It is often said that Howard, along with Tolkien, is one of the foundation stones upon which the grand tower of modern fantasy is built: it is just unfortunate, as with Tolkien, that so many look at the surface elements like people, places and things, and assume that this is their lasting appeal. With Tolkien it is the elves, dwarves, orcs and quests to defeat Dark Lords which run wild in dime-a-dozen Tolkien imitations, with none seeking to adopt or even address the deeper themes: the sense of deepest tragedy and loss, that nothing is permanent in this world despite the grand designs of elves and men, of the far-reaching consequences of war affecting even the faraway Shires of the world, and the realization that no matter what power a Dark Lord can exercise, he cannot reach to beyond the stars.Harron's point is both correct and applicable to RPGs, which have, as the years have worn on, become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes. Now, as I've said before, I'm not actually all that interested in playing a game that cleaves too closely to Tolkien's -- or Howard's -- worldview, but I nevertheless find it a little sad how shallow are many readings of these authors (and Lovecraft too, come to think of it), resulting in their caricatures often having more influence than they themselves do. That's a pity regardless of what one thinks of these writers, even moreso if, like me, you think they have a lot to offer.
With Howard, it is the obvious pulp trappings like the thickly muscled barbarian hero rescuing frightened, voluptuous damsels from irredeemably evil sorcerers or monsters that turn up time and again: little to none of the deeply cynical worldview, fighting the cold indifferent cosmos with all the fire of human spirit, striving to survive in a dangerous and violent world. Most of all, the innate tragedy of man, who despite his strength and will is yet powerless against the might of time, a brief candle in the mad immensity of night. Those stories of Ersatz-Conans in other worlds, or even “official” pastiches, are no more like Howardian under the surface than He-Man is like Conan.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
It's not often that one sees J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard conjoined in a way that emphasizes a similarity between these two very different authors, but that's just what Al Harron did in a post to The Cimmerian from this past July. He writes: