Following a (now deleted) question on another site about Skaven in the Warhammer Fantasy setting and the issue of plagiarism, I've tried to work out when Games Workshop invented the Skaven, or if they were not an original creation, who might have got there first?

I've a copy of the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay here and Skaven appear in that, giving a date of 1986. Warhammer Fantasy Battles predated that by a few years (1983?), but I don't have a copy of that to see if Skaven appeared in it. There don't seem to be any rat-people in the first edition of D&D, and AD&D (Dungeon Master's Guide, 1979) has were-rats but no specific "race" of rat-people that I spotted.

Tolkien didn't write about such things that I'm aware of. I don't know enough about Robert E. Howard's work to know if he did. Something like "Giant Killer" (1945) is tantalizingly close, with an unpleasant society of intelligent mutant rats but they still seem to be just basically rats rather than the humanoid things that Skaven are. Honorable mention must go to The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), but I don't think that the mice in that were humanoid (and weren't particularly evil, as such).

So, I'm looking for:

  • Anthropomorphic rat-people, in the sense of "human shaped" and having human-like characteristics. Bipedal and intelligent, with hands optimized for grasping and manipulating things, with the capacity for creating and using tools and language and clothing. Preferably human-sized.
  • Who have some kind of society. Not just an individual character.
  • Not wererats, not giant rats.
  • Ideally, stereotypically evil and possibly warlike.
  • Written before their first appearance in the Warhammer setting (either '83 or '86)

Anyone got any ideas? Or did GW get there first?

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    @JonCuster It's been like 40 years, but weren't the Rats of NIMH rat-sized, and not humanoid-sized? IIRC they were in no way "giant."
    – DavidW
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 14:04
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    @DavidW - so by 'anthropomorphic' one means human sized only? Perhaps the OP could clarify.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 14:06
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    You said "preferably" human-sized, but Fritz Leiber's "The Swords of Lankhmar" from 1968 (or 1962) has a civilization of rat-sized rats living in a human city. They're somewhat 'humanoid' in that they wear clothes, wield weapons, etc. They are warlikie in that I believe they are trying to conquer at least that city.
    – LAK
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 14:39
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    Narnia (CS Lewis) Has rat people, or mouse people... though they are rat sized, not people sized. Redwall, published at the same time is made up of animals... And includes rats (usually cast as villains).
    – Questor
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 17:52
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    When taking on the roll of the Rat King in The Nutcracker 1892, do people walk on two legs or crawl?
    – Mazura
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 0:54

8 Answers 8


1931: "Devil Crystals of Arret", a novelette by Hal K. Wells, first published in Astounding Stories, September 1931, available at the Internet Archive and at Project Gutenberg.

The sound of his gun against the octopus-bat had apparently attracted new and unseen assailants—and their number was legion. Swiftly closing in upon him from every side there came the rustle and whisper of countless thousands of unseen foes advancing through the dense red thickets.

Completely hemmed in as he was, flight was out of the question. He sought the center of a small clearing, some ten feet in diameter, in order to gain at least a moment’s sight of his adversaries before they swarmed in upon him. With an automatic in each hand, he waited tense and ready.

The encircling rush came swiftly nearer, until Powell was suddenly aware that the unseen horde had arrived. The thicket bordering his tiny clearing was literally alive with yard-high furry bodies of creatures that dodged about too swiftly in the cover of the red bushes for him to get a clear view of any of them. There was a constant babel of snarling, chattering sound as the things called back and forth to each other.

Then the chattering stopped abruptly, as though at the command of some unseen leader. The next moment one of the creatures stepped boldly out into full view in the clearing. Powell’s scalp crinkled in disgust as he realized the nature of the thing confronting him.

It was literally a rat-man. Its upright posture upon two powerful, bowed hind legs was that of a man, but its human-like points were overshadowed by a dozen indelible marks of the beast. A coat of short, dirty gray fur covered the creature from head to foot. Its hands and feet were claw-like travesties of human members. Its pointed, chinless face with its projecting teeth and glittering little beady eyes was that of a giant rodent.

The beast in the clearing was apparently a leader of some sort, for around his throat was a wide collar of gray metal, with its flat surface marked in rudely scratched hieroglyphics. Powell’s heart leaped as he noted the collar. In this creature before him he had his second clue to the whereabouts of Joan Marlowe.

Not only was the collar practically identical to the one worn by the skeleton that had been materialized in the egg back in the laboratory, but the skeleton itself was obviously that of one of the rat-men. Could it be this grotesque horde of human-like rodents that was holding Joan captive in the Cave of Blue Flames?

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    Good find! I'll have a read of that one later. Commented May 26, 2023 at 9:05
  • A possible example from slightly earlier: Charles W. Diffin, "The Pirate Planet", a 4-part serial in Astounding for Nov 1930, Dec 1930, Jan 1931, Feb 1931 (links to Project Gutenberg). I didn't use it for my answer because I couldn't easily find a good description of the rat-like Venusians, and I didn't have the patience to read this long and not very well written story carefully.
    – user14111
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 10:21

Brian Stableford's "The Realms of Tartarus" trilogy (The Face of Heaven, A Vision of Hell, A Glimpse of Infinity) from 1977 has an underground civilization that evolved from rats (also another one from cats, and some other animals) that developed after humans had built gigantic platforms over all the Earths continents to escape pollution and locked in all animals in the darkness below.

They are described as the size of human children. They are bipedal tool-users. The main rat character Camlak is not evil, but is at least armed and dangerous (in universe anybody not armed and dangerous living in the titular realms is unlikely to survive very long).

Actually I located the books now. It's not so much "evil" as cultural idiosyncrasy, but the rat people are essentially at war with everybody (because in the "Underworld" everybody is at war with everybody else) and when they meet humans from the surface their immediate reaction is to kill them and mount their skulls as decoration, because they think creatures that traipse around unarmed are basically too stupid to be alive. Such behaviour might be called "evil", from a certain point of view.

Also there is a faint connection between Stableford and Warhammer fiction, because he (under the name "Brian Craig") wrote several Warhammer novels ("The Orfeo Trilogy", "The Wine of Dreams" and "Warhammer 4000"). However that was between 1989 and 2001, and according to the question the "Skaven" were already part of the Warhammer lore by then.

  • The skaven are bipedal and have roughly human body proportions and shoulder musculature and hands primarily used for grasping and manipulation, making them somewhat human-shaped, but have much more rodent-like heads, digitigrade stance, fur, tails, etc, making them rat_like_. They're tool users and having clothing. I'll update the OP to include those details. Commented May 25, 2023 at 14:59
  • The "men" (as the rat-people in Realms... refer to themselves) can use human tools and facilities, so they still might fit that description. But now that I finally understand the question I must admit that they are an unlikely inspiration for race in a role playing game. Commented May 25, 2023 at 15:09
  • Its hard to say. I'm coming from the point of view that so much of the warhammer setting is derivative, I'm vaguely expecting there to be something like a proto-skaven race out there but there isn't anything obvious so this kind of story is one potential source of inspiration. Commented May 25, 2023 at 15:13
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    "from a certain point of view". OK, Obi-Wan.
    – user15742
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 0:50
  • 1
    @frеdsbend That is a name I've not heard in a long time. Commented May 26, 2023 at 16:55

A. Bertram Chandler's Contraband from Otherspace, a 1966 novel in the John Grimes series, has human-sized, bipedal, intelligent rat-people...in spacesuits.

Revealed here in Chapter XIII as the heroes open an enemy prisoner's suit:

Gilmore attended to the helmet fastenings, made a half turn and lifted the misshapen bowl of metal and plastic from the prisoner's head. All of the humans stared at the face so revealed - the gray-furred visage with the thin lips crinkled to display the sharp, yellow teeth, the pointed, bewhiskered snout, the red eyes, the huge, circular flaps that were the ears.

A fight ensues as the prisoner attempts to break free, and the chapter ends with

And he remembered the old adage - that a cornered rat will fight.

The question mentions another rat-centric Chandler story - Giant Killer - as a sailor, I imagine Chandler had dealt with plenty of rats.

  • Giant Killer forms a sort of prequel to Contraband, as far as I can tell. I don't think that the rats in Giant Killer quite fitted the bill, but these ones in spacesuits seem pretty close. Commented May 26, 2023 at 8:47
  • @StarfishPrime There's an amusing detail mentioned when the protagonists board the rat-people's ship: the seats have a split back to accomodate the tails. Commented May 26, 2023 at 16:41

The rats of Lankhmar Below* first appeared in Fritz Liber's 1962 magazine story "Scylla's Daughter." This was expanded in 1968 in the full-length novel The Swords of Lankhmar. Per Wikipedia:

The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories concern the lives of two larcenous but likable rogues as they adventure across the fantasy world of Nehwon. In The Swords of Lankhmar, the duo is hired by the city of Lankhmar to protect its grain fleets, which have become prey to a mysterious threat. A sea serpent ridden by an explorer from another world is encountered, but the true foes prove to be legions of intelligent rats.

The rats in the story display varying degrees of anthropomorphism. There are normal large rats with seemingly humanlike intelligence, as well as ones of nearly human stature and appearance. Even some of the more rat-like creatures are capable of speech, wielding tools and weapons (from rapiers to crossbows), and wearing clothes or armor.

In "Scylla's Daughter," the most human-like rat is the the Demoiselle Hisvet:

The Demoiselle Hisvet stood as tall as the Mouser, but judging by her face, wrists, and ankles was considerably slenderer. Her face was delicate and taper- chinned with small mouth and pouty upper lip that lifted just enough to show a double dash of pearly tooth. Her complexion was creamy pale except for two spots of color high on her cheeks. Her straight fine hair, which grew low on her forehead, was pure white touched with silver and all drawn back through a silver ring behind her neck, whence it hung unbraided like a unicorn’s tail. Her eyes had china whites but darkly pink irises around the large black pupils. Her body was enveloped and hidden by a loose robe of violet silk except when the wind briefly molded a flat curve of her girlish anatomy. There was a violet hood, half thrown back. The sleeves were puffed but snug at the wrists. She was barefoot, her skin showing as creamy there as on her face, except for a tinge of pink about the toes.

In the original story, Hisvet never appears without her body covered from neck to ankle, although by the end of narrative, it is quite clear that she (and her distant father) are rat-people of some sort. The details of how the humanoid rats can change size—as well as what Hisvet's torso looks like under her clothing—are given in the full novel version of the tale.

*These were an important influence on Dungeons & Dragons were-rats.

  • Maybe, but much of the action involved rat-sized rats and the heroes shrunk to rat-size running around in the tunnels. And the Mouser slept with the aristocratic Hisvet and was more attracted to her after he knew she was 1/2-rat. Are Skaven considered sexy? Commented May 27, 2023 at 12:05

Can I put forward the Rumbles from 1976's 'The Borribles' by Michael de Larrabeiti https://www.blackgate.com/2012/04/13/the-borribles/.

I haven't read the books since I was a kid, but remember the Rumbles as near-human sized, tool/language using, bipedal rat-people - not sure if they wore clothes though? Pretty sure he was parodying 'The Wombles', but as they were the primary antagonists for physical conflict with the Borribles (child sized humans), they were scaled up to a similar size. That's definitely what I assumed GW were referencing by the time I was done with those books and had started playing Warhammer.

Oh, BTW, this page is illuminating: http://www.oldenhammer.com/2017/11/skaven-origin-of-species.html - particularly this comment: http://www.oldenhammer.com/2017/11/skaven-origin-of-species.html?showComment=1510860291400#c4847162840584160006

As is this: https://awesomeliesblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/14/the-wfrp-story-xxxii-the-rat-pack/ - Suggests a lot more options & specifically "The skaven’s physical form is an evolution of similar ideas elsewhere in fantasy literature and gaming, the earliest of which appear in Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar (1968)."

TLDR: Fritz Leiber wrote a likely inspiration 1st but as they're tiny & rat-sized, Skaven will always be Rumbles to me!

I should really leave this alone, but here's yet more antecedents: enter image description here

  • 1
    PS - thanks for asking this question, you reminded me about the Borribles. I pretty much blame all my childhood misadventures on the influence of Borribles & Stainless Steel Rat books! Commented May 26, 2023 at 4:44
  • I'd completely forgotten the wombles! They were surprisingly close, too. I'm entirely unfamiliar with the borribles, so I'll have to read up on them a bit but the rumbles seem like a good potential skaven-precursor. WFB's authors seem to have been about 17 when the first book came out though, so I wonder if it would have been a bit juvenile for them. Commented May 26, 2023 at 9:15
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    I wish that the Leiber case was fleshed out more. While the OP shrugs off wererats in D&D, they're clearly inspired by Lieber, who wrote a whole novelette about them, they lead a complete society (rat undercity below Lankhmar), etc. (Also, dates in the table would be very nice.) Commented May 26, 2023 at 15:21



There are Japanese fairy tales from around the 17th century that discuss demons that look like a hybrid of man and rat.


In the light of a flickering yellow flame he saw his captors: creatures half his height, pallid of skin, pointed of face, with ears on the tops of their heads. They walked with a slight forward hunch, and their knees seemed jointed opposite to those of true men, and their feet, in sandals, seemed very soft and supple.

Jack Vance, "Manse of Iucounu" 1966. Also published as a novel, "Eyes of the Overworld".

Protagonist Cugel is captured by some rat-folk. They impose on their captives a simple system. If they can induce 2 people to become captive to the ratmen, within 1 month they go free. These creatures wear clothes and speak human language. They also have metallurgical and chemical capability being shown using a machine to project poison gas at Cugel. They wield tridents as their weapon of choice.

Another earlier instance of rat-man-like creatures are slinkers from Weinbaum's Mad Moon (1935) who are native to Jupiter's moon Io.


Murine people of Disney cartoons

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse first appeared in Steamboat Willie (1928) and Plane Crazy, and other relatives appeared in later cartoons. Mickey's kind moves and acts more or less human (except for the tail, of course). Mickey is half the height of animated film producer Walt Disney, who co-directed Steamboat Willie and voiced Mickey for nearly the first two decades, according to measurement of photos of the Partners statue by Blaine Gibson at Magic Kingdom. This makes Mickey 89 cm (2'11") tall, slightly shorter than Warhammer Fantasy Halflings and as tall as some real-life humans with a short stature condition.

The one difference is that Mickey isn't exactly evil. The closest he typically got was as a "lovable rogue" antihero.

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