Thursday, October 04, 2007


I've always loved fantasy fiction more than any other genre. I like suspense and paranormal fiction (which could qualify as fantasy if I were being picky about it) but traditional fantasy has always been my favorite. And one thing I've noticed is that fantasy fiction focuses a lot on war. War is a part of human nature, no question. There may be sayings that the only inevitable things in life are death and taxes, but you might as well throw war on the list. As long as man has been around we've been fighting each other over one thing or another. But I do wonder why fantasy as a genre in particular so often has martial themes? In fact, when I think about it, I am hard pressed to think of a fantasy novel, especially one set in medieval setting, that doesn't focus on war. I've often heard people lament that fantasy isn't original enough. That J.R.R. Tolkien so firmly set the standard with The Hobbit that most people can't conceive of fantasy without the traditional trappings of elves, sorcerers and, of course, war. J.K. Rowling did manage to do a lot toward bringing fantasy into the modern era with Harry Potter but that's really not what I'm talking about. I'm thinking more about sword and sorcery type fantasy. (Yes, Harry had Griffindor's sword, but still--different type of fantasy) Why is it so much fantasy falls back on medieval trappings? Have we come to some conclusion along the way that fantasy isn't compatible with modern technology? There are books that merge fantasy with the modern world, but have you noticed how many still seem to try to bring old fashioned weaponry back into the story? For some reason I don't see a lot of guns in fantasy fiction. But I'm digressing a bit. I've been lucky enough to get some free books lately from some publishers and it's impossible not to notice how many follow the J.R.R. Tolkien method of world building. First you have your noble classes, then you have some sort of immortal race, a sorcerer of some sort, and a war to fight-- with lots and lots of bloody battles. Now, I don't mean to be a big complainer. A lot of these books are good. Really good. I'm reading Acacia by David Anthony Durham right now and the man can write. I know he has written other war-based fiction and it's clear he has a better idea than most what war would be like. But I'm wondering why I seem to be encountering so much war-themed fiction these days. It could be that I am simply more aware of it now than I used to be. I mean, war-based movies have been around as far back as I can remember. I've sat down and watched everything from Sergent York, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Black Hawk Down. If there's a war, we manage to make movies about it. But in a way, cinema often seems to reflect the times we live in. Movies like the current war flick, The Kingdom, are obviously based on what's going on in the world now. But fantasy fiction very often looks back to a time that I doubt was more desirable to live in than today. And the heroes always seem to be at war. There are prophesies that predict war, magicians who have been waiting for the hero to be born so they can fight the war, heirs to the throne who crave power and start wars, holy wars-- you get the idea. War war and more war. Is it just such an inevitable part of the human condition that we can't imagine a world, even a fantastical one, in which it doesn't exist? Or are we just endlessly fascinated by the subject? If I were being really optimistic I would suggest that perhaps by exploring the subject we are, in our own little way, trying to find a way to a future without war. But unfortunately, I'm not really that optimistic. I think we obsess about war in our fiction because we can write a neater ending than we ever find in real life. The good guys are easy to find and hero almost always wins. But I guess that's what fiction is for; the ever elusive happy ending.


Avery DeBow said...

I suppose war is about as easy as you're gonna get, conflict-wise. "Wait! Use conflict as conflict? Genius!" Seriously, though, I think humanity as a whole is both fascinated and mortified by its capacity for ruthlessness. It's that secret guilt-pleasure that makes some look at morgue photos of celebrities or watch professional street fighters. It's a nod to our primal roots, one that I think draws in many people for that very reason--whether they're conscious of it or not.

As far as the ancient weapons go, I think there's a prevalent notion the wars of old were much more romantic than they are now. On some subconscious level, we believe all old wars were filled with steely men who breathed heroism, laughed in the face of death and came out victorious simply because they were right. The minute modern weaponry is introduced, the glamor wears off. Instead of images of ancient swordsmen and the noble clang of steel, the reader will more than likely recall a photo of a multiple amputee they saw in 'Time' or remember the most gruesome scene from their favorite war movie. Then, fantasy takes a bow and nasty old reality takes over. So, the writers stick to the safety of their old weapons, fooling everyone into believing for a while that there once was a time when war equaled romance.

S.M.D. said...

If you look deeper into war as a literary concept, you'll come to understand from a historical and a literary perspective just how valuable the idea of war is to a story, especially fantasy.
First, if you look into the history of the medieval times, you come to realize that war was common. If it wasn't happening in one place, it was happening in another. I think the problem with fantasy writers writing about war is that they don't understand the political nature of war. Wars rarely occurred like the Persian War, where some evil guy who thinks he is everything wants to rule the world while using enormous armies to overrun his enemies. Really, wars were more complicated than that. Very few writers take this into account, and actually seem to ignore it.
Now take the literary perspective, something that I also think a lot of fantasy writers are either ignore or dull down. War is loss. Loss means emotion, feeling. One doesn't fight a war just to live, one fights to protect family, home and country. To lose friends, family, land, and things that you love, it is a powerful blow to a person. Fantasy writers would do well to look at this. Too often we see grand heroes leading great armies into battle and coming out all happy and excited. Really, there might be a brief moment of celebration in regards to the victory, but few people could cheer for long after looking at all the things destroyed. The idea of loss, therefore, becomes the most important aspect of war, but also somewhat ignored.

Damn good article by the way!

David Anthony Durham said...

sqt, thanks for the mention. I'll be very curious as to what you think of Acacia by the end. I won't say a word that'll give plot away, but I'll be interested in your thoughts...

avery debow and s.m.d., you both make great points. Just thought I'd say so.


Crunchy Carpets said...

dh and I were also talking about how most fantasy books focus on the big guns...the guys running the show...kings, queens or some dude who rises from nothing and gets all mixed up with the power players.

They rarely focus on the little guys.

As dh said, imagine how the farmers feel with monsters rampaging around or the folks stuck in the middle of some horrendous war.

imagine what the moral is in a town dealing with raiders human and inhuman.

Gemmell does a good job with stuff like that.

SQT said...


I do think writers (myself included) do fall back on obvious plot choices. I love detective fiction and there are no shortage of serial killers there, but I still buy them, and enjoy them.

As far as old style war being romantic, maybe that's a guy thing. I fast forward through the battle scenes when I watch Braveheart.


You are so right. Fantasy fiction seems to look at war from the perspective of those who direct it from on high rather than from the level of those who are suffering the greatest losses.


I pleased as ever to have your input. I am enjoying Acacia quite a bit. I'll let you know when I finish it and put a review up on my review page.


You know, I have a Gemmell book lying around somewhere. I need to pick it up and read it. It's not often an author looks at war from a more common perspective and I would be interested to see how he handles it.

S.M.D. said...

Hey SQT,
Sorry to have to bring this up here, but for some reason my email from my account bounced when I sent it to you.
So, I wanted to make sure you don't mind my criticizing a book for not being very good. I imagine you don't have an issue, but I've noticed that some bloggers won't post reviews of books that are bad. So if you would like me not to do so, I understand, and I'll post the review on my blog instead.
Also wanted to let you know it looks like I'll be getting some review copies from some smaller presses. I know for sure that Aio is sending me one. Thanks so much for your advice :). It proved to be a lot easier than I originally thought. I've been contacted back by 3 of I think the 10 I sent emails to, and most sound very promising.
In any case, thanks!

SQT said...

I don't mind a critical review. Honesty is always the best policy. I'm glad you're getting some review copies. I find myself anxious to get the mail everyday. It's like Christmas all the time. ;)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Conflict, in any form, is going to be part of a book or film.

Matt said...

Everyone's making a good point: war is conflict and conflicts drive books. I think one of the specific reasons though that wars are used so commonly in fantasy books is that they can be massive and leave plenty of room for a huge cast of characters. For sure wars can be between small clans or other organizations but they can also send thousands and even hundreds of thousands of characters into action.

I'm not sure why medieval battles are so common. It could be that they're more romantic. It could also be that they're from a previous era so it's easier to make stuff up. I think when an author uses automatic rifles or some kind of futurist weaponry then a whole lot of thought has to go into the governing mechanics and the level of technology, etc. Swords and sorcery has been around for a while now and even though descriptions of magic can vary there is a ton of established conventions.

Of course I could be completely wrong.

Stewart Sternberg said...

There have been so many great thoughtful comments that I have little to offer other than this:

Teaching history, one becomes aware of how prevalent war becomes in our national or international focus. We think of American history in terms of the wars we've had, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, The Mexican American War, The Civil War, The Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.

Wars become touchstones. They become the way we identify other events of importance. They influence so much in our culture, our technology, our national identity that it is difficult to see past them.

I have always taught events leading to wars, and the consequences of wars, but rarely spent time on the conflict itself. I have always wanted my students to see wars in a different context. If I do dwell on the actual battlefield experiences, it is only to show the destructive power of war, physically and emotionally.

weenie said...

Fictionally, historically or religiously - good vs bad/evil is a battle and on a large scale inevitably becomes war.