Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #3: “Winning Was Easy. Governing’s Harder.”

At once the night’s gloom blooms with unearthly hues and the sky becomes a shimmering sheet of fire. You have stood among those lights, basking in the warmth of Orm’s soul-hoard as it glowed upon the guests in Skyhold’s hall. Now, far off and half-frozen, you watch the Trickster’s overflowing wealth spill earthward like froth from a drunkard’s horn. One fading ember falls nearby, singeing the sky as it streaks past.

Fallen Gods takes place in the aftermath of a world-changing struggle called the Overthrow, in which the old, animistic Firstborn gods were driven from power by the united might of men. The leader of those men, Orm the Trickster, took up the mantle of godhood and bestowed the same on his closest followers. These new gods, called the Ormfolk, then ascended to the Cloudlands, where Orm built the golden Skyhold from the plundered flesh of Karringar, one of the defeated Firstborn.

This kind of struggle, in which new gods drive out old ones, is almost universal in mythology—the best known examples probably being the Titanomachy (in which Zeus and his family overthrew the Titans) and Paradise Lost’s struggle in heaven (when Jesus, on behalf of soon-to-be-made mankind, defeats Satan and his overweening angels). In the Norse mythology that helped inspire Fallen Gods, the comparable event is the Æsir-Vanir War (in which Odin and his Æsir clan fought the Vanir). As overthrows go, it’s one of the gentler ones, and indeed the war ended in a peaceful accord. But it still fits within a pattern in which a preexisting pantheon oriented toward nature, fertility, and magic is supplanted or subsumed by one oriented toward war, craft, and cunning.
While I was conceiving and detailing the world of Fallen Gods, I was reading a series of apocalyptic books about our natural world, the best of which (in no particular order) were The Sixth Extinction, The World Without Us, Wild Ones, The Moth Snowstorm, and The Peregrine. These suggested that we are ourselves living in the aftermath of a war in which mankind, with its craft and cunning, has defeated nature, assuming its place as the gods of the earth. (Consider the arc of history that runs from the rat-borne, man-killing Black Death’s arrival in Europe to the human-introduced, rabbit-killing myxamatosis’s arrival in Australia.) For most of humanity’s existence, the world’s wildness was oppressive, terrorizing us with ferocious animals, confining us with impassable boundaries, decimating our numbers with drought and disease, and obliterating us with immense disasters. From a posture of weakness and ignorance, early humans worshiped that wildness. From a posture of strength, later humans broke that wildness—what seemed at first the kind of “breaking” that happens when a rider tames a wild mustang, and what increasingly seems to be the kind of “breaking” that happens when you strike a work of art with a sledgehammer.
A second series of nonfiction books also influenced my take on the Overthrow: books about revolutions and their aftermaths. Among the ones that I found particularly striking were Moscow 1937, The Days of the French Revolution, Marie Arana’s Bolívar, and the memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. These suggested the pessimistic conclusion that whether a revolution’s goals are righteous or ignoble, and no matter how wicked its enemies, there is a high likelihood that the aftermath of a successful revolution will be catastrophe. After all, a process that selects for warriors capable of overthrowing their entrenched, mighty rulers is not selecting for (and, indeed, may even be selecting against) men and women capable of building and administering a just and competent civil government in the revolution’s wake. Meanwhile, the bloody, irregular war so often necessary to change rulers, along with the society-wide upending that follows, inevitably inflicts immense collateral damage on the land’s natural, economic, and cultural capital.
The Overthrow in Fallen Gods is a righteous one waged against wicked foes. The old gods were mostly bad gods—at least for mankind. Amarok, the Great Wolf, ravened among the flock of humanity and fed wolfishness to those that survived. The winged wurm Fraener destroyed any man, and any work of man, that might raise humanity up from drudging in the dirt. He was one of those oppressors (we all know them) who degrades his victims and then declares, “I am rightly above them, for look at how poor, and miserable, and squalid they are.” The ever-hungry creature known as Grath wandered the world as a force of famine, devouring whole fields and herds, destroying any hope of stability for a people perpetually on the knife-edge of starvation. Even the less awful beings worked woe: Berkanan who lured children to his woods and made them into wild things; the threefold goddess Karringar who kindled a gold-lust and an iron-madness in men that has never stopped burning; Trund who licked to life the lumbering trolls that were the terror of the hills and dales.
One can hardly fault Orm for honing his cunning and cruelty until he could cut down such gods. Orm was a trickster with a crooked mind and a warlord with a ruthless heart, and to become greater he became worse, a man who bent whatever men could become his tools and broke whatever men could not. He won his crown; he won his wars; he won his godhead. Perhaps not tired of winning, but certainly tired of struggling, he was content to bask in his hard-earned heaven. But a war-torn world needs a healer and a steward, not an absentee landlord. And even when Orm paid attention it was the attention of a man who had become more than a man by the craft of killing, and killing can only get the world so far.

Eventually, the soul-strength that the men and women of the world had given to Orm—the soul-strength he had stolen from the Firstborn—began to seep away. The people themselves weakened and shrank, and their faith weakened and shrank, and then their new gods weakened and shrank, until the very heavens weakened and shrank. Soon, there wasn’t room enough, or soul-strength enough, to share among fearful Ormfolk, who had, for long, long years, always been given more than enough of whatever they might want. These were gods who had forgotten, or had never learned, how to go hungry.
And so they began throwing out their own brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters—because even a smaller pie can yield bigger slices when fewer need to be cut. Fallen Gods begins in that time of dearth and death, when the player’s eponymous fallen god has just been cast down from the Cloudlands. He is desperate, not to save the world or free the world, but to flee the world and save himself, for he is no better than the others, only weaker. All the same, however, he must boldly face the bleak consequences of years of neglect and decline, the dangers of a world in which the gods won Ragnarök ... and thus robbed the earth of the rebirth that should have followed.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of music from Anders:

NEXT UPDATE: The Fallen God. 

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You can listen to more amazing music from Anders at his Soundcloud page:

If you were to read just two books from the list above, I would recommend Bolívar and The Peregrine, both of which are available from Amazon. (We don't get, and would never seek, revenue for clicks-through to Amazon, so no worries there!)

The best pitch for The Peregrine might well be this book talk at Stanford with Werner Herzog, which I have timestamped at a particularly moving passage from the book.