Christmas Comfort Viewing

Christmas ornaments, candles, bow

    Image courtesy Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we talked about “comfort reading” at Christmastime.  “Comfort viewing” is, of course, just as vitally frivolous a concern.  What kinds of shows are good to watch at the holiday season?

Tone and Timeliness

I’m going to use the term “movies,” because most of the ones I have in mind are theatrical-length.  But the category includes TV programs as well, from “novella”-type brief movies to the half-hour (minus commercials) Christmas specials.  Most of them are available on demand or on DVD in this day and age, so the old distinction between scheduled programs and view-on-demand is less important than it used to be.

Not all Christmas movies are comfort movies.  We’ve got plenty of more or less gloomy shows about dysfunctional families or Christmas catastrophes, too—TV Tropes collects some under the heading “Twisted Christmas.”

They don’t have to be literally disastrous.  I recall seeing Home for the Holidays (1995) some years ago and being surprised how generally unpleasant the story was.  Bill Murray’s variant on A Christmas Carol, the 1988 Scrooged, is a good deal darker and more horror-like than most such Dickens adaptations.  We’ve got action movies, which by definition are not soft and fuzzy:  Die Hard (1988) leaps to mind.  (Maybe there was something in the air in 1988.)  Searching “Christmas horror movies” kicks up quite an array of bloody holiday tales, with which I am (deliberately) unfamiliar.

That’s not what I want to talk about here.  The majority of Christmas flicks tend to be comforting on the whole, even though there’s conflict; they draw on the warmth, generous feelings, and general connectedness of this holiday.  As a colleague recently put it, they’re the kind of stories that “serve as an antidote to the evening news.”

If you want an action movie set at Christmas, by all means pull up Die Hard, or its sequel Die Hard 2 (1990); I like those.  But for purposes of today’s discussion, I’m going to assume we are aiming at heartwarming.

Connie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas, coverThe following are my own recommendations, of course, not a comprehensive survey.  You can find on Wikipedia a commentary on “Christmas by medium”; a list of Christmas films; and a list of TV specials.  For a more focused and informative survey, there’s a set of excellent lists at the end of Connie Willis’ collection A Lot Like Christmas (2017).

A Quick Taxonomy

There are several ways a movie can be appropriate to the season, depending on what sort of Christmasy you’re looking for.  I tend to divide them up this way:

  • Movies about Christmas
    • Religious
    • Santa-related
  • Movies that involve Christmas but whose focus is elsewhere; for example, Christmas romances
  • Movies that happen to be set at that time of year, but in which the holiday itself plays a relatively minor part; or that have particular scenes set at Christmas

All of these can be good, healthy holiday fare.  We may want one atmosphere for Christmas Eve, for example—and a rather different mood for New Year’s Eve.

The Nativity

The Nativity Story, posterThere are probably a lot of video productions that depict the Christmas story itself—the birth of Jesus—but I’ve tended to rely on just a few.  2006’s The Nativity Story takes a straightforward approach, with empathetic characters, steering a middle path between excluding and emphasizing the miraculous—a good mix for contemporary sensibilities, to my mind.  Further back, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth contains in its early sections an appealing rendition of the Nativity chronicle.

Scene from Amahl and the Night VisitorsSlightly offstage from Bethlehem, so to speak, is an old favorite of mine, Amahl and the Night Visitors.  This brief opera was composed for television in 1951 by Gian Carlo Menotti; I have a DVD copy of the 1955 telecast in black and white.  Amahl is a young crippled boy whose wild imagination and enthusiasm soar despite the poverty in which he and his widowed mother live.  They are astonished one night to receive a visitation from three kings, following a star to find a different child.  The music is haunting and lovely; the story blends humor with deep feeling.

In the Spirit of Christmas

There’s a wider field of movies that have their roots in the original Christmas story, but capture the spirit of the feast in different ways.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is of course the most well-known example.  There are all sorts of film versions of the book, including those with Scrooges played by Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), George C. Scott (1984), Captain Picard Patrick Stewart (1999), and Kelsey Grammer (2004, a musical).

Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol posterA favorite Christmas game is to re-do the story by casting favorite character ensembles, such as Mickey Mouse and friends or the Muppets, to play Dickens’ parts.  Or one can transpose the story into the modern day—I mentioned Scrooged above.  I must admit that, for me, the Carol that will always be the canonical screen version of the tale—chalk it up to ‘imprinting’ as a child—is the one featuring 1960s cartoon character Mr. MagooMister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) has the distinction of being the first animated TV Christmas special.  It’s a surprisingly faithful rendition of the original story, using a lot of Dickens’ original language and managing to convey considerable seriousness, as well as comedy, with extremely minimal artwork.  The songs, by noted Broadway composer Jule Styne, are also remarkably effective.  Or so it seems to me—there’s bound to be a sizable nostalgia factor in my evaluation.

George Bailey, Mary, and Zuzu with tree, It's A Wonderful LifeAnother cluster of films springs from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which takes place at Christmastime and may constitute the very definition of “heartwarming” in America.  This story, too, has been adapted into innumerable variations in TV movies and series.  I like Wonderful Life, though I prefer to keep it to once every two or three years for fear it’ll become cloying.  And for some reason I think of it as a good show for New Year’s Day (still within the “octave” of Christmas).  Among the spinoffs, one of our family favorites (for grown-ups) is The Family Man (2000) with Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni, a kind of reverse-Wonderful Life in which the main character is given a glimpse of how his life would have been better if he had made a different decision years ago—as a spur to making a new decision now.

Sometimes a spirit-of-Christmas movie may involve some kind of Christmas miracle—for example, Miracle on 34th Street (1947, remade in color in 1994).  Sometimes it simply involves a Christmas celebration:  A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) gains some of its abundant cheer from wacky Muppet-ish comedy, but more from being a kind of family reunion, including not only the familiar Muppet Show cast but also characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies.  I’d put the venerable Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and the original TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) in the same class.

An honorable mention in this category goes to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is so brilliantly awful that Lucasfilms (so I hear) has never allowed it to be commercially released as a recording; it’s only available in bootleg versions.  I’m not telling who gave me my copy.  It’s fun to see the familiar characters hamming it up in the context of a Wookiee celebration of “Life Day,” but beyond that, I wouldn’t advocate it for either sentiment or space opera.

Jewel in The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)I’m particularly attached to The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), a 46-minute frame story for a series of songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra featuring Jewel.  The story, about a runaway girl who takes refuge in an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, is sufficiently sentimental to qualify; and if you are at all fond of TSO, you’ll love the music.  In particular, this is the show that includes “Promises to Keep,” which I tapped a couple of years ago for the Quote of the Week page.

The Santa Mythology

Many Christmas-specific shows, on the other hand, focus instead on our good friend Santa Claus.

This isn’t a bad thing per se.  There is, after all, still a connection:  St. Nick was, in fact, a saint.  But the system of amiable legends that’s gathered around Father Christmas provides ample fodder for drama (and comedy) without explicitly going back to those roots.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer posterThere’s a class of TV specials that have, for us older kids, the pleasure of nostalgia, and also (as far as I can tell) still appeal to more recent generations.  The archetype may be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the first of the Rankin-Bass animated holiday productions.  The Abominable Snow-Monster, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Hermey the elven-dentist have become familiar icons of of pop culture.  I also have some fondness for Frosty the Snowman (1969).  Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), a favorite in other branches of our family, gives us a novel sort of origin for Mr. Claus.  Full-scale live-action movies have also drawn on the Santa mythology.  I found Will Farrell surprisingly tolerable (playing off Zooey Deschanel’s sardonic romantic interest) in Elf (2003).  As I recall, Arthur Christmas (2011) wasn’t too bad either—though now that I look back at it, that one was CGI, not really live-action.

From there, we slide down a formulaic curve into routine holiday episodes of all sorts of TV series.  I’ll take Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas (1992) as a sample (my kids used to watch the rather amusing Inspector Gadget).  As a useful litmus test, any show that invokes “saving Christmas” is generally at the bottom of the barrel:  “saving Christmas” may be glossed as “ensuring that toys get delivered,” and signals that the primary concern has moved from anything important to mere presents under the tree.  Such episodes may be mildly entertaining, but won’t be comforting.  It’s hard to be heartwarming when the crucial issue in a story is just to make sure that nothing interferes with the distribution of toys.  Note that The Grinch was specifically designed to make the contrary point:  Christmas comes for the Whos of Whoville without any presents at all.

Rise of the Guardians posterOn the other hand, the Santa mythology can develop into something of real depth, depending how the author takes off with it (so to speak).  Our counter-example is Rise of the Guardians (2012, based on a series of books by William Joyce).  This tale actually manages to meld epic fantasy with a pop-culture undercarriage, as various eccentric holiday icons including the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, along with “Nicholas St. North,” collectively the “Guardians of Childhood,” battle the ‘Dark Lord’ Pitch.  The story has a genuine point, too:  the glad surprise of good gifts coming out of nowhere is presented as crucial to the innocent acceptance of childhood.  What’s at stake is the disillusionment of children, not just their asset inventory.

Guardians also features a genuinely Badass Santa (“Action Santa” division)—a Santa who’s not just jolly but rather formidable, like the Father Christmas who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  To combine high merriment with forceful purpose can make for an intriguing contrast.  (While researching this point, I was charmed to discover that in DC Comics mythology, Santa visits Apokolips to give Darkseid a lump of coal each year.  Here’s the actual graphic-novel scene.  Now that’s badass.)

Tangentially Christmas-Related

In the next ‘ring’ away from the center, we have movies that involve Christmas tangentially, but not as the main theme.  The holiday season casts a fireside glow, as it were, that invites other genial stories to blossom in its presence.  Romances, in particular, bloom here:  there’s nothing quite so sweet as a Christmastime romance.

White Christmas movie posterThis category may overlap with some of the spinoff movies above.  An iconic example is White Christmas (1954), which is good fun with an actual good deed (helping out one’s former commanding officer in the postwar era), as well as two romances, at its heart.  (If you want a sort of earlier prototype, with less plot but more holidays, you can alternate it with Holiday Inn (1942), where the song “White Christmas” actually originated.)

There are lots of more modern examples, which vary in the degree of the story’s connectedness with the holiday.  My favorites include While You Were Sleeping (1995), which I find endearing although for some reason it was never a great favorite with the rest of my family; Love Actually (2003)—any movie that plays “God Only Knows” over the final scene gets extra points in my book; The Holiday (2006), a kindly romantic comedy about two women who switch homes for the season and find love; Serendipity (2001), a far-fetched but enjoyable rom-com with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale; The Sure Thing (1985), starring a much younger Cusack for the college-age set.  Christmas in Connecticut (1945) exemplifies the same sort of approach in a previous generation.

Further afield, we have a range of movies one can arguably justify as Christmas material for one reason or another.  Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, an intriguing sequel to the Peter Pan story, is set at Christmastime.  About a Boy (2002), which seems intended to demonstrate that Hugh Grant cannot play an unlikable character, no matter how dubious that character may be, involves a Christmas setting.  The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a tale with which I feel a certain kinship for other reasons, has its climax on Christmas Eve.  Father Christmas makes a cameo appearance in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), as noted for the novel above.  Even Little Women, in its various film iterations, features Christmas scenes.

Hallmark Christmas Romances

The Hallmark Channel has created an entire cottage industry of Christmas romances in its annual “Countdown to Christmas” seasonal blitz.  It appears that Netflix, as with romantic comedies generally, has now decided to join the action, with a very similar look-and-feel (The Holiday Calendar, 2018); and the Lifetime channel has also entered the competition (Christmas Around the Corner, 2018).

If you don’t watch out, you can spend the entire season swimming in an ocean of these holiday love stories; if I’m counting this correctly, Hallmark alone produced 22 new shows this year, not counting those returning from previous years.  It’s hard to choose which ones to check out; they all sound much the same in the blurbs.  They don’t tend to be terrifically great or abysmally bad; to my mind, they tend to fall either just above or just below my usual cutoff criterion (namely, would I seek it out to watch again?).

Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition, but as usual, “Tropes Are Tools”:  it’s not whether you’re drawing on a well-established pattern, it’s how well you use it.  The standouts (those that land above the line) tend to have a little something more going for them:  perhaps especially engaging actors/characters, a little more plot complexity or depth, wittier dialogue, or the like.

Angels and Ornaments posterA couple of examples will serve to illustrate.  Angels and Ornaments (2014) features a particularly winsome heroine, and, in defiance of the traditional meet-cute, she and her opposite number have known each other all their lives.  They have to come to the realization that they’re meant for each other, a subtler and more interesting process than love at first sight.  To facilitate this process, we have a matchmaker angel, who, in the tradition of It’s A Wonderful Life, is not an angel strictly speaking but a dead human being—who has his own story and character arc.  His encouragement of the main characters’ romance is sometimes silly but reasonably believable; he gives them some sound advice.  The story also involves writing a song—not a tremendous song, but likable enough (as it recalls the movie) that I downloaded it for my audio playlists.  (You’ll note that I give extra points for music; you may or may not have the same reaction.)

A Christmas Detour (2015) gives us an engaging pair, apparently mismatched from the start.  They end up on a road trip together, along with a married second couple, when a snowstorm closes down an airport.  The main characters, Paige and Dylan, develop a relationship along the classic friction-then-affection lines (what TV Tropes dubs “Belligerent Sexual Tension”), and that development works pretty well.  Closure comes when the heroine finally arrives to meet her boring, snobbish fiancé’s equally off-putting parents, and finds (of course) that Dylan is who she really wants.  Meanwhile, the secondary romance—a long-married middle-aged couple that start out constantly sniping at each other (‘Like An Old Married Couple’), but become reconciled with each other via the Christmas spirit and the inspiration of watching the main characters fall in love—adds interest.

Sturgeon’s Law applies, as always—but some of the Hallmark ventures do make good, meat-and-potatoes holiday fare.

Conclusion

There are those who object to the “secularized” versions of Christmas that inspire many of the movies above.  But I see it the other way around:  Christmas is so powerful an idea that it casts a sort of penumbra on everything that comes close to it.  The stories that are not explicitly religious aren’t a distraction from the “true meaning of Christmas.”  Rather, they reflect the feast’s tendency, like a benign infection, to seep into and ennoble everything related to it.  (I wrote a song, about twenty-five years ago, to make just this point.)  The luster of Christmas gives an extra warmth, a heightened sweetness, to romance and toy-giving and every other good thing.  And who couldn’t use a little added warmth at this chilly time of year?

A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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The Simple Stage

The Crucible

I don’t see a lot of stage plays.  Generally I wait for the movie version to come out.  (Which took quite a while in the case of Les Miserables—though in that case I actually did see the play twice on stage.)

Cruscible-side-shot-1Recently, however, I had occasion to see a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), by the Lumina Theatre Company:  my son was in the cast.  (Portraying one of the villains; and he did it very well!)  The Crucible is one of those plays that many people have been exposed to, often as a high-school reading assignment.  But I had managed to miss either seeing or reading the play, up to now.  It was a powerful experience:  a moving story, well performed by Lumina.

As is well known, The Crucible is set in the period of the Salem witch trials in 1692-93.  It’s also an allegory for the McCarthy hearings on Communism (1953-54) during the “Red Scare.”  I don’t know whether the term “witch hunt” for such persecution-by-investigation originated with Miller’s play; the phrase has certainly seen a lot of mileage since.

At the moment, however, I’m not interested in the politics or the story, but in an aspect of the staging that caught my attention, and reminded me of a couple of dramaturgically similar cases I’ve seen before.

The Austere Stage

Scene from The CrucibleI’m even less of an expert on the stage than I am on movies; but even I, as a layman, was struck by the simplicity of the stage setting.  There was no backdrop; walls and ceiling were black.  A series of tall panels vaguely suggesting a forest marked the left and right sides of the stage.  The performance depended on adroit use of a few simple props—a bed, a table, some cooking utensils—to indicate whether we were seeing a bedroom, a kitchen, or the anteroom of a court.

Black Box Theatre, Howard County,MD

Howard County Arts Council’s Black Box Theater

Apparently this is a “thing.”  As people with a wider background in theatre probably know, there’s a style called the “Black Box Theater” (which was literally the name of the particular theatre where this performance occurred).  Wikipedia says:  “A black box theater (or experimental theater) consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor, which can be used flexibly to create a stage” (emphasis and link omitted).

 

It seemed to me that in The Crucible this stark environment served well to focus our attention on the characters and their interactions, rather than on the surroundings.  Actors wore period clothing, but otherwise there was no strong sense of historical setting.  That seems especially appropriate in a case where the author intends us to see not only the events happening in a particular time and place, but also their analogue in 1950s American politics, or other situations.

That reflection reminded me of a couple of other times when I’ve seen a show that worked better on a relatively bare stage than in a movie.  As a rule, the movie version of a show like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music has the advantage of being able to present the setting with greater realism and vividness:  we can actually see the Midwestern plains or the Austrian mountains.  And today’s CGI technology can set before us almost any imaginable background.  But sometimes we don’t want to emphasize the particular setting.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha original playbillMan of La Mancha (1965), with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, is derived from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.  The play is not intended as a complete adaptation of the novel; one might, in fact, argue that the authors make use of selected parts of the novel to build a story whose effect is quite different from what Cervantes intended (something I want to address at a later date).  It was the Wasserman-Darion-Leigh musical that strongly influenced me, starting in high school.

The musical begins with a frame story:  Cervantes himself is in prison, waiting to be examined by the Inquisition.  To pacify and intrigue the other prisoners, he draws them into an impromptu enactment of scenes from the novel (Don Quixote) he is writing.  The story-within-a-story focuses on Quixote’s absurd, yet ennobling, idealism in conflict with the brutal realism of everyone else except his loyal servant Sancho Panza; and on how Quixote’s eccentric view of the world influences a young woman at an inn, a prostitute named Aldonza, whom he insists on seeing as the noble lady Dulcinea.  As the inner story concludes, back in the dungeon Cervantes is called up to face the Inquisition.  He now ascends to meet his fate with courage as the rest of the cast reprises “The Impossible Dream.”

Man of La Mancha program (Shady Grove Music Fair, MD, 1970)I’ve seen Man of La Mancha on stage twice, once in 1970 with Howard Keel, and again with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2015.  The 1970 production took place in a theatre-in-the-round, which eliminated the use of any backdrops at all; though, as I recall, there was a long, impressive stairway that could be lowered from the ceiling to illustrate the opening and closing of the dungeon.  This comports with Wikipedia’s description of the original production:

The musical was performed on a single set that suggested a dungeon. All changes in location were created by alterations in the lighting, by the use of props supposedly lying around the floor of the dungeon, and by reliance on the audience’s imagination.

Scene from Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre Company:  note largely black backdrop

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production was not theatre-in-the-round, but used a similarly spare set, with a catwalk above and again, a stairway that could be raised and lowered.  Both the 1970 and the 2015 iterations were excellent and moving presentations of the stage play.

The movie version of the musical (1972) was disappointing.  It didn’t help that the producers cast Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren in the leading roles, since neither of them could really sing—although visually Loren was a perfect Aldonza.  But even aside from the musical issues, the screen adaptation, depicting a green countryside (with windmills) and the inn where Aldonza works, seemed distinctly less effective than the stage version.

Man of La Mancha, movie sceneWhy?  Eventually I concluded that the whole point of the show—competing and radically different visions of the world—was undermined by the fact that the movie used real landscapes.  Viewing the story, one has to keep in constant tension the world as Quixote sees it (giant, castle, lady, varlets) and the world as everyone else sees it (windmill, inn, sullen and degraded woman, rough and violent muleteers).  In addition, with the frame story, it’s also necessary to keep in mind that this is theoretically being acted out by prisoners of the Inquisition in a dungeon.

So in this story, we have to keep three levels of realities before us at once.  But with the movie, the director had to commit to one or the other vision:  either film an inn and leave the castle imaginary (and the dungeon tacit), or vice versa.  Unless the movie simply filmed a production of the play—a compromise which rarely satisfies anyone.  In this particular case, the greater realism of the movie version actually blunted the effect of the story.

Godspell

Godspell play posterThe 1960s-1970s were the era of what one might call big-concept musicals—at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wholly frivolous musical comedies of the 1930s-1940s.  Like the folk Mass of the same period, Godspell (1971) sought to convey a fresh view of Christianity by putting it in the form of popular music and styles.

The play describes itself as “A musical based upon the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” though it doesn’t actually confine itself to that Gospel.  It’s structured as a series of musical numbers with skits illustrating classic parables, bookended by stylized, minimalist episodes representing the initial calling of disciples and the Passion.  The characters, except for Jesus and perhaps John and Judas, are non-Biblical, and the entire cast is dressed in colorful informal clothes reminiscent of the “hippies” of that period.

Godspell cast on stage

Godspell cast on stage: note black background

I saw the play at least once or twice back in the 1970s, though I don’t recall the particular venues.  Like Man of La Mancha, it was presented with a minimum of props and without backdrops.  The focus was on the music and the actions of the characters.  It wasn’t individual personalities or character development one focused on; the characters themselves are somewhat arbitrary, without history or backstory.  Rather, it appears they were deliberately designed to represent a group of Everypeople.

The modern style of the music, together with the lack of time and place cues (as in The Crucible) and the randomness of the costuming, serve to lift the play out of its historical place in first-century culture.  That abstraction made it more accessible to contemporary young people.  (Whether it still has that effect now, fifty years later, I can’t say.)  Rather than being distracted by the antique ambiance of robes and horses and Roman soldiers, the audience could perceive the Gospel stories in a new light.

Godspell movie cast, New York CityAs with Man of La Mancha, the popular stage play was promptly followed up by a movie version (1973).  The producers and director chose to set the movie’s activities in New York City.  The characters’ antics are seen against the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the top of a World Trade Center tower, and other well-known New York locales.  Wikipedia observes:  “While the play requires very little stage dressing, the film places emphasis on dramatic location shots in Manhattan.”

In this case, the musical aspect of the movie was fine.  At least one critic considered the movie soundtrack better than the original stage cast album.  Yet, again, it seemed to me that overall the movie was not quite as effective as the stage play.  The realistic modern setting did not improve upon the minimalist furnishing of the stage play.  I concluded that, if the goal is to abstract the essence of the Gospels as universally applicable, regardless of time or place, the movie setting isn’t an advantage:  it lifts the action out of first-century Palestine, but ties it back down to contemporary New York.  The very spare, austere stage set helps the viewer make that abstraction.

Conclusion

I’m a great fan of CGI, and look forward to seeing a full-fledged dramatic presentation using virtual reality (VR).  Modern technology allows us to present almost any science fiction or fantasy setting—things we never see in real life—realistically enough for us to suspend disbelief.  But when we don’t want realism, simplicity may be a better approach.  Even in our high-tech age, the plain theatrical stage has its uses.

What You Learn as a Dungeon Master

How I Got Into This

I jumped in fairly early on the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) bandwagon.  TSR published the original D&D rules in 1974; I persuaded my brother-in-law to run an initial game for my friends and me, as I recall, sometime around 1977.  Playing was fun, but what really attracted me was running a game.  It’s the worldbuilding, of course.

I started my own campaign on June 22, 1979.  Ultimately it ran for about 28 years realtime, fifteen years internal (game) time, and two generations (I ended up continuing the game for my kids and their friends).  The last recorded adventures occurred in 2008.  That’s beginning to seem like a long time ago . . .

Being the “Dungeon Master” (“DM”) or Game Master was great fun—but a heck of a lot of work.  Eventually I gave it up in favor of writing, which scratches somewhat the same storytelling itch.  But running a game also teaches some memorable lessons.

Before we take a look at what one learns as a DM, I’m going to provide a very quick overview of how D&D works, in case anybody out there isn’t familiar.  Those of you who already know can join us again at the next subheading below.

How D&D Works

Many different diceD&D is the best-known example of a “tabletop RPG,” or role-playing game.  Unlike an online RPG, it’s played by a bunch of people sitting around a table.  All you really need to play is pencil and paper, and some odd-looking dice.  (In fact, when my son and his buddies suddenly demanded I show them how to play D&D while on a Scout camping trip, I did without the dice; borrowed a couple of coins from someone to toss for randomizing.)  Typically, though, players will use other aids, such as miniature figures and a whiteboard or similar surface to make it easier to visualize what’s going on in a battle.  And rulebooks—did I mention rulebooks?  More on that below . . .

In chess and many other games, each of us is playing an army, more or less.  In Risk, each player embodies a whole country.  In Monopoly, we might consider each player an individual (that little stout guy with the top hat?), but it might as well be a corporation; the arbitrary placemarkers, the shoe and iron and racecar and such, don’t have personalities.  But in a RPG, each player plays a person, and the individual characteristics and personality of that person make the game what it is.  We’re playing a role, as the name tells us.

Kids playing D&D in the movie E.T.Each character in an RPG has a set of characteristics:  numerical scores for strength, endurance, dexterity, charisma, and so on.  (Remember in E.T. how the D&D-playing kids insult each other by saying things like “Zero Charisma”?)  Same with the monsters and other entities, and the people the players meet on their adventures—“non-player characters” or NPCs.  A complex set of rules govern how these factors interact:  if my character swings a sword at the dragon, what are my chances of doing any damage, and how much?

Yet, unlike chess or Go, D&D is free-form.  Any player can try any feat they can think up—and the DM has to figure out how to deal with it.  “I grab the rope and swing across like Tarzan, slashing at the dragon as I pass over it,” one player might say.  It’s up to the DM to decide what chance the character has of succeeding—which is why the DM is sometimes referred to as the “referee.”  If the innumerable rulebooks don’t cover that specific situation, the DM has to come up with something.  (For example, in my long-running game or “campaign,” I eventually had to invent a table to determine the chances of getting pregnant . . . But that’s another story.)

In other words, each player plays an individual character, but the DM “plays” the entire rest of the world.  The DM decides where the players start out (“You meet at an inn”), who they meet, how the innkeeper or the martial-arts trainer or the ogre down the street behaves, what the climate’s like, the politics and social structures—everything.  You can borrow some of this from a pre-designed game module, which Wizards of the Coast (today’s successor to TSR) will happily sell you.  But in the end, the DM provides the entire world in which the players carry out their exploits.

Note that the DM isn’t playing against the characters.  I’m not competing with the players for game goals.  Rather, my job as a DM is simply to create a background and a storyline in which the players can have fun, deciding for themselves what to do.  It’s a novel perspective.

D&D is a fantasy-based RPG, in which players take on the roles of warriors, wizards, healers, rogues, and the like.  There are RPGs of all kinds, from science fiction variants to those set in the present day; even, heaven forfend, Cthulhu Mythos RPGs (to hark back to the last post).  A group of players may take their characters through one adventure after another, improving their skills and “leveling up,” accumulating loot and buying better equipment—or dying and losing it all.  In which case, unlike real life, you simply “roll up” another character (randomly generating ability scores) and start over.  Games can be as varied as the DM’s imagination allows—and that’s where the DM’s personality and expertise come in.

What a Player Learns

We can start with what the D&D player, as well as the DM, learns from the game.  If you think of this as an educational exercise for kids (and why not?), one thing they’ll pick up is a general sense of probabilities.  For example, a twelve-sided die (“d12”) goes up to a maximum score of 12, just like two conventional six-sided dice (“2d6”).  But if you’re rolling a d12, you have an equal chance of getting any of the possible numbers (including 1), whereas with 2d6 you have a greater chance of rolling a 7 than of getting a 2 or a 12.  Look!  We’re teaching them math.  No, really, honest . . .

Wizard casting fireballIf the DM is any good, the player will also pick up some basic physics.  When a wizard casts a fireball spell, for instance, the rulebook specifies how much volume the resulting fireball takes up.  I suspect every player group eventually goes through that painful learning experience where their wizard confidently hurls a fireball in some confined dungeon chamber or hallway . . . only to find that as it expands in the limited space, the fireball bounces back and barbecues the wizard and his allies as well as the hapless orcs.  After that, they’re more careful.

Which brings up the question of how to keep things realistic, which is mostly the DM’s responsibility.  Of course, the game isn’t going to be realistic, strictly speaking.  I’ve not encountered many dragons or orcs strolling down the street in real life.  But like any story, a D&D environment needs enough coherence to achieve that “willing suspension of disbelief” that makes the experience enjoyable.

Worldbuilding

When I created my D&D world or milieu, the Relitaria, I had to decide whether to change the laws of physics.  (It’s a fantasy; you can do that.)  Maybe it would be fun to have breathable air extending all the way out to the planets, so you actually could fly to the Moon on a giant moth.  But I decided it would be way too hard to figure out what would happen in a complex situation if I started making up an entirely new physics.  If my players decided to light a fire and make a hot-air balloon, I’d have to stop and try to figure out how lighter-than-air craft worked under my ersatz laws of nature.  The real world enforces consistency; my fictional universe would have no such guarantee.  So one thing I realized is—it’s easier to stick with the laws of the real world, with minor adjustments.

Maintaining that kind of internal consistency pays off, in the end.  At one point I took my players off on an interplanetary adventure (in a scientifically plausible universe!) that I thought might awaken interest in a science fiction RPG.  But while my players did okay, they didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with the offbeat offworld adventure.  I finally concluded that I’d built my fantasy world so consistently that throwing in an entirely different kind of setting undermined their suspension of disbelief.  Of course, I’m only speculating; but I chose to take that reaction as a compliment, in a backhanded sort of way, to the coherence of the Relitarian setting.

Make Your Own Kind of Rules

Gettysburg board game, box coverOn the other hand, one thing that quickly becomes apparent in running a D&D game is the trade-off between realism and playability.  I’d seen this before in the Avalon Hill-type simulation wargames.  As my buddies and I moved from Gettysburg (1958) to D-Day (1961) and onward, the rules and initial setup became so complex that it would take all day just to read through the rules and set up your pieces, without even starting play.  That might result in a very good simulation, but not an especially enjoyable afternoon.

In a similar way, if we focus too sharply on realism in D&D, we can bog down into spending all our time looking up rules and telling the players what they’re allowed to do, which isn’t fun for anybody.  A good DM gets a feel for when to stick closely to the rules, when to ignore them, and when to improvise a little.  This experience comes in handy when, for example, you’re raising children.

When we’re inside the rules, as it were, making and remaking them, we also begin to develop a sense of why rules are made and what kinds of rules are best.  We recognize more clearly that rules are there for a purpose, and it’s by that purpose that they must be judged.  If a rule is making the game less rather than more fun for the players, maybe it’s time to jettison that rule—and the impartial DM is free to do so.  The same principle may apply with respect to those mutual and enforceable rules that we call law.  If a law is doing more harm than good, it may be better to change the law; although changing laws requires a more careful and balanced set of procedures than those of the lone autocratic DM.

Storytelling With Real Characters

We can put on a rudimentary D&D campaign by just imagining some kind of ruins—the stereotypical “dungeon”—full of randomly assorted monsters and treasure, and setting the players loose to investigate.  But a really interesting campaign, one that keeps the players genuinely engaged over time, requires more than that.  We want ongoing dangers and plotlines, recurring characters who are interesting in themselves, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, comic relief.  We want, in other words, the same things that draw us into any fantasy story.  Because the DM is not just defining a stage setting, but developing a story in which the players will want to participate.  So DMing engages the storytelling function too.

But not in the usual way.  We hear authors bemoan how their characters won’t cooperate and stubbornly go off in their own directions, much to the author’s dismay.  (And I want to take a closer look at that metaphor, one of these days.)  But in a tabletop RPG with real live players, the characters really are self-willed and prone to go off in directions the DM never expected.  One mark of a really good DM, then, is to be able to roll with the punches and adapt smoothly to whatever may happen.

In one adventure, I had arranged for the bad guys to frame the player-characters for a dreadful murder and then escape into the distance, full of fiendish glee.  That was fine; but a couple of my players were unexpectedly determined to give chase, and they kept it up much longer than I’d expected.  In fact, they ran right off the edge of the detailed map I had created for the session.  Now what?

Map with compass and coinsFortunately, I had long ago laid out the large-scale map into which the detailed map was fitted; so I had at least some idea of the kind of country they were heading into.  Within that known context, I could invent on the spot the particular scenery or towns along the road—quickly scribbling them down so I could go back later and fill those details in on the map, so that next time the players passed that way, they’d see the same locales as before.  (Consistency, remember.)  Eventually I got them to give up on the chase, and we could get back to the further events I had planned out . . . more or less.

The dramatic appeal of the story is also subject to the group’s whims.  At one point, my dauntless players, carrying a MacGuffin and hotly pursued by enemies, made it to the cavern of an elderly wizard with whom they were acquainted.  My idea was for the wizard to point them to a rear exit, and insist on staying behind to engage the baddies, perishing nobly in a dramatic rearguard action.  What happened when the wizard outlined this self-sacrificing plan?  Our cantankerous player-character warrior socked the wizard, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him out with the players as they escaped—ditching my tear-jerker moment altogether.  It was perfectly in character for this warrior; all I could do was grin and abandon my original plan, devoting myself instead to finding a way to make sure the players made good their escape despite the lack of a delaying rearguard.  Sometimes a poignant scene turns into a pratfall, and we have to roll with it.

Well-Planned Improvisation

These incidents exemplify the need for a combination of careful pre-planning and the ability to improvise at will.  It was because I had the large-scale map already drawn that I was able smoothly to interpolate the necessary details.

Oral argument in courtroomThis is true in all kinds of other areas.  The same combination of skills comes in handy in a negotiation, where we need to be familiar enough with the issues and possibilities so that we can respond promptly to unexpected counter-arguments or novel suggestions.  It’s the same reason that a lawyer prepares in excruciating detail for an oral argument before an appellate court, even though the judges are likely to start asking their own questions as soon as the lawyer starts talking and take the conversation off in a direction she couldn’t anticipate.  If we know the terrain, that gives us the best chance of being able to maneuver through it when the unexpected occurs.

This balance of traits is not unlike the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, as developed by John Lewis Gaddis in his recent book On Grand Strategy (2018).  The successful leader, Gaddis suggests, is the one who can be attentive simultaneously to the overall objective of a campaign, and to the practical details that must be managed to attain that objective.  This seems to be true in many more areas of life than just military or political leadership.

So I’ve learned a surprising amount about leadership, and coping with life in general, from running a D&D campaign.  There’s nothing we can’t learn from, and often put to use in surprisingly practical ways—no matter how fantastic the source may be.

A Place for Horror

The Question of Horror

I’ve never been fond of the horror genre.  I just don’t see the point of being scared or (more often) disgusted or repelled by a story.  As Randall Munroe of xkcd puts it:  “I know everyone’s into what they’re into, but I have never understood horror movies.”

Approaching the genre as an outsider, then, my question is:  why is there such a genre at all?  Is it just the desire for a thrill?  Or is the whole interest in horror merely morbid?

An interesting remark in a Diane Duane story recently gave me an inkling of what the function of horror stories might be.  As we’re coming up to Hallowe’en, I thought the point might be worth examining this week.

Horror, and Genre Horror

Alien - movie posterTo be sure, one sometimes bumps up against horror elements incidentally in the course of pursuing other types of stories.  I did watch the movie Alien when it came out in 1979—but that was because it was science fiction, not because it was horror.  It’s both—I recall coming out of the theatre literally shaking.  But I don’t think I’ve watched it a second time.

In a similar way, there’s a good admixture of horror in Jurassic Park (I’m thinking mainly of the 1993 movie).  Plenty of “jump scene” shock moments, and gore; and I have rewatched that one, but it’s for the other elements, most notably the sheer wonder of seeing the paleontologists encounter actual living dinosaurs.  As the xkcd comic mouseover observes, I enjoy it because dinosaurs are cool.  I’m willing to go through a good deal of bad stuff in a story if the good stuff makes it worthwhile.

Even a nice song can turn up unexpected horror elements.  The title song from Carole King’s Tapestry album is a lovely meditative piece that begins “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .”  Pleasant, yes?  But the lyric gradually drifts into a dream, or maybe a nightmare:  the end of the song gives us “. . . A figure, gray and ghostly, beneath a flowing beard / In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black / Now my tapestry’s unraveling, he’s come to take me back . . .”  That’s rather disturbing, though the song is so pretty that one hardly notices the rather dreadful image.

The Stand - book coverBut what little I have seen of genre horror makes clear that it has its own conventions, its own tendencies and interests, that go beyond these occasional elements.  I recognized this when I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand (1978).  While the story is essentially a fantasy, it has a science-fictionish premise:  an apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of humanity.  So I approached it as an SF novel.

Some characters are escaping from New York City (if I recall correctly) through a tunnel jammed with stopped vehicles, which are occupied by the decomposing bodies of plague victims struck down at the wheel.  Not a pleasant place for a trek.  So they enter the tunnel, are appropriately horrified by this commuter charnel house.  They continue on.  And on.  And on.  And at some point I found myself wondering, why are we still in this tunnel?  I get the point.  Why aren’t we moving forward with the plot?  And it dawned on me:  that’s the SF reader’s reaction.  But this is horror.  The dreadful experience of going through the tunnel is the whole point for a horror reader.

Similarly, in Weird Tales-type stories like ”Shambleau” and others of C.L. Moore’s early work, it seems clear that the horror elements are the purpose of the story.  And it’s a durable purpose.  There’s still a thriving cottage industry of pastiches, games, and academic interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, though Lovecraft has been dead since 1937.  (At least, we think he’s dead . . .)

Science Fiction Monsters

The Demon Breed coverOn the other hand, compare this with an SF story that merely has horror elements.  There’s a sizable subgenre of science fiction monster stories, even if we throw out the B-movies and Godzilla remakes.  James H. Schmitz was particularly good at these.  Take a look at his collection A Pride of Monsters:  short stories like “The Winds of Time” (1962) and “Greenface” (1943) have structures very like traditional horror tales.  And the excellent short novel The Demon Breed (1968) makes use of horror tropes in telling an intense adventure story.

But while “Greenface” may read as a horror story, Schmitz’s other monster tales don’t come across that way.  There’s a difference in tone and mood.  Even though there are fairly horrid suggestions in “The Winds of Time”—the (extremely intelligent) monster in that story “preferred . . . to have its snacks still wriggling-fresh as it started them down its gullet”—we don’t dwell on them.  It reads to me more like an SF problem-story, where the characters must come up with inventive means to extricate themselves from a difficult situation.

Similar observations apply to, say, A.E. van Vogt’s assembly of monster-stories The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1938-1950)—or even van Vogt’s “Asylum” (1942), an early envisioning of science-fictional (as opposed to fantasy or religious) vampires.  The tone and mood are different from those of a true horror tale; they’re appealing to a different audience.

The Appeal of Horror

Why do we include horror elements in a story?

The most obvious answer, from an F&SF perspective, is conflict.  If we’re dealing with an epic or an adventure, we need to see that the evil our heroes are fighting against is, in fact, evil.  And one easy way to do that is to show the bad guys doing horrible things.  Maybe the threat is not merely death, but any of several Fates Worse Than Death.  Not only bodily death, but the soul itself (the theology is a little murky here) is at stake.  Not merely enslavement, but cannibalism.  We accentuate the menace against which the main characters are striving by making it a “parade of horribles.”

More broadly, horror aids contrast.  The good stands out better against a background of evil:  we can more readily appreciate the good when it’s juxtaposed with the bad.  When we return to the Shire, we appreciate it more than in the initial chapters, because we’ve seen far worse places.  (Of course, Tolkien’s actual treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” is more nuanced and complex than that simple contrast suggests—but the simple contrast still underlies the conclusion of the story.)

Ringwraith looms over hobbitsIn this connection, Darrell Schweitzer notes that Tolkien has an unexpected knack for horror writing (The Fantastic Horizon, ch. 2).  The central concept of the Ring itself is pretty darn creepy:  an innocent-looking but almost-sentient magic item that gradually subverts the wearer’s will.  The Black Riders pursuing the hobbits through a seemingly-idyllic Shire—the night attack on Weathertop—the attack of Shelob at Cirith Ungol—Tolkien knows how to invoke the awful as well as the awesome.

But while these uses explain some horror elements in other kinds of stories, they don’t fully account for the horror genre.  If the horrible is not set up as opposition or contrast, but rather as the main preoccupation of the story, it must be there for some other reason.

Immunization

Interim Errantry coverDiane Duane’s collection of three Young Wizards stories, Interim Errantry (2015) includes a 2011 Hallowe’en story, “Not In My Patch.”  Early in the story, senior wizard Carl Romeo is talking to Nita, the main character, about the reason for elaborate Hallowe’en displays:

“But who doesn’t like being safely scared, occasionally?  Pleasantly scared, by something that can’t really hurt you?  . . . It starts getting you used to fear . . . so when you come up against something really scary, you can cope a little better.”

“Like being vaccinated,” Nita said.  “The weakened bugs make you immune . . .”

This idea suggests a wholesome purpose even for stories that focus primarily on the horrible.  The stories may not be quite as frivolous as the jack-o-lanterns and orange-and-black bunting that we see at this season.  But we can still say to ourselves, “it’s just a story.”  We expose ourselves to the scary or appalling in some degree without having to go through those experiences in real life.  Because there are scary and appalling things in the world; and we don’t want to lead so sheltered a life that we’re wholly incapacitated or unmoored if we should meet them.  As Nita says, it helps us develop an immunity.

Redheaded cartoon witch on broomstickWe can go even further.  If we learn to laugh at horror, we can to some degree deprive it of its self-importance, place ourselves beyond it.  (In the passage excerpted above, Carl notes that the Lone Power “really, really hates not being taken seriously”—a sentiment echoed to good effect at the end of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.)  Call it whistling in the dark—but this attitude may help prepare us, in some small way, for those times when we do encounter horror in real life.  It may explain why our Hallowe’en decorations tend toward the ridiculous and cartoonish.  “Here’s a witch no one could be afraid of.”  (In this connection, I can’t resist citing to one of my favorite treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

May you all have a happy Hallowe’en, then, and may all your fears be as abstract and hypothetical as the Great Pumpkin.  “Forth now, and fear no darkness.”

White moon with crow and bats (Pixabay)

The Manly Virtues—Regency Style

Heroic Virtues

Picture of Regency heroThe “hero” of a romance, the male lead, holds up a mirror to a given age’s conception of the virtues a man should have.  If the romance is to work at all, the hero must be someone we’re willing to see the heroine give her heart to.  He may not be perfect; in fact, he frequently has flaws or emotional wounds that help provide obstacles in the story.  But he has to be admirable enough to win our approval.

We’re not talking just about the kinds of physical attributes a woman might sigh over.  The reader is supposed to respect the man as well.

This assumption is largely tacit.  Probably no one in the story comes right out and says “this is what a man should be.”  It’s a matter of what the story presents as desirable or worthy of respect.  We can learn a lot more from how the story treats a character than just what the author tells us.

In other words, romantic stories can give us clues about the archetypes or role models for males (and of course females) in a given period.

These ideals aren’t necessarily the same in different eras.  Cultural differences affect what qualities we see as admirable.  There’s a fairly constant core—virtues that are respected in every generation—but there’s also a good deal of divergence.

 

Hero Types

There’s a fair amount of variety in the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s twenty to thirty Regency novels (the count depends on how loosely one defines the Regency period).  We can see this from the fact that attempts to categorize the heroes have to deal with a lot of exceptions.

The standard division, originating with Heyer herself, proposes two principal archetypes.  Jane Aiken-Hodge, in The Private World of Georgette Heyer (1984), is quoted in Laurel Ann Nattress, Heyer’s Heroes:  Immutable Romance Archetypes, on Austenprose (2010), as saying that “Georgette Heyer put her heroes into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and the Mark II hero, who is ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.’

Dorothy Dunnett added in a Washington Post article (1984):  “If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodiment of Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy’s languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel” (links and italics added).  TV Tropes’ Creator page on Heyer notes this division of heroes (and a corresponding classification of heroines).

The Foundling, coverBut these dual archetypes don’t exhaust the roster.  Nattress notes that the Duke of Sale in The Foundling “perhaps requires one to add at least one more category to Heyer’s own classification scheme, since he, like the heroes of Charity Girl, Cotillion, and Friday’s Child, is neither “suave” nor “brusque.”  That’s four stories that apparently escape the Mark I/II dichotomy.  Nattress adds:  “In addition, one might have to create a small category for Heyer’s military heroes who are neither ‘suave’ nor ‘brusque’ but instead have a penchant for behaving in unexpectedly unconventional ways, and which would contain the heroes of Beauvallet, The Spanish Bride, The Toll Gate and The Unknown Ajax.”  We’re now up to eight exceptions.

Common Characteristics

On the other hand, the romantic heroes do have a pretty consistent set of common features.  Let’s divide the personal qualities—not the characters—into two groups (no relation to the Mark I/II character types).

Group 1 features:  General

  • The hero has plenty of money. Sometimes this is important because the heroine is in financial need; sometimes it isn’t, because she’s not.  But the male lead is almost always solvent, if not extraordinarily wealthy.  A rare counter-example is Adam Deveril of A Civil Contract (1961), whose attempt to achieve financial stability for his family is a main plotline of the story.
  • Black Sheep (Georgette Heyer) coverHe typically looks good, both in the sense of physical handsomeness and in that of being well-dressed and “put together.” A rare counter-example here is Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep (1966), who is described as a man “with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion” (ch. 3, p. 34).
  • He’s kind to his lady. They may start out at odds; he may be brusque or formidable to others; but to the heroine, at least, he is considerate and caring.
  • In a pinch, he’s cool under pressure. There may or may not be any situation in the story that calls for physical courage; but if so, he’s got it.
  • Loyalty and, more narrowly, fidelity to his lady is another hallmark. We’re talking here about fidelity after they fall in love.  Heyer makes clear that the hero has previously sown his wild oats, which makes him experienced in carnal matters and confident in his wooing.  But once he falls for the heroine, all that is behind him.

It should be noted that Heyer’s novels do not deal with actual sexual activity at all.  Physical attraction, while it is obviously present, does not feature largely in the storylines—so it is not a requirement that the hero be outrageously sexy.  In this respect Heyer differs considerably from many modern genre romances, even Regency romances.  (On this aspect of Heyer’s character, see Jennifer Kloester’s biography Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (2011).)

The Group 1 traits are probably common, in some form, to the ideal mate for a woman in any era.  Having plenty of money, in particular, may represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for the traditional female reader (Heyer’s 1920s-1960s audience):  the hero is someone who can be relied upon to provide a safe support for the necessities and amenities of life.

How this is expressed may differ by society.  In the Regency period, a fortune was generally inherited; in a modern story, the traditional millionaire romantic interest probably earned his stash.  In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the currency of survival may be something other than money per se.  But some reliable means of support is generally attractive.

The corresponding wish-fulfillment quality in a female for male readers/viewers, by the way, is beauty.  One doesn’t cast unattractive Bond girls.  It would be considered shallow for either sex to value only these qualities in a potential mate; but they do form part of the complete package for the ideal romantic interest.

In addition to the Group 1 virtues, a Heyer hero is expected to have some more period-specific qualities.

Group 2 features:  Regency-specific

  • Gentleman Jackson's Boxing Salon, 1821 woodcutThe ideal Regency gentleman, as Heyer see it, knows how to fist-fight. Typically, he frequents Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Salon, where he attains some skill using his “fives” in an art the ladies generally deplore, but still rather admire.  At least some brief mention of this ability turns up for almost all of Heyer’s heroes.
  • Moreover, he can fight with firearms. The hero is generally a good shot, spending some of his off hours target-shooting or hunting.  Even in a story where neither fist-fighting nor shooting plays a part, these talents seem to be indispensable:  the proper hero is prepared to fight should the need arise.
  • He can ride a horse. Whether he’s a “notable whip” or merely a very competent horseman, he’s particularly good at riding, even in an era where the horse was a standard mode of transportation.
  • In Regency high society, a man’s integrity is expressed especially in honoring his bets in the ubiquitous gaming. A hero always makes good on his gaming obligations; someone who doesn’t is instantly recognizable as a villain.  (Note that this is closely related to the general virtue of having plenty of money available.)
  • Almost invariably, he has a sense of humor; frequently the heroine wishes she could share some absurd incident with the hero when he’s absent. This sense of humor may be a survival trait when you’re in a romantic comedy.
  • Last of the Mohicans action sceneIn a society where almost all one’s time is spent in social interactions, social competence is a key feature. The proper hero can cope with any social difficulty or complication.  Some of them do so calmly, with aplomb, while others may be brusque and seemingly unconventional (I mentioned Black Sheep above).  In a primitive or frontier situation—say, if you’re in The Last of the Mohicans, or a Heinlein adventure—competence may mean basic survival skills.  But in a highly formalized society like the Regency, social skill is what competence in general looks like.

Of course we’re talking about the aristocracy here—what the stories refer to, tellingly, as “the Quality.”  Heyer’s stories only glancingly involve the kinds of street urchins or poor tradespeople who grace the pages of (for example) Dickens.  While later Regencies may try to work in a more egalitarian perspective, the Heyer-type stories focus on the leisured class.

Cotillion

We can see what the essential characteristics are by looking at an exception to what one would think of as the typical alpha hero:  Freddy Standen of Cotillion (N.Y.:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, A Jove Book, 1953, 1982).

Cotillion (Georgette Heyer), coverIn this light-hearted tale, heroine Kitty Charing is the ward of crochety old Uncle Matthew, who’s determined to marry her off, along with his considerable fortune, to one of his nephews.  Kitty’s in love with the rakish Jack, who is too proud to show up when Uncle Matthew calls the nephews together.  Instead, she convinces the amiable Freddy to pretend to be engaged to her, which allows her the London experience she’s always wanted, and (not incidentally) the chance to convince Jack to offer for her.  In the course of the story, she discovers Jack’s unlikable features, and ends up falling for Freddy after all—and vice versa, of course.

You might expect Jack to be the hero.  He’s handsome, devil-may-care, knows how to fight, and so forth.  He’s the classic powerful, assertive alpha male type.  But Jack is too selfish, and he doesn’t really care about Kitty; she’s merely convenient for him.  It’s the non-alpha Freddy who wins out.

Freddy is good-looking, but in an almost dandyish mode; a “Pink of the Ton” (p. 41).  He’s “kind-hearted and . . . uncritical” (p. 112), and expresses “ready sympathy” for Kitty (p. 210).  He professes to be frightened of intimidating types like Uncle Matthew (p. 53); but he really isn’t, and provides unexpected support to Kitty in dealing with difficult relatives (pp. 191, 258-59).  These are of course good things for the inexperienced heroine, though they’re milder virtues than the bold assertiveness one would expect of a stock hero.

At the same time, Freddy does possess the Group 2 qualifications outlined above.  He has integrity:  he’s an honest gamer (“Play or pay, m’girl, play or pay,” pp. 108-09).  More importantly, he’s courteous and magnanimous in real life.  Jack recognizes that Freddy is “wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture” (p. 267), and Heyer even describes Freddy’s willingness to help someone in difficulties as “an innate chivalry” (p. 354).

Freddy shares with his lady an appreciation for the humorous (p. 306).  He is a past master of social competence:  mild-mannered though he is, he “knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur” when necessary (p. 305), and although he lays no claim to great intelligence, he has the practical knowledge of how to get his much smarter brother out of trouble (p. 318)—practical wisdom.  To Kitty, this is genuine heroism:

“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!”  (pp. 314-15)

At the start of the story Freddy’s own father Lord Legerwood regards him as mentally negligible.  But Legerwood is repeatedly astonished in the course of the book when Freddy comes up with a clever solution to some problem at need—at which Freddy himself is equally astonished (pp. 105, 170, 305-06).  In this respect Freddy bears some resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (we’ll have to discuss the remarkable Jeeves and the Wedding Bells another time).

Most strikingly, although we’re explicitly told that Freddy is no match for Jack at fisticuffs, Heyer does give him a chance to knock Jack down with a well-placed blow—in response to an insult to Kitty (p. 408).  Everyone, including Freddy and Jack, recognize that this was an impulsive and lucky hit, but at that point of the story Jack’s not going to follow it up by getting into a “mill.”  So Freddy, the least likely of combatants, is left holding the field—a neat trick by Heyer.  Even in those Group 2 qualities that aren’t his strong suit, he qualifies.

Warrior Virtues in Disguise

Why do Regency heroes (at least in Heyer) have this particular set of Group 2 qualities?

I suggest that the ideal underlying Heyer’s heroes is that of a warrior caste gone to seed.  The aristocracy depicted in these stories seems to have occupied itself almost exclusively with trivialities:  gaming, fancy dress, gossip, absurd customs and manners enforced by exaggerated social sanctions.  But that aristocracy originated in the feudal system established in England after the Norman Conquest.

Hohensalzburg fortressThe basic “social compact” of the feudal system was that a warrior caste was given overlordship of specified lands in exchange for military service—particularly in the cavalry, the realm of the traditional knight.  From the standpoint of the king, a vassal drew on the resources of his lands to equip himself and his companions to provide soldiers for the king at need.  From the standpoint of the common people, the local lord provided defense in wartime, kept the peace, and administered justice, in return for his authority over his fief.  Not that the commoners had much to say about it, of course—but there were reciprocal obligations of the lord to his people:  noblesse oblige.

Over the ensuing seven hundred years, the notion of holding lands in exchange for service gradually degenerated into a system of pure inheritance.  Succeeding landholders might be anything but warriors, and their support to the Crown was more likely to be financial than military.  Yet some of the original ideal remained, a sort of ghostly glamour in the name of remembered glory.  The Dorothy Dunnett article quoted above continues:

And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time.  Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of “armor,” Georgette Heyer’s favorite period.

Our Heyer heroes may spend most of their time playing at vaguely military-like sports:  riding, boxing, shooting.  But if there ever is a call for soldiery—there they are.  And the Regency aristocrats do go to war.  Much of the Regency period overlaps that of the Napoleonic Wars, and campaigns on the Continent frequently play a role in the background of a Heyer romance.  In this respect, a classic aphorism about war and sports is apropos:

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington did not say – although as the Victorian era’s principal supplier of epigrams, he certainly should have. [footnote omitted]  For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that the Clausewitzian combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together.  (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (NY:  Penguin Press, 2018), ch. 1, p. 26.)

We may note briefly that Heyer’s heroines fit the pattern too.  Looking at the covers of the books, one may be tempted to think the women in the stories are purely ornamental, representing the “prize” of the warrior:  “None but the brave deserves the fair” (Dryden).  But in fact the ladies in these romances are frequently estate managers, skilled at family governance and the organization of veritable armies of workers—just as one might expect from those expected to keep things going on the home front while the defenders are away at war.  There’s more to these decorative ladies than meets the eye.

The particular sketch of the ideal male in Heyer’s Regencies, then, may be rooted in a much older ideal:  to employ a favorite phrase in jest (oddly enough) of Wodehouse’s, the parfit gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche.  Like Tolkien’s hobbits, the Regency gentleman conceals unexpected resilience beneath an apparently trivial surface.  He makes an interesting contrast to more contemporary models of manhood.