14 March 2022
What was I to do? After all, I was maybe 15 years old, skinny and pale as pasta, my “Lord of Chaos” badge hanging crookedly from a fading Dragonslayer t-shirt. And there was Gandalf, ancient (at least in his late 20s), a 280 pound beer-stinking sasquatch of a man, his too-pink lips spraying his insults across four ping-pong tables full of miniatures. How could I ever stand against him?
So I didn’t; I ran. I grabbed a ruler and–representing the dreaded Nazgul of Lord of the Rings fame–I turned tail and moved my miniatures in the gaming tournament a full 36” away from a tiny pewter figure. It was to be my undoing.
Yes, in 1978 I played the Ringwraiths (or Nazgul) in the tournament, the Lords of Chaos, and I wore my badge, infamous across all seven of my gamer friends: a perfect match. But my image of myself could not match the reality of who I was.
It’s hard now to remember the details of this 1978 Gandalf. He was a loud, unshowered nightmare, and I remember how offended I was. I mean, yes, he was gross, likely wilting even the miniature forest of Mirkwood with his armpits and neck hair. And had that small stain that now dripped from the Iron Hills fallen from his chili dog or from his nose? But this was not the offense: “Gandalf” wasn’t Gandalf. That was it. The Gandalf I knew–whether grey or white or psychedelic blue–was humble, slow to anger, kind, generous. He was “Servant of the Secret Fire,” the representation of all goodness. This dude was a cross between the Blob and Andy Dick.
Detroit’s Cobo Hall of 1978 was somewhat messier.
Gandalf of Many Guises
I was a gamer because I was into role-play, the idea that the fun came in representing something different, in creating a role and living it. I could be a Starship Trooper or an 800-year-old gnome, a 1920s detective or a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. And in each case, I would use my imagination to represent them. Sure, my own personality would find its way in, customize the character, but role play meant role play. And Gandalf meant Gandalf. Why didn’t the Sasquatch understand that?
I had met him before, of course. This Gandalf mimicked any one of a dozen bullies who had moved through my childhood: terrible people like David Wangerman who threw rocks at me in elementary school, Barbara Millson who pushed me into a water-filled ditch, Sheila Harrod who called me Froggie because of my glasses, Bobby Thomas who hit me in the chest with a baseball line drive, or Mike Kyo who just wanted to kick my ass between long tokes on his joint. I knew this Gandalf. He would be the same personality if he was one of the Maiar, an axe-wielding dwarf, a belching orc, or a lost princess. He was too dull, too dim-witted, to have the imagination required of role-play.
“Run awayyyyyyy!” he crowed from across those tables. “If you kill me now, I’ll just come back as Gandalf the White and be even stronger!” According to the rules, this was true. Gandalf the Grey was strong, but I could defeat him. I could not defeat a resurrected Gandalf the White. What options did I have? “You little chicken shit! Chicken shit Ringwraiths! Run awayyyyyy!” The words echoed across Cobo Hall, it seemed, and the entire gaming convention looked at me, the self-labeled “Lord of Chaos.”
“The role-play game of fiction that we played here was more like a reflection in Galadriel’s mirror of who we really were. “
Rep Meets Reality
I did run, just as I had run from any bully who later caught up with me. I wasn’t Lord of anything. I wasn’t even role-playing.
I can’t pretend it was different: wearing my badge, especially among my own gamer friends, I wasn’t just pretending to be chaotic, I imagined myself to be that. My reputation, my identity, was a bit of surface obedience, but underlying anarchy. I wanted the good guys to win in the books, but was always compelled by the motivations of evil. In gaming with my friends, I was the one who bent a rule, circumvented, found the genius way out, even if it wasn’t quite ethical. My friends both admired and distrusted me, a worthy pair of traits, in my opinion.
But not anymore. The Steve who imagined himself the greatest of villains quickly became again the middle school coward, the skinny kid who gets run over.
I could not be the thing I imagined for myself, and Sasquatch did not try to be. The role-play game of fiction that we played here was more like a reflection in Galadriel’s mirror of who we really were.
Over 40 years later and I still hang on to the title, though.
Re-Painting Bin Ladin
There is a gap, I think, between our imagination of ourselves and the reality of it. Who I think I am and who I am are never quite in sync. Once, when I was in second grade, I said that I was just like George the Janitor, a happy bald-faced guy with only a few teeth who simply spent his days vacuuming our classrooms after school. He didn’t seem to care about much at all about what was difficult: he just smiled and waved at all of us, laughing and enjoying himself. So okay, perhaps I was confused about the difference between who I was and what I wanted to be, between imitation and appreciation. But once I recognized that George understood something I did not, even though I later built my reputation on getting good grades and knowing stuff, I found myself interested in Buddhism. Was George Buddhist? No, but he had a Buddha nature, and I admire that.
Do we build ourselves from our memories of villains and heroes? It seems likely. But this seems to me more complicated than merely hero worship. Because we can never actually “be” the mythology of a hero (or villain), our efforts as mere human must always fall short. I can’t be the hero that is my dad because my dad isn’t actually a hero. And does that mean I can’t avoid the villainies of an Osama bin Laden because he wasn’t really the mythic villain we imagined but more just a guy who made awful choices? (Bin Laden came from a family that sold VWs and Snapple, studied economics at Oxford, and loved writing poetry and playing association football (History)). This doesn’t mean that I don’t have qualities of my dad or that I am really similar to the al-Qaeda terrorist, but that I simply cannot be the mythologies we create into heroes and villains. And it’s unrealistic for me to want to. George was George, neither hero nor villain. Me, too. Sasquatch, too.
When we try to paint ourselves as something else, as Lords of Chaos, as uber-Naruto stans, as Drake wannabes (please please not that), as Disney princesses, as wizards of Ravenclaw, we can too easily blur the lines between role-play and delusional self-identity. I wanted to be Lord of Chaos, but it took a heaving mound of Mountain Dew-chugging bluster to show me that I was something quite different. Nobody likes the mirror, really, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fascinate us.
…and we’ll take your money while you’re figuring it all out.
What a Wraith Is
Galadriel’s mirror in Middle Earth shows futures, what may be and what may never be. And Tolkien tells us that our behaviors shift and shape those futures, avoiding one path while launching another. So perhaps there is also a difference between how I imagine myself and how I imagine who I will be. Sasquatch spotted who I was–a Lord of Chickenshit Nazgul–but he had no control over who I might become. He only shook me out of the delusion of heroism and villainy, just as we all may need to be shaken.
The role play we engage in, when only for entertainment, is harmless enough. It’s when we substitute our real self for the imaginary hero or villain that it becomes unhealthy delusion. Neither hero nor villain, I become only the person I behave as; let others paint me as they choose. If I accepted the Sasquatch’s version of myself, I might never have freed myself from such bullying. If he accepts my rendition of him, he dooms himself to dullness (and redolence).
Tolkien calls the Nazgul the shadows of men, less human than the suggestion or image of humanity. So too might all delusions of ourselves be. Images of goodness, images of evil, but nothing beneath.
History.com Staff. “Osama Bin Laden.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 16 Dec. 2009, https://history.com/topics/21st-century/osama-bin-laden.