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- David Barbara (Originally sent & posted on FFG)
As a teenager I was a dedicated fan of Fighting Fantasy. Playing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in the early 80's was a formative experience - so I thought it might be interesting to revisit the series as an adult - and as an English teacher - and offer some critical reflection on the style, values, philosophy of the FF adventures. For its innovation, fantastical setting, intelligent plot and excellent combat system 'Firetop Mountain deserves classic status.
But is this a timeless classic? Can it endure critical scrutiny?
Firstly, it's interesting to reflect on the YOU of the adventure. The reader is positioned to become a type of mercenary, a loner, a skilled sword in search of ... well money, essentially! Destroying the Warlock would win fame, power, fortune - which infers an ambiguous nature - the adventurer is solitary, selfish, ambitious; keen not so much to eradicate the evil of the Warlock, but to usurp his position and wealth. Perhaps this is the initial appeal of the text - for its time (and now) a refreshing change from the selfless hero willing to martyr for a noble cause.
Enough has been written of the dungeon structure - its 3 tiered defence, culminating in the brilliant Maze of Zagor - and a fearsome dragon, implausibly vulnerable to a spell foolishly neglected close to the dungeon entrance. Stylistically, the lairs are dank, squalid, cruel - the poverty of Orcs, the unfeeling Undead, a rabid Minotaur - in all, the dungeon appears un kept, ill-disciplined, crumbling. A coordinated defence is impossible - the dungeon beasts only defend their own individual lairs, they have no sense of a greater purpose or intention. The Orcs might be more organised - but seem demoralised, useless, drunk and are easily swept away in the initial stages of the journey.
What of the dungeon's contradictions? The Warlock has constructed a lair infested with minions lesser and greater, ensuring plenty of combat, a great challenge for any warrior. Curiously, however, the Warlock has either included (or overlooked) the means of his destruction - most significantly, the Eye of the Cyclops - and the means to unlock his treasure (the numerous keys). The matrix of the dungeon suggests a paradox, as a means to serve the Warlock's protection/destruction.
The Warlock's spell book, the greatest treasure objective of the adventure, indicates the Warlock is firmly in control: populates, manipulates, organises the confines of his lair. Why then, does he allow neutrals to inhabit the space, such as the Dwarves, and why does he countenance such foolishness as sleeping on duty, getting drunk, neglecting powerful keys and spells?
Perhaps the Warlock, tired of power, bored with wealth, is playing a game himself? Certainly, he anticipates YOU the adventurer to reach his quarters and confront him - and relishes the prospect of a duel. The Warlock's game is perilous, reckless - he must know that his time will end, eventually. He might be a charlatan, or his own rotting will might be reflected by the derelict state of his dungeon architecture.
Is the Warlock's story a melancholy one? He affects contempt when YOU confront him - but is his contempt self-focused, suggesting a masochistic craving, a torture chamber of the self?
A memorable image is the painting of the Warlock - his dark hypnotic eyes lock onto your own, instilling fear - a physical link between Warlock and Adventurer, symbolic of a kinship of sorts; both Warlock and Adventurer are solitary, lacking moral compass, seeking meaning in material wealth. The Warlock is a repressed darkness, a spirit of the unconscious, the vengeful, narcissistic id of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Warlock defeated, YOU are tempted to become the Warlock, a cycle self-perpetuating and self-defeating. How many Warlocks are victorious adventurers?
Ironically, then, the underpinning philosophy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is this - power and wealth offer a poisoned chalice, a golden elixir that corrupts, bores, diminishes. Whether boredom has caused the Warlock to neglect his lair, or whether he is engaged in a vain, pathetic strategy of self -harm, the implication remains the same.
YOU would be best served to abandon the Warlock's treasure, spell book and lair, lest you usurp both his power - and his misery.