Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Spelljammer Reviews

I have many interests, one of my most enduring is Dungeons & Dragons, which I've been playing since 1980. I've played in most of the various campaign settings that have come out for the game, but one of my favorites is Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space.  I love the idea of fantastical wooden ships flying through space, and I love that Spelljammer potentially connected all of the AD&D campaign settings. 

In fact, I love Spelljammer so much its the only D&D campaign for which I have had some of my writings published - I co-authored the Hackmaster 4e conversion of the setting, Hackjammer (sadly long out of print and difficult to find). 

So, along with that published work, I wrote a great deal of material for Spelljammer that was "published" on the web, mostly on what was the official Spelljammer fan site, Beyond the Moons. It's all still there, but the site is a bit harder to link to these days. And I have been converting old works and adding new material to create unofficial Spelljammer 'netbook' pdfs. Mostly these are reference works of various sorts to the Spelljammer products.

I recently completed another of these. Long ago Beyond the Moons put up my "Spelljammer product reviews" (scroll down to the bottom of the page),  I decide to reedit these, add new ones for material i missed the first time, and add images of the various product covers to produce an annotated and illustrated Spelljammer bibliography. 

So, here it is:

Spelljammer in Review: An annotated and illustrated bibliography of the Spelljammer campaign setting and related products and articles.  

If you wish to distribute this work, please contact me first.

I hope Spelljammer fans find it useful.

All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Sacred Band tales of Janet & Chris Morris

Portions of this article appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table #191 (September, 2012).


One of fantasy’s enduring motifs is the concept of the multiverse, the idea of different worlds and times that co-exist, and which the unwary or wise can travel between via various extraordinary devices or phenomenon. Dungeons and Dragons famously made great use of the concept of the multiverse, it was particularly useful in allowing travel between the various home campaign worlds of gamemasters but also between TSR’s commercially published settings. I dare say most gamers and many fantasy fans find the concept fascinating and enticing, who doesn’t want to see Conan take Elric down a peg? And for writers the multiverse is a wonderful tool, Janet and Chris Morris employed the multiverse motif to free Tempus, Janet Morris’ most famous character, and his followers from the constraints of the Thieves’ World shared universe series.

Janet Morris is a prolific author who got her start in the late ‘70s with High Couch of Silistra, an old

school science fiction novel that reads like a cross between Leigh Brackett and early John Norman. In fantasy fiction, she is best known for her participation in the Thieves’ World anthologies and as the editor of the Heroes in Hell Bangsian shared world anthologies.

I think her best work, however, is I, the Sun, biographical historical ficton novel about Hittite king Šuppiluliuma I.  It is a powerful work, extremely well done. It is far better, IMO, than any of her Thieves' World stories. In fact, it is on par with Mary Renault's works, and there is no higher praise from me. Told in the first person, the tale is riveting from beginning to end, in a subtle manner. The relationships are believable, the angst is minimal, and religion is handled just right for the period.

The only real weakness is the military aspects and battle scenes. Morris is obviously fascinated by warfare, but she just doesn't seem to understand it very well. As a military historian I was hoping for some imaginative insights into Hittite military culture and tactics, but those aspects of the novel were minimal.

As with any work on antiquity, especially on a subject like the Hittites, she has to make some things up, and the scholarship is from the 1970s,so there have likely been quite a few changes in how we view the Hittites and the nations around them. So be sure to look to newer works for actual Hittite history. But this one is very fun. I especially love how she deals with the women interacting with the protagonist and the internal politics. This is Janet Morris' best work and the audiobook is also quite well read.

Based on publication dates, it appears that she wrote I, the Sun contemporaneously with her Thieves' World work, there is some obvious connections with Father Enlil and later Shepherd, from I, the Sun, appears in a couple late Thieves' World stories. Her depictions of religious observances are clearly influenced by her Hittite research, and several characters from the series were likely inspired by, or at least named after, individuals from Greek history, notably Critias.

Her most enduring character in Thieves’ World was Tempus, a tortured immortal mercenary who regenerates any wounds he takes and is the chosen avatar of the storm god. Tempus quickly became one of the most popular characters in the series, what teen-age boy could resist a character who takes women when he wants them, constantly insults the god rumbling in his head, is preternaturally strong, swift, and healthy, never sleeps, and is generally feared by all? And, of course, he battles demons and wizards who also fear him.  Of course, such a character creates balance problems in a shared world setting, and Tempus and his followers, the Stepson mercenary band, certainly led to the power glut that oozed through the middle volumes of that series.


In addition to short stories, Morris wrote the first three novels for Thieves' World: Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, and Beyond Wizard Wall. In the Thieves' World chronology they fell between Face of Chaos and Wings of Omen and they introduced an 'epic fantasy' storyline involving the Nisibisi globes of power that roiled Thieves' World through out the rest of the series. Though they had many interesting scenes and vignettes, these novels were somewhat disjointed and difficult to follow. These novels have some cool ideas - especially the Nisibisi cultures and the basic northern politics. it's a shame they remained so underdeveloped.

They were also very focused focused on Nikodemos, a junior Stepson who gradually took over as the primary protagonist from Tempus. Niko became a problematic character in

the series. the plots all seemed to revolve around witches and gods desiring Niko, but why anyone should want to spend time with Niko is an open question. Sulking angst is his most common attitude, and he never shows any particular intelligence, empathy, or any other desirable trait. He prefers to prey on young girls - criminally young in the modern world. Most damning of all, he is a point of view character, so we see inside his mind often, which means it is clear that Niko is nearly always wrong about what is going on around him. He fails to value wiser, braver, and more ethical characters about him, such as the wizard Randal.  Yet we spend nearly all of the remaining tales in his company, following the same storyline repeated over and over - the Nisibisi witch Roxane wants Niko, and so do the gods, and Tempus wants to protect Niko.  


When Thieves’ World ended Morris published a series of novels furthering the tales of he and his followers, since she had the rights to the characters but not the setting, Tempus and his band were soon travelling the multiverse.  

It is interesting to see how Janet Morris' handling of time and the multiverse differs from Michael Moorcock's, The two authors come from very different backgrounds, and I don't see any evidence that either was aware of or influenced by the other. Nonetheless, in many ways Tempus closest analog in fantasy fiction is Elric of Melnibone, right down to the predilections for philosophy, incest, gods and the cursed destinies that bedevil them. However, Morris' multiverse is far more heavily influenced by the philosophy and mythologies of the Ancient Mediterranean.

The first novel in this follow-on series, Tempus, merely collected the most relevant of the old Thieves’

World
stories to provide suitable background for the later works, interspersed with a framing tale. In City at the Edge of Time, the first post-Thieves’ World tale of Tempus, the city in questioned is saved from ‘evil’ and Tempus’ protégé becomes its ruler. In Tempus Unbound, the immortal comes to fabled Lemuria, and is soon drawn into a demon war across time that is centered in modern New York – a tale that reads far better then one would expect from its summary. In Storm Seed, Tempus, now ruler of Lemuria, brings his scattered forces home, seemingly set to begin a new series of adventures across time and the planes.

Instead, the Morrises (Chris Morris being a co-author since the late ‘80s) abandoned Tempus and his Stepsons for twenty years, not coming out with a sequel to Storm Seed until 2010, with The Sacred Band. Working with a new publisher, Perseid Press, the Morris' tied the Stepsons directly into the legend of the historical Sacred Band of Thebes. Most of the tale takes place in Sanctuary, set between the conclusion of the original 12 Thieves' World anthologies, and the setting's 2002 revival.

Returning to an overt connection with antiquity allowed this tale to play directly to the strengths Morris exhibited in I, the Sun. The opening of the tale is very promising, the merger of the Thebans and the Stepsons introduces new characters and we get to see Arton and Gyskouras, the Storm children of Sanctuary's most turbulent story line as young men. And finally we see some actual battles, rather then mere skirmishes, something which was strangely lacking in the previous Tempus stories - for someone fascinated by warriors, Morris appears uninterested in fight scenes.

But there is a great deal that is less good. Too soon the novel shifts focus and once again Nikodemos becomes the center of the same repetitive story lines of the previous tales. Although published 8 years after the 2002 revival, and set between the original series and the revival chronologically, there is no sign that Morris read the linking novel by Lynn Abbey, Sanctuary - how any of this fits into the known history of Sanctuary between the series is a huge puzzle. And one of Morris weakness' as a shared world author stands out in particular in this work, she handles the characters borrowed from other writers poorly. Molin is almost unrecognizable, as is Arton's mother, Ilyra. The relationship between Gyskouras and Arton doesn't seem at all what one would expect after the original series. And Straton and Ischade simply repeat the storyline they were in at the closing of the original series, despite already receiving a proper ending in those tales.

The final work in the series is The Fish, The Fighters, and the Song-girl. This is another short story collection, although this time it does include a few tales not previously published. As with previous Sacred Band story collections there is a 'framing' story meant to put the tales into context, but it is confusing and doesn't seem to have much of a resolution. I don't know if this is intended to be the last work in the series but it felt open-ended, o perhaps we can expect more Tempus and the Sacred Band tales down the road.

Over all, in the Sacred Band series the prose is typically lush, and too dependent on repetitive internal character dialogue, but Morris has a knack for implying a level of complexity and insight that leads the reader to seek more. This is also disquieting; I can’t shake the feeling that if I finally figure out the meaning of her works I will discover a reprehensible philosophy reminiscent of the worst parts of Ayn Rand or Friedrich Nietzsche. But then I think surely not, both are far too modern for antiquarian Morris.  


Nonetheless, she explores the multiverse in a unique manner, and the dynamics of the mercenary band she describes are fascinating.  The Sacred Band series novels are not to everyone’s taste, but if you like dark military fantasy they are well worth a read. 

All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.


Saturday, July 24, 2021

My professional works

All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

This is crass self-promotion, but I thought a couple posts letting people know where to find my writing might be of interest. After all, if no one reads any of this it is sort of useless. So here is a short bibliography of my professional history work.  I did leave out a handful of articles and book reviews for various reasons, but this is the bulk of my professional historical writing.

Thesis:

“The development and decline of Romano-Byzantine archery from the fourth to the eleventh centuries”, Master’s Thesis, Ohio State University (1996) 

I'd like to expand on this, as a journal article, a book, or a dissertation some day.  It's my oldest work, I think I've grown as a writer and historian quite a bit since. It can be down loaded here, at the OhioLink Thesis & dissertation center. It can also be found on Medievalist.net here

Books:


U.S. Marines in Battle: Al-Khafji, 28 January - 1 February 1991
History Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2008)

 This work can be downloaded for free at the MCU website here. It can also be found in various book sellers on the web. 



 


U.S. Marines in the Gulf War, 1990–1991: Liberating Kuwait
History Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2014)

This is my most significant work to date.  It can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be found in various book sellers on the web. I was awarded the 2015 Brigadier General Edwin Simmons-Henry I. Shaw Award by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. A scholarly review of the work on H-War can be found here.

 


Desert Voices: An Oral History Anthology of Marines in the Gulf War, 1990-1991
with Alexander HinmanHistory Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2016)

Conducting oral history interviews was one of my favorite parts of researching Liberating Kuwait. I wanted to let the Marines we interviewed speak more directly to readers, hence this work.  It can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be found in various book sellers on the web.

 


U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2010–2014: Anthology and Annotated Bibliography
with Christopher BlakerHistory Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2017)

Intended as a first look and primer for Marines in Afghanistan during the period noted. It can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be found in various book sellers on the web.




The Legacy of Belleau Wood: 100 years of making Marines and winning battles, an anthology
Edited by Paul Westermeyer and Breanne RobertsonHistory Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2018)

It can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be purchased through the GPO here, or in various book sellers on the web. In 2018 this work was chosen as a Notable Government Publication by the American Libraries Association (ALA) Government Documents Round Table (GODORT) Publications Committee.



The Legacy of American Naval Power: Reinvigorating Maritime Strategic Thought, an Anthology 
Edited by Paul Westermeyer and Breanne RobertsonHistory Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2019)

I worked on both of these Legacy anthologies with Breanne Robertson, together we did a podcast about the book for the Marine Corps War College's podcast, Eagles, Globes, and Anchors. You can download that podcast here. This work can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be purchased through the GPO here, or in various book sellers on the web.


The United States Marine Corps: The Expeditionary Force at War
, Casemate Publishers, (2019)

 I wrote this for Casemate's Short History series, it is intended as an introduction to Marine Corps history rather than a scholarly work. I am very happy with the reception it has received, especially the reviews from Leatherneck & Wargames Illustrated magazines. It is available on Kindle and in hardback, and can be found here on Amazon.  


Articles:


“Shattered Amphibious Dreams: The Decision Not to Make an Amphibious Landing during Operation Desert Storm” Marine Corps History Vol. 3, No. 2 (2018)

My last work on the Marines in the Gulf War, I really wanted to use that title, and I wanted to highlight the value of the Corps' amphibious feint. It can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here




“Every Marine a Flag Raiser: The Legacy and Meaning of the Iwo Jima Flag Raisings” Investigating Iwo: The Flag Raisings in Myth, Memory, & Esprit de Corps  History Division, U.S. Marine Corps, (2019) Co-author Dr Breanne Robertson

Dr Breanne Robertson's book on the Iwo Jima flag raising is one of History Division's 3 best books, in my opinion, so I'm very glad to have co-authored its concluding article with her.  This work can be downloaded as a free pdf at the MCU website here. It can also be purchased through the GPO here, or in various book sellers on the web.


 
“Historiography for Marines: How Marines should read and understand histories” Marine Corps Gazette (November, 2019 Volume 103, Number 11, p78-82)

This article is something I planned for years, and I always hoped it would be published in the Gazette. I'm not sure it made the impact I hoped, but this article is near and dear to my heart. It can be downloaded here



Presentations:

“Mountain Storm: Counter-insurgency and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force” Presented at Landpower Conference sponsored by US Army War College, December 2-4, 2015

A video of the panel I was on and my presentation can be found here on Youtube


All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Arthurian (Authorial?) Romance and Mary Stewart

The original version of this article appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table #148 (February, 2009).

I have loved King Arthur tales since I was a small child, and as I grew older I became somewhat obsessed with the Matter of Britain. By far my favorite Arthurian author is Mary Stewart, whose first person account of Merlin' childhood, The Crystal Cave was a wonder. I have reread her works many times over the years, always finding new delights and insights.

English author Mary Stewart has written over a score of novels, many of them romance or mystery books, but she is best known for her magnum opus, the Merlin Trilogy, comprising The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979).  Armed with exhaustive research and a vivid imagination she broke through the extremely crowded field of Arthurian fiction with a series that ranks as among the very best, indeed possibly the best, modern work in that field. 

The conceit of Stewart’s work is that she takes Merlin, the perennial background character and plot device of Arthurian legend and transforms him into a dynamic and fascinating leading man. Her research is thorough, and she traces the threads of Merlin’s story through myth and legend while placing
him firmly within the context of the post-Roman Northern European world.  Specifically, she shows an understanding of the historical phenomenon of the ‘holy man’ or ‘holy hermit’ that allows her to create a believable, approachable Merlin, beginning with his youth in Wales and closing with his slow fade into obscurity at the height of Arthur’s reign.  All narrated by the ancient wizard himself, to an unknown listener (a precursor, if you will, of the modern "documentary" sitcom style found in shows like The Office or Modern Family). 

In fact her use of the ‘holy hermit’ really struck me when I first began to study the history of Late Antiquity under Dr Gregory at Ohio State in the early 1990s.  When reading "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (1971) by Peter Brown I immediately noticed was how well Merlin in Stewart's trilogy fit the mold.  I don't believe Brown influenced Stewart; The Crystal Cave was out in 1970 after all!  But I do think she tapped into the same sources and threads in the jumbled, chaotic, partially destroyed records of late Antiquity that Brown was using as a historian.  Or perhaps as I slowly transformed theologically from a fairly conservative, orthodox Roman Catholic into a broad minded theist I was exceptionally sensitive to the comparison. I know my primary attraction to Late Antiquity was the holiness that I sensed in the tales from that period.  This is a typically long-winded way of saying that as I get older, I recognize Stewart’s Arthurian novels as some of the works that shaped me theologically. (Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series was also influential.)

In The Crystal Cave the story of Merlin’s origin and early life is told, as Britain suffers from Rome’s abandonment, treacherously weak kings, and the onslaughts of Saxon invaders.  Each of the famous legends of Merlin’s childhood life are addressed and explained in a highly plausible manner, and life in 5th century Britain is depicted vividly.  But at its heart this is a bildungsroman, or ‘coming of age’ story

and the supernal maturity and knowledge of Merlin does not lessen its impact.   

The Hollow Hills presents the story of Arthur’s rise to power, from Merlin’s point of view. Again the legendary events are followed and explained, and Stewart takes great care in presenting a believable ‘historical’ foundation for the legends.  It is quite clear how much fatherly love Merlin has for Arthur, an aspect of the story that I find touches me more now that I am a father myself than it did when I first read these books years ago.  The great battles and politics that mark the opening of Arthur’s reign create a dramatic, compelling story and Merlin is the perfect guide to these events.

In The Last Enchantment we see the coming of Mordred and Merlin’s fading finale. Ironically, the closer Merlin the narrator gets to his present situation the less clear the story becomes.  In this later reign Merlin has truly stepped to the side of most events, and the climatic battles and bright hopes of the earlier volumes have been replaced by the sedate meditations of age and the final follies of one’s antiquity.  Stewart grants Merlin a measure of dignity in his downfall that is sadly missing from so many Arthurian tales, and also removes the taint of misogyny from Nimüe’s role.  The volume is bitter-sweet, of course, and does not follow Arthur’s tale to its own conclusion.  

In a fourth book, The Wicked DayStewart brings that portion of the tale to a close. It suffers from the loss of Merlin; he's an excellent narrator and such greatcompany for the reader. Mordred narrates The Wicked Day and he is less enjoyable, in part because he keeps part of himself hidden from the reader as he narrates, Merlin might as well but is less obvious. This hidden aspect of Mordred is necessary for the story, but it leaves the reader, accustomed to intimately knowing the narrator, somewhat bereft.

The last of her Arthurian works is The Prince and the Pilgrim. Certainly not to the same level as the earlier works, it feels far more like a romance, in the modern sense. It is a pleasant read about two minor characters from the Matter of Britain, but it seemed a bit rushed. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable, self-contained story from the period. I wish she had written more on the Grail Quest, she seemed to set it up in the earlier books but left that story untold. A pity.

For gamers, like myself, these books provide excellent examples of royal politics and dynastic quarrels as well an excellent view of Britain in the 5th century, a historical period perfect for an RPG campaign.  Merlin himself serves as an excellent template for a mystic, mage, or even a certain type of priest character.  But perhaps the most useful aspect for typical fantasy game-masters is the explanations later pagan religious beliefs and rituals.  In the modern world, surrounded by the dominant monotheistic religions it is difficult for us to imagine living in the sort of polytheistic and poly-religious culture of the typical fantasy campaign.  5th century Britain was such a culture, and as imagined by Stewart and presented through the eyes of the wise man Merlin the game-master has an excellent example to follow while depicting his own polytheistic cultures.  

Stewart’s prose is detailed yet never boring, and she is often extremely moving.  Merlin leaps to life under her skilled pen.  She has just the right blend of history and legend, and creates a masterful portrait of the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the tale of Arthur, Merlin, and Camelot.  If you love Arthurian tales, or just enjoy solid fantasy or historical fiction, immerse yourself in these tales and you won’t be disappointed.

All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

 


Friday, January 1, 2021

What I read in 2020


For me, one small thing seems to have gone right in 2020, I managed to post 20 blog entries, some of which actually sparked some conversation.  My goals for this blog are modest - I just want to practice my writing and occasionally say things that some folks will think about it. This past year I achieved those goals. Here's hoping I can do the same again in 2021. 

Two years ago, a friend of mine posted a list of the books they had read in 2018, I thought it was a great idea so I posted a list myself on Facebook, and then the following year on this blog.  I'm posting the list again, since I find this a very useful exercise in self-reflection. 

What I am reading both impacts and reflects my mood, especially active reading. Reading in and of itself is fine, but it is often simply a passive exercise. Active reading requires interrogating and questioning the material you are reading, and comparing it to what you have read in the past. It is a conversation on multiple levels between multiple speakers but with only one listener.  That solitary listener can be a clarifying concept - it lays bare any given work's most valuable insights.

Of course, once you take those insights and present them to others through reviews, essays, or criticisms on a public forum like this blog, that starts an entirely new set of conversations... with other singular listeners. 

Looking over this year's list (see below), these trends stood out:

# of Rereads: 23  (I've marked rereads below with an *)
# Military History reads: 16
# by or about Tolkien: 5
# Forgotten Realms: 4
# of Marine reads: 2
# Frigate Navy period reads: 10
# Thieves' World & related: 7
# Matter of Britain works: 5
# Mythology: 7
# Plato/Socrates: 6
# of holiday reads: 6

I read 58 works this year, a baker's dozen less then last year. There are several reasons for that, I believe. I read more non-fiction this year, for one thing, and several of the works I read required more solid thinking and digestion, primarily in philosophy and history. I often reread books, I find it useful for getting the most from a work. 
Also, there are works I reread simply because I find comfort in doing so. Last year I reread 48 out of 71 works, 67%. The % of rereads this year was 40%, 23 out of 58 works.

It is very rare that I refuse to finish a book, but it happened again this year; Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. It might have improved later, but overall it showed its age and his biases were simply too obvious, greatly limiting the value of the work.


This list below is roughly in the same order I read the books, though I am often reading multiple books at a time. I usually have an audiobook I am reading (always unabridged if available) for commuting and walks (my audiobook reading has dropped significently this year, without a commute!), a 'bed time' book for right before I sleep, and a 'Paul time' book for bathroom breaks. I am also often reading books for work, though that varies depending if I am in research or writing mode at the moment, and if I am considering secondary literature or primary sources). I also tend to read pretty fast, one reason I enjoy audiobooks is that they slow my reading down and allow me to appreciate other aspects of a work (plus, the readers accents and inflections add a new dimension to the work). 

This list doesn't even begin to touch on all of the reading I do for research for my work of course.  

In "What I read in 2019", I planned to finish rereading the Thieves' World series, read more of the Otto Prohaska novels by John Biggins, reread some Plato, and read more Tolkien this year. I didn't really get to finish rereading the Thieves' World series yet, nor did I read more of the Prohaska novels yet. But I was fairly successful on Plato and always read some Tolkien every year.

For next year, I need to read up on the Mexican War & the Seminole Wars, and I'd still like to read more of the Prohaska novels. I'd like to reread more of the Elric series, and I have the two latest volumes from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files still to read and I also want to read Ken Follett's Century trilogy. I've also had a yearning to reread the Harry Potter series, but I've been resisting because there are so many new works to read.  

What I read in 2020:

1. Nancy Bunting, "J.R.R. Tolkien's inspiration for Lúthien: the “gallant” Edith Bratt" Journal of Tolkien Research (Vol. 9 Iss. 1, 2020) (since withdrawn from the journal)  
2. Richard Lee Byer,  The Shattered Mask
3. Paul S. Kemp, Shadow's Witness
4. Ed Greenwood, et al, The Halls of Stormweather
5. Dave Gross, The Black Wolf
6. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, Dragons of the Hourglass Mage: The Lost Chronicles, Volume 3
7. Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melniboné *
8. Michael Moorcock, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate*
9. Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801-1805
10. Geoffrey Ashe, Merlin: The Prophet & His History
11. A.B.C. Whipple, To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines
12. Evangeline Walton, Prince of Annwn
13. Evangeline WaltonThe Children of Llyr 
14. Evangeline WaltonThe Song of Rhiannon
15. Evangeline Walton,  The Island of the Mighty
16. The Nations at War: A Current History by Willis John Abbot*
17. The Fish, the Fighters, and the Song-girl by Janet & Chris Morris
18. The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault*
19. The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy by Spencer C. Tucker
20. The Other War of 1812 by James G. Cusick


All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Blogging the Nations at War: Christmas

 

This image has inspired me for decades. One of my goals when I joined the Corps was to go to
Mountain Warfare School and learn military skiing, all because of this image from childhood. 
(from The Nations at War, p232).


    
Though it has been a few months since I posted on it, I  plan to continue my efforts to blog, chapter  by chapter,  The Nations at War: A Current History by Willis John Abbot, one of the first books to spark my love of history. However, I thought today would be a good day to look at the World War I Christmas Truce.

    This has become fairly well known in recent years, but I think many people would be shocked to discover that tales of the truce were told in news papers and "current affairs" books like this from the nearly the beginning, I believe this tale first appear in the 1915 edition. That is interesting in itself, but equally fascinating is the source of the information. Usually, the tale of the truce is told concerning the well documented British/German truces. But this account purports to be from an American with the French Foreign Legion, and so it discusses the truce in the French sectors. I cannot vouch for the veracity of the account.  

   (from The Nations at War, pp 176-177)

    This writer, Phil Rader by name, a young San Franciscan who had enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, was prolific of graphic sketches of life in the trenches. His description of a Christmas truce and its abrupt end throws a bright light on the psychology of war:

    "For twenty days we had faced that strip of land, forty-five feet wide, between our trench and that of the Germans, that terrible No Man's Land, dotted with dead bodies, crisscrossed by tangled masses of barbed wire. That little strip of land was as wide and as deep and as full of death as the Atlantic Ocean; as uncrossable as the spaces between stars; as terrible as human hate. And the sunshine of the bright Christmas morning fell on it as brightly as if it were a lover's lane or the aisle in some grand cathedral.

    "I don't know how the truce began in other trenches, but in our hole Nadeem began it-—Nadeem, a Turk, who believes that Mohammed and not Christ was the Prophet of God. The sunshine of the morning seemed to get into Nadeem's blood. He was only an enthusiastic boy, always childishly happy, and when we noticed, at the regular morning shooting hour, that the German trenches were silent Nadeem began to make a joke of it. He drew a target on a board, fastened it on a pole, and stuck it above the trench, shouting to the Germans:

"'See how well you can shoot.'

"Within a minute the target had been bulls'-eyed. Nadeem pulled it down, pasted little bits of white paper where shots had struck, and held it up again so that the Germans could see their score. In doing so, Nadeem's head appeared above the trench, and we heard him talking across the No Man's Land. Thoughtlessly I raised my head, too. Other men did the same. We saw hundreds of German heads appearing. Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine.

"There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days before there had been only rifle-barrels. The terror of No Man's Land fell away. The sounds of happy voices filled the air. We were all unhumanly happy for that one glorious instant—English, Portuguese, Americans, and even Nadeem, the Turk — and savages we had been, cavemen as we were, the awfulness of war had not filled the corners of our hearts where love and Christmas live. I think Nadeem was first to sense what had happened. He suddenly jumped out of the trench and began waving his hands and cheering. The hatred of war had been suddenly withdrawn and it left a vacuum in which we human beings rushed into contact with each other. You felt their handshakes—double handshakes, with both hands—in your heart.

"Nadeem couldn't measure human nature unerringly. He had been the first to feel the holiday spirit of Christmas Day, but, on this day after Christmas, he failed to sense the grimness of war that had fallen over the trenches during the night. Early in the morning he jumped out of the trench and began waving his hands again. John Street, an American, who had been an evangelist in St. Louis, jumped out with him, and began to shout a morning greeting to a German he had made friends with the day before.

"There was a sudden rattle of rifle-fire and Street fell dead, with a bullet through his head. The sun was shining down again on a world gone mad."

    A grim commentary on the war.  

All views in this blog are my own and represent the views of no other person, organization, or institution.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Letters, VI

You can see the other Christmas Letters posts here:  I, II, III, IV, & V

The Christmas Mice in their Christmas Eve
fashion show.

Our Christmas Eve traditions changed as the Westermeyer Christmas parties changed from Christmas Eve to a different day in December, and eventually ended.  My family began attending Midnight Mass at St Peters each Christmas Eve instead. of course, Christmas morning we opened our presents, always a magical time.

My wife's family had their own Christmas Eve traditions. Her family was much smaller, but the grandparents, children, and grand children gathered at the grandparents house each Christmas Eve.  Bellringer the Elf would dodge grandpa, leaving a garbage bag of presents (usually stuffed animals) for Kelly and her cousin on the porch, announced by a ringing door bell. Later, while listening to Christmas Carols, she and her cousin would cut wrapping paper and ribbons to dress the Christmas Mice. On Christmas Day, the extended family would all come for a roast beef dinner.  

For years, Kelly and I were lucky enough to live the traditions of both our families.  We would go to her grandparents Christmas Eve for the Christmas Mice and Bellringer, then go to Midnight Mass and spend the evening at my parents house We'd celebrate Christmas morning with my family, opening presents around the tree, and then go back to her grandparents for Christmas dinner.

By the time we had our own kids, however, those traditions were also sadly ending. Kel and I worked to combine our traditons for the kids.  On Christmas Eve she and our kids dressed the Mice, and Bellringer brought a bag of garbage, only now it included a letter from Santa Claus (which my kids were never particularly interested in but Santa wrote them anyway - he writes whether anyone reads the letters or not. 😉).  We ate sandwiches with really good deli meats and bread for christmas Eve dinner, like we often had at the Westermeyer christmas parties.When the kids went to bed, Kel and I watched It's a Wonderful Life while we waited to help Santa put the gifts under the tree.  Sometimes my parents were able to come and spend Christmas with us, they usually went to Midnight Mass, and returned in the morning.  I then always fixed a roast beef dinner on Christmas Day, with mashed potatoes, and pies, and dressing.  

Our kids are adults now, but we are trying to keep the traditions alive.  So far, so good, but there are a few changes. The Mice are still decorated and Bellringer still comes, but the kids stayed up later, this year they even watched It's a Wonderful Life.  On Christmas day we have started watching A Christmas Story.  

The next to last letter saw more Bellringer heroics, and more of Frau Perchta and the Goblins. And the reindeer added a post-script, since we had a new dog, Fae. 


🎅Santa’s Workshop  
No. 1 Santa Claus Lane
Christmas Town, The North Pole

Dec 24th, 2013                                                                            

Dearest Ren & Tori,
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
  Another year on the nice list, I see… though perhaps you could work on doing your chores a bit more cheerfully? They are rarely fun, I know… you should hear Bellringer moan when it is his turn to shovel out the reindeer stalls! But he knows the reindeer deserve to be properly taken care of. But I can see how hard you both work to be good, and I am very proud of you. I know your parents must be as well. 
Sadly we have had another rough year at the North Pole. The elves, polar bears, and reindeer have been working hard all year, as always, but that evil Frau Perchta is still lurking about, spinning her evil plots. You recall Frau Perchta? She is the evil witch who used to follow me on Christmas Eve to punish wicked children, until I caught her punishing good children and banished her. And last year, she joined the goblins and they snuck into the storage caves beneath my castle. Bellringer discovered them, and there was a great battle that drove Perchta and the evil goblins away, but they had stolen many of the toys my elves had made that year.
Frau Perchta took those toys over the summer and worked her evil magics on them. She brought them to life, something a child’s love will often do. But toys loved by a child are good and loving themselves, Frau Perchta’s magics brought the toys alive and filled them with anger, spite, and hatred. 
Bellringer was again our savior! He was out skiing at Halloween night, enjoying the Northern Lights, the stars, and the moon. He saw the dark mass of Perchta’s horde flowing across the icefields towards my castle at the North Pole. The goblins were still with her, of course, but she had added more monstrous creatures – there were great werewolves that the goblins rode upon, and giant ogres Perchta had awakened from centuries of sleeping in deep caves beneath the earth. 
Bellringer sped across the snow and ice to the castle, ringing his bells loudly and sounding the alarm. The elves, polar bears, and Nutcrackers all sprang to the castle walls, and with so much warning, it seemed the battle would be a simple one. Perchta’s savage goblins could not breach the walls, and the Nutcrackers’ muskets knocked goblin after goblin over. Soon the elves were launching Mistletoe Missiles (forcing the Goblins to stop and kiss each other) while cannons fired great fruitcakes into the wolves. All Christmas Town echoed to the sounds of caroling as the goblins, wolves, and ogres were forced back. 
Finally, the battle ended. Poor Bellringer was covered with red welts, he had fought with Frau Perchta herself and she beat him horribly with her willow switch. Finally, she fled as the great Polar Bears came upon her… and she knew she could not face them. 
We were all resting and enjoying some much needed hot cocoa when Belsnickel, Bellinger’s brother, came rushing up from the ice caverns.  The toys that Perchta had enchanted used the battle as a distraction and sneaked into our storerooms. They destroyed many of the new toys, and they infected others with their evil – so that we had to sort through all the good toys to find the bad toys so no child would get something so dangerous. I think we have them all, but we must be extra careful packing the sleigh this year! 
        Sadly, this means that once again, though no child will be forgotten many will not get all they wanted this year. The elves and I have tried so hard… but many children seem to have become infected by Frau Perchta’s greed and naughtiness and they ask for so many toys, more than they could play with. I only hope the love with which the elves and I give shall make them happy.  
        But away with gloom and sadness! Bellringer shall deliver this letter when he preps your home, as always.  Have the Merriest of Christmases and a very Happy New Year!  
                                                        ‘Til next year 
Santa Claus

P.S. We herd u have a dawg… pls keep dawg on leash and tell it not to bark at flying sleighs! 
P.P.S. Don’t ferget the oats!
Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner,& Blitzen

Santa stopped sending letters, as he usually does, when the kids reached a certain age.  I understand that Santa started sending letters to my niece after that, I hope she enjoys them. Maybe someday we'll have grand kids who will get garbage bags of toys and letters from Bellringer. 

And this was the final letter Santa sent. 


🎅Santa's Workshop  
No. 1 Santa Claus Lane
Christmas Town, The North Pole

Dec 24th, 2014                                                                            

Dearest Ren & Tori,
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
  Ren, I understand that you’ve discovered my secret – that I live mostly in the realms of spirit, magic, and imagination. Tori, I understand, has long assumed this. I am sorry this caused you pain, Ren. No one ever wanted that. 
Parents provide much of my magic, I exist because of the great love they have for their children.  Your parents love you both very, very much, of course. And your father has always been especially devoted to me, and I think he always will be. He still believes, and he has always been very enthusiastic about me and all the myths and stories about me. Christmas is a very special time for him, and he always wants it to be special for you as well. But you are both your own people, and do not have to think or act like he does. I bet that is a relief! 
Now the torch passes on to you, it is your turn to help keep the magic alive for younger children, like your cousin and eventually your own kids. I shall greatly miss you both; even we of mist and magic have feelings.
                                             ‘Til you have children of your own, 
             Santa Claus