Monster of the Week: The Gelflings of Thra

A male and female Gelfling. Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images

As we explore in Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal," the planet Thra is a world ravaged by schism and colonialism. Alien UrSkeks arrived on the planet during the first great conjunction and promptly divided into two distinct species: the zen-like urRus and the violent, ever-grasping Skeksis.

As time passes, the Skeksis come to rule the world of Thra. Employing the power of their Dark Crystal, they subjugate and drain the vital essence from the Gelflings, one of two advanced hominid species on Thra and by far the dominant native culture.

Murray Close/Getty

By the time we enter into the story, only two Gelflings remain: a male named Jen and a female named Kira. Not only is their species effectively extinct, their culture exists only in ruins. As Gideon Haberkorn explains in "Interpreting the Various Species in The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock," Kira and Jen are "examples of cultural hybridity, with its horticultural roots -- the cross-breeding of two species by grafting or cross-pollination to form a third."*

Thra's core schism is healed by the end of the film. The crystal is made whole and the UrSkeks live once more as a single species. But for Kira and Jen, the gulf between themselves and their lost culture remains an open wound. Each raised by a different non-Gelfling society, they don't even share the same starting point from which to reclaim their heritage.

But as interesting as their cultures are, there's another Gelflings divide worth considering: the dimorphic divide of gender. What are we to make of the wingless male Jen and the winged female Kira? For answers, we turn to the world of terrestrial insects:

Answers From the Insect World

As Liz Langley points out in her Weird & Wild blog series, you'll find examples of winged females and wingless males throughout the insect world. Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies, ambrosia beetles and thrips all boast such morphological gender differences -- and the reasoning generally comes down to pure sexual economics.

Murray Close/Getty Images

For all intents and purposes, females are the species and males exist as a biological variant necessary for sexual reproduction. Sure, the sexual politics of mate selection has raised many a vertebrate male to elevated status, but the insect world is a bit more streamlined. Just consider the tiny male Dicopomorpha echmepterygis fairyflies: Not only are they wingless, they're also blind and non-feeding.

In these cases, the male exists only to breed and that breeding takes place close to where they hatched -- often with nestmates. There's no need to disperse. As such, we might assume that male Gelflings exist primarily to breed close to home, while the females migrate to find new mates and produce young.

Another possibility is that male Gelflings are fighters -- or that the noticeably-taller Jen is in fact a member of a soldier caste not unlike those found in ant colonies. Is he even capable of breeding, or would that require a Gelfling drone?

In either case, biologist Douglas J. Emlen points out in his book "Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle," "The price for winning fights is not merely impaired flight; it's an inability to fly." Jen may lack wings as a biological compromise for his increased physical prowess.

Either way, the future of Gelfling kind is left very much in doubt. If they're lucky, other survivors will emerge to provide the genetic diversity necessary for their biological -- if not cultural -- resurgence.

* If you want to read more on the cultural implications of "The Dark Crystal," I highly recommend you pick up "The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson," which includes Haberkorn's paper.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.