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Literature / The Dark Elf Trilogy

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The Dark Elf Trilogy is a prequel series of books by R.A. Salvatore that describes the life of Drizzt Do'Urden, a young dark elf who starts his life in the drow city of Menzoberranzan. He being the third born male child (and thus due for ritual sacrifice immediately after birth), his mother, Matron Malice Do'Urden, spares him after his eldest brother is killed by second brother Dinin to gain in rank.

In Menzoberranzan, and in drow society as a whole, ascension to a higher rank is gained not by merit, but by strength — if you can live long enough to kill those that outrank you, you gain rank and prestige. As long as it's done on-the-sly, and nobody remains to accuse you.

The drow place very little value on life — children are set up as pawns in dangerous training exercises, the Academies of the city teach outright racism and genocide, and anyone who is not drow (and occasionally, not drow enough) is quietly executed before they can become a liability.

Unlike others of his race, Drizzt is honorable and kind, a mindset which clashes violently with that of his vicious kin. At first, Drizzt refuses to acknowledge that such evil can exist unpunished, but is eventually forced to confront (and question) his nature after his family's various schemes almost force him down the same dark path.

Upon leaving his homeland, Drizzt spends several years roaming the Underdark (a massive series of caverns and tunnels that span from one end of Faerun to another) before befriending a deep gnome and finding his way to the surface.

Thus begins the tale of one of the Forgotten Realms' most popular characters — in fact, Drizzt has become so well-known (and stories featuring the character so widely-read) that many readers don't know that there are other characters in the Forgotten Realms canon.

Books in the series:

  • Homeland (1990)
  • Exile (1990)
  • Sojourn (1991)

Chronologically followed by The Icewind Dale Trilogy.

Provides Examples Of:

  • The Ace: Drizzt wins every grand melee after his first, which he lost through treachery, and he bests other students that have three or more years of training more than he does.
  • Adaptational Self-Defense: In the brief backstory given in the Icewind Dale trilogy, Drizzt backstabbed Masoj to liberate Guenhwyvar's figurine after Guenhwyvar had been forced to massacre the svirfneblin. Here, Masoj tries to kill him first.
  • Aerith and Bob:
    • Among the drow, Maya is the only character whose name can also be a girl's name in the real world. As for boy's names, Zaknafein is often shortened to "Zak."
    • A pair of dragons that come up in Sojourn seem like this: their names are the mythologically-derived Hephaestus and the sesquipedalian Mergandevinasander. But actually, Hephaestus is merely a name used by other races; his dragon name is Velcuthimmorhar.
  • The Aloner: Drizzt lives ten years all alone in the Underdark and he doesn't take it well. Seems that even Always Chaotic Evil company is better than no sapient company at all.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The canonical racial alignment of the Drow in the game the books were based on was literally this, and Salvatore plays it almost entirely straight, with Zaknafein and Drizzt the only non-evil Drow in the series.note  Even Drizzt's own family are evil.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Inverted. Drizzt is actually more or less well-adjusted by human standards—but since the drow race is Always Chaotic Evil, his friends and family think there is something wrong with him for experiencing basic empathy and objecting to the colossal hypocrisy and double-think that is standard fare in their public life.
  • Attack Animal: Guenhwyvar is a magical panther that follows the commands of whoever holds the statute that summons her.
  • Back Stab: Dinin kills his brother Nalfein by stabbing him in the back during a house war.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Drizzt may be unwilling to go along with the violent drow ideals, but if you do have to fight him, or actually manage to get him mad...
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Just about every family in Menzoberranzan. Drow society is based on the Klingon Promotion theory, and lorded over by a deity that demands regular sacrifices of blood. Drizz't is almost killed at birth because he is a third son, which has no value in their society. Wars between Houses are commonplace, as only the top eight Noble Houses have a place on the Council. Children of the Houses that are not killed are made into cousins/slaves of the conquering House, in effect you now get to be a "part" of the family that killed yours. Oh, and the only way to become Matron Mother of your House? Kill the current one.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mixed with Earn Your Happy Ending: By the end of the trilogy, Drizzt finds his calling as a ranger and befriends Bruenor and Catti-Brie, two of his four future adventuring companions. However, along the way, a lot of innocent people are killed, including Drizzt's father Zaknafein. Zaknafein gets brought back to life as an animated servant tasked with hunting down and killing Drizzt, however he commits suicide rather than kill his own son.
  • Black Widow: It's said that Malice has had many lovers, but usually ends up sacrificing them to the dark gods when she tires of them. We see this happen "onscreen" to Rizzen, and arguably Zaknafein, though she also has other reasons to get rid of the latter.
  • Can't Catch Up: Drizzt's instructors eventually realize that, because of the training he had already received from Zaknafein, his classmates would never even approach his ability and start having him compete against more senior students. They can't catch up either.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The sphere of light Zak uses on Drizzt in an earlier chapter of Homeland is the same method Drizzt uses to escape from House Do'Urden at the end of the novel.
  • Clean Dub Name: In the Russian version of the books, Drizzt was changed into Dzirt, due to the original name resembling a Russian slang word for someone with diarrhea. (Of course, in English, the Russian version sounds like he's a delicious confection of some kind.)
  • Combat Pragmatist: Zaknafein, to a surprising extent despite his skill. He carries little glass spheres on him that bathe the room in blinding light when shattered, which to the drow who normally live in complete darkness can be quite detrimental, and uses one against Drizzt in a particularly vicious battle. He also has no qualms about kicking a male opponent where it hurts. When Drizzt calls him out on it, Zaknafein brilliantly replies with this:
    Drizzt: Do you so hate to lose?
    Zaknafein: Do you not understand? To lose is to die! You may win a thousand fights, but you can only lose one!
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Belwar mentions once that a drow once came to Blingdenstone as a guest before Drizzt; what that drow was doing there is never explained.
  • Dark Action Girl: All of Drizzt's sisters are trained to fight in close combat if need be, and spend many hours practicing with their weapons. They can be legitimately challenging opponents even for Drizzt, though in an actual battle they tend to prefer using magic from a distance when they can.
  • Death of a Child:
    • The third-born male child is always sacrificed to Lloth on the day of his birth. Zaknafein also witnesses the children of House DeVir being slaughtered without mercy.
    • A male child of a lesser house is killed by a hook horror during a training session, which serves as something of a Berserk Button for Drizzt.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: This is Drizzt's assumption in his first grand melee; a fellow student attacks with tactics so rudimentary he assumes it's a ruse, feigning incompetence to put Drizzt off of his guard. However, he quickly realizes that's not the case, and he really is significantly more skilled than his peers.
  • Deus Sex Machina: In the first book, there is an orgy at the academy, seemingly something they do traditionally every year. The priestess with the best grades has intercourse with a summoned demon, while around her all the other female students pick a male student and get it on. Drizzt is put off by this.
  • Downer Ending: Book one, Homeland ends on this. The book ends with Zaknafein allowing himself to be sacrificed in place of Drizzt, and Drizzt ultimately fleeing Menzoberranzan into the wilds of the Underdark - a much nastier place.
  • Dystopia: To an outside observer, drow culture and society (for lack of better words) is pretty much as close to Hell as you can get without actually dying. The drow themselves, on the other hand, are having the time of their lives.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After nearly two decades of wandering, Drizzt finally manages to find a home with Bruenor and Cattie-brie.
  • Evil Matriarch: More prominently - Malice. In the background - every other drow mother. They sacrifice their own children.
  • Evil Me Scares Me: Particularly in Exile, Drizzt is constantly afraid of losing control and succumbing to "the hunter", his other self which he developed in order to survive the dangers of the Underdark.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • The drow look down on and hate pretty much every other race, especially elves.
    • Drizzt suffers from the reverse when he leaves. Pretty much every race considers him untrustworthy and dangerous which makes finding a place to settle down hard.
  • Feuding Families: Played completely straight, and extreme since advancement via all means available is the norm in drow society; basically every family of repute is slugging it out with all the other ones for advancement. More specifically the Do'Urdens vs. the Hun'nets whose feud leads to the downfall of both families eventually.
  • Fiery Cover Up: The real Faceless One's body is burned so it can be passed off as Alton's corpse. Since no one cares about Alton's assumed death, this prevents an investigation into the corpse.
  • Heroic Ambidexterity: Drizzt Do'Urden was originally intended to train as a mage, but after his mother observed his natural ambidexterity she decided he could better serve the family as a warrior. He becomes an exceptional swordsman, twin scimitars being his weapons of choice.
  • Heroic Suicide: Pulled off by Zaknafein in order to spare Drizzt's life in Homeland, and again in Exile when Matron Malice tries to possess him by removing his soul from his dead body.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: After spending ten years surviving alone in the Underdark Drizzt is afraid he is starting to succumb to this trope during Exile, becoming what he calls "the Hunter".
  • Honor Before Reason: Subverted. In his first grand melee, Drizzt was defeated due to BackStab: he never expected such a dishonorable tactic. So, in his second grand melee, Drizzt marches out into the open and challenges his final opponent to an honorable fight while his brother and his teacher Face Palm in the observation area. The opponent takes advantage of this to attack him from behind... and trips over the wire Drizzt set up for just that eventuality.
    Drow: Fighting is more than swordplay! (Trip!)
    Drizzt: (Puts his sword to the other drow's throat) So I have learned.
  • If I Wanted You Dead...: In Sojourn Drizzt encounters a human peasant boy in his early days on the surface. Not having learned Common yet, Drizzt resorts to a drow cultural practice, taking the boy's knife and juggling it for a few moments with his scimitars before handing it back (the idea is to demonstrate "I have superior skill but I don't want to kill you at the moment"). Not being familiar with drow cultural practices, the kid freaks the fuck out and runs away screaming about a "Drizzit".
  • Incest Subtext:
    • Drizzt's older sister Vierna feels an uncommon closeness to and affection for her brother. The presentation is ambiguous, and it may be intended simply as a sign that like him, she is not as Always Chaotic Evil as the rest of their family, and thus able to feel a trace of normal (by human standards) familial attachment. However, her affection for him is at the least repeatedly understood (and misunderstood?) as an example of this trope by everyone else in the story.
    • Her mother Malice, upon noticing, admonishes her sternly to remember that he is her brother. Vierna seems to be annoyed not so much for the suggestion of impropriety on her part as the hypocrisy of the admonition, coming as it does from Malice.
    • Later in the story, at a debauched graduation party at the Academy of Evil, she and Drizzt end up alone and close together after a disturbed Drizzt rejects the advances of a priestess of Lolth, with the scantily clad Vierna gently reassuring him that she understands his desire for privacy. While ambiguous, it's very easy to read her lines as a come-on—and that seems to be what Drizzt does, offering an angry rebuff. The way Vierna then proceeds to react may suggest anger either at the presumption, or the rejection.
  • Interspecies Romance: For a generous interpretation of "romance," part of the drow graduation ceremony in Homeland involves, as part of a regular orgy, the priestess with the highest grades ritually mating with a glabrezu in hopes of producing a half-fiend child. For those unaware, glabrezu aren't Hot as Hell, but towering, four-armed, claw-handed, dog-headed monsters that lack the sort of natural magic to assume a less monstrous form. It's mentioned in other background material that not all priestesses survive such couplings.
  • Intrinsic Vow: Useless fighter or fighter who can fight your control enough to kill himself? To clarify, Zaknafein under the control of Matron Malice, breaks free just long enough to throw himself into a pool of acid to prevent himself from killing Drizzt.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: At the end of the second book, we see two drow men locked in a deadly swordfight over an acid pit. Finally, one of them yells "You are not my father!" to which the other replies with an evil sneer: "No ... I am your mother!" If anyone who didn't know the story were to somehow stumble over this passage, they'd surely be confused to no end.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: Since the drow have a reputation for this, the gnomes in the novel Exile thought Drizzt was trying to pull one of these when he was actually honestly trying to surrender to them. It worked out eventually thanks to Belwar's intervention.
  • Karma Houdini: After obsessively pursuing Drizzt, murdering Kellindil in the process, and trying to sexually assault Catti-brie, Roddy McGristle leaves Icewind Dale at the cost of his dog's leg.
  • Klingon Promotion: The backstabbing society of the Drow accepts this to a large extent, though usually they hide it behind some (often very superficial) window dressing. Subverted with Alton DeVir, however: when his master is killed, he takes over his job by also taking over his identity.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Zak is Drizzt's father, although it's pretty clear to everyone but Drizzt throughout the first novel.
  • Masquerading As the Unseen: A student assumes the identity of a dead teacher. Somewhat subverted in that some people do know the teacher's identity - but his facial features have been wiped out due to a magical accident, so few can tell.
  • Meaningful Name: Don't expect a lady named "Malice" to be winning any Mother of the Year awards any time soon. Or for the family that has "bane" in their name (House Baenre) to be warm and caring.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Zaknafein and Mooshie both end up dying after teaching Drizzt.
  • Mook Horror Show: Zombie!Zaknafein, being Undead, is immune to psionic attacks. He comes looking for Drizzt in the middle of a Mindflayer city. Your garden-variety Mindflayers are dependent on their psi abilities for combat. This does not end well.
  • More than Mind Control: The process of Zin-carla involves taking control and reanimating a lifeless corpse while making sure that the owner's memories and emotions don't interfere during the time the body is resurrected; this is how Malice brings Zaknafein back to life. This process is elaborated on in the 3E sourcebook Faiths and Pantheons.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Drizzt asks himself this multiple times throughout the trilogy, after maliciously cutting off several of Briza's fingers and making an attempt on Dinin's life, whenever he goes into 'hunter mode', and once again when he indirectly - and inadvertently - causes the death of a farming family.
  • Mythology Gag: The not-too-bright peasant boy in the third book who mispronounces Drizzt's name as "Drizzit" is likely a joke at the expense of people in real life who make that mistake. Officially it's pronounced "Drist".
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: If Dinin hadn't killed his brother, Drizzt would have been sacrificed the day he was born, and never lived to perform any of his heroic deeds. And House Do'Urden would still stand. In an attempt to get to a slightly higher rank, Dinin started a chain reaction that led to his complete downfall.
  • Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught: Destroying a rival house is heartily approved and shown to be practically a spectator sport, but only surviving nobles of the target house legally count as witnesses. If you don't kill all the nobles down to the last child, your house is itself subject to destruction. Much to the chagrin of houses that might wish to take over the city, the ruling family Baenre typically adopts such survivors.
  • Only Sane Man: Even though he was born and raised in Menzoberranzan, Zaknafein knows something is deeply, nightmarishly wrong with drow society, and he tries to simultaneously get Drizzt to understand this and to protect him from it. Matron Malice and Drizzt's sisters have other plans.
  • Private Military Contractors: Jarlaxle Baenre, a male and therefore unfavored child of the ruling family of Menzoberranzan, found his own way to gain a measure of power, eschewing noble rank and therefore servitude to the women in favor of forming a band of top-flight mercenaries who hire out their services in inter-house wars. He still pointedly won't challenge Matron Baenre, not politically at least: he seems to get a measure of pleasure from personally annoying her, but he's too useful to kill.
  • Prophetic Name: "Drizzt" can mean both "Dawnfinder" and "Unyielding Hunter" in drow language.
  • Punished for Sympathy:
    • Drizzt, throughout, but the main example is for sparing a little surface elf girl during a genocidal raid. Because of this, the goddess Lolth herself turns against the entire House Do'Urden.
    • Briza gets one of her Kick the Dog moments when she bullies relatively-more-sympathetic Vierna for not whipping little Drizzt enough when she trains him in basic Drow magic.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Alton, after the death of his family due to House Do'Urden, should be the Trope Codifier, especially since he nearly ruins House Hun'ett's plan of destroying House Do'Urden by attacking Drizzt for no explained reason. Masoj tries to pull a Hand Wave explanation, but to little avail.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Drizzt's family enforces this trope in an effort to break Drizzt's morality.
  • Rebellious Princess: Drizzt, a gender-inverted case. Since the drow are matriarchal, Drizzt even shares the "no say in his own life" role that many princesses run from.
  • Religious Horror: Along with Religion of Evil. Lolth treats her worshipers as basically slaves, and encourages their infighting.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Drizzt's reaction when he realizes what the "graduation" ceremony really entails.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Dinin has this one-sidedly with Drizzt, whom he believes is a legitimate threat to his position as elderboy. He does have some reason to expect this given drow culture, especially since he himself became elderboy by blindsiding his own elder brother, but Drizzt has no interest in it.
  • Sinister Scimitar: Our hero Drizzt is perhaps the greatest aversion around. Played straight by some of the other drow.
  • Skilled, but Naive: Drizzt being innocent yet powerful is a rarity among the drow. Even after he leaves Menzoberranzan, the narrative uses his Fish out of Water nature and young naiveté for conflict.
  • Snake Whip: Drow high priestesses use six-thonged, living, snake-headed whips that deliver poison when they bite.
  • Spare a Messenger: Homeland, a drow patrol which includes Drizzt wipes out a svirfneblin group which was mining minerals too close to their city. However, since the leader treated Drizzt well when he was briefly captured, Drizzt wants to spare him. Aware that his kin won't understand mercy, he points out that someone needs to come back and tell the gnomes about the drow strength and the folly of approaching Menzoberranzan. The other drow cut off the gnome leader's hands and send him off.
  • Technical Pacifist: Drizzt and Zak. They don't want to kill, but are forced to do so to survive in drow society.
  • Underground City: Menzoberranzan, along with every other settlement in the Underdark (we also see cities belonging to deep gnomes and mind flayers).
  • Unfriendly Fire: In the beginning of Homeland, Dinin kills his older brother during the battle with another house. Mind you, no one is fooled. Later, it is mentioned that wizards cannot participate in surface raids - because some guy killed a few drow with a fireball in a raid and claimed it was a malfunction of his magic due to the conditions (the investigators were in no hurry).
  • Unknown Rival: For most of the novel Homeland, House Do'Urden is completely unaware that House Hun'nett is plotting against them. The readers, however, are fully aware of it (as soon as Alton hears about it. Which is pretty much from the start).
  • Unreliable Narrator: The books are presented as being Drizzt's memoirs, with Drizzt periodically addressing the reader directly at the beginning of some chapters, but most of the trilogy is written in the third person, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, recounting events that Drizzt did not witness, could not have remembered, or could not have known about at all. How much is he recounting what others told him, or what he pieced together from circumstantial evidence, and how much is speculation or just outright fiction that he feels is necessary to complete the narrative and that he feels is true to the spirit of what happened? Unlike many examples, however, Drizzt does not seem to have any desire to justify himself—if anything, he reproaches himself far more than he deserves—but rather to avoid holes in the narrative, so he is speculating or making educated guesses about what probably happened?
  • Villain Corner: Vierna is supposedly the nicest of Drizzt's sisters, and it is implied that absent the corrupting influences of Drow she might have turned good. However, a few Kick the Dog moments make it clear that she is, at best, only slightly less Chaotic Evil then the rest of her family.
  • Villainous Rescue: At one point in the second book, Drizzt and his friends are captured by illithids (mind flayers) and made into the creatures' brainwashed slaves. Zaknafein, who's been revived as an undead monstrosity sent to kill Drizzt, eventually tracks him to the illithids' lair. The mind flayers try to mentally enslave him the way they did Drizzt, but since he's an undead monster who's being controlled by an external force he's pretty much immune to it. Zaknafein slaughters the illithids, and ends up freeing Drizzt and his friends from their enslavement.
  • Whip of Dominance: The domineering Drow priestesses of Lolth all use whips, as it is the favored weapon of their goddess. Six-thonged, living, snake-headed whips that deliver poison when they bite. As a tyrannical Matriarchy society, drow priestesses often whip young male drow to hammer in their status as second-class citizens. Drizzt was raised and mentored by his older sister Vierna Do'Urden (a priestess of Lolth) and while she was a stern and authoritative teacher, she was considered "soft" on him by their elder sister Briza (a high priestess of Lolth who was far more sadistic) who pressured Vierna into starting to using the lash when he made mistakes to "motivate" him and teach him how to have been submissive to the supremacy of female drow. Vierna reluctantly complied and started to whip him when he made grave mistakes, which wielded results, but also damaged their relationship.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Drizzt at the beginning of the first novel; then he gets a nasty taste of reality. This breaks him of the idea that everyone in the world follows those ideals, but not of his desire to follow them himself.
  • Wham Line: Dinin's news about the attack at the end of Exile is one hell of a wallop.
    Dinin: We are under attack.
    The new Matron Mother: House Fey'Branche?
    Dinin: Baenre.
    • To put that in context, the heads of Menzoberranzan have come to kill them. Even if anyone survives, nobody will take up their claims for revenge. House Do'Urden is screwed. Even worse. The ones coming to kill them are already there. Early in the book, Matron Malice accepted help from House Baenre, augmenting Do'Urden's defenses with their guards. When Malice fails in her attempt to regain Lloth's favor, the enemy is already inside the walls. Jarlaxle helped too.