THE WFRP STORY XXXII: THE RAT PACK

This post continues my history of WFRP1, which started here.

There are no such things as skaven.

– Old World saying*

Until 1985 there really were no such things as skaven. They first appeared in a miniatures ad in the third Citadel Compendium (December 1985), but without any background description. There was little evidence at this stage that the “Chaos ratmen” would be any more significant than the “Chaos snakemen” that appeared in the same issue.

Skaven Third Citadel Compendium

Chaos ratmen in the third Citadel Compendium (December 1985)

Their full unveiling came a few months later in the third Citadel Journal (April 1986). That issue was dominated by the skaven. They were described in detail in a six-page article by their creator Jes Goodwin, and featured in the WFB2 scenario ‘Vengeance of the Lichemaster’ (see part XXX). Skaven even appeared in that issue’s Kaleb Daark strip (see part XXXIV).

‘Skaven’ from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

Skaven Kaleb Daark.jpg

‘The Quest of Kaleb Daark’ from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

Whereas most aspects of the Warhammer world evolved gradually over several years, skaven remarkably appeared almost fully formed. Major elements like their clan structure (Clan Eshin, Clan Moulder, Clan Pestilens, Clan Skryre and the warlord clans), Grey Seers, the thirteen Lords of Decay, warpstone, Skavenblight and the Horned Rat were all present from the start. Even details like warpfire throwers, plague censers, poisoned wind globes, warpstone charms, black arks, tracker-rats, wolf-rats, rat ogres and their distinctive speech patterns made their first appearances in the Citadel Journal. In fact, when Jes Goodwin and Rick Priestley returned to the subject more than three years later in WD119 (November 1989), the only significant additions were screaming bells and the names of the warlord clans Mors and Rictus.

Jes Goodwin, Skaven, 1986, from third Citadel Journal

Skaven from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

The name is a shortening of “scavenger”. The skaven’s physical form is an evolution of similar ideas elsewhere in fantasy literature and gaming, the earliest of which appear in Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar (1968).

With her dagger she pointed somewhat languidly toward the vanity table holding the black and white vials, informing him, “My family has used the same potion as Sheelba’s [to shrink to the size of rats] for countless centuries, and also the white potion, which restores us at once to human-size. During those same centuries we have interbred with the rats, resulting in divinely beautiful monsters such as I am, but also in monsters most ugly, at least by human standards. Those latter of my family stay always below ground, but the rest of us enjoy the advantages and delights of living in two worlds. The inter-breeding has also resulted in many rats with human-like hands and minds.

Op cit, chapter 13

So tricky were some of the traps the rats set and by circumstantial evidence so deft their wielding of their weapons, that many folk began to insist that some of them, especially the rare and elusive albinos, had on their forelegs tiny clawed hands rather than paws, while there were many reports of rats running on their hind legs.

Op cit, chapter 9

Although more forms are suggested, rats are only shown in three shapes in The Swords of Lankhmar: conventional rats; hybrid rats, which have dextrous hands and walk upright; and creatures indistinguishable from humans save for minor features, such as pronounced front teeth or piebald skin on the tongue. They only loosely resemble skaven: even the hybrid rats have the size and body shape of normal rats**.

Other significant antecedents are the wererats of D&D/AD&D. Originally D&D‘s wererats existed purely as humans or giant rats, but AD&D added an intermediate ratman form.

The Wererat or Rat Man…can assume the shape of a normal man in order to dupe persons, but they prefer to maintain a rat-like shape, although nearly man-sized.

– Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz, Greyhawk (1975)

Sometimes known as ratmen, these sly and evil creatures inhabit subterranean tunnel complexes beneath cities. Wererats are able to take three forms – human, human-sized ratman and giant rat…. Wererats prefer to move about in a rat-like shape smaller than a man, but much larger than a normal rat.

– Gary Gygax, Monster Manual (1977)

Wererats are different from most lycanthropes. They are intelligent, can speak Common in either form, and may use any weapon. A wererat usually prefers to use a man-sized rat form, but may become a full-sized human.

– Frank Mentzer, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules (1983)

It seems likely that D&D/AD&D‘s wererats have a connection with The Swords of Lankhmar. Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were a major influence on D&D/AD&D, as acknowledged in Appendix N of AD&D‘s first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Wererats are exceptional among lycanthropes in AD&D in having three forms, and those forms closely resemble those in The Swords of Lankhmar, albeit with more uniform sizes. The term wererat can even be traced back to Leiber.

“Slay Hisvet or her maid on sight. They’re not women but were-rats or worse,”

Op cit, chapter 5

Wererats from Greyhawk (1975) and Monster Manual (1977)

Wererats

Heritage Dungeon Dwellers 1271a Wererat (1979-1982), Grenadier Wizards & Warriors W30a Wererat (pre-1980), Grenadier AD&D 112 Wererats (1980-1982), Citadel FF13-2 Wererat (1982), Grenadier Fantasy Lords first series 105 Wererat (1983)

In their ratman form D&D/AD&D‘s wererats resemble skaven more closely. They are of similar size and have a more anthropomorphic physique. Yet there are still substantial differences. They have ratlike proportions and are usually depicted walking in a stooped position, rather than fully upright.

There is evidence to suggest Goodwin was was interested in both Leiber’s fiction and D&D/AD&D‘s wererats. As Zhu Bajiee has pointed out, Goodwin’s contributions to Trollcrusher magazine featured art of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and a dungeon scenario containing wererats. It seems likely these ideas influenced the appearance of skaven.

Matthew Sullivan has suggested that Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics may have been another influence on the physical form of skaven. His appearance is certainly close to that of the skaven. He is humanoid in size and proportions and walks upright. However, there is no specific evidence of a connection, and the skaven’s proportions and posture could have originated elsewhere, so the connection is tentative.

Splinter TMNT 1

Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles issue 1 (May 1984)

In general there seems to have been a trend for ratmen to develop a progressively more human appearance, and skaven appear to be the culmination of that.

Ratman Comparison

Comparison of ratman physiques

The skaven’s most distinctive feature is their social structure and especially their clans. This may also trace its origins back to The Swords of Lankhmar, which describes a society segregated by function and an army divided into specialist troop types.

They seemed to practice a division of labor, some acting as lookouts, others as leaders and guards, others as skilled breakers and mechanics, still others as mere burden-bearers docile to the squeak of command.

Op cit, chapter 7

What the Mouser had learned during the council session had been, simply yet horribly, the all-over plan for the grand assault on Lankhmar Above, which was to take place a half-hour before this very midnight: detailed information about the disposition of pike companies, crossbow detachments, dagger groups, poison-weapon brigades, incendiaries, lone assassins, child-killers, panic-rats, stink-rats, genital-snappers and breast-biters and other berserkers, setters of man-traps such as trip-cords and needle-sharp caltrops and strangling nooses, artillery brigades which would carry up piecemeal larger weapons to be assembled above ground, until his brain could no longer hold all the data.

“To think,” he said, “that tomorrow my people will be masters of Lankhmar Above. For millennia we rats have planned and built, tunneled and studied and striven, and now in less than six hours—it’s worth a drink!

Op cit, chapter 12

The parallels are striking, and many specific elements of skaven clans seem to have their origins here. However, the clans also appear to incorporate other influences and original ideas.

Clan Eshin resembles closely the “lone assassins… [and] setters of man-traps such as trip-cords and needle-sharp caltrops and strangling nooses” in The Swords of Lankhmar. Its name, though, seems to be a coinage. There is an Eshin school in Buddhism, but there is little to suggest the connection is anything more than a coincidence. Likewise the term “nightrunners” is probably novel. The Night Runner film (1957) and the so-called night runners of the Chapati Movement of 1857 seem unlikely influences.

Jes Goodwin, Skaven Warpfire Thrower, 1986, from third Citadel Journal

Skaven warpfire thrower from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

Clan Skryre bears a notable likeness to the “poison-weapon brigades, incendiaries… [and] artillery brigades which would carry up piecemeal larger weapons to be assembled above ground” mentioned in The Swords of Lankhmar. The clan’s weapons appear to derive from diverse historical sources. Black arcs (sic) clearly descend from the biblical Ark of the Covenant, perhaps via Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980). Jezzails are based on Afghan firearms, popularised in fiction by Rudyard Kipling (‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’, 1886), Arthur Conan Doyle (eg A Study in Scarlet, 1887) and George Macdonald Fraser (Flashman, 1969). Poisoned wind globes perhaps get their name from the Arabic Simoom (“poisoned wind”), which was mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

As for the name Skryre, we might surmise a connection with the English word “scryer”. The description “warlock engineers” echoes the “sorcerer scientists” of Granbretan in Michael Moorcock’s History of the Runestaff (1967-1969).

Clan Moulder seems to have no obvious analogue in The Swords of Lankhmar. Its breeding of mutant rat creatures may have some connection with the mutant creatures in Stephen King’s ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1970) or James Herbert’s The Rats (1974), but none of the creatures specifically mentioned in those stories have counterparts in Warhammer. The idea may instead owe more to Warhammer‘s general notion of Chaos mutations.

The rats had closed in around them, silent as death. Crowded in, rank on rank. Thousands of eyes looked greedily back at him. In ranks to the wall, some fully as high as a man’s shin….

He could see the bats now, too. They were roosting from the rough-hewn overheads, huge, the size of crows or rooks…. The mutated bats had not lost their tails yet. It whipped around Hall’s neck in a loathsome coil and squeezed as the teeth sought the soft spot under his neck. It wriggled and flapped with its membranous wings, clutching the tatters of his shirt for purchase.

Something had happened to the rats back here, some hideous mutation that never could have survived under the eye of the sun; nature would have forbidden it. But down here, nature had taken on another ghastly face. The rats were gigantic, some as high as three feet. But their rear legs were gone and they were blind as moles, like their flying cousins. They dragged themselves forward with hideous eagerness….

Hall walked to the brow of the wet hill and looked down. The rat filled the whole gully at the far end of that noxious tomb. It was a huge and pulsating grey, eyeless, totally without legs. When Hall’s light struck it, it made a hideous mewling noise. Their queen, then, the magna mater. A huge and nameless thing whose progeny might some day develop wings.

– Stephen King, ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1970)

On the straw before him, tucked into the farthest corner, surrounded by human bones, lay the most obnoxious creature he had ever seen, either in dreams or in life. In some ways, it resembled a rat, a huge rat, bigger, much bigger than the others. Its head was pointed, its body long, though obese, and he could see a long, thick tail curling forward, from behind it. But there the resemblance ended.

Its whole body seemed to pulse spasmodically; it was almost hairless, a few grey threads clinging sparsely; it was completely white, or perhaps grey-pink, impossible to tell in the poor light, and its veins showed through obscenely, throbbing in time with the body movement. It reminded Harris of a huge, dismembered, bloodshot eye. He swallowed hard to stop the rising sickness.

He looked into the sightless eyes. There were no pupils, just yellow, gleaming slits. The head waved from side to side, seemingly sniffing the air, the only way it could locate him. The stench from the creature was foul, putrid – almost poisonous. A shape at the side of its large head puzzled Harris. Resisting his revulsion, he took a step closer, realizing the creature was crippled by its own obesity.

The lump was almost as big as the head next to it and it, too, waved to and fro in the air. He peered closer, holding the torch nearer to it and saw what looked like – a mouth!

God! It had two heads!

Harris staggered back with a cry of horror. The second head had no eyes at all, but it had a mouth and stumps of teeth. No ears – but a pointed nose that twitched and sniffed.

– James Herbert, The Rats, chapter 17 (1974)

The clan name is a pun on the English word “mould”, in the senses “fungus” and “change shape”. The use of “beastmasters” may have been influenced by the Beastmaster film (1982), which was well known at the time.

It is natural to associate rats with disease, particularly in light of their role in spreading the Black Death, and so Clan Pestilens is an unsurprising inclusion among skaven clans. But there may also be a connection with The Swords of Lankhmar.

… From various low golden rat-holes, noxious vapors brewed in the sewers were bellows-driven.

Op cit, chapter 14

In this passage the vapours are poisonous, rather than infectious (bizarrely Leiber’s rats are presented throughout as hygienic). However, there is some similarity between them and the fumes from Clan Pestilens’ plague censers, so an influence is possible. The censers were evidently also inspired by Christian thuribles.

The clan name derives from the Latin pestilens (“disease”). This might be a sign of the influence of Rick Priestley, who also contributed to Goodwin’s work on the skaven.

Rick was always a very generous collaborator, [sic] we had worked together on the Skaven background and I think we worked well together.

– Jes Goodwin, interview by Gav Thorpe

Jes Goodwin, Skaven Banners, 1986

Skaven banners from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

The connections of skaven society to The Swords of Lankhmar go beyond clans. One of the most conspicuous links is the council of the thirteen Lords of Decay.

“Not the best day for a rat-show on the afterdeck, is it? Which is some good from this fog. I can’t abide the lolling white brutes. Though but a dozen in number they remind me too much of the Thirteen. Have you ever heard tell of the legend of the Thirteen?”

“I have,” Fafhrd said somberly. “A wise woman of the Cold Waste once told me that for each animal kind—wolves, bats, whales, it holds for all and each—there are always thirteen individuals having almost manlike (or demonlike!) wisdom and skill. Can you but find and master this inner circle, the Wise Woman said, then through them you can control all animals of that kind.”

Op cit, chapter 2

The Mouser squinted through Grig’s notched mask at the glorious Council Chamber and the other members of the Supreme Thirteen.

Within a central circle of particularly costly pillars was set a great round table, about which sat evenly spaced the Thirteen, all masked and clad in white hoods and robes, from which white-gloved rat-hands emerged.

Op cit, chapter 12

Jes Goodwin, Grey Seer, 1986, from third Citadel Journal

Skaven Grey Seer from the third Citadel Journal (April 1986)

There are also parallels between The Swords of Lankhmar and the Grey Seers. Leiber depicts white rats as the leaders of others, and white skaven are described as particularly adept sorcerers.

Between the two ships, from Clam toward the cutter, moved a multitude of tiny, dark-headed ripples.

Fafhrd joined Slinoor. Without looking away, the latter said simply, “Rats!” Fafhrd’s eyebrows rose.

The Mouser joined them, saying, “Clam’s holed. The water swells the grain, which mightily forces up the deck.”

Slinoor nodded and pointed toward the cutter. It was possible dimly to see tiny dark forms—rats surely!—climbing over its side from out of the water. “There’s what gnawed holes in Clam,” Slinoor said.

Then Slinoor pointed between the ships, near the cutter. Among the last of the ripple-army was a white-headed one. A second later a small white form could be seen swiftly mounting the cutter’s side. Slinoor said, “There’s what commanded the hole-gnawers.”

Op cit, chapter 3

There is no equivalent in The Swords of Lankhmar to The Horned Rat. The deity does, though, bears some resemblance to the neopagan Horned God and 19th-century CE depictions of Baphomet, perhaps via the later association of those depictions with Satanism.

Sigil of Baphomet from La Clef de la Magie Noire (1897) by Stanislas de Guaita (left) and sign of the Lords of Decay (right)

Another element of the skaven’s background that does not appear in The Swords of Lankhmar is warpstone.

At the time of this great catastrophy [sic] … a great deal of raw chaos material was ‘sucked’ into our reality, deadly and potent matter with powers of an unknown and deadly kind. This was the material that was to become ‘Warpstone’, a mighty source of raw magic….

A single piece of raw warpstone is usually about the size of a man’s fist. It is irregular in shape, although its exact form will be hard to detect because of the intense black glow, gulping in light from the immediate vicinity, creating a small patch of darkness. In this form warpstone is very dangerous to all creatures, and prolonged exposure can cause severe mutation or death.

Refined warpstone is powdery and grey, quite unlike the original matter.

– Jes Goodwin, ‘Skaven’, the third Citadel Journal (March 1986)

There are many forms of magical stones in mythology and literature. There are naturally occurring stones reputed to have innate magical properties, such as amethysts and bezoars. There are meteorites with supposedly divine properties, such as the baetylus of Semitic myth. There are stones that acquire properties by enchantment, such as the Actorios stone in Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories and the palantíri in The Lord of the Rings. There are even artificial creations, such as the philosopher’s stone. None of these resembles warpstone to any significant extent.

The most similar antecedent in fiction is perhaps kryptonite from DC Comics’ Superman stories. It shares some characteristics with warpstone, such as its extraterrestrial origin, occurrence in meteorites and potentially unpredictable effects.

Best of DC Blue Ribbon Digest 36 (May 1983)

Warpstone may also have been partly inspired by radioactive material. This was a staple of science fiction, and nuclear holocaust was a particularly prominent fear during the Cold War.

Skavenblight has noticeable similarities with Lankhmar Below, the rats’ underground dwelling in The Swords of Lankhmar.

Their behavior made old folks and storytellers and thin-bearded squinting scholars fearfully recall the fables that there had once been a humped city of rats large as men where imperial Lankhmar had now stood for three-score centuries; that rats had once had a language and government of their own and a single empire stretching to the borders of the unknown world, coexistent with man’s cities but more unified; and that beneath the stoutly mortared stones of Lankhmar, far below their customary burrowings and any delvings of man, there was a low-ceilinged rodent metropolis with streets and homes and glow-lights all its own and granaries stuffed with stolen grain.

Op cit, chapter 7

In the Old World itself the Ratmen have erected the great, sprawling city of decay called Skavenblight. This secret and evil place is situated deep in the great wastes of the southern marshes that lie in north western [sic] Italia.

– Jes Goodwin, ‘Skaven’, the third Citadel Journal (March 1986)

Again we see here see Italia as a forerunner of Tilea (cf part XXX).

The symbol of the skaven seems to have been an original creation by Goodwin. I have been unable to find any historical equivalent. The closest resemblance is the central section of a triquetra (or trefoil knot). Other triangular symbols, such as the triskelion and alchemical signs for the elements, differ materially from the skaven trisceptron***.

Triquetra, Triskelia

Triquetra and triskelia

Elemental symbols

Alchemical symbols for the elements earth, air, fire and water

Graeme Davis has commented that the creation of such designs was a speciality of Goodwin.

Jes created a lot of runes in his sketchbook.

– Graeme Davis, comment on Awesome Lies

The skaven, however, were not Goodwin’s first use of this particular symbol. Zhu Bajiee has noted that Goodwin used it in a different context in his cover art for the adventure The Lost Shrine of Kasar-Khan (1985). It seems that Goodwin simply appropriated for the skaven a sign that he had already been using.

Jes Goodwin, cover art, from The Lost Shrine of Kasar-Khan, 1985

Cover of The Lost Shrine of Kasar-Khan (1985)

Despite their sudden appearance in Warhammer, skaven seem to have a surprisingly long prehistory. The Swords of Lankhmar looms large in it, most obviously contributing to the ideas of the clans, the Lords of Decay and Skavenblight. The wererats of D&D/AD&D seem to have been important influences on the skaven’s physical appearance. There may have been many other influences at play, also.

The blend of ideas was potent. Skaven have gone on to become probably Warhammer‘s most recognisably distinctive creatures, featuring in every iteration of the game since their creation.

John Blanche, cover, 1986, from the third Citadel Journal

APPENDIX: OTHER PRECURSORS

There is a rich tradition of rat depictions in fiction, and many have been proposed as possible forerunners of skaven (for example, several in this list by Jeff Moore). However, most are in my opinion unlikely sources of direct inspiration. They are obscure, have limited overlap and explain no elements of the skaven that are not accounted for by other sources. They may, however, have had some indirect influence. They are discussed in more detail below.

Robert Southey, ‘God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop’ (1799). This poem, in which rats take vengeance on a bishop, features only normal rats and does not explain any special characteristics of skaven.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgement on him!

– Robert Southey, ‘God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop’, lines 77-80 (1799)

Robert Browning, ‘The Pied Piper’ (1842). This well known retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s story again only features natural rats without any specific resemblance to skaven. There are, however, similarities in the situations of Hamelin and Lankhmar in The Swords of Lankhmar, such that the former may have been an inspiration for the latter.

“Rats!
They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats. . .”

– Robert Browning, ‘The Pied Piper’ (1842).

Jules Verne, ‘Adventures of the Rat Family’ (1893). This short story describes a family of rats which are magically transformed into various other species, including humans, but does not describe hybrid creatures like the skaven. It is also relatively obscure, and was not translated into English until 1993, seven years after the first account of the skaven.

Once upon a time there was a family of rats: The father, Raton; the mother, Ratonne; their daughter, Ratine; and her cousin Rate. Their servants were the cook, Rata, and the maid, Ratane.

Now, my dear children, these worthy, esteemed rodents had such extraordinary adventures that I cannot resist the desire to narrate them to you.

These adventures took place in the age of fairies and magicians, and also during the time that animals talked. Still, they didn’t talk any more nonsense than people did of that epoch, not any more that do people of today, for that matter.

– Jules Verne, ‘Adventures of the Rat Family’ (1893)

Beatrix Potter, The Roly-Poly Pudding or The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908). This tale features a pair of rats, Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, who capture Tom Kitten and attempt to make a pudding out of him. The characters are normal rats and seem too childish to be a likely inspiration for the skaven.

Beatrix Potter, Samuel Whiskers, Anna Maria and Tom KItten, 1908, from The Roly-Poly Pudding

Anna Maria, Tom Kitten and Samuel Whiskers, from The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908)

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908). This famous novel features the anthropomorphised rat Ratty. An adaptation by Cosgrove Hall was broadcast on UK television at the time of the skaven’s creation (1984-1988), in which Ratty notably lacks a tail. There are some similarities with the skaven, but they are not pronounced, nor does an amiable children’s character seem a likely origin of the skaven.

Ratty from the WInd in the Willows by Cosgrove Hall

Ratty from Cosgrove Hall’s animated version of The Wind in the Willows (1984-1988)

Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ (1924). In this story Sherlock Holmes mentions in passing “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”, but since he provides no further details, it accounts for no details of the skaven.

HP Lovecraft, ‘The Rats in the Walls’ (1924). This story features an underground city, whose population were apparently devoured by rats. There are some similarities, but the it seems that city was not constructed by the rats and the rats were not humanoid.

HP Lovecraft, ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1933). This story features a familiar, Brown Jenkin, with the body of a rat and the face of a human, but it does not match any specific details of the skaven.

Richmal Crompton, ‘William the Rat Lover’ (1935). William sets up a sanctuary for rats, who become attached to him and inadvertently help him win a fancy dress competition as the Pied Piper. The rats are entirely normal and unlikely ancestors of the skaven.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four (1948). In one of the most famous literary depictions of rats, Winston Smith is tortured with rats. They are, however, conventional rats and have no obvious connection with skaven.

O’Brien picked up the cage, and, as he did so, pressed something in it. There was a sharp click. Winston made a frantic effort to tear himself loose from the chair. It was hopeless; every part of him, even his head, was held immovably. O’Brien moved the cage nearer. It was less than a metre from Winston’s face.

‘I have pressed the first lever,’ said O’Brien. ‘You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.’

The cage was nearer; it was closing in. Winston heard a succession of shrill cries which appeared to be occurring in the air above his head. But he fought furiously against his panic. To think, to think, even with a split second left — to think was the only hope. Suddenly the foul musty odour of the brutes struck his nostrils. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal.

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, part 3 chapter 5 (1948)

Stephen King, ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1970). This story describes a colony of rats and mutant rats. The possible influence of the mutant rats is discussed above, but none of the creatures is humanoid or matches the skaven.

Richard O’Brien, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). This children’s book describes a group of intelligent rats, but not hybrid ratmen. It was adapted as the animated film The Secret of NIMH (1982), which uses more anthropomorphic representations of characters, but they are quite conventional animated characters. They do not account for any features of skaven that are not explained by other sources.

Nicodemus, 1982, from The Secret of Nimh

Nicodemus the rat, from The Secret of Nimh (1982)

Willard (1971), Ben (1972). This horror film and its sequel refer only to physically normal rats, with which the lead character develops an affinity.

Scene from Willard (1971)

James Herbert, The Rats (1974), Lair (1979), Domain (1984). These books, which were very popular in the mid-1980s, describe a breed of deadly giant black rats and their mutant white alpha. Again, however, the rats are not anthropomorphic and no distinctive features of the skaven are described. The mutated alpha rat may have played some role in inspiring Clan Moulder’s creations, as discussed above, but if so, it is a distant connection.

Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borribles (1976). This children’s book, which was followed by two sequels, does feature humanoid rodents, called Rumbles, but they are described as only approximately ratlike. Moreover, the are clearly parodies of the Wombles.

It looked like a giant rat, a huge mole or a deformed rabbit, but it was none of these for it stood on its hind legs and had a long snout and beady red eyes, like the things that had gone away in the car….

Lightfinger grabbed the beast by the scruff of its fur and pulled its snout forward. “Name?” he asked gruffly.

The snout moved a little and they heard a voice say in a distinguished tone, “Timbucktoo.” …

‘And where are you from, you moth-eaten overcoat?’ asked Knocker, in spite of the fact that he knew the answer….

‘Why, I’m fwom Wumbledom of course, you dirty little tykes. You’d better welease me before you get into sewious twouble.’

‘I knew it,’ said Knocker turning to Lightfinger with excitement. ‘A Rumble from Rumbledom. Ain’t it strange as how they can’t pronounce their rs?’ …

‘You wevolting little stweet-awabs,’ the Rumble had lost his temper, ‘how dare you tweat me in this fashion?’

‘’Cos you’re on our manor, that’s how, you twat,’ said Knocker angrily. ‘I suppose you didn’t even know.’

‘I only know what you are,’ said Timbucktoo, ‘and what I am and that I’ll go where I like and do what I like without having to ask the permission of gwubby little ignawamuses like you. Untie me, Bowwible, and I’ll forget about this incident.’

– Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borribles, chapter 1 (1976)

9780027267006-uk.jpg

Rumble and Borrible, from the cover of the 1978 Atheneum edition of The Borribles (1976)****

Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1981). One episode of this animated series, ‘Secret of the Black Pearl’ (1980), depicts ratmen called Groundlings, but I have been unable to identify any distinctive parallels with the skaven, or to find any evidence that this show was broadcast in UK at the time.

Another episode, ‘Den of the Sleeping Demon’ (1980), includes devil rats, but they are not humanoid.

Groundlings and a devil rat, from Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1981)

Roland Rat (1983). A connection has been suggested with the puppet character Roland Rat, which was popular on British children’s TV in the 1980s. This has been dismissed by Jes Goodwin and other GW sources.

roland-rat

Roland Rat

Ian Livingstone, Temple of Terror (1985). “Rat men” appeared in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Temple of Terror (1985), by Ian Livingstone (paragraph 262). They are not described in the text, but they do appear in an illustration. However, the illustration is partial, and so it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. Moreover, they are somewhat different in appearance from skaven. The rat men are more muscular, and have different head shapes with shorter, narrower snouts and more prominent ears.

tot-022-01.jpeg

Rat men from Temple of Terror (1985)

FOOTNOTES

* As far as I am aware, the first occurrence of this phrase was in Sami Uusitalo’s unofficial WFRP2 adventure ‘There are no Such Things as Skaven’ (2007).

** At one stage in The Swords of Lankhmar the rats do assume human size, but this is by means of a potion.

*** There appears to be no generic name for the skaven sign, so I have coined this term from the Greek for “three staves”.

**** Some later editions carry illustrations showing Rumbles as little different from giant rats, but such depictions do not closely correspond to the text or to the creatures they are supposed to parody.

The next instalment of ‘The WFRP Story’ will look at the origins of other Warhammer creatures.

Title art by John Blanche. Internal art by Brett Ewins, Jes Goodwin, JimMcCarthy, Greg Bell, David Trampier, Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, John Blanche, Beatrix Potter, Bill Houston et al. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

19 thoughts on “THE WFRP STORY XXXII: THE RAT PACK

  1. the pictiure ou used for illustrating Willard isn’t fron the 70ies flick but fron the 00 one, with Crispin Glover, featured on the actual picture.

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  2. Nice writeup, very comprehensive! Personally, I’ve always suspected that the Urt People from John Norman’s Gor novels may have been a source of inspiration for the Skaven. Although they play a very minor role (one of them is a minor character in 1984’s Players of Gor and that’s pretty much it), the similarities are there. They’re a rodent-like race (urts are the Gorean equivalent of rats) who travel in large groups, can see in darkness, and tend to repeat whatever they say twice, a trait the Skaven are associated with as well. Despite the reputation the series has since acquired, Norman’s influence was still seen in the gaming world in the 70s and 80s in publications like Blackmoor and Wilderlands of High Fantasy, so it isn’t impossible that someone at GW was aware of it.

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    1. IIRC Tony Acklands Great War Eagle was directly inspired by the Tarnsmen of Gor, and many of the Gor covers by Chris Achilleos were re-used as covers for White Dwarf (although I think before production was moved to Nottingham), so John Normans influence is definitely around. Interestingly the double-repeat only appears in the Kaleb Daark story by John Wagner and Alan Grant, so might have come from them rather than the studio.

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    2. I’ve not read the Gor novels (and am not sure I can bring myself to), but I have looked at some extracts about the urt people online, and can see your point about the similar speech patterns. The simplified language and reduplication are there. These features are more diluted than in skaven, but there is a strong resemblance. They may be the inspiration for skaven speech. Alternatively the similarities might come from elsewhere. At least some of the language patterns seem to reflect common conceptions of broken English.

      As Zhu has already pointed out, the speech patterns did not appear in Jes Goodwin’s article, but in the Kaleb Daark cartoon strip. It is not clear whether the writers Wagner and Grant were behind this or they were acting on guidance from GW. I think the next occurrence of these speech patterns was not until Death on the Reik (p43) in 1987.

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      1. Here is an example of the speech of the urt people that I found online, from Players of Gor (1984):

        “It was one of the urt people….

        “Do not be afraid,” I said. I took a slice of hard larma from my tray…. I held it up so that he could see it….

        The creature approached, warily. Then it lifted its long arm and pointed a long index finger at the fruit. “Bet! Bet!” it said. “Pay! Pay!”

        “No,” I said. “I made no bet with you.” It was referring, I gathered, to the Kur baiting which had taken place this morning in the courtyard, visible from our window….

        “I do not owe this to you,” I said. “It is mine.”

        The creature shrank back a bit, frightened.

        “But I might give it to you,” I said.

        It looked at me….

        “What do they call you here?” I asked.

        “Nim, Nim,” it said.

        “I am called Bosk,” I said.

        “Bosk, Bosk,” it said. “Nice Bosk. Pretty Bosk. More larma! More larma!”

        I gave the creature more of the hard larma.

        “Good Bosk, nice Bosk,” it said.

        I handed it another bit of larma.

        “Bosk want escape?” it asked.

        “Yes,” I said.

        “Bad men want do terrible thing to Bosk,” it said.

        “What?” I asked.

        “Nim Nim afraid talk,” it said.

        I did not press the creature.

        “Few cells have table,” it said, fearfully. “Bosk not chained.”

        I nodded. “I think I understand,” I said. Not being chained, and because of the table, I had been able to witness the cruel spectacle in the courtyard. That I supposed now, given the hints of the small creature, was perhaps intended to give me something to think about. I shuddered. Much hatred must I be borne in this place.

        “More larma!” said the creature. “More larma!”

        I gave it some more larma. There was not much left. “They intend to use me in the baiting pit,” I speculated.

        “No,” said the creature. “Worse. Far worse. Nim Nim help.”

        “I don’t understand,” I said.

        “Bosk want escape?” it asked.

        “Yes,” I said.

        “More larma,” it said. “More larma!”

        I gave it the last of the larma.

        “Bosk want escape?” it asked.

        “Yes,” I said.

        “Nim Nim help,” it said.”

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  3. I didn’t know that about the name deriving from “scavenger”. I’ve always pronounced the name as “SKAY-ven” but perhaps it should be “SKAV-en”?

    Perhaps also worth mentioning in the appendix is Brian Jacques’ 1986 novel Redwall, which features the murine villain Cluny the Scourge, an enormous warlike black rat and, like all the Redwall animals, with humanoid stance and behaviours. I’ll quote from the fandom wiki:

    “allegedly from far away jungles, possibly in the south. It is believed that he once was involved with seafaring. […] Cluny had one eye, the other was lost in a battle with a pike (which ended up the worse off – dead) and covered by an eye patch. He wore a cloak made of batwings that was fastened at his throat with the skull of a mole. His war helmet was adorned with blackbird feathers and stag beetle horns. One of Cluny’s most distinguishing features – as well as his primary weapon – was his own tail, which was long, powerful, and whip-like. In battle, he fastened a poison spike to its tip and used it to lash out at enemies.”

    Cluny would not look out of place in a skaven army!

    The first novel in the series featured art by Gary Chalk, which is an interesting coincidence.

    And here’s some more information on the Fighting Fantasy Rat Men, or rather RAT MEN, from Out of the Pit by Marc Gascoigne:

    “Alchemists and sorcerers have long laboured to create hybrid creatures to serve them as warriors and slaves. Many such experiments have been in cross-breeding men with hardier species. Some have worked well, but others have produced weak, regressive breeds like the RAT MEN.

    A little over one and a half metres tall, they have the bodies of humans, but the heads of rats. with big eyes and ears, sensitive whiskers and large front teeth. They are covered in short, soft fur, and they have long rat-like tails. Rat Men dress in humans’ clothing, and can speak their language, but are otherwise shunned, made outcasts by their appearance. They have long been banished to sewers and old ruins in the wastelands, where they dwell in small groups, catching and eating anything they can. Despite their weakness, Rat Men are dextrous and have become skilled with snares, traps and slings. They can track well, sniffing the air to pick up a scent. They will try to strike from a distance, for they are not so skilled with their shortswords, preferring to use them only to finish off a trapped prey prior to eating it.”

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  4. I think you’ve done a great job on the formative history of the Chaos Ratmen here, and agree we don’t really need to do much than go Lieber and D&D for influences, although both Rick and Jes undoubtedly put their own twists on things. Another sword and sorcery reference I have is Savage Sword of Conan #95, cover by Earl Norem, which has the piecemeal armour and wrappings we see in the designs of the Skaven, along with their cult-ish aspect. The interior art by John Buscema just has them in robes, so they are not too Skaven-like. Micheal Moorcock also has “The Horned Bear” a demonic enemy of Corum in The Book of Swords, who might foreshadow the unusually behorned mammal, and Jez has previous Corum and Eternal Champion art, although I have no doubt the impetus for the Horned Rat were the sources you have already cited.

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  5. Excellent and pretty exhaustive review. One other potential influence (or probably example of similar influences coming to bear at about the same time might be the Noodnicks from Dever and Chalk’s Lone Wolf? It maybe more for the appendix section but does it suggest a wider interest in rodent people at about that time in the wider White Dwarf/GW rpg world at about that time, of which Ian Livingston’s ratmen are another example?

    Fire on the Water was published in 1984, so it predates the Skaven by a couple of years. The Noodnicks are rodents, but possibly closer to mice than rats, aren’t human sized, though are bigger than other rodents, and are potential allies of Lone Wolf, so are rather different in terms of character. On the other hand, they share a human-like stance and dress in ragged but human style clothes. They’re speech is rendered as unusual and also includes a use of repetition.

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  6. Amazing article, I think this is the best I’ve read here. Something that I think probably also played into their origin, as evidenced by the larger list of media that may have had some, but minor, influence is the general human fear if rats. In fact, if someone gets a chance, they should ask Mr. Goodwin how he feels about them!

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  7. An excellent post on the origins of my favorite WFB/WFRP race. (Doubly enjoyable for the shout-out. Very cool, thanks for that.)

    I stumbled across this blog a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve spent an hour or so each day reading your posts, and I’ve finally caught up to this one. They’re all well researched and informative, and the extensive comments are also illuminating.

    I confirmed the pronunciation of SKAY-ven with Jes at a Baltimore Games Day back in the late ’80s. Prior to that, I’d been pronouncing it SKAV-ven.

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  8. I have always assumed the name “Eshin” was some sort of shortening of the arab “Ḥashīshiyyīn” refered to the near-mythical medieval Nizari sect.
    I have however no-evidence for that.

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  9. “Whereas most aspects of the Warhammer world evolved gradually over several years, skaven remarkably appeared almost fully formed. ”

    Rather like how they appeared in the background lore.

    BTW, hit it out of the park again.

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  10. Fascinating stuff!

    Another early rat-themed horror story that might be worth mentioning is the short story “The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker. The eponymous house is haunted by the ghost of the evil judge, mostly appearing in the form of a huge rat and apparently controlling the numerous ordinary rats in the house.

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