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Jun 142011
 

“Globbit!” Foozle said. “He’s the zoobiest froog that ever weebled!”

Yes, it’s awful. Why, oh why, do we keep doing it?

Today’s post is brought to you by the delightfully foul-mouthed (and really rather good) The Lies of Locke Lamora. We’ll look at four-letter words, and why we fucking love them.

There’s something refreshing about swearing. It brings back all those wonderful memories of childhood, of spending a hot summer’s day with your back to a tree, watching people go by and calling them names.

But it’s kind of divisive. I think those of us whose formative experiences involved Ahnold flicks forget, sometimes, that not everybody gives the thumbs-up to a string of expletives. Not everybody watched The Sopranos, or listened to that there devil music. Which is unfortunate.

Pop quiz: You’ve stubbed your toe on a wall.

a) That hurts!
b) Oh, dear. Martha, I do think I may need a hand up here.
c) Augh, fucking goddamn fuck!

The correct answer is c).

We love to swear. We swear when we’re surprised or hurt by something. We swear as a sort of semantic exclamation point. We swear at things that are bad, and we swear at things that are fucking grand. And we do it a lot.

There are several good reasons to incorporate swearing into writing, but the biggest of them is that it’s just natural. If we cuss at some asshole dinging us in a parking lot and driving off, I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll also cuss at orcs putting axes into our shoulders.

Swearing is also a handy voice marker and characterization tool. It can mark class, and it can hint at emotion. Our pirate may run off at the mouth constantly. Pirates do that sort of thing, in between ‘Arrr’s. Of course, his prim captive doesn’t approve. When she finally brings herself to swear at him a few hundred pages in, we know she means business, and we’re not too surprised to see the bodices start a-ripping.

How, then, do we incorporate it?

Well, it’s pretty fucking easy, innit? We’ve all had plenty of practice.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, fantasy writers choose to forego the shits and bitches of the world for swearing of their own creation. Perhaps they’ve adopted an archaic tone and feel that modern swearing interferes with it. Perhaps they’re writing for children.

Trouble is, it’s really jarring if you get it wrong.

Linguist Steven Pinker has a lot to say about why swearing is used and how its various categories shape up. The relevant bits start at roughly minute 12 and run about 20 minutes, but I recommend that you find an hour to watch the whole talk, because it’s really good.

The short version: Swearing breaks down into five main categories.

1) The supernatural. Damn, hell, anything that comes out of a Montreal mouth.
2) Bodily effluvia and organs. Shit, asshole, etc.
3) Disease, death and infirmity. A pox on thee!
4) Sexuality. Fuck, cock, cunt.
5) Disfavoured people and groups. Racial slurs, etc.

And it’s used in five ways.

1) Dysphemistic swearing. Eschewing a euphemism specifically because we want to draw attention to how awful a thing is. I.e. you wouldn’t say “Oh dear, somebody appears to have pooped all over my lamp.”
2) Abusive swearing. To intimidate or humiliate the listener.
3) Idiomatic swearing. Shit out of luck, what the fuck?
4) Emphatic swearing. That’s fucking grand, that is!
5) Cathartic swearing. The stubbed toe above.

Now, this is all very much in the background. Swearing is pretty natural, and we all *think* we know how to do it.

Oh yeah, tough guy? Explain frell.

If you’ve ever watched Farscape (editor’s note: nope, B5 was the wrong dimly remembered sci-fi series), you may have been exposed to the very strange phenomenon of people using the word ‘frell’ when they ought to be swearing. Now, the blame here lies with puritanical TV censors and not the writers necessarily, but frell? Golly gee! I’m going to fudge those fluffernutters up for this!

It’s horrible. If you’re going to devise a swearing-equivalent word, please make sure it doesn’t sound like a euphemism we teach to five-year-olds. Grown-ass adults don’t call each other ‘poopieheads’.

Battlestar Galactica’s frack, on the other hand, is much better, mostly by dint of sounding almost exactly like ‘fuck’, and having those same wonderful I-mean-business fricatives going on.

Also in the sounds-like-swearing camp, Firefly‘s rutting. It’s not nearly as good. But what’s interesting about Firefly is that it proposes a setting in which many characters lapse into Chinese when they’re angry, in what I assume is an amusing sort of end-run around TV obscenity statutes. Maybe, if we’re lucky, Joss Whedon’s next project will do the same for our delightful Quebecois friends. I would definitely pay some money to see Gina Torres or Nathan Fillion ostieing de criss de tabarnak.

Of course, even the suggestion of real swearing can be too much for well-meaning parents labouring under the delusion that their children don’t cuss like sailors the moment they’re out of earshot. YA can get away with a lot, because teenagers tend to have some income of their own and are notoriously foul-mouthed, but writing for younger readers can’t (and, in all fairness, probably shouldn’t).

And yet, Harry Potter brings us a truly excellent made-up swear in mudblood. In the Potterverse, there’s a strong cultural tension between wizards from pure families, and those with only one wizardly parent or none – i.e. mudbloods. It’s an excellent image, it rolls off the tongue, and it evokes very real racist terminology (those unfortunate enough to be aware of the idiotverse of white supremacy may have heard the term ‘mud races’ before). When Hermione has it thrown in her face, her reaction and the reactions of her friends are very true to the racial slur taboo line being crossed.

Swearing is fun, and it’s easy, and there’s really nothing wrong with injecting a bit of modern fuckery into historical fantasy. Frankly, it’s usually less jarring than attempts to make up swearing of your own. But if you absolutely must do the latter, a little preparation is all you need to keep from fudging up.

Next week: We shall see!

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Jun 072011
 

“Foozle McKillicutty planted his mighty legs and waited, like a great oak bristling with leaves of murderanium. The bandits could attack, if they dared, but they would not move him.”

Welcome back. Last week, we discussed the fantasy arsenal, and some of the misconceptions that have crept into writing about weapons and armour. Today, we’ll talk a little less about the tools, and a little more about how to put them to use.

The thorniest question when it comes to depicting combat is: how much detail? There’s no right or wrong answer, unless it’s “lots” and we end up with “matriculate the ion drive in hyperthrust frequency” gobbledygook that’s recognizable as a fight only by dint of the use of words like “blood”, “knife” and “Vinnie Kneecaps”.

But in order to pull it all together and make the right decisions, we need to understand a little about our building blocks.

The first thing to note is that there’s a very real difference between lines of infantry clashing on a historical battlefield, and one bravo stabbing another in an alley. This post will deal with combat on a personal scale, because that’s what I have (very little) direct experience with, and because that’s where most fantasy stories tend to end up.

Buckle that swash. Or swash that buckle. Whichever.

Movement is key. Yes, the chances are good that you swing your favourite implement with your hands, but in order to do it right, your whole body needs to get into the act. Adherents of the ancient art of ‘base ball’ may notice that when a pitcher hurls a ball, he twists his hips, takes a step, and leans forward. A pitcher’s arm gets all the glory, but it’s the muscular tension throughout the rest of his body that does most of the work.

Fighting is no different. Any depiction of a battle that doesn’t impart a sense of movement feels wrong. Fighters circle each other, they test each other’s defenses, they duck and dodge and weave and twist. They do not stand square with each other and trade blows until somebody’s hit points are whittled away. Movement is at once offense and defense; it gets you to where you need to be in order to avoid a blow or to strike one, and it grants your attacks the power and speed to get through somebody’s defenses.

While we’re on the subject of standing square, a proper fighter’s stance minimizes the size of hittable area; that is, people face each other side-on or in a three-quarter sort of stance, not chest-to-chest. The less area you need to defend, the easier it is to not die.

If you’re fighting with a shield, that’s your leading arm – obviously, you want this thing in front of you. Attacks, in this context, are launched from the back, like a boxer’s cross. Most commonly, you’ll just shift your balance a bit to bring the weapon to bear without flinging the shield aside. Sometimes, the shield acts as a sort of door, swinging open to allow an attack out. A thrust coming from behind a shield can be a tricksy thing, because you get a little less time to recognize its angle. This is doubly true if you’re wearing any sort of helmet, because seriously, that shit is impossible. Even something as innocuous as a fencing mesh cuts off peripheral vision and makes a haze of whatever’s in front of you. Imagine what it would be like to fight the man-in-a-can way, with only a thin slit of vision.

If you’re fighting without a shield – that is, with just a weapon, or perhaps a weapon in either hand – your weapon will be held out in front to cut off access to your soft bits. Yes, if you watch old samurai flicks, you’ll occasionally see Toshiro Mifune or somebody who looks just like him standing there with his chest exposed, a sword way above his head or else held out behind him. This is because samurai were crazy. The proper kendo response to a bokken arcing its way towards your head is not to parry or move, but to hit the other guy first and better.

An important thing to note about having an empty hand is that this hand, and indeed any other natural weapons, can still be put to use when spears and swords are out. You can pull, punch, poke at eyes. You can knee somebody, or try to kick out their leg. Nearly any period fighting manual you care to look at (and these are an excellent resource) will spend a fair amount of time on wrestling. We don’t typically picture Errol Flynn shoulder-barging his opponent to the ground after deflecting a thrust, but an experienced fighter will have little tricks like that in his back pocket.

Dual-wielding, being the use of a weapon in either hand, is all over fantasy writing for reasons having more to do with video games and tabletop roleplaying games than history. There were indeed some cultures in which the use of two weapons wasn’t entirely an oddity, but it was never terribly common (except in the Spanish school of fencing, on which more below) and virtually invisible on the battlefield. Some people blame the learning curve – the idea that only true masters could possibly blah blah blah – but this is nonsensical. Kali, which I’ve practiced, spends a fair bit of time with two weapons. Sure, it’s a little harder to learn to use two sticks than one, but as it turns out, people are pretty good at using both sides of their bodies. Did Muhammad Ali ever have trouble hitting with both fists?

Dual-wielding generally comes in two styles. If the two weapons are of the same length (as in kali), it’s likelier they’ll be used interchangeably, with stance shifts, strikes with both weapons at the same time (from different angles or the same). If the weapons are not of the same length (as in the fencing schools that used a sword and the basket-hilt dagger known as a main gauche, or “left hand”), this becomes a bit more awkward, and they’ll be more specialized. In the fencing example, the main gauche was mostly for parrying (indeed, some translate it as ‘parrying dagger’) while the rapier did the killy work. That isn’t to say the knife didn’t stab when an opportunity presented itself, of course.

The main reason dual wielding isn’t as common in history as it is in fantasy novels and video games is that it simply isn’t as practical as fighting with a shield or a two-hander and as such wasn’t widely taught. A shield offers far superior defense, and can still be used as a weapon. A two-handed weapon offers the advantage of range, which is pretty significant. I think it was Miyamoto Musashi that believed a humble wooden staff was at an advantage over the katana, simply because it allowed the wielder to engage from outside a sword’s range. Miyamoto Musashi was a crazy-ass samurai who beat a few people to death with an oar. An oar. I think we all should assume he knew what he was talking about.

So, with that all in mind, what does weapon combat actually feel like? Well, it’s tiring, both physically and mentally. You’ll spend a fair bit of time prowling about an opponent and feeling them out with attacks that are designed mostly to test reflexes. You’ll parry a few of these, or just duck out of their range. Contrary to popular belief, parrying a weapon doesn’t generally numb you with great impact. It certainly can, but that’s usually when you’re caught flat-footed or hurl up a desperate I-didn’t-think-you’d-do-that wall. Most of the time, a parry is just a smart movement coupled with a deflection of your opponent’s already existing momentum.

When the fighting actually starts in earnest, it’s usually quick, ugly, and results in a swift death or a swift return to circling about. Key targets are, of course, the head and torso, but arms, legs and whatever happens to be nearby are just as popular. One of the greatest lessons kali taught me was just how easy it is to strike at an attacking opponent’s hand. We wore hockey gloves for a good reason.

The other thing kali taught me was that fighting is – surprise, surprise – pretty fucking dangerous. Many MMA schools make use of a fun little activity to demonstrate why it’s a better idea to avoid fights than instigate them, particularly once the weapons come out. Students wear old shirts, and are handed red felt-tip markers that are meant to simulate knives. Then, they have at, using the skills they’ve learned to that point. Inevitably, whoever ‘wins’ is as badly marked up as whoever doesn’t.

Finally, there is such a thing as instinct. Remember the first time you drove a car? How you could have recited from memory each and every turn and lane change? How about now? You get into your car, pop in a CD, and somehow you’re at work.

Fighting’s the same way. I remember sparring with one of my classmates, and avoiding a blow by throwing my head back and leaving his stick to fly through the air where my nose had been.

I have no clue how that happened.

I didn’t see his blow coming. I wasn’t warned that this would be part of the drill. I just knew where I was open, and his body mechanics told me that he did too.

I also remember – and the word ‘remember’ is a bit odd, given the circumstances – a (wooden) knife fight against another student. At various points, I had one knife, then both knives, then no knives, then I was down on the ground on top of him, then I was kicking him off me. Even then, with the match fresh in my mind, I had absolutely no idea how we got from Point A to B to X.

Putting it all together

The bandit proffered a knife and a nasty grin.

“Is this what you want, then?” Foozle asked.

“You made me look a fool.”

a) A moment later, Foozle wiped blood from his blade and lamented that thugs, these days, just didn’t have their priorities straight.

b) The bandit lunged at him, steel leading the way. Foozle danced away from a wild swing and tore his swords from their sheaths. He parried a second blow, and a third. He would not allow a fourth. Foozle’s left-hand sword took a hand; his other, a head.

c) Foozle saw only a gleam, and then he was rocking back on his heels, twisting this way and that. He wanted to call to the gods for help, but his throat constricted. The bandit’s arm flicked out again, and Foozle became dimly aware of a stitch in his side. He had been wounded enough times to know he’d be in much more pain when the terror wore off.

If he was lucky, anyway.

Three different approaches, three different Foozles.

The off-screen victory in scenario a) tells us that that Foozle means business, and it doesn’t bog us down with unnecessary detail. If our thug is such a wimp that defeating him barely qualifies as drama, it can make sense to elide the fight and cut straight to the inevitable result… but this would not be an appropriate approach if Foozle was a novice.

The somewhat mechanical here’s-how-it-happened in b) is a sort of workhorse approach. It’s appropriate to most any level of Foozle with a bit of tweaking, but this approach is not always terribly exciting, and it’s the most prone to weird mistakes. If you intend to write a detailed blow-by-blow account, try to visualize the scene all the way through. You may even want to act it out if you’re uncertain whether something works.

The internal approach of c) deals not with the fight itself, but rather with what’s going through our plucky hero’s mind. This, again, is an approach that will work for all Foozles, except perhaps the most blase. If your Foozle wears a trenchcoat and mirror shades, and fights with katanas that shoot katanas, a mechanical approach may be more appropriate. After all, he’s already forgotten how to feel, man. That’s just the kind of badass he is.

Combat scenes can present more opportunities than just a bit of spice or a conflict resolution. Done well, they too can be used to characterize, to raise or reinforce themes, and all that other boring literary shit. But to get there without making pedantic wankers like me giggle, it helps to understand the anatomy of a fight.

 

Next time: I still have some things to say about mass combat and how it differs from the smaller conflicts described here, but I’ll leave that for another day. Next week: of frells, fracks and mudbloods. Swearing in fantasy.

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May 312011
 

“Foozle McKillicutty dove, spun on his knee, and thrust both blades upward. They found the space beneath the hapless guard’s shield, and sheared through his steel breastplate as though it were a particularly bloody hedge. Foozle leapt, kicked off with both feet, and…”

No.

He probably didn’t.

Welcome, readers, to today’s 101. Today, we’ll discuss weapons in (historical) fantasy.

 

First off: my qualifications in this field are, of course, lacking. Most writers are in the same boat. For better or worse (hint: better) most of us will never shatter somebody’s skull with a mace or tickle them with a cat o’ nine tails. However, I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn a lot from an on-and-off love affair with martial arts; I’ve done a wee bit of fencing in my time, and I’ve been a neophyte practitioner of kali/escrima, the filipino art of hitting people about the head and neck with sticks.

Because this is a topic that few of us have any direct experience with, and one that many of us seem to feel no need to research, a number of misconceptions have crept, over the years, into fantasy writing. Today we’ll tackle a few of them and run down the historical arsenal.

Tools of the Trade

Say hello to armour. This is the single most important development in the history of weapon-making, and the quality and type of weaponry available in a given story will be influenced first and foremost by what sort of protection is available to deal with them. The number one thing that fantasy writers routinely fail to take into account is that armour works. Yes, you can shear through leather with relative ease, but chain is tough, and those big ol’ renaissance suits of angled plate are basically impenetrable. There’s a reason why so many European warriors eventually carried the estoc, which is basically a sharpened railway spike – it could punch through the chain protecting the joints of a plate suit, and it could work its way into the seams between plates.

The next misconception is that armour is incredibly heavy. I’m sure you’ve all heard the old canard that a medieval knight, once fallen from horse, had to be lifted back into the saddle with a crane. If you’ve ever fought, even in a playground scuffle, it should be immediately clear how little sense this makes. In order to fight, you need to be able to move. This was as true then as it is now. Sure, wearing a suit of steel is no picnic, but the weight was distributed in such a way as to make it bearable, and a trained man could even turn cartwheels in full plate in the gymnastics competition after each grand tournament (nb: medieval gymnastics competitions may be fictional, but knights were indeed able to run, climb, vault onto horseback and do a number of other things in full plate).

Next, the shield. This is not just a thing that hangs from your arm to block blows. It is also a weapon. Have you ever been hit in the face with a plank of steel-rimmed wood? No? I haven’t either. But I bet it hurts. Shields were not typically made of metal – this would be much too heavy. Instead, they were typically wood (still heavy), or hide stretched over a wooden frame. Metal was sometimes used as a reinforcement for the shield’s rim, or in other parts. Shields were also quite effective, which should be clear from the fact that practically every civilization made use of them. They come in all shapes and sizes, from bucklers that could be strapped to a wrist to, essentially, doors planted in the earth for archers to hide behind. Getting past a shield is no joke, and many weapons were designed for this very purpose; in the absence of those, one could always try to beat the shield with enough force to shatter the arm holding it, to outflank it, or to batter or pull it aside with one’s own shield. Shields (in the form of riot gear) are still in use today. They work.

The spear, pike, javelin or lance. It’s a pointy stick, or else a normal stick with a pointy thing affixed to the end, and man’s best friend over millennia of killery. It’s functional, it’s inexpensive and easy to make, it doubles as an excellent hunting weapon, and if it’s small enough it can also be effectively thrown. Alas, spears are the proletariat’s weapon, and as such they lack a certain amount of fantasy-cool cachet, despite that they vie with the club for most common historical weapon ever. Spears include: the Roman pilum, an awkwardly weighted javelin whose purpose was not to kill but to get stuck in a shield and drag it down with its weight; the standard-issue short spear, used with a shield in the off-hand and uniquely suited to lines of fighters on a battlefield because it requires no horizontal swinging room; tall-as-a-man spears that were frequently used without a shield, as a sort of combination quarterstaff/pokey bit (see: wuxia); and the Alexandrian sarissa, a spear so long and unwieldy that it absolutely required two strong hands and was only used in concert with a whole phalanx armed the same way.

Spears (and staves) are more versatile weapons than one might think. A common refrain is that the wielder is meat as soon as you make it past the spearhead; while there’s a wee bit of truth to this being an uncomfortable range, keep in mind that a spearman can shift his hands closer to the spearhead for in-close work, and that he may very well still have a shield, a sidearm, or a thousand similarly armed buddies beside him. Also, don’t neglect spear butts or the haft. A good swing with a quarterstaff can shatter your choice of bone into your favourite number of fragments. The same is true of its pointier cousin.

The club or mace. It hits things and causes blunt trauma. Clubs have been around since Thag brained Ug with a rock, in as many forms as there were cavemen to brain. They’re every bit as common as spears, and even less glamorous. Thing is, maces are actually incredibly useful, because they’re practically armour-agnostic. A sword can’t readily cut through a steel plate, but a mace can dent it and crunch the bones beneath or make movement (or breathing) difficult. For this to happen, it needs to be swung pretty damn hard, which is why maces were common horse-back weapons and not necessarily common line-o’-guys weapons.

The association of the mace with priesthoods and clerical orders in a lot of fantasy is often thought of as a D&Dism, but there’s actually a historical basis to this. See, Catholic priests weren’t supposed to spill blood, but *wink, nudge* that totally doesn’t happen if you use a club. (It totally does).

The axe. This is a combination of club and blade, and like the spear, it’s a weapon that will be widely available because it moonlights as a tool. Axes range from hand-held hatchets to bigger things, but what they have in common is that they cause really, really, really grievous wounds because they’re focusing the full force of a swing onto a smallish, wedge-shaped metal surface. These things cut down trees. They *can* pierce even strong armour, provided that the energy isn’t too dispersed across surface area (i.e. the fantasy battle-axe with an axe-head as big as the haft = dumb). Another interesting quirk is that an axe-head can often be used as a sort of hook to wrap around a shield’s edge and pull it out of alignment (but, of course, this can leave the axe-man rather open). The biggest problem with the axe is that the all-toward-the-front weight profile makes it a bit cumbersome, like the mace. And, like the mace, it requires a bit of room to maneuver. The biggest benefit is that your doughty peasants have been using these to cut down trees or split firewood for most of their lives, so the put-axe-in-man retraining process isn’t too onerous.

The sword. Ah, ol’ reliable. Here’s the rub, though: swords are frequently sidearms. They’re the pistol to your SWAT shotgun. Swords, in all their million varieties, can stab and cut… but they’re not as good at getting through armour as they’re frequently made out to be. A well made sword with the proper cutting angle can cut through impressive things, but the level of skill and craftsmanship required to that end is a bit wasted when you can just grab a club and hit real hard for similar or better results. Swords are excellent and versatile weapons if armour is light (for instance, in areas that are very hot, in Japan, and in historical periods before the proliferation of man-in-a-can), they’re perfect for cutting down routed peasants, and they’re great dueling weapons. But on a battlefield, against armoured men, they tend to play second fiddle. Again, think of a sword as a pistol. Sure, you may want one for personal protection if you’re a bravo striding a Venetian street, but you may want something a bit uglier if you happen to get drafted into Il Doce’s army.

But swords are iconic, they’re a status symbol, and they ooze class and expensive training. They’re the weapons of the nobility. They’re the Lamborghini on a city street; maybe there are more practical ways to get from point A to Stab Man, but it’s not always about that.

A bow is another of the hunter-turned-soldier offerings, and archers played a vital role in almost every pitched battle under the pre-firearm sun. Killing people when they’re still good and far away has always been a good idea. Arrows can pierce surprising things if they land flush (but if they don’t, they can also skitter off armour when it really seems like they ought to get through it), particularly if the bow has a big draw. And if it does have a big draw, you’ll need a strong-ass warrior to pull it.

There are two main things that fantasy writers get wrong when it comes to bows. Firstly, they’re not carried ready to go unless an archer is expecting to need to use the thing. Stringing a bow exerts enormous pressure on the wood (if it didn’t, you wouldn’t get any power from the weapon springing back into shape when the bowstring is released), and the wear and tear this creates is something to be avoided. Secondly, bows require a huge amount of training to use. Taking wind and the ballistic arc into account is not something any old farmboy can do, unless he’s been hunting with bows for all his life. The reason firearms replaced longbows is not that they were more effective – for quite a long time, they weren’t. Firearms replaced bows because they were dramatically easier to use, and thus easier to teach.

Finally, there’s anything at hand. People are pretty fragile, when it comes down to it, and weapons have been made from all sorts of things. The Japanese/Okinawan martial art of kobudo, for instance, is all about using farming implements to fight. The nunchaku popularized by Bruce Lee, Michaelangelo J. Turtle and Napoleon Dynamite started as a wheat thresher. Pitchforks, likewise, are farming tools that happen to also be pretty dangerous. The advantage to weapons like this is plausible deniability. “Why no, officer, this is wheat blood!” a hapless farmer might say.

Countless other weapons haven’t been mentioned, of course. Whips, halberds, jitte, etc. There’s not enough time to be exhaustive about that sort of thing. But the above are the workhorses of fantasy.

 

“Foozle’s blades of unalloyed murderanium gleamed in the sunlight.”

A final note on weapons: they’re made of things, and this has an impact. Bronze is an alloy. Please to not be mining bronze. It’s made of copper and tin (when you can get it) or arsenic (when you can’t and don’t mind some of your smiths keeling over now and then). It keeps an edge pretty well, but it’s heavy and brittle. A bronze two-handed sword would raise some eyebrows – the metal isn’t strong enough to withstand the stress of impact if it’s that long.

Iron runs into a similar issue, but it’s actually an element and can be mined.

Steel is also an alloy – iron and carbon, and initially made usually by mistake, until people figured out why exactly some of the swords they forged were so much better than others. Steel is light, flexible, and it keeps an edge well; it’s what allowed swords to get longer.

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to invent new and wacky fantasy metals or woods or whatever else to get around historical limitations. An enchanted sword, or one made of elfglass or dwarf cartilage, may indeed be able to rip through full steel plate with ease. But such a sword would generally have to be rare and expensive; if weapons that obviate armour are too widely available, armour will disappear. That, in fact, is exactly what happened as gunpowder became more and more common. Why carry the extra weight on your shoulders, and deal with all the cleaning and straps and so forth, if it won’t protect you any better than a shirt?

~

Today’s was supposed to be a Magic: 201 post, following up on the last, but as I toyed with drafts I realized I had no way to say what I wanted to without spoiling a few of Pale Queen’s Courtyard plot elements. Perhaps I’ll return to that in a year or two. Next time, we’ll discuss what fighting actually looks like, talk about what it feels like to parry a blade, the difference between dueling and battle, and why, World of Warcraft aside, very few civilizations fought with a weapon in either hand.

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May 252011
 

Fantasy is, as a genre, about the supernatural, and in particular about magic. There are almost as many takes on how magic works as there are fantasy novels to read.

With the right approach, magic can be a tool to emphasize what should be emphasized, occlude what isn’t necessary, and draw readers more firmly into a story. The wrong approach brings us yet another battered-hatted wizard deus ex machina-ing his way to an unsatisfying climax.

To write a fantasy story in which magic is more than window-dressing, the author must ask some questions, make some decisions, and chart a whole lot of consequences.

The Purpose

So, why use magic in the first place? What does it accomplish? What’s it for?

The easiest, laziest answer is that it’s a fixture of the genre, and we use it because readers like it. Which, I mean, fair enough. C+. There is a certain grandeur to being able to move things with your mind, or shoot fire from your nostrils. But we’re after more than the cargo cult.

As I see it, magic has two purposes: the first is technical, the second thematic.

The technical explanation is fairly simple: magic allows us to break the rules a bit, and to build scenarios that highlight our themes without necessarily getting bogged down in whether or not something is realistic.

First, a question of plot. In the real world, when eight thousand orcs show up on your doorstep, your options are probably few and far between. Fantasy-land opens new plot options. Perhaps you’ve been debating signing over your soul to the Dark Lord for the sort of magical powers that could get you out of this mess. Is it better to live a life of servitude than to be poked to death with rusty steel? How will you react when you eventually learn the Dark Lord sent those orcs to hasten your decision? There’s nothing in this plot that couldn’t happen outside of fantasy per se: the Dark Lord could be a boss that’s willing to offer you a bonus for doing something unethical, and the orcs could be rumours of imminent downsizing. But orcs are more fun than accounting.

Second, a question of setting. Here, magic plays the same role as technology in sci fi – that is, we’re playing with the ‘speculative’ part of speculative fiction. How would the world be changed if magic could heal diseases, or conjure food out of thin air? How would that change, in turn, if this magic was ubiquitous or limited to a tiny handful of people? What would human spirituality look like if you could teleport yourself up a mountain and talk to Zeus in person?

There’s not necessarily anything here that can’t be written without magic – perhaps in lieu of conjuring up food we can talk about genetically modified soy – but fantasy makes certain things easier, and more importantly, it grants you a readership that’s willing to roll with it and slowly discover how your world works rather than experiencing dissonance every time something a bit far-fetched happens.

The thematic explanation was partly touched on in the last bit. Magic certainly allows you to hone in on certain themes, but it is in itself a sort of theme. Fantasy, with magic as its secret weapon, is essentially the fiction of the uniquely powerful. It allows us to tell stories about heroes or villains with capabilities that stretch disbelief well past the point where it might snap elsewhere… or it allows us to tell stories about the lot of the common bumpkin in a world far beyond his pay grade. How helpful would the villagers around Sherwood be if Sheriff Nottingham could scry their actions and then fry them with a waggle of his eyebrows?

Magic is power, and fantasy is about power – its exercise and its consequences.

 

The Rules

Now that we’ve established that magic allows us to break rules, it’s time to codify rules that govern it and stick to them, conformist squares that we are. We need limitations for our stories to make any sense.

“A Dark Lord rose up. When Tom found out about it, he teleported over and turned the evildoer into a newt. The End.”

Not the stuff of legend, that.

So if we’re to use magic, we must first and foremost decide who can use it, and what it can and can’t do. And as we’re doing so, we need to think about the effect of our decisions on the setting and make sure everything is congruent with the story we’re trying to tell. Maybe Tom can’t teleport, and he has to walk over the Dark Lord’s lair. Maybe he can only turn him into a newt if he collects the Six Talismans of Amphibia. Or maybe we could, y’know, write something good.

What can magic do? What are its limitations? I’m sure you’ve read a hundred stories in which magic could do just about anything, except *drum roll* raise the dead. (Still boring).

One of the most common magical beliefs in our own mythologies is that of sympathy; that is, magic can only affect something of which you have a piece. To turn into a swan, you need to wear a cloak of swan’s feathers. To torture someone from afar, you need a doll shaped like that person, and probably some of their hair or blood. Perhaps you can’t implant emotions into a victim, but you can tease at and emphasize emotions that already exist. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, people can learn to affect the elements, but in order to bend water to one’s liking, one must a) be near enough water to bend; and b) be born into one of the Water Tribes.

What can all wizards do? Can they all recognize when something is magical? Your story offers different possibilities if wizards instantly recognize each other as wizards, Highlander style, than it does if this is something they only learn by staring down a fireball.

What can no wizard do? Are the dead beyond our reach? Perhaps magic can never kill directly. Perhaps it can only affect the non-magical, and no wizard can cast spells on another.

What influences magic? Is it more powerful at night? Does it only work when the gods approve of a wizard’s ends? Are there any areas that are magic-dead? For that matter, does it always work the same way, or is there an element of chaos or caprice?

Whatever you decide, you need to work through consequences to ensure that it all holds together. In the D&D roleplaying game, even the most neophyte priest can conjure up food out of thin air, yet we’re frequently asked to believe that society is agrarian: that people farm and that droughts are a problem.

Does this make sense? Why not simply hire a priest to magic up some eating all day, every day? Well, some folks might argue that even neophyte priests are so few and far between that one can’t build an economy around them. All well and good, but somehow we have a neophyte priest in every adventuring party. If I were a church patriarch, I surely wouldn’t be letting my newbies wander off to get ganked by goblins when I could just put them to work making pies. That’s especially true given one of the most common rationales for an adventuring priest is to raise money for the faith. If I could poof up food from thin air, I doubt fund-raising would constitute a problem.

But perhaps the gods don’t want their worshippers creating food except in the direst emergency. Why might that be? Maybe the harvest god is offended that people are ignoring his beautiful wheat. Or perhaps magic can only make beef pies, and you need something else to ward off vitamin deficiency (why yes, we are reaching a bit). Or maybe we should can the food summoning idea because it changes the game more dramatically than we’re interested in dealing with.

Where does magic come from, and who can use it?

The most common answer throughout fantasy is that magic is inherent. Either you have it or you don’t. Does that happen along hereditary lines? If so, one can bet that wizards will be intermarrying to ensure passing on their magic. What if magical talent is completely unpredictable? Perhaps there’s an industry of quacks offering libations and amulets to guarantee that a child will be magical.

How common is it? The world is a very different place if wizards are common enough to be integrated into society, or to constitute their own societies. We can have items enchanted and sold in magic shops. We can have teleporter relays set up to whisk people away. But if we’re to do that, magic has to have fairly predictable workings and, of course, there needs to be a lot of it.

If wizards are rare, what does that mean? Are they primarily celebrated or feared? Will they absorb piles of yes-men, or draw a torch-and-pitchfork mob, or both? Obviously, if wizards are rare, we can’t have our magic shops. But were they always rare? Maybe what we have are relics of a golden age when blah blah blah (beware: golden ages when magic was still grand are one of the most tired fantasy cliches).

What if magic isn’t inherent? What if it’s basically just technology, and anybody is capable of learning how to use it? Will that knowledge be jealously hoarded, or encouraged? Can it even be hoarded, or is there a critical enough mass of rogue wizards selling teaching services that any attempt to keep magic bottled up is doomed to failure?

What if magic doesn’t come from the wizard, but from the environment? Here we come to another of our world’s most common magical traditions: shamanism. Perhaps magic is not something the shaman can do, but something he must convince the spirits to do on his behalf. All of a sudden, we need to understand those spirits: what they want, and why they do what they do. What price will those spirits exact? What if a well-loved shaman asks for something that isn’t in the spirits’ best interests? Perhaps, like Faust, wizards must make a contract with evil things. What responsibilities might that contract stipulate? Are there any loopholes in it? What kind of sorcery will a malign spirit grant? What price will it exact?

How and where does magic work? Nuts-and-bolts stuff. Do wizards need to wave their arms around and say the magic words? What happens when a non-wizard waves the same pattern and recites the same spell? Do wizards need wands? How long does it take to cast something? If the creation of magic is obvious, and a ritual takes a while to complete, a wizard might get stuck full of arrows before he can finish. Or a charlatan might wave his arms about to scare off brigands. But if you can just think a spell into being with no outward sign of doing so, the brigands might be in for a nasty surprise, and magic in general will be a bit scarier. After all, even your mild-mannered next-door neighbour might be a filthy Red.

We talked about sympathy earlier – if the alchemist wants to turn lead to gold, does he need some gold to start the process? If he wants to hurl a fireball, does he need sulfur?

Let’s say magic only works at night, or a shaman can only call the spirits if he ventures to the secret grove. What happens if a wizard’s enemy lays plans to attack during the day, or if the grove has been desecrated?

What if entire swaths of land are magic-dead, and no spells can be cast inside them? How’d that happen? If these areas can be recognized, maybe warlords will build forts in them to ensure they have nothing to fear from magical enemies.

Finally, why have we made the decisions we made? How do they support the story we’re trying to tell? We need to pull it all together and make sure, as my Polish compatriots say, that it has arms and legs.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which magic is a heresy zealously expunged by inquisitors (classic fantasy cliche). If magic only conjures up pies and makes fluffy clouds and rainbows, it’s a bit of a hard sell. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just means that we need to think about consequences. Peasants who like pies and rainbows will do their best to hide their magical buddies, and maybe eventually they’ll be pushed past their breaking point and rise up against the unfair zealots. But what if magic is genuinely dangerous? What if it’s hard to control? The inquisitors may find, all of a sudden, that they have more support.

Let’s say we want to tell a story in which a civilization collapses because magic stops working. Well, for a society to collapse for lack of magic, we need, first and foremost, magic that was common and dependable enough to integrate into its workings. And how did magic disappear? If an anti-magic zone just happened to spring up under our city, maybe it’s a matter of moving next door. But maybe the spirits we depended on to grant all this can no longer be contacted. Maybe they’ve been imprisoned, or wiped out, or they no longer approve of the way magic has been used? Why might that be? What can we do to solve the problem and bring magic back?

Traditional fantasy writing is, essentially, about magic. It’s critically important that we do it right. We have to know how it works, how it doesn’t, and what all that means. Even modest changes in the way these questions are answered can significantly impact the nature of a story.

Next time, I may do a Magic 201 case study, charting how magic works in my own fantasy writing and why I made the decisions I made. If that sounds interesting, or you have other subjects you’d like to discuss, please let me know in comments or via Twitter.

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May 082011
 

A large part of the corpus of fantasy fiction is, and generally has been, aimed at youths.

Sometimes, this is explicitly intended – Narnia, Harry Potter, etc. – and in some cases, the underlying themes and assumptions so common to high fantasy find a young readership because they hold more appeal for the kids these days than they do for those of us who are more concerned with paying bills than hunting dragons.

How, then, does one write fantasy for adults?

In some ways, the assumptions behind that question are mildly silly. C.S. Lewis thought so, and gave us a gorgeous quotation in an essay on writing for children: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Which is to say, of course, that I don’t think adults typically find anything inherently off-putting in youth-focused fiction. The Bildungsroman is a fiction staple in any genre you could care to name, Glee is hyper-popular among its teen target market and adults alike, and of course everybody on the bus is reading Harry Potter (even if they’ve slipped it into a War and Peace book jacket out of embarrassment).

So on the one hand, I think the oppositional way in which some people approach adult-oriented vs. youth-oriented fiction is misguided, as is the (bizarre) idea that adults no longer have formative experiences and thus can’t be arsed to read about them.

On the other, of course, there’s a real difference between fiction targeted at somebody else that one can nevertheless enjoy, and fiction aimed directly at… well, us. And it’s true that, the Kays and Bakkers of the world notwithstanding, there really isn’t so much out there. Few fantasy novels have much to say about parenting, or mid-life crises, or nostalgia, or trying to keep a marriage together when you’re always heading out on business trips to chop some heads off.

But let me tell you, the I-just-want-to-pay-my-bills experience of adult life is very well represented. Semi-honourable thieves, poor honest men who could make a killing by… well, killing, but gave it up for lent, mercenaries willing to take any job with no questions asked: such characters are very much the stuff of fantasy. Indeed, once upon a time, sword-and-sorcery was built on their iron thews.

Meet Conan. Some of you may know him from a mildly awful (yet amusing) Arnold movie that entirely misrepresented the poor chap. The literary Conan was whip-smart, defiant, bipolar, not terribly discerning about where his income came from, and often disappointed or disgusted that the world outside his native Cimmeria just didn’t value good, honest, barbarism. (His answer was generally to cleave it in twain).

He was one of many such. Sword and sorcery was not really aimed at children (inasmuch as an entirely child-oriented fiction industry existed at the time; that’s a more modern conceit). The pulps, particularly the fantasy pulps in which we’re interested here, were penned at a difficult time, sandwiched between a war, a depression, and another war. They reflect it. There’s a wonderful Onion article in Our Dumb Century that laughs about the US finding solace in the wit and whimsy of H.P. Lovecraft’s utopianism. The joke is that the depression was so crushing that being killed or driven mad by gibbering cosmic entities and Nouns Man Was Not Mean to Verb constituted a step up.

Which isn’t to conflate adult with dark, of course. Those are orthogonal. I’m only pointing out that the answer to the question “Why doesn’t anybody write fantasy for adults?” is “We did.”

Why did pulps fall out of favour? Firstly, the ’50s did them in. When everything’s peachy-keen and our greatest concern is finding a way to hide our pregnant daughter from the Joneses, Lovecraft seems a relic of an entirely different eon, to say nothing of decade. There’s a reason why the ’50s gave us so much utopian sci-fi (up until the Cold War got a bit hotter). I also suspect we stopped identifying with the purely mercenary protagonist. Most of our thieves and lawbreakers these days have hearts of gold under there somewhere, and in fact the actual human consequences of their actions are usually glossed over so that we never have to think too hard about the fact that they’re maybe not the best of role models. At their best, they’re often the Sams Spade of the modern world – fakers who pretend at corruption and world-weariness but are actually driven by a rather strong moral idealism and a desire to do good things.

And, of course, one needs to consider the business of it all. When high fantasy sells and sells and sells for decades, publishers will want to see more high fantasy. There’s a perception among some of them that genuine, adult concerns don’t belong in genre, and so when books that deal with them are successful, there’s a bizarre song and dance to ignore and reclassify. 1984, Oryx and Crake, The Road. They’re not sci-fi. They’re not post-apoc. They’re Big Serious Literature.

(And they are, of course. But they’re Big Serious Genre Literature, or as close to it as makes no meaningful difference).

So how do we write fantasy for adults? We throw in a flawed protagonist and pull him into a situation that challenges those flaws. We remember that our characters may worry that their children are getting the wrong idea about their mercenary escapades. We write honest, adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, between people who are likely to already know their needs. We deconstruct – if somebody’s life involves drifting from town to town and righting wrongs, what does that say about this character? Who on earth would do such a thing instead of living a normal, healthy life? What are the costs of a lifetime of violence?

In other words, we just write books. Genre is a shorthand, not a story in and of itself. Certainly, if we use it, it should be for a reason, but that reason doesn’t have to be a checklist. Fantasy is an ideal backdrop for stories about uniquely powerful individuals and the things they can achieve for good or ill. It can also be an ideal backdrop for stories about common, mundane, everyday people caught up in a world where a wizard might fry them because they looked a mite uppity.

And now that independent self-publishing is again a viable option, an author who believes in his work and is willing and able to market it can sidestep a whole lot of publishing houses talking about what sells – or, to be more specific, about what sold. Many will seize that opportunity, and fantasy will be richer for it.

Next time: I don’t know. Something. Maybe we’ll talk about magic.

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May 032011
 

Heroism is not what you do, it’s who you are.

Bit problematic, isn’t it?

I’ve alluded previously to high fantasy’s obsession with, essentially, heredity. High fantasy heroes are more often born than made. They have the blood of kings, or deities, or heroes. They’re The Last <Noun>. Only they can wield the magic blade of Some Dead Guy. Only they survive the killing curse.

High fantasy heroes, in short, triumph not because they work at it (they often do, of course), but because they’re special, or prophesied, and the universe folds itself in around them.

The semi-divinity of heroes is of course nothing new. Heroic figures in myth were virtually always larger-than-life: kings so important the gods built them companions, warriors explicitly born of deities, men bathed in invincibility juice, etc. But it’s worth noting that this was no guarantee of success in the ancient world. Gilgamesh loses his best friend and learns that even he can’t triumph over mortality. Hercules goes nuts and kills his whole family. Achilles’s Heel is still a metaphor for a flaw so complete that it can drag down what is otherwise perfect.

So if, as I believe, fantasy is the heir of myth, how did the current state of things come about?

As with most things high fantasy, I think Lord of the Rings is the answer. Now, let’s note that Frodo isn’t The Last Hobbit or any of that nonsense, and that he does suffer quite a bit to get things done. Nevertheless, while he isn’t precisely the prophesied one (Aragorn comes closest in that particular cast), the thematic elements that underpin Frodo and the rest of the hobbits – that anybody, no matter how small, can make a difference – led pretty naturally into what came later.

The popularity of LotR was built on the back of the hippie counter-culture, and it’s in this context specifically that the foundations for the rest of what we now call high fantasy were laid. And you know who talked a lot about the small making a difference? Hippies.

My contention – and I hasten to add that I’m not a sociologist – is that the ethics of high fantasy were shaped in no small part by the focus on self-esteem and self-actualization that was common in the parenting styles of the day, by people who championed those ideals and people that grew up with them.

It’s all about self-esteem. And while straw-man oversimplifications of self-esteem parenting abound and set tongues to clucking about the (not always healthy) ways things were done back in the day, it’s worth remembering that the twee, syrupy joy of “I’m worth it!” can most certainly turn into real happiness and a sense of self-worth.

I think this explains why teenagers enjoy high fantasy so much, and why so much of it is written directly at them (and, indeed, why high fantasy in general has a reputation for being childish, on which more at a later date) – they’re at a point in their lives where the idea of inherent worth is a bit alien, and the idea that people are important just by dint of being is one that many of them need to hear.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t problematic elements to this pervasive theme. It is, in many ways, awful. It’s inegalitarian, and it feeds the idea that success is an inherent trait rather than the result of hard work. Better done high fantasy avoids this.  Harry Potter, for all that his thunder is always stolen by Dumbledore Ex Machina, really does work for his heroism, and more importantly, his not-so-special comrades put in a good shift (and indeed, where would they be without Hermione?).

But the bad stuff is everywhere too. Heroes succeed despite rank stupidity because they are who they are, or because they profess the right political belief. Everything falls in place for them. The universe bends around them. Their every stupid snap judgment is proven correct. Their enemies, despite having somehow draped their black cloaks over the world entire, are woefully incompetent.

The line between self-esteem and narcissism is thin.

How do we fix it? Well, it’s already been fixed. For all the really terrible fiction out there, there’s a lot of fantastic stuff. But my nuts-and-bolts summary:

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the protagonist being special, chosen, prophesied, etc. (other than the fact that it’s played out, of course, but execution is bigger than ideas and it can be pulled off well). There is something wrong with the protagonist being the only person who can contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. His companions – for there are always companions – need to be more than nodding yes-men. Also, if a protagonist is the only person who can do something, that needs to be reflected in the way they see themselves. I don’t mean why-me angst, necessarily, but some thought should be given to the weight of the responsibility. Our intrepid hero certainly shouldn’t be charging into the lion’s jaws without any sort of plan, because he needs to be aware that if he’s done for, so’s everybody else. (Although, that said, a nihilistic chosen one could be a lot of fun).

I’ll take this opportunity to direct you to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a kids’ cartoon series done in the timeless good-for-them, fun-for-us style that marks all good children’s media (nb: I hear the movie sucks). Aang is terrified by the weight of his task and the magnitude of his own powers, he has trouble reconciling what he has to do with the happy-go-lucky pacifist he is, and he has friends that get their own character development and actually help out now and again.

That said, I definitely would like to see more of the proletarian approach. Even in the highest of fantasy, there’s room for people who aren’t in some way marked for great deeds, but who achieve them because they’re driven, or courageous, or caught up in events greater than they are. People the world over have managed to do incredible things without needing to be the last wizard or the last unicorn or the last hippie.

And these heroes, be they super-speshul or merely brave, need to fail sometimes. They need to make snap judgments that are wrong (especially if they’re teens). They need to disregard good advice, get into scrapes, and learn to think. They need to be up against credible threats that act like threats. It doesn’t all need to be terribly dark, particularly if you are writing a bildungsroman or something aimed at an even younger crowd. The villain doesn’t need to order babies executed gangland style, and the hero doesn’t need to contemplate suicide. But please, too many Dark Lords just phone it in. I know they’re busy with their succubi and figuring out property taxes on the Fortress of Woe, but if your villain can’t present at least some difficulty for an intrepid teenager, I’m going to have some difficulty taking him seriously as the would-be ruler of all creation.

Next time, we’ll talk about writing fantasy for adults instead of those damn kids with their hair, what’s mildly silly about that goal, and iron thews.

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May 012011
 

Fans of our increasingly Manichean world of Yankees and Red Sox, liberals and conservatives, blue colour-coded babies and pink ones will be thrilled to learn that there are essentially only two kinds of fantasy. The distinction is simple: wistful nerds read about Bilbo, and angry nerds read about Conan.

Some people will tell you all about something called “steampunk” and “hot sex with vampires”, but we’re not too concerned with those right now. Steampunk is basically just Bilbo or Conan with a flintlock and gaslight. Paranormal romance actually had its genesis in horror (Dracula, and then Ann Rice’s re-purposing of same), and plays with slightly different tropes.

What we’re talking about, essentially, is map fantasy. Ever cracked open a book whose cover depicts some dude with a sword racing towards a dragon? Chances are the first thing in there is a map. That’s our bag today.

We’ve discussed previously that genre is a convenient short-hand made up of common tropes and themes. What then are the tropes that make up fantasy? What is fantasy?

And before we delve into that, a disclaimer: fantasy nerds can be prickly sorts, and I don’t want people casting spells at me. I may be glib. But believe you me, I love the silly shit, warts and all.

The tl;dr version is simply: fantasy stories generally use the supernatural as an element of setting or plot. It’s all about magic. It’s also occasionally about the cleaving in twain of creatures and people, but since the swords are magical too, I’m counting that.

Fantasy’s best known face is, of course, that of Lord of the Rings. A magical McGuffin, a Dark Lord who’s been biding his time for millennia to acquire it, elves and dwarves and hobbits, and an epic quest requiring multiple books, skirmishes with orcs, and the occasional infodump by an ancient wizard who’s rarely as helpful as it seems like he should be. LotR was written after the war, but it didn’t start to really hit it big until the hippie counter-culture got at it in the ’60s. Once Robert Plant began to write songs about ringwraiths, it was over. Fantasy exploded, and the shelves groaned under millions and millions of words about elves and ancient evils. Games got in on the act, first with Dungeons and Dragons and then computers, and now 11 million people log into World of Warcraft on the regular to smite orcs and dark lords who sport volcanoes on their shoulders. For the sake of classification, this came to be called high fantasy. I assume that’s a dig at hippies.

But this wasn’t always the face of fantasy. It was a codification, and had an enormous impact on what came after. But first, there were pulps. The second kind of fantasy, typified by Robert E. Howard’s mighty-thewed Conan, was in fact mostly about thews. They strained, and groaned, and ran red with blood. Lots of blood. The pulp fiction era was often violent, and dark, and… well, deeply weird, actually. The lines between speculative fiction weren’t as clear then. Fantasy and horror skipped merrily hand in hand, and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a medieval-tech society built on the bones of space-faring aliens. The Conan genre, which Fritz Leiber named sword and sorcery, is in many ways similar to the high fantasy that followed it, but it’s perhaps even more similar to some of our own mythology. Zeus’s thews would be right at home in Conanville.

There are other nuances, of course. We have Dunsanies and Lovecrafts and Vernes, fairy tales and eddas, etc. And, of course, there’s been quite a lot of divergence since, and there was plenty before. But as far a highly simplified history of modern map fantasy goes, the above is workable.

What, then, are these genres? How are they similar, and how do they differ?

 

Cover Art

Covers are an easy way to tell the subgenres apart at Your Favourite Bookstore.

HF – Men with swords and shiny armour staring grimly at dragons. Wistful-looking women with unicorns. Dark lords in spiky armour sitting on top of evil beasties (such as dragons). Castles. Wizards with pointy hats.

S&S – Bloody, mostly naked men with swords staring defiantly at reader or else burying swords into heads of other bloody, mostly naked men, or Things That Should Not Be. Pouty-looking women typically found wrapped around heroic thews. Sorcerers made up primarily of tattoos and skulls, daggers bloody with the afterglow of sacrifice. They also have thews.

Maps?

Oh, yeah. We got maps.

The Stakes

Here’s where the divergence begins. The stakes of high fantasy are global. Sure, the occasional princess may need saving, but you’d best believe that in snatching her out of the way of danger, the bold heroes will also save the world. Saving a country is pretty much as small-time as it gets. Those pesky Dark Lords are always messing shit up.

Sword and sorcery is somewhat less magnanimous. The stakes are usually personal, and sometimes very petty. If Conan were to save the world, it’d be pretty much by accident, but the question doesn’t really arise. For one thing, the world isn’t worth saving – or, at least, its deliverance is beyond the capabilities of anyone. At best, Conan managed to make the trains run on time in one kingdom. Certainly, he killed himself a dark wizard or two, but it’s usually because he was bored, well-paid, horny or because the wizard just cheesed him off some. S&S is generally character-driven, not setting-driven. And its characters are frequently psychopaths.

The Setting

HF – Medievalish Europe, minus the plagues (unless the Dark Lord spreads them). And it’s always Medievalish Europe. Good places are pastoral, with doughty kings and hardy, surprisingly clean simple folk who will tragically be drawn into conflict when the Dark Lord finally collects the McGuffin and his shadow passes over the land.

S&S – willing to experiment. There’s a lot of Medievalish Europe, but there’s also a lot more happening on the fringes, in the wilderness, or in other earth-based societies. Grimy cities swarming with thieves, deep swamps in which cultists make sacrifices to goat-headed demons or Ctulhoid monstrosities, etc. Farms and the like are basically non-existent, because they’re unnecessary. The murder-based economy is perfectly capable of putting food on the table.

Its Inhabitants

HF – Humans are generally the baseline, and it’s generally explained that they’re Gifted With Choice. Humans can be bad or good, in league with the dark lord or the Conclave of Free Folk, ambitious or timid, etc. Basically, they’re people. They’re joined by a number of monocultures who deal mostly in essentialism. All dwarves are drunken louts with faux-Scots accents, all elves speak stiltedly and flourish in the woods. All orcs are evil and probably in the Dark Lord’s thrall. Sometimes, the protagonist will be joined by The One Blanketyblank That Isn’t Like That, as part of a racism-is-bad subplot that proves all people can transcend their upbringing, while glossing over the fact that the monoculture actually only has the one rebel, and that this nuance (such as it is) is limited to the goodly races that form the Conclave of Free Folk.

S&Swhere high fantasy might turn non-human monocultures into thinly veiled racist allegories, sword and sorcery cuts out the middle-man. It’s mostly just racist with people. Conan is especially cringe-worthy in this respect, in that it’s presented as a theoretical pre-history of our own world, complete with the inscrutable Orient, vicious cannibals in the jungle, etc. Non-humans are a little more rare, but you can bet they’ll be bestial servants of Nouns What Ought Not Verb.

Monsters of various sorts exist in both milieus, be they undead, demonic, etc. They’re usually rarer and meaner in S&S.

Magic

HF – Magic in high fantasy is usually pretty well understood. It can be rare, like in Lord of the Rings, or it can be so widespread that one has magical hospitals and magical streetlamps and magical toasters. But it’ll generally follow certain rules more or less predictably, and it’ll be simply a tool. Good people will use magic to heal the sick and feed the poor, bad people will use it to infect the healthy and turn the poor into a shambling army of zombies. If it’s rare, it’s just about guaranteed that people are born with the talent. It might be hereditary, or it might just happen, but either you’ve got it or you don’t. If it’s common, that’s probably still the case. Very rarely, it might be universally accessible through study and hard work.

S&SMagic is usually rare, and almost always unpredictable, or just flat-out evil. It’s still occasionally an inherited trait, but more often, it’s accessible to anybody that’s willing to sell a bit of soul to some gibbering demonic entity or another. Traditional sword and sorcery is, in fact, largely concerned with the triumph of sword over sorcery. That said, of all the fantasy out there, S&S is also the most likely to tell stories that don’t revolve around magic. These stories may still run into mild supernatural elements, and of course they take place in a setting where the supernatural is assumed to exist.

The Protagonist

HF – High fantasy protagonists are usually special in some way. They’re marked by ancient prophecy or secret bloodline. If it’s the latter, they’ll probably have been spirited away to live as an ignorant farmboy somewhere out of the Dark Lord’s grasp, because apparently this makes more sense than just teaching them how to deal with shit. They usually accept their quest with perhaps a bit of trepidation or why-me, but in the end, it’s The Right Thing To Do.

S&S has a soft spot for the anti-hero. The best of them profess some sort of code of honour, but if it has to be laid aside now and again, that’s life in Conanville. They don’t accept quests because it’s the right thing to do, generally speaking. They do it for money. Or revenge. S&S loves it some revenge. The genuinely self-sacrificing tend to build up calluses pretty quickly, and their do-goodery often comes out only when they think others aren’t watching. If that sounds a lot like other pulp-era protagonists, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

The Supporting Cast

HF – The protagonist’s childhood friend, also probably a farmer, who will be largely ineffectual until he gets that one moment to remind us all that heroes persevere in the face of adversity. A love interest, sometimes. A party made up of representatives of the free folk of the world, featuring one dwarf, one elf (they don’t like each other), a bunch of other people who are largely extraneous, and occasionally a hard-bitten mercenary or outlaw with a heart of gold who’s dramatically more competent than everybody else but can’t aspire to anything more than a heroic death, because heroism isn’t what you do, it’s who you’re born.

S&S – Because so much of the corpus of sword-and-sorcery is made up of short stories, and so much of it focuses on lone-wolf protagonists, S&S is a bit thin on supporting casts. Once in a while, the protagonist will work alongside a mightily-thewed comrade (choice comrades are thieves, bandits, and brigands). Certainly, floozies abound. Still, when we meet new people, it’s mostly to kill them.

The Villain

HF – We’ve already talked about the Dark Lord. Why’s he so mean? Usually, because he has to be. Welcome back, essentialism. He’s evil because he’s Evil with a capital ‘E’. Evil, in high fantasy, is not something people do so much as an animate force that must be vanquished. We’re in very black and white territory here.

S&S – The villain is the guy mildly more unpleasant than the hero. Capital-‘E’ Evil does exist here as well, but that’s typically in conjunction with magic, and as we’ve seen earlier, magic is frequently a matter of choice. Like the hero, the villain isn’t driven by a lust for philosophical purity. He’s not nice, but he’s also not evil for Evil’s sake. He probably wants power, or women, and figures the best way to get there is a shambling army of the pustulent dead. Fair enough, really.

The Plot

HF – Collect six pieces of the Thing That Was Sundered so that you have a weapon against the Dark Lord, and in so doing learn valuable lessons about friendship and growing up. Defeat the dark lord in a climactic showdown, ascend to the throne, and become the doughty king ruling justly over pastoral splendor.

S&S – Boy meets girl. Girl turns out to be a succubus controlled by evil wizard. Boy kills evil wizard for money (or more hot succubus sex). Fuck yeah, money (or hot succubus sex)!

Gender Roles

HF is far likelier to be written with women in mind, and indeed there are entire reams of female-oriented high fantasy. They’re usually heavier on elves than dwarves and feature shit-tons of unicorns. In most HF, though, women will happily fall into their traditional entertainment roles of bait, largely silent (or else spunky-until-the-plot-calls-for-capture) love interest, or sneering harridan.

For the role of women in S&S, see the section on Cover Art.

Sex

HF – mostly chaste, although the occasional roguish sort might bed a buxom wench or two. If the protagonist is getting some, it’s usually with his twu wuv that was fated by the stars and prophecy and I can’t finish this sentence because I’m too busy pining.

S&S – yes, please. Note that these buxom wenches are somewhat likelier to turn into ravenous flesh-eating demons.

A note on homosexuality in mainstream fantasy: it’s actually mildly common in HF aimed at women, and then frequently portrayed as normal, if perhaps a little twee-with-good-intentions. It’s essentially nonexistent elsewhere, unless one wishes to insult a mightily-thewed barbarian (not recommended).

The Themes

HF – The free peoples of the world, working together, can triumph over adversity. Even the meanest farmhand can save the world provided his veins secretly run with the blood of kings. Heroism is who you are, not what you do. Ancient wizards are surprisingly useless when push comes to shove. The world – or our suspiciously English-looking corner of it – is a beautiful, bright place that must be defended from Evil.

S&SFuck yeah, money! You can accomplish whatever you want if you’ve got a strong sword arm and the will to swing it at somebody’s head, because normal people are sheep! Not like you, you mighty Adonis. Of course, you may also die horribly because you stumbled upon Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, but that’s magic for you. The world is a hive of scum and villainy, so get yours before they do.

The Language

HF – Forged in the c’rucibles of Ap’ostrophis, L-ord of PreTensia.

S&STends to resemble writing, but has a real fondness for Words Man Was Not Meant to Capitalize.

The Critical Reception

lol.

Why do we love it so much?

HF – it allows us to bask in the warm glow of moral clarity while heading out for high adventure and butchering up some orcs. It reminds us of fairy tales, and gives us a sense of nostalgia for simpler days that never were. It speaks to insecurities about wishing to be somebody else. Somebody important.

S&Santi-heroes are cool. All of us have our little frustrations, and desires for things that are out of reach… but if you go after those things with a battle-axe nowadays, people call you crazy. S&S allows us the freedom to chase after our dreams, come what may, and the only price the occasional murder at the hands of Things That Were Not Meant to Devour Man. It allows us to enjoy the delusion that, were we to live in a rough frontier where the only things that count are wit and weaponry, we’d be mighty heroes and not dying of a spear in the gut.

Afterword:

Obviously, the bare bones of any genre are subject to reinterpretation, picking and choosing, and deconstruction. It’s rare that an actual fantasy novel in this day and age will cleave strictly to all of the above generalizations, but they remain themes and tropes that pop up with some frequency.

High fantasy has been ascendant for a long time, and with the huge popularity of the LotR movies, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft, it’s most certainly going to keep on keeping on. But a curious thing happened over the last twenty years, as people tired of the dominant paradigm – many of the tropes and ethics of sword and sorcery books have been quietly making their way back into books of their own, or melding with high fantasy, and the results have been pretty interesting.

George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, certainly one of the champions of the last decade of genre writing, is basically a high fantasy told in an S&S style. More broadly, the save-the-world plotting of high fantasy is (mercifully) fading away some, and characters are growing more varied and far better developed. The Bakkers and Kays of the world have been some of the more conspicuous proponents of literary fantasy – serious books, about serious issues, that also happen to give us some of the ancient wizards and mighty thews that we thrive on. But then, there’s also been a new wave of D&Disms, led by guys such as Erikson, with knife-wielding level 13 assassins taking on elves, slightly different elves, and prehistoric elves in a land where everything glows with magic.

Now, with the explosion of independent publishing, we can expect to see still more variety. It remains to be seen what new writers will draw inspiration from, and what tropes they’ll build on, but I think we’re going to ride the wave of high fantasy back into pulp – weird, wild, and varied.

In upcoming weeks, we’ll expand a little on what some of the underlying themes of fantasy mean and how they might have developed, and we’ll play a little with deconstruction, post-modernist hipsters that we are.

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Apr 262011
 

 

Kamvar, a soldier, has lost his way. Leonine, a thief and sorcerer, has forgotten that he had one to lose.

When the daughter of a High Priest finds herself exiled and hunted across the entirety of conquered Ekka, both men will remember who they are, and the country’s invaders will learn that memories, unlike temples, are not so easily torn down.

Pale Queen’s Courtyard is the first novel by Canadian author Marcin Wrona, and a finalist in SciFiNow’s 2009 War of the Words.

Electronic versions are available at Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords.

 

“Wrona’s style and voice is where he shines. It is a bit different than a majority of the books out there, but once you’re in, you’re hooked.” – Rainyofthedark

“Overall, I really enjoyed this book as I couldn’t put it down by the time I reached the final third. The world that has been created is basically superb and the plot once it picks up is fun and exciting to follow onto its conclusion.” – Books and Things

” Wrona has a talent for bringing unknown lands to life…” – Mariyta’s Musings

 

Kamvar, a soldier, has lost his way. Leonine, a thief and sorcerer, has forgotten that he had one to lose.

When the daughter of a High Priest finds herself exiled and hunted across the entirety of conquered Ekka, both men will remember who they are, and the country’s invaders will learn that memories, unlike temples, are not so easily torn down.

Pale Queen’s Courtyard is the first novel by Canadian author Marcin Wrona, and a finalist in SciFiNow’s 2009 War of the Words.

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