"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


MUHAMMAD ABD-AL-RAHMAN BARKER was born "Phillip Barker" in Spokane, Washington, in 1929.  He passed away a few years ago at the age of 82.  Professor Barker was a linguist and a specialist in South Asian Studies, but despite the fact that I was trained in the same field as him this wasn't how I knew his name.  I knew of M.A.R. Barker long before I ever studied the Vedas or the Mahabharata or Sanskrit. I knew of him because I had frequently visited his planet.


Long before Tolkien published his The Lord of the Rings, independently and quite by chance the young Barker was already following in his footsteps, creating an entire fictional world as a setting for his own constructed languages.  Whereas Tolkien's world was rooted in Northern Europe, and his Elvish tongues borrowed from Finnish and Welsh, Barker's Tekumeláni languages were rooted in Mayan, Urdu, and Pushtan.  The only one to ever receive a complete published grammar, phonology, and dictionary was Tsolyáni, the language spoken by the Empire of the Petal Throne, but Barker fashioned (and published some guidance on) several other tongues of neighboring kingdoms as well.  There are indeed people out there who can now converse in the languages of Tékumel, just as people can in Tolkien's Elvish.

While Tolkien set his languages in the distant past, Barker placed them in the far future.  Tékumel exists sixty thousand years in our future, on a distant planet.  Nuclear war eventually wipes out the human civilizations of the Northern hemisphere, leaving the planet to new cultures of African, South American, and South Asian descent.  These eventually take to space and explore the galaxy.  Tékumel, originally called by this galactic empire Nu Ophiuchi, was originally a resort world.  The empire seized control of it, and herded the hostile native populations into reservations before starting to terraform it to their tastes.  They built their palaces and mansions on the shores of the warm seas.  Eventually, disaster struck.  Tékumel, her sun and two moons, and four other planets in the system, vanished from "normal space" and became trapped in a pocket dimension.  No one is certain how or why.  Cut off from the interstellar space lanes, and subject to massive geological upheavals, the sophisticated futuristic society of humans and their alien allies devolved into barbarism.  Worse, the reservations broke open, and the natives wanted their planet back.

Barker took all of this--invented languages, tens of thousands of years of history, alien species--to create a sort of "science fantasy" setting the likes of which the world had not seen.  Tékumel is a world of elaborate cultures, intricate languages, and terrifying religions.  "Exotic" does not even begin to cover it.  And it's depth, the sheer bulk of exploration Barker did into his own world, finds rival only in Middle-earth.  This is why, when Der Spiegel published a 2009 article on his life and work they called him "The Forgotten Tolkien."  

Luckily, he wasn't quite "forgotten" though.  Barker achieved a devoted following, he just came to it in an unusual way.

In the early 70s Barker was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by Mike Mornard, one of the play testers of the original game.  Barker immediately recognized this new art form--the roleplaying game--as a way to share his Tékumel with the world.  In 1974, shortly after D&D stepped out and said "hello" to the world, Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne became the second RPG ever published.  While Dungeons & Dragons was really just a rules set, loosely rooted in fantasy fiction and European mythology, EPT was a complete setting, with history and languages and cultures.  This is something we all take for granted today; we expect our RPGs--tabletop, console, or computer--to come with in-depth imagined settings.  But Tékumel got there first.

It so impressed TSR, the publishers of D&D, that with Barker they released a second edition of the game shortly thereafter.

For a public still trying to wrap its brain around the whole new "roleplaying thing," Empire of the Petal Throne was probably a step too far.  The plot of those early D&D campaigns was painfully simple; here is a dungeon, go inside, kill monsters, get treasure.  EPT by contrast asked players to navigate the social complexities of an alien culture, to role-play etiquette and hierarchy.  It was a world in which diplomacy and subtlety often eclipsed brute force.  More difficult, perhaps, was that players had no immediate access points.  If you had read Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien you had a general idea of what to do in D&D.  In EPT you were going into it blind.

There were other factors as well, but Barker and publisher TSR parted ways leaving Tékumel once more a world without a rules set.  Undeterred, M.A.R. Barker pressed on, and ten years after EPT had first been published, Barker had the first novel set in Tékumel (Man of Gold) and a second, two-volume roleplaying game (Swords & Glory).

The novels kept coming.  1985 saw the publication of Flamesong, followed later by Lords of Tsámra, Prince of Skulls, and A Death of Kings.  2004 brought what might best be described as Barker's Silmarillion, the two-volume compendium of religion and culture known as Mitlanyál.  By that time, Tékumel had been growing and deepening for over sixty years, explored mainly by Barker, but also by hundreds--possibly even thousands--of hardcore Tékumel fans.

Unfortunately, none of the roleplaying games ever really seemed to last.  Empire of the Petal Throne had been too ahead of its time, while Swords & Glory suffered from the obsession with complexity that hounded gaming in the early 80s.  Certainly the most comprehensive game ever published on Tékumel, none but the most diehard had the patience to climb this dense Everest of text.  In 1994, the third Tékumel RPG, Gardásiyal, made the opposite mistake, publishing a rules set with very little background at all.  Indeed, you needed to by several additional books just to make a complete character.  This was a pity, because by the 1990s, the gaming industry had finally come around to the idea of deep, fully realized settings.  EPT was ahead of its time, Gardásiyal was behind it.

For me, 2005 was a sort of high-water mark for Tékumel.  Mitlanyál and just been published, and Guardians of Order, a game company that had published the award winning anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth, took an interest in Barker's world.  Using a modified version of their "Tri-Stat" rules system, they brought us Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.  This lavish, hardcover rulebook brought a popular system and a streamlined, very accessible approach to Tékumel's histories and cultures.  For someone who had never heard of Barker's world before, this was the perfect entry point.

But the gaming industry is a cruel one, and just a year after Tékumel's publication, the over-extended and deeply in debt Guardians of Order closed its doors.  Ironically, the same year they published Tékumel they had published another RPG set in a relatively obscure fantasy world...it was called A Game of Thrones.

M.A.R. Barker left this planet on March 16th, 2012.  Part of me likes to think he returned home, enjoying a cup of chumetl on the terrace of a clanhouse in Pálla Jalálla.  Tékumel lives on; in 2014 the fifth official RPG Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel was published, and his army of fans are keeping the world alive.  But as great as Tékumel is, I don't think this is the legacy we should remember him for.  Not exactly.

Barker was to my mind a pioneer of the imagination.  We all live and operate in the wake people like he and Tolkien left. The most popular program on television right now is set in an intricately detailed created world, putting to bed the lie that the general public lacks the attention span for such things.   Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a modern computer or console RPG succeeding without a compelling and consistent setting characterized by unique cultures and great depth.  When you play something like Dragon Age, the Elves and Dwarves are obviously Tolkien, but the Qunari--and the Qun--are definitely Barker.  And with other pen and paper RPGs, exotic stopped being a bug and became a feature.  There would be no Talislanta or Legend of the Five Rings or Numenera if Barker hadn't gone there first.

In the end, no one will ever dispute the power of Tolkien's legendarium, but when it comes to imagined worlds Barker might have even been a little ahead.  After all, Tolkien was not creating so much a re-creating--taking scraps of ancient European folklore and literature to weave together as a masterful patchwork.  Barker did everything from scratch.

And that is fantastic. 


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