Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure

skeleton_warrior_by_skullsdirectIf you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)

Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.

However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.

Just as the Ancient Egyptians worried about how the dead would support themselves in the afterlife, so did the Medieval Europeans. In the Early Middle Ages it was an important part of German Law that the dead were entitled to be buried with up to a third of their wealth so that they could support themselves in the life after death.

Not only that, but there are several North European sagas are full of tombs, guarded by the undead and stuffed to the gunnels with buried treasure. In the Grettis Saga, we have the hero Grettir who is returning home when he sees a great fire shooting over the headland below a friend’s home.

When Grettir enquires what the fire is, his friend tells him, “If they saw such a fire in our country, they would say the fire came from some treasure… he who rules that fire is one whom it would be better not to inquire about.”

I don’t know about you, but my thirteen year old self would have been perfectly happy with a D&D story that started so ominously.

Grettis Saga continues by telling the hero that on the other side of the headland there is a howe, or tomb, occupied by Kar the Old, the father of Thorfinn (presumably a local ruler). In true D&D fashion, Grettir’s friend tells

Authentic folklore situation (artist's impression)
Authentic folklore situation (artist’s impression)

him that since Kar died, his ghost has been walking and has scared away all the other farmers, so that now the whole island belongs to Thorfinn (the son of the undead marauder), and that only men under the protection of Thorfinn suffers any injury.

Unable to suffer such an indignity, Grettir appears the next morning with digging equipment, and takes his friend to the howe, where they spend the day digging into a chamber that contains a skeletal horse, the corpse of a man on a throne (presumably Kar the Old), and a hoard of treasure in gold and silver. As he leaves, he feels the dead man’s hand tighten around his wrist as the corpse comes to life. The two have a titanic fight, whereupon Grettir manages to shove the heavily armoured warrior onto his back, draw his mighty sword Jokulsnaut and slices the lych’s head off.

If that story didn’t satisfy your craving for magic swords and violence, Claude Lecouteux also writes about a tale from the Book of Sturla where where a hero called Leif enters a tomb where the dead man is much more active.

“Leif was on a military expedition in Iceland and discovered a large tomb. He entered and all was dark except for the glow of a sword a man was holding. Leif slew the man – the dead man – and took his sword and much money.”

And if the undead aren’t to your taste, there’s a British story of a literal dungeon underneath Wherwell Priory. In both Edith Nesbit’s Book of Dragons, and an 1888 issue of The Antiquarian cite a story where a cock’s egg was incubated by a toad in some dark complex underneath Wherwell Priory. The story goes that local knights and travelling swordsmen were offered gold and a hundred acres of land if they could kill the beast, which seemed impervious. Warrior after warrior was killed until a local labourer called Green (the party thief) lowered a mirror into the dungeon (described less excitingly as a cellar in The Antiquarian’s account). The Cockatrice was so enraged by  the sight of what it thought was another cockatrice that it charged the other monster, knocking the mirror aside and breaking its neck as it ran, head first, at the wall.

That’s probably why it’s always worth taking a silver mirror and 50′ of rope.


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5 thoughts on “Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure”

  1. I love fantasy, and yet I also love keeping it realistic*ish*. Your blog is the perfect resource for satisfying this niche!

    1. Thanks Jack! It’s one of the things I like too. If you or anyone else thinks of one of these they’d like me to look at, drop it in the comments: the only reason I haven’t done a fresh Things D&D Got Right for a while is because I’ve done all the ones I could think of.

      Also, take it from me: don’t introduce the Liber Vaccae into your campaign. You’ll have a lot of explaining to do…

  2. I am doing research linking Dungeons and Dragons reception of the Medieval world..specifically on its treatment of gender…got any journals or work you think i should read let me know.

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