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Origins of the Drow in Dungeons & Dragons

This article explores the original sources that inspired one of the game's greatest antiheroes.

Erol Otus' depiction of a drow priestess from the D3 Vault of the Drow.

Drow, or dark elves, are one of the most iconic monsters found in Dungeons & Dragons. They were first introduced into the game in the 1st edition Monster Manual (1977) as a side note in the entry on elves. All the reader was told concerning them was three lines stating that they were evil, dark, live underground, and were strong magic-users. They made their first villainous appearance in the module G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King the following year. The full extend of their evil and depravity was more fully detailed in the D1-3, the “Drow” series of modules. Drow were the most thoroughly realized race or monster in D&D up to that point. From the very beginning these malicious elves have captured the imaginations of players of the game. But where did the idea for dark elves come from?

Mischievous Dæmons

The starting point for the origins of dark elves comes from the person who introduced into D&D, Gary Gygax. He notes in his From the Sorcerer’s Scroll column in Dragon magazine #31 that he got the idea for the race from Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology published in 1828. [1] The book is a catalog of myths concerning fairies collected mostly from northern Europe. Each chapter describes the types of fairies known in geographic region along with a few short written or oral myths featuring them. Keightley notes that the eddas and sagas of Scandinavia differentiated between two types of elves — the light and dark elves. Both types live in cities below the world ash, Yggdrasil. “There is the city which is called Alf-heim, where dwelleth the people that is called Liosálfar (Light Alfs). But the Döckálfar (Dark Alfs) dwell below underground, and are unlike them in appearance, and still more unlike in actions. The Liosálfar are whiter than the sun in appearance, but the Döckálfar are blacker than pitch." Some sources refer to dark elves as “Svartálfar”, or black elves. Unfortunately, the eddas and sagas give no more information concerning dark elves that what is shown above. Other folklore sources note that dark (or black) elves are evil with a mischievous disposition. They are described as “an underground people, who frequently inflict sickness or injury on mankind.” [2]

Legends, as noted by Keightley, add more specific traits which also appear in D&Ds drow. From Rügen in Germany, tales speak of evil fairies called “black dwarves” who dwell underground. These ugly creatures have malicious dispositions, and avoid daylight. They are also smiths of unequaled skill who can make unbreakable blades or impenetrable coats of mail. No doubt that these local legends were influenced by older, common ancestor myths that also appeared in the eddas and sagas of other regions.

One point of note is that Keightley never refers to dark elves as “drow”. Legends from the Shetland Islands refer to fairies called “trow” (or sometimes “drow” in other sources). The word “trow” derives from “troll”. These beings are small, mischievous, and like to dance. If this description sounds like more that of folklore elves, there is good reason for that. Depending on the source of the myth — whether edda, saga, or folklore — there might be little differentiation between elves, dwarves, and trolls. Simply put: there little of unity of the original sources. Some sources consider dark elves to be a type of dwarf. Some might not make no difference between dwarves and trolls, using the term interchangeably. All three might have similar or different sizes, appearances, or dispositions depending on the region the tale originates.

Inhabitants of the Gloomy Fairyland

The information found in Fairy Mythology concerning dark elves (i.e. they live underground, have black skin, are evil, hate daylight, excel at forging metal) formed the basic framework for the drow in D&D. However, Gygax’s vision of the race morphed into something substantially unlike fairies the they derive from. These dark elves are more cultured, sophisticated, depraved, and powerful than their folktale counterparts. As detailed in the modules G3 and D1-3, Gygax tells us that drow look much like surface elves but with black skin, white or silver hair, and orange to orange-yellow eyes. They are intelligent, and graceful with slight, thin builds. They stand between 5’ to 5½’ tall. Temperamentally, they are “selfish and cruel”. Of their society we are told that:

  • They forge magical weapons of black metal [adamantite] which are “very hard and very sharp”, and use sophisticated weaponry, such as hand crossbows, death lances, tentacle rods, etc.

  • They continuously feud amongst themselves, but will rally against a common non-drow enemy.

  • They live in city far below the earth. Their city, Erelhi-Cinlu, is described as a confusing nest of “crooked, narrow streets and alleys”.

  • They employ a variety of monster servants (bugbears, trolls, troglodytes, etc.).

  • They have a matriarchal society ruled by the clergy. Just below this class are the nobles that are organized into houses ruled by powerful females.

  • Drow not affiliated with a noble house dwell in their squalid city that “reek[s] of debauchery and decadence”. Its inhabitants are “degenerate and effete,” and unceasingly “seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge.”

  • Even the lowliest drow owns a lot of wealth compared to other races.

  • Slavery, prostitution, pandering, drug use, gambling, poison shops, torture parlors, erotic decorations, demon-worship, and human (or demi-human) sacrifice are commonplace.

  • Some (not all) worship the demoness, Lolth, and they openly consort with demons and daemons.

Appendix N Connection

The fantasy, science-fiction, and horror books and authors listed in Appendix N were a vast trove of inspiration for Gary Gygax. Monsters, races, and magics found these books were mined to become, in varying degrees, some of the most quintessential elements of D&D. Indeed, drow can be found in a few books from that reading list. [3] The earliest example is from de Camp & Pratt’s fantasy novel, The Roaring Trumpet, first published in 1941. This novel also served as the inspiration for the “Giant” series of modules, the third of which includes the first appearance of drow in D&D. In fact, there are many parallels that appear in G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King that originate from the Muspellheim chapters of The Roaring Trumpet. The fire giant, Surt, in the book lives in a volcano fortress nearly similar to King Snurre in the D&D module. Similarly, the book’s protagonist, Harold Shae, encounters the “dark dwarves of Svartalfheim” (i.e. dark elves) with “licorice”-colored skin deep in the fire giants’ dungeons working a smithy. It is clear that de Camp and Pratt’s “dark elves” are very much rooted in the original Norse mythology. More importantly, their book inspired with Gygax by giving him a starting point of reference for introducing drow into D&D. Of course, Gygax significantly altered and elaborated on those elements found in the novel.

Elves feature prominently in Poul Anderson’s books, The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions. Both titles were highly influential on many aspects of D&D. Both books were also heavily influenced by Norse mythology and folklore, especially the former title. Anderson’s approach to elves was to return to their Norse roots, which he believed Tolkien discarded in favor of the Gloriana type elves as depicted in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. [4] While Anderson never calls his elves “dark elves” or “drow”, they are much closer to Gygax’s drow than goodly D&D elves. [5] His elves are described as tall and slender with pale skin, almond-shaped, high cheekbones, and pointed ears. They possess “night-seeing eyes”, can move quietly, and are fleet-footed. They are long lived, use magic, and cannot stand the sunlight, the touch of iron, and the name of Jesus spoken. They are adept at forging “curious elf-alloy” weapons and armors. Most of these traits are consistent with those found in mythological sources. Here, Anderson begins to diverge from the traditional folklore sources. Of their disposition, Anderson says they are aloof, ruthless, and haughty. These amoral, urbane noble elves live in castles in the perpetual twilight of the Faerie Realm. They employ fantastic hunting animals, such as griffins and manticores. These elves also keep goblins, kobolds, and other elf tribes as slaves.

Echoes of the Dreaming City

While de Camp & Pratt and Anderson’s vision of elves undoubtedly influenced Gygax’s creation of drow, we can see even greater parallels to them in Michael Moorcock’s Melnibonéan race. [6] Moorcock’s work was immensely influential in the creation of many of the recognizable elements of D&D, and Elric was specifically mentioned in the preface to the original edition of the game. Moorcock has acknowledged that Anderson’s The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions greatly influenced his Elric books. [7] [8]. His Melnibonéans bear more than a passing resemblance to Anderson’s elves, physically and temperamentally. Melnibonéans are not “true men” (i.e. not human), but are of another related race. They have pale skin, fine features, slightly pointed ears, slightly slanting eyes, high cheek bones, and slender builds. Of their character, we are told that they are “proud, insouciant, cruel”, degenerate, and innately evil. Of their society we are told that:

  • They worship the Dukes of Hell (Chaos) (i.e. demons), and can summon them or their servants to do their bidding. They even visit the Dukes on their home plane.

  • The royal line of Melniboné worships the demon lord, Arioch.

  • They view other races (men) as inferior and dominate and enslave them.

  • They have many sophisticated weapons of war.

  • Melnibonéans “…studied sorcery, conducted experiments, and indulged their sensuous appetites…”.

  • They take pleasure in torture and suffering of others and keep slaves.

  • Melnibonéan nobles use drugs.

  • Melnibonéans have fabulous wealth, and are stronger with sorcery than with warriors.

  • Poorer Melnibonéans citizens live in degradation in their city of Imrryr.

  • The description of Imrryr is similar to the drow city of Erelhi-Cinlu. Its “overcivilized” citizens live in a “drugged slumber”. While its buildings and towers are of “fabulous magnificence”, “squalor lurked in many narrow streets”.

Moorcock even makes the connection between Melnibonéans and elves in his third Corum book, The King of Swords. The eternal champion, Corum, belongs to Vadhagh race. These non-humans existed before the coming of humans, along with their enemies the Nhadragh, a similar race but more evilly inclined. In one scene, a Nhadragh sorcerer summons the the spirit of Yyrkoon, Elric's deceased cousin and rival. He is said to resemble a Vadhagh, even though he is a Melnibonéan. Thus, it is implied, that Melnibonéans and the Vadhagh are of similar appearance, and though they originate from different worlds in the multiverse, they are probably related. Later in the book, Corum travels to Cornwall, England on Earth. Here he meets Lady Jane. She relates a story to him that she once summoned a Vadhagh with a spell, whom she refers to as an “elf folk”. Her friend then summons three “trolls”, the bitter enemies of the Vadhagh. While never explicitly confirmed, the implication here is that the “trolls” are the Nhadragh. This scene appears to be an allusion to the elves and trolls from Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword.