“Legendary” Eco

The fakes that launched a thousand ships

I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari) as part of my mourning process—I searched my local book stores for anything of his that wasn’t already in my bookcase and wishlisted the rest on Amazon. This book contains a few disappointments but is amazing in other ways.

One downside is that there’s not much of Eco’s actual writing in it. Of course, as I’m a fan, I missed that. The book is really an extended bibliography: each chapter covers a grouping of legendary places, which he discusses the history and context of, and the writings that contributed importantly to each legend. Quotes from some of those sources round out the chapter. All of this (at least in my edition) is accompanied by amazing historical illustrations, which unfortunately is another place the book falls down: These really needed to be broken down much more than they were in the brief captions they were afforded.

The positives definitely outweigh these issues. In many ways this book is a key to Eco’s works—a journey through his source materials, the writings he himself was fascinated by. One encounters The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the sewers of Paris which are central to the plot of The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga), The theories of the Antipodes and sympathetic magic of which appear in The Island if the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), the false Grail conspiracies on which Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault) hangs, and many more.

On this last point, there is also a thorough debunking of the historicity Dan Brown claims of his idiotic oeuvre on the topic, together with those that the overrated sham artist drew upon (not to say plagiarized wholesale).

Just as a sourcebook, this is an impressive piece. Some of the works he references I was aware of, but there are many more that I’ll need to explore after reading this. Basically it’s a list of cool things to go learn about.

I’d give Eco fans a solid recommendation, but a more cautious one to those with an interest in the legendary worlds discussed but who have not read Eco, unless you’re up for something quite dense and scholarly.

Item Naming and Tributes

Creating cool names and shouting out your heroes

Naming things in games is something I’ve always both placed importance on and enjoyed. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it is a form of diegesis which, while even more constrained than haiku—generally, three or four words is as many as you get—places world story and flavor unavoidably in the player’s path, as well as presenting it in a way that doesn’t intrude on interaction as other story-delivery methods often do.

And so the names of places, characters, skills, and many other parts of a gameworld receive a great deal of my focus. Items in particular are important, particularly in RPGs, where they are typically a central element of gameplay.

In ChronoBlade an example of an item name that tied into the game’s narrative was Fylkir’s Lacrimator. Filkir the Maleficent was the name of the boss who dropped this item; many of these characters were named after members of the team, as this one was, but rather than using their names directly, I’d render them into an appropriate language and with a meaning that made sense to their role. In this case, the boss was named after level designer extraordinaire, Philip Mallery. The area was a Viking-Age world, so I used the Old Norse word fylkir, meaning “commander”, modifying it with “maleficent” to hearken to his last name as well as to make the boss sound properly menacing. The character was a Cronarch Lout, a ranged type who threw grenades at heroes, so I played on the idea of a common type of grenade: tear gas. This substance is technically termed a lachrymator, but as a weapon it also makes foes cry, so the name ticked all my boxes.

We included vanity equipment in ChronoBlade, a commonly used trope, especially for multiplayer games, as they allow an extra layer of avatar appearance customization. Our vanity equipment fell outside the canon of the gameworld, so I placed cool references at an even greater premium.

Barborum Magister is an example: we had some cowboy hat-and-mustache combos, Tombstone also has those things and the war of words between “Doc” Holliday, portrayed by Val Kilmer, and Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, is one of the best on film, so I took it as my inspiration. Eventus stultorum magister, “fools learn from outcomes”, was one of the awesome Latin barbs thrown therein. As the item was facial hair, I riffed on the phrase for the name, which means “master of mustaches” The Daisy Drover and The Huckleberry Plainsman rounded out the collection, each coupling a period slang word for something excellent (both of which also appeared in the film in the context of the ongoing Holliday-Ringo rivalry) with the name of a type of cowboy hat.

When we decided that for a group of sports-themed vanities our pugilist, Aurok, got modern boxing gear. I knew right away, I wanted the reference to be to Muhammad Ali. We did this as a set (which was also named), which included all three item types (head, body, and prop).

The set name was The Jungle Rumbler, maybe the most direct reference to Ali as a participant in the Rumble in the Jungle, his match with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974.

I stuck with that theme for the body, naming the item Rope-a-Dope Threads. Rope-a-dope was the tactic that won Ali the bout, and “dope threads” is appropriately ’70s slang for stylish clothes, so these ideas joined to form the name.

I called the padded boxing headgear the Unmarked Face-Guard, referring to Ali’s frequent comments on his prettiness, and specifically not having a mark on his face.

Finally, the boxing-glove props were Whale Tusslers; Ali claimed:

I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.¹

Requiescat in pace, champ.


Notes

1. Ive since learned from the Eddie Murphy film, Dolemite Is My Name, that this originates in African-American folklore.