Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poul Anderson on Alignment

Poul Anderson's 1953 book Three Hearts and Three Lions conceived several of the important pieces of furniture for D&D: Paladins, Scottish-speaking dwarves, the Swanmay, and the D&D-type "True Troll". Also, it provides much of the foundation for the OD&D-style "Law and Chaos" alignment division. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on that here.

Recall that the story focuses on one Holger Carlson, an American-trained engineer and fighter for the underground in Denmark in WWII. In 1943 he is trapped and apparently shot by German forces, after which he wakes up in a "Carolingian" world, which he at turns theorizes may be Earth's past history, or a work of literature, or a parallel universe. As he interacts with various characters in the fantasy world, his understanding becomes clearer (Ch. 3):

Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants -- an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to the Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their own shadowy dominion.

And later (Ch. 11):

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more... animistic... expression. Or, wait a minute, didn't it in his own world too? What had he been fighting when he fought the Nazis but a resurgence of archaic horrors that civilized men had once believed were safely dead?

In this universe the wild folk of the Middle World might be trying to break down a corresponding painfully established order; to restore some primeval state where anything could happen. Decent humanity would, on the other hand, always want to strengthen and extend Law, safety, predictability. Therefore Christianity, Judaism, even Mohammedanism frowned on witchcraft, that was more allied to Chaos than to orderly physical nature. Though to be sure, science had its perversions, while magic had its laws. A definite ritual was needed in either case, whether you built an airplane or a flying carpet. Gerd had mentioned something about the impersonal character of the supernatural. Yes, that was why Roland had tried to break Durendal, in his last hour at Roncesvalles: so the miraculous sword would not fall into paynim hands...


  1. That's pretty interesting. Definitely some food for thought about alignments in D&D. Thanks for posting it.

    - Ark

  2. I like this idea. In fact, I extend it a bit in my own campaign with the idea that, like Chaos and Law, Magic and Science are paired opposites, too.

    Science is generally aligned with Law, though there may be differences. And Magic is allied with Chaos.

  3. It's definitely helpful to reflect. These ideas still have an influence on our thinking through all that long journey. We need to understand them.

  4. Delta,
    First, I confess I have yet to read Three Hearts, however I will post a first impression. This take on alignment appears to me to have very modern sensibilities. Law being aligned with a predominate opinion about the rational (science) and Chaos with that of irrational (magic) and never the two shall meet. In an ancient and medieval context (Platonic and Neo-Platonic) these opposites (rational/irrational) are acknowledged, but also interpreted as a duality, that is, as an inter-related whole (see Plato's cave analogy). Hermits and shamans (typically chaotic aligned)are soothsayers, truth- tellers, but their nonscientific voice is that of metaphor, one that bears proportion and ratio, but is as if heard from a far away place and glimpsed of only in moments and then lost only to be found and lost again. Their dreams and prophecy suggest our end before we can deduce it empiracally. For this reason I find a more expanded view of alignment groups, involving morale choices (good,neutral,& evil) becomes essential. That is that the irrational can inform and even lead to the Good. In the ancient world it is the surface display of deeper more abiding reality.

  5. I cannot say enough good things about this book. You can take it as an easy short read, or enjoy the depth that is pleasantly there to plumb. I have read it a number of times over the years. It is not diminished with each re-reading.

    It is no wonder EGG was influenced and in turn influenced D&D. Don't forget the Nixie is in there too!

    @Sepulchre - read it. Based on your post, you will enjoy the deeper meanings there to discover.

  6. Barad the gnome wrote:
    'read it. Based on your post, you will enjoy the deeper meanings there to discover'.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts Barad, will do! You and a few others have strongly recommended it, and it looks like I need venture in.

  7. Good stuff. I certainly agree that Anderson is right in the thick of 20th-Century pulp fiction, science fiction, and modernist re-interpretation of mythology.

    The idea of an "impersonal character of the supernatural" is absolutely in stark opposition to ancient animist beliefs. And that context is where the mechanical superstructure for D&D comes from (for example, its no-risk spell system, etc.).

  8. I always saw OD&D and B/X D&D's "law and chaos" alignments through thee lenses of Michael Moorcock's novels, with the deities of both sides neither pure nor holding the best interests of mortals at heart. Elric's dealings with Arioch lay a great foundation for the way I dealt with alignment in the old days. AD&D changed some of that for me, but my deities in my campaigns are a deceptive lot, just like the Greek pantheon was in their mythologies.

    1. That's a strong take. I was just thinking the other day (partly re: current Warhammer discourse) apparently how different the Anderson and Moorcock takes are, which is honestly not something I was so aware of earlier.