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John C. Wright on the Appendix N Generation Gap and the Emergence of Post-Christian Fantasy

So John C. Wright has weighed in on the Appendix N series:

My Elves are Different; Or, Erlkoenig and Appendix N

Read the whole thing!™

At this point, I’d thought that I had heard just about everything that could be said about the Appendix N series. But I have to admit, the phrase “interesting anthropological discovery” is a new one on me:

The interest for me of the Jeffro articles was not in the books and authors. I had read and reread them from my youth up, as did most all the science fiction fans I knew.

My interest was the same as some literate Somoan reading the anthropology of Margaret Mead: for Jeffro is a man too young to have known my generation of fantasy readers, our habits and expectations, our likes and dislikes. He is of this generation, and there is a barrier between us. He is studying me and mine and our literature, as an outsider.

One of the most interesting anthropological discoveries he makes, and one unknown to me as well as to him, was that there was such a barrier.

I had not known, indeed, it never occurred, to me, that a sizable group of fantasy readers in the modern day would be unaware, for example, of seminal writers and grandmasters like Jack Vance. This includes readers who, in their Dungeons and Dragons days, cast the spell of the excellent prismatic spray. The memorized spell vanishes from their minds the instant of their recitation of it… and is gone until they memorize it the next day … as forgotten as Jack Vance is forgotten, who first cast the spell on readers of the idea of spells limited by daily memory in this way.

If I read him right, he’s saying that people on both sides of the Appendix N generation gap are largely unaware of its existence, much less its implications. If this is accurate– and I think it is– then it explains why this phenomenon went unremarked upon outside of the rpg blogs for so long. People that play D&D without having read much from Appendix N are going to get their noses rubbed in it in short order. People that appreciate the older games are going to see them dismissed by people that have no interest in sorting out the inevitable cognitive dissonance that emerges when they are taken up outside of their intended context. Some people might say it’s obvious once it’s pointed out, but making the case for this for a less sympathetic audience isn’t easy.

But there’s more:

This third reason perhaps is smaller than the other two, perhaps larger. I am in no position to guess. But it does introduce the second discovery I learned from Jeffro’s columns.

This second discovery, and one more to the point for this meandering essay, is the change in the elves from the explicitly Christian background they inhabit in, say THE BROKEN SWORD, and the Beowulf-style background where religion is not mentioned in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS and the generic de-Catholicized background of Gary Gygaxian D&D, also known as Playanythingland.

This other thing that was news to John C. Wright was what he calls “point 13”:

Tolkien and Lewis were not outliers. Writers ranging from Poul Anderson to Lord Dunsany and C. L. Moore wrote fantasy from a more or less Christian viewpoint. The shift to a largely post-Christian culture has marked an end of their approach to science fiction and fantasy.

Of all the things I’ve said about Appendix N, this is the one that people in general least want to hear. While a lot of people have decried the shift in fantasy that happened in the eighties, and while a lot of my points build directly on things that James Maliszewski and Ron Edwards have been saying for years, tying the changes in fantasy to the relationship of the culture and Christianity is not something a lot of people have brought up. I suspect that this piece on vampires by Robert Rath over at The Escapist certainly helped to point me in the right direction on this point, but still… reading THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS, THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, and THE BROKEN SWORD the explicit Christian elements are shocking to someone that has been brought up in a culture where people for the most part just wouldn’t think to do things the this way.

John C. Wright expands on this point:

Point 13 point bears some explaining, and is the one of greatest interest to me. Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany and C.L. Moore are not Christian apologists as C.S. Lewis was. Far from it.

But they wrote of elves using the assumptions of the Matter of Britain, which are, of course, part and parcel of the Christian worldview. In older tales, there is a spooky, haunting quality of elves, that slight breath of hell that hangs over them, which can be seen even in such innocent offerings as Disney’s DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE.

The elves of Tolkien have nothing of this quality. They have the dignity and stature of Medieval depictions of the Perilous Realm, and nothing of the cuteness and delicacy the Victorians with their butterfly winged fairies sought.

They might as well be two different species, so different are they from each other. But even these butterfly winged fairies, Mustardseed and Moth, Puck and Cobweb of Shakespeare, have that air of nocturnal power that quakes at churchbells, that hint of something infernal and forbidden and above all elfin which Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany and C.L. Moore also capture.

So their elves are different from Tolkien elves, and therefore from Gygax elves, who, after all, are as psychologically and physically as similar to homo sapiens is Neanderthal.

Vampires don’t make sense outside of a Christian context. The fact that elves– elves!– are more at home in the sort of cosmology that is foreign to fantasy world-building of recent decades is the last thing I would have expected to discover when I started into these old books. But it’s right there in the one from which the Paladin class was lifted whole sale along with those freaky trolls that regenerate. That the same book explains just why exactly there is a Keep on the Borderlands is the icing on the cake. So many answers… in a book that in its day was more authoritative than Tolkien’s work…! On my side of the Appendix N gap, it really is hard to conceive of something like this even existing.

And as for the other side… the idea that my series could bring things to the attention of a writer of John C. Wright’s caliber that he could claim not to have been aware of before… that’s nearly as hard for me to wrap my head around. I’ll have to just take his word for it.

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29 responses to “John C. Wright on the Appendix N Generation Gap and the Emergence of Post-Christian Fantasy

  1. Civilis October 27, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for posting that link to Rath’s article. I think, however, that Rath’s article encapsulates in some way why I, as a post-Tolkien SF&F fan, can’t connect to a lot of earlier works referenced in Appendix N, as the arguments applied to vampires apply to a lot of other things in one way or another.

    One of the concepts that shows up with regards to vampires in the context of damnation that can be applied to D&D and its derivatives more generally is the idea of specific monsters with free will (such as vampires) being ‘always chaotic evil’, to cite a trope. This references back to Christianity and the idea of redemption. Perhaps my Catholicism is too modern, but when worldbuilding, I’m of the impression that if it has free will, it can repent; I’m loathe to include anything with will that is 100% bound to a particular alignment or cause. If a particular monster has free will, then, it’s not ALWAYS evil, and exceptions, while rare, will exist, and being exceptions, will often be more interesting than examples that follow the original idea to the letter. In part, I think, this is why zombies (of the movie variety) have taken a defining horror role; being animalistic, they have no faculties to express free will and therefore becoming one is still a horror. We all see ourselves as being the strong-willed exception that can overcome the hungers of vampirism, but will when infected by whatever makes zombies is merely finding a way to die before succumbing to the loss of will.

    The same logic, on some level, applies to elves and dwarves, and some of it is Tolkien’s fault. Legolas is clearly taking on a role that could be filled by a Player Character in a RPG, regardless of what offscreen backstory Tolkien gave his elves. Creating a campaign in a Tolkienesque style means some players will expect to play elves. Further, they’ll expect a backstory and details on elven society (or dwarven society, etc.) Once you get into details of the society, it’s hard to justify all members of a given race being cookie-cutter templates; in fact, it’s easier for me to justify adventurers being exceptions to racial stereotypes than conformists. Once you’ve added elven exceptions, why not, say, Drow exceptions?

    When you’re first telling a story about vampires based on old legends, you can be excused for the audience not knowing too much about vampires (or even not knowing too much yourself). Once the concept is established, people will demand more. Once you’ve read stories written later, which were written by authors that had time to let the concept mature and address the flaws in the idea and the progress of knowledge, going back and seeing the original, flawed idea is a shock. It doesn’t have the novelty that made the original so endearing to those familiar with the original first.

    • jeffro October 27, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      I think that in some sense world-building is antithetical to the sort of “go play in an anything goes synthesis of a bunch of pulp sff” ethos that infuses the earliest editions of D&D, T&T, Gamma World, and Traveller. I believe this goes back to Edgar Rice Burroughs holding the place that Tolkien now has in the collective consciousness of fandom back in the seventies.

      There’s no time for extensive world building in a pulp novel. Only a multi-volume fantasy trilogy ripoff has time to indulge in that sort of thing. Howard’s use of real world cultures and people groups allows him to skip to the action without having to brain dump. The fantasy world disconnected altogether from the real earth requires way more grandstanding on the author’s part in order to pull off.

      • Civilis October 27, 2015 at 1:33 pm

        I agree about the earlier editions, and you’ve got a lot of good points; I’m debating here because I can see both sides, and think the other side needs an advocate.

        I think worldbuilding is unfortunately necessary for a setting to thrive, and likewise constant refinement of established tropes is necessary for a genre to thrive. Players (and readers) need to have a consistent understanding of the rules of the setting. The canon and genre rules don’t get smaller as time goes along. Once you start adding pulp sci-fi to your fantasy, people start expecting the rules of pulp sci-fi to apply as well as the fantasy rules.

        There are exceptions, for example a few of the vampiric rules have fallen out of favor, in part because they raised massive problems when examined closely. As more vampire stories appeared, people noticed and started asking questions. Likewise, adding explicit Christianity to fantasy stories causes lots of conflicts between the assumptions of the religion and the assumptions of the fantasy genre and specific setting. I can reconcile a world with Catholics and fae or vampires, but not a world with the Catholic God and fae or vampires.

    • jeffro October 27, 2015 at 2:47 pm

      Ah, right.

      I know I come off as doctrinaire (ie, d4 thieves are the only right way to play!), but in general I just want to shine a light on the axioms people tend to select without even thinking about it.

      The direct connection to the real world is an essential part of the pulp ethos on par with the concept of souls and damnation. The idea that the story could be true is common to both The Hobbit and A Princess of Mars. Starting with the Earthsea trilogy or so, there is a trend towards fantasy taking place in a non-place with extensive world-building. It’s an entirely different thing.

      • jlv61560 October 27, 2015 at 3:05 pm

        But the reality is that there IS a world where the Catholic God coexisted with fae and vampires. It’s right here on Earth. Medieval peasants (and noblemen too, for that matter) firmly believed in fae and vampires, and yet worshipped, without contradiction, the Catholic God. Catherine Kurtz did an excellent job of importing the Catholic faith into a fantasy world (see her Deryni novels) and there was no contradiction in the overall world. Frankly (and this is NOT meant as a personal comment, so please don’t take it that way), anytime someone says something like that, it shows a lack of imagination and descriptive ability more than it does a “law” or “rule” of Fantasy RPGing.

      • Civilis October 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm

        I enjoy thinking about those axioms, and it helps me to throw my own axioms into the ring to be challenged, which is why I throw them into conflict with your thoughts and hope a good amalgamation comes out of it.

        JLV, there’s a world where the Catholic God coexisted with superstitious beliefs in fae and vampires, and I don’t consider those that persist in superstitious beliefs even today un-Catholic or un-Christian. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. I’ve found my personal imagination more suited towards making ideas rational than to coming up with the big ideas in the first place, which may be why I’ve chosen the side I have in this debate, but I respect those that made those big ideas in the first place.

        One of the most fun worldbuilding exercises I’ve gone through for a campaign was a world in which both Christianity and several historical mythological pantheons (Greek, Norse, etc.) were both true, but while there were similarities, the Christian God in that world couldn’t precisely meet the constraints of the Apostle’s Creed. That’s my limitation: I can postulate the constraints of a world where Christianity as we see it exists alongside supernatural elements, but I can’t see that as our world as God defines natural and anything supernatural would exist outside God’s purview, and science continues finding rules as to what natural behavior is capable of, and vampires and fae no longer make the cut. (You can cheat and make fae aliens and vampires victims of a really bizarre disease, but that’s stretching the concepts well outside the accepted limits).

      • jlv61560 October 27, 2015 at 6:40 pm

        Cirsova; again, it wasn’t intended as a personal comment — after all, I know next to nothing of your personal beliefs or feelings on this or any other matter — but more as a general observation that seems to hold true for the many times I’ve heard such comments in the past; often from people I DO know well enough to recognize their issues isn’t with the actual cosmology, but rather a personal inability to grasp the full implications of it.

        The fact that you try to make things more “realistic” is, in many ways, a most admirable trait, and one which I wish I had more ability at (though, arguably, there really isn’t any way to make anything dealing with magic, elves, dragons, fae and vampires “realistic” in the first place), but at least you’re making an effort to maintain logic, which is a good thing in many ways.

        Of course, it IS a more modern take on fantasy — if we read some of the folks in Appendix N, their whole point was to throw together a mish-mash of relatively unbelievable things and see how they came out by playing with the internal logic and not worrying about whether or not it made any sense in the real world. By contrast, Tolkien and Burroughs and Howard took their fantasy worlds as they came and treated them as if their internal logic (where, for example In Tolkien, God-like, or at least seriously angelic beings, literally walked the Earth and attempted to influence events — Gandalf was a Maia, after all) were perfectly normal. In effect, that’s the “suspension of disbelief” that every novelist strives for, and every GM does too. The interesting thing about mankind here on Earth is that we can find ways to explain the unexplainable in terms that make sense to our current world view, no matter how odd it may seem to the outside observer — witness the Cargo Cult in the SW Pacific!

      • Civilis October 27, 2015 at 9:47 pm

        I didn’t take it personally, but as a challenge to think about and put into words what I feel in a manner that makes sense to others.

        To me, “Throw[ing] together a mish-mash of relatively unbelievable things and see[ing] how they came out by playing with the internal logic and not worrying about whether or not it made any sense in the real world” works great if you’re creating one of the first RPGs. Once you have RPGs with an internally consistent, logical world, it’s not as easy to accept a world that’s thrown together., which is why I find it hard to go back to a pulpier setting.

        Same thing applies to comic book logic. Superheroes created in the golden age could get away with things that modern superheroes cannot, and even those grandfathered in have had to evolve as people have expected them to become more consistent. Superman, for example, has lost his sillier powers, and the writers have had to explain away logically things that were once accepted (like his glasses serving to hide his identity). My current project is a superhero campaign, and my desire to make things internally consistent is constantly clashing with the tropes expected of the classic genre.

      • jlv61560 October 28, 2015 at 1:06 pm

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! I’m enjoying the discussion. In response, I’ll say that the “different strokes for different folks” paradigm comes into play here too. everything you said is absolutely true for the players seeking some sense of verisimilitude in their RPGs, but there are a lot of folks out there who actually prefer “pulp” games (and at times, I’m one of them). There’s a lot of charm in those old comics and pulp stories (to say nothing of more recent pastiches like the “Indiana Jones” movies — I mean, really? Clinging to the outside of a U-Boat across a significant portion of the Mediterranean? When you pretty much assume the U-Boat is trying to be secretive since it’s going to a “hidden” base?). Let’s face it, sometimes reality gets in the way of a really good story! ;-)

      • jddyalblog September 22, 2016 at 7:44 am

        Yeah, I know… really old. Sorry!

        There’s a difference sometimes in what can be tolerated in fiction vs. what can be tolerated in an RPG. One of the best games I ever ran was deliberately crazy; I literally made up most of the setting itself on the fly, and I did whatever sounded fun and ridiculous and crazy. There were airships flying over seas of mist that were inhabited by daemons to get to cities on plateaus and tepuis that poked up out the mist. There were wars between sentient gorillas and Amazon warriors from Opar (La even made a brief appearance.) There was a gun that could kill almost anything (ripped straight from the first season of Supernatural.) There was an extended riff on Freaky Friday where two characters got their bodies swapped with nearby dead NPCs—the groups misogynistic Don Juan was stuck in the body of Fast Times era Phoebe Cates and the slimy used car salesman slash pirate hobgoblin was stuck in the body of a gorilla with a hook for one hand. There was a caper involving a noblewoman that was not terribly unlike the issue the Three Musketeers had to resolve between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. Later, I borrowed the basic plot of The Hangover and had them realize that they’d somehow “lost” a few days from their memory, during which all kinds of crazy things happened, including the hobgoblin getting married to a half fiend spy.

        The whole thing was quite ridiculous, but I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in a roleplaying game ever, before or since. In fiction? I might tolerate it as a satire, good for a laugh, like Sharknado or Kung Fury, but it would never be more than a novelty kind of thing. Growing up in the 80s meant that I was equally exposed to many of the classics, which were still on the shelves of almost every bookstore and library when I was a kid—Burroughs, Brackett, Robert Adams, John Norman, etc. where ubiquitous, but then again, so was the quickly developing “extruded fantasy product” of Brooks and Eddings and Co.

        I think a lot of this perceived tension between the styles of those who prefer verisimilitude and those who prefer gonzo whackiness is attributable to people who have grown up ONLY knowing one or the other. I tend to prefer one in some venues and the other maybe in other venues, but I don’t see why they HAVE to be in conflict.

  2. Cirsova October 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    I think a lot of both monstrous horror and fey creatures have a certain amount of Calvinism behind them; while there is the notion of free will and choice, how much more awful is it to be doomed to choose poorly and walk the wicked road when we supposedly have the freedom to go our own way?

    Marlowe’s Faustus is a great example of this trope: his damnation did not come from the fact that he sold his soul to the devil but from the fact he felt bound to his alignment. Of course I’m not saying that monster alignment is any sort of impugnment of presbyterianism, but I do think that wisps and threads of the late medieval through reformation period christianity can be found behind those trends in fiction and the portrayal of ‘free-willed’ monsters.

  3. jlv61560 October 27, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I think any time you engage in genuine introspection with an open mind, you’re going to be surprised and then surprised some more during the process. And, at the end of it, as you assimilate the knowledge you’ve gained, you’ll be even more surprised. But you’ll also be much more aware of things you never even thought of before. At least that’s been my experience from those few occasions when I managed to do what you’ve done so amazingly well with this series.

    Really, after having followed you through this voyage of discovery, I can only offer a tip of my hat for you having the endurance and curiosity to stick to it and complete the process. I have no idea what your expectations were at the beginning of it all (other than what you told us), though I’m sure you must have had some; but at the end of it you have discovered a great deal about these fine authors, the way things were, us hobbyists as a group, the games you love, and above all, yourself. That’s both impressive and admirable in every sense. Thank you for keeping an open mind as you did this; it’s meant that a lot of gamers who never would have considered some of these old authors are now actively seeking to read them again. And those who spend their time trashing your opinion, or seek to emulate your journey, but with a closed mind — well, those sorts are always around and are nothing but background noise in your personal journey. Keep up the great work!

      • Civilis October 27, 2015 at 1:36 pm

        Despite my argumentative nature, I do want to second what jlv said. I have tremendously enjoyed reading a lot of your discussion, and you’ve given me a lot of food for thought and caused me to challenge a lot of my assumptions. I’m trying to go back and reread a lot of those books on your list I had read and dismissed long ago, to see if the passage of time has opened new insights.

      • kainyusanagi December 24, 2016 at 7:16 am

        There are several things I want to comment on here, either as reinforcement of what someone else has already said, or as a refutation.

        The first is that it actually is not impossible to reconcile high fantasy concepts, when you simply root them within the lore and mythos which they came from. Further, that the concept of a Vampire or of elves or other such beings is not inherantly Christian in and of itself- in fact, the deadly fae such as the Erlking come from pagan beliefs that have roots in such as the Wild Hunt, especially such as the Nordic cultures that birthed Woden. Vampires as well have existed in multiple forms in multiple countries, though that consistant threat to the immortal soul- in whatever form it existed in the particular culture- remained the same. The Chinese Jiangshi, for example, operates much the same as the traditional Western vampire, though rather than drink of one’s blood they imbibe straight from the soul, or qi, of the victim, bypassing the physical representation of health and attacking the spiritual immediately.

        The second is that that concept of being always redeemable is a common thread throughout religions the world over- from the Hindus and their belief in Karma and Samsara to the Japanese and the Shinto belief in Kami and the multitudes of otherworlds that they inhabit, with their energy cycling from Kami to newborn life, be it the life of an animate creature or an inanimate object, time and again. Hindu have their deep layers of hell that are meant to eventually purify an otherwise condemned soul, over millions of years, to then return it to the cycle of Samsara and let it be reborn again until the attainment of Nirvana, while Shintoism has a deep, dark, cold, garbage-filled pit where the remnants of the souls of the lost and damned go to, when they are so corrupted that no Kami can take in their energy upon death, there to rot until they cross the Sanzu River, which separates the land of the living from that of the dead, three times. In short, the Abrahamic religions hold no monopoly over the concept of redeemable souls, though the details, of course, are going to be different.

        Thirdly, I waned to clear up a misconception regarding “always” alignments. Such notation reflects upon the typical member of that race, expecting typical growth amongst its kind, with a typical temperment. Any atypical character immediately flaunts such ‘rule’, be they PC or NPC. This is done to give the GM a template to work off of for generic mooks that he needs to know how such will interaction with PC effects and abilities.

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  7. Lela E. Buis May 27, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    A lot of young writers are very focused on promoting work of their own generation–the classics take up room on the bookshelves, after all. Plus, the concerns were different, the politics, the values. This means there’s a tendency to downgrade all that old stuff and wish it would just go away.

    I also disagree that vampires can’t exist outside the Christian tradition. There are always people who will suck the life out of you, even without delving into urban fantasy.

    • jeffro May 27, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Jazz musicians don’t do this. They revere Armstrong and Ellington even if they play something different. Seriously, in what other field do people behave like that?

      Also, the roots of the fantasy genre are necessarily Christian. The literary antecedant of D&D’s Lawful alignment is inherently Christian. The literary antecedent of Traveller’s Third Imperium was Catholic. Vampires change with the times, but they make the most sense within a cosmology where damnation and sexual morality correspond to reality in significant ways.

      • Lela E. Buis May 28, 2016 at 10:50 am

        I agree that a little whiff of evil goes a long way toward spicing things up. Still, Christianity isn’t completely necessary. There are other frameworks for good and evil: Shinto, Jain, Judaism, etc.

    • jeffro May 28, 2016 at 11:01 am

      See, you’re old school. That’s how Zelazny and Le Guin would have come at it. And that’s part of what makes the new wave so darned interesting. BUT the mass market “pink slime” (as Ron Edwards calls it) of the eighties and the more recent “politically correct (or whatever)” stuff don’t actually explore non-Christian traditions. The former was intentionally watered down and derivative. The latter is merely one more prop holding up the narrative.

      • Lela E. Buis May 28, 2016 at 11:31 am

        Yeah, you’ve got me nailed. I’m a huge Zelazny fan. But just because some writers don’t use non-Christian traditions well doesn’t mean they won’t work. Angels and demons came along way before Christianity did.These are archetypes wired into the human psyche.

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  12. jlv61560 September 22, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    I have since run across the old British ’80’s RPG called “Dragon Warriors.” While it isn’t anything earth-shaking in terms of rules, the interesting thing about it is the world it’s set in — clearly based very extensively on 10th century (or so) Europe and the near east — designed that way to allow the players to quickly fit their minds into it. They’ve even come up with an alternate “savior story” for the Christian religion, and an alternate “prophet story” for Islam, both of which work very well. However, even more interesting in the context of the above conversation is the way that elves, dwarves and the like are treated — as fae. Elves are soulless, with the morals of cats and the curiosity of children, and they are exceedingly dangerous, even when on your side. Somewhat the way they were treated in Dunsany, or, more recently, by Rick Cook in his “Wizardry” series. Dwarves too, bear more of a resemblance to the nature they showed in the old Norse sagas than they do to Tolkien. It’s a truly refreshing change in the more common “Tolkien-esque” Elves and Dwarves. Sometimes I stumble on these old games (I was on active duty for most of the 80’s one way or another, and never got much time to do any serious reading or playing during a lot of that decade), and am just fascinated when I see the directions that role-playing COULD have gone, had things been just a teeny bit different.

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