Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, using archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me this week for a tour through the Zoo Arcane as we visit four creatures spoken of by the ancients.
Our ancestors loved to personify beasts, giving them powerful and legendary forms. They whispered about some over dinner out of fear and reverence. Others they lauded as heroic and built statuary to. These creatures would be invoked to frighten the disgruntled towards compliance, to motivate warriors into battle and to ensure children were good (and ate their vegetables when told).
As always, stay close as we walk the Zoo Arcane, no reaching through the bars, the myths are hungry and your arm is a tasty snack. Ahead lies a massive birdcage, larger than a city block holding the first of the Arcane denizens we will visit today.
From the sky like a Roc
The Roc (or ruhk) is an avian of tremendous size, larger than and likely the inspiration for Tolkein’s eagles. Several legends surround the history of the Roc. Genghis Khan is thought to have sent men to inquire about the Roc. They returned from their quest with a 67 foot long feather (although it may have been a palm frond). Marco Polo wrote that the Roc was large enough to pick up an elephant which it would then drop to the ground as a way to tenderize its dinner. Medieval legend holds that its talons were large enough to be used as flagons. Imagine the look on a barkeeps face when his guest presents a cup the size of a grown mans leg.
Place the Roc in any time or genre and it becomes an impressive beast to challenge our hero. Or perhaps it will serve as a mount for an intrepid heroine. Think of Toruk from the movie Avatar. With a bit of imaginative reconfiguration the Roc can serve in many story capacities.
Follow me through this archway, but please pass through with a clear mind and heart. Beyond lies the most graceful creature to bless our world.
Long ago the ancient Chinese sage Fu Hsi sat along the banks of a river meditating when a deer-like creature covered in shimmering scales and sporting a perfectly sculpted horn waded into the river. Stepping carefully across the creature revealed a strange and magical script tattooed on its back. Fu Hsi quickly etched the symbols into the dirt around him, a gift from the saintly being that would birth the Chinese written language.
Meet the Qilin (chee-lin). Records of the Qilin date back to 2700 B.C. making it far older than the Western Unicorn while holding many of the same properties. It cannot be captured, its horn has magical properties, it walks with such gentleness that not a single blade of grass is crushed by its passing and above all it covets peace.
Can your hero defend the sanctity of the Qilins peace? Or will they be required to hunt the power of its purity in order to defeat a vile threat?
Perhaps the Qilin will represent a race of beings hidden in the celestial clouds of deep space or be found in a remote vale of Nepal in the modern world. Imagine the headlines were such a creature to be discovered. Now imagine trying to protect it from the media frenzy. Conflict and drama abound.
Careful now as we enter the grotto of Poseidon, the ledges are slick and it would be a pity to lose you in the pristine waters below.
Stallions of the Sea
The legendary horses of the sea, Hippocamps, guided the chariot of Poseidon and were the favored mount of Nereid nymphs (caretakers of the oceans rich bounty and patron to fisherman and sailors). The Hippocamps bore the front half of a powerful horse with a long green-scaled fish body (some records refer to them as the “two-legged horse”). Subspecies of the Hippocamps included a fish-tailed lion, bull, leopard and goat, making this one of the most diverse creatures in Greek mythology. Given the ancient Greeks relied heavily on the sea for trade and support it is no surprise they believed every creature living on land had an equivalent counterpart beneath the water.
What if the Greeks were correct in this assumption? Whether placed in a fantasy or on an alien world, what if all things living on land had a counterpart beneath the waves?
How about a technologically-advanced culture that uses mechanical versions as propulsion? Could there be a steampunk or springpunk version? What watery chimera would be a good fit for your world?
Our tour comes to a dangerous place, my friends. Enter here with care to stay on the path. Inside rests one of the most powerful of all the ancient beasts and we dare not disturb it with careless action.
The Dragon Champion
With the head and muscled legs of a lion, tail of a massive sea serpent, claws able to rend armor and a thick turtle shell, the Tarasque is a peerless powerhouse. Ravaging through the French countryside this son of Leviathan and the flaming bison Onachus proved to be unstoppable, crushing every knight and army sent to slay it by the king of Nerluc (modern day Provence region of France). Legend says that St. Martha came to the beast and lulled it to passivity with her songs and prayers. After gaining the Tarasque’s complacency, St. Martha led the creature back to Nerluc where the villagers killed it without resistance.
Obviously, for a writer the above ending would be considered deux ex machina. Let’s consider the conundrum evident in the legend of the Tarasque.
The Tarasque represents an overwhelming war machine, an ultimate game changer. Our hero’s world becomes disrupted as this creature or machine rampages through their world threatening to destroy all in its path. Every attempt to stop it fails. The greatest warriors, wizards and machines fall against its power, burnt chaff blown by the wind.
What will we give our hero that will allow him or her to destroy this threat and restore balance to their world? Will a special ritual requiring a quest nearly as dangerous as facing the Tarasque alone work? Or will the ritual require the hero to sacrifice their own life to gain victory? Perhaps a chink in its armor such as the dragon Smaug in the Hobbit, a point of knowledge that can only be gained by close contact and risk?
Beware the Tarasque, for unless we are prepared to avoid using deux ex machina to win, it is a truly dangerous creature to both a writer and their story.
Now let us pass from this place of myth, through the misty arch and back to our own time and place. I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the Zoo Arcane.
Do you have any favorite creatures from legend? What makes them special to you? Have any ideas on how to defeat the Tarasque?
Looking for more great ideas and information on writing? Check out my previous “Designing from Bones” entries.