Lolth’s Lore Problem
Lore is at much of the core of Dungeons & Dragons; it’s involved in shaping perceptions of the game, guides interactions with certain aspects of it, and is a big part of how the game is learned. The mechanics of the game may shift and change, but lore remains relatively consistent. Major events still occur in roughly the same ways and times from edition to edition, and monster lore persists even more strongly. So what happens when lore starts to be altered on a large scale, as in the case of the Elven Pantheon and the backstory of Lolth, as happened in the recent release of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes?
So, let’s talk about Lolth, the Seldarine, and Drow. Lolth has had a dramatic development cycle over the years. In her earliest appearances in Greyhawk, she was a demon who corrupted elves and created the Drow. This was her Ur-origin, from Oerth, where both Lolth and the Drow make their first appearance. Things took a turn in Forgotten Realms though, where her roots took a different tact and the creation of the Drow took on a much more religious tone. In that lore, she was one of the Seldarine, who became corrupted and ultimately attempted to kill Corellon multiple times and lead an insurrection against him. This was followed by the Crown Wars, a confused mess of overlapping, war crime riddled conflicts started by the Sun Elves in a bid to seize Dark Elf lands. They lost, Lolth (somehow) convinced the Dark Elves to follow her, and then Sun Elf magic marked them as Drow (jet black skin, white hair), expunged them from Corellon’s sight, and trapped them in the Underdark. This origin, when combined with Forgotten Realms’ popularity and the epic, god level action of it, soon became the accepted origin of all Drow.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes radically changed the existing lore, in ways that I do not think were anticipated, potentially greatly altering the worlds that the plug-n-play lore has been applied to, such as the Forgotten Realms. More specifically, on a fundamental level, it changed the Crown Wars, the origin of the Drow, and raises, to me, a lot of questions about the entire thing. And it all ties in with Lolth.
Lolth’s origin is probably the most changed, and leaves the most questions. Previously, she was a demon, then a corrupted goddess. The key facet in each one was that she was both evil and chaotic to begin with or very close to it, that she was corrupted and ultimately fell, and drags her mortal followers down with her. This is no longer the case.
In my reading, Lolth no longer has a truly “evil” origin. One could even argue that she was Lawful Neutral, maybe Lawful Evil at worst. Corellon in the new lore is a flighty, chaotic, and unreliable deity, more concerned with doing what they pleased than with anything else. And yes, I use “they”, because this is a big change as well. Corellon freely switches between genders and sexes, and Lolth’s first “betrayal” is her deciding to be “her”. Why? Because in Corellon’s eyes, not being like them is awful, and making a choice is bad. On seeing the actions of other beings in the larger multiverse, Lolth wants that for the proto-Elves, and her arguments convince others to take on permanent forms as well, further enraging Corellon.
Shortly thereafter, battle lines are drawn between those who want to follow Corellon’s example of freedom and chaos, and those who desire structure and order. The “evil” aspect is largely in Lolth’s “lets conquer us some multiverse” views, as opposed to any real evil acts or deeds at this point. Her plotting, murder attempts, and so on are all gone; instead we’re presented with an earnest if less than benign deity who wants to engage with (and conquer) the larger world, facing a parental figure who refuses to accept their most fundamental choice they made in the first place and who rejects them out of hand.
Corellon however, sees this all as betrayal most foul, denies her and her followers the right to choose (which runs counter to the choice aspects of chaos). Then, in a god level debate, surrounded by their followers, Corellon, having low attention span issues since he has literally never had to pay attention to anything that doesn’t interest him for longer than that interest has lasted, drifts off in though, and a likely highly frustrated Lolth attacks him. She fails to kill him, and her supporters more or less just shrug.
Then the story falls apart fast, because this is the narrative plan:
Stage 1: Take static form, convince others to join me, plead my case, using force if necessary.
Stage 2: ????
Stage 3: Become a Chaotic Evil spider goddess who lives in the abyss.
It all ends with Corellon issuing an edict that that’s so evil it’s not even kind of funny; that no elf will know true rest in death until Lolth is slain. Let that sink in for a moment. For the crime of choice, Corellon condemns every elf, everywhere, to a perpetual reincarnation cycle until Lolth is dead. He (at this point he’s made a choice about gender/sex, because it’s okay now) then bans everyone who isn’t a god from staying in Arvandor. Everyone leaves, and the proto-elves scatter into the multiverse.
As I read it, in this origin doesn’t create the evil spider goddess we’ve all come to know and vaguely fear in game. Lolth in this reading literally sounds like the goddess she was originally in the old lore, Araushnee, goddess of artisans and, more importantly, destiny. And having her go from that to the BDSM wear loving spider queen in the Abyss is a serious stretch that can’t be summed up in the few sentences that it is. At worst, this might have led to a schism in the pantheon between order and chaos, and similar divisions in the mortal realms between the followers of each sub-pantheon. In that instance, the Light/Dark division between the two groups of Seldarine would have at least partially inverted or at least lampshaded the traditional good is light, evil is dark trope by disassociating them with good and evil and by portraying order as “dark”.
The next is that this effectively creates a cultural inoculation for Elves against Lolth and her machinations. Imagine growing up, and being told that you can never have an afterlife because of a rebellion led by a spider goddess unless someone kills her. This is the sort of cultural evolution fuel that has a steady stream of elven adventurers growing up, training, and developing just so they can try to free their people. What it doesn’t do is create the circumstances that result in elves turning en masse to her. When your core lore speaks of how she got everyone kicked out and doomed to unending spiritual recycling, that’s not a hurdle you’re going to overcome.
Next is that, minus the perpetual reincarnation thing, this effectively gave Lolth and her worshipers and followers what they wanted; freedom to pursue their own destiny in the wider multiverse. Sure, they wanted everyone to come along, but around half the population is a solid start. And this is another weak area of the new lore. The banished elves are basically treated like they just went out of Arvandor willy-nilly and did whatever, as if there hadn’t just been a massive ideological conflict that divided them as a people. As I read it, Lolth should have left with a solid block of loyal elves looking to start something, and would not just immediately decide to abandon her ways and ideas in favour of becoming obsessed with revenge and becoming a demon goddess.
Where this really comes into play, in particular in the Forgotten Realms, is that is changes the Crown Wars. Lolth, in the new lore, in my estimation, isn’t even evil at this point, and she already has worshippers, in the form of the proto-elves who sided with her and her goals in Arvandor. This is a conscious choice by them. So her machinations on Toril and the instigation of the Crown Wars followed by the exile of the Drow no longer make any sense. Neither does Eilistraee, who in this context, would be more akin to being a goddess of directed and beneficial chaos that strengthens the order of her mother’s (are they even mother-daughter anymore?) ideology than a highly ineffective “mother goddess” to the Drow.
What Does It All Mean?
To me, it means that, within the new lore, Lolth and Araushnee should be different and separate entities. It means that the Dark Seldarine should take on a new character aligned around the order/lawful axis instead of the evil end, to reflect the changed dynamic of the lore to chaos vs order instead of the older good vs evil. It means that the Forgotten Realms should have Drow as they exist and as we know them, reflecting elves that have been corrupted by the demon goddess Lolth, and should have Dark Elves as well, who are the loyal followers of their pantheon and the order it represents.
In this reading, I see Araushnee leading her Dark Seldarine and Dark Elves in a perpetual (if often low key) struggle against the Light Seldarine and their Light Elves, seeking to impose order over chaos and show the superiority of ordered life. I see both pantheons fearing Lolth and the corruption she represents, and hating how she poaches from their worshipper populations, and intentionally instigates wars in an effort to steal more followers. This also means that the fear of the Drow retains its visceral nature, and that those Drow who do break away from Lolth are truly exceptional.
What I see happening, as time passes, is that the opposition between the Seldarine and Dark Seldarine cools. Each side’s respective elven populations come to terms with Corellon’s edict in their own way. Maybe the Dark Seldarine Elves see it as an unintentional gift that allows them to learn from previous lives and mistakes; maybe the Seldarine Elves come to see it as preferable to an afterlife. Both sides still kick out extremists (would be Aruashnee Slayers and World Conquerors respectively), but have developed such that they can coexist if needs be.
Within this construct, much of the existing lore can be retained with minor changes. In the case of the Forgotten Realms, it’s pretty solid:
- Seldarine and Dark Seldarine follow their respective “Green Elves” to Toril, the world is wide open, so they don’t have much chance to fight or come into conflict.
- They grow, develop as cultures and civilizations, and establish a détente; effectively living side by side in peace. Corellon is unhappy about it, but time mellows rage and while his edict remains, the mortal elves have adapted to it.
- Lolth, looking for new followers, finds the world, and it’s right time, right place, with a Seldarine nation seeking to seize a Dark Seldarine one.
- The Crown Wars unfold pretty much as written, with the notable exception that not all Dark Elves are caught by the magic deployed by the Sun Elves to banish the Lolth followers and reveal them as demon tainted Drow. The surviving Dark Elves side with the Moon Elves in the destruction of the Sun Elf dominated Vyshaantar Empire in the Fifth Crown War.
- Prohibited from going to Evermeet, and with their lands all by destroyed, Dark Elves retreat south to an unnamed land and establish themselves a new homeland. Only a few communities of Dark Elves remain on Faerûn, predominantly in the Eastern Shaar, and around Var the Golden and Durpar.
- The Dark Elves of Faerûn weather the Spellplague fairly well, and have begun to expand westwards into the frontiers and wildernesses left behind by the Seconf Sundering. Their presence, and apparent growing numbers, is alarming to Seldarine Elves.
On a wider scope, this means that Drow can, again, be unique to each world in such a way that does not necessitate a huge do over. Likewise, in this model, there may be worlds where there are only Seldarine Elves, or only Dark Seldarine Elves. There would need to be more work of course, to rejig and rewrite various deities on both sides, and perhaps some who crossover, but that’s for a different day.
In a future post, I’m going to be talking about holistic vs atomistic world building, and this is a good example of the latter. The new lore draws on inspirations from previous editions to create something, but even with that inspiration, it’s done without considering the holistic implications of it. Namely, it does not look at or consider how this new component will interact with the previously existing components and new made components of the world. So as a tool for creating your own world with plug-n-play components, it’s fine. But when applied to, say, the current base setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, it gets really dodgy really fast if given more than a cursory glance.
So there it is. I recognize that it’s not viable to reprint the lore for a world every time a new edition comes out, especially with something as large and unwieldly as Dungeons & Dragons. That said, if the decision is made to radically alter lore, those changes need to be explored at depth and supported to ensure a smooth integration with existing information. I don’t think that happened in this case, and I’m still waiting for Dark Elves to finally get their due.
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