Posts from the ‘Monday Masterclass’ Category

Monday Masterclass: The Wars of the Roses, Part Two

This week I continue my summary of the Wars of the Roses, a civil conflict in 15th century England between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, on which George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is somewhat based.

The First Battles

The first fight of the Wars of the Roses was the First Battle of St Albans (in Hertfordshire, north of London), which occurred on 22 May 1455. Here, Richard, Duke of York, faced the Lancastrian King Henry VI and beat him. The Yorkists found Henry in a tent, wounded and lapsed into his mental illness. Richard set himself up, once again, as regent, and gave Margaret of Anjou care of her royal husband. Richard, of course, wanted himself to succeed Henry; Margaret wanted her and Henry’s son, Edward to succeed.

When Henry recovered the next year, he relieved Richard of his post as regent and sent him back to command English forces in Ireland. The country was beset by various problems. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to resolve the York/Lancaster feud by holding a Grand Council, but it had little long-term effect.

After an attack on foreign forces by Richard Neville – Earl of Warwick, commander of the English garrison in Calais and a Yorkist – York, Warwick and another noble, the Earl of Salisbury were summoned to London, but didn’t go, fearing arrest. When the Yorkists tried to marshal their forces the Lancastrians intervened, resulting in a series of battles in 1459 and 1460. The upshot of these fights was that York was defeated and the Lancastrians had control of England.

Shortly afterwards, Warwick invaded England from Calais and defeated Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton (in the East Midlands). Richard returned from Ireland and took the throne, to the surprise of even his own supporters. After producing genealogical evidence supporting his claim, Parliament narrowly defeated his attempt to become king, but made him Protector of the Realm and Henry’s heir with piece of legislation called the Act of Accord.

Queen Margaret took her young son, Edward, to Scotland, where she agreed to marry him to James II of Scotland’s daughter in exchange for an army.

The Duke of York returned to northern England to quell Lancastrian resistance, but he was killed at the battle of Wakefield; his son Edmund and the Earl of Salisbury were executed by the Lancastrians afterwards. The Act of Accord meant that the heir to the throne was now York’s eldest son, Edward.

Edward beat Jasper Tudor at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. An atmospheric phenomenon called parhelion or sundogs occurred, where ice crystals in the air made it seem like there were three suns. Edward bolstered his forces’ courage by telling them they were the Holy Trinity.

The Earl of Warwick was defeated at the Second Battle of St Albans by Margaret’s army. The fleeing Yorkists left behind Henry VI, who was found sitting under a tree. Queen Margaret had the seven-year-old Prince Edward decide how to execute Henry’s Yorkist bodyguards. Her forces looted the Home Counties and were denied entrance to London.

Margaret’s army moved north. York’s son, Edward, Earl of March, joined forces with Warwick and entered London, where he was acclaimed by the populace. Parliament declared him King Edward IV. The Yorkists then gathered a huge army and followed the Lancastrians north.

The Battle of Towton, near York, on 29 March 1461 was the largest of the Wars of the Roses. Both sides agreed that it would be decisive battle and 20,000-30,000 men died in the course of the fight. The Yorkists won and Henry and Margaret fled to Scotland.

Edward of March was crowned in June 1461 and ruled for ten years, during which time the last of the Lancaster-supporting nobles were defeated – often after long sieges – Henry was captured once again and held in the Tower of London, and England and Scotland resolved their differences, forcing Margaret to leave for France.

The Last Battles

The Earl of Warwick became increasingly discontented during this period. He had been arguing that the king should marry a French princess to cement an alliance with France, but Edward IV had already married Elizabeth Woodville in secret. When this became public, the Woodvilles became more favoured than the Nevilles (Warwick’s family) at court. Edward would also not allow his brothers the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Gloucester to marry Warwick’s daughters.

In 1469, Warwick, allied with the Duke of Clarence defeated Edward IV at the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Having captured the king, however, Warwick allowed him to return to London, the two men apparently reconciled. After putting down further rebellions, Edward IV declared Warwick and Clarence to be traitors and they fled to France.

Louix XI suggested that Margaret and Warwick – formerly mortal enemies – ally with each other. Margaret once again betrothed Prince Edward – this time to Warwick’s daughter Anne – and Warwick invaded England in 1470. As Edward IV was in northern England quelling rebellions, Warwick was able to easily enter London and parade Henry VI as the restored king. Warwick’s brother, the Marquess of Montagu, turned sides and turned on Edward IV – forcing Edward to flee to Holland. The Yorkists were declared traitors and Lancastrians returned from exile.

At the behest of Louis XI, King of France, Warwick declared war on Burgundy; Charles, Duke of Burgundy and brother of king Edward, lent his support to Edward IV in another invasion of England. Clarence changed sides again and Edward captured London. At the Battle of Barnet, north of London, Warwick and Montagu were killed.

Queen Margaret attempted to join her supporters in Wales, but was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. In the fight, Prince Edward was also killed; as a result, Henry VI was murdered shortly afterwards. Edward IV was restored to the throne on 11 April 1471.

Edward died suddenly in 1483, but on his deathbed he named Richard of Gloucester Protector of England. Thus began a period of intrigue between Gloucester and Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth took refuge with her younger children. Meanwhile, Edward V, the 12-year-old heir, was taken from his stewards (who were later executed) and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded Elizabeth to also give up her younger son, the 9-year-old Richard.

Richard of Gloucester had Parliament agree that Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage had been illegal and that therefore the two young princes were illegitimate. Gloucester was named King Richard III. The two boys subsequently disappeared – their fate being one of the most famous controversies in English history.

The Duke of Buckingham, who had previously supported Richard, rebelled, declaring his support for the claim of Henry Tudor to the throne. The Lancastrian Henry’s claim was tenuous, but he was descended from Edward III. Buckingham’s rebellion ultimately failed.

Buckingham’s supporters rallied to Henry Tudor’s cause. Henry invaded England from France, by way of Wales, where he was unopposed, and fought Richard III’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the East Midlands. Richard was killed during the battle and Henry became Henry VII.

He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, and had many of his remaining rival executed – a policy that was continued by his heir Henry VIII. During Henry VII’s reign there were further uprisings, a couple involving pretenders who claimed to be heirs who were either dead or in custody, such as Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes of the Tower. None of them succeeded.

Conclusion

The Tudor period saw the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance. The power of the nobility in England was much curtailed as rebels and claimants continued to be killed off and their military powers stripped from them. Even Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church was tied into the Wars of the Roses and their effects.

The Wars of the Roses were a period of complex intrigues, battles, claims, counter-claims, alliances and betrayals – all of which are some of the best features of A Song of Ice and Fire. There are few direct analogues between the history and the fiction. However, some incidents seem like direct parallels.

Queen Margaret’s promising of her young’s hand in marriage in exchange for military aid has obvious similarities to Catelyn Stark’s betrothal of her son Robb to one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Catelyn’s rather deranged sister and nephew, Lysa Arryn and Robert, also bear some resemblance to Margaret of Anjou and Prince Edward – especially the episode where Margaret makes the young boy decide how some Yorkist knights should be executed.

The ruthlessness of the civil war and the various executions of captured nobles is well reflected in scenes from the books such as the beheading of Eddard Stark (whose first name is surely no coincidence) by the boy king, Joffrey.

On the other hand, the land of Westeros is more monolithic than England. The Seven Kingdoms is a unique place in its world – the lands to the east, dubbed Essos, are exotic and alien; the lands to the north of the Wall are even more forbidding and strange. England, by contrast, was surrounded by various nations with similar cultures, histories and interests as itself – France and Burgundy to the south, Ireland to the west, Scotland to the north.

And, of course, there were no dragons in Late Medieval Europe.

What are your thoughts on the Wars of the Roses and their reflection in A Song of Ice and Fire? What do you think of the relationship between history and fantasy literature? Post your comments for the whole world to see.

Monday Masterclass: The Wars of the Roses, Part One

As George R R Martin’s fortunes continue to wax due to the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series based on it, Game of Thrones, I thought I’d take a look this week at one of the main inspirations behind the epic fantasy story: the Wars of the Roses.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of conflicts in the late 15th century over the succession to the throne of England. They were fought between the houses of Lancaster and York, the eventual winner being the House of Tudor, a branch of the Lancaster family.

Houses and Roses

Plantagenet
The  House of Plantagenet was the ruling dynasty of England from the 12th century to the 15th century. It was a French family, originating in Gâtinais and Anjou. Its empire, the Angevin Empire (‘Angevin’ is a Victorian coinage), comprised, at one point, western France, the whole of England and eastern Ireland. There were fifteen Plantagenet monarchs of England, including John (who signed the Magna Carta), Henry V and Richard the Lionheart.

Lancaster
The House of Lancaster was a branch of the Plantagenet family. After the death of the first Duke of Lancaster, Edward III (Plantagenet) made his third surviving son, John of Gaunt – a man whose marriage to Blanche of Lancaster had made him a wealthy landowner – the next Duke of Lancaster. The house provided three kings of England: Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. Although Lancaster is a city in north-west England, Lancastrian land was held in Gloucestershire, North Wales and Cheshire.

York
The House of York was another branch of the House of Plantagenet and also gave England three kings: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. The first Duke of York was another son of Edward III, the fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley. Later Yorks were able to claim a line of descent from Lionel of Antwerp, Edward III’s second surviving son, thus giving the house a legitimate claim to the throne of England. York itself is a city in Yorkshire, but York lands were spread throughout England and the Welsh Marches.

Tudor
The House of Tudor was descended from the House of Lancaster by the maternal line and illegitimate offspring. Henry Tudor became Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two families of York and Lancaster. His second son succeeded him to the throne, becoming Henry VIII, whose daughter, Elizabeth I was the last Tudor. The house originated from Anglesey in Wales, but also owned Richmondshire located between Lancaster and York in the north of England.

The Roses
The name ‘the Wars of the Roses’ appears to have been coined by Sir Walter Scott, 19th century novelist. The roses – the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York – are the badges we associate with each family, but they may not have been used often at the time. Livery badges of each soldier’s respective lord would have been used – Richard III’s, for instance was a white boar.

When Henry Tudor ascended to the throne at end of the civil war he adopted the combined red and white of the Tudor Rose to symbolise the union of the two families, which has been used by English monarchs ever since.

Background to the Wars

Edward III, ancestor of all the claimants to the throne of England in the Wars of the Roses, ruled England from 1327 to 1377, making him one of England’s longest-serving monarchs. He was a successful king, overseeing the development of government and initiating the Hundred Years War against France, gaining much French territory in the process. He lived so long that he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II.

Richard II’s father was Edmund, the Black Prince, who died when Richard was nine. The following year, Edward III also died. Councils of nobles ruled for Richard II in his early years, and his later reliance on certain noblemen caused unhappiness amongst others, who then took control of the government. Later still, Richard, having taken back control, exiled or executed these men.

When his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died, Richard disinherited John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Henry invaded England from exile in 1399 and was able quite easily, with growing support amongst the nobles, to seize and depose Richard II, making himself Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king. Henry’s claim to the throne was not cast-iron, as he was descended only from Edward III’s third surviving son. He quickly faced rebellions and died in 1413.

Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, who successfully continued the Hundred Years War (immortalised in Shakespeare’s play bearing his name). Henry faced the Southampton Plot during his reign, aimed at putting Edmund Mortimer, another descendant of Edward III, on the throne; this plot failed when Edmund told Henry about it.

Henry V died suddenly in 1422 and was succeeded by his baby son, Henry VI. Henry’s regents were unpopular, losing a lot of land back to France. Henry also suffered from mental illness that incapacitated him for periods and allowed the nobles to vie against each other to take over the running of the country. These noblemen included the Duke of Gloucester, popular with commoners and who was arrested for treason and died in captivity; also, the Duke of Somerset wanted to sue for peace with France; the Duke of York, lieutenant of the English forces in France, wanted a stronger war effort.

Henry was weak and granted much power and lands to the Lancastrians. After another bout of mental illness, Richard, Duke of York became regent and imprisoned Somerset and other Lancastrians. When the king recovered, his queen, Margaret of Anjou, headed the Lancastrian fight back, forcing York out of the court.

Richard of York, in fearing that he would be arrested for treason, made the suspicion a reality by marching on London with an army in 1455. This resulted in the First Battle of St Albans, the opening battle of the Wars of the Roses.

Next Time, On Elements of Fantasy

Next week I’ll give a summary of the Wars of the Roses themselves and their outcome.

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its People

Once again, this week, I’m going to take a quick look at an aspect of life in a medieval village – information that comes, appropriately enough, from Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies.

Occupations

As noted previously, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries was almost entirely geared towards food production, whether it be crops, livestock or dairy. Many villagers worked both on their own land and on their lord’s demesne. Cotters, who had little  or no land of their own, worked as labourers. Other villagers were free, land-rich men who hired others to work their furlongs. Most were somewhere in between.

Craftsmen were generally based in the towns, but there were plenty of itinerant traders and workers who provided services. Just about every villager was a farmer of land and livestock – but there were plenty of other occupations, too, either full-time or part-time.

Almost as important as producing food, was the production of ale. A lot of the barley grown in a village was used for producing the malt for ale – although other cereals were also used. Malt was dried in a communal kiln, but ale was brewed in large cauldrons in people’s homes – most often by women. Once a batch was brewed, the family would put a sign outside their house and establish a temporary tavern.

Ale-taster was an important rôle in the village; ale-tasters were elected on an annual basis – and were also often female. Ale had to come up to certain standards of strength and measure, otherwise the seller could be fined.

Bread – or, more specifically, the milling of flour and the baking of bread – was an important source of revenue for the lord. Mills and ovens were seigneurial monopolies. Villagers were fined for baking their own bread, while millers were regulated quite strictly and could also be fined for inappropriate behaviour, such as accepting payment in kind.

Religion and Village Life

Every village had a church, or, at least, was part of a parish centred around a church belonging to a bishop, a monastery or even a wealthy layman who commissioned a church for his family and tenants. The priest was employed by the church’s owner and, as a literate man, was useful to villagers for witnessing documents and suchlike. Funds raised by the church went to the owner.

Villages were also visited by travelling preachers, who could often be more entertaining than the local pastor. The parish vicar would give the mass in Latin, which, of course, the villagers did not speak. The mass would become something of a social event, with women being fashionably late, and lots of gossiping and flirting going on.

Mendicant friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, gave more engaging sermons. Life in a Medieval Village gives this amusing example:

[T]hese roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative  to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, the encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.

In this period of the Middle Ages, the family had become the most important social unit, superseding previous clan and other loyalties. Families resembled the modern ideal of a nuclear family – mother, father and two or three children. Old people may have lived with their families or may have continued to live by themselves. Some even paid pensions to be looked after in their old age by monks at a monastery.

Marriage was achieved by the bride and groom making vows to each other and didn’t need witnesses, although, of course, the Church preferred such vows to be in public. A wedding would typically have the couple say their vows at the church door, followed by a mass inside the church and a ‘bride ale’ in a tavern or house.

Clandestine marriage also occurred, with the couple saying their vows in secret in the woods or elsewhere – which led to men sometimes taking advantage of a woman, speaking vows he didn’t mean in order to have sex with her. Pre-marital sex was illegal and subject to the typical sixpence fine, but wasn’t especially stigmatised. Women may have deliberately allowed themselves to become pregnant before marrying their partner in order to establish their fertility.

Another important area where religion affected everyday life was the regular cycle of feast days. On such days, the lord would lay on feast for some of his villeins, and the villagers would prepare special foods, play games and sports, sing and so on. Christmas was a two-week holiday, while Easter lasted a week. Other holidays included All Hallows (1st November), Martinmas (11th November), Rock or Plough Monday (first Monday after Epiphany), May Day, Whitsunday (Pentecost – seven weeks after Easter), St John’s Day (24th June), Lammas (1st August) and a Wake Day celebrating the local saint’s day.

Conclusion

While the medieval villager’s life was dominated by farming and related trades, there were also plenty of diversions from such hard work. Frances and Joseph Gies book, Life in a Medieval Village, was an interesting read that corrected a few erroneous ideas and put a lot of flesh on the stereotypical image one has of life at that time. I certainly recommend it, and I’d like to move on to some of their other books, such as Life in a Medieval Castle.

What thoughts do you have on the village and on the medieval era? Speak your brains in the comments section.

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its Land

Last week, I talked a bit about the relationship between a medieval village and its lord. This week, I’m going to look at the land of the village, how it was organised and used. As with last week’s post, the information is taken from Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village, which looks particularly at the village during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.

Use

The whole raison d’etre of the medieval village was to produce food – for the villagers themselves to live on, for their lord to live on and accommodate his staff and guests, and for trade. The system of fields around the village was a complex patchwork of plots owned by different people.

As a basic rule, land was divided between the lord and the villagers. Unfree villagers, or villeins, had to work the fields constituting their lord’s demesne – maybe two days a week, or longer during harvest time – as well as their own land. Free peasants didn’t have this responsibility and could farm their own land.

Villagers could be rich or poor, and the primary aspect of their wealth was how much land they owned. Some owned enough that they couldn’t farm it themselves and would either hire labour or make deals with other peasants – in effect, become lords in miniature within their village.

The village buildings were clustered together in the centre of the manor in the vicinity of important locations such as the manor house, church, green or well. Homes had land attached to them – a fenced toft at the front for livestock, and a croft at the back for limited crop production (although cottages, whose occupants were cotters, had very little land attached to them).

Beyond the buildings were the fields, pastures, meadows (for hay production), marshes and forests.

Farming the Fields

A village had a small number of fields – two or three seems typical. One field would be left fallow to recover nutrients for a year; the other one or two would then be divided between spring crops and winter crops. The follow year would see the plantings rotated.

Fields were divided first into furlongs, rectangular plots ‘a furrow long’; this was the sowing unit, each furlong being sown with the same crop. Furlongs were subdivided into strips or selions, long, narrow groups of furrows. The longer the strip, the better, as it meant fewer turns of the plough for a given amount of land. Strips inside a furlong were quite uniform, but furlongs followed the lay of the land and often had unploughed patches between them that may have been cultivated by hand.

Crops planted included barley, wheat, oats, peas, beans, rye and vetch. At Elton, the village looked at in Life in a Medieval Village, barley was the largest crop – the 1286 harvest included two thousand bushels of barley, a thousand of wheat and lesser amounts of other crops (a medieval bushel was about 56 pounds).

Fields were ploughed several times a year depending on whether spring or winter crops were to be planted. Spring crops (barley, oats, peas, beans, vetch) were sown about four bushels to the acre; winter wheat about two bushels to an acre.

During the harvest, wheat was cut with a sickle, oats and barley were mown with scythes. Following the mowing, the weaker and poorer members of the village would follow on, gleaning – collecting individual stalks etc by hand. The harvest was a hugely important part of the village year. Work done by villeins on the lord’s demesne was called boon-work. The lord had a duty to feed the villagers and supply them with ale at this time.

More Measurements

Besides the furlong mentioned above, various units were used to measure land; however, there was apparently no uniformity regarding the size of these units from place to place. A village would have consisted of something on the order of ten hides – a hide usually being 120 acres (an acre was defined as the amount of land able to be ploughed by an ox in one day – and therefore varied according various factors).

Land was also measured by the virgate. A virgate was theoretically the amount of land needed to support a peasant family and varied in size from 18 to 32 acres. According to one study, a fifth of villagers were virgaters (owners of a virgate), a third had between a half and a full virgate; the bulk of the remainder had even less, and a fraction had extensive holdings.

Next week, I’ll look at the people themselves and their professions.

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its Lord

As I’ve just finished reading Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village and as many fantasy novels are set in a medieval-esque environment, this week’s Monday Masterclass will give a description of the village in the Middle Ages. Specifically, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries, which is what the book focuses on. This week, I’m going to look at the lord – who was actually somewhat peripheral to the concerns of villagers.

What is a Medieval Village?

The word village comes from ‘villatic’, meaning ‘of the countryside’, which in turn comes from ‘villa’, the country house of the Roman elite, which functioned as both seasonal residence and plantation.

The medieval village was a mostly self-sufficient community centred around farming. Its inhabitants worked the land or produced goods from farmed crops. The nucleus of the village was the villagers’ homes and various communal buildings, while around it were the fields. Village populations were in the order of 300 to 600, and villages represented the bulk of a nation’s population in that era.

Some peasants lived in homesteads – single houses near a farm or other resource that the people exploited. Some lived in hamlets – small clusters of homes of often interrelated families who farmed, fished, hunted etc, but who lacked certain amenities such as a church, bakery, mill and so on. Some lived in towns – which were centres of trade and commerce, hosting markets and merchant businesses. The village was a different entity, occupying a rôle between hamlet and town.

Lord and Village

One of the defining characteristics of the medieval village was the presence (although maybe at a remove) of a lord. The lord may have been a petty knight granted land as part of his knighthood; it could have been a powerful nobleman with lands scattered across several counties; it may have been the Church – the village that is the main subject of the Gies’s book, Elton in Cambridgeshire, was under the leadership of Ramsey Abbey.

The lord may also have been a lady – widows and heiresses controlled land, as well as abbesses and prioresses. Usually, a village was subservient to a single lord, but occasionally, the land of a village might be divided amongst two or more lords. The lord was subservient to either a more powerful lord, of whom he was a tennant, or to the Crown.

The land of the whole village is referred to as the manor. This is divided into two parts: the lord’s demesne (pronounced like ‘domain’) and the villagers’ own land. Villagers could also be divided into two types: freeholders with no particular duties to the lord; and villeins (or serfs) who had a duty to work the fields that made up the demesne as well as their own land and who were required to pay fees for various events in life.

A lord with a single manor would have lived permanently in the manor house in the village. A lord with an extensive estate may never have visited all the villages he (or she) was responsible for – but every village had a manor house. This was the residence of the bailiff, the lord’s main official in a manor, and provided lodging for visiting dignitaries – the lord’s steward or seneschal, who oversaw the whole estate, for instance. Other village officials, such as the reeve – the bailiff’s assistant and highest ranking peasant – would eat meals in the manor house.

The lord was the main authority in the village, but seems to have been quite a hands-off ruler. The village was primarily an economic unit – a producer of food and drink – and the lord mostly allowed villagers to organise themselves to maximise their own output and profit – and therefore his profit.

The main, albeit not necessarily direct, interaction between villager and lord was the manorial court or hallmote, held at least twice a year. At the court, a jury of villagers and the steward would oversee much of the legal business of the village. Villagers were fined for breaking laws and customs, fees were paid for various things, bylaws were made and village officials were elected.

Fines were typically sixpence and made up the vast majority of punishments allotted (occasionally, someone might be sentenced to spend time in the stocks; serious crimes like murder were tried in royal courts). Poor villagers often had their fines waived.

Fees included chevage (payment of an animal by a villein living outside the manor), gersum (for taking possession of a tennancy), heriot (death duty of the deceased’s best animal), merchet (for a woman’s marriage – usually paid by the father; sometimes by the woman if she was a widow, or other arrangements were possible), mortuary (death duty paid to the Church of the second best animal) and tallage (annual tax on villeins).

Villeins could also pay to get out of doing week-work – farming the lord’s demesne. With the money raised, the lord would hire labourers to work his land. Or the lord may have leased his land to a rich peasant, local knight or businessman from a nearby town, who would then keep the difference between the lease fee and the profits. In a similar way, by the 12th and 13th centuries, lords going to war for their monarch was becoming old-fashioned; instead a lord’s taxes would go towards hiring an army.

Conclusion

As a rule, ordinary peasants would have no contact with their lord – dealing instead with the reeve or bailiff, or occasionally the steward. Because of the village’s autonomy, there seems to have been little discontent at the relationship (until increasing taxes led to the Peasant’s Rebellion in 1381 at least). Which isn’t to say villagers led an idyllic life – but, during the period in question, they weren’t miserable oppressed wretches, either.

What are your thoughts on medieval villages and lords? Comment below and share your wisdom.

Next time, I’ll look at another aspect of the medieval village.

Monday Masterclass: the length of fantasy stories

Fantasy novels are renowned for being massive tomes – this week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the reasons why.

There are two different but closely related phenomena under examination here. One is the size of individual books, and one is multi-volume series – especially ones telling a single story. Other genres have their fair share of not-so-slim volumes; they also have plenty of multi-book series featuring the same character or characters. Fantasy, more than any other genre, however, puts both together in the service of a single narrative.

Tom Clancy may have written several fat Jack Ryan stories, but they are standalone tales that don’t need to be read in numerical order to be appreciated. Fantasy series do.

Examples

Although published as a trilogy, and generally thought of that way, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written as and intended to be read as a single novel – a thousand page novel.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series (the last three books being completed by Brandon Sanderson since the author’s death), with a word count of over four million words.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten volumes of between 700 and 1200 pages each, with additional related short stories by the author and novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Publishing Reasons

So why do fantasy authors put out such big volumes? One could argue that the size of a novel is simply part of the fantasy idiom, that contemporary fantasists write according to the model established by The Lord of the Rings. This is not a great answer, though.

Perhaps the best answer is simply financial: big books – big series of big books – sell. There is clearly a demand for doorstop novels – not just in fantasy, but in crime, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction and historical novels. People enjoy reading substantial volumes – especially people who read quickly, and who read lots of books. And people who read lots of books often buy lots of books.

There is also the fact that nothing succeeds like success. Both Robert Jordan and George R R Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire – five books so far written of a projected seven, including one so long it had to be published in two parts) originally conceived their most famous works as trilogies. The commercial success of their work gave them and their publishers the green light to expand their stories beyond three books, knowing that avid fans would buy all successive volumes.

Another factor that leads on from this is that success breeds bloat. The more successful an author is, the more power they have in the author-publisher relationship. So much so that editors of the most successful authors may be afraid to edit their work as ruthlessly as they would a début novelist. The first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called The Sorcerer’s Stone in America as Americans are clearly afraid of philosophers) was little more than 200 pages longs; the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was more like 800 pages long.

Writing Reasons

There is another set of reasons fantasy novels are so big, and these revolve around the technical aspects of writing fantasy, the ways in which fantasy differs from other genres.

The first and foremost of these reasons is worldbuilding. A novel set in the real world and containing no magical or supernatural elements doesn’t require as much effort to establish and explain the world as a fantasy novel does. A fantasy writer will create continents, cities, races, creatures, systems of magic, politics, society etc, etc, all of which may need to be dwelt on to some degree in order for the reader to understand fully what is going on.

Much writing advice warns against long expository sections of writing – ‘infodump’ – but I think many genre readers – whether fantasy or science fiction or thriller or what have you – actually enjoy such passages (within reason). This leads on to another reason for fantasy obesity: part of the attraction of this genre is the sense of immersiveness some stories achieve. Reading a fantasy novel can involve more than simply appreciating the interplay of characters and plot, but can be a kind of holiday to exotic lands, a lesson in hypothetical biology, physics or sociology. Skilfully done, an extended word count contributes to this.

Fantasy stories tend towards the epic – and epic pretty much means long. Epic stories have huge casts of characters – The Wheel of Time has thousands – they take place over a long period of time and occupy a large amount of space. The characters in fantasy books often have to travel long distances from nation to nation and land to land. They often fight in battles, in wars, and interact with hierarchies of soldiers, nobles, mages and so on. They also need to change drastically from their original personality – often growing wiser and darker; such character changes need time and space to portray realistically.

Reader Reasons

One reason publishers put out long series is that fans want to read them. Readers of fantasy novels get attached to the stories, characters and events they read, and eagerly await the release of the next volume. In a sense, long fantasy series are a kind of literary soap opera.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since shortly after the publication of the first volume back in the early 90s, and my interest in the series has survived the decline in quality, the train wreck of a book that was Crossroads of Twilight, the death of the author and the mediocrity of the new author’s continuation. I will still read the final volume when it comes out, even though I fear I may not enjoy it that much. Why? Out of a sense of loyalty and a desire for closure.

Also, I suspect the average age of a fantasy reader is younger than for pretty much any other genre. Children, teenagers, young adults have more free time to read these massive stories. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have children to look after. Time itself seems to pass more slowly for younger people. A story that can be happily read for hours and days on end has great appeal if you have the time to dedicate to it.

Conclusion

There are many reasons why fantasy books and stories are so big – and many of these reasons are closely interdependent – supply and demand fuel each other. A long book can be a double-edged sword: if you love the book, you don’t want it to end; if it’s rubbish, on the other hand, finishing it can be a punishing slog.

Ultimately, I think fantasy writers enjoy having a large palette upon which to paint the world they’ve created and all the characters and the epic stuggle that constitutes the plot. And fantasy readers appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating a living, breathing secondary world. And publishers, of course, like selling book after book of the same story, knowing there is a ready-made audience for each new one.

What are your thoughts on the length of fantasy stories? And what are your favourite fantasy doorstoppers? Share your brains with the world.

Monday Masterclass: trees in fantasy

Although rarely at the forefront of fantasy novels, trees, forests and tree-like beings are a feature of many works of the fantastic. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at trees in particular (as distinct from forests), with some mention of creatures that have tree-like characteristics.

Introduction

Trees have been a feature of mythology for thousands of years. They are powerful symbols and represent life, strength, nature, endurance, wisdom, rebirth, protection; they symbolise the axis mundi, the link between heaven and earth.

The ancient Greeks imagined trees were inhabited by wood nymphs or dryads (which latter actually signifies ‘oak’). Norse mythology has Yggdrasil (‘Odin’s horse’) or world tree, an ash tree that supports the nine worlds (and with which the modern Christmas tree is identified). Trees of life such as Yggdrasil are common in many traditions. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is another famous mythological tree, the eating of the fruit of which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the garden of Eden.

Sacred groves feature in many religions, such as the grove of olive trees outside the Academy in Athens. India has thousands of sacred groves associated with Hindu gods. Celtic druids tended groves, called nemeton, and they were the site of religious rites such as animal sacrifices; some oak trees were thought to be oracular and could be consulted by druids.

Trees and forests have also been associated with mythical beings such as the Green Man and the woodwose, or wild man of the woods.

Middle Earth

In the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first sources of light were destroyed by Melkor, the evil Vala, another of the Valar, Yavanna, made the two trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These trees shed light across the land until they too were destroyed by Melkor. A flower from Telperion and a fruit from Laurelin were saved and these became the moon and the sun. A reproduction of Telperion spawned the White Tree of Gondor.

One of the most well-liked characters in The Lord of the Rings is Treebeard, or Fangorn, who is an Ent. Ents are giant humanoid creatures that resemble trees (the word ‘ent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘giant’). Along with the passing of the elves from the world of Middle Earth and the final journey of Frodo and Bilbo to the western lands, the situation of the Ents forms part of the major theme of The Lord of the Rings: the end of an era and the rise of Men.

In the trilogy, the Ents are a doomed race. They are guardians of the forests, but they are entirely male. Their womenfolk, the Entwives, lived a different life and were the progenitors of agriculture. They have been lost for many years since being attacked by Sauron. Thus, in Frodo’s time, there are no more Entings, young Ents.

Ents were created at the behest of Yavanna to protect the forests from Dwarves and other dangers. They are extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Ents are subject to diminishing into treeishness – if they cease moving for long periods they grow roots and essentially revert back to being trees.

Ents are a popular feature of roleplaying and other games, where, for copyright reasons, they are often known as Treants or Treefolk.

The Land

In the world of Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, trees also play an important role. Woodhelven are tree villages – villages housed in or on the branches of an enormous tree and occupied by woodhelvenin, who are skilled in lillianrill lore – wood magic. Here is a description of Soaring Woodhelven from Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series:

Their approach gave Covenant a good view of the tree village from some distance away across a wide glade. He judged the tree to be nearly four hundred feet high, and a good thirty broad at the base. There were no branches on the trunk until forty or fifty feet above the ground, then abruptly huge limbs spread out horizontally from the stem, forming in outline a half-oval with a flattened tip. The whole tree was so thickly branched and leaved that most of the village was hidden; but Covenant could see a few ladders between the branches and along the trunk; and in some tight knots on the limbs he thought he could make out the shapes of dwellings. If any people were moving through the foliage, they were -so well camouflaged that he could not discern them.

The Land, the setting for much of the Chronicles used to have vast forests, which have dwindled over time (much like the forests in Middle Earth). These forests are protected by forestals, immortals who appear human and are capable of powerful magic.

In the Second Chronicles, the characters – having lost the Staff of Law – decide they must travel to the One Tree, from which the wood that made the original Staff was taken, to make a new Staff of Law. The One Tree grows on an island that is protected by a guardian. Once the characters arrive there, their efforts to secure a limb from the tree temporarily rouse the Worm of the World’s End, causing the island to sink into the sea.

Others

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time features its own Tree of Life, also called Avendesora. Like the White Tree of Gondor, a sapling of the tree is cut down by a king, prompting a large war. In the first book, The Eye of the World, the heroes are helped by the Green Man, the last of the Nym, a giant humanoid made of vines, leaves and other tree elements. The Ogier live in Stedding, magical forests, and when they stay in cities prefer to live in Ogier groves.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle is set in what appears to be a small area of woodland from the outside, but inside is a near infinite realm where mythical beings are real. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, one of the main characters, Digory, must plant an apple in Narnia, which grows into a tree that protects Narnia from the White Witch. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ygg is a talking tree that guards the border between Order and Chaos. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin has weirwoods, trees with blood red leaves and sap that were once worshipped all over Westeros in godswoods, groves sacred to the religion of the old gods.

Conclusion

Magic trees are emblems of the reverence in which people hold nature in general, and forests and trees in particular. Many of the fantasy trees mentioned above are set in a melancholy context of the advance of civilisation bringing an end to an old order dominated by the natural world. Fantasy writers can draw on this trope to evoke great sympathy with a dying way of life; it seems to me, though, that no one has done this as well as J R R Tolkien.

While Ents are a favourite denizen of Middle Earth, it’s a little surprising that subsequent writers haven’t incorporated similar beings into their works in the same way that Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins have been embraced and adapted.

What are your favourite trees in fantasy fiction? What other magical trees do you know of? What other authors have used them in their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday Masterclass: Mervyn Peake

Saturday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the man, his life and his most famous work.

Biography

Mervyn Laurence Peak was born on 9th July, 1911 in the hill town of Lushan (also known as Kuling; the town was a colonial resort frequented by British and American travellers) in Jiangxi province, China. Peake’s parents worked in China as missionaries; Mervyn went to school in Tianjin. Peake’s experiences of China, of relations between westerners and native, between rich and poor, have been cited as a major influence on his work – the Forbidden City is supposedly a model for Gormenghast castle.

They left the country in 1922 and settled in England. Peake studied art at Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man, Peake worked as an artist, exhibiting work at various shows, including work as part of the Sark Group. Sark is one of the Channel Islands, off the coast of northern France, and Peake lived there for a time during the 1930s as well as later on.

He started teaching art at Westminster School of Art in 1935, and met his future wife, Maeve Gilmore the following year on her fist day as a student at the school. They married in 1937 and went on to have three children: Sebastian (1940), Fabian (1942) and Clare (1949).

Peake applied to be a war artist at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was rejected. He was enlisted and served with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. After more requests to be a war artist and more rejections, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committe, and later left the army. Shortly after the war, working as a war artist, he was one of the first outsiders to see the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had a profound effect on him.

In the 1940s, Peake wrote Titus Groan and  Gormenghast and illustrated many books – including works by Lewis Carroll, Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Louis Stevenson – and also designed the Pan Books logo (he had a choice of receiving either a flat fee of £10 or a farthing (¼ penny) per book sold; on the advice of his friend Graham Greene, who thought that paperbacks were a fad, he chose the £10). He started teaching art, and met his future wife through his job.

The Peake family moved back to Sark in the 1940s for a few years, before returning to England in 1950. He continued to teach, paint and write, producing Mr Pye (his only non-Gormenghast novel) about a man who goes to Sark to evangelise the native, only to start growing wings; when he starts to do bad deeds to compensate, he grows horns.

In the 1950s Peake’s health began to decline – he developed Parkinson’s disease and progressively lost his ability to draw and write. He finally died on 17th November 1968 at a nursing home near Oxford. In addition to his novels and art, he also produced several short stories and six books of poetry during his life. It is the Gormenghast books, however, for which he is most remembered and admired.

Gormenghast

The three novels of this series that were written by Peake are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The first two are widely acknowledge as masterpieces of gothic fantasy. In the first, the hidebound world of Gormenghast – a sprawling, crumbling castle inhabited by Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan and a whole cast of grotesque characters – is disturbed by the birth of Titus, a long-awaited heir, and by the rise of Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy. In the second, Titus, now Lord Groan, is older and Steerpike’s plans are becoming increasingly murderous; the book ends with a confrontation between the two, and with Titus abandoning his home.

The third book is much shorter, and was much affected by Peake’s waning health and, in the first edition, by some clumsy editing. In it, Titus wanders the land and finds himself caught up in the affairs of a city with high technology. It doesn’t have the same gothic resonance or lush prose of its predecessors, but is not without merit.

Peake also wrote a novella entitled Boy in Darkness, about a young Titus Groan escaping Gormenghast for a terrifying adventure.

In addition, Peake planned at least two more novels in the Gormenghast saga, apparently to be called Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited. Peake’s wife, Maeve, using a few pages written by her husband for the former novel, completed a manuscript entitled Search Without End in the 1970s. She never published it, but now, to commemorate the centenary of Peake’s death, his family are releasing it under its original title.

Miscellaneous

With this 100th anniversary, there has been a lot of media coverage of Peake and Gormenghast recently. Here is a selection:

Monday Masterclass: Barbarians in Fantasy

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.

Monday Masterclass: Non-human Races in Fantasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).

Definition

The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.

In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.

However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.

Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.

Common Races

Humans
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.

Elves
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.

Dwarves
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.

Hobbits/Halflings
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.

Orcs
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.

Goblins
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.

Giants
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.

Trolls
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.

Dragons
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.

Works with Non-human Races

The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.

Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.

Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.

The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.

The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.

The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.

The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.

Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.

Orc Analogues

Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).

Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.

While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.

Conclusion

When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.

These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.

And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.

What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?