This may or may not be a known fact to our readers, but in case you missed it, I love cryptozoology. I think it’s a fun and harmless interest, and while you won’t catch me out in the woods doing Bigfoot calls, I won’t pass up the opportunity to watch a “documentary” about someone else doing just that. But despite the efforts to make cryptozoology seem like a serious branch of science to tie Sasquatches to a missing evolutionary link and lake monsters to dinosaurs who never went extinct, I think a lot of people, myself included, are interested in cryptids because they offer an element of somewhat fantastical chaos into a world in which it sometimes feels that there’s not a ton left to discover otherwise—especially if you’re a layperson without a handful of science degrees. Anyone can go sit on the edge of Loch Ness and hope to spot a monster. And hey, isn’t it hubris to assume we’ve discovered every known species when we’re constantly discovering new and bizarre creatures in remote areas?
That said, the general belief is that people who take chupacabras, skunk apes, Jersey Devils, and the Mothman too seriously are stubborn, stupid, and naïve. But though cryptids themselves are often fantastical creatures, the attitude we have toward them in the real world seems to be exclusive to the real world. While some fantasy stories do feature cryptid-esque animals, they’re never treated with quite the same sense of dismissive derision—by either the narrative or the people involved—that real-world cryptids and cryptid enthusiasts get. In fact, the farther you get from realism, the more likely it is they’ll be celebrated rather than mocked.
If you’re not sure what exactly counts as a cryptid, let me quickly define it. Basically, a cryptid is a creature whose existence is the topic of folklore, but which has never been confirmed or justified through scientific proof or study, and the appearance of which is based on anecdotal evidence, myth, and hearsay. Bigfoot and Nessie are the prototypical examples of these, but people tell stories about cryptids all over the world, from Champ in upper New York’s Lake Champlain, to yetis in the Himalayas and Aswangs in the Philippines.
In some fantasy worlds, animals that could be called cryptids are not just universally believed in, but a sighting is a cause for celebration. Take the White Stag, for example, in The Chronicles of Narnia. It specifically is sighted at the end of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In a land already populated with mythical creatures—fauns, dwarves, dryads, and giants are par for the course—it’s a rare, once in a generation event to even hear a rumor of the White Stag. And rather than dismissing its appearance as mere rumor or hokum, the Pevensies, now adult kings and queens in the prime of their lives, immediately head out on a hunting expedition to find it. After all, this stag has the ability to grant wishes if caught. In the end, the creature is more of a deus ex machina than a cryptid in and of itself—the rulers’ hunt takes them back to the wood with the Lamppost, and therefore directly leads to them finding the wardrobe again and leaving Narnia for the first time. That said, no one ever scoffs at the idea of the Stag or ridicules the characters for trying to find it.
Game of Thrones, though still high fantasy, tends toward more realistic characters and situations, and as such takes a slightly more complicated view of its cryptids. While creatures like the White Walkers are appearing and threatening the safety of the North, tales of these creatures are ridiculed in the South as the Watch’s version of old wives’ tales. However, while this derision is similar to that of the derision faced by real-world cryptid-lovers, it’s not as potent. This is because unlike the real world—where there’s no overarching narrative, no way for us to switch perspective to a character point of view who’s actually seen what cryptozoologists are searching for—in this story, we can immediately see who’s right and who’s wrong. Some characters may not believe in them, but the narrative certainly does. In Game of Thrones, the appearance of cryptids, whether the White Walkers, a three-eyed crow, or even the dragons, offer the reader a sense of dramatic irony when characters reject their existence. Even if they don’t believe, we know they exist, and it will be all the more satisfying when they’re proven wrong.
Harry Potter isn’t set in an entirely fantasy world, which may be why its attitude toward cryptid-enthusiast types is so close to that of the real world’s. At the same time, it also highlights some of the ironies of the real-world dismissal of cryptids by taking it to its absurd conclusion. When Luna Lovegood is introduced, part of the way she is immediately coded as a “loony”, eccentric character is her belief in creatures that are not considered real by the magical community at large—in essence, magical cryptids. Her concerns about heliopaths and nargle-prevention efforts are the subject of mockery from the rest of the magical community, which strikes me as kind of a dick move to be honest. Literal magic exists, but only a certain number of magical beasts are allowed to? This is especially odd considering that there are things like thestrals. In the scene where Harry first sees the thestrals, he thinks he’s losing his mind. When Luna reassures him that they’re real, it’s a comfort, but it’s still couched in language that makes Harry seem a bit odd for acknowledging them, i.e., Luna says “you’re just as sane as I am.” But this dismissal proves that the closer you get to the real world, the more likely people are to reject the things that don’t fit their neat paradigm.
In the end, it helps accent the escapism of a fantastical world when the narrative and the characters cosign the world’s cryptids. The more acceptable the belief in cryptids is, the less like the real world it feels. Not to mention, it helps that in these fantasy stories these creatures serve a greater purpose in the narrative. In the real world, even if you did find a cryptid, it doesn’t grant you a wish, or confirm that Winter is in fact Coming. Honestly, given the violent nature of a lot of cryptid folklore, it’d probably just hurt you. Getting to harmlessly discover fantastical creatures is an awesome side effect of fantasy worldbuilding, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!