Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Your Title Here

I apologize for not writing a column last week. I had family visiting, and that took up most, if not all of my free time. It was a good visit though.

This week we are going to be a little more idiosyncratic and less theoretical than we have previously. I mentioned in my prologemena that I would be talking about my own efforts as a fabulist, in addition to those of the Masters. I understand that the appeal of this is less than it might otherwise be, but there you go. I never promised insightful theoretical posts every week.

I love titles (as in noble titles, not as in what one calls an opus). Always have. Because of this I often make up grandiose titles for myself and for others. For example:

His Imperial Majesty, Avram Richard Shannon, Lord of the Whole Earth, Emperor of the French and Attendant Territories, Great Khan of the Golden Khaganate, Protector of the Oceans, and Commander in Cheif of the Grand Army.

For that one, I borrowed a bit from a Bonaparte, but again, the point was to sound grand and important. I know this a little bit silly of me, but I never claimed not be a silly man. The upshot of this is that for my own fantasy world, Henryon, the various titles are important. Often, I will make up a characters titles before I make up the character. In many cases a story element will come out of a specific title I choose. Sometimes, I make up a title for my friends or family, which are then attached to characters (this is a throwback to the days when Henryon had a Wizard of Oz-esque vibe to it, with all my friends being people in the world. This has long since been abandoned, with habit of giving my friends Henryon titles the last remnant). These characters help to flesh out Henryon. A few examples:

His Grace, Avram Richard Shannon, Grand Duke of Henryon, Bearer of the Silver Sword, Knight Associate of the Silver Sword, Legionary, with Crossed Swords, Knight Grand Morning Star after of Order of Sir Francis, Magus Latae

Now, that is the first Henryon title I ever made, and it has survived, largely unchanged for about fifteen years now. Many of the important elements in Henryon, such as the Knights of Sir Francis and Silver Sword derive from this particular bit of youthful silliness.

A couple of other titles:

His Grace, Soren Shim (Samuel Tomas Shannon), Baron of the Eleven Islands, Chief Emissary to the Court of Peculiarities, Knight of the Silver Sword, Master of Stars after the Order of Sir Francis, Magus Decreptos

Her Highness, Kirana Alorya (Thora Florence Shannon), The Golden Lily of the Valley, First Aloryan, Princess of Galleo, Lady of the Thousand Hills, Dame of the Silver Sword, Dame Commander of the Golden Lion, Magister Sylphi

I want to emphasize that although these titles are given to some of my closest friends and family, the characters that bear them in Henryon are only loosely based on their bearers in the real world. I only inclued their names afterwards as an indication of who they were initially conferred upon.

So, when you are being fabulist, how is your imagination sparked? Also, if you don't have a Henryon title, and would like one, let me know, and I'll see if I can't work something up for you.

If this post was not general enough, then be sure to tune in next week, where we will talk about Mythology. Until then:


Monday, August 11, 2008

A Long Time Ago...

Today's 'blog post is dedicated to a specific fantasy world. Every so often on this 'blog I will pick a specific fantasy/science fiction world or series and discuss why I like it, perhaps mention parts I dislike about it, and generally explore a little why I dig certain types of fantasy.

Today's is an easy one, because today we are discussing George Lucas' magnum opus Star Wars. I love Star Wars, which isn't too big of a statement because most people like Star Wars. The fact remains that the Star Wars Trilogy contains three of my favourite movies (I like the other three--well two out of the other three--as well, but they simply aren't as good as Star Wars to Jedi). I love the ethics, I love the action, I love the music. There is very little about Star Wars that isn't to like. Like my dear brother, I always wanted to be a Jedi Knight, although not with his deep abiding passion. The other day I was watching this DVD which came with my soundtrack to Episode III. It had little vignettes from all six movies, and reminded how much I like Star Wars.

I have even come to grips with the Prequel Trilogy. Although it is not as good as the original three, it has parts worth watching. In fact I am doing my best to no longer refer to the Prequels as the 'Lame Trilogy,' because it really isn't fair. There are good parts in all the movie, including Attack of the Clones (which remains, in my opinion, by and far the weakest of the Star Wars movies). For example:

The Phantom Menace: Last week I mentioned that The Return of the King movie was in second place for most movies seen in the theatre. This movie is the top of the list. I saw this movie seven times in the theatre. For me, I think, the high point is Qui-Gon Jinn. One thing that all three of these new movies show is the wide variety of heroism encouraged by the Jedi Order, with Qui-Gonn being a very different sort of Jedi than anything we had ever seen before. I know that many people consider it the worst, but in my mind Liam Neeson's performance carried this movie. This movie may feel superficial in places, but it remains rollicking good fun. Also this movie has just about the best trailer ever.

Attack of the Clones: I have seen this movie about three times. I don't much care for it. I appreciate Ewan MacGregor's further development of the character of Obi-Wan (a development cemented in Revenge of the Sith, and which, coupled with the wonder that is Sir Alec Guiness, catapulted Obi-Wan Kennobi to the position of near my favourite character). In a scene put in the DVD Anakin Skywalker admits that as a Jedi he ought to be better than he is (a scene which is actual crucial to his fall to the Dark Side of the Force. Anakin didn't fall because he killed the Sand People or Count Dooku. Anakin fell because he chose the dark path. An important lesson in that, perhaps).

Revenge of the Sith: A good movie. Emotionally intense in places. I stood in line, in costume to watch this one on opening day. My wife and I had our picture in the paper and everything. In fact the article is enshrined for all time by the Bridal Association of America. I liked this movie, and not just because of happy memories, partially because it actually showed Anakin and Obi-Wan as friends. In fact, while I do not enjoy it as much as the Original trilogy, almost all of my memories of this movie are positive.

My favourite of the films is Star Wars (I know it has the subtitle A New Hope, and I even like the subtitle, but I've been calling it Star Wars most of my life). I love the duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. The dialogue was always so full of portent and hints of past relationships. In many ways that is why I was so dissappointed in the Prequel trilogies--I felt like some of those portents weren't played out as much as I would have liked. And I really like Luke Skywalker.

I love the Rogue Squadron bits on Hoth. It is one of the neatest bits in Empire. Frankly, I love the fighter scenes in general. I have never had any desire to be a pilot of any kind, unlike my bretheren, but watching Star Wars makes me want to pretend to be one. That and Top Gun.

One of the things I like most about Star Wars is that it still contains bits on the longing for home which I discussed previously. Now, I am not, in this, as in anything, one of those people who makes long tortured connections between the Gospel and their book/movie of choice. However, one of the ideas behind this 'blog is that we can learn things through the glass fantastic. In particular I have been thinking about the quote from Yoda, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."

Luminous beings, indeed.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dedicated To Faramir

So, there has been an enormous upswing recently in fantasy movies--especially movies adapted from books. From old favourites to books barely cooling from coming off the printing press, science fiction and fantasy films are big big business nowadays, for good and for ill. This week's post is an attempt to discuss fantasy films a little bit, as well as to establish some of my feelings about fantasy films in general, especially how they relate to fantasy books (as always a little bit of science fiction may slop over into the discussion, since the two genres are so closely related). Actually, this topic is very germane to last week's topic, and the one flows from the other. Especially, because as my Master (for those who are unaware, the being known as Inkling in theInterwebs is the same man who instructed me in the Jedi Arts--go read his 'blog on Star Wars and related points) pointed out, imagination does seem a little bit on the downward spiral and some of this is very likely ascribable to the ready availability of entertainment options (such as movies and video games) to feel our needs. In fact I read an article once by a game designer who felt that Christopher Tolkien's famous animosity towards movies based on his father's work--and you can too right here (the language is a little blue in a couple of places, but nothing too drastic). This author worked on The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game for Decipher, Inc., and so had a chance to interact with with the Tolkien Estate. His observations are insightful and made me appreciate Christopher Tolkien a little bit more.

Essentially, Christopher prefers people to experience his father's world through the interaction of the words Professor Tolkien wrote and our imagination, and not through the fixed medium of the cinema. Sir IanMcKellan might play a fine Gandalf (and I think he does), but that is not necessarily the point. Gandalf in the book is a mutable character, experienced differently by every reader. One does not have nearly the same flexibility when dealing with the film version of the character, even with some kind of viewer response mechanism. He can only appear one way, for example.

I do not wish you to think that I am one of those people who always believes that movies made from books are always inferior to their source material. Although I am sure that I have leanings in that direction I try to judge each movie on its own merits. I thoroughly enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies (Return of the King is in second place for movies which I've seen the most often in theatres at 5 times). I recently saw The Spiderwick Chronicles and enjoyed it as well.

I suppose that my real difficulty comes from the fact there are actually two (at least) operative principles to be dealt when adapting a book to film. One is the inherent differences between the two media. There are different tools, et cetera, to be used in print and on film. The plot is moved forward by different mechanisms. Anyone setting out to adapt a book as a film has to make allowances for that and modify the source material accordingly. The other issue is that there are more people involved in making a movie than in a book. In a book there is usually an author or two, an editor, and a publisher, with the author having almost all of the say of what goes into the book. A film is a much more collaborative effort, as even a cursory examination of the credits at the end goes to show. With so much input from so many sources, it is in fact, a small wonder that so many accurate adaptations get made. Even those, however, suffer from the difficulty mentioned above, wherein the film becomes somehow fixed.

Actually, the most frustrating adaptations, to me at least, are those where somewhere in the film-making process the film-makers decide that they need to improve the story. Some changes I can understand. For example, although I was saddened by the removal of Tom Bombadil from the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, but I understood it. Streamlining is one of those things that movies need to do when adapting books. Other changes are less forgivable. I do not enjoy the Harry Potter movies, for example, because in an effort to ensure that all of the important plot points make it onto the screen all of the whimsy and the jokes were cut, which is a pity, since I like the whimsical parts the best.

Even more unforgivable is when a director imposes their own vision over and above that of the author's. The most egregious example I can think at the moment is Hiyao Miyazaki's abominable adaptation of Diana Wynne-Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. I loved this book as a child. I had enjoyed a number of Miyazaki's other films, such as Princess Monoke and Spirited Away, and so was pretty interested in seeing the adaptation. I was not too put off by the fact that it was to be a cartoon--since one of my favourite film adaptations of a fantasy book is a cartoon (The Last Unicorn)--actually because of the technology, for a long time the cartoons could be more fantastic than the live action ones; lower fantasy, such as Willow, seemed to work best for fantasy movies. Anyway, back to my narrative, when I discovered that this film was playing at Brigham Young University's International Cinema, I was very excited. I was sorely disappointed. The second half of the movie is unrecognizable from the book, lost in Miyazaki's heavy-handed anti-war message. Now, there is not anything inherently wrong with a director having a message to put forward. It's part of their right as artists. What bothered me was the imposing of the message on the book. It did not sit well with me.

Ultimately, I agree with Christopher Tolkien. I'd rather read The Lord of the Rings than watch it. I still enjoy watching movies, and the occasional fantasy movies, but the closer they are to my heart the harder they are to swallow. I enjoyed The Spiderwick Chronicles, but I have not been around to reading them yet. I have not enjoyed the new Narnia movies, because I think they meddle too much with things best left alone (also they don't feel particularly Narnian—more like someone saw that The Lord of the Rings movies made a lot of money, and said, hey, didn't they know each other. Let's cash in on this one). Narnia is very near and dear to my heart though.

So, are there any fantasy movies you love? How about those you think are horrible, either on their own merits or as travesties of a well-loved book? Let me know what you think, and I'll see you in seven.


Monday, July 28, 2008

I Take a Pencil in My Hand...

The other day I was having a conversation with my wife, mother and sister about the demise of imagination and imaginative play--how many children, perhaps because of television and video games, no longer pretend they are anything but themselves, not even to play house. A sad, sad thing. Of course, our lament, like most laments, is premature, but my sister had concrete evidence. She babysits for a family who apparently do not know how to play pretend. Now there may be those who consider this to be an unnecessary skill, and they may be right, but here at Essays in Enchantment we consider playing pretend to be very important. It was one of the chief joys of my childhood, and one which I have not given up. In fact I was going to write a long 'blog post about playing, and how the old enjoyment I got out of playing pretend was carried directly over into role-playing and writing, and that I would write more fantasy fiction, but I'm a better role-player than a writer, but lo, and behold, my brother has already written it. There is a quote from Legend of the Five Rings, a role-playing of Japanese fantasy, which says: "We tell ourselves the stories of heroes to remind ourselves that we too can be heroes." And so it is. Of course, I don't limit myself to role-playing. Just yesterday I was mopping the floor at work at I started singing sea chanties to myself to pass the time while I swabbed the deck on the British Naval vessel I was serving on. Have any of you ever read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber. Yeah, that is me (although I am quick to point out that there is no similarity whatsoever between Walter Mitty's wife and my own wonderful eternal companion). I have always felt, perhaps incorrectly, that my life was improved by flights of fancy, since such flights helped encourage me in the rest of my life (perhaps unlike Walter Mitty).

Let's be heroes, then! Why should we let the banality of our mundane lives get us down. There is a world of good out there for us to be doing, let's go do it. We should us our imagination to remind ourselves of what it means to be a hero, and then do true heroic actions, such as do good to our neighbours and live according to the pattern set down for us.

Next time, we discuss fantasy movies, derived from fantasy books--advantages and disadvantages. Until then,


Monday, July 21, 2008

A Top Ten

My wife has been giving me a hard time for not writing more on this 'blog. And so it is that I have not been writing as much or as well as I could be. Certainly not the once a week that I hoped to when I re-booted this 'blog. I have a list of excuses (such as moving from England), but I merely hope that you accept my apologies. I also want to say how much I appreciate all of your comments. I'm not sure how I forgot the Earthsea books, but you are right, that is also a very compelling magic system.

Luckily, having waited so long to write I actually have several ideas of things to write. Today's is a variation on something from way back to last year, with the meme about 10 favourite books (I never was able to get that going--although I have a few more books now, such as To Kill a Mockingbird), but this time I am going to do it with fantasy. Not as profound perhaps as some of the lists which inspired this, but I first learned the fabulist's art in many of these books, so in some ways they provide a theoretical under-pinning for all of my writing on this 'blog. The books are arranged in a rough order, but nothing too scientific--this is fantasy after all.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I am doing, where appropriate, entire series, since fantasy is so often found in series. I will not say too much about the Lord of the Rings and Professor Tolkien, since you can read more of my feelings on the topic here, but suffice it so say that I love Middle Earth and it has had a great influence on me (being the one book both on this list, and on the slightly more serious one). Pride of place for this series goes to The Return of the King, I think because I like the appendices so.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I suppose Jack and Tolkien get the top billing because I like them the most. In many ways Narnia is more important to me than Middle Earth, although Tolkien had an earlier influence on me. I always liked the Classical elements in Narnia (reading Narnia and Middle Earth actually does a pretty good job of indicating the scholar interests of their respective authors. Write what you know I guess). I love the youthful optimism in Narnia and the explicit religious overtones. My favourite book here is The Silver Chair. I love the questing nature of it, and Puddleglum is one of my favourite characters perhaps because I resemble him.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. This is the third book in my Big Three. There are other fantasy books (indeed, we will discuss many of them below), but these are the ones that most inspire me to my own fantasy, and have most stuck with me throughout my life. As I mentioned in my last post, the character of Schmendrick has always resonated with me (the fact that his name is Yiddish probably contributed to that). I read Lord of the Rings for its epic reminders about the battle between good and evil, and Narnia for its quiet message of hope and appreciation of the joys of childhood well into adulthood. The Last Unicorn is a bitter-sweet book. There is a line from Disney's movie The Great Mouse Detective in which Sherlock Holmes has what essentially amounts to a cameo (played by famous television Holmes Basil Rathbone). He and Watson are arguing about a radio program which Holmes wishes to listen to, and Holmes exclaims, "It is introspective, and I want to introspect!" I am like that sometimes, and The Last Unicorn helps fill that need.

The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Extremely well-written Welsh-based fantasy. This series has one of the best and most realistic hero's journey I have ever read, especially in the book Taran Wanderer. Another high point of this book is the interactions between the protagonist, young Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran with the bonafied hero Gwydion, the son of Don in the early books. Gwydion remains the primary hero, but the actions of Assistant Pig-Keepers matter in the over all storyline.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. A different kind of fantasy than the others on this list so far (except that like the Prydain Chronicles and the Chronicles of Narnia it is a children's book), in that it isn't set in a Medievalish sort of world, but I love it anyway.

Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This is the newest book on this list. It's a funny thing, but I don't like historical fiction. I think it's kind of a silly genre; but slap magic on it, and I love it. I love historical fantasy. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell is not only historical fantasy, but it's a Napoleonic historical fantasy written in period style. It's a little slow getting into it, but it's certainly worth it.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The Epic fantasy epic. This is a huge series of books; overwritten, massively long, and still brilliant. I've already mentioned the magic system in a previous post, so I won't get into it here, but these books are wonderful, especially the middle bit. There are twelve books in the series, or at least there will be when the last one is finished (may he rest in peace). The first three books comprise a trilogy starting the hero journey; the second trilogy is Rand (the main character) at the top of his game, the third trilogy is building the story, and the fourth will be the end. I like the second best. My favourite book is Lord of Chaos, although I think Fires of Heaven is the best.

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. For those of you who haven't real it, it's about this immortal family who rules over the "one true reality" - a world named Amber. All other worlds are reflections of this world. I love Zelazny's voice. It helps that this fantasy series has some very compelling characters, including the main character, Corwin, who's just really cool.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Another non-medieval fantasy children's book. This book and The Phantom Tollbooth were my favourite books when I was growing up. I read them and again. I like most of what Roald Dahl does, but this is the best.

The Elenium by David Eddings. I didn't want to include these, since they are not up to the standard of most of the other books on this list. However, I have been recently rereading them, and I have discovered that much of this series worked its way into my own fantasy workings (especially Henryon). Crusading knights and Church politics, even certain plot points coincide between these books and my own work. Not enough to qualify for plagiarism, but certainly a strong influence.

Honourable Mentions:

Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series. These are fun, but not didn't quite make the cut.

Robert E. Howard's Conan. I love Conan. My brother hates him, but this because instead of having a barbarian in his soul, like the rest of us, has a Puritan in his soul.

I wasn't sure if these were cricket, since they were Science Fiction, but I wanted to include them as an appendix.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. All my life I intended to serve in the military. I grew up in a military household, and I always sort of thought in the back of my head that I would do my part (this in spite of having no illusions about the actuality of military service). This book helped to fuel some of those ideas. In many ways this book is a collection of essays about citizenship and militarism combined with a rollicking-good adventure yarn.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I don't like the rest of these as much, but this is a great read.

There you have it. Tell me what think of these books, tell me any favourites you have that I may have missed, and tune in in seven days for a discussion of imagination.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

I'll Turn You into a Toad

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last 'blog post. It gave me much to think about, especially nuancing my thoughts about the relationship between Truth and Fact. Don't worry Aleatha, role-playing is but one symptom of the disease, and this 'blog is primarily about the disease. At its best role-playing reflects the hero (or heroine) in us all and therefore is part of the longing for home, but that is only at its best. The rest of the time it is just something fun to do with friends. There will be posts primarily about role-playing, but most of them will about the larger world of fantasy. Of course, not all them will be as good as last week's--I was in pretty good form while writing it, something I'm sure I won't be for every post. Regardless, I appreciate you all for reading and thinking about what I have to say.

Well, it has been a couple of weeks since we last wrote--I would feel bad about this, but I have been writing my Master's Thesis and am currently reviewing for my tests, including tests for classes taken at the beginning of the school year. Ah, Oxford. However, since it is Saturday morning (GMT), I am taking a break to write a little bit in this 'blog.

Today we are talking less about the theory of fantasy and talking a little bit more about specifics. Specifically, we are talking about that element which helps make fantasy unique among other genres, which is to say magic. In fact, an article I read on Pyramid argued that fantasy wasn't really a genre so much as other genres with the inclusion of magic. Thus, a world like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter is the school days story (very popular here in the U.K.) with the inclusion of magic. It was an interesting idea (although I'm not sure it follows--since magic is inherent in myth, strongly mythic fantasy stories, such as Prof. Tolkien's work don't really fit the magic+genre model). As an idea, however, it works nicely, especially working from our observation that a magic system can be an important part of what makes a fantasy book unique and fresh.

One of my favourites is found in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, which was discussed briefly here by my wife. Every criticism laid against these books: that were overwritten, over-long, et cetera, was on some level valid, but that does not diminish Robert Jordan's status as a Master of Fantasy. There are a lot of reasons for this, primarily found in the richness of his world, but of the reasons is surely the wonderful magic system he created. In The Wheel of Time, magic-users channel the One Power, which is divided into two parts, the male half or saidin and the female half or saidar. The real beauty in this system is the way that gender really matters. A user of saidin (the male half, you remember) has to struggle with and overcome the power of saidin in order to be able to use it, while a user of saidar must open up to the power and be calm and responsive. In order to wield to One Power to its most effect, a saidar user and a saidin user must be linked together, so that the man has to submit and the woman has to overcome, bringing the two sexes together. It is like The Magic Flute (Freemasonry and Mozart--what isn't to like? The Magic Flute deserves a post all its own), only with more explosions.

"There is nothing more noble than a wife and a husband. A man and a woman and woman and man reach upward Towards and attain godhood."
--Mozart, The Magic Flute, Act 1 scene 14.

There are a class of fantasy books, alluded to above, where the magic system isn't really explicated in the text. Most of these are those books I term mythological fantasy and includes J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Cycle. The magic in these particular books serves, as in the myths upon which they are based, essentially as a plot element, and is usually more a pervasive element than a system. Part of this comes from the fact that in this kind of world, usually the heroes are not able to use magic, and so there is no need for explication (The Dark is Rising is an obvious exception, but I am saving my discussion of that series for another post).

Middle Earth is a good example of this: Gandalf is a wizard, and we know he can cast spells, and he often does so in the books, whether setting pine cones on fire, or shutting the door on the Balrog or trying to open doors at Moria. Such things, however, are beyond the ken of simple hobbits and are thus only referenced in passing. Even more compelling than the spell magic in Tolkien is the ambient magic. Thus when Sam asks if his rope from the elves is magical and they don't know what it means, only that it is well-made according to their craft. Bard Bowman can speak to birds as a heritage of his birth. Much of what Aragorn does (healing, hiding, et cetera) is 'magical' but is not spells per se.

The other good example of this Narnia. Again, none of the main characters use magic, although it is referenced constantly, including sorcery--I have always loved "the circle of blue fire" from Prince Caspian. In fact, I think more than anything, the magic in Narnia is evocative. I actually made (or started to make) a character in the role-playing game Mage: The Awakening based on Narnia magic. The quote which inspired me:

"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation." -The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I have always loved the idea of the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. However, because the magic is there to make a point, we never get any more than that.

My favourite wizard in fantasy (although not my favourite magic system) is Shmendrick from The Last Unicorn. I have always identified with him, for a number of reasons, and he is one of the reasons I love that book so much. I suppose it his combination of immortality, incompetence, and good humour that appeal to me.

So, what are your favourite descriptions of magic from books? Any favourite magical characters? Tell me what you think.

"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."
"Do not ask the elves for advice for they will tell you both yes and no."
-A pair of proverbs from Middle Earth

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Longing for Home

So, today was the ward conference in the Oxford Ward. The theme was drawn from Paul, "That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:5). The general gist of the meeting was about man's spiritual nature, making sure that we didn't allow the general banality of our lives supersede and overcome our spiritual nature. Our Stake President discussed his roses, which he worked hard to prune and take care of, but which he hadn't yet appreciated. The Bishop, speaking on the same theme, took on Richard Dawkins (although not personally) and discussed the further idea that the only way to know things of God is from God (1 Corinthians 2:11 and 12), but because we are spiritual beings the Spirit can communicate with our spirit. It was a very intriguing Ward Conference, and one which gave me much cause to think.

Again and again, the idea was expressed that we were spiritual beings. The rogue Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was quoted by several of the speakers: "We are not human beings have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings have a human experience." A good quote, and reminiscent of the thought expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 93, "For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected receive a fulness of joy" (verse 33). Of course, D&C 93 deserves discussion on a 'blog dedicated to Latter-day Saint theology, and not a humble fantasy 'blog like this one (so why am I quoting it? Patience, friends, patience). I have often pondered over this idea of being spiritual beings sojourning on this earth.

What does all of this have to do with fantasy and therefore what place does it have on my 'blog. Well, in addition to merely discussing fantasy books, movies, et cetera, part of what I am doing is discussing theories about fantasy, at least from my point of view. My teachers in this are those two stalwarts, Jack Lewis and Prof. Tolkien, both of whom saw the impulse for fantasy derive from the same impulse of religion, and that on some levels it was their Christian understanding that they were spiritual beings that led to the writing of the fantasy novels for which they are most famous (although the Christianity is much more explicit in The Chronicles of Narnia than in The Lord of the Rings--however Tolkien's theory of sub-myths was the more developed, something which will come up in later posts).

The scriptures are replete with a longing for another kingdom, which is expressed by Paul (this 'blog is about fantasy not the Bible, so I can just say that Paul wrote this epistle without discussing authorship) in Hebrews: "and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country" (Hebrews 11:13 and 14). In the Biblical text Paul makes it clear, of course, that the country which the faithful were seeking is Zion, the city of God. However, we all have in our hearts a certain sense that we don't really belong here, a sense which fabulists tie into.

It is not, of course my intention, to say that fantasy is on the same level of scripture (although I often quote Hugh Nibley, who once identified science fiction as "folk-scripture"). I am only expressing an idea, common to my masters in the fabulist arts, that we are looking for something else in our life. As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint I believe that this is a searching for God, because of our nature as spiritual beings, we are yearning for that which we left behind (this yearning is expressed perhaps most familiarly in Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality and the First Epistle of John, "we love Him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

This yearning for another country took many forms in the myths and legends of the world (myth being the forbearer of fantasy--or fantasy perhaps being the poor cousin of myth). Of course, moderns idealize the myths, but I personally think there is nothing wrong with this. The Celts had their Summer Country, an Other World which eventually leads us to Faery and Elfland. The Renaissance humanists had their Arcadia, named after the abode of the great god Pan (the great god Pan is dead, but I am also in Arcadia), the true shepherd's paradise. And Paradise itself, modeled after a Persian pleasure garden, reminding us all that like Twain, we are headed back to Eden. Whether back to Eden or forward to the Summer Country, fantasy taps into this longing and feeling that we are "strangers and pilgrims."

For Lewis, fantasy, much like the myths which led him to Christianity, lead properly to the better country alluded to by Paul. For Tolkien, since all myth (including fictional myth like his) was essentially true, sub-creations made by sub-creator reflecting the glory of the Great Creator. Other fantasy writers do not feel this way, and they are welcome to, but I tend to agree with my masters, and ascribe fantasy to sub-creation. Certainly such thoughts give hope and validity to my own fantastic endeavors (such as my writing and my role-playing), so they may only be good for me, and not essentially true. I tend to disagree, but your own usage and experience will vary, of course.

Our final thought comes from Puddleglum in The Silver Chair:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.... [W]e're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland."

Thoughts or experiences with the Summer Country? Please share them in the comments.

Further Up and Further In!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

And Now, For Something Completely Different

You will, I hope, have noticed the changes on my 'blog, including but not limited to a change in title, and with it, the entire theme of my 'blogging. You see, my previous 'blog wasn't satisfying me. There was nothing I could put my finger on, but I wasn't enjoying 'blogging. There are likely a number of reasons (including, perhaps of the limits in discussing any of my scholarship--see a relevant discussion from a friend of mine here), but in some ways the reasons are not relevant. After I write this thing for fun, after all, and for the benefit of my friends, so as long as they are getting benefit and I am enjoying myself, it shouldn't be a big deal. The trouble was, as I said, I wasn't enjoying myself, and so I wouldn't write. Which didn't help anybody.

So, I have decided to change my 'blog. While it may still contain random musings on my life, I have decided to encourage this 'blog as a outlet for my hobbies as a fabulist and a role-player and a medievalist. I hope that this will give me continual impetus to write, and my readers impetus to comment and improve the general character of this 'blog. For news of my life, my lovely wife does a splendid job of cataloging that, and is a good writer to boot. Additionally, although this 'blog will contain a number of musings on role-playing, I will attempt to not neglect my other role-playing writing responsibilities.

I have resisted making this change, for a number of reasons. In part, because I was afraid of being labeled as terminally uncool, and this in spite of being well aware of my actual coolness level. You'd reckon that I'd be beyond such things, but it is not so. Another point is that I did not want to limit myself. Closely related to that, my readership extends to people who don't role-play (perhaps, I never get a quarter of the readership that my wife does), and didn't want to be to off-putting. One of my earliest attempts at a role-playing post was the worst received of anything I had written, and almost put me off writing altogether. However, my attempts to be all things to all people were preventing me from writing in general. As my friend Matt has said, there is a lot of inertia preventing one from writing.

So, this change in focus. It is off with the kid-gloves. I will be writing unapologetically about fantasy, science fiction, comic books and role-playing, without an eye for my audience. As the good old Ricky Nelson song goes: "But it's alright now, I've learned my lesson well. You see, you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself." Perhaps an unfair convention of writing for a medium which is intended to be read, but we'll try it for a while and see how it goes.

For the first time in months I am excited to write again.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Year

I recently read an article discussing the human races tendency to mark anniversaries, which is interesting because they keep coming, i.e. I remember Star Wars' 20th Anniversary quite well, but the 30th passed almost without incident (However, there has been a new Star Wars role-playing game for every one of these anniversaries--I wasn't gaming yet by the 10th anniversary, although I was certainly a Star Wars fan). It was a fun article, especially the whole point of it was to use the marking of anniversaries in RPG adventures (with cultures that mark time differently than ours--like the ancient alien race sleeping under the earth that only wakes up every 527 years or so. "It is 1993! Can't you see the significance?"). Anyway, this is a long and complicated introduction to mark the fact that today represents exactly one year since this 'blog first started. If you don't believe me, you may go check. Our first post was April 17th, 2007. Although I haven't presented nearly as many posts as our sister site at my wife's 'blog, still there have been a few good ones here and there (as well as one where the reception was such that I questioned continuing to write).

So here we are. I have posted 27 times in the past year. Which isn't really very many times. About twice a month. Well, if I can be allowed to make 'blog year resolutions, I suppose that one of them will be to write more often. Another is to write more posts on individual topics as to opposed to my usual custom of waiting until I have so many ideas that I cannot bear it anymore, and then writing ten paragraphs so that in essence you are treated to ten poor 'blog posts as opposed to one decent one. I don't know if this will actually happen, but the one will certainly feed the second, in that the more often I write, the less of a backlog I will have, and the less likely I will feel a need to write the miscellanea which I tend to do.

Topically I tend to write about my Biblical ideas and such, mostly germs for papers, as a friend of mine recently observed. However, since they are only germs of papers, and I intend for them to grow into full papers, I can only talk about them in the most circumspect of ways, which isn't really the most effective. I've thinking about other topics to write on. I've received a request to discuss my ideas about education, which I will begin a series on, starting soon. Hopefully my next 'blog post, although I will be writing my Master's Thesis soon (however it is only a paltry 15,000 words on kingship ideology in 1 Samuel, so it shouldn't be too hard). If there is any topic which you would like me to write a post on, please drop me a line and let me know. For example, I am going to write a post discussing the various merits of various types of role-playing systems as sort of preliminary to Travis' suggestions. I am hoping that this year will have a better quality of 'blog post than I have heretofore written.

It is late here in Oxford, and so I must close. I appreciate all my readers deeply. I realize that sometimes it is a long time between posts, but I am grateful for all of you who bear with me and read and comment on my posts. Your comments mean a lot to me, as does your readership. Here is to another year together. As is my custom I close in the words of Smokin' Stan Lee and wish you all a hearty


Friday, April 04, 2008

In Which We Talk About...

Well, actually we are going to talk about most everything. So, this post is a collection of thoughts I have been having, arranged in no particular order.

First, if you game (and I apologize to any of my readers who do not game. There will be several of these random thoughts related to my hobby of role-playing. However, if you stick to it, there are a couple of neat bits about the Pearl of Great Price). Anyway, if you game, I strongly suggest that you subscribe to Steve Jackson Games' online gaming magazine Pyramid. But, I hear you say, I do not play GURPS. It is of no matter. Although there a a significant portion of GURPS articles, there are a number that are not, including Steven Marsh's weekly column Random Thought Table, which is consistently one of the best pieces on role-playing, both in terms of theory and practice. He writes this column once a week, a subscription gives you access to all the archives of the magazine, which is worth the price alone. I am constantly finding new and interesting things to read (like a review of Magic: the Gathering, written shortly after it was released). All of this costs a mere $25 a year (which is only 12.50 pounds sterling--even more of a bargain). Seriously, I don't like to be a shill for a company, but I enjoy this every single week, and so I thought I'd pass that along.

Second, my wife were just talking about a book I got out of the Library for my paper on the Jews in Alexandria during the Ptolomaic and Early Roman period, which is a slim volume from Brill. I personally think that it is over-written and will not be including anything in it (his essential thesis is that Hellenistic erotic thought was changing catalyst between Biblical and Rabbinic literature), but that is irrelevant to my point. My wife, having heard of the reputation of Brill wanted to know how much the book cost. For those of my readers who don't know about Brill, Brill is an academic publisher based in the Netherlands famous for their extremely expensive books. This book is a case in point--for a 177 page book (which includes the indices) you will be charged $189.00. That is more than a dollar a page. Trust me, the book isn't worth it. Ah, the joys of academic books. Brill is the worst offender, but even the press of that great university for whom I work sets a pretty steep price on their books, and that is even with my 10% discount. Sometimes it is hard to be a young poor scholar.

Third, I have been an extremely busy man. Part of this is derived from my job, part of this derives from the fact that my wife has entered what is known officially as the Lame part of pregnancy, where everything is difficult to do. At least part of it comes from the fact that I am in in the part of the term, where I am taken up wholly by the writing of papers. I feel guilty even at this point writing this 'blog post, since I could be writing about persecution of Jews by the Christian Roman emperors. Me and my exciting Friday nights. Also, Lydia was sick yesterday, and I was the go-to man on that as well (a job which incidentally I am happy to fill. This paragraph should not be interpreted as a complaint). Nevertheless, I feel pretty tired, lately. Of course, it isn't going to get any easier, and I will be able with the good-will of the Father, be able to accomplish all I need to. Still this has been on my mind.

Fourth, In the unlikely event I join the SCA (my ambivalence to them is legendary in my friend's circle. I can find no end of reasons not to join them, but I can't seem to leave them alone), I found my handicraft. You see, to really get involved in the SCA, you really ought to do something: play an instrument, fight, make medieval widgets, whatever. This is actual one of my many sticking points. However, I found a medieval craft that I would love to get into: stonemasonry. It has connections with Freemasonry, the Church and is a fully medieval. What isn't to like? Unfortunately, stonemasonry really means stonecarving, i.e. the artistic carving of stone, since no matter how difficult it is, the other parts of being a stonemason, aren't especially flashy. I mean come on, imagine going to an Arts and Sciences fair, with your dressed ashlar. The king comes by and asks you what you have. You say, full of excitement, a square block. The king nods, and walks off, leaving you to shout that it is square on all sides, and was done using only a square, a straight edge, a chisel and the wonders of Euclidean geometry! Yeah, not so much. Anyway, this all so much speculation, since among other things, the cost to get involved in any kind of stonemasonry is prohibitive (also I have the artistic skills of a rabbit).

Fifth, I was reading 2001 as a tribute to the late Arthur C. Clarke (I had seen the movie but had never actually read it before, and so thought reading it was a fit tribute to an author of his stature.) Besides, I really dig science fiction, unlike my wife, who's almost exclusively a fabulist. It made me think about what Brother Nibley once said, about Science Fiction being folk scripture. It certainly was in this case, since at least on one level replacing an all-powerful transcendent God with all-powerful transcendent aliens, you haven't actually changed anything. Clarke's Progenitors and Milton's God aren't that far removed from each other (in purely literary terms). And so that was one of the most interesting things about the book. Now, I don't remember if the movie was so specifically religious; the book wasn't religious necessarily, I guess. But I mean, come on, the book ends with a child coming from Heaven to save the Earth. Anyway, it's just some musings. It's funny because although the approach is different between a Religionist and a Rationalist, sometimes, at least in Science Fiction, the goals seem to be the same. But of course Clarke knew this, he is after all the man who gave us Clarke's Law (any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic).

Sixth, I was intrigued by Travis' post on the perfect role-playing game, mostly because I'm not sure what he meant by perfect. He seemed to have in mind (and he can correct me if I'm wrong, of course) some kind of universal role-playing game, which would not necessarily be the perfect role-playing game. For one thing, in my immediate circle (and I'm not saying in general) I have the most experience with the most popular universal role-playing game, which is to say GURPS, which is certainly not rules light. Part of the issue, I think, how shall I put this, I don't think it's possible, or even necessarily desirable to produce a system that can handle every situation. Now, I'm not discounting Travis' project; it's sounds like a lot of fun. But as an example, it is next to impossible to do, say Star Wars in GURPS, because you can't get the feel right; the system doesn't reflect the world. Let me rephrase that. You can run Star Wars in GURPS, but GURPS does nothing to reinforce the Star Wars feel, and I think that there should be a closer connection between system and world. In Castle Falkenstein, for example, the use of playing cards instead of dice serves as a constant reinforcement of the Victorian milieu of the game. Now I think the real challenge would be (and I'm going to see if we can do this in Travis' project) to see if we can represent system and world together through some kind of modular process. Spycraft 2.0 did something very much like this. We'll see; it'll be fun.

Seventh, I'm reading a very nice book by Gary A. Anderson, who's at Notre Dame by the way, called The Genesis of Perfection. It's about how Jews and Christians have viewed the story of Adam and Eve throughout their respective histories. I'm only in the very beginning, and I'm already very impressed with it. As always when read this sort of book, I think about the Latter-day aspects of it, ie how the Latter-day Saints view Adam and Eve, both through the revealed scriptures as well as through talks and general interpretations. Actually, I was think of writing, for my own benefit mostly, an article called "The Perfection of Genesis: Adam and Eve in the JST and Mormon Scriptures," which would be a response to his book (which is why it would be just for me). One of the things I love about studying Jewish and Christian interpretation is studying how that relates to uniquely Latter-day Saint interpretations. Actually, as I was walking home from work today, I ran into a friend from The Queen's College, who was doing his dissertation on Lamech and various interpretations of him. He knew I was Mormon, and had come across, or found out somehow that Lamech is mentioned in the Pearl of Great Price, and wanted me to help him secure a copy, which I was more than happy to do, naturally. It makes me happy, because it's always nice when someone outside of our faith takes an interest in our take on things. Because the JST and other sources, of course, provide us with a unique and varied perspective on Adam and Eve.

Those are just some thoughts that I've been having. I apologize for the length of this post, but I appreciate you bearing with me and reading it. As always, any comments are welcome. There are a few of these points I had thought to turn into full posts, and I still might, but for now I'll close, and spare you all.


Friday, March 21, 2008

A Confirmed Francophile

So, we went to France. See, my mother-in-law went on her mission to Northern France, and since Thora's parents were visiting their grand-daughter here in the UK, they thought to pop over the Channel to visit her old haunts. I suggested, since we were going through all that trouble to visit the French Republic, we should visit one of the greatest cities in the world (which is to say Paris).

You see, I am, as most of my friends know a Francophile (and a Bonapartist to boot). I have spent my life defending the French language, French people and, most especially, the French military establishment. I have defended them from people who claimed that the Scots hate the French (clearly being unaware the Scottish alliance with the French is what kept Scotland independent for so long). I have defended them from people who claim that the real French flag is white, and against all of the usual slurs against the French people. I have never understood it, but I think it derives from the fact the French government has often disagreed with the policies of the American government. More like though, people are just ignorant. Anyway, suffice it to say that I have long been a lover of the French. I have studied the language, on my own for the most part (since my Hebrew studies didn't leave me much extra time). So, I jumped on the chance to visit France.

It was a splendid experience. I have often heard that the French are arrogant and off-putting of foreigners and especially Americans. I do not believe a word of it. I found the French to be pleasant and friendly, totally lacking the British reserve. The British are unfailingly polite, but not always very open. We had experiences where we were lost in Lille, and a woman took us into her own home, in order that Thora's mother could call her friends. She offered Lydia chocolate and was in general very friendly. I tried to speak French, with a fair amount of success. Nobody commented on my French, and indeed went out of their way to draw me in to conversation. I often had to say to Je ne comprends pas, but all in all we were able to communicate very nicely. In fact, my French got such a workout that I feel that my skills at speaking French have been upgraded from en petit peu (a very little bit) to en peu (a little bit), which is great progress.

In Paris we visited many wonderful things including the Louvre, which was as wonderful as I expected. Of course, of great importance to me was Les Invalides, and especially the Tomb of Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French and King of Italy. As I said before, I am, and long have been, a Bonapartist, for reasons which are difficult for me to articulate. One of the nicest things about visiting France was realizing that I was no longer the only one in a hundred mile radius who thought positive things about Bonaparte. It was an empowering experience (empowerment is a dangerous word, I know, but it was pretty cool all the same).

The other important thing I wish to mention is the visits to the French cathedrals of Notre Dame and Saint Denis, both of which were wonderful and beautiful. It reminded me of my love of the Middle Ages and of the Masons who built these churches. Saint Denis is the resting place of the kings of France, and is a holy place. It was a fascinating place to visit, since it was a monument to monarchy in France, a monarchy which did not end prettily in France, but it was still holy. Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, Louis XIV, and XV are all buried there, as well as Louis XVI and what is left of Louis XVII. Regrettably, Thora wasn't able to be there with me, because Lydia wasn't feeling well, but it was still a wonderful experience.

The trip was all in all wonderful. There were a number of stories which I would share, but which I will leave to Thora, such as being ten feet from the President of the French Republic and the various woes of travel. For myself it suffices me to say that I entered France a Francophile and left it further confirmed in my Francophile-ness. I will continue to defend France with a renewed vigor and from my own experiences. In short-- Vive la France!

I am back online. For those of you who do not read my wife's posts, I received a fine fellowship from The Ohio State University, and so will be studying there. My wife and I are very happy. Thank for everyone's prayers. I should be able back to writing soon. For one thing I have to write that post about my ambivalence towards the SCA, among other things. However, that will have to wait until next time.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

At The Bottom of the Barrel

So, I just heard back from Yale University. No dice.

Which leaves me very humbled. Three months ago, I was certain of my ability to do graduate work. I applied to six graduate programs, including some of the top programs in my field, confidant in my ability to be chosen as one of their candidates. I had a Masters degree from Oxford, good recommendations, a decent statement of purpose, and I was applying to schools where I thought I had a good fit with the faculty.

Now I am not sure why I was so confident. I only got into the two schools I considered my safety schools, and was denied funding at one of them, which hurts more than a reject, in some ways. Perhaps I chose the wrong road. I don't know what else I could have done, though. It goes without saying that you are never as good as you think you are, but it still hurts to be told it.

Ah well. All my hopes rely on one school, essentially.

Pray for me.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Tribute

So, I woke up this morning and went to my usual websites. When I visited the Daily Illuminator at Steve Jackson Games' website, I was saddened to discover that E. Gary Gygax, one of the initial designers of the first role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, had died. I felt moved to say a few words in his honor.

I don't know why I am so affected by his death. I don't think I've read anything he has written. I only rarely play Dungeons and Dragons, and have never played any edition he authored.

However, he and Dave Arneson designed this game, and so spawned the hobby of adventure game, specifically of role-playing. Without Gary Gygax, as other writers on other sites have pointed out, there would be no role-playing, up to and including games such as World of Warcraft and its ilk. I don't do much online role-playing, but I do play pen and paper games, and without Dungeons and Dragons I would not be able to.

So, I felt that it was only right and proper that I set down a tribute to the man who, however indirectly, brought me Rokugan, Theah and Mythic Europe. I owe my acquaintance to Bubba Hall, Aleksander Veiltender and Mirumoto Takoni to the doors he opened. Time spent with my friends, time spent with my books, time spent in my imagination.

So I raise a parting glass to a man I never knew to thank him for the many hours of enjoyment and reflection which he has given me. I wish him Godspeed on his journey, and the hope of a glorious resurrection.

Game On!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thoughts on Schools

It has been many weeks since I last wrote, as I am sure you are aware. I was doing so well at posting at regular intervals too, but alas, 'twas not to be (incidentally my Hebrew teacher here at Yarnton says 'twas and 'tis in regular conversation. It is not for him, as for me, an affection, and so all the cooler). I started a post several weeks ago, but was forced to leave, and I rarely finish a post if I am forced to leave it while writing. It is likely a weakness of mine, but one which I feel no especial desire to overcome. My lack of posting in the last few weeks has largely been because I have been busy with school and work and because my wife has of late often been on the Internet, checking up with schools and haunting the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education in an attempt to get a better feel for what the world is like for Graduate Students. My wife dislikes having her future up in the air, so in order to counteract feelings of having no control of her future, she will spend time on the Internet learning as much as she can about all possible futures.

I have been myself thinking about Graduate School, of course, although I lack my wife's free time to spend on the topic, since, when coupled with my new job--which isn't very difficult, but which takes place during prime library study hours--my course load is much more advanced than it was last term. Add to that the fact that I have been sick for about two weeks (a disease which I am still recovering from), and it all adds up to my being very busy. However, I have been thinking about the two acceptances I have received, although neither of them are formal offers yet (a fact which drives my wife crazy, since there is no word about money--it turns out my wife is obsessed about money. Seriously, her theme song for the past two weeks has been "Money" by the Beatles). I know where I am leaning, but of course financial aid packages will play a huge part of the decision making process in my family. As Sam Spade said in the film version of The Maltese Falcon when discussing his pay before turning the girl in, "But a lot of money would have been at least one more item on your side of the scales." It may be that one school or the other has the better program. But in the end, we'll probably end up at the place that provides the best funding package. Crass of me? Perhaps. But as Twain once observed, I have found that ideals have little meaning on an empty stomach. Probably overstated, but the meaning is clear enough.

When I sat down to write this post, I had no clear idea about which to write. I had vague ideas of discussing some interesting rhetorical devices in the Psalms, but rejected those, largely because they need a knowledge of Hebrew, or at least the ability to look at the Hebrew. I thought about throwing out some ideas I have had for Book of Mormon papers, or even discussing my opinions on education and how it ought to go. I have a number of ideas, independent of home-schooling or not, which I think would greatly aid how children are taught, but which are somewhat controversial. I try to avoid controversy as much as possible, at least in this forum where it is so easy to offend, and so I have refrained. I also thought about posting about some ideas which I have had in regards to my fantasy fiction writing or to my role-playing, such as a list of my favorite role-playing characters, but regarded that as not being of general interest. And so, here you are, with a post on a few thoughts about getting into graduate school. Even that is cautious, because I do not wish to commit myself to one program or another at this early date. Perhaps, when I have chosen my school, I will post a joyful statement about how great it is that I am going to this program and working with that professor. Perhaps. But for now, I regret you must be content with this only.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008


One school is down. We found out today that Avram wasn't accepted to Duke. Not entirely unexpected, as they only have a four percent admittance rate in the Religion program. Last year our first response was an acceptance, and although I highly prefer that, I do still hope that there will be more positive news later.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Confession

It is time for me to make a confession. It is a difficult confession, and one I have articulated to a few of my friends, but I feel it ought to be made. I have for most of my life kept it even from myself. This confession is prompted by my wife's post on her curriculum, with its primary emphasis on literature. As I make this confession, it is with the deepest apologies to my many friends and relations to whom this may come as a shock.

I don't like literature, or at least what some people call literature. There I said it. Mark Twain once defined classics as books “everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.” That is how I feel about a lot of literature. There are few things that bother me more than a book that seems to be more concerned with making its point than telling a good story. If I wanted to read philosophy, I would (of course, closely related to this confession is the confession that I don't usually 'get' philosophy either). A good example of this is Wild Duck. There were some few good parts in it, but eventually they were lost in whatever weird point Ibsen was trying to make. It is funny, I feel as though by admitting these things, I am admitting to some sort character deficiency. It is sort of like saying that one prefers hamburgers to fine cuisine (which is probably true of me as well, so there you go). I feel as though I am somehow admitting that my tastes are not refined, and for a man who has spent most of his life attempting to refine his taste, and assume that he lived and thought at a certain imaginary level, this comes a powerful blow. So, dear reader, I think that perhaps this post is mostly written for my own benefit, with you taken along for the ride. I suppose that is the price you pay when you read something as idiosyncratic as a 'blog.

I love reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and indeed, reading is my chief hobby and one of the greatest joys in my life. However, I am afraid I am somewhat crass in my tastes. My wife will often tell me how much she loves to read classics, and she really does. She will often pick up a classic book (however such a thing is defined—in my field classics usually means something written in Greek or Latin) and read it. Now I enjoy many books that can be termed classics. I love Shakespeare. I have enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and other books from that genre. I thought that Don Quixote was one of the best books I had read in a long while. However, I sometimes feel that when I like a classic book it is usually in spite of its classic status, not because of it. La Morte d'Artur by Sir Thomas Mallory may indeed be a classic, but it has knights, and chivalry and courtesy, and many wonderful beauties. Homer's Illiad is classic in any sense of the word, but I love it because it full of heroism and gods and fights, because it fires my blood. It almost makes me want to be a classicist (I wonder how many classicists were made by Homer. Probably innumerable). Basically, when I read a classic, I am reading a story, not literature, even if the book has literary merits. My point here is that for the most part the 'classics' I have enjoyed have not appealed to my intellectual snobbery (which unfortunately is there—ask me about television archaeology some time), but to the little boy who still lives inside me.

Perhaps that is it. Reading was my chief activity when I was a younger man. Maybe I grew up in everything else, but in this thing I have not yet grown up. Twain once compared the great books to wine and his to water. It turns out I prefer water to wine. This isn't really a bad thing. It just tends to limit what books I choose to read, and makes me feel guilty about the books I am not reading. So, to my dear friends who majored in literature (a frightening portion of my readers), I am sorry. I hope you understand. I certainly try to when people I know say they don't like the Old Testament. Maybe someday I will fully grow up, and find that I like Ibsen or Hunger, or other books of their ilk. But in the mean time, I am afraid I will continue to read for the little boy inside of me.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Tag

Well, I wasn't going to do this, but since Travis mentioned me by name, and my wife originated this (at least in my circle of friends) it seemed politic to answer this. Besides, who am I to buck a trend. Actually, I rather like bucking trends, but this once I shall forebear. You may thank me later.

Where I was ten years ago: Well, I was sixteen. I don't remember much else beside that. I was moody (who isn't at that age?), and home-schooled. I don't know, I am sure that something extraordinarily interesting was happening, but it didn't make enough of an impression upon to leap to my memory. Which, I suppose, also tells you something about me.

Where I was five years ago: I was 21, and recently returned from my mission. I was studying at Lord Fairfax Community College. I had a class in Biology that I was really enjoying and a great American History course. It was this semester that really cemented my opinion concerning the quality of education in the Virginia Community College system (although of course it has problems--show me a school that doesn't. Even Oxford has its own difficulties).

Where I was last year: I was finishing up my last semester at Brigham Young University for my Bachelors Degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. I had been married for two years, and Lydia was 10 months old. I was serving as a Teaching Assistant for Doctor David Seely. This was one of the greatest classes I ever had the privilege of taking. I was studying Hebrew and in general getting in those classes which I needed to graduate. I was also recently finished with applications to Graduate school and beginning the long wait until I heard back from schools.

What I did yesterday: Not much. I read a little Hebrew, read a little Lord of the Rings, played a little Neverwinter Nights 2 (not my bard, but my half-orc fighter). Mostly I relaxed, since classes start on Monday, in earnest.

Five snacks I enjoy: Um, pretzels, handfuls of dry cold cereal (especially Cherrios), cheese and crackers, carrots (they have good carrots here in England), and tortilla chips with refried beans.

Five things I would do with $100 Million: Only five things? A hundred million is a lot of simoleans. Well, first thing I would hire an investment banker, a tax lawyer and an accountant, who would help ensure that I properly took of my new millions, and live off the residual income for the rest of my life (and ideally my children's life, although that takes a little more work, although I don't believe estate taxes are as bad as they used to be). Then I'd pay off all my debt, because it is a piddly thing compared with my new wealth. Then I'd do things like pay for my schooling, and travel and stuff (although I hate travelling, and I'm not sure being filthy rich would change that any). After that, I'd probably start with little philanthropic deeds like paying off my parent's house and sending people on missions, and work my way up to bigger deeds like endowing a new Biblical Hebrew chair for BYU (it sorely needs one). I would probably name it after Don's grandmother, Bella, because I could and since she was the last practicing Jew in his family. I'd also set up a scholarship for students in the ANES major, because why should the Arabists get all the fun, and give the ANES chair in the Religion department the money it deserves. Maybe I'd build the BYUSA a special building just for clubs to meet in, with an industrial kitchen for clubs to use. I'd set up a fund for scholarships to Yarnton Manor, because charitable giving has fallen off in recent years. I'd probably give a million to to the Bodleian Library, just so I get my name on that plaque with King James and company. It sort of goes without saying I'd buy those RPG books that I currently want, but can't afford, like GURPS Magic and GURPS Fantasy. When you have a hundred million dollars, forty bucks is less than a drop in the bucket. With a hundred million, I would be worth more, a lot more than, than the annual income of most gaming companies. I don't know if that is five things or not, but this is going far longer than it ought, since I have to work hard to scrape together $100, let alone $100,000,000.

Five places I would run away to: Monterey, CA; Israel; Egypt; Portland, OR; Provo, UT (I miss the States; this would probably be a different list if I weren't currently living abroad).

Five TV shows I like (in times past, since it has been many years since I watched a new show): Fraggle Rock, M*A*S*H, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Muppet Babies, The Real Ghostbusters (a sampling of shows I loved, and some I like to watch now).

Five things I hate doing: Cold calling, practicing noun declensions, putting myself forward, taking baths (I miss my shower), dealing with yucky food.

Five biggest joys at the moment: Reading the Lord of the Rings, starting up school again, watching my daughter grow, singing silly songs with her, and designing a fantasy world.

Five people I tag: I will refrain from doing so (mostly because all my friends have already done so).


Sunday, January 06, 2008

An Apology

This week we are sort of following our general theme of the past few weeks and discussing what it means to be an LDS scholar. This is occasioned by a conversation I had many years ago with a friend of mine. I am sure that he has forgotten it (and well he ought to have, it wasn't that important of a conversation), but in this conversation he questioned the validity of Biblical scholarship (although I was an archaeologist in those days, I was still interested in the archaeology of Syro-Palestine), wondering what purpose such scholarship had and if we weren't something of a mutual improvement admiration society, where all the discussions have no bearing on the 'real world,' and are just for the benefit of those in the field.

Very well. So it may indeed be. There is something of internal discussion in any field, whether in the humanities, the social sciences, the physical sciences or even in the trades. Whenever you have a series of specialized skills, you end up with specialized vocabulary and concepts. Without making reference to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which essentially states that different languages express thoughts differently, ergo people think differently), an anthropologist and a psychologist mean different, although related, things when they talk about acculturation and socialization. As a lay mathematician I get lost in any discussion of mathematics much further out than trigonometry. I expect to not be able to understand what a theoretical physicist is discussing in a paper, and understand that there is something closed about their community, because physics requires a certain basic level of mathematics to be able to even communicate the concepts the physicist wishes to have communicated. So it is with any academic community. Any academic community is a little bit closed, because the entry fee is so high.

There is, however, a difference in my field than in the sciences. First of all, I am firmly entrenched in the social sciences and the humanities, and the entry fee is much more attainable. Since these fields are more subjective than the sciences, the layman has more ability to interact with the specialist on a meaningful level. This is true in history, anthropology or in any of the cognate fields. It is, of course, doubly true of my own field. This is because I am studying Biblical studies, and everyone are encouraged to study and to form an opinion of the Bible. So, as a Biblical scholar I have to tread especially carefully in my discussions of the scriptures. It is not my purpose to attempt to tell any person that their opinion or interpretation of the Bible is somehow less important or less valid than my own, merely because I have made the language of the Bible my particular study. Indeed, it would be wrong of me to do so. Even less so if and when I make essays into Book of Mormon studies, because then I don't even have Hebrew to back me up.

But, here we come to why I study my field. The Bible matters. Other fields do also, of course, but I am not addressing them. I refer solely and specifically to my own experience. The Bible is an important book (or series of books) and it ought to be studied. There is a feeling generally, I think, that the so-called 'hard' sciences are somehow more 'real, and therefore more important and valid to study. I would humbly disagree. I am certain that the sciences are in need of study, and greatly aid to our understanding of ourselves, but the study of the humanities is the study of what it means to be human. Not just what it means to be a member of homo sapiens sapiens, but what it means to be a human, as independent from a beast and as an interacting, thinking being. I myself can think of no more noble field of study. Especially in the study of religion, for man's search for the divine is part of what makes him man. So we come into Biblical studies. My job as a Biblical scholar is to help those outside the field make informed decisions and form informed opinions about the Biblical text. I deal the Bible's primarily historical and anthropological content, and not with its religious or ethical content, which, however, I also try and live. As Shakespeare said, "Each man's soul's his own." The ethical and doctrinal parts of the Bible are most important. I deal with the other stuff in the Bible to aid those who wish it in their study of the Bible.

So to answer my friend of long ago-Biblical studies may seem to be an unimportant field, closed to noone but themselves, dealing with minutiae and not the "weightier manners of the law." It may indeed be so, but I do not think this invalidates the truth which is gleaned through Biblical scholarship.


P.S. My title comes from apology used in the technical sense of an explanation, and not as a way of saying sorry. -ARS.