Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Origin of 5 of Your Favorite Fantasy Monsters

Mr. Dwarf has seen better days

They're the standard level 1 bad guys in fantasy video games, they're the creepy little buggers climbing walls and hissing menacingly from behind jagged teeth in movies of swords and shields, and they're so entrenched in fantasy literature it's hard to find a book that doesn't mention them directly or whatever the author chooses to call them in his or her attempt at being original, even though we all know the truth. Imps, goblins, ogres, trolls. They're the staple monsters  in our favorite pop culture fantasy and folk tales and I'm going to tell you where they came from and why we perceive them as the nasty things they are.

Friendly enough.

1. Imps
Starting with the smallest, smelliest, and most irritating of the common fantasy monsters we have the Imp. Mostly known for being mischievous rather than harmful, these little demons are more aggravating than a than a fresh zit that you can't quite pop yet but you know it's there and it hurts like a son of a bitch. You will notice that the ratio of annoying increases in parallel with size.

Just waterin' my imps.

Imps are a type of demon and entirely German in origin. It should be noted that not all demons in German folklore are malevolent but imps were definitely bastards. They are typically described as the opposite of fairies, who are fun loving and free; imps are wild and general dick faces that liked to switch babies and lead travelers astray because they thought it was HILARIOUS like a college room mate who thinks taking a dump on your pillow is the best thing ever.

Tiny picture is tiny.
Pop Culture
Imps are found to be witch's familiars and irksome little tricksters all throughout the spectrum of pop culture. Sometimes they fly, most times they don't, and they really just like to shit all over everything. Imps are like headcrabs or pubic lice crabs or any kind of crab in general, creepy and slightly salty. They are often hidden in architecture to provide a kind of whimsy and are associated with general mischief  like in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1891 story The Bottle Imp about an imp trapped in a bottle that would grant the owner their every wish, as long as the owner sold the bottle to someone else before their death or face burning in hell fire for all eternity.

I smell man flesh

2. Goblins
They're the small, irritating, and sometimes magical critters you see as the lowest echelon of the fantasy bad guy society. They're a bit bigger than imps and far more common, these guys are ugly, on the front lines, usually dumb, and unquestionably dastardly.

True story.
Although the exact origin is not known, the word goblin most likely comes from either the Old French word gobelin, the Germanic kobold, Midevil Latin cabalus, or Greek kobalos which means "rouge." Another theory is that it is a derivative of the proper name Gobel which only suggests that no one in ancient times thought a Gobel wasn't a douche. In folklore they appear in the texts of Scandinavia, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, United States, India, Japan and South Korea and their description hardly changes across the board.

Standard issue.
Pop Culture
Goblins are everywhere from from classic poetry to Magic: The Gathering. The orcs in Tolkein mythology are referred to as goblins and they can be found in everything from Harry Potter to the Elder Scrolls series to one of the best side-scrollers of all time, Ghosts N Goblins.  The list of formats these creatures have crawled their way into is so exhaustive you would have lie down just from thinking about it for too long so I wont even try to get too far into it. Basically, start walking in one direction in the fantasy genre and you're bound to trip over one of these suckers eventually. They have even been attributed to physical locations like Goblin Bay in Ontario Canada and Goblin Combe in Somerset, U.K

Passion for fashion

3. Ogres
They're the big nasty buggers you see eating children and getting on the road again with their donkey sidekick. They are a step up from the goblins with their size and ferocity and appetite for human flesh. They are also a step down in general annoying-ness, with the exception of said donkey counterpart.

At least that's not terrifying
The word ogre is of French origin which may refer to the inhabitants of Britain prior to human settlement or the word Hongrois which means Hungarian as most western folks thought they were all bunch of jerks and deserved to be put in the same etymological category as flesh eating monsters. It is very interesting to note that trolls and ogres may have been based on the Neanderthals, who lived in caves and practiced cannibalism like their mythological counterparts and have been proven to have lived alongside modern humans until we did what we do best and killed the tits off of them to extinction. The word ogre itself was popularized by the Italian author Giambattista Basile (1575–1632) and is even seen in Beowulf as orcnÄ“as which inspired the name of Tolkeins orcs.

Pop Culture
As previously mentioned, Ogres are usually the next step on your path to slaying the grand master evil wizard/emperor/dragon/knight/god/hermaphrodite/lizard/king/demon/icky-nasty at his super sweet skull castle by the volcano and can usually be found in all your classic tales. The most notable ogre of recent memory is obviously Shrek, who, in my opinion, did not eat nearly enough babies. Or Eddie Murphy voiced donkeys.
4. Trolls
The biggest and the baddest, trolls are by far the most powerful monsters on the list based on pop culture use of the creatures and legendary reference. Trolls can live under bridges and charge tolls (check the etymology on that one) like a homeless IRS agent or be found eating hobbits or being captured by really awesome bearded guys in Norway which I will get to in a minute.

I'm noticing a thing with clubs.
Trolls originated in Norse mythology where they were associated with certain geographical features (frost trolls, cave trolls, etc.) and were generally nasty creatures and not helpful to humans in the rare occasions they spoke to each other rather than eating them or getting turned to stone in the sunlight. Later, they transferred to Scandanavian mythology where they were associated with certain geographical features (frost trolls, cave trolls, etc.) and were generally nasty creatures and not helpful to humans in the rare occasions they spoke to each other rather than got eaten or turned to stone in the sunlight with the added bonus of hating all things good and Christian.

Pop Culture
Trolls are usually biggest and meanest of creatures in the popular mythos of stories like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and America (well maybe not that one). The Elder Scrolls series tries to keep it fresh by having them look and behave like gorillas crossed with Sam Fisher if you're in to that sort of thing. Personally, I think the best representation of trolls in any sort of modern media can be found in the film Troll Hunter in which a group of students making a documentary (Cloverfield style) track a government paid Troll Hunter who's job is to keep the sometimes massive (like the size of a mountain) creatures out of public eye. It's an incredibly good time and I highly recommend it to anyone for every reason.

There's... Something on the wing!

Bonus: Gremlins
Don't get them wet, don't feed them after midnight, and don't let them have access to power tools or aircraft-grade aluminum. Though not as standard as the other beasties found on this list, the gremlins have a strong following in popular culture and are the newest creature to appear in history.

Jacked the Smurf
Though the word may derive from the Old English gremian, which means "to vex," the modern use of the word gremlin is to describe creatures described by members of the Royal Air Force in the 1920s that sabotaged aircraft. The most common place to encounter a gremlin you ask? Scotland, as described by Pauline Gower in 1938, is also known as "gremlin country" where they terrible little creatures ran around snipping aircraft wires with scissors.


Pop Culture
Though they can be found in Disney productions, Orson Wells radio programs, and most notably the Gremlins films, the most iconic representation to me would be the Twilight Zone depiction of the creature on the wing. You can experience this story in one of three flavor's, Captain Kirk's (Nightmare at 20,000 feet), Frasier's (Nightmare at 60,000 feet),and a very brief Jim Carrey. The tale depicts a gremlin on the wing of an passenger plane and one man's desperate attempt to save the passengers and crew while convincing them of his sanity.

Aint no party like a goblin party

And so now that you know the origins of your favorite monsters so don't be afraid to get out there and start looking. And if you find your car keys misplaced or that oddly shaped rock you saw on your Scandinavian vacation to be the least bit suspicious, who knows? There may be a story there.

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