Medieval Fantasy

When I was in my teens I had a concept of the European ‘middle ages’ based mostly on Hollywood and on fictional characters in children’s literature (Rudyard Kipling, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff were among my favourite ‘historical’ authors). The influence of Hollywood was also huge, since seeing is to some extent believing, and the movies were the way I’d ‘actually seen’ the medieval world. I saw The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) at the Wanaka movie theatre some time before my seventh birthday, and then El Cid (1961) aged about ten in Palmerston North. Disney’s version of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty (1959) also had a large influence on my conception of the middle ages (clean and green), as did Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. I started off seeing myself as ‘Robin Hood’ assisted by a Lincoln Green costume  Mum made me at about age  five and I’ve continued dressing up as someone ‘medieval’ ever since. Between 18 and 24 I seldom dressed in any other way.

Apparently a world of medieval fantasy has been my sometime refuge from what I’ve regarded as an ugly and imperiled modern world. Tolkein’s imaginary Middle Earth became my greatest passion in the world of literature from when I first began to read  Lord of The Rings aged about twelve. By age 15 I had begun to read and think about the English Middle ages with regard to academic history as well, though mostly in the context of the war-games I’d been playing with my plastic model knights.

Helped and encouraged by some of my friends I made a medieval landscape out of cardboard, plaster of Paris, pencils and paint. My purposes in modelling it and wargaming with it were always narrative and often cinematic. I had a ‘self in miniature’ in 1966, an imaginary eagle-shielded 15th century Scottish warlord who I had dubbed ‘The Earl of Weir’ though Michael Ross (a friend descended from the real Earls of Ross) may have been closer to the mark in calling this fantasy role playing character ‘The Weird Earl’.

Michael and I created a brief movie which gives something of the flavour of our teenage recreation of a medieval world and here is part of it. I’ve added a replacement narration as the one I recorded for it in 1967 was on reel to reel tape:

withered rose for web

A logical projection from such fantasy was ‘D&D’, Dungeons and Dragons, marketed by TSR in the US from 1974. Either in that year or the next I first experienced a version of that game when introduced to it by Piers Maclaren at Moonsilver Forest, a short-lived forest fastness and would-be intentional community that was in some ways a Live Action Role Playing game itself.

I wrote two ‘modules’ for a dice based fantasy role playing game in the mid 1970s and played them first with the children of my hippy friends in Golden Bay. Later I played with my son Eldon in the 1980s, by which time TSR’s boxed sets and publications were available.

My version of the game was based in an imaginary world which by the 1980s I had largely mapped and named Sunarbor. When I created later ‘campaign modules’ for Sunarbor these resembled more the modules marketed by TSR for D&D. But they remained contiguous with ‘The Gelb’, a module I’d created in the 1970s before I even knew the game as marketed by TSR.

I’ve always liked being the Dungeonmaster ( or DM), who is the game host rather than a game competitor. As I play D&D it’s not competitive and is cooperative storytelling based on role play, with the use of dice, tables and lists to help to randomise events. Here is a story that I wrote after a game played around 1984 where I was the the DM with Eldon and two other 10 – 12-year-olds as player characters. I started writing this in 1986 but never quite completed it till 2003:

Humphrin’s Tale

In about 1991, after I’d moved to Rainbow Valley, I spotted a new game called Heroquest in a department store. I bought, it mainly for the fun of painting all its plastic miniatures, and it has proved a useful way of introducing novices to D&D. My daughter Beth and her friend Theo played some Heroquest  and  Jonathan my youngest, born in 1997 started off with Heroquest at about three and is still playing D&D at age eighteen with equally enthusiastic friends, sometimes over long distances by means of Skype.

Here is a story I’ve just written after playing yet another game of heroquest:

The Trial illustrated

I used to think I was at odds with the mainstream in my wholehearted medievalism and my love of fantasy. Lord of The Rings turned out according to one survey to have been New Zealands’ best loved book after The Bible, and that was years before the making of the Peter Jackson films! How many of the most successful of recent computer games are set in medieval-seeming and fantastic alternate realities? And now we have the TV smash hit series Game of Thrones. I don’t pretend to understand why medieval fantasy is becoming ever more engaging in a fast paced and by some accounts post-modern world. All I can say with certainty is I have been a part of it.