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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Gary Gygax, Ken St. Andre, and the Canon of Fantasy in the 1970s

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.

Really.

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.

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20 responses to “Gary Gygax, Ken St. Andre, and the Canon of Fantasy in the 1970s

  1. Civilis November 2, 2015 at 8:59 am

    It’s up to those challenging your contention that Gygax’s and St. Andre’s recommended lists are representative of canon when they were written to come up with a better means of determining what was canon at the time, which I can’t see that they’ve done.

    Looking at appendix N, I see seven Hugo Award winning authors (eight if you count Leigh Brackett for Empire Strikes Back), plus several nominees, retro nominees, and one Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy award winner that never won a Hugo. That’s after writing off authors and editors that predated the modern awards like Lovecraft. Not bad for a ‘recommended reading list’ for a RPG.

    • jeffro November 2, 2015 at 9:10 am

      Yeah, for Gygax had pretty good taste for a life insurance salesman from Wisconsin that was born in 1938.

      • Sky November 2, 2015 at 9:36 am

        The term canon sets these people off because they are into credentialing. I would have been fine if the term was never used. The whole point of this thing turned out to be that readers were different back then. I have my own anecdotal proof for Jeffro’s ideas. My dad is of Gygax’s generation. He was a huge reader of sff. He would recommend stuff to me all the time. Vance was the king for him. He also loved Leiber and Anderson and of course Howard. Through work he became friends with P. Schuyler Miller, my namesake. Tolkien was pushed on me more by my mom, it had the whiff of good literature around it. The old man used to wax nostalgic about the pulps too. He loved Barsoom. He was just a graphic designer back then so perhaps his reading doesn’t qualify either.

  2. H.P. November 2, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Perhaps the best approach to determining whether Appendix N is illustrative of what the average superfan was reading back then would be to compare it to unrelated lists covering the same time period. Here are some books recommended by George R.R. Martin:

    ” If you have enjoyed my own fantasy novels, you owe it to yourself to read J.R.R. Tolkien (LORD OF THE RINGS), Robert E. Howard (Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane), C.L. Moore (Jirel of Joiry), Jack Vance (THE DYING EARTH, Lyonesse, Cugel the Clever, and so much more), Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser), Richard Adams (WATERSHIP DOWN, SHARDIK, MAIA), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea, the original trilogy), Mervyn Peake (GORMENGHAST), T.H. White (THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING), Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, H.P. Lovecraft (more horror than fantasy, admittedly), Clark Ashton Smith, and… well, the list is long. But those writers should keep you busy for quite a while. You won’t like all of them, perhaps… some wrote quite a long time ago, and neither their prose nor their attitudes are tailored for modern attention spans and sensibilities… but they were all important, and each, in his or her own way, was a great storyteller who helped make fantasy what it is today.”

    http://grrm.livejournal.com/316785.html?utm_source=twitterfeed

  3. Trimegistus November 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I’m curious: do you think they’re just reflexively denying what you said because you said it — and you are an official Enemy Of The Party — or is there something else going on here? Are they just ignorant and refuse to admit it? Are they trying to rewrite the fantasy canon?

    Thoughts?

    • jeffro November 2, 2015 at 11:56 am

      Gosh, there’s several overlapping themes going on with the naysayers. Ignorance alone does not explain their animosity, though I have documented just how ignorant some of the File770 commenters really are.

      I believe that this cultural brushfire goes back at least what C. S. Lewis described in the Abolition of Man. The New Wave movement in sixties and seventies sff would have been a direct result of a generation that had been educated in the way that Lewis was warning against. My generation was raised and taught and trained by that generation… and what you see us doing now that we’ve found our voice…? Most of us in this day and age are declaring everyone that wrote before 1980 to be heretical, unclean, and unfit. Even the people that had a direct hand in making us what we are! The idea of “don’t trust anyone over thirty” has morphed into “don’t read anything from before 1980.”

      I believe this is an entirely foreseeable development. The products of this sort of “education” are not educated at all. I believe that they are conditioned to reject even the idea of canon. On principle if that makes any sense. It doesn’t.

    • Civilis November 2, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      I think it’s a mistake to look for a unified reason for an uncoordinated group of people to do something. It’s likely that there are many different motives involved, some of which are subconscious in nature.

      Some of it is surely big picture politics: “Lovecraft had bad opinions, so any endorsement of his works as an author is tacit support of his bad political opinions” or “Bad people support the political ideas explored in Heinlein’s works, therefore Heinlein is bad.”

      Some of it is surely internal politics, of the pulp vs literary variety. Likewise, some of it is outward posturing designed to appeal to internal or big picture politics: “I can’t read Conan the Barbarian, because people might think I’m uncultured or misogynist” or “I’m an author; how could a RPG designer have better taste in books than I do?”

      Finally, some people have just different tastes. I find myself not enjoying most of the older fantasy works; they don’t hold my attention. Unlike the complainants, however, I can see the influence on contemporary works and can’t deny how important they were, and can’t deny how important Gary Gygax was to modern fantasy. Calling Gygax a “moderately-educated insurance salesman” is a key to that writer’s particular biases. It’s like describing Mark Twain as a steamboat crewman; it may be true, but it deliberately misses the outsized influence that some people have because of what they’ve written.

  4. jlv61560 November 2, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Hell, I was a fantasy and sci-fi fan in the 70’s (and the late 60’s, and ever since, for that matter), and I can tell you that the Appendix N list is pretty much a summation of the kinds of things that we were ALL reading back then. Sure there might be an author or two I’d add, or one or two on there that I might dismiss (“THAT hack?!? Good God!”) from my personal list, but overall, it’s pretty much what the good stuff was that was out there, and it was pretty much what we were reading. To have some whipper-snapper who thinks he knows all and sees all (because he wasn’t “born in 1938,” or “from Wisconsin” apparently) try to tell me what we were reading back then is akin to having a celibate monk lecture me about sex.

    The fact of the matter is, that by today’s standards, we were pretty eclectic in our tastes, and what is rigidly defined as “fantasy” versus “science fiction” wasn’t seen the same way back then. There were elements of science in our fantasy and elements of fantasy in our science. It was a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of fiction, and it tasted GREAT. It was the age of the moon-shots and the entire universe was open for our wondering minds to inquire and explore, without limitations or paradigmatic dogmatism. Nowadays, in a world that seems increasingly focused on negativity, “victimhood,” and small-mindedness, on pushing what’s “politically correct” versus what’s true, I’m just not seeing anyone who is in a position to lecture me on what sci-fi/fantasy fandom was like when I was a kid and a teenager.

    Believe me, the advent of D&D, or T&T (and I’ve been playing FRPGs for a long time*) were not some weird outliers designed to overset our previous conceptions of fantasy, but instead were games that gave us an opportunity to BE Conan, or Elric, or Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, or even a Nazgul, if that’s what rocked your boat, and wander through a pastiche world where, yes, even a crashed UFO was possible! It was about imagination and FUN, not “canon,” or deconstructing “canon.”

    The small minded pedants who dismiss their betters (guys like E. Gary Gygax, for instance) in an attempt to prove their own “worthiness” as purveyors of “what it all REALLY meant” are more interested in gasbagging than they are facts or any actual knowledge. If anyone out there *really* wants to know what the RPG scene was like in the mid- to late-70’s, just ASK us — quite a few of us are still here. (And it wasn’t some mighty council of eld, either — we were a bunch of teenagers and kids having fun and trying out different things during a great period to be alive; heck, we didn’t even have to wear helmets or football pads to ride our bikes back then, unreconstructed Neanderthals that we were….)

    * Actually, ever since my brother and I accidentally stumbled on The Empire of the Petal Throne (a Sci-Fi/Fantasy crossover setting if ever there was one) in our usual war game shop back in 1975 — and if you think breaking into the RPG hobby was hard going with the original D&D “rules” (Especially for hardcore wargamers used to SPI’s rigid rules structure), try using the original version of EPT as your gateway someday!

  5. Gary N. Mengle November 2, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    “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?”

    You win.

  6. Steven Warble November 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Having become a reader in 1976 or so, I can say that some of Appendix N I never encountered but I devoured Fritz Leiber and REH and Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson, as well less revered authors such as Andrew Offutt and Lin Carter. I think Appendix N is a perfect list of what was read by a certain group of fantasy fans, but I think that moving forward or backward a generation, up or down the economic ladder a bit, you would find other books moving on the list, and some books falling off.

    And – and this will get me some flak – I think it is fine that the classics of 1975 are not the classics of 2015 or 1935 for that matter. Culture needs to change to stay relevant.

    • jeffro November 2, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      The culture necessarily changes, but the classics do not. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms? Still classic. Miles, Monk, and Mingus? Still classic. The Beetles, the Stones, and the Who? Still classic.

      The fact that the classics are under fire in sff is not just unusual. It’s almost unprecedented. The only analogies that I can think of for it are like China’s cultural revolution or something.

  7. Steven Warble November 2, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    Oh, and you shouldn’t mind having the RPGPundit go rabid on you. He tends to treat every disagreement as a mortal insult and every discussion as a knife fight to the death. It is part of his charm.

  8. Warren Abox November 2, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Let me get this straight: He claims that Appendix N tells you nothing about the canon of fantasy in the 1970s and then three sentences later turns around and states that Appendix N has a lot in common with the sword-and-sorcery favorites of many people in the 1970s. The heck? How else would you define ‘canon’ if not the generally agreed upon favorites?

    Bu then, these people have always had a knack for contradicting themselves within one paragraph.

    • jeffro November 2, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      Actually… for tomorrow I have a piece of evidence to nail down precisely what “the sword-and-sorcery favorites of many people of Gygax’s generation” would be.

  9. Bz November 3, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I suppose it’s annoying that the cultural phenomenon of D&D and its fruits has its intellectual roots somewhere so … unprogressive (shudder). Hence, it’s probably best for the cause to minimize and badmouth those works for now and future generations will find (from approved sources, of course) that Ursula K LeGuin, Samuel R Delany and Joanna Russ were the true inspirations.

    • Cirsova November 3, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      Ugh! That awful Joanna Russ!
      “In the 1950’s somebody defined urban renewal as “replacing Negroes with trees,” and I’m beginning to think that in the same way too many typical science fiction horror stories are not the universal dystopias they pretend to be, but rather the unhappy wails of privilege-coming-to-and-end(sic).”
      That one sentence from a column she wrote for M of F&SF back in 70-something was enough to tell me I should never read anything else by her.

  10. Pingback: The First Draft of My Appendix N Book | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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