VI: TSR & Dungeon History ~ The Year 1973 (Part III)

It’s turtles all the way down …

TSR & Dungeon History:

The Year 1973 (Part III)

In today’s blog post, we journey into the mists in search of the Unknown: the truth behind Gary Gygax’s use of Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds essays in the development of Dungeons & Dragons.

Special Addendum:

The Lin Carter Connection


“As for Lin Carter’s work, I fear I have nothing positive to say, for I didn’t like his style.”

Gary Gygax


Gary Gygax’s 1973 debt to Lin Carter is a bit curious. Gygax (perhaps grudgingly) in 1979 would feature Carter’s World’s End series in his Appendix N essay of suggested reading and inspirational influences toward the development of Dungeons & Dragons. And Gygax was absolutely aware of Carter’s authority on matters of fantasy, because he (Gary) had been following all major releases in fantasy and science fiction for decades, and Carter (in the 1969-1974 era) was reawakening a widespread interest in these genres by way of his finely curated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.


“We are all exposed to fantasy as children through the medium of fairy tales, and now as adults we are treated to many of the more mature stories of the genre, such as those being presented by Ballantine Books in their Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter.”

Gary Gygax


There was also a massive 1960s-engendered Tolkien audience that was losing the beloved master – Tolkien would soon die on September 2, 1973 – and readers were insatiably hungry for quality fantasy tales and mythic world sagas old and new.

Lin Carter worked as a curator and selector, deciding which fantasy tales to highlight through major re-publication via Ballantine. He also worked as an editor, providing sharp insights and valuable context for each selection’s place in the wider genre. As a fiction writer informed by such wisdom, he emulated what he admired … although his style was often deemed artificial due to being overly derivative, a tendency which made his stories inconsistently appealing for many.

As a non-fiction writer, he wrote some very important books and essays that Gary – perhaps out of a sense of rivalry, envy, or simple distaste – apparently glossed over or simply refused to mention.

These included Tolkien: A Look Behind “The Lord of the Rings” (March 1969); multiple short story anthologies such as Dragons, Elves, and Heroes and The Spawn of Cthulhu (1969-1972); many introductions to books in BAF the series; and most importantly, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy (June 1973).

Imaginary Worlds is interesting from a D&D design perspective not only because of its publication date, but also because it is an early, foundational, serious, and sincere critical celebration of fantasy fiction in general, and Swords & Sorcery fiction in particular. If Gary somehow missed this important new book directly in his current field of interest, at the precise time when he was devising his Arneson co-authored fantasy role-playing game, it must have been because he was deliberately trying to avoid it. (Exactly when he would have seen it, however, remains open to question.)


“Some of us awake in the night with strange phantasms of enchanted hills and gardens, of fountains that sing in the sun, of golden cliffs overhanging murmuring seas, of plains that stretch down to sleeping cities of bronze and stone, and of shadowy companies of heroes that ride caparisoned white horses along the edges of thick forests, and then we know that we have looked back through the ivory gates into that world of wonder that was ours, before we were wise and unhappy.”

H. P. Lovecraft


In Carter’s Introduction entitled “The Empire of Imagination” (sound familiar?) he cites magic as the single most important uniting element in fantasy fiction, and goes on to say:


“A fantasy is a book or story, then, in which magic really works — not a fairytale, not a story written for children, like Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz, but a work of fiction written for adults — a story which challenges the mind, which sets it working.”

Lin Carter


This is interesting to read as an echo likely reflected in Gary’s introductory “Forward” (Foreword) to original Dungeons & Dragons, written in November 1973, where he welcomes readers too, in his own words:


“Read on and enjoy a ‘world’ where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!”

Gary Gygax


Hmm. This bit of mirroring makes the contents of Imaginary Worlds worthy of some rather more intensive consideration.

Selected works and authors discussed by Carter in the 280-odd pages of Imaginary Worlds include, but are by no means limited to:

[1] The Arabian Nights (which would also feature as well in the Harold Shea tales, which Gary admired; and when considered by Gary in 1973, would inspire monsters such as the djinn, efreet, and roc, as well as adventures in the fabled City of Brass).

[2] The Kalevala (featuring Lemminkainen, a mythic character that Gary would admire enough to inspire his own magic-user character, Mordenkainen).

[3] Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, featuring a war between trolls and elves of faerie.

[4] William Beckford’s Vathek, where we find Daoud and other glimpses of fantastical intrigue that will later find their way into Lost Caverns of Tsojconth (1976) and more particularly Dungeon Module S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1982).

[5] Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars; with John Carter being cited in Gary’s Foreword to D&D as a major inspiration. Soon, Gygax and Blume would author a D&D-adjacent game called Warriors of Mars, too.

[6] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and so forth; the inspiration for Greyhawk shenanigans later chronicled in EX1 Dungeonland and EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror.

[7] De Camp and Pratt (the Harold Shea tales), including not only the Arabian Nights allusions but also the giant tales that we have discussed which inspired the Giant Foemen Dungeon Modules G1, G2, and G3.

[8] Lord Dunsany (The Gods of Pegana), inspiring Gygaxian depictions of chaotic gods and godlike powers (often of cursed or infernal intent).

[9] William Hope Hodgson (The House on the Borderland), concerning an invasion of orc-like creatures (Swine Things) and dimensional gates, which would later inspire aspects of module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands.

[10] Robert E. Howard (the Kull and Conan tales), one of the major foundations of Chainmail Fantasy and D&D as a whole. Along with …

[11] Fritz Leiber (the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales), a huge inspiration on Gary’s conception of city-based adventurers who dare the Thieves’ Guild as well as the Unknown.

[12] C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), a project which Gary apparently didn’t much care for, although it seems likely that he drew the Svirfneblin concept from L. Frank Baum and also Lewis’s The Silver Chair.

[13] H. P. Lovecraft (the Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands tales), dominating the crucial weird core of D&D’s dangerous magics, subterranean labyrinths, and monstrous entities.

[14] Abraham Merritt (The Moon Pool ), entertaining the concept of lost and sinister – occasionally amphibian – races lurking in the subterranean world.

[15] Michael Moorcock (the Elric tales), a saga which of course is all about the drow-like Melniboneans, Chaos, demon lords, bizarre monsters, dimensional travel, and sentient swords.

[16] Andre Norton (the Witch World series), who would in the future be inspired by Gary to write a Greyhawk / Great Kingdom novel entitled Quag Keep.

[17] J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), the grand Professor who forever stands alongside Howard and Lovecraft as perhaps the most influential author inspiring Dungeons & Dragons.

[18] Jack Vance (The Dying Earth), Gary’s own favorite author, inspiring magic-users, thieves, and many spells and more esoteric things besides. (Ask me sometime about the “Lord Gygax” appearing in Vance’s work, and Gary’s later pleasure of that fact, an event also from this approximate time period …)


“Reading one of Jack’s SF novels, I came upon a ‘Lord Gygax’ therein. I immediately phoned and complained that I had not appeared as a vicious ‘Starmeter’, merely a luckless noble. Mr. Vance turned a deaf ear to my implorations, and sadly ‘Lord Gygax’ has never returned in some greater and more adventurous role in his stories. Drat! Now that would be what I consider as real fame …”

Gary Gygax


[19] Roger Zelazny (Jack of Shadows), an inspiration for the thief class, shades, and the realm of shadow.

Update 5/1/2022: Darrold Wagner, the original creator of the thief class, was kind enough to let me know that Jack of Shadows was not one of his personal inspirations for the stealthy archetype: “I invented the thief class. Leiber’s Gray Mouser, Vance’s Cugel, and of course The Hobbit. Nothing from Amber [Zelazny’s works].” Therefore, Gary Gygax’s ties between Jack of Shadows and the thief class would be solely his own, at a later date, after Darrold conceived the class in its original form. See also The Manual of Aurania.

[20] Weird Tales in general, where Gary’s love of the fantastic took root several decades prior.

All in all, it’s quite a primer on the nature of inspirational fantasy world building. Carter discusses the importance of all of these and more, at the same time that bookstore-prowling Gary was creating his own game while also picking up every new and noteworthy fantasy book that he could find.

Gary would use these works to build D&D in 1973 and beyond. Granted, Gary was probably aware of many of these tales through his own incessant reading, but he was also undoubtedly noting that Carter was stressing the importance of these works in the realm of unreal world creation as well. Envisioning Gary as being wholly unaware of Imaginary Worlds is a notion that strains credulity, I would think.

Therein, we find three chapters in particular that are of critical importance when we consider the 1973 writing and design of D&D. We find Carter discussing topics such as the ethos of Law and Chaos:


“This theme of Order (or Law, or Creation) against Chaos,” we read, “is a favorite one with modern authors of Sword & Sorcery. Poul Anderson used it in Three Hearts and Three Lions, Michael Moorcock uses it in his Elric stories, Brunner employs it in The Traveler in Black, and I have used it myself in my Lemurian books … the theme has become by now part of the tradition of the whole Sword & Sorcery school.”

Lin Carter


Perhaps the most prophetic chapter of Imaginary Worlds from a D&D perspective would be Chapter 9, “Of World-Making: Some Problems of the Invented Milieu.” Therein, Carter discusses reader investment in the story role of dragon-slaying heroes (pp. 175-176), evoking belief in dragons and the willing suspension of disbelief (pg. 176), fantasy adventures which take place in the post-apocalyptic far future (pp. 178-179), the value in creating maps to explore the emerging fantasy world (pp. 180-181), and “constructing an imaginary milieu for purposes of fantasy” (pg. 188). All of these things would be on Gary’s mind as he refereed the Greyhawk play test campaign and created the drafts of Dungeons & Dragons to be sure.

Later in Chapter 11, “The Tricks of the Trade: Some Advanced Techniques of World-Making,” Carter explains the importance of fantasy magic working as an inherently codified system (pg. 214); Jack Vance’s own magic system, involving the capacity of a mage’s memory to hold spells, and the deletion / forgetting of spells when they are cast (pp. 214-215); Vancian magic items with depleting charges (pg. 216); and a summary of the Edgar Rice Burroughs approach to creating new monsters, in regards to his own Barsoom / Mars methodology.

Pretty thought-provoking from a D&D design perspective, I daresay? The question becomes less “Did Gary read Imaginary Worlds while he was writing the game?” and more “Why would Gary only credit Lin Carter in Appendix N for the World’s End novels, and not for his non-fiction essays on fantasy literature and world building?”

I believe it is further fair to say that Imaginary Worlds was very much on Gary Gygax’s mind when he was play testing and revising Dungeons & Dragons in the summer and then the autumn of 1973. To the point that we should probably consider Lin Carter as being one of the unwitting contributors to the D&D game in its pre-publication form.

Mister Carter, we salute you as one of the essential grandfathers of the game.

If only you and Gary would have collaborated at some point along this reality’s fragile timeline … I am certain that your co-imagined worlds would have been amazing to behold.

Tales don’t merely grow in the telling. They shape-shift.

In our next exploration of 1973, we will delve into Conan, Gen Con, the founding of TSR, and “Tolkien Wargaming”.

The Castle Oldskull blog research chronology will continue in Part IV.

Stay tuned.

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