A Dialogue of War (in fantasy)


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

3 thoughts on “A Dialogue of War (in fantasy)

  1. I totally smush all of that to little pieces, but nevermind. :p

    There weren’t actually that many wars going on around 1100. I mean, there were, but only as many as there are today, and many of them would be long-standing feuds. The wars between England and France, for instance, might have been separated by a few years, but they were all basically the same.

    Anyway, I could go on for ages about this, but I don’t want to …

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  3. Saying that there were only as many wars in 1100 as there are today isn’t really a valid comparison IMHO. The world today is vastly different, both in technology and population. And wars generally are long standing feuds in one way or another, the Middle East is an excellent example of this.

    But that’s all a digression from the main point of S.M.D.’s post. The use of wars in fiction, especially fantasy fiction, is fascinating to me. There is a lot of war fiction and war documentaries to be found; Jeff Shaara has made quite a career out of it.

    And most fantasy fiction with a war theme does focus on the leaders. Heck, most fantasy fiction of any theme loves royalty and I don’t really know why that is. Even when an everyman character is introduced they often end up being long-lost royalty of some kind. I suppose it’s all a sort of wish fulfillment on the authors part. I think all of us want to be significant in some way, and living vicariously through a character, who could conceivably be one of us, who ends up a person of importance fills a subconscious need. At least, that’s my current theory.

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