Saturday, October 28, 2006

[Fantasy] The Storyteller and Mrs. Brown

Today, I wish to investigate a connection between Benjamin's Der Erzähler and Ursula K. Le Guin's Science Fiction and Mrs Brown. (The latter essay can be found, like From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in her non-fiction collection The Language of the Night.) One of the theme's in Benjamin's essay is the difference between the story and the novel; the theme of Le Guin's essay is the possibility of SF (and fantasy) novels. Together, they may get us a bit closer to an answer to the question: what is the relation of the novel, and of the story, to fantasy?


Le Guin quotes Virginia Woolf, who is musing upon her meeting an old lady ("mrs. Brown") in the train:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character - not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. [...] The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.

Le Guin accepts this definition of the novel, and wonders whether the writer of science fiction can hope to sit across Mrs. Bloom; or whether he is doomed to be "trapped for good inside our great, gleaming spaceships", which are capable of "containing heroic captains in black and silver uniforms, and second officers with peculiar ears, and mad scientists with nubile daughters", and indeed are capable of anything at all "except one thing: they cannot contain Mrs. Brown". Can a writer of science fiction ever write a novel? And of course, with suitable substitutions ("heroic princes in gold and adamantine armour, and secretive sorcerers with pointy ears, and mad necromancers with nubile daughters" - the overlap between SF and fantasy being the nubile daughter, universal object of the male imagination) we can ask the same question of fantasy writers.

Yes, says Le Guin; but for a long time it didn't look like it. Here is an interesting characterisation of the SF literature of the 30's and the 40's:

The humanity of the astronaut [a typical protagonist] is a liability, a weakness, irrelevant to his mission. As astronaut, he is not a being: he is an act. It is the act that counts. We are in the age of Science where nothing is. None of the scientists, none of the philosophers, can say what anything or anyone is. They can only say, accurately, beautifully, what it does. The age of Technology; of Behaviorism; the age of the Act.

I doubt, very much, that the 'Literature of the Act' became popular because we had entered the 'Age of the Act'. It seems to me that we have entered the 'Age of no Act'; the age wherein it has become nigh impossible to act; that is, to take meaningful actions directed towards a clear and important goal. The current popularity of heroic high fantasy can be explained, I submit, by the fact that people wish to be transported to a world where (a) good and evil are meaningful choices, easily seperated; and (b) individual action matters, decides everything. Action is our great wish.

But that is a side-remark: Le Guin evidently uses 'action' to denote the outward aspect of our acts only; it might have been clearer if she had said 'behaviour'. But we understand what she means.

Now, says Le Guin, around 1950, Mrs. Brown suddenly appeared, in the most improbable place: fantasy. (Mrs. Brown is going to be Frodo Baggins, together with Gollum, Sam, Smeagol and Bilbo; Tolkien having to pull her into pieces in order to tell an epic.) This is improbable because:

If any field of literature has no, can no Mrs. Brown in it, it is fantasy - straight fantasy, the modern descendant of folktale, fairy tale, and myth. These genres deal with archetypes, not with characters. The very essence of Elfland is that Mrs. Brown can't get there - not unless she is changed, changed utterly, into an old mad witch, or a fair young princess, or a loathly Worm.

But it still happened; and it goes on happening. According to Le Guin, this is a good thing:

Should a book of science fiction be a novel? [...] I have already said yes. I have already admitted that this, to me, is the whole point. That no other form of prose, to me, is a patch on the novel. That if we can't catch Mrs. Brown, if only for a moment, then all the beautiful faster-than-light ships, all the irony and imagination and knowledge and invention are in vain; we might as well write tracts or comic books, for we will never be real artists.

Le Guin considers one objection to this idea, namely that the novel is dead because there are no characters anymore, only "classes, masses, statistics, body counts, subscription lists, insurance risks, consumers, randomly selected samples, and victims". Or: "There are moving pictures of a woman in various places with various other persons. They do not add up to anything so solid, so fixed, so Victorian or medieval as a 'character' or even a personality."

Well, says Le Guin, of that is so, then why keep writing? "What good are all the objects in the universe, if there is no subject?" And thus we should either give up all hope, or write novels.


This is a very strange conclusion. Does not Le Guin's own description of fantasy show that a dichotomy between the novel and behaviourism is false? Harking back to Benjamin, we can see that there is at least the story, as a companion to the novel. The story does not have the novels characters; among its prime characteristics is that there is no psychology in it, whereas the novel is almost defined by psychological attention to the characters. But the story is not behaviourist either; its founding category, experience, is anti-behaviourist; its openness to interpretations is anti-behaviourist.

Can one write fantasy novels? Can one still, today, write fantasy stories? Or is modern fantasy, as a relevant art, possible only as a mixture of these two; or as something totally new? Or is artistic fantasy doomed to expose its own earlier promises, to gainsay all the promises made to us in happier times? (As M. John Harrison's Viriconium books so excellently do.)


To be continued.

Classes vs. Archetypes

A short observation.

What makes virtually every fantasy roleplaying game have a feel so unlike fairy tales, is that roleplaying games mainly relied on classes, whereas fairy tales rely on archetypes.

A character's archetype defines his place in the narrative; most importantly, his relation towards other characters. The handsome prince, for example, is (1) the object of desire for the maid, (2) the bane of the dragon, (3) the intended victim of betrayal by his younger brother; and so forth. How he will defeat the dragon, thwart his brother and marry the maid - whether by force, intellect or guile - remains an open question until the tale is told.

A character's class, on the other hand, defines his capabilities and dominant mode of action. The fighter is good with weapons; will attempt to defeat the dragon and the brother by chopping them into little bits; and will show off his biceps in orhter to woo the maid. What he will do, and what relations the other characters have to him remains an open question until the tale is told.


What are the virtues and vices of archetypes and classes respectively? I have a hunch that archetypes are more useful in serious stories, but I cannot yet make this precise.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Elitism, and RPGs as Art

I have been planning to respond to John McLintock's Roleplaying as art? Not for me for a long time, and I'm finally getting round to it. McLintock's post infuriated me when I first read it - not because I get angry at people who think that roleplaying is not an art, but because of its rhetorical use of the word 'elitist', and its attempt to discredit art.

Let me make an important point right here at the start: the question whether RPGs are art is meaningless, just as meaningless as the question whether painting is art. Is there a hidden essence of RPGs or of painting, that may turn out to be 'art' or to be something else? Of course not. Rather, we can paint with many different goals; and we can look at paintings with many different 'eyes'. We can paint for fun, and judge the painting by how much fun we had making it. We can paint to express our hidden trauma's, and have our psycho-analyst look at the painting as a symptom the meaning of which has to be discovered. Or we can paint in order to create beauty, and use aesthetic criteria to judge the painting. In the latter case, painting has not suddenly become art, but we are judging our painting as art.

With RPGs it is the same. RPGs are not art; but we can judge both the game books and the actual play sessions using the criteria of art, and thus view RPGs as art. How could John McLintock deny this? With a very strong claim:

My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

The very concept of art has been undermined. That is a discouraging, even catastrophic revelation! How did this undermining come to pass?

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm.

On the surface, this is true. When we judge something as art, we judge it; we apply criteria; and thus we make a distinction between low and high. (Whether we call the high 'good art' and the low 'bad art', or the high 'art' and the low 'not art' is a merely linguistic matter. I will use the first convention.)

But of course, we make such distinctions all the time, and not only in the context of art. So I gather that McLintock means something deeper: artistic criteria are not merely used to seperate good and bad art, but they are supposed to divide the sublime from the not-sublime; they are the most important criteria there are.

The idea that good art is the highest thing there is can be defended, I suppose. I, personally, would be willing to argue that in general good art is better than good fun. But I don't see how this conception that artistic criteria are the most important criteria is inherent in the concept of art itself. It seems to be something external, something tagged on to the idea of art. There is the idea of art, and then there is the idea that art is the highest good - McLintock conflates the two.

But let us go back to that tragic history of undermining.

I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by. [...] What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. [...] '[A]rt' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

This is not immediately enlightening. In what sense are artistic criteria founded on a "fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins"? Apparently, at least something that is contradicted by everything now being a matter of personal taste. And, sure enough, if everything is a matter of personal tast, then there can be no artistic criteria - there can be no criteria at all, but only the whim of the moment.

Reading the rest of the article, one sees that the thesis is never developed with sufficient clarity, but one gets the impression that the most important word is elitist. What, if I read McLintock rightly, according to him is so great about the destruction of the concept of art is that (1) an elitist conception of the sublime has been abolished; (2) this conception has been replaced by a consumerist conception of the sublime, articulated by the masses, which (3) boils down to "it's all largely a matter of personal taste now"; and (4), in the case of roleplaying games at least, this conception equates the sublime with the fun.


How absolutely horrible.

Perhaps Harry Potter is 'fun' to read, but can anyone seriously consider it to be a better book than Paradise Lost? Should our high schools and universities teach their students Dan Brown or Shakespeare? Britney Spears or Bach?

A culture in which fun is the measure of all things is a culture without soul, a culture in which people do not strive for excellence of character and for wisdom. A culture in which all standards have been abolished and everything is left to the subjective sense of enjoyment is a culture which has lost its greatness - and it will soon enough rue it.

You can call me elitist. If being elitist means to say that yes, there are standards, valuable standards that you too should learn to apply and appreciate, which divide Shakespeare, Milton, Proust and Kafka from Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and who knows what other crappy writers - then I am elitist, and proud of it.

But I don't think 'elitist' is the right word here. You can find Shakespeare and Milton on the web, for free, available to everyone. That's not elitist; it's as anti-elitist as it gets. Maybe they are hard to read, but that's what schools are for, and dictionaries, and if you persevere you too can penetrate them. You'll be enriched by it. Everyone will be enriched by these texts that are available to everyone and able to speak to everyone - how less elitist can you become?

Or is 'elitist' the term that people use to label those that say that they should sacrifice some of their 'fun' in order to grow? Is it the resentment that the child that wants to watch television feels against his parents that tell him to do his homework, which is speaking to us through this word 'elitist'?


I do not wish to suggest to John McLintock is a child who'd rather play roleplaying games than do his homework. But we should realise that the mere fact that you and I like roleplaying games does not prove that it is a good thing that we spend our time playing them. (Unless it be in those moments we just need to relax.) I do think it is a good thing, and I have discussed some of the reasons for that in this blog; others you can think up yourself. That we like it, however, is not enough.

For luckily, there are standards other than 'liking'; standards that we can call on in order to rise above ourselves and reach that height of spirit which we can always strive for, if never quite attain.

Walter Benjamin, "Der Erzähler" (The Storyteller)

In the comments to my last post, Ian mentioned an essay by Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler (The Storyteller). Benjamin was an important German philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century; he wrote on a wide range of topics, but his best-known work is probably his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (it is widely cited as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility would have been a better translation).

Der Erzähler is a very rich and complex essay. It claims to be a reflection on the work of Nikolai Lesskow (in English known as Leskov, I believe); but it also touches on the difference beween a story (in the sense that a storyteller tells stories; Erzählung, not Geschichte) and a novel, on the communicability of experience, on the role of death in modern life, on the nature of wisdom, on the relation between man and nature, and on several other topics. All that in twenty-four pages. It certainly deserves close study, and for those who are interested, I have located an English translation in either PDF or html form. Those who prefer a physical book should look for the collection called Illuminations, or Illuminationen in German.

(The translation appears to be very bad, unfortunately. For instance, in IV "der dem Hörer Rat weiß" is translated as "who has counsel for his readers". But "Hörer" means "listeners", not "readers", and given the connection that Benjamin sees between story-telling and oral communication, this is significant. It is full of such mistakes. "Exemplarisch", for instance, should be translated "exemplary", not "by giving examples". In XIII, the translator makes a complete muddle of Benjamin's distinction between Gedächtnis, Eingedenken and Erinnerung. Can anyone tell me whether this online translation is the same one as that published in Illuminations? If not, I recommend the latter.)

What I would like to do in this blog post is give a summary of the essay. Given the essay's richness and denseness, this summary will be both too long and too short.

There will be some translation issues. The German Erfahrung and Erlebnis both seem to translate to 'experience'. But, at least as Benjamin uses them. the first is the experience of 'a man of experience', while the second is the experience of 'I experience pleasure'. Erfahrung is connected with wisdom, with understanding life and the world we live in; Erlebnis has more to do with particular sensations that do not build up a greater whole. Unless otherwise indicated, I'll use 'experience' for 'Erfahrung'.



I

The art of story-telling is dying out. With it also dies the human capability that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences (Erfahrungen). The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away.

II

Experience, passing from mouth to mouth, is the source from which all story-tellers have created. This is illustrated by the folk-notion of a story-teller: he is either someone who has travelled far, or someone who has learned the history of his own country. In both cases, experience not readily available to all is passed on by means of the story-teller.

III

Lesskow is at home in the distances both of space and time. He is a man of the earth, of practicality; his exemplar is the man who finds his way about the world without getting too deeply involved with it.

IV

This connection with the practical is a natural one for a story-teller. A story always has its own practical use; the story-teller is someone who has counsel for his listeners. If "having counsel" sounds old-fashioned, this is because the communicability of experience is dwindling. We have no counsel, either for ourselves or for others.

Counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To catch up with this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. Counsel, woven into the fabric of a lived life, is wisdom.

Story-telling is dying out because wisdom, the epic side of truth, is dying out.

V

The decline of the story is the rise of the novel. Where the story-teller takes his stories from lived experience, either his or that of others, to change it into experience for his listeners; there the novelist is the lonely individual, no longer able to speak exemplarily about his most important concerns, unable to give or receive counsel. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound despair/perplexity (Ratlosigkeit; literally 'counsellessness') of the living.

VI

A new form of communication has arisen with the rise of the press (read: mass-media); this new form is information.* Information is antithetical to the story.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation. It is left up to the reader to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

VII

[An example from Herodotus of a story without internal explanation is given.] The reason that the story is still food for thought is exactly that Herodotus explains nothing.

VIII

The stories that linger in memory are the ones free of psychological analysis. This process of memorising stories, however, is becoming less and less common, because the situation in which it most easily takes place becomes less and less common: boredom. It is the hearer entranced in the rhythm of labour - such as weaving or spinning - who most naturally assimilates the story. As craftsmanship dies out, so does the story.

IX

The storyteller does not try to convey dry, impersonal information; he sinks the story into his own life, in order to bring it out of him again. Story-telling itself is not a liberal art, but a craft. The great story is therefore a carefully crafted thing, the "precious product of a long chain of causes similar to one another". It takes time, a lot of time, to create such a story; and this is why story-telling is dying out. "All these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated."

X

If this is so, then there seems to be a connection between the decline of story-telling and the slow vanishing of the concept of eternity from how we conceive our lives. Indeed. The idea of eternity has its source in the idea of death. It is the vanishing of the idea of death that is linked to both the dying-out of story-telling and the dwindling of the communicability of experience.

Death used to be a central part of life; but it is so no longer. In modernity, the phenomenon of death was slowly removed from daily reality. (Who still lives in a house in which at some point someone has died?)

It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life — and this is the stuff that stories are made of — first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. A the moment of death, suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.

XI

Death is the authority of the story-teller. In other words: his tales (Geschichten) refer back to the tale of nature (Naturgeschichte; both 'story of nature' and 'natural history'). [An extended example of a modern story-teller who embeds a personal life in the natural cycle of death and birth.]

XII

Consider the difference between a historian and a chronicler. The historian writes history; the chronicler is the history-teller. The historian explains history; in the chronicle, the place of explanation is taken by interpretation, which is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world.

XIII

Erinnerung (remembrance) takes different forms in the story and the novel. In the story, it appears as Gedächtnis (memory). The cardinal point for the unaffected listener to a story is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing it. Memory (Gedächtnis) is the epic faculty par excellence. Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other.

In the novel, on the other hand, Erinnerung appears as Eingedenken (reminding?). The novel is about a particular character, event or situation; of which it 'reminds' us.

XIV

"Only in the novel are meaning and life, and thus the essential and the temporal, separated; one can almost say that the whole inner action of a novel is nothing else but a struggle against the power of time." Indeed, the 'meaning of life' is the centre around which the novel revolves. Here 'meaning of life' — there 'moral of the story': with these slogans novel and story confront each other, and from them the totally different historical co-ordinates of these art forms may be discerned.

There is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to an anticipated realization of the meaning of life by writing "Finis."

XV

Moritz Heimann said: "A man who dies at 35, is at every point of his life a man who dies at 35." This is false, but merely because Heimann got the tenses wrong. The truth is: "At every point of his life, man who dies at 35, will have been a man who dies at 35." The meaning of a life only becomes apparent after death.

The reader of a novel looks for human beings from whom he derives the "meaning of life." Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death - the end of the novel - but preferably their actual one. The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

XVI

The fairy-tales is the earliest step man has taken to free himself from the pressure of the mythical. The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.

XVII

In the world of the story-teller, creatures are positioned on a continuous ladder that sinks down into the interior of the earth and goes up into the clouds. For Lesskow, the highest creature is the righteous person; who is also a bridge between the mudnane and the divine world.

XVIII

The whole created world speaks not so much with the human voice as with what could be called "the voice of Nature". [An extended rendering of a tale of Lesskow's, which is about the voice of nature.]

XIX

Because the whole world speaks with the voice of nature, Lesskow can even write about stones, the least conscious of all beings, as if they have a significance to man and communicate with him.

One can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel - not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller, in Leskov as in Hauff, in Poe as in Stevenson. The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.



* This reminds me of the lines by T. S. Eliot: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Friday, October 20, 2006

[Fantasy] Elfland, Poughkeepsie, Hogwarts and the Game of Houses

This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them.


I am currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she discusses writing styles appropriate to fantasy. But more interesting than her comments on style (which, though true, are not especially insightful) is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.

Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not (wilderness, nature), but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside. They arrive in a totally encapsulated reality." Some writers of fantasy, Le Guin goes on to argue, do the same: they toss in some faeries or dragons or magicians, but they never take their readers away to Elfland, never make them feel the essential strangeness and difference of that place. "[T]he point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."

Today, you might want to substitute 'Hogwarts' for 'Poughkeepsie', as John Pennington does in his - basically right if not always convincing - From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter.


It seems to me that Le Guin is right: fantasy, as a kind of literature, must be distancing, must always be about something Else. Having flying brooms is not enough, not if you use them to play a kind of football. Such literature may be whimsical, but is not fantastic - and it has a much greater danger of being pure escapism. (As Harry Potter, from what I've read of it, undoubtedly is. Why it is so widely praised is beyond me.)


What I want to suggest is that Robert Jordan, writer of that interminable sequence The Wheel of Time, has fallen prey to the same thing in his later books. Jordan is of course merely a token representing many of his colleagues. I do not suggest that this is the main flaw of Jordan's books; their lack of pace, bad style and bad characterisation also come to mind - but it is perhaps the most interesting. It may explain why so many people I have spoken to have become disenchanted with the series as it ran on: the series itself became disenchanted, in a very literal way.


One of the first scenes of Jordan's first book, The Eye of the World, features Rand al'Thor, the protagonist, as his father's farm is being attacked by a group of monstrous creatures intent on killing him. This does not win Jorden a prize for originality, of course, but it does make his book proper fantasy. The world we are transported to is dangerous; these dangers are real and present; and people accept them as dangers they simply have to face, and have to cope with.

This primacy of danger is a typical trope of fantastic literature. It is alien to our common conception of the world we live in: if our house were to be attacked by anyone, we would expect the police to come to our aid, or at least attempt to punish the attackers afterwards. In our common conception of our world, danger has no primacy, but must submit to law and order, to rights, to insurances.

We all know (though we are not often aware of it) that danger will not really submit to our all-too-human systems of protection. This is the truth that is expressed by Jordan's scene; and fantasy is its proper form of expression, because it allows the writer to immediately dispense with a whole complex of real institutions that stand between us and the perception of this truth.

Suppose that Jordan had followed up the scene with others in which the royal "Red Mages" had come to investigate the killing; had gone on a quest to kill the monstrous beings and imprison the elf that led them; and had sentenced the elf to pay for all the reconstruction work in the village he had his minions attack - than, no matter the monsters and the mages and the elf, we would not have had a fantasy. We would have had a basically realistic novel dressed up in whimsical (if somewhat overused) invention. The fantastic would have detracted from, instead of added to, the message.


In the later books of the Wheel of Time cycle, Rand al'Thor has become the king of many lands and peoples. Most of the books are now concerned with his attempts to keep all these people together; to overcome their natural prejudices and fears; and with the many, many power struggles among the various groups. Jordan calls it 'The Game of Houses'.

All of this could have happened in Poughkeepsie as well as in Elfland.

But even that is not really true; it really could not have happened in Elfland. It is too comfortable, too well-known - we see it around us every day. It is just politics. As Jordan changes his focus towards political power games, the fantasy loses its aspect of being a fantasy. As the magic becomes a political tool and concern, it ceases to be magic. We find ourselves in Poughkeepsie, sitting on an aluminium folding chair and wondering why we went through the trouble of imagining such a vast, diverse and in the end curiously bland alternative reality.


(This, I suppose, is where George R. R. Martin comes onto the stage and says, with a sly smile: "Well, but if one is a realist in disguise, one should have the courage to be a
realist in disguise!" And goes on to write a political 'fantasy' called A Song of Ice and Fire which invokes the illustrations not of Royo, but of Goya.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sexism in the Realms

Being ill, I wanted to read an easy book this weekend. I chose R. A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf Trilogy, a set of Forgotten Realms novels describing the youth of that well-known D&D character, the good drow Drizzt Do'Urden. They were pretty bad, of course, but just the kind of light entertainment I was looking for. Except...

There has been some discussion of sexism in roleplaying games on the internet, among which John Kim's interesting and shocking Gender Roles in RPG Texts. Although Salvatore's books are not roleplaying games, the fact that they are official TSR-published novels set in one of the most popular roleplaying settings in history makes them relevant to this discussion. And boy, these books are so sexist that I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Not that Salvatore ever says anything like "women are inferior to men". I suspect that he is not even aware of his own sexism, and that - what is even worse - most of his readers never notice it. But look beyond the surface, and what you see will not make you happy.
  • The corrupted elves known as the drow are also the only elves with a matriarchal society.
  • All dark elfs in the book are evil, except for two. Both of these good dark elfs are male.
  • Drizzt Do'Urden is good because his father was also good - the implication being that blood carries morality - but Drizzt's full sister is evil. Perhaps the father's blood wasn't strong enough to defeat the inherent evilness of women?
  • Two drow characters in the series show some understanding of what it means to be a father. However, none of the drow females in the books has anything even approaching a mother instinct. In fact, they seem to believe that sacrificing your just-orn baby to the spider goddess is the most normal thing in the world.

  • About one thousand times Salvatore shows us how male drow are humiliated and repressed by female drow. Presumably, we should be appalled by this. But when Drizzt comes into contact with a human society where the men make all important decisions, he does not even seem to realise that the same kind of humiliation and repression is going on here.

  • All characters in the books that excel in any way are men. There are women who are said to excel, but they are never shown in action. Quite in general, the men always defeat the women.

  • The strong drow males are strong because of their own innate and trained powers. The strong drow females are strong only because they have been given powers by the spider goddess Lolth. As soon as they fall out of Lolth's favour, they are helpless. In other words: female power is unnatural.

  • Even worse, the actual women in the series fall out of Lolth's favour because they are not effective enough at humiliating ans repressing their men. In other words: female power is unnatural and can only be sustained by repressing the natural power of males.

  • Then, we get to sexuality. Salvatory luckily spares us the details, but the ritual that is the graduation ceremony of the drow schools consists of (1) all students are dragged into a sexual orgy by the priestesses of Lolth; and (2) the best of the student-priestesses has the honour of having intercourse with a huge demon. Alle women are whores who prefer fucking rough beasts?

  • To make that point worse, one of Drizzt's sister already has lustful thoughts about him the moment he is born.

  • Drizzt's father is a good drow, which is frowned upon, but his Matron Mother allows him to live for two reasons. (1) He is the greatest fighter in the realm. (2) He is very good in bed. A single good man surviving by impressing the evil tyrant women with his sexual prowess? In your dreams, mister Salvatore!
This seriously makes me wonder how sexist the rest of TSR's offerings are. And what about fantasy in general?


Afterthought

If you search for "drow + sexism" on the net, you will find people talking about the sexism of the drow, where they mean the fact that the drow themselves are sexist because they repress men. Isn't it ironic that in trying to show the evils of sexism, people like Salvatore actually reveal themselves to be sexist?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

IF Comp 2006

The annual Interactive Fiction comepetition has begun. You can download the games today, start playing and judge them. Your votes must be in by November the 15th.