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!