(Friendly Neighborhood Content Warning: a few parts of this post include extremely graphic descriptions of violence. I’ve realized that my own life experiences have inured me to this, but most readers have not had said experiences. If you’re willing to brave it–you admirable soul, you–then read on.)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the starry-eyed farmhand–alright, look, I didn’t mean actually stop me. Please plug my keyboard back in. Thank you. Anyway, the idealistic young hay-tosser, head brimming adventurous, goes forth a-warring and finds that it sucks. Battle repeatedly cleaves his innocence, and every time he muses how much it sucks. “Gee, it sure is terrible how I’m fighting so much.”
Alright, Mr. Generic High Fantasy Author, you’ve made your point. Blargh-blargh horrors of war blargh-blargh not actually going to show them mind you blargh-blargh gee, those horrors I’m not describing. Have you noticed that, by the way? A disproportionate number of fantasy authors cram 30-plus minute battles into a few paragraphs, and then after the fact the participating characters say, “Whoa, that was an awful battle, wasn’t it? What a nasty affair we’ve just been through.” Not as though most soldiers’ accounts emphasize, “Every single part of it feels like it lasts forever.” Because adrenaline thrums their veins the entire time. Remember? That’s something that happens in battle. Now, please consider the contradiction inherent in sermonizing about awful, awful war from authors who repeatedly cram battles into their writing and treat them purely as plot-beats. Let’s back up a minute and consider the ergonomics behind the agri-child’s “revelation”.
In nearly every case, the pitchfork-wielder comes from a world several parts of which are continuously at war, possibly the entire thing. No effort is made to explain how continuous, world-wide violence is sustainable in a pre-industrial society. Somehow, in centuries of offensives and counter-offensives, raids and riots and rebellions, his/her/its home province has never witnessed even a teensy scrap-war. Look, the Shire passes because mountains geographically isolate it and proximity to Elven strongholds shields it from the forces of darkness, not to mention Gondor and Rohan to the East occupying the Shadow to distraction. The Shire lacked any strategic or economic resources to entice invasion. Now, here’s what history tells us about life in a feudal setting: your presence on unguarded land gives enough reason for attack. If you’re a peasant, and lucky, you end up swearing loyalty to a new lord a few times. If you’re not, expect conscription, death, or the pushing-in of your pre-modern excretions.
My point? By what magnanimous god is this farm-hand, who lives in completely undefended countryside (often conveniently and illogically separated from the ruling monarch of the country. Looking at you, the Two Rivers!) always completely insulated from the horrors of war until the plot calls for them to learn? They’ve never seen a single raid! Has a marauding army never come close enough to steal some cows or skirmish with the Queen’s armies? Why is it always a Queen? Does every relatable high-fantasy starting zone have to be England? Questions for later. The farmhand has no right to be so insulated from war in every single story that he’s able to have these misconceptions. These are traits of modern teenagers projected onto a kid from a completely different time purely because the author either hasn’t considered or doesn’t feel up to the work of writing otherwise.
Most importantly: what’s the point of going through this with a farmhand?
If we’re so keen on de-romanticizing war, why are we always doing it with characters for whom that process holds little or no meaning? The farmboy was raised a farmer; his obsession with adventure is nearly always painted as a childish misunderstanding. He doesn’t lose a core part of his identity when he finds out how awful war is. A knight, on the other hand, low nobility raised from birth for the battlefield–what happens if he goes through this? It’s easy enough to justify. Imagine how the “classic” knight experiences battle: thundering across the field upon his mighty destrier, encased in custom-fitted, gleaming plate armor impervious to all but the strongest blows, spearing the foe-foot upon his great lance. When he squares off against rival knights, they exchange skilled blows in good order. If one overthrows the other, very likely he’ll be taken for ransom. In the midst of mayhem and bloodshed, the greatest threat to him is monetary. Now that’s privilege.
And then his destrier trips on a corpse and breaks its legs just inside the enemy line. Suddenly our young knight is face-to-face with the peasantry he’s slaughtered in his blurred charges. “A man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot,” as Steinbeck said. Well, so much for that! That fancy plate of his crumples and clatters under swooping maces and warhammers; a poor swing of a halberd, with its armor-piercing spike, might kill him where a perfect cut with a sword only bounces off. He just killed these foot-soldiers’ comrades-in-arms; they’re hopping mad, mayhap made enough that blood sounds better than ransom payouts. Perhaps the young knight dies here, in blood and filth, realizing at last what medieval war looks like from the other side.
Or maybe, and here’s an idea most authors won’t dare try: maybe he loves it. Maybe those decades of warrior indoctrination did something. Maybe, when you’re told for your entire life that battle is glorious, that it’s all you live for, maybe that sticks a little. Let’s be honest here: there’s nothing deconstructive or impressive about authors saying “war is awful.” That side of the equation’s been explored thousands upon thousands of times. Don’t misunderstand me, only the tiniest percentage of them actually demonstrate it. The hard truth is that you can’t credibly show war’s horror with a PG-13 rating. It just won’t happen when so much of war’s terror comes from the spectacular awfulness of its deaths. If we’re going to really harp on the awfulness of war, let’s stop cringing, take the readers by the backs of their innocent heads, and rub their faces in it. It wasn’t the casualty numbers from the Civil War that disconcerted the American public, but the flood of battle-photographers who forced them to look at real battlefield deaths.
“Getting shot in the chest” is effectively a lie most readers accept without a thought. The truth reads, “A bleak hole ripped his back, pumping dark red over glistening split fibers. Blood and bone-shards sprayed my face, clogged my eyes and nose; his breath went wet and ragged. When he screamed, it was a strangled bird-squawk, inhuman, fear-broken.” Are you ill? I hope so. Let’s return to the young knight. In the past he flew by ahorse, feeling the rushing wind, seeing the battle laid out before him, a grand set-piece of which he and his chivalric siblings were the icon. Now, on foot amongst thousands on foot, he’s alone. The morions and kettle-helms he looked down on moments earlier rise to blot the dust-choked sun, and weapons which flailed uselessly in the wake of his charge rattle and crack him at every turn. Each time he cleaves a man with the arming sword he yanked free–his lance is no more use now than his crippled, screeching destrier–he sees shining crimson-slick flesh and the languid seep of dark blood over bone and muscle laid bare. Often he cleaves an artery and the spray stains his armor, loosening chunks of mud. He’d probably puke if it wouldn’t get him killed.
From here I have a number of options. Again, I can end the young knight. I can have him taken prisoner, as he expects. Or, I can pull him through it. By choosing the knight instead of the farmhand, I’ve made all choices more interesting. Normally the reader expects a man at war for the first time to become immediately disillusioned. I can still take that route, and it’ll be fresher for coming from a perspective the reader doesn’t expect. I can throw him into consuming blood-lust, and force the reader to confront the ugly fact that some people just thrive on violence right to the end.This option’s much more interesting if the young knight has been a likable character up to this point, and especially sickening considering the creepy love with which I’ve rendered the slaughter. The knight sees the same death’s morass that the reader does; his crazed ecstasy becomes all the more jarring for this. One bitter truth from historical accounts is that sometimes people who are endlessly kind in peace are the most remorseless killers of all. I can take a middle ground; this is the point reached by most soldiers’ accounts even from relatively recent wars. War isn’t just brutal or glorious; it’s both, or neither depending on where you are. Sometimes (obviously not in the young knight’s scenario) it’s the mundane distilled.
Let’s zoom out again. Cultural anthropology has a principle stating that if something appears in nearly every culture, it’s probably important. A fair statement, no? Here are three somethings: constructions of gender, alcohol, and warrior ideology. Now, you can argue that these are changeable things, and I don’t disagree. But please realize that if they’re so common, they must all have been important at some point. Here I’ll draw on my own experience: all the Saturday morning cartoon hoopla about friendship and kindness and laughter did sweet fuck-all for me when the friends I thought I made in High School disappeared, when I was forced to confront that no one gives a damn how well I write or fight if I don’t have industry figureheads to say those things for me. Those sugary promises sustained me about like… sugar. What saved me from depression and suicide was a sword, and the ideals it brought with it. Those helped me see the struggle and futility as glorious. And that’s objectively delusional, but I needed that delusion. No, the truth is I still need it. More on this later.
I don’t mean to tell you that my life was equal to the horrors of war, because that’s ridiculous. I’ve made that comparison figuratively, but that’s all. I mean only that I needed those ideals to survive psychologically, and I haven’t been to war.
Back to the discourse at hand: I’m not here to tell you that war is beautiful. I only have soldiers’ accounts to say, well, maybe a little bit. I’m not here to tell you that war is horrible. I only have soldiers’ accounts (sometimes the same ones) to say, well, of course. Because the truth is that war is too vast to be the same for every person, or even the same person, and any one answer about it becomes a lie if it tries to encompass war as a whole. Many of those who go to war come back changed, or more grimly, realize they were never really built for peace. The existing answer isn’t wrong, except of course for those characters for whom it is. But it’s just one answer, and yet it shapes nearly every warrior society in fiction. Either they openly acknowledge this answer, or their culture is pure chest-beating bravado defined by obliviousness to it. So maybe, just maybe, instead of copy-pasting the same non-revelations into every story… maybe it would be more interesting if the farm-boy came to understand the knights. Just a little bit. Just for one day.