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?
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.  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.” 
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.  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.  While Anderson never calls his elves “dark elves” or “drow”, they are much closer to Gygax’s drow than goodly D&D elves.  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.  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.  . 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.
By comparing the listed traits, it is clear that Moorcock’s Melnibonéans, Anderson’s elves, and Gygax’s drow all share a great number the physical, temperamental, and societal characteristics. Both authors were highly regarded by Gygax, who was very familiar with their works.
Starting with Gygax’s remark of finding dark elves in Fairy Mythology, we can see the confluence of diverse elements from other literary sources that influenced the creation of the drow. The initial spark was the dark elves of Svartalfheim, and their folklore brethren, the dwarves and trolls. Anderson’s elves and Moorcock’s Melnibonéans are the lost connection that ties everything together. This is not to diminish Gygax’s contributions to creating an iconic race of villains. Most assuredly, he put his own indelible mark on drow by tying together elements from disparate sources, and altering them in imaginative ways. He also added so many unusual elements, such as hand crossbows, drow sign language, Lolth, and the drow matriarchy. I also believe other sources than those listed here influenced aspects of the creation of the drow. Edgar Rice Burrough’s black Martians from The Gods of Mars have a number of similarities to drow, and dwell in an underground fairyland.  A. Merritt’s novel, The Moon Pool, also contains many similarities to some aspects of drow. In the book, an evil priestess of the mysterious Shining One, Yolara, rules over a population of decadents living in a vast subterranean city. The priestess uses has powerful magic-like devices and wields writhing vine with tendrilled heads that strikes that rod paralyses its victims. Much like the drow, the noble class of the city ruthlessly rules over its lower-class citizens. In all likelihood, the cinnabar drow eye cusps in D3 Vault of the Drow stem from the violet cusps Cugel finds in Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld. Kon, the spider-man, and his compatriots, from A. Merritt’s book, The Face in the Abyss, appear much as driders do. There are probably even more connections beyond these yet to reveal themselves. 
1: Gygax notes on p. 29 that “Drow are mentioned in Keightley’s THE FAIRY MYTHOLOGY, as I recall (it might have been THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH—neither book is before me, and it is not all that important anyway).” It was not in the latter book, as there is no mention of dark elves whatsoever in its pages.
2: The first mention of drow in D&D occurs in the 1st edition Monster Manual under the “elf” heading. The short paragraph states that, “The drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good.” Whereas mythological elves fall into a morally gray area, drow are an inversion of good-aligned elves as presented in D&D, both physically and socially. They have dark skin and white or silver, females are stronger than males, they hate the sunlight, they live underground, they have no connection to nature, and they are evil being that do not value any that Good stands for. This duality constitutes two parts of a psychological archetypical whole, a binary opposition of Good and Evil. One might view elves in D&D as the life-affirming “Eros drive”, whereas drow represent the destructive “death drive” of Thanatos.
3: It has been suggested that Margaret St. Clair’s novel, The Shadow People, served as the inspiration for drow. While the underground-dwelling “shadow people” are referred to in passing as “elves” in the book, any resemblance ends there. The “shadow people” as described as having either black, white, or green skin, they are cannibals, have no bones, and eat ergot-laced psychedelic grain. More importantly, they are uncivilized and uncouth. Yeah, it’s weird, but only superficially related to drow in that they are "elves" that live underground. It would not be unreasonable to assume that St. Clair, like Gygax, drew inspiration from the Svartálfar of mythology.
4: Michael Moorcoock, on the other hand, seems to attribute Anderson’s more sophisticated elves to Spenser than Norse myths. See his book, Wizardry & Wild Romance, for a discussion of Anderson’s books.
5: The word “drow” rarely crops up in books of mythology or fiction before the first appearance of dark elves in D&D. Anderson has passing mention of “drow” in The Broken Sword, but is does not seem to be in reference to elves, dark or otherwise. Fritz Leiber’s most Norse-inspired book, Swords and Ice Magic. Again, also mentions them in passing, with no details given. A creature called a "drow "appears in Poul Anderson's book, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, a retelling of the Danish tale of the same name. In the book, the evil half-elven sorceress, Skuld, animates warriors slain in battle with magic, who are referred to as “drows”. In this context, however, these drow are most likely a "draugr", a type of undead revenant found in Norse and Germanic cultures. As a side note, one can only destroy a draugr by completely burning its body. Sounds very similar to George R. R. Martin's wights in The Song of Fire and Ice.
6: A bit of trivia. The name “Melniboné” is derived from the magician and doctor philosophicus, Meliböe, from Fletcher Pratt’s novel, The Well of the Unicorn.
7: It well known that Moorcock’s concept of Law and Chaos is derived from Three Hearts and Three Lions. However, Henry Kuttner introduced the concept of Chaos in his 1946 fantasy novel, The Dark World. His book shares a number of parallels with Anderson’s. The protagonist is WWII soldier who is transported to a parallel Earth, the Dark World. In reality, he is an important man named Ganelon who was exiled from the parallel Earth to the real Earth. He recovers the memories of his former existence, and returns to his original world. The Dark World also directly influenced Philip Jose Farmer to write the World of Tiers books. These books, in turn, inspired Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Zelazny and Lin Carter also had characters in their books named “Ganelon”. How’s that for influence.
8: It is entirely evident that Moorcock’s Elric series was heavily influenced by The Broken Sword. Anderson’s elves and Skafloc’s sword, Tyrfing, is analogous to Moorcock’s Melnibonéans and Stormbringer, respectively. Even Skafloc’s character arc parallels that of Elric’s (i.e. has a supernatural benefactor, tries to reunite with his love, and is dominated and ultimately doomed by his cursed sword). Tyrfing is described as a ‘demon’ or ‘fiend’, and the weapon mummers and stirs by itself, as Stormbringer does. Going even deeper, Anderson may have been influenced by H. Rider Haggard’s 1890 novel, Eric Brighteyes. The eponymous character also finds a cursed rune sword, named Whitefire, that was crafted by dwarves for Odin. Whitefire “hummed strangely in answer” to Eric after he unwittingly murders his love, Gudruda, with the blade. However, the story of a cursed sword that betrays its wielder goes back to Norse myth, undoubtedly where Haggard obtained the seed of his story. In the tale, “The Dwarf-Sword Tirfing”, as related in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, King Suaforlami forces some dwarves to give him a gift. They begrudgingly oblige him by forging the sword, Tirfing, which could cut through solid rock. However, the dwarves warn the king that: "This sword shall be the bane of a man every time it is drawn; and with it shall be done three of the greatest atrocities. It shall also be thy bane." He does not listen to the dwarves' warning. Thereafter, all that wield the sword are doomed. Damn—that is some linage.
9: Gygax was a big fan of Burroughs. The black Martians are described as evil, arrogant, and decadent in temperament. They prey on and keep as slaves all lesser races. The black Martian’s Temple of Issus (their goddess) is an unearthly fairyland that lies in a subterranean vault lit with phosphorescent light. Issus is noted to be cruel and selfish.
10: The description of Erelhi-Cinlu as a pit of vice and decay reminds me of the state of many cities in the 1970s, such as New York. Possibly, American urban decay may have also influenced Gygax? Who knows?
Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword. Ballantine, 1971.
Anderson, Poul. Three Hearts and Three Lions. Doubleday & Company, 1961.