While you’re probably not going to get anything more famous than the “back door” to Lonely Mountain, there’s certainly no shortage of potential antecedents for the ubiquitous secret doors of Dungeons & Dragons. Among my favorite would be the ones that Velma finds by accident whenever she loses her glasses on episodes of Scooby Doo.
I don’t recall coming across too many when I did my survey of Appendix N, so I was struck tonight as I read chapter four of The Gods of Mars to my son. Oh, there’s plenty in that chapter that’s striking, all right. There is the completely naked warrior babe that shoots her captor/tormentor without even thinking about it, for instance. If you thought the fainting of the women immediately following episodes of violence was just plain too much in Tarzan of the Apes, well… it’s plenty clear that Edgar Rice Burroughs was capable of imagining it working out in a different fashion!
But about those secret doors:
With a cry of encouragement I threw my weight against the secret door, but as well have assayed the down-hurling of the cliffs themselves. Then I sought feverishly for the secret of the revolving panel, but my search was fruitless, and I was about to raise my longsword against the sullen gold when the young woman prisoner called out to me.
“Save thy sword, O Mighty Warrior, for thou shalt need it more where it will avail to some purpose—shatter it not against senseless metal which yields better to the lightest finger touch of one who knows its secret.”
I have to say that they are used to good effect in a crazy all out combat scenario. But it’s the term itself I really wonder about. Is it possible that the phrase “secret door” was lifted from this book in order to be immortalized in a weird game invented in the seventies…? I don’t think that’s too outlandish an idea given that the original D&D term “fighting man” is without question a reference and/or an homage to John Carter. Similarly, the “thief” is not called burglar or rogue because of Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, which also explains why thieves have a “hide in shadows” skill and not stealth!
I checked the Google Ngram viewer— which again, is not conclusive proof of anything, really– but I find it interesting that the incidence of the phrase “secret door” peaks at the turn of the twentieth century and then begins climbing back into more frequent usage again starting with the advent of D&D. There’s maybe nothing to this, but there it is.
The other big thing from the same chapter is its treatment of both cosmology and religion:
“The therns are mortal,” she replied. “They die from the same causes as you or I might: those who do not live their allotted span of life, one thousand years, when by the authority of custom they may take their way in happiness through the long tunnel that leads to Issus.
“Those who die before are supposed to spend the balance of their allotted time in the image of a plant man, and it is for this reason that the plant men are held sacred by the therns, since they believe that each of these hideous creatures was formerly a thern.”
“And should a plant man die?” I asked.
“Should he die before the expiration of the thousand years from the birth of the thern whose immortality abides within him then the soul passes into a great white ape, but should the ape die short of the exact hour that terminates the thousand years the soul is for ever lost and passes for all eternity into the carcass of the slimy and fearsome silians whose wriggling thousands seethe the silent sea beneath the hurtling moons when the sun has gone and strange shapes walk through the Valley Dor.”
Okay, that’s just… wild to me. Is it really that crazy…? I think it is. There’s just an unbounded creativity to it.
Of course, it’s side by side with Plant Men that somehow sprang from the Tree of Life. (Straight outta Genesis, yo!) The whole scenario, too, is for the adventurers to escape from a sham afterlife in order to return to society and let them know that their religion is basically false.
And let me just say that “the religion that is totally false” is definitely the norm for science fiction and fantasy in general. Though, yeah, the “old folk superstition that actually turns out to be true” is a fairly common trope as well, yeah. But take something huge like the Lovecraft Mythos: if it’s real, then it annihilates pretty much all human religions. Or look at Robert E. Howard’s Conan where religion is integral to culture. Or take that crazy original series Star Trek episode “The Apple”, the one with the snake temple and the natives that end up discovering how awesome kissing is. Or consider the over the top handling of idolatry, blasphemy, and megalomaniac godling-priests in Lin Carter’s The Warrior of World’s End. Or consider the ludicrous idols of Lord Dunsany’s short stories. Or the depiction of druids engaging in human sacrifice in A. Merritt’s Creep, Shadow!
Look at all of that! And then look at religion in recent editions of D&D. Do you get the impression that you’re dealing with something multi-faceted? Nuanced? Dangerous? Something that’s of deadly importance…? Or do you– like the image there I came across on Twitter– have something that’s more innocuous, safe, and inoffensive than anything else?
I’m just asking….