Thursday, January 17, 2019

Mimetic Worldbuilding: Historical Fantasy And Why To Do It

Michelangelo Caravaggio, "The Sacrifice of Isaac"
Front-piece to the Princeton Classics edition of Erich Auerbach's "Mimesis"

In fantasy-type RPGs, we can, without too much oversimplification, delineate two basic types of worldbuilding: the sub-creative and the mimetic. The former is overwhelmingly predominant, for reasons that are hardly mysterious: the inventor of the sub-creative method was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, who justifiably claims the mantle of founder of the fantasy genre in general.

For Tolkien, sub-creation denoted acting in the image of God by composing a second, imaginary world. This world was not to be the equal of the Primary World, because we would fashion it with the psychic and spiritual tools made initially by God and put at our disposal through his Grace. Moreover, as sub-creators, we would have to take care to remember that we continued to live in the Primary World, which our Secondary World could never replace (so long as we wished to keep our sanity and remain within God's Grace).

Nevertheless, these Secondary Worlds were to be free and independent creations, not dictated, contrived, and pale imitations of the Primary World. Rather, they would be vivid, beautiful, supernatural - populated by creatures of Faerie, larger-than-life heroes, magical animals that talked, and also the darkest villains. The more disbelief in these things was suspended, the more real the Secondary Worlds became. These 'faerie tales' have been told from time immemorial and are an inalienable part of all human cultures - to entertain, to escape the drudgery and misery of the mundane world, and to rekindle hope by showing that there are other Worlds where, despite the presence of Darkness, Good triumphs over Evil in the end.

Fantasy as a literary type was, for Tolkien, a project for restoring the Secondary Worlds of Faerie in the conditions of a runaway modernity. In a thoroughly disenchanted world, he saw all thought, action and communication as being enslaved by the necessity of scientific, socioeconomic or political facts and to which there could be no alternative. Imagination necessary to appreciate sub-creation, and the suspension of disbelief were discouraged or punished, and relegated to the sphere of children: the wise and terrible elves of old shrunk to the tiny, winged Tinkerbells that still inhabited 20th-century tales of 'fancy'. Fantasy was to restore the right to imagine and sub-create to adults who, if anything, were even more victimized by disenchanted modernity than children. In a world where the myths and fairy tales of old were declared to be atavisms or screens veiling "real" social relations or primitive scientific knowledge, and mercilessly caricatured by science and bad drama, sub-creators could not simply retell old tales, but had to fashion them almost de novo in order to imbue them with a heavier dose of imagined reality. These would have to be internally consistent, living worlds, with their own history, genealogies, legends, poetry, and languages (which Tolkien, himself a linguist, would proceed to fashion).

A further stipulation of the sub-creative method in fantasy was the injunction to keep the Secondary world strictly separate from the Primary. Any leaking through, any blurring of boundaries between the two would not only undermine the inner consistency of the former and blur the line between reality and fantasy, but also threaten to implicate the Secondary Worlds in the political conflicts of the Primary, which they were explicitly constructed to escape. It is on those grounds that Tolkien objected to the use of allegory in fantasy. Reducing an elfin or divine being to a manifestation of a natural force weakened sub-creative power. Explicitly rejecting the notion that the War of the Ring was in any key sense an allegory of the Second World War, Tolkien indicated that if it had been such, it would have concluded with the taking of the Ring and its use to augment the power of the victors, which would have obviated the therapeutic power of his sub-creation. Similarly, in contrast to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, which were an obvious allegory of the ministry, passion and resurrection of Christ, Tolkien, though he saw the Lord of the Rings as a fundamentally Christian work,  felt that such a heavy-handed insertion of Christianity would not only undermine the integrity of the fantasy, but also of religion: by inserting an explicitly Christian preachiness into Middle Earth, he would also turn the latter into the domain of political and doctrinal struggle. Instead, the truth of Christianity in a compact, symbolic form, which would become only become transparent over time to an emotionally-invested reader.

It requires little argumentation to demonstrate that Tolkien's method was not only successful in introducing a new literary style, but that this style has attained the semblance of hegemony in speculative fiction, in role-playing games, and arguably, even in the culture at large. It is Re-enchantment, rather than Disnechantment which is now feared, because instead of the End of History, we are in fact living through the End of the Future (so it is no surprise that fantasy has displaced science fiction as the ascendant vision of that future). In the 1960s, the Lord of the Rings became a bestseller on the crest of a popular revolt against disenchanted modernity. In the 1970s, it midwifed the birth of D&D and (roleplaying games generally). The Tolkien-created races - elves, dwarves, hobbits/halflings, orcs, as well as humans continue to form the core of the official D&D legendarium. D&D and the fantasy genre has continued to dominate the world of RPGs, and this dominance has only been reinforced with the 5e renaissance, which has brought D&D and gaming into the mainstream. And in the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise at the turn of the century, fantasy finally tamed drama, which Tolkien saw as being opposed to it. Now that Secondary Worlds can be dramatically represented in non-caricatured ways, the full power of the culture industry can be brought to bear on the ceaseless expansion of sub-creative worldbuilding - a fact reflected in the imperative to make D&D sessions and descriptions "cinematic". 

Much about the playstyles, play process, and worldbuilding in D&D continues to reflect the imprint of Tolkien's sub-creative method. Consider the officially published settings for 5e, as well as those of earlier editions that many fans call to have updated for the new ruleset: Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravnica. All are Secondary Worlds, wholly imagined, wholly fictional, with internal coherence and distinct histories. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are, to an extent, parallel worlds to our own, but it would be hard to suspect them of being allegorical (certainly with respect to contemporary politics and culture). On top of that, the more "ethnic" areas of those worlds that might be recognized as versions of particular cultural regions have been deemphasized (to the point of their near-absence) in newly published materials.

Consider as well the separation of the creatures in these worlds into good and evil. Although alignment as a game feature is in decline (making these Secondary Worlds less like Middle Earth over time), it still exists. Planes of existence that embody these alignments, and planes such as the Faewild parallel Tolkien's Faerie quite closely. The popular reference to D&D-type games as "elf games" is sardonic, but it contains more than a grain of literal truth.

Moreover, claims to the effect that the PCs are heroes, and should be played as heroes, are still quite widespread. How often do we hear comments from people who say that they want their characters to do heroic things, because in real life, they are quite average, and want to escape their hum-drum existence when they are engaged in elf games at the table. And how often do we hear comments to the effect that at that table, they want to deal with simple, diverting fantasy, and not with morally- and politically-complicated issues that suffuse their personal and professional lives? How often do we see people on gaming lists insisting that cultural and political issues have no place there? All of this testifies to the preeminence of the sub-creative model.

Sub-creation: the music of the Ainur

* * *

The sub-creative model is not, however, without its detractors. In his critique "Epic Pooh", Michael Moorcock accused Tolkien of putting on airs, when in fact, there was little difference between the Lord of the Rings, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz. All were children's stories, but in claiming that his work was something more, Tolkien was infantilizing his reader, isolating him from sexuality, politics, and other adult themes, and in so doing, promoting a veiled reactionary political agenda. Moorcock, of course, was a fantasy writer, too, but he saw no fundamental distinction between fantasy and other varieties of belles lettres, which were intended to challenge its readers morally, epistemologically, politically, and syntactically. Tolkien-style fantasy writers dismissed most contemporary fiction as "boring", while glorifying pulpy cliches and escapism as the only basis for good writing - a testament, as Moorcock saw it, to the disenchanted and discredited worldview of antimodernist social groupings that formed their worldviews, as well as to the decline of cultural standards in the second half of the 20th century. In opposition to this tendency, Moorcock cited fantasy books that are based on real-world mythological and legendary sources (Gillian Bradshaw), as well as fantasies that incorporate anthropological and non-Western perspectives (Ursula K. Le Guin).

George R.R. Martin, while generally more appreciative of Tolkien as a forbear, similarly faulted him for his lack of realism. Why such stark division into good elves and evil orcs - do the latter also have evil orc babies? Why is there nothing about the monetary system or the taxation policy of the realms of Middle Earth? Why is it based on such a primitive political philosophy - as long as Gondor has a legitimate king descended from the Numenorians, then all is right with the world? (Unsurprisingly, it took a Russian, Kirill Yeskov, to extrapolate a realist spin on Aragorn's claim in the Last Ringbearer, where the Future King turns out to be a politically ambitious ranger who marries an elf princess, practices genocide against Mordor, and ultimately, uses these to assert a royal claim reaching back thousands of years [!]). For Martin, being a good guy or a legitimate ruler is not enough: even in a fantasy world with magic and dragons, you have to make hard choices, and occasionally, act to cruelly to save more lives down the road. All sides in his world advance moral and religious justifications for their actions. On top of that, there are more than two sides. Sometimes, good guys fight good guys, and ally themselves with evil guys to do it. This type of fantasy world accords more with our own historical experience: notably, Martin is quite explicit that the inspiration for A Game of Thrones came from real conflicts (the Wars of the Roses first and foremost).

The concern for realism, and for a more academically informed fiction does not mean jettisoning fantasy altogether. For better or worse, we live in a world Tolkien made, and internally consistent Secondary Worlds - with their own history, with magic, with creatures that don't exist in the primary world - these have become so widespread that they now even infect 'serious' literature (Umberto Eco, Alice Hoffman, Michael Chabon). It does, however, mean adopting a different methodology for fantasy worldbuilding, at least in part, precisely because our world has changed, and with it, so has the meaning of fantasy. Whereas Tolkien was confronted with what he saw as runaway industrialization, disenchantment, and an existential struggle between political ideologies, we are confronted with a more complex, multi-cornered struggle between many identity groups which all advance claims for recognition. Some of these - heretofore the most dominant, but sensing challenges from all sides, have even begun to draw on the Lord of the Rings to justify war-making in defense of such claims and of their purported ethical superiority.

The epigraph to Chapter 11 of David Gress' From Plato to Nato: the Idea of the West and its Opponents. The chapter looks at the conception of the West following the end of the Cold War, and envisions its assault in its traditional homelands by various postmodern ideologies.

In addition to the use of sub-creation toward explicitly political ends in the Primary World, the imagination of new magical worlds into being has become increasingly exhausted, runs into the turned in upon itself, derivative and solipsistic. For commentators (and sometime fantasy writers) such as John Michael Greer, what's missing from popular, pulpy kind of fantasy - precisely the kind that Moorcock disparages, is mimesis:

The distinction between cliché and personal vision is also the difference between the two categories of fantasy mentioned above. Read a volume of Thongor of Lemuria and the thoughts that you’re experiencing are utterly familiar, the generic mindset of pulp fantasy, replayed in an endless loop with only the most minor variations. Read a volume of the Zimiamvian trilogy and the thoughts you’re experiencing are unique to Eddison. You get to see how someone else thinks and feels and experiences life. In the process, the range of thoughts you’re capable of thinking and feelings you’re able to experience gets expanded. That’s what I mean by mimesis: the experience of a work of genuine art guides you toward new ways of being in the world...

In contrast to the currently dominant conception of art as a vehicle for self-expression, the mimetic theory of art stipulates that, "[a]rt is a means—the only one we’ve come up with so far, despite a vast amount of tinkering on the part of assorted mad scientists—of enabling one person to share, in some sense, in another person’s experience of the world."
Curiously, although Greer promotes mimetic theory in part to defend Tolkien from (his now mostly forgotten) high-brow critics in the 1950s, the definition of art (or fantasy literature) as a representation that is experienced, understood, and appreciated by a passive recipient is quite a bit different from Tolkien's own idea of sub-creation. It's not that the two approaches are inimically opposed to one another: Tolkien certainly put great stock in being able to spin a good yarn that others could enjoy. But there is nothing in imagining Secondary Worlds into being that necessarily involves effectively sharing the experience with others: sub-creation may involve communion with God, but it is, and not infrequently, a solitary business - I create worlds because that is how I express myself, and if people aren't able to appreciate them, that is their problem, and not mine. In sub-creating, I partake of a divine genius, and that is all the justification I need. 

Though Greer does not explicitly tell us what makes one's artistic representations relatable, he is drawing upon the notion of mimesis introduced by the literary theorist Erich Auerbach shortly before the appearance of the Lord of the Rings. For Auerbach, the ability to think and feel together with an artist was made possible by the fact that the latter successfully represented an external reality which he (typically) had no hand in creating. This reality could be the physical reality of what people do and say, the psychological reality of the tension between the external and internal selves, or the historical reality of trying to change oneself in a constantly changing world: in any case, the imagination of the artist is focused on representing the Primary World rather than trying to create a Secondary one. For Auerbach, this mimesis was the red thread running through Western art and literature, and the successful representation of the Primary World, despite the toil and complexity involved in doing so was the primary criterion in determining whether a particular work was to be adjudged as "great" and accepted into the canon. It is for this reason that fantasy such a difficult time at the hands of tastemakers and literary critics - until recently. Creating worlds that were explicitly not intended to represent reality was seen as a shirking of the artist's responsibility, and avoiding having to learn the difficult techniques of the writer's craft. Fantasy as a whole was seen as self-referential, and hence, not admissible into the canon.

The suitability of the mimetic approach for fantasy worldbuilding has already been broached in the discussion of Moorcock's and Martin's critique of Tolkien. Martin, in particular, insisted that his series could have "the gritty feel of historical fiction as well as some of the magic and awe of epic fantasy". Westeros and Essos have internal consistency - their own timelines, ruling families, languages, gods, magical creatures, and still take inspiration form the Wars of the Roses, the Vietnam war, Hadrian's Wall, and a myriad other real-world influences. In some cases (as with Moorcock's invocation of series based on the Arthurian legends or the Celtic Prydain of Lloyd Alexander), fantasy worlds could even derive their 'inner coherence' from real-world history or mythology. And where but from history does one get ideas about how people, even in fantasy worlds, act in response to the pressures of family, social status, economic scarcity, and geopolitical competitors? Where for Tolkien, sub-creative worldbuilding had to preserve elements of nature, which he thought were steadily being destroyed by industry, for the mimetic worldbuilder, historical and social structures had to be preserved in fiction and game to resist a world in which symbolic production was being overwhelmed by the entertainment industry that had already largely incorporated the sub-creative approach.

Examples of mimetic-type worldbuilding certainly exist in fantasy RPGs, though they have been overshadowed by sub-creative worldbuilding. The first genuinely mimetic FRPG was Backhaus and Simbalist's Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - a game born out of a desire to simulate a medieval European society, as well as a general dissatisfaction with D&D's lack of realism. C&S had dragons and magic, too, but as add-ons in a setting that had a more-or-less realistic economic system and price lists, a real feudal-type social hierarchy, and a political and legal system that actually impacted PC actions. C&S also had Christianity, which was left out not only by Tolkien but also by Gygax (who, too, was a believer, but also guided by practical considerations, as D&D was hit by a fundamentalist backlash in the early 80s, and had to assert its purely fictional bona fides). The creators of C&S insisted not only on immersion, but also on complexity: the worlds in which characters operated were not to be mere dungeons where one killed monsters, but 'total environments' - an imperative that evokes Braudel's 'total history'.

C&S was followed by a host of mimetic FRPGs - Bushido, Man Myth and Magic, Pendragon, Legend of the Five Rings, Nyambe, and a host of others too numerous to mention. Beginning in the mid-1980s, mimetic settings began to appear under the D&D imprint, which provided them a framework for much wider circulation. Settings like Kara-Tur, al-Qadim and Maztica were mimetic in the sense that they reflected non-Western historical regions and mythology, at least in a way that resonated with the average fantasy fan. As such, they enjoyed a measure of popularity, especially in the 1990s. However, these settings were incorporated into, that is, subordinated to, generic fantasy settings such as Forgotten Realms. And despite the fact that Forgotten Realms has served as a vehicle for the vast majority of 5e adventure paths, these specific regions have not appeared, except in passing, in any 5e publications.

Map depicting the world in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series -
a good example of mimetic worldbuilding

More importantly, these settings have come under attack from within the 5e gaming community on account of being Orientalist, culturally appropriative, and not reflective of the diverse and multicultural fanbase of the current D&D game. I have addressed these charges elsewhere, and will not recapitulate my arguments here. I will underline, however, that the attack aimed at a broader target than mere exoticism. In its insistence that the D&D franchise has accepted multiculturalism, thereby dictating its system design "to embrace the construction of Orientalist fictional worlds where the Orient and Occident mix, mingle, and wage war", it took aim at mimetic worldbuilding in general. The idea that historico-cultural bonds (of any kind) could no longer play the role of suffusing settings with inner consistency, implied that settings now had to be wholly fictional, thus ruling out 'total environments' of the C&S type, even if the latter did not partake of any cultural appropriation. D&D, according to this perspective, has outgrown mimetic worldbuilding: if it survives, it would only be in niche markets and communities, perhaps wedded to complex mechanics, and appealing to people who were more interested in historical simulation, rather than freewheeling play, and 'having fun'.

A separate issue, but one that nevertheless resonates with charges of Orientalism leveled at mimetic settings, is the explicit Eurocentricity of mimetic theory. As laid out by Auerbach, mimesis was a key component in specifically Western cultural production, rooted as it was in the Homeric Epic, classical Greek drama, and Old Testament theological history. This led many scholars to deny that regions outside Europe had mimetic artistic production of any sort. One might, therefore object that an approach to worldbuilding that is grounded in a theory positing an absolutely external, transcendent reality is grounded in cultural imperialism - it is precisely such an objection that I find implicit in the insistence that worldbuilding be 'multicultural' referred to in the preceding paragraph. However, historical cognition is not a purely 'Western' phenomenon - examples of Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, etc. histories are simply too numerous to mention, so historical simulation in itself does not constitute Orientalism or cultural appropriation. Moreover, the notion that mimetic cultural production is absent outside the West has been convincingly challenged. Writing about mimesis in the case of Chinese aesthetics, Ming Dong Gu demonstrates that the Chinese system of writing, Chinese landscape painting, and the description of social life in Chinese literary works all testify to the presence of mimesis in Chinese culture. Owing to the centrality of epic and drama, which stress narrative, in Greek aesthetics, and of lyric poetry, which stresses spontaneity and embellishment in the Chinese, mimesis does not occupy a dominant role in the latter. However, both the world-creating and the world-reflecting "models exist in Chinese aesthetic thought, but the emphasis seems to rest on the second model. Mimetic theory must exist in any literary tradition that has formed a system of aesthetic thought, because imitation is a basic human instinct". In fact, a multiplicity of appraoches is present in the West as well, as is demonstrable in Tolkien's case in particular: despite the political uses neoconservatives have found for the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is clear that world-creation is not a Western or even specfically Christian feature - sub-creation is a universal divine gift. If for Tolkien, the overemphasis on world-reflection demonstrated an imbalance which he attempted to correct, the same might be said regarding greater emphasis on the mimetic in Chinese culture since the Revolution.

On the whole, arguments that mimetic worldbuilding in RPGs is culturally imperialist, or only of interest to niche gamers, strike me as being off-base. If anything, I think there is likely to be increased interest in such worldbuilding, given the market-saturation of sub-creative games, the presence of a new player base that flowed into the hobby as a result of the 5e generational shift. As they mature, many of the new, younger players are probably going to be looking to play (and to make) something different and more complex, just as the original cohort of RPG players did in the late 80s and 90s. Recommending more mimetic, historically-realistic settings, are:

  • Simulation. Well-made, well-researched historical RPGs can be a highly effective tool in exploring life in past societies. Just like VR technology can give us the sense of what ancient cities may have looked like, historical RPGs can tell us how life in these and similar societies might have been experienced. The recent 'dramaturgical turn' that has accompanied the rise of streamed games has been to the hobby's benefit, because psychological exploration of a PC's emotions and inner world has greatly augmented the role-playing aspect of RPGs. Paying a similar level of attention to making vivid and realistic settings can do the same to the simulation aspects.
  • Immersion. A world with inner coherence is much easier to achieve if it borrows heavily from historical exemplars. I don't claim that sub-creative worlds cannot do this, but how many GMs are worldbuilders like Tolkien? Of course, Tolkien's own worldbuilding drew on the mimetic method as well - particularly, Celtic, Germanic, and Finnish mythology (as well as the Old Testament). Similarly mixing and matching historical influences, or emphasizing particular elements for the purposes of closer exploration can also aid in understanding processes of historical change, much like alternative histories or hypotheticals can.
  • Difference. For all the talk about multiculturalism, making worlds that look like fantasy versions of present-day United States does little to effectively promote difference, or escapism. When (again, following Tolkien), the simmering Cauldron of Story in which setting elements cook over time turns out to contain the same ingredients time after time, or when people insist that the Cauldron must contain all ingredients, sub-creation suffers as well, because playing in such settings, while possibly entertaining in small doses, becomes no more escapist than shopping at the local supermarket. If the Cauldron is cooking up a story and not a shopping list, the limitation of ingredients, and some notion about which ingredients go with which others, can make the final dish much more enjoyable. Historical settings provide us with tried-and-true recipes, giving us a solid base on which to experiment.

The degree of mimesis is obviously going to differ in each case of worldbuilding. Some people will opt for near-complete historical simulation (in which case, we are no longer really talking about historical fantasy). Others will want to borrow different elements, mix and match, go for alternative history, and have a lot, some, or no magic in their settings. But the question of magic brings us to another approach to mimetic worldbuilding, one that may apply more to largely or even wholly fictional worlds. To use Martin's case as an illustration, he allowed his friend to convince him to put dragons into A Song of Ice and Fire, likely because in an age where reenchantment has returned into a society that still possesses tremendous technological potential to alter its environment, mimetic worldbuilding seems like an especially apt choice because of its allegorical potential. Play as social critique suggests that it can also be applied toward thinking deeply about one's own society, deriving ways to transform it in a desired direction, but also finding ways to accept changes that cannot be turned back. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this function belonged to utopian and dystopian fiction, but as these genres became increasingly formulaic and overloaded with predictable sets of political signifiers, their utility declined.

Tolkien's sub-creative approach, as we have seen, evinces a powerful allergy toward allegory. In this, it follows the well-marked out path of the Romantics, which whose aesthetics eschewed allegory in favor of symbolism (notwithstanding Moorcock's criticism of Tolkien's obsession with the soil and conservative 'good sense' as anti-romantic, the latter explicitly regarded romance as a close synonym to 'fairy story'). Like the Romantics, Tolkien found allegory heavy-handed, and disparaged it in favor of the symbol. Allegory was the product of another age - the Baroque.
Allegory conveys historicity and temporality, whereas the symbol encapsulates immediacy and makes it seem eternal. A symbol functions like a revelation, a lightning flash, whereas allegory is always a construction. A symbol fuses the signifier and signified, whereas allegory separates them. As Todorov explained, “the symbol is, allegory signifies"... The reader’s task is not to empathize, as was customary with contemporary sentimental novels, but to decipher... Allegory, dissolves all suspension of disbelief... The Romantic poets reacted to the rupture of modernity not only with the rhetorical choice of symbolism, to capture a lost unity for which they yearned, but also with allegories that represented and emphasized the experience of laceration. As Andrea Cesarini put it, allegory as “an alternative rhetorical procedure to symbolism ... renounces any nostalgic attempt at recomposition, is bitterly pessimistic, [and] lucidly catastrophic'.

Tolkien's strategy was clearly to try to capture lost, timeless unity. The utopians (including early science fiction authors) as allegorists accepted the revolutionary rupture of modernity, and tried to shine a light on the way ahead. And occult philosophers like Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin - an allegorist of the French Revolution and the the main hero of the article just cited, as well Frankfurt School thinker Walter Benjamin, call on our reasonable faculties to make sense of the tragedy that the winds of revolutionary change wreak, while yet leaving ourselves open to the possibility of salvation despite the bleak landscape that we perceive. Curiously, as for Saint-Martin, the allegorical tale might even feature a struggle between Good and Evil, though unlike for Tolkien, the tale, simplistic on its face, is more important for what it leaves out for the reader to infer about what Good and Evil is by reading between the lines.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus" - the image that served as the
basis for Benjamin's backward-flying Angel of History

A good allegory uses a good code, which can be interpreted in multiple different ways. Read allegorically, A Song of Ice and Fire is not simply about dragons as stand-ins for modern weaponry. It's about how big wars started by those seeking power rarely end well - for them. It's about how rediscovering the magic of the past can simultaneously lead to the salvation of the world, as well as its destruction: who can doubt that Westeros as we know it will not survive the clash of dragons and Others? And who can doubt that Daenerys' fight to rid the world of slavery will end, not in a post-historical triumph of the one right political system, but tragically, with her own death, and possibly the death of magic (we know that one of the dragons has already perished)? In that sense, the Lord of the Rings is allegorical as well, and also concludes with the death of magic.

Our age is also about the rediscovery of magic. Today, there is much talk about the old magic of tribes that causes us to divide people into us and them, and to demand blood sacrifices to keep the bonds between us strong. Somewhat less frequently, we remember that those who not long ago called for the rediscovery of 'true' liberalism - one with little state interference in the economy, with negative rather than positive freedoms, one which laid out the only truth path to modernity - also stirred up old magic, and perhaps the most dangerous tribe of all. Then, why not spin an allegory about elves - attractive, long-lived, talented, public-minded, ethical, ruling on the basis of meritorious service to civilized life - and, increasingly, cut off from their less attractive but more numerous subjects - whom they no longer benefit, who tire of their tutelage, and who see through their self-serving and self-destructive attempts to cling to power? If RPGs are a new art form, as many claim, why do they need to be art for art's sake, as opposed to a medium that can also explore pressing issues of primary reality? 

Notes in the Margin: I'm starting a Facebook Group for discussing Historical Fantasy worldbuilding. If you're interested in mimetic worldbuilding and other theoretical approaches, and, more importantly, practical issues involved in designing and running such worlds, check out the Never-was Worlds group.



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