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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I absolutely hate this “new and improved” elf lore. I does seem like someone was trying to present the Elf/Drow conflict as some clumsy contemporary metaphor and failed spectacularly. For some reason everything in this origin story revolves around Corellon being “everchanging and fluid” – Gruumsh hatred, Lolth’s betrayal, elven “original sin” – when it was never the case before. It was just Lolth being overly-ambitious and Gruumsh being vengeful for being cast aside. Simple, elegant and appropriately high fantasy.
Now, this new lore creates some nasty and unfortunate implications about gender issues (so, let me get this straight, Corellon – being “fluid” is considered good and wonderful – and all elves subcionciously want to be like “them”, Lolth declaring herself distinctly female is treated as betrayal and the most evil thing ever.. eeesh) it breaks the established elf canon in half across the entire multiverse AND presents Corellon as a petty and spiteful, narcisstic god – like Lolth used to be in previous editions. I get that WotC wanted to “go in the different direction” but for me, they kind of went too far and too loose for me to enjoy this new canon.
Thankfully, it is all easily ignored – even within the Forgotten Realms canon. Elaine Cunningham’s “Evermeet” still exists and is as cool as ever – and much more fitting as the origin story for the Elves, and Mordenkainen himself has a notorious habit of not knowing what the hell is he talking about.
It can be ignored only so long as people immersed in the older lore are present. With the large numbers of new players coming into the hobby, this is likely to be their starting point and anchor around things. So I anticipate conflict in future over it between people who prefer the old lore and people brought up in the new lore. Personally, I like aspects of both, hence my approach in the post to how to make it work.
You’re right about Mordenkainen, I had a thread a ways back on twitter about the biases of fictional characters in describing things in world.
I don’t believe this “new lore” should be treated as THE definitive one – just another in a seven million Elven origin stories (and in my opinion, not a particularly good one) that don’t HAVE to apply to FR. Greyhawk elves are different from FR elves, which are different from Krynn ones, which are different from Eberron ones – and so on. And it should remain that way.
in my mind, specific world lore trumps the general one. In this case FR lote with Araushnee, Angharradh (who also misteriously disappeared from existence in this new version) and Elves being created from Corellon’s blood AND Sehanine’s tears takes precedence over MToF. Also, MToF lore doesn’t make a lick of sense in Dragonlance. And Mordenkainen should really double-check his notes.
Seriously, if WotC really tries to push this catch-all version as the “proper” one across the multiverse – they are making a big mistake. Not to mention do the disservice to the authors of the established worlds like Baker, Greenwood, Cunningham, Denning and Hickman.
Keith Baker has already declared in Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron that the revelations about elves from MToF hold no water in Eberron – despite MToF claiming otherwise (those elves/drow simply “forgot” they came from Corellon/Lolth, sure), which makes matters even more confusing. MToF heavily contradicts SCAG at this point – which explicitly mentions War of the Seldarine, Angharradh, Crown Wars and Corellon being portrayed as a stalwart protector of the Elves instead of narcissistic manchild, seemingly as intended by Greenwood.
And Vhaeran is apparently a “silent, dutiful son of Lolth” in Mordenkainen’s mind, instead of an iconic rebel against matriarchy. What’s next – Eilistraee as a Chaotic Evil godess of war and oppresion?
So, 5e is lore-wise a glorious mess now.
As for the new players coming onto FR and 5e in general – given how scarce, vague and “whatever” the information about EVERYTHING is in 5e – they would have to come back to older sources like 2e or 3,5e FR for some more specific information about the world. If I were to come to 5e FR completely blind, without 3,5 sources backing me up, I probably would be lost as a stray puppy while reading MToF (The only info the book gives about Eilistraee for instance is “she exists” – nothing about her dogma, clergy or history with the Seldarine).
And thankfully, Greenwood’s/Cunningham’s previously established FR lore is much more thought-out than Crawford’s “new” one.
Apologies for getting maybe a bit more heated that necessary. I didn’t want to come off as a curmudgeon or disregard any points in your – quite excellent – write up about problems with this new elf lore that’s been actually bugging me from the beginning – just maybe present a different viewpoint.
…And I REALLY don’t like MToF, so there is that.
100% agree. I’ll not be using any of MToF elven history I n my groups game’s.
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For a random article I found with only 3 or 4 comments, this pretty much sums up my problems with the lore.
Lots of these changes seem needless which isn’t helped by the fact that lots of them are just straight-up bad.
Nowadays I don’t mind lots of details being changed; I myself can hardly remember what Greyhawk’s Flan Pantheon is and Greyhawk is my favorite setting. But Nerull was my favorite deity, and I remember how pissed I was when 4e came out.
Wizards did my boy dirty by retconning him into once being human and then letting Mike Mearl’s waifu replace him.
Correllon and Lolth being at the center of a badly handled metaphor for gender issues is a lot more significant than that, I think.
But at least the old setting and lore books still exist for both of those things.
I’ll stop here before I ramble any further.
Just a nitpick: Corellon being depicted as andrygynous (in the proper sense) or taking on both male and female forms isn’t an invention of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, though they emphasize it a lot more, I think it’s actually in Corellon’s original writeup (though throughout the history of D&D they have almost exclusively used “he” as a pronoun, which confuses the matter)
Though there’s a general tendency to downplay and whitewash elves in art compared to the descriptions (where they at least in teh FR are almost technicolour people)=
I want to see you, Joe Carriker and Brian Cortijo on a panel at OrcaCon about fixing the Realms.
I am 100% okay with this idea!
to be honest this article has filled in a gap for me. I wanted to write an in-game compendium of the raven queen and so I needed to include the war of seldarines and after looking at “forgettenrealms.fandom” for corellon, asraushnee, eilistree, sahanine, Vhaeraun, Gruumsh, the war of the seldrarines. there are A LOT of gaps like: why did asraushnee rebel in first place? what were her motives? (the wanting to rule all elves which as a goddess with her own dominion didn’t make sense) did corellon take gruumsh’s eye in the first war or at a negotition later? did asraushnee make a cursed scabbard or not?
although this doesnt answer all the questions. it clears up a few things.
Although on a lot of points I agree with the general conclusions and arguments of this post, there are reasons for me to actually like how this was made in MToF.
First of all, this makes perfect sense for the book itself. What I dig most in MToF is how the book isn’t an OoC description of official lore, but an In-Character examination, and even then an examination whose path to the reader is convoluted at best.
Especially, it makes perfect sense for Mordenkainen and his Balance theory. He is from Oerth, a human, overall he have a cultural background of his own and no great effort to compare his observations in the book with the opinions of other scholars, it is not peer-reviewed. Also although elves tend to be Good and Drows are Evil their myth doesn’t play so well on this, while the new myth doesn’t force either to a particular alignment but clearly puts the cosmic balance between order and chaos on focus.
So it seems to me like a good work on showing the kind of lore a given character, under given circumstances, would deem as worth of considerations. And on top of that I do prefer things like deities to have conflicting stories about them. This is religion, the beliefs of a given group of followers is far more important to the setting than the reality of the past. It is seldom about what happened and frequently about how the story itself shapes their societies and behaviors, and how it affects the actual characters in game.
This new lore is a great way to introduce new groups in the setting, even on Forgotten Realms. Elves of any kind that stumble upon this story can develop interesting heresies believing the Crown Wars are a messed up lie from any source they feel like. Some can think the Crown Wars are a local reflection of a greater cosmic conflict and start to worship “Über Light/Dark Seldarine” as they think FR’s Corellon and Lolth are just avatars of cross-dimensional super-gods. Some can start to believe that this new story took place in another world, but also that they are descendants of those proto-elves and not from FR’s native elves. There are so many possibilities when we assume that groups can have distinct beliefs without letting the necessity for a true story to fix things too much.