Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Law and Chaos Before D&D

If you haven’t read A. Merritt’s Burn Witch Burn, you’re missing out. The pacing, the development, the execution, the characters… they are all pitch perfect. If the fact that this man was the undisputed “Lord of Fantasy” baffles you, then seriously… read his books and find out why for yourself!

What I most enjoy about him is the purity and clarity of his archetypes:

“Now listen to me—Dr. Lowell! What—you did not think I knew you? I knew you from the first. You too need a lesson!” Her eyes blazed upon me. “You shall have your lesson—you fool! You who pretend to heal the mind—and know nothing, nothing I say, of what the mind is. You, who conceive the mind as but a part of a machine of flesh and blood, nerve and bone and know nothing of what it houses. You—who admit existence of nothing unless you can measure it in your test-tubes or see it under your microscope. You—who define life as a chemical ferment, and consciousness as the product of cells. You fool! Yet you and this savage, Ricori, have dared to try to hamper me, to interfere with me, to hem me round with spies! Dared to threaten me—me—possessor of the ancient wisdom beside which your science is as crackling of thorns under an empty pot! You fools! I know who are the dwellers in the mind—and the powers that manifest themselves through it—and those who dwell beyond it! They come at my call. And you think to pit your paltry knowledge against mine? You fool! Have you understood me? Speak!”

She pointed a finger at me. I felt my throat relax, knew I could speak once more.

“You hell bag!” I croaked. “You damned murderess! You’ll go to the electric chair before I’m through with you!”

She came toward me, laughing.

“You would give me to the law? But who would believe you? None! The ignorance that your science has fostered is my shield. The darkness of your unbelief is my impregnable fortress. Go play with your machines, fool! Play with your machines! But meddle with me no more!”

So just as Dunsany gave us a novel length treatment of the Law/Chaos spectrum being anchored in Christendom on one end and Faerie on the other, here we get the two poles of Western Science versus Witchcraft.

Fantasy midway through the twentieth century loses this clarity. The role of God, heaven, and the soul is not nearly as explicit in Tolkien as it is in Dunsany’s handling. If you’re not looking for it, you won’t see it! And in Fletcher Pratt’s take on witchcraft in the blue star– whose most effective scene is lifted almost directly from this novel– so much effort is placed on neutral world building and “realistic” motivations… the otherness and outright wrongness of the witch entirely drops out of the telling. Indeed, the effort to provide a rational handling of a fantastic premise (which was practically de riguerer when he was writing it) means that the story fundamentally cannot produce the same sorts of contrasts and effects that Dunsany and Merritt made to appear almost effortless.

The resulting flatness and colorlessness is the touchstone of mid-twentieth century fantasy.

You can see the same deterioration in so-called “Lovecraftian” fiction as well. To us today, the madness of Lovecraft’s protagonists when they encounter something that undermines the order of reality is just a trope. We don’t think like either him or his audience, and so it’s a joke to us, really. (“Lose 1d4 sanity points!”) But the power of his work lies in his capacity to elucidate something fundamentally unnatural while making it seem real. And if something like this could exist, it should have the potential to drive you mad. Contemporary authors have a devil of a time doing this sort of thing without winking or giving away the glimmer in their eye. We are a distinct people from Lovecraft and his audience. And our irrepressible condescension towards them means that by and large we are incapable of writing and thinking the way that they did.

As a result, the derivative “weird tales” that came later tend to either downplay or else sacrifice altogether Lovecraftian madness. (This is certainly the case with Margaret St. Clair who doesn’t even go through the usual story beats of having the protagonist convince himself that he really is delving into something uncanny.) The tragic flaw of these sorts of stories is that they merely rearrange and develop the surface level tropes of an established subgenre– while denying the fundamental archetypes that gave rise to them in the first place.


4 responses to “Law and Chaos Before D&D

  1. John Boyle March 11, 2018 at 6:45 pm

    Agreed; people have this impression that the pulps were throw away trash read by barely literate rubes. Irrepressible condescension is a good way of putting it.

    I had a question about this sentence: “But the power of his work lies in his capacity to something downright unnatural while making it seem real.”

    What is missing from that?

  2. Steve The Dragon (@ShapeTweener) March 11, 2018 at 11:50 pm

    Not quite sure how we can go back to going insane at the sight of a fishman when we have a movie about effing one. We’ve crossed the rubicon and can’t go back home to arkham.

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