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The Last of a Kind: Extinction in Fantasy

DodoWe often hear about extinction in the real world – whether it’s a dodo that’s already died out, a rhinoceros that’s on the brink of extinction, a bluefin tuna that’s well on its way there, or more rarely, a Bermuda petrel that provides a glimmer of hope, reappearing after years of being thought extinct. The human world, too, is not entirely exempt: languages and societies can vanish or dwindle, with the last members of a once-living culture often carrying it with them to the graves.

It’s a subject that provides a sobering and bleak dose of reality, and not something you’d imagine encountering in the “escapist” realms of speculative fiction. However, fantasy regularly explores the tragedy of cultures and species lost forever, and the loneliness of being the last of one’s kind. Even if it is all just make-believe, these extinct or endangered fictional creations still touch our emotions.

Already Gone

Dragons by Jessica SpenglerThese are the dodos of the fantasy world: creatures or cultures that are only spoken of sadly or wistfully in the past tense. Dragons often fall into this category. In much low and contemporary fantasy they have long vanished from the world, and in Arthurian fantasy they are often either extinct or reduced to a mere few. In the TV series Merlin, for example, only the dragon Kilgharrah remains.

Epic high fantasy regularly hints at cultures and societies long lost or exterminated, be it through abandoned cities like Tolkien’s Dwarven Kingdom under the Mountain, or relics from a past time like Lynch’s Elderglass buildings in Camorr.

In Sanderson’s Mistborn series, the list of extinctions caused during the Lord Ruler’s reign is staggering. Hundreds of plant and animal species have been wiped out; hundreds of religions and cultures have been brutally repressed or destroyed. There is a pervading sense that too much has been irrevocably lost. All that remains are the histories and stories recorded by the “Keepers”, which Keeper Sazed regularly laments are nothing compared to the real, living cultures.

On The Brink

These are the rhinos of the fantasy world, and are perhaps the most tragic because we see the loss looming on the horizon, and sometimes even witness it come to pass.

Some classic examples include Peter S. Beagle’s Last Unicorn, who goes on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her kind, and Tolkien’s Ents, who lament the loss of the Entwives and the resulting absence of any young Ents. In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the giants have been whittled down to a mere few, and we are left to endure the tragedy of watching those final few continue to fall. In Harry Potter the race of giants is also dwindling, though it is a situation brought about in part by their own tendency toward violence, so our sympathy doesn’t run high for them.

The Last Unicorn (comic detail)

In Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, human characters are forced to hunt and kill one-of-a-kind magical creatures to gain the power they need to defeat evil, experiencing the anguish of this choice with each kill. In Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, giant Kettral birds are ridden by elite soldiers, but these birds are few in number, and the death of each of these majestic creatures is another nail in the coffin for the species.

Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy provides a more human struggle, with the Chimaera – a race of sentient beings with bodies made up of animal and human parts – on the brink of seeing their race eradicated after countless years of war with the brutal Seraphim. Humans are certainly not exempt from the threat of extinction in fantasy. In many paranormal series and works of dystopian fiction our race has been brought to near extinction by vampires, angels, zombies, magic, wars… the list goes on.

Making A Comeback

Daenerys and Baby DragonAnd then there are the Bermuda petrel of the fantasy world, where our hearts lift as we realise they aren’t quite gone yet. The dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire sit squarely in this category. Presumed extinct for thousands of years, the species re-emerges as Daenerys hatches the eggs she has been gifted and three new dragons are born. Tyrion puts the significance of this into words in the season six of Game of Thrones:

When I was a child, my uncle asked me what gift I wanted for my name day. I begged for one of you. It wouldn’t even have to be a big dragon. It could be little like me. Everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. My father told me the last dragon died a century ago. I cried myself to sleep that night. But here you are.

In Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, creatures from human myth and ancient memory are reborn as “mythagos” in Ryhope wood, the last fragment of Britain’s primeval forest and a gateway to another world. They live only fleetingly, and deteriorate if they stray too far outside this forest that enables imagination to become reality.

Children’s classics like Peter Pan and The Neverending Story also explore the idea that you can combat extinction by sheer belief and imagination – you can clap to save a fairy, or use your imagination to reverse the “nothing” that is destroying an entire world. And very often in fantasy worlds, it’s magical humans that have been extinguished or stamped out, until a wizard or witch comes out of the woodwork, rising to defeat evil and return magic to the world.

Mundicide & Science Fiction

In all of this, however, it’s worth mentioning that science fiction regularly gives us the most striking picture of mass extinction – the destruction of an entire planet.

Destruction of Despayre by Chris TrevasIn the Star Wars universe this is referred to as ‘mundicide’ and has happened on multiple occasions to multiple planets. In Star Trek, too, whole planets have been obliterated, either destroying or endangering the cultures and peoples that called them home. Spock is a survivor of just such an occurrence.

In Hyperion, humanity has spread to the far reaches of the universe, but “Old Earth” is long dead and destroyed. The sadness of that loss permeates the entire story, and echoes in the destruction of the local culture and wildlife on Maui-Covenant, an ocean world where the last of Earth’s dolphins survive.

Even the comedic The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy explores the destruction of earth, and in this case, once again, it’s the dolphins that have a knack for avoiding extinction.

Why Is Extinction So Prevalent In Fantasy?

The cave of Eyrrar by Anritco (detail)It’s clear extinction is a popular theme in fantasy, probably because it provides or threatens two things: hope, and the tragedy of irrevocable loss. We fear death and mourn loss when it comes to our favourite characters, but extinction brings those emotions to a grander, more epic scale. It is not about the death of one person or creature, but the destruction of a whole species, culture or way of life. Just as in the real world, we feel an inherent sadness at the thought that something unique might be gone forever.

We also feel that inevitable thread of hope when faced with extinction – the hope that something might be saved. Comebacks in fantasy give form to a deep human desire – the desire to reverse mistakes and recover what has been lost. Alternatively, extinction is often an explanation for the lack of magic and magical creatures in our modern world. Dragons and magicians dwindle so that their presence in our myths and fairy tales can be construed as the remnant of something real.

Whatever the reasons, fantasy creatures and cultures will continue to dwindle, die out, or make a comeback. We will continue hope for their survival, just as we hope the tigers and rhinos of the real world will be there for future generations to admire. We’ll also hope for the return of what we’ve lost in fantasy, in the same way we all hope that maybe…just maybe…a little “magical” science will bring back the woolly mammoth.

Title image by Anritco.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Rave Verman says:

    It is all about time – you see. In the world of fiction, fact is fact while still alive, but it is only memory when no longer physical. Wondering about ourselves in this world of Maya (illusion) we imagine what it must be like to be absolutely wiped out – extinction gives us this sense. It is the shock and awe of the ultimate.

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