Thoughts On The Elvenbane

by bdhesse

I am reading The Elvenbane by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey. It is a great book and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy. But that is not why I’m writing about it. The book has an interesting theme: too many people are willing to sit back and allow abuses to happen so long as the abuse doesn’t happen to people in their group. In the beginning, the dragon Alara is thinking about elves and humans. She is disgusted by the greed of the elves and humans. She assumes that elves destroyed their home world with their greed. In the story, humans are the elves’ slaves. They compete with each other for the limited privileges granted to slaves. They willingly betray each other for those privileges. Their willingness to betray each other upsets Alara. In her mind, it is wrong to turn your back on your own kind for any reason. She doesn’t care that the humans have no choice.

Later on, Alara, who at that point had raised the half-human half-elf child Shana, allows Shana to be cast out from the dragon lands. Shana had recently discovered her magic powers and had used them to defend her dragon brother, Keman, who was being bullied by a bigger dragon. Had Shana been a dragon, it would have been the bully who was cast out. The dragons believed that the worst crime that could be committed was harming another dragon. But since Shana wasn’t a dragon, she was cast out. Alara goes along with the punishment because she is unwilling to cause a rift in the kin. The dragons view non-dragons as lesser beings, even those that are as intelligent as the dragons. They consider humans and elves to be animals and often called Shana a pet.

Shana finds herself among other half-human half-elves. They take her in and teach her magic. But they are unwilling to try and free the humans. They believe that it is the humans’ job to free themselves despite the humans being in an impossible situation. They too see themselves as more important than the rest and are unwilling to risk themselves to help those outside of their group.

So much of this reflects the world that we live in. How often do we see abuse happening around us but we do nothing? How often do we think “there’s nothing I can do anyway” or “it’s not my job”? We have too much food in the west, but we aren’t willing to feed those who are starving in the east. We think that they are too far away for us to help. We see someone getting harassed on the street because english wasn’t their first language, but we don’t interfere because we fear conflict and secretly think “they live in our country now, they should learn our language.” But who are we to judge? Would we become masters of their language as soon as we moved to their country? We see a woman being sexually harassed on a bus, but rather than step in to help we think “she shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt.” We dismiss the abuses of others so quickly just so that we can excuse our inaction. We find ways to make the person not in our group because somehow that makes doing nothing okay. But we know it’s not. It’s much like the UN refusing to call a genocide genocide because if they do they will have to act. 

I find myself relating strongly to Shana and Keman. I have never been able to not say something when I see bullying happening. It scares me to stand up to the bully, but I’d never forgive myself for doing nothing. But I never really feel like I’ve done enough. Sure, I might stand up against the abuses that I see happening, but I know of so many abuses that have happened or are happening where I have done nothing. It’s as easy for me as it is for anyone else to brush off the abuse like nothing happened. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all stood up against all the injustice in the world. If everybody stood together, then the ones committing the abuse would find it impossible to continue. The number of people who want the abuse to continue is smaller than the number who don’t. But the power of those who create the abuse cows us. 

I find it funny how much of my moral code and how many of my contemplations on ethics come from reading fiction and thinking “what would I do?” I love doing these thought experiments. I believe that they have done more to shape some of my beliefs than anything else. I hope that they lead me towards improving the world around me.