Elric, last lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source.
—Michael Moorcock, “The Dreaming City”
Here at Walking Ledges, I’m big into intersections, whether those are the liminal moments I mention in my “about” page, the collision of text and music that fascinated me as an undergrad, or the intersection of musicology and sociology that drove my dissertation. I’m also, as I’ve mentioned before, a gamer and fantasy enthusiast. Gamer, academic, writer, reader…those collide for me in an interest in “old” fantasy fiction and its relationship to both the newer stuff and to role-playing games.
Tolkien comes up a lot in these discussions, probably more often than he deserves. In The Hobbit and most particularly in The Lord of the Rings, the grand old linguist gave us a model “adventuring party” and established a template for worldbuilding. I’ll have more to say about the latter in other posts. The former is more salient to today’s discussion. Moving fantasy away from a single protagonist was a big deal. In the Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics Tolkien used for the bones of Middle Earth, heroes were singular, though they often had friends and companions. The Fellowship flattened those differences—Frodo is the ringbearer, but is he more important than Gandalf or Aragorn or Sam? Is the younger Baggins the center of the story?
I don’t think so. But I also believe that Tolkien offers only a small piece of RPGs’ literary ancestry. The bigger piece comes from flamboyantly singular characters: the heroes of pulp fiction. Cheap novels, serialized stories, heroes fighting impossibilities from the deep places of the world…there’d be no monster manuals without authors like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock.
Howard gave us Conan the Barbarian. Swords, gold, princesses, exotic locations and dangerous (painfully ethnic) sorcerors and beasts…Conan took tropes from Weird Tales, twisted them, and turned them into adventure stories. They were repetitive, sure, and sometimes Howard leaned on certain analogies a little too much. (I remember Conan being compared to a panther three times in the space of two pages.) The environments though, were inventive. And Conan was a badass. A male power fantasy, but a badass.
Howard also gave us Solomon Kane, the indomitable Puritan adventurer. He rescued damsels but fastidiously avoided despoiling them. He plunged deep into the heart of Africa chasing pirates. He befriended witch doctors and used their strange, skull-capped sticks. He fought the good fight for God and truth. And Howard wrote the stories nearly a century ago. (Attitudes toward race, class, and religion make that abundantly clear.)
Howard’s characters are impossible. Through sheer will and extraordinary ability, they topple kingdoms and survive cataclysms. They go places where natural law gives way to the supernatural. They settle disputes with their swords. They’re peculiarly American and spectacularly masculine. They exhibit their author’s distrust of civilization and longing for an imagined, wilder past. It’s no coincidence that Howard was an enormous fan of boxing, nor that he was a good friend of H.P. Lovecraft.
Michael Moorcock began in a similar vein, publishing stories in pulp magazines when he was a teenager. (It was not long before he was editing one of those magazines himself.) His heroes, though, especially the iterations of the Eternal Champion, are far more fallible. He tended to inflict creeping disabilities on them—a wasting sickness, or a magical jewel eating slowly into the skull. They were blessed and cursed to turn the wheels of fate. They quested for Tanelorn, a place of perfect peace and balance that they could never quite achieve. They brought death to their friends and enemies alike. Pyrrhic victories were the only kind they knew.
Elric is not my favorite Moorcock hero, but he’s the best known and most influential. The albino with the soul-drinking black sword, last emperor of Melniboné. He is a warrior and a sorceror. The black sword, Stormbringer, eats the souls of his enemies (and sometimes his friends) to feed him the power he needs to work his magic and defeat his enemies. He’s part demon, probably literally. He’s the first swords-and-sorcery hero I know of who wielded both.
As a character, Elric has as much in common with Hamlet as with Conan. He acts ambivalently until circumstances force his hand. He understands all too well that tragedy follows him and that, sooner or later, he will destroy what he most loves. He is almost as bad as his enemies. Almost, but not quite. He’s as much a product of mid-century Britain as Solomon Kane is of early the 20th-century U.S. Empires grow weak and crumble. In another of Moorcock’s series, “Granbretan” is a fascist-technological empire threatening to devour Europe. Hawkmoon, a German fighting on behalf of his French allies, must throw down the Granbretanian emperor.
So…what does any of this have to do with gaming? Conan and Solomon Kane and Elric lived in short stories. We might as well call them adventures. The heroes go to strange places—jungle temples, wizard’s towers, catacombs. They defeat monsters and henchmen on their way to confronting the evil master. After winning, the hero rides off with the loot and sometimes with the girl. In the next story, he does it again. And again and again and again. There isn’t epic storytelling, not at first. Moorcock later builds stories to the length of short novels and allows his characters to develop further, but in those early years there’s no more drive to save the universe than there is in Howard’s preceding work.
We probably wouldn’t have the adventuring party without Tolkien, but we wouldn’t have the adventures without the pulp authors.
Addenda: Edgar Rice Buroughs, with Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, belongs somewhere in this discussion too. I also find it interesting that Howard spent most of his life in Texas, and that Moorcock has lived here for the last 20 years or so.
If you’re interested in Howard, I suggest starting with the 2004 anthology The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (ISBN 978-0345461506). It has all of the Solomon Kane stories, as well as an excellent introduction. Moorcock’s Elric stories have been similarly collected in a multivolume collection titled Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné. (The ISBN of the first volume is 978-0345498625.) Most used book stores will have at least a smattering of Moorcock, too.