Unseen Influences: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Drow Elves


The first edition cover of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars. The reason John Carter looks so goofy is because he is in fact wearing a wig in this scene. And no I’m not joking.

It’s been eighteen months or so since the last Unseen Influences.  What better way to expand on the series than to take it beyond Games Workshop’s fictional universes and into the realms of Dungeons and Dragons, the original fantasy game?  More specifically, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (first edition), and the dark elves.

The drow elves are iconic D&D.  At first glance they seem to be a wild and strange creative burst on Gary Gygax’s behalf – bearing little resemblance to the Tolkienian elves that are the D&D mainstay.  From their first appearance in the Monster Manual they were intriguing.  Then Fiend Folio elaborated on that sparse description and really set the tone for these much-loved villains.

Later, the author R.A. Salvatore was able to spin the vicious subterranean elves into a series of best-selling novels.  Partly due to this, in the 90s there was an explosion of interest in the drow, including a special sourcebook for the Forgotten Realms, various modules and adventure campaigns.  Not to mention the misunderstood, angsty and maligned drow PCs who popped up in gaming groups all over the world – one of which was my own horribly evil drow wizard, Maladras.  Although he was not so much misunderstood as justifiably hated and feared…

Gygax was light on providing non-generic content for his original game, so monsters like the drow elves really stood out as different from the goblins, dragons, pixies and other creatures absorbed from mythology.  They are today regarded as one of Gygax’s most enduring and original legacies.  The Wikipedia entry for them goes so far as to claim that “except for the basic concept of “dark elves”, everything else about the Dungeons & Dragon (sic) drow was invented by Gary Gygax.”  But are the drow as original as they seem?

In fact, they are a mish-mash of many influences, some of which you can find out about on Wikipedia.  But most of all I think they bear a strong resemblance to the Black Martians, the ‘First Born’, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic 1918 novel The Gods of Mars.  Here are some notable similarities and a faint resonance:

  • The First Born and the drow both live deep underground, coming to the surface only to raid and take slaves.  Both are regarded as semi-mythological by surface dwellers.
  • Both have black skin, but are depicted and described as specifically non-African in features.  Compare also the Salamander space marines.  I won’t go into the strange ramifications of this trope for race-politics!
  • Both are violent, domineering, arrogant, lazy and inventively cruel.
  • Both the First Born and the drow are long-lived matriarchal societies of slave owners, ruled by a single vicious goddess (mortal in the case of the First Born, as it turns out).  This goddess demands Darwinian conflict from her followers  and the sacrifice of slaves for her amusement.
  • The goddess of the drow, Lolth (or Lloth if you are from Menzoberranzan), is a spider deity.  The First Born use a complicated ruse to lure the Therns, the White Martians, into their clutches to be enslaved and eaten.  Just like a spider and a fly…

Given that Burroughs’ John Carter stories are classics of early American science fiction, I think you’d have to show me some pretty compelling evidence to claim that Gygax had not read them.  It’s unlikely that we can ever know for sure if the influence was intentional or unconscious, but I like to think Gygax wanted to give a nod to ERB’s action-packed and imaginative Martian Tales.  A nod that no-one seemed to notice.

There are, as I mentioned, other influences that make up the interesting pastiche that is the drow elves.  The First Born are simply a major one, and one that is not normally acknowledged.  Feel free to point out others in the comments below, as well as any other drow-related musings you may have!

2 responses to “Unseen Influences: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Drow Elves

  • Von

    I haven’t read any Burroughs (apart from William) so this was a new one on me, but everything you’ve said seems to make sense, and it’s certainly true that there are references to Martians and colours in the ol’ OD&D books, with Mars mentioned as an off-world setting of potential interest.

    As for the drow, I always thought there was more than a hint of the Nordic mythology about them, cf. the idea that there are elven realms ‘above’ and ‘below’ Midgard on the World Tree and that the one ‘below’ is the realm of ‘dark elves’. It’s curious that the popular reskinning of the Sigurd story by Prof. Tolkien skipped neatly over the concept of ‘dark elves’, noting merely that they never left Midgard and then consigning them to obscurity.

  • James S

    @Von, thanks for commenting, I’ve been so slack with replies lately. The only Willaim (Burroughs) I’ve read is Junky, and a bit of Eraserhead when I was in first year uni and was meant to be reading something else.

    ERB is good fun, if you can forgive the casual racism (which I’m sure you can, being an open-minded fellow). The funny thing is, he’s most racist when he’s trying not to be. The Martian Tales are very imaginative though, I recommend them for a light read with some inspiring ideas.

    That’s a good observation about the Nordic mythology. I vaguely remember Dark Elves being mentioned in the Silmarillion? Can’t remember much more than that though.

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