The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

Or to give it its full title: The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange.

My reading is often influenced by book titles. The more unusual the better, and this one certainly got my attention! As the e-book was not available for download, I ended up listening to the audio-book version which is narrated by the author. Listening to Mark Barrowcliffe speak his own words added a lot to my enjoyment of the book.

A short summary:

Coventry, 1976. For a brief, blazing summer, twelve-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe had the chance to be normal.

He blew it.

While other teenagers concentrated on being coolly rebellious, Mark – like twenty million other boys in the ’70s and ’80s – chose to spend his entire adolescence in fart-filled bedrooms pretending to be a wizard or a warrior, an evil priest or a dwarf. Armed only with pen, paper and some funny-shaped dice, this lost generation gave themselves up to the craze of fantasy role-playing games, stopped chatting up girls and started killing dragons.

From: Goodreads book summary

Even though I was never an adolescent boy in the English Midlands, I identified strongly with the teenage Mark Barrowcliffe. My own teenage years were spent in a small mining-town east of Johannesburg. I was one of the nerdy kids that didn’t fit in, wasn’t too good at sports and was socially awkward. I could not wait to leave. Not having a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to immerse myself in, I spent hours in the library losing myself in fiction and especially fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings. I only recently started playing online role-playing games – the successors to games like D&D. As an adult, I find them entertaining, but don’t get as absorbed in them as younger players seem to. Had I discovered D&D at a young age, I can imagine I would also have become totally obsessed.

At the bottom line my growing interest in fantasy was just an expression of a very common feeling–“there’s got to be something better than this,” an easy one to have in the drab Midlands of the 1970s. I couldn’t see it, though. My world was very small, and I couldn’t imagine making things better incrementally, only a total escape.”
― Mark Barrowcliffe, The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange

Having played online role-playing games (RPGs), I was keen to hear about the rules of D&D and how the games were played. A couple of the things I found interesting were:

  • The connection between Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. I had not realised that not only were the players fans of Lord of the Rings, but that some versions of D&D included characters and scenarios from Lord of the Rings.
  • The time, energy, mental ability and sheer imagination needed to play Dungeons & Dragons. Without having computers to calculate if you killed a monster, or if it killed you, all the calculations had to be done by hand, and with rolls of a dice. There were also no computer graphics (which for me are a great attraction of online RPGs), to provide the visual aspect of the game.
  • The contribution D&D made to modern fantasy role-playing games. There is so much which is in the structure of modern fantasy RPG which originated with D&D. For example, the whole concept of different character classes (warriors, clerics/healers and wizards/priests) with different skills were already employed in D&D.

Although Mark Barrowcliffe writes a lot about D&D and role-playing games, this is also a memoir of his teenage years and everything that goes with being a teenager. Especially his relationships with his family and friends. It is written with a lot of humour, and I laughed and sometimes cringed (recalling myself at the age) at a lot of his observations. It brought back memories of my own struggles during adolescence.

Mark Barrowcliffe talks about his D&D years as “lost” or “wasted” years, when he could have been doing something “better”.  I think that given the pressures and things teenagers today are exposed to, he could have been doing something far worse.

I thought it very likely I might have this sort of untestable power myself. It was kind of logical–no good at sport, alrightish at my studies, there must have been some field in which I excelled. Magic had to be it.

It’s difficult for adults to picture just what a grip these fantasies can take on a child. There’s occasionally a reminder as a kid throws himself off a roof pretending to be Batman, but mostly the interior life of children goes unnoticed.

― Mark Barrowcliffe, The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange

For other posts on my blog about online role-playing games see:

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Categories: Books/Book Reviews, Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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12 Comments on “The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe”

  1. November 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Oh my, Lisa, this sounds like a book I have GOT TO READ. Thanks for this introduction. I love coming-of-age memoirs–partly because I am writing one, I suppose.
    Hope you have a wonderful week, my friend.

    • November 20, 2012 at 6:40 am #

      Kathy, there is a lot of talk about D&D and role-playing in the book, which may not appeal to everyone. Having said that though, I would probably have enjoyed the book even if I hadn’t had any experience in role-playing games. There is a definite art to writing a memoir, which is different from writing a normal autobiography. Mark Barrowcliffe covers only about 5 years of his adolescence, but manages to really give a good feeling of what it was like living in England at the time. Which is what appealed to me.

  2. November 20, 2012 at 1:14 am #

    I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons in any form, though I did enjoy The Lord of the Rings very much. I didn’t know there was a connection between the two.

    Are you planning to see The Hobbit movie coming out next month?

    • November 20, 2012 at 6:47 am #

      The Dungeons & Dragons players took their inspiration from ANY fantasy fiction and old sagas (e.g. the old Nordic sagas) that they came across! 🙂

      YES! I will definitely be seeing The Hobbit. Am so glad that Peter Jackson got to direct The Hobbit movies too. He’s just got such a good feel for the Tolkien books.

  3. November 20, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    I’m kind of the opposite of you — I’ve never played an online role-playing game, but I did play D&D in college. The lack of graphics really wasn’t an issue, partly because there weren’t any good computer graphics to compare it to back then, and partly because it was a game we played with a bunch of friends together in a room, and I think it’s easier for imagination to take flight in that environment.

    • November 20, 2012 at 8:32 am #

      It’s interesting to hear from somebody who has played D&D. From reading the book, I got the impression that the D&D players were much more imaginative than online RPG players today. Not just being entertained, but creating their own fantasy world.

      One of the aspects I really don’t like about online RPGs is the PvP environment. It’s just about who has the better skills, stronger armour etc, and the player ratings are just a factor of how many other characters yours has killed. I just don’t see the point of that.

  4. November 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    I`m still old school- I rather watch tv.

    • November 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      The adult Mark Barrowcliffe agrees with you! 🙂 After getting introduced to online role-playing games earlier this year, I played for a couple of months. But then real life and headaches “intruded”.

  5. November 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    That is a book I would love to read too, Lisa – even though I’ve never played D&D or any online RPGs. But it sounds intriguing… Is it an autobiography, or does he actually tell a story?

    • November 20, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      He calls it a “memoir”. It’s his own life story, over about a 5-year period during his teens, when he was actively playing D&D. It gives you a view of what it was like growing up in a working/middle class England during that period.

  6. November 24, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    I also never played D&D, but love Lord of the Rings. ‘Never knew of the connection. I also was a bit of a shy child who often did not seem to “fit in” with the mainstream. Very interesting post.

    • November 24, 2012 at 9:33 am #

      I wonder if the Lord of the Rings (and similar books) specifically attract shy, introverted kids – the ones that have mostly internal fantasy lives? Or perhaps that is too much of a generalization? Posts like this don’t usually attract as much attention, so I’m very happy when readers find they could identify with it.

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