Historical Context Matters: Strange Bedfellows

I’ve been reading quite a bit about Ukraine recently, and marveling at how important historical context is to understanding the present.  Given that our experience of the present is interpreted through the lens of our past, if we lack the appropriate local context for a situation any outsider is likely to be confused.  Here’s a concrete example: in addition to all of the other (traumatic, disgusting, screwed-up) baggage that comes along with Nazi ideology and symbolism, for some in Ukraine those things also represent independence from the Soviet state.  Knowing that, I’m less surprised to see that those particularly toxic things are experiencing a resurgence among some subsections of the population of Ukraine.  Given the local historical context I find it frightening (but not, on reflection, surprising) to see these things coming to the fore once more.  What will come of having the bigotry, fascist tendencies, and virulent hatreds espoused by neo-nazis and their sympathizers in some way legitimated by their connection with the forces that helped to organize the Maidan, and the forces that now do Kiev’s fighting in the east?  I don’t know, but all I can say is “Ick.”

Reading up on all of that has left me thinking about the conflicts and strange bedfellows of my own fictional settings, and particularly the one that I’ve been calling Elven Progenitors (EP).  It’s not a very catchy title for a setting, I know, but it’s the only name I’ve got at the moment.  At least it’s distinct?  I don’t want to explain all of the background of the setting in one go, but I thought I should talk about some of the ways in which it differs from our own history, and some of the background politics that I may have vaguely hinted at without ever explaining.  If you’ve read any of these various stories (Paying the Tab, Jerome Goes North, Jerome’s Tropical Vacation, A Simple Misunderstanding, Rum Luck), you’ve already read something in this setting.  Exposition follows below.

You may have noticed that my stories sometimes use city names that are the same as cities in our world, while including references to things like tree-rats, or orcs, or dwarves (like our protagonist Andre).  This is because, while the world of EP is full of fantastical elements, the geography of EP is essentially that of our world with some room for creative shenanigans lurking around the edges; I’ve stuck with our world’s city names out of a combination of laziness and a desire to give you, my readers, an immediate pointer by which you can understand my references.  This is partly in recompense for having renamed all the various bodies of water (the Baltic is The Windswept Sea, the Black is the Inner Sea, and I think you can puzzle the rest out for the most part).  Better yet, this way I don’t have to draw and upload a 17th century map with all the major cities relabeled and the national borders erased or altered.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that I don’t mention England, or France.  Nor do I pay any heed to the Ottomans or China.  This is because EP has no nation-states.  Instead, as has been true since the great war which accompanied the fall of the Elven Republic, the largest “concrete” polity in EP is the city-state.  Much as was true in our world in the time of the Greek city-states, there are complex (and not necessarily geographically co-located) networks of alliances, protectorates, and dependencies which result in federations of a sort.  Each of these federations is headed up by a “senior” city-state which has achieved its status through some combination of politicking, force projection, threats, trade, and gentler diplomacy.  Sometimes the leading city of a federation simply serves as an easily manipulated figurehead (as might a weak head of state), but it is more often the case that they bind the federation together as both a de facto and de jure leader.

In addition to the aforementioned forms of connection, there are also the bonds between a mother-city and her daughter-cities, those colonies which have been established by virtue of the mother-city’s population, resources, and support.  Traditionally, with the founding of the cities of the Old World, there was a set period of time and certain qualifications to be met after which a daughter-city became the equal of a mother-city and might enter into a partnership without any of the expectations of service associated with the mother-daughter relationship.  But with the (re)discovery of the New World, those bonds have been somewhat stretched.  The mother-cities of the old world have been reluctant to accept their daughter-cities as fully equal partners because of the consistent streams of novel goods which the daughter-cities have provided to their mother-cities, and because of the benefits they derive from such an inherently imbalanced relationship.  There have been conflicts between the federations of various mother-cities over exclusive trading rights with their various dependents, and over the locations of promising city sites.  Further complicating this is the tendency of senior cities in a federation to reserve colonial prerogatives for themselves, often at the expense of the junior partners of the federation.  As you may imagine, this creates considerable additional friction.

There are also entities which exist outside of the various federations that make up the Old World as I’ve presented it thus far.  Elf-home, the continent of Africa as we would think of it, was closed to outsiders after the cease-fire which more or less ended the great war surrounding the end of the Elven Republic.  It is now home to the elves still known in much of the West as The Good Masters, called such due to their widespread manumission of non-elf slaves and slave-soldiers during the great war.  Though there are controlled trading ports along the borders of Elf-home, outside access to the continent has been largely terminated.  Despite the often-rosy view of them held by those who were freed, it would be a mistake to think of the Good Masters as “kind,” or even unified.  There’s also the group of elves known as either the Slavers or the Enlightened Ones, who retreated to some areas of Asia with the signing of the cease fire. More on those topics later.

The Northmen, clans of orcs which still consider themselves to be in service to their old masters (regardless of whether or not they were freed), have created a loose federation of sorts that spans the various regions to which they retreated following the great war.  As is implied in Jerome Goes North, they have settled in what we would think of as Scotland and Scandinavia, with some related clans in locations as widespread as the northern Iberian peninsula, the coastline of the Windswept (Baltic) Sea, and some of the lands between the Windswept Sea and the Inner (Black) Sea.  Because of their combat prowess, orcs were the go-to front line soldiers of the elves during the great war, and many others died at their hands. Though orcs fought loyally on both sides of the great war, the freed populations of the Western city-states reacted violently against all of the orcs once the elves had retreated to their own lands with the end of hostilities.  Throughout the West, orcish populations already reduced by war were attacked and expelled in a series of pogroms and attempted massacres.  Relations have remained hostile or tense, though the populations of some areas seem to coexist better than others.  For their part, most of the orcish clans have done whatever they consider necessary to remain ready to fight the next war their old masters call them to; they practice ritualized combat within their own groups and participate in large scale military exercises and maneuvers with other local clans.  Some, like the clans which have settled in what we would consider Scotland, go raiding at sea, even traveling as far as the New Sea (the Caribbean) to prey upon merchant shipping there and train their crews in the arts of war.

It is not unheard of these days for a free orc to be found in the cities of the West or the New World, but there is still a good deal of prejudice and fear amongst Westerners where orcs are concerned.  You are far more likely to come across an orcish prisoner of war (a polite way for Westerners to say “slave” without pointing out their own hypocrisy), captured in some border skirmish to the east and sold for their labor.  As in our world, the expanding demand for labor in the New World drives an insidious engine of conflict; unlike in our world, there is already strife over the use of slave-labor due to the tradition of manumission which marked the beginning of Western civilization independent of direct elven rule.  For very similar reasons, debt slavery and indentured servitude have also grown more common, alongside the practice of using prisoners of war for slave labor.

Alright, I’ve now covered the oddities of city names, the lack of nation-states, mother-daughter city relations, Elf-home, the Northmen, and the return of slavery.  I’ve hinted at the divisions among the elves, I haven’t explained why people still put up with elves, and I’ve barely said anything about the conflicts around slavery (or why the orcs aren’t at war with everyone right now).  I haven’t even touched on the cold war being waged between the various groups of elves, nor the alternative flora and fauna of the setting (some of which has prevented the spread of settlers throughout the Old World, and some of which actively opposes the spread of settlers in the New World).  And I’ve totally ignored the history of the Elven Republic except to mention it in passing.  I’ll have to cover more of that later, but this post is long enough for now.  I’ll probably have to get around to talking about matriarchal inheritance and other such things too.

If you’ve got questions, feel free to ask them.  If you like the background or some aspect of it, let me know!

p.s. A short note on the topic of skin color in the setting: people are much too busy being concerned about their historical grievances against the orcs and such to care much about the color of a non-orc’s skin.  For example, it is wholly unremarkable that Jerome’s father was a dark skinned man from Toledo while his mother was light skinned and from London.  Their marriage was intended to cement business ties between the two families (with Jerome’s mother being the senior partner in the relationship).  Jerome has curly hair and slightly darker skin, but is unlucky enough to still have to deal with sunburn if he isn’t careful (cf. lying unmoving in the tropical sun for six hours or so, as in Jerome’s Tropical Vacation).  His sister, who will inherit and run the family business, inherited more of their father’s coloration.  What happened to their father and why he hasn’t been around to help out the family is as yet a mystery.

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2 responses to “Historical Context Matters: Strange Bedfellows

  1. Pingback: Historical Context Matters: Now With More Context | Fistful of Wits

  2. Pingback: Coming Soon: Another Huge Background Post | Fistful of Wits

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