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Thursday, April 9, 2015


Once upon a time there was a great forest fire. The year was 1949 and the place was Mann Gulch, Montana. There were a bunch of Smokejumpers, or airborne forest firefighters trapped by a conflagration enveloping them. They were trying to outrun it, but the fire was curving around them. One old man lit clumps of dead grass to start the grass-fire up a hill-side overgrown with tall yellow grass and dry scrub. Follow me, men! He yelled as he fanned the flames and followed the wall of the burning grass up the hillside, that he set on fire. Behind him was natural leader and a former paratrooper, who jumped in Normandy, France, in 1944, and lived to tell about it. He looked at the old man and said, This is nuts! I am getting out of here! And ran on out of the canyon. The rest of the smokejumpers followed him. None of them made it. The old man survived alone. He knew what he was doing. He lit an escape fire. He was dying of cancer and had less than a month to live.

This was the Moses Parting the Sea sort of a moment. Follow me, he said and walked behind the wall of fire. It was also a rare incident from reality, where life imitates great works of art, satire among them. You can read the whole story in Norman Maclean's non-fiction book, Young Men and Fire. Great D&D play should be on the same scale, but it almost never is. I only know of one session, where something similar went on. Most of it hangs on the DM being able to write it up and then present it for players. There is a definite distinction between just fiction, genre fiction, fantasy fiction, and Literature, or great literature. Part of it is class and social snobbery to be sure, but there is a distinction between Literary Fiction and mere Sci-Fi and Fantasy. It all started for me, when my professor teaching the Science Fiction literature class, stated that he did not consider Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison to be Science Fiction writers. I asked him why not, and he said that Bradbury wrote something haunting and beautiful, and called it Science Fiction, while Ellison wrote something vaguely terrible, and called that, Science Fiction, when in fact neither wrote Sci-Fi, just literature. By the same token, Tolkien's Lord of The Rings is not considered serious literature, because it did not offer serious treatment of people coming to terms with their own broken hearts or mortality.

I happen to agree with that view. I think that Literature stands above pulp and genre fiction, and professionally published mainstream fiction is superior to fan fiction, and fan fiction is on the level or above most of the homebrew D&D stuff, but any home-grown D&D stands above the randomly generated adventure. There is a fiction promoted in the D&D gaming world (among many other such fictions), that you can roll up a random dungeon and that it will be just as good as the commercially published adventure module.

On the other end of that spectrum is literary quality writing, and I always thought that it was made, when a talented individual wrote about reality. Not until I read Young Men and Fire, did it occur to me, that the real world can cook up dramatic events worthy of great literature.

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