“…’cause the only thing misplaced was direction…”

The books are tired: They let themselves yellow, they reek of teenage habits, and they laze around the shelves as if they own them. Stone-faced, you say: You there, all of you: Goodbye. With soft groans, they sprout little legs, stumble down the stairs, and march away. You admire their sense of duty; you commend yourself for knowing how to treat them.

You wonder where they went only years later, when an email asks: “Would you like to teach Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction?”

Thus begins the blur: creeping through library basements, climbing over warehouse piles, swinging a sun-bright shopping basket where books replace groceries in long, looming rows. Look: A spaceship reminds you of a long-lost friend, the guy who once loaned you this book. Over there is the novel you never quite got; its crude, trippy cover still mocks you. A fantasy trilogy leaps from a shelf, desperate to be held again; years ago, you all spent a week at the beach. Paperbacks peep and cry out sideways, and people gawk as titles start to blur: Axaxaxas mlö, dhcmrlchtdj…

You bring them home in plastic bags.

That face you make as you drive? It’s the thousand-year stare, the result of looking too long at the Middle Ages. The cure is a holiday, a summer spent sniffing ’round the future—but when you come home and toss those bags on the floor, they rustle, and you look down. Some books squeak and hide under the sofa; others dance and do flips before clambering onto your shelves. In the chaos, you catch a whiff: musty, sure, but sweetly familiar, and you know that you’re not in the future at all. You draw a deep breath and you think, Well, I’m back.

“There’s a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head…”

This week, I’m busier than Shane McGowan’s dental team—but here are some spiffy links.

At Writer Beware!, Victoria Strauss compiles recent links about the business of writing.

Much discussion ensues when John Scalzi upbraids the three biggest science fiction magazines for not accepting electronic submissions.

Strange Horizons tells aspiring writers the “stories we’ve seen too often.” So does Clarkesworld: “stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING).”

At Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner offer a “turkey city lexicon” of writing errors and hackneyed plots. Heck, the SFWA’s entire roster of writing-advice articles is superb.

Steven Hart serves up a link-rich post about editing, book promotion, and publishing contracts.

Jake Seliger wants to know: What’s the deal with white covers on nonfiction books?

Jason Fisher explains “the Lewis/Tolkien collaboration that might have been (but never was).”

Steven Till points us to John Crowley on the art of historical fiction.

Per Omnia Saecula bravely continues its “bad medieval movie” series.

“Lie to me, tell me that they’re only robins…”

When educated people gather for food and wine and sparkling conversation, the intellectual give-and-take quickly grows tiresome, but in my experience it almost always leads to one worthwhile question: Who the heck played the gargoyle in the creepy 1972 made-for-TV movie Gargoyles?

It so happens that the gargoyle was played by Bernie Casey, an actor you’ve seen a million times: in blaxploitation pictures; in Roots: The Next Generation; as the teacher in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure who gets to call Julius Caesar “a salad-dressing dude”; as the fraternity president in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies; and on countless TV shows. A paragon of versatility, Casey excelled at college and professional football, and he’s also a painter, a poet, and former chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

So here’s to Bernie Casey, not only because he turns 70 today, but because in 1972 he brought baleful dignity to his role as a gargoyle who implored a human to teach him how to read while manfully protecting a nest of “wingéd breeders.” Casey may be a Renaissance man, but in the 1970s he demonstrated an unsung talent for making children nearly soil themselves out of terror. For that, to some of us, he’ll always be truly medieval.

“The heroes rest upon the sighs…”

When I teach Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, my students look forward rather than back. Although they’ve read the medieval Saga of the Volsungs just one week earlier, their response to Wagner is always the same: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

So I tell them what Tolkien’s biographer wrote: “The comparison of his Ring with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner always annoyed Tolkien; he once said: ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.'” And still my students read Wagner’s Ring and declare: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

So I show them that scholars have wrung only half a dozen articles or book chapters out of the similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and that the recent Tolkien encyclopedia didn’t even include an entry on Wagner. Undaunted, they write papers on the subject and find the sources wanting. And still they point to Wagner’s libretti and insist: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

Last week, I laughed when I opened The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and saw that Christopher Tolkien spends an entire page of his eight-page foreword declaring, rather counterproductively, “there is no reference in this book to the operas of Richard Wagner.” He notes that his father and Wagner used the same medieval sources but insists that

Wagner’s treatment of the Old Norse forms of the legend was less an “interpretation” of the ancient literature than a new and transformative impulse, taking up elements of the old Northern conception and placing them in new relations, adapting, altering and inventing on a grand scale, according to his own taste and creative intentions. Thus the libretti of Der Ring des Nibelungen, though raised indeed on old foundations, must be seen less as a continuation or development of the long-enduring heroic legend than as a new and independent work of art, to which in spirit and purposes [Tolkien’s poems in Sigurd and Gudrún] bear little relation.

The Wagner-Tolkien question isn’t so easily dispelled. In a 2003 New Yorker article, Alex Ross waxed Wagnerian about the Lord of the Rings movies, and the subject still comes up on fan discussion boards, on neopagan Web sites, on Wikipedia, in conservative punditry, in Marxist punditry, in NPR’s opera reporting, and now in a new round of book reviews. In his perceptive review of Sigurd and Gudrún, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey mentions Wagner three times; his piece even carries the headline “Tolkien out-Wagners Wagner.” Christopher Tolkien says that Sigurd and Gudrún was published because he finally found the “time and energy” to edit it, but the book’s defensive foreword suggests that its release was encouraged by recent Wagner-Tolkien comparisons.

The ad campaign for Sigurd and Gudrún hails Tolkien for unleashing “one of the most powerful legends of all time,” but the book is no easy read. Writing in English but imitating the meter of eddic poems, Tolkien reconciles inconsistencies in Nordic legend by composing two poems in hundreds of eight-line alliterative stanzas, many of them lovely, some of them too strange for modern ears. He assumes his reader knows the story, so these poems aren’t narratives; allusion supplants action, and stanzas jump from speech to speech. Some readers will praise Sigurd and Gudrún as a remarkable experiment in form; others will dismiss the book as a pointless antiquarian exercise. To the extent that the book prompts the old Wagner-Tolkien comparison, it shows that Tolkien was a professional medievalist who knew his sources intimately while Wagner was, in the best sense, an amateur. But who didn’t already know that?

What Sigurd and Gudrún doesn’t settle is the question of influence. We already know that Tolkien “disliked cordially” the plays of Shakespeare and yearned to revise Macbeth:

In later years he especially remembered “the bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war.”

Which, of course, he did. At 18, Tolkien also recited “horrific episodes from the Norse Völsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretations of the myths he held in contempt.” Contempt implies familiarity; if Tolkien felt so strongly that Shakespeare was blind to the power of one nifty image, it’s reasonable to imagine that Wagner’s misdeeds further drove him to set right the legend he already loved.

The Ring of the Nibelung offered much to make Tolkien cringe: It’s a preposterous work about destroying the world to build it anew as a righteous, perfect, gods-free creation—but Wagner also denounces avarice, exploitation, oaths betrayed, love renounced, and power abused. Whether Tolkien objected to Wagner’s radicalism or hated seeing Wagner hew down, Saruman-like, the dark, archaic forests of “the Great Story of the North,” Tolkien’s reputation is unharmed by the suggestion that Wagner gave him a bit of a push. Only one of them read Old Norse on its own terms, and only one of them still compels readers to turn back and peer at the eerie, murky, maddening past.

“Behind bolted doors, talent and imagination…”

Two blocks south of the city center of Aachen, near the cathedral that encases Charlemagne’s famous chapel, you’ll find a gaming store with a window full of tiny knights and monsters. Its existence in this medieval city of emperors is an amusing reminder of the complex relationship between the actual past and the fantasy version of the Middle Ages we’ve never been able to shake. That relationship is always worth pondering, but it’s especially poignant today in light of the news about the fellow who was arguably one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century: “Dungeons & Dragons” co-creator E. Gary Gygax, who died yesterday in Wisconsin at the age of 69.

Four years ago, when hardcore gamers celebrated “Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day” amid the shuffling of graph paper and the plaintive plinking of dice against Coke cans, the event was mostly a nostalgia trip, not a notable phenomenon in its own right. That wasn’t because the culture had abandoned D&D, but because old-school paper-and-dice gaming had evolved as the larger culture embraced RPGs, developed them for new media, and midwifed their mass appeal. Online gaming? Tolkien and Beowulf movies? Girls who are unafraid to enter comic shops? All of these wonders, at one time unimaginable, can be traced back to “Dungeons and Dragons”—specifically, to the bearded sage of Lake Geneva and the arcana he co-bequeathed to the skinny-armed boys who raised fistfuls of dice in geeky solidarity during the early 1980s.

Contrast those humble nerdlings of yore with the polished, professional women who flip through Harry Potter novels during their subway commutes. These valkyries are the goddaughters of Gary Gygax and the unknowing heirs to the mainstreaming of fantasy. So are their kids, from the girls who swooned over Orlando “Legolas” Bloom—girls who, a generation ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching a fantasy movie—to the boys who have slain every goblin the XBox can throw at them.

It was not always thus. When I was in middle school in the dark days of 1983, a science teacher rescued me from study hall with a weekly session of RPGs and military wargaming. That class, for which several of us received academic credit, solved the mystery surrounding the sprawling scale models of the European countryside that took up half of the chemistry room and the elaborate maps of imaginary places stapled to the classroom walls. The teacher, a retired two-star general, was always an iconoclast. Years later, when faculty were forbidden to smoke on school grounds, he reportedly researched the property limits and spent his lunch hours loping just outside the borders, puffing away in furious protest. Those were the sorts of adults who embraced fantasy back then: outsiders, autodidacts, guys who literally brought their vast knowledge of military history to the table, and similar pre-Internet obsessives who made their classmates and co-workers—the type whom every eight-year-old in the Western Hemisphere now knows to call “Muggles”—very, very nervous.

Of course, for those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community. Hardcover tomes served as authoritative published sources. Pages of rules, charts, graphs, classifications of moral and ethical philosophies, and endless systems of nomenclature were all punctuated with academic abbreviations (“cf.,” “q.v.,” and so on) that required training and memorization. Like knowing how to use the Patrologia Graeca and its accompanying scholarly apparatus, mastering the material in the various D&D manuals was a skill not easily acquired. All of this stuff was, like the foundational scholarship of any field, composed by sages whom we knew primarily through their written pronouncements. They published regular supplements, such as Dragon magazine, which featured articles as specialized and as arcane as anything in Byzantinische Forschungen. From disquisitions on the ecologies of imaginary creatures to lengthy debates about the physics of falling and its effect on the proper way to calculate hit-point damage taken by characters wearing variously configured armor, Dragon was a newsletter, marketplace, and academic journal all rolled into one. Its luminaries even hosted annual and regional meetings; in-the-know players became attuned to rumors of contentious professional politics among the inner circle.

As an adult, I’m too self-conscious and jaded to return to the world of old-school gaming. That initial interest didn’t die; it simply matured, thank goodness, and now I seek a similar buzz in hiking, traveling, teaching, and writing. I’ve never worn armor, I don’t attend Renaissance festivals, and I can’t tell one scion of the house of Gondor from another. I will admit, though, that while working on Becoming Charlemagne, I drafted sprawling, D&D-like maps of Aachen, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Rome, simply to give myself a mental picture of each setting. I loved it. So help me, I felt like I was ten again.

At this moment, countless kids are watching their Lord of the Rings DVDs, reading Harry Potter, or playing fantasy games on their computers; perhaps their parents are logging onto Web sites under handles and encountering no stigma as they play at being someone else. Twenty years ago, most of them wouldn’t have touched a set of polyhedron dice with a ten-foot pole; today, they all know what a hobbit is, and they find nothing odd about wizards and magic and the trappings of popular medievalism, recast as they have been into forms that have decreased in intelligence but certainly gained in charisma. So here’s to Gary Gygax, an unlikely popularizer whose almost wholly derivative work broadened the appeal of medievalism by energizing the geek culture that now reigns supreme. I wish him a tomb protected by ingenious traps, and an adventurous afterlife where all of the hallways are perfectly ten feet square.