I usually omit the essay sub-titles to prevent colon cancer in the blog post titles, but in this case the title Menzoberranzan doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the concept on its own. Uncharacteristically, the contributors section of the book is actually helpful, though only because essay author Matt Hummel is really hard to Google even after the book told me he’s a lawyer, let alone going from the name alone. Hummel gets himself off to a bad start with his first line:
We can all probably agree that Menzoberranzan is very near the bottom on the list of must-visit fantasy realms (worse than Mordor and the ninth circle of hell combined!).
I would rather visit Menzoberranzan than Mordor or Nessus. All three of them are viciously evil slave states in which I can be immediately identified as not part of the ruling class by virtue of my race and/or non-evil aura, but at least Menzoberranzan is a city-state and not an entire kingdom or multi-planar empire. At least the ultimate evil at the heart of Menzoberranzan is “only” like a 17th-level Cleric of Lolth or something, and not Asmodeus or motherfucking Sauron.
I’m nitpicking, though. Let’s look at the actual important content of this essay.
Hummel’s essay is a meditation on that ring of Gyges that got brought up several essays ago. To refresh your memory, the story is about a guy named Gyges who gets a magic ring of invisibility and uses it to become the tyrant of his homeland (Gyges isn’t a reference to Gary Gygax, by the way, that’s just the name of the guy who has the ring of invisibility in the myth). In Plato’s Republic, the character Glaucon relates the myth while claiming that ultimately justice is only important when one needs fear retribution. Someone like Gyges, who can escape detection whenever he wants, has no fear of retribution and thus no love for justice. Socrates then spends the rest of the book rebutting the idea that justice is only worthwhile because it preserves the peace, and instead argues that it inherently brings peace and harmony to the ones who possess it as a virtue.
The rest of the Republic after the myth isn’t important to this essay (although it is a spectacular book that you can read or listen to for free). We’re concerned with that first concept, that if someone could guarantee escape from retribution for their unjust acts, then behaving unjustly would be the obvious course of action. Hummel spends a lot of time relating how Menzoberranzan functions well despite its vicious, back-biting nature, and posits that this serves as an example in favor of Glaucon’s perspective, but then ultimately reverses course to mostly support Socrates’ perspective by citing Drizz’t Do’Urden as someone who could never be happy in Menzoberranzan no matter how many things he got away with. Hummel argues that Drizz’t is inherently moral, and therefore could never be happy in an amoral society. He doesn’t really elaborate on whether or not other dark elves are inherently amoral and couldn’t be happy in a moral society.
The problem is that Menzoberranzan isn’t real. It can’t be evidence for anything because it’s fiction. A society like Menzoberranzan wouldn’t last long in real life. For so long as most of the houses are ruled by appropriately cunning and cautious matriarchs, they’ll continue their shadow warfare while still presenting a united front to the outside world, but that state of affairs can’t last long. The position of matriarch is hereditary and it takes a lot of intelligence and foresight to maintain that balance. Matriarchs capable of maintaining it will be fairly rare, and worse, the only traits that actually increase the odds of becoming a matriarch are ambition, viciousness, and short-term cunning. Second daughters can become first in line if they knock off big sister, but none of those three traits have anything to do with the kind of long-term planning ability needed to make drow society continue functioning.
Matriarchs not only need to avoid taking moves that would bring such a fragile society collapsing on top of them (and having that kind of restraint is hardly typical of ruthless dictators who murder their way into their position), they would also need to avoid placing enemy houses in a position where their only option is to accept being steadily ground down into defeat or to escalate the conflict to the point where drow society is ripped apart. After all, if a house’s only options are to be slowly wiped out by rivals who now have a decisive advantage in skilled assassins and clever lawyers or to destroy the whole damn city, well, at least the second option lets you get revenge on your way down.
I’m only scratching the surface of the intricate complexity of the game drow houses are playing. That’s a really cool setting and I fully endorse Menzoberranzan existing in the Forgotten Realms. The problem is the idea that A) it’s existed for a long time and will continue to do so and B) that this ongoing existence makes any kind of sense, such that you could use at as an example in a philosophical discussion of the real world concept of justice. This is a fragile state of affairs and it is inevitable that there will eventually be a critical mass of matriarchs insufficiently brilliant to keep everything going, that the whole society will explode into civil war, and collapse into warring states. Menzoberranzan isn’t the “perfect unjust state,” it’s just being written by authors who either don’t know how unsustainable it is, or know but don’t care because it’s super cool.