Fantasy World-building: Longevity

Titusz Vay saves the king Sigismund of Hungary...
Titusz Vay saves the king Sigismund of Hungary in the Battle of Nicopolis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of Barbara Tuchman‘s repeated observations in A Distant Mirror really sticks with me: as she points out, the reason why medieval knights sometimes acted so childishly was, well, they were children. Or at least they were often teenagers and young-adults. Couple the fact that life-spans were shorter with privilege and you had 22-year-old Kings leading armies. Imagine if in World War II, the Invasion of Normandy was led by a 24-year-old Eisenhower and all his generals were under 30 years old. Youth is prized in generals but not excessive youth. Young knights had too little life-experience to counter endless tales of chivalry, and for that reason medieval armies with their youthful leaders sometimes did some very, very stupid things. The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 was a classic example of hot-headed youths over-ruling wiser elders and bringing disaster but there were many other examples in the period.

Not surprisingly, though, this is a characteristic of any gathering of young males. Gold-rush mining camps are a classic case. Sometimes, these are cited as evidence of the ill-behavior of males in the absence of females, and certainly that is a factor, but gold rushes also tend to attract the young. This was not an affliction limited to Europeans. There is more than one Native American leader quoted as regretting hot-headed young-braves dragging their tribes into conflicts they could not win. Before women get all smug, there are also quotes from young Native American warriors lamenting the fact that if they did not seek battle glory, the women would mock them as cowards and refuse to consort with them. Even today, at Junior Ice Hockey games some of the most bloodthirsty fans in the stands, egging the players to fight, are the teenage girls cheering on their 16-year-old beaus.

Esquema elfos Tolkien
Esquema elfos Tolkien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s turn to fantasy worlds.

Some settings can be like Ancient or Medieval earth but, often, fantasy worlds have dynamics more like the modern world. Either by virtue of longer lived races (dwarves and elves) or healing magic or both, many fantasy societies should have much older and wiser warriors than those found in, say, the Middle Ages. Even in a world where longevity might be for the few, say where healing magic was only affordable to nobles, if societies can preserve their best war leaders, they will do so because first, the best war leaders typically have the most power and therefore the wealth to acquire the necessary magic/medicine, and second, war is played for the highest stakes: the lives of nations, so therefore a proven war leader will be kept alive if the means exist to do so. You could make a case that eventually, any leader will get sclerotic and be resistant to new tactics and technology but even so, with the presence of many proven leaders and seasoned troops in the ranks, there would not seem to be quite so much room for the antics of young-hot heads.

So, what would that mean in a fantasy world? It would seem that if you have longer lived warriors (via racial characteristics, magic, or what not), then warfare would likely be more professional, or at least reflect a profound understanding of tactics and strategy. There might be less faith in valor and more appreciation for logistics, feints, strategic goals, and the like. Those who appreciate the vagaries of battle tend to fight fewer battles. There might still be warrior castes and the glorification of warriors (since such propaganda is quite useful for warriors in retaining power) but there might not be quite as much focus on the sillier aspects of chivalry, for instance, such as the glorification of knighthood that led to so many disasters for the French in the Hundred Years War.

More interesting might be asymmetric cases: what would war look like between short-lived humans and long-lived elves? The humans would likely take greater risks in battle, which sometimes can carry the day but they would not have the benefit of an entire fighting force of seasoned tacticians who could probably execute difficult maneuvers (such as the false retreat). It could make for some interesting battles, and in a fantasy novel, perhaps some interesting characters where a human, perhaps raised among elves, leads his people to victory when he marries the wisdom of elvish warfare to human fecundity. Of course, that would only apply to short-lived humans. If you had long-lived humans like Tolkien’s Numenoreans who lived many times longer than typical pre-industrial Earthlings or magic that could extend life indefinitely, the humans would have all the advantages of the elves.

Childbirth can play a similar role in fantasy worlds. In a pre-industrial Earth, women had to bear many young to maintain the population, as much as 6 or more births per adult woman. Women spent much of their adult life in pregnancy or child-rearing. Childbirth was, of course, very painful and dangerous. There are some studies starting to show that women can suffer from PTSD from childbirth just as much as soldiers can from battle. While it was not put so baldly in ancient times, equating the males’ rite of passage in war to a females’ rite of passage in childbirth was not unusual. We’ve seen how Native American women sometimes pushed their men to war. Would they have done so if human childbirth was less dangerous or painful? What if the goddesses of childbirth of a fantasy world could remove the pain and high mortality rate? Would men then feel the need to prove themselves in war without their women suffering similar rigors in childbirth? And if magic meant that few children died in childhood, and replacement rates could be more like the industrial world, would women be free to fight beside the men?

What about when longevity is factored in? Interestingly, elves are typically portrayed as of low-birth rate and therefore unable to respond to high death tolls. But what if the low elvish birth rates are by choice, as they are in developed countries on Earth, and presumably will be even more so when human lifespans start to reach into the 100s of years. That is, given a very long lifespan, elves would naturally tend to space their children out over the centuries. (That would mean an elvish child would have few or no playmates their age, something that could have a profound impact on how elves grow-up.) But there is a flip-side to choosing to have low birth-rates. Given a disaster that affected only the men, say a very bloody war in a land where only men were warriors, what would keep the elvish women from having a child every few years to quickly rebuild their people? That is, the elves in calm times might choose to have infrequent children, but in times of disaster, maybe they could swiftly restore their ranks. Suddenly, though, the elves no longer have the benefit of an army weighted to wise, seasoned warriors. Now they have much the same weakness that their short-lived human foes might have.

This could make for an interesting dynamic in a fantasy world, an instability that could support plot twists. Most of the times elves could keep humans at bay thanks to their superior tactics. But every now and then, disaster strikes: a disease that magic cannot cure sweeps elvish lands or there is a plague of dragons, or simply a brilliant warlord rises among the humans and inflicts terrible losses on the elves. The elves respond with a sudden burst of childbirth but now the women are distracted by raising children and the elvish armies are full of soldiers as young and foolhardy as their human counterparts. Perhaps that’s exactly what the elves need for recovery in the short-term: soldiers willing to die in large numbers, warriors too young to appreciate the pleasures of a life of centuries. So the elves recover and even press the humans back but now their culture of caution and careful strategy becomes one of expansion and aggression perhaps leading to an elvish empire then over-reach, and ultimately collapse when the elves grows too fat and happy to sustain their empire.

And it’s also good to remember that warfare on Earth was not always of the scorched Earth variety of Western warfare. There have been plenty of cultures where battles were not quite so deadly, from counting coup among many Native American societies to Greek hoplite warfare which had a certain ritual element to it in earlier days: armies would march out to a commonly acceptable field, peltasts would lob some sling stones, the hoplites would smash into each other, after a certain amount of bloodshed, one side would know they had lost and would retreat. The victors would build their trophy and sing their songs, without pursuing the vanquished over-much. That changed in later antiquity but for a long time a relatively bloodless battle settled disputes. The same might hold in a fantasy world of long-lived races. Maybe elves settle their differences by champions: only a few need risk death. As long as the price of defeat was not catastrophic, nations might agree to more ritualized battle that spared the bulk of their people.

These are just some examples of what you could do in your setting. There are many ways it could play out and I certainly don’t mean to imply that a fantasy setting must address such things. But if you do give the role of lifespan and even the rigors of childbirth and childhood some thought in your world, you night find such ruminations leading to some interesting settings. Certainly if you have introduced long-lived races or magic that provides the same, you probably wouldn’t expect a society like that of Medieval Earth where young knights and their idiotic decisions dominated warfare. Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean everything needs to be boring, with everyone so happy to live 500 years that no one ever fights any more. Maybe you get these instabilities I mentioned that could result in sweeping changes and new ages of the world. Nor does your world have to be symmetric: it may be more interesting to have the long-lived races dealing with vigorous, short-lived races.

This doesn’t have to be a cornerstone of your fantasy world, of course. But if you do want to play with it, you might find that working through these dynamics can lead to either some interesting back story or fascinating story arcs for your fantasy epics.

Happy worldbuilding!

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7 thoughts on “Fantasy World-building: Longevity

  1. Ah, this is going in my writing tips folder.

    I had a story idea. It was pretty vague: two races at war; one winged some special members able to use “magic”; the other much like us. I had the two main characters nicely drawn up, battle plans, everything. But I couldn’t quite actually come up with a proper plot or story. I wasn’t too sure where it could go because, well, when and how would the human-like race ever get the upper hand? Now I know! Or can figure something out.

    Thanks. 🙂

    1. I’m glad this post was of some use 🙂 And I think you hooked me with “winged race,” I love that idea!

      Actually, the setting of my current project was originally a D&D campaign setting where the players could be all sorts of different races, with half-dragons and half-angels proving quite popular (both winged). But I’ve done major rework on the setting for the book (for one thing, there is no plethora of races at the moment, although there may be some winged races in a distant corner of the world if there are follow-ons in the same setting.)

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  3. That’s fascinating, thanks so much for posting this! I stumbled across your blog by chance on a google search, totally made my day to find out this is still active! I was just considering some of the same lifespan questions in making an RPG setting, and this gives me so much more to think about.

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