A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Four)
By Mark Wegierski
It remains open to question whether a boardgame, or even a role-playing game, can sufficiently capture the flavor and feel of true, heroic, high fantasy. The War of the Ring (a boardgame brought out in 1977 by Simulations Publications, Inc. – SPI – then the most prominent wargame company) based explicitly on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, was not without its problems. It could be argued that part of the genius of Tolkien was that he was able to create an imaginative work so original, that it was almost impossible to effectively convert it into a game. It is almost impossible to simulate the fact that Sauron did not even remotely conceive that the forces of freedom would wish to try to take the One Ring into Mordor, to try to destroy it in the Crack of Doom. So, in the game, the Sauron player (who knows this) can simply keep all his minions at Mount Doom, merely awaiting the arrival of the Fellowship.
It is said of J.R.R. Tolkien that he both opened up and closed the genre of heroic high fantasy, as anything that followed would simply be seen as derivative.
It could be argued that those who really want to feel the high-heroic sense of wonder should either re-read the classics of the genre, or read any of the huge number of para-Tolkienian works on the market.
An even more inferior boardgame brought out by SPI in 1978 was Swords and Sorcery. (Strictly speaking, the proper form of the term in literary discourse is "sword-and-sorcery".) This game can be seen as slicing and dicing heroic fantasy conventions into a silly hash. Apparently, many of the notions seen in that game were cribbed from the postal Diplomacy variant, Slobbovia – which might not have been the best choice for invoking a true sense of high fantasy. Slobbovia was a mostly satirical setting.
Indeed, the term "sword- and-sorcery" is sometimes used derisively by more serious science fiction and fantasy fans.
However, the distinction between high-fantasy and so-called sword-and-sorcery may not be so clear-cut. The classics of so-called sword-and-sorcery, e.g., Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Michael Moorcock's Elric, posit a world easily as far removed from the inanities that are quite frequently seen in D & D, as is the Tolkienian vision. There is a harsh Nietzscheanism, an invocation of a hard, difficult world, in many works conventionally considered sword-and-sorcery.
Another clear distinction was the fundamental innocence of the high-fantasy milieu, especially as typified by Tolkien's particularly chaste writing, and the sexual elements of sword-and-sorcery writing, which probably reached their apotheosis in the works of Lin Carter (e.g., Tara of the Twilight) and John Norman (the interminable Gor series – generally characterized by the ritualized humiliation of women).
D& D, as it is probably most commonly experienced today, is usually far removed from the charming, graceful Tolkienian mythos, while lacking any real sense of the Nietzschean texture of the Conan vision. It is often enough repeated that D & D often amounts to the personalized power-fantasies (tinged with sexual elements) of frustrated and often highly intelligent adolescent North American males (or had served this function for adolescents of the 1980s). There is often a highly unnatural element to all these florid scenarios. For example, one of the things that highly irritated the author about this approach was when some avid "D & Ders" had calculated out that Gandalf was at most "a 7th level wizard", which meant he presumably had little appeal to those who had reached the 20th level or higher, and were at the point of battling multifarious gods and demons. Another passage that typifies this kind of tendency was the snide comment that, "Dante must have borrowed from D & D manuals to come up with his descriptions of Hell." Yet another example is when dragons somehow firing machine-gun bullets were introduced into a D & D campaign.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.