Sunday, March 28, 2021

My Earliest Childhood Fantasy Inspirations

The other day, I was talking with some friends about our childhood fantasy inspirations. It occurred to me that everyone's knowledge of fantasy (or any other genre) is very limited at first, and grows over time.

But if I cast my mind backward, I can still kind of recapture what the fantasy genre looked like to me as a child. If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12, these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to provide the inspiration for my game.

For me, let's mark the end of "childhood" and the start of my teen years with the roughly simultaneous discoveries of Magic: The Gathering and The Duelist magazine, JRPG games I could read about in Nintendo Power magazine even if I didn't own them, and my family's first subscription to 1990s dial-up internet. Those three discoveries gave me windows outside my parents house and shaped my view of fantasy in my teen years, and they probably established the type of fantasy world I'd imagine today. But what I'm writing about here comes earlier, before that, when my world was still small.

What were your earliest childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world look like back then?

The Sword in the Stone - The origin-story prequel of the saga of King Arthur, Sword in the Stone tells the story of an unloved young squire nicknamed "Wart" who meets the wizard Merlin and his familiar, Archimedes the owl. Merlin and Archimedes tutor Arthur by showing him the world from the perspective of two different prey species, one a fish, and one a bird, both times defending him from predators, and eventually from the shapechanging witch Mad Madam Mim. The film ends when Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, almost by accident, while trying to fulfill his duties as a squire.

As a child, I was small, skinny, and had few friends. I found Arthur's life as "Wart" easy to relate to. One thing that stands out in this movie is just how tiny Arthur is, and how giant all the adults seem by comparison. The magicians' duel between Merlin and Mim, with all its creative shapeshifting, including her ending up as a dragon, is a real delight to watch - as are the scenes of Merlin magically packing up his study and cleaning the kitchen.
Robin Hood - The familiar story of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, does battle with Prince Jon and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and comes to the rescue of his girlfriend, Maid Marian. Oh yeah, and everyone's an animal. Robin is depicted a hero of the people, beloved by the townspeople, and a group of small children who - in an almost metafictional gesture - play pretend at being Robin Hood themselves.

The Disney films on this list weren't just three of my favorite fantasy movies, they were also three of my favorite Disney films, and three of my favorite movies period, growing up. The music is especially good in this one, and the costumes are easy to imagine transposed onto human characters, and Robin in particular is a master of disguise. (Although his fortune teller disguise seems to be based on, and to perpetuate, stereotypes about the Roma people.)

Sleeping Beauty - A fairly standard telling of the story of Sleeping Beauty that's elevated by its details. The evil fairy Maleficent is frightening even before she turns into a dragon, the good fairies are fun to watch when they're fighting over what color Aurora's dress should be, and if the instrumentals sound good enough to dance to, it's because Tchaikovsky wrote them for the ballet.

All the verve and personality in this movie is reserved for the supporting cast, but they have it in spades. Maleficent is one of the all-time great villains, she turns into a giant black dragon, and I love her little army of mismatched goblins. She says "hell" once, you guys, which seemed like a big deal at the time. And even if most of what is does is stand there and look vaguely handsome, I also liked Phillip's brief turn as a dragonslaying knight on horseback.

LEGO Castle - Although I've often lamented that LEGO got much cooler right after I stopped playing with them, what I probably mean is that that's around the time they started making licensed sets with recognizable characters from other intellectual properties. I had a few sets of knights, bandits, and the "forest men" who are clearly modeled on Robin Hood. I used them to act out Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, and to make up my own fantasy stories. If I had been running a game of D&D as a kid, I would definitely have used these LEGO minifigures to represent each character.

The Princess Bride - The classic story of True Love TM , Westley and Buttercup fall in love when they're younger, and separated by circumstance, she gets unwillingly forced into an engagement to a prince, and Westley returns bristling with talent and dressed in all black to rescue her. There are some really excellent sword fights, and various extremely silly supporting cast members.

As a child, I really don't think I understood that this is intended to be a comedy. I read the book too, with its fake editor's notes and summaries of the expurgated materials, and failed to understand that the supposed "good parts edition" was the only edition, there was no actual unabridged original that I couldn't locate. For all that, I really enjoyed this movie, perhaps especially Westley's sword fight with Inigo, wrestling match with Fezzik, and battle of wits with Vizzini.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Prince Adam of Eternia transforms into the indomitable He-Man, defending his kingdom from invasion by the evil sorcerer Skeletor and his army of colorful minions. The characters on He-Man are essentially fantasy superheroes and supervillains, but they'd probably make good additions to any cast of NPCs.

I've heard from people who've rewatched this cartoon that He-Man never actually uses his sword as a weapon, that he always wins his fights with other feats of unarmed strength, but as a kid I never noticed that. He-Man is one of the earliest cartoons I can remember watching, and I was kind of obsessed with it at the time. I had some of the action figures and played with them constantly, I played at pretend sword-fighting, on a few occasions I even wore across my chest so I could carry a toy sword on my back. While this was on the air, I never got tired of it.

Circle of Magic - Randal, a young squire, abandons the path to knighthood to learn magic. After seeing a demonstration by Master Maddoc, Randal follows him to the city where he wins admission to a wizard college. He meets Lys, a girl his own age who starts out homeless, orphaned, and dressed as a boy, stealing food to stay alive. Given an instrument and a chance, she develops into a successful traveling minstrel. Randal travels too as a journeyman wizard, and is joined by his cousin Walter, who has become a knight errant. Their adventures frequently culminate in an attempt to banish a demon from the world.

I think I probably bought these books off the Scholastic book carts on one of the occasions they took over the lunchroom at my elementary school. I remember sneaking out of bed to lie on the floor so I could read them beneath my nightlight. As a kid, to a certain extent, almost all my fantasy inspirations felt personal. Maybe all my classmates knew the Disney films, but none of my friends had seen Labyrinth or the Dark Crystal. But even today, the Circle of Magic books still feel personal. Unlike the other items on this list, there are no rewatches or reviews online, no shared generational nostalgia. 

I didn't understand why at the time, but I felt especially interested in Lys's story. These days, with the fantasy books I seem to read, I'd almost be surprised to find a girl character who doesn't disguise herself as a boy for safety, but at the time, Lys wasn't an example of an archetype to me, she was a unique and surprising individual. I liked that she and Walter were shown to be as skilled at their careers as Randal was at magic. 

There was also some subtle commentary in these books. Wizards don't tell lies because their magic will betray them if they do. Wizards don't use swords because they promise not to, and so using one would mean breaking a promise, and thus telling a lie. And in their travels, the group comes to a town where the upper class all wear fancy dueling swords, which they observe are quite different from the heavy killing blades Randal and Walter grew up with.


Return of the Jedi - Luke Skywalker helps rescue his friends from the alien gangster, Jabba the Hutt. They discover the location of a new, incomplete Death Star. The Rebel fleet will attack the space station while Luke and his friends turn off the shield generator that protects the station. The generator is on a forested moon, and they're aided in their attack by the alien Ewoks. Luke also goes to the Death Star to convince Darth Vader to quite the Empire.

In general, as a kid, I drew thick boundary lines between the genres, but the last Star Wars movie slipped through my firewall to inform my vision of fantasy far more than it did scifi. I was thrilled by the raid on Jabba's palace and the climactic sword-fights between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Evil Emperor (who shoots lightning out of his fingers!), and the Gamorrean guards joined the ranks of the goblin army in my mind.
The Neverending Story - Bastian skips school to sneak into an attic and read a new fantasy novel, also called The Neverending Story. In the book, the world is being dissolved by the encroaching Nothing. Heroic Atreyu travels across the shrinking countryside to find the Childlike Empress and try to save both her and the world, risking death several times along the way. He eventually gets help from Falcor the luck-dragon, and Bastian begins to understand that he has a role to play too - the fantasy world can't survive without the imagination of its readers.

This was another one I read. I found a luscious hardback copy of the book on my parents' shelves, printed with green and red ink to designate Bastian's and Atreyu's stories. It blew my mind when I discovered that there was a whole second half to the book that continued after the endpoint of the movie. I know everyone feels sad when they watch Atreyu's horse drown in the swamp, but the scene that always made me saddest is when we meet the rock giant for the second time. The first time, in the beginning, he's happy and confident, certain he can outrace the peril that's chasing him. When we see him again, he's wracked with guilt over being unable to save his friends from the Nothing, disappointed in himself because there's no one else left to be disappointed in him. For whatever reason, the way he was haunted by his failure really resonated with me, even when I was too young to have failed at much in life yet.

Labyrinth - Teenage Sarah wishes the goblins would come take her screaming, crying baby brother away ... so they do. To rescue him, Sarah has to navigate a maze with a shifting layout to try to reach the castle of the Goblin King. She helped by a handful of the labyrinth's inhabitants, and obstructed by the majority of those she encounters. She learns both self-confidence and a willingness to trust deserving friends, and eventually rescues her little brother, but retains a connection to the goblin kingdom.

This was one of the few fantasy stories I was aware of where a girl hero saves a boy damsel, and I really liked Sarah as a character. She's smart, but more importantly, aside from acting impulsively on her feelings at the beginning, she finds her way through the maze by being emotionally intelligent. I also felt there was something interesting about the Goblin King insisting that he only acted like a villain because humans like Sarah wanted him to, which makes him a bit like the Lucifer character from the Sandman comics - although I wouldn't read those until like a decade after I first saw Labyrinth. The visuals in this film are really good, the MC Escher inspired staircase room remains part of my idea of what dungeons should look like.
The Dark Crystal - Two elf-like Gelflings, Jen and Kira, meet on a quest to find a crystal shard and return it to the great Crystal. They're pursued by the horrible vulture-like Skeksis, who rule the world, and have bred monsters to protect the Crystal from being repaired and made whole. When the Crystal is repaired, the Skeksis merge with the ancient Mystics, each pair fusing to become a single body. These restored beings abdicate their rule and leave the world to the Gelflings.

I'm certain I didn't understand this movie as a kid, although I loved the visuals. The plot isn't necessarily that complex, but I found it disorienting. It doesn't just tell a new story, it tells it using unfamiliar characters. There are no humans or recognizable animals in Dark Crystal, it's got its own complete ecology. Like Neverending Story, it tells the story of a world that's practically disintegrating from some sort of overuse and exhaustion, a world that is reborn like the first day of spring after a final victory that's less about defeating an enemy than fixing something that was broken.
The Secret of NIMH - Field mouse Mrs Brisby knows that she needs to move her family out of their cinderblock home before the farmer ploughs the field, but her youngest son is too sick to move. She seeks help from the mysterious rats of NIMH. She meets a friendly crow, a terrifying giant owl, puts sleeping powder in cat named Dragon's food dish, and eventually uses a magic amulet she got from the rats to levitate her house to safety. The rats are having their own internal disputes, which they settle with a lot of sword-fighting.

I thought this was the coolest animated movie as a kid. One of the rats says a swear word - "damn!" When the rats sword-fight, they get cut, their swords get bloody. Nicodemus and the Owl both have scary glowing eyes, and the amulet lets Mrs Brisby use what amounts to telekinesis, but animated with absolutely gorgeous glowing fire light. Between Mrs Brisby's dead husband, her deathly ill son, and the Lab Animal style revelation of the source of the rats' intelligence and powers made this a pretty dark movie. Although as I write this, actually several of the films on this list have some pretty mature themes for children's entertainment.

Looking across the different stories, it becomes possible to draw out common themes, to see the key features of a campaign world inspired by these movies begin to take shape.

Your friends are small and weak - When the heroes in these stories have allies - friends who support them even if they don't join in their adventures - those allies tend to be marginal and vulnerable. They're children, the elderly, people who have been disabled by sickness, or people who spend most of their time helping the above. Think of Robin Hood's many supporters among the poor, and Friar Tuck, whose obligations to his ministry limit how much he can help his criminal friend.

When the heroes receive supernatural help, its often from allies we might think of as gnomes. They might not be called gnomes in-fiction, but I'm thinking of the podlings from Dark Crystal, the observatory keepers at the Southern Oracle in Neverending Story, perhaps even Yoda. These allies can provide information, medical attention, a place to sleep, but there's a reason they aren't adventurers themselves.

Heroes wear black - And not just literally, like Luke in Return of the Jedi and Westley in Princess Bride, (and Zorro!), but also figuratively, many of these heroes are criminals and outlaws, and many of the villains are kings and princes, people with the law, the government, and an army on their side and at their command. Jabba the Hutt might be referred to as a gangster, for example, but he's the one with the palace, the courtiers, the guards, the multiple sites where he executes people for spectacle. Even the heroes who used to be royal themselves have been thrown out of power. If they retain anything at all from that time, it's a bit of status and respect from the common people. These are adventures where the bad guys have won before the story even starts, and the quest is an attempt to repair a situation that has been broken for quite some time.

Villains lead goblins - The villainous rulers of these stories wear quite a bit of black themselves, and they're often quite frightening and imposing. Think of Skeletor's skinless face, Maleficent's horned headdress, the Skeksis' terrible bird-like features, or Darth Vader's whole costume.

The villains also frequently have their own private armies of goblins, who look quite distinctive compared to the goblins that I saw later in Magic and Pathfinder illustrations. These goblins are typically short, pale brown or sickly yellow skinned (not human skin tones, more like colors you might associate with disease), and with diverse bestial features. Some have pig's noses, or animal maws, or horns, some mostly look like kids, and their individual uniqueness gives them a distinctive look when they're grouped together. Goblins are cunning and dangerous, but also cowardly and undisciplined. They're like a cruel reflection of kids and gnomes as allies.

Dragons are deadly - Mad Madam Mim and Maleficent turn themselves into dragons, the LEGO knights fight dragons, and the Rats of NIMH live in fear of Dragon the cat, who killed Mrs Brisby's husband and broke Mr Ages' leg. While many of the fights in these stories are fought until one side can knock out or capture the other, a fight with a dragon stands out because it's a fight to the death.

Knights should be a character type - I still remember how surprised I was learning about D&D and realizing that knights weren't really a viable character class. There are fighters who wear plate armor, there are self-righteous paladins, and occasionally there's some sort of cavalier as an optional addition to the core rules, but despite how often they appear in the fantasy media (and LEGO sets!) I was familiar with as a kid, knights just don't really have a place in standard D&D. They certainly would if my kid self ran a campaign, though!

The protagonists of these stories are more likely to be former squires than active knights, but there are plenty of knights in armor among the supporting casts. Knights errant should probably also be a possible NPC ally, someone you could recruit to accompany you and fight on your behalf. I would probably let the players take turns controlling their mounted champion in combat though, so it doesn't feel like fights are decided by contests between a GM-controlled protector and some GM-controlled monsters. Speaking of combat...

Fighting means sword-fighting - I think the most common sort of fight in these stories is a one-on-one duel with swords. As others have noted in detail, this is not a type of combat that standard D&D models particularly well, although I think it probably requires a change in the common practices of description more than it requires a change in the rules. These sword fights are rarely to the death. They typically end with someone surrendering, being taken captive, or knocked unconscious.

Swamps are scary - Princess Bride has the Fire Swamp, Neverending Story has the Swamp of Sadness, Labyrinth the Bog of Eternal Stench, and Return of the Jedi has Dagobah, plus poor Mrs Brisby's house sinking into the mud in Secret of NIMH. Swamps are a place where heroes are at their emotional low point and villains have the upper hand. If you're in a swamp, something has already gone wrong to get you there, and things are about to get worse. If a friend is going to die or get captured, it's very likely to happen in a swamp.

Magic is giant - Besides the dragons, these stories have other giant magical creatures. Think of Morla the Ancient in Neverending Story the Owl in Secret of NIMH. Places of magical power are ancient and oversized. Magical creatures are giant and terrifying, even when they're not overtly hostile. They might offer some help, but they're not allies - they must be convinced to intervene, and might demand a price for their assistance.
The worlds these stories describe are troubled places. The rulers of the land are typically evil, and things might be in actively in the process of getting worse. These rulers are magical and frightening. They're powerful fighters in their own right, and they command things like dragons and armies of goblins that strengthen them more.

Any benevolent leaders have been cast out of power or co-opted. They either retain just enough royal status to make useful hostages, or they're so busy trying to care for the government's victims that they have no time for adventuring. And their aid to the poor limits their ability to oppose the government - they can't openly defy the rulers without endangering the people they're working to help.

The heroes and their allies are both figuratively and, often, literally small and vulnerable. They are taking a terrible risk to their lives by trying to free the land from the evil of misrule. They're outnumbered, out-equipped, and overmatched. They rely on stealth, magic, and a tactic of surgically striking at their enemy's weakest point to have any chance of victory, or even survival. This is why our heroes travel overland, to avoid the enemy's power centers and guard posts. This is why the fate of the world is decided by swordfights and appeals to the conscience of the main villain's lieutenants - because that's the only scale on which the heroes can fight and possibly have a chance to win.

The heroes' weakness is contrasted against both the villains' strength and the hugeness and indifference of most magical places and creatures. In addition to an villain who wants to kill them, the heroes also face a world filled with oversized and overpowering magical creatures who simply don't care about them or their problems.

If I were to add any more stories to this list, I might pick Alice in Wonderland or David the Gnome or Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Pirates of Dark Water - but for the most part, I don't think the themes I pulled out would change very much. A list like this is partly generational, partly idiosyncratic. I know you would have been inspired by different stories, would have taken different lessons from them.

What would be on your list of inspirations when you were little? What kind of fantasy world would you have built out of them?