Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Frog, Giant, and Toad, Giant are Friends

 Or possibly, "Friends, Giant". But they're certainly not friends with you.

I noticed something while looking at the table of contents for the 1st edition Monster Manual the other day. Of the 233 main entries, 31 of them are either giants or "something, giant" (not to mention Ettins and Titans, for that matter). Why would that be, I wonder?

Giants appear in the myths and legends of many, many cultures. One common explanation for that is that they are a manifestation of childhood fears, when everything was bigger than we were. Although I suppose that's possible, I would hope that one of our cultures would have managed to come up with an arrangement where children felt basically safe in the world, or at least in the home. Another explanation, and one that rings a little truer to me, is that giant things are a staple of fantasy because fantasy is literally about being larger than life; like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom, with its eight-legged animals and colors that couldn't be found on Earth, fantasy just has to be bigger, stronger, faster, more. And that led me to think about what the process of fantasy does, and the ways it does it.

Fantasy does a lot of things, to be sure, but there are probably a few recurring principles at work. Monsters, in particular, seem a fertile source for speculation: how many truly different ways are there to make a monster? Some sprang to mind, and since monsters are inherently things to be feared (or at least, things to approach cautiously), I began postulating what fear each type of monster might represent. For example:

Chimerism: the basic process where something bad is made worse, usually by combining it with attributes from something else bad. The chimera itself, the manticore, and the eponymous dragon are all examples of this. The chimera is a serpent, a lion, and a goat. (Which, as a manifestation of the god Pan, would reasonably scare ancient Greeks if he was in a bad mood. Read Euripides' Bacchae if you don't think so.) The dragon, a giant serpent and a bat. And I could imagine the dialogue that went on with the first storyteller to employ the manticore: "It's like a lion." "Big deal, my cousin Demosthenes shot and killed a lion with his bow." "Oh yeah? Well this lion flies, and has the brains of a man, and it shoots back."

As a subset, there is the man-beast hybrid: the Minotaur, the Sphinx, the Centaur and the Lamia all represent something with the physical power of an animal and the cunning of a human. Although if you looked at it biologically, the Minotaur is really just as weak as a man and as dumb as a bull. But nonetheless, the process is the same.

Giantism, and its twin, Dwarfism: not the medical kind, but as I mentioned before, these are the basic manifestations of fantasy as being somehow more than real. In the case of Dwarfism, even smaller than normal represents some kind of schism with the World as We Know It.

Abstractions, personified: e.g., the Undead, embodying Death. Not only do they remind us of our common inevitable end, they personalize it by portraying the dead as resentful of those of us who haven't joined them yet, as if we were all Candace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls, and Death has it out for us personally. Other abstractions might be the Elements (Elementals), Bad Luck (any Invisible enemy, or anything that can cast a curse), or Social Taboos (Demons and Devils).

I'm sure there are more, and I haven't figured out where some things (like Medusa) belong in this or any taxonomy. But the benefit of thinking about monsters like this is, when you as a DM need to come up with a monster that your players can't simply look up in the rules, this process of conjuring up abominations might come in handy.


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