Prehistory Done Wrong


Armstrong, Luanne. (2013). Morven and the Horse Clan. Winnipeg, MB : Great Plains Teen Fiction. 173 pgs.

Set in the steppes of Kazakhstan in 3500 BC, Morven and the Horse Clan is the story of a teenaged outcast who finds her place among her people.  Morven is from a nomadic tribe that is facing starvation.  Instead of eating the wild horses surrounding their camp, Morven attempts to befriend them.  Her efforts are met with mixed success, particularly as her tribe comes into contact with a settled tribe who attempts to steal her horses for less than honourable intentions.  Morven is met with resistance from her own people, especially as she refuses to conform to the normal womanly pattern of raising babies, as well as from outsiders.  Conflict also arises between the various ways of life of tribes that Morven encounters.  While a universal story about identity and acceptance, Luanne Armstrong has concocted an enthralling fantasy story surrounding the early domestication of the horse.  This book will appeal to lovers of horse stories, prehistoric fiction, fantasy, and survival.  Recommended for ages 11 and up.

Longer Review:

If the title of this post is not revealing enough, I repeat that Luanne Armstrong’s Morven and the Horse Clan is a great deal of fantasy and highly questionable in its portrayal of prehistoric peoples.  While the story is excellent and the character of Morven should be someone that young girls can look up to, the setting and language leave something to be desired.

I really wanted to like this story.  Far too often, literature is set in fantasy worlds and it is refreshing to see a story that is set in a) an actual historical setting and b) a historical era that has not been often explored in books for North American audiences.  Learning about 3500 BC is fascinating – unfortunately, what readers would glean from this story is wrong.  This story might be the first that a reader has encountered of prehistoric Central Asia, and were they to take this story to heart, they would be in for a grave shock later in life when it came to learning about history.

By its very nature, prehistory is murky.  It is called “prehistory” because it pre-dates written history, and because we have ascribed a higher place to written history/evidence to any other kind, we believe that we cannot really know what prehistory was like.  Despite archaeological finds, oral history, linguistic study, DNA analysis, and cultural anthropology, the belief that prehistory is a guessing game is prevalent.

That said, there is something to be said for guessing accurately.  Take the common “guess how many jellybeans are in the jar” game: it is impossible to know exactly how many jellybeans there are in a full jar without opening up the jar to count, but one can make an accurate guess.  To presume that there are only fifty beans in a larger jar would not be accurate.  Rather, one can count how many beans are visible, examine the size of the jar, recall how many beans were in a similar jar at a previous time, multiply, and come up with an accurate guess.

Armstrong, however, has presented a guess of fifty beans.  Her prehistoric Kazakhstan is much more like aboriginal North America (reasonable perhaps, considering the author’s frame of reference) than prehistoric Kazakhstan.  In of itself, this is not inaccurate.  However, her prehistoric Kazakhstan also includes the following: a semi-matriarchal society that does not seem to have a concept of fatherhood; no knowledge of settled groups (while Morven might not have this knowledge, her tribe’s shaman and council reasonably should at this time and place)  despite agriculture, pastoralism, and cities being well-entrenched by 3500 BC; and language that is so pathetically simple and childish that it demeans our ancestors and present-day speakers of primarily spoken languages.

The matriarchy and language are the two issues that struck a nerve with me.  I was enraged as I read the novel.

Truth 1: There has never been a matriarchal past.  Motherhood and fatherhood have been well-understood concepts since well before 3500 BC.  Even in cultures where fathers play little to no role in the upbringing of the children, their fatherhood on a biological level is understood.  Furthermore, family structure in much of Eurasia has always been male-dominant.  (A few instances of matrilocal and matrilineal cultures still do not consist of matriarchy.)  Evidence of high-status females does not equal matriarchy: for example, Queen Victoria ruled over a fifth of the globe despite not being qualified to vote due to her being a woman.  There is no reason to think any different of prehistory.

That Armstrong created a semi-matriarchal society is fine, but it is not an accurate guess.  Central Asia in 3500 BC was home to the ancestors of both the Turkic-Mongols (as implied by  Armstrong) and the Indo-Europeans.  These cultures prized fatherhood.  They worshipped powerful male gods who ruled over female goddesses.  They had a proud patriarchs and a fierce warrior tradition – made more fierce by the introduction of horseback-riding.  They had lines of kings.  These peoples made their way out of the steppes and married their way of life with that of the agricultural groups that they came into contact with, dominating in such a manner that their descendants – physical, linguistic, and cultural – are too numerous to count.

Truth 2: Language in 3500 BC was plenty sophisticated.  All that it lacked were words for things that had not been invented yet.  In this book, I felt like I was watching a foreign film with subtitles.  The dialogue was stilted and simplistic.  I can understand simplistic dialogue for instances when characters were conversing with foreigners, but not when they spoke with fellow members of their tribe.  When, only a few hundred years later, writing came into more use, epic poetry was written down.  The invention of writing did not suddenly spawn these epic poems! Figures of speech, such as metaphors, were already in use.  Morven would have peppered her conversations with fillers (such as um and like).  Depending on how her language was structured, she might have used a lot of modifiers in her sentence.  Looking at the vast library of spoken languages currently, there is no reason to suppose that prehistoric languages would have been any less sophisticated or malleable.  Morven may not have had the word for wheel, but she still spoke the way we would.  In other words, she is not supposed to be a character in a foreign film.

Language is difficult to convey, of course.  Armstrong is writing in English, whereas the language Morven would have spoken might be very little like English, despite being one of its ancestors.  However, Morven should speak normally, since the language that she would be using would be as familiar to her as English would be to most of the readers of this book.  Then it would be a useful contrast when she spoke in a stilted fashion, as it would be clear that she was speaking to foreigners.  The language barrier in this book made it difficult for me to relate to the characters – and I was a teenage outcast like Morven!

In sum, this is not the best book to portray an accurate guess of prehistoric Central Asia for young adults.  However, it is a good read and an excellent story.  I do wonder if the author intends to launch a series, as I was indeed intrigued by the setting and characters.  Prehistoric Kazakhstan – even in fantasy – is a pretty interesting place.

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