April 12, 2019

P is for Pyrallis

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  Please check out my Kickstarter Campaign; there are lots of goodies about the project posted there.
        Actually, the two P creatures in my bestiary are the phoenix and the pterippus, both of which I’ve blogged about before.  So I decided to be tricky and focus today on the pyrallis, which will appear in my book only as a bonus critter in a tiny detail of another illustration.
        Many sources nowadays describe the pyrallis (aka pyrausta) as being like a tiny dragonoid insect or insectoid dragon, which lives in the copper-smelting furnaces of Cyprus.  When I first heard of this I was utterly enchanted.  I imagined it as being a miniature dragon, but with dragonfly wings, large multi-faceted eyes, and probably antennae.  I can just see it, flitting among the sparks and glowing in the firelight.  It’s a delightful image.  But when you do a little digging, Pliny, our original source, classes it under “insects” and describes it as “a four-footed animal with wings, the size of a large fly.”  With only four legs we are justified in questioning whether the pyrallis is truly an insect… but dragon?  Where did that come from?
        The pyrallis is a poster child for the question of “authenticity” in fantasy.  For millenia people told each other stories, and retold them, and adapted them, and mixed them up, and told them again.  We saw this phenomenon before with the gnome, and the phoenix, too, had all kinds of variations from author to author - how long did it live, what did it look like, how did that whole regeneration thing work?  There are many many different versions throughout various classical and medieval writings.  Which one is “authentic”?  What does “authentic” even mean when you’re talking about something entirely imaginary?  On the other hand, if I start describing a swimming bird that doesn’t regenerate at all, I really can’t call it a “phoenix”, can I.  How much leeway should modern fantasy writers get in adapting and changing fantasy creatures they did not make up themselves?
        It’s a question with a lot of wiggle room and grey area.  What do you think?  All you fantasy writers out there must have Opinions, and among readers, do you appreciate the little tweaks or added depth that fantasy books contribute to your image of a mythical creature, or does it annoy you when they don’t stay true to previous versions?
        As for me, I confess that sometimes changes annoy me and sometimes they don’t, but in the case of the pyrallis, if it is a mere insect, I don’t much care about it, but if it’s a tiny dragon?  Yes, please!  What do you think?
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[Picture: detail from The Philosophers at Home, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

9 comments:

Rebekah Loper said...

The Pyrallis sounds like such a neat little creature! Your whole A-Z theme (and upcoming book!) sounds fabulous, and I'll definitely be back to poke through more of your posts!

Rob Z Tobor said...

I rather approve that you are doing your own modified schedule. I do like a rebel. . .

Kristin said...

I like your idea of a tiny insect size dragon.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Rebekah, thanks for stopping by!

Rob, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am the most mild-mannered rebel ever.

Kristin, I have to give credit where credit is due: the dragonishness was not my idea. It might be traceable to a book by Una Woodruff, but it's now become the standard description of the pyrallis.. I really like it, though!

Lisa said...

I love dragonflies, but the idea of a tiny dragon, yes, like you, please! Great post and questions to think on...

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

OMG I love this one! And it totally is a tiny dragon. It has to be a tiny dragon. No contest.

The Multicolored Diary

Deborah Weber said...

A tiny dragonoid insect entirely delights me, and I'm charmed by your block. I definitely lean in favor of artistic license tweaks. I'm of the opinion no one's reality is the same, and certainly no one's imagination. Imagine and tweak away, and I'll trust myself to find the version that I like best.

Pax said...

As for the Great Question of sticking to the consensus of old mythologies versus tweaking and reimagining, I'd go right down the middle: enough of the old standard idea to b recognizable, but with a few tweaks to enable it to fit better your story purpose. As for the pyrallis, I'm all for a dragonoid insect. What fun!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Well, it sounds like if the A-Z crowd is anything to go by, the tweaked dragon-ish version wins for sure! =D