Thursday, November 24, 2016

Suramar's Last 10,000 Years

Ah, fantasy timelines. When you consider how powerful the United States has become in only 240 years, and how much stuff has happened in the last 100 (or even the last 25,) it does sometimes make you wonder why fantasy writers tend to make such broad, sweeping periods of time the norm.

I'm totally guilty of this in my own writing and setting-creation. For example, in my D&D setting, one of the shorter-lived empires in its history lasted three thousand years. Three thousand years ago, the Roman Empire didn't even exist yet.

Anyway, one reason for these extended time periods is that fantasy often has races that live longer than humans. You figure that if everything - maturation process, when they start having kids, and how long they live - is longer, that a civilization will develop slower. I'm not sure I actually believe that (if people live longer, they have more time to learn about their society and then take action to change it - notice how after the industrial revolution our culture has changed at a far quicker rate?) But there's a certain logic to it - we can attribute these longer-lived races as more culturally patient and bound by tradition.

In the Warcraft setting, the Night Elves are some of the longest-living people (the Eredar/Draenei are clearly the longest-lived) and as such, the huge event that happened ten thousand years ago - the War of the Ancients - is remembered personally by some of its most important figures. We hang out with Malfurion, Tyrande, Jerrod Shadowsong, and we've recently interacted with Azshara and Illidan.

Now, we don't actually know exactly what a normal lifespan was for Night Elves before the War of the Ancients. Until the Third War, the Night Elves were granted immortality by the blessings of the World Tree Nordrassil (and I could be wrong, but I think that the tree's gradual recovery has restored this gift - though strictly speaking it's more agelessness than real immortality.)

The story of Suramar, and specifically Suramar City, is a little different. We know that Grand Magistrix Elisande was in charge there during the War of the Ancients, and she remains in control of the city now.

What's interesting is that back then, she was vehemently opposed to the Burning Legion. She knew that Azshara and her demonic allies would strike against them if they opposed her, so she basically turned the city into one of those crazy underground fallout shelter bunkers. The shield that locked Suramar away was meant to be, and was mostly, impenetrable. Until Gul'dan managed to project himself through and threaten them into submission, the barrier let absolutely nothing through - not even light.

The lack of starlight and moonlight (and I guess sunlight...) was obviously a spiritual problem for the Night Elves, but it was also a serious practical one. There weren't really any farms inside the city - not any that produced real food, anyway. So the residents of Suramar used the Nightwell to fuel themselves. And elves have a tendency to become dependent on arcane magic.

Which actually makes sense, given that the very thing that turned the Dark Trolls into the first Night Elves was the blood of a titan - the Well of Eternity. Titans are beings of the Arcane, and thus, so are elves, really.

What I really wonder about, though, is what those ten thousand years were like.

As with anything in WoW, we can assume that what we see in game is a kind of representation of something that's probably supposed to be larger. The Eastern Kingdoms are supposed to be a massive continent, presumably the size of South America or Africa, but in-game it is represented by something closer to the size of Manhattan.

So that's to say that Suramar City is probably a lot bigger, lore-wise, than what we see in the game.

Still, even if we assume that it's the size of New York, imagine being trapped there for ten thousand years.

Now, I know plenty of people who wouldn't mind staying specifically in New York for that long (it is a pretty amazing city, and this is coming from a proud Bostonian) but imagine also that there's no sky - no day and night cycle. And there is, practically speaking, no outside world. One of the things that makes NYC so great is how people from everywhere in the world come and contribute to its big melting pot of culture. One gets the impression that Suramar was a similar cultural nexus for the Night Elf civilization.

We know that when Gul'dan showed up to threaten Elisande with the wrath of the Legion, she dropped the shields and capitulated to him. That's an interesting about-face.

Now it could be that she decided she didn't have the right hand to play. The shield had worked ten thousand years earlier, but that clearly wasn't going to help now that the Legion had found a way to at least communicate with them inside.

But I also wonder if there was something else going on.

The Night Elf society our player characters come from is a pretty egalitarian one. There aren't really socioeconomic classes. But one of the reasons for this is that they literally exiled the upper class. The Highborne who had not been killed or turned into Naga or Satyrs - the ones that joined the rebellion or at least surrendered - basically threw a big tantrum when Malfurion outlawed the use of Arcane magic, nearly destroying Ashenvale. So they were sent off, either to Feralas or to form Quel'thalas and actually physically change into the new High Elf (much later Blood Elf) race.

The point is, the classes really kind of just separated, and the High Elves and Night Elves were both in single socio-economic class societies.

Suramar bubbled itself away before that social change.

In Suramar, we get a very clear sense that there's a nice part of town and a less nice part of town (granted, the "less nice" side is still freaking gorgeous.) There are social elites who are more concerned with politics than the plight of the people on the west side who are under constant threat of withering due to the limited rations of arcwine.

Now, obviously, there's a clear reason why things in the city have gotten worse in the last few months - the Legion patrols the streets, with massive demons walking alongside Duskwatch officers.

But are we to believe that Elisande was this ideal leader beforehand, and that she has just made this sudden turn into evil?

Suramar is a city under occupation, and Thalyssra and the player character have been putting together an underground resistance. But while there are certainly demons to kill in Suramar, the main rank-and-file that the resistance is forced to fight are the collaborators.

To be sure, a lot of people become collaborators not out of some deep evil, but from a desire to maintain order, fearful that open opposition would lead to chaos that would just make things worse. But you also have to wonder - Elisande and her city's leadership chose to lock away the city rather than fight against Azshara and the Legion. I'd bet that not everyone was happy with that.

So how long has Suramar been under this authoritarian regime? Was this all such a recent development, or did the infrastructure of this occupation exist long before Gul'dan showed up?

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