Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Fantastic Bestiary

When we study the monsters that populated the early setting of Dungeons & Dragons, sometimes we're at a loss to identify any particular source for them. The basilisk, for example, might have come to gaming through any number of fantasy authors or encyclopediae of mythology. But other times it's very clear from whence monsters came. Take the case of four lesser-known creatures from the Monster Manual: the Ki-rin, Shedu, Couatl and Su-monster. All debuted in Eldritch Wizardry (1976), and all have a mythological pedigree, but all certainly owe their appearance in Dungeons & Dragons to a particular work: Ernst and Johanna Lehner's A Fantastic Bestiary (1969). An image of the Japanese mythological creature the Ki-rin, probably the most famous of the four monsters, from that book is shown above. A thorough analysis of the Fantastic Bestiary demonstrates that its influence goes back much farther, to the very dawn of role-playing games.

The Lehners' Fantastic Bestiary is largely a picture book, a compendium of public domain images of monsters. Its chapters group monsters into families: of dragons, underwater monsters, aerial monsters, and so on. At the end of the book is a helpful glossary that gives capsule descriptions of eighty monsters along with an index to the illustrations. In this regard it is not dissimilar to other volumes of its era - so how do we know that Eldritch Wizardry drew on this one in particular?

We find the first hint in the names alone. The specific spelling and punctuation "ki-rin" as opposed to "ki-lin" or "ki'lin" is rare in sources on Japanese mythology. Even the famous Japanese beer spells its name without a hyphen. Eldritch Wizardry gave no illustration of the Ki-rin, though it stated that the monster resembled a "cloudy horse," which seems like a reasonable fit for the picture given above.

If the Ki-rin were the only piece of evidence, the debt of Eldritch Wizardry to the Fantastic Bestiary would be tenuous at best. But Eldritch Wizardry also marks the first appearance of the Su-monster. While again, no illustration of the Su-monster is given, the text describes it as follows: "their bodies somewhat resemble a wasp-waisted, great chested hound. Their heads appear much like gorillas'. All four feet are prehensile and armed with long and extremely sharp nails as well." Now take a gander at the following illustration, reproduced in the Fantastic Bestiary:

Discoveries of unfamiliar animals in the New World captured the popular imagination in the sixteenth century, but often led to gross misunderstandings: the creature this illustration attempts to represent is the humble opposum, with its young clinging to its back. Early accounts called it the "su-monster," and thus the name entered Dungeons & Dragons. Because Eldritch Wizardry focused particularly on psionic powers, the Su-monster and its fellows employ them liberally. The same happens to the Couatl of South American myths, which is depicted among various feathered serpents in the Fantastic Bestiary. Another of these new entrants is the Shedu, which again can be traced back to an illustration in the Fantastic Bestiary:

The Shedu, according to Eldritch Wizardry, is "somewhat similar in appearance to Lammasu, being human-headed winged creatures with bull-like bodies." To find this alone, again, would be inconclusive: but to find the Shedu with the Ki-rin, the Su-monster and the Couatl introduced to the game simultaneously is decisive.

But does the influence stop there? After all, the Lammasu itself first appeared in Greyhawk the year before Eldritch Wizardry - could it too have derived from the Fantastic Bestiary? There are numerous depictions of the Lammasu so named in that volume. In fact, the influence of the Fantastic Bestiary can clearly be found even before Dungeons & Dragons went to print, in the Dalluhn Manuscript. Take the example of the Gorgon, a monster whose nature much changed between the Dalluhn Manuscript and the published version of Dungeons & Dragons:

"An iron-clad bull[ish] monster" with poison breath as described in the Dalluhn Manuscript is far too close to the glossary of the Fantastic Bestiary to be mere coincidence. However, by the release of Dungeons & Dragons, the description had been rephrased, and now Gorgon breath petrified rather than poisoned. It is only thanks to the survival of the Dalluhn Manuscript that we can even detect how the Fantastic Bestiary factored into the earliest thinking about monsters. But there are plenty more fascinating questions to investigate in this volume. Although the Fantastic Bestiary is no longer in print under that title, Dover has been kind enough to keep it available as the Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, and Other Mythical Creatures.


  1. Have you checked out T.H. White's "Fantastic Bestiary"? It was first published in 1954, and I know it has the Gorgon, at least, in it. I have a copy somewhere.

  2. White's "Bestiary" is cited in PatW as a source for D&D, yes, but the textual correspondence of the Lehners' "Fantastic Bestiary" to the EW monsters, and to things like the Gorgon text, make it far more directly traceable as a source. The other book that clearly exerted an influence on the Monster Manual was Borges's "Book of Imaginary Beings," but we'll leave that for another day...

  3. Interesting! I mention White (actually it was published as "A Book Of Beasts") because that's where I first saw the idea of the "iron bull" Gorgon.

    Of course, the whole question of whether the Lehners were influenced by White lurks there too! (I suspect they went through a whole bucketful of books. Does their volume have a biblography?)

    (Okay, if we're not careful that tangent could take over!)

    1. The Lehners' don't cite White, no. Their image of the Gorgon is from Topsell, as is White's - Topsell is a pretty famous 17th century bestiary source. That illustration could have been found in either - but the exact turn of phrase "An iron-clad bull[ish] monster" is not from White (see p266 of White for his text about it).

    2. Yep; blame Topsell. Most of his work was translated from Conrad Gesner's Historia Animalium; not sure about this specific case, although I can see the Catablepon/fera Libyca in a later edition of Gesner (and yet more fun with names, of course...).

      If your Elizabethan English requires a tangential workout
      (later copy of Topsell, slightly shorter text than the original edition)

      *g* I'm going to end up buying Wilk's "Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon" at this rate...

  4. Excellent post on the literary side of things! Don't forget the influence of cheap purchases at Woolworth's on Dave Arneson, though! :)