Goblins, Ogres, and Other Sub-Human Beasties

Let’s consider another staple of fantasy fiction: brutish goons.

These are creatures that present an ugly caricature of ourselves: goblins, ogres, trolls, giants, and similar creatures. Their depiction involves a certain stretching and distortion of human capability both physical and mental along with a sharp downgrade of human behavior in its moral dimension. Either intelligence or physique is downgraded; if intelligence is low then physical capacity may be superhuman, but certainly not both. Sometimes a sub-human beastie may be as intelligent as a human being or even a little more so in terms of tool-use capacity and low cunning, but shrunken physically. At other times it’s the opposite: the creature is as dumb as a stump, but big and very, very strong. And ugly. And usually hairy, or perhaps scaly. Its social intelligence is far below the human norm even when its technical intelligence is reasonably high; these things can’t get along with one another for five minutes without lethal fights breaking out and as for coexisting with their neighbors, they make the Balkans look like a pacifistic Buddhist ashram.

There’s a strong tendency to put creatures like this into any fantasy story. I do it myself. Both trolls and goblins found their way into my Star Mages trilogy, and I put a species of troll into The Green Stone Tower as well. On stepping outside the bounds of humanity and introducing quasi-humans into a story, it seems there’s an irresistible urge to make at least some of them into sub-human brutes. The impulse is common enough to ask what this means on a mythic level.

It doesn’t really work to say that sub-human brutes are a dim perception or memory of our evolutionary forbears or our primate cousins, does it? While some primates superficially resemble a category of sub-human fantasy beastie — gorillas are much stronger than humans physically but not as intelligent — their behavior doesn’t match the “brutal” quality of fantasy beasties and there are no smaller-but-smarter examples; monkeys are less intelligent than we are as well as being smaller and slighter. While our evolutionary forbears are extinct, making similar observations about them impossible, we have no reason to believe them to have been moral degenerates comparable to Tolkien’s orcs.

So sub-human beasties are not dim cultural memories of Neanderthal or Homo erectus with whom our distant ancestors once shared the planet. They mean something else to us, something more in the nature of metaphor and myth — something with which we contend today.

Human beings, struggling into self-awareness and evolving socially and technically towards — well, towards something (it’s often a little hard to tell what, and a subject of some controversy) — we have a disconnect between our animal natures and what we choose and strive to be. We’re the only animal species that suffers from this weird kind of schism in our personality. We evolved with instincts designed by natural selection for a radically different milieu than the one we actually inhabit. Our earliest ancestors to be considered of the species H. sapiens were born between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand years ago. The forerunners of civilized life, what might be called proto-civilization, first appeared some ten thousand years ago in the first neolithic farming communities, and civilization proper — life in cities — came into being maybe two thousand years after that. Between the birth of the first true human beings and the establishment of the first proto-civilized communities lies a span of at least ninety thousand and perhaps as much as a hundred and ninety thousand years: at least nine times as long and possibly nineteen times as long as we have been even remotely civilized. During that time, our ancestors lived in small bands where everyone knew everyone else and most people were related. They had no formal government or hierarchical religion. Everyone worked, but no one had a “job” in today’s sense; you went and hunted or harvested wild food plants or made tools or clothes or did what needed to be done and what you had the skill to do.

Obviously, the life we live today is very different from that. And so we have a disconnect between our natures as human animals, our instincts, and the conventions and norms of civilized behavior that is suffered by no other animal species except those we raise as pets.

Sub-human beasties, perhaps, represent our animal nature, severed from our human, conscious intent and moral values, and so operating not in a truly animal fashion but in a monstrous one. This is the upwelling of our own capacity for cruelty and depravity. We see it perhaps in war: the human being given destructive power far beyond what our distant ancestors could wield and allowed — no, required — to make use of it. Soldiers on the battlefield, terrorists, controllers of military drones, all exhibit goblin-like cruelty or ogre-like brutality as a matter of course in the mad circumstances of their lives. The mass-murderer, the serial killer, the lynch mob, the race riot, all show the descent of human beings into sub-human brutality. The sub-human beastie is the human being when the moral self goes silent. It is the festering sewer in our depths, the evil to which we can sink if we allow it.

And that’s why it’s such a compelling fantasy theme. It’s a way of depicting monstrous evil without any of the softening and restraining features that are normally present in human beings: a whole society of depraved, cruel things living in a nightmare of violence, betrayal, and loveless wickedness. We can stand to write about this and to read about it more easily because, hey, this isn’t really us.

But it is, of course. And if a writer is really skilled at using this motif, the connection between the sub-human beastie and human beings will be sufficiently clear.

Image credit: shooarts / 123RF Stock Photo

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2 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

2 responses to “Goblins, Ogres, and Other Sub-Human Beasties

  1. Sub-human beasties, perhaps, represent our animal nature, severed from our human, conscious intent and moral values, and so operating not in a truly animal fashion but in a monstrous one. –I hadn’t thought of it in this light, but it makes sense in a savagely beautiful and sad way.

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