If Cormyr is a distant echo of King Arthur, then the Dales are the Realm’s evocation of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. A vast, deep, wild wood roamed by monsters and only gingerly intruded upon by woodcutters thanks to the elves whose traditional home this was, and who don’t take kindly to fires and large-scale clearances of trees, through which caravan-roads run, linking small farming dales, most of them river or stream valleys, and all of them unique—from war-torn Daggerdale in the north, through Shadowdale where Elminster is wont to dwell and the Knights of Myth Drannor PC adventurers made their home, to warlike Archendale and pleasant but scarred Deepingdale in the south, hard by upcountry Sembia, the Dales (or “Dalelands” if one is being more formal) are adventuring country. Threatened nigh-constantly through the 1300s DR by the expansionist Zhentarim from the north and we-want-to-buy-everything Sembia to the south—not to mention protectionist Cormyr to the west. If it wasn’t for the waves of the Dragonreach separating the Dales from the Vast, the Dales would probably be threatened from that direction, too. With abandoned ruins like the Ghost Holds in Battledale and the huge and fabled ruined city of Myth Drannor to tempt adventurers, and everything from liches’ lairs to hidden elven strongholds, the Dales is a dangerous yet mostly placid place, and one of the most beautiful regions of the Realms.
And before I sink entirely into the purple prose of the travelogue, let me step back and say that this dear-to-me little corner of the Realms, longtime home of the longest-running Realms campaign (because the Swords of Eveningstar PC adventuring band accepted the offer of the lordship of Shadowdale, and relocated to the Dales from Cormyr), is rooted in all the most scenic rolling wooded farm country I’ve ever known, from the Dales of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland (present-day Northumberland and Cumbria/the Lake District) in England through rural Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley, to the rural southern Ontario of my youth. The Dales of Faerûn are also a nod to the Dales of High Hallack in Andre Norton’s Witch World setting, though that’s more just the concept of independent holdings ruled by this or that lord than it is a matter of similarities of history or culture or place in a wider setting.
The Dales are where hardy “just plain folks” live, the villagers of medieval times (as the Renaissance touches of the Realms are for the larger urban centers where population and wealth are more abundant) who farm and cut wood and see to all the daily needs of life themselves, relying on their own strong arms against the fury of nature and the depredations of prowling monsters and lurking foes who reach out against them from afar.
Caravans travel through the Dales constantly, to and from Cormyr (and the wider world to the west) and Sembia (and all the lands about the Inner Sea) and Hillsfar and the mineral-rich Moonsea beyond. And those traveling merchants bring the wares of all Faerûn past the noses of Dalefolk who can seldom afford them, and the news of the world to the forest-girt Dales, and if you like your surroundings small in scale and relatively isolated, with danger lurking deep in the woods but a fairly tranquil daily life down in the fields and among the cedar-shake and slate roofs of the village cottages, the Dales are the place to hail from. And start an adventuring career in, as a handful of outlaws and brigands, the prowling beasts of the woods, malevolent lurking agents of the Zhentarim, and dread monsters that have wandered out of ruined Myth Drannor in the deepest forest fastnesses, all imperil every traveler on the roads between the Dales, in the gloom where the trees hem the way in. So everyone from a villager with one cart to a caravan needs guards, escorts who know the ways and trails, and where ambushes are most likely, and how to read the silences that fall amid the trees.
The Dales are where one finds trees so old and thick and gnarled that they make gamers think of fairy tales, and an eerie blue light in the distance, deep in the forest where sane folk never dare to go. The Dales hold abandoned and overgrown steadings, damp log buildings sagging down into mushroom-choked rot, and even moss-girt old keeps deep in the forest.
The Dales are one of the three places I love most in the Realms (Cormyr and Waterdeep being the others), and the wildest and most rural of my favored areas. There are no pampered or overly haughty nobles in the Dales; a Dale “Lord” is usually a warrior who must ride and fight at the head of a small band of loyal armsmen to hold his Dale, to keep it relatively safe and its folk supporting his rule. Folk in the Dales are self-reliant because they have to be, isolated by the deep dark forest all around them, with its eerie tales and lurking will-o’-wisps and undead, its treasure tales and haunted old ruins.
And for those who happen to like both the “witches who dwell in the Black Forest” feel of the old fairytales by the Brothers Grimm, and the feel of those passages in the works of Tolkien where wizards or rangers ride or stride out of the wilds and “just plain folk” greet them with friendship but a certain mistrust, for being odd enough to dare to walk the wild places rather than biding at home as sensible, hard-working folk do, the Dales is the place for you.
Like the dwarves of the Realms, Dalesfolk endure. Not for them the everchanging chaos of the Border Kingdoms, or the airs and graces of “coin-crazed” Sembia or “Cormyr where the knight shine and the nobles squawk and wizards spy on your every visit to the privy.” They are content with their beautiful corner of the Realms.
As I had one scarred and gnarled old farmer of Shadowdale say to the Knights, “This may be but a swath of farmland in the deep forest where a handful of staunch folk grub out livings by the dint of hard toil, but it’s our home, and we love it, and more than any grand castle or mansion, it’s worth fighting for.”
In short, the Dales represent simple hearth and home, and a rural way of life that, romanticized or not, was once the backbone of real life in much of the world (and may someday be again). And for gaming and for fiction writing, it offers a series of small and cozy stages for grand stories.
One of my players once murmured to me, “When I die, bury what’s left of me in Shadowdale.”
And although we both know it’s an imaginary place and that can’t literally happen, I know just what she means.
Images borrowed from “forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Dalelands” ©Wizards of the Coast