Know Your Barbarians

The word “barbarian” today conjures a fairly specific image: a large, muscular man or woman wearing leather or furs hefting an enormous weapon. They are ragged and dirty and if they have any kind of organization, it is as a rabble of warriors following whoever happens to be the strongest. This image has its roots in classical Greek and Roman literature, but Greco-Roman ideas about barbarians were broader and more complicated than this.

Greeks and Romans both had complicated relationships with the outside world. The economy of ancient Greece depended on foreign trade, especially with Egypt, but Greece was also on the northwestern frontier of the Persian empire, which often threatened Greek cities or interfered in their internal politics. Rome was an expansionist empire with ambitions of conquering the whole world, but the strength and stability of the empire depended on integrating conquered peoples into Roman culture.

Out of these historical experiences, Greek and Roman writers, artists, and philosophers developed a wide repertoire of narrative models for describing other peoples. These narratives ranged from the nuanced and admiring to the stereotyping and pejorative. “Barbarian” could mean many different things in different times and contexts. Among this repertoire, there were conventional archetypes that authors and artists could draw on and expect that their audience would recognize them.

These archetypes were nebulous conglomerations of tropes and stereotypes, not always consistent and liable to be manipulated, tweaked, and subverted in individual works of art or literature. They could be reduced to caricature or filled out with individual details. They functioned much like modern national and ethnic stereotypes. Imagine the caricature version of a British gentleman, replete with bowler hat and umbrella. We might expect such a character to have certain typical qualities, both positive (unflappable, chivalrous, witty) and negative (stodgy, proud, insensitive) and engage in typical behaviors (sipping tea, playing polo, driving a Jaguar). Of course, stereotypes don’t have to be followed. A Brit in a bowler hat with an umbrella may also turn out to be a tongue-tied chocoholic who raises miniature goats and likes to watch telenovelas, but the author who creates such a character and the audience that encounters them will recognize how the standard tropes have been played with.

Greeks and Romans had two principal archetypes for barbarians. One was based on small, materially poor, less well organized cultures mostly found to the west or north, such as Scythians, Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, and Dacians. The other was based on large, wealthy, sophisticated cultures mostly found to the east or south, such as Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans.

The northwestern barbarians are the ancestors of the modern “barbarian” image. They were portrayed as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. They had no idea how to behave in a civilized society and were almost like wild animals. They lived in poverty and with barely any kind of government except the ability of the strong to impose their will on others. They could also be shown with good qualities, such as generosity and honesty. The were the original “noble savages,” ignorant of the benefits of civilization but also uncorrupted by its temptations.

The southeastern barbarians were the opposite. They were portrayed as weak, decadent, devious, overwhelmed by luxury and tangled in arcane social hierarchies. They had given in to the corrupting effects of civilization and overindulged in every kind of physical pleasure. They lived like slaves under the rule of despotic tyrants, but they were so accustomed to the comforts of luxury that they lacked the will to resist. They could have positive qualities as well. Their cultures were ancient and sophisticated, rich in accumulated knowledge. We don’t have a good term for the opposite of “noble savages,” but we might call them “depraved sophisticates.”

Central to both of these archetypes is one of the key values of Greco-Roman society: self-control. The southeastern barbarians displayed too little of it, giving in every kind of indulgence and unable to resist the rule of a tyrant. The northwestern barbarians, by contrast, were too willful, unable to subordinate themselves to the structures of law and social order. By creating these archetypes, Greeks and Romans positioned themselves in the middle—sophisticated enough to enjoy the benefits of civilization, but strong enough to resist its corrupting effects.

Both of these archetypes have come down into modern literature. The northwestern barbarian has become the standard modern “barbarian,” but aspects of it can also be seen in modern Western stereotypes of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. “Darkest Africa” stories about wild cannibal tribes dumbfounded by modern technology and scientific knowledge play upon the same images of violence, savagery, and technological ignorance that Romans applied to the Gauls and Germans. The southeastern barbarian formed the basis for romanticized Western depictions of the Islamic world, China, and India. “Arabian Nights” fantasies of scandalous harems and treacherous palace politics, ancient secrets and fabulous treasures hidden in the twisting back streets behind markets filled with spices and gems evoke Greek tales about Egypt and Persia.

These archetypes have also found their way into fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien’s Elves reflect some of the more positive southeastern qualities of wisdom and sophistication while his Orcs display the violent, fractious, bestial traits of the northwest. Star Trek‘s Klingons and Romulans represent the tropes of warlike honor and treacherous sophistication. The people of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones face the rugged, wild, disorderly peoples of the north and the rich, old, devious kingdoms of the east.

Once you know your barbarians, you’ll recognize them everywhere.

Images: Hyboria, by Yan R. via Flickr. Sultan from the Arabian Nights, by Rene Bull via Wikimedia.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Mistaken Identity: No Female Dwarf Love in Warcraft: The Beginning

I mentioned that we re-watched Warcraft: The Beginning, the movie based on the MMORPG World of Warcraft. I had forgotten that in a council scene in Stormwind, there’s a short glimpse of a woman who looks like she might be a Dwarf. Here’s a screencap:

Warcraft The Beginning Council Scene Sm

She’s at the right hand of the screen, walking towards Anduin Lothar (the prominent man in the middle). And with a DVD, you can of course stop and check out details you miss at the theater. Who knows, I thought, it might lead to cosplay in real life or a transmog in game!

I was pretty excited, because female Dwarves are my absolute favorite race / gender combo to play in WoW. (I love female Dwarf cosplay and fan art, too!)

Anyway, the WTB DVD has a few extras including deleted and extended scenes, among them this council scene. The woman in question even has a few lines. Hooray! Here’s a screencap from the extended scene:

Warcraft The Beginning Council Scene Extras Sm

Alas, I was triply disappointed. As it turns out, not only is she unnamed, she’s a human woman, not a Dwarf. Adding injury to insult, they had to go and cut her speech.

While it was great to see additional female faces (because the, shall we say politely, scant amount of women in the movie is frustrating), it’s getting really, really tiresome to witness women’s performances end up on the cutting room floor in favor of another 30 seconds of impersonal, wood-faced clones of tin soldiers whacking at each other en masse.

Here there be opinions!

Hugo Awards 2017 Voter Packet Is out

Since last Wednesday, I’ve been like:

Twitter Adam Holisky Picard Full of Win

And:

Kermit Flail

And:

Lady Fancifull reading-film-gif

As members of Worldcon75, we are participating in this year’s Hugo Awards voting. Last week, the con released a packet of reading and visual works to help voters access materials on the finalists list. (Note to self: We have until July 15, 2017, 2:59 am EST to get our votes in.)

Apparently this year’s packet is larger than ever before in the 10 years it’s existed. While definitely not the reason for our memberships, it’s an invaluable bonus.

In addition to the official packet, JJ at File 770 did a huge favor for readers and collected a comprehensive list of finalist works published free online.

With all of this reading, I definitely will have no problems with how to fill my days in the foreseeable future!

Thank you, various creatives and rightsholders, thank you, Worldcon75 Hugo Awards staff, and thank you, JJ and Mike Glyer / File770.

Images: Kermit flail via Walker—Bait on Tumblr; Captain Picard Full of Win via Adam Holisky on Twitter; Reading film: radicktv via Lady Fancifull

Spot-on Hobbit-Style House in Scotland

Reddit user KahlumG shared photos of an amazing hobbit-style house built by their uncle outside of Tomich, Scotland.

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Look completely like it could be from Bree, right?

The inside looks as appropriate as the outside.

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And—and I almost can’t believe it, it’s so perfect—the house has an outbuilding with its own water wheel!

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Kudos! Visit the imgur gallery for many more photos.

Images: kahlum1986 on imgur

Edited to correct an inaccuracy.

In Here is an occasional feature highlighting geeky spaces created by our fellow geeks all over the world.


Quotes: It Is Dangerous to Build

“It is dangerous to build. Once you have built something–something that takes all your passion and will–it becomes more precious to you than your own happiness. You don’t realize that, while you are building it. That you are creating a martyrdom–something which, later, will make you suffer.”

– Sofia Samatar: A Stranger in Olondria

That which we deeply care about always has a chance to destroy us.

Samatar, Sofia: A Stranger in Olondria. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013, p. 103.

(This quote comes from my 21 new-to-me SFF authors reading project.)

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Tulum, City of Adventure

What does a City of Adventure look like? The kind of place where your main characters could stage intrigues in the airy halls of the palace or get down and dirty in the wretched hives of scum and villainy on the outskirts? Where your merry band of player characters could plot their next caper or set up their base while they clear the hinterlands of monsters? Maybe it could look like this.

170130castilloThe city of Tulum is one of the best-preserved ancient Maya cities on the coast of Central America. It served as the principal seaport for nearby inland cities on the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting overland trade routes with seaborne trade in the Carbibbean. The walled city sits right on a cliff overlooking the sea from which beacons may have served as a lighthouse to help guide incoming ships through a gap in the barrier reef. A small sheltered beach between cliffs provided a safe landing. Imagine piloting a trade canoe laden with salt and textiles through a stormy night, trying to keep the beacon fire in sight as the waves crash on the reef all around.

Continue reading

Quotes: You Have to Let Go of the Old to Begin Something New

“You have to let go of the old to begin something new. But that does not mean it is lost forever.”

– 32nd Mother of the Red Abbey, in Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

And the “old” is worth saving – because how else do we learn, transmit our culture, and discuss our values in a world that’s becoming more and more international?

This thought was brought to you by idle musings on various library, archives, and museum collections. Unlike early cultures in our world and peoples of various fantasy worlds, right now we have the luxury of saving unprecedented amounts of our cultures’ material production.

Turtschaninoff, Maria. Maresi. New York, NY: Abrams, 2017, p. 241.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Making A Proper 1420

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s A Proper 1420.

The menu

  • Boiled chicken dinner
  • Poppy seed-cakes

erikchef1There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.

Dinner12

Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.

We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.

“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.

Continue reading

Dining in Middle Earth: A Proper 1420

“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. […] In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer at an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! That was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’”

LotR Dinner12

We come back, at last, to the Shire, to end our year of dining in Middle Earth with a humble Hobbit dinner such as Frodo and his friends might have enjoyed after returning home from their adventures. A boiled chicken dinner makes a warm, homey meal for cold winter nights, and of course there’s beer to go with it. For dessert we have seed-cakes, an old favorite of Bilbo’s.

LotR Dinner12 Main

The table setting is sunny and cheerful, decorated with the Hobbits’ favorite colors. An unbleached linen table runner with green and yellow stripes sits over a dark green tablecloth. Green also comes on the napkins and plant pot with an ivy motif. The dinner is served on one large, hefty platter. A cloth-lined bread basket holds the small dessert seed-cakes. Fancy water glasses add another pop of greenish hues to the table.

LotR Dinner12 Dessert

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Quotes: More Open to Imagining Better Worlds that Might Be Possible

“Science fiction came into being in response to a new thing in human history: the understanding that not only was the world changing, but also that the rate of change was speeding up. That in a normal lifetime, you could expect to experience multiple episodes of rapid, disorienting change. Science fiction at its best has always been about examining and inhabiting those experiences when the world passes through a one-way door.

“Modern science fiction grew up in the Great Depression and flourished in World War II. It thrived in the strangeness of the 1950s and the different strangeness of the 1960s. It has continued to be an essential set of tools for engaging with our careening world.

[…]

“And I really do believe that science fiction and fantasy storytelling makes us, in some fundamental way, a bit more practiced in the ways of a world caught up in wrenching change—and more open to imagining better worlds that might be possible.”

– Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Like I wrote in my Arrival Recap: I explicitly do not want all of my reading and viewing rehashing the same old stories over and over, because SFF is explicitly about examining other possibilities.

Nielsen Hayden, Patrick. “The prospect before us.” Making Light, November 9, 2016

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.