In continuation of our extensive Wheel of Time setting studies, I would like to turn a piece of world-building we have not touched upon at all, and that is the inclusion of mythical creatures. As with practically every other facet of world-building, Jordan was not content to pull from existing fantastical creatures, and chose instead to create his own.
A spoiler notice: I believe most of the creatures I mention below are introduced by the end of Eye of the World, but some are not mentioned until a few books later. Regardless, I will not be delving into any of their roles in the series or giving away any other potential plot spoilers.
Transforming Real-World Animals
Two of Jordan’s creatures are described in a familiar way while retaining an “otherly” feel: Darkhounds and s’redit. The latter is cause for controversy, but we shall start with the former. Darkhounds are Shadowspawn, described as a sort of wolfish dog dangerously enhanced with poisonous saliva and the ability to run faster and longer than even the best horse. These additions make them more than just “dogs.” They’re similar in concept to the real-world mythos of Hellhounds. Discussions of mythical influences on some of Jordan’s creatures can be found below, but Darkhounds are one of the two “made-up” creatures in the series that resembles a real-world animal, hence its inclusion here.
The s’redit, as I mentioned before, is of a different nature than the Darkhounds. S’redit are, for all intents and purposes, elephants. The Wheel of Time chapter icon of the s’redit is very clearly the head of an elephant. Yet, in contrast to the similar Oliphaunts of Lord of the Rings, the s’redit do not have several more tusks; they are not bigger than a normal elephant. This is where the controversy comes in.
Fantasy’s main draw is that it is other. It is something bigger, more intense, and more magical than anything that can be found in the real world. Series like Wheel of Time take that to a certain extreme, the exact opposite of urban fantasy. However, the more an author diverges from the real world, the more they risk alienating their readers. If horses and cats and wolves can exist in WoT with their earth-name intact, there’s little reason an elephant can’t.
A case could be made that it was a matter of regional confinement. The story is told primarily by Mainland characters like the Emond’s Fielders. These PoV characters are familiar with horses and cats and wolves, and hence they carry their usual name, whereas the PoV characters would have little to no experience with creatures like the s’redit that hail from another continent, and so giving the elephants a new name was meant to keep them separate and distinct. Many of the other creatures that hail from the same continent are given made-up names as well. However, none of these creatures bear any resemblance to a single real-world animal, which only serves to alienate the s’redit further. (These creatures are discussed below.) Perhaps if there was another “real-world” creature with a made-up name that came from the same continent as the s’redit, it would be more obvious what Jordan was trying to accomplish, and the term “s’redit” would be less aggravating.
Twisting Existing Fantasy Creature Tropes
Tolkien set the trend for many a “traditional” mythical entities. Several of the big ones–elves, dwarves, and, to a certain extent, dragons (see subheading below)–are carefully kept absent from Wheel of Time, but traces of other “traditional” fantasy creatures can be found in the series.
No apocalyptic fantasy series would be complete without dark minions against which the protagonists can test themselves against before facing the Big Bad. Tolkien gave us orcs and goblins. Jordan gave us Trollocs. Although Trollocs resemble humans, they’re nearly a foot taller on average than a human, and all of them have animal features mixed in. They have horns or claws or beaks or hooves. Created by the Shadow, they are evil, aggressive, and blood-thirsty, but they’re also cowardly, relatively easy to kill. They’re the most used Shadowspawn primarily because of their numbers.
The Ogier and Nym likewise share some similarities to another of Tolkien’s creatures: the Entfolk. The Nym are more like Ents in appearance, giving tree-like traits to a humanoid figure. Little is known about the Nym, but their population was once connected to the Ogier populace, of which the reader is given much more information about. Ogier can look like Trollocs at first glance, taller than humans and with big ears, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Ogier are the other facet of the concept of Ents: they are closely tied to the life of trees. Some are even able to Sing to make trees grow faster.
Both the Trollocs and the Ogier are more than just physical appearances. They each are intelligent enough to have their own societal structures. Trollocs, as Shadowspawn, have a culture as dark as the reader would expect, full of in-fighting and bloody revels. The Ogier are graced with a more respectable culture, striving for knowledge and peace above all else. In this, they do resemble elves to some extent. And although Ogier dislike war, once roused, they are quite the force to be reckoned with.
But Jordan does not pull just from Lord of the Rings. As I mentioned before, Darkhounds are similar in concept to Hellhounds. And Draghkar parallel vampires. In essence, Draghkar are a merging of vampires with Harry Potter’s Dementors, but in a way, they can also be seen as just vampires simply taken to the next level. They have batlike wings and a terrifying, mystic allure. Rather than drink blood, they suck out their victim’s soul before killing their victim completely.
Myrdraal were created along a similar line, although they did not appear to be based off of any mythical being that I know of. Perhaps fans of Eragon might recognize influences of Myrdraal in Paolini’s Shades, but the two are not exactly identical in nature. Myrdraal are humanoid, but what separates them is not the blending of “human” with “animal” or “other.” Really, Myrdraal are tall, eyeless humans whose very presence can make a person terrified. Their Otherness is only more ominous for their human appearance.
The Question of Dragons
The concept of dragons clearly exists in the Wheel of Time, but if you’re expecting to see any of the winged beasts, it’s not going to be nearly so clear-cut as all that. Magically-given dragon tattoos play a significant role in the Aiel culture and governing structure, but even knowing certain events of the distant past, where now-inconceivable things were once possible, there is never any appearance or mention of dragons.
What the reader does get is the concept of (To’)raken. These monstrous winged creatures hail from the same continent as the s’redit, and depictions of them resemble wyverns (essentially, a dragon with two hind legs, and whose two “front legs” are attached directly to their wings). Raken are the size of horses and can carry about as much as a horse could, just over air instead of across land. To’raken are their much bigger cousins, capable of seating several men and carrying bulky loads. The biggest divergence between real-world concepts of dragons and the (to’)raken is the fact that the latter cannot breathe fire.
I do think that this brings into question, once again, terminology used within the series. To call the (to’)raken “dragons” would have given the reader the incorrect impression that they could breathe fire. Additionally, the dragons depicted in the chapter icons do not resemble the artistic depictions of either the raken or their larger cousins. But, if they hold some similarity to dragons, a case could be made that they, like the s’redit, should have been given a more recognizable name to aide the reader in their understanding.
Piecing Together the Known To Form the New
There are other ways, of course, to create fantastical beings while still allowing for enough familiarity to ground the reader. Similar to mythical beasts like the Sphinx or the Griffon, fantasy beings can draw from multiple existing animals to form something new. Countless fantasy settings have followed this philosophy, and will continue to do so. The most humorous example is the unapologetic merging of two animals within the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe (who could forget the Earth King’s bear?).
Jordan makes his own types of Sphinxes and Griffons in the form of Grolm, Lopar, and others. These two creatures come from the same continent as the s’redit and the (to’)raken, but whereas those three creatures feel intimately familiar, grolm and lopar take some mental gymnastics to envision. Grolm are three-eyed frog-bears, basically, that live in packs and are quite terrifying to be around. Lopar look similar to frog-bears with some elephant or rhinoceros thrown in. They are docile enough to be kept as pets.
Because they are native to another continent, it’s little surprise that the reader does not get to know much about them. However, the same could be said of the Trollocs, considering the protagonists do not interact much with them save during battle. What allows these mythical creatures to be distinct is that what information we do get on them is enough to suggest there is more hidden beneath the surface. They clearly exist beyond the confines of the story–something which Jordan excelled at, and in connection to more than just his fantastical beings–allowing the essence of the beings to feel more three-dimensional than they otherwise could have.