Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Giants and Ogres

Giants and ogres are found in practically every culture in the world. If you discount magically adept creatures like the frost and fire giants of Norse mythology (which I think are better accounted for as trolls), they are almost always savage, backward, and even cannibalistic. Their defining characteristics are incredible size and brutish demeanor. They aren’t truly members of Saynim society, but are sometimes pressed into service by a powerful master.

As I envision them, these beings all share a common ancestor in Homo erectus soloensis, a hominin from Indonesia that is a late variant of Homo erectus with a larger cranial capacity and an unusually advanced culture compared to other erectus subspecies. Giants and ogres share certain physiological features with soloensis, including:

  • A have a wide, flat face with thick bones, heavy brow ridges, and large teeth. Their foreheads are shallow, sloping back from the brow ridges.
  • A brain case is more elongated from front to back and less spherical than that of H. sapiens.
  • Limb bones that are indistinguishable from modern H. sapiens.
  • Differences in the upper respiratory tract, especially the mechanisms of breathing control, that result in a different approach to language. Generally speaking, these beings are not capable of uttering long sentences. Nor can they vary vocal intensity, pitch, or tone to the same degree that humans do. They are thus generally soft-spoken individuals whose voices don’t always convey emotion in ways that humans can decipher.

GIANT (Homo giganticus)

Giants range from 9–14 feet tall and are usually brutish and non-magical—although they may still have great resistance to magic being performed upon them. Apart from a far more robust, dense bone structure to anchor their impressive musculature, giants are anatomically much like humans, only larger.

To a greater or lesser extent, all large hominins (8’ or taller: mainly giants, ogres, and the largest trolls) share the same adaptations to extreme size. Working from the bottom up, one might mention the following:

• Short, stubby feet with a distinct leg structure. Long, plantigrade feet like a human’s prove inefficient for larger bodies. For hominins in the 7–10’ range, the changes to leg structure are minimal, but they become more pronounced as size increases.

Like elephants, the largest hominins have stubby feet that create a more columnar lower-leg structure that is not employed in lift and propulsion but rather is ideal for supporting their terrific weight.

This adaptation has several effects on limb structure and locomotion. The foot musculature (anchored to the shin) is reduced, lowering the overall weight of the limb and thus making movement more efficient. This structure also decreases foot mobility, however, limiting stride length and overall gracility. Some of these effects are countered by the elongated thigh region, which can swing the shortened lower leg over great distances with every step.

• Shorter, thicker legs. Compared to an average human, in which leg length is approximately half of total height, legs of the largest hominins are somewhat shorter. In ogres and large trolls, leg length is roughly 0.47–0.48 total body length. In true giants, leg length is roughly 0.45–0.46 total body length.

Despite their shorter legs, large humanoids have normally proportioned arms (0.34–0.35 body length), leading to a relatively higher intermembral index (forelimb/hindlimb x 100). A normal human has an intermembral index of 68–70; Australopithecus had an index of about 88; chimpanzees, about 106. By comparison, ogres and large trolls have an index of 71–74, while true giants have an index of 74–78.

• Maximized bone strength and stiffness with minimized bone mass and volume. Like birds, giant bones have greater density than normal mammalian bones, providing strong, stiff, but relatively lightweight support.

• A body frame that is wider at the hip than the chest. This puts more of the giant’s muscle mass in its lower limbs where it is most needed for locomotion.

• A higher overall percentage of muscle tissue. Giants are more robustly built than a normal human that has merely been scaled up to incredible height. This is a necessary adaptation to be able to function at all.

• A larger and more efficient heart and circulatory system. This is necessary to bring oxygen to every part of the giant’s enormous body in an efficient manner.

• A relatively smaller head. All animals tend to show a disproportionate reduction in skull length with respect to body mass. The same is true of giant hominins: the larger ones generally have proportionally smaller heads than the smaller ones.

As sizes rise above 10’ or so, certain weaknesses also come into play:

• Bone weakness. Giant bones are stronger than those of humans but must move around far more weight proportionally. By way of comparison, elephants have been known to break bones simply from tripping and falling over. The same can happen to giants.

• Slowness. Giants are unable to run—that is, to lift both feet off the ground at the same time—without incurring serious trauma. Their long strides make them capable of surprising speed at a leisurely gait, however. Giants can “speed-walk” at about 16 miles per hour for short bursts.

OGRE (Homo atrox)

Ogres are the only hominins to regularly prey upon other hominins. They are at least human-sized and often quite a bit larger—though not as large as true giants. They are distinguished from the other hominin species by their animalistic nature.

The tallest ogres range from 8–11 feet tall. They are neither magically potent nor overly intelligent, although most can use glamour on an instinctive level to alter their appearance, and some may have a single additional magical talent they can use to their advantage. Their linguistic capacities are largely the same as that of giants.

Human-sized ogres are sometimes called bogeymen. Distinct subspecies populations can be as small as pygmies or as tall as the Maasai of East Africa. Despite their relative weakness, they can still be a threat to unsupervised human children.

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.