Thursday, June 29, 2017

The D&D Gnomes pursued

So, recently I posted about being curious about the origins of the D&D gnome, when all the other 'demi-human' player character races in AD&D/early D&D all too obviously derive from Tolkien.*
The last comment on that post (by Paul W) said

I'd love to hear more about that discussion on how gnomes became a PC race for D&D.

It's an unfortunate fact that inconclusive researches are harder to sum up that successful ones, but here goes a sort of brief interim report.

(1) for most of the twentieth century 'gnome' seems to have been a generic word very like 'goblin' or 'imp' or 'fairy' or 'elf'. When one did appear, it was generally in a comic context.

(2) the Dutch gnomes of the picture books I posted about a while ago are definitely not the basis of the D&D gnome. They are the inspiration of the Forest Gnome, created by Douglas Niles for PHBR9. THE COMPLETE BOOK OF GNOMES & HALFLINGS (1992),** which I edited.***
(3) there's a long tradition of 'gnome' as a name for humanoid earth elementals, but D&D obviously didn't choose to go that route. Though interestingly enough it has both salamanders (as a non-humanoid fire-creature) and fire elementals, the former poss. inspired by the rampaging salamander in Poul Anderson's OPERATION CHAOS, which I'm currently reading. But the gnome/earth elemental just isn't there in the race's core concept. The xorn or even the umber hulk wd have been closer.

(4) my interim conclusion: gnome was added to the PLAYER'S HANDBOOK player-character races as a token non-Tolkien character. Then anytime someone made the case to Gygax that an awful lot of his game --the player-character races, a third or so of the core monsters, the very concept of a multi-racial multi-class player-character party -- were all borrowed directly from Tolkien, whose works Gygax eventually came to disparage, he cd point to the gnome as non-Tolkienian. And ask Tolkien Enterprises to please not sue him.

In short: I put it on par with 'mithral'. They're not fooling anybody.

(5) my guess: if there is any direct ancestor for the D&D gnome, it's likeliest to be found in UNKNOWN and its descendents/derivatives.

So here's a question I'd like to know the answer to: where does the first gnome NPC appear -- what adventure? And when does the first gnome pre-generated PC see print?

--John R.
current reading: OPERATION CHAOS by Poul Anderson.

*even using Tolkien's preferred elves over the then-standard elfs and Tolkien's own invention dwarves over the pre-Tolkien universal usage dwarfs. Not to mention Hobbits > Halflings.

**(Pity we didn't port over the cannibal halflings of Athas instead)

***I told them it'd sell a bunch more copies if they called it THE COMPLETE BOOK OF HALFLINGS AND GNOMES. I still think I was right, too.


N.E. Brigand said...

I don't know D&D at all. Is it possible that another inspiration for its salamanders (besides the standard folklore about the actual amphibians living in fires, inspired by their crawling out of burning logs) is C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, which also features gnomes?

Clive Shergold said...

Have you considered the gnomes of The Little Grey Men (1942) and The Forest of Boland Light Railway (1955) by BB (aka Denys Watkins-Pitchford)? Both had less well-known sequels, and were popular in the UK.

Zenopus Archives said...

Interesting topic. If you go way back, Gygax first included Gnomes in Chainmail as an alternate to Dwarves: "DWARVES (and Gnomes): Because their natural habitat is deep under the ground, these stout folk operate equally well day or night" (pg 26, 2nd edition). I don't have access to 1st edition Chainmail, but I think the text is the same. So any source for this original concept of Gygaxian Gnomes being essentially equivalent to Dwarves would need to pre-date Chainmail. OD&D Vol 2 gives them a separate entry in the Monster List, where they are first distinguished from dwarves by being as burrowers in the hills and lowlands. And then in the Greyhawk supplement (1975), Gygax mentions gnomes as a type of dwarf in the section on Characters: "...and are of various types (hill, mountain, or burrowers) (such as gnomes)." (pg 5). This is often overlooked by players, but its means that you could choose to have your Dwarf character be a gnome. In the Monster Manual (1977) we first learn of possible magic-use: "It is rumored that there exist gnomes with magical abilities up io 4ih level, but this has not been proved" (pg 46). As a kid I loved how the Monster Manual was sprinkled with these kinds of rumors. This is later revealed as illusionist capability in the Players Handbook. Overall, I think this follows a typical pattern of Gygax where he will mention something in brief and then elaborate on it in later publications.

Rownsepyk said...

There is an interview with Gary Gygax online where he answered similar questions (how accurately based on age/memory fading/rewriting history is completely unknown)...

"Fact is that dwarves and elves came from mythology and folklore, the hobbit from JRRT's work. That mix was selected to attract readers of the "Rings Trilogy," of course. Later on I added gnomes to D&D to broaden the choices for non-human PCs, as I did in AD&D. This was done because a number of players, myself included, were tired of having so many dwarves, elves, and halflings in the group of adventurers. In my campaign a party of 12 would have three front rank halflings, a second rank of dwarves, elves in the third rank, and the fourth rank the humans--mainly magic-users and clerics.


"Gnomes in myth were created as one of the four elementals, that of earth. I took what I recalled from fairy tales and folklore about mine spirits to create a unique race for the D&D game. Yes, there were already halflings and dwarves, but i made the gnomes sufficiently different so as to allow another choice for character race. I have used it in a PC, he being a gnome illusionist-thief.

Inspiration for the D&D dwarves came from the Norse mythology, legends, and fairy tales. Elves came mainly from folklore and fairy tales.

I have read all the Andrew Lang (various colors in the titles) save the Yellow Book of Fairy Tales, Andersen, and Brothers Grimm fairy tales as well as many a book on folklore and legends.

Halflings were mainly drawn from JRRT's fiction, of course."

David Bratman said...

"The Complete Book of Halfings and Gnomes" scans better, in syllabic rhythm, as well as putting Halflings first.

I take it you're discounting the possibility that Gygax knew that pre-1966 editions of The Hobbit used "Gnomes" to refer to the Noldor. (The only place in Tolkien's writings, I think, that this usage had yet appeared in print.)

Rownsepyk said...

Following up on the Andrew Lang comment by Gary by doing a few google book searches, shows lots of gnomes in various stories (many in the Olive Book and Brown Book for example), which seem to have some correlation to the D&D version (small size, some have magic powers, many live underground or in the mountains).

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear N.E.B.
I can't rule out Narnia, but I think it unlikely. I know of no evidence that Gygax ever read CSL's stories,* and the D&D take on folkloric creatures pretty much goes its own way, owing little to Narnia.
Have to say though that it may just be that my memory has grown dim on this point, and I find I can't face the prospect of re-reading Narnia again, esp. THE SILVER CHAIR, to refresh the details.

*in general he preferred pulp science fiction and fantasy

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Clive
Have to admit I've never heard of either.
Are they along the lines of THE GNOMEMOBILE?
--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Rownsepyk
Thanks for the Gygax material, and the mention of Andrew Lang. I particularly like that we're hearing Gygax in his deliberate, reflective mode here -- as elder statesman of the hobby, so to speak.
As for what he has to say here, it sounds reasonable enough but a bit too preplanned and Poe-ish.* Still, good to have that on record.

*if you've ever read E.Poe's THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION you'll know what I mean

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear David
Yes, I don't think Gygax read carefully enough to uncover details like that.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Zenopus
Interesting stuff; thanks for sharing. Haven't had a chance to go back and check for myself, but what you quote sounds very like the way so many things happened in D&D. Someone creates a monster. Players learn to recognize said creature and how best to exploit it vulnerabilities. DMs create a slightly different variant of said monster with a different weak point, and the evolution continues. Creatures bifurcate, with slight variants becoming distinct new creatures. Just witness wraith/spectre.

I agree with yr comment about Gygax's method of dropping hints that might (or might not) later be picked up on and developed.

In short, the passages you point out and the point you make about them brings the D&D gnome sourcing problem right into the main line of how D&D itself grew. This alone makes it a likely scenario.

I still personally suspect that the D&D gnome as we know it (i.e., as a player-character race) probably originated when some player got some DM to let him play a gnome (as a dwarf-variant, based on the passage you pointed out) and decided that he wd be a magic-user specializing in illusions and have a sarcastic black humor sort of personality. But even if it happened anything like that I think it's probably impossible to trace it after all this time.

--John R.

Paul W said...

I always loved the gnome, in fairy tales 'dwarves' usually have some sort of magical power, and they are almost always tricksters of some sort. AD&D dwarves & elves are clearly based on Tolkien's versions, Gygax's protestations to the contrary I find exceedingly unconvincing. Gnomes filled that short, bearded, magical trickster role well.

I find that the petty-dwarves of The Children of Hurin fit the gnome in many ways better then they do the dwarves in D&D.

Thanks for sharing this, it was very interesting!