Here’s a short top-ten list I wrote for Return of the Sword‘s virtual book tour–a project I somehow lost track of as April got weirder and more intense. So this may have appeared elsewhere in the blogosphere recently, but I don’t think so. I thought I’d put it up here as I’ll be travelling for a couple of days and I may not otherwise have a chance to bleaken your life this week.
More and better monsters: that’s what today’s heroic fantasy needs. Here are ten top monsters from the field’s past–but not necessarily the top ten monsters. Heroic fantasy is, or was, packed with these beasties and everyone will have their own favorites.
Why monsters? Well, the monster and the hero identify each other, illuminate each other. One primal identity of the hero is someone who kills a monster. But a good hero is not just a faceless bronzed figure with a Pointed Stick who wades in and smites the Partly Rugose Partly Squamous Thing That Ate Schenectady: he or she is someone with a distinctive personality. And a good antagonist tells us something about the protagonist–what the hero’s weaknesses are, what the hero’s hopes are, what the hero has lost and can lose. Heroic actions may be in the realm of the superhuman, but monsters can highlight a hero’s humanity–and inner monstrosity.
Besides, they’re fun and as fantasy becomes more epic and sweeping, the more it concentrates on antagonists who are more or less human, or at least aren’t monstrous. For my purposes, monsters are broken or displaced beings who harm others (and possibly themselves).
I’m drawing all my examples from before 1970. It’s partly arbitrary, but 1970 was a watershed year for heroic fantasy: Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar” was published in F&SF and went on to win the Nebula and Hugo. From then on things would be different (better in some ways, worse in others).
The order is completely arbitrary (i.e. the order I thought of them in).
Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Some might quibble about whether the book is heroic fantasy or not: as has often been observed, the hero is a little guy with fuzzy feet who keeps daydreaming about tea-time back home. Never mind. There has to be a dragon on this list and (unless we go back to Beowulf’s or Sigurd’s dragon), Smaug is the iconic dragon in English literature. He’s a cunning, deadly and ruthlessly determined thief… just like the supposed “good guys.”
Belion from Roger Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead. Like much of Zelazny’s work, this is a dark heroic fantasy with a brittle candy coating of science fiction. It has its flaws, including some painfully hip internal monologue. (Did he really say, “Forgive me my trespasses, baby”? Yes, he did.) But Belion’s systematic acquisition of all the hero’s hopes and fears makes for a shattering conflict when man and monster finally meet.
Thak the ape-man from Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House.” Howard had a weird thing about apelike men (or manlike apes): they recur frequently in his stories. But Thak is in a different category. Even Conan insists, after the inevitable battle, “I have slain a man tonight, not a beast.” I could have filled this list with REH monsters: he dreamed in very dark shades of technicolor.
The gebbeth from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. No swords in this fantasy, and the magic is mostly of a contemplative sort. Until it turns on you without a face and hunts you through a northern wilderness. Then it gets a little weird.
The mantichore in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. The mantichore fight is relatively brief, but it’s a crucial point in one of the great mountain-climbs in fantasy (rivalled only by Leiber’s “Stardock”).
The Gibbelins in Lord Dunsany’s “The Hoard of the Gibbelins.” They eat, as is well-known, nothing less good than man, and if I go on much longer my description will be wordier than this knifelike, wonderfully grim story.
The rats in Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar. Leiber was another monster-crazy writer (finding them in mothers, girls, ghosts, fathers, birds, houses, cities, numbers, advertising, books: you name it, he monstrified it), but I think the rats are his monsterpiece. The civilization of Lankhmar Below is creepy precisely because it’s not so different from Lankhmar Above… except that it’s better run.
Kaththea Tregarth from Andre Norton’s Warlock of the Witch World. Heroes merge with monsters in this early Witch World novel.
Chun the Unavoidable from Jack Vance’s “Liane the Wayfarer.” The “hero” himself is one of Vance’s best villains and the monster, a sort of collector, is all the more disturbing because Vance describes him with a few elliptical yet telling details.
The King from Under the Hill in Michael Moorcock’s “Kings in Darkness.” Arioch may strike me down with lightning for saying this, but I’m not crazy about many of the later additions to the Elric saga. This is one of the better early stories, though, and Elric finds out something about himself and his iconic weapon in fighting against the Hill-King and his undead minions.
So there you go. When you’re making your fantasy world, don’t forget to add a fistful of monsters. They may darken the landscape, but they can brighten up a story.