Beauty and the Beast (Warwick Goble)


Ogres (in the “big, ugly, man-shaped monster” sense) exist in cultures around the world, but most of the modern clichés we’re familiar with come from fairy tales. Last week I talked briefly about the writer Giambattista Basile and the Italian monster called the orco, because it illustrates an older, alternative take on the ogre that a writer can make good use of. Let’s dig into that.

When the later writers Charles Perrault and the Countess d’Aulnoy adapted Basile’s works they not only invented the word “ogre” but they also were largely responsible for shaping the present stereotype of creature. It’s one I’m sure you’ve seen at one time or another. In art and media ogres tend to look somewhat human, but oversized and deformed. They may be grossly overweight, or sport a hunchback. You also sometimes see animal features, such as horns, tusks, leonine manes or tails, and so on. Basile’s stories show that the orchi of Italy were even more bestial, being covered in hair, with claws and boar’s tusks.

What can you do with such a creature? Well, on the one hand you can take a very simple approach: make your ogres ravening beasts. They don’t bash you with clubs, you can’t fool them with cunning double-speak. They are a hideous synthesis of man and animal, maybe all of one particular shape, or maybe a hodgepodge of different animal features, varying from ogre to ogre. Perhaps they are solitary creatures like bears, big hairy shapes loping along through the forests and hills. Alternately, maybe they live in wandering troops, like mountain gorillas. Considering the orco’s Italian origins, this take would work well with stories that have a Greco-Roman vibe, since it fits right in with the animal/human hybrid monsters of antiquity, from the satyr to the centaur. Like those ancient beastmen, they don’t just have to be monsters. They could just be representations of nature, a mixture of the ferocity and nobility in both humans and animals.

Ogres as mindless animal-men are one option but it’s a bit boring. You could also use them to get existential on your readers’ asses. Like the werewolf, the orco model of the ogre can be used to explore humanity’s inner beast. Depending on your setting, they might be monsters who exist as a sort of magical personification of our baser desires, or maybe they are men transformed. Some of the earliest versions of “Beauty and the Beast” include very orco-like Beasts, and you might notice that even modern depictions have similar features. That’s no coincidence; the modern version was influenced by several Italian folktales. As with the Beast, ogres who are allegories or personifications of man’s animal desires can be tormented characters, overwhelmed by urges they cannot control. There’s also no reason you need a sorceress or a fairy to do the transforming, either. Maybe their own brutish natures transformed them. Hell, maybe the fact that so many ogres seem dumb as rocks is because their out-of-control animal instincts are interfering with their capacity for higher reason and logic.

In fact, some of Basile’s ogres were also shapeshifters, capable of turning into various large and dangerous animals (lions, tigers, bears, oh my). This model was adopted by Perrault when he shamelessly stole from was inspired by Basile. The ogre in Perrault’s “Puss in Boots” is very skilled at changing his shape, though stupid enough for Puss to trick him into becoming a rat and then eating him. Honestly, it’s a bit depressing how many stories you can find where ogres are so dumb the heroes can trick them into suicide. Anyway, shapeshifting. It’s an easy tool to get across that ogres are magical beings. It invites questions, though. It’s notable that Perrault and Basile’s ogres can almost exclusively turn into large and dangerous animals. In the case of the rat, it’s a creature with a rapacious appetite and an unpleasant reputation. You could theme your ogres’ transformative skills in a similar manner. The bigger question is what such an ability has on the culture of your ogres. Do shapeshifting ogres get respect for this power? Or are they shunned as freaks who remind the others of their bestial roots? If the entire species can shapeshift, what impact might that have on their society? And of course it can invite all sorts of drama and angst if the ability is not entirely voluntary.

Once you’ve chosen the shape and nature of your ogre you can begin to play with the role he has in the story. Your main character who is struggling with his dark side may meet an ogre who represents it, yet tragically fails to heed the lesson. A pitiable troop of wildmen ogres might inspire a character to reconsider the role of logic versus instinct. There could be a character who wants to learn to master the shifting of shape and he seeks out an ogre who is greatly skilled at such things, and he teaches this character how to unlock his inner animal, though at a terrible cost.

If you want ogres to be a living, breathing race of people in your story’s world, considering different interpretations like these can help you flesh them out a great deal. Are they just mundane creatures of sinew and bone, or are they magical beings? What’s their culture like? Do they live alone or in groups? If ogres are transformed humans, do these cursed souls band together? Is the ogre a primitive savage, or does he live in some strange and distant castle or manor like in “Puss and Boots” and “Beauty and the Beast?” There is a lot of stuff you can do with ogres as beastmen, and while it’s completely true to the roots and folklore of the monster, it’s one you don’t see as often in modern fiction. Use it to surprise your reader, make them reconsider the stereotypical ogre, or use it just to stand out from the crowd and make a more memorable impact.



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