Joel Shepherd » A Brief on Lenayin

A Brief on Lenayin

Regular readers of fantasy may notice that the land of Lenayin is a little more complicated than many fantasy lands. This is because the real world is complicated, and I think a lot of fantasy novels don’t make much effort to do this justice. This is the age of monocultures. In the past, in most nations, things were more fractured.

Lenayin has eleven provinces, divided mostly along linguistic lines. It’s a rugged place, entirely mountainous but not like the Alps, with its neat divides between ranges and valleys. It’s probably more like Afghanistan, though with a kinder climate — some areas are just very inaccessible, and it makes traveling around difficult. As a result, regional differences have become quite large, though the people all retain enough similarities to identify themselves as Lenay.

There’s some geographical inspiration for that — Papua New Guinea for example, has hundreds of valleys and hundreds of languages, remote tribes in the jungle who have been isolated from each other for so long even though they’re quite close together, that their languages have split in all kinds of directions. Lenayin’s also had quite a few invasions over the centuries, new groups moving in, making lots of diversity.

Structurally, my ideas for Lenayin’s demographics were probably most inspired by India. The people themselves are nothing like Indians, of course, but the idea of a land divided between many language groups, a lot of whom don’t even speak the so-called primary tongue, appealed to me. Also like India, Lenayin is a nation of animist and ‘pagan’ beliefs whose ruling classes were dominated by a foreign religion. Of course, the Verenthanes would be considered by Muslims ‘pagans’ too, as they’re polytheists, but they’re both very structured and disciplined religions, well suited for the purposes of ruling classes.

But like I said, as a people, Lenays are completely different from Indians. Indians have always tended to be basically peaceful and hierarchical — India has tended toward a worldview that some people are placed above other people, who are placed above other people, and so on up the line. That plus the sheer fertility of the land makes for a stable and long lasting civilisation. But Lenays are militant individualists, inspired I think by some mix of American or Australian liberalism. Or maybe the Scots, certainly William Wallace would have been right at home in Lenayin. Probably the militant bit comes from their origins from before any of them can remember, of invading hordes who won these lands by force. But also, the fertile lands in Lenayin are limited, resources sometimes scarce, and regions got into the habit of fighting to get what they needed.

Some might claim they’ve taken it a bit too far, with the result that Lenayin is basically a warrior society. Most of the population live in small towns as the landscape doesn’t really lend itself to big cities, and small towns don’t lend themselves easily to hierarchical society, there just isn’t the scale of population. Also, Lenays are individualists because it can be a rough place to live, and people need to be tough and resourceful (think Alaska, with similar landscape, though not quite so cold in winter). Combined with frequent fighting and in their earlier years no real central governance, this can lead to anarchy real fast, and in various periods of their history has done so.

So to stop the place falling apart completely, there are codes. Societies with very little functioning governance need codes of behaviour, especially when everyone is armed and potentially violent. And so Lenayin has evolved over many hundreds of years an honour code of warriors. They worship violence, but only in certain forms. Honourable killings, where two opponents or two sides are equally matched, are respected. Dishonourable killings, where one person or side never had a realistic chance of victory, are not. Of course, if a weaker person insults a stronger person, the stronger person is not bound to limitless patience, so weaker people learn to tread carefully, and strong people tend to swagger, as in all societies. People who violate the code are dealt with harshly.

This puts the brakes on the violence and makes a lot of Lenays (though by no means all) quite decent and respectable even by real world standards — these basic tenets of morality are central to every Lenay’s life, especially the men (and all men are warriors, at least in theory). Insulting a Lenay is very risky business, but on the other hand a Lenay will run into a burning building to save a total stranger. No Lenay man can live with being called a coward, and they love the idea of heroism so much, they’d probably be fighting each other to be first in the door. Kind of like the ancient Greeks, I suppose.

Of course, these are the ideals of the code. In reality, children are killed in wars, men are murdered in cold blood, and the victors turn a blind eye and pretend not to notice. Some Lenays are cowards (and live in terror of discovery), and surely some cheat, steal and rape too. But not many, and not often, because these ideals are powerful, and are perhaps the single most important unifying concept that binds all the disparate people of the nation together, and makes them identify themselves as Lenays — more important than ethnicity (which is all over the place), and language (ditto) or even religion (which is split in two, if you can even consider the Goeren-yai paganism a ‘religion’). They are a people bound together by common ideas… which I’ve always contended are far stronger than any of those other possible bonds. However, it is important to recall, much of that binding is done with blood, mostly each others’, and its constant spilling.

All of this also makes for an interesting dynamic with my main character, Sasha, in that she is a woman in a very patriarchal society, who comes to be respected as a warrior. It works in Lenayin where it would not in many other patriarchal societies, because of the Lenay value structure. Firstly, they value warriors, and skill at war. Sasha is trained by the best, Kessligh Cronenverdt, a legend in Lenayin and rightly known as the greatest swordman in the land. Now for a Lenay, that’s no guarantee of respect — people have to earn their own respect, not just have it conferred upon them by a relationship with others, and they have bad names for people who assume a sense of entitlement by family, marriage or the like. But with Kessligh, they figure correctly that he wouldn’t waste his time if she weren’t good, and enough people have actually seen her fight that they can confirm it.

Kessligh’s skills are Nasi-Keth, which is a foreign importation from the serrin peoples of Saalshen, but Lenays don’t mind that either because foreign things don’t scare them (Lenayin is so diverse that everything seems foreign), and it’s hard to argue with results in something like sword fighting. The fact that Sasha is former royalty is cause for as much suspicion as anything else, but Lenays have great affection for crazy individualists, and it’s pretty obvious that a Lenay princess would have to be completely crazy to give up that life to become a Nasi-Keth trainee in the wilds, so she gains big bonus points right there. In most such patriarchal societies, people would just say she’s crazy, and condemn her. In Lenayin they agree that she’s crazy, but love her for it. That’s what makes Lenayin different.

This brings us to the last and perhaps most significant point about Lenayin — unlike so many peoples in so many fantasy novels, Lenays couldn’t give a pile of horse manure about nobility, rank, status, or any of the sort. Lenays achieve status amongst their peers by being upstanding individuals. Which for Lenays, means that you have to be a respected warrior, but you also have to be a ‘good guy’, the kind of person people don’t mind taking advice from. Never ‘orders’, though. Lenays don’t do ‘orders’, except in crisies or wars, where village headmen and respected elders may be empowered to give them. But even there, any Lenay man who feels his personal honour violated by an order, is under no obligation to follow them.

Leading people of Lenayin, as the new class of rulers has discovered, is no easy thing. In fact, it can be rather like herding cats again, Afghanistan comes to mind. But then, a lot of lands possess a diversity of viewpoints, and a dislike of central authority, that has made them difficult to govern. The French, the British and the Americans to name just three.

I was interested as I wrote ‘Sasha’ that there weren’t many fantasy novels I could think of featuring a people who embraced what we political science types would call liberalism, roughly meaning the preeminence of the individual in society. I guess a lot of that is because there wasn’t all that much liberalism in the ancient societies that seem to inspire most fantasy novels. But there have been some — Athens most notably, though with limits. The Romans too, amongst whom liberalism always existed as an idea, just never particularly well practised.

In ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Rohan and Gondor were fighting for freedom, yet lived within fairly rigid hierarchies and derived all honour from service to their respective kings or leaders. Better that, obviously, than Sauron. But if the King of Rhohan had ruled Lenayin instead, and Lenayin had been located next to Mordor, and the King was telling his people not to worry about all these armies of orcs pouring forth, the Lenays would have told him to shove it and gone off to war without him.

I can’t think of many fantasy novels where the people live beneath the rule of a king, but are ambivalent toward him and his authority. Because fantasy novels tend to be in love with the power of kings, and in love with the feudal system that sustains it… and sure, there is a lot of romance surrounding a position of such extreme authority. But the reality of such systems, of course, is that much of what we perceive as romance from that period of European history (picture glamorous king in crimson cloak on prancing white steed), was in fact propaganda by those kings who wanted to make themselves look good, and semi-divine, for obvious reasons.

Though power itself can be glamorous, much of the romance surrounding that power was in reality bullshit, and much of the manner in which kings actually ruled was cruel, arbitrary and unenlightened, to put it mildly. A good king could certainly be better than a bad king, but the system itself doesn’t allow much of what we would consider today ‘liberal open mindedness’ — you’re either loyal, or you’re dead, and that applies to those living beneath good kings and bad kings alike. George RR Martin is one fantasy author who grasps this extremely well in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. But a lot of fantasy, sadly I think, tends to swallow the propaganda whole, because the propaganda is pretty. Perhaps this just goes to illustrate that there is a statue of limitations on the offense caused by nasty political systems. Fantasy writers glorifying Nazism would get into trouble. Feudalism, not so much.

And yes, I am just stirring.

I wanted the land of my primary characters to be unique in this way, in that they regard authority with suspicion, and will only accept leadership from people whose merits have been proven — and even then, that leader has to tread lightly. If a king wants a war in Lenayin, he just needs to raise taxes. Though mind you, that’s been true in most lands through much of human history.

Whether this would make Lenayin a better place to live in than a traditional feudal European society, is a matter individuals can debate. On the one hand, in Lenayin you’d be relatively free. You could say what you wanted, and insult whom you chose, so long as you were prepared to fight to the death if they were sufficiently offended by it. (Most Lenays actually prefer to be polite, most of the time). You could work your own land, control your own business, and improve your own life however you chose. If you’re a woman, Lenayin would certainly be FAR better, because you’d have a lot of the freedoms without any of the violence (unless you were Isfayen, but that’s another story). It’s patriarchal, but not oppressively so, and Lenay men tell all the familiar jokes about how their women boss them around at home.

On the other hand, you could be a feudal peasant, working hard labour on land you don’t own, donating most of your crop to your local lord, and scraping by on whatever’s left. Periodically you’d be recruited into an army, have something big and sharp shoved into your hands and be told to kill people with it, for reasons that your lord deems suitable. If you protest… well, better that you don’t. On the upside, wars don’t come all that often, and most peasants (and most people in such lands ARE peasants) die in bed. At the age of about forty.

You can see which I’d prefer. But for Lenayin, the price of freedom is elevated levels of violence. So does that mean that Lenayin’s state of affairs is in some ways an argument for America’s Second Amendment and NRA membership? I’m slightly astonished at that myself, but I can’t deny the possibility. On the other hand, we’re in a more evolved age today, and comparisons with pre-technological ages can be very misleading. What do you think?
Joel Shepherd © 2019