In last week’s article, I talked about the rawest origins of Isfalinis as it rose from a handful of brainstorms to the vestiges of life. After we had abandoned our collective dreams at a game world in 1999, I continued world development on my own for two more years before beginning my first novel. I have found that nothing solidifies world-building quite so well as writing a story. Creating a history or a ‘non-fiction’ commentary on an aspect of the world helps, but an actual novel brings inconsistencies to light and smooths out the rough edges.
For this reason, among others, the world of Isfalinis has changed substantially between when it first took shape twenty-years ago and what it is today. Rather than describe everything chronologically, it may be simpler to look at things topically starting with the four sentient races.
As I mentioned in the last installment, the initial idea was for four classic near-Tolkienesque races: humans, elves, dwarves, and great eagles. As I began expanding the world and contemplating the interactions of these peoples, I continually ran into problems with the great eagles. Humans, elves, and dwarves are all humanoid and thus physically somewhat similar. It isn’t inconceivable, for example, for them to interbreed and blend cultures. Great eagles, on the other hand, are completely outside a human-like experience. They just didn’t fit. Thus, I decided to change them to ‘winged-folk’. They were humanoids that could fly.
Yet as I mentioned at the beginning of my first article on this topic, creating a realistic and plausible world much like our own… except for ways where it consciously differs… is very important to me. If the winged-folk are, therefore, somewhat close to humans in height then there is a problem.
There are plenty of articles out there on the topic, one by Yale states that the average human would require a 6.7 meter wingspan or about 22 feet. It then adds that this doesn’t even take into account the added weight of the wings themselves. Regardless, the point is they would be absurdly large! Given that size of wings, how do they stow them when they aren’t flying? An eagle can tuck them back against their body, but humanoid body shapes are different. Do they wrap them around their bodies like a straightjacket? If so, how do they use their arms? Or do they somehow try to fold them into a massive backpack? I can only imagine complete clumsy disarray as a winged-person tries to walk through his own home with such enormous appendages. Perhaps the wings could be smaller if the winged-folk had hollow bones like actual birds. But then so much of the normal humanoid experience would be denied them given concerns over weight. The sheer fragility of such a circumstance makes it all impractical.
So I abandoned the skies altogether and went back to the drawing board. I came up with the idea of a nocturnal race, very agile and strong, but also somewhat frail and with lower endurance. I’ve always liked the name Sidhe (the elves of Celtic mythology) and in homage to them decided to name them the ‘Idhe.’ But the problem was I’d only ever read about the Sidhe and never talked about them. I thought that Sidhe was pronounced “Seed-hay” not “She.” When a member of my writer’s group joked that I’d developed the “He”, I realized that my homage had actually become a bad joke. Still liking the root idea, I morphed the name into the “Ie’dhae” (pronounced “Eed-hay”) and my fourth race was complete.
I’ll be honest with you. I’ve never cared for Dwarves. They just strike me as overly greedy overly cranky humans who live in the ground. Most depictions of dwarves give them all a singular personality and a fairly disagreeable one at that. To be fair, this isn’t always the case. Tolkien, among others, did justice to the dwarves and his journey through the Mines of Moria is one of my favorite sequences in “The Lord of the Rings.” But Tolkien had a way of making things that I find less cool in general, cool in his world. I didn’t want to mimic him and I didn’t want dwarves. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what I wanted other than a desire to avoid the subterranean altogether. While Moria is cool, massive caves didn’t fit my desire to make a mostly-practical world. Any time you delve very far below the surface, the temperature begins to rise and rather substantially, too. And then there are the problems with sinkholes and oxygen and so on. I’m not picking on the idea of subterranean civilizations categorically. I’ve seen them done quite well. It just didn’t work for me. So what else was there? An aquatic people didn’t really fit any more than my abortive ‘winged-folk’ because I wanted greater commonality of experience between my four races. Perhaps a people of the plains or of the mountains, but I just couldn’t grasp a vision to differentiate them from my already existing races. I played with the idea of some sort of horned or hoofed people, but that also pushed outside the ‘commonality’ vision. None of my other three races had any comparable deviations from humanoid norms. The funny thing was, I had a name for the people for years before I figured out who they were. I knew they were called the Bergrist, but that was all.
Running out of ideas, I spoke with one of my original co-developers and after hearing my brainstorms, he suggested running with a pseudo-Neanderthal people. The proto-Bergrist were born. They are broader than humans, strong, but slow. They like the plains but can survive well in the hills. They are great herders, slow to anger, but furious when roused.
Next, we come to my elves. I had developed two non-classic fantasy races that I felt still fit close enough to the familiar that readers could relate. Since I’d veered there, I decided to veer once more, if only a little bit. This development was much longer in the making. In my first go at a novel, I actually called this race ‘elves’ rather than Aestari. But from the beginning, even before I began developing this world solo, I wanted two conflicting groups … your classic High Elves and Dark Elves. Indeed, that idea persists in the terms Hiraestari and Finaestari which mean High and Dark Aestari.
I realize that people will look at my Aestari and say “those are Jonathan’s elves” and that’s okay. They are heavily inspired by the elf motif, blending closer to the Tolkien version of a tall and dignified people than the more classic style of short, whimsical and magical sprites.
But I deviated from this usual choice in two ways. First, I decided that my two groups of elves would be of the same species. Most modern fantasy that includes a split of the elves into high and dark (or something similar) gives each of these subgroups very different physical characteristics and often substantially different roots. They may look more like each other than they look like humans, but often not by much. The traditional high elves are generally fair-skinned while the dark elves are usually black-skinned with pale hair. By contrast, if you put my Hiraestari and a Finaestari in a police line-up, you wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other. They are exactly the same people divided only by philosophy and tradition.
Second, I resolved that I was not going to have any ‘evil’ sentient race. The genre of fantasy frequently includes peoples who are ‘evil’ and peoples who are ‘good.’ For example, most ‘dark elf’ races worship evil gods or demons, bathe in blood, or perform a myriad of other vile rituals. They often hate other peoples, not for the wide variety of excuses humans develop to hate one another, but simply because they are evil and that’s what evil people do. In my endeavors to make a pseudo-realistic world, this just didn’t fit. Furthermore, how could I fairly write about a people who were pure evil? Certainly there are evil people in our own world, or at least people who do more evil than good, just like there are those who do more good than evil. But there is no such thing as an evil race. For that reason, it wasn’t going to be good vs. evil that divided my Aestari, but rather a divergent philosophy that has led to lasting hatred and enmity between them. I’m not going to go into the philosophical differences here. That is amply covered in the “Treatise on Creation and the Lost Age” that is available for free for anyone who signs up for my newsletter. You can do so here. Suffice it to say, this philosophical split led to a branching of names. From the very beginning, twenty years ago, I realized that my Dark Aestari wouldn’t call themselves ‘dark’ because to do so would imply a self-assessment of ‘evil.’ Thus they call themselves True Aestari (Syraestari). They also wouldn’t complement their rivals with a descriptor like ‘high’ because the Syraestari see only weakness in their kindred’s philosophy. Thus they call their enemies Bound Aestari (Tirnaestari) because they are enchained to a flawed ideal.
Lastly, we come to humanity. There isn’t a whole lot to say about humans because I’m assuming that my readership are all, in fact, human. Yet I will note one thing. In many fantasy worlds, humans can be described as the ‘average’ with other races such as elves, dwarves, goblins, and halflings representing some deviation thereof. In other words, the other races possess a combination of greater attributes and lesser attributes by comparison with the human norms. This means that being human equates to nothing special. It is average. Some fantasy worlds have grappled with ways to make humans still interesting and a few have succeeded, but I wanted to avoid that altogether. I don’t want my humans to be average. I want them to be as unique as the other races. In some ways they still do represent the ‘middle ground.’ For example, humans are taller than Bergrist, but shorter than Aestari and most Ie’dhae. But in other ways, they represent the extraordinary rather than the ordinary… for example, humans are innovators and engineers, who, more than any other race, strive to control their environment. Additionally, I decided to break the classic paradigm of elves entering the world first. In Isfalinis, there were humans before there were Aestari.
The Bergrist were the first race given shape followed by the Humans, then the Aestari, and finally the Ie’dhae who claimed the night.
In the next installment, we’ll take a step back towards the Isfalinis’ cosmology (its creation story) and look at the formation of the Etyni, those powerful beings that gave the world its shape.