Minnesota’s ‘forgotten Tolkien’ died Friday

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Image courtesy of the Tékumel Foundation

Sixty-thousand years in the future, a planet called Tékumel is settled by space-faring humans. They terraform the land and atmosphere, transforming it into a sort of interstellar Club Med. But a group of powerful aliens knock the planet into an isolated pocket universe. The planet falls into chaos.

That’s the premise of the pioneering role-playing game created by Minneapolis resident Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, who died in home-hospice care Friday at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife, Ambereen.

Barker, who was known as Phil to his friends, was a gamer, novelist, linguist and former University of Minnesota professor. He used all these influences to create Tékumel, a world with its own languages, geography and cultures.

A 2009 article in the German magazine Der Spiegel called him “the forgotten Tolkien,” a reference to the author of the Lord of the Rings fantasy series.

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Image courtesy of the Tékumel Foundation

Barker started developing Tékumel as a child. In 1975, one year after the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons was released by TSR Games, the company released Barker’s “Empire of the Petal Throne,” based on the Tékumel world.

The series itself never reached the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons. That was partly because it was based on Barker’s professional explorations of eastern and South American cultures rather than more familiar northern European myths like goblins and elves, said Bob Brynildson, partner at Source Comics and Games in Falcon Heights.

“Tékumel stands by itself,” Brynildson said. “In Tékumel, there were in-depth cultures, it was elegant, you moved around in a cultural system defined by politics and history and religion.”

According to Brynildson, Barker pushed forward the concept of role-playing games, and may have invented a predecessor to fantasy-based video games.

Much of that world-building centered around Barker’s interest in languages. In the early 1950s, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study languages in India. While there he became a Muslim. He was a professor in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies from 1972 until his retirement in 1992, according to the University of Minnesota.

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Image courtesy of the Tékumel Foundation

For the games and handful of novels that fleshed out his world, Barker created at least three languages from scratch, including one called Tsolyáni, said Victor Raymond, chair of the Tékumel Foundation, which formed in 2008 and seeks to preserve Barker’s legacy.

Raymond gamed with Barker for almost three decades, spending Thursday nights with a group of friends in a basement room set aside in Barker’s south Minneapolis home.

“This is a man who never let challenges stop him, he took each one on with relish and gusto and he made sure he lived life to the fullest,” Raymond said. “He had deep and abiding interest and he followed those interests, and that shaped his life.”

The Tékumel Foundation is hoping to reprint Barker’s novels originally published in the 1990s and 2000s. They’re also digging into Barker’s vast collection of unpublished materials.

“It will be years, if ever, before we’re done exploring just what a creative mind he had,” Raymond said.

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