Why Tolkien disliked allegory

What if The Lord of the Rings had really been about World War II?

In reverse, we could play with the idea of what would have happened in WW II if it had followed the lines of LotR…

The plot would focus on the destruction of the Atom Bomb (and implicitly all knowledge required to make it) by a small team of English patriots led by George Orwell, who infiltrate Germany and destroy the evil research establishment which is making the A-bomb.

The climactic end would be the death of Hitler (as the ready-for-use prototype explodes?) and the end of the Nazi regime in Germany with the return of the Holy Roman Emperor.

… comfy armchairs with ejection seats for emergencies

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres:

“I am a conscientious objector to child conscription, on grounds that I should not have to suffer for a disintegrating school system’s failure to provide teachers or study materials of even minimally adequate quality.”


Then again, Harry was standing in a bank that literally stored your money in vaults full of gold coins guarded by dragons, where you had to go in and take coins out of your vault whenever you wanted to spend money. The finer points of arbitraging away market inefficiencies might well be lost on them. He’d been tempted to make snide remarks about the crudity of their financial system…
But the sad thing is, their way is probably better.
On the other hand, one competent hedge fundie could probably own the whole wizarding world within a week. Harry filed away this notion in case he ever ran out of money, or had a week free.
Meanwhile, the giant heaps of gold coins within the Potter vault ought to suit his near-term requirements.
Harry stumped forward, and began picking up gold coins with one hand and dumping them into the other.
When he had reached twenty, Professor McGonagall coughed. “I think that will be more than enough to pay for your school supplies, Mr. Potter.”
“Hm?” Harry said, his mind elsewhere. “Hold on, I’m doing a Fermi calculation.”
“A what? ” said Professor McGonagall, sounding somewhat alarmed.
“It’s a mathematical thing. Named after Enrico Fermi. A way of getting rough numbers quickly in your head…”
Twenty gold Galleons weighed a tenth of a kilogram, maybe? And gold was, what, ten thousand British pounds a kilogram? So a Galleon would be worth about fifty pounds… The mounds of gold coins looked to be about sixty coins high and twenty coins wide in either dimension of the base, and a mound was pyramidal, so it would be around one-third of the cube. Eight thousand Galleons per mound, roughly, and there were around five mounds of that size, so forty thousand Galleons or 2 million pounds sterling.
Not bad. Harry smiled with a certain grim satisfaction. It was too bad that he was right in the middle of discovering the amazing new world of magic, and couldn’t take time out to explore the amazing new world of being rich, which a quick Fermi estimate said was roughly a billion times less interesting.
Still, that’s the last time I ever mow a lawn for one lousy pound.

There may be a Harry Potter fanfic worth reading, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

(Via J. Greely.)

The most-shoplifted author in Britain

Pratchett and friends

I’m not sure which writer whose books I have the largest number of on my shelves. It might be Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe or R.A. Lafferty. Or it might be Terry Pratchett. Pratchet, long one of my favorite writers, died today.

There are various notices and such here, here, here, here and here.

The Pratchett shelf

Post script: It turns out that the quote from Death in the upper picture is one of Neil Gaiman’s contributions to Good Omens.

Yesterday in literary history

A note on Nathaniel Hawthorne from Flannery O’Connor:

… Hawthorne couldn’t stand Emerson or any of that crowd. When one of them came in the front door, Hawthorne went out the back. He met one of them one morning and snarled, “Good Morning Mr. G., how is your Oversoul this morning?”

O’Connor may be the greatest Catholic writer of fiction of the 20th century, but the book of hers I most enjoy is a collection of her letters, The Habit of Being.

Further reading

Someone at Ricochet requested “Fantasy Reading Suggestions.” The recommendations thus far have been disappointing. In the 103 comments I perused, Gene Wolfe, in my opinion the best living writer in English, is mentioned only once, his name misspelled. Others whom I consider essential have not been mentioned at all. For what it’s worth, here is some fantasy that has been overlooked so far there.

Gene Wolfe: Soldier of the Mist, at the very least, and The Sorcerer’s House. Read Wolfe carefully; every word counts, and nothing is as simple as it may at first seem. (Incidentally, Josh W. is working his way through The Book of the New Sun, one chapter at a time. It should keep him busy for several years. The most recent installment is here.)

Diana Wynne Jones: Pretty much everything she ever wrote is worth reading, so I’ll just name a few favorites. Howl’s Moving Castle (vastly better than the movie); Dogsbody; The Homeward Bounders; Fire and Hemlock; The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

John Bellairs: The Face in the Frost and The Pedant and the Shuffly. (Bellairs also wrote St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, which isn’t fantasy but is very funny, particularly if you are a Catholic who survived the silly years after Vatican II.)

Lord Dunsany: Any collection of his short stories.

J.R.R. Tolkien: He wrote more than just the novels Peter Jackson trashed. Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major and Leaf by Niggle are all worth tracking down.

Tim Powers: I have yet to read a disappointing book by Powers. The Anubis Gates is particularly recommended to English majors, and Declare to those who wonder why the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did.

C.S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces. The only fiction by Lewis I’ve ever re-read.

Charles Williams: Descent into Hell. Williams was one of the other Inklings, and his influence is perceptible in Tim Powers’ writing.

Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman. Is it about a bicycle?

R.A. Lafferty: Anything and everything you can find. Much of his output is nominally science fiction, but it’s SF unlike any other and I don’t hesitate to call him a great fantasist.

G.K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday.

… and probably much else I’ll think of later.


Today is the centenary of the birth of possibly the most original and imaginative writer of the twentieth century, R.A. Lafferty. I’ve been collecting his books ever since I read “Continued on Next Rock” in one of the Carr/Wollheim anthologies back in ancient times. I could try to explain why Lafferty is extraordinary, but it’s easier just to refer you to the short stories that are available online.

Slow Tuesday Night

Guesting Time

The Transcendent Tigers

Narrow Valley

Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas

Hog-Belly Honey

Nine Hundred Grandmothers

The Six Fingers of Time

Nearly everything Lafferty wrote is long out of print, which is a scandal. If you ever spot one of his collections in a used book store, grab it.

Some websites devoted to the cranky old man from Tulsa:

Continued on Next Rock

I want a death and resurrection of the thing

The Ants of God Are Queer Fish

Yet Another Lafferty Blog

The R.A. Lafferty Devotional Page

R.A. Lafferty.org

Lafferty, incidentally, is partly responsible for the career of Neil Gaiman:

Lafferty was his favorite author in the world, he said. “His stories brimmed with ideas that no one had ever thought before. The use of language was uniquely his own —a Lafferty sentence is instantly utterly recognizable,” Gaiman wrote of Lafferty, in an introduction to the story in Martin H. Greenberg’s My Favorite Fantasy Story. “The cockeyed, strange, and wonderful world he painted in his tales often seems nearer to our own, more joyful and more recognizable than many a more worthy or more literal account by other authors the world stopped to notice.”
When he was 19, Gaiman dug Lafferty’s address out of the back of a library book and wrote to him, asking for advice on becoming an author. Tulsa, thanks to Lafferty, is for him a place of literary magic. “He told me how to become an author, and his advice was very good advice, and so I did. It left me quite certain that the finest literary advice in the world came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, for it did in my case,” Gaiman said.

Word of the day


Nibiruistic (adjective), used to describe postulations, interpretations and opinions on natural phenomenae coloured by a wish for disasters on a Doomsday scale rather than based on scientific merit. The word is derived from Nibiru, the fictional planet invoked as the root cause for the disaster predicted by the Mayan calendar that would end the world on December 21st, 2012. Since the Mayan calendar was very ambiguous, it could be said to be the archetype for a Nibiruistic interpretation. Nibiruism (noun), a statement based on a wish for a disaster on a Doomsday scale rather than on scientific merit.


Now that we’ve considered what the fox says, what does the moose say? ((“Hey, Rocky.”))

The furry anthem is not the first crime the Norwegian Flight of the Conchords has commmitted. Here are some earlier outrages (N.B.: rough language and worse):


I abandoned Stella blah blah blah several episodes ago when it ceased to be fun. Ken the Brickmuppet stuck with it, and he has figured out what it all means:

We at Gainax hate you.
Our childhoods were miserable because we were a bunch of geeky, socially inept otaku who grew to hate our hobby (which we blame for all our lost opportunities). Nothing makes us sicker than seeing those who watch and enjoy anime for they remind us of our selves and our many personal failures. We hereby dedicate our lives to making you hate the medium as much as us, for we are transgressive and enlightened hipsters who understand the nihilistic futility of everything…Well…everything except the cruel pleasure we derive from getting you gullible fools to first enjoy something we create and then watch helplessly and despair as we dismember it without anesthesia before you. That is the greatest joy in all creation.That we are paid to do this is icing on the cake. It’s an ephemeral joy though. Your innocence thus defiled, you can bring us little amusement from this point on, but there are always others that follow the likes of you. Now get thee along, Aokigahara beckons you.

Useful advice …

Missing: Porterhouse Blue

… should you ever find yourself in a South African jail, from Tom Sharpe:

“In prison they told me: ‘Make friends with the murderers,’” he told Britain’s Sunday Express. “‘Everybody else is afraid of them so if you’re with them the others leave you alone.’ That’s what I did. Good tip.”

Tom Sharpe, one of the funniest writers of the 20th century, died last month.

Born in 1928, he was the son of a British Nazi:

Years later, when Tom was a famous writer, he was invited to address a Jewish women’s group and began his talk with the memorable line, “You have probably not often been addressed by someone whose chief ambition, at age 15, was to be an SS officer.” Tom’s dad was the Ealing and Acton member of The Link (a pro-Nazi organisation) and also a member of the Nordic League. A loyal Nazi, he said he hated Jews “in the sense that I hate all corruption”. When the war began the family was on the run from the Special Branch, moving house time after time, always haunted by the fear that the minister would be consigned to the Isle of Man along with other Mosleyites. Tom’s father died in 1944, just too soon to see the film of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen which utterly devastated Tom; he realised that everything he had been brought up to believe had been wrong and that Nazism was pure evil.

Continue reading “Useful advice …”

Cultural notes

For those who remember Leonard Pinth-Garnell.


Norman Lebrecht says that The Rite of Spring was “a glorification of primitivism that challenged the values of modern society. Its response was reciprocal violence.” My own theory is that the riot at its premiere was caused by time-traveling aesthetes happy for an opportunity to get rowdy.


The Locus Science Fiction Foundation bought the rights to R.A. Lafferty‘s writing a couple years ago and is planning to reprint his complete short stories. The first volume is due out early next year, in time for the centenary of his birth. Twenty or so years ago I tried to collect every book by Lafferty in print. Although I found numerous chapbooks and small-press editions, most of his writing was out of reach. The new edition is very welcome, even though the first volume costs $66.

If you’ve never read Lafferty, there are a handful of his stories online:

Slow Tuesday Night

Narrow Valley

The Transcendent Tigers

Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas

The Six Fingers of Time

Nine Hundred Grandmothers

I’m pleased to observe that I am not the only R.A. Lafferty obsessive around. Andrew Ferguson is reading his way though Lafferty’s stories in order and commenting on them at Continued on Next Rock. See also The Ants of God Are Queer Fish.

Readers of Lafferty are often readers of Gene Wolfe as well. I recently found a couple of weblogs devoted to Wolfe, Silk for Caldé and The Silk and Horn Heresy.


If you’re a creative sort, you have an opportunity to collaborate with Neil Gaiman. Unfortunately, the deadline is next Monday. I wish I’d heard about this earlier.


Coming attractions: Pixy might be able to see Comets Lemmon and PanSTARRS now. The latter should be visible to those of us in the northern hemisphere soon.

There are more comet pictures here.


Vertical, Inc., is considering whether to translate Yusuke Kishi’s Shin Sekai Yori. If an English-language copy of the novel would be worth $25 to you, go to Vertical’s Tumblr page and “like” it. They need 4500 people to express an interest before they’ll undertake the project, and I was only #699.

Kishi does have one book available in English translation. I’ll probably include The Crimson Labyrinth in my next Amazon.com order.

If you’re not watching the anime Shin Sekai Yori, you’re missing one of the finest — and most nightmarish — science fiction stories ever broadcast.


Bambi Meets Godzilla, rebuilt:

You can watch it in 1080 if your computer can handle it.


Professor Mondo‘s novel is now available as pixels at Amazon.com. I just got a new pair of glasses, so I’ll probably wait for the print edition and read it the way books were meant to be read, on dead trees. You can read one of his short stories here.


A note on current events in the Catholic Church: everything you read in the secular press is complete and absolute BS. Don’t believe anything you read. I suggest checking in occasionally with Elizabeth Scalia if you want an informed perspective.

Meanwhile, here’s the Vatican version of March Madness, and Christopher Buckley’s introduction to simony.



Which famous British poet is this? The answer is here.

(Via Eve Tushnet.)

Ducks and religion

I recently came across this graphic. It’s a nice thought, but there seems to be something missing.


Daniel Pinkwater has made a number of his books available for free download, including this odd little story, “Ducks!”


Other books include Lizard Music, about lizards, pod people and a chicken; Borgel, a journey through space and time in search of the Great Popsicle; Slaves of Spiegel, about very fat space pirates; and, Young Adult Novel, about the avant-garde and fascism.


What does “top” mean, as in NPR’s “Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books“? It clearly doesn’t mean “best.” The only Philip K. Dick title on the list is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a book much inferior to The Man in the High Castle, Martian Timeslip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch ((Can you devise a more portentious title?)) or even Ubik. Gene Wolfe, the best science fiction and fantasy writer currently active and perhaps the best writer of any kind alive, period, barely makes the list at #87. Ray Bradbury makes the list four times; he’s good, but he’s not that good. Ditto Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson. Isaac Asimov is in it three times, which is three times too many. Missing entirely: R.A. Lafferty, Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, Italo Calvino, Cordwainer Smith, Lord Dunsany, Henry Kuttner (and C.L. Moore), Poul Anderson, Stanislaw Lem, Jorge Luis Borges, Tim Powers, John Bellairs, Algis Budrys and many more I’ll think of later.

Without socks

Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favorite writers, died Saturday. She is perhaps best known in anime circles as the author of the book Howl’s Moving Castle. ((Available as an audiobook here.)) However, if all you know of Jones is Hayao Miyazaki’s weakest movie, you don’t know Jones at all. Although she herself liked the movie, I found it far inferior to the superb novel, which I highly recommend. I’ve read and re-read a lot of her books; many of them are excellent and all of them are at least good. Some of my favorites include Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, Hexwood, A Tale of Time City, Archer’s Goon, The Homeward Bounders, The Dalemark Quartet, ….

Update: Neil Gaiman on Diana Wynne Jones. (Via Steven R.)

Update II: Eve Tushnet on Jones: “As always with Jones, childhood is no refuge.”

Update IIII: Yet another appreciation, this one containing the useful phrase, “unpredictable inevitability.” ((Which encapsulates the difference between Zombie and Madoka, by the way. Things just happen in the former, but in the latter every detail matters and each event, no matter how surprising, is logically connected to everything else and inevitable in retrospect.))

Rather than blather on, I’ll reprint an entry from my first weblog many years ago.


At a used bookstore this afternoon I spotted Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Should you ever find yourself on a tour in Faerie, you will find it handy.

Apostrophes. Few names in Fantasyland are considered complete unless they are interrupted by an apostrophe somewhere in the middle (as in Gna’ash). … No one knows the reasons for this. Nor does anyone really know how an apostrophe should be pronounced, though there are theories:
1. You ignore the apostrophe and simply pronounce the word. (Here Gna’ash = Gnash.)
2. You leave a gap or lacuna where the apostrophe appears. (Here Gna’ash = Gna-ash.)
3. You make a kind of clucking-sound to stand for the apostrophe. (Here Gna’ash = Gnaglunkash.) Persons with insecurely mounted tonsils should adhere to one of the other two theories.

Bath is something all Tourists crave for quite soon. After very few days of slogging along in all weathers and sleeping in your clothes, you will be ready to kill for a Bath. You will crave to wash your hair. The management is reasonable on this issue. Before long you will find wither a deep POOL in a RIVER of icy water (“icemelt;” see also HYPOTHERMIA, COMMON COLD and CHILBLAINS) or an INN with a heated bath-house. You will be able to leave your clothes, money, weapons and SECRETS on the bank or bath-house bench and wash in perfect safety. Management Rules state that no one ever steals your clothes/valuables or AMBUSHES you while you are immersed in a Bath.

Common Cold. this is one of many viral nuisances not present. You can get as wet, cold and tired as you like, and you will still not catch cold. But see PLAGUE.

Costume. It a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Thereafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTOKE).

… In fact, Elves appear to have deteriorated generally since the coming of humans. If you meet Elves, expect to have to listen for hours while they tell you about this — many Elves are great bores on the subject — and about what glories there were in ancient days. They will intersperse their account with nostalgic ditties (“songs of aching beauty”) and conclude by telling you how great numbers of Elves have become so wearied with the thinning of the old golden wonders that they have all departed, departed into the West. This is correct, provided you take it with the understanding that Elves do not say anything quite straight. Many Elves have indeed gone West, to Minnesota and thence to California, where they have great fun wearing punk clothes and riding motorbikes.

Sing is used in a technical sense. This is because MUSIC is so powerful in Fantasyland that no one can really just sing a SONG without risking a Magical result.
The most frequent use of Singing is to speed a dead person’s soul on its way. On some tours no one is properly dead without it (see UNDEAD). Otherwise, Singing is an invocation, a SPELL, or a way of summoning nature MAGICS for some purpose. Tourists shoud be careful to avoid humming a casual tune. You may find you have summoned an ELEMENTAL, a STORM, or a selection of GODDESSES AND GODS.

Socks are never worn in Fantasyland. People thrust their feet, usually unwashed, straight into BOOTS.

There’s a lot more, including six pages on the various kinds of enchanted swords (be sure to have a qualified magician inspect a blade, just as you would have a mechanic look at a used car you’re thinking of buying). Jones’ lexicographical exercise subsequently resulted in her novel Dark Lord of Derkholm.

Word games

Here’a a curiosity I came across: a 2002 interview with Hiroyuki Morioka, the author of the Crest/Banner of the Stars novels. One disappointing revelation: in its genesis, the Abh language has more in common with Pig Latin than Quenya:

Question: How was the Abh language developed?

Answer: It’s based on Japanese Actually I just changed the sounds of the words. First write it down using the alphabet, using consonants and sounds. Then mark the same vowels first. The basic idea is to group similar sounding vowels then shorten the syllables. Randomize the consonants. I’m sure no one will understand this explanation.


Question: Could you translate a word into the Abh language?

There was a demonstration next. He started with the Japanese word Takamagahara. He then changed it to TAKMGAHAR by reducing the number of vowels. One feature of Abh language is a consonant before a vowel changes. It finally became LAKMHAKAR. He doesn’t recommend anyone memorizing this.

Nevertheless, this has hasn’t stopped fans from compiling Baronh dictionaries.