James Wallis levels with you

Mundus Vult Decipi

Spurred by a note from Gareth Hanrahan, I’ve been thinking about tracking down all the James Branch Cabell novels I’m missing.

Cabell, for the uninitiated, is one of the greatest fantasy writers of the twentieth century. While Lovecraft and Howard were hanging out with Howard and Lovecraft, Cabell was hobnobbing with Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and H L Mencken. His prose glistens with originality and knowing verve. His books are mythic and relevant today in the way that myths should be—Manuel, his epic hero who may be a strategic genius or may be a dullard with good fortune, has the motto Mundus Vult Decipi: The World Wishes to Be Deceived, and that’s more relevant today than it’s ever been. Read them today and every fantasy novel you’ve read in the last twenty years appears pale, hollow and derivative in comparison.

And yet he wasn’t alone. Go back before Tolkien and not only have you got Howard and Cabell but the likes of Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, T. H. White and others, all ploughing their own fantastic furrows but all doing it with a shared sensibility. And before that was William Morris, and before him Swift, Spenser, Mallory and all the rest.

Post-Tolkien, we seem to have hit a Moore’s Law of fantasy literature: that each time the genre eats its forebears and spits out their remnants, chewed up and homogenised, it takes half as long as the previous time. So if we say that Tolkien was 1955, and his forebears were about 1920 (Cabell’s Jurgen was 1919; Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros was 1922), we would be looking to about 1975 for the next wave and lo, there’s Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was and is a hotch-potch of influences with no discernable flavour of its own, which has in a bizarre way become its own genre of knights and clerics, elves and dwarves, orcs, vampires and dragons, good, evil, law and chaos, all nicked from elsewhere but thrown into a melting-pot with no real thought as to why these things should work together.

But they do work together. For most of the 1990s TSR wasn’t only the publisher of the most successful RPG in history, it was also the largest publisher of fantasy novels in the world.

Then we hit Games Workshop, which took D&D’s chaotic melange of stuff and dropped it into Europe in the dying days of the Holy Roman Empire and the birth of the Renaissance and called it Warhammer, and blow me if the thing doesn’t work again. Fantasy archetypes are amazingly resilient and morphable. (Disclaimer: I’ve written three novels for Games Workshop set in this background, and used to publish an RPG using the same world, so I am a tad biased).

And GW’s look-and-feel gets picked up by Blizzard, given a coat of pixels and turned into the look-and-feel for Warcraft—yeah, yeah, I know this is arguable, but nobody had done greenskin orcs before GW, and when Warcraft 3 introduced dwarves flying autogyros, a completely distinctive and original piece of GW’s Warhammer IP, they were hit with a C&D and had to take them out, and are you really going to argue with a straight face that Starcraft isn’t Warhammer 40K without the flavour?

The dominant fantasy IP in the world right now—perhaps not the biggest but definitely the most influential—is World of Warcraft. So logically right about now we should be looking for post-WoW fantasy: the distinctive tropes of the game but thrown together by someone who doesn’t really understand how and why they worked together in the last iteration but reasons that hey, it worked for them, it ought to work for us.

I’m under an NDA but yeah, a large company is putting a good deal of money into exactly that.

Mundus Vult Decipi, indeed.

Categorised as: fiction | mmorpg

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