Apropos of nothing at all, I went to the library today and got lots of books. Books on Swinburne, including the best biography of him, and books on Shelley, because I like him, and The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, and a book called Feminism and Fantasy in the Golden Age, which for some reason I thought referred to the Golden Age of science fiction but instead is about feminism and fantasy in the Golden Age of Spain.
But I was a Spanish minor, so this is still cool.
…after a while they get tiring.
So here are some species that barely show up in fantasy at all, though they’re as much a part of the mythological heritage as dragons and unicorns.
Usually pictured as a dragon-like creature with two legs and two wings instead of four legs and two wings, with a scorpion-like tail, and incapable of breathing fire. I’ve seen other depictions, though.
Wyverns have a lot of the advantages of dragons- can fly, look menacing, are reptilian, can be intelligent and have magic if you want them to- without the one big disadvantage of dragons as a fantasy creature, which is that it’s hard to do anything new with them. Everyone and their mother keeps writing about dragons, and most twists on the legends are no longer startlingly original. Other times, fantasy authors copy their dragons directly from each other (think all the McCaffrey clones).
Wyverns do not have this problem. The few fantasies I’ve seen them in did almost nothing with them, making them either unintelligent, ravening beasts (Janny Wurts) or the human side of a group of shapeshifters (the Forgotten Realms trilogy about the Wyvernspurs). There’s a lot of ground to explore and do new things with.
Or, the Living Proof That Not All Unicorns Are Nice.
Karkadanns are Arabian unicorns, the most violent beast in the deserts. They will fight anything. One of the more common legends about them was that they would sometimes kill an elephant and walk around with it on their horn, until the weight and the sliding fat from the beast killed them.
They look like oryxes in most descriptions, save for the single, black horn projecting from their foreheads. Their voices ring out over the desert, and the only thing that can soothe them is the call of the ring dove, which they will stand listening to for hours and actually allow to sit on their horns.
I like the idea of a fantasy princess cooing at the nice unicorn, only to have it turn out to be a karkadann and spear her right through the chest.
Enormous shaggy black things the size of ponies, sometimes with black eyes, sometimes with crimson, Black Dogs would appear behind farmers in rural England as they walked home at twilight. Then they’d follow them. As long as the farmers didn’t turn and look at the Black Dogs, they made it unharmed. The Black Dog would just come to the entrance of the house and then vanish. If they glanced around, they died, either then or very shortly thereafter.
That’d be creepy: walking home with soft footfalls padding behind you and hot, stinking breath on your neck.
The red-eared, white hounds of the Wild Hunt, associated with Annwn, Celtic lord of death. There were special nights of the year they were said to hunt, and their Celtic association makes them perhaps a little too foreign to most fantasy settings to be swallowed whole, but they could be tweaked.
There was a wonderful children’s fantasy I read some years ago, whose title I can’t recall now, where the main character was one of the Cwn Annwn transformed into an ordinary dog. It was a wonderful way to bring fantasy into the real world, and change the description just enough that it didn’t rely on an exclusively Celtic mythos.
Other kinds of shapeshifters.
Werewolves are wonderful, but they have the same problem as dragons; many authors are drawing from things other fantasy authors or film-makers have done rather than going back to the original mythology and drawing inspiration from that. Werewolf stories are therefore getting tired.
There are legends of other shapeshifters: werejaguars in South America, weretigers in India, werebears in the north, werefoxes in Japan, and just about every other kind you can name. Usually it’s the largest and most dangerous predator in the area that gets tagged as the animal form of a shapeshifter, but not always; there are stories of witches who transformed into hares, for example, or transformed others into horses.
A few series have involved these shapeshifters, notably Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, but have so far failed to do anything new with them. Wereleopards and werejaguars act pretty much the same as werewolves in Hamilton’s series, even though the differing behaviors of the species would probably affect the shapeshifters somehow.
Researching animal lore, and perhaps religion (jaguars were holy in some religions of South America), would give fantasy authors a broader background. But then, so would going back to the original werewolf legends. Most original werewolves changed into a four-legged form, not two-legged, and people were tried for changing into wolves during the 1400’s-1700’s. Like witchcraft, it was usually thought to come from a deal from the devil, and people “assumed” wolf form by draping themselves in wolf skins, using a complicated mix of herbs that included wolfsbane and belladonna, and chanting.
These were also shapeshifters, but changed by means of a swan or seal skin that they would leave behind on the shore often when they went bathing. There are several stories of enterprising young men who saw a maiden bathing, captured the skin, and forced her to be his bride. In most versions of the story, the women’s children eventually discover the skin, and she flies away or hurries off to the sea, leaving behind her distraught family.
The original form of the fairy tale is somewhat limited, but can be changed. The movie “The Secret of Roan Inish” did an interesting variation of the selkie legend.
(Among other legends about seals were that they were actually drowned sailors or fallen angels, and one folktale I read said that Judas was confined in the form of a seal on an ice floe for eternity).
The firebird resembles the phoenix, but is a definitively female shapeshifter of Russian mythology, a bird of flame who sings lovely songs. The fairy tale has her stealing rare fruit from a tsar’s garden. The tsar’s clever third son sees her and vows to capture her, and goes off to chase her, pursued by his sullen, stupid brothers. The fairy tale’s been retold several times by recent fantasy authors.
The firebird could easily be the center of her own story, though, or tweaked and detached from the Russian context. Phoenixes aren’t overused the way dragons or unicorns are, but they’re getting there. The firebird could make an interesting contrast.
Probably the most mixed beast in mythology. I’ve seen various depictions, but the one I’m most familiar with is a lion-like beast with wings, fiery breath, and three heads: the lion’s head on the front of the body, a goat’s head in the middle of the back, and a serpent’s head either sticking out above the tail or doubling as the tail. There’s an extremely nasty thing to have swooping down on you from above.
Rowling’s depiction of this is probably the most famous one right now, but she didn’t quite follow most of the legends. Basilisks or cockatrices were supposed to be hatched from eggs laid by roosters and hatched beneath a toad or snake. The creature that emerged looked like a rooster, but had a scaly tail, the head of a snake, and the eyes of a toad. Anything it looked at would drop stone dead, and sometimes its breath was said to be poisonous as well.
I really ought to work on that wyvern culture.