The Imaginary Book that Spawned "Necessary" Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons has adopted many different beasts into from folklore and legend into its bestiaries, but some diverge considerably from common lore. For a hint at what likely inspired co-creator Gary Gygax to uniquely represent certain monsters in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, we look to Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings.

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There are surely a wide variety of sources that inspired Gygax to pepper his Monster Manual with beasts fantastic and imagined, but the Book of Imaginary Beings has a hidden easter egg of sorts that reveals its influence: the peryton.

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The Peryton

Here's what Borges has to say about perytons:
The Sibyl of Erythraea, it is said, foretold that the city of Rome would finally be destroyed by the Perytons. In the year a.d. 642 the record of the Sibyl's prophecies was consumed in the great conflagration of Alexandria; the grammarians who undertook the task of restoring certain charred fragments of the nine volumes apparently never came upon the special prophecy concerning the fate of Rome. In time it was deemed necessary to find a source that would throw greater light upon this dimly remembered tradition. After many vicissitudes it was learned that in the sixteenth century a rabbi from Fez (in all likelihood Jakob Ben Chaim) had left behind a historical treatise in which he quoted the now lost work of a Greek scholiast, which included certain historical facts about the Perytons obviously taken from the oracles before the Library of Alexandria was burned by Omar. The name of the learned Greek has not come down to us...
The peryton is an oddball creature, even by D&D's standards. Ecohawk traces their lineage throughout D&D in his Monster ENCyclopedia series:
Originating from Atlantis, perytons have the head and legs of a deer, but the body and wings of a large bird. They have dark green or light blue feathers and fly in flocks, swooping down to kill. Perytons like to mangle their victims and wallow in the resulting gore, but strangely, they have also been observed eating dirt. Normal weapons have no effect on a peryton. Uncannily, a peryton casts the shadow of a man. Some suggest that this means they are the spirits of travellers who have died far from home. Others that they are the mortal foes of humans, and only once they kill a man does their shadow become that of their own form.
There's just one detail that Borges left out: he made it all up. Before Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, there were no perytons. He invented them, creating his own mythology along with other creatures borrowed from literature and myth. The peryton's inclusion in the Monster Manual makes it very likely that Gygax was inspired by the book to create his own bestiary. Reviewing the monsters in the volume reveal other influences.

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The Basilisk

D&D's basilisk is not like the typical cock/snake hybrid. Instead, it's a reptilian monster with multiple legs -- a far cry from the serpentine monster of typical myth. Borges mentions this:
One of the plates illustrating Aldrovandi’s Natural History of Serpents and Dragons gives the Basilisk scales instead of feathers, and the use of eight legs. (According to the Younger Edda, Odin’s horse Sleipnir also had eight legs.)
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The Catoblepas

The catoblepas' inclusion in the Monster Manual is curious; mechanically, it's one of the "horrendous gaze" monsters but a lot clumsier. Echohawk explains:
That initial description doesn't pull any punches when it comes to detailing how vile and despicable the catoblepas is. It is described as a "totally loathsome creature" with "absolutely no redeeming features". It has a "horrid head" perched on the end of a long neck, a "hideous face" and is "uglier than a warthog". It is also gifted with a snake-like tail capable of swift attacks. These characteristics are theorised to be evolutionary changes resulting from its marshy environment, but it isn't clear why a swamp-dweller would need to be so utterly disgusting as a survival mechanism.
This description is quite close to the second description of the catoblepas in Borges' work:
Catoblepas, in Greek, means ‘that which looks downward’. The French naturalist Cuvier has conjectured that the gnu (contaminated by the basilisk and the gorgon) suggested the Catoblepas to the ancients. At the close of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert describes it and has it speak in this way: black buffalo with the head of a hog, hanging close to the ground, joined to its body by a thin neck, long and loose as an emptied intestine. It wallows in the mud, and its legs are smothered under the huge mane of stiff bristles that hide its face.
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The Chimera

Like the basilisk, the D&D chimera is a very specific interpretation of the legend. Most representations show the chimera as a lion- and goat-headed beast with a snake tail. But D&D has a lion, goat, and dragon head. Borges seems like an inspiration:
A lion’s head, goat’s belly, and serpent’s tail is the most obvious image conveyed by Homer’s words, but Hesiod’s Theogony describes the Chimera as having three heads, and this is the way it is depicted in the famous Arezzo bronze that dates from the fifth century. Springing from the middle of the animal’s back is the head of a goat, while at one end it has a snake’s head and at the other a lion’s. The Chimera reappears in the sixth book of the Aeneid, ‘armed with flame’; Virgil’s commentator Servius Honoratus observed that, according to all authorities, the monster was native to Lycia, where there was a volcano bearing its name. These absurd hypotheses are proof that the Chimera was beginning to bore people. Easier than imagining it was to translate it into something else. As a beast it was too heterogeneous; the lion, goat, and snake (in some texts, dragon) do not readily make up a single animal.
The three heads, the fire breath, and the dragon head all appear in Borges' description.

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The Doppelganger

Doppelgangers are an interesting case. The name seems to more exotic than "Double" (Borges' entry) or the more mythologically-common "Fetch." Borges explains them as:
Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called Doppelgänger, which means ’double walker’.
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The Golem

The golem is traditionally associated with a very specific legend. Borges succinctly summarizes how the golem worked, which are both included by Gygax -- a construct made of clay and its propensity for going berserk:
‘Golem’ was the name given to the man created by combinations of letters; the word means, literally, a shapeless or lifeless clod...The Golem’s fame in the West is owed to the work of the Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink, who in the fifth chapter of his dream novel Der Golem writes: It is said that the origin of the story goes back to the seventeenth century. According to lost formulas of the Kabbalah, a rabbi [Judah Loew ben Bezabel] made an artificial man - the aforesaid Golem - so that he would ring the bells and take over all the menial tasks of the synagogue. He was not a man exactly, and had only a sort of dim, half-conscious, vegetative existence. By the power of a magic tablet which was placed under his tongue and which attracted the free sidereal energies of the universe, this existence lasted during the daylight hours. One night before evening prayer, the rabbi forgot to take the tablet out of the Golem’s mouth, and the creature fell into a frenzy, running out into the dark alleys of the ghetto and knocking down those who got in his way, until the rabbi caught up with him and removed the tablet. At once the creature fell lifeless. All that was left of him is the dwarfish clay figure that may be seen today in the New Synagogue.
Beyond the clay golem, Borges provides fertile ground for the iron golem under the talos entry:
Living beings made of metal or stone make up some of fantastic zoology’s most alarming species. Let us recall the angry bulls with brass feet and horns that breathed flames and that Jason, helped by the magic arts of Medea, yoked to the plough; Condillac’s psychological statue of sensitive marble; the boatman in the Arabian Nights, ‘a man of brass with a tablet of lead on his breast inscribed with talismans and characts’, who rescued the third Kalandar from the Magnet Mountain; the ‘girls of mild silver, or of furious gold’, which a goddess in William Blake’s mythology caught in silken nets for the delight of her lover; and the metal birds who nursed Ares.
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The Manticore

Like the chimera, the manticore is traditionally shown as a human-headed tiger-like monster with a scorpion's tail. D&D's manticore instead throws spikes. Borges might be why:
Flaubert has improved upon this description, and in the last pages of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, we read: The Manticore a gigantic red lion with a human face and three rows of teeth. ‘The iridescence of my scarlet hide blends into the shimmering brightness of the desert sands. Through my nostrils I exhale the horror of the lonely places of the earth. I spit out pestilence. I consume armies when they venture into the desert. ‘My nails are twisted into talons, like drills, and my teeth are cut like those of a saw; my restless tail prickles with darts, which I shoot left and right, before me, behind. Watch!’ The Manticore shoots the quills of its tail, which spread out like arrows on every hand. Drops of blood drip down, spattering the leaves of the trees.
Perhaps the most powerful influence of Borges isn't on the monsters themselves, but the Monster Manual. Gygax's somewhat academic approach to monsters reads a lot like Borges' work, which is filled with tantalizing bits of lore that are left to the imagination. As Swords & Stitchery explains:
But another interesting parallel between Book of Imaginary Beings and the AD&D first edition Monster Manual is the way that Borges intended for readers to read the book; "Borges states that the book is to be read "as with all miscellanies... not... straight through... Rather we would like the reader to dip into the pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope"; and that "legends of men taking the shapes of animals" have been omitted.
In many ways, Gygax's Monster Manual and its descendants are continuing Borges' work. Borges claims that:
We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.
Thanks to D&D and its influence on popular culture, several of the other "ephemeral or accidental" creatures can now claim to be "necessary monsters."
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
AD&D 2nd has got a lot of creatures should be rescued from oblivion.

And the European folklore, not only British Isles and Norse but also Latin-language countries have got a rich mythology with many fae creatures.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
It is very clear that Gygax leaned heavily on the Borges's descriptions for many monsters and the peryton is the big flag. On the other hand, Borges' Bahamut in the Book of Imaginary Beings is very different from Gygax's.
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
That look of exaggerated surprise on the doppelganger is leaving me in stitches.

Which adventurer is meant to take it seriously? If laughter could kill that doppelganger would be it.
 

Lucas Yew

Explorer
I genuinely wonder if this Borges character is the reason why D&D's Lamia population ended up with the unconventional lion halves instead of snake ones.

Not to mention those unheard-of bovine Gorgons separate from Medusa"e".
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
That look of exaggerated surprise on the doppelganger is leaving me in stitches.

Which adventurer is meant to take it seriously? If laughter could kill that doppelganger would be it.
I guess the doppelganger is surprised that somebody saw it without a disguise (naked as it were). By the way: Although the associated verb of "Gänger" (gehen) can mean walker, it simply means "to go" in this case. Thus Doppelgänger is the one who goes double, not the one who walks double!
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
That look of exaggerated surprise on the doppelganger is leaving me in stitches.

Which adventurer is meant to take it seriously? If laughter could kill that doppelganger would be it.
They caught the poor guy in his natural form. For a doppelganger that's got to be like somebody snapping a pic of you when you're naked.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
I genuinely wonder if this Borges character is the reason why D&D's Lamia population ended up with the unconventional lion halves instead of snake ones.

Not to mention those unheard-of bovine Gorgons separate from Medusa"e".
My guess is that the D&D "gorgons" were inspired by the fire-breathing bulls (khalkotauroi) of the Argonautica.
 

dave2008

Hero
I genuinely wonder if this Borges character is the reason why D&D's Lamia population ended up with the unconventional lion halves instead of snake ones.

Not to mention those unheard-of bovine Gorgons separate from Medusa"e".
I don't know about the Lamia, but here is a pretty good explanation of the Gorgon (first reply): The History of 4-Footed Beasts

EDIT: Actually the D&D Lamia is also from that book!
 
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lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Great piece!

I do think that while some of the bits are spot on and perfect evidence (for example, the peryton!), I am not convinced by others.

Doppelgangers, for example, are pretty well-established outside of Borges, and are a common-enough term - first popularized by ETA Hoffmann (but used prior) that I find it hard to believe that Gygax sourced that one from Borges.
 

Aaron L

Adventurer
AD&D 2nd has got a lot of creatures should be rescued from oblivion.

And the European folklore, not only British Isles and Norse but also Latin-language countries have got a rich mythology with many fae creatures.

I agree; I've been going over the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendiums volumes 1 and 2 and thinking about all the various creatures in them, including the fae, that should be converted.
 

darjr

I crit!

PabloM

Explorer
Borges' reading is almost obligatory for any rpg player, not only for his famous "Libro de los seres imaginarios" ("Book of Imaginary Beings"), but also because his literature evokes the most fantastic passages through which a person can travel. The journey through its pages transforms the reader, as if the experience make her... level up.
 

Ravenbrook

Explorer
I agree; I've been going over the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendiums volumes 1 and 2 and thinking about all the various creatures in them, including the fae, that should be converted.
I always had a particular fondess for the nasty fay, such as the mites, snyads, and jermlaine.
 

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