Since griffins come in so many shapes and sizes (and spellings), when I set out to write about them I had an impressive range of choices. I went with “griffin” as a spelling because I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the letter “y”.
Design-wise, I chose the one where the front paws are bird talons and the hind paws are, well, paws. Feathers on the front, fur at the back, wings in the expected place. At first I left the lion’s tail as it was, but then I realised that would leave the griffin with nothing to stabilise it in the air, so I gave it a feathery tail rudder in place of the traditional furry tuft.
What would a griffin really be like, if it existed? How would it fit into an ecosystem? If it’s going to be an intelligent creature, what sort of personality would it have? Most importantly, plot-wise, why would it want anything to do with humans?
I’ve always been mistrustful of dragon-riders, because it never made sense to me that something so big and powerful would even take notice of a puny human. Wouldn’t an animal, a predatory animal, a big predatory animal – wouldn’t an animal like that be first of all solitary, and second of all, too damned dangerous to associate with?
I’ve seen various solutions. Careful breeding, keeping them doped up, and everyone’s favourite solution to fantasy world problems, magic.
I didn’t want to do anything like that. I wanted to have a reason, a good, solid, non-magical reason for griffins to choose humans as their partners. Most importantly, I wanted it to be something that wouldn’t demean the griffin. I’ve always hated it when the main character has some sort of magical creature as a sidekick or co-star or whatever, and takes that as a free pass to treat that creature like dirt. It happens all the time, even in stories where the text keeps insisting that the two are “equals”. Most of the time, they aren’t. One way or another the human ends up on top and the creature is the servant – a willing servant, which only makes it worse.
I didn’t want that. I wanted to do something different.
In the world I created, griffins choose humans because they want to, but also because, in a way, they have to. Because, despite being huge and powerful – and magical – in some key ways they’re weaker than humans.
I wove it all in with the way the natural world works when humans enter the equation. Griffins, I decided, had a problem. Namely, they lived solitary lives in the wild, only meeting each other for mating or territorial fights. They were and always will be completely unable to work together.
Then along came humans. They bred faster than griffins, they had hands to build, and more importantly they knew how to band together. And, little by little, they took everything away from the griffins. They cut down the trees, killed and ate all the prey, and any griffin that fought back would sooner or later end up full of arrows.
In short, humans drove the wild griffins to the brink of extinction and without leaders or society or any kind of social intelligence the griffins had no way of stopping it.
If you can’t beat them, join them. I didn’t want to have a specific date or magical event; instead the human/griffin thing was always intended as a gradual thing, a bit similar to the taming of dogs. Some people here and there managed to get their hands on griffin eggs or chicks and tried to raise them. Some young griffins chose to live close to human settlements and survive on the pickings there. And because they were so large and regal – and intelligent – humans had always had a certain reverence for them. They became a sacred animal.
Two could play at that game. Certain griffins realised that having a human ally was a good thing. In return for certain concessions, the human would give them food and eventually come to look on them as something other than a danger.
Eventually (all this took centuries, bear in mind), humans and griffins learned how to talk to each other. Griffins couldn’t master human languages, but humans could replicate their own sounds, and a hybrid language called griffish came into being.
That was when the human/griffin society really took off, and feel free to come and beat me for that pun.
Part II to come tomorrow, in which KJ Taylor talks further about the fascinating hierarchy of griffins in Cymria, and Part III on Thursday, in which KJ Taylor will show you how to make your very own griffin!
KJ Taylor lives in Canberra, Australia, where she is continuing work on The Fallen Moon trilogy. The Dark Griffin, book one of the Fallen Moon trilogy, is her first novel published with Voyager – she also wrote The Land of Bad Fantasy (Scholastic).