Thursday, 4 January 2018

On High Level Warriors, Gods, Mortals and More

I read The Iliad for the first time over the Christmas break (the Penguin Classics prose version, for those of you familiar with it). I was expecting something that was going to be interesting but turgid and difficult; I'm not sure why I had that impression, because it's actually a rip-roaring page-turner of a yarn and I bloody loved it. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised - if something has been raved about for 2,500 years it's probably a pretty safe bet it's worth a read - but still, it's amazingly fresh, vivid and exciting even to the modern reader. 

I thought about D&D a lot while I was reading it, because I think the case can quite easily be made that The Iliad is the most D&D thing ever written other than D&D itself (or, vice versa, that D&D is the most Iliad thing ever written other than The Iliad itself, except obviously Mazes & Minotaurs?). What is Achilleus, other than a 20th-level fighter in comparison to the 1st-4th level Trojans he dispatches with ruthless ease? What are the Achaean invaders, if not murderhobos in search of booty, glory and XP at the expense of all else? How else can the behaviour of the protagonists be explained, other than that they are being controlled by the kind of wild uber-machismo that often overtakes groups of teenage D&D nerds?

I jest, obviously - the culture that produced The Iliad utterly fascinates me and the beautiful complexity and dark brilliance of the narrative is done a hideous injustice by comparing it to a mere RPG, but still, bear with me. Four thoughts emerge:

1) I'm serious about the levels thing. Hektor, Paris, Achilleus, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Aias and so on make perfect sense when thought of as higher level warriors; they are more-or-less impervious to harm from ordinary mortals in only the way that a 9th+ level warrior facing 1 HD monsters can be. I'm surprised, indeed, that more has never been made of the depictions of high level fighters in D&D materials. A 12th-level fighter should be practically a demi-god, shrouded in mighty armour and bristling with magical weapons, like the member of a race of superheroes descended from Krypton, inspiring awe-like worship in his followers and utter terror in his enemies. In The Iliad, Hektor and Achilleus are forces of nature, able to sway a battle one way or the other with their mere presence and the effect it has on their enemies. D&D writers have never been ambitious enough in their descriptions of what being a high-level fighter entails - possibly because of a misplaced desire for realism when they should be dialing things up to 11. 

2) Gods in The Iliad have three different modes: squabbling together in Olympus, descending to earth to interact with humans (from shooting them with arrows like Apollo to guiding them around like Hermes), and, most interestingly and strangely, acting to possess them like Biblical evil spirits: Terror, Panic, Strife, and other emotions are not in fact mere emotions at all but actual persons, who stalk among men and infect them when the time is right - or at the behest of other gods. Clerical magic not as protective/healing spells, then, but rather as the ability to summon personified emotions to possess one's enemies or friends. Imagine if your cleric, instead of being a walking CLW factory, instead was able to call upon the god Panic to walk among that tribe of orcs bothering you and spread his power through them. The cleric as invoker and summoner of raw and terrible emotion. 

3) For all that the culture of Homer's Iliad is alien to the modern reader - harsh, violent, obsessed with honour, despising weakness, glorying in death - it is a very human text: it is emotions (pride, anger, love, hate, friendship, desire) which dominate and drive the narrative, not reason. The characters routinely ignore good advice when it is given, let stubbornness get the better of them time and again, and never, ever stop to think things through. Their passions overwhelm them in a way that is both exaggerated and also very true to how people actually run their lives.

What I find most interesting about the humans in the Iliad is that, for them, death is just something that happens. It was all around them: battle, disease, starvation, wild animals, floods, storms. One's own mortality was lurking nearby waiting to confront one at any given moment. Yet this did not lead these people to live their life like frightened rabbits hiding down holes, scared of danger. Quite the opposite: they threw themselves into their own lives, and deaths, with gay abandon, hunting their own mortality down, grabbing it by the neck, and throttling it.

In other words, it depicts humans as all passionate, over-emotional, and carefree - almost careless - with their own lives. Mortality doesn't breed fear; it breeds a devil-may-care perspective on physical danger.

The elf stands as counterpoint to this. If you were immortal, you would treat your life like a precious piece of porcelain and swathe it in yards of cotton, because death would mean missing out on thousands, nay, millions of years of experiences - you would want more than anything to be still around in a billion years' time to see how it all turns out. You would also, being jaded by age and the feeling of having seen everything before, probably view emotions with a heavy dose of skepticism. Why let temporary feelings perturb your carefully-worked out plans, your painstakingly-created work of art, your eons-long ponderings on the nature of your own navel?

4) Everything is Ancient Greeks. I knew that there was a longstanding legend, rumour or piece of propaganda which held that Britain was colonized by refugees from Troy. But, in reading around The Iliad, I also learned that the invading army of Achaeans mostly never made it home but were instead rumoured to have spread around Europe and founded its various civilizations. So you have this strange alternative history presented in which the conflict results in the emigration of Greeks and Trojans to all the far-flung corners of the known world, bringing with them the seeds of their culture and inevitably, one supposes, clashing with the locals. I can't be the only person who immediately starts thinking of campaign ideas: Achaean warriors ending up in ancient China or Japan, anyone? Trojan refugees in aboriginal Australia - no takers? Odysseus ends up sailing over the ocean and finds himself in pre-Maya Mexico, perchance? 

23 comments:

  1. It would be interesting to work the single combats from The Iliad and its ilk into Fighter powers. That is, single combat not just as works for the story or as the culture of the setting demands it - but single combat as something a fighter can just initiate at a high enough level just by being that great a warrior and obviously commanding that level of respect in other warriors even if they've never seen one another before, or speak different languages.

    (Why only for fighters? Wizards can have contests of skill, but most of the time prefer to reason things out; a Rogues' duel basically involves stealing everything you have while you sleep; clerics are not fighting for themselves and thus lose the sheer egoism of the duel).

    As to 2), this might be worth extending to not just terrifying emotion, but also law and taboo. That is to say, Zeus not just as master of sundry ills but Zeus Xenios, upholder of the law of hospitality. The cleric of whom can only take action if host or guest abuse or deny the proper way of things - and will take terrifying and devastating steps when they do.

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    1. I like both those ideas, and the first seems easy to implement: a fighter can always "call out" another fighter/warrior for single combat if he is of a higher level.

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    2. Indeed - but it seems like it should only be available at a level when they have a certain degree of martial swagger, rather than Level One farmboys with second-hand chain-mail and chipped blades.

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    3. Solomon: In the AD&D level titles, a 1st level fighter is already a "Veteran" and superior to ordinary, 0-level soldiers.

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    4. My apologies, that nugget of information passed me by. Even so, might one want to distinguish between the Veteran and the Hero?

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  2. You might be interested in Christopher Logue's "War Music"--his tragically-unfinished prose-poem Iliad translation/reinterpretation/??? of The Iliad.

    "See an East African lion
    Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet
    Slouching towards you
    Swaying its head from side to side
    Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane
    That stretches down its belly to its groin
    Catching the sunlight as it hits
    Twice its own length a beat, then leaps
    Great forepaws high great claws disclosed
    The scarlet insides of its mouth
    Parting with a roar as loud as sail-sized flames
    And lands, slam scattering the herd.

    That is how Hector came upon us."

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  3. Well, you've convinced me to sit down and read the Iliad. When it comes to Greek thought and how it differs from modernity, it's fascinating to read what Nietzsche had to say about them. He was first and foremost a philologist, someone trained to understand the classics in their original context, and he was continually fascinated by the Greek mind.

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    1. I have wanted to learn Ancient Greek for a while.

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    2. I too feel curious to read the Iliad now... thank you for sharing

      Ancalagon (and happy NY)

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    3. Happy New Year. You won't be disappointed.

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  4. Holy crap! never read the Iliad? "and he smashed him with a stone that no ten men could have lifted, but he hefted it, smashed his hips with it, and his life ran out of him"! (but really, I've found many epics/sagas to be fresh and vivid where more modern fantasy is turgid and over-cliched ...)

    Concerning (4), I definitely had a story idea that involved Odysseus showing up in Mormon America (the Book of Mormon should be another fantasy source book for D&D)

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    1. Yes, well, I suppose oral works by definition have to be good if they're going to keep the attention of the audience. I love the blood-and-guts descriptions of combat in particular - brains and intestines oozing out and all that, and described with such relish.

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    2. The adventurers come upon a land covered in the bones of men. Here they meet an elderly warrior resting upon his sword until he gains the strength to smite off the head of his long-time enemy, the man responsible for the surrounding slaughter.

      None can travel into the southern lands, for the way is infested with all manner of venomous serpents.

      This land is cursed - any possession you do not hold onto while sleeping will vanish by morning. So sleep on your sword.

      Mysterious cureloms and cumoms!

      The most important records are kept on thin plates of metal, the most durable method in the ancient central american climate. Say adventurers, you wouldn't mind assisting in the protection and transportation of these records containing the teachings of our god? There's a big enemy army coming and frankly I can't trust my own degenerate men because last week they killed and ate captured daughters of the enemy.

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  5. "I knew that there was a longstanding legend, rumour or piece of propaganda which held that Britain was colonized by refugees from Troy."

    Britain can't even invent It's own propaganda it seems. Isn't it Hubristic to copy Rome like that?

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  6. I feel like you'd appreciate this, just due to how nuts it is:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Baltic_Origins_of_Homer%27s_Epic_Tales

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    1. Well, the Baltic languages have lots of interesting archaic features which suggest Indo-Europeans have been around there a lot longer than elsewhere in Europe I think?

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  7. This was the culture of the Indo-European proto-Mycenaean Greeks who conquered the native Minoans. They were so successful that the native Y-haplogroup (ie. Men) was completely replaced by the invaders', who were on average around half a foot taller, as far as I remember.

    I recommend reading Julian Jaynes' account of The Iliad in 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind' - he supposes that the Mycenaeans did so little reflection because they actually were not conscious in the way we are, and hallucinated gods did the job that consciousness does for us today. It sounds a bit odd but it's very well-argued (Why do some children have imaginary friends? Why are we capable of hallucination at all? Why do voices order schizophrenics what to do?), and the idea of ancient empires run by hallucinated gods is too good to pass up.

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    1. I have heard that before (oddly enough, the context being an argument that the internet and social media is causing bicameralism to re-emerge). I need to read it at some point. It seems partly convincing but, to be honest, I think The Iliad is actually quite plausible in terms of its depiction of human psychology in its own context - it doesn't need special explanation, and it seems obvious to me that people who knew so little about their own physical reality would assume that gods played a direct role in events.

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  8. He actually responds to this objection in the chapter on the Iliad:

    "The gods seem to us quite unnecessary. Why are they there? And the common solution is as above, that they are a poetic device. The divine machinery duplicates natural conscious causations simply to present them in concrete pictorial form, because the aoidoi were without the refinements of language to express psychological matters.

    Not only is there no reason to believe that the aoidoi had any conscious psychology they were trying to express, such a notion is quite foreign to the whole texture of the poem. The Iliad is about /action/ and it is full of action — constant action. It really is about Achilles' acts and their consequences, not about his mind. And as for the gods, the Iliadic authors and the Iliadic characters all agree in the acceptance of this divinely managed world. To say the gods are an artistic apparatus is the same kind of thing as to say that Joan of Arc told the Inquisition about her voices merely to make it all vivid to those who were about to condemn her.

    It is not that the vague general ideas of psychological causation appear first and then the poet gives them concrete pictorial form by inventing gods. It is, as I shall show later in this essay, just the other way around. And when it is suggested that the inward feelings of power or inward monitions or losses of judgment are the germs out of which the divine machinery developed, I return that the truth is just the reverse, that the presence of voices which had to be obeyed were the absolute prerequisite to the conscious stage of mind in which it is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and that the creation of such a self is the product of culture."

    Of course I can't quote the whole book, but every statement he makes in there is justified and expanded on elsewhere.

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    1. I will definitely read it, because it does sound very interesting, but I think I was making a different point. To me the gods don't seem unnecessary. Ancient people lived in a world they didn't understand. They had no science to speak of. It seems to me that, to them, the existence of gods, fate and so on was necessary to at least give them some explanation for things being the way they were. I don't think the gods are an artistic apparatus. I think people really believed in them because it was the only way they had to make sense of the reality around them.

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  9. The Gay Science § 152

    "The greatest change.-- The illumination and the color of all things have changed. We no longer understand altogether how the ancients experienced what was most familiar and frequent - for example, the day and waking. Since the ancients believed in dreams, waking appeared in a different light. The same goes for the whole of life, which was illumined by death and its significance; for us "death" means something quite different. All experiences shone differently because a god shone through them. All decisions and perspectives on the remote future, too; for they had oracles and secret portents and believed in prophecy. "Truth" was experienced differently, for the insane could be accepted formerly as its mouthpiece--which makes us shudder or laugh.

    Every wrong had a different effect on men's feelings -- for one feared divine retribution and not merely a civil punishment and dishonor. What was joy in ages when one believed in devils and tempters? What was passion when one saw demons lying in wait nearby? What was philosophy when doubt was experienced as a sin of the most dangerous kind--as sacrilege against eternal love, as mistrust of all that was good, high, pure, and merciful?

    We have given things a new color; we go on painting them continually. But what do all our efforts to date avail when we hold them against the colored splendor of that old master - ancient humanity?"

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    1. Reminds me a bit of some passages in The Secret History.

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