Archives for July 2013

Sci-fi and Myth

What’s the connection between science fiction and mythology? In this interview with The Geek Twins I talk about Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece, the Star Wars mythos, Joseph Campbell, and the Iliad.

Life Is Like A Box Of Hobbits

My mom found this box of Dungeons and Dragons figurines today in her garage, and seeing it sent me hurtling back into my childhood. I bought this set of “Halflings” 35 years ago when I first got into D&D—two years before I had even read The Lord of the Rings. I had no idea what Halflings were! (The company Grenadier could not legally use the word “Hobbit.” The word Halfling, however, is of Scots origin and was not invented by Tolkien. It basically meant a geeky teenager! Like all D&D players!)

The box would have been filled with tiny lead figurines, completely colorless (because you had to paint them yourself). Here’s what the contents of the Halfling set would have looked like in 1980. I got this photo from the excellent site

The Halfling C “Thief” is Bilbo, of course. The “Slinger” must have been inspired by the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring where Tolkien says that Hobbits are adept with slings. Whoever designed these figurines had a whimsical sense of humor, too. The “Lookouts”–one Halfling standing on the other’s shoulders (Merry and Pippin?)–is a classic Dungeons & Dragons figurine.

There were other Middle-earth inspired sets from this series like the “Orcs” and “Dwarves.” (Note how the D&D gamers referred to the creations of the Vala Aulë in Tolkien’s vernacular as “Dwarves” rather than “Dwarfs.”) You can check out all of the sets from this 1980 series here, and also see what some of them would have looked like in all their painted glory.

Sadly, my box was empty of its figurines. I sold the figurines at a garage sale in the mid 90’s in a fit of anti-nostalgia. (What a spectacular dumbass I was.) Somehow that empty Advanced Dungeons and Dragons figurine box remained amongst my possessions in an old cardboard moving box. Those tiny lead statues had meant a lot to me back in the day. For people who loved Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons was a refuge and an exploration into the realm of pure imagination and fantasy. It was an extension of Middle-earth that lived and breathed with one’s friends around a crappy card table in somebody’s moldy basement. You were no longer a dork: you were a Ranger plunging the depths of a Moria-like labyrinth!

I’m happy that I actually saved some of the best figurines that I had painted when I was a kid. Here they are. They’d been tucked away in a box for about 30 years. I spent hours and hours painting hundreds of figurines. I used an old jeweler’s lighted magnifying glass that I found at the Goodwill so that I could paint the smallest details on these statues: the biggest was no taller than an inch and a quarter. Each one of these figurines has pupils painted in their tiny eyes. The warrior berserker dude has armpit hair!

My son (who is just about to turn 9) is discovering the thrill of Dungeons & Dragons, and he is satisfyingly impressed with my little collection of hand painted adventurers. In Ethan Gilsdorf’s beautiful memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks he rediscovered his love for fantasy gaming, and in doing so ignited the flame of inspiration (and happiness) in his adult life. Why do so many of us feel like we have to suppress the love of fantasy and creativity that we had as children?

Gotta go talk D&D with my son. He has a ton of questions and wishes I would stop writing this stupid blog.

UPDATE! Since posting this blog I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have told me that they still have lead figurines stored away in the recesses of their dungeons (aka basements/garages). The guy at my local game store read the blog and announced proudly that he still has that Dungeons and Dragons Halfling set (with all the figurines). I ran into my friend Ephraim (a local farmer/opera singer!) who told me that he used to paint figurines too (he’s going to look for them). Mike, the owner of one of the most remarkable Tolkien book collections in the world (@TolkienBooks and MyTolkienBooks) tweeted this amazing photo (see below, click to enlarge) of the complete Der Kriegspielers Custom Cast #LotR Set #1057. This was the set that was based on the character designs from the Ralph Bakshi animated version written by my friend, the great Peter S. Beagle. I am so jealous of @TolkienBooks. We hates him, the precious! (Nicely painted, I might add!)

(Above photo Copyright 2013 MyTolkienBooks)

Geek Dad Interview

I recently did a Q&A with the supreme demigod of Geekiness–Ethan Gilsdorf. Ethan is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, my favorite memoir of all time. In this interview for Geek Dad I talk about my new novel Sons of Zeus, and the influence of Tolkien as well as Dungeons and Dragons on my writing.

The photo above is a still life taken on the bookshelf in my office. I bought the statue of the Greek guy when I was twelve years old at a used bookstore called The Blue Dragon. I hand painted the Elf and dragon lead figurines around that same time. (Those are Dungeons and Dragons gaming dice, by the way.) The boxed set of The Lord of the Rings (with the covers by Tolkien) were the ones that I read back in the early 80’s when I fell into the glorious portal that leads to Middle-earth.

To read the interview on Geek Dad, click here.

The Food Train

(Wild berries picked by my son)

Tolkien doesn’t really write about kids much in his books. There’s only one child in all of Middle-earth who actually has any dialogue (and the answer to this little bit of Tolkien-trivia is at the bottom of this blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Tolkien didn’t like kids. The Hobbits are, in a way, the manifestation of children in Middle-earth. They’re childlike without being childish, if you know what I mean. Bilbo was the first stay-at-home dad in literature, after all, teaching Frodo (and Sam) how to read, write and even speak a foreign language–Elvish!

Tolkien loved his own kids. He wrote them warm and loving letters throughout his life. They were his original audience, starting with his The Father Christmas Letters and all the way through The Lord of the Rings. During World War II, when Tolkien’s eldest son Christopher was away at war, he wrote to him saying that it was difficult to work without  “my amanuensis and critic near at hand” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #59). And one of the most interesting relationships in the history of literature is Tolkien’s lifelong friendship with Rayner Unwin (the lad responsible for vetting The Hobbit for his publisher father, and then the man who finally got The Lord of the Rings in print).

At the end of The Return of the King, after Sam has sprinkled Galadriel’s magical soil all over the Hobbiton, the Shire-folk experience one of the most “marvellous” summers ever.

“The fruit was so plentiful that the young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.”

The above passage is one of my favorites in all of Tolkien’s works. All of the terrible sacrifices that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin made on their quest to destroy the Ring were rewarded with this scene of happy, healthy children. And the final moment in The Lord of the Rings, if you will recall, is Sam putting his little daughter on his lap. It’s a beautiful symbol of peace and contentment.

This summer has been “marvellous” for us in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had the perfect mixture of sun and rain, and my kids have been able to gorge on berries every day just like those kids in the Shire. (And the grass, alas, must be mowed much more than I would like.) These long happy days, where nobody is sick with a cold, are a blessing and a gift.

The other day our friends gave birth to healthy twins. They already have two young children in the house, and not a single relative in town. So my wife and some friends put together a “meal train.” They have divided up days of the week to make hearty meals for this family that suddenly doubled in size. Right now my wife is cooking a gigantic dinner of her delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. And I pulled some fat red beets from our garden and boiled them up for our friends’ beet-loving kids.

If you’ve ever had kids you know that the first days after your child (or children!) are born are utterly and insanely exhausting. Making food is the last thing that you want to think about, but eating well is one of the most important things to do, especially if you have other hungry kids in the house.

What my wife and her friends are doing with the meal train is exactly how I imagine the inhabitants of the Shire helping out with newborns. Can’t you just imagine everyone on Bagshot Row pitching in and feeding Rosie and Sam after the birth of their first child, Elanor, as well as their next dozen kids!

It’s hard on parents in this modern age, when families are spread out thousands of miles around the country (or even the world), for people to raise kids. It’s important to create strong friendships, especially with other parents, otherwise you can really feel isolated.

And hungry.

(Trivia answer: The only child character in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books to have dialogue is Bergil, son of Beregond of Gondor. He is ten at the time of the War of the Ring.)



To Ancient Greece and Back Again

One of the great things about Twitter is that you can meet some really cool people. Take Hobbit Steve, for example. We hooked up on Twitter last year and have been corresponding all this time. We finally got to “meet” during a Google Hangout interview yesterday about my new novel Sons of Zeus.

Steve is the news director for the website Legendarium. He’s also a skilled Muay Thai fighter and, at 6’3″ joins my “Tallest Hobbits in the World” club. Steve and I talk about ancient Greek warfare and a little bit of Tolkien in this video interview. Check it out here.

Hopefully, someday, Steve and I will meet in person. I will gladly challenge him to a beer tasting contest. But I will not step in the ring with this gentle giant, no matter how much he loves Hobbits. I like having teeth!