XVIII: Gygaxian Middle Earth ~ Part II: Acid, Envy, & Bile (1969)

Look at all those different colors of dragons! Art by Anton Seder, 1896.

Hark seekers of dragon lore, and welcome to another blog installment from KDK and castleoldskull.com. Today we continue our exploration of Gygaxian Middle Earth, uncovering rare OD&Dities such as roc-hunted black dragons, Sauron outfoxed by a blowtorch, allusions to the Nibelungenlied, draconian steam explosions, and more. So put on your wizardly thinking hats, mind the nether gap, and off we go …

We continue our research into the Tolkien- and Diplomacy-themed fanzine Thangorodrim, in which one E. Gary Gygax began to create a personally expanded Middle Earth mythos involving dragons, elven scholars, Germanic mythology, and the Arabian Nights. In Gary’s mind, strange mergers of fantasy worlds were beginning to occur …

Thangorodrim Volume I, Number 4 (October 1969) does not include a dragon article unfortunately. But we do find a mocking letter in retort from Smaug, complaining about the impudent author of the prior issue’s Draco Arcticus lore. Smaug (writing as S. Maug, Esq.) complains about the scholar’s education, language skills, and general stupidity. Gygax is the author of course and playfully arguing with himself; the cover of the last issue told us that he was Smaug as we discussed in Part I of this series.

There are a few bits of nettlesome draconic lore embedded in Smaug’s diatribe, but they might well be exaggerations volleyed by a biased source and unreliable narrator:

“Draco A[rcticus] is not, as stated, found in glaciers, but rather in high mountain caves, as with other dragon species. And his physical description is preposterous – the SMALLEST specimen of a cold drake was an individual 150 feet long, weighing ten tons. And as for the Professor’s allegation towards the intelligence of Draco A., why, it’s positively scandalous.”

Well then!

Continuing through wormy mysteries further in Thangorodrim Volume I, Number 5 (November 1969) we find the second article revealing Gary’s not-red, not-firebreathing dragons of Middle Earth. If you’re interested in reading that issue for yourself – blotchy run-through text and all – you can enter the Grotto of Archival Perils via the slippery and rather blurry stairs leading down, over here.

But before that black dragon article appears in those hallowed pages, there are some interesting bits of D&D pre-history that provide us with a few more treasured bits of arcana when carefully unearthed.

In editor Bill McDuffie’s revealing introductory text, we learn of the existence of the “National Fantasy Fan Federation, Games Bureau, Diplomacy Division”. This was not just a fly by night fandom organization; it was founded in 1941 with a Constitution, and it is still going (as the National Fantasy Fan Foundation, tnfff.org) if you care to check it out.

We are then regaled with a brief chronicle of the ongoing and violent Mordor vs. the World saga, and it appears that Arnor (played by Mr. Pulsipher) and Rohan (played by Len Lakofka) made a rather impressive series of successful moves, closely followed by an intransigent Mordor (“no moves received”, implying a dangerous player silence, resulting in defensive passivity), Rhovanion, and a painfully struggling Gondor.

The following page thereafter reveals more pseudo-role-playing inspired by the Diplomacy games, discussing a combination of moves, attacks, and implied actions which are so creatively embellished that they deserve to be admired some 53 years later:

“Reports from the Dark Tower indicate that Sauron is even more enraged than usual of late. First, the Rings departed from his royal treasury. Imagine his reaction when Sauron discovered that now the entire exchequer had vanished. The strongroom of the Dark Tower had evidently been opened by thieves equipped with an acetylene torch after entering through a gaping hole melted in the steel. The robbers proceeded to remove every gem and bit of precious metal. These thieves also apparently abducted the 100 Orcs of the famous Dark Watch! There is speculation that some form of magic was used, as no sign of a struggle was seen, and the only trace of the Orcs ever having been there was some scorched boot found on the floor of the empty treasury.”

One might think that the introduction of technology to Middle Earth might be an accidental oversight; and one would be wrong. We learn next of UFO sightings over the Ash Mountains, inspiring warriors to fight on “in a war of liberation against Sauron and his vile henchmen”. (Remarkable word, that.)

Following, we find a sly in-character fan letter from the elf Eldamir Konovin – “Eldamar” means “Elvenhome” in Quenya – that continues the quarrel with Smaug over who is more knowledgeable on the subject of dragon lore. (Regrettably there’s a bit of racism as well, but I’ve included the piece in full for our reflection.)

“Dear Sir, this letter is in reference to the letter from one S. Maug on Draco Arcticus. Draco Arcticus, as I thought was well known, lives on the edge of the northern marshes in the high mountain passes. There, D. Arcticus lives in either natural caves, or in caves and crevasses in glaciers. An interesting fact about D. Arcticus is that he sleeps during the entire summer. This is all I can give you now on D. Arcticus, as my major source of information, The Golden Book of Worms by Riccar of Aerie, has been stolen by a sallow-faced, slanting-eyed southerner.”

By the way, as a bit of deep and obscure lore, there is buried dragon pun here. A “worm” or “wyrm” is a land dragon, but Worms is also one of the oldest cities in Germany. The city actually does have a Golden Book, which is a heavy ceremonial tome of chronicled events that dates back to the 1800s (if not earlier). Worms the city was also featured in the Nibelungenlied, which concerns the warrior Siegfried, a slain dragon, the dwarf lord Alberich, and more. It takes a fairly well-read sage to make such a passing jest! Also, “Riccar of Aerie” might (at a guess) be the elven artificer Alfrikr of the Faeries (“ruler of elves”) spoken of in the Thidrekssaga; he was the forger of the enchanted sword Nagelring.

The letter is actually of further value to us, because it gives a bit more depth to white dragons for old school D&D campaigns.

Gary’s letter is immediately followed by the next dragon lore capsule, detailing the black dragon and its nature. Deeper in these dungeon scrolls, we read:

Grayte Wourmes, Part II: Draco Nigrus

[which is Dragon / Black in Latin]

“Another rare dragon is the tropical Draco Nigrus (Black or Spitting Dragon). It is the smallest of all dragons, usually averaging no more than 40’-50’ long and weighing about 4 tons. Like its northern cousin [presumably referencing Draco Arcticus], the black species has no internal fire. Rather, they distill a potent caustic enzyme, which they spit forth in long streams when angry. Except as noted, their conformation [term for an animal’s shape] is typical. The Black Dragon preys upon all jungle animals, and its only enemies are its own kind, the Roc, and man. They seem to favor treasures of ivory. While cunning, the Black Dragon is not clever. (Excerpt from a First Age Manuscript, translated by the late Professor S. K. Eltolereth, Dr.D.)”

There is quite a lot to unpack here. We find once again that adult dragons in Gygaxian Middle Earth are consistently larger than his later AD&D beasties, being 40’ long or longer. As a point of reference concerning weight, a Tyrannosaurus Rex is now scientifically estimated to have weighed 11,000 to 15,500 lbs. (5.5 to 7.75 US tons). We could say that Gygax’s estimate is “too light”, or we could surmise that a flying creature would need to be much more lithe and light-boned to be able to soar at all.

Gary continues his obsession with finding scientific explanations for seemingly magical phenomena, perhaps following from a scene in Poul Anderson’s 1961 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions in which (spoiler!) an attacking dragon has an unfortunate experience involving rapid steam expansion inside its gullet.

We also learn some more good details that are easy to insert into D&D: black dragons eat animals including predators, they are territorially threatened by Rocs, and they collect elephant ivory as treasure. It is a bit remarkable that Gary includes Rocs in Middle Earth, perhaps an early hint that he was thinking about how differing fantastic worlds could be merged into a single milieu, with different cultures and mythic bestiaries sharing the same theoretical space.

At a guess, in differentiating the Grayte Wourmes dragons by species and creating separate lore and descriptions for each regional variety, Gary may have already been inspired by Ernst and Johanna Lehner’s A Fantastic Bestiary, a known source for Dungeons & Dragons monsters, published earlier in 1969.

The idea of a dragon breathing acid rather than fire is quite unusual, but it recalls mythical creatures such as Gargouille (a water-breathing dragon), the Zmey (a lightning-arcing dragon) and the Leonese Cuelebre (which breathed poison).

Gary would soon explore the idea of a venom-breathing dragon in his next article, which will be the subject of our next one-level-down journey into the Realm of the Ur-Dragons.

Further and even more esoteric perils lie in wait ahead.

Swords high, companions, and stay tuned! I’ll guard the back rank …

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