Category Archives: Unseen Influences

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!


Unseen Influences: 2000 AD

Today I’ve got another Unseen Influences for you all.  The previous two articles in this series are by far the most popular and visited posts on Warp Signal as of now, and I’m really pleased to be able to write about something that so many of you seem so interested in.  Thank you all for taking the time to read.

I’m going to talk today about the British comic book publisher 2000AD, and the sometimes overlooked influences that their works had on the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Many of you will know of 2000AD primarily through the iconic character Judge Dredd, but the books actually follow a multitude of characters in the same universe as Dredd, as well as (in more recent times) other universes such as the mythological Celtic world of the barbarian Slaine.

Of course it’s Dredd and his cohorts who we are talking about today. Continue reading

Unseen Influences: Frank Herbert’s Dune

In a classic scene from David Lynch's 1984 film, Dune, Captain Picard oversees a duel between Sting and that dude from Sex and the City

Welcome to another Unseen Influences.  Today I’m going to talk a little about Frank Herbert’s Dune, and its influence on the background of 40k.

Dune is widely held to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and is certainly one of the best-selling.  Unlike the very specific influence that Michael Moorcock had on the early development of Games Workshop’s lore, Dune’s influence was much wider and more diffuse.  This is because Dune is one of the first modern science fantasy stories, and the universe of Warhammer 40,000 is squarely within that genre.

These things are notoriously difficult to define, but a good working definition I think is that science fiction tells a story in a universe exactly like our own but with different technology, and science fantasy tells a fantasy story using the traditional trappings of science fiction (aliens, space, lasers, etc).  Basically, if it would make Asimov turn in his grave, it’s science fantasy. Read on . . .

Unseen Influences: Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock's Elric


No mortal nightmare could encompass such a terrible vision . . . Every so often, the ground heaved and erupted and any human beings unfortunate enough to be in the area were either engulfed and totally transformed or had their bodies warped in indescribable ways. The noise was dreadful, a blending of human voices and roaring Chaos sounds, devil’s wailing laughter, and quite often, the tortured scream of a human soul who had perhaps relented his choice of loyalty and now suffered madness. – Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer (1965)

The fictional universes created by Games Workshop are pretty amazing beasts.  They have grown from the quaint open settings of the 1970s and 80s to the unique visions people all over the world enjoy today.  It would be fair to say that the GW universes now have a strong influence on new fantasy and sci-fi, particularly the latter.  It is quite common to hear the sentiment that the best thing about the GW games is their rich and unique backgrounds.

In this new series of articles I’m going to briefly shed some light on some of the lesser known early influences that have helped to make GW’s lore so rich and diverse.  Of course, all creative work is informed by earlier stuff.  No-one creates in a vacuum and anyone who claims to have told a story that has never been told before is either naive or a liar.  I’m not accusing GW of being unoriginal, or suggesting that these works were the first of their kind and were somehow stolen – I just think it’s important to know where you’re coming from.

So, with the intro out of the way, let’s start with one of the most iconic of GW’s factions, the warriors of Chaos!  In Today’s Unseen Influences we are going to look at the early work of the British fantasy author Michael Moorcock. Continue reading

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