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.

Obsidian Dawn

One thing I’ve been doing to stave off cabin fever this last month or so is to run an online role-playing game for a few of my friends. In my callow youth, I was an avid RPGer—mainly D&D (white box and then AD&D) and Traveller, but I had a group that was willing to try out different systems.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been running a fairly low-frills online game. No Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds with cool graphics and whatnot. Just a Zoom meeting, occasional screen sharing for important visuals, and everyone on the honor system to be honest about their rolls. I have appreciated the Fate ruleset for a while because it’s a great support for narrative: just what a storyteller needs! For this short-run game, I opted for the streamlined Fate Accelerated variant. Basics are easy enough to grasp, and at pay-what-you-want for the rule book, the price was right!

I proposed a one-or-two shot game (turns out, it was a three-shot!) to some of my friends and soon found that many of them were as tired of being cooped up as I was!

The adventure I’ve been running is called “Obsidian Dawn,” which I pitched as “Law & Order: SVU meets the Dresden Files in the heart of New Orleans.” Our cast of characters took on the roles of members of a secret organization of paranormal investigators. The story begins as they come upon a murder scene and word of a missing person: Lizamar, a teenage girl trafficked into New Orleans from Mexico. Evidence suggests that the traffickers bit off more than they could chew with this girl, who has apparently brutally murdered her captor and escaped—with three different factions of supernatural baddies on her tail.

I don’t want to give you a blow-by-blow summary of the action, but I thought I’d at least share some random reflections.

(1) It’s just like riding a bike…sort of. I haven’t gamed seriously since college, but muscle memory is apparently a thing, even if the muscle in question is your brain. I know I started off pretty rusty, but the beats, the pacing, etc. came back before long, at least to minimum standards. I think the same was true for at least some of the gang around the virtual table. The Fate Accelerated system was new to almost everybody, but everybody has had at least one cool moment of great role play. And that’s what has always been the most fun for me, even when I was young and stupid and couldn’t have put it into words.

(2) It was good to be with old friends. The guys in my group run the gamut from a fairly new friend I’ve only ever interacted with online to a couple of high school buddies. These weren’t the first people I ever played D&D with, but they were the group I was with the longest.

(3) We all need something to fill the void. Maybe the void isn’t coronavirus-inspired cabin fever. Maybe it’s just a long week at work or personal worries it would be nice to take a break from. Like many other things, a good RPG session can be therapeutic. As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself thinking almost pastorally about the group: what they might be struggling with, how I can do something nice for them by providing them a couple hours’ diversion. If I haven’t been eager to run marathon four-hour gaming sessions (we’d have finished the whole adventure in one such session, or come awfully close), at least partly that’s because I’ve been hesitant to let the experience end too soon.

(4) Story is happening. If I have a philosophy of game-mastering, it’s probably something like: set up a cool dilemma and see what the players do with it. I don’t like to be overly railroad-y, though with a short-term, self-contained adventure scenario, I find I’m doing that a little more than I would prefer in an open-ended campaign. I figure if I can propose an interesting problem and everybody gives it their best, a story might happen. And so far, I think it has! The team has pursued leads, confronted dark forces, come oh-so-close to rescuing Lizamar and/or learning her secrets. Next week, they’ll cross into the Underworld for the big, explody climax of the story, and I think it has the potential to be awesome!

(5) Online gaming is not my thing, but I see how it can work. Some things simply can’t be part of the RPG experience when the players are spread over four different states in two different time zones. Nobody can bring snacks. Nobody really has time to socialize much before or after the game—which is a shame, because I think my old friends would like my new friends, and vice versa. It’s hard, though not impossible, even to look each other in the eye and read how they’re processing the clues and plot points I divulge to them. You’d think that wouldn’t be a problem for somebody as keen on a “theater of the mind” approach as I usually am, but there it is. At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate how this format can work if it’s what you have available.

That has been my experience the past month or so. Are there any online RPGers out there? What has been your experience? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about gaming online for the first time?

Written by Zombies: A Primer on the Passive Voice

Permit me a small rant, which I will preface by saying that I don’t know a lot about writing, but I am confident that I know some things about grammar.

People who do know about writing warn writers against overuse of the passive voice. I agree. Though the passive voice has its place, it is often overused, especially in formal, academic writing.

My rant is this: A lot of people who warn against overuse of the passive voice have a devil of a time recognizing it when they see it. Instead, they’re seeing something else, something deceptively similar in form, and they’re calling it “passive voice” when it is not.

We’re going to have to unpack some terms here, and I apologize beforehand that it might be rough going. I’ll try to stick to the basics.

The first term: VOICE. I’m not talking about “authorial voice” or even finding a character’s “voice.” In grammatical terms, voice has to do with how the subject of a verb is related to the verb itself. In English, there are basically two choices:

Active Voice is when the subject is performing the action of the verb: “The dog bit me.”
Passive Voice is when the subject is receiving the action of the verb: “I was bitten by the dog.”

That’s it. That’s what the passive voice is, no more and no less. You don’t even need the “by the dog” part. A passive voice construction doesn’t have to tell you who is doing something, only who or what it is being done to: “I was robbed!” “Have you ever been kissed?” “Our country is built on laws.”

Even so, an easy test for whether or not you’re dealing with a passive voice construction is whether you can add “by zombies” and the sentence makes sense. “I was robbed by zombies!” “Have you ever been kissed by zombies?” “Our country is built on laws…erm, by zombies.”

So let’s take one more example: “Fred was walking down the street.” Is that passive voice? Let’s find out: “Fred was walking down the street by zombies.” Nope. Because we already know who is performing the action of the verb. It’s Fred. Fred is the one walking. And yet, there are plenty of good, smart, educated people—many of whom write for a living—who’ll see that sentence and say, “You shouldn’t use the passive voice. Change it to ‘Fred walked.'”

And that leads us to the next term.

Second term: ASPECT. Aspect has to do not with the relationship of subjects to verbs but with how the speaker or writer wants you to imagine the action of the verb taking place. Once again, in English, we basically have two options:

Simple Aspect simply announces that the action takes place or has taken place: “The dog bit me.”
Continuous Aspect asks us to imagine the action as taking place repeatedly or over a course of time: “The dog was biting me.”

(There is also the emphatic mood—”The dog did bite me”—but let’s put that to one side for now.)

So, “Fred was walking down the street.” Passive voice? Nope. Not even close. Continuous aspect? There you go! Mind you, I’m not arguing that that sentence is stellar prose. Continuous aspect can also be overused, and often is. But when you’re critiquing someone’s writing, it’s actually kind of helpful to critique the right thing.

What trips a lot of people up is that these two verb forms are constructed from some of the same building blocks. Both use a form of the verb “to be” (is, was, are, etc.) plus a participle. But what kind of participle makes all the difference:

• “To be” + a past participle (usually ends in -ed) = passive voice
• “To be” + a present participle (ends in -ing) = continuous aspect.

Bottom line: Neither passive voice nor continuous aspect are grammatical errors, and there are times when both are actually preferable to active voice or simple aspect, respectively. But they should never be the default. When in doubt, shy away from using these forms.

I’ll leave you with this nice tutorial on How to Avoid Using the Passive Voice. Happy writing!

Vampire Vednesdays: Vampire Corpse

It is not entirely accurate to say that there are no vampire legends among Native Americans, but the few creatures native to North America that might (perhaps generously) classify as “vampires” are quite a bit different from their European cousins.

Among the Iroquois, for example, there is a monster sometimes called a “vampire corpse,” “vampire skeleton,” or “cannibal corpse.” Obviously, the name is a product of cultural cross-pollination with European settlers. In the Seneca language, the creature is called a tcis’gä, which simply means “corpse” or “skeleton.” Its nature is in some ways comparable to a European vampire, in other ways more like the zombie of popular culture. It has an emaciated, skeletal body and variety of magical powers. They are repelled, however, by redbud branches.

A vampire corpse can be a simple dead body that something evil has overtaken. Or, it could be the body of a sorcerer so full of its own magical potency that it endures after physical death. In either case, it is a ravenous undead creature with a frightening appearance and a hunger for human flesh.

These creatures’ bestial demeanor and cadaverous appearance make it impossible for them to impersonate normal human beings. They might lie in wait in their coffins in remote huts or cabins, preying upon lost travelers who hope to spend the night under their shelter.

A similar creature, the skudakumooch or “ghost witch,” is associated with the Wabanaki cultures of the Maritime Provinces and adjacent areas.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m going to cut right to the chase. Go buy this book, now. You won’t regret it.

Still here? Then allow me to explain. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a delight. It’s the story of Casiopea Tun, an eighteen-year-old from Yucatán in 1927. On her mother’s side, she’s from an influential local family, the quintessential big fishes in a small pond. But on her father’s side, she’s of Maya heritage and therefore looked down upon by her more fair-skinned cousins. She dreams of one day escaping her little village and seeing the wider world, out from under the oppressive thumb of her Grandfather and her spiteful cousin Martín.

One day, an encounter with a Maya god of death promises to make her dreams come true—if it doesn’t kill her first. She leaves her village on a trek across Mexico in the company of this dark Lord of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, along the way meeting numerous other creatures from the indigenous and colonial mythologies of Mexico. The death god, Hun-Kamé, is on a quest to retrieve certain elements stolen from him by his vengeful brother Vucub-Kamé, who now sits on Hun-Kamé’s throne. Once he collects what he has lost, he will be able to challenge his brother. Until then, his existence on this mortal plane is bound to Casiopea’s. The longer he remains in his semi-mortal state, the closer Casiopea comes to her own death.

As she did in Certain Dark Things, Moreno-García masterfully weaves ancient Mesoamerican folklore with modern Mexican sensibilities. Gods of Jade and Shadow reminded me of the Latin American novels I read in my Spanish Literature classes back in college—and that is definitely a good thing! She spins a tale of magical realism as adeptly as did Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luís Borges, or any of the other greats of the twentieth century.

Most important, she makes me care about her characters. By the time you get to the end of the story, you understand why each of them acts as they do. You cheer for the heroes while feeling at least a twinge of pity for the villains. They’re all imminently human—even the gods and monsters.

So if you like contemporary fantasy or magical realism, buy this book.

If you like tender coming-of-age stories, buy this book.

If you love Mexico, its people and its culture, buy this book.

You really won’t be sorry you did.

Kiss of the Butterfly by James Lyon

A few years ago I re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and wistfully thought, “I miss the days when vampires were the bad guys.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a sympathetic villain with a tortured soul as much as the next guy, but I’m kind of a purist when it comes to my folkloric creatures. Do interesting things with them, turn their mythology on its head if you like, but first show me that you’ve done your homework. You want to write about vampires? Fine. Just don’t make them sparkle.

So I leaped for James Lyon’s Kiss of the Butterfly the day I found out about it. Lyon has a PhD in Balkan History, and the tale he weaves about the restless dead drinks deep from the well of Slavic, and especially South Slavic, vampire lore. If you’re going to tell a fresh vampire story these days, you could do worse than to take the reader back to the source. I knew a little about pre-Lugosi, pre-Stoker vampires, but was still blissfully ignorant of many of the twists and red herrings you get when your protagonists are going up against the Real Deal.

Lyon sets his story against the backdrop of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Into this war-torn region comes American grad student Steven Roberts, looking for a dissertation topic in Slavic ethnography but growingly afraid that his mentor, the mysterious Professor Slatina, has something far more momentous in mind for his protégé.

There is much to appreciate in this brief novel. The slow-burn start that puts all the pieces on the table before the fangs ever come out. The political commentary about war, violence, depravity, and demagoguery. The frank, if a bit wooden, philosophical musings about good and evil, God and faith, and, of course, the devil.

Kiss of the Butterfly is not, however, a perfect book. To be honest, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Without spoiling the plot, certain expectations are raised near the end of the second act that are never met. The ending is therefore a bit frustrating. What do you mean we don’t get to read the scene where X happens?

The book ends as if it’s the first volume of a series, but since it was published in 2013, I’m not looking for one—nor can I imagine a sequel that wouldn’t have to tread a whole lot of the ground covered in this book.

If you like vampire stories, however, you definitely owe it to yourself to read this novel. And if you don’t like vampire stories, maybe you’ll appreciate a look at where the cultural fascination with these bloodsuckers all began.

10 Random (Non-Spoilery) Observations about Avengers: Infinity War

1. The fact that certain events at the end of the movie are guaranteed to be reversed in the sequel keeps me from having a deep emotional reaction to said events.

2. Marvel is able to go dark. After Thor: Ragnarok, I wasn’t so sure. If not for #1 above, I’d say far too dark for my tastes.

3. At first I thought Dr. Strange suffered a surprising moral failure. Then I realized there are 14,000,605 reasons why he did what he did.

4. I’m curious how a fan of Chick tracts might have reacted to the post-credits scene.

5. That one guy? I’m still not 100% sure he’s dead.

6. I kept wanting to refer to Thanos as the Mad Malthusian.

7. If the sequel involves breaking into Gringotts to retrieve a magical artifact, I’m crying foul.

8. The end credits music was phenomenal! It really captured the tone of where the story has taken us.

9. Was Ned giving Peter the distraction he asked for, or was he legit freaking out because of the giant space donut?

10. I did not expect dwarves to be that tall. I kind of liked it.

The Latin Word(s) for “Muggle”

Yesterday I offered a brief rant about the apparent absence of the French neologism moldu for “Muggle” in the new Fantastic Beasts movie. I’m fascinated by foreign languages, and several years back, when my daughter was at the height of her Harry Potter fascination, I became interested in how some of the unique magical terminology of the books translated into various other languages. Today, I’d like to share a little bit of what I found, and some conjectures I was able to make from it in terms of an original Latin word for “Muggle.”

Two factors make it difficult to arrive at a Latin word for “Muggle.” First, several modern translations of Harry Potter into the Romance languages simply leave the English word untranslated. Frustratingly, this is also the case with Peter Needham’s Harrius Potter et philosophi lapis. Second, among the translations that go to the trouble of inventing a vernacular equivalent, the forms are widely divergent.

In what follows, I’ve observed the following conventions:

  • Words found in official Harry Potter translations are in boldface: Romanian încuiat.
  • Conjectural words arrived at through linguistic principles are preceded by an asterisk: Sicilian *babbanu. My knowledge of some of these languages is quite limited, and I’m happy to concede I may have applied the necessary sound changes incorrectly.
  • Conjectural words where the etymological root is itself open to debate are preceded by an asterisk and followed by a question mark: Norman French *muguel?

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Eastern Romance Languages

The Romanian word for “Muggle” is încuiat, an archaic form of încuia, meaning “ignorant.” This, in turn, comes from Latin incuneatus, “wedged in,” hence “narrow(-minded)” or “ignorant.” We might propose an original sense of “ignorant of magic” or something similar.

Italo-Romance Languages

In Italian, we find the word babbano for a non-magical person. This word is suggestive of babbeo, “fool, idiot,” deriving from Latin balbus, “stammering, stuttering, fumbling.” A hypothetical Late Latin form *balbanus most likely lies behind babbano and might suggest incompetence at uttering incantations or casting spells.

Presumably the terms in Sicilian, Venetian, and other Italo-Romance languages are cognate to Italian babbano.

Gallo-Romance Languages

Harry Potter has been translated into two Gallo-Romance languages: Catalan and French. As far as I know, all translations into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (such as Catalan) use the English word “muggle.” These languages will be considered in the next section.

In French, we find the word moldu, as I noted in my previous post. It is ultimately derived from Old French mol, meaning “soft” or “limp.” It is also vaguely possible that moldu was influenced by Proto-Celtic *meldo-, meaning “soft,” “humble,” or “mild-mannered.” The Gaulish form, used during Roman times, would be *moldos.

At any rate, in most of medieval France, the word for Muggle would have been moldu. We might, however, hypothesize that the Norman French dialect had a word something like *muguel, of Germanic origin.

The word in Occitan, spoken in the southern part of France, is most likely cognate to the indigenous Catalan term, whatever that should be.

Ibero-Romance Languages

In Brazilian Portuguese, we find the slang term trouxa, “gullible, sucker.” This word is related to Old Spanish troja or troxa “load, burden,” and only serves as a synonym for Muggle because of its colloquial secondary meaning.

Translations of Harry Potter into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish, Catalan, and Iberian Portuguese) all use the word muggle. There doesn’t seem to be anything to gain by second-guessing the translators. They tell us that muggle is a perfectly acceptable Catalan, Spanish, or Portuguese word, so let’s take them at their word. For whatever reasons, these three languages have adopted the English term as a loanword and accept it as part of their indigenous vocabulary, much as Spanish speakers have also adopted Anglicisms like bisteca (“beefsteak”), fútbol (“football”), parking (“parking lot/car park”), etc. Perhaps in time, the spelling of “muggle” will be altered to conform to local conventions (e.g., in Spanish, it might become something like *móguel or *múguel).

But what did Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan-speaking wizards call non-magical persons before adopting this English world? Almost certainly, it was a local derivative of one of the Latin words discussed above: mollis, *balbanus, or incuneatus. Since Spanish is often closer to Italian than to French, *balbanus-forms are most likely, though we can’t really rule out mollis-forms. I suspect incuneatus-forms would be highly unlikely, however.

Furthermore, given the precedent of French moldu, if the Ibero-Romance languages settled on a mollis-form, they may well have added an augmentative or pejorative suffix to their vernacular terms (Spanish muelle, Portuguese mole, Catalan moll, etc.). In Spanish, the Romance language with which I’m most familiar, the range possibilities is quite impressive: mollón, mollote, mollejo, mollucho, etc.

Summary

Here, then, are my best guesses for the local indigenous words for a non-magical person in various Romance languages, either attested in published translations or proposed on linguistic bases.

Eastern Romance
Romanian: încuiat

Italo-Romance
—Italo-Dalmatian
Italian: babbano
Sicilian: *babbanu

—Gallo-Italian
Lombard: *bauban
Venetian: *babban

Gallo-Romance
—Langues d’oc
Catalan: muggle (originally *balba? *mollo?)
Occitan: *balban? *molon? (or *moldu?)

—Langues d’oïl
French (Norman): *muguel?
French (Standard): moldu

Ibero-Romance
—Astur-Leonese
Asturian: *muggle? (originally *balbanu? *mollón?)

—Galician-Portuguese
Galician: *muggle? (originally *balbano? *molón?)
Portuguese (Brazil): trouxa (originally *balbão? *molão?)
Portuguese (Portugal): muggle (originally *balbão? *molão?)

—Spanish
Spanish: muggle (originally *balbano? *mollón? [*mollote, etc.?])

To conclude, there are three good candidates for the “original” Latin word for a non-magical person, incuneatus, *balbanus, and mollis. Incuneatus has the advantage of being an actual, attested Latin word. Mollis is also attested, but would seem to have a common enough meaning as to require some sort of modification (such as the French ending –du) to make it serve as a technical term. Similarly, balbus is an attested word modified by the adjectival ending–anus to form *balbanus.

At least to me, incuneatus has the least pejorative connotation. Perhaps we can propose a Classical Latin incuneatus and later, less “sophisticated” Vulgar Latin forms based on mollis and balbus. There are many other examples where Latin has both a “proper” and one or more “slang” words for the same thing: equus and caballus (“horse”), caput and testa (“head”), capsa, buxus, and scatula (“box”), etc. Romance languages draw their vocabulary sometimes from one side of the lexical pool and sometimes from the other.