Sep 20 2012 3:00pm

Forge of Darkness is Erikson’s Anthropological Thought Experiment

<em>Forge of Darkness</em> is Erikson’s Anthropological Thought ExperimentSteven Erikson and I have a similar background. We’re both anthropologists by education and roleplaying gamers by inclination. Those two things are self-reinforcing, I find; studying how the world works and creating imaginary worlds are natural complements. Worldbuilding provides infinite opportunity to run anthropological thought experiments, and to extend the theories we apply to human beings to weird cases, to fictional species and imaginary histories.

Despite sharing those two things, I’ve never read any of Erikson’s Malazan novels… until now. I picked up Forge of Darkness, since it is a fresh jumping on point for new readers, and looked at it from the paradigm of a roleplaying gamer and an armchair anthropologist.

Steven Erikson likes throwing fantasy conventions to the wind; another thing we have in common, though I think we have different approaches. I don’t quite know how to pinpoint it; maybe it is a matter of degrees? I want to see orcs treated as people and he…creates orcs as the omnipotent philosopher kings of an arctic tundra? My perspective is skewed from only reading Forge of Darkness, I suspect: this is Erikson’s Silmarillion, his tales of the great demi-gods, striding the land. In some cases, actual literal demi-gods. It is hard to get a “boots on the ground” perspective from there, though Erikson does an admirable job of bringing individuals perspectives into focus. I guess the best comparison is to say it is The Silmarillion as told in the style of A Song of Ice and Fire.

As a first time reader I found myself reeling with the wealth of names and terminology. There is a deep font of detail, which hints at Erikson’s worldbuilding skill; Kharkanas is a setting of cultures in conflict, with species negotiating the subtle allure of self-annihilation and ancient history. More than just “history,” as we think of it; most of the races in Forge of Darkness are incredibly long-lived, some effectively immortal, so what would be history is a muddled combination of politics and memory.

Imagine a world where, if one of the political parties of America feared losing an election, they could go and appeal to a living George Washington to run again; where America and England could never be allies, because too many lived who remembered the Revolutionary War. Now, imagine some even remember Rome and Carthage at each other’s throats. Or that the people of England were in fact inhuman, another species entirely, aliens whose psychology could only be guessed at. It is to Erikson’s credit that he doesn’t try clumsy exposition; he simply throws the reader into the deep end. Sink or swim.

The central plots of Forge of Darkness center around the Tiste. Now, to my gamer’s eye, the Tiste seem to be Erikson’s inverted elves. They live a long time, but instead of living peacefully with nature, they are…well, human in their appetites. The forests of their world have been cut to feed the forge fires, the great beasts of the plains have been killed to prove their hunting prowess, and still the Tiste’s thirsts are have not been slaked. It looks, to the roleplaying geek in me, like Forge of Darkness is the origin story of the drow; elves choosing to side with their new goddess, Mother Dark, or to rise up against her, to follow older gods, or the heretical ex-priestess, the avatar of Light. That is very much simplifying things, but those are the tropes of the genre I see Erikson playing with.

To the anthropologist in me, I say: well, the Tiste sound like a particularly nasty invasive species. In fact, I once ended a campaign by having my goblin gunslinger argue that goblins—who were established to be as long-lived as elves and to be born in litters—had a charisma penalty to compensate. They couldn’t cooperate, they could only compete violently with each other. It was the evolutionary check on their growth. My goblin made that argument to the strange guild of post-human transmuters he met on another plane, saying that if infinite planes existed, goblins who would work together could afford to grow infinitely…and thus hobgoblins were born, and so began the Great Wars of the Goblin Hegemony. Which—if what I’ve heard about the other Malazan books is correct—sounds like what might be happening here.

The Jaghut are where Forge of Darkness shines the brightest, for me. I just have a weakness for philosophical arguments taken to their logical extreme. The Jaghut are Erikson’s “orcs,” at least insofar as they have grey to green skin and tusks, though I imagine their tusks being more like the “tusks” of the Tharks in the John Carter movie. Supernaturally powerful, the Jaghut used to have a great civilization… until one day one of them, a Jaghut now called the Lord of Hate, made a thoroughly convincing argument that having a civilization would be their doom. You know, just a rational, well-researched thesis. And so the Jaghut just… walked away. From each other.

I just find that incredibly charming. Similarly, one of the Tiste is obsessed with the Forkrul Assail, a race off-screen but mentioned as the enemies of a recent war. He studies their code of law and finds meaning in it. These are the sorts of things that appeal to the worldbuilder in me, both the anthropologist and the gamer. I like anthropological hypotheses played out in fiction. Fantasy is a place where philosophy can really spread its wings. Forge of Darkness is, in many ways, Erikson’s thought experiment. A world where he sets up the conditionals and then lets the chips fall where they may.

The big mystery of in the book are the Azathanai. From what I understand, they are a big mystery for Malazan over all, so consider everything past this point a spoiler. For real, I mean it, get out of here if you don’t want spoilers.

Are they gone? Okay. At first, the Azathanai seem like the “dwarves” or “giants” of Forge of Darkness, but increasing exposure to them disproves that; it was a matter of a small sample size leading me to jump conclusions. The Azathanai seem, once you get into the nitty gritty, to be sort of “divine clay.” They are proto-gods, ready to be shaped by belief into full-on deities. They can influence how that worship starts, but it quickly spirals out of their control. I can’t help but feel a heavy Planescape vibe coming off them; the “belief shapes the gods themselves” theme is heavy there; I also thought of comics like Sandman and Earth X, where faith has the power to reshape the object of veneration.

It is much more complex than that, of course, and the struggles surrounding the complexities are at the root of Forge of Darkness. Not just for the Azathanai, but for the Jaghut and the Tiste, as well. This is Erikson dissecting the gods and mythology of his world, retroactively taking them apart to find out what makes them tick. And I get it. Of course I get it. I share a lot of the same impulses; using a prequel as a chance to retroactively explore the deeper mysteries of what you created makes sense to me. It is that anthropology and roleplaying talking, I guess.

Mordicai Knode’s campaign is more about Neanderthals and space elevators, but deranged philosopher kings and morally ambiguous night queens would be right at home there. You can find him on Twitter and on Tumblr, if you want.

Mordicai Knode is a Macmillan employee.

1. Kingtycoon
I might've skipped this if you didn't name drop the 100 Worlds to me - so since you did, I'll be your huckleberry.

I think that your anthropology background colors your view of the Hobby in exactly the way you've illustrated here - the Races are important and they have some kind of drive or evolutionary standing. That's fine. I liked, to a degree, what you had to say about Orcs (although I have an innate perversity and always want things to go far too far) and I like your fixation on the Elves in Tolkien too. But I think that Tolkien eludes some of your, not grasp, but purview, I suppose, because he speaks in historical terms.

History is different from Anthropolgy - we don't care for root causes, and all racial differences are matters, not of evolution, but character, morality even. Because that's how historical distinctions are laid down. The Carthaginians are baby-murdering savages, the non-greeks are Bar-Bar-ians. The Africans are the White Man's burden. History doesn't mess around, it serves a social purpose so it will say awful things about anyone it's writers need it to.

So Tolkien has faceless southerners and the savage Orc.

Anthropology adds a lot to stories, a lot to the Hobby, but I for one don't especially care for the physiology determines destiny aspect of this interpretation. It's not just that the Orc gets INT as his dump stat, it's that because of that Orcs are just rubbish, have no civilization. Maybe that's unimaginative worldbuilding, maybe that's just a placeholder idiom. Either way, the stat rules the race.

But Rustmirk was the smart Goblin, he knew to cast his lot with the people, who in the magical-setting had wisely abandoned the limits of physiology. Transcended masters, sure, why wouldn't they rewrite his humors and get him settled as the new master of the new master race?

I should note that in later canonical sessions - Goblin was a infectious template, so that everything could be goblinized by Goblins. Which? Of course those guys.
2. Kirk K
I'm inoordinately pleased that you're finally getting around to reading about this world! I'm a total convert; I've read through the main novels almost twice now (on book 9) and I keep finding new things. He's that type of writer that will drop foreshadowing for an event thousads of pages away and it seems as simple as an expositinal paragraph but later you realize that that one little thing was super important. I love that.

I could go on and on (and I have!). In my opinion the main idea or theme of the whole thing is memory. At least for this read thru, anyway.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
I do like that my narcissism knows no bounds. "Hey, this reminds me of a great campaign I was in once..." being my kneejerk response.
4. Kirk K
I bet if you ever put your campaign in novel form it will feel like this.

Speaking of campaigns-into-novels: I went into this series knowing it came from a campaign, but it doesn't sound like the typical "D&D nerd turned novelist" book series. I mean, take another book series that was a campaign (the Icewind Dale trilogy, or Dragonlance, for the obvious examples) and you can almost see the TSR trademark in between the lines. I'm almost positive it's because of his anthropology book-learnin' that you don't see the obvious scaffolding of a gaming system behind his novels.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
4. Kirk K

It is funny that you mention that, because I am thinking of writing a post about Dave Gross' Pathfinder novels, which are blatently tie-in novels but are simultaneously totally amazing, against all odds.
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
Good review. I really enjoy hearing a perspective on this from someone who hasn't read the MBotF. I'm not through the book yet, but I'm finding it a great experience of seeing characters that I thought I knew through fresh lenses and quite a few interesting things explained.
I recall that SE was originally picturing two armed Tharks as the physical prototype of the Jaghut.
I think that Steve and Ian used a verion of Gurps to do their gaming with--D&D was not at all adequate for what they wanted.
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
6. shalter

That is interesting, to hear that bit about the Thanks-- they must have communicated it to me well, because that it totally what I was picking up.

Anyhow, I understand the feeling of finding D&D to be systematically inadequate. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I use The World of Darkness to run my fantasy game.
8. Jason M Waltz
Mordicai, If you find SE's philosophical fantasy explorations refreshing in this title you really should read his Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas. They're absolutely the most sublime 100 page-reads ever.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
8. Jason M Waltz

...really! I wasn't aware that Mister Erikson wrote pieces less than a zillion pages long!
Steven Halter
10. stevenhalter
Blood Follows, The Healthy Dead, The Lees of Laughter's End and Crack'd Pot Trail are the Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas. They are quite a bit of gallows fun.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
10. shalter

I'll have to track them down; short stories aren't my usual balliwick-- which I repeat but you know, I
12. Novaterata
I'm really not being picky when I say that the Jaghut are nothing like orcs other than in appearance. I don't know what you'd compare them too. They are almost always solitary and very intelligent and droll unlike orcs which are hordes of gibbering nu-metal/dubstep fans. No race or god is inherently evil in his books, just driven and angry for a very long time.
13. Berling's Beard
Firstly, thanks for the recommendation. As an avid reader of Erikson's series, this novel is a gem for me. It's also great to read your 'first blush' reactions to the races.

My favorite parts of any Erikson novel are the philosophical meditations that are slowly revealed. It is interesting that the in-world passages of History and Poetry that mark the chapter openers for Erikson's other works in the same world aren't included in this novel, I think this choice was made to underline how key the trilogy will be as an origin story for the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which sees many of the characters from Forge of Darkness die).

Still, in Forge of Darkness the 'aha moment' for me came from the passages regarding actual virtues, the symbols of vitures, and the hoarding of those symbols as (failed) attempts at capturing said virtues.

If you like the Jaghut, read Memories of Ice.
Steven Halter
15. stevenhalter
Probably best to read MoI as part of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. But, do certainly read it.

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