mutants, of which Lolth cannot approve. So he offered some very ardent prayers on entering the cave, including a small blood drawing of a spider. Annalax is devout, if nothing else, though Lolth currently seems disinclined to answer. Largely because she has no power in the Dreamland.

After arguing a fair bit about the marching order, Annalax (+6 to Perception) went ahead with Kakh (tanky!) to look for traps. He spotted the trap well-enough. Problem is, the rest of the party didn’t, and set off a web trigger, blundering fools that they are. You see, Annalax knew enough about spiders to realise that we were in a prey tunnel… and the spiders were coming. Note that with 16 INT, these spiders were smarter than we were.

The rest of the session was party arguments about tactics. Concluding that we couldn’t run away (the spiders are faster), or set fire to the web (too damp, and in any case, the spiders would know where we were), we eventually opted to hide in a side-tunnel. That way we were out of reach of the biggest Leng Spiders (the size of a carriage), and merely had to deal with the alarmingly large.

The session ended with everyone – except the oncoming spider – rolling terribly for initiative. Oh dear.

The fight went better than it could have, all things considered. Well, better for everyone except the Loxodon, who was not only poisoned, but also knocked unconscious twice by some serious damage. Then, when he was back up… he managed to roll a pair of 1s. It just wasn’t Kakh’s day.

Annalax himself had a rare moment of “oh shit”, and I don’t just mean the monumental amount of stress arising from the Loxodon’s situation. You see, these spiders can do real damage, and with only 29 HP, Annalax’s survival hinges on his excellent stealth. It’s a bad day when one of his enemies spots him… and, sure enough, one of the spiders was in the mood to roll natural 20s. Luckily, the spider was taken out before it could shoot a toxic web at him.

At the end of the fight, spider guts were everywhere, and Annalax was Prestidigating the goo off everyone else:

“Don’t worry,” he said, insistently. “They’re not real spiders.”

The distinction was important for Annalax, less for everyone else. Annalax was also convinced that this victory over heretical mutants constituted a sign of Lolth’s divine favour. No-one tell the poor guy that his goddess has no power in the Dreamland…

We also gained a new party member too: a Dreamland Cat Sorcerer (different person from the old Dreamland Cat). Annalax’s initial thought was that the Sorcerer was hiding from the general feline draft – recall that Dreamland Cats are being forcibly used as transport for the war against the Moonbeasts – but no. The Sorcerer was merely seeking a vital religious item, which excited Magni the Aasimar.

Then it was on through the tunnels. Now that we had some idea of what to look out for, we made steady progress. Annalax spotted a spider around one corner, but it did a runner. Kakh (with Speak with Animals) tried to communicate with it, but failed. To be fair, all the spiders know about us is that we can turn several of their number into goo, and these are smart spiders. They’ve got easier pickings elsewhere.

Soon enough we came across a trapped treasure satchel. With at least one collapsible floor and Indiana Jones-style boulder involved. Annalax was inclined to give this particular satchel a pass – he’s greedy, not suicidal – but the rest of the party decided it was important, and persuaded him to disarm the trap with Mage Hand and Thieves Tools. Apparently the DC on the trap was 20, which means Annalax had to roll at least a 12 to succeed (he rolled a 17)… but on average, he should have failed. Even from a Mage Hand distance, that did not feel wise.

The treasure was a white-and-gold silk bracelet, a helmet, and fifty gold. The helmet just says ‘Behold’ at you, over and over again, while showing sources of divine or demonic power. Magni threatened to eat it. Annalax pocketed the gold (we’ll get to that). The bracelet lets you communicate with divine power… so Annalax tried using it to talk to Lolth. Much to his confusion and annoyance, it didn’t work as he expected. Useless thing.

(No-one tell the poor guy that Lolth has no power here…).

Let’s just say that the Sorcerer and Magni found the bracelet a very exciting find. Which makes ownership rather hard to determine, since no-one (apart from Annalax) wanted to sell it. Then the question about other treasure items came up. Annalax said there weren’t any.

The Loxodon manhandled our poor Drow with his trunk until he admitted to twenty gold. Which was shared. He never did admit to the fifty.

Ember accused Annalax of stealing the twenty gold. Annalax’s view is that he disarmed the trap, and he never steals from the party directly (some pre-emptive nabbing of loot is fair game, within limits. Remember he helps others make money too, and they had the helmet and bracelet). Ember’s view is that Annalax would have been eaten by the Leng Spiders without the help of the party. Et cetera.

Thankfully, our employers (the Isaacs) put a stop to any notion of cutting Annalax’s hand off. Annalax and Ember are not exactly seeing eye to eye right now, though Annalax is scared of Ember as a matter of principle. It’s the demon thing.

After that, we ran across a cavern with a godzilla-sized Leng Spider (Leng Spiders never stop growing, apparently). We obviously weren’t in a position to fight it… but luckily it was distracted by its lunch – a very large lizard creature.

Magni cast Pass Without Trace on the company (he had Pass Without Trace? I didn’t know that!), allowing the clunkier party members to roll decent stealth checks. Annalax, of course, has +11 to Stealth, so with the spell, he was working at +21. The kicker is that he rolled a natural 20 for his Stealth check, making his Stealth score a staggering 41.

Once past the godzilla-sized arachnid (affectionately nicknamed Ungoliant), it was on through the tunnels. We found some glowing fungus along the way. The dice were kind to Annalax this session, so he rolled a natural 20 for his Nature check, and identified the mushrooms as edible. Well, he is a Drow. He should know that anyway. The Ranger stockpiled about fifty mushrooms for later.

Then it was out of the nice, cool tunnels, out into the evil afternoon sun.

And there we found the dinosaurs.

Naked Tolkien: The Amazon LOTR TV Series and Sex

The joys of fandom. No sooner has the Amazon Lord of the Rings series resumed production than something comes along to stir the pot. Specifically, there has been a casting call for people comfortable with nudity:

Someone did a bit of detective work, and found that the casting call is indeed for the Amazon series. Not just that, but the series has hired an Intimacy Coordinator too.

So there you have it: there will seemingly be nudity and sexual content in the Second Age series. From what we know so far. I am still taking a wait and see approach, and trying not to jump to conclusions.

The linked article, by one Cliff ‘Quickbeam’ Broadway, is a bit more fretful, citing a letter where Tolkien expressed his initial dream:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry.

I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Broadway sees a Lord of the Rings series featuring sex and nudity as being a violation of this principle. In his view, the High Fantasy nature of the setting is under threat from lowbrow intrusions, with the article going so far as to state that “Professor Tolkien kept the toilets, orgasms, and such other bodily ephemera offstage the entire time.”

In short, Broadway does not want this Second Age television adaptation to ape the more earthy aspects of Game of Thrones, and if Amazon is planning nude and intimate scenes then that is a Big Red Light for the project.

It is a sentiment I can understand. I also do not want Game of Thrones II: Atlantis Edition. But unlike Broadway, I do not think that the presence of sex or nudity inherently takes the adaptation down that path. It might do, but I think going from ‘sex’ to ‘Littlefinger’s Brothel’ is an excessive leap for now.

If I were to raise one single objection to Broadway’s argument, it would be this – why does he consider sex and nudity to be inherently gross? Why lump it in with farts and excrement? Dwarves coming out of toilets? Is he not capable of imagining a treatment that is anything other than pornographic or something unclean?

To illustrate, let us consider one of Tolkien’s key influences: William Morris. Morris, if you recall, was a vital player in the birth of the modern fantasy genre in the 1890s. A fierce Romantic, he adored Malory, and actually taught himself Icelandic so that he could translate the sagas into English. Morris also – and this is relevant – remarked that:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Considering his Romanticism, and this premium he places on beauty, Morris’ fantasy works are, unsurprisingly, very High Fantasy. He wanted art that escapes the drudgery of the late Victorian era, and which evokes a purer, more caring, and less soulless age. Tolkien may not have been a fan of Morris’ Marxist politics, but he was certainly on board with some of the earlier writer’s themes.

It may therefore interest you to know that Morris’ fantasy works are very comfortable indeed with sex and nudity (and his portrayal of female character agency is ahead of his time. But I digress).

So a man writing in late Victorian Britain saw nothing inherently low and gross about sexuality or nudity. Aforementioned man was integral to the formation of modern fantasy, to a degree where he both inspired and influenced Tolkien – and in terms of pre-1960 fantasy writers, he was not alone in writing sexual themes into his stories. So why should Broadway – writing more than 120 years later – consider such things out of place in High Fantasy? Have the tentacles of Grimdark so completely entrapped our minds that we cannot imagine sex and nudity as anything other than filthy?

Note that this is actually a different issue from arguing that Tolkien didn’t write sex*, therefore the series shouldn’t have sex. That is base-level Purist silliness. As always with adaptations, I am much more interested in themes than plot – and Broadway’s argument strikes me as thematic in scope (‘Tolkien wrote High Fantasy, sexual content is lowbrow, therefore the series shouldn’t have sex’). As mentioned, I just happen to think that Broadway’s interpretation of the role of sexual content is too narrow, and dare I say pessimistic.

*For a detailed look at how Tolkien handles sexual themes, I can recommend reading this essay, by Tyellas:

Tolkien is more nuanced and less prudish than people give him credit for…

That said, it is also worth remembering that Tolkien makes significant symbolic use of non-sexual nudity, and I think the TV series could do worse than remember that nudity is not inherently sexual.

For example:

  • The hobbits at Crickhollow: situational nudy – it’s a bath.
  • Merry, Sam, and Pippin on the Barrow Downs: nudity as freedom.
  • Gandalf on Zirak-Zigil: nudity as ‘birth’.
  • Frodo in Cirith Ungol: nudity as vulnerability and humiliation.
  • Nienor: nudity as innocence.
  • Saeros: nudity as uncivilised (his accusations about Hithlum women), and nudity as humiliation (his fate).
  • Herendil (an early version son of Elendil): situational nudity – he is swimming.

Only the last is actually during the Second Age, of course. However, I feel these examples do a decent job at illustrating symbolic potential for nude depictions, without sexualising matters. Indeed, given the setting, swimming would be inherently nude, as very likely would indoor sleeping.

Addendum: It is not canonical, but both Celebrimbor’s corpse on a pole, and Maedhros on Thangorodrim are represented as naked or near-naked in most artistic depictions. The former, of course, falls within the Second Age timeframe… which means, notwithstanding sensitivities, we might well be in for this sort of image at some point:

Image result for celebrimbor arrows

That’s not something pretending to be Game of Thrones. That’s the common interpretation of Celebrimbor’s fate (as described by Tolkien himself), and it ain’t pretty. Non-sexual nudity can be hauntingly powerful.

Beyond the City Limits Update

You might recall back in May that Beyond the City Limits, a locally-produced Dunedin speculative fiction anthology,* was short-listed for a Sir Julius Vogel.

*Featuring my science-fiction story, Pink Unicorns Solvable in O(2) Time.

The Sir Julius Vogels are the premiere annual New Zealand speculative fiction awards, and this year were run online (for obvious reasons) and in conjunction with the virtual Wellington WorldCon. 2020 has been a complicated year, I am sure you will agree.

Anyway, the Dunedin anthology missed out on the actual trophy, but in a nice bit of news, the Otago Daily Times decided to give it a review in last Saturday’s paper:

Pink Unicorns isn’t Dunedin-focused like the named stories, but it is still nice to see Dunedin speculative fiction getting at least some attention.

Of Democratic Duties: Report from Taieri Candidate Forum

So New Zealand has a general election in October, which means politicians. In the interests of having my worst fears confirmed reporting back on the Dunedin situation, I thought I’d attend a local candidate forum. I’m in Taieri, of course – the old Dunedin South, with rural Clutha added.

There was a Taieri candidate forum on Sunday, 27th September (from 7 p.m.) at the Caversham Baptist Church. There was tea and muffins provided beforehand, so points for that. The audience was about 120 people, most of whom were elderly. There where also seven candidates:

  • Robert Andrews (ACT): With his stubbled beard and baseball cap, Andrews looked like some random bloke who had accidentally walked in off the street and had somehow been given the wrong chair. He also spoke like a random bloke too. His entire thing was “let’s axe regulations, and get the economy going,” and apart from that, he had little else to say, apart from wanting to import Pacific Islanders to plug labour shortages. One really gets the impression that he’s simply ACT putting up a warm body, and not caring too hard.
  • Scott Willis (Green): Wore neither jacket nor tie, and had rolled-up sleeves. Willis straight-out said he just wants your party vote, not your candidate vote. His entire thing was “vote for us, get Jacinda Arden, and get action on climate change. Climate change. Climate change.” A shame that the voters are more interested in COVID. There is a whiff of desperation about a candidate that cheer-leads another party’s leader, and Willis was thoroughly uninspiring (“I can’t tell you what’s in our transport policy, but it’s awesome!”). The scary thing is that he’s got an outside shot of getting into Parliament, if the Greens get 10% of the party vote. Honestly… can’t the Dunedin Greens do better?
  • Ingrid Leary (Labour): Wore a red dress (duh!). Easily the most polished candidate, but arguably too polished. It felt like every answer she gave was about ticking a particular box, to the point where there was a whiff of 1997 Tony Blair about her. She pandered to the forum organisers by talking about the 1930s Labour Party’s Applied Christianity. She ticked the boxes of “Jacinda” and “COVID”. She’s a member of the Railway and Maritime Transport Union. She’s got Small Business experience, and has a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi in her living room. She paid tribute to the outgoing MP, and talked about looking after old people. Et cetera. She has a media background, and it shows (she thinks the biggest issue facing young people is Fake News). One is left with the feeling that she has a highly intelligent brain, but what is the personality beneath the media persona?
  • Liam Kernaghan (National): Wore a suit and tie. The youngest candidate, he’s actually someone I remember from my university days. Full credit for being a bundle of enthusiasm – though I am unsure how delusional he is about actually winning the seat. He did not mention his party leader once, and basically went on about “Dunedin, Dunedin, Dunedin. Jobs, jobs, jobs.” Whether that was him trying to distance himself from the nationwide party, or whether it’s a dig at Ingrid Leary being an Aucklander, was unclear. As I said, he’s very enthusiastic, and talks at a million miles an hour… coming across as less a politician, and more a student participant at a University Club Debate. He’d be a decent speaker, if only he slowed down.
  • Mark Patterson (New Zealand First): Suit and a party-appropriate black-and-white tie. Patterson is a sheep farmer from the rural part of the electorate, and I think he was less comfortable in front of an urban audience. Came across as a bit dull, but perfectly serviceable – he’s the sort of person who would have been the stereotypical rural National MP from the 1960s. His biggest weakness is that he kept talking about what New Zealand First has achieved, rather than what the party will do, and his message may be condensed as “Our Provincial Growth Fund has given you pork. Vote for us if you want the regional pork to keep flowing.” He even implied that National’s desperate bribe plan for commuter rail between Dunedin and Mosgiel lacks ambition, and that we need commuter rail between Dunedin and Balclutha. Everyone suddenly loves rail, for some reason.
  • Stan Smith (One Party): Wore a black suit, black shirt, and yellow tie, as per his party colours. Christian fundamentalist nutter, who started off sounding like someone who had escaped from the US Republican Party, and railed a lot about the changes to abortion and euthanasia law (“we need to bring back Christian values!”). To his credit, however, he did actually try to answer the other questions, especially on Youth Suicide, even if he was a bit out of his depth. Noticeably not anti-Maori (“the One Party has two founding documents – the Bible, and the Treaty of Waitangi”), and had to stave off audience objections that Jesus wasn’t after political power.
  • Warren Voigt (Social Credit): Suit and tie, grey hair and glasses. Invoked a bit of nostalgia here – Social Credit was New Zealand’s real Third Party from the 1950s to the 1980s, and I dare say that most of the audience were old enough to remember when Social Credit actually had voters (hint – they went out with flared trousers). Voigt’s biggest error was bringing everything back to Social Credit Monetary Theory, which no-one in 2020 understands, much less cares about. He comes across as a candidate with one big idea, and little else. To his credit though, he did momentarily go into a fiery tirade about the evils of post-1984 neoliberal economics, in a way that left you wondering why the Greens and New Zealand First weren’t joining in.

In addition to this, some of the parties left flyers and candidate brochures on the seats. Specifically, Labour, National, New Zealand First, and Social Credit:

My thoughts on those:

  • Social Credit has money to spend on flyers, when they will get all of about a hundred votes, total?
  • New Zealand First has money to spend on glossy multi-page brochures (the one on the right)?
  • Ingrid Leary’s flyer doesn’t show her with Jacinda Ardern. It shows her with outgoing Dunedin South MP Clare Curran… which suggests that Leary sees the (historically controversial) Curran as a net positive.

2020 Just Reading: September

Completed reads for September:

  • On the Mortality (or Plague), by Cyprian of Carthage
  • The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, by Jordanes
  • The Book of Gomorrah, by Peter Damian
  • The Poem of the Cid, by Anonymous
  • The Song of Roland, by Turold
  • The Death of Aoife’s Only Son (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Pursuit of Gruaidh Ghriansholus, by Anonymous
  • Cuchulainn and Senbecc, Grandson of Ebrecc (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Sick-bed of Cuchulain, and the Only Jealousy of Emer, by Anonymous
  • The Story of Mac Datho’s Pig (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Cattle-Raid of Fraech, by Anonymous
  • The Raid for the Cattle of Regamon, by Anonymous
  • The Raid for Dartaid’s Cattle, by Anonymous
  • The Driving of the Cattle of Flidais, by Anonymous
  • The Cattle-Raid of Regamna, by Anonymous
  • The Intoxication of the Ulstermen, by Anonymous
  • The Exile of the Sons of Usnech (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Cause of the Exile of Fergus Mac Roig, by Anonymous
  • The Courtship of Ferb (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Battle of Ross na Ríg, by Anonymous
  • The Battle of Findchorad, by Anonymous
  • The Violent Deaths of Goll and Garb, by Anonymous
  • The Feast of Bricriu, by Anonymous
  • The Wooing of Treblann, by Anonymous
  • Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-Raid of Cooley) (two versions), by Anonymous
  • The Death of Curoi Mac Dari (four versions), by Anonymous
  • The Colloquy of the Two Sages, by Anonymous
  • The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Lóegaire Buadach, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Cu Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Great Defeat on the Plain of Muirthemne before Cuchulainn’s Death, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Conchobar (four versions), by Anonymous
  • The Battle of Airtech, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Cet Mac Magach, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Fergus Mac Róich, by Anonymous
  • The Deaths of Ailill and of Conall Cernach, by Anonymous
  • The Violent Death of Medb, by Anonymous
  • The Phantom Chariot of Cu Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The Genealogy of Cu Chulainn, by Anonymous
  • The War of Fergus and Conchobar, by Anonymous
  • The Hostel of Da Choca, by Anonymous
  • The Siege of Howth, by Anonymous
  • Deirdre, by Anonymous
  • The Lament of Deirdre, by Anonymous
  • Medb Enjoined Illegal Contracts, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Conchobar’s Sons, by Anonymous
  • The Saga of Fergus mac Léti, by Anonymous
  • The Death of Fergus mac Leide, by Anonymous
  • The Martial Career of Conghal Cláiringhneach, by Anonymous
  • The Cause of the Battle of Cnucha, by Anonymous
  • The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill, by Anonymous
  • Two Tales about Finn, by Anonymous
  • Finn and the Man in the Tree, by Anonymous
  • The Enumeration of Finn’s People, by Anonymous
  • The Little Brawl at Almhain, by Anonymous
  • Finn and the Phantoms, by Anonymous
  • The Enchanted Cave of Keshcorran, by Anonymous
  • The Carle of the Drab Coat, by Anonymous
  • The Pursuit of the Gilla Decair and His Horse, by Anonymous


On the Mortality is Wallis’ translation. Jordanes is Mierow’s. The Poem of the Cid is Hamilton’s. The Song of Roland is Moncrieff’s.

Táin Bó Cúailnge is the (translated) first recension and the (translated) Book of Leinster version. As an aside, I would recommend reading the latter first – it is much easier to follow.

Plenty more Irish stuff this month. In conjunction with last year, I have now read through (more or less) the complete Mythological and Ulster Cycles of Irish myth, so far as the availability of English translations on the internet lets me. I must admit, however, that The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill was damned confusing – the (translated) ancient manuscript cuts off before the ending, and I can find no other manuscripts to plug the gap, so how does Wikipedia know how the story ends?

[Addendum: Found the relevant gap-plugging manuscript. It’s The Colloquy with the Ancients. But I didn’t have time to read that one this month, so it must wait for a later date]