A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.
In Achaemenid studies, one of our basic tools is deconstruction and looking at the ideological and literary context of ideas. And when you look at the history of D&D, you notice that people have been complaining about some things for a long time. Back in 1986, TSR released a Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide full of information about spelunking and natural cave formations. Dungeon ecology was also a major theme in the first hardcover books and illustrated magazines for roleplaying games. And in 1978, Poul Anderson proclaimed that “the time is overpast for drawing inspiration from other milieus — Oriental, Near Eastern, North and Black African, Amerindian, Polynesian, an entire world.” So for a long time, there have been complaints that heroic fantasy is Eurocentric and neglects how caves and buildings actually work, and some help for people who wanted to do things differently. Why didn’t this criticism and teaching have more of an impact?
Well, on one hand, I don’t think its fair to expect high-school students from the Midwest or librarians in rural Ontario to speak about chimneying like veteran cavers, or the design of fortified farmhouses like military historians. Learning those things takes time and money, not everyone is interested (although I hope that my blog is helpful for some who want to learn). Even if one player has experience hiking long distances through the wilderness with a heavy pack, he can’t transmit that experience to everyone else, and gaming is a collaborative experience where people tell a story together, not one where an expert lectures to a passive audience. Dungeons make for great stories which people of all ages and backgrounds can tell together, even though writing down those stories is rarely satisfying. But on the other hand, I think that Tolkienesque fantasy has become a ‘thing’ which limits people’s imagination as much as it inspires it, and that it draws on a lot of colonial dreams about venturing into distant lands, hacking through hordes of faceless natives with barbarous customs and terrible gods, and hauling back vast treasures. Many 20-year-olds planning their next adventure have never heard of the Third Burma War, and think that archaeologists making their way through Central Asia with the help of machine guns and Ford automobiles only exist in movies. The fantasy has erased the history which inspired it. But I think that that history has cast a shadow. Alexiares has some thoughts on this from a Métis perspective in her Steampunk Reflections.
Second, there is some question about the realism of bands of loosely-connected young people wandering the countryside and slaying things. As I said above, I don’t think that stories about dungeons are set in a world that works like ours, so complaining about this sort of feels like complaining that fighters in Star Wars move like aircraft in an atmosphere not spaceships in a vacuum. And from my perspective as a historian, wandering bands of rootless young men are dead common, and so are shatter zones dotted with warring communities and riven with intrigue. English-speakers should have a general idea of the situation in Ireland from prehistory until the 17th century, or on the Scots-English border from the 14th to the 16th, but there are plenty of other examples from South Asia and the Americas. For most of history becoming a mercenary soldier or bandit or pirate was one of the main ways which a poor farmer or fisherman or charcoal burner might try to advance, see the world, and not have to wait an unimaginably long time like ten years before they could afford to marry. The work was risky and brutal, but so was being a peasant in an unequal society. Sometimes they even found great treasures and turned respectable, or ended up in unimaginably distant parts of the world full of strange creatures and shocking customs. 15th century Ottoman or 18th century Mahratta armies regularly recruited a few myriads of volunteers who served for loot and went home when they had stolen enough or thought that they might lose a battle, and those volunteers appeared and disappeared in small groups. I am sure that the villagers hated these bands of hungry and well-armed youths with their outlandish customs, and occasionally the adventurers did something too outrageous and were ambushed or murdered in their sleep, but since their job was to do horrible things to the enemy’s peasants and camp followers, their future employer was rarely fussy.
Not just that, but these bands were often a wild jumble of classes and ethnic groups, and some people took advantage of the confusion to break free of the rules of behaviour which the dominant society tried to impose. When we get views from without (which is quite often) we usually get the language of moralism and gossip, which somehow keeps the same tone whether accusing people of slave trading or wearing the wrong kind of clothes. When we get views from within (which is not very often) we usually see people who are just trying to live their lives with as little fuss as possible, and are not especially impressed that someone in a distant centre of power thinks this is improper. Roman tomb inscriptions tell us that some ordinary Romans were living in family arrangements which Roman law never imagined or explicitly forbid, and there is a good deal of evidence that throughout antiquity experts wandered wherever there was a market for their skills even if they was among foreigners. So while our world never saw a man, and elf, and a dwarf set out together, I suspect that ancient adventurers were a motley bunch (and that Mania of Dardanos had her working-class counterparts).
“You all meet in a tavern” is a cliche, but specialists in Renaissance Italy have read a lot of confessions and informers’ reports, and it seems that a lot of plots did begin with “hey amico, how is that wine? Listen, I have been thinking we need to overthrow the Medici tyrants, are you interested! Great, come to my warehouse on the cattle market after sunset Saturday, and bring your weapons.” (I wish I could give the citation, but I read that article too many years ago). Somehow, fantasies about adventure in superhero and fantasy and mystery stories have erased the history which inspired them. One of the points of George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman stories is that tales weirder than H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote were everyday news in the period from the 1840s to the 1930s.
Telling stories about people like this is hard, especially if we want to look beyond very recent times like the 18th century. Wandering adventurers are not known for keeping careful records and depositing them where they will be looked after for centuries. The Japanese buried a lot of treasure during their occupation of Southeast Asia, and ever since then people have been searching for it. There are various rumours that people found a great stash, and every so often someone in the Philippines wanders into an unmarked mine field or is shot by unknown parties. However, the details are very hard to pin down, because people who find great hauls of stolen gold don’t carefully document everything and publish it (and it may shock my innocent readers, but professional adventurers sometimes say things which are not strictly true, and sometimes fail to mention important details). Now if it is hard to pin things like this down in the 20th century, imagine how hard it is in earlier periods!
Like almost everyone, I have thoughts about how to avoid the worst logical and ethical problems of traditional dungeon fantasy, and opinions about things like whether mixing steampunk or science-ficton elements into dungeon fantasy makes it more fun. However, this is already a long post, and the Internet has plenty of thoughts and opinions on it already (if you are really interested, please say so in the comments!) So like Martin, I hope that some of the things I have written are useful to people who want to tell stories about the distant past or fantasy worlds, while not spoiling anyone else’s fun. I would rather help people who want to tell other kinds of stories, but need a little specialized knowledge to do so, than rant about other people and their hurting wrong fun.
Further Reading: Lindy Beige has lots of thoughts and opinions on gamer-friendly history, and is not afraid to lay them all out and watch the fireworks when people disagree https://www.youtube.com/user/lindybeige There is a new life of one of those Victorian adventurers who was sufficiently British, male, and book-learned that his story is not too hard to pin down https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/the-fantastic-adventures-of-the-tartan-turbaned-colonel/ I suspect that he and Xenophon would have had a cracking good time together, and he might have even let you live if you called him a murder hobo.
The most famous stories about a robber’s cave full of treasure, perils, and wonders come from the Arabian Nights, but they have ancestors. The fantastic version shows up in the Aethiopica of Heliodorus (translated in the collections Selected Ancient Green Novels and Five Greek Novels) and the historical version in Jewish and Roman stories about life in Syria under the Caesars (Benjamin Isaacs, The Limits of Empire).
Edit 2022-12-09: fixed links broken when WordPress introduced the block editor