My wife was recently reading the tales of Greek mythology to our children and as we talked about the wonder the kids had over some of the stories, I desperately tried to remember the names of the various heroes and heroines. I also tried to bring to mind the origin tales of the mythical beasts that are a core part to these stories. Generally I failed but in my defence I have too many mythologies in my head and too many creatures of various shapes and sizes – one of the dangers of being an urban fantasy writer.
It seems that in our mythologies there are always creatures that are built on, but have surpassed, those that inhabit our planet. Why have simply a horse when you can stick a pair of wings on it and let it fly through the sky. Why have whales or sharks when you can have a creature that has tentacles to smash ships and drag them to the deep. We seem to need to that difference, that strangeness.
As a writer of fantasy I have to confess to making my own beasts up and delving into the mythologies of the cultures of the world for my next great beast. Indeed, HP Lovecraft decided that this earth’s horrors were not enough and those from a foreign planet were required. Tolkien wasn’t content with elephants and produced his oliphaunts. We thrive on the unusual and superlative.
But I have found one thing to be true in my reading and writing of fantasy. All the wonder of these beasts and their vivid and incredible backgrounds only ever highlight the one creature that is imminently more complex and interesting than these giants of fantasy – ourselves. Humans, or their derivatives (dwarves, elves, halflings, and more recently vampires and werewolves), are the truly strange creatures with their shades of emotion and actions, some dark, some heroic and some just foolish. But to highlight this complexity of character, we writers have to place alongside them that which is beyond the norm we are used to.
So, is everything better with a mythological beast? Well as far as fantasy writing goes, yes, absolutely but only to highlight that most complex and strange creature we call a human.