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24.6.03

Henry Farrell has a post that echoes some of what I wrote earlier about the lack of a real economy in Tolkien's Middle Earth. (I should note, in connection with that post, that I am no longer the only site on the googleable internet that mentions Dorwinon -- but I am the only one in English, as my competitor appears to be French.)

I haven't read much fantasy in a long time -- even my liesure reading over the past few years has tended toward nonfiction outside my area of specialty (for example, I just finished Ronald Hutton's excellent The Triumph Of The Moon: A History Of Modern Pagan Witchcraft). But I've been tossing around the idea of writing some. I think a big part of what drew me to fantasy was the sociological (or social science in general) aspect of it, anemic as that side is in most works. My greatest interest is in a richly built world, and I've invented more worlds than stories to take place in them -- indeed, much of the writing I've done is more or less an attempt to explore and record a world I've imagined, even a world as mundane as the town of Slate Hill, PA that featured in the last bout of fiction writing I did four long years ago.

My inspiration these days is, unsurprisingly, SunWatch Indian Village, the reconstructed Fort Ancient period Native American settlement where I work. I've had a longstanding bias in favor of fantasy that gets outside the standard Medieval Europe setting (hence my admiration for Shardik and Janny Wurts' Empire trilogy). I want to be able to re-create an imagined version of that world that does justice to things like the division of labor and the cycle of agricultural-religious observances, not just treating them as a more exotic backdrop.

One of the drawbacks of modern archaeology is that we can't fantasize beyond the data in our capacity as researchers, devising grand narratives of history like the first archaeologists who tried to make sense out of the prehistoric mounds they found. Working as an interpreter at SunWatch while excavating another Fort Ancient site has impressed upon me how much guesswork is involved in even so simple (and crucial) an aspect of our picture of the society as the placement of the smoke hole in the roof. I wonder whether I did a good enough job of impressing upon people how sketchy our definite knowledge of the Fort Ancient is, and will necessarily remain barring the invention of a time machine. This kind of caution is good as a scientific practice, but it can be frustrating on a more personal level. Maybe that's where fiction writing could step in, provided the two don't get mixed together too much.

Indeed, those very aspects that Tolkienesque fantasy over-emphasizes -- the exploits of exceptional individuals -- are the things we know least of archaeologically. Instead we have evidence of the mundania of food supply and tool manufacture. Setting aside any written records, an excavation at Rivendell would tell us little about the Council of Elrond (I wonder if we would even be able to be certain of the nature and function of the council room, based only on the foundations and whatever artefacts were left -- the presumable cleanliness of the high elves would doubtless work against future Middle Earth archaeologists). But it might reveal where the grain for the elf bread was grown and baked.

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