Written by: Vanatosis Arentire
Images by: Their respective owners
Mythopoeia (also mythopoesis, after Henneniestic Greek ?????????, ??????????? “myth-making”) is a narrative genre in modern Literature and film where a fictional mythology is created by the writer of prose or other fiction. This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction – New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
In 1937, Oxford professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien published a tale entitled The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Dismissed by his contemporaries and peers as mere “fairy stories,” The Hobbit and his subsequent magnum opus The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy are considered modern classics that have made a profound impact on the fantasy genre and continue to reverberate in the role-play genre to this day.
Any fantasy fiction fan or role-player must only lightly peruse Tolkien’s works and, in a matter of seconds, will recognize familiar themes, characters and other elements common in the fantasy role-play (RP) today. Tolkien borrowed our folklore, myths and values and culled and developed them into something completely new, yet totally recognizable and easy to understand. That is his genius and why Tolkien’s work is so appealing to this day, especially to those in the role-play community.
One of the most recognizable elements for role-players in Tolkien’s books is his treatment of the various non-human races portrayed within their pages. With a few notable exceptions, the elves, dwarves, halflings, ents, etc. in most RP systems are Tolkienesque in character and description. The halflings and treants in Dungeons & Dragons and many other game systems are near replicas of Tolkien’s hobbits and tree ents. Tolkien sifted through the supernatural beings of folklore and fairy tales of old and modified their look and feel, re-purposing them for his books. Elves are no longer the medieval fairy-like, gnomish imps who snatch babies, but instead transformed into a race of proud, warriors of human stature and proportions with a penchant for magic and long lives. Dwarves are no longer the malevolent spirits associated with the dead and the underworld of ancient Germanic and Nordic myth. They retain their late medieval period bearded, short appearance, and skills for metal smithing also are now strong, capable fighters of a steady nature and perhaps a bit surly. Not only has Tolkien set the bar by re-imagining these races and others into the characters we now instantly recognize in our current RP campaigns, he also fully develops their cultures into full fledged communities with detailed histories. Each race has its strengths and weaknesses, becoming quite real in the minds of those who immerse themselves in his work. These works easily translate over into the role-play community.
It’s no accident that so many role-play games are based in a sword and sorcery type medieval setting that is usually loosely based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Divided between many different ethnicities and nations, from the Horse Riders of Rohan and the Men of the West (the Dunedain) to the halflings of The Shire and the woodland elves of Mirkwood Forest, the nations of Middle Earth each have their own culture and unique personality. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a template for successive fantasy realms like World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, Dungeons and Dragon’s World of Greyhawk, Runequest’s Prax and the many RP sims on Second Life. Players crave these rich backdrops against which they can base their campaigns, and the incredible depth that Tolkien gives his Middle Earth is why so many tabletop and online role-play games use his ideas … sometime almost verbatim. The archetypes and history he provides in the nations of Middle Earth are instantly recognizable and easy to understand.
Tolkien also brought the eternal struggle between good and evil back into the public consciousness. While these tales of gallant knights and evil wizards have been repeated for centuries, many of them were intertwined with overt religious imagery and themes. A well known example is the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Wrapped in religious dogma and mythology, these tales revolved around the quest for the Holy Grail. Tolkien removed the religious trappings and overtones from his LOTR trilogy while retaining the stark contrast between good and evil. Each of his characters could choose his or her own path between right and wrong – siding with light or darkness. His work is a precursor to the various alignments in games like Dungeons and Dragons, and a prototype for the popular quests in RP systems til this day.
Tolkien also reintroduced the monster to the delight of new generations of readers and role-players. He goes far beyond just conjuring images of the boogie-man in the closet or under the bed. Tolkien’s monsters are fully fleshed out creatures with personalities and mannerisms that have been easily integrated into role-play systems worldwide. A notable example is the dragon. The description and traits he ascribes to Smaug in The Hobbit serve as the basis for most of the dragon lore we find in RP systems to this day. In Fact, Dungeons and Dragons mirrors this rendition closely with their red dragon with only a few minor cosmetic changes. Tolkien also bequeathed to us the orc and balrog. His work serves as a guide for table-top games and MMORGs to understand the depth and range that can go into creating a truly memorable monster. They do not have to just be mindless piles of hit points for the players to whittle away at; they should be fully fleshed out creatures with wit and guile.
Tolkien’s influence has been immense. Years now after his death, his legacy shapes the work of many, many writers, artists, film makers and RP games. His instantly recognizable style and tales continues to be the prototype which people look to when searching for ideas role-play settings. Role-players who enjoy fantasy scenarios, and have been living under a rock and not read The Hobbit or the LOTR, should consider taking some time to familiarize themselves with his work if only just to gain a new appreciation for the sword and sorcery genre.