Tuesday, August 23, 2022

(Dark Sun) Elves of Athas

 This book could not have come at a more opportune time for the Discourse. What, with the new D&D playtest document reigniting questions of racial essentialism that exist deep within the foundation of the hobby. Elves of Athas, by Bill Slavicsek, is a book about a particular fantasy species, with its own physiology and inhuman powers, but it's also about a particular fantasy culture, native to the Tyr region, which shares many similar customs and stories, even as their lifestyles vary. And much like very nearly every depiction of non-human fantasy creatures for the last 50+ years, the line between the species and the culture is blurred. The elf-culture of the Tyr region are nomadic cross-country runners and pastoralists who tend flocks of giant ant-like creatures and have a flexible attitude towards more settled peoples, trading with, avoiding, or raiding the City-States and their satellite villages as opportunity dictates. And the thing is, there is no member of this culture who is not an elf, and no elf who is not part of this culture, even if only indirectly, as an outcast.

And this is such a fraught thing. Because if you look at the vectors along which culture propagates itself, conflating species and culture does make a certain degree of sense. You learn a culture from your parents and siblings and extended family, and from interactions with the people around you. Since elves have elf families, and different elf families have practical reasons to live near each other, there must logically be majority-elf areas, and associating a culture with a location, well . . .  that's kind of how culture works. There's no reason anyone would object to, say, "the culture of the Crescent Woods" (although, in truth that's a bad example because the two city-states that border the Crescent Woods have very different cultures) and if the majority of the inhabitants of this place were elves, and elves were only intermittently found anywhere else, then it would be more or less the same thing as an "elf culture."

Where this breaks down, of course, is in the broader "Tyr region." Since elves are found all around the Tyr Region, then that means that any potential "elf culture" needs to spread to every corner of the region. . . without spreading to non-elves. And similarly, any particular group of elf families must have a mechanism for receiving that culture . . . without being influenced by non-elf ideas. And that's a tall order. Why don't elves who trade with Urik come to adopt a more disciplined militarist perspective? Why don't the villages that take in elderly elves come to adopt their knowledge of nomadic kank (giant ant) pastorage? 

Because the book is only 96 pages long, that's why. But seriously, it actually does a fairly good job of making its elf tribes distinct subcultures. The Water Hunters protect a sacred grove, where an underground spring bubbles to the surface every 10 years, and the water spirits choose the tribe's leader for the next decade. The Sky Singers are heavily associated with the city-state of Balic, where their urban clan sells goods acquired by their nomadic cousins. It comes really close to breaking up the standard D&D trope of the racial monoculture. Except that all elves gain a bonus with long-sword and long bow. All elves revere the culture hero, Coraanu Star Racer. All elves recognize a divide between public music, played willingly for strangers, and private music, which belongs to the tribe alone. And less benignly, all elves have contempt for their half-elf children, and all elves steal.

It's interesting to me, the divide between the universal and the particular here. There are things that are allowed to vary (these elves are very nearly honest traders vs these elves delight in the cruel violence of their raids) and which are not (all elves live in the eternal "now").

I've mentioned before that I'm not inherently against this sort of thing. If we were going deep into speculative fiction and characterizing our elves as fey creatures that have no intuitive sense for the passage of time, then I could get on board with that. They're not really thieves, because they have never had the experience of missing a beloved item. They literally can't form the mental connection that there is something they used to have, nor can they imagine that connection in others. That's weird and alien, and would have all sorts of knock-on effects, but it would only become a monoculture if all elves reacted in the same way to that particular reality of the elfish condition (much in the same way that different human cultures have different reactions to the universal reality of death).

However, that's not really what's going on. I get the sense that the book has a clear, if unarticulated, sense of what it means to be a "race," and this unspoken definition is accommodating to the idea that it's possible to have "a race of thieves." It's a shame, because tribal life is presented with relative sympathy here. There's talk of "savage" customs, but also, elves are something that D&D players are meant to be, so they are not othered to the same degree you see in something like The Complete Book of Humanoids. There's a nobility and beauty to the elfish culture, even if the text explicitly states that their sense of honor doesn't extend to outsiders.

The strongest example of this policing of racial boundaries is in the treatment of half-elves. Let's just hop right back into the Discourse here - Elves of Athas is not good about this issue. I think we're supposed to realize that the elves' treatment of their half-human children is unjust, but we're also just supposed to take for granted that there's an emotional logic to it. They abandon their children to human villages because a half-elf doesn't have the physical capability to keep up with the tribe's long-distance running, and thus they are sub-elven. This callousness is just another part of life on Athas, and never mind the possibility of an elf parent wanting to leave the tribe to be with their lover and child (and the reverse - inviting a human into the family - is utterly unthinkable). It's somehow strange to emotionally connect to people of another race.

The closest any of the tribes get to accepting half-elves is the Water Hunters, who force half-elves to become druids to protect the sacred spring. And what's especially odd is that they have half-elven children specifically for this purpose, because elves can't be druids.

Fucking AD&D, am I right?

The whole section ends on a lovely little coda - "The Water Hunters don't have any more love or compassion for half-elves than does any other elf tribe, but . . ."

On the other hand, at least it's not any sort of racial stereotype that I can recognize ("let's have a mixed-race baby so we can force them to become a priest of our religion"). 

Overall, I'd say the only real problem with Elves of Athas is that it purports to be about the elves of Athas. If the name of the book were "Desert Raiders" or "Nomads of the Tyr Region" then we'd have some well-drawn individual cultures connected by certain regional common threads, a humane and interesting approach to an unsettled rural populace. However, it is about elves, and so we're still uncomfortable tied to AD&D's reflexive racial essentialism. Oh well, maybe it will get a 5e update.

Ukss Contribution: The Gith are one of Dark Sun's biggest enduring mysteries. What are these things? Why do they exist? They're usually presented as these out-of-context, always evil humanoid enemies, without even the dignity of a culture to call their own, but they serve no real function in the fiction of the setting. They don't seem to have a territorial presence or any agenda beyond stealing the goods of the player-character races and they always disappear as quickly as they appear.

However, they get kind of a funny characterization here. The Wind Dancers were nearly wiped out by a plague and subsequent thri-kreen attack, so now they're truly desperate and have turned to a life of raiding. But the Blood Clan Gith are nearby (apparently) and the two groups have increasingly come into conflict. 

Except, it's not just simple proximity. The Blood Clan are deliberately shadowing the Wind Dancers and raiding their raids (as in, they wait for the elves to attack a target, and then swoop in and attack both the elves and their target). The book firmly takes the side of the Wind Dancers here, but from my perspective, the Wind Dancers have canonically massacred entire caravans for the crime of defiance, so this is just hilarious comeuppance.

Ukss will have a couple of bandit groups with a similar dynamic.

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