Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Gnolls and ghouls

I love Lord Dunsany's fantasy stories - not least because some of them make excellent bedtime stories for children. I've read mine The Hoard of the Gibbelins, How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles and The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him several times. They love them (all three are essentially the same story), and they reckon The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth is "epic" too (it is!). A year ago, in Florence, I managed to send them to sleep after an ice-cream-fuelled day by means of a soporific reading of Idle Days of the Yann  - one of the best of Dunsany's tales, but not so appealing to the young imagination, I fear.

I'm fairly confident that How Nuth ... played a significant part in the establishment of D&D's thief class, presenting as it does the burglar as respectable professional. It probably influenced The Hobbit too, for the same reason; Tolkien knew and liked Dunsany's work. 

But the most direct contribution Dunsany made to D&D was the gnoll. Gygax denied the influence later, but it's plain as can be, barring a typo, in the original brown books:

GNOLLS: A cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany did not really make it all that clear) with +2 morale. Otherwise they are similar to Hobgoblins, although the Gnoll king and his bodyguard of from 1–4 will fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power.

The hyena-like form that appeared later owed nothing to Dunsany, of course. But when Gygax and Arneson were stocking their first bestiary with a range of synonyms for goblin, to which they ascribed escalating power,  they turned to the gnole/gnoll as one of the more powerful. So, in OD&D, we have kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins and gnolls - none of which are described in much detail, and all of which, barring gnoll, essentially mean 'goblin'.

Dunsany's gnoles were certainly dangerous - formidable, even. And the Sydney Sime illustration that accompanied the publication of the story - and inspired it in the first place, for the illustrations of The Book of Wonder came first - shows the gnoles as shadowy, goblin-like creatures:

(You can see more of Sime's stuff here.)

It's easy to see how these hunched and powerful-looking monsters fit into the taxonomy of ever-more formidable goblins, creatures that were eventually distinguished by giving them animal-like characteristics (dogs for kobolds, pigs for orcs, apes or mandrills for hobgoblins, hyenas for gnolls).

Since the Monster Manual, D&D gnolls no longer appear as part of a goblin hierarchy. To me, they intrude rather into the territory of the ghoul. Lovecraft's ghouls have dog-like snouts (hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs, but they look more like dogs):

"But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness."

And of course, in the popular imagination, ghouls and hyenas are both, above all, eaters of the dead.

In Arabic folklore - at least as it has filtered through to the West - ghouls are demons that haunt cemeteries and eat corpses:

"There I hid myself under the shadow of the wall, and crouched down cautiously; and hardly was I concealed, when I saw my wife approaching in company with a ghoul--one of those demons which, as your Highness is aware, wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat. If no live being goes their way, they then betake themselves to the cemeteries, and feed upon the dead bodies."
(The Story of Sidi-Noumain, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, ed. Andrew Lang)

 Sometimes, they assume the shape of a hyena. And in any case, they're bestial and monstrous in appearance.

In running D&D, I like to prune and rationalise the monster list somewhat. Most GMs do, I suspect.I used gnolls in a recent Dungeon World scenario that I ran for both my kids and a visiting relative and for a group of old friends. In both games, the gnolls manifested as nocturnal haunters of ruins and tombs - all high-pitched snickering, bone-gnawing and glowing eyes in the darkness. Those are exactly the characteristics I'd want from ghouls. And I think the hyena-like heads help to differentiate ghouls from walking corpses of various sorts, making them stranger, eerier yet more resonant. Oddly enough, the Monster Manual connects gnolls and ghouls through Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of Gnolls, who "also receives homage from the King of Ghouls".

 So, in the megadungeon I'm currently planning as a setting for both skirmish wargames and RPGs, gnolls will simply  be ghouls. 

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