‘Undead, Forever’ – Ravenloft and the Gothic in D&D

April 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

This paper was initially presented at the Gaming the Gothic conference, held at the University of Sheffield on April 13th 2018. The intial CFP is available here.

This is a transcript of the presented paper, edited with some last-minute changes made during the presentation itself and, where appropriate, links to external material.

Ravenloft - Presentation.001

So begins our journey into the Dungeons & Dragons adventure of ‘Ravenloft’ where Strahd von Zarovich, a centuries old vampire-prince, rules his terror-haunted realm without pity or remorse. ‘Ravenloft’ is riddled with deeply gothic imagery from the flying buttresses of the eponymous Castle Ravenloft to the tortured, endless nature of Strahd’s vampirism. Yet, like all gothic fiction, there is more to ‘Ravenloft’ than simple theatrics. There is a deep sense of horror that comes not just from the story but from how the story is told and, crucially, how it is not told.

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“We Who Haunt The Dead” – The Mourners of Philip The Bold, Duke of Burgundy

January 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

At the end of the late Middle Ages it wasn’t unusual to see a procession of mourners heading towards the funerals of the great and the good, even lingering about their tombs to offer up prayers to ease the souls of the dead. What is unusual about the mourners at the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son John The Fearless, both Dukes of Burgundy between 1363 and 1419, is that they are still there.
The Mourners

In 1381, with the foresight and eye for posterity common to all medieval nobility, Philip the Bold (Phillipe le Hardi en Francais) assigned his master-sculptor, Jean Marville, to “make [him] an alabaster sepulchre”. Work began on the tomb in 1384, at the Chartreuse de Champmol just outside Dijon in France, and it would still be ongoing at the time of Philip’s death, in 1404. Yet what a tomb it would be.

The iconography of a recumbent effigy with a procession of mourners is not new […], but rather reprises a tradition in use since the mid-thirtieth century, numerous examples of which can be found in the monuments to the French kings in the basilica of Saint-Denis. The innovation here is at the base, the space accorded to the mourner, who are not isolated and in semi-relief in their arcades, but instead seem to slip in and out of the cloister arcades. Each one expresses grief through facial expression, a gesture toward a neighbour, or the eloquence of the draperies.

The Mourners

These mourners (les pleurants en Francais), forty for the tomb of Philip and a further forty for the eventual tomb of John, are exquisite in their melancholy. The figures range in rank from the commanding pomp of the procession-leading bishop to the simple robes of Carthusian monks, a notably austere order, but their alabaster forms, a mere 16” tall at most, almost glow with universal piety; as Sophie Jugie, Director of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, says, they are “at once grief-stricken and serene”. They are almost alive in their intensity of emotion, yet they can never be. It is this liminal nature, this lingering on the edge of life and death, that adds a strange uncanniness to the figures that lingers in the living mind. There is something else in our world that endures in a permanent state of grief, something that maintains a disengagement from the world as much as it cannot yet quite bring itself to leave; something we have come to call ‘ghosts’.

When we think of ghosts we often think, perhaps even without realising it, of the accoutrements of mourning; cowled figures, muffled sobbing, inconsolable sadness, even the damp chill of the grave-side. Ghosts walk the same corridors, linger in the same places, trapped in a perpetual looping fragment of time. Yet this is not the experience of the dead. The dead go naked and silently, they have no sensation of the world whether it be emotional or physical. The dead have reached the end of their journey, and move on to wherever they are headed next.

The Mourners

What we are summoning when we think of ghosts are our own experiences, either direct or indirect, of mourning the deaths of others. We are thinking of how others will mourn ourselves.

“The main work of haunting is done by the living”

Judith Richardson, Possessions

mourners1 (1)This conflict between the serenity of the once-living and the fears of the still-living is contrasted most strongly in the tomb of Philip’s son, John The Fearless (Jean sans Peur en Francais). John lies in effigy alongside his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, atop a tomb designed in a similar style to that of his father. Unlike the monochromatic figures of the mourners, they are rendered in a naturalistic style, as if merely sleeping, and gaze up to Heaven with a placid reverence. They have left a world which, like our own, was bound about by chains of duty and care. In contrast, the mourners that process beneath them, lower in both social status and their physical connection to the earthly world, are contorted by grief; they wring their hands, labour with bent backs. They pursue the departing dead in an endless circle, a procession without start or end, like the souls who “sweep shadow-like around” Odysseus as he descends into Hades or the unbaptised dead who mourn their loss of Heaven in Dante’s Limbo.

Of the first circle that surrounds the abyss.
Here, as mine ear could note, no plaint was heard
Except of sighs, that made the eternal air
Tremble, not caused by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno – Canto V

This is the two-fold moral told by the tombs of Champmol, a message that comes from the intensely religious life of the middle ages but which reflects a strangely positive view of death. Firstly, that the end of a life well-lived is not a time of misery for the dying but of closure and of reflection where the ending of a thing validates its beginning. Secondly, fall too deeply into earthly cares, into the cleaving-to of materialism and mourning and wallowing in grief, and you will become as unto a ghost yourself, drained of colour and hope.

It is not the dead that haunt us, but we who haunt the dead.

When wakens the serpent?

August 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

“When wakens the serpent?”
The old man asks
No word returns
From he who basks.

“When wakens the serpent?”
A whisper, low
“I woke within you
Long ago”.

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The Miser

March 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Not long ago, in a village not far away, a little girl was born to a farmer and his wife. She was the finest product of their meagre farm and grew unlike any crop of theirs had done before. The sun and moon themselves counted out her years, as she ran through field and forest and furrow. The farmer used to chase her, a mock-crown of ivy on his head and laughter in his throat, but always she would dart away from his outstretched arms. The farmer’s wife looked up from her tasks, sharpening tools or mending a cloak, and smiled to see them silhouetted in the evening’s light.

Yet one day, as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, the farmer stopped chasing his daughter and she looked back to see that a man much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Father,” she called. “What is wrong? Why do you not chase me as you used to?” The farmer smiled quietly before replying in a voice like dust. “I am old now, daughter, and I have chased you as far as I can. My breath is spent. Go home to your mother, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that he rested and moved no more.

So the girl left her father and ran back to their little cottage, where a woman much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Mother,” the girl called. “What is wrong? Why do you not sharpen our tools as you used to?” The farmer’s wife smiled quietly before replying in a voice like smoke. “I am old now, daughter, and I have sharpened as much as I can. My strength is spent. Go out into the wide world, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that she rested and moved no more.

So the girl left her mother and ran to the nearest town, her legs strong from years of running with her father, and she worked hard, her hands nimble from years of working with her mother. One day she had a husband, and later a daughter, and she gave life as it had been given to her. One day, a day as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, she found that she had given as much life as she could and she smiled quietly to herself. With that she rested and moved no more.

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Death is not a skeleton, not a withered body lying in the cold ground. Death is not the cough of lungs grown dry or the creak of bones grown stiff. These are the products of Life, because Life is always giving and gives until the very end. Death is a miser who takes everything, gives nothing.

Death is a miser and misers are to be pitied, not feared.

“I shall take the very breath from thine breast,” sayeth Death. “Thou canst not take what hast been freely given,” sayeth Life.

A Book, Or So They Say

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.

Neither large nor small it goes all but unnoticed next to more important volumes as its cloth cover fades slowly from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. Maybe not fading at all. The ghost of silver embossment lingers on its spine, indecipherable. A commonplace book in a common place of books, with nothing to mark it out beyond a slight smell of damp.

Occasionally, curious fingers will pick the book up and absently ruffle the yellowing pages that fall open at random to reveal their contents; mediocre poetry or tedious inventories of belongings, rambling short stories or blocks of impenetrable legal text, descriptions of rain-streaked foreign shores or the simple musings of lifeless repetition. Each browser sees something different, yet equally banal, and each will sigh with disappointment before replacing the book and moving to the next. The book’s cover fades slightly more from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. The faint lettering on the spine is perhaps less clear than it used to be. Perhaps not.10691829_602645936513035_1040051657_n

More rarely, the book is plucked from its resting place by an inquisitive reader and opened eagerly at the first page. They read the publishing details, curiously blurred, and then the typesetting information (“Set in New Lethean, 11pt”). Their eyes settle on the opening lines and from then on their fate is sealed. As they read, they become thinner and the story of their life unwritten becomes yet another fragment of the book. The frustrated novelist, the list-maker, the writer of unheard songs. All of them stretch into lonely silence until they become so thin they disappear, another tale of the everyday added to the pages of the book’s collection. A tutting librarian finds the book days later, dropped on the floor, and dusts it down before replacing it on the shelf. Nobody notices that the spine’s lettering is now perhaps less faint, perhaps a brighter silver.

Of the book itself we know little more, beyond its existence. It is where books are, where books gather, but where that is could be anywhere. All we really know is that hook, the opening words that snare the curious or the unlucky. And those words are these:

“There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.”

Those of frost, not firelight

October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

They came down from the woods that night
those of frost, not firelight.
They snuffed out flame, snuffed out as well
the lives of those who quietly dwell
in towns and hamlets, farms and inns.
The places where mankind begins.
We’ve heard their whisperings in streams,
their faces only found in dreams.
Where masters older than our own
sit upon their oaken thrones.

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Everyone they found, they slew
except a pair of children who
hiding underneath their bed
heard the woodfolk laugh. They said;
“Tremble not, we’ll leave you be.
Return this dawn to moss and tree.
Another night you’ll hear our song.
Years for you, for us not long.
As long as mankind bustles, thrives,
we’ll come to take your children’s lives.”

Prophecy-poem of the Northern Marches

Aleatorician

April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the dream there are dice. Three black dice with silver spots, sat in a silver bowl. They blur and then stop, landing as each requires.

One is one, the group in itself, and in the whole is strength.

One is four, each party alone, and in the pieces is change.

One is six, their fulfilment, and in this end is a beginning.

All are eleven, the duke of numbers, which holds only itself in itself and no brooks other. And so in the dream there’s a dream-tale of a leader, with his party, set out on a path to the House of Ruin. And so the dice are cast, the scene is set.

Where Am I?

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