When heroes go down.
On the terrible revelation that Professor Barker was a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semitic.
The very first roleplaying game I ever encountered was Empire of the Petal Throne by Professor M.A.R. Barker, published by TSR in 1975. It was 1978, my first year of high school, and I walked into the school library. After being relatively popular in primary school I was finding it hard to find my feet in high school; I hardly knew anyone, I was a pretty sensitive, artistic kid who didn’t want to play ball games; and later I’d find my first year pretty tough when I became the target of bullying. In the library I walked past a few guys sitting at a table doing something I found interesting; I asked what they were doing and one of them said “we’re playing a game where you create the game.”
I’m still playing role-playing games with that guy to this day, and I’ve pretty much dedicated my life to roleplaying, board, and tabletop games.
Which is why it hurts, annoys, frustrates, and shatters me to a degree I can’t express when it was confirmed this morning that Professor Barker was a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semitic. The full statement by the Tékumel Foundation is reproduced at the end of this article.
I first heard rumours that Professor Barker had published an anti-Semitic novel called Serpent’s Walk In October of 2019, when I was contacted by someone via email about the subject. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. I mean, Barker was a Muslim and a Professor of Urdu; for some reason the thought that he could have been a Nazi racist just didn’t compute. I immediately informed the Tekumel Foundation. And at that point, I did something I now regret – I forgot about it and didn’t follow up. As unpleasant as the possibility that this was true was, for some time I had had very little to do with Tékumel, and I was extremely busy with my personal and professional life and the demands of the Esoteric Order of Gamers.
I started the tekumel.com website back in 1994 when I realised that Tékumel had no online website of its own, and a few years later entirely revamped it, but I’ve not updated it beyond a few lines of news for many years. My initial enthusiasm for bringing Tékumel to a wider audience faded away, and I left all such matters to the Tékumel Foundation and the more dedicated fans of Tékumel. In fact, I haven’t actually roleplayed in Tékumel since those first very basic efforts back in 1978 (we quickly shifted to Dungeons & Dragons) – I was always more interested in the world than the games. At various times I’ve considered running a crowdfunding campaign to revamp the website in WordPress form, but I’ve never got around to it.
In short, I was not frequently involved with Tékumel at the time, or since, and after passing on the information about this supposed novel, forgot about the issue. For this, I unreservedly apologise.
Several days ago, the subject came up again on a popular roleplaying game forum, I saw a tweet by a Tekumel fan about the subject, and now reminded, I immediately contacted the Foundation again to ask if they had discovered the facts, as I knew I would have to make a public statement regarding the matter. They informed me they were preparing a statement. While I waited for that statement, I hoped against hope that this was all some kind of misunderstanding. I had never detected any overt racism or aberrant beliefs in what I’d read of Barker’s writings; he seemed an eccentric, highly creative man obsessed with his fully-realised fantasy world. In fact I often praised his creation for breaking out of the usual fantasy tropes and incorporating inspiration from other cultures, ancient and modern. As a young person fascinated by archaeology, this kind of creativity inspired me. There even seemed to be gender equality, with women being able to declare themselves Aridáni, or the equal of men, in Tsolyáni society. Given a lot of the clichéd fantasy I read as a child, this approach felt almost revolutionary.
Sadly, the Foundation’s statement has now been released, and it appears the rumours were true. Barker, under a pseudonym, did publish an anti-Semitic novel with a white supremacist publisher in 1991.
I’m still trying to come to terms with this, and while I do so, I’ve placed the statement on the front page of the tekumel.com website. In the coming days I will consider whether I want to continue to be responsible for the website. The issue of separating the art and the artist is a complex one. Many people abhor Lovecraft’s unforgivably racist views, for example, but still enjoy his creative inventions. Barker’s imaginative legacy is now forever tarnished by its author’s stupidity and obscene beliefs, and everyone must make a personal decision about how they deal with this new information.
Let me make it absolutely, 100% clear: I am utterly repulsed, sickened and horrified by the twisted beliefs Professor Barker held. Such aberrant ideas go against everything I believe in and live by.
Lastly, please go easy on fans of Tékumel; I would guess that all of them are are saddened and horrified by this revelation as I am. We’re all gazing with shock upon our idol’s feet of clay for the first time.
Sadly, my relationship with that sensitive 12 year old who walked into the library in 1978 has forever been changed.
The Tekumel Foundation Board of Directors statement on Serpent’s Walk:
The Tekumel Foundation Board of Directors wants to acknowledge that our research shows Professor M.A.R. Barker wrote Serpent’s Walk, an anti-Semitic novel that was published under a pseudonym in 1991. We have done our due diligence to ascertain the facts regarding Serpent’s Walk and Professor Barker’s affiliation with The Journal of Historical Review and we believe this needs to be recognized as part of Professor Barker’s past. While nobody today is responsible for the odious views Professor Barker presented in Serpent’s Walk, we are responsible for recognizing this book as part of his legacy.
That this acknowledgment was not done earlier was and is a mistake, and we apologize for that. We have been reaching out to several Jewish organizations to express our outrage over our findings and make our priority to work with them through this issue.
What Professor Barker did was wrong and forever tarnished his creative and academic legacy. As stewards of the world of Tekumel, we reject and repudiate Serpent’s Walk and everything it stands for and all other anti-Semitic activity Professor Barker was involved with.
The Tekumel Foundation has never been involved with or profited from the publication, distribution, or sale of Serpent’s Walk in any way, shape, or form. All of the proceeds from sales of Tekumel-related material have gone and will continue to go to the Foundation and its work, and not to any racist or anti-Semitic organizations or causes, in any way, shape, or form.
Update: I’ve decided to turn off future commenting on this post, as I don’t wish this website to become a forum for discussions on this topic. Thanks.
Thanks for that. Those of us who have been visiting Tékumel for more than 40 years all need to hear from each other and share.
I don’t believe Professor Barker actually held Nazi views. He wrote an alt-history novel with a US Nazi as the central character, which he mentioned in a letter to me in the late ’80s. He discussed it as similar to books like The Man in the High Castle, and did not say anything to suggest that he personally held those views. In fact, he told me that he wasn’t going to submit it to Don Wollheim, who he described as a friend and lovely person, as he didn’t want to offend him. (Wollheim was Jewish.)
What was really going on there? I think Barker wrote it as a kind of literary hoax, enjoying the notion that if actual neo-Nazis bought into it he could shock them by revealing his own personal circumstances (an American Islam convert married to a non-white woman). Somebody said he was briefly on the editorial advisory board of a Holocaust-denying magazine, but (a) that was a “Phillip” or “Philip” Barker, and (b) if it was M A R Barker he might well have submitted a spoof letter as part of the literary hoax.
My own impression from years of correspondence was that his politics were, if anything, progressive rather than right-wing, and most certainly he never expressed any anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi sentiments to me or anyone else I know who corresponded with him. So perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
Dave, I suggest you discuss the issue with Victor and the Tékumel Foundation, as you can see from the above that I didn’t make this public statement until it had been confirmed by them in an official statement.
If this was a hoax, it was a particular useless and unintelligent one, because all it has done – and all it would ever do, it seems quite obvious – is inspire and support Nazis. Since it was published in 1991, he had 21 years to reveal it as a hoax, which he never did.
I too, would like all this to be untrue. But all I can do is follow the information from the organisation that holds his papers and is responsible for his legacy, who say they’ve done their due diligence.
He was on the board of a Holocaust denial group for a decade.
Shame on you. SHAME ON YOU.
I know this is a highly emotive subject, but can we please be civil and kind to each other here. Everyone is shocked and horrified by this news and trying to come to terms with this in their own way, and for many Tékumel fans I’m sure it’s hard to believe. But no one is justifying or supporting these horrible beliefs.
Everyone is NOT shocked and horrified by this news, just go the RPGsite and you’ll see dozens of people defend Barker from the “woke mob.”
Those are the people you will be in league with if you continue your affiliation with a holocaust denier’s legacy,
Briefly? The “Journal of Historical Review” can be found on the Internet Archive. A “Phillip Barker, Ph.D, Minneapolis, Minnesota” is listed on its editorial board from 1989-2002. See for yourself. Ph.D’s make up around 1% of the US population. TWO Ph.D’s, both named Phillip Barker, both in Minneapolis, who are both linked in some way to Holocaust denial/revisionism (and make no mistake, the use of quotation marks around every instance of the word Holocaust in Serpent’s Walk is not subtle)? After a certain threshold of coincidence is reached, it’s no longer “coincidence”.
It’s a real puzzler to be sure. Why would this man write something like that? What other evidence do we have that these were his real opinions? I’m confused to be honest, but although it has severely dented my opinion of Barker it hasn’t lessened by love of the world.
Two things come to mind, the first is that the art is not the artist. As our awareness grows we find that a great many great people of the past had what are now deeply problematic views. Sometimes this seeps through to their work, but I have seen no evidence of that in my 30+ years of reading and playing Tekumel. The second is that the world of Tekumel has far outgrown it’s original author. Something that Dave and you Pete have had a significant role in (and even myself to a far lesser degree).
I would like further answers. Jeff Berry, aka Chirine Ba Kal, suggests on his forum that he wonders if Phil was pranking his father. Maybe Dave is right in his assessment, or maybe Barker really was a closet Nazi. We don’t know. Whatever the real truth I won’t be quitting my favourite fantasy world any time soon.
(p.s. Hi Pete – long time no speak! 🙂 )
Hi Dermot, it has been a while!
These are decisions that, as I mentioned, everyone has to make for themselves. The world is still the incredible imaginative creation it was before so I still think it’s amazing, and as you say I’ve never seen these beliefs reflected in it – but also, for me, it’s been forever badly tainted, and I don’t wish to put my name on anything to do with it anymore.
Given the official confirmation from the holders of Barker’s papers and legacy, the prank/hoax excuse seems thin to me, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. Why indeed would someone write a non-ironic, non-satirical (from what I’ve heard) novel-length screed quoting Mein Kampf and supporting holocaust denial, have it published by a publisher who supports those views, and serve on the board of a holocaust denial journal? That’s a pretty serious commitment from someone making a prank.
But again, all I can do is make a call based on the official word. Which is why I didn’t immediately break this news when I first heard about it, I informed the Foundation. These accusations were so serious, I certainly wasn’t going to say anything before there was an official announcement.
However, I’m not here to tell anyone what to believe. Just to make a personal statement based on the official statement made by the Tékumel Foundation.
Tekumel isn’t good enough to survive this.
The word Nazi is permanently associated with Phil Barker from now on, no matter what pseudonyms he used.
An anonymous commenter on infamous and mean-spirited blog Your Dungeon Is Suck mentioned the following, back in 2014:
“Barker had a bizarre fascination with Holocaust Revisionism and other unseemly White Powery sort of deals. You should have seen the catalogue list for his “WW2 Collection” when they liquidated his books.”
I know an anonymous commenter on a sh*tposting blog isn’t a smoking gun, but in light of recent developments, it would be one HELL of a coincidence, if it weren’t true. You can see the remark for yourselves here (just ctrl+f “Barker”):
The more that comes out, the harder it is to believe that Barker was not an anti-semite. Does that make him a nazi? Not necessarily (though my personal belief is that he at a minimum had an admiration for them). Does his possibly not being a nazi make this any better? Not in the slightest. There is enough evidence that I think anyone calling Barker an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier is merely stating the obvious. Sure, the tides of cancel culture can turn on a dime, and are often times well ahead of the facts. This is not one of those times. Sitting on the editorial board of a literal neo-nazi publication for THIRTEEN YEARS “for the money” is not an acceptable excuse in any way, shape or form, even if it were believable, which, quite frankly, it isn’t.