Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

When Johann Huizinga (1872-1945) first published Homo Ludens: Proeve Eener Bepaling van Het Spel-Element der Cultuur (1938; trans R F C Hull from the 1944 German edition, and from Huizinga's English notes as Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture 1949 UK), he made little mention of agon; and the additional notes he wrote for the English translation are not apparently very clear. What is clear, however, is that he intended the term "agon" (originally a Greek word denoting a verbal contest between two characters in a play) to describe cultural situations in which contest cannot be distinguished from play – which he defines as "a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is 'different' from 'ordinary life'". An agon is, therefore, a contest conducted in accordance with artistic rules, "freely accepted but absolutely binding". Any complex society can be described – with some metaphorical latitude – as containing imagined or actual arenas where conflicts are ritually decided, and where Rites of Passage are concluded, according to rules which reconfirm the nature of that society through being obeyed and which convey a kind of joy; thus Huizinga's description of humanity as Homo ludens, man the player.

The beheading match in the anonymous 14th-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a form of agon, and the essential health of Arthur and his Round Table at this stage of their long story is demonstrated by Gawain's absolute acceptance of the rules of the game he has embarked upon. Modern High Fantasies similarly tend to demonstrate the health of their worlds by depicting agons in working order. The sense of Wrongness that marks the threat or presence of disease in the fantasy world may similarly be marked by rigged agons, agons which Parody rather than confirm the central rule-structure through which the world can be understood: in E R Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) a wrestling match is arranged between Gorice and Goldry Bluszco, according to the way of things, in order to solve a political dispute; but Gorice cheats and, although Goldry still wins the match, the sense of wrongness generated by the violation of agon clearly ordains that grim and distorting conflicts must take place before any Healing climax. In much Sword and Sorcery, that climax will take the shape of a resumed agon after the Hero triumphs and the Land is saved. Most tales set in Fantasyland tend to feature agons which are acted and re-enacted within the iron cliché of the fantasyland premise.

It can be argued that secret histories (> Fantasies of History) tend to treat mundane Reality as a kind of playground for the enactment of inner dramas perceivable only to elites capable of understanding the rules of the game. Theosophy hovers perilously close to treating the material world as a kind of arena; occult faiths and programmes in general tend to treat the exoteric world as both blind to the truths on the other side of the Mirror and fair game for the Elect to play with (> Lifestyle Fantasy; Godgame). Michael Moorcock has used his concept of the Multiverse to treat the mundane worlds under its sway as a Palimpsest array of agons. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.