Friday, June 5, 2009

Five uses for spiders in fantasy




The first spider I encountered in fantasy was Shelob the Great, “last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world”. Ungoliant, of course, was even more horrifying, being able to threaten Morgoth to the point where he had to call for help from the Balrogs.

After that I discovered R. A. Salvatore’s Homeland, which describes Drizzt Do’Urden’s early life in the underground drow city of Menzoberranzan, where the Spider Queen Lloth is worshipped. Needless to say, that doesn’t portray spiders in too positive a light either. In Colin Wilson’s Spider World, humans live in tunnels and burrows, hunted by spiders with psychic abilities, and I’ll never forget the cover of my copy of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which shows a giant black widow rearing over the tiny protagonist (I recommend this as a great read).

So far I’ve only come across one book which portrays a spider as something at all positive, Ray Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned, but in a way that led to me becoming even more fascinated with spiders. They seem to be pretty misunderstood in fiction, considering that in reality, many species take care of their young, share food, cooperate in hunting and live in communal webs. I decided to come up with some uses for them rather than predators and (minor) antagonists, and here are five of those roles.

1. As thieves

I saw a picture of a spiderweb the other day and thought it would be even more attractive if tiny diamante drops were attached to the intersection of each strand. Maybe spiders in fantasy would do that to attract insects (or humans, depending on the sizes of the spiders) with the glitter and flash, meaning they would have to steal the stones from somewhere.

But with their ability to crawl down surfaces and spin webs that allow them to bridge gaps, they’d be good thieves. Perhaps large trapdoor spiders could keep their collections of such stolen objects at the bottoms of the pits they excavate.

2. As guardians

One thing I love to do with fantasy is to flip familiar concepts on their heads, so why shouldn’t giant predatory spiders be trained to defend humans? We do it with dogs, after all. Wolf spiders might patrol the perimeters of property, while web-spinners could extend sticky defensive nets over such buildings to deal with anyone who might drop in from above.

3. As pets

Timothy, the human child raised by the Family in Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned has a normally-sized spider as a pet. Such pets could be potentially useful, too – I’ve read of domesticated tarantulas which rid apartments of cockroaches, which I personally find much more scary and disgusting than spiders.

Or maybe they’re status symbols. Ordinary people keep ordinary spiders, but those who can afford them buy spiders with certain abilities such as camouflage (some spiders IRL have body types which mimic those of their prey, or have intriguing patterns such as that of the Hawaiian happy-face spider).

4. As livestock

Large enough spiders could produce trade goods. In Sharon Baker’s Quarreling, they met the dragon, silk is spun from the secretions of spiders, but spiders could also be raised for their poison or skins. Tarantulas have barbed hairs, so gloves made from the skins of such spiders could inflict abrasive or irritating wounds in defense. And that’s before they’re fitted with poison reservoirs…

5. As resurrectors

In Native American religions, the Spider Grandmother created the world. Bringing a human back to life would be much smaller a feat. I’m imagining the spider wrapping the corpse with silk, like a pupa, and perhaps certain other rites or rituals being carried out before the revived human breaks open the shroud and emerges. Though they might have suffered a sea-change, and not into something rich and strange…

13 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

You have overlooked one positive image of spiders: Charlotte's Web. Charlotte was kind and good and wise. And she's the only portrayal of spiders that shows them like that that I'm aware of. Even Grandmother Spider has some tricks and isn't just nice.

I enjoy these posts that examine what could be minutia in fantasy; because these little details can make all the difference in setting tone and character and all kinds of great worldbuilding elemnets. They can also spark plot point ideas.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, and have you heard about the genetically engineered goats who produce spider silk proteins in their milk? When the spider silk is rendered from the milk and developed into strands, the silk is one of the strongest materials known to man. Pretty cool, but off the topic a bit. :)

Marian said...

Charlotte's Web! I always forget something - thanks for the reminder.

And you're right, Charlotte was a great character. I read the book a long time ago, but I still remember the scene at the end where her (posthumous) children were introduced.

Glad you liked the post! There was an overabundance of material on spiders both real and fictional, which is one reason they were fun to write about.

And thanks for the news on the milk! Not off topic. I'll bet that with some thought I could fantasify that kind of thing and incorporate it into a world (or a blog post, or both) some day. :)

Hazardgal said...

Once again, you have spun a web of words and unique concepts! Hey, I could see spiders in Las Vegas as dealers. They would be hard to beat- even hard to escape.
Check out my Friday blog!

newadventuresinfantasyfiction said...

Hey, I really like the idea of spiders as resurrectors. Quite alien and a little creepy too. Nice.

spamwarrior said...

I want a pet spider now.

Marian said...

Thanks Marge, that gave me another idea - a society where humanoid, sentient arachnids and insects walk among us. I might do a blog post on that, actually...

Going to check your blog out now!

Marian said...

Thanks, newadventuresinfantasyfiction!

Like your blog, by the way.

A. Shelton said...

Marian, you just gave me an idea for how a character can know that she's to perform a religious murder, and the way she'll be discovered before she can commit it.

colbymarshall said...

Ugh...I can't help it...I don't think I could ever have a positive spider image. They just disgust me. Even Charlotte couldn't help me there...

Marian said...

Glad to help, A. Shelton! Hope you make a great story out of that idea. :)

Marian said...

*shooes spiders away from Colby* Go on, itsy bitsies.

The only spiders I'm really scared of are the poisonous ones (like black widows) and spiders which fly. I don't think any of the latter exist IRL, but there was one in an '80s cartoon called Sectaurs.

Rafael said...

Oh, but they do Marian. One particular species uses it silk strands to float in the air currents, reaching all the way to the jet stream (where they hibernate in the frigid temperatures of the upper atmosphere) and then land and form a new home.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18093297/