Friday, 28 October 2016

Tolkien, The Orc, the Barbarian, the Savage, and the Sun

Because I am writing a book in the real world for my real job, I am enjoying re-reading a lot of Foucault. If you want to read philosophy that gives you ideas for games, Foucault may be the best option of all - not least because he is one of the very few philosophers who is fun to read. 

In the 1975-1976 lectures at the College de France (collected in Society Must Be Defended, which like most of the other collections of his lectures is rather inappropriately titled) we find this passage, about the difference between the Savage and the Barbarian. It is long but, as is often the case, worth reading and digesting.

The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization  - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.  
The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder.  
His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes others serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, and so on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage.  
So we can well understand why, in modern juridico-anthropological thought - and even in today’s bucolic and American Utopias - the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give - in accordance with his own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable - and juridical - form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities. He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud, brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians). The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty. Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war . . . the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.”

This, naturally enough, got me thinking amongst other things about orcs. Doesn't Foucault's description of "the barbarian" here remind you of Tolkien's orcs, and those of his imitators? I'm sure, in fact, that Tolkien had some of these thoughts in mind when he was describing his orcs as a kind of external opposition, existing only in opposition to civilization and living a purely military existence with the aims only of theft and conquest. (Although not, of course, remotely free.)

Tolkien's imitators, like the creators of D&D and Warhammer, also played on this theme. In fact, what Foucault is describing is even more fitting for the Warhammer greenskins I knew as a youngster in the early 90s - as a kind of parasitic satanic enemy of the civilized world: "poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free". And free in the true, non-equal, sense of freedom which Foucault earlier identifies in the same course of lectures. The freedom which means being able to trample on the freedom of others rather than the "weak and abstract" type of libertarian freedom which consists in just being free as long as one doesn't infringe on other people's freedoms. (Foucault asks rhetorically at one stage, "What would be the point in being free, and what, in concrete terms, would it mean, if one could not trample on the freedom of others?" He might well have been channeling Grom the Paunch.)

It seems to me, though - and this may be entirely impressionistic - that at some point that view of orcs became a bit unfashionable. When I came back to RPGs and Warhammer and whatnot in the mid-2000s, it seemed to me that everywhere you looked, on forums and elsewhere, that orcs were being rehabilitated and reinterpreted as more akin to Foucault's savage. Fundamentally misunderstood and with the potential to be educated out of savagery. "It has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults," but the orc was conceptualised as being more interestingly presented as a sort of alternative to humans - the opposition between the two being thought of as simply a function of misunderstanding that could be remedied.

There is something very teenage about that rejection of "your father's orc". In actual fact, of course, the Tolkien/Warhammer understanding of orcs is far deeper and richer. The notion of a sort of looking-glass creature which exists not only in opposition to us but to oppose us, and which intends to appropriate our power, wealth and prosperity in order to destroy us, is extremely interesting. A looking-glass creature, or a product of the shadows as we are a product of the light.

A short section prior to all this discussion of barbarians and savages, Foucault paraphrases Boulainvilliers as follows: "Empires...rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory." I found this stunningly interesting. What did he mean by that? Basically that Empires rise and fall cyclically. But let's take it literally: Empires rise and fall depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.

If we are products of the light and orcs are the product of the dark, they live within the dark as much as we live outside of it.

Imagine a world in which a day is extremely long: let's say, a century. The globe spins extremely slowly on its axis. Humans live where it is light. Orcs where it is dark. In the places where day bleeds into night - at the edge of the light/dark, if you like - is a constant shifting front of conquest and retreat: the orcs conquer and take as the dark slowly advances; the humans pack their bags and flee, trying to stay in the light. On the other side of the globe, the orcs are in retreat as the dark recedes, and human pioneers and settlers colonise the bleak barren wilderness that is slowly revealing itself to the day after 100 years of night.


  1. I am definitely going to combine the idea of the hundred-year day/civilization with the Into the Odd ruleset and setting. Actually being a sort of huge, slow-moving caravan fits the chaos of Bastion, the scraps of civilization and humanity that trail behind it could very well be Deep Country, and the strangeness that the night and its creatures leave behind is not only a subversion of the laws of humanity, but also of the laws of nature. The distinction between savages and barbarians also seems relevant to the exploration themes of Into the Odd in a more general sense.

    1. Interesting idea that there would be moving/caravan cities, but when I think about it - of course there would be! In fact, everybody would be more or less nomadic.

  2. What, no comment about Conan? I think the description of the barbarian fits him partially, but Cimmerian society doesn't. They aren't a marauding horde. When Conan joined the Asgardians, he was closer to being in a barbarian society. So one always has the choice of becoming a barbarian. “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats,” H. L. Mencken said.

  3. "And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.
    The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. "

    Historically, I think, there was much more of the "wanting" and "appropriating" than the "despising" and "destroying" - especially if we look at the end of the Roman Empire. Barbarian kings like Theodoric provided a fair bit of continuity for their Roman subjects. Theodoric maintained a Latin-speaking civil service, which meant jobs for the Roman upper classes, and was probably widely preferred to the alternative: rule by the Greek-speaking "East Romans". And the law codes of the Germanic successor kingdoms are in large part an attempt to "look Roman".

    Onto orcs! I see a bit of a distinction between Tolkien's orcs and Warhammer's. The Warhammer ones are (or became: they were more Tolkienesque - and more interesting - early on) caricature football hooligans. Tolkien's are more "us" than "other" - they speak like brutal British soldiers (officers as well as other ranks), and they, like the hobbits, use modern patterns of speech rather than the epic mode of elves and Men.

    But yes - the "misunderstood" orc is a profoundly boring idea. Tolkien's orcs are what we understand all too well about ourselves: that we can be nasty, callous and cruel.

    And your light/dark, human/orc antithesis is terrific!

    1. I think one of the things about the barbarian and the savage is that many times, they are two sides of the same coin. Most barbarians that were poised against civilizations had deep and intricate cultures. Many had their complex rituals and social strata, as well as dealings with other tribes and clans that went being the endemic raiding. Most often in literature and in gaming, we only show one side that would be interesting for conflict.

      I think a video game I like that shows both sides intertwined is The Witcher 3 and their Skellige peoples. They take a lot of cues from Vikings as well as Celts. To those on the main land, they are savage sea reavers that show no mercy. In reality, you see both sides when you enter their lands. You see the fighting between clans, the fishermen, the sea reaver, the family man. Side by side, you see cruelty and compassion. It presents them not just as barbarians or savages, but as a sum of the two that is greater than their parts. That's generally how I approach most of the tribal people and chaotic beastmen you see in ACKs and such.

    2. JC: Foucault isn't really being literal in this passage - it's more a kind of device for discussion of other things. But the post-Roman Latin-speaking civil service and the assimilation of peoples like the Franks and Saxons into Roman modes of being is a major theme in Society Must Be Defended. It is a very interesting book to read - not least because it is a self-confessed cul-de-sac; Foucault gave up on his line of analysis in it and moved on to other and better things. It nonetheless provides serious food for thought.

    3. I'd like to give the book a read. It does sound like an interesting view on society and civilizations.

  4. I think your comment about de facto anxiety of influence shifting the modern idea of the orc into something misunderstood, more like Foucault's savage, is quite on point. But I don't think it's fair to characterize it as such an imperialist/colonialist endeavor - certainly I look at it as a result of cultural pluralism. Orc culture functions differently from 'human' culture (we're being wonderfully D&D-racist here), and those differences cause constant conflict, but the orc, on a genetic level, is not a force that opposes 'civilization.' The conflicts are cultural, not inherent to the two species.

    Thinking of orcs as a cultural other I think brings in a great deal more interesting choices to the table than either choosing to essentialize orcs into a faceless, antagonistic force or viewing them as essentially humans that lack 'civilization.'

    1. But doesn't that reduce Orcs to being just green-skinned humans? If you just want to deal with cultural differences between groups that are inherently the same, you might as well just make them both humans. We've already got a good tool for bringing the "cultural other" to the table.

      The reason Orcs are interesting is because they are something different, something inherently evil and destructive. They should be used to bring a different option.

    2. In my view, we can map humanistic tendencies to every creature in the monster manual. That doesn't mean that we should remove all non-humans from our tabletop RPGs. Because of the different physiology, we can strongly differentiate human and non-human cultures in non-reconciliable ways.

      To keep this discussion Orc-centric, what if the Orc language is olfactorially-based, not aurally-based? Not only do Orcs have excellent noses, but they have a peculiar internal organ located near the bladder that can subtly change the smell of gas emissions passing through the colon? Humans would simply notice that Orcs smell terrible, and the Orcs would wonder why each human can only say one word. We have constructed a massive cultural barrier to differentiate the two species, one that will inevitably lead to conflict, yet we have done so making absolutely no statements about Orc culture at all. This encourages me as a DM to populate my world with different, rival Orc tribes that keep misunderstanding each other because each tribe's available food is different. From this I can make an encounter table with a huge array of different Orc-Orc interactions (rival tribes, chief ate something funny and can no longer 'speak' so the tribe believes that the chief has been possessed and are seeking aid for an exorcism, and so on), to say nothing of confronting my players with the puzzle of how to talk to the Orcs.

      Just because it's a cultural difference doesn't mean that we can't portray nonhuman races as nonhuman.

      And I can still have a tribe of Orcs whose language depends upon a steady diet of man-flesh. At least in my mind, I've gained a ton of options and lost none.

    3. Yeah, your farting orcs are fine, though that's basically the opposite of what you said above. The conflicts are not purely "cultural," they are firmly grounded in physiology.

      My point is that non-humans should be fundamentally different from humans in some non-trivial way. Otherwise they might as well just be humans. Fart orcs are right on the edge of being only different in a trivial way ("they're humans, but they communicate with farts!"). It's only half a shade removed from humans who speak very different languages. Bushman clicks or Chinese tonal shifts.

      You're rejecting an opportunity that you only have because it's a fantasy world -- i.e., showing something truly alien -- in favor of something that's only barely different from what we have here -- population groups that have misunderstandings and conflict because they have different cultures, but are fundamentally the same.

      Also Orcs have this tremendous cultural meaning about being an evil and unfathomable destructive other. I would much rather use that than just make them stinky humans.

  5. I don't recall where I read it and whom to credit it, but it has been said that the concept of "the enemy" has become unfamiliar to those living in the relative safety and comfort of modern Western society. "The enemy" being defined as "Those who would be willing to die so that they might kill you."

    A foe who is immune to diplomacy or appeals to common humanity, who views the extended open hand as something to be chopped off. They hate you, but not for any reason you can comprehend or negotiate around.

    This was a part of the human condition for a long time, and it still exists in a lot of places. While we're blessed with long centuries of it getting better, we shouldn't forget entirely that such a thing can exist.

    There are people who get badly mauled by wild animals because they have internalized the Walt Disney version of how these creatures should behave. It's always dangerous to impose one's narrative on the world and expect reality to hew to it.

    1. I don't really understand how you could say that the concept of the enemy has become unfamiliar in Western society. At least in America, we have to deal with terrorism. The average American citizen may not be thrust into direct confrontations with terrorists, but to say that the concept is "unfamiliar" is going too far.

    2. What I'm getting at is the idea of the implacable foe, one who leaves you with absolutely no other option than to kill them before they kill you. And I mean No. Other. Option.

      We understand that terrorists want to do us harm, but there's always this assumption that if we make the proper peace overtures, or address their grievances, or accommodate their culture, then they will stop their violence. That is how we settle things between ourselves. With words and negotiation.

      What if they do not want peace with us? What if their grievance is that we exist? What if aspects of their culture just can't co-exist with ours? The common western answer is "That can't be true. Everybody's just like us on the inside."

      Which is a failure of imagination, because it takes intelligent humans with their own world view and their own agency and assumes that everyone wants the same things we want and the mechanisms for conflict resolution *within* our society apply *outside* our society to completely different cultures.

      A man pointing a gun at you with intent to kill is an obvious danger, and you respond with fight or flight as appropriate. Do any of us in the West operate with the idea that "If I see a man of Tribe X, I will draw my weapon and kill him, even if he is sleeping or just walking down the road, because he would do the same to me or my family without a second thought. It is not a crime to do this and my family and friends would praise me for it."

      No, thank the Lord, and hopefully someday the world will operate as we generally do, but the process is far from complete and there are many places where someone can get hacked to death just for crossing the wrong boundary line. It is alien to us.

      Orcs and other similar monsters from story and legend stem from a time when Western culture had to deal with "the enemy".