The Art of the Elder Thing (Part I)

H. P. Lovecraft’s notes on At the Mountains of Madness and a drawing of an Elder Thing, written on the back of an envelope

The Elder Things are one of Lovecraft’s crowning creations, an  exercise in speculative biology that also includes the Yithians (The Great Race) and the Mi-Go, also known as the fungi from Yuggoth. These trifecta of beings stand the test of time even today of what an alien intelligence could be like.

Lovecraft based his creatures on echinoderms, that is, starfish, with their five-part head and five-part radial symmetry. Their barrel-shaped bodies recall a stiff, leathery version of a sea cucumber, with the sea cucumber’s tentacles serving as legs. Around the body’s five ridges are arms similar to the arms of a basket star or crinoid — that is, tentacles that split again and again into smaller tendrils — and wings which can be folded up and tucked into pockets between the ridges. He was very exacting with his description, which appears twice in At the Mountains of Madness. Yet, every artist who attempts to illustrate one of these creatures has his or her own interpretation, and for the most part, they are all correct according to the text.

Let’s start with the original drawings from their first published appearance in Astounding Tales in 1936.

I rather like these. They are basic, and… cute? They adhere to the text, particularly the bit apart being part vegetable. The heads look more like those of a brittle star than the familiar cookie-cutter like American flag star. Correctly for the text, they are covered in cilia and have eyeballs on the end. The bat wings don’t really make sense, but they didn’t make sense in the text either.

It’s my feeling that Lovecraft had a lot of affection for his creations. He worked out their society and biology in  detail. Though the human characters are repulsed, the Elder Things are shown to be curious, thinking, emotional beings — they hold a funeral for one of their fallen comrades — and live in comfort surrounded by artwork carved on the walls and even have furniture of a sort. Compare this to the Mi-Go, who are just repulsive all around, and a lot scarier.

I’ll come out and say favorite depiction is artist Kurt Komoda’s. Not only does he go into fine anatomical detail, he has worked out studies of how the Elder Things must have moved, and there’s humor on his site, too, like this drawing of an Elder Thing playing with multiple Rubik’s cubes.

Artwork by Kurt Komoda

Komoda addresses the issue of the creature’s odd wings, which, though they might have seemed cool when written, don’t gel with what we know today about flying and space travel. Even planetside the wings don’t seem substantial enough to lift such a large and hefty creature, let alone propel it through the vacuum of space. I don’t get the feeling Elder Things things had hollow bones like birds. Hell, they probably didn’t even have any bones! Since their flesh is described in the text as tough yet supple, I will bet they are also a good deal denser than Terran animals. Anyway, the wings seem like a mistake from the beginning that the creature is better off without.

If I had to retcon the Elder Things, I would say the wings developed as a spawning organ, and evolved, over time on their original world, as a means of aquatic locomotion. At some point, the Elder Things developed a means within their bodies to generate a lighter-than-air gas, enabling them to rise from the earth and fly, perhaps rotating their bodies in a screwlike motion through the air. Changes in direction may have been possible with puffs of air from their nether tubes. Such flight was smooth, but not too swift.

For space travel, however, who knows?

Artist Jagoba Lekuona has also done anatomical studies in detail. Already, we can see how the creatures can differ even in the basics like body texture, wings, and leg and arm structure. Lekuona’s speciman below even seems to peeing from one of the waste apertures between its legs.

Artwork by Jagoba Lekuona

Another anatomical drawing, again demonstrating the diversity of visual ideas.

Elder Thing by Pickmansmodel

This artist delves further into the creature’s hypothetical anatomy, like giving the creature lamprey-teeth claws on the underside of its feet. At lower right he or she postulates that it might move through water like a squid with jets of water –aft-to-fore.

This drawing also attempts to make sense of the anatomical parts that were not fully explained in the text — for example, the orifice slit in the center of the starfish head, which is explained as a “major mouth” with teeth like that of a starfish or sea urchin.

In his 1980 book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestials SFF artist Wayne Barlowe includes a streamlined version of an Elder Thing whose trunk reminds me of the shell of a leatherback turtle.


Illustration by Wayne Barlowe

It’s an OK depiction but not as rotund as I pictured them myself. I get a delphinoid, marine vibe from them. Well, they are partly sea creatures. The fanlike wings, though I don’t like them in concept, look good here and nicely alien. This body shape doesn’t seem very expressive though, and like it would locomote on land in a stiff, clumsy way.

A chubbier marine version. This one seems sessile, like it could barely move at all. The texture is nicely done making it seem very unearthly.

Elder Thing by Tom Ardens

A magnificent depiction by artist Tom Ardens. I like how the wings seem tough, yet still transparent, and how they and the the creature’s bottom part reminds me of a type of bulbous kelp. It’s both disquieting and oddly beautiful .

Of course, some artists just get it all wrong!

This one from a French paperback ignores the starfish head and crinoid arms, and to make things worse, puts trees in Antarctica!

This Death Metal version is more influenced by H. R. Giger than H. P. Lovecraft. The legs are all wrong — they are not spider-like in the text, they are tentacles! — and so are the arms, while the mouths are not at the ends of tubes like they were in book. I don’t know what’s up with the skull. Perhaps they’re headbanging.

This one resembles a… lion? A lily flower? It also seems to have six segments instead of pentameral.

Sometimes, though, the changes are done well enough that they could be valid re-interpretations. This cartoon of an Elder Thing gets the proportions wrong — the being is barrel-shaped, not rhomboid, and the arms are too long and the head too small. Yet, I like it.

Another “skinny” version that ignores the crinoid arms, replacing them with insectile ones. Again, I like it in spite of its shortcomings.

On to more faithful versions that add a twist.

Manga panel by Gou Tanabe

Manga artist Gou Tanabe tackled At the Mountains of Madness and came up with this design, in which the creature’s head is more starlike than usual. Depicted is the moment the Pabodie explorers come across a mummified version in the cave.

There’s a lot to like, too, about this Elder Thing by davinci41. Namely, its magnificent, but alien, wings, two of which are shown emerging from their pockets. (How does such a wingspan fold up so tidily though?) I like the legs, too, and how the artist shows the plantlike nature of the feet which resemble leaves.

This version incorporates reptilian elements, with the clawed, webbed feet, dragon wings, and the snakelike seeking of the tentacled orifices. It’s active, sensing, exploring its environment, something I didn’t get from the more polished Wayne Barlowe version I posted earlier. Folded up and mummified, it’s like a squash blossom.

A very bulbous Elder Thing that relies heavily on vegetable elements like roots and tubers. Its large, bulging eyes are flat black, adding to the alien nature of it.

There are so many Elder Things around, I feel like a child discovering a Baskin Robbins ice cream store for the first time — so many different flavors, and I have to try them all. So I’m going to break this topic apart, and the next installment will deal with the Elder Things depicted in their natural environment.

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