If you’ve been keeping tabs on the brooding and multitudinous labyrinth of archives otherwise known as the internet, you may have realized that we are experiencing a Lovecraft Renaissance. From anthologies such as Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft — designed to be a collector’s gem — to the phenomenological inspection proposed by Graham Harman in Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, as well as Alan Moore’s newly-inspired comic series Providence, the pulp horror writer dominates an entire subgenre of millennial culture. Alongside these texts, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel José Older, and China Miéville have spoken and written at length to address the racial hatred for the Other which seeded much of Lovecraft’s work. These conversations have been integral to challenging the problem of white exclusivity in geek culture as well as catalyzing the World Fantasy Organization to no longer use Lovecraft’s bust as the model for their award. The removal of his visage proves that society is ready to grapple with the complexity of his work and understand how his work sought to dehumanize people of color, representing them as elements of chaos threatening to topple the European world.
Unavoidably, the trope of “civilization versus chaos” endures alongside Lovecraft’s legacy and remains a tantalizing theme which many other fantasy franchises continue to borrow for their own narratives. Wizards of the Coast, the owners of the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, recently adapted Lovecraft’s themes in a card set titled “Battle for Zendikar.” The artwork and text on these cards and fragments of lore document the struggle between the surface inhabitants of Zendikar and a trinity of cosmic horrors, known as the Eldrazi, who emerged from beneath the plane. This confrontation stands out against the conventional array of famous conflicts in Fantasy (e.g. Horde vs Alliance or Sauron vs Men and Elves) because the Eldrazi represent a struggle for philosophy and not politics. When read as a series of portraits, the Eldrazi cards assemble into an argument against the underlying mechanics of essentialism governing the Magic multiverse.
As you may know, Magic sells itself to a speculative fiction-inclined audience by offering a complex card game wrapped in the veil of “High Fantasy” imagery such as merfolk, goblins, and wizards. Players construct decks of Magic cards and play by casting spell and creature cards with the intent to reduce their opponent’s life total from twenty to zero. At the core of this game system lies the Polynesian concept of mana. Casting a spell requires mana, an energy that can be obtained from basic land cards: mountain, forest, swamp, plain, island, respectively aligned to the colors: red, green, black, white, and blue. Although throughout the years numerous ways of producing mana have been designed, the traditional deck requires basic land cards to be “tapped” (or activated) for mana each turn a player wishes to cast a card. Because each basic land produces only one kind of color, players must decide which colors of spells they want in their deck and then select land cards that will provide the necessary colored mana. The challenge of deckbuilding hinges on the problem that running more colors in your deck permits access to a greater variety of spells but also carries the risk of diluting your power, since your chances of getting the right color of mana at the right moment diminish.
Wizards added further stakes to the color choice by assigning each color certain flavors of playstyle. In plate I, each hue represents archetypes that dictate the card’s image and mechanics in order to create a unified aesthetic for the game. The moment an opponent drops a certain kind of land the player can begin to predict what kind of challenges that opponent’s deck will create according to the color wheel. From a mechanical standpoint, the system prevents the multitude of cards from overwhelming players and allows them to navigate through binders and boxes of cards to find the ones their deck might need. However, when viewed through a philosophical lens, the wheel also perpetuates the notion of essentialism: the idea that beings come with a predetermined essence. The color wheel expresses essentialism by pairing each section of the circle with an irreconcilable counterpart to promise an eternal struggle among the cards and the characters they depict.
When the Zendikar plane first appeared in 2009, Wizards of the Coast billed it as “the adventure plane” full of traps, monsters, hidden treasures, and numerous struggles between fantastic races. As one fellow Magic critic, Jesse Mason writes: “There are some references throughout the cards telling me that Zendikar is dangerous… but isn’t this, like, every plane in Magic?” I would extend the sentiments further; every fantasy world is dangerous. No one pens a medievalist past-that-never-was and doesn’t fill it with fell beasts capable of killing even the mightiest band of adventurers. There is no myth without monster. Zendikar is not just a dangerous place, it is every dangerous place, every Dungeons & Dragons campaign, every Conan ripoff, and every RPG to appear on pixelated Gameboy screens. While other sets of cards revolve around themes such as the Khans block (designed around roving Mongol culture) and Theros block (a buffet of minotaurs, medusas, and Mediterranean metropolises), Zendikar acts as a kind of thought experiment on the end of American medieval fantasy where a pure crystal of Campbellian monomyth might be distilled from the collective unconscious of Lord of the Rings lovers and Narnia zealots. It is the final fantasy. And they decided to destroy it.
Eldrazi at a Glance
The Eldrazi hail from the Blind Eternities, the space beyond the planes, and they act as characters without genre. While spells previously depended on colored mana, the Eldrazi work their destruction in colorless magic. They are not bound by the rules of the color wheel and instead fuel themselves on the absence of these symbols, flavors, or styles. From this perspective, they represent the perfect Lovecraftian Other that threatens to dissolve the known order of the universe. Lovecraft scholars use to term Cosmicism to describe the effect of sentient beings feeling insignificant against the incomprehensible size of the universe. For example, the Eldrazi card “Ruin Processor” contains the flavor text: “The Eldrazi continue to sweep through the wastes, compounding destruction that already seemed absolute.” The inherent contradiction of the quotation between compounding and absolute puts pressure on the weirdness of the Eldrazi and their capability to deconstruct the meaning of language in Zendikar. These beings do more than conquer, they scour and drain and consume until they exceed our conception of decay. It shows that the writers use the Eldrazi to literalize Lovecraft’s ability to warp and bend the logic of language to its breaking point so that any sense of natural collapses on itself.
Yet, the Eldrazi also break the first rule of Lovecraftian horror: the reader should never be able to visualize the monstrosities described by the potentially insane narrators. In Weird Realism, philosopher Graham Harman argues that Lovecraft loved the limits of language itself and the gap between what his narrators see and write. One description of paradoxical geometry encountered by several sailors in his short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” captures this quality of his prose: “he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry that shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse” (377). If Lovecraft cannot communicate even the simplest elements of architecture then it seems like his Other-worldly bestiary ought to be off-limits to illustrators everywhere.
Wizards ignored such advice and proceeded to draw dozens and dozens of supposedly alien Eldrazi to decorate their cards and promotional material. What we have then is a problem of media translation and the dissonance between Lovecraft’s literary devices and the visual requirements of a table-top card game. The problem doesn’t need a solution so much as it requires examination to understand the stakes of adapting Lovecraft and all the baggage that comes with his theory of horror.
In plate II, I chose the “Eldrazi Skyspawner” as a representation of the grotesque pastiche employed by Wizards artists to generate the “feel” of cosmic horror. The artist, Chase Stone, crafted an Eldrazi that is both fetal and pregnant with further offspring. The veiny purples of the Skyspawner’s hyperplastic uterus stretched beyond capacity work to completely subvert the image of a maternal figure. The Skyspawner is mostly vertebrae, some tentacles, and a few vestigial arms. A majority of its volume consists of another horror growing within.
Despite the bizarre combination of physiology, perhaps the most jarring effect of the piece is how the monster rests in suspension above the cloudline. The buoyancy remains unexplainable since the Eldrazi lacks any known biology for flight. The image is a valid attempt at Lovecraftian horror because it works to juxtapose so many moist and slimy parts into a single collage. And yet, for all the impossibility, the monster still exists. The act of conceiving it, connecting the brushstrokes, and printing it on a card, made it reality; Lovecraft’s acute/obtuse angle remains unframable.
In the design document published by Wizards in April of 2010, during the first Zendikar block, they outline the hallmark features of each of the Eldrazi brood lineages. These lineages represent the mutated, divergent spawns of the three primary astral beings known as: Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre; Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth.
By designing a set of prescriptive signifiers (Ulamog’s brood typically bears bony faceplates) Wizards forces us to think about the Eldrazi in terms of genealogy and nomenclature. I can imagine some xenobiologist opening a booster pack of Magic cards and methodically identifying each monster. And while these design documents help guide the team of artists it also betrays their central premise of bringing Lovecraft into the realm of Magic. Compare the Skyspawner to the famous description of a statue of Cthulhu: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing” (“The Call of Cthulhu”). In the quotation, the narrator admits he can’t label the form, he can only encourage his reader to overlap other known concepts, and even then, the audience can only grasp “the spirit of the thing.” The Skyspawner may be gross and outlandish but it exists as a physical entity — as the thing itself made of constituent parts — while Cthulhu is a Venn Diagram beyond the cusp of comprehension.
Eldrazi Under the Knife
The Eldrazi seem less like Eldritch horror and more like an anatomy textbook gone wrong. Indeed, when set side-by-side, similarities emerge. Plates III and IV represent the card “Forerunner of Slaughter,” with art by James Zapata, and an anatomical image of the musculatory system by 16th century artist, Andreas Vesalius.
Immediately, the comparison shows us that both artists are interested in form. The beings depicted do not matter as characters or personalities but rather as the manifestation of ligament and sarcomere. Long strings of muscle fiber stand tense and carry the weight of the entire humanoid structure. Vesalius achieves his precision through the thin multitude of lines that flows over the bulges of sinew and holds the torso taut. At several points along the body, he chose to slice certain muscles to show where they attach to the skeleton and how they might freely drape from the human figure. The figure’s face looks away from the viewer, either embarrassed, shocked, or perhaps vocalizing disdain. He is beyond naked; hundreds of little symbols cover his indexed body and remind us that Vesalius’ work represents the antithesis of Lovecraft’s “spirit” of description. The ink figure attempts to convey as much information as possible so that physicians may correctly identify the muscles on their own patients (or cadavers). Vesalius’ entire corpus of work always attempts to be the body even as it documents the body.
“The Forerunner of Slaughter” appears dynamic and unthinking, like Slender-man in a marathon. If Vesalius saw Zapata’s work I imagine he might be envious of our modern luxury of color printing since the contemporary artist builds upon Vesalius’ techniques through the use of shadows and exaggerated flesh tones that emphasize the ligature around the Forerunner’s monstrous quadriceps and latissimus dorsi. The image reminds us that Eldrazi are not like other monsters of the Dungeons & Dragons variety. Whereas traditional Greco-Roman mythology consists of hybridized monsters such the centaur or sphinx, the Forerunner’s monstrosity emerges from the reinvention of a man. It takes on the Classical human form built around the austere white face, wide chest, and thin hips. Even though other Eldrazi appear more monstrous or more vermin-like in design, they emphasize tissue and interior biology instead of external animal forms. They are organic matter without culture comparable to the way Vesalius drew bodies without identifying features of skin or creed. Despite the gnarled fingers and extra set of forearms, the Forerunner could easily model bipedal motion as Vesalius’ flayed man might terrorize the town in the background. Zapata could not escape man as the measure of all things and so the Forerunner emerged not from the spirit of monstrosity but the precision of anatomy.
According to Dictionary.com, the word “anatomy” derives from the Latin anatomia which came from the Greek terms: ana-tome or ‘cutting up’. The word, critical to our understanding of biology, contrasts with the other end of the scientific spectrum where the term atom (from Greek a‑tomos), meaning ‘indivisible’, provides physics and chemistry a fundamental unit of matter (Although science currently states that there are smaller units than the atom, the promise of the “indivisible” propels the study of Higgs Bosons and other particles that would provide the fundamental forces and equations to govern the cosmos). Anatomy resists the atom. Everything that claims to be irreducible — whether we categorize it as “a masterpiece,” “a classic,” or “pure entertainment” — demands examination under the scalpel. Just as the Eldrazi broodlings owe their form to the three titanic predecessors, we can observe the lineage of art when we trace the Eldrazi’s image back to the work of Vesalius and that heretical daring to dissect the body and make it vulnerable and profane.
In keeping with these terms, “Battle for Zendikar” stands as a philosophical wager between the essentialism of the fantasy genre and existentialism as expressed by the Eldrazi images. The existential philosophy emerged during the first half of the 20th century amidst the devastation of the World Wars and the scientific advances that challenged prevailing worldviews of both nature and the human condition. In the words of Sartre, the existentialist doctrine states: “existence comes before essence,” and that no pre-existent structure of morals or values ought to govern human action. The idea forces us to consider that no single book, theory, or faith can outline what it means to be human and, therefore, the existential alternative demands that each individual question their views until they find a path or project that gives them meaning.
Suddenly Eldrazi titles such as “the Aeons Torn,” or “Butcher of Truth,” no longer sound like the maddening titles of behemoths but actual descriptions of the way 20th century scientists learned to challenge prevailing beliefs. As made famous by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ chapter IV of Watchmen, where the superhero Dr. Manhattan experiences simultaneous time according to the theories of quantum mechanics, paradigm shifts break our assumptions about the world. When artists like Moore and Gibbons choose to poetically depict a new conception of chronology they force the audience to reexamine their own understanding of reality. Art that engages with science encourages us to reconsider something as simple as a watch; the aeons had, in a sense, been torn and resewn according to Einstein’s theories. In line with the metaphor, the Existential view of life always threatens to butcher truth and make way for a more compelling stance or project. The rejection of the indivisible essence means that anything can be prepped for the autopsy table. If the Eldrazi carry the burden of Existentialism, the next question must be: what ought to be made profane in the world of Magic?
According the game’s lore, the Eldrazi had been locked deep inside the plane of Zendikar, but there was a time when their spawn escaped and threatened the overworld inhabitants. The Zendikar denizens fought back and, as evolution dictates, only the most vicious creatures survived the Eldrazi attack. As a result, Zendikar claims its own lineage of lifeforms who all feel affinity for their homeland as if they share a genetic need to defend it from the cosmic invaders. This aura of “Zendikar pride” actually bled into the land so that when the Eldrazi finally awoke the land masses themselves joined in the fight to protect their world. These cards appear as Elementals, the most powerful of which can be seen in Plate V, as “Omnath, Locus of Rage.”
Immediately, the term Elemental conjures an outdated and essentialist view of the universe as made up of primal energies. The implication of the Zendikar Elementals is that they laid dormant and waited until the plane needed them most to turn the tide against the Eldrazi invaders. They are the antipodal formation of Sartre’s statement: they are the fundamental example of essence preceding existence, and — like the Golem of the Prague — they arise from the ideology they protect in the direst of times. Omnath’s title operates both in relation to the titles of the Eldrazi titans but also as a resistance to the existential horror they represent. “Locus of Rage” suggests that the land seethes with malice against its communal enemy and Omnath emerged as a consolidation or critical density of the land’s emotional response.
Omnath’s appearance in Plate V stands in the shadow of the Eldrazi’s Vitruvian perfection. Like the Forerunner, it too wields two sets of arms poised for destruction, yet it lacks the human proportion. Unlike the Forerunner’s sculpted legs, Omnath does not relish in the aesthetization of flesh but in the necessity for movement, for making its will known throughout the domain. Around its body glimmers an aura of green and red lightning. The colored lightning reflects the card’s summoning cost: both red and green mana are needed. According to the color wheel (Plate I), the Elemental straddles the border between instinct and impulse and emerges from Magic’s metaphysical space. Although Elementals take on animal or humanoid forms, they lack the viscera of the Eldrazi and their bodies remain indivisible and unexplainable without the prescriptive framework of the color wheel. In other words, Elementals act as allegory; they assume the ideals and truths governing the Magic metaverse.
Perhaps the most relevant implication of these interpretations is the paradigm shift contained in the newest set released in January 2016. Oath of the Gatewatch, which continues the fight against the Eldrazi, adds new a colorless mana symbol to the game and contains Eldrazi cards that require this type of mana. The Magic community watches how the new shift in power affects the game, though I wonder if colorless mana will persist in future card sets or if they are limited only to where the Eldrazi flourish. The irony of colorless mana is that all basic land cards that currently exist are already colorless cards. The Eldrazi simply make it evident that the preconceived notions of colored magic are an illusion, and that all land essentially works the same by providing mana energy, no matter the ideology or archetype categorized in the color wheel. “Battle for Zendikar” produces a question of nothingness since the Eldrazi force us to reconcile that all land (and everything “natural”) exists first and foremost without the dogma forced upon it by the color wheel. It is an existential argument, an uncharacteristically Modernist thesis for the genre of High Fantasy, but evidence of the genre’s maturation away from Tolkien’s absolutes.
But what does this have to do with Lovecraft? For all of Wizards of the Coast’s incessant blogging that they’ve created Lovecraftian horrors, these close readings show that the Eldrazi, though monstrous, vastly diverge from Lovecraft’s theory of description. As I’ve outlined in these interpretations, the artists clearly wanted to access the idea of eldritch horror but they achieve visual dread by depicting the human interior instead of the alien Other. While Lovecraft’s horror can never truly be pinned down, the Eldrazi represent animated autopsies parading in the light of day.
What might just be happening is an attempt to engage with Lovecraftian imagery and themes without resurrecting other elements of his character. After all, stereotypes and racial slandering depend on essentialist beliefs that certain people are innately and inherently inferior to others. What better way to challenge the author’s prejudice than to invent monsters that reject the essentialism of speculative fiction and pulp magazines? What I am not claiming is that “Battle for Zendikar” wants to erase Lovecraft’s racism. Nor do I believe “Battle for Zendikar” assumes a post-racial society where fiction is free of social injustice. “Battle for Zendikar,” like every set in Magic, is its own free-standing text with its own underlying suppositions and relation to genre and fantasy. It is an attempt to imagine Cosmicism without insulting other groups of people. The Eldrazi are here to stay in the world of Magic and I’m sure their presence will continue to cause upheaval to the traditional spellcasting stories of good and evil. What we can observe in the narrative unfolding between artists, game designers, and countless players is the social urge to rejuvenate ideas of past generations while introducing and blending together new conceptions of what cosmic horror might mean and how alone we might truly be.
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