In her perceptive article “Stop Pretending Children Don’t Exist in Your Story World,” R.J. Sheffler covers several reasons why putting children in fiction is a necessary element for good world-building. As she herself states, youngsters do not have to be in the thick of the fighting or be involved in the action to make the story work. The example she cites to prove this is Bergil, son of Beregond, a guardsman of Gondor. In The Return of the King* the boy works as a messenger during the siege of the White City and resultant Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This duty keeps him far from the fighting at the same time it allows Peregrine Took to interact with him and add to the narrative.
This leads us to the main point that I wish to make today, which Ms. Sheffler did not cover in quite as much detail as she might have: why the notable lack of children in a variety of modern tales is so important for writers and readers to understand, recognize, and utilize. Admittedly, I already touched on this subject in my article here, but Ms. Sheffler’s piece begs an elaboration of the issue.
Previously, in my post on mothers in science fiction, I said that modern sci-fi and fantasy tends to treat children, motherhood, and especially fatherhood as pathologies. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary* defines pathology as “1: something abnormal… 2: deviation from the propriety or from an assumed normal state 3: deviation giving rise to social ills.” When families are considered “a deviation from the propriety” by a society, then that civilization begins forming fewer of them in order to restore the supposedly “normal” order.
This view has made children in modern narrative fiction fairly rare in the West. This is true whether their addition is in a positive light (i.e., the idea that they are worth having around) or a negative one (i.e., there aren’t enough children within the world). It is that negative view which deserves closer scrutiny, since it has a strong bearing on the current view of children as a pathology.
As Ms. Sheffler analyzes, in Tolkien’s Return of the King the civilian inhabitants of Gondor are evacuated prior to Sauron’s attack. After Beregond tells Pippin about this, he makes an almost off-handed comment: “It is a shame. There were always too few children in the city.” Since he is a father, on its face his remark could be read as a sentimental one. Well acquainted with the joys and challenges of raising a son, a reader could infer that he wishes more of his fellows would take up the challenge and join him in this rewarding and life-affirming decision.
But when a reader combines Beregond’s words with the narrator’s view of Gondor in an earlier chapter, his observation takes on a less romantic sheen. Through the narrator, visitors to Middle-earth learn that the population of Gondor has been steadily declining due to the adults’ interest in the past exceeding their view of the present and the future. The lords of Gondor have been giving more attention to their ancestry than to raising up heirs to carry on in their place. So while the White City looks strong and beautiful from afar, closer inspection shows that it is decaying because there are no longer enough people to maintain it.
This is made even clearer by Gandalf later on. When riding past the outer fortifications of the White City, he and Pippin are met by guards rebuilding the walls in preparation for Sauron’s attack. After they ask him if the walls will be enough, the White Wizard replies: “Men are better than walls. Leave your trowels and sharpen your swords!” This fall off in population makes defending the country and those who rely on it – Rohan, the Shire, and all the lands to the North – much more difficult than it used to be. Because the long-lived Gondorians have not been raising children to replace them, their losses in battle and to the natural progression of time have severely blunted their ability to resist the Dark Lord of Mordor in a truly meaningful way.
The Two Towers* makes this same point when Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin about the separation of the Ents and the Entwives. Though nearly immortal, the Tree-herders are a race in decline because “there are no Entings, no young Ents” anymore. The loss of the Entwives, whether to Morgoth’s rage or the two sexes’ overt interest in their respective herds and gardens, has brought the Ents to the brink of extinction.
Elves and Dwarves, too, have become less numerous at this time in Middle-earth. Determined to preserve Middle-earth as it was when they first awakened in it, the Elves have not considered their present or future place in the world. And in the appendices to The Return of the King, it is stated that Dwarven women are few. Of that number, some are more interested in the treasures of the earth than they are in men. Others want only one Dwarf man and, if they find they cannot have him, they often refuse to marry at all. So like the Elves and the Ents, the Dwarves are fated to fade away to “shadow peoples” in our present day Middle-earth due to their inability or unwillingness to reproduce.
Andre Norton touched on this same topic in her Witch World novels. Witch World* introduces readers to the main country of Estcarp, a land which is in its “Twilight.” Due to their perceived need to preserve their virginity in order to wield magic, the Witches who rule Estcarp have eschewed marriage in these latter days in order to safeguard their ruling power and psychic abilities. Though their race is naturally long-lived, the fact that they lack a replacement-level population means defending their borders is a steadily diminishing effort.
By the time Simon Tregarth enters the Witch World, Estcarp has no real army. Instead it relies on bands of men known as Borderers and the fierce Falconers to fight off the antagonistic southern nation of Karsten. This means that Estcarp’s northern border is more or less undefended against the bloodthirsty Hounds of Alizon. The only thing that prevents these northern foes from invading Estcarp is the fact that they are currently trying to conquer the Western continent of High Hallack across the sea. If they were not so preoccupied, it is possible that they could annex most of the Witches’ northern territories with little effort.
Likewise Avenger, an older anime series which lasted for a single season, takes place on Mars. In this dystopian future, Earth has been destroyed and its moon is moving into Mars’ orbit, causing environmental upheavals that disturb the human inhabitants who settled there. Additionally, since Mars is smaller than Earth was and has less resources, the leader of the Red Planet has refused to allow colonists from Terra to land. He has gone so far as to destroy at least one of the ships trying to find sanctuary there to prevent further taxing his world’s supplies.
Layla Ashley and Nei
The sole survivor of this event, a young woman named Layla Ashley, travels the surface of Mars in search of its ruler to avenge her murdered parents and fellow colonists. Along the way she makes a chilling discovery; there have not been any children born on Mars for at least a decade. The residents rely on robotic imitations called Dolls to give them the “experience” of raising or interacting with children (a trend that has become increasingly popular in the real world today). Their treatment of these machines is nothing short of creepy, as they regard the non-human devices that respond in pre-programmed ways either as slaves or real children, despite the fact that they are manifestly machines.
During her initial wanderings, Layla discovers a real child named Nei. Having passed herself off as a Doll to avoid detection, Nei shouldn’t exist, since she was born sometime in the past decade. In addition to seeking revenge, Layla has become Nei’s protector. Their relationship and eventual friendship with Speedy, a young Doll repairman, are the only warm connections in an otherwise sterile and cold society masking its decay by having its citizens “play house” with fake children.
One reason why the titular Hunger Games* are so despicable and frightening is that they are a form of population control. While the total number of people in the Capitol may be less than the combined population of the Districts, the Districts’ populace is kept in check by the constant threats of government retaliation, starvation, and the yearly culling of their young. Worried that the enslaved people might rise up to destroy them, the Capitolites brutally murder the children of their fellow citizens. To add insult to injury, they force the 12-18 year-olds to murder each other in tricked out arenas and broadcast it on national television.
From this brief overview one can see how the lack of infants, children, and youths in a tale deeply affects that fictional world. More than overpopulation, under-population can and does cause serious problems for a society. Overpopulation, historically, is cured by famine, war, and disease. If there are too many people in a tribe or nation this will put a strain on supplies, which may spark a war as the leaders search for ways to make up for the lack of necessities. Wars inevitably include high death tolls, meaning that no matter the outcome of the conflict, neither participating nation has the same population level it did before.
Disease and famine can spread with or without the aid of war. The Black Death or bubonic plague that ravaged Europe and practically depopulated the continent is an example of a severe outbreak that can occur in relative peacetime. During recurrences of the disease in later centuries, cities such as London saw their populations devastated. The British Empire’s legislated famine (otherwise known as the Potato Famine) of mid-nineteenth century Ireland destroyed the Emerald Isle’s population by forcing mass starvation and emigration. The manufactured famine in the Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, had the same effect. Despite the hype, overpopulation is not likely to generate as many problems for a society as under-population is.
The reason for this is because under-population is rarely an event from which a society can bounce back. Once a country’s birthrate drops too far below replacement level, cracks begin to appear in that nation’s infrastructure. Just like Estcarp, a country that cannot maintain a healthy replacement birthrate will not be able to field an army large enough or strong enough to protect itself from its enemies. If it reaches the critical stage seen in Witch World and eventually Avenger, then supply chains will break down as fewer people are able to raise livestock and crops, causing the economy to contract along with that country’s (or planet’s) infrastructure and borders. Famine and disease will then be more likely to devastate the already declining population.
Should a remedy to under-population be unavailable or arrive too late, then that tribe or nation will vanish into the mists of history. By “our” time in Middle-earth the Ents, Dwarves, and Elves have ceased to exist in any meaningful capacity. This is due not to the Dominion of Men, but to the choices made by both sexes in each race. The Elves wanted to preserve Middle-earth in its original form so much they stopped thinking of their own continued existence as a people within it, while the Dwarves were too enamored of the earth itself to give any thought beyond the present moment. The Ents and Entwives were more interested in their herds and gardens than each other, causing them to separate and lose one another forever.
History supports the above views of under-population. No nation or tribe in the past that has been depopulated to the degree these Middle-earth races have has ever bounced back to a healthy, reproductive level. One need only look at the case of the Mandans for confirmation of this fact. A tribe of Native Americans who could easily be mistaken for Europeans if it were not for their dress and language, the Mandans had fair skin, red or blonde hair, and blue or grey eyes. They also fought in formation on foot, in direct contrast to the rest of the Plains tribes, who fought on horseback after the Spanish reintroduced the animals to the New World.
Lewis and Clark encountered the Mandans in 1804, noting even then that their numbers had dwindled due to frequent smallpox epidemics and attacks from neighboring tribes. In 1838 the final straw broke the camel’s back; a smallpox outbreak wreaked enough havoc on the Mandans that, when the disease had run its course, there was barely a handful of them left. Neighboring tribes swept in to kill and enslave the remainders, effectively ending the Mandan Nation once and for all. Today there are no genetic Mandans in the U.S. and only eight people speak their language.
This leads one to wonder how such a difficulty is resolved. Wouldn’t a stable or “replacement” number of children prevent extreme depopulation from occurring? That depends entirely on one’s definition of “replacement level.” In the modern day, the ideal is to replace the children’s parents, meaning every couple ought to have at least two offspring – one boy and one girl. The son will grow up to take the father’s place in society while the daughter will fill the same role her mother holds therein.
However, there are several problems with this modern model. First, no one can be sure that a woman will have children. Second, even doctors cannot promise that she will have a boy and a girl during the course of her life, as demonstrated by Mrs. Everdeen in The Hunger Games. She did not have a boy and girl but two daughters: Katniss and Primrose. It is possible that a woman will have two, three, or five girls several years apart (or all at once) but never give birth to a boy, and vice versa. There is also no way to be sure a woman’s children will be fertile, healthy, or otherwise able to replace themselves when they come of age. It is probable, of course, but it is not certain.
Now consider the accidents, diseases, and other events which will inevitably occur during a given person’s lifetime. In the United States, thousands of people die of everything from car accidents to lightning strikes to the flu annually. Add to this the number of people who are murdered, electrocuted, killed by wild animals, drowned, die in natural disasters, or are otherwise removed from this life, and that idyllic model of Mom, Dad, Junior, and little Jane starts to look less like an assurance and more like a naïve child’s drawing.
Over the course of human history, it has been believed that a healthy population is one which has a birthrate significantly higher than those of most First World nations. The reason for this belief is that others besides the couple that bears children need to be replaced. A few years ago China had to end its One Child policy precisely because its population began to decline and thus by some reports its army is no longer combat-ready, despite the fact that it boasts a populace of at least a billion people.
If they are worried about under-population after adhering to the principle of Mom, Dad, and one child, then it is likely that this belief that “one couple plus two kids” is a less sustainable replacement paradigm than many have been led to believe. A higher birthrate is needed to ensure the fictional country is capable of bouncing back from war, pestilence, famine, and disaster, which is impossible when children are considered a pathology. If they are considered little better than a disease by most of the adult population, then that country or tribe happily risks the Mandans’ fate of becoming a mere footnote in history.
Ms. Sheffler’s article, “Stop Pretending Children Don’t Exist in Your Story World,” is a timely piece in many ways. If you want your fiction to be realistic in any sense of the word, future writers, you will have to include – or exclude – children from it. Yes, they are noisy, energetic, and throw tantrums at the worst times. Yes, they are messy and require a whole lot of care, more than any other creature would.
But you know something? More than any creature you could name, children are worth all the effort put into raising them. Don’t deny your characters the joys and trials of dealing with the little ones among us. After all, children are the future. If our characters don’t have them, then what do they have to look forward to?
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special* and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth*, while her poetry appeared in the now defunct Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna* and Uranus*. Order them today!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
And if you have already enjoyed Luna and Uranus, then you might like to pick up the other three published Planetary Anthologies. Planetary Anthology: Pluto, Mercury, and Venus are all available on Amazon in e-book and paperback. Order a copy today and start enjoying these fantastic stories of the Solar System!