Why do dragons have hoards?

One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.

I had this paperback version. Wrote an extremely simplistic book report about it.

This is the cover variant I read, and it’s the first mental image I have when anyone talks about The Hobbit.

 

More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.

Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?

In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.

It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

 

In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.

Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?

I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.

Flight_of_Dragons_17

Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.

 

I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.

Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.

     -Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9

And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.

In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.


Is blood thicker than water?

I grew up hearing the expression, “Blood is thicker than water”. Meaning that a person’s family is more important — and more reliable — than their friends.

greyscalefamily

But the funny thing about idioms is that they change over time. A quick look at Wikipedia shows various ideas of blood thickness. There’s an interesting Arabian idea of blood (as in the blood-brother you’ve sworn loyalty to) being thicker than milk (suckled together).

 

But the alternate version I heard first was this one: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Which means the polar opposite of “blood is thicker than water”: it means that the relationships we choose are stronger than the relationships we’re just born into. I found it striking that the expression changed meaning completely — but hey, that’s the power of language. Phrasing matters.

More than that, I think that “blood of the covenant” idea is the more truthful one. Some people are born into abusive families who hurt them and stifle their potential. Some people are born into families they don’t hate, but also don’t really get along with. Ironically, relatives don’t always relate to each other. It’s great if you truly connect with your blood family, but if you don’t, there’s no good reason to prioritize DNA connections over the found friends who actually love and support you.

My stance shows clearly in the Stories of Aligare. In that world, a family is whoever you care about. Homes can be a patchwork of different people and connections. It’s fine if they’re not biologically related to you — or even if they’re a dramatically different species. Peregrine the korvi loves his adopted ferrin friends more than anything. Tenver the ferrin considers Constezza the korvi to be his mother. And as the years go by, Rue the aemet rearranges her definition of her nuclear family:

“I’m glad [Feor the dog] went to you,” Mother admitted. She worked an arm behind Rue, to put a love-soft hand on Rue’s shell. “You two match. Two is a half-measure of luck, you know.”

“You match?” Denelend hopped closer, tipping his head. “Oh, your names? Aemet names mean things, don’t they?”

“They do. Come on, Denelend — have a rest, dear. We’ve got plenty of light.”

Mother paused until Denelend was seated by her booted feet, patiently enduring while Feor sniffed him over. It was growing less strange to think of this gathering as the Tennel family — one with found friends woven in, a ferrin and a korvi and now a dog, too.

                                                                                    —Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 7

I find that sort of attitude fulfilling to write about — as opposed to the more common fantasy ideas of family lineage and bastard children, which seem to breed nastiness and judgement. I think we can all use as many covenants as we can get.

 


Competitions and wagers: friendly gambling in the Aligare world

Gambling doesn’t have a very wholesome reputation in our world. Sure, you can buy some lottery tickets as a harmless gift, or have a nice vacation in Las Vegas and freely tell your coworkers about it. But think about gambling a little longer and we find a lot of negative connotations. On our Earth, gambling is often associated with dishonesty, danger, illegal activities and bad decisions. It can lead people down all sorts of slippery slopes.

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, c. 1594

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, c. 1594

Making a bet is very different in Aligare. Wagers don’t have whole subcultures attached to them — partly because aemets, korvi and ferrin haven’t put creative effort into scamming each other. Gambling — or, more commonly, “wagering” — is just a way to turn any activity into a friendly competition. It’s also common to say “I’d wager they will”, or “Bet a plum on that!” as a casual turn of phrase.

Just like on Earth, “I’d wager” comments can be a source of hyperbole. Make too grand a claim and there’s no risk anyone will believe it.

“Bet the house on that wager, my friend!” He fanned wing feathers to frame his own truth. “I’ll put words in ears and bring you a fine, heavy pouch full of gifts!”  —Syril of Reyardine, Chapter 8 of Render (A story of Aligare)

“Bet the house on that wager, my friend!” He fanned wing feathers to frame his own truth. “I’ll put words in ears and bring you a fine, heavy pouch full of gifts!”

— Syril of Reyardine being his effusive self, in Chapter 8 of Render (A story of Aligare)

When folk actually make wagers, they’re commonly made between folk of the same species. Maybe two fiesty young korvi decide to fly to that distant mountaintop and back, to see who can do it the fastest. Or a family of aemets all strive grow the biggest garden turnip with their plantcasting. Or a family of ferrin kits declare that the first one to find a crow feather in the forest wins — ready, go! But there can be interspecies wagers if everyone can agree on fair terms, or choose some mental or magical challenge where your body type doesn’t matter.

I don't have any art to represent abstract verbal agreements. Maybe these ferrin won their nice clothes in a wager ...?

I don’t have any art to represent abstract verbal agreements. Maybe these ferrin won their nice clothes in a wager.

The more important part is that the wager participants trust each other. They’re usually family or close friends. In Aligare society, wagers are made for the thrill of competition — but with someone who’ll still like you no matter who wins. The prize is something small: some delightful food, a trinket, or a promise to do some chore. Wagering something large or valuable would defeat the point. How can everyone enjoy the contest if they’re worried about losing? The strong Aligare sense of fairness is present here. (Aligare folk would be confused and alarmed to hear that humans sometimes get themselves in deep financial trouble by gambling. They’d wonder why would a human would bet things they can’t afford to lose, and what sort of heartless person would accept those things.)

Because of the emphasis on trust and fair sport, it would be unusual to make a wager with a new acquaintance. That’s considered risky: most Aligare folk would be leery to either offer that wager or take it up. Who knows what the other person’s skills are? What if they don’t take losing well? It might be an unpleasant experience if the participants are poorly matched. Offering a wager to an acquaintance can be a bold way of flirting, though. Some Aligare folk have stories of a gutsy wager that brought delight and a new relationship. Some folk have sore memories of offering a wager and regretting it. Most just reserve wagers for their close circle of loved ones.

If the wager is something that lends itself to spectators — like physical feats, or casting talents, or song and dance — it might become a public performance. Neighbours might gather to watch the wager, knowing that it’s all in good fun and curious to see what happens. Feisty young korvi are a frequent source of public challenges, with their dragonkind talents of flight and fire being so naturally showy. For anyone of any race, participating in a wager can spark a love of performing and entertaining. And in trying times, a fun public wager can lift a village’s spirits. That’s well worth the prize.

Related articles:

Aligare’s Mandragora, the Legend Creature of stories (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals) (heidicvlach.com)

Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world (heidicvlach.com)


Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on December 8th, 2012.

About a decade ago, a teenaged Heidi C. Vlach began writing her first fantasy novel.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing pants.

What I wrote was a clumsy precursor to the Aligare world, where the high gods Light and Dark had a terrible, eons-long feud ending with Dark being imprisoned in the earth. It caused Dark to go berserk and inadvertently transmit its madness to all other darkcasting creatures. The main characters knew that Dark wasn’t inherently evil, but that the world had been critically unbalanced somehow. So the story was a Ragtag Fantasy Quest against a Powerful Dark Lord, except that this particular Dark Lord didn’t need to be defeated so much as snapped out of a really vicious panic attack.

Even in that early stage of my writing career, I knew I wanted magic elements that opposed each other. Light and dark, obviously enough. But I didn’t want to use the classical fantasy versions of light versus dark. You know, where light represents all things good, pure and truthful, while darkness means evil corrupted lies and lust. That’s an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t hold up to questioning. Murder is okay when a good person does it? Not because of the murder’s circumstances, but because the person doing the deed has an innately good soul or something? Good luck making that premise morally coherent.

There is some logical basis for the idea that light is good. This Earth needs light to feed all our food plants. Humans need sunlight for our basic physical and mental health, and we also rely heavily on our eyesight, so we’re vulnerable when it’s dark. We’re just generally more comfortable in a well-lit area. Light even makes a good dramatic device, since we can wield a light-shedding object to drive the shadows away. Why not assign light to our heros and warriors? Why not assign darkness to everything we consider an enemy?

angeldemon

But the dark isn’t all bad. I mean, we sleep in the dark, and sleep is usually a time of peace and restoration. If anything, darkness isn’t evil so much as a lack of information — but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. Light versus dark has the same troubling undertones as saying that all orcs are born evil. And too much light can be harmful  — like when it causes sunburn or blindness.

So for the Aligare world, I tried to make light and dark oppose each other without being cliched or preachy. Light magic became brightcasting and the god Light was renamed Bright– a minor semantic difference, but I still think it’s a step away from any hoary Warriors Of Light ideas. And darkcasting opposes brightcasting, but not because it’s bad. The elements are more like positive and negative blood types. (Speaking of good-and-bad nomenclature, why are half of all blood types implied to be somehow bad?)

And Aligare brightcasting and darkcasting both have the capacity to heal. Since sunlight can nurture growth and darkness can aid rest, it made sense to me that both elements can help a creature recover. In Remedy, villages receiving medical supplies need to be given bright and dark healing stones. Going back to the blood type analogy, healers need to be aware of all the casting types their patient uses; using brightcasting healing on someone who knows darkcasting — or vice versa — can do more harm than good.

But it’s overall better that people can learn bright or dark, whichever element works for them. Folk who spend a lot of time in, say, shadowy dense forests would have a much easier time using darkcasting than brightcasting. Even in simple light stones used to illuminate the surroundings, darkcasting stones are sometimes favoured because the light is less harsh. Yes, for the sake of balance, I thought dark light should be an actual possible concept. It looks sort of like ultraviolet/”black light”, just without the effect of making stuff glow.

mazda-blacklight-2

But the most important point is that Aligare folk don’t see darkness or shadow as innately bad things. Like anything in life, darkness can be good or bad depending on the situation. I need to be careful of this while writing — and in rough drafts, I catch myself accidentally describing ominous situations as “dark” or “black”. Nope, I think. That’s human perception, not aemet or korvi or ferrin.

This is just one of the concepts I write about because I want to see it more often. Dark powers are sometimes used for good in our fantasy media, but they’re not often portrayed as a genuinely neutral force. So it’s something I’m still working on.


The Greatbloom: Aligare’s creation legend

greatbloom

 

Every culture has a creation story, some folklore attempt to explain why we have earth and sky and life. Aligare folk have the legend of the Greatbloom. You might have seen it already in the Aligare lore section of this site but here it is again:

Before all things, there was no land and no sky, not enough light to see by and no waft of air to sense with. All things churned together. It was silent, like a held breath. And then, life came to that place. It crashed through all things, more brilliant than lightning and more fluid than water, to strike one mote of soil and one mote of air. From that burned spot, the Greatbloom crept out. It was a tiny vine, pale white but as alive as any person. Without so much as a seed hull to protect it, the Greatbloom rooted itself on the life-struck earth and breathed in the life-struck air — and it grew and grew.

After forty-eight years had passed, the Greatbloom was soon a towering plant casting an endless shadow over the land. And then, it opened a magnificent flower, so it had a face to turn toward everything around it. The earth was bare and dusty. The air was devoid, stirred by no wind. Sensing how badly the land wanted for life, the Greatbloom gathered its strength into seeds of every type and element. Once its seeds were scattered, the Greatbloom wilted and died. Over the forty-eight years its stalk took to break down, its elemental seeds blossomed and filled the land richly with life.

The gods arrived to watch those seeds send out first roots. They saw what that lone Greatbloom plant had done, and they gathered around its dry, brown stem. They had never seen such potential in all the empty tracts they had crossed. Great Bright and Dark, with Verdana, Fyrian, Ambri and Okeos beside them, agreed to tend to these things the Greatbloom brought to life. And with all life adopted by god guardians, it was nurtured, and it has been thriving ever since.

The details change a bit depending on who’s telling the story. Korvi folk sometimes say the Greatbloom produced both seeds and eggs, because they don’t think fire-elemental creatures would come from a seed. Some folk feel that the Greatbloom’s seed wasn’t created by a lightning-like bolt of life energy: they think the seed itself was there from the beginning, as a dense packet of all the mortal life energy there is. But whatever the story’s specifics, the Greatbloom is broadly known and considered to be the origin of everything in Aligare.

 

I didn’t actually develop this creation legend until Remedy was nearly complete. I wanted to make sure that the people’s legends are a reflection of their everyday lives and beliefs. That’s why the Greatbloom sacrifices itself to fill a greater need. That’s why the gods are outsiders who are impressed by the Greatbloom’s efforts, and willing to adopt the land and protect it. Aligare society values cooperation and kindness, and it feels that the families we choose are just as valid as families tied by blood. For aemets, korvi and ferrin, these values are a constant truth.

 

 


When is it okay to judge an author?

With social media connecting the world, we have plenty of opportunities to make judgements about people. This random stranger is following me on Twitter? Well, I’ll just check their feed and see what they— A Jersey Shore fan?! Unacceptable!


It’s easy to make judgements about books, too. Maybe you think that all vampire stories are innately stupid. Maybe you read one sample page of a book and find the prose style too clunky and childish, like you’re being talked down to.  Maybe you reach the end of the book and find yourself annoyed at how you were beaten over the head with a moral message. It can be tempting to make judgements about the person who composed that piece. Because writing a book is an intentional act, isn’t it?

12jerome

When an author writes a work of fiction, they might be drawing exclusively from their own opinions and experiences. Or they might not be. Writers sometimes create characters very different from themselves. They might explore a mindset they themselves don’t agree with. They might be trying for a particular emotional effect, or an evocation of some far-gone time period. Or maybe the writer is simply churning out some words to sell for money, so they can pay their real-life bills.

All of that is affected by the author’s skill level in writing, and their personal blind spots. A book can be an incredibly complex stew of human ideas, some entirely borrowed from other humans. So it’s not accurate to say that a book is a mirror image of the person who wrote it. Just ask any author who’s written about an abusive mother character, then had to deal with their actual mother taking offense.

Mature woman yelling

“How dare you spend years composing a complex narrative with a female character in it?! I’M female!”

I had an experience of being judged after I published Remedy. A reviewer said that she found the opening chapters confusing, therefore I’m “one of those” authors who is too good to explain my own world. Like I was too wrapped up in myself to consider how a reader will understand things. Which gobsmacked me, because here I was believing that readers are intelligent people who can draw conclusions for themselves. If I say the dragon is walking on two feet and folding his feathered wings, I trust that the reader can make a mental image of a bird-like, reptile-like being. And hopefully, they’ll get some minor satisfaction from figuring that out. I know I hate it when a book gives long, straightforward descriptions of every physical thing: I feel like I’m being spoonfed applesauce instead of being given a well-seasoned meal to chew. Maybe I’m conceited to think that other readers should be willing to make mental effort and interpret the word choices on the page? In which case, I’ll gladly admit that I’m the biggest “one of those” around, and folks can go ahead and judge me for that. (I did give more consideration to the opening of Ravel, though. And I’m still fiddling with the opening of Render, and gathering beta reader opinions.)

Judging the creator is yet another grey area in writing. It might not be possible to cleanly sort the author’s opinions and attitudes from the fictional story they wrote. A book’s messages can be understood in many different ways. But sometimes the writing actually does reflect the author’s prejudices, intentional or not. If a pattern appears in four or five books, well, yeah, maybe the writer really is expressing their views. Maybe there’s a reason all their male characters are abusive jerks, or all of their homosexual characters are deceitful. That’s deserving of criticism. The conscientious writer will notice those sorts of unintentional messages in their first book or two, and try to do better next time.

An author can admit to their mistakes, too. J.K. Rowling reportedly didn’t find out until partway through the Harry Potter series that snowy owls aren’t nocturnal and don’t hoot. So Harry’s owl Hedwig is portrayed inaccurately. Rowling invited fans to see this as either the author error it is, or as evidence that Hedwig is special and magical. If I had noticed that the fictional owl wasn’t accurate to real snowy owls, yeah, I’d probably think it was sloppiness on the author’s part, or just not caring because she’s writing for kids. But J.K.R. admitting that she made a human mistake while building a fantasy epic? I can respect that.

425px-Snowy_Owl_-_Schnee-Eule

More proof that Wikipedia is your friend.

So basically, one book is circumstantial evidence. Maybe it shows the author’s true views, and maybe it doesn’t. It might just show momentary ideas, or lapses in concentration. If the author’s other books point to the same conclusion, it’s suspicious but still not iron-clad. Maybe the publisher demanded a certain slant. Maybe the writer just didn’t notice a distasteful message, and/or the editorial team didn’t point it out.

Personally, I try to avoid judgement until I see the author’s prose combined with their actual public statements. The things they say on their blog, or on Facebook, or in an interview. Some authors really do disrespect their fanbase, or have an overinflated ego, or insist that social groups X and Y are the scum of the earth. Some authors explode with rage if it’s suggested that their book isn’t perfect. If all signs point to a bad attitude, then yeah, we’re probably safe to judge.

Got thoughts? Share in the comments!


Ebook piracy and why I’m okay with it

I’m a content-producing novelist trying to make a living. Despite this, I don’t think piracy is evil.

No, really. One time, a convention attendee joked about pirating my book to his friends (then quickly insisted he wouldn’t do that) — and I laughed and gave him permission. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind if that attendee copied the Remedy ebook and emailed it to 500 of his friends and acquaintances. I might make thousands of dollars if every one of those 500 people purchased Remedy, but I don’t think the issue is as simple as that.

There are some existing cautionary tales, like Napster and the anime industry.  Historically, people sold art, music and stories in a scarcity-based model. The only way to get these things was to purchase them through legitimate venues, which were sometimes hard to find and often priced steeply. When the Internet came along, people began downloading the things they were interested in but couldn’t buy legitimately. There was suddenly a way to circumvent the gatekeepers. Is that wrong? Well, the free market is clearly expressing its desires, and I think the onus is on businesses to keep up with demand. No one gets to order the world to stop changing. But is it just a matter of stealing things you haven’t paid for?

thief

Physical ownership is clear and easy to enforce. A car is a three-dimensional object and we treat it as such. This object is valuable because it performs an action, and it’s made of materials with a calculable worth. You could sell a car for its parts or its metal content, but that car has greater value when it still works as a car. We know how fast a make of car can drive, and we can predict how many years it’ll be useful for. It might have social connotations (ie. driving a car as a mark of adulthood), but that’s not the primary reason a car is a valuable object. Forcibly taking that car away from its owner — so you can drive it or sell it instead of them — is therefore wrong.

Information, though? It’s trickier to control, and I don’t even think it should be held hostage for money. Information is a basic right. Everyone gets to learn skills, hear stories and experience art. That’s because we are enriched by ideas in ways we can’t always fathom. You can charge for your time and effort in distributing information — that’s reasonable. You can ask people to support you so they’ll get more information in the future. But I don’t think written stories are comparable to an object, be it a luxury car or a stick of gum. Stories have a word count but they’re not truly measurable. You can’t look at a novel and know that you’ll get so many grams or ounces of joy from it.

Why is a paperback book valuable? We know that paper, glue and ink are physical resources, and that someone needed to print and transport the book. Those books originally sold for a price the publisher needed to keep their New York rent paid up. If you resell old pulp paperbacks you found moldering away in your basement, you might get a few cents each for them if you’re lucky. What about the purpose of the book, though — the story? There’s no telling how valuable that story will be to any given person. I’ve read plenty of classics and bestsellers that I thought were boring and terrible, which meant they had very little value for me. Those old basement books might contain a story you end up loving. And people might read Remedy and think it’s a waste of their time: that’s a risk I take as a writer. I hope people will find value in the characters and ideas I present, but I can’t force them and nor should I.

If people read a pirated copy of Remedy, they’re trying out what I do. Taking my writing for a test drive, to get back to the car example. Determining if my work is worth their money. And I’m okay with that — because as an independant author, awareness of my work is more valuable than a payment of pocket change. I do charge dollars and cents for my books, but that’s basically just an assurance that I’ve worked hard to make a product I believe is worth money. It’s a request for token support of what I do. I understand Internet culture and I’m not stupid enough to put myself in a position where piracy will ruin me financially.

CanadianCoins

Poor self-publisher. Deprived of, um, some coffee and maybe a donut or something.

Old perspectives tell us that everything must be policed, enforced, and sold for money. That’s a system that takes failure hard and doesn’t acknowledge its own flaws — especially when trying to sell something as mercurial as ideas. It also makes people overly obsessed with money and ownership, in such distasteful examples as jacking up ebook prices when public libraries are looking to buy. I’d rather operate on a system where people enjoy my work and support me when they think I deserve their token support. Maybe they pay me in the form of reading my work for free, then telling their friends to check me out. That’s cool. I think we can all live with that.


Light and dark magic: how I used the concept in the Aligare world

About a decade ago, a teenaged Heidi C. Vlach began writing her first fantasy novel.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing pants.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing clothes.

What I wrote was a clumsy precursor to the Aligare world, where the high gods Light and Dark had a terrible, eons-long feud ending with Dark being imprisoned in the earth. It caused Dark to go berserk and inadvertently transmit its madness to all other darkcasting creatures. The main characters knew that Dark wasn’t inherently evil, but that the world had been critically unbalanced somehow. So the story was a Ragtag Fantasy Quest against a Powerful Dark Lord, except that this particular Dark Lord didn’t need to be defeated so much as snapped out of a really vicious panic attack.

Even in that early stage of my writing career, I knew I wanted magic elements that opposed each other. Light and dark, obviously enough. But I didn’t want to use the classical fantasy versions of light versus dark. You know, where light represents all things good, pure and truthful, while darkness means evil corrupted lies and lust. That’s an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t hold up to questioning. Murder is okay when a good person does it? Not because of the murder’s circumstances, but because the person doing the deed has an innately good soul or something? Good luck making that premise morally coherent.

There is some logical basis for the idea that light is good. This Earth needs light to feed all our food plants. Humans need sunlight for our basic physical and mental health, and we also rely heavily on our eyesight, so we’re vulnerable when it’s dark. We’re just generally more comfortable in a well-lit area. Light even makes a good dramatic device, since we can wield a light-shedding object to drive the shadows away. Why not assign light to our heros and warriors? Why not assign darkness to everything we consider an enemy?

angeldemon

But the dark isn’t all bad. I mean, we sleep in the dark, and sleep is usually a time of peace and restoration. If anything, darkness isn’t evil so much as a lack of information — but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. Light versus dark has the same troubling undertones as saying that all orcs are born evil. And too much light can be harmful  — like when it causes sunburn or blindness.

So for the Aligare world, I tried to make light and dark oppose each other without being cliched or preachy. Light magic became brightcasting and the god Light was renamed Bright– a minor semantic difference, but I still think it’s a step away from any hoary Warriors Of Light ideas. And darkcasting opposes brightcasting, but not because it’s bad. The elements are more like positive and negative blood types. (Speaking of good-and-bad nomenclature, why are half of all blood types implied to be somehow bad?)

And Aligare brightcasting and darkcasting both have the capacity to heal. Since sunlight can nurture growth and darkness can aid rest, it made sense to me that both elements can help a creature recover. In Remedy, villages receiving medical supplies need to be given bright and dark healing stones. Going back to the blood type analogy, healers need to be aware of all the casting types their patient uses; using brightcasting healing on someone who knows darkcasting — or vice versa — can do more harm than good.

But it’s overall better that people can learn bright or dark, whichever element works for them. Folk who spend a lot of time in, say, shadowy dense forests would have a much easier time using darkcasting than brightcasting. Even in simple light stones used to illuminate the surroundings, darkcasting stones are sometimes favoured because the light is less harsh. Yes, for the sake of balance, I thought dark light should be an actual possible concept. It looks sort of like ultraviolet/”black light”, just without the effect of making stuff glow.

mazda-blacklight-2

But the most important point is that Aligare folk don’t see darkness or shadow as innately bad things. Like anything in life, darkness can be good or bad depending on the situation. I need to be careful of this while writing — and in rough drafts, I catch myself accidentally describing ominous situations as “dark” or “black”. Nope, I think. That’s human perception, not aemet or korvi or ferrin.

This is just one of the concepts I write about because I want to see it more often. Dark powers are sometimes used for good in our fantasy media, but they’re not often portrayed as a genuinely neutral force. So it’s something I’m still working on.


Aligare’s Barghest, the Legend Creature of judgement

On the Aligare Lore page, I’ve outlined the twelve Legend Creatures thought to inhabit the land, maintaining balance and lending colour to the place. The most commonly talked about is the Barghest, a giant green-furred dog. He’s a big part of Aligare morality.

The legendary Barghest, in lineart I don't want to muck up with Photoshop.

The legendary Barghest, in lineart I don’t want to muck up with Photoshop.

Aligare’s Barghest is based on the black dog folklore of the British Isles. These monstrous, ghostly dogs go by many names, including barghest, cu sith, or black shuck. Most black dogs are malevolent creatures that stalk lone travellers in the night and cause people to disappear. But a few black dogs are benevolent — like really scary guard dogs who escort travellers instead of eating them. I drew from both versions when imagining my Barghest. There’s also a little Grim Reaper in him, and some Lady Justice, too.

It’s said that if an Aligare being has lied, cheated, stolen or caused harm, they will eventually get the strange feeling that they’re being watched. No one else sees or senses anything unusual, but the victim knows something is up. They’ll catch glimpses of glowing eyes in the shadows. They’ll detect the shape of a dog slinking along behind them — not an ordinary dog, but a beast bigger than a horse. The Barghest is a master of darkcasting magic; it is only seen when it wants to be seen, and it can hide in an ant’s shadow if it wants to.

Eventually, when the victim is alone, the Barghest appears before them. The hound can’t speak, but it’s said that a victim’s sins will come flooding back into their mind as they look up at the judgement creature’s face. If the victim is a sentient person, this is their chance to explain themselves. They have one chance to plead their case, explaining why they committed sins, maybe even promising to rectify the situation. And the Barghest is capable of mercy — but the excuse had better be very good. If he doesn’t like what he hears, the person will vanish without a trace. Some say the Barghest devours his victim on the spot. Others say he banishes them from existence, so it’s like the person and their sins have been erased from the land.

The people of Aligare may genuinely value teamwork and sharing, but there are still temptations. Sentient beings are the most suscteptible to greedy, cruel impulses. So in Aligare’s oral history, on the rare occasion a character acts sinfully, they always vanish mysteriously. Could they have simply gotten lost in the forest, or drowned without a trace? Maybe. Are these historical stories just tall tales invented by the bards? Could be. Or those sinful folk might have met the Barghest and been forced to pay the price for their transgressions. If the benefits of teamwork aren’t enough motivation for a person, then the thought of a scary judge-cum-executioner usually does the trick. If someone still decides to act sinfully, well, they must have a good enough reason to risk meeting the Legend Hound.

I haven’t heard back from the other korvi fellow I sent to Fenwater [with a supply of healing stones], gods only know where she is.

“She wouldn’t have taken your stones? It happens in times like these.”

It did sound as though she had aemet friends in Greenway … A frown marred Ethen’s face, and he said, She can plead her intentions to the Great Hound, I suppose.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 19

So the Barghest is mentioned with reverence, and he’s meant to be scary. But Aligare folk don’t really fear him. This isn’t some slavering monster that eats anything he can catch. The Barghest only notices and stalks those who do wrong, and he only renders judgement on those who have knowingly sinned against others. If you have a clear conscience and you always try to do what’s right, then you have nothing to fear.

Tijo bent over a bag of stones now, sorting them with fierce motions. “Nothing is hopeless, Syril. I heard of a young aemet with stipple fever some years ago. She boiled in her skin for two entire days and came out of it fine. Seeing, speaking, remembering everything. If I can make such good fortune happen for those poor souls you found in the fields, then let the Barghest take me if I choose to stand idly by.”

Frankly, if Syril were the Legend hound judging rights and wrongs, he would swallow up all of korvikind for making choices at all, terrible mess of wormy apples that this was.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13

The Barghest also won’t punish any creature for its basic nature. Carnivorous animals must kill to eat. As long as a person kills animals mercifully, and for a good reason like needing food, that’s acceptable, too. And the Barghest allows demons to cause illnesses and bad luck in people, because they’re only nourishing themselves in their own strange way.

So the Barghest is partly there to answer the question, “Why is everyone so nice in these books?” The Aligare world has what we’d consider strong morals and a ridiculously low crime rate — so the Barghest isn’t often needed. But the Legend hound is there in the minds of Aligare folk, providing yet another reason to do the right thing.