XXI: Gygaxian Frost Giants ~ Part III: Terror Beneath the Ice (1978)

The tumbled glacial ice is not snow-smooth, nor is it gentle.
Under the razor ice awaits death.

Bundle of Holding Endeavor

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

Henceforth, Odin went on to the house of Loki’s wife. The door was thrown open, and the wicked Witch-mother sat in the entrance, whilst on one side crouched Fenrir, her ferocious wolf-son, and on the other stood Hel, most terrible of monsters and women.

A crowd of giants strode after Odin, curious to obtain a glance of Loki’s strange children before they should be sent away. At Fenrir and the Witch-mother they stared with great eyes, joyfully and savagely glittering; but when he looked at Hel each giant became as pale as new snow, and cold with terror as a mountain of ice. Pale, cold, frozen, they never moved again; but a rugged chain of rocks stood behind Odin, and he looked on fearless and unchilled …

The Heroes of Asgard, by A. & E. Keary (1906)

When we consider the Glacial Rift as it looms in the World of Greyhawk, we know that it is described as being far to the northwest of the Steading. And in the published Greyhawk setting, it would later be explicitly set in hex S5-134 in the Crystalmists. This is a region of untamed wilderness, petrified crystalline ice, unrelenting fog, and the eerie stillness of a wasteland that only the native denizens can long survive.

Unlike the Steading of Nosnra the Hill Giant Chief, however, the rift is mostly a natural area of “weird ice caves” which have been modified by the giants (hacking at ice and stone) to create a deeper fortress from the existing terrain. The ice is strongly translucent and — at least during the day — casts an eerie green glow throughout the caverns. Instead of doors, the giants plunk boulders down in narrow tunnel mouths to block the flow of wind and snow (and incidentally, intruders).

It takes a few minutes of reading the G2 level 1 map to realize that it is not a subterranean environment. It is an icy canyon surrounded by cave mouths, and the frost giants have sculpted tunnels to connect these interior areas to one another so that all eyes of the fortress gaze toward the center, where intruders must come through. (Gygax would use this canyon-and-cave setting concept once again in dungeon module B2, for the Caves of Chaos.)

One of the more notorious areas adjacent to the rift is the “Misty Ice Cave,” which is frozen yet partially heated by air – which probably rises from the cook-fires underground. in the frost giantesses’ kitchens. This makes the cave dangerously wet and slick, and adventurers are likely to fall and drop precious items here. “Dropped items,” we read, “… have a 1 in 4 chance of falling into a crack in the floor and dropping somewhere into the bowels of the earth, to be forever lost.” In later years Gary had a funny story about this room in particular: “A couple of years back [c. 2001] I played Zigby,” he wrote, “my main dwarf PC, in a session my son Ernie was running using G2. It had been so long since I’d written the adventure [and] DM’ed it … damned if I hadn’t totally forgotten the misty cave where everything is slippery, and poor Zigby slipped and lost his +2 shield down a crevasse.” And so, the master got his just deserts, foiled by his own trickery for once! (Gary seems to have thought this was pretty funny.)

There are also two encounter areas with winter wolves. Some of these creatures are tamed as guard hounds, while others are wild and are “encouraged to roam the place by the frost giants.” The winter wolves in D&D were likely inspired in part by the Norse myth of Fenrir, the “beast of slaughter” who shall arise once more at Ragnarok. A close reading of the Monster Manual shows that winter wolves are of average intelligence, and it stands to reason – like the similarly-cunning ice toads and other horrors – they might well have their own language which frost giants can understand.

Far away to the north of Asgard, surrounded by frowning mountains, the dark lake, Amsvartnir lies. And above the level of its troubled waters burns Lyngvi, the island of sweet broom, flaming like a jewel on the dark brow of Hela. In this lonely isle, to which no ship but Skidbladnir could sail, the Aesir, with Fenrir in the midst, assembled to try the strength of the dwarves’ chain.

Fenrir prowled round his old master, Tyr, with a look of savage triumph in his cruel eyes, now licking the hand that had so long fed him, and now shaking his great head, and howling defiantly.

The Aesir stood at the foot of Gioll, the sounding rock, and passed Gleipnir the chain from one to another, talking about it, while Fenrir listened. “It was much stronger than it looked,” they said; and Thor and Tyr vied with each other in their efforts to break it, while Bragi declared his belief that there was no one among Aesir or giants capable of performing so great a feat. “Unless,” he added, “it should be you, Fenrir.”

This speech roused the pride of Fenrir. And, after looking long at the slender chain and the faces of the Aesir, the wolf answered, “Loath am I to be bound by this chain. But, lest you should doubt my courage, I will consent that you should bind me, provided one of you put his hand into my mouth as a pledge that no deceit is intended.”

There was a moment’s silence among the Aesir when they heard this. They looked at one another. Odin looked at Thor, and Thor looked at Bragi, and Frey fell behind, and put his hand to his side, where the all-conquering sword, which he alone could wield, no longer rested.

At length Tyr stepped forward valiantly, and put his strong right hand, with which he had so often fed Fenrir, into the wolf’s cruel jaws …

The Heroes of Asgard, by A. & E. Keary (1906)

The frost giants are also assisted by ogres as mercenaries. In Gygax’s descriptions we learn that some other ogres are awaiting audience with the Jarl, which may mean that they have come from the Steading. But it may also mean that a mountain ogre chieftain is thinking of forming an alliance with Grugnur.

So for those GMs who are hoping to create sequel or side adventure material for the Giant modules, a lair of the ogre chieftain – perhaps a bit farther away, warmed by geyser caves – would surely be a reasonable setting to create.

Deeper within the rift, more curious still are the ice toads. They are intelligent, they have their own croaking language, and they worship a piece of ancient precious stone which almost looks like the idol of some unknown Old One … perhaps a primordial toad entity of some kind. I have not yet found the origin of these classic monsters, so if anyone has found any leads on the matter, I would greatly appreciate it.

There are many hints and near misses to the mystery, which I will go over.

One of the first glimpses of supernatural toads in D&D – we will ignore the matter of Arneson’s Temple of the Frog for now – can be found in Gygax’s partial novel manuscript, The Gnome Cache.

In The Dragon #7, the most interesting part of the tale comes right at the abrupt end: soon after the party has been discussing the icy marshland that we know as the Barony of Blackmoor, they encounter “a dwarf being pursued by a pack of giant toads and weirdly hopping men!” (Cliffhanger, the end.)

We learn much later that these are worshippers and minions of Wastri, the Hopping Prophet (who is briefly mentioned as leader of bullywugs of the Vast Swamp, in Dragon #56). Wastri is finally revealed in Dragon #71, and – uniquely among the deities – he can summon ice toads.

Gary once provided a few more cryptic details in answer to a fan’s questions: “Tim Kask didn’t like the story of The Gnome Cache, so he dropped it. No biggie as far as I was concerned, the yarn was only my second attempt at writing a novel, and I wasn’t all that happy with what I had produced. The story was loosely based on the world of Greyhawk, but the adventures were not drawn from any actual play of D&D. The giant toads are the steeds of the followers of Wastri, the Hopping Prophet, certainly of Oerth and the pantheon of the Flanaess. As for the conclusion, I cannot recall where I had the tale headed, and the manuscript for the story is missing, possibly buried amongst stored documents here, otherwise truly lost.”

The ice toads seem Lovecraftian, and may be inspired in part by Tsathoggua and similar creatures.

Also of interest are the Miri Nigri minions which are mentioned in The Horror from the Hills, by Frank Belknap Long.

In that tale, we learn: “Chaugnar Faugn did not always dwell in the East. Many thousands of years ago it abode with its Brothers in a cave in Western Europe, and made from the flesh of toads a race of small dark shapes to serve it.” Also, “The Miri Nigri were fashioned from the flesh of primitive amphibians.” But we also learn that these creatures are humanoid, so these are probably not ice toads, but rather one of the inspirations for bullywugs instead.

The Old One Tsathoggua was most closely linked with toads by the gifted writer of fantasy, Clark Ashton Smith.

Smith – of note to our discussion here – also placed his mythic lands in Hyperborea, near the Boreal Sea.

A little sleuthing also uncovers the fact that Tsathoggua was a favorite of Robert E. Howard.

Consider this, from his tale The Black Stone:

A huge monstrous toad-like thing squatted on the top of the monolith! I saw its bloated, repulsive and unstable outline against the moonlight and set in what would have been the face of a natural creature, its huge, blinking eyes which reflected all the lust, abysmal greed, obscene cruelty and monstrous evil that has stalked the sons of men since their ancestors moved blind and hairless in the treetops. In those grisly eyes were mirrored all the unholy things and vile secrets that sleep in the cities under the sea, and that skulk from the light of day in the blackness of primordial caverns. And so that ghastly thing that the unhallowed ritual of cruelty and sadism and blood had evoked from the silence of the hills, leered and blinked down on its bestial worshippers, who groveled in abhorrent abasement before it.

Now the beast-masked priest lifted the bound and weakly writhing girl in his brutish hands and held her up toward that horror on the monolith. And as that monstrosity sucked in its breath, lustfully and slobberingly, something snapped in my brain and I fell into a merciful faint …

And also, the Conan tale The Slithering Shadow (aka Xuthal of the Dusk) features the unholy entity Thog the Ancient, God of Xuthal, which is likely a spawn of TsaTHOGgua itself:

In that hurricane of battle they were rolling over and over, farther and farther down the tunnel. Conan’s brain reeled with the punishment he was taking. His breath came in whistling gasps between his teeth. High above him he saw a great toad-like face, dimly limned in an eerie glow that seemed to emanate from it.

And with a panting cry that was half curse, half gasp of straining agony, he lunged toward it, thrusting with all his waning power. Hilt-deep the saber sank, somewhere below the grisly face, and a convulsive shudder heaved the vast bulk that half enveloped the Cimmerian.

With a volcanic burst of contraction and expansion, it tumbled backward, rolling now with frantic haste down the corridor. Conan went with it, bruised, battered, invincible, hanging on like a bulldog to the hilt of his saber which he could not withdraw, tearing and ripping at the shuddering bulk with the poniard in his left hand, goring it to ribbons.

The thing glowed all over now with a weird phosphorous radiance, and this glow was in Conan’s eyes, blinding him, as suddenly the heaving billowing mass fell away from beneath him, the saber tearing loose and remaining in his locked hand …

Suddenly, the “naturally shaped” precious idol which the ice toads worship as a god upon its altar seems quite a bit more unsettling than the mere text in G2 would imply.

Quite a lot to think about.

In our next episode, we will look in detail at some of the other intriguing monsters beneath the Glacial Rift, including the yeti, brown mold, the giants, the dragons, and more. Stay tuned …


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