A couple of months ago, I read Playing at the World, a history of early wargaming and its evolution into Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a massive brick of a book–700+ pages in an ant-sized font–and almost too definitive. Still, if you want to truly understand from where this hobby sprung, you need to seek it out.
I came away from it with a much greater appreciation for D&D co-creator E. Gary Gygax, who–if not the sole progenitor of the role-playing game–was clearly the chief architect of the classic dungeon crawl. But what impressed me most about this account of Gygax was his work in classifying and codifying the monsters of our shared mythology.
Allow me to backtrack a bit. I’d been doing some research into creatures of legend in an effort to create a bestiary for the Dungeon World RPG. My first step was to consult my treasured copy of Mythical Monsters. Published in 1973 by Scholastic Books, I bought this cartoon guidebook in grade school and have kept it to this day.*
It drew heavily on Jorge Luis Borges’ 1957 work Book of Imaginary Beings, so I sought out that volume as well. From it, I learned two important things:
- Many mythological creatures took no definitive form. Accounts of their appearance and attributes varied wildly depending on who was telling the tale.**
- Pliny the Elder would believe pretty much anything. You could walk up to him and claim that a hippopotamus breathed poisonous gas and foraged for pearls at the ocean’s bottom, and he’d write it up for his Natural History, no questions asked.
“No! Really! You say that one look into its eyes would kill you stone dead? Yet you’re still alive and telling me this? Why, I believe every word of it!”
Returning now to E. Gary Gygax, it’s well-known that he drew on many sources in developing his extensive list of dungeon denizens: Tolkien, Conan the Barbarian, Ray Harryhausen films, comic books and dime store toys. But as Playing at the World describes, Gygax went one step further than Borges: he pinned down these mutable myths. He distinguished the cockatrice from the basilisk, the gorgon from the medusa, the goblin from the kobold. Much of what we think we know about the catoplebas, the peryton and the manticore came by way of the Monster Manual.
As a fan of all things dark and dangerous, I tip my flagon of ale to you, Gary, for your role in preserving and cataloging our heritage of horrors.
*Unfortunately, in scanning the artwork for this article, I broke the binding of my beloved 40-year-old paperback. You may now feel sorry for me.
**Reading the wild descriptions of beings widely agreed upon as purely fanciful, I was struck by how similar they were to those found in the core beliefs of accepted, mainstream religion. Which of these is the myth?
- “(It) was larger than a mountain. Its eyes shot forth flames and its mouth was so enormous that nine thousand men would fit inside..the beast had three gullets; all vomited forth inextinguishable fire.”
- “(I) saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns…the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion…”
Trick question. They both are.