Friday, September 23, 2016

Blogging medievalism: Sypeck and Gygax

Back about a decade ago, when I started this blog, I felt a bit like a Johnny-come-lately. Lots of professional medievalists, a pretty bright and eloquent bunch, were already churning out commentary or autobiographical reflections at a great rate. I had a long list of their blogs. Of course those days are pretty much dead, as bloggers have moved on to faster, simpler platforms like FB or Twitter &c. Blog lists at the side of many a blog link to forums that haven't been added to since 2011. But there are the honorable exceptions, for instance Jeff Sypeck's Quid Plura?. Jeff is a Charlemagne scholar who is both light and serious in his way of handling things, all sorts of things, including his own poetry. Long may Quid Plura? wave.
A good example of Jeff's virtues is the blog entry/review “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”. It is a discussion of the importance of Gary Gygax, a co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, and the significance of D&D itself. The focus of the post, however, is Sypeck's contention that despite the appearance of an interesting biography of Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons there is no full investigation of the life and thought of this key figure of the popular culture of the past half-century.
This passage says much:
Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.
The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:
Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.
Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?
It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

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