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)

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!

Remembering the Bard

Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787

When most people encounter the epithet “the Bard” in text or speech, they automatically assume it refers to William Shakespeare, who is known as the Bard of Avon. But there is another who has acquired that particular sobriquet, and deservedly so. I’m of course talking about Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, and the national poet of Scotland.

Perhaps most well known for having written the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne”, that nostalgic ditty only half understood by so many and yet sung the world over on New Year’s Eve, Rabbie, as he is often affectionately called, was born in 1759 near Ayr on the 25th of January, the son of a tenant farmer. Later hailed as a folk hero and collector of Scottish folk songs as well as Scotland’s national poet, the Bard “is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism” [Wikipedia].

You may know him by a few other of his poems which have been set to music, such as A Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss, and my personal favourite, The Banks O’ Doon, which gave us the song “Ye Banks and Braes”. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I put together a YouTube playlist for Burns Night you can grab a wee listen of. Just note that I also added a number of songs that he didn’t write the lyrics to, as part of an overall celebration of Scottish culture, music, and history.

And what is Burns Night ye might well ask? Well, ’tis first and foremost a celebration of Rabbie’s life and legacy amidst a feast known as a Burns supper, replete with Scottish food and music, a toast with fine Scotch whisky, and of course, readings of the Bard’s poetry and singing of his songs. Central to the supper is almost always the haggis, Scotland’s national dish, a savoury meat pudding which Burns eulogized most eloquently in his famed poem Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
Haggis on a platter – By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18155691

Yet the Burns supper is not merely a celebration of the Bard’s birthday, confined to that one night only. It can be enjoyed anytime, and regardless of whether or not one is Scottish. One need only have an appreciation for the works of the Bard and/or Scottish music, poetry, food, and culture in general, just as the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” that ends the feast isn’t only for the year’s end, as reminiscing about days gone by is a perennial thing not necessarily tied to any season or date on a calendar.

If you’d like to learn more about Robert Burns, his works, and the traditions of Burns Night and its celebratory supper, below you will find a few good links, as well as a fascinating documentary video of a modern facial reconstruction of the Bard as he might have actually looked in life.

How I Became a Dungeon Master

Some of my D&D stuff from not so long ago

When I started as a player of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, as an androgynous half-elf thief named Valerian (I was very much a fan of the movie Dragonslayer), I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the role of Dungeon Master. It not only looked like fun, it seemed right up my alley. I’d always been a storyteller, from the time I was small.

So back home I tried to start a D&D game of my own. I created worlds and characters and scenarios and imagined prospective players playing them out. I roped my friends who had never even heard of roleplaying in and ran one-on-one adventures for them. But I was never able to get a group together. I didn’t really mind though, because it was great to just be able to play; to take my characters to the next level, and the next, and tell their stories to the DM and the other players.

See, players are storytellers, too. Never forget that. And a good DM helps them tell their stories. Well, I was blessed with good DMs, and sometimes I longed to be one of them, though if given a choice between one or the other I would’ve chosen to remain a player. Still, ideally I would’ve liked to have been both, roleplaying in one campaign and running another. But as it turned out, that was never meant to be.

Anyway, I continued to gather materials and resources, study manuals and modules, invent worlds and monsters and scenarios, map areas and come up with side-quests. All for imaginary players who might never materialize.

Then I got distracted by life, as did the other players in our adventuring group, and even to a certain extent, our DM. I think he started to get discouraged by the ever-increasing scheduling difficulties. Our last session lacked closure. We never picked that storyline up again. We never all got together in that capacity again. It was like a television series got cancelled mid-season before it could be wrapped up.

By the time I got back into D&D again I was a college dropout. Third edition had introduced the d20 system. That piqued my interest. I created a Bard character I was excited to play. But no one I knew was interested in D&D anymore. So once again I tried to start my own game. I did my best to recruit players, and was mildly successful. Underwhelmingly successful, to be honest.

I went back to sleep. Years went by. Fourth edition came and went. I read the online comments on it with passing interest. I got my D&D fix by playing video games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights.

Then 5e made its quiet debut. I couldn’t ignore the improvements. The streamlined game mechanics. The elegant balance between combat and roleplay. I started to ask around, and lo and behold, others had suddenly become interested in D&D again. Next thing I knew I was reluctantly agreeing to DM for a local would-be mercenary party when what I really wanted to do was bring my Bard PC to life. Oh cruel fate!

No matter–that character would be the first NPC the party met. Sometimes you just have to take what life offers you, and make the most of it. 😉


How I Got into Dungeons and Dragons

The dragon Smaug from The Hobbit animated film by Rankin/Bass Productions (fair use)

Since J. R. R. Tolkien’s 127th birthday was this past Thursday I thought I’d date myself by telling you all the ancient tale of how I first got into D&D. It started with Tolkien, though not because I’d read the books. When I was a kid, back when we had idiot boxes instead of smart TVs, I saw the televised Rankin/Bass animated films The Hobbit and The Return of the King, and also Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, and immediately became immersed in the Professor’s strange yet endearing world of high fantasy. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t end up reading Tolkien’s works until I was sixteen, but that’s a tale for another time.

In those days I was a short, scrawny, quiet kid with glasses and buck teeth, painfully shy, nerdy, and anxiety-prone. School was a special kind of hell for me. I got bullied and picked on a lot. I was very much an introvert; far more so than I am now. I lived mostly in my head, and from the time I could pick up a crayon I’d been drawing worlds and characters to inhabit them, telling myself stories about them–and later writing those stories. So once I’d been introduced to Tolkien’s Middle-earth through those films, my inner world became fiercely populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and the like.

Seeing how much I liked to draw, one day my mother bought me a sketchbook and a pack of magic markers in an array of colours. It was a step up from crayons, and I was in world-building heaven. I’d sit for hours on the floor of our living room mapping out underground tunnels teeming with goblins. The goblins were represented by dots not much bigger than a pinhead, but they were colour-coded. One shade of green indicated a foot-soldier, another a guard, another a warg-rider, and so on. I never tired of this.

In school my favourite subject became geography, but only due to my fascination with maps. The first day of class one year I sat next to a girl who would become my best friend in the sixth grade. We bonded over our fondness for all the multi-coloured maps in our geography book, which we were made to share due to a shortage of textbooks in our over-crowded classroom. It started with a made-up game in which we were rulers of the world. As in the board game Risk, the joys of which I had yet to discover, we chose which regions of the world would be our territories and then started marking things like military bases on the maps–yes, we desecrated a defenseless textbook. But it wasn’t long before we began drawing our own maps of worlds that had never existed until then.

Then there was this boy in our class who was the class clown, but also the biggest nerd. I eventually became friends with him as well, and would hang out with him at his house from time to time. We’d play Zork on his personal computer, and I would map our journey. But my first experience with anything D&D official was through the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons video game we’d play on his Intellivision. Like most kids back then I loved video games, but this one was different. As you explored that world, you could only see so far ahead; a bit of realism which I would learn many years later from playing Baldur’s Gate was known as the fog of war.

My second encounter with D&D wouldn’t come until the following year, when I attended middle school. My mother, who was on the PTA, got me into a nerdy school with only around two hundred students. But I was still too shy to make new friends and I was feeling pretty lonely, until one day after class as the lunch period began I noticed a group of other kids had stayed behind and started pushing desks together and arranging chairs around it, accompanied by an older kid I’d never seen before. So out of sheer curiosity I lingered, sitting in the back of the classroom, drawing in my sketchbook. And that was how I witnessed my first real D&D game.

I can still recall one of the Dungeon Master’s exchanges with his very green twelve-year-old players, who all had first level characters, after they had comically blundered through one of his dungeons without a light source (they kept falling down slopes and taking damage even before they’d encountered any monsters). Having come to a small room lit by torchlight, they spied a chest in one corner.

Player 1 (to the DM): What’s in the chest?

DM: Do you try and open it?

Player 1: Um…

Player 2 (to Player 1): Don’t, it might be trapped.

Player 1 (to the DM): Well… what might such a chest contain?

DM: You don’t know. You have no idea. It could be anything. It could be treasure or a pile of orc shit. You won’t know until you open it.

We all laughed, and as the game continued I felt emboldened enough to sit a little closer, where I was able to look on with fascination at all these strangely shaped many-sided dice, rulebooks, character sheets, and crudely drawn maps on graph paper. And then to my utter surprise and eternal delight, as everyone was leaving after the session was over, the Dungeon Master–an eighth grader and thus infinitely cooler than I was–kindly asked me if I would like to join next session. Of course I said yes! And so began a glorious lifelong adventure, and one I’m happy to say I’m still on to this day.