December 15th, 2015


The Canon Gap

Jeffro Johnson wrote a herculean series of 48 entertaining columns of interest to the devout Dungeons and Dragons player. Gary Gygax in Appendix N to his rules left of list of authors and novels useful and inspirational for the campaigns in the way the early campaigns were run. Mr. Johnson decided to read and review at least one book from each author or series mentioned.

He posted his final in this cyclopean monument to retrofiction:

He peppers his review with observations about D&D and the way it was originally meant to be played, or insights about the influence of “picaresque” fiction on the giants of early Weird Tales and pulp fiction stories.

Picaresque is not a word I had heretofore met. I love learning new words. It refers to fiction starring lovable rogues outwitting the bullies and officials of a decadent society: think of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, or, less lovable, Cugel the Clever.

Most D&D adventures that I have played in, were played not in the hero’s home town, and usually on the outskirks and ugly underside of society. It is ‘urban fantasy’ in the sense that “city mouse”morals apply. Earthsea and Middle Earth and Narnia have something more like “country mouse” morals. Sparrowhawk of Gont may be as ambiguous between light and dark as a Tao symbol, but there is nothing gritty, weary, or cynical about him. But most Weird Tales heroes would fit cheek by jowl with Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. (Except that Cugel would have pocketed the Maltese Falcon and gone with the Fat Man to Marrakech; and Solomon Kane would have stabbed the gunsel straight off with his Toledo steel blade.)

The columns are interesting to me not a book reviews — I’d read them all, or almost all — but as an artifact of sociology. You see, Mr Johnson and his generation are on the far side of an ‘canon gap’ from me and mine.

The boys of my generation read the adventure fiction and fantastic stories our fathers and grandfathers had. The boys of Mr Johnson’s youth, on the other hand, read only the slicker but more derivative texts of today, and have a disturbing and parochial tendency (which Mr Johnson himself does not share) to dismiss the older works unread, or, worse not to dismiss them because they never heard of them.

In times past, I could make reference to Solomon Kane or Cugel the Clever to a science fiction audience, and expect to be understood. Now, not so. We live in a golden age of science fiction: it is abundant, it is exploding. But the drawback is that the young whippersnappers have no need to seek back to prior decades of work to slake their thirst for the fantastic.

That itself would not be so bad a thing — Tempus Fugit, after all — save that a deliberate and concerted effort is afoot to stuff all the old writers down the memory hole, and work that is worth remembering is subject to calumny solely due to its age.

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Originally published at John C. Wright's Journal. Please leave any comments there.