Last week I ruminated on the role of transportation in world design. Naturally this got me thinking about horses, which were an integral part of the middle ages and many Fantasy narratives. Thinking about horses got me onto
another subject for fantasy narratives: Domestic animals. The most obvious of these are horses, dogs, hawks, and cats, all of which have a strong presence in history as well as Fantasy fiction. However, world-builders often like to take the roles occupied by common creatures and insert new and interesting varieties
Horses were one of the earliest forms of human transportation. They are also well represented in fantasy, from nameless horses all the way up to the near-divine Shadowfax from Lord of the Rings. In the European middle ages a personal horse or two was a sign of serious wealth, and provided a transportation advantage over the footbound that was hard to match. Horses required stabling hitching posts, and certain types of feed, all of which are well represented in fantasy novels. Horse gear is also fairly well represented with saddles, horseshoes, and barding being fairly common fantasy topics. The purpose of a horse is fairly obvious, although specially trained warhorses
that can stand the din of fighting (or even canon-fire) are less well noted. I’d say the horse is likely the most well represented of domestic animals in Fantasy. Horse even have numerous fantasy variants, from unicorns and
pegasi to skeletal steeds and nightmares.
Dogs come in a close second in most fantasy settings. Man’s best friend is truly versatile, but few authors in the genre really delve into dogs these days. Domesticated dogs are obviously useful for hunting, and frequently show up in the obligatory hunt scene where some important personage gets ambushed or lured into danger (which, despite my irreverent language, is a favoured scene type of mine). We also see hounds being used to track down criminals in a different kind of hunt. A few books have fighting dogs and named companion dogs, which make for great characters if well written, but sadly the hound has less glamour than the horse these days. I also feel that with the prevalence of stealth as a superpower assassins in modern fantasy, we are conveniently forgetting just how hard it can be to sneak past a good guard dog. I know if I lived in any of the modern urban fantasy settings I would keep some bad-ass hounds to offset the constant attacks from the shadow. Hounds can also be very villainous: the conquistadors fed certain dogs on human flesh and use them as weapons of terror. Dogs have a few fantasy variants, with infernal hounds and the hounds of the wild hunt being the most common. I think we can do better, Dog Lovers.
Hawks and other hunting birds receive more attention that Cats in Fantasy fiction, particularly in anything involving the aristocracy. Falconry was another form of hunt, and yet another chance to engage in a mad outdoor
activity with cool gear. A few fantasy ranger types have had faithful bird companions, and owls and ravens are common familiars.
Cats rule the internet in modern day, but they seem rather under-represented in modern fantasy with Domestic versions getting far less page-time than their wild counterparts. Cats, of course, play an important role in pest
control, which is not often worthy of writing about. They do show up as witches familiars now and then. Kinda sad for a creature that the ancient Egyptians considered semi-divine.
Of course, Fantasy creatures can fill any of these roles. However a society that uses giant crabs as mounts is going to be somewhat different than one that uses horses, at least if the writer cares at all for depth in world-
building. There are a few considerations when introducing new domestic animals to your world, even if it occupies a fairly common role like mount. Lets take Dragons as an example: they are a familiar staple of Fantasy fiction and occasionally show up as domestic animals.
1) What does it do? Consider what role the animal is going to fill in your society. Domestic Dragons make great mounts and war-beasts, and intelligent varieties can even act as advisors and mentors. This is usually the easiest
step. Mind you if your creature has unusual capabilities think it through… you won’t be keeping your fire breathing Dragon in a wooden rookery. The basic role the creature fills is important, especially if it fills a role unique to your world like pokemon or warbeasts from Hordes.
2) What does it eat? Fodder for your animals is tremendously important. If your dragons are large and eat prodigious quantities of meat it changes the world economy. If they require special food for their fiery breath,
that becomes a resources as well. What if they only eat people?
3) How does it breed? Domestic animals are characterized by breeds. Breeding animals allows for selection of desired traits which improve utility or appearance. Breeders of horses, hounds, and falcons were often famous and
wealthy. Breeding stock was a valuable resource. If Dragons have been domesticated their could be breeds, although if they are sentient then they might choose their own mates. Perhaps their are hunting Dragons, War Dragons, Guard Dragons, or maybe they are bred for colour or breath weapon. Those with the best breeds often have an advantage
4) Historical Factors. When did our creature become domesticated? How did it become changed from its wild counterparts? The history of popular domestic species often figures in to legends and myths. In fantasy this can be
take a step further. Perhaps your Dragons are a gift from the gods, were enslaved by powerful sorcery, or chose to live alongside humans as part of a grand bargain. This could really change your world.
5) General Characteristics. How common is the creature? How big is it? does it have an usual scent? what kind of diseases and parasites does it have? How long does it live? Does it bond to a single master? Can it be trained to
do complex tasks? Dragons as mounts offer the advantage of flight, how are your castles going to look when they take this into account from a defensive and a stabling perspective.
Details really make fantasy worlds come to life, even relatively simple changes can evoke wonder or even figure in to the plot. I am reminded of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven where a gift of a herd of superior horses to a
relatively unimportant man upsets the delicate balance of an Empire. It is certainly worth consideration when building your world.