Posts tagged ‘dragons’

Monday Masterclass: Non-human Races in Fantasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).

Definition

The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.

In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.

However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.

Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.

Common Races

Humans
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.

Elves
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.

Dwarves
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.

Hobbits/Halflings
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.

Orcs
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.

Goblins
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.

Giants
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.

Trolls
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.

Dragons
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.

Works with Non-human Races

The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.

Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.

Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.

The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.

The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.

The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.

The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.

Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.

Orc Analogues

Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).

Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.

While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.

Conclusion

When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.

These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.

And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.

What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?

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Monday Masterclass: Dragons

Dragons have come to be one of the most enduring and evocative tropes of fantasy fiction. In this post I will take a look at the history of the dragon and give some examples of how it’s been used in fantasy literature.

Definition and Etymology

Dragons are generally accepted to be large reptilian creatures, usually with four legs – although some may have none, two or more than four legs – wings (in European tradition) or no wings (in Asian tradition), long tails and necks. They are often portrayed as fire-breathing, but this is not a vital dragon characteristic. European dragons are usually represented as malign and destructive, while Asian ones are wise and benevolent.

Dragons may be thought of as either the classic western or eastern dragons from mythology, but the term can be used more broadly for creatures such as wyverns, worms (great legless, wingless serpents), hydras, leviathans, krakens and so on. In biology, the Komodo dragon, an Indonesian monitor lizard, is the largest lizard in the world and has a fearsome, toxic bite; Draco is the genus name of the flying lizard.

The origins of the dragon myth may be in creatures like the Komodo dragon. The spitting cobra has been cited as a possible inspiration. Another theory is that early discoveries of dinosaur fossils led people to believe in monstrous creatures and to create stories about them.

The English word ‘dragon’ comes, ultimately from the Greek drákōn, ‘dragon, large serpent, water snake’, which in turn is likely to derive from drakeîn, meaning ‘to see clearly’.

Dragons in Mythology

The earliest dragon story may be that of the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow Serpent, which may go as far back as 10,000 BCE. This creature lives in waterholes and controls the water. It can be seen as benevolent, unpredictable, or malevolent, and is intimately tied up in the environment, causing monsoons, droughts and volcanic eruptions.

Dragons of various sorts abound in Greek mythology, although in ancient Greece and in the West up until the 18th century, the word dragon was a synonym for serpent. The Colchian dragon guarded the Golden Fleece from Jason; the Hesperian dragon had a hundred heads and was defeated by Heracles, as was the Hydra, a nine-headed water dragon; the Ethiopian Cetus, or sea-dragon, was the beast slain by Perseus and from which he saved Andromeda; a chimera was a fire-breathing, three-headed, lion-goat hybrid with a serpent’s tail; a dracaena or she-dragon was a creature with the upper body of a beautiful nymph and the lower body of a serpent, the most famous example of which being the Scylla. In addition, the Greeks believed that distant lands such as Africa and India were inhabited by dragons, the African ones being thought to prey on elephants.

The tale of Perseus and Andromeda and the fire-breathing aspects of the chimera were the origins of the most famous dragon story: St George and the dragon. George was a Palestinian soldier who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries CE. It was during the crusades of the Middle Ages, though, that the story of him fighting a dragon evolved. One version of the legend is that near a Libyan city called Silene, a dragon lived in a pond. In order to appease the dragon, the people gave it two sheep every day, and when there weren’t enough sheep, they would have a lottery to choose a child to give the dragon instead. One day, the king’s daughter, Sabra, lost the lottery. On this day, Saint George happened by the lake and charged the dragon with his lance, seriously injuring it; he then used Sabra’s girdle to leash the dragon, whereupon it became tame. He took the princess and dragon back to Silene, where thousands converted to Christianity in exchange for George killing the dragon with his sword, Ascalon.

In counterpoint to their voracious, malignant occidental relatives, Chinese or eastern dragons are traditionally portrayed as wise and benevolent. They are also a little different in form, being longer, more serpentine, and lacking wings (although this doesn’t mean they can’t fly); they are often depicted with a pearl, which may represent the sun or the moon. The number nine is important to Chinese dragons: they have a number of scales that is a multiple of nine and the are said to have the characteristics of nine different animals: a camel’s head, a deer’s horns, a hare’s eyes, a bull’s ears, an iguana’s neck, a frog’s belly, a carp’s scales, a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.

In China, a five-toed dragon was a symbol of the emperor, while three- and four-dragons were for the commoners; Korean dragons have four claws, while Japanese have three. One story tells of the four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon, each of which lived in one of the four seas, defied the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, by bringing water from the seas to a drought-parched land. When the Jade Emperor discovered this, he had the dragons imprisoned in four mountains, from which the dragons escaped by transforming themselves into rivers; hence, the Long River (aka Yangtze, the world’s third longest), the Yellow River, the Black River and the Pearl River.

India has the nāga, a type of cobra deity. England has the Lambton Worm. Wales has Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon. Scandinavia has the greedy dwarf Fáfnir who turns into a dragon to guard his treasure – a major inspiration for Tolkien. Judaism has the Leviathan in the story of Job. Central/South America has the Quetzalcoatl. Egypt has Apep, the serpent that tried to swallow Ra’s solar barque every day. To go into the many dragon and dragon-like myths from around the world would be far beyond the scope of this essay, but there are some links below for interested readers.

It’s interesting to note that, while most people would probably associate dragons with the element of fire, in European tradition they are actually connected to earth by virtue of often living in underground lairs or caves; eastern dragons, are associated with water, living in seas and rivers and controlling the weather.

There is a common belief that medieval maps were annotated on their peripheries with ‘here be dragons’, representing unknown regions. However, this only appears on one historical map, the Hunt-Lenox Globe of the early 16th century, which has the Latin ‘HC SVNT DRACONES‘ (‘hic sunt dracones‘) on the east coast of Asia. Many maps were, though, decorated with sea monsters.

Dragons in Fantasy Literature

In addition to retellings of myths such as that of Saint George and the Dragon, dragons and similar beasts have cropped up in fantasy works for hundreds of years. There are dragons in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Geothe’s Doctor Faustus, as well as in fairy tales by d’Aulnoy and the Brothers Grimm, and Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’. The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a story (‘Dragon: the Old Potter’s Tale’, 1919) in which a monk sets up a practical joke, advertising the coming ascension of a dragon into heaven; the joke then appears to come true.

One of the earliest original dragon stories of modern times is Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 children’s story ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘; possibly the first story in European tradition to portray the dragon as a sympathetic character. Other children’s authors wrote about dragons, including E Nesbit (‘The Last of the Dragons’ is about a dragon that drinks petrol and is transformed into an aeroplane) and C S Lewis (in The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Then, of course, we come to J R R Tolkien and Smaug in The Hobbit, and Glaurung, Ancalagon and Scatha in the earlier history of Middle Earth. As noted above, Tolkien’s dragons are firmly in the European tradition, specifically inspired by Norse mythology. Smaug’s avarice resemble’s Fáfnir’s; Glaurung’s death, mortally wounded from below by Túrin as he hid in a river gorge, is also based on Fáfnir – Sigurd dug a pit to hide in and from which to strike the dragon from below.

Dating from the 1960s – about the time of the great surge of interest in The Lord of the Rings – Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea stories feature dragons that have both positive and negative qualities; rather than being malign, they are powerful creatures that are simply ambivalent towards humans. In Gordon R Dickson’s Dragon Knight series (from 1976 to 2001), the main character is translated into a fantasy and into the body of a dragon called Gorbash; the dragons of this world call humans ‘georges’ because of their experience with Saint George.

Since the 60s and 70s with the great rise in popularity of fantasy, there have been scores of novels involving dragons. Robin Hobb’s books have dragons that start out as sea serpents that cocoon themselves on land to hatch out as dragons; after dragons died out, humans carved statues of them out of living stone. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Swamp Dragons are the size of dogs and are bred like dogs or horses, although they tend to spontaneously explode. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the hero is known as the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of an ancient hero called the Dragon; apart from the oriental-style representation on the Dragon Banner, there are no actual dragons in the books. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind has a herbivorous dragon that is addicted to narcotic trees.

Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weisman’s Dragonlance universe contains evil chromatic dragons and good metallic dragons, as well as Draconians, reptilian humanoids created by corrupting a dragon’s egg. The details of the Dragonlance setting are closely linked to the various Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games, in which there is a huge range of dragon types, each with specific qualities and abilities. Gem dragons, for instance, are neutral in alignment and include amethyst, crystal, emerald, sapphire and topaz dragons, whose breath weapons are, respectively, force, blinding light, wind, ‘panicking sound’ and dehydration.

Dragons, while being essentially magical creatures, have also become a mainstay of science fiction. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, films like Reign of Fire and arguably anything with dinosaurs in it, Animal Planet’s fascinating fictional documentary The Last Dragon, are examples of dragons in sf.

Conclusion

From myths and fairy tales, to novels, movies and games, to toys and tattoos, dragons are one of the human race’s most pervasive and powerful images. They are a personification of the danger and majesty of nature. They are dangerous and beguiling; they make terrifying antagonists or thrilling vehicles for sheer escapism. Although their depiction in many fantasy settings may go little beyond the usual clichés, in the hands of imaginative of skilful and imaginative storytellers they are portrayed with authenticity and are constantly being reframed and reinvented.

Dragons are a key trope upon which fantasy writers can call, but the aspiring teller of a dragon tale should take care to consider all the possible ways of showing dragons. Good or evil – or neutral? Sentient and wise or bestial and naturalistic? Eastern-style or western-style? Lizard-like, worm-like, dinosaur-like? Even bird-like, or mammal-like, or something completely different? Magical or explicable by the laws of science? Rare or widespread? Misunderstood or exactly as they seem? And what about the ecosystem into which they fit? How much food does a dragon need to survive? How does it get it? What dangers do dragons face? What is their life cycle? Do they form monogamous pairs or do they have alpha males and harems? Do they live in groups? How do they interact with each other? Can they crossbreed with other races? Can their body parts be used for magic? How do they affect human economies?

What are your thoughts on dragons in fantasy? What are your favourite dragon stories? What are the most interesting interpretations of dragons you’ve read or seen? All comments welcome.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Dragon Stone, Draconian.com, Theoi Greek Mythology, Crystal Links.