Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Undead Beginnings II

“In Plato’s story about the origin of knowledge, which contributed to this negative validation, you have to renounce the world of shadows before you can accede to true understanding. The prisoners in Plato’s cave were incapable of gazing directly into the light of knowledge. They had their backs to this bright light and saw only the shadows cast on the cave walls…for the Greeks, the shadow was one of the metaphors for the psyche, the soul. A dead person’s soul was compared to a shadow, and Hades was the land of shadows, the land of death.”

Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow

We may take it from the above that the shadow does indeed have a soul. While the Greeks may have believed that every soul was destined to become a shadow in death, we can reflect that these shadows are also trapped in Hades. What might account for a shadow being on the prime material?

It was seen in medieval times that wherever the light of the lord did not reach, therein lay the shadow. I take it from that that those souls that become shadows on the material plane did so because they were never touched spiritually; that they were “negative” in the sense of never having had a positive experience in their lives. A recluse who died and was never buried at all, who was never loved, who was never affected by any force other than his or her own thoughts. They never “looked at the light,” and were untouched by it. Who lived a whole life as less than a whole being, and whose soul therefore in death would have nowhere to which it could ascend.

For those out there looking for original adventures without so many slayings, why not the task to seek out some individual, the brother of the town’s leading citizen, who years ago fled into the nearby forest and is now known to be living there. To save his soul and to reach him by some means of confrontation or illumination, enabling him to join the human race and escape his eventual fate as undead. The climax comes at that moment when the party ultimately finds him, halfway to death already, either from disease or sickness of heart, when his body is already becoming a shadow, and the party must preserve him somehow by spell or sacrifice.

That’s not half bad. Would make a fair plot for a film, actually.

Which brings us to the low energy drainers, wights and wraiths. I must point out to start that so much has been done with both in the last two decades that it becomes difficult to piece out any traditional meaning for either—except to say that when it comes to wights, Tolkein was literally pulling it right out of his ass.

There’s no suggestion in medieval literature that wights were anything but living creatures (Chaucer used the word in that context). Tolkein was probably enamoured with the word (and its association with ordinary folk) in his use of barrow-wight, and I doubt that Gygax and crew did any research at all before including them in the Monster Manual. Just the same, I don’t have any problem with having the monster in play, except that there’s no background to draw on to determine how it might have come into existence. So let’s leave the wight on the shelf for a moment.

Wraiths do have a history, but it has been greatly corrupted recently—the word “wraith” has been a convenient non-definite entity for whatever a sci-fi or occult writer wants it to be. But I’m a traditional sort of guy. My research tells me that wraiths are associated with spirits bent on revenge or as the reflection/manifestation of the soul at the person at the moment of death. That old tale about seeing your brother at the foot of your bed just at the moment a car takes his life—that’s your brother appearing as a wraith.

Sometime the image of the wraith appears before the death of the person, as a portent…which would mean that this manifestation did not have a soul (as the soul would still be in the body of the living person). If that manifestation was then trapped on earth at the point when the body died and the soul waned away, it might produce an undead.

A third meaning of wraith, from a variety of Anglo-Saxon cultures, is that of a guardian or a servant…which only means that a demi-god or such might command existing wraiths, and is not necessarily part of their creation.

Since wights don’t have a background, and wraiths have at least two, I’m inclined to steal one from wraiths and give it to wights. Let me explain, briefly, how my party got itself so very concerned about the matter of burial.

Following a nasty conflict on an ancient battlefield, the druid’s henchman, Artemas, died. But in the dividing of treasure found in the tomb under the field, the necessary healing and the concern for getting out of the area and ultimately the desert alive, no mention was made—at all—of the fact that this henchman’s body was simply laying there. And because I made no comment (there were a lot of dead lying around), the matter was never settled properly and the body was allowed to simply rot after the party made its way.

About eight runnings later, the druid was climbing the stairs to the second floor of the inn, when the wight of Artemas appeared. Having never been buried, it lashed out at its liege and succeeded in snatching two experience levels (dropping the liege to 4th level) before the druid and the party were able to destroy it. Since, the party has been somewhat concerned with exactly what happens to the body.

This is a perfect kind of rejoiner for me. I love unfinished business suddenly becoming a huge concern, right out of nowhere. It creates continuity in the campaign, forces players to pay attention to the future and to little details and—very effectively—focuses the party on trials and tribulations that must be overcome without my needing to invent “adventures” out of the blue.

So, wights are spirits who have been driven to achieve compensation for treason or abandonment. Leaving wraiths as the manifestation/reflection of a soul at the moment of great duress—a good soul, I think. After all, the story is usually associated with losing someone we love. So the soulless reflection, if it is trapped on earth, is the negative; the Evil Kirk, if you like.

I would play it that the wraith, once created, becomes the downfall of the residents of the dead brother (or other family member). My brother has died; and since nothing seems right. The house seems to be mourning him. Mother hasn’t been well, and may not recover (which everyone would assume is her loss, and not the effect of the wraith). And so on. Nothing short of an exorcism will remove the wraith once its presence has manifested.

I will continue with this. Next: the Mummy.

Update: Very interesting link on wraiths and other creatures here.


K. Forest said...

"Tolkein was literally pulling it right out of his ass."

I'm not a Tolkien scholar, so I can't say for certain where the inspiration for the barrow-wights in LOTR can be found. "Wight" is an archaic term for "man" -- so a barrow-wight is a man that lives in a barrow-mound. Like the word "lich" (literally "corpse"), wight has no specifically undead connotations outside the literature of D&D and the fantasy lit that influenced it or was influenced by it.

Alexis said...

Okay, you missed the pun.

It's fine, K. Writers have to pull it out of whatever orifice is available.

K. Forest said...

Sorry, Alexis. I'm pun-challenged.