Archive for March, 2016


“Behind our glass, we’ll sit and look at our ever-open book…”

[This is the seventh part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, and January. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

FEBRUARY

A sickly gnawing from the ceiling unnerves us.
Say it’s the wind. Our walls are flayed
By twisted sticks, stiff and bristled
Like matted fur; and in the midst of the sixth
And shortest month, the Mouse ascends.
On her midnight revels, she rips through the stars
That spin on their tips like spilling fistfuls
Of sunflower seeds. The sundered shells
Pour from the heavens, unheard by mortals
But a deafening call to the dozing spirits
That nod over eggs in their evergreen lair.
The winter dares them to warble for joy.

In an age of delusion, I often lingered
In a sooty vineyard, a sacred wedge
Of pitted beams that bound an alley
To the sagging backs of city shops.
A clever hunter held court in this void,
Where he staked out every stalk and cutting,
Muttered enchantments, and made things grow.
Singers gathered, summoned by whispers
Of wistful frescoes and fountainside wine;
One pale and limping, with plump white ringlets
Framing the sides of her sightless eyes
And seasoned tongue, was attended by men
With old concertinas, who ached to warble
Their heartsick songs. I heard them once,
When lines of lovers lost to enchantment
Followed them out through falling dust.
The grove remained, and its grapes gave comfort
To rumpled pilgrims and peeping beaks.
They lazed in sunbeams; we leafed through books.
I never knew the names of the birds
That shared that place of shade and rest;
I just tossed them crumbs when they tiptoed near.

I know them here. Like hurtling suns,
Burbling goldfinches boing through the yard
And shine their light on our sheltered rail.
Beside them, chickadees sing of riches:
Their fellow seed-fowl follow in waves.
From forking treetops and tousled weeds,
A derisive cardinal and his rosy consort
Trill their judgments. A junco bristles,
As plump as coal, and pries out snacks
With his stubby beak, staring down brethren
That flock to our feeder to fend off the cold.
A feather-length more than its fellows and blessed
With the buoyant aid of an extra toe,
A gray-white nuthatch grips a tree-trunk
And clings without fear; it creeps ground-ward
Tail over neck, nabbing a seed-pod
To cart to its haven to crack it to bits.
Agog, the titmouse turns and ruffles
Its hooded tuft, like a tempted friar
Warily clutching his cassock of gray.
From the hollow wood, the worm-fowl follow:
In flooded yards, flickers huddle
And bow to the morsels that bubble to life.
When a stunted holly stirs with larvae
That writhe beneath the notice of men,
A rare riot of robins in swarm
Inhales them all. My hapless measures
Lack the wit and weathered reason
Of born woodsmen—“the bluebird carries
The sky on his back”—and the skilled shaping
Of silly fluttering into subtle miracles
Pecks at the novice. I’ll name what I see;
But what things mean is tomorrow’s work.

We waste fewer words in welcoming specters
That flit round the curtains and fall into lamps.
They startle us first, till we find out what plagues them.
They loiter in summerlight low by the ground,
Where their wriggling litter, lusting for earthworms,
Will feast for weeks. Then flies emerge:
In their thirst to endure, some delve into fissures
In attics and eaves; others find refuge
In slats under windows. Sluggish and trusting,
They dream of dirt, but their doom is real.
Winter tricks them; they wake too soon,
And the hearth tempts then inward. Haunted by sunlight,
They cluster by doorframes and keen their own failure
To die in the soil. Their song is fleeting:
And when we form a face on the glass
Just look away, and let it pass…

The house fails us. A horrid crunching
Makes the rafters cringe—we run to the threshold
With morning-cold weapons and wince at the prospect
Of a gristly ogre grinding the bones
Of winter’s victims in his weltering maw.
But the doors fall inward; from the endless heavens
The Mouse tumbles. Her time has passed.
In vain she basks in a bag of seeds,
The churn of it echoing out through the night.
We bar the way, blocking crevices
With rags to keep her rage contained,
But when we flee to bed, the frantic gnawing,
The hideous scraping and scratching at doors,
Scare us till morning. The scurrying world
Woke in confinement; it wails for release.

“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.