Sunday, March 26, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 26: Howard vs Tolkien

The Weird Region Final was won by H.P. Lovecraft, who will go on to face the winner of today's match-up in the semifinal round.

Fantasy Region Final: Robert E. Howard vs J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there a starker choice in all of fantastic literature than Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien?

Howard was a Texan who wrote short fiction by the ream. While he is remembered mainly for his creation of Conan across eighteen stories published in his lifetime, he published literally hundreds of others. He was prolific in the way that only a writer paid by the word can be, even though Howard never padded his stories. He left dozens of unfinished fragments, and when his work was popularized in the 1960s it created a craze for "Barbarian" fantasy that was of absolutely lower quality than Howard's original.

Tolkien was an Englishman who taught Beowulf at Oxford. He published two major works in his lifetime, as well as a few minor pieces. From his convalescence in a war hospital in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1973, he worked on the legendarium that was published in wholly inadequate form as the Silmarillion and in various drafts as The History of Middle-Earth. This work of over 50 years involved endless re-framing and revisions to the mythology. The Lord of the Rings was, in part, an attempt to use the success of The Hobbit to show a further tale in the same mythology, and also to publish the Silmarillion.

Ace Books manages to be responsible for controversial editions of both Conan and The Lord of the Rings; the former because L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter wrote a good chunk of the material, the latter because they were using a loophole in copyright to publish without paying any royalties to Tolkien and incorporated a great number of typographical errors. Both editions contributed greatly to the popularity of Howard and Tolkien, and of fantasy in general.

It was The Sword of Shannara in 1977 that started a craze for Tolkien imitations in fantasy publishing, and began to close the period of Conan imitations. While I generally reserve critique on these epigones, those imitating Howard did have at least the minor virtue of writing much shorter works.

Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age bear a striking symmetry. The story of Númenor was a deliberate parallel to the sinking of Atlantis, and set up the Middle-Earth of the Third Age as an immediate pre-historic precursor to the current age of history. The Hyborian Age is explicitly between Atlantis and the coming of the Aryan people into the Indus Valley. Both story cycles, then, are set on Earth in a lost prehistory.

But they are set to opposite effect. Howard's Hyborian Age was an excuse to use various historical periods like the sound stages on a Hollywood backlot, interesting and flavorful backdrops for his stories but with a breezy disregard for historical details and gleeful use of anachronisms. Tolkien's Third Age, on the other hand, is the conclusion of his mythological cycle, chosen precisely for the exact mythic resonances that its elaborate history creates.

Their prose, too, diverges almost completely. Howard's words leap from the page in a vivid gush of color, painting a world that is rough and brutal and immediate, savage in both its joy and destruction. He uses a wide vocabulary because ordinary words fail to create the pictures he is painting. Tolkien's language is almost infinitely patient, describing details and landscapes to root the reader as fully as possible in the world he imagines as clearly as a photograph. For his action scenes he elevates it almost to a mythological pitch, reaching its absolute apex when Éowyn slays the Witch-King of Angmar.

Philosophically there is an utter contrast. Conan has a personal set of morals that is the only thing that matters to him; he has utterly no compunctions about killing or stealing, but he has a strong sense of honor that he will not violate. Tolkien, particularly in the character of Gandalf, strongly enforces Judeo-Christian morality, and even a creature such as Gollum must be spared. Conan would have dispatched him and used the Ring, we can be sure.

(As a brief aside: I find that none of the films of either Howard's stories or Tolkien's, except maybe the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, demonstrates a deep understanding of either author or his work. I understand that there is a wider appreciation of the same, though.)

Writing about the influence of either Howard or Tolkien on D&D is silly. Between the two of them they are the sine qua non of the game; Gary wouldn't have written it if not for Conan, nor would fantasy have had a mass audience without Tolkien.

In short, Howard vs Tolkien is the battle for the soul of fantasy. Is it in Conan or in Frodo?

You can vote in the poll here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 25: Lovecraft vs Burroughs

Round 2 of Appendix N Madness has ended with the top of the bracket in high style. Round 3 has shaped up as a clash of titans.

Weird Region Final: H.P. Lovecraft vs Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a phenomenal success in his lifetime, although the popularity of his stories has waned somewhat. H.P. Lovecraft wasn't; he had some success in Weird Tales magazine, but it took decades for his writing to catch a mass audience. Now it has.

Both Lovecraft and Burroughs looked at our solar system, but what they took away was infinitely different. Burroughs saw in Mars and later Venus places to set some rip-roaring adventures, full of strange civilizations. His Barsoom is a place rife with ruined cities and secretive enclaves, letting him build strange new creatures and customs into each adventure he wrote. It was a place where John Carter, his morality based on a long-past code of honor, could carve out an empire.

When Lovecraft looked up he saw the "black seas of infinity" between the stars.The discovery of Pluto in 1930 was not cause for wonder but a sign related to bizarre cosmic entities, in this case the fungi from Yuggoth. Being transported beyond the cozy confines of modern Earth in Lovecraft is not an adventure but a cause for horror and madness.

Burroughs wrote in a picaresque fashion, adventures fine tuned for pulp magazines. His writing style is adapted to this, using occasional flourishes but focusing on the relentless pace of action. This is the direct opposite of Lovecraft, who wrote with a dense, obscure vocabulary to evoke the strange and unfathomable nature of the beings he had contemplated. His style had been widely derided for some time, but scholars such as S.T. Joshi have rehabilitated it to a significant degree.

Burroughs preceded dozens of authors of sword and planet adventures; there was, after all, a magazine called Planet Stories. Many other Appendix N authors are considered to have written major sword & planet works - Robert E. Howard's Almuric, Leigh Brackett's Mars and Skaith novels, Gardner F. Fox's Llarn novels, Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars, Lin Carter's Callisto novels, Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series, even Manly Wade Wellman's Sojarr of Titan. He had a supposed rivalry with Otis Adelbert Kline, whose Venus stories are among the best known sword & planet rivals to Burroughs. (Kline was Robert E. Howard's agent and put forward Almuric; it has been widely speculated as to whether he had some hand in its writing.)

If Burroughs was imitated in print in his day, it took years for Lovecraft. In his life, he had a close "circle" of authors around him: Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frank Belknap Long were the "core" authors. We know, of course, that Derleth made a great deal of hay out of this, and while he did yeoman's work in popularizing Lovecraft, he also put out an anthology (The Watcher out of Time) with attribution to Lovecraft that stretches the definition of "collaboration" to the breaking point. CAS, of course, is the author whose omission from Appendix N is most egregious.

D&D purposefully evokes a great deal of Burroughs. Picaresque adventure, strange locales, and bizarre creatures are naturals, even though D&D isn't set on Barsoom. Philosophically it is much further from Lovecraft; it puts forward an optimistic metaphysics that seems incompatible with the nihilistic Cthulhu Mythos, even though they were in the early printings of AD&D. Certainly Lovecraft's monsters can be used as enemies in the game, although this bears with it none of the spirit of his mature stories. Some of his "dream cycle" is ripe for inspiration, although this is not his finest work as literature.

Choosing between Lovecraft and Burroughs is fundamentally a question of what you want in literature. Lovecraft was one of the most original thinkers in horror writing of the 20th century. Burroughs crafted pitch-perfect adventures in thrilling worlds.

You can vote in the poll here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 24: Moorcock vs de Camp

Day 23 was 75% less exciting than Day 22, with Poul Anderson easily whipping Fredric Brown. Anderson will go up against Leigh Brackett in round 3.

Day 24 is Michael Moorcock versus L. Sprague de Camp.

Michael Moorcock

If only the Hawkmoon and Corum and Jerry Cornelius novels existed to represent Michael Moorcock's fantasy output, he would be well regarded. The Eternal Champion series provides a rich tapestry of ideas, from the thoroughly 60s/70s oddity of Cornelius to the post-apocalyptic Hawkmoon to the rich Celtic overtones of Corum. But, of course, he launched his career with the most enduring of his characters, Elric of Melniboné.

For D&D purposes, the most important thing Moorcock did was to take the Law and Chaos conflict in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and run with it. D&D proceeded to do likewise, and alignment has shaped its universe in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Elric's runesword of course is copied in the classic module White Plume Mountain, although D&D has never been good at the kind of summoning magic he performs.

The Elric novels are mostly fix-ups, and recent re-releases have included the earlier forms. Moorcock is the sort of author who always has room to tinker with his past creations, and filled out a surprisingly long backstory for his albino sorcerer. But in terms of sword & sorcery anti-heroes, he remains one of the most compelling, his glooms the deepest, his savage bouts with Stormbringer among the best action.

L. Sprague de Camp

If you judged merely by what he did before 1966, L. Sprague de Camp would clearly rate as a significant fantasy author. His collaborations with Fletcher Pratt are among his finest work: the Harold Shea works, Land of Unreason, The Carnelian Cube, and so on. And his anthologies such as Sword and Sorcery and The Spell of Seven were important in defining swords & sorcery as a genre.

But de Camp also edited the 1960s Conan paperbacks. This would seem to be a good thing - after all, they popularized the tales of the Cimmerian and brought Frank Frazetta's iconic art to the character. Had these books not also included original stories by de Camp and his protégé Lin Carter, and had they not rewritten unfinished Howard stories, de Camp's reputation might have been sterling. Instead he is heavily disliked by Howardian purists.

de Camp's work was credited by Gygax as a major inspiration, even if his rationalist streak seems a bit too skeptical for D&D. His Viagens Interplanetarias series was used for GURPS Planet Krishna, and his Harold Shea books are a solid go-to if you want to incorporate elements of myth and classic fantastic literature. He was, deservedly, a Grand Master in his lifetime. But one must decide where they stand on his editing work.

You can vote in the poll here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 23: Anderson vs Brown

In a tightly fought battle, J.R.R. Tolkien triumphed over Fritz Leiber with 72 votes to 70 votes and will go on to face Robert E. Howard in round 3.

Day 23 takes us back to Sci-Fi for Poul Anderson vs Fredric Brown.

Poul Anderson

The relative handful of fantasy books that Poul Anderson put out all have some science fiction touches to them. The paladin protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is an engineer from Earth who finds himself in a fantastic realm; the scene where Holger tosses a bucket of water down the gullet of a dragon is one of the strangest such fights I can think of. Even the more explicitly fantastical The Broken Sword justifies its elves' allergy to iron in pseudo-scientific terms. In both, you can see Anderson's love of medieval lore (the Matter of France in Three Hearts and Norse myth in Broken Sword) strain against his instincts as a SF writer. In The High Crusade he just goes whole hog and throws medieval Englishmen against aliens.

Gary Gygax stole a bunch of concepts in complete detail from Three Hearts, so its influence is transparent. Michael Moorcock also was explicitly inspired by the fight between Law and Chaos in that novel, so you can blame it for everything from alignment to Arioch. Yet D&D oddly doesn't draw any of the scientific conclusions that Anderson's novel would. Paladins are purely taken at face value, and dragons don't end badly if you use a bucket of water against them. A Sword +3 Flame Tongue isn't made of magnesium, either. The borrowing winds up being shallower than one might think. And while The Broken Sword makes a stronger impression as a novel it leaves much less direct, verifiable evidence in D&D.

Anderson, with Norton, is one of the best SF writers in Appendix N for fans of Traveller. His cycle of the Polesotechnic League and the Terran Empire with merchant-explorer Nicholas van Rijn and space spy Dominic Flandry are terrific. But for D&D purposes, it's really his fantasy output that is worth considering.

Fredric Brown

If there's an author in Appendix N who didn't make an appreciable mark on D&D, Fredric Brown (his name is misspelled in Gary's list) is that author. His finest work was in his short fiction, which tends to be stories heavy on irony and moral lessons. Brown's "Sentry" is the archetype of the story that ends with the reveal that the protagonist is an alien fighting against humans. His "Knock" is entirely structured around the lines: "The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."

An enterprising referee could grab the "roller" from Brown's "Arena" or the more famous Gorn from its Star Trek adaptation as a go-to monster (I included a picture of the latter because I don't have any good Fredric Brown inspired art). And Gary Gygax, being the sort who loved puns and jokes, probably got mileage from Martians Go Home for monster inspiration. Brown is a fine short story author but I can't see him making an Appendix N drawn up on any principles other than "Gary Gygax's bookshelf."

You can vote in the poll here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 22: Tolkien vs Leiber

Despite some late tightening, Edgar Rice Burroughs defeated Lord Dunsany and will continue to take on H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos in Round 3.

Day 22 of Appendix N Madness is one of the match-ups I have anticipated ever since I set up the bracket: J.R.R. Tolkien versus Fritz Leiber.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The "party line" about the development of Dungeons & Dragons is that J.R.R. Tolkien is less important than other influences on the game. Which sounds very nice, but it wasn't just an accident that OD&D had dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, goblins, ents, Nazgûl, and Balrogs. Gary Gygax was said prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, which is totally fair and valid, but Tolkien was a huge influence on the players, especially once D&D got out of the narrow circles around Dave and Gary. I also think the cease & desist letters of the late 1970s caused some of this to be political.

Tolkien's reputation is solidly on his world-building. Middle-Earth has a deep history built up over a lifetime, and it really shows through in The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately the 1977 Silmarillion is possibly the worst way to package to the backstory; it is literally an annalistic history overlaid on top of a written summary, and comes off resembling the writing of the Bible in a negative way. The earliest drafts in The Book of Lost Tales are in rough form but make much more entertaining reads. The recent fix-up books, The Children of Húrin, and with any luck the forthcoming Beren & Lúthien, are far more accessible forms of the great stories Tolkien invented.

It is remarkable that you can actually learn enough Quenya or Sindarin to write some poetry in the languages. This was Tolkien's great passion, and the languages of Middle-Earth are quite beautiful creations in their own. "Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen, yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!" (Namarië, written in Quenya) or "A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel, o menel aglar elenath!" (A Elbereth Gilthoniel, written in Sindarin)

Fritz Leiber

Like his father, Fritz Leiber was a Shakespearean actor. This shows through in his lucid and evocative prose, and his rapier-quick wit. Among Appendix N authors, only Jack Vance had a similar knack for sentences that you could read for pleasure on their own.

Leiber created two exceptional things. One was the pair of friends that he envisioned, tall barbarian Fafhrd and small swarthy Mouser. Their partnership and work together is legendary. Over the years Leiber created a full lifetime of their adventures, and clearly reflected a partnership that changed and grew. Even when they were rivals like in "Lean Times in Lankhmar" they still looked out for one another in a way. It's quite touching that their friendship was based on Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer's real-world friendship.

But even more impressive is the city that was a constant hub for their adventures. Lankhmar, the City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes, with its Thieves Guild and the Silver Eel and Plaza of Dark Delights and the Street of the Gods and the Gods of Lankhmar. The city is a character in itself, one of the greatest cities in fantasy literature. Both of D&D's biggest cities, Greyhawk and Waterdeep, are clearly reflections (or if you prefer, cheap knockoffs) of Lankhmar through their individual creators. Some places in Nehwon are interesting, such as the underground city of Quarmall (a great mega-dungeon inspiration), but Lankhmar looms over all of them.

You can vote in the poll here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 21: Burroughs vs Dunsany

Jack Vance dominated in a victory over Roger Zelazny and will go on to Round 3.

Day 21 brings us to a battle of two of the earliest authors in Appendix N: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The foreword to the original D&D set described the game's purview as fantasy, and its first example was "Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits." OD&D had a distinct Barsoom flavor in the encounters section, which listed various Martian foes that Carter fought in his adventures, although later editions would downplay these connections.

Edgar Rice Burroughs's prime work, particularly the Barsoom novels, is rip-roaring adventure. If you read too much of it at one time, it becomes fairly obvious that he was working off of a straightforward outline and the plots can be formulaic. But it was all in service of his worldbuilding, which was endlessly inventive. John Carter (or one of a half-dozen others) finds himself lost in some new land, where a new threat presents itself. Then there's some helpful exposition and some desperate plan that gets him out of one problem and into a deeper one, and this continues until the book resolves neatly.

Of Burroughs's worlds, Barsoom was by far the best imagined. His Venus lacks the same feel, and Pellucidar is somewhat derivative. Tarzan keeps getting recycled but the racial implications seem to have put a damper on the once massive appeal the character had. Certainly Barsoom, where the races should be treated as pure fantasy, remains the most fertile ground for gaming inspiration, and the first six novels are the best reads.

Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany

A lord in what became modern Ireland during his lifetime, Lord Dunsany was a fantasist of rare imagination. He created a unique mythological cycle in his short story collections, The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, and The Book of Wonder. The first two are in a very "high" register, almost Bible-like in both scope and in their language. Particularly The Book of Wonder contains tales that relate more directly to D&D-ish fantasy, such as "Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller" and "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles."

Dunsany returned to these themes in the 1920s with his masterwork The King of Elfland's Daughter, which carries both his rich language and his high fantastic concepts for a full length novel. Here he relates the fantastical Elfland to the more mundane "fields we know," although when the book starts out with a witch gathering thunderbolts to craft a magic sword, exactly how mundane those fields are is up for question.

Altogether Dunsany was a prodigious writer of what can only be called very pure fantasy. It would be impossible to have the "big three" of Weird Tales without him, particularly Lovecraft who started out trying to write pastiches of Dunsany (what is now known as the "Dream Cycle"). His work is inventive in ways that very little fantasy has ever tried to reach.

You can vote in the poll here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 20: Vance vs Zelazny

Leigh Brackett managed to come out ahead on Day 19 of Appendix N Madness.

The match-up for Day 20 is two heavy hitters of SAGA / Amra: Jack Vance versus Roger Zelazny.

Jack Vance

While Appendix N lists only The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld by name, if you read the Dungeon Masters Guide it is quite clear that Gary Gygax was also a fan of Vance's Planet of Adventure series, as he describes "Dirdirmen" in the Castle Greyhawk dungeons. In a recent interview his son Ernie described Vance as a particular favorite.

Cugel the Clever of The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga is a particular archetype of scoundrel and ne'er-do-well; I've seen many murderhobo PCs who fit his template exactly. Many of the magicians of The Dying Earth are likewise scoundrels, but of a wizardly type.

It also has to be noted that Vance was one of the better prose artists of this whole tournament. The Dying Earth RPG had to incorporate a whole system of repartee to match the wit the stories' protagonists display. And simply in his ability to craft sentences, Vance can be intoxicating.

Roger Zelazny

The scene in Nine Princes in Amber where Random and Corwin drive through the ever-shifting Shadow toward Amber is one of the great chase sequences in any of the Appendix N books, and it alone would mean a film or TV adaptation of the Amber Chronicles would be, understandably, ambitious. Zelazny's masterwork is this series of epic intrigue and nearly godlike power, which is such a fit for today's television market that it should be no surprise there is serious talk about an adaptation.

It's not an accident that there was an Amber roleplaying game, nor that this game bears a close resemblance to the game Diplomacy. Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz were absolute fanatics for the latter and their play of NPCs was equally cut-throat. If your group isn't up for that, then Amber might not be the right RPG influence for you.

Zelazny was a masterful storyteller. I found the first five Amber books to be compulsive page-turners, each new twist burying Corwin in further trouble that he has to work his way out of. Zelazny's ability to write smooth, readable, modernist prose was a major factor in that. Though I do have to fault him for nicknaming the protagonist of Lord of Light "Sam" when, given a character identified with the Buddha, the opportunity to call him "Sid" is right there. But every Zelazny book I've met goes down smooth and keeps you hanging for what the next twist will be.

You can vote in the poll here.