Someone mentioned recently in a comment that working with source texts is difficult and not something that most wargamers really want to do. I think that this is entirely correct. Original texts, particularly ancient ones, can and usually are really difficult to work with. Without that sort of engagement, however, it is quite likely that our wargaming will become stereotyped and sterile. We need to input of the original text as a stimulus to our thinking, to our viewpoints of events, so as to reproduce them, or something similar, on the table top.
The topic of working with a text, of understanding it, is hermeneutics. I have been reading ‘God Talk’ by John Macquarrie (London: SCM, 1970). Now aside from being a distinguished theologian, Macquarrie was also an expert on Heidegger. For example, he was co-translator of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ from the original German into English. Heidegger was, of course, the hermeneutic philosopher par excellence, and a lot of his thought leaks into Macquarrie’s writing.
I confess, I have nerved myself to tackle Heidegger himself. His books tend to the weighty and the translators have found themselves having to retain German terms to distinguish between nuances of meaning that would otherwise get lost in English. So what follows here is distilled through the eyes of a man who could, quite seriously, use the word ‘being’ seventeen times in one (fairly short) paragraph.
Firstly, of course, we have to establish what the text actually is. This is not too great a problem with fairly recent texts, but as one plunges back into medieval history and beyond, we find that the texts become more and more difficult to authenticate. Even something like Biblical texts can be a bit tricky, as scribal errors and edits make for a variety of available texts, and the judgement of which is the ‘true’ or ‘original’ version can become contentious. Add to this the fact that there are a lot of early Biblical texts around (copying Biblical books as gifts for friends and family seems to have been something of an early Christian hobby), and you can get a fair bit of confusion, although with a bit of care and attention the original, except in a few cases, can be reliably obtained.
The same is not true of other texts. Neither Arrian nor Curtius Rufus were writing particularly close to the date of the events they reported, and nor have their writings been received in particularly complete editions (the same would be true of Tacitus). So we are reliant on their fair treatment of their own sources (now lost to us) and on the accurate passing down of the text through far fewer manuscripts than the Bible.
Even when we have established the text, our troubles have only just begun. We approach any text with questions, such as ‘what happened at Issus?’ or ‘How do these wargame rules work?’ These questions are framed by our preconceptions. We already have some idea about how wargame rules work, or what happened at Issus. If we did not, we would hardly be able to engage with the text at all. On the other hand, our preconceptions may prevent us from engaging with what the text actually says, rather than what we think it should say, or we have been told it says, or what we would like it to say.
This indicates that we land up in what is often called a hermeneutical cycle. We bring a set of preconceptions to the text, which we expect to give us a new understanding. Our preconceptions enable us to understand the text, but must themselves be open to modification by the text as we read and understand it in the light of those preconceptions. Thus the understandings we obtain of the text modify our preconceptions, which themselves then modify the reading of the text. The text, as well as being interrogated for meaning by the reader, interrogates the reader and, at its best, challenges the very preconceptions the reader needs to engage with the text.
No wonder a lot of people prefer not to engage.
Sadly, this is not the end of the matter either. In order to read the text fairly, we have to know something of the culture and society of the writer, and of the time the writer wrote about. Historiography often tells us more about the time of writing than the history of the events and their meanings. The same event may be re-described in different language, even within the writing of a single author. Literary conventions are used as shorthand for events (most Roman armies in Tacitus are described as being very lazy and lax before the hero general arrives and disciplines them.) We need to be able to untangle these things and get the text to answer our questions.
Interpreting a text, therefore, is not simple operation. There is no such thing as a final understanding of the text, and nor can that text be read in isolation from the rest of the work in which it is contained, from the rest of the corpus of the author, from other writings of the same era and, of course, from our own context and interests.
Yet somehow we have to emerge from all this with a sense of meaning and the equipment to interpret all of it in terms of a wargame rule set, a table, a bunch of toy soldiers and some wargamers. It is, in some senses, a wonder that we manage to produce anything at all.
Interpretation of a text and its reimagination into our wargaming context is not a scientific procedure, no matter how much science dominates our public discourse as the epitome of knowledge. There can be no one-to-one correspondence of a few paragraphs of text in, say, Arrian, and the performance of a unit of troops on the wargame table. Each rule set is different, depending on the hermeneutical disposition of the author, whether this is explicit or implied. We all have one, whether we know it or not.