(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote an archaeology paper on Elfquest.
It was supposed to be a paper looking at the Wolfriders as hunter-gatherers and the Sun Folk as horticulturalists/early agriculturalists. Naturally, when I finally had a paper topic I enjoyed and could have run well past the guideline of 10-12 pages, I had a professor who said anything past twelve pages he would chuck in the trash, and then dock us points for not having a conclusion. The result is that the paper wound up only addressing the Wolfrider half of the equation, because I ran out of space for anything else.
I was going to rehash the paper as my third and final post for The Forbidden Grove, but in re-reading it, I discovered that it was a) longer than I recalled (I thought it was 5-7 pages) and b) way more technical. So rather than trying to recycle the whole thing in a quarter the words, I decided it would be better to just post the paper on my website (pdf link), for those of you who actually care to see the whole thing, bibliography and all, and then use this post to talk about the things that didn’t fit into the paper.
Extremely condensed version of the original points: the Wolfriders are a reasonably plausible depiction of hunter-gatherers. Apart from the birthrate issue (which I first noticed when working on the paper), they pretty much pass the sniff test of “could this work under the conditions described?” The size of the tribe is in line with hunter-gatherer bands, especially if you look at what it was before the various calamities started dropping their population. (They are, however, massively inbred — this came up in the discussion of Recognition a couple of posts ago.) Their high-quality bows and ability to coordinate their hunts between both elves and wolves mean they’re probably more efficient predators than would otherwise be the case, so they can squeak by on the question of whether the environment would support that large of an elf/wolf/troll/human population under sedentary conditions, especially now that I’ve re-read The Forbidden Grove and caught the references to trolls cave farming (meaning they’re not dependent on above-ground resources to feed their population); the humans stretch that about to the breaking point, but they’re mobile instead of sedentary, so I’ll let it pass. Their social structure fits the type of society they have. Etc.
So what about the Sun Folk? They’re a lot harder to discuss, because they don’t get as much detail as the Wolfriders do. I’m too lazy to go look at a crowd scene and try to count how many of them there are; I think we have to take the art with a grain of salt, because the overhead shot of the Sun Village before the raid shows only seven buildings and four tiny fields, which seems unlikely. But assuming there’s an aquifer they’re drawing water from, they could manage oasis agriculture on a small scale. The better question is how it got started: general theory among archaeologists is that hunter-gatherers picked wild grains from natural stands, then probably noticed new stands cropping up where the stuff they’d gathered fell, then started shoving seeds in the ground to see what happened, then got organized about it. There aren’t any natural stands of grain or other plant-based food in the area — did the founders bring seeds with them? Their history is much too undefined to say.
What we see of their social structure is plausible, though, with Sun Toucher and Savah as their elder leaders, and more specialization than you see among the Wolfriders: Rayek and a few others as hunters, Shenshen as a midwife, Ahdri as Savah’s handmaiden, I think there’s a weaver, etc. You generally need sedentarism and a degree of bounty before you really get specialists, because other people have to be able to provide enough excess food to support the ones who aren’t engaged in subsistence work. Nobody here except for Savah seems to be highly specialized, i.e. totally divorced from the general work of the village — their society isn’t that complex and stratified. But they’ve got more of it going on than the Wolfriders do.
Technology-wise, the Sun Folk can work gold and probably copper, which is entirely reasonable for the tech level. The trolls work “bright metal,” probably steel; how their forges operate is completely hand-waved. (Coal? If so, how do they ventilate their caves? Trees from the surface? If so, how do they gather the wood? Who knows.) The humans use stone tools, and so do the elves in pre-troll-contact flashbacks; Pike’s spearhead is made of stone. I think Wendy Pini said the world was at roughly the Mesolithic level of technology; to me that sounds like an accurate description of when the High Ones landed, but by the time of the main narrative I’d put it closer to pre-pottery Neolithic. None of the images of stone tools get super-detailed, but they look more refined to me. And again, the humans live mostly in small bands, with leaders and religious specialists but not much in the way of stratification beyond that. Ideologically, they believe in a spirit world but don’t have a complex theology; there’s a background detail of the Hoan G’Tay Sho holding feathers from the giant eagles during a ceremony, which rings absolutely true.
So despite the magic and the immortal characters and so forth, it hangs together on a realistic level. I do wonder if part of the reason for the Kings of the Broken Wheel storyline was to jump the narrative out of the constraints of Stone Age society: if memory serves, Rayek takes the palace ten thousand years into the future, which is about right for getting things from the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic to the more medieval-style period they wind up in. (Not that a fictional world has to change at the same rate as history, but that’s the yardstick we have to judge it against, so.) The story could still work even if the world was nonsensical — but it’s nice to have this solid underpinning anyway.
(Having said that: there’s one point on which the realism falls down a bottomless pit. After thousands upon thousands of years of separation, the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk and the Gliders and the Go-Backs and Timmain herself still all speak exactly the same language. And even if you handwave that on the basis of long life/immortality and telepathy slowing linguistic drift, Cutter and Skywise travel overland for three months — with good conditions, you could traverse the entire Oregon Trail in four months — and the human language they know still works without a hitch when they meet Nonna and Adar. I understand why the Pinis might not want to let linguistic roadblocks derail the momentum of the story . . . but it’s still wildly unrealistic.)
On to Captives of Blue Mountain!