Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Cover That Inspired the Mind Flayer?

Most assume, quite reasonably, that the mind flayer (which first appeared in the first issue of The Strategic Review in the Spring of 1975) was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's Great Old One Cthulhu, to which they bear more than a passing resemblance. Of course, when Gygax was asked about this question in a Q&A thread at ENWorld a few years ago, he had this to say:
The mind flayer I made up out of whole cloth using my imagination, but inspired by the cover of Brian Lumley's novel in paperback edition, The Burrowers Beneath.
Now, I've generally come to think that, while these Q&A threads are quite useful, the answers given must sometimes be taken with a grain of salt, if only they were often asking for information that's more than 30 years old. I don't know about you, but I often find it very difficult to present my recollections of several decades in the past in a totally unbiased fashion. I don't think Gary was any different.

In this case, though, I am inclined to accept Gygax's claim at face value. The specific details he provides in the quote above suggest an accurate memory. Brian Lumley's Lovecraft-inspired novel was first released in paperback in the United States in early 1974, about a year before the mind flayer first appeared, so the timeframe is right. I think it quite plausible that Gary had a copy of the book in his home and was inspired by its cover artwork to create a race of subterranean tentacular beasties as new adversaries in D&D.

20 comments:

  1. I agree 100% with your "grain of salt" approach, and certainly don't mean to impugn Mr. Gygax, but even given that cover, I find the claim a bit dubious. After all, are we to believe that the mind flayer is burrowing upward with his face? I don't doubt that the cover was involved, but I tend to believe there's a fair bit of Cthulhu in there as well. Thanks as always for a great blog.

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  2. Also find the claim dubious. The first clause actually contradicts the second, as it's clearly not "made up out of whole cloth". I think I've heard him use that phrase before -- I suspect it's a boilerplate defense whenever copyright issues comes near.

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  3. As with the Tolkien disavowal, it might be copyright shyness, mixed in with memories of the Chaosium debacle over Deities and Demigods.

    But even though Lumley's Cthonians are more like purple worms than humanoids, this description from a review has me thinking they share a bit more with the classic mind flayer:

    "Like all Cthonians, Shudde M'ell can invade mens dreams, get them to do his bidding and more often than not, send them completely insane. Which is the most frightening aspect of the Cthonians power.. sure they are big, ugly, scary, smelly, indescribable creatures that are so horrifying man can not comprehend.. but the insanity they cause creeps me out the most. They are pure evil."

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  4. Those Lumley Titus Crowe novels...I used to inflict them on annoying people. Truly awful pulp books. I know there's some love for later Lumley out there, but that early stuff was bad.

    But, as most say, I'm a little skeptical of the whole cloth creation theory.

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  5. I think Gary's using the phrase "I made up out of whole cloth using my imagination" to mean something different from how I understand it. If his idea is based on a book cover, that is based on Lovecraft / Cthulhu... then his idea is also based on Lovecraft/Cthulhu, simply removed from the source material a step.

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  6. Folks, you're being too hard on Gygax here. No one can make up anything "out of whole cloth," if by that you mean that there's absolutely no outside influence on the thing that's made up. Everything we imagine draws elements from things we perceive: for example, Cthulhu's head is obviously based on an octopus. Mind flayers also have an octopoid head, but that's about all they share with Cthulhu.

    Like James, I am inclined to believe Gygax when he says that this book cover was the inspiration for the mind flayer, largely because it's such a specific reference. If that cover wasn't important for some reason, why would Gygax remember it when someone asked about the mind flayer? I do think that the cover provided a seed for thought, rather than a model for the mind flayer; as others have already noted, the tentacles are the only obvious connection to the mind flayer. I suspect the title also played a part, though: the phrase "burrowers beneath," combined with the tentacles, could well spur thoughts about a race of tentacled menaces in the subterranean depths.

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  7. I've been told the book was an influence on quite a few early designers, most especially MAR Barker's Tekumel underworlds and Dave Hargrave's supermega dungeon known as the Great Worm Road.

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  8. Mr. Brinegar--I can speak for only myself, of course, but let me explain the nature of my dubiousness, to use an ungainly word. I don't fault Mr. Gygax for drawing inspiration from outside sources--as you note, we all do. What I find a bit hard to believe is that the thought of everyone's favorite Great Old One did not play any role in the "birth" of the mind flayer. Granted, pictorial representations of Cthulhu were far fewer and farther between in past decades, so I suppose it's slightly more believable on that count, but I still don't quite buy it. Their general appearance, along with psionic abilities, and proclivity for driving people insane makes me think that for some reason Mr. Gygax either didn't want to acknowledge or didn't realize the family resemblance. I am not downplaying the importance of this cover or of Mr. Gygax' own inspiration. I'd also like to note that many have seen rather more Freudian antecedents in the face of mighty Cthulhu, as Mr. Lovecraft certainly provides a bonanza for the armchair psychologists among us. Thank you.

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  10. I think for the most part, Cthulhu was the inspiration for the mind flayer, then. Since this novel is part of Lumley's contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, then the Cthulhu phenomenon was the sure progenitor of the mind player.

    Of course, he could have just been staring idly at the cover and said "what if I make 'em look like Cthulhu?"

    It's a great novel, btw, as is its gonzo sequel "The Transition of Titus Crow."

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  11. "Shudde M'ell can invade mens dreams, get them to do his bidding and more often than not, send them completely insane."

    In all fairness, this all applies to Cthulhu too.

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  12. I don't find Gary's statement contradictory. The expression "made up out of whole cloth" doesn't necessarily mean anything other than "fabricated" or "made up". Fabricating or making up an idea (eg, a monster) using your imagination does not preclude being inspired from an outside source.

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  13. I grant the whole grain approach and it seems that his statements are paradoxical. Hear me out however. Take a paper back and clutch it close to your face as if you are reading it. Someone comes into the room.... wouldn't it look like your face had tentacles coming out the bottom, and then couldn't that be an inspiration for something fairly new?

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  14. Yeah, but Gary himself stated that HPL as a major influence and listed him no less then in the Appendix N of the DMG. From his later interviews and Q&A, its' obvious from his experiences dealing from the lawsuits he endured, that unless he got an ok from the author or estate from whatever source material he "borrowed" from, It's best not to credit it at all.

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  15. I think people are missing a few points.

    1) The underground beings in Lumley's novel are probably more like the Mind Flayer than Cthullu himself, who was a massive entity living in the sea.

    2) Remember that Gygax didn't control the art that much. He's gone on record as stating he did not like Dog Faced Kobolds and Pig-Face Orcs.

    3) If Gygax was trying to be evasive with copyright, it would actually have been better to deal with Lovecraft that Lumley. Lumley's work is newer and unlike other Mythos authors Lumley dislikes having people use his contributions to the Mythos.

    4) I don't know about you guys, but I like to assume when a person answers the question in a public forum, he is being honest.

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  16. Unless Gygax had a pretty good Ouija board, it would of been a little bit hard to deal with Lovecraft directly being that the Old Gent died one year before Gary was born.

    Funniness aside, Its harder to sue someone if they say they were inspired by the book cover then the written word that inspired the artists. Plus Lumly's story deals simply with the Cothonians and their elder god mother Shuddde Me'll. Who's written depictions are described closer to gigantic worms then humanoids with Octopus heads.

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  17. If true it simply means the mind flayers were not directly inspired by the central mythos creatures or by The Big C, but were still inspired by it only removed a couple of steps. Namely, Lumley was inspired by The Big C, the cover artist took his ques from the story and Gygax took inspiration from the cover art. The influence is present if not direct.

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  18. Also of note are the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu, which are mentioned in At the Mountains of Madness. Similar to Cthulhu in shape, but much smaller, perhaps his progeny, they built the city of R'lyeh.

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  19. Well i thought it was a pretty cool pulp story, and nice to know that it led into the gygax mythos.

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  20. JRT said "Remember that Gygax didn't control the art that much".

    So does that mean that we should be describing mind-flayers as worm-like creatures? I like that idea!

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