Tuesday, October 21, 2008

D&D as a Myth Cycle

There are more amusing faux book covers here, one of my favorite being:

Shocked though I'm sure you all are, I don't have much liking for Marion Zimmer Bradley's re-telling of the Matter of Britain. But that's not what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, I'm going to put forward a position that I hope will make clear my own perspective on the role of "tradition" in D&D.

The legend of King Arthur is, to put it bluntly, a mess. They're a mass of conflicting tales from a variety of different sources that have, over the years and largely through the overwhelming influence of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, acquired a kind of incoherent coherence. That is, though there are many strands, both cultural and literary, within the legend of King Arthur, those strands have nevertheless coalesced around some central themes, events, and characterizations in a way that makes it possible to say with some degree of certainty that the legend of King Arthur is about certain things, includes certain events, and has a cast of characters with recognizable personalities and features. In short, despite its origins, it's not at all unreasonable to talk about "the legend of King Arthur" and expect that most educated people in the Western world will know the rough outlines of what you mean by it.

One of the many reasons why the legend of King Arthur can be told and retold again and again is that, aside from its timeless themes, it contains so many cultural and literary strands within it that any given storyteller can choose to emphasize this one over that one in order to keep the legend "fresh" and engaging to a variety of audiences. Not all of these new takes on the legend work, of course, but that's not because of the weakness of the source material. In my opinion, it's because the only way to retell the legend of King Arthur is to do so in ways that are consonant with its thematic core. Betray that core and what you're left with isn't a retelling of an immortal tale but the creation of a merely derivative one.

I recall reading somewhere that Professor Tolkien hoped that, one day, Middle-earth might become the focus of its own legend cycle, with other storytellers picking up what he had done and using it to create additional tales so as to establish a proper English mythology (Tolkien famously deemed King Arthur unsuitable both because of its Continental, specifically French, influences and the way it mixes magic and Christianity). H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos already is something similar: his alien gods and blasphemous books are commonplace in contemporary fantasy and horror. I've often felt that both Star Wars and Star Trek work better when viewed as myth cycles, with each new series, movie, or book viewed as a retelling of the same basic story rather than as an addition to the overall story. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, Star Trek novels have no continuity between them, except whatever their authors might choose to accept, thereby freeing each author to use as much or as little of the "myth cycle" as suits their dramatic purposes.

A myth cycle isn't a "story" precisely, though it may include many very specific events within it. The legend of Arthur, for example, includes a number of events common to most of its tellings. However, the myth cycle can't be reduced to a series of events or even a collection of characters, because all of these can be altered or outright ommitted, especially if the myth cycle is large and convoluted enough. So, a myth cycle's foundation is its thematic core -- what it's about; that's its "story." The truth of this is pretty plain when you look at, for example, many putative stories of the Cthulhu Mythos. The work of August Derleth contains innumerable references to the gods, monsters, tomes, and characters of HPL's work, but its themes are so different and, in many ways, contrary to those of his predecessor that I don't think they can reasonably be deemed "Cthulhu Mythos stories" except in the most analogical sense.

The key, of course, is locating the thematic core of a myth cycle. Once you've done that, it's possible to recognize the derivative works for what they are. I realize, of course, that my position will be controversial, since it explicitly excludes revisionism from being part of the myth cycle. I don't think this is an unreasonable position, but I know that not everyone will accept it. Nevertheless, the point remains that myth cycles have a coherence to them that transcends the welter of specific things associated with the myth cycle. That's why you can tell a perfectly good Arthurian story in which certain characters or events never appear. It's also the reason why most of us, if reading a story that purports to be part of the myth cycle, can intuit whether it really belongs to it or not. I contend we all have a sense of the thematic core of most myth cycles with which we're quite familiar and can thus tell whether the author is working within the tradition or not.

D&D, being a game rather than a series of tales, can't really be viewed as a myth cycle in quite the same way. Certainly, there's the Gygaxian Canon, but I long ago came to the conclusion that it's a mistake to conflate D&D with the Gygaxian Canon. I find most of the wailing and gnashing of teeth -- "Save the Great Wheel!" and all that -- about the changes to the Canon in the new edition to be missing the forest for the trees. Despite this, I think there is a central "story" to D&D, which is to say a thematic core, and it's from this core that all things that wish to call themselves "Dungeons & Dragons" must draw. What is that thematic core? I hope I can be forgiven for saving my answer to that question for a later post, but, rest assured, I'll be discussing it at some length over the next day or two.

20 comments:

  1. Actually, Star Trek novels are thoroughly vetted by Paramount's continuity cops. They may alter their stance on what's canon from time to time (to conform to new TV shows and movies), but at any given moment they have absolute say over whether a particular bit will be allowed in the novel or not, and have been known to disallow things not just because they violate established canon, but because they have the potential to tread on ground that's about to be visited by the shows/movies. The line editors get much more freedom once the particular show goes off the air, but they still have to get every last thing approved.

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  2. I don't understand the snide comments about feminism on this blog. First of all, it has nothing to do with the subject matter, and secondly, you're a feminist poster child: taking care of the kids while your wife brings home the money. Without feminism, your current lifestyle would be radically different, in ways you might not enjoy.

    I'm a little suspicious of this concept of "knowing it when you see it". It sounds like an easy way to create arguments about whether things are really blah instead of foo without providing a compelling reason.

    D&D, like the Arthurian myths, are similarly a mess, so I do agree with the analogy there. The problem is identifying the core and removing the dross. That's tricky, so I'm interested in the next post.

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  3. I don't understand the snide comments about feminism on this blog.

    Can you point me to where I've actually talked about feminism here in any fashion whatsoever? If I have, I honestly can't recall it.

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  4. How about this from the comments section of the Review for Classic Monsters Revisited:

    "Or is it because the language I used is too hippie/sexual revolution/women's lib?"

    That's certainly part of it...

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  5. Marion Zimmer Bradley's works point blankly, suck. Mists of Avalon was terrible. Back in college the femists clubbed the local Literature teacher to use it along side Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and half way through it, by general consense of all teh class, men and women of all ages it was abandoned.

    Firebrand was equally as bad.

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  6. That's certainly part of it...

    The other part being?

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  7. I contend we all have a sense of the thematic core of most myth cycles with which we're quite familiar and can thus tell whether the author is working within the tradition or not.

    Hey, a place where you’re more optimistic and I’m more cynical! (^_^)

    I think we humans are awfully good at missing the point of literature. I know I’ve been simply awful at it at times. And if we weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many authors and editors who think they’re staying within traditions when they aren’t.

    It’s gotten to the point where I won’t bother reading a novel in a shared world that wasn’t written by the author who founded it.

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  8. "That's certainly part of it." is what you (JM) said in the response to person who made the original comment.

    That's at least one instance of you expressing a dislike.

    I don't understand it also because you seem genuinely to want to grow the hobby and broaden its base. For that, this kind of thing is counterproductive.

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  9. "That's certainly part of it." is what you (JM) said in the response to person who made the original comment.

    That's at least one instance of you expressing a dislike.


    A dislike for a certain style of discourse the writer of which termed "hippie/sexual revolution/women's lib," not I. That's not the way I discuss things, generally, and I wouldn't have used those precise words, but I understood what he meant by them and agreed.

    I don't understand it also because you seem genuinely to want to grow the hobby and broaden its base. For that, this kind of thing is counterproductive.

    If my expressing a dislike for Marion Zimmer Bradley's doctrinaire reworking of Arthurian myth or expressing a dislike for certain types of philosophical discourse drives someone away from the hobby, there's not much I can do about that. I see these things as frankly far less "counterproductive" than my argument that 4e has abandoned the Gygaxo-Arnesian traditions of the game.

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  10. I think it is worth noting that Arthurian literature not only has a thematic core, but it also has a "core story", which has existed virtually unchanged from the early twelfth century in the form of the Historia Regum Britanniae to modern day. Most of the other stories occur against the backdrop of the Arthurian court, accruing to the myth a number of sub stories (Tristan and Isolde being the most obvious accretion).

    Of the other two main additions, the introduction of the Lancelot and Guinivere infidelity is perhaps the most significent, the Grail cycle is more of a story unto itself.

    The core story is very simple and rarely absent from any retelling. I don't know if the same can really be said for D&D, but it is an interesting postulation.

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  11. It's always sounded like a pat answer to the question, but I do consider "Kill 'em and take their stuff", as a strong part of D&D's core theme. A great deal of D&D play is based around it and the rules give it quite a bit of attention as well.

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  12. Calling MBZ's work "feminist" isn't pejorative. She wrote it after all, and wanted to intimate a story both of the female perspective and giving the female archetypes more credibility. She infused her heroines with the dual qualities of empowerment and frailty—so “feminism” is really not doing the story justice. She was/is keenly aware of that it would be essentially boiled down to just that view by overzealous Christians. I think the humor in the faux cover comes from the fact that we can laugh at how the title is both true and not-really true.

    Now that I've spoiled the joke by beating it to death, let me say that I'm disappointed that this comment thread has devolved into you said/I said and given into base "it sucked" dialog. (I'm looking at you carmachu.)You're better than that, and we expect better than fanboyisms in the comments here.

    JM, I appreciate your tackling of the mythology in games--esp. the Arthurian cycle. It's true that there are many disparate stories/tellings but I think they all still rely heavily on collective consciousness and cultural context. (This is such a huge topic that it could be a blog all its own.)

    I think that role playing games lend themselves easily to being steeped in mythic overtones. Yet the story cycles from conventional mythology are sometimes difficult to integrate as each telling has a different goal, message, and audience. Not to mention the mechanics are less than compatible. Games require constant interaction and reaction. Mythic stories typically have fewer conflicts and spend as much time talking about the repercussions of their events as delving into the action. But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow elements (setting, characters, monsters, story, etc.).

    Another thought: imagine how different someone's perspective is if they played all the Greyhawk modules versus someone who made up all their own adventures. Their “mythologies” are so different that they are essentially speaking different languages. One might know the D&D storyline to the point that it becomes canon to them. While another doesn't have enough to 'get' the punchline, so to speak. They would be operating in two different worlds--one of Gygaxian influence. Another of original, derivative, or hybrid inception.

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  13. the story cycles from conventional mythology are sometimes difficult to integrate as each telling has a different goal, message, and audience
    Quite: to carry this further, obsessing over the common tropes and plot points that tie such collections of stories together is missing the points of the individual stories, which very often are getting at different things and just making use of the familiar scenery borrowed from the cycle.

    I think there might be a bigger problem with the urge to the mythical/meaningful, though, which is that at base, (old school, sandboxy) RPGs by definition don't have a point to make. We willingly miss the point of Beowulf when we choose to go raiding or Grendel-bashing with him, when we want to extend his, or Arthur's early/mid career, rather than following him dutifully to his doom; the point, somehow, is not what we're after. I think this is a fundamental disjuncture between RPGs and myths, FWIW, and probably the reason pulp fantasy authors take over; they wrote in series, offering infinitely extensible stories that contained points in episodes, rather than forming meaningful overall arcs for their characters. In general, I'd hazard, RPGs suffer from a 'meaning gap' or a 'deficit of meaningfulness' (ow) in comparison with such sources, and that the optimal answer to such a gap is not to mourn it or try to make it up, but to enjoy instead the freedom and the episodic nature of play.

    ...I don't have any really good answers to this, BTW: episodic stories tend to get old after a while, and long-running soaps keep reaching for the longer arc that will give shape to a series.

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  14. FYI, the link seems to now be invalid and goes to a "This account has been suspended" page.

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  15. I do consider ‘Kill 'em and take their stuff’, as a strong part of D&D's core theme.

    I don’t. As much as I enjoyed Munchkin’s tag line, it is really starting to wear on me when used as other than the parody it is.

    Based on my experience, my discussions with other gamers, what I read in The Dragon, and what I’ve read online, that is only a parody of how most people play D&D.

    Combat is often avoided. When it does occur, it often has a goal other than “taking their stuff”. Indeed, it is more often “We take their stuff because we’ve killed them for other reasons” rather than “we kill them to take their stuff”. Often the monsters flee when they realize they’re going to die if they don’t, so the killing doesn’t happen. Often, they have no stuff. Often, the PCs don’t find their stuff.

    Is combat important to D&D? Yes. Is discovering treasure important to D&D? Yes. Is, therefore, “Kill them and take their stuff” really part of the theme? No, I don’t think so.

    imagine how different someone's perspective is if they played all the Greyhawk modules versus someone who made up all their own adventures.

    In my AD&D days, we almost never played modules. We almost never used Greyhawk or other published settings either, though I read the folio and boxed set extensively.

    As I’ve collected some of the old modules, it strikes me how much of the “mythology” I missed out on.

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  16. oops: faux covers gallery boingboinged to death.

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  17. In general, I'd hazard, RPGs suffer from a 'meaning gap' or a 'deficit of meaningfulness' (ow) in comparison with such sources, and that the optimal answer to such a gap is not to mourn it or try to make it up, but to enjoy instead the freedom and the episodic nature of play.

    I wholeheartedly agree, as you'll see when I make my post about the "story" of D&D.

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  18. Is combat important to D&D? Yes. Is discovering treasure important to D&D? Yes. Is, therefore, “Kill them and take their stuff” really part of the theme? No, I don’t think so.

    I largely agree. As the years have gone on, I think this caricature has gained prominence precisely because it helps to denigrate the old school and argue that D&D needs to change in order to be about more than killing and looting. The difficulty is that it's never really been about those things, even if it frequently includes both of them.

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  19. As I’ve collected some of the old modules, it strikes me how much of the “mythology” I missed out on.

    I would think you're the lucky one--having created your own mythology!

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  20. To defend (not that he needs to be) my favorite fellow stay-at-home Dad, I see nothing sexist in his choice of a parody of MZB's [i]Mists of Avalon[/i] cover for this post. One doesn't have to be a feminist (I am) to be critical of literature (I am), and although Marion Zimmer Bradley did great things for Fantasy and SF (including promoting Leiber a couple of times when he really needed it), some of her work was crap.

    On the OT topic, as far as "kill 'em all and take their loot" goes, yeah that's me. If I want weighty topics, philosophy, and suchlike, I'll read something which prompts such thoughts and discussion. Where RPGs are concerned, my take is that there is a reason why there are "weapon proficiencies" (even in core 1e) and non-weapon proficiencies (later on). It's a friggin' combat/exploration/quest game, for chrissake!

    Combat is the core of the rules-driven part of the game. Sure, there is a bunch of economics, feudal politics, and etc. thrown in, but it's basically about hacking down the bad guys, taking their stuff, and becoming forces to be reckoned with (even if this "only" means starting a barony and doing the local Duke's bidding).

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