It’s Tolkien all the way down

More thoughts as I re-read 5e… For some reason it’s just now striking me as kinda absurd how ubiquitous is the presence of Tolkien’s races in so much fantasy media. I’m reading the Races chapter, and the opening bits of fiction from various TSR novels — and the race descriptions themselves — all crib so heavily from Tolkien. Maybe the feeling is enhanced by my having recently re-read Feist’s Magician, which itself is cribbed form D&D (and thus cribbed from Tolkien) and so the presence of these races (save hobbits) and their attendant stereotypes doesn’t even bear explanation; it’s a fantasy world, so of course there are gruff dwarves with Scottish accents* and lithe elves who live in the forest.

I dunno. I’m not sure why this hasn’t stuck me as forcefully before. Why do so many games and stories have these races, and why are they almost universally the same? Is it all D&D’s fault?

I mean, SF has tropes like these as well — warrior races, cat people, aloof races — but I don’t feel like they all draw on the exact same source as do fantasy sources.

I also am now finding silly the idea that each race has very specific behaviors and trope, except humans, who are basically “whatever”. I mean, why aren’t elves “whatever”? It sort of makes me long for Iron Heroes, which was a human-only game, but part of charges was picking cultural tropes/abilities for your PC, essentially rolling your own “race” that reflected whatever the heck you wanted.

I dunno. This seems a day late and a dollar short, and expecting more from D&D is probably unwise.

* Some digging says the Scotts thing actually comes from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which was another primary influence on D&D.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OurDwarvesAreAllTheSame

58 thoughts on “It’s Tolkien all the way down

  1. Mark Delsing (or anyone) – Not particularly relevant but if you want to check out some decidedly non-Tolkien (and non-magical)  fantasy, you may want to look at the Monster Blood Tattoo books by D. M. Cornish.  It’s a young adult series with amazing world building (the first book is about half novel and half glossary and setting info).  It’s a world with 18th c. technology mixed with weird bio-tech, and the books show some stylistic influences from Gormenghast.  One of my favorites.  The author is a gamer, but clearly missed the “You must include Elves and Dwarves” memo.  Now that I think of it, Ron Edwards , you might like them as well.

  2. < ![CDATA[Mark Delsing (or anyone) - Not particularly relevant but if you want to check out some decidedly non-Tolkien (and non-magical)  fantasy, you may want to look at the Monster Blood Tattoo books by D. M. Cornish.  It's a young adult series with amazing world building (the first book is about half novel and half glossary and setting info).  It's a world with 18th c. technology mixed with weird bio-tech, and the books show some stylistic influences from Gormenghast.  One of my favorites.  The author is a gamer, but clearly missed the "You must include Elves and Dwarves" memo.  Now that I think of it, Ron Edwards , you might like them as well.]]>

  3. Scots accents on dwarves always bugs me in Tolkien-influenced games, when he designed their language to be similar to the Semitic languages. Dwarves should have Hebrew accents, or perhaps Arabic.

    Mind you, making your gold-lusting dwarves in a game have stereotypical Jewish accents is… never cool.

  4. < ![CDATA[Scots accents on dwarves always bugs me in Tolkien-influenced games, when he designed their language to be similar to the Semitic languages. Dwarves should have Hebrew accents, or perhaps Arabic. Mind you, making your gold-lusting dwarves in a game have stereotypical Jewish accents is... never cool.]]>

  5. < ![CDATA[Mark Delsing Yeah, I always snag extra copies when I see them in used bookstores so I can give them to people, but I'm out at the moment or I'd send you the first book.]]>

  6. They crib but they kind of don’t, too, you know? Like, on the surface, yup, there are the elves and the dwarves and trolls and giants and shit. But like, at least as of AD&D, they’re little packages of physics things like infravision, which we laugh and laugh about when we play The One Ring and folks want their nonhuman characters to be D&D critters, not Tolkien critters.

    Try importing the Tolkien-inspired D&D races back into The One RIng and you’ll see how weird it is.

    Also: racism.

  7. < ![CDATA[They crib but they kind of don't, too, you know? Like, on the surface, yup, there are the elves and the dwarves and trolls and giants and shit. But like, at least as of AD&D, they're little packages of physics things like infravision, which we laugh and laugh about when we play The One Ring and folks want their nonhuman characters to be D&D critters, not Tolkien critters.
    Try importing the Tolkien-inspired D&D races back into The One RIng and you’ll see how weird it is.
    Also: racism.]]>

  8. Paul Beakley Yeah, I’d be curious as the the reasoning behind those choices; Tolkien says elves have keen eyesight, but that’s about it. Bilbo can always see better than Thorin and co., too.

    I guess it all comes back to Gygax, then. He canonizes bastardized versions of Tolkien’s races, a bunch of people play D&D along side reading Tolkien, and a whole genre of imitative fantasy is born.

    Can you expand on the “racism” bit? Are you talking Tolkien, Gygax, or all of it?

  9. < ![CDATA[Paul Beakley Yeah, I'd be curious as the the reasoning behind those choices; Tolkien says elves have keen eyesight, but that's about it. Bilbo can always see better than Thorin and co., too. I guess it all comes back to Gygax, then. He canonizes bastardized versions of Tolkien's races, a bunch of people play D&D along side reading Tolkien, and a whole genre of imitative fantasy is born. Can you expand on the "racism" bit? Are you talking Tolkien, Gygax, or all of it?]]>

  10. One of the things I loved about Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved was that humans weren’t in charge, and as a result, they had a species-level personality stereotype: impatient and prone to intuitive leaps.

  11. < ![CDATA[One of the things I loved about Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved was that humans weren’t in charge, and as a result, they had a species-level personality stereotype: impatient and prone to intuitive leaps.]]>

  12. Yes, it is D&D’s fault. Every collapse of original ideas from particular literary works into tired, forever-trotted-out fantasy tropes is D&D’s fault.

    My favorite less-obvious example is the Thieves’ Guild, which was originally a thing unique to Lankhmar, a city so old and corrupt and yet so tradition-bound that even its thieves were organized into a guild! Crazy, huh? Only in Lakhmar! No wait also every single fantasy city everywhere along with the goddamned halflings FUCK YOU D&D

  13. < ![CDATA[Yes, it is D&D's fault. Every collapse of original ideas from particular literary works into tired, forever-trotted-out fantasy tropes is D&D's fault. My favorite less-obvious example is the Thieves' Guild, which was originally a thing unique to Lankhmar, a city so old and corrupt and yet so tradition-bound that even its thieves were organized into a guild! Crazy, huh? Only in Lakhmar! No wait also every single fantasy city everywhere along with the goddamned halflings FUCK YOU D&D]]>

  14. (Now maybe somebody’s going to come along and prove me wrong about the Thieves-Guild-Being-an-Original-Lankhmar-idea thing and I’ll feel silly, but I kinda doubt it)

  15. < ![CDATA[(Now maybe somebody's going to come along and prove me wrong about the Thieves-Guild-Being-an-Original-Lankhmar-idea thing and I'll feel silly, but I kinda doubt it)]]>

  16. Ah, so Leiber was ripping off Cervantes?  At least he kept to the notion that a Thieves’ Guild was kind of ridiculous — he was stealing the conceit from them.  His various imitators via D&D don’t realize it’s supposed to be an interesting and perhaps amusing conceit.

  17. < ![CDATA[Ah, so Leiber was ripping off Cervantes?  At least he kept to the notion that a Thieves' Guild was kind of ridiculous -- he was stealing the conceit from them.  His various imitators via D&D don't realize it's supposed to be an interesting and perhaps amusing conceit.]]>

  18. Ed Heil Based the article, it seems like these things have existed in actual history. I mean, the mafia is probably as old as the Romans, right?

    But, yeah, I doubt a lot of thought is going into it’s addition to most post-D&D fantasy novels.

  19. < ![CDATA[Ed Heil Based the article, it seems like these things have existed in actual history. I mean, the mafia is probably as old as the Romans, right? But, yeah, I doubt a lot of thought is going into it's addition to most post-D&D fantasy novels.]]>

  20. No, the article says the opposite — that it was a work of satire, that reading it as history is dubious, and that despite various legends about “Kings of Thieves” or “Kings of Beggars,” thieving was generally not a career, it was an opportunistic crime.

  21. < ![CDATA[No, the article says the opposite -- that it was a work of satire, that reading it as history is dubious, and that despite various legends about "Kings of Thieves" or "Kings of Beggars," thieving was generally not a career, it was an opportunistic crime.]]>

  22. Ed Heil But there was this bit: “The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall gives historical accounts of various historical criminal organizations. The closest to fictional Thieves’ guild tropes arose in France – the Cours des Miracles.”

    It also does mention Lankhmar as the origin of the concept in modern fiction.

    That’s what I get for skimming, I guess!

  23. < ![CDATA[Ed Heil But there was this bit: "The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall gives historical accounts of various historical criminal organizations. The closest to fictional Thieves' guild tropes arose in France - the Cours des Miracles." It also does mention Lankhmar as the origin of the concept in modern fiction. That's what I get for skimming, I guess!]]>

  24. Fair enough — but if you go to the Wikipedia page for the Cours des Miracles you find out: “Regularly the people of the Court of Miracles were thought to have organized a counter-society devoted to crime and thievery with its own hierarchy and institutions. However, this is a common theme at the time and is likely to have been little else than a literary fantasy.”

  25. < ![CDATA[Fair enough -- but if you go to the Wikipedia page for the Cours des Miracles you find out: “Regularly the people of the Court of Miracles were thought to have organized a counter-society devoted to crime and thievery with its own hierarchy and institutions. However, this is a common theme at the time and is likely to have been little else than a literary fantasy.”]]>

  26. There was some more interesting literature along the line of ridiculously elaborate criminal enterprises involving thieves and beggars:

    There was a 19th century novel describing a secret society of creative surgeons, the Comprachicos, who created human monstrosities out of stolen children for the sake of making them pathetic beggars (or carnival freaks). Many people came to believe in the reality of the organization, which is described in the novel as if it were a real thing.

    The novel was The Man Who Laughs and the Comprachicos were the origin of the mutilated grin of the hero, Gwynplaine, who is supposed to have been the inspiration for The Joker.

    And of course it’s by Victor Hugo, whose Les Miserables was partly inspired by the Cours du Miracles (real and imaginary).

    Of course, life sometimes imitates art: the details of Mafia culture described in The Godfather were mostly made up out of whole cloth by Mario Puzo, but a lot of it was picked up and incorporated by real mobsters…. I don’t know if any such thing could have happened because of Cervantes’ thieves’ guild — and I certainly hope that Hugo’s Comprachicos didn’t inspire any imitators. 🙁

  27. < ![CDATA[There was some more interesting literature along the line of ridiculously elaborate criminal enterprises involving thieves and beggars: There was a 19th century novel describing a secret society of creative surgeons, the Comprachicos, who created human monstrosities out of stolen children for the sake of making them pathetic beggars (or carnival freaks). Many people came to believe in the reality of the organization, which is described in the novel as if it were a real thing. The novel was The Man Who Laughs and the Comprachicos were the origin of the mutilated grin of the hero, Gwynplaine, who is supposed to have been the inspiration for The Joker.
    And of course it’s by Victor Hugo, whose Les Miserables was partly inspired by the Cours du Miracles (real and imaginary).
    Of course, life sometimes imitates art: the details of Mafia culture described in The Godfather were mostly made up out of whole cloth by Mario Puzo, but a lot of it was picked up and incorporated by real mobsters…. I don’t know if any such thing could have happened because of Cervantes’ thieves’ guild — and I certainly hope that Hugo’s Comprachicos didn’t inspire any imitators. :(]]>

  28. I’ve had it in my head for a while to write a world where the dwarves are more Roman than Scottish – with philosopher-kings and land grants given to those who serve in the military.

  29. < ![CDATA[I've had it in my head for a while to write a world where the dwarves are more Roman than Scottish - with philosopher-kings and land grants given to those who serve in the military.]]>