Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.
This week’s topic is The Weasel:
Weasels are usually very useful, obtaining information from unlikely sources and the like. For that matter, they may be fun to be around. But can they ever really be trusted? Usually about as far as they can be thrown, but one never knows.
Fantasy is full of weasel-like characters – shifty types who operate in moral greys, who plot and plan. Weasels tend to know people everywhere, especially disreputable people, and to call in favours for all sorts of past services. A weasel character, good or evil, is more likely to stab you with a concealed blade than duel you.
They aren’t always bad, but they are always suspect – weasels circumvent the rules rather than follow them. They tend not to respect authority or even property rights; weasels will ignore propriety in the face of purpose, whether that’s stealing food or saving the world.
I’ve chosen three examples of such shades-of-grey characters, with two more honourable mentions that don’t quite fit the list. To make the list more exciting, and to ensure that I’m not just duplicating other posters’ lists, I’ve restricted myself to only a small pool of characters: all of my examples of weasel-y characters are also actual weasels.
1. The Weasels – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows fits under the fantasy umbrella – it has daring sword fights, a humble hero on a quest, and everything else that one might require. It even has magic: The Piper at the gates of Dawn.
Amongst all those other things, the book also has weasels – a small army of sneaking, thieving vermin who have to be forcibly evicted from Toad Hall. The weasels don’t get a huge amount of space devoted to them, with all the focus being on the noble actions of their evictors, but what they do get serves to establish them as unscrupulous and unwelcome house guests.
2. Scratch – Brian Jacques, Mossflower
I could have picked up almost any Redwall book and found a weasel being wicked. Weasels, along with stoats and rats, make up the majority of his antagonist’s minions. In book after book, the abbey is threatened by vermin hordes stuffed with weasels. Just like their fellow soldiers, they’re vicious, selfish, and incredibly stupid.
Scratch though, is a cut above the rest. Scratch is smart, capable of intelligent planning and with an eye for detail. He’s more than just another squabbling, backstabbing weasel. He’s going places. Over the course of Mossflower, his talents move him up the social ladder – from footsoldier to captain to corpse. He’s smart and devious, but he’s not devious enough to battle an adult swan.
3. Sylver – Garry Kilworth, Thunder Oak and sequels
Sylver runs a band of outlaw weasels on the isle of Welkin, stealing from the oppressive stoat overlords. He has to operate outside the law to survive, but his heart is in the right place. When he learns that Welkin is under threat, he and his band drop everything to voyage in search of a solution.
Of all the the entries on my list, Sylver is the best – he has genuinely good motivations, and breaks only unjust laws. He’s an actual hero, far closer to Robin Hood than to any of my other entries.
4. Weasels – Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay
It felt wrong to leave Pratchett off the list, but (as far I remember), he never wrote about anthropomorphic weasels. Werewolves, the god of hunted things, transfigured cats – all of these appear, but there is no talking weasel.
There is a character in The Colour of Magic called Weasel, who definitely fits the brief, but he is totally human; his weaseling is confined to personality and actions. In fact, an awful lot of Pratchett’s characters could fall under this trope; Rincewind is the most obvious answer. But none of them are actually weasels.
So Pratchett’s honourable mention goes to the only time actual weasels appear, even though they never speak. In Feet of Clay, Vimes visits the heralds, and is informed that they have a troupe of weasels that need a crest to feature on. It’s a tenuous link, and the weasels display none of the deviousness that they are meant to symbolise, but it lets me weasel Pratchett onto the list.
5. Wendel Maculatum – Robin Jarvis, The Oaken Throne
Wendel isn’t a weasel, he’s a stoat. Wildlife Britain has a handy guide for telling the difference. It is a small difference though, not immediately obvious to those unfamiliar with the species, so I felt that Wendel’s inclusion was not a stretch too far.
Without giving too much away, as Wendel is at the centre of a whole bunch of plot twists and reveals, Wendel not only an anthropomorphic almost-weasel, but matches the prompt as well: he’s fun to be around, but doesn’t follow the rules, and shouldn’t be trusted.
Robin Jarvis tends to write books for children that are capable of horrifying adults. The Oaken Throne is no exception. In fact, it might be the most harrowing one of them all. Again, without wishing to give away key details, the events surrounding Wendel still haunt me – they compose some of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read.
It was surprisingly easy to think of sufficient examples for this one – anthropomorphic weasels turn out to be quite a common trope, far more so than I would have expected for such a specific archetype. Clearly, something about the obvious symbolism, or the creature itself, speaks to authors.
The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is Dead Gods.