“We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Gloin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel.” Gandalf recounting part of his battle with the Balrog in The Two Towers.
Nameless horrors and mad cults have been a part of fantasy for some time. Recently however, I have noticed that the idea has evolved to new heights, with fresh infusions via Lovecraft, and crossovers from horror writers.
I was first introduced to the Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu, the yellow king, the mountains of madness, and all of that when I read the first edition Deities and Demigods, an old D&D supplement detailing villains, patrons, religions, and cults for aspiring dungeon masters. I suspect, given the huge influence that RPGs have had on the current generation of Fantasy writers, that much of the passion for elder spawn, nameless horrors, and the mad cults as villains in modern fantasy comes from that source. Of course, as the above passage illustrates, even Tolkien had a thing for things that go bump in the night.
Characteristics of Elder Spawn
- Primal: The Elder Spawn pre-date civilization. Mythlogically they are comparable to the Greek Titans; creatures that existed before men and even before the gods. As the name elder spawn describes, they are very old, far beyond the reckoning of men at least. This gives them a sense of primal mystery, as well as the idea that they are a proto-form, rough things created before the creators actually perfected their arts, or entirely alien to the current order.
- Apocalyptic: The Elder Spawn have tremendous power, and don’t really care for humanity, the gods, or whatever the established order is. They are beyond evil, a primal force of corruption or destruction that makes a thousand years under Sauron seem like a preferable outcome. Awakening them has dire consequences, a trait that they share with Dragons in some ways.
- Nameless: The Elder spawn are so alien to us that understanding is impossible, or brings madness. These things do not belong to the world of men, and thus are not named in the lore of men. If they have names, then those names are rumours, vague references to legends. The world forgot the Elder Spawn before history even began.
- Displaced: We are on their lawn. The Elder Spawn were here first, and if they deigned to notice us they would be rather displeased with the fact that we are squatting in their homes. This ties in with the apocalyptic idea.
- Sleepy: The Elder Spawn are not active. They are dormant, asleep, imprisoned, dreaming, or whatever.
- Uncaring: In the end, while the Elder Spawn might offer a path to power, they care little for any cult or worshiper that invokes them. Often they end up destroying those who try to use them.
Using the Elder Spawn in Fantasy
- Cults of Strange Gods: In the old Forgotten Realms books and the Campaign setting, I really loved reading about the weird cults trying to tap into the power of Elder Spawn (Dead Gods/Dragon Liches, etc). These cults made for awesome bad guys with there elaborate rituals and strange powers.
- Dragons as Elder Spawn: Western Dragons could make excellent candidates for Elder Spawn. Powerful, slumbering creatures that pre-date even the elves, perhaps Dragons are the fallen gods of a saurian civilization displaced by men. Waking a single dragon is catastrophic, as usual, but waking too many would end the world in fire.
- Forgotten Gods: What happens to a Deity that outlasts the people who pay homage to it? Perhaps time frays its metaphysical form, slowly turning it into an Elder Spawn. These lost and forgotten gods can be great allies or dire enemies who continue to fight old conflicts that have no meaning in the current world, but are still destructive. Best let them lie…
- Imprisoned Foes: The Titans of yore were once noble, but the wounds of the war against the gods (or men, whatever) and their subsequent imprisonment have reduced and degraded them. They have become twisted and terrible, unknowable creatures best left in the dark places. Yet some still seek them out for the power they might give.
- Lost Civilizations: Remnants of ancient and powerful civilizations are a staple of Fantasy. But imagine how different that powerful runesword the heroes must recover to save the world might be, if it was made by Servants of the Elder Spawn…
The Elder Spawn are a metaphor for madness, alien thoughts, ancient conflicts, and unknowable, amorphous dread. They work well as villains are mythological catalysts in fantasy stories looking for a tone that is both dark and wierd.