The Art of Epic War
War never changes. It’s hell, and in the future it’s all there is.
Epic fantasy is no stranger to war, and in this it reflects human history and culture. There is a long tradition of myths and romances and historical propaganda in which war is a Good Thing, and the sword is the appropriate tool with which to right wrongs. The story of the glorious war runs from the Iliad through the Chanson de Roland all the way to Call of Duty. To fight for your country is good. To fight the enemies of God is good. To die for your country or your family or your god is a sweet and noble thing. In this tradition, wars are fought by Good people against Evil, and to fight them is virtuous, and to refuse is to be the worst thing someone can be – a coward. Nobody wants to be branded a coward. So much of the story of “how to be a man” is wrapped up in that very specific brand of courage it takes to pick up a sword or a bow or a gun and kill or die for a Cause. The courage it takes to be, say, a conscientious objector is seldom celebrated.
The recent centenary of the Great War reminds us that the wheels have been coming off this particular cart for a while, but it’s easy enough to see why the narrative threads its way through history – and can still be found easily enough when you look for it. After all, if your culture has a need for young people to die and to kill in the national interest, you’re best advised to sugar the pill. Tell them about Valhalla. Tell them they will be absolved. Tell them they’re Right, whether they’re defending their homes or burning down someone else’s.
From a narrative perspective, war is a useful means of dispute resolution. There’s a reason so many computer games put a weapon in your hand, whether it’s World of Warcraft or Halo. Sneaking and talking are complex ways of getting what you want, and lack the convenient finality of sticking the knife in.
And epic fantasy, in particular, has the luxury of being able to define Evil in very definite terms. Sauron is evil. Torak and the Murgos are evil. Liches and dragons, wicked kings and demon-summoning wizards are evil. You’re allowed to do violent things to them, and most especially to their legions of zombies or orcs or robots or some other class of irredeemable. Sometimes that’s what the story needs: a Big Bad that’s as bad as it is big, and some well-intentioned people with pointed sticks to put matters right. A Just War against an Unjust Foe is a broad and accommodating canvas on which to tell stories of true and honest heroism.
Epic fantasy is just as good at turning the glass the other way, though. War stories don’t have to be stories that recommend war. Legend by David Gemmell looks as though it should be a story about the glories of battle. Gemmell writes about warriors, and he writes about large-scale armed conflict – the siege of Dros Delnoch is around two thirds of the entire book. And, yes, Druss is a grand old lord of war, and the Drenai are defending their land from the marauding Nadir, but when you look at the actual structure of the war, that’s not the narrative Gemmell is telling. Legend is the story of a stand against the inevitable, of a defeat in stages as wall after wall comes down, as even men like Druss reach the limits of their strength. And the denouement is not a testament to skill or to the rightness of a cause, or even to bravery – only to sheer bloody-minded endurance. In a very real sense, it is not the story of a great and noble war, but of the personal battle with cancer that Gemmell was undergoing at the time he wrote the book.
As in Legend, epic fantasy is good at telling a story about warriors that isn’t a story about a heroic war. You can even tell a story that undermines the trope of the hero itself. Abercrombie’s bitterly-named The Heroes is a tale of people thrust into a war who have no agency, no control over their own destinies. The point of the war, the wider issues (and indeed the true war that is being fought), these things are completely beyond most of the characters’ comprehension. Some are trying to be storied heroes and some are trying to be anything but; some of them achieve some measure of success, and some achieve precisely nothing, and Abercrombie makes it very clear that their flaws, their skills and their intentions are overshadowed by the brute hand of chance and (mostly bad) luck. The Heroes simultaneously destroys the titular concept whilst investing deeply in the human individuals who make up its tapestry.
In my Guns of the Dawn, Emily Marshwic ends up at the war front after her desperate country enacts a woman’s draft. She arrives more than ready to Defend the Right, full of nationalistic pride, and she finds out soon enough that nothing is that simple. The men who direct the war are still trying to fight the last one, and the cause she fights for is murky. It comes down to her and her comrades fighting for each other, because the wider war is like smoke, impossible to grasp. There’s a very similar feel to Wexler’s excellent The Thousand Names – the rights and wrongs of the Vordanai and the Kandar civil war are left entirely open – explicitly complicated by all manner of corruption and competing interests. From the point of view of Ihernglass and the rest it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other and hoping they don’t catch the next bullet.
Epic fantasy’s treatment of war is a testament to the breadth of a genre that is sometimes written-off as very single note. Yes, you can have your unqualifiedly just war against a dark lord whose credentials are diabolical beyond question. At the same time, though, the genre does a fine job of making the war part of the problem, rather than the easy solution.
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky is published by Tor UK on 12th February