Rattle and Ramble: The Skeleton Question

Skeletons. If one were to believe the rumours, they are both spooky and scary. They’re also a fairly steadfast companion for the average person; a beneficial tenant in Hotel You. Wave your hand in front of your face. Your skeleton just said hi. But skeletons, what’s the deal with ’em? Skeletons just don’t seem to get any love these days. Anyone versed in classic horror or the fantasy genre knows of skeletons quite well. They’re typical “fodder” enemies in videogames and role-playing games, and they used to be used for frightening moviegoers back in the day (the Original House on Haunted Hill, anyone?). While they’re still used in basically every fantasy world ever, their presence in recent years has become a bit of a joke (Army of Darkness comes immediately to mind). Strange that the reanimated calcified cores of a human would become so banal. Funny how life works, isn’t it?

My question, however, is if these skeletons are so readily able to reanimate, what exactly would that mean? What would be the limits?

Case in point: in a typical fantasy way, an adventurer is skulking through some crypt for some lost artifact, and he comes across some skeletons raised from their dusty graves, armed and ready to fight whomever dares approach them. Okay. Let’s first suspend our disbelief and say that magic (maejick, magicka, magique, or however kids spell it these days) exists, and necromancy is actually a thing instead of regular people fondling bones. Okay.

To what extent does this magic work?

If we allow that a skeleton could be animated, there are a few ways of looking at it. Is it a sentient revival, in the sense that it is a partially-autonomous “creature” capable of any learning, tactics, or memory? Or is it merely like the brooms carrying water from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: mindless conduits of a basic idea or order?

Furthermore, how is it they are capable of movement? Of course the normal skeleton, helpful as it is, can’t do much without tendons, ligaments, and musculature to actually move. Let’s just say “magic” and move on, as it’s more of a secondary thought. The primary thought is what keeps it together, and how far does that power extend? ‘Dem bones ‘dem bones ought to simply clatter apart unless there was some moderately powerful, sustained force holding it all together to allow swinging a sword, using a shield, using a bow and arrow, etc. without harm/breaking bones. That seems like a fairly significant amount of force.

With this in mind, shouldn’t this force keeping these bones fighting-fit and prevent any appreciable damage from happening to it? If bones of nearly any age can be reanimated, as seems to be the case, would striking them achieve much of anything at all? If a bone cracks, or breaks, would it not still be held together by this force that allows a bowstring to be pulled taut? If you knock a skeleton’s head off, would it not continue to fight, as it ostensibly shouldn’t need its head like a living creature would? Unless this supposed magic is temperamental, it may take the effective obliteration of the skeleton to bring it down. Otherwise it seems like a tremendous amount of energy to hold all those 208-so-odd bones in perfect place just to be rickety. Again, the skeletons shown fighting are able to swing a sword or deflect a hit, and those impacts wouldn’t be gentle. It seems as if they would be a nearly-unstoppable foe in this case, and far from the fodder they typically pose in popular fiction.

Or if, say, a limb was able to be knocked off of the skeleton, somehow, would it remain animated like some mobile ankle-whacker? Or would the forces keeping the rest of the bones together just deal in a strictly proximity-based fashion?

Past that, would this same magic that allows a skeleton to arise from the dead be used on a skeleton still inside someone? That’s a little more tricky, as bones are a lot more “alive” than most people may realize. They’re far from a white stick with some marrow bits in the middle. Even just a glimpse at the wiki page for bones paints a rather complex, living structure that we usually only see as some white, creaky thing strung up in a science room. So if we go by the term “necromancy,” perhaps animating your skeleton inside of while still inside would indeed be difficult to achieve. That gets more to zombie territory, therefore technically outside of the purview of this argument.

As a further extrapolation, why limit oneself to the standard human configuration? It seems, without the chains of the flesh, you could create a multi-armed, nigh-unstoppable clacking horror without much extra work. Unless there is some degree of consideration or reliance upon the skeleton’s “memory” of fighting, or perhaps the wizard (or respective necromancer)’s concentration is needed to maintain the animation, and multiple flailing limbs could be too taxing. Nothing presented to my knowledge has explained the lack of such possible skeletons.

A little bit of research [see:Google] seems to show (according to various wiki pages and Dungeons & Dragons pages), that they are largely mindless automatons capable of simple actions, however the D&D wiki page on skeletons mentions “Bone Creatures, a skeleton that retains knowledge and skills it possessed in life.” What keeps them going seems to be less implicitly said. So no further clarity there, and I can’t pretend to know the lore of any series to say what could explain them. I’d love any input on that regard, actually.

[As a side note, that would totally be something like evil wizard R&D, wouldn’t it? Trying to perfect some magic to animate the skeleton right out of someone? That’d be something. An admittedly evil something, but something all the same.]

From a social standpoint, are they still who they once “were,” or a part of? Is that distinction kept or lost upon reanimation? Unless they’re akin to animated clutter or debris, again, like the walking brooms, would they retain any of the rights as the person they once were? The discussion for vampires’ rights to live is already a complex one, how would be judge one variety of undead versus another? As we live with skeletons amongst us every day, we should learn to understand them, and what can make them rise, bleached and creaking, into our world. Even if they do have a penchant for the spooky and/or the scary.

We live with far worse living people, so what’s the worst that could happen? Imagine the workforce of skeletons. No need to breathe, so they could be expert sea excavators. They don’t get cold, so they could be rescue workers at ski resorts. Thinking proactively is the only way to do it. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t make money for someone I mean be a wholesome, productive member of your non-living-specific community.

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