PDA

View Full Version : Origin of the term "dungeon" in the D&D sense?



Togath
2013-05-03, 12:42 PM
After rereading a bit of The Hobbit, I've been wondering where/when the word "dungeon" gained it's second meaning of an underground structure encountered in a fantasy story.

The reason The Hobbit made me wonder this was this lyric from the second song the dwarves sing; "caverns dark and dungeons deep".. though I can't tell if Tolkien meant literal dungeons(as in, for prisoners) or if it was an early use of the word used in the sense that D&D ended up using it in.

Geordnet
2013-05-03, 02:29 PM
I'm pretty sure that the dawn of D&D came from when someone in Gary Gygax's wargaming group thought of taking a castle by going up though its dungeon. So, unless the usuage of "dungeon" as meaning underground structures in general predates D&D, then it's referring to the prison/torture dungeon.

Soylent Dave
2013-05-03, 11:16 PM
The word originally just meant 'castle keep' (via donjon) - the main building of a castle, and morphed into 'underground prison' sometime before the 14th century.

I'd suggest that Tolkien has quite a lot to do with the D&D 'every underground structure is a dungeon' mentality, as he used the word a few times in Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit ('dungeons deep' as you've mentioned, also refers a few times to the 'dungeons of Barad Dur', and the 'lowest dungeons of Khazad-Dum'), which very directly inspired quite a lot of D&D - and other fantasy - imagery.

It's quite an evocative word (and it fits alliteratively with 'dragons', which helps...)

KillianHawkeye
2013-05-05, 02:11 PM
also refers a few times to the 'dungeons of Barad Dur', and the 'lowest dungeons of Khazad-Dum')

Yes, but those would both presumably be actual prisons for Sauron's slaves and captives, right?

Remmirath
2013-05-05, 03:58 PM
I'm not sure, of course, but I expect that it was a gradual sort of thing. Judging from the earlier modules I've played, it seems that often at least to begin with anything referred to as a dungeon was at least to some extent in fact a dungeon -- particularly when taking into account the more archaic use of it referring also to a keep or tower, and also taking into account the adventure taking place somewhere which is connected to a dungeon via a tunnel -- but they became more and more elaborate and then eventually the actual dungeon aspects disappeared.

At this point, likely because so many early adventures in fact took place in some sort of dungeon or another, "dungeon" has basically just become slang for "the place in which we adventure".

I haven't played all early modules, or most of the later ones, so that could be false, but it's my best theory on it.


I'd suggest that Tolkien has quite a lot to do with the D&D 'every underground structure is a dungeon' mentality, as he used the word a few times in Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit ('dungeons deep' as you've mentioned, also refers a few times to the 'dungeons of Barad Dur', and the 'lowest dungeons of Khazad-Dum'), which very directly inspired quite a lot of D&D - and other fantasy - imagery.


I am reasonably certain that all of those cases do refer to actual dungeons. The only one for which I have any doubt is the dungeons of Khazad-Dm, but I find it likely that those are also actual dungeons, because the dwarves would probably have had some. "Dungeons of the Necromancer" also certainly refers to actual dungeons, and so for the dungeons of Angband, and so forth. I'm not bringing to mind any instance where "dungeon" is used to refer to anything that is definitely not an actual dungeon in any of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or The Silmarillion.

It may have had something to do with how often early and modern adventures actually do take place in dungeons, however.

Jay R
2013-05-05, 10:54 PM
An actual dungeon is the innermost keep, where everyone would go in times of danger. That's probably the one Tolkien intended; he often intentionally used archaic meanings. He was, after all, a philologist. Obviously, you want your prisoners kept safe from escape, so they go in the dungeon, but that's the secondary meaning.

Both meanings existed in English in the 1300s. The original meaning comes from the French word donjon, and I have no idea how far back it goes. It's related to the word dominion.