April 21, 2022

S is for Sentience

         (My A to Z Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        There is a fair bit of overlap between the idea of sentience and L-for-Language.  After all, if the fish you pull up in your net can ask for mercy, it’s safe to say it’s sentient.  All those magical creatures that can speak to you are sentient.  Still, I thought it was worth mentioning this as a specific trait, especially as it relates to objects that would normally be inanimate.
        The darling of science fiction is robots that are not mere machines, but are truly thinking, feeling, self-aware beings.  I’ve listed a number of examples in previous posts here and here, plus some famous robot poetry from Star Trek’s Data here.
        You should read another prior post to learn about Tsukumogami, which are Japanese household objects that come to life after a long enough period of time.  There are all sorts of objects that can gain sentience in this way, from the sad stirrup creature and the murderous futon monster, to the silly straw sandal beast.  You can also revisit the kase-obake, the sentient umbrella.  And today I will introduce a duet of the koto-furunushi, which is an animate zither whose strings turn into a sort of mane, and the biwa-bokuboku, which has the head of a lute, wears a beautiful kimono, and sings and dances, either sadly or raucously, depending on its mood.
        In Brittany can be found the agrippa, a grimoire (book of magic) that is sentient and acts on its own volition.  Its acts are malicious and vengeful, and as it dislikes to be read, any sorcerer wishing to use it must first beat it into resentful submission.  This isn’t easy, either, since an agrippa is as tall as a man.  It also isn’t easy to get rid of one, which you may eventually wish to do, as you will not be able to get into Heaven as long as you have one.  Whether you try to cut it up, burn it, or sink it in the sea, it will come back to you unharmed, determined to torment you.  (Which probably makes it suitable for R.)
        In southern Africa you have to watch out for the Devouring Gourd, which may grow where evil sorcerers were killed.  If you threaten to pick it, it may threaten you right back, and eventually it will become as big as a house, uproot itself, and go around eating everyone it can catch (flashback to A).
        L. Frank Baum’s country of Oz is a great place to find unexpectedly sentient creatures, from the famous Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, to Billina the yellow hen, the Patchwork Girl, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Gump, and many more.  In most cases these people become sentient through magic, such as Powder of Life, but a few just seem to come by it naturally in such a magical kingdom.
        A more recent discovery is that the stone-carved gargoyles of Gothic architecture are actually sentient, and can come to life at night or under certain circumstances, and move around.  According to Terry Pratchett, they move very slowly and eat pigeons, but other variants appear in other stories.
        Philosophers and computer scientists alike love to debate the nature of consciousness, and how we can ever be sure whether another being is actually sentient or not.  (For those of you reading this, I think therefore I am.  But then, you have only my word for it, and that’s exactly what a computer would say, isn’t it?)  But in fantasy we don’t have to make such a big puzzle out of it.  The moral of these stories is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a sentient duck.  A Pro Tip for magicians and computer mad-scientists alike is to teach your creatures to appreciate the arts.  After all, what does it even mean to be sentient if you can’t take pleasure in the expression of beauty and emotion?
        If you had a dose of Powder of Life, what would you use it on?

[Pictures: C-3P0 (The Droid), oil painting by Tara Leigh based on 1977 movie “Star Wars,” (Image from Etsy shop TaraLeighArtCo);
Tsukumogami, wood block prints by Toriyama Sekien from Gazu Hyakki, 1784 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse, illustration by John R. Neill from The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1904 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Gargoyles (Gargoyles of Saint-Séverin), rubber block print by AEGN, 2020.]


Rob Z Tobor said...

I am always amazed by the amount of research you do for your posts. As a regular visitor to my humble little blog you will be aware that I get round this rather cunningly by rambling on in a rather mad fashion where facts and knowledge tend to be thin on the ground.

Anyway thanks again for visiting as we slowly progress towards the letter of freedom (or Z as folk like to call it).

OOOOooooo I have done a couple of drawings based on old chinese/japanese prints in the recent past

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Household objects coming to life sounds like a Disney movie :-)

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge My Languishing TBR: S

Deborah Weber said...

I'm particularly fascinated by the Japanese household object beings. Your mention of Oz reminded of my experience there. As a child I was cast to play a poppy in the fields in my ballet class recital. I had a lovely costume and I got to sway back and forth wafting sleepy energy. It was the perfect part for me because I couldn't actually dance worth a dime. :-)

Mrs Fever said...

I'm delighted that you mention both Pratchett and Baum in your sentient musings. And I agree: if it walks like a duck...

(Which reminds me of the children's books Click Clack Moo and Giggle Giggle Quack.) :)

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Rob, I'd be curious to see your drawings. Especially the Japanese prints have been inspiring European artists even since they reached the west.

Deborah, what a perfect role for you to be cast in: spreading the magic of dreams!

Mrs Fever, I've definitely been more focussed on traditional folklore in these posts, but I like to throw in the newer ones, too, when appropriate. And the duck in Clack Clack Moo is more sentient than many people! lol