I was recently looking through some of my old materials for inspiration and found one that might be interesting to share. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that my original plan for Belarrin was that he would be a wildman taken into Syraestari captivity as a Kalilaer. After working through the first act, I was inspired to switch it around so that he was a t’Okaedrin who enslaved wildmen instead.
As part of that early work, I wrote up a history of Belarrin’s tribe, the Zengris. But with the change in tactics, I instead made them one of the tribes he and his brothers attacked for slaves. Wiersa, one of the smelters, was a Zengris. In a little bit, I will show the brief sketch I made for the Zengris which includes nearly two thousand years of history, but before I do so I think it is important to discuss why it matters.
When creating a kingdom, nation, or tribe, someone else might choose to focus only on their current culture, beliefs, systems of government, and so on. These are all important, but I don’t believe they should be created in a vacuum.
To step back a bit, you may be familiar with “Strengths Finder” that is used by some teams and individuals to identify where their strengths are in order to help them find greater success and contentment in their occupational and personal lives. I took the test a few years back and one of my five top strengths is “Context.” I always want to understand why things are the way they are and I’ve come to the (not particularly unique) conclusion that what is came from what was. Today didn’t just emerge suddenly from nothing. This desire speaks a great deal to my interest in our history as well as to the importance I place on history in my stories. Who we are is built upon who we were and, while, this isn’t particularly profound, what may be is my firm belief that we don’t look back far enough.
Part of the reason we don’t look back very far is that our own history as citizens of the United States is rather brief. Our country is just pushing 250 years. Compare that to Britain with a history of 2,000 years, China at over 3,000 years, or Egypt at over 5,000 years (I’m speaking of written history here, not human existence). To be frank, we don’t really pay attention to even that. We might pick out an event or two from longer ago, but in general, most of us do not consider more than a generation or two back if we look back at all. Another reason for this might be that, with the ever increasing pace of societal and technological change, life even fifty or a hundred years ago seems nearly incomprehensible.
I think an example may help prove my point. Let’s consider the historical development of freedom. Regardless of your own opinion of how we are doing on the freedom front, when you think about this idea, I would bet your contemplations are on freedom as it exists now with all its strengths and its deficiencies. We may look back a few decades to measure how far (or how little) we have come. But even that is insufficient because freedom has had a long, often torturous evolution to get to this point. To speak as a true contextualizer, understanding that slow and painful process is critical to understanding not just its current strengths and shortcomings, but also its precious value.
As we consider our path to the present, we might contemplate Martin Luther King Jr. and the various freedom movements of the 1960s. Hopefully, we point to things like the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote in 1919 or the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. We would be remiss to skip the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights… but what we often miss is why those came to be in the first place. “Because of Mad King George!” we might proclaim, but that’s not true at all (in fact, the colonists appealed (vainly) to King George for help against their true enemy, Parliament).
The legal traditions of the U.S. are predominantly born of British history, so I’ll follow the path back from there while acknowledging that other cultures have followed other paths. Possibly the largest trend in the history of rights in Britain is seen in the gradual waxing power of Parliament coupled with the waning power of the monarchy across the centuries. Key events include the Bill of Rights of 1689 or the first time the House of Commons met independently in 1341. And, of course, I should mention one of the better known events, the Magna Carta of 1215. Prior to that, we have the establishment of Common Law that began around 1066 which codified actual procedures rather than rights and laws relying on more mutable traditions alone.
But the history of freedom doesn’t begin there, it goes back to Rome which, for all of its tyranny, had a senate, voting systems, and laws that protected its citizens, if not everyone else. Prior to that there was Greece and the democracy of Athens. But all of this is predicated on civilization itself which was first born in Mesopotamia.
I am, I confess, speaking with too much brevity on each of these topics… a deficiency of many a primary and secondary school history teacher, but hopefully you get the root point that there are countless benchmarks along the path from the prehistoric past to our present, many of which I have failed to mention.
In order to understand modern freedom, we need to understand all of these steps along the way. Yes, we might decry the Magna Carta, for example, for its sole focus on the aristocracy and complete indifference to commoners, a truth for which it is guilty. But this isn’t helpful. What is helpful is recognizing that, despite its narrow scope and imperfections, it was a key step along the way of decentralizing freedom so it could, eventually, many centuries later, be enjoyed by all. Put another way, universal suffrage would’ve been just as foreign a concept to the people of 1415 England as the divine right of kings is to us today.
I use the path of freedom only as a single example of the complexities of human existence and as I finish up this lengthy commentary, I feel like it may seem like a detraction from my main point on context. But I don’t believe so. All of this speaks to the concept that who we are comes from who we were. Not just who our parents and grandparents were, but reaching back to ages beyond recollection to people who would find us as incomprehensible as we often find them.
With all the above in mind, I am including here, for my patient readers, my own efforts at creating context in Isfalinis, the world of “Tears from Iron” with the early sketch of who the people of the Zengris tribe were before the age of Belarrin. I have revised it slightly here for simplicity because in my actual draft I referred to events and peoples that are not discussed in the novel which would thus be incomprehensible. I have retained, however, some references to “A Treatise on Creation and the Lost Age” which is available for free to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter. I’ve also added a few comments in brackets.
Lost Age Roots
The beginnings of the Zengris people is actually forgotten by them. They are the heirs of the Himnon and Ithian kingdoms who were subject peoples of Etaria, the human empire which betrayed the other human peoples by joining with Cydion in the Great War.
The armed might of Himnon and Ithia marched with Etaria to the final battles of the war. This remnant is separate from the Zengris and largely incorporated into the Etarian descendant peoples who eventually merged with other tribes. Still, it is likely that some of the Himnon and Ithian military elite did make it home, though these would have been hounded by the victors and were small in number.
Thus the greater part of the Zengris were the artisan and peasant classes. Of these, only a fraction survived. The heaviest devastation was from the deaths of Henji and Lelpfios which ruptured and flooded the land. This was then followed by the victors razing those that survived.
Because of this, it is believed that the Zengris very early on repented their alignment with Etaria and Cydion and turned back to worship of His Highest Above and the (now dead) Etyni.
Devolution in the Early Cataclysm
The societal progression from kingdom to petty feudalism to crude tribalism is much akin to that of the other human cultures and will not be discussed here.
The Zengris began along the north coast of what is now called the Osenjian Sea [Note: This is the same sea upon which the Kayrstaran Empire was born centuries later and at this time wouldn’t have had that name]. They were driven northward into the interior by heavy tidal waves and earthquakes. In this transition/displacement period, it is believed that the last memory of the Lost Age heritage was lost along with the forging of iron, pastoral skills, and many aspects of more advanced culture.
The Zengris of the interior were a nomadic hunter-gatherer culture. They still possessed a large number of iron implements, most notably weapons (swords and spears), but these diminished quickly in number either through breaking or wear and tear (as knowledge of upkeep was likewise lost).
The Zengris clashed with the other tribes in the region, particularly those to their west which resulted in a natural slow migration eastward.
Golden Age: Late Cataclysm
This is the “Golden Age” of Zengris tribal memory. Despite the continuing troubles afflicting Isfalinis, the Zengris managed to find a century of peace, prosperity, and tranquility.
Through uniquely good fortune, the Zengris occupied a stable location on the northeastern interior plain, sufficiently distant from the densely occupied west and south (dense for nomadic cultures). They were far enough from the mountains to face few problems with volcanoes, they were in the interior of a large plate so suffered only milder earthquakes, and the coastline was far distant so there was no tidal wave or hurricane threat. The region was a combination of heavily wooded areas heavy in wood and other natural resources and wide plains with comparatively large populations of grazing animals for hunting or domestication.
In this period, the Zengris became a more centralized culture. Nearly all of the clans of the later Zengris culture began at this time. The tribe was broken into about twenty clans which were likewise broken into about twenty “families” numbering from 500 to 1,000 each. Thus they numbered perhaps as much as 100,000 total [Note: These population sizes are out of date].
Though there was no central king, the clan chieftains each came to have increasing control over his families. From the legends, it is speculated that some farming returned and there were villages that may even have numbered several thousand.
Splintering: Early Ice Age
The Golden Age came to an end with the onset of the Ice Age. The Zengris were located too far north and quickly found their idyllic conditions deteriorating. Great walls of ice pushed south, first damaging climate conditions and then devouring the land itself. This coincided with increased tectonic activity to the south.
As the region shrank, competition over resources grew more and more desperate. Large numbers of Zengris were slain in ruthless wars and feuds between clans and families. Ultimately, the region became uninhabitable. Perhaps a quarter migrated southeast where they disappeared into a larger mass of human cultures. The greater portion migrated to the southwest where they came into increasing contact with other tribes, most notably the Iengian but later also the Ornos and Tatyrni.
By this point, the Zengris had been depleted by a combination of cataclysmic events, disease, war, and famine to a fraction of the population they had enjoyed during the Golden Age. Eight tribes remained scattered across what would later be termed the eastern reaches of the Throsian Plain. At this point they probably didn’t number more than 20,000.
Enslavement: Late Ice Age
The Zengris settled north of the Iengian, east of the Ornos, southeast of the Tatyrni, and west of the mountains [Note: These details were altered in “Tears from Iron”]. They kept largely to themselves with occasional wars or small trading with their neighbors. There were some blood feuds internally, but in general they lived quietly, largely because their numbers were so few that each village was remote from the next.
Then over the course of a century, they were conquered by the Finaestari. These raids began unexpectedly and the village isolation did not prepare them for what unfolded.