Tolkein and D&D

It’s well-known that Gygax publicly downplayed the influence of the works on JRR Tolkein on the (A)D&D game. His stated stance was, to paraphrase, “the fans expected hobbits because of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, so we included them, but I wasn’t a fan and the impact of the books on the game was minimal.”

As I’ve been going through the minutiae of the AD&D game as I am working on the manuscript for Adventures Dark and Deep™, however, I am noticing quite a few more subtle (and not-so-subtle) influences from Professor Tolkein’s works on the game. I am becoming ever-more convinced that Gygax’s attitude was influenced by the lawsuit from the estate of Prof. Tolkein that famously forced TSR to change hobbits to halflings and ents to treants, and may well have been an effort to avoid another. However, the concept of half-elves seems derived from Elrond.

The whole idea of the ranger class, for example, is taken whole cloth from Aragorn and the other rangers. Details such as their propensity to operate alone or in small groups, as well as their abilities with tracking (as we see when Aragorn is trying to figure out what happened to Merry and Pippin), make this plain.And at 10th level they gain the ability to use scrying devices… like crystal balls (palantirs). Seems a random ability, if not for the Tolkein connection.

However, we also have the cloak of elvenkind; an obvious nod to the cloaks that the Fellowship are given by the elves. Too, we have the crystal hypnosis ball, that gradually brings the user under the thrall of some off-stage evil force; clearly a reference to the palantirs as used by Saruman and Denethor. The retributive strike of both the staff of the magi and the staff of power seems inspired by Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. (Speaking of which, the Type VI Demon is clearly more than inspired by that most lethal of the denizens of Moria, right down to the flaming whip.) The ability of giants to hurl boulders is not, to my knowledge, found in any source prior to The Hobbit, where the thunder of the storm that forces Bilbo and company to seek shelter in the cave in the Misty Mountains is compared to the sound of the giants in the mountains hurling boulders to amuse one another.

The drums of panic may well be a reference to the drums sounded by the orcs of Moria… “the drums in the deeps.” Could the ring of elemental command have been inspired by the rings of the elvish kings, which were attuned each to a different element? (Agreed, 3 in Tolkein and 4 in Gygax, following the classical Greek assignation of the elements.) It’s certainly possible. The rope of climbing bears an uncanny resemblance to the elvish rope that Frodo and Sam use to penetrate the outer barriers of Mordor. I am sure there are many other examples that could be cited.

I don’t say that (A)D&D was entirely inspired by Tolkein, but I am pretty sure that the influence of Tolkein on the design of the game was much greater than Gygax let on.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

24 thoughts on “Tolkein and D&D

  1. Even if LOTR did not influence Gygax like he claims, it certainly affected a large number of his players, myself included. Still, early D&D does seem to have more in common with the pulps than Tolkien, magic items and monsters notwithstanding. I never worried too much about it – every campaign is idiosyncratic to some extent, and everyone uses the sources they want.

  2. Tolkien influence is pretty obvious in the Fantasy Supplement to Chainmail, where among other things Smaug is cited as the model of the Red Dragon and Orcs are divided into tribes pretty clearly based on the divisions present in "The Two Towers" (more subtly, Werebears a la Beorn are one of the 2 types of Lycanthrope). But Gygax's distaste also shows through when he sniffs, "What are more generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres."

    It seems pretty clear-cut that Dave Arneson and some of his players in the Blackmoor campaign that preceded D&D were fans of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit".

    An early article in "The Dragon" suggests that the disclaimers of Tolkien influence were to some degree motivated by annoyance with the large number of people who wrote in asking why D&D's rules and creatures weren't more like their Middle-Earth namesakes and suggesting rules changes to bring D&D into line.

  3. Even if LOTR did not influence Gygax like he claims, it certainly affected a large number of his players, myself included.

    This is as close to the truth of it as we'll likely ever get. I've discussed this topic extensively over on my blog over the last couple of years, including this post that discusses a Gygax article on the subject from 1974, well before the lawsuits or the huge surge in popularity of the game.

    My own feeling remains that Gygax himself cared little for Tolkien (and understood him even less), except as a source of bits and bobs he could loot for new monsters, spells, and magic items. Arneson was much more directly influenced by him and, as Welleran rightly say, many of the game's earliest players were huge fans of Middle-earth, which likely explains many of the importations of stuff from Tolkien into the game.

    But D&D's foundation is pretty clearly not Tolkienian and I rather suspect that the professor, had he known of the game, wouldn't have thought much of its rather haphazard appropriation of his ideas (and I mean that in the esthetic, not legal, sense).

  4. Did Gygax even draft the original writeup of the ranger class? I'm no scholar, but I seem to recall not…

    Well, that doesn't matter though, does it? The issue is how much Tolkien influenced AD&D, not how much Tolkien influenced things created only by EGG.

    The idea that claims of Tolkien influence on AD&D is due only to LOTR fanboys wanting to feel important is, well, pretty silly.

    Anyway, it's not like Tolkien just up and created his worlds and stories from nothing. It's all very, very heavily influenced by many sources. Most of those same sources also very, very heavily influenced lots of other fantasy fiction including Sword & Sorcery written before LOTR saw print. So lots of similarities are bound to exist.

    (Personally, I believe the direct influence of Tolkien on D&D is far greater than Gygax admitted. I sure hope that doesn't make me a "fanatical Tolkien freak.")

  5. …the influence of Tolkein on the design of the game was much greater than Gygax let on.

    People wanted to use EGG's pulp fantasy game to simulate the epic high fantasy of Tolkien. EGG – no fool in the marketing stakes – gave them the option to do so (just as D&DG later did with the Elric, Newhon and Cthulhu mythos).

    The ability of giants to hurl boulders is not, to my knowledge, found in any source prior to The Hobbit…

    Folklore dear boy. Everything from the basaltic pillars of the Giants Causeway to the various glacial erratics dotted about the landscape have been attributed to fighting giants.

    You've the Greek and Norse giants, famous for stacking mountains and lobbing boulders at the gods.

  6. You've the Greek and Norse giants, famous for stacking mountains and lobbing boulders at the gods.

    I've more than a passing familiarity with Norse mythology, and I don't recall anything specifically citing giants hurling boulders. Can you quote me a source?

  7. This whole discussion reminds me very much of discussions I've had about the influences on Star Wars. In numerous interviews in the 70s and 80s Lucas repeated that he wasn't much of a science fiction fan, and so other than the serials he saw as a kid, wasn't influenced by any works of sci-fi.

    His comments come across as suspicious because the original Star Wars films have so much in common with the two biggest science fiction series in the decades immediately before Star Wars – Dune and Foundation.

    But why would he lie? He openly admits to the influence of numerous other sources including The Hidden Fortress, Buck Rogers and Joseph Campbell.

    I suspect the truth is that even though Lucas was the brains behind Star Wars, many people were involved on various levels with Star Wars, and many of them were likely sci-fi fans who drew inspiration from obvious sources.

    And so both Gygax and Lucas were honest in so far as their own role in borrowing from the well known sources was probably limited to allowing said material out of ignorance. After all, for many of the examples you are citing one needs to be a pretty hardcore LotR fan to recognize. So Gygax likely OKed these additions without any clue of where they were from.

  8. I wonder how much money the Tolkien estate made out of preventing TSR from using the words hobbit and treant. It is fortunate that Tolkien's work remains in the public mind in spite of rather than because of what was done in the name of protecting the LotR IP.

    A work of popular fiction by virtue of its popularity SHOULD percolate into society, influencing the works of other writers and nourishing the cultural melieu. When did the business of selling books or music become the dismal business of selfishly hoarding words and ideas and could that ever again work when the monopoly of the publisher has been broken as is the situation today?

    Lovecraft understood what it meant to be a writer and were it not for his vision and magnanimity then we all would not be enjoying today the fruits of his original vision that he and his contemporaries planted so long ago. Perhaps those halcyon days will again return. I can hope can't I?

  9. Re: Giants and boulders. Didn't the 'giants' start the war on the Olympian Gods by hurling boulders and burning trees at the sky?

    Personally, I think he very well may have been influenced by Tolkien's work in a more subconscious way than many people would expect. Tolkien's work was not original in source. In layout, perhaps, in depth and breadth certainly, but what Tolkien truly did was little more than develop a mythos that could be embraced by modern people as something to believe in, like fairy stories. He brought disparate strands together and fashioned a whole tapestry of world and history and adventure.

    Gygax did very similar things, he may even have used similar sources as Tolkien to inspire and build his world, but I don't think he plagiarised it by any stretch of the imagination.

    In the effort of building my own world for my own campaign, I've written loose histories and personalities of nations and states and even a few mad emperors, and I've felt (rather pridefully) that they're MY creations. Only upon presenting them to other people will I be shown to have been influenced by people. Unless it was intentional, and I don't think we can prove it was, it's far easier for us on the outside to see the patterns (whether real or imagined) of subconscious influence or patterns of common mythology sources than it is for the writer to do so.

  10. Keep in mind that Gygax wasn't the sole writer of D&D nor Chainmail. There were about 7 figureheads in the organization and it wasn't until after they published Chainmail that Arneson joined in with his own fantasy campaign Blackmoor. Perren and Gygax are credited for Chainmail but who's to say that the fantasy ideas didn't come from any other member in the organization?

    I'm not hung up in who "ripped off" who because D&D, even in its initial form, is an entirely different beast than Tolkien's fantasy. There's a little bit of Howard, a little bit of Tolkien, a little bit of Vance, etc. D&D is unique because it's pretty much a Mongolian grill of every fantasy influence. Pick your ingredients, give it to the chef, and tell him what sauce to put on it. Serve it with rice or noodles and enjoy.

    You can also add to your list that Type VI demons were originally called Balrogs. Elves and their "we don't die, we just sail away when we get bored" is Tolkien as well. Rangers can wear any armor, particularly like Aragon in his plate mail. In Chainmail, a high level fighter can instantly kill a passing dragon (a reference to the black arrow that killed Smaug).

  11. Everything old is new again. What now hasn't been influenced by what has come before it, whether knowingly or not? Shakespeare was probably the latest one that rewrote it all anyway. 🙂

    Some quotes from Professor Tolkien that may indicate his nod of approval to RPGs:

    "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"

    "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"

    "We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic
    'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil."


  12. I agree with the post and with many of the comments. The very foundation of D&D play, the adventuring party, has little precedent in the literature that some say was the virtually sole source of inspiration for the game – Vance, Anderson, Leiber, Howard, Moorcock. In all those, and in the vast majority of the underly mythology, you have a lone hero, or at most a hero and a sidekick (with, in the case of Leiber, the additional twist that both characters are equal parts hero and sidekick.) The only mythological exceptions to this that I can think of are the tale of the Argonauts and Hrolf Kraki's Saga.

    I think we should take Gary's comments regarding the influence of Tolkien on D&D as more accurately reflecting Tolkien's influence on Gary himself. I never discussed it with him, but I suspect from various comments he made in print that he admired Tolkien as a world-builder but felt that LotR was lacking in fun and a spirit of adventure.

    But Gary wasn't the sole influence on the way that D&D developed, or even on the way it was originally designed. There's Arneson, of course, but there's also the players themselves over the early years, who were probably just as important in the long run, and who by and large were influenced by Tolkien. I can confirm from personal experience that even at Gary's own table, he'd have let you strike a tone that he himself wasn't necessarily fond of or in agreement with.

  13. I'm not so sure I'd agree, Jason. If I were basing a character class on Robin Hood, the first thing I'd do is make sure it was focused on the bow. The (A)D&D ranger doesn't have that. Nor do the ranger's restrictions on the number of companions, or his focus on tracking, really seem to have much resonance with Robin Hood.

    And don't misunderstand me; I'm not claiming that (A)D&D is all based on Tolkein. Just that there are a lot more direct adaptions than were normally acknowledged.

  14. The ability to refight the Hobbit's Battle of Five Armies was probably one of the major drivers behind the fantasy supplement of Chainmail. Same for Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields (Five Armies seemed to be the one that folks were most interested)

    Tolkien was one of the few fantasy author to have any type of detail for battles. Another is Conan. But given the mix of monsters in Chainmail fighting LOTR style battle was at the forefront.

    This comes with a big but… Remember these were a community of gamers in the upper midwest. Emphasis on community. I know growing up in Northwest PA that we kitbashed a lot of stuff together to create our games.

    And it is what upper midwest kitbashed that turned into D&D. To me it is plausible that Gygax was not personally influenced by Tolkien but yet it was a major influence anyway. Gygax was not only drawing on his experiences but those of those he gamed with. So D&D reflects what gamers in the upper midwest were thinking at the time.

    If you had a time machine you could probably trace back each thread. "Oh Ernie was into LOTR but Dennis was keen on playing a Druid.".

    But since that not happening all we can say D&D is a product of what Upper Midwest gamers like in the early 70s with Gygax and Arenson pulling together disparate ideas into a new type of fantasy game focused on individual characters that inspired generations.

  15. Personally, I think it's apparent that Tolkien contributes as much to D&D as Howard, Moorcock, Lovecraft, and Vance. And he does so from pretty much Day 1. (Day 0 if we count Chainmail.)

    If I had to hypothesize, however, I'm guessing that Gygax was constantly getting hit with people saying "D&D = Tolkien". In the early days, as Maliszewski points out, Gygax simply pointed out that Tolkien was one among a host of influences that made up the fantasy gestalt of the game.

    But I'm guessing it got tiring to deal with the "D&D = Tolkien" crowd. And then there was the lawsuit. At some point Gygax decided that it was easier to simply over-react and minimalize the Tolkien influences rather than even semi-legitimizing the people who wanted to put Tolkien on a pedestal. There may have even come a point where he'd internalized that response to the point where he believed it to be true.

    But I do believe that saying "Tolkien had no meaningful influence on D&D" is as misleading and false as saying "Tolkien was the primary influence for D&D".

  16. > "What are more generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres."

    Naturally, so he could stick the very different Troll from Three Hearts and Three Lions into the mix.

  17. I've often felt Gygax overplayed his disdain for LoTR as the years went on. It's clear that he had more than a passing enjoyment of it, and the Hobbit, even if he didn't love it all. He clearly enjoyed parts of it and sought to bring them into his game for more than marketing purposes, hence the subtle realization of his influence in other areas. Why his eventual 'hated the book, just threw stuff in for cheap publicity' take is beyond me. Perhaps it's that Gygax really did enjoy other authors, and viewed their influence as more important, yet whenever the non-gaming public spoke of D&D, it was always 'that fantasy game inspired by Lord of the Rings and others.' Who knows. We can only guess. But it is clear that Tolkien's influence was a little more than some orcs and ents for the sales promotion.

  18. I agree with your analysis about some of the details from LOTR influencing D&D, but at the end of the day, D&D at its best isn't a story of good guys versus bad guys like Tolkien.

    Instead, I see the engine driving sandbox campaigns like the one Joe is running now is more influenced by Howard's Conan stories and the like. Conan isn't a hero, but a true adventurer who wants to make money. He might often save a fair maiden or defeat an evil lord, but never for the Good. His interests are much more selfish.

    There is a reason, D&D has adventurers and not heroes.

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