Two books of geek lore


Of Dice and Men / David Ewalt

Ewalt is a writer for Forbes magazine and you might expect a detailed look at the mismanagement of TSR, its bankruptcy, and the sales of the IP to Wizards of the Coast and then Hasbro, but these are mostly mentioned rather than explained in detail.  Instead he writes a fairly personal history of the game, interspersed with far too many reports of events in the game he’s playing in.  Fortunately he italicizes most of the session reports so it is easy to skip them (you will want to skip them, trust me).  He did do some good research though.  I thought his depiction of Gygax and Arneson, warts and all, seemed fair, and he even appears to have managed to interview the elusive Lorraine Williams, who is usually cast (unfairly?) as the villain in TSR’s downfall.  The book promises that some more details regarding Ms. Williams are on the book’s web site, but as far as I can tell the web site only provides links to various retailers selling the book and a handful of reader blurbs.  I guess this book is worth reading if you have not already read much about the topic, although he did appear to get his hands on some private documents of the principals as well as speak to others, so there are few scattered details that might not be mentioned elsewhere.  Overall the book is cut above The elfish gene as history, and much more focused on D&D than Fantasy freaks and gaming geeks, but the narrator is not nearly as interesting as Barrowcliffe or Gilsdorf.421170

Literary swordsmen and sorcerers / L. Sprague De Camp

De Camp is a justly famous science fiction and fantasy writer, but some of the genre’s most rabid fans love to hate him, along with August Derleth and Lin Carter, as all three “finished” and/or “edited” many unpublished stories by HPL and REH, with generally inferior results, and moreover De Camp wrote full biographies both HPL and REH that are now considered very unfavorable to both authors.

The present book is a compilation of essays De Camp wrote on a number of the foundational writers in heroic fantasy fiction, including William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, Fletcher Pratt, Clark Ashton Smith, Tolkien, and T.H. White, as well as HPL and REH. In the context of these other bio-bibliographical sketches, De Camp’s treatment of HPL and REH does not seem quite so objectionable, as he is pretty brutal with all of them (except for Pratt, with whom De Camp collaborated on several novels).

Morris, Dunsany, Tolkien, and Pratt all come off the best in these essays; the rest get hammered for their personal failings. (Ironically, De Camp is very critical of the racist and misogynist attitudes he finds in Eddison, HPL, and REH, while later critics have found fault with De Camp for the same things; see for example the series of reviews at the Tor website titled “Advanced readings in Dungeons and Dragons”. De Camp is enlightened only in comparison to them!)

This book was very interesting for the thumbnail summaries of important novels and stories, and extensive surveys of contemporary criticism of the the authors, as well as excerpts from many of the featured writers’ letters, or De Camp’s own interviews with some of them. (Intriguingly, De Camp mentions that Tolkien said he rather enjoyed REH’s Conan stories.)

On the other hand, De Camp spends altogether too much space cataloging the writer’s scandals and psychological blemishes. How important are William Morris’ failures as a father to his writings? Even De Camp admits much of his postmortem psychoanalysis is speculation and untestable hypotheses, yet he still diagnoses several writers as “schizoid personalities.”  I get the feeling that in some cases he is just listing every fact he knows about their personal lives in lieu of giving a coherent sketch. Even so, it goes a long toward completing a picture of some of these writers who are not widely known outside of fandom.

A final chapter covers some of the minor pulp writers who worked in the “heroic fantasy” genre — C.l. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, and others. The introduction, written by the shamelessly self-promoting Lin Carter*, is also a sort of appreciation of De Camp, as well as a gentle criticism of the omissions of the book. Lin Carter tries to correct this by discussing De Camp’s work. (But I’d add: If Pratt and De Camp are fit to be covered by the book, why not a bit on Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and other contemporaries of them?)

Despite the issues I note, I actually enjoyed the book a great deal and feel that I at least know a lot more about De Camp than I did, and I enjoyed his writing style and careful reasoning.

*I figured out that Lin Carter was the author of the introduction when I saw his Lemurian stories mentioned as co-equals of those of REH, C.L. Moore, and Fritz Leiber! Hah!

Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 8:00 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. Of Dice and Men was filled with too much dude-squee and should’ve ended two or three chapters sooner. It blew me away that instead of covering anything about what was actually going on in the gaming community after 4th ed, he spends the last two or three chapters of the book all “And then I went to this con, and then I got to play with Frank Mentzer and I got to lower my ‘Gary’ number!” A more appropriate subtitle would’ve been “The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the Guy who Wrote this Book”.

    • I skimmed the LARPing chapter and I agree it is odd that no mention whatever was made of all the edition warring, Pathfinder, the OSR, etc. I couldn’t decide whether he purposefully avoided because it makes the RPG community look bad (though he didn’t shy away from other things) or he just wasn’t aware of it or it is too complicated to explain to non-D&D players (whom he does say are his audience). Or maybe as a 3e player, the 4e vs old schooler thing is just outside his interests?

      • Maybe he just wasn’t really connected to it or interested. But considering how recently written this book was, it’s a bit of a travesty to not at least give cursory mention to the OSR or retroclones, if only as a postlude. In a way, how the retro community has affected the TSR brand and business model for D&D is at least as important to the ‘story of D&D’ as Gary leaving the company.

        Also, if non-D&D players are his audience, he’s in trouble, because Barnes & Noble are selling Of Dice and Men on the games shelf wedged between a couple boxes of gaming dice and a Pathfinder splatbook.

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