Saturday, 16 November 2019

Gone to Ground: The Tale of a Huntsman

In my Mythago Wood review, I referenced thrillers like like Rogue Male or The 39 Steps or The Day of the Jackal - calling them low-tech, lone man tales. Low-tech and Lone Man might not always be strictly true, of course. The Jackal is able to contrive a concealed sniper rifle and fake passports; Richard Hannay finds allies here and there (Greenmantle, for instance, contains notable Lone Man segments centred on Hannay or Peter Pienaar, even if the protagonist is acting as part of a team). The term is, therefore, relative. These adventure stories have neither the cast of thousands of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller nor the military machinery thereof. Likewise, they do not have the Lone Man with a variety of gadgets that might mark out comic book superheroes like Batman, or the cinematic James Bond (pastiches of Bond often exaggerate this element; Wikipedia descriptions of Bond-imitators and other pulps are fascinating things).
To step away from what this is not, we might say that low-tech, lone man tales are often written in the first person, take place as much in the countryside as the city, have a relatively small amount of travel and discuss circumstances where human opponents will always be a threat, nameless henchmen or otherwise, and where weather and fatigue can be as deadly and fearful as the guards. This sub-genre or style is more often found in books than on the screen (the movie of The Day of the Jackal is an exception, but this is a difficult mood to capture on film).
The protagonist is as likely to rely upon survival gear as weapons (guns may be hard to come by; even when they find weapons they are likely to be a) improvised or b) non-miltary; hunting rifles not Tommy Guns), and is more likely an amateur than a professional. Even in The Day of the Jackal, when the titular Jackal is a professional assassin, he does not carry a gun for protection or as a problem solver; the things he relies most on are is disguises (including paperwork) and cars, which we may call 'survival gear' - neither are an immediate tactical asset.
I think all this makes a pretty good fit for elements of the OSR (or preferred splinter faction) on the tabletop, especially at low levels. Now, the party of adventurers is sufficiently well established and rather prevents the Lone Man angle. But the paucity of resources, the constant peril and the narrow focus has much to offer.
Therefore, I set my mind to work on a way of capturing this for a first level party. I'd tried it before for a group, but diverted from my starting point into packs of Goblin cannon fodder. What if it was just one man?

**********
GONE TO GROUND: An Adventure for Low Levels
Yant Nimrud is a dead man. This is not widely known, but he is. The Duke of Loengria’s huntsman and a minor baron in his own right, he is famed for his skill as a tracker and fighter. But this is no longer relevant, for Yant Nimrud is a dead man.
He attacked the Duke of Hostock in the Duke’s chambers before he was subdued. None know why; he had been well treated in Hostock; and there are no direct tensions between the two Duchies.
He might have been killed then, had he not been so well known. Nimrud is not one to seek fame, but his actions have spoken loudly. Every aristocrat knows his name, as do many of their retainers. The Duke of Loengria would also take his death poorly. So he was able to escape Hostock when being taken to a remote castle, despite his wounds.
Now either he must die, or he must be brought to Hostock to be a tool of Ducal realpolitik. For it would surely embarrass the Duke of Loengria to have his huntsman accused of being an assassin.
A wounded man of Nimrud’s size was seen pushing a handcart in Jurwood. Yant had clearly resorted to disguising himself as a peasant, an unexpected move for a man of his rank, though he had obtained money from somewhere. Unconfirmed reports mention him walking up into the farmland in the west of the Barony of Jurwood. Beyond that, lies the hill country and the border of the Duchy of Loengria.
But that was two months ago. The Duke’s agents have been foxed at every turn. Nimrud has not surfaced and is said to be on a long hunting trip.
The Duke’s stewards, acting through certain parties have begun to look for someone else to find Nimrud. Alive would be useful, but dead would be satisfying. 


***

How Nimrud went to Ground
Nimrud received funds from Haggard, the son of a Loengrian baron in Jurwood. He has not yet told anyone on Loengria yet, but his account books do show a large sum paid out around the time that Nimrud would have been in Jurwood. If he is quizzed directly about Nimrud, he will write to contacts in Loengria trying to get help for Nimrud.

Nimrud hinted to Haggard than he would lie low and then try and head back into Loengria. Haggard believes that this is what he has done. Haggard did not realise, then or now, quite how beaten up Nimrud was, or how taxing the hill country can be for a lone traveller on foot.
Nimrud passed through the village of Allingthal. He could not pass himself off as a tinker or peddler and said he was a travelling labourer. When offered work on one of the larger farms, he refused it, saying that he was bound for a farm further up the road.

***
Nimrud: His Hideaway
There is a dense scrap of woodland between two farms several miles away from Allingthal. Both farmers treat it as theirs, though it is no conceivable use to them. Nimrud is here, in what was once a sunken lane but is now thickly overgrown with thorn bushes and nettles. He has dug into the topsoil and soft sandstone, turning what was a hollowed-out shelter into a narrow entrance and a gallery back into the earth perhaps ten feet, where the roots of a large thorn bush help make a small grotto. Here he has placed a short chimney, so that a small fire can be lit at night. The burrow is reinforced with short poles, taken from a coppice. The handcart was dismantled to get it into the sunken lane; portions of it have formed a neat door to the burrow. This has now been carefully camouflaged. The only portions not used in the burrow where the metal rimmed wheels – which Nimrud found difficult to dismantle without causing too much noise. These were thrust into a thicket.


***
Nimrud: His Habits
Beyond the burrow, Nimrud has several other destinations. He makes use of a nearby stream for water and to wash. Several yards from the bank, several shallow scrapes in the earth show that he has become accustomed to use this spot as a latrine, carefully distant from the burrow. He is inclined to visit this in the morning, when Gilherz is milking his cattle.

A warren to the south serves as a spot to snare rabbits. These have served as a main source of fresh food, though he has done a little fishing, upstream from the washing area. He is able to forage for some food elsewhere.

A ditch with loose earth in it by a field edge indicates the spot where Nimrud has the spoil shifted by his excavations.
On Gilherz’s farm an unused shepherd’s hut works in two ways for Nimrud. It might act as a refuge for him, and he has concealed a few iron rations there. But it might serve as a decoy, so he has been discarding some of his scraps there, as if he has been using it regularly. Even if he doesn’t stay there, he monitors it, often around noon. He will occasionally build a small fire there in the early hours of the night.
Nimrud has also cultivated a barn on the outskirts of Beckwinth’s farm as a temporary hideaway, making sure he knows his way in. He will return sporadically to see if anything has changed. Nimrud only approaches the barn when in the cover of darkness.
The now-largely healed Nimrud has barely spoken to another human being in weeks. The work of his burrow occupied him for a time, but now his main structures comes from revisiting these locales. He will visit each of these at least once every three days. 


Allingthal is in the East.The dot marks Nimrud's burrow.The squares mark the habitats (From the top, clockwise: The fishing spot, The washing area, The shepherd’s hut, The warren, The field edge, The barn.) 


 ***
Nimrud: His Equipment
At the burrow, Nimrud has preserved ten days worth of rations and three days worth of clean water (the water must be used sparingly). Bare trickles of water can be gathered from dew, rain and condensation, but not enough for him to work at full strength.
Nimrud has a long knife, a bill hook for clearing brush (treat as an axe, though it can’t be thrown- an agricultural tool bill hook, not a poelarm) and has improvised a spear using a pole and a third knife (breaks on a fumble). He also has a sling, several pointed iron spits for cooking (treat as a d4 spear) and a short, broad iron pick, rather like an entrenching tool (treat as a club).

***
Nimrud: His Tactics
Nimrud might once have been stronger than any given player. But his injuries and his time in hiding have made him not timid or feral, but unwilling to engage with his opponents.
If he thinks he has been identified outside the wood with the burrow, Nimrud will try and feint a trail away from the wood and then return by an indirect path. If directly pursued he may try to pick off his trackers, or set traps for them – but this is a last resort.
If the burrow is discovered whilst he is around from it, he will try and gather supplied from Allingthal. This will be done either by theft or he will trust to his growth of beard to conceal his identity when paying the last of his coin to gather supplies to try the hill paths.
If the wood is surrounded, Nimrud will go to ground and wait as long as he may. Once the water runs out, he will risk a Scouting expedition.
If he is actively besieged in the burrow, he will not try and dig his way out (too hard, too loud and obvious to his besiegers). If the chimney is blocked, he will suffer the lack of fresh air and light. He will aim to kill the first man that comes through the door and can probably achieve this by merit of surprise.


***

Nimrud: Stats
Treat Nimrud as a 3rd Level Fighter, with above average if not extraordinary Strength and Dexterity. His endurance has been sapped through the long healing process; he is not suitted to a war of attrition. His concealment/stealth scores should be high, however.
He has no active mastery of magic, but the scenario loses its appeal if he can be brought low by any hedge wizard. Even if the GM does not choose to give him some sort of anti-magic amulet, he should have a high Will Save.


***

Other Hunters
Other agents of the Duke may be looking for Nimrud. These should be of a level with the players, somewhat similar adventuring parties. However, be warned. The more people looking for Nimrud, the more obvious they make themselves.

***
The Farmers
Gilherz lives to the east of Nimrud’s burrow. He lives on his farm with two daughters, two farmhands and an elderly female servant. He is generally suspicious of strangers on his land; even the seal of the Duke cannot phase him (partly because of his stubborn insistence on his rights, partly because he can’t quite believe that the Duke cares enough to come to his farm). He will reluctantly obey the local Baron (Rixon of Jurwood). He rarely has enough spare produce to sell.
Beckwinth lives to the West of Nimrud’s burrow. She lives on her land with a son and a daughter, her father-in-law, three farmhands and a serving girl. She is more welcoming of strangers than GIlherz, but still unwilling to let anyone trample her land. Beckwinth is willing to offer food and shelter – but usually at heavy rates. 


***

Allingthal and Jurwood
Allingthal is a small village, but big enough to contain a public house (not an inn – nobody stays there, though it acts as a de facto store), a smithy and a Shrine. The smithy only does very basic work; it will not sell any weapons beyond arrowheads and knives (though the knives are more meant as tools than anything else - you can't throw them reliably). You will struggle to find portable ‘trail ration’ style food. Peddlers visit at irregular intervals.
Jurwood is a market town big enough have available most general supplies (if not at city prices). No magic users or notable warriors have made a home here and finding plate armour or magical healing is impossible.
The land around Allingthal and Jurwood is well settled. Wolves are unlikely, orcs more so (though as one approaches the hill country, this may change). The climate is generally temperate, but the lack of extremes does not make it comfortable year round. Small woodlands, field boundaries and thick hedges make these lands denser than you would expect.


***

Nimrud: His Story
Nimrud will be almost glad to speak to another human being, even an enemy. His last actual conversation was with Haggard. This said, he is capable of suppressing his desire for talk.
If asked about his motives, he will be taciturn – at first.

Nimrud took as a lover a woman in Hostock. This was not generally known – she was from another land and not a part of the usual aristocratic circles. However, she was later arrested on false charges and died in custody. Rough treatment and an intermittent current of xenophobia brought this about, though the actual offenders among the Duke’s Men at Arms are unknown. The Duke would later discipline the more obvious bigots in among his guards in an effort to keep the peace.
Nimrud was more upset by this than he at first saw. Eventually, telling himself it was part of an exercise in stalking, he would ensure he came face to face with the Duke to confront him alone. He succeeded in this, but in the moment attacked him, before being subdued. 
In the moments of his attack and his preparations, he did not realise the political implications of what he did, seeing it purely as a personal affair. However, with a clear head he has begun to realise what a hole he is in: he is unlikely to be entirely safe for some time, and he has not had much in the way of revenge.
His return to Loengria and his home might allow for hiding and healing, and a quiet, private life. Or it might let him gather his strength for another assault on the unfeeling Duke.

***
What if nobody disturbs Nimrud?
In a week’s time, he will consider himself healed enough to make the trip across the hill country to Loengria. 

In a fortnight’s time, he will have cleared up most of his presence and gathered enough supplies to start the trek. Nimrud will steal if need be, or trust that his growth of beard will disguise him in Allingthal.

(If he detects his pursuers around this time, he will make for the hills).

After around sixteen days, he will reach the hills and be beyond the reach of the Duke’s law.





So, yes, this is effectively Rogue Male. And the GM may wish to read it in advance. Aside from that, the challenge of tracking and killing or capturing one well-armed, well-prepared opponent is novel enough change the tempo of play. Part of that change is about tracking limited food supplies, careful search techniques and the slow, gruelling nature of work in the field.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

C.S. Lewis on Snow White

I had heard C.S. Lewis quoted as lamenting 'if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius'. (I turned up a BBC News webpage from around the time of the recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe commenting on this).

However, in a copy of Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost (first published 1942), I find the following quote:

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unorginality in the drawing of the Queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low-comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the earthiness, the avarice, nor the wisdom of true dwarfs was there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention. But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

(Chapter VIII, Defence of this Style)

My secondhand copy. It's an amazing cover, though more yellow than my camera has captured.
The Oxford Paperbacks edition was first published in 1960.

Dwarf players: Earthy, Avaricious or Wise - Pick Two.

(If Earthy can be used in a Chaucerian sense, I look for Dwarven Wife-of-Bath figures to crop up soon at tabletops everywhere!)



[Not the scheduled programme, but this blog does have a few things it specialises in...]


Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Something for your Shelves: Mythago Wood



Another book up for discussion - curiously, once again with an introduction by Neil Gaiman: Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood. I'm going to discuss matters in the book and its wider context below, but, yes,  I can recommend it.
This edition published 2014.

It is curious that quite a few places I have read about this it tends to get touted for it's originality. I don't disagree that it is a well-crafted and unique work, but it does seem to fit into a sub-sub genre niche quite nicely. I'd be tempted to place it alongside Alan Garner, Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (and Rewards and Fairies - which is the original context for the much-quoted 'If...' and arguably puts a different complexion on things), bits of TH White and Gaiman's own Stardust (noisms's discussion of rustic fantasy here may be relevant). I don't know if 'wooded wonderland full of historical/legendary figures in the British countryside' is its own category, but it almost feels like it should be, with its own sub-par parody. Categorisation, however, is not everything.

The rural (sylvan, even) setting aside, the proximity of the fantastical realm to the mundane is important and serves to separate this from a whole hinterland of vaguely Celtic fantasies. You'll note also that Mythago Wood is explicitly for an older audience that those mentioned above. It is perhaps easier to conceive that the wood (even a small wood) is full of fairies, knights and hunters as a child; Holdstock takes his time before entering the forest proper, spending at least half the book making the prospect of mythagos and a vast trackless woodland real.

The mythagos themselves - creatures of the imagination, particular to the mind of an individual but springing from wider cultural images - are notable. It is perhaps a sign of the times that I kept waiting   for this to turn into some wider point about the power of imagination (like something from a Gaiman-pastiche or a popular animated movie). Or indeed, for a darker, Pygmalion-esque angle to enter the picture (this makes me interested to read the sequels, the first of which has a female protagonist). In neither case does this happen, I am glad to say. The titular mythagos remain attached to myth: individual mouldings of a known archetype.

In the same way, part of me wondered if one character taking a firearm into the historic otherworld would be somehow punished by the story. There would be something odd about claiming a particular evil for gunpowder and cordite when so many die at the hands of those wielding Bronze or Stone Age weapons. But the mythagos come up to twentieth century, and gunpowder in the British Isles is older than that.

There's something of the Gothic to it. The crumbling ancestral house next to a source of occult terror, the shadow of a family behind and about you - The Fall of the House of Usher or the House on the Borderlands may come to mind. However, our protagonist is no aristocrat (it is a family of well-off yeomen, friendly but not close to the local squire - money is never quite a problem, but often looks like it might be and certainly would be if not for a quest leaving the world of banks behind) or occultist, whatever explorations his father may have made.

I wonder, could this story have been set in any other landscape? The wide places of a plain leave a little too much open to the eye, the featureless wastes of a desert are so barren of human habitation that the density of cultures and myths could not evolve in the same way and the mountains allow for a curious moment of revelation at the peak (a mythago version of Stardock could be something). A jungle seems too dense; a hedge-crossed bocage too cultivated, if almost as mysterious. An Earthsea (or Odyssey) style isle-studded sea could work. Something for the tabletop? Well, noisms casts doubt on that. But it won't hurt your play to read this.

***

One other thing: Mythago Wood is written in the first person, and shows a constant awareness of the weariness caused by travel and fatigue. This is an appealing trait in some forms of genre fiction and fuels my appreciation for thrillers like Rogue Male or The 39 Steps or The Day of the Jackal. Low-tech, lone man tales. You'll find out why I mention those next time....

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Punth: A Primer Ch. 3

Punth: where the scribes records details of the latest five-year plan on clay tablets beneath the eyes of watchful green four-armed aristo-commisars!

An ongoing topic here has been Punth and the Qryth. A desert land, split by rivers, ruled by four-armed folk taller than men - who take the tongues of people for their own.

As other posts have explained, Punth operates rather like Ascia in Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Language is purely the product of the Codes - as written long ago by the alien Qryth. A Punthite can only communicate in extracts from the Codes.

If this is to be made into something usable, some of those Codes need to be available for use on the tabletop. Whilst I do not presume to write anything meticulously complete as the books of propaganda, law and instruction that constitute the Codes, I can at least produce a comprehensive slice of them. I shall attach to these encounter tables for the land of Punth.

[I suppose that first paragraph could be taken to mean that Punth is a satire of leftism or some sort of failiure state of progressivism. That capacity does exist, but that's not really the point.  There is something comical about trying to go as quickly as possible from Pharaohs and Pyramids to Soviets and Sputnik (as desirable as that might be), both because of the cargo-cult nature of it and because it seems so unlikely - as if Birmingham were the centre of a Venetian-style mercantile republic; or casting Calgary as the next Singapore. Seeing like a State (which I have now read!) and the failure of central planning - if it results from the thought and practice of the left or the right wing - may be the appropriate political text.

That said, the Qryth are meant to have some of the pathos of the shipwrecked - as well as the heroic stature of the Green Martians and the glamour of Star Trek.]

Before the Tribunal

A trial in Punth is conducted before a tribunal, which will usually include at least one of the Qryth. It takes a lot to come to trial - the pettier, breach-of-the-peace offences can be dealt with by a local headman or Gendarme sergeant by summary beatings* or withholding food. A trial in Punth does not involve a jury, nor does it really involve an advocate or legal adviser (an interpreter or spokesperson may be provided in the case of juveniles or foreigners.) Commercial or property disputes will probably be settled by a decision by the highest ranked local state official - who generally have a judicial role as well.

The trial is held in public at one of the ziggurats-citadels. A designated Official Witness (who is in fact probably working from numerous witness statements) will describe the offence. A few other witnesses may also be called, especially if they were the ones who were involved in the crime.
The accused may speak - though this is often fruitless, except for those who really know the Punth Codes. After all this, the judges will render a verdict.

Therefore, consider the following example trial. Aside from those named below, you may assume the presence of other petitioners, a scribe and sundry guards, Gendarmes, citizens &c.

Chief Judge: Let all who hear, attend.
CJ: When the Sky Princes speak, none else shall speak, for they speak wisdom.
CJ: When the Sky Princes command, none else shall, for theirs is might.
CJ: When the Sky Princes settle, none else shall, for in their gift is peace.
CJ: Let justice direct might. Let all who may attend. Let justice be marked and recorded.

Official Witness: If the people are to be fed, work must be divided between them. Therefore, offices and duties will be given to the just.
OW: All men should live in peace, from which comes plenty.
OW: If there strength at our gates, who shall come against us?
The foolish, the reckless, the malicious.
OW: The foolish will do as the malicious, though justice coupled with might stand against them.
OW: If a man has fallen in the dust, let his neighbour bend to him.

[OW gestures to AP]

Aggrieved Party, with a prominent wound to the head: Who must rise first? The mighty. Who shall be raised up? The just.
Aggrieved Party's Partner: All men should live in peace, from which comes plenty.
APP: When the sun is down, work must cease.
APP: Let each man be seen at his work.

OW: Let no man take more than is needed. May the fruits of the people stay with the people.
OW: The Sky Princes and the Servants of the People will the tend the ways of peace.
OW: Those who do not attend to correct teaching shall leave these places by such means as are best.

Associate Judge 1: May the fruits of the people stay with the people. Where there is harm, let it be seen by the just and amended by the mighty.

[OW proffers a tablet to the tribunal]

OW: That which withers may be replanted.
AP: The blocked channel may be cleared.

AJ1:  If a man has fallen to the dust, let his neighbour bend to him.

[CJ gestures to the Accused Man]

CJ: Let all who may attend.

AM: Where there is labour, let there be comfort. Where there is thirst, let there be water. Where there is wind, let there be a shelter.
AM: Offices and duties will be given to the just.
AM: When the Sky Princes command, none else shall, for theirs is might.

CJ: All voices in time will fall silent. But let the just speak last.

[CJ, AJ1 and AJ2 confer]

AJ2: Folly will lead to weakness; weakness to malice. By our efforts, let us suppress all three.
CJ: If two men fall to the dust together, they must bend to one another.
AJ1: Justice and might are offered to all.
AJ1: The Servants of the People will the tend the ways of peace.
AJ2: The spiteful seek to confound their victors
CJ: Where justice and might are in concord, all are in concord.

[The Judges turn to the court]

CJ: Let all who hear, attend.
CJ: To learn peace is to learn wisdom. To the wise will come plenty.
CJ: The Servants of the People will the tend the ways of peace.
CJ: For the People to prosper, many offices must be filled.
CJ: If the roads are clear, if the roof is sound, all will travel in safety and arrive to comfort.
CJ: Let justice direct might. Let all who may attend. Let justice be marked and recorded.

***
A man who occupies a minor office has come to the court. He has been attacked and robbed. The Official Witness describes the incident and recomends a spell on a Workgang. The wounded man is exhibited and accuses his attacker. The wounded man's wife mentions the time of the attack and how she knew the attacker.
A judge asks for details of what was taken or damaged. These are provided.
The accused man defends himself, blaming the wounded man for abusing his position.
The judges confer, and elect to send the accused man to a work gang. This is announced to the court.

***

Shades of the Fallen Tower

The spirits of those sorcerers who ruled Punth before the Qryth still linger in the desert. THe strongest are known to the desert tribes as djinn. Here are several ways in which they might manifest.

1. A spectre in armour, upright but still bearing the marks of their violent demise upon their person. ("Hamlet's father")
2. A man in the imperial finery of the ancient world, with a carefully benevolent expression.
3. A monarch, dressed for a ceremonial hunt. Their most notable feature is a long, well groomed beard (or crown of hair).
4. The head of a lion sits on a stone pedestal, although no blood shows from the neck stump. Bones are littered around it. The lion's head moves, eyes tracking your motions and the jaw moves.
5. In a depression in the dunes, something like vegetable oil bubbles and steams - though the puddle never reduces.
6. Within a small cave, there is an amphora of wine, which is quite fresh to the taste - though unlike any modern vintage. Those who taste will see the spirit of that place.
7. Thirteen large serpents who travel in convoy.
8. Someone is sitting on a rock, in the shade of an old pillar. They turn as you approach, but do not get up. They cannot rise, for the below the waist they are one with the rock.
9. A tall flame, most clearly visible at sunrise and sunset. At night it is gone entirely.
10. A cleft in the ground, where a vast flame burns constantly. Smoke steadily rises up.
11. An eagle with feathers of gold and lapis lazuli. It does not seem to flap its wings much when in flight.
12. As a tiger is to a house cat, this vast thing is to an elephant. Though it does not seem to leave footprints.
13. A floating palanquin with purple curtains. Inside is only a skull, resting crookedly on silk cushions
14. What's a goat doing out here?
15. Something gleams against the sun. When you squint, the planes of a tetrahedron seem to shimmer briefly.
16. A four-armed figure, with the head of a bird. Each hand toys with something that is either a weapon or an ornament.
17. Blue smoke rises from the platform of a chariot. The chariot is being pulled by winged jackals with bronze collars.
18. A tall, pillar of open air, about which the clouds cluster.
19. There is a voice on the wind, if you will only attend to it.
20. You, but prettier, better dressed and better groomed.




*'The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows.'

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Something for Your Shelves: Doctor Syn

Over at False Machine a few months ago there was a few articles dealing with Robin Hood in various works of fiction and characters inspired by him. The concept of 'The Walter Scott Fictional Universe' was raised and discussed (this is worth a look into, if you haven't done so already). You may perhaps consider this a belated contribution to the conversation.

***

Who is Doctor Syn? That's perhaps the question of the work itself. The first book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, was published in 1915 by Russell Thorndike. Several others were written in the 1930s, and show the difference in content and themes. Here's the Wikipedia entry; here's a link to the Wikisource text of the first book.

Anyway, having given you a chance to encounter the work on your own terms, I'm going to offer my account of the stories. They are set in the late eighteenth century on the south coast of England in the village of Dymchurch on the Romney Marsh. This is the parish of Dr Syn - country vicar, old friend of the squire, Doctor of Divinity and a pillar of the quiet rural community. However, smuggling is afoot, led by the mysterious figure known only as the Scarecrow and his diabolically-costumed gang, the Night Riders - who are pursued both by customs agents and the Royal Navy. 

Of course, anyone with a name like Dr Syn is never going to be entirely what they seem. And given my invocation of Robin Hood earlier, you may have guessed by now that Dr Syn is the Scarecrow. Syn's past is not what it seems; a brilliant scholar at Oxford and a keen duellist, he seemed willing to settle down to the life of a village priest - until his Spanish bride ran off with another man. He pursued them to America, but was captured by pirates and in his quest for revenge turned to piracy himself, eventually earning infamy as the notorious Captain Clegg. Along the way he met Mr. Mipps, his mate and later sexton of Dymchurch. At last, wearying of piracy he sank his own ship and returned to England (where Dr Syn Returns picks up). Mipps in time joins him. Even as Syn looks to conceal his past, he longs to demonstrate his own prowess - and wishes to protect the smugglers that make up his parish from the harshness of the law. Thus, he takes up the guise of the Scarecrow. 

What makes these books notable? Well, 18th century smuggling yarns are nothing new, but these are well-executed and atmospheric. Dymchurch is a small place - this is no kind of epic - but the sense of place is quite strong. (The relative smallness of the place and stakes - a very human scale - perhaps contributes to its success). To my mind though, Dr Syn is the most compelling feature of these books.  Unlike Robin Hood, Zorro or Batman he is given a certain genuine unpleasantness. Firstly, he seems to enjoy the sport and power of smuggling - despite mastery of the smugglers of the marsh, he never quite manages to divert them from smuggling altogether. It is never an entirely heroic endeavour. 

Secondly, he is willing to kill in defence of his hidden identity - and not merely in combat (quite unlike Bruce Wayne, say). His position as parish priest, as well as his friendship with the squire and his ill-gotten gains him a great deal of sway over the village - which probably says something for the legal status of the Church of England at the time. (The elaborate codes of 18th century dress and manners are useful in making the hidden identity element seem a little more realistic; Dr Syn shaves off the locks of hair he wore as Clegg and dons a horsehair wig). Adding to this sinister aspect, the books are often have chapters written from the position of someone other than Syn, where his power, if never altogether malevolent, does seem overwhelming. His past as a pirate is rarely glossed over either; his eventual nemesis is a man whose tongue he cut out and he marooned.


Dr Syn Returns, Published by Arrow Books, 1959


Thirdly, when he plays the villainous Scarecrow, he puts all his powers to it. Even if he is not (always) as such a killer, the use of demonic images and manners is dramatic  - especially coming from a Priest! The elderly woman who keeps a hidden stable for his great black horse, Gehenna, frankly believes him to be the Devil. Now, she was subject to delusions about being a witch before this, so our protagonist is trading on an old woman's madness for his convenience. It's an unsettling scene - the urbane Dr Syn actually saying 'Yes, I'm the Devil' and hamming it up properly. Whatever Batman's vampire-esque affect, it never quite reaches that extent. 

All this makes Dr Syn a troubling character - more so, I think than his counterparts detailed above. The tone of Thorndike's stories varies: sometimes it is all pure pluck and valour and not a corpse in sight. But all the same, the eerie quality of the Scarecrow and the darkness of the marshes persists.

I haven't been too keen on seeking out adaptations, though Dr Syn has been put to film a few times. A television series was made by Disney, starring Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame) and filmed in Romney; from what I've seen of it this isn't quite dark enough for my tastes (possibly a quality of the technology of the time) and makes Syn into slightly too heroic a figure - with occasional references to George III's tyranny for the American audience. There's a little too much of the Western in it for my liking. Hammer Horror also did a somewhat reworked version with Peter Cushing as 'Parson Blyss'. To my mind though, the adaptation most worth looking for is the one narrated by Rufus Sewell for BBC Radio. The pictures are better.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Silent Titans: The Manmade and the Liminal

I am rather late to the party on this; much has been said (and conclusions drawn) about Silent Titans. Despite having contributed to the Kickstarter campaign at the time (full disclosure, as they say) and having read and enjoyed it, I didn't think I had much to contribute on the subject. I certainly haven't managed to play it.

That was until I encountered a comment referring to 'the bewildering liminality of Northwest England'. The train of thought promptly left the station.

The Wirral (or Wir-Heal) unquestionably has something of the liminal about it. As the book says, Wir-Heal is made from swamp and hill with little in between. One way lies The Sea of Broken Eons, another way the Wrecked Heptarchy, still another way Wales. ('Beyond the Rood-Die lie the black hill of the Welsh, to whom every fear and terror-legend clings. No one from Wir-Heal would ever willingly go there.') The place Silent Titans deals with is stuck between terrains, between states, between legal systems (as the roaming Courts make clear), between realities.

The titular Titans, in the soil itself of Wir-Heal are the stand-out feature of the book. They are strange distillations of the modern and/or the world to come, both grotesquely artificial and biological. However, they are not what I wish to talk about.

The inter-connective tissue of the peninsula has a feel about it that might be very familiar to those who have wondered round portions of the intensely farmed, settled English countryside, especially where town and country meet. The landscape is distorted, made difficult to navigate, by the schemes of human cultivation and construction. One simple indication of this is the difficulty one experiences in walking across a newly-ploughed East Anglian field in November.

I shall offer two more briefly. I once had it in mind to walk out of Canterbury for a quick run near the back of the student quarter. I could leave by a fairly obvious gate - but then found myself in a sloping field, with a concrete wall at the bottom. The wall was continuous, as if trying to firmly separate town houses and fields - though it had not been built at a time that would require defence from beasts or raiders. Water gathered at the foot of the wall, by the most obvious path, making it a muddy bog. There was in time a turning back into the streets, but far further along than I had predicted.

Another occasion had me cycling through a portion of Cambridgeshire. My path had diverged from that predicted, and thrust me onto an odd set of lanes to turn away from a major road. This in time took me to a solar farm. It was quite new, a field of panels surrounded by a high, secure, green-painted metal fence. A wide track ran around it. The field and the track shared the same soil: light, biscuit-hard, almost devoid of plants. It is tempting to think that it had been chemically treated. The track had clearly been made by tractors and earth-movers; anyone not in one of these vehicles would likely have a troublesome journey.

These are fairly well fleshed-out examples: I leave aside walled, dead-end villages, innumerable broken barns, concrete slabs, old railway lines and bunkers. When Silent Titans describes 'A maze of narrow pathways squeezed between dense nettles, thorny bushes and chain-linked fence.' it is certainly familiar. An inhospitable suburbia, as well as the effects of intensive agriculture and dense transport infrastructure all produce the confusion that defines Wir-Heal and the Wrecked Heptarchy, titans or no.

All this is to say that in the world of Silent Titans it would be quite correct for you to fight goblins clad in armour made from discarded lager cans who dwell in the hawthorn thicket between the back of the supermarket and the golf course.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Why do I like this book?

The book in question is a 1945 Atlas of the Soviet Union.



Well, it's not purely the content. I mean, it is interesting - but feel obliged to apply the occasional pinch of salt. This was published just as the grand wartime alliance was ending - so the creators may be a little too tempted to believe official Soviet figures. Perhaps that's uncharitable, but I feel caution is called for here.

Anyway, I like this book. I appreciate the old Penguin format anyway, but the let's not judge the book by it's cover. Take a look at the inside. There are maps detailing variously the boundaries, infrastructure, landscape, products and industry of the Soviet Union. The variety of such things is considerable, but perhaps no more than might be expected from a book of this kind. Though I wonder if the modern equivalent would be as comprehensive.

How many varieties of cross-hatching can you conceive of?
(Enlarge if you wish)

Your setting could aspire to such agricultural complexity.


These figures are presented as fairly isolated from external context; Stalin's regime is not dwelt upon or dissected. Though there is perhaps an implicit degree of praise for the extent of industrial development. Putting this aside to think about worldbuilding, one's fictional creations should aspire to such variety.

To concentrate on matters more widely applicable for a moment, consider the layout and appearance. There are only two colours used, beyond the colour of the paper. I appreciate the textured, slightly tan colour of the paper - this might be down to age, though I'm not sure how white this would have been to begin with - rationing can't have done much for paper quality; it certainly limited supply.

Speaking of paper...


This is simple and clear. Again, to compare to a hypothetical modern equivalent, I suspect it would take hyper-detialled relief maps or photographs and overlay information on them. Too much information? Perhaps. But this is purpose designed for the book.

Even the graphs and stick to this rule. Two colours, with differences represented by different patterns. I recall having a collection of historical maps of this kind - I still like this black and white effect. I like the idea that this is a way of presenting information that could be relatively easily produced with pencil. You don't even need a penny paintbox.


(That said, there is plenty of Red for Russia.)

There are other, quieter details. Looking at the maps or graphs and the explanatory texts, the font for the paragraph is sans-serif and plainer, whereas the text on the maps is in a heavier, seriffed font. This not only gives it, to my mind, a bit of gravitas but also definitively differentiates it from the paragraph.

A reminder of how much of Central Asia the USSR contained.

Why talk about this now? Well, by happy coincidence Skerples's Magical Industrial Revolution setting is coming soon and has a Kickstarter - and this does a very nice job of describing an industrial state. The detail here is worth examining if you are world-building: there are numerous crops and industries described; to feed people, to feed cattle, to clothe them, move them, entertain them, to give them chemical stimulants.

But I also look at this and wonder if one day we will look up and all the draughtsman - the simple sketch artists, the magazine illustrators, typesetters, blueprint-makers and the designers - will have gone. There will be a gentle replacement with stock photographs, computer-generated cartography and the sheen of digital mock-ups. Perhaps that is putting it a bit too far. But I'm still going to preserve this book, both in my library and on this blog.