Dec/Jan 2009

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange

Paul la Farge


As someone who played Dungeons & Dragons obsessively from age nine through fourteen, I have my share of regrets, but they are as nothing when compared with those of Mark Barrowcliffe, an English novelist and ex-gamer, whose memoir, The Elfish Gene, chronicles a D&D habit the likes of which few people have known, or at least survived.

The son of a working-class couple in the suburbs of Coventry, Barrowcliffe came to Dungeons & Dragons in 1976, when it was less a fad than a cult. An encounter with older players at his school’s war-gaming club led him to order the rule books from America, which qualified him to join the weekly meetings of the faithful. Soon, the real world ceased to matter. Barrowcliffe describes a vacation to the Welsh coast, where a girl he’s attempting to woo with his gaming knowledge inexplicably tells him, “If you take me in the phone box you can feel my tits.” Unable to refuse, Barrowcliffe nonetheless asks her, “Before we start, is there anything else you’d like to know about D&D?” “Absolutely nothing at all,” she replies.

That was only the beginning. Barrowcliffe writes without flinching—which can’t have been easy—about the days when he thought nothing of greeting a friend with a “What news, kinsman?” and dragged his mother all over Coventry looking for “breeks,” which are, I assume, medieval pants. He writes with Proustian zest about his gaming circle: Andy Porter, who was “just too long and not nearly wide enough”; Sean Gardener, who once wore his dead gerbil’s hind legs as a love charm; and so on.

In fact, the gamers are far nastier than Proust’s social schemers. Two of them are self-professed Nazis (one utters the memorable line “For you, dragon, ze var ist over”), but they don’t stand out as being the worst of the group. When Barrowcliffe rings the doorbell at a new companion’s house, the boy remarks, “Too high and mighty to use the knocker are you? It’s not free, the electricity in that bell you know.” Barrowcliffe’s friends are always saying things like that. Whereas Dungeons & Dragons as I remember it was a cooperative effort, the strategic retreat of a few unpopular kids into a fortress of fantasy, the game he describes is a vicious mutual slaughter with “no winners but lots of losers.” It isn’t just lost time—it’s time strangled, chopped up, its ashes scattered to the wind.

This leads me to two conjectures: first, that the suburbs of Coventry were much, much grimmer than any place I have ever known, and second, that Barrowcliffe, a former stand-up comedian, has punched up his memories for dramatic effect. The first is almost certainly true. One of the most interesting things about The Elfish Gene, for the American reader anyway, is Barrowcliffe’s account of life in the Midlands in the ’70s: While children played D&D, he observes, their equally desperate but better-equipped parents reenacted the English Civil War. Anything to get out of the council flats.

The second conjecture is also probably true, and it’s too bad, because it leads Barrowcliffe to exaggerate the odiousness of Dungeons & Dragons. “When others were developing the ability to win a few bucks hustling in a local bar, to lead a singalong at a barbecue or just to speak to the opposite sex, what I got for my endeavors was a wizard with a frost wand,” he writes plaintively. Unlike those well-adjusted bar hustlers, though, Barrowcliffe turned out to be a writer of fiction, with three novels to his credit. The frost wand may not work like it used to, but surely, kinsman, thy imagination turned out all right?

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