Monday, August 31, 2020

Horses of Different Colors

I've been re-reading A Princess of Mars lately and it's occasioned quite a few thoughts, starting with the fact that Barsoom is a wholly alien world. With the possible exception of Martians of all colors but green, there are no native life forms identical with those of John Carter's Earth (or Jasoom, as the Martians would say). Instead, Burroughs created an entire menagerie of unique Martian animals, some of which played significant roles in his stories. 
A good example are the thoats, which are used as steeds, beasts of burden, and even food. Possessing eight legs and a large mouth, thoats have been domesticated by both Red and Green Martians.

I can't be certain that this is the first example of a substitute for horses in fiction, but, if not, it's certainly a very early one indeed and one that likely had an influence on later writers. Jack Vance, for example, included leap-horses in the Tschai stories and the oasts in The Dying Earth. Straying farther afield, J.R.R. Tolkien described the goblins of The Hobbit as using massive wolves as mounts, while Moorcock introduces his readers to the Kamarg Flamingos in his chronicles of Dorian Hawkmoon (which always made me think of the flying ostrich-like mounts from 1982's Joust video game). Of course, the flamingos are flying rather than land mounts and fantasy isn't exactly lacking in examples of those, with dragons regularly being employed in that fashion.
Given these precedents, it's interesting that, by and large, Dungeons & Dragons has made comparatively little use of horse substitutes. The Dark Sun setting, which owes a lot to Barsoom in its general look, has no horses, only a variety of giant insects and reptiles. There's also the memorable Dave Sutherland piece from the Holmes Basic Rules depicting a lizard man riding a giant lizard. Outside of D&D, the Five Great Tribes of Prax in RuneQuest's Glorantha use unusual (but still terrestrial) riding animals, while Skyrealms of Jorune has sightless thombos and flying talmarons. 

Of course, this isn't really about horses, or at least only about horses. Rather, it's about the downside of Gygaxian Naturalism – the reining in of the imagination. D&D, at least D&D descended from AD&D (which, I would argue, is most D&D, including the current edition of the game), puts a limit on the fantastic. Certainly, Dungeons & Dragons has magic and monsters and even other planes of existence, among many other wondrous elements, but these are additions to the real world rather than replacements for them. The World of Greyhawk or even the Forgotten Realms, two D&D settings of which I am very fond, are not so different from a past age of Earth that they're unrecognizable. Unlike, say, Barsoom (or Tékumel), there's little need to immerse oneself in the setting in order understand it.

There's nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but it's a limited – and limiting – one that doesn't take full advantage of the freedom that fantasy affords us.

1 comment:

  1. I love strange mounts...though I'm also a fan of normal horses in strange environs.