Beasts of Burden, Commerce, and Affection

Though often mocked, the Imperial System of measurement is rich with historical tidbits. In the modern day, it doesn’t make sense to measure land in parcels of 1/640th square miles (or 4,046.856 square meters for those reading from SI countries). However, when the humble acre was originally defined, it had a great deal more practical context. After all, one acre of land is what could be tilled by a single man operating an oxen powered plow for one day.

Since oxen powered plows are beyond most people’s personal experience, let’s define a bit more context. After doing some research online, I’ve found that one acre of wheat would yield enough flower for approximately 1,575 loaves of modern commercial bread. If you are trying to feed a small community, say 500 people, each eating half a pound (one quarter loaf) of bread per day, your one acre of wheat would last 12.6 days. That same farmer and oxen would need to till for 29 days just to prepare the land for planting to feed that same community for one year. Without the benefit of animal muscle, even a small community would not be able to progress much beyond subsistence farming. Forget supporting large cities or even kingdoms.

It seems to me that most fantasy settings default to using horses, donkeys, and oxen as beasts of burden. However, historically people have used whichever local animals they could manage to domesticate. By using the default options, a fantastic (har har) opportunity is often missed. Brandon Sanderson is often praised for his world building in large part because he remembers these sorts of details. As an example, he chose to have the world of his Stormlight Archives powered by gigantic crabs. How unique and interesting!

However, beasts of burden are only one use for domesticated animals. Birds of prey and the descendants of wolves are often used to assist in hunts. Animal materials, such as the silk worm’s cocoon or the leather made from cow’s hide, are used to make clothing, tools, and other household goods. We raise fish, birds, mammals, and even amphibians for the sole purpose of eating them later. Why wouldn’t a fantasy society do the same with griffins, sphinxes, or yetis?

Finally, we writers can’t forget the very real human need for companionship. I for one would love to see more fantastic pets make their way into stories. There are a number of protagonists with dragon companions, but what would be the consequences of a world where pet dragons were as common as pet cats?

As much as we like to think ourselves as civilized, the human and natural worlds still coexist closely. Animals and animal products still play a significant role in our highly mechanized world. As writers, we can’t forget the opportunities presented by fantastic creatures. Each time we choose to replace the mundane with the fantastic, we send a ripple through the milieu and change the face of the world.


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