Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The War Hound and the Worlds Pain

The found manuscript device beloved of writers of Gothic literature, and that introduces J.R.R. Tolkiens fantasy Lord of the Rings (The Red Book of Westmarch) also opens The Warhound and the Worlds Pain,  Micheal Moorcocks 1981 entry in the Eternal Champion saga. Purportedly the text is an account, written in 1680, of the experiences of one Graf Ulrich von Bek during the Thirty Years War, wherein he meets a Miltonian Lucifer and is charged to retrieve The Holy Grail for Him. Obviously the content precludes us from believing the story, but instead the introduction alerts us to the novels explorations of the themes of History and Fantasy.

The Siege of Magdeburg | Peeter Meulener | 1631
What follows is a simple episodic quest structured within the mythic pattern of Moorcocks Eternal Champion sequence.  The familiar motifs and characters arise, the Champion (von Bek), his Companion (Sedenko, a naive and deeply bigoted Muscovite) the Adversary (Klosterheim - a sadistic Inquisitor, perhaps after De Quincy?), set amidst a conflict between the cosmic forces of Law and Chaos and the hope for freedom from these extremes and the dawn of a humanitarian age of Balance. But more than the narrative structure, it is Moorcocks highly evocative vignettes of horror across a plague and war-torn medieval European hell-scape that really stand out.

Oil Painting after Jaques Callotts Misery of War | 1633
Along the road we see the burning of the witch-accused, gallows-trees of the falsely condemned,  self-proclaimed Anti-Christs martyred at the stake, heralds of the Dukes of Hell attempting to overthrow the dominion of Lucifer, foppish hermit maguses riding sky chariots, undead warriors resurrected from battles a hundred years past clashing with vagrant mercenaries and bandits and insane Inquisitors hunt down the pious and enforce their own brands of bigotry.

The walls between worlds wear thin, exposing The Mittelmarch an overlapping the historical geography, partly a region of Hell, partly an Arthurian Otherworld, a domain of the mythic imaginary where the unreal rubs shoulders with the damned, and partly a magical short-cut to hop around the war-torn chaos of 17th Century Europe. Von Bek wanders across boundaries, initially aware of the changes that indicate the passage between realities but gradually seeming to lose all track of place in the wilderness as his journey progresses. Moorcocks blending of historical references, Christian mythology, and elements of the fantastic and 17th century magic creates a compelling setting.  It is fitting that in a historical fantasy it is the fantastics intrusion into historical reality that is the real enemy. For von Bek, and humanity to establish peace and freedom - to heal the worlds pain - humanity must abandon both the illusionary, absentee God whose name is only invoked to justify the atrocities committed by His cults on earth and the charmingly meddling Lucifer who claims to seek redemption and to reinstall himself at the foot of the empty throne.

Sebastian Vrancx | Spanish Looters in Flanders 
Meanwhile, with both God and Lucifer abdicated (a theme taken up by Neil Gaiman in the Season of Mists arc in Sandman) the Princes of Hell fight over the crown. One such would-be arch-fiend is the Warrior-Priest and Adversary to the Champion, Klosterheim. The demonic nature of Klosterheim's army isn't simply a function of pop-spectacle (cool! daemons!), but uses the potential of fantasy to expresses the inhabited historical-imaginary of the 17th century protagonists. What were the imaginations of the past like? Serious discourse regarding Divine Right of Kings, the historical records of the Witch-hunts, the ferocity of Catholic and Protestant violence, destruction of images during the Reformation and Civil War, all point towards medieval peoples with seemingly very different imaginary lives and lived realities from our own.

In the European Wars of Religion a heretic on the other side of a religious debate isn't just someone with a different point of view, but a soul who is quite literally allied with Satan and is deserving of nothing less than a swift and bloody exit from the field of battle and into the pits of Hell for eternity. While it remains fashionable to downplay the influence of the imaginative life - expressed through the superstitious and religious thinking of historical peoples - and instead emphasise the surface political and economic material concerns, this requires the imposition of a Modern worldview, a separation of Church and State, of Faith and Politic that seems increasingly beleaguered in a post-truth political landscape, where corrupt clownish cults, demonisation, enforced decay and the military targeting of cultural sites are the order of the day. Moorcocks historical-fantasy opens an imaginative window on those historical subjectivities and perhaps grants a better understanding of the internal lives than a dry historical account might do.

The Siege of Magdeburg | Peeter Meulener | 1625-54
There is perhaps a nexus of genre here, a subset of English Gothic and Folk Horror - Satanic Realism - centred around naturalistic presentations of the religious historical-imaginary, corrupted faith and the reality of supernatural evil. Films such as Michael Reeves Witchfinder General (1968) and Ken Russles The Devils (1971), although the more grandiose sexual excesses occur off-page in The Warhound and the Worlds Pain. Perhaps the brooding fatality and fallen world of Bergmans Seventh Seal (1958) and perhaps Jarmans Jubillee (1978), if the time-travel and punks were visually replaced with in-period mutli-dimensional weirdness and troubadours. Ben Wheatley's A Field In England (2013) or Piers Haggards Blood on Satans Claw (1971) and the ever-present darkness of Benjamin Christenses Haxan (1922). All fun stuff.

The 1986 New English Library Edition of The Warhound and the Worlds Pain, I own has The Quest by Chris Achilleos as the cover, which I first came across in Games Workshops White Dwarf Magazine 58, October 1984. 36 years ago. The front cover of the book depicts von Bek in his moment of triumph, having achieved the grail (albeit in different form from the one in the text) and holding back Kloisterheims quasi-demonic undead legions amassed against him, and the reverse, a horned helmeted warrior commanding the monstrous undead to go forth.

White Dwarf 58 | Chris Achilleos | 1982
Back reprinted as front cover for White Dwarf 58 | Chris Achilleos

Inevitably, this leads to some musing about gamification. It's not difficult to imagine a skirmish of small mismatched warbands lost and wandering away from the organised mass-battles. Deserters, vagabonds, would-be-cultists and corporeal undead followers of bogus Inquisitors with falsified papal decrees, Witch-finders leading battle covens of goat-headed orphans, deluded Warrior-Saints carting about unholy relics, disillusioned priests zealously proclaiming armageddon and putting innocents to the sword in time for the second coming because they lack the imagination to do otherwise, or as Von Bek himself - world weary soldiers hopelessly carrying out traditionally holy quests under command of the Prince of Darkness. Something like Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness but with real world Judeo-Historical iconography.

Thematically, Moorcocks characters and warbands seem to contain their opposite through subverted iconography. Demons in the service of God, Priests in the service of Demons. Etching this into a game system would be interesting Character design mechanics, a balance of Feats and Failings, Virtues and Vices. This in turn could structure visual, narrative and gameplay aspects. Handfuls of Perry Miniatures English Civil War kit-bashed with North Star Cultist warbands painted in various shades of mud, all very #Inq28 and #Aos28, Hieronymous Bosch and Ian Miller inspired gribblies. There is a neat if blasphemous skirmish wargame in there somewhere. Frostgrave with magic reskinned as the supernatural powers of religious artefacts and misplaced zealotry. Now if only we could  entice some world-weary game designer to travel the dark paths through Mittelmarch to the Wood at the End of the World to recover it.

Battle at White Mountian | Peter Snayers | 1620
It has become habitual to talk about books and authors influence on Warhammer on this blog, but it is difficult to suggest that The War Hound and the Worlds Pain has any specific influence.

If we consider that Warhammer Fantasy Battles was originally designed for Fantasy wargaming from Ancients up to the end of the Medieval period, and then Warhammer 40k takes over the technological reigns as gunpowder begins to dominate warfare into the modern period and beyond. That crossover period is precisely the historical setting of the novel. Rather than slip through the cracks, the idea of a Fantasy European Wars of Religion looms large across both The Empire of the Old World and the Imperium of Man, both fantasies of the Holy Roman Empire and much of the gothic, grotesque feel familiar to Warhammer fans is to be found within.

Peter Snayers | The Munich Affair | 1636(?)
As the later editions of Warhammer began to 'move forward the story-line' (an oddly redundant and linear notion) and introduce increasing amounts of blackpowder, whilst simultaneously later editions of 40k began to move backwards from the original sci-fi underpinnings and introduce ever increasing amounts of religiosity and superstition as the settings primal cause and driver.  The two 'hammers begin to more than just bleed over the edges during the period that The War Hound and the Worlds Pain is set, but attempt to occupy much of the same historical-imaginary space, although - double-headed eagles aside - without the direct historical references.

We could read parallels between the Mittlemarch of  The War Hound and the Worlds Pain and Warpspace of Warhammer 40,000 - a physically messed up liminal space that transgress the laws of physics, where mythical entities play. Both von Bek and The Emperor make calls to enlightenment values, humanism, atheism and rationality. Warhammers tiresome romantic neo-reactionary trope of degrading those ideals into just another aspect of irrationality, seems born more a commercial requirement to keep the Law|Chaos conflict raging eternally than an attempt to express Counter-Enlightment philosophies, perhaps there is no difference, the resulting regression of reason into fascism is the same. Fortunately Moorcock is under no pressure to keep this narrative universe of cosmic warfare going ad-infinitum, so can end his story with humanity in triumph.

With The War Hound and the Worlds Pain Moorcock like C.S. Lewis's Narnia or Phillip Pullmans Dark Materials, is using fantasy to create allegory in plain sight, than J.R.R. Tolkiens carefully crafted catholic ethical 'sub-creation' or Games Workshops vacant encrusted aesthetic spectacle, and has the courage to grab the historical-imaginary of religious conflict by the throat and so produce a fable that feels at once more visceral and worldly but also literary and human.

8 comments:

  1. A fascinating and erudite post Zhu. I well remember as a callow youth pouncing on TWHATWP as soon as I saw the cover and devouring it in a single sitting... I think it was the first Moorcock I read, although of course I knew of him. Also I love the phrase " GWs vacant encrusted aesthetic spectacle ", although I rather like some of their recent releases.

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    1. Cheers! I agree some of GW output does look the part, but they seem content to conjure all the pomp and regalia of religious warfare and then not really say anything with it. To quote everyone's favourite 17th century playwright it seems "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

      I do wonder how the order in which one encounters the Eternal Champions colours the view of the other stories. Certainly I'd rate The War Hound and the Worlds Pain as one of the better efforts, but don't know if this is in part because Corum, Hawkmoon, Elric and Erekose have paved the way.

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  2. Bizarrely I just started reading this a couple of days ago and I hadn't gotten far before I was thinking about games. However the direction my thought travelled were more towards a small skirmish set during the 30 years war in the vein of the 'The Last Valley' (to be fair I haven't gotten far into the book, I got distracted by a book about the Sino-Japanese war). However your post has me reflecting on some games I played a couple of years ago that I dubbed 'Elizabethan Gothique' in which I used the Dutch revolt as a background for games that involved some sorcerous shenanigans by some of the Spaniards. These involved a magic powered femme fatale, A pet transformed into a goat headed enforcer, undead, ogre-like magically mutated soldiers and the creation of a Stone Golem by a Rabbi in league with the Dutch. All good fun. I loved a Field in England, any excuse to combine the feel of that film into something worth laying down on the tabletop.

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    1. How synchronous - high weirdness is afoot! Will have to apologise for my blogpost giving much of the story away. As well as grotesque, it's a fun, pacey read.


      Specific 30 Years War Warbands / Skirmish rules seem light on the ground (no doubt Wild West, or Rogue Trader could be used as a basis) Pike & Shott seems to be more about large scale set-piece battles - vaguely wonder if Peter Snayers oil paintied battle-reports depicting huge rectangular blocks of troops have wider impact on the aesthetics of tabletop wargaming.

      Not seen or read The Last Valley, but will have to put it on the watchlist. Your Elizabethan Gothic games sound fascinating, I'll have a dig around Leadpile.

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  3. Very interesting reading!
    As for miniatures skirmishing set during the 30 years war - have you checked out Helldorado? Long out of production by now, but the pitch is that the ferocity and chaos of the religious wars is so great that a pit to hell opens up in the middle of Europe. So naturally, a campaign of conquest is immediately mounted.

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    1. Thanks for the heads-up on Hell Dorado, that is certainly an interesting premise - will have to look into it.

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  4. I rather enjoy reading your essays. Especially when I've read the item in question already! Moorcock reads so easily and fast I rarely bother a deeper consideration of the material.

    I poked a 'local' (2 hr away) gamer and linked this post. He sent me a link to another guy in the region https://leadadventureforum.com/index.php?topic=116635.0
    Perhaps there is a seed germinating in the gamer gestalt unconsciousness getting ready to burst forth....

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    1. Hey daveb, Writing a blogpost is a nice way to gather some thoughts about a text and reflect on it a little - I'm glad you enjoyed the ramblings! Have to agree Moorcock does read very easily, they are pulp adventure stories first and foremost.


      Wiredlizards "Weird ECW is really interesting. Maybe there is something in the zeitgeist. Would be great to see more of this kind of thing!

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