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Friday, January 03, 2003

Dark They Were, and Nerdy-Eyed

In my previous post I mentioned a friend who was very into Tolkien. A couple days ago, I wrote about an academic, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who wrote a profoundly foolish article on the dangers of fantasy literature. Perhaps the most absurd thing he wrote---and there's stiff competition---was:

Fantasy doesn't just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality. Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek. Kids know more about the battles of Aragorn than of Alexander, the life of Harry Potter than the life of Harry VIII.

The friend mentioned before was named Dave. There was another fellow, Don, who was also a Tolkien fan. They knew parts of the trilogy by heart, including the poem of the One Ring ("One ring to rule them all...") in the Black Speech. Dave and Don made up their own silly mythology in imitation---mixing Tolkienesque elements with the Old Testament, Celtic mythology, Roman history (Dave, defying Fernandez-Armesto, was an avid student of Roman history), people we knew, whatever came to hand---to create bizarre stories of warring, capricious gods, heroes, and strange deeds. It was not particularly detailed or consistent; I think part of the charm was that it was fragmented and occasionaly unintelligible, as are many tales that come down to us from the past. Their mythology was rich in scatology, profanity, iconography, calligraphy, and extremely bad Latin. It was life-threateningly goofy.

Although I think they wrote a few stories, the tales were mostly told in drawings, with quick sketches accompanied by Dave's verbal explanations, and left on paper napkins all over town. Somewhere I have a styrofoam cafeteria tray on which Dave scribbled the entire iconic mythology in ink. Last time I saw him I showed it to him; he was impressed that I'd kept it, and we giggled over the meaning of each of the icons.

This mythology was created about fifteen years ago, when we were all in our mid- to late-twenties. So where are Dave and Don the Tolkien geeks now? Working at the comic book store, maybe thinking of moving up to Blockbuster? Dreaming of jobs at the movie theater, where they can be closer to their visions? No. They're physics professors.

Now, I don't think either of them is in danger of winning the Nobel Prize anytime soon (though you never know with Dave), but still they've managed to evade the Incredible Intellect Vampire that is fantasy literature. (Probably still in thrall to the soul-sucking bitch-goddess that is physics, though, I'll wager.)