Monday, November 23, 2009

A Nod from the Cimmerian

Deuce Richardson, over at one of my favorite blogs, The Cimmerian, has done me an honor by devoting an entire post to my recent column at The Escapist. In his post, Mr Richardson takes issue with my assertion that the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien were not a primary influence on Dungeons & Dragons. This is a topic I've covered before and I know it's a controversial one in many quarters. I will simply reiterate here that my position is not that Tolkien's works had no influence on D&D, only that that influence was largely superficial, restricted mostly to some broad fantasy concepts, which Gygax and Arneson gleefully pilfered.

I don't deny that many D&D staples, such as the demihuman races, for example, are largely unthinkable without the influence of Tolkien. What I do deny, though, is that D&D would be impossible to imagine without the influence of Tolkien. I think a "de-Tolkienized" D&D is quite conceivable and, to my mind, much more philosophically coherent. Even if one doubts the veracity of Gygax's frequent claims about the degree to which the good professor influenced him, the simple fact of the matter is that Gygax clearly misunderstood Tolkien and his writings. He rather famously described The Lord of the Rings as an allegory about World War II, clearly ignorant of both Tolkien's feelings about allegory and that the story the novel tells predates the 1939-1945 war.

Tokien is, in my opinion, simply one influence among many that shaped early D&D. The game, after all, sprang up in the midst of the pulp fantasy revival of the late 60s and early 70s, when books that Gygax had read as a younger person were once again being made available to the mass market. That's why I find it quite credible that authors such as Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Merritt, all of whom Gygax regularly cites, had a far greater influence on him and the game he co-created. (Dave Arneson muddies this question somewhat, as players in his Blackmoor campaign attest to its strong Tolkien influences).

In the post, Mr Richardson also postulates that Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar and The Dwellers in the Mirage had more influence on Gygax than the books I alluded to. I'm willing to concede that point in principle, but I can only say that Gygax himself most frequently cited The Face in the Abyss, Creep Shadow, Creep!, and (especially) The Moon Pool as his favorite Merritt books. Again, I suppose it comes down to the extent to which one is willing to take Gygax at his word. I may be more credulous when sifting through his comments than I ought to be and, if so, I welcome correction. That said, I'm far from convinced regarding Tolkien and I look forward a future post on the subject by Mr Richardson, something he suggests he may tackle sometime later.

Until then.

34 comments:

  1. Although I always had Tolkien on my mind in those early days (late 70's) of my gaming, I cannot disagree with you on this, James.

    I think that, like a lot of people in my age group, Middle Earth had more influence on me than Lankhmar and others because it simply seemed like a much better place to live. Even my mom, being British (Scottish, to be exact) could appreciate Tolkien because of all the tea and biscuits and kicking back by warm fire places. There wasn't much a mom could appreciate about Lankhmar or Stygia. For some old school gamers like me, you get older and you start to appreciate the darker corners of the Earth (or wherever).

    And as such those places had more influence on my game world. But as a 14 year old boy creating his first game world, I cannot deny that it was at first more Middle Earth than it was anyplace else.

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  2. Even granting the (sometimes later) inclusion of Hobbits/haflings, "tall" elves, and treants, even as a kid, I knew Gygax had a tin ear for Tolkien. That is why we played MERP and Rolemaster for quasi-Tolkienism.

    I don't think it is a coincidence that a fairly well-accepted point of divergence from Gygaxian fantasy is the Dragonlance epic - which was the first real push into a mock-Tolkien pastiche, with regards to story.

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  3. Er, TSR's first real push, I should say.

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  4. James,

    In future years, I wonder if would-be-scholars will be second-guessing the meaning of your quotes regarding your views on OD&D and such like, interjecting eisegesis apparent to the future commentators.
    --I suppose it happens to everyone in print, as once the words are on the wing, as it were, they cease to be one's own and join in the collective archive.

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  5. James! I'm not Deuce, but I thought I'd also chime in on your article.

    My own feelings on D&D and Tolkien is somewhat in between that of yourself and Deuce's. I think much of the elements from Tolkien - and Howard - are definitely there, but through either misinterpretation or otherwise, manage to be a bit superficial. The surface elements like pointed eared elves, short bearded dwarves and that stuff are all present, but it results in something like a stereotype.

    I certainly blame D&D (and its wee brother Warhammer) for much of the modern interpretations of Tolkien's dwarves, elves and orcs, as I blame it for the interpretation of Howard's barbarians. Stuff like Dwarves being drunken, fight-obsessed Scotsmen, Elves being prissy, androgynous nature-folk, and orcs being pig-faced greenskins.

    Just talkin aloud here. 'Twas a grand article, well done.

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  6. I don't think it is a coincidence that a fairly well-accepted point of divergence from Gygaxian fantasy is the Dragonlance epic - which was the first real push into a mock-Tolkien pastiche, with regards to story.

    There's definitely a lot of truth to this.

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  7. In future years, I wonder if would-be-scholars will be second-guessing the meaning of your quotes regarding your views on OD&D and such like, interjecting eisegesis apparent to the future commentators.

    This is probably the nicest way I've ever been told I'm putting words in Gary's mouth.

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  8. James, have you seen Ringers - the story of fandom of Lord of the Rings**. While not directly about RPGs (although, they do subscribe to the popular theory that RPGs grew from Tolkien)...it does make an extensive study of the whole impact of Middle Earth within Popular Culture.

    Therefore, RPGs, were possibly not influenced by Tolkien but they certainly were influenced by Popular Culture around them. It is more than likely that Gary sensed this and began to co-opt into their new game. Much as Traveller co-opts and assilimates Asimov's Foundation or Lucas' Star Wars without being directly linked to them.

    **Happy to lend you a copy, if not.

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  9. Therefore, RPGs, were possibly not influenced by Tolkien but they certainly were influenced by Popular Culture around them.

    That's a very astute observation.

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  10. While I agree with you on this, James; it seems to me that both Blackmoor and Greyhawk—and then D&D—were all about borrowing superficial elements from everything and using them to decorate whatever the judge had come up with. If it hadn’t been Tolkien, no doubt there would be some other influence we could’ve had the same discussions about. (Arthuriana?)

    The other thing is that Gary’s “marketing ploy” worked very well, so once the thing was out of his hands and being shaped by the fans, a whole lot of those D&D fans were Tolkien fans.

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  11. I will just say that Tolkien can protest all he wants, but LOTR is most definitely an allegory on contemporary Europe.

    Just because WWII hadn't started yet doesn't mean people didn't see the gathering storm.

    WWI through WWII was not some separate, magical time barrier like many modern observers like to think.

    WWI led directly into WWII, and in the mistakes of the past war with Sauron, when there was this one chance for peace, it's really hard to argue that the events of WWI, which fed into the much more awful WWII were not percolating somewhere in Tolkien's mind.

    Was it a direct retelling of WWII? No. Was it necessarily conscious? Maybe not.

    But neither of those is required for allegory.

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  12. Tolkien and the war: he began writing LotR before WWII, but he was a participant in trench warfare in WWI and lost friends in that slaughter.

    My understanding is that Tolkien simultaneously held that the novel was not allegorical but also not merely escapist, that Middle Earth was our Earth (obviously not literally true, so huh?)

    Also in vogue at the time (and in London when LotR was being written) was Freud. Certainly the horrors of war were largely seen as confirmation of Freud's theory of the id: that we all have an inner selfish animalistic core without the discipline of civilization, religion (which Freud saw as useful despite being an atheist), higher calling.

    There's much to be said for LotR being a depiction of the conflict between Id and Super Ego; a depiction of Sauron and the Ring as the Id personified and the temptation to fall to Sauron instead of holding to higher ideals. Gollum works as a mirror to Frodo if he were to give in to his Id instead of listening to his Super Ego - Gandalf and civilization in general. Freud also wrote a lot about competing life/death drives but I haven't read enough of that except to say that there are potential parallels.

    The trouble with Freud is that it is subjective enough to be applied to nearly anything.

    But my point is that the viewing of Tolkien as a morality play is totally absent in Gygaxian D&D.

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  13. I think it is pretty obvious that the Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for World War II, but an audience will often read whatever seems most pleasing into the works of an author, even when the author explains that such a reading was unintended.

    I think the "popular culture" influence is quite a good point. Most interesting is perhaps the fact that neither in LotR nor in the Hobbit are the ears of elves described as pointed. As I understand it, that is largely a result of the illustrations that followed, spurred on by correspondence between Tolkien and the artist.

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  14. Sounds like we might have to lock both of you in a cupboard to fight this one out (perhaps will have to throw in Cerebus, Elrod and Lord Julius for good measure, too) *jk*

    I'm not sure that D&D was ever intended as a literary collection rather than a roleplaying game and, yes, there could have been more hints given back in 1974 (and onwards, for a good while) as to how to play the game which perhaps might've given stronger allusions to underlying preferred ethos/inspirations, but this whole business of playing "spot the item/race" is, as stated before, at least in large part a matter of playing "spot the window-dressing" as published rather than digging down to the actual inspirations - and even literary ones at that, since the likes of Lovecraft is almost unseen in 1974 but was very definitely present in game development at/prior to that date.

    If looking for slides to China and Canopus (well, Fomalhaut, but Rob seems to have had half a plot there ;) , y'might as well cite The Time Tunnel as creative inspiration. But, of course, since those were neither "published" nor alluded to in the 1974 woodgrain box that obviously "never happened"?

    D&D as released with "Vancian magic" is, at least, a different kettle of fish to stating "...it’s hard to find much concrete evidence of REH in the game as it was presented ’round about 1980, despite what Gygax had to say about Howard’s influence. There were no true serpent-men in the first Monster Manual..."; but even then there /were/ spell points around prior to 1974: it's just those didn't make the cut for whatever reasons (read "EGG in control").

    Anyhows...

    {/light-hearted digression} :)

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  15. Clearly, Gygax, having read widely in the swords & sorcery genre, could have developed D&D without Tolkien's influence. However, probably none of us would have ever heard of D&D or RPGs if it had not been for the popularity of LOTR. Tolkien gave mainstream appeal to the fantasy genre, and thus prepared the ground for RPGs.

    By Gygax's own admission (see Dragon #95), D&D incorporated LOTR elements as an explicit marketing ploy to capitalize upon the Tolkien craze of the '70s.

    It worked. In some ways, it worked too well. In several early issues of the Dragon, players wrote in to point out contradictions between D&D rules and LOTR, reducing Gygax and others to mantralike recitations that D&D is not LOTR.
    Often, Reading early Dragon

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  16. James,

    I was merely noting the irony of such a hypothetical. :)
    --You are a media celebrity after all. :D

    Best,

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  17. I think The Fellowship of the Ring with it's large party of mixed races and abilities and the trip through Moria had a lot more influence on D&D since the beginning than seems popular to acknowledge. Don't forget that smaller groups in the style of S&S are a more modern gaming norm...

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  18. I will just say that Tolkien can protest all he wants, but LOTR is most definitely an allegory on contemporary Europe.

    As with Gygax, one can either take Tolkien at his word or assume him to be disingenuous (consciously or not). Given his overall philosophy, I think it far more plausible to assume he knew just what he was doing and why and the novel was not about World War II (or World War I, for that matter).

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  19. I think it is pretty obvious that the Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for World War II, but an audience will often read whatever seems most pleasing into the works of an author, even when the author explains that such a reading was unintended.

    Indeed. There were people who, at the time of the movies' release, read into the films commentary on events in the Middle East, despite the fact that most of the "evidence" cited derived directly from Tolkien rather than being ham-fisted interpolations by Jackson and company.

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  20. You are a media celebrity after all. :D

    The bar to entry to celebrity has been lowered quite a lot, if I qualify.

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  21. I think The Fellowship of the Ring with it's large party of mixed races and abilities and the trip through Moria had a lot more influence on D&D since the beginning than seems popular to acknowledge. Don't forget that smaller groups in the style of S&S are a more modern gaming norm...

    Both the Fellowship and Moria had their influence certainly, but they're not the only influences on either the "adventuring party" or on dungeons. In fact, having re-read a lot of Victorian era "boys' adventure" stories, I'm more and more convinced that the early D&D adventuring party owes more to Haggard and his ilk than to Tolkien, particularly when you take into account the train of henchmen and hirelings that was common back then.

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  22. Tolkien's literary project (including LotR, but also and especially The Silmarillion) as opposed to his philological one, had much more to do with forging an alloy of Christian morality and Norse myth than with examining the contemporary European geopolitical situation. Parts of the latter work are lifted almost directly from Norse mythology (paging Turin Turambar and Gurthang), other episodes are pretty clearly Christian stories overlaid with a veneer of Nordic storytelling style (e.g., ejection from Eden vs. destruction of the two trees by Melkor, the Kinslaying, etc.).

    Tolkien was familiar with the entire breadth and scope of northern European mythology, and could read these works in their original languages (Icelandic, Old English, even Finnish and Welsh to some extent, etc.). To assert that he was being mendacious when claiming that LotR wasn't an allegory is to disregard his extreme erudition and literary sophistication.

    Of course his experiences in WWI had some influence on his work, but that hardly proves that it's allegorical.

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  23. Both the Fellowship and Moria had their influence certainly, but they're not the only influences on either the "adventuring party" or on dungeons.

    Certainly not, but the large AND multi-race/class party (including Warrior, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf and Hobbit!) seems pretty strongly influenced by The Fellowship of the Rings. ;)

    We also tend to focus a lot on the literary inspirations, but old fantasy and monster movies like Jason and the Argonauts and the various Sinbad films were very clear inspirations as well and also included larger adventuring groups.

    I asked Gary about old Monster Movies and he confirmed he was a big fan. :)

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  24. We also tend to focus a lot on the literary inspirations, but old fantasy and monster movies like Jason and the Argonauts and the various Sinbad films were very clear inspirations as well and also included larger adventuring groups.

    You will in fact find discussions of the Harryhausen films on this very blog. Both Gygax and Kuntz have consistently spoken glowingly of those films and it's clear that early D&D owes a lot to both of them.

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  26. I'd add (at least) the original King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman, The Thing, and Them to the list as well. :)

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  27. Richardson's piece goes off the rails in the first paragraph. D&D and AD&D elves are clearly not LotR elves or anything much like them. That leaves dwarves, who both JRRT and EGG based on folklore, hobbits which are indeed clearly lifted, half-elves which probably are lifted as an idea but not in detail, and gnomes which are again from folklore. Orcs and Ents are also clear lifts but it's significant, IMO, that trolls are not.

    The Tolkien influence on the actual game rules are minuscule, although not zero. Folklore has a great deal more effect on the human, demi-human, and humanoid races, sometimes via the distorting lens of movies.

    On the other hand, I think the "LotR as war" analogy is very underplayed because of Tolkien's statements on the matter. Personally, I think the two world wars had a lot of influence on the story that plays out in LotR. RotK was not published until long after Hiroshima and I think it shows.

    Tolkien largely made up LotR as he went along, writing in a letter that he had reached Buckland but as yet had no idea who the black riders were or what they wanted with Frodo! Writing in that manner, it's impossible to believe that the events in the outside world would not find themselves affecting the characters and meaning of such a slowly written book. Possibly without JRRT realising it, possibly not. Similarly the idea that WWI did not influence the book is frankly laughable.

    I think JRRT was upset that people saw the book as only an allegory for WWII and in reaction to that denied it completely, but I don't think that his absolutist stance here holds up under scrutiny or even common sense.

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  28. @James: Both the Fellowship and Moria had their influence certainly, but they're not the only influences on either the "adventuring party" or on dungeons. In fact, having re-read a lot of Victorian era "boys' adventure" stories...

    That's going to be a very difficult influence to untangle, because Tolkien was influence by some of those same boys adventure stories himself.

    Of course, I always find it interesting when people try and figure out exactly what was and wasn't an influence.

    Does it matter?

    D&D as a stew is clearly a unique dish. The attempt to figure out if the base is beef stock or chicken stock, and whether its home made or from a bullion cube always strikes me a little odd.

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  29. Does it matter?

    C'mon Chuck, be nice!

    Of course it doesn't really matter, but sometimes it's think pieces like this exchange that can open our minds and all us to think about our gaming in new ways. I think this was a thoughful pair of columns that lead to a neat discussion about what inspired D&D and, in a broader sense, what inspires us when we game.

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  30. @ James V:

    I wasn't so much talking about these particular columns.

    I've heard (and had) this discussion as long as I've been gaming, so at least 30 years now.

    And the part that seems a little silly to me is that of course LOTR had an influence, everyone knows this, Gygax admitted it.

    It's the constant need to affirm HOW MUCH influence, and thereby to confirm that the game wasn't dependent on Tolkien.

    Gygax's need to do so is easy to figure out. He had IP to protect. There were serious lawsuit concerns, especially in the early days of D&D.

    So beyond saying it was probably more influential than Gygax was willing to admit to, for a host of pragmatic legal reasons, I see no need to try and put Appendix N into numerical order of importance.

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  31. > Gygax's need to do so is easy to figure out. He had IP to protect. There were serious lawsuit concerns, especially in the early days of D&D.

    *g* No particular sympathy on that score since the actual threat of a lawsuit from the Tolkien estate was nowhere near as strong as that from EGG vs. anyone else in the RPG field early on; ask Ken St. Andre & co.
    Rather grateful to Dave Arneson for getting that back towards a level playing field, even if that was a very messy and long-drawn out process that had other obvious negative impacts, too. :/

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  32. This is one where my attitude towards EGG's distancing himself from Tolkein is a case of "methinks thou doth protest too much". Clearly he had motive to do so, and he's not a totally reliable witness.

    One primary thing I can't get over is that in Chainmail's introduction to the Fantasy supplement (ultimately, "the tail that wagged the dog"), what is the very first thing that EGG mentions there? Tolkein.

    "Most of the fantastic battles related in novels more closely resemble medieval warefare than they do earlier or later forms of combat. Because of this we are including a brief set of rules which will allow the medieval miniatures wargamer to add a new facet to his hobby, and either refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers; or you can devise your own 'world,' and conduct fantastic campaigns and conflicts based on it..."

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  33. And as a postscript, from what I can tell, every single one of the figure types from Chainmail's Fantasy supplement comes from Tolkein. So it seems pretty fundamental to the basic structure of the game.

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  34. Delta,

    Thanks for the insights into the Chainmail side of things. I think this is the first bits of evidence that have made me consider re-evaluating or at least modifying my position on the issue. I'll have to give it some additional thought, but this is important stuff to consider.

    Thanks again.

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