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That Rath essay. Finally! (Part 1)

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Figured I might as well post this. It was easier to clean up than the Archanea magic meta... though it's only half-written. -_-;

(Long) Disclaimer: Rath was actually one of my favorite characters (i.e. during my first playthrough of Lyn's story and even a good way into Eliwood's story) until I realized he had no personality didn't get much character development and there were far more explicitly interesting characters in the cast. I still have a serious soft spot for him though. But I suspect I like him more because of what he represents in my head than how he's actually portrayed in game.

In other words, one of the reasons I've been so reluctant to post this (despite intending to for at least a few years)... is because I realized that my views on Rath and Sacae are HEAVILY personal, and deeply colored by my own particular racial/cultural lenses. I also had and still have a deep suspicion that the portrayal of Rath and Sacae in general has a lot to do with inherent Japanese racial/cultural issues, which I am NOT an expert on, but the consistent Othering of the Sacaen characters is obvious and definitely problematic. And as I wrote elsewhere once (probably more than once), the Sacaens (the nomadic tribes) are clearly coded as Mongolian/Central Asian with perhaps other influences and vaguely Chinese (Karel/Karla and the non-nomadic Sacaens) in a Japanese game in a universe and overall franchise that's otherwise overwhelmingly white/European*, both culturally and uh, phenotypically. And again, this colors the way I see them and ship them, and I highly suspect also colors the way Japanese fandom sees and ships them.

* Yeah yeah, beastpeople and turbans and Jehanna, but I'm not inclined to let Jehanna count because it's still awfully white despite hinting at a non-European culture -- and don't talk to me about beastpeople and racialized anthropomorphism. (For the record, I haven't played Tellius so I can't judge how it's actually handled in the games, BUT I will say that it always annoys me when people claim that the Tellius games tackle racism as a theme because. Uh.) And I am mostly fine with that actually (it's pseudo-European fantasy man, what do you expect), except the power dynamics with the Sacaens as portrayed in game are really damn weird (especially compared to, say, the Isaacians in Kaga games, who come the closest to being an "Eastern" analogue outside of the Elibe games).

I'll discuss some of this more in the essay itself, but just wanted to get that out there first.

Bonus Disclaimer 1: Since it's come up recently, I want to clarify that although *I* find the Mongolian influences obvious, I don't think this is the be-all end-all interpretation of Sacaen culture -- just that this is how I've chosen to read it in my particular set of fics.

Bonus Disclaimer 2: I am NOT an expert on Central Asian culture. I have done plenty of research, but I may be wrong regardless, and if so I apologize and definitely welcome corrections.




FARINA: So the tribes in Sacae, they all, like, dance around a fire and chant "Ooga Booga," don't they?
KARLA: ... They do?


- Farina/Karla B



I thought for a long time about how I wanted to start this, and I think I will start it by listing the (named, non-red-shirt) characters I personally consider to be Sacaen (or part-Sacaen):

- [FE7] [nomadic] Guy, Rath, Uhai, (Hassar)
- [FE7] [non-nomadic] Karel, Karla
- [FE7] [mixed] Lyn (nomadic)
- [FE6] [nomadic] Shin, Sue, Dayan
- [FE6] [non-nomadic] Karel
- [FE6] [mixed] Fir (non-nomadic), Chad* (identifies as Lycian), Rutgar ("passes" as "white" but identifies as Sacaen, probably nomadic since he belonged to a clan)
- Hanon (presumably from the nomadic tribes, and who was female BTW, see FE6.)

* born in Sacae according to artbook, and imo his design is intended to look mixed. I don't think this is unlikely, given that he ends up in Araphen, which is on the border. I'll grant that it's arguable though.

Actually a fairly diverse mix.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I insist on there being two coexisting but DISTINCT cultural entities on the plains as opposed to just one -- I will point out first that the character designs (the clothing in particular, but also the physical characteristics) are very deliberate in highlighting the differences. And if that's not enough of a hint, both games make it explicit in the text.

From Farina/Karla B:

FARINA: Say, Karla, you're from Sacae, right?
KARLA: Yes, you could say that... I've heard that my ancestors sailed here from across the seas, however...


(...)

KARLA: I grew up in a place that had no contact with Sacae*. Where I grew up, I was not even allowed to touch a sword like this.
FARINA: Why not?
KARLA: Because I am a woman. Women were not allowed to bear swords. Women in my house were told to do what men say.


* This doesn't make sense in English, given that she's "Sacaen"... until you realize what she probably means is not Sacae as a location, but the fact that they didn't have much contact with the dominant culture of Sacae. Looking at the Japanese: サカとは縁の無いところ, imo 縁 implies in this case not physical connection but something more abstract.

Two things to note -- 1.) the nomadic tribes have a different origin story.

From Dayan/Yodel C:

DAYAN: The name "Silver Wolf" comes from our ancestry. Our legends say that our ancestors were wolves.

You *could* argue that this only applies to the Kutolah. But that would then imply that there are even MORE distinct cultural groups in Sacae -- according to Guy in Rath/Guy C there are three major clans in Sacae (not to mention smaller ones like the Lorca) -- which is fine by me, but this being FE, I think two overall cultural groups is probably what they were going for. Wolf ancestry is, btw, a recurring Central Asian theme.

Other hints that Sacae is essentially Mongolian/Central Asian: they're named after the ancient Scythians (and trade city Bulgar is named after another Central Asian people), they live in gers, they're a shamanic society (the belief in a sky father/earth mother is a crosscultural thing, but I believe all signs point to the game depiction being a woowoo approximation of Tengriism. Also "the tribe diviner saw an omen in the stars" from Rath/Lyn A and all the enemy druids/shamans in FE6's Sacae route), and they drink horse milk (Dayan/Gonzales A).

More proof that Karel/Karla's people are culturally distinct (and likely ethnically distinct as well) from the nomadic tribes comes from Shin/Fir B:

SHIN: ... I hadn't asked you yet. Which clan are you from?
FIR: What?
SHIN: Are you from the Bulgar clan? Or are you part of the Djute clan that betrayed us?
FIR: ...I don't know.
SHIN: ...... Was that... a joke?
FIR: N-No, it wasn't. I lived with my parents, so I don't really know much about the clans...


Arguably, Fir didn't know anything because, as she says, she lived apart from any established communities on the plains, and grew up with only Bartre and Karla... However, taken together with Karla's comments in FE7, I suspect that's not all there is to it.

2.) The status of women in their respective societies differ somewhat as well.

From Shin/Fir A:

Shin: You're... strange.
FIR: I... I am?
SHIN: Sacaean women rarely pick up weapons. Even if they do, they would choose a bow. You would rarely see a girl fighting with a sword.
FIR: Oh...
SHIN: And... Sacaean people worship the Sky and Earth. You don't pray, and you don't even belong to a clan... I have never seen a Sacaean like you before.


There IS a difference, however slight, between "women aren't allowed to wield swords" and "women rarely use swords". Also see: Hanon (who was primarily a bow-user, but, given her Hero status, was certainly not subservient to the men of her clan), and Sue, who is compared to Hanon in the ending. The bow-as-default weapon vs. sword-as-default weapon is also pretty telling -- according to Karel in Karel/Bartre B, "In our family, the sword is everything. We are brought up by the sword, and it is all we know." While Guy in Guy/Rath B explains why he picked up the sword, "I was never good with the bow, and, frankly, I'm terrible at hunting... But the chieftain told me I had a good sword arm." Although powerful swordsmen do exist among the nomads (Guy), most nomadic Sacaens rely first and foremost on the bow. And fight from horseback.

To further contextualize Karla's comment about women not being allowed to bear swords, I would personally put the emphasis on the latter half of her comment: "Women in my house were told to do what men say." Again, with both Lyn and Sue -- despite the fact that none of Lyn's tribe will follow her, and even Sue does not become the "chief" in the end -- this definitely doesn't seem to be the case. No matter what inequalities may exist, they are respected in their own right and certainly not subjugated the way Karla seems to have been in her family.

To quote from my notes for "Wherever I May Find Her" though (which may or may not already be posted by the time I post this essay):

http://www.coldsiberia.org/monwomen.htm

I based most of my Sacaen attitudes towards women and family/marriage/etc. very loosely on Mongolian attitudes. Not completely modern and "liberated", but also not quite the same as standard European attitudes.

Karla's family, on the other hand, I suspect plays more off of attitudes towards women in later Chinese dynasties (i.e. during the time of foot-binding). Why Chinese? Because "wo dao" is Chinese* and the Japanese love using Chinese culture as their particular version of the "exotic east".

* eta: Although I should point out that this is Chinese for a Japanese shortsword -- Wo/Wa being the ancient name of Japan -- so is possibly a relic of translation issues.

I will say, however, that probably by the time of FE6/7, there has already been considerable mixing between these two groups, especially at places like Bulgar. Karla and Karel's family strikes me as one of the last holdouts of their people.

~*~


I suppose the next thing to discuss is the cultural insider/outsider dynamic, and the overall political dynamics with the rest of the continent.

Continuing my supposition that Sacaens are fantasy-land analogues of Mongolians and/or other Central Asian ethnic groups: one of the biggest cultural aspects I want to point out (aside from the nomadic/non-nomadic thing) is the position of family in these cultures. Family is the most vital unit -- unlike the pyramid hierarchy of most Western cultures, the hierarchy within a clan or tribe is probably better described as rings or concentric circles, based on how close one is to the "center" or leader. And as the above link on Mongolian women states, "the Mongols always emphasized spiritual ties over biological ones", or in other words, blood is not necessarily thicker than water, though in general biological ties are equivalent to spiritual ties. All this results in a rather insular community.

The Shin/Dayan convos in particular indicate that the Kutolah (one of the three major tribes!) had little contact with outside cultures. I'm sure this would have been different at places like Bulgar, though, and perhaps with tribes who traveled closer to Ilia, for instance.

But this still comes across to me as pretty odd, given that they have coexisted with the outside world for at least 1000 years, and Hanon, after all, was one of the legendary heroes.

As some people have noted, the political/cultural dynamics between the plains and Lycia are the one area in which the Mongolian analogue falls short. (I'm limiting the discussion to Lycia because we don't see enough of the Sacaen dynamics with the other nations, except Bern-the-invaders, which barely counts.) Of course prior to Genghis Khan there was already plenty of relatively peaceful coexistence between various cultural groups along the Silk Road, but the main political dynamic was an uneasy on-and-off antagonism with the Chinese empire and surrounding kingdoms... whereas the power dynamics shown in the games much more resemble that between the First Nations and the colonists in North America... except without the colonization aspect.

There is a lot of prejudice against/misunderstanding of Sacaens outside of the plains (even Farina from neighboring Ilia shows herself to be pretty ignorant) that far more resembles the dismissive colonialist attitude rather than the outright fear/hatred of the Golden Horde -- there's some evidence that Lord Araphen in FE7 is not an exception but the norm (see: Sue's paired ending with Roy). Even if you assume Sacaens *aren't* actually all peaceful hippy tree-hugging types, which is the super-romanticized view the games seem to take (read: "safely exotic") -- outside of any RL contexts that dynamic seems to come out of nowhere. There's some contradiction in there: the prejudice would seem to indicate some sort of negative interaction between two groups of people, but the Shin/Dayan stuff implies that it's been pretty much live-and-let-live for 1000 years. (And uhhh, I don't think that's a very sustainable dynamic in the long term even if you leave out trade and other communication and cultural/ideological exchange.)

The safest thing to say about it is probably that the outside nations' only contact with Sacaens has been with self-imposed exiles like Guy and Rath or questionably criminal elements like Uhai. Or weird guys like Hassar. :P Hence the overall negative impression. But in reality I highly doubt it's that simple. So what gives?

And of course all this is leaving out the non-nomadic/nomadic dynamic, which also flips any possible RL parallels on the head -- instead of the stationary "Chinese" being the major political power on the plains, it's the nomadic tribes, and in fact there seems to be very little contact (if any at all) between the two groups. But that I think has much less to do with Rath, who is, of course, the primary subject of this essay (if not this post).

Some of the other political/cultural dynamics I've discussed though, do influence how I interpret his character.... in part two of this essay.

This has mostly been written for about two years... In the next part, which I have yet to write, I actually start talking about Rath. *sweats*

eta: Second part should be up sometime by the end of this month.
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On January 12th, 2011 07:53 am (UTC), nagasasu commented:
I like this, a lot. And really want to see part 2. Helps put my own thoughts on the topic in order.
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