Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Book Review: Ker's "The Dark Ages", Part 1: On the Epic

W.P. Ker was a contemporary of Tolkien's, a fellow Catholic professor of literature in late 19th to early 20th century Britain.  Tolkien quoted a powerful passage from Ker in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics:
[The Twilight of the Gods] is the assertion of the individual freedom against all terrors and temptations of the world.  It is absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.  The Northern gods have an extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins.  The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.
And that was a pretty grand quote, so I figured I'd go read the source from which it originated, Ker's The Dark Ages, especially since it was only a dollar on kindle (though I will say, atrocious scan quality, lots of gibberish where unicode didn't get rendered properly, and page footers are spliced into the middle of text.  On the other hand, lots of funny typos as a result of bad scan, like "La Chanson de Boland" and "The Park Ages").

I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this before.  It is, I imagine, like reading lecture notes from a college literature course, of which I took none.  Works are discussed, linked to other works and to overarching themes in literature during the period (400-1100 AD roughly) and sometimes summarized.  It almost feels like an index, like I could use it to pick out interesting things to read and see where they fit into a bigger picture.  It's organized by language, and within each language or language-family, roughly chronologically (but sometimes by style - the Eddas vs the Sagas in the Norse section).  He never tells quite the whole story; he assumes history sometimes which is unfamiliar these days, and often alludes to things.  I ended up looking a lot of stuff up, and this led me to read interesting things, so I appreciated this tendency; it reminded me of The Book of Tea's axiom about leaving gaps which draw the observer in.  It might serve well in sandbox gaming if executed properly.

There's a very interesting section near the beginning on characteristics of the epic poems, the Song of Roland and Beowulf, which I think bears heavily on D&D:
Epic requires a particular kind of warfare, not too highly organized, and the manner of the Homeric battle is found again in Germany, Ireland, and old France.  The fighters are bound by loyalty to their chieftains; their lords are their patrons and entertainers who have given them gifts.  When the time comes they may have to be reminded of their obligations, and one of the constantly recurring passages in epic is the appeal to memory of benefits received.  The captain reminds his host, or one of the elder men reminds his associates, of the bygone feasting in the hall when the horn went round and the professions of bravery along with it...  
So Wiglaf in Beowulf speaks to his companions when they refuse to follow their king on his last enterprise: "I remember how we promised our lord at the feast in hall when he gave us rings, that we would make him requital for the armor he gave us, rings and good swords, if need should befall.  And now it has fallen."...
The reproach of Agamemnon to Menestheus and Odysseus - "You were the first at the call to my feast" - is repeated in the king's address to his men in the Northern poem of Hlod and Angantyr: "We were many at the mead and now we are few; I see no man in my company, for all my bidding or the rings I have given him, that will ride to meet the Huns."
Which is to say that if running a game in the style of the epic poems, henchmen are important, and their checking of morale is important.  The contrast between the morale rolls of NPCs and the heroic agency of PCs, I guess.

Another interesting passage follows:
Neither Popes nor Emperors nor educational reformers nor improvements in the art of war were able to obscure the heroic view of life.  For the purposes of poetry there was retained a kind of archaic simplicity in politics which did not allow the heroes to become too much involved in affairs, which let them stand out, self-reliant and distinct, as heroes of epic should.  Similarly the fashions of war, which in the actual world were not purely Homeric, were by common consent, in poetry and story-telling, allowed to keep their old rules: room is left to see how the several champions demean themselves.  Also, as if by a kind of indistinct perception that large warfare was too difficult or too complex and abstract for poetry, the epic turns by preference to adventures where the hero is isolated or left with a small company, where he is surprised and assailed in a house by night, as at Finnesburh, or where he meets his enemies in a journey and has to put his back to a rock, like Walter of Aquitaine.
It's a remarkable description also of the heroic conventions of most fantasy RPGs.  Surely some of this is inheritance from their literary sources, but the RPG group is under cognitive-load pressures similar to those of the poets to focus on heroes and to keep them largely unentangled from the minutia of (say) rulership and logistics.  And this is one source of player-friction in ACKS, the conflict between expectations about the structure of heroic narratives and the realities of gameplay.

There is a divergence from RPG player behavior in matters of ethics, though.  Ker argues that the heroic poetry was written for a noble audience, and that its heroes were, by and large, rather moral, such as their morality was.  As an example:
The respect for the slain enemy [in the Waltharius] is not a new thing, nor purely Christian.  As Grimm points out, Arrow Odd after the fight at Samsey buries Angantyr and his brothers [after killing them].  Other Icelandic references might be easily multiplied, and compared with the chivalrous romances where the true knight gives housel [the Eucharist] to his enemy after mortally wounding him.
This is something that I think the ACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook got rather right, with the Warrior Code rules.  It's still not perfect - my players did still lie and steal and mistreat the dead.  But they stopped and thought about it first, which is progress.

There's also a good section on riddles near the discussion of epics.

"Who are the brides that walk over the reefs, and drive along the firths?
The white-hooded ladies have a hard bed; in calm weather they make no stir."

To be continued in part 2.

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