Here there be Monsters

With the previous article concluding on the nature of good and evil, it felt appropriate to follow that discussion with one on monsters.  There is a growing trend in epic fantasy literature toward fewer monsters.  A lot of big-name authors have books where monsters are absent or play a much smaller role than, say, Tolkien.  I consider myself to be part of that trend.  That being said, there are monsters in Isfalinis.  They’re mentioned in “Tears from Iron” but are never seen.

The Purposes of Monsters

But before we get into that, why do monsters exist?  I don’t ask this question metaphysically, but practically… why are there monsters in modern fantasy stories?  As an answer, I think they serve several important purposes. 

They add an element of wonderment that combines nicely with fear.  From ancient majestic dragons who can burn a village to ash in a single breath to a swarm of rats that gnaw on flesh and infect with disease those they don’t devour, monsters can titillate the imagination and also imbue a sense of creeping horror.  These creatures of nightmare fit nicely into roles that need both of these attributes.

Second, monsters also provide an enemy that can be slain without remorse.  They are literally monstrosities.  They are abominations contrary to the natural world that should be eradicated wherever they may be found.  Sometimes, it is useful for stories to have enemies that can be viewed in this way.  After all, if you make humans the enemy and then wage a war of genocide against them, your protagonists become racists.  They lose their virtue and any real appeal to the reader.  But make the enemies monsters instead and that moral quandary is gone.  (I will say, without going into too long of a tangent, that I believe this fact significantly devalues the role of monsters in literature.)

In looking at the above concept from the opposite perspective it becomes apparent that monsters can fill the role of pests that menace ‘good society’.  They are a threat that must be removed.  Thus monsters can be an extreme version of the beasts of our own world except they are far more dangerous.  As an analogy, I’m currently fighting moles in my front yard.  They tear up the lawn with their obnoxious molehills.  Why is it that they rarely seem to use the same one, but instead create dozens more?  No matter how many ‘gopher gassers” I put down their holes, they never go away and, indeed, seem to get worse.  Or consider spiders.  I know they serve a useful ecological purpose, but in my youth I worked at a nursery where I watered plants every day.  After walking through far too many of their webs, I have developed a strong loathing for spiders.  Outside, I’ll leave them be, but inside they’re toast.  These are the pests of the real world, but neither moles nor spiders really fight back.  Moles and spiders won’t ever bring down civilization as we know it.  Make them bigger, man-eating, and arm them with weapons or nastier venom, though, and you have your monsters… your true threats to all we hold dear.

In the sense of a story’s conflict, these monsters never (or at most rarely) rise to the level of what you would call “man vs. man”.  If they did, then there would be the morality issues discussed above.  They certainly aren’t “man vs. self”.  That leaves us with “man vs. god” or “man vs. nature,” depending on if the monsters are supernatural or natural.  Simply put, this kind of conflict is an external one against a ‘force’ as opposed to ideas or thoughts.  Monsters aren’t sentient thinking creatures.  They are beasts/pests magnified to the point of becoming a manifold threat or force that can’t be reasoned with.  They can only be met with sword and sorcery.

My point is this.  Monsters are rare in Isfalinis because they are too easy.  They lack the complexity to make compelling villains.  I’d like to discuss this and the nature of villains in fantasy in more detail, but I’ll hold that off until next article.  For now, I think it’s time we got back to the monsters of Isfalinis.

Monsters of Isfalinis

It was in this time that Cydion stole away to hidden places and much of what he did then is even now unknown… It is believed that in this time his vilest creations were given shape.  That he formed the troglyds from ash and he sought to give them power as akin to the souled.  But his knowledge was not enough, for souls ever belong only to His Highest Above.  Thus the troglyds are bestial and vile.  Though they possess greater intelligence than common animals, they remain feral.  Yet they are inclined to obedience to their master.  So, too, were the larger ugren shaped while other creations were taken and corrupted.  Of these the most famous and feared were the dire wolves.”

 ~Excerpts from Dirtarnys’ “A Treatise on Creation and the Lost Age”

I had sketched out a few points to make on the monsters of Isfalinis, but I find that this quote covers them all.  The key for our purposes is that Cydion lacked the ability to create souls.  This means that no matter how large or how powerful, his creations never spanned the gap from instinct to reasoning, from feral to sapient.  In the world of Isfalinis, only the four races have such capacity.  Dirtarnys calls these “the souled” because before time began, His Highest Above created souls though he formed no flesh around them.  That task was allotted to four of the Cyrleni, the Shapers who created the Bergrist, the Humans, the Aestari, and the Ie’dhae. 

Thus Isfalinis has its Four Races as well as common animals and monsters.  These monsters are defined as abominations Cydion formed in an attempt to create servants for himself with capacities equaling or exceeding those of the souled.  He failed.  These creatures are incapable of ‘higher’ emotions or reasoning.  They cannot develop civilized society.  Heavily depleted in numbers after the Great War and with few ‘souled’ commanders to guide them, such monsters have devolved into an even more feral state.  They have withdrawn into the rugged wilderness where they often roam as packs that prey upon those who are most vulnerable.  It was one, or perhaps many, of these packs of monsters that fell upon the Syraestari during the Battle of Dahiraetin about a century before the empire was established.

They are out there still and perhaps one day there will rise new dark masters with the skill, ambition, and guile to harness these monsters to their will just as Cydion did long ago.