Drow: A Dark Reflection
Elves and fantasy are about as inseparable as leaves and trees. You can have one without the other, but they always find their way back together eventually. We all know the Elves at this point, so when they pop up we know what to expect: a bunch of old, wistful men and women who are wise beyond their visible age and in touch with the more magical elements of the world. They’re typically on the side of good, sometimes with a little dash holier-than-thou superiority thrown in for flavor. Can’t change a winning formula, let alone one that’s over a thousand years old.
Modern fantasy authors have also toyed with the concept of Dark Elves, referred to as Drow in D&D. Simply put, they’re the Elves, but evil. Where an Elf is typically altruistic, Drow are opportunistic. Where Elves live in sunlit forests and meadows surrounded by the joys of nature, Drow live in the caverns deep below the surface, surrounded by roots, bugs, and rocky outcroppings. And while Elves have a sort of ethereal beauty to them, a Drow’s allure is a sinister perversion of conventional beauty. While that may sound almost cartoonishly simple at first, it is actually based in cultural myth and rife with narrative opportunities ready to be seized!
Enter the Drow
In D&D lore, Drow were formerly the same as surface Elves, but fell into the worship of Lolth, the Spider Queen. Lolth’s guidance had many caveats which led many of her followers to resort to fanatic zealotry. Eventually they thought to take refuge in the Underdark, using the isolation to their advantage and allowing them to make surprise attacks on their surface-dwelling cousins. Over the centuries that followed, they adapted to this new home and lifestyle, becoming the Drow we know today.
They're quite similar to the Elves of the surface. They maintain the regal, ornate aesthetic of their surface-dwelling cousins, and the same ethereal beauty that leaves not a single hair out of place. In combat, their weapons are more silver and less steel, they have a greater focus on dexterity and technique over strength, and they are equally organized and efficient in their tactics. Their brand of efficiency is simply more... merciless.
Drow nobility is organized into individual Houses, similar to most noble families, but their hierarchy is determined by how much their goddess favors them. This favor is won through cunning and betrayal, which they have mastered to a science. By exploiting the vulnerabilities in other Houses and eventually destroying them, all the while avoiding direct and open conflict unless strictly necessary, the Spider Queen Lolth will grant her favor (which is easier to lose than to gain).The Drow even go so far as to alter their own history as a way to control the narrative. Matron Mothers can use this lack of clarity to confuse members of their house into further fanaticism, making it so that their guidance remains unquestioned.
Once slighted, Drow do not simply slay their enemies. Survivors of these House wars might end up in the service of the victorious House. Dark elves are more likely to take a prisoner to interrogate or enslave them rather than merely murder. The reason for this is simple: slaves are more useful than corpses. It is the cold practicality of this decision that makes them so much more unnerving when compared to the surface Elves. Many outsiders who enter Drow cities often sense their unfeeling brutality, as though every person they pass is a predator eying them like food. To enter a Drow city is to walk willingly into a spider’s web.
The Drow are rigid, opportunistic, cunning, sadistic, pragmatic, and in so many ways the exact opposite of what an Elf typically is. They exist in this realm that is cold and dark, bereft of any companionship. All alliances are temporary and all resources expendable. And it’s strange that this concept is just as old as the original.
A Bit of History
Proto-drow have existed in myth and legend far longer than D&D’s recent history. Fantasy as a genre has come a long way in the past century, and a lot of that has to do with JRR Tolkien breathing new life into old folklore. The Hobbit alone has sold over 100 million copies since its first publication in 1937, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy sold a total of 150 million copies. Naturally, with the books continually being published and adapted into other mediums, a lot of their influence bled over into other works and eventually inspired much of D&D. It’s also no big secret that Tolkien based the bulk of his work off of Norse and Celtic mythology, with his depiction of Elves drawing heavily from both. As a result, it’s easy to point out the key similarities to the mythological counterparts.
Norse mythology does contain Elves, but they do not appear in most of the surviving myths. We do know that they come from Alfheim, and that the inhabitants are described as fair and beautiful, with some appearing as fair as the light itself. Add in the fact that they’re ruled by Freyr, god of fertility, rain, and sunshine, and there’s a decent baseline for what we understand the modern Elves to be. This gets fleshed out with the addition of certain Fae attributes from Celtic mythology. While the Fae are not the same as Elves, they share enough attributes to be considered comparable. So much so that the D&D handbook declares that Elves have Fae ancestry. The Fae often represent nature, or natural forces, are nearly immortal, and are also mostly associated with springtime and daylight. Mostly.
So there we have it. The modern Elf depiction is basically a Norse Light Elf with a Celtic twist. Pretty simple. So where do the Drow come in?
Most mythologies have a running theme of duality. Essentially, if there is a bright and happy version of something, there must be a darker half. Roses and thorns, nights and dawns, cowboys and sad songs. Norse mythology, in particular, includes Svartalfheim, the land of shadow which exists beneath the earth and is home to the Dark Elves. Dark Elves and Dwarves are used in such a way that scholars often debate whether they mean the same thing, with the only concrete physical description being that Dark Elves are “blacker than pitch”. Where Light Elves are comparable to the sun, Dark Elves are essentially walking shadows. But while Norse myth leaves us with fairly little, Celtic mythology can fill in the gaps. The traditional Fae is usually part of the Summer Court, or the Seelie Fae. They represent the more warm and lively parts of nature. They are contrasted by the Winter Court, or Unseelie Fae. These creatures lack the greens, pinks, yellows, and cream colors of a field in bloom. Instead, it’s snow white, pitch black, and blood red. Looking at how Dark Elves are depicted, it is obvious that they drew inspiration from legends of these creatures.
The concept that created the Drow is over a thousand years old, and D&D just started using it again not even 40 years ago. That is fascinating to me!
A Two Sided Coin
In a way, the earliest versions of Elves are intended to be nearly unknowable. They’re ancient, with sometimes thousands of years of knowledge and experience, and a human who averages to be about eighty can’t really comprehend that kind of lifespan. The existence of magic also adds a whole new set of rules to the world that the reader, and most human characters, wouldn’t be privy to. So the Elves appear a bit more alien and somewhat eldritch. With an uneasy sort of patience that flies in the face of most of the tension human characters might feel.
Then there are the Drow: similar lifespans, the same level of understanding of the rules, but without the patience. In most media that includes them, Drow are selfish and pragmatic. They deal with constant power struggles in their homeland and always search for a leg up. The main attribute at play is not wisdom or intellect, but cunning. It’s mostly about searching for loopholes in the established laws and stonewalling people who ask too many questions. And it’s fantastic because both of these behaviors come from the same place.
Why I Love the Drow
The question remains: why do I personally love the Drow so much that I can call them “conceptually perfect”? It’s that from a purely narrative perspective, Drow add so much nuance to a story because they are so similar to the Elves. And it’s the differences that highlight how these two groups can be played with. If the Drow exist because some Elves got mixed up with some of the wrong gods, then further schisms can happen. That idea is the entire basis behind the Legend of Drizzt novels, a series which asks: what if a person raised in an area as inhospitable as the Underdark among a people as uncaring as the Drow decided he wanted to be a paragon and help people?
For all the Dungeon Masters out there; the knowledge that Drow are imperfect and fallible, having been the same as Elves once upon a time, gives full license for surface Elves to be the same. A foolhardy surface Elf can exist, just the way as a level-headed Drow can. The Drow opened the door to tell varied stories about flawed people in a fantasy world that isn’t perfect. And it’s great that this level of nuance can exist and be used to tell more interesting and varied stories.
One of my favorite campaigns I’ve ever played had a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) who attempted to take over a well of pure magic that existed on a crossroads between planes. He was a Drow man who suffered in the Underdark at the hands of his own family, having been beaten, tortured, and enslaved for failing in an assassination, losing favor with Lolth, and costing the House their position. This Drow planned on using the well as a way to amass enough power to become a god so that he might kill all of the other gods. In this, he was trying to ensure that the zealotry that had taken his people and made him a slave in his own home would never happen again. I found myself hanging on to the interactions my party had with him, even trying to talk him out of his quest (unsuccessfully). I absolutely loved seeing this character in the game and fighting against him. It was the first time playing D&D that I had to fight a character who I understood, sympathized with, and still had to kill.
I don’t love this concept because of a certain purple-eyed ranger, because the aesthetic is nice, or because it’s dark and angsty. I love the concept of the Drow because despite how simple the idea is (Elf, but evil). There’s an astonishing level of nuance, versatility, and depth to it. There are stories that can be, and have been, told with it that can stick with people. Simple, elegant concepts like this can be used to great effect by brilliant Dungeon Masters in a way that feels almost real.
What about you? How do you feel about the Drow? For that matter, how do you feel about any of the D&D races? Do you have any special stories from your own campaigns that you’d like to share? Do you have any fun little historical tidbits you’d like to share? Share them as much as you want on our socials HERE.