SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we are pleased and proud to host the second part of a diverse mythical creatures round table with an amazing group of authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Shveta Thakrar, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Whiti Hereaka, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, E.C. Myers, Aliette de Bodard, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Bogi Takács and Joyce Chng.
We will open the proceedings with an introduction from Shveta Thakrar, responsible for the prompt that originated the round table:
I’ve always loved faeries, always, always, but ever since I looked around one day in my early twenties and realized that was pretty much all I knew about, I’ve been hunting stories using folklore and mythical creatures from around the world. Until then, it never occurred to me to wonder why I didn’t see the nagas and apsaras from my own South Asian heritage in any media outside Amar Chitra Katha, the comics I’d read as a kid. At best, they might show up in the cloth painting or statuary a Hindu household tended to have, but beyond that, they might as well not exist. And once I realized that, I got angry–and started writing my own tales and thinking about what else I could do?
So when I saw Strange Horizons posted a column on types of fey beings, I mentioned on Twitter that I would love to see a global version that would introduce people to creatures they might not have heard of. Ana of the Book Smugglers saw my tweet and approached me about hosting a round table on her website. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity!
I still love faeries, but now I want more. I want to see the mythical beings that exist outside Celtic and British lore, too, and want to see them star in stories that everyone knows, no matter where they grew up. I want it to be common knowledge that J. K. Rowling did not invent naginis, and I want our fantasy novels and movies to encompass the true richness of global lore and myth. (When I say myth, it’s referring to the original meaning of “sacred story” as opposed to “lie.”) Highlighting one branch of folklore at the expense of most of the rest is othering and dismissive, but even more than that, it’s cheating ourselves of the rest of the beauty and wisdom out there. Folklore, whether or not you believe in its creatures, exists to show us other ways to be and to remind us to stay open to wonder and magic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am starving for all the flavors of magic I can find, so as far as I’m concerned, bring on the world treasure trove of stories!
And now, without further ado, here is part 2 of the round table, featuring the contributions by E.C. Myers, Aliette de Bodard, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Bogi Takács and Joyce Chng.
Part 1 with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Shveta Thakrar, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Whiti Hereaka, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz was published on Tuesday and can be found here.
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and the public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, as well as numerous short stories. His new novel, The Silence of Six, a thriller about teenage hackers and government conspiracies, will be out on November 5, 2014 from Adaptive Books. E.C. lives with his wife, two doofy cats, and a mild-mannered dog in Pennsylvania. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at http://ecmyers.net and on Twitter: @ecmyers.
It might be strange to think of tigers as mythical creatures, but they figure heavily in Korean fables, fairy tales, and legends, and are thus closely tied to the national identity of Korea.
As with many cultures, talking animals and animals that transform into humans (such as hares, toads, foxes, and centipedes) feature in many Korean stories — but tigers most of all. The tiger was often viewed as a guardian spirit, worshipped as the “God of the Mountain,” and charged with warding off evil spirits and bad luck from villages, with the wisest of all being the sacred White Tiger; however, in many stories, it also takes an evil or vengeful role.
Many tales highlight how dangerous and fierce tigers are: In “The Sun and the Moon,” a tiger eats a woman on her way home, and then dresses up as her to trick her son and daughter. But her children escape with divine intervention, the tiger dies, and the girl becomes the Sun and her brother the Moon.
In “The Tiger and the Dwarf,” a dwarf trains for years as a marksman in order to hunt down the tiger that killed his father, slaying many other tigers along the way. Yet the tiger also can be a positive influence, as in “The Tiger’s Grave,” where it shows gratitude to a man who saved it from hunters by bringing him a wife from another province (really!) and blessing his family with prosperity after its death. In “The Tiger Girl,” a tiger in the form of a beautiful girl falls in love with a young man and brings him much happiness and good fortune.
In other stories, tigers may take the role of tricksters, as well as creatures to be tricked by humans and other animals, or shown to be foolish.
Today, tigers are mostly seen for their positive characteristics: bravery, strength, and pride. Long depicted in traditional Korean art, sculptures, and lucky talismans, tiger imagery usually represents the spirit of the people, most memorably as the mascot of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
For a good introduction to Korean folk tales about tigers and other animals, I recommend Folk Tales from Korea by In-Sob Zong.
ALIETTE DE BODARD
Aliette de Bodard is a writer of fantasy and science fiction (and the very occasional horror piece). Aliette has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards.
Her Aztec mystery-fantasies, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robot, worldwide. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of venues, such as Interzone, Clarkesworld Magazine, Asimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.
The rồng (Eastern dragons) hold a special place in Vietnamese folklore. In fact, there is a proverb that describes the Vietnamese as “con rồng, cháu tiên” (literally “child of dragons, grandchild of immortals”): one of the origin tales of Vietnam is that Âu Cơ, an immortal mountain fairy, married the Dragon Lord of Lạc, and gave him a hundred children. However, in time, the couple separated because she never ceased to yearn for the mountains whereas his heart was in the sea: they split the children between them, fifty going to the mountains and fifty going to the sea, and this was the origin of the Vietnamese people.
Dragons are likely an import from Chinese mythology (there are many common points between China and Vietnam, though also a lot of differences–and resentment due to the fact that China colonised Vietnam): like the Chinese long, Vietnamese rồng are associated with water. They live at the bottom of rivers, herd clouds to bring rain, or have sea-kingdoms: a frequent tale in Vietnam is the story of a man who marries the daughter of the Dragon King and gains access to supernatural powers. They are unlike the dragons of Western tales: they are very rarely evil (generally they tend to be Heavenly messengers), do not breathe fire (as we have seen, they tend to be associated with the element of water, though there are also underground dragons that can cause earthquakes); and have no wings. Their physical description varies immensely: the one constant is that they’re serpentine creatures with clawed legs–but they sometimes have the antlers of deer, the scales of carps, the claws of tigers…. They are often depicted with a pearl under their chin, which symbolises prosperity; and can take a variety of shapes from turtles to humans.
Dragons are also the imperial animal: the Vietnamese imperial throne, like the Chinese one, was referred to as the dragon throne. The ceremonial clothes for the imperial family bore dragons: the number of claws on the dragon denoted the rank of the holder (for instance, under Emperor Gia Long, the first Emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty, the Crown Prince wore a dress with a five-clawed dragon). Today, the dragon remains one of the animals of the Zodiac, the sign of those destined for great things.
Another being often found in Vietnamese folklore is the turtle: unlike in China where turtles often have negative connotations, turtles are venerated in Vietnamese folklore as long-lived protectors. At the Temple of Literature in Hà Nội, the steles bearing the names of the successful candidates at the mandarin examinations are set on the back of turtles.
One turtle in particular, the Golden Turtle Genie (Rủa Thần Kim Quy), is credited with helping legendary king An Dương Vương build his citadel at Âu Lạc: every night, the ramparts kept collapsing, until the Genie helped the king slay the evil spirit who dug under the ramparts every night. The Genie also left behind one of his claws, which was used as the trigger for a magical crossbow: as long as An Dương Vương had the crossbow, his citadel would never fall.
In more recent times, the Genie is credited with helping national hero L ê L ợi overthrow Chinese domination in the 15th Century by bestowing on him a magical sword, Thuận Thiên (Heaven’s Will): found at the bottom of the river, the sword granted invicibility in battles, but had to be returned to the Genie once Lê Lợi had become emperor of Việt Nam. The lake in Hà Nội where Lê Lợi threw the sword is still called “The Lake of the Returned Sword”.
I can’t think of stories that use Vietnamese turtles (probably they’re not translated in English); but a few that I felt got dragons right (your mileage may vary, of course, that’s just my personal opinion): Miyazaki’s Spirited Away has an awesome dragon and awesome scenes in the river (it’s a Japanese dragon, but again there are common points); Lawrence Yep’s Dragon series successfully adapts Chinese mythology to fantasy (The Dragon of the Lost Sea and subsequent books); and Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a MG book but utterly fabulous all the same.
(for the purposes of this article, I’m recommending only the stuff I read recently–I have memories of other books with East Asian dragons in them, but they’re too distant for me to be able to recommend them)
Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes fantasy, science fiction, and has a strong appreciation for beautiful bugs. Her short fiction can be found in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, various Mammoth Books and best of the year collections. She is a 2014 finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novella Scale-Bright is out now from Immersion Press.
Last year, I had a story included in the horror anthology End of the Road (ed. Jonathan Oliver). The story ‘Fade to Gold’ is dark historical fantasy taking place in war-torn 16th century Siam, and features a creature known as the krasue – a woman who, in daytime, appears as ordinary as anyone else but whose head detaches in the night (lungs, entrails and all) to hunt for prey. This looks exactly as grotesque as you might imagine, and unsurprisingly the krasue is a popular subject for TV shows and movies. (If you get queasy easily, I don’t recommend googling up images; I’ve already horrified at least one reader who went looking!) Her monstrosity is usually inherited.
The krasue interests me especially – when I was doing research for my contribution to Nick Mamatas’s Phantasm Japan, I discovered the Japanese nukekubi. That the idea would be common in my region is unsurprising – it’s also known as the penanggalan in Malaysia, the phi kasu in Lao, and the arb in Cambodia – but I didn’t realize a similar creature also exists in Japanese folklore. The nukekubi is somewhat different, though, in that the person may not know their head detaches at night; but there are other points of similarity, one being that the nukekubi tends to be a young woman. There is, it seems to me, a specific fascination with the idea of a woman (usually beautiful) who turns monstrous in the dead of night. The obvious comparison is to succubi and vampires (and the krasue is often called a vampire due to vulnerability to sunlight, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the correct equivalent; I’m moved to call it a mistranslation). As well, the Thai krasue is not always a young woman; she is often old and near the end of her life, and when under fatal threat transfers her curse and appetite to a kinswoman by spit. So there is a fear of women across all ages and forms: young and beautiful, old and wily, both driven by uncontrollable appetite. Having said that, we do a male version called the ‘krahang’, usually attributed to a man who dabbles in curses and black magic, and is then overtaken by it.
To go by your prompt about false stereotypes and Dungeons & Dragons, a quick Google has shown me that the penanggalan has indeed appeared in it, in an interpretation of the folklore that makes me slightly uncomfortable.
According to legend, the first penanggalan was a young baroness of Harkenwold, plain of face and scant of suitors. But what she lacked in beauty she made up for in wit, and the maiden discovered arcane texts of Bael Turath in the vaults of her father’s estate. She invoked the rituals therein and conjured a devil, which promised her matchless beauty and eternal life if only she would serve it forever.
The devil’s bargain was not so glorious as it had appeared, for such was the maiden’s beauty that armies clashed for her hand, and her father was forced to lock her away in a tower to protect her. Alone in her wretched beauty, the maiden begged the gods to forgive her vain folly, and she swore to do penance before them.
But the devil had other plans. It whispered the secret of the maiden’s unlikely beauty into the ear of the high priest, and before she could do her penance, the maiden was seized from her tower and hanged as a devil worshiper.
The maiden’s body dangled from the gallows until midnight, at which time it slid to the ground, leaving her head behind in the noose, gory intestines dangling beneath. Then the maiden opened her eyes and saw what her vanity had created.
Each penanggalan’s origin involves a female who bargains with devils for immortal beauty and tries to renege, but perishes before she can complete her penance. The penanggalan thirsts for the purity that once ran in its veins. Rare penanggalans continue to attempt penance, but none can purge the unholy thirst that arrives at the midnight hour.
While I’m not a hundred percent sure how far this is from Malaysian folklore – it certainly bears no resemblance to the Thai krasue! – I’m not too at ease with how this interpretation plays up female vanity as the source of her downfall, and how it grafts the penanggalan onto a cultural milieu which has nothing to do with Malaysia (‘Harkenwold’, ‘the devil’s bargain’). It hollows the nuances of the original and transplants it into a very peculiar surrounding indeed.
English-language works which immediately come to mind that feature the krasue (though called by their Lao and Khmer names) is the poetry collection Demonstrata by Bryan Thao Worra.
Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person and is one of the very few people in the Carpathian basin who have never been to a pig killing. E writes speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published in venues like Apex, Strange Horizons and Scigentasy. E also blogs and tweets about diversity in genre (especially in short fiction and poetry) at @bogiperson.
There are many interesting creatures in Hungarian folklore which aren’t known in the West at all. This time I picked a very peculiar being, the kisgömböc (sometimes also spelled as kis gömböc). You can pronounce it approximately like KEESH-goem-boehts. Among other honors, it has to be the least kosher folk monster in existence…
Since Hungarians traditionally use every part of a pig, it’s maybe not much of a surprise that there is also a monster made from a pig! The kisgömböc (approx. “little sphere-y thing”) is a ball-shaped, animate pig’s stomach. In the classic fairytale, a poor farmer slaughters his single pig – pig killing is a major event in rural Hungarian life -, then the family makes food out of all of its parts and they eat it all throughout the winter. In the spring, there’s only the stomach left. But when the eldest daughter of the family goes up to the attic to get the stomach, the stomach tells her it would eat her instead and gobbles her up!
The hungry stomach then goes on a gleeful romp to eat the whole family, the entire village, and in some versions, even a regiment of soldiers. Finally, it swallows a young cowherd, and that becomes its downfall: the cowherd splits it open from the inside with his trusty knife, and everyone goes free.
In addition to the many restaurants and eateries named after the kisgömböc, there is also a self-righting geometric shape called the gömböc that was invented by two Hungarian scientists. The kisgömböc is also often invoked whenever a person comes across as excessively greedy: many a politician has been compared to it!
The following episode of the popular and long-running cartoon series “Hungarian Folktales” tells the story of the kisgömböc. It’s narrated in Hungarian, but you shouldn’t have much trouble following the plot based on what you already know:
The kisgömböc has an interesting counterpart in Finnish tradition. (Hungarian and Finnish are linguistically related.) The Sampo, also featured in the epic Kalevala, creates food out of nothing. I am proud to say that with Rose Lemberg, we have invented the Kisgömböc-Sampo Propulsion System – it produces energy to propel a spaceship by the kisgömböc eating everything the Sampo produces. You can expect it to appear in some of our goofier works…
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore, writes urban fantasy, science fiction and things in between. Also YA. Also steampunk. Her fiction has appeared in We See A Different Frontier and Crossed Genres. She tweets at @jolantru and howls at A Wolf’s Tale.
Fire and silk. Phoenixes and spider demons.
I am going to talk a bit about phoenixes and spider demons, creatures and monsters that we don’t really see in fantasy. Sure, phoenixes are slowly emerging in stories and novels – but spider demons? Spider demons – zi zhu jin – appear in Chinese legends and mythological stories like Journey To The West.
In the story, spider demons crave the lovely delicious sweet flesh of the monk Tripitaka or Tan Sanzang. The spider demons, often in the form of beautiful women, mock and taunt, yet are still drawn to the purity of his flesh. Of course, Journey to The West also contains other types of demons, including the White Bone Demon who appears as his main nemesis. But spider demons hold a special attraction to me. Why spiders?
Spiders and assorted creepy-crawlies have a collective hold on our psyche. Their totally alien chitin, their compound eyes, their multiple legs either spiky or furry or prickly – my skin is crawling already! Bugs and insects often become the ultimate Other, Bad Guy and Enemy in many science fiction and fantasy novels. I mean, Shelob scares the living daylights out of me and the scene in The Hobbit where the spiders ambush Bilbo Baggins and his crew just triggers off the primal fear of these frightening creatures.
I think the same fear applies to spider jinns, shapeshifters who are able to beguile ordinary human beings as women and frighten them as spiders. For the Chinese, the demons are worse than the lowest of the low. The demons aspire to attain the level of fairyhood and yet are still struggling with their base desires. The good demons meditate for thousands of years and attain fairyhood. The bad ones prey on humans just to feed on their precious human chi.
At least the phoenix is welcomed by humankind. In Chinese mythology, the phoenix appeared as Feng and Huang, male and female respectively: the picture of harmony. The gender duality of the phoenix is now blurred: the Feng Huang is now feminine. She is often paired with the Chinese dragon that is seen as masculine. Also called the August Rooster, the Feng Huang is sometimes seen a chimeric animal with a rooster’s beak, the neck of a snake, possessing a tortoise’s back and tail of a fish or a combination of many birds. Unlike the Greek Phoenix, she is seen as an auspicious being, appearing in peaceful and prosperous places. She is also seen a herald of a new era. Motifs of the Feng Huang are used in weddings alongside dragons as symbols of yin and yang, woman and man, as well as regarded as symbols of Chinese and Japanese royalty.
I would like to see more of the Feng Huang in stories. Not as a monster per se, the Feng Huang is a mythological animal with immense potential as characters and protagonists.
I would also like to see more of spider-jinn in stories.