This post is about the late 19th century theory that European stories about fairies, dwarves, and similar "little people" were based on a real non-white people who had inhabited the continent. Several Appendix N authors — HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, and Abraham Merritt — used this idea in their published works. Howard and Merritt wrote stories in which diminutive fantasy races and these imagined indigenes are portrayed as one and the same.
This post is not claiming that the theory of "little people" euhemerism (the idea that a myth is rooted in fact) is true. However Appendix N authors, and even Gary Gygax, believed it to be true. It therefore has a bearing on whether fantasy races in D&D can be considered to be based on real world peoples.
Popularisation of the Theory
The existence of Pygmies became known to Europeans in the 1870s. Carole G Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples
Travelers and "scientists"... saw the Pygmies' appearance and behavior as analagous to those of supernatural dwarfs... Sir Harry Johnston... remarks that Pygmies remind him "over and over again of the traits attributed to the brownies and goblins of our fairy stories"... Another traveler comments that the behavior of a group of Pygmies is reminiscent "of the descriptions of gnomes and elves in European legends"... Sidney Hinde describes Pygmies as "small demons" and "gnome-like beings," whose "seemingly magical appearance" and ability to vanish make him "almost doubt their being human" (pg 136)
This gave added weight to the theory of "little people" euhemerism popularised by folklorist David MacRitchie. Strange and Secret Peoples
MacRitchie's hypothesis that the fairies of Scotland and Ireland were really non-Aryan, Finno-Ugaric peoples... — that there had been little, yellow, slant-eyed dwarfs all over northern Europe — now seemed plausible. (pg 138)
Building on the work of all who came before him, David MacRitchie popularized what came to be known as the "pygmy theory" in his important and controversial book, The Testimony of Tradition (1890). His argument was reiterated and further elaborated in Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893). Buttressing his case with philological, topographical, traditional, and historical proofs, MacRitchie correlated fairy lore with the archeological remains of underground abodes as evidence for the existence of an ancient, dwarflike non-Aryan race in England. The idea was not new, but the development of archaeology as a science and the increased exploration of prehistoric sites gave MacRitchie's new euhemerism a force beyond the theoretical. A sort of Victorian Thor Hyerdahl, he crawled through and diagrammed mounds and tunnels to prove the validity of his assertions.
The heart of MacRitchie's argument was that the Finno-Ugrian or Mongol peoples (including the Lapps) were also the Fians (the race preceding the Scots) and the Picts of Irish and Scottish history, and that they had coexisted with the other inhabitants of England until at least the eleventh century. Skilled in medicine, magic, and masonry, they inhabited concealed underground earth houses — later known as fairy hills or fairy forts — and sophisticated chambered mounds like Maes-Howe in the Orkneys or New Grange and the other mounds at Boyne. (pgs 47-48)
From MacRitchie to Appendix N
Lovecraft and Howard were familiar with the work of the Welsh horror writer, Arthur Machen, who had read MacRitchie. Ian Duncan, Spawn of Ossian
in the collection Global Romanticism
Lovecraft liberally acknowledged the influence on his work of Machen's "fantastic lore of lurking 'little people,'" referring to an earlier, emphatically British invention of a sinister alien nation nested beneath our everyday reality... On the remote hillsides of the Celtic fringe the protagonists of Machen's tales stumble across the traces of hideous survivals of a subhuman pygmy race of "prehistoric Turanian inhabitants of the country," the traumatic memory of which has been laundered over the millennia into folk legends of quaint or mischievous "little people." Emerging at night from their underground lairs to kidnap and molest local lasses, Machen's aboriginal troglodytes are a depraved antination, a primal horde that manifests itself to civilized onlookers as an abhorrent, pullulating reversion to "the black swamp whence man first came."...
Machen, in turn, took his cue from the late-Victorian popular ethnologist David MacRitchie… MacRitchie popularized the euhemeristic thesis that folk traditions of fairies, brownies, pixies, and other "little people" preserved the collective memory of a diminutive prehistoric "Mongoloid race" or "Ugrian race of Finns" that infested the British Isles before the advent of the Celts. (pgs 14-15)
"Turanian" is an outdated term for Central Asian peoples.
Howard and Merritt
Robert E Howard, The Children of the Night
"When Von Junzt speaks of Picts, he refers specifically to the small, dark, garlic-eating peoples of Mediterranean blood who brought the Neolithic culture into Britain. The first settlers of that country, in fact, who gave rise to the tales of earth spirits and goblins."
"I can not agree to that last statement," said Conrad. "These legends ascribe a deformity and inhumanness of appearances to the characters. There was nothing about the Picts to excite such horror and repulsion in the Aryan peoples. I believe that the Mediterraneans were preceded by a Mongoloid type, very low in the scale of development, whence these tales –– "
"Quite true," broke in Kirowan, "but I hardly think they preceded the Picts, as you call them, into Britain. We find troll and dwarf legends all over the Continent, and I am inclined to think that both the Mediterranean and Aryan peoples brought these tales with them from the Continent. They must have been of extremely inhuman aspect, those early Mongoloids."...
Humans they were, of a sort, though I did not consider them so. They were short and stocky, with broad heads too large for their scrawny bodies. Their hair was snaky and stringy, their faces broad and square, with flat noses, hideously slanted eyes, a thin gash for a mouth, and pointed ears…
These Children of the Night seemed not human to us, with their deformed dwarfish bodies, yellow skin and hideous faces. Aye – they were reptiles – vermin…
I had never before seen a village of the Children. There was a cluster of earthen domes, with low doorways sunk into the ground; squalid dwelling-places, half above and half below the earth. And I knew from the talk of the old warriors that these dwelling-places were connected by underground corridors, so the whole village was like an ant-bed, or a system of snake holes. And I wondered if other tunnels did not run off under the ground and emerge long distances from the villages.
Abraham Merritt, Dwellers in the Mirage
I bent over the little man. His eyes were open; he was glaring up at me. Like his skin, his eyes were yellow, tilted, Mongolian. They seemed to have no pupils, and they were not wholly human…
"It's the food of the Yunwi Tsundsi you're eating. Fairy food, Leif! You can never eat mortal food again."...
Whence had the Little People come into the Shadowed-land? And where had they learned that ancient tongue? I asked myself that, and answered that as well ask how it came that the Sumerians, whose great city the Bible calls Ur of the Chaldees, spoke a Mongolian language. They, too, were a dwarfish race, masters of strange sorceries, students of the stars...
"The Yunwi Tsundsi — the Little People — how long have they dwelt here?"
Gary Gygax said:
The early English folklore had elves akin to small humans, likely based on the Picts, and called stone arrowheads they found 'elf bolts'.
Gary Gygax said:
As I envisage them, the Wild Elves are more or less just that. [Picts]
It should be noted that, in contrast with other versions of "little people" euhemerism, we don't know whether Gygax considered Picts to be non-white.