Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Exploring Titan 1: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As I've now covered the "original trilogy" of the Fighting Fantasy series (i.e. all the ones before sci-fi comes along to ruin things) I thought it would be a good idea to detail just what these first three gamebooks introduced in terms of the Fighting Fantasy setting of Titan.  Titan is, let's be charitable here, a pastiche world cobbled together from bits of mythology and heaping gobs of Tolkien by way of Dungeons & Dragons.  It's not the most original setting out there, but it's also exactly the kind of setting I love: the kind that happens by accident.

There's something wonderfully organic about settings that just happen when a bunch of creators tell some stories, then cobble the details together after the fact.  I like the inconsistencies, the bits that don't match up, the stubborn details that refuse to make sense with everything else.  In some ways, settings that came about like this feel more real to me than those with a singular creative voice.  Titan is one of these, made from bits and pieces and unrelated adventures, from throwaway monsters and unnecessary background details.  It never quite coheres, and that's part of what makes it work.  The real world doesn't make much sense to me either.

With that in mind, I want to go through the first three books and see what they contributed to the development of Titan.  This week I'll tackle The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and next week I'll try to cover Citadel of Chaos.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

I begin, of course, with the ur-text, the book that launched the series and introduced us to Titan.  It should be noted that, at this point, and indeed throughout the first three books, the world is never named.  There is no mention of Titan, or even of Allansia, the continent upon which they take place (the best continent, y'all, Khul and the Old World can eat it).  All of that stuff comes in later.  For now, we are in a generic medieval fantasy world with no name, no map and no back-story that doesn't immediately relate to the adventure at hand.

The titular mountain is introduced, complete with red vegetation up top and monster-filled tunnels beneath. There's a village some two days' walk away, and very little else revealed about the world at large. The back-story of the mountain is minimal: there's a Warlock inside who has a load of treasure, and he has placed tricks and traps throughout his domain. Oh, and the keys to his treasure chest are scattered throughout the mountain.  Where did the treasure come from?  Why are they keys all scattered?  Why do they all have numbers engraved on them?  These are all mysteries, and this book answers none of them.  I could have sworn that it was mentioned somewhere in this book that the treasure and the mountain once belonged to dwarves, but I found nothing.  The dwarves are there, but the back-story isn't.

There are a number of lovely details that give the mountain life, though.  The river and the boathouse in particular give it at least the semblance of a functional society. There's a lovely tidbit dropped by the boatmaster, about how the river swelled up after a heavy spring thaw some years ago.  Supplies were cut off to the guards beyond the river, and they all starved, but the Warlock cursed the area to fill it with undead, so that his lair would still be guarded.  It goes a long way to explaining the abrupt change in tone that occurs once you cross the river.

Something called 'The Long Dark Night' is also mentioned by the guy who runs the candle shop, and it's properly cryptic.  It's not detailed at all beyond an ominous mention, and the fact that afterwards the price of candle-wax shot up.  Just north of the candle shop is a room full of scary magical darkness, and I've always thought of that room as the last remnant of 'The Long Dark Night', contained by the Warlock's magic into one small chamber.  But that's just speculation on my part, and nothing that's stated in the book.

Speaking of the Warlock, he's very much a cipher here. Rumours of his power abound, most of them false, though he does seem to have an over-reliance on a magical deck of cards (something that makes very little sense with the background he will later receive).  He gets a name, Zagor, and the implication of a family in the form of some portraits.  He also gets a major weakness, in the form of gem called the Eye of the Cyclops.  The nature of this is not yet explained, nor is it explained why he has it in his lair, set into the eye-socket of a living statue.  It's all left a mystery, one of many that makes me love the book so much.

The rest of the setting details are mere tidbits.  The dead warrior with his crucifix and magic sword, who had his head caved in by zombies. (And what about that crucifix, specifically named as such?  What does that say about religion in the Fighting Fantasy World?)  The vial of holy water, blessed by the Overpriest of Kaynlesh-Ma, whoever he may be.  The spell-book of Farrigo Dimaggio, which gives the reader the power to repel dragonfire, hidden in the depths of Firetop Mountain to stop it falling into the wrong hands. (Seriously?  Hiding it in the lair of the series' premiere evil wizard?)  The card-playing dwarves.  The digging ghosts.  The Giver of Sleep.  All of these details are presented with no wider context than their immediate surroundings, and the reader is left to puzzle them out on his own.  As I've said before, it's these sorts of extraneous details that make the Fighting Fantasy world come to life for me.

Before I finish, it would be remiss of me not to mention the monsters.  Nothing does quite so much to reinforce the D&D-pastiche nature of the world than the monsters.  It's as generic an array as you'll ever see: orcs and goblins, ogres and trolls, giants, spiders, rats and bats, giant worms, wererats and werewolves, zombies and skeletons, vampires, ghouls, wights, a minotaur and a dragon, and probably a whole bunch I'm forgetting.  It's high fantasy cliche at its finest, but it does a lot to establish a baseline for later authors to build on.  Probably the most startling inclusions are the crocodile and piranhas that inhabit the river.  The crocodile I can live with.  The piranhas are really stretching that pseudo-medieval vibe.  The giant sandworm is probably the only monster in here that isn't ripped straight from D&D, although D&D certainly has similar monsters.

Overall, there's not much to go on here.  Jackson and Livingstone weren't trying to create a world, they were simply crafting the setting for an adventure.  The world-building will come later, and certainly the next two books are given much more context in terms of the wider world than this one is.  I'll be back next week to dissect Citadel of Chaos, and see just how it fits into the development of Titan.