Revisiting Iconic Monsters: Kobolds
Posted: March 12, 2011 Filed under: monsters
In his recent post, “Creating Another Bandwagon,” James of Grognardia has challenged us to compare our earlier impressions of classic D&D monsters before we saw the complete illustrations or descriptions with the ‘official’ images or descriptions we may have seen later. James talked about how his conception of what an ‘orc’ looked like was very different from what he eventually saw in the AD&D Monster Manual. I wanted to jump on that bandwagon by advancing the claim that I had a similar experience with kobolds.
The first D&D book I owned was the ‘Holmes’ edition of basic D&D which had very brief monster descriptions and fewer monster illustrations than the AD&D Monster Manual I bought later. In Holmes, kobolds were described as small and evil and ‘dwarf like,’ so I was surprised and a little put off when I later saw them illustrated as little lizard dog people. I just hadn’t imagined them like that.
Perhaps it was having spent part of my childhood in Germany, where there are popular folklore tales about little folks named “heinzelmännchen” (usually translated as ‘gnomes’) infesting the city of Cologne.* As a kid, I had a book about the legend of the Heinzelmännchen in which they were portrayed as somewhat creepy looking little beardless midgets dressed in dark green suits and droopy hats. My conception of kobolds were, I think, drawn from the imagery of that book, but I imagined them as being dirty and evil. For reasons I can’t remember, I remember also telling my players that the kobolds were made from earth; when they killed one, it disintegrated into a pile of dirt.
Now the heinzelmännchen of Cologne were supposed to be cute and helpful (not evil) and they are usually portrayed as looking much like the ceramic gnomes that people put in their gardens (with or without beards), but perhaps I found the idea of obsessive-compulsive little people who crept around doing all sorts of shit while we slept to be rather creepy. Perhaps that’s why I like the footage of a sinister-looking gnome that some kids in Mexico caught on video late at night a few years ago (still image at right) to be more ‘koboldish’ than the lizard-chihuahua I saw when I opened up the AD&D Monster Manual.
*The original tale is as follows: In the past, no one in the City of Cologne had to work because each night the work seemed to ‘do itself’ (actually the heinzelmännchen did all the work at night. Their only stipulation was that no one look at them. There might have also been a bribe in the form of fresh cream or something). The people were, naturally, happy with this arrangement and just lay around all day drinking beer and playing cards. However, one woman (it’s always a woman in these stories, isn’t it? Eve? Pandora? Why can’t women leave shit alone?) was consumed by curiosity and threw dried peas on the steps of her house. When the little heinzelmännchen arrived to work, they slipped on the peas and fell down the stairs, making a racket, and she awoke and grabbed a lamp and came running to see them. This pissed the little people off so much that they never came back and from then on the big people of Cologne had to work like everyone else. As a result, there are now references to these little gnomes on signs, statues, etc., all over Cologne. They were even in cartoons on TV in Germany when I was a kid. In Cologne there is also a statue of the woman with a lamp.