Why So Medieval?

Fossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 1Fossils in the Asphalt, Vol. 3Dragonhead
So I heard this on NPR this morning. It's nothing new but it's always depressing because no matter what you say the guy with the bigger megaphone always wins. For most people the general take-away will be, "Oh, you like tales of kings and castles and knights and dragons? You must be a white supremacist, a neo-nazi, probably a card carrying member of the KKK."
Well, they used to think that playing D&D made you a Satan worshipper too. They being anybody who didn't play the game but were concerned that others were and could be doing anything - absolutely anything! - down in those basements. Some people will shake a finger at this and say, "That's a false equivalency! White supremacists are out there! They're real and marching with tiki torches through our streets!"
Well, back in the 1970's Satan was real too. Black Sabbath wrote songs about him. He showed up as the nemesis of countless b-movies. On Halloween he appeared on people's doorsteps dressed as members of the rock band KISS which every concerned mother knew stood for Knights In the Service of Satan. Undoubtedly, some people actually did try worshipping Satan in an attempt to curry the infernal one's favor. Desperate times demand desperate measures, but compared to the number of people who didn't their numbers had to be incredibly small, even smaller once you cut out all the chuckleheads looking for a thrill.
One thing that is different is that D&D is not under attack here. I'm pretty sure the game is not even mentioned. What is under attack is the fantasy world that D&D once sought to evoke, one not set in Medieval Europe but definitely inspired by it. Already WoTC has been working to distance D&D as far from Medieval Europe as it can get. On the indie scene science fantasy is all the rage and medieval fantasy has been given the boot. Maybe this is because of the association with whiteness. Or it could be that medieval fantasy is just starting to feel played out. People are tired of it and want something new. Either way, it looks like D&D's medieval period is over, so it begs one to wonder what made Dungeons & Dragons so medieval in the first place?
I'm not saying it was Tolkien, but it was Tolkien
Many people think that D&D made Tolkien, Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery popular, but the truth is the other way around. The 60's and 70's were filled with paper-back dreams of fantasy adventure. Bands as big as Led Zeppelin sang about it. Woodstock NY, that little town shrine to late-60's hippie mysticism and new-age thinking, was (and probably still is) filled with depictions of unicorns, wizards, dragons and knights. Even Billie Joel was once in a Sword & Sorcery theme'd prog-rock outfit. All before D&D was even a twinkle in Gary Gygax's eye.

I like Billy Joel. I don't know why I pick on him the way I do.
Why was all of that popular back then? Why did Tolkien's work have as massive an impact as it did? More than just being well written, Tolkien's books were quite relevant. Tolkien was writing about our world slightly removed. In it you can find clear analogies to the 20th century with its world wars and pollution and dedication to progress & profit damn the consequences. Much of fantasy does this. It's safer and more fun to implicate rather than point a finger. Another reason is that fantasy gave us a world that could be good and pure in spite of the evil that threatened it. Notice that the lands of the good were always pastoral. Troublesome things like gunpowder and the printing press had yet to be invented. In fact, the land of the good is a world that doesn't need invention. It doesn't need machinery or slaves because life is easy and predictable. Through countless generations people have adapted to it. The message was often: if we could just get past our innate greed we might recognize rural life for being the heavenly abode that it is. In theory at least.
On the more heroic side, the world of Sword & Sorcery gives us men and women who are strong, beautiful and powerful enough to dare running around in metal skivvies. It is a world where individual people can make a difference. If you can swing a sword you can slay a dragon and if you slay enough dragons all the world will be ridden of evil. Once again, in theory at least. Fantasy gave us a world where people were not compromised by the demands of life and could afford to be noble and chivalrous and act with valor. These ideals resonated with people living through the social chaos of the 1960's as well as the washed-out annui of the 1970's.
So why Medieval Europe? The tales of Conan the Barbarian take place in Europe but at a time before history. Many of the fantasy movies of the 1960s were actually set in the Middle East rather than the Middle Ages. Take a look anything animated by Ray Harryhausen, specifically the Sinbad movies and Jason & the Argonauts. In truth, Tolkien aside, it's a bit of a surprise that D&D ended up in Medieval Europe. Had the game's creation been delayed by just four years it probably would have latched onto Star Wars and been science fantasy all the way. So once again, why Medieval Europe?
The Imagination Abhors a Vacuum
The Middle Ages provided us with a rich assortment of interesting toys to play with but also a historically blank slate to play with them on. Before the internet, the whole of the Middle Ages was known as The Dark Ages. According to the standard high school text book of the time (mine dedicated a whole page and a half to the subject) it was known as the Dark Ages because not many records survived from that period and we don't really know what happened back then.
This is a lie.
The truth is that we have many historical records of what happened between the fall of the Roman Empire to the discovery of the New World. The problem is that all of that is terribly boring. I'm fairly certain that the reason my Social Studies book glossed over a good thousand years of history is probably because they didn't want our eyes glazing over. Which is fine because as gamers we didn't want the reality. We never did. The truth intrigued us because the imagination abhors a vacuum, but if we had actually cared about medieval realism we would all have wound up playing Fantasy Wargaming.
God help us.
We wanted our fantasies to feel real and that required a place in time which we knew something about but not enough to stop us from doing something of our own with it. The Middle Ages, specifically the folklore rich Middle Ages was a perfect fit.
American Fantasy
Which is why I often call D&D American Fantasy. Just as American Cuisine is a mish-mash of various foreign cuisines creatively cobbled together from loose memories of the original recipes, American Fantasy is made of anything that amuses us damn the consequences. AD&D borrowed the Monk from the Kung-Fu movies of the 1970's. Psionics comes to us from the same decade's fascination with parapsychology, ESP and telepathy. Beholders? There is no telling where Beholders came from. They are the hot dogs of the RPG universe. You really don't want to know what they are made out of. The Isle of Dread was inspired by King Kong's home on Skull Island. All of the Universal horror movie monsters made their way into the game. Star Wars with its robots, light sabers and blaster pistols would eventually filter into it too. When Doctor Who was cool the Timelord NPC class appeared in the pages of Dragon magazine and we just sopped it all up.

Castles and knights in shining armor? It could have had something to do with being the descendants of European immigrants, of glorifying a distant land that we came from while also forgetting the dire reasons why our ancestors risked life and limb to come here. In truth, I think castles and the knights in shining armor just looked cool. Watch the movie Excalibur and tell me those aren't the coolest suits of platemail you've ever seen. Yet also know that they are completely and utterly historically inaccurate. You don't get platemail until you get the firearm, both of which are almost a thousand years removed from what is believed to be the age of King Arthur.
Do we care?
Fuck no.
It resonated with something beyond the real.
Cultural Demarcation
And now it is gone. Our cultural overlords have spoken and it's time to wave goodbye to jolly old England. However, there is something about this move I just don't like. It is such a big omission. It smacks of cultural demarcation, almost like having a survey team move through the land of dreams laying down property lines. There once was a time when you could dream about being a Samurai or an Indian Chief even though you were neither Japanese nor Native American, but no longer. Nowadays our cultures are at war and like warring nations you need a visa to visit territory you don't belong in. If you are a writer you need to hire an editor to guide you and make sure you don't write anything which might upset the locals.
What makes this piece even worse is that it feels as if it is helping to demarcate a white world. Instead of reclaiming cultural territory it is setting up boundaries and handing over vast tracts of dreamland to be ruled by the worst among us. Sure, if you look back in time at pictures of the people who played D&D you will see that we were resoundingly white and male, with just a smattering of non-white and female players, but here is something that modern day race-obsessed people cannot fathom about the past. Most white people in the latter half of the 20th century had no concept of Whiteness as an identity. You were far more likely to identify as Irish-American or Italian-American or simply American than White. To say you were White was meaningless, unless of course you were a member of that lunatic fringe for whom it meant everything. It's only in the 21st century that you get this galvanization of Whiteness, something which has happened largely in response to the Left and its desire to re-appropriate everything not White. It's like taking a jar of jelly beans and removing from it every color except the white ones. You're not trying to define whiteness, but that is the unintended consequence of what you are doing.
Frankly, I don't like it. No one gets to choose their heritage and so our cultural leaders should not be trying to control people by way of it, but that is exactly what they are doing. The mass-evacuation of medieval fantasy? That is just what people like Varg Vikernes and the MYFAROG crowd want. Once we are gone, not only will they take it over but they will retroactively claim everything about it which came before them. That includes your history as well as my own. Congratulations NPR on helping the people you despise the most.
#d&d #rpg #ttrpg
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