Gnolls are a species of hyena-like humanoids, sometimes called “beastmen” or “beastkin”, common as a stock species in fantasy. I have a soft spot for these guys – hyenas are cool and I feel like they’re often underutilized. Portrayals tend towards making them one note evil. I have problems with any portrayal of a whole species being inherently evil, and hyenas definitely don’t deserve that label. But the question remains, where did Gnolls come from? Creatures like elves and orcs have a clear origin in folklore (even if the journey to get here was rocky), but Gnolls do not.
Hyenas are fascinating creatures. There are four known extant species – Striped hyenas, brown hyenas, spotted hyenas and the aardwolf (which is just a cool name). Today, they’re mostly found in Africa – though contrary to popular belief in the west, hyenas are also native to Central Asia, India, the Caucasus and Middle East. They even once inhabited Europe and China. They’re neither felines or canines, and most closely related to viverrids (the civets). The common portrayal of hyenas has them as bone crushing scavengers, and while true of the striped hyena, the other species are more varied. The aardwolf is exclusively an insectivore (mostly eating termites) and the spotted hyena is a pack hunter similar to wolves.
Perhaps Gnolls inherited their supposed evilness from hyena folklore. They’re not a popular creature in a lot of cultures – variously portrayed as vampires, the mounts of witches, shapeshifters and bad luck. Perceptions of hyenas are so bad that the negative stereotypes of them make conservation efforts difficult. Mythology from several cultures talks of werehyenas, but Gnolls don’t seem to share an origin with these tales.
Gnolls seem to draw their name from Lord Dunsany’s story, How nuth would have practised his art upon the gnoles. First published in a collection called The Book of Wonder (1912), it follows an incomparably skilled burglar who tries to burgle the house of the gnoles, who use enormous emeralds as ornaments. Dunsany was an early fantasy author, who inspired Tolkein. However, he never describes the Gnoles’ appearance and it is unclear where he derived the name. An illustration accompanying the story, however, portrayed them as ape-like.
The Lean, High House of the Gnoles by Sydney Sime (1912). Public domain.
Gnoles next appear in Margaret St. Clair’s story (published under the name Idris Seabright) “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles”. This serves as sort of a sequel, or at least a clear reference, to Dunsany’s earlier story. Once more, Gnoles love emeralds, like to hide in hollowed out trees to spy on trespassers, and have a tall, strange house. Here, they have tentacles and resemble a “Jerusalem artichoke”.
Paul Haynie, in A Brief History of Gnolls, claims that Dunsany likely derived the name from The Gnoll, a Welsh sporting ground (named after the now demolished Gnoll House). The name of the house seems to have been a misspelling of Knoll, meaning a hill. However, Haynie doesn’t provide any particular proof of this connection except that Dunsany liked sports and the All Blacks, the Gnolls’ local team, won the Welsh championship the year before Dunsany published his story (so he presumably would’ve heard of them). Interestingly, Gnoll Country Park (as it is called now) famously has a completely hollow oak, though the jury is out on when it became hollow, so it may be a coincidence that Dunsany’s story features creatures hiding in hollow trees.
In all, I find it highly unlikely that Dunsany derived the word Gnole from The Gnoll. But what could be the origin then? Gnôle means hard brandy (sometimes home brewed) in French, but this is unlikely to be the source. Noll (Old English: Hnnol) is a word meaning the head or crown of the head, while Noll meant an awl in the extinct Yola language of Forth and Bargy in Ireland.
Perhaps none of these have anything to do with it, and Dunsany simply made up a nonsense word, or added a g to “hole”
Sources will tell you that the Gnoll indisputably debutted in the original 1974 version of Dungeons & Dragons. There, they are a hybrid of a Troll and a Gnome, and their creature description specifically cites Dunsany (misspelled Sunsany in some versions). However, Gary Gygax (D&D’s co-creator) actually first used Gnolls in an early novel, The Gnome Cache, which he partially serialised in DRAGON Magazine. He variously said he simply imagined a Troll and Gnome hybrid and combined the names, as well as said he was actually inspired by St. Clair’s story, not Dunsany’s.
Either way, Gygax claimed he didn’t write the credit to Dunsany and didn’t know who added it to the OD&D description before publication. However, by virtue of the credit to Dunsany, the Gnoll accidentally escaped the copyright dungeon that befell other D&D “inventions” like Beholders – by admitting they’d taken the creatures from elsewhere, they were unable to copyright them.
Alan Aldridge’s 1999 book The Gnole seems to have derived the term independently as a portmanteau of Mole and Gnome.
Today, as discussed earlier, Gnolls are almost always hyena-like. However, Dungeon and Dragons Gnolls didn’t become hyenas until the Advanced D&D Monster Manual in 1977. They’re not hyenas in Discworld either. However, the hyena portrayal has survived in modern D&D, World of Warcraft, Everquest and Kingdom Rush. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XI has Gnoles who are more wolves than hyenas.
Hopefully this helped to answer your curiosity about where Gnolls came from.
Emyrs, R., & Pillsowrth, R., (2021). Always Be Closing: Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles”. Tor Blog. https://www.tor.com/2021/04/14/always-be-closing-margaret-st-clairs-the-man-who-sold-rope-to-the-gnoles/
Frembgen, J.W. (1998). The Magicality of the Hyena: Beliefs and practices in West and South Asia. Asian Folklore Studies, 57(2), 331-344. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1178757
Gygax, G., (2003). The Origin of the Gnoll (again). Enworld.org. Accessed 6/07/2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20230705144107/https://www.enworld.org/threads/the-origin-of-the-gnoll-again.43551/
Haynie, P. (2015). A Brief History of Gnolls: Anthropophagy and Emeralds from Wales to Wisconsin and beyond. Skirmisher Publishing: Austin, MN.
Pillsoworth, A., & Emrys, R. (2021). Advertising for Burglars: Lord Dunsany’s “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”. Tor Blog. https://www.tor.com/2021/03/31/advertising-for-burglars-lord-dunsanys-how-nuth-would-have-practised-his-art-upon-the-gnoles/