319 – Monsters of Fire and Flame
Things are heating up this week on the Mythcreant Podcast, because we’re talking about monsters of fire and flame! From dragons to salamanders, from phoenixes to… actually, there don’t seem to be that many classic fire monsters. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of this while also talking about the role these creatures play in stories and why so many fantasy authors invent their own special type of fire.
Generously transcribed by I.W. Ferguson. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening song]
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is Oren and Chris.
And maybe I’m just dreaming of warmer climes or maybe I’m just ready to talk about monsters again. Yeah. So we’ve covered monsters of snow and ice before and today we’re talking about those monsters of fire and flame.
And there’s not so many of them turns out.
Chris: I was really surprised. I expected to find lots, but I guess they’re kind of modern.
Wes: We did hedge a bit on the snow and ice podcast. So, we’ll talk about some monsters. And by that we generally mean beasts, but we’ll probably broaden out to be some more just…creatures to try to encompass a wider range of sentient-type things that are composed of or exist in fire and flame zones.
Oren: Fire themed in some way.
Wes: The challenges that I was thinking here is the environment is just super hostile. I mean, how can anything of much size get enough to eat? We talked about that with Oren’s story with the last wampa That at least explained how something that size ended up in its situation. A dragon breathes fire, and it’s associated with fire. And I guess they eat. I mean, we see them eat on Game of Thrones, but Smaug just hung out in the Lonely Mountain.
Chris: That’s true, Smaug didn’t eat much. I suppose we could say they eat gold.
Wes: No, unless dragons eat gold. That’s the only thing that makes sense and why they raid. They don’t spend the currency; they’re just so hungry.
Oren: They must not eat that much though. There was still a lot of gold in there. So unless they get something from it other than a traditional digestive process. Maybe they eat it and they absorb the greed that’s built up in it for a while and then it just comes out the other end as regular gold.
Wes: Oren, I like that. I like the idea that dragons consume greed. That’s kind of cool.
Oren: I can’t help but notice that in the flashbacks the dwarven mountain is not just flooded with gold. That’s not a thing. So you would assume that Smaug like went out and got some, but then you’d think that that’s something people would notice: if a giant dragon was flying out and grabbing gold, that would be a more active problem than Smaug is supposed to be.
Of course, granted, that could just be the movie, right? It’s possible that Smaug somehow gathered all of the dwarves’ treasure into one room, even though he’s the size of a building. I don’t know how he got into the small rooms with all the gold in them. I have logistical Smaug questions, is what I’m saying.
Wes: A few other quick things on environment. If you’re thinking about creatures of fire and flame, cruising through a monster manual or something, you’ll see environments for fire types include mountains, which usually means kind of volcanic activity, and also deserts tend to house some fire type spirits, and those are okay because at least in a desert, they’re not full of sulfuric gases and stuff.
And there’s probably some water, you know, oases and things like that.
And then mountains. If you’re a flying fire type Pokemon, you can soar down to the valley and get some fat, squishy thing to eat and it’ll be tasty. I want to make a special shout out to gorons because they’re the only ones in my cursory research for this podcast that make sense because they live in mountains, they like it hot, and they eat rocks. They don’t like gems because gems are not tasty. And so they get to trade with the other races in Hyrule. And therefore gorons are just the best. I think they can even just hang out in lava. The big goron in Ocarina of Time, I think was just in a bed of lava. So they are the ultimate creatures of fire and flame because of all the coolness about them.
Oren: For all these reasons, you’re going to have a much harder time creating a fire themed monster that is made of meat—as we understand it—than a cold monster, because the places we associate with cold are often pretty hostile, but it’s still possible for large actual animals to live there. Like polar bears. What is a polar bear, if not an ice monster?
Whereas the places that we associate with fire are far more hostile. And much harder for any kind of large creature to survive. If your creature is going to survive, it’s probably going to have to be magic, if it’s going to live in a fire themed area. It’s going to have to do something either like the gorons, you said they were called? Where they just don’t care about heat and they eat rocks, and they clearly put some thought into that. In a fantasy world, if there’s a lava spirit swimming in a volcano caldera, most people will accept that. Most people aren’t going to ask what it eats.
Chris: I have to say there is a lot of variety on fire creatures about whether they’re actually sensitive to fire or not. Obviously if they’re swimming in lava they’re invulnerable to fire and many creatures are, but dragons are actually depicted both ways. Or sometimes they’re just invulnerable to fire, but there are also some stories where the dragon has certain biological protections against its own fire and that’s a weak point that you can exploit, if you turn the fire back on the dragon or something like that.
Firebenders in the Avatar setting are actually pretty unique in that they both have fire magic, but they can be burned just as easily as anybody else—as far as we know.
Oren: Well, you know, a firebending duel would be pretty boring if they were both immune to fire. It’s like, “I challenge you to an Agni Kai,” “Do you mean like a fist fight?”
Chris: Okay, but in the cartoon show, they actually are pretty invulnerable to fire. Some would say that this is because it’s a children’s show and it’s not an intentional part of the world building, but you don’t know.
Oren: Look, Chris, sometimes when it gets serious, they get anime scorch marks. That’s pretty bad. You get sent to the hospital for those. My favorite weird monster that’s associated with fire is the salamander. I looked up the backstory of the salamander because it’s so weird that salamanders, in a lot of fantasy literature, are associated with fire because salamanders are amphibians and they don’t do well if they get dried out, let alone with actual fire. They don’t like hot places.
I looked this up and apparently, at least as far as western antecedents goes, the association of the salamander with fire goes back to ye olde Greeks. Cause what doesn’t. It wasn’t that they were creatures of fire, it was that they were so cold that they could live in fire because the coldness of their bodies would just counteract the heat of the fire. That was where the salamander-fire connection got started.
And then the source that I consulted theorized that this might’ve been because salamanders would live in the wood chips that the Greeks would burn in their fires. And so you would put a bunch of wood chips in the fire and a bunch of salamanders would run out of them because there was fire there. And people would be like, “Whoa, the salamanders came out of the fire. Ooo!”
Wes: Look at those little fire spirits go.
Oren: …which is my favorite. I don’t know if that’s true. That was just a hypothesis I saw in one source, but I’m accepting it as my personal lord and savior. Apparently, Pliny the Elder tried to test to see whether or not salamanders were immune to fire and they were not. So thanks for finding that out, Pliny.
Wes: Way to ruin it for everybody.
Oren: But yeah, I could not find a fire spirit. I wanted one for my urban fantasy game, because I had a bunch of other kind of elemental type spirits. And I just could not find a fire spirit. I found a few possibilities, but they were all kind of appropriative, which we’ll talk about next week.
And so I was like, all right, I’m just going to have to make one up. And I could just call it a fire elemental, but that just seemed like a cop-out—it seemed kind of bland. So I created a new kind of creature called an ignis. Cause it sounds like ignite, you see, I’m very clever. One Hugo please. So that was what I had to do because there were just not that many fire monsters around.
Wes: Yeah. For that reason, you just see fire-skinned things in Dungeons and Dragons on the elemental plane of fire. You just get fire genies called efreeti and you also get azers, which are just dwarves. You can fight me on this, but they’re just dwarves. Their beards are made of flame, that’s it. But otherwise they are identical to dwarves.
It’s just like, “We really need to populate this place, so we’ll just do…I don’t know, fire dwarves? Perfect.” “Wait, don’t we already have fire giants?” “It doesn’t matter.”
Chris: It’s true. There are so many fire creatures that modern people are making up for games or whatever that are just like, “Okay, let’s just take a normal creature, you know, say it’s on fire. What does it do? It burns things.” It’s like, okay, well, that’s a start. It’s not particularly interesting.
The thing about the phoenix, why the phoenix is so memorable is it actually has something unique about it. Burning itself up and being reborn from the ashes is just so memorable that nobody forgets the phoenix.
Oren: Actually that myth comes from the legend of Prince Zuko, who was redeemed so well that it was like he was burned up and then reborn anew, and that’s actually where the phoenix myth comes from. True fact.
Chris: My goal for a fire creature is trying to do something more than like, “it’s a creature, it’s on fire, it burns things.” Kind of neat about the salamander. The idea that it supposedly was cold. That would definitely make a creature that’s more unique as it has some kind of contrast like that.
Wes: Calcifer is a fire demon. It’s Billy Crystal who’s the voice actor, and that makes him even more charming, as far as I’m concerned. But you know, that’s a good example of a fire elemental in a setting that kind of has a story and purpose. And then you find out that he’s actually just a falling star, too. And that’s also great.
Chris: For anyone who’s not familiar, this is from Howl’s Moving Castle. The funny thing about this, of course, is that Howl uses him to cook eggs. Oh, actually, no, Howl doesn’t want to use him to cook eggs, Sophie insists on using him to cook eggs. He’s like, “this is undignified.”
Wes: But he’s super powerful. He makes a deal with Howl, then that gets magic up, and then the resolution of that deal is important to the plot.
Chris: But we also see him as a stove fire. So, small and friendly.
Wes: Yeah. Lots of novelty instead of just fire elemental. But the fire elemental stuff holds true because flames just seem kind of alive based on their weird movements and stuff. So you can make fire your monster, if you want. It’s okay. It’s destructive and terrifying, and if it has a little bit of a personality, all the better.
Chris: And I think if you’re going to make a fire creature that’s out in the wild—I mean, we’ve talked about this—but it would be a little strange if they lived in a grassland or forest, just because we’d have to ask why those things haven’t burned down yet.
Prairies, though, are traditionally supposed to burn through once in a while. So you could potentially have a situation with a creature that maybe breathes fire in defense occasionally. Supposedly this ecosystem is developed to burn down once in a while. And it often starts with this creature that has a little defensive flame or something.
Wes: So many of our fire monsters and creatures breathe fire or something like that. It’s tough to think of just normal creatures hanging out that have that ability. Game of Thrones tried to make it where dragons do it. Cause they cook their food, right? Like, “Oh, they’re the only other animal that cooks their food.” And it’s like, “that’s a weird adaptation.”
Oren: There was a…not really a documentary, but a speculative documentary that made the rounds when I was growing up that posited this idea that maybe dragons were a kind of dinosaur that evolved hydrogen-storing organs inside of them. Which allowed them to fly at a larger size than you would expect. And then they would develop some kind of striking tooth that could cause some sparks. And so the flame was them expelling some hydrogen that they would then ignite with the sparking mechanism in their teeth.
And I fell absolutely in love with that idea. I was like, “this is the best dragon explanation I’ve ever heard,” when I was a kid. And I still have a soft spot for it, so if you want to make your dragons fly by having bellies full of hydrogen, I’m way into it. It’s like, I don’t know where they get the hydrogen from, but, whatever, I’m sure that was in the documentary somewhere.
Chris: The gold, they converted to hydrogen.
Oren: Ooh, that’s why they need gold. Boom. Got that solved.
Chris: They’re like alchemists.
Wes: Man, we are really putting the pieces together on this one, you guys,
Oren: One of the things I find fascinating about fire in fantasy stories is that fire is often associated with both demons and angels and it’s different fire. The Dresden Files did this, where for awhile, Dresden is using hell fire, which is this special kind of supercharged fire. He gets right with God, and he gets soul fire instead, which is from the angels. And it’s a different kind of special fire. And I was like, wow, there’s a lot of kinds of special fire around here. I just found that very interesting.
Chris: Fantasy writers do like their special fire. I mean, think of how frequently magic is just fire that’s a different color.
Oren: Wheel of Time has balefire, which erases something in time, which is kind of neat. I don’t know why fire would do that, but that’s a thing that happens.
Wes: Yeah. The angel part is good because fire and heat can purify. So there’s that holy aspect of it. You can just hear some paladin that picks up a flaming mace and he says, “Oh yeah, to the tainted I bring fire.” This is like, “Okay, calm down guy.”
Oren: Yeah. The whole idea of fire purifying is very common. It’s a very common trope. I find it a little weird personally, cause fire doesn’t really do that in most ways. I mean, if you’re talking about it from a chemical perspective, you can use fire to induce a reaction that can cause elements to separate. Right? So that’s sort of purifying, I guess, but for the most part fire just destroys things. That’s basically what fire does.
Chris: I did read a fantasy book once—I can’t remember which book this was—where the protagonists travel through what is basically the center of the world. And at some point there’s some purifying fire in the center of it and it makes the main character, it makes her really hot. It burns away her imperfections or something, and so she’s like super hot now.
Wes: Okay. Yeah. Sexy. I was like, of course she’d get hot.
Oren: I’m really glad that that fire is tuned to modern beauty standards.
Chris: Yeah. Going back to the angels thing. Another interesting thing I found is, one of the few creatures that we usually associate with fire are hellhounds. As you pointed out, Wes, they’re from all over and they’re only fire-ish if the culture happens to associate hell with fire, So, we might depict them as being fiery, but in many depictions they wouldn’t be fiery at all. It’s like they take on whatever properties the underworld is suppose to have.
Wes: Is there a divine equivalent to…like, is there a heaven hound? There should be because they’re good boys.
Oren: In some urban fantasy stories? Yes. But I don’t think that one’s as common. If you’re destined to go to heaven, you probably aren’t running away. Yeah. Okay. I’d like to go to heaven, whereas if you’re supposed to go to hell, it’s like, Hmm, hang on, I don’t think I want to, I think I’m going to try something else and then they have to be like, all right, release the hounds. That’s why hell typically needs hounds more often than heaven does, would be my guess.
I’m also a big fan of not exactly monster, but fire with special properties, like the fires of Mount Doom.
Chris: We’re taking a really expansive definition of monsters.
Oren: I just liked the idea of like, you need the special fires for his first forging of the special ring, and then you’ve got to undo it with that. I just thought that was cool. I liked the rhyme where they explained that.
Wes: A silly fun monster from a video game that I remember: Ocarina of Time had torch slugs and they were weird-looking, fiery, sluggy things, and you could try to slash them and eventually it would work, but that’s where you took the megaton hammer out, hit the ground, they flipped upside down, and then you could take them out. But I just like the idea of a torch slug. Let’s take this slow-moving thing and set it on fire. That works really well.
Chris: Okay, I never actually played through that game myself. So they’re used for making torches?
Wes: They were very large slugs on the ground that were just on fire and would attack you.
Chris: Oh, so they’re just hanging out, slugging, on fire.
Wes: Yeah. Like you do, I guess.
Oren: Apparently that’s how they do. I always pick the Fire starter in Pokemon. Like always. I’m very basic like that. Okay. I need my Charmander. I don’t want this turtle or this weird green thing with a flower ball bud, but no, I want the tiny little dragon with a flamey tail. And then it goes through his awkward Charmeleon phase. And it’s like, yeah, he’ll outgrow this eventually. And then he becomes Charizard and you’re the cool kid. Cause you have a Charizard. And that was like social currency when I was little.
Wes: I too, very much, am team Charmander, but I was looking at least at the first-generation Pokemon. I’m just most familiar with them. The other fire ones—there aren’t that many—I didn’t use them. I didn’t use Growlithe. I didn’t use Rapidash. I didn’t use Magmar I guess I just think a little Charmander is enough, as far as the Fire type goes.
Oren: You probably don’t need more than one Fire type on your team and in gen one, most of the high tiers weren’t Fire type. Although I think Arcanine was. Arcanine is still pretty good. Okay. That’s a whole, that’s a Pokemon art mechanics argument. Save that for never.
Oren: This is fire and monsters. One thing that I do get kind of annoyed by in a lot of fantasy stories is that whenever it’s like, Ooh, it’s a weird creature. How do we kill it? The answer is always fire. It doesn’t matter what it is, fire will always kill it. And it’s got to the point in some of my Hunter games that I’ve played in or DM’d where we wouldn’t even bother doing research on what the monster was and how to kill it. We would just be like, all right, well, if we burn it, that’ll probably do. We’re just going to go find it and burn it. Cause that works on everything.
Wes: It’s just such readily accessible destruction. And as we’ve established, few things can not be harmed by it.
Chris: Well, that is the nice thing about a fire creature, supposedly you can’t just kill it with fire—most of them.
Wes: A creature of fire that we haven’t talked about would be the chimera, which I guess just doesn’t make any sense to me, if either of you know, but it’s like a lion goat snake that also breathes fire. It’s just like a whatever, plus fire.
Oren: Might as well at that point, right?
Chris: Seems like a creature made up by a five-year-old kid.
Wes: And it somehow got popular and stuck around. Great, good job. I learned that, apparently, Tolkien—I’m going to say—invented the Balrog. I don’t know if that’s true. I think he made the word up, but I guess he wanted some kind of super powerful equivalent to dragons. He’s like, “I know I’m going to have dragons, but there’s gotta be something else. I know! Some thing of fire and shadow that is big and for whatever reason has a whip.” Because…
Oren: Everything is scarier with a whip.
Wes: Yeah. And everything’s scarier.
Oren: Apparently there’s a controversy over whether or not the Balrog is supposed to have wings. But I mean, I think that the Balrog is not a dragon. I don’t know what Tolkien’s thoughts on this were, but it was a good choice because—especially if you’ve already read the Hobbit—the dragon has already been somewhat demystified.
If it’s this weird, strange thing, having it not have a super clear physical form. It’s like it’s made of fire and shadow. That just makes it weirder and creepier. We already know how to kill dragons: we find their one weak point, we stab them. It’s like, how do we even fight this? What do we do with it? Does anyone have a hose? I don’t know.
Wes: That was great. In the mines of Moria in The Fellowship. I remember the first time I saw that and Gandalf just like says that this is a creature far beyond any of them, to run, and you don’t see anything other than sulfuric smoke kind of just following them. That was done really well. That was cool.
Chris: Yeah. I have to say the combination of fire plus shadow makes it different than all of the other fire creatures that are just on fire. Having some contrast sounds like a basically good recipe if you’re trying to make a fire creature so that it’s not like every other fire creature.
Oren: I’m actually not sure where I picked this up, but I also kind of associate fire with passion and high emotions. I found that connection to be kind of useful. That’s why in my urban fantasy game, the fire spirits that I created, the ignis, are all kind of extra, and they have really elaborate names and get very enthusiastic about things. That’s not super important—none of my players are an ignis—but it’s just a thing that I came up with in the backstory.
Chris: I mean, it reminds me of how in anime there’s always that red-headed character. So I did the red-headed character. I was going to be threatening to kill people half the time.
Oren: You leave Kyo alone. He’s doing his best.
Wes: That is a good thing to consider though, Oren. We talked about angels and demons, both have fire for their whatever purposes, but the emotional aspects, there are positive and negative qualities that come with that too, which could play into any creatures that you might want to consider creating.
Chris: Well, I think we can agree that anything with lots of fire is probably pretty accurate.
Wes: Except those torch slugs.
Chris: Which are just, you know, chilling.
Oren: I’m also just a big fan of using fire for creative purposes. I just think that’s cool. That’s maybe one of the reasons why I like Calcifer, cause he powers the castle, which I find cool. I like forges, you know, give me a forge sprite or something. I think those are neat. Give me a living forge that makes things. I’m very into that idea. You know, fire can be destructive. We’ve just been talking about that, how fire doesn’t really purify things, but it provides energy, which is important. And you can use that to make things.
Chris: That would kind of turn the whole destructive part on its head. What if we created things instead.
Oren: And that was one of the things that really blew my mind about Avatar. When I first heard about it, I was like, okay, so fire’s the bad guy, that makes sense. And they were like, well, the fire’s not evil in the setting. There just happened to be some bad guys who use fire. And I was like, Whoa, mind blown. What do you mean fire is not evil?
Chris: Fire Nation does have steam punk technology, basically, that you find out later, like these big machines and stuff like that. Are those actually powered by firebenders? I know in Korra, they actually have firebenders that are powering things by shooting lightning.
Oren: So we don’t see for sure, but I always assumed no. The way I always explained it in my head was that the Fire Nation’s technology advanced faster than the other nations, because through firebending they were able to more easily create advanced metalworking, which is really important. I assume at first that involved a lot more firebending personally, more fire labor as it were. But over time, they found other ways to do that because they already have the infrastructure in place. They’ve shunted more of their firebenders into their military. That’s how I assume it works. If I was doing a Fire Nation story, that’s how I would explain it.
Apparently Nickelodeon just made a new Avatar division. So if anyone’s hiring, if you want me to write your Fire Nation history, I am available. Then let me pitch you my 200 season Kyoshi idea.
Wes: So I guess the big takeaway here is that there’s not a lot of selection. If you really want a fire creature, just, I don’t know, pick a…a bat and say it’s a fire bat and it has fiery wings. I’m totally stealing that. It’s from the Legend of Zelda and they’re called Fire Keese. There’s also Ice Keese and Lightning Keese. I mean, it’s just all about the re-skinning.
Oren: Got to love those elemental bats.
Wes: Yeah. Elemental bat characters. You know, there’s some good classics and just maybe never underestimate using fire in creative ways and also just good little fire demons, like Calcifer, are always fun and simple.
Oren: Like a little ball of fire with a face is always going to be adorable.
All right. Well with that, I think we will call this podcast to a close. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory and Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.