Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #5: Witches and Dwergs

The witch gives a low growl and grabs a dwerg by his scruffy beard. “The maid is mine,” she warns, and all four dwergs break down blubbering at her cry. “Mother, mother,” they whine, wheedling for at least a lock of golden hair or a touch of the hag’s hard hand. She swats them away in Karringar’s name, and they flee beneath the earth like worms before a crow. Without waiting, the witch grips the girl’s chin and plants a kiss upon her brow. Lithe limbs twist, smooth skin sags, and gold goes gray, till the young one’s weathered and withered as the crone who claimed her. The witch licks her lips and stands, eyes agleam with stolen dreams. There is no more to be done.

Left unminded for so long since the war of the Overthrow, the land of Fallen Gods is now beset on all sides by foes both worldly and unworldly. While the player’s titular god certainly cannot ignore the danger of outlaws and upstarts, the greatest threat comes from beings worse than men. This update will discuss two categories of such foes: witches and dwergs.

But before diving into the specifics of these two groups, I want to step back for a moment to talk about the way that myth and folklore have inspired FG’s fantastical setting. This is a long digression, so if you would like to get back to the point, skip everything between the asterisks.
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Like basically anyone of my generation or later (I was born in 1980)—particularly any English speaker—the fantasy I grew up with was “Tolkienian.” To be sure, there was plenty of other stuff around the margins, particularly in children’s books: King Arthur; Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain; C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia; Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series (though this owes a detectable debt to Tolkien); Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. And of course there was distinctive stuff that lingered on from pulp fantasy stories that weren’t “kids’ stuff,” particularly the sword and sorcery legacy of Robert E. Howard. And most fantasy movies of my childhood (like Kull or Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal) weren’t Tolkienian at all, perhaps because of film rights and production costs. But at least for me, this was marginalia, with the main columns of the fantasy “text” being a narrow one penned by Tolkien himself and a wide one penned by his imitators (Brooks, Feist, McKiernan, Williams, etc., etc.).
Moreover, because Dungeons & Dragons consciously imitated Tolkien’s races of dwarves, elves, halflings, and orcs, RPGs and other games simply reinforced the sense that this was fantasy. Indeed, Tolkien’s success was so overpowering that his dwarves (not dwarfs, as it ought to be) and elves managed to displace (at least for nerds like me) their established antecedents from Disney and Christmas (and Keebler), powerful cultural icons themselves. To be sure, various glosses were added to the Tolkien model—the strongest being the Games Workshop patina of green-skinned orcs and Scotch dwarves and condescending elves, which came to me first by way of Warcraft and Myth. But these modest variations merely served to confirm that fantasy was inherently Tolkienian.

The problem with occupying the middle of the mainstream is that the sheer force of its flood scours away the details—sometimes sharp, sometimes coarse, sometimes even ugly—that make a thing itself rather than merely a polished lump that fits comfortably in the hand. I was once told (and have never verified or disproven) that Tolkien conceived Middle Earth in an effort to create an English legendarium, in part out of concern that the chivalric romances of King Arthur were more French than English and were thus not properly English at all. If that was his intention, he did not reckon with the speed and thoroughness with which mass culture could dislodge that legendarium from English soil. What would Tolkien, a man who agonized over his miscoinage of “dwarves” as a “piece of private bad grammar rather shocking in a philologist,” think about Gandalf’s heirs “pre-buffing tanks”? Alas (and hurray!), having founded a genre, Tolkien’s creation became generic.
Luckily enough, one can still walk the same roads Tolkien took from our modern world, through our mythic past, to a timeless “fairy land.” I had tried, unsuccessfully, wandering that direction as a kid, after being repeatedly informed (always condescendingly by people who had never read Tolkien and often had not sat through Das Rheingold) that Tolkien had “just copied Wagner.” Thus misled, I spent a long rainy childhood day in front of a fuzzy television watching PBS’s airing of the entire Ring Cycle, complete with ridiculous stagecraft for Fafner. Being too young to really appreciate either of the masters or their masterpieces, I saw no connection whatsoever between the decidedly unheroic heavy-set singers groaning out tragic German and the delightful hobbits facing off against trolls, goblins, orcs, wargs, wights, and wraiths in rollicking adventure. This should have come as no surprise since I already knew the story of Andvari’s ring from childhood Norse mythology books and had never linked it with The Hobbit or the The Lord of the Rings. But still, the experience soured me the prospect of looking behind the fantasy novels I was reading.
It wasn’t until years later, when reading the Poetic Edda’s “Völuspá” that I first realized that Wagner’s and Tolkien’s two magic-ring stories really had sprung from the same Norse tales. For there, in its list of dwarfs, are Durin, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thrain, Thorin, Thror, Fili, Kili, Gloin … and Gandalf? (Who knew that “wand-elf” was a dwarf’s name?) And the more I wandered through these myths and stories and sagas, the more familiar elements I found. Here was more than just the earth in which Tolkien had planted the Lord of the Rings; here were the roots from which he had cultivated it.

I learned then the (probably obvious) lesson that however ridiculous fantasy tropes have become, they hold such innate appeal for us because they are a part of us. There is a reason trolls fear fire; there is a reason dwarfs crave gold and gems; there is a reason why dragons are simultaneously noble and loathsome; why witches are warted; why swords have names; why names have power. And these reasons fit together, the way words fit together. You can make a sentence out of any kind of words and convey information, but that information is only part of the sentence’s possible meaning. When the right words are used in the right order, a spell is cast, and there is power because we are not just giving literal information, we are calling upon a wealth of hidden knowledge inside the listener or reader. “The dwarves of yore made mighty spells, while hammers fell like ringing bells.” It is no coincidence that this chain of metrical Anglo-Saxon words swells inside us, while by contrast no spirit rises up to answer, “In the past, dwarves used magic in their forges.” And even less power is found when both language and lore are displaced, as in the Kohan setting in which I had the privilege to work: “In the past, gauri used magic in their forges.”

Tolkien understood the magic in words, and he understood the magic in lore. His novels became so thoroughly enmeshed in culture because they were already enmeshed in culture; Tolkien played old songs on strings that were already inside us, even if they may have needed his tuning and touch.

When I say “us,” it’s not as a man of English stock or Scandinavian heritage; my father’s side came from Belarus, and my mother’s people are Scots Irish and Huguenot French. None of them ever spoke Anglo-Saxon and none of them ever told the Norse myths as their own folk stories. Yet that lore has become part of my story—just as, to my surprise, I found parts of myself in the myths of the Haida people in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Today’s culture is a rope woven from many strands. In tracing the strand of “Northernness” I am not trying to fray that cultural rope, but to bind it more tightly.

So, to build the world of Fallen Gods, I wanted to walk as far back down the road blazed by Tolkien as I could, and then wander off the trail and try to find my own way back. Tolkien, of course, was a brilliant scholar, a gifted linguist, and a man who had spent his life on serious rather than frivolous pursuits. There is thus exactly no chance that I could achieve anything on an order comparable to his. But it would be an interesting hike all the same, and perhaps might produce a kind of fantasy that is both familiar and disquietingly other.

Whew! Now onto the specifics of how that method yield FG’s witches and dwergs.
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The witches of European folklore and fairytales are terrifying beings, but most of that terror has been lost over the centuries. Perhaps that’s for the best, given the awful historical consequences of that anti-witch hysteria. But it still seems to me that something is impoverished when witches are relegated to buffoonery, as in the children’s books Room on the Broom or The Big Pumpkin.

So thoroughly have witches been defanged that we are comfortable reading stories to children in which they do the most awful things. For instance, in the children’s classic Little Brother and Little Sister, a witch curses all the water in a forest so that if the desperately thirsty runaway titular siblings (her step-children) drink it, the brother will turn into a predatory beast and eat his sister. (Note for a moment that the title itself emphasizes that these are not merely children but little children.) The siblings last long enough to reach a stream that merely turns the brother into a stag, at which point he succumbs. Years later, after the king nearly kills the stag, he falls in love with the sister, marries her, and conceives a child with her. The witch then boils the sister alive and disguises her own hideous daughter to take the sister’s place in the royal marital bed. This is not a “children’s classic” in the sense that it’s buried away in the original Grimm Brothers’ collections; it was sold as a standalone read-aloud children’s book well into the 1980s.

LB&LS encapsulates some (but not all) of essential “witchiness.” Witches strike at our most sacred institutions and most powerful taboos: the bonds of family (supplanting the children’s mother; attempting to cause a brother to kill his sister; interfering with the sister’s marriage and maternal relationship—the newborn must suckle from a ghost, presumably since the faux mother has no milk to give); the taboo against cannibalism (it is not enough to cause sororicide, it must be cannibal sororicide); the order of good governance (insinuating her witch-daughter onto the throne); the boundary between man and beast (dehumanizing the brother who not only loses his human shape but also his ability to restrain himself by reason). Of course it’s just one story. I could cite Hansel and Gretel (caging children like animals and then eating them; enticing the children to eat sweets that, in at least some tellings such as Humperdinck’s opera, are made from other children) or Macbeth (spoiling Macbeth’s friendships, upending his marriage, and inciting civil war) or any number of other sources. Even the more quotidian crimes of witches (curdling milk in a cow’s udder or afflicting a maiden with acne) have a similar quality of attacking what is good, clean, wholesome, beloved, or holy precisely because it is good, clean, wholesome, beloved, or holy.

As I talked about in a recent interview with Chris Picone, these same qualities in witches give them a kind of countercultural appeal. By defying social norms and by living beyond the margins of society (often in a cave, a forest, a swamp), they can occupy the role of an off-the-grid iconoclast or a gadfly. Whether the ones who first told the tales intended it or not, it’s hard not to read into them the sense that witches exploit our flaws when they strike at our virtues such that they are exposing, and punishing, our hypocrisy. For instance the same king who (1) is too stupid to notice that his beautiful bride (Little Sister) is now an ugly hag-daughter also (2) betrothed that bride at first sight in a hut in a forest knowing nothing about her. Has he not invited the possibility of being wedded to a witch? (In the Saga of the Volsungs, Byrnhild warns Sigurd against exactly such reckless behavior.) Is it not Hansel’s gluttony for sweets (and not just his hunger) that drives him and his sister into the witch’s clutches, and does this piggishness perhaps invite being roasted like a suckling for dinner?

In Fallen Gods, we have tried to capture both halves of the witches. They are physically and magically powerful, vulgar, independent, and rich in hidden lore. They claim to be daughters of a “tenth sister”—the other Nine being the Singers who sang the world into its shape—devoted to thwarting orderly fate to create the chaos in which freedom can exist. (The association of witches with wyrd, fate, is an old one that shows up not just in the modern usage of weird but in the Weird Sisters of Macbeth. The valkyries delivering the nightmarishly prophetic “Darraðarljóð” in Njal’s Saga (Brennu-Njáls saga) certainly seem like witches, too.) Because witches are defying an order that is very flawed, their defiance has a certain nobility to it. But they are ugly, evil creatures, and their help almost always involves the kind of fundamental wrongs discussed above.
In appearance and character, our witches draw also from the saga tradition of “troll-women.” In the Icelandic sagas, the word “troll” can encompass both the giant beings that we normally think of as trolls and a more nebulous concept of otherness and magic (take, for instance, the “troll-bull” on Iceland’s coat of arms or the term “troll-drum” used, pejoratively, to describe the Sami shaman’s instrument). Troll-women are vividly described in The Saga of Illugi, Foster-Son of Grid (Illuga saga Gríðarfóstra) and The Saga of Grim Shaggy-Cheek (Gríms saga loðinkinna).

Here is the first saga’s description:

Snot hung above her mouth, she had a beard and she was bald. Her hand was like an eagle’s claw, and her sleeves both burned, and the cape that she wore went no further than her rump, and was scanty all over. Her eyes were green, her forehead straight, and her ears rose like a mast. You could not call her fair.

And here is the second one’s:

But he’d not been lying there long, when he saw a woman comingif you could call her a woman. She couldn't have been more than a seven-year-old girl, going by her height, but so fat, Grim doubted he could have got his arms around her. She was long-faced, hard-faced, hook-nosed, with hunched up shoulders, black-faced and wobbly-jowled, filthy-faced and bald at the front. Both hair and hide of her were black. She wore a shriveled leather smock. It barely reached down to her buttocks. Hardly kissable, he thought, as she had a big booger dangling down in front of her chops.

This striking language formed the starting point for Dan Miller’s wonderful sprite, shown above.

Whew! Enough about witches, and onto dwergs.
Dwergs are our “dwarfs.” Their name is a rare instance in Fallen Gods in which we’ve used an obscure word where colloquial English retains an accurate Anglo-Saxon term. The reason, alluded to in asterisk-bracketed digression above, is that “dwarfs” and “dwarves” simply hold too powerful a connotation of stoic, stubborn, hard-drinking, brogued, axe-wielding, orc-bashing, underground-city-building nobility. English has held onto the old word but its modern meaning is strongly contrary to what I want to convey. “Dwerg” (from the Old English dweorg and Norse dvergr) can be recognized quickly enough and pronounced easily enough, but has just enough distance to let me dress it with different connotations.

Dwergs were one of the first beings I “defined” for Fallen Gods, and they established my methodology for others. I started by looking for what seemed the essential qualities of mythological and folkloric dwarfs: they are small (though scholars question whether they were viewed as small when the myths were first told); they live underground; they covet gold and beautiful women; they are master craftsmen and cunning cowards. Notably (and lampooned in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation), they seem to have no women. And, indeed, per the eddas, they were conceived without a woman’s involvement, directly from the dead (male) giant Ymir: either spawning spontaneously from his rotting flesh like maggots (in the Prose Edda) or being made from a mixture of his blood and bones (in the Poetic Edda).
Even if it has become dissociated from dwarfs themselves, our culture routinely invokes the symbol of the ugly, stunted, sexually deprived, technically gifted, darkness dwelling social pariah who is belittled by, and bitterly plots his revenge against, handsome heroes and their beautiful paramours. For instance, how many times have people who enjoy computer games been reviled by their critics as unattractive nerds who live in their parents’ basements, doomed never to have a girlfriend? This is one of the milder examples for how this symbol is used as a weapon.

The sum of these flaws is a being that is rightly unloved. This is vacuum so awful to basic decency that when it appears, we rush to fill it: witness the need to humanize those who seem least worthy of love (tyrants; serial killers; etc.). Norse dwarfs were never nursed by a mother; never kissed by a lover; never admired by a child. They live away from green, blue, and sunlight. The softest thing in their world is gold, and inevitably it is stolen from them. And before it’s stolen, they cut the gold from the earth, burn it in fire, strike it with hammers. They have brothers; their brothers kill them. They foster sons; their foster-sons kill them. And this is their just deserts, the myths and folklore teach us. Alone; unloved; cut off.

So that is where we started with our dwergs: the lonely, bitter yearning of stunted beings beneath the earth. Our dwergs were born when the threefold goddess Karringar was killed and broken open. Inside her was the gold of the Golden Maiden (taken by Orm to make Skyhold); the iron of the Iron Crone (left to rust beneath the sleet and snow); and the quicksilver of the Silver Lord, which spilled to earth and begat the dwergs upon the dirt and rock.
The moment of their birth was thus the moment at which they were separated, forever, from the mother and maiden they loved. They crave what they have lost, and clutch for it in gold (which they eat) and stolen maidens:  This girl will never meet the need they feel, the half-crazed craving for their golden thirdsister, lover, lost when the quicksilver seed spilled from Karringar’s shattered womb and spawned them in the filth.  And when they work in iron and grovel before an iron-willed witch, it is the fond approval of maternal love they want and will never get. For they are unloved, rightly, and in all things, their craft is bent, at bottom, on wrighting (not righting) wrongs: cursed gifts; wicked schemes; cruel traps; kidnappings and killings.

So, at last, we come to the end of this long, long update. Two foes down. The next will, I hope, fall faster.

NEXT UPDATE: Mappa Mundi

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You can read Illugi’s Saga, Grim’s Saga, many other sagas, the Eddas, and more on William P. Reaves’s site Germanic Mythology: http://www.germanicmythology.com/

You can also read many sagas, including a rather dated translation of Njal’s Saga at the Icelandic Saga Database: http://sagadb.org/

You can read Chris Picone’s interview of me and Vince Weller, the man behind The Age of Decadence and The New World, here: http://www.cshpicone.com/interview-mark-and-vince

I mentioned A Story as Sharp as a Knife in the update. It is, in my opinion, not merely a fascinating recounting of Haida mythology but a powerful argument for preserving the tales of the past and letting them speak with their own voices. Fallen Gods does not do that; it is not even a retelling of the source material so much as a deconstruction and reconstruction of it. But the game would not be possible without the tireless work undertaken by skalds like Snorri, unknown monks like those who made and preserved the Codex Regius, and scholars like Neil Price, who helped me not only with his books and lectures, but also by taking the time to respond to my email and point me toward helpful first- and second-hand sources. There is a trite expression that “every day is a gift.” That is true not only for the day we enjoy now and the days to come, but also for the long train of days gone by, and we are the fortunate inheritor of those gifts, sometimes worn and sometimes dated though they may be.