“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.

“But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true…”

 Robert E. Howard was supernaturally prolific. In just 12 years, he dreamed up Conan the Barbarian while cranking out millions of words for pulp magazines—not only sword-and-sorcery stories but also horror yarns, cowboy tales, historical fiction, boxing stories, and hundreds of poems, all from his childhood bedroom. The brawny Texan killed himself at 30, so he never knew the shadow he cast across popular culture: both co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons cited him as an influence; his work continues to inspire novels, comics, and movies; and fans still embrace his unrepentant manliness.

Atop this ever-growing hoard of Howardiana, Marly Youmans places Maze of Blood, a novel that’s many things Howard wasn’t—quiet, patient, meditative—even as it celebrates his humanity by treating the pulp writer as an artist in his own right. (Disclosure: After I reviewed Marly Youmans’ book Thaliad on this blog in 2013, she and I became Facebook friends and occasional correspondents.) Youmans draws on sources well-known to Howard’s fans—a memoir by his girlfriend and an engaging 2007 biography—to create a new character in Conall Weaver: the son of a country doctor and a clingy mother, a perpetual dreamer of his own past lives, a successful writer whose neighbors see only an indolent oddball.

Howard wouldn’t have liked Maze of Blood; the novel is propelled not by a straightforward plot or by swashbuckling action but by subtle, non-linear vignettes that gently peel away the layers of Conall Weaver’s mind. Still, Youmans does Howard justice, taking him more seriously than many people close to him ever did. When Conall’s girlfriend wonders “why a tale has to have so much thrashing about in it . . . as though a story were a Mexican jumping bean, and inside is some horrible larval thing that’s trying to get out,” Youmans portrays their clash as the latest failed connection in a fervent life:

“But hardly anybody ever stumbles on a buried city or a labyrinth. Nobody ever finds magical snakes sneaking through the ground. Nobody ever tries to steal somebody’s soul.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It seems to me like rattlesnakes are always magically underfoot in Texas. And I don’t know about you, but these gourd-headed people are always sneaking around, trying to find and steal my soul. They want to bottle it up somehow, so that I can’t get out. And labyrinths? Labyrinths are funny places. A job at the five-and-dime can mean being shut up in a too-symmetrical labyrinth, needing to find a way out. A family tree can look like a drawing of a maze, all disorderly and full of dead ends and hushed-up horrors. Even a prairie or a desert can be a labyrinth, if you look at it right. Lots of people are caught in one and can’t find their way out, or don’t like the only path out. Maybe I’m one of those people.”

Maybelline made a gesture as if throwing off unrealistic dilemmas.

Maze of Blood is an implicit defense of fantasy. The escapism it inspires isn’t frivolous; it’s rooted in the true lives—the true needs—of writers and readers alike.

What I appreciate most about Maze of Blood is that Marly Youmans doesn’t treat the troubled writer as a testosterone-addled buffoon, nor does she let his strange, fierce attachment to his mother overshadow his complex inner life. Instead, she’s sensitive to the possibility that he’s a kindred spirit in the arts, an inspired storyteller stuck in the absolutely wrong place and unable, emotionally or intellectually, to escape. But what if Howard/Weaver had managed to ramble far beyond his tiny Texas town? Maze of Blood suggests that his frustration was necessary: it fueled the passion that excited his readers and earned him a most peculiar renown. The whole wide world might never have lived up to the deeds of the hairy-chested warriors in the gleaming Valhalla of his mind.

That conflict—living in two worlds, but feeling unwelcome in one and detached from the other—is central to Youmans’ understanding of who Conall Weaver actually is:

His own townspeople would have asked in astonishment and offense, “When did we fail to laud you? When did we ignore and scorn your prophecies? When did we forget to make a wreath of laurel and place it on your head?” They might have laughed, reeling back and forth, slapping their thighs at the idea that Doc’s punkinheaded boy expected even the least acknowledgement of his poems and stories—as though those high-colored, feverish dreams could find a place among farmers and shopkeepers, oilmen and cowboys.

“Listen to this,” one might have said, picking up a poem: “Condemned like Lucifer to rage and fall, / These poems spark like shooting stars / That plumb the pitched infinities of all / That can appall the heart, or else enthrall / The soul with tales that close in grief and scars, / For wars and Venus both belong to Mars.”

“No dark infinities around these parts,” another would reply. If they saw him, one might call out, “Hey, Sparky, set any stars on fire lately?”

Perhaps it was best that nobody knew…

Haunted by doubt, Conall reels from the disparity between his real life and his virtual existence; he is both doomed to failure and destined for fame. Getting past the well-known irony of Robert E. Howard’s life, Marly Youmans takes an uncommonly humane approach, uniting both halves of the pulp-fiction legend to show how dissatisfaction and heartbreak inevitably get tangled up in artistry.

Although I’ve never been overly keen on Howard’s yarns, I do have a soft spot for his poetry—he earned a place on my fantasy and science-fiction syllabus in 2009—and his pointlessly abrupt death unnerves me. I suppose writers or artists whose loved ones don’t quite understand the things they create or why they create them all feel the hammer of Howardian doubt inside their own skulls. “No one could make him hold fast to a hope for a long life of stories and books and family,” Youmans writes. “No one could make him believe that the future of a young man named Conall Weaver was worth the living.” Behind that plain resignation is a swirl of cosmic inspiration, mental illness, and accidents of fate, where an artist is called to be too many things: a curse, a blessing, and a warning to the rest of us.

* * *

Related “Quid Plura?” posts of yesteryear:

November 2011: a review of The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, “the poet laureate of restless boys.”

March 2013: a review of Thaliad, Marly Youmans’ epic poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse.

* * *

UPDATE (11/18/2015): Howard biographer Mark Finn gives a thumbs-up to Maze of Blood, and Marly Youmans explains in a blog comment what drew her to the subject.

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.

“The spheres are in commotion, the elements in harmony…”

Poetry rarely springs from scientific marginalia—but Diane Furtney’s 2014 collection Science And is, amazingly, an answer to a Richard Feynman footnote:

[F]ar more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

So here is a book Feynman just might have praised: 80 pages of poems composed in an idiom of Furtney’s own devising, “radically enjambed, off-rhymed, non-metrical couplet[s],” formal poetry that, like the natural world, doesn’t always seem formal. I’m reluctant to call this book “science poetry,” which wrongly suggests gimmickry or lack of artistry, when it’s a wonderful and frequently successful experiment—and, in its imagery, downright radical. By seeking inspiration not in the usual stale and shallow allusions but in geology, radiation, epigenetics, and quantum physics, Furtney reminds us that poetry ought to offer the infinite depth of a fractal.

Still, most of the poems in Science And are not specifically about science; this mind-bending material simply gives Furtney fresh ways to write about familiar subjects. Looking at computer models that show it’s theoretically possible to turn a hollow sphere inside out without creasing or breaking it, she crafts a metaphor about a troubled sibling relationship: “curved parallel lines, each in / loves motion, which has to exclude reverse, / and that meet on the far side of the universe.” Elsewhere, a cruel father reminds us that evolution isn’t just about endurance, but also, chillingly, about endings:

But, because time

moves in a straight line through us, the justice
of biology, of development, is

that every action, with or without thought,
reorganizes and delimits what can be brought

into the future, including one’s ability to know it.


By his sixties, none of his children would consent

to emplace him in the future; none
of the four would have a child. His horizon

finally, at eighty-seven, gripped
his identity like a mummy’s wrap,

his self-absorption so complete, so assiduous,
there was no need—tending his needs—for anyone else

to give him an invested thought. “Justice”
does not have to be hoped for; it is ubiquitous

and emergent.

Elsewhere, a note explains that the poem “A Man, a Boy, a Stick, a Goose with Goslings” was inspired by serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help us with memory and open us to new emotional reactions, but the poem itself isn’t a neurobiological study; instead, it’s a thoughtful and disquieting narrative about what children learn from their fathers, the complex irrationality of human parenting compared to the behavior of our fellow animals, and the cycles we’d break if we could. Other poets would turn an encounter between goose and human families into something romantic and trite, but Furtney adds a hint of biochemistry; she wants us to marvel at what wildly intricate creatures we are.

In the spirit of classic science fiction, Furtney asks “what if?” and invites us into her thought-experiments. “The Ark” compares skeptics of space exploration to a Roman shrugging off the invention of a grain harvesting machine; “Some Generations” brings a rare warmth to futurism, insisting that even as humanity tinkers with genetics and explores the stars, we’ll remain a flawed, ambitious, quixotic race:

But we are young, just some generations
from the white winds and little, worked stones

of the Pleistocene.
And we have time. At fourteen

billion years, the universe is crisp
and fresh, and we’ve changed down to the grist

and have immensities
of more green time for change. It may be

one of your descendants—deft,
confident, reliable in emotional depth,

able at seventy to learn Chinese
or Navajo in just three weeks,

seriously ill maybe twice
in a two-hundred-year life, spliced

without breaking genes to inhibit,
a little, our recidivist

midbrain conflicts and maladaptive
selfishness; better, then, at love

but incomplete still, like all
the sprawling future…

“The Good” asks us to imagine the trial of a woman charged with murder for opening a vat of genetically engineered “almost-finished tissue” that was supposed to become a new breed of humans destined to colonize a distant, icy planet:

As prosecutor, I’d claim any deed

that levels our spiral staircase or props it
to go nowhere on one world, is the opposite

of good, is a form of murder
of our past as well as our future,

while an act that adds to the molecular good
allows two things: species adulthood

and a destiny worth the name.

Fond of pondering the personal within the cosmic, Furtney leaves the defense to us—with the sly, unsettling reminder that the defendant has two non-hypothetical children of her own.

There’s unabashed humor in Science And, too. In “Cells,” Furtney wonders, as Philip K. Dick might have before her: What if the chair at a coffee house had a chip that made it sufficiently aware of you to anticipate your order? If it could crack jokes and be civil and entertaining, wouldn’t it be far more pleasant than that ignorant, fussy, scientifically illiterate woman at a local ceramics exhibition?

Furtney is the only poet in the world who would use 42 couplets to bring readers on a tour of the Carbinoniferous Period of the Late Paleozoic—and why not? Science And makes clear that poetry can complement illustration, sculpture, prose, and other creative forms in showing us a place where oxygen was one-third of the air and damselflies with three-foot wings alighted near ten-foot ferns. Of course, Furtney is also the only poet who, with stark, unromantic beauty, could imagine lovers united eternally—and literally!—as particles swept up in a supernova:

And one glowing day,
my love, when the sun is blowing away

and a similar if warmer breeze
has begun to rotate its long, slender keys,

we and other blue-star particles
will loosen in our Tinkertoy mesh and travel

into wider space again
—stay close to me, I’ll stay close if I can—

arcing out in ionized light,
freebooting amidst bits of this white

moon, en route to our heirs…

The poems in Science And read like the ghazals of a Martian expat. They’re difficult, intricate, and baffling; they also capture a full spectrum of invisible emotions belied by a cramped term like “science poetry.” Diane Furtney finds delight and solace in thinking, wondering, making connections; in her poetry, we are small, but not insignificant. Through her efforts to craft what she calls a “poetry of reality,” she shares a mystic’s openness to the infinite, and I hope she won’t be taken aback if I suggest that she offers an alternate route to the heavens where mystical poets hope to abide: a universe of amazement, revelation, and truth.

“Empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla…”

For all the violence the Vikings unleashed, their enemies and victims might find cold comfort in the torments Americans now inflict on them. We’ve twisted them into beloved ancestors, corny mascots, symbolic immigrants, religious touchstones, comic relief—and, this week, proponents of gender equity on the battlefield. The medieval past is grotesque, uninviting, and indifferent to our hopes. We wish so badly that it weren’t.

“Shieldmaidens are not a myth!” trumpeted a Tor.com blog post on Tuesday, sharing tidings of endless Éowyns in the EZ-Pass lane to the Bifröst:

“By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons . . . It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good.

Great Odin’s ophthalmologist! Holy hopping Hávamál! Half of all Viking warriors were women?

Alas, no. “Researchers discovered” nothing of the sort—but that didn’t stop wishful linkers from sharing the “news” hundreds of times via Twitter and countless times on Facebook.

So what’s going on here? Besides conflating “Viking” with “Norse,” the pseudonymous author of the Tor.com blog post misread a two-year-old USA Today summary of a 2011 article by scholar Shane McLeod, who most definitely has not delivered forsaken warrior maidens from their long-neglected graves. No, McLeod simply did the un-newsworthy work of reassessing burial evidence for the settlement of Norse women in eastern England in the late 800s, with nary a Brunhilde or Éowyn in sight.

You can find “Warriors and women: Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD” in the August 2011 issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. If you don’t have institutional access to scholarly databases, the article is imprisoned behind a $35 paywall, which is a shame, because although McLeod’s piece requires a slow, patient read, you don’t need expertise in ninth-century English history or modern osteology to understand it—just the ability to follow an argument about a couple dozen skeletons in a tiny corner of England at a very specific time in history, plus an openness to the possibility that McLeod hasn’t brought your “Game of Thrones” fantasies to life.

Here’s the gist of McLeod’s article, as concisely as I can retell it:

Focusing only on the area of eastern England occupied by the Norse in the 800s, he looks at one sample of six or seven burials from five locations dating from 865 to 878 A.D. where scholars had made assumptions about the sex of the dead based on the stuff buried with them. He compares them to a second sample: 14 burials from five sites (dating from 873 to the early 10th century) where osteologists determined the sex of the dead by examining their bones.

In the first group, only one person was tagged as female. In the second group, between four and six of the dead, perhaps half of the sample, were found to be female, even though based on grave goods, at least one of them might previously have been assumed to be male, because one of those women was buried with a sword. (Ah, but that woman was also interred with a child of indeterminate sex. What if the sword belonged to her young son? And look: someone in the first group who might have been a woman was buried with a sword, too…)

McLeod’s assessment is this: If we scientifically determine the sex of the dead based on their bones rather that assume their sex based on grave goods, we find more evidence (to pile atop existing evidence from jewelry finds) that Norse women came to England with Norse armies, earlier and in greater numbers than previously thought, rather than in a later wave of migration and settlement. Perhaps the men weren’t “a demobbed Norse army seeking Anglo-Saxon wives,” but intermarried with local women in smaller numbers than historians previously believed.

For the lay reader, that’s a disheartening hoard of unsexy conclusions—and a far cry from the Tor.com blogger’s claim, mindlessly brayed across social media, that “Half of the Warriors were Female.” It’s fantasy, not scholarship, and certainly not science, to interpret one woman buried with a sword, maybe two, as evidence for Norse women in combat.

Shane McLeod deserves better. Working with limited data pried out of ninth-century crevices, he recognizes that his sample size is tiny, that it’s tough to identify burials as “Norse” for sure, and that his findings are only “highly suggestive.” He’s precise, tentative, and conscious of counter-arguments, and he seems willing to go wherever the evidence takes him. His biggest accomplishment, however, is highlighting a major scholarly error. Experts who made assumptions about male versus female grave goods failed to reassess the biases they project backwards onto the Middle Ages—even though doing so is one of the traits even the most pop-minded academic medievalists will often claim distinguishes them from the duct-tape-sword-wielding masses.

Likewise, science-fiction fans are forever congratulating themselves for holding the right opinions on such subjects as evolution, but this time they lazily succumbed to fannish fantasies, failing to question a claim that deserved to be pummeled by doubt. I’ve done tons of social-media copywriting, so I get why that blogger just wanted to throw something out there after a holiday to beguile weekend-weary eyeballs—but come on.

Science doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Truth demands nuanced consideration of evidence, and reason demands skepticism, neither of which flourish on social media—so if you shared or re-tweeted the Tor article, congratulations! This week, in the name of medievalism, you made the world stupider.

[2019 update: Research into this subject has developed quite a bit since 2014, but I’m keeping this post online because it’s still a good example of how careful academic research gets turned into misleading clickbait. Feel free to leave links to updated scholarly research in the comments for future readers who find this post via Google.]

“You should know, time’s tide will smother you…”

“You watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ right?” I often hear this question not only because people assume that medievalists are transfixed by pseudo-medieval fantasy, but also because everyone is weirdly hungry to talk about the show’s intense scenes of violence—a subject that medievalists eventually ought to confront.

Innocents nailed into spiked barrels and chucked off cliffs, prisoners of war with their eyes gouged out, tortured saints described in such awful detail by poets like Prudentius that some of my classmates got queasy—as a grad student, I couldn’t escape stuff like this, but our teachers laughed it off. One Penguin Classics edition of the Song of Roland showed a mounted knight chopping his adversary cleanly in half to expose his insides, a fate one of my professors dubbed “the bagel treatment.” We snickered at lurid maimings in the Historia Francorum and the wry post-dismemberment quips in Icelandic sagas. We were rarely invited to imagine how we’d feel if these horrors had happened to us.

All week, the Internet was abuzz over the blood-drenched “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones”; one YouTube compilation of audience reactions got more than 7 million hits in less than a week. Watch it and you’ll see ostensible adults sobbing over a TV show, a reaction I find harder to fathom as I get older and crankier and methodically work through my “bummer shelf,” which includes books about Maoist famine, Rwandan genocide, the Balkan wars—and, a few weeks ago, Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State.

Karski was a relatively well-to-do Polish military officer who seemed destined for a bookish life—until the Germans invaded. After being taken prisoner by the Soviet army, Karski escaped and joined the well organized Polish Underground. He oversaw several key operations, survived capture and torture by the Nazis, and was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could describe it to the outside world. “These were still living people, if you could call them such,” Karski wrote. “For apart from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”

Karski also recounts his 1942 infiltration of a Nazi transportation hub. Disguised in an Estonian uniform, he was there to bear witness to atrocities before smuggling himself westward to report to the (largely skeptical or dismissive) Allies. The mass execution he saw—a train car lined with quicklime, packed with Jews, and then ignited—is so horrifying that I won’t excerpt his description. After fleeing from guards who cracked jokes and took pleasure in slowly burning people alive, Karski vomited blood and bile all night, but never purged the memory:

The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions. I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea. But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.

For all the horror Karski records, he also shows heroism: not only his own, implicitly, but also that of his countrymen and colleagues who endured torture, braced for arbitrary mass executions, and were ready to commit suicide to help defeat the Nazis. What shines through isn’t some Spielbergian triumph-of-the-human-spirit baloney, but the real, disquieting knowledge that although heroism arises naturally, it’s agonizing, often unremembered, and overshadowed by murder on an unimaginable scale.

When you close a book like Story of a Secret State, if you’ve spent even a little time thinking about the victims as people—not as abstractions or actors or flickering images, but as individuals like you, except that they felt every minute of burning and choking to death over several days—how do you then turn to “Red Wedding” for mere entertainment?

I won’t argue that “Game of Thrones” or shows like it “glorify violence,” an Orwellian cliché, even if I believe they do something strange to our relationship with the real thing. I’m not arguing that anyone ought to shut down violent entertainment, or that the industry should police itself or cater to my sensitivities, or that violence isn’t a vital part of literature, art, entertainment, and games. Often it’s purgative to read or write about violence, and my favorite book of the past year involves two scenes of unnerving brutality. This isn’t a call to action or a political jeremiad. I am not a pacifist.

I marvel, though, that audiences are so bound up in the selective realism of fantasy that they’ll accept the existence of dragons but will obsess, along with a forensic expert from the O.J. Simpson trial, over whether the blood spurting during the throat-slitting scenes was accurate. When an audience cares that much, is it still entertainment, or a stand-in for something else?

Last week, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin spoke sensibly about “Red Wedding” to Entertainment Weekly:

 People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.

I like Martin’s thinking—but it seems to me that the largely comfortable, middle-class viewers who can’t stop talking about his show’s violence find the darkness more beguiling than the light.

When I chat with friends about “Game of Thrones,” they speculate that the series offers a rare and refreshing sense of what the Middle Ages must have really felt like. Martin is arguably the most popular fantasist of the moment, taking up the banners of earlier authors like Sir Walter Scott and Sidney Lanier, who also served up the precise flavor of medievalism their cultures craved. They and their readers believed they had taken laudable steps toward re-creating the “real” Middle Ages, when in fact they were picking through the medieval past according to their own notions of virtue and vice—as we still do.

“No matter how much I make up,” Martin says, “there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.” He’s right, but there’s no urgent reason to elevate fantasy by highlighting its historical echoes, and no need to absolve Martin’s work of the most grave accusation leveled at fantasy: escapism. Martin’s readers and viewers are guilty as charged only if they turn away from humanity’s pervasive worst, whether the immediate evils in the daily news or the horrors Jan Karski could never forget. Many obviously do just that, but I’ll give Martin credit for intending his books to accomplish what good fantasy should: not distancing us with flattering amusements from the way life supposedly used to be, but providing a stark, imaginative look at the way it invariably is.

“Cool winds wash down your hope, and you slipped…”

When I was teaching, and books like Beowulf and The Faerie Queene hove into view, my students gamely kicked around a question: Does America have an epic?

Lonesome Dove. The Godfather. Roots. Each book or movie they floated was a lengthy, multigenerational take on an ethnic or regional experience. Other students brought up Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, and one of them argued, with rare passion, for Stephen King’s Dark Tower/Gunslinger series. In the end, no one was satisfied. Ours, they sighed, is an epic-less nation.

But if we don’t currently have an epic, the people who will live here someday may. That’s the premise of Marly Youmans’ eerie and beautiful Thaliad, a 24-book poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse—and how one of them becomes the founding matriarch of a lakeside tribe in upstate New York.

Recounted 67 years later by Emma, a teenaged librarian who roves the wastes with sword and gun in search of unrescued books, the Thaliad fuses several out-of-vogue elements—formalist verse, narrative poetry, classical epic—to a familiar science-fiction trope. What grows from this grafting is a weird, fresh, magical thing: the story of a new world rooted in the ingenuity and optimism of “one who / Was ordinary as a stone or stem / Until the fire came and called her name.”

Like any classical epic, the Thaliad states its purpose: “to make from these paper leaves / A book to tell and bind the hardest times / That ever were in all of history.” Emma even invokes a muse, but in a nice teen-angst twist, she prays for inspiration from the dream husband she’s sure she’ll never have. “And so I am now married to the quill,” she vows with the melodramatic certainty of youth, recording the origins of her people in a tale that glows with mystical visions, prophetic messengers, and the hard bargain of a divine covenant.

What makes the Thaliad most compelling and real is a certain cheekiness in Marly Youmans’ choice of setting. The children who survive the unexplained holocaust migrate north, as Youmans did, and end up where she lives: Cooperstown, New York, with its nearby Glimmerglass Historic District and Kingfisher Tower, a (yes!) neo-Gothic folly on Otsego Lake. What fantasist hasn’t looked around and wondered what familiar streets and settings might someday become? In that sense, Thaliad recalls Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, and Youmans is at least as skilled as Le Guin at using mythic elements to solidify and universalize a story, from hints of Beowulf in the raising of funeral mounds to fateful echoes of Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott.

Because epic must be larger than life, Thalia and her fellow children are preternaturally articulate, as is their historian-poet, sometimes in amusing ways. When Emma praises Thalia’s ancestry, we learn that her mother was a doctor, while her father

           was unknown, donor of seed,
Impregnator without shape, a formless
Father of the mind who though a mortal
Receives immortal honors from our kind.

By crafting lofty language to describe an immaculate scientific conception, Youmans reminds Thaliad readers that we’re seeing everything in this poem through the eyes of a teenager and the distorting lens of epic—but also that we’re half-blind to the wonders of our own world. Three generations on, Emma doesn’t think much of us:

Then beauty was abolished by the state
And colleges of learning stultified,
Hewing to a single strand of groupthink.
It was a time bewitched, when devils ruled,
When ancient ice fields melted, forests burned,
When sea tossed up its opal glitterings
Of unknown fish and dragons of the deep,
When giant moth and demon rust consumed,
And every day meant more and more to buy.
Some people here and there lived otherwise,
But no one asked them for any wisdom,
And no one looked to their authority,
For none they had, nor were they like to have
The same—no one expects the end of things
To come today, although it must some day,
And so no one expected the great flares…

Fortunately, Youmans doesn’t rest on easy social criticism. Through unsettling depictions of cruelty, negligence, and loss, she argues that despair in times of horror is a choice, not an inevitability. Even as the Thalians struggle to preserve scraps of civilization, the stars over Cooperstown offer another chance for humanity to get things right. Keen to reinvent the constellations, Thalian poets gaze at a sky

Where unfamiliar constellations rule
A dazzling zodiac—the Nine-tailed Cat,
The Throne of Fire, the Fount of Anguishing,
Un-mercy’s Seat. I might go cruelly on,
But I have brooded for too long on fall
And desolation, hidden history
Of world’s end, thing unwritten in the books,
Its causes and its powers scribed on air
And seen out of a corner of the eye
Or not at all. Better to dream and say
That sparking zodiac shows sympathy
For trial and weariness, presenting Hope
In Silver Feathers, Gabriel in Light,
The Mother’s Arms, the Father’s Sailing Boat,
The Seven Triumphant Against the Waste.

To Youmans, whether you like what you see when you look heavenward depends entirely on what you want to see.

Youmans’ hopeful epic has a recent precedent: Frederick Turner’s brilliant science-fiction poem The New World, in which the learned citizens of a 24th-century Ohio republic fend off fanatics in bordering lands. Maybe two poets don’t represent a trend, but a few clever souls have begun to look beyond short, personal lyrics to rediscover the potential of narrative poetry. Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer is one of the coolest long poems in decades, and Dana Gioia’s most recent book includes a ghost story in syllabic verse.

By writing an epic, Youmans is endorsing a poetic renaissance that has its detractors. Since the 1980s, dyspeptic critics have argued that neoformal poetry is too obsessed with poetry itself (at the expense, they say, of looking out at the world) and that neoformalism “decontextualizes” poetry. Of course, people who point out the same problem with the past century of visual art get dismissed as reactionary cranks, so I’m content to mutter “de gustibus…” and move on. Youmans’ poem is a call to restore old and beautiful forms of literature—that’s what Emma, librarian and historian, literally does when she speaks of the past:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Even so, the Thaliad isn’t just literature about literature. By building a plausible world in fiction, Youmans, like any good science-fiction writer, makes us more aware of the weirdness of the real world, where we should look for life in all sorts of seemingly dead things:

We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings—
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside down from us…

Not remotely a formalist novelty, the Thaliad is a remarkable book about surviving a crisis of faith.

Although the Thaliad runs only 102 pages, it’s a rich poem, and I couldn’t find room in this post for half of my notes. Detecting influences ranging from Milton to Cavafy to A.A. Milne, I reacted just as Dale Favier did:

But having finished, I turn at once to the beginning, to read it again, which is of course what one always does with a genuine epic. They begin in the middle of things because they understand that everything is in the middle of things: they’re structured as a wheel, and its first revolution is only to orient ourselves.

If they’re willing to take a chance, fantasy and science-fiction fans and even the “young adult” crowd might all find much to love here. The Thaliad is rare proof that verse need not be difficult or obscure—and that even now, narrative poetry can still leave readers, like Thalian children eyeing strangers in their orchard, “[e]nchanted into stillness by surprise.”

“…and a cross of gold as a talisman.”

“A light starts—lixte se leoma ofer landa fela—and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease.” Although that line could describe the experience of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a movie theater, it is, in fact, one of several lovely passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” the 1936 essay that helped scry a certain Anglo-Saxon poem on the prow of every English lit syllabus.

I returned to Tolkien’s essay yesterday after being shown a sign—this one.

That’s Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, across the street from American University here in D.C. This church last appeared on this blog when I spotted the curious “faux-tesques” on its spire, but I hadn’t known it was a locus of Tolkien fandom. (It’s certainly one of the most unexpected examples of public Tolkieniana since the hobbit dumpster and parking signs of Ocean City, Maryland.)

As it turns out, the church’s (presumably unlicensed) banners aren’t just an advertisement of affinity, but an invitation to a series of sermons:

“An Unexpected Journey”
Explore the Gospel Through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writings
Sermon Series beginning Sunday, January 6
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is deeply rooted in the truths of his Christian faith. This powerful story has captivated readers for decades, as well as a new generation of moviegoers. With the new film The Hobbit arriving this winter, it is a good time to explore the Gospel through this wonderful narrative. Our sermon series, “An Unexpected Journey,” will take place on Sundays in January 2013 as we follow the path of Tolkien’s travelers. Echoing Gandalf’s words to Bilbo, worried about his chances of returning home from his journey, “If you do, you will not be the same.”

I’ll let Tolkien experts imagine how the Catholic author might have reacted to The Hobbit being used as a gateway to Methodist Bible study, but as a medievalist he would have understood the impulse. The Germanic literature he loved is tinged with Christian interpolations, revisions, and appropriations, and he knew it was de rigeur in the Middle Ages to outfit the creations of others as couriers of religious ideas.

He also knew that the best stories fight back a little. Here he is again, talking about Beowulf:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present…

Whether he brings in new churchgoers or not, what the minister at MMUMC is doing has medieval roots. Whether it’s Tolkienesque I can’t say, but in its way, a Tolkien-themed sermon series makes more sense than the adoration of The Lord of the Rings by the 1960s counterculture. Whether one great story leads so easily to another remains to be seen, but what Tolkien said about Beowulf grows true of his own works as well: “it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.”

“There’s a beast upon my shoulder, and a fiend upon my back…”

“I’ve always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning.”

That’s what Lucius Shepard told an interviewer in 2001, seventeen years after publishing “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” a much-praised (but too-little-known) fantasy story starring one of the best fictional dragons of all time. As it turned out, my first Christmas gift of the season came from someone who knew I’d love this new hardcover volume, which collects all six of Shepard’s hard-to-find “Dragon Griaule” stories for the first time.

Griaule the dragon is 6,000 feet long, 750 feet high, awake, seething, but magically immobilized. Over the course of centuries, communities spring up on and around him, ecosystems flourish in the shadows of his wings, and his very presence casts a pall over fretful locals who’ve repeatedly failed to kill him—until a young artist named Meric Cattenay convinces the town fathers to pay him to spend half a century slathering the ancient dragon in beautiful but highly toxic paint.

“I don’t believe Griaule will be able to perceive the menace in a process as subtle as art,” Cattenay argues, a line that earned a laugh from my students (and from me) when I taught this story in 2009, but “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” quickly grows far beyond its amusing premise to become an eerie cautionary tale about creativity and the human costs of artistic obsession.

Subterranean Press has given The Dragon Griaule a pretty standard fantasy cover, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t Wyverns of Wonder, Book XXVII, but something cleverer, richer, and far more strange. Reviewers like to claim that a good fantasy or science-fiction book “transcends its genre,” but that’s a dreadful backhanded compliment, and Shepard deserves better than to be compared to the worst. He writes wry, fresh fantasy that uses old tropes to say things few other fantasy writers have bothered to say. Ambivalent about the genre, he tempers wonder with nagging doubt, knowing how hard it is to get others to open their minds. As Meric Cattenay’s admonishes the bitter, dragon-dwarfed townsmen: “It astounds me that you can live next to a miracle, a source of mystery, and treat him as if he were an oddly shaped rock.”

“Wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in the best-selling show…”

“In Washington, summer is a horror beyond the telling of it,” wrote Philip K. Dick in his 1968 “Self Portrait,” echoing the more effable sentiments of sweat-soaked D.C. residents this week. Dick is so associated with California—he spent nearly his entire life there—that few science-fiction readers, and almost no Washingtonians, remember that in the late 1930s, the budding author and his mother lived in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, or that Dick’s three years here echo in his work.

Dick’s novel Puttering About in a Small Land, written in 1957 but published posthumously in 1985, views several D.C. landmarks through the gauzy lens of personal mythology. Despite his prolificity and unabashed weirdness, Dick craved mainstream success, and he grounds an early sequence in Puttering About, a realistic tale of infidelity and doomed postwar dreams, in actual Washington places: Rock Creek Park, Massachusetts Avenue, and the Tidal Basin, which a character imbues with her own anxieties:

To her the Tidal Basin and the trees had a mysterious quality; they kept the countryside here in the center of the city, as if it could not be completely suppressed. Actually she was afraid of the Tidal Basin; it was part of the lines and pools of water that had cut into the ground by the coast, the canals and rivers and streams; Rock Creek itself, and of course the Potomac. When she came near the Potomac she believed she had been removed completely away from the present; she did not accept the fact that the Potomac existed in the modern world.

In keeping with Dick’s real life, the action in Puttering About soon switches to California, but Washington remains a place of origin and a repository for obsessive memory. In the 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year, Dick returns to Cleveland Park—naturally, by way of Mars.

Like most Dick novels, Now Wait defies easy summary, but suffice it to say that it features pharmaceutically induced time travel, a dictator who battles aliens across alternate dimensions, and ancient gazillionaire Virgil Ackerman, president of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which turns alien amoebas into spaceship control spheres. With the help of antiquarians and preposterous wealth, Ackerman pioneers the creation of Martian “babylands,” hyperpersonal theme parks that recreate fondly remembered places in a patron’s life.

Amusingly, Virgil Ackerman rebuilds Philip K. Dick’s childhood in Washington, D.C., circa 1935:

Wash-35 consisted of a painstakingly elaborate reconstruction of the specific limited universe of childhood which Virgil had known, constantly refined and improved in matters of authenticity by his antique procurer—Kathy Sweetscent—without really ever being in a genuine sense changed: it had coagulated, cleaved to the dead past…at least as far as the rest of the clan were concerned. But to Virgil it of course sprouted life. There, he blossomed. He restored his flagging biochemical energy and then returned to the present, to the shared, current world which he eminently understood and manipulated but of which he did not psychologically feel himself a native.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I live in a latter-day version of Wash-35:

The omphalos of Wash-35, a five-story brick apartment building where Virgil had lived as a boy, contained a truly modern apartment of their year 2055 with every detail of convenience which Virgil could obtain during these war years.

Dick misremembered how many floors his childhood omphalos had, but it’s still there, around the corner from me, the only apartment building on a leafy, house-lined street.

Several blocks away lay Connecticut Avenue, and, along it, stores which Virgil remembered. Here was Gammage’s, a shop at which Virgil had bought Tip Top comics and penny candy. Next to it Eric made out the familiar shape of People’s Drugstore; the old man during his childhood had bought a cigarette lighter here once and chemicals for his Gilbert Number Five glass-blowing and chemistry set.

Dick recalls doing most of those same things in his “Self-Portrait.” The drug store has gotten a facade-lift and a new name, but it’s right where Dick left it, and kids still pop in there after school to buy junk food. Dick would like the place; the scanners talk to you.

(I’ve yet to find an elderly neighbor who remembers “Gammage’s.”)

“What’s the Uptown Theater showing this week?” Harv Ackerman murmured as their ship coasted along Connecticut Avenue so that Virgil could review these treasured sights. He peered.

It was Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels, which all of them had seen at least twice. Harv groaned.

The Uptown has shown the various Blade Runner re-releases and director’s cuts. Prometheus is playing there now.

The ship taxied from Connecticut Avenue onto McComb Street and soon was parking before 3039 with its black wrought-iron fence and tiny lawn. When the hatch slid back, however, Eric smelled—not the city air of a long-gone Terran capital—but the bitterly thin and cold atmosphere of Mars…

On a late June afternoon, the atmosphere at 3039 Macomb Street NW is anything but cold and thin, but the year could be 1935, or 2012, or 2055.

Uphill, west on Macomb, looms another Philip K. Dick landmark. After a miserable stint at an experimental school in Maryland, young Phil spent second through fourth grades here in Cleveland Park at John Eaton Elementary.

Despite a homely concrete wedge that joins Eaton’s two older buildings, kids from the 1930s would recognize the place immediately. In Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Lawrence Sutin summarizes Dick’s time here:

Phil attended the John Eaton School from 1936 to 1938, for grades two through four. He was absent often, a pattern condoned by Dorothy [his mother]. His report cards reflect good academic work on the whole, with one of his lowest marks, a C, coming in written composition. But a comment by his fourth-grade teacher was admirably prophetic: “Shows interest and ability in story telling.”

Perhaps Dick’s Eaton years were more formative yet. The playground, more spacious now than it was 75 years ago, may have been the site of Philip K. Dick’s first epiphany, as recounted in a 1981 interview:

I really think—I’ve thought about this—and it goes back to an incident when I was in the third grade, where I was tormenting a beetle. It was taking refuge in an empty snail shell. He’d come out of the snail shell and I’d mash at him with a rock, and he’d run back into the snail shell. I’d just wait ’til he’d come out.

And he came out, and all of a sudden I realized—it was total satori, just infinite, that this beetle was like I was. There was an understanding. He wanted to live just like I was, and I was hurting him. For a moment—it was like Siddhartha does, like was that dead jackal in the ditch—I was that beetle. Immediately I was different. I was never the same again. I was totally aware of what I was doing. I was just transformed—my essence was changed.

I find it unnerving to live for years in a neighborhood of attorneys, technocrats, students, and barhoppers, only to detect, suddenly and at every turn, the slight, childish footsteps of the most bizarre science-fiction writer of the 20th century.

Weirder, though, was this.

I noticed those bibliophilic elves over the doors of Eaton Elementary yesterday, when I went to take a snapshot of the school. For 17 years, I’ve walked past Eaton, visited the school with friends’ kids, and voted in local elections there, but somehow I’ve never spotted these elves, the sort of whimsical adornment everyone knows I actively look for.

Friends assure me that the elves have always been there. Have they? Wouldn’t I have seen them?

When you find your neighborhood in a Philip K. Dick character’s Martian recreation of Philip K. Dick’s childhood, you start to think that someone may be messing with you, that maybe you’re the baffled beetle in someone’s dawning epiphany. “My god, that is eerie. Really freaks me,” Dick wrote in 1970, after his friend Bhob Stewart found himself, purely by chance, at 3039 Macomb. “The ghost of a little boy who is now a middle-aged SF author must still be playing there.” If so, I haven’t seen him, but a whispering elf tells me this: there’s no guarantee that I won’t.