Today we stand and raise a toast to Tolkien on his birthday. Mine will be single malt and, appropriately enough, matured in two casks (one of plain oak, one that formerly held Sherry) in a nod to the proverbial "barrels out of bond" of The Hobbit, Chapter 9.
Professor Tolkien set out to give the English their own heroic saga, yearning for a national epic equivalent to the Finn's Kalevala, and ended up with the creation myth of modern fantasy. His works remain the sacred texts of Swords and Sorcery, inspiring a multiverse of variations on the ancient themes he incorporates into his imagined Middle Earth. Ever since The Hobbit was heralded as "a delightfully imaginative journey...with no age limits", Tolkien has inspired and obsessed generations of readers and role-players around the world.
It will come as no surprise to readers of Walking the Berkshires that I share this obsession, nor that the extensive appendices at the end of my copies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are as well thumbed as its central story. I was sufficiently geeky about Tolkien that in high school I once wrote my biology lab notes in his runic Cirth alphabet, only to discover to my great chagrin that my teacher had been a cryptologist in WWII. He was therefore able not only to evaluate my mastery of the elements of amphibian dissection but also to correct my spelling errors in red-lined runes of his own.
You will find, if you spend any time at all with fans of Middle Earth, that we tend to self-identify with one or another of its denizens. I have always been drawn to his dwarves. No flighty, heroin chic elves for me. Square boots and forked beards are more my style, and mead halls, and caverns under stone. The late lamented Balin, companion of Thorin Oakenshield and briefly Lord of Moria, was my ideal type. Tolkien's dwarves are among the most enduring products of his fantasy: less alien than elves (although these clearly had his heart) and more substantial than his hobbits, though they are the heart of his greatest fiction.
But as I raise a glass to the Professor tonight, I will also pay homage to that other demi-god of the fantasy pantheon, he who is worshiped with polyhedral dice: Gary Gygax. Still with us although in poor health and reportedly suffering from an inoperable aneurysm, Gygax is the father of the modern role-playing hobby who in 1974 created D&D, a limitless portal to medieval worlds, including Tolkien's. Those of us who were adolescents in the late 1970s, particularly but not exclusively those who were teen-aged boys, lived in the glory days of Dungeons & Dragons, and spent hours on end memorizing hit tables and monster attributes the way others are drawn to baseball stats. I learned more about the mythology of ancient Sumer and the pantheons of Egypt and Rome from the classic D&D reference Deities and Demigods than in my ancient civilizations classes, and the pages of the 1st edition Monster Manual brought the creatures of legend vividly to life.
D&D made it possible to go to Middle-Earth, or to worlds of our own creation. As a player, I role-played dwarves; as a Dungeon Master and game referee, I created dwarven realms with densely developed back stories. As I aged and role-play advanced from the basic "Hack n' Slash to complex plot and character development, my dwarves wrote first in Old English, then in Afrikaans. Tolkien got his dwarf names from Old Norse, which has actually inspired the Tolkien Norse Rip-off Purity Petition to address the grievences of plagerized - and long dead - Icelandic skalds. I hereby plagerize the logo of the TNROPP and reproduce it thus:
(I might add, parenthetically, that while Tolkien inspired role-playing as an adolescent made it difficult to get dates - as I suspect may also be the case for the mad dwarf behind the TNROPP - once in college it introduced me to much more interesting women.)
D&D's great drawback was the time involved in translating thought to action. It could take 45 minutes of set up alone to get a small party to its first melee, and the endless rolling of dice and consulting tables to resolve a simple skirmish. All that changed with computers and the Internet, and the successor of the old pencils and hexagonal graph paper games of my role-playing youth is unquestionably the Massively Multi-player On-line Role-Playing Game or MMORPG. Fortunes have been squandered and reality lost to the likes of the fiendishly addictive World of Warcraft - though as with its precursors, parental fears of resultant Satan worship appear to be unfounded.
As a grown man with adult responsibilities, I limit my exposure to such temptation to a couple of Saturday nights each month with my friend Shannon, when we go adventuring together with about 6,000 other players in far Azeroth. I go as a dwarf. So if you - or your teen-aged offspring - should ever come across "Sterkfontein", the dwarvish warrior whose name in Afrikaans means "strong fountain", I'd be glad to make you some decent green iron bracers or form a party to raid the Stormwind Stockade. Even if you are an elf, or a member of the TNROPP.