Role of Books: The Name of the Rose

from Dragon Magazine#92  (December 1984)

The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco
Warner Books

At first glance, a fantasy gamer might not expect to find anything of interest in The Name of the Rose; it’s the sort of book that looks spectacularly boring from the outside. It has been on endless bestseller lists, has been acclaimed for its literary and scholarly excellence by armies of eminent critics, and peppered with enough Latin to keep a language class occupied for at least three weeks.

A second look, however, produces a drastically different impression. For all its erudite trappings and intimidating size, The Name of the Rose paints an invaluable portrait of the everyday life and routine of a medieval religious institution, not to mention being a tension-filled tale of precisely the sort that referees are so fond of weaving into gaming campaigns.

Anyone planning a scenario set in a monastery will find a wealth of useful reference detail written into Eco’s novel. The variety of services available under the monastic roof is wide: we meet herbalists, philosophers, kitchen help, animal tenders, scribes, medics, librarians in some abundance, and more. Another useful inclusion is an explanation for those unfamiliar with monastic timekeeping — at last, one understands the difference between Prime, Vespers, and Compline.

Indeed, in some ways the novel resembles an account of a complex RPG adventure. Brother William of Baskerville and his secretary (the tale’s narrator) arrive at an unspecified Italian monastery in search of heretical activities among the monks. The philosophical puzzle quickly becomes intertwined with a series of bizarre murders that appear to be inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelations, and William must play detective and inquisitor. The trail leads to a hunt for a long-lost book in a positively diabolical library; and riddles multiply severalfold before the answers are found.

One major note of caution is warranted: while The Name of the Rose is filled with valuable information and makes suspenseful reading, it’s also by no means an easy book to appreciate fully. There is quite a bit of high-powered metaphysical and theological debate throughout, and some knowledge of Latin, while not really necessary, will be a major help to more serious readers. Umberto Eco’s novel is both useful and fascinating, but it’s also hard work.