The Lore of Bards, Part I

Hwæt!

Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778. Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01900

Sure, you know about bardic lore, or as they call it nowadays, bardic knowledge. Everyone knows that bards, especially lore bards, steep themselves in the lore of any region they happen to be spending a good deal of time in, or sometimes even when just passing through. Many will also be steeped in the lore of places they’ve never been and people they’ve never seen, if they’re the book-loving kind.

But bards also have their own lore, to go with their colourful history. The lore of bards is a tangled web to be sure, but it includes useful bits of knowledge, myths and legends from all over the world, and of course, a plethora of songs and tales every bard should know. For the most part this lore is not written down but rather passed on from bard to bard by word of mouth, as in the old days, for the bard’s deepest roots are in an oral tradition.

Bards are the world’s memory, and a lore bard is a walking library. But ask any bard about the greatest bards in the history of their homeland and you’ll never get them to shut up. Even the least lore-inclined bards will know at least half of these famed adventuring artists, performers, scribes, historians, ambassadors, and sages by name.

Some bards believe the world was brought into being by a song, though not all agree upon the identity of the singer. Many say it was the god Ogma, who they also say invented writing. Others say it was Thoth, who they also say invented writing. A few maintain that these two are one and the same. Still others name lesser deities or even animals, usually birds, a popular one being the lark.

But long before the invention of writing, and certainly for some time afterward, bards were tasked with the preservation of tradition, history, and of course, entertainment. Their treasury was as rich as their capacity to remember such things, and as varied as their ability to extemporise.

Once there was a bard they say spent a lifetime collecting all the variations of all the world’s songs, poems, and tales. When old age impaired her memory, she invented both shorthand and musical notation in order to continue her work.

Most tales of bards from long ago are not set in any particular time or place. This makes them consistently relatable. Some of the characters don’t even have names that are still remembered, so it’s a common thing for their tales to be ascribed to any legendary name, sometimes even those not commonly associated with bards. Most of these works are credited to the legendary primordial bard known as Anon.

Perhaps the best thing about the lore of bards is that it’s forever changing, despite staying essentially the same. In fact, any time any piece of lore changes hands–or mouths, as the case may well be–there’s a good chance it will change, even if only somewhat. Every artist has something to say.

Some are not always careful what they say, however, and this can often get them into trouble. There are many rollicking tales surrounding famous fools and clowns and court jesters, the most popular ones being those satirical rogues who can tell the truth in a humorous fashion and get away with it. Some of these tales they only appear in briefly, for comic relief. But the most popular ones are the ones they star in.

There are a few bards, usually nobles, who look down on this sort of entertainment. Indeed many of these tales are rather vulgar, and there seems to be a competition between certain bards to make them still bawdier. But they’re a favourite of the common crowd.

Of course, not all bards enjoy a crowd, but when two or more bards get together it’s almost always a party. Unless, of course, they happen to be enemies. Alas, there are evil bards… but I digress. The meeting and greeting of fellow bards, whether they know each other or not, is so important to the bardic tradition that there are official events dedicated to this purpose. Most people just call them music festivals… or fairs, depending on the region.

Inns and taverns, of course, are also great places for bards to meet up. Some might form a band after having performed together for a night. They might even go on tour together. Travel is an important part of the bard business, as are welcoming hearths along the road where ale is served and locals and travellers alike gather to exchange news and pleasantries and… other things.

It is not unusual for bards at such gatherings to challenge one another to a performative duel, known colloquially as battling. These are usually fun for all, but every now and then things can get ugly. Such scuffles are rarely fatal, but have on many occasions sparked a full-on barroom brawl, or even a ballroom blitz.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Rainbow Power

Noah’s Sacrifice by Daniel Maclise. 1847. Oil on Canvas. Leeds City Art Gallery

From the time I could talk I was taught by my elders that after God destroyed nearly all life on earth with the Deluge (Great Flood) he sent his boy Noah a rainbow as a sign that he would never do anything like that again.

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

Genesis 9:12-13 (AKJV)

But the tale told by my box of magically delicious frosted Lucky Charms cereal proved far more interesting. As a budding folklorist and eventual heathen, the idea that treasure can be found at the end of the rainbow, or that you can fly somewhere over it to another land where witches rule, or that it’s a bridge that leads to the halls of the gods, captured my young imagination more. Yet now I see no contradiction, really. Divinity foresaw how badly we would mess up this world and said: Let us put this arc of light displaying all the colours of the spectrum in the sky as a symbol of hope and promise, that the children of the earth will know that no matter how bad things get, they can always get the fuck up out of their pit of despair and ascend to better circumstances in life because positivity works and magic is real.

The rainbow is one of the most powerful positive symbols we’ve been given in this life and I’m glad it has become a worldwide banner of the LGBTQIA+ movement. Happy Pride everyone. Below are some other instances in which the rainbow has been used as a force for good in this world, at least during my lifetime.

SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

While The Wizard of Oz was filmed well before my time, through the magic of television I was able to enjoy it over and over again as a child, and then later, through the magic of books, to rediscover L. Frank Baum’s distinctly American fairy tale fantasy world as a young adult with a growing fascination with folkore. There’s a profoundly positive and some would say even a spiritual message reverberating throughout both if anyone cares to discover it, and perhaps that’s why it has endured for so long.

Of course, Judy Garland, who sang the signature song “Over the Rainbow“, had already become a gay icon by the time I saw this movie, and it has been surmised that this very song at least partly influenced the adoption of the rainbow flag by the early Pride movement. But I think that the song, if not the entire film, is something people all over the world can identify with, regardless of their sexual orientation.

As a side note, I also find it interesting and perhaps somewhat apropos that the movie itself became associated in the early nineties with the groundbreaking 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, which it just so happens features a rainbow on its cover, emanating from a single beam of white light shining through a prism.

The Wizard of Oz 1939 film synced up with Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon

THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

Long before I discovered comic books, and through them Marvel’s Thor, I had a teacher who taught us about Norse mythology. I had already learned a lot about Greek and Roman mythology by then, but this was an entirely new kind of world that deeply resonated with me, perhaps because of my early love of fairy tales, and in particular those collected by the Brothers Grimm.

The Rainbow Bridge, known as Bifröst, is just that: “a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, the realm of the gods” [Wikipedia]. It is guarded by the god Heimdallr against the jötnar (frost giants) who would destroy Asgard if given half the chance. Some scholars are of the opinion that the bridge represented the Milky Way, an interesting notion given Marvel’s take on Norse mythology.

The Bi Frost Bridge from Thor (film clip)

As a heathen, I feel it important to add that the vast majority of those who practice the Norse religion of Asatru and its variants are both welcoming of diversity and vehemently against racism, Nazis, and others who have misappropriated the symbols of the faith. For more info on this, please direct your browser to HeathensAgainstHate.org.

The Rainbow Bridge has also been charmingly referenced in a poem to comfort those who have lost a beloved pet.

READING RAINBOW

Kermit the Frog and LeVar Burton in TV’s Reading Rainbow

This 80s/90s PBS show was one of my faves growing up. I’d already fallen in love with reading (and writing) long before it aired, but something about LeVar Burton with his cheerful manner, comforting smile, and soothing voice made my hellish preteen life somewhat bearable, reminding me that no matter how shitty things got I could always escape to another world through a book. I can’t even imagine how much more this show must have inspired kids even younger!

In school I was forced to read a lot of depressing shit and that in itself could have potentially put me off reading forever, so I credit Reading Rainbow for keeping me excited about books despite all that. And of course, I’m not alone in loving this show by any means. It was adored by many. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In 2014 Mr. Burton launched a Kickstarter to revive the show for libraries and the Internet. With over a hundred thousand backers, it raised $6,478,916 all told. I think that speaks for itself.

RAINBOW/DIO

Album cover: Rainbow – Rising (1976)

First off let me just say to all the other Black Sabbath fans that I’ve always been a fan of both Ozzy Sabbath and Dio Sabbath. In fact, my first introduction to the music of this legendary band was through a double album featuring Paranoid on one side and Heaven and Hell on the other. But metal bard Ronnie James Dio’s use of the rainbow in his lyrics and imagery is what’s relevant here so I’ll be talking about him this time around.

It all started in 1975 with a band called Rainbow which included not only singer/songwriter Dio but also famed Deep Purple songwriter/guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who formed this fantasy-themed rock group (apparently naming it after a bar & grill of all things). Back in those days “the word ‘rainbow’ signified peace and freedom” [ibid], and while rainbow flags existed, they wouldn’t come to symbolize the LGBT movement until 1978. Eventually however, “Blackmore decided that he wanted to take the band in a new commercial direction away from the ‘sword and sorcery’ theme. Dio did not agree with this change and left Rainbow” [Wikipedia] .

But the iconic metal vocalist would continue to use the rainbow as a symbol in his overwhelmingly positive lyrics throughout his career as lead singer of Black Sabbath and then his own band, Dio, eventually releasing what is probably one of the most recognized hard rock classics of the 80’s. I don’t really understand everything he’s trying to say to us through the enigmatic poetry of his songs (does anyone?) but who doesn’t sometimes feel they’ve been left on their own, like a rainbow in the dark?

Dio – Rainbow in the Dark (song only)

Well, I’m sure there are many other examples, but the important thing is that the rainbow can be, has been, and is universally seen as a powerful positive symbol. It has not only been viewed variously throughout the ages as a bridge to heaven and a sign of God’s love, but also of our love for each other, which must include the concept of diversity. The very notion of a single white light being refracted into a beam of many colours speaks to that: the many are one.

May it continue to guide us and inspire hope and unity through dark times.

Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now (fan vid)

Game of Groans: It’s Finally Over

If you’re anything like me you’re probably still reeling (and perhaps even retching) from last night’s series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Yet none of it came as any surprise to me, because after seeing episode five of season eight I decided that nothing else matters–to quote Jaime Lannister and Metallica–and I went on reddit to peruse the leaked text spoilers. Unlike many who did so, however, I decided not to boycott the series finale, but rather to give it the benefit of the doubt. I chose to wait and see.

Sweet summer child that I was, I knew nothing. And before you think that I mean the spoilers were wrong, let me just groan: Oh how I wish that that were so.

SPOILER ALERT:

I’m glad I read the spoilers, but I wish I hadn’t watched the last episode. It was agonizing to see. I think I would’ve preferred getting my eyeballs pushed into my frontal lobe by the Mountain than to watch this utter shitfest of a finale. But I mean, how could I not watch it? Friends and foes, we traversed seven seasons and then waited two whole years for this. Many of us have been fans of this show for eight years or more. And I admit there was still one feeble glimmer of hope left in my heart that the leaked ending was just HBO and/or the show’s creators trolling us.

Nope.

How I feel about the finale to Game of Thrones

Early in the season I agreed with many in the fandom that it felt rushed, and that most of the main characters seemed increasingly out of character. I could even agree with most of what those who were moaning and groaning about the “Long” Night were saying, and I knew that I would soon join in the Game of Groans once Daenerys went all Mad Queen as we all guessed long ago–and many of us feared–would happen (so much for subverting our expectations). But I didn’t agree with all of the complaints about that episode.

Don’t hate me, but I liked that the Night King was taken out not by Jon, as expected, but by Arya. I get why many took issue with it, but in my humble opinion it made plenty of narrative sense, despite the alleged build-up to Jon/Aegon being Azor Ahai or some such poppycock. But even if you disagree, I hope you can understand and appreciate my view that nothing on this show has stunk higher than the turning of Daenerys into the villain in literally a few minutes of a single episode. Even Dark Willow got almost an entire season of gradual moral degradation before she went all Thanos. So this was the last straw for me, and I know what some of you will say, but the reason isn’t that Dany is my favourite character. Show Dany hasn’t been my fave for quite some time now. That honour belongs to Arya.

I’ve enjoyed watching young Arya Stark slowly transform into a kick-ass assassin, and having her defeat the Night King with a rogue’s sneak attack using the Valyrian steel dagger her brother Bran the Three-Eyed Raven gave her in season seven–the same weapon a would-be assassin tried to kill him with in season one–seemed to me not only perfectly reasonable but apropos and poetic. I think I only didn’t see it coming because I never would’ve thought the writers would snatch away their great white male hero Jon/Aegon’s epic swordfight, which in my opinion realistically would’ve ended in Jon’s death (even if it also resulted in the Night King’s demise). And of course, with no cleric left alive to cast a raise dead or resurrection spell on the cuddliest Targaryen, that would’ve been it for our dear Lord Know Nothing along with his claim to the Iron Throne. And yes, I have always been behind Daenerys #ForTheThrone. But even so I would’ve said of that conveniently shelved matter of succession: “Not like this.”

There is a difference between subverting our expectations and just tossing them along with an entire character arc out the window. The Big Bad being defeated by his own ignorance of the fact that there was a stealthy, highly trained assassin in his midst, and his underestimation of her resulting in him being tricked with virtually the same move we saw her use on Brienne back in season seven makes good sense to me, and also makes for good storytelling in my opinion. But more importantly, we didn’t get there in just one episode or even just one season. Arya’s badass character arc began early in season one and hasn’t wavered for the entirety of the series. She may have wandered around aimlessly for much of the time, but her character progression was as straight and narrow as her sword, Needle, and pointed like a laser toward her becoming the “no one”–and perhaps the only one–who could defeat the Night King. If you think otherwise, we can of course agree to disagree.

But when it comes to Dany flipping a switch and suddenly morphing into the Mad Queen… to me it’s as if Galadriel gave her speech about how the One Ring would corrupt her and then in the same breath said, “Wait a minute… you know what? Give me that Ring, small fry!” as energy beams shot out of her eyes and Frodo evaporated. Well maybe not that bad, but still. This wasn’t just subverting our expectations. This was the random coin toss so unsubtly referred to by Varys in literally the preceding episode. It was all like “Oh, don’t forget, silly audience. Even the kindest, most just, and consistently heroic Targaryens can suddenly flip their braided white wig and massacre thousands of innocents without cause or provocation because, you know… inbreeding.”

It’s as if the showrunners tossed a coin when they were deciding how to end this series, and it came up stupid. I would’ve been fine with Daenerys razing the Red Keep even after the bells tolled signalling the city’s surrender. After all, her mortal enemies were holed up in there, and she was honour bound to avenge Missandei, whose last word before being beheaded on Cersei’s orders was “Dracarys”. And I would’ve been fine with the scenes depicting innocent people within the bailey of the Red Keep ending up as collateral damage. This would’ve been in keeping with the overall theme of the show in the past, with all of its moral greyness, hard decisions, and necessary ruthlessness. And maddeningly, at first–ostensibly to “subvert our expectations” I suppose–it actually does seem as if Dany is going to do just that.

She really does appear to make a beeline for the Red Keep initially. The shadow of Drogon swooping over King’s Landing, even the ensuing shot of him from the ground as he glides over the fleeing populace seem to be in line with this. One could almost say that this is what was originally intended by the showrunners, but if so they must have changed their minds at some point (tossed a coin?) because in what are probably scenes added later, we see Drogon destroy the bell tower (it seems like he destroys it again a bit later in the sequence, too, which I also found odd, but perhaps there were more than one), thence to systematically begin burning down the entire city. This and subsequent shots can only be explained by Dany having at first darted toward the keep, only for whatever reason to wheel Drogon around (though this is not shown) in order to wreak havoc for a while along the outskirts of King’s Landing instead of just heading straight for the keep, which makes no sense at all to me.

Believe me when I say that I’ve watched these scenes over and over again, and I just don’t buy her sudden inexplicable decision to delay sweet, sweet vengeance in order to willfully burn up fleeing non-combatants, including women and children, for no reason other than to strike fear into the hearts of her would-be subjects. The magnificent destruction of the Red Keep would have been more than enough to accomplish that. So we’re to believe that instead of going straight for Cersei, the one truly responsible for Missandei’s death (and, by proxy, Rhaegal’s as well), the Mother of Dragons “goes mad” and decides to take a little detour in order to reduce the surrounding city to rubble first, leaving ample time for her enemies to escape (the fact that they don’t escape is beside the point; only Bran could’ve foreseen that).

The sole reason that I can think of for the showrunners to have done this was in order to have shining white knight Jon freaking Snow come out all squeaky clean and smelling of roses in the end after having basely shanked his queen. And that’s a load of dragonshite.

Daenerys Stormborn and Emilia Clarke deserved better.

Menu Magic – Enhancing Your Tavern, One Drink at a Time

The Mage College

beer-barrel-keg-cask-oak (1)Nearly every adventuring party ends up in a tavern at some point of time or another. Sometimes, they’re a place of great importance for a plotline or a quest, and sometimes the party just wants to celebrate/commiserate over recent events. Either way – there are times when you’ll need to come up with a tavern on the fly, and while a name and NPCs can be easy enough, once they want to look at a menu, you might find yourself scrambling to determine a level of detail that you might not be prepared for. I personally have created a tavern menu in Barovia where the place ONLY sells stew (and if you want it to be fancy, they’ll throw on a sprig of parsley), because I was caught off guard. Taverns, while so essential to so many D&D campaigns, are often overlooked – especially their menus. We wanted to provide…

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Gods or Angels? A guest post by Yvonne Aburrow

A Pilgrim in Narnia

The Inklings and Paganism

Before he became a Christian, C.S. Lewis was deeply inspired by ancient Pagan mythology, and he continued to value it as mythopoeia after his conversion, and seems to have sought to reconcile the Christian worldview with the ancient Pagan one (for example in That Hideous Strength). Lewis was also fascinated by the symbolism of astrology: a practice and worldview which started in Pagan antiquity and continued well into the Christian era. Lewis’ book,The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, deals in part with astrological symbolism as part of the medieval worldview. Michael Ward has also suggested that Lewis intended the seven Narnia books to be an extended allegory of planetary symbolism. Whether or not he set out to make each book correspond to the themes of a particular planet is not settled; it is however possible to interpret them in…

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Critical Hit!

Matt Mercer and friends have taken the multiverse by storm, tearing gigantic rifts in the very fabric of reality

Hey everybody, in case you haven’t heard there’s this phenomenal show streaming on Twitch called Critical Role which features a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they just launched a Kickstarter to create a half-hour animated special based on the exploits of Vox Machina, the legendary adventuring party they played as during their first campaign. All they needed, they said, was $750,000. Well, they met that goal in the first forty-five minutes of their launch and as of this writing the pledges from their fans, known as Critters, have surpassed an astonishing $5.8 million! Because of this, the animated special will now become an entire series!

All right, now for those of you who didn’t just crawl out from under a rock, HOLY SHIT IS THIS A WAKING DREAM? Seriously, did I wander into a fairy ring or follow the will-o’-the-wisps into some illusory pocket dimension in which nerds rule the universe and everybody loves each other? If so then please don’t rescue me.

The Cast of Critical Role, tl to br: Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Matthew Mercer, Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham

I’ll never forget when I first discovered Critical Role and Vox Machina. I was thrilled that a show like this even existed, so imagine how I felt once it dawned on me how successful it was. And it didn’t take me long to start fantasizing about an animated series based on these characters, though at the time I didn’t think it was likely to happen anytime soon.

Funnily enough, I was led to this uncanny web series by another strange phenomenon which I’d once considered an unlikely success, the television show Supernatural, when Felicia Day made an appearance on it as Charlie Bradbury, a lovable nerd who instantly became my favourite recurring character. I also recognized that actor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and when I learned that she had a web series called The Guild I had to go check it out. It was then that I was introduced to Geek & Sundry, and thereby the Vox Machina campaign of Critical Role, which Day also guest-starred in.

I was a latecomer though. By the time I started watching the first campaign the second one, featuring a new adventuring group called the Mighty Nein, was already beginning. So when I joined the ever-growing online community of Critters on Tumblr and Twitter, I kept seeing spoilers everywhere. This eventually prompted me to just jump right in and start watching the live stream of the second campaign every Thursday while I struggled to catch up on past episodes the rest of the week. Now that I’m all caught up with the second campaign, I’ve gone back to catching up with the first one. But I’ve still got a long way to go.

The great thing about the upcoming animated special SERIES!!! though is that it will deal with events from before the campaign started streaming, so I can take my time and not feel pressured to neglect my real life in order to get up to speed. But then, another great thing about this show is that once you get a feel for each of the characters, it doesn’t really matter where you start watching. I mean, I tuned into the live special The Search for Grog when the VOD became available in February despite having only seen episodes 1 -18 of Campaign 1 at that point, and I was still able to thoroughly enjoy it.

Travis Willingham plays Grog the Goliath Barbarian in Campaign One of Critical Role

Needless to say, I’m very, very, VERY excited about the upcoming animated series The Legend of Vox Machina and I hope we’ll eventually get to see one featuring the Mighty Nein as well! Huzzah!

The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-earth Must Read

A Pilgrim in Narnia

It is sort of a trick, isn’t it? Any true Tolkien fan will say that every page in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is essential. However, not everyone enjoys letters as much as I do. Some might absolutely love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but don’t find great joy peeking into the lives of authors by reading their mail. I may well be the odd man out.

However, embedded in the bits and pieces of correspondence that remain are some absolute gems. It is in these letters that we discover that Tolkien supported C.S. Lewis in his first foray into fiction. We see the heart-crushing weight of work that Tolkien was faced with, and the struggles that he had to complete The Lord of the Rings. And we have the moments, finally, when he finished his work and made it ready for publication. The letters…

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