"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.

Thursday, January 19, 2023


THE YEAR IS 1984, and Sorcery--fashionably late--arrives at the party.

The first edition of RuneQuest (1978) had introduced us to two types of magic already.  Both made perfect sense for a Bronze Age, mythological setting. Battle Magic was the "forceful alteration of the fabric of reality by use of one's POW." While some Battle Magic spells were recognizably supernatural, the vast majority of them were about excellence. Bladesharp and Bludgeon made your weapons deadlier. Glamour made you more charismatic. Strength, Coordination, and Mobility made you better, faster. These all fit quite comfortably in epic literature. We see things like them all the time in the Iliad or the Mahabharata. In the latter, Arjuna frequently uses a trick that looks suspiciously like Multimissile. Many of the others are right there in Homer. In fact, the Greeks probably would have just called Battle Magic arete.

Rune Magic was bigger, flashier, more powerful. But Rune Magic was also a sort of divine intervention. It is the power of the gods channeled through mortals. Again, this is the kind of magic we see all the time in the epics. Arjuna, for example, went to the Himalayas to perform austerities and sacrifice for pashupatastra: 

Arjuna soon regained consciousness and began to mentally worship Lord Shiva... Lord Shiva was satisfied with Arjuna and said, "O Phalguna, I am pleased with you, for no one can rival your prowess. There is no kshatriya who is equal to you in courage and patience. O sinless one, your strength and prowess almost equal mine. Behold me, O bull of the Bharata race. I will grant you eyes to see my true form. Without doubt you will defeat your enemies, including those in heaven. I have been pleased with you and will grant you an irresistible weapon...

Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 3

Pashupatastra is a kind of spiritual missile, a blast that will destroy whatever it strikes. Like a lot of Rune Magic, you sacrifice for it and once you use it, it's gone.

All of this is the kind of magic the ancients would have recognized.

And then there is Sorcery.

Sorcery is closer to what we--20th and now 21st century people--think of when we hear the word "magic." It's closer to the magic that saturates modern fantasy. "Sorcerers perceive an impersonal universe," we were told in the third edition of RuneQuest, "among its immutable laws there are exploitable qualities." This is, essential, the magic in D&D or Harry Potter. Like electricity or magnetism, it is a natural feature of the cosmos that clever people can tap. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that Bronze Age peoples would have warmed to the idea of an impersonal universe. It's a fairly Iron Age idea, really, and a late one at that. 

And yet, RuneQuest needed Sorcery. The third edition was designed to be generic, and generic fantasy has to include modern fantasy fiction with all its very post-modern concepts. Everybody knows wizards do magic, not Bronze Age hoplites! So room was made for the kind of slow, ritual, manipulating cosmic forces sort of magic we see in Howard or Moorcock. RuneQuest at last had a "magic-user."

I am not saying that Sorcery was a bad addition to the game (or even to Glorantha), only that it was part of a very different mythology than the one we had seen in Dragon Pass and Prax. Sorcery is an artifact of Western mythology...and I don't mean the Malkioni, I mean us. Like colonialism, monotheism, and atheism, the impersonal universe is a feature of European mythos. Battle Magic and Rune Magic derive from older, and far more widespread, mythologies. My sense is that Greg Stafford knew Glorantha had to integrate Western mythology, but struggled with exactly how to do that. For me, the High Medieval Malkioni West of RQ3 Glorantha was never a comfortable fit. If I wanted Pendragon, well...Greg had written that game too. I spent decades politely pretending the West of Genertela simply did not exist, or at least that it had vanished with the Jrusteli.

Major Digression Alert. One of the reasons I think Greg struggled with how to include Western mythology into the setting is that he simultaneously spent a lot of time disproving it. The God Learners, after all, are the perfect distillation of the Western Mythos. Secure in the knowledge of their superiority, and by Divine Right, they knew that their One God was the only true one, and had no qualms colonizing the rest of Glorantha reducing local religions to little more than formulae. The God Learners were Greg's sharp criticism of Freud, who reduced religions to psycho-babble; of Marx, who reduced them to economics; even of Frazer who reduced magic and religion to train stops on the grand journey to science. In Jrustela, Greg lumps together the entire 19th century field of comparative religion, which wanted to reduce mythology to something else other than a thing in itself. And then Greg sinks it.

So in the tapestry of mythologies that composes Glorantha, Western was the piece he seemed to have the most trouble making fit. In the Hero Wars and early HeroQuest period, he still seems to be struggling. And yet, somewhere in this period between RuneQuests, the problem gets solved. By the time the two-volume Guide to Glorantha is published, we get a West that makes sense, that fits.

Now it was time to make Sorcery, the magic of the West, fit too.         


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