Before my eyes was a horrible monster, worthy to figure in the legends of the marvellous… . Its eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head … were twice as long as its body, and were twisted like the furies’ hair.
This passage is a famous quotation from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, the 1870 masterpiece from French novelist Jules Verne. It is also one of the most renowned descriptions of a fantastic creature in modern literature. In this case, it was used as the flavor text on Giant Octopus, at least when it comes to its Eighth Edition and Ninth Edition reprints.
Obviously, the game of Magic is heavily fantasy-based. As such, it owes much to the classics of literature and cinema. This is true in the flavor of a vast majority of the cards in the game, but it is especially noticeable when the flavor text consists of direct quotations. In this new installment, we are going to analyze a few creature cards where this is true.
Pearled Unicorn (Limited Edition Alpha, 1993)
‘Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!’
‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.’(Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)
Let's proceed in chronological order. The chronological order of Magic that is, and begin with Limited Edition Alpha, the first set of Magic (1993). Alpha Pearled Unicorn is the first card fitting our description. It represents a famous creature from the fantasy world, and it also makes use of a real-world quotation. Its flavor text is an excerpt from Through the Looking-Glass, the celebrated sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, from 1871.
It's a fragment of dialogue between Alice and a unicorn, where the two characters confess their ignorance of each other. Neither believed that the other really existed prior to their meeting, and they both used to think of the other as a "fabulous monster". The March Hare, another famous character from Lewis Carrol's work, intercedes between the two and introduces them to each other. The dialogue is a moving and philosophical scene, making the reader reflect on identity and perspective.
As for the card itself, It's quite similar to Scathe Zombies, also from Alpha, which we analyzed in the first installment of this series. They are both vanilla 2/2 creatures for three mana. Another thing they have in common is they are both representative versions of common fantasy creatures, with a Magic spin on them.
That was an important characteristic of Alpha, establishing resonant representations of common fantasy creatures and tropes, but with a bit of flair making them unique to the world of Magic. Tapping into these resonant fantasy archetypes, and adding their own twists was important for two reasons: it established a connection with fans by being new but familiar and also established an Intellectual Property that could later be expanded upon. After all, the game had just started. No one was sure how long it would last, or how successful it would ultimately prove to be.
Thunder Spirit (Legends, 1994)
It was full of fire and smoke and light and … it drove between us and the Efrafans like a thousand thunderstorms with lightning.(Richard Adams, Watership Down, 1972)
Nearly a year later, the massive expansion set Legends (1994), debuted. Legends was another set full of real-world quotations. I personally like the one appearing here on Thunder Spirit. It makes for another great example of how crucial perspective is. Thunder Spirit is another 2/2 white creature for three mana like Pearled Unicorn. It's miles apart in quality from the Unicorn though. The Spirit has the abilities first strike and flying, two abilities that are great on their own, but together on a card from that era meant that it was strong enough to earn printing as a rare.
While not as strong as cards printed today, when you add that Thunder Spirit is on the Reserved List, you have the formula for a unique card that holds special value to collectors.
Let's get back to the flavor though. The quotation on Thunder Spirit comes from Richard Adam's novel Watership Down (1972). It's a famous tale following the adventures of a group of rabbits. That's the reason I spoke of perspective earlier. The monster described as "full of fire and smoke and light" is really just a train. From the point of view of rabbits though, it becomes a frightening and deadly fiend. In the story, it ends up saving the protagonists from another group of rabbits, but it scares them quite a lot just the same.
Moon Sprite (Portal, 1997)
I am that merry wanderer of the night.(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1600)
A couple of years after Legends came the starter-level set Portal (1997). The set contained a faerie creature named Moon Sprite. While obviously a faerie, it lacked the creature type on this first printing. The card is a 1/1 green creature with flying for two mana. It features a great illustration by beloved Magic artist Terese Nielsen.
What is most memorable, though, is the flavor text, taken from Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. The short quotation is spoken by the mischievous and prank-loving fairy Puck. Puck is ultimately the most recognizable character of the play. Here, he is conversing with another spirit, who recognizes him and calls him by his alternative name of "Robin Goodfellow".
At this point, Puck introduces himself with his famous monologue, the first line of which is the one quoted on Moon Sprite. Unlike the quotes we've looked at so far, this one is from the text of a play written in verse. This particular passage is a hendecasyllable, a line with eleven syllables. Such a choice, together with the briefness of the quotation, adds a lot to the final effect, making it harmonious and pleasantly light.
Wind Drake (Seventh Edition, 2001)
But high she shoots through air and light,
Above all low delay,
Where nothing earthly bounds her flight,
Nor shadow dims her way.(Thomas Moore, Oh that I had Wings, 1855)
Here we have Wind Drake, from Seventh Edition (2001). Wind Drake was first printed in Portal. Reprinted a few times over the years, with a variety of names and flavors, it, and cards like it, are frequent Limited staples. A 2/2 with flying for the cost of three mana makes for a great evasive threat. If you have it in your pool, chances are good it will make it in your deck.
The flavor text quoted on the Seventh Edition version is from Thomas Moore's 16-line poem often known as "The Bird Let Loose." Moore was an Irish poet who lived between the 18th and 19th centuries. His poem does in fact describe a bird. It works just as well here describing a drake though. The poem describes a winged creature flying without ever touching the ground. It's a good fit for the card, especially when we see a drake defined as "smaller cousin to the dragon" in the Magic 2013 version of the card. I guess there's not much difference between a huge bird and a small dragon?
Giant Octopus (Eighth Edition, 2003)
Before my eyes was a horrible monster, worthy to figure in the legends of the marvellous… . Its eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head … were twice as long as its body, and were twisted like the furies’ hair.(Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, 1870)
We mentioned Giant Octopus at the start of the piece, and we'll end our tour with it. Just like Pearled Unicorn, the Octopus is another typical vanilla creature. The blue cousin of Hill Giant, it was again first printed in Portal and received this flavor text in Eighth Edition. Its flavor text quotes no less than Jules Verne.
The octopus is one of my all-time favorites, partly for its evocative art and partly for the detailed account given through first-person speech. I think it really makes you feel there with the narrator, thanks to its colloquial and yet solemn style. He merges together corrections such as "or rather feet" and references such as "like the furies' hair," making the description extra vivid.
Fantastic Beasts or Fantasy as a State of Mind?
As we have seen, especially in the first editions of Magic, it was common to create creatures with broadly resonant traits. As the game flourished, and new cards were printed by the thousands, more specific names became necessary both for world-building, and to keep from running out of potential card names. That process accelerated over time until real-world-based flavor was limited to core sets or left off altogether.
In this installment, we looked at fantastic creatures from the Magic: The Gathering world whose descriptions in flavor text all came from quotations from real-world literature. In the next installment, we'll move to another kind of fantasy: that of pure imagination not limited to physical form or appearance. Stay tuned!