Mythology

So, I think I know pretty well everything I am going to for tomorrow. Skipping roleplaying was definitely worth it, I feel like an understanding is coalescing in my mind. Now I hope I can get to sleep, not toss-and-turn, my mind blazing with questions and endlessly retravelling the steps of my Epic Heroes.


To a large extent our modern secular society is bereft of heroes and mythology. We don’t have a god who saved us, and we question the veracity of any hero-building that anyone might try. Movies and their manufacturers are as close to a modern mythology as we get – the massive penetration of the Star Wars mythology into popular culture is our version of the folk tale…

… except that some heroes don’t die. They get sent to the Isle of Avalon, to return and save Britain at its hour of direst need. I get the feeling that even Arthur’s pervasive presence in english mythology may be fading; but for now, for people of my age, the just-post Star Wars age, his name, and that of Robin Hood, still stand as icons. With the present re-surgence of interest in Classics, which was a declining art for a while; and with the general medieval hype caused by LOTR, I guess you can never write anything off.

I always like to imagine that in the Blitz, British children huddling in bomb shelters would wisper to each other that things aren’t so bad: if this were Britain’s Darkest Hour, the hour of their fall, Arthur would return, to set things aright. Conversely, I suppose, if he does show up that’s a good time to be worried. I don’t think his myth has that power, but I wish it did.

It probably doesn’t help that the essentials of Greek Myth come down to us encapsulated in the Iliad and the Odyssey – two distinct works which appear to stand at the head of all western literature – while the Arthurian myth has formed over centuries and lacks a definitive version. Unless that version is Tomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, a work not widely read or studied. There are no less than 4 courses at Victoria University dealing with Homer, there are none which deal with Malory. There are numerous versions of the Arthur myth, so that only the very essential details are constant: The Sword in the Stone, The Round Table, Lancelot du Lac, Mordred. To run through the four broad stages of the tale. Yet perhaps the great power of the Arthur legend is it’s diffusion – a new telling is published just about every year, while Homer stands as a lonely icon, unchanged and somehow less relevant. Where perhaps his penetration into the campfire story has lessenned, Arthur is nevertheless as well known a name as any Greek hero, ironically preserved by his lack of canon. I suppose this is the same boat as most Western legends inhabit – who doesn’t know the story of the OK Corrall, yet could cite a definitive source?

The last three months of my academic time has been roughly divided in half by the study of the ancient epics, and the some of the medieval mini-epics touching on the Arthurian cycle. Reading both together has made me crucially aware of one central difference between them: Homer was a Pagan at best, Arthur is the epitome of Christian virtue. The Grail Quest, which consumes a lot of the energy of the Round Table, is symbolic of a search for spiritual enlightenment. This is a kind of metaphysical quest that is of little interest to the Homeric heroes and their literary progeny. Homeric heroes spend little time questioning “why”, theirs is a realm of action.

One other thing which becomes apparent is that poets in the middle ages were aware of their Greek forebears. Spenser opens with an invocation to the muse, the Pearl-poet with a Lucan-esque history lesson on the founding of Britain, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale is actually set in the generation before the Trojan War. Malory seems wholly free of this tendancy. Having demonstrated their awareness of the ancients, Spenser and Chaucer adopt Greek mythology wholesale, allowing it to exist alongside the Christian ideology which is their philosophical raison d’etre. Christianity defines itself as the truth, making this an uncomfortable juxtaposition.

Having been made aware of this intersection between the Pagan and Christian mythologies in some Arthurian tales, it starts to become hard to miss them in others. I wish this were an original insight, but alas, the producers of Merlin beat me to the punch back in ’98. They too were arguably beaten too, by Robin of Sherwood. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that tales of Knights turn out to represent the dichotomy between Christianity and paganism in its various forms. This, after all, was the essential rhetorical motive for the Crusades whose history largely inspired the concept of Chivalry. So, by now, you’re asking yourself “where is he going with this?”

The answer is that I am bored with fantasy roleplaying, and I’m not sure why. I think that perhaps the reason has to do with the abandonment of that fundamental tension between the Pagan and the Christian in fantasy games. So, before proceeding, let me discuss Fantasy Gaming ™ as I have experienced it of late, incorporating a little bit about how I’ve heard it discussed by Real People That I Know recently but Have Not Experience For Myself.

Fantasy Roleplaying began in about ’89, with AD&D, first edition. Second edition had come out a little while before, but it was prohibitively expensive for me at that age. My first edition PHb cost about $12, which was affordable. We browsed the rules, and then it was a voyage of exploration for both players and characters as we encountered strange beasts the like of which we’d never imagined, went to strange locations which strained our beliefs and so on. Then, by the time that I was playing 2nd Ed, we knew all the monsters, spells. The landscapes of your generic pseudo-European fantasy setting were more familiar than large parts of our own country. This, unfortunately, has by-and-large remained my experience ever since. Every so often a new setting will come along to fire the imagination, and seek to set things aright. Planescape, Darksun, Al Qadim … yet, after some immersion, I find that their landscapes and interactions bend to suit our experience – they become the same generic house, with new wallpaper. Thus has my interest in fantasy gaming waned…

But, I began this part of my tirade by implying that a solution was at hand through the “tension between the Pagan and the Christian”. This “solution” has three interlocking parts, forming what I think may be the way forward for me and fantasy gaming.

Let me express it in this way: the Homeric epics suggest a certain kind of fantasy land, the medieval ones suggest a different one, and these have been gene-spliced with War Games to create the essentially materialistic mode of Fantasy that I have issues with. By going through this process again, maybe we can reformulate it in a way which won’t be quite so prone to institutionalisation.

[Break]

I got this far while reading Spenser, and 10 days later, I have gotten no further. Having re-read the Odyssey and skimmed The Argonautica and The Aeneid I find the emphasis in my own mind of how things should work swinging back towards viewing the original epics as missing some vital components of fantasy, and making a slightly poorer version of an FRPG than I’d origially thought.

Essentially, I think that modern fantasy applies Clarke’s Law in reverse. The law is that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The reverse being that “any sufficiently coherent magic becomes indistinguishable from technology”. One of the appealing things about “doing” fantasy is that dream-like quality where you can’t be sure of yourself, or cause-and-effect; where the most astonishing things might happen at any time.

There are two pitfalls; one is that like Epic Cycle which surrounded Homer’s great poems you can substitute magical trickery for plot and characterisation. A second great problem is that with a shifting landscape inside an RPG you risk alienating your players through a too-strong sense of dislocation between what they try and what happens.

I think some amalgem of this is what frustrated me about my Al Qadim game – magic in D&D doesn’t convey a sense of mystery and wonder, it’s merely a mechanical tool, like a sword. The Arabian Nights has large elements of arbitrary fate in most, if not all, stories. Yet, they by-and-large retain the interest in human characters. Poems like Gawain manage this extremely well – as the Green Knight embodies that sense of arbitrary fate, and yet Gawain’s fate is actually determined by his own character. It is that balance which is so difficult to find in an RPG, with its collaborative atmosphere.

So, I guess in the end I’m not closer to finding a “formula” of fantasy that would make a satisfactory game… but at least I recognise the non-system elements which frustrate me, rather than simply being trapped into thinking the problem was a particular mechanical set.

Via Chris:
And now for something completely different.

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4 Responses to Mythology

  1. To a large extent our modern secular society is bereft of heroes and mythology. We don’t have a god who saved us, and we question the veracity of any hero-building that anyone might try.

    Do we need heroes? Role-models, sure — but if we get rid of gods and heroes then people have to think for them selves, and that’s gotta be a good thing.

    The wolves may be at the gates, but the enlightenment isn’t dead yet…

    • Anonymous says:

      Heroes?

      Edmund Hilary.
      Peter Blake (although I never had much time for him) and sundry other sporting people).

      Hilary in particular I think really does fill the role of a hero, at least in NZ. He’s instantly recognisable, no-one has a bad word to say about him and he’s got enormous stature — how many other countries have a living person who isn’t a politician on their banknotes? And he got that way by demonstrating both physical prowess (Everest) and compassion (all the work he’s done in Nepal).

      Chris

      • mashugenah says:

        There’s a nice bit in Constantine where Gabriel accuses him of not having faith; he counters that he’s met god. Ah, retorts Gabriel, you know, you don’t believe…

        I think there’s a crucial difference between fact and fiction, and frankly, Hilary’s rep is entirely fact. There isn’t that mystical super-human aura about him. Fame, and in fact achievement, is not enough to create your image as a hero; there is an X factor.

        That’s, I think, why someone like Clarke Gable was a superstar, but Bogart was almost a living incarnation of legend – the sense of mystery and an indefinable X clings to his name to this day.

        I may harp on a bit about this, but for me the mark of a hero is that kids in a playground will tell stories about your exploits; be they true or false. That is the benchmark for whether you’re a hero. For me, there was never talk of Hilary, never a “this is the exciting account of his climb to everest”. My strong suspicion though, is that this has become a target made almost inviolate by the easy pleasures of television.

        My childhood was replete with stories from Star Wars and James Bond; and yes, Camelot. But, in large part, these particular tales did not coalesce as solid exemplars of a larer mythology – they were like pillars projecting from an ocean of popular culture. They lack the concatenation that is the true power, which the Iliad and Odyssey in particular have, of invoking not only themselves, but the culture to which they correspond.

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