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Discussion Groups: Khazad-dûm Special Reports

1999 Khazad-dûm Reading and Eating Meeting

Reported by Eleanor M. Farrell

Faithful members of Khazad-dûm, the San Francisco Bay Area discussion group, met on December 4th, 1999 for our annual Reading and Eating Meeting. Held each year in the Last Homely House of Redwood City, abode of our secretarial team Amy Wisniewski and Edith Crowe, the REM frequently serves as an unofficial start to the holiday season, as well as a festive gathering of friends who enjoy both food and books. This year proved no exception.

The edible offerings were numerous and varied -- entrees of lasagna, turkey divan and beef in wine sauce were accompanied by bread, cranberries, sushi, and (of course) several different forms of chocolate. Mary Kay's rich but light saffron panna cotta admirably topped the dessert course. Cider and juices, hot or sparkling, kept our throats nimble for the round-robin performance of the second purpose of our party.

Not surprisingly, many of the chosen excerpts followed a food theme. David chose the feasting scene (during which each diner must eat his words) from Norman Juster's classic The Phantom Tollbooth, while Berni read the description from Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (the first of J.K. Rowling's series) of Harry's first meal at Hogwarts. Pat contributed two droll sections from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, one involving Irish stew and the other cheese. Ellie read excerpts of the awkward dinner conversation in Stephen Mitchell's retelling of The Frog Prince, as well as a short story by Hildifons Took, "Dragonet," involving beer crimes in Shire taverns. Mary Kay's potable theme contribution was an essay by Dave Langford from Fanthology describing some youthful experiences playing Fizz Buzz (a beer drinking game).

Cats are another popular topic of Khazad-dûm discussion; Amy read two stories from Bedtime Stories for Cats by Leigh Anne Jasheway, regaling us with the adventures of "Katpunzel" and of Alanis and her Magic Belly." Betsey contributed a millennial-themed poem by Ogden Nash; Frankie chose two descriptive passages from a Highlander novel.

Juster and Rowling were popular authors this year, with two readings each; Lisa chose the section where Milo and his companions jump to the island of Conclusions as well as a passage from a Harry Potter book. Tolkien was represented via Edith's selection of one of the Father Christmas letters. Finally, Betsey honored our hostesses with Tolkien's description of Bilbo and his companions' arrival at the Last Homely House from The Hobbit. Sated with food and literature, we bid each other goodnight and Happy Holidays.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, October 12, 1997

Topic: The Unicorn Sonata by Peter S. Beagle

Reported by Berni Phillips

(Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 35 Number 2 (Whole #191), February 1998)

The October meeting of Khazad-dûm was held at 2 p.m. on October 12 at Ellie Farrell's digs. I say "digs" to get in the spirit of the day which, unbeknownst to us, happened to be another one of those 30-year celebrations of the Summer of Love. (I'm not sure if the celebration is 30-years long, but I do know that October counts as summer in San Francisco.) The resultant parade of tour buses and yuppiemobiles made parking at Ellie's almost-beachside apartment all but impossible, thus giving us our first topic of conversation for the day.

This meeting also found us with both fresh blood and an exotic visitor. Charles, from Concord, came to Khazad-dûm for the first time. I'm not sure if he gave us his last name and I just forgot it or if he was holding said name in reserve until he was sure exactly what kind of lunatics we all were. We also had a visitor from sunny SoCal, Lynn Maudlin, who is sort of a one-gal party all by herself.

The book under discussion was Peter Beagle's The Unicorn Sonata. The general agreement was that it was a charming YA with delightful characters. There was a prayer of thanksgiving for its not being a bloated behemoth, as so much of the field seems to be. However, short books that everyone enjoys do not make for long discussions, so we soon went on to other things.

Said things included the gluing back together of Ellie's futon frame and the watching of selections from Arden's video of the past Mythcon. After ten years of hosting Khazad-dum discussions, the wood frame for Ellie's futon-slash-couch chose that day to wiggle apart. We decided to hold a mass gluing ceremony, not too unlike those immortalized in James Blaylock's The Paper Grail. Newcomer Charles asked if we always do that at meetings. No, he was told, sometimes we work on chairs or footstools or tables. He decided to beat a hasty retreat. (Being the youngest and probably best in shape person in the room, he may have been afraid of indentured servitude.) The rest of us gamely carried on in our efforts, proving that the glue which binds Khazad-dum together is, in fact, Krazy Glue (trademark). Ellie proved, in case anyone still had any doubts, that she is indeed a costumer by then using layers of duct tape as a sort of vise for the frame.

The futon cushion had been moved to the floor for the ritual gluing. There it remained for the watching of the video, allowing the glue to set properly. Everyone assumed orgy position to watch highlights of the video, primarily the segment on the Not Ready for Mythcon Players production. As always, we are our own best audience.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, January 6, 1991

Topic: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Reported by Edith Crowe

(Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 28 Number 3 (Whole #129), March 1991)

Khazad-dûm marked the twentieth anniversary of its first meeting by reconsidering the book that was its first discussion topic - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. A pre-meeting discussion of horror movies led David Bratman to remark, "Speaking of horror movies, has anyone seen the TV version of The Silver Chair?", thereby providing a smooth segue into actual discussion of the book. None of those present who first read LWW (or any of the Narnia books) as adults were very impressed. The inadequacies mentioned included a poorly constructed secondary world (especially when compared with Tolkien's); a condescending tone toward children; a not well thought out series conception; the obvious and sledgehammer quality of the Christian symbolism (again as compared to Tolkien).

Curiously, those who first read the books as children remembered liking them a great deal. None of the things others (or even they themselves) found irritating as adults had bothered them as children, or were even noticed. Irene said that something"unexplained or unexplored" about Narnia drew her in as a child, especially Tumnus. This interesting dichotomy led to a long digression on who among us had read much mythopoeic fantasy as children and who had encountered it mostly as adults, and what factors determined what one read as a child. The accusation of condescension generated speculation on how much of this was due to the authors themselves (as The Hobbit was also judged guilty, though to a lesser extent) and how much was characteristic of children's fiction of the period. Though our knowledge of classic British children's fiction was insufficient to draw any authoritative conclusions, we agreed that some of the condescension was characteristic of the time, despite such exceptions as the very uncondescending The Wind in the Willows. Ellie pointed out that Lewis didn't have children and Tolkien did, and suggested the little Tolkiens might have knocked quite a bit of the condescension out when they first heard the stories from Papa.

Our rather negative view of LWW caused Chrys to exclaim that she had yet to meet anyone in the Society who liked Lewis. (She's never been to a Mythcon.) Several members of the group hastened to reassure her that they liked other words of Lewis, and why. Though Lisa didn't think Lewis was a particularly good world-creator, others disagreed, mostly citing the Space trilogy, but tending to agree with Ellie's characterization of Narnia as shallow, like a stage set, compared to the great depth of Middle-earth. We decided that in the Narnian books Lewis tended to throw in things from other sources without transforming them into something uniquely his own (as Tolkien did). In the same way, Tolkien mined a deeper level for his Christian symbolism, whereas Lewis took his more "off the top", from a more particular and dogmatic version of Christianity.

Edith wondered if the faults of the Narnian books were related to Lewis's habits as a professional writer - doing jobs of work for money and meeting deadlines. Others asserted that Lewis did not begin to write children's books for money, but because he wanted to get out the message of Christianity for those who wouldn't read something obviously Christian. David observed that if that was his intention, he didn't succeed very well; Aslan wins the day by "a legalistic trick", knowing about a Deeper Magic than the witch does. This set off a lengthy and often abstruse theological discussion. We wondered if Aslan knew all along he was going to resurrect, what kind of sacrifice is that? Edith said that Jesus wasn't any different - it was willingness to undertake the sacrifice, not knowledge of the outcome, that was important. She thought where the power of resurrection resided was more significant. Jesus's was within himself, but Aslan's sounds like it comes from without, from knowledge of the Deep Magic.

Exhausted by theology, we wondered if children perceived this as a "Christian" story if they weren't already familiar with the doctrine. Evidence from our own reading of the Narnian books as children, and observations of children known to us, indicated they didn't. However, they weren't meant to; Lewis's intention was to "soften up" the reader for the Christian message. It was clear the discussion was almost over when someone complained that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a "dumb, clumsy title" and would be more euphonious in different order. David put the kibosh on the official discussion by pointing out (with a straight face) that as a poetry teacher, Lewis was well aware of "the critical importance of the first lion."

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, June 3, 1990

Topic: Vampire Novels

Reported by David Bratman

(Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 27 Number 8 (Whole #122), August 1990)

Khazad-dûm gathered over juice and cookies to discuss vampire novels. There are a lot of good ones out there. What makes them so popular? Well, in the case of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the blood-father of vampire novels, it's clearly because it's so good. Unlike the wordy Frankenstein with which it's often paired, Dracula is a cracking good read. Chrys found it possibly the scariest book she's ever read. The Count is evil, charming, clever, and powerful, and there's almost no way to stop him. (I noticed that Dracula's blood-thirst increases as the book goes on. He seems to be able to restrain himself back in Transylvania, but later on the amount of blood transfused into Lucy in the attempt to save her life is amazing. I wondered if inexplicable deaths after transfusions in those days prior to blood-typing might help explain the origins of the vampire myth, but the others quickly disposed of that idea.)

Ellie observed that in the recent spate of vampire books, the vampire is usually a sympathetic character, and sometimes even the hero of the book. Perhaps authors, tired of merely scaring you with vampires, wanted to do character studies of people with this strange compulsion of heavy necking. After all those evil tales, why not give the vampire a chance to tell his own story? It's a good literary device, and a trick most obviously pulled in Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.

Although Rice's prose didn't win many plaudits from us, we liked her New Orleans setting. Something about all that foggy, verdant decadence is perfect for vampires. Berni noted that the setting is one thing Rice's book has in common with George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream; so is the basic plot of struggle between a good vampire and a bad vampire. However, although we weren't wild about Rice as a writer, Martin's really enthralling combination of vampirism and antebellum Mississippi River steamboating got thumbs up from everyone.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain Chronicles are paradoxically both too much about vampires and not enough about them. There is a whole subculture of vampires running around in there, which takes away from the impact of a vampire as a lonely outsider which distinguishes so many other books. At the same time, Yarbro's books aren't really about vampires. Edith pointed out that the function of the vampire in Yarbro's A Flame in Byzantium is to provide an immortal viewpoint character: someone who could look at fading Constantinople and compare it through personal experience with Rome at its prime a thousand years earlier.

One oddity about comparing vampire novels is that each author has his or her own explanation of the traditional characteristics of vampires. Sometimes the authors disagree, which can make it confusing to read several vampire novels in a row. Martin, we felt, was particularly successful at this. Though his vampires can be killed by sunlight, a courageous one can tolerate it in small doses if necessary. By the end of Fevre Dream, his hero vampire Joshua is out almost as much by day as by night (much to the other vampires' distress). Martin dismisses a lot of the more difficult vampire lore as nonsense, and Joshua turns this to his advantage in his attempt to pass as human: he lives on a steamboat (legendary vampires can't cross water) amid lots of silver trim and mirrors. One curious note: although the name is not given, Joshua's father (dead before the story begins) is clearly supposed to be the Count de Saint-Germain, the same person as Yarbro's chief vampire. (Saint-Germain was a real person, a man of mysterious Eastern European origin who floated around 18th-century France, leaving rumors of the occult and supernatural lifespans wherever he went.)

We also talked a bit about vampire music. Saint-Germain was a composer. Buffy Ste. Marie has a vampire song in her repertoire, and so does Claudia Schmidt. I happened to be listening to Philip Glass's Powaqqatsi while reading Fevre Dream, and found that Glass's broody, churning score made absolutely perfect sinister steamboat music. I recommend the combination to everyone. (Hi there, Pat Wynne!)

And we indulged in some vampire humor. Damon Knight wrote a story called "Eripmav" short enough to be printed on a t-shirt, which Amy F. was wearing, so we had a live reading right from her torso. And I brought along undoubtably the worst vampire book ever published: the Barnabas Collins joke book. It simply consists of every lousy vampire joke ever created ("What's Barnabas' favorite song? Fangs for the Memories"). I tried to give it away, but nobody would take it, not even the Dark Shadows fans. Maybe at the Mythcon auction.

In conclusion, we had a few thoughts in answer to our original question, what makes vampires so popular? Edith observed that the vampire combines Eros and Thanatos, two very powerful forces. Various characteristics of vampires have a basis in known fact: there are people who are ultra-sensitive to sunlight, who (in the days before electrocardiograms) were buried alive by mistake, who hate garlic, even who have blood-lusts. The vampire is dead but not at rest: the same fear lurks in us for vampires as for ghosts.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, May 6, 1990

Khazad-dûm Spring Picnic

Reported by Ellie Farrell

(Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 27 Number 8 (Whole #122), August 1990)

This year's Khazad-dûm Spring Picnic, held Sunday, May 6, at Cerrito Vista Park in El Cerrito, was an unusually rousing success. There were 12 and a half attendees (the half being young Harold Harrigan III, who, although only 14 months old, is already the size of a small hobbit), and more food than we could consume. Frankie's peach cobbler was a particularly favorite item. Even the weather cooperated. (Last year it was marginal, and once we'd unloaded the food in Chrys's living room, we were all disinclined to move outside!) I read the traditional pickle fable - "The Picnic: A Parody of Tolkien" by Paulette Carroll - and David took over as DJ for a selection of tapes.

Our discussion topic (always loosely adhered to at these functions) was "Fantasy in Music: The Sequel" (to last year's "Music in Fantasy"). We heard excerpts of Johan de Meij's Symphony No. 1 for Band: "The Lord of the Rings", which we all enjoyed, even though the section on Lothlórien sounded more like jungle music than an Elvish woodland air. Other musical contributions included Todd Barton's Kesh music composed for Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, Celtic harpist and storyteller Robin Williamson's Music for the Mabinogi, and original and folk songs by Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, and Mythopoeic Society members Lynn Maudlin and Lee Ann Hussey. David brought along a tape by Canadian harpist Loreena McKennitt, who was a featured performer at Mythcon XX in Vancouver last summer. And as an added Inklings touch, we heard John Cleese read one of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters (and some Callard and Bowser commercials, but that is more of a Monty Python touch).

The sun, cool breeze, and view of San Francisco Bay added to the enjoyment of good food and music, if not actually to any particularly original insights into the role of fantasy in music, except that it is universal, from opera and ballet to folk and filk, and even Led Zeppelin on occasion. When written or played or sung from the heart, such music complements the more usual written fantasy forms, prose or poetry, and stimulates both our emotions and our imaginations.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, September 11, 1988

Topic: Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card

Reported by Ellie Farrell

(Reprinted from Mythprint Volume 25, Number 11 (Whole #102), November 1988)

The choice of this first book in Card's new fantasy series set a record for Khazad-dûm meetings: nine people attended, all of whom had read the book! Most everyone liked Seventh Son. Randolph thought Card's moral emphasis too obvious, but the rest of us all disagreed. David thought the characters particularly well-rounded: even the "evil" ones got their fair say. We discussed the identity of the Unmakes; Amy noted that this personification of entropy would be symbolically acceptable to the people of the culture. Several people were intrigued with Taleswapper's role(s). David considered him to be Alvin's mentor; Amy saw him as keeping the Miller family intact; Randolph thought he expressed Card's idea of good through creativity. Tom brought up the use of water as a destructive power, ambivalent in itself but a tool of the Unmaker, and noted that in Red Prophet (the second book in the series) Alvin learns to control this force. We postulated that learning to control all of the elements may be one of the facets of Alvin's growth to power. Everyone was intrigued by Card's alternate history, which as far as we could tell from the book split off from ours at the time of Cromwell. The subtle effects of this change on separation of church and state (among other things!) in this world were cited, and we generally found that the "new" historical events were consistent (though David thought Card's cartography a bit off). Ellie commented that Card (whom she met in the autograph line at Nolacon II) was pleased at receiving this year's Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and being honored, as he said, for his storytelling. That storytelling certainly elicited a huge reaction from us, and led to one of the largest and most enthusiastic meetings Khazad-dûm has had lately.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, October 1986

Topic: Tam Lin in Literature

Reported by David Bratman

(First published in the November 1986 issue of Mythprint)

Khazad-dûm gathered one sunny Sunday afternoon, as far away from Halloween as we could get and still be in October, to discuss two fantasy novels inspired by the Tam Lin story: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope and Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. We began by listening to a tape of the original ballad of Tam Lin as performed by the electric folk group Fairport Convention. Copies of both a transcription of Fairport's version, and of their source, Francis Child's collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, were floating around the table. We noticed that Fairport condensed the ballad to a mere 21 verses from Child's 42, as well as translating it into English from the original Scottish dialect. However, Child's "original" isn't complete either -- there's a row of asterisks, indicating missing material, between the section where Janet meets Tam Lin and the verse in which she returns home pregnant.

Turning to the two books, we found that despite some fundamental similarities, they are trying to do quite different things. The basic similarity is that neither attempts a retelling of the actual ballad, a la Evangeline Walton; instead, both are stories taking place in later times (The Perilous Gard in 1558; Fire and Hemlock in contemporary England) whose basic plots are the same as Tam Lin's: that is, a man is captured by the elves, and a young woman befriends him and attempts to free him. In both books, the ballad itself plays a role in helping to guide the heroine's actions. In both books, also, she is quite young -- early adolescent if that far -- and the sexual element is almost entirely absent. The differences lie in how the books work as novels, and in the authors' use of magic.

The Perilous Gard did not make a big hit with our group. Jo disliked it for its mixing of historical and invented characters, which she found grating, and for its portrayal of faerie. Jeff and I described it as a science fantasy, a book in which the magic is rationalized in scientific terms (Jeff compared it to Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away). Jo replied that that's exactly what she didn't like -- there is no magic here, only pharmaceutics and ballet. Everything that the fairies do they can teach to Katherine, the mortal heroine, and for this reason doesn't have the air of magic.

Randolph suggested that the unfamiliar style of Pope's fairies could partly be due to their being very English, rather than Celtic as are most of the fairies we're used to, and we then turned to the religious aspects of the book. In the ballad of Tam Lin, the fairies served the devil, and we disputed over whether the devil's existence is implied in The Perilous Gard. Randolph felt that the fairies are corrupted by the devil, but they don't necessarily serve him. Only the mysterious grey man is clearly diabolical, and Randolph noted that it's God who plays no role, and is hence not "necessary", in this world.

Fire and Hemlock was warmly approved. Chris described it as "enthralling", and Pat attempted to define its appeal. It's a familiar, everyday world, but there is definitely an air of magic to it. Even though all of the supernatural events could be explained away, it has that distinctive uncanny quality. I agreed, and suggested that Jones has a firm grasp of how magic ought to work in a contemporary fantasy. Rather than pushing things around in a heavy-handed fashion, magic should simply load the dice, weighting probability in favor of the desired outcome. In this respect we compared Fire and Hemlock favorably to Charles de Lint's Moonheart, which we discussed the previous month. In both books the magic events are a private matter which nobody outside the stories' characters learns the truth about, but in Moonheart there was simply too much physical evidence (bodies of tragg'a lying around, etc.), and we didn't feel that its events could be swept under the rug that way. Fire and Hemlock, though, is sufficiently ethereal. Even at the end, there is nothing to prove to an outsider that magic was at work, although the readers and the characters know what really happened.

We then turned to the characters and their psychology. We admired Jones' ability to so believably portray Polly's personality changes over the very difficult age span of 8 to 12. Jo raised the question of whether Tom, in enlisting Polly to help him, is in a sense "seducing" her, but we felt that the stories she writes with him are a good employment for her imagination, a quality which Tom himself lacks. Pat was interested that nobody felt Tom was too passive a character. We agreed, though, that Christopher, his equivalent in The Perilous Gard, is definitely too passive. (Actually, the word we were using was "wimp".) This got us onto the psychology of The Perilous Gard. Randolph was impressed by the description of the claustrophobia that the characters suffer when underground, but Pat objected to the implication that everyone who goes into the fairy caves suffers from it.

Both books, in summary, are young adult fantasies, but Fire and Hemlock is both more realistic and more magical. Having reached this conclusion after one of our best discussions in some time, we said our farewells for another month.

Khazad-dûm Discussion Group Report, 1984

Topic: Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy

Reported by David Bratman

(First published in the March 1985 issue of Mythprint)

Khazad-dûm gathered itself together in Santa Cruz one pleasant Sunday afternoon to discuss the fantasy publishing phenomenon of 1983, Tea With the Black Dragon, and to consider the general topic of dragons in fantasy literature.

Tea, we decided, is a deucedly odd book. In genre it's hardly fantasy at all, being mostly a genteel non-murder mystery with just a touch of the fantastic in the form of the old man who claims he's a dragon. The writing has all the gawkiness customarily associated with first novels. And the characterization, to be polite, is simply awful.

But most of us liked it anyway. We were hard put to explain why.

It was a lot easier to dissect what was wrong with the book. To start with the lack of a fantasy element, this is really a marketing problem. It's misleading to sell a book of this sort as a fantasy. But more importantly, what little fantasy there is lacks the mystique of fantasy, that distinctive touch that separates the truly magical books from the pedestrian ones that have all the words but nothing else. Pat put it most succintly: "There's a dragon statue, but nothing to convince me that Mayland really is a dragon." Frankie took this a step further, and wondered whether Mayland actually is a dragon, and, if not, whether he's better classified as paranoid or schizoid. The only place where magic really seems to be hovering in the air is in Mayland's tale of "the story behind" Thomas the Rhymer. We considered why the true faerie touch is missing, and concluded that, as Ursula Le Guin said on another occasion, the fault is in the style. MacAvoy is an awkward, unpolished writer with a long way to go. (Perhaps her Damiano trilogy will be better, but none of us had gotten far enough into it to notice anything.)

The awkwardness was most painfully obvious in the characterization. Martha, the heroine, is set up as this fascinating person who plays both Irish fiddle and classical violin, but nowhere in the book does she have the chance to utilize any of her talents, or to show herself to be an interesting person even without a fiddle in hand. The farther the book goes along, the more Martha is merely a pawn in the struggle between the opposing forces (which are hardly mythic enough to be called "good" and "evil"). I felt as if I'd been introduced to someone who was grandly called "the most fascinating person in the world", who grinned sheepishly at this description and didn't say anything. Martha's daughter is even odder and less explicable. The only character who we felt really works is Fred, the computer jockey, and that's only because he isn't called upon to do much. The villains are as cardboard as they come.

The local color was mostly approved of, and I cited a friend of mine who said he liked the book because it was the only novel he'd ever read that mentioned Rengsdorff Avenue. The computeroid touches were also generally liked (someone said MacAvoy had a tame expert in the field to help her with that), expect for Martha's first meeting with Fred, which we thought rang a bit false.

We then left Mayland behind, and turned to the more general question of dragons in fantasy. We decided that there are a few authors who really understand dragons, like Tolkien (Smaug, in The Hobbit) and Le Guin (Yevaud, in A Wizard of Earthsea, and Orm Embar in The Farthest Shore). But even they never tried to write a whole book from a dragon's viewpoint, and most authors who have written books that are primarily about dragons have cheated somehow. Gordon Dickson, in The Dragon and the George, had a dragon who was actually a man trapped in a dragon's body. Then there are Anne McCaffrey, in her Pern books, and Jane Yolen, in Dragon's Blood, who are writing about animals that aren't dragons at all, but alien critters who remind the settlers from Earth of the mythical dragons.

We concluded that dragons are one of those fantasy creations that are best viewed from a distance (especially if they might be paranoid or schizoid).

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