'Airth' is the name given to the fictional world in which are set the books of the 'Tales of the
Disenchanted' series, by the Elven author Gildoren Nadavrothel. As is typical in
fantasy, as opposed to science and thaumaturgic fiction, the fictional world
shows many parallels to our own but with differences in its fundamental
physics and thaumaturgy that remove it from the realm of that which could be considered
possible in even the broadest sense. What is atypical in Gildoren's work is the
stunning severity of these differences: to name but the two most radical departures from
reality as we know it:
All of Gildoren's critics, from the most enthusiastic to the most severe
(and some are indeed very severe) agree
on one point: the breathtaking audacity of even attempting to imagine a world with these
characteristics. Where the critics part company is on the questions of the degree of his
success in doing so and the wisdom of
trying in the first place, or, to put it another way, whether Gildoren's Airth is
plausible in its own terms and whether there are any stories worth telling of such a world. Here
I shall not take sides on these issues, but merely attempt to set out some of the problems
that Gildoren has to address and the solutions that he proposes.
1. The division of labour
It is a fact universally accepted that the foundation of civilisation and culture is the division
of labour. There are few stories to be told of a land without civilisation or culture. But
since there is only one sentient species on Airth, there can naturally be no division of labour
along species lines. Mining, silviculture, quarrying, fishing,
all the classical species-specific occupations have to be carried out by members of a single People.
What kind of a species would be capable of doing all these different jobs well?
Gildoren's solution has two components: firstly, the single species shows more variation than
any real sentient species: 'Humans,' as they are called, are in appearance rather like halflings
(though with the stature of elves), but some are stronger, although not as strong as trolls,
some are more dextrous, although not as skilled as gnomes, some are more intelligent, although not
as wise as elves, and so on.
Some critics claim that this so called 'broad natural variation' is a reintroduction of the
Peoples through the back door. But speaking against this criticism is the second, rather sad part
of the solution: the poor humans, although one way or
another they manage to get all the necessary jobs done most of the time, are not
actually terribly good at anything. Imagine a land where the jewellers are elves, the miners are
trolls, the intellectuals are halflings, and the quarrymen are dwarfs. No-one starves (most of the time),
but no-one gets terribly rich, either.
2. Civilisation, life and thought without magic?
If civilisation and culture are to develop to any degree, they cannot be based on muscle-power
alone: it is the development of the disciplines of thaumaturgy and the consequent refinement of the use of
magic to which we owe our unprecedented prosperity and the consequent flowering of high culture.
So how can the civilisation of Airth exist in the absence of magic?
Even Gildoren's most devoted followers tend to be uneasy about his answer to this question:
physics essentially expands to replace thaumaturgy. The humans of Airth somehow harness the physical
powers of nature to compensate for their lack of magical power, and also for the general lack of
talents mentioned above. Strange contraptions more complex than even the most refined of crossbows
turn the heat of fire into the movement of hammers or even of waggons, and in the later books are
refined to the point where they can create other 'machines' smaller than themselves, allowing after
a few iterations for devices to be made
of such precision and detail that they achieve something akin to thought. The details, of course,
are left in darkness, but the very idea serves to remind us that in reality life itself is
a thaumaturgic phenomenon, that the spark of magic is what distinguishes dead matter from
living plants and animals, and that there is no thought without magic. How physics could replace
magic in thought is a problem that Gildoren does not even mention. But
his admirers are prepared to accept this basic implausibility of a world
without magic for the sake of what it makes possible on a moral level:
3. Moral ambiguity
Imagine a land where the policemen might be orcs. In the real world most of the Peoples are
to a greater or lesser extent naturally attracted to either good or evil, as a result of the
dominant influence of one or the other of the basic aspects of magic in their
evolutionary environment. The classic examples are the orcs and the elves, who shared a common
ancestor but three Ages ago. Orcs naturally
give service to a Lord of Darkness, because any of their ancestors that did not serve evil would
have been eaten by the others, while elves are noble and selfless because those who were not were
cast out of the presence of the Blessed, whereupon they wandered alone and heartbroken until
being found and eaten by orcs. Those who evolved in the absence of such
pressure, such as the halflings and the merfolk, have capacity for both good and evil, but
avoid both if they can, for which we can hardly blame them, given the risks they each entail.
In Gildoren's Airth there is no magic and therefore neither of its aspects have exerted any
pressure on the evolution of the 'humans.' Like halflings they therefore have capacity for both
good and evil.
So far, so unexpected, and so far so boring: how could a story about overgrown halflings ever be of
any interest whatsoever? Halflings pride themselves on living dull lives. The solution to this problem
is what divides the critics more than anything else, accounting for the main
split between those who hail Gildoren as a genius and those who suggest he be encouraged to spend more
time in the Groves of the Healers: unlike the halflings, humans do not avoid either good
or evil. Why should they? In the absence of magic, both are relatively harmless.
No, humans actively seek them out. And that not in the sense that some seek one, and others seek
the other, but in the sense that to a greater or lesser extent they all seek both.
Thus each individual human is, as it were, a 'battlefield' between good and evil. The genius
(or madness, depending on your viewpoint) of Gildoren's work is that the thoughts and actions of an
individual human can serve as an allegory for the great moral battles of the real world, concentrating
on the substance of the conflict without the distraction of the persons of the warriors, their
strategies, their tactics or their weapons.