Feast your eyes on this big game! This 1,300-pound deer stood– if you include the antlers– about as tall as the average elephant. That’s enough to get any redneck salivating– but sorry, hunters. It’s been almost 8,000 years since this beast walked the face of planet Earth. In this, the first of an ongoing series, I’ll discuss implementing elements of the past into the fantasy fiction genre; specifically, wildlife.
Wildlife has always, to me, felt like something that has been taken for granted in the fantasy genre. Typically, there are a few outlandishly fantastic creatures– dragons, trolls, orcs, etc.– that are given to us with a sickeningly unnecessary surplus of description. But with these incredible exceptions, we are usually left to assume that the rest of the wildlife in the fantasy world we are visiting is basically not unlike our own. Horses, deer, squirrels, birds, and, yeah, whatever…
This is a real shame, in my opinion, because that random wildlife that blends into the background could be a goldmine for transporting the reader out of the familiarity of his/her world and into an entirely new one. That is why I do my best never to take the background for granted. When building a fantasy world, I want creatures that go beyond regular old horses, deer and nondescript birds, but I also want to keep a semblance of reality.
That is why, for the wildlife of The Fallen Odyssey, I drew from an already abundant resource: the fossil record. Earth’s prehistory is filled with creatures that look, at once, real and fantastic. As a quick example, allow me to introduce you to the Irelk.
It was a huge, elk-like animal– seven feet tall at the shoulders, covered in red fur with white speckles across the back. Atop its head was a set of antlers, shovel-shaped like a moose, and so large that Justin could hardly believe it was able to stand. A full-grown steed could fit within the cradle of its enormous, palmate antlers. All this he saw in the split second it took for the animal to react to their approach and bolt into the trees.
“That was the biggest animal I’ve ever seen!” Justin said, still not sure he could believe his own eyes.
– from The Fallen Odyssey by C.B. McCullough
Its presence is brief, but the Irelk has a lasting impression on our young, lost protagonist– and, hopefully, the reader. What follows is a discussion between characters about various other large creatures, including tusked beasts with skin like armor, flightless, twelve-foot-tall birds, and colossal land mammals. From here on out, Justin– a boy from Earth– can assume nothing. There are animals in this world that are beyond his experience.
Now for a look at the real-life counterpart of the fictional Irelk…
The Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus)
The Irish Elk was the biggest deer that ever lived, standing seven feet tall at the shoulders with antlers that measured twelve feet wide, from tip-to-tip. It had palmate antlers (leaf-shaped like a moose, not branch-shaped like an elk) and, despite its name, is not closely related to any living species of elk.
Like many of the Pleistocene “megafauna,” the Irish Elk was much larger than any modern-day counterpart. This was a typical trend during the last ice age, when larger body size gave mammals a distinct advantage– like the wooly mammoth and the giant ground sloth.
Like most of the megafaunal creatures of the last ice age, the Irish Elk has long since gone extinct, but it is interesting to imagine prehistoric man hunting down game of such magnitude.
Turning Reality Into Fantasy
Exotic locales and supernatural creatures are a staple of the fantasy genre, but so much of world-building is focused on creating detailed maps with interesting-sounding place-names, that I think some of the most simple and yet effective means of transportive storytelling devices get overlooked. I would challenge writers not to overlook the “background” and instead bring all dimensions of storytelling into focus to create something new and wonderfully unique.
Write long, and prosper. – CB