Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Worldbuilding A to Z: Values and Warfare

For the life of me I can't seem to manage a post everyday. Sigh. Another double post will have to suffice.

V is for Values

The Weighing of the Heart

I believe a culture is defined by what it values, what it holds sacred. And that is why the culture of Ancient Egypt is so vibrant and fascinating to us. The Egyptians, whom the Greeks called the most pious of peoples, knew what was sacred. This is one of the main aspects of their culture that I have, from the beginning, wanted to imitate in my fictional realm of Akhet.

So what did the Egyptians value? Family and friends. Egyptians believed that you could not be truly alive without relationships with others. If the social part of your self was not active, you might as well be physically dead because spiritually you already were. It was important to have a family unit: father, mother, children. Not only did this help you live in this world, but it helped you continue to live after death. Your family and friends could perpetuate your cult, tending your tomb and keeping your name alive after you were dead.

One lives, if his name is mentioned.
One lives, if another guides him.

Egyptians valued the concepts embodied in Maat: truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice. They were called to live blameless lives because upon their deaths their heart would be weighed against the feather of Maat. If they were found worthy they could then journey to the Field of Reeds, if they were found wanting they would be eaten by the beast Ammit, "the gobbler", thus dying a second time, permanently. To avoid this fate, the deceased would have to make 42 Confessions that state they have done no wrong during life.

The people of Ahket will have similar values. My four MCs are orphans who have no family and thus their social self is not actualized in a healthy way. This is why they go on to cause the wrong that they do.

W is for Warfare

Epic fantasy is generally a breeding ground for large scale conflicts, or wars. Think of the centuries long campaign that the Elves perpetuated against the Dark Lord Morgoth in Tolkien's The Silmarillion. (One of my favoritest books ever.) Compared to that the wimpy little war in LOTR seems kind of pathetic. Tolkien manages to do warfare very well. Probably because he experienced it in real life during WWI and later saw his sons go off to WWII. The guy knew about war.

However, after reading several more modern pieces of epic fantasy dealing with war, I've discovered that I don't particularly like to read about it. Perhaps it's because some modern fantasy authors seem to think they're writing a textbook for West Point. Perhaps it's because some authors like to use warfare to go into a lot of grisly details about atrocities people commit upon one another thus highlighting how wretched people are in general.  These things, in my opinion, have no business in epic fantasy.

Warfare has its place, but I don't think it should ever be the main course of the fantasy banquet. That's where Tolkien got it right. There's a lot of war in his tales, but LOTR is still the story of Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring while the war goes on around him. The point of the story isn't the war, because the reader knows that the war can't be won. Only Frodo can destroy Sauron by destroying the Ring. The war against Morgoth in The Silmarillion is similarly hopeless for the Elves and the Men who join them. The reader knows that the war is a folly and it's not really what the story is about. The story is a tragedy about the Oath of Feanor and the very terrible and very glorious events that came from it. Tolkien uses war to great effect, but he knows there has to be more to the story. Because war is an ugly thing, and fantasy is ultimately about finding the good and true and beautiful.

I think that in my stories there will be only very minimal warfare. It's not something I want to write about, let alone revel in. In my WIP there is conflict and there is violence, but no war. Future stories may dip into the art of warfare a bit, but I doubt it will ever be a major aspect of any of my works.

How do you feel about warfare in fantasy? Do you like more or less?


  1. And yep, I think these things are not only prevalent in fantasy, but also all different kinds of book genres. characters could have internal warfare with what their society values, etc. Great post!

  2. Warefare should be very present in a fantasy setting - especially one in which a new kingdom is attempting to make its way into the wilds. The wild creatures and inhabitants will push back which can lead to war. Also, political machination within a large city can also stir the drums of war. Great post and great A | Z!

  3. I don't mind warfare in fantasy. Sometimes it's necessary for the story. But I don't necessarily want it to be the story. I like what you wrote about LOTR. That there's a war going on but the story is about Frodo's quest.

  4. I'm not a fan of political strife in fantasy. Probably because I hate politics and don't want to think about it, particularly when I'm trying to relax with a good book. ;)

  5. I think battles more interesting to watch than read. Rebellion is a common theme in my writing.

  6. As long as what we're really worried about is whether the young wide eyed farmer boy is going to become the next killer barbarian or even whether soldier X is going to survive to eat that wonderful soup he was planning to make I'm fine with warfare in fantasy. It's only when we're left with the vague, large scale question of who will rule the kingdom that I am too detatched to care. Warfare makes a good subplot. Not a good plot.

  7. I do like warfare in fantasy - as long as the character's are interesting enough to invest in. :)

  8. Great posts.

    I don't mind warfare but I don't enjoy reading too much details. In science fiction there were a few types that would easily disinterest and confuse me, one of them being military sci-fi. I like character development and the like but I'm not a fighter and I can't relate to taking part in war really. Those scenes can also be very difficult to write. I'm glad I don't have too many in my own novels.

  9. I prefer less. (Although I dig it in movies.) Even with my own book, while part of the story occurs during war, I didn't get into the nitty-gritty stuff.

  10. I was looking at Tolkien tags, found this. Interesting comment about the presence of war. I take for granted that a Dark Lord wanting to take over the world should have a war I think.

  11. Jaye, I think people often take for granted that Sauron is the main villain of the book and that the war against him is the entire point of the story. But I don't think it is. The Ring is the real villain and the evil of the ring as the villain is manifest in all of the ways the various characters are effected by it. The point of the book is the destruction of the Ring, not the war which is essentially just a desperate bid to survive long enough for the Ring to be destroyed.


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