Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: J.R.R. Tolkien

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In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons and Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Finishing up Appendix N, we come to the heavyweight on the list, the one they call “The Professor,” the one, the only, J! R! R! Tolkiennnnnnnnn! Yes, we saved J.R.R. Tolkien for last, so get ready for all the hobbits halflings hobbits you can shake a stick at.

Tim Callahan: We had to bring this reading project to a close with the most epic of all fantasy epics, the most influential of all Appendix N novels, the big hulking oliphant in the room, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

But in talking about The Lord of the Rings—and I do certainly want to talk about this book, because I love the heck out of it, and I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I reread it recently—we also have to talk about the other oliphant in the room: that Gary Gygax didn’t much like Tolkien’s stuff.

Maybe “didn’t much like” is too strong of a description when you’re talking about a book that Gygax himself specifically listed as an influence on Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s certainly true that Gygax consistently tried to distance himself from the Tolkien influence and, more importantly, from the perception of the Tolkien influence.

Those “hobbits” and “ents” and “balrogs” in the original D&D little brown books certainly implied a close connection between Middle-earth and the fantasy world of D&D adventure, but here’s what Gygax said about the whole thing a few years before he died: “I’m not a big Tolkien fan, though. I did love the movies, but I yawned through the books. I found them very droll and very dull. I still don’t give hoot about Hobbits.”

He credits the Tolkien connection with helping to popularize the game Gygax helped to invent, but as the rest of Appendix N indicates, he was into things beyond the walls of Minas Tirith. Not all D&D players are. The Tolkien influence permeates the game, thanks to all the players who came along and brought their Legolas-leaning elves and their Gimli-geared dwarves into the party. And we can’t forget all the Dungeon Masters who sent their characters on a quest through dark lands and corrupting influences so they could destroy an artifact of power before it fell into the hands of the ultimate evil.

But, really, is that so bad? Isn’t D&D a lot like the Tolkien books, and isn’t The Lord of the Rings like a D&D super-adventure, even if Gygax had sweatier, grungier, pulpier, weirder things in mind?

Mordicai Knode: All due respect to the esteemed Mister Gygax, but I don’t believe any of that for a moment. I think, and this is very much just my personal speculation, that his public antipathy for Lord of the Rings stuff is just sour grapes from being burned by litigation from the Tolkien Estate. I mean, the game has freaking halflings in it. Which tells a vastly different version than not giving a “hoot about Hobbits.” Now, I guess you could say it was Arneson or various players who asked or insisted to have Tolkien elements included in their campaigns or as characters, sure, I’d buy that too. After all, in the interview we did with Wizards of the Coast, you more or less argued that point, that Gygax’s more Lankhmarian Greyhawk ended up overshadowed by players, fans and other writers who focused on the more Lord of the Rings aspects of the game. But for real, treants, halflings, orcs, balors…heck elves and dwarves, rangers, sentient magic artifacts—though filtered through Elric, spoofing the Ring—all of this stuff isn’t just on accident.

A thing I’ve always meant to do is to get four people together, have them make two characters—a primary and a backup who will be on the adventure, troupe-style—and then just give one of them randomly the One Ring. Not like, a super powerful MacGuffin, I just mean I want to run a straight up alternate universe Lord of the Rings saga. Or I’m tempted to start it off pre-Hobbit, see if people deal with Smaug or The Necromancer or what. Evolve a parallel story, where events in Mordor play out differently, where things morph and change based on what the players choose to do.

I should be upfront: when I was a kid I was obsessed with Tolkien. I don’t mean “obsessed” the way people normally talk about their favorite books; I mean, I went into a deep hole. I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time in elementary school, really young, and then I just took off. I was the kid with a corkboard covered in all of the pages I tore out of the Appendices; runes and cirth, photocopied pictures of Galadriel from the Middle-earth Role Playing game, maps, Sindarian glossaries; the sort of stuff I only dimly remember enough to try to get people to play along with The Elvish Meme. I just read everything, all of the books, all of the Lost Tales, Morgoth’s Ring, Tolkien’s correspondences, just the monomaniacal mind of a tween, devoted completely to Lord of the Rings…though really, The Silmarillion was always my specific jam.

TC: I never went even close to that deep, but out of all the Appendix N books, the Tolkien stuff is definitely the formative influence for me. As I mentioned in that WoTC interview, The Hobbit was in my elementary school curriculum, and I read The Lord of the Rings back in 4th grade with a kind of passion I never had for any other books. I loved Middle-earth. But…I never finished the series. I dabbled in The Silmarillion, but even with The Lord of the Rings, I got to the second half of The Two Towers and just lost interest. Then I tried rereading them again in college and the same thing happened. It wasn’t until I saw the Peter Jackson movies that I actually found out what happened at the end of the story. Even the animated Ralph Bakshi movie gave up halfway through!

But I read the whole thing all the way through this past year—aren’t you so proud of me?—and here’s what struck me: The Lord of the Rings is far better written than almost everything else in Appendix N. It’s not just a seminal influence on the fantasy genre because it’s famous. It’s a seminal influence because it’s pretty damned great.

It’s impossible to deny that Tolkien is great at world-building—is anyone better?—but that’s not the only thing that makes The Lord of the Rings so remarkable. He also manages a delicate tonal balance between human-scale (or hobbit-scale) events and landscape-crushing battles. The story starts out as a provincial almost-comedy with ominous overtones and by the end it is the story of an entire multi-faceted culture and the great struggles between good and evil, but not in an abstract way, in a concrete, individual way. It’s vast and specific and none of the other authors in Appendix N pull it off like Tolkien does.

MK: There is a reason that the Professor is the standard in the world of fantasy; he stands up to the hype. He’s got conlang skills that blow pretty much everyone else out of the water, even those who come later, and he builds from the ground up. Languages, history, mythology, geography; his worldbuilding isn’t just slapping a name with too many consonants and an apostrophe on a single “big concept” kingdom, it starts small and that granularity lends…well, incredible verisimilitude. I was happy to see Weta Workshop use the same philosophy; in one of the extended edition interviews someone was all “oh, we have lots of details that never really get shown, swords with runes that the camera never focuses on, costume design details that go past too fast to see, but we figure that they all build up to lend depth to the world.” Well, yeah, yes they do. I’m glad this has become the standard; I don’t think Game of Thrones would be as big of a hit if it didn’t also have an author who lavishes care on the minutia of his stories as well as costume and prop design people who then put a corresponding level of attention to the details.

That isn’t all there is in Tolkien though; it isn’t politics or detail that make the story, it is that there is a heart to them, an ethos. Without being preachy, without resorting to his friend Clive Staples Lewis’ heavy-handed allegory—I like Narnia but I don’t think anyone could call The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe “subtle”—he manages to discuss some very big topics. I wrote about the role of Tom Bombadil as Tolkien’s ideal exemplar before, even using D&D terminology. At the end of the day, Tolkien has questions about freedom and tyranny, about sacrifice and responsibility, about justice and liberty. Questions, not easy answers; we see in the text a sacred monarch taking up the throne, with Aragorn and the Ring as a sort of inverted Fisher King and the Grail, but the choices characters make aren’t easy, and they come at a price. Yeah, maybe living amongst nature, unfettered and pacifist, would be lovely…but it can’t stand against tyranny, and so what can men do against such reckless hate? Consent versus compulsion, that is at the root of it, and at what cost?

All of which are questions you can and should be asking in your game. Sure, D&D is as much a game about hacking and slashing your way through monsters as it is anyone else, but I don’t think that precludes it from having ethical depths. Heck, it is a game that actually asks you to put your characters code of ethics on your character sheet, in the form of alignment. You have a chance to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to ask big philosophical questions of the story and play out hypotheticals…I think questioning deeper issues is a natural extension of the game. So yeah, I’m going to keep bringing up issues of diversity in depictions of characters and talking about the legacy of colonialism in portrayals of orcs and other “demihumans,” because I think that is germane to the hobby and the genre. Tolkien may be imperfect, but the story of Gimli and Legolas is one of acceptance, and even the Easterlings are painted with questions: how did Sauron enslave them, what threats forced them to march to war for him? Not every game is the right one to spring defenseless orc cubs on the players, after the PCs finish breaking into the orc’s home and killing them for defending it, but sometimes, yeah, bringing it up and asking big questions is the right thing to do.

TC: Absolutely! Absolutely to everything you just said, and while the D&D game mechanics favor treasure hunting and loot-gathering over anything else, the moral component is essential, even if players ignore it. But ignoring it is a moral choice, and there are consequences for that too.

I don’t know that we need to spend so many words explaining why The Lord of the Rings is important and amazing, but like many great and popular works it has its share of critics and part of my own embrace of Appendix N isn’t just that I was curious what the other recommended reading was like, but because I wanted to shake off the stale Tolkienisms that have become so embedded within and around the game. When we started talking about this Gygaxian reread in the spring of 2012, I wasn’t even aware of Joseph Goodman’s Appendix N-inspired Dungeon Crawl Classics game or Jeff Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which eschews the Tolkien influence to create a D&D variant that is all Robert E. Howard sweat and stabbing and vile magic in a setting that’s a blend of Lovecraft and Ashton Smith. But as I’ve read the Appendix N authors, I’ve also been digging into these not-quite-D&D games and loving the weirdness that they have embraced.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I love Tolkien. I think The Lord of the Rings is the best book on the Appendix N list. I think Middle-earth is a fascinating setting.

But I have no desire to run any games in that setting. I’m not interested setting up wars between orcs and men, or role-playing an Elven high council, or sending an innocent group of halflings on a heroic journey. For me, that’s the fantasy game equivalent of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. A chore that’s become mundane.

I’d say, and I’ve never quite thought about this before, but now I’m thinking it might be true, that my default setting for any fantasy role-playing game I run—no matter what system I use or what I call the continent—is specifically post-apocalyptic Tolkien. Ten thousand years ago, the events of The Lord of the Rings, or something very much like it, may have happened. But those records have been lost to time. Only some of the remnants and artifacts and below-ground structures remain, even if they are unrecognizable. New societies have risen and fallen since then, and the world is a strange and dangerous place. Go seek adventure—and treasure—if you must. Survival not guaranteed.

But Tolkien is the bedrock of all that. Even if the details have been buried deep and the decorations washed away.

MK: I’m not sure I totally agree; I think elf queens are the best. I know I use a lot of hyperbole, but I want to be clear that I’m not exaggerating when I say Galadriel is my favorite fictional character. You’re right though that I don’t think people should really be running straight out of the gate Tolkien pastiches. It works best with a twist; what about the weird fungus elves or the moon dwarves? What about the orc senate, the only democratic body in a world of monarchs and tyrants? Or the halfling tradition of “Mister Underhill,” the anonymous persona adopted by any hobbit who needs to get vengeance for mistreatment by the big folk? Tolkien built Middle-earth, he knit the bones of it together, and it looms high over the genre. The least we can do by way of gratitude is to stand on the shoulder of giants, and build something of our own.

…or run a Middle-earth campaign. I’m not the boss of you, do what you want. Actually, it sounds kind of fun. I played Middle-earth Role Playing constantly in junior high—graduating to Rolemaster when my Noldor magician past level ten—and I have fond memories of setting up near the Grey Havens and dealing with the vampire lord Sauron set to try to take over that corner of the world. What kind of campaign are you going to run? I want to tell the story of the orc bard who writes the ballad of the death of Fingolfin!


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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