Sometimes The Bear Gets You: Man Vs Bear In A World of Magic

Sometimes the bear gets you, but I don’t get the bear as used in games. Some say man is the most dangerous game, but they’ve never hunted bears in Dungeons & Dragons. In one of my recent Youtube videos in which I do a Let’s Play of Baldur’s Gate, I lamented the unending ursine punishment the game metes out to torture the player:

Maybe you haven’t heard epic tales of fantasy heroes battling Brown Bears, Black Bears, or Polar Bears, but they must exist out there somewhere. Why else would the most dangerous low level enemy in pen & paper D&D be the bear?

In Baldur’s Gate, you see the bears wandering the woods. They seem friendly. They have a little blue circle around them indicating they are “not hostile” and they seem to just go about their business. Then you walk near one, probably accidentally. Usually your heroes get a little lost trying to figure out how to navigate around trees and bushes and suddenly, without warning, the bear is now swinging at you, trying to rip your throat to tiny pieces.

Nothing in the video game has given me more trouble than the standard bear, not even the ice breathing demon wolves that inhabit the mountainsides and spit blasts of frost at you. Why is this?

For one, I think it is a nod to realism. Bears make excellent templates. Step back from our secluded suburban safety and realize that a bear has superpowers you wish you could have. Bears have a sense of smell, a resistance to cold, and are supremely strong and tough. Bears have a magical ability that every couch potato wishes they could have: hibernation. A bear can fall asleep on the couch and wake up skinnier and in the middle of spring, completely avoiding blizzards and Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s crazy.

Little kids are afraid of monsters, aliens, and ghosts. Smart little kids fear the tooth fairy (because trading body parts for money is creepy). But experienced little kids know to fear the bear.

But the bear is not alone. There are numerous strange creatures that fill our world that could kill us in so many ways: rabid raccoons, wily packs of wild dogs, malicious viruses that hide in your nerve ganglions for years before even making their first move. Small children often fear very real things and have no way to express what they’ve encountered. A common story in my education classes was of the child who was sick with something horrid but had no words to explain to his parents what was wrong.

Our world is so strange and full of wild, fascinating, dangerous life, I sometimes wonder why we make up fictional monsters. Maybe because somehow they’re easier to face? Easier to overcome? Easier to calm a frightened child who insists there is one under the bed? I don’t know. But maybe we don’t need to fear the natural forces of the world when we have a supernatural that we can face and pretend to understand.

Just don’t ask for whom the bear comes, because it might just be coming for you. Whatever that means.

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