One of the things that I’ve been saying the past while is that reading Appendix N will put you in touch with the seventies mindset towards fantasy. In my piece on Tolkien, I put it this way:
People were different then. They thought differently. They took different things for granted. What we tend to think of as even being normal or inevitable for fantasy didn’t even exist when original D&D was being published. And the fact remains that the best way to get inside of the heads of both the game designers and their intended audience is to read the books that they cited as their inspirations.
In my much linked to piece that contained several theses related to Appendix N (which I think would be flat out obvious to anyone that took the time to read the forty-three books I covered), I went further and put it this way: there was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.
Now I don’t know exactly what’s going on with this, but for some reason… this idea that the Appendix N book list has something to do with the science fiction and fantasy canon really does seem to create some surprisingly negative reactions. I mean, we’re talking head explody type stuff.
Take just as one example the remarks of Jim Henley over at File770:
Appendix N tells you nothing whatsoever about the canon of fantasy in the 1970s. It tells you a great deal about the lifetime reading list of one man born in 1938. Now, let me be clear: that man, E. Gary Gygax, was one of the transformative geniuses of our age, a member of a small set of creative entrepreneurs who made popular culture what it is today. As such, Appendix N is or should be supremely interesting to both scholars and enthusiasts of that culture. And it’s not a completely idiosyncratic list by any means; it probably has a lot in common with the sword-and-sorcery favorites of many people of Gygax’s generation. And for the record, I love The Broken Sword way more than The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t try rereading The King of Elfland’s Daughter again if you paid me.
But what it’s not is the beginning and the end of what “fantasy readers in the 1970s” considered the greatest works of the genre.
I may be reading to much into this, but it sure comes off like this guy is playing a “not a real fan” disqualification on Gary Gygax of all people. Certainly he is coming down pretty hard with an assertion that (a) Gary Gygax is just one random guy and (b) he is not at all representative of his times. He does nothing to support these claims, though. But he has all the vehemence of a Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk. (Style counts for a lot with these sorts of rhetorical parlor tricks.)
RpdPundit got much more ugly about this same point last year when he declared that Appendix N is “just a mix of classics, mediocrity, and drivel that a moderately-educated insurance salesman from Wisconsin happened to like.”
Let’s unpack that line:
- Gary Gygax is disqualified for being “moderately-educated”, because only people with PhDs can have an accurate view of science fiction and fantasy.
- Gary Gygax is disqualified for being an “insurance salesman”, because your day job is a huge factor in determining whether you know anything about science fiction and fantasy.
- Gary Gygax is disqualified for being from Wisconsin, because seriously… can any good thing come out of Wisconsin?!
This is not exactly high brow criticism. Of course, these sorts of people never seem to get around to stating their own qualifications for making such sweeping pronouncements. And honestly, if Gary Gygax isn’t qualified to have an opinion on this, then why should I bother to take the opinions of these internet smart guys seriously? Given Gygax’s stature, influence, and contributions to the genre, argument from authority is not exactly a winning strategy for them.
But the really telling thing is that they never get around to laying out what the actual canon of fantasy really ought to be. That really is the give away. Because most people that have even a passing interest in the genre tend to immediately recognize it as being a pretty good list even if it is a bit of a time capsule by now. They would not see it as authoritative, sure. (Appendix N is not the Council of Nicaea.) But the list is close enough to “the canon” that it only takes a handful of additions and deletions to get to that. That’s why people that know anything about science fiction and fantasy tend to respond to Appendix N by suggesting that C. L. Moore, Ursula K. Le Guinn, Clark Ashton Smith ought to be added to it. They don’t see a random list of books that some guy from Wisconsin happened to like. They don’t even see a list of books that could have inspired the first tabletop role-playing games, which is what Gygax said it was. They see “the canon”. But they know it’s not quite right, though, so they set about to fixing it.
But among all of those reactions, we’ve got Jim Henley obstinately holding forth: Appendix N tells you nothing whatsoever about the canon of fantasy in the 1970s.
Really? So I’m supposed to believe somehow that people weren’t into Fafhrd and Gray Mouser back then? That Elric wasn’t a superstar far bigger than any character in The Lord of the Rings? That Roger Zelazny wasn’t incredibly popular? They weren’t old enough at the time to qualify as classics, so how would RpgPundit classify them? Mediocrities? Drivel? If these guys weren’t the thing, then hey… would you mind filling me in on what was…?
But the Jim Henley’s and the RpgPundit’s of the world can’t do that. They’d basically have to invent a parallel universe in order to accomplish that, really. They’d have to explain why, not just Gary Gygax, but why Ken St. Andre created fantasy role-playing games in the mid-seventies that were predicated on notions of fantasy that would have been out of step with what fantasy fans of the day were expecting. As if Ken St. Andre would explain the Rogue character type by referencing Cugel the Clever when he couldn’t bank on the fact that most fantasy fans picking up his game would have been familiar with one of Jack Vance’s most popular characters…? As if the references in Tunnels & Trolls to Appendix N authors Robert E. Howard and Andre Norton were some kind of coincidence…?
This is a contentious enough topic that I took the time to get Ken St. Andre’s opinion on it directly. My interview with him is here:
A Conversation with Ken St. Andre
Not only will you find more evidence that Ken St. Andre (the designer of Tunnels & Trolls) read more or less the same sorts of books as Gary Gygax (he mentions several Appendix N titles off hand), not only will you find more evidence to support the inclusion into Appendix N of what might be one of your favorite authors not on the list… but you will get a clearer picture of what fantasy fans were like in the seventies.
Why is he a relevant person to consult on this topic?
- Well, he is certainly an authority, an eye witness, and a pioneer of seventies fantasy culture.
- He still actively develops the fantasy setting that he created for gaming back in the seventies.
- Both Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls preserve sort of a core sample of typical expectations regarding typical expectations of fantasy fans of the mid-seventies. They were more or less generic fantasy games giving people a chance to play the sorts of characters they were already reading about and not intentionally attempting to consciously redefine the genre. (Though they did ultimately do the latter, it was inadvertent.)
If you won’t take my word for that, then consider that Ken St. Andre doesn’t think that Gary Gyax’s tastes in fantasy were out of step with the times. “I suppose you could consider people like Gary and me to be super fantasy fans of the time,” he told me. “But we weren’t all that unusual.” As far as he’s concerned then, the overlap in literary sources between the earliest fantasy rpgs is not a coincidence.
What’s going to be most surprising to most people commenting on Appendix N right now is just how little influence Tolkien cast in the mid-seventies. It wasn’t Middle Earth that was the model for Ken St. Andre’s fantasy setting in his pioneering rpg. It was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan stories that served for that.
I’ve heard a great many suggestions for what’s ought to be appended to the Appendix N list, but I’ve never heard Tarzan suggested. If you’re looking at the list as being primarily about books that would have had a direct impact on how rpg designers in the seventies would have viewed fantasy, then Tarzan definitely belongs on it. Because Ken St. Andre isn’t some kind of outlier with this, either. The designer of the “Minneapolis Dungeon” strain of role-playing included a reference to “mangani” in his 1974 rule set— this was a variety of ape that appeared in a great many Tarzan novels.
This sort of thing will be surprising for people on my side of the Appendix N generation gap, but if you’re talking about fantasy fandom in the seventies, I really don’t think you can underestimate the scope of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s influence. Sure, Tolkien’s popularity was growing exponentially even as the first role-playing games were being playtested. But as great as the man was, he did not yet own real estate in the average fantasy fan’s subconscious. He did not yet define the genre for the majority of fantasy fans. It was Edgar Rice Burroughs that held that privilege, and his loss of that position by the end of the seventies is the most significant thing to happen in that decade in fantasy.