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.

Fantasy and Historical Realism

Oddly enough, the question of historical realism seems to crop up with a degree of regularity in the fantasy genre.  I’m not entirely certain why (as I’ll explain below), but suspect it has to do with the Eurocentric medieval roots of the genre.  That said, the entire genre has a sliding scale from utterly non-realistic to hyper-realistic that cover the classics (Tolkien, Moorcock, Leiber, Howard, Moore, Bradley) to more modern names (G.R.R. Martin, Rothfuss, Jemisin).  But, even the medieval roots—ex. Chrétien’s Yvain and Lancelot, Gawain & the Green Knight, Beroul’s Tristan, William of Palerne, Marie de France’s “Yonec” and “Bisclavret”—weren’t exactly realistic beyond a certain point.

More often than not, it seems that claims or cries of “historical accuracy” are used to justify rampant sexism or racism in a work.  This appears to be more of a fan thing than an author thing in most cases, though there are exceptions (as shown by some of the so-called Sad/Rabid Puppies).  But, most of these appeals to “historical accuracy” are based on outdated or outright false history.

All said, I’m not entirely certain that “historical accuracy” has a place in the fantasy genre as a whole, at least in most sub-genres.  It is certainly important in historical fantasy (although differences in history can be explained away as the influence of magic), some urban fantasy, and, of course, alternate histories.  But, in epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, and other secondary world fantasies . . . no, Earth’s history has no bearing on the secondary world.  “Historical accuracy” in the case of a secondary world fantasy should never refer to Earth’s history (even if the world is based, however loosely, on Earth), but rather to the secondary world’s history, much of which the reader does not know (exception: Middle-Earth, thanks to the posthumously published Silmarillion, but even that is not a complete history).

Although speaking of the RPG industry in general and D&D in particular, I think Forgotten Realms guru Ed Greenwood put this best for the entire fantasy genre: “But D&D has half-orc, and half-dragons, and half-elves, and has magic items that specifically change gender, right there in the rules.  Surely if you can handle the basic notion of cross-SPECIES sex, having a full variety of gender roles should be something that doesn’t blow your mind” (Facebook post, 5 April 2016).

Eurocentrism in Fantasy

Anyone who’s been following the fantasy genre and authorship has probably noticed that Eurocentrism has become a major issue in the industry over the last decade, especially. There have always been a few non-Caucasian authors and non-Eurocentric works out there in the fantasy and fantasy adjacent genres (ex. Octavia Butler’s Patternist series seems appropriate), but they’ve been token-ish in many respects. And, of course, the industry has been very Caucasian heavy and very male heavy for most of its existence.

Thinking about the issue and my own writing, I understand the reluctance of Caucasian authors to address non-European themes and settings. Both can be tricky to pull off, particularly in uncertain hands. A few have, I think, managed it, such as Max Gladstone and Robert Jackson Bennett, but far too many others have fumbled in the attempt. The balance between trying to write from an unfamiliar perspective, trying to understand another perspective, versus accidental stereotyping can be a problematic one. That said, I think the unfamiliar perspective is something that the fantasy genre does fairly well, after all none of us are sorcery wielding masters of magic schools or dragon riding elven knights, in certain contexts. Add that the line between appreciation of another culture and appropriation of that culture can be a thin one and the option to write fantasy from a different real world cultural, ethnic, or racial perspective can become daunting at best.

For instance, Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson) was once asked if he would ever do a Hindu themed series like he’s done Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse. He responded, initially, with, “A sarcastic white guy writing about that? What could possibly go wrong?”

In his follow up, Riordan took what I think is exactly the correct route to fix the issue of Eurocentrism in the genre. He used his fame and position with his publisher to encourage Disney-Hyperion to bring in more non-Caucasian authors and create more resources to help non-Caucasian writers through the publishing stage. The result is Rick Riordan Presents, created in early 2017, that will be publishing three non-Eurocentric works of mythology based urban fantasy and sci-fi later this year (Hindu, Mayan, and Korean).

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 5; Last Part)

Halflings

Diminutive, often chubby or rotund, pastoral humanoids, halflings don’t appear in a lot of “mainstream” fantasy or urban fantasy. They could be adapted to either, though, or even played with by basing them off a wide variety of “little people” that appear in global folklore.

Tolkien first created the halfling, as Hobbits, possible basing them loosely on the “Little People” of English folklore. They were a tough, pastoral folk excellent at concealment and enjoying “simple” lives. They were very much a sort of representation of Tolkien’s idealized pastoral English middle class.

Halflings mostly appear in RPG related fiction, tabletop games, and video games. They are hobbits under a different name due to copyright issues, but have essentially the same traits as Tolkien’s hobbits. Over the last few decades, some game (D&D, for instance) have introduced different varieties of halfling. One of the most notable variations is the Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman kender—kleptomaniacal halflings cloaked in an innocent demeanor and hyperactive chatter.

George Lucas and Ron Howard created their own variation for the movie Willow. Their Nelwyns are clearly similar to halflings, though they appear a bit darker, or more realistic, and much more like the Sackville-Bagginses than the idyllic Gamgees in many ways.

Merfolk

Merfolk are partly humanoid fish people that have had a variety of physical appearances. A classic version is a human top and fish bottom, as seen in mermaid tales. Others are entirely aquatic and fish-like in appearance, although with a humanoid top half (as in Sci-Fi’s show Sanctuary). Some herd sea creatures or cultivate sea plants. Most hunt sea animals and almost all use echolocation to some degree. Unfortunately, because of their aquatic nature, they can be difficult to work into human focused stories and worlds, although they do appear in some of the Dragonlance novels and many fantasy RPGs. Merfolk could be potentially active and interesting in a Venice-based fantasy city or urban fantasy story, living in lagoons and canals. They could even potentially work in a city with multiple decent sized rivers or a river delta.

Rowling introduces a settlement of merfolk in the Hogwarts lake, preserved there and safe. These merfolk are friendly to Dumbledore, who speaks mermish. They only appear a few times, though, notably for a Triwizard Tournament event and for Dumbledore’s funeral.

Minotaurs

The minotaur originates in Greek myth, where it was a bull-headed humanoid. That element of appearance has been retained, though there is debate about whether minotaurs should have human feet or bull feet. There are a host of other appearance elements and uses in modern fantasy and urban fantasy, but they all generally agree that minotaurs are taller than humans and have bull (or cow) horns. Most varieties have tails.

In the Greek myths, the minotaur was a unique being, a child of the Minoan queen Pasiphae and a bull meant as an offering to Poseidon. It was kept in the Labyrinth where it ate an annual sacrifice of humans. What it did between the Athenian tributes is unclear, but presumably Minos was exacting tribute from other cities as well.

Rick Riordan continues to hold with the classical sources with a unique Minotaur. His Minotaur is an axe or sword wielding beast bent on killing demigods.

The Dragonlance creators took the minotaur myth and spun it into an entire species of beings. Their minotaurs form an honorable warrior culture governed by the winner of arena combat. They are excellent sailors. Unfortunately, they often find themselves beholden to the forces of Takhisis (in the time of Huma and the War of the Lance).

Tonya Huff (The Enchantment Emporium) makes brief mention of minotaur cattle ranchers in central Canada. No other description appears, but presumably the minotaurs are a species of beings and they seem to be relatively inoffensive—as ranchers and there’s no worry that the protagonist’s grandmother appeared to be on good terms with them.

Nmphs

According to classical sources, nymphs are representatives of nature. They are typically described as all being female, sort of counterparts to satyrs & fauns. Many are tied to specific locations and able to exert some degree of control over their natural feature. As legends evolved, nymphs became tied to sexuality as well, which is not necessarily true of the mythic stage. In the early phase of their development, they were more focused on nature and roles as children of lesser gods.

For the Greeks (and Romans), there were many varieties of nymphs from meadows to trees, oaks to rivers, oceanic to the daughters of Atlas. They were always female and were often pursued by satyrs and gods alike.

Rick Riordan remains true to the classical sources, depicting his nymphs as the female counterparts to satyrs. In this form, they have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the all male satyrs. Many of the nymphs serve and protect Camp Half-Blood, but there are exceptions who are tied to other parts of the world, such as Artemis’s nymphs.

Jaye Wells makes nymphs into a nature oriented sub-species of the Fae race. Only one, Vinca, is shown in detail. She exhibits power over plants, particularly enhancing and accelerating their growth, and hated cats as an ancestral enemy.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 4)

Centaurs

Half-horse and half-human, centaurs are a relatively common feature in classic fantasy fiction. They seem to be most suited as plains or steppes dwellers, but they are often placed in heavily wooded areas that would seem better suited to smaller varieties than are commonly described. There are some obvious issues with incorporating centaurs into urban fantasy, particularly in an human or city-based fantasy due to their size and shape. Some authors have played with this idea, though. Riordan developed a magic wheelchair for his key centaur while Eoin Colfer has a smaller breed of centaur that never leaves the faerie city, which has adapted vehicles and utilities for their shape. Rowling confined hers to a preserve in a relatively remote forest.

Centaurs are common in Greek mythology. They were noted for their violent tendencies and intoxication. However, the most famous centaurs include Chiron, the healer and trainer of heroes, as well as Nessus, who slew Heracles through deception. Greek myths also include the onocentaur, a goat variant that lives in the mountains, but which is less well known.

C.S. Lewis includes centaurs in Narnia, as allies of Aslan/good. His centaurs appear to be strong warriors, clad in barding and bearing large weapons to fight the forces that oppose Aslan and the Pevensies.

Rick Riordan brings in Chiron as a counselor at Camp Half-Blood as well as the paintball and root beer loving Party Ponies (virtually every centaur who isn’t Chiron).

J.K. Rowling’s centaurs are forest dwelling philosophers who have a talent for divination and astrology and a strong distaste for humans and wizards. They appear to be excellent archers, as displayed during the Battle of Hogwarts and their salute at Dumbledore’s funeral. They also hate giants.

Steven Brust, and others, have introduced variations on the “-taur” theme, such as his cat-centaurs in Dragaera (human top, feline below). Generally the variants serve roles as monsters, advisors, trainers, mentors, and warriors.

Fauns/Satyrs

Often conflated, fauns and satyrs are two rather different entities, though they serve similar roles, particularly as male counterparts to nymphs. Both are goat-legged men and appear in rural environments. However that is where the similarities end. The Roman faun is a semi-civilized, perhaps domesticated, creature and generally has small horns. The Greek satyr is a wild, often intoxicated, creature generally devoted to Pan or Dionysus. The Greeks did introduce some female satyrs, but they were a late invention of classical poets and only had rare appearances. Neither faun nor satyr are especially common in fantasy or urban fantasy novels. They are, though, known to appear frequently in fantasy video games and in some comics and stories as lords of the woods or hills, often in quasi-druidic sex magic rituals.

Rick Riordan employs both in his Greco-Roman demigods series. The satyrs serve as guides and protectors for young demigods, bringing them safely (usually) to Camp Half-Blood and assisting in both guarding the camp and mentoring the demigods. They also act as male counterpart to the nymphs. The fauns come across more as meek servants and pitiful individuals in New Rome/Camp Jupiter, although they occasionally serve as nurses to aid injured demigods.

 Gargoyles

For being relatively minor figures in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres, gargoyles display a fair bit of variation. Usually they are grotesque or semi-grotesque humanoids. Some are living stone, others are not. They seem to be heavily associated with churches, which makes sense given the locations of real gargoyles, so there is a lot of potential as religious protectors, whether directly creatures of God or beings created by magically active priests. Regardless, gargoyles have a lot of potential as warriors, spies, and such in cities. In rural areas, they would be likely to favor mountains and cliff areas, as the closest natural equivalents to urban buildings.

The Gargoyles TV show presents them as “handsome grotesques” who turn to stone by day and become living, strong, flying beings by night.

Terry Pratchett introduces gargoyles to Discworld as a variety of troll adapted to urban environments. They are exceedingly patient and observant. They love cities and high places, where they are often paid in pigeons for information. Eventually a few gargoyles become official members of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, as ultimately happens with every species Pratchett introduced to the world.

In the Craft Sequence (a secondary world, post-industrial fantasy), Max Gladstone treats gargoyles as the creations of a, now believed, dead goddess. They were her elite servants, guardians, and warriors who protected her city (and eventually her remains). They appear human, but take a gargoyle form to fly, fight (stronger, claws), and meld with the city itself. They are fiercely devoted to the “deceased” goddess Seril and her surviving remnants. They are also feared by the city’s populace and hunted by its hive mind police force.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 3)

Vampires

What hasn’t been done with vampires?

Good question. They are perhaps the most widespread and varied species in urban fantasy aside from werebeasts, and to a lesser degree fantasy. In fact, it seems that we can’t go into the urban fantasy genre without tripping over vampires—Ilona Andrews, J.K. Rowling, Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Allyson James, Michael Scott, Anne Rice . . . the list goes on.

One of the advantages to the inclusion of vampires is that there are a lot of traditions around the world to play with. Some have even toyed with multiple kinds interacting in their worlds. Looking at global traditions, vampires can be living or undead, born or made, blood-feeders or emotion drainers. They appear as mindless beasts and sentient beings. They serve roles as antagonists, killers, violent destroyers, and interesting protagonists. They are used to explore the effects of eternal life, the morality of feeding on other animals, humanity’s place in the food chain, and the treatment of food species. Because of their wide usage, they have become somewhat clichéd now, perhaps, but it seems that they have more or less run their course as a popular trend.

In folklore, vampires appear around the world. There are too many varieties to fully discuss, but they vary from undead to living blood drinkers to emotion drainers to sex feeders. Some are corporeal, others are spirits. Most are nocturnal, but some are not. A few Balkan cultures claim that vampires come from dead werewolves (and vice versa). Other cultures in the area say they are hunted by werewolves. Beheading and fire are common methods leading to their demise. Stakes, garlic, holy items, and a host of other means of harming them vary by time period and culture. The idea of vampires dying in sunlight also varies widely, but none sparkle.

Tolkien briefly mentions vampires in the Silmarillion, describing them as spirits capable of taking a bat form. They are tied to Melkor and Sauron, but little is said about them.

Perhaps the most iconic vampire in Western culture is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Interestingly, although he is claimed as the source of many vampire traditions, most of those ascribed to him are not in fact in the book. For example, Stoker’s Dracula can go about in the daytime, in full sunlight, without being destroyed, although he does lose access to his paranormal powers.

Charlaine Harris employs some common types with her undead vampires (Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series). The look like pale humans, unless they fed recently. They are incredibly fast, strong, and tough. The have a fairly strict hierarchy, and are immortal. They are also vulnerable to sunlight and silver.

Ilona Andrews’s vampires, on the other hand, are mindless undead driven by an instinct to feed and destroy. This is their natural state, unless they are piloted by necromancers (The People). Then they mimic the pilot’s voice and expressions.

Michael Scott (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) presents his vampires as living, immortal beings. They are Elders, the original residents of Atlantis. Most of the ones presented in the book come from the post-Atlantis Next Generation. They feed on emotions, effectively draining their source of one emotion for a time, auras, or memories. Only a few do so via drinking blood (Dearg Due), and those are ostracized by the other vampiric clans.

Werebeasts

For the sake of argument, and this piece, werebeasts will be defined as beings capable of changing between human and animal shapes—possibly, but not necessarily, including a hybrid. There are several other possibilities, with roughly 10,000 years of folklore to work with, but limiting to the above will help here.

Even with that limit, werebeasts provide a full gamut of options. Even so, there will be “purists” who claim tradition, but most “traditions” referenced by modern individuals come out of 19th century literature and early-20th century film. Such traditions include silver vulnerability, moon based transformation, bite transmission of lycanthropy. These are not exactly traditional in the bigger picture of history, so there is a lot of “do as you please” with the species.

In stories, the werebeast often represents the border between the wild and the civilized, man and beast. They often serve to show how fragile the boundaries are, to reinforce and police social codes/morality, and to give protagonists monstrous enemies or cuddly friends. Often they are employed—such as Rowling’s Lupin—to question social structures.

Folklore around the world is exceptionally varied when it comes to werebeasts. However, they are almost always a predator or domestic species, usually mammals. Occasionally an arachnid or reptilian appears. Most modern “traditions” don’t appear in the folklore. Transformations can be forced or unforced, clothing usually does not change with the werebeast, and they generally have no special recuperative powers (ex. regeneration). Most have two shapes—human and animal. Those in the folklore can be real change or psychic projections. They are a mix of good, sympathetic beings or evil man-eaters, depending on the era and story.

As one might expect, Tolkien briefly includes werewolves, as evil spirits inhabiting wolf bodies. Little is said about them, but they are associated with Melkor and Sauron in the Silmarillion.

Jack Williamson (Darker Than You Think) introduces his psychic werewolves, who are projections of the spirit in a non-corporeal form. These entities are able to manipulate chance and are vulnerable to both silver and fire.

Rowling’s werewolves use multiple traditions, both modern and old. Ignoring the movies and only focusing on the books, her werewolves have human and wolf shapes. They can transmit their condition via bite (a post-germ theory element) and only change at the full moon. Unless they are under the influence of the wolfsbane potion, they are maniacal beasts in wolf shape.

Charlaine Harris’s werebeasts change shape at will and take multiple bites to infect a person. Most are born. The born werebeasts have only human and animal shapes, but bitten weres have human and hybrid only. The books show wolves, tigers, and panthers, with the potential for others to exist.

Ilona Andrews’s werebeasts have three forms with no forced transformation. They are highly regenerative, but can go feral if too badly injured, and silver negates their regeneration. Her werebeasts represent many mammal species including wolves, bears, bison, rats, honey badgers, hyenas, and tigers.

Michael Scott shows multiple species of werebeasts including wolves and boars. They all appear to have been created by Hecate and all have Gaelic species/clan names.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 2)

Dwarves

Dwarves appear in a number of forms in myth, legend, and fiction. However, there is little true variation between their appearances in fiction. Most modern depictions are heavily influenced by Tolkien—stout, strong, sturdy, immune to cold and fire, stubborn, persistent, brave, proud miners, metalworkers, and stone carvers. Many even hate or distrust elves, though Tolkien’s originally befriended elves, until the War of the Jewels.

Because of Tolkien’s influence, most modern dwarves have their roots in the Norse svartalfar. These beings were skilled artificers who rarely interacted with mortals and dealt almost exclusively with the gods. Perhaps one reason is that they turn to stone in sunlight. There are few, if any, real descriptions, but greed and miserliness seem common in the myths. Most accounts that describe them talk of bearded old men, but the Poetic Edda mentions women (the only source that does). The svartalfar created most of the notable artifacts of the Norse gods.

The Tolkien-style dwarf is common throughout the fantasy genre, though rarely as a focal character. There are some exceptions, notably some of the TSR/WotC novels and Markus Heitz’s The Dwarves. They are virtually unheard of in urban fantasy. Ilona Andrews briefly mentions some in the Kate Daniels series. A few are met, and one mentors the protagonist, in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. And one appears in Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, as a thief who is able to eat his way through dirt. This could be very interesting ground for some variations and adaptations.

Steven Brust creates the Serioli, who create Morganti weapons, as an insular and unknown culture and society. They live alone in the mountains and don’t interact with outsiders except to trade for their magical weapons.

RPGs introduced distinct varieties from mountain to hill, deep to grey, and even the infamous gully dwarves. They also introduce the idea of dwarves being non-magical. Warhammer and many video games give dwarves gunpowder, often. Still RPGs and video games limit dwarves to mountain dwelling of hills (surface or under) with little, if any, variation. This lack of variation can, perhaps, be laid at the feet of the FRPG introduction of gnomes as magic wielding cousins to dwarves.

Elves & Fae

Despite their reputation for being clichéd, there are actually a fairly wide variety of depictions of elves, and fae, out there. While most takes show elves as beings of good, there are several examples of spins that display them as evil, racist, capricious, cruel, manipulative, and vindictive. Some of these also focus on an elven/fae boredom and interest in games (ex. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Holly Black’s Tithe trilogy).

One of the primary sources of fantasy elves is the alfar of the Norse. These residents of Alfheim are governed by the Vanir, in some myths. They are beautiful, ambivalent toward mortals, and often worshipped as gods themselves. Some tales, later ones, suggest that they were vulnerable to Christian artifacts.

The other major source is the Celtic Sidhe. These fairies and spirits dwelled in barrow in Gaelic mythology. They possessed various powers, most oriented on combat effectiveness or nature/beasts. Some tales depict them as personifications of the Irish gods.

Tolkien’s version has influenced modern interpretations most heavily. His elves were the same size as Men, but stronger and immortal/unaging. They were the lords of natural spaces and possessed great power, though Tolkien did not explicitly state what they were capable of (just that the average Nazgul feared the power of Elflords). They appear to lack the need for sleep and are depicted as a purely good species.

This led to the “traditional” fantasy depiction. Many fantasy elves are woodland residents, just under human to human height. They are strong, slender, and agile beings with a strong affinity for magic. Unlike humans and other species, they tend to favor bows and speedy weapons rather than brute force. They typically display a distaste or hatred for dwarves and orcs, while being friendly or at least neutral to humans. They are often depicted as being condescending toward “lesser” races, but are good in nature.

One semi-deviation from the “norm” is Steven Brust’s Dragaerans. Dragaerans name themselves “human” but the Easterners (humans) often refer to them as elves. They are tall, strong, muscular beings able to access powerful magic via the Orb. Virtually all are racist toward Easterners. They are also related to some degree to the various beasts of the world (those of the Great Houses, at least). Most are urban dwellers, except the Teckla.

J.K. Rowling’s House Elves are both a deviation from the “norm” and a hearkening to the old folklore. As little folk who are bound to service to wizards, these spindly elves evoke the brownies and domovoi of European folklore. They, like their taller, noble cousins possess powerful magic, but they are subservient and limited in when they can use their powers.

Giants

Giants are, as their name suggests, tall humanoids that appear throughout myth, folklore, and the fantasy/urban fantasy genres. They often show up as mere muscle or a threat to the characters. Usually, they are uncivilized and sometimes man-eaters (folklore). That said, they have been incorporated into urban fantasy (Rowling, Riordan), though part-giants are much easier to conceal for a hidden magic world. Often in fantasy they appear as little more than war machines or wilderness threats.

Perhaps the most well-known mythological giants are the jotun of the Norse. These giants come in a variety of sizes, but all are taller than humans whether slightly so or the size of mountains. There are two major varieties: the fire giants of Muspelheim and the frost giants of Jotunheim. All Norse giants are strong, tough, and enemies of the Aesir. Some are excellent illusionists and shapeshifters, including Loki.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the last Welsh giant was Gogmagog. This creature was defeated by a companion of Brutus of Troy in Albion, causing the land to be named Cornwall in his honor.

Among the Greeks, giants were children of Gaia (Hesiod) and enemies of the Olympian gods. They are variously shown as humanoid or having snakes for legs. They appear in Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, and Alcman. These giants possessed great size and strength, being the size of mountains, and represented excesses and hubris.

Tolkien briefly discussed giants. His giants are massive beings of stone that throw rocks at each other and wrestle during a storm in the mountains near Rivendell (The Hobbit). There is minimal description, oddly for Tolkien, in this scene.

Rowling’s giants are primitive, massive, violent humanoids. They are capable of mating with humans, rarely. They are tribal in society, favoring strength over intellect. They are also a dying species, reduced to remote mountain lands due to human expansion and resulting habitat loss. They often side with dark wizards in the magical community’s conflicts.

George R.R. Martin presents giants beyond the Wall. These are powerfully strong, huge humanoids who only live in the North. They are presumably a dying species, but readers only see a handful, including Wun Wun. Even so, Martin provides relatively little description of the giants and their society.

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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Magic Items Revisited, Part 2

Durability

A related topic to availability is how long the magic in magic items persists. Generally speaking, the less an item can be used, the easier it is to create tends to make sense. If Great Weapons or Rings were common, everyone would have one and Dragaera and Middle-Earth would be very different places. On the other hand, easy availability of limited use Skele-Gro isn’t so bad. On the whole, there are three broad categories of magic item durability:

One-Shot

These are single use items, such as potions, that expend all their magic in one use. Often such items are consumed when used, or disposed of in some other way (ex. the single use Portkeys used for the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Cheap, single use, disposable items makes for a strong market for creators and sellers, if they are common. If usage is widespread, then people will be looking for replacements frequently.

Limited Use

These items retain their magic for months or years but eventually the magic wears off. This is the magical equivalent of the home appliance or car and shares a similar place in a magical economy. They are items that might be moderately expensive initially, but can be used for a significant amount of time. Most of the items in Rowling’s world and Pratchett’s Discworld fall into this category.

Permanent

These devices never lose their magic regardless of how old they are or how often they are used. Obviously, this would not be a good level to build an economy around, as they’d be bad for business. Once they’re sold, there’s no more income to be made off them. But, this level is excellent for rare and exceptionally powerful items such as Excalibur, Glamdring, Spellbreaker, and the One Ring.

In short, how long magic items will continue to work has a profound effect on society and its relation to such devices both economically and socially.

Production

How magical devices are made, and how quickly they can be produced, also has a notable effect on the world. Unique items that take considerable time to make won’t be widespread. Mass produced items can be produced quickly and will be found everywhere, usually.

Examples:

Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood is home to many, mostly unique, items created by the Hephaestus kids or the gods (and their cyclops minions).

J.K. Rowling’s Magical England has items that are presumably both easy to make and mass produced (those sold in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes) alongside handcrafted, labor intensive items (wands & brooms) and unique, powerful object (horcruxes & the Potter family invisibility cloak).

Pratchett’s Discworld also includes both mass produced objects (iconographs, disorganizers) and unique items of great power (Hex).

Unique items that are slow to make become the goals of quests and carry great value. This is true even if their powers are weak—ex. the Staff of Magius in Dragonlance’s Krynn is a rather weak item, but its history and reputation make it desirable. On the other end, mass produced items become common household items that everyone in the setting is likely to have access to—ex. Floo Powder in Rowling.

There is a lot of room in between the ends of the spectrum. If the creator desires a world with widespread items and an item making industry, then mass produced and fast are effectively necessities. A full scale industry cannot be built and produce widespread devices if it takes a month to create one saleable item—they can create a specialty industry catering to select clients, though.

The choice really depends on the desired level of magic use in the setting. The above categories can be used as a way to limit the effects of magic on societies—either the magic system is limited in, or unable to, creation of items or national laws restrict creation (ex. mages need licensing to make items and/or must only do so in certain places to avoid blowing up the neighbors).