Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 11 - In Closing...by Aeon
April 30, 2002
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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 11 - In Closing...by Aeon
April 30, 2002
Rate this column!
Who are you?
Approximately a year ago (give or take a few weeks), I asked that question of RPGnet readers as a means of introducing this column. And when I asked it, I already had it in my head, from those first three words, that this would be a year long column, once a month for twelve months, and no more. And there's a good reason for that.
Twelve, you see, has a lot to do with time and measurement, with beginnings and endings. There are twelve months, twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve numbers on a clock. Twice twelve gives us a day, and five times twelve gives 60, the number of minutes in an hour, and seconds in a minute. Twelve also has a lot to do with the mystical, spiritual and mythological: there are twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve peers of Charlemagne, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve Olympian gods, and twelve labors of Hercules.
Twelve represents a whole, a cycle, and when you get to twelve it's time to wrap things up. When you're done with twelfth grade (at least in the United States), you've finished your obligations to the educational system and can move on to adult life. When the dozen eggs or donuts are gone, it's time to move on to other, tastier things.
And yes, when you get to the twelfth installment of Archetypology, it's time to wrap things up and move on to something else.
Within the twelve column cycle I set up for myself, there was room for discussion of ten main archetypes. It was clear from the start that just sticking to Class archetypes wouldn't be proper, partly because an exploration of Racial archetypes was also in order, and partly because, at least in the early days of RPGs, Class and Race were nearly one in the same. And so with that in mind, I chose the ten main archetypes that I saw as being most predominant and ubiquitous in the world of role-playing. They were (for those who haven't been following this column from the start): the cleric, thief, fighter, wizard, and paladin (the five classes) and the elf, hobbit/halfling, dwarf, orc and human (the five races).
Not everyone agreed with my choices. Some asked me why I hadn't discussed rangers, or druids, or assassins, or bards, or gnomes. Others questioned my focus on the Tolkienesque archetypes (elf, wizard, hobbit, dwarf and orc, in particular), when there was so much other material to be uncovered in other mythic realms, such as the Cthulhic or the Zoroastrian. Still others complained that I focused way, way too much on Dungeons & Dragons. And then there were the little notes stuck to my front door with quivering daggers.
Each and every statement, complaint and comment (save, perhaps, the ones that involved cutlery) was perfectly valid in its own way. I knew, getting into this, that there was no way I'd be able to do everything within a year. And in a way, that limitation was more of a release valve than a pressure cooker. It let me focus on the things I thought counted the most, instead of trying to be all things to all people, and it gave me a clear outline for how I would develop the column over time, so I wouldn't seem scattered or directionless halfway through.
By knowing a year ago that I would be sitting here wrapping this up a year later, I gave myself enough time to get in, get it done, and get out, without finding myself lost in a maze, or trapped in one of those little rooms with the walls closing in.
Basically, I knew what it was I was setting out to accomplish, and now I can say with certainty that I accomplished that, and can write this final chapter with confidence.
So what was it that I was trying to accomplish? For the answer to that question, we need to go back to square one. Or square two, to be more precise. The second archetypology column was about clerics, and right up front I wanted to get a good sense of where it was my audience was in relation to me.
That's why I put a big old lie in the second sentence.
To Tell The Truth
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Ok, so it wasn't a lie as such; it was more an inaccuracy. The sentence, in case you're scratching your head or feeling tempted to go look, basically said that my first encounter with clerics was with the red-boxed D&D set in the early 1980s, in which the solo adventure allowed you to play a cleric.
This is false. The adventure allowed you to play a fighter, not a cleric; although a cleric appears, she is an NPC, and she bites the dust bigtime in the final battle. I knew this. And, I suspect, many other people did too. But the important thing I found out by putting that statement right up front like that is this:
No one called me on it.
This told me a few things about my audience, and allowed me to gradually steer the entire series in the right direction. For instance, I know that the archetypal D&D cleric was for many years named Mercion, the archetypal D&D paladin was named Strongheart and the archetypal bad guy was named Warduke. But for many, if not most, of the prospective readers of my column, these names would mean nothing. I also knew that you got to play a fighter, and interact with a cleric, a wizard and some undead in that adventure.
Of course I knew; it was my first encounter with role-playing games, and it stuck in my head. But for my readers, that encounter didn't carry the same weight. It wasn't the sort of thing they remembered well enough, or cared enough about, in order to correct my "mistake." Lesson learned: take nothing for granted, explain everything as much as possible, and never assume that the reader knows what you're talking about.
The second important thing about that article on clerics was that it was an article about clerics. Point being, it was about religion, which is a topic that many people shy away from like vampires from a wooden cross. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series comes to mind here; the show frequently and openly deals with Demonology, Judaism and Wicca, but even though there are plenty of crosses and holy water, Christianity is never mentioned. Peculiar.
Would I do the same here? It would have been simple enough to completely avoid the topic of religion in role-playing games, or to only talk about purely fantasy clerics, with their healing spells and chain mail armor and magical maces of non-bleeding-causing.
But I opted instead to test the waters and openly bring religion, and, more specifically, the Judeo-Christian mythos, into the picture. And in general, the reaction to this was a non-reaction. Which I saw as a positive thing. It meant that I wasn't going to get flamed or burned at the stake for a)mentioning the Bible and b)referring to Christianity as a "mythos." It told me that my readers were open-minded, tolerant of new ideas, and not afraid to read and discuss things that they didn't necessarily agree with or believe in.
The third key thing about my cleric column was that I came to a conclusion. It didn't matter to me whether I would be right or wrong about some or all of what I was saying; what mattered to me, I thought, was that I would not only present a discussion of a topic, but I would draw my own conclusions based on that information.
This is a lot harder to do than it sounds; when you're up against the wall in front of the firing squad, it's always a lot simpler to put on the blindfold, stick a cigarette in your mouth and keep quiet about what you think about the situation. I felt it was important to not just present evidence, but to, like Fox Mulder from the soon-to-be-late TV series The X-Files, draw conclusions and pursue my own ends.
I was pleased to see that this had the desired effect: by stating my own opinions and coming to solid conclusions, I encouraged others to follow in my stead, agreeing, disagreeing and debating with me about not just the content of my essay, but my theses as well.
Archetypology Cliff's NotesNever explain yourself. Your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe it.
Throughout this series, by stating what I thought I was trying to say, I encouraged others to say what they thought I said, what they thought I ought to have said, and what they thought about what others thought about what I said. So what was I trying to say? Let's review:
Clerics - My article on clerics wrapped up by comparing role-playing clerics to "holy 10-foot poles," allowing players to "touch the Gods" from a distance without coming too close. They are a means for role-playing to explore religion from a distance, without calling it religion. And in that sense, they provide the same services to role-playing groups that religion provides to society: unity, a sense of purpose, and a way to keep order amidst the chaos.
Elves - I concluded that elves, too, were a sort of means for humanity to touch the fantastic, representing a sort of angelic, divine perfection within the human realm. In the Bible, God talked to humans through angelic messengers. In RPGs, the fantastic, magical things that dwell in the dark forests of the world "speak" to the mundane world by way of the elves.
Thieves - Thieves and rogues are, I surmised, a way for role-players to keep close to the ordinary while still exploring the extraordinary. They are a way to remain grounded, to act out in all-too-human ways while still cloaking themselves in an air of mystery. Most people encountering a dragon would not charge into battle or cast a fireball spell; they'd run and hide and try to stay alive. Mr. Thief is the personification of the survival instinct.
Hobbits - Any role-player or fan of fantasy will tell you that Hobbits represent humans, but that, I felt, was somewhat missing the point. Rather, I believe that hobbits represent what humanity wishes it was. For some people, that's a happy little ball curled up in front of a warm fire with a pipe and a table full of food. For others (especially more modern role-players), that's a leather-wearing, dagger-hurling wiseacre Lara Croft-wannabe.
Fighters - With fighters, I took a slightly different route in coming to a conclusion, because it seemed pretty clear that fighters need no real explanation. RPGs, after all, are based on wargaming, and wargaming is based on war, and war is based on, well, killing stuff. That's pretty simple. So the important thing to do with an exploration of fighters was to try to answer the question, "Why fight?" And I gave not one, but four answers, using the Tarot as a guide. The conclusion, then, was in a sense up to the reader, who was tasked with finding his own reason for being a fighter.
Dwarves - Here's where I got myself in trouble (more on that shortly, pun intended). What I ultimately concluded about dwarves was that they represented humanity's repressed urges and desires. In strapping themselves to a forge, slaving away at work, whiling away the time with beer and gold and money and conflict, finding it difficult to deal with romance. The women in the audience are nodding their heads and casting knowing glances towards the men around them. The men are scratching their heads and looking for another beer.
Wizards - Arguably, where I jumped the shark. My exploration of wizards was by far my longest column, and by many estimations would have been twice as good if it had been half as long. Again, more on that later. My conclusion was that wizards represent a way to capture the secrets from the gods without having to deal with the gods themselves. In a sense, they are anti-religious, striving for knowledge and power no matter what the cost. They seek the fantastic not with a ten foot pole, but with a fork and knife. And there's always room for Jell-o.
Orcs - Orcs are, I believe, an even more obvious reflection of humanity's basest urges than dwarves are. They are ugly, brutal, violent and disgusting not because they are monsters, but because they are what we look like on the other side of the mirror. Humans are a warlike species, and orcs are a way to explore that violent part of our nature in a fantasy setting from a safe distance.
Paladins - It's pretty clear to me, and I said as much, that paladins represent Christ. Not in the sense that they are Christians, or that they desire to be crucified for the sins of others. But in the sense that they are another way to get closer to the divine, and to share that closeness with other characters. Paladins sacrifice themselves for the good of their party and their country and their second cousin's aunt's cat not because they're suicidal or stupid, but because they're in touch with something beyond the mortal realm.
Humans - Obviously, humans represent humans. But more than that, RPG humans represent the contradictory desires of existing within the wild, chaotic magical unknown and trying to control it. Humans are neutral because they walk the line between chaos and order, between magic and religion. They desperately want to be a part of the former, and find themselves destroying that which they seek by way of the latter.
It should be fairly clear, comparing conclusions here, that there's a central theme that has ridden along through this entire series. The RPG class archetypes (cleric, thief, fighter, wizard, paladin) represent ways to try and interact with the unknown, the fantastical, the mythological and the divine. And the RPG race archetypes (elf, hobbit, dwarf, orc, human) represent different sides of human nature itself, our attempts to be more than we are, and our recognition of how all too often we can be so much less than we want to be. In short, RPG classes seem to represent a way to interact with fantasy and myth, and RPG races seem to represent different facets of our own human nature. Archetypes as a whole, then, are a way to interact with fantasy while exploring our own humanity.
It's so basic, it just might be more profound than you think.
The Bad and the Ugly; Good Optional.The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you'll make one.
In any RPG, you enter into that dungeon knowing that you're going to make a few wrong turns; if everything always went your way, there wouldn't be any excitement, adventure or purpose. And I'd be a liar and a fool if I were to stand here and proclaim that I got everything right in this series. I didn't. But I was never afraid to explore the unknown anyway.
Presenting an entire list of my mistakes and factual inaccuracies here would be silly (and would take quite a lot of space, alas). For example, at one point I referred to Dionysius as "the wild wine-drinking, orgy-throwing satyr god;" Mr. Dan Davenport correctly noted that Dionysius was not a satyr, and he was correct. But so was I; the problem was that I didn't phrase it correctly. "Satyr god" can mean "a God who is a satyr" or "a god of satyrs." I meant the latter. Lesson learned? Clarity counts.
That said, here are some of my biggest boo-boos, and (where possible), corrections and clarifications, some thanks to RPGnet readers:
Why D&D All The Time? - Numerous readers questioned my focus on Dungeons & Dragons in all my columns, stating that there were many other game systems that deserved to be discussed. They are correct, and I consider it an "error" that I didn't spend more time discussing those other systems. But it's a necessary error, in this case. Dungeons & Dragons is what I know best, and while I tried to bring in other systems whenever possible, the fact of the matter is that I haven't played hundreds of different systems throughout my 15-year gaming career. I opted to talk about what I knew best, feeling that it would be better to stick with a small, deep pool of knowledge rather than a broad, shallow pool. If I turned off some readers for always bringing up D&D, I apologize. Now, roll a Save versus Spells since I made a Charisma check.
Neanderthals - Several people pointed out in response to my column on orcs that some modern scientists have called into question the classical theories about evolution and neanderthals. Which is correct on some levels, but according to modern science, black holes may also not exist, Pluto is either an asteroid or a moon of Neptune gone astray and bread and potatoes cause cancer. Point being, just because there's a newer theory does not mean that the old way of thinking necessarily has to go away. Now hand over those french fries.
Witch Hunts - A lot of readers questioned some of my statements about witches, paganism, "the burning times" and general religious persecution, raised predominantly in my column on wizards. There's no way to post a clear correction or clarification on any of this, partly because history is written by the winners, and the winners in this case were Christians. It can be argued that tens or hundreds or thousands or millions of people were burned at the stake for being witches, and depending on which side of the fence you're on you can believe one point of view or the other. I'm not going to take a stand either way here; suffice to say that I acknowledge that there's some disagreement about the issue, and let's leave it at that.
That Darn Wizard Column - There's nothing specifically wrong about the column on wizards as a whole, other than that it wound up being way too long and way too unfocused. I knew when I decided to discuss wizards that I'd inevitably have to talk about magic, and magic is a topic that deserves an entire series of its own. More than half of the D&D Player's Handbook is spells, after all. It's rich, rich material, and it's full of contradictory points of view, pseudo-history and complicated mythology. Trying to stuff it all into one single column was a mistake. Albeit probably an unresolvable one.
The Nepal Issue - The one and only time I ever re-wrote a column was to remove a glaring factual inaccuracy which crept into my column on dwarves. This correction was to remove a paragraph which alluded to J.R.R. Tolkien visiting Nepal at some point during the writing of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The source for this information was a series of articles on mountaineering in the Nepal area, which I was later informed were mostly fluff and marketing (i.e., lies). Which just goes to show you the risks of relying on any information source other than first-hand evidence--at some point, you're going to get it all wrong. I did, and I admitted that, and the article was rewritten accordingly. For the specifics of the situation, feel free to delve into the comments archives.
Marilyn Manson - Lenin, Eichman, Stalin, Manson? Regular readers of my columns (and other works) know that I'm fond of mixing genres whenever and wherever possible. I'm not afraid to quote quotable people, no matter who they are--I'll happily stack quotes from Nietzsche next to quotes from John Denver, if it suits my purpose. And so it was that in my column on fighters, I "quoted" Marilyn Manson, who in a song sings "The death of one is a tragedy, but death of a million is just a statistic." It can't be denied that he actually sings this, so from my point of view it's an accurate quote. But others debated over the "true" origin of this quote, and ultimately (I think) it was decided that it was Lenin who said it first. So we're all right.
There were at least a few more along the way, but there's no reason to belabour the point.
A Bibliography (Out?) of SortsI don't believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic... something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
- Mark Twain
Throughout this series, a lot of people have asked me where I got my information from. The answer to that question is, a lot of places. Books, TV shows, magazines, and, of course, the Internet.
It occurred to me that there are two ways to handle the posting of a "bibliography" here. The first would be to hunt down all my books and post title, author and ISBN number here so three or four people can go to the library with list in hand and track down some obscure titles. The second would be to skip the print stuff and post a list of hyperlinks to sites where I gleaned a lot of information; in this fashion, many more people will be likely to have access to this information with just a click.
Two advisories: first, some of these links might be broken. That's the nature of the Internet, and is unavoidable. Secondly, some of these links might initially seem to be of questionable "scholarly" importance. Which is true. But that doesn't make them any less valid for their own reasons. Learning about RPG archetypes is about much more than digging out old dusty tomes. It's about exploring what people think about who they are and where they've come from, and in that sense, as far as I'm concerned, every site listed here is valid for its own reasons.
That said, here are fifty of the places I got information from; some sites were used for more than one column, but in general the links listed first were used for older columns. This is not a definitive list, but it should serve as a distraction for at least a few hours. Links open in a new window.
It ain't over till it's over, and maybe not then, either.
A number of people have proclaimed that they'd like to "save" this column from the wrecking ball, perhaps not realizing that I don't think bringing this to an end is a disaster at all. When you're done with a novel, you put it on the shelf to read again later; when the movie is over, you watch the credits and then you head home to discuss it with friends. Likewise, when this column ends in about two paragraphs, it's time to set it aside, think about it, and then (I hope) come back to it a bit later to enjoy at your leisure at another time.
It would certainly be possible to resurrect the column in another form. Let's call it, Son of Archetypology. But I think this would be a mistake. Certainly, it would be possible to discuss some more archetypes (rangers, assassins, and the like), but within a very short period of time, I feel, it would become clear that such an effort would just be treading water, grasping at straws and trying to find more material when all the main topics had already been covered. It would also be possible for a column to focus on one particular archetype; for example, a deeper study of wizards and magic springs to mind. This, too, would probably be a mistake were I to attempt it, because half the time I'd merely be revisiting old topics, and the other half I'd be stretching myself thin trying to make it last longer than a few columns.
Will others try to follow in my footsteps? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly, there are things to take away from this whole experience, and I hope that people will do so. There's lots to write about here. But as for myself, this year-long column, and Archetypology in general, for now it's simply time to say goodbye.
Thanks for a great ride.