09 December 2020

The Two Gords of Greyhawk

I worked my way through most of Gary Gygax’s “Gord” novels last autumn, winter, and spring. I’ve now read them all except for the last one (Dance of Demons), which I’ve been putting off. I’ll get to it eventually, but in mid-March I needed to take a break. (Also, I know how the last one ends, at least in a general sense. I won’t reveal anything here, except to say that this knowledge has dampened my enthusiasm for reading that final book.) 

These stories were casual “bedtime reading” for me. Indeed, they sometimes helped to induce sleepiness. I read these works both out of interest—in my youth I had read only the first Gord novel and had always wondered about the others—as well as to familiarize myself better with the World of Greyhawk for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (Greyhawk has always seemed to me the most flavourful of the "official" worlds for AD&D, and as Gygax’s creation, manifests a distinctly “Vancian” ethos which I quite appreciate.) 

Gygax’s flaws as a fiction writer are many. I won’t delve into them here. But I nonetheless enjoyed reading these stories because of what they reveal about the World of Greyhawk and the more general assumptions (metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic) underpinning AD&D. As I’ve noted before here, I find the implicit universe in first edition AD&D, and its explicit expression in the World of Greyhawk, quite distinctive and evocative. Someone with no interest in or fondness for AD&D or Greyhawk, however, likely would find Gygax’s fiction to be rather unappetizing fare.  

Having read most of Gygax’s Gord stories, I think that it is possible to distinguish between two “Gords” and corresponding “Greyhawks.” The first can be found in the first novel (Saga of Old City), which lacks an overarching plot (it essentially describes Gord’s various adventures as he grows up and travels throughout parts of the eastern Flanaess), and the short stories (as presented in Night Arrant and scattered throughout various issues of Dragon). In these tales Greyhawk comes across as a world like R.E. Howard’s Hyboria or Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (but with elves, orcs, demons, devils, and so forth). These are the better tales, in my judgement. In them Gord is “just an adventurer,” albeit in the mold, say, of Conan, the Gray Mouser, or Cugel.   

I especially recommend “The Weird Occurrence in Odd Alley” (in Night Arrant). The story is probably Gygax’s best one, both in style and substance. The setting is quite intriguing. It’s almost a “proto-Planescape”—an urban market hub with portals to various planes of existence, including Oerth and our very own Earth. (I was going to write more about this story and the intriguing inter-planar market it describes, but I recently came across this excellent discussion by T. Foster, and cannot think of anything to add to it, at least not at the moment. For additional discussion of Gygax’s Gord stories by Foster, check out this interesting post.) 

Alas, about halfway through the second novel (Artifact of Evil) a change seems to take place. Gord is transformed into some kind of Moorcockian “Eternal Champion”-like figure. Grand struggles between powerful trans-planar factions are described. One such faction is a cabal of formidable defenders of the “Balance” (which includes the likes of Mordenkainen, Tenser, the Cat Lord, and the Mage of the Valley, among others). Gord joins their ranks. Indeed, it turns out that he is some kind of messiah figure (someone who had been protected by the Agents of the Balance in a novel—City of Hawks—that describes his origins and early life alongside with the events in Saga of Old City, but characterized in a dramatically different way). It turns out that Gord is the Champion of the Balance! Now Gord plays a role in Gygax’s “epic fantasy” akin to Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon. 

In Gygax’s tales, though, the “Balance” is situated between “Good” (with a capital “G”) and “Evil” (with a capital “E”)—although there are struggles amongst the various factions of Evil, of course (namely, Chaotic demons versus Lawful devils). This Cosmic Struggle is less interesting than Moorcock’s “Law-versus-Chaos” one. And indeed, the stories become less interesting the more “epic” their scale. I personally much preferred Gord qua “Gray Mouser” than qua “Elric.” (I do love many of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, but I don’t think Gygax handles the genre well, and forcing Gord and Greyhawk into that mold strikes me as an unfortunate decision.) Likewise, I prefer the Greyhawk of the earlier stories: a vast world with myriad small struggles, all independent of a singular overarching cosmic war. It’s rather a pity that this shift occurred. 

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read these tales. I eventually will read the final one (for the sake of completeness if nothing else). I think that they gave me insight into how Gygax construed the World of Greyhawk. And there were other interesting bits as well: in addition to “Weird Way” (the “proto-Planescape” setting I noted above) the description of the Plane of Shadow in City of Hawks is rather evocative. 


  1. i read 2 when they came out and tried infinity ed comp of gord stories and it was harder to read and felt like a dm run player character. I gave up half way. I remember as teen we were outraged gord did stuff game characters couldnt like using wrong weapon

  2. Cogent analysis, and one I largely agree with. Gord as a sword & sorcery adventurer in the mold of the Gray Mouser was a much more enjoyable read than Gord as cosmic hero - and boy, if you thought it was trending that way before just wait till you get to the last one. It appears to me that Gygax was better at emulating (albeit never coming close to equaling) Leiber than he was at imitating Moorcock - both of whom are also "important" authors and really should be on ever fantasy fan's reading list to some degree.

    That said, I do think the books are important to read in a historical sense for gamers in general and D&D fans in particular.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out! I can't help but agree with everything you wrote here. The books (Saga of Old City, Night Arrant, and the first half of Artifact of Evil, at least) are worth reading because they add so much detail and flavor regarding the World of Greyhawk and give an insight into how Gary viewed it and AD&D (factions, alignments, the multiverse, etc.) and provide a sense of what it must have felt like to be a player in his campaign, traveling from location to location having random encounters and picaresque adventures. That said, the later volumes where the Big Plot becomes more prominent are less and less good.

    And of course even at his best Gary wasn't a fiction writer - his descriptions of places and scenes (the kind of stuff you might find in a game module) are good and evocative, but his dialogue and the way he describes action are both very weak - in spots almost painfully so - and his main characters (Gord and Chert) are both remarkably flat and uninteresting, and it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that they're repeatedly upstaged by more interesting side characters who arose from game play (Obmi, Melf, Eclavdra, Tenser, etc.).

    I wish Gary had written more stories in "Leiber mode" with more humor and lower stakes that were more about colorful characters and weird incidents than epic plot machinations. Alas, once he separated from TSR that was no longer in the cards...

    1. Yeah, Gord and Chert are rather insipid. It's a pity the protagonists weren't Melf and Biff!


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.