Dirty Words - Pastiche in the World of Greyhawk
Date: Sun, June 17, 2007
Topic: Stories & Fiction

"Pastiche."  Wash your mouth out with soap!  You said a dirty word!  Don't you know that the World of Greyhawk includes only unique, totally new, never before encountered, inspired from no preexisting anything, fantasy?  Indeed, that anything less is hack work?  So say many.  And thereby demonstrate their . . . personal preferences!  That is it precisely - personal preference - and not one wit more.  For pastiche is, has been and remains a vital part of the World of Greyhawk.  The real issue is not whether pastiche is a good thing or a bad thing - that's just personal preference - but how well it is done. 

Dirty Words - Pastiche in the World of Greyhawk
by Glenn Vincent Dammerung (aka GVDammerung)


There is something of a tendency in some quarters to deride any fantasy not seen to be new and innovative, unbeholding to any real world history or culture. While such uniquely original fantasy can well be lauded, it goes too far to decry anything that is beholding to real world history or culture. While the pastiche has a bad name in some quarters, such sentiments ignore just how prevalent pastiche, or borrowing from actual history and cultures, is, particularly in the World of Greyhawk - and that such is not necessarily a bad thing, at least to judge by the enduring popularity of the setting and despite its lack of consistent published support.

Pastiche, or historical and cultural borrowings, can be overdone like anything else, but done well they lend an immediate familiarity to the fantasy without making it any less fantastic. Well done, pastiche also lends verisimilitude to the setting, although this is certainly not the only way to achieve such. To judge by its enduring popularity, pastiche in the World of Greyhawk has been handled exceptionally well.

Definition of Terms

Pastiche (pa-steech) noun:

1. A literary, musical or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources

2. An incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc. taken from different sources; a hodgepodge

For a large number of Greyhawk fans, "pastiche" is a dirty word. As the above definitions illustrate, however, there is a neutral definition of the word as well as a negative one.


Most often the topic of a "pastiche" comes up in the context of borrowings from actual history or culture, imported more or less wholesale, into the World of Greyhawk. A large number of Greyhawk fans dislike such borrowing.

It is not the intent of this article to suggest that those who dislike pastiche in the World of Greyhawk are "wrong." It is the intent to suggest that, for better or worse, pastiche is part of the World of Greyhawk and has a legitimate place there, particularly if handled well.

Not all Pastiches are Created Equal

Before looking specifically at the World of Greyhawk, a single digression in perhaps useful. The World of Greyhawk has often been said, too often and too freely, to be a world of classic "sword and sorcery." Taking that statement at face value, however, one of the masters of sword and sorcery fiction, from whence the term comes, was Robert E. Howard, famous for his Conan stories set in the Hyborian Age. Of note, the Hyborian Age is a pastiche of actual history, used by Howard to create the fictional pre-history of the Hyborian Age. Howard, himself, made no bones about this. The point is not to discuss how the Hyborian Age is pastiche or to what degree but only to note that not all pastiches are tripe. It depends on the pastiche and how well it is handled.

Pastiche in the World of Greyhawk

The most often cited example of pastiche in the World of Greyhawk are the Olman of the Amedio region. The Olman are presented as a conglomeration of various Meso-American cultures. The borrowing in this case is very plain and scarcely disguised.

Somewhat more subtle borrowing occurs in the description of the Baklunish. The Baklunish are nebulously "middle-eastern." They have variously been analogized to Ottomans, Persians, Arabs etc. Religiously, there is even a split of sacred authority among the Baklunish reminiscent of the Sunni/Shite religious split.

Yet more diffuse, many of the nation states of the Flanaess proper borrow from the middle ages or ancient periods of European history - titles, knights in shining armor, cultural icons such as dragons and giants etc. Rather than prove a pastiche, however, it is perhaps better to note in this regard that there is little new under the sun, and certainly the combination of elements is not exact in duplicating of any particular European or other culture, with perhaps two more or less obvious exceptions.

The Rovers of the Barrens, generally and as more fully described in Dragon Magazine, are modeled after various Native Americans of North America. Perrenland appears to borrow from Switzerland. In the later case, E. Gary Gygax’s ancestry and interest in Switzerland more generally help bring Perrenland’s borrowings into sharper focus, even if the name is derived from that of an acquaintance of Mr. Gygax.

Finally, one might note perhaps the ultimate borrowing found in the World of Greyhawk - the Flanaess itself. As described by Mr. Gygax in "To Forge a Fantasy World" published in Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying, published by Jolly Roger Games, the Flanaess is heavily modeled after North America and the American midwest in its geography, as well as incorporating any number of European and other historical and cultural inspirations, to say nothing of more mundane borrowings from other fictional creations. Reading the essay, one cannot but be reminded of Howard’s writings on how he created the Hyborian Age.

E. Gary Gygax and Pastiche

It is to the worlds created by E. Gary Gygax that we can now turn to see how pastiche is inherently a part of the World of Greyhawk and indeed of Gygax’ conception of Oerth. Of course, the above illustrations remain apropos.

In Polyhedron 22, Gygax sets out the dimensional cosmology of Oerth. As set forth, there are five worlds, each a shadow of the others. As compared to a planar or purely spatial relationship within a single plane, it can perhaps be said that each of the shadow Oerths exists in a separate, but connected, dimension. The connectivity between the shadow Oerths is then perhaps best illustrated in the concluding Gord the Rogue novel, where Gord passes from Oerth to one of the shadow Oerth’s presented in Polyhedron 22.

The five shadow worlds presented in Polyhedron 22 are Aerth, Oerth, Yarth, Urth and Earth. Oerth is, of course, immediately familiar, at least the Flanaess, as the home of the World of Greyhawk. Earth is no less familiar as our world. Of the other three worlds, only Aerth and Yarth have been described by Gygax in any detail.

Yarth is the home of Sagard, Gygax’ hero of a series of four adventure path novels, written in conjunction with Flint Dille. As presented, Yarth incorporates any number of features from Oerth, along with entirely new creations. Yarth is, then, by this measure capable of being described as a pastiche of Oerth.

Aerth is just the opposite, a pastiche of Earth. Aerth is fully described in a setting book, the Epic of Aerth, published for the Dangerous Journeys game by GDW and written by Gygax. Aerth is also specifically referenced in Gygax’ Gord the Rogue novels, mentioned previously. In its description, Aerth is a scarcely veiled, modified Earth.

Gygax, then, has created:

1) Oerth as a pastiche, in some measure, of Earth

2) Yarth as a pastiche, in some measure, of Oerth

3) Aerth as a pastiche, in some measure of Earth

Nothing of the above is intended as a slight or as a criticism of Gygax’ creations. Quite the opposite. Like Howard, Gygax has looked for inspiration to that most familiar of worlds, our Earth, and while borrowing (sometimes with more liberality and sometimes with less) from Earth’s history and cultures, has created something uniquely new, yet also comfortably familiar, at one and the same time. Recall, that a pastiche is not always a derogatory term.


No attempt is made to persuade anyone that they must like pastiches in the World of Greyhawk. It must, however, be accepted that pastiches are part of the World of Greyhawk, both in specific details and in the creator of the setting’s conception. Whether you like pastiche or you dislike pastiche, you must accept its presence in the World of Greyhawk as an inherent part of the setting, having been so since the setting was first created.

Perhaps, then, pastiche is the wrong term, if it can too easily have a negative meaning to too many people. Analog? Borrowing? Inspiration? Choose the term that best suits.

As one looks toward further developing the World of Greyhawk, whatever term one chooses to use, borrowings from Earth’s history and culture, even directly, are not immediately out of bounds nor to be derided, save as a personal preference. The issue should be how well are such executed.

This article comes from Canonfire!

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