Contemporary fantasy aside, most works of fantasy depict a world with a much lower level of technology than our own world. Fantasy secondary worlds are often quasi-Medieval, or depict worlds similar to the Renaissance or to the civilisations of Ancient Greece or Rome. The plot will generally be set in or centred around the most advanced part of the world, but will incorporate a common fantasy trope: the barbarian.

 

Etymology

The word barbarian today means an uncivilised person with strong connotations of savagery and cruelty, but its original definition – it come from the Greek barbaros – was simply ‘foreign, non-Greek’. The word was an onomatopeic representation of how foreigners spoke (either their own language or Greek).

The name of the Berbers of north Africa comes from the same root, as does ‘Barbary Coast’ (ie, coastal north Africa). Even the female name ‘Barbara’ is related – probably because of the many female foreign slaves in Ancient Greece.

Example in Fantasy

The most famous fantasy barbarian of all is, of course, Conan – who was created by Robert E Howard in the early twentieth century and has been the hero of many stories by subsequent authors, including Robert Jordan, Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp. Conan is a native of the northern land of Cimmeria, and his people are based on ancient Indo-Europeans and Celts; the Cimmerians are also descendants of the Atlanteans, although they have no memory of this heritage. Their land is gloomy and mountainous and the Cimmerians are an extremely hardy people. While they are a primitive, tribal race, they also have a strong sense of justice – which, in the tales of Conan’s exploits, is contrasted with the decadence and corruption of more civilised lands.

Fafhrd in Fritz Leiber’s stories such as ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ is another prominent barbarian northman. Terry Pratchett satirises the trope with his Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who laments the passing of a heroic age. Cnaiür urs Skiötha in R Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series is a Scylvendi barbarian whose homeland is between the largely unpopulated northern regions from where the preternaturally insightful Anasûrimbor Kellhus hails and the civilised lands around the Three Seas.

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, the Dothraki are barbarian horsemen of the eastern continent who are led initially by the Khal Drogo, a man who whose extremely long braid signifies that he has never been beaten in battle. A khal is the leader of a band called a khalasar (Drogo is, coincidentally (maybe), the name of Frodo Baggins’s father). The Dothraki are nomads and skilled riders who who literally and figuratively live on their horses and who complement their lifestyles by raiding.

The Aiel of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time are a barbarian (or barbarian-like) people who live in a desert to the east of the main setting of the story. Although to most of the westerners they are barbarians, their civilisation is actually quite advanced. They live by a strict code of honour and women can become warriors – in fact only women can own property, but only men can become clan leaders. They are highly skilled warriors, but never use any weapon that is solely used for combat (ie, swords).

Analysis

Fantasy barbarians are part of the literary tradition of the noble savage. The noble savage (originally, the word savage didn’t have the negative connotations of cruelty and brutality, but indicated ‘wildness’ in the sense of belonging to nature) is an individual from a less technologically advanced culture who yet has an advanced moral sense. It is both a romanticisation of the primitive and a critique of a morally bankrupt western culture. Primitive peoples have been viewed in two opposing ways. There is ‘hard’ primitivism, which posits a tough, brutal life in which people are continually fighting against each other, other tribes, the environment; and there is ‘soft’ primitivism, in which people live simple, pastoral lives and are innocent of the vices of civilisation. The key element to the debate is whether humans are innately moral and good, or whether they require the civilising influence of education, law and religion to make them such.

In terms of fantasy, barbarians are, in a way, doubly appealing. Part of the attraction of fantasy, for many, is that the quasi-medieval settings often portrayed represent a return to a simpler age when life hadn’t been corrupted by technology and good and evil were absolutes that had real meaning. The barbarian represents this desire for a simpler life in its most basic form. The barbarian is a natural man – an animal being with the advantages of sentience, but none of the disadvantages of civilisation. In Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, for instance, the only likeable viewpoint characters – the only ones without moral flaws – are the northmen Logen and the Dogman.

On the other hand, barbarians in fantasy fiction could be seen as representing the Other in the worst way. Most fantasy is Eurocentric; barbarians are from far off lands – usually from the north or the east – which the light of civilisation has yet to illuminate. In The Lord of the Rings – work generally regarded as being the epitome of world-building – swarthy men from the east – Easterlings – fight for Sauron … and that’s pretty much all we know about them.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I think the barbarian is popular because of his (and he usually is a he) status as an outsider who is uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation. He is a strong, fearsome warrior, he is misunderstood, he is quick to anger; he may be selfish, but he possesses a strong moral code that always chooses right in the end. For fans of fantasy – who, as a general rule, are not the bravest, burliest bunch – he is the ideal vessel of escapism.

What other fictional barbarians do you know? What does the barbarian mean to you? I’d love to know what you think.

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