Ever since he was introduced as a sidekick in the Icewind Dale trilogy in 1988, Drizzt Do’Urden has been an extremely popular character. A deadly fighter, Drizzt wields two blades, and often fights with a panther summoned from a magical figurine, but it is the romance of his strong moral code in spite of his background that has enchanted readers. His silver hair, jet black skin and pointy ears give Drizzt the appearance of a villain, but he has turned his back on the evil ways of his dark elven people. Author R.A. Salvatore expanded Drizzt’s background with three books tracing Do’Urden’s journey from the Underdark city-state of Menzoberranzan to adventure in the Forgotten Realms setting created by Ed Greenwood for use with the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, but Drizzt has since appeared in more than thirty novels. Drizzt’s creator R.A. Salvatore – who introduces himself as Bob in a thick Boston accent – isn’t exactly sure why the dark elf is so popular. But Salvatore is content to continue writing cinematic action sequences and investigating Drizzt’s place in contemporary fantasy literature and cinema.
“I’m surprised that anyone reads my books. I’ve been surprised by that since the first one came out.”
Salvatore’s latest book, Neverwinter, marks at least the twentieth book starring the dark elf. Even the author finds it hard to nail down exactly how many novels feature Drizzt . “There are books that I don’t know whether you can call them a Drizzt book or not,” he told me. “There were the books with his enemies, the Sellswords Trilogy, the Cleric Quintet, the three books I wrote with my son, the Storm of Tomorrow. So if you add them all up you’re probably pushing thirty, thirty-three, somewhere in there.”
Staying motivated writing the same character for 24 years can be tough, but Salvatore said there’s a simple reason he hasn’t gotten bored with Drizzt. “Because of the journey I’m on,” he said. “I’m walking down the road with him. After all these years the voice has become so familiar to me. It’s like I’m going on an adventure with an old friend.”
Despite his closeness to the dark elf, Salvatore remains humbly accepting of the love his audience has given Drizzt over the last few decades. “It seems like there’s a renewed interest in the character; it just doesn’t seem to be dying at all, which is awesome,” Salvatore said with a laugh. “I’m surprised that anyone reads my books. I’ve been surprised by that since the first one came out. It’s all been a surreal trip, I look back and I started writing Drizzt when I was 28, I’m 52 now. We’re talking half my life almost. This is amazing.”
Drizzt Do’Urden’s life story as chronicled by Salvatore has generally been about the dark elf – or Drow as the race of evil elves were called by Gary Gygax when he created them for Dungeons & Dragons – adventuring with his friends the dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer, the young barbarian Wulfgar, and the human archer Cattie-Brie. But in the new book, Drizzt will have his morals severely challenged for the first time.
“For most of his life and most of the books, Drizzt has surrounded himself with people of similar character and moral values,” said Salvatore. “The Companions of the Hall, his friends for most of these books, are people that view the world pretty much the same way he did. Now Drizzt finds himself surrounded by people that see the world quite differently than he does. The question in the books is will he bring them up to his level or will they drag him down to theirs or will they meet somewhere in the middle. I don’t know the answer, which makes it fun to write.”
Salvatore is the type of author who writes events as they occur in his mind, with very little pre-planning. “I don’t know what’s on the next page. I write books the way other people read books,” he said. “I have a general outline next to me so I know where I think I’m going but I get surprised all the time. I just follow where the story takes me.”
“If there’s going to be a Drizzt series or a Drizzt movie, it’s up to Hasbro to make that happen, not me.”
That technique is what makes Salvatore’s description of action and battle scenes so vivid. “I watch the fight,” he said. “It’s actually going on in my head as I’m writing it. I don’t know that on page two of this battle scene Drizzt is going to do a back flip and run out the backside of the room. That happens or it doesn’t happen, those kind of things just happen as I’m going.”
He also uses his experience as an athlete to make the action grounded in real fighting techniques and tendencies. “I know about fighting, I was a boxer in high school. My friends and I had a little boxing club and we were all athletes, we watched all the sports all the time. I was a bouncer for many years paying my way through college and I played hockey for most of my life,” he said. “So I understand balance and footwork and fighting, I understand the concept and when I’m writing a battle scene I watch it in my head. If I wasn’t a writer, I would be a choreographer for movie fights. I appreciate great choreography in a battle scene.”
Given the cinematic nature of Salvatore’s books and the recent success of fantasy films and TV series like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, a Drizzt movie seems like a no-brainer. The idea is not new, but Salvatore told me what held back such a project was a trademark issue, not a creative one. “One of the things that’s been holding us back on that is it’s more complicated [than other situations] because I don’t own Drizzt. Hasbro does and Hasbro is a merchandising company,” he said. In a tangled web not unlike the shady dealing of the Underdark, Salvatore’s intellectual property was commissioned by TSR in the 80s. Wizards of the Coast purchased the rights along with all of Dungeons & Dragons from TSR in 1996, and Wizards was in turn purchased by Hasbro in 1999. (The history of D&D is convoluted, but much of it is sorted out in “The State of D&D: Past”.)
“If there’s going to be a Drizzt series or a Drizzt movie, it’s up to Hasbro to make that happen, not me. I’m on board if they want to do it, but it’s their choice. It’s more complicated because it’s at the corporate level. It’s not just an author selling his/her work to HBO,” he said.
Of course, there has been discussion already from Hasbro, which has made a boatload of cash from the G.I. Joe and Transformers film adaptations. “They asked me ‘Who do you know in Hollywood that loves the Drizzt books?’ I sent them this long list of actors, directors, and producers I know who have come to me over the years wanting to do a Drizzt movie,” Salvatore said. “Will it happen? I don’t know. If it’s going to happen and they’re going to do it well, I’m all for it. If it’s going to happen and it’s not going to be done well, I’m glad they haven’t done it yet,” he laughed.
Salvatore has written in the fantasy genre almost exclusively for the last few decades, and has enjoyed the mainstream acceptance of tropes that used to be shrugged off as literature that was unimportant or for children only. He has a theory as to why fantasy has become wildly popular as of late. “There are elements of fantasy that are very appealing to people. One is the magic – what percentage of people, in the country, in the world are at least agnostic if not atheistic? The number’s a lot higher than any poll will tell you and one of the reasons is because of science. It’s hard to find the marriage between science and faith,” he said. “In fantasy, science can’t explain magic so there’s an element of spirituality to that, there’s an element of comfort to that that I think resonates with people. I think the idea of having something that science can’t explain or doesn’t explain in a fantasy world is comforting.
“The idea that you can pick up a sword and go kill the dragon that’s been attacking the town and save the world is very comforting.”
“The other thing about fantasy is that in a fantasy world, one person can make a difference. Luke Skywalker can blow up the Death Star, Eowyn can kill the leader of the Nazgul. In our world with credit default swaps and Greece about to default and the stock market can fall five hundred points in an hour and the politicians and talk radio, all they do is fight and you don’t even know who owns your mortgage anymore because it’s been sold seven times. In a world like that, how does one person make a difference?” he asked.
“The idea that you can pick up a sword and go kill the dragon that’s been attacking the town and save the world, essentially, is again very comforting.”
With George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and its subsequent adaptation on HBO and even Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, you could say that there is a trend towards grittier depictions of fantasy – more sex and gore than swords and sorcery. But Salvatore disagrees. “I don’t think there is a trend,” he said. “George Martin wrote some fantastic books, so what I really believe is that fantasy is big enough now that there’s room for all of it.” He tends to shy away from “descriptions of vomit” that he’s read in some dystopian fantasy, but Salvatore realizes that stuff has an audience. “Would I change it? Absolutely not! People are reading it because they love it.”
Neverwinter is the second book in Salvatore’s current series, taking place after the traumatic events of Gauntlgrym. Wizards of the Coast have used Salvatore’s characters to launch a massive push centered around the city of Neverwinter. In the last six months, Wizards has released the Neverwinter Campaign Setting with material for running a D&D campaign dovetailing with Drizzt’s adventures, a Facebook game called Heroes of Neverwinter and a board game where you can take part in some of the events of Salvatore’s books playing as Drizzt and his companions. Salvatore doesn’t design any of those games, but he uses his expertise as a D&D Dungeon Master to keep his characters fresh for both his readers and himself. “The worst thing you can do is lead your players by the nose down the path that you preordained for them. That’s a lousy Dungeon Master,” he said. “When I’m writing books, I’m in complete control but again the story takes over so I try not to pre-plan too deeply because that fun of being surprised keeps me writing.”
Greg Tito respects anyone who cosplays Drizzt.