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.