Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Ogres

As I’ve stated before, I do not want to use a standardised monster list for the Middenmurk campaign - predictability is the enemy of monsters. Instead I want to develop tools for the construction of interesting and evocative antagonists. I will however draw inspiration from ideas about various mythic archetypes as a means of establishing parameters or a field of possibilities within which a monster can be defined, rather than nailing it down. I really want to avoid over-determining that which should be made of the stuff of legend.

To my mind, the quintessential monster is the ogre. I was inspired to write about the ogre in part because of comments made in Zak Smith’s excellent blog, see this post. Zak characterises ogres as a primitive and brutal and unsettling reflection of humanity, “ like a brother with some tragic, moany, drooly and brutal mental problem.”

I like this. It captures some of the disturbing nature of the monstrous. There is an extent to which humanoid monsters draw from our familiarity with ourselves and subvert it. The thing is scary because it is a reflection of the monstrous within us or it is scary because it is a hideous parody of us, too close for comfort.

There are a variety of different ways I can see to approach the ogre. My conception would probably be the synthesis of a variety of different approaches to produce something satisfying rich and complex

-As a mythic personification of cannibalistic bandits in the vein of Sawney Bean and Christie-Cleek. or generic horrible inbred hillbilly cannibals. Essentially, ogres are cannibalism with brute force rather than cannibalism with subterfuge like ghouls. Ogres are the essence of ravenous predation, big hungry bellies on legs who smell the blood of an Englishman.

-As a personification of desolate wild hill-country. Wildernesses with rugged rocks seem to me to suggest, through the process of paraeidolia, big and powerful figures. These ogres are why people disappear in lonely places.

-The cruelty of boys who torture animals given form. Merciless sadism, the petty tyranny of the insignificant wielded against the powerless, made manifest. In this sense I see violence in company as being characteristically ogrish, (Zak subscribes to solitary ogres) hooting and laughing and trying to outdo one-another in the extent of their cruelty. Gang-rapists too, with their competitive atrocities and the acquiescence of the weaker individuals evoke this idea of collaborative evil.

-In a similar sense, cruelty on a different scale informs my conception. The acts of Gilles de Rais and Vlad the Impaler and of modern serial killers sexually addicted to the rush of violent acts are at the outer limits of what is horrible about humanity. In my experience ogres are not generally attributed with such capacities. I think it is only fitting that such atrocities are common among ogres. They are elemental cruelty, it is what they do.

-The tyranny of the powerful is ogrish. Ogres are bullies who are empowered by their own native strength to impose their will on others. An ogre is like a pack of jackbooted fascists knocking down your door and ruining your life.

-There is evidence for the Palaeolithic past of humanity being an exceptionally violent milieux. Observations of hunter-gatherer cultures in modern-times have recorded an exceptionally high death-rate from constant small-scale warfare, far-outstripping that of notorious warlike modern cultures. Evidence suggests that the further back one goes into human pre-history the worse things get.
Modern humans have many paedomorphic or neotenous characteristics. As the late evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould wrote "Man, in his bodily development, is a primate foetus that has become sexually mature". Compared to other animals we are playful and sociable even in adulthood. Contrast chimps, who make companionable pets when young but become extremely dangerous and immensely strong in adulthood. Ogres can be seen as like humans who have made an extreme transition into bestial adulthood, or as representatives of an archaic lineage like Homo heidelbergensis, hyper-robust and savagely violent, or as demonised fictions about dawn-raiders from an alien tribe, or as products of a hideous culture manifesting the "abuse begets abusers" cycle, or as Anti-Rousseau-ian ignoble savages.

I think you get the idea. Ogres are horrible. They are precisely as horrible as we have the propensity to be but without all the redeeming features I’m told some humans have. If PCs are going to kill stuff without remorse I feel it is necessary to make it fairly unpleasant.


  1. This is really cool--by which I mean its in the direction I've been thinking, but you've got several very clever wrinkles (Ogre nature as loss of human neotony, for one)I hadn't considered. More grist for the mill!

  2. Very well said - you've got me wanting to drop a couple into our campaign now.