Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 3.2 A Universe for Story-Tellers

The following is the fifth entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

The elephant and the Emperor

“[...] as creators, we basically pick and choose which themes, events, and interpretations to follow. And that's what I advise fans and readers to do, too. It's sure as Hell what I was advised to do." (Dembski-Bowden, 2018b)

Despite the abundance of fictional history, background books and novels written about Warhammer 40.000, the game and the intellectual property (IP) in general encourage players and readers to engage with it as historians and active story-tellers themselves rather than as passive consumers, which makes it an ideal basis for analyses through the lens of narrative therapy.

Models for the *Warhammer 40.000 *tabletop game are sold unpainted and mostly unassembled. While it has no mechanical down-sides to play the game with unpainted miniatures, it is considered one of the main appeals of the hobby to paint ones’ own miniatures the way one likes.

A significant portion of every Rulebook and Codex for the game is, besides lore and game mechanics, devoted to techniques, variations and possibilities for painting the miniatures of the faction that is being covered. Besides painting, most miniatures allow for combination and individualization using parts of other models, and it is possible to buy component-parts of models like heads or weapons for further customization. Players are free to choose whether they want to design their models to look like known characters from the lore, to paint them as a variant of a known faction or to just invent totally new characters and factions, the latter being known as “creating Your Guys”.

Many players devise intricate back-stories for their armies, with stories for individual characters, detailed colour schemes and iconography for the army, cultural backgrounds for faction and home-world, invented histories sometimes covering 10.000 years of battles, victories, defeats, alliances and betrayals, all in relation to other known factions and events of the universe. The fact that no model can be bought painted from Games Workshop forces every player or collector to actively engage in the act of creating an army instead of just buying it ready-made from the shelf.

The way the lore of Warhammer 40.000 is structured and told further supports the active engagement of players and readers with it. Some of the central themes of Warhammer 40.000 are propaganda, ignorance and the decay of historical knowledge. Knowledge and historical facts are incredibly fragile in the 41st millennium, with records either being lost to time, decay and inadvertent destruction or being actively erased and altered to create a version of history deemed fit by the current victors.

One of the running themes of the Horus Heresy-series is the incoming doom of the Imperium through the growing disregard for history and the casual destruction of unique knowledge, one prime example being the destruction of the Great Library of Tizca early on in the war, inspired by the historical burning of the library of Alexandria (A Thousand Sons, 2010; Prospero Burns, 2011).

The Imperium of the 41st millennium relies heavily on the use of propaganda, with history and facts regularly being altered to suit the momentary needs of Inquisition and Ecclesiarchy, priceless records being destroyed in the name of preserving faith and fighting heresy. The Rulebook for 3rd Edition (1998, p. 70) even has a quote from an unspecified source read:

“Facts are chains that bind perception and fetter truth. For a man can remake the world if the has a dream and no facts to cloud his mind.”

The Warhammer 40.000-universe also has the characteristic of the existence of knowledge that‘s mortally dangerous to humans, with texts about the Dark Gods being able to physically harm a reader in body and mind or even being able to create planet-devouring portals to the Warp just by interacting with them. This makes the censure of certain texts a necessary act of public safety. Even organizations like the ancient Space Marines Chapters, which are usually allowed to keep their own archives away from the authority of the Inquisition, are unable to consistently keep reliable records of the last 10.000 years of history due to the sheer amount of time and data involved - not to mention that many phenomena of the 40k-universe, like the Warp or hostile alien races, are simply too dangerous to observe and study in detail. Individual characters living in the 41st millennium therefore have a very limited view upon their universe, due to the inaccessibility or lacking existence of reliable documents on history and science.

Reflecting this in-universe difficulty of accessing reliable information, basically every publication of Warhammer 40.000 can be seen as being written by some more or less unreliable narrator, the IP utilizing the concept of loose canon.

Codices for Imperial factions and general Rulebooks oftentimes have an Imperial point of view, with derogatory terms being used for alien and renegade factions and excessive praise being heaped upon combat abilities and personal values of the Imperial fighting forces, bolstered by Imperial “Thoughts for the day” like “Compromise is akin to treachery” (Warhammer 40.000 Rulebook 4th Edition, p. 19). A Codex for an alien or renegade faction, on the other hand, can usually be seen as being written from their point of view, with astonishing feats of war being described against even the hardiest of foes the setting has to offer.

The state of the universe furthermore changes with every new Edition of the game; information from different sources will actively contradict each other and some information about facets of the universe is being deliberately kept vague. The Space Marine Chapter of the Black Templars, for example, changed from being adherents to the atheistic Imperial Truth (Codex: Black Templars 4th Edition, 2005) to hyper-zealous worshippers of the Emperor as a god with close ties to the Ecclesiarchy (The Eternal Crusader, 2014), while the reasons for the unusual absence of psychic warriors amongst their ranks are told in possibilities rather than facts (Codex: Space Marines 8th Edition,* 2018). Players are invited to make up their own mind about what is wrong and what is right, who is lying and who is telling the truth.

To add to this, the premise of the popular Horus Heresy-series is to play with the propaganda-esque nature of the old lore of the Heresy (a collection of which can be found in Visions of Heresy, 2013) and give it a spin, questioning the benevolent nature of the Great Crusade, the Emperor and the Primarchs as well as the black-or-white-characterization of the central actors of the conflict. Laurie Goulding, then-editor of the Horus Heresy, wrote in September 2015 in the afterword of the Horus-Heresy-anthology War Without End about the premise of the series:

”[...] before the first handful of novels were published, all we really had was a few thousand words of much-loved and oft-quoted background text from Warhammer 40.000 loremaster Alan Merrett. He covered the main battles, the broad strokes, the stuff you need to know to make sense of the whole thing. But that wasn’t the full story. It was the beginning of something much bigger. [...] *The original aim of this series was to turn the popular misconceptions of the ‘facts’ on its head, *and we have absolutely no intention of doing anything less.” [emphasis added by author]

Regarding the question of whether Black Library fiction can be considered “canonical”, meaning “telling true in-universe historical facts”, Marc Gascoigne answered in the Black Library FAQ from 2007:

“[...] If you want to consider anything "canonical" then both BL fiction - be it novel, graphic novel, art or background book - and GW fiction - be it White Dwarf, Codex, Army book or rulebook - are such. Keep in mind Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are worlds where half truths, lies, propaganda, politics, legends and myths exist. The absolute truth which is implied when you talk about "canonical background" will never be known because of this. Everything we know about these worlds is from the viewpoints of people in them which are as a result incomplete and even sometimes incorrect. The truth is mutable, debatable and lost as the victors write the history...”

Black Library author Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Cadian Blood, 2009; Soul Hunter, 2010; Master of Mankind, 2016; others) went even further in a Reddit-comment discussing the fact of conflicting information across different sources of the IP (Dembski-Bowden, 2018b):

“[...] I used to get drastically hung up on this stuff. Why does X contradict Y? What if I write A and it's contradicted by B later? Someone already wrote F and I wish they'd done G. And so on, and so forth. Little by little, through IP-drenched chats with other insiders and through simple experience of how the setting worked, I got the hang of... not worrying about it as much. [...]

The Setting doesn't really exist. Themes exist. Tropes, niches, themes, subtexts, and so on. They exist. Ideas exist. The Setting as an entity is always something fluid, something made up of countless shifting blocks forming and reforming in patterns, rather than one cohesive whole. This has been discussed to death in various places where I and a few others have tried to offer up a little enlightenment from behind the curtain, but it's really summed up best by an explanation given to me once by the former head of IP, and in similar terms by the head of Black Library, who also headed up the studio's Publications dept. (Codexes, et al.) at one point.

‘There's no one true 40K that you can just look at and see. There are loads of windows looking into a dark and misty place, and you can see something is in there, but each window shows you something different.’

Much like the three blind men and the elephant, really, except that in this case the elephant is an amorphous construct that may or may not even be a viable creature, if it even possesses a true form at all.

Similarly, The Lore is the combined thoughts of several hundred men and women adding ideas, speculations, and characters to the entrenched themes and foundations over 3+ decades. That sounds simple (and it is!) but it's also crucial and easy to get hung up on or misconstrue as an error rather than The Point of how it all works.”

This approach to background information and fictional facts as loose canon not only gives players a lot of freedom in creating their own ideas for characters and armies, but makes even the ostensibly simple act of re-creating a known character or faction from the rulebooks or novels akin to the work of a historian: the player has to choose the sources on which he wants to base his re-creation, has to actively engage with conflicting sources, consider the possibility of (several) unreliable narrators and weigh all the accounts available to him against each other. In any way, the player has to actively create an identity alongside a narrative, choosing and connecting story-points from a multitude of possibilities.

As with any act of creative story-telling, this can be viewed as the externalization of the everyday act of self-narrating and identity building by connecting story-points of one’s own life that is being discussed and utilized in the works of narrative therapists like White and Payne. It also encourages a post-modern perspective on ‘truth’ in the *Warhammer 40.000-*universe, where individual meaning and interpretation is valued more than seemingly objective truths.

Some of the works of Black Library-authors can even be read as direct comments on the post-modern concept of loose canon and the fact that players and readers have to bring something of themselves to it. Dembski-Bowden’s 2016 entry to the Horus Heresy series, Master of Mankind, was supposed to have the character of the Emperor as its central focus. Instead of writing a definitive account of the Emperors’ personality or even having him as a point-of-view character, Dembski-Bowden wrote him exclusively through the eyes of other characters subject to the Emperors psychic aura, with the Emperor appearing in a different way to each of them according to their own beliefs and relationship with him.

“The Master of Mankind is entirely from the perspectives of people that meet the Emperor in pretty specific circumstances. There are, obviously, other circumstances to come. Nothing in it is definitive, even less so than my usual work. Any definitive statement you can make about how the Emperor sees something or does something is almost always contradicted in the book itself. That's not an escape clause or an excuse. It's the point. [...]

With the Emperor, a lot of interaction is about getting out what you put in. You get what you give. Your perceptions and expectations are reflected back on you because that's how the human brain perceives everything [...]” (Dembski-Bowden, 2018a)

The Emperor of Master of Mankind can thus be viewed as the literary embodiment of the “dark and misty place” that is the universe of Warhammer 40.000, an “amorphous construct that may or may not even be a viable creature, if it even possesses a true form at all.”

The lore created by Games Workshop and the literary works published by Black Library for Warhammer 40.000 can be seen as a canvas for players and readers to tell their own stories, to create their own narratives, upon. The concept of loose canon and the thematic focus on the malleable nature of truth, history and identity turn Warhammer 40.000 into an accessible subject for analysis through the lens of narrative therapy.

An example of such an analysis will be provided by the following two parts of this work in analyzing Josh Reynolds’ Warhammer 40.000-novels Primogenitor (2016), Clonelord (2017) and Lukas the Trickster (2018), starting with the infamous “Jackalwolf” Lukas.

Continue with 4.1 Lukas the Trickster - Meet the Jackalwolf

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