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.


A Note about Fantasy “Races”

TL;DR: When differentiating between humans, elves, dwarves, etc., “kind” is preferable to “race.”

In much fantasy literature, we hear of various “races,” meaning elves, dwarves, orcs, and so forth.  The more I think about that terminology, the less I like it. A while back I looked at some of the fanciful humans or near-humans one encounters in the ancient and medieval geographies, populations traditionally called “monstrous races.” At that time, I took exception to that term because of the potentially hurtful connotations of both “monstrous” and “race.” In my introductory post, I wrote:

That can also be an awfully loaded term with a dubious past in pseudo-scientific pronouncements that attempted to justify the oppression and enslavement of some groups of human beings by other groups of human beings on the theory that some groups of human beings are naturally superior to others. Originally, a “race” (Latin gens, Greek ethnos) was simply a definable people-group: a tribe or culture, whether sparse or numerous, whether familiar or foreign. Even so, when talking about human beings—or supposed human beings—whose customs are disquieting or who possess animalistic traits, the word “race” can lead us down some paths we might not want to tread.

At that time, I wasn’t concerned with dwarves and the rest but only with cynocephali, monopods, and the like. But as I think of it, my concern with the word “race” still pertains and is perhaps even more pronounced when we use it to describe what makes Legolas different from Gimli.

It seems to me that “species” is an apter description of what these fantasy populations really are. There are clear genetic differences between elves, orcs, trolls, etc. Hybrid or mixed-lineage characters notwithstanding, the ability of at least some of these groups to interbreed seems at least problematic. That means we’re probably in the realm of using the term “race” to speak of what modern science would call a “species.” Dwarves are different from elves at a deep level that goes far beyond physical phenotype or genetic minutiae (e.g., blood types, lactose tolerance or intolerance, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc.). And explicitly, the term “race” is used to set certain groups apart from the “human race.” Once again, that doesn’t sit well with me.

Of course, “species”—a word used in English with a more or less precise scientific definition—doesn’t quite seem at home in a fantasy setting. Fortunately, there is a good English term from the pre-industrial era that can carry the same weight. That word is “kind.” In the King James Version of the Bible (1611), we read,

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24-25, emphasis added)

“Kind” is thus, roughly speaking, an early English equivalent to what we usually understood by “species” today. I know I’ve read fantasy stories that speak of “Elfkind” or “Dwarfkind.” Perhaps it’s time to retire the idea of “race” as it is used in the genre and speak of “fantasy kinds” (or “fantasy kindreds”) instead.

What do you think?