XVII: Gygaxian Middle Earth ~ Part I: Balrogs & Betrayal (1969)

Don’t worry, he passed away several years ago, it’s perfectly legal.
Do you think we should apply for a trademark so people don’t steal the idea?

“We will deal here with the great Red Dragon (Draco Conflagratio, or Draco Horribilis) which is typified in Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT.”

Gary Gygax


When it comes to Gary Gygax’s feelings about J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth, most people remember that he was irritated whenever gamers believed (quite rightly) that a significant chunk of early Dungeons & Dragons was derivative of the good Professor’s works. He became especially frustrated when people would take him to task for not following Tolkien all the way; for example, when he borrowed Poul Anderson’s regenerating trolls idea instead of following Tolkien’s texts on troll-kind being slow and bungling and turning to stone in the sunshine.

As an idea creator and game designer, Gary always preferred a synthesist approach, taking elements from many different sources and then providing concrete measures – for size, distance, time, relative power, hierarchies, orders, classifications, and so forth – to similar ideas which he had culled from other authors’ prior works. This measuring synthesis is one of the ingenious hallmarks of Dungeons & Dragons. It is the undeniable essence of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”. And it certainly makes D&D a central touchstone between many imaginary worlds. But it also provides clear and undeniable strains of creative DNA, which we can inevitably follow up into the original sources with varying yet sometimes highly provocative degrees of success.

(Gary never seemed to like when I and others would do this, peeking in at the working wizard behind the curtain made him uncomfortable, but that is another topic entirely …)

Later in life, whenever fans asked Gary about Tolkien and D&D, he would tend to take the route of “There were actually many influences” and discussing the equal importance of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Abraham Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, and so on and so forth.

All of which is true, but the deflected fact remains that Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement (1971) was basically a “Pelennor Fields” and “Battle of the Five Armies” simulator with a few elementals, spells, and other influences thrown in for good measure. In Chainmail we find the Nazgul, Hobbits, Ents, wizards, the great red dragon, the Balrog, orcs of Mordor and Isengard, Wargs, barrow wights, and more besides. The earlier your edition of Chainmail is, the more apparent these direct and admiring tributes to The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring become.


“According to the best authority, there are at least five kinds (tribes or perhaps clans) of them [Orcs]. These are: 1) Orcs of the (Red) Eye, 2) Orcs of Mordor, 3) Orcs of the Mountains, 4) Orcs of the White Hand, and 5) Isengarders. It can therefore be assumed that if there are two or more units of Orcs, they will be from differing bands.”

Gary Gygax


After Saul Zaentz and Tolkien Enterprises threatened TSR with a lawsuit due to these many similarities evident in Original Dungeons & Dragons and other related works, in late 1977 the upcoming Monster Manual was necessarily delayed from its expected publication (its final pre-publication draft was filled with Ents, Hobbits, Balrogs, and all the rest). TSR had to go to Federal Court (the Milwaukee branch) in December to admit wrongdoing for settlement and was thereby encouraged to prepare for a full cleansing and “Scouring of the Shire”, basically, in regard to its ongoing and future publications.

By agreement, TSR could sell their remaining stock of infringing products such as the Battle of Five Armies boxed game through the end of the first quarter of 1978, but then they also needed to labor responsibly toward cleansing future game editions of any remaining vestiges echoing Tolkien’s specific intellectual property.

(Before we feel too sorry for TSR, we will remember that they were simultaneously skimping on Dave Arneson’s royalties, loudly shouting about copyrights, and also picking on other budding games such as Tunnels & Trolls, so we won’t cry too much about their legal growing pains here.)


“TSR was served with papers, threatening damages to the tune of half a mil [$500,000] by the Saul Zaentz Division of Elan Merchandising, on behalf of the Tolkien Estate. The main objection was to the boardgame we were publishing, Battle of the Five Armies. The author of that game [Larry Smith] had given us a letter from his attorney, claiming that the work was grandfathered, because it was published after the copyrights for J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had lapsed, and before any renewals were made. The action also demanded we remove ‘Balrog’, ‘dragon’, ‘dwarf’, ‘elf’, ‘Ent’, ‘goblin’, ‘Hobbit’, ‘orc’, and ‘Warg’ from the D&D game. Although only Balrog and Warg were unique names, we agreed to Hobbit as well. [We, TSR] kept the rest, of course. The boardgame was dumped, and thus the suit was settled out of court at that.”

Gary Gygax (spelling, titling, and formatting corrections made)


(See also here.)

Gary’s view of Tolkien’s works quickly soured to the point that he became annoyed whenever anyone asked about these obvious Middle Earth influences on the game.

Beginning in December 1977, D&D was haphazardly de-Tolkienized, but only to the point that glaring infringements were turned into mythological or folkloric equivalents or unique and “original” creatures. Hobbits became halflings, Ents became treants, Balrogs became Type VI demons with one randomly being named Balor (as in Irish mythology), no wraiths were really Nazgul, the most immense giant eagles became strictly rocs inspired by the Arabian Nights, and so on.

And yes, I would be an irresponsible author if I did not confess here and now that I absolutely follow the same Gygaxian methodology in creating my own Castle Oldskull supplements, which are original creative works that are – for some weird reason – absolutely compatible with … Dun-, um, Dra-, ah … ampersand mumble mumble something … fantasy role-playing games, yeah that’s the ticket, which might or might not be created (uh …) and kinda sorta faithfully maintained (hmm, okay …) by certain massive corporate entities.

*cough* *awkward side-eyes*

Moving right along as Kermit would say, the sad thing is, Gary was actually quite a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, at least up until the end of the Mines of Moria chapters. Before he published Chainmail he was actually quite a devotee of the idea of Tolkien-inspired Middle Earth fantasy wargaming.

One of the more interesting early aspects of Gygax’s Middle Earth fandom can be found in issues of the 1969-1970 fan-published amateur magazine (“fanzine”) Thangorodrim. You can find a few archived issues of this curious work hidden away in a dragon’s cave, over here.

And to give full credit where due, you can find prior research by gamers and game historians on this matter in many different places.

Volume 1, Issue #2 (August 1969) features a dragon on the cover that is playfully named by Thangorodrim editor Bill McDuffie as “Gary Gygax, alias Smaug. Yes, there are good worms, too!”


The name’s Gygax. Smaug G. Gygax. A pleasure, to be sure …

We remember of course that fantasy role-playing games did not fully exist yet. This magazine is therefore mostly about Diplomacy variants, where the rules of Diplomacy are slightly restructured and the map is thematically altered to pay tribute to some other culture, genre, historical age, and/or imaginary world. Gary at this time for example (summer 1969) was embroiled in postally mailed move orders for the “Scottomacy” variant in play, which dealt with the historical Scottish Clans. He played as Clan MacDonald, by the way, for those keeping score at home.

(He also simultaneously played the Native American “Indianomacy” variant, as the Dakota tribe. His buddy-rival Len Lakofka was an opponent in both games.)

Notably, this issue of Thangorodrim is also obliquely telling us about how to turn the game of Diplomacy into an endless series of Wars of Middle Earth variants. There was a “Middle Earth Diplomacy IV” campaign going on, along with “Mordor vs. the World #3” and “Third Age”. In other words, gamers were trying to push the boundaries of Diplomacy’s proto-role-playing metagame straight into Tolkien fantasy, so bold Middle Earth variants were already becoming a thing.

The rules in this issue for “Third Age”, authored by Brian Libby, already include some interesting proto-role-playing elements such as the influence of the Steward of Gondor, Elvish names for months (turns), secret movement of the Ringbearer against the forces of darkness, and the magical powers of the One Ring itself. Gary would certainly be following these new gaming innovations with interest, and he would be designing his own Chainmail Fantasy game a little over a year later.

(You can find some other clear Middle Earth inspirations for Gary’s pre-publication Chainmail over here.)

Things get even more interesting in Thangorodrim issue #3 (c. September 1969) where we find Gary authoring a new dragon-themed series of articles for Thangorodrim’s readership, entitled “Grayte Wourmes”. We learn here a bit about Gary’s creative envisioning of the ways of the frost drakes residing in Middle Earth:


“Perhaps the rarest of the Great Worms is the Arctic Dragon, or ‘Frost Breath’. Unlike others of his kind, this large white worm inhabits only the coldest regions of the far north and has no internal fire. Draco Arcticus seeks glaciers in which to dwell, and if the temperature remains cold enough, they will sleep therein for very long periods of time, only awakening to feed when stimulated by warmth. The Arctic Dragon will attack any living creature on sight, often including others of his own species. Their main weapon is a chilling breath (which will immediately freeze boiling water). All recorded specimens have only a single head, are up to 100 feet in length, weigh eight tons, and otherwise conform to Dragons in general (wings, fangs, claws, etc.). Arcticus does not usually hoard [treasure], and is of low intelligence.”

Gary Gygax (slight corrections made)


This early bit of creative writing is quite revealing when we compare it to the later versions of the white dragon in D&D, particularly that featured in the AD&D Monster Manual of December 1977. For D&D, Gary toned down the size of all of the dragons. I don’t really know why, but at a guess it was probably to ensure that they could fit into dungeons with 10’-wide corridors, and/or to make them small enough so that parties of adventurers could actually stand a chance against them.

Over the decades, many people have harped on Gary’s design decision and insisted that dragons should be much bigger. For those people, you can now slap up some stats to see how they feel about a 100’-long ancient white dragon (at scale, that would be about 25 hit dice) who innately detects warmth and instantly attacks on sight, with no chance for negotiations. “Hey Brad, surprise! Save vs. 400 points of ice damage, for half damage if you roll good, dude …”

A few other pieces of white dragon lore did secretly make their way from Gary’s Middle Earth to D&D: coloration, habitat, frost breath, and lower intelligence. We note too that although D&D white dragons are not poor, they certainly have much smaller treasure hoards than other dragons do.

This was only the beginning of a quite intriguing series of exploratory creative works. Gary was growing restless with the limitations of Diplomacy and its variants, and while the game could be used far beyond its original intent to emulate Middle Earth to some degree, there was no new official lore defining the denizens of that world. The Grayte Wourmes articles might have been Gary’s personal attempt to gauge the interest of other fantasy game designers in regard to further innovations in designing a shared imaginary milieu of heroes and dragons. If only there was some kind of game where such ideas could be fully explored …

Such a game would absolutely need differentiated and interesting dragons. Like, lots of dragons.

In later Thangorodrim issues, Gary would further design his earliest versions of Middle Earth’s black dragons, green dragons, blue dragons, and the draconian purple worm. We will continue to explore these fascinating details in the next blog post, as we warily proceed in silence away from the cavern of Draco Arcticus, heading southward toward much warmer if not more peaceful climes.

Stay alive in dragon-haunted lands, and stay tuned …


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