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General The Gygaxian Origins of Drow and Some Thought on their Depiction As Villians

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
In another thread, there was some excellent commentary on the origins of Drow, but since it tended to get lost in the overall conversation about Orcs, I wanted to post this thread to discuss the origins and (possibly) the future of Drow. I will try to keep my own speculation to a minimum. I'm also going to h/t @Doug McCrae for some excellent sourcing in the other thread.

A. Chronology of the Appearance of Drow until Codification

1977: Monster Manual
1978: G3, D1, D2, D3
1980: Deities & Demigods, Q1
1981: Fiend Folio (First Codification in a Rulebook)

The very first appearance of the Drow is in the Monster Manual, and all that is written is the following:

Drow: The "Black Elves," or drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.

That's it. It is, in effect, a teaser for the later appearance in G3. As such, the first true description of the Drow occurs in G3. It's a fairly thorough writeup!


B. On the Origin of Drow

If anyone is unfamiliar with the origins of Drow, I highly recommend the following article-

Seriously, it is a short and great read. The reason I find it persuasive is that it avoids the most common fallacy that I see that many people fall into; attempting to "single source" the Drow. Far too often, you will see someone attempt to claim that X is "the source" for the Drow, and if you just read it, saw it, experienced it, etc., you would know that. Of course, what "X" is varies from person to person, and it is rare for something to be traced to a single, dispositive source as inspiration. We stand on the shoulders of giants, not a single, convenient and identifiable giant.
The Drow (and their associated religion, cities, cultures, and so on), like a lot Gygaxian creations, are from multiple sources.

But wait, what did Gygax himself say? Well, here's the thing; Gygax is not always the most reliable narrator of things, not even his own life. Here on this website, he said the following in 2007:

All of the monsters in question are unique to AD&D, and as I wrote virtually all of their stats and descriptions they are in fact my creative products, not the IP of WotC. That's a FWIW.
....
Drow: A listing in the Funk & Wagnall's Unexpurgated Dictionary, and no other source at all. I wanted a most unusual race as the main power in the Underdark, so used the reference to "dark elves" from the dictionary to create the Drow. (And nary a one has crow's feet).
The thing is, we know that this is incorrect, because it is contradicted by .... Gygax himself. In November, 1979, much closer to the creation of the Drow, he wrote the following about the Drow:

The “G Series” modules (STEADING OF THE HILL GIANT CHIEF, GLACIAL RIFT OF THE FROST GIANT JARL, and HALL OF THE FIRE GIANT KING) were certainly inspired by the de Camp and Pratt INCOMPLETE ENCHANTER.

The three “D Series” modules which continue the former series owe little, if anything, to fiction. 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), and as Dark Elves of evil nature, they served as an ideal basis for the creation of a unique new mythos designed especially for AD&D. The roles the various drow are designed to play in the series are commensurate with those of prospective player characters. In fact, the race could be used for player characters, providing that appropriate penalties were levied when a drow or half-drow was in the daylight world.
Dragon 31.

The reason I bring up the first part is that we now see a plausible path to the creation of the Drow. The Incomplete Enchanter by de Camp and Pratt that Gygax is referring to contains the story/novella The Roaring Trumpet; and that novella is the obvious inspiration for the G series. Notably, just like in the G series, the protagonist encounters dark elves with "licorice" skin when he is in Surt's (Snurre!) volcano fortress. Suddenly, the connections, the borrowings, seem obvious. It is not a straight lifting, but it is ... a strong adaptation. We see that Gygax was creating a "unique new mythos designed especially for AD&D" by taking bits and parts of other sources that he had read in the past; a lot of Anderson, and Moorcock, and Burroughs, as he tended to do, with bits and pieces of Vance and Merritt and St. Clair.

Gygax, if nothing else, was a consummate DJ and remixer of myth.


C. Structural Issues

But wait, there's more. If you go to the original article I brought up, I would point out footnote 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?"

The reason I bring this up is because anytime there is a fictional depiction that is made, it reflects the mindset of the times and person who made it. This is something that is both banal and profound, but is lurking beneath many conversations that we have; a typical example would be, "Well, X was just typically racist for their time, while Y was more racist than their time." (Y, by the way, is always HP Lovecraft.)

In the footnoted example, it is hard to overstate the ways in which urban decay and violence was assumed in the late 70s; such a structural issue would likely be reflected in the depiction of cities even if the author was not consciously making a point about it.

The reason I bring this up is because if you look at a lot of early depictions of Drow, you see the same problematic issues. Many illustrations of male Drow have them with short curly hair, even though that is not in the written descriptions. The female Drow are considered not attractive, but "strangely attractive," and the image of the priestess of Lolth in Deities and Demigods, well, that just speaks for itself doesn't it?

So on the one hand, I don't think that the original conception of evil elves as written is necessarily racist- other than the troubling sense of "color coding" villains. Nor is it misogynistic; after all, a quick read of other modules, such as B2, shows that the default for evil humanoids was a patriarchal society*, so .... progress?

*In B2, there is a disturbing amount of women and children that need killing.

But there are obviously structural issues with presenting a black, female-led, evil race of decadent, violent, slaving (!) characters. More than I care to unpack critically. Which leads to ....


D. Critical Examination

Someone in the other thread said that the issue isn't so much the use of these tropes, but the uncritical use of these tropes. I think that's about right. There is a lot going on with the Drow; there's the issue of representation (black=evil). There's the issue of the most matriarchal society in D&D being the most prominent villains. There's the issue of, how should I put this, whips and chains and slaves and pain, oh my, that has always been lurking in the background (.... c'mon, the foreground) with the Drow. There's the problem with how Drow have been depicted in art, from the notoriously bad Keith Parkison painting to the occasionally "off" Drizzt covers.

Not to mention the growing love of cosplay, and the problematic issues of cosplay with Drow.

These are difficult conversations, and they tend to be papered over by proxy arguments over "Drizzt Fanboyism." On the one hand, I understand that Drow have traditionally been, as Gygax put it, part of the unique new mythos of AD&D, a wonderful and flavorful creation of a villain that has resonated deep within the psyche of gamers for years, such that people today still argue about keeping them as their original villains, or using them because to "play against type" is so attractive (if not ... ahem ... strangely so). The Drow are one of the most enduring creations of D&D.

On the other hand, "black skin = bad" is a trope we cannot abide by (especially in light of the other, light-skinned elves, being good), and WoTC's move to sever this trope should be welcome.
 

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dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
Very interesting.

I think it is unfortunate that some people have issues with terms that others simply use as descriptive. Should the "descriptive" be important, though? I feel that depends on the context personally, but for descriptive use it is no different than if I describe someone as tall, blonde, short, old, or whatever.

I have been in situations myself where I've been called a "white guy" and frankly, it doesn't bother me at all because that is what I am. A man, who happens to have white skin. As for other terms that are meant to be offensive, they simply don't bother me personally. I understand others feel differently and I can respect that, but I also ask they they understand if I use such terms, it is descriptive and not meant to be offensive.

I will conclude simply by adding that what bothers me, honestly, is how people feel it is okay to use a term to refer to themselves but then insist others not use it as they feel it is offensive. If you don't want me to use the term, please stop using it yourself and thank you.
 


Krachek

Adventurer
For their time all these authors produce new concept, new way of seeing the magic world,
it they hadn’t done their job we would be stuck still with shiny paladin, wise wizard and other stereotypes.
 

Good call on the Harold Shea reference. One other possible Appendix N connection would be Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark, who is explicitly described as having black skin (though the art often did not reflect the text). But he was a protagonist in the mostly heroic vein.

The reason I bring up the first part is that we now see a plausible path to the creation of the Drow. The Incomplete Enchanter by de Camp and Pratt that Gygax is referring to contains the story/novella The Roaring Trumpet; and that novella is the obvious inspiration for the G series. Notably, just like in the G series, the protagonist encounters dark elves with "licorice" skin when he is in Surt's (Snurre!) volcano fortress. Suddenly, the connections, the borrowings, seem obvious. It is not a straight lifting, but it is ... a strong adaptation. We see that Gygax was creating a "unique new mythos designed especially for AD&D" by taking bits and parts of other sources that he had read in the past; a lot of Anderson, and Moorcock, and Burroughs, as he tended to do, with bits and pieces of Vance and Merritt and St. Clair.

Gygax, if nothing else, was a consummate DJ and remixer of myth.
 

ninjayeti

Explorer
In an. Many illustrations of male Drow have them with short curly hair, even though that is not in the written descriptions. .
Do you have a source for this? All the depictions of the Drow from the "D-series" show them with long, straight, pure white hair as well a true black skin tone (the "licorice" of the deCamp/Pratt reference) as opposed to anything resembling an African or African-American color skin.

The linked article uses a Erol Otus pic of a drow with African skin tone. But the version that appears in the actual module is a B/W line drawing. Is there a contemporaneous full color source for this illustration? Because it looks like someone misleadingly colored it after the fact to give a false impression of how the drow were depicted at the time.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Do you have a source for this? All the depictions of the Drow from the "D-series" show them with long, straight, pure white hair as well a true black skin tone (as opposed to African color skin).
I believe it's in reference to the illustrations at the end of G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King.
 

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Voadam

Adventurer
Multiple sources, blender, loose interpretation, and then a unique spin. That seems right for a D&D creation.

Thanks for that other origin story, it adds stuff I did not know.
 

Kobold Avenger

Adventurer
Planescape when covering a bit Norse mythology (D&D has always strongly leaned in Snorri's take on Norse mythology) did outright say that the "Svart Alfar" are in fact Drow, as it placed Svartalfheim in the plane of Ysgard which is one of the Upper Planes. They were generally described as being "not evil" and "misunderstood". The FR deity Elistraee's realm was thrown in there by association.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Very interesting.

I think it is unfortunate that some people have issues with terms that others simply use as descriptive. Should the "descriptive" be important, though? I feel that depends on the context personally, but for descriptive use it is no different than if I describe someone as tall, blonde, short, old, or whatever.

I have been in situations myself where I've been called a "white guy" and frankly, it doesn't bother me at all because that is what I am. A man, who happens to have white skin. As for other terms that are meant to be offensive, they simply don't bother me personally. I understand others feel differently and I can respect that, but I also ask they they understand if I use such terms, it is descriptive and not meant to be offensive.

I will conclude simply by adding that what bothers me, honestly, is how people feel it is okay to use a term to refer to themselves but then insist others not use it as they feel it is offensive. If you don't want me to use the term, please stop using it yourself and thank you.
Reclaimed derogatory terms shouldn’t be used by people who have not been denigrated by them because they don’t have the proper context to understand exactly how it is offensive and how to use it inoffensively. Basically, don’t use bullying words if you don’t know how it feels to be bullied by them. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request at all.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Having Wildemount released, with its interpretation of the drow as moving away from Lolth's worship, adds a fresh perspective on the race. I still use drow as the classic villains depicted when I want to, but it is nice to see a society of drow that isn't "murder and torture, all the time!"
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Great OP!

FWIW, I've never associated drow with dark-skinned humans, much less anything african-american. I think I've always clearly described as coal-black with white hair and odd eyes color (yellow, red, pink...). Even though I have african-american friends with whom I've played D&D, no issue has ever come up about the drow color, or at least they didn't tell me... but naturally this is just a single person's experience.

The discussions these days have started to make me think there are two separate issues.

The first issue is certainly the black = evil equation. Black being associated with death or at least danger (i.e. darkness is dangerous) and therefore evil things in general is probably a very old idea in many cultures. It is going to be important to make sure the equation does not hold when it comes to the color of the skin. Besides WotC revisiting drows, what about having more white-colored evil creatures and black-colored good creatures?

The second issue is that of players' representation*. Worse than drow being black, is the fact that perhaps too many books depict elves (and halflings) as white by default, with rare exceptions. That's not good. Imagine an african-american or dark-skinned kid playing their first game of D&D, and being told how amazing elves are with their mastery of nature, magic and archery, and you can play one! Only for that kid to find no picture of elves to which they can identify to. I know that someone (white, of course) will jump up and say there are no pictures of white drow (or else) and so we're even... well, we're not even! A black kid receives the message that good elves are white, so if he wants to play a good elf, (s)he must imagine her/himself white, or alternatively play a good drow... except that it would be an outcast surrounded by lots of others as dark as her/him and all evil.

*this is not dissimilar to the issue of traditional lack of representation of female characters (although this was gradually improved at every new edition) or non-binary-gendered characters

I think it would be very beneficial if drow's "blackness" is clearly described to be nothing like human dark skin tones, and if at the same time we would get more artwork of elves/dwarves/halflings with said dark skin tones. WotC has already improved representation of non-white/westerner characters when depicting humans, maybe they need to do an effort for the same on the other traditional demihuman protagonists of the game.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
Reclaimed derogatory terms shouldn’t be used by people who have not been denigrated by them because they don’t have the proper context to understand exactly how it is offensive and how to use it inoffensively. Basically, don’t use bullying words if you don’t know how it feels to be bullied by them. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request at all.
Sure, but it is also not an unreasonable request to ask people understand use of a word is not necessarily derogatory. It works both ways.

And frankly, saying "don’t use bullying words if you don’t know how it feels to be bullied by them" sends the wrong message. People shouldn't be bullying others in any fashion.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Having Wildemount released, with its interpretation of the drow as moving away from Lolth's worship, adds a fresh perspective on the race. I still use drow as the classic villains depicted when I want to, but it is nice to see a society of drow that isn't "murder and torture, all the time!"
My interpretation of drow was shamelessly stolen from the elves of Primeval Thule. In that setting, the elves are addicted to a drug that makes them sleep. They become obsessed with the experience of sleeping and having true dreams rather than the mental exercises of Trance, and while away the centuries in slumber while their human servants attend to the needs of their unconscious bodies. I drew a parallel between this and drow poison (which causes sleep) and decided to adapt the concept to my own setting. My drow use a similar sleep-inducing drug, derived from the venom from a particular kind of spider native to the Underdark, which they also use to make drow poison. Though, in my setting rather than being a nearly culturally-ubiquitous addiction that’s slowly causing the collapse of their society, it is used for religious purposes, to connect with their goddess. In their myths, a spider goddess taught their ancestors how to make this drug, and dreaming is accordingly a religious experience for them. Of course, non-drow elves say it was a spider demon who deceived them, luring them away from the true gods with this addictive dreaming poison.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Sure, but it is also not an unreasonable request to ask people understand use of a word is not necessarily derogatory. It works both ways.
No. It is absolutely unreasonable to ask someone to just not be hurt by words that have been used to hurt them.

And frankly, saying "don’t use bullying words if you don’t know how it feels to be bullied by them" sends the wrong message. People shouldn't be bullying others in any fashion.
Obviously people shouldn’t be bullying others. But some people do. And some people who have been bullied feel comfortable using the words that their bullies used, in a new context. To paraphrase Game of Thrones, “Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” But if you haven’t been bullied by those words, then you lack the necessary experience to recontextualize those words, as some who have been bullied by them may. You can’t use it like armor, because it’s never been a weapon against you. You may not mean to use it hurtfulky, but you can’t use it defensively. So you shouldn’t use it, lest you unintentionally hurt someone who has been hurt by it before.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
No. It is absolutely unreasonable to ask someone to just not be hurt by words that have been used to hurt them.

Obviously people shouldn’t be bullying others. But some people do. And some people who have been bullied feel comfortable using the words that their bullies used, in a new context. To paraphrase Game of Thrones, “Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” But if you haven’t been bullied by those words, then you lack the necessary experience to recontextualize those words, as some who have been bullied by them may. You can’t use it like armor, because it’s never been a weapon against you. You may not mean to use it hurtfulky, but you can’t use it defensively. So you shouldn’t use it, lest you unintentionally hurt someone who has been hurt by it before.
I am not going to stop using words in a perfectly normal meaning of the word simply because someone I am talking to might have been hurt by it. If I use a word in a descriptive sense to describe one person to the other, and I learn that word is offensive, I'll certainly apologize, but I am not going to walk on eggshells for the rest of the world just in case the person I am speaking to or about might be offended.

And if a word is offensive to someone, even if they are using it "in a new context", they are giving me license to use it "in a new context" just as they are. To refuse that, is to differentiate themselves on purpose and deny my rights. Things don't have to be unfair for one side to be fair for the other. I feel if I am not allowed to use a perfectly good word in a non-derogatory manner, neither should they. I see it as perpetuating the problem, not helping resolve it.

It reminds me, years ago, when people started saying someone was "40 years young" instead of "40 years old" because some people didn't like to be reminded they are getting older. I still don't say people are "years young" even if they are 5 years old.

If you don't like my view, please don't bother replying to my posts about it. I doubt either of us will lose any sleep over it.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I am not going to stop using words in a perfectly normal meaning of the word simply because someone I am talking to might have been hurt by it. If I use a word in a descriptive sense to describe one person to the other, and I learn that word is offensive, I'll certainly apologize, but I am not going to walk on eggshells for the rest of the world just in case the person I am speaking to or about might be offended.
I mean, I guess that separates you from me. I'm someone who won't even say "Merry Christmas" to a stranger, because for all I know they're Jewish. If I did it probably wouldn't offend them anyway, but why say it when "Happy Holidays," captures the same well wishes?
 

Haldrik

Adventurer
I mean, I guess that separates you from me. I'm someone who won't even say "Merry Christmas" to a stranger, because for all I know they're Jewish. If I did it probably wouldn't offend them anyway, but why say it when "Happy Holidays," captures the same well wishes?
If a person is wearing a cross on a necklace, I make a point to wish them a Merry Christmas. If I cant tell, I say Happy Holidays, and keep in mind that that includes secular New Years Eve.

If they are wearing a Magen David, of course, I wish them a Happy Hanuka.
 

Eltab

Hero
I had gotten the impression, paging through the books and modules as my FLGS stocked them in the 1980s (but not interested enough to buy or play the adventures) that Gygax created the Drow to be the opposite of the familiar Tolkein elf image: dark-skinned instead of light-skinned, led by females instead of males, mean instead of benevolent, prone to betrayal instead of cooperative, foes instead of allies. The world turned topsy-turvy.

I'm going to have to read the OP again, more carefully than I did those early adventures.
 

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