March 13, 2013

My recent discussion of the wizard Zarf’s familiar—and its queer transformation upon death—got me thinking more generally about the role of the homunculus in fantasy fiction.

I tend to think of a homunculus as a miniature human figure, possibly distorted, of one of two varieties. There are representative homunculi, which use the humanoid form to display something about human anatomy, physiology, or psychology. The most famous is the sensory homunculus, in which the size of each body part is determined by the volume of neurons allotted to it in the somatosensory cortex of the human cerebrum. The other type of homunculus is much more relevant for fantasy literature; it is a miniature living humanoid. This might mean the tiny human carried in the preformationist vision of a spermatozoan. Or it could be a humanoid familiar, travelling alongside or spying for a wizard.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word does not appear to have been updated since the 1899 edition, and it only gives the definition: “A little or diminutive man; a mannikin.” (I would probably only use “mannikin” to denote a small but undistorted human form, but that may be a private distinction in meaning that I’ve acquired.) However, the first two citations (from the seventeenth century) are both indicative of a manufactured creature (e.g. “Parcelsus’s Artificial Homuncle”).

Magical homunculi are frequently created alchemically. I know nothing about the context of this Magic: the Gathering card, except that the homunculus involved is an “artifact creature” and hence the work of a magician, not a natural being. In fact, I’m not actually sure how much history the idea of the constructed homunculus (as a wizard’s familiar, as opposed to an experiment like Victor Frankenstein’s—an attempt to create new life) has in folklore and older fantasy literature. The outline of a homunculus recipe was given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. It called for a special combination of fluids, including a pint of the master’s blood, followed by several spells. The D&D homunculus first appeared in 1975, and I suspect that it must have been strongly influenced by the creature from 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (my personal favorite Ray Harryhausen movie, and certainly the one with the best sound effects). The evil wizard Prince Koura creates and uses a little flying imp, with appearance and abilities very similar to those of the D&D creature. The awakening of the homunculus is one of Tom Baker‘s best scenes in the movie, evoking real sympathy from the audience for his vile diabolist character. And when it is defeated, Koura’s spy reverts back to non-living material.

Other homunculus familiars in fantasy are less explicitly manufactured. The origin of Zarf’s “toad” is unknown, as are the origins of many other humanoid familiars accompanying dark sorcerers. It may be that I only tend to think of things that are unnatural nonesuches or were made in the laboratory as “homunculi.” But really there is no clean distinction between a wizard’s wizened servitor homunculus and a hobgoblin slave. To me, the defining trait of the evil homunculus is its mockery, in miniature, of the human form; it is something that perhaps could have been human but was condemned to stunted slavery instead.


2 Responses to “Homunculi”

  1. Ehhhh, the origin of Zarf’s toad is rather apparent once we get a few chapters further in, but THAR BE SPOILERS, so maybe I’ll just shut up.

    • Buzz Says:

      I’ll comment on this when it comes up in the book, but the upshot is that I wasn’t sure whether that was actually supposed to be the same kind of thing or not.

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