The Isles of Woe
by Denis Tetreault
An Analysis of the Legends surrounding the Isles of Woe
Unknown amongst the general public, the Isles of Woe inspire mystery
awe among those who study arcane legends of our past. Next to nothing
known of them. Even their age appears shrouded in dark confusion. What
seems to be certain is that the Isles once existed within the Nyr Dyv,
Lake of Unknown Depths, and they were once the seat of an empire of
nature. At some point the Isles disappeared below the waters of the
never to be seen again.
- A report by Maldin of Greyhawk... Wizard, Sage, and Member in
of the Greyhawk Guild of Wizardry and Society of Magi, as commissioned
by Sir Clarence.
There is some evidence (see the "Book of Artifacts" and the "1st
Dungeon Master's Guide") that the Isles were ruled by a wizard-priest
Yagrax who may have at least temporarily possessed a great artifact of
power know as the Codex of the Infinite Planes. It is suggested
that the unleashing of powers within, that he did not understand, may
been responsible for the destruction of the Isles, and hence his
This information was, for the longest time, the complete sum total
knowledge concerning this topic. Until recently, that is. The discovery
of a map hidden within the cover-lining of very old book in a disused
of the Great Library of Greyhawk (see the map booklet of "Greyhawk: the
Adventure Begins") has spawned a new rash of speculation by careless
of doubtful repute. These charlatans have done nothing more than mix
match several unrelated legends in an attempt to bolster their flagging
reputations by concocting "new and astonishing research" and passing
fiction as original works of scholarship.
Allow me to set the record straight, using my own extensive
(Quoted text is from the recently published thesis known as "Greyhawk:
the Adventure Begins".)
All of this seems quite sound, and is in keeping with what is known of
the Isles from other sources. The age of the Isles, as with most land
are most certainly ancient, but the age of the Empire normally at the
of the Yagrax legends is in great dispute. This author believes it to
the Great Cataclysms. Others say not.
- "According to legend, the Isles of Woe once stood in the Nyr Dyv,
reliable source catalogs their size, exact location, population, or
their number (usually put at three but ranging up to seven, depending
the story). The isles are said to be so ancient as to predate the
of the Oeridians. The origin of their name is unknown, but they are
said to have been highly magical."
This baldfaced falsehood flies in the face of all that is known of the
The Codex is thought to be so ancient as to predate Oerth, and
hardly likely to have originated on the Isles. If Yagrax had indeed
it, his empire would not likely have been utterly destroyed by his
to use it. Besides, the most reliable telling of the legend (DMG 1st
clearly states that the Wizard Priest discovered the tome. Also the
to fame" statement is at odds with the (false) Vecna references they
- "The Codex of the Infinite Planes is reported to have
here in an age long past, giving the isles their sole claim to fame in
the lore books."
The relative consistency of the Isles' reputed location seems to point
to there being an underlying kernel of truth. Details of their size,
and exact location within the Nyr Dyv are non-existant, however. So far
they have resisted all attempts at discovery and exploration.
- "Several maps, unearthed from old ruins or ancient libraries,
locations of the isles and provide details, but no one has successfully
used these maps to locate the isles. The map provided in this [work] is
one example, though others and their copies may exist in private
The generous greasing of a palm belonging to a personage in the employ
of the Great Library with access to sealed borrowing records has
the interesting knowledge that in the year CY375 Zagig Yragerne
the book within which the map would later be discovered in. The
of this can only be speculated upon.
- "This map is kept in a special room at the Great Library of
only two or three people know of it."
The dating of the map is in question, as are the techniques used. See
my comments on the blurring of history by a certain item. It is not
this author's belief that the map is much younger than this, but that
divinations concerning the map may never be possible.
- "The map has been dated by divination magic to be roughly nine
Examination of the map by expert cartographers confirm that it was
by someone with no cartographic skills whatsoever. The "shrunken"
of the lake seems to be merely a result of the distortions produced by
any amateur map-maker, much as the grossly-distorted coastlines seen on
maps created by mariners who do have some degree of map-reading
ability. The misplacement of the Mistmarsh is further evidence of this,
since this researcher finds it unfathomable that the rolling hills of
immediate Greyhawk region could ever become a major swamp under
any conditions, magical or not.
- "It is of unknown authorship. The map seems to show a shrunken
nearly drained of water, with Admuntfort Island much enlarged. Two
that do not now exist lie southeast of Scragholme Island. The land east
of the Selintan where the City of Greyhawk now stands was a swamp."
If, however, the map is accurate, and the Nyr Dyv was once
smaller than it is today, there can be only one explanation. Somehow
effects of the Codex caused an area of land nearly 300,000
miles in size to sink an incredible amount, subsequently become
and thus enlarging the lake in all directions. Such arcane power would
seem to be unlikely.
This shoddy mixing of legends is again in gross error. All evidence
to the empire being ruled by Yagrax, High Wizard-Priest of the Isles of
Woe. Tzunk, an adventurer whom this author believes came into
of the Codex long after the destruction of Yagrax and the
had no association with Yagrax or the Isles. Legends clearly state that
the Wizard Priest ruled the Isles at the time of its destruction, and
Tzunk (an archmage, not a wizard priest) rediscovered the tome sometime
afterwards (DMG 1st Ed, pg 156). Also, there seems to be no evidence
Yagrax left Oerth, but concentrated on subjugating the local region.
on the other hand, is the personage credited with wielding the Codex
to some effect on the Elemental Plane of Fire. It should be clear to
most niave apprentice that these two personages were quite different,
not even contemporary. The symbol on the map almost certainly
something else, however its identity is as clouded as the text
next to it.
- "What appear to be the Isles of Woe are indicated by a pointing
isles seem to be peaks associated with the easternmost branch of the
Hills, just north of the Duchy of Urnst. Above the pointing hand is the
disklike emblem of Tzunk, High Wizard-Priest of legend, said to have
the Cod*x of the I^$inite Pl@nes to conquer surrounding realms
even other planes."
Yagrax may very well have had a tower or lighthouse, or the
could just be a stylized representation of the Empire's seat-of-power.
Similarly, the great fish or sea monster illustration may represent any
of a number of legends concerning great beasts in the Lake of Unknown
or it could be just as simple as the author's need to fill space with
creativity, not unlike the "Here be Dragons" references on many maps
to gullible novice adventurers.
- "The smallest island seems to have an odd tower or lighthouse on
great fish or sea monster swims in the lake."
Another example of the mixing of legends, as an attempt to gloss over
failure at translating the map and importance of the mysterious script.
Vecna has never been thought to have had his capital city on the Isles
by serious researchers. In fact, recent discoveries by this author,
I cannot reveal at this time, have identified the location of Vecna's
far to the west of the locations being discussed here. What is truly
and completely missed by most scholars, is the undecipherable nature of
the otherwise seemingly mundane script. It is the author's personal
that references to the Co&*# $& (*^ I$f&^%&#* )l$^e$
&**^ #%$^&&^%**# $#^ $%^&&#!@ &#* %$ ^&%@
completely. This may in fact be a hitherto unrecorded side effect of
item. The hand symbol could mean anything. More on this Vecna
- "A hand at the lower left of the map appears to indicate the
of Suloise migration from the Sheldomar Valley to the southwest. An
eye with a catlike pupil is placed north of the Nyr Dyv, in a spot
by some to have been where the arch-lich Vecna ruled from the "rotted
and "spidered throne" of familiar legend. The script-like writing is
in any known language and cannot be translated, even when using magic.
Some text may be missing as the fragile map has missing pieces."
This scholar would not necessarily call the map a fake, but rather an
representation of more ancient legends, or recreated from a hazy memory
of another glimpsed or described map. Certain elements appear to be
others to be so distorted as to be unusable. But it is this author's
that Vecna, who hailed from near the time of the great Suel-Baklunish
predated the rise of Yagrax. Yes, the legend has been described as
in the "distant past", however we all know that such characterizations
are tossed about like so much wash-water, rendering it virtually
Events "merely" half a millenia ago are often refered to as "ancient"
"the distant past". Furthermore, the relationship of the Isles to the
(and effects) of a certain tome of power seems to have so clouded these
histories and blocked all attempts at divination as to render it as
as events of much greater age. A similar arcane effect seems to have
all detailed knowledge of Tzunk, so much so that many have come to
believe that he hailed from a far more ancient time than is actually
- "Many scholars will call this map a fake, as the Isles of Woe
to have vanished long before the Suloise appeared here and Vecna was
This scholar is amazed that any self ascribed researcher could make
flippant and erroneous statements. My friend and colleague, Taras
Sage of House Cranden, recently reminded me of statements made by Uhas
of Neheli within his masterful tome "The Chronicles of Secret Times"
Vecna Lives!, pg 22). Uhas was a great historian of the Neheli, one of
the latter Suel families that settled what is now Keoland. From other
we know that the Houses of Rhola and Neheli were late migrants who
and held the Sheldomar ('80 Gazetteer and '83 GH boxed set), having
crossed the mountains, and set up shop in the Keoland area, since the
of the Suel had already preceeded them. Early in his Chronicle, Uhas
the coming of the Neheli family from the ancient Suel lands. A good
of the first chapters describes the struggles between the Neheli and
previous lord, the Whispered One, Lord Vecna, and his lieutenant, Kas.
Taras points out that the Neheli were latecomers to the migrations. How
could Vecna possibly be ruling an empire from the Nyr Dyv that
all the way to Keoland, and have it survive all these Suel and Oerids
across the middle of his lands, without so much as a single historical
mention? As for the other "strong connections" to Vecna, there is no
whatsoever linking the archlich to these regions. The Bright Desert
the most ridiculous of these. Any student spending a modicum of time in
a library will discover that the Bright Desert was created a thousand
before Vecna's time, during the destruction of the ancient Sulm Empire
(see Rary the Traitor).
- "Others will become concerned, as Vecna is said in some old tales
ruled from an island in the Nyr Dyv, or to have had a strong connection
with this region (either where the old Shield Lands once lay to the
or where the Duchy of Urnst and Bright Desert are to the south)."
I am pleased that Taras' arguement also supports what has, to my own
surprise, been an unduly controversial statement of my own... that
reign could not have been overly long. All of the interactions with
migrating groups over such a long period would have seen more recorded
conflicts with the Whispered One. There should be constant references
his empire by these numerous travellers. However these just do not
Interaction appears to have been short and limited in type, overall
After some investigation, there seems to be some truth to this rumor.
scholar believes, in fact, that certain forces are currently embarking
on a campaign of confusion and manipulation designed to lure this poor,
pathetic soul from his hiding place on a contrived crusade of
If they can draw out this sorry soul, they will undoubtly pounce upon
with ferocious abandon, and tear any desirable materials he has from
cold dead hands. Anyone in contact with this Keldreth is advised to
the naive fellow, and then put as much distance as possible between the
two of you.
- "One copy of this map exists outside the Great Library. It was
a scribe but accidently sold among other papers to a wayfaring elf
(if rumors are true) Keldreth Scaramanthelon, who did not appear to be
a native of the central Flanaess. Keldreth is unlikely to be aware he
a copy of the map. Any number of treasure hunters and evil forces would
gladly kill to get it."
Maldin of Greyhawk
(Wizard Marked for security)
Addendum: The Geography of a Cataclysm
It would appear that the powers of the Codex at the very least
lowered the land surface by a great amount. This effect was centered on
the Isles, causing the sinking of the Isles. Exactly which power
was invoked is unclear. The power to distort space is most likely,
since the wholesale removal of a large volume of the underlying rock
would have caused much more noticable collapse and slumping features, -
features that are not present. The amount of distortion diminishes as
you move away from the center, however there is still a noticable
effect for approximately a 600 mile radius around the Isles. Note that
if a crafty sage could map the distortion field, they could predict
with some certainty the approximate location of the Isles.
Originally, the Velverdyva River flowed into a lake less then a quarter
the area of the present Nyr Dyv, and the Nesser River was the only
outflow. The Cairn Hills were much to high to allow drainage to the
south. When the powers of the Codex were activated, the distortion
field lowered a vast area of land. The area of the Nesser near Leukish
represents the edge of this field. As the Nesser east of Leukish was
not lowered, the water from the Velverdyva/PaleoNyr Dyv watershed began
filling this lowered basin (and the Nesser temporarily dried up) until
the water level finally could spill out again and flow down the Nesser
The Cairn Hills south of the Isles were within the
distortion field, so experienced a lowering of their height along with
the rest of the land within the field. As the lake level rose to its
present height, the waters found a valley through the Cairn Hills that
now was below the new lake level, and the Selintan River was born. Thus
the geographically-impossible could happen... a major lake with two
The Nesser is a very long, slow-moving, meandering river with a very
low slope, much of it near "base level" (the elevation of its outflow
in the Sea of Gearnat). As a result, there is virtually no vertical
erosion occuring along its length. The Selintan, on the other is a much
shorter river with, therefore, a much steeper slope. Thus the river is
flowing faster (particularly through the Cairn Hills stretch) and
eroding downwards into the land. Five hundred years ago, the Selintan
had less then half the flow it currently has. As the Selintan cuts a
deeper and deeper gorge, it will capture more and more of the outflow
from the Nyr Dyv until finally the lake level drops low enough to
strand the Nesser outflow. When that happens, the Nesser will dry up
between the Nyr Dyv and its junction with the Franz River, and the
Selintan will become the only outflow for the Nyr Dyv. This event will
be a disaster for the communities still living along the Nesser.
As can be seen in other areas of this website, the Codex of the
Planes plays a central part of my own campaign history. For much
detailed information on the Codex of the Infinite Planes, and
on Yagrax, Tzunk, and my own preferred timeline, see my article on the
"Codex of the Infinite Planes".
Within said document you will learn how those souls acquired the Codex,
what they did with it, and how they met their demise (including how the
Isles of Woe were destroyed). It goes without saying that the level of
detail presented within that article is not official canon.
Unfortunately all of the more recent "official" references to the
of Woe histories are in serious error, as is much of the material
on the net (such as the Oerth Journal timelines). This page is meant as
an attempt to correct that, and present extra materials I've created
my own campaign. To be quasi-fair to Roger Moore, author of Greyhawk:
Adventure Begins, the "legend" as presented therein can be taken as a
falsehood, which, no doubt, many legends turn out to be.... but why oh!
why confuse this popular topic by introducing such irresponsible errors
into an official sourcebook?? The answer is beyond me. Such a
tends to become looked upon as official canon, by default. Not a
of erroneous rumors".
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This page last modified on December 20, 2004