Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Joy of the Impossible

Over at The Disoriented Ranger, Jens is talking about maps. I don’t want to get too deep into those articles yet because there’s a Part 3 coming and I want to be sure I understand what’s being said before I weigh in.

But there was a link to this terrible article at Tor about how Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth are “wrong.”

Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor—okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.

I imagine most geologists who read Tolkien can get over themselves enough to understand that the geography of Middle Earth has jack-all to do with geology. Or did they have fits when Sauroman stoked a mountain to anger? Or when a river was coerced into swelling its banks? Or the fact that rivers have daughters who sing and dance and marry men in yellow boots?

Even if you stick your fingers in your ears and go “LA-LA-LA!!!” whenever the War of Wrath is mentioned (like Alex Acks apparently does), there’s more than enough going on in just Fellowship to let you know that Middle Earth (like Narnia) is an animist world where geographical features are not just anthropomorphized but have actual spirits, personalities, and can take action in the world around them. Even individual trees can turn evil and carnivorous and devour unwary passers-by!

Your first reaction to the right-angle mountains of Middle Earth should not be, “THAT’S WRONG!1!!ELEVEN!!” It should be, “Whoa, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The rules that govern geology like plate tectonics and all that don’t apply here. I wonder what does?” Otherwise, you probably shouldn’t even start reading The Hobbit because you’ll never get past the part with the giant fire-breathing reptile that flies.

Reading fantasy (and most sci-fi that’s not diamond-hard like The Martian) is playing a game with the author. “This place I describe is just like the real world,” the author says, “except…” Everything that comes after the “except” is where the magic happens, the reason we read sci-fi and fantasy rather than mysteries or historical fiction. That’s where the game starts, where the author reveals the rules of the fantastical world to us and then use those rules as a lattice upon which to weave their story in entertaining and surprising ways. The only way to get things “wrong” is to contradict yourself; if you’ve already established that an angry mountain can be lulled back to sleep with lullabies, you need a good reason why this particular angry mountain isn’t lulled back to sleep with lullabies (like Sauroman keeps goading it to anger).

This is why things like magic need rules. We need to understand when the heroes can rely on magic and when they can’t. While you don’t need to explain every crossed-t and dotted-i, you do need to be consistent; if magic could put out a fire at the beginning of your story, you need to explain why it can’t at the end of the story (and a good author will give you that explanation far in advance of introducing the fire that magic can’t put out). And the underlying rules don’t really need to be delved too deeply into. The fairy-tale logic that says vampires are destroyed by sunlight doesn’t really need detailed explanation. But a vampire walking about in broad daylight does.

So when an author (or a DM) gives you something that’s impossible, that’s a sign that Something is Up and Needs Investigating. If you’re the DM in this case, feel free to point out, “Hey, this thing I just described, you’ve never seen anything like it before. In fact, it’s impossible because blah-blah-blah. It shouldn’t be there, but there it is!” so the players can be intrigued by it.