In an age when the price of a movie ticket can get you three hours of hang-time in Middle Earth, fantasy worlds aren’t exactly at a premium. But stories that brush up against the truly fantastic, that capture anew some shivery weirdness just beyond our perception, remain all too rare. With so much fantasy so stubbornly un-fantastic, Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry (Small Beer Press, $16), a collection of “strange stories,” is all the more valuable. With grand feeling and inventiveness, Hand writes of modern life edging just into the impossible. Her ragged modern characters, often lost or stoned or just unfixed in their lives, set out over moors or into hidden parks in search of realities less dispiriting than our own.
In one of the shortest but most haunted stories here, a ne’er-do-well in London is shown something marvelous that just shouldn’t be, the kind of fanciful beast that thrives in the shadows of fairy tales. Afterwards, that witness's guide gives him a set of instructions every bit as strange as what he’s seen. He must never come and see it again, or share it with anyone else, with a single exception: One day he must bring exactly one other person to see it, and pass these same rules along.
Hand doesn’t bother with the kind of plot-heavy adventure writing that would follow if her narrator were to disobey. Instead, she leaves us to wonder whether we could follow those rules — and what within us makes them necessary. Why is it best for just one person at a time to know that this world overlaps with something long consigned to the imagination?
Elsewhere, Hand’s characters attempt to protect the borders between our existence and that of the fantastic. (Real estate developers are disapproved of in these stories.) Or, movingly, her protagonists seek to conjure up the fantastic themselves, as in “The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon,” the lengthy tale that kicks off the collection. In it, a model maker at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space museum attempts to recreate a bit of footage that has been destroyed: the brief, physics-flouting flight of one of those absurd early flying-machines. He’s doing so for the benefit of a dying lover, and this pairing of terrestrial loss with the soaring bizzare is quintessential Hand. She's adept at capturing everyday longing, the rundown feeling that's too many people’s default state. This she relieves with the feeling of possibility stirred by glimpses of something more.
For all her attentiveness to real life and the woozy folks inhabiting it, in one piece, “The Return of the Fire Witch,” she indulges in a phantasmagoric spree: a lulu about two woods witches who wind up in something like a terrorist plot against fantasyland’s new royalty. It’s a feast of inventive language and fungal weirdness. I read no story in 2012 more delightful.
The current vogue for fantastic creatures is often attributed to Tolkien, but today's elves and such — who favor kicking ass over singing in the woods — were likely midwifed (if not outright birthed) from Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D’s creators are justly credited with inventing many of the ideas that shape today’s video and board games: persistent worlds, characters who gain new attributes through experience, and the player’s direct personal investment in an avatar who may be as much or as little like you as you prefer. The game can be an act of collective narrative, a grueling simulator of medieval combat, or both at once.
But for all the imaginative freedom the game affords its players, the impulse of the war-game hobbyists who built it& mdash; at first Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax — was toward a standardization and classification of the elements of fantasy. In D&D, the gods and demons and elves aren’t unknowable; they’re captured in blocks of statistics, capable of doing x amount of damage and soaking up y. How powerful is a lightning bolt chucked by Zeus? Three minutes with the Fiend Folio and you’ll know. (Or, today, check the Wiki dedicated to your Mount Olympus MMORPG.)
So, when Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit pits 13 dwarves against three Tolkien trolls, the gamers in the audience can work out who should win and why — thanks to math Tolkien would find noxious. The dwarves should take this battle without many casualties, obliging Jackson to contrive a fight-stopping plot development to get the dwarves all captured, as Tolkien’s much more old-fashioned story demands.
Those contradictory impulses — to liberate fantastic play but also housebreak the imagination with rules and stats — are mostly subtext in Jon Peterson’s illuminating Playing at the World (Unreason Press, $34.95), the first serious history of the development of Dungeons & Dragons and the dawn of adult simulation and role-playing games.
Peterson touches on the long history of imaginative wargaming, from chess to H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” rules for toy soldiers, and he dips into the historical battle simulations pioneered by the Avalon Hill company in the 1960s. But his true subject is the rise of D&D: the influences (and legal troubles) that shaped its bestiaries and pantheons, the collaborative work between creators and players that refined the rules, and the pre-viral spread of its earliest handbooks into different science-fiction and wargaming communities.
“The game is played basically with paper, pencils, and a reeling mind,” one convert reports in a 1974 newsletter. Elsewhere, UC-Berkeley kids complain of having to ransack every Bay Area game shop before finally finding one copy of the first edition — which, like many early adopters, they promptly photocopied.
Peterson’s account stops before D&D has become a mass-marketed phenomenon and the source of those batshit '80s devil-worship controversies. But his account of its intellectual history is exhaustive, and, if you were to plow straight through, exhausting. Still, there’s much here to fascinate even readers with only a cursory interest in simulated dragon-slaying. All it takes to get caught up in this material is curiosity about why the trolls of Peter Jackson, which are of the high-def world of video games, seem so at odds with the trolls of Tolkien, which hail from the murky, unknowable world of fairy tales.