Tulsa TV Memories      

"Fiddler's Green", a 1960 science
fiction story by Richard M. McKenna

"God is spread pretty thin at 18 south 82 east."

18 south 82 east

(Why is this page unrelated to Tulsa/TV/radio/pop culture?* Because I felt like it.)

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 Orbit 2 anthology (edited by Damon Knight).

Richard McKenna is best known for The Sand Pebbles.

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 AbeBooks.com 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 Casey 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 and sacrifices...

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 http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-amed.html. 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 relevant.

3/6/2007: A character believes she is "In Alcheringa...the Binghi spirit land."

(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.)

 From http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/alcheringa.html:

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.

-Australian Aborigine


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 pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.

Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

-William Blake (1790)

3/7/2007: From http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Kabeiroi.html:

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.

8/16/2007: From Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction about Casey 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):

Hi Mike,

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 "Fiddler’s Green." Since our library doesn’t seem to have a collection that contains it (I first read it in Damon Knight’s Dimension 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. It’s one of those stories that has really stuck with me over the years. I was fascinated by the change in the character who didn’t get all the way into their world... (spoiler edited - webmaster)

Here in the Bay Area we have many library systems, so I’m sure I’ll find it -- it’s 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, "The 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, "Picnic 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, TheGraveSite.com, 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 Voodoo! and last year's Voodoo 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 measure—for 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 five years:

"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 Dreamtime:

"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 Bergen’s 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 Fiddler’s 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, for example.

But what I thought was fun about the ending was the idea that (spoiler omitted)

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.


David Tell
Editor & Publisher
The Midtown 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 (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/robertjarvis) 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!

John Hobson

12/29/2009: Found a question with an answer that refers back to this page on the blog, What was that book?

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