This article originally appeared on my Patreon page for 5 January 2022 -- there with a little extra content -- and I'm reprising it here in hopes of enticing a few more of you to come and back me.
“The chimera was beginning to bore people. Rather than imagining it they turned it into something else. As a beast it was too incoherent; the lion, the goat and the snake do not readily make up a single animal.”
Borges there, writing in The Book of Imaginary Beings, and he’s dead right. I never quite embraced the Greek myths as a kid because of all those monsters with the forelimbs of animal X and the hindquarters of animal Y. Even as a kid I thought they should have tried harder. The Norse myths came steeped in really dark and dreamlike elements, which I loved and that’s probably why Legend turned out the way it did.
This came up in a recent episode of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, my second favourite fantasy gaming podcast. The chaps were talking about Robert E Howard’s short story “The Tower of the Elephant”, and I got to thinking about how almost every illustration of Yag-Kosha just plonks an elephant’s head onto a man’s body. You can almost hear the scratch of the pen as the artist carefully copied a picture from a zoology book.
But here’s how Yag-Kosha is described in the story:
“Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. [...] This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer.”
Yag-Kosha is an extraterrestrial. While REH was no doubt inspired by the mythology of Ganesha, I think he had something stranger and more original in mind. A body with two arms and two legs, and head that has protuberant teeth or horns and a long, prehensile snout – of course to Conan it looks like an elephant-headed man, but that’s no excuse for artists to be so literal.
One of the worst offenders is the illustration by J M Wilcox from the March 1933 edition of Weird Tales:
No better is Ernie Chan’s depiction from The Savage Sword of Conan. Somewhere there’s a photo of an elephant’s head that looks exactly like this:
The takeaway is that we all find our inspiration in the familiar, but when transmuting that lead into fantasy gold it pays off to hide your sources. And, along with that, always to look for a new angle on familiar material. For instance, vampires that seem to have been whisked off the set of a Hammer horror movie will probably not give your players a genuine shudder, but investing a little work in dirtying them up, or adding an outré spin on the concept, can yield a very memorable encounter.