The dramatic regicide-by-poison in Game of Thrones may have placed them centre-stage, but poisons have always been rife in the fantasy and science fiction genres, along with antidotes and remedies.
Poisoning may simply seem like a convenient (if dastardly) way to kill a character, but poisons and antidotes are used in a variety of ways to add twists, tension, and complexities to fantasy plots.
The deadly and miraculous substances in fantasy and sci-fi novels can be of two kinds – those found in the real world and those that are entirely made-up.
Many fantasies make use of real plants, venoms and other substances.
Because fantasy worlds are often based on medieval society, poisons known and used in medieval times are often favoured by authors, as are age-old herbal remedies and healing lore. The fine line between poison and medicine is often just a matter of dosage, so apothecaries, herbalists and healers have historically often provided both – dealing and preventing death. As such, these professions always had an air of magic, miracle and mystique, in a negative and positive way; and the fantasy genre has exploited this.
If you want to know the disturbing toxins that exist in our world and how they can be used in fiction, have a look at these two Fantasy Faction articles: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters Part 1 and Part 2. They offer a fascinating list of poisons that were known in Medieval Europe, along with information on their disturbing effects.
Additionally, this Mythcreants article looks at a wide range of toxins from across the world, as well as providing a great overview of the historical use of poison and its significance in fictional worlds: Poisons: How to Use Them.
For something a little less sinister, remember that real-world remedies are featured in fantasy too. This post about fantasy medicine lists some herbs and what they have been used for medicinally.
Since this is speculative fiction, the poisons that strike down characters don’t actually have to be real. Many fantasy and science fiction authors make up deadly substances or miraculous remedies.
On Wikipedia you can find a list of fictional toxins used by writers, as well as a list of fictional medicines and drugs. You can see the names and effects are varied and colourful, but often draw on real-world toxins for inspiration in their effects and sources. Occasionally remedies are the stuff of pure magic, and poisons are as much black magic and curses as real things.
How Are Poisons and Antidotes Used in The Story?
Regardless of whether poisons are imagined or drawn from reality, fantasy novels make use of not only the menace in the threat of a poison, but the hope that comes in the form of antidotes and remedies for wounds and ailments. Here are some of the more common ways poisons are used in the genre:
The Quest for an Antidote or Remedy
Many a fantasy character has hunted tirelessly for an antidote or cure to save their loved one. It is a classic ticking-clock scenario, where we wait to see if they can find the cure before the beloved victim dies.
In The Winner’s Curse, Arin searches for the rare plant that will save his true love’s best friend, revealing his love and his guilt. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is narrowly saved from death by Basilisk venom by the healing tears of a Phoenix, and later when Ron is poisoned he frantically races to find a Bezoar to use as an antidote.
A Control and Entrapment Device
Characters are often given slow acting poisons not to kill them, but to trap them into servitude and ensure they don’t flee. If they have to keep coming back to a tyrant for the antidote, they are forever within that tyrant’s power… unless, of course, they find a lasting cure or another way to break free.
In The Gentleman Bastards Series, poisoning becomes a leash around the necks of the main characters as they are forced to do the bidding of an arrogant warlord and return each month for an antidote. In A Poison Study, the heroine escapes execution by becoming the king’s taster, but is poisoned to ensure her obedience and must receive her daily antidote to avoid an agonising death.
A Menacing Threat and Source of Suspense
What could make a sword fight more tense than the knowledge that one of the character’s blades has been laced with poison? A mere scratch could debilitate or kill an opponent. Or what if a character is about to drink from a cup, not knowing the contents have been tampered with?
In the Throne of Glass series the heroine Celaena finds herself poisoned right before a critical duel, crippling her when she needs her strength. In The Winner’s Curse we wonder if Kestrel will drink from the poisoned wine, and dread the moment when it is served. And who could forget the classic scene in The Princess Bride, where Wesley and Vizzini play Russian Roulette with two glasses of wine?
Grizzly Murder or Disfigurement
Then there is the more simple and sinister use of poison – to bring a character a dramatic death, or in failing to do so, permanently scar and embitter them.
In The Hunger Games series, the antagonist President Snow has permanently bleeding sores on the inside of his mouth due to surviving a poisoning which he orchestrated to murder his allies, and uses roses to cover up the scent of blood on his breath. In Watership Down the poisoning of the warren is disturbing to say the least.
Betrayal, Cunning and Mystery
Poison is a weapon that can be wielded without physical strength or direct interaction – all a poisoner requires is cunning, deception, daring and knowledge. As such, it can often be used to reveal a character’s duplicity, cleverness or betrayal as the trusting victim begins to choke. Similarly, it can have us all clamouring to answer that timeless question: whodunnit?
In Assassin’s Apprentice, the protagonist Fitz trains as an assassin, learning much about the use of poisons. Although he does not enjoy using them, we recognise his skill and knowledge, and witness the schemes, lies and betrayals of the royals that employ him. In A Song of Ice and Fire, after enjoying the death of a nasty king, we immediately start trying to figure out which of the scheming characters orchestrated it.
Making a Character Strong or Talented
Sometimes resistance to poison, or survival after being poisoned, can make a character stronger. Similarly, skill in the application of remedies and antidotes can be used to emphasise the talent and intelligence of a character.
In the Red Rising trilogy reference is made to Darrow’s survival of a pitviper bite, with the deadly venom having made his heart and body more resilient. This is often used later to explain his ability to survive intense physical stresses. In Uprooted, the character’s skill at using herbs and incantations to heal is a core part of what makes her unique, talented and powerful.
Fortunately, It’s Fiction
Above are just some of the ways poisons are used in fantasy. The frightening effects of poison, as well as opposing poles of poison and antidote, and the curative power of remedies, provide ample opportunity for drama. We are fortunate that modern forensic toxicology has made poisoning in our contemporary world a rare thing, and that it is something we are more likely to read about in books than experience ourselves.
Have you read any interesting books that use poisons or remedies? Do you have a favourite poisoning or healing scene from a fantasy or sci-fi novel?