Impossible Beings

The fantastical creatures and races that appear in fantasy fiction, from dragons to elves to giants.

*The Broken Earth*

What are impossible beings?

Impossible beings are a cornerstone of fantasy literature: races and creatures that could never exist in the Primary World. *The Lord of the Rings* is a prime example, with its elves, dwarves, orcs and hobbits, not to mention an array of mythical creatures like dragons and giant eagles.

But the idea of strange, impossible beings pre-dates writers like Tolkien. In fact, it appears to pre-date writers in general, with primitive sculptures of non-human entities dating back for thousands of years.

One of the oldest examples is the Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel: a 40,000-year-old sculpture of a humanoid figure with the head of a lion. Impossible beings are an ancient tradition which modern fantasy continues to explore today.


Fantasy races

Fantasy literature is often home to intelligent, magical races. In many cases, they were inspired by the races in *The Lord of the Rings*. For example, the *Dungeons & Dragons* role playing game features graceful elves with pointed ears, and stubborn dwarves with thick, shaggy beards.

But this is not the only approach a fantasy writer can take. In Yan Ge’s enthralling *Strange Beasts of China*, a cryptozoologist lives in a city full of strange, fantastical races. Some of them feed on human suffering; others grow in the soil like plants.


Whatever they look like, these fantastical races often coexist with human beings. It adds to the sense of impossibility. In real life, we never encounter parallel, human-like beings, but in works of fantasy, these encounters happen all the time.

Evil races

When Tolkien wrote *The Lord of the Rings*, there was a sense that some races – especially orcs – were fundamentally evil. There is no occasion in Tolkien’s works when an orc shows signs of basic goodness, or renounces its allegiance to the darker forces in the world.


For a while, this was the standard approach in fantasy: some races are inherently bad. Other examples include trolls, giants, ogres, dark elves, and many more besides.

But in recent years, this approach has become unpopular. The idea that one group is inherently evil has racist undertones; morality is far more nuanced. In 2020, *Dungeons & Dragons* announced a change in their presentation of orcs. Moving forward, they said that orcs will be “just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples.”

Fantasy romance

Some fantasy stories explore romantic relationships between different races. A source of tension is often the length of each race’s lifespan. Can an elf have a fulfilling relationship with a human, when elves are immortal, and humans are not?

This idea has been around for centuries. Barbara Leavy, an academic of folklore, wrote extensively about romance between fantastical races in traditional myths and legends. Her thought-provoking book, *In Search of the Swan Maiden*, explores the gender dynamics in these fantastical relationships, which are usually stacked in favor of the men.


In more recent years, the idea of romance between fantastical races has developed into a popular subgenre: paranormal romance. The most famous example is probably *Twilight*, a story about a love triangle between a human, a vampire and a werewolf.

Magical beasts

Along with intelligent, human-like races, fantasy fiction often includes magical beasts and animals. These creatures are sometimes dark and monstrous, bringing a sense of danger to a Secondary World, but they can also be benevolent, bringing wonder to the world instead.

When coming up with these creatures, writers often draw on creatures in real-world mythology. Sarah J. Maas’ *Throne of Glass* series is a good example. The story features wyverns – dragon-like beasts which appear in a number of European myths and legends.


Other stories feature mythological creatures from other parts of the world. Rebecca Roanhorse’s *Black Sun* draws on Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and the Aztecs. Instead of dragons or wyverns, this story features winged serpents inspired by Quetzalcoatl.

Magical plants

In fantasy fiction, the plants are often as strange and magical as the animals. Potion-making is a common element in these stories, with witches and wizards collecting magical herbs to brew into useful elixirs.

Sometimes, writers go further than this, inventing plants so magical that they have the power to move and speak. In *The Lord of the Rings*, the ents are a species of ancient, walking tree. In *Perdido Street Station*, the cactacae are clumsy, talking cactuses.


In some fantasy stories, the idea of talking plants, and potion making, intersect with one another. In the *Harry Potter* series, people make a restorative potion by boiling the roots of mandrake plants, even though those roots have the appearance of wailing humanoid babies.


Over the past few decades, the fantasy genre has featured an incredible array of magical races, plants and animals. But at the same time – and somewhat counter-intuitively – stories in this genre have often struggled with diversity.

In *The Lord the Rings*, a fellowship goes on a quest: four hobbits, two humans, an elf, a dwarf and a wizard. On the surface, this group sounds extremely diverse – apart from the fact that every single one is a white, European-looking male.

In recent years, authors have worked hard to bring more diversity to the genre. N.K. Jemisin’s *Broken Earth* trilogy is a striking, award-winning example. The protagonist, Essun, is a middle-aged black woman who defies traditional fantasy tropes, and breathes new life into this traditionally male-driven genre.


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