This very subject was brought up by SQT in her recent post. I don’t want to steal the spotlight from her very well drawn analysis, but I did feel like addressing the issue a bit myself.
SQT is very right that it seems that fantasy is overridden with novels that focus on war. I can’t think of a novel I have read that didn’t have war as a central theme somewhere. War might not be the primary plot line in a story, but almost all fantasy seems to have it there in some capacity.
Some of the issues I see with this is that fantasy writers want to place a lot of focus on the people in war that aren’t ordinary, ignoring those that suffer the most. I addressed this in the comments to some extent, but I think some context here would be great.
Look at the historical basis for fantasy. Generally, most fantasy is written in a semi-medieval style time period. We all can generally accept this as true. Whether or not magic, dragons, or other strange and supernatural things ‘actually’ exist in this fantasy setting is irrelevant to this discussion. Medieval societies were violent by nature. Machiavelli handled this idea very well in saying that a ruler could control his people by subjecting them to war. What Machiavelli proposed is that a king or prince, or even queen, would rule the masses by using the fear of war–death, destruction, and loss of livelihood–to keep them in order. This serves several purposes:
- It reduces the number of impoverished people, the lower class, in situations that would cause them to revolt by placing them, instead, in armies and ultimately into combat. While they may be subject to obviously unlikable conditions, the idea that they are protecting their homeland and doing something that might be considered honorable might hold their complaints at bay.
- It keeps those living in the impoverished situations from revolting or dissenting by making them believe that they are constantly on the verge of being destroyed by the enemy, whoever they might be. Fear generally results in undeserved loyalty, but as we can see in our current and ancient history, this is an all too common thing.
- It raises new generations into this cycle of oppression by war. Children raised in this situation are also even less likely than their parents to question authority. Of course, it does happen, but that has much less to do with the people themselves than the failure of the ruling class to make the idea of war more serious than the horrid policies of those in power.
Machiavelli wasn’t lying through his teeth when he proposed some of the ideas on The Prince. Medieval times were violent by nature. From 1,095 to 1400 C.E. (current era) there were nine crusades not including any of the Northern Crusades or the various other smaller crusades, which together with the traditional nine crusades numbers somewhere around twenty. This is only a select number of the many wars that took place in the Middle Ages. Also take into account that what is considered the Middle Ages (400 to 1400 C.E.) encompasses all of Europe. In 1100 years of history we can only imagine the number of small and major wars that took place.
We have to then take into account the commonality of war in what would traditionally be fantasy fiction, which is most often set in a time much like the Middle Ages anyway. As I said, the problem isn’t that fantasy writers focus so much on war, since war in some form or another would be common anyway, but that fantasy writers instead base their stories primarily around characters which are abnormal. These are the heroes, characters who possess heroic qualities–excellent swordsmanship, magic, etc.–rather than being insignificant in the sense that from the start of the book they aren’t anything special. In most cases these are also the characters who have very little to actually lose. Why would this be such an issue? Because the primary reason that war is such an effective device in fiction is that it represents ultimate loss. People die in war, lands are destroyed, families are broken, etc. Without loss, what is the point of having war? It becomes a device in the story that has no reason to exist. Sure, the abnormal heroes of the story do experience loss, but do they really experience it? Does a king really feel the lost of the hundreds or thousands of men in his army? Not likely. In fact, a king might feel little at all unless someone of great importance is lost. A king may feel anger at the loss of a keep, but the king doesn’t mourn this loss.
But the people who live in the towns and villages do. They experience it worse than the ruling class because it is they who are being murdered and slaughtered, and it is they who are driven from their homes and experience the ultimate of losses.
Then this begs the question, what would fantasy be without traditional styles of heroes? Very difficult, but better fiction. Ordinary characters can become heroes. It would be more interesting to begin with a character that is in the lower class, has no discernible amazing abilities, but becomes great through his or her own force, rather than through luck. A character doesn’t have to be a captain of the guard, a general, or a king, or anything in royalty at all. A simple scribe could end up a hero. But it becomes far more effective to take war from the eyes of someone who truly experiences it. Kings didn’t frequently engage in battle. They were often preoccupied with the other nuances of war. It was the lower class that saw battle more often.
So, what do you think? Do you see some of the same problems in fantasy? Do you disagree? What say you?