At long last, welcome my friends to the newest installment of my running blog series, This Old Monster. If you are unfamiliar with what goes on here, this is the place where I take classic fantasy monsters, break them down, analyze how they work, and rebuild them cooler, awesomer, and more badass than before.
Previous installments have seen me reinvent the unicorn as a charismatic cult leader and the griffin as a pack hunting psychological terror.
This time around, we’re diving into the fey end of the monster pool. And before we focus in on the brownie specifically, we’re going to look into fey in general.
First of all, categorizing the many, MANY folkloric monsters from Medieval and earlier Europe as ‘fey’ or ‘faerie’ is a relatively new thing (and saying that fey and faerie are two different things like I have in The Descendants is even more new). Even the concept of the Realm of Faerie is a composite of a bunch of ‘through the veil’ worlds that owe a large part to the Norse cosmology that includes Asgard and Jotenheim.
What we call ‘fey’ is just a catch-all word for the collection of folkloric monsters that developed in western Europe prior to the fall of Rome and the spread of Christianity replacing most of those monsters with demons. IF you’re a fan of anime, you might be familiar with the word ‘youkai’, which is the Japanese equivalent (which itself gets constantly translated as ‘demon’ even though not all of them are malevolent in the least). If not, you’ve surely heard stories invoking the ‘spirits’ of a given land, which take the form of assorted monstery things. Same deal.
From a sociological standpoint, monsters exist to explain things we lack the logic to explain. Trickster faeries are responsible for people losing their way in the forest. Redcaps explain violent deaths that can’t clearly be linked to animals. Changelings explain infant deaths. They fill niches and in an odd way, sooth people’s worries when confronted with the unexplainable. If you’re smart and remember the rules, the legends tell us, you can survive the terrible things that happen.
But not all fey exist to explain death. Some, like our buddy the brownie, explain away jealousy.
For those unfamiliar with the tales, brownies operate thusly: One day, a lucky person wakes up to find some of their chores done: the house is cleaned, the cows are milked, the little piles of dung are swept into big piles of dung—whatever. This is their sign that they’ve been visited by a brownie. And if they do right by the brownie, leaving gifts of food for them, the brownie will continue doing takes around the house.
Ignoring the unfortunate implications of the fact that brownies are essentially voluntary slaves, the brownie story and by extension, the idea that people around you have the services of a brownie, is a massive boon to the lazy and incompetent. It’s no longer that your neighbor is just better or more efficient at doing their job for you, it’s just because they got themselves a magical servitor to sweat the small stuff for you.
The weird thing is, the legend isn’t even spiteful. When you think of tales of the fey or youkai like the kitsune, breaking the rules usually leads to something terrible happening. The Kitsune takes your kids, the sidhe kick you out of Tir Na Nog and the food you ate stops sustaining you, killing you by starvation in an instant—stuff like that. It’s part of the super-cruel old times justice system that breaking rules for even the best of reasons destroys you.
What happens when you cross a brownie and either stiff him on his gift or insult him by calling those gifts a payment? He stops helping you. That’s it. He doesn’t even topple over the dung pile he just swept up.
I can only imagine that this is because unlike most of these other monsters, everyone wanted a brownie and hoped a screw-up wouldn’t get them flayed alive. It’s sort of the ancient version of voting against your interests in favor of helping the rich because you hope to be rich someday.
Speaking of rich, of course the rich in Scottish tradition all got brownies automatically. Called urisk, these guys got their own seat next to the fireplace and there was at least one in every manor house, according to legends told by people who never had a manor house and also superstitious rich guys who really hoped they got a brownie.
It makes me wonder if butlers came into being to satisfy some crippling brownie shortage that struck the UK in the distant past.
Unlike previous monsters I’ve featured here, brownies don’t really have defined powers. While their narrative descendants, Christmas Elves and Cobbler Elves are clearly noted to be able to work faster and with more skill than a human, but brownies are just… little… guys.
On one hand, there’s not a lot for me to work with in revamping these guys. On the other, it gives me a lot of room to work in making them more awesome.
The key aspect of the brownie is the servitor deal, which, as I’ve noted, is a bit uncomfortable. It’s really no wonder Europeans decided slavery was a great plan for everyone when they had magical servants you paid in porridge and honey with the occasional sprinkling of milk.
So while I don’t want to get rid of the ‘magic butler’ deal, I also want to make the relationship between brownie and ‘boss’ more equitable. And because they’re fey, the way we go about that should be psychologically unsettling. Because of course.
First of all, the brownie needs more powers. Telekinesis seems to fit and super speed seems a given but… those seem a little too obvious. Oh hey, remember how much I love symbiotes? Seeing as the DU’s version of faerie has no shortage of psychic symbiotes like the demons and breathstealers and physical ones like the flowbeasts, let’s see if we can turn that trope up to eleven?
My brownies as house symbiotes. As in they psychically infuse and bond with the entire house.
Let me clarify that for those of you who might not think that’s very awesome: Once a brownie bonds to a house, every non-living object in the house becomes an extension of the brownie’s body which it can manipulate at will. Imagine if your house suddenly became infested with a poltergeist, only it was a totally bro poltergeist that decided to be your buddy.
The traditional rules apply here: the brownie more or less takes care of and defends your house as only a terrifying possessed house can and in return, the house’s owner gives it gifts, ranging from the standard food to making upgrades to the house to make it happy.
I can see them bonding both at random (‘say, I like that wainscoting! It’s so… ME’) or being enticed into bonding with a specific house. Maybe they even have preferences that a prospective home owner can seek or avoid in an attempt to influence the brownies one way or another.
These new brownies would be long-lived, slowly becoming a part of families over the course of centuries is treated with respect until they are incredibly loyal. They might even move with families that are forced to pick up, bonding with a new house in the process.
However, being sapient beings, they aren’t perfect, nor are the immune to the ravages of time and memory. Even without being offended or betrayed, a brownie might eventually go senile or suffer some other mental illness. While most mental illnesses don’t actually make people dangerous, most people aren’t also houses full of other living things.
We all knew we were coming to this: what happens if things go wrong? The basic brownie doesn’t really exact a price for not following the rules, but then again, the basic brownie is hired help without the pay. Screwing over what is essentially a living being that you yourself live in should hurt. Badly.
Standard poltergeist rules apply for starters. The brownie can break stuff, slam and lock doors, maybe make the walls bleed. There are generally no televisions in fantasy settings, so that’s safe. However, remember that the house is an extension of the brownie’s body: it can restructure things, making rooms appear and disappear, trapping residents in areas, or gas-lighting the residents until they go insane.
If they get screwed over enough, the go full Dionaea House and turn evil, luring people to them just to torment them.
A group of adventurers is hired to deal with a haunted house at the behest of the owner. However, none of their anti-undead abilities seem to be having any effect. After several encounters, they soon discover that the house is under the sway of a brownie—and it isn’t evil, it’s simply trying to prevent a person pretending to be the owner from stealing a treasure from inside it.
Only just when this seems to be an open and shut case of employer betrayal (adventurers probably have insurance policies for that), the brownie is still trying to kill them. Why? Because it’s elderly and its mind is slipping, causing it to think it’s defending its long dead former family against invaders!
The new brownie becomes a creature that not only now poses a threat, but one that challenges characters beyond ‘hit it’. How do you fight the building you’re in? Is it right to kill a sapient creature who isn’t malevolent, but is a huge threat nonetheless?
Moreover, it presents an interesting bit of worldbuilding in that these are basically living locations that have memories and tastes that might conflict or blend with the owner.
There haven’t been that many ‘This Old Monster’ articles, but I feel I should point out that the idea isn’t just making the monster scary or dangerous so much as interesting. With respects to JK Rowling, I don’t really find magic slavery interesting, especially when the slaves are totally cool with it in every way. By making the brownie powerful and dangerous, I hopefully have made the choice (or burden) of having one an actual choice rather than a thing morally ambiguous people just want as a rule.
Choices that require thought and care are what I call interesting and what make things like this worth reading about, at least in my opinion. Sure, you can get some pathos out of the slave angle, but they’re just do down with it, that I’m going to honestly say it creeps me out (and yes, the Harry Potter House Elves creep me out too. I do not like them)
Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this little exploration into the brownie. If it seems more brief than previous entries, it’s largely because I expected brownies to have more of a history to them to dissect and they in fact do not.
Fear not though, in a couple weeks, I’ll do another one of these and I’ll be letting you guys pick what monster goes under the knife next. Just make your suggestions in the comments below.
And for those of you who were excited for the other kind of brownies, I highly recommend using extra butter and leavening, creating a more rich, dense brownie. Also, add white chocolate chips.