Fantasy literature

How Mughal history inspired an American professor to weave a fantasy world that rivals Tolkien’s

Tekumel began as a complex role-playing game, and then turned into books.

Professor MAR Barker, creator of an elaborate fantasy world based on early modern South Asia, died five years ago. Today his novels, long out of print, are finding a new generation of readers online. Barker’s world of Tekumel offers a fascinating contrast to more famous fantasy environments based in Europe.

Instead of spells composed of garbled Latin, creatures based on Germanic myth, and virtuous white humans under attack from dark threatening monsters, Tekumel is filled with sensuous and cruel gods, bloody intrigues among imperial heirs, and scholar-monks with advanced degrees in ancient languages. Kept alive by a devoted group of enthusiasts, Tekumel may be poised for a comeback in a new era of global, diverse fantasy writing.

Born in Northwestern United States as Philip Barker in 1929, Barker converted to Islam in early 1951 while travelling through India as student, changing his name to Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker. While in India, Barker not only mastered several South Asian languages, but also developed a lifelong passion for the culture of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, he claimed it was the sight of the Taj Mahal that had first stirred his religious conversion.

After completing his PhD at Berkeley, he became a professor at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies, and then head of the South Asia Studies department of the University of Minnesota. During the 1960s he published numerous works on Urdu and Baluchi, but it seems that once he had tenure Barker was free to pursue his real interests: playing games and writing novels.

MAR Barker
MAR Barker

Shortly after arriving at Minnesota in 1972, Barker began hosting regular role-playing game sessions in his house, taking part in a burgeoning underground culture from which Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons would emerge in 1974. Acting as game master, Barker supplied backstories and contexts for players as they pursued treasures and fought monsters. He drew on his scholarly expertise and passion for languages to develop an increasingly elaborate world, which he called Tekumel.

After commercially releasing several versions of his game in the 1970s, Barker published a series of novels to explore Tekumel’s culture and history. The first of these, The Man of Gold, originally appeared in 1984. Today it has been released as an ebook by the Tekumel Foundation, which preserves Barker’s legacy and continues to update his role-playing games.

Much like the Mughals

Barker’s passion drove him to make a fantasy world of almost unthinkable complexity, but its broad outline is simple enough: Tekumel was meant to be the opposite of the cliché worlds of elves, dwarves and orcs imagined by JRR Tolkein and his many imitators. Tekumel exists in a “pocket dimension” outside of known space and time. The history of its civilisations extends back over twenty thousand years, far longer than those of Earth. While Tekumel is filled with many different intelligent species, and several powerful human kingdoms, the focus of Barker’s universe is the empire of Tsolyanu, a place that has much in common with the Mughal Empire.

Whereas the Mughal emperors sat on the famous jewelled peacock throne, those of Tsolyanu sit on a “petal throne”. Political life in Tsolyanu is organised around succession to this lofty seat: the death of the reigning emperor opens a fight to the death among his sons, recalling the struggles between Mughal heirs like Dara Shikoh and Aurengzeb. Society in Tsolyanu is divided into clans, which have distinct ranks in a broader hierarchy, particular occupations and specialties, and privileged relationships with one deity from a larger pantheon. These gods, male and female, appear in a variety of avatars and the inhabitants of Tsolyanu take religious diversity as a matter of course. Those who insist there is only one god, however, are punished as dangerous heretics. Likewise, the small number of people with fair skin or blue eyes are shunned, said to be cursed by the gods.

Unlikely hero

Barker inverted the clichés of fantasy literature by building a world far removed from medieval Europe. He likewise gave The Man of Gold a surprising hero who resembled an Orientalist professor more than a valiant swordsman or wizard. The story’s protagonist is Hársan, a young monk who has just completed his thesis on the language of an ancient civilisation lost in the remote history of Tekumel. After coming into possession of a piece of a powerful artefact sought after by all sides of the latest succession crisis, only his linguistic and historical expertise can help him discover the other pieces while keeping them out of the wrong hands. Hársan, in other words, is what Harry Potter might have been if he had studied philology instead of potions.

Barker’s academic background gave his stories a unique flavour, but also gave his prose a heavy, cumbersome character. His narrative is neither racing nor enticing. His chapters are often structured like a round of one of his games, with a narrator drawing characters through a dungeon filled with predictable surprises. Barker is at his best, however, when he is putting into the mouths of his characters aphorisms of his own invention (“My skull is a pot in which other men’s ideas may be boiled”), providing lush descriptions of locations, or sketching characters (a diplomat, for instance, is noted as “selected for his willingness to endure the irrationalities of other nations”). The scope of Barker’s imagination, however, makes The Man of Gold well worth reading: fans of fantasy will find a new kind of world far different from those of blockbuster epics, but filled with familiar echoes of Mughal history.

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