Thursday, 28 March 2019
Rustic Fantasy - With a Hey Nonny No
To paraphrase Bill Hicks, the RPG world is probably divided into two camps of people: those who think Tom Bombadil is an annoying idiot, and those who think he is an evil fuck.
I am one of the few who think that instead of compromising around the proposition that he's an annoying evil idiot fuck, the Tom Bombadil sections are some of the best bits of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I'll go you one further: the opening bit of The Fellowship of the Ring, the bit before Bree, is my favourite bit of the entire trilogy. It's the bit I always look forward to reading the most.
I don't put this down to any special mystery, ultimately - I think it's quite simply because I love the English countryside and so did Tolkien, and since those chapters are a mixture of paean and elegy to it, they can't but strike a chord. As somebody who spends a lot of time hiking (or rambling) around places that are a lot like the Shire is supposed to be, and being dismayed by the existence of the pylons, motorways and monocultural megafields which increasingly blight it, I'm probably perfectly constructed to be receptive to Tolkien's nostalgic vision.
That vision is almost totally absent from D&D (and most modern fantasy). D&D's tonal palette is broad - over the years it has accumulated metal, anime, Westerns, horror, high fantasy, sword & sorcery, steampunk - but there isn't much of the rustic (another word would be "pastoral") in there. The occasional brownie, the occasional pixie, the occasional sprite - mostly played for laughs and/or the DM's opportunity to irritate the players.
But there is enough inspiration, a sufficient number of touchstones, for there to be a rustic version of the game out there somewhere, in the ether. Where is it found?
Certainly, in the opening section to The Fellowship of the Ring. Certainly in Tolkien's other work - not so much The Hobbit, but definitely the peripheral works like Smith of Wootton Major or Leaf by Niggle. Certainly, in a lot of animal fantasy - I am thinking in particular of the Redwall books of course, but also Duncton Wood and Watership Down. It's in Mythago Wood in much darker form. It's also in the work of American authors too - probably The Wizard Knight, and (unexpectedly) in Vance's Lyonesse books; it also even appears from time to time in the work of people like Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes has a touch of it) and Stephen King when he's feeling particularly "Down East".
It's in music, too. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks/Moondance period. Anything by Runrig, or Fairport Convention, or Nick Drake.
Also perhaps important is the relationship between the "rustic" and real-world geography. Most D&D campaign settings are strangely placeless, in the sense that they're set in a very vague, loose simulacrum of a real world biosphere type: here's a foresty bit, here's a mountainy bit, here's a deserty bit. They don't have the sense that the Shire did of being founded in a very particular known locale: the Shire is not Worcestershire or Herefordshire exactly, not at the level of being a copy, but it's clearly rooted in that part of the country.
The locus between literature, music and geography is worth thinking about and exploring, and also potentially transposing to other non-English "rustics" - whether in America or beyond.