Tuesday, March 31, 2015

D&D: Conceptions of the Drow (Part 1: History)

I gave my gaming group some choices for this week's D&D article. They liked "The Theology of Demeter", "Court Rangers", and this article, which is about the drow of Wanderhaven. Designing the drow's backstory turned out to be a little more challenging than I'd anticipated, however, so given my current time constraints, I've had to break the article into two parts.  I hope you don't mind.
This week: the history and mythology of the drow.

A Brief History of the Drow
The drow made their first appearance in Dungeons and Dragons all the way back in 1997, with one of my favorite adventure modules, G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King.  D&D’s creator Gary Gygax claimed to have read a brief description of the “drow” in a dictionary that characterized them as elves from deep underground.  He later said, "I wanted a most unusual race as the main power in the Underdark, so used the reference to 'dark elves'... to create the Drow.”  Subsequent adventures laid out a more of the drow’s history and society until they at last got the hardcover treatment in 1981’s Fiend Folo, using information that had previously appeared in the magazine White Dwarf.  
This one was great.
R.A. Salvatore greatly expanded the drow’s history and mythos starting six years later with The Crystal Shard, the first of some thirty or so volumes staring his signature protagonist Drizzt, the drow ranger.  Up to this point, drow had been conceived mainly as a magic-using race of evil elves.  Salvatore gave them the a capital city, a societal structure (i.e. noble Houses), and the inherent concept of dual-wielding.  Thirty years later, many of Salvatore’s innovations seem clich├ęd, but this is merely the effect of overwhelming popularity and consistent, ubiquitous success.  In the mid-to-late 1980s, Drizzt was a radical departure from anything TSR or Wizards of the Coast had ever produced, especially in regards to the drow.  In fact, Salvatore’s editor only approved Drizzt for publication because he was supposed to be a sidekick to a more conventional character named Wulfgar.
Old school drow.

Any self-respecting comic book writer will tell you that when you take over a book, there are only two ways to approach it.  You either continue directly from what has gone before, or you start over from scratch and reinvent the property from the ground up.  The former proposition is problematic in this case because of rights issues and also because it breaks no new ground.  TSR and WotC have done quite a lot with their specific conception of dark elves, and I’m personally a fan, but that doesn’t mean that I want to recreate their work.  In considering what drow from Wanderhaven might look like then, we need to look at the origins of the drow, so that we can reinvent them from theirmythological roots.

Drow in Mythology
Trowe (drow) were small troll-like fairy creatures from the folkloric traditions of the Shetland Islands.  They were said to be short, shy, ugly creatures who lived in underground burrows and emerged only at night, whence they would get into mischief.  They would often enter the homes of sleeping villagers to steal things, especially musical instruments.  Trowe were considered great lovers of music and would even kidnap musicians or otherwise seek ways of luring them into their dens.  Trowe were shy, however, and ill at ease amongst humankind.
Not all conceptions of the drow are deadly.
It’s been speculated that the trowe’s legend arose after the Viking invasions of the Shetland Islands, when the smaller, darker Picts were largely displaced, leaving them with little recourse but to hide from the larger, blonder Vikings.  This may be true.  The Prose Edda mentions “black elves” or “dark elves” who dwelt in Svartalfheim and were responsible for bringing nightmares.  They could perhaps be related to the trowe in that both have somewhat Norse origins, but they are quite different as well.  Thetrowe were more like trolls or spirits than they were any kind of modern-day conception of elves, though in both traditions the drow feared and hated sunlight.  In any event, ancient conceptions of “elves” have little in common with the Tolkienesque conceptions that have settled into the public consciousness over the last fifty years, so saying that the trowe were “troll-like” is a bit like saying that they were monsters.  It doesn’t tell us much.  The same could be said of the Prose Edda’s mentioning “dark elves”.  Norse sources frequently used the words “troll”, “dwarf”, and “elf” so close to interchangeably that most casual readers, including this one, can barely tell the difference.  According to Norse myth, dark elves, light elves, and dwarves are not from the same parts of the Nine Realms.  This implies that the three races were different cultures but not necessarily different species.  The same can be said for the Vanir and the denizens of Aasgard.
Regardless, there is little in the literature to guide the creation of a new concept of the drow beyond noting that we probably ought to call them trowe so as to avoid confusion with the dark elves that exist in the Forgotten Realms and other settings owned by Hasbo.  Also, since trowe are thought to live underground and fear sunlight inevery version of the base literature, this must be maintained as well.  It’s less helpful to know that trowe love music because the modern conception sees all elves as music lovers.  However, if we perhaps see their theology through the lens of music, and add this and their shyness to the trowe’s Norse origins, then maybe there is room for the creation of something new after all.  In any event, we are at least not recreating the work of Gygax and others.

Next Week
We take the basic mythos and layer it over Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, and see what it looks like.

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