Sunday, June 18, 2017

Disappearing Dwarves

In his 1987 book, Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax (famed founder of Dungeons and Dragons) discusses what makes a good role-playing adventure—which, surprisingly, is the same thing that makes a good novel or story. Foremost for Gygax is a plot that contains a central mystery that gives a group of characters (each with his or her own motivations) something to solve, search, and discover. Every story in virtually every genre can be boiled down to a few basic plots, since the point of a story is to delight and amaze the reader, and to frustrate and challenge the characters. To illustrate this, Gygax took a single plot, called “The Disappearing Dwarf” and adapted it to numerous genre-specific scenarios, as seen below:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Painting a Day: Barnet's Winter Afternoon (1981) & Others

Painting(s) of the day: I decided to offer a series of paintings today, since I just discovered a new painter, though sadly he was a very old and renowned one: Will Barnett, who died recently in 2012 at the age of 101. Read his obituary here:…/….
I ran into his painting, Winter Afternoon (1981) at the OKC Art Museum this Tuesday, and was instantly blown away. I took a picture of it so I could study it later, but foolishly forgot to make note of who painted it! Luckily, a quick e-mail to the museum clarified this omission. The museum also told me that the painting had just been installed this May, so I came at just the right time...I encourage others to check it out if you can, since it might not be there forever.
The painting is striking in its simplicity and silence: a young woman sits sewing with a cat watching over her--but also looking out the window at a winter landscape: a bare tree leafed by numerous crows. This painting exhibits many of his artistic trademarks: a two-dimensional perspective that evokes Japanese printmaking or art nouveau posters. His people and animals owe something to the cartoon abstraction of Rousseau, but also the iconic isolation of Edward Hopper's men and women. Like the latter, Barnett's men and women (but mostly women) are seen in isolation, caught in the act of waiting. They seem lost, puzzled, worried--but in many cases, content. This young woman seems comfortable in her self-exile, knowing that the lines of the window (and the couch) keep her hemmed in from the disasters of life. She might be alone, but at least it's a solitude of her own making.

Despite their quietness, all of Barnett's paintings have an epic quality. By capturing the small moments of life, those hours spent waiting, watching, thinking, he makes us realize that to know ourselves, we have to find ourselves here. We all wear many masks, but the self at work, or in company, might be our greatest illusion. Only when we're alone with no one to watch are we truly 'naked' to the world--and truly, starkly ourselves. All of these women are confronting themselves in these quiet hours, and while the revelation might not be consoling, it's still comforting to see yourself who who and what you are. Maybe no one else can truly see this side of you...unless a sneaky artist is painting you through the window.

And aside from all of this, they're simply beautiful paintings with sharp lines celebrating the relationships of men and women with themselves--and their favorite animals. Some of my favorite moments are those spent with my family and my dog and cats, alone, without the watchful eyes of the world. I think Barnett was comfortable there, too.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Painting a Day: Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875)

The painting of the day: Edward Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875). Burne-Jones is one of my favorite painters, as he shamelessly celebrates the voluptuous, late Romantic values of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Such paintings fell out of critical favor throughout the 20th century, though art lovers have always responded to sheer beauty and drama of these images--and notably this one, which has no specific theme other than a hypothetical gathering of Venus and her hand-maidens before a pool of water. Let the allegorical associations commence...
Many people wonder what "Pre-Raphaelite" means, and basically, it was a movement that wanted to uncover the artistic and thematic traditions prior to the Renaissance. They adored Greek, Gothic and Medieval subjects, though ironically they approached these from a Renaissance perspective, evoking the luminous colors and shapes of Botticelli and Raphael himself. Following their spiritual mentor, Ruskin, and composed of many artists-poets such as Rossetti and Morris, the movement sought to combat the excesses of Industrialism with visions of a purer, more human time where beauty and magic existed hand-in-hand. The best literary equivalent of their work would be the poems of Robert Browning (who often evoked painters in his work), and a fitting soundtrack would be the music of French impressionism--Debussy (esp. La Mer, Nocturnes) or especially Ravel (La Valse, Tombeau de Couperin, etc.), or even the British Impressionist Arnold Bax (Tintagel especially).
But back to this painting: the difficulty of examining a work of Burne-Jones is the seduction factor. It's so amazingly caloric in terms of beauty that you are apt to simply drown in the images and call it a day. The layout of bodies is almost balletic in how they rise and fall, assuming stylized and theatrical movements. The flowing garments seem plucked out of a Greek statue, though they hug the body in a distinct late 19th century manner, setting off the models to best effect (and the Pre-Raphaelites all had their favorite models, many of whom they married or had affairs with). Venus is the only one standing, clad in the blue of a morning sky, but looking curiously forlorn or defeated. She takes no glory in her court and almost seems to lament their fate as she looks down on them looking down on themselves. The girls, too, stare somewhat curiously into the pond, seeking an answer which seems to elude them. Only one girl looks up to Venus as if to say, "what is the meaning of this, mighty goddess?" And Venus, having done and see it all, doesn't even try to respond. "You'll find out soon enough," she seems to suggest.
Naturally, the legend of Narcissus is evoked by this image, with the young, beautiful women staring back at their own reflections. Also of note are the lotus pads in the pond, alluding to the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey, where the inhabitants of a far-flung island eat the lotus flowers and fall into an apathetic existence, never seeking to flee or to question their existence (this was also the title of a poem by Tennyson, another poet allied to the Pre-Raphaelites). Is Burne-Jones suggesting that to be young IS to be a lotus-eater, intoxicated by the narcotic of youth, and assuming that all things will come to you in time--which you have an endless supply of? Or is the painting a more general allegory on the nature of beauty itself--that it's little more than a pool of water which, when disturbed by the slightest breeze, all but washes away? The fact that the painting is itself so beautiful is part of the message: we are so dazzled by the surface of things that we forget to look beyond, or ahead, where our true destiny lies.

Monday, June 5, 2017

To Kill or Not to Kill Your Heroes

In our recent Academia discussion (, we asked whether the trend of killing of main characters in fiction was innovative or a voyeuristic fad. After all, many writers boast of killing off their heroes, notably George R.R. Martin, who has made an entire career of it, inspiring thousands of copycat authors to follow suit. On first blush, it seems like a refreshing, “think outside the box” literary idea: instead of knowing that your hero will somehow survive countless perils and death-defying scenarios, how much more exciting would it be to know that he or she might not?