The Gygax Bestiary


Gary Gygax, who died today at age 69, has a special place in my heart - but not for the obvious reason. I was never a disciple of his famous creation, Dungeons & Dragons. I grew up in a rural, conservative area, and while I'm sure there were a few gaming groups around, they were neither very popular nor co-ed. Perhaps as a result, the gaming bug never bit me - I've never played Magic, Myst, WoW, or any other fantasy game more complex than Castle Risk.

But circa 1983, one of those obscure local fantasy geeks upgraded to the D&D Monster Manual II, abandoning his well-worn Monster Manual I to the yardsale bin, and I somehow ended up with it. Like many young girls, I was possessed by an inexplicable affinity for unicorns - I guess the horrifically cheesy white one on the MMI cover must have drawn my eye. And when my mom bought it, she must not have looked inside; the MMI had a rather casual attitude toward nudity, at least among female mythical creatures. However it happened, in short order, Mr. Gygax' low-budget Wonder Cabinet had me hooked on imaginary taxonomy.

I'd already read The Hobbit, so one of my first efforts was to identify Smaug. What kind of dragon was he? The MMI described about a dozen dragons; mostly you could tell them apart by color and size, no dichotomous key necessary. That wasn't very exciting, but digging deeper, I found some of the details interestingly cryptic. Dragons, it seemed, could be both good and evil - and not only good, but chaotic good. Mmmm, chaos: there were some yummy new words in the MMI! Words like umber, dexterity, and chitinous.

Unfortunately, Gygax permanently screwed up my associations with still other words. Even now, the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" evokes an incongruous flying orange eyeball of death (the "Beholder"). The Beholder, in turn, had a fungal doppleganger (another word I learned from MMI) - the Gas Spore. The Gas Spore's strategy was a plausible D&D version of Mullerian mimicry (although it might have been Batesian; I can't remember how harmful the Gas Spore was). Each creature's environment meshed with its attributes in some sensible way; you didn't find the explosive Gas Spore in volcanoes. Amidst all the wackiness, Mr. Gygax was striving to emulate ecological principles, as if even fictitious worlds had to follow certain rules.

Another biological theme Gygax explored: sexual dimorphism. Some of the monsters were exclusively female (parthenogenesis?) or male (no clue). Others had rather complicated relationships - the female gynosphinxes spent their entire lives avoiding loutish male criosphinxes and seeking intelligent male androsphinxes. (Wait - that doesn't sound at all odd to me anymore.)

The majority of "monsters" were at least partially anthropomorphic, with names I didn't recognize - Tiamat, Asmodeus, Succubus, Ki-rin (names almost as evocative as Gygax!) Like Tolkein, Gygax mined legends, scrounging whatever he could use and tossing the rest. He also made up some implausible creatures - "shambling mound" survived to enter our family lexicon; the unpronounceable "otyugh" was selected out. I absorbed these names, and for years afterward I got goosebumps when I rediscovered one in real-world mythology. Tiamat, as it turns out, is a Babylonian goddess; the Ki-rin is the Korean Kirin or the Chinese Qi-lin; MMI's demons and devils are mostly Biblical. Yes, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody makes me think of MMI, too.

One of the few things that bothered me as a nascent biologist was the inclusion of dinosaurs in the MMI. Dinosaurs were real; they weren't "monsters"! Looking back, my response was puritanical; since Herodotus, bestiaries have freely mixed imagination with paleontology. If Gygax had called them "thunder lizards" I'd have let him get away with it. At any rate, the lesson I took from this was skepticism - what is now proved was once only imagined! - and tolerance, even relish, for imprecise, overlapping nomenclature.

Why did Gary Gygax' primitive little bestiary fascinate me so? Until today, I never really thought about it. Outside D&D, the MMI was completely useless. But it seemed to promise something: that the world is orderly and categorical, that if one reads long enough and deep enough, its wonders can be catalogued and thus understood.

Inspired by the MMI, I began creating my own fanciful bestiaries and collections of monsters - a hobby that excited me far more than stamps and coins and the other inanimate collections adults seemed to think I should have. And this led eventually to biology, to the pleasure of naming things in the real world - enriched by the rich tapestry of myth that human beings have always woven from the weft of the natural world and the warp of their imaginations.

The MMI was just a silly little piece of that tapestry, but it meant a lot to me. Thank you, Gary Gygax, and goodnight.

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Borges' Libro de los seres imaginarios had a similar effect on me (although I never became a biologist but rather a mythologist). This is a cool story.

The Monster's Manual was an awesome book, even for people who didn't give a toss about the rest of D&D. And I'm ever so slightly disappointed that Gary Gygax went out because of natural causes and not at the hands of a berserk dwarf dual-wielding axes.

I was really into D&D when I was very, very young--maybe up until 2nd grade or so. The cover of that original Monster Manual brings back memories. I had probably the first five of them. I feel like my vivid imagination today has something to do with the fantasies I conjured up in those days about battling dragons, skeletons, and trolls.

I wish I still had my copy of the MM, too. At least I know it went back into the yardsale pool, probably ending up in another kid's hands - the most karmically appropriate end. I've never read that book of Borges - I'll have to check it out.

As for my drawings of bestiaries, they're still around - in storage about 3,000 miles from where I am right now. ;) If I ever want to humiliate myself on the blog, I'll have my mom send some out to me. . . one thing about my critters, when it came to naming them, I did *not* know when to stop! I just kept adding syllables, figuring that the longer the name, the better and more "fantastic." It wasn't until I got older that I grasped that credible names were rooted in real cultures & literature, and that was where to go digging, like Tolkien did.

It was the AD&D Deities & Demigods volume that turned me and my 7th grade contemporaries into fans of ancient mythologies beyond the Greco-Roman. We knew all about Sumer, Babylon, Ancient Egypt, even a Finnish Mythos based on the Kalevala. We figured Marduk could take down Hercules in a cage match smackdown. We discovered Cthulhu and Moorcock's Elric novels because they were in the Deities and Demigods volume. My first exposure to celtic deities there came in handy later during my neo-pagan years with a bunch of new order Druids from Delaware. Any religion with single malt as a sacrement is worth looking into...