Announcements => Exilian Articles => Topic started by: Jubal on February 23, 2018, 11:57:15 PM

Title: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Jubal on February 23, 2018, 11:57:15 PM
An Unexpected Bestiary
By Jubal

Animals, and our relationship with them, are always an intrinsic element of fiction or game design. We do sometimes, however, naturally tend to stick to what we know. In SFF, hippogriffs are probably more common than, say, armadilloes, partly because hippogriffs are really cool but also because we don't have concepts for what other real species are and how to fit them into a creative archetype. I'm going to do a bit of work to rectify that here, with this unexpected bestiary - behold, seven interesting animals and how you might use them in writing and design!


Let's talk about capybaras. They're often seen as a bit of a joke animal, if they ever come up in popular culture - they're basically giant guinea-pigs, some people might say, and those people would be more or less right. But it's worth thinking about them beyond that - not least in that they're really pretty sizeable. They're a good four feet long, live in herds, are at home on land or in water, and are pretty hefty - a large, barrel-chested capybara could easily weigh more than a smallish human. To my mind, they represent a whole array of interest in terms of being an alternate large land animal to the usual run of pigs, sheep, horses, etc.

Most of the interesting literary uses for the capybara I think involve swapping them (potentially further up-sized) into roles more commonly done by other creatures in human society. That could simply be as a farmed herd animal, but it could certainly also be as a cart-pulling creature or even a mount. I can somehow see dwarfs riding capybaras - their somewhat stoic outlooks upon life would seem to coincide nicely. I can definitely see the idea of capybaras, which are very heavily built, as working animals though, and they'd definitely present an interesting and clear "we're doing something different here" when it's a bunch of cross-looking giant rodents rather than carthorses lugging the folded-up trebuchet toward the enemy castle.


Not many species have taken on a modern human army and fairly clearly won. Emus are on that list. Whilst the Emu War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emu_War) has been covered better than I can here, I think emus are really worth looking at and thinking about from a writing perspective. For one thing, they're simply impressive and somewhat dangerous animals - they've got a hell of a kick, with sharp talons, they're fairly intelligent for birds, and can be over 6 feet tall. In a pre-modern society where people were shorter on average, that's a pretty intimidating creature to say the least, especially in large numbers.

Emus, and flightless birds generally, are sometimes re-envisioned as mounts in modern fiction (hence the chocobo), but I think there might be more interesting uses for them that double down on their independence, intelligence and/or dangerous nature. If you're a GM seeking an early-game quest for your adventuring party, trying to nest-hunt from some emus (and given that emus have huge, beautiful green eggs, one can imagine why you would) is the sort of thing that players may find sounds a good deal until they have a flock of birds half a foot taller than they are scratching into their faces. You could even go the whole hog and really make them properly semi-intelligent, perhaps set as guardians of some sort - there's a certain majesty to a bird that size that would allow for some nice intimidation tactics if a line of them suddenly appeared working in obvious formation to ward your characters/players away from an abandoned temple or stone circle or sacred rock or whatever.


Markhors are basically what happens when you try to imagine the final Pokemon evolution of a goat. They're the national animal of Pakistan, and are mostly found in mountainous regions of central Asia. They're fairly imaginative in what they consider food - they are goats after all - but tend to graze from trees, bushes or ground-plants in the mountains. In the colonial era they were highly prized as animals to shoot, for obvious reasons considering the resulting trophy (and also thanks to their highly alert nature and mountainous homes, which meant they provided a genuine challenge). The name literally means "snake-eater", perhaps from an apocryphal explanation of how they got their giant curling horns - and yes, this makes them even cooler than they look to start with.

I think there are tons of ways you can and should use the markhor in writing and fantasy settings. They are absolutely freaking majestic, for starters, and as a mount they could work nicely for many character types - the noble wilderness leader riding up on his horse is one thing, but it adds a certain amount of punch to have him riding up on a beast that looks like it was invented for the cover of a metal album. There's a myth that markhor spit is good for treating snakebite, which could also easily be woven into a tale somehow. All in all, they're just an animal that is somehow powerful and evocative simply from its looks, and that shouldn't be passed up so much by writers.


Marbled Polecat

The Marbled Polecat is a small ferret-like creature native to the near east. As you can probably see from the picture, it's extremely distinctive, with a dappled golden back and a clearly defined set of black and white facial markings. They dig burrows and live in semi-arid areas where they eat mice, ground squirrels, and other such small mammals; they're fairly solitary creatures, and are more fierce than their size would necessarily suggest was wise, both to one another and to anything threatening them.

I can discuss this one in writing terms quite easily, since I have written about a marbled polecat! In my case, I created a fictional one as a wizard's familiar in the children's book I'm slowly writing, which I think is an excellent use for them in literary terms. They have a certain amount of interest beyond that of a normal polecat (and polecats are inherently at the interesting end of pets/familiars). Using a marbled polecat in this way does, I think, add a certain spark to a character - in my character's case, he's a fairly genteel sort of magician whose ownership of Fessyah the marbled polecat (or arguably her ownership of him) helps hint that there's a lot more to him than meets the eye. I just think these are such visually charming animals that they're very good for stealing the scene, wherever and whenever they turn up.


The Olm, or Proteus, is the weirder and less endearing looking cousin of the axolotl. I think that's why I like them so much - they're a classic look at what happens when evolution stays in a cave for far too long, with the lack of eyes, extreme paleness, and so on. Like many cave creatures, they look fundamentally alien to us, with adaptations for a lifestyle and setting that's very different to anything we can usually imagine. The clincher for the Olm, though, is that it has all that whilst actually also being a vertebrate with four legs and so on - many deep cave creatures are fish or invertebrates, and they look odd but they're still definitely fish, etc. For the Olm, it looks close enough to our body plan for us to read it as if anything more alien.

The number of things you could do with these in writing terms is vast. They're an alien species packed up and ready to go, if you wanted to make big sentient ones. Their strange subterranean existence could also make them sought after - they're on the list of things some arse spellbook writer will somehow make you go and swim in a cave trying to find. Fundamentally, though, I think it's how mysterious they seem that really interests me. I definitely like the idea of them being sapient, and having an agenda - not necessarily in simple terms we can understand, maybe, but with a very different outlook on the universe borne of millions of years of deep cave life.


Thor's Hero Shrew

So, I'm mostly including this because it's called THOR'S HERO SHREW, which is one of the most awesome names for a small mammal in existence. Not only that, but it thoroughly deserves it - hero shrews (there's another species, the armoured hero shrew, too) have exceptionally strong bone structures for their size - an adaptation that may be to help them worm their way into gaps in palm trees to search for grubs, but nobody's entirely sure. One of the results of this is that apocryphally at least they're strong enough that a grown man can stand on one and it can walk away unharmed.

Now, in the real world, "Thor's Hero Shrew" is a modern appellation, but I *really* want to read the story of how Thor ended up adopting a tribe of shrews or possibly somehow granting them their super-ribcages as a result of some unforeseen shenanigans. One could also further the connection in other ways, either by giving more of Thor's attributes to the shrews (can they call the thunder?) or possibly linking them to his other followers (a Viking raiding party arrives in Africa in search of Thor's sacred animal, only to find that they're rather elusive and, in fact, shrews.) Outside that, they're a useful twist on the idea of shrews being little, skittish animals - these little fluffles are very tough customers indeed.



Pheasants are boring, and that's a pity, because they shouldn't be. "Oh, they hunted for pheasants" is often not really seen as much of a big deal in literary terms because nowadays pheasants are common across Europe. This wasn't always the case, though: the very name "pheasant" is derived from "the bird of Phasis" - Phasis is now the port of Poti in Georgia, and was where the ancient Greeks imported pheasant meat from in large quantities as a delicacy. In fantasy terms, it's strange how little characters hunt as a pastime, considering the prevalence of hunting throughout history and folklore, and to have them hunting for anything less than a unicorn is seen as underselling things.

But what if there was a way round this, where one could find a bird with many of the same properties as a pheasant, but with brighter colouration and a cool name your readers are less likely to have heard of? Fortunately, the natural world has you covered - meet the tragopans. Mostly found in eastern Asia, the tragopans are close relatives of pheasants with amazing and striking colouration. Many of the species are now endangered, sadly, but the tragopan could certainly be a route to restore gamebirds to a more used place in fantasy writing.


That's all for this article! Let me know if you liked these and found them interesting, and I might manage some more (potentially even better researched) unexpected bestiary articles in future...!
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Carad├Člis on February 24, 2018, 08:54:34 AM
That was fascinating, definitely had an idea for the markhor while reading, but that will have to wait for a different fantasy setting (as I can't fit it into the current one - it being very camelot/celtic-inspired...)

Looking forward to more of these (I am quite suprised the pangolin hasn't made it on the list, but I'm assuming we have that to still look forward to?)...
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: rbuxton on February 24, 2018, 02:07:01 PM
I love your description of the Markhor! Really interesting animal, I'm surprised those horns aren't better known.
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Phoenixguard09 on February 24, 2018, 03:31:25 PM
Fantastic read.
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Jubal on February 24, 2018, 08:51:46 PM
Well, three different people commenting is about a record, so I guess that means I should write more of these, yes :) I just wrote this one straight into the posting box in about an hour, which is a bit of a pity as I'd like to have done more research on some of the folklore around the different creatures as well. I'm sure I can easily find another seven animals to work with for another one of these though...
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Carad├Člis on February 24, 2018, 09:07:51 PM
*does a celebratory dance* yay, more flufflies!!!
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Phoenixguard09 on March 07, 2018, 01:32:54 AM
Pretty keen for more of these.

I really enjoyed the concept of the article actually, so much so that I've come back to re-read it.
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary
Post by: Pentagathus on March 07, 2018, 09:23:53 AM