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Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Literary Sources of the Cleric

Sometimes, I see people complaining about how the cleric doesn't fit the literary inspirations for D&D. The way they see it, D&D is based on swords & sorcery, and there are no healing priests in swords & sorcery, so the cleric just doesn't fit.

There are a couple problems with this line of thinking. One is that D&D is not based solely on swords & sorcery; there's a big element of Arthurian legend as well, which why the paladin -- even less of a good fit -- exists. So, Howard Pyle is also a literary inspiration for D&D.

The other problem is that people are focusing too strongly on specific additions to the cleric (healing and undead turning.) It's correct to say these don't show up in swords & sorcery. However, holy characters who can deliver the occasional blessing or who are otherwise protected do show up. For example, the Roger Zelazny story "The Bells of Shoredan" has Dilvish teaming up with a priest (or monk) and entering a haunted location. The de Camp and Pratt "Harold Shea" stories (cited by name in Appendix N) has Harold's colleague acting in the role of priest when they visit the worlds of the Faerie Queen and the Castle of Otranto, specifically because a magic-using priest would fit in. The Fritz Leiber story "Lean Times in Lankhmar" features priests; the REH Conan stories and the Michael Moorcock Elric stories feature evil high priests rather than good, protagonist priests, but they are there, none the less. Tanith Lee includes priests of one sort or another in "Odds Against the Gods" and Death's Master/Delusion's Master. There's a priest who's a friend of the family in Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos; he's instrumental in casting the equivalent of a Gate or Plane Shift spell that allows the heroes to rescue their daughter from Hell.

Of these stories, Tanith Lee isn't specifically mentioned in Appendix N, but is a good fit; Zelazny and Anderson are cited for other stories, but the Dilvish stories are clearly swords & sorcery, and Operation Chaos is an obvious inspiration for a couple D&D spells (and, I would argue, for the way elementals work.) The rest are explicitly mentioned in Appendix N, and Leiber, REH, and de Camp & Pratt are said to be the most immediate influences on D&D. The cleric clearly has a literary precedent.


  1. While there are some exceptions (and some of the sources you cite aren't) priests in older fantasy lit (maybe most fantasy lit) either don't have spells, or are evil cultists largely indistinguishable from the demon summoning evil wizard.

    James Blish has spell casting Catholic priests in Black Easter but there really just magic-users with religious ordination. I think that's the difficulty with the D&D style cleric: it creates a difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy that's not much evidenced in literature or real history.

  2. John Jakes "Brak the Barbarian" had a very judeo christian cult of holy men.

  3. It's the extremely specialized nature of D&D clerics that is so off-putting to me. In a game that we old timers praise for the lack of specialization of the character types--you want a Barbarian? dress your fighter in a bearskin loincloth--D&D slathers over the entire spectrum of religiously motivated character types with a super-fine paintbrush that's only wide enough to cover one esoteric niche of Medieval Christian Crusader-Priests. It's too bad that Gygax didn't take his own advice regarding social class and put it to use with regards to religion:


  4. To see D&D as a swords & sorcery simulator alone is a small and stifling vision. It really misses the point that it's the abstractness of D&D that's made it more popular than things like Pendragon, Harn, or Warhammer.

    There is a ton, *a ton*, of influence from classical myth, from fairy tales, from saint's tales, and, *gasp*, high fantasy like Tolkein. While, it's true that a lot of the spells of early clerics were straight from biblical miracles, I think 2e largely addresses that by adding the domains and having restrictions and bonuses that differ based on them.

  5. @Trey: ... but some of those "spell-less" clerics and evil cultists do have supernatural abilities, even if they aren't expressed as "spells". It's D&D's decision to express both kinds of magic in the same way. I can see the objection, though, which is part of the reason I did the "Clerics Without Spells" rules. It lets you have blessed individuals instead of magic-users in priest's garb.

    @Timrod: I've said before that clerics, like thieves, introduce a shift in thinking about classes as professions, which I don't like. But I'm kind of OK with the pseudo-Christian trappings. I'd rather use druids as my generic pagan priests.

    @Telecanter: I focused here on the s&s antecedents, but I agree. I like Arthurian legend a lot, and Hammer Horror is kind of fun, too, so I just can't see ditching pseudo-Christian clerics in my games.