Thursday, May 20, 2010

Snakes Are Books

Here's one: snakes are books.

Every serpent is a text. Certain people (and non-people) know how to read their scales.

As they grow, the animals revise and expand themselves until they die.

The most common and convenient method of reading a snake (among human ophdiobibliologists) is having it slither through an ivory serpent-reader--a sphere with ornately carved orifices and channels.

Unusually large specimens can be read with the use of specialized lenses.
(And here you thought that was just a Chinese puzzle ball.)

Those who know the spoken language of the Yuan-Ti know what snakes hiss. Each snake is hissing its name--the title of the book that it is.

Common snakes are usually fairly uninteresting works--garter snakes tend to be cookbooks, corn snakes are generally works of adventure fiction with cliche characters or too-convenient endings. Rarer breeds--100' anacondas, albino cobras--often contain long-forgotten secrets or comprise unique works of poetry or philosophy.

Since snakes are natural phenomena, and all books are, in one way or another, discussions of natural phenomena or its effects, snakes could be considered a continuous monologue that the world produces about itself. Thus the symbol: a serpent eating its own tail.

Giant snakes are typically encyclopedias or great multi-volume sagas representing the myths and theogonies of entire cultures.

Scholars disagree: the amphisbaena is either a palindrome or a work which reveals an entirely different (yet equally coherent) narrative when read backwards.

Nagas are linguistic texts, translating from the languages of snakes to the languages of humans.

The snakes growing from the heads of medusae are generally reference works and the medusaes themselves are often cataloguers--tending private libraries containing nothing but caged snakes,, selectively breeding exotic and daring new works.
The Librarians--known in the east as Yuan-Ti--also catalogue and breed works, though in a far less dilettantish and casual fashion--they believe that careful control of cross-species breeding can and will one day unveil a Great Glistening Book containing all the secrets of creation. Each Librarian is a visionary religious work attesting to the perfection of one or other path to the Great All-Serpent.

Mariliths contain terrible secrets and blasphemies.

It is said that beneath every great library in human civilization a cabal of wizard-scholars tends to a chained Lernean Hydra. They carefully transcribe and translate the information gleaned from the beast's skin before pruning off each head in turn and reading what grows in its place, thereby nurturing a constantly updated stream of knowledge.

Dragons are books of magic spells. Owing to the difficulty of reading them while alive, complete dragon hides will almost always fetch a higher price from the right sorcerer or alchemist than from any armorer.

Pseudodragons are helpful but incomplete summaries of the contents of their larger brethren.


I like this'cause it explains and rationalizes how every other monster is part snake, fits with ideas common to all kinds of cultures equating snakes with knowledge, and gives the party some pretty all-purpose adventure hooks, whether they want money, power, knowledge, or all three.


Jayson said...

Utterly fascinating.

Snarls-at-Fleas said...

A good one. Got me thinking. Thank you.

Justin Alexander said...

I just spent the last three months trudging my way through uninspired yuan-ti supplements trying to find some way to spice up an subterranean serpent kingdom. Your post has done more than all of those supplements.

So... *yoink*.

On a completely tangential note, I would like to feed your passion for fantasy cities, but I'll be damned if I can figure out a way to privately message you. Drop me a note.

Menace 3 Society said...

So what about Jörmungandr? It has to be something metal, he already has the umlaut.

huth said...

So what about Jörmungandr?

It encircles the world; it is the biography of the world. It defines the world's life, and therefore also its death.

It is the ultimate report, the recounting of the end of the world.


"...Ts'ui Pe must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth..."

What kind would that one be?

thekelvingreen said...

I like this because it is weird and impossible, and that, for me, is part of what fantasy is all about. Nicely done sir!

Dan said...

Inspired idea with a dash of humour. Nice.

I can imagine a black mamba being a scathing critical work.

Slow-worms are limericks.

Roger G-S said...

Sure makes snake charm more important. Or at the very least, resistance to poison...

Anonymous said...

Way cool.
As to Jörmungandr, I suppose it could be the Great Glistening Book that the Librarians dream of.

Anonymous said...

a great concept!

what about moulting though? do they do it to share their lore? or is it a dicarded effort no longer valuable? is a shed skin still readable?

and my most important question:
why are they books? gods? bio-engineering (who did it?)? evolution (like the backwards speaking gobbos)? conscious effort of "nature"?

Bard said...

Consider this stolen... :-)

Erin Palette said...

What about chimerae?

Chris Lowrance said...

I venture chimerae, cockatrice and similar mash-ups are the Joyces and Pynchons of ophdiobibliography. Their reading requires effort and an open mind, but is rewarding for those brave enough to persevere.

Cobras are fantastic and occasionally lurid tales of exotic locals where alliances shift with the sands, full of d'jinn... wait, too top-heavy, never mind.

brink. said...

i assume that an idea this intriguingly brilliant must be true.

in "real" life.

i'm going to look for snakes now...

Johnn Four said...

Cool idea! Yoinked.

ze bulette said...

Neat. Check out these rattle-snakeskin boots of mine btw. They tell the story of how the West was won. :)

Christopher A. Huff said...

That's just freakin' brilliant! Wow.

Adam Thornton said...

Gene Wolfe, John Crowley, and Borges all wish they were you right now. Yes, I know that
Master Ultan died quite some time ago. No matter.

Kevin Savage said...

Eberron's draconic prophecy takes on a whole new aspect. :)

Anonymous said...

With regard to the question of moulting, I'd guess that would be something like an editorial revision of the work. Also, as snakes grow continuously throughout their lives, I'd imagine that means their book would be ever longer as well. More volumes added, that kind of thing.

Nick Novitski said...

If it were me, I would say each type of snake is a single book, so that each one can be sacred and powerful. The corn snake, too, has a secret wisdom.

I would say that, because I am a fan of "The Writing of the God" by Jorge Luis Borges, where an imprisoned Aztec priest attempts to decipher a powerful message he comes to believe a god left in the labrynthine patterns of the jaguar's skin.

"To say 'the jaguar' is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and the turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth. I reflected that tin the language of a god every word would speak that infinite concatenation of events, and not implicitly but explicitly, and not linearly but instantaneously."

August said...

Snakes are, for the most part, literary perfectionists. "Moulting" is their way of revising themselves. They are perfectly happy to let their discarded skins/drafts lie and rot on the ground, since it's just rubbish anyway.

Some say owls are Nature's critics, killing snakes that they find lacking in literary quality.

August said...

Snakes are books. As to why this is so, snakes themselves consider the question meaningless. Snakes are books; this is a self-evident tautology, like "light is not dark" and "2+2=4". The only ones who give the matter any thought are rattlesnakes, who are infamous for producing lengthy treatises on trivial matters.

Most snakes concur that it was reptiles who taught humans to use letters, indeed language, in the first place. Several major religions also teach that a serpent taught the first humans to think abstractly, thereby allowing them to separate signs from things signified, and thus making them able to choose between good and evil.

Kent said...

Interesting. Is there a mind or minds behind the works of a species or is there some larger mystery here. Who actually traveled and studied landscapes for maps for the travelogue? Is the garter snake's cookbook in the local language, considerate of locally available foodstuffs and sensitive to the human palate?

Taking natural philosophy as an example, Truth it is possible to imagine emerging from these biological factories and that would put an end to the question but science does not leap at the truth but presents increased understanding over time with much premature flawed speculation and competing theories. So if not simple truths how to account for the flaws? Who conducts the experiments?

Zzarchov said...

Thus St.Patrick was primarily about book burning and destroying the old knowledge, through the removal of snakes and the increase in alcohol!

August said...

Kent, to say that snakes are books is not to say that they are accurate, comprehensive or complete in their descriptions of the world. If snakes are indeed Nature's monologue with itself, as Zak hypothesizes, then it follows that they represent an ever changing, self-contradictory flow of consciousness. As such, it is never complete or "true" in any absolute sense. (Many Librarians consider this notion to be blasphemy, but there you go.)

Kent said...

Ronson, wouldn't Nature know that the Earth was not flat? Or that the stars are suns and not beings? Truth, magic and even poetry require no further thought but the vast majority of books say as much about the author's incompetence as the subject at hand so Im wondering are there flawed minds behind the books. If not then is Nature lying or mischievous or condescending in its snake books?

Unknown said...

Legless lizards are those fake, hollow books used for hiding treasures, or secrets, or whisky (which sometimes comprises the former two).

Anonymous said...

Why do snakes shed their skin? If every snake is a book, every snake is also a palimpsest: a manuscript that is reused after it has been scraped clean.

Also "palimpssessst" would be a creepy word to hiss in a snake voice.

alficles said...

Interestingly, this blog post is the only Google hit for 'ophdiobibliologists'.

Anonymous said...

Well, as usual a few days behind but I have say, this post is just dripping with the awesome sauce. Very nice.

Mike said...

Copperheads would be books about whiskey like;

The Art of Whiskey

Collins pocket reference on Whiskey

The Malt Whiskey Almanac

The Complete guide to Whiskey

The Original Malt Whiskey Almanac

Justin S. Davis said...

This is one of the greatest things I've ever read.

That is all.

Worldwalker said...

Necrocommenting here to say that this is just an awesome idea. I'm a lifelong gamer with a bunch of pet snakes ... if/when I run a game again, this is SO going in my world.

I wonder what a fossorial species like my Pueblan milk snake would be? A book on the secrets of the underworld? And corn snakes are bred in all sorts of color and pattern morphs. Would the more colorful ones be less cliched books? Or more commercial, like the endless riffs on some given popular thriller? Oh, I can totally run with this idea.

This is a great concept because it's such a good gaming use for the common belief (well, in cultures that aren't ours) that snakes are guardians of secret wisdom. One aspect of my games has always been that things that people believe, but aren't actually real -- the existence of dragons, for instance -- *are* real in the game. So in-game versions of real-world beliefs. This is a perfect part of that.

That Pueblan milk snake ... he's never hissed. (doesn't even want anyone to see him opening his mouth when he eats -- he takes his food into his hide box) Definitely a secret book of some sort, you'd have to read him to even know the title. I love it!