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O! What are you doing, and where are you going?

So sang the Elves upon the entry of Thorin and Company into the hidden valley of Rivendell. Their tone was cheerful and playful, the questions rhetorical, for the wisdom of their lord Elrond was such that the arrival of the dwarves, the hobbit Bilbo, and Gandalf was long expected. In regard to this blog, I will assume that the average reader has not lived for thousands of years across several Ages, and will explain its purpose.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology was a foundational part of growing up for me; the books, animated movies, and Peter Jackson films shaped my identity, my ethics, and inspired my interest in medieval history, for it provided the background to much of Middle-Earth. No other literature can claim such a pivotal hold on me. Thus, coming to terms with problematic aspects of Tolkien (racism, classism, ableism, and more) was a difficult yet rewarding process for my growth as a person. By understanding Tolkien’s flaws, I was able to see my own.

I will be commenting on all kinds of aspects of Tolkien’s work and lore. My ideas will no doubt be far from original, but everything contained herein will be the product of my own thoughts. Readers are heartily encouraged to submit questions – the creation of this blog was prompted by the curiosity of my friends, who wished to know more. I am happy to oblige this!

This blog is for those who know and love Tolkien’s literary works and the world he gave such life to. I am not a specialist in literary analysis, and my reading background does not reach extant scholarship on Tolkien. Thus, my thoughts will be limited primarily to the works themselves, cited by chapter when possible. I will endeavor to keep the blog accessible to both Tolkien loremasters and casual fans who just saw the movies (gently encouraging the latter to explore the more expansive textual world, naturally).

Thank you for joining me on this adventure, dear readers.

 

Túrin and Tuor: The Central Conflict of Middle-earth’s Heroes

Title image: “Tuor and Ulmo” by Renato Domingos

What makes a hero? Is it fate? Divine favor? Special powers? Dogged perseverance? Glorious deeds? Exceptional virtue? Despite the ubiquity of heroes in literature and society, it is not easy to define the term. Heroes are the canvas onto which humans project their (sometimes contradictory) aspirations and ideals. Heroes can be the individuals we hold above us or the ones we hold up as models for right behavior. Heroes can be exceptional or everyday people.

Literary heroes typically follow patterns to better communicate the meaning behind them. Usually, these tropes are repeated within a given tradition or culture. Though there is always internal variation, it is not controversial to say that Marvel superheroes do not adhere to the exact same heroic model as, say, medieval Arthurian romance, or the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. In fact, many who are immersed in one heroic tradition may well be repulsed by the heroes of another.

Today I’m going to look at two heroes from the wider mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, based primarily on the Silmarillion and other similar sources published after his death: Túrin and Tuor, among the first of the great heroes of humanity, cousins by birth. Their stories have eerie parallels to each other, making them excellent foils to each other. For those not familiar with the term, a foil is a literary term referring to two characters who are different in specific ways that contrast something important. Tolkien made extensive use of this technique: Gandalf and Saruman, Boromir and Faramir, Théoden and Denethor, Arwen and Éowyn, and so many more. These specific character oppositions provide an implicit narrative tension that can drive the story and emphasize the elements most important to it. For example, without the tragic temptation and fall of Boromir, Faramir’s later decision to reject the Ring would have a lot less impact. I’d like to discuss the ways that the stories of Túrin and Tuor in fact embody the conflict between two incompatible models of heroism within Tolkien’s fantasy universe, and are fundamental to understanding the dynamics of his world. They also tie into a larger conversation about his relationship with mythological heroes writ large.

The stories of both of these heroes are scattered throughout published material in several versions. The abbreviated forms are in the Silmarillion, but more detailed versions are available in Unfinished Tales. There is also a fantastic edition of The Tale of the Children of Húrin available which offers a definitive presentation of the epic of Túrin, and the end of August this year will see the release of an edition of The Fall of Gondolinwhich promises a full telling of the story of Tuor as Tolkien had intended but never finished before his death. The best way to highlight the dynamic mentioned above is to examine both of their stories side by side, so the divergences become all the more apparent.

Childhood

Túrin was the son of Húrin and Morwen, the scion of two of the great noble families of the humans who allied with the Elves against the Dark Lord Morgoth in the First Age. From the very beginning his story was marred by tragedy and woe, when his beloved little sister named Lalaith (Laughter) died from a plague. At the tender age of eight his father went off to fight in the fateful campaign that would be known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (Nírnaeth Arnoediad), and as he and his brother Huor fought a last stand to allow the Elven King Turgon of Gondolin to escape, he was captured and tortured by Morgoth, who laid a special curse on him and his descendants. This curse would follow Túrin and his sister Nienor for all of their lives, with the Dark Lord and his servants continually interfering in their affairs to maximize their suffering, all while their father Húrin, granted supernatural vision (albeit distorted) by Morgoth, watched helplessly from his prison in Angband.

With the defeat, the lands of the House of Hador were annexed by the humans who sided with the Dark Lord, and the people were enslaved. Morwen, eager to protect her children from this fate, used her intimidating presence and support from loyalist slaves to spread rumors among the invaders that she was a powerful witch, which allowed her to remain unmolested in her home. However, she decided to send the young Túrin to the Elven Kingdom of Doriath to the south, a mighty realm protected by powerful magic, so that he might have an upbringing befitting his noble lineage. Túrin said he did not wish to be parted from his mother and sister, and Morwen responded:

“Would you not rather be a king’s guest than a thrall?”

“I do not know,” said Túrin, “I do not know what a thrall is.”

“I am sending you away so that you need not learn it.”

-Unfinished Tales

Túrin was escorted to Doriath by two elderly servants of his family, and was adopted by the mighty King Thingol. But he never forgot his family, who refused to abandon the home of his father, and he eagerly began a career of military service in Doriath in order to strike back at their foes. During that time he made a name for himself and befriended the great elf warrior Beleg Strongbow.

Tuor, eight years junior to his cousin Túrin, was born to Rían wife of Huor right after the news of the dreadful defeat at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears reached them. Rían fled into the wilderness and sought the aid of the Elves living in a remote part of Mithrim. She entrusted her son to their care and went to seek her husband – and died of grief when she found the enormous pile of dead on the battlefield. With neither mother nor father, Tuor was raised by the Elves, who educated him well, despite their humble home in a cave in the wilderness. Like Túrin, he wished to lash out at the evil that plagued his world:

… his heart grew hot within him at the tale of the griefs of his people, and he wished to go forth and avenge them on the Orcs and Easterlings. But Annael forbade this. “Far hence, I deem, your doom lies, Tuor son of Huor,” he said. “And this land shall not be freed from the shadow of Morgoth until Thangorodrim itself be overthrown…”

– Unfinished Tales

We can already see the paths of the heroes diverging at the earliest stages of their lives. Túrin was given a life of nobility and luxury, and allowed to indulge his thirst for vengeance against his enemies alongside a legendary Elven warrior. Tuor, however, was raised in a humble environment, and isolated from the push to avenge kith and kin. He still learned the path of the warrior – the text mentions he favored the axe and bow like his Elven foster-family, but Annael and the other Elves taught him that mere force of arms would not suffice to free the world from the evil that afflicted it.

But the divergence did not stop there. As Tuor and his Elven foster-family attempted to escape south to a safer place, they were attacked and worsted, and Tuor was captured and enslaved:

“Hard and bitter then was his life; for it pleased Lorgan to treat Tuor the more evilly as he was of the kin of the former lords, and he sought to break, if he could, the pride of the House of Hador. But Tuor saw wisdom, and endured all pains and taunts with watchful patience; so that in time his lot was somewhat lightened…”

-Unfinished Tales

Where Túrin was sent to live as a prince in order to escape the misery of servitude, Tuor was forced to endure it. Tuor experienced firsthand the suffering in the world, instilling in him a patience and humility that his cousin never learned. This was the key difference in their characters, and its significance would continue to echo throughout their sagas. Tuor learned how to exercise prudence and caution, two skills that would serve him well in the time to come.

Living as Outlaws

Túrin’s newfound fame at the court of Doriath won him at least one enemy, Saeros, who mocked him and his kin openly, to which Túrin responded by violently hurling a cup at him. Later, Saeros attacked him in the woods, but Túrin overcame him and forced him to run naked from him in shame. In the course of his flight, Saeros fell to his death in a river (a symbolic scene – keep an eye out for further references to water and especially rivers!). Túrin, facing trial, chose instead to exile himself from Doriath, as he refused to live as a prisoner.

After he learned the truth of what happened, Thingol forgave Túrin, but he was already gone. His friend Beleg swore to find him and bring him back, if he could. After he left Doriath, Túrin joined a desperate band of outlaws who preyed on all who passed by, regardless of allegiance. Here he took up his first pseudonym, Neithan, “The Wronged.” As we shall see, Túrin repeatedly took up false names and identities in order to avoid the cursed fate that hounded him. Túrin killed the outlaw leader when he found him about to assault a woman, and seized leadership of the outlaws, commanding them to move away from settled lands so that this sort of evil might not happen again. When Beleg eventually found Túrin and told him of Thingol’s forgiveness, he stubbornly refused to accept it out of sheer, unyielding pride. Beleg was crushed, and returned to Doriath. Even so, as a result of this meeting Túrin swore that his band would only ever take up arms against the servants of Morgoth from that time forth.

Beleg eventually returned, this time to stay with Túrin and protect him if he would not come back to Doriath of his own volition. He brought the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin with him, an heirloom of Túrin’s ancestors. Túrin took up the name Gorthol, “The Dread Helm,” and together they became renowned as heroes against the forces of darkness, with many flocking to their banner. However, one day Mîm the dwarf, who had once been captured and spared by Túrin in exchange for his hidden hill-cave home, was captured by spies of Morgoth and betrayed the outlaws in exchange for his life, asking only that Túrin be spared. Túrin and his band, ambushed by orcs, were defeated, and he was taken captive. Beleg survived, and though injured hurried after Túrin and his captors. While on the way, he encountered the Elf Gwindor of Nargothrond, who had escaped from the mines of Angband after years as a slave. Together they found Túrin and rescued him in the night, but because of the darkness, and the panic from noticing someone with a drawn blade above him, he lashed out and killed his friend Beleg:

“But as he stood, finding himself free, and ready to sell his life dearly against imagined foes, there came a great flash of lightning above them; and in its light he looked down on Beleg’s face. Then Túrin stood stonestill and silent, staring on that dreadful death, knowing what he had done; and so terrible was his face, lit by the lightning that flickered all about them, that Gwindor cowered down upon the ground and dared not raise his eyes.”

-The Silmarillion

turin kills beleg

“Túrin Kills Beleg” by Ted Nasmith

One of the iconic moments of the saga, Túrin’s curse of distorted perception as well as his quick recourse to violence led him to inadvertently murder his closest friend. So ended his time as an outlaw: with betrayal, and wracked by guilt and despair.

After enduring three years of slavery, Tuor took advantage of the trust of his captors to suddenly turn on them and escaped alone back to the cave where he was raised, becoming the bane of all orcs and wicked humans who passed through. Not much is written of the four years he spent thus, except that he was impossible to track, since during his time as a slave he had befriended the hunting dogs of the warlord Lorgan, and they would simply greet him when they found him and then return home.

Though both heroes chose the path of the outlaw in order to escape a state of subjection, Túrin’s was based on a misunderstanding, and worsened by his stubborn pride. He fought alongside wicked men, and was complicit in violence against innocent people until his change of heart. Once reunited with Beleg, he showed his valor and began to win great victories and won many to his side. Tuor, in contrast, trod a solitary path, fighting only servants of the Dark Lord, and never for glory.

Tuor’s time as an outlaw ended very differently from Túrin’s. Guided by mysterious signs in a river (!), he traveled to the west and encountered two Elves, Gelmir and Arminas, who helped direct him when he was lost (they will be important later). He traveled to the land of Nevrast by the sea, the former realm of King Turgon, which he had abandoned when he moved his people to the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin. Here Tuor found more solitude, and remained for the better part of a year in peace by the sea until seven swans appeared and honked angrily at him, which again he took as a sign that it was time to move on. The swans’ flight path led him to the deserted halls of Vinyamar, where he found arms and armor that had been left behind by Turgon centuries ago for a prophesied hero.

Tuor claimed this gear, and as he left Vinyamar the Vala Ulmo, Lord of Waters, appeared to him. Ulmo explained that Tuor was his chosen herald, and taught him the truth of the history of the Elves who fought against Morgoth, of their Fall and Doom. He declared that Tuor would go to the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin and deliver his message. In a fantastically descriptive passage, Ulmo blew his horn and for an instant Tuor was granted the expanded perspective of the Vala himself, sensing the entirety of the world through its waters – a perfect contrast to the distorted perception that continually plagued Túrin. Then he brought Tuor a guide, the elf Voronwë of Gondolin, who had been sent on an expedition to the West by Turgon to beg for assistance, and had been shipwrecked. When he met Tuor, at first he mistook him for an Elven lord, before he realized his mistake.

“For surely a king of Men you must be, and many must wait upon your word.”

“Nay, I am an escaped thrall,” said Tuor, “and I am an outlaw alone in an empty land.”

-Unfinished Tales

Tuor was of noble birth, but never knew his family. He was raised among Elves in the wilderness and for many years had lived a solitary life. Humility thus became instilled in him, in stark contrast to the overweening pride of Túrin. Thus, the circumstances of these cousins’ upbringings affected the paths they took through life. Superficial similarities abound – as we have seen, both spent time among Elves and as outlaws, but the details emphasize how very different these two were – differences that would abruptly become even more pronounced.

The Downfall of Elf-Kingdoms

By this point in the First Age, most of the Elven kingdoms established by the Noldor, the exiles from the West, had collapsed. Only Nargothrond, ruled by Orodreth in the southwest, and Gondolin, ruled by Turgon and concealed deep within mountain valleys in the north, remained. Túrin and Tuor would bear witness to the final destruction of both of these realms, with the Grey-Elven kingdom of Doriath to follow not long after.

After accidentally murdering Beleg, Túrin fell into despair, but allowed Gwindor to lead him to the Pools of Ivrin, which were blessed by Ulmo. The waters healed him of the anguish that afflicted him, marking the first instance in his story where water brought some good into his life. Gwindor gave him the cursed black sword that Beleg had carried and led him to the Kingdom of Nargothrond, his homeland. There Túrin took the name Agarwaen, son of Úmarth (The Bloodstained, son of Ill-fate), though most took to calling him Mormegil (The Blacksword), because of the blade he wielded.

At Nargothrond Túrin won much acclaim because of his valor in battle, and soon he overshadowed even the king in popularity. The princess Finduilas, who had been in love with Gwindor before his imprisonment in Angband, fell in love with Túrin against her will, and Gwindor secretly told her of Túrin’s true identity in order to warn her away from the cursed hero. Túrin did not take this lightly:

“you have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid.”

“The doom lies in yourself, not in your name.”

-The Silmarillion

Gwindor understood Túrin better than he himself did. Túrin thought that it was his name and therefore his lineage that carried his curse, blaming it on external causes. But Gwindor saw that the malevolent influence of Morgoth was not the sole explanation for the woe that followed Túrin everywhere he went – it was also the flaws in his character that sowed discord and courted annihilation. Gwindor saw Túrin for what he was: the living embodiment of the self-destructive ideal of martial pride.

Túrin called for the Elves of Nargothrond to abandon the guerrilla warfare they had taken to and instead to defy Morgoth openly. Though the king and Gwindor opposed him, he had too much influence, and the hearts of the Elves were stirred by the sentiments of glory that he invoked. Túrin had a great bridge built in front of the fortress-capital so that their armies could be mobilized more easily, and soon Nargothrond, led de facto by Túrin, had cleared the lands of orcs.

At that point, the Elves Gelmir and Arminas, who had met Tuor on his way to Nevrast, arrived in Nargothrond with a dire warning from Ulmo: they must destroy the bridge outside the fortress (literally saying “cast the stones of your pride into the river”), or else Nargothrond would fall. Túrin mocked this message, saying that if others wanted to offer counsel then they should take action against the Dark Lord themselves.

Naturally, having defied the divine warning, Nargothrond’s armies were soon routed by the forces of the dragon Glaurung. Orodreth was killed, and Gwindor was mortally wounded. Gwindor’s last words to Túrin were that he must rescue Finduilas from capture by the orcs – for

“she alone stands between thee and thy doom. If thou fail her, it shall not fail to find thee.”

-The Silmarillion

These words were not merely romantic – once more Gwindor showed his prophetic tendencies, as he predicted that Túrin could still potentially avert his doom. And it was no coincidence that Finduilas was the way out: pairings between Elven women and human men in the First Age were rare but filled with significance, always marking a major shift in fate. Beren and Lúthien were just the first, when they moved the unmovable Mandos to pity and returned from death. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Gwindor nicknamed Finduilas “Faelivrin,” meaning the sparkling of the sun on the waters of the Pool of Ivrin, where Túrin had once found healing. The association of Finduilas with enchanted water (and therefore Ulmo) marked her as a benign presence, a force for good. But Túrin showed no signs of romantic attraction to her, and though he heeded Gwindor’s last request and rushed to save her, Glaurung the dragon cast a spell on him to freeze him in place and distort his understanding, tricking him into seeking his sister and mother instead. Finduilas was carried off as a prisoner by the orcs, and her cries to Túrin went unheeded.

turin faces glaurung

“Of Túrin and Glaurung” by EthalenSkye (Deviantart)

Túrin fled from the sack of Nargothrond, goaded by the guile of Glaurung into seeking his family, little knowing that they had left for Doriath long ago. In his homeland for the first time since childhood, he took the opportunity to confront and kill the warlord Brodda, who had forcibly married Aerin, a woman of the House of Hador. Aerin reproached Túrin for his rashness, warning him that this had doomed her and many others of their people to death. Túrin mocked her for what he perceived as her cowardice and left with the few remaining men who had the strength to travel. One of them, Asgon, spoke yet another warning to him:

“Many a man of arms misreads patience and quiet. She did much good among us at much cost. Her heart was not faint, and patience will not break at the last.”

-Unfinished Tales

In vain, Túrin searched for Finduilas, but he was too late. She had been killed by the orcs when a group of woodsmen attacked the warband. On the way there, he had stopped at the Pools of Ivrin one last time, perhaps hoping to make use again of the healing powers of the waters. But the pools were defiled by the dragon, ruined just as had been Nargothrond and Finduilas. There was to be no turning back for Túrin.

This was, curiously, the only moment that both Túrin and Tuor would be in the same place at the same time. Unbeknownst to Túrin, Tuor and his guide Voronwë were watching as the dark hero passed, concealed by the magical cloak of Ulmo. For Tuor to have witnessed Túrin after one of his greatest failures heading to an even darker doom, while he sought out the city of Gondolin and the last hope of the world, emphasized the ways his narrative had had avoided so many of the pitfalls encountered by his unfortunate cousin.

Voronwë faithfully led Tuor to Gondolin, where he delivered the warning of Ulmo. Though Turgon appreciated the gravity of the occasion, since Tuor even appeared in the very armor Ulmo had instructed him to leave behind centuries ago, he rejected the counsel:

“But Turgon was become proud, and Gondolin as beautiful as a memory of Elven Tirion, and he trusted still in its secret and impregnable strength, though even a Vala should gainsay it…”

-The Silmarillion

Turgon took the opposite path that Túrin had done at Nargothrond, opting for total isolationism, even going so far as to block off the only tunnel leading beyond the mountains. Yet Tuor was held in high favor, and won much respect from the Elves of Gondolin for his wisdom. He married Idril Celebrindal, the daughter of the king, becoming the second union between Elf and Man.

But the doom of Gondolin was inescapable. As Túrin’s story reached its tragic conclusion, Morgoth released his father Húrin, and he inadvertently betrayed the general location of the Hidden Kingdom to him. It was only a matter of time before one of Gondolin’s great nobles, the miner and craftsman Maeglin, was captured by Morgoth and tortured into revealing the city’s location. In the end, Maeglin readily agreed to betray his city, because he secretly lusted after Idril, and hated Tuor. Morgoth promised him that when the city fell she would be his. This treachery wrought the doom of the city. It is worth noting here that the sword of Maeglin, Anguirel, was the twin of the sword Anglachel, wielded by Beleg and then Túrin. Both held the malice of their original smith, Maeglin’s father Eöl. Thus the two sagas intertwined on another level.

Gondolin was destroyed in fire. Turgon and other great warriors died fighting against endless hordes of foes. Tuor himself killed the traitor Maeglin while he was attempting to kidnap Idril and their son. The warning of Ulmo that Tuor had brought did not go entirely unheeded, however – his wife Idril had prepared a secret escape from the city, and she, Tuor, their young son, and a small number of survivors escaped the destruction. The fates of Gondolin and Nargothrond embody the price of arrogance: whether you seek to directly confront evil or ignore it, it will find you, and use your very strengths against you. The Bridge of Nargothrond, symbol of its military might, made it all too easy for Glaurung to attack and destroy the city. The isolation of Gondolin, thought to make it utterly impregnable, made escape impossible for all but the few Idril and Tuor were able to save.

 

the flight of the doomed.jpg

“Flight of the Doomed” by Ted Nasmith

To tie into the notion of the heroes being influenced by disparate powers, it’s worth noting that each of them were given an Elven guide to show them their path. Túrin’s guide, Gwindor, came to him from the pits of Angband, the wretched realm of Morgoth. Voronwë, on the other hand, came to Tuor from the sea, protected by Ulmo. The origins of each guide show the general course that was determined for the hero. That being said, Gwindor was far from evil – he continually tried to turn Túrin down a better path, but to no avail. After Tuor reached Gondolin, no further details about Voronwë were written, so further comparison is impossible. But as this demonstrates, the guide is an important element of a hero’s saga.

Legacy

Content warning: the following section contains mentions of suicide and incest. If you wish to avoid it, please scroll down until you find another line of squigglies giving an all-clear.

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After finding Finduilas slain, Túrin fell into the deepest despair of his life, and entered a nearly comatose state. He had identified himself only as “The Wildman of the Woods” to the woodsmen of Brethil who found him, and they carried him back to their home where Brandir, their chieftain, healed him. At that point Túrin took on his final pseudonym, Turambar, High Elven for “Master of Doom.” Quite the proclamation considering the path that led him there! As he did with every group he joined, he soon became respected for his military prowess, and assumed effective leadership over the legitimate, wiser leader Brandir, and led the men of Brethil to more open military action. Túrin had not learned from his past mistakes, and the fame that accompanied his feats of arms began to draw the attention of Morgoth once more.

He found a woman unconscious on the grave of Finduilas one day, and brought her back to the village, fell in love with her, and married her. Little did he know, this woman was actually his sister Nienor, who through a series of fateful events had been separated from her mother and bewitched by the dragon Glaurung into total amnesia. Níniel was the name Túrin gave her, meaning “Tear-Maiden.” But just as before had happened with Gwindor, Brandir, who had also fallen in love with Nienor, revealed to her Túrin’s true identity. Her amnesia prevented her from feeling any more than vague discomfort at this revelation.

She made Túrin promise to stop fighting so they could raise a family together, and he agreed, and soon she was pregnant. But at this time orcs began threatening Brethil in large numbers, and Túrin was shamed into joining the battle again, this time wielding his signature black sword. This alerted Glaurung to his presence, and soon the dragon was threatening the village. Túrin gathered some small band of loyal men to confront the dragon and ordered the villagers to be prepared to flee if he failed.

But Túrin did not fail – he stabbed Glaurung from below as he crawled over the river Teiglin – yes, a river. However, the dragon’s blood was venomous and he fell into a death-like state, when Nienor found him. In a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, she assumed he was dead. The dragon, still clinging to life, spoke to her one last time to tell her the truth of what had transpired, that she carried the child of her brother, and lifted the curse of amnesia from her. In utter despair, she uttered her final words:

A Túrin Turambar turún’ ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! O happy to be dead!”

-The Silmarillion

Her pronouncement about Túrin was a confirmation of the arrogance of the final name he had taken. Despite all his efforts to escape the curse, fate inevitably found him time and again. With that, she threw herself into the river and met her death. In another version of the story, she begged the river to carry her to the Sea, emphasizing the waters as an escape of sorts from a terrible fate.

Túrin was not dead, however, and awoke in confusion to find his wound bandaged. He found Brandir and confronted him, asking where his wife was. When Brandir told him the truth, that his wife was his sister Nienor, he accused him of lying and murdered him in front of the entire village. When the Elf Mablung of Doriath arrived and was able to confirm what Brandir had told him, Túrin gave into despair and fled to the place he had slain Glaurung and begged his sword to kill him quickly, then threw himself on it. Thus ended the saga of Túrin, slayer of the mightiest dragon ever to be spawned.

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The content warning ends here.

Tuor met a drastically different fate. He and his family fled to the havens in the south, the last refuge of the Elves of Beleriand after the fall of Doriath. Ulmo’s prophecy had been that from the House of Hador and the Elves of Gondolin would come the last hope of the Noldor, and that prophecy was made true in his half-Elven son Eärendil, who would one day sail into the West with the Silmaril won from Morgoth by Beren and Lúthien.

“In those days Tuor felt old age creep upon him, and ever a longing for the deeps of the Sea grew stronger in his heart. Therefore he built a great ship, and he named it Eärrámë, which is Sea-Wing; and with Idril Celebrindal he set sail into the sunset and the West, and came no more into any tale or song. But in after days it was sung that Tuor alone of mortal Men was numbered among the elder race, and was joined with the Noldor, whom he loved; and his fate is sundered from the fate of Men.”

-The Silmarillion

Like his wife and son, Tuor effectively became an immortal Elf, an apotheosis of sorts that reflected the virtue and wisdom he had accumulated over his lifetime. The Sea, an ever-present influence in his life that guided him to fulfill his destiny, called to him, and he answered. His ill-fated cousin won renown through great deeds of arms, through the destruction of a powerful foe, but that story witnessed an endless cycle of violence and destruction. Tuor played a more passive role as the servant and herald of Ulmo, but by sacrificing his own personal glory he assured the salvation of the survivors.

Description and Heroic Equipment

Turin_Turambar

“Túrin Turambar” by Alan Lee

“dark-haired and pale-skinned, with grey eyes, and his face more beautiful than any other among mortal Men, in the Elder Days. His speech and bearing were that of the ancient kingdom of Doriath, and even among the Elves he might be taken for one from the great houses of the Noldor; therefore many called him Adanedhel, the Elf-Man.”

-The Silmarillion

A hero’s appearance and, especially in the literary tradition Tolkien was imitating, their heroic equipment, can be a major component in establishing who a hero is and what they stand for. In Túrin’s case, his primary physical qualities were his dark hair and clothing, his extremely attractive appearance, and his noble bearing. His hair was part of his overall color scheme relating to darkness, an obvious nod to his cursed life. His beauty was linked to the extraordinary charisma which allowed him time and again to win the friendship and loyalty of virtually everyone he met. His noble bearing naturally reflected his pride, founded in his regal upbringing at Doriath. The detail comparing him to an Elf is very significant, since it is parallel to the more or less literal Elf-transformation of Tuor mentioned above. But unlike Tuor, what made Túrin resemble the Noldor were the things that caused their very downfall: their arrogance, their might at arms, their materialism.

Two items were of paramount importance to Túrin: The Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin and the dark sword Anglachel. The helm was an heirloom of his family. It was originally forged for a Dwarf-lord but was granted as a gift to a great Elven king, who in turn passed it on to Túrin’s ancestors. It was said to shield the wearer from all injuries, and was too massive for any but the strongest to wear. It was also known as the Dragonhead of the North, because it had a golden depiction of the dragon Glaurung on it, a being with which Túrin’s was intimately linked. With such a helm, Túrin was all but invincible, but it could not protect others around him, and it was so distinctive that its very fame repeatedly brought about his own downfall. One of Túrin’s assumed names, Gorthol (the Dread Helm) was because of this helmet.

The Blacksword, another namesake (Mormegil), was his signature weapon: the blade Anglachel, the most likely etymology of which is “Flaming Iron Star” in Sindarin. It was forged by the dark elf Eöl from a meteorite and could cut through steel; it eventually passed through Thingol to Beleg as a reward for his loyal service. Melian warned him that the blade was partly sentient, and contained the malice of its creator. It was the blade Túrin used when he accidentally killed Beleg – it came into his possession through Gwindor, who said it would be better for the blade to be used against orcs than to be buried with Beleg. Túrin had it reforged at Nargothrond and gave it the new name Gurthang (Iron of Death). It even spoke to Túrin before his death. Such a powerful blade befit a warrior of his prowess, but its cursed demeanor also expressed the dangerous and double-edged nature of that path he walked. Strength alone would not avail him. He would overcome nearly every foe he faced, and still fail.

During his time at Nargothrond, it was also stated in Unfinished Tales that he wore a gilded dwarf-mask into battle. It would terrify his foes, and also served to emphasize how he repeatedly attempted to conceal his true identity in order to avoid his fate. But in the end he always resorted to one or more of his signature pieces of equipment, which betrayed him to his foes. Túrin’s gear thus represented his indomitability and unsurpassed skill in battle, but also his inability to protect those around him and the inescapable doom that hounded him.

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“Tuor” artist unknown

Tuor appeared very differently from his cousin:

“he was fair of face, and golden-haired after the manner of his father’s kin, and he became strong and tall and valiant, and being fostered by the Elves he had lore and skill no less than the princes of the Edain, ere ruin came upon the North.”

Unfinished Tales

In contrast to Túrin, Tuor bore bright colors, and his gear predominantly bore the white of the swan-feathers given to him by the swans that guided him to Vinyamar. His gear was the Elven mail left behind by Turgon centuries before at the bidding of Ulmo, predicted to be precisely the right size for him, and a shield with a swan insignia. He bore the sea-cloak of Ulmo for a time, which shielded him from the sight of his enemies and allowed him to pass safely to Gondolin, avoiding direct combat. Though vanishingly little is written about his time at Gondolin, it is known that he acquired a mighty axe named Dramborleg (Thudder-Sharp), reflecting his roots as a foster-child of the axe-wielding Elves of the wilderness. Like Túrin, Tuor received an education from Elves, but Tuor’s was without the royal pretensions Túrin was raised with, and so in a sense he absorbed the best parts of Elven culture.

Tuor’s gear bore no link to his human ancestry. It tied him firmly to the Elves and to the Vala Ulmo who guided him. His swan insignia represented his divine mission, his obedience to the path laid before him, and his connection to the natural world from so many long years in solitude in the Wild. There is also of course his hair, golden, in contrast to Túrin’s darker hue. But lest we reduce the comparison to the superficial, there is a passage from another version of the story of Túrin that is cited in the footnotes of Unfinished Tales. When Gelmir and Arminas arrived at Nargothrond to deliver the warning from Ulmo and were rebuffed by Túrin, in this version they approached him in private and asked if he was who they suspect. Túrin responded with anger to having his identity revealed, and Arminas mentioned that his cousin Tuor was a much better exemplar of their family than he was. Túrin, outraged, thinking this was just about his differing hair color, said that it came from his mother’s side. But Arminas responded:

“I spoke not of the difference between the black and the gold […] But others of the House of Hador bear themselves otherwise, and Tuor among them. For they use courtesy, and they listen to good counsel, holding the Lords of the West in awe. But you, it seems, will take counsel with your own wisdom, or with your sword only; and you speak haughtily. And I say to you, Agarwaen Mormegil, that if you do so, other shall be your doom than one of the Houses of Hador and Bëor might look for.”

This scene was cut from later versions, perhaps because it was too heavy handed in stating the overall message of the saga. But it illustrates that the physical differences between the two heroes really are little more than aesthetic, and not determinant of their characters.

What Makes a Hero?

As I hope the extensive analysis above has convinced you, Túrin and Tuor represent two opposed heroic archetypes: Túrin the martial hero, and Tuor the moral hero. The tension between their two stories is in fact the central conceit of the mythology Tolkien built up over his life – The Lord of the Rings was at heart a story about the rejection of the sort of hero that Túrin represented, and an exaltation of the common hero who rejects power and authority in order to do what is right. In this regard, Samwise Gamgee is in the same company as the legendary Tuor.

But the meaning of these two sagas goes much deeper. Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin was the first story that Tolkien wrote set in Middle-earth, while recovering in a hospital after his deployment in the Battle of the Somme. Not long before, in 1914, right as his world was beginning to be torn apart by the war to end all wars, he wrote a prose version of the Finnish saga of Kullervo. Why is this relevant, you may wonder? In brief, the story of Kullervo is as follows: he realizes at a young age that the people who raised him are the ones who murdered his actual tribe. They sell him into slavery, but he eventually escapes and begins to find members of his former family, but one by one he loses them. He then unknowingly has relations with own sister, and murders all of the people who wiped out his tribe. He and his sister both end tragically.

You may have realized by now that this story formed the nucleus of what would become the story of Túrin in later years. But curiously, the element of living in slavery became part of Tuor’s story. In the midst of World War I, as nearly all of his close friends died and his world seemed on the brink of collapse, Tolkien began to pen the story of Tuor and Gondolin, of a city about to be destroyed because of its own arrogance, but out of that conflagration one hero would emerge who would ensure the salvation of the survivors. Tuor was an answer, a way out of a cycle of violence and destruction and loss. I believe this was Tolkien’s way of working through the situation of his world, of making new connections and directions for the ancient stories that he loved so much in order to respond to his own concerns.

In this way, Túrin can be understood as a synthesis of the ancient nordic or pagan heroes (his story also contains elements from the saga of Sigurd in the Poetic Edda, for example). Túrin is committed to the principle of revenge, of standing forth openly in battle against one’s foes in order to strike back at them for the wrongs they have done you. He is the essence of what Tolkien saw as a fatal flaw in aristocratic society. Túrin’s cycles of vengeance and glory followed by cataclysmic collapse represent the cycle of violence Tolkien saw enacted throughout World War I.

Tuor was the key to breaking that cycle. His humble upbringing and time as a slave taught him lessons that the pampered and proud Túrin never grasped. Instead of being misled and deceived by the malevolent influence of Morgoth, he had his perspective opened by the benign Ulmo. Faithful to his mission, he avoided the pitfalls of arrogance and with his wife enabled the survivors of the destruction to be rescued from further suffering. This is a profoundly Christian perspective, in essence a rejection of the pagan heroism that Túrin embodies. Ulmo’s words to Tuor only emphasize this further:

“… in the armour of Fate (as the Children of Earth name it) there is ever a rift, and in the walls of Doom a breach, until the full-making, which ye call the End. So it shall be while I endure, a secret voice that gainsayeth, and  light where darkness was decreed.”

-Unfinished Tales

I understand this to be the central conceit of Tolkien’s mythology. Seeking answers in a world riven by suffering and war, he rejected some of the elements of the foundational myths that he grew up with and instead turned to values linked to his faith to retell the stories that he cared about. The story of Middle-earth is the story of the rejection of martial glory in favor of humility and peace, of power being replaced by decency as an ideal. It all began with a story he was never able to come back to and complete before his death.

Monty Python’s Peasants: A Cinematic Lesson in Historiography

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) quite likely takes the cake as the most widely-memorized film script. A slapstick parody of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, this low-budget classic is referenced across popular anglophone culture. You may be surprised to learn, however, that its directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones studied Political Science and History at university, respectively. They knew a thing or two about the subject matter, and a lot of the comedy in the various sketches of the films runs a lot deeper than its wide fan base realizes, engaging in contemporary debates between historians about medieval history and literature itself.

The sketch I will be focusing on here will be the peasant scene from near the beginning of the film. For reference, here is a video and here is the script.

The scene plays out between three characters – King Arthur, who is attempting to gather knights for his quest, the peasant Dennis, and his companion (who is only identified as Woman in the script – this is also a joke). King Arthur becomes increasingly frustrated as Dennis and Woman seem incapable of answering his simple question (What knight lives in that castle?), and eventually attacks Dennis after they will not stop talking about oppression and criticizing his kingship. That’s the basics. It’s funny to many people because it shows intelligent, impertinent peasants – a trope inversion. It also makes fun of how seriously Arthur takes himself. But I am hoping that after you finish reading this article, you will see that the comedy has so many more layers.

First, some quick background for the laypeople – what do I mean when I say historiography? At a basic level, that refers to the history of history – the many arguments and battles historians have waged over the decades over different topics in our various fields of study. Contrary to popular belief, the study of history is about a lot more than what happened – historians primarily seek to answer questions like why and how things happened the way they appear to have done. Some of the big questions that medieval historians in particular fought over in the mid-twentieth century were, “how real was the ideal of chivalry found in the romances?”, “what caused the crusades?”, and, most relevant to our current topic, “how relevant were elite political and social systems to the general population?” Careers have risen and fallen based on historians’ answers to questions like these.

The peasant scene in Holy Grail is portraying this sort of conflict happening in real time. Each of the participants represents a different historiographical school of thought – Dennis is, naturally, the Marxist school, always looking at economic issues and class exploitation. The woman represents the historians who held the peasantry to be a largely autonomous, self-governing body that had little relationship with the culture of the nobility beyond payment of tribute or taxes. And Arthur, naturally, represents the non-historians, or perhaps even the mythological legends themselves.

Let’s pick this scene apart line by line. We open with Arthur mistaking Dennis for an old woman. Dennis is upset by this, but Arthur pays it no mind and goes ahead and asks his main question, “what knight lives in that castle?” It’s a simple question, something a tourist would ask, or perhaps someone just interested in surface-level matters. But Dennis ignores the question and continues to grill Arthur, telling him that he is not old, he is thirty-seven, and his name is Dennis. Arthur, perplexed, says he did not know any of that, and Dennis smugly says “well you didn’t bother to find out, did ya?” This exchange is mocking how amateur or traditionalist historians would completely ignore the lives of the peasantry in order to focus on the elites. Dennis reminds us that he, like his fellows, were also full human beings and are worthy of understanding. Not only that, but Arthur’s mistake about his gender betrays a lack of understanding about how peasants organized their society according to gender, and their mode of dress. Finally, the reference to his age not being “old” is a stab at the persistent myth of the 30-year life expectancy for medieval people. It’s a widely-cited statistic that fails to control for the much-higher rate of infant mortality, which drove the number down considerably. Basically, if you survived past around seven or so, you could expect to live to to your late fifties or considerably longer.

Dennis expresses his indignation that Arthur would treat him as his lesser. At that point Arthur recovers his dignity and reasserts himself – “Well, I am king…” Dennis seizes on that to go further on the offensive, claiming that Arthur’s position of superiority is solely due to his exploitation of the working classes, spouting an impressive amount of Marxist jargon. Before he can finish, he is interrupted by his companion, the peasant woman, who remarks on how lovely the filth is she has found in the mud pit they are working in. This part is really significant – for the rest of the scene, Dennis and the woman are digging in the mud and just… stacking it up in a pile. It’s a metaphor: they are the social historians, who rather than focusing on the high culture of the nobility, dig through the mud of the surviving sources to dredge up whatever they can about the peasant majority population. However, they do not fully agree about everything they find, as we shall soon see.

Arthur introduces himself to the woman as the King of the Britons and repeats his question. Again, his query is ignored and the woman asks for clarification as to what Britons are. This is a play on the theory that ethnic identities played very little actual role in the daily lives of the peasantry – few random people would call themselves Britons; they identified rather with their local communities and extended families. It’s also worth noting here that the woman is never explicitly named in the scene, reflecting how the sources often remained silent on the women of society, or else the modern historians studying them ignored the matter.

The woman, shrugging, comments that she had no idea they had a king – she thought the peasants were all in an “autonomous collective.” This is the theory that developed in the 60s and 70s of the “free peasant”: according to its proponents, peasants were largely left to their own devices to organize their communities as they saw fit. Dennis immediately dissents, telling the woman she is “fooling herself,” beginning to go on another Marxist jargon tangent about autocracy and working classes. Before he can reach his crescendo, the woman interrupts him – “Oh, there you go, bringing class into it again.” The theoretical school she represents avoided the idea of class, emphasizing the many different layers of medieval society rather than a binary division between workers and exploiters. This theory introduced the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary peasants to represent differing gradations of status and prosperity. Dennis, however, is having none of this, insisting that class is “what it is all about, if only people would listen.” Class conflict is the centerpiece of Marxist theory, and its proponents try to bring every historiographical topic back to it in some way.

Desperate for an answer, Arthur again reiterates his original question, interrupting the peasants’ lively debate. The woman gives him a look, and says offhandedly that no one lives in the castle. Ever more perplexed, Arthur asks who their lord is in that case, and she says without looking at him that they do not have one. Arthur is shocked, but Dennis fires back with a very detailed explanation of the social and political makeup of their “anarcho-syndicalist commune.” This bit shows how anachronistic the terms applied by modern historians to the peasant societies of the period seem in context – no medieval peasant would have anything approaching the level of political jargon displayed by Dennis.

Arthur’s confusion reflects that his basic assumptions about medieval society are being completely overturned by this brief encounter, and it is at this point that his eyes glaze over as Dennis discusses the details of the peasants’ political lives, nodding and saying yes, I see, over and over until he tells Dennis to just “be quiet.” Marxist and social history can be kind of difficult to process for those not initiated into its methodology, after all.

But when he deigns to order Dennis to remain silent, and invokes his rights as king, the woman remarks that she did not vote for him. Arthur, incensed, insists that “you don’t vote for kings.” This is yet another joke – the tradition of kingship and particularly succession, stretching back to the Late Antique period, was most often determined by voting, albeit by members of the nobility and/or landowners. It was not otherwise until much later in the Middle Ages, and even then the nobility retained most of the real political power, with kings as figureheads. The “divine right of kings” began to emerge as a theoretical concept in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but did not become reflected wholly in political practice until the end of the Middle Ages.

This is the idea that Arthur puts forward as to why he deserved to be king – the granting of the divine sword Excalibur to him by the Lady in the Lake. This is the point when Dennis begins to outright mock Arthur, uttering his famous line, “strange women lying in ponds is no basis for a system of government.” Dennis and his fellow Marxist historians see the legend for what it is – a legend, and not the actual way that power is brokered and negotiated in practice. A defensive Arthur is outraged at this, and tells Dennis to shut up repeatedly as the peasant continues to mock him and the sword legend, eventually laying hands on him.

Dennis takes this as an opportunity to point out “the violence inherent in the system,” another Marxist talking point, and calls for everyone nearby to pay careful attention to the repression occurring. Despite his enthusiasm, the other peasants (read: social historians) pay him little mind and continue digging in their mud, reflecting the gradual decline of interest in Marxist historical theory among medievalists around the time of the film’s production.

Taken as a whole, this incredibly brief scene does a phenomenal job of integrating decades of historical scholarship into one concise and entertaining sketch. I certainly intend on using it for students in the future as a way of broaching the topic of historiography and the lives of peasants. What do you think, dear readers? Did you already pick up on the implications of this scene, or has this caused you to view it in a new light?

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The Representation of Mormonism in Fallout: New Vegas

It’s hard to find a game more revered by its fans than Fallout: New Vegas. It’s an open-world RPG with a setting best described as post-apocalyptic dystopian Old West. Its greatest triumph is the believability of its worldbuilding, drawing on literature and history to create a compelling picture of what things might look like two hundred years after the world as we know it was destroyed in nuclear fire.

One of the elements of New Vegas that I thought was done with particular thoughtfulness and detail was its representation of Mormons, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In this post, I will be looking into the ways that Fallout: New Vegas portrays the Mormons of its world.

There are two confirmed Mormon characters in the Mojave Desert of Fallout: New Vegas. Bert Gunnarsson, a ghoul working with the Followers of the Apocalypse, a sort of “Doctors Without Borders” of the setting. He came to the Mojave to find his old friend Nephi (whom the voice actors mispronounce as “Neffie”), who had fallen in with the drug-abusing gang the Fiends, and turn him back to the Church. Most of his Mormon-related dialogue was cut from the final release of the game, but he does mention that he has the title “Elder,” which in the Mormon Church refers to the lowest rank of the Melchizedek priesthood, most commonly associated with the young missionaries the Mormons are so well known for. Bert’s last name, Gunnarsson, is also significant in that it is a Swedish last name – many of the Mormons who live in Utah are descended from Swedish converts.

bert gunnarsson

He’s not the prettiest piece of work, but he has a good heart. One might say, an honest heart? (foreshadowing)

His friend, now called Driver Nephi after his signature golf club weapon, is named after a central figure from the Book of Mormon. A New California Republic officer can hire the player to kill him, and tells them not to let Nephi get in too close or he will take your head off. The Fallout wiki claims this is a reference to the scene in the Book of Mormon when Nephi beheads the villainous Laban with his own sword, but it could just be a coincidence. In any case, Nephi will not turn back to the Church, and if the player kills him and subsequently tells his old friend Bert, he will mourn his death and express his hope that Nephi’s soul has found peace.

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Nephi beheading Laban

Other than that there are scattered references to Mormons in the Mojave. The computer of the Crimson Caravan Company has a log that details their plans to penetrate the market of New Canaan, the Mormon settlement in the ruins of Ogden in Utah. Some other NPCs mention the Mormons of New Canaan in passing, without much detail.

The part of the game that really emphasizes the Mormons of the Fallout universe is the Honest Hearts DLC. Now as a note, the following section contains some pretty major spoilers for the story of the DLC, so if that is something that concerns you, please stop reading now.

~spoilers below~

This DLC takes you outside of the Mojave Desert and right into Zion National Park of Utah, which, in the post-apocalyptic world, has become a battleground between several tribes. First, the Sorrows, a peaceful group that lives near a waterfall and has come under the tutelage and protection of Mormons. Second, the Dead Horses, a warrior tribe that has allied with the Sorrows and Mormons out of necessity. Third, the White Legs, an extremely powerful and numerous tribe committed to wiping all of the others out at the behest of Caesar, in hopes that he will allow them to join him. The story of the DLC revolves around the player character interacting with the Mormons leading the resistance effort against the White Legs and guiding how the conflict is eventually resolved.

There are two primary Mormon figures in the story. The first is Joshua Graham, also known as the Burned Man, who had fallen away from the Church and became the highest-ranking general of Caesar’s Legion. After a humiliating defeat by the New California Republic, he was sentenced to death, burned alive and thrown into the Grand Canyon. Somehow, he survived and crawled back to his old home of New Canaan, where he was welcomed back with open arms. Unfortunately, his return did not go unmarked, and Caesar ordered the White Legs tribe to burn New Canaan to the ground.

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Joshua Graham, aka “The Burned Man”

Upon meeting Joshua Graham, the player may speak with him about his background and motivations. After explaining his past, he quotes part of Psalm 137 from the King James Bible:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, raze it, raze it even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

This is an exact quote from the Authorized King James translation of the Bible, which is the version used by Mormons. The verse, originally referring to the period of captivity of the Jewish people by the Babylonian Empire, encapsulates for his character his sense of loss after the annihilation of New Canaan, and reflects as well his determination not to lose Zion National Park, which he hopes to make the new home of his people. That resonates very deeply with Mormon history, in which they were repeatedly driven out of their places of settlement until they arrived in the Salt Lake valley, establishing their own “Zion” in the Rocky Mountains, and displacing the native Ute tribes. It also reflects his grim determination to deal as brutally as possible with the White Legs tribe to definitively remove them as a threat.

The choice of verse was not simply historically and religiously resonant. It is also a reference to Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 post-apocalyptic short story “By the Waters of Babylon.” In fact, it is clear that the writers of the DLC had read this story, as they kept some elements from it – like the tribes of Zion National Park considering certain buildings from the “Before Time” taboo, haunted – the priests of the main character’s people in the 1937 story were considered the only ones able to handle metal gathered from “Dead Places,” the buildings from before industrial civilization was destroyed. In the Honest Hearts quest “Roadside Attraction,” the player enters these taboo buildings in order to gather important pre-War supplies. It’s a direct reference! It’s no more than a 15-minute read, so check it out.

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One of the several taboo places in Fallout’s Zion, marked with a hand print to ward off visitors from disturbing the ghosts of a bygone era.

The second Mormon of Honest Hearts is Daniel, who appears to be a spiritual leader for the Mormon survivors. He dedicates his time to instructing the Sorrows tribe in the tenets of the faith, with varying degrees of success. With a little persistent curiosity on the player’s part, he can be convinced to give you a copy of the holy book, which he asks you to read when you get a chance, mentioning that his ancestors “used to do this a lot.” The game’s inventory simply labels the book “Scriptures,” and it cannot actually be read, but the physical object in the game is a small brown book with a cross on it. It’s not entirely clear whether it is intended to be a copy of the Bible or the Book of Mormon, and it might very well be both in one volume, but the lack of detail here seemed intentional to me.

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As we noted before with Bert Gunnarsson, the final cut of the game removed elements which emphasized the ways Mormonism differs from other branches of Christianity. Likewise with Joshua Graham mentioned before – his defining quote is from the Old Testament, not the Book of Mormon. Which is a shame, really, because there is a lot in the Book of Mormon which would resonate deeply with Graham’s character, and serve as a fuller representation of Mormonism in the game. Take the figure of Alma, for example – like Graham, he fell away from the Nephites, the righteous people of the Book of Mormon, only to eventually see the error of his ways, repent, and become one of the most zealous figures in the entire book. Imagine how much this might resonate with a character like Joshua Graham:

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

-Mosiah 27:29

Perhaps things like the Book of Mormon and the sometimes drastically different theology of the Mormon Church were considered too controversial by the design team or their PR representatives, and omitted. I was interested to find that I was not the only one who felt that the Fallout Mormons seemed more like vague Protestants than Mormons – a Mormon fan of the game created a mod for Honest Hearts that added a ton more Mormon-related content.

The PR-related omission seems a likely explanation for the watering down, since I don’t think it was that the writers didn’t know enough about the religion to do it credit – the setup of the Honest Hearts DLC reflects some of the most central aspects of the tradition.

All of the tribes of Zion National Park are a pretty unflattering caricature of Native Americans, speaking in strongly accented English with smatterings of other languages, such as German – other characters say that the tribesfolk were descended from whatever tourists were in the area when the bombs fell. Notably, one of the defining characteristics of Mormonism from its early days was its emphasis on the evangelization of Native Americans at a time when the United States forbade it. They were motivated in part by the Book of Mormon’s claim to be the historical record of people in the Americas before the age of European colonization, declaring them to be descendants of Jews who had fled across the Pacific Ocean before the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Israel. In the Book of Mormon, the Native Americans are divided between the Nephites, followers of Nephi, who remained faithful to the religious teachings of Lehi, and the Lamanites, who fell away and followed Nephi’s brother Laman, and lived in the wilderness, the antithesis to the “civilized” Nephites.

FNVHH_White_Legs_attack_promo

It’s quite clear that the White Legs tribe of Honest Hearts is based on the Lamanites – they lack basic skills of survival and rely on raiding to obtain the necessities of life, and are committed to wiping out the Mormons, who consider themselves the spiritual successors of the Nephites. This parallel is never stated, but is so explicit in the overall framing that it HAS to have been intentional.

The player must eventually choose whether to side with Joshua Graham, who wishes to annihilate the White Legs tribe and make Zion the new home of the Mormons, and Daniel, who wishes to avoid unnecessary loss of life and rebuild anew elsewhere. The player determines which course of action is followed, which directly affects the ending. The game allows for many variations based on the player’s decisions, but if you side with Joshua Graham, you exterminate the White Legs tribe in a grisly campaign, culminating in the final confrontation with their chieftain, Salt-Upon-Wounds. If the player chooses to convince Graham to spare him, he and also the Sorrows tribe learn to temper wrath with mercy. This seems to echo chapter 44 of the book of Alma from the Book of Mormon, in which the Nephite general Moroni corners the Lamanite leader Zerahemnah and ends up sparing him, winning peace for a time. However, siding with Joshua Graham and advocating the genocide of the White Legs permanently alters the outlook of the Dead Horses and Sorrows tribes, and makes it impossible for Daniel to evangelize them. Conversely, if you side with Daniel and help the Sorrows escape, they resettle with the Mormons of New Canaan and start anew, though they and Daniel miss the place they once called home.

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Moroni spares Zerahemnah

This is the meat of the storyline of Honest Hearts. It’s a story of revenge and redemption, of hope and despair, and very notably of colonization. The location of the setting is intensely symbolic – the word Zion echoes throughout the Abrahamic religious traditions, representing a homeland claimed from others by force and divine right, which the Biblical Israelites did from the Canaanites, the Mormons did from the Ute tribes, and the modern state of Israel continues to do with the Palestinians. The Mormon Church, as were most elements of American culture from the time of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, was intensely influenced by the drive West, and the settler-colonialism it exemplified. Joshua Graham and Daniel both emobdy different sides of that historical heritage – Joshua represents the violence of displacement and genocide, and Daniel represents the goals of assimilation and enculturation. Daniel may not be as brutal as Joshua, but he does want the Sorrows and Dead Horses to abandon their religious traditions and become part of his own. One of the minor sidequests in the DLC is named “Civilized Man’s Burden,” a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which advocated for American colonialism in the Philippines. The replacement of the word “White” with “Civilized” doesn’t do much to obscure the game’s writers’ intentions with their portrayal.

In a way, it makes sense that the Mormons of Utah would withstand a nuclear apocalypse with their faith tradition largely intact. Church authorities encourage Mormon families to keep a nonperishable food supply able to last a year or more at all times in case of disaster. The Church maintains a huge underground facility called the Granite Mountain Records Vault under the mountains near Salt Lake City – yes, a vault, not dissimilar to the Vaults of the Fallout universe – wherein is kept the largest genealogical record in the world. Mormons believe in baptizing the dead, so genealogy is super important to them. The vault also contains all of the religious documents and media produced by the Church. Given this context, it is easy to imagine the Mormons emerging after the nuclear winter and fallout had passed and beginning the rebuild. Though perhaps not in Ogden, due to its proximity to a huge military base!

granite mountain vault

The Granite Mountain Vault

Fallout: New Vegas is widely regarded as one of the best video games of all time, and the Honest Hearts DLC is almost universally acclaimed. It is praised for its incredibly deep and believable world design and storytelling. Oftentimes designers of media will avoid exploring things which might be considered controversial, and it is possible that the design team of New Vegas omitted a lot of what they wanted to include about Mormonism to avoid causing offense. But the game’s success as a cult classic should show game developers that deep and thoughtful exploration of difficult topics can resonate deeply with audiences. New Vegas‘s approach resonated with fans in a way other titles like Fallout 3 and 4 did not.

 

Postscript: In the time since I published this, I realized an additional dimension that I couldn’t leave aside. I went into great detail about how the narrative of Joshua Graham’s path parallels a scene from the Book of Mormon. What I did not think of at the time was that Daniel’s path also strikes such a parallel. Right before the return of Christ, a warlike group of bandits known as the Gadianton Robbers (who replace the Lamanites as the antagonists at that point) invade the lands of the Nephites and wreak havoc. Instead of attacking them directly in battle as Moroni did with Zerahemnah, the Nephite general Gidgiddoni orders the Nephites to take all of their crops and livestock with them up into the hills where they will try to outlast the Gadianton robbers, “for there was no way that they could subsist save it were to plunder and rob and murder” (3 Nephi 4:5). The link to the White Legs of Honest Hearts is explicit – both groups are incapable of surviving on their own except through raiding, and the tactic of escaping and letting them destroy themselves through their own inadequacies is precisely what Daniel proposes.

The fact that not just one but both of the main storyline branches in the DLC mirrored different parts of the Book of Mormon got me thinking about what the significance might be. Obviously it further ties into my overall point that the writers of the story were keenly aware of the details of the Mormon faith and wove it into the fabric of the story wherever they could. But the decision you are forced to make in the story is not an especially easy one for most players. I believe that serves to highlight a contrast in the Book of Mormon between two very different approaches to overcoming challenges to one’s faith. Does one decide to be as Moroni and Joshua Graham, and take the fight to the enemy directly, trusting in the righteousness of their cause and the favor of their God? Or do they be as Gidgiddoni and Daniel, knowing that righteousness will always prevail, and stand aside, letting evil destroy itself? The Book of Mormon does not present either option as superior to the other, and Moroni’s mercy tempers his battle fury.

But there is an inconsistency that I think shows one of the ways Honest Hearts‘ narrative falls short. In both of the stories in the Book of Mormon, the Nephites save their land from the aggressors and can live in peace. In Fallout, only Joshua Graham’s genocidal ending allows the Sorrows to remain in Zion. Given the fact that the White Legs destroy themselves and scatter if you flee with Daniel, it doesn’t make sense to me that the Sorrows and New Canaanites could not return and rebuild afterward. The writers handwave this away by saying the White Legs “corrupted” the place, but if the land was able to purge itself of nuclear fallout in a few months’ time, surely what damage a tribe of humans could do would not last terribly long? The reason is probably that they wanted the moral quandary to be more difficult, and really, I quite liked the ending with Daniel that asserts that Zion itself doesn’t matter so much as the people and their virtue and community.

An Empty World: Misconceptions about Population and Demography in Medieval Fantasy

“Into the Wild.” That’s where the rugged and mysterious Ranger of the North Strider says he is taking the Hobbits after they agree to follow him out of the town of Bree in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). In the world of Middle-earth, the wilderness is never far away, always lurking just outside of the few and far between outposts of civilization. It makes sense within Tolkien’s mythology: the Third Age is an era of decline, when the Elves depart over the Western Sea, the Dwarves isolate themselves underground, and Humanity is only just beginning to come into its destiny of dominion which will characterize the Fourth Age. Middle-earth is supposed to feel empty and depopulated.

And yet, this theme is not just limited to Tolkien’s work. Like many other tropes that can be traced back to his work and its influence (sturdy, gruff Dwarves, immortal, beautiful Elves, etc.), the notion of vast swathes of wilderness peppered with small, isolated settlements infects almost the entirety of the genre of medieval fantasy. While we could look at any number of examples, I will focus primarily on examples from the well-known tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons and the video game series The Elder Scrolls (Skyrim, the fifth installment, being the most famous). There are thousands upon thousands of literary and film examples on top of this that this article will not be able to address, but I would love to hear of additional examples or counterexamples from my readers!

waterdeep

The city of Waterdeep in the Dungeons and Dragons world of Faerûn. Note the lack of infrastructure outside of the city walls, apart from what appear to be the outlines of farms in the distant hinterland. Surely those few docks can’t supply a town of such magnitude?

Like so many in my generation, the RPG Dungeons and Dragons formed a big part of my imaginary exploration throughout my childhood and has continued to be a fallback for time spent with friends. It, along with The Lord of the Rings, was a primary motivator for my initial forays into the study of medieval history at adolescence. Players have a lot of options for the setting of the action – countless published and intricately detailed worlds are available, but I and so many others took special delight in designing our own worlds, with their own histories, cultures, and themes. Mapmaking was a particularly key aspect of this – some day I will need to make a blog post about the surviving fantasy maps from my childhood. The thing about maps, as the title image of this post will show, is that they tend to imitate Tolkien’s style doggedly. For example:

72761_Realms_World_Map

Map of Faerûn, nowadays the flagship setting for Dungeons and Dragons.

Alagaesia

Map of Alagaësia from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle. Someday I need to write about the use and abuse of umlauts and apostrophes in fantasy naming by people who lacked the linguistics background of Tolkien. To be fair, he was only 15.

What one immediately notices about these maps are the dramatic landscapes. The beautifully rendered geography is part of the draw, after all. Also in imitation of Tolkien are the only vaguely labeled political boundaries, and the focus on significant towns. However, in these renditions of fantasy, the idea of human (or other species) settlements being few and far between, with nothing but vast uninhabited wastes (except perhaps by hordes of monsters) in the void, is quite entrenched. This is actually a break from Tolkien’s intention – he merely labeled the towns with narrative or legendary significance, intending the world to be less extraordinarily empty than subsequent interpretations, such as Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, made it out to be. Let’s take an example from The Two Towers: Rohan’s fortress of Helm’s Deep.

helms deep

This brief shot shows the approach to the ancient fortress surrounded by completely barren, uninhabited land. Compare that to this passage from Tolkien’s book:

“‘They bring fire,’ said Théoden, ‘and they are burning as they come, rick, cot, and tree. This was a rich vale and had many homesteads. Alas for my folk!'” (p.530 of the 2004 edition)

Like a great many representations from the Jackson movie, the actual human presence in nominally settled areas is erased. Was this intentional? Well, no, not exactly. It was more of an oversight due to the combined weight of decades of building up this notion of “medieval/fantasy landscapes must be empty.” And as aficionados will know, Peter Jackson loves wargaming miniatures, so he was in no way isolated from gaming and fantasy culture. There’s also much more to it, as I will get into in just a bit, relating to how we think about the medieval world.

Ah, Skyrim. Like many others, I have spent more hours than I am willing to admit exploring its caves and dungeons, completing quests for jarls, and slaying mighty dragons in its vast and gorgeous mountainous, snow-ridden landscapes. One look at the map above confirms the same issues discussed above, with the civilized humanoid species clustered into small fortified settlements. To its credit, Skyrim includes a number of smaller villages and farmsteads scattered across its expanses, but this nod toward an agricultural society is overridden by an oft-mocked aspect, as outlined in the other above graphic – its demographics are somewhat appalling. One is of course struck by the militarization of society – even in a province riven by civil war as it is, 2/3 of the settled population in a standing army is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination, even if one accounts for the role of magic (as, notably, the village of Rorikstead mentions but never shows). And then there are the bandits. Skyrim appears to have a bandit-based economy, as endless hordes of armed people lurk just outside every town wall eagerly waiting for merchants or adventurers to pass by. The reason for this is, of course, to provide a challenge for the player to overcome, but the game makes no acknowledgement of where these bandits came from or how they sustain themselves from the comparatively meager settled population. The “Wild” in Skyrim is omnipresent.

Now let’s pull this all together and talk about some history.

Representations of medieval societies in fantasy settings, naturally, mirror popular conceptions of the Middle Ages in (often exclusively European) history. These historical ideas, as others have astutely observed, have played an immense role in shaping the way people understand and interpret the way human society can or should function in our current day and age. When someone designs a fantasy world that is meant to be believable and therefore internally consistent, they rely on what they know from our own world. Thus it is worth noting that the idea of a depopulated wilderness is by and large fundamentally incompatible with the picture of the medieval era painted by current historical scholarship.

The myth of the “Dark Ages” is a particularly pernicious one tied up in Enlightenment-era sensibilities of progress and civilization. Medievalists such as myself go to great lengths to disabuse others of this misleading notion – Rome didn’t “fall,” per se; it was gradually privatized to the point where it existed only as a concept, then a memory, in the West. There was no cataclysmic collapse of society in the wake of ravening barbarian hordes. I’m sorry to disappoint you.

That is not to say that demographics did not change significantly over the course of centuries. (Note: I am going to be talking primarily about Western Europe here. Things were very different under the rule of Constantinople and later Baghdad elsewhere). During this period of economic reshaping, the massive cities of antiquity faded, and the population, perhaps 15-20 million during the imperial period, shrank by about half over the course of 200 years due to plagues, economic stagnation, and the like (Hoffman 43). Note that this was over a LONG period of time, so it was not the sudden cataclysmic change it might sound like in retrospect. This lower population level persisted for several hundred years, during what is still often referred to as the “Dark Ages,” or, as we medievalists like to call it, the “Early Middle Ages.”

This is where high school history textbooks, at least the ones I was familiar with, tend to emphasize the “mud and thatch.” This is where our foundational idea of a Middle Ages of sparse settlement surrounded by vast woodlands, which informs so very much of how we design worlds of fantasy, originates. And it’s fundamentally flawed. Yes, the overall population declined during that period. Yes, lands fell out of cultivation. Let’s discuss why that doesn’t necessarily translate to barren wilderness everywhere.

First off, the concentration of human population in cities was a major contributor to the relatively high population figures of the Roman era. In order to feed those teeming masses, there were a couple of ways to increase food production to meet demand: first, by increasing the amount of land under cultivation, and second, by more intensively cultivating the land already tilled. This would mean starting farms on lands that weren’t always ideal for agriculture, or carefully rotating crops so that they could grow more during the year without exhausting the soil’s nutrients. During the Early Middle Ages, that demand for food from urban centers declined, which was one of the reasons that those marginal lands mentioned before were abandoned – they were harder to farm, so why bother?

Now, the Early Middle Ages didn’t last forever. For all kinds of reasons still being puzzled apart by historians, the year 1000 CE saw the beginning of explosive growth across Europe. From a continent-wide population of about 35 million in 1000, by the middle of the the 1300s the population had peaked at nearly 80 million, right before the Black Death reset things somewhat (Jordan 5). For an area so small as Europe, that population figure is not insignificant! During this period landowners encouraged farmers to bring new lands under cultivation by offering incentives, such as increased freedoms, for assarting, or clearing new land for agriculture. At the height of this boom, humans occupied nearly every cultivable spot of land. This is the period we call the “High Middle Ages,” the time of the crusades and increasingly powerful kings presiding over what would eventually form the modern political divisions of Europe. Medieval fantasy loves to dress its settings in the trappings of this period (or, in the case of things like full plate armor, an even later period), but they cling to this Early Medieval notion (misleading even in its own time) of a lack of agricultural and economic development.

The level of emptiness we see represented in the portrayals of fantasy (and indeed, even films purporting to be historical in nature), with sweeping wilderness landscapes for the heroes to dare and traverse in between narrative locations, is unbelievable for the sort of societies they claim to reflect. The only realistic parallel might be the American continents after the waves of European epidemics wiped out nearly 90% of the population (Hoffman 365), and a crisis on that scale upended whole societies, paving the way for genocide. Cities and fortresses need plenty of farmland to support the people inside. As environmental historians are fond of saying, there is no pristine wilderness. During this period of our blue planet’s history, humans have been present and actively shaping and affecting it, even and especially in those woodlands we so often romanticize.

One of the key theme’s in Tolkien’s work was the conflict between Nature and Industry. He followed the lead of the previous century’s Romantic literature in imagining a pristine, beautiful, and most importantly just natural world being destroyed by the new developments of the Industrial Revolution. Without discounting the impact of that historical trend, we have to recognize that the pure wilderness depicted throughout Middle-earth was not a reflection of how things were, but how a declining agrarian aristocracy remembered their own days of privilege and glory, then challenged by a changing world. Always remember that the things we take for granted about our shared history and the way our world is supposed to work are often based on distinct ideologies with their own reasoning and goals. Question that, always.

 

Further Reading:

Jordan, William Chester. Europe in the High Middle Ages. Penguin Books, 2002.

Hoffman, Richard C. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Wickham, Chris. Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Deathnote: Shedding Light on the Alt-Right

~This article contains spoilers about the Deathnote anime and 2017 movie~

 

If you had a notebook that causes anyone whose name was written in it to die, would you use it, and if so, how? This is the question posed in the Deathnote universe, which originated as a Japanese manga and anime and quickly became an international sensation. With the 2017 Netflix movie adaptation, we have seen a resurgence in its popularity, despite the movie’s lackluster reception. I’ll be frank: I was not a fan of this movie. But that is not what I want to discuss today. I want to talk about how the 2017 movie addresses contemporary American society and politics, and how the reception of the original anime influences that.

The anime was the tragic story of Light Yagami, high school genius who initially rejects the Deathnote when he finds it, but who gradually slides down a slippery slope first to save the innocent, then to condemn those he considers guilty, and finally to destroy all those who threaten to expose him, including his own father. The story ends with him being revealed as the mysterious killer “Kira,” at which point he is shot while attempting to escape. And yet Light was portrayed sympathetically enough for thousands of fans to miss the intended message, which was a critique of the Japanese justice system, and instead adulate him and his goal of purging the world of “evil” people (which, incidentally, was heavily implied to include disabled people).

The 2017 Netflix movie adaptation attempted to correct this misinterpretation. Set in Seattle, the story is framed in an explicitly American cultural context. Indeed, this is not the same Light as the anime: the writers included numerous nods to the events of the original Deathnote story, such as Ryuk’s statement that the previous keeper of the notebook died. Indeed, Light Turner is not Light Yagami – he possess little to none of the cunning and deceptiveness of his predecessor, and is apprehended far more quickly and more easily. Indeed, his very name may be a hint at the writers’ intentions, a reference to the infamous White supremacist propaganda novel The Turner Diaries (thanks to the friend who pointed this out to me!). The initial casting announcement was met with outrage due to the Whitewashing of a Japanese character, and that is a conversation that absolutely needs to happen, but in this case framing an American Light as a White guy allowed the narrative to address how White masculinity funnels young people, especially those identified as “nerds,” into the orbit of neo-fascist ideology.

When I first saw the trailer, I was immediately struck by the final clip of Light walking down the school hallway. Something about it, specifically the way he said “give it to them” with a slight smirk, simply oozed the school shooter archetype of a vengeful guy seeking to enact some sick form of “justice,” which is exactly what he does in the movie. Seeking to defend a girl (Mia, the adaptation’s Misa) standing up to a school bully, Light murders his classmate with the Deathnote. From there he quickly goes on a killing spree, targeting criminals and tyrants around the world, saying that the establishment cannot be trusted to carry out justice on its own. Mia (the only female character of note in the movie) continually eggs him on to kill an ever-wider swathe of people, making an explicit challenge to his claim to masculinity by implying that she will end their sexual relationship if he stops killing. This is where the movie’s narrative began to fall apart (ironically, exactly where the anime started to struggle) as it becomes increasingly unclear what Light is trying to accomplish.

This leads me to another major design choice: the character L, the genius detective seeking to catch Kira. Cast as a person of color and with a costume that can only resemble blackbloc or Antifa garb, there is clear resonance with the contemporary political situation. With most of the police force implicitly siding with Kira and unwilling to take action, it falls to L, operating outside normal procedures, to bring him to justice.

L

But the movie diverges from the anime in a very significant way: where originally Light killed L and was himself later outwitted by two of L’s successors, in this version neither L nor Light die onscreen. Instead, the film concludes with L struggling with the decision of whether to write Light’s name in the Deathnote, and Light in a hospital bed with his police chief father confronting him with the irrefutable proof that his son is Kira. Light proclaims that sometimes one needs to choose the lesser of two evils, and his father asks “and which of the two are you?” Cut to credits. It’s an ending without resolution, profoundly frustrating for viewers. But that ending was attempting to salvage the overarching narrative: the current ascendance of the Alt-Right (neo-Nazism) is not resolved, and it is up to us to decide where things go. Who will we decide is the lesser evil?  I don’t beileve this version of the story addresses the socio-political situation with the detail and seriousness it deserves. I think it leaves too much ambiguity in a tale that has already been grossly misinterpreted by its fanbase. I also think it makes a false equivalency between L (anti-fascist protestors) and Light (neo-Nazis).

Deathnote provokes fears of a world where anyone can destroy your life if they know only your name and face. This a fear often realized, as doxxing – the online publication of a person’s personal information with the intention of harassment, direct violence, and/or getting them fired or expelled – has been deployed in recent memory. For example, the Gamergate controversy and its doxxing of feminists figures is widely interpreted as a test-run for more recent Alt-Right activity, such as the compiling of lists of the identities of known Jews, Leftists, and others. It has also been used this past month to publicize the identities of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlestown, Virginia. To me, Deathnote resonates as a metaphor for the very real perils of the online world. While the 2017 movie fell short on many levels, its attempt to draw Deathnote into the conversation of the rise of neo-fascism and attempts to counter it is definitely a step toward countering the long-reigning (and misguided) cult of Kira in its fanbase.

What Does “Historical Accuracy” Mean in Gaming Culture?

Featured image: “Joan of Arc” by Albert Lynch, 1903.

If you’ve been involved in the gaming community, you know how deeply embedded the value of “historical accuracy” is in the culture when judging a game’s merit.  And this phenomenon is not exclusive to games which have historical settings – virtually any game with a setting that bears a resemblance to an understood “human past” will be subjected to this critique. From the well-known Call of Duty to the cult classic Total War series to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, heated discussions about the historical accuracy of various aspects of the settings come up time and again. So what does it mean? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

The modern gaming scene arguably has its roots in the tabletop wargaming tradition that was developed as a tactical military exercise in early 19th-century Prussia. To this day, wargamers have a reputation as sticklers for historical detail, down to the precise uniforms and insignia of individual regiments or even officers. This passion extends even to wargaming communities that are not based on real-life historical games – perhaps the most famous of which is Warhammer Fantasy Battle and its sci-fi offshoot Warhammer 40,000.  Based on these imagined worlds, with their own histories and legends, miniature modelers painstakingly recreate the heraldry of the High-Elven kingdoms or the Chapters of Space Marines.

Space_marine_poster_big.jpg

– Promotional/collector’s poster for Warhammer 40k, displaying many of the chapters of Space Marines. Note the greyed-out chapter, reflecting the in-universe narrative of some of the chapters falling from grace and being declared “heretics.”

This is a strictly military vision of  historical accuracy, focusing on the hierarchy and pride in a military tradition strongly linked to tabletop wargaming’s Prussian origins. It is so ubiquitous that it almost goes unquestioned. But as a historian myself, I am in the business of questioning. So let’s dig in.

The wargaming tradition of precise military accuracy heavily influenced attitudes toward later sorts of gaming, from tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons to modern video games like Total War: Attila. However, for the past fifty years or so, the mantra of “historical accuracy” has increasingly been invoked for far more than the colors one paints on one’s pewter miniature soldiers. By and large, we see the specter of History called upon in order to denounce recent efforts toward making video game characters more representative of a broad cross section of human bodies and experiences. In simpler words, to denounce diversity.

When I was first ushered into a Games Workshop by my friends in high school, I was immediately taken with the vast array of miniatures and enthusiastic modelers and painters who took their art to war on the tables in the store. I knew I had to get involved in this game, no matter the hefty price tags and my own meager funds. I eagerly learned the basics of the Fantasy game and about each of the sixteen factions which were available. I had a tough time picking an army – I wanted miniatures that were aesthetically appealing to me, and I wanted to play a “Good” faction. But also importantly to me, I wanted the faction I chose to reflect how I saw myself. I wanted to have at least some female soldiers in my miniature army. So, inevitably, my choices were limited to the three Elven factions. The High Elves caught my eye, so I asked more about them. Specifically, I asked about gender in the army and hero roster. The store manager laughed and said, “Oh, the High Elves aren’t careless with their females [sic] like the other elves are. They’re a dying race! They keep the women at home so they can keep making babies.” Needless to say, this response turned me off from the elves for a time. But the more I learned about the Warhammer world’s lore, the more I realized that that flippant excuse for the lack of diversity in the High Elven miniature line was not actually based on the imagined world. In novels commissioned by the company, High Elven women frequently fought alongside men, not just because that was their culture, but because their low population and extremely low birthrate made it necessary for their military survival. A few years later, they added some female miniatures to the High Elf roster – not perfect, but still a good gesture.

High_Elves_Sisters_of_Avelorn_8th_Edition_Miniatures.jpg

Sisters of Avelorn, the 8th-edition female High Elf unit.

Still, the attitude that women fighting alongside men, if it happens at all, must necessarily be an elven (therefore “effeminate” or emasculating) trait is legion in much of the gaming community. And that’s certainly not the only thing that this group of purported “historical purists” will object to. Protagonists of color are almost universally rejected in medieval or pseudo-medieval settings, given the deep-seated obsession with the European Middle Ages as a time of mythical racial purity (for the record, that is absolutely false). Special vitriol is reserved for games which include openly queer or transgender characters. Women outside of a narrowly domestic role, people of color taking the lead or being portrayed as anything but “foreign,” queer and trans people, well, existing – these are things which the amorphous blob of reactionary gamers will call foul on, demanding that “historical revisionism” not be “forced down their [collective] throats.”

When a fan created a mod for Mount and Blade: Warband to add female recruits to the game, these folks were there to decry it as ahistorical “feminist propaganda” and more. When the game For Honor allowed players to customize the skin color of their characters, these folks were there to object to allowing a person with dark skin to be a Viking-type character. When a Baldur’s Gate expansion included an openly transgender woman as a character, these folks were there to scream foul over the positive portrayal, one even creating a widely-viewed video of himself killing her in the game while shouting transphobic slurs.

Notably, this same crowd will not object to “barbarian” women living on the fringes of civilization with perfect hair and makeup, and svelte bodies without hair or scars. They don’t object to armor that emphasizes breasts that is completely impractical. Most importantly, their suspension of historical disbelief functions just fine when these medieval-esque fantasy worlds have magic and dragons. But a society that tolerates and enables transgender people to live as themselves, potentially with some of all that magic? Too much.

Now, there is a chance that some of my readers missed the entire Gamergate fiasco, so if you are taken by surprise by any of this, please read up on that here.

All caught up? Good. Because now we are going to talk about where all this comes from and why it matters.

The gamers who engage in this sort of behavior, selectively calling out certain things for supposed “historical innacuracy,” do so because those things contradict some of their basic assumptions about the world. These assumptions rely on a historical vision of a past that reflects the world as they think it should be, in, for lack of a better term, its “natural state.” The European Middle Ages in particular are used as a historical refuge by reactionaries who look to it as a time of “purity” of race, gender, and sexuality. (See my previous article, On Elvendom and White Fragility, for more on this).

In American politics, those who call themselves liberal or progressive have a totally different relationship to the past. They agree with the same basic vision of the past, but instead of treasuring those elements alongside social conservatives and reactionaries, they reject them. By its very name, progressivism rejects the past and looks to the future for its ideals and inspiration.

This is a fundamentally flawed approach. Human societies, in general, rely on precedent and tradition in order to justify themselves. By abandoning the past to reactionaries, progressives allowed them to shape the historical narrative to suit their own vision of How Things Were, which leads ipso facto to How Things Should (or can) Be. Historians such as myself who have dedicated our lives to studying and understanding the past on its own terms frequently walk away with a totally different vision of the human past – we do not see the eternal darkness predicated by the Enlightenment, but rather complex and ever-changing societies, which were rarely defined by our modern standards. Looking at History historically allows us to see that these things which many gamers identify as absolutes of the human condition – female domestic servitude, racial isolation, heterosexuality, and the gender binary – were all historically contingent and constantly changing. In fact, many of the values reactionaries today hold dear are startlingly recent phenomena, such as the American notion of marriage or even the concept of heterosexuality itself.

It is not by rejecting the past, but accepting it, that we can truly build a rhetorical basis to counter the voices raised against a diverse and loving society.

On Elvendom and White Fragility

Elrond of Imladris demonstrates the typical response to the phrase “White Fragility”

Hello again, dear readers. Today I want to talk about a topic that I have been mulling over for a long while. A past post, On Elf-Friends and Sanctuary; or, On Allyship and Safe Space, was a brief explanation of those social justice concepts through the lens of the world of Tolkien, in order to (hopefully) help those who might not otherwise be willing or able to comprehend the subject see it from a different angle, and perhaps grasp the reasoning. Here, I am hoping to do a similar thing with the notion of “White Fragility.” This is an extremely polarizing phrase, as many White people (myself included, once upon a time) feel personally attacked by the concept. What do people mean when they point out White fragility, and what contributes to it? And what in Middle-earth do I mean by bringing Elves into the discussion? Let’s begin!

Tolkien’s adaptation of the old Norse mythological figures of Elves has predominated in the genre of high fantasy since his time. Though there have always been exceptions and innovations, in this literary tradition Elves are generally immortal (or extremely long-lived), exceptionally beautiful, and possess great physical and/or spiritual strength and strong moral compasses. They represent the epitome of artistic and cultural achievement and accumulated wisdom. They also are frequently given hated foes who are often corrupted versions of themselves, whether Tolkien’s Orcs or the more common Dark Elf trope in Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer, for example.

Warhammer_High_Elf_Spearmens.png

In the Warhammer world, the High Elves of Ulthuan are understood to be fighting a perpetually losing battle against a number of unrelenting foes, including their estranged kin the Dark Elves.

In nearly all of their literary manifestations, Elves are described as being a “Dying Race,” in inevitable decline or exceedingly low population. According to this tradition, the Elves represent the best of the world, but they are extremely vulnerable and prone to extinction.

But again you will ask, what does this have to do with the idea of White fragility? White fragility is a very similar dynamic to what we call Fragile Masculinity – when a person with social privilege is confronted with accusations of racism or racial insensitivity, they will frequently lash out, emotionally shut down, or refuse to engage in reasoned discussion. Even passive feelings of defensiveness are manifestations of this phenomenon.

This defensiveness happens when something we (consciously or not) consider to be of exceptional importance to our sense of reality is called into question (I say we because I myself am White and I am in no way exempt from this cultural conditioning, and I expect many of my readers will also be White). Whiteness is deeply reliant on these unquestionable assumptions in order to construct itself. And one of the defining traits of Whiteness is its obsession with its own vulnerability.

Elves, as imagined in most modern high fantasy literature, map almost perfectly onto this model. It is no accident that the Elves of high culture, of magnificent wisdom, of immense grace and power, are nearly always portrayed as light-skinned. It is also no coincidence that Elves are the classic example of the “Dying Race.” These tropes exist because of the explicit and subconscious understanding that this is the situation of the so-called White Race. White Supremacists have for centuries raised the specter of a hypothetical White extinction in order to galvanize repression of people of color worldwide. You can see it today when politicians and pundits talk about the declining birth rate among White people in the United States and Europe, immigration fears, and the idea that the United States will soon no longer be majority White. This is presented as something to be dreaded, the loss of something essential to society. Exactly the same rhetoric was behind anti-miscegenation laws and continued bigotry against interracial couples.

Drow

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Drow (Dark Elves) are presented as an evil subterranean race which split off from other Elves due to an ancient sin by their patron Goddess, Lolth. Their defining trait is their dark skin, a fact which has been a constant source of contention in the tabletop roleplaying community.

This is the way the ideology of White Supremacy operates – it hides in plain sight in popular culture, its very pervasiveness rendering it invisible to the untrained eye. Its unquestioned presence in our society leads us to accept it as simply the Way Things Are. White people, reflected in the literary creations the Elves, have convinced ourselves on some level that we are at the same time superior to people of color but also on the brink of total destruction. This is the core assumption and worldview that White people are falling back on when we react defensively to discussions about racial injustice and racism. And we need to fight it.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step. White readers, always be alert for the ways these tropes are playing out in the words and images you absorb each day. Think critically about the stories you grew up with and how they shaped the way you understand the world. Remember that one of the universal literary flaws of the Elves is their pride and arrogance, and let humility guide the way you approach discussions about race. Those small steps alone will help us to begin to resist the White fragility we have had ingrained into us from early childhood.

 

Author’s note: I chose to capitalize the word “White” because of some advice I received years ago – capitalizing racial terms emphasizes the fact of their existence *as racial terms*, forcing people to confront the discomfort that induces.

If you are interested in additional reading on the topic of White fragility, I recommend this academic article and this popular article.