LOVE THE BRIGHT SWORD
'I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.' J.R.R. Tolkien.
Note to self: always re-read blog posts carefully to ensure that no instance of "heroes" has inadvertently be rendered as 'herpes'. Oh the difference one letter makes...
At Eastercon this year one of the many fascinating panels was 'The Nature of Heroism.' This was remarkable particularly for Tricia Sullivan and George R.R. Martin nearly coming to blows, but also for opening a can of worms that fantasy literature tends to keep shut a lot of the time. Why are our heroes such brutal thugs? Why do we love that, in a hero? Is there any other solution than violence? The panel itself didn't get too far into the question, but it's an interesting one: can you take the 'sword' out of sword and sorcery, rather than just taking it out of the stone (and hitting someone with it)?
Firstly, there's a difference between hero (which I am gamely attempting to use as a gender-neutral term throughout) and protagonist. My personal dividing line would be to do with the scale of obstacles encountered and overcome. It's that extra effort, the additional stand taken, the hardship endured, the ... well, I can't really say 'battles won', can I? But thinking of fantasy heroes, it's a natural progression.
Conan, yes. Druss, obviously. Aragorn. Going back further, Hercules and Achilles. Arthur and his knights. Roland. And I was unfair with the 'brutal thugs' comment, because most of these people (not you, Conan) are doing their sword-swinging thing for the best of reasons. But they have a one-size-fits-all solution to any problem, which is to hit it until it's not a problem any more.
Of course, we're still a link in the chain that takes us from a society where violent men have the force to take charge, which led to a society where violent men invented a great many gilded reasons why they had a right to be in charge, which led to a society where violence was the glorified, song-and-storied right of the First Estate. So that explains why so many of our myth figures are bruisers. Also - and this ties into a post I wrote recently regarding the structure of MMO computer games - violence is easy. To deal with the problem in a violent way is flat out the simplest and most permanent solution, even in fantasy worlds where the dead can be brought back to life. Outwitting, avoiding or talking around the bad guy are far more challenging to pull off - ergo, to write. It's not fair to say that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. Violence is everyone's last resort. The incompetent simply have fewer resorts to plough through before they reach it.
So what sort of a hero doesn't fight? Actually, at least in our neck of the woods, there are almost none who don't fight. However, there are a few who do their best to solve problems in other ways. One of the great mythic archetypes is the trickster hero, and fantasy is currently having a great deal of fun with them - Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards, Tallerman's Giant Thief and Doug Hulick's Among Thieves are good examples of books where the felonious heroes can fight, but generally consider it a personal failure if it comes to that, and running away and deceit are always the preferred options. Similarly there are wizardly heroes who pull the same sort of balance with their arcane powers - Kvothe in Rothfuss's Name of the Wind is a good example, or Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea, or even Granny Weatherwax (I don't seriously need to say where she's from, do I?)
With some heroes, the clever and the cleaver go hand in hand, even - Lieber's Lankhmar stories have all the swash of pulp fantasy but with heroes of rather more devious wit than most of their forerunners, and the titular Painted Man from Brett's books backs up his melee with a hard-earned bag of magic. Likewise, Mary Gentle's White Crow can fight, but she's a scholar and magician first and foremost.
Some other heroes literally do have just their wits - with neither nimble feet nor fireballs to call on. I'd go so far as to advance my own Stenwold Maker into this category: he's a statesman rather than a swordsman, and some of his best moments are alternative dispute resolution. In The Sea Watch, he shines brightest when he's avoiding conflict through diplomacy, rather than when he's actually taking the battle to the enemy. Frances Hardinge's Mosca is a child hero who has survived two books on wits alone (and she's representative of a large strata of youngsters whose limited capacity for violence is unlikely to solve many problems). Tyrion Lannister is surely the most beloved of Martin's heroes despite - because of - the lack of traditional 'heroic' accoutrement, and similarly Glokta from Abercrombie's First Law series is a man whose only real weapon is his mind. And of course, while the brute swordsmen can - can, mind, not necessarily are - be pure and simple souls, these more intellectual heroes are often more complex, more morally suspect, more interesting.
Conclusion: most fantasy heroes hit things, modus operandi and raison d'etre in one. However, perhaps it's true that the heroes who stand out most, and are admired most, are those who have the depth and the sympathy to find another way around the problem, even if that way can sometimes involve doing things that would make even Othgar the Axelord feel a little queasy.