Monday, October 5, 2020

The Occidental and the Oriental in Faerun, Part 1

 I'm a giant fucking nerd, so when I was reading Edward Said's Orientalism for class today my mind inevitably went to applying it to the Forgotten Realms. And there's a lot to be gained there, by applying Said's critique and analysis of Orientalism to the Forgotten Realms.

So let's do it!

First off, a couple notes. I didn't read all of Orientalism in one go, just the first third; this isn't academically rigorous but is good enough for application to elfgame settings I believe? Also READ IT YOURSELF IT IS SO GOOD AND SO INFLUENTIAL.

I'm White and born and raised in Canada, same as the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood. Just so you know my bias here.

Importantly, Said's definition of the Oriental (the historical/cultural use in the real world) is not the same as it has typically been used in D&D. In D&D it's used as a synonym for East Asian, like with the various Oriental Adventures rulebooks and settings. Historically the real world Orient has also included the Middle East and West Asia as well.

Keep this in mind because I'm not talking about Kara-Tur here (the Oriental Adventures setting, set far to the east of Faerun as an East Asian complement), but I'm talking about Faerun itself.

And what's Faerun? Here's a map:

(Map taken and hacked up from thank you for the simple outlined map)

This is Faerun, the chief continent where the Forgotten Realms takes place as a setting. Depending upon the edition, it generally ends to the east somewhere around Semphar or Durpar.

Even if you're a very very casual fan of the setting, you've likely heard of SOME of the names on this map, like Waterdeep and Cormyr. But why those two? Why haven't you heard of any of the rest?

Here's a quick edit to that map:

I've overlaid onto the map labels for the areas that are generally considered the main focus of the Realms from 1st to 3rd Edition: the Western and Eastern Heartlands, and the North. The vast majority of printed FR content - game sourcebooks, novels, even comics - occurs in these regions.

But what's the rest of the world for? Why is it there? Why not write more about those parts? There's so many books on Waterdeep and Cormyr and the North, why can't we get something different?

Well, that's where Said's Orientalism comes in.

Foreign Diplomats: The Other at Court

A quick synopsis: in Orientalist doctrine, the world is divided into two halves. The known, civilized, sociable Occidental half, and the exotic, mysterious, fantastic Oriental half. Said questions Orientalism as a cultural project: not the actual places collected as the Orient itself, but the stories and studies and writings Europeans have done of the Orient. Orientalism tries to explain the Orient to Europeans according to European worldviews, creating its own self-perpetuating idea of what the Orient is or should be, only informed by these stories and not actual experience with Oriental peoples, cultures, or places.

On that map of Faerun, the areas referred to as the Heartlands are so named because they're where Ed Greenwood set his significant home campaigns in the Realms prior to publication. The Company of Crazed Venturers came first, in Waterdeep; the Knights of Myth Drannor was the second, in Cormyr and the Dalelands. As you can see, one group fits in the Western Heartlands, and the other in the Eastern.

Both Waterdeep and Cormyr are stable, cosmopolitan places that are centres for trade and culture. As part of creating a living, breathing, believable world (a goal Ed has worked very hard at over the years), trade and culture require other places to exchange things with. And Ed named many of the places outside of the Heartlands as locations for trade and for cultural exchange with. In particular, much of the nations to the east of the Heartlands were originally named so that exotic or mysterious foreign dignitaries could make appearances at royal court in Cormyr!

Those nations, places like Turmish and Chondath, were originally constructed as Oriental narratives in comparison to the Heartlands as the known European/Occidental space. Ed created them as mysterious, exotic Others for his players to make comparisons with. These foreign dignitaries aren't always villainous, scheming, or opposed to the players and moral action (no, Evil is the Zhentarim and capitalism is Sembia) but they are definitively created as an Other.

Race is inextricably a part of creating this Other, as well. The peoples of the Heartlands are largely White and the assumed default; the Turmish are Black, and most of these nations to the south and east of Cormyr are home to people of colour.

From the very beginning of the Forgotten Realms, even its first few publications in Dragon Magazine, there is a division between the known and the unknown, the native and the foreign, the Occidental and the Oriental.

Multimedia Project 1987

I've talked about the publication of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set elsewhere so I won't get in to too much detail here, but the important detail is that beyond the Heartlands much of the Realms wasn't detailed prior to publication. Most of Ed's work had gone into the Heartlands, and places like Turmish and Mulhorand were his foreign dignitary NPCs and names on maps, not fleshed out full states.

This was great for the TSR of 1987, because when they picked up the Forgotten Realms to be their new flagship campaign setting (to replace Greyhawk), they had a significant corpus of existing information about the setting to produce in and around the Heartlands but also lots of empty spaces on the map for them to expand and fit in new products.

The first published Forgotten Realms product wasn't even by Ed Greenwood or really even a Forgotten Realms product. Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae novel was originally an entirely separate project but the Moonshaes were rolled into the Forgotten Realms for publication and given space on the western coast. Other writers and developers added their own pieces: Vaasa and Damara come from the Bloodstone AD&D modules (also published before the FR itself), and R.A. Salvatore described choosing Icewind Dale as "his" part to write in by jabbing his finger at the map where no one else had claimed a spot yet. (Jeff Grubb at this point was coordinating the entire line and stitching Ed's original works together with the new additions by TSR staffers.)

This also applied to Ed's Oriental nations and places. FR3 Empires of the Sands covered Amn, Tethyr, and Calimshan. Amn had been partially worked on by Ed (he used it as a small starter campaign setting he ran for kids at his job at the library); Scott Haring added the Orientalist trappings of caliphs, harems and genies to Calimshan. As written in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set Thay was a land of fell, evil magics - Steve Perrin expanded it in FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards into a scheming place redolent of incense and with bearded, scheming wizards. (Another Orientalist archetype.)

Most significant was Scott Bennie's FR10 Old Empires, which took Mulhorand and Unther and filled them with extradimensional refugees from real-world Egypt and Babylonia, struggling in eternal wars lead by their untethered god-kings, making an explicit connection between nations and regions of the Realms and cultures of real-world Earth.

This wasn't a mistake on Bennie's part, to be clear: TSR had explicitly asked for these kinds of places to be inserted into the Realms, so that it could have "an Egypt land" for groups wanting to play in those kinds of games. Historical/mythical reenactment was something that TSR pushed hard for D&D around this time with the HR (Historical Reference) series of supplements for Second Edition AD&D. Ed notes his pre-publication Mulhorand was inspired by Robert E. Howard's Stygia, itself a pastiche of Egypt; real-world Egypt was not a crazy revision. (Especially because the name - the Forgotten Realms - itself refers to Narnia-style portals between the Realms and the real world, now forgotten by the families guarding the extradimensional portals.)

What is notable, however, is that many of the additions by TSR's staff were real life cultures or places with the names filed off. Mulhorand was Fantasy Egypt; Calimshan was Fantasy Araby. Because of this, the direct inspiration for and influential texts upon these parts of the Realms were themselves Orientalist - either Orientalist studies of the real world Orient, or Orientalist stories like Stygia in Conan and other pulps. Again, this was a common practice for many fantasy settings of the time and certainly was something in TSR's other D&D settings until that point (Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Mystara); the Orientalist fantasy as something exotic, fantastic and unknowable is incredibly fertile ground for D&D gaming! (If you're not aware of its limitations, racial, and cultural biases, that is.)

It was also very easy, and that was also appealing to this disparate group of designers and writers suddenly filling up a vast world with new creative projects. TSR saw the Realms as their Next Big Thing, and pushed lots of new products there to make it a commercial success: it was their best multimedia project, with novels and adventures and game books and comics.

Creative fatigue lead to this process not just being limited to filling out the rest of Faerun, however. What made the Forgotten Realms so appealing was Ed's relentless focus on handcrafting a believable, realistic, world that felt livable in, and the Heartlands were full of these details. Unfortunately writers beyond Ed also worked in the Heartlands, and reduced it to Occidental, not Oriental, archetypes. Particularly in the novels, you began to see treatments of Cormyr as medieval England in all but name, Amn as equivalent to Renaissance Spain, and so on. These trite reductions made the Realms feel like nothing but outdated stereotypes, and they happened just as TSR produced a number of wildly inventive unusual settings that were far more captivating and weird (Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Planescape in particular.)

But one place escaped this harm, by finding the historically exotic in something definitely Occidental.

The North; or "Where All Those Damn Drizzt Books Are"

I highlighted a third area on the map above, and now it's time to talk about it. The North, also called the Sword Coast North or the Savage Frontier, has eventually come to outstrip even the Heartlands in terms of publishing attention.

Unlike most of the other areas outside the Heartlands, the North had at least partially been worked on by Ed. His Company of Crazed Venturers game took place along its coastline and in Waterdeep; FR1 Waterdeep and the North largely consists of his materials from that game that didn't fit into the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set. FR1 was still sketchy though, and focused primarily on Waterdeep itself, not the entire region.

Filling out the North fell to Jennell Jaquays. Her FR4 The Savage Frontier (published as Paul Jaquays) is the best of the original set of regional supplements filling out Faerun, specifically because Jennell was able to synthesize Ed's original ideas for the North with her own historical reenactment: Vikings. Jennell wrapped Ed's history of Waterdeep around an indigenous population called the Uthgardt. These Uthgardt did have a history of island pillaging and a strong warrior culture - but Jennell also placed them inland, giving them animist spirituality and deep ties to sacred sites across the entirety of the North. The "barbarians" of D&D now had a home, both informed by popular culture and made into something fresh and new.

To some degree, writing for the Realms at this point was like checking off representation requirements from existing AD&D materials. It was in this manner that R.A. Salvatore pitched his Icewind Dale trilogy to TSR brass, having identified the very top of the North as open for new projects and suggesting a novel of strange magics with a human barbarian, a dwarf fighter, and halfling rogue. There wasn't much to really make his pitch stand out, so Salvatore stammered out suddenly that there would also be a drow character! A good drow, one like that new race in Unearthed Arcana. A good drow? Now that had some potential - and soon The Crystal Shard (now book 4 in the Legend of Drizzt) was approved.

While The Crystal Shard kept in Icewind Dale, its follow up, Streams of Silver, did not. Bruenor Battlehammer, king of the dwarven Clan Battlehammer, searches for his lost realm and finds it, deep inside the North. Bruenor's Mithral Hall tied him, and Drizzt, and the other characters, inside the North, giving them a place to grow as characters. Grow they did, and Salvatore's further novels about Drizzt delved into the BDSM/Mafia mashup drow city of Menzoberranzan deep under the North. Drizzt, the drow, and the North, became exceedingly popular characters and settings, with further novels and game supplements to match. In Drizzt, the Realms had something weird and unusual to match Planescape and Dark Sun in terms of appeal, even if it wasn't visible on the surface.

The drow are still essentially Oriental, I think. They are a twisted, dark Other to the typical D&D elf, and Salvatore filling them out with female-dominant kink tropes echoes the exoticized sexual appeal that Orientalism trades in. Drizzt's process of becoming a hero is essentially reconciling himself to Occidental ethics and repudiating the darkness of his homeland, becoming a respectable "good drow," even if not everyone can see that.

Okay, this is over 2000 words so I'm going to stop here for the night, but here's my list of what I want to cover in future parts:

-The Oriental text versus reality, parallelling sourcebooks versus actual play
-how the underlying Oriental/Occidental split influences what we think is interesting about the Realms, and what gets more products in 2e and 3e
-how criticizing Oriental texts can be used to criticize the Oriental spaces in the Realms
-as always why 5e dropped the ball so goddamn hard (aka why the Sword Coast feels so fucking small and why Chult was super disappointing)
-and yeah I have to talk about malicious versus naive Orientalism, aka why Mulhorand works and why Maztica doesn't

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