(Why is this page unrelated to
Tulsa/TV/radio/pop culture?* Because I felt like
In the late 1960s, while a high school student, I read a strange SF novella
called "Fiddler's Green."
Around 2001, having for a couple of years tapped into the collective
consciousness of current and former Tulsans on this web site, the story
resurfaced in my mind.
I could not remember the author's name or where I read it. I thought it might
have been from one of my dad's Reader's Digest condensed books.
"Fiddler's Green" stuck in my mind particularly because I knew I had not
fully understood it (and it is a great story.)
With Google, I found out that the author was Richard McKenna, and that I
probably had read the story in the
2 anthology (edited by Damon Knight).
Richard McKenna is best known for
Here are a couple of online mentions of this unique story. If you are reading
this, you may have found them, too:
Writer Robert Silverberg (whose juvenile novel,
Lost Race of
Mars, was probably the first SF I read) is said on
to have called "Fiddler's Green" "...surely the most moving and profound
desert-island fantasy ever written."
The July 2001 issue of Cloud
Chamber (an online fanzine by David Langford) described it as a "disturbingly
odd tale of escape from death at sea into a flawed consensus reality."
I soon located a copy of McKenna's
Agonistes, and other science fiction and fantasy stories in the Tulsa
library system and reread it. I was still impressed, and I still didn't
completely understand it. By that, I don't mean that I can't follow the
narrative. It is the depth and richness of the imaginative elements that
I can't get my mind around.
Since then, I have occasionally searched for the cultural wellsprings tapped
by the author, with only partial success.
The U.S. cavalry poem, "Fiddler's Green", possibly dating back to the Civil
War era, is clearly a main tributary.
Halfway down the trail to Hell,
In a shady meadow green
Are the Souls of all dead troopers camped,
Near a good old-time canteen.
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddlers' Green.
Marching past, straight through to Hell
The Infantry are seen.
Accompanied by the Engineers,
Artillery and Marines,
For none but the shades of Cavalrymen
Dismount at Fiddlers' Green.
Though some go curving down the trail
To seek a warmer scene.
No trooper ever gets to Hell
Ere he's emptied his canteen.
And so rides back to drink again
With friends at Fiddlers' Green.
And so when man and horse go down
Beneath a saber keen,
Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee
You stop a bullet clean,
And the hostiles come to get your scalp,
Just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head
And go to Fiddlers' Green.
The element of a thirst quenchable at a place between heaven and hell is
incorporated, though the story goes considerably beyond that.
I have had less luck tracking down other ideas in the story, for which it
feels as though there must be some folkloric basis: a tale of Tibesti soldiers
stealing themselves away from the public world...humans being comprised of
a multitude of natural "demons" which can be shed and woven into the fabric
of a created universe...an imperfect, incomplete god which requires offerings
The Tibesti are a mountain range in Chad. Could there be clues in Berber
folktales? So far, not much luck online.
This is a note in a bottle tossed into the internet ocean. I hope one day
to hear from someone who has read the story, and who can shed a little more
light on it. I will update when I find out more.
Mike Ransom, 2/25/2007
2/27/2007: Of course, I couldn't just sit around and wait for answers to
roll in, having gone this far.
I sent a query to the Tulsa Central Library Research Center about the Tibesti
tale. They typically do a good job answering my left-field questions. This
time, understandably, they struck out. Not even Barry Bonds bats 1.000:
"We have exhausted the Library's resources and have not found a specific
reference to your folktale, our collection provides a broader focus than
what is needed to search out this tale. I am including a link to the Ask
a Librarian service at the Library of Congress, specifically to their African
and Middle Eastern Division
Hopefully, they will be able to find an answer for you."
I sent my query to the Library of Congress, and await their answer.
3/7/2007: The Library of Congress sent 3 links, none of which were particularly
3/6/2007: A character believes she is "In Alcheringa...the Binghi spirit
(binghi : An Aborigine. This word, pronounced bing-eye, is derived from the
term for elder brother in the languages once spoken between Kempsey Newcastle,
viz. Ngamba, Birbai and Wanarua.)
ALCHERINGA..."dream time" of the Arunta..."The Eternal Dream Time"...(or)
"The Dreaming"...of a sacred heroic time long long ago when man & nature
came to be...a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of
charter of things that still happen; & a kind of logos or principle of
order transcending everything significant...the act of dreaming, as reality
& symbol, (by which)...the artist is inspired to produce a new song...(by
which) the mind makes contact with whatever mystery it is that connects The
Dreaming & the Here-&-Now.
-W.E.H. Stanner, "The Dreaming"
He who loses his dreaming is lost.
The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling
them by names & adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, & whatever their enlarged & numerous
senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing
it under its mental deity;
Til a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslaved the
vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their
objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronouncd that the Gods had orderd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
-William Blake (1790)
CABEIRI (Kabeiroi), mystic divinities who occur in various parts of the ancient
world. The obscurity that hangs over them, and the contradictions respecting
them in the accounts of the ancients themselves, have opened a wide field
for speculation to modern writers on mythology, each of whom has been tempted
to propound a theory of his own. The meaning of the name Cabeiri is quite
uncertain, and has been traced to nearly all the languages of the East, and
even to those of the North; but one etymology seems as plausible as another,
and etymology in this instance is a real ignis fatuus to the inquirer. The
character and nature of the Cabeiri are as obscure as the meaning of their
name. All that we can attempt to do here is to trace and explain the various
opinions of the ancients themselves, as they are presented to us in chronological
succession. We chiefly follow Lobeck, who has collected all the passages
of the ancients upon this subject, and who appears to us the most sober among
those who have written upon it.
of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction about
Agonistes, and other science fiction and fantasy stories:
"Damon Knight's introduction argues that
McKenna, eschewing 'the trivial puzzles and adventures' of so much SF, 'tackled
the basic problems of philosophy'; both 'Fiddler's Green' and the partly
autobiographical 'The Secret Place' bear out this judgment."
5/13/2008: I received this response to my "note in a bottle" (this page):
Today when I performed a simple support task for one of my librarians, she
called me "o omnipotent one." I asked her to send me offerings, and that
set off a resonance in my mind with "Fiddlers Green." Since our library
doesnt seem to have a collection that contains it (I first read it
in Damon Knights
X), I Googled it and your web site came up high on the list.
I first read the story in 8th grade (1978), and have re-read it several times
since. Its one of those stories that has really stuck with me over
the years. I was fascinated by the change in the character who didnt
get all the way into their world... (spoiler edited - webmaster)
Here in the Bay Area we have many library systems, so Im sure Ill
find it -- its probably time for another re-reading. Not all books
or stories that I enjoyed in junior high really stand the test of time, but
I think that this one does.
John D. Boggs, PLAN Database Manager
Peninsula Library System
San Mateo, CA
5/13/2008: John's email prompted me
to get this info out here:
Last year, we watched the 1977 Peter Weir movie,
Last Wave", with Richard Chamberlain. It explores the Aboriginal belief
in "Dreamtime", which figures in "Fiddler's Green". A good, and dark movie.
John Graves was executive producer of Weir's acclaimed previous movie,
at Hanging Rock", which communicated a similar feeling of unease in an
Australian Aboriginal setting. Around the time of that production, he became
friends with Aboriginal actor David
Gulpilil, who made a strong impression in "The Last Wave". Graves talked
about the unique actor on his web site,
and in his memoirs,
Just Say Yes,
available at the site.
(This paragraph actually relates to TV and Tiki
culture!) I chatted with Mr. Graves on the phone about this and other
aspects of his career. He was Manager of Film Programs at NBC in the 1960s
through 1970, thus overseeing such favorites of mine as
Then Came Bronson and The
Man From U.N.C.L.E. He is a tennis buddy of Robert Drasnin, who wrote
music for U.N.C.L.E. and created two classic albums of Exotica
Tiki music, 1959's
and last year's
II. John himself is a jazz pianist with a solo CD to his credit.
John once visited philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell, who, when his
secretary started to use a shot glass to measure out John's glass of bourbon
neat, uttered a classic quote:
"For ourselves we measurefor our guests we just pour."
5/15/2008: Speaking of great minds of the 20th Century, this quote has been
at the top of the TTM Prologue page for the last
"For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future
is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one." - Albert Einstein
A strikingly parallel quote from the Wikipedia entry for
"The anthropologist and historian W.H. Stanner preferred 'the Dreaming' to
'the Dreamtime' and saliently describes it as 'the Everywhen'. This is an
apt and evocative approximation to what the Indigenous Australian Peoples
refer to in translation as the 'All-at-once' Time which is experienced as
a co-existing confluence of past, present and future. This does not counter
the Indigenous Australians People's concept of linear time, but it informs
and qualifies it. Indigenous Australians considered the Everywhen of the
Dreaming to be objective, whilst linear time was considered a subjective
construction of waking consciousness of one's own lifetime. This is in the
converse of the European concept which views dreams as subjective and linear
time as objective."
While trying to figure out exactly when the Einstein quote went up on this
site, I coincidentally stumbled onto this even older entry of mine on one
of the 'What was new on TTM' pages:
12/23/2000: Rewrote the Prologue. A pertinent quote for readers: "The time
you enjoy wasting is not wasted time." - Bertrand Russell
8/16/2008: Found on
this page of
the Almost Famous Film Festival web site:
David Tell. Editor and publisher of The Midtown Messenger (News
for Phoenix's Historic Neighborhoods and A3F Sponsor) since he founded it
in 2001, Tell has been engaged in print journalism for over 20 years. In
his career, he has led editorial and design teams on daily and weekly newspapers,
and has launched and managed custom and trade magazines targeted at executive
and consumer audiences and focusing on healthcare, information technology,
telecommunications, personal finance, charitable giving and education. As
part of his newspaper career, Tell has been writing film reviews since 1990,
is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society, supports local independent
filmmaking efforts and has written a WGA-registered screenplay adapted from
a novella by the late Richard McKenna ("The Sand Pebbles" author). He
invites inquiries about producing a film using his script, an
occult-action-adventure-fantasy called "The Thirst."
and at The Midtown Messenger:
The Sand Pebbles is a now-somewhat-obscure film that was Candice
Bergens first shot at fame, and is based on the novel of the same name
by talented author Richard McKenna, who died untimely and whose novella
Fiddlers Green is the basis for our screenplay, The
Thirst, which we have been trying to get produced since 2000. If
they keep bringing up stuff of his, maybe someday my awesome sci
fi-adventure-occult The Matrix meets Apocalypto
meets Interview With the Vampire etc. etc. will get produced.
I wrote to Mr. Tell, who responded:
Thanks much. I wonder if all the people fascinated with this story (as I
obviously was) had as much trouble figuring what goes on at the ending (as
I did, at least for the first 10 or 20 years of reading it ... age 14 through
40 or so!). On thinking I'd figured it out, I then wrote the screenplay.
Obviously, the main basis of the fascination for most people, I imagine,
is the richness of the idea of a world built up out of the shared psychic
contributions--intellectual, scientific, religious, etc.--of its members.
And how that world appears to evolve, in perhaps accelerated rate, through
the phases of civilization, of a sort, that our own went through.
Well, actually, maybe that's not the basis of most people's enjoyment--it's
just a damn good adventure story, with all kinds of other facets, like Tolkien,
But what I thought was fun about the ending was the idea that (spoiler
McKenna's late wife's sister, Louise Crain of Durham, NC, who holds the rights
to the estate and from whom I regularly renew my purchase of option on the
rights to the adapted screenplay, read the script and found it faithful to
McKenna's intent, in her opinion.
I also forwarded a copy of the script to the curator of a museum to McKenna's
memory in his hometown of Mountain Home, Idaho. Jose Madera, I think.
Anyway, thanks for the exposure, thanks likewise for your interest in a great
mind and a great piece of fiction ... you may post this message on the site
if you see fit.
FYI, I'm copying my friend, actor and filmmaker Ben Busch, on this e-mail,
as we share our efforts to crack the barriers to getting things noticed,
appreciated, made, picked up, etc.
Editor & Publisher
Messenger/Quicksilver Publishing Group
P.O. Box 3877
Chandler, AZ 85244-3877
10/15/2009: John A. Hobson said:
Your bottle's turned up another fan! I encountered the story probably about
1970 when on holiday with an aunt who was an SF fan (sadly an early victim
of the Troubles in N. Ireland). I never forgot it but of course couldn't
remember the author.
By pure chance 6 years later as a student journalist I came across an unwanted
review copy of McKenna's short stories and with joy was reacquainted. I lost
this copy sometime later but never forgot "Fiddler's Green" out of the hundreds
of short SF stories I read.
A few years back I was extremely ill and maybe that prompted me to track
down the story again. I found a copy in Powell's bookshop in Oregon(!) which
was sent to me in England. The power of the internet. But like most 50s/60s
SF, it's out of vogue.
Now here's a strange thing. I re-read all the other short stories again,
but not "Fiddler's Green". I know the story nearly 40 years after first reading
it, but I still can't really fathom it out, or break its spell. Except in
an odd parallel. There is moderm music/experimental music by Robert Jarvis
with a track called "Magic stones" which is a spoken narrative about trying
to get kids to listen to nature in the Loch Neagh area of Ulster
It strikes me as close as I'm going to get to experiencing "Fiddler's Green".
As a dabbler in scripts, I've also wondered if it would make a film, but
alas I suspect it would end up some violent travesty like most Phillip K
Dick stories. Are you still pushing the idea?
Anyway, bottle away!
12/29/2009: Found a question with an answer that refers back to this page
on the blog,
was that book?