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Posted on October 27, 2021, 07:09:07 PM by Jubal
Apocalypse Now, Or Never: A Brief History of The End of the World

Apocalypse Now - Or Never?
By Jubal

Part 1: A Brief History of The End of the World

Some days, you just need to turn the planet into a supermassive black hole. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“The world is in peril. You are all that stands between the gathering darkness and the fragile lives of every-day folk in villages and cities scattered across the lands you know as home.” If this situation sounds familiar, well, it probably is. The total and existential threat is a classic of fantasy stories, gaming and is an exceedingly common trope in modern fantasy RPGs, both computer-driven and otherwise.

There are various minor variants on apocalyptic showdowns: what “destroying the world” literally means, whether it’s a black hole or turning the planet into a demon-only hellscape or simply a thousand years of oppression by brutal dark overlords, can vary. What all of these things fundamentally share is that they are worse than anything you or any regular actor in the setting can imaginably do. No regular despotic tyrant could even envisage this sort of power: and that’s why you have to stop it. There’s no question of where it sits on your to do list (at least in theory), because if this doesn’t get done then you won’t have a To Do list.

In this and hopefully one or two subsequent articles, I’m going to take a look at the end of the world, where it fits into our fantasy settings, and some problems with using it that we may or may not be able to solve. I’m mostly going to focus on ends of the world that are mythic or intentional, such as tend to fit into classic fantasy settings, rather than mass depopulations and post-apocalyptic waterless wastelands. In this first part, I’d like to take you on a whistle-stop tour through the history of the apocalypse, and we’ll see if we can find one or two interesting things to discuss along the way…

Ragnarok: is facing the apocalypse a god's job? Johannes Gehrts, via Wikimedia Commons
Facing down the apocalypse has a long history: the first imagined apocalyptic event in known literature is possibly Ishtar’s threat to release the dead to devour the living in the Epic of Gilgamesh (though this is a threat to ensure she gets to provide her preferred albeit technically lesser punishment to the epic’s heroes, specifically releasing the monstrous Bull of Heaven on the city of Uruk). It’s notable that whilst the Bull is defeated, Ishtar isn’t – ultimately, in ancient societies, apocalypse is in the hands of the gods more than mortals. We see the same in the medieval Eddas’ tellings of Norse mythology, where Ragnarok is specifically a conflict between gods, one in which others may fight but ultimately a cosmic inevitability. Christian revelation, likewise, is an apocalypse of gods, not of heroes.

Indeed, we might even suggest that an apocalypse the protagonist can get involved with and one only the gods can manage are semi-exclusive: a genuine world-ending scenario to be defeated cannot so easily be envisaged when it’s a tenet of faith that there is one specific world ending, which has already been mapped out and is core to your religious understanding of the world and its cosmology. You may be on the look-out for symbols of your pre-existing apocalypse (and there have been, to put it gently, a lot of false start calls on those over the years) but it’s harder to then invent or conceptualise other literary apocalypses.

Another feature of apocalypses as imagined in religion and myth is that they are frequently in some way punitive, a setup for the next world, or both. That is, not only is stopping the end of the world not a thing you actually can do, but it’s a thing that would ultimately be bad if you managed it. Either that or they're mainly to be combatted through fundamentally internal, moral struggle: the external problem is a consequence of moral failure. See for example Dr. Eleanor Janega's notes in this post on Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, who did believe the apocalypse could be delayed, but only through fixing what he saw as the moral and social failings of his contemporaries, in particular re-instating a harder line on clerical celibacy and establishing a more powerful, unified, Christian empire at the heart of Europe. The changes he sought were ultimately socio-political, not individual and heroic, in character. The concept of the end of the world coming alongside a general degradation of humanity that necessitates its destruction can be seen not only in Abrahamic faiths but also in for example Vaishnavite Hinduism (where at the end of the Kali Yuga, our current age of decay, the incarnation of Vishnu called Kalki will come and rally the righteous to purge the world of evil). Both Vaishnavite and Norse eschatologies, along with others like that of Zoroastrianism, also include the concept of a post-apocalypse world better than the one that passed before being formed after an almighty final battle.

So, whilst the end of the world has a long history, for most of it there hasn’t been a lot for heroes to do with it other than perhaps get judged with the rest of us or turn up as groupies for whichever deity is purging the unrighteous. Or at least, that’s mostly true: apocalypses as world domination, rather than as world destruction, are a slightly different matter. Even these are quite rare in classical and medieval texts (with the usual caveat that my knowledge is relatively Eurocentric in these matters). An exception would be some (though not all) western medieval treatments of the Mongols. Writing in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan friar Giovanni di Plano Carpini assured his readers that “The Tartars mean to conquer the entire world if they can… it is said, they do not make peace with anyone unless they submit. Therefore, because except for Christendom, there is no land in the world which they have not taken, they are preparing to fight us.” The concept of a mighty threat from the east which must be resisted at all costs is in some ways an echo of ancient Greek writers’ views of the Persians, but when added to the religious, moral threat that someone like John saw in the Mongols, we move from invasion to apocalypse: in a future dominated solely by the Mongols, there will be nowhere in the world left to run to. As Giovanni puts it, “it is not fitting that Christians should submit to the Tartars because of their abominations, and because the worship of God will be reduced to nothing and their souls perish and their bodies be afflicted”. Not only moral risk to the soul, but physical corruption is hypothesised as the effect of the Mongol advance. In his account the Mongols are somewhere between the human and monstrous: beatable as long as Christendom unites in time and adopts the right methods for dealing with the threat, but a threat on an existential and spiritual level, nonetheless.

Did a more global world need world-shattering villains? Via Internet Book Archive
These templates of world ending as conquest and world ending as true apocalypse are brought together in the grandfather work of modern fantasy – Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sauron is an apocalyptic figure, well beyond the potentialities of any human ruler, and physical and moral corruption is core to the systems of his power. There are echoes of John of Plano Carpini in the presence of orcs as corrupted peoples (exacerbated by Tolkien’s private descriptions of them as ‘mongoloid’, one of the more awkwardly racist notes in the Professor’s conception of his world). There are echoes, too, of the extent to which uniting against him is key to his downfall. Middle-earth, though, is a heroic fantasy, and this unity can be built by a small number of exceptional individuals. It is important to Tolkien’s conception of Sauron that he is small on a cosmic scale: even his master is in truth only of a super-angelic rank, with the real eschatological muscle in the hands of the creator. Ultimately, though, Eru Illuvatar is a more modern sort of God: a background figure whose ultimate justice does not prevent proximate world-ending catastrophe.

Tolkien wrote against a backdrop where the end of the world had come closer to home in literary terms. The genre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction had developed through the nineteenth century in English & European literature, though most of these works covered ideas of natural (or divine) catastrophe and the possible aftermath situations. A turning point to note was perhaps H.G. Wells’ 1898 The War of the Worlds – one of the first modern works in which ultimately, though not due to its heroes, the apocalypse was both driven by a sapient, intentional force, and also lost. An apocalypse that could be defeated: the path for the modern heroic fantasy was open.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the dawn of fantasy gaming created new demand in the apocalypse market – we’ll look in the next section of this series at why apocalypses are such a useful plot driver in games. It was now more socially acceptable (the so-called “Satanic Panic” notwithstanding) to reincorporate demonological works and other aspects of Christian and mythic eschatology into fantasy literature and games, with the additions of Moorcock’s concepts of Chaos and some aesthetics from the eldritch works of H.P. Lovecraft creating a wide range of looks already associated with end of the world scenarios that writers could draw upon. With fewer religious themes in these works, too, the apocalypse had lost its sense of providence and possibility: the pathetic-aesthetic protagonists of Warhammer or the anti-heroes of sword and sorcery novels invited us to consider that the end of the world might not have anything better after it, and if it did, well, what was the chance of scumbags like us being among the morally pure elect?

Bringing mythic and weird fiction elements into apocalypse fiction for modern fantasy audiences meant changing them to fit, however. In particular, it meant humanising and rationalising concepts and creatures that were primordial, unknowable, or defined by a fundamentally pre-set place in a story in their original contexts. Rather than being primarily intangible threats to morality and the soul, to become drivers of an apocalyptic story demons also need to become tangible threats to material reality. Pulled out of their original context, demons (and, in a different but not wholly dissimilar way, elder gods) could become far more present, tangible forces of destruction ready to destroy the worlds we know, rather than primarily forces of temptation and corruption that undermined them from within. For this to make sense, in many cases the aims of apocalyptic villains needed to be changed to more tangible and material ones - actions that a heroic character or characters could then fight back against. Gods were either elevated too high above the picture to influence it (as per Tolkien), removed entirely, or reduced to the point where they, too, were at risk from the course of events.

There are now more pieces of apocalyptic fantasy game and fiction than any one writer can cover, but this pathway to the present highlights a few features of how they got that way. We’ve seen how apocalyptic events were once more the preserve of the gods, and how the presence of a pre-defined idea of apocalypse in faith might be a barrier to telling other tales of the ends of the world. We’ve seen that eschatological apocalypses aren’t always evil or created as evil acts: they may be punitive, but this comes as part of the ultimate destruction of evil and sin. Giovanni di Plano Carpini’s ideas of the Mongols offer them as an alternative premodern view of absolute destruction, one that can be resisted, though one also tightly bound up with ideas of faith, monstrosity, and moral risk.

In modern fiction we’ve seen how some of those ideas of corrupted monstrosity and ultimate moral hazard recombine in Tolkien’s apocalyptic antagonists, after a 19th century surge of interest in world-ending scenarios – and then how the reintroduction of classically demonic or new eldritch aesthetics and their increasingly tangible position within fantasy worlds created the scope of apocalyptic possibility that’s easily available to fantasy writers today.


So, welcome to the apocalypse – I hope you’ve enjoyed the few thousand years it’s taken us to get here. In the next article in this series, I’m going to write a bit about why the apocalypse is so useful in modern fantasy and game writing, and question whether there are alternative ways we could use and frame it outside the ones we use so often. See you then!