WiP 2 (2018)

Continuing from the previous post


Some time later, the dishes scoured by a small bit of summoning wizardry, the tent’s light dimmed and Alaric settled himself in his sleeping bag.  He lay on his back for a while, staring at the nylon ceiling and listening to the rain drum on the outer cover.  His mind wandered, tracing imaginary passages and caverns beneath the ground, an ancient temple complex turned hiding place that had been buried by millennia of sediment and detritus.

The tunnels, the entire facility, thrummed and throbbed with a low, headache inducing bass hum.

Alaric sat up.

The ancient halls weren’t humming, that had been a dream.

But, he was awake and the low, barely audible, thrumming bass was still there.

He scrambled, disentangling himself from his sleeping bag.

As he fumbled to unzip the tent flap, his right thumb rubbed across the bone ring he wore on that side.  Good, Alaric thought, there was a fair amount of energy in his personal stores and device.

The sound grew marginally louder once he was outside.

The fire had burned out some time ago.  The sun was rising over the rim of the stone circle, stretching rosy tendrils from the east.

Looking around, he counted at least twelve eldren surrounding the ring. Their gold-green skin nearly blended into the foliage where they stood on the edge of the clearing.  He slowly realized the bass hum came from the humanoid creatures, as their bodies gently swayed with the rhythm, vine-like head tendrils swinging in time.  He wasn’t sure if they were capable of speech, in fact Alaric doubted if any sorcerer on the Island had ever seen more than one or two eldren at a time before.  They rarely left the woods of their treefolk creators.

Sorcerer and eldren stood and stared at each other for several minutes.

He felt the pressure starting to build over his right eye when the clearing abruptly went silent.

Even the birds and rustle of the squirrels and breeze in the trees stopped.

A barely audible groan escaped Alaric’s lips.

Shite.

The eldren faded back into the trees as another figure appeared.

It didn’t so much step or glide as simply move.

Treefolk.

He hadn’t seen one since a trip to the Grove of Dodona on the Island, when he had still been learning wizardry.  Mostly, they kept to themselves and Island’s other residents left them alone.  Sorcerers usually just saw them once, when they studied the species, magical history, and the Island’s history as kids.

This one had to be close to ten feet tall, its body a bizarre hybrid of plant and animal parts.  The stories said that the first treefolk had once been human, earth sorcerers like himself.  But, they pushed the sorcery too far and transformed.  Now, they’d left humanity behind.  No one was quite certain how much humanity was still in them, enough to communicate certainly, but perhaps not enough to truly understand.

It stopped a few yards from the woods.

Alaric got the feeling that even that distance was difficult for it.

After a few heartbeats, the treefolk spoke, its voice gravelly with lack of use.

“This place . . . accursed . . . danger . . . leave . . . old magic . . .”

Alaric nodded, “Old magic.  That’s why I’m here, to study . . . to learn.  I haven’t seen any curses.”

“Accursed . . . danger . . . leave.”

“Do you mean dragon magic?  Is this an ancient dragon place?  Or . . . death sorcery?”

“Yeeees.”

“Yes, what?  Dragon or death?  Is it inhabited or abandoned?”

Without an answer, the treefolk backed into the woods.  In seconds, it had vanished from sight, joining its eldren minions.

Well, then.

Alaric shook his head.  The treefolk were odd, always had been, from what he’d heard.  Very few communicated well with humans anymore.  And they’d left any sorcery they’d had far behind when they changed, a trade for other powers.  It was said that they were capable of wizardry, like everyone else.  It was possible that it sensed dragon magic, which no one really understood anymore.  On the other hand, if it had sensed death sorcery . . . that was a whole other issue.

It warranted further study, anyway.

But, first, breakfast.

By the time he got the fire back up, ate some rehydrated eggs, and cleaned up, the sun had risen enough over the edge of the stones to illuminate the whole ring.  Alaric left his tent up and started pacing around the circle.  He let his vision shift, to see magical auras.  His boots stood outside the tent, the contact between bare feet and the earth letting him recharge a bit of magical energy.  The process would go faster if he stripped off and stayed still, meditating, but there was work to do.

If there were any auras, though, they were too faint to see by normal means.

The hard way, then, he decided.

After nearly an even score of circuits, he sat on the ground a few feet from the central stone, tugging on his boots.

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Work in Progress

Just a little, unedited, scene I’ve been toying with


Scene—Outside Ruins (2018)

There had always been rumors, ever since the end of the Dragon War.  People started saying that some had survived, uncontained, within moments of the war’s end.  Everyone thought the stories were the delusional ravings of paranoids.  Everyone knew the weakest dragons had been slain in the war, and the strongest, the ones no one could kill, were imprisoned in an eternal sleep.

They all said the stories that some had survived, free, were flights of darkest fancy.

They all claimed that every site occupied by the dragon-lords had been located and destroyed.  The Houses and the guardians had books and maps showing every such location around the world.

Yet, here he stood a few yards away from ruins that did not appear on any of the maps possessed by the Houses or the guardians of the Dragon Caves.

Well, Alaric had to admit, it was the ruins of a human religious site.

He could see the worn, ragged, roughly phallic stone in the center standing on three semi-concentric circles of stone blocks.  Around it stood a ring of closely packed standing dark granite stones topped with matching lintel stones.  They were so tight that they formed a wall, pierced in four places by openings in the cardinal directions.  The lintels rose and fell as their standing stones ranged from nearly his own height to twice that, apparently at random.  A low earthwork encircled the entire site, behind him.  Lichens and stubby grass covered everything inside the circles.

Honestly, Alaric thought, it wouldn’t be unusual or out of place in most of northern Europe.  The grey sky and constant drizzle would be perfectly in line with parts of the UK too.

But, he was standing in an unnamed rainforest, in the mountains, almost exactly on the border between Washington and British Columbia.  And the site, according to his sources and a few basic detection spells, was pre-Columbian.  In fact, if he’d done the spells right, the site was older than the mundanes thought humans had been on the continent.

Alaric was certain that, despite appearances, one of the alcoves or possibly one of the ring steps around the central stone would recede.  If his research was correct, it would lead into the ground beneath the site.  The stories said that, in the last days of the war, a number of the strongest dragon-lords built hidden complexes in which to hide, in sleep or hibernation, and escape his ancestors.

Shifting the pack that rode heavy on his shoulders, Alaric strode toward the nearest arch.  His booted feet whispered over the low grass as his eyes roamed, trying to take in every possible detail.  Soon, he was passing under the lintel stone.  He paused a few moments to study the arch, ancient, massive stones planted upright in the ground with a third laid across the top.  As he expected, no mortar or other means of connecting them.  The ancient humans had relied solely on the weight of the stones to keep the structure in place.  The whole arch took three steps to pass through, then Alaric found himself within the grounds.

He looked around, confirming what he’d thought and seen from beyond the ring.

Seen closer, none of the alcove seemed deep enough to conceal stairs or other means of descent.  The vaguely phallic plinth appeared the more likely means of accessing any hidden complexes.  To be safe, Alaric walked the ring, looking into each of the five or six alcoves he could see.  He spared a glance at the moss sheathed conifers that towered over the site, and the weak sunlight that filtered through the overcast sky.

A vague sense for the weather suggested that the drizzle would get stronger before it abated.  Deciphering a combination on the plinth could take hours, possibly days . . . while reasonably dry.

He nodded to himself, “It’s sat for millennia, what’s another half day and night?”

His only answer came from a couple crows.

“Right,” Alaric smiled, aware of talking to himself.  “Shelter and warmth it is.”

He shrugged the pack off his shoulders and undid the straps holding a tent to the bottom of the frame.  The pack leaned against one of the arch stones while Alaric waved a hand.  The tent began pitching itself as its owner left the ring in search of firewood.

It only took a few minutes before Alaric shook his head.  Calling the deadfall “damp” would be a serious understatement.  Most of it was waterlogged at best.  With no other options, he gathered what he could and sent it floating along in a pile a few inches off the ground behind him.

An hour later, he was sitting in his dry tent, his pack laid on the floor next to him.  A modest fire was going a safe distance from the fabric, helped along by a tiny bit of wizardry, and a pile of fallen branches was drying nearby.  He’d rigged up a lean-to out of a tarp to at least attempt to keep the firewood slightly dryer.  The scent of a re-hydrated soup wafted into the tent from its small tin pan next to the fire.

Alaric pulled the pan off its hot rock and mostly closed the tent flap just as the drizzle began to be interspersed with fat drops of real rain.

As the light fell, the sorcerer unconsciously created a simple, fist sized ball of light.  The basic spell was familiar to all beginning wizards, one of the first things they learned to do.  He sent it to float near the apex of the tent while he ate and read through some notes he’d spread out on his pack.

Still Alive

Reports of my demise have been grossly exaggerated.

Seriously, though, the silence and lack of posts has been caused alternating bursts of creativity (e.g. fun writing) and craziness at work (e.g. mental burnout).

Having fun tackling some old vignettes & short stories to expand into long short stories or novellas.

Mechanics of Shapeshifting

The mechanics of shapeshifting have been covered almost from the first recorded appearances of shapeshifting figures.  That is, if we define the mechanics as “how does one change into an animal”.  In fact, this definition of mechanics was a rather major concern for the medieval and early modern sources.  The early modern authors were particularly concerned with the “how to” question, as represented by a couple examples:

  • Peeter Stubbe—A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer (1590)
  • Henri Bouget—Discours des Sorciers (1602)
  • Jean Grenier—his trial for werewolfism (1603)
  • Thomas Blount—Glossographia: or a Dictionary, Interpreting all Such Hard Words of Whatsoever Language, Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue; With  Etymologies, Definitions, and Historical Observations on the Same (1661)

There were many possible methods of transformation discussed by the sources from ancient Greece through the 17th century.  For the purposes of conserving space, I’ll limit this post to the five most common elements or methods in no particular order.

 

Removal of Clothing

Many stories of werewolves, in particular, require that the person remove their clothing to change form.  This is a symbolic removal of the trappings of civilization and humanity in order to embrace and become the beast.  Clothing is also, historically, an important indicator of social status, so the soldiers and noblemen of classical and medieval literature removing the symbols of their status is also important.  The shedding of clothing may, or may not, be connected to other elements, such as unguents and demonic instruction.

  • Petronius—Satyricon (1st century CE)
  • Marie de France—“Bisclavret” (late-12th century; though the condition seems to be genetic)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)

 

Unguents

Often, particularly in classical and demonological sources, the potential werewolf must coat themselves in an unguent of some sort.  In the demonological sources (14th to 18th centuries), the recipe for this unguent is often taught by a demon or devil in return for service.

  • Virgil—Eclogue VIII (1st century CE)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)

 

Curse

A favorite throughout history is shapeshifting as a curse.  This stretches back as least as far as ancient Rome, in the written record; at least as far as ancient Greece in the oral tradition.  The source of the curse varies from the pagan gods to agents of the Judeo-Christian God to witches (or simply ambitious noblewomen) in some of the more misogynistic texts.  In sources with divine origin of the curse, the curse seems to be permanent.  In those in which human agency causes the curse, it is reversible.

  • Ovid—Metamorphoses (8 CE; Jupiter curses Lycaeon)
  • —“Arthur and Gorlagon” (12th century; Gorlagon’s wife curses him)
  • Gerald of Wales—The History and Topography of Ireland (1188 CE; St. Patrick curses the people of Ossory)
  • Romance of William of Palerne (c. 1200; Alphouns’s stepmother curses him)

 

Bathing in a Special Lake

In some, particularly old, stories, the ability to change forms is the result of bathing in a particular lake.  Something in the ritual, which echoes prehistoric rites, allows the bather to change shapes.  It can, in some cases, be that the ritual awakens a latent genetic talent.

  • Pausanias—The Description of Greece (2nd century CE; Demarchus, the Olympic boxer)
  • Augustine—City of God (426 CE; discussion of the Arcadians)

 

Donning a Wolfskin

A few stories, more in the oral tradition than the written, indicate that wearing a specially prepared wolfskin (or other animal skin) is necessary for the transformation.  This is often connected with other methods.  For instance, in the case of Jean Grenier (1603), supposedly a devil taught Jean how to prepare a wolfskin with a special salve, coat himself in another substance, and wear the wolfskin to turn into a wolf.

Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics.  One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes.  There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh.  I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature.  That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.

I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas.  These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.

But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods.  Weren’t they religious?

Yes and no.

Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).

Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society.  The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations.  They also set and reflected social ideals.  Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine.  For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior.  They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe).  It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.

I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.

 

Beowulf

(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy.  We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince.  We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them.  In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother.  In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3).  Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.

 

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).

Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance.  The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance.  Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters.  He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90).  Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle.  He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32).  In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.

 

The Story of the Volsungs

(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)

The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas.  It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan.  But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon.  “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18).  It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two.  Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf.  As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).

Biology of Shapeshifting

The question of biology and shapeshifting is, as one might expect, largely a modern concern.  More specifically, it tends to be a greater concern for urban fantasy and paranormal romances than for more “traditional” fantasy as the former two genres bring in more modern scientific views and foundations.  Some, of course, dodge the question entirely, such as Jack Williamson, in Darker Than You Think (1948), who used lycanthropy as psychic projection—though it is unclear whether the body remains behind, is transformed, or something else, especially as the story progresses.

That said, the earliest exploration of the biology of shapeshifting that I’m aware of was produced by G. Havers in 1664.  Havers published an English translation of A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, Upon Questions of all Sorts of Philosophy, and Other Natural Knowledge, Made in the Assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the Most Ingenious Persons of that Nation (hell of a title).  The “virtuosi of France”, according to Havers, argued, “[f]or otherwise, how should the Sorcerer reduce his Body into so small a volumn as the form of a Rat, Mouse, Toad, and other such Animal into which it sometimes is turn’d” (204).  In other words, in the mid-17th century, they were arguing from a position that employed the law of conservation of mass (before said law had been codified).

Among others, Philip Jose Farmer built on this question in his short story “Wolf, Iron, and Moth” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991).  He writes, “Only the moon saw his hair and skin melt until he looked like a mass of jelly that had been formed into the figure of a man [. . .] The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat that Varglik had accumulated so swiftly” (59).  Nina Kiriki Hoffman does something similar in her story “Unleashed” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991), “Change gripped her breasts, flattening them against her chest, her body shifting to absorb and redistribute tissue” (76).  Obviously, both authors are concerned with the mass and tissue changes involved in changing from a human to wolf shape, and vice versa.

Farmer’s story also touches on the scientific question of energy requirements and use to change.  He writes, “The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat” (59).  Charlaine Harris also plays with this briefly in her Southern Vampire series.  Other approaches have included a strong urge to eat after changing shape, particularly repeatedly in a short span of time, as food and fat reserves are burned to fuel the transformation.

Some authors go a few steps further in linking biology and shapeshifting.  For example, Ilona Andrews states that, at least for Lyc-V (Lycos virus) shifters, there are only mammalian shifters (Magic Bleeds).  The implication is that because humans are mammals, they can only transform into mammals.  Some exceptions are included later, but appear to be either a) non-human species (lamassu) or b) incredibly ancient or mis-identified (an apparent were-croc, which might not actually be a were/lyc-V case).  Others have used this as well, including the webcomic Peter is the Wolf (it’s title a play on Peeter Stubbe, the infamous German werewolf, and “Peter and the Wolf”).

The last element that comes to mind for shapeshifting and biology is the actual reshaping of the body.  Many authors choose to gloss over the change (ex. Pratchett) or gloss over it for some shifters (ex. Rowling for animagi).  But, a few use the change for dramatic or horror effect.  Charlaine Harris, for instance, writes, “It was a sort of gloppy sound.  Sticky.  Like stirring a stiff spoon through some thick liquid that had hard things in it, maybe peanuts or toffee bits.  Or bone chips” (Dead to the World, Ace, 2011, p. 158).  The painful bone reorientation is the key element here.  Likewise, J.K. Rowling describes, in broad strokes, a similarly painful change as Remus Lupin is chained to Ron Weasley and Peter Pettigrew, emerging from under the Whomping Willow.  The change is described as being highly painful previously as well, when Lupin describes his childhood transformations.  These painful shifts are in contrast to the instant, silent, and painless transformations undertaken by the animagi.  I suspect the difference is that in Rowling’s world lycanthropy is essentially a disease (although she switches back and forth between talking about it as an illness or a species), while animagi use a transfiguration spell.