Thursday, March 3, 2011

Meditating on Tolkien

Recently, James posed one of his Friday Questions on envy. He was specifically interested in game systems and the communities that exist around them. Upon serious reflection, I am not that much envious of any group of gamers (indeed, via the blogosphere I get to be apart of a very special group of people). Rather, I grew up envious of those who had a love for J.R.R. Tolkien and his works.

Growing up, I was one of those slow readers who just didn't comprehend what I was reading until well into 3rd or 4th grade. By that time, I was already playing D&D. Since I wasn't able to understand what I was reading, I gave my Holmes edition to my best friend to read and he taught me. The main influence in his understanding of fantasy was Tolkien. By the time we started to play on a regular basis, he had read the whole of the Lord of the Rings three or four times. His efforts on world-building focused on a Middle-Earth-inspired continent he called Karafax (if I remember correctly) where the Dwarvish Oakenshield clan played a large role.

When reading finally became accessible to me, I found Tolkien beyond me. This frustrated me, exacerbated by disappointment. My grandfather died shortly before D&D entered into my life. The one thing that was bequeathed to me after his death was his boxed copy of Tolkien works. I was assured that my grandfather adored Middle Earth and everything about it. Unable to read it, and having parents who were uninterested in fantasy (at best) meant that I would be denied any kind of pleasure from Tolkien (and thus remembering my grandfather in one of the few things I knew about him) for decades.

Thus, I unconsciously rejected Tolkien as a source for my own world-building efforts and concentrated rather on obscure works of Sword & Sorcery in the hopes of finding something as special and as inspiring. As an aside, my own current group had an interesting conversation about demi-humans and our like/dislike for them. Elves are surprisingy despised and gnomes are very popular. I had to admit my own bias towards half-orcs, which stems from my affection for Garth the Overman from Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Seven Altars of Dûsarra. D&D has no overmen, but half-orcs have always proved to be a good substitute.

Recently, however, I have been re-examining my own relationship with Mr. Tolkien and his writing. Part of this has been doing something for my kids that I was denied when I was their age: everyday after school we sit together and I read aloud a little bit of The Hobbit. I have been pleasantly surprised how good it is, and am reminded by how large it looms in my own imagining of what D&D looks like.

I also recently ran across this series on modern fantasy and its relationship with Tolkien. I particularly found this quote of interest:
Tolkien himself was often moved by scenes he wrote displaying his characters’ “physical resistance to evil,” reverently calling their actions nothing less than “a major act of loyalty to God.” This loyalty, equal parts physical and spiritual, was in turn something that he believed “only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.” The world of The Lord of the Rings is filled with great temptations of a sort that don’t lead directly to evil per se, but that lead to the abandonment of the physical resistance — the pain, the suffering — that Tolkien considered so central to his notions of true heroism.
Given James' recent hypothesis "You are What You Read or See" I have to admit that though I tried to abandon Tolkien all those decades ago, he has had a profound influence upon me and the way I play the game. Though I have played D&D since the 70s, I have only seen three of my characters get to 7th level or beyond. Personally, I love playing low-level (and low-life) characters. I love playing the role of that nobody (even reviled outsider — read half-orc) who is nonetheless willing to physically resist evil and make a difference, no matter how small. This has always had a far more powerful pull on me than the end-game of D&D with its high levels and castle-building ever did.


  1. Great post. 'I love playing the role of that nobody (even reviled outsider — read half-orc) who is nonetheless willing to physically resist evil and make a difference, no matter how small.' - Right there with you, I'm a fan of slow character progression and low level play as well.

    Not really related, but have you seen Joseph Ravitts article in Pegasus #4 (1981) "Monotheism in Fantasy Games"? I was flipping through some old magazines the other day, stumbled on it, and thought of you.

  2. @ze bullette
    I have not seen Mr. Ravitts article particular article, so thank you for pointing it out. I will now have to go get it and read it...

  3. I'd be happy to send you a copy of the article if you don't have the issue, just let me know.

  4. Great post. I identify with your experience, as I didn't read Tolkien until college myself. Afterward, in the seminary, I took a course at Boston College called Philosophy of Tolkien. I found it very interesting and was happy to see that the professor published the majority of his thoughts in a book of the same title.

  5. Fantastic story. I'm reading The Hobbit aloud to my boys right now. I am very thankful that discovered Tolkien I'n 6th grade. I can't imagine having discovered D&D without him.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoy hearing the diversity of folks' experience of coming to Tolkien. For those who haven't read it, I highly recommend his lecture "On Fairy-Stories," which is available various places, as containing the most important elements of his thought.

  7. @Alexey
    I actually have a friend who got his Masters of Theology at BU by comparing The Silmarillion with the OT.

    Thanks for the kind words. The farther I get into the Hobbit, the more I see of my own understanding of D&D.

    Thanks, I'll try to track that down.