Monday, 4 January 2016

D&D Monsters From Improbable Sources 2: 1850s Fairy-Tales

Illustration to the 1894 edition of Phantastes. The dude on the left is an ogre who is also a vampire who is also a shadow who is also a tree. I kid you not.

George MacDonald's Phantastes is a frustrating book. Sometimes he's mainlining pure German Romanticism, and everything is deep and rich and strange and creepy; but then he keeps running into these mental walls of high Victorianism and shutting the whole thing down. It's a very important precursor for the fantasy genre - it helped to inspire Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia, which, in turn, helped to inspire everything else - but I kept wishing that it could just be a little... less... Victorian. 

Anyway. It's the story of a young man who wanders off into fairy-land. One of the weirder bits involves his encounter with a woman who is, in some sense, also an alder tree. Initially she looks like a beautiful lady, and she leads him away into a cave where 'what follows I cannot entirely remember' (i.e. they have sex, but it's 1858 so MacDonald can't actually say so in as many words). But then the young man wakes up and sees this:

The damsel had disappeared; but in the shrubbery, at the mouth of the cave, stood a strange horrible object. It looked like an open coffin set up on one end; only that the part for the head and neck was defined from the shoulder-part. In fact, it was a rough representation of the human frame, only hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree.

It had arms, which were only slightly seamed, down from the shoulder- blade by the elbow, as if the bark had healed again from the cut of a knife. But the arms moved, and the hand and the fingers were tearing asunder a long silky tress of hair. The thing turned round—it had for a face and front those of my enchantress, but now of a pale greenish hue in the light of the morning, and with dead lustreless eyes. 

Oh yeah: the woman turns into a hollow coffin made of tree-bark with a green face, dead eyes, and arms that look like they've been cut open by a knife! Didn't see that coming, did you?

So: Alder-Maids. They look like beautiful human women, and they use their appearance to trick or seduce travellers in the woods. To those who can see through their illusions, however, their appearance is hideous; they resemble hollow effigies of women, made from decaying alder-bark, save for their horrible green-tinted faces like porcelain masks discoloured with greenish slime. Their long hair is twigs and dead leaves, twisting and squirming against the wind. Their fingers end in claws.

  • Alder-Maid: AC 13, 2 HD, +2 to hit, 2 claws (1d4 damage), saves 13, morale 6, special attacks: swallow and constrict. 

Alder-maids will attempt to waylay their victims (typically young men), and lead them off to secluded groves or caves deep in the woods. Then, when there is no-one around to hear the cries of their victim, they will pull him to them as if for an embrace - at which point their hollow bodies suddenly yawn open like coffins, swallowing their unfortunate would-be lover whole. Once their victim has been swallowed, their bark bodies constrict tightly around their captive, crushing the air and the life from them; and then, when the victim is dead, the alder-maid will bury his corpse at the foot of the cursed alder-tree whose bark she was first made from, leaving it there to nourish the unholy soil. The oldest of such trees can end up surrounded by dozens of such shallow graves.

The 'swallow whole' attack of the alder-maid can only be used against someone who is surprised, immobilised, or expecting to be hugged rather than eaten: no-one who's actively fighting back is ever going to allow the alder-maid to establish the necessary whole-body contact. If the target is capable of movement, they are permitted a REF save to realise what's happening and jump back; but if they fail this save then they will be swallowed whole, and imprisoned within the coffin-body of the alder-maid. Once imprisoned they are quite helpless, and will be choked and crushed to death after a number of minutes of imprisonment equal to their Constitution score. This attack cannot be used on targets who are bigger than man-sized, and using it on anyone who is substantially larger or fatter than the alder-maid herself will give her a bizarre, bulging appearance. Using this attack always causes the alder-maid's true form to be revealed.

Alder-maids aren't that dangerous in a real fight, and will flee if attacked; if necessary, they are quite capable of running with a swallowed victim imprisoned inside them, seemingly not slowed down in the least by the additional weight. However, if they are cornered - or if their parent-tree is threatened with destruction - then they will fight with their vicious wooden claws. If their parent-tree is destroyed, all the alder-maids made from its bark will wither and die over the next 2d6 weeks.

Alder-Maids are intelligent, eloquent, and even charming, apart from the whole 'crushing people to death and then burying them in shallow graves' thing. They react poorly to suggestions that they are simply crude metaphors for nineteenth-century anxieties over female sexuality.

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