I thought I'd write a brief post related to things I've read in the past week or two. First, an article I read today about how A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones is not historically accurate because the middle ages were actually kind of boring. This is from a medieval historian, mind you; in particular, he points out that the majority of medieval battles were very short and mostly involved running away. It's a strong argument for making morale rules a bigger part of the game.
The other thing I've read has been A. Merritt's The Moon Pool, plus I've just started Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. There's a lot I could probably say about the influences of The Moon Pool on D&D; it has a race of frog-people, for example. But I was reminded of the occasional comment I've heard that the specific fictional activity of D&D -- dungeon-crawling for treasure -- has no literary precedent, except maybe Tolkien's underworld expeditions in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These are high-fantasy, lacking the more mercenary aspect of D&D adventures; there's a quest to save the world in LotR, and even the slightly more mercenary dwarves of The Hobbit also have a high purpose of reclaiming a lost inheritance. In contrast, Conan or Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser at first seem a better precedent, with "heroes" planning to steal a legendary object in the Tower of the Elephant or taking on a job to assassinate someone's rival.
The only problem, in the eyes of some, is that the vast majority of these swords & sorcery adventures don't seem to match the original old-school experience. So where did dungeon-crawling for treasure come from?
Part of the difficulty may just be too strict a definition of a literary antecedent. People have been looking for (1) a swords & sorcery adventure, (2) seeking treasure, (3) in a huge, sprawling underworld, (4) filled with monsters, (5) and intelligent humanoids, (6) and tricks and traps. They aren't finding a swords & sorcery story that fits all those points, and in particular there don't seem to be creature-infested megadungeons in S&S.
But if you broaden the search outside swords & sorcery, you find a long tradition of "lost world" adventures many involving exploration of caverns -- or ruins, in The Moon Pool -- which leads to discovering a vast underworld, inhabited by dinosaurs, other creatures, and advanced civilizations with wondrous artifacts. You might argue that the adventurers are seeking knowledge, rather than treasure, but in some cases there *is* treasure involved, or one of the party members betrays the others for the promise of treasure.
And as an aside, the lost world adventure derives from the earlier allegorical travel tradition, which is where the visitors that Brendan discusses on his blog came from; the viewpoint character from our own culture originally was describing a wondrous land for the purpose of warning or educating us. As travel allegories added adventure to create lost world and sword & planet genres, authors slowly winnowed out the allegory aspect, which made the visitor less and less necessary, until finally some pulp writers began writing from the viewpoint of characters in completely fictional worlds, with no visitors at all.