XX: Gygaxian Frost Giants ~ Part II: Perils of the Polar Worm (1978)

A map illustration from Oldskull Northlands, an imminent Nordic gaming supplement to be released in the future by Wonderland Imprints.

Back so soon, blood reaver? Hail and well met to you once again. This week we are in full dungeoneering gear, celebrating the Castle Oldskull fundraiser over at Bundle of Holding. Following hot (frostily?) on the heels of yesterday’s foray into the archives of Gygaxian giant lore, today on the CastleOldskull.com blog we continue our exploration of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. In today’s deeper delve, we find echoes of Niflheim, Hel, Snow Devil Glacier, the Remor(h)a(z), and more. Follow farther than Conan ever dared, boreal adventurer, if you will …

Bundle of Holding Endeavor

Please note that this week, following the July 4 fire in our neighborhood, the Bundle of Holding site is promoting Castle Oldskull to benefit the Kelly family as well as the Arapahoe County Research Patrol of volunteer teenager emergency responders. If you would like to contribute, and star in the next Castle Oldskull game book, please see:


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

The mighty ash tree Yggdrasil was supposed to support the whole universe. It sprang from the body of the giant Ymir, and had three immense roots, extending one into Asgard (the dwelling of the gods), the other into Jotunheim (the abode of the giants), and the third to Niflheim (the regions of darkness and cold).

By the side of each of these roots is a spring, from which the root is watered. The root that extends into Asgard is carefully tended by the three Norns, goddesses, who are regarded as the dispensers of Fate. They are Urdur (the past), Verdandi (the present), and Skuld (the future).

The spring at the Jotunheim side is Ymir’s well, in which wisdom and wit lie hidden, but that of Niflheim feeds the dragon Nidhoggr (darkness), which perpetually gnaws at the root …

Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, by Thomas Bulfinch, 1855

In our last exploration, we considered the lore of the frost giants and Gygax’s Conan- and Shea-themed inspirations which lead to the writing of TSR dungeon module G2. Now, we are ready to consider the Glacial Rift proper, the lair not only of the Hrimthursar frost giants of Grugnur, but also many other fell beasts of the frozen wastes.

The Glacial Rift is inspired in part by Ginnungagap, the frozen abyss of Old Norse Mythology which is mentioned in the Gyflaginning section of the 12th Century Prose Edda. A rough translation of the relevant passage would read as follows in English:

Gangleri asked: “How were all things wrought, ere all the races were, and the tribes of men increased?”

Then said Harr, as in reply: “The streams are called Ice-Waves, those which were so long ago come from the fountain-heads that the yeasty venom upon them had hardened like the slag that runs out of the molten fire. These streams, then, became ice. And when the ice halted and ceased to run, then it froze over from above. But the drizzling of the rain that rose from the venom congealed into rime, and the rime increased, frost over frost, each over the other, even into Ginnungagap, which we know as the the Yawning Void.”

Then spake Jafnharr, echoing lore further: “Ginnungagap, which faced toward the northern quarter of the world, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime. And from within, drizzling rain and gusts. But the southern part of the Yawning Void was lighted by those sparks and glowing masses which flew out of Muspelheim.”

And Thridi spake of ice and fire: “Just as cold arose out of Niflheim, and all terrible things arose so forth, so too did all that looked toward Muspelheim became hot and glowing. But the frigid Ginnungagap was as mild as windless air, and when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped, life was quickened from the yeast drops, by the power of that which sent the heat. And this, the heated essence, became a great man’s form. And that man is named Ymir, but the Rime Giants call him Aurgelmir.”

And from thence are come the races of the Rime Giants, as it says in Voluspa the Lesser:

“All the witches spring from Witolf,

All the warlocks are of Willharm,

And the spell-singers spring from Svarthead.

All the ogres, of Ymir come.

But concerning this, so says Vafthrudnir the giant:

“Out of the Ice-waves issued venom-drops,

Waxing until a giant was.

Thence are our kindred come all together,

So it is they are savage forever.”

The venom-born frost giants, then, can lay claim to the origins of the Nordic world which they defend against the incursions of greedy and impious mortal-kind.

In addition to the lore of Ginnungagap, the Glacial Rift is probably inspired by the realm of Niflheim itself, the “Home of the Mists”. The Prose Edda tells us that “cold arose out of Niflheim, and all terrible things.”

The domain feature in module G2 is a lesser and upper remnant of this ancient time. When Gary refers to a “Glacial Rift”, he is almost certainly referring to what geologists term a U-shaped valley, which is caused by glaciation. Classic examples include Yosemite Valley, the St. Mary River valley in Glacier National Park, and various unnamed valleys in the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

(The blockage of boulders and frozen rubble at the south end of the Jarl’s rift, by the way, is called a moraine. The best examples I know of in my own experience are found in Rocky Mountain National Park, not too far from my home.)

On the G2 maps, a studious Game Master will note that the valley opens to the north and descends to the south, with caverns lying below the far southern edge. Level 1 is a descending map, while Level 2 features the frost giants’ nether domain.

The rift rims some 300’ from top to bottom, and you can see Gary’s elevation markers displayed upon the Level 1 map. The glacier (as noted in the description of area #21A) extends about a mile down to the south and east.

This dungeon module is filled with brief inferences that (arguably) infer Gygax’s familiarity with Bulfinch’s Mythology in general and the Norse Mythos in particular. As one other example of interesting details, consider that Jarl’s mighty Lady-Wife – if we make logical inferences about her bloodline, just as we can the Jarl himself – could well descend from the bloodlines of both frost giants and also of the goddess Hel.

Consider from the Prose Edda:

“Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her. That is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there. Her walls are exceeding high, and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold. Her dish, is Hunger. Famine is her knife. Idler, her thrall. Sloven, her maidservant. Pit of Stumbling, is her threshold, by which one enters. Disease, is her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.”

Another setting that probably inspired Gary in the design of G2 Level 1 – especially when we consider the encounter with the remorhaz – would be Snow Devil Glacier. This is the setting for the Conan tale The Lair of the Ice Worm, written (well after Robert E. Howard’s passing) by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Of course, all of these writers are well featured in Gygax’s Appendix N.

For those who are not yet familiar with Lin Carter’s considerable influence over early Dungeons & Dragons, see also my blog post on Imaginary Worlds, which is here:

In this tale – which follows after The Frost Giant’s Daughter – Conan dares a mountain crossing from the Eiglophian Mountains into the Border Kingdoms, which necessitates a trek across the wild Snow Devil Glacier that lies in the waste between. (And if you need a campaign name for the Glacier which the Glacial Rift lies adjacent to, there you are.)

Conan saves a young Hyperborean maiden named Ilga from the Snow Devils, which are basically the inspiration for the yeti scouts found in Gary’s module. (You might have noted that the yetis are a bit more civilized than you might otherwise expect, and their chieftain wields a powerful magic sword.)

Conan slays many Snow Devils but his horse is killed as well. Conan takes Ilga to the safety (?) of an ice cave. That night, Ilga is awakened by haunting green eyes and alluring song-like trillings in the icy air. Beguiled, she walks out into the cold. Conan is awakened by her absence. He follows her tracks, and finds the marks left by some kind of slithering giant serpent. He finds the skeleton of his horse, stripped of flesh by the mysterious predator. He then finds the grisly half-remains of Ilga, the serpent’s second feast of the night.

Conan remembers the legends of the Yakhmar, the Remora ice lizard. He vows to hunt the beast to avenge Ilga, but a plan is required. Conan later tracks the markings to the glacier itself, and a great ice cave hollow which lies within. There Conan beholds the Remora, and it attempts to beguile and consume him as well. But Conan has brought a helmet-full of burning cinders from his fire, and heated his axe. He throws the fiery axe into the jaws of the Remora, and the coals in soon after. He escapes with his life as the entire cave collapses.

And this, of course, is the origin of the Dungeons & Dragons remorhaz.

(You might recall that the remorhaz was originally created and drawn by Erol Otus, then refined for AD&D publication by Gary and TSR.)

You might also be interested in an often forgotten footnote hidden away in the TSR GM’s Guide, pg. 183, where we learn that giant white furred constrictor snakes dwell in the D&D world’s arctic wilderness. This would be more fully noted later in the Deities hardcover, where we learn that these monsters are inspired by the Nehwon lore of Fritz Leiber as well.

Readers will also be interested to see the Marvel Comics versions of the (furred) Ice Worm and the Snow Men, which you can see and learn about over at this link here.

By curious coincidence, the tale would soon be featured again in The Savage Sword of Conan #34, which dates to October 1978 … some months after the writing of dungeon module G2 had been completed.

And that is all that we have for now. In the next installment, we will end the Gygaxian Frost Giants series, and then perhaps turn our beholder’s gaze to somewhat warmer climes. Stay tuned …


2 responses to “XX: Gygaxian Frost Giants ~ Part II: Perils of the Polar Worm (1978)”

  1. 8D Wow, that’s classic classic stuff. Man I really like the cut of your gib. This vintage Gygaxian RP content is just…Wow! Very cool man. Very cool indeed.

    1. Thanks much Stephen, enjoy. If you go back through the other blog posts you’ll find lots of interesting stuff (for example, a detailed exploration of G1).

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