Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Goblins

Here’s the part where my stubborn determination to carry through with a particular worldbuilding conceit backed me into a corner where I found gold. Goblins: Next on Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim!

GOBLIN (Homo neanderthalensis parvus x various)

I had fallen in love with the conceit that dwarves, trolls, and ell folk would be derived species of Neanderthal. This made them sufficiently different from humans and elves (two subspecies of Homo sapiens that developed parallel to each other), but still creatures readers might identify with.

By this theory, humans and elves could freely produce viable offspring, namely half-elves. But that meant that dwarves, trolls, and ell folk could also interbreed and produce viable offspring of a rather surprising variety. At first, it doesn’t look that bad: you can have a dwarf-troll, dwarf-elling, or troll-elling hybrid. But what about the next generation? I had already stumbled upon “ayleck” as a useful term for a dwarf-troll hybrid, and arguably, a dwarf-ayleck hybrid is close enough to count as a dwarf who’s just a bit “off.” The same goes for a troll-ayleck hybrid being effectively the same as a troll.

But what happens when a dwarf-elling hybrid produces children with a troll-elling hybrid? Or what happens when an ayleck produces children with an elling? Before you know it, there are a fair number of elling hybrid types that needed some kind of label to keep them all straight.

And that’s where goblins came in. Early on in my worldbuilding, I thought “goblin” would be a name applied to some ell folk but not all of them, maybe based on culture or origins. It might have even been a racial slur of some sort. The more I thought about it, though, I kind of fell in love with the idea that all of these various hybrids should be called goblins, and that “goblin” would describe a diverse creole culture with connections to ell folk, dwarves, and trolls all at once.

Thus goblins became by basic term for any hybrid faery being with a predominantly ell folk heritage. The vast majority of the time, this means that a goblin is a mixture of elling, dwarf, and troll in various proportions. Though it is possible to have an elling-human or elling-elf hybrid, such beings are very rare and often have physical or mental disadvantages.

The upshot of all this is that I no longer had to come up with specialized terms for, for example, an elling-dwarf hybrid as opposed to an elling-troll hybrid. Rather, a goblin community is a blending of many tribes and cultures in which the strengths and contributions of each individual can shine.

Think of all the communities where distinct cultures have merged. I think especially of New Orleans, with its blending of African, Spanish, French, etc. cultures influencing everything from the food and music to the architecture and overall pace of life. Or New York City, one of America’s oldest melting pots. That’s what goblins are like at their best: eclectic borrowers, taking bits of this and scraps of that and blending it into something all their own. Which also means that goblins can be some of the most hospitable people you’d ever want to meet, especially if you don’t really fit in anywhere else.

This doesn’t mean goblins can’t be mischievous, malicious, or outright evil. I didn’t work out any of these fantasy kindreds with a D&D-type “alignment” system in mind, after all. If goblins are welcoming what is new or different, they can also be opportunistic in figuring out how things—and people!—can be manipulated to suit their own purposes. If they are pragmatic in latching on to whatever works, they can also be dispassionate about the sacrifices that “whatever works” might entail. In short, they can be as good or as bad as any human.

Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Ell Folk

Ell folk are next in my survey of the fantasy kindreds of Saynim.

ELLING (Homo neanderthalensis parvus)

You know what kind of creatures I’m talking about. You’ve seen them in popular culture since forever. These beings are represented by Old World brownies, nisse, and other domestic sprites as well as tiny but magically powerful “little people” of Native American lore.

But what do you call them? The easy answer would be to simply call them “little people”: a term often used especially for the North American branches of this family. But in the real world, “little people” can also refer to humans with certain genetic conditions that make them unusually short. The term is not a slur, but it can be confusing even so. There are plenty of terms that describe the little folk of a particular culture: brownies, duendes, kwanokasha, leprechauns, oogweshia, tomte, yunwi tsunsdi, yumboes, etc. But I needed a collective term that crossed cultural boundaries.

The ancient Greeks spoke of pygmies. Of course, this is also a highly problematic term, but it got me thinking. “Pygmy” comes from pygme, the Greek word for “cubit,” and members of this wondrous tribe were said to stand only about one cubit tall: about 18 inches. (Other groups were said to be three spans tall or about 27 inches.) I wondered if there was a unit of measurement that could become the basis for a made-up collective term for all of these various beings.

As it turns out, the ell is just such a unit, and it has the added benefit of being a bit ambiguous. Originally, an ell was the length of an adult male forearm, or anywhere from 18 to 24 inches, roughly the same as a cubit, so very fitting as a workaround to avoid using the word pygmy while keeping the connotation of “a person who is as tall as this particular unit of measure.” But in later times, a longer ell came into use. A Flemish ell is 27 inches long. A Scottish ell is 37 inches. and an English ell is 45. All of these fit nicely with the sizes that are usually reported of these sorts of tiny humanoids. Finally, “ell” is reminiscent of ellyll, a Welsh fairy being that is smaller than the tylwyth teg (the Welsh version of what I’m calling “elves”).

Ell folk (or ellings) are a dwarf subspecies (in the biological sense of the word) derived from Homo neanderthalensis. They are literally dwarf dwarves. Biologically, there are two ways a dwarf species can evolve. The first is to shorten the length of pregnancy and infancy. A second path is for the length of pregnancy to stay the same but slow down the growth of the fetus. This second path results in smaller brain size and tooth size. For my ell folk, the first path seemed best, as mythology certainly makes them no slouches in the intellect department. They’re usually about a Scottish ell tall, but there is a fair bit of variation in different populations. They don’t possess the brute strength of dwarves and trolls, but they are small enough to crawl through small or constricted passages.

As a rule, ell folk are hardworking and earnest. Most are content to farm the land or work as woodsmen, stonemasons, or in other professions. They are also often mischievous pranksters, however, especially against those who are lazy or negligent in their chores.

Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Trolls

Trolls are next up in our survey of the fantasy kindreds found in Shadow of the King.

TROLLS (Homo neanderthalensis exter)

The neat thing about trolls is that nobody can agree on what they’re supposed to be like? Are they big and brutish? Short and cunning? Powerful shapeshifters? Crafty smiths? Animalistic savages? Rustic livestock herders? Even within Norse mythology, whence we get the word, they can be all of these things.

The word troll is something of a placeholder in the Scandinavian languages for nearly any sort of uncanny supernatural being. The term often overlaps with both “giant” and “ogre,” though those are defined differently in the world of Shadow of the King. For my purposes, if you can’t pin it down to any other category (elf, dwarf, etc.), it’s probably a troll.

I ran with this idea to conceive of trolls as the “wild card” kindred of Saynim. What sets them apart from everyone else is precisely their weirdness and diversity. They are found almost exclusively in northern Eurasian cultures. Wherever you find a wild humanoid with inexplicable physical features, you’re probably dealing with a troll. This would include such beings as the jeetani and stallu of Saami culture, the oni of Japan, and the abaasy of Siberia.

I imagine trolls as another derived subspecies of Neanderthals. They are therefore closely related to dwarves. Along with dwarves, they generally have a stocky build, a prominent nose, and a heavy brow ridge. Beyond that, however, all bets are off. They might be much taller than humans or much shorter. They might possess unusual features such as horns, fangs, arresting eyes, or an unusual skin pigmentation. Being physically bizarre is not considered a bad thing among trolls. On the contrary, it is a badge of pride and self-expression.

Trolls are not necessarily ugly. In fact, some are quite attractive in a feral sort of way, and some have even intermarried with high born elves. This is reflected in legends of intermarriage between Jötnar and Aesir in Norse mythology and between Fomori and the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland.

Some trolls can be stupid, but many more are eerily cunning. They are second only to elves in terms of raw magical power and have often been included in the highest ranks of Saynim society.

Trolls tend to be socially transgressive. Many derive a particular pleasure from shocking others with their outrageous behavior. In other words, they “troll” people, and there is a scene in Shadow of the King where one troll in particular does just that, getting them to lose their cool at precisely the wrong time. Trolls might work hard, but they always play harder. Nothing is subtle about them; they live life with all the dials cranked up to eleven.

Are trolls evil? Not necessarily, though they have little patience for social niceties. They get a bad reputation as violent, cannibalistic, or generally subversive. These assessments are only sometimes true.

AYLECK (H. n. exter x H. n. nanus)

An ayleck is a troll-dwarf hybrid. They don’t actually exist in mythology, at least not without a little fudging, but since I decided that trolls and dwarves would have a close genetic relationship, I figured they needed to be named.

The term “ayleck” is derived from Old English aglæca, meaning “fighter” or “fearsome opponent,” perhaps of an unearthly or supernatural nature. From (I think) the same etymology, Alick and Eelick are attested name for trolls in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The term is applied both to Grendel and his mother in Beowulf—as well as to Beowulf himself! With nothing else really to go on, I decided that Grendel could likely be a good example of an ayleck who leans more heavily toward his trollish heritage. Similarly, the karliki of Slavic myth, a type of dwarf that tends to have an unpleasant personality, might reflect aylecks who lean more toward the dwarven side.

Aylecks don’t have to be evil or violent, however. But since they are different, they are often misunderstood. (John Gardner’s novel Grendel portrays the title character as an antihero—monstrous yes, but not unsympathetic.) They are the products of two quite different worlds: the orderly, hardworking, productive world of dwarves and the wild, unpredictable, hard-living world of trolls. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they struggle to fit in, or that they tend to be meticulous hoarders—fiercely holding on to things (treasure, knowledge, contacts, etc.) that give them a sense of control over their own lives.

Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Dwarves

We continue on our survey of the fantastical kindreds found in my work in progress Shadow of the King by making a deep dive. Deep as in, under the earth. Yes, we’re going to talk about dwarves.

DWARVES (Homo neanderthalensis nanus)

A while back I summarized five different types of dwarf from world folklore. If you like, go back and read that post before proceeding.

Properly speaking, “dwarves” are a product of Norse mythology, but there are many dwarf-like beings around the world. I would point, for example, to the yakshas of South Asia, the khnumu of Egypt, and the dactyls of Greece as but three examples.

In one way or another, all of these beings might be described as secretive on the one hand and highly skilled on the other. Though in Norse mythology they were generally antagonistic to humankind, this stance isn’t necessarily found in other cultures. By and large, dwarves are not so much warriors, as is usually the case in D&D, but craftspersons, guardians of treasure, and (often begrudging) dispensers of hidden knowledge: magic, the healing arts, etc. They are especially associated with the earth and might even live underground.

When I think of dwarves, I imagine stout, muscular, and large-nosed cave dwellers. In short, I think of Neanderthals. By linking dwarves and Neanderthals, I’m tipping my hat to the now discredited notion that European fairy myths began as dim memories of humans’ interactions with an older, indigenous group, sometimes proposed to be a different ethnic strain of modern humans, occasionally identified with Neanderthals. Whoever they were, the theory goes, these strange beings lived in isolation (perhaps under the earth), competed for resources, and perhaps occasionally abducted women and children—to shore up their own dwindling numbers?

At any rate, in the land of Saynim, dwarves are one of a number of kindreds that I propose to be derived Neanderthal subspecies. Of these, dwarves are closest to the original genetic stock. All of these groups display their Neanderthal heritage in a number of ways:

• They are muscular, big-boned, and generally stocky of build. Their shinbones and forearms are proportionally shorter than the same features on H. sapiens. This makes them slow runners, as they are built for power rather than speed.

• Their upper body musculature specializes in explosive power and side-to-side movement. The attachments for the pectoral muscles are up to twice the size of an average H. sapiens.

• Their broad shoulders lack backward displacement, limiting their ability to throw projectiles long distances. Simply put, they lack the characteristic “throwing arm” found in H. sapiens.

• Their facial features include a larger than average nose, heavy brow ridges, large jaw and teeth, weak chin, and a long, low skull with a rounded brain case.

• I imagine dwarves and their near kin as more linguistically adept than their Neanderthal ancestors. Most can mimic H. sapiens speech patterns almost perfectly. Due to differences in the configuration of their vocal apparatus, however, some individuals have a highly nasalized speech and sometimes have difficulty pronouncing the quantal vowel sounds (the ee in beet, the oo in boot, and the a in father; they tend to substitute the i in bit, the oo in took, and either the a in hat or the u in mud).

It is known that modern humans possess a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, so interbreeding between the two stocks is certainly possible, but not without some difficulties. There is no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, in the human genome. This suggests at least one of the following scenarios:

  1. Neanderthal mDNA carried harmful mutations that led to the extinction of sapiens-Neanderthal offspring from a Neanderthal mother.
  2. Offspring of Neanderthal mothers were exclusively raised in Neanderthal groups and went extinct with them.
  3. Female Neanderthals and male sapiens did not produce fertile offspring.

In other words, genetic problems may have arisen with at least some Neanderthal-sapiens offspring. In Shadow of the King, the same factors figure in when discussing dwarf-human or dwarf-elf interbreeding.

Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Humans

I might not have included a post on humans in this survey of the fantasy kindreds you’d find in my work in progress Shadow of the King except for the distinctive role they play in the story world. So let’s go…

HUMAN (Homo sapiens sapiens)

Humans are not native to the realm of Saynim. In fact, they are a distinct minority. Those who live there are either “overbrought,” taken from the mundane world either in infancy or at a later age, or the descendants of those so taken. These humans were taken from their own world for various reasons, both benign and sinister.

Benignly, some humans were removed as young children from situations of abuse or neglect. Others found refuge in Saynim after escaping from dire situations such as domestic abuse, abject poverty, or systemic oppression. There is a Cherokee legend about the Nunnehi rescuing the people of certain towns from the Removal by whisking them away to their own magical domain.

Still others were “recruited”—perhaps with selfish motivation—because they possessed certain qualities deemed desirable to a particular otherworldly party. For instance, an elf might fall in love with a human and invite him or her to join this alien world.

At other times, however, folklore describes humans brought into the Otherworld for more sinister reasons. They might be taken as slaves to serve in either the harems or the armies of a powerful fae lord. The Cherokees believed water cannibals would steal children for food. The okwa naholo (“white water people”) of Choctaw mythology would lure swimmers to their underwater domain and, if they stayed long enough, would become okwa naholo themselves. Of course, sometimes humans are taken capriciously, for no discernible reason.

So, what roles do humans play in Saynim society? There are certain stereotypes of humans at play, not least among them the idea that humans are tricky and unpredictable. They think outside the box. More than any other kindred, they seem able to resist the pull of magic to become conformed to particular ways of thinking and acting.

All of this makes humans fascinating to elves and the rest, and they are often objects of a benign and patronizing racism that admires them for these unique qualities while ultimately diminishing their personhood. Think of the way some white folks romanticize (and even fetishize) peoples and cultures that they see as “exotic,” and you won’t be far removed from the way many in Saynim think of humans.

Humans rarely serve as common slaves, though they may be bonded to a lord in a more high-status position of servitude as an adviser, teacher, bodyguard, or in some other capacity where quick, unorthodox thinking is desirable. Some fae lords have maintained elite military units of overbrought children raised to be warriors virtually from birth, comparable to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. Whether bond or free, many humans end up in the officer corps of various otherworldly principalities.

Other humans find a niche in careers where their adaptability and unpredictability are assets. They might be merchants and entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, theoreticians, spies, adventures, and treasure-hunters.

Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Elves

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I can be a little obsessive about the fantastical humanoid beings one finds in folklore and popular culture? For one thing, I resist using the word “race” to describe these beings. That term is just too fraught with negative historical connotations in a context where we’re describing persons that look almost human but are regarded by everyone as something profoundly different.

Furthermore, I continue to be intrigued by the analogy between the D&D/Tolkienesque model of multiple fantasy kindreds sharing a world and the actual situation say 300,000 years ago with multiple hominin species sharing planet earth. (A layperson’s definition of a hominin is roughly anything more human than a chimpanzee.)

With my work in progress Shadow of the King nearing completion, I thought I’d share a little of how I personally imagine the kindreds that populate the faerie realm of Saynim. I have tried to keep three goals in mind:

  • Be as true to the folkloric source material as possible.
  • Work with as many non-European folklore examples as possible.
  • Look for connections to what is known or might be postulated about the diversity of hominin species.

I’ll start with elves because, as they’ll gladly tell you, they’re better than everybody else.

ELVES (Homo sapiens pulcher)

Alaric Hall’s PhD dissertation, “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England” provides a wealth of data about the elves of Germanic mythology. As originally conceived, they were apparently human-sized creatures, and more often took the side of humans than not. Hall also points out that in Old English, aelf was often used as a gloss when translating classical references to fauns/satyrs and nymphs.

For my purposes, I take “elf” to mean those fantastical humanoids that look most human, though often possessing unearthly beauty, and that are most likely to have a physical relationship with humans.

In this category I would place not only the nymphs and satyrs of the classical world but also such creatures as the aes sídhe of Ireland and the peris of Iran. In Cherokee mythology, the Nunnehi are elf-like beings who live high in the mountains. They occasionally venture among humans, joining them in their dances and appearing as attractive humans themselves.

In short, I imagine elves as a subspecies of Homo sapiens and therefore our closest cousins among the Saynim folk. Mythology is, in fact, chock full of elf-human hybrid children. “Half-elves” appear in Germanic folklore, for example, with the likes of Hagen of Tronege and Princess Skuld. In Irish folklore, we find Oscar and Plúr na mBan. Outside of Europe, there is also the Arabic legend that says that Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba from the Old Testament, was in fact the daughter of a jinni.

Elves are creatures of grace, subtlety, and powerful magic, especially when it comes to charms and illusions. They tend to conduct themselves with nobility and grace, even if they are not well born. The “faery courts” of European folklore reflect the elvish conception of refinement and sophistication. At the same time, elves are the haughtiest and most easily offended of all Saynim folk—and woe to the one who causes the offense!

In the earliest mythology, elves were generally on the side of good. It may not be that they followed a moral code that humans would recognize, but more often than not, they could be convinced to be on “our” side. In Germanic cultures, offerings were given to the elves to ensure their good favor. All of this changed, however. By the time of Beowulf (c. AD 1000), elves were listed among giants and demons as enemies of humankind. Now, elves are more often seen as a threat: they blight crops, steal babies, and inflict various diseases on humans and livestock. Interpreters usually attribute this shift to the Christianization of northern Europe, and that’s probably not a bad explanation. In Iceland, where the Old Ways are still prevalent, elves don’t have such a bad reputation. And among the Cherokee, the Nunnehi are still considered defenders of the people.

But then elves shift again in the early modern period. Starting around 1600, elves turn into tiny, comical figures: still mischievous, perhaps, but no longer the creatures of nightmare. Our modern conception of elves as Santa’s helpers or as cheerful shoemakers in the Grimm fairy tale come from this period.

In Shadow of the King, I provide an in-story explanation for this second shift from malevolent demons to diminutive mischief-makers. Perhaps in a later volume I’ll do the same for the first shift from a generally pro-human to an anti-human stance.