Friday, 22 February 2013

The lit darkness - John Blanche and primeval parents

Two rather stunning thoughts struck me yesterday. I'm almost certainly not the first to think either of them, but given they're both related to gaming, and to each other in some way too, I thought I'd discuss them here. They concern living links to the past and future.

The first is John Blanche, the artist who drew for the cover for the first British publication of D&D way back in 1977, but has also been a cornerstone of GW since the late '70s, throughout the '80s, the '90s, the first decade of the 21st century and well into this one.

Imagine his influence on the visual development of mainstream gaming, and on its more subtle conceptual basis. His imagination and willingness to go where he has enable our own. For me personally, his work is a last animus for the Warhammer worlds, their soul.

He's art director at GW today, but - believe it or not - also a regular commenter at blogs in our neck of the woods - like Tears of Istvaan - and a part of the INQ28 community. In the age of the OSR and an Oldhammer movement, that feels like the closure of a cycle. 

It reminds me of a passage in an early Grognardia post, on the legacy of Dragonlance:

... Dragonlance, by being associated with D&D, ... probably formed the imaginations of more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would, instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively. That process continues to this day, with D&D ever more influenced by its creative progeny rather than either cleaving to older traditions or creating its own.

Here's that passage from Ratspike, his 1989 collaboration with fellow luminary Ian Miller:

The first images of primeval man would concern themselves with hunting scenes, heroic action, mighty beasts, death masks, war paint, fetishes and trophies. Today we see the same sorts of themes represented in punk haircuts, studded leather and even in the imagery employed in films like Bladerunner and Aliens. This is the heritage of Western culture, and that is what I am trying to tap when I paint.

This leads into the second thought, which was probably set up long ago by this passage in Last and First Men, one of Olaf Stapledon's masterpieces of imaginative extrapolation:

... For millions of years the planet would be uninhabitable save for a fringe of Siberian coast. The human race was doomed for ages to a very restricted and uncongenial environment. All that could be hoped for was the persistence of a mere remnant of civilized humanity, which should be able to lie dormant until a more favourable epoch. ... 'We are the germ,' he said. 'We must play for safety, mark time, preserve man's inheritance. The chances against us are almost overwhelming, but just possibly we shall win through.'
And so in fact they did. Several times almost exterminated at the outset, these few harassed individuals preserved their spark of humanity. A close inspection of their lives would reveal an intense personal drama; for, in spite of the sacred purpose which united them, almost as muscles in one limb, they were individuals of different temperaments. The children, moreover, caused jealousy between their parentally hungry elders. There was ever a subdued, and sometimes an open, rivalry to gain the affection of these young things, these few and precious buds on the human stem. Also there was sharp disagreement about their education. For though all the elders adored them simply for their childishness, one at least, the visionary leader of the party, thought of them chiefly as potential vessels of the human spirit, to be moulded strictly for their great function. ...
The adults of the party devoted much of their leisure during the long winters to the heroic labour of recording the outline of man's whole knowledge. This task was very dear to the leader, but the others often grew weary of it. To each person a certain sphere of culture was assigned; and after he or she had thought out a section and scribbled it down on slate, it was submitted to the company for criticism, and finally engraved deeply on tablets of hard stone. Many thousands of such tablets were produced in the course of years, and were stored in a cave which was carefully prepared for them. Thus was recorded something of the history of the earth and of man, the outlines of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and geometry. Each scribe set down also in some detail a summary of his own special study, and added a personal manifesto of his own views about existence. Much ingenuity was spent in devising a vast pictorial dictionary and grammar, with which, it was hoped, the remote future might interpret the whole library.

What if the cave paintings of human prehistory are not actually art, or illustration, or tied to religious feeling as such, but represent a record of that time, a gift to us to recognise?

Think of a world of disease and very hard knocks, hostile elements and large creatures resisting the kill with limb and tooth, and low-level conflict within the group and without.

A world in which every young, fragile life is very clearly a thread on which the fate of the group hangs; in which every injury could mean measurable increase in hunger and hardship. An apocalypse round every corner - sudden death or slow, inexorable decline.

Wouldn't these people want to pass down what they knew to us, to the children of their children, to the young inheritors of their world? Or maybe - knowing the likelihood the apocalypse would one day come - down to other beings not quite like them, but close enough. Wouldn't they place it in the safest space they knew or could find, overcoming the fear of the dark, of the unknown, seeking shelter from the volatility of the lit world?

Interestingly, they may even have imagined that the creatures they hunted and ate would do this rediscovering, as being so much more numerous then, and more likely to live on.

Maybe guilt figured too, knowledge they could have done better, or that they did wrong.

If so, how generous.

It also reminds me of Memento, which can be seen as a hint to open the cycles at last. 

For a few thoughts on using Warhammer 40,000 for earlier humanity, there's this post.


Knight of Infinite Resignation said...

Thank you for this post, especially the last part about the gifts our ancestors have left for us, made me think about it in a new way.

Have booked to see the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum soon, so I'll have the opportunity to see some of these gifts first hand.

Porky said...

Thank you for taking the time to say so. Museums can be wonderful spaces and I have fond memories of time spent at the British Museum. That sounds like a fine exhibition too. We may be failing ourselves if we choose to look only where the light is strongest, where the records are fullest, rather than back into the spaces of prehistory. It's an exploration within too, and it may be that we need to work at the tools for that.

beat ronin said...

Very interesting. I think the idea that cave paintings are a sort of history or knowledge is not that outlandish at all - Australian aboriginal art is multi-purpose: historical record, ritual and place-marker, to the extent that it is unclear whether or not it is appropriate for other artists to appropriate the techniques; or even for indigenous artists to use the techniques in the same way western artists use techniques, as mere tools in an art-making tool box. I imagine that the purpose of cave art was something like tha. Magical not because it was a "spell" designed for good hunting or whatever, but because it magically transferred knowledge from one generation to the next.

On the Dragonlance thing, it certainly does seem as though D&D is a sort of uroboros. It makes me sad though. Future fantasy writers allowing past writers to consciously influence them is only going to result in a sort of 'zooming-in' of existing fantasy themes and tropes; an ever-narrowing focus until we are reading books about what were previously shadowy crannies of fantasy, in an effort to create something novel while still remaining within familiar territory. For example, stories where what were traditionally villains or voiceless monsters are now the protagonists.

This is in contrast to a zooming-out, or expanding into new territory, which is only possible when story-tellers try to escape from where they think they have to be to be considered "fantasy."

In your comment when you mentioned tools for inner exploration of history I was reminded of Robert Graves's The White Goddess and his method of analepsis, or poetic inspiration that reveals the truths locked in history. Of course mainstream academic history considers that method extremely suspicious, and will continue to do so while we live in an era defined by a scientific paradigm of knowledge.

Porky said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

Magic does seem a good analogy for the effect of time, as we perceive it at least. The metaphor of zooming in too is a good way of explaining that problem. As for zooming out, we once discussed creativity and possibly getting back to first principles - here of course - and this certainly ties in with that.

Re those techniques and this paradigm, it does make sense to reassess regularly the things that challenge our views, to prevent us losing our bearings or building on less than solid ground. But of course that also means we need to record or preserve any given challenge until the next occasion for reassessment comes, which may be the critical point - easily overlooked when our minds are elsewhere.

Whatever the detail of the argument re The White Goddess, Graves does look to have been someone willing to challenge, to check our certainty, against a major circle of the time and maybe against wider circles too.

bombasticus said...

Quite nice. I think you just split the "fantastic/medieval" axis of our wargames, but it's early. Hope to see more of this kind of thing.

Porky said...

Thanks and welcome! Today the fantastic/medieval axis of our wargames - maybe tomorrow the party. It's a slippery slope up.

bombasticus said...

To all tomorrow's (split) parties!