Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Táin

After finishing The Mabinogion, which I discuss here, I decided a fitting companion piece would be the Táin Bó Cúailnge (according to translator Thomas Kinsella, it's pronounced "Toyn Bo Coolinga" which basically means "Cattle Raid of Cooley"). Though mostly prose, it is the closest thing Ireland has to a great poetic epic. I've been aware of it since junior high, and even tried to read a fantasy novelization by Gregory Frost that I never quite got through.

The hero of the story is Cúchulainn (Koo-kullin), sort of an Irish Hercules, part-god, with all kinds of over-the-top powers. Single-handed, he defends the kingdom of Ulster from a cattle raid cooked up by the wicked (and somewhat slutty) Medb, Queen of Connacht, to steal a famous red bull, thus augmenting her own worth. After sleeping with several important chieftains to get them to go along (at which her husband winks) she raises a huge force and marches to Ulster. The men of Ulster are suffering from "pangs" - pains akin to what women feel in labor - as part of a curse, and cannot come to meet the challenge. But Cúchulainn is not affected, and he harries and harasses the assembled Irish force for weeks until the rest of the men of Ulster come storming in for the climax. 

Several times, Medb manipulates strong men into going out to fight Cúchulainn, and has no problem pimping out her daughter Finnabair or herself if that's what it takes. But in a series of (almost shockingly) graphic combats, Cúchulainn defeats them all. 

The most mysterious and impressive thing about Cúchulainn is his ability to go into ríastrad, or what Kinsella (awesomely) translates as "warp-spasm" and another translates as "torque," and it's best described by this passage from The Táin: 
"The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”

 That's cool. 

As a gamer, what also struck me was a tendency of not only Cúchulainn but the other heroes to enumerate their specific heroic abilities, which Kinsella translates as "feats." Sometimes they seem like d20 feats, or Savage Worlds edges. Some names are evocative, others are more obscure: the Shield Feat, the Hero's Scream, the Salmon Leap, the Sixfold Slaughter. 

Cúchulainn is called the "Hound of UIster," and one of the Gaelic versions of my own last name (MacCon Uladh or MacConallaidh) means "Son of the Hound of Ulster," so I like to imagine that I am related to Cúchulainn. That's probably not the case. But I do know that I occasionally enter my own warp-spasm, and it's not always pretty.

At any rate, this tale - at least as translated by Kinsella - seems remarkably fresh, and what with all the wanton sleeping around, graphic violence (an image of a guy running around with a spear sticking out of his head, praising its caster for making such a good shot, comes to mind) it's a little more "pulp fiction" in tone than, say, The Illiad or Beowulf. It has a certain weirdness and charm that people associate with the Irish, and though I'm actually more Scottish than Irish, I still feel a certain pride in it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pharaoh Publishing USA

I have started up a small publishing company with one simple goal: to make books. We don't really market, beyond word-of-mouth, and we don't intend to set the world on fire. To me, there's nothing better than a "real book," and the print-on-demand industry makes such projects easy and accessible. It didn't take much to become a legally established small publisher. The whole process was smooth as butter.

Now I know some people don't care for print-on-demand or see it as less legitimate than other forms of publishing. But at some point you have to say "I don't care" and do what you want to do anyway.

Our first book, Tales From Homer, is available right here. It was written by my dad, Conley McAnally, in 1971 or so, at his Grandpa Weedmark's desk. I sat at that same desk more than 40 years later to edit and design it. My dad's got newer stuff in the works, but I grew up with some of those stories and wanted to do that one first.

Next up will be a collection of speculative fiction from Colin L. Campbell, better known 'round these parts as Goonie. I've always been a big believer in his work and I'm glad we're publishing his first print collection, because with a little pushing, he could probably find a much larger publisher.

Tales From Homer has already sold well enough that I made back my small investment in just a few days. But I'm not in this for the money: it's purely a labor of love, and I'll continue to do it as long as I can find good material to publish.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Another Art Post

Here are a few pieces by my friend Shawn Geabhart, who is doing some illustrations for the Gonen's World RPG.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Old School Game Art: Erol Otus

For me, no other artist captures "old school D&D" like Erol Otus. His bright colors and stylized figures always reminded me of Thomas Hart Benton, whose work I was familiar with as a kid from class trips to the President Harry S. Truman Library, where he'd done a mural.

The classic "red box" that, for me, was my introduction to D&D, featured Otus' work on the cover. It's an iconic image that will forever scream "Dungeons and Dragons."

Otus is again doing work for RPGs, thanks to patronage from the "old school renaissance." There's a great tribute site here with lots of images, although it's sort of wonky to navigate and you've gotta dig for good stuff. But if you've got a few spare minutes, you could spend them in worse ways than digging back through some of these classic images.

I think my favorite EO illustration is the one from the back cover of the classic module The Keep in the Borderlands (it came with the red box basic set). While it doesn't feature his trademark stylized figures, I think it captures the mood of an impending adventure better than anything else I've seen. I love the sky and the way it reflects on the walls of the keep - and there are our brave adventurers, seeking out their fortunes or their dooms. This illustration is pregnant with possibilities, and I think it ends this entry nicely.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Mabinogion

For years I've mentally collected off-hand references I've heard about this collection of Welsh tales. In particular, it seems to come up in conversations about fantasy books, how so-and-so got detail X from The Mabinogion, or how so-and-so transferred one of the collected tales to space, or ancient Persia, or whatever. So, when it came to filling out the "classics" section of my bookshelf, this was the place I decided to start.

I'll rely on whoever wrote this fine Wikipedia article to explain the background, and focus here on my impressions.

The stories here read like a weird mixture of myth and history; it's my understanding that real people are mentioned, along with mythological figures that have parallels in Irish and other Celtic tales from pre-Anglo Saxon days. This melding of myth and history gives The Mabinogion more of a feel of a fantasy novel than, say, collections of Greek or Norse mythology. I tried to follow some of the action on a map, but geography in these tales is very fuzzy. Fantastical places (basically the same sort of faerie or sidhe stuff you see in Irish stories) give way to real-world sites and vice-versa, like these people are able to wonder into, out of, and between parallel worlds without even thinking about it. Maybe this is a story convention but I'd like to think that for these ancient Celts, the boundary between the natural and the supernatural was almost non-existent.

These tales were transmitted orally for centuries before they were ever written down, and by the time they were written down, sort of a literary strata of Anglo-Saxon influence was laid down on top of these. The latter tales in the collection all revolve around King Arthur's court, though he himself is a minor player in most of them, and not always portrayed as all that wise or kind. The collective "writer" casts King Arthur as the Roman Emperor, and seems to classify pretty much all of Europe as his domain, giving the collection an alternate history feel.

As a gamer, I'm pleased that in almost every story, gwyddbwyll is featured as a favorite pastime, and many adjectives are lavished on descriptions of the boards and pieces. In fact, there are many compound adjectives at play throughout the whole book, and my guess is that if you read them in Welsh they would have a strong rhythm, probably derived from the oral tradition. Where descriptions of land and buildings are almost nonexistent, much care is given to describing fine details of clothing, banners, and descriptions of people, which might tell us something about the priorities of those early storytellers.

A useful thing about the edition I read was a helpful guide to Welsh pronunciation. I wouldn't have known how to say the names of some heroes at all, had it not been for the guide. I mean, how would you say "Culhwch?" According to my guide, it's "Cuh-luke."

All in all, I'm left with the impression that ancient Welsh were preoccupied with wife-swapping, sending people on ridiculous errands, turning people into pigs and maggots, wandering into the Highlands of Hell (where they have the best sheep), enjoyed trapping one another by interpreting everything literally, and cutting off people's heads and breaking their backs with spears (although we see much more of this rampant decapitation in the Irish Tain, which I'm reading now).