December 31, 2012

The Place of Giant Animals in Fantasy

While originally a strong trope of the fantasy genre, (and often science fiction too), the giant animal seems to have been misplaced by the modern fantasy community. So why is this; are they boring, over-used, or simply the abandonment of a society that has moved on? I should note for the gentle reader, that I recognize the trope is still in use by a number of writers and RPGers, myself included, but it goes without saying, that the beasts have become eschewed for strange amalgams of colour, and parts. Made-up species, one and all.

So why is the giant animal an under-utilized asset of the genre? All too often those parties concerned call them unimaginative. After all, what the hell is up with all these giant rats, bats, and gekkos milling about the old cave/labyrinth/dungeon from Crete? Fear, friends. Take if you will the wolf spider, a charging land predator, and not such an arachnid as would use a web. When I was little we would make play of chasing the things, amazed at their speed for something so small. Now imagine, the same creature about the size of a man, or possibly a large dog. And further imagine the scaled anatomy of this thing: its alien visage, the mandibles, expressionless, body-language-lacking thing, with its set of multifaceted eyes. It wouldn't be any such matter of escaping such a beast, no, but a matter of how long before it overcomes you, and takes you. Some fear even the smallest, most harmless of arachnids, never mind gargants.

Furthermore to the topic of fear; we can see that most traditional giant animals are those most commonly feared. The previously mentioned spiders, reptiles of many sorts, rats, and any myriad of invertebrates all stood tallest. And maybe it was the lack of appreciation for how truly terrifying and dangerous these things become when they shadow men, and can be looked at closely without a microscope.

One of my favourite pictures ever of giant animals, was a giant-sized, otherwise ordinary, monitor lizard casually snatching up an army of medieval-era soldiers. That's scary; the things that prey on us. Not being at the top of our presumed food-chain is a concept modern man is quick to deny.

Can it be said the very trope is unimaginative? Possibly, but let's not forget the giant beasts that once roamed the earth in the vast stretch of time known as 'pre-history'. The many species of dinosaur and reptile from millions or years passed, aren't called 'thunder lizards' for nothing. Hell, even a good number of the insects then were ludicrously massive by modern standards. Imagine dragonflies large enough to give the impression a helicopter was flying nearby. And this is all before we get to the more recent stuff. Such as the dire wolf, Megaloceros, Megalodon, titanoboa, giant squid, and etc. Is it so truly an artistic crime if Mother Nature herself dabbled in megafauna? Thankfully there hasn't been a quite proper match to the nefarious ROUS (Rodent Of Unusual Size) yet, unless one counts the giant beaver. (snerk)

Am I yammering to the wind, or has it seemed to the reading audience that there is indeed water in my moat? While it is a generalization made on my part, I find the common trend in current Fantasy, to be a bit too much 'fantastic', in all facets of its makeup to remain receptive for the simplistic, traditional concepts of the fairy tale.

Also, I'll dedicate this last bit to wish the fine folke a productive and pleasant new year, and to many more.


  1. Sir, I wholeheartedly agree. I suppose in a way it is the sign of the times; games (computer) are having greater demands placed upon them by the gaming communities, films are ramping up their shock factor/gore fest and CGI count - whatever seems to stimulate our pleasure centres these days, we demand more. The more extreme the better - BUT, dare I go as far as to say that it is endemic of the younger generations rather than the older kin (such as myself, a gamer of 48?). Unfortunately, as a result of unavoidable exposure to this ramped up stimuli, we too are now 'infected' with the desensitization towards things that we once would have considered thrilling, shocking, tension-inducing, amazing. You only have to look at the film certification ratings these days (I can only use UK standards as an example here) - what is considered ok for a 12 today would have easily passed off as an 18 when I was 12.

    So back to big creatures. Consider the humble spider. A great dungeon stalwart and veteran D&D encounter for your low level player group. No one particularly fears a giant spider, not when in a group. But having kept and bred tarantulas and observed their hunting practices, I could happily say the first adventurer in line is as good as dead. A hungry spider moves with such speed and deadly precision, that I couldn't see anyone that is targeted as 'getting away'.
    Hell, I'll go as far as to say I've watched a REALLY hungry tarantula gather up as many as four crickets in its mouth parts, all pierced and held in place but those long fangs.

    Watching a program on BBC about the development of animals and insects today and their prehistoric ancestors, they looked at the spider. Apparently they used to be the size of an average dog, and hunted in packs too. Scary thought, especially with the CGI animation they used to convey how they took down prey.

    So, regarding big beasties in fantasy - I think it comes down to one basic thing: it's not how they look which should be the scary part, but how they behave. At the end of the day it's not how their outward appearance kills you, it's the business parts, i.e. teeth & claws, that do (special abilities aside).

    *please note, these thoughts and observations only come from the DM's side of the screen, not as a player*

    Very good article, sir - and a belated happy new year to you :)

    1. Very interesting! My experiences with tarantulas are quite minimal at best, but it is to be said the danger inherent of the creatures, when in the right perspective.

      From the player side of things I've not much to go on the subject either. My peers are especially fond of sapient opponents, and the traditional magical creatures in the game.

      Aye, and you a belated, but successful year to come.

  2. a charging land predator, and not such an arachnid as would use a web.

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