Author Topic: Thinking Chimerically  (Read 7481 times)

Jubal

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Thinking Chimerically
« on: March 18, 2023, 01:07:36 PM »
Thinking Chimerically
By Jubal




The Chimera of Arezzo, an ancient art piece. By Saiko, via Wikimedia Commons.
What makes a chimera a chimera? Whilst of course there’s the ‘original model’ with its goat, dragon, and lion heads and snake tail, the term has a more general usage for animals made of bits of other animals. These include the gryphon, the hippocampus, the hippogriff, the owlbear (in its post-Gygaxian/modern incarnations), the wolpertinger, the jackalope, a lot of grotesques in medieval margin images, and so on. We’ve even had the spectacle of a real creature being declared chimerical: the first Europeans to see platypuses assumed they were sewn together fakes, and indeed some aboriginal tales posit them as the offspring of a duck and a rakali, giving them a chimerical ancestry.

We keep coming up with and using chimeras. The gryphon may be ancient, after all, but the owlbear is only about half a century old. The inherent way that animal parts can be recombined is something we will doubtless keep playing with – but what works, and how we can put together a chimera, isn’t something entirely without logic or rules. Those rules depend on what we’re trying to achieve with our chimerical being, and how we feel and think about the particular animals and animal parts being used. For the time being, we’ll start with a basic definition of a chimera as having the characteristics that it has parts that are recognisably from multiple animals, and that it also bears some attribute or connection to those animals.

Within that, I think there are two main purposes of a chimera: a chimera as confusion and a chimera as magnification of the animal’s attributes. The chimera as confusion is exemplified by the original chimera. The purpose of the chimera is that it is wrong: it is unnatural and strange that these familiar images have been reassembled into something unfamiliar. Medieval grotesques also fall into this category, with human faces and dragon’s tails and legs poking out of all sorts of places that, well, they just shouldn’t be.

However, here’s where things can fast get out of control, because creating something that just looks wrong is actually kind of easy: if we create a creature with sixteen limbs alternating octopus tentacles and spider legs, give it an array of eight eyes, the beak of a rooster and a big ol’ fish fin, we definitely have something that is weird as hell but not really something that fulfils a chimera’s function. It’s just too weird, and whilst it might be horrifying, that’s because of the inherent horrors of what we’ve created more than because the bits don’t belong together. Another way of putting this is that a messy chimera can easily just become an alien, where the whole thing is weird rather than having the specific wrongness of relatively familiar elements mismatched together. Insectoid and invertebrate elements transposed into vertebrates, too, are such a staple of horror as a genre that it’s (in my view probably unfortunately) relatively difficult to use them in a chimera-like situation.

So we get the twist in the chimera’s tale: it relies on a weirdness that needs a certain level of familiarity to make it work. The specific horror or discomfort of the chimera is that it takes elements we know and understand, and put them in a combination or situation that breaks that image. In this sense, the especially incongruous goat head might be the most important part of a classical chimera. It’s the familiarity of that image – or that of the human parts in medieval human-dragon grotesques – that combined with the multi-part nature of the creature creates the effect. Especially aspects like its multiplicity of heads manage to provide a clear mix-and-match nature and a clear wrongness while maintaining the clarity of which parts come from where rather than making a simply alien being.





They greymarne - very much not the gryphon you know and love. Author's own work.
There’s another way to use chimerical creatures, though. Rather than focusing on the mismatched elements of them, we can equally use animal parts about which we have similar feelings and emotions to create symbols that exemplify both things. The gryphon is a great classical example of this – we have similar feelings about eagles and lions, both proud. I think that’s how the owlbear – originally an explanation for a weird plastic toy with a long beak and a tail someone found in a shop in the 70s – developed so neatly into the owl plus bear combination that we more commonly see today. Both owls and bears have associations of night, danger, sleeping, predation, but we also have rather warm feelings towards both creatures.

To give a good example of just how much this works on feelings, I want to share with you a creature I’ve used in the past, the greymarne, a corruption of Griffinus Marinus (in much the same way that a vormorant is a shortening of Corvus marinus, the sea-crow, this is a sea-gryphon). There is very little mechanical difference between a greymarne and a gryphon – both have bird head, animal body, fly, and so on. But the greymarne has the head of a gull, and that changes everything. The gryphon is a noble steed and soars the peaks: the greymarne squawks in your face and tries to dive-bomb you. The gryphon chases wild ibex in the hills or attacks mighty elephants, while the Greymarne is out to get your lunch and will probably snack on a dead fox if one washes up in its vicinity. Because our feelings about the input animals are so different, two mechanically similar creatures come with wildly different expectation games.

Again, we have an interesting problem that parallels the one we had with our confusions, which is that some combinations that work well don’t function properly as this sort of chimera, either because the respective parts don’t resonate or because, to take a cooking analogy, the combination overpowers the original flavours. Enter Quetzalcoatl, stage left. The winged serpent is a fantastic image and, nominally, chimerical, including bird and serpent parts. But because most people around the world nowadays do not have terribly strong feelings about quetzals, they become a sort of adornment to the core serpent image rather than something we might think of more properly as a chimera. Generally a lot of bird + lizard combinations end up with some issues like this, giving a more dinosaur or lizardman feel than something we perceive as chimerical, perhaps due to our lower familiarity and empathy with a lot of non-mammalian creatures.





So we can move from these thoughts to a couple of core guidelines about using chimeras and, perhaps, creating new ones. There are two major ways to create a chimerical creature, either by trying to create something where the combination of parts turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, or by creating a creature where shared ideas and familiar attributes give a reinforcement to both sets of characteristics. In both of these cases, it tends to make sense to have at least one part of the animal be something that is comparatively familiar and about which the audience already has some fairly heavily embedded ideas. Mammals tend to work especially well for these purposes, because we’re more familiar with them and tend to feel less like they’re alien to us.

To give a couple of examples to end with: let’s first make a wrong chimera. We’ll start with something cute and familiar: a small cat, for example. We then need to focus on giving it some things that are incongruous, but also familiar themselves. A good idea for a secondary head might be that of a rat – we get the incongruity of “hey that has a second head” but we also play with the idea that this creature both represents predator and prey, perhaps even with the ‘prey’ side being the more malevolent one. Add some webbed back feet, like you might find on a duck, and we have a creature of damp ditches or sewers from a fantasy city, gnawing on foul meat and frightening the regular stray cats and dogs with its terrifying multi-headed shadow – and yet at the same time, it’s all almost something you could imagine taking in, giving a bath, and letting settle down for a nap by the fire.

To make a type two chimera, we need two animals that we have similar feelings about, unlike our cat, duck, and rat. Let’s once again start with a mammal, this time a badger. We think of badgers – probably not wholly correctly – as grumpy but loveable, stoic and somehow defensive, tenacious creatures. What else do we give those attributes to? Well, a tortoise or a turtle. We’ll go with a more aquatic style of turtle to emphasise the difference: shell and back legs of a turtle, front legs and snout of a badger. The resulting Bortle (or Machvaku, or Tadger, or Bouldersbane, to come up with some names) is a creature of wild waterways, defending burrows it digs into the riverbanks. Slower moving than a badger on land, it moves more quickly by water, and its powerful bite and sharp claws give it a reasonable means of defence. It could easily be given some magical attributes to set it apart too, perhaps its shell having particular properties or it having some ability to sniff out particular other creatures or items that a story character might need.





So there you have it, some chimerical thinking and a couple of examples of how to apply it in your fantasy setting design and games. What did you think? Let us know below!


The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

indiekid

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Re: Thinking Chimerically
« Reply #1 on: March 23, 2023, 01:37:45 PM »
I feel like there's a game in here somewhere, something like Great Scott where you combine features of an invention and persuade people why it's effective. Or there's this https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://m.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DG_qjgr-JM9U&ved=2ahUKEwjcieXElPL9AhVcPEQIHSN2B-QQtwJ6BAgOEAI&usg=AOvVaw3Bi7DeH1P55KpMODTj2fNu

Jubal

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Re: Thinking Chimerically
« Reply #2 on: March 23, 2023, 11:10:29 PM »
That game trailer is spectacular, I've steam wishlisted it so I can check it out sometime - I've never come across that game before!

And yes, actually gamifying coming up with chimeras must have been done a fair few times, but if you could find a way of encoding the associations we have for particular animals that could be an interesting take.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

indiekid

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Re: Thinking Chimerically
« Reply #3 on: March 26, 2023, 04:27:54 PM »
The reviews seem quite positive, though the goofy plot looks unnecessary to me!