Sat
Mar 17 2012 10:20am
M.A.R. Barker 1929-2012

Mohammed Al Rahman Barker died this week at the age of 83. He was a professor of South Asian languages and literature, his academic interests included the language of the Klamath people of the Pacific north-west and the languages and cultures of Meso-America. He was an adult convert to Islam. He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Ambereen.

Barker is one of very few people to have a profound influence on fantasy in which fiction is secondary. He wrote novels and stories, but he was primarily a worldbuilder. The world he designed, Tekumel, is utterly original and full of the kind of detail and weirdness that you’d think nobody could make up. He was clearly influenced by knowing South Asian and Mesoamerican cultures and languages, also by Vance (with whom he corresponded) and by his deep knowledge of linguistics, but the intelligent giant insects must have come from his own head. It has the kind of layered depth that reflects it being one man’s obsessive hobby. 

In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson formed TSR and published Dungeons and Dragons. D&D was influenced by Tolkien and Leiber and European folklore and history all mashed together, and in turn it was influential on the fantasy written after it. Barker took to roleplaying right away. Dave Arneson was a member of Barker’s gaming group. Barker almost immediately realised that this was something he could do with the world he had made. He self published Empire of the Petal Throne only six weeks after the original D&D, and then TSR swiftly republished it. It was the second roleplaying game ever. New Tekumel material has been published in every decade since.

Barker also wrote five novels and some short stories set in Tekumel. I’ve only read one of them, Man of Gold, which was a lot of fun. The normal sequence of events is for there to be fiction and for a gaming world to be created from it. With Tekumel it happened backwards — there was a demand for fiction set in Tekumel because lots of people were already fascinated by Tekumel.

Tekumel was influential on a whole generation of gamers, some of whom became fantasy writers. The influence of Tekumel can be seen very clearly in the work of Raymond E. Feist — Magician has a standard medieval fantasy world invaded through a magic portal by aliens from a world much like Tekumel. C.J. Cherryh’s Serpent’s Reach also shows some influence, and at a further remove so does China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. There’s also a clear influence into fantasy computer games, especially Bethesda Games Elder Scrolls Morrowind and sequels. Barker’s creation seeped out of Empire of the Petal Throne into the collective unconscious of fantasy just as it was starting to become a genre and had a profound influence.

If you look at the Tekumel website you can see some of the detail of the world. In addition to Professor Barker’s erudition and creation you can see the passion and enthusiasm of the world’s many fans — almost forty years after the first publication of the game, there are people still playing in the world, adding to it and arging about it. The world and its influence are out there on their own now without their creator. Death sucks, there’s no two ways about it. It’s some comfort when you can see so clearly that the work will live on.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

16 comments
James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
The influence of Tekumel can be seen very clearly in the work of Raymond E. Feist

Indeed.
Susan Davis
2. sue
May Belkhanu open the Gates of Heaven for him, and may Avanthe and Hnalla bless him for ever.

(Sorry, my Tsolyani isn't good enough, so English will have to do.)
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
M.A.R. Barker took Professor Tolkien's constructed languages as inspiration to do something similar with non-Western influences, & his world grew from there. He's under appreciated & he'll be missed.
James Davis Nicoll
4. Hedgehog Dan
"The influence of Tekumel can be seen very clearly in the work of Raymond E. Feist — Magician has a standard medieval fantasy world invaded through a magic portal by aliens from a world much like Tekumel."

Yeah, actually, Magician tells the feud between the two fantasy worlds which have highly detailed constructed languages and cultures - namely, Tolkien's Middle-Earth and Barker's Tekumel. :)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
5. tnh
The ongoing conversations of science fiction and fantasy are like Entish discourse: long, slow exchanges of very large units of meaning.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
Dang, tnh, I'm going to use that line. True story, & M.A.R. sang a deep song.
James Davis Nicoll
7. Stefan Jones
I've never gamed in the Tekumel setting, and I'm not sure if I'd want to, because it would be such a challenge! An amazingly complex and original creation. I've owned and read through great heaps of the game source material, from various publishers.

I really liked Man of Gold and Flamesong. Not masterpieces for the ages, but flavorful and literally wonder-ful. As in full of wonder. Scenes from them bubble up into my consciousness all the time.

In all my years of gaming, I ran into Barker only once. It was at a long-ago (28 years!) game convention. He was running a demo game, puffing away at a nasty black cigar all the while.
James Davis Nicoll
8. Eugene R.
I learned about roleplaying from the TSR edition of Prof. Barker's game, Empire of the Petal Throne. I thought all roleplaying games came with detailed, complex settings. I was wrong, sad to say.

sue (@2): Surely, Fíru Bá Yéker has passed through the Gates of Heaven to the Paradises of Teretané, where his baletl basks in Hnálla's Perfect Light.
James Davis Nicoll
9. KevinTheCynic
Not to diminish the article or Barker himself, but Empire of the Petal Throne was not the second roleplaying game ever because D&D was not the first.

The first roleplaying game is still little known today but one of the players was Dave Arneson. The game was Braunstein and Arneson's experience with it directly influenced D&D.

There's a much better explanation of Braunstein and Arneson's role as the proto-RPG player here http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/104/braunstein-the-roots-of-roleplaying-games/
David Dyer-Bennet
10. dd-b
I don't know how similar they are to Barker's, but the obvious reference for intelligent giant insects has to be John Norman.

Well, or Dr. Fun, but that's much more recent.
James Davis Nicoll
11. Alan Musielewicz
Thanks Jo. Having grown up in the Minneapolis / St Paul area. I played with Dr. Barker for 38 years. I was at the first session of Tekumel and at the last.

Dr. Barker played a session or two of D&D and went to work applying it to his world in secret. Like the Heiroglyphs in Ancient Egypt, the system was sprung at us fully developed.

I have posted before and will say again, to see the impact simply look at the original three D&D books and then look at the original green rules for Empire of the Petal Throne that is now available. After Tekumel almost everyone started world creation.
James Davis Nicoll
12. Janet Moe
mordechai (@3) - Prof. Barker started to create his 'invented' languages in the 1940s and 1950s, per correspondence he had with Lin Carter (see reference in the Wikipedia article on Prof. Barker), and unpublished manuscripts in the Tékumel Foundation's archives. In Fanscient 11, published in 1950, he wrote an article called "The Language Problem" (available online at http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/Fanscient/Fanscient11-28.html) and in Fanscient 12 he wrote a short story set in the world he created. (http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/Fanscient/Fanscient12-28.html)

He was involved in SF fandom in the 40s and 50s and was influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others.

The Hobbit was first published in the USA in 1938, and even then it was not widely available until the 1950s, due to wartime rationing of paper. The Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954. Prof. Barker told one of his gamers (who is now his archivist) that he didn't read Tolkien's works until the 1960s.

The theory that Tolkien influenced Professor Barker's work is a common one, given the publication dates of Tolkien's novels and Barker's game. However, evidence now coming to light as the Tékumel Foundation goes through his correspondence and unpublished papers, shows that Prof. Barker did not have access to Tolkien's works while he was creating his world of Tékumel.

Not meant as criticism in any way, shape, or form; I just wanted to set the record straight.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
AKICIF, All Knowledge Is Contained In Fandom, and in this thread it's more evident than usual.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
12. Janet Moe

I have no problem looking at the wash of influences without needing to go into chicken & egg. Both were positioned in history at a moment when conlangs for the purposes of fiction were shining. There is a joyful continuum & I'm happy to see both of them on it. I always wondered if there was any corrospondence between the two; I'm sad to hear there isn't!
James Davis Nicoll
15. Eugene R.
KevinTheCynic (@9): Strictly speaking, Empire of the Petal Throne is the second *commercially available* roleplaying game, not the second one ever, true. Thanks for the information on Braunstein, David Wesely (its designer/referee), and the connection to Dave Arneson. Plus, the Wikipedia article on Maj. Wesely also credits him with game Source of the Nile, so he has given me a few fun hours, too.
Per Jorgensen
16. percj
I do not know that much about M.A.R. Barker and Tékumel (I have only read about the game, never played it), but I thought I'd mention that Der Spiegel has a photo show with their obituary that might be of fan history interest. The accompanying text is in German, of course, but the photos do speak for themselves (press the "Fotos" field on the picture): http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/games/0,1518,822126,00.html

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