Thursday, October 18, 2012

Greyhawk Reading: Quag Keep

Okay folks, as promised, I have finally started reading Andre Norton's classic proto-Greyhawk novel Quag Keep (1978, published two years before the Greyhawk Folio). This topic is by no means groundbreaking. Indeed a few sources of mine have talked about it in recent memory. The Piazza forums had a thread on it last month, and before that Canonfire's forums had a discussion about locations in the novel. Then there's Grognardia's review from a few years ago which is the best overall I can find. Half way through and I'm struck by a couple things already.

One, it's the geography. I'm a fan of Greyhawk in all its forms be it the game setting World of Greyhawk, "Gordhawk" or whatever. Sadly, there is no map of this version of Greyhawk that Norton writes about unless it's in the sequel to Quag Keep which I haven't looked into yet. Maybe some intrepid fan will tackle the subject. At any rate as Nellisir on the Canonfire forums listed the many geographic similarities and differences between this world with the canon world most know (with my own added comments):

Greyhawk (same city, mentions a thieves quarter, could be much the same as Gygax's Gord novels)
Grand Duchy of Urnst (north of Greyhawk, is east in the game setting)
Hither Hills (half-elves scorned by true elves- could this be the Kron Hills or the Cairn Hills?)
Yerocunbry (Gygaxian tongue-twister, brings to mind the Yeomanry, perhaps misread when coffee was spilled on Andre's notes? :P)
Faraaz (a holy land, at best maybe this is analogous to Ket?)
The Great Kingdom of Blackmoor (north of Urnst, perhaps a combo Aerdy-Blackmoor mashup)
Koeland (probably a misspell since it's later called Keoland, said to have three tributaries)
Var (no clue)
the "Northern Clans" (followers of the High Horned Lady, perhaps an allusion to the Horned Society or just the Rovers of the Barrens?)
the River Vold (Sounds like a major river, perhaps the Velverdyva in the published setting?)
Grand Duchy of Geofp (next to a western mountain chain, which has the Dry Steppes and the Sea of Dust on the other side, wow that's accurate!)
Narm (no idea but they raid the Steppes) 
Duchy of Maritiz (island nation. Could be Admuntford in the Nyr Dyv?)
Great Bay (unsure of this body of water but Lichis the Golden Dragon battled Ironnose the Great Demon from Blackmoor, out over the Great Bay down to the Wild Coast ending in an unnamed boiling sea)
Wild Coast (can only assume it's the same Coast we know near Greyhawk)
Dry Steppes (north of the Sea of Dust, pretty spot on)
Nomad Raiders of Lar (they live in the Dry Steppes, could this be, gasp...Ull?)
Sea of Dust (can only assume it's the same dangerous location we know);
The Seven Swamps (where lizardmen are found)
Troilan Swamps (part of the Seven Swamps?) 

So yeah, without a map to reference, Norton's Greyhawk is a mish-mash of locations that were either cribbed from Gygax's notes prior to publication (and before Darlene had cemented their placement) or just plain made up for character development purposes and nothing else. But hey, no fault there that's how world building is done. There's still some good elements to work with here if one was inclined to borrow from Quag Keep for their campaigns, not to mention the classic Chaos versus Law theme is employed here.

My second notion from reading this book is the setup of the plot. Norton is a decent writer in my opinion but adapting characters with D&D class roles to a serious fantasy novel always seems to be awkward; nevermind that this one talks about wargames and miniature companies as well. Now another common issue with D&D fiction has been the old theme of "taking someone from the real world and dropping them in the world of D&D". As Argon mentions on the forums:

What I find interesting is how Norton approach to the novel has lent itself to many spin-offs. One the Dungeon and Dragon cartoon players were actual people from the real world who are transported to a D&D world. Many modern cartoons also involved taking kids from this world and transporting them into the games universe. Yugi oh, Beyblade, Chaotic, and many more.
It seems she may have inspired this approach for future writers of fantasy Sci-Fi fiction.

I also thought of the D&D cartoon immediately when I started Quag Keep. Argon is partly right about this plot device except nowadays D&D ficition has consciously got away from this setup, I imagine due to social stigmas D&D garnered from people being too "into their games". That's too bad though, because the trope is WAY older and more expansive than even Norton or D&D. Fiction routinely takes people out of modern Earth and thrusts them into the fantastic. Several notable examples (I'm sure there's many more):

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The Chronicles of Narnia
John Carter of Mars
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Flash Gordon
Peter Pan

That's my final thought and question. If the trope works for these classics, why is it hokey when a D&D novel or cartoon does it? That's all for now, back to the book.


Anthony Emmel said...

One thing that struck me (as I currently reading QK), is that as a "Free City" Greyhawk has no allegiance to either Law or Chaos. Therefore, it is mentioned that one can see orcs selling wares in teh city as well as the usual humans and demi-humans.

Another idea: the berseker reminds me of early Dragona rticles of such.

mortellan said...

Good points. I hadn't the time to address the races and stuff. The berserker is also some kind of were-boar (I think) who has a pet pseudo-dragon.

Keep me updated on anything interesting you come across.

Jeff B. said...

Other books that long predate Norton's use of modern folk in the past or a fantasy land:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - Mark Twain

The Harold Shea stories of L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt.

deCamp's Lest Darkness Fall

Those latter two Gygax specifically mentions in Appendix N of the DMG.

I've read Quag Keep twice; once 30+ years ago, and again just a couple of years ago, along with Return to Quag Keep (no map there, either). Both times I found it to be dry, the characters very underdeveloped, and the story itself never pulled me in.

The sequel is a bit more interesting, but it's obvious that Norton's co-writer (Jean Rabe)did the bulk of the writing; the difference in style between both books is glaring.

The original Quag Keep is an interesting artifact from early on in D&D's history, but I never thought it was a very good book. It also doesn't give a lot of insight into Greyhawk, at least not to me. It struck me that Norton, who played a few sessions with Gygax to prepare to write the book, took notes, but either Greyhawk was nowhere close to what it became later, or Norton took a lot of license with the material.

I think your review is pretty good, delving into the book from the angle of looking at it as a Greyhawk and gaming source. The lackluster writing obscured a lot of that for me.

D Collins said...

I actually read this in 1979. It was awesome then, and it's still awesome now. I had read a lot of Andre Norton's stories by then, and her post-apocalyptic
Starman's Son 2250 a.d. had served as the inspiration for my second D&D game world built in 1978. It was a big deal at the time that a award winning Sci-fi/Fantasy author with massive publishing credibility endorsed D&D.

mortellan said...

Jeff: Good additions to the list. Mark Twain, that goes way back!

D Collins: You do have a point about the endorsment of D&D. Afterall these days D&D makes writers, it doesn't attract them. It would be like Steven King writing a Ravenloft novel just for the heck of it.

Argon said...


Thanks for the honorable mention. The novels you mention do transport real people into a fantasy world. The only difference was that Quag Keep was done to promote the game itself not as just a story plot line.

It seems many games have taken the same approach since then.

I also don't believe Norton took artistic license with the material. Many locations and names could of been changed for the published setting.

Who knows the truth behind Quag Keep!



Omega said...

Just saw this and at first I too thought that Quag Keep was mixing things up.

But recently I was shown a copy of the early Great Kingdom map whish would later become greyhawk. And Nortons positions line up with it!
Faraz and Yerocunbry are along the side of a river leading east on the map to the Sea of Dust. Looks like Norton turned the map 90 degrees but otherwise the refferences seem to be based on that older map.

Deodand said...

I know this is a bit late, but Omega, where did you see that map?

Raymond said...

A copy of that pre-published Greyhawk map is at: