So, the last war between Mankind and Fey has ended, settling into an uneasy armistice. The Caves of Chaos are no longer teeming with the creatures of Fey, and the Keep on the Borderlands is no longer garrisoned, has fallen into disuse and disrepair, and only a small church remains as a reminder that this was once a forward outpost in Christendom’s endless war with soulless heathens. What becomes of the heroes of that age? The Clerics who fought against the forces of Chaos to advance and defend Civilization and ensure that Mankind’s right to rule the land God bestowed upon Adam?
“I have never been able to settle quite comfortably into the role of churchman, although I do my best. I mortify the flesh and discipline the spirit, but the hungers rage within me. Age does not seem to quench them. Much as I may frown upon the folly of what you intend to do, I find within myself the ache to go along with you. I suppose it may be this place, a place of warriors and brave deeds. Peaceful as it may seem now, for centuries it was the outpost of the empire against the peoples of the Wasteland. The tower is now half tumbled down, but once it was a great watch tower and before it ran a wall, close to the river, that has almost disappeared, its stones being carted off by the country people to construct ignoble fences, hen-houses and stables. Once men manned the tower and wall, standing as a human wall of flesh against the encroachments and the depredations of the unholy horde which dwells in the Wasteland.”
“Your grace,” said Snively, far too gently, “your history, despite the centuries, is too recent. There was a day when the humans and the Brotherhood lived as neighbors and in fellowship. It was not until the humans began chopping down the forest, failing to spare the sacred trees and the enchanted glens, not until they began building roads and cities, that there was animosity. You cannot, with clear conscience, talk of encroachments and depredations, for it was the humans—“
“Man had the right to do what he wished with the land,” the bishop said. “He had the holy right to put it to best use. Ungodly creatures such as—“
“Not ungodly,” said Snively. “We had our sacred groves until you cut them down, the fairies had their dancing greens until you turned them into fields. Even such simple little things as fairies…”
This clash between clergy and demi-humans comes from the completely alien and antithetical worldviews each has. Mankind vs. Fey is older than Elf vs. Dwarf, though some of the reasoning and cruft is similar. Elves don’t like Dwarves because Dwarves cut down trees and pursue wealth; Dwarves don’t like Elves, because Elves are haughty and aloof. In the case of Mankind vs. Fey, Fey don’t like mankind because men encroach on their borders, and Mankind doesn’t like Fey because their existence is blasphemous.
So, strange must be the circumstances that a Elf, a Dwarf, or a Halfling would join with Men, especially Men of the cloth, to assist in pushing back that boundary of Elfland for the benefit of Man and Civilization.
The Keep on the Borderlands module is the subject of much debate and discussion. Isolated from the greater Known World setting into which it was eventually folded, you have a very simple dichotomy from which a world may be extrapolated–Law vs. Chaos, Civilization vs. the Wild, Christendom vs. Fey… and between the two are the Borderlands.
Now, with what information is given regarding the Caves of Chaos and the Keep on the Borderlands, there are a few things that we can assume:
Beyond the Keep, there is Civilization, and that Civilization is moving towards the wilds, rather than away from it.
Beyond the Caves of Chaos, there is simply more wilds. There is some migration towards the caves from these wilds, but caves are not unified nor are they a hard target. A dedicated push from Civilization could clear out the caves, but if all of Elfland were brought to bare against the Keep, it might topple one outpost at great cost yet it could not ultimately stop the advance of Civilization and man.
Most pre-genre fantasy depicts an Elfland in decline, slowly or rapidly withdrawing its borders to protect what little magic it has left. Determined individuals are sometimes able to find it, but finding it often means that the magic will be extinguished by the institutions of Man.
So, when there’s no push to cleanse the Caves of Chaos or there’s no Keep on the Borderlands to extend the shadow of civilization into Elfland, what is the Borderland and what lies beyond it? How do the demi-humans in the region live?
Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage seeks to answer just that:
“Do you know what the Wasteland is?”
“It’s enchanted ground,” said Gib.
“It is,” said Snively, “the last stronghold of the Brotherhood….”
“Yes, we are of the Brotherhood. We get along all right because this is the Borderland. There are humans, certainly, but individual humans—millers, woodcutters, charcoal burners, small farmers, moonshiners. The human institutions, government and church, do not impinge on us. You have never seen the lands to the south and east?”
Gib shook his head.
“There,” said Snively, “you would find few of us. Some in hiding, perhaps, but not living openly as we do. Those who once lived there have been driven out. They have retreated to the Wasteland. As you may suspect, they hold a hatred for all humankind. In the Wasteland are those who have been driven back to it and those who never left, the ones who had stayed there and hung on grimly to the olden ways of life.”
“But you left.”
“Centuries ago,” said Snively, “a group of prospecting gnomes found the ore deposit that underlies these hills. For uncounted millennia the gnomes have been smiths and miners. So we moved here, this small group of us. We have no complaint. But if the so-called human civilization ever moved in full force into the Borderland, we would be driven out.”
Fey is always in a precarious position with mankind nearby, because the institutions of man, particularly the Church, are inimical to them. Land is developed, with towns, roads, and agriculture changing the character of the land, and the bells of the Church and prayers of good Christian men and women drive the elves further back beyond their ancient borders.
Over the weekend, I started reading Clifford D. Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage. It’s one of his later works (mid-70s), and while it hasn’t been as wild and action-packed as his pulp short I reviewed awhile back, it’s been an interesting read for several reasons.
The mid 70s were a time of tumultuous sea-change in Fantasy. There was a pulp sword & sorcery revival going on in the early part of the decade, but Lord of the Rings was booming and Tolkienian primacy was on the horizon. Dungeons & Dragons and Shannara were about to change everything.
Enchanted Pilgrimage is a party-centric quest-fantasy, but the fantasy is still pre-genre, pre-Tolkienian. While the story isn’t particularly Dunsanian, the setting is, and the portrayal of fey is still on the far side of weird. What Enchanted Pilgrimage does best, though, is illustrate what a demi-human-centric adventuring party would be like.
A scholar finds an original manuscript hidden in the binding of a copy of a travelogue written by someone who traveled to the Wasteland (Elfland); an Inquisitor from the church is trying to hunt him down. The scholar goes on a quest to investigate the truth of the manuscript with the help of some goblins, gnomes, and swamp elves with the Inquisitor on his trail.
The setting is rather nebulous, but a war between fey and Christendom ended a generation before, leaving the Borderlands, co-inhabited by men and fey, between Civilization and the Wasteland.
The quest of the story kicks off in two parts: in civilization, the scholar finds the manuscript about a journey to Elfland; in the wild, a young… something (it’s not clear what the Marsh People are, other than that they’re furry almost-humans) pays visit to an elderly Christian hermit who has a final request for him. Simak very subtly highlights the uncanny nature of fey and the uneasiness that exist between them, even in the relatively peaceful Borderlands.
Gib, the young Marsh Man, is visiting a gnome, who has just finished a new ax-head for him, on his way to see the hermit.
“I only called on the hermit once. A neighborly act, I thought. I took him, as a gift, a fine pair of silver candlesticks. I never went again. I fear that I embarrassed him. I felt an unease in him. He said nothing, of course….”
“He wouldn’t,” said Gib. “He is a kindly man.”
“I shouldn’t have done it,” said the gnome. “It came from living so long in the land of humans and dealing so much with them that I began to lose the distinction between myself and man. But to the hermit, and I suppose many other men, I am a reminder of that other world in which I properly belong, against which men still must have a sense of loathing and disgust, and I suppose for a reason. For ages man and the many people of my world fought very hard and viciously against one another, with no mercy, and I suppose, at most times, without a sense of honor. In consequence of this, the hermit, who is, as you say, the kindliest of men, did not quite know how to handle me. He must have known that I was harmless and carried no threat to him or any of his race, and yet he was uneasy. If I had been a devil, say, or any sort of demon, he would have known how to act. Out with the holy water and the sacred spells. But I wasn’t a devil, and yet in some obscure way I was somehow connected with the idea of the devil. All these years I have regretted that I called on him.”
“And yet he took the candlesticks.”
“Yes, he did. Most graciously, and he thanked me kindly for them. He was too much a gentleman to throw them back in my face. He gave me, in return, a length of cloth of gold. Someone, I suppose, perhaps some noble visitor, had given it to him, for the hermit would have had no money to buy so princely a gift. I have often thought, however, that he should have kept it and given me a much more lowly gift. I’ve wondered all these years what I possibly could do with a length of cloth of gold. I keep it in a chest and I take it out now and then and have a look at it, but that is all I ever do with it. I suppose I could trade it off for something more utilitarian, but I hesitate to do that, for it was the hermit’s gift and for that reason seems to me to have a certain sentimental value. One does not sell gifts, particularly a gift from so good a man.”
“I think,” said Gib, “that you must imagine much of this—the hermit’s embarrassment, I mean. I for example, have no such feeling toward you. Although, in fairness, I must admit that I am not a human.”
“Much closer than I am,” said the gnome, “and therein may lie a difference.”
Something to think about in your game–humans and demi-humans, even when not directly at odds, may always have a sense of unease about one another on a deep, spiritual level, and the unease will be mutual. These aren’t just people from different races, but beings from different worlds!
Last Friday’s Short Review left me feeling kind of dirty, but fortunately I’m told that Anderson reconsidered many of his youthful positions and his later iconic works benefit from this shift greatly. I’ll try to read a few of his better known works before going back to his 40s stuff.
I approved this comment for you to laugh at.
Finished Swordsman of Mars, and the communist dictator dies an unrepentant traitor, the hero ends up with a dame, though not the one he thought he would; the good emperor pulled an All Father with a strategic daughter-swap. Fortunately, the innate goodness in the old emperor carried over into his daughter, while the villain’s daughter benefited from the good upbringing the old emperor gave her.
Started reading Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage. I’ll have some excerpts and highlights later. While I’m not blown away by it, it’s a fascinating look at a pre-Tolkienian 70s party/quest-focused fantasy adventure that features a demi-human adventuring party. It does a pretty good job highlighting the weirdness of such a company and the political and cultural implications of a Keep on the Borderlands setting extrapolated into a post-conflict world.
Over the weekend, hit up Once-Upon-A-Time Books in NWA, and scored, among other fine treasures, a still-shrink-wrapped Compleat Dying Earth omnibus and a hardbound Skaith omnibus, and some other C.L. Moore and Vance paperbacks.
Oh, and if you haven’t already, be sure to order your copy of Cirsova #7 today! Currently more popular on Amazon than the Swords Against Darkness reboot!
In the pulps, even Mars had its strange and fey races:
He had knelt on the bank, and was just parting the rushes, when a reflection in the water before him made him look up. A huge black bat was pursuing what at first glance appeared to be a large butterfly. Apparently disabled, the smaller creature fluttered groundward, falling into the rushes not ten feet from Thorne.
In a steep spiral, the bat swooped toward its fallen prey. Leaping to his feet, Thorne saw the futile fluttering of a pair of lacy, opalescent wings above the rushes, and knew that in a moment more the bat would claim its victim. He jerked a javelin from his quiver and hurled it at the descending monster. It struck the black, furry neck with such force that the barbed head emerged from the other side.
Now it was the bat which tumbled into the rushes, only a few feet from the creature it had struck down.
Having satisfied himself that the ugly thing was dead, Thorne stepped over for a closer look at its intended prey. But as he did so, the lacy wings suddenly rose above the bushes, and he stifled a cry of amazement when he saw that they were attached to the shoulders of a slender, perfectly formed girl about three feet in height.
Save for a girdle of filmy, pale green material drawn tight at the waist by a belt of exquisitely wrought golden mesh and ending in a short skirt, she was nude. Her silky skin was a perfect flesh tint, and covered with fine down, delicate as peach bloom. Her golden yellow hair was bound by a fillet of woven green jade links, circling her forehead just below two delicate, feathery antennae, which swept upward and backward like a pair of dainty plumes.
As he stood staring down at her, scarcely believing his eyes, she suddenly faded from his view.
The Earthman blinked and looked again. But where she had stood he now saw only the rushes which had been bent downward by the weight of her tiny body.
Faintly he heard the fluttering of wings overhead. He looked up and saw only the empty sky. Suddenly a little pixie voice, musical as a silver bell, broke the silence.
“I know you now, man of the Old Race,” it said. “You are Sheb Takkor, the younger. You have saved the life of Eriné, daughter of the Vil of the Ulfi, and she is not ungrateful. Hold out your hand.”
In obedient wonder, he extended his hand. A glittering something dropped into his palm. He saw that it was a tiny ring fashioned from platinum and set with a sparkling green gem.
“If you should ever need the Ulfi, rub the jewel and if there is an Ulf within scent of the ring he will be yours to command.”
“Very kind of you,” said Thorne, “but…” He suddenly realized that the fluttering had stopped. He was talking to empty air.
Yirl Du had come down the bank and was surveying him quizzically. “Your pardon, my lord. Were you speaking to me?”
“Yes. No. I was speaking to an Ulf – that is, to an Ulf maiden.”
“Has one of the Little People paid us a visit?”
“Not intentionally, I guess. You see, she was struck down by that bat.” Thorne indicated the carcass. “I saw her fall, thinking her only a butterfly, yet I pitied the creature and so slew the bat with a javelin. She became invisible and presented me with this.” He held out the ring.
Yirl Du exclaimed with astonishment. “Why, that is indeed a precious thing, my lord, and such a gift as only the Vil of the Ulfi or a member of his family might present to a man.”
“She named herself Eriné, daughter of the Vil.”
Thorne was brimming over with questions about the Little People, but resolved to curb his curiosity until he could talk to Thaine or Lal Vak. Sheb Takkor, he reasoned, would be supposed to know these things. To question Yirl Du about them would be to make him suspect either that he was not Sheb Takkor, or that he had taken leave of his senses.
I’ve given Disney a lot of shit for their “Hurr durr, we’re finally getting a woman with a light-saber” marketing, because ass-kicking women with swords and light-sabers are kind of Otis Adelbert Kline’s thing:
A few weeks back, Anthony did a post on how to make good Strong Women characters. He hit in a few good points, even if he didn’t pick a great example. Even “good” Strong Women characters like the one he references are actually figures of fun within their stories; note that he even points out that there are constant references to how unwomanly she is and won’t find a man. I disagree with his take that “They need to suffer some sort of loss related to their femininity” to be a good strong female character, but his point that “They need to be paired up with a male character equally strong or stronger” has merit.
I’ve noted that women in the pulps may suffer from The Worf Effect–if the male hero can’t hold his own against the toughest dame on the planet, he’s not gonna be much help to said dame when they’re really in a pinch. On the other hand, you know a dame is tough when she can give the guy who’s gonna topple a space dictatorship with his sword a run for his money.
It’s a shame that the new kids feel they have to reach for anime for their examples of tough women in sci-fi, when they’ve been hanging out in the pulps all along.
Take for example this great scene from Swordsman of Mars–Thorne has just met Thaine, the childhood friend of the Martian who he’s traded places with. At her camp, the pair are attacked by a band of hostile Martians, and a couple of them pull Thaine into her hut and briefly out of sight of the hero.
He was about to spring through the opening when he saw the girl framed in the doorway, dagger in one hand and sword in the other, both dripping blood. Behind her, barely visible in the dim light of the interior, lay one dead and one dying foeman.
“Why – why, I thought…” stammered Thorne, lowering his point.
The girl smiled amusedly and stepped out of the hut. “So you believed these clumsy Ma Gongi had cut me down. Really, Sheb, I gave you credit for a better memory. Have you forgotten the many times Thaine’s blade has bested yours?”
So her name is Thaine, mused Thorne. Aloud he said: “Your demonstration has been most convincing. Yet I have not lost my ambition to improve my swordsmanship, and I should be grateful for further instruction.”
“No better time than now. Still, I have you at a disadvantage, since you hold an inferior weapon.”
“It is a handicap which a man should accord a girl,” Thorne replied.
“Not one this girl requires.”
She sheathed her dagger and extended her blade. Thorne engaged it with his captured weapon which, though more heavy and clumsy, was somewhat similar to a saber.
He instantly found that he had to deal with the swiftest and most dexterous fencer he had ever encountered, and time after time he barely saved himself from being touched.
“It seems your stay at the military school has improved your swordsmanship,” said the girl, cutting, thrusting, and parrying easily – almost effortlessly. “In the old days I would have touched you long ere this. Yet, you but prolong the inevitable.”
“The inevitable,” replied Thorne, “is sometimes perceptible only by deity. For instance, this” – beating sharply on her blade, then catching it on his with a rotary motion – “has often been known to end a conflict.”
Wrenched from her grasp by his impetuous attack, her sword went spinning into the undergrowth.
Instead of taking her defeat badly, Thaine actually beamed.
“You have developed into a real swordsman, old comrade! I am so glad I could almost kiss you.”
“That,” Thorne answered, recovering her weapon for her, “is a reward which should fire any man to supreme endeavor.”
“It is evident that you have mastered courtly speech as well as fencing. And now I will prepare your favorite dish for you.” She called the brute. “Here, Tezzu,” indicating the bodies. “Take these away.”
There are a number of things in effect here:
Thaine’s able to remain boastful to rib her childhood friend, but the hero wasn’t deprived of his moment in “saving her”; alone, either of them might have been overtaken, but Thaine can hold her own. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a case of the hero showing up and the woman has done all of the work and didn’t need any help at all.
Thorne gets a chance to both size up Thaine’s fighting skills and judge how good he’s supposed to be, since at this point, he’s new to Mars and new to filling in the shoes of the young Martian viscount he’s stepped into. Ultimately, it’s his lack of proper Martian table manners that gives him away to Thaine.
Now that Sheb/Borgen Takkor (actually Harry Thorne) has been shown to have taken a level in badass, the girl can be impressed by his growth. She no longer sees him as an inferior, regards him as someone who she could genuinely rely on when pressed and is prepared to reward him with her affections as a strong woman who’s found a stronger man.
Food. A lot of women like to cook for a man. And being promised that you’ll be cooked your favorite meal is a hell of a thing. An unbelievable amount of human behavior is predicated on doing things that will get you your favorite meal cooked for you by a lady and the endeavors undertaken to earn such a privilege. So, you want a beautiful Martian lady to cook you tasty bug-steaks? You’d better be able to kill AT LEAST as many evil Martian swordsmen as she can when you guys get attacked by them.