Thursday, July 29, 2021

Tolkien in Blacklight

It's well known that hippies were into Tolkien's work. Some of it's themes appealed to them, certainly, but like with Ditko's Dr. Strange comics, there was also the idea that the works might somehow be drug-influenced. That the author might be taking the same trip as them. This was, of course, a false belief, but it was one that existed.

I feel like this appreciation of Tolkien filtered through 60s countercultural and mixed with the prevalent cultural representations of fairytale fantasy led to a a subgenre or movement within fantasy, most prevalent in the late 70s and early 80s, before D&D derived fantasy came to ascendancy. While this subgenre likely finds expression in literature and music to a degree, I think it's most obvious and definable in visual media. It's evident in works like the Bakshi's film Wizards and the comic Weirdworld ( both in 1977), and in the Wizard World sequences (starting in 1979) of Mike Grell's Warlord. Elfquest (1978) shows the influence to a degree. Bodē's Cheech Wizard (1966) and Wally Wood's Wizard King (introduced 1968 but significantly presented in 1978) are either the oldest examples or it's direct progenitors.

Essentially, the subgenre eschews the serious world-building of LotR for a more drug-influenced riff on The Hobbit, often with greater use of anachronism, camp, and sexiness, and often with a degree of psychedelia. Beyond the Tolkien influence, these works tend to share a number of common features:  a "traditional" visualization of elves and dwarfs as "little people," arising in folklore and classic illustration, but coming more directly from Disney animation and the fairytale comics of Walt Kelly; the influence of Denslow's Oz illustrations or design aesthetic of The Wizard of Oz (1939); more unreal and visually alien settings informed by Sword & Sorcery comics rather than the historical or mythic sources of Tolkien.

Given they were contemporaries, why didn't D&D borrow more from this? I think in some of the less than serious aspects of classic D&D, it did. It may have influences some of the visuals as well. But as a game that arose from wargaming there was always a thread of verisimilitude or equipment fixation that runs counter to this freewheeling psychedelic adventure vibe.


Dick McGee said...

I have fond childhood memories of Weirdworld in the 80s, particularly the stories in Epic Illustrated. I've studiously avoided going back to re-read any of them, since I suspect they wouldn't hold up well as a jaded adult.

As to why the subgenre you're talking about ("counterculture fantasy" perhaps?) didn't take over TTRPGs back in the 80s - well, that was the era of the Satanic Panic. D&D caught enough heat drawing from the relative staid and respectable Tolkein for inspiration. Tacking on the more adult themes of Bakshi's Wizards or the vague but general association between "psychedelic art" and drug abuse would be asking for even more pearl-clutching from the Uptights.

There were some signs of it (Palace of the Silver Princess springs to mind) and the OSR community seems to think "gonzo roleplaying" was more common in the early days than I experienced, but at the corporate level TSR shied off for the most part. That might have been from a sense of self-preservation at first, and once time passed and the game established some expected norms (particularly around established settings like FR and Greyhawk) the earlier Tolkein-esque style became kind of set in stone.

Of all TSR's work, I think Planescape might be the closest to "counterculture fantasy" on the strength of its striking art style and layout choices, its hints of Victorian sf, and the general weirdness of its setting.

Trey said...

That's a good point. I kept wondering why the California contingent of early D&D never went in this direction. It may be in a way they did, but by the time they were positioned to effect the D&D product line, a more enforced standardization was in place, and this only increased through the 80s.

James Mishler said...

I would say that in the case of official works, that it is because Gary was an old school wargamer and not at all a hippy or anything close, being in fact rather anti-hippy. So too with his associates and business partners, and so no hippy influence got anywhere near the official game.

Regarding the California side of things, the strongest influence that made it out of the primordial OD&D soup, so to speak, came from the SCA crew and associated serious/academic mythological anthropological groups.

There were certainly hippy like influences in many local games, which can be seen in sone of the materials dug up by Jon Peterson. There are also certain elements of it in the works of Judges Guild, mostly in materials sent in to the Judges Guild Journal, the Dungeoneer, and associated artwork.

But like many things hippy and hippy adjacent, those campaigns and their influence was brief and just did not survive more concerted efforts, especially in the capitalist marketplace after the Satanic Panic. Hippies in those days just did not have that kind of motivation. And relics of that era were very unlikely to survive due to the impermanent nature of the culture.

The only major hippy adjacent game that survives from that era is perhaps Tunnels & Trolls.

bombasticus said...

"why the California contingent of early D&D never went in this direction"

Runequest is right HERE you guys. Don't hurt its feelings.

Great post. The Oz influence is super interesting.

JB said...

Actually, I think that the psychadelic/fairy tale depictions of "little people" (elves, dwarves, etc.) were indeed an influence on D&D. The "demihumans" (demi- meaning smaller/lesser as in "demigod") of the early game weren't the tall, regal "elder folk" of Tolkien. They were diminutive in height and strength, compared to humans. Even the half-orc of AD&D is diminished in size and strength compared to humans (contrast their depiction with later editions where they are much more WoW/Klingon-esque "warrior race" humanoids).

I find plenty of this 70s sensibility in AD&D: from the various herbs/drugs/aphrodisiacs of the DMG, to wandering harlots, to psionics, to campy comics, to Darlene's fairy tale art. I think it's only with the advent of 2nd edition (or, perhaps, BECMI's "kid-ified" version of Basic) that we start to see this stuff erased from the game, replaced instead with Tolkien-esque "high fantasy."

Pini's ElfQuest stuff shows up in both early Dragon magazines (adapted to D&D) and certain supplements (the Alfheim Gazetteer in particular). But I think AD&D especially was already drawing from the same sources.

Trey said...

I definitely agree there was an influence, but there's a big difference between "slightly shorter than human" elves and burly, Tolkien dwarves (going by the AD&D races illustration) and the Hobbit-sized elves and spindly, Rackham-esque dwarfs not even particularly associated with the underground of Weirdworld and the like.

JB said...

Indel the elf?

Trey said...

Indel, yeah. In a series of advertisements.

JB said...

Hey, some of us discovered D&D was a purchasable game through those advertisements in old Marvel comics!
; )

And, I don't think the dwarves of the PHB are particularly burly...certainly nothing like later day editions. Looking at pages 13, 15, and 108 that I don't see anything that couldn't be directly inspired by Disney's Snow White, and even the guy on page 18 doesn't look incredibly "burly," save perhaps for his my eye, his legs aren't any thicker than those of the elf girl with the wand.

Personally, I love the aesthetics of 70s fantasy psychedelia and weirdness. I do have some doubts about the ability to sustain long-term campaigns that invest heavily in it...which might be another reason it phased out over time.

Trey said...

The dwarves in the PHB handbook are all armed and armored and mostly where we can tell broader shouldered and thicker. Certainly, not as much so as later depictions, definitely. That dwarf's legs are pretty thick for his height. Similar to the taller half-elf's. Given that there isn't any one standard "Snow White Dwarf" representation, almost any dwarf could be a "Snow White's Dwarf" but I think it would be an exceedingly rare depiction that showed them armored and wielding weapons. What none of these dwarves particularly look like (other than in general dwarfishness) is Ploog's, Grell's, Rackham's, or Disney's.

And really, we've just been talking about illustrations, not fluff.

But I'm not sure what the real point of contention is. My post said there was some influence (and I specifically called out art as one of the places) in D&D. I guess you feel I undersold the degree of influence? You won't get an argument from me that it got further away later. That really wasn't the point of my post.

JB said...

Not really trying to be contentious (I mean, yeah, sure, I thrive on conflict...but not at the moment). You wrote:

"Given they were contemporaries, why didn't D&D borrow more from this? I think in some of the less than serious aspects of classic D&D, it did. It may have influences some of the visuals as well."

And perhaps your question was meant to be rhetorical but (in case it wasn't) I think it DID borrow, A LOT from these contemporaries. And not just in the "less than serious aspects" or in "some of the visuals." Textually (not just illo-wise), I think you find many of these influences in 1st edition AD&D (including and/or especially adventure modules). But the sea change that occurred circa 1982/3 (which could be attributed to the rise of Reagan-type conservatism or B.A.D.D. type "scandal" and controversy) excised much of this from the game. Sanitized it, I guess I'd say.

Or (in other words): I don't think that the authors/designers/illustrators chose a different path from this alternate contemporary portrayal of fantasy strangely/randomly. I think they were totally down with the counter-culture and "seedy" fantasy of the time (in addition to "wholesome" Tolkien fantasy...they were kitchen sink in their approach). But outside pressures caused them to take a specific, singular direction in the early 80s and inertia (or laziness or lack of questioning/interest or whatever) has led to a continuous movement down that path without exploration of the other, except by weird transgressive types as one can sometimes find in the OSR.

None of which is to say the questions you're raising are invalid. I'm just being a literal (blunt instrument) jackass trying to answer them, because I have the arrogance to think I can. But I'm really not trying to pick a fight.

Trey said...

I disagree that they borrowed a lot, but I concede what constitutes "a lot" is a subjective judgement. Maybe if I took all the possibly evidence from the modules into account, I might share your assessment, but it's really the main texts I am thinking of because they adhere closer to the central vision of the game presumably. At the very least, they present how it's creators expect you to play it.

I'm not interested in edition warring. I concede it got less as things went on, but where we disagree (if I read you correctly) is that you believe it started at a high level and went to nothing, and I think it started at a low level and went to nothing.

JB said...

Mm. I probably said (or implied) that things started at a high level of psychedelia. Allow me to revise that to a “moderate” level (still not quite willing to go “low”…for me, the influences are fairly clear). But could they have been EVEN MORE given the contemporary sources? Sure, yes. But if they erred on the side of “suggestive” rather than “vulgar,” I think that was the USUAL thing for the time, despite certain exception examples to the contrary. By the late 70s, counterculture wasn’t quite as explicit…the “in your face” stuff was going punk (for a variety of reasons), and I don’t think D&D (in any edition or form) could be characterized as “punk.”