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.
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?