XIX: Gygaxian Frost Giants ~ Part I: Into the Frostlands (1978)

Having vanquished the lesser giants who imperiled Asgard, the mighty Thor – with some reluctance – battled then against the frost giants, who some say, are half-brother Loki’s kin …

Intruders and foemen! Hail, brave and foolhardy ones alike. I hope you are all doing well in these trying times and continuing to enjoy your old school gaming with friends and family. My house almost burned down on July 4 due to others launching illegal fireworks and burning our wetland, but we’re OK – the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department evacuated us – and now I’m happy to get back to RPG blogging.

For today’s new feature at CastleOldskull.com, we’re going to explore Gary Gygax’s classic 1978 Conan-inspired dungeon module, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.

“Fie, English-Bloodman,” booms the frost giant, “art thou that villain who killed my kinsmen? Then I will tear thee with my teeth, suck thy blood, and grind thy bones to powder …” Follow in, sword high, if you dare …

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My family and I greatly appreciate your generosity. And now, on to our frost giant lore!

Once on a time, when the gods were constructing their abodes and had already finished Midgard and Valhalla, a certain artificer came and offered to build them a residence so well fortified that they should be perfectly safe from the incursions of the frost giants and the giants of the mountains …

How Thor Paid the Mountain Giant His Wages, as featured in Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch, 1855

Today, we begin to explore the secret lore behind Gary Gygax’s classic dungeon module G2, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.

If you missed my series detailing the secrets of G1, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, you can continue your explorations of the Joten-Lands here:

The second module in the G series — if we regard it as a sequel to G1, and not a standalone scenario — begins with a presumption of near-total victory by the adventurers. The bloodthirsty plunderers (I mean, heroes) have wiped out the hill giants and are now after the next strongest and nearest group of enemies, hidden high in the mountains. These are the frost giants, the sons of Ymir and bane of the bloodline of Odin.

Frost giants are more iconic and easier to write about due to their Norse heritage, as you will see …

Gary’s frost giants are straight from Norse mythology, the Hrimthursar, and are the go-to foes for Thor and his brethren as featured throughout the various elder tales.

In D&D, frost giants are chaotic evil and ruthless foes. Gary depicts the D&D frost giants in G2 as man-eaters as well. For example, in the secret kitchen far beneath the ice: “Amidst heaped foodstuffs to the north are 4 human captives in a cage, being saved for a feast.”

We are reminded of the classic words:

Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”

Despite such macabre and charming touches here and there, G2 is sadly bereft of much material which provides characterization of the frost giants. The hill giants were filthy drunken brutes with with a certain vulgar charm, but the frost giants are a bit lacking in directly described lore. Gary is depending on us to know our Norse Mythology, which is why I am writing about the frost giants here.

The one hint we get about the nature of the frost giants is an area called the “Caverns of the Carls,” which is a reference to Noridc housecarls / huskarlar. The word “Carl” just means “Man,” but “House-Men” means that these chosen giants would be the preferred warrior bodyguards of the frost giant Jarl himself, the mighty and fearsome Grugnur.

These are called the “frost giant gentry” by Gary, indicating that they are high-born giants of a more noble bloodline (and higher social order). The lesser frost giant minions are then likely the Hird, a retinue of armed warriors serving the jarl.

If we make a distinction between the Housecarls and the other frost giant warriors (which Gary seems to do), then the Hird-Giants are probably worthy warriors of a slightly lower station, serving as raiders instead of esteemed guardians of the Jarl’s noble glacial house.

The best-known fantasy tale of frost giants is The Frost-Giant’s Daughter, a Conan story by Robert E. Howard. It was also later retitled as The Gods of the North. It was published in Weird Tales in 1932, and then again made available (via Gnome Press) in The Coming of Conan in 1953. It became more accessible in 1969, in Conan of Cimmeria as issued by Lancer Books. Since then, it has become a classic.

It therefore seems likely that Gary was familiar with the tale in the years before he wrote G2, or even before the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. (Also, the tale was featured in the comic book Conan the Barbarian #16 (1972) and The Savage Sword of Conan #1 (1974).)

The unforgettable Frazetta cover of the Lancer book (which was also later used to premiere the Dark House Conan Frazetta Cover Series) depicts a young Conan, battling in the snow, drawing first blood as he defiantly battles two battle axe-wielding monstrosities.

This masterwork is sometimes known as “The Snow Giants,” and its signature at bottom left reveals that Frazetta painted it in 1967. It would also be featured on (hard rock band) Dust’s album Hard Attack, released in 1972. The art is well-loved, and was recently sold to Kirk Hammett — lead guitarist of Metallica — for one million dollars.

In Howard’s story version entitled Gods of the North, the frost giant warriors who inspired Frazetta’s art are depicted as follows:

Yet he did not wonder at the necromantic strangeness of it all, not even when two gigantic figures rose up to bar his way. The scales of their mail were white with hoar-frost; their helmets and their axes were sheathed in ice. Snow sprinkled their locks; in their beards were spikes of icicles; their eyes were cold as the [aurora] lights that streamed above them. …

The giants answered with roars like the grinding of ice-bergs on a frozen shore, and heaved up their shining axes as the maddened Akbitanan hurled himself upon them. A frosty blade flashed before his eyes, blinding him with its brightness, and he gave back a terrible stroke that sheared through his foe’s thigh. With a groan the victim fell, and at the instant Amra was dashed into the snow, his left shoulder numb from the blow of the survivor, from which the warrior’s mail had barely saved his life. Amra saw the remaining giant looming above him like a colossus carved of ice, etched against the glowing sky. The axe fell, to sink through the snow and deep into the frozen earth as Amra hurled himself aside and leaped to his feet. The giant roared and wrenched the axe-head free, but even as he did so, Amra’s sword sang down. The giant’s knees bent and he sank slowly into the snow which turned crimson with the blood that gushed from his half-severed neck.

In the tales of Harold Shea, a frost giant is succinctly (and much less vividly) described as a white-skinned, slender albino with blond hair, pink eyes and a nose reddened by ulcers. Gary’s own description (in the 1977 hardcover bestiary) is: “dead white or ivory skin color, blue-white or yellow hair, and pale blue or yellow eyes.”

Most fearsome of all these evil creatures stands the imperious Jarl Grugnur himself, impaler of foolish foes. As many know, a jarl is a Scandinavian earl, a minor noble, prince or chieftain who rules a territory in the name of a king.

Grugnur was probably inspired by the Old Norse tale of Ymir or Aurgelmir, and is surely one of his distant yet ever-fierce descendants. Savvy readers of Gygax will note that “Grugnur” is very near to the name Gungnir (“the swaying”), which is Odin’s rune spear that was cut from the wood of the world tree, Yggdrasil itself. I also note that Gungnir the spear was mentioned by name in the tales of Harold Shea, and that might indeed have been Gary’s inspiration.

Grugnur is a powerful warrior, a womanizer (consider the storm giantess held in “durance vile”), and seems to be far more concerned with security than are either Chief Nosnra or King Snurre. For example, where Nosnra revels in a grand hall that has many of its approaches unguarded, and where Snurre defiantly sits on his throne at the very forefront of his stronghold as if beckoning challengers into his arena of death, Jarl Grugnur is hidden away in the very last approachable place underground beneath the glacial rift. He seems to have been born to power by way of noble blood, but perhaps his and bloodline’s longevity is a result of his ever-vigilant caution.

And that is most of what we know about the frost giants and their Jarl. But what of their lair, and all of the creatures who dwell there?

Those are matters that we will explore in Part II of this series. I will be publishing that sooner than you might think. So stay tuned …

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