Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 1)

Classic species becoming clichés is a common issue in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres, even to a limited degree in science fiction.  But, is it valid to consider most of these species clichés?  Most of the species that we encounter in the genres are common, but have a variety of uses, appearances, and varieties in modern and classical, mythological, and legendary forms.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll focus on the fantasy and urban fantasy species because they are more easily recognizable as “standard” species.  Sci-fi has its versions—reptilian warrior people, cyborgs, BEMs, androids—but not in the same way.  Saying Gorn, Narn, or Trandoshan isn’t the same as saying Elf because not all reptilian warrior species in sci-fi are referred to as Gorn. Each setting has its own name for the type.

Demons

Demons have become nearly a cliché in many branches of urban fantasy.  They are often depicted as monstrous beings originating off-Earth, in some other dimensional space.  Beyond that basic element, demons have been used in various ways, typically as a source of magic or to introduce issues of morality.  Whether they are used for religious or secular purposes, the common thread is that they are extraplanar beings and are strong, magically powerful, and often tied to mages.  There are a host of possibilities for use and appearances, in fact an almost infinite number of descriptions in myth, legend, and stories around the world.  Likewise, demons have an almost equally wide range of powers and weaknesses, including vulnerability to iron and religious symbols.

In the Christian tradition, demons are evil entities that reside in Hell and serve Lucifer.  They are often sent to Earth to tempt mortals, seduce and mentor witches, and possess people.  In this tradition, demons are effectively pure evil and lead mortals to evil.  This tradition tends to heavily influence Western use of demons in the secular realm as well, especially in the RPG and video game industries.

Robert Asprin takes the term and puts his own spin on it.  For his MYTH series, demon is a slang term for dimensional travelers, regardless of their species or home dimension.  Thus, demon refers to a host of species and moralities in his multiverse.

Jaye Wells treats demons as residents of Irkalla, the Babylonian underworld, in her Sabina Kane series.  For her world, there is a wide variety of appearances and types including vengeance, vanity, and mischief demons as well as levels of strength and status.  Most demons in her world can only arrive on Earth when summoned to serve mages, usually for one job per summoning.

In Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, demons are the source of magic.  Magicians summon the demon to perform acts for them, binding the demon to an item or to service until they are released to return home.  These demons seem to have different ranks and strengths, but their social order is rather nebulous, as it is not particularly important to the plot.

Dragons

Dragons are possibly the most common and varied of species around the world after vampires and werebeasts.  They appear in myths, legends, and folklore virtually everywhere, so there are variations from almost every culture on Earth.  Despite many forms, the three most well-known categories are the Asian bearded, the European winged, and the Mesoamerican feathered serpent.

Among the Norse, dragons appeared in both leg-less and legged varieties.  They were noted for their greed, hoards of gold, and impenetrable scales.  They often displayed an ability to charm humans and speak the languages of the birds and beasts.  Perhaps the most well-known is Fafnir of the Volsunga Saga.

The Anglo-Saxon dragon was a four legged, winged creature capable of breathing fire.  They were known by the kenning “sky-plague”.  Like their Norse cousins, they were noted for their greed and hoards, as well as being powerful and territorial.  They were apparently intelligent, but possibly incapable of human speech and appeared as the opponent of heroes, the most famous of which is probably Beowulf’s dragon.

Chinese dragons, like virtually all Asian dragons, were wingless reptilians that boasted beards and flew.  They were often tied to rivers and seas and were associated with wisdom, learning, and leadership.  They were also known to fly into destructive rages when insulted, leading to floods and tsunamis.  In China, they were connected to the Imperial family and nobles, with the number of claws indicating the status of the dragon.  Unlike Western dragons, Asian varieties were standardized in art fairly early in the continent’s cultural development.

Tolkien built out of the Norse & Saxon tradition to produce strong, huge, intelligent reptilians of evil.  His dragons embody the evils of Men, Elves, and Dwarves.  They possess enhanced senses, an ability to charm, and the power to evoke fear.  They seek out darkness and fire, because they were created of fire and sorcery by Morgoth.

Harry Turtledove (Darkness series) and Naomi Novik (Temeraire series) show readers giant beasts bred for war.  Turtledove’s are non-intelligent warbeasts while Novik’s are cat-like, talking creatures.  Both are used as aerial bombers and assault forces, in Novik’s case much like 19th century naval ships.  Turtledove’s are relatively simplistic, used like any vehicle of war.  Novik’s are deployed to raise issues of slavery and societal differences across cultures.

Robert Asprin’s Dragons series presents dragons that look human.  They have a diluted draconic lineage that leaves the current generations mostly human, genetically.  However, most have access to draconic strength and display a dragon’s greed.  Those with a purer bloodline are able to manifest physical draconic characteristics.  They are inherently drawn to power and strength, leaving many involved in professional sports or organized crime.

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