Monday, January 18, 2010

The Rock Cried Out: Dwarvish Origins

I'm probably not the first to notice that Todd Lockwood's rendering of the dwarf in the 3e Player's Handbook illustration of the PC races looks rather anthropoid.  It's proportions seem realistic--like the dwarf is a non-sapiens homonid rather than some fantasy creation, or just a stumpy human.

That got me to thinking about how to add a twist to dwarves in my campaign world. 

I thought about Arthur Machen's idea of an aboriginal race getting pushed out by later cultures, and becoming the source of legends of elves and faerie folk, as put forth in The Novel of the Black Seal, and borrowed by Robert E. Howard in several yarns.  That brought to mind a real relative of humanity maybe driven to extinction by our ancestors.  A group of short, stocky folk, dwelling in caves (in the popular imagination), and from northern climes--Neanderthals...

"Living in caves from the start, these aborigines had retreated farther and farther into the caverns of the hills..."
- Robert E. Howard, "People of the Dark" (1932)

This is a tale told by the dzarduk, the dwarves of Arn, in their great and hidden halls beneath the fells:

This is our oldest tale. A tale from before we counted time. This is the tale of how we became Dzarduk...
It was an Age of Winter and the People (who were not yet the Dzarduk) still lived above the ground. They worked only flint, and did not know the secrets of metal. They hunted great beasts of the forest and the tundra for their meat and for their skins.

It was a hard life, but the People were hard as well. They survived.

That was until the Tall Folk came.  They were not as strong, nor as hardy as the People, but they were more cunning in the use of tools, and they bred in greater numbers. The Tall Folk gradually forced the People from their ancestral hunting grounds. They drove them into the highlands and to the edge of the great ice.

It is likely that there the People would have died, but for the dreaming.

A young shaman had a dream of a star fallen from the heavens into the deep mountains long ago. From within the star, a voice beckoned. It promised safety to the People if they could find its resting place.

Older shamans felt the power of the dreaming, but disagreed on its interpretation. They called on the spirits for guidance, but got no answer. All the People met in council. Many thought it foolish to go further into the mountains, into the realm of ice. Others felt it offered their only chance of survival.

Debate went on far into the night, and when it was over, the People were sundered, each band going where it would. Those that chose not to follow the young shaman's dream were lost, and are no more.

The rest travelled many months in the mountains, through ice and snow. They fought great beasts, and remnants of elder races. Many of the People died.

When they finally came upon the valley where the star had fell, they knew it to be a place of great magic. The star, though broken and half buried, was a wonder--it was made of metal, though the People had no word for that substance yet. When they came close, all could here the voice inside, beckoning.

Many became afraid, and would not approach. The young shaman and a few brave hunters went inside the star. They beheld strange things that they could scarce describe. There were dead beings like men, some of them made of the shining stone, like the star itself.

As they stood inside the star, the shaman called out to the voice of its spirit: "You called and we have come. We beg shelter."

"Shelter I will give you," the spirit responded, "but not without a price. I have waited long for someone to answer my summons. I journeyed far to come here, so far I have forgotten much.  My people have died. Some on the voyage, some in our final fall. I have been damaged. There is no one to tend me."

"We will be your people," the shaman said. "Our old gods have forsaken us, or past on. We will tend you, and serve."

The shaman was then caught in a piercing light, and the hunters--brave though they were-- became afraid they had angered the spirit of the star, and it would kill them all. Then the spirit said:

"If you are to be my people, you must change. You are not yet suitable to my purposes. If you will serve, I will make you wiser than any other people in artifice and the working of metal. But you must be warriors as well as craftsman. I will make you stronger, and cunning in war.  That is the only way that we will endure."

The shaman didn't understand all the words the spirit spoke, but it knew truly that this was the only way the People would survive. He took the spirit's words back to the People. Many were afraid, but solemnly they accepted the offer.

The spirit revealed to the People the sheltered cave entrance that part of the star hid.  It showed them how they might find food in it's stores.

Around the fires they built that first night, the People told this story. The story of how we became Dzarduk, the people that were forged.


Unknown said...

What an awesome idea! I had never thought of the Neanderthal/Dwarf connection before but it totally works for me. I'm going to have to steal it for a future game.

Trey said...

Steal away! And let me know how it goes, if you would. You might had a detail I wanna snag. :)

The Malum said...

I know I'm coming late to the party, but you should check out Michael Scott Rohan's series The Winter of the World (not the current Ken Follett series). The fantasy novel series is set in a fantasy version of our Earth during the Ice Age, and his dwarves are also Neanderthals. They were very interestingly depicted, having mastered "advanced" technology (compared to the humans) because, as a race, they are considerably older.