The One Ring: Signy Fire-hair

My monthly gaming group has just finished our campaign of The One Ring: Oaths of the Riddermark.

Signy Fire-hair
Shieldmaiden of Rohan (Wanderer calling)

TOR Signy_minis 2

Signy’s minis, mounted and unmounted, painted by our GM.

Signy had always wanted to be a Shieldmaiden. Her mother, Emma, had been a Shieldmaiden and was also a great storyteller. Signy’s strongest memories of her are sitting at her mother’s feet by the hearth while Emma sang of the great deeds of heroes and plaited Signy’s bright, coppery hair, while Signy looked up at her parents’ swords and spears glinting in the firelight over the hearth, or of sitting in front of her mother while riding, and the terrifying joy of leaping over fences at a gallop. Her mother’s death in childbirth left deep wounds in Signy’s heart, and from a young age Signy feared death by childbirth as the foe against whom even a Shieldmaiden could not prevail.

In time, her father took a second wife and after the birth of Signy’s half-brother, Signy was given the care of a newborn foal. The dappled-grey foal became young Signy’s obsession, and the girl even slept in the stables some nights. Signy devoted herself to Renna’s training and to learning swordplay from her father and his thanes.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep Signy from feeling like she and the memory of her mother had been replaced, Signy still felt alienated from her father’s ‘new’ family. Even worse, when she was eighteen, Signy overheard her stepmother say that Signy should become a good wife to one of her father’s thanes. Indignant and proud, Signy rode away from the homestead for Edoras and the King’s hall. She was of age now; she would bring renown to her own name based on her own valor.

In Edoras, Signy became one of Thengel King’s outriders, riders tasked not only with carrying messages, but also relied upon for their tirelessness and speed. Her service as an outrider sends her far across the fields of the Riddermark.

Then, one winter, something began attacking a series of homesteads in the West March, her friend Felwyn’s homestead among them. Signy, Felwyn, and their friend Ava go to investigate, joining with two Gondorians and a Dunlending in what becomes only the first of many adventures…

TOR campaign 3c

L-R: Ava, Felwyn, Signy (a.k.a. the ‘Valkyries’); Falcon, Boriel, Trevir

*

The One Ring: Oaths of the Riddermark is the third The One Ring campaign my group has played. It’s set in Rohan in Middle Earth at the beginning of Thengel’s reign (Theoden’s father; Theoden is king in The Two Towers). The premise is that Thengel has returned from exile to claim the throne after his father’s death and is now trying to fix the corruption, rivalries, and distrust his father had created during the previous reign. The adventuring party here is tasked with helping the king unify various parts of the kingdom.

It’s a cool premise and makes sense for the lore of the world, but one I sometimes found frustrating as a player because I had built an archetypal Anglo-Saxon hero when I made Signy. Yes, she was skilled in Song and Awe, but not in Inspire or Courtesy — and it was Courtesy we needed the most. The success of several of our missions was determined by if they didn’t devolve into fighting, and I had built a character who had wanted to win glory and renown by fighting. I often felt like I had the “wrong” character for this campaign — except that I didn’t, because I had built a character that was “right” for this particular culture.* There seemed to be a disconnect between what the writers of the campaign wanted and the setting. I don’t know how much the other players felt this incongruence; however, I’m always going to notice medieval-related things more than the others, considering that I am the medievalist at the table. (The GM is a history teacher, but the medieval period is my speciality.)

TOR_Rohan_campaign

Fortunately, we weren’t all stereotypical Anglo-Saxon heroic characters: we had a smooth-talking Gondorian with us, and for a while a Dunlending to be a liaison with the other Dunlendings, and then this strange man from a place called Lake-town who claimed he’d seen a dragon (yeah, right), but who was also really good at talking to people. If we had all been Rohirrim though, maybe there would have been more fighting, because we’d have all botched the Courtesy rolls and not gotten along…

At any rate, Signy Fire-hair Orc-killer Kings-guard survived the campaign and did manage to win much renown during it, though perhaps not as much and not necessarily in the manner she had wanted. She may yet go on other adventures. We are returning to the north for our next campaign and picking up story threads (and some characters) we had left off with a previous campaign. What has been happening in Mirkwood and Wilderland while we’ve been riding in Rohan? I guess we’ll find out!


* Having two degrees in medieval literature, I think I’d have some idea of what Tolkien had in mind when using Anglo-Saxon source material for the Rohirrim…

Reading & listening in 2018

Every year I keep a list of the books I’ve read and then add the list to the Books Read List page of this blog. If you look at the Books Read in 2018 list and compare it to the last couple of years, you might think that 2018 was a poor year for reading.

Well, I would counter, it wasn’t as bad as 2013 or 2015. Even so, I would admit that I feel a little bit of disappointment in seeing that 2018’s count is twenty books fewer than 2017’s.

Screenshot_PodcastsBut then I would remember that 2018 could also be described as the Year of the Podcast and the Year of the Non-Traditional Narrative: in 2018 I began listening to and watching actual-play D&D campaigns podcasts and web series, Eberron Renewed and Critical Role.

For the past few years I have chosen a book series to binge-listen to during my long commutes for my summer teaching job. Instead of choosing a book series in 2018, I chose to listen to my friend’s D&D podcast Eberron Renewed. Some 90 episodes later (each weekly episode running between an hour and an hour and a half), I estimate that the amount of time I’ve spent listening to this podcast is the equivalent to about a dozen audiobooks. Eberron Renewed is just a very long narrative being “written” collaboratively and in improv.

And if I had been reading instead of watching Critical Role? Well, that’s another very long narrative being told in real time that also amounts to about 15 books in terms of hours. (Though I could just as well have been watching other TV shows to be honest, which I haven’t had the time for.)

Then there are the BBC and PRI news and linguistic A Way With Words podcasts I listen to at work, when I could be listening to audiobooks.

So it’s not that I’m not getting healthy doses of narrative, fiction, news, ideas: I am. I’m getting them from not only reading and listening to audiobooks, but also from unexpected, non-traditional narrative sources by following along other players’ D&D campaigns. Getting my entertainment from these sources and from playing RPGs myself with my friends has had me thinking about role-playing games as narrative sources, as sources or modes of entertainment: a form of oral narrative, community narrative, an exchange between those who create entertainment and those who are entertained by it and the nexus of when those groups happen to be the same people gathered around a table with character sheets and dice.

I’ll be exploring some of the ideas that have sprung up in my musings about RPGs as non-traditional narrative sources in an upcoming blog series.

Do you keep track of what you read? From what sources do you get your doses of fiction?

In memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

I am still processing the loss of one of my favorite and admired authors: Ursula K. Le Guin. I have read most of her fiction, including fiction for children, some of her non-fiction and translations. It is one of my goals in life to read everything she has written — fortunately for me and the world, she was a prolific writer. Her novels, in particular A Wizard of EarthseaThe Tombs of Atuan, and The Dispossessed, have affected me deeply and helped shape how I see the world.

Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching The Left Hand of Darkness and its related short stories in my Literature by Women course. It was the first text I chose for the course and I selected the other texts to complement it. That unit was the most interesting and enjoyable to teach and was perfect for class discussions about the role of literature, literary theory, reception of a text over time, delving into an author’s changing perceptions of her own work, and more.

Left Hand of Darkness teaching

I do not want to say that the world is less magical than it was before now that she is no longer in it, because every soul brings its own magic into the world and with new souls being born every day, the balance is maintained — an idea I know Le Guin would agree with. The magic she instilled into her works succeeds her and, thanks to the Library of America, will never be out of print. But gone is the hope of one more Hainish novel, one more story set in Earthsea, one more blog post about her cat’s antics.

Gone also is the slim hope of someday meeting her in person. I am sad that she will not see the completed 50th anniversary edition of the Earthsea saga, though I know from reading her blog that collaborating with Charles Vess was immensely satisfying for them both. I look forward to its release and of putting inside it my last signed bookplate from her, a gift I have been saving for years for precisely the occasion of a special edition of Earthsea.

First Day of Class: Table of Contents activity

It’s the first day of class for my Composition I class. I have a group of twenty-odd first-years who have no idea what this class is going to be like. They think it’s going to be like their English classes in high school. They’re wrong.

Composition, First-year Writing, Introduction to Writing, Rhetoric: this type of course goes by a lot of names, but the focus is on teaching and practicing effective communication — primarily through the written word, but not only so. One of the activities that I do on the first day of class helps to align the students’ expectations of the class with reality.

After taking attendance and introducing myself, I hold up the textbook and ask them to spend a few minutes making a list in response to the question:

‘What would you put in a book called Everyone’s an Author?’

Everyone's an AuthorSome of the students who brought their books with them will crack open the book to look at it, but I stop them. ‘What would you put?’ I emphasize. What do you think will be in a textbook like this one?

Then I ask them to compare their list with a partner, and then for two set of pairs to compare and put together a table of contents for the textbook. When all of the groups are finished, they share with the rest of the class what their table of contents looks like.

It’s interesting to hear what topics are repeated, which ones are unique to each group, and what order the students put the topics in. Some emphasize grammar, others organization, others on examples from literature. It helps me to get an idea of what the students expectations are for the type of topics we are going to study over the semester.

Then I introduce them to the real textbook. I tell them which of the topics they named will be covered in the book, which won’t be (e.g. we won’t be studying Shakespeare, alas), and what the focus of the class will be. This exercise allows me to identify where the students are coming from in their understanding of what a writing class will include, and to adjust their expectations so that they are not thrown by the first set of readings and assignment.

There are additional benefits: this activity gets the students collaborating on the first day and demonstrates the type of teaching they will experience throughout the semester, that of thinking individually, discussing in small groups, and regrouping as a class. (My variant of Think, Pair, Share.)

It’s a useful exercise that I have used every semester since my first year of teaching. I wish I could claim credit for it; I found a version of the activity when scouring the Internet for ‘first-day of class’ ideas, on a forum or a blog somewhere. But it fits well with my overall teaching style: students will usually have some idea of what we will be doing or whatever the topic is, though it will not always be an accurate idea. Rather than assume they know nothing, I prefer to find out what they do know (and what they think they know) and work from there.

a syllabus experiment

The fall semester begins next week and I am putting the finishing touches on the syllabi for my classes. One thing that always bothers me about college syllabi is how long they are and how much disparate information they include. The longer I teach, the more I realize what needs to be added to the syllabus, and also that the majority of my students only ever use the course schedule. I keep wondering:

How can I make the syllabus easier to navigate so that students will use it more often?

Part of the problem is that the syllabus is pages and pages of text. One solution I read about was to translate the syllabus into an infographic. The downside to that solution is that it can’t present all of the information that the university or program requires that we include in our syllabus. I’m also aware that what I might think is the most important information might not be what the students think is the mot important information. (perhaps I could ask students to make infographics for the syllabus as one of their assignments!).

Instead, I decided to add a table of contents to my syllabus this year:

FA17 Eng1013-24 Syllabus TOC

By including an easy way to look up specific parts of the syllabus, I hope that students will be more likely to refer to the syllabus when they have questions about revision memos, attendance and late work policies, submission guidelines, and other frequently asked questions that are already addressed in the syllabus. Now instead of responding to questions with, “It’s in the syllabus,” I can ask in return: “What page is that in the syllabus?” and the student will be able to answer.

A table of contents is fairly easy to make in Microsoft Word. Just Google for a table of contents tutorial for your version of Microsoft Office, or whichever other word processor you might you, and try it out.

Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?


Blackout 
and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

Continue reading

in response to Charlottesville, VA

After the events of this weekend, I am compelled to condemn the actions of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who call themselves the ‘Alt-Right’.

Independence Hall Assembly Room - Philadelphia 2015

As a white woman, I condemn the words and actions of those whites who believe that they are superior to other humans based on the color of their skin.

As a Southern woman, whose family settled in the Carolinas when they were still but colonies, I condemn the culture of racism in the South and call for those roots to be torn out and thrown onto the fire of truth. Then move onward, because racism is an invasive weed that has roots spread throughout the country.

As a descendent of slave owners, I condemn all acts of slavery and its legacy in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of people of color. I weep that this is part of my family history.

As a Christian, I condemn the actions, words, and attitudes of those who claim to be Christians but are false prophets. ‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Matthew 7.20). Racism is sin and is contrary to the message of the Gospel and to the Kingdom of God. Before God there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’ (Galatians 3.28; see also Colossians 3.11), but Christ came for all, died for all, and rose for all. Each and every one of us.

As an American, I condemn those Americans who would deny the freedoms of this nation to other Americans and to those seeking to build a better life in this country. This country’s ideal is to be a place where every individual can live to their fullest potential, regardless of color or creed. As a nation, we are far, far from embodying that ideal, but it is an ideal we should be pursuing in order to bring to reality — not limiting its promises to an arbitrary chosen few.

As a white Christian American from the south, I condemn the words and actions of white supremacists, both in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend and beyond, as antithetical to my own beliefs and as morally wrong, nor will I stop opposing them.

Photo: The Assembly Room in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA, USA, where the Constitution was debated and signed.