Humans as a “Fantasy Kindred”

Adam and Eve, Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter

Here’s a follow-up on my previous post about connections between my current work-in-progress and a D&D setting. One thing I wanted to incorporate was the whole mythology around humans removed from the mortal world to live in the faery realm. Although we usually think of this as a trope European faery-lore, it is actually found in many places throughout the world, and it accounts for the presence of a large minority of humans inhabiting said faery realm in my WIP (to the tune of about 20% of the population).

So, how should I conceive of humans participating in a fantasy realm in which they are in the minority?

The Overbrought

The first thing to note is that humans are not native to this realm. I’m imagining that the humans one encounters in the faery realm are either “overbrought,” taken from the mortal world, or else the descendants of those so taken. They may have originally been taken for any number of reasons, both benign and sinister.

Benignly, some humans were removed as young children from situations of abuse or neglect. Others found refuge in in the faery realm after escaping from similar dire situations: domestic abuse, abject poverty, or systemic oppression. Still others were “recruited”—perhaps with selfish motivation—because they possessed certain qualities deemed desirable to a particular supernatural being or organization. For instance, folklore is riddled with stories of an elf or faery falling in love with a mortal and inviting him or her to join them on “the other side.”

Often, however, humans are overbrought for more sinister reasons. They might, for example, be taken as slaves to serve in either the harems or the armies of a powerful fae lord. They may even have been taken capriciously, for no discernible reason.

The Human Mystique

But why on (any) earth would an elf, troll, or whatever go to the trouble of bringing humans over and keeping them around? We must possess traits that are deemed desirable by at least some in the faery realm. What those traits might be largely boils down to adaptability and versatility. Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long made an apt comment in this regard in Time Enough for Love:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I think this gets at why an elf, dwarf, troll, etc. might want to keep humans around: they are versatile and adaptable. They won’t be the most magically gifted, or the strongest, or the smartest, but they tend to acquire a larger and more diverse skill set. They are generalists, the Hufflepuffs of the faery realm. They’re “good enough” at a broad range of things without perhaps excelling at any.

As I’m conceiving it, underlying this versatility is human free will. The way magic works in my setting, the more powerful you are, the less free will you possess. Those at the top of the magical food chain are effectively archetypal figures with limited ability to innovate or even see things from a different point of view: they have a fixed personality, temperament, and overall approach.

Humans don’t experience this bondage of the will to nearly the same extent. To the other members of the fantasy world, therefore, they are fascinating—and formidable—because they are unpredictable.

Humans in Fae Society

So, what roles do humans play in fae society? Most agree they are not suited to be common slaves, although they may be bonded to a lord in a more high-status position of servitude as an adviser, teacher, bodyguard, or in some other capacity where quick, outside-the-box thinking is a bonus. I’m imagining a setting in which some powerful fae lords maintain elite military units of overbrought children raised to be warriors virtually from birth, and comparable to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. Whether bond or free, many humans end up in the officer corps of various principalities.

Others find a niche in careers where their adaptability and unpredictability are assets. Humans might be merchants and entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, theoreticians, spies, adventures, and treasure-hunters.

One niche that is filled almost exclusively by humans (and half-humans) is that of the knight (à la Spenser’s Faerie Queene). These individuals are champions who have sworn loyalty to a lord and serve on his or her behest as a champion or agent. Knights need not be strictly military in nature, though many are no doubt daunting fighters. Rather, the essence of knighthood is to serve as a lord’s right hand, furthering their agenda as one’s skills permit.

All of this is certainly not the only way to account for the wealth of mythology about changelings, human babies switched at birth, etc., but it suits my narrative purposes. It certainly, I think, opens up some interesting avenues for characterization and character development—not only of humans but of the majority non-human population.

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My Next Novel: Escaping from a Bad D&D Campaign

And by “bad,” of course I mean “awesome.” I’ve written before about how Dungeons & Dragons was a pretty important part of my adolescence. Not only did it prod me out of my introverted shell and entice me to interact with a few close friends, it stoked an interest in mythology, fantasy, and adventure that continues to this day.

But let’s face it: Old-school D&D as played by über-nerdy teenagers was usually a hot mess—a glorious hot mess, but a hot mess all the same. If you were first exposed to D&D in the 70s or early 80s, and that corresponded to your junior high or high school years, you know of which I speak. What I mean is that some of the tropes of D&D are a bit unconventional, even within the fantasy genre. For example…

There are Loads and Loads of “Races”

D&D has always been a fantasy kitchen sink. That’s part of its charm. Beings from Norse and Arthurian mythology rub elbows with creatures from ancient Greece, China, the Middle East, and realms even further afield. Add to that the creatures that sprung like Athena fully formed from the minds of Gary Gygax and company.

That diversity extends to the humanoid fantasy “races” found in the game. (I’ve explained before that I don’t care for the terminology of fantasy “races.” But I’m using the term here so you know what I’m talking about.) At first, if you didn’t want to play as a human, your choices were elf, dwarf, or hobbit—the latter quickly adjusted to halfling when the Tolkien estate <ahem> took exception to TSR’s use of the term. It was only a matter of time before half-elves were added. Then came half-orcs, gnomes, various sub-classes of elves, and even more fanciful creatures. And if you look at the intelligent monsters that aren’t (usually) permitted as player classes, you’ve got to add goblins, kobolds, gnolls, lizard men, nymphs and satyrs, giants, dragons, an assortment of demons and devils…you get the idea.

I heard somewhere that Gary Gygax literally couldn’t conceive of why everybody didn’t want to play a plain vanilla human fighter. That’s why those early editions put caps on how high non-humans could advance in levels: he wanted non-humans to be rare!

Soon, however, humans effectively became the minority, if not in the campaign setting then at least in the makeup of the average adventuring party. (Fair play compels me to acknowledge that the Fellowship of the Ring consisted of four hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, a quasi-angelic being, and only two humans!) (Snark compels me to acknowledge that the only thing rarer than Men in LOTR was Women.)

Magic Is Everywhere

I’m pretty sure that every member of my old D&D group operated under the assumption that, if an item existed in the rule books, it was bound to exist somewhere in the campaign setting. Half the point of playing D&D was accumulating the most whiz-bang magical goodies: flaming swords, enchanted armor, various and sundry wands, staves, rings, and potions. And these were the good old days where you could wander into any fair-sized city and find a “magic shop” where some of these items were even available off the shelf.

And this is before considering the vast supernatural powers most player-characters could wield. From the beginning until today, decent D&D parties always have at least one or two decent spell-casters. The parties that don’t tend not to survive for very long, because even if the players don’t have access to spells, you can bet the bad guys do!

But even the non-spell-casting types are usually capable of physics-defying feats of strength, stealth, endurance, or what have you. And don’t get me started on psionics! In short, the genre of D&D has always favored larger-than-life heroes with access to powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals. (Seems I’ve heard that line before…) In the early days when I was playing, we didn’t worry about that in the least; it was all part of the awesome.

So What?

In short, D&D has tended from the start to favor a great diversity of non-human characters interacting in a setting in which, far from being the stuff of misguided superstition, magic is as commonplace as blackberry bushes. That’s a marvelous setting for a game of fantasy adventure. But it isn’t the “real world.” Now, I don’t mean it’s a flaw that D&D has wizards and dragons and such because they don’t actually exist. I’m not that thick! I’m saying the classic D&D setting isn’t even the “real world” in the sense that people alive in the Middle Ages would never have recognized it as theirs, notwithstanding the fact that they would have been earnestly afraid of witches and ghosts and truly awed by the fantastical creatures scholars described in their bestiaries.

It is, however, a world that those medieval people would have heard of, be they peasant or king. It’s the world in which many of their favorite stories were set, a world that shaped their imagination and their cultural ideals by setting them against a place so obviously different that the conventional rules no longer applied.

It is, in a word, Faery Land.

It’s the place heroes go to fight dragons and rescue princesses before eventually finding their way back to the ordinary world to live happily ever after.

So, what if somebody who’d grown up in this high-powered, magic-rich, and decidedly non-human-centric D&D campaign found it advisable to leave? Where would he go? What would he do? What alliances might he forge with the inhabitants of whatever new world he landed in? What foes might he have to face there?

And what if this new world was ours?