The fairy queen of the elder race

This post (back in June!) got me thinking, and I had too much to say to put it in the comments there.  First off, yes — there is a bit too much Tsathoggua and not enough Baba Yaga.  Too much knee-jerk love for anything labeled ‘Lovecraftian,’ and this is not good when you notice how meaningless that term has become.

5stonegames seems to see weird tale/sword & sorcery/Appendix N stuff as very different from traditional fantasy (fairy tales), since his examples of what he’d rather see all point to traditional fantasy.  The difference, if I’m understanding him, is that weird fantasy depends on incomprehensible evil, whereas fairy tale evil is comprehensible.  A witch will eat you because she is vile and gluttonous and ogrish.  Tsathoggua will eat you if he’s hungry, and if not he may just ignore you or in rare cases help you.  Tsathoggua is incomprehensible.  He’s an alien intelligence and there is no telling what is going on behind those languid eyes.

Still, I can’t help but think the difference between ‘weird fantasy’ and ‘fairy tale fantasy’ is in fact vanishingly small, although everything depends on exactly what you mean by each term.

To me weird fantasy is: the sword & sorcery genre (Howard, Lieber, Poul Anderson, etc.), the weird tale genre (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Howard again, etc.), and similar works — Jack Vance’s Dying earth, Fletcher Pratt’s Well of the unicorn, and so on.  What ties them all together for me is that the ‘magic’ is dangerous, possibly alien, and human heroes usually do no more than dabble in it.  Wizards risk some loss of their humanity by practicing their craft. The protagonists may or may not overcome whatever odds or gods oppose them — for Smith and Lovecraft, doom is more common; for the others, death and doom is no more likely than success and fame.

On the other hand my impression of fairy tale fantasy (as compiled Grimm and Lang and such, and as authored by writers like Lord Dunsany) is pretty similar.  Magic and the fairy realm are dangerous, possibly alien, and inhuman.  Witches and wizards are often literally inhuman.  The protagonists in fairy tale-type stories often succeed against all odds but sometimes they die horribly.  Jack slays the giant, but Suppen-Kaspar wastes away.  Fairy tales are weird.

I think ‘weird tales,’ ‘sword & sorcery,’ and ‘fairy tales’ are all cut from the same cloth.  Is Lord Dunsany’s “The sword of Welleran” sword & sorcery, weird tale, or fairy tale?  Why not all three?  Way back when I was running a GURPS Conan campaign in college, I considered Dunsany’s “The fortress unvanquishable save for Sacnoth” to be perfectly in line with Howard and fodder for an adventure.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. I think the problem is that “Lovecraftian” to many has been reduced to a charicature of writhing tentacles and stock phrases (Eldritch Blasphemous Squamous Gibbous Things That Should Not Be and so forth), where the core of exactly what Lovecraft and his contemporaries were describing is utterly lost. Cthulhu isn’t scary because he’s a big dragon with an octopus head, he’s scary because he’s a being of utterly implacable, unknowable intelligence: “The Shadow Out of Time” isn’t unsettling because earth was ruled by weird conical stalk-eyed creatures, it’s unsettling because everything we thought we knew about the earth is turned upside down. Too often people just look at the surface elements and not look beyond.

    Personally, I think Baba Yaga herself could be a fantastic Blackwoodian creature, if one goes in the style of the Wendigo.

  2. Yes, I think the Lovecraftian mythos, like zombies in pop culture, has become largely a shorthand and has lost most of its power for me because of it.

    it’s unsettling because everything we thought we knew about the earth is turned upside down.

    This works great for a twentieth century, or even nineteenth century Earth world view. It’s a terrifying stand in for the death of god. I’m not sure it works as well in a D&D game. I suppose the players might put themselves in the mindset of a peasant that had worshipped a god all their lives, but I’m figuring they will be expecting Demogorgon, Tiamat, evil elementals, etc bent on the destruction or dominance of the world anyway. I guess a really good DM could make the distinction clear in a campaign, but yeah, I think the mythos has become mostly a lexicon and a bestiary.

    Hmm, maybe that’s fairy tales still have some power in D&D for me– because that element of the unexpected still works: the kind old grandma actually wants to bake and cannibalize you, etc.,

  3. fairy tale magic and Weird magic are very similar in tone.

    the different thing is Tolkien, bowdlerized fairy tales, and other early 20th c. popular Classy fantasy.

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