Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Creating Imaginary Creatures by Elizabeth Kay

          A fantasy setting is, in many ways, closer to the world as we know it than a science fiction one. It’s more accessible, and consequently more attractive to a child who is still awed by things that are all too familiar to an adult. Fantasy is unlikely to change gravity, or body chemistry, or a breathable atmosphere. Therefore the creatures that populate that particular world would be at home in ours. There are several ways of creating these creatures – either by changing the size or behaviour or appendages of an existing creature, or by making a hybrid of creatures already known. Many mythical beasts are clear mixtures of two or more real animals. The griffin is half eagle and half lion; the minotaur half bull, half man; and the chimera had the body of a goat, the hindquarters of a dragon, and the head of a lion, although descriptions do vary.

     When I needed to invent a really scary animal myself, I fell back on a real life experience. I was camping in a tiny tent in Tsavo East National Park. At two in the morning I was woken by a clattering sound – something was going through the dirty dishes – and, horror of horrors, I needed the loo, which was on the other side of the clearing. An elephant had visited us shortly after we arrived, a troupe of baboons lived in the biggest tree, and a leopard had coughed from the bushes as we’d bedded down for the night. The scavenger could have been practically anything – that most terrifying of things, the unknown. The clattering eventually stopped, and just as I was plucking up courage to unzip the tent, something sniffed – right on the other side of the canvas. If it had been at ankle-height I wouldn’t have been too worried – a rat, or maybe a mongoose. But the sniffing was waist-height and I lay there, absolutely petrified, until dawn. When I finally ventured out of the tent there were the paw-prints of a hyena all round the outside.
     Hyenas were also the bad guys in a play for children called Where the Rainbow Ends, by Mrs. Clifford Mills and John Ramsey, which I remember seeing when I was ten years old. They skulked behind pantomime trees, and scared the living daylights out of me. They are pretty weird creatures anyway – exposed to huge levels of testosterone whilst still in the womb, they are so aggressive that in a litter of two the first born will often attack and kill the second born within minutes. Their jaws are powerful enough to crunch bones – as testified by their excreta, which are white with calcium - and their calls sound uncannily like laughter. They needed very little alteration to turn them into something that fulfilled my every need – a dash of shape-shifting, so that they could disguise themselves as something else, a sprinkling of intelligence so that they could plan their murder and mayhem, a disgusting smell to make them thoroughly unpleasant and a voice with which to properly express their gruesome intentions. In The Divide, our hero, Felix, first encounters them in the forest with his elf-friend Betony.

Felix suddenly had the sensation that something was watching him... Something a bit like a dog, but not quite. Something front-heavy, with ears that looked a little too big for it. Something with spots.
     “So,” said Architrex, emerging from the shadows in his hyena-shape, “this is a human child, is it?”
     “You’re a sinistrom,” said Felix, feeling rather pleased with himself at the snap identification. But when he looked at Betony, she’d gone as white as a sheet and her hands were gripping the rucksack as though she wanted to squeeze the life out of it.
     “Very good, human,” said Architrex.
     Vomidor stepped out of the shadows next to him. “Do you want me to dispose of the tangle-child straightaway?” he asked Architrex.
     “What do you mean?” said Felix.
     “We don’t need Betony,” said Architrex. “We only need you.”
     Betony was standing as still as a stone, her eyes wide with terror. There seemed to be no colour left in her face at all.
     “Well?” asked Vomidor.
     “Might as well,” said Architrex. “But you can take your time about it, if you like. I’m not in any hurry. Oh, and don’t forget to introduce yourself properly.” He lay down on the grass, his paws stretched out in front of him like a sphinx.
     Vomidor grinned and said, “Vomidor, junior sinistrom grade four, seventy-three disembowelments, twelve cut throats and a beheading, at your service.” He went over to a stone, and started to sharpen his claws.
      I would define a fantasy creature as one that has been invented by the author to serve the story he or she is telling. 
     There are some creatures that occur over and over again in different mythologies. Writers are frequently accused of plagiarising from one another, when they are simply going back to the same source material. There are Chinese dragons, Norse dragons, Babylonian, Egyptian, Jewish, Japanese, American… all of them based on a reptilian body-plan, and often huge. Perhaps the anatomists of old would have made good palaeontologists, as it seems likely that the fossilised bones of dinosaurs provided the inspiration.
     Sarah Timmins, on the Australian Museum’s website, states that:

…As early as 265 AD, the people of China were recording the discovery of ‘dragon bones’ - pre-historic remnants of the time when giant reptiles (we now know as dinosaurs) ruled the earth. China has an abundance of rocks of the right type and age to preserve dinosaur bones (Late Triassic to Late Cretaceous sediments). Some of the best of these dinosaur-rich deposits have been exposed and excavated throughout the last 100 years. Chinese dinosaurs are renowned for being spectacular, abundant, diverse and well preserved.

These remains bore no resemblance to the contemporary creatures of the area. It may also be that the bones of mammoths gave rise to the legends of giants.
     We also need to take into account the human predilection for telling stories. In the ancient world – and sometimes even today - there was no quick way of checking the veracity of travellers’ tales, and the urge to embellish and exaggerate to get a more powerful emotional response from the audience runs deep. Rumour, coupled with inaccurate reporting, has played its own part in the creation of fantastic beasts - but there’s often some kernel of truth. Snakes feature heavily – the feathered serpent of the Aztecs, the nagas of India, the Rainbow Serpent of Australia – and snakebite can be deadly. So can spider bites.
      In addition to all this, there are the deformities attributable to medical conditions, such as those exhibited by The Elephant Man, John Merrick; illnesses such as leprosy, which cause serious disfigurement, and bizarre injuries. Add the mutations that crop up from time to time, and atavisms, and you’ve got a wide range of source material. Suetonius says that Caesar used to ride a remarkable horse, which had feet that were almost human, the hoofs being cleft like toes. Horses have, in fact, never lost the genetic code for producing side toes. The evolution of the horse is one of the most complete fossil records we have – Eohippus had three toes on each hind foot, and four on both front feet. Once in a while there is a throwback, which must have seemed monstrous to a world with no understanding of genetics.

       The fact that a little laboratory fiddling with mouse and chick tissue can make hen’s teeth – despite the fact that no bird has had teeth for the last 60 million years – raises questions about what, precisely, you can get away with biologically. Mice are mammals, hens are birds – two different classes within the phylum chordata. So where does that leave the griffin, or the hippogriff? It was pointed out to me that my griffins lay eggs, despite having a leonine back half. So does the hippogriff, according to J.K.Rowling, despite having an equine posterior. The thinking end of the creature seems to be what determines our expectations from a story point of view, because it’s the thinking end that counts. Eggs just feel right for griffins, and a cub with a bird’s head that suckled wouldn’t feel right at all.
            Authors mix and match what they know of real beasts, and also use the hybrids that were invented earlier in the mythologies of different countries.


madwippitt said...

Fascinating stuff!

julia jones said...

Agree with madwippitt. Fascinating and I'm glad you added a taste of your work. Don't fancy meeting your disembowelling hyena-like sinistrom AT ALL.

Elizabeth Kay said...

Thank you! I originally wrote a much longer version of this for a paper at a Harry Potter conference. There's a book called On Growth and Form, by Darcy Thompson, which is brilliant. It explains a kind of Occam's Razor element to evolution - things are the way they are because it's the easiest way for them to be. I ended up by saying that the Borrowers would have squeaky little voices, scuttle about at considerable speed, listen to batsong in the evenings, spend most of the time eating and live for just a couple of years...

Hywela Lyn said...

Fascinating article - although I lean more to SF than Fantasy myself, I too love creating imaginary creatures. I have a theory that animals like unicorns and merpeople for example, must have some basis in our history - perhaps they also exist on other planets - althogh perhaps not quite in the way we traditionally imagine them...