Previously in this column, Wallace outlined four “First Principles” for game world design, four things that many would-be world creators don’t get right when they think about how to create a setting for the Dungeons & Dragons game. This week, Wallace tackles the first of the principles in much greater depth and discusses the historical and cultural sources of the game.
1) If “D&D is not historically medieval or Western European,” then what is it?
D&D is a Classical Medieval Fairy Tale Western
I’ve already begun to answer this question in my initial discussion, but I want to take a step back and first explore why I, and why I imagine so many others, have assumed the medieval western European context for the game is so sacrosanct. It’s an easy mistake to make for a number of reasons, some of which I’ll try to enumerate here.
First off, the Middle Ages are really cool. I mean, I absolutely love the Middle Ages. I’ve spent a large portion of my professional life devoted to the study and then the teaching of medieval literature at the university level. I’ve written academic papers about the appeal of the Middle Ages in our culture, and one of my recurring arguments is that the medieval, and specifically the European medieval culture is the foundation of our current sense of who and what we are. There has been no massive civilizational disruption of culture in the wake of the medieval period as there was with the fall of Rome. Most of the languages, cultures, and nations that we readily identify (and often identify with) have their origins in the medieval period. It is our origin point and the farthest back historical point that we feel directly connected to.
Additionally, Tolkien and Lewis, the Oxford fantasists (to use Norman Cantor’s excellent term from his book Inventing the Middle Ages) who constructed the modern genre of fantasy literature out of whole cloth, were both consummate medievalists. (And yes, I know Lewis was perhaps more notable as a Renaissance scholar, but much of his employed symbolism is intensely medieval.) It might also be worth mentioning that the origin of modern fantasy literature is really quite recent, arguably less than two hundred years in the making, and thus still in its infancy. In truth, the genre as most of us understand is just over a century old with the first true fantasy world having made its debut only in 1896 in the form of The Well at the World’s End by William Morris. This is important because it means we are still really just beginning to figure out what this genre is. It is also important because the genre is still in a somewhat infantile and derivative state. This isn’t actually a bad thing as the works that are so often imitated are really excellent models and the genre has also begun to come into its own in the last few decades as it achieves widespread popularity and appreciation. Still, the debt to Tolkien in particular should be very clear to any player of D&D.
Other influences may actually be equally telling. Clearly Howard and Lieber as well as (perhaps most problematically) Vance and many other early fantasy authors have also had a significant impact upon the conventions of D&D, but most of their fantastic worlds share many of the same elements I shall be tracing as I progress. I plan to return to these analogues at a later time and discuss how they actually prefigure much of what D&D has become and also inform the direction of the genre of fantasy as a whole.
Now, to return to the point about the relative relevance of the medieval, I would like to point out that while the work of Tolkien and the other great early fantasists were clearly influenced by medieval European literature and the symbolism and tropes of that period, the worlds depicted in these stories are not particularly medieval. In fact they have three far clearer and more effective analogues.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Tolkien was not trying to recreate a medieval world, but rather to construct a missing Ur mythology of the English people that was lost in the tumults of early English history. He was trying to recapture something along the lines of an origin myth for his country on a par with that which classical Greece or Rome possessed in the works of Homer and Virgil respectively. His interest was to construct a proto-medieval world of legends and wonder, and he succeeded admirably. However, this world is not, largely, the world of the late medieval period with jousting knights and pining princesses. It is something much different and perhaps more useful and interesting as a potential model.
It might be helpful at this point to look at Tolkien’s scholarship and the works that influenced him. Arguably his two most important scholarly projects revolve around the texts of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. These are the texts that lived most vitally in his imagination and influenced the world of Middle Earth. Specifically, in Beowulf we find a near epic about slaying monsters and travelling through a haunted wilderness filled with demons and treacherous tribes. What civilization exists is scattered, precarious, and relatively primitive. This is much like the world depicted in classical mythology, whether it be the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, or Virgil’s Aeneid. These realms are likewise sparsely populated crudely mapped and filled with supernatural dangers. The gods and monsters and other supernatural forces are also far more immediately present in all these works, influencing and influenced by the characters in the stories. This is also part of the world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Think on the ruins of Numenor, or the Mines of Moria; these are more in the vein of classical mythology and saga than they are strictly medieval. Tolkien’s world, and many of the fantasy realms that derived from it, echo these classical and mythological elements constantly.
But there is another part to Tolkien’s world, a synthesis of another element that I will argue is in large part responsible for the genius of his creation, and for that we must look at his other source, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This fourteenth century romance is set solidly in the matter of Arthur and has many of the traits of the genre one expects to find in the Middle English romance. It has knights and ladies and courts and kings, all very medieval on the surface. Yet underneath, the intrusion of the Green Knight is a singularly charged element that pulls Gawain into a decidedly different world altogether. In truth, much of Arthurian literature and even medieval romance in general has these elements of the fantastic that intrude upon the otherwise stable (or at least recognizable) world of the Middle Ages. However, the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight performs this more clearly and eloquently than most. The eponymous Green Knight intrudes upon the court and initiates a “beheading game” (also seen in Irish myth – “Bricriu’s Feast”- and in Welsh myth – The Pwyll and Arawn story from the “Mabinogian”) in which he allows his own head to be cut off in return for the opportunity to bestow a similar blow, if he is able, a year hence. Gawain takes up this challenge, and the knight walks off with his severed head, none the worse for wear. True to his word, Gawain follows after him and, after proving his virtue, has his debt – mostly – forgiven.
Much has been made of the symbolism of the Green Knight and his powerful vegetative and pagan associations. Most significantly for this analysis, the intrusion of a fantastic pre-Christian and decidedly magical and pagan presence into the traditional medieval realm serves as a kind of perfect example of what Tolkien did to our sense of the medieval world in general. He brought in the fantastic to the world of the medieval and combined them into the delicious mélange we know and love today under the guise of fantasy literature. Tolkien’s particular genius was to reconcile the symbolically rich world of the Middle Ages with the fantastic world of mythology.
But he had a guide in doing so.
It is no coincidence that Tolkien first intended his works for children. There was a clear model for the kind of fantastic story that he was writing that combined traces of medieval culture with the fantastic elements of a much older mythology, and that model was the “Märchen” or “fairy tale.” This genre had long ago discovered the powerful synthesis of archaic medievalism with mythological magic and had achieved much in the fusion. Yet it had mostly been relegated to the fringes of society, seen as fare fit either for uneducated peasant folk or for children. Yet Tolkien recognized the powerful hold the fairy tale could have on the imagination, as had a handful of scholars and authors before him, such as the brothers Grimm and William Morris. The fairy tale takes the fantastic and mythic elements and brings them into, or at least into conflict with, the more real world of the recent (or at least near contemporary) past.
Examining the genres of classical epic and the fairy tale bring much to our understanding of how and why the worlds evoked by D&D look the way they do. From the powerful supernatural entities and pantheonic gods to the disbursed and fragile pockets of civilization, from the adventuring parties to the powerful wizards and their mighty magics, the worlds evoked by the system, rules and culture of Dungeons & Dragons are at least as much a product of the literature of the classical period and of the fairy tale as those realms are anything like even a fantastic version of the actual Middle Ages in Europe.
All this is not to say that the medieval period, with its rich history and culture, is not an excellent source of inspiration and detail, or that D&D is not heavily influenced by the medieval period and its tropes and memes. My purpose here is to point out that there are other rich sources that have strongly influenced the game we all know and love, and that by acknowledging this, it may be possible to build a more internally coherent and interesting world for the game.
Beyond these ancient influences, I think it is vital to recognize that D&D also has an influence that is far more contemporary and may provide an even more interesting set of inspirational source material. The American Western has long had a strong influence on the game of Dungeons & Dragons. This really shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as I sometimes find it is when I make the claim, as the Western was a terribly potent genre for much of the last century that strongly informed American culture (and then through the diaspora of Hollywood – the rest of the world). It has lost much of its cultural cache in the last few decades as the memory of the frontier became more nuanced and complicated and as the romance of the Wild West turned also to a certain pained horror at the human and ecological costs of the settling of that frontier.
Still, the third RPG from TSR, published in 1975, was Boot Hill, a Wild West RPG. (By the way, the second was Empire of the Petal Throne. Discussing Barker’s fascinating contributions to the genre and the implications of his work could, and probably will be, a whole other article.) The character of Murlynd in the iconic Greyhawk setting was the result of Don Kaye’s character being transported to an alternate Wild West world in Gygax’s own game, and there were conversion rules in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for converting between D&D and Boot Hill. It is clear that the mythology of the American Western was a great influence on the founders of the Dungeons & Dragons game and it should also be clear that many of the themes of the Western genre were also incorporated into D&D.
This isn’t actually as odd as it may seem at first, since there are many parallels between the Western and classical mythology and epic. It should come as no surprise that, after the Bible, the most popular text for pioneers to bring along as they tamed the frontier was Virgil’s Aeneid. (It’s hard to prove this, but it was clearly an incredibly influential text. Just look at a map of the western United States and note how many towns have names straight out of the epic.) It is easy to understand the appeal of a text about a group of outcasts searching through a hostile world to find a new home. The conscious classical imitation of so much of America’s founding surely also influenced the nascent cultural mythology of the West as well. Also, we often forget how easily the fairy tale was incorporated into the American Western as well, whether in the lighthearted tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, or in the more sinister amalgamation with Native American myths of wendigoes and cannibal spirits.
So, in conclusion, D&D is a Classical Medieval Fairy Tale Western. It takes liberally from all of these rich cultural sources and they inform the game’s very genetic core, from the settings it spawned to the basic rules upon which it runs. Again, my point is not to ignore the medieval, but simply to acknowledge that there are many other rich sources of inspiration that are already present in the game’s design, and that an effective and inclusive world based on an acknowledgment of these varied analogues and sources will be the stronger and more playable for that recognition. †