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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human

by Aeon
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He who has come only in part to a freedom of reason cannot feel on earth otherwise than as a wanderer, though not as a traveler towards a final goal, for this does not exist. But he does want to observe, and keep his eyes open for everything that actually occurs in the world; therefore he must not attach his heart too firmly to any individual thing; there must be something wandering within him, which takes its joy in change and transitoriness.
- Human, All Too Human, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Of all the role-playing archetypes I've covered in this series, one has loomed large like the pink elephant in the corner, begging to be noticed.

The human.

While I'm sure someone will be happy to cite an instance of a role-playing game or fantasy novel in which humans play no role whatsoever, the fact of the matter is that no archetype is as ubiquitous as the human. Most role-playing characters are human, and most fantasy heroes are human, and in both cases the worlds they live in are dominated and ruled by (you guessed it) humans. It's easy to pass this off with a shrug; realistic stories written by humans will obviously tend to include lots of humans.

But within the realm of fantasy, there's no such restriction--realism can be tossed out the window. Anything goes. But if that's the case, then why is it that within the realm of fantasy role-playing, a world built on the imaginations of thousands of writers and game designers, the most predominant character archetype is the one that's most like us?

Perhaps because that last supposition is entirely untrue.

Month after month, I've set the human aside as being too obvious, too simple, too easy, too normal. But now as this year-long series wraps up, it's become clear to me that humans in role-playing games are anything but obvious, simple, easy or normal. They are nothing like humans in the "real world," instead being partly "All Too Human," distilled caricatures of the humans that you and I know (and, indeed, are), and partly "More Human Than Human," attaining greater heights and enjoying greater power, freedom and adventure than any of us "mundane" humans could ever hope to achieve.

More than any of my other columns, this one necessarily contains a great deal of opinion, conjecture and supposition. When dealing with a topic as broad as "humans," it's ultimately necessary to apply opinion to the facts, and I do so here liberally. Disagreement is not only expected, but demanded; it's part of what makes us human, after all. That said, we begin.

The Role-Playing Human

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
- Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Today, the word human is generally used to define a member of the human race, that is, "a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens sapiens) that is anatomically related to the great apes but distinguished especially by notable development of the brain with a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning." But that scientific mumbo-jumbo isn't really helpful for our purposes; it's the early origins of the word which go a great deal further towards helping us understand humans, and their place in role-playing games.

Despite the fact that humans have been around for quite a long time (about six thousand years if you're a creationist, hundreds of thousands of years if you're an evolutionist), the word "human" has only been around in its current form for a couple of few centuries.

The word appears in the 14th century or thereabouts, coming from the Middle English humain, from the Latin humanus or homo, which in turn is related to the Latin humilis, meaning "low" or "humble," and humus, which means "earth." Human, humble, humility, homage--all originally suggested someone low to the earth in one way or another. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in more ways than one; the Biblical Adam, the "first human," was literally made from clay and dirt. Somewhat related to all this is the concept of humanity, of being humane, which suggests softer and more compassionate (and frail?) human tendencies.

Such compassion and charisma is a relatively idealized view of the human role-playing archetype, although the concept is not without merit, or acknowledgement. On the Wizards of the Coast website, D&D 3rd Edition designer Monte Cook happily offers up a spoonful of suggested race-class pairings to help min-max your new character, the result coming off as some bizarre version of the "Choose Life" monologue from Trainspotting.

Want to be a cleric? Choose human. Want to be a monk? Choose human. Want to be a paladin? Choose human. The presiding reason for these suggestions is that humans don't have any Charisma penalty, and these classes require higher Charisma scores to function well. But then, Elves, Half-elves, Gnomes and Halflings don't take a penalty to Charisma either, which suggests that there's more going on here than just creating nice, happy characters.

The obvious connection is probably correct--clerics, monks and paladins are all religious class archetypes. The implication, if you buy that, is that humans are the racial archetype best suited to, well, acting religious and stuff, which holds true for a variety of reasons (more on that later).

By far, however, the one word that's been used time and again to define the human's place in role-playing games is "average." The human always plays the role of Little Bear (from the Goldilocks fable): neither too hot nor too cold, neither too strong nor too weak, neither too fast nor too slow, always just right down the middle, the guide from which all other deviations are measured.

Humans typically get no special treatment during character creation, and in the early days weren't even acknowledged as a race of their own. The early versions of Dungeons & Dragons simply assumed that all cleric, wizard, fighter and thief characters were human; the "demi-humans" (a term which has faded into disuse over the years, the "demi" prefix implying inferiority and a less-than-subtle racism) were simply classes unto themselves, and exceptions to the human rule.

However, along with this noticeable lack of adjustment comes a far greater degree of flexibility and overall potential. In 1st Edition AD&D, for example, humans were the only races who had no class or level limit restrictions; an elf could only ever get to level 7 as a fighter (bad news for Legolas), but a human could achieve ungodly heights of power. Thanks to the wide variety of RPG systems that erupted onto the market through the '80s and '90s, such archaic game balance restrictions have for the most part drifted into disuse.

Just about the only remnant of the human's original advancement benefits nowadays is the fact that 3rd Edition D&D humans get an extra "feat," some extra skill points and a little more flexibility when it comes to multi-classing (which it seems everyone does nowadays). In particular, the angry little warmongering dwarves of Warhammer (as well as the 3rd Edition AD&D dwarves, who have fighter as a preferred class) will be happy to raise a glass of ale in a toast to the fact that just about any race can be any class nowadays; in the early days, a dwarf like Gimli could only get to level 9 as a fighter.

Since they have mostly served as molds from which other races could be manufactured, it's little wonder that humans in role-playing games tend to be shoved quickly to the side when it comes to the nitty-gritty about defining the race as a whole. Early role-playing games either said nothing at all about humans, or gave them a single paragraph which basically said they were "just like you and me."

But they weren't, and such attitudes have helped conceal that fact beneath a veneer of plate mail armor for several decades. Elves have lengthy backstories involving tall, forested cities and magical prowess, and dwarves have their mines and tunnels and beards and axes, and even the halflings, perhaps the most human of all the non-human races, have their hillside homes and their slingshots (if you follow the Tolkien model) or their wandering kleptomaniac tendencies (if you follow the Kender model).

But what is said of humans? Not much. As a culture, they're flexible and innovative and ambitious. They can be anything and do anything, and thus tend not to have any special skills or professions (truly the mark of a fantasy world). They have no alignment preferences, no religious preferences and relatively short natural life spans. They are also quite welcoming of all other races, human cities being filled with dwarves, elves, half-orcs and more, while the other races are viewed as being xenophobic (dwarves hate elves and orcs hate elves and little lambs eat ivy).

Much of this is, to put it mildly and politely, an idealized view of human nature, in particular the notion that humans are welcoming of other races, fair and equitable to all. Mr. Cranky puts it best in his review of the Dungeons & Dragons movie when he describes how the human Empress Savina (played by Thora Birch) "runs around cooing about making everybody in her kingdom equal and then, when she wins the fight in the end (big surprise), she pronounces everybody equal. 'You're all equal,' she says."

Riiiiight. If it were that easy, we wouldn't have made fun of Rodney King when he wailed "Can't we all just get along?" not so many years ago. The simple answer is "No, we can't." And why not?

Because we're human.

A Rose By Any Other Name...

It is an unfortunate tendency of the human mind to insist upon the value of its own understanding and the reality of the theories which it propounds. Hence arise dogmatism, impatience with the views of others and, if the time should be ripe and the mind should be uninformed, the arising of persecution of those who differ from us. The lesson, therefore, that we should draw from it all is that we must ourselves find the key of nature within ourselves, and of our own initiatives accept nothing that is taught to us as authoritative, except that which we inwardly find to be true.
- Man in Evolution, by G. de Purucker

In the real world, humans are quite obviously not the wonderful heroic all-loving, all-welcoming ambassadors to the world that they are made out to be in fantasy role-playing games and novels (and Star Trek). The reality, as we are well aware from simply watching the news, is that humans are anything but nice.

Human history is scarred by countless wars and struggles. Humans change the world around them rather than work with it, cutting down trees and digging up stones and blasting hillsides to create their own homes and cities (thereby putting elves, dwarves and halflings out of house and home). Humans kill whales and skin polar bear cubs and sell diseased blankets to one another. Humans are ambitious and greedy and violent and selfish, some veering off the deep end and adding racist, xenophobic and murderous to the list.

And those are the nice ones.

Of course, it's patently unfair to label all humans (be they fantasy humans or real-life humans) as being all bad all the time. Particularly since it's so difficult to define "good" and "bad," much less "evil." Regardless of what religion you choose to follow (if any at all), it's generally accepted that humans have free will to choose their actions, for good or ill. Everyone has their own cause, their own reasons for doing the things they do. Your crusade to spread democracy is, to me, a heretical act that violates the tenets of my belief. My righteous act of vengeance is, to you, an act of terrorism. "Good, bad... I'm the guy with the gun," as Ash says in Army of Darkness. It's all relative.

But we generally don't find guys like Ash in role-playing games; at least, not on the surface. The human of the fantasy role-playing game is the human paladin in shining armor, riding his shining steed into battle against the evil, foul fill-in-the-blanks that threaten humanity. The threat is still there, but it's from without.

In the World of Greyhawk, it's a half-demon named Iuz who kicks off a world war, not two squabbling nation-states bickering over gold and natural resources. In the World of Krynn (from the Dragonlance series), it's not two human nations who nearly destroy the world, it's a bunch of dragons, their evil dragon-queen and their half-dragon offspring. In the World of Warcraft, everyone knows that it's the orcs who attacked the helpless humans first. Who can blame the humans for fighting back? Who could blame them for exterminating every last orc? Who could blame them for racism and genocide?

Fantasy warfare between humans and other enemies is merely a reflection of the real world, of course. We recognize, on some level, that it's wrong to kill other humans, and so the enemy is turned into a faceless creature from beyond, something less than human. Native Americans become savage Redskins, Germans and Japanese become evil Krauts and Gooks, those upstart Americans become Yankee Doodles, the titles all meaningless terms designed not to offend, but to dehumanize.

If I am shooting at someone I recognize as human, I'm doing something I know is wrong. If I'm shooting at someone from an Axis of Evil, I'm doing something just and moral. Such dehumanization of the enemy has been used time and again throughout the history of war, most notably throughout the Crusades when Christian and Muslim thought of one another as demons and devils. It's easy to kill a devil. It's not so easy to kill a fellow human being.

In the world of role-playing, the dehumanization of enemies, physical and spiritual, becomes much more literal, because it can. Dragons, devils and demons are an obvious enemy because they represent evil personified, Satanic forces from beneath the earth who threaten all good humans. Orcs, goblins and other bogey-men are barbarians who apparently exist for nothing more than open warfare and brute savagery; of course, they deserve to be turned into a fine red mist at the end of a long sword. The undead represent death itself, come back to threaten the living with the one thing that none of us can escape. Except in the world of role-playing, we can escape it, if only momentarily and symbolically, by eviscerating zombies, skeletons and the occasional odd vampire whenever we come across them. Death can die.

With the popularity of vampire-themed role-playing games, the table has been turned somewhat, and this notion of conquering mortality takes on new meaning. Now we become the vampires, and the humans become the food. Except for the most part, we're playing good-hearted vampires who don't really want to kill the humans. We're the victims here, forced to feed on humans to survive, and really, we only want to help them. Sure, the vampires are all at war with one another, but we're the good guys. Honest. The bad guys... yeah, they're those other vampires, over there. We're the good vampires. The "humane" vampires. Final letter "e" optional.

But let's step back from warfare for a moment. Role-playing games, with a few notable exceptions (Warcraft, Warhammer, etc.) are usually not about open warfare between one race and another. Much more common is a small group of adventuring souls heading off from Point X to Point Y in order to vanquish an evil foe, rescue a fair maiden, save the world and capture some loot along the way. There's not usually an opportunity for our heroes to participate in open warfare. And thus, in most cases, the racism is much more subtle and several steps removed from the action at hand.

The humans are being attacked from all sides. Where are the elves? Oh, they're in their forest. They don't want to help. They have their own national concerns and would rather stay neutral in this matter. The elves are being attacked by orcs. Where are the dwarves? Oh, they don't like the elves, so they aren't going to lift a finger to help. The dwarves are being attacked by demons. Where are the halflings? Oh, they're scampering off around the world, blissfully ignoring all sense of duty in lieu of random escapades and adventures.

And if that wasn't bad enough, all those selfish races also have evil versions of themselves that are even worse (if you can believe that). Dark elves, or drow. Dark dwarves, or Duergar. Dark halflings, or... well, OK, there aren't any dark halflings (unless you count the cannibalistic Athasian halflings from the Dark Sun setting). But you get the point. Which is this: there are no Dark humans in fantasy role-playing games.

And that's because they exist in the real world.

Tell 'Em That It's Human Nature

Join the army! Travel the world... meet strange, interesting people... and kill them.
- Anonymous

I'm willing to bet that from almost the first time a light-skinned human set eyes on a dark-skinned human, they knew they weren't going to get along. Exactly why, they probably couldn't say. But they knew that somewhere along the line, they were going to be enemies because one of them had more melanin in his skin than the other guy. This has nothing to do with slavery. Long before Dutch traders started trafficking slaves from Africa to America, black humans were selling other black humans into slavery, and brown humans were selling other brown humans into slavery, and white humans were selling other white humans into slavery (or indentured servitude, depending on how PC you want to be). The Greeks and Romans and Egyptians all had slaves, and whether or not you were a slave had absolutely nothing to do with the color of your skin.

Racism, however, is another issue.

It's been human nature for quite a long time to try and divide up the world into recognizable chunks. Separating living things from non-living things, the concept of self from the concept of other individuals, separating mankind from animals. It should come as no surprise, then, that humans would eventually attempt to separate themselves up into distinguishable groups. Choosing skin color as a means of doing so seems pretty darn obvious, even if you acknowledge that it also tends to be pretty mean-spirited.

It's a noble (and fairly novel) idea that all humans, of all colors, are members of a single human race. Even today there are plenty of people who disagree with that concept, believing that their melanin-deficiency makes them superior. The Church of the Creator, founded in 1973, believes they are involved in a RAHOWA (RAcial HOly WAr) between the pure white "Aryan" race and what they disparagingly call the "mud races."

Others, following the Christian Identity belief system, claim that white humans are the only true descendents of the ancient Tribes of Israel (a ludicrous claim, considering the skin tone of the people who live in that area of the world), and that Jews and Blacks are either descendents of Satan or mere animals, created along with the other beasts before "man" came along in all his white-skinned glory.

For most people, it's pretty clear that such attempts to divide people up according to color are pretty shortsighted and misguided; if nothing else, modern science has shown us via ample genetic evidence that aside from melanin levels, there's very little difference between a person of one color and another. But as recently as a century ago (mostly between 1870 and 1910, or roughly between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I), a number of anthropologists were busy trying to divide humanity up into "races" and "sub-races" based on what they looked like, using groundwork laid by people like Buffon and Kant in the latter half of the 18th Century.

"Primitive races" were in some cases characterized by a short torso and long limbs (characteristic of many Africans), whereas "civilized races" were those who had shorter limbs in proportion to their torso (quite European). Other anthropologists turned to facial features in order to differentiate between the races: for example, Europeans tended to have longer, narrower noses, whereas primitive Australian aborigines had poorly developed, broad noses. Likewise, the shape of the head, the length of the spine, the dimensions of the forehead, the position of the eyes in relation to one another, hair type, eye color and countless other criteria were used to divide humans into one bucket or another. Skin color was only the most obvious, and combined with some of the other criteria, helped give the world three main racial categories:

Caucasoid, or Caucasian. Basically, "white people," although this in itself is an incorrect oversimplification since the Caucasoid race includes not only Europeans, but the inhabitants of Western Asia, most of India and North Africa, none of whom can be called "white" by any stretch of the imagination. Even within Europe there is great variation, the inhabitants of Northern and Central Europe (called Xanthoeroi) tending to have lighter skin, lighter hair and blue or grey eyes, while those residing around the Mediterranean (the Melanochroi) tend to have brownish skin, darker and wavier hair and darker eyes.

Mongoloid, named for the Mongols. This group includes the inhabitants of most Asian countries, Malaysians and Polynesians, as well as the inhabitants of Northeastern Europe and all of the Americas (before the Europeans decided it would be a good idea to move in). The physical features associated with the Mongoloid race include a flat nose, prominent chin, yellowish-brown skin, and dark eyes and hair.

Negroid, or Negro. This includes the inhabitants of most of Africa, from Ethiopians to Bushmen, excepting much of Northern Africa. Physical features, apart from darker skin tending from brown to black, include brown or black eyes, black wooly hair, a broad nose and thick lips.

Ultimately, what you get here is three races broadly characterized as straight-haired and white, coarse-haired and yellow, and frizzy-haired and black. In a modern society in which bi-racial marriages and offspring are quite common, and in a country like America where "whites" are no longer the racial majority, it seems almost laughable to attempt to carve up the human race into such neat little chunks. To the experienced role-player, however, it all has to seem a little familiar and unsettling. Exactly why are all dwarves short, bearded and stocky? And just why are all elves lanky, thin and fair-haired? Aren't there any fat elves or tall dwarves?

Why not?

The point of mentioning all of this becomes clear when you consider that these researchers tended to use the Caucasoid as the "average model" to which all deviations were compared. The Caucasian skull was the "normal" one, the Caucasian features the "normal" features, and hair or skin color or height was wavier or darker or shorter than the Caucasian, and not the other way around. For some people, Caucasian came to mean "human," and other races became somehow less than human. Little wonder why the official scientific community has for the most part dismissed this antiquated notion of dividing up the human race by color, shape and size like so many building blocks.

And yet, role-playing games continue to do just that, placing humans in the middle as the "average" against which all of the demi-human, sub-human, non-human races are measured. This is not to say that role-playing games, in part or as a whole, are patently racist, either intentionally or accidentally. The division of race that we find there, with humans at the center, has a lot to do with a desire to carve and understand the universe, but there's something else going on there too, and it's something that only the most recent RPGs have managed to wrangle out into the open.

The Devil Inside

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.
- Agent Smith, from The Matrix

In an 1864 essay, Alfred Russel Wallace discussed the nature of the human race, and its capacity to change without evolving in order to survive. When the ice age comes, he says, animals must grow more fur or store more fat to live through it, but humans simply kill those animals to make themselves warmer clothing--underneath, their skin remains the same as it did before. If animals become scarce from this overhunting, man doesn't starve to death, nor does he evolve a means to survive on air and water alone; he merely learns to grow his own food by planting seeds, and thus changes his environment to suit his own needs.

"Man does this by means of his intellect alone," says Wallace, "which enables him with an unchanged body still to keep in harmony with the changing universe." More importantly, in addition to a superior intellect man also possesses a superior social consciousness, capable and willing to help the weak and helpless, save the sick and wounded, and otherwise totally destroy the concept of natural selection as it applies to humans. Humans, in short, have escaped the natural cycle of the universe. They control the world, and their own destinies.

Of course, that's the polite way to word it. The other way to look at it is to say that humans are, as Agent Smith so eloquently put it, a virus, mercilessly destroying everything that gets in their way to pervert it for their own needs. The other races would seem to agree. Elves build their homes in the trees. Dwarves build their homes in the rock. Halflings build their homes in the sides of hills. Humans don't bother with any of that. They don't live within nature. They bend nature to their will. They effect change upon things, but are not affected by change. They cut down trees and skip and jump and like to press wild flowers. No, wait... that's Lumberjacks. Never mind.

The point is that other races avoid change. They're predictable. If you're looking for elves, you find a forest. If you're looking for dwarves, you find a mountain. And just try getting a halfling (at least an old school one) to leave the breakfast table. I dare you. But role-playing humans are everywhere, doing everything, moving around, involving themselves in everything. Why? Let's go back to Wallace for a moment, and his assertion that humans, because they have "unchanged bod(ies)," effect change on nature. Like real humans, humans in role-playing games are capable of causing change in others, and in their environment, both because of and in spite of the fact that they, themselves, are incapable of change.

But wait a second, you say. So what if humans are incapable of change? None of the other races can change, either. Humans are just like everyone else.

Which is precisely the problem.

Take a human. Add some pointy ears and you've got an elf. Lop off a few inches and add a beard and you've got a dwarf. Shrink him a little further and you've got a halfling. Give him muscles and a few fangs and you've got an orc. With very few exceptions, all the intelligent races in role-playing games are humanoid. They're all shadows of the master form, variations on one common theme. They are a reflection of everything that humans are not, and a reminder of what they are.

And that's a scary thought. No role-playing human wants to think that they are the same race as a foul, ugly orc. But then, no white supremacist wants to think that they are the same race as a "mud person" either. It's easier to deny, and if denial doesn't work, it's always an easy matter to just rewrite the categories in your favor.

Some role-playing games actually venture into that sticky territory more directly, insinuating that humans are, in fact, members of those other races. 3rd Edition D&D slides this in under the radar, implying that many humans have traces of elven and dwarven blood, that many human parents give their children non-human names.

In the Arcanum PC game, Victorian-era pseudo-science is slapped on top of the whole shebang, placing humans not off to the side of elves, orcs and other "median races," but in their midst. "Humans are the root stock of all the Median races, and one of the oldest peoples of Arcanum," says the Players Guide. "The very fact that half-elves and half-orcs exist at all must mean that the parent species are cousins to one another." Humans, elves and orcs are all members of the same race, in other words, but for the influence of "Supernatural Selection."

Games like Changeling and Shadowrun handle this somewhat differently. In Changeling, the player characters are faerie beings who are awakening from their banal human natures; in short, the characters are all humans discovering that they are not humans, that there's something else trapped inside. Hence, "changeling," changing from human to non-human. They could very well be pooka or trolls or sidhe (pronounced "shee"), faerie creatures akin to elves and dwarves and halflings. But being human means that they might never know it, trapped in a mundane existence. It's a curse--the curse of being average:

Sometimes the pressure of Banality becomes so overwhelming that it completely smothers changelings. They become so rooted in the world of humanity that their faerie natures are completely suppressed. Banality consumes them, and they forget that they were ever anything other than human.
- from Changeling: The Dreaming

Shadowrun turns the concept about 90 degrees to the left, plunging humanity through a series of unexplained magical Awakenings as "Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs and Trolls assumed their true form, throwing off their human guise." Again, the notion that these magical non-human races are actually there, hidden beneath a shell of mundane humanity, waiting to be unlocked through some outside force. But humans are powerless to control the change.

In a sense, it's the lycanthrope story all over again, a human turning into a wolf/bear/tiger/gerbil based on the cycles of the moon, a party to something greater and more magical than the ordinary, while simultaneously a slave to that power. Control is achieved by preventing the change, by imposing order and law to the chaos and disorder. By controlling the uncontrollable. Or, more correctly, trying to.

You Got Your Apollonian Stuck In My Dionysian

Through this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the Dionysian reality separate from each other. As soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting.... In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet. Both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their actions can change nothing in the eternal nature of things.
- The Birth of Tragedy, by Friedrich Nietzsche

It's here that we have to take a peek back towards a comment I made early on, about Monte Cook's suggestions for the best D&D character classes for humans: cleric, monk and paladin. The obvious connection, as I mentioned, is that the three classes are involved with religion. Religion, as a word, appeared in the 13th century, derived from the Middle English religioun, from the Latin religio. It's typically understood to mean something like "an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices," but the root, religio, also indicates the concept of supernatural constraint, being associated with the Latin religare, which means to restrain.

Religion, then, is not just a system of beliefs, but a system of laws and limitations on behavior and belief. It doesn't so much tell you what to believe as it tells you what you're not allowed to believe.

Fantasy role-playing games tend to push these ideas to the side, but the theme of religion pushing aside "old belief" is present in a whole slew of seminal fantasy novels. In most of the King Arthur myths, including Malory's Morte D'Arthur, there comes a point when the old, druidic belief system, (represented by the half-demon Merlin and the femme fey-tales who hover around him) must move to the side and make room for the new religion, Christianity. The magical sword Excalibur is thrown in a lake, Arthur's body is carried off to Avalon, Merlin gets buried alive, and magic and all things magical leave the world.

The theme repeats, somewhat differently, in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, which makes more vivid the showdown between Law-bringing, religious humans and the Chaotic faerie kingdom. The two cannot co-exist peacefully, and ultimately, we know that Holger Danske will drive Morgan LeFay and the elves back into nothingness, bringing the Christian religion and order and law along with him.

The most well-known example of this notion is probably that presented in Tolkien's mythology. As the One Ring (symbolizing, in some ways, old magic) is destroyed, the third age comes to an end and the fourth age, of humans, begins. Dwarves retire to their mountains and gradually disappear from sight, and the elves, no longer having a place in Middle Earth, sail off into the sunset to be immortal somewhere else. Humans, bringing order and structure and law to Middle Earth, are at the same time, necessarily, driving out the old magic. There's no place for orcs and elves and dwarves and wizards in a world where man reigns supreme. The two cannot co-exist, and religion will always win out. Order always defeats chaos.

This conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian has been discussed endlessly since antiquity. Apollonian, of course, comes from the name of the Greek sun god, Apollo, representing harmony, order, law and balance. One would not be amiss to draw parallels between he and other sun gods, or even the Christian Son of God, Christ, who in like fashion drives away darkness and evil and chaos and brings order and religion to humans.

Likewise, Dionysian comes from the Greek god Dionysius, the wild wine-drinking, orgy-throwing satyr god who represents chaos, pleasure and wild abandon. Being a satyr, he's an obvious symbol of all things sylvan and faerie-like, including elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and any other non-human race.

The Dionysian is the old way of doing things, the wild, the magical, the untamed, represented by the many non-human, demi-human races found in fantasy literature and role-playing games. And the Apollonian is the new way of doing things, the lawful and orderly and religious. In most RPGs, the monotheistic implications are either buried or lost altogether (though it is worth noting that in 3rd Edition D&D, a point is made that most humans worship Pelor, the sun god), but as mentioned previously "religion" here isn't so much about worshipping a single god as it is about restricting other beliefs and behaviors.

It's human nature to want to control the world by identifying and categorizing it, bending nature and chaos to one's will and slapping law and order atop the whole shebang. But when you bring law into the picture, chaos cannot survive as it once did. The chaotic, Dionysian, faerie part of human nature is subsumed, buried beneath layers of order. Magic becomes not a natural thing performed by natural creatures (Tolkien's elves don't cast spells, but are innately magical), but an orderly system that's categorized and written down in books.

Likewise religion: "The Elves never had any distinct 'religion' in the sense that Men would understand the word," says the Encyclopedia of Arda about Tolkien's elves. Indeed, none of the old races needed religion. Only humans need religion, because it gives them control over nature, and over themselves. Adam and Eve get religion thrust at them, in a sense, when they are told not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; religion doesn't tell them to worship God, it tells them NOT to seek knowledge. And when Technology enters the picture, humans embrace it, and push aside all things magical and fanciful in favor of this new science/religion. They embrace it because they can control and understand it.

Of course, this whole process is rife with symbolism, and fantasy is nothing if not symbolic. The whole idea of attempting to bury chaos beneath layers of order involves many things, from the struggle to understand and survive in the universe, to the desire to push man's own chaotic tendencies into the darkness of the past, where it can be conveniently forgotten.

The catch is that in doing just that, humans discover that they can't quite forget where they came from. Humans are not just similar to elves, dwarves, halflings and orcs, but they are the same race in many respects (symbolically, in the real world, and realistically, in some fantasy worlds). This both frightens and attracts humans. On the one hand, those beastly, chaotic little demi-humans represent something uncontrollable, that must be buried underneath order. On the other hand, those same tendencies represent something unattainable but desirable: freedom from the chains of law and order that man himself has constructed.

The fantasy role-playing human paints himself into a corner, locking his own prison cell. He cuts down forests and plunders mines and creates walls of stone, strips the land bare to grow his crops and drives out the orcs who might threaten to bring chaos to his orderly world. He struggles to categorize and understand the world, wandering around measuring and calculating, eradicating those things that don't fit within his little schema, and persecuting those who won't fall into line. And at the end of the day, when all is quiet and orderly and safe, outside his walls, the elves, dwarves and orcs go about their fun, chaotic little activities.

And the human wonders if building that wall was such a good idea.

Closing Comments

I've seen things... you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost... in time, like tears in rain... Time to die.
- Roy Batty, from Blade Runner

Setting aside questions of whether Deckard is a replicant or not, it's pretty clear that the film Blade Runner is still, on some level, about what it means to be human. The other replicants in the film, most notably their leader Roy, are all struggling for survival, trying to discover what they are, where they fit in, and why everyone is trying to kill them. They represent a challenge to the orderly human society, and so the humans in the story must hunt them down and eradicate them, lest everything they've worked so hard to build fall apart in chaos. The humans, of course, are responsible for the plight of the replicants, since they created the situation in the first place.

In similar fashion, the Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine brought their own plight on themselves. In creating a perfect, orderly little society, and shoving aside and ignoring the chaos of the Morlocks, they managed to assure their own gradual doom. As Wells' Time Traveller puts it:

"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need for change."

In other words, as the human race gradually pushed aside chaos in creating the happy little Eloi society, shoving the unknown represented by the orc-like Morlocks underground, they became incapable of dealing with the dangers imposed by change. This, then, is the fine line walked by the human in role-playing games and fantasy novels.

On the one hand, he desires nothing more than to catalogue and understand the various "lesser" races around him, driving out and destroying anything that threatens him, and absorbing and assimilating those things that he cannot destroy, in order to create a perfect, orderly, happy society. On the other hand, humans realize that in destroying things represented by chaos and disorder, they are not only destroying a part of themselves and their world, but are setting themselves up for a fall later on.

The human character, then, has a good reason to be wandering around the world aimlessly and joblessly, associating with wizards and elves and dwarves, battling orcs and hunting down magical treasures. He represents many things, but two of these bubble to the surface and take precedence.

First of all, within the realm of the fantasy world, the human character represents that human who does not wish to spend the rest of his short life trudging from farm to church, wreathed in religion, law and order, never experiencing the chaotic, wild, magical part of himself that has an actual physical presence just over the next hill, just a few levels down in the next dungeon. Second of all, within the realm of the very real world we live in, the human character in fantasy role-playing games represents that which we, as humans, wish we could be.

The world we live in, for better or worse, is one dominated by religion (in the more global sense of the word), by law and order and restrictions on what we can and cannot believe. Regardless of faith, religion tells us that elves and dwarves and faeries do not really exist. It tells us that we cannot believe in these, that we must put aside the fantasy and the chaos and the Dionysian part of our psyches and embrace the Apollonian.

But in role-playing games, the humans we play can openly believe in chaos and magic and fantasy, and can actively interact with those things on a daily basis. And that's precisely why role-playing humans are not human at all. To be certain, they are the average, the middle, the center of their own universes. But within that universe, they are free to roam and explore all the extremes that surround them. They can touch the fantastic. And that's something that we cannot do in our own world of the mundane and the banal.

Next time: the twelfth and final chapter in our epic, year-long Archetypology odyssey, including an uber-bibliography, reader questions answered, a summary of the entire year-long column, why the heck I bothered doing this series, and more. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg