The Curious Origin of the Drow

In the article where "TSR Details its Policy", Rob Repp asserts that "Drow were created by TSR." Well, several people on the net took issue with this statement, and two of them actually did their homework.

From: (Andra L. Douglas) Subject: drow: not created by tsr, says webster. Date: 26 Sep 1994 10:19:10 -0500 Organization: UTexas Mail-to-News Gateway
Rob: From the webster's unabridged 1970 (big sucker, that.) "drow, n., [scot.] A tiny _elf_ which lived in _caves_ and forged magic metal work." Soooo, you're wrong. Next thing you know you'll be claiming trademark on 'banderlog'. ALD's husband, Thack.
From Rob McNeur (
The dictionary I checked yesterday was a Chambers dictionary *1972* edition (well before Gary wrote his stuff) and lists the word DROW as coming from mythology, specifically from the Shetland islands area and has it meaning a troll-like monster, which, given the wide meaning of the 'troll' term prior to widespread RPGs, just basically means a nasty monster, which would allow it to cover the 'dark elf' as well. So Gary Gygax/T$R still stole/borrowed it and can't copyright it. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - This tidbit of research brings up two important questions. First, just how many public domain terms is TSR claiming as its own intellectual property? Second (and more importantly), doesn't this situation perfectly exhibit a conflict that naturally arises between copyright law as it was originally intended and copyright law as it has been interpreted? Copyright law in the United States originates in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) "Congress shall have the power... to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Notice the intention of the Framers. Copyright law isn't for the benefit of the authors. It is for the benefit of society via the promotion of the sciences and the arts. Notice also, as witnessed by the fact that Gygax did extensive research to find names for the monsters he wrote about, that it is in the very nature of some writers to attempt to build on previous works (and this has been particularly true of RPG authors). Granted, the term Drow was in the public domain (and it referred to subterranean elves) long before Gygax ever wrote about "Drow Elves" (as he was probably well aware), however, such creatures as "Balrogs" and "Hobbits" were not, yet he and Arneson chose to detail these creatures as well, creatures which Tolkien had invented. Was it wrong to do so? Since the Tolkien suit apparently forced TSR to change Hobbits to Halflings (at least in name), we can conclude that the law is trying to stop writers from building on each others work. But is this in the best interests of society and the arts? I cannot help but wonder what the Framers would think. Of course, Hobbits, Balrogs, and Drow Elves aren't the only monsters which TSR "borrowed" from literature and legend. Here are four articles which comment on that very fact.
From: djdaneh@pbhyc.PacBell.COM (Dan'l DanehyOakes) Subject: "Lifted from Tolkien?" Organization: Pacific * Bell, San Ramon, CA Date: Tue, 1 Nov 1994 17:57:29 GMT
We find two fantasy fans, Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax ("The Enormous EGG"), playing CHAINMAIL. They play out battles set in an imaginary kingdom. The only thing lacking is magic. Lo! They create rules for magic. Lo! They introduce monsters. The monsters are drawn from various sources. If Tolkien is more evident than the others, it is only because he is best-known. Many monsters are drawn from the works of Lord Dunsany (Gibbelins, Gnolls... the description for these even mentions Dunsany). Some are drawn from Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" stories. The magic system is consciously based on Jack Vances "The Dying Earth" stories. And so on.... They enjoy it and publish it, and it becomes popular, first within sf/fantasy fandom and then beyond. Of the authors ripped-off by -- uh, I mean _influencing_ Gygax and Arneson, perhaps because Tolkien's work _is_ the most popular/best-known, only the holders of Tolkien's copyright choose to challenge TSR. TSR is forced to back down, and this ultimately results in the replacement of Hobbits and Ents with Halflings and Treants (both still blatantly derived from Tolkien, but with the serial numbers now filed off).
From: (Brad Spencer) Subject: Re: An exercise in hypocrisy by TSR Date: Sat, 22 Oct 1994 02:47:23 GMT
Turn to the Monstrous Compendium, Forgotten Realms pages, the 'F' section. You will see a monster called a 'Fachan', described in some detail. An odd monster, to say the least; one might think this monster an original concept. Now, consult your favorite guide to the Unseelie Court of Scotland [Faerie legends] and one of the members are, gosh, 'The Fachan', which looks exactly like the MC version. Not a single mention in the MC that this particular monster has been derived from someplace else. Other members of the Unseelie Court include, Hags and Blach Annis, Bogles, and Kelpie all of which became monsters in the Monstrous Compendium.
From: (Bryan J. Maloney) Subject: Re: history lesson -- Gygax and TSR? Date: 13 Dec 1994 02:05:40 GMT Organization: Purdue University
Orcus: Roman god of the Dead, later demonized by Christianity. Demogorgon: A demonic figure who appeared in a Percy Shelly poem (Prometheus Unbound?). Manes: Latin spirits of dead family members--center of ancestor worship in Rome. Demonized by Christianity. Type IV demons: The Balrog from Lord of the Rings. Type III demons: From the same source that produced the Naga (Indonesia and India). By the way "Naga" is Indonesian for "dragon". Succubus: European legends, common figure. Also overlapped with vampires to some extent. Asmodeus: Among the hierarchy of Hell, according to the Catholic Church. Dispater: Same as Asmodeus. Appeared as the lord of a mosque in Dante's Divine Comedy. Pit Fiend: Hell was called a "pit", demons were called "fiends". Do the math. Bone Devil: Similar to a lesser devil in Dante's Divine Comedy. Larvae: Another type of Roman spirit.
From: (Chris Bourne) Date: Thu, 10 Nov 1994 02:36:11 +0000
The original DMG acknowledged Tolkien's influence in a list of credits at the back, along with Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, etc. I think the issue is the contrast between authors who are flattered by imitation, and authors who think 'sue' as soon as they smell it. What bugs me about the TSR line is that they know perfectly well that their game would not exist at all without the authors whose ideas not only about individual creatures - re halflings, trolls, dragons, elves and dwarves (even the spelling mimics Tolkien, pre-Tolkien it was dwarfs and dwarfish, not dwarves and dwarven) but also all the ideas about how fantasy societies would work, what makes a hero, how magic might work... it's not a question of whether all this stuff was copyrightable or not. It made the game possible. TSR has accumulated this huge pool of fantasy creativity, added some bits of its own (and let's remember that much of that was not the work of 'TSR' as a corporate identity, but individuals like Gygax, Greenwood, Weis and Hickman, Dave Arneson, some of whom fell out with the corporate machine over just these types of question) and now wishes to lay title to as much as it can. TSR is NOT flattered by imitation, but it relied on the goodwill of authors who were. The Tolkien estate was not especially flattered, being an estate and not an author, and feeling a sort of sacred duty to preserve the hobbit in aspic. It complained. I wonder what TSR staff thought of that complaint when they received it? Did they think it was unsporting, unfair? Did they feel that the presence of hobbits in their game paid homage to Tolkien, and should have been taken as such? Did they complain about being bullied by a big, established publishing outfit? Does this sound familiar...?