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Literature / Quest for Fire

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Cover of the 2020 English translation.

Quest For Fire (French: La Guerre du feu, literally "The War for Fire") is a 1911 Belgian Historical Fiction novel by "J.-H. Rosny", a pseudonym of two brothers.

Somewhere in Eurasia around 100,000 years ago, the Oulhamr horde have lost their precious fire in a raid. Not knowing the secret of fire-starting, they send three warriors (Naoh, Nam and Gaw) on the titular quest. Along the way, they encounter fierce beasts and fiercer men.

The novel is notable for predicting the coexistence of multiple human species inhabiting the earth at the same time during the Pleistocene long before this was known to be the case with some of the speculative races strongly resembling later discovered species.

Was famously adapted into a film of the same name in 1981 by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The film is not a faithful adaptation but is considered a classic in its own right.

Quest for Fire provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: An early aversion of this trope. The protagonists resemble neanderthals but the various tribes they encounter clearly represent separate species. The afterword of the 2020 English edition identifies the Kzamm, Wah, Red Dwarves, Blue-haired men and Men of the trees as Homo antecessor, Homo sapiens, Homo luzonensis, Gorilla/Gigantopithecus and Pierolapithecus catalaunicus respectively.
  • Ambiguously Brown: The Oulhamr are described as "tan like the deer, not black like the panther".
  • Ambiguous Time Period: "Maybe a hundred thousand years ago" according to the dedication.
  • Animal Gender-Bender: The chief of mammoths is apparently male. Mammoths likely lived in matriarchal societies like modern elephants do.
  • Animal Motifs: Aghoo the Son of the Aurochs is brutish and violent. Naoh the Son of the Leopard is more clever and cunning. The physically imposing and bloodthirsty Kzamm are compared to bears.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology:
    • The giant lion is portrayed as a species on the brink of extinction. 100,000 years ago which predates the earliest known cave lion remains.
    • There are a couple instances of mammoths impaling people and other animals with their tusks. This would have been difficult if not impossible for a woolly mammoth given the curvature of said tusks.
    • At one point, Naoh deflects a thrown spear with his axe. Hafted axes weren't invented until the neolithic and paleolithic hand axes wouldn't have done much good against any kind of thrown projectile.
    • Given the patchy record of human prehistory at the time, Rosny was required to take huge liberties to even tell such a story. As is sometimes the case with science fiction, some of the speculative aspects held up surprisingly well! See the trivia section for more details.
  • Barbarian Hero: Naoh, a courageous and formidable paleolithic warrior.
  • Bears Are Bad News: The protagonists have two harrowing encounters with bears: one grey bear (Ursus arctos) and later two cave bears. It is noted that the cave bear is usually the less dangerous of the two, being a herbivore, but it becomes terrifying when provoked by starvation or sheer anger.
  • Beast Man: Downplayed but the Kzamm are believed by the Ouhlamr to be descended from bears and one is even described with eyes that glow red in the fire and wolf-like movable ears. Interestingly, the Oulhamr initially perceive anatomically modern humans as beast-like as well due to their seeming lack of shoulders and body paint which resembles scaly skin.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Gammla's round belly is considered a desirable trait.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The Oulhamr are warlike and misogynistic raiders but at least they aren't cannibals like the Kzamm.
  • Body Paint: The Wahs are covered in body paint that the Oulhamr mistake for scaly skin. The Red Dwarves also appear to paint themselves with ochre.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": The 2020 English edition has an odd case where a tiger is illustrated as a saber-toothed cat. Calling machairodonts tigers is pretty common but it's odd considering the text itself averts this trope. Fauohm clearly differentiates tigers from "saber-toothed beasts" when he lists the various dangers the Oulhamr are vulnerable to without their fire. It's a cool picture though.
  • Cannibal Tribe: The Kzamms.
  • Carpet of Virility: The aptly named Aghoo the Hairy. The Kzamms are a whole tribe that are just as hairy as him.
  • Clash of Evolutionary Levels: Averted, as there are many hominid species clashing but none of them are portrayed as inherently superior and the classic neanderthals vs cro-magnons conflict is completely absent.
  • Covers Always Lie: The 2020 edition's cover shows a tundra environment complete with reindeer, muskoxen, arctic foxes, ptarmigans and a wolverine carrying off an arctic hare. The story takes place in a temperate climate during an interglacial period.
  • Crapsack World: A brutal primitive world full of warlike hordes and ferocious beasts.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The Oulhamr are a warlike patriarchal society who have no problem with killing their enemies and raping their women. They don't treat their own women very well either.
  • The Discovery of Fire: A variation: The Oulhamr have a basic understanding of how to control fire but their inability to actually start a fire condemns them once the fire they keep burning at all times is extinguished. The Wahs who have fully domesticated fire teach them the final step: how to start a new fire from scratch.
  • Endangered Species: Cave lions and more surprisingly modern humans are both portrayed as such.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The Oulhamr may be a violent horde of primitive raiders but they draw the line at cannibalism.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Lions, giant lions, leopards, panthers, wolves, giant hyenas, tigers, saber-toothed cats, bears, other humans...
  • Evil Is Bigger: The Kzamms are the tallest men known to the Oulhamr before they encounter the Blue-haired men.
  • Fat Bastard: Aghoo is the fattest of the Oulhamr and also the nastiest.
  • Fiery Redhead: Aghoo and his brothers.
  • Flowers of Femininity: Gammla wears flowers in her hair.
  • Frazetta Man: Played with. The man-eating Kzamms are hairy and bestial with ape-like limb proportions but have somewhat more sophisticated fire-keeping methods than the Oulhamr. The Blue-haired men are even more ape-like but much less bloodthirsty. Aghoo and his brothers are the straightest examples, being brutish and hairy, but they are merely three individuals who are despised and feared by the rest of their tribe.
  • Gentle Giant: The Blue-haired men are noted to be big and strong enough to dominate all other kinds of men but they are peaceful herbivores.
  • Hairy Girl: Gammla's body hair is lovingly described.
  • Herbivores Are Friendly: Played straight with the cave bear and giant apes but averted with the aurochs who are just plain nasty. The mammoths are portrayed more complexly: They are easily befriended by the human protagonists because they have no fear of predation but they can be downright lethal if provoked.
  • Honorable Elephant: The herd of mammoths with whom the Oulhamr forge an alliance against the Kzamms. In particular the chief who becomes a friend to Naoh.
  • The Horde: The default human society in the setting.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The hordes fear other men far more than they fear beasts.
  • Humans Are Special: Averted with the Wahs, the only tribe of anatomically modern humans encountered in the story. They have some superior tools and the ability to start fire but they are no more intelligent than other kinds of men and physically much weaker (see: Puny Earthlings below). This is one of the few early depictions of prehistoric man that doesn't play this trope straight in regards to the "cro-magnons".
  • Humans Are Warriors: Played straight until we meet the Wahs who are a more peaceful egalitarian society like modern hunter-gatherers. The Blue-haired men further avert this but it's debatable whether they can be accurately considered human.
  • Interspecies Friendship: Naoh and the chief mammoth. His friendship with the Wah matriarch could also qualify depending on which anthropologists you talk to.
  • Kid Sidekick: Nam and Gaw to Naoh.
  • Killer Gorilla: Subverted with the gorilla-like Blue-haired men. They initially appear aggressive but turn out to be peaceful vegetarians like real gorillas.
  • Lizard Folk: How the wahs appear to the Oulhamr. They have strange cylindrical bodies with arms that stick out without shoulders to speak of, seemingly scaly skin and a lethargic temperament.
  • Male Gaze: Gammla is framed almost entirely through Naoh's desire for her. Interestingly though, he focuses on things that a modern man might not consider beautiful like her hairy arms and round belly.
  • Mammoths Mean Ice Age: Played straight on the cover but subverted in the actual text. The story is set in the Pleistocene and mammoths do feature heavily but the environment is a temperate interglacial as opposed to a frigid glacial maximum.
  • Misplaced Wildlife:
    • Agoutis (a South American rodent) inexplicably appear alongside distinctly old world animals.
    • Hissing cockroaches (an exclusively Madagascan species) also make an appearance.
    • The Blue-haired men appear to be based on gorillas (the recent discovery of the Mountain gorilla would definitely have been on the author's mind) but the story clearly does not take place in Africa. However, they do strongly resemble the later discovered Gigantopithecus which did live in Pleistocene Asia.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: Nature is in a sense the main antagonist of the story. Without the titular fire, early humans are highly vulnerable to harsh elements and hungry carnivores. Nature is hard on the other animals too. Even the herbivores are killing each other.
  • Noble Savage: Naoh is less savage and more thoughtful than his fellow Oulhamr warriors but still a brutal war chief by our standards.
  • Nubile Savage: Averted with Gammla. She's considered a rare beauty but is described in compliance with paleolithic standards of beauty, being rather fat and hairy.
  • Panthera Awesome: The giant lion which easily defeats two tigers and becomes a major antagonist for the trio.
  • Pelts of the Barbarian: Naoh is said to be enveloped in bear furs. The other Oulhamr presumably dress similarly.
  • Prehistoric Monster: The giant lion is portrayed as even more powerful than the woolly rhino.
  • Puny Earthlings: The anatomically modern Wah people compared to other kinds of men. The Kzamms and even the Red Dwarves have massacred them so many times that they have become an endangered species.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Some of the Oulhamr are lost to mquicksand as they fle from their enemies in the first chapter.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What the Oulhamr do to their enemies and vice versa.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: A Kzamm warrior has eyes that glow red in the firelight.
  • Scenery Porn: A good chunk of the word count is devoted to detailed descriptions of the prehistoric environments the character's travel through.
  • Shallow Love Interest: Gammla does not utter a single line of dialogue.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: The grey bear and the Blue-haired men don't contribute much to the overall plot but they do make the prehistoric world more interesting.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Based on the wildlife, we can conclude that the story takes place in Eurasia, but it's hard to pinpoint the exact location beyond that. It's far north enough for woolly mammoths, south enough for crocodiles, west enough for fallow deer and east enough for tigers.
  • Xenofiction: A mild example as they are technically human but the point of view characters are primitive humans who see anatomically modern humans as strange and alien.