Gamers Mourn “Lost Tolkien” M.A.R. Barker


Professor M. A. R. Barker Professor M. A. R. Barker

Professor M. A. R. Barker, a world-builder on par with Tolkien (Image: The Tékumel Foundation)

First, E. Gary Gygax died in 2008. Then, a year later, in 2009, the passing of Dave Arneson.

Now, we mourn the death of author, game designer and world-builder Professor M. A. R. Barker.

Barker, who passed away a few days ago on March 16, was a Fulbright Scholar, linguist, and accomplished academic and science fiction author who influenced both Gygax and Arneson, co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons. The German magazine Spiegel called him the “lost Tolkien.”

Barker self-published his role-playing game Empire of the Petal Throne in 1974, the same year D&D came out. Gygax and his company TSR were so impressed that in 1975, they published a version of Barker’s game along with a version of his campaign setting, the fantasy world of Tékumel.

While largely forgotten today, Tékumel and Empire of the Petal Throne are still compared by many to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

In an early Dragon magazine editorial from December, 1976, editor Tim Kask wrote:

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Once EPT has been studied, another comparison is inevitable; between it and Tolkein’s [sic] Middle Earth. Now I’m not comparing EPT to his novels, but rather to the mythos and world he created in them. An interesting note is that both authors are scholars of linguistics, and both created their own languages, alphabets, grammar and so on. … Right now, Tolkein’s Elvish has acquired a cult-like following of linguists, and it is reasonable to assume that someday the same will be true of the EPT languages. In terms of development of detail, I think EPT has it over Middle Earth in the matters that most concern gamers. [Note: EPT = Empire of the Petal Throne, and for some reason “Tolkien” above is misspelled as “Tolkein,” a not uncommon mistake.]

Empire of the Petal Throne, the original roleplaying game based on Tékumel,Empire of the Petal Throne, the original roleplaying game based on Tékumel,

Empire of the Petal Throne, the original roleplaying game based on Tékumel, first published as box set by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in 1975, reprinted by Different Worlds Publications in 1987

According to press release from the Tékumel Foundation, Barker was “a Professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota during the period when Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were developing Tactical Studies Rules’ (TSR) first role-playing games in the Twin Cities and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. … Role playing games set in Tékumel have been published every decade since the 1970s, including the 1983 Swords and Glory, 1994′s Gardásiyal, and 2005′s Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.”

The obituary goes on to say that beginning with Man of Gold in 1985, Barker published five novels, several game supplements, and a number of short stories set in Tékumel. In 2008 Barker established the Tékumel Foundation as his literary executor to protect and promote his intellectual property.

Barker was born in 1929, and graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Linguistics in 1951. He traveled on a Fulbright Scholarship to India where he studied languages of rural India and the Himalayas. It was on this trip that he converted to Islam. He published a grammar and dictionary of the Klamath Indians of southwestern Oregon, used as a reference during the shooting of the TV series Northern Exposure during the 1990s.

Like Tolkien, Barker made his career as an educator, teaching at McGill University and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, among other institutions.

What is surprising is to see the parallels between Tolkien and Barker: Namely, how their interest in languages spurred their interest in fantasy world-building. Tolkien studied Nordic languages, early Germanic, Anglo Saxon and literature, poems and legends written in these languages. These led to the development of Tolkien’s elvish and dwarvish languages and cultures in Middle-earth, as well as other races and histories. Barker studied Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Baluchi, and Brahui languages, and created the language Tsolyáni, which resembles Urdu, Pushtu and Mayan. His interest in languages absolutely influenced his world of Tékumel, which was largely inspired by Indian, Middle Eastern, Egyptian and Meso-American mythology (whereas Tolkien’s fantasy settings drew on European mythologies).

In this regard, M.A.R Barker was a true pioneer in bringing a non-western viewpoint to fantasy and gaming.

In lieu of flowers, the Tékumel Foundation website says, “memorials to the Tékumel Foundation are preferred.” For more information, visit

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