Shadows in the Deep

Dragon“Here be dragons”– perhaps one of the best known phrases related to cartography. It refers to the common practice of putting sea monsters, dragons, and other assorted mythically dangerous beasties on maps to mark unknown or dangerous areas. Those creatures didn’t necessarily exist in the form envisioned by the cartographer, but they were a convenient shorthand.

Unfortunately, in your world, mythically dangerous beasts do exist. But before you go feeding your sidekicks to them, you should probably establish what these beasts look like and what they can do, right? Rejoice, for it’s time for a miniature crash course in fantastic xenobiology (and as all writers know, ‘research’ is one of the only legitimate ways to procrastinate).

Let’s start with your basic beast of mythically dangerous proportions: the dragon. So many permutations of this creature exist, it would take the entirety of a blog post to name them all. There are dragons that fly and crawl and breathe fire and are immortal. There are dragons barely bigger than a hawk, which burn hostile mycorrhizoidal spores out of the sky. There are others more akin to the Hebraic leviathan, gliding through the ocean and destroying ships at will. Basically, if you want to call your creature a dragon, nobody’s really going to argue with you. And if they do, you can just have your dragon eat them. Perks of being a writer.

Somewhat lesser known, but no less terrifying in aspect, are griffins or gryphons (other spellings also exist). These beasts are a blend of lion and eagle with all the best– or worst, depending which side of the pencil you’re on– properties of both. In many works of fantasy, they’re presented as a sentient species along the lines of dragons. Depending on the flavor of your world, they might be a fun addition to somebody’s stables, or a wild card army dropping in in the middle of a battle. [Along similar lines is the hippogriff, a merging of eagle and horse with the tail of a serpent.]

Sea monsters are, for some reason, not really common fare in fantasy. If they appear at all, they’re usually one-off antagonists of convenience rather than a recurring friend or foe. As sea monsters, by the very generic nature of the term, could be literally anything, why aren’t more writers using them? Why don’t we have a sea monster-based subgenre of fantasy to match the dragon subgenre? (Probably because you’re not writing it, so then the question becomes “Why aren’t you starting that subgenre?”)

Trolls are another race which is portrayed with wide variance. They can range from large, stupid, and violent creatures to ones of more dwarven proportion with elven characteristics. Generally speaking, though, they’re made of rock (or turn to rock in daylight) and are nasty. There’s no reason you can’t make them civilized, though: turn a few tropes on their heads and have a race of trolls who are intelligent and advanced under threat of destruction from a feral, antagonistic race of elves.

Let’s not forget about the horse-based species, either. Unicorns, centaurs, and pegasus… pegasuses? Pegasi? Nobody really knows what the plural of that is. These creatures are not terribly common in modern fantasy, so they could use a bit of exercise. Unicorns, depending on who you read, are either beautiful, wise beings of virtue or ravenous man-eating monstrosities. Centaurs have a similar dichotomy, either being debauched, violent creatures or wise astrologers and astronomers. Pegasus was originally the sole winged horse of Greek legend, but has come to be a race of winged horses with no other modifications such as enhanced intelligence or magic (beyond their wings).

Those are some of the more common ‘beasts’ (though many of them can have human-level, or higher, sentience) in fantasy. What are your favorites? What ones do you think I left out that deserved a mention? And, more importantly, what are you going to do with them?


Shadows in the Deep — 4 Comments

  1. Nice round up of some fun mythical beasts!!! And I’m first in line to say that dragons are getting seriously tiresome… especially the “dragon rider” trope that is about as dead a horse as a horse can get, in my notebook. 😉
    Though, sea monster sub-genre sounds decidedly odd, and somewhat fascinating! Possibly it is not a thing because people drown under water?
    So you’d have to have mermaids teaming up with sea-monsters to form an equivalent of the “dragon rider” sub-genre?

    • Still, you could have amphibious sea monsters, steampunk diving rigs, arcane diving rigs…. it’s just laziness 😉
      That could certainly be interesting… mer-folk are definitely under used in modern fantasy.

  2. I suspect that sea monsters are in such an unused category because so few young fantasy authors have much knowledge of sailing or the sea; I know I don’t. That fact just makes it hard in general to place a story in a maritime setting, which naturally excludes sea monsters. They are still good one-off conflict builders because they can actually keep you from needing to know much about sailing. Just have a sea monster attack and that can be a long enough chapter that you can more or less say, “So all the MCs went on a sea voyage. Then they got attacked by a sea monster {whole chapter ensues} and after they survived it they landed where they were going.” No need to understand winds, currents, or sea lingo.
    Though I am sorely tempted to dabble a little in sea monsters now… might have to adjust my plot understanding of my current series on the blog in order to accommodate having a sea near enough for sea monsters…