Monday, October 19, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles

If I had to pick the most obscure author listed in Appendix N, Margaret St. Clair would almost certainly be whom I'd choose. Despite the fact that she wrote at least two books that had an influence on Gygax – The Sign of the Labrys and The Shadow PeopleI think it's safe to say that very few players of Dungeons & Dragons have ever heard her name, let alone read one of her stories. 

I can't fault anyone for not having heard of St. Clair. I'm fairly certain I'd never encountered her name prior to seeing it in the Dungeon Masters Guide and, even then, finding an actual book with her byline wasn't easy. Why she is largely unknown is a mystery to me. If I had to guess, it's that she broke into the pulp scene during the late 1940s, which was after the golden age of the pulps that is now so familiar and celebrated. If so, it's ironic, as St. Clair's writing is very much in keeping with the ideas and themes of her more acclaimed colleagues. 

A case in point is her short story, "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles." Written under the pseudonym of Idris Seabright, the story originally appeared in the October 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (which also featured stories by Richard Mattheson, Alfred Bester, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fletcher Pratt). The gnoles of the title are a reference to a short story from Lord Dunsany's The Book of Wonder, "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles." Dunsany's tale is ostensibly about how the titular character, a professional burglar, attempts to steal from the monstrous gnoles – and it is – but it's also a satirical meditation on capitalism and monsters.

St. Clair's own short story is not a sequel or continuation of Dunsany's tale but I'd say that one's enjoyment of it is increased by familiarity with its predecessor. Both explore similar themes and do so in humorous ways. The difference, in my opinion, is that "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" is much darker, even horrific, than Dunsany's narrative and it's precisely for that reason that I find it so memorable. The story begins thusly:

The gnoles have a bad reputation, and Mortensen was quite aware of this. But he reasoned, correctly enough, that cordage must be something for which the gnoles had a long unsatisfied want, and he saw no reason why he should not be the one to sell to them. What a triumph such a sale would be! The district sales manager might single out Mortensen for special mention at the annual sales-force dinner. It would help his sales quota enormously. And, after all, it was none of his business what the gnoles used cordage for.

From the very beginning, the tone of the story is clear and St. Clair takes full advantage of this breezy, almost light-hearted spirit, drawing the reader to conclude that this will be a fun little piece utterly lacking in punch. Mortensen, his Manual of Modern Salesmanship in hand as his guide, continues toward his intended goal.

The gnoles live on the very edge of Terra Cognita, on the far side of a wood which all authorities unite in describing as dubious. Their house is narrow and high, in architecture a blend of Victorian Gothic and Swiss chalet. Though the house needs paint, it is kept in good repair. Thither on Thursday morning, sample case in hand, Mortensen took his way.

No path leads to the house of the gnoles, and it is always dark in the dubious wood. But Mortensen, remembering what he had learned at his mother's knee concerning the odor of gnoles, found the house quite easily. For a moment he stood hesitating before it. His lips moved as he repeated, "Good morning. I have come to supply your cordage requirements," to himself. The words were the beginning of his sales talk. Then he went up and rapped on the door.

It's at this point that the story slowly begins to make a turn toward horror, but the turn is so slow, so subtle that the reader might not notice it at first. On the surface, not much has changed. Mortensen proceeds to greet the gnoles, enter the home, and make his sales pitch without taking any heed of the danger into which he has thrown himself. Yet, things are most definitely not what they seem and St. Clair masterfully conveys this switch from the fanciful to the dreadful with assurance. The story's final paragraph is indeed shuddersome and further demonstration, if such were needed, of St. Clair's skill as a writer.

As an aside, roleplayers might well wonder whether the D&D gnoll in any way derives from either Dunsany or St. Clair. There is no clear answer for, although OD&D Volume II makes reference to Lord Dunsany (or "Sunsany" in the actual text) in the entry for gnolls, Dunsany does not describe them in any detail. St. Clair offers a little more but what she says does not comport in any way with the AD&D-derived idea that gnolls are hynea-headed humanoids. Further, Gygax's original description stated that they were "a cross between Gnomes and Trolls," whatever that means. For my part, I like the fact that the description of OD&D's gnolls are so vague and encourage referees to decide for themselves what these monsters look like. 


  1. It's perhaps worth noting that although Dunsany doesn't describe the gnoles, he based the story on Sidney Sime's illustration (, which shows the same house that St. Clair describes and some burly, hunched humanoids in silhouette.

    Of course, St. Clair's description of the gnoles differs wildly from this, but I suspect D&D's original gnoles did not; the illustration of a gnoll in the original books isn't a million miles away from Sime's; it's burly and hunched in a simlar way.

    It seems to me that the humanoids of OD&D are divided almost more into classes or levels than species. After all, their names are more or less synonyms: goblin, orc, hobgoblin, gnoll (Sime's gnoles anticipate Tolkien's orcs with their long arms) and, later, bugbear. I wonder if they were distinguished much or at all in appearance before the Monster Manual, and I'd see them more as equivalents to fighter levels. The fact that they tend to have leaders and bodyguards who are mechanically identical to the larger sorts supports this, I think.

    1. Thanks for the Sime's reference. I was completely unaware of it.

      Re: OD&D humanoids, I believe that Gygax said somewhere that they were created to fill out a hit die progression. His goal was to ensure there were monstrous humanoids for a wide variety of levels. OD&D itself says very little about most of them otherwise.

    2. You're very welcome! Dunsany based all the tales in The Book of Wonder on Sime's illustrations, I think. It was an unusual collaboration in which the writer asked the illustrator for inspiration and then wrote stories to expand on the pictures.

      Yes, that makes lots of sense. I find it interesting that in OD&D, they're all essentially a collective thesaurus entry for 'goblin' but by the time of the Monster Manual, they've become animal-people of various sorts (kobolds=dog-men, orcs = pig-men, hobgoblins = mandrill- or ape-men, gnolls = hyena-men). Only goblins are left as the folkloric or Tolkienesque original (D&D's goblins are much closer to Tolkien's orcs than its own orcs). Bugbears were already a bit bear-like to start with.

  2. Read this story in 1972 (I was six) in a sf/fantasy compilation I bought at a grade school book sale. In hindsight, it might not have been wholly appropriate for my age, but the story certainly sticks in my mind after all this time. Also recall being quite confused about the furry savage gnolls of D&D/AD&D when I ran into them a few years later, although I admit I'm fond of what their lore eventually became. Who doesn't like demon-worshipping fiend-blooded hyena-men?

  3. I remember reading this story in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents collections and it made a big impression on me.