View from the Pelgrane’s Nest – September 2018

This is my last View article for a while. Pelgrane Press’s managing director Cat Tobin will be taking over this column, and I’ll be stepping back into an advisory role as I take a year-long sabbatical.

Cat asked me recently – what exactly is a pelgrane anyway? And I thought back to my own introduction to this quirky creature.

When I was twelve, my parents bought me the AD&D DMs Guide and Players Handbook in advance of my birthday. I’d played D&D at school once, which was frustrating but intriguing, and heard older kids from the local boy’s grammar school taking about “casting spells” in a game. I was an SF and fantasy fan, and this was electrifying.

My mother hid the books inadequately in a cupboard, and each night I read them under the covers in bed, absorbing Gary Gygax’s unique prose, and trying to imagine the game that would come out of it. I read every word, including the reading list in the DM”s Guide- some of which I had sampled – but not Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld and the Dying Earth.

Alongside fire-and-forget magic, extravagant gourmandism and peculiar cultural practices were a menagerie of bizzare creatures unique to Vance – often fearsome, sometimes erudite and with a penchant for human flesh.  The one which fired my imagination was the pelgrane, a word both singular and plural, a creature with wings which sounded like rusty hinges, a hatchet beak and learing eyes. There original appearance in the Dying Earth was as an ever-present threat but distant threat, rather than a character, looming in the sky, discouraging travel which was inconvenient to the narrative. The Eyes of the Overworld introduced me to Cugel – the fox-faced vagabond whose presence upends delicately balance social structures – inevitably leading to his swift exit, pursued by a mob.

 It was in Cugel’s Saga that the pelgrane demonstrated the capacity for language and mordant humour. A wizard imprisons Cugel the Clever in a bedroom. Cugel escapes by applying ossip wax his bed to negate its gravity. On the bed he drifts high into the sky and, as night descends, falls into slumber.

“A black shadow fluttered across the sun; a heavy black object swooped down to alight at the foot of Cugel’s bed; a pelgrane of middle years, to judge by the silky gray hair of its globular abdomen. Its head, two feet long, was carved of black horn, like that of a stag-beetle and white fangs curled up past its snout. Perching on the bedstead it regarded Cugel with both avidity and amusement.”

“Today I shall breakfast in bed,” says the pelgrane. “Not often do I so indulge myself.”

Twenty years and hundreds of games later, I’ve acquired a license to publish a roleplaying game based on the Dying Earth and I am speaking to Jack Vance on the phone, hearing the same mordant humour, a child-like chuckle as he shared more of Cugel’s tales. We turned to the pelgrane. It was his suggestion which lead to us not pinning down in the text exactly what a pelgrane looks like, or how it behaves, and leaving much of it to the reader, or in our case, the GM and players. The pelgrane can be a source of horror, a threat, a swooping nuisance, a foil for the proud, or the name of a nascent RPG company.

The pelgrane featured widely in our Dying Earth series, illustrated by Hilary Wade, and developed a stronger personality. We imagined it nesting high in the mountains swooping on unwary freelancers, and even delivering parcels.

To some extent I was always the pelgrane, but “pelgranistas” gradually became the word for our inner circle of freelancers – we talked about people being “pelgrane-y” – an ineffable quality in people which Roald Dahl described as “spark” – we nurtured these people, always trying to expand our circle. They are talented, skilled, creative and fun to be with. And Cat Tobin, when she took over from Beth Lewis, fitted the pelgrane mold perfectly, but with the hint of steel needed to be a publisher and not just some fly-by-night freelancer. (Pelgranes fly night and day.)

Since co-owner Cat Tobin took over as managing director I’ve been trying to de-Simon-ify the company.  But while I am working for the company that’s pretty tough. I’ve been doing stuff, but I get credit where it’s not due – unavoidably. As an entrepreneur I’ve been adequate at most things, but not great at anything, expect perhaps finding good people. It’s tough to remove legacy processes for example, if there is no need. Cat is a pelgrane through and through, dedicated, through and more experienced at publishing than me. Cat has changed what a pelgrane is.

Pelgrane Press is a collaborative effort, with Cat now the driving force, and its full-time leader. I’ve been overwhelmed with stuff in my personal life, and not been able to give the company the attention it deserves. I am stepping back into an advisory role, giving Cat the freedom to run the company as she sees fit, and offering my tuppence-worth to the Pelgrane slack channel. You may see me at conventions, looking relaxed, as others do actual work. I want Pelgrane Press to be pelgrane without pelgrane being me.

And you, if you are reading this and playing our games, are a pelgrane too.

 

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