Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Five uses for snakes in fantasy

The use of snakes in symbolism is fascinating. Eternity is depicted as the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail, and the snake’s body can be in the shape of a figure-8 turned on its side, which is the symbol for infinity. And the snake is the guardian of the tree which gives humankind the gift of the knowledge of good and evil. Or as Satan’s fleshly guise, it tempts them to their first sin, depending on your point of view.

Snakes aren’t too well represented in speculative fiction, though. They (or their derivations, such as snake-people) tend to be evil, but there’s a great deal more potential to them. So here are a few uses for snakes in fantasy.

1. As shapechangers

Speaking of the bible, remember what happens when Moses throws his staff down before Pharaoh’s court? Even with fairly primitive special effects - compared to what modern CGI is capable of doing - this looked very cool when I watched it in the de Mille production of The Ten Commandments.

Snakes could use this ability to hide from prey and predators alike, and there are so many long straight objects into which they could transform – signposts, spears, even the columns of buildings if the snake was large enough (pythons, constrictors, etc).

2. As medical aids

I first read Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake when I was fourteen, so I didn’t understand much of it. But I liked the heroine’s profession. An itinerant healer in a world blasted by nuclear war, she doesn’t have a lot of medical equipment, but she has three snakes (a cobra, a rattlesnake and the titular dreamsnake) whose venom she can alter for medicinal purposes while using their fangs as natural hypodermic needles.

I’d love to see something else along these lines, especially if the snakes’ poison did something unusual. The dreamsnake’s venom, for instance, is hallucinogenic. Maybe other snakes have venom that’s anesthetic, or which causes obedience and pliability: the fantasy version of Thorazine.

3. As defenders

A snake once spread its hood to shade the Buddha as he slept. In thanks, he marked the snake with a symbol on its hood – which all cobras now have.

Unfortunately, even when snakes appear in fantasy as protective familiars, they tend to do so for the villains (e.g. Nagini, from the Harry Potter novels). I’d like to see them in more positive roles, tamed or befriended by the protagonists.

By the way, in Tanith Lee’s Delusion's Master, the gods deal with people’s hatred and fear of the snake by altering his body: they give him four legs, a tail, pointy ears and soft fur. People love this new animal, the cat, and don’t notice that he has the snake’s slit-pupilled eyes and tendency to hiss when he’s angry.

4. As hunters

This one’s simple. Just train the snakes to return home after a meal and then make them regurgitate whatever they’ve swallowed.

5. As dwellings

At first I thought of the bones of giant snakes being used as the frameworks of houses – the ribs could be pillars – but why not take it one step further? Let the snakes be alive. If the people living in them were intimately connected to the snakes’ nervous systems, like the pilots of the Leviathans in Farscape, they could sense what the snakes detected and change their directions of movement.

Of course, they wouldn’t be able to do too much if the snake was really determined to engage an enemy. I’m thinking the “Battle speed. Attack speed. Ramming speed!” scene in Ben-Hur, except, you know, from the point of view of people living inside a giant semi-sentient snake.

Only a few modifications would be needed – dwelling cavities other than those in the alimentary canal, a ventilation system and ways to exit the snake other than the cloaca. Maybe multiple openings in the snake’s side which can be closed in an emergency? I’d also love a scene where the dwellers lure their enemies or prey into the (disguised) maw of the snake.

And when we fell together
all our flesh was like a veil
that I had to draw aside to see
the serpent eat its tail.
Leonard Cohen


Angela Ackerman said...

Wow--never thought of the last one. Cool idea!

I think snakes get a bad rap. In fact in the book I'm toying with reversing the usual beliefs we hold over certain species....rats and snakes are the good guys, things like rabbits and squirrels are the carniverous baddies. Might be fun, killer bunnies terroizing all who get a little too close to the cute fluffy thing...muahahaaa

Anonymous said...

Great post. Snakes are definitely underused. Of if used, tend to be regarded as evil. As a totem, they represent rebirth, healing, and creativity among other things.

JH said...

But remember item #34 on the Evil Overlord List: "I will not turn into a snake. It never helps."

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, Angela - glad you like it. Semi-inspired by the sandworms of Dune, by the way.

Tasha - of course, the shedding of skin represents rebirth.

JH - which wannabe overlord did turn into a snake? I can't remember.

JH said...

I have no idea either, but that particular piece of advice has always "rung true." I mean, what the hell good would it do? Ooh, I can poison bite one person and then get thrashed because I am a small frail animal, just buy a gun.