Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Compleat Angler - on the Tabletop

My reading often informs my writing here, but often my reading is relatively focused: historical works - with a focus on areas I know very little about - , Speculative Fiction of various kinds and the Classics of Western literature.  So, why pick up a book on fishing? Pure whim; and its historical nature.

By Izaak Walton in the Early 17th Century (don't confuse with Isaac Watts, Late 17th-18th Century hymnist [O God, Our help in ages past...]), The Compleat Angler is literally, a rather thorough guide to fishing on the rivers of England, with suitable reference to fishing on the wider continent.

I eat fish, but I am not an angler. Whatever notions I have of fishing are through literature or observation. So there was some quiet interest in a book that sets forth the aspects of "Why fish?" and "How fish?" or indeed, "What is fishing like?". Walton certainly answers these questions via an ongoing dialogue between Piscator and Venator, an angler and hunter - the hunter being swiftly persuaded to give angling a try (at first, they walk with a Auceps, a falconer - but he swiftly vanishes, much like the popularity of falconry).

Why bring up this little treatise? Well, first - a digression. I make no claims for pedagogical expertise, but it strikes me that reading the non-fiction literature of other ages is an important thing to do as a student of the humanities; or indeed, as any type of learner. How did other ages discuss real-world, immediately applicable subjects - rather than the abstractions of theology, philosophy and literature? Why did they do so? This is for reasons quite apart from "Look at this Medieval monk! Look what he thinks a tiger looks like! Aha!". This might not be an as such harmful form of humour, but it is worth remembering that sooner or later we are all Medieval monks.

Why else? Well, the way it treats fish and the hunting thereof. Some of you may have seen this interview of late over on False Machine. Those lines at the very end about physical descriptions and the way in which society has changed seem most relevant. (To digress once again, I have a fondness for the old colour-coded Penguin Classics editions with illustrative roundels rather than the photographic representations that came in later - also fallen to the photograph).

Further, there is a discussion about the fish themselves and how to catch them that is, perhaps, relevant for anyone composing a bestiary for gaming purposes. The fish have habits, favoured spots, favoured seasons. They are known by affectionate names ("The tench, the physician of fishes..."). We are told the fashion in which to cook them (most revealing for 16th Century appetites). The use of bait is most interesting: the messy ways in which it may be found or prepared: it seems the angler had better not be too squeamish: "but if you are not too nice to foul your Fingers, (which good anglers seldom are) ten take this bait...".

Bait might be an interesting reflection of lock-picking and the whole bag of tricks given to the Rogue or Thief as a character class. It could be offered to Rangers or Poachers - being, if you will, the rural equivalent of Rogues and Thieves - as an option and subject to similar skill checks as picking a lock and effected by wise purchases in the same fashion as thieves' tools. Though personal training and dedicated cultivation of certain substances seems like it would play a greater role in making bait ("As it turns out, minced goblin livers mixed with coarse oatmeal makes great bait for manitcores...").

Perhaps the notion of fishing, reaching down into a separate element, with different types of beast is the most intriguing. This is hardly a new notion: ask yourself how many times the sea has been used as a seat of mysteries. But reading so much about the business of angling in Walton - spending so much time considering the best ways to fish - rather does bring it home.

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