Monster manuals are taxonomic. That is, they divide monsters by type so that you can get the statistics of the creature based on similar creatures. Medieval bestiaries didn’t work this way at all. Medieval bestiaries worked on the idea of significatos, that is, when you are reading about the creature the most important thing is to work out what God wanted you to learn by looking at it.

The difference comes about because of our understanding of natural history. People in the Thirteenth Century believed that the creatures of the world had been created, wither a single act, or through a series of rolling miracles. Some other monsters were later created by sin. Satan himself makes dragons. Inappropriate family relations also seem to have a habit of creating dragons. It is only following Darwin that we get modern books which allow you to decide a creature is a dragon, then classify it into a subtype.

It’s this way of looking at creatures which has led to our current problem: which is that you start with the image of the dragon and then create some tiny twist to make a new type, a new species. This isn’t what medieval people thought about dragons. The decided what the dragon meant, and then built up its physical characteristics from there. Sometimes the dragon is a physical embodiment of a place: the dragon represents a mountain and opposes miners because they are stealing its treasure, or it loves miners because it likes living in the holes they dig. The dragon can by the physical representation of a moral fault which the hero needs to overcome, or the dragon can, like many faeries, act as a guardian of the boundaries of social propriety. I blame Charles Darwin for this difference because, with the addition of the works of Cuvier, who popularised the idea of extinction, we now have this idea that creatures follow types, and that deviations are unusual, rare or forced by humans in the same way that they are with dogs (although Darwin was not certain all dogs were the same species) . Darwin suggested that moving away from the core species you had endless variations, and it’s the construction of these variations which leads us to having such uninteresting dragons in our roleolaying games.

Dragons should represent the obstacles the characters need to overcome. Let’s take another example: in Mythic Europe dragon trees exist on two separate islands: the Hesperides to the far west of Africa , and in Soqotra , to the east of Africa. In the real world this is because dragon trees used to exist across Africa, and have been driven to extinction, with the exception of these two, tiny island fortresses.

Now to a Mythic European that makes no sense at all, because extinction is not a thing. Competition between species isn’t a thing. Dragon trees appear on those two islands, because dragons are on those islands, and one follows the other. Similarly dragons themselves appear because God uses them as teaching tools, and this is why we so rarely see dragons doing any of the things you’d expect biological dragons to do.

Dragons don’t have the plumes of a peacock., or the spines of an echidna, because they don’t mate and they are not preyed upon. In the entire Ars Magica line we have seen one dragon egg, and that was in a magazine article. You never see mating flights of dragons. You never see people train dragons. They are biological creatures, but biological creatures in Mythic Europe do not follow the laws of selection which are obvious to us. Mythic Europe, then does not follow our modern idea of ecology, which is that it is random life responding to the pressures of its environment.

Mythic Europe is a designed stage in which the great play of redemption is acted out by humans under the supervision of an interventionist author. Dragons, as major props in this play, have meaning and significance that is deliberately written into their physical structures. They are incarnate moral lessons. This leads us back to some very early ideas from Second Edition Ars Magica, that when you were designing a combat, the important element of that design wasn’t fairness or verisimilitude, it was the construction of a play experience that you modified while it was being acted out. So, if an encounter was too simple, you would add new features to the creatures powers to make it more challenging.

If, through random dice rolls, the creature was going to destroy the party, you could reduce the damage or effectiveness of its attacks, to keep the play experience intact. In modern gaming, this is sometimes considered cheating, however this is what God was thought to be doing in medieval Europe. I’d argue that character is Ars Magica, particularly those with high Lore skills, should be aware that this is how the Universe is structured. This moves us past some of the difficulties that we have with the Magic Realm.

The Magic Realm in Ars Magica is thematically incoherent. You can see the way it was written in Realms of Power: Magic – twelve authors each bringing a good idea. I did magical cats. There’s nothing underneath it all, except the idea that magic is the underlying power of the material Universe and that it does not care about humans, which distinguishes it from Faerie. I’d argue that the difference is that faeries respond to human will, whereas Magical creatures are part of the clockwork which was authored by the Creator, and therefore it is alright for Magical spirits to have meaning. They can be, in some sense, living plot elements, because medieval people really did believe the purpose of dragons was to be conquered by saints.The purpose of monsters was to embody, and force you to face your own sins, as part of your path to redemption. This allows us to move closer to the magic realm having a coherent, useful idea behind it. The creatures the Magic Realm generates are not interested in humans, but the person who created the Magic Realm is.

Image credit:Photo credit: flyone via Small Kitchen / CC BY-SA

 

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One thought on “Charles Darwin wrecked our dragons

  1. I think you’re maybe misattributing the problem. I think the historical person you want to go after perhaps isn’t Darwin but Carl Linnaeus.

    You’re not making any points about whether or not dragons evolve (Darwin), you’re after their taxonomy, and one not inspired by religion at that, at so I humbly submit that the one you want to complain about is Carl Linnaeus instead.

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