Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Knights of the Round Table

We've already started receiving some excellent questions from you guys, and since we have this sweet blog where we can talk about any kind of myth- or game-related stuff we please, we figure there's no reason we can't start answering a few of them. This week, this one particularly interested us: Do you consider King Arthur to be mythology, and if so, is it appropriate mythology for Hero's Journey?

This is a neat question because the first thing it makes us do is talk about what mythology is, which is not as cut-and-dried an answer as it might seem. Mythology, as a general concept, includes a lot of things: in general, it refers to a collection of myths, which are individual stories belonging to a single culture or area that shares them in common. It collects sacred narratives and religious tales, often the ones that a given culture considered of paramount importance to their religious life; cultural stories that describe a culture's history, accomplishments or ideals in order to preserve and promote them; folktales that give anecdotal explanations for phenomena beyond humanity's ability to understand or explain; and psychological dramas that function not only as a story about characters but as a teaching tool to shape the personalities and thoughts of listeners.

When we talk about mythology in reference to Hero's Journey, most of the time we mean the myths of a culture's religion and deities, which means stories in which the gods appear and take actions, or in which their actions thereafter affect the world and its heroes in a meaningful way. Myths that narrate Ra creating the world from his own fluids or Susanoo descending to the world of humanity to slay the fearsome Yamata-no-Orochi are important tales from both a cultural point of view, telling listeners about what kinds of deeds are heroic and important and what kinds of values people should aspire to, and a religious one, sharing with audiences the tales of the very beings that are worshiped, their powers or functions and the reasons that they are important to a religion or worthy of praise. Myths on the heroic level, such as the story of Heracles defeating the giants Albion and Bergeron with the blessing of Zeus or the tale of Cu Chulainn realizing his destiny on the battlefield as foretold by the Morrigan, serve the same purposes but with the added closeness and personality of heroes who walk among mortals, and whose struggles and triumphs are therefore more real and emotionally immediate to those who hear about them.

But tales that relate to a culture's religion are not the only stories that can be classified mythology, and the Arthurian romances are in their own right absolutely mythological tales. Their religiosity is debatable; certainly at this point in history, their connection to Christian theology is undeniable, most notably in the quest for the Holy Grail of Christ, but scholars have been debating for centuries whether those stories were merely adapted and repurposed by Christianity, and once described tales having to do with the religions of the ancient Celtic tribes or the exploits of ancient mortal kings and warleaders. They are symbolic tales that show their listeners certain virtues and vices, that tell magical stories of heroes to both entertain and teach, and are classic examples of mythology whether Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred and all the others were ever connected to a religion or not.

While there's a whole massive world of meaning in the concept of mythology and the possible ways it could be expressed in a game, in some ways Hero's Journey has a very simple premise. You become a hero of legend, touched by divinity, and you go forth and embark on adventures. One of the key parts of this, for us, is that Heroes are in some way touched by the divine; even if they begin as ordinary human beings, they become part of something greater that allows them to ascend above the ranks of the mortal and into the company of gods and fellow heroes alike. The stories of mythology, for the most part, are not overly concerned with the doings of normal people; they relate tales of cosmic power, heroic feats that mere humans could not have managed, or emphasize mortal concerns on the grand scale of a heroic drama to give them more immediacy and poignancy.

Asking whether Arthurian legend is "suitable" for Hero's Journey is a little bit of a loaded question; it's hard to figure out what it means, exactly. Are the Arthurian knights suitable patrons for creating God-Touched Heroes to go out into the world? No, because they are not and never were gods or divine powers themselves. Should Arthurian stories be considered "real" in the gameworld, where presumably many other myths are considered real thanks to their religions remaining active and vibrant? Maybe, but it would depend on who believes them and why, and you would likely see a very similar spectrum that you see in the real world - some people who believe they really happened in history, others who think they might be altered versions of some original real happening that gained mythic elements over time, and still others who think of them as purely fictitious, early examples of popular entertainment. Can the characters and stories of the Arthurian legends be a part of a Hero's Journey game, if the group playing it wants them to be?

There we can absolutely tell you yes. The characters of the Arthurian legends, even in the forms of their tales where they have nothing to do with any pagan gods or Christian theology, are quintessential Heroes. They go forth and adventure in a world of sorcery and skill, suffer crushing downfalls and transcendent victories as a result of their beliefs and actions, and tell stories that resonate with humanity throughout the ages. They are perfect examples of the kinds of characters that you might see in Hero's Journey, and if a game chose to present them as NPCs, companions or just figures who went before the current characters, they would fill those roles admirably. Games could play in the age of chivalry and rub elbows with those famous knights, or they could consider them echo tales descended from myths of ancient Celtic or Roman gods that add to those deities' stature and history, or they could simply follow in their footsteps, seeking their own versions of the Questing Beast.

Our goal for Hero's Journey is to allow players to become the heroes of mythology - whatever mythology is nearest and dearest to their hearts, and whatever kinds of heroes they want to play. Because a given myth, folktale or canon of stories does not directly connect to one of the polytheistic religions that rule the game's world does not mean that it cannot be used to excellent erffect in a game; because there is no deity in charge of a given story does not prevent it from existing. Players can and should draw inspiration from whatever heroes call to them, including those of the misty days of Camelot.

So all the would-be lords and ladies of the realm, take heart: the knights went before you, and after them you may follow.