During most of The Fifth Season, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Stone Eaters. In hindsight, it’s clear that Jemisin deliberately wanted to keep me as uncertain as I was in the beginning as the story progressed and I still did not have a satisfying view of what they were and what they were doing. It was only when we read a post by Jemisin where she said “the stone eaters aren’t ‘mythological’” that I finally confronted why I wasn’t sure of how to view them. While I didn’t see the Stone Eaters as mythological, I didn’t know what category to put them in. Now it’s clear to me that I saw them the way Jemisin was hoping, as humans, even if I continued to be wary of their motivations.
I never equated the Stone Eaters to other fictional races like elves, orcs, or any other fantasy races that frequently appear in novels. Initially, this had to do with the fact that little information was given about what Stone Eaters are. As Jemisin says, “mythological creatures cash in on existing cultural capital” meaning that when an elf appears on a page, I have preconceptions about how they should act. Many of these preconceptions stem from Lord of the Rings so it is those elves in particular that I usually think of. They serve to be what humans ideally want to be: immortal, free of temptation, skilled fighters, wise, and magical. As an ideal mold for humankind, however, they become something wholly unhuman when I look at them. By presenting a view of humanity we wish we could reach, many of the true qualities of humankind are lost. The elves usually agree as a collective, they don’t betray one another, they don’t feel greed, etc. This is what gives the elves a mythological status even before my preconceptions were formed. They aren’t human simply because they don’t act as humans would, giving them a mythological aura as a group that could never be real in our world.
The Stone Eaters lack any attached preconceptions and not enough is known about them to fully separate them from humanity. The only other way they could be viewed mythologically is if they are seen as monsters. Using Lord of the Rings again, the orcs are the common villain that the heroes face off against. What makes the orcs similar to the Stone Eaters is that not a lot is personally known about their society. Always presented as an obstacle on a greater journey, there is not a lot of room to flesh them out as a race. However, due to their common presence in the story, there is not a lot of mystery surrounding the orcs. Their familiarity sets them apart from Stone Eaters because enough is seen to label them simply as monsters. One of the only bits of information that is given about them is that they originated as elves before they turned evil. Since elves are inhuman because of what they represent, orcs are inherently inhuman because they represent the opposite of that. If elves represent a desire for humanity that can’t be reached, orcs represent the corruption of this impossibility.
After reflecting on why I view elves and orcs the way that I do, it became very apparent why I didn’t associate Stone Eaters with these other fictional beings. The lack of familiarity is the first thing that separates Stone Eaters from these other races. With a clean slate, there isn’t enough known to give a strong first impression as to what Stone Eaters are and they are not enough of a constant presence to frame a full picture in my head. They are usually in the periphery of the main events so that it is hard to ever form a full understanding of how they should be viewed. What is most important, however, is that the Stone Eaters we initially meet are always by themselves. There is no pack of Stone Eaters going around hunting, nor is there a community of them that we come across in the first book. Hoa is the one we get to know the best and his childlike appearance and seeming affection towards Essun suggests that there is something human in him. I couldn’t view Stone Eaters as mythological creatures because I unknowingly was viewing them as another group of humans that we just didn’t know a lot about. Hoa reaching out for Essun’s hand and Antimony singing to Alabaster and holding him upright provide these small humane actions that largely frame the way I view them. This was corroborated when Alabaster says, “they’re people too Essun … They need things, want things, feel things, same way we do”. The nuances of human behavior in what appears to be a nonhuman race keep the Stone Eaters grounded where they easily could have been viewed mythologically.
Perhaps what most sets off Stone Eaters from other fictional races is that they are not working towards the same goal. Initially, it is unclear what the Stone Eaters want but when Hoa stares down Ykka’s ruby-haired Stone Eater it is evident they are not on the same side. Antimony confirms this when she says “not all of my kind want the same thing”. Once again this humanizes the Stone Eaters because no group of humans ever agrees on things fully. The depth given to the Stone Eaters in their few moments in the spotlight separates them from the likes of elves. Elves can’t be viewed as human because they fundamentally represent inhuman qualities and orcs can’t be seen as anything other than monsters because no depth is given to them as individuals. Stone Eaters are slowly trickled into the narrative so that we are curious but never know enough to form a full opinion. The fact that they are presented as individuals with specific desires makes it even harder to generalize them as a race, but easier to view them as human. Jemisin succeeds in creating a race without the stigma of mythology because she writes about the Stone Eaters as one might write about any civilization with customs different from our own while maintaining qualities that make us human.