[GUEST POST] Thoraiya Dyer on Animals in Fantasy

Thoraiya Dyer, an ex-veterinarian, is now a three-time Aurealis Award-winning, three-time Ditmar Award-winning Australian writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, Cosmos, One Small Step from FableCroft Publishing, her collection Asymmetry from Twelfth Planet Press, and is forthcoming in Analog. Animals that have featured in her published work include river dolphins, thylacines, melanistic lions and genetically engineered ants. Find her online at Goodreads or www.thoraiyadyer.com.

Animals in Fantasy: Here There Be Kangaroos

by Thoraiya Dyer

It’s an elf with a longbow shooting a deer. It’s a dwarf with a pint and a plate of pork ribs. It’s the thief throwing a bone to distract the guard dog, the innkeeper closing the door against wolves and the healer closing a wound with catgut. It’s secondary-world fantasy, right?

You can tell because of the failure of specificity when it comes to the animals.

Fantasy that is set in our world has no problem using fauna as a descriptive detail. Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms gives us both a turkey buzzard and a kiskadee in the first ten pages, placing us in the sub-tropical Americas, while Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead gives us New Zealander geckos and fantails.

Prevailing wisdom is that fantastic secondary worlds are generic when they contain ravens, horses and hounds, but as soon as you insert a kangaroo, you jolt the reader out of their suspension of disbelief and rudely bring them crashing back to reality.

(You’ve ruined the dream. What do you think you are doing? Aragorn sure never checked his snares for capybaras, and if anyone had elephants, it was the baddies. The emblem of House Stark was never the DireHyena. Rand al’Thor did not ride a yak to the Eye of the World and FitzChivalry Farseer never communicated telepathically with puffins.)

The idea is not to align the fantasy landscape too closely with the real world. Problem being that deer, foxes, rabbits and horses are not actually non-specific.

Yes, you can find all those in Europe as well as the United States. Two large English-language readerships. Heck, you can also find them in Australia, where they’re introduced feral pests. But maybe if we didn’t live in such built-up urban environments, and authors were able to more closely identify the species they described, even these generic-seeming terms would give us an instant indication of where in the world we are.

A brocket deer, for example, would put us in South America just as firmly as Hopkinson’s birds, while a sambar deer puts us on the Indian subcontinent and a red deer puts us in Africa. As for foxes, is it too much to ask to have the brocket deer matched up with the crab-eating fox, the sambar matched to the Bengal fox, and the red deer matched to the fennec fox?

Even authors who are breaking the mould in other ways, escaping from Eurocentric tropes, can still choose to give us stock animals. Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina chooses the wolf as totem for her main character in The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, even though home, to Ashala, smells of Eucalyptus. And in N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Yeine might be “short and flat and brown as forestwood” and her hair “a curled mess,” but she still travels by “horse-coach” and the gods “breed like rabbits.”

I suppose England being the country of origin of English has to have its advantages. Apparently, in Middle English, “deer” (or der) meant a wild animal of any kind. I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels where warriors traipsed through the woods hunting “animals” and “birds” never described any more than that.

Which animals do you consider generic?

4 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Thoraiya Dyer on Animals in Fantasy”

  1. I have no problem with generic animals because they’re usually a very small part of an event, and the characters have to ride, kill, or eat something on the way to doing something of more important.

    Most readers, when the characters are riding six-legged snardsnerts, will imagine a horse anyway because most of us are lazy that way.

    I was once too specific with an animal. My characters were in South America so I had them hunting the tiny SA deer, the pudús, for food. My editor freaked out at the utter cuteness of the animal and made me change it to boars.

  2. What’s in a name?

    The animals called wolves on my future earth have reddy-brown fur and golden eyes. They are largely based on dingoes although their fur is longer. I suppose the generic-ness or otherwise of the word ‘wolf’ wasn’t something I really considered when putting it together – I have many Australian things which I have not used the specific name for (like the saurs, which are based on a species of megafauna) and other things for which I have retained the specific name (tuart trees, waratah flowers).

    At the end of the day I suppose I’m not so concerned about names – poorly described flora and fauna or ecosystems which don’t make sense bother me far more – a hangover I suspect from working in natural resource management for a lot of years and hanging out with environmental scientists!

  3. You make some interesting points about how animals can be relayed to us. In honesty, two things are usually inferred when I read that “a fox” or “a deer” was caught, and no more specification on the creature: that the author does not much care about specificity of that sort of common fauna, and that the POV doesn’t either. I do not care or know what kind of deer are infesting the woods behind my house and simply call them “deer” with no further thought, and this relays how much I know and think about their species and race. The same ought to be said for intimate-third and first-person points of view, and then the issue becomes whether this seems authentic to a perspective. Even a tribal hunter might only call it “a deer” if it’s the only kind of deer in her region. If plausible to the character, then it becomes whether it is important to the audience for the kind of story that is told. Obviously it is to you, and sometimes it is to me.

  4. Marilynn: That is hilarious! Thanks for making me google pudús. Awwwww!

    Ambelin: Don’t get me wrong, I loved your saurs, tuarts and waratahs! Just wondered if you had chosen ‘wolf’ because of broader international appeal, or maybe for the implications of a tight-knit family or pack…I guess not, haha. Thanks for jumping in to set the record straight.

    John: You’re right, the knowledge or otherwise of the POV character is relevant. And maybe the fact that the audience doesn’t know or care is exactly what I’m bemoaning! Yesterday I sat down to write a short story where I needed a character to catch a kind of fish that could never be caught at that particular place at that particular time of year. I wrestled hopelessly with it for, like, an hour before my husband came in and said, “no-one will know, no-one will care. OK?”

    Sometimes I get to be the annoying person who knows. Sometimes I get to be the annoying one who cares :D

    Thanks all for commenting!

Comments are closed.