Inspirational and Educational Reading
November 8, 2013 10:32 AM   Subscribe

"In Advanced Readings in D&D, Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today."

Covered so far:
-Robert E. Howard (using his "Red Nails" as a sample text)
-Poul Anderson (Three Hearts and Three Lions)
-Sterling E. Lanier (Hiero's Journey)
-Fritz Leiber (Swords Against Wizardry)
-Edgar Rice Burroughs (A Princess of Mars)
-Jack Vance (The Dying Earth)
-August Derleth (His Cthulhu Mythos stories)
-Roger Zelazny (Nine Princes in Amber)
-L. Sprague de Camp (Lest Darkness Fall)
-L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (The Carnelian Cube)
-Gardner Fox (Kothar of the Magic Sword)
-Andre Norton (Forerunner)
-Michael Moorcock (The Elric stories)
-Jack Williamson (The Humanoids)
-Lin Carter (The Warrior of World's End)
-John Bellairs (The Face in the Frost)
-Fred Saberhagen (Changeling Earth)
-Fredric Brown (His extremely short stories)
-Stanley G. Weinbaum ("A Martian Odyssey")
-Manly Wade Wellman (His short fiction)
-Fletcher Pratt again (The Blue Star)
-H.P. Lovecraft (The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and others)

Still to come: Leigh Brackett, Philip José Farmer, Abraham Merritt, Lord Dunsany, Andrew Offutt, Margaret St. Clair, and J.R.R. Tolkien
posted by Iridic (42 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Previously: Another look at Appendix N.)
posted by Iridic at 10:33 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah. Damn Vance and his fire-and-forget system.
posted by eclectist at 10:33 AM on November 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


/has rather a lot of "obscure" books.
posted by Artw at 10:38 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Robert E. Howard

...best known for Conan the Barbarian. For better or for worse, the stories that are about small groups of adventurers questing are the primary source texts for D&D. Red Nails isn't advanced study for D&D, it's remedial reading.

Besides the general swordplay and combat, there’s also a flight through the wilderness, a hidden city, creepy catacombs, warring factions, ritual sacrifice, and foul sorcery... there is a giant mega-dungeon; it hardly gets more D&D than that.

Similarly, I hear there's a fellow named Tolkien who wrote some stories that might inspire a DM.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:53 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Presumably they're saving him up. He's far less of an influence than the pulps IMHO, but he became everyone's idea of fantasy, so now people think he came up with everything.
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on November 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


Still to come: Leigh Brackett, Philip José Farmer, Abraham Merritt, Lord Dunsany, Andrew Offutt, Margaret St. Clair, and J.R.R. Tolkien
posted by LionIndex at 10:58 AM on November 8, 2013


Tolkien's influence on the content of D&D can certainly be felt; halflings were originally called hobbits for god's sake. Until the lawyers did their lawyer thing. But the feel of the original D&D is all Leiber and Howard and Vance and very little Tolkien. D&D is very much in the low fantasy tradition.
posted by Justinian at 11:04 AM on November 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


John Bellairs! Oh, wow, some fond memories there ...
posted by kyrademon at 11:14 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tolkien is an influence on D&D, sure, but that influence took the form of players in Gygax's group insisting on introducing Tolkien stuff and Gygax grudgingly allowing it. In particular, Gygax hated hobbits. This is a list of "Gary Gygax's favorite authors", so Tolkien gets left out.
posted by baf at 11:20 AM on November 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


No... Gygax avoids mentioning Tolkien for legal reasons... a cease-and-desist letter from the Tolkien Estate.

See Joh Peterson (Playing at the World), p. 118.
posted by mfoight at 11:26 AM on November 8, 2013


I was just about to mention Playing at the World. I'm like a fifth of the way through it and if something like these articles makes you yearn for more, it's the book for you.
posted by griphus at 11:29 AM on November 8, 2013


And by "more" I mean "considerably drier but researched to an astonishing degree."
posted by griphus at 11:30 AM on November 8, 2013


Well, here's what Gygax himself said about Tolkien's influence on D&D in 1974, long before the legal threats began:
Tolkien includes a number of heroic figures, but they are not of the "Conan" stamp. They are not larger-than-life swashbucklers who fear neither monster nor magic. His wizards are either ineffectual or else they lurk in their strongholds working magic spells which seem to have little if any effect while their gross and stupid minions bungle their plans for supremacy. Religion with its attendant gods and priests he includes not at all. These considerations, as well as a comparison of the creatures of Tolkien's writings with the models they were drawn from (or with a hypothetical counterpart desirable from a wargame standpoint) were in mind when Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons were created.

Take several of Tolkien's heroic figures for example. Would a participant in a fantasy game more readily identify with Bard of Dale? Aragorn? Frodo Baggins? or would he rather relate to Conan, Fafhrd, the Grey Mouser, or Elric of Melnibone? The answer seems all too obvious.
posted by baf at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey and it's sequel The Unforsaken Hiero served as the inspiration for much of my own Gamma World campaign back in the late late 80s. I recently re-read them and I thought they held up surprisingly well although that might just be the nostalgia talking.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:46 AM on November 8, 2013


This is awesome! Definitely some must reads.

I am reading Best of Lord Dunsay right now and really enjoying it. Looking forward to their take on him.
posted by meta87 at 11:47 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be honest, this really isn't that obscure a reading list, but rather a fairly represenative list of what you'd expect a seventies nerd like Gygax would read. And D&D itself was of course a product of the seventies fantasy boom, as many of the old pulp masters were being reprinted for new audiences.

What I'm missing in this list though is C. L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry is one of the classic pulp fantasy heroines.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:15 PM on November 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


Care to recommend anything specific from Dunsany? I love his imagination but tried and just couldn't get into actually reading his stories.
posted by griphus at 12:15 PM on November 8, 2013


"Would a participant in a fantasy game more readily identify with Bard of Dale? Aragorn? Frodo Baggins?"

Aragorn could be alright with a modern DM and wide latitude to stray from the character as written. Back in '78, though, the nuances would bog down the style of gameplay significantly.
posted by Ardiril at 12:23 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I were reading Zelazny for D&D, as much as I love Amber (and I've been co-GMing an Amber PBEM for, er, 12 years now), I'd go with Dilvish the Damned. Maybe it was the people I played with in the 80s, but the elves and half-elves I knew had a lot of Dilvish influence.
posted by immlass at 12:24 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Care to recommend anything specific from Dunsany?

For ironic vignettes: The Book of Wonder
For mythopoesis: The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods
For atmosphere and something like a plot: The King of Elfland's Daughter
posted by Iridic at 12:29 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Would a participant in a fantasy game more readily identify with Bard of Dale? Aragorn? Frodo Baggins?"

I don't know, there's a lot to be said story-wise for being all too "human" and personally failing in a grand quest despite destroying your body, your spirit, and your friends' lives. Gimme Frodo over Conan any day.
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:04 PM on November 8, 2013


Care to recommend anything specific from Dunsany? I love his imagination but tried and just couldn't get into actually reading his stories.

As Iridic suggests, the King of Elfland's Daughter. It is a very rich slice of prose, so do not be alarmed if you find it a little too heady at first. That happens.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:04 PM on November 8, 2013


Yeah. Damn Vance and his fire-and-forget system.

Vance wasn't designing a game system when he wrote The Dying Earth, so lay off him. He was a great writer, and his legacy extends much farther than the works that gave rise to D&D's magic system.

But more than that, the system works in D&D. Gygax took aspects from all these works and added them to his own game design skills and opinions. In Dying Earth, the magic system helps to give the story a unique flavor. Vancian magicians are not archmages, but more like rogues. In the story (actually, collection of stories), civilization has been around for millions of years, and the sun is about to burn out, so instead of creating new spells (the means of which have largely been lost) magicians go on quests to find old libraries and learn old spells. Such knowledge is very rare, and tends to be jealously hoarded by those who find it.

While the setting is different, what remains is a large part of the reason why D&D wizards adventure -- to find scrolls containing spells to scribe in their personal spellbooks. What is a one-use casting to other characters is a permanent increase in ability to a wizard, and a treasured piece of magical knowledge.

Beyond that, the spell-forgetting thing system isn't bad, but that's mostly if players have some way to determine which spells they'll be needing in a given day. Wizards already become overpowered at higher levels (the whole "linear fighters, quadratic wizards" thing), but if they could choose between any of the spells they've scribed when casting they'd be even worse. This at least forces them ahead of time to determine which of their many powers they have access to -- but that only works if players can make an informed decision. Ideally that becomes part of the information game, where players get hints while asking around in town or performing divination, but I think that didn't really get used that often.

(It's worth noting that, in the original version of the D&D rules, wizards were not weaker than other characters. They got a D6 hit die [like Fighting Men at that time] and could use any weapon [which all did D6 damage]. But they still couldn't wear armor, which is the main limitation on wizard viability.)
posted by JHarris at 1:46 PM on November 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Vancian magic really seems like it should have come from a game, is the weird thing...
posted by Artw at 1:52 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's totally weird. I could've sworn C.L. Moore was in appendix N, but she's not. Must've been the Mythus reading list.
posted by khaibit at 2:23 PM on November 8, 2013


a seventies nerd like Gygax would read

Gygax was born in 38' so he would have been reading this stuff in his teens in the 1940s and 50s. D&D was made originally for his children. Sort of like what's happening with Star Wars today (or about to happen with Disney), it gets passed down and takes new form for next generations.
posted by stbalbach at 3:02 PM on November 8, 2013


Looks like an interesting series of articles. I clicked on the only one I really cared about with trepidation, but it sounds like Tim Callahan was pleasantly surprised by the Fred Saberhagen novel and took it on its merits.

I came to Changeling Earth and the two preceding books of that YA fantasy trilogy in their collected form as Empire Of The East so from that perspective the reveal of Ardneh was effectively a repeat of the reveal of the Elephant in the first book, but on a larger scale. I remember being more taken by the true nature of Orcus and the other demons, as well as the character of Chup.

My conception of seventies sci/fantasy is pretty much templated on the Saberhagen fantasy novels, these and the Books of (Lost) Swords. Short <200 page novels aimed at a teen male audience, set in a long post-Apocalyptic Earth to which magic has returned, with a quote on the cover comparing it favourably to LotR are what I always think of. Obviously a lot of seventies genre fiction was nothing like that, but that's what I read and remember.

Gene Wolfe (who I haven't read) seems to have been rediscovered/re-appraised in recent years. It'd be nice if this article helped bubble up some other authors whose work is perhaps better read for the first time rather than an umpteenth plod through Tolkien/GRRM/Rowling (not that that doesn't have its joys). I always hate going in to bat for a favourite author or work, as I never feel like I can do them justice. Would love to hear what other MeFites have to say about Saberhagen or the really obscure names on this list.

(Here as in the 100 Best Books 1898 Post I'm not oblivious to the fact that revisiting and rediscovering published authors of years gone by has significant potential to reify historical exclusions of minority viewpoints by drowning out new voices but, oh God, I am already all over the place in this post and I haven't even mentioned Saberhagen's Dracula or Sherlock Holmes books which were apparently well regarded within fandom too).

tl;dr - Fred Saberhagen, and fresh eyes and brains on old work = good.
posted by comealongpole at 3:19 PM on November 8, 2013


I loved Saberhagen's Swords and Berserker books. I was pretty young when I read them. Buying Farslayer's Tale again, that was the one I remember liking best. Let's see how it holds up.

I'm liking reading these reviews but sometimes they seem quick to dismiss. For example the Zelazny review does not read like a fair chance was given. And a full letter grade taken off Tim Callahan for doing Dying Earth (or this list at all) and not reading a Cugel or Rhialto story I don't even.
posted by bleep-blop at 4:50 PM on November 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Dudes are kind of harshing on Elric.
posted by newdaddy at 4:59 PM on November 8, 2013


I'm liking reading these reviews but sometimes they seem quick to dismiss.

Yeah — and sometimes just too quickly evaluative in general, instead of being more descriptive or doing more contextualizing. I love the concept of the series, and I get that they're just blog posts and not trying to be the final word on anything, but even given that, it'd be nice to see them spend a little more time situating what they read around D&D and less time just giving the thumbs-up or -down. Some of the posts get into more interesting detail about this than others, but what Gygax took and what he left behind, or what in a given work couldn't be adapted easily into game rules and why, really is the most interesting subject here.
posted by RogerB at 5:07 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great post!

Part of me thinks that the Dark Sun campaign owed a hell of a lot to Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique cycle.
posted by Renoroc at 6:18 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "Dudes are kind of harshing on Elric."

Elric unfortunately gets a bad rap now that the type of character he is has turned into a cliche. I think it's important to keep in mind when reading those books (at least as an adult) that it was a wildly innovative notion in fantasy literature when Moorcock was writing it.
posted by kyrademon at 3:09 AM on November 9, 2013


Elric unfortunately gets a bad rap now that the type of character he is has turned into a cliche. I think it's important to keep in mind when reading those books (at least as an adult) that it was a wildly innovative notion in fantasy literature when Moorcock was writing it.

I recently saw the 1931 Dracula, which is the source of a lot of our (and D&D's) free-floating vampire mythos. I've seen Nosferatu, the 1922 German vampire film, which is very different. For a start, the vampire is repulsive and disgusting. I don't know that most of the people who saw the Lugosi version in 1931 would have seen it or know anything about it. Trying to imagine what it must have been like to see Lugosi as the hypnotic, attractive vampire without the 80+ years (~50 years when I was a kid and imprinted on Love at First Bite, which was a sendup of the Lugosi film) of accreted reactions to the film was very difficult. Elric is the same way.
posted by immlass at 8:00 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Appendix N is something like a huge shadow over my reading tastes. I've been meaning to get my DMG out for a decade and have a look-see.

This is going to blow out my wishlist.
posted by Mezentian at 9:10 AM on November 9, 2013


I read Jack Vance for the first time just recently, and I was pretty blown away. In general, I'm not well-read when it comes to fantasy. I do enjoy me some D&D, though. It looks like this could be a helpful list.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2013


Tor.com are also doing an Elric reread.
posted by Artw at 11:46 AM on November 9, 2013


So pleased to be reminded to read Lanier's Hiero again.
posted by meehawl at 3:26 PM on November 9, 2013


Part of me thinks that the Dark Sun campaign owed a hell of a lot to Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique cycle.

I was logging in specifically to express my surprise at not seeing Clark Ashton Smith on that list. I was an adult before I'd ever participated in a D&D campaign, and after years of tracking down old Weird Tales/Lovecraft Circle stuff, I found having read a lot of his writing gave me a stronger frame of reference than Tolkien, maybe even Howard.
posted by Rustmouth Snakedrill at 8:17 PM on November 9, 2013


Also, stoked to see Manly Wade Wellman on the list, but the Tor guys pretty much hit the nail on the head re: why he isn't more widely read.
posted by Rustmouth Snakedrill at 8:21 PM on November 9, 2013


(Just popping in to say that I'm firmly in the pro-Gene Wolfe camp...... Read the executioner series for the first time a few years ago, and found it to be one of the most imaginative... somethings... that I'd read in the fantasy genre in a long time. I tend to be more a science fiction guy, though, and a major conceit of the book is that it starts as fantasy but it reveals itself over time to be science fiction in disguise. So that probably helped a lot.)
posted by kaibutsu at 9:24 PM on November 9, 2013


Beautiful D&D Maps Recount Days of Adventure (Previously)
posted by homunculus at 3:33 PM on November 10, 2013


I am working though this, and if you think they are being mean to Elric... well, poor old L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. They seem to be the whipping boys of choice.
And having had the misfortune to read their Compleat Enchanter series series in the year, everything they lay as charges at the feet of The Carnelian Cube applied to that series.
posted by Mezentian at 7:30 PM on November 23, 2013


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